A/N: Apologies for the lateness. I'm frantically trying to get all my essays and tests finished and trying to sleep enough. Stuff like that. Anyways, I hurried to bring this to you guys so if you see any errors, please, let me know and I'll correct them.
What makes a ruler great? I have been asked that from time to time. There is no singular answer.
Depending on whom you ask, a person can be both. A king who serves the serf is their god... and, yet, the
enemy of the upper class. How, then, can a ruler be great? Appeasing one will, surely, prove harmful for
the other. So, when one asks me: "what do you consider a good ruler?" I answer simply. The one who can
hold the throne with the least amount of blood shed.
-Excerpt from "The Mare on the Moon" by Professor Cherilee
Alured Weaver was lost. Not in the traditional sense, Canterlot’s streets still rang true in his mind. No, he was lost in his sense of purpose. He looked at the wrist, at the insignia burned there with steel and ink: the Queen’s blade within the blazing royal emblem.
He couldn’t blame the army; he was old. It was time to leave killing and death to the next generation, his station had been passed on and he had the rest of his life to himself, however short it was.
“Almost ninety years old, most of it spent killing in the name of the Empire… and now you don’t know what you want to do; pitiful.” He chided himself as his ancient legs carried him through the walled city.
A cold breeze ran through the wide streets of the Equestrian Empire, sending a slight chill to run through Alured’s body. He quickly drew his cloak tighter around him and pressed on through the winter wrapped streets.
Weaver took in the beauty of a city caught in mid-winter with a sense of nostalgia and regret, of years spent removing beauty from their world, of never having added to it. He watched as flakes seemed to dance, their glistening forms throwing the rays of the noon sun around in a brilliant display. The breeze swept the fallen snow and brought them back into the fray, twirling and whirling around the stage to the wonder filled eyes of the ancient stallion. At least, at the anti-climax of his life, he could enjoy Nature's offer for once and the awe-inspiring tales these walls told.
A city built on the precipice of the Central Mountains; of gleaming white marble and rosy sandstone. Canterlot was the jewel of the Empire; its walls stood over five score feet and made of thick blocks of marble. They were so thick that they allowed ten stallions to march, shoulder to shoulder, from one end to the other. Magical barriers and ballistae mounted on the roofs of the town within dissuaded any aerial assault from gryphon or pegasus. The only path to the castle-city was a thin, winding path down the mountain, a killing ground for the archers on the wall.
It was as militarily sound as it was easy on the eyes, dissuading attackers while inspiring ponies to flock to its gates day after day.
“… And, in a flash of heat and light, the Mother took us and pulled us to our feet, out of the dirt and squalor of our Brothers to stand as her favored children! The sinful Brothers of ours had been purged; nothing but their ashes and the tales of their sins remained, leaving us to carry on the name of the goddess!”
Alured smiled as he listened to the priest crying out across the bustling streets on the side. He stopped and took a step towards the edge of the road and listened.
“The Humans were disillusioned; they forgot about the Mother, they took her blessings for granted! Because they were careless, the Mother took away all she had given them; their control, their minds, their lives! The goddess’ sentence for them and her warning to us: from ashes to ashes, dust to dust; from dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”
“Spare a few bits for the Mother?”
Weaver turned and looked at youthful mare standing on the corner next to the Brother. Her queer robes, half midnight blue, half virgin white with a smattering of the night sky emblazed across the cloth, give her up as a Sister of the chantry.
“Anything for the goddess,” he answered warmly, tossing a gold coin into her outstretched basket.
Her charming grin quickly turned into a broad smile.
“Your generosity pleases our Mother.”
“I have a question Sister.” He called out as the priestess took a step back to hold her place, once more, by the preacher.
“What is it?”
“I’m looking for a place to live out the rest of my life in peace. Has word reached you, yet, of any such haven?”
She looked surprised by the question, “why… yes, yes of course. The towns to the east seem relatively quiet as of late compared to the rest of Equestria. Word has reached us that the towns of Ponyville and Cloudsdale have yet to see the war yet.”
He thanked her and tossed another coin into her basket before walking away from the religious fervor filled block.
The scarred veteran sighed with pity as he strode down the road, this block a stark and bitter contrast to the richness that permeated throughout the rest of Canterlot.
“Spare a few bits, just a few silvers to feed mah family!”
“Three silvers f’r a tumble, sovereign for the night.”
Desolate peasants, rejected soldiers, desperate whores; they were the dark underbelly of the crown city of Equestria.
He strode on, passing each person with caution, eyes flitting from face to face, hand to hand, looking out for anyone who deemed to test their luck.
By his demeanor, or a stroke of luck, no pickpocket tried their luck that night..
He passed by beggar after beggar without breaking stride until a peculiar sight caught his attention. Two figures, huddling on the street corner, thin cloaks all that protected them from the crisp night air, small wooden bowl slightly ahead. This was not an uncommon sight, the peculiarity of the situation was the fact that a haggard stallion seemed to be helping himself to the scant earnings from the bowl. The residents of this particular area of Canterlot were protective of what was theirs, when you had next to nothing, every bit mattered, yet no move was made by either wrapped figure, neither the large nor the small made a move to protect their property.
He moved forward, closing the gap between the three bodies and himself.
The stallion jumped with surprise, his head whipped around to stare at Weaver. Seeing the stern gaze, he spun around and booked it.
Alured looked down at the two before him; still no movement, interesting.
“Excuse me, sir or madam, are you awake?”
No answer came. He knelt on the muddy curb, hands reaching forward to pull the hood away from the mysterious figure’s face, already knowing what he would find.
“Mother guide you…” He sighed with sadness as he looked at the cadaver before him. A mare that couldn’t have seen more than twenty winters, more bone than muscle; her body wasted away to the point that the indentations caused by her teeth could be seen on her sunken cheeks.
He stood and whispered a quick prayer, makeshift last rights for the nameless duo.
“Mother watch you, guide you to the life beyond. Your purpose here has ended, your reward to collect, find peace in the afterl-“
His soliloquy was interrupted by a muttering voice, one that was muffled by wind and cloth.
Alured Weaver’s eyes snapped down at the smaller bundle, he had never thought to check the other.
He unwrapped the dirty rags around the top of the bundle to unmask the round, flushed face of a foal.
A look of utter confusion met Alured’s gaze.
The question startled the old stallion. His eyes slowly drifted towards the corpse lying to the side. Alured never knew what made him say what he said at that moment, never knew what drove him to do what he did.
“Mommy’s gone on a little trip, I’m your grandpa, your papa. What’s your name dearest?”
“Kay-Sah!” was the chortled response.
A sad smile formed upon the stallion’s face.
“Well ‘Caessa’, we’re going to go home now.”
Simply known as “The Quarry” or “The Mine”, the work camp was heavily fortified. Its job was to keep political prisoners, rebels, and anyone else the empire deemed “dangerous towards the peace”.
Thick, oaken logs made up the palisades, each one roughly thirty feet in height and at least four feet in diameter. The tops and the branches down the side were sharpened into crude spikes; just enough to dissuade any attempts at landing on or climbing up the walls.
Makeshift steps and walkways were nailed to the logs, providing sturdy battlements for the guards on lookout.
There were three ways in and out of The Quarry. A main gate made of thick oaken slabs, and two, small gates on either side used by foraging parties if placed under siege.
The prisoners were held in the middle in small wooden shacks made up of whatever scattered pieces of wood and stone they could find.
No escape, no hope of rescue, The Mines, were, effectively, a death sentence; once you went in, you had no hope in coming out.
“What were you taught about the royal family”
“The usual: the ruling family is made of two princesses, Celestia and Luna, Celestia being the older, Luna the younger. Being the oldest, Celestia was made the crown princesses, inheriting the whole of the Equestrian Empire.” Caessa answered.
Her questioner, an older stallion, mane graying at the temples but still possessing the straight back and no nonsense demeanor of a military pony, turned and faced her.
“You were taught lies. I am Commander Regent of Luna’s freedom fighters. I will tell you the truth. The truth is: Luna is the oldest, Celestia is the younger sister.”
Caessa stared at the older pony in confusion.
He continued, “She was pushed aside in favor of Celestia due to a… peculiar disease she developed at birth. She has almost no magical prowess. As you know, the ruling family is a special species of pony: alicorns the lot of them.
They possess both the feathered wings of the pegasus and the magical horns of the unicorn. For one not to be magically inclined showed weakness, something the family would not allow, so, she was pushed aside; simple as that.
Needless to say, Luna was not happy. Her, and the guards with her, left Canterlot and hid within the forests surrounding the capital. They would strike at key areas in the city, harassing Celestia’s soldiers, and waging a hidden war, a war that the eldest sister could not win.”
Caessa opened her mouth to respond, “So why was Ponyville attacked?”
The commander smiled thinly. “Because we have a mole amongst our ranks; a friend we all thought we could trust became a turncoat. He or she sent word that recruits and supplies were being shipped to Luna’s forces. Celestia had no choice but to bleed the town dry. We have no clue who the perpetrator is and that worries us.”
“And why were you helping Luna? Why is anyone?”
At this, the commander looked towards the ceiling, tracing each crack, each speck of dust with his eyes. He slowly responded, “We wanted a voice…”
He swung his vision back down to catch Caessa’s look of confusion.
“We were promised a voice, a chance to change Equestria to belong to the people. Luna promised us, common citizens, a chance to rise in our rigorous caste-state. Can you imagine, farmers and craftsmen being able to finally have a say in how our lives are run for once?”
“Was it worth the bloodshed, the sorrow, the pain of loss?”
A look of sorrow broke the stoic expression of Regent.
“No,” he whispered, “but we must keep pushing so that our children, the ones who survive, can have better lives.”
Silence hung in the air as Regent finished informing Weaver. Both sat staring at the ground before them, lost in silence and memory.
“And that’ll be your history lesson for the day!” AJ stated as she walked into the room. “So, what d’ya think?”
“It’s… interesting though why you’re telling me this…” Caessa responded, caught by surprise at the sudden intrusion.
“Simple, we want you t’ join us! Do you think we’re sittin’ here waitin’ for a rescue? No can do sugarcube, we’re getting’ out of here by our own hands!”
“What Apple Jack is saying is that we have formed an organization within this prison. We have been preparing for a very long time to finally break out and rejoin our families and brothers in arms. Jack here says you have potential and wanted to bring you into the fold. I trust her judgment.” Replied the commander, all signs of weariness and sadness washed away to reveal the stone-set expression he was known for.
“What’s the plan?”
Regent and AJ smiled at one another before the elder of the pair continued.
“Our opportunity of escape is dawning. The garrison moves out in two weeks leaving just a score of guards, not counting the Warden.” Regent whispered in the small dark enclosure.
“We’ll need weapons and supplies before then.” AJ added. “Those gates on the side’ll need a file or somethin’ t’ cut the chains lockin’ ‘em.”
Caessa interjected: “No need to go get files; pickax will do. The doors don’t look like they’ve been used in ages. The chains are most likely rusted and weak; a solid hit should break them.
Regent nodded. “True, but let’s try to find a few files just in case. Anyway, the troops will move out to meet the supply train at the time. It’ll take a day’s forced march to reach the train then they’ll take their time escorting it back which will take two and a half days. Almost all the guards will be gone, only a handful will be left. We won’t get a better shot.”
“A few armed guards can still prevent our escape.” Caessa interjected.
AJ nodded. “Me ‘n’ mah boys will be sneakin’ up to the guard towers and takin’ out the ones posted there one by one.”
Regent continued off of AJ’s train of thought. “And, you, Caessa will lead a distraction. This fortress wasn’t meant to hold Pegasus ponies, I don’t know why they actually brought you here but it’s a stroke of good fortune that they did. Just fly around and toss a torch onto the roof of their armory; that should keep them from doing too much damage.”
“And when they chase me, you guys make your escape right?” Caessa chanced a guess.
“Aye. Meet us in the woods, where a willow hugs a boulder taller than a stallion on the bend of a river. We’ll have people there that’ll take you to the main camp once you make a run, er, flap for it.”
Caessa nodded. “Seems like a good plan.”
“We’ll meet up again soon to discuss anything else we might need.”
The meeting broke; AJ excused herself and left to return to her own holding.
“How does she do it?”
Caessa looked into her new commanding officer’s eyes. “How does she just put the loss of her family behind her like it’s nothing.”
His answer was simple. “She’s a farmer. The farmer who wails at a failed crop starves; the one who strives forward eventually succeeds.”
She pondered his answer. “I think I understand… thank you.”
Caessa got up to follow the honey colored mare but was stopped by something gripping her wrist.
“What drives you.” He stated putting emphasis on the last word.
She looked questioningly down at the grizzled campaigner still seated.
“Why are you so willing to throw your lot in with us? We have barely known each other.”
Caessa backed up, letting her released arm to come to rest, once more, by her side.
“Because I’m not ready to die yet. You heard my story; my grandfather has never asked anything of me… not until the day of his death. He asked for me to live and live I shall. Your group is my best bet of making it out of here.”
Regent nodded in acceptance. “Keeping to your word… virtuous though silly. You will face things in the coming future that threaten to break that promise you made. I hope that you come up with a better solution by then.”
Caessa turned and left.
Grim slowly stepped over the partially decomposed parts of two ponies. Most of the bodies were gone, leaving only a few scattered chunks, but, of what remained, he made out that one used to have a nice yellow pelt, the other green.
He made his way, slowly, towards the entrance into town. A dark brown pelted hand reached into his pockets and brought out a slip of paper. As the ungloved hand came out, a distinctive mark could be seen on his hand, of a sun and sword. He held it up to the sign outside the town.
“Huh… Guess I was a little late…”
Bright green eyes glancing around at the destruction; burnt out husks lined the streets with sprinklings of crimson pools. The stink of rot and the iron of blood, tinged with wet ash permeated the air into a dense, suffocating cloud.
Grim gave a soft cough and waved a hand in front of his graying muzzle.
With a grunt of disgust he pressed on.
As he neared the town hall, the smell only got worse, a light buzzing he had noticed before escalated to deafening heights. The old stallion surveyed the scene in front of him.
Whereas, before, the blood had been scattered around the streets, here, the blood formed into a shallow pool with a hefty diameter. Chunks of grayed flesh, stripped bones, and bundles of blood-soaked hair floated amongst the crimson pool.
“Guess this is where most of the action happened…”
Grim looked around before heading off towards a building with a sign still hanging off it.
He moved on further before stopping at the next house.
The corners of his lips twitched slightly as he gazed at the large pool of blood on the steps. There was a small splash of blood at the top of the steps, right inside the cracked doorframe. Outside the house, proof of absolute carnage was imprinted upon the land. Pieces of broken chainmail, their tight rings severed to show the shining metal under the blood and rust, littered the ground. Ribbons of leather and cloth, and, what looked like grated flesh, added their touch to the canvas as they floated in the stinking cesspools of rotting, dried gore.
“You didn’t give up without a fight did you?” the Praetorian muttered as he walked in to gaze upon the wreckage within where a line of blood connected the pool at the doorway to the middle of the room. Destruction, very much like the one found outside, was showcased within.
Experienced eyes scrutinized every detail.
“A score of combatants… one defender though I don’t think ‘defender’ would be the right word here… looks like you, my old friend, took the fight to them” he chuckled.
“One defender… then where is she…”
He continued his viewing of the small house until he came to the smashed window in the back.
He crawled out of the shattered window, making sure not to get caught on the glass shards left on the sill.
“Prints are still here…” Grim muttered to himself as he followed the slight indentations left in the soft earth. Ripped clothing were strewn around the alley. His eyes hardened as he came upon the scene where the sinful deed had been done.
“Blood… but not enough to warrant a fatal wound which means that she was hurt in the… ‘scuffle’…”
He straightened his back and looked up at the faint glow over the horizon, the rising sun.
“If she’s still alive she’ll be at “The Quarry” which means she’ll be in contact with Luna’s people. So… to find her I’ll have to find that rebellious bitch.”
The Praetorian gathered his cloak around him and left the town of ash and bone behind him.
“Shield, my general, welcome back.”
The Shining Armour of Equestria marched in, flanked by a squad of Celestia’s finest Royal Guard. He strode down the long hall, feeling the soft, supple red carpeting under his hooves. It was quite a sight, his chosen master and queen, the Princess of the Rising Sun, Celestia sat upon a gilded throne of carved ivory, both of whom were raised up upon a mini pyramid, insuring that all was looked down upon by her. Large stained windows, bearing the deeds of her predecessors, rose from the floor to the rounded ceiling fifty feet up.
Gold was laced around the ivory towers that acted as supports for the massive cavern that made up the throne room. Jewels and precious metals were scattered around in intricate designs, showing the full power and wealth of the Empire within a single room.
And, the most beautiful sight of all; was the reigning monarch herself. Her elegant, virgin white coat, unblemished in the slightest, made the ivory and marble around her look dull and gray. Her flowing multi-colored mane accentuated the colored stone indented throughout the chamber. And, most surprising of all, were the pair of giant wings paired with a large horn situated on her forehead.
Shield went until he reached the bottom of the flat-topped pyramid and knelt. His gaze cast upon the ground, his deep blue cloak billowing behind him.
The Princess lifted her regal features and looked at each of her guards.
“Leave us; I’m safe with the general.”
Each gold-armoured stallion bowed before turning, as one, and filing out of the throne room in two rows.
“My princess, I-“
“No need to tell me anything Shield. I know that you don’t like what you were asked to do.”
“Quiet! First, my loyal subject, tell me… how many of your men can you say are one hundred percent loyal to me.”
“Well… I’d say all of them my lady.”
“No, no, to me. Not to Equestria but to me.”
The blue-haired stallion looked up in confusion. His brows furrowed as he tried to discern her meaning.
Celestia just smiled sadly.
“Oh my poor Shining Armour… still so clueless… I am not the power behind this country, this empire… not anymore.” She stood and walked down the many steps until she stood next to her kneeling subject.
“My… War Committee seems to have taken it upon themselves to oust me of my power. In my foolishness, I did not see their original intentions.” She explained still staring at the large oaken doors on the far side of the room.
“I want that power back.” She put a hand on General Shield’s shoulder and bid him to rise. When he did, she grabbed his chin and maneuvered him so he looked straight into her eyes.
“If I were to tell you that the orders to slaughter the town of Ponyville was not of my doing, would your loyalties to me return?”
Shield took a step back, looked the princess square in her eyes on his own accord, and bowed as low as his body allowed.
“My liege, I have always and always will be loyal only to you. I swear upon my life I will serve no other.”
The corners of Celestia’s mouth rose. “Good. This country, this empire that my family has held for hundreds of years is falling apart. Even now pieces have broken off… and not all the players have shown themselves yet. No… this will not last. But when it finally ends, I don’t want to be caught ill-prepared.”
She turned and strode back up to her throne.
“No, I will not be the one to fall in this intricate game of thrones. My Shining Armour, my Champion, you will no longer lead the armies of Equestria.”
Shock flitted across his face before he bowed his head in subordination.
“As my lady commands.”
Celestia chuckled. “No, instead, you will command the legions of Celestia. Go out, find those loyal, still, to the crown that will stand firm for me when all others wither.”
“What about your Royal-“
She snorted. “Paid by the Committee, no, they will not do. I want a new order. You will form me a Sacred Band of warriors. You will train them, tutor them, do everything to insure they become the finest warriors in Equestria and beyond… and make sure they remain loyal to my cause and mine alone.”
The weight of responsibility felt crushing to the stallion, but he bore it with pride.
“Yes, my lady!”
“You are dismissed.”
“You will have your army within a solar cycle.”
“See that it is.”
With that, the Shining Armour of Celestia swiftly striding out of the cavernous room to begin his quest for a new army, a Sacred Band.
Celestia sighed and leaned back into the soft satin of her throne.
Now there were three players on the board, she had just made her move, now to wait and see what the others would do.
She lifted her left hand and studied the ring set upon the middle finger, slowly spinning it around.
No, not three… there were still players yet to make themselves known. She smiled, this was getting interesting.