• Published 5th Apr 2012
  • 91,660 Views, 5,199 Comments

Background Pony - shortskirtsandexplosions



"My name's Lyra Heartstrings, but you won't remember anything. Listen to my symphony, for it

  • ...
224
 5,199
 91,660

XVI - Beloved

Dear journal,

What is my quest, if not a grand journey towards remembrance? What do I seek more than to be acknowledged, and to share the mutual memory of everything I’ve done, everything I am, and everything I’ve ever learned among my fellow ponies? What point would there be in existing if I did not victoriously seize the chance to erect a monument to such an accomplishment, even if that monument was myself?

That goal has been something sacred to me. Ever since my curse began, I’ve wanted nothing more and nothing less than to leave my mark upon the world. Even as I write this, as I make this journal entry, it is with the hopes that somepony other than myself will read it someday and take into account what has been seen and done here.

But now, I am beginning to wonder. As I seek to undo this curse, could I actually be propelling my into another, far more dismal affliction? Have I always been tainted by a great shadow, adding layers of misery to the forsaken weight that she holds on her shoulders? By seeking freedom, am I risking something far darker than my mortal mind can comprehend?

Someone obviously felt this way, and it is because of him that I am here, because of him that I linger, because of him that I ponder...

Is this quest even worth it?









I held the flask out the open window, catching the brown droplets from the pink clouds lingering above. As soon as the drizzle ended, I levitated the canteen into the cabin and closed the window. Raising the container to my nostrils, I took a few meager sniffs, and then bravely poured a tiny bit of the fluid down my throat. I swished the stuff around with my tongue, gulped, and nodded.

“Mmmhmmm. There's no denying it.” I pivoted slowly about and stared at my cot, trying to remain as still and calm as possible. “That's chocolate rain.”

Al was peering out the opposite window, standing on his hindquarters and flicking his orange tail. The tiny feline was evidently excited, and his whiskers twitched as he observed bizarre things flying over the north edge of town. Winged swine, levitating pies, minotaurs in rowboats, and just about any nightmarishly awkward thing imaginable were populating the skies. What's more, the distant sounds of explosions, stampedes and maniacal cackling resonated from the center of Ponyville. A large part of me wanted to go and investigate, but an even larger part was too scared for my life, much less my sanity.

“It's like... like some big, stupid joke!” I exclaimed, hearing my own voice crack as I perched on the cot beside Al. “Obviously some terrible magic spell has been conjured in town, but I haven't a clue what kind of a magician would want to make all this craziness happen!”

It had been nearly an hour since I had exited the cellar from my last venture into the unsung realm. Most of that time had been spent testing whether or not I was dreaming up this whole fiasco. I've seen some insanely bizarre things in my life as of late. I've witnessed the horrors of a world between the firmaments, including the forsaken victims of an undead alicorn's accursed legacy, but at least her nightmare realm had some consistency to it. But this?

This was pure, unadulterated chaos. The fact that every little phenomena I witnessed—levitating pastry items, candied clouds, comically mutated fowl—were all of a goofily absurd variant only made the whole scenario all the more chilling. It was as if some immature foal had been given the keys to creation and was playing goddess with the laws of reality. A part of me feared that if I stepped out of the cabin, I'd be yanked off the earth and transmogrified into a sack of potatoes or something worse.

“I just can’t believe the, timing, Al,” I mumbled as I fiddled with the sleeves of my hoodie. “Something happened just now in the unsung realm. The shackled ponies were screaming about 'her beloved.' They chanted that he was 'waking.' But... now of all times?” I gulped and stared at where the Nightbringer sat on a wooden table in all its shimmering, golden glory. “Or... Or what if it's all connected? Maybe the laws on this side of the firmaments have changed, and her beloved is being woken up because of it?”

I looked to my side. Al was gone.

Momentarily frightened, I glanced all around, then finally towards the floor. Al was circling his empty food dish. Upon seeing my face, he squatted on all fours and meowed up at me.

Rolling my eyes, I managed a meager smile and levitated his bag of feed over. “Look at you. It could be utter Ragneighrock, and still you'd want your din-din.” After pouring him a light meal, I lingered. I gazed out the window again and gasped, “Of course! Twilight! If there's anypony who can fix this mess, it's her!” I placed the bag down and looked over at the Nightbringer again. In the middle of all that senselessness, at least one thing became clear to me. I took a deep breath, urging the shivers to leave my body. “And there's one other pony in this town with enough raw power to give Twilight the help she needs.”

Hopping off the bed, I rushed to my saddlebag and slid it over my spine. Al looked over from his meal and watched me. I was sliding the Nightbringer into my bag and pocketing a hoofful of sound stones, as well as a spell book or two.

“Celestia help me, Al,” I said, giving him a faint smile. “I've fallen in love with this town. I'm not about to let it go to Tartarus because I'm too scared to go outside and face chocolate rain or pigs on a wing or goddess knows what else.” I knelt down and nuzzled his fuzzy head. “Promise me you won't open the door to any strange apple pies pretending to be salesponies.”

Al merely purred and nuzzled my hoof.

“Mmmm... There's a good boy.” I scratched his ears, stood up, and opened the door wide. “Wish me luck—”

No sooner had I spoken when I heard a terrible salvo of squabbling noises from down the road. It almost sounded like a fight was breaking out, but at first I couldn't believe it. One voice stood out from the rest, threatening bloody murder in the most hideous of tones.

“Miss Cheerilee?” I gasped, making a face. Nervously, I flung the door shut behind me, hopped off the porch, and galloped south along the dirt path towards town. I hadn’t gone far when I ran into three ponies struggling to yank a rabid schoolteacher off the side of the beaten path, where she was doing her best to stamp the colorful flora to bits along the road's edge.

“Miss Cheerilee! Please!” a cream-colored mare shouted.

“You have to come with us!” a hovering pegasus stallion added. “It's not safe here!”

“Everypony, we gotta hurry!” Exclaimed Candy Mane, the only other pony I recognized by name. Her wings flexed as she looked worriedly towards the heart of Ponyville down the road. “Stu, help me drag her!”

The pegasus stallion nodded and replied, “I'll get this forelimb if you get that one!”

“I'll do my best!”

The two pegasi tried lifting Cheerilee up, but she growled and bucked them off, thrashing and angrily launching herself at a bed of daisies. “Rrrrrrgh!” Her eyes twitched as she hissed through gnashing teeth, stomping and stomping and stomping on the crushed yellow petals. “I hate flowers! I hate them! I wish all flowers would die in their sleep!”

“Miss Cheerilee! This isn't you! Please! We gotta go get help! Some horrible curse has zapped Ponyville and—!”

“Oh, I get it!” Cheerilee spun and stared down the face of the cream-colored earth pony. “You're on their side, aren't you?! Huh?! Chrysanthemum crusader! Lavender liar! Baby's breath barbarian!” She bit her teeth down on a nearby tree root, ripped it loose from its foundation with unearthly strength, and wielded it in her angry jaws. “Mmmmf—Have at thee!”

“Eeeeep!” the mare flinched away from her.

Before Cheerilee could strike, a green cocoon of telekinesis encased her. “What?! Nnngh—I knew it!” She spat the wood out and thrashed wildly in midair. “The chlorophyll has become sentient! You won't take me alive, you pollen pirates! I will slay each of you at the stem! Raaaugh!”

“Okaaaaay,” I muttered as I strolled forward, effortlessly holding her above the group in a telekinetic field. “What question should I ask first?”

The other three gazed at me and gasped with relief.

“Oh! A unicorn!”

“Thank Celestia!”

“We've been wrestling with her the whole way here! She keeps attacking every flower petal on sight!”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “Could somepony explain that?”

“There's no time!” Candy Mane stammered. “We have to get out of here!”

“Yeah!” The stallion hovered above me, his green eyes bright and twitching. “Ponyville is gone!”

My face twisted as if I were swallowing a pineapple. “Gone? What do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“Something horrible's happened to it!” the cream-coated mare exclaimed, breathless. “Chunks of the land are floating in every direction! Buildings are blowing up! There are... th-things flying around...”

“My work wagon turned into a deck of playing cards!” the stallion exclaimed.

“Nopony cares about your stupid wagon, Stu Leaves,” Candy Mane muttered.

“I care about it!” he barked back. “I can't attach reins to a giant jack of clubs!”

“At the rate at which the village is mutating, you just might,” Candy Mane said with a cold shiver. “The last thing I saw while running to the north edge of town was the Mayor's hair turning pink and attacking random bystanders!”

“Uhhh...” was all I could mutter, staring blankly at the group.

“Lotus blossoms!” Cheerilee shrieked, hovering upside down in my magical grip. “Do I smell lotus blossoms?!” Veins showed angrily in her throbbing eyes. “Death to the fragrant infidels!”

“Ma'am”—the earth pony trotted up to me, her blue eyes imploring— “you must not be from around town. But trust us: Ponyville is a disaster area. Our best bet is to hurry to a place called Sweet Apple Acres just north of here and regroup with other ponies.”

“Yeah!” Stu Leaves nodded and said, “We can form a party and get help from Trottingham or Canterlot!”

Above us, an upside down hot air balloon full of inebriated penguins descended violently towards the ground and exploded beyond the treeline, raining down a fountain of vanilla flavored cupcakes on our bodies.

After flinching, I stood up and looked at the group. “I... don't think any of us will reach Sweet Apple Acres in one piece. We're better off at my place. It's not far from here.”

“You... you mean you live around here, lady?”

“Uhhh”—I smiled awkwardly—“what I meant to say is there's a cabin just a few feet away.”

“A cabin?” Stu Leaves’ face scrunched up. “Since when?”

Two iguanas rode by on shrieking ostriches, dueling with explosive crossbows.

I ducked a shower of debris and grunted, “Look, just follow me, okay?!”

The three nodded nervously.

“Down with the imperialist rosebuds!” Cheerilee shrieked.

Sighing, I lugged the teacher along with us as I led the way back to my cabin. In swift order, I opened the door and let the three trot in while floating Cheerilee after them. “Al! We have company! Don't be afraid! They just need shelter from what's going on outside!”

“This...” The earth pony gazed in wonder at the plethora of instruments lining the wall. “This place is remarkable.”

“It's cozy,” Candy Mane said as Al nuzzled her leg.

“It's cramped,” Stu Leaves added.

“Stu!”

“What?!”

“Raaaaaaaaugh!” Cheerilee shrieked, screaming bloody murder. Floating upside down, she stretched her hooves out to strangle a potted cluster of yellow tulips sitting atop the hearth. “I will find your children and uproot them!”

“Oh for the love of oats...” I rolled my eyes, levitated the pot away, and bucked the flowers out the door before shutting it to the chaotic world outside. “There!” I plopped Cheerilee squarely in the middle of the bed. “You happy?!”

“Mmmmf...” She folded her forelimbs, frowning and leering at the corners of the place. “There are carnations hiding in the logs of this cabin. I just know it.”

“Miss Cheerilee, please—” Candy Mane started.

“I'm onto your game!”

I shook my head in disbelief. “I don't get it! Is there something in the water? Why is she acting so—?” I stopped in mid-speech, squinting at her. “Wait a minute...” I realized that the color in her ruby coat had faded considerably since the last time I saw her at Sugarcube Corner. What was more, the pink in her mane was decidedly bland, as if sapped of color. “Why is she so... gray?”

“You know this mare?” Stu Leaves asked incredulously.

“Sure, why not,” I grumbled and looked his way. “Could you just answer the question?”

He gulped and gave Cheerilee an anxious glance. “She came back from the school field trip to Canterlot, and she was colored this way. When we asked her where all the children had gone, Cheerilee just ignored us and started galloping up to storefronts and gardens, smashing every flowerbed she could find!”

“It's like she was a whole 'nother pony!” the cream-coated mare exclaimed. “Candy Mane and I had to tackle her so that she wouldn't destroy the exotic flowers around the Princess Celestia statue! The next thing we knew, the clouds above us were turning pink and all of Tartarus was breaking loose!”

“What frightens me, is that there's a connection,” Candy Mane said in a solemn voice. Gulping, she muttered, “I think she's been touched.”

I gazed curiously at the pegasus. “‘Touched?’”

She hissed through her teeth as a bitter chill ran through her body. “Y-yes. Among all the crazy things happening, there is... a monster storming through town.”

“A monster?” I asked.

Stu Leaves nodded. “A large brute. Part snake, part pony, part... part everything!”

Candy Mane went on, “As soon as this monster got close to other ponies, they lost the color in their coats and started acting like sociopaths. I had to gallop away from my landlord because he had suddenly become obsessed with buzzing every mane in sight with an electric razor.” She shuddered. “And the razor wasn't even plugged into anything...”

“That...” I made a puzzled face. “That doesn't make sense.”

Stu Leaves pointed out the window as several pigs flew by. “Yeah, you think?!”

“Calm down.” I waved my forelimbs, trying to breathe evenly in hope that the other ponies would follow my lead. “I'm just trying to get some answers.”

“If we had some, we'd give them to you,” the earth pony said softly. Trembling, she ran her hoof through her blue and pink mane. “It's just so hard to take in. Two of my closest friends have b-been turned gray. None of them are acting like themselves. It's so... so horrible...” She hung her head and sniffled, covering her tearful face with a quivering hoof.

“Hey...” I leaned in and laid two hooves on her shoulders. “You're brave to have made it this far with your wits intact. You're even braver for having tried so hard to save Miss Cheerilee.” I looked into her blue eyes and smiled. “And whatever this mess is, I'm sure it can be fixed.”

“You... Y-you really think so?” she asked, lips trembling.

“I know so.” I smiled and nodded. “As a matter of fact, I was just on my way to downtown Ponyville to find Twilight Sparkle. If there's anypony who can reverse the chaos, it's her!”

“You know Miss Sparkle?” Stu Leaves remarked.

“Let's just say that we go way back,” I said. “Our friendship is... erm... too epic for the history books.” I turned and looked at Candy Mane. “I think as long as you four lay low, you'll be safe in this cabin.”

“Won’t the owners get mad and kick us out?”

I opened my mouth, hesitated, then shook my head. “No. I'm sure that they'd be glad that their home helped fellow ponies remain safe in such a time of crisis. Still, it'd be polite if you took care of their cat while you're here.”

Candy Mane smiled and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I think we can do that...”

“Good,” I said, then took a deep breath to steel myself for what I was about to do. “I'm off.”

“Off?!” Stu Leaves grimaced. “You mean you're going out there again?!”

“Twilight Sparkle's not going to find herself!” I exclaimed. I bit my lip. I knew that just seconds after leaving my home, these four ponies would find themselves suddenly in a strange cabin, not knowing how they go there. Still, the nightmarish situation outside was likely enough to keep them staying safely in place. Besides, they had the best feline house guest imaginable. Eventually I said, “Trust me when I tell you this. I have in my possession a great deal of power, and it’d be criminal if I didn’t try to use it—or else let another unicorn use it. It's not a question of what I want to do. I have to head into Ponyville.”

“Heh...” Stu Leaves saluted. “Goddess-speed to ya, lady!”

“You'll be careful, yes?” the cream-colored pony asked with an expression of concern.

“Don't you worry. I'll... uh... blend in with the background”—I turned to the cot—“Miss Cheerilee, my best wishes to you—” A wooden stool flew into my face, exploding in a shower of splinters. “Aaaaugh!”

“Owwwww...” Stu Leaves winced, his wings drooping.

“Miss Cheerilee!” Candy Mane gasped.

“You saw it! You all saw it!” Cheerilee loomed above me, seething, until the other earth pony yanked her away. “Her eyes are yellow tulips in disguise!”

“Ughhh...” I hissed, clutching my forehead. “I never wanted to burn down a schoolhouse so bad...”

“Don't be mad at her! Please!” the earth pony exclaimed, wrestling Cheerilee to the floor. “She's not her normal self! I promise you!”

“I'm inclined to agree,” I muttered, rubbing the fresh bruise on my head and standing up. “Nopony with a voice that adorable could be capable of evil.”

“A pox upon your jasmine!” Cheerilee spat.

“Not for long, at least,” I said, then made for the door. “Stay inside. Stay safe. But most of all—stay together.”

They nodded in agreement, and then disappeared, for I had closed the cabin's front door. I was already feeling the accursed chill halfway down the road as I galloped towards town, but I didn't let that stop me. On either side of the path, things were exploding at random. I winced, feeling as if I had stumbled upon some sort of ludicrous battleground. Despite the bedlam, I heard no screams or signs of agony. Instead, the air had a bizarrely pleasant smell to it. I felt like a little filly in a candy store, only I was full of bone-chilling apprehension instead of hunger. Just beyond the bend of trees there had to have been a lingering series of ovens filled with baked sweets and rich taffy.

There's no fitting way to describe the enormity of absurd things I witnessed during my hurried trek into the eye of that chaotic hurricane. My speedy gallop was punctuated by various anomalies: buffalo in ballet dresses, somersaulting polar bears, riderless unicycles, a scampering phone book on centipede legs...

And yet, all of these random things were starting to appear... less random to me. It's hard to explain, but I was starting to envision a cohesive intelligence to the entire ensemble of oddities. I suppose it's the artist within me, but I can recognize the brush strokes of a creative soul, even a mischievous one. Despite the inexplicable nature of all the anomalous elements, I couldn't help but notice that they all carried the same spirit of seemingly harmless whimsy and ridiculousness.

All of that, of course, was likely a façade, and there was no telling what legitimate deviousness lurked beneath the layers of clownish happenstance. I didn't let my guard down for one moment, and neither did I slow my speedy canter towards the edge of town. I felt the weight of the Nightbringer in my saddlebag. I was on a mission, and Twilight, my friend, despite the frigid veil of my curse, was the goal. Everything would be all right, I told myself, so long as I reached her. Together, with the piece of the Cosmic Matriarch's song in my possession, we surely would have been able to reverse all the horrible things that had happened. Maybe I was powerless to undo the curse on my soul just yet, but that didn't mean I couldn't use the Nightbringer for a greater good while it was in my possession. With the most powerful mortal magician in all of Equestria just a jog away, I was certain to put the instrument's magical qualities to good use.

All of this heroic contemplation ended the very second I rounded the last bend in the road. I gasped, my eyes twitching, for Ponyville was... no longer Ponyville. Except, it was Ponvyille, only Ponyville was everywhere. The downtown area was twisted, weaving in and around itself like a giant optical illusion. Chunks of landscape levitated to the left, to the right, and above me. Buildings sat, clinging to the underbellies of the floating mounds of earth, doubly defying gravity. Hotels, apartments, storefronts, and other structures were horribly warped—some beyond recognition, and others resembling living Picassoats paintings. The emerald plains surrounding the township had lost their immaculate sheen, reduced instead to geometrically astounding grids of alternating shades. I felt as though I was galloping towards a gigantic checkerboard that had been warped by a flash flood and then sprinkled with the shattered remnants of model train houses.When I peered beyond the nearby hills, I could see the distant towers of Canterlot floating upside down, and the hazy shadow of Cloudsdale spinning like an enormous pinwheel.

“Dear heaven...” I murmured breathlessly, feeling my heart beat hard in my chest. “It's not just Ponyville.” I gulped. “It's the whole goddess-forsaken world...”

Just then, the dirt path beneath me inexplicably became as slick as ice.

“Aaaack!” I shrieked, slipped, and slid forward. A smell filled my nostrils; I realized that the street had somehow morphed into sudsy soap and water right beneath my hooves. “Whoah whoah whoah whoah—!”

Shrieking crocodiles flew past me on jet packs, being chased by rabbits on stilt-legs. As I slid past them, a chunk of earth between me and Ponyville broke loose and rose like a hot air balloon. Beneath the sundered hilltop, pure blackness loomed, and I was slipping straight towards it like a green sled.

“Oh sweet Celestia!” I gnashed my teeth, held my breath, and leapt forward. “Nnnngh!” I summoned a burst of telekinesis directly behind me. The magical thrust was enough to propel me like a living cannonball. I soared over the nothingness, lunging towards the floating chunk of grass and soil with my forelimbs outstretched. Miraculously, my hooves caught ahold of several dangling brown roots. I hung off the edge of the levitating plateau as it lifted still higher among the cotton candy clouds.

Panting, I struggled and strained to pull myself up the rocky platform. Over the past few years, I had gotten stronger magically, but not physically. I was still the same frail filly who had sashayed her way through indoor study courses at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. It took several minutes to pull myself up from the brink of a deadly plummet. As I yanked my way up the length of dangling roots, clasping onto the grassy edge of the platform, I heard a raspy voice above me.

“Vould do you well to sprouts pegasus vings, da?”

My muscles quivered all over as I struggled to keep ahold of the brown strands. I squinted upwards, wincing. “What in the hay?!”

A flying squirrel grinned, sporting a pair of green goggles and flicking the burning end of a cigar. “Of course, if lime green pony has none, perhaps crocodile jet pack vould do trick!” He grinned with yellow-stained incisors. “Name your price! Sky is limitless, da? Vish I could say same for deep looming abyss of death and dismay beneath pony! Ha!”

Just then, a toaster swooped by with pterodactyl wings. It hissed and plucked the squirrel off the floating platform with vice-like talons before flying off towards the lopsided horizon.

“Nyet! Nyet!” he shrieked and flailed in the toaster’s grasp. “Vas about to break deal! Let go of sexy fur!” They were intercepted by a rocket-propelled armadillo from the center of town and exploded in a cascade of fireworks and corn flakes.

I winced, facing forward as I finally pulled myself up. “Well, okay then...”

When I made it to the top of the platform, the sky disappeared. I gasped, looking every which way until I realized that the world had fallen under the shroud of night in a blink. I gawked at the moon, watching as it flew through its cycles in reverse. Then—just as the stars were starting to twinkle—the moon dropped out of the orbit and was replaced by the flaming image of the sun. I squinted, finding myself in the shadow of the town's trademark windmill—only we were both floating hundreds of feet over the rooftops of downtown. But that wasn't what was alarming me at that particular moment.

“The sun and moon...” I murmured, watching in pale fear as the celestial orb dropped again, blanketing the world once more in inexplicable evening. “Day and Night are uncontrolled.” A sharp gasp escaped my body, and I fell on my haunches at the shocking realization. “Princess Celestia... Princess Luna...” I gulped dryly and shivered. “They're... they're no longer in control of their elements...”

There is no scale to the horror that was shooting through my spirit at that very moment. The simple yet mind-numbing concept of the sun and moon going haywire was enough to turn my world upside down, quite literally. If some horrible spell had caused Celestia and Luna to lose control of what the Cosmic Matriarch's song had imbued them with, then there was no telling just what kind of power I was dealing with. Even she, for all of her intimidating grandeur and mystery, was suddenly an afterthought to this mortifying realization.

A part of me wilted inside, questioning whether or not Twilight Sparkle would be remotely capable of confronting this scenario, even if she did have a unicorn such as myself gifted with the Nightbringer to assist her. I only had to remind myself that Twilight Sparkle had confronted the likes of Nightmare Moon, the very deliverer of my curse, and yet my old companion had come out alive and triumphant. To this day, there's still nothing more invigorating than the thought of a strong and dependable friend.

Taking a deep breath for courage, I stepped forward past the windmill. In timely fashion, the sun rose again. I couldn't detect a pattern to the lit and unlit halves of the “day,” but I didn't bother trying. I had a new problem to confront: getting down from that lofty, floating platform.

Narrowing my eyes, I studied the distance between where I was perched and the stationary landscape below. I took note of everything floating around me and suddenly had a ridiculous epiphany. Reaching deep into my leylines, I telekinetically strummed a few strings of the Nightbringer from within my saddlebag. Feeling a rush of magic channeling through me, I aimed my horn at the edge of the floating cliff and fired a bright burst of emerald energy. A chunk of soil broke free. Instead of falling straight towards the world below, the clusters of rock and soil floated about, descending gradually towards the earth like a string of pillow feathers.

“Here goes...”

I gritted my teeth, threw caution to the wind, and tossed myself over the edge. Launching forward, I landed on the first floating chunk, then the next one beneath it, and then the half-dozen clumps below. Skipping and hopping, I made my way down the magically drifting pieces of debris until I was within safe jumping distance of the checkerboard plain.

“Ha!” I bounced one last time and grinned in midair as I plummeted towards the soft earth. “Cake!”

My descent was interrupted by a huge pan of custard slamming me in the side. I twirled at least three times, fell like an anvil, and landed in a puddle of mud head-first.

“Ooof!” I grunted, finding myself in the horrendously bizarre predicament of being stuck upside down with my horn embedded in the earth like a tent peg. I sputtered and gasped through dessert fragments. “What the hay...?!”

“Not cake!” a mare cackled from several feet away in my lopsided vision. “Pie! Haahaahaa!” She snickered as monocled crabs and mustached snakes slithered backwards past her.

“Nnnngh!” I grunted, squirmed, and finally popped my horn loose from the ground. Rolling over in the mud, I stood up and shook all of the excess dirt and custard off me. “Ugh... Milky White?!” I frowned incredulously at the mare. “What's gotten into you—Whoah!” I ducked a flaming pie pan soaring past me.

“I'm not Milky White anymore!” the earth pony exclaimed, grinning maniacally. She slipped a paper bag over her head that had holes cut in the precise spots to show off her psychotically bright eyes. I detected a noticeably gray hue to her coat as she juggled several more dessert trays and tossed them at various bystanders on the edge of town. “I'm Milky, the Pienisher! Deliverer of crust and justice!”

“Miss White, where's the 'justice' in flinging edible junk in random ponies' faces?!”

“What are we on this earth for if not to spread custard and aluminum tins?!” Milky White gave a muffled shout and threw the next volley at a passing pegasus. “Breathe freedom, good citizen!”

Thunderlane took the messy attack straight in the face. He merely shook the mushiness off his gray mane and muzzle before proceeding to haul three stacked pianos chained to his haunches. “Nnnngh!” The legs of the bottommost instrumens ground through the soil behind his twitching gray tail. “Gotta... get these... to the bingo club...!” He grinned maniacally. “Then I'll be up to my wing elbows in estrogen!”

“Slower!” Blossomforth shrieked from high above. I saw the gray pegasus perched on the topmost piano, whipping a dozen intertwined rubber chickens at Thunderlane's hide as he slowly pulled her across Ponyville. “Slower! Slower! Mush! I want to get there yesterday!”

“Whatever you say, my liege!” Thunderlane hissed, his monochromatic cheeks blushing. “Chicken me harder! Please! I'm a bad stallion!”

“You will take the poultry and you will like it!” Blossomforth roared, her gray eyes rolling back in her head.

Ironically, I heard a young filly speaking in a dainty voice off to the side. “Hey, anti-Mom! Don't I look darling?”

I glanced to my side—then did a massive doubletake.

The Carousel Boutique was ransacked and dented in several places. Beside a smashed window, surrounded by piles of pastel-colored loot, Scootaloo was busy trying on one of several ridiculously ruffled dresses. A makeup kit was lying open a few feet away, and she had more color on her lips and eyelashes than I've seen at an entire Canterlot ballroom dance.

“Does this make my blank flank look fat?” Scootaloo posed before a cracked mirror, also dragged out of the Boutique. Her eyelashes fluttered as if she were having an epileptic seizure while she examined her bifurcated reflection from several angles. “Ugh! Not poofy enough! Unmother, are you even looking?!”

“I can't at the moment, ya little brat!” Milky White stalked after Cloudchaser and Flitter, who were wheeling away on a reverse bicycle. “The Pienisher has to rid the world of scum and feathers! Ha!” She launched five pies all at once, using her tail as a catapult. “Go occupy the driving lane in Tartarus, you helmeted misanthropes!”

Just then, Dinky scampered across the path with Scootaloo's scooter in tow. Interestingly enough, the unicorn filly did not appear as colorless as the maniacal equines surrounding me.

“Dinky!” I shouted, reaching towards her with a hoof. “Wait! You can't take that! It belongs to Scootaloo—”

“Eh, who needs it?” Scootaloo waved an elegant hoof and ran a diamond encrusted brush through her mane while pursing her lips before the mirror. “My tomcolt days are over. Hellllllo, my prince. Why, yes, I have royal blood. Now friggin' kiss me.”

I groaned and galloped after the tiny unicorn. “Dinky! Wait up!” I followed her two blocks, past tap-dancing construction workers and upside down flamingos perched inside storefront awnings. “It's not safe out here! You gotta get somewhere inside where it's safer!”

“I'm sorry, ma'am!” Dinky called back, pulling the scooter faster. “Mommy says she needs this!”

I squinted in disbelief. “Miss Hooves...?”

Just then, I saw Dinky come to a stop before a pegasus whose coat was grayer than normal. “Here ya go, Mommy! Just like you asked!”

Spinning around, Derpy grinned with uncharacteristically even eyes. “Perfect!” She snatched the handles of the scooter in one hoof and lifted a baseball bat in the other. “I've waited a long, long time for this!”

“Miss Hooves! You're... You're not yourself!” I exclaimed, trying to reason with her. I didn't know if there was any hope. I didn't even know if these afflicted acquaintances of mine were infectious. I stood like a clueless moron in the middle of the street, fidgeting with my hoodie's sleeves and stammering, “Try to focus on who you really are! Your daughter needs you right now!”

“What she needs is an example! It's what all of Ponyville needs!” Derpy parked her haunches on the scooter and beat her wings. Blurring down the street, she stretched the bat out to her right and slammed every mailbox to shrapnel in vicious succession. “Yeah! Buck yeah! Mail call, ya melon fudging blowhards!” She spun around and glided down the opposite side of the street, shattering every container in sight. “Lick your own stamps from now on! Ha!”

“Yaaay!” Dinky innocently cheered. She hopped in place and stomped her hooves. “You show those evil boxes! Mommy's the best!”

“Dang straight!” Derpy cackled, then slammed through an exploding wagon, littering the street with dizzy frogs in tuxedos. “Ow! Blast it! Ugh!”

I backed slowly, slowly away from the sight, trembling all over. Just then, I bumped into an equine body.

“Gaah!” I spun around, then exhaled with relief to see somepony who was born black and white for once. “Oh! Zecora! Thank goodness!” I wiped my green brow and pointed at the uncharacteristic insanity reducing the town to rubble all around us. “Can you believe all of this nonsense?! You've got to help me!”

Slowly, like a frosted doll, her lifeless face pivoted in my direction.

“I need to find Twilight! She must have a spell that can reverse all of this! Is she at home, you think? At the library?!”

Zecora faced me. Icily, her mouth opened wide with a cold, metallic whir.

I stopped, squinting at her. “Uhm... Zecora? Are you all right—?”

Her throat glowed. The air crackled with static energy. Then, with a cacophonous burst of thunder, she fired a giant blue laser out of her muzzle.

I ducked, eyes wide, as the searing beam parted my mane. The energy beam soared across town, sailed into a hotel, and blew the building up into burning debris. I sat there, squatting, blinking dazedly.

With a metallic hum, Zecora's jaws slowly closed. Her nostrils flared, producing a hyena laugh, and she cartwheeled away with glassy eyes in time to join a stampede of dolphin-riding encyclopedias.

I stood back up, shaking the cobwebs loose in my head. With a wince, I uttered, “Errrrr-yeahhhh. Time to get to the library.”

Without wasting a breath, I spun around and galloped across Ponyville. This was no easy task; obtusely unexpected things darted past my path every other second. When I wasn't doing my best to dodge the hazardous swarms of chaos, I was struggling not to stop and gawk at all the craziness. I had always felt like a pariah in this place, a splinter in the essence of a warm town I'd never know intimately. But now, my helplessness took on a new meaning. In a strange way, I almost felt as though fate had arranged for me to be an unwitting audience to a grand play of absurdity. A part of me almost wanted to laugh, but that same part of me was quietly weeping inside. I wondered about Scootaloo's fate, and Milky White's and Zecora's and Cheerilee's. Was there any way to reverse what had happened to them? Better yet, had I just abandoned Dinky to a fate worse than death? Shouldn't I have scooped her up and carried her with me instead of letting the grayness consume her as well?

I had to press on. I told myself that finding Twilight was the most important thing. With her, there was the scant yet glimmering possibility of not only salvaging this situation but potentially cutting off the magical affliction at its root. This was assuming, of course, that I didn't turn gray too. So, selfish as it was, I had to look after my own well-being.

This meant pausing to dodge, duck, and sidestep every awkward thing that soared my way. I lost track of all the familiar faces I saw, each turned to monochromatic madness by some malevolent force. To my mixed joy, Twilight was not among the cursed lot. Then again, neither were her closest of friends. This puzzling revelation vexxed me, until I saw the blessed sight of Twilight's treehouse looming ahead.

“Finally!” I giggled like a schoolfilly and quickened my canter towards her front door and the salvation within. “Now to go about cleaning up this mess—”

A giant lock of tangled hair slapped me upside the face.

“Ooof!” I flew back and slammed into an oak tree. Several green bananas fell on my crumpled body. Rather than stare at the bizarre, fruity sight, I looked up at my assailant. Something may have possibly collapsed inside my brain.

The Mayor stood in the middle of the road, her eyes turned into black-and-white swirls. Her mane had morphed into an enormous cluster of tentacled branches atop her head, clutching and tossing around a group of shrieking, panicked ponies in her follicular grip.

“I absolve thee of thy sins!” the Mayor shouted in a booming voice, her head twitching as the mane-tentacles ripped up street lamps and tossed them at passing albatrosses. “Get thee to a nunnery!”

The ponies in her hair shrieked and cried for help.

“Uhhh...” I stood up, panicking, glancing between her monstrous demon hair and the treehouse beyond. “Save ponies. See Twilight. Save ponies. See Twilight.” I clenched my eyes shut and seethed. For the briefest of black moments, all I could see was Al's whiskery face. I realized that I had a home to return to. Reopening my eyes, I made straightway for the treehouse once again. “First thing's first—”

Just then, a stagecoach being dragged by chipmunks ran into me. With another grunt, I found myself being tossed off the road once more, this time thrown into a garden that had been turned into a bubble bath.

“Ugh! Nnnngh!” Gritting my teeth angrily, I climbed out of the pool, shook myself and my saddlebag dry, and galloped towards the library again. “I swear to Celestia, if I get interrupted one more time—”

Several green stalks shot up out of the ground in front of me and budded bright kitchen sinks. I ran straight into one, seeing stars. Stumbling backwards, I was rammed in the side by Derpy on the scooter. Then I was caught by one of the Mayor’s mane-tentacles, shaken rigorously and tossed into the side of Sugarcube Corner.

“Ooof!” I winced, aching from head to hooves. As I struggled to get up, Thunderlane dragged his pianos past me, and a chain of rubber chickens was whipped across my spine. “Ouch!”

“Stop being lazy!” Blossomforth growled from above, almost rolling off the rattling instruments. “The rooster does not forget, nor forgive!”

“Grrrrrrr—That's it!” I shouted, my eye twitching. “One way or another, I'm going to the library!” Furious, I spun around and faced Sugarcube Corner. Following a deep, dark whim, I picked up a nearby garbage can and tossed it through the front window. I then hopped through the smashed glass and galloped deep into the eatery.

I had to dodge several paintballs sailing back and forth across the paint-splattered interior as Mr. and Mrs. Cake huddled behind separate barricades and launched the projectiles angrily at one another.

“Your apple fritter lacks taste!” a gray Mrs. Cake exclaimed, pulling at her trigger.

An even grayer Mr. Cake dodged her pellets and launched a return volley. “Your fruitcake lacks imagination and sprinkles!”

Mrs. Cake kicked over a chair, slid behind it, and fired several more potshots. “Your doughnuts are generic and flavorless!”

Mr. Cake brazenly stuck his head out and glared his gray eyes at her. “Your cupcakes taste like licorice!”

Mortified, Mrs. Cake gasped. In a furious tantrum, she tossed her paintball gun hard to the tile floor and it burst into flames. “You take that back!”

“You take our marriage back!”

“You take back the Fillydelphian banquet where we met!”

“You take back your parents' house in Fillydelphia where you stayed to bake for the banquet where we met!”

All the while, I had stormed past them to rummage through the Sugarcube Corner's large kitchen pantry. After much struggle, I pulled free Pinkie Pie's spare party cannon from where she always kept it. I swiveled the thing around and—grunting—shoved it across the messy restaurant. “Excuse me, coming through...”

They craned their necks to argue past me. “You take back your childhood that got you interested in baking to begin with!” Mrs. Cake stomped her hoof and her paintball gun caught fire again.

“You take back your father's sperm that fertilized the egg that turned into you that fell in love with baking that went to the banquet in Fillydelphia that met me and got married!”

Once outside again, I huffed, puffed, and slapped my hoof over the party cannon's trigger button. “Everypony, out of the way!” I braced my entire weight against the cannon as the thing ignited.

With a celebratory pop, a pressurized plume of streamers flew into the Mayor and sent her flying into a rose bush. Her hair tentacles went limp and several ponies—now freed—galloped away in fright.

“I mean it!” I shrieked, shoving my way through the street and cutting a path to the library. “Anyone who blocks me will get a face full of confetti... and a concussion!”

“Cry me a river!” Derpy Hooves hissed, sailing towards me on her scooter and swinging the bat at my skull. “Then put it in an envelope marked 'Non-returnable!'”

“No, you!” I fired the cannon into her muzzle.

“Ooof!” She took it rather well, in that she took it to the face. She fell back and landed in a market stand full of exploding grape fruit.

“This is for your own good!” I spun and fired the cannon at stampeding buffalo in tu-tus, mutant rabbits on giraffe legs, a minotaur with a flower basket, and several other incoming anomalies as I made my way to my destination. “I have to get to Twilight! I have to end this chaos! For... F-for harmony's sake!”

A hairy, serpentine creature with antlers slithered into view bearing a cockeyed grin. “Well, if you aren't the little spitfire!” He raised a yellow finger while his red eyes twitched. “If I might make a suggestion—”

I launched the party cannon into his goat-bearded muzzle, knocking him through a shattering building across the street. “No more distractions! We're going to find a way to undo all of this!” The party cannon ran out of pastel-colored ammo. Panting, I discarded the thing and galloped the last remaining distance between there and Twilight's door. “Please be home. Please be home. Please please please please—” My hooves clamped over the handle to the treehouse's entrance.

Just then, a brown, scaly tail wrapped around me three times from behind.

“H-huh?” I blinked awkwardly. “Daaah!” I was yanked away from the library and into the air several hundred feet away. “No!” I shrieked, reaching in vain for the treehouse as it grew more and more distant. “I was j-just there! What... How...?”

“Ahem... Now, let's try that again,” an eloquent voice rumbled from behind me.

My insides froze. I twisted around in the serpentine grip, finding myself face to face once again with a pair of lopsided red pupils. These were parked in the center of a gray equine face that was attached to a brown torso that was then attached to a harlequin assortment of reptilian, mammalian, and avian limbs. A veritable jigsaw puzzle of surreal nature hovered before me with two wings—one pegasus and the other sarosian—and an asymmetrical pair of antlers crowning a softly furrowed brow as the monster looked into my soul, smirking with a loose fang that glinted in the sunlight.

“Good afternoon, madame,” the beastly thing said. “How's the weather, hmm?” He gestured with a lion's paw as his right eye twitched wider than the left. “Partly chaotic with a twenty percent chance of cannon?”

“Buh?” I gaped at him.

“You know, that was rather rude what you did there earlier.”

“I need to get to Twilight Sparkle!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, but of course! The splendiforous Mary Sue of the hour!” He spun us slowly around with his beating wings while scratching his goatee with his talons. “She seems to be awfully popular lately, except for—well—the whole thing with every friend she's ever made utterly abandoning her like she was a sack of dirt. It's all a touch bit on the melodramatic side. Say”—he pointed at me—“is that jacket of yours hoof-stitched?”

“Wait, is Twilight in trouble?!” I gasped.

“Because it certainly looks like it was sewn together on a lemon tree farm.” He leaned forward and sniffed my mane. His muzzle puckered as if from a sour taste. “Whew! Which is probably where you sprouted out of the ground as well! Tell me, limey, do you believe in showers, or do you always bathe in pretense?”

“Nnngh!” I growled and slapped my hooves against his tail around my waist. “Let go of me!”

He took one glance at the grand height between us and the rooftops of Ponyville below. He flashed me a squinting look once more. “That may not be very advantageous at the moment.”

“Please! Let me go!” I exclaimed, cupping my forelimbs together and practically pleading. “I have to find Twilight!”

He slowly hovered the two of us down. “Why the big hurry? It's a lovely day!”

“You call this lovely?!” my voice cracked as I gestured at the cotton candy mess and fractured townscape all around us. “I must get to Twilight and help her fix all of this! It's... it's utter chaos!”

“Hah hah hah hah haaaah!” he laughed triumphantly, tossing his slender neck back and cackling towards the heavens. The sun sank and the moon raised in its place, casting an intimidating glint across his antlers as he looked down at me with a mischievous grin. “Isn't it, though? And yet, as wild and unpredictable as it is, none of it pleases me nearly as much as running into a pony like you!”

“What... do you mean?”

“Because... erm... well...” He glanced aside, scratching his chin. “Hmmm... I suppose this will take a rather wordy monologue to explain, though something tells me you're rather used to that.”

“I'm afraid I don't understand...”

“Let's remedy that, shall we?” The monster uncoiled his tail and plopped me down on a moonlit roadside. “Here, have a seat.” He snapped his fingers.

I gave him a strange look, only to feel my limbs wobbling from a huge rumble below. Like magic, a bench sprouted up from the ground and appeared beneath me. “Gaah!” I slumped back against the neck rest, my lower legs dangling.

He paced bipedally before me on a lizard foot and a buffalo hoof, twiddling his digits and rambling to the stars, “Here I am, trying to construct my latest work of art, instilling mayhem and chaos across all of the land, and what should I find? A single unicorn—untainted, mind you—pulling a weaponized party favor from a nearby building and wreaking twice as much havoc on her lonesome! And for what? To reach some long-lost 'friend' across town?”

“I was... nngh...” I fiddled and squirmed. “I was trying to... ugh... to reach Twilight so we could—Look, could you hold on for one second?” Jerking my body, I writhed, struggled, and finally repositioned my body so that I was squatting normally on folded legs. “Whew. Much better.” I looked up at him from the bench. “Twilight's the most gifted magician in all of Equestria! I need to help her find a way to—”

“—bring harmony to the world! But of course!” He doubled over and slapped his knees, snickering. “And yet... heheh... for such a supposedly benevolent goal, you only caused more chaos! Hah hah hah! You see... heh... this is exactly the kind of thing that proves my point!”

I inched away from him, shivering slightly in my seat. “I don't get it. What point?”

“The same point that Princess Celestia doesn't seem to get! Or her bipolar sister! Or all the eldritch horrors in Tartarus for that matter!” He smoothed his midnight black mane back and chuckled. “Whew! Now that Trottoroth, Eater of Foals: he really knew how to party back in the day!”

“I... I...” I leaned forward, narrowing my gaze on the highly vocal monstrosity. “Who are you? Just how can you—?” The moon dropped and the sun rose in its place, nearly blinding me. Wincing, I remained steadfast in my glare. “How can you speak of the Princesses in such a tone?”

He yawned. “Ohhhhh, it's simple, really.” He pulled his left antler out and twirled it between yellow talons. “Boredom.”

“Boredom?”

“Oh, not the usual kind, of course. But the ancient, venomous, timelessly fermented kind, like a vengeful demon returning from the depths, or really bad eggs on a Sunday morning.”

Just then, four stallions in blue uniforms dashed out of hiding. Waving batons and trying their brave best to frown, a cluster of Ponyville's finest charged the serpentine stranger. “There he is, boys! Hey! You! Draconequus! You're going to answer for your crimes against this town, you conjurer!”

“Draconequus...?” I repeated in a troubled murmur. A gasp escaped my lips, and I gave the absurdly proportioned creature the first good look since he had yanked me from the heart of the chaotically cursed town. It was a figure I had only seen erected in stone, tapestries, or antique stained window art. “But there hasn’t been a draconequus in Equestria for thousands of years...”

“Oooh!” The talkative creature’s eyes brightened as he plopped his antler back into his skull and twisted it in place. “Speaking of boredom!” He turned about to face the officers and cracked his asymmetric knuckles. “Where've you been off to, gentlecolts?! Dunkin' for your loved ones?” He pulled a mug out of thin air, plucked his fang loose, and poured steaming black liquid from it like a dispenser. “I got plenty of coffee for the road! Sprinkles too!”

“I'm going to pay you back for turning my wife into a buoy!” an old police stallion grumbled.

The officer next to him blinked. “What's a buoy?”

“Shut up, sergeant!”

“Way to ruin the moment,” the creature grumbled, popped his fang back, and sipped from the steaming mug. As the line of police officers closed in, he glanced lethargically my way and gestured. “Quick, limey. Pick a good vacation spot: desert, jungle, or ocean.”

“Wh-what?” I exhaled in confusion.

“Hurry up!” He gestured at himself. “I have no intention of growing more ancient here!”

“Uhhhh...” I gulped and grimaced as I squeaked forth, “Ocean... I... guess...?”

“Ah! But of course!” The draconequus tossed the mug so that it exploded behind him. He slapped his forehead and smiled crookedly. “The desert is so last eon! Too much sand in the goatee. I'll leave you to guess which end.”

The stallions yelled and charged him.

The creature merely winked and snapped a talon in their general direction. “Aloha!”

There were four flashes of light. I blinked—then had to rub my eyes in shock at what remained of the officers. Their uniforms were lying on the ground, and tangled within the garments was a quartet of thrashing seaponies. They gasped, twitched about, and sputtered for air.

“Ahem...” The serpentine beast fluttered upside down over them and pointed towards a nearby river. “Water's over there. Now be clever little ponies and give evolution a shot.”

Whimpering, blue in their faces, the four aquatic equines flopped about like seals. They inched their way to the river bank and plunged into the hot pink currents.

“Heheheh...” The draconequus somersaulted and landed on his rear limbs beside my bench. He leaned against the wooden thing and gazed with pride at the river as the seaponies disappeared within. “Cough syrup. Figured it's the closest those coppers will ever get to a relaxing night at the bar.”

“How... H-how could you?!” I stammered in horror.

“What?!” He shrugged innocently. “At least they'll have a fix for the common cold!”

“What gives you the right to... to...” I hopped off the bench and snarled up at him, my hooves planted tight against the soapy road. I avoided slipping long enough to shout, “To butcher and violate the lives of those around you?! You bring them back this instant!”

“Why?” He coolly shrugged and sashayed around me in elegant pirouettes. “It's chaos! It's what I do! To question it is to ask why leaves fall, or why pandas are fat, or why you smell like you were plucked off a lemon tree!”

“Chaos...” I murmured breathily, gazing up at the brown curtains of chocolate rain sweeping over the far ends of Equestria. Pigs flew in the air until they were intercepted by archers riding on the backs of upside down zeppelins. I shuddered, gazing at the river full of pink currents. “The way you transformed those police officers with a snap of your finger. The coffee. The bench.” It's not often in my life that I say the obvious; I'd have to be stripped of all anchorage to reality and reason. I'm only half-ashamed to say that was my state of mind then. I looked up at him and murmured, “You're not just any random draconequus.”

“And you, my dear, were born yesterday.” He spun to a stop and squatted down—his long body bunched up—so that his large face was staring point blank into mine. “It's a ridiculously predictable trait you unicorns have, you see.”

“What trait?”

“Tunnel vision, of course.” He stood back up and brushed a few flakes of dust off his hairy chest. “The stiff, inelastic, unpliant pursuit of a noble goal: be it 'magic,' or 'harmony,' or 'clarity,' 'Neighvana,' etc. It's all the same: all words, all multitudinous detritus of the Equestrian language, all ways of hiding the simple truth.”

“And that is...?”

“That pursuing order is the same thing as pursuing disorder,” he said, smiling cynically. “Only”—he bent over and twisted his head around one hundred eighty degrees to grin at me—“in the opposite direction!”

I frowned. “Now that's a blatant overgeneralization if I’ve ever heard one.”

“Oh, but admit it!” His body spun about to match his rotated head. When he turned to look in my direction, he had one of his antlers positioned square in his forehead. “Your precious alicorn princesses have got it worse!”

“Do they?”

“Only they're in a position of power.” He plucked the horn loose, extended it into a club, and spat out a golf ball from his lips. He perched it on his lizard foot and lined up the bony bludgeon. “And mixing power with self-righteousness is a good recipe for mayhem. Oh, it's subtle at first, like icky grime that is squeegee'd off a window.” He swung at the ball, missed, cursed under his breath, and lined the club up again. “But over time, it collects, and soon the goddesses of harmony you once worshipped without question start doing... questionable things.” His hairy gray nostrils momentarily flared with vigor. “Like turning visitors from faraway planes into stone.” With that, he thwacked the golf ball hard. He watched fixedly as it flew in a wide arc, struck a distant building, and caused the structure to collide with the apartment next to it. Soon, all the buildings were toppling like dominoes, filling the air with thunder and dust.

As the bedlam gradually settled, I found myself staring in awe at him. “Turned... into stone?” I gulped, feeling a deep shiver rising up through my body. “The alicorns... the Elements of Harmony...”

“They most certainly sealed the deal, didn't they?” He leaned on his antlerlub and tossed me a lethargic glance. “Such a steep price, 'peace' has. It practically does my job for me. Now tell me... has Equestria enjoyed its millennia of interspecies strife? Civil war? Pestilence? Everfree monsters? Tartarus breakouts? Grass wars over the Zebrahara? Hmmm?” He twirled the club and slapped it back into its original shape atop his head. “I think I'm a teensy bit overdue for some tribute, what do you think?”

I gawked at him, and I could literally feel the pupils in my eyes shrinking as I gulped and dribbled forth, “Discord?”

My whole body winced, for I was answered with an array of loud cowbells and flashing lights. The draconequus bounced before me, suddenly wearing shades and a glittering red tuxedo as he shouted flamboyantly into an unplugged microphone. “Yes! I do believe we have a winner!” He stretched his arm impossibly far to the right and yanked a familiar filly with thick glasses into view. “Darling! Tell her what she’s won!”

Grinning like a postcard, a decidedly gray-maned Twist chirped happily, “Mith Limey hath retheived the title of Captain Obviouthneth! The mare winth an all expenthe paid vacation to 'No Duh' Valley, Equethtria!”

“Thank you very much, precious.” Discord lowered his goggles and smirked. “Remember, you're a bland, unimaginative character and nopony likes you.”

“I'm a bland, unimaginative character and nopony liketh me!” Twist said, absolutely beaming.

“Now you're getting it!” Discord gave her a thumbs up before punting the once-redhead beyond the nearby hills. “Kids these days.” He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his glittering tuxedo to nothingness like a venetian blind. “Can't live with 'em; can't score a hoofball field goal without 'em!” His eyes twitched from the distant sound of a foalish thud beyond the city limits.

“I... It... You...” I was beside myself with shock.

“Oh come now. Didn't they debunk the 'goldfish memory' on Mythbuckers?” He curled around me and stared into my eyes. I could smell a stench older than time off his breath. “The name's 'Discord,' my dear. It's rather easy to say. What's your name?”

I was speechless. All the courage and strength I had gained from multiple trips to the unsung realm had been sapped from me in an instant. I was still coming to grips with the startling reality that I was in personal discourse with a being who had brought so much agony and malice to ancient Equestria. This entity was bigger than a single mortal's comprehension. He was evil incarnate, a demon in the skin of dead creatures, animals whose very body parts he had absorbed the dark day he first entered this domain and eviscerated their hides to make up his unholy exterior. History had been lacking a visual depiction of the Great Deceiver, but somehow a draconequus was perfectly fitting. I couldn't imagine a more ironic, more disgusting, more disconcerting form to embody the antithesis of all Equestrian values. I was beside myself in horror, for I had read enough of this despot’s actions to know how hopeless my situation was. After all, in the span of a few decades, Discord had single-hoofedly brought this dimension to the precipice of oblivion, and had almost slain the alicorn sisters themselves in cold blood. What could I possibly do? What could I pretend to say?

Base instincts took over. I whimpered like a foal and weakly produced, “Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings.” I winced, expecting him to fling an interstellar comet into my forehead.

Instead, he spat into my face from laughter. “Haahaahaah! So formal! What are you, a Canterlot spy in disguise?” He winked and snapped his fingers.

“Please...” I raised my hooves, only to be gripping a martini. “I had no idea. I—” I paused, fidgeted, and tossed the martini away. “I had no idea who you were.”

“That certainly didn't stop you from barking at me like a self-righteous canine! Honestly, Miss Heartstrings, why the obstinate attitude against my artistry?” Discord rolled his crooked eyes and twirled a finger. “Yes, yes, so I gave a bunch of police officers gills. And so I kind of sort of turned a flightless filly into a sissy and broke the bond between her and her vigilante foster mother. Aaaaaand I might have made a sexually aggressive octopus out of your beloved Mayor's mane...”

“Wh-what about kicking Twist into next year?”

“Who?”

“Is this all about getting back at Princess Celestia and Luna?” I bravely remarked, trying not to tremble. I eyed his coiled length around my tiny body. “Are you turning their kingdom upside down just to spite them for turning you into stone?”

“Oh please, don't paint me as some sort of trifling avenger,” Discord dismissed, resting a paw on his hairy chest. “Besides, they only turned me to stone because I let them.”

“You... let them?”

“Why, affirmative!” He grinned brightly. “There comes a time when trying to cure boredom becomes boring! The key is knowing when to take a slumbering sabbatical, if you catch my somnambulistic drift, Harpo.”

“'Harpo?!'” I made a face, then frowned. “My name is Lyra!”

“Heh. Yeah, sure it is. Come...” He lifted me with his tail so that I hung upside down by a rear hoof, gasping and flailing. “Dangle with me.”

“H-hey!” I could only sputter as I gawked at the inverted horizon before us.

Discord frolicked on all fours into the depths of Ponyville, weaving his way through chaotic traffic. “But being stone is boring too, which is why I'm so gratified to be back in the realm of civilized locomotion. It means once again having a rich canvas to paint outside the lines! I'm not entirely certain what it was that brought me back, but I certainly can't complain!” He turned his head at a sharp angle and waved. “Isn't that right, Miss Hooves?”

“How's this for same-day?!” Derpy screamed by on the scooter and slammed the baseball bat across Discord's cheek.

Discord's head spun five times and swiveled squeakily to a stop, grinning. “Ahhhh, I love a mare who aims for the bleachers. Don't you?”

“You do know...” I wheezed, all the blood rushing to my head as my jacket's hood fell over my twitching ears. “...that the royal sisters haven't forgotten you one bit! They won't let you get away with all this mischief! They have—”

“Ugh. Spare me the lecture on the Elements of Harmony. I've read the instruction manual to this little shindig we call a 'villainous return,' Harpo. Besides, whose expositionary monologue is this?” He lifted me up to a bent lamppost and hung me by my hoodie. “And if you must know, the Elements of Harmony are useless against me.”

I frowned at him. “How can you be so sure? The Elements are crafted out of a power that resists chaos!”

“Then how silly of Celestia to have let the Elements dissolve into six disparate personifications!” he said, stifling a chuckle. Discord then plucked a rosebush from a nearby storefront, transmogrified it into a throne, and took a seat before me. “I'm guessing Celestia herself finally got bored in my absence! How else would she have gotten the droll idea of entrusting Equestria's greatest beacon of ostentatiousness to six flighty stereotypes of camaraderie?” He held his talons out and wagged his eyebrow. Two massage balls appeared in his palm, and he rotated them while yawning. “Ummmf... nyup... Yes, I rained on that parade. Like a monsoon of righteous, chocolate win-bomb! Nyeeeeaaaaaaaaarrgh-Kertroll!”

“What...” I looked at him from where I dangled, my lips quivering. “What did you do to Twilight and her friends?”

“Ah! Listen to us! Pontificating in the past tense!” He spun the twin massage balls on his talons. “The fact of the matter is, it's happening right now as we speak! Ahem...” He raised both balls and plopped them over his sockets so that they transformed into violet eyes. His mane took on a purple streak as he cupped his hands to his chin and spoke in Twilight's voice, “Girls! Why are you all acting like this? We need to stick together!”

I gasped. “You...” I glanced down at the gray villagers doing random, ludicrous things beneath me. “You're creating a rift between Twilight and her friends!” I gnashed my teeth. “That's your edge over the magic that's threatening to turn you back into stone!”

“Also, I was totally showing off my mammary glands at that last pony convention!”

My limbs flailed as I tried charging him in midair. “How dare you! Twilight Sparkle doesn't deserve this! The Elements of Harmony are stronger than you're making them out to be! You'll see!”

“Oh please, all of this hoo-haa over harmony!” Discord jerked his head and the two violet eyes shot forward, ricocheting off my skull. His mane fluffed back to its normal color as his voice returned. “See? This is exactly the sort of thing I'm trying to bend your ear about, Harpo. I've been around modern Equestria for less than a day, and already I feel like vomiting. In a short ten thousand years, this place has gotten even duller than I left it! To think that so many ponies worship the ground your princesses trot on! It's positively sickening.”

“This kingdom has order!”

“This kingdom is a prison”—he sat up, kicked the throne to splinters, and tickled my chin with a talon—“and it's time we ousted its warden, don't you think?”

I stared daggers at him. “With chaos?”

“What you call chaos, I call 'freedom.'”

“Really?”

“Still doubtful?” He yanked me off the lamppost and held me under his left armpit. “Here, allow me to demonstrate.”

“Where are you—Gaah!”

I held on tight as he “skated” across the village, slid towards a vaguely familiar apartment building, and smashed the two of us through its side. We landed inside a living room, littered from corner to corner with fresh rubble, as two frightened ponies scooted up to the far wall, gasping in fright.

“Candygram!” Discord chirped happily, waving me in his paws. “Did someone order a background pony?!”

“The draconequus! He’s back!” Wind Whistler shrieked amidst the settling dust. “C-Caramel!”

“St-stay behind me, honey!” Caramel remarked. Gulping, he nevertheless stood bravely in front of his significant other as he faced off against the omnipotent monster gripping me. “You! Keep away! We don't want any of your sorcery, you hear?!”

“Don't knock it until you've tried it, handsome!” Discord winked, then glanced down at me. “Friends of yours?”

“I... I...” I winced. The fact that we had just demolished our way into the home of Wind Whistler and Caramel didn't bother me nearly as much as how colorful they still appeared. I suddenly realized what was about to happen, and I felt like collapsing into a corner and sobbing. “Please. Please, Discord. I'm sorry for all the things I said earlier! You don't need to give me a demonstration—”

“Ugh...” He facepalmed before flinging a frown into my face. “It's all about you, isn't it? Just relax and watch the master at work, Harpo.” He plopped me down in an easy chair and snapped his fingers. The hoof-rests turned into shackles and bound me in place. I struggled in vain to free myself from the seat as he sauntered past me and approached the trembling couple. “I'm about to liberate these poor, unfortunate souls in ways they never dreamed of.”

“We... we don't want anything from you!” Caramel spouted again, grinding his hooves against the floorboards. Behind him, Wind Whistler was stretching her wings over her cowering face to hide the tears. “We just want our neighbors back!”

“Neighbors, neighbors, neighbors...” Discord shook his head and gave them a sympathetic look as he leered above the couple. “Tsk tsk... Are you two really so small that you must function by whatever society tells you is acceptable?”

“Wh-what?!” Caramel stammered. He flinched as Discord looked him square in the eyes.

“You! So frightened of losing money! So mortified at the thought of dying crops! So scared of not having the moo-lah to make sweet ooh-lah-lah to your honey pooh-lah!” Discord shoved Caramel onto his back and scooped Wind Whistler up so that she was staring, frightened, into his grinning face. “And you! So worried about the wedding arrangements! So concerned over looking clean and pretty before your friends! So anxious about convincing your neighbors of your mutual, romantic sincerity!”

“L-leave her alone!” Caramel barked, trying to roll back onto his hooves. “Nnngh—What's this all about?”

“Question of the hour!” Discord jubilantly orated. “Just what is this all about? This lovey-dovey, romantic, topsy-turvy attempt at a relationship you have going on here?! A little bird told me in seven thousand words or so that you both entered this bond to get away from all your worries and fears. And yet, here you two are, so petrified of losing everything. So, you go through the paranoid rinse night after night! Now where's the romance in that?! Aren't you both enough for each other?”

Discord dropped Wind Whistler down beside the earth pony. The two equines clung to each other, trembling, exchanging glances before gazing up at Discord once again.

“What... What are you trying to t-tell us?” Wind Whistler managed.

“All I want to say is this...” Discord spoke, his voice suddenly deeper. I watched helplessly as his shadow doubled over the two. “Why work so hard to make your relationship right when you can happily make it random?” He leaned over, his red-on-yellow eyes suddenly turning into prismatic swirls. “What is the sense of being in love, when you still have things to be afraid of?”

With that, he lightly tapped Wind Whistler and Caramel on their foreheads. Their eyes blinked, forming swirls that matched Discord's hypnotic gaze. I gaped in awe as the color was drained from their manes and coats. Bathed in gray haze, they stood up and grinned maniacally. With a foalish bounce, they glanced at each other.

“Hey!” Caramel gasped. “You thinking what I'm thinking?!”

“Screw gravity!” Wind Whistler returned in a clownish voice. “I never liked my bones in the first place!”

Caramel grabbed a lampshade off a nearby fixture, slapped it on his crown like a helmet, and lifted Wind Whistler over his head with two insanely strong forelimbs. “Three... Two... One...”

“Contact!” Wind Whistler yelped, then blew through her lips. “Blblblblblblblblb!”

Caramel gave a running start, galloping on his rear limbs alone. He jumped off the shattered edge of the apartment and plunged into empty space. At the last second, Wind Whistled stretched her wings out and flew the two of them like a hangglider over the rooftops of Ponyville. “Weeeeeeeee!”

I gawked at them, then slowly turned my head to stare at Discord.

“Haah haah haah haah!” He clapped his hands and stood proudly at the edge of the crumbling living room. “Did you see that?! Did you see what I did?!”

“You violated their privacy and mutated their personalities!” I winced as I heard a distant shattering of windows, followed by the blood-curdling laughter of Caramel and Wind Whistler. “They'll be lucky if they don't kill themselves!”

“Harpo, all we are is rain that never bends in the flowerfall—erm... No...” He toyed with his lip, scanning the pink-clouded sky. “Is that how it goes? Eh, I forget. Been stuck in stone too long.”

“Uhm...”

“What matters”—he bent over and grinned at me— “is that I freed them.”

“From what?!” I exclaimed.

“From their attachment to the hypocritical façade of order!” He paced along the edge of the apartment, gesturing in the air as flying pigs and lemurs with helicopter tails fluttered past us. “The universe is inherently chaotic, after all. It's Equestria that's the anomaly. It's Equestria that's the tiny pocket of silly ritual, marinating in a gigantic jacuzzi of glorious, sudsy, unadulterated unpredictability. You cannot maintain a perfect structure forever, Harpo. I don't care how many alicorns are around to carry the absurd notion of purpose on their shoulders. Eventually, all walls crumble, even the strongest firmaments. And when they do...”

He skidded to a stop on a lizard claw, twirling to glare rather seriously at me.

“Things are no longer fun.”

I took a deep, seething breath. “Life is not all about fun...”

“Oh, and I do suppose you're going to tell me that it's about lengthy sacrifice and persistence against incomprehensible odds.” Discord knelt beside my easy-chair, gesturing ecstatically towards the random explosions and chocolate rain and mailbox-smashing mailmares beyond. “Look at all your friends! Yes, perhaps, their lives are short, brutish, and cruel—but they are enjoying it! Thanks to me, they are devoid of attachments! They've been freed from the shackles of monotony! What's the purpose in having everything together when it's all going to fall apart sooner than later anyways?”

“We all live to become better than the universal factors that constrict us!” I retorted. “Even Celestia and Luna—immortals until the end of time—are in this journey of mutual self-discovery along with us! The moment we give in to a banally impulsive existence is the day we lose all hope of transcending the substance of our fears!”

“Whew! Look at you go!” He stood up again, folding his arms while flapping on disproportionate wings. “You're like a wind-up toy attached to a megaphone!”

“There's just one thing I don't understand...”

“Do enlighten me, perhaps in three sentences or less,” he uttered, lazily filing one of his talons.

“If you're so dead certain about what your role in Equestria is...” I squinted quizzically up at him. “If you have every intent to spread chaos throughout the land—from one individual pony to another—then why bother taking such a chunk of time out of your busy schedule to take me aside and tell me all... of... this...?” My voice trailed off as I blinked in a sudden, cold sweat. “Philosophizing...” I gulped and shivered, for everything was becoming clear, and I felt like I was tied to the chair with iron weights. “All that we've been doing is philosophizing.”

“Mmmm...” He leaned forward, his face grinning wickedly. “Now there's something you've been attached to for far too long, my dear.”

I stared helplessly at him, twitching in panic.

“Pondering in circles is an awfully boring thing to do.” His eyes turned into hypnotic swirls. With icy precision, the Great Deceiver of the Ages raised his omnipotent finger to my horn. “Let's see how much thinking gets done when your mind turns to goo.”

“Mmmm!” I whimpered and clenched my eyes shut. I thought of Twilight. I thought of Mom and Dad. I thought of Al. And then, after a few panting breaths, I realized I still had the faculty to think. Sweating profusely, I opened one eye, and then the other.

Discord was leaning over. Discord was touching his finger to my forehead. However, nothing had changed.

“I said... 'When your mind turns to goo.'” He tapped my horn once more.

Nothing.

“Turn to goo!” He tapped yet again.

Still nothing.

“Hmmm...” His gray brow furrowed. “That's rather queer, isn't it?” Licking his lips, he hovered around me and produced four, eight, ten, a dozen extra pairs of limbs and tapped me all over with a blurring forest of fingers. “Turn to goo! Turn to goo! Turn to goo! Turn to goo!”

“Nnnngh!” I hissed and thrashed in the chair. “Stop... poking me!” A pair of onyx strings vibrated somewhere in my saddlebag, and my vision flashed emerald. The next thing I knew, a green dome of magic shot out and Discord was lying prostate on the floor, stunned.

“Ay carumba!” He bent impossibly backwards and stuck his head up from beneath his tail, blinking cockeyed my way. “As I live and belch! Now there's a twist!”

“I... I...” I gulped and glanced at myself. “Wh-what happened?”

“I haven't got a clue, but I'm sure of one thing!” He grinned and flipped his rear end over. Crawling towards me like a cockroach, he lifted the entire easy chair off the floor with his hands and grinned psychotically. “I'm not bored anymore!”

I felt a literal sweatdrop forming beneath my left ear. “Uh oh...”

“Hey! Let's see what else you can do, Harpo!” He spun me around and gave the chair a vicious kick. “Go long!”

“Gaaaah!” I shrieked as the entire easy chair dissolved into debris beneath me. This wasn't nearly as horrifying as the sensation of sailing clear over half of Ponyville. I glided through a squadron of flying pigs, a pink pony wearing a beanie, a shark statue, and several other comical, airborne set pieces before whistling like a mortar shell towards Cheerilee's schoolhouse below. “Oh sweet Celestia, save me—!”

My voice was cut off by the thunderous noise of my body slamming through the red shingled rooftop and smashing into a sea of desks below. I rolled to a stop against a wall of the one-room school, coughing and wheezing through a settling cloud of dust. To my shock, I was still in one piece. None of my limbs were broken.

“What?! How... How am I...?”

“Hi!” A voice lisped to my side. I glanced over to see a thoroughly bruised Twist hanging by her tail from a coat rack. “I'm thuper utheletth!”

“Yeah. Uh huh...” I turned back to my forelimbs, reexamining them. “Why isn't a single bone broken?” My exclamation was answered as I felt a green glow fluctuating around me. My ears twitched to the sound of the Nightbringer's strings resonating once again from inside my saddlebag. It was then that an epiphany came to me. “I... I never went out in public with the Nightbringer like this before! Every time the holy instrument has protected me, it's been against her in the unsung realm.” I gulped and stammered, “But what if it can protect me against more than her...?”

My eyes darted across the rubble-strewn floor of Cheerilee's school as things started to make sense.

“The Nightbringer is a piece of the Matriarch's song. So are Celestia, Luna, and her. They're all pieces of the same spirit of Creation. Pure harmony is resistant against chaos, just like the six elements in cohesion, or the firmaments that protect this world from the tempestuous nether beyond!”

I stood tall and proud, happy with my epiphany and rejoicing in the distance that I had gained from my oppressor.

“If the Nightbringer can keep me safe from turning gray, maybe it can help Twilight save her friends and restore Harmony!” I grinned and galloped towards the exit. “Praise the goddesses he kicked me so far away! Now that I'm forgotten again, I might just have an edge against all this craziness—”

“Well, look at you!” Discord was suddenly grinning in my face, wearing a black robe and a graduation cap. “Let's see any ordinary lime bounce back from a kick like that!”

“Gaaaaieee!” I fell back on my haunches and scooted away from him until I sat in a corner. I hugged myself, shivering, my eyes wide to the point of bursting. “You... You... You r-remember m-me?!”

“Well, of course I'd remember the one pony who couldn't buckle from my cleansing touch!” He stood tall before the chalkboard and fiddled with his cap's tassel. “The only ponies in all of Equestria who can resist my chaos energies so defiantly are Celestia and her bipolar baby sister! But now that's all changed! I'm pleased to make acquaintance with you and your magic green bubble of sparkles, Harpo! You're a very special pony indeed...”

“Yeth!” Twist giggled and clapped her dangling hooves from the coat rack. “Thuper sthpethial!”

Discord's eyes became hard, yellow lines. He sighed, yanked his coat off, and flung it over the grayed filly like a funeral shroud. “There. Much better. Where were we? Oh, yes!” He pulled his cap off his head and plopped it down over my horn. “I simply must know your secrets, Miss Heartstrings. You're like a diamond in the rough, provided that the rough was a collapsed schoolroom and the diamond had a habit of dressing like a roadie for Coltplay.”

“How... How...” I gulped dryly. “How could you still remember me? You kicked me clear across Ponyville! This is impossible!”

“Nay, hardly impossible, my little limey!” He lifted his left foot, which was suddenly sporting a brightly colored sneaker with grass-stained cleats. “I had quite the golden toe back before the beginning of all Creation. Granted, it's tough playing quarterback when you're the one singular entity populating a deep, nebulous pocket of the cosmos. But hey! Not like anypony was keeping score... until Harmony came to poison the paleomiasmic equilibrium, that is.” He stood up straight and scratched his chin. “Now, to answer the question of your bubbly, emerald enigma...”

I bit my lip, my eyes dashing back towards my saddlebag. In as casual a manner as possible, I shifted the package on my back so that I felt the comforting weight of the Nightbringer, veiled from his eyesight.

“Perhaps...” I stammered, “I am simply an unpredictable factor in your equation. You... uh... like unpredictability, do you not?”

“Madame, I am the director of this ballroom dance of bedlam, not a participant. And like any true artist, I would very much like to be in firm control of all the colors of my palette, gray though they may be.” He reached over and fingered the streaks of my mane. “Wait. Is that some gray right there? Ew, no, that's cyan—”

I batted his paw away and growled, “That's enough! Okay, so now you know that you can't transform me like you can the other ponies! Why not leave me alone?! You can get your enjoyment elsewhere!”

“Haaah! As if!” Discord leaned down to my level, wagging his eyebrows with a childishly giddy expression. “Do you know how many eons I've waited to have discourse with a psychological equal?!”

“If you meant that as a compliment, I'm afraid you had the opposite effect.”

“So is that how it's going to be?” He shook his head. “No no, my dear, you are still a piece of this grand pageant I have to play out! Though you may be resistant to my—ahem—charm, that doesn't mean you can't liven up the grandest moment in the history of this lame kingdom you call Equestria! For I am still Discord, Ruler of Chaos, and you”—he aimed his talons at me like a pistol and pulled an invisible trigger—“are a puppet. Even a puppet that bounces back still has her strings.”

With a flash of light, the graduation cap atop my head turned into a harlequin hat and my hoodie transformed into garishly colored clown gear over my saddlebag. I took a gasping look at myself. “What in the hay...?!”

He snapped his finger. The world around us flashed brightly, and suddenly we were positioned in the center of Ponyville's town hall, only it was no longer the town hall. The entire place had been transformed into a grand throne room filled with every villager of Ponyville that I had the wherewithal to name. They all cheered and waved and bowed before a tall, mahogany seat within which Discord majestically sat in red and black robes. And I...

I was squatting on the steps before him, my cap's bells jingling with each turn of my head as I looked about, taking in the ridiculous banners illustrated with abstract art and stained with chocolate precipitation.

“How... What...?!” I gazed out the window, only to see the Equestrian horizon upside down. The sun disappeared and was swiftly replaced by the moon... which promptly formed a pie-shaped mouth and started gobbling up the stars lined up all around it. I felt nauseous. “Oh for the love of oats...”

“Welcome to the Court of Chaos!” Discord bellowed, gesturing towards the herd of ponies bowing low and exalting him in all their gray euphoria. “This is the Capital City of the New Chaotic Equestria, after all! Don't you think it could use a bit more cheer?”

I frowned, grimacing at the happy, drooling faces of the hypnotized masses. “I think it's cheerful enough as it is...”

“Hush puppies! I disagree. Jester”—he kicked me in the flank— “a tune, if you will!”

A harp appeared brightly in my grasp, and I felt my hooves playing it. I did a double-take, frowned, and tossed it away from the throne. “No! I will not play for your amusement!”

“Pfft! Of course not!” Discord scoffed. “You're playing for theirs! Court is rather dull, after all.” He snapped his fingers again.

An accordion materialized between my hooves, magically playing itself. Wincing, I tried tossing it away, but the handles were tied to my forelimbs with twine. The more I shook and struggled, the more the bells of my outfit jingled, adding to the grating, discordant melody. “Ughhhh...”

“Sing it like you mean it, Harpo.” Discord snatched a flying pig from midair, snapped its head off on his throne's armrest, and drank sweet lemonade from the swine's hollow neck. Burping, he motioned towards the thick crowd of equines. “May the first ponies with a desperate need please step forward! Your lord and master of mayhem shall oblige thusly!”

The masses squabbled and fought with each other, surging back and forth, until two older ponies finally popped out of the front line and stood boldly before their patchwork lord and master.

“Exalted Discord!” Mr. Cake exclaimed, pointing a gray hoof at his significant other. “Tell this self-absorbed, hysterical trollop to take back that spark that split the first atom that energized the first alicorn spirit that gave birth to the Cosmic Matriarch that shaped the cosmos that made the exodus to this world that sang Equestria into being that introduced progeny into the universe that gave birth to her father that inseminated her mother that gave birth to her so that she went to a baking contest in Fillydelphia and met and married me!”

“Negatory!” Mrs. Cake smacked him over the head with a flaming paintball gun and appealed to the regally seated draconequus. “You tell this misogynist sack of incompetence to take back the dichotomous factor of universal improbability that gave birth to the spark that split the first atom that energized the initial alicorn spirit that—”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Discord muttered, waving a yellow paw. “I do think everypony and their brother can see where this is going. Seriously, you two, weren't the splattering projectiles enough to enliven your revolutionary little spat?” He leaned forward, grinning wryly. “Why must you bring your domestic turbulence into my most esteemed court?”

“All I wanted was a little bit of thrill in my life!” Mrs. Cake exclaimed.

Mr. Cake shoved her aside and growled, “She's always smothering me in insipid compliments and pet names!”

Mrs. Cake re-shoved him back, barking up at the malevolent chaotician, “And he's always asking for it with his sweet promises and everlasting devotion!”

“Look at these two fools!” Discord gestured, gazing down at me. “I give them a dose of disharmony, and still their poor souls are chained and fettered to the pointless notion of structure! It's like a part of them still believes in the lie that they've been anchored to all their miserably blind lives!” He reached into his chest and juicily yanked out a dripping, throbbing, black heart. “It just gets you right 'ere, don't it?” He winked.

I gritted my teeth, struggling and fumbling to yank my hooves free from the cacophonous accordion fused to my forelimbs. “So help me, I've never wanted to punch anything so hard in my life...”

“Oh, lighten up, Harpo.” He tossed the heart up, snatched it in his mouth, and gulped the thing back down his long throat. “You're horribly grumpy when music runs away from you.” He smiled and pointed. “Need a hand?”

I looked up at him with a confused expression. “Huh?”

“Hmm...” Discord scratched his goatee. “Funny, for some reason I thought that would rub you the wrong way. Ah well.” He shrugged, swiveled about in his majestic throne, and cleared his throat before bellowing down at the married equines. “Mr. and Mrs. Cake! I loosened the tiny gossamer threads holding together your insidiously sappy love so that you might feel the thrill of turmoil and embrace a little bit of excitement in your lives! That is what you've wanted all this time, is it not?”

“Yes, but we need more!” Mrs. Cake exclaimed, her gray eyes sparkling.

“Oh please, your worshipfulness!” Mr. Cake got down on his knees and begged. “I feel the hideous waves of joy and contentment washing up on my mind! You must make us more miserable and confused!”

The bulging group of clamoring ponies murmured and chanted in agreement.

“Hmmm...” Discord leaned back and rapped his digits against the throne's armrests. “There's only one solution to a diluted modicum of chaos.”

I looked up at him and stammered, “Harmony?”

“Nope!” He waved his hand up high. “A saturated excess of chaos!” He snapped his fingers close to the ceiling.

A gigantic strobe of light wafted through the crowd. In a blink, the entire “Court of Chaos” had transformed into a tall set of metal bleachers surrounding a square wrestling ring, replete with ropes and padded turnbuckles and half-blurred insignias. All of the ponies turned into a raging audience of bloodthirsty spectators, waving white signs and wearing black and white t-shirts.

“Now let's see some attitude!” Discord growled, sitting at a table beside me in a five thousand bit suit. With his tail, he struck a hammer against a large bell.

Sitting in my harlequin gear, I gawked at the ring as Mr. and Mrs. Cake squared off against one another in skin-tight leotards of spandex.

“Raaaaugh!” Mrs. Cake, a great deal grayer than a few seconds ago, flew forward and locked her husband tightly in a cross-neck legbar. “Prepare to taste excruciating pain, loveykins!”

“Nnnngh!” Mr. Cake sneered back at her. “You call down the thunder, now reap the whirlwind, sweetie-poo! Haaaugh!” He viciously suplexed her to the mat and wrangled her into a figure-four leg-lock.

“Aaaah!” Mrs. Cake screamed and snarled over the loudly cheering crowd. “Whatcha gonna do when the cupcakemeister bears down on you, sugar-lumps?!” She kicked out of the submission hold, bucked him to the far side of the ring, and speared him to the mat before engaging in a vicious exchange of elbows and headbutts.

A few feet away, an obese stallion sat, wearing a black cowboy hat and shouting into a microphone. “Bah gawdess! I've never seen anythang like this in my whole life! If Celestia is my witness, he's been broken in half! Ooooh!” He winced. “Damn her! Wasn't that the greatest piledriver you've ever seen, Zecora?”

He looked aside. The zebra seated next to him mechanically turned her head, opened her mouth, and blew a giant sapphiric laser in the stallion's face.

I ducked, wincing, as ashes and tatters of cowboy hat settled all around Discord and I. “This is what you call entertainment?!”

“Eh, it was good when Laureneightis wasn't in charge of things, I suppose.” The draconequus yawned. “Besides, it's not really us who should be entertained.” He leaned back in his chair and gestured towards the loud, raving crowds of grayed equines. “Just feast your eyes on the Ponyville universe! Do they worry about their jobs or their careers? Do they worry about writing the Princess on a weekly basis or having their magical tramp stamps match their special talents? Do they worry about prettying up the village for an impromptu royal visit or the impending invasion of changelings!”

“Changelings? What do changelings have to do with anything?!”

“Oh, right, too soon.” He cleared his throat and leaned forward again. “Still, don't you see, Harpo? Happiness doesn't necessitate peace. Everything you've ever possibly sought after in your life you could have easily acquired. All you had to do was put down the philosopher's quill and ink, shove the parchment into your mouth, and dance around instead!”

I frowned at him. “I'm not all about philosophy!”

“Right. You're also about magic, Mary Sues, and music. Speaking of which, I never said you could stop.” He flicked a finger towards my hooves and launched a magic bolt.

A guitar appeared in my forelimbs, automatically playing a punkish melody that barely matched the volume of the roaring crowd around us. I sighed, rolled my eyes, and simply held the vibrating instrument as I glared up at him. “Obviously you have a gift of detecting a pony's innate talents, but you still don't know a thing about me, Discord.”

“Oh no?” He remarked, craning his neck to oogle the grunge fest between the Cakes. “Care to enlighten me? Because I'm dying to know what dastardly power possesses you with the ability to resist my gray brushstrokes.”

“To what end?”

“You don't need to hide the truth behind your psuedo-intellectual exterior, Madame Limey. Deep down inside, there's one quality of yours that's as common as it is pathetic.” One beady red eye pivoted to take me in. “You're lonely.”

I bit my lip.

“Ah, lonesomeness. Such an exquisite element in this universe—like hydrogen! And just as common, if I do say so. Almost as smelly too, especially on a Saturday evening.” He winced as Mrs. Cake powerbombed her husband off the turnbuckle and through a collapsing table in front of the roaring crowd. “Oooooh—hoo-hooo! How spectacular!” He clapped his odd hands and smirked my way. “Funny how it's always the Mexicolt one that goes first, isn't it?”

“What makes you think that I'm lonely?” I said without thinking. I fidgeted, pondering the degree to which Discord knew about my curse. There was no sign that he was aware of the Nightbringer, so it was safe to say that as all-powerful as this chaos lord was, he was hardly all-knowing. “I mean...” I continued, picking my words cautiously. “We're all lonely, deep down inside. That's why it's so special that we have harmony. In union, we are made whole. All that unbridled chaos and mayhem can do is separate and isolate. Do you really, honestly think that such a thing is healthy for the population of this mortal realm?”

“Funny that you would emphasize the mortal realm in particular,” Discord said, watching the Cakes smack each other against the crowd's barricades. “Ponies, after all, are as much an aberration to the universe as harmony. Before some upstart cosmic hussy decided to plant the seed of life in this pocket of the constellations, everything was blissfully empty and desolate. There's something to be said about the eternal simplicity of utter oblivion, before divisible consciousness decided to take root like a festering cluster of smelly weeds.”

“Are you meaning to tell me that you were once the spirit of nothingness before life in Equestria began?” I remarked, hugging the twanging guitar to my chest.

“What I'm trying to get at, Harpo, is that that which was once blissfully nothing is gone forever.” His long neck dodged a metal ring step being flung past him and toward the far side of the town hall chamber. “And because of a certain cosmic horse goddess' divine dabbling, chaos shall forever be forced to deal with a great deal of frivolous energy threading itself apart under the merciless whim of entropy. Harmony, for all the platitudes you launch upon us, is a real fickle mistress. The end of life as you know it would be a lot less bitter if it didn't begin in the first place, you see.”

“I can't imagine how someone with the power to do so many amazing things could submit to such a nihilistic belief.”

“My dear, you can't imagine anything, because you've never been there!” He gave me a fanged grin, his eyes twitching. “But I can teach you!”

“Teach me...?”

“Mmm... Yes. Discordant Intervention 101, if you will.” He leaned over and whispered past the back of his paw and into my ear. “Pssst... With my omnipotence and your invulnerability, we can break our way beyond the Firmaments and spread the realm of chaos to other worlds.”

I blinked at that, struggling to keep my own brain from melting. “Other... worlds...?”

“You really don't think your beloved Cosmic Matriarch made this place her one and only rest stop, now do you?”—he chuckled—“Oh, what a charming series of stellar bread crumbs she's left for us across the universe! All it takes is a hop, skip, and a jump—and we'll find other landscapes to undo the selfish rigidity she has hammered into being. Then, plane by plane, the entirety of existence can learn to do the tempestuous tango of chaos! Now whaddya say?! Not even Stone Colt Steve Oatsten could turn down an angle like that!”

“You're insane...”

“No.” He briefly frowned. “I'm generous, and you should know a deal of a lifetime when it's handed to you. Now, how 'bout it?” He extended a talon my way. “The most you can lose is your threadbare anchorage to life-long ludicrous concepts of 'friendship,' 'devotion,' and 'serenity.' Is it really that crazy of an offer to comprehend? I promise you, Harpo, worse deals have been made. Take this endless match, for instance.” He turned to look at the fight, frowning. “Seriously! Who booked this crap?! Fire Russoats!”

I shuddered, looking out the window as the upside down sun rose again. “This is a waste of time. I gotta find Twilight.” I didn't believe for a second that Discord had as much power over me as he let on. After all, I had the Nightbringer, and I was starting to feel like the righteously enraged goddess he so despised. Why not? I had a piece of her immaculate voice, did I not? “Hey... uhm... don't look now, but isn't that Sweet Whinny Music that Mr. Cake is using as a finisher?”

“What?!” Discord sat up, squinting harder at the fight. “But he hasn't used that since he turned hoof at Manetreal!”

This was my opportunity. Telekinetically vibrating the strings of the Nightbringer in my saddlebag, I channeled timeless energy into my horn and zapped the guitar between my forelimbs with a basic transmogrification spell. The instrument turned into a metal folding chair in a flash.

“Hmmmff... Good enough.” Holding my breath, I swung hard, clobbering Discord across the antlers with the metallic seat.

“Fappo!” he grunted. The air rang sickly with the denting of aluminum, and he toppled into the crowd like a bowling pin. Ponies cheered and screamed bloody murder, piling on top of him and raving.

There was a flash of light. I looked at myself, seeing my hoodie return to normal. Smiling, I leapt out of my seat and galloped across the arena. In swift order, I threaded through the crowd and made straightway for one of the town hall building's tall windows.

“Please don't turn to night! Please don't turn to night!” I opened the pane and jumped out into the bright daylight. “Yes! I'm out!” It was somewhere around this point that I remembered that the Town Hall building was floating upside down over the rooftops of Ponyville. A half-second later, gravity itself also remembered, and I was sent plummeting towards the sundered, checkerboard vistas below. “Gaaaaaaah!”

I sailed like an anvil past flocks of levitating pies, sword-fencing dolphins, and a one-eyed diamond dog in a propeller aircraft. Somewhere in the midst of the spinning madness, I prayed that the Nightbringer's extension of magic would somehow cushion what was about to happen to me next. To my mixed luck, my body sailed through several successive layers of rain-slick cotton candy. My fre fall slowed so that I landed softly through the roof of a giant house of playing cards. The large white sheets fluttered to a stop around me after my impact. I stood up, teetering dizzily, relishing in the aura of a green energy shield fluctuating around my form. A giant jack of clubs landed, leaning against my horn. I simply blew it back to the ground with a grunt.

“Back at ya, Stu Leaves.”

Not wasting another breath, I galloped briskly across the chaos-stricken town, trying to avoid the shadow of the hovering town hall that loomed high above. I figured that I had the element of speed and misdirection on my side. So long as I found a place to hide, some place out of open view of a flying draconequus, he just might not find me, even if he had the power to remember me.

It was a very, very long time since I ever had to actually elude someone. The events of the last several hours were so random and bizarre that I barely had a second to truly embrace the shock of my situation. I can't quantify just how many times I've begged, prayed, and pleaded to the stars that somepony—anypony—would remember me, if even once. It seemed a truly hideous whim of fate that the first entity to register my existence was the last creature I would have ever asked to do so.

As I galloped down alleyways and avenues, desperately searching for a place to hide, my mind tried to make sense of the senselessness. Both the ancient texts and the draconequus' boastful words confirmed the same thing: Discord was not of this world. He came into Equestria from a realm that existed apart from the harmonious dimension that the Cosmic Matriarch had sung into being. His arrival was like a foreign object invading a healthy body, or a splinter creating a festering wound. It took the combined effort of Celestia and Luna—tapping into the essential fabric of their mother's song—to defeat him, and yet they still didn't have the power to destroy him. Discord was never obliterated; he was contained. More than anything, that told me that while pure harmony could silence or imprison the lord of chaos, it most certainly couldn't erase him. In a way, the Elements of Harmony and Discord were like oil and water.

Perhaps, just perhaps, that meant Discord was immune to the effects of my curse. Everypony forgets me because my affliction stems from the Nocturne of the Firmaments, which—for all of its cryptic power—is merely an offshoot of the Cosmic Matriarch's song. As horrible as my curse is, it's crafted from the same fabric that wove the Elements of Harmony into being. The forgotten symphony was made to sequester an alicorn goddess within the unsung realm, a place that was suspended nakedly in the chaotic nether that collected like sediment inside the hidden vacuoles of the Firmaments.

Everypony in Equestria is bound to the structure of Creation, both known and unknown. But what power does my curse have over a being that potentially existed before Creation, as well as apart from it?

It never fails; with each passing day I discover new and disconcerting reasons to consider myself the unluckiest pony in the annals of history. Though, perhaps “second least lucky” would be a more apt title, as I have it within my power to remember Alabaster forevermore.

I couldn't let myself get too lost in thought, or else I might lose grip of my immediate and most pressing goal: finding a place to hide. But even this directive was lost the very second I turned down another street and saw—within just a few paces' distance—the glorious sight of Twilight's treehouse library.

Grinning, I scampered towards the building like an excited little foal. When I reached the door, I didn't bother with etiquette. I burst my way through the infernal thing and invaded the wooden sanctum like a demonic warrior straight from Tartarus.

A tiny dragon whelp immediately shrieked and hid behind a wooden horse carving atop the center table. “Gaaaah! Please! Leave me alone! I don't want to be chocolate rained on or forced to eat pies or bullwhipped by rubber chickens or asked to appraise any more dresses!”

“Spike!” I hissed and slammed the door shut tightly behind me. “It's okay! I'm not hear to hurt you or make you turn gray!”

“You're... Y-you're not?” His eyeslits peaked from around the table. He blinked. “Even the rubber chickens?”

“Shhh!” I pulled several blinds closed, casting the interior of the library into darkness before approaching him, out of breath. “I don’t have much time and there're too many things to explain! Discord, an all-powerful draconequus from the past, has returned from thousands of years of imprisonment. He's turned Ponyville into the chaos capital of Equestria, and I fear he's put a terrible magic spell on Twilight's friends! I have to know where she is!”

“Where who is?!”

“Twilight!”

“What for?”

“Ughhh...” I frowned at him. “My name is Lyra Heartstrings, and you will not remember me. You won't even remember this conversation. Just like everypony—” I stopped in mid-sentence, crossed my eyes, and face hoofed. “Unngh... Look. Just... just believe me when I tell you that I'm an old, old friend of Twilight's and I need to talk to her right away!”

“That's gonna be kind of hard...”

“Why's that?”

He toyed with his claws, digging a foot nervously into the floor. “She's... not here...”

My face paled. “What?!”

“She and the rest of the girls went to Canterlot at the request of Princess Celestia!” He waddled over to a window and parted the curtains long enough to gaze forlornly towards the pink clouds and flying randomness outside. “I figured it was to help the royal sisters put an end to all this nonsense!”

I smacked his wrist, forcing the curtain shut again. “How long ago did she leave?!”

“It was... it was this morning!” Spike exclaimed, fidgeting some more. “At least, I'm pretty sure it was before noon. It's been kind of hard to gauge time with the sun and moon rising and falling like crazy!”

I gaped, staring off into the shadows. “That... that was before I left the cabin.” A lump was gulped down my throat. “Before I even last visited the unsung realm.”

Unsung realm?” The whelpling looked at me sideways. “What are you talking about?”

I was pacing about the center of the room, toying with my hoodie and murmuring aloud, “Discord is somehow freed. Chaos breaks out throughout all of Equestria. Twilight is summoned to Canterlot...” I froze in place, grimacing. “The Elements of Harmony! Celestia must have needed Twilight and her closest friends to put Discord back into stone! But then... But then he got to Twilight's friends, and now there're no Elements of Harmony to stop him from making Ponyville the chaos capital of the world and spreading it to all of Equestria!” I winced visibly once more, feeling a guilty jolt surge through my heart. “And he even wants to spread it throughout the universe next...”

“Just to get things covered...” Spike gestured. “We're talking about Discord—as in the dude that Celestia and Luna banished ages ago?”

“They only wished they banished him,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Not even Tartarus can hold this menace at bay. If Twilight can't reach her friends, then none of them can turn him back into stone and make all of Equestria safe.”

“Wait a second; how do you know that Twilight and her friends are in trouble?”

I swiveled to face the baby dragon. “Discord told me.”

Spike gasped. “So you've actually talked to this draconequus guy?!”

“It's a long story, and I don't have the time to explain everything.” I took a deep breath, gazing at all the books surrounding us. “If Twilight's not here, I have to make do until she does the smart thing and returns to Ponyville.” I rushed toward the first bookcase and shouted over my shoulder, “Spike! I need you to collect all the scrolls, spellbooks, documents, and tomes you have related to harmony and the divine power of the Cosmic Matriarch!”

“What?!” He gawked at me, flabbergasted. “What for?”

“If Twilight's away, then we're gonna have to try and bring harmony to Ponyville on our own.”

“Huh?!” Spike frowned and planted his hands against his hips. “Miss Heartstrings, I dunno what's gotten into your head, but nopony in all of Equestria is even close to having the sort of magical power that Twilight has! What makes you think you could possibly find any sort of chink in this Discord dude's armor?!”

“I have to try, Spike!” I exclaimed, rummaging through the bookcases fitfully. “While it's in my power to do so!”

“Again, I gotta ask!”—Spike waddled over and yanked on my tail—“just what makes you think you've got the power?”

I looked at him, blinking. I sighed. He was right; he needed an explanation. It was time to stop hiding. “Very well. I was hesitant to share this, but it's only fair that you know, especially if I'm to demand any of your help right this instant. Not like it'll matter in the long run; you'll only forget in the end.”

“Forget?” He leaned forward. “Forget what?”

I took a breath and opened my saddlebag to reveal the velvet pouch that held the Nighbringer. I held the grand musical instrument in all its glittering glory. The interior of the library positively lit up from the golden instrument of divinity.

“This, Spike,” I said. “This gives me more raw power than the average unicorn. I may not be a match for Twilight, but I promise you that I have her best interests at heart. I only ask that you help me perform a spell or two of hers, just so that I can win back a few ponies from the cursed grayness, or at least do something to hold the forces of Discord at bay until Twilight herself shows up. Do you think you can give me that much faith and support? Huh?”

His jaw dropped. Slowly, he pointed. “You... you have the Nightbringer?”

“Yes, don't ask how, but I was able to—” I froze suddenly, my entire body petrified. I squinted at him. “Wait... How did you know that this was called—?”

“Snkkkt-Heheheheheh...” Spike hugged himself, doubling over as a vicious cackle bled through his system.

I stared at him, my body shivering in a pensive manner.

When he tilted his head up, his sockets were filled with red-on-yellow eyes. A single fang broke out through his lips as he rumbled in a deep voice, “You... Haah haah haah... You actually think that the Nightbringer can resist my waves of chaos?! Haah haah haah!” He doubled back, growing a serpentine tail and a pair of antlers.

I blinked. Sunlight peeked into the room as a loud creaking noise filled my ears. I looked up and watched with mixed surprise as the walls of the “library” fell in opposite directions like giant cardboard cutouts. Discord and I stood in the center of Ponyville, with the real treehouse standing three blocks away beneath a drizzle of chocolate rain.

I shut my eyes and took a long, deep breath. Slowly, lethargically, I turned and gave the tickled-pink draconequus an icy glare. I should have known; he didn't dig the swell hoodie. “Okay... that was well-played.”

“Haah haah haah!” He hugged himself and grinned in my direction. “If there's anything I do so love, it's a good old-fashioned game!” He winked, then shrank into the ground.

On the other side of me, an ear of corn sprouted up and bloomed. Instead of a corn cob, a miniature Discord with an eyepatch popped out and perched on my shoulder. “Yarrrgh, 'tis a pretty piece of plunder! Methinks Harpo's been lootin' the chests of the Cosmic Matriarch's locker!”

“Don't you even think about—”

“Avast ye, pretty pluckers!” With a jagged hook, mini Discord lashed greedily at the onyx strings. Before I had time to react, much less gasp, he made contact.

And then there was a bright flash of green light. The miniature draconequus caught flame like a flag struck by lightning. He dissolved into an explosion of popcorn kernels which littered the floor, congealed, and melted up into a full-sized sower of chaos.

“Well, if that isn't a burn.” He squinted and rubbed his chin quizzically. “Let's try that with the gloves off, shall we?” That said, he ripped his right paw off and reached forward with a bony hand.

“Stop—” I hissed, flinching away from him.

Again, there was a flash of light. Without even trying, I managed to successfully ward him off the very moment he tried making contact with the holy instrument. Discord's smoking body sailed into a hotel. In the meantime, I was left standing in a crater forged from the magical discharge. I felt the strings of the Nightbringer vibrating ominously while a dull bass tone hovered in the air.

“It... It...” I blinked, gazing at the golden instrument in my hooves. “It resists him...”

“Hmm, yes. So it would seem.” A river of bathwater spewed forth from the hotel's second story. Discord cascaded towards me, riding a bathtub and rowing with a boat oar. He scratched his head through a shower cap and squinted at the holy lyre that I was clutching. “Still, I've seen uglier buzz kills. At least now I know why you've been so alicorny to my charm.” He pouted and juggled a rubber duckie. “And here I thought we had something special, Harpo.”

“We had nothing!” I grunted and held the Nightbringer between us like a shield. “Now back off!”

“On the contrary, mon petit cheval!” He hopped out of the bathtub and side-kicked it into an exploding flower garden. “You've suddenly become a heck of a lot more irresistible! I suppose that will remain true until that little string-plucker of yours is handed to me, and then I'll be the irresistible one.”

The implications of that suddenly dawned on me. The only reason I hadn't been transformed into a gray anomaly was because I possessed the Nightbringer. So long as it was in my possession, so long as it was attached to my leylines, I was just as resistant to Discord as Celestia and Luna. But if the lord of chaos got ahold of the Matriarch's very own song...

“If you think for a second that I'm going to even humor the idea of giving this to you—”

“Oh, you'll have plenty of opportunities to consider it, Madame Limey!” He sneered wickedly. “For, if I'm to understand things properly, we possess all the time in the world so long as you're hugging that thing like a comfort blanket!”

I bit my lip. I thought of Alabaster, of how long it took him to teach me “Penumbra's Echo.”

“So, how would you like to do this?” Discord cracked his knuckles, his toes, his neck, and his tongue. “Philosophical fencing? Moralistic fisticuffs? Ontological debates at twenty paces?”

“Even you couldn't be so persistent!” I frowned. “All I'll do is distract you...” I was bluffing, but I gave him my best leering smirk regardless. “And then Twilight and the Princesses will strike when you're not looking!”

“You forget that you're speaking with a deity extraordinaire who knows the fine art of omnipresence.” He clamped a hand over my horn and swiveled me around like a chess piece. “Observe...”

I gasped, for I was gazing across the way at Twilight Sparkle's treehouse... and Discord was there. Not only that, but so were Twilight, four of her gray friends, and Spike—the real Spike.

“Well, well, well...” the other Discord limped woefully before the phalanx of monochromatic mares. “I see you've found the Elements of Harmony. How terrifying!”

“Discord, I've figured out your lame riddle!” Twilight exclaimed, the only colorful pony of the bunch. I couldn't remember a time when I had seen her so angry. “You're in for it now!”

“I certainly am! You've clearly out-dueled me...” In perfectly acted melodrama, the draconequus brandished a pair of shades and solemnly painted a bullseye on his chest. “And now it's time to meet my fate! I'm prepared to be defeated now, ladies. Fire when ready!”

“Formation, now!” Twilight exclaimed. A part of my soul leaped, for I realized that I was about to witness the Elements of Harmony in action, something very few equine mortals are blessed to experience. But then, just as swiftly, my heart fell, for what proceeded was quite easily the most anticlimactic display of divine power. It was somewhere between all of Twilight's friends collapsing and the same gray mares angrily stomping away that I realized that a key ingredient of the harmonious recipe was missing.

“Rainbow Dash...?” I stammered.

“So long as best pony is out of the picture, they can't pull the trigger!” The other Discord said behind me. I was swiveled around to face the draconequus once again. He was sporting the same shades and bulls-eye as his doppelganger, until he tossed them into a nearby river of cough syrup and smoothed his mane back with suave pride. “And even if Twilight somehow does recover from this humiliating defeat to round up her 'extra-special friends,' again, I'll make it so that another pony is preoccupied! And then another, and another, and another, and so forth ad nauseum. There really isn't a single thing your beloved lavender unicorn can do about it. The Elements of Harmony defeated themselves the moment some cosmic brainiac decided to pluralize them to begin with! So, Harpo, as you can well see...”

He slithered to the other side of me and toyed with my chin, grinning.

“This little rendezvous of ours can and will last forever. And even if you don't plan on kissing on the first date, I still have plenty of places for us to take our midnight strolls!” He gestured towards the heavens, and the sun fell on cue. He laughed in the sudden moonlight. “Haah haah haah! Equestria belongs to yours truly, and so you might as well just accept the truth”—he reached his talon towards the instrument—“and let me get the weight of that thing off your hooves.”

I batted his hand away, hissing, “Not on your life!”

“My my! So stubborn!” He cooed, “What a persistent little fishy you are, to constantly swim up this little existential stream of yours.”

“Huh?”

“Need I spell it out for you any more than you obviously spell it out for yourself, wordy one?” He plopped a monocle over his twitching eye and grinned. “I've had a little look-see into your leylines, Madame Limey. I know a thing or two about your hopeless little struggle.”

“I... have no idea what you're talking about,” I proclaimed, gulping.

“Oh please, Harpo, don't be coy. Let's have a little review, shall we?” He stuck a claw out from his index talon and tore open the fabric of reality. Reaching in, he grabbed a handfull of glowing leylines and tugged at them with a ringing bell noise. “All aboard the time trolley! Destination, sadness central! Woo! Woo!”

I gasped as a flat panel of starlight swiveled in the middle of us. We both fell through a magical revolving door and landed onto a gray facsimile of a very familiar balcony. I looked at my hooves, only to see that my limbs were bright, white, and see-through. Before I could ascertain the nature of this vision-state, a similarly translucent draconequus stood in a stone-gray hoodie, wiping the frost off an apartment window as snow fell over the ghostly rooftops of Canterlot.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” He smirked and pointed into the warm household beyond the clearing he had made in the foggy glass.

I looked in, and a sharp breath escaped my lungs. “Mom?! D-Dad?!”

It was Hearth's Warming Eve, nearly twenty years ago, and a pair of proud unicorn parents sat, cuddling, on a sofa, watching as their lime green foal happily tore open a present and hugged a rainbow-colored xylophone to her chest. She eagerly began plinking the various keys with a tiny drumstick, giggling with joy.

“One Lyra Heartstrings, musically gifted filly, born to a pair of affluent unicorns among the upper elite district of Alabaster Street.” Discord squinted my way and chuckled across the ghostly snowfall. “Jee, it sure is ironic around here. I just wonder what puberty is up to!” He flicked his translucent finger against the glass so that it swiveled around. Suddenly we were looking out a library window towards a university courtyard where my collegiate self sat, chatting and giggling happily with Moondancer. “There it is! Wow, Harpo, you never did a darn thing to that manestyle of yours, did you? Tsk Tsk... So conservative...”

“Discord...” I gulped and looked pensively up at him. “What are you trying to—?”

“And look at this...” He gave the window another flick, and I saw my shivering body cowering before the ominous shadow of Nightmare Moon in the center of Ponyville. “Hot dog!” He slapped his odd palms together and rubbed them. “Things are starting to get positively Flankspearean! Lyra goes to visit her dear, special, friend Twilight—and she gets the zap! What kind of a zap, you ask?”

He breathed hotly on the glass and rubbed at the fog that formed, revealing my helpless self standing atop the Ponyville town hall building with Caramel trying to talk me out of doing something truly terrible.

“Why, the most tragic kind of zap!” Discord continued. “The kind of zap that makes her forgettable, invisible, and unremarkable. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Hey!” He called out to my past self atop the roof's edge. “Do a backflip!” He pivoted the window, this time vertically, and gaped at an image of me talking with and comforting Derpy Hooves. “What's this?” He flipped it again and again, blurring through a montage of ponies, conversations, tears, and a log cabin in progressive stages of construction. “Ooooh! How juicy! She lives!” He turned and winked bitterly at me. “If you could call it 'living...'”

I bit my lip, watching in trepidation as the images grew more and more painfully familiar.

“What a delectably agonizing existence that had to have been for our self-indulgent little heroine! To receive hugs, but never receive love! To save foals, and let the glory go to tomcolts! To do all the giving... but what of the taking?” He swiveled the window one last time, and in between the multiple panels I saw Moondancer and Twilight yelling at each other, a gravestone to a forgotten soldier, Scootaloo in the arms of Rainbow Dash, and a blue-maned stallion nuzzling a tearful construction worker. Sticking his grinning face before all of these images, Discord hissed, “It must sting to have only one pony care for you, and knowing that that pony is you.” With a twitch of his eye, he slammed his fist against the glass.

The vision fell apart in translucent shards all around us, revealing the sunlit courtyard of chaotic Ponyville once again. Only in the light did I realize how misty my eyes had gotten. I sniffled and cleared my throat, hugging the Nightbringer tight to my chest like a pillow.

“One has to ask how a pony with such a bizarre little curse managed to hold on to so much and yet so little...” He paced around me, examining the nails of his paw. “Hmmm... But I suppose it could explain why you're so instinctually drawn to the Nightbringer like a magnet. I mean, what else have you ever afforded yourself, Miss Heartstrings?” He paused and glanced down at me. “Perhaps you just haven't had a real opportunity to receive anything until now.”

I swallowed a lump down my throat and looked up at him, my lips quivering. “What do you mean?”

“Think about it, my dear.” He squatted down at my level and breathed softly, his eyes full of sympathy and warmth. “Your past speaks the truth in gentle tones, like a mournful piano ballad. You've had no other soul to share your agony, your loneliness, your frustration. But things have changed. I, a being of chaos, have frolicked into your life.” He reached a talon out. “And I do so extending a hand of mercy...”

“You... do?”

“Oh, absolutely. Lyra, I-I had no idea!” He gestured towards me. “No wonder you've been so stubborn and defiant! You've only had yourself to answer to all this time! Nopony can blame you for wanting to defend the magic of your alicorn goddesses so badly! I mean, it's the only thing you've had to lean on for so long! It's noble! Why, it's more than noble, it's legendary! And maybe... just maybe... I can make sure that your exhaustive plight gets recorded into the history books like it so justly deserves.”

My eyes quivered, on the verge of tears. “How...?”

“I am a god among insects, my dear, and you've spent far too long sitting at the bottom of the anthill.” He stood up straight. “Let me use my immeasurable powers to pull you to the surface, so that you can be with your loved ones again, and all the ponies whose lives you've touched can know how special, charming, and selfless an equine you've been all these long, sad months.” His crimson eyes sparkled as he reached his arms out towards my forelimb. “All it takes is a little faith, and a sign of your trust. If you just hoof me the Nightbringer, I promise that I will do all that is within my strength to cleanse the horrible curse that has befallen you.”

I gulped. I looked at his smile, his palms, then at the source of the shimmering golden glow that was reflecting off of it all. I imagined the Nightbringer in his grasp, the music being made to bring mayhem to the cosmos. Hundreds of millions of ponies, all equally as precious as Twilight and her friends, screamed in confusion and pain before being rewritten like so many of my weeping words. After a deep breath, I frowned and hugged the instrument closer. “No go, Discord,” I grunted.

“Oh, come on!” he barked, his entire body jerking into a frown. “You are the most uptight bag of winded pretense and blind resolve I have ever met!”

“And you”—I swung the divine lyre away from him and raspberried—“are an ugly goat!”

“I'm getting that dag-blasted Nightbringer from you!”

“No, you're not!”

“Ay gevalt!” He grabbed me by my haunches and shook me vigorously over the Main Street of Ponyville. “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”

“Nnnnngh!” I hugged it tighter and hissed through an impermeable barrier of emerald magic. “Never!”

“Ugh!” He tossed me angrily to the ground and stomped his irregular feet. “I swear! Equestria is as bad off as when I first showed up ten thousand years ago! Nopony wants to play along!”

“Existence is just one big, silly game to you, isn't it?!” I retorted.

“No, of course it's more than that!”

“How so?! Humor me!” I frowned at him. “Show me that there's a single shred of respect to be found in that demonic body of yours!”

“I would... erm... if I could remember.”

I made a face. “Huh?”

“Being in stone does wonders to the body. It rejuvenates and regenerates. But it takes a big dump in the brain, if you catch my smelly drift.” He leaned forward with a wicked sneer. “Speaking of which, you can't possibly keep both of those hooves locked onto the Nightbringer forever. Some mortal function or another is going to force you to let go.”

“You...” I grimaced at him. “You are a freak!”

“To each their own, Harpo. You'd better make plans for what you're going to let go of first, that golden lyre or your decency.”

“I am prepared to do whatever it takes for preserving Equestria's safety—”

Discord was already morphing his wrist into a megaphone and shouting before the entire village. “Hey, Ponyville! Did you hear that?!

“Discord—!”

Madame Limey here is gonna smell up your whole town!

“Discord, stop it!”

Stick that in your plushie and smoke it!”

“I mean it!”

“Haah haah haah!” Discord bent over and slapped his knee. “The funny thing is, I already know that I'm going to win this duel, Harpo! Now, why don't you quit now while you're ahorn?”

“Just you wait and see. I'll reunite with Twilight. And when I do, we'll use the Nightbringer to bring back her friends and—”

Just then, a frolicking sight struck my peripheral vision. I became aware of Scootaloo prancing through the street in a pink gown, sporting a tiara. “Heeeeee! I'm a pretty princess—!” The gray filly had her bouncing eyes shut, so that she was unaware of the giant cheese wheel rolling towards her in front of a stampede of moose-antler'd mice.

I gasped. “Oh jeez!” In a green flash, I was dashing over to her with a magical burst from the Nightbringer.

Discord must have been watching, for I heard him utter, “Hmm? What's this?”

I was hardly paying attention to him. I sailed myself towards Scootaloo at full speed. Before the chaotic mayhem could run her over, I shoved the fancily dressed foal out of the way and into the safe cushion of a nearby flower bush.

“Ughh...” I sat up, shaking my head as the cheese wheel and murderous mice rode past us. “That was close. Scootaloo, I don't care what state your head's in, you gotta be more careful—”

She responded with a gray hoof slapping my cheek. “You oafish brute! Look at me! My dress is ruined!” She limped off on broken heels. “Now how will I ever dazzle my prince?”

I looked after her, then slumped to the ground with a groan. Slowly, like melting ice, Discord slid up beside me. He stared at Scootaloo, at me, then at Scootaloo again.

“Hmmm... Well, if this isn't interesting.”

I stared exasperatingly up at him. “What now?”

“What indeed.” He grinned and snapped his finger. He disappeared in a flash of light, and Scootaloo appeared in his place.

“Uhhh... Scootaloo?” I hummed.

She blinked at me from beneath a bent tiara until her eyes went crooked. When they snapped back in place, they took on a red color. A fang dripped out of her mouth as she grinned and spoke in Discord's voice. “I think I've figured out what truly henpecks you, Harpo. You're the local mare-do-well of these parts, a ghostly phantom of providence. Dare I say”—Scootaloo's head tilted to the side—“a guardian angel of invisibility?”

“What... What are you getting at?”

“It's all so siii-iii-iiimple!” Discord's voice uttered in a chuckling tone. Scootaloo's left forelimb morphed into a talon, reached into her pink gown, and pulled out a frying pan. “This is your brain.” She smacked herself in the gray skull with a resounding clang. “This is your brain on benevolence!”

“H-hey!” I protested, gasping.

Scootaloo smacked herself again. Clang. “And this is what it does to your pony friends!”

“Stop it!”

Clang. “And to your neighbors.” Clang. “And to your foalhood companions!” Clang. “And to your mentors!”

I snarled and gripped the frying pan with telekinesis. “Stop abusing Scootaloo!”

She leaned her welted forehead towards me, glaring with Discord's eyes. “But what... does it do to your heart?”

I stared at her with a pale sheen, sweating.

She grinned with a bleeding lip and flung her neck back. “Mail call!”

In a flash, Discord and I were perched on the back of the scooter behind Derpy. The gray mailmare looked behind her in mid-glide across Ponyville. “Huh?! Hey! This is my route!”

“You've been written out!” Discord kicked Derpy in the flank. With a gasp, the straight-eyed pegasus flew into a nearby fruit cart, baseball bat and all. Taking over the handles of the scooter, Discord swung us around the bend, down the block, and skidded us to a stop in front of a gasping little unicorn.

“You're not my mommy!” a colorful Dinky exclaimed.

“No, my dear, we are not.” Discord grabbed me and dismounted from the scooter. “But we had a long talk with googly-dearest, and we mutually decided that music playing just isn't for you.”

Dinky gasped, her eyes wide and watering. “But... But... I've been practicing with the flute so much! Mom got it for me as a gift!”

“Discord...” I stammered, shivering once again.

He leaned over and sneered into the little foal's face. “You don't deserve a flute, you avaricious little larva!” His fang glinted as he hissed, “Just like you never deserved a father!”

Dinky reeled back, gasping. Her wide eyes began brimming with tears. “But.. But... Mommy says I have a Daddy, only he's not around a lot...”

“That's because your Daddy's far away, getting paid and getting old.” Discord ran a hand over Dinky's mane and tapped her nose until her eyes swirled. “Drinking every night to forget the little accident his wife foaled.”

Sniffling, Dinky collapsed to the ground. As the color was drained from her body, she broke into quiet little sobs.

“Discord!” I hissed at him. “You take that back!”

“You take it back yourself!” Discord flippantly said, yawning. “That's what you do, isn't it? Sap the pain and anguish from ponies too forgetful to thank you in return? Oh, wait, I just remembered”—he grinned and glared at me through the corner of his yellow sockets—“you're too busy holding onto the Nightbringer and 'protecting the interests of Equestria' to bother being what you're good at. Hmmm?”

“I... I...”

“I wonder who else is on the list...” Discord gripped me and spun us like a cyclone. The chaotic village whirled around us, and suddenly we were materializing in the center of a wooden clubhouse. In the corner, three foals were cowering.

“It's him!” Apple Bloom shrieked, her amber eyes wide. “It's that monster that's been doin' evil things in Ponyville!”

“Make him go away!” Sweetie Belle shrieked, hiding under a sheet in the corner of the room. “I just want all of this to go away!” She began sobbing. “I want my big sister! I want Rarity!”

“Nnnngh!” Rumble was there, and in spite of his shivers he was bravely rushing forward. “You leave them alone! I... I-I'm not afraid of you!”

“No!” I shouted behind Discord's frame, waving frantically at the foals in panic. “Run away! I can keep him occupied! Just don't let him touch you or—” The tip of Discord's tail flew into my mouth. “Mmmmf!”

His front half was leaning forward, grinning clownishly at the two fillies behind Rumble. “Step aside, Romeoats.” He flicked his wrist, and the two little ponies levitated up in a field of chaotic magic. “My little ponies, why have so much fear? There's so much to do now that your talents are here!”

“Our...” Apple Bloom squinted at him. “...talents?”

He merely chuckled and snapped his finger. Bright beams of light illuminated their flanks as he lowered them back down. “Try not to blow up anything you might miss...”

When the two ponies landed, they glanced at their hind quarters and saw bright red dynamite sticks emblazoned on their coats. They gasped with hypnotized joy as the color drained from the rest of their bodies.

“Our special talents!”

“Hoooray!”

Cutie Mark Crusader Demolition Experts!” They slapped on hard hats and produced black, bulbous bombs from seemingly nowhere and began tossing them around at random. Huge pockets of fire and shrapnel began ripping holes in the wooden treehouse as they scampered around, giggling innocently amidst their destruction.

“Discord! Stop it!” I shouted. I glanced in horror at the absurd scene, praying that none of their limbs flew off from the random blasts. “They're going to hurt somepony! Or worse!”

“Hey, dying is the easiest talent to learn!” Discord said with a shrug.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rumble stammered, gazing at his sweetheart with wide eyes. He winced as part of the roof blew up over his long mane. “What's gotten into your head?! This... th-this monster's done something to you!”

“And why should you care so terribly much?” Discord looked him square in the eyes and dug a paw pad into the colt's ear. “You're far too young for romance and such.”

A cutie mark appeared on Rumble's flank: a bleeding heart with a dagger through it. His face turned a paler shade of gray as a horrendous frown crossed his features. He swiveled about, marched across the treehouse, and tripped Sweetie Belle in mid-prance.

“Whoah!” Sweetie fell to the floorboards, dropping a pair of bombs that blew up a table and a bench across the way. As a shower of splinters fell past her, she saw Rumble leaning over and frowning in her face.

“You're selfish, fat, and dumb as mud!” Rumble spat. “In fact, the only pony who loves you is your sister, and that's 'cuz you're her garbage disposal for when she cooks too much! Hmmph!” He kicked dirt on her and trotted fitfully out of the place. “Try wooing another guy, assuming you have the brains to tell the difference between a colt and a fire hydrant!”

Sweetie Belle blinked after him. Slowly, her eyes began to water, and a pitiful wailing sound came out of her gray mouth. This, of course, was interrupted by a large explosion as Apple Bloom tossed a stick of dynamite across the treehouse.

The place collapsed around us. I fell several feet and hit the ground below the tree, clutching desperately to the divine instrument. When I got up, everything was smoldering debris and wreckage. I gasped and started lifting planks of wood off one another with telekinesis, panting in terror.

“Sweetie Belle! Apple Bloom!” I searched and rummaged and scoured the wreckage. “Speak to me! I gotta get you out!” Finally, I saw a horn and plucked at it with my magic. “Sweetie Belle—”

The antler lifted out, and Discord's grinning head rose along with it. “I can help them. I can reverse this and everything.” His eyes narrowed. “You know what to give me to make it happen...”

“Quit it!” I snarled, trying to remain firm; I was close to hyperventilating. “These foals have done nothing to you—”

“They're alive,” Discord droned with thin eyes. “They're harmonious. They worship Celestia. They've done absolutely everything that I despise. The only thing keeping me from doing everything that you hate to them is your stubbornness. Now be a responsible little background pony and give that musical prop of yours to someone closer to center stage, preferably moi.”

“I... I...”

“Well?”

I bit my lip and trembled, clutching the golden item with rattling hooves.

“Hmmm... I see that I have to raise the stakes a bit.” His eyes suddenly lit up, chilling my soul. “Oh ho ho ho ho...” He reached forward and grabbed my shoulders. “You're gonna love this.”

In a blinding strobe, we were gone. I jerked, clenching my eyes shut. When we landed, I heard a gasping voice echoing across a tiny room.

“Good heavens!” a horrifyingly familiar voice stammered. I smelled lavender and musk. I felt like sobbing. “What are you doing here?”

I opened my eyes, and they were already tearing. Morning Dew and Ambrosia stood at the far end of their living room, gawking at the hovering draconequus who was overshadowing them with wicked menace.

“D-Discord...” I heard my voice whimper. I barely had the strength to stand up, much less hold tight to the item of his desire. “Pl-please...”

“Who in tarnation ordered a turkey vulture from Tartarus?!” Ambrosia remarked, only to have a fierce lion's paw shove her across the room. “Ooof!”

“Yes, yes, we'll get to you some other time, my little hussy. But you.” He gripped Morning Dew's muzzle, scrunching his lips into an awkward smile. “Oh, of all the whimsically unintentional symbols of hopeless love!”

“Hey!” Ambrosia shouted and tried to get up. “You get away from him, ya hear—!” Discord's tail pinned her down. She struggled and fought against his weight

Discord wasn't finished. He lifted Morning Dew up in his hovering grip, muttering, “Quite frankly, I don't get it! I mean, look at you! You're frail! You're weak! You're practically effeminate!” His head swiveled about like a sink faucet and grinned directly at me. “Who fits into whose grooves, I wonder?”

“Discord, not him!” I was shouting at this point. I couldn't stop it, nor could I stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. “Please! I'm begging you! Not him!”

“What... what do you want from m-me?” Morning Dew barely hissed.

“Me? Oh no no no no, toilet-head, not me!” Discord ran a talon through the stallion's ocean blue hair and gestured behind him. “This is all about her! That's why we're paying you this cordial visit!”

“Wh-who?!” Morning Dew's eyes twitched between me and Discord. “I... I don't understand!”

“Oh don't be so shy! This is your time in the spotlight!” With a snarl, Discord spun and tossed the stallion like a ragdoll into the center of the room. A table was knocked over, shattering a lamp in front of my hooves.

“Discord—!” I shrieked.

“You know what to do in the spotlight, don't you?” Discord marched over him. “I'll give you a hint. It involves staying focused.” He snapped his fingers.

Morning Dew instantly turned gray. When he did so, his eyes rolled back in his head and his body collapsed from a sleeping spell. He lay on the floorboards, twitching and spasming in unconsciousness.

“Yooohooo! Earth to casaneighvaaaa?” Discord paced around him just far enough to keep his tail pressed against Ambrosia. “Tsk tsk tsk... What a terrible way to treat your audience! You need to man up and keep your head in the game!” He snapped his fingers once more.

The yellow returned to Morning Dew's coat. His eyes fluttered as he awoke, limply looking up at us. “Where... How...?”

“My my my... what a terrible little condition you have! To fall asleep at a moment's notice! It must be hard to keep your wits about you.” He snapped his fingers again.

Morning Dew slumped gray and cold on the floor, his eyes frozen open.

“For that matter, it must be hard to keep anything about you!” He caught Ambrosia's frowning glance and snapped his finger. “What promises of provisions do you have for your loved ones?”

Morning Dew gasped, sputtering, as if coming up to the surface of a deep, deep lake.

Discord leaned over. “In fact, I would go so far as to say that the only souls who loved you...” He pivoted about and stared off-kilter at the two mares in the room. “Are ones pathetic enough to confuse intimacy with pity.”

“Just... Just... t-tell us what y-you want...” Morning Dew stammered, wheezing and gasping for a solid breath.

“Oh, I know what I want!” Discord paced around some more, snapping his fingers repeatedly. As a result, Morning Dew was thrown into spasms, waking and collapsing with his body quivering all over from massive seizures. “But a certain self-righteous soul isn't giving it to me! If I can't have what I deserve, why should anypony? Hmmm?”

“Leave him alone!” Ambrosia snarled. “Curse you! Just leave us in peace!”

“A funny thing, peace.” Discord did not let up. From the repeated snapping of his omnipotent fingers, Morning Dew was starting to gurgle, gagging on his own tongue as the floor turned damp from the stallion's drool. “You're supposed to get that from dreams, yes?” He snapped and snapped and snapped his fingers. “You know, where I come from, there's nothing but chaos. There is no sun or moon. Sleeping, as you must guess, is very strange to a creature such as me.” Morning Dew twitched, collapsed, spasmed, and collapsed again. “I imagine it must be oh so terribly frightening for the likes of you: to be suspended in darkness, with the promise of morning like a slim speck of light on the desolate, empty horizon. In a way, it's how ponies practice for death. There must come a time when you ask yourself”—his eyes took on a poignant shade of crimson as his fang reflected his snapping fingers—“when will be the last time you go to sleep, and when will you not wake up?”

Morning Dew's sputtering voice echoed across the chamber. He curled up in a fetal position, helplessly sobbing from the ordeal. Ambrosia was rambling incoherently at this point. The lights of the dancing sun and moon were flashing outside the window.

Through my tears and my hysteria, I looked at Morning Dew, at the Nightbringer, and at Discord's curved lips. The draconequus was menacing, he was evil, and he was cruel. But through it all, the logical part of my mind reminded me: he was playful. Our horror was his fun. Our torment was his pleasure, and all this time he had been scoring all the points. A sharp breath escaped my lungs.

Discord leered above Morning Dew's waking figure. He prepared to snap his fingers one final time.

“A game!” I shouted.

His talons froze. The draconequus pivoted to face me with a bored expression. “I beg your pardon?”

“A game. I... I challenge you to a game!” I exclaimed, panting hard. I gulped and held the golden Nightbringer up high. “And this... th-this is my wager!”

He squinted, blinking periodically. “Oh really?” he hooted and stood up straight. He relinquished the pressure on his tail, and Ambrosia rushed over to cradle a gasping Morning Dew, nuzzling him dearly.

I gulped. “Let's play a game. If... If I win, you let me go and stop messing around with all of these ponies' lives!”

“Interesting. A tad bit predictable, but interesting.” He sat in an invisible chair before me and folded his arms with a curious glare. “And what, pray tell, do I get if I win this improvisational contest?”

“You get...” I gulped hard, trembling all over as I forced myself to spit the words out, “You get to t-turn my brain to goo... and gloat to all of Equestria that you finally defeated this little philosopher.”

“Mmmhmmm...” His eyes trailed down to the source of the golden shine. “Aaaaaaaaand?”

I took a deep breath. “And the Nightbringer becomes yours.”

“Nowwwww we're talkin'.” He tapped his talons and paw pads together. “Just what does this game entail?”

“The game...” I stammered. “The game...” I muttered again, more limply this time.

My eyes flew off into space as my thoughts stabbed myself for not thinking this far ahead. I pondered over all of the horrible things Discord had done. I thought of all the absurd, cynical, and comedically dark angles he had painted his artistic mayhem with. I looked beyond all the menace and the pomp and realized that, deep down, he was nothing more than a hooligan with innately godlike powers. The only way to keep a crafty imp from being bored was to present him with an equal degree of craftiness altogether.

I can't say that the epiphany I had was a brilliant one, but it was all that made sense at the time.

“The oldest game!” I exclaimed boldy, smirking up at him. It took titanic strength to maintain that smile, as my cheeks were still damp from witnessing Morning Dew's ordeal. “The most classic and creative of games! A game of weights and averages and constants and contrasts! A game that appeals to logic, creativity, and daring!”

“Yes, your ambiguity is an art unto itself.” He gestured with a gnarled paw. “Details, Harpo. Details!”

I looked at him firmly. “I state what I am, and in response you state that you're something that can conquer, eliminate, or undo what I am. I subsequently state that I'm something that can trump what you chose to be. We proceed with our hypothetical transformations, with each combatant having to logically defeat the other in our projected scenarios. The first one who can't think of a legitimate victor, or is too confounded to propose a conquering statement, becomes the loser. The victor will earn his or her spoils. Now, what do you think?”

He gave me a cockeyed glare. “I think somepony's been reading a little too much of Neil Gaimane's The Sandmare.”

“Are you going to hide behind snarky comments all day?!” I finally barked at him. My eyes narrowed with menace. “Or is it that you're too cowardly to take up a good challenge when you hear one?”

“Oh ho ho ho... Look at the molars on you, Madame Limey!” He stood up straight and cracked his knuckles. “As a matter of fact, I'm more than willing to meet you at this insipid little obstacle course of vocal ballistics. I can't think of a faster and easier way to get the Nightbringer out of your obstinate hooves! But hey! Once your mind is turned to goo, you won't have the nerves to feel how burned your ego is, now will you? Haah haah haah!”

“Well?!” I glanced—shivering—at the loving couple a few feet away from me. They were shaken, they were rattled, but they were safe. I glanced up at Discord. “Are you game or aren't you?”

“If you paid any attention to me, Harpo, you'd realize that I was totally game for the game, my little gamemeister.” He gestured towards me. “Now game away.”

“Huh?”

“Pfft. It was your proposal. I think you should be the first to unfurl the sails for this splendorous voyage of redundancy! Well? Let's hear it!” He flicked a finger against his fang, producing a bell sound. “Round one, harpflanks!”

“Right... Uhm... Right...” I took a deep breath, glancing at the two ponies. “But first, a change of scenery. We've messed with them enough—”

“Nnnngh!” Discord shoved his paw against the wall and spun the entire room around us like a wooden top. “Stop delaying!” he snarled. “I want that damnable Nightbringer!” The room spun slowly to a stop, fittingly turning into the interior of the Carousel Boutique. Light filtered in through the broad glass windows as well as two large stone-shaped holes as Discord impatiently leered above me. “Now get started!”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath, leaning back on my haunches and feeling my heart beating through my stone gray hoodie. I clutched the Nightbringer tightly, tripped over a mental hurdle, and finally produced. “I am a manticore, strong and ferocious. I prowl the thickets of the Everfree Forest, claiming the top seat of the food chain. I back down from no creature, for there is no living thing that has ever looked into my face without my jaws lunging towards its throat.”

“Haah! Oh puhhhh-leeease.” Discord tilted his scoffing head so far back he almost fell into Rarity's sewing table. “If that's how you're going to go about it, then I'll be winning your precious little Nightbringer in a Manehattan minute! Ahem...”

He leaned back, and when he did so he was sporting a curved beak and two avian eyes.

“I am a griffon, king of the air.” He raised a pair of razor sharp talons while sporting a lion's tail. “I've evolved well beyond the need to live in the wilderness or the incessant habit of defecating atop bald ponies' heads from cloud level.” On twin wings, he hovered around the room, never stopping to leer down at me for one second. “But still, that doesn't change the fact that—deep down inside—I am a carnivore, and I know how to turn the most ferocious predator into the weakest prey.” He grabbed a curtain and hung off it, pretending to be scanning an invisible forest with hawkeyes. “I see the strong manticore, and my stomach gurgles. So I swoop down”—he landed thunderously before me in full draconequus mode, grinning psychotically—“and I claw out the poor bastard's eyes! And then I wait for the mighty manticore to bleed out, and take his shanks of flesh back home to my nest in the mountains.” He stood back and leisurely brushed his paw off his hairy chest. “That one was for free. Your turn.”

I stood proudly and said, “I am a dragon, older than continents themselves. With my wisdom, I see the griffon acting like a barbaric murderer. With my strength, I intervene. My iron jaws cleave easily through the avian creature's feathers and hollow bones. I swallow the flesh whole, and any trinkets of metallic importance become mine to take home to my hoard.”

“Hmmm... How dark. I like it!” Discord merely smirked, reverse somersaulted, and landed bare-back on one of the boutique's many ponyquins. With a snap of his finger, a full suit of armor appeared on his body. He twirled a mighty lance in his paw. “I am a knight, sworn to the order of the Equestrian Court! For ages, my fellow soldiers and I have been trained to vanquish the land of marauding dragons. With my guile, I charge the foul-breathing drake! With my tenacious skills of combat, I avoid the wyrm's iron jaws. With countless ages of Equestrian civilization's recorded knowledge, I outsmart all of the dragon's many tricks. His wisdom is no match for me, for I've chopped off the source of the ancient creature's wisdom at the head—literally!—with my mighty blade! I carry the skull back to the castle and put it on a pike for all of ponydom to see. Victoriously I shout, 'Here there may be dragons, but there'll always be slayers of dragons!'” He tilted the face guard of his helmet up and winked at me. “Your turn.”

I looked at the floor of the boutique, anxious, searching. My heart began beating faster and faster with the seconds that lingered by. Then, with a gasp, I looked up at him and said, “I am a pestilence! A horrible, rampant, and infectious disease! The dragon's head is one of many things that brings a contagion to your castle! Armor, combat, and tenacity means nothing when I seep into your body and pull your most guarded organs apart at the fibrous seams. Your kingdom's pride can't hold off a plague. Your beloved culture has no shield against something that is tiny and invisible! Before you know it, I have consumed half of your populace, and your triumphant victory is short lived.”

“Au contraire, mon petite equine.” Discord snapped his fingers and appeared in a white lab coat with matching stethoscope. “I am doctors, nurses, surgeons—heck—the entire field of medicine! I was invented by civilizations that were almost wiped out by the likes of you, but did not completely die off. Why? Because they had enough brain noodle in their skulls telling them that nothing's truly invisible, and with enough commitment and study, even the most seemingly insignificant causes of suffering can be combatted! Not with swords and with maces, mind you, but with sterilization and carefully constructed remedies. I look after my fellow kind and uphold their health and well-being above all. I acknowledge the power that your pestilence has, and yet I learn from it; I evolve.” He grinned devilishly, his fang glinting. “I survive.”

“I...” My breaths came out in nervous pants. I was starting to lose my concentration. I was dealing with a creature of omnipotence who had been around for far more years than I'd ever hoped to count. How could I have possibly hoped to outwit him, much less outlast him? I had to be daring. I had to take a chance and morph the game. “I am economy!”

He raised the metal disc of the stethoscope quizzically towards me and cocked his ears. “Buh?”

“I... am money. Finite resources. The means to which everypony—even doctors... especially physicians must go to feed themselves and their loved ones.” I gulped and leaned over the Nightbringer in my grasp. “I am an object of necessity, the carrot at the end of a stick. The field of medicine has infinite possibilities, but because of me there is limited scope. No civilization has ever existed that can appropriate everything to everypony. Societies have come and gone, changing and transforming throughout the eons. I have stayed constant, a necessary illusion by which all sentient and civilized entities must function. Until all equines become as powerful and invulnerable as alicorns—a veritable impossibility—there will be a need for good health, and I'm the funnel through which those who are specialized in the field must aim their talents. Doctors, nurses, and surgeons seek to help other ponies, but they must also help themselves. So long as they acknowledge me, the symptoms of the world are cured, but diseases remain forevermore. I force the industry of caretaking to quantify benevolence, thereby diluting it. After all, selflessness is noble, but everything still has a price.”

“Alright, just hand it over—” Discord reached a talon towards the holy instrument.

I swung away from him, frowning. “You haven’t earned it yet!”

“'Economy?!' Seriously?!” He almost gagged. “If I wasn't nearly falling asleep from boredom, I'd say you're stretching things a bit!”

“And like the 'field of medicine' wasn't abstract enough!”

“Horses for courses, Madame Limey. You never defined the categories at the start of this game.”

“So why don't you stop dragging your feet and think of something to better my turn?!” I tilted my chin up and smiled. “Or are you simply not as imaginative as me?”

“Ohhhh... Ohhhh ho ho ho ho...” He cracked his knuckles, his knees, and spun his head around twice, all the while grinning at me. “You wanna go abstract, Harpo? Then let's make sweet love to the nebulous tenets of reality in style!” He leaned aside and snapped his fingers.

In a flash of light, a deep blue unicorn appeared with a starry sorceress hat and robe. Gasping, she spun around and frowned at us. “The Great and Powerful Trixie demands an explanation for this unwarranted—”

Discord viciously kicked her in the side.

“Ooof!” She flew off into a ruby chest on the far end of the boutique while her garments fluttered behind.

“There! You had your cameo!” Discord bitterly spat. He donned her pointed hat and flung her cape over an arm while smoke and sparklers framed his figure dazzlingly from behind. “I am the epitome of mysticism, the curious spark that causes hearts to leap in the dark hush of night.” His face peered up from behind the cape, grinning darkly as his eyes lit up in the fireworks bursting prismatically across the Boutique. “I am that which is feared and desired above all and—above all—all at once!” He raised both arms. In one paw, he cradled a plume of flame. In the other, he levitated a cloud of frost. “I am the puppet master of the elements, the rule-breaker of that which is seen, and the conjurer of that which is not seen.” He gestured towards the glass windows, staining them with yellow shapes of stars that shot through the panes at his command. “The heavens part at my whim, and the earth divides at my leisure.” He flung a shower of sparks in my direction and spoke menacingly through the crackling embers. “What I desire, I can produce. There is no need for money, for alchemy transcends paper and coin. There is no need for economy when I circumvent the limits of resources and expose ponies to the wonders of infinite possibilities.” He struck a pose, the cape billowing majestically behind him as he grinned into the shimmering aura he had created. “For I... am magic.”

Even I was surprised at how quickly I retorted. “I am science!” I said with a grin. “Through careful observation and experimentation, ponies use me to grasp the truth of the world, including all its magic!”

“Hey, no fair...” He glared as all of the parlor tricks behind him collapsed like bricks onto the floor. “I already picked 'medicine,'” he said, pointing with a talon.

“I do not speak of a practice!” I exclaimed. I smiled. “I speak of absolutes, of the rules of the universe that must be followed. Can magic conjure things that weren't there before? Certainly, but it does not do it without a reason. Can magic give ponies that which was previously unobtainable? Most definitely, but even the energy imbued with mysticism must follow specific guidelines. These laws aren't subject to being bent, being changed, being manipulated in any way. Even you, for all of your omnipotent talents and absurd power, have an explanation. I exist as a means for ponies to grasp the universe, even if they can't grasp themselves. For even though sentient beings don't know all the truths that there are to discover, they at least know that something exists out there to be grasped, to be ascertained, to be understood. I stand firm and absolute in the minds of sentience, proclaiming a rigid truth: that all things that exist do so for a reason!”

“Hmmm...” Discord leaned back, peeling the cape and hat off of him as he scratched his chin.

“Is that it?” I frowned. “Well?! Have we reached an end?”

He was silent for a few seconds.

I clung tighter to the Nightbringer, grunting, “Have we?!”

He blinked. Then, he smiled. “Hardly...” He snapped his fingers.

My entire body went numb. I wanted to scream, but all that came from my mouth were vapors. I fell to the ground, discovering cobblestone and mortar instead of the familiar floor of the Boutique. Every inch of my body twitched in convulsing pain from the utter cold assaulting me from all angles. I looked up, shivering, fearful that my eyes would freeze within my sockets. I saw a giant cathedral, marked with the Celestial crest. I instantly recognized it, but my heart was too freezing to possibly register a startled jump.

“We're... w-we're n-n-not in Ponyville anymore...” I said through chattering teeth.

“I've never been much of a laypony,” Discord remarked, pacing around me as we sat—hunched in the moonlight—before the Celestial Temple of central Canterlot. Pink clouds drifted through the stars overhead as his voice echoed in the empty streets before the majestic building of tribute. “How about you, Harpo? Something tells me you could use a prayer right about now.”

“You... y-you're ch-ch-cheating...” I hissed and huddled around the Nightbringer. I should have been dead by then. Only by the magical grace of the holy instrument was I surviving, or at least that was what I had imagined. Even still, I didn’t know how long I could have possibly lasted. My face convulsed as I lost the feeling in my ears, hooves, and nose. “Even you m-must kn-know what the c-c-curse does to m-me th-this far away from th-that town...”

“If you were so concerned about trivialities, then perhaps you should have been a bit more specific with the rules when you established this little duel, gamemeister!” He said with a frown.

“T-t-take us b-b-back...” I hissed, feeling my spit turning to frost in my mouth. I sputtered and wheezed. “Pl-pl-please...”

“Shhhh... Pay attention, Harpo.” He paced past me and approached the large wooden doors to the temple. “Can't have you losing concentration and forfeiting the game while you're ahead, now can we?”

I weakly shifted and looked up at him, my tear ducts leaking with blue crystals.

He spun to face me, gesturing epically towards the broad face of the building. “Science?! Hah! I scoff at science! Oh ye of little faith...” He stepped back towards me, smirking. “Not to mention warmth.”

I whimpered and curled into myself, trying to rub my forelimbs together. My hoodie felt like a stiff burlap funeral shroud.

“Do you not know what I am? Do you not know how long I've been around? I'm older than the cosmos, bigger than the universe!” He gestured towards the stars peeking above the cotton candy clouds ahead. “The cosmic bodies that make up your constellation?! I was in the bitter blackness before they even blinked into being! Hey, for all you know—heheh—I could have been the one who dropped them into place to begin with! Can your science explain how that happened? I daresay 'no.' Your beloved science can't explain why the heart still beats and why miracles happen and why things live only to die. The Cosmic Matriarch is older than science, after all, for she was older than thought itself.”

He hissed and pointed a finger at me, his talon positioned as far away from his head as possible.

“How dare you question the source of where questions come from! You think you know everything, little scientist? Tiny philosopher?!” He shuffled over and stood before me. “Yes, there are rules... but there also has to be a rulemaker. You present me science?” He knelt down and tilted my freezing face up to look into his grin. “I present you divinity.”

My vision was shaking too hard to take in the enormity of his curved lips.

“So then, Madame Limey, what are you?”

I hissed, trying to move my tongue through a numb mouth. Sputtering, I produced, “I am honor.”

His brow furrowed beneath his antlers.

I wheezed again and continued, “Yes, I am honor. N-not j-j-just to mortals, but to y-yourself. Your d-divinity m-may hold sway over the rules of th-the world, but you h-have the responsibility to m-m-measure up to yourself.” I gulped, buried my face into my hooves, and muttered through my misery. “Your cr-cruelty exists because you are c-capable of grace. Your p-power exists b-b-because you not only g-gave birth to weakness, but did so b-because you needed something to cherish. A god or g-g-goddess cannot be purely destructive, for then they would be alone. A divine b-b-being cannot be immanent completely in creation, b-because then their omnipotence would d-dissolve into nature. To exist, you m-must be b-balanced, as we are all balanced, as we are all b-b-bound—forever and ever—to honor. Th-that is why we b-build temples, and that is why we erect cities around them. Honor is the wellspring of l-life, and th-the fulcrum upon wh-which all laws function.”

“Hmmm... Indeed.” Discord stood up and snapped his fingers once more. “But to what end?”

I yelped, my breath crystallizing in the air and falling like glass shards over blades of grass. I rolled over, gazing up at a gloomy, overcast sky. Northern Equestrian coniferous trees spread beneath me, and I saw several marble stones looming beyond my foggy vision. We were in a graveyard, and I instantly recognized the skyline of Whinniepeg in the distance. Suddenly, Discord was prancing by, hopping from one gravestone to the next, dancing over the grandiose burial site.

“Look at the mark I have made upon this world! The neat and even scars! The geometric scoops I have carved in the soil to deposit so much ash and refuse and junk!” He spun a pirouette atop a rectangular tomb and stopped to face me. “But have I always been so neat? No, no, hardly!” He jumped over and leaned against a tall obelisk, a monument to the fallen soldiers who battled over that landscape a millennium ago when Nightmare Moon stood defiantly against the forces of the Celestial Monarchy. “I've cast bones and blood upon the ground without recourse! I've widowed mares and orphaned children! I even hung a poor sap or two, calling them heretics! Ha!”

I clenched my eyes shut and curled into a fetal position, holding the holy instrument tighter in hopes that I could survive a few seconds longer. I couldn't feel my legs anymore. My skin was turning blue. Every time I tried to cry or sob, a sharp pain ran through my lungs, growing less and less pronounced as the horrible cold of the curse took claim of my body, sapping me in ways that even the Nightbringer's power couldn't rescue me from.

“But did I do all of these things for justice? Did I kill kin and countrystallion for a noble cause? Sure, I might have excused such atrocious acts of mercilessness at the time, but the fact remains...” He hopped down from the gravestones and slithered towards me, pulling one of my numb ears aside to whisper into it. “I did what I did because it suited me.”

I squinted up at him, quivering all over.

“And, really... haah haah! When hasn't this been the way of all things?!” He stood up. “Even divine beings, defined by honor, bound themselves in the first place because it suited them too! And why not? They had things to do; it was only fair that they fabricate some means for doing them! Eventually, though, who and what I am had to show through the cracks! It showed when the Cosmic Matriarch left your beloved Equestria eons ago. It happened when the royal sisters tore this landscape apart in their pathetic, trifle, civil war. And it happens even now, on the microscopic level of mortals too! Oh, ever so terribly so!”

He hovered up and squatted on a gravestone, leering down at me with his smirking chin on his knuckle.

“It happens when you devise silly little ways of delaying my acquisition of the Nightbringer. It happens when you struggle to survive, even doing things that you'd be ashamed of. And it most certainly happened earlier—haah haah—when you party cannoned your way to Twilight Sparkle's house on your mad little crusade of stopping chaos. You see, Harpo, when our backs are against the wall we really can and will do anything to get what we want. Honor or no honor, the universe is full of excuses and short on shame. You want to know why cruelty exists? It's because I exist.”

He pointed at his chest as his red eyes caught the starlight.

“I am selfishness.”

I was hugging myself, curled up into a lime green ball, hyperventilating. If death had came between those fitful, spasming breaths, I wouldn't have been surprised. I existed on the sheer warmth of a thought—blossoming from the depths of myself—hopeful and pathetic all at once. I somehow knew that it was fragile enough, weak enough, and desperate enough to work.

So I worked it. “I am a m-mother's comforting embrace in th-the night, a f-f-father's gentle v-voice.” I looked up at him, my lips turning black and blue. “I am the sm-smile you never expected t-to receive, when all your dr-dreams have d-died. I am the pony th-that travels across c-country to see you for only a day, the laborer wh-who quits his j-job to support you at h-home, the general who surrenders to a larger army to spare his loyal st-stallion's lives. I am wh-what keeps the h-heart beating, even in c-cold and d-darkness. I am what makes cruelty cr-cruel and m-m-mercy merciful. I am the reason for peace, the r-reason for pl-pleasure, the source of s-sadness, and the impetus f-f-for laughter. I am what inspires patience, sacrifice, and d-devotion, even if it m-m-means betraying myself, because s-selfishness c-c-can serve me, but it can never save me...”

Discord leaned his head to the side, squinting curiously.

I sniffled as a real tear broke through the frost. “I am love.” I choked, coughed, and murmured, “Something... th-that I think you've been sorely lacking for a long time...”

I always knew that I was dealing with a monster, but Discord had a way of making the most dire situation sparkle with the flimsiest notion of whimsy. However, upon receiving that last statement from me, any sign of brightness left his face, and I knew—upon the bitter bluffs of death—that I was dealing with a true, tried, and immeasurably cold menace.

“It is time to put an end to this,” he said in a dull, metallic tone. He snapped both sets of fingers at once.

The graves sunk into the floor. The Whinniepeg skyline receded. The sky turned dark, for all the stars had bled away. The sun dissolved; the moon shattered. A sheen of frost covered the earth, which had been stripped to cold stone, devoid of moisture, almost resembling a rusted metal sheet that reflected a deathly pale light dimming all around us. The Firmaments beyond billowed cyclonically, swirling around us without meaning or purpose. I heard thunder, but realised it was just the sound of my own choking breath in my dead ears.

Discord stood before the desolation, catching flakes of snow and droplets of sleet in his palms as they showered down upon his suddenly grim figure. With his back to me, he gestured towards the grand, lifeless horizon, his voice echoing across the tempests like a curator might go about auctioneering a corpse, dull and starved of any melodious tone whatsoever.

“The oceans recede, the forests die, for I am here.” His claws and hoof dug into the petrified remains of the planet. “Life withers away, along with all the law and honor attached to it, for they must bow to my domain.”

I lay there, shivering, gazing and listening. Even as he spoke, I couldn't stop thinking about how sharply his personality had changed. Was there something especially poignant about my last utterance? Had I somehow reached into the heart of the Great Deceiver and twisted the knife the wrong way? Why was he suddenly elevating the game?

Elevate he did, unemotionally so, his eyes locked upon the deadness before us. “I exist beyond the sunrise, beyond the revolutions of bodies. When the sun extinguishes itself, I am there. When the moon breaks apart, I continue undaunted. Entropy will claim all the various energies that science pretends to chronicle and magic dares to master, but all in futility. There is nothing more vain than attempting to avoid me, other than the wanton act of utterly ignoring me...”

I glanced at the landscape Discord had conjured up, and a part of me gasped beyond my shivers in surprise. It all looked so terribly familiar. I suddenly realized that there was someone else beside myself and Alabaster who could recognize it, and what's more, live on.

“Love is a word,” Discord said bluntly. “Something as flimsy as divinity, for love—like all absolutes—cannot continue forever. Either by death, desire, or convenience, love will fade, as will all abstract emotions. For the closest thing this universe has to a constant is not light nor gravity nor matter, but boredom. Everything that is simply bores itself to death, and who can blame it? Stars burning hydrogen for eternity? Dark matter stretching the universe beyond infinite measure? Energy exhausting itself along the means of least resistance? Where's the fun in that, for a single instant much less for an immortal span of eons? Every party has to end, Harpo, even the grandest party of all. No amount of sentiment or respect or hope can change the fact that somewhere before the beginning of all space and time, a pact was made, and it thereby guaranteed the conclusion to all space and time.”

I looked at him, my eyes finding new strength, for I suddenly understood something, something I had known for a long time but was too busy being angered by his parlor tricks and horrified by his cruelty to acknowledge until that very moment.

“You're him...” I stammered. “You're her beloved...”

“I am the final destination of all warmth and motion,” Discord continued, undaunted. “I am the terminus of light, the final bulwark against which all matter and energy cease to be defined. I am the finality of thought, the end of life, the end of all things, and all the factors that science, faith, and progress need to measure it. Love cannot pierce me, for there is nothing to cherish. Hope cannot resist me, for there is nothing beyond. Peace, joy, and tranquility can only excuse me, because there is nothing else to call it, nothing but one word.”

He turned to gaze back at me, and it was finally then that his smile returned, a very deep and bitter thing.

“I am the future.” Swiveling about, Discord calmly trudged towards me, one irregular foot at a time. “And the future is something you cannot win against, Miss Heartstrings, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you lie to yourself, no matter how much you pretend you are growing from it, for there is quite simply nothing to grow into.”

He knelt down and softly reached for the golden instrument.

“Still, it was fun while it lasted, hmmm?” He looked for a moment like he was going to chuckle, but his frown came back just as icily as before. “It's always fun while it lasts. But only when it lasts. Now, hoof it over...”

And that's how I knew that the lord of chaos wasn't all-knowing, for he stood to remember something. I stared steadfast into the crimson eyes of he who had seen the birth and death of the very firmaments themselves. I spoke, unblinking.

“My turn.”

Discord raised an eyebrow at that.

“I am not just the substance of everything, but I am its essence. I am the tempo that gives birth to the universe, and I am the bridge that leads to its death.”

I was breathing heavier and heavier, feeling a current of blood rising up in my frozen limbs.

“I am the woeful declaration of despair that announces the end, and yet the rigorous octaves that scoff at it. I am the lyrics that write themselves, for creativity's sake, because there's more to this existence than construction and destruction. There is art.”

Discord's face was scowling in confusion and disgust. I noticed this because a bright green light was shimmering across his features. I was sitting up at this point, and my horn was glowing as I channeled a brilliant stream of magic into the Nightbringer, empowering its onyx strings in ways that none of my numb limbs could.

“What we create is more than an extension of this universe's fabric, it's a tapestry of dreams that has evolved beyond the abstract barriers that used to bind it! Fantasies turn into poetry which turn into sound which turn into warmth, feeling, and spirit!”

I hissed and spat as my whimpering voice rose up and turned into a righteous growl. The strings of the Nightbringer were being plucked one after another; it felt like continents shattering.

“Somewhere in the crux of that transfiguration, something is born, something that was not there to begin with, but was conjured through something more powerful than magic, something more binding than honor, and something empowered by selfishness as much as by righteousness or divinity!”

“Stop it...” Discord hissed. “The game is over, you mad lunatic!” He reached towards my instrument, only to bounce back with a green flash. He hissed angrily at me. “We had a deal!”

“And I'm finishing it!” I snarled back, shivering. “I'm finishing you! Or at least I'm ending what you think you are! There's more than a patchwork abomination that holds you together, Discord! There's something missing, a huge chunk that was ripped loose, a timeless wound that has bled forth anger and cruelty and mischief, when once there was only joy and contentment and comfort!”

“What are you doing?” His eyes bulged, for he hadn't realized until that very moment just what my magic was performing with the strings of the Nightbringer. His face contorted, like a soul giving birth, giving birth to himself and dying all at once, a glorious collapse of an omnipotent accident that didn't realize that it was still fractured until that very second. “Stop it!” He clutched his antlers and bent over, curling into himself like a convulsing serpent. “No! I don't want to hear it!” he yelled, sending thunder and lighting branching across the penultimate graveyard of the firmaments. “Stop!”

“There is one piece to your puzzle, Discord, one link to the fractured chain of your anguish and despair!” I had to shout at this point. I was almost to the end of “Twilight's Requiem,” and the dying universe all around us was buckling, filling our ears with a cacophony that could only sound off the calamitous end of time itself. “It is the same piece that can be found in all of us, the piece that is never truly missing, but is clicking with our heartbeats, asking for us to listen, asking for us to share, asking for us to live—to be that equation—even if that equation can't explain more than the bare limits of ourselves that we must discover before putting together!”

“I don't want to hear it!” He was screaming, shouting, pleading, transforming. “I don't want to remember!”

“What am I, Discord?!” I shouted into the waves of melody that sent rivulets across the shores of desolation. “What begins and ends the world?! What makes us exist, even when there isn't an audience?!”

He clutched his skull and screamed.

“I am a song!” I bellowed as the rhythm overtook him. All was bedlam and beauty and birthing. “I am her song! And you need to sing it!”

Discord's eyes and mouth opened, and I saw the sun again. I winced, using the Nightbringer to block myself from being completely exposed to the luminous event horizon of imploding chaos. And yet, the brightness did not cease. I sensed a bubbling wave of energy from what was once him, an ever-expanding froth of fury, emotion, sorrow, and carnage. Ten thousand years of isolation and ignorance collapsed, and a nebulous charge of otherworldly spirit was chain reacting, spreading, threatening to drown every corner of the universe all at once. It was around the time that I felt the golden structure of the holy instrument actually buckling in my hooves that I realized the horrendous enormity of what I had just sparked.

“Oh blessed Celestia,” I whimpered into the searing heat of annihilation. I pictured the parasprite destruction of Ponyville. I remembered Alabaster's account of the sarosian bomb that blew up part of the palace in Canterlot. I combined those things and magnified them by a hundred trillion in my imagination, and even still I wasn't horrified enough. “Dear goddess, what have I done?”

She had banished her beloved for a reason.

“No...” I choked as the brightness enveloped me, enveloped the universe, enveloped everything. I dug my face into the onyx strings of the Nightbringer and clenched my eyes shut. “N-no!” I called out names; I sobbed them out loud, unashamedly, like a foal. And, just like a foal, I heard myself panting and gasping when the grand thunder of the titanic eruption ceased in a sudden burst of silence.

My eyes opened, and I saw that the cosmic explosion had shrunk to the size of a glowing, white marble. It hovered expertly in Discord's yellow palm, for he was standing calmly before me in the center of the dimly-lit Carousel Boutique, where even a pin drop could be heard.

It was his voice that rang instead, and it did so in a heartfelt whisper.

Aria,” he murmured, tasting the name on the tip of his tongue like a sweet lover's kiss. “My sweet, sweet song.” He gazed calmly, longingly into the globule of light in his omnipotent grasp. His eyes were thin, his lips firm and set. “How like a child you were, an angelic foal who pranced into a demon's realm. All was chaos, all was confusion, and all was loneliness... until I met you.”

I breathed deeply, gazing up at him with a gaping mouth. The delicious warmth of Ponyville was seeping back into my limbs, and yet I couldn't help but feel a sharp chill as I anxiously breathed, “'Aria?’”

“Words are meaningless,” Discord said softly, turning the glowing orb around in his fingers. “Just like time. And yet, both took shape the day—yes—the very day that I saw her.”

He turned and—with careful grace—flung the orb towards one of the windows. The golden light splashed across the stained surface, then solidified, parting the chaotic patterns of the pane and forming the cohesive image of a frail alicorn goddess in the center.

She was a glorious example of oneness. I never knew or understood singularity. All I could comprehend was the incrompehensible, a looming miasma of happenstance, incapable of form or structure. There was no end or beginning, but then she came, and the firmaments were erected along with her, and around her. That place was only ever my world, and yet it was to become her prison. Did she expect me to be there? Did anyone expect that she wouldn't be alone in her hideously imposed exile?”

Before us, swirls formed in the stained glass. An effluent cloud of energy and matter coalesced around the alicorn. She looked up, and she sobbed. Reacting with quivering bands of light, the cloud bent, fluctuated, and took shape, trying its best to mimic her, only partially succeeding. She seemed to relax, and she allowed the intelligent distortions to drift closer to her.

“I wanted to know more, and she was my knowledge. I wanted to feel as she did; she gave me her heart. I was excited by her fears, enticed by her smiles, and mortified by her sorrows. She was barely a foal, an infant goddess. It should have been I who was teaching her, but that was not meant to be. We held each other there, keeping each other company, communing in the desolate space between worlds. She appeased my lonesomeness, and I catered to her needs in turn. Where the cosmos was cold, I made her warm. Where the constellations were dim, I crafted her stars. We built a world together, and it was beautiful, for it was ours.”

Horizons formed in the stained glass, taking on solid colors and textures. Two four-legged shapes galloped across the spheres, one brilliant and the other dim. When they crossed over each other, sparks spread, creating more spheres, crafting more details. Soon the entire window was ablaze with planetoids and moons and comets.

She didn't have a language, not at first. We had to build that too. When we did, it opened up our minds as much as our hearts. She told me that she was a song, for she had been born from one. But for some reason, she was broken. Broken by whom? How could a creature so beautiful and so delicate and so graceful be an accident? Her name was Princess Aria, and she was meant to be the Goddess of Twilight. But that could no longer be true. Those who were built out of the same song had exiled her to that place, and for all of my strengths of power and comprehension, I could not understand why. But I did not ask. After all, she was now my beautiful song, the melody of my soul, for she had showed me that I had one in the first place. In return, I gave Aria a canvas to paint with her gifts of twilight. We had a grand auditorium of our own to conduct brand new symphonies, and I wanted nothing more than for her to be happy.”

The cosmos dimmed. The colorful alicorn figure slumped towards the horizon. Violet shadows overtook her as several tiny equines materialized around the plains of nebulous color. The dim shadow tried to console her, but a gradual barrier formed between the two.

“But she would not stay happy forever. I may have been a creature of chaos, but that would forever separate me from Aria. After all, she was birthed into existence. Goddess or not, a beginning necessitates an end, and death has many relative speeds with which it weaves its venomous snare. The rift through which she entered my domain could not entirely be sealed, no matter what powers we had at our disposal. The song—the holy melody of ages—held sway over the firmaments, and soon she was no longer the only victim of that prison. Souls came, mortals who were as broken and as forgotten as her. I wanted to welcome them into the fold, to show them the beauty that we had created, but Aria felt differently. Something had changed in her. She started... to remember.”

The planetoids shattered. The colors turned black and gray as a horrible rust overcame the window pane. The alicorn figure's wings spread wide and shed its feathers. Bony stalks protruded from her undead frame, and they wove chains that shackled the tiny equines to her like puppets. In the distance, massive plumes of tempestuous energy morphed together to form the watery bowels of the unsung realm.

She was forever an accident. In her heart, that designated her as the Queen of the Forsaken, the Overseer of Misery and Limbo. The ponies were coming to her for a reason; they had been rejected, abandoned, and banished to oblivion by the song. The mark of a divine being holier than her had designated them as unclean, and Aria reached out to them like long-lost siblings, engulfing them in misery instead of joy, for such was her conclusion to the way of all things, including unthings. How could I have convinced her otherwise? I could not taste of the bitter poison of death, the merciless force that caused all things to dissolve over time by some holy order that surpasses explanation, rhyme, or reason. Chaos, I soon realized, was a bliss that I could only shape into something that resembled structure, but I would never suffer the consequences of maintaining it like she did. For such was something that Aria was born to do, accident or not. My beloved had a purpose, and that purpose was to diminish, and provide a home for those too unlucky, too lost, and too hopeless to sleep. By her grace, they merely had to sing her song, and become... nothing.”

Discord walked towards the window and gently caressed the undead equine shape, his finger lovingly tracing along the rigid lines of her wing-stalks. His eyes were glazed over, and for a moment there I saw something far more potent than all the explosions that the sower of Chaos had ever conjured up.

“But that was not the song that I wanted to hear, or for her to sing. I pleaded with her, begged for her to stop what she was doing. These souls deserved more than what they were being given. We had made a paradise out of prison before; what was to stop us from extending the blessing to them? But it was far too late. There was no reasoning with her. She was no longer the infant soul who had fallen innocently into my domain eons ago. The prisoner had become the warden, and my words were mere echoes in the grand well of purpose she was prepared to see through for eternity, bound by a dedication to the same entities that had exiled her there in the first place.”

He released his finger, and as he did so, all the color was drained from the alicorn figure, all except for a pair of glowing, violet eyes. The dim shadow fractured under her stare, overwhelmed by her shackled army of equine souls. The entire window pane began to buckle and shake within its frame.

Her motivation was clear, but I was inconsolable, flabbergasted, furious. The same beloved with whom I had once practiced words of love, I was now assaulting with a barrage of angry sermons and moralistic lectures. This lasted for... ages, and even a steward of forsaken souls knows an end to patience. She loved me, and she knew that I adored her, but she could no longer have me interfering in what had quite essentially become her domain. I was her beloved, but her soul, as well as her heart, was committed to somepony else, a Matriarch, a being who was incapable of loving Aria in return. For the sake of her duty, and for the righteous honor she needed to perform it, she banished me from the realm. She ousted me from the former paradise that she had transformed back into a prison, and there was no going back for me. The place had become unsung, and I did not have the means nor the knowledge to bring myself back along the same melodious currents that came naturally to her and her holy flesh and blood.”

He snapped his finger, and the dim shadow receded from her. The dark image fell towards the lower panels of glass, like a rock plunging to the bottom of a glass ocean. Beyond the firmaments, the dark shadow took shape, borrowing the dismembered limbs of dead creatures, morphing into an asymmetrical living corpse of chaos and agony. With a mute scream towards the glassy heavens, devoid of any of her colors or grace, Discord was born.

“And so it was that I came upon this realm called Equestria, taking physical shape in as haphazard a manner as I could afford. And it so happened that I did discover Aria's flesh and blood among the mortal plane. I pleaded and begged for Celestia and Luna to send me back, for I knew that they had to have been born out of the same song as her. Imagine my shock—my utterly irreversible disgust and anger—when I found out that they didn't know who I was talking about, their very own middle sister, their missing Princess of Twilight. Whenever I came close to explaining the exact truth to them, they reacted in a manner so unpredictable and explosive, it shocked this lord of chaos to the core. It was then that I discovered that the original bringer of the song—the Cosmic Matriarch—was the one responsible for making the holiest, most beautiful of creatures a secret to the universe, and there was no feasible way the rest of the world could learn what I had to tell them, could know what I was cursed to know.”

The draconequus figure rose, consuming the green colors of Equestria and setting them aflame with furious reds and oranges. Equines transformed into hideous glass abominations around him. Oceans evaporated and canyons split open. The figures of Luna and Celestia sailed in orbit around the chaotician, assaulting the figure with rainbow colored beams of harmonious resolve.

“And so, I lashed out. All my anger, all of my rage, and all of my pain, I delivered unto this peaceful land. Life was a joke, after all, a cruel and absurd prank that was played on me, for I could never return to my beloved, and yet I would always remember her. Nopony else knew a single thing about Aria, not even her sisters. I was the only being in existence that could carry her legacy. I wielded the knowledge like a two-edged sword, laughing the entire time, for even as I wielded destruction I knew what a pathetic little tantrum it all was. What was more, I knew that there was nothing Celestia or Luna could do about it, or about me. What were they possibly capable of? Their domain, the world of Equestria, was a fabrication, inserted like a flimsy bubble within the realm of chaos. It was not their power that maintained their sister's exile, it was a song, a song I had no mastery of. I could have turned their realm into an explosive stage play for eternity. As a matter of fact, I was planning to do just that. But there was only one problem.”

The draconequus figure slumped to the brown, burning earth. In a dark shadow, he wilted, curling in on himself, remembering scant beams of purple that emanated from his beating heart.

“Even if I transformed the entire world into my image, even if I wiped everything into a desolate slate of empty comprehension, even if I bloomed chaos into every corner of reality, I would still be alive. And what was more, I would still remember her.”

Celestia and Luna closed in. The draconequus stood up, his glassy figure tall and proud. When they launched their final volley of rainbow magic on him, he merely laughed, leaning back and shouting pompously towards the heaven as his entire body turned white with rigid petrification.

“And so, I let them win. I let them imprison me with the Elements of Harmony. I granted them their little victory, for it was my victory as well, whether they knew it or not. I am incapable of dying, incapable of fading away from this continuum. Chaos breeds chaos, after all, and the only thing it can ever hope to do is the last thing it would ever expect to do, and that is to sleep. And encased in stone, frozen for eons, I did just that. I slept. And as I slept, the dreams faded over time, until all was blissful darkness and confusion upon the plains of my slumbering mind. Somewhere, deep within one of the many pockets of that dismal and dark suspension, I found an oblivion for my thoughts, and a death to my memories. I had discovered what she never could have. I found peace.”

He snapped his finger, and the glass faded to bright white light, brimming with the green lengths of Ponyville beyond. Discord took a deep breath, resting his eyelids shut as he stood within the shadows of the boutique.

“All of the pain, all of the agony, and all of the bitterness of my legacy, I had completely and blissfully forgotten...”

Slowly, icily, he pivoted about and opened his eyes to stare at me.

“And then I met you.”

I stared up at him, my lips quivering. Swallowing, I spoke weakly into the dim air, “When you were freed from the stone, you had lost any recollection of Aria. But... But you still had the anger, the bitterness, and the resentment. Hidden under jocularity and wit, it was still there, festering, manifesting cruelty for reasons you couldn't explain. I'm... I-I'm sorry that you now recall that which you don't want to on account of me, but I had no other choice! Your chaos and mayhem? It h-had to end, Discord. It just... It just has to end!”

“Funny how only the things that are incapable of ceasing are that which 'must end,' more than anything else,” he remarked with an exasperated smile. “You would make a delightful lord of chaos, Harpo. You certainly possess the spirit of an immortal. I daresay, you may even have enough guts to weather the pain that comes with eternity. So, I think a gesture of respect is in order.” He bowed deeply towards me, waving a hand from his antlers to my horn. “Congratulations, Miss Heartstrings, you have won the game.”

I blinked at him. I looked at the Nightbringer in my grasp and almost dropped it like a diseased rag. Even if I did lose my grip, I suddenly doubted that Discord would swoop down to pick it up. His entire body hung in a slouch, as if all life and color had been funneled from his being. Desperately, I stammered towards him.

“I am not here to celebrate a hollow victory any more than you are, Discord. I too want peace, bliss, and freedom.”

“Take a vacation to Disneigh World,” he muttered, sitting in the shadows of the place. “I hear they hire young musicians in a heartbeat.”

“No, I'm serious!” I hissed, all but pleading with him. “What just happened... r-right now?! It's a miracle! Here you are, a godlike being, and you were exposed to a piece of the damnable 'Nocturne of Firmaments' that has cursed me for so long. And unlike Princess Celestia and Luna, you did not allow the world to be rewritten! You stopped the cataclysmic explosion, something that the alicorn goddesses were incapable of each time they witnessed the song that imprisoned their sister!”

“They share more than flesh and blood,” Discord said lethargically, blending with the walls of the place. “They share a melody, a harmonious bridge that connects them and them alone, even beyond the firmaments. I always figured that's how the incorrigible Woona caught wind of her sister and turned into Nightmare Woona.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, pointing eagerly. “They have a connection! I understand that! But you?! You're different! You're a being of chaos! You have an edge! You may not be able to go back to your beloved in the unsung realm, but I can! I've mastered most of the symphony that binds her there! I can go there any time! I can even speak to her—”

“There's no need to explain yourself, Harpo. I'm quite aware of your weekend trips.” He gazed at me with thin eyes. “I didn't see it earlier because I couldn't allow myself, but I understand it now. I understand everything.”

I gulped and murmured, “Then you must understand what I'm going through, and what I'm trying to do. Please... Please, Discord.” I leaned forward, my voice cracking, “Won't you help me?”

“Help you?” He squinted towards me. “Help you bury my beloved's memory, like all of mortal Equestria's assortment of pretentious history has done throughout the eons?”

I stared at him in blank shock.

“You do realize that's what it all comes down to in the end?” He stepped towards me, pacing slowly, like a drifting snowbank. “Not death. Not destruction. But remembrance. We do not end when the last atom falls apart or when the final burst of light dies out. We cease to be when all thought of us ceases to be. That might work well for you and your so-called friends and loved ones. But for me? For an endless entity?”

Discord gestured towards himself as his eyes lit up with a final burst of crimson resolve.

“To help you, I would have to help you hijack the royal alicorns' essential song. I would have to escort you into the land that used to be a paradise that used to be a prison that used to be a miasma of chaos. And then what? Even ten thousand years ago, Aria had long lost her singularity and become a hollow melody; I doubt she'd be capable of banishing me a second time. I'd be stuck forever in that domain with her, or at least the shadows of her, while you will have gone off to the ignorant bliss of whatever la-la land you have only dreamt of in your bed of tears at night. What then would be my purpose, Lyra, my impetus for existing? I suppose I would have to make an appeal to my beloved, getting down on my knees every sunless day and confessing my undying love to her, a love that I cannot forget, but she herself has rendered to dust and desolation, because it's her innate task to be utter forgetfulness and forsaken spirit until the last sighing breaths of time.”

“Discord, I beg of you...” I said, my voice choking as tears started to form in my eyes. “You have so much power, so much strength, so many talents. How can someone with such amazing gifts be so despondent? You have to help me. You can do it; I know you can assist me in ending this curse...”

“My little pony,” he murmured, suddenly squatting down and running a paw through my mane hair. His lips were frozen in a stony smile. “We are all born cursed. For whatever cruel twist of fate, the only blessed being is her, for she has found peace in her forsaken purpose. But I cannot share that same melody of victory and contentment with Aria, for my beloved has become unsung. Be glad that you are not like me, Miss Heartstrings. Your freedom will come to you, as it will come to all ponies, courtesy of her.” He caressed my chin as he stood back up. “It will come when you finally begin to forget...”

“Discord...”

“And it's time that I found that freedom too...”

“Discord, I'm sorry!” I sobbed, beginning to hyperventilate. “I'm sorry that I made you remember, but please! Not everypony shares your sense of despair and immortal pain!”

“I can't think of something to be more grateful for.”

“What harm will it cause you to take a leap of faith and d-do something for a single m-mortal who just needs something this badly?!”

“Because, Harpo, you quite frankly don't know what you need. Not yet. Not until you've spoken to Aria herself will you understand the price for what has happened today. And believe me, when or if you do finally comprehend it...” He squinted menacingly down at me. “You'll only wish you were going where I am going.”

I blinked. “I... I don't understand...”

“It's quite simple.” He scratched his talons against his chest and stared at his claws. “As we speak, Twilight Sparkle has salvaged most of her friends from the chaotic taint of my gray touch. In a matter of minutes, they will have freed Rainbow Dash from her altered state, and the six bearers of the Elements of Harmony will then be coming to confront me here in Ponyville. I have had plans of erecting another labyrinth in their path, of maybe turning another one of them gray and beginning the whole game all over again—probably that pink one, she's rather amusing, to a fault.” He turned and stared lethargically at me. “But I'm not going to bother with that. Not now. I'm tired, Harpo.”

“Discord—”

“I'm ready for a long, long sleep. And for Equestria's sake, we both know that it would be best if I never woke up.”

“Discord, don't do this!” I was screaming hysterically. “You want the Nightbringer?! You can have it! You can have every song in the damn Nocturne! Just don't give up! All is not lost!”

“On the contary, it is oh so damnably found.” He smiled calmly at me through my tears and hiccups. “Bear this in mind, Lyra. There is no worse fate than being the only soul in the universe capable of remembering that which should be forgotten. I suggest you give up on the music, my dear. It has already given up on you.” He waved his hand at me. “Arrivederci.”

I yelled at him, but my voice was miles away. In a flash of light, the Boutique disappeared, and I was flung into the freezing foliage of the Everfree Forest. I gasped, shivering all over, not so much from the cold of my curse, but with the hideous realization that I was suddenly on the opposite side of Ponyville from the Boutique. If I had any hope of getting back to town in time...

“Oh dear heaven... Oh please...” I broke into a furious gallop, levitating the Nightbringer into my saddlebag. With my hooves free, I blurred over the forest and grass and weed. I barreled through bushes and shrubbery and moss. Chocolate rain pelted my features as pink clouds loomed high above, mocking me. Despite my excessive speed and despite my heaving breaths and despite my tears, I wasn't making any ground. The edge of the forest constantly loomed just beyond the freezing extremity of the treeline. I pierced through it all, blasting chunks of wood away with green magic, bursting upon the precipice of one heart-wrenching sob after another.

When I finally made it to the edge of town, I knew that it was hopeless. A bright light was billowing from the center of Ponyville. I did not stop for one second. I glided over the curved, checkerboard grasslands, vaulting over fences, dodging every chaotic creature of haphazard conjuration that intercepted my path. My muscles were quivering, my strength was wearing thin. At last, I stumbled upon the fringes of an epic battle, but even then it seemed to draw away the faster I galloped towards it.

I saw Twilight. I saw her friends. I saw the medallions around their necks and the bright beams of platinum light emanating from their divine union. And then I saw Discord on the throne, cackling with his masterful charade of pride and confidence. The actor was on center stage, and the final curtain was about to fall. I stumbled down the aisles, hollering, screaming, launching the ghostly protests of a pariah upon the deaf ears of the living.

“Fine, go ahead!” Discord uttered towards the gathered companions. “Try and use your little elements. 'Friend me.' Just make it quick.” He sat proudly on his throne, in perfect and uninterrupted range of their righteous fury, uselessly pontificating towards the flimsy barriers of the altered world around him. “I'm missing some excellent chaos here!”

“Alright, ladies!” Twilight heroically exclaimed, her tiara glinting majestically as the six equines stood in formation. “Let's show him what friendship can do!”

By the time their divine beam of rainbow light began consuming the lord of chaos, I was already collapsing. My screams were his screams, two souls conjoined under the union of a forbidden memory. Ponyville flickered back to its normal self all around us, and with a stony thud, Discord fell to the ground, rediscovering his bliss.

And when I fell, it was in sobs. Through a numb cloud, I became vaguely aware of cheering voices all around me. Ponies came out of hiding, no longer gray or discordant. Loved ones reunited. Families and friends shared tearful embraces. I heard Milky White sobbing Scootaloo's name as she found her adopted daughter and scooped her off the ground. Caramel and Wind Whistler stumbled into town, slightly bruised, but no worse for wear. Even Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were in one piece, consoling a sullen Rumble—who spent the entire afternoon trying to apologize for sins he was never responsible for. The sound of a flute playing jubilantly in the air provided a melody to which an embarrassed mailmare swiftly began trotting to, picking up discarded envelopes and fragments of shattered mailboxes. I heard Morning Dew's healthy voice, followed by Ambrosia's joyful laughter. A grand roar of excitement filled the town, full of ponies talking about what had happened, the transformations they had survived, and the six saviors of their momentarily horrifying plight. By the time I heard Thunderlane bragging and Blossomforth sighing dreamily, I could no longer stand it, and I was trudging home, slumped over like a corpse, silent as a shadow.

I was beyond tears, beyond anger, beyond any emotion. All I had in my head was a melody: the same song I had shared with Discord, the same song that had almost destroyed all of Equestria and yet had oddly saved it all at once, and yet still could not save me.

“The holy sisters' song...” I murmured to myself, trying to think it all through, trying to philosophize, trying to do anything but feel. “Have Celestia or Luna ever heard the Requiem specifically? Have they ever even heard Aria's name?”

My mind limped back to those heart-stopping moments of shadow within the Carousel Boutique, when I saw all the life drained from Discord's eyes, when I heard all of his love and hate dripping from his fanged lips.

“It took the song to banish her beloved to Equestria,” I muttered. “If he had helped me, he would have hijacked the alicorns' song to bring me directly to Aria.” I gulped and lingered in the dirt as I arrived at my cabin in the woods. The cheering sounds of Ponyville were now a distant roar. “Maybe that's it. Maybe that's what I need to find to reach her, to make her play 'Desolation's Duet.' I need to do to her sisters what I did to Discord, but how? How can I do it without destroying the town, the world, the very fabric of the song itself?”

I ran a hoof over my face, sighing.

“Heaven help you, Discord. What did you know that forced you to give up? Why couldn't you just tell me?”

I was back where I began, alone, shivering. The door to my cabin was halfway open, but I hadn’t the faculties to gripe about it. I trudged forward in a dull cloud, as if I had been turned gray all along. I needed time alone to bathe in the shock of what had happened that day. The only thing was, I did not have the luxury of being turned to stone.

But just as I stepped upon the wooden porch, I heard a twangy voice uttering from behind me.

“Howdy there! Are y'all okay?!”

I turned around, blinking curiously. “Hmm? I beg your pardon?”

An orange mare stood with a beautiful blonde mane. She wore a brown cowboy hat and sported delicious red apples for a cutie mark. She looked at me with emerald eyes, bobbing, for she was out of breath. “Y'all ain't gray or nothin’? Has the chaos magic left ya as well?”

“Uhm... I-I guess?” I remarked, squirming uncomfortably from the sudden inquisition. “I feel normal. Why do you ask?”

“Whew! Thank heavens!” She wiped her sweaty brow and grinned wearily. “Reckon ya weren't turned into anythang too terrible or nothin'. I'm headed back home, and I thought I'd check on all the pony folk along the way to make sure that Discord's power is gone for good! Boy, this sure was a mighty frightenin' day we had, wasn't it?”

“Oh. M-most certainly,” I said. “And it's very kind of you to check up on me, Miss...?”

“Applejack,” she said, tilting her hat and smiling brightly. “And you are?”

Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings.”

“Well, I'm plum happy that you're just fine and dandy, Miss Heartstrings. But for right now, I'd best be gettin' to my family. I can't wait to see if they're okay!” She galloped off, giving me a lasting wave as her hospitable voice danced along the afternoon wind. “Y'all should come visit us at Sweet Apple Acres! I'm fixin' to treat the whole of Ponyville to an early cider season to celebrate comin' out of this gul'darn mess!”

“Uhh... Sure thing!” I waved after the polite mare. “Nice to meet you, Applejack!”

She was gone. With a deep breath, I turned around and trotted into my lonesome cabin.

“Well, that sure felt nice,” I spoke aloud, closing the door and stripping off my saddlebag. I flung the container onto the cot and shuffled limply towards the wardrobe on the far end of the room. “I guess I have Equestria's most polite neighbor. Cider, hmm? Don't think I've ever tried the stuff.” I opened the wardrobe and prepared to slip off my hoodie, when something bright and crimson stood out to me. “Huh... Funny...” I reached forward and ran a hoof over the thick, woolen material. “Since when did I have a red sweater? It's beautifully crafted, that's for sure.”

Just then, something furry rubbed up against my rear leg.

Gasping, I jolted towards the cot with a stifled shriek. I looked down to see an orange tabby staring up at me, meowing contentedly.

“Good grief!” I exclaimed, coming down a crest of sharp breaths. “Where the hay did you come from?” I gazed towards the windows of the cabin. “Are there a lot of strays around here or something?”

I froze. I saw a bag of cat feed lying beside the door, along with a partially-empty dish. There was a modicum of orange fur on the bedsheets of the cot. Where my saddlebag had landed, a velvety bag had fallen loose. Something bright and immaculately golden peeked out from within.

My heart was beating swiftly. I gazed up at the walls of the cabin. Dozens of strange musical instruments hung in the dimming sunlight. I marveled at the complexity of the bizarre collection.

“Something... Something isn't right here...”

I sat slowly down on my haunches, and the cat came to me. I realized that I was scratching his ears without thinking, and I could only stare at the gesture blankly. There were goosebumps forming along my forelimb, and the world was feeling very, very cold for some inexplicable reason.









That's strange. What was I writing about just now?


Background Pony

XVI - “Beloved”


by shortskirtsandexplosions
Special thanks to: Warden, RazgrizS57, Props, theworstwriter, theBrianJ, Ponky, and Daytona Beach
Cover pic by Spotlight

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!