The air tasted like ashes on Luna’s tongue. Her eyes were dry and her lips cracked. She lay atop a stone pedestal at the center of the Ponyville town square. Or at least, what used to be the town square. Terra had turned it into a level field of smoldering ruins and bodies.
Luna had been at death’s door. Terra had made sure of that. She lay in a pool of her own dried blood, helpless and weak, with barely enough earthpony magic to keep her alive. Certainly not enough to fight with.
Twilight had come back for her. No pony was worth anything less, indeed. It was a shame that Terra had sliced off Luna’s legs—she would have liked to see how things turned out. She’d lost focus just after Twilight rescued her with...
What had Twilight rescued her with? The beam of light that tore Terra in half had to have been stronger than even Celestia’s most powerful war spell. The kind of magic that would be needed to fuel such a weapon—what kind of spell had Twilight created? That Twilight had come back for her in the first place was a surprise in itself.
Although perhaps Luna should not have been surprised. It had been almost trivially easy for Luna to get Twilight and her friends to Ponyville. After spending so much time with them, Luna wasn’t surprised in the least at how willing they were to dive into almost certain death. They were heroes, after all.
Heroes who possessed the most powerful weapon in Equestrian history. A weapon that reacted only to acts of companionship and self-sacrifice. Putting Twilight and her friends in the field of battle, together, had been the entirety of Luna’s plan. Unlike Celestia, the finer details never concerned her. Twilight and her friends would reactivate the Elements against Terra, or they would all die and Titan would win. It had unfortunately been that simple.
Luna let a quiet groan escape her lips. Had she passed out after Terra chopped off her legs? Was she that close to dying?
The voice calling her name was both urgent and familiar. Applejack? Everything felt so hazy and dreamlike. Wasn’t she supposed to be doing something?
Applejack’s armored hoof slapped Luna across the face. The metallic taste of her own blood shocked her into wakefulness. “What....”
“Luna!” Applejack screamed. “Get up! We need you now!”
Luna’s eyes shot open, revealing a stretch of charred dirt. Her necklace lay in front of her, snapped in two. Terra must have broken it during their fight, but Luna didn’t remember that happening.
“Did we... win?” she asked. Why was Applejack in the square anyway? Did she come back for Twilight? Had that been enough?
Applejack grabbed Luna with her forelegs and tried to haul the Princess to her hooves. “Luna!” she shouted again.
Luna stumbled before falling back to the ground. Her legs had grown back, but the new limbs felt strange after she’d spent so much time on the ground without them. Had they always been so long?
Applejack kicked Luna in the side after she fell back to the ground, prompting a grunt. “If you don’t help us,” Applejack said. “Celestia is going to die.”
“What?” Luna scrambled to her hooves and looked down at Applejack. The Element of Honesty was a bright orange gem at her throat. It seemed Twilight and her friends had it in them, after all.
Twilight’s voice snapped through the air. “She’s disoriented from the transfer. Bring her over here.”
Transfer. Celestia. Disoriented. The last one was certainly true, Luna thought as Applejack reached up and put a hoof around her neck. Applejack dragged Luna’s head to one side so that she could see Twilight.
Twilight was standing over Celestia with her eyes closed, her horn aglow, and tears running down her face. Celestia lay in the dirt, unmoving. Her coat was stained with blood. Celestia is going to die, Applejack had said.
Luna looked at them, uncomprehending. “She’s in Canterlot,” Luna said. “Celestia can’t be here. She’s in Canterlot.”
Twilight opened her eyes. The area around them was puffy and red. “She saved me,” Twilight said. She looked down at the unmoving princess. “She saved all of us.” Her gaze snapped back to Luna. “She’s slipping away. I’m going to use your earthpony magic to heal her. Applejack and I are too weak.”
“My magic?” Luna asked. “I don’t have enough.” Luna hadn’t even thought she’d have enough left to heal her legs; how could she possibly have enough to give to Celestia?”
Luna caught sight of what appeared to be an earthpony lying on the ground behind Twilight. Green coat. Wavy yellow mane. The Heart of Thorns emblazoned on her flank.
Luna’s necklace had broken off of her neck. She’d had to look down at Applejack. She no longer tasted blood in her mouth.
“Princess,” Twilight said. “Look at yourself.”
The world snapped into focus around Luna, and the situation revealed itself to her with a freezing clarity. She looked down at her legs. They had grown longer, elevating her to her sister’s height. She spread her wings, voluminous, midnight blue, and pointed at their ends. A strand of her mane fell over her eyes, a cool evening breeze across her face.
“I’ve given you Terra’s power, Princess,” Twilight said. “And right now I need a bit of it back. Understand?”
Luna nodded. “Do it.”
Twilight’s horn began to glow even brighter, a single point of light blocking the rest of the square from view. “Don’t fight this,” she said.
Having her magic taken away felt like having teeth pulled—and as an alicorn, the only time Luna had gotten teeth pulled was when she displeased her mother. Twilight’s spell wrenched at her chest and made her feel sick to her stomach. Luna endured, however: she was no stranger to pain or discomfort.
“There,” Twilight said, her horn growing dim.
Luna cocked her head to one side. “That was all?”
Twilight nodded. “I was taking some power,” she said. “Not the magic itself.”
Luna looked down at her sister. Celestia’s mane was a limp, pink mass of hair. Dark veins snaked along her legs, barely visible under her alabaster coat. The blood that Luna had seen earlier was drying in thick black clumps of hair. Celestia’s chest rose a fraction of an inch. “Will she be all right?” Luna asked.
“I think so,” Twilight said. “There’s something wrong with her. Whatever Titan did, it’s choking off her magic. She isn’t even healing properly. We’ll have to give her hourly doses of yours if we want to keep her alive.”
Luna nodded as Twilight spoke, eyes still fixed on the slow rising and falling of Celestia’s chest. Just one more thing she owed to Twilight Sparkle. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” Luna said.
Twilight sighed and leaned back in the dirt, rubbing her temple with a hoof. “What about you?” she asked. “How do you feel?”
Like a god, Luna thought. She held the power of a millenium now. She was as strong as Celestia. She’d look down on every pony in the kingdom. Smash a building to ruins using only her mind—or, if it pleased her, her bare hooves. She could fly at the speed of sound, or walk through fire unscathed.
Luna recalled how Nightmare Moon had revelled in the power to destroy. Luna had that power now, too. But did she deserve it?
“Taller,” Luna said. It was true, after all. “Why give this to me, Twilight Sparkle?”
Twilight frowned. “You’re the only pony I could have done it to, Luna. Earthponies aren’t receptive to pegasus or unicorn magic. The same goes for the other races. If it worked that way, I’d be able to use Applejack to heal any pony’s wounds almost instantly.”
“That makes no sense,” Luna said. “You’re a unicorn. I watched you fly here.”
“It must be the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight said. “It wouldn’t be the first rule they’ve broken. Or maybe it is possible to transfer non-native magic to a pony, but I just don’t know how yet. To my knowledge, transferring power shouldn’t even be possible in the first place.”
“Indeed,” Luna said. “But you still have not told me why you elected to make me a god instead of you.”
Twilight looked at her as though she had suggested Twilight cut off her horn and eat it. “You are a god, Princess. I’m just a pony.”
Rainbow Dash beckoned them to Terra’s side. “You two. She’s waking up.”
Both Luna and Twilight looked to the green pony stirring on the ground. “Terra,” Twilight said.
Luna strode over to where Terra lay, and Twilight followed. Terra’s crown was askew, and her mane was now mundane, tangled and snarled. A sheen of cold sweat coated her face, and dirt stuck to her cheek from where it had touched the ground.
Terra lifted a hoof to the dirt on her face. She looked up at them all, her expression blank, then adjusted her crown with her forelegs. When she looked down at herself, a shuddering breath pushed its way through her lips. She shut her eyes.
“I suppose,” Terra said, “that now we get to find out just how heroic ponykind’s champions really are. The most painless way to do it would be to stop my brain. The most painful? Well I imagine Luna has plenty of suggestions.”
Luna glared down at her mother. “I owe you more suffering than any one pony can feel, Terra. But your pain doesn’t interest me any longer.”
Terra barked out a humorless laugh. “I take it Celestia will live, then. A shame.”
“Terra,” Twilight said. “I have a couple of questions for you.”
“Twilight Sparkle,” Terra said. “I am powerless and awaiting death, but I am still your enemy. The only way you’ll get answers from me is through torture. I’ve said before that every pony has their breaking point; I wonder if the same is true for even me.”
Twilight didn’t acknowledge that Terra had spoken. “What do you know about the Elements of Harmony?”
Terra scoffed. “Only that they’ll be useless against the King.”
“Lie,” Applejack growled. Terra rolled her eyes.
Twilight lifted Terra into the air with telekinesis and held her upside down by a hind leg. Their eyes met, level with one another.. “I will give you one last chance, Terra. What do you know about the Elements of Harmony?”
Terra spat in Twilight’s face. It struck Twilight in the eye and dribbled down her muzzle before Twilight wiped it off with her hoof. “I see,” she said. “Any information you will give us will be unreliable.”
Terra looked over at Luna. “Is she serious?” she said, jerking her head toward Twilight. “No,” she said to Twilight, “I’m not going to give you information. Why in Equestria would I ever give you information? Have ponies gotten so much more stupid in the past thousand years that you are their saviour?”
Twilight closed her eyes and pulled a long, quiet breath through her nostrils. “There are exactly twelve dead ponies in this square, Terra. And you killed every one of them.”
Terra opened her mouth to speak, and Luna watched as Twilight jammed it shut with her magic. “Murderer,” Twilight said. “You have no idea what I can do to you. I could make you smile as you lick the dirt from my hooves, kiddo.”
Rainbow Dash forced herself into the space between Twilight and Terra so quickly that Luna doubted any other pony had seen her move. Dash said nothing, staring Twilight in the face with a look that spoke violence.
Twilight looked away. “I...” She swallowed.
Rainbow Dash spoke a single word that was barely a breath. “No.”
Twilight nodded. “Her memories,” she whispered. “We can’t be sure of getting the whole truth any other way. I need her memories.”
Luna watched Terra. Twilight was still holding her mouth shut, but Terra’s eyes were no longer amused, or even angry. They were flitting from Rainbow Dash to Twilight, wide and frantic.
Rainbow Dash ran a hoof through her mane. “Okay,” she said. “As long as you don’t—”
“I won’t, Rainbow Dash. I couldn’t. Not even with her.”
Dash nodded once and stepped aside.
Terra fell to the ground as Twilight released her. She scrambled backwards. “You can’t,” she said. “Not without my consent. You can’t!”
Twilight telekinetically plucked the crown off of Terra’s head and tossed it away. “No!” Terra cried, clutching vainly at the air it had occupied just moments before. “That’s mine!”
Twilight eyed the Queen, her face expressionless. “You don’t want to watch this, Rainbow Dash.”
Dash grunted. “I don’t care about her,” she said. “Just you.”
A black mote began to gather at the tip of Twilight’s horn. Terra’s eyes shot to the tiny point of darkness, and her pupils narrowed. “No,” she said. “You can’t force me. That’s not how magic works. Only alicorns can—”
Twilight threw herself onto the Queen with pegasus speed and pinned Terra’s forelegs into the dirt with earthpony strength. “I’m special,” Twilight said in a voice devoid of any emotion.
“No!” Terra beat her hind legs against the ground, helpless. “Don’t touch me! Get off me!” Tears glistened on her face as Twilight began to lower her horn. “I’ll tell you!” she shrieked. “I’ll tell you everything! Pinkie Pie is an arcpony! Don’t you want to know what that is?”
“I will know,” Twilight whispered. Luna looked on, horrified. What could possibly have Terra so desperate and afraid?
Terra’s head was pressed into the dirt as she thrashed beneath Twilight. “Please,” she whimpered. “Please please please...”
Twilight’s horn touched her forehead. Terra’s face went slack, and her eyes glowed purple for several seconds as Twilight’s magic took root within her. The glowing ceased abruptly, and Terra went limp. She screwed her eyes shut and whimpered, wrapping her forelegs around herself.
Twilight recoiled from Terra as though she were still an alicorn. She gasped and staggered back. Rainbow Dash scooped her up into a steadying embrace.
“Twilight?” Dash asked.
Twilight was shaking, and her face had taken on a haunted look. “Titan,” she said. “He... he killed her. Empty sky, Titan killed her.”
Luna stepped forward. “Killed who, Twilight Sparkle? Terra?”
Twilight shook her head, her eyes wide. She looked up at Luna and swallowed.
“His first wife,” Terra said as she held herself in the dirt. “My mother.” She winced, as though speaking the words alone was painful. “Harmony,” she said with tears streaking down her face. “Her name was Harmony.”
The Citadel rose out of the Heart of the Forest, a shining fortress of steel and glass. One could tell just by looking at it that it wasn’t a pony design; there were no straight edges, no right angles. Everything about it was curves and points: from the massive petal-like walls right down to the glowing runes etched over every surface of the metal.
It was massive—far larger even than Castle Alicorn in Equina, the capitol. Even on the proper side of The Boundary, the line around the Heart that no mortal pony could cross, The Citadel could easily be made out at the centre of Terra’s forest. To Terra, it had always looked like a platinum flower—perhaps a lotus. In reality, flowers probably resembled The Citadel. It had come first, after all.
Today The Citadel’s many arms were open, and sunlight reflected off of the metal petal-arms so brightly it hurt her eyes. At the center of her forest, surrounded by vivid green plant life, The Citadel would have appeared unnatural had it not been there all Terra’s life.
With two beats of her wings Terra took to the air and put herself above the treeline, which still fell far below the towering Citadel. She approached the the gleaming edifice, eyes scanning the sigils inscribed along the metal surface. She found the one she was looking for almost instantly: she had, after all, been doing this for almost three hundred years. This was the place of her birth.
Terra ran her hoof across the surface of The Citadel, and a surge of blue light ran through each of the nearby sigils. The metal under her hoof shuddered as if it were a living creature, rippling at her touch. A dozen seams appeared, each meeting at the place she had touched, then radiating outward in an arc. The aperture slid open soundlessly to admit its only operator: her Royal Highness, Princess Terra.
Inside, The Citadel looked much the same as it did from the outside. Each of the petal-walls was open to the sky above, and natural light from the sun outshone the blue glow of the etchings that lined every piece of metal. The petals themselves had no scaffolding or ramparts to walk on; they just gradually angled down to the ground.
Instead of floors or walls, the interior of The Citadel was made up of rings. Each ring was higher up than the last, and each was composed of thousands of tiny metal objects. They were all simple shapes—crescents, fins, circles—and all of them were etched with the same glowing blue light that adorned the petals. They spun in circles around the center of The Citadel, defying gravity.
Terra stepped out into the open air, and the nearest of the metal shapes formed a platform beneath her falling hoof. The light along their etchings grew brighter as she touched them, and as she walked forward the platform began to assemble itself in front of her.
Harmony’s work required space. So much space, in fact, that despite being larger than any structure ponykind had ever made, The Citadel was still a tenth the size it needed to be. It simply couldn’t hold every room and tool that was required. Terra began to ascend The Citadel, walking in a wide spiral along an assembling set of steps.
Harmony had solved the problem with the shards. The pointed, curved plates of metal could assemble to form any room or tool they might need—and they needed many tools. The shards also held the archives, and—supposedly—The Citadel’s defenses.
Not that they’d ever been attacked. As Terra understood it, Discord would have to spend precious minutes breaking through Harmony’s defenses to get inside The Citadel. And if Harmony herself was present, he couldn’t assault it at all.
Which meant that no matter which species Discord rendered extinct, Terra and Harmony would restore it with the blueprint stored in the archive. They could rebuild it, given time. Discord could do no damage to their world that they could not undo.
It also meant that Harmony could never leave The Citadel for more than ten minutes at a time, unless Order decided to stay behind and guard in her place. He rarely did.
Terra finished her climb, arriving at the very top ring of The Citadel, situated just below the tips of the petals. She stepped out into thin air once more, and by the time her hoof came down it landed on a small, jagged platform that looked to be a part of a much larger circle. She strode along the circle’s length, the shards behind her falling away as more filled the path before her.
A cool, clear voice, containing only the slight echo of alicorn magic, greeted her as she approached. “I’ve been considering your mark.”
Terra was twenty minutes late, and already she saw exactly where her mother was taking the conversation. They had, after all, been together for over three hundred years.
“The Heart of Thorns,” Terra said.
“Is it?” Harmony’s liquid voice flowed through the entirety of The Citadel. At the very center of the uppermost ring, directly in front of Terra, a translucent pony heart made of blue light appeared, dozens of times larger than Terra.
“You see,” Harmony continued. “The mark on your flank looks nothing like the actual organ used to pump blood through a pony’s body. Rather, your flank is shaped as an abstraction. One used not to represent the organ, but love. Love,” Harmony said, as though she were working through a word puzzle out loud. “Another abstraction. One created by ponykind, no less. A combination of base reproductive instincts and their higher level spark. If ever you want to hear a completely unique idea, Terra, ask a pony to define love. Each of them will give you a different answer, one containing both what they hope to give in a relationship as well as what they hope to receive.”
Terra rolled her eyes and sat. This was probably going to take a while. As exciting as it was to talk to empty air, she’d rather get on with their work.
“So your mark must represent love, but the love that ponykind has invented. Is it love that makes you special, Terra? I think this claim can hardly be refuted; after all, you are Princess Terra. One would be hard pressed to find a creature on this world that both subscribes to this idea of love and does not love you. Your song moves sirens to tears and your beauty plagues nymphs with jealousy. These things were my design but Order’s idea: no mortal race should think itself above us in any aspect.”
Terra propped her head up with a hoof and yawned. Did Harmony intend to explain the entirety of Order’s hierarchy, as well?
“But there is more to it than being loved, isn’t there? You love the creatures of this forest so much your father would find it sick. I, on the other hand, find it endearing. I’ve seen you cringe at the sight of a squirrel in pain. It makes one wonder why it is a heart of thorns, of all things.”
Terra raised an eyebrow. “Love and gentleness are two separate things entirely, Harmony. Rest assured, the thorns are appropriate.”
“Perhaps,” her mother said. “But the fact remains that I have wracked my brain time and time again in consideration of your true talent in this world, and do you know what I have never found, my Terra?”
“A stone so heavy even you can’t lift it?”
Across The Citadel, several shards from the uppermost ring formed a new section of the circular platform. Harmony shimmered into being and gave Terra an arch look. “An excuse,” she said, her voice now coming from only one source. “For your tardiness.”
Like all the alicorns, Harmony was exactly as tall as Terra. There the similarities ended. Her crown was a halo that looked to be made of sunlight shining through a cloud. Her coat was a flawless white. Her hair spun and swirled, a roiling mass of ether as blue as the deep dark ocean. Occasionally a new color would surface around her brow, then drift down to the tip of her mane and vanish.
Terra smiled. “You just aren’t looking hard enough, mother. See, it’s a heart of thorns. Perhaps my purpose is to prick those who love me by being continuously late. I thought that was obvious.”
Harmony did not look amused. “Your father would say that love is not for alicorns, so as to refute your premise and undermine your conclusion.”
Terra scoffed. “I don’t doubt that what he feels for me isn’t love. But what about you, Harmony? How would you refute my claim?”
Harmony began to step around to Terra’s side of the circle. “Ponykind has such interesting views on parenthood. It is not enough that a parent love their child; they must do so unconditionally. The most morally praiseworthy parent is one that expects only two things from their child.”
“I spend more time with them than you,” Terra said. “I know how extreme ponykind is when it comes to their children.” Terra said.
Harmony frowned. “Extreme. Yes. In any case, state your expectations.”
Terra grumbled. “Do I really—”
Terra sighed, then stood up straight. She began to recite.
“I am expected to understand that while I am an alicorn and a being of free will, my decisions or beliefs will never supercede yours or father’s. Should we ever come to a disagreement, I will do as you say and trust that I will become wise enough to agree with you, in time.
“I am expected to oversee the propagation of life throughout our world. Upon the design of a new species, I will ensure that they grow until they can sustain themselves and take their place in the natural order.
“I am expected to gain the love and adoration of every mortal being. I will use this love to keep them from misdirecting the frustrations Discord brings them onto us. I will at the very least make them believe that I love them in return.
“I am expected to fight Discord’s creechlings whenever necessary. I will not attempt to save them. The corruption will have already taken root.
“I will respect and revere my mother and father, who are both gods above all things. I will disagree with or disobey my father only if his interests conflict with my mother’s. I will never disagree with or disobey my mother.”
“Stop,” Harmony said. Terra did so. “What was that last bit again?”
Terra glared at her. “I will never disagree with or disobey my mother.”
Harmony smiled. “Have I ever told you to come on time, Terra?”
“You have,” Terra said.
Harmony’s smile faded. “Then what could possibly be so important that you failed to come on time?”
“Research,” Terra said. “I was doing research.”
Harmony frowned. “Research outside The Citadel? As in with books?” Harmony had always found it odd that ponykind stored information on paper with ink rather than in metal with magic.
“As in with ponies,” Terra said. “I met an interesting unicorn today. His name was Aelix. Aelix Coruscare.”
Harmony’s expression became unreadable. “Ah.”
“He can teleport. True spatial manipulation: no splitting, no traversal. Draconequus magic.”
“It isn’t,” Harmony said. “But the end is the same.”
Terra waved a hoof. “Whatever. On a closer examination I determined that he can do other things, too. Things that I can’t stand to repeat. Things that Order would call unnatural. He can do things to us, Harmony.”
“I know,” Harmony said. “It’s part of his design.”
“As if earthponies that can dance in time and pegasi that can sing my song and hold Order’s gaze aren’t enough!” Terra hissed. “At least they had drawbacks. This new kind of pony... this Coruscare, it has none! It is a unicorn with a set of tools. Tools that I would say look very specific. What are you making, Harmony?”
Harmony turned away. “You are never to disagree with or disobey me,” she said.
Terra sighed. “This is true.”
“Then let me make this perfectly clear, my Terra.” Harmony spun to face her. “You are not to ever speak of this again, to anypony. Not even me.”
Terra’s voice became urgent. “He’s going to find out, Harmony.”
“He will. But on my terms.”
“There are no terms by which you can present Aelix to him that will make this seem acceptable.”
“Acceptable?” Harmony snapped. The word bounced off the inside of The Citadel, reverberating around the two silent alicorns for a time. “Do you think I find it acceptable when he sacrifices ponies by the thousands to draw Discord out? Do you think I find it acceptable that I can scarcely step foot in the world I create?”
“You should,” Terra said. “These things are necessary. Millenia of work will be lost if Discord gets The Citadel.”
“And the ponies whom Order leaves to become creechlings in an effort to draw him out? Do you think they find it acceptable?”
Terra swallowed. “You have always taught that they are ours to do with as we choose. That a chance at assured peace is worth any sacrifice.”
“I worry that I am wrong on both counts,” Harmony said. “And I worry that we have sacrificed too little and asked ponykind to sacrifice too much.”
Terra didn’t know what to say. She’d always been accused of caring too much for ponykind—she was the soft one, not Harmony. Yet here was her mother, confessing compassion for creatures that she rarely ever even saw.
Terra spoke very quietly. “We gave ponykind existence and the means by which to exist.” She was quoting her father.
“We gave them our enemies,” Harmony said. “But not our power. Perhaps this should not be.”
Terra was silent.
“Imagine if ponykind had the power to destroy their enemies. Individually they are weak, but as a race they are resilient. So numerous and crafty that extinction is all but impossible. So numerous that among them there would always be individuals who could use power responsibly.”
“You’re making a weapon,” Terra said.
“Not at all,” Harmony said. “I’m making a future.”
Terra’s family did not love her. She often wondered if she loved them; her mother could be aggravating. Her father could be scary. Her brother could be stupid. Still, like the creatures that Terra cared for, she couldn’t help but feel for her fellow alicorns. The pony family model was alien to Order and Harmony, but that didn’t mean that affection should be taken out of the equation. Surely they could at least love her for being useful.
She was in the forest, looking out over a still pond wreathed in oak trees. As always, the magic came to her with the slightest feeling, and she began to sing.
Today’s song was a butterfly taking off of a lilypad. Her voice fluttered between notes, taking off and rising to a gentle call. The branches around her swayed and brushed her coat. Birds flitted to the trees around the pond to watch, then added their voice to hers.
She stepped out onto the pond, sending ripples away from her hooves as she stood on the surface of the water. Her song’s pace quickened and it grew more intense, like thickening rainfall. Fish swirled around her hooves just below the surface in their own complex pattern. Even they knew their Princess.
And they loved their princess. Every tree, every fish, every animal adored her with an intensity that could defy even their basic design. Wolves would stand alongside sheep just to bask in the glory of Terra, Princess of the Forest, when she sang. Her beauty inspired ponies to first take up oils and paint; her music inspired the creation of a hundred different instruments, each attempting to mimic the sound of her voice. All of them failed.
But would they love her if not for her magic? Terra decided that the answer was yes. She was more to them than beauty and song; she was sustenance. She was nurturing. She was a mother, in ponykind’s sense of the word. Always willing to stop and tend to a creature, no matter how small. Always willing to plant a seed or grow food. Terra loved them. It was that simple.
And she loved her family. It had taken her years of conscious infighting to accept that about herself—love was, after all, a useless idea exclusive to ponykind, and had no place in the heart of an alicorn. It was true nonetheless. She wanted them to be safe and happy. She wanted a world without war, a world where Order and Harmony could roam together, creating and ruling as they saw fit. A world where she and her brother could rule as one entity, not shackled to their parents for safety. As it was, wandering ten minutes away from Order or Harmony was suicide—Terra was no match for Discord.
A pulse of magic stirred the grove. Terra lost her song, and the animals fled as she splashed down into the pond. The trees snapped back to their typical rigid forms.
Laughter rang through the forest: loud, clear, and genuine. It was the laughter of a stallion, one possessed with a deep, compelling voice—a voice made to give commands. Harmony did not spare any details when designing her children.
Terra grumbled as her mane reverted to its natural state and fell soaking wet over her face. She pushed it away with a hoof as she climbed back onto the surface of the water. “Empyrean,” she said, shooting the Prince a dirty look. “You are a dreadful husband and a perfect brother.”
Empyrean’s crown was a titanium wreath of laurels that fit snugly over his ears. Similar pieces of decorative armor wrought from titanium adorned his figure, and a half cloak of red silk was draped across his back and pinned at one shoulder. It was red, to match his mane. The color of dominance. His muzzle was a well-cut square, and his eyes held a kind of unbreakable determination even when he laughed. Empyrean was built to be the quintessential god; a perfect ruler for ponykind.
Lousy husband, though.
“I’m so sorry, dear sister-wife” he said as he leapt onto the surface of the pond. “Did I interrupt your, er...” He gestured to the forest around them. “Frolicking?”
Terra set her mane alight once more. “I am the Princess of the Forest. Mother Nature. It is my royal prerogative to frolic. In any case, that’s not what this was.”
Empyrean raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Terra nodded, her expression one of utmost seriousness. “This was gamboling. Entirely different things.”
“Are they now? Do explain.”
“I doubt you’d pick up on the finer points,” Terra said with a wave of her hoof, “but suffice to say that frolicking involves more gaiety and less skipping.”
“I see,” Empyrean said. “As I am such a hopeless fool, I shall have to take your word for it.”
“How intelligent of you, to recognize your severe lack of intelligence. Now, shouldn’t you be off collecting taxes or changing the world with pieces of paper and the like?”
“The Prince of Ponykind does not personally collect taxes or draft laws, Princess. And even he gets a day off now and then.”
“I never understand your money,” Terra said. “Why do you need a bunch of coins? They all do whatever you tell them to.”
“Yes,” Empyrean said. “But the money is the assurance that they will be rewarded. It’s a means of control.”
“But why does an earthpony or a pegasus want a gold coin? They can’t do anything with it.”
“It’s a symbol, Princess. They can turn it into food when they’re hungry, or blankets when they’re cold.”
“I think I’d rather just get paid in food or blankets.”
Empyrean raised another eyebrow. “You cannot possibly be that much an imbecile. I think you need to spend more time around civilization.”
Terra scoffed. “Laws, money, and everything is made of right angles. No thank you.”
“But the people love you, Princess.”
Terra smiled. “Everything loves me, Prince. And I do spend time in the villages around the forest. The other day I played lawn darts with a group of fillies and sang for a wedding. Much nicer than sitting indoors surrounded by advisors and writing up the latest new imaginary doctrine.”
“The law is important, Terra. It’s what makes them ours.”
Terra simpered. “‘The law’, my dear Prince, is a piece of paper enforced by more pieces of paper. They are in turn enforced by more pieces of paper. If you go far enough, you’ll find a pony. Ideas are indestructible, as Harmony might say, but ponies are not.”
Empyrean laughed. “You’re just jealous because I make more money than you do.”
“Hah!” Terra barked. “You wish you could gambol as a day job.”
Empyrean sighed. “Order knows about the new pony.”
It took Terra a moment to realize what Empyrean had said. Slowly, the smile faded from her face as the implications of his sentence sunk into her mind, dragging every one of her thoughts to the same place: Order knows. But Empyrean had said new pony, singular. Order only knew about one of the new races.
Terra fumed. “Why tell me this way? Why not tell me as soon as you saw me?”
“This way gives me a more honest reaction,” Empyrean said. “Shock, then worry, then relief. There is more than one new race.”
“Harmony’s beard,” Terra cursed. “You can be a real bastard sometimes, Prince.”
Empyrean reached out to place a hoof on her shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Order’s interests take precedence over mine, Terra. I’m sorry.”
It was an honest apology, and Terra forgave him quickly. She wasn’t one to hold a grudge. “Why should he care if Harmony continues to create? It’s her purpose.”
“It is,” Empyrean said. “But she should be creating the races that fit into the natural order. These ponies have no place in our world.”
“The natural order,” Terra spat. “Animals eating each other to survive and rogue storms tearing trees out of the ground. Who cares how everything exists as long as they exist together.”
“In harmony?” Empyrean asked.
“Pretty much,” Terra said, giving a conciliatory nod. “This conversation isn’t going to get us anywhere, is it?”
“Not at all,” Empyrean said. “Hopefully the two of them will come to a reasonable solution. Until then, we get to spend a few days together. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
I love you, brother.
“I suppose so,” Terra said. “I do enjoy spending time with you. Where is Order?”
“The Verge,” Empyrean said. “I’ll be able to come and go safely as long as he stays there.”
“Why is he in the Verge?” Terra asked. “It’s right next to The Citadel. Harmony has it covered.”
Empyrean frowned. “A trap,” he said after a pause.
A trap. Order was going to feed Discord another village of ponies in hopes of drawing him out. “A waste,” Terra spat. “He’ll do as he pleases with them and leave.”
Empyrean’s jaw stiffened. “It is important that we maintain initiative. A sacrifice of so few ponies is worth that. Discord’s weakness is that he cannot plan or scheme.
“So you think.”
“So I know. We are going to use his ineptitude.”
“Ponies would call you a murderer,” Terra said through gritted teeth.
“Would they?” Empyrean asked. “Because I’m actually a god. This is our right, Terra. Your duties do not require you to be so hard, but much is asked of the scion of Order.”
“You all say I’m so soft,” Terra said. “But it isn’t a weakness; it’s a choice. I don’t like this, Prince.”
Empyrean scoffed. “It’s a war, Princess,” he said. “No one likes it.”
The creechling was a creature out of nightmare. It had four legs, but they were stretched to twice the length of a pony’s and each had three points of articulation. Its skin seemed to pull away from its face, as if something had grabbed the back of its head and yanked until its face began to split at the seams. Blood glistened in the cracks around its taught lips and the splits that ran away from its eyes. The excess skin was gathered in folds along its back. It had the tail of a scorpion, chitinous carapace cutting into the flesh it covered.
As always, Terra froze when she saw it. Bile rose up in her throat as it turned to face her and opened its mouth to release a shrill screech. Its lips tore like paper, and blood ran down its muzzle.
Empyrean sheared it off at the legs with Sovereign, a conjured blade that seemed to be made of gleaming metal. Terra cringed as it hit the floor shrieking, mutated legs flailing. She hated to hear any creature in pain. Even a creechling.
“This is why we call you soft, Princess,” Empyrean said as he drove his blade through its skull. It’s legs continued to beat uselessly against the floor even after it had died.
They were in Equina, Ponykind’s shining capitol. Specifically, they were at Castle Alicorn, Empyrean’s seat of rule. Equina was close enough to The Citadel that Discord didn’t dare attack it; Harmony could arrive in moments and destroy him. Attacking Equina would be foolish.
Or at least, that was what they had thought.
The Capitol’s gleaming spires had fallen to chaos. Some burned; others had been transformed into candy canes. Still others floated in the air, upside down. Their occupants stayed trapped inside, looking fearfully out at their backwards world.
Red rain clouds sped through the skies on seemingly random trajectories, pouring forth a liquid that melted everything it touched. After a cloud passed, the liquid left over would gather into hideous, twisted masses of stone, wood, and flesh.
The screams were the worst, though. Not the high-pitched, ululating wail that a creechling made when it found its prey, but the sound of the ponies that followed.
Terra began to feel her chest burn. “This is what Discord does to them,” she said. “When Order leaves them to him as bait. This is what becomes of them.”
“Ponykind is resilient,” Empyrean said. “Prune ten thousand of them and they can renew their numbers within a generation.”
“Is this what you’ve been taught?” Terra asked. “What about us? If both our parents were to die today, defeating Discord, the continuity of our species would be ensured.”
Empyrean looked at her, muzzle wrinkled in shock. “We are immortal gods, Terra. We matter when taken as individuals.”
Terra jerked her head toward the thrashing creechling. Its scorpion tail clacked every time its movements caused it to strike against the floor. “And they don’t?”
Empyrean looked revolted by the very suggestion. “No. What has Harmony been teaching you?” He waved a hoof. “It doesn’t matter. She should be here in moments. Until then we secure my council ponies. I cannot rule from Equina with only a pack of monsters.”
Terra nodded. Their argument would have to wait for later. Right now they had to deal with the largest attack Discord had ever brought to bear against ponykind. “Lead the way.”
They both took off and dove through a window into the interior of Castle Alicorn. Empyrean led Terra through a maze of hallways and doors. Terra soon felt like she was lost. She’d never been good with right angles.
“Harmony should be here by now,” Empyrean said. “She should have left as soon as she sensed his presence. Every moment she delays, she’s putting us in danger.”
“She will come,” Terra said as they sped out one window and into another several stories higher up. “Stop being so resentful of our mother. I’d say Order is rubbing off on you.”
“This from a mare who mourns the death of a creechling.”
“It was a pony once,” Terra said.
“They can’t be cured, Terra,” Empyrean said. “You know that.” They landed in front of a set of tall double doors, and Terra assumed they’d reached Empyrean’s council chambers. “Once the corruption gets in deep, there’s nothing even Order and Harmony can do to fix them. The only cure is death, and that’s a mercy.” He threw open the doors.
The room beyond was a large circular chamber cut out of stone. Tiers of benches rose up along its outside, and windows were set high into the walls. A podium stood at the center; Terra assumed this was where Empyrean typically stood.
It was filled with creechlings. Things with eight legs and distended stomachs turned to look at the newcomers with faceted eyes. Monsters that had once been pegasi spun to face them, held in the air by insectile wings. There were creechlings with three faces, creechlings with teeth lining their eye sockets, and creechlings that oozed slime from pulsing orifices along their backs. All of them wore the tattered remains of a half-cloak similar to Empyrean’s.
Empyrean sighed. “Oh, bother,” he said, as though he hadn’t just lost several dozen ponies he’d known for years. He cast Sovereign. Terra cast Exogenesis.
“Decided to help this time?” Empyrean asked with a sidelong smile.
Terra tasted bile once more. Not from the creechlings, but from Empyrean’s smile. Who could enjoy dealing death? “I am a merciful god,” she whispered.
In the space of a heartbeat, she threw herself across the room and sheared the closest creechling in two. It burst like an egg tossed against a wall, splattering a sickly green fluid all over Terra and the floor around her.
The creechlings had taken only a minor interest in Terra and Empyrean as they had entered the council chamber. Once Terra had killed the first, each of their gazes snapped to her. Their eerie, keening wails echoed through the room.
The glittering shards of Empyrean’s blade tore through the heads and necks of over a dozen creechlings, sending them crashing to the floor to die thrashing in pools of their own ichor.
Terra was already moving. She shattered Exogenesis and sent it into her half of the creechlings. Her blademotes struck them much the same way Sovereign’s had, except Exogenesis turned their flesh to dust where it touched them.
The creechlings fell like wheat before the scythe. None of them had touched either the Prince or the Princess. It took them only seconds to clear the room.
“See,” Empyrean said, flicking ichor off his blade. “That is why we matter when taken as individuals and they do not. That, and immortality.”
A disembodied voice filled the room. “You’re wrong, Empyrean. So very wrong.”
Terra froze, shooting Empyrean a terrified look. Harmony hadn’t yet arrived. They couldn’t deal with Discord; they were only three hundred years old.
“No one can blame you,” Discord’s voice said. “You’re a product of your upbringing. But I can assure you one thing, son of Order:”
The ichor that had spilled all over the council chamber began to run towards the center of the room, gathering at one point. A pool of the sickly green substance gathered, then rose into the air and solidified into the shape of a draconequus. Discord opened his eyes and grinned.
“You aren’t worth any more than one of the ponies you just killed.”
Terra took an involuntary step backwards. Where was Harmony? “We killed? You’re the murderer. You killed those ponies when you turned them into things.”
Discord wrapped himself around her in an instant, and Terra’s flesh shivered and withdrew where he touched it. “I didn’t turn them into anything,” he said. “I just made the two of you think that.” He snapped his claws.
Every corpse in the room reverted to the corpse of a pony. Ponies that had been sheared in two, had their throats cut, and had their flesh turned to dust by their own gods. Terra remembered how all of them had turned to face her when she killed the first. She had heard them let out their eerie creechling wail; was that when the council ponies had started screaming?
This time the bile she tasted wasn’t from disgust at the creechlings, or Empyrean. She’d murdered ponies out of ignorance and called it mercy. Her legs gave out as she fell to the floor and vomited. Her forehead felt suddenly cold and damp from sweat.
“Like mother, like daughter,” Discord said. “You’re wondering why Harmony isn’t here yet? We played a little game, her and I. She got to choose between her children and all those ponies you tried to feed me in an effort to draw me out. And do you know something, Empyrean?”
Terra was still bracing herself against the floor, and she couldn’t see Empyrean or Discord. She didn't know why Empyrean didn’t say anything.
“If right and wrong exist,” Discord said. “Harmony chose right. How does that make you feel, Empyrean, knowing that your mother would do wrong by saving your life?”
“You’ve overextended,” Empyrean said. “They’re going to destroy you. This was a blunder.”
“Oh?” Discord said. “It seems Order has misled you, Empyrean. Has he been telling you he’s going to kill me all this time? It’s a shame we’ve never gotten to talk, just you and I, until today. I’d love to have a heartfelt conversation, but time is short and we have work to do.”
Terra pushed herself to her hooves. “You stay away from him.”
Discord spun to face her. “Oh, go away,” he said. “I’ll get to you in a minute.” He snapped his claws once more.
Terra was back outside Castle Alicorn looking at Equina. Discord had teleported her outside. To be alone with Empyrean.
“Brother,” Terra whispered.
She shot off in the direction of the castle, then realized that she had no idea how to get back to the council chamber. She stopped as she came into an entrance hall. To Terra, everything in Castle Alicorn looked the same: red carpets and right angles.
The council chamber was near the top of the enormous structure. And it was situated somewhere in the middle. If there was ever a time Terra needed her godhood, it was now.
She tore walls and floors away on her path through the Castle, turning to dust in moments what ponies had crafted in decades. Progress was slow, but it was faster than navigating the labyrinthine corridors.
As Terra destroyed the palace to get to her brother, the reality of the situation began to sink in. Harmony’s charge had been to protect Equina, Terra, and Empyrean. Discord could not attack them so long as she was so close by.
Or at least, that was how it was supposed to be. Where was Harmony now? Empyrean was alone with Discord, an enemy he didn’t even have the power to fight. The blood in Terra’s veins turned cold as she realized that her brother was going to die. What was she going to do, charge in and rescue him? She couldn’t fight Discord.
They had their petty disagreements, but he was still her brother. He was her pairing. She couldn’t leave him. She couldn’t be left alone.
Terra stopped as she emerged in a vaguely familiar hallway. She flew through a series of doorways, and sure enough, there was the entrance to the council chamber. She blew the doors off their hinges.
Relief warmed Terra as she saw that Empyrean was still standing in the center of the room with Discord, surrounded by the dead council ponies. Of course her brother had kept him talking. Perhaps they could distract him long enough for their parents to arrive.
“Empyrean,” she said.
Empyrean turned to regard her with Discord. “You’re ugly,” he said.
It took Terra a moment to process what he had said; to see that the whites of his eyes had been turned black, that the crown he wore was made of writhing worms. And for that one, single moment, her brother was alive.
Then the truth dragged her into a very real nightmare. They can’t be cured, Terra. The only cure is death, and that’s a mercy. The world fell away and Terra’s chest became unbearably tight. She let out a tiny cry as a tear rolled down her face.
“Please don’t cry!” Empyrean said, stepping forward. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it that way. You’ve just always looked so perfect, Terra. You were designed to be exactly what ponykind finds aesthetically pleasing. Your form is so exact it’s hideous.”
Empyrean continued to approach her. Discord pulled out a bag of popcorn.
“But we can fix you,” Empyrean said. “We can make you beautiful. And you’ll see things, Terra. He can show you things that will turn your world upside down.” Empyrean giggled. “And then he’ll really turn the world upside down.”-
Discord stuffed a mouthful of popcorn into his mouth. “I’ve wanted a son ever since I got this idea about five minutes ago,” he said. “I’m so proud of him.”
“You don’t know how much you’re hurting,” Empyrean said, his eyes wide. “How horrible it really is to have all your thoughts locked inside your head. He can fix it, Terra. And then you can think and do whatever you want. You can think on the outside.” He giggled again, a childish noise than put Terra’s teeth on edge. A trickle of green fluid ran out of one of his nostrils.
They can’t be cured, Terra. Once the corruption gets in deep, there’s nothing even Order and Harmony can do to fix them. “No,” Terra said. “We’ll fix you. We have to.”
“I’m already fixed!” Empyrean screamed suddenly. “You think that a life dedicated to ruling is what I want? I don’t care about any of my stupid rules! I don’t want to please father anymore!”
The rational part of Terra’s brain told her that the thing standing in front of her was not Empyrean. That her brother was already dead. But he looked like her brother, spoke with her brother’s voice.
“I love you,” Terra said. Empyrean cocked his head, and a worm fell off his crown to the ground below. Discord’s face went slack, and his bag of popcorn fell out of his paw to spill all over the bloody floor.
“I know we aren’t supposed to,” Terra whispered. “I know that our parents think it’s useless, especially Order. You aren’t even very nice, to be honest. But you’re my brother. No one can treat me the way you do, Empyrean. All our arguments, all our differences—because we were built and trained to be different—they make us the perfect set of siblings. And I love you for it.”
Discord appeared beside her and spoke into her ear. “How touching,” he said. He reached out and used a paw to wipe a tear from her face. “But there’s no need to get upset. He was telling the truth. We can fix you.”
Terra’s blood froze. “I doubt you’re going to give me much of a choice,” she said. “I know what you do to your enemies.”
Discord grinned as he slithered through the air to stand behind Empyrean. “Enemies? I didn’t do this to Empyrean because he’s an enemy, I did it because he’s boring. But you, Terra: you’re the daughter of Harmony. And that makes you very interesting. The choice will make things even more interesting. Will you wear the crown of vermin?”
Terra closed her eyes. “Are you being dishonest?” she asked. “Or do you truly understand us that little? I hope you find yourself alone under an empty sky for what you did to my brother, Discord. I will never wear a crown other than the Crown of Thorns. It is who I am.”
“Cute little filly,” Discord said. “Who you are is broken. You’re brotherless and soon to be motherless. You’ll live the rest of your life with only Order. And you’re so confused, because you’re so full of love. But love isn’t useful; love isn’t supposed to be real to alicorns. You’re going to be miserable for a very long time, Terra.” He leaned down to whisper in her ear.
Terra jerked away. “So I should just give up now?”
“You’d be different,” Discord said. “I won’t lie to you. I’d change you for good. You might end up nothing like the pony you are now. But you’d be happy. And you’d be with Empyrean forever. Isn’t that what you want? What is there to seek out in life other than happiness?”
Terra swallowed. “Happiness of others,” she said. “Doing what’s right. Making the world a better place. I’d rather die.”
“Fine.” Discord waved a paw. “Then kill yourself.”
Terra was taken aback. “What?”
Discord grinned. “You heard me. Kill yourself. If you’d rather die than wear The Crown of Vermin, and you don’t believe I’m honest, then you must believe I’m about to bestow upon you a fate worse than death. So your only sensible course of action is to kill yourself.”
“I...” The number one imperative of any well-designed species was survival. Terra had been taught this from a very young age. Survive, a voice whispered in the back of her mind.
Discord chuckled. “And you ponies think I act unreasonable.”
Terra had never been very involved with the war. Order and Empyrean fought it, Harmony and Terra picked up the pieces. That was the way it had always been. But Empyrean had always given her the impression that Discord was a random creature, incapable of strategy or planning.
And they were as wrong as they could be. Discord had somehow taken Harmony out of the equation, lain waste to the capitol, and turned Empyrean into a creechling. Terra was next, and as much as she hated to admit it, Discord was right: she should just kill herself.
She couldn’t bring herself to do it, though. She didn’t even know how she’d do it. The very idea was ridiculous. Survive.
Discord smiled down at her. “Remember, Terra, that I gave you a choice.” A flash of light, and he was gone, leaving her alone with Empyrean. Or, what was left of him.
“He’s so nice,” Empyrean said after Discord had left. “I hope he becomes my new dad.”
Terra closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Empyrean.”
She sang him a lullaby. It was slow, and every note was a cruelty. As Empyrean’s face went slack, Terra put a hoof around his neck and began to lead him in a small, circular dance.
“Your music is always so pretty,” Empyrean whispered to her. “Have you tried singing it backwards? If you sing it backwards, all the notes you put in will come out again.”
Terra couldn’t answer him and keep her song at the same time. Instead she lifted the crown of worms from his head and placed it gently on the floor. Then she drew Exogenesis.
Empyrean cringed slightly, but her song kept him docile. “Are you going to hurt me?” he asked.
An effort of will; a rush of air; a thud as her only brother’s head hit the floor rolling. Another thud for his body.
“No,” Terra whispered. “It won’t hurt at all. I hate to see a creature in pain.”
Terra didn’t know how long she stood there before she became aware of the sound of Discord’s clapping. Claw slapped against paw again and again, and each time the sound reached her ears she trembled harder and harder. “You,” she spat. “You killed him.”
Discord appeared in front of her. “Ah-ah-ah!” he said, waving a claw. “You killed him. Unless you believe that guilt belongs to the being whose actions led to his death, in which case Harmony killed him. This should make things very interesting. Tell me, Terra, what was it you said when you killed the first council pony? I’ve forgotten.”
“I am a merciful god,” Terra whispered.
The air behind Discord roiled and wavered, then the illusion peeled away to reveal the form of a pony. Discord spun, seeming for the first time to be caught off guard.
“I,” Order said. “Am not.”
A sound like thunder heard from beneath the surface of a lake resounded throughout the room. One moment, Order was on the far side of Discord. The next, he stood in front of Terra, a wispy trail of opaque black strands behind him. Discord was gone.
Terra’s voice caught in her throat. “I-I killed him, father.” She took a step away. “I had to. I’m so sorry.”
Order looked down at her. His eyes were so very, very empty.
A vivid green meadow spread out before them, a thousand dandelions mimicking the golden sun above. Not a single cloud marred the perfect blue sky. It was the quintessential meadow, perhaps the very meadow by which all others were designed. A butterfly landed on Terra’s nose, then lazily fluttered its wings.
“You are but twelve years old, Terra,” Order said. “But your place in the natural order has been made clear. You will nurture each new species, and guide them to their special place in our world.”
“Like the butterflies?” Terra asked. The one on her nose took flight, startled as she spoke. Terra followed it with her gaze, grinning.
“Not the butterflies,” Order said. “Not unless Discord renders them extinct or unusable. Now tell me: what do you see in this meadow?”
“Dandelions!” Terra’s mane was the color of dandelions. Perfect dandelions, that was.
“Indeed,” Order said. “No daisies. No honeysuckle. No bluebells.”
The air around them stirred, and the grass was flattened to the ground as Harmony glided down to land beside them. She ruffled her wings. “Flowers made war, and dandelions won.”
“Is that bad?” Terra asked.
“No single species is meant to attain dominance,” Order said. “And yet dandelions have become the apex flower.”
“It’s a design flaw,” Harmony said, stepping into place beside her husband. “They’re too resilient, and propagate too quickly. I always thought my seed design was clever.”
“Too clever, it would seem,” Order said.
“Yes,” Harmony said. “They need a new design.”
Terra looked from her mother to her father. “So the dandelions are going to change?”
“Yes,” Harmony said. “They need to die more. I will redesign them so that they live in harmony with the other flowers.”
“Thus fulfilling the natural order,” Order said.
Terra giggled. Harmony smiled. Order raised an eyebrow at them.
“This is where your task comes in, Terra,” Harmony said. “The current dandelion is too robust. You’ll need to kill them all before we start laying the new design.”
“I have to kill them?”
“Indeed,” Order said. “Be glad that we are designing dandelions, and not hyenas.”
Harmony sighed. “You always bring up the hyenas.”
“But I don’t want to kill the dandelions!”
“The hyenas,” Order said, “almost always merit bringing up.”
Harmony grumbled. “It was an isolated incident—”
“—Involving twelve thousand flaming hyenas—”
“Mom!” Terra shouted. “Dad!” Both of them turned to look down at her. “Isn’t there a way to keep these dandelions? I like them. They’re the color of my mane.”
Order seemed to consider this for a moment. “There is,” he said at last. “It will contribute to your education with unicorn magic.”
Terra gasped. “You’re going to teach me magic?” Order nodded.
“Will you be needing the design?” Harmony asked.
“No,” Order said. “It will be a simple spell.”
“Fair enough,” Harmony said. “I will adjourn. Behave, Terra. Your father is patient, but only for those willing to learn.”
Terra nodded vigorously. “I will! Be good, I mean.” Harmony smiled at her and then flew away.
“Now,” Order said. “Building a spell that will sterilize any member of a particular species is difficult. You must first understand how they reproduce. Do you know how a dandelion reproduces, Terra?”
“You blow on them!” Terra said.
“This is true, in part. But it is also much more complex than that...”
Whatever being had taught Terra how to use magic, whatever being had so softly joked with Harmony, he was gone now.
“I know,” Order said. “You are...” he paused, “—blameless. I should thank you for killing my only son, Terra. I could not have done it myself.”
Discord snapped into the space behind Order. “That was rude,” he accused.
Order turned around and regarded Discord. “Run, Terra,” he said. “Find your treacherous mother. Tell her that she killed my son. And that I defeated Discord.”
She killed my son. Terra swallowed.
“That’s odd,” Discord said, flying in a circle. “I don’t feel defeated. You can’t see the future, Order.”
“No,” Order said. “I can make it.”
Order wheeled on Terra, his horn blazing. A white bolt of energy shot towards Terra and struck her in the chest before she could react, knocking her to the ground. Terra was encased in a translucent white bubble of rippling energy. Order’s magic.
A wave of light and sound washed over the forcefield, loud enough to burst Terra’s eardrums and bright enough to momentarily blind her. As she tried to gather her bearings, Terra sent a shock of earthpony magic through her body, healing her wounds.
Then the bubble was gone, and Terra was falling. The air caught her wings, and Terra spread them wide, catching herself and gliding down to rest atop a pile of rubble.
Rubble. She had been in the council chambers, and then she fell. Had Discord teleported her, or had Order simply obliterated that much of Castle Alicorn? From the chokingly thick cloud of dust that surrounded her, she feared it was the latter.
Order fell out of the sky and struck the ground before her like a meteor. A wave of rubble shot outward from his point of impact, and shattered stone stung Terra where it struck her coat.
Despite the thick cloud of dust, Terra could clearly hear Discord snapping a claw. Tiny particles of dust fell to the ground, coating the world around them in a sanguine mist. Terra realized with a shock that Discord had turned it into blood.
“Poor Order,” Discord said. “How will you build a perfect world without your perfect son?”
“Discord,” Order said. “You are imperfection perfected. Chaos concentrated into a being whose only purpose is to undo all that has true purpose. I will make a perfect world, Discord. And I will start by destroying you.”
Order whirled, his motion causing the blood to come off his body in a fine spray. Singularity came into being and snapped to his side. “Monster,” he said.
As the blood touched Discord’s body, it turned into water. Discord grinned, tiny droplets of moisture glistening off his teeth. “Aren't we?”
Order rushed forward, Singularity dancing through the air. Discord slithered around it, grabbed hold of Order’s face, and tore half of it off with his claw.
Terra spread her wings and pushed herself away from the ground as fast as she could manage. A fight between a three thousand year old alicorn and Discord wasn’t something she could be close to. She needed to get to The Citadel and find her mother.
A scream reached her ears as her wings took her away from Castle Alicorn. It didn’t sound like any creature Terra had ever heard before—and she’d heard the calls of every one of Harmony’s creations. It was a pitched wail, overlapping itself a hundred times. It didn’t sound like Discord, but who else could it be?
As Terra frantically flew through a crossroads in the middle of the city, Discord appeared and grabbed her out of the air, his claw sinking into her belly. He looked perfectly fine, but his eyes were wide and his pupils tiny.
“Don’t you want to be happy?” he hissed. “Isn’t that why any of you do anything? Accept me or you will be miserable forever.”
Terra struggled in his grasp, trying to wrench herself free, but his claws just dug in deeper. Just how strong was Discord? Was physical strength even a consideration for a draconequus? She might as well be wrestling a mountain.
Order struck the road beside them. His landing shattered cobblestones and kicked up dirt. Discord released Terra, and she took to the air.
“Do not touch her again,” Order said. Singularity cut a swath through the air and met Discord’s head.
Discord shattered like a stained-glass window, a million shards vanishing into nothingness.
Order took a single, limping step towards Terra. She couldn't help but cringe. “Keep. Moving,” he said. “You. Will. Survive.”
Terra gathered the air around her and shot off towards the edge of Equina once again. She ducked through houses, under towers, and sped through streets faster than she had ever flown in her life. A single idea drove her on. The one imperative programmed into every species alive. Survive.
On the very outskirts of Equina, Discord appeared before her. He had obviously been fighting Order while she had run; he was missing an arm. It grew back as he spoke.
“You want to know why he wants you alive so badly?” Discord asked. “Because he’s going to kill your mother. Think about that for a moment.” Discord said. “You will live the rest of your immortal life alone and powerless beneath him. I can set you free.”
He moved forward to grab her, but stopped as Singularity burst from the center of his chest. Discord ignored the blade, whirling to face his assailant.
The air between Terra and Discord shimmered, and Order appeared in front of his daughter. As Discord turned to face an enemy that wasn’t there, Singularity ripped itself out of his chest and sheared off his head.
Before the grotesque thing could bounce against the ground, Order had pinned Discord’s body to the ground and raised Singularity high above his head.
Discord’s head vanished to appear atop his neck once more.
“I told you,” Order said, flicking his ears. “Not to touch her again!” He shook his head, as though attempting to shoo away flies that weren’t there. “You didn’t listen. Why don’t any of you listen....”
Discord let out a thin, shaky laugh. “Oh, Order. Why would anything ever listen to you?”
Order slowly shook his head. “I made this world a point of order in a black sea of endless chaos. And this is my reward. My wife has betrayed me. My son is dead. How is it that you live, but they perish?”
Discord grinned. “I’m alive,” he said, “because I cannot die. I’m the only constant here, Order. I’m chaos.”
“I am not Order!” the King bellowed. Singularity bore down on the pinned draconequus, tearing limbs off as fast as Discord could regrow them. “I am no longer a part of the natural laws. I am their new master. I have no equals any more. And soon I will have no rivals.”
Order thrust his blade downward into Discord’s face. Discord raised a claw to deflect it. The end of the blade broke and scattered into a swarm of dark energy, held at bay in the space just above his claw. It made a rushing noise as it inched ever closer to Discord’s face.
Discord hissed, a hideous sound overlaying a shriek of pain. “You,” he said. “You cannot kill me! I. Cannot. Die.”
Order cocked his head. “No,” he said. “I cannot. I have a far better fate for you, enemy. One that will make you wish you could kill yourself, though I suspect you wish this already.”
Discord let out a noise that was half spluttering cough, half laugh. “Try me, Order.”
Terra knew that this was her chance. That she should run. But as much as her senses told her to flee, she couldn’t look away. Her father was about to win the war. Discord was going to lose. Discord, the unkillable enemy of centuries.
A mote of darkness appeared at the tip of Order’s horn. “I am not Order,” he said in a voice that was quite calm. “I abandon that name for one more suitable. For while I am order over chaos, I am also sanity over emotion. I am the undefeated champion of the immortal game. I am the apex of all life, and I will usher this world into a new golden age of balance and perfection. I am Titan, and I am the ruler of all things.”
He leaned down, until his muzzle was right next to Discord’s ear. “And now I am going to defeat you, enemy, in a way so horrifying and absolute that not any creature will ever try to take my world again.” Titan began to whisper, so softly that Terra could barely hear even with her pegasus ears. “Do not think of a white room,” he said.
Immediately, Discord went rigid. “No,” he said. “No, no no! You don’t know... you can’t know...”
“Do not think that this room is unbreakable, that you will be trapped there forever. Do not think that the light from this room will burn your eyes and that you will never, ever find any reprieve from its harsh simplicity.”
Discord screamed. It was like hearing a thousand inequine beasts scream at once, all layered on top of one another. Still, the sound was something Terra recognized—an animal in pain. He thrashed beneath Titan, moving like a pinned insect, then a caged beast, then a writhing eel. He didn’t escape.
“Do not think,” Titan said, “that this room is horror designed for you especially, enemy, because you killed my son. Do not think that in this room you are helpless, and you will suffer timelessly.”
Discord screamed again, and another thousand voices added themselves to the horrifying din. He twisted his head and sunk his teeth into Titan’s foreleg. He was ignored.
Titan’s horn was entirely encased in the dark magic when it touched Discord’s forehead. The screaming stopped.
“Do not think these things,” Titan whispered. “Because if you do, you will never be able to think anything else until the day I die.”
Discord collapsed, breaking into thousands of tiny pieces that fell into the point of Titan’s horn and vanished. The King stood. “And I intend to live forever.”
The tapping of Terra’s hooves against The Citadel shards came faster than it ever had before. She didn’t even look to see them zipping in to carry her weight as she ascended to the upper ring.
“Harmony!” Terra screamed as she reached the top.
“I’m here,” Harmony said from her place on part of the upper ring. She stood not far away from Terra, looking inward at the ghostly image of Empyrean, standing next to Terra.
“It’s his design,” Harmony said. “And yours. I thought it was all I’d have left of you. But you survived.” Harmony’s face softened, and her eyes looked pained. “My Terra,” she said as she turned to face her daughter.
“You left us to die,” Terra said. “You let him take Empyrean. And you were ready to let him take me.” She coughed up her next word: “Why?”
Harmony shut her eyes. “I decided that I was wrong, Terra. That our lives aren’t worth any more than a single pony’s. I figured out why it took me so long to realize it: because once I admitted the truth to myself...” she took a deep breath.
“I’ve done horrible things,” Harmony said. “Truly terrible things. My ignorance has led to the perpetual slaughter of the entire pony race for so many years....”
“You chose them,” Terra said. “He gave you a choice and you abandoned your children to save ponies.”
“I did,” Harmony said. “I’ve played god for so long, but the truth is that I can’t comprehend the death of even such a small smattering of thousands. Logic is cruel, Terra. Do you have any idea what it feels like to prove, mathematically, beyond a doubt, that leaving your children to die is the right thing to do?”
“You think you saved them?” Terra said, incredulous. “Do you know what your husband is doing right now? He’s killing them, Harmony. He’s wiping Equina off of the map.”
Harmony shuddered. “I’m almost three thousand years old, Terra. I can hear the screams from here.” She said nothing further.
Terra examined her mother more closely. Harmony had lost her son. Her husband had gone insane. Her daughter—did Terra despise her mother, now? She felt betrayed, certainly. What her mother had done was unforgivable. Despite this, Harmony looked as composed as she had ever been.
“This is a catalyst,” Harmony said. “I’ll let thousands die now to save them millenia of tyranny if I have to. It’s cold, and it’s evil, but it’s the best I can do for them. It’s all I can do, despite my godhood.” Her voice lowered to a whisper as the image at the center of The Citadel vanished. “We created them,” she said. “And you, too. And now.... But of course you know what this feels like. He was your brother. They are your subjects.”
“You,” Terra said, shaking her head. “You should be dead. Not him.”
“Believe me,” Harmony said. “If I could stop this with my death alone, I would. But I fear it won’t be nearly enough. Tell me, Terra: if you had to choose between me and ten thousand ponies, what would it be?”
“You,” Terra said. She tried not to think about the question; she already knew the right answer. “You’re the Queen.”
Harmony shook her head. “No, Terra. You’re the Queen.”
Harmony’s crown went out. Her mane went limp and fell flat against the sides of her head. Her royal regalia fell away from her shrinking form. In seconds, she stood before Terra, so small she might as well have been a child.
“I have less magic than the apex ponies now,” Harmony said. “I am living proof that the only difference between us and ponykind is power. So answer me, Terra: Who do you save knowing that three thousand mothers will die with their children when you choose me?”
Terra felt her eyes begin to burn. “This isn’t fair,” she said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Harmony said. “We call ourselves gods, but making that choice is so difficult. It was easy when they were worthless. I think evil always is.”
“Discord is gone,” Terra said. “Order is going to come here. For you. You need to run.”
“No,” Harmony said. “I don’t. My husband will come, and he and I will have a long overdue conversation.”
“Take your power back,” Terra begged. “Fight him.”
Harmony smiled. “He’ll win,” she said. “Your father has a gift, Terra. I’ve never seen him lose a fight.”
Terra looked down at her tiny mother as tears started to roll down her face. “Please. Do something. I can’t lose you too.”
Harmony cocked her head. “Why not?”
“Because you’re my mother,” Terra said. “I need you.”
Harmony’s face broke out into the saddest smile Terra had ever seen her give. “If love were better defined,” she said, “I think that the way I feel about you would qualify, Terra.”
Terra took her tiny mother up in an embrace. Here it was: everything she’d ever wanted from her mother. “I love you too,” she whispered.
“My Terra,” Harmony said. “My whole world. I have but two expectations for you. Do these two things and you will make me as proud as any mother could be. And know that as long as you strive for them, I will always love you.”
“Please,” Terra said again. “Don’t leave me with him.”
“My first expectation of you, Terra, is this: you must make the world a better place. No matter how small your deeds.”
Terra sobbed, but nodded.
“My second expectation of you, Terra, will be more difficult. You must be happy. That is all. I wish I didn’t have to leave you, Terra, but I have no other options. To stabilize his actions and set my plans in motion I have to die.”
“No,” Terra wailed. She had woken up that morning with plans to take a stroll through Castle Alicorn’s gardens with Empyrean. That was all. “It isn’t fair. Why is it so unfair?”
“Because,” Harmony said. “That’s the way we made it.”
“And that is the way it shall stay,” Titan said.
He glided in through the top of the open Citadel, landing soundlessly on section of the upper ring. “All things must exist in their proper portions. In perfect balance. This is the natural order.”
Harmony swallowed, then pulled away from Terra. She looked at her husband and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter how they exist, Order. Only that they exist together.”
Titan looked at Harmony, and Terra was hard pressed to find even an ounce of emotion in his expression. “My system will be perfect,” Titan said. “Self-sustaining and resilient. Without Discord, it will be everything we wanted.”
Harmony’s face went slack, and she returned Titan’s emotionless voice with her own. “I posit that taking what we want is no longer our prerogative,” she said. “Our creation has become greater than its creators and the suffering we inflict upon them has expanded past our means to comprehend. We wrongly consider them as a species when we cannot even consider them as individuals.”
“Ponykind is a dream,” Titan said. “And we are the dreamers. You have lost yourself in a false reality, Harmony, thinking that it is real.”
“Equina?” Harmony asked impassively.
“Gone,” Titan said. “Discord is defeated. We no longer need them in such robust numbers.”
“And they must be punished,” Titan said. “For poisoning your mind as they have. For making you fail to protect our children.”
Harmony closed her eyes for only a moment and nodded. “Happiness is not something attained through power, possessions, or privileges, Order; rather, it is a lack of cognitive dissonance. I have found happiness in admitting to myself my own atrocities. I have cleansed my mind of poison.”
“Happiness,” Titan repeated. “We have toured the cosmos. Witnessed the birth of stars. Together.”
“The cosmos is cold and dark, when taken in its mean,” Harmony said. “A vast nothingness filled with points of light so tiny as to seem insignificant. But this world is so filled with life and soul.”
“No,” Titan said. “I will cure you. I will make you see as I do.”
Slowly, her face still an expressionless mask, Harmony shook her head. “You can’t,” she said. “Not to me. Not unless I let you.”
“Then let me. Be my wife again.”
“You killed my son.”
“You would choose them over me?”
Harmony looked down at her discarded regalia. “I already have.”
A pause. Titan blinked. “Don’t leave me alone,” he said.
Another pause. Terra had never seen her parents hesitate. What were they thinking, before they said their words as though they meant nothing to eachother? I am sanity over emotion, Titan had said. Don’t leave me alone.
Who would he have, if he killed his wife? Terra. The daughter he had practically ignored since her birth. His scion was dead. His only equal was standing before him, telling him that she would rather die than be his wife. I intend to live forever.
Titan was looking at spending an eternity with nothing. Nothing but his work.
“I intend to fight you for control,” Harmony said. “As Terra is an asset to both of us, it is in our mutual interest to give her time to escape.”
“Terra,” Titan said, never taking his eyes off of Harmony. “You have twenty seven seconds. You will need each of them.”
Harmony turned to her. “Fly away, Terra. And remember what I told you.”
Fly away. Terra was never able to fly in The Citadel. She felt like she should say something to her mother. One last word before she died. All she could think of was to nod quickly before shooting up into the air and away.
I love you. Be happy. Make the world a better place. Each of the statements were so alien to Terra as an alicorn. What would she do? Where would she go? Obviously she couldn’t let her father find her; Order had terrified her. Titan was a thousand times worse.
I love you. Be happy. Make the world a better place. Titan would want to get rid of the new races. Terra could save them. That would make the world a better place, wouldn’t it? Would it make her happy, to care for such a small number of ponies in the midst of Titan’s culling?
Twenty seven seconds. She didn’t know how long it had been, but it had to be close to twenty seven. Her mother was going to die. Any second now, her mother was going to die.
An echoing crack unlike thunder. A wave of force that shattered bones. The world went white.
Terra awoke to the sound of a babbling brook nearby and the harsh glare of sunlight in her eyes. Lying on the ground, she realized before she came to her senses that it was an absolutely beautiful day.
“I am glad you’re awake,” said Titan.
Terra shot to her hooves, but what use was it to try and run from her father? He stood in front of her before she had even left the ground.
“The blast,” Terra said. “It knocked me out.”
“It did,” Titan said, his voice still hollow. “Escaping was never a feasible option for you. I gave you twenty seven seconds. You would have needed ninety.”
Terra took a step back. She couldn’t get away, not from him. She needed to find some way to survive.
“Harmony is dead,” Titan said. “As is Empyrean. Discord is gone. That leaves only you and I, Terra. And I have no scion and no wife.”
Terra swallowed. “Take me up,” she said. “I’ll be your scion.”
Titan regarded her. “I do not doubt that you would do this, despite your dislike of me and my ideals. You need to survive, after all. But I am Titan. I will have no successor. No, I have a better use for you.”
A small, black mass began to gather at the end of Titan’s horn.
Terra thought of Discord, trapped in his own mind for eternity. A single thought ran through her brain like a bolt of lightning: she needed to die. Any fate was better than that.
But Terra hesitated. Because at the same time her brain spoke suicide, her instincts screamed survive. Her single moment of hesitation lost her the only chance she had to die.
Titan had her pinned to the ground faster than Terra could react. She pushed upward with hooves that could uproot trees. Her father didn’t move an inch.
“You will be my new wife,” Titan said.
“No!” Terra screamed. She beat her hind legs against the ground, helpless. “Don’t touch me! Get off me!” Tears glistened on her face as Titan began to lower his horn.
“Please,” she whimpered. “Please please please...”
Titan’s horn touched her forehead, and the writhing mass of darkness slithered down and latched onto her face. Where it touched, Terra felt cold, dark slime. It was a nauseating sensation, and Terra felt as though Titan’s spell hated her. As though it wanted to hurt her.
Fluffy bunnies. Fluttering butterflies. Trees swaying in a summer breeze. As Titan’s spell crawled down her face and over her eyes, Terra thought of each of her favorite things in turn. And one by one, Titan’s spell purged them from her mind.
She was clawing at her face, but it wouldn’t come off. She couldn’t see, but she could feel it slithering between her teeth, over her tongue, down her throat. Terra retched, but nothing came up. Dizzy. She was so dizzy...
She breathed in, then out. Nothing felt out of the ordinary. But Terra knew otherwise. Titan had done something to her. Something to her mind. Something horrible.
“You will tell me,” Titan said. “You will tell me the name of the pony Harmony made. The one with the power to reshape us.”
Terra hesitated. A million insects buzzed inside her brain, and her skin crawled. She felt like she was floating away from herself even as the psychological onslaught reached unbearable levels. Her back arched as her eyes watered. A shard of glass ran along the inside of her skull.
“Aelix!” she shouted. “Aelix Coruscare.” She collapsed back to the ground, exhausted. What had Titan done to her?
“My spell is a simple design,” Titan said. “You are soft, and you have been corrupted by the influence of ponykind. I do not need these things in a wife. I need something that they will see as a monster. So this is what I will make you, Terra.”
“No...” Terra managed weakly. “You can’t.”
“Do not despair, my wife. You will suffer, at first, but eventually you will find pleasure in this existence. And when the spell becomes unnecessary, when you have become this monster of your own volition, then it will fade. So you see, I am not taking your free will. I am borrowing it. I will give it back once you are using it properly.”
Terra curled up on the ground and began to cry. I love you. Be happy. Make the world a better place.
Titan placed a hoof on her chest. “Listen closely, Queen of the World. You will listen to every word I say. You will never try to kill yourself. You will not make yourself inimical to my plans. In fact, you will actively try to help my goals as you see them.”
The buzzing grew louder. The crawling became painful. More like burrowing. I love you. Be happy. Make the world a better place.
“You will despise everything that you are now. You will despise mortal ponies. You will take pleasure in dealing pain to others and in murder. Your only passion will be pain and cruelty, your only solace in turning your back on everything you are now.”
I love you. Be happy. After that, Harmony’s voice was drowned out by Titan’s spell.
“You will go forth into the world and strike them down, Terra. Seven of every ten earth ponies. Eight of every ten unicorns. Seventeen of every twenty pegasi. Every arcpony. Every eraterus. You will find Aelix Coruscare and bring him to me. Have I made myself understood?”
It was a long, long time before Terra could speak. “Yes, King Titan. You have made yourself clear.”
The penultimate chapter of The Immoral Game (formerly called Ponies Make Love), Sex, Toys, and Chocolate will be released Saturday, May 26th