A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court

by Antiquarian

Old Warriors

The Crystal Empire, one thousand and twenty-five years ago…

Smoke choked the skies above the Crystal Palace, a mingling of the fires of war and of the odious presence of the Dark Magic that permeated the very air around the place. So thick and vile was the cloud that not even the strongest of the massed pegasi legions could puncture its cloying embrace. It was impassible.

At least, to normal ponies.

Two streaks of light, one a radiant white-gold, the other a vibrant stellar blue, shot through the inky blackness like the arrows of heaven, punching through the crystal walls of the palace as though they were but glass.

Celestia reined in her power, bringing herself to a halt in a landing that cratered the floor of the throne room. Her red-gold armor shone like a living flame even in the dimly lit interior. In her forehoof she held aloft her glaive, a mighty weapon of ivory and gold that seemed to burn with a righteous fire in her grasp. “SOMBRA!” roared the solar diarch. “SHOW THYSELF!”

The Royal Canterlot voice boomed throughout the castle, sounding an echo that drowned out the distant sounds of battle, a challenge to the architect of this violence to stand and meet his fate.

It was a challenge that went unanswered.

Luna stepped forward out of her own crater, a black-hilted sword twisting in her magical aura. “It would seem the pretender has run off to cower in some dark corner,” spat the younger alicorn, brushing a piece of rubble off of her midnight-colored armor. Her eyes narrowed. “I do so look forward to dragging him out of it.”

A rumbling chuckle shook the great hall, as shadows crept into the room from every edge and alcove. “Not likely, little Light-bringer,” taunted a voice that seemed at once to be everywhere and nowhere.

Celestia scanned the room around her, seeking to spy the mad tyrant, but her search was in vain; the shadows concealed all. She powered her horn and began using her Light to create a haven in the Darkness, trusting her sister to do the same. “It’s over, Sombra!” she called out. “Your cultist armies are routed! Your slaves are freed! Surrender now and we shall spare your life!”

Luna hissed at that, shooting her sister an outraged glance. Celestia just shook her head warningly. We must bring this to as swift a resolution as possible.

Freed, you say?” laughed Sombra. “A bold claim, Celestia. You think that you can come into my Empire, into my castle, and undo my hold as easily as that?His mirth boomed through the castle as the shadows clogged every nook and cranny around the sisters’ twin lights. “Tell me, when you removed their armor and broke the enchantment that bound their minds to my direct control, did they look relieved? Happy? Or were they rather vacant…?”

The voice came from behind and the sisters spun, weapons ready.

“Terrified…?” asked the voice from the left.

Again the alicorns tensed.

Enthralled?asked the voice from the front.

Luna and Celestia aimed their weapons at the last source of the voice and the latter used her magic to dispel the illusion, revealing a silhouette in the shadows before the throne.

The silhouette spoke. “You see, my spell does not bind them merely by the armor, but by their very flesh.” Sombra’s bared fangs glinted even in the darkness. “My curse is upon them, and even alicorns will not be enough to break my hold on them.” He took a step forward and the throne room resonated at the touch of his hoof, the shadows at the edges of the light forming tentacles that swayed and danced at the sound. “They are chained.” Another step. Another tremor. “Manacled.” He stepped to the edge of the light, revealing his sadistic form in full as he leered with utmost cruelty. “Mine. The tentacles snapped forward.

The Royal Sisters snapped into action. A combined shield spell burst outward from them, scorching and dispelling the first wave of strikes as though they were nothing more than a mist. The second wave of tentacles formed into dark crystal spikes that shot at the two alicorns with the force of stones in a hurricane, but they did not find their targets. Lofting to their wings, the pair avoided the bulk of the attacks, while precision magic beams and swift blade-work annihilated the rest.

Nor did they remain only on the defensive. Even before the last of the projectiles was destroyed, Luna shot forward, slicing through the air at Sombra. The unicorn swept backwards, the shadows carrying him away with unnatural swiftness. But his respite did not last long as Celestia’s glaive came down to split his skull. Once more, he barely evaded the attack, and the alicorn’s strike sent a searing line of fire through several floors of crystal. “Tch,” snorted Sombra as he responded with a flurry of crystal shards. “Take care not to scratch my home too badly, Celestia.”

Viper!” she snarled, stabbing at his chest.

The battle raged across the throne room. Sombra’s ability to wield the shadows and crystals as an extension of himself let him attack from every angle, sending out tendrils of dark power that would alternatively attempt to trip or ensnare the sisters or else expand into crystals to bleed and bludgeon them. The alicorns, for their part, used their wings to evade many of his attacks, and their magic and weapons to block and shatter those which they could not dodge. More than once Sombra’s tentacles would manage to latch onto one of the princesses, only for them to burn his magic away with their own. Sometimes it flowed from their horns; other times it simply seemed to emanate from them. It was this last development which came to vex Sombra.

“What is this power you wield?” he roared as Celestia rid herself of his grasp a third time. “Why do you not become chained as the others?”

“Did the Fell Beast that promised you this magic not tell you?” asked Luna, a hint of mockery in her voice. “Did it not explain that there are old magics, far older than yours, the first of Creation, which set aright all things perverse and wicked?” She leveled her blade at him. “Your pact you made foolishly, Sombra. And, unless you wish to die for your error, you ought to take my sister’s remarkably generous offer.”

Sombra hissed, but before he could speak, Celestia strode forward, glaive held at her side. “It’s not too late, Sombra. You can still end this here and now.” She gestured around her to the shattered throne room. “Look around you. Is this really the power you were promised? A failed conquest and a shattering defeat? These shadows have bound you as readily as they have bound the Crystal Ponies.” She held out a hoof. “Release your grip on them and submit yourselves to us. Let us unshackle you.” Her voice dipped. “You needn’t become a shadow yourself.”

The false king’s eyes narrowed. “Really, Celestia? Do you think mere words will convince me to give up the greatest power in the world?” He snorted with contempt. “You make for a poor jester, Celestia, as I am unamused.” His face twisted into a grin. “Perhaps you’ll be more useful as a wall decoration.”

“Tia! Look out!” shouted Luna as she cannoned into her sister. The crystal spike had come from behind, flung by the shadows like a spear. Luna’s tackle prevented it from striking Celestia in the spine, but in doing so the lunar diarch took the javelin in her side. She screamed in pain as it punched through her armor and sent her crashing to the ground.

“Luna!” cried Celestia, throwing up an instinctive shield around them as more tendrils shot out. They impacted off the ward as iron upon iron, sending sparks in all directions, creating a cacophony of light and sound as Celestia cradled her sister. “Luna! Speak to me!”

The younger alicorn coughed, spraying blood on Celestia’s golden chest plate. “Miserable Fell-spawn!” she spat, sending a hate-filled glare at the leering Sombra.

“Did you really think I’d let go so easily, little foal?!” roared Sombra as his attacks intensified.

“Arrogant little puppet, isn’t he?” snarled Luna. She shot a glare at her sister. “And you wanted to reason with him.”

“Did you imagine that I would relinquish my slaves at your whim?!”

Celestia stroked her sister’s mane. “The time for reasoning is over, little sister. He has made his decision.”

“I did not merely bargain with the Masters of the Shadows!”

“And now he shall meet the consequences of it.”

“I am one!”

Celestia forced a weak smile. “Together, little sister?”

Luna gave a crooked grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

The two alicorns closed their eyes, and Celestia felt the world slow around her. It always did whenever she connected to the gift that was older than she. It was a power that came from Creation itself, a blessing of the Source. It was many things. Optimism. Charity. Compassion. Integrity. Devotion. Friendship. It was all virtues; all measures and aspects of Harmony. In a word, it was Love. And of that Love was an Order, which was intended to set all things in their proper places, to mend that which was broken, to expose that which was septic, and to heal that which was wounded. The Sages referred to the application of this last aspect as the practice of Curatrix magic. Its role was to cleanse the scars upon Creation.

And that’s exactly what Luna and Celestia intended to do.

Their wings spread, and with a single flap both sisters were carried into the air. Celestia was aware of the Dark Magic in the room, its exact form and shape, though her eyes remained closed. She saw it for what it was: a foul twisting of magic, born of things fallen and shameful. It sought to crush her, grasp her, consume her. But she was unafraid, and let the shield surrounding them fall away as a fire burned deep within her and her sister. Sombra’s tentacles snatched at them, but such radiance burned from the two that the dark tendrils were incinerated on contact.

Impossible!” he roared as Celestia’s and Luna’s horns surged with energy, coming close together. “I will not be denied my dominion! I will not be denied—"

The horns touched.

A surge of power smote the false king like the wrath of Heaven. He bellowed in unspeakable agony as the banishing magic sought to drive the wicked shadows from the mortal plane. But, even in his pain, he would not relinquish them. Celestia felt a twinge of pity, knowing that he would be dragged down to damnation with them, but she steeled her heart against any hesitation, knowing that it was beyond her ability to change his heart. She felt a tear in his flesh as the unicorn was ripped apart, but still he clung to the Fell shadows. Not only that, but he reached out with them. He sent his shadows outwards, as though grasping at the distant strands of a web, and even as his body was disintegrated she felt him tug at the web. A web that almost resembled…

Merciful heavens, no!

She tried to stop, to redirect the power to aim it at the spell that was his final act of spite. But it was too late. Her aim was sluggish, as though restrained by bonds. There was a jolt that wrenched though her as though she’d been caught by a bolt of lightning, a noise like the wailing of thousands, and an earth-shattering crack that shook the very mountains.

Then she was falling, blind, deaf, and numb…




…an impact…








“Princess Celestia!”










“Princess Celestia!”





My fault…






“Your Highness!

Celestia jolted upright at the voice in her ear. She looked up to see a trio of unicorn knights shaking her, worried expressions clear even behind their visors. At her wakefulness they all sagged with relief. “Oh, thank heavens,” laughed the foremost knight. “We thought you’d been injured in the fall. You were hundreds of feet up—"

Luna! “Luna! Where’s Luna?!

She whipped around as her sister coughed behind her. “Right here, dear sister,” groaned the other alicorn. “They had less trouble rousing me than you.” She grunted as an earth pony monk pulled the spear out and began dressing the wound. “Probably the pain,” she quipped as her blood dripped out on the snow.

Snow… realized Celestia. She looked around and saw the combined army of the Three Tribes stumbling around in the snow, officers looking as though they were trying to do a head-count as ponies moved through the drifts of… snow… why is there snow if we’re…

“The Crystal Empire! How did we… did it… where…?” Tears formed in her eyes as she shot a helpless look at her sister. “The banishment… I felt him tug at a web… it…”

Luna stared at the ground. “A parting gift from Sombra,” she murmured. “A final curse. One that bound the Empire to him. When he was turned to shadow…” she gestured around her mutely.

Celestia trembled. “N-no, he couldn’t have. We couldn’t have…we…” The tears rolled freely down her cheeks. “We…” she clenched her eyes shut. “Noooooo!” she shrieked, pounding the earth with her hoof and sending a tremor through the land in her grief. “Noooooooooo!

It was a long trip back to Equestria. Yet it was a quiet one. Nopony celebrated, and nopony was foolish enough to talk to Celestia and Luna beyond what was absolutely necessary. Equestria as a whole had known little of the Crystal Empire before the mad king’s coup, and knew nothing of what had transpired between the Royals and Sombra. All they knew was that the Empire had vanished, and Sombra with it. Equestria was safe.

But at what cost? Celestia asked herself as she stared up at the sky from the balcony of her castle.

The home she shared with her sister was empty save for the two of them, the servants, and a small number of guards from each of the three races assigned to the diarchs as a show of solidarity. The rest of the army had already split off, each lord and officer taking his troops back to his own lands. Celestia had not been sorry to see them go. She hadn’t known how to face them, even if they didn’t know what had truly happened.

She didn’t look up at the sound of the hoof-falls beside her. “We should have looked closer,” she said aloud. The listener did not answer. “We should have seen the curse. If we had, we could have broken it before banishing Sombra. But our rage at his transgressions blinded us, and thousands paid the price for our maddened haste.”

For a moment, Luna didn’t say anything, but simply joined her sister in looking up at the stars. “We had to act,” declared the younger alicorn at length. “Thousands more would have suffered had we not. Perhaps we could have undone the curse had we known, or perhaps not. Either way, we may not have had time. Powerful as we are, even we have limits. Terrible as it was… even with our mistake it is still better than letting Sombra roam free.” She glanced at her sister. “And they’re not gone, Tia. That is not the way of the Creator, to damn the innocent with the guilty. We shall find a way to restore them.”

Celestia mulled over her words. “I know,” she said. Flexing her wings, she added, “And it’s not as though we won’t have time to do it.” Luna chuckled wryly at that.

For a time, the two simply contemplated the stars in silence. Such a beautiful night you’ve made, sister, she thought with a smile. Then her thoughts grew morose. How many more shall I see over the centuries? “Do you know something, Lu? When Starswhirl first told us that our fates were tied to the sun and the moon, that our lives would not fade due to age, I was excited. As were you, I recall.” Luna nodded. “But, after the Empire… I’ve come to realize what a heavy burden it is. To see so many years pass, and know that what peace we win will never last forever. That we will be called upon to fight again…” she glanced down at her hooves, and in the torchlight saw her own shadow next to her sisters, “and will doubtless make mistakes again. Mistakes with long consequences.” She paused. “The young daughter of Princess Amore was sent to us by the Imperial Guard for safekeeping.”

“Y-yes. What of her?” inquired Luna, seeming to be taken off-guard by the abrupt change of topic. “Are you considering some other means of protecting her?”

“In a sense. I will watch over her myself,” declared Celestia. “I will guard her and rear her as though she were my own daughter. And, should she come of age, marry, and raise children of her own, I shall watch over those children in the same way. And their children. And the children after that. And those that follow, on and on until such a day as when, in the Creator’s good time, the Crystal Empire is restored. And that descendant, if she is worthy, shall sit upon the throne.” She turned to her sister. “Perhaps we were right to act as we did in the North; perhaps not. Either way, it is our duty to see justice done to the Crystal Ponies, and I can think of no better way than in watching over their last daughter.”

Luna considered this pronouncement for a moment, then nodded. “You are right of course, sister.” She looked down at her own shadow, her eyes distant. “In all things, let justice be done.”

“Let justice be done,” echoed Celestia, feeling the night air drift across her ageless face. “No matter how many years we see, let justice always be done.”

Ponyville General, Ponyville, present day…

“…and that’s the long and short of it, Your Highness,” confessed Redheart, who was absently massaging her bruised forehoof. “I don’t know if it was what I said, what he saw, or some combination of the two, but he relaxed and the machine started working again.”

Celestia nodded. “I see. Thank you, Nurse Redheart. This certainly gives us much to consider.” There were a series of acknowledgements from around the room. Celestia and her entourage currently occupied the strange creature’s recovery room, a suite usually reserved for up to six patients, but in this case cleared out for the one. And fortunately so, thought Celestia, or else we wouldn’t all fit. In addition to the six Element Bearers, Spike, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, the room also held Dr. Stable, Nurses Redheart and Medevac, Argent, and two other soldiers. Thank the heavens that protocol and prudence demand setting a guard at the door and sending the rest to secure the building. With seven more soldiers, I don’t think we’d all fit!

“So, if I’m understanding this correctly,” said Rarity, “he simply saw the cross on your hat and was suddenly more amenable?” Redheart nodded.

“Well, duh,” said Rainbow, who flew over to the side table where the biped’s belongings were kept and held up the bloodied robe. “This has got a cross on it too, Rarity.”

Rarity’s lip curled at the sight of the blood. “Yes, well, that cross is of an eight-pointed and more star-like design, while Redheart’s is more of a blocky construction, and that’s to say nothing of the difference of color, both the crosses themselves and the background, and who knows what nuances…”

Ugh!” groaned Rainbow. “Who cares? A cross is a cross! I bet it’s some secret symbol from an ancient order of epic warriors! Like in Daring Do and the Last Campaign!

“Ooh! Ooh!” squeaked Scootaloo. “And he could be like the last protector of the Sacred Grail!”

Rainbow grinned and swept over to her adoptive sibling, foreleg held up for a hoof-bump. “You got it, squirt! Up high!” *Clonk!*

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Really, Rainbow? Daring Do? This is real life here!”

Before Rainbow could retort, Twilight interjected. “Actually, Dash might not be that far off.”

Really?” chorused Dash, Rarity, and Applejack, albeit with wildly different expressions.

“Oooooh!” gasped Pinkie Pie. “Does that mean that Rainbow is some sort of super-secret spy that hunts down ancient artifacts and uncovers magical guardians while working for Celestia?” The party pony glanced up at the diarch and flinched. “Um, hehe. Not that I’d want to blow her cover, of course.”

Celestia struggled to keep a straight face. Now there’s a thought…

Twilight didn’t even bat an eye at Pinkie’s antics. “Not exactly.” She held a hoof out to the earth pony nurse. “Redheart? May I?” Redheart tossed her hat over to Twilight, who caught it in her aura. “See, this cross is an ancient medical symbol that actually dates back to early Equestria, to a time before Celestia and Luna came to power, in fact. It hearkens to a certain Court Mage by the name of Clover the Clever who, under the tutelage of Starswirl the Bearded, discovered the Cross-Shape Protein, which I’m sure you all know the significance of.” She made as if to go on, but glanced around at the others first. With the exception of Celestia and the medical professionals, she was greeted with blank stares. “Ah. Right. Well, the CS Protein is the building block for most cells and organs in the body. Even though medical magic was too limited at the time to fully appreciate the significance of it, the discovery of this protein still advanced medical magic ahead by decades, and as such it became a common symbol of healers. Of course, it doesn’t always look like a cross, which is why some symbols resemble the snakes crossed on a winged staff, and others—"

She was cut off from a loud snore by Rainbow, who had slumped on an unused bed and was currently drooling on the pillow. Twilight grumbled under her breath while the fillies snickered. Fluttershy flapped over and jabbed Rainbow none-too-gently. “Rainbow,” she reproved quietly, “that wasn’t very nice!”

Rainbow snuffled as though just waking up. “Wha- no- I’m just- sorry, I was put to sleep by the great big dose of boring we just got!” She flapped into the air and gestured to the unconscious creature. “Twilight, this guy ripped timber wolves apart with his sheer grit and you’re going on about proteins?”

“It’s not just proteins, Rainbow,” snapped Twilight. “And if you’d let me finish you’d know that in the early days the cross wasn’t just a symbol for healers.”

“Oh?” asked Redheart, curious about the multilayered significance of her mark. “What was it the symbol for?”

Twilight was about to answer when Celestia cut her off. “Monster Hunters,” she declared casually. Instantly, she had the room’s attention. Ignoring their gazes, she walked over to stand closer to the creature, listing off titles as she did. “Champions. Guardians. Beast Slayers. Witch Hunters. Chain Breakers. They went by many names. Some were members of Martial Orders. Others were independent operatives. Still others were agents of the Crown. But the purpose of all was the same.” She reached the foot of the creature’s bed and looked down at his still form. “To protect the innocent from the dangers of Dark Magic, whether from monsters, or cultists, or… darker threats best left to history.”

Behind her, Rainbow Dash and the fillies gave chorus to an awed, “Coooool.”

Applejack, ever practical, asked, “So why in the hay did monster hunters ‘ave the same symbol as a bunch of healers?”

“Most of the first healers were monks dedicated to specific precepts of Harmony, or else were hermits like Zecora or town Reverends like Mr. Waddle,” explained Twilight, who sounded quite happy for the opportunity to teach a little history. “And it just so happens that most ponies who practiced Curatrix magic in those days were healers as well.”

Pinkie Pie snorted and began giggling madly. “Girls, can you imagine Mr. Waddle fighting timber wolves?” She fell about laughing, and the others quickly joined in.

Celestia took advantage of their distraction to study the creature more closely. He was quite unlike anything she’d ever seen before; a tall and nearly hairless primate who required clothes to maintain his modesty. His body looked to be weathered and gnarled, like an old tree that had endured many storms.

“Girls,” Fluttershy reproved the others. “It’s not polite to laugh at Mr. Waddle. I hear he used to be quite the athlete. You should respect your elders.”

“On top of which, he is a Reverend,” added Rarity. “We oughtn’t make fun.”

Adding to the imagery of the weathered tree were the scars. Celestia had not been entirely prepared for the sheer volume of the ravages. I haven’t seen such magnitude of injuries on a single body since the old days. Cuts, burns, tears, and slashes crisscrossed the entirety of his visible frame. Some were obviously the scars of combat, but it was the other old wounds that she found truly disturbing: the ones that looked calculated. Far too calculated to be the bitter fruits of battle.

“But he’s like a million years old!” Rainbow shot back. “I’ve got nothing against the guy, I just think the idea of him karate-chopping timber wolves is funny. Tell me that isn’t funny!”

“It would be quite a sight,” Twilight admitted.

Celestia hardly heard the argument as she pondered the strange being. By rights, he should have appeared broken and fragile, lying inert in a hospital bed, old and bloodied and battered. Yet there was a regality to him, a sense that his hands were not merely lying limp but rather awaiting their next task. He had a nobility in his countenance, and his grey beard and mane made his age manifest itself as a sign of dignity and experience rather than of infirmity.

“Maybe Mr. Waddle really is a secret crime-fighting karate master!” said Pinkie Pie. “Maybe he’s not really old! Maybe he’s just a really good actor!”

“Ah wonder if we could get our Cutie Marks in crime fighting,” speculated Applebloom.

The longer Celestia gazed at the sleeping figure, the more she felt a deep kinship to him. The sensation was a familiar one, though she could not quite put her hoof on why. Perhaps it was his selfless defense of the fillies. Perhaps it was her suspicions as to what the creature was capable of. Or perhaps the timing of his arrival strikes you as meaningful, Celestia.

As the background chatter droned on, Argent joined Celestia at the bedside. Rather than examining the creature directly, she began prodding at his possessions, listing them as she did. “Two books, both written in the ancient tongues; several flasks of oil; a set of beads with a cross at the end; a bottle of wine; wafers of unleavened bread; travel rations; a whetstone; a few other odds and ends…” she pulled his sword a little ways out of its sheath and studied the blade with a professional eye, “and a truly impressive weapon. Unenchanted, but impressive all the same.” Sheathing it, she glanced over at Celestia. “Given his paranoia, how he destroyed the timber wolves, and the way he spoke to Applejack, I think Twilight’s theory that his land is overrun with witches is not unlikely.”

Celestia nodded. “And, if that is the case, then perhaps the only magic his people use is specifically intended to counteract and resist outside magics.” She glanced at the heart monitor, beeping away. “It would explain much.”

“A monster hunter as of old, perhaps, showing up on our doorstep now of all times,” remarked Argent. She cocked an eyebrow. “Oddly convenient timing, wouldn’t you say, Princess?”

Favoring her with a slight smile, Celestia agreed. “Indeed I would, Captain.”

“Whadya think, Princess?” chirped Applebloom from beside her. Years of maintaining an air of unflappability were the only thing that let Celestia avoid jumping in shock at the filly’s sudden appearance. “Could we do it?”

The diarch knew better than to agree with a child without context. “Do what, my little filly?”

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo joined their comrade. “Why, become Cutie Mark Witch Hunters, of course,” the former explained.

“Yeah!” cried Scootaloo. “That or Chain Breakers! Whichever sounds cooler!”

Celestia felt an icy pit settle in her stomach.

“Scoots, what in the hay is a Chain Breaker anyway?”

Cutie Mark Witch Hunters…do these children even know…?

“I don’t know but it sounds awesome.”

“Maybe this guy can tell us when he wakes up.”

“Totally! Then we can go on adventures together!”

Adventures… these children… I fought and bled so they’d never have to see the darker corners of the world…

“Hey, Princess, what do you think a Cutie Mark in monster hunting would look like?”

Celestia had a sudden image of the three children covered in the same scars as the old warrior. She swallowed. “I…”

“Applebloom!” snapped the elder Apple. “That ain’t no way ta talk to the princess!”

“Indeed, Sweetie Belle! You were raised better than that!”

“Hey, squirt. I got an idea. How about you not crowd the royalty, huh?”

As the elder ponies bundled their siblings away, Twilight stepped up to her teacher’s side. “Princess, are you all right?”

Celestia blinked to clear the image of the scarred children out of her mind. “I’m fine, Twilight it’s just that…” she studied the bandaged creature, “I think there are matters that it would be best to discuss without the children present.”

Argent overheard and saluted. “Your wish is my command, Your Highness. I’ll handle this. Lieutenant Song?”

One of Argent’s soldiers trotted up. She was an earth pony, with an alabaster white coat and navy blue eyes. While her helmet covered her mane, her jet black tail was a stark contrast to her coat, though the bright gold streaks in it softened the effect somewhat. She had a pleasant, open smile of the kind that makes other ponies want to speak freely with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be judged. Even in her armor she looked distinctly non-threatening. “Yes, ma’am?” she saluted.

The captain looked up at Celestia. “I don’t suppose you remember Lieutenant Morning Song, Princess?”

Celestia had seen hundreds of thousands of soldiers over the years, but she had been blessed with a good memory for faces and names, and made an effort to remember one detail about every pony she met. “The psychologist, right?”

Morning Song gave a sunny smile. “That’s right, Your Highness.” She regarded Celestia closely, then the three fillies. “Am I correct in guessing that you’d like me to sit at the kid’s table?”

Celestia raised her eyebrows. “If that’s not too much trouble, Lieutenant.”

“Happy to be of service, Princess,” beamed the soldier. She trotted casually over to the children, removing her helmet to allow her black and gold locks to flow freely. “The Cutie Mark Crusaders, right?” she asked.

Thrilled at the recognition of their title, the trio instantly broke off their argument with their sisters and gave Song their attention. “That’s us, ma’am,” declared Applebloom proudly.

“My name is Lieutenant Morning Song, but you can call me Song. All my friends do. Say, I need help with something, and I think that you three are just the fillies for the job.”

“We are?

Song gave a musical laugh. “Why yes indeed. You see, I need to learn everything I can about the timber wolves and about our sleeping friend’s fighting style, and since you three saw it firsthoof, I’d like you to tell me everything you can about it! And, who knows, maybe you’ll get your Cutie Marks in investigation.” She winked.

The three fillies practically glowed at the prospect and began chatting excitedly to themselves. But Song wasn’t finished just yet. Turning to Spike, she asked, “And, Spike, I’m sorry to impose, but I’m a terrible note-taker, and I’ve heard that you’re the only assistant in Equestria capable of keeping up with the personal student of Celestia…”

Spike nodded in understanding and produced quill and parchment. “Say no more, Lieutenant Song. I’d be happy to help.”

Celestia watched in mute awe as Song shepherded the young ones outside without them realizing what was happening. The door closed behind them, and the silence in the room let them hear the sound of receding hoof-steps quite distinctly.

Ooooh,” cooed Pinkie. “She’s good.”

“Ah think Ah shoulda been takin notes,” murmured Applejack.

Celestia turned to Argent and cocked an eyebrow. The captain just gave a smug grin. “I recruited her for my personal squad for a reason, Your Highness. She’s quite good at what she does, and is thorough in her work. As you may have surmised, she brushed up on their files on the way here so as to know how best to talk with them depending on the situation when we arrived. Granted, she was more thinking that they’d be traumatized rather than overly enthusiastic, but I think she managed quite well.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” sputtered Rarity. “You have files on our sisters?

The Princess smiled. “Well, you are all heroes of the realm. Knowing about your families is simply a matter of due diligence.”

“Hah!” laughed Rainbow. “I’m so awesome, even adopted family members get files by hanging around me!”

Argent gave a dry smile. “Well, there’s that. And the small matter of Discord’s escape.”

Rarity turned a deep red while Applejack found a sudden interest in the wall and Rainbow whistled. Celestia put a hoof to her mouth to mask a chuckle.

“Um, Princess?” asked Fluttershy. “I’m so sorry to interrupt but, well, why exactly did you want the fillies to leave the room.”

The moment of levity died. Ah. Yes. That. “Well, I’m afraid we must discuss some rather unpleasant matters.” She looked over at the three hospital staffers. “If we’re to understand this creature’s physiology and origins, it’d be best to have every possible insight into him that we can. And I’d like to know your opinion about his scars.”

Redheart and Stable glanced at Medevac, who cleared his throat and stepped forward. The pegasus stallion was brown-coated, with a silver mane cut to regulation length and a prosthetic back leg. “I believe I can answer that best, Princess. I was a Medical Officer Second Class with the Royal Marine Corps. I served three tours with the 43rd Battalion at the Red Sands Garrison and, well, I’m familiar with this kind of injury.” He looked as though he were about to elaborate, but then clamped his jaw shut.

“You may speak freely, Medical Officer,” prompted Celestia.

Medevac winced. “Respectfully, Your Highness, I would recommend that all civilians leave the room, and not just the children.” Before the Element Bearers could protest, he clarified. “I know the six of you are heroes of Equestria, and I have nothing but admiration for you but… things are different over the borders. Redheart and the doc know because I told them already; the captain and the corporal there are War Dogs, so they’ve seen stuff like this before; and the Princess is, well, the Princess. But the six of you should leave.”

Rarity huffed. “My good fellow, we can clearly see the scars. We know he’s doubtless seen a lot of warfare…”

“They aren’t combat scars,” interjected Medevac quietly, but Rarity didn’t appear to hear.

“…and while the Changeling Invasion was a resounding victory for us, it’s not as though we didn’t see fighting…”

“It wasn’t from fighting,” said the former medic, and again he went unheard.

“…so while I thank you for your concern, it’s hardly necessa—"

He was tortured, Miss Rarity,” snapped Medevac. Silence. The medic sighed and put a hoof over his eyes. “He was tortured rather brutally,” he added more quietly. “And, trust, me, you don’t want to know the details. Please, just… please just leave.”

Celestia sighed as she looked over at the six heroes. Shock and horror were stamped indelibly upon their features. Pinkie’s mane had deflated, and the party pony’s mouth was flapping open and closed as though she were trying, and failing, to say something. If Celestia had to guess, she would have thought that Pinkie was desperately trying to think of something to say to lighten the mood. She found that fact at once moving and heartbreaking. Ultimately, Fluttershy simply took her friend by the hoof and helped her out the door. Rarity had a hoof to her muzzle and tears in her eyes and seemed rooted to the spot. Twilight looked grim, and Applejack had her head down, such that her hat covered her eyes. Rainbow was airborne, as usual, but there was a tightness in her flapping.

“Well, uh… I mean,” she stammered. “I don’t wanna leave the guy hanging, and Daring Do talks about what the ancient… stuff that Ahuizotl’s followers did… and…”

“Rainbow,” murmured Applejack, her voice husky. “This ain’t a book. Ah know you’re just tryin to be here for the guy but…” she gave a shuddering sigh and kept her eyes down. “Mah folks never talked about what they saw on them relief missions o’ theirs overseas. And when they… well, after they were gone, Ah looked into it. And, truth be told, Ah wish Ah hadn’t.” She scuffed the floor with a hoof. “Ah’m gonna stay. He saved mah sister, an’ it ain’t like Ah can unhear what Ah’ve already heard ‘bout what goes on out there, but, Dash,” she looked up, and though her eyes were wet they were as inflexible as flint. “You should go.”

Rainbow opened her mouth to object, but one look at Applejack changed her mind. Looking miserable, she dropped to the ground and walked out of the room.

Only three remained. Rarity was shaking on her hooves, but tried to be brave all the same. “Well… as you said, Applejack, he saved our sisters, and the least we can do is—"

“Rarity?” said the farmpony. “Don’t.”

The fashionista stared at her friend for a moment, then nodded and followed the others out.

Twilight stepped over to Applejack and put a hoof over her withers. Celestia looked down at her student with a sad smile. “Twilight…”

“I know what you’re going to say, Princess, but I’m staying too,” answered the unicorn. “My family is sixth generation military, remember? And besides; Applejack’s not the only one who’s studied war and massacre.” She gave Celestia a smile that held just a hint of sad humor. “Remember Uncle Lance?” Celestia nodded and mentally added, rest his soul. “Well, he told me stories about the Siege of Vienhoof when I was five.

Argent gave a dry smile. “And your mother didn’t throw him off the castle wall for it?”

“No,” smirked Twilight. “He outran her.”

Celestia ignored the exchange, and instead stared into her pupil’s eyes. You don’t want to know this, she tried to insist with her gaze. But Twilight’s returning gaze brooked no argument. Very well, my friend. She dipped her head in defeat. “Medevac, please tell us what you know.”

Medevac grimaced, but did as he was told. “Yes, Your Highness.” He strode over to the creature and gestured to several cuts. “A number of these do look to be combat scars, but that’s only a fraction of them. In all, nearly thirty-three percent of his body is covered in scar tissue.”

Twilight gasped sharply while Applejack blanched. Argent’s face twisted in a snarl and the corporal with her clenched his jaw. Stable and Redheart just looked sad. Madness, thought Celestia. What madness that we inflict such horrors on each other. “I take it that most of his scars are from torture, Medical Officer?”

“Correct, Princess." The pegasus limped over to the table. “It’s the nature of most of these cuts, and even some of the burns, that indicate this. Specific patterns to the cuts; small burns as from hot coals made in lines on his skin; slashes layered over existing slashes. And a lot of these cuts aren’t like those you see with a sword or a spear or even a dagger. They’re from blades made for the purpose of inflicting pain before death. Some look like they were made by skinning knives, the kind used by griffon hunters.” Applejack muttered something unintelligible. “That’s not the kind of thing you see in war; it’s what you see in a torture chamber.” His eyes dipped to the floor, as though he was ashamed to even speak the words. Redheart walked over and put a hoof on his shoulder. He gave her a weak smile and started up again. “And then there’s his back.”

“His back?” asked Argent, her eyes narrow with outrage.

“It’s almost entirely scar tissue. Large burns on his shoulders, some resembling burns from molten metal rather than fire.” Medevac shut his eyes. “And, yes, I know the difference. I had to treat a lot of victims and… perform a lot of post-mortems.” Redheart edged her hoof fully over his withers and pressed her side against his. He gave a vicious shake of his head and continued. “As for the rest of the scars, a few are from blades, but most I’d say are from floggings. First with canes, the sort used to punish slaves, but the later scarring… my best guess is fish hooks, Your Highness. To rip and tear flesh away.”

Medevac opened his eyes and looked in their direction, but he wasn’t looking at them. “Most of the enemies the 43rd faced off against were slavers. It’s the whole reason the garrison existed; the Saddle Arabians needed our help fighting the trade. I got to be pretty familiar with the slavers’… methods. Branding and flogging by canes was common to keep the slaves in line. But molten silver… fish hooks… I only saw that amongst the Ligers, Your Highness. And that wasn’t used to keep slaves in line or punish slow workers. It was to torture for information or, more commonly, to make an example of a dissident, to—"

It was too much for Twilight. With a sob she sprinted out of the room. Applejack just sat on her haunches, tears streaming silently down her cheeks as she muttered over again, “He saved her. He saved her.” Redheart and Stable were shaken themselves, even having heard it before.

In a way, Celestia envied them. She was horrified, of course. But it had been a long time since brutality had shocked her.

Medevac shot the diarch an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. It gives me no pleasure to say all this.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said gently. She glanced over at Argent, who had moved over to comfort Applejack. The captain spoke soothing words to the earth pony, but her eyes held a distant and murderous glint. “I think those of us who have seen such things sometimes forget how horrible the knowledge is to one who is innocent of barbarism.” The corporal just stood stoically, staring at the unconscious creature as though standing at attention for an officer. We become numbed to the horror so that others may freely weep. Turning, she strode outside to comfort her student, promising to return shortly.

Finding Twilight was not difficult. The unicorn was sitting a little ways away, sobbing into her hooves. Celestia walked over and sat beside her student. Seeing her, Twilight shied away. “I’m sorry, Princess,” she apologized. “I- I thought I was prepared for that. I mean, I’ve read the accounts, I’ve heard the stories… I didn’t mean to start crying, I—"

Celestia folded her wing around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. “Shh, Twilight. I’m not mad at you. I’d never be mad at you for this.” After all these years, still so afraid of my disapproval, she thought with familiar anguish. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Being horrified at such evil is how a pony should react. I acted the same way when I first saw such horrors.” And I still would, if I weren’t so used to it after all these centuries. “It still cuts me to the core to see it done to any creature.”

Twilight sniffled. “I thought… I thought because I’d read the stories, I’d…but… it’s different you know? Hearing stories versus seeing someone. Someone I’ve talked to. Someone who rescued fillies from timber wolves with no thought to his own…” She looked up at her mentor, her face stricken with grief. “How could anyone be so cruel?

Celestia wrapped her other wing around her, but said nothing. At least, not out loud. Oh, Twilight. My faithful student. Be glad that you’ve always managed to defeat your foes before they had a chance to truly show you how.

Applejack came out a few minutes later and, with Celestia, comforted the unicorn. They left to join the rest of their friends not long after that. The diarch returned to the room and heard the rest of the grisly details that Medevac knew. She’d seen such atrocities before, of course, but she hadn’t studied the wounds in the same way as the medic. And, for that, she was glad. What brave ponies I have to willingly see and fight such evil.

Once he finished, she dismissed the medical staff and the corporal, leaving only she and Argent in the room with the creature. Neither spoke for a time, and the only sound was the steady beep of the monitors and the pained breathing of the patient. It’s incredible, thought Celestia. When a creature breathes with broken ribs, I can differentiate that pained breath from other sorts of pained breaths. She gave a bitter half chuckle. The centuries have been long indeed. She gazed at the grizzled creature and wondered in a soft murmur, “<And how long have you walked this world, old one? Do you, like me, feel at times that your Element is that of Longanimity?>"

“Princess?” inquired Argent. “Did you just… speak in Prench?”

Celestia blinked. I suppose I did. “I still know the tongue. Your ancestors would be pleased with me, eh, Argent?”

“I imagine so, Your Highness.”

Conversation was interrupted by a pained grunt from the creature, who shifted with a jolt and grimaced. The beeping from the monitors spiked as he twisted in the bed. Argent started for the door. “I’ll summon the doctors.”

“No need,” said Celestia, who sat by the creature’s side. “This is a nightmare, not a medical emergency.”

Argent appeared uncertain. “Are you sure, Princess?”

Celestia reached up a hoof and stroked the creature’s hair as gently as she could. His thrashing lessened somewhat and the beeping stabilized. “I might not have my sister’s natural talent for it, but I’ve been around a long time, Argent.” She gave a maternal smile. “He’s just an old warrior, facing his past.” She glanced at her soldier. “I’m sure you can relate.” Argent thought a moment, then nodded. Celestia returned her attention back to the patient. “I’ll stay with him a while, I think. Just to make sure. You may leave, Captain. I’ll be fine on my own.”

The captain bowed. “Of course, Your Highness.” As she turned to leave, she picked up the creature’s sword in her aura.

“What are you doing?” asked the princess.

Argent blinked. “I’m… taking the sword with me, Princess—"

“No,” ordered Celestia. “Leave it.” Even his skull has scars beneath the hair. “This warrior has lost enough.”

For a moment, it appeared that Argent might argue the point. But the captain gave an unhappy nod and returned the blade to the table before departing.

The creature continued to twitch and moan, his lips moving as though he was speaking, but no sound emerged. Celestia’s presence seemed to soothe him, but without her sister’s power she could do little else. What manner of being are you, to have suffered so much and still be a fighter? she wondered. And did Providence send you to me for your sake or for mine? His hand clenched as though gripping for a weapon, and his face frowned in defiance. Or perhaps for both?

Inspiration came to her, an old memory from an old war, where an old comrade had once prayed for the safety of the itinerant army, marching off on its sojourn to fight the evil that lurked in the wastes. His prayer had been a song, written in the tongue of his people, the same Prench that this mysterious warrior also spoke. Hoping that some measure of the song would reach him in his nightmares, she gave voice to the melody:

“<In the night may the moon shine bright to lead you.

May the strong winds brace you at your back.

May the kind sun shine upon your face,

And the rains gently nurture all your fields.

May peace follow ever in your footsteps,

And heav'n keep you safe from every foe.

And until we meet again, my friend,

May Love hold you,

May Love hold you,

Ever safe from death and ill and harm.>”

His thrashing slowed and the beeping returned to its previous sedate pace. She continued to stroke his hair. Rest well, warrior. There will be time enough for strife another day.