“She's been killed?” Gemini looked around in shock and fear. If Luna was gone, then everything was going to fall apart. The very thought was abhorrent, and yet...
“Not killed, no.”
Gemini whipped around, and found herself facing Seren himself. His horn was still glowing, and Twilight noted that the destruction behind her wasn't about to stop, its slow wall of brilliant annihilation advancing without pause. Seren watched it for a moment, smiling slightly, before turning back to Twilight.
“Luna was having second thoughts about my plan, and so I had to keep her from ruining it. She's in stasis, much like she and I both were for those thousand years.”
Gemini decided to take a calm, rational approach to this. Seren was even more unstable than she was, and she knew he had a tendency to react violently.
“She disagreed with something? What was that, exactly? She seemed more than willing enough to help you earlier.”
“She'd been trying to convince me to reconsider my vendetta against Celestia, but I told her I couldn't.”
Seren eyed Gemini carefully. “Well, beyond the fact that she needs to pay for what she's done, the need is quite a bit more personal. I can't forgive her until she's felt my pain.”
“Oh.” What Gemini didn't mention was that she thought Seren was absolutely insane, but she didn't feel like now was a good time.
“And what about you? I'm certain you didn't come here to have a casual chat with me?”
Without much prompting, an overwhelming feeling of disgust towards Seren arose, causing Twilight to mentally gasp. It wasn't from her, she was surprised to find; it was coming from Lustrous. “I'll be honest, I'm here to stop you.”
Seren sniffed. “I figured as much. But before you strike me down with your obviously superior strength, you'll have to tell me something. I'm not a fool, despite what you might think. I know that somehow, you return to the past to possess my naive self. While I never had your memories and direct force of will, I am largely a product of your concentrated hatred. Whether it's Twilight or Lustrous matters little, but how do you expect to win, if you already know the outcome? You flee to the past, wounded, becoming the very thing you're trying to fight. I'm not entirely sure how you intend to overcome the little issue called destiny.”
Gemini shrugged. “Do I need to know? Even if I can't change the outcome, my future self will have a good reason for doing what they do, and then who really cares? I'm a vastly different person today than I was the day before, and the day before that too. My past self couldn't comprehend my reasoning for the decisions I make today, but they had the ability to keep me on the right path. As long as I do the same, all the way up until the critical moment, then whatever happens is not a mistake, but deliberate, justified, and more importantly, me.”
With a dismissive flap of his wings, Seren turned to look the army waiting to meet him. They had arranged themselves according to race; the pegasi and griffons were in the air, providing cover for the unicorns and earth ponies below, each armed in some form or another. “Well, let's not keep the future waiting. It's rather convenient that the citizens of this land gathered to face me; it'll make the whole process much faster.”
With several teleports, Seren was gone, and rapidly moving towards the nervous army. Twilight considered her options. If she tried to face him directly, well, he was correct about her strength. She was strong, but not enough to face him head-on. She might be able to keep the rest of the foolish volunteer rebels alive just a bit longer, but it'd come at the price of declaring herself an enemy. As long as her motives remained vague, he wouldn't take action against her. But the longer she hesitated, the further he'd be in his goals, and the harder he'd be to stop. Celestia was missing, Luna was gone, and neither one was guaranteed to be helpful even if they were found. Her friends had finally come around, but they were in much the situation she was. What were a few ponies against a god? With a start, she suddenly remembered a critical detail. She didn't have to be an average unicorn. She opened her pack and brought out the small crown she and Lustrous had made from their excess energy when they merged. If she wanted to, she could ascend now. The dangers that were present before still remained, but this might very well be her only choice. She hesitated for just a moment. If it went wrong, and she didn't properly represent any concrete concept, then she'd be killed, and all of her efforts would be worth nothing. But if she didn't, and she wasn't strong enough to fight, that might be the case anyways.
She looked over to the conflict that had just begun. Seren was playing dirty, getting up close and personal to the troops, not giving them a clear target. She'd finally grown used to the reality of blood and pain, but it still hurt her to see it. The careful formations were quickly broken down, and chaos ensued.
Hold on a moment, she thought to herself. Chaos.
Yes, that just might do it.
Twilight placed her false Element bag in the bag. Not yet. It would be a last resort. Much like she had thought what she was about to do was. She shook her head. She couldn't do anything to save the armies, but perhaps she could prevent any further tragedies. She focused back on reality, remembering all the wonderful memories she had made there, all the moments she had shared with her friends, both thick and thin. A shudder ran along her spine, and when she opened her eyes, she found herself back in Ponyville. She hurriedly glanced around, spotting Flutterspry.
“Hah, back so soon?” The pegasus was obviously allowing Shuddercry control for the moment. “Turned tail when you saw him, did you? Maybe now you'll realize why we acted the way we did.”
Gemini motioned for silence, and, surprisingly, Shuddercry relented. “I'm short on time. Discord was with you and the others when I left. Where is he now?”
Shuddercry shrugged. “He's the literal embodiment of Chaos. How should I know where he is?”
With a growl of frustration, Gemini grabbed the pegasus and dragged her closer. “I'm not in the mood. Fluttershy, I know you're in there. Do you remember anything?”
The pony suddenly became much more agreeable. “Oh, uh, I'm sorry I'm not more helpful, but I do remember him mentioning something about wanting to have some time to think. I didn't see where he went, but he wasn't making much of a spectacle of himself, unlike he normally does.”
Gemini let her go. “Thanks. That'll be enough. Keep an eye out; Seren's sending the rest of the Forgotten through. It's only a matter of time before we'll see the rest of the Atrocities with them.”
“I was beginning to feel a little hungry...”
Gemini gave her a pleading, tired look. “Don't joke about that, please.” She walked off a short distance, leaving Flutterspry to whatever she'd been doing. Twilight relaxed, allowing her mind to expand, sensing the world around her. There was quite a bit of background noise, but thankfully she was looking for Discord; his signature was rather unique, due to his domain of magic. She was surprised to find he was nearby, in her library, actually.
Once she arrived, she cautiously opened the door. Discord's back was to her, and there didn't seem to be anything particularly out of place. There weren't any dancing insects or barking dishtowels; he had kept his disorder to himself. “Discord?” she called out, not moving from the door's threshold. He looked over his shoulder, his face rather calm, though he did seem surprised to see her.
“Hello, Miss Sparkle. Sorry for intruding, but I felt like taking a little trip down memory lane.” He presented the book he had been reading to her; the very one that had started her on her path to Ponyville, and consequently, her friends. “It's interesting, how the widely-accepted accounts of history can differ from what actually happened. The errors are not always malicious, you know. Sometimes they just didn't know, and had to do the best they could with what they were given, and other times, they just didn't have all the perspectives. It's hard to remain impartial, especially in the things that matter.”
“What exactly were you looking for?”
“Better days. I realized, sadly, there weren't really any.” He put the book down on the reading podium, before lying on his stomach facing her, supporting his head with his griffon arm. “Tell me, Twilight, how do you intend to fix all of this? I think we've both figured out that a snap of the fingers and a bit of magic can't make everything better.”
“Oh, isn't that the truth.” Twilight looked Discord over. He'd once been her enemy, reluctant ally, and now, her last hope. Knowing his past didn't make it any easier to figure him out. “I don't know, to be honest. I can only do so much; the others are going to have to learn to change themselves.”
“Lead a pony to water, can't make them drink?”
“Well, it might just be because they think the metaphorical water is poisoned, Twilight. Have you considered that?”
“I'm not entirely sure what you mean.”
“Let's be honest. You're most concerned for Celestia, right? It's only natural. While you love Luna as well, you haven't known her for nearly as long. She wasn't your personal mentor through all of your childhood. And Seren's been nothing but antagonistic; while you have a tendency to want the best for everybody, you wouldn't particularly mind if he was taken out of the picture entirely, right?”
“Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but yes. I'm worried for her; I've seen Celestia act so calmly and intelligently in the past that she now seems an entirely different creature.”
Discord grinned. “It's good that you put it like that. That leads directly into my next point. You're aware of the idea of natural selection?”
“Of course. The most adaptable members of a given species are most likely to survive when greater pressure is placed up the population.”
Discord nodded, causing a few palm sized ponies to appear on the ground between them, one of each sub-species; earth, unicorn, and pegasus. “Now, what usually separates ponies and the other intelligent races from such an easy classification?”
“Well, when individuals of a population are supported by and support each other, many of the dangers that would otherwise prevent them from surviving to reproduce are removed. Within reason, all members of a species will have the opportunity to reproduce.”
“Correct. So let's say a volcano appears near these three ponies' home, in nature, what would happen?”
“Well, depending on how strong the unicorn is, she might be able to produce a shield for all three.”
“But what's the more likely scenario?”
“If she were to try, then she'd likely tire before the danger was past. Realisticly, she'd need to preserve her strength for herself.”
“What about the other two then?”
“The pegasus could fly away. He could go hide on or in some clouds, and as long as they managed to avoid any flying rocks, he'd be fine. He could try to fly the others to safety, but would likely tire out before they got far enough away, or else he could only save one. The earth pony wouldn't fare much better. They might be able to use their inherent knowledge of the natural world to prepare an area for the incoming flow, putting up dams or accelerating the growth of heat-resistant plants, but by themselves, the safe zone would probably only be big enough for them.”
Discord spawned a small volcano, and caused it to erupt. The miniature lava flow spilled over the brim and chased down the three tiny ponies, who couldn't escape its wrath. “How might things have gone differently if they'd worked together?” With a wave of his hand, a localized reversal spell put everything back into place, the miniatures cowering before the rumbling tower of destruction.
“Any three of their plans might've worked. If the others were willing to link their bodies to the unicorn's, her shield would last as long as it needed to, since they'll each generate their own power. The earth pony's natural barriers would be plenty big with three working on it, and with eyes on the ground as well as above, the pegasus could lead all them all to safety with relative ease, falling back on the other two plans if they had to.”
“So what's the difference?”
“Teamwork. By forgetting, or rather, suppressing, their own screaming need to survive, they save not only themselves, but the others as well. It's actually believed that this realization is what lead to the initial formation of mixed-species tribes in Equestria's earliest history.”
Discord calmly caused the volcano to erupt again, and the ponies, rather than splitting immediately, stayed clumped closely together. They tried to run for a little bit, hindered by invisible barriers and miniature flora. Eventually, the pegasus pointed out a defensible position, and dove down to the others, helping them 'dig' into the library floor to form a little bunker. The lava grew ever closer, but by the time it had reached them, all that was needed was a small arcane shield over the small slit they had left for the entrance to their bunker. The lava flowed around it, and after a short while, the threat had ceased, and the three ponies crawled out, cheering, laughing, and crying, just happy to be alive.
With another wave of the hand, Discord removed the illusion, making Twilight feel a little bit sad that she had to see them go. “You're a smart girl, Twilight. So let me just ask two more questions. With all these different factions fighting one another, what's most likely to happen?“
“Only one will come out on top. All the others will die, since they can't work together.”
“Unless we can make them work together.”
Twilight raised a brow. “It sounds like you're talking about Order.”
Discord nodded. “Twilight, I've had my fun. Chaos isn't helping the world, not anymore. It's time for a change, one last big one. Like a volcano going off, this bunch is going to need something a little more... direct.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Enough playing around. It's time to bring them all together, to meet face to face. I'll take care of the gathering, if you'll handle the negotiations.”
“I didn't think you'd be this willing to help,” Twilight admitted, helping him stand. “What's changed?”
“I have. As they'll have to. Our minds, you see, are a battleground, a microcosm of natural selection. Each paradigm we entertain is an individual in the 'species' of our mind, and if it cannot survive the situations that face it, then a more suited form of the mind will. It hurts, and like a real animal, it will do everything it can, even go down fighting if it has to. The sign of true maturity is recognizing our minds for what they are -childish, animalistic, and easily frightened- and then moving on anyways.”
“I was a philosopher and a doctor before I became the God of Chaos, you know.” He gave her a subtle wink. “Here, take my hand. We'll go recover that teacher of yours. Maybe it's time she learn something from you.” He held out his griffon arm, the last remaining piece of what he once was. Twilight looked up into his tired yet smiling face. She smiled back.
“I'd be honored to, Gareth.” She held out her front leg in return, and with a flash and a swirl of miniature stars, the library disappeared from their view.
They reappeared with an unexpected jolt; not at all the usual soft landing of a teleport. Twilight was wrenched out of Discord's grasp, falling to the ground and stumbling a few feet. Discord managed to stay upright, but he had to grab a nearby pillar for support.
“I didn't expect to see you here so soon,” a familiar voice began.
Twilight looked up into Celestia's face. Her mentor looked concerned. “I'm terribly sorry,” she continued, “But I'm going to have to keep you where you are.” The runes that Twilight hadn't previously seen activated underneath her, binding her limbs in place. From the sounds behind her, it seemed Discord was in the same situation.
“I didn't expect you to come back here, Celestia,” he called, seemingly unphased by her trap. “What do you plan to accomplish? I can't imagine it would be anything good, and trust me, I have a pretty active imagination.”
Celestia didn't take her eyes off of Twilight. “I apologize, my student, you're likely feeling out of the loop. I further apologize that you ever had to see the side of myself that I made such an effort to bury.” She finally tore her gaze from Twilight, moving on to Discord. “Yes, Discord, I've come back here. I promised myself I never would, but times have changed, and promises of old can't be upheld.”
“Where are we?” Twilight looked around the room. There was some sort of a blackish table behind Celestia, and sculpted pillars seemed to line the otherwise completely natural chamber.
Celestia grimaced. “We're in the Birthplace of the Elements, Twilight. Welcome to the core of the planet.”