The air rang with the echoes of a pained breath. There was a hiss of noise, and the darkness parted ways, casting a slit of pale blue light across his stained coat and bruised features. With a flash, the tiny concrete room lit up under a pale haze. Pilate remained lying on a mildew-stained mattress, his rear left hoof chained to a pillar two steps away. He didn't stop panting until a shuffle of hoofsteps marched towards him.
He clenched his teeth, his blood-stained ears pricking towards the source of the sound. As soon as the heat of the body came closer, he sniffed the air and frowned, turning his head and saying nothing.
With a one-eyed, icy stare, Enforcer Shell squatted down beside Pilate's mattress. He gazed at the trembling zebra, at his bruises caked over with dried blood. After summoning a deep breath, the soldier spoke, "I always wondered if zebra stripes stayed straight after healing up from a laceration. Now I know..." He brushed a hoof softly over the uneeven patches of fur. "Still, though, this isn't the sort of answer I've been needing from you."
Pilate bit his lip, his cheeks burning as he gave a blind glare to the walls. His metal plate sparked once or twice in runic fury.
"What?" Shell raised an eyebrow. "Do you think I enjoy harming a fellow countrypony of Ledomare? I didn't always have to harm subjects of the Confederacy, you know. After all, my career was built on slaying Xonans." He tilted Pilate's head up and examined the bruises on his muzzle. "Life, for all its hardship, is a great deal more digestible when you only have to swing the sword towards the front."
"Then g-go there and do it," Pilate finally spat.
Shell's nostrils flared. "So you can talk. Such a shame it's not full of what I need to hear."
"I know a thing or two about what a pony like you needs," Pilate hissed. He shuddered and added, "But I can't help you with what you want..."
"Can't you?" Shell's hoof ran along the plate atop Shell's head. "You're a great deal more valuable than you give yourself credit. At least you're not some winged anomaly in a coma. You have so much that you can teach us, so much that you can show us..."
"Only because you've bl-blinded yourselves to the truth," Pilate murmured in a hoarse voice. "It was always lying under the Queen's eyes, hidden through ignorance."
Shell's face registered the tiniest hint of a smirk. "Is this when you tell me that I'm a victim of my own irony? I've trotted those roads before, Mr. Pilate. What I'm doing here and now is part of my duty to the country. There's a war going on, and every second you withhold your knowledge of the symbols, Xona gets that much closer to pushing the front back towards the Capital of Ledo."
"There is nothing to t-tell..."
"Why are you so stubborn, unless there was something you wished to protect?"
Pilate shivered, saying nothing.
Shell took a deep breath, leaning back where he squatted. "You know, I had a Beloved once," he said. "Her name was Merrigold. She worked as a nurse along the southeastern bulwarks. When she was off-duty, she loved to wear lavenders in her mane. It matched her eyes... lit up her smile." His one eye gazed off into the concrete mess entombing the two of them. "She gave me that same smile the day I proposed to her. We were young at the time, and I had hopes for the war. I didn't realize how violent things were going to get, how long they would separate me from my beloved, how long she would be forced to mourn our warmth in the shadows that consumed her."
Shell adjusted the beret on his head and stared down at his heavy horseshoes.
"I game back from a two-year tenure against the Southern Xonan Incursion," he continued, "And I was informed by the Council of Ledo that the ponies of my hometown had delivered confidential information to the enemy. My very own neighbors were traitors, and the secrets that they gave away cost the lives of hundreds of Ledomaritans guarding the eastern posts." He stretched the kinks out of his neck and said, "So, I rounded them up and brought them to a detainment facility for questioning... heavy, intense questioning. To my shock and dismay, I found that my beloved Merrigold was among the group. She was one of the traitors, having consorted with the enemy of our Confederacy behind my very back. What was I to do? So many lives depended on me, and my very own mate was losing more lives than I was winning."
Shell took a deep breath, his good eye closing.
"So I questioned her first, with no less mercy than I would question anypony. She understood as much as I did what was at stake. And all throughout the process, the cutting and the blood, she kept screaming how much she loved me. And I killed her, because I loved her too." His one eye opened in a gray glaze. "When I came out of the interrogation room, soaked in righteousness, all of the other prisoners saw it... and they confessed immediately. We rooted out all the traitors to Ledomare and executed them on the spot. Thousands... if not tens of thousands of lives were saved."
With a shuffle of his hooves, Shell leaned over and re-gripped Pilate's muzzle, tilting the panting zebra towards him.
"It turns out that Merrigold wasn't a turncoat after all, but she was coerced into helping the traitorous neighbors accomplish their tasks. She was their leverage, but I couldn't allow her part in it to impede justice. There was no way I was going to let her live with the shame and the guilt that had been branded upon her." Shell's eye twitched as he sneered, "I loved her more than life itself, but there comes a time when we must give up that which we care about for the good of Ledo. She was selfish to have allowed herself to become such a pitiful device of our enemy in the first place. When I took her out of this world, I was being merciful, as a lover should be... as you should be thinking about your own selfishness right now, and how to be penitent about it."
Pilate hissed back, "The only thing I'm sorry for... is that after you've killed everypony in this world that doesn't march with you, you'll find that you'll be marching alone."
Shell's eye narrowed. "Such a noble lover you are," he murmured, then leaned forward. "And yet, how pitiable. To not be able to see the rosiness in your mate's cheeks, to see the happy little glint in her eyes or the brightness in her smiling teeth. You've been away for a very long time, Mr. Pilate. I've seen how she weeps for you, the crystal blue tears that well up in her face, the pale sheen to her golden coat. I've even seen her bedroom, and I'm willing to bet that she's lying there right now, in another one of Dr. Bellesmith's fortuitous comas." Shell swallowed, paused, and uttered, "Would you like me to tell you what her insides look like?"
"Nnnngh—!" Pilate thrashed forward with gnashing teeth.
Shell's face jerked back. He glared sideways, a thin trickle of blood running down from his cheek.
"You will not touch her!" Pilate's gray eyes were wide and angry as he shouted into the darkness. "You've tormented her long enough! Leave her alone!"
Shell took a deep breath before uttering, "That is an order you should consider issuing to yourself, Mr. Pilate. What makes you think she isn't already lying in pieces?"
A tear ran down Pilate's cheek as he lay on the mattress, hyperventilating.
Shell stood up, cracking the joints in his forelimbs. "No interrogation for today. Once we've resumed business tomorrow, I hope you will have taken the time to weigh your beloved's life with your own selfishness." He marched off with a cold shuffle. "I only have enough grace to give to one of you. I'll leave it up to you to decide whom."
Pilate curled up on the mattress, hugging himself and shivering. He was once more covered in darkness as the door to the cell shut with a hard clang.