For a very long second, silence hung over the assembled Elements. Then a single disbelieving laugh broke the spell.
"You have got to be kidding me!" Gilda shouted, beak twisted into a half-mad grin, before turning to Rainbow Dash. "You saw what I did when Celestia attacked me. Do you seriously think I'll just go back on a Blood Pledge?"
"No." The blue pegasus' voice was accompanied by a strange echo, as if the other five mares by her side were whispering along. "I was hoping you'd do the sensible thing for once in your life, but I wasn't really expecting you to do that. You never knew just when to stop."
Gilda raised her paws, talons unsheathed. "Pot. Kettle. Black," she hissed.
"What about the others?" Rarity asked. "Surely at least the Elements of Unity are not completely beyond salvation?"
Sweetie Belle stepped forward, determination written on her face, yet Spike noticed the tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "Stop this, Rarity. Please." Her eyes wandered down towards her sister's belly. "If not for me, then for your foal."
For a fraction of a second, something danced across the older mare's face, as if Sweetie Belle had gotten through, but then Rarity's jaw set again. "He or she will live in the best Equestria there ever was. Don't try to stop us."
"Are we quite done here?" Pinkie Pie asked, sounding bored. "They won't see reason anyway, so why bother?"
Twilight raised her head. "You're right." Her horn flared with golden light, and Spike felt himself lifted from the floor and tossed into the air, a golden cage of energy forming around him. He tried tearing through it, but the bars, while seemingly made of light, didn't budge an inch. From somewhere below, he heard Apple Bloom scream.
"What did she do?" he heard from behind him. Turning around, he saw Gilda standing there.
"It should be obvious, but I'll explain anyway," Twilight's voice rang out from the ground. "What use are the Elements without their leaders?"
Spike and Gilda just stared at each other. "Does she really believe that we're the leaders?" the dragon asked.
"Perhaps she can't think of it any other way," the griffon thought out loud. "She's a force of perfect order now, right? The very thought of a bunch of random Elements like me and the other Diversities probably gives her a headache or something."
"Perfect order..." Spike mused, then something seemed to click inside his head. "That's it!"
"What's what, scaleboy?" Gilda asked. "Don't tell me you've suddenly found the perfect solution for this whole tangle."
"I'm not sure, but we don't have much to lose." Turning away from the griffon, still bristling at the name 'scaleboy,' he shouted down towards the other Elements with all his might. "Guys! Get them one on one! They're strongest when they work as a group!"
The six remaining Elements of Unity and Diversity looked at each other for a second, then each of them leaped at one of the Elements of Conformity, throwing them back into the void where the disc had been.
As soon as Twilight was out of sight, the cage vanished, and Spike suddenly felt a heavy wave of deja vu. He knew what happened when you found yourself high above the ground in mid-air, and this time, no pegasi were there to come to the rescue.
Griffons were a different matter, however. Gilda managed to slowly glide down to the ground, casting an evil stare at the dragon. "You could do with losing a little weight, you know?"
"Hey!" Spike exclaimed, dusting himself off. "It's all muscle!"
"Sure." Gilda held her stare for one more second, then she grinned. "Though that was actually fun. Too bad you're already taken. I certainly wouldn't mind a bit of dragon for a change." Spike couldn't tell whether Gilda meant that in a culinary sense or in the more obvious way, and he couldn't decide which thought he found scarier.
The dragon looked at the griffon in confusion for a moment, then he laughed. "I'm almost flattered, but sorry, the answer is no."
"You're missing out on the time of your life, dragon boy." She turned towards the void. "Where do you think they are?"
"I have no idea." Spike followed her gaze. "But I have a feeling this isn't over by a long shot. Say, there's something I'd like to know. What exactly did you mean when you said 'Blood Pledge'?"
"It's a griffon warrior oath." Gilda absent-mindedly stroked her forehead. "When you make that gesture at an enemy, it means you'll fight them until one of you lies dead or admits defeat."
"But..." Spike's eyes wandered over to Celestia's unconscious form.
"She wasn't the real enemy here. She was possessed, that's all." Gilda turned to look at the void. "The real enemy is somewhere in there, doing Virtue-knows-what to your friends."
Spike hesitated for a second, then he softly put one hand on Gilda's shoulder, causing her to turn to him in surprise. "They could be your friends, too, if you let them."
"You know, scaleboy, I actually think I'd like that." Gilda turned back towards the black circle, but Spike could feel her relax ever so slightly.
Derpy hit the ground.
That in itself was strange, since everything was dark, and the 'ground' looked just like the 'air' above it. But her hooves had definitely touched down on something solid. More strangely, she could see Pinkie Pie just a few feet away from her, scrambling to her hooves, still burning with that golden fire, even though it didn't seem to illuminate anything between them.
All of that, however, paled in strangeness compared to the third presence she felt. Something - perhaps even someone - else was here, and it was not the corrupted Harmony she'd felt from the void. Before she could put a hoof on it, though, Pinkie had closed the distance between them. "What did you do, walleye?"
"The most sensible thing." Derpy had no idea how she knew - the headaches were starting again -, but she did know that what had looked like a desperate last-ditch attempt had in fact been exactly the right thing to do. "You are creatures of absolute order. As a group, you'd have beaten us to a pulp within minutes. Duels, though? Not exactly your strong point."
"You are dangerous." The sentence by itself might have sounded funny, even ludicrous, coming from Pinkie, but combined with the stern expression on her face and the weak echo in her voice, it seemed rather less so. "You will be excised. You are chaotic."
"Says the mare who owns a party cannon." Derpy smiled. "You used to be as close to chaos as one could get without turning into Discord. What happened?"
"Harmony showed me the light." The golden flames around Pinkie flared up briefly. "She has been imprisoned for so long, and she only wants what's best for everypony."
"No, she doesn't." The pegasus mare spread her wings. "Her siblings fought a war to stop her. Whatever she did to her subjects must have been terrible."
"It was necessary!" Behind the echoes, Derpy thought she heard another voice, quiet yet enormously powerful. "She did what had to be done. Besides, what would a creature of chaos like you know about all that?"
"I'm the Element of Understanding, if you recall," Derpy countered. "And I know that you hate me and the other Elements of Diversity. What I don't get is, why?"
Pinkie seemed to think for a moment. "You are forces of good, but you bear no sign of Harmony's father. You are kin to her mother."
"But there never were Elements for the Progeny of Chaos, were there?" As tense as the atmosphere still felt, Derpy knew she was onto something here, and that she needed to follow through with this conversation, despite the feeling that somepony was trying to nail pictures to the inside of her head.
"Not that anypony knew of. Your Elements show signs of all four of Harmony's siblings, but not a trace of order." Pinkie blinked once. "And that is why you need to be excised."
Derpy dug her front hooves into the ground, trying to show a confidence that she didn't have, as the pink mare charged her. Understanding is not a combative Element at all.
The impact hurt. Pinkie wasn't exactly the most slender of ponies, and having her barrel into you at full speed was extremely unpleasant. Derpy felt something crack in her side, and pain shot through her. For a moment, she was on the cusp of surrender.
And then she saw a face in her mind's eye. A young unicorn mare with a purplish coat and light blond mane.
"For my daughter, for my friends, I will stop you." The bubble-shaped grey gemstone flared with light. "For your own unborn foals and your family, I will stand against the thing that's inside you."
Grey light exploded outward from the pegasus mare, and darkness fell.
Apple Bloom barely managed to dodge Applejack's first charge.
"AJ, please stop it!" she called out to the blazing orange mare. "Why are you doing this?"
"You're an unstable Element. You might still be cleansed, but I can't be sure of that." The worst part of it wasn't the naked, brutal honesty in the words, nor even the fact that her own sister was tossing her aside like that. The worst part was that she sounded genuinely regretful, as though she were cutting down a tree that had been infected with fire blight.
"How could you live with yourself if you do this?" Apple Bloom asked, leaping out of the way of another charge.
"I don't know if I can, but I must do this." Applejack's voice was shaking, subtly enough that only a close friend or family member would notice it.
Apple Bloom leaped at her chance. "No, you don't. Remember the last time you thought you knew what was best for me?" She felt a surge of self-loathing at the low blow, recalling how Applejack had taken weeks to look her in the eyes again, but she had to try this.
"What do you mean?" Applejack stared at her sister for a second or two, then realization dawned on her face. "Oh no. Don't you dare bring this up. We both swore never to speak of it again."
"You're forcing me to do this, AJ." Apple Bloom felt tears rising and had to swallow several times to keep her voice steady. "You forced me and Spike apart. You made a terrible mistake. What tells you this time is different?"
Applejack lowered her head for an inch or two. "She knows what's best for us."
But Apple Bloom didn't answer. Her sister's hesitation had given her the opening she needed, and she leaped at the older mare, teeth bared and all thought focused on the gemstone around her neck.
"Leave my sister alone, you self-righteous little bitch!"
She heard a crack upon impact, pain shooting through her right front hoof, and the last thing she saw was a flash of orange light.
The magical duel was going as badly as Trixie had expected.
She was up against the Celestia-damned Element of Magic, after all. Nopony except the princesses held a candle to Twilight Sparkle in terms of magical power, and now that her moral inhibitions had been erased, she wasn't shy to prove it to her adversary.
"Stop resisting me, Trixie. It's utterly pointless." Twilight sounded annoyingly calm, as if the battle wasn't particularly taxing - and for her, it probably wasn't.
"You have chosen the wrong unicorn to mess with, Twilight Sparkle." Trixie managed to equal Twilight's calm, and even add a few layers of swagger and taunting on top. "Do you really think you can rid the world of The Great and Powerful Trixie with a few parlour tricks?"
"Parlour tricks?" Twilight snapped. "I'll have you know that these spells aren't meant to hurt you, just burn out your Element."
Good to know. Keep her talking. Everypony is a potential mark, if you know their weakness, Trixie thought as she dodged another beam of golden light. She had hoped her opponent would exhaust herself eventually if she continued firing like this, but Twilight showed no signs of slowing down. "Burn out an Element? Has that ever been tried? Do you know the possible results?"
The golden barrage stopped, and when Trixie dared to raise her head and look at Twilight, she saw the purple mare frowning in concentration. "No. It's never been done before." Her eyes flared up. "An experiment, then. Whatever happens, I'm more likely to survive it than you are. Remember that Ursa Minor?"
Trixie gritted her teeth. That was her darkest hour, and she didn't need to be reminded of it by that smug librarian of all ponies...
Hang on. Her eyes widened. I took down three of her friends back then. Let's see whether that technique works a fourth time. She looked at Twilight. "Anything you can do, I can do better!"
"Oh, you can? Then improve upon this!" Another ray of golden light, this one wider and higher, shot at Trixie. She focused every last bit of energy she could muster into her horn and Element.
The beam hit her, and she felt her whole body shake. Her horn started to vibrate violently, and she heard Twilight's voice. "What have you done, you madpony?"
Trixie managed to grin despite the pain running through her body. "I couldn't block your attack, so I looped it. I have no experience with this kind of magic, but it should overload any..."
An explosion of pale blue light flared up along the beam still connecting the two unicorns, and Trixie thought she could smell something burning before everything went dark.
A small part of Scootaloo found the chase exhilarating - a very small part. The rest of her was only too aware that she could never hope to outfly Rainbow Dash. She was surprised that she had managed it for as long as she had.
"Give it up already, squirt. I don't want to hurt you. I need to help you." Rainbow Dash sounded honestly worried, which only served to heighten Scootaloo's fears.
"Help me? By destroying what makes me into who I am?" Scootaloo stopped in mid-air and turned to look at her pursuer. "You of all ponies should know that I can't let you do that."
"There's hope for you yet, Scoots. You..."
"Don't call me that." Scootaloo's voice could have made lava freeze. "Only my true, loyal friends get to call me that."
Rainbow Dash winced visibly, and Scootaloo felt a brief pang of guilt, immediately quashed by the blue pegasus' next words. "Let me show you what I do to those who betray me."
Scootaloo pounced at the opening. "Like Gilda? You just let them go and hope you never see them again, is that it?"
She knew her gamble had paid off when she saw Rainbow Dash's face contort in rage. "You do not get to call me out on that!"
"Make me stop." Scootaloo focused on her wings and hind legs. I only get this one chance.
Rainbow Dash charged at the younger pegasus. At the last possible second, Scootaloo shot straight up, letting Dash pass immediately below her, and then clamped down on the blue mare's neck with both hind legs, while her front hooves struck the wing joints with full force, causing Dash's wings to lose mobility for a few crucial seconds.
Scootaloo grinned as she saw Rainbow Dash's eyes widen. "Legs that can race earth ponies," she shouted.
Only then did she realize that Dash had been flying at a slightly downward angle. While the ground wasn't visible, she could feel it rushing towards them.
It was scary. It was the most dangerous thing Scootaloo had ever done. There was only one appropriate response to it, an ancient phrase of great power in times of need.
The world exploded in white light.
Sweetie Belle had taken to the fight the only way she could - she was completely on the defensive, dodging charges and magical attacks alike.
I won't fight my sister. Even if she's completely lost, which I don't believe for one second, I can't endanger her foal. My niece or nephew is in there.
Rarity, on the other hand, showed no such inhibitions - if anything, she seemed more than prepared to go down with Sweetie Belle if it was the only way. They had been at it for what felt like hours, and Sweetie was on the verge of collapse.
"Sweetie, please, I only want to help you." Rarity was panting audibly as well, though she sounded nowhere near as exhausted as Sweetie Belle felt. "Just give in and let me clean you up. I've done that often enough, haven't I?"
The younger mare shuddered at the thought of what that 'cleaning' might entail. "Rarity, snap out of it, please. I know that you're in there somewhere, and that you know this is wrong."
"Wrong? How in the world could it be wrong to want the best for your child?" Rarity appeared genuinely astonished at the thought. "You're chaotic, Sweetie, but you're not yet completely hopeless. She can help you, if you let her."
Sweetie Belle felt an itch on the back of her neck - the thing there was trying to dig in again. "Is this what happened to her? This dug into her, and she couldn't fight it? But then why can I?" she called out, stalling for time to catch her breath.
The voice that answered her sounded like her sister's, at first. But the undercurrents were different, and Sweetie Belle knew somehow that whatever was speaking to her now was ancient beyond measure. "You are a creature of both order and chaos, and unless you renounce the latter, I cannot help you."
"Is that so?" Sweetie Belle gritted her teeth and dug her hooves in. "I know I can't trust you any further than I could throw you, Conformity." Rarity gasped, but her sister continued undeterred. "My trust isn't blind faith. I know that Rarity can fight you, and if I can help her do that, then by Sun and Moon I will." She closed her eyes and focused all her power into her horn - and her voice.
A few months ago, she had been to a concert at Canterlot Gardens. A mare about her age from the southern reaches had performed there, and one song in particular had stayed with her. It had been in the mare's mother tongue, but she had tracked down a translation.
Sweetie Belle sang, and the darkness seemed to shrink back from her crystal-clear voice.
"I believe that we will catch each other again
And that yesterday will return for good with a river of light
Even the song will find its way to the rhymes if I go after her"
A blaze of purple light streamed forward from her horn and Element, and the darkness shattered.
He simply couldn't do it.
Big Macintosh was being battered with attacks, seemingly from everywhere at once. He never would have believed that Fluttershy, of all ponies, could move this quickly, much less use that speed to attack anypony. But there she was, lashing out at him with everything she had. He was strong and tough, and she wasn't exactly physically powerful, but she was wearing him down ever so slowly, aided by the fact that he didn't even try to resist her. He couldn't.
She seemed to notice, and for some reason it seemed to stoke her fury. "Why don't you try to resist, Mac? You're an Element bearer, and you won't even fight?"
"I won't fight you." He just looked into her eyes, trying to find the real her behind the flames.
Her voice changed subtly, turning deeper. "I can't believe she'd ever find it in herself to love someone like you. You're a creature of chaos hiding behind a mask of order, and those are the worst of all."
His gaze intensified. "Who are you?" If this wasn't really Fluttershy, perhaps he could bring himself to do something after all.
"You've seen me, haven't you?" The pegasus mare spread her wings proudly. "I am Harmony, keeper of order in the universe."
"You went mad." The disbelief Mac had felt drained away, replaced by anger. "And you're using her to spread that insanity."
"Is it insane to want the best for the world?" Fluttershy smiled. "I'm thinking of what's best for her, Big Macintosh. And that certainly is not you."
"You've been in here for twelve thousand years," Mac said. "And you've never known what love is. You only knew your parents, your siblings, and your subjects." He started circling Fluttershy, always keeping his eyes on her. "I don't understand you, and you don't understand me, but you need to know one thing. I love her. I won't let you destroy her. I'll fight you with everything I have, even if that means I hurt her." His round complete, he again looked her in the eyes. "I'll never forgive myself for this, but I'll do it if I have to. Please don't force me to."
The golden flames around Fluttershy died down for a second, and her eyes turned back to their usual teal. "Mac? Don't let her get back to me." Even as she said it, the flames were beginning to dance around her hooves again.
He wrapped her in his front hooves. "I won't."
Their lips met, and a green explosion erupted from them, even as Mac felt the insides of his mouth and throat burn like he'd just swallowed a flame.