“The birthplace of the Elements? But when we first faced Discord, you told me you and Luna found them.”
“We did.” Celestia stepped behind the black table, so Twilight could see what she was talking about. “We found them. Here. but we were lead here. Why else would two teenage unicorns delve to the center of their planet? A voice without words called to us. At first we thought it was just the panicked imagination trying to find hope in a world without any, but when Luna and I eventually confessed we'd been hearing this call, we found the other had as well. We kept it secret from our parents, who were more worried about our lives than they were their own. Remember, this was in the height of Discord's reign; he had overthrown the kingdom, killed or exiled all leadership, and continually disrupted every aspect of life. He was still in grief, we would later learn, over the passing of his wife.”
“I didn't fully realize it at the time, but my over-reaction was a not-so-subtle cry for help,” Discord elaborated. “I needed the world to change, one way or another, so what had happened to me wouldn't ever happen again. I knew that those who overthrew me would have to be very powerful, clever, and determined. Beyond that, they would have to be most powerful as individuals; any group that tried to rise against me fell apart due to infighting, disagreements, or because they were too weak-willed to counter my world-wide aura of chaos.”
Celestia nodded. “So when Luna and I banded together, it could only be the two of us to stand against him. We fought our way through the forests, whose inhabitants had been twisted by chaos, and we grew stronger and more confident along the way. Eventually we reached the mountain that would later become Canterlot, where the signal was strongest, but it wasn't the source. We found a hidden cave lined with ancient drawings depicting, surprisingly, the two of us performing some strange ritual. After discussing it, we realized the only way to move forward was to try what the pictures were showing, despite the inherent danger. When we had finished the spell, the cave morphed around us, sealing us inside. We felt it begin to move, and eventually, it opened up once more, the stone moving like clay. We stepped out into this very chamber, where we found this table. On the table lay six smaller, golden orbs, which circled a larger orb that was otherwise identical. I think you know where I'm going with this.”
Twilight stopped struggling from her bonds for a moment. “Thael was here?”
Celestia shook her head. “Yes, and not quite. His appearance in the library those two weeks ago was the first time I saw his physical body. But he was definitely involved. When we touched the orbs, our minds were filled with a vision that instructed us to take the six smaller orbs, but to leave the last. When we had done as instructed, the vision asked us a question; 'Were we displeased with how the world was being run?'
“'Of course,' we replied. We had seen the agony of Discord's rule firsthoof.
“'Would you be willing to change it if given the chance?' it asked.
“'Certainly, if we had the strength to.' What it told us next is the reason why I am now here.
“'You have been given the strength you seek,' it said. 'But it comes with a terrible price. The remaining orb is the key to this planet's continued existence. If the other six are rejoined, now that you have taken them, then the world will burn. Remember: you can always end a life, but that should only encourage you all the more to protect it. By wielding the power of both creation and destruction, you hold the power of Judgment. Use the six to return harmony to the world. Or use the one to end it all.' The vision faded after that, and no amount of begging brought the voice back. And so we were left in the room with the world's fate literally in our hooves. We couldn't end it there, nor did we have any reason to, so we left the way we'd come, taking the six orbs with us. And this stayed here.” Celestia swept a hoof over the table, where the last golden orb lay, waiting.
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “You intend to end the world?”
“It's my last resort, Twilight. If there were another way, I would take it. But the trouble is, Twilight, I represent Mercy. It's not just an ideal; it's literally a need for me. Just as Justice is for Luna. Just as Vengeance is for Seren. If we do not fulfill our attribute, we are weakened like a starving child. Twilight, if I just step aside and let Seren win, knowing how much pain he'll cause, I might die. And while I would give my life if I needed to, it would be a meaningless death. Even tempered by Justice, Vengeance is little more than a guided fire. You can't completely control it, and you can only hope it won't turn on you once it's run it course. Civilization would collapse, hundreds of thousands would die for their petty mistakes, and hundreds of thousands more would suffer in fear and hopelessness. Forcing people to choose what's right doesn't mean that their actions are right, nor does it mean that the puppeteer is helping them grow.”
“But is killing the entire planet helping them either? Celestia, listen to reason! I'm ashamed of how many times I've had to say that.” Twilight growled at her teacher. “There's always another way. There are more options than 'blow up the planet' and 'let Seren enslave everybody.' You were the one who always told me to wake up and think. Use your head!”
“Don't you think I have been? Twilight, it'll turn out one of only a few ways. I get killed. Seren wins, and perhaps Luna can keep him in line. Probably not, though, if our last meeting was anything to go by. I live, but I've killed Seren and possibly Luna, again. That only delays the inevitable. I return to my system of prosperity, but it'll only last a thousand years, and then we're back where we started, but this time, I don't have you or any of the others around the next time.”
“Well, what about talking your way out of it?”
“Twilight, your heart is in the right place, but do you understand what Seren is? He's the definition of Vengeance. I'm not sure what you saw that made you begin to sympathize with him, but that's a different pony than he is now. Becoming an Alicorn is more than just growing wings and having a greater capacity for magic. It's about changing your very nature.”
“And as Mercy, it should be easy for you to see that you're not being merciful.”
“Tell me, Twilight, how preventing millions from thousands of years of suffering isn't merciful?”
“Because you're preventing them from any potential for good. How is that any better than Seren and Luna's plan to forcibly keep people in line?”
Celestia trembled. “I don't know, Twilight. I'm just afraid. Afraid that if I try to reason with him, he'll only use it to harm others. To harm you.”
“I promise, I can take care of myself. Now, step away from the altar.”
Celestia laughed quietly. “I don't have the Elements with me, remember? Your friends still have them. Unless they come here, I can't do anything.”
Twilight breathed a sign of relief. “That's good. We can work with this.”
“Well, I don't have them yet.”
Twilight groaned. Always another issue. “What are you going to do, Celestia?”
“I have the power to call them here. If not your friends, then the essence of the Elements they carry. I haven't done it yet, out of faith. Yes, Twilight, I want to find another route. But if I have to, I'll take this one. I'm sorry to do this, Twilight, but here's my ultimatum: If Seren so much as steps hoof in Reality, Reality will end. I'm already aware he's killed Luna. I cannot allow such a dangerous foe into our world. At least the others had a hope of redemption. He doesn't.”
Celestia's horn flared, but the retribution Twilight was expecting didn't come.Twilight clambered to her hooves, released from the trap. She looking over her mentor carefully, unsure of her intentions. Celestia was hunched a bit, not standing quite as tall as she might in a more public atmosphere. Her mane was messy and her coat was matted. But despite her disheveled appearance, her eyes remained alert and full of intelligence, darting between Twilight and Discord, rather than holding Twilight's accusing gaze like she usually did.
“What about Discord?” Twilight asked.
“I have to keep him here, but I'll allow him to channel his powers to transport you, if he'd like.”
“Oh, sure,” Discord said. “It's not like I want to be anywhere else right now.”
With a flash, and before she could protest, Twilight disappeared, leaving behind a small trail of glittering dust. Celestia turned to the captured Draconequus. “What could you possibly hope to gain from this, Discord? Why would you bring her here?”
“It's wasn't for me, if you can believe it.”
“No? Who then?”
“For you.” He stared at her for a few seconds before continuing to speak. “When I felt your presence down here, I knew that you were at the end of your rope, and I thought I'd stop by before you hung yourself with it.”
Celestia scoffed quietly. “You can't ever not interfere, can you?”
“If I have an opinion on something, it's because I've made an effort to understand it. And if I don't speak up, how can I expect the world to change for the better?”
“But what happens when your opinions are wrong? When you make mistakes?”
“Then you end up with my rule and all the pain that came from it. Or we have you with your hoof over the button that will end it all. Yeah. We'll make mistakes. And the more aggressive we've been in the past, and the more powerful we've become, well, the more people we'll hurt. Because they expect you to be flawless, since you have a direction, since you're actually progressing. When in reality, so many who seem to know what they're doing are really just pushing blindly forward, doing the best they can. And if you look at history closely enough, you'll see how many of their lives end up in flames. It's true, you know, 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall.' You and I, Celestia? We're big. We see that since others stand back, too afraid to take charge of their lives, that we have to step up to the plate. Because if it isn't us, it'll be someone else, and we'll no longer be in charge of our destiny. Failure isn't a bad thing. Mistakes are not the end, unless we choose it to be. The moment we recognize we have made a mistake, we have to turn away from that course.”
“But what of no-win scenarios? Can you see a way out of this, Discord?” Celestia's eyes were pleading.
Discord smoothed his mane. “Heh, it'll take a miracle, I'll admit. But you've got to keep trying.”
“And what of my parents?”
Discord's hand froze, before dropping to his side. “I'm sorry about that. I always will be.”
“They did nothing but try, and what good did it do them? You killed them, Discord. Innocents. They weren't the first, but they were the last. Luna and I saw to that.”
“And I shall always regret it. But now I have to do what I can to make it right. That's why I'm trying to help you.”
Celestia turned away, looking back at the last orb. “Do you know why I ascended to Mercy, Discord?”
“You never told me the story, no.”
“It was actually because of their death.”
The chamber was silent until Celestia continued. “When we returned with the Elements, we'd found your handiwork. My parents were still alive, you know. But just barely. I think they were only holding on to see us. They had only moments to live, and what do they say to us? 'Don't let the hate continue.' It's funny, what strength such few words can have. Luna took that as a call to arms, that the only way to fix the world was to put an end to the problems. I recognized the more subtle meaning. To retaliate against anger with anger will destroy both parties.”
“So what now? Have you turned from the lesson?”
Celestia laughed quietly. “No, Discord. I have no anger in my heart. I have nothing, now; where once burned the passion of Mercy and the hope for a better life, I find a void. Nobody loves me, not anymore. My subjects will soon know the truth, one way or the other. Twilight has begun to see me for what I am. And Luna has sided with my greatest enemy. I do this out of cold logic, an acceptance that things well never get permanently better. Even if I somehow find a way out of this pit, someday along the line, I'll fall into another, perhaps even deeper one.”
“Don't ever say that.”
Celestia narrowed her brows. “Pardon?”
“Don't ever say that nobody loves you. Celestia, even if Luna is seething with rage, even as Twilight's heart aches with betrayal, even as your subjects turn away and the light of your sun fades, do not think for a moment that you are unloved. The betrayal hurts because they love you, and because you love them. Twilight and Luna want what's best for you. The hopes and prayers of your subjects, at least the wiser ones, will follow you until the grave. And, Celestia, I love you.” Discord stepped forward, crossing the border of his runic prison without any apparent effort. Celestia began to back up as Discord dashed forward, only to be caught up in his bear-hug. “You're a good pony, even if you forget that sometimes. And I'm sorry it took me so long to fully recognize it.”
“You... you broke out of the trap!” Celestia stammered, completely flustered.
“Bah. Do you really think you can trap Chaos? I was free the whole time.” He dropped her slowly, letting her searching legs find the ground once again.
“Discord, sometimes you really frustrate me.”
“Lighten up you old hag. You always take things so seriously. Sure, it's the end of the world and all of that, but come on, where's the simple joy of being alive?”
Celestia shook her head. “I lost it a long time ago.”
Discord grinned. “Well then, it sounds like it's time for a change. And change happens to be my specialty.”