Chapter 53: Trial and Error
“What was that?!” asked Rainbow Dash incredulously.
“We came to an agreement. The other needed to be taught a lesson, and words weren't going to cover it. So, we both took the plunge, hoping that our actions will speak louder than words.” The voice changed from the sweet yet forecul midpoint between Fluttershy's and Shuddercry's voice to a fully gruff voice as Shuddercry momentarily took full control. “If this Sergeant can't teach this pansy a thing or two, I'll turn in my helmet.” Then, after a moment, the voice returned to a kinder tone. “And if I can't show her that a kind word is more effective than her silly whip, I'll say I was sorry for being wrong.”
“Ugh,” groaned Rainbow Dash. “So, what are you going to do with all that spare power?” she said, shielding her eyes from Flutters' shining form. Flutters shrugged.
“Eh, I think I'll just do what Lustrous and Twilight did. No use turning into an Alicorn if I don't have a good reason to.” She drew the energy from the transformation off of her, crushing it until it formed a crystal bracelet of sorts. She put it around her right wing, giving a few experimental flaps to make sure it wouldn't noticably impede flight.
“Well, how about the rest of you?” Sergeant Flutters asked. “You ready to have some wonderful reflection bonding time?”
The other pairs looked at each other questioningly. Only Jackie and Applejack, Temperament and Rarity, and Spectral Slash and Rainbow Dash remained. Well, Flare and Eclipse too, Gemini realized. She turned her attention to them.
“Well? How about you two?”
It only took a quick glance between the two unicorns to confirm what both of them were thinking. “No, we don't really want to merge. Our principles are just too different. We'd rather stay separate entities.”
Gemini nodded. She couldn't quite impress her own will upon these two like she might be able to with her friends. Whatever they wanted was fine by her.
“What about you, Thael? What's your plan?”
Nothing much. It's just a waiting game for me, as much of my life has been. I'm in no rush, nor will I intervene, unless you want me to. Now, Gemini, while the rest of your friends literally pull themselves together, and Luna prepares to confront her sister, I believe you have a memory bubble you haven't looked into just yet.
The other one given to you by the Beholders.
“Speaking of which, I'd like mine back, if you don't mind.” Discord held out an empty silver platter. Gemini pulled out the two condensed memory bubbles, and after figuring out which was Discord's, placed it on the platter, which Discord whipped away.
Luna sighed. She had just about had enough of Discord's antics during her stay here. Regardless, she stayed silent as she watched the proceedings thoughtfully.
“Are you sure that the memory is ready?” Gemini asked, placing the remaining golden orb on the ground. Now that the Metaspectre had kept her attention for a while, she recognized the similarities between Thael's soul and the memory bubble. Perhaps his soul was composed of many layers of memory bubbles. She wondered what it'd be like to try to expand the soul orbs.
The memory should be ready, yes. It was set to unlock upon his release. After all, he's not Forgotten anymore.
Gemini focused her attention on the memory bubble. She was startled to hear many layered conversations all at once. “Must be the mind reading,” Lustrous commented. With a tinge of curiosity, she turned to the Metaspectre, who watched her closely. She probed forward, searching through the shroud of smoke, finally latching onto the Metaspectre's soul.
The burst of information was immense. More than anything Twilight had felt before. It was loud, like a crowd shouting all at once. Thousands upon thousands of voices, all crying out at once, but surprisingly, all about the same topic. They were each weighing in on Thael's current thoughts. They all seemed to point in one direction. Towards the core personality. Gemini followed the path of thoughts, and finally the voices ceased. One voice alone remained. Quiet, solemn, and ancient.
Greetings, Gemini. You have found my inner sanctum.
I don't mean to intrude, but–
No, no. You do. But I allowed it. Sometimes it's nice to listen to just one of the voices. Well, I suppose it's actually two. You know, I've spoken to each of the souls I've taken, and that's after what was necessary to claim them. Each one has a story, a mind, a life. Hopes, desires, opinions about me, you, everything. When you have infinite time, you learn to grow close to them. I suppose, one of the reasons I take souls is because I couldn't carry on alone. Were it just me pushing through these thousands of years, I think I wouldn't have made it very far.
What are you? A creature of light or dark?
That's the question, isn't it? Are light and dark the only two options? Or is it possible to have someone who embraces both light and dark, a creature of gray? While you think on this, you should go finish your duty.
Gemini felt herself being pushed out of his mind, Thael guiding her vision so that Seren's orb immediately grabbed her attention. She cradled it in her telekinetic aura, gently pulling at it like bread dough. Slowly, the memory grew larger and less tangible, until it was nothing more than the field of energy.
Worry not. Your friends can handle themselves, and there's time yet before Celestia and Seren arrive. We shall wake you if you are needed for anything.
Gemini’s vision faded as her mind was filled by the memory bubble. Her vision recovered, and she found herself looking at a throne room much like the one she had left; this one, however, was in pristine condition and occupied. There were two thrones as well, she noted. Celestia sat in one, and an obviously younger Luna sat in the other. A cowering pony, shackled and restrained, stood before them, royal guards watching over him.
It seemed the princesses were using their throne room as a court room of some sort, with a small audience of well-dressed and grim-faced ponies. A bailiff pounded the ground twice, before clearing his throat. “The court has reached its decision. The accused has been found guilty of murder. Sentence; execution.”
The criminal pony began crying bitterly. “It wasn't malicious! I swear! We were both drunk, and he came at me something fierce. It was a matter of life and death you see! It wasn't my fault! Please, I want to live! Give me a second chance!”
The crowd was unamused, not a single face of kindness returning his hurried gaze.
“Take him away,” called Luna. “Allow him to write his last Will and Testament. The execution shall be held tomorrow. Justice is swift.”
“Justice is swift,” murmured the crowd.
The pony was dragged screaming from the room, all avoiding his gaze. “I know I am nothing, but I have so much unfulfilled! I want to live! I'll do whatever you want! Just don't let me die!”
The doors slammed shut. Twilight was a bit shocked. Courts in Equestria were far more lenient than this. She hadn't even heard of a murder case in years, and even then, the murderers were given a second chance.
Heh, we're lucky if we have only one murder each day in the Forgotten Realm.
The small crowd filed out of the room, only the princesses and their attendant guards remaining. Celestia looked distraught, while Luna looked rather pleased.
“Luna,” Celestia began carefully, “Due to the circumstances, couldn't we let him have another chance? He was truly repentant.”
“The fact remains that he committed the crime. His foolish drunkeness is an explanation, not an excuse. In fact, in condemns him more. It shows he has no self-restraint. Do we really want him running around our cities, draining our resources and corrupting our people with his animalistic behavior?”
“But if he could change, his example might save many.”
“I disagree. He was given his chance with life, and he chose to make a mockery of it.”
“Well, I feel strongly about this. I think I'll pardon him.”
Luna whipped around to face her sister. “Don't be so quick to throw away my judgments. You've already pardoned the last three defendants. If every criminal, nay, every murderer can come in here expecting to get away free for a sobstory and a few crocodile tears, our courts will have no effect on dissuading crime, and the problem will only get worse.”
Celestia got quiet, lowering her eyes to the ground as she got quiet. Luna shuffled in her seat, proud of her small victory over her older sister. Suddenly, the scene went fuzzy, the colors warping around Gemini. As quickly as it had begun, a new scene appeared. She was in the castle courtyard, in a somewhat larger crowd than the last part of the memory had shown. Up on a small wooden platform stood the two princesses, their guards, and the condemned criminal. The crowd around her was jeering at the criminal, who shrank under every accusatory word.
Luna stepped forward. “We shall now proceed with the execution.” The crowd's noise tapered off. She turned to the prisoner. “Any last words?”
He lifted his head, face emotionless. “I have none. I've said only the truth, and my pleas went unheard. Perhaps it's better to leave such an unfeeling world while I still have my dignity.”
It was now that Gemini realized that there wasn't any obvious means of execution up on the platform. No blade, no noose, nothing.
One of the guards stepped forward, placing a bag over the accused's head, then proceeded to push him to his knees.
Luna stepped forward, staring at the now faceless subject. “Justice is swift,” she muttered, her horn flaring. A great, glowing axe materialized. The sound made the blinded, doomed pony shudder, but he held still. Luna raised the axe, her face stoic and grim. The crowd held its breath.
Celestia stepped forward, placing herself between Luna and the prisoner. “I intercede. As the Alicorn of Mercy, I will take the burden of his crimes upon myself. I will make it my personal duty to see him reformed, and if I must, I will die in his place.”
Luna lowered the axe slowly, a dark glare overcoming her, but she answered in kind. “As the Alicorn of Justice, I accept the sacrifice. The demand of justice has been fulfilled, and the crime has been paid. He is free to go.”
The crowd whispered amongst themselves as the redeemed pony was unshackled. Gemini caught the glance of a small family of ponies who seemed the most disappointed, indeed, perhaps even angry. An impression came across her. The family of the deceased.
Once the prisoner was freed, he fell once more to the ground, thanking Celestia profusely. She accepted his praise gracefully, indicating he should stand. She placed her wing over him. “I have bought your life. And now, I give it back to you. If you serve others and turn your life around, perhaps someday you can repay me.”
“I will do all I can, my princess. I devote the rest of my life to serving you.”
“Then go, and sin no more.”
The same guards that had brought him to be killed escorted him through the crowd and out of the courtyard, their faces watching him with wonder.
Celestia stepped forward, addressing the crowd. “Let this be a lesson to all of you; the most important thing in life is making the world a better place. If we want to reach perfection as individuals and as a race, we must give others the benefit of the doubt. Do not sully yourself by wishing blood on others. I beg you, please, go home and spend time with your families. Teach them that forgiveness is paramount to revenge. Show them, through example, that hope is greater than doubt, that a soft word is stronger than an army, that redemption is more desirable than punishment.”
Celestia jumped off the stage, shooing the gathering softly. The crowd dispersed, still somewhat shocked by the events. Celestia made her way over to the family of the deceased, comforting them quietly.
“The more she does that, the less effect it will have,” Luna muttered. “She and I have to talk tonight.”
The scene shifted once again. Twilight found herself confused; where was Seren in all of this?
Gemini appeared in Celestia's chambers. The two princesses were also here, alone. “Listen, Celestia, I understand that you think each pony should be given a fair chance at life, but you don't understand. While you're here dealing with delegates and diplomats, I walk with the common pony. I know their troubles, and the truth is, we can't fix all of them. The best we can do is cut away as much of the core issue as we can.”
“But sister, my tactics are working. I've seen several murderers completely turn around, living better lives!”
“And just as many have ended up back in our court, to be executed.”
“Yes, and then, as much as it pains me, I allow you to carry out the deed.”
“It's not a lossless decision. To get back into the court, they have to commit a crime once again, and they have to be foolish enough to get caught. We're only breeding a smarter criminal in the long run.”
“Or a kinder nation.”
“Hah! Perhaps. But I wouldn't count on it.”
Celestia turned to Luna, exasperated. “Come now, don't you trust your older sister?”
“I would, were it not for the fact that you're being blind to what's happening right beneath your nose. No, wait, perhaps you're not.” Luna narrowed her eyes. “You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You're using me as a political scapegoat. Justice receives no praise. The criminals you let free hate me, as in their eyes, I was the only one who condemned them. Those affected by their crimes hate me since I'm not ensuring the wicked are brought to justice. The diplomats don't pay attention to me since I'm the younger sister, as you're always so keen to point out, and the very nature of our creations betrays the difference between our public image. Everybody loves the day your sun creates, and only forbidden lovers enjoy the peace my night brings.”
“Luna, aren't you being just a little bit vain? Isn't one of your teachings to do what is just regardless of praise? Simply because it's the right thing to do?”
“Yes, of course, but can you blame me for feeling a bit betrayed by you and my subjects?”
“No, of course not, but you're acting childish!”
“Perhaps it's because I'm still a child! In name as the younger sister, in power as you've stifled my arcane growth, and in recognition. No, apparently age means nothing, it's all dependent on what others think of you!”
“It's called maturity, Luna, something that you need to learn!” Celestia stamped her hoof, the sharp crack accenting her point.
“If maturity is not speaking your mind, especially when it pains you, if maturity is being indirect and creating a web of lies and swaying from your principles because you're afraid it'll hurt somepony else's feelings, then I want no part of it!”
“Well, you're doing a pretty good job so far! It's called restraint, Luna. You're selfish if you think your opinion is the only one that matters.”
“You're ignorant if you think other people's feelings are more important than doing what's right!” Luna began to tear up, her underlying fury becoming apparent. “You give your words of comfort after the trials to the grieving families, but then I go out there and see the aftermath! They lose a father, a mother, a brother or a sister, and how do we console them? With empty words. I can't keep what I promise because, who would have guessed, you just override it with the oh-so-wonderful mercy! The thing about mercy? Somepony's got to take the fall, and if it's not the criminal, then it's got to be somebody else. Despite your vows, is it ever you? No, it reflects right on back onto those we're supposed to be supporting, watching over!”
“Silence, Luna!” Celestia's voice was full of force and barely controlled anger. “You forget your place. There is more to be done than dealing with the criminals. I do the best I can, but there's always more to be done. We have to worry about the economy, the very building block of a good life. We have to worry about foreign threats; several countries want to conquer Equestria. Do you know how trying that is? I have to worry about research into better technologies and medicines, and where to best use our funds. If you want more responsibility, I can give it to you, but you haven't proven able to deal with what you have!”
“That's rich,” Luna sniffed. “You know nothing of what I've done. Nobody does. The only reason things seem to be going your way is because I've been correcting your mistakes. We'll see how things go without my support.” She turned to leave, Celestia immediately realizing how harsh she had been.
The door slammed shut.
Just outside, Luna's composure broke down. The pressure of the world felt like it was bearing down on her. She began sobbing quietly, trying to prevent Celestia from hearing. Suddenly, Luna became aware of somebody watching her. She threw an accusing, tearful glare towards the presence. It was one of the members of her personal guard.
“I'm sorry, my princess, but I couldn't help but notice you seemed upset when you left your chambers. I know it was wrong of me, but I followed you to try to console you. I heard everything.” The guard bowed deeply, avoiding Luna’s gaze. “I know it isn't my place, but I appreciate everything you do. The reason I initially joined your guard is because I love the night, and all that you stand for. Please, take comfort.”
Luna sniffed, using her forehoof to wipe her tears. She laughed pathetically. “Thanks. I really needed that.” She stood up, trying to compose herself. “Walk with me, Quicksilver.”