As you know, I have a business of making contracts. The smoke forming his body exploded out into a smokescreen, which he shaped into objects to emphasize his points. We've been doing this for many years. Generations, on this planet alone. You've got to find some sort of means to entertain yourself if you intend to live a long time. Relevant information for many of you, right now. My meddlings typically take a back seat, only passively experimenting with one or two individuals at any given time. I tend to let a world grow of its own accord, since nature does a better job than I ever could. But, on occasion, someone will make a deal that I find just intriguing enough to be sucked out of my immortal-apathy, and that is when my name becomes scrawled on the history books. One of the earliest examples you have is the story of 'The Foolish Brother'. Two siblings, loving the same woman. What happens when familial competition collides with passions?
Twilight took careful note that Thael seemed to be passively burning the pocket dimension. Bits and pieces of the world she loved were coming back into light, and specifically, they were being placed into the rebuilt library. It was quiet, it was close, and it was home. Whether he was trying to butter her up or not, she slowly smiled at the sentiment.
The two of them butted heads, and it became clear that the elder had won the lady's heart, through his genuine charm, something that typically comes with age. But a mortal's heart isn't so easily turned from its mark. Eventually, frustrated, he came and found me, and I saw my chance in him. The ambitious always strike me as the most interesting, because they have the greatest potential for good -and evil. So, I accepted his terms, and he accepted mine, perhaps not fully understanding the implications of my stipulations. He told me that I needed to get the woman to love him, not understanding that love is only ever a two-way street. And so, I did the only thing that was reasonably within my power. I changed the circumstances of the relationships, and yes, I killed the elder brother. And that beautiful mare did eventually come to love the younger, for his apparent strength and compassion during the time of her grief, but the weight of his decision crushed him, and one day, he finally snapped. But unlike so many others who snap, he didn't lash out. He retreated back to the source of his troubles, and confronted them directly. He decided to pay the ultimate price I'd given him; his soul for a complete reversal of the deal.
I know I've got a good one when they take me up on that. It means they've genuinely learned their lesson. And so, I stripped from him his memories and his intelligence, and added them to me. I was left with the husk, which would later be given to Chrysalis as part of her contract. And she spoke truly; Shining Armor was the most loyal of all the servants I gave her, not because of any loyalty to her in particular, but because of his fierce and brilliant heart. When I claim a soul, I never take out what makes them a real person. With the mind lost, the heart remains.
“You speak of all of this as if it were completely normal.” Cadance frowned a little, stepping forward to speak with Thael directly. “And yet, even if they remain with their hearts, their natural lives are ruined.”
Chrysalis laughed. “As much as I absolutely hate him, I have to appreciate his system. Lighten up a little.”
No, she's right. Extinguishing a life isn't my intent. And indeed, the way I have it set up, I can return a soul to their natural body. And I do so! Though, admittedly, it's typically long after it's appropriate by the world's standards. I might even be able to return the Foolish Brother's to Shining Armor, but he's moved on from what he was and has created a new life.
“Then all the pain and the troubles the Brother went through? Worthless? Forgotten?”
Far from it. What is the worth of a soul? To echo the old adage, if a tree falls in the forest, and none are there to hear it, does it make a sound? I would like to redirect your attention to this; the tree fell, and that is an undisputed fact, and one that tells us a fair amount about the event. The tree and the soul both have gone through a lot. Those events happened, and even if they're forgotten by the world, they had and have intrinsic value. Because, for a moment, a consciousness touched the world beyond, and came back the wiser.
But consider this, Alicorn of Selflessness, He said, turning to Cadance. Though I may seem a blight in your eyes, I am a fair blight. I offer exactly what the person wants in return, and I make the escape clause perfectly clear. For every one that chooses to take me up on the contract, there are five who get to my altar and turn away. And how many of those have gone home to improve their lives through their own volitions? Almost every one. I do not claim that the system is flawless, only that it works. A creature should be free to choose what happens to their life, and my method is simply a little more direct than most.
He flipped around and looked at Quicksilver. But as for you, I'm sorry. You were forced into a contract, but the letter of the law is that you must fulfill it, and if I break the rules this one time, I have to break them every time, or else the very purpose of order is frustrated.
Quicksilver's mouth fell agape. “You mean to tell me that I'm still holden to Seren's contract?”
I'm sorry, but it's not like you didn't know this was coming. Your hesitance? I know this has been hanging over your head, and so do you.
“I simply hoped you might be reasonable.”
I am, and that's the problem.
Dread began to well up in Twilight's heart. “And what is the contract?”
Seren asked to be released from the Moon Pool, having grown tired of his prison. I agreed, under a single condition.
“And that was?”
That upon his release, he would kill Celestia.
The group shifted as each individual took unconscious sides. Luna stood between Celestia and Quicksilver, whereas Shining, Cadance, and surprisingly, Chrysalis stood between her and the metaspectre. “If you weren't scummier than the dirt before, you've certainly become such now.”
“How could you ask for something like that?”
Celestia looked him dead in the eye. “Do you want me dead?”
No, of course not. I have nothing against you, Celestia. It was just the direction I needed him to move for everything else to fall into place.
“Certainly you can just forgive the debt, then?” Rainbow Dash's wings twitched with emotion. “Why be a stickler?”
Because, Rainbow, Alicorn of Independence, you have to understand this. Unless I hold to my word in every instance, I instantly lose my power for good. I have made a contract of sorts with myself. I've told too many lies in my past, and I can't begin again now. By being wholly predictable, the clever can use me to affect happiness.
“So how can you be satisfied? How can we move on?”
Celestia must die, or Quicksilver must give up his soul.
An uproar exploded from the group, only Celestia and Quicksilver remaining silent. Twilight waited for a prime moment to cut in before silencing the others. “Listen to me! There has to be a way out of this that works for everyone. We've gone through so much, and we're all reasonable people!”
“All except for him!” A dark glare from Applejack surprisingly made Thael look away. Twilight watched him for a few more moments before confirming that yes, he was avoiding all eye-contact. Not out of arrogance, but it seemed like... shame.
“Let me begin negotiations, then.” Luna stepped forward. “Metaspectre, is it his soul specifically, or will any soul do?”
In technicality, any will do, but it has to be one that the offerer has power over; you cannot force a soul from someone to cover another's debt, it has to be a willing gift.
“In that case, I offer mine as payment.”
Celestia yelped her objection. “Luna! No!”
“Celestia, you've proven your ability to lead a nation for a thousand years, even if the end was a little shaky. You'll have the support of everyone here in the meantime, and I serve Justice better here, by doing this, than I would punishing petty criminals for years to come.”
Quicksilver shook his head. “It would be worthless for me to continue living without you, Luna. I am not an ambitious man; I am content to help you and your sister where I can, and I am ready to accept to consequences of my short-sightedness now.”
“But wasn't it Lustrous' influence?”
“That's just it. It wasn't. I was already walking down that path. She just put me into a run. The mistakes I made were effectively mine, and mine alone. Thael is right for holding me to the contract. I will give myself up.” Luna was going to protest further, but Quicksilver's stance made her hold her tongue. He nodded towards her, and turned to Thael. “Take me, and with it, one last request. You've done much for this world, and only time will tell one way or the other if it's been for the better or the worse. But please, leave us in peace.”
Of course. I would never overstay my welcome.
“Some would say you already have,” Chrysalis murmured.
Thael pulled Quicksilver aside, and began crafting some sort of bubble for him to step into. Enter whenever you're ready.
Quicksilver nodded. “For my princesses, and for Equestria.” He took a confident step forward.
“Wait!” Celestia dashed forward, putting herself between him and it. “It's only fair that I be the one to go!”
“What are you talking about?”
Celestia turned to Luna. “Luna, if I die now, it will repay for the time I sent you away. It will repay for your time spent as Seren, Quicksilver. It will repay for my mistakes, my violence, and my crimes. I've been in the throne far too long already. It's time for my little sister, who has always had a wonderful mind and a brilliant heart, to take the reins.”
“Celestia,” Luna laughed pathetically, “Please, step away from that.”
“Luna, I have never been more sure of anything in my life. This is the way it has to be.”
Mercy and Justice, Thael murmured. Are you absolutely certain?
“Wait, princess!” Twilight ran forward, having been silent for too long. “You can't go. The nation needs you.”
“My sister needs me more. I know it's a burden to ask of you, but Twilight, you've proven yourself time and time again. In the face of the harshest adversity in your life, you stood strong, and despite my failings, you've climbed higher than us all. Without you, we might have lost more than just one washed-up princess. Twilight, will you take my place, alongside Luna, as ruler of Equestria?”
“I... but you-”
“I cannot let another take the hit for something that is directly my fault. Your concern is exactly why you'll be a better ruler than I was, Twilight. Forgive me for this.”
She stood in shock, until finally, Twilight lowered her head in a deep bow. “I forgive you, Celestia, for everything. I will do as you ask, teacher.”
Celestia lifted Twilight's head with her hoof. “Teacher? You've taught me more than I've ever taught you.” She bowed deeply, and Twilight bowed again in kind. Celestia turned to Thael once more. “Metaspectre, I will fulfill the contract with my own soul. I give it up that this world may live in the peace and happiness I could never bring.”
Thael remained silent, and then, out of nowhere, began laughing heartily. He laughed so hard, his body actually convulsed, and for once, his mouth opened and made a tangible sound. The echoes of his psionic and vocal laughter reverberated around the library, making the others very confused.
“What's the meaning of this?”
“You've done it!” He said, once again vocally. “You've outsmarted me!”
Celestia cocked her head. “What? How?”
“Oh, thank you, thank you! I was truly dreading taking something that had such greater potential here! You're free! The contract is fulfilled, and each of you may live!”
Bright grins began to cycle around the room. “But how?!”
“The rules are that a soul has to be given, of their own volition. It has to be a sacrifice, it's a gift! Not something I have to take, but an offering. And I accept the intent behind the offering as full payment! That's taught me more than any number of years prying the psyche apart would.”
A cheer echoed around the room, and Celestia bowed her head. “Thank you, Thael. Thank you.” The faintest -plop- could be heard as a few droplets of celebration hit the floor. She turned and hugged Luna immediately. Quicksilver cautiously approached, and he was pulled in by both of the princesses. Cadance and Shining Armor kissed, Applejack and Rainbow bumped hooves, Fluttershy and Pinkie were in fits of giggles brought on by the relief, and Rarity was looking to Twilight, nodding her silent approval.
And then, everything froze.
Twilight looked around in confusion, but was stopped in her search by Thael's voice, back to psionic.
My contract is sealed, Alicorn of Forgiveness. This is the end of your ascension. It's time for me, and you, to move on.
Twilight stepped over to the floating creature. “The contract? The one with Quicksilver?”
No, the one I made with you. The one you've yet to make. And may I just say, that at the end of it all, I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank you, Twilight. Thank you.
“But what was the contract?”
The scene morphed as they were teleported back to his altar -and through time. Thael sighed before he continued. It was the simplest request of all, and the hardest I've ever had to fulfill.
Twilight chewed on the thought for a little bit. “And where will go from here?”
Who knows? My wanderings have taken me many places, and wherever next is meant to be. You've taught me so much in such a short time, I might just go rest for a few hundred years. But at some point, I'll continue onwards in my search for our purpose in life, and our destination in the world to come.
“Perhaps this is it? To go through trials, to become better people, and to thrive?”
Thael smiled. I'm almost certain it is. Oh, uh, by the way. Your past self is about to climb these stairs and meet the past-me for the first time, he said, gesturing to the altar, where the orbs lay in wait. We've got to send her on the way through this journey.
Twilight started. “Wait, I remember now. I heard voices at the top of the plateau. One was oddly familiar... that was me?”
Of course. A subconscious reminder that no matter how hard times got, you would be able to make it through.
Twilight breathed heavily as she took it in. “Wow. Well, if you're about to leave, promise me that you'll come back, some time. I'd like to meet with you again.”
As I understand it, I already have. He chuckled quietly. You're an interesting girl, Twilight Sparkle. I don't know if I'll ever be able to stay completely away from you. I promise, I'll return some time soon.
“The moment you find anything worth reporting?”
Twilight raised a brow. He was speaking vocally now? “You understand the conditions, correct?”
“Then your bonds are lifted, and you're free to go. Remember, we cannot change predestination. It'd be just as dire for you as it would be for me. I look forward to meeting again.”
The two stopped speaking for a few moments as Twilight had realized what had just happened. Her past self had just heard those words, and was about to clear the stairs. All she was waiting for was...
“Speaking of predestination, our lady, somebody is listening in right now.”
And then, all at once, the moment happened. A two-week younger and many years less wise Twilight cleared the stairs, and gasped in shock. “You- you're me! And who's this?”
Thael smiled. Ah, so young, so innocent. And yet, so full of potential. Miss Sparkle, you are about to have the ride of your life. With that, a flash emanated from the altar, blinding the alicorn Twilight momentarily.
“What was that?”
I made her forget the last few seconds. It'd kind of ruin the surprise for her if she already knew how this would turn out. He looked Twilight over for a few moments, and sighed once again. I'm very glad to have made your acquaintance, Twilight.
“And I've very glad to have your friendship, Thael.”
Thael beamed for a moment, before getting himself under control. Thank you. For everything. And now, I'll be off. You've got a world to create; you're still glowing from all that excess energy of your ascension, and you've got to put it somewhere.
“Wait! One last question.”
“Was this all simulated, or was it real? You said that was the end of my ascension, but part of the ascension is that you have a spiritual vision where you've got to confront your innermost desires and troubles, and... well, when Lustrous and I merged, there wasn't anything like that. I got a pair of wings, and it was done. Was my entire journey just the vision? All the pain, the lessons, the tears and the blood? Was it real?”
Would you believe me if I told you, one way or the other? And either way, does it make a difference? In the end, you have to decide, Twilight. Do you want it to be real? Then act as if it were.