Inner Glory

by Erindor

Chapter 61: Reprieve

Chapter 61: Reprieve

“Get up, Celestia.” Quicksilver stood over her menacingly, his body still glowing from his recent transformation.

Celestia didn't move.

“I said, get up,” he hissed.

Celestia raised her head slowly. “Are you going to kill me?”

Quicksilver shook his head. “No. Not yet. You'd only return, without having learned anything. I'm going to let you live with your decision, while I tear down everything you've worked for. We'll start anew, create a civilization that is truly born of justice. Mercy is a wonderful ideal, but where does it end? If somebody's lived only a tenth of their life committing crimes, are they to be spared? What of the person who spent a tenth and one percent? One hundredth of a percent? It wouldn't be right. You have to go all the way, one way or the other. Either everyone is guilty or nobody is. Well, I have you and the crime you've just committed. With one counter-example, we see that the world is broken. It's time we fixed that.”

“What have you become?” Celestia asked, her voice wavering. “You managed to survive the ascension, but what ideal could you cling to, what was so strong you were willing to sacrifice everything else for it?”

“Vengeance, Celestia. I am here to avenge my beloved's death, and everyone who has ever been wronged by a man declared innocent.”

Celestia shook her head, looking at her new enemy. “And what's to become of me?”

“That's the question, isn't it? I've harmed you a little, but in the end it's fruitless, isn't it? Even if I could manage to overpower you, you'd only return having learned nothing. I have to ruin your mind.”

“And you expect me to let you?”

“Of course not. But it's not like it matters. You're predictable. Soon enough you'll overcome your grief and try to justify your action as for the greater good. And when you've convinced yourself that everything's fine and that the kingdom can continue, you'll recognize that I'm a greater threat than sheer force of power could be. Because I know the truth.” Quicksilver looked her over for a moment. “You'll need to call me by a different name. After all, the idea that one of the princesses' personal guards might have turned against you, well, that's just unthinkable.” His voice was mockingly steady. “I'm a foreign entity that rose up to ruin your world because I was jealous, or something to that effect. You'll figure it out. You're good at making people believe whatever garbage you present them.”

Celestia frowned. She couldn't deny she had already been thinking of ways she might be able to spin this. “Why tell me all of this?”

“To let you know that what I am doing is not because I've been blinded by emotion. I know fully well the consequences of my actions. I'm doing this because, even if I lose, I'm right. And that, Celestia, is how I will break you. Vengeance itself is a force to be reckoned with, but when Justice and Vengeance work together, the very forces of the universe will see to it that I will win. Maybe not now. Maybe not for a very long time. But as long as I live, I will see to the downfall of your kingdom. Pursue me if you dare.”

Quicksilver jumped into the air, and took off through the broken ceiling. Celestia watched him until he was out of sight, thinking about the future and what it meant for her. She couldn't stand by, could she? It would be an insult to Luna's memory. She had to forge a world for Luna to return to, one better than the one she had left. It wouldn't ever make what Celestia had done right, but perhaps it would allow Luna to forgive her, and that's all that she wanted. Celestia frowned. She had let Quicksilver get away, for now. But he couldn't get away with his corrupt plan. He claimed to be free from emotion, but the very nature of the ascension ensured that the alicorn would be inseparable bound to their most powerful desire. Their emotion was what made them strong. And Celestia finally found herself begin to feel something other than despair. Hope, and anger.

She jumped to her hooves, still a little wobbly from her healing wounds. She stalked through her halls until she was outside the castle, in the carefully trimmed fields where her staff were waiting worriedly. Upon seeing her, there was a sigh of relief, but their breath caught again as she began to speak.

“Luna's been killed by a monster that rose against us. It's run away, for now, but I fear the entire kingdom is in danger. The castle is no longer safe.”

“Princess Celestia,” the guard nearest to her asked, “What is it?”

“A fallen alicorn, by the name of...” Celestia paused to consider. Up in the sky above, a new celestial body burst into being, only about a third as big as the sun. Its light cast away the darkness of the night, causing all to shield their eyes. Celestia considered it emotionlessly.

“His name is Seren.” Celestia gritted her teeth behind her lips, annoyed that she was forced to do as Quicksilver had predicted. She couldn't tell the truth; to make Luna the bad guy would ruin any chance at redemption when she returned. Quicksilver had to take the blame, and he was eager to do so, but it couldn't be Quicksilver the devoted, loyal defender. It had to be Quicksilver the cruel, unforgiving, and malicious.

“Seren? The fallen sun?” asked one of her advisors, translating the archaic word.

“Indeed.” Celestia raised her voice for the next part, making sure she was heard by all. “This new alicorn is in direct conflict with me. He's promised to destroy this kingdom and all that we hold dear. Why? For the sake of Vengeance. He wants to make a world where every crime is repaid in full. He believes that to show Mercy is to be weak, but we know it is what makes us strong. But he is wrong! The path of Vengeance is the path to destruction. Mercy creates, enlightens, and allows for the forgiveness each and every one of us seek. For the sake of our lives, of our homes, and of our families, I declare Seren the greatest threat to the safety of Equestria. Any means that must be taken to eliminate him can and will be used. His very presence will throw the world out of balance; with the light of his bastard sun, all life will die, unless we can find and destroy him. I offered him Mercy, and he refused. So now the vengeance he holds so dear is the only course of action. We will show him that Equestria can stand strong in the face of any foe.”

The crowd cheered. Celestia looked at them incredulously, behind her practiced mask of determined leadership. She now saw herself as she really was. She saw how easily she told lies, how quickly she was getting tangled up in a web whose only escape was death of one of the two last alicorns. But it was necessary. For the greater good.

For the greater good, she kept telling herself. It was a shame it taken her sister's death to convince herself of it.

{- - -}

The heavy wind stirred up a gust of leaves, their rustling breaking Celestia's concentration. After a year and a half of constant struggle, she had managed to corner Seren. She had learned far too quickly that he was completely serious about his threat to destroy her society. He had absolutely no qualms. When she thought he would attack a position, she would fortify it, only to find him slaughtering an entire, insignificant village as nothing more than a metaphorical middle finger to her attempts to capture him. But finally, after he had managed to escape her grasp for so long, he would be put down.

She was alone. It was suicide for anybody else to try to help her in these fights; Seren had always targeted her allies, laughing all the while. She only knew of three of her guards who were part of the original group before that fateful night of death and ascension. All the others had either been honorably discharged to attend to their families or they were killed. Guards were no longer there to fight the threats to the kingdom; they were only there to see him coming and let Celestia know as quickly as possible. It was a constant game of cat and mouse, but Celestia couldn't decide whether or not she was the harried cat or the mistakenly brave mouse trying to sneak past the seemingly asleep enemy.

Likely the mouse, she thought. Seren seemed to enjoy toying with her, which was apparent enough with the form of his creation, a spiteful parody of hers. Even when he wasn't in person to taunt her, he was a constant burden on her mind. He refused to move his creation, despite the potentially life-annihilating consequences of a day-day cycle. So, Celestia, for the good of the entire earth, was forced to keep both creations moving. The sky had two suns now; the days were long and hot, the nights lonely and cold. It was better than the alternative, she supposed. But it was an inconvenience at best, and a deadly advantage for Seren at worst. Each time Celestia moved his sun, she was expending her own energy, and Seren could just use what power he had saved to cause more destruction.

This could go on no longer. This mouse had some bite.

The only good thing about Seren's grasp for power was the fact that he had entirely halted all other threats to Equestria. When news came of Luna's death, the griffon and dragon nations took the opportunity, only to find themselves unexpectedly halted by two alicorns instead of one. It had pained her to work with her vowed enemy, but it seemed that Seren was determined to end Equestria himself, without the aide of foreign powers.

The two alicorn's ceasefire hadn't lasted too long. As soon as the armies were blatantly retreating, Seren had immediately turned to attacking Celestia and her forces. And in ever similar instance after that, the same thing happened. Begrudging alliance to deal with the threat to Equestria, then immediately back into the feud. It was absolutely infuriating.

Celestia tried to control her breathing as she stood by the cave entrance. It wasn't like Seren to hide like this. Sure, she'd finally had the upper hoof in the last few battles, but it felt wrong for him to be licking his wounds. He had been relentlessly striking, never giving her a chance to rest, and yet, here he was, waiting for her to make the first strike.

She stepped inside, ducking to get past the overhang. The cave opened up quickly, its uneven surfaces slick with moisture and moss. After allowing a moment for her eyes to adjust, she surveyed the area. No torches like the stories of old, no stone gate, no treasure, no signs... only the tugging on her mind by another powerful presence. Celestia lit her horn and began exploring deeper into the recesses of the cave.

After ten minutes of searching, she was beginning to get wary. Seren wasn't making himself easily found. For a brief moment of panic, she wondered if he was even here at all; what if he was off somewhere else, destroying a village? But after a moment's focus, she realized that couldn't be the case. There was a powerful energy signature in here, and you couldn't fake those. It had to be him.

Finally, after a few minutes more searching, Celestia found the room the aura had been coming from, but something was wrong. It wasn't just one energy signature, it was several. Their combined output seemed like only one from a distance, but now she knew something was off. She brightened her horn to illuminate the area she'd just stepped into.

The cavern was tall here, with stalactites and stalagmites alike present. There was a small pool of water in one of the corners, and the air was damp. None of this really registered with Celestia. She was more concerned with the giants, waking bears.

Celestia looked at each of the many creatures in quick succession. She'd never seen anything like it. Their bodies looked everything like a normal animals, but their 'skins' were ethereal reds, blues and purples, pulsing with energy, reminiscent of the night sky. On the brow of each of the beasts was a large, burning orb printed on the fur, in the case of the bear-like ones, and on the exoskeleton, in the case of the scorpion and the crab. This seemed to be the source, or at least the focus, of their power.

After she came to her senses, Celestia turned and began running for the entrance, not even bothering to identify the other creatures. No use wasting her energy fighting these monsters while Seren was still out there.

As she ran, she began making a new plan. If Seren wasn't here, where would he be? All the most recent reports pointed towards him being in this area, and those creatures weren't natural.

With a start, Celestia skidded to a halt. Now that she thought about it, those creatures must represent the... what were they? Constellations, that was right. A couple of the creatures sounded familiar. She thought back to the time Luna had begun talking about them, about how proud she was for coming up with an idea that would give the citizens of Equestria another reason to enjoy the night. Celestia kicked herself for not listening closer. If she had, maybe Luna wouldn't have been as mislead. If she had, maybe Celestia would have a better idea of what was happening now. Luna's plan was to introduce smaller, dimmer celestial bodies as a sort of ornament to the night, to make the sky as a whole more interesting and the darkness less oppressive. Celestia had shut it down with some excuse about pragmatism, but now that she actually gave it a few seconds thought, it sounded nice. Of course, Luna had grown closer to Seren –Or rather, Quicksilver, Celestia reminded herself,– so it stood to reason that Luna might have spoken about the matter to him.

Was Seren trying to honor Luna's memory? Could it be that he genuinely thought himself the good guy in this conflict?

Celestia shook her head. It didn't matter what he thought. Every fool thought they were correct, but only time would separate the wheat from the tares.

A sound like a step echoed across the cave. Celestia froze, listening closer, but nothing more came. Like a startled rabbit, she waited longer than she felt was necessary just to make sure.

“My imagination,” she muttered, shaking her head. She'd been so much jumpier since Quicksilver's betrayal. Once upon a time she had been able to get a good night's rest, but now, she was lucky if she managed to sleep at all.

She focused, blocking out the signals of the creatures behind her, which didn't seem to be pursuing her. They were Seren's creations, which explained why she had mistaken them for their creator. They were both emanating the same energy, distinctively flavored like Seren's false sun. The creatures' presence was overpowering, almost like it was meant to mask something...

Her eyes flew open in realization, just as her silent foe landed in front of her. She leaped back instinctively, but no attack came. Seren simply stood menacingly, his golden eyes piercing the darkness. Once again, Celestia waited, but he didn't move, nor speak. Finally, she swallowed her anger and fear, and spoke up.

“Not going to attack me?”

“There's no need.”

“Why? Are those beasts going to kill me for you? Have you given up doing everything yourself?”

“As I believe you'll have surmised, I used them as a distraction. They aren't meant for anything more.”

“Well, you have me where you want me, obviously. How do I die?”

“Remember, Celestia. I am the alicorn of Vengeance, not Justice. Justice demands you death, but Vengeance is willing to wait for the end to be as excruciating as possible. It's even willing to make sacrifices, to allow more crimes to be committed if it means the punishment will be that much more satisfying.”

“Be clear, or be ready to fight.”

“I'm done fighting, Celestia. For now at least. Do what you will, for I have already won.”

Celestia calmly glared at him, waiting for him to continue. She wouldn't give any credibility to his words until he proved them.

Seren caught the hint and picked up where he had left off. “It's never been about destroying the entire kingdom. Well, at least not in the way you've been thinking of it. Remember, what I'm doing is for Luna's sake. She worked to make this kingdom as beautiful and prosperous as she could. As did I. Do you really think I'd just go and throw that all away in a blind rage? No. Of course not. Celestia, the wells of my disdain for you are unending, but my desire for the progression of our race is greater. I understand that just slaughtering you wouldn't do any good. It'd throw the kingdom into a panic, and nobody would trust me. But if I can undermine your position, if I can make others see the way I do...”

“Then you'd be the more honorable ruler.”

Seren gave a slight, slow bow. “Correct.”

“And you don't even need to tell any false stories to slander me.” Celestia sighed heavily.

Seren nodded. “At least you don't lie to yourself, even if you're perfectly fine with lying to the public.”

“A political campaign, then? That's your plan?”

“A revolution, a rebellion, a revolt. It's already in motion, Celestia. Thousands now heed my call. You've been so flustered trying to deal with me that you've missed the big picture. Every time you've failed to catch me, your public image has taken a hit. And while I've destroyed a few cities, you've let this whole country burn. The people are beginning to realize it.”

“If what you say is true, and I have little reason to believe it, what are you going to do with these followers of yours? Lead an army against the castle gates? Need I remind you they're already broken? If you're trying to claim the throne, if you legitimately believe that you're the most capable ruler, remember that you'll have to rebuild everything you destroy. The people's trust, first and foremost. Even if the entire nation wanted to get at my throat, leading a bloody war is not the best way to endear yourself to a peace-loving nation.”

“I don't know if we can call them peace-loving, seeing as they've never known it. The rumors of war have hung over their heads for many generations. If it weren't for the careful counter-balance Luna supplied, the borders would have been truly overrun long ago. The pony race is strong, yes, but it's our guile that makes us the dominant race. It was the guile that taught us how to hide from our predators, that taught us how to bend magic to our wills, that taught us architecture, farming, and everything else the other races are only now picking up on. So, if such a race is being led by a leader who's forgotten that past experience does not mean correctness about future events, it's time for a changing of the guard.”

“Speaking of guard,” Celestia snapped, suddenly fed up with Seren's haughty monologue, “Where did you get all these ideas? You were loyal to the crown! You had so much potential!”

“That's just it. I was never loyal to the crown; I was loyal to the country. And the reason I turned against you is because of my potential.”

“And because of Luna's lying tongue. I regret what I've done, but I stand by the fact that it was necessary. It seems none of us alicorns are worthy to rule. We're all just a bunch of fools given enough power that we think we're worth listening to.”

“Speak for yourself. I think I'd make a fine leader, and these people agree.”

Celestia felt a shudder in the dormant energy around her. With a blip of light and a crack of sound, she found herself facing twelve rather stern-looking ponies.

“Each one of my captains represents a hundred warriors ready to fight for my cause. How many do you think you have, Celestia? And how many will surprise you with their true colors?”

Celestia was just about ready to charge Seren and gorge him with her horn. After a deep breath of air, she calmed, and looked at each of them sternly. “I will not tell any of you that you may not think differently than what I've proposed, but know this; as the alicorn of Mercy, I can promise none should we come to combat.”

The captains said nothing, each one trying to avoid Celestia's glare. Seren stepped forward once more. “You're nothing without your Elements, Celestia. Without a shield to hide behind, you're uncomposed and frankly, embarrassing. Thank goodness this didn't happen until after Luna and I had fought back the invading forces.”

Celestia's horn grew brighter, making Seren raise a brow. “Is it time to fight, then? I thought you'd gotten past that silliness, since it obviously doesn't work.”

Celestia laughed cheerlessly. “You think you're the only one with plans, Seren? The only one who can think ahead?”

Seren frowned at the thought. “Not quite like that, but yeah. You've been nothing but a fool this far.”

“Then I'll tell you one thing my experience does give me over you. Tactical knowledge. Never underestimate your opponent, and you'd better come prepared for everything.”

With a flash, an arcane circle inscribed itself instantaneously into the floor of the cavern, with Seren at its center. A wall of force rippled out, knocking away the captains, who were then sucked back into their teleports, vanishing without a sound. From each of the six points around the circle, a line connected the smaller circle that was trapping Seren. “What is this?!” He yelled, spitting profanity as he smashed against the invisible walls of his arcane prison.

“A reversal ritual. Everything you've done will be wiped from the face of the earth. I'm sorry, Quicksilver, but if you won't listen to reason, it's time for you to be put down.”

“How can you live with yourself?” he seethed. “You're willing to go to any lengths to keep your 'perfect' world safe. If everybody's fighting against it, that should be enough to tell you that it's not the perfect world you're hoping for.”

“I don't pretend that it is. I'm just doing my best.” Celestia stepped forward, ready to activate the last part of the ritual.

“It's not nearly enough.”

“I've been trying to warn you, Seren. I gave you a year to rethink yourself. Every moment somebody was hurt by your actions hurt me, but it would have been worth it if you had decided to stand with me and rebuild the kingdom for Luna's return. I'm sorry it has to end like this.”

With a thought, the circuit completed. With a rumbling, and then a loud crash, a perfect hole was punched through the roof of the cavern, enveloping the defiant alicorn. He yelled in agony and pure denial as his energy flow was reversed, all his dormant power being sucked back into his mockery of a sun.

And Celestia could only watch.