Chapter 27: Relapse
“I'm just trying to understand why you'd go through all this trouble if you just wanted to show me something.”
With your sister breathing down your neck, this was the only way we could ensure that the decision you will soon make will be yours alone.
Luna glanced at the waiting memory bubble. The more the Metaspectre spoke with her, the more she began to trust it, despite its methods and reputation.
She couldn't, however, get over her mistrust of the Lord of Chaos, who was lounging nearby with a bowl of nachos. “Must you crunch those so loudly?” Luna asked, cringing at the boorish behavior.
“If you don't like it go clog your ears with that shiny bubble thing.”
Come now Gareth. Show some respect for the lady.
“I'm just teasing.” Discord got up and gave Luna a good-hearted nudge. She stepped away coldly.
“What are you doing here, Discord? Celestia and I evidently trapped you in this world when you were encased in stone, and you must have gained power as you became more forgotten. Is that why this world's such a mess? Because you're ruining it? Out of petty revenge because we beat you not once, but twice?”
“Oh no, no, of course not. I am but a humble pawn in the grand scheme of things.” He put a claw to his lip in thought. “No, I think I like the knight more, it's unpredictable and always jumps in when you least expect it. A bit more powerful, but not as direct as the queen.” Discord shook his hand to dismiss the thought. “The point is, I'm only here because it's more interesting than anything else I could be doing. Or I suppose I should say anything I'm allowed to be doing. No, this is your show.”
“Well, if you're not ruling this world, who is? You, Devil?”
We always remain in the shadows. We place those who rule into power, when it's necessary, but we have no need to assume direct control.
“Don't you see it, pretty little Princess? Did Celestia take out a bit more than just your memories when she messed with your brain? No, neither of us rule here. Nobody does. That's the problem. The ruler of the Forgotten Realm left about a year and a half ago.”
“Who was it?”
“You of course. Who else?”
The reflections stood in shock. Finally, Jackie recovered and jumped forward, hitting the rest of the apple out of Gilda's grasp. “What do you think you're doing?!”
Gilda stood resolutely. “Exactly what it looks like.”
“How did you even get it? You've been in here the whole time.”
“I told these ponies to try to grab some food for me while you took them around.” Rainbow opened her mouth to protest but a subtle flare of wings from Gilda told her to stand down. “I”m the mastermind here, they just did what they were told.”
“How could you be so...so shortsighted? So directly in rebellion? Do you not understand the consequences? You didn't even try to hide it!”
“Well, I could have thrown it somewhere, but you'd have found it easily enough. You ponies designed it well. We could have gotten the dragon to burn it, but the smell would have tipped you off immediately. If I just held it and returned it to you, I'd still get punished, so I thought I might as well be guilty of the crime I was inevitably going to pay for. Plus, I hadn't eaten in so long and it looked wonderful. That, and I was done taking your garbage. I think all the griffons are. You better not press your luck with us.”
“Brave words from a caged bird. Absolutely meaningless.” Shuddercry stepped forward, glancing at the whip dangling over her back. “I would kill you now, but there are better ways to teach you and the rest of the griffons a lesson.” She retrieved a pair of cuffs and a collar, restraining the willing Gilda as her friends watched on in horror. Shuddercry then dragged her out the door, into the compound. Several prisoner griffons were already hanging around, and they ran to gather the rest. Shuddercry waited patiently until every griffon in the camp had gathered.
“One of you has made the foolish decision to steal food from us. Each rule has consequences attached. You all know what's to happen to her. She will be executed at noon, by beheading, with a spell treated blade. Her body will not rise again. Let this be a lesson to each of you. Stand up in rebellion, and you can only fall.”
Spectral Slash slunk over to Rainbow. “Why?” she whispered. “Why would she take the blame for your mistake?”
“I don't... We've always been the best of friends, but I never thought she would do something like this. She... she really cares.”
Slash shook her head. “If you were truly Loyalty, you'd run over there and take the blame yourself.” She stepped away, allowing Dash to struggle under the weight of her consciousness alone.
Shuddercry finished up her speech, and led the chained Gilda directly through the camp towards solitary confinement. The griffons watched without emotion. The ponies sat in shock, knowing no words of anger or comfort could help Rainbow Dash now.
Rainbow finally relented to the storm of thoughts and feelings raging through her mind. With a cry of anguish, she dropped to the ground, weeping bitterly. “What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?! Oh Celestia!” She hit the cold, hard ground in the vain hope it would give her answers. “No. No. No. She can't. I can't. Over an apple. A single apple. Why did she have to eat it? Heh, Gilda was never the type to take abuse lying down.” She managed a laugh, full of desperation. “She's being lead away, to her death, because of me. Why am I here? HOW CAN I ALLOW MYSELF TO SIT, WHILE SHE TAKES THE BLAME?” She jumped to her hooves and sped over to her friend, knocking over a few guards along the way. The rest of the reality ponies followed after her.
Twilight felt tears coming to her eyes. She wanted to stop Rainbow, to let Gilda take the fall. Of course she couldn't. Rainbow would never forgive her. Nor would the Element of Loyalty forgive herself.
Shuddercry turned her head towards the commotion, a combination of fear and wonder lighting on her face as Rainbow Dash took her down. Shuddercry looked up in confusion and anger. “What do you think you're doing?”
“You have the wrong culprit. I stole the apple on my own accord with a full knowledge of the crime. I cannot see another take the punishment meant for me. I admit to it all. Let her go. She's just being an idiot.”
“Shut up Gilda! You've covered my rear too many times now! I have to take responsibility for my mistake.”
Shuddercry kicked Dash off of her. “Well, I appreciate your fire, but you're out of line. The physical assault alone earns you a beating and two weeks in Solitary. But you're saying you'd take her place on the block?”
“Yes. I don't agree with you, your plans, or your rules, but if somebody must be punished it's going to be me.”
Shuddercry gave a small chuckle. “You have a slight problem with that plan of yours. Perhaps she didn't steal the apple, but she still ate it, and then proceeded to impede justice. She spoke out of line, and was part of a conspiracy against the citizens of Moon Pool. All those crimes add up to a death sentence. Really, all you've done is added yourself to the chopping block next to her. All in the name of friendship. Sickening.” Shuddercry motioned towards one of the nearby guards. “Hawkeye, restrain this one as well.”
The eye-patched Pegasus flew off and returned in short order with another collar and length of chain. Twilight stepped forward, holding out her hoof in a silent plea. Rainbow stood stock still as the cold metal clamped around her neck. “I'd rather go down with my friend than live with the knowledge that she did for me.” She turned to the rest of the Elements. “I'm sorry. But I have to be Loyal to myself first.”
Shuddercry rolled her eyes and pulled the two condemned away. Jackie stood in front of the Reality ponies. “They'll be killed tomorrow at noon, in the town square. I'm sorry it has to be this way.”
“Does it?” asked Applejack quietly. “Does it really?”
“It's the only way-”
“Yes! Things work differently where you come from. We understand that. We wish it could be like that. But this land is a land of Justice. If the law is broken, the hammer will fall. There's no other way to keep the delicate peace within our own walls, a safe haven from the outside world. If we give anyone an inch of rope, they hang themselves with it.”
Applejack subconsciously touched her throat at the shocking and visual metaphor. “So what happens now?”
“Now?” Jackie sighed. “I can probably get you five out of here to watch the execution. Not that I'd call it a favor, but it's the best I can do right now. Shuddercry's got them under a tight key in solitary, and as much as I like you guys, I'm not going to go backstabbing my own team.” She sighed. “Get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day.”
The ponies shuffled back to their quarters, not a word passing between them. Pinkie had been a noticeable hole in their group since they got here, and now Dash was going to be ripped violently away. What could be done? Twilight felt absolutely powerless. She had always taken it upon herself to be the protector of the friends, but just when she was truly needed she could do nothing. She thought back to her nightmare of a few days ago. Was it prophetic? Was she to watch all of her friends fall around her? Unable to help them, would she watch them each pass away?
Twilight dropped to her haunches and rested her head on her forelegs, allowing herself to be lost in her thoughts. She needed strength in a world that only tore her down. But where to find it? Her consciousness expanded as she began to feel the life force of everything around her. The steadily beating drums of her remaining friend's hearts. The few withered plants around the compound struggling to survive. They reminded Twilight so much of her predicament. They were just trying to make ends meet, pushing through what was likely a worthless endeavor. She smiled lightly at the thought. Had she really been beaten down so far that she was sympathizing with a weed?
She pulled her attention even further out. The world was an ocean of energy, the seemingly random patterns of nature conflicting yet synchronizing with the forced patterns of civilization. It was all a part of a bigger picture, somehow. She was only seeing the pieces right now. So where did they fit? Her experiences in Reality, her experiences here? Was it law that dictated Rainbow's death, or was it coincidence? A carefully laid out plan, or the roll of the dice?
It didn't matter, Twilight decided. Regardless of the cause, Rainbow's life was at stake. And Twilight's actions would not be coincidental.
A loud crack resounded next to Twilight. She was pulled out of her thoughts with a start, ready to flee from the sudden intrusion. Next to her lay the reincarnated book on alicorns. Twilight looked towards the window. Certainly enough, the moon was high in the sky and her friends were still asleep, despite the noise. It must be around midnight; Twilight had lost track of time during her meditation. She grabbed at it, desperate to prove to herself it was real. She had done it.
Not so powerless now, eh?
The purple unicorn flipped it open. She had only twelve hours before the execution. She was going to make every second count. They were the only ones Dash had left.