Intermission: Fluttershy’s Song - Part 1
In the darkest of hearts and the blackest of pits, there is always a light to shine the way. Sometimes the light comes from the least likely of source.
Sometimes, there are those who wish to snuff the light completely. This is Fluttershy’s story of growth in a dark world. This is her story in the Pony Age.
The Solar Divine opened her eyes to the light of dawn, as was dictated by the tenants of old. They said the Divine could only look upon the light of her respective goddess, and so the Solar Divine could only see the world basked in the light of Celestia. She had never questioned the tenants, but it also meant she had never seen the stars in the sky, nor the moon. It was a depressing thought.
Since being declared Celestia’s representative for the world by the former Divine, she had taken many vows in line with the tenants of the Chantry to fully convert herself from a simple pony to messenger of the heavens themselves. She was young compared to the Divines of yesteryear, and was still being instructed by those more familiar with her duties and responsibilities. One such rule was that she could not see her nocturnal counterpart, save for only a few rare instances when the moon and the sun shared the sky.
As the Solar Divine looked out into the clear blue, she saw not only the light of the sun, but the shape of the moon as well. Such a rare occurrence marked that today was going to be a day of omens.
The sound of hoofsteps could be heard past her chamber doors, her chosen attendants knocking on the door with careful raps. With a sigh, she lowered her veil over her head before covering her eyes. The tenants said that the Divines could not look on normal ponies with their gaze, lest they feel the wrath of the alicorn sisters for millennia of sin. Never had she burnt anything to a crisp with divine heat vision, yet it was what the ponies believed. Who was she to go against centuries of doctrine and myth?
“Enter,” she said, turning to the direction of the door. Three ponies entered her chamber; her attendants, the unicorn White and the earth pony Scroll, as well as one other guest whom the Solar Divine had never seen before. When both Divines had heard of how much the two had suffered during their pilgrimage bring the Chant to the world, she and her counterpart had rewarded the duo with the positions of being the attendants to the Divines.
“The Lunar Divine wishes to see Her Radiance,” Scroll announced. The Solar Divine simply inclined her head, standing perfectly still as the two attendants left to busy themselves in another part of the Cathedral. As the large immaculate doors closed shut, she was able to remove the veil and see the chosen placeholder of Luna for the first time.
She was quite surprised at the pony that she now saw standing before her. The usual image of the Lunar Divine was a pony with a coat and mane of cool colours, not one of vibrant green like the leaves on summer trees. The Lunar Divine raised her own veil, revealing a pair of amber eyes. The Scion of the Moon smiled with a coy mirth as the Solar Divine attempted to hide her surprise.
“The sisters work in mysterious ways,” the green earth pony stated as she stepped towards the balcony. Like herself and her apparent need to see only the light of the sun, the Lunar Divine could correspondingly only see the light of the moon as was decreed in scripture. To be able to bask in the warmth of daylight was an exceedingly rare treat.
“I have been having dreams,” the Lunar Divine said, walking through the Solar Divine’s chamber and taking a seat on a cushion, “Recurring dreams of a most curious nature. I see a wave of pink, amidst a sea of yellow going in the direction of Equestria, a land covered in shadows. Tell me, what do you know of the going-on outside of the Cathedral, Sonnenschein?”
The golden maned earth pony gasped at the name the Lunar Divine had just called her. The doctrines demanded that the Divines were to relinquish their mortal names, to submit their very lives in servitude to the alicorns directly. To actually be called by the name her mother had given her so many decades ago was blasphemous.
Sonnenschein did not care. She was still getting used to the idea that she was one of the two most revered ponies in the entire Chantry, second in status only to the goddesses themselves. She tossed aside her veil and looked at the Lunar Divine. “I am woefully uninformed of the workings of the world beyond the Cathedral,” she replied. The green mare continued to smile as she too set aside the veil used to shield her eyes from the so-called “unworthy”.
“You may call me Artemis, if you so wish.” Artemis sat upright and headed back to the balcony, motioning for Sonnenschein to follow. “There was an uproar heading to the Hall of Justice. Last night, well over fifty ponies were arrested on suspicion of treason against the Empress. They will all be tried and likely to be executed.”
“We do not interfere with the realm of politics,” Sonnenschein rebuked as she again sat on her haunches next to Artemis, reciting the lessons imparted to her by the former Solar Divine while she was on her death bed, “All we can offer are our prayers that they may find mercy at the Sisters’ hooves, and avoid damnation in Black Canter.”
The new name for the fallen city of Canterlot, former seat of the Sisters, was meant to strike fear and guilt into the hearts of ponies, and even thinking the name of Black Canter was supposed to do the same. It was the corruption of the city that brought upon ponydom the wrath of Celestia, and their sin had created the first ponyspawn out of the bodies of the magisters. The Chant was clear; ponies who held sin and vice in their heart would be sent to damnation in Black Canter, to become toy things for demons.
That was what scripture had said. Far be it for her to go against the very words of the Chant of Sun and Moon.
“There are also tales coming from Equestria and her Grey Wardens,” Artemis continued, promptly ignoring the words of the Solar Divine, “Ponyspawn incursions have been reported all across the countryside. Small in scale, but their veterans say this is only the beginning of a complete Blight.”
“Excuse me if this sounds rude,” Sonnenschein interjected, catching Artemis’ gaze with her own, “But what does this mean for your dream? And how do you know all this?”
Artemis chuckled as she laid a hoof on Sonnenschein’s shoulders. Another blasphemy was even touching the Divine, though was it heretical if the offending party was a Divine herself? “I forget you are still new to the being Solar Divine. There are some ponies I would like you to meet.”
The Lunar Divine pushed gently for Sonnenschein to turn around, and as she did, the Solar Divine gasped. Kneeling before them were four ponies, two pegasi, an earth pony, and a unicorn, adorned in leather armour emblazoned with the markings of the sun and moon. They all wore masks hiding their faces. How did they enter without anypony noticing? Sonnenschein thought, the templars would be in hysterics if they ever found out about this incursion.
“These are the Seekers of Truth,” Artemis explained, “They are the eyes, ears, and sometimes the hooves of the Divines. Sometimes I like to call them the “Divine Intervention”. Of course, they obey only us, and are to be our tools to maintain harmony across the world. They are how I know so much about the world outside the Cathedral.” The Lunar Divine seemed to enjoy her nicknames for the armoured ponies, who were as still as statues. Sonnenschein could honestly say they unnerved her.
“In any event, I feel we must intervene in this case regarding the Halls of Justice. While it is regrettable that we cannot save them all from their wrongful fate, we can at least save the one who will have a hoof in preserving the world from the darkness that looms over Equestria. A pink maned pegasus pony with a yellow coat will be executed unless the Seekers rescue her from her fate. There is one problem, though.”
The Solar Divine turned to her contemporary in askance. “And that would be?”
“They need the command from you,” Artemis answered, “I have commanded them since the death of the former Solar Divine, but they will no longer obey my command until you have ordered them enough to restore the balance of power between us. The sun and moon must be equals, as you of course know.”
Sonnenschein looked over the Seekers who awaited her command. Before she could speak, Artemis held her shoulder with a hoof once again. The Solar Divine looked into her eyes, which no longer held happiness, but an iron will.
“They require your blessing, but know that they will conduct unpleasantness in our names. This must be done in good conscious, without doubt in your heart. I wish there was more time to explain everything before you make your decision, but a pony necessary for the survival of the world hangs in the balance. Can you make the decision? Can you give the Seekers your blessing?”
Unpleasantness? Was the Lunar Divine telling her that these Seekers committed murder in her name? Were the Exalted Gallops not enough bloodshed in the name of the Chantry?
What would be the fate of the world if the Artemis was right? If there is a threat, it was her duty to lead the Chantry to ease the suffering of ponies everywhere. If only there was more time to think about the decision.
Instead, she closed her eyes and turned to the blue sky, silently praying to Celestia to give her guidance. Sonnenschein looked back to the Lunar Divine, doubt still marring her features. “How come we cannot expose the framing of innocent ponies and the guilty parties behind them?”
“Many nations in the world are devout in their worship to the Chant, yet they are also very adamant that the Chantry must not become a powerful theocracy like the Unicorn Imperium. While we do not have the blood magics and the strength of ancient dragon gods behind us, I can see the ripple effect that interfering openly here would undoubtedly cause. That is why very few ponies know of the Seekers of Truth, and why they protect their secrecy fiercely.”
“It all seems so… clandestine.”
To this Artemis chuckled. “You were a Mother Superior in the Yokalach, far to the north near the borders of the Imperium. I understand you are still not used to how things are done in Filais. Still, the Solar Divine before you saw great promise in you, especially in a mare so young. So do I. Needless to say, time is short, and a decision must be made quickly.”
Sonnenschein turned to the Seekers who had not moved an inch since she had first laid eyes on them. They all seemed so taciturn, but she simply assumed this to be reverence for the Divines and the two goddesses they were meant to represent. There were always tales of fervent followers who formed rather brutal orders in the name of Celestia and Luna. Never mind that the Chantry endorsed one such order in the templars to keep unicorns and their magic in check.
It went completely against the message of Luna and Celestia to have ponies fight ponies, yet kings and lords would always find some excuse in the Chant to call the other a heretic or an abomination. With the constant strife against the ravenous ponyspawn, the wars with the foreign invaders of buffalo, known as Followers of the Buf, and the resurgence of dragon worship in the remnants of the ancient Unicorn Imperium, war would surely plague the world and the lessons of harmony would be quickly forgotten.
The ponies of the world made their own discord. They did not need monsters from the depths of the Dark Tunnels to aid them. With a motion of her tail, the Solar Divine grabbed the veil and lowered the decorated cloth over her eyes, blocking her sight to the Seekers. If they served the Divines with complete devotion, she may as well look the part.
“You will find this pegasus pony Her Luminousness has mentioned, and you will bring her La Maison du Soleil. I ask that you keep the unpleasantness also mentioned to a minimum, if you can avoid it.”
The masked ponies stood tall, bowing to both Divines before leaving. The pegasi taking wing from the balcony as the unicorn and earth pony followed, descending from the high chamber using the unicorn’s magic to levitate them all to ground level. As much as Sonnenschein wanted to ask for an increase in security around the Cathedral, something inside told her that it would only raise alarms. There was also the fact that they would not stop the Seekers even if they knew of them.
“La Maison Du Soleil?” Artemis questioned, tilting her head as she rolled the Filesian word with her tongue, “A good choice. That temple is near the border to Equestria, where the yellow pegasus is needed.”
“It is also where I will be,” the Solar Divine responded as she moved through the room blindly, though knowing that she was approaching the door to her chambers, “I wish to meet this dream mare for myself.”
“What will you do then?”
Sonnenschein stopped as she lifted a hoof to the door. Too many questions ran through her mind, but she would have the answers soon enough. If there were Seekers that Artemis was using to learn of the world, it was only fair that she use them as well. For now all she could do was the most basic of all tenants for the Seekers, for the pegasus, and for all those bards wrongly sentenced to death.
They had placed a black hood over her head as they pushed the massive cart carrying Fluttershy and the rest of the bards into the Hall of Justice. The sounds around her were not muffled by the hood, as the shouts of anger from the Filesian peasantry called all manner of insults at her and the other bards. Over fifty ponies of earth and pegasi descent had been captured after their supposed leader, Artistic Finish, had betrayed them to the guards. Now they awaited the arrival of the High Justice, a member of the Empress’ court and one of her first cousins, who would surely sentence them to be executed.
Under the black hood, Fluttershy could feel warm tears stream down her face, which distracted her from the shackles binding her hooves to the massive cart. Not less than eight hours ago, she was with two adorable fillies who loved her singing. She had been given a beautiful Filesian couture dress as a gift from the Lady Elegant, wife of chevalier General Puissant. The Bardmaster had called the yellow pegasus, who was spying on the general, to return. There, all the bards were betrayed and captured.
Bards all around her shouted their innocence, curses at Finish, or prayed to Celestia and Luna to show them mercy. Fluttershy could only whimper as the cart hit a bump and the guards began to usher their prisoners into the courthouse. The Empress was a vindictive mare who saw only one proper response to treason or even rumours of such: death.
The sound of hoofsteps on wood grabbed Fluttershy’s attention as the hood was ripped away from her head. The sight of the Hall of Justice was as terrible as it was grand. The great hall was adorned in statues of Filesian heroes, such as the legendary chevalier Bon-Bon. Despite their visages, there were also highly decorative murals of ponies being punished for their crimes, including burning and beheading, as the sinful were sent to Black Canter and the good were welcomed with open hearts into the Seat of the Sisters.
Fluttershy swallowed hard as she tried to ignore the paintings. Filais was known not just for its art and culture, but also for its wide arrays of executions that it dispensed on its own ponies more often than others. All were made apparent by the frescos in all their gory glory.
Soldiers lined the massive wooden cart as the bailiff called for silence in the Hall. High above the prisoners and the assembled gallery of spectators was the bench where several officials had taken their seats, Including the bailiff, High Justice Froussard, and many other members of the nobility. Seated with the rest of the justices was Artistic Finish, who merely smiled as the bards had their hoods removed. The blue earth pony still hid her eyes behind magenta goggles.
“Let us get this over with,” Froussard said, waving a hoof for one of the attendants to place several sheets of parchment in front of him, “These ponies assembled before us all share the following charges, laid against them by Justice Artistic Finish. The charges are as follows: murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aiding and giving comfort to the enemy, perjury, counterfeit, slander, loitering, conspiracy to incite war with our allies, and of course treason and conspiracy to commit treason. I am sure you will all plead innocent, so for the sake of expedience we will move on to the evidence provided by the prosecution.”
Fluttershy balked as the High Justice spoke as though they were all guilty of the list of charges by default. While she was no expert on law, she knew that the bards should have been defended by some sort of council. There hadn’t even been a holding for questioning before the trial. It seemed to be that they would be caught like rats and sentenced to hang, or worse, within the span of a day.
No lawyer would dare try to defend a group of accused traitors as this, not when their livelihoods and names would be tarnished. Since gaining status and recognition from the Empress was everything in Filias, this would seal the bards’ fate; every moment without true legal counsel was just another nail in their collective coffins.
Thankfully, the General was not in attendance. What would Fluttershy say to a pony who had placed so much trust in her, despite that her entire purpose was to spy on him and his family for Artistic Finish? She would not have been able to face the disappointed gaze from the General’s eyes.
There was also the fear the yellow pegasus held for Lady Elegance and her daughters. Artistic Finish still had some sort of force, not only within the real traitors of Filais, but also with soldiers and likely the famed assassins from Pura Raza. The Bardmistress would know how fond Fluttershy was of the family, and would move to hurt them if she was not satisfied by the proceedings of this corrupt trial. This was likely the story of every bard here, knowing that their families were under threat from hidden blades and that only silence and acceptance of their fate would act as their last defense for loved ones.
Many of the bards shouted insults and pleads of innocence to the High Justice, while others created a chorus declaring Artistic Finish as the true traitor. The attendant to Froussard pounded the gavel for his master as the noble ignored the rabble, propping up his large curly mane and straightening his immaculate moustache.
“The court will be silent,” the bailiff barked. Only with the encouragement of swords from the guards did the bards eventually quiet. Fluttershy shrank to her knees and hid half her face with her mane, refusing to watch any more of this mockery of justice. Her ears, on the other hoof, made no such effort to stop hearing the proceedings.
“Tank you, High Justice,” Artistic Finish said as her attendant brought forward several documents, “Lords and Ladies of ze Hall of Justice, I have acquired many evidences connecting ze bard society of Filais to ze charges listed. Among zem were several false battleplans discovered by ze soliders under my command that were meant to be captured by the military of such nations as Equestria, Pura Raza, and the Yokalach. Needless to say, as wunderbar as Filesian might is, ve vould not be able to stand against a three-pronged war and not bring suffering to the people under the Empress’ vatchful gaze.”
“The Bard Society of Filais vas paid handsomely to betray their nation. Who vould suspect that a group of minstrels and poets vould be capable of bringing down all of Filais? Who indeed vould put such doubt in those travelling ponies who moved between city to city, without fear of being questioned or sought after, or those bards who served high ranking members of the nobility, many even having their ears to the wall to overhear sensitive information?”
Artistic Finish drew herself up to appear bigger, as she looked down on the assembled prisoners below. “I saw ze signs. I made ze right moves, and vas able to capture the majority of such a traitorous order, including who zey call ‘Ze Bardmaster’. I am, of course, speaking of Fluttershy of Equestria.”
I want you to play ze role of… ze patsy. Fluttershy whimpered, wishing she could hide her head with her forelegs to hide from the accusing eyes. The shackles hobbled that idea.
Instead, all she could do was endure the insults now being flung at her. The most damning of them all was the call to execute the traitor leader. She wept openly as she looked around the gallery, the angry nobles stomping their hooves in fury.
“I have heard enough,” Froussard announced as the gallery went silent once again. “The information has been reviewed carefully and critically, and it has been determined that no defense you could possibly mount would stand against such damning evidence. As such, a sentence has been decided. While all the crimes are heinous, treason against the Empress will warrant capital punishment.”
“The fifty ponies tried and judged fairly here in the Hall of Justice are to be sentenced to death! They will spend the remainder of their days banished and imprisoned in La Détention Criminelle, with one execution per day by means of guillotine. As each day goes by, each execution will be a reminder to all in Filais what the penalty for even thinking of bringing harm to the Empress is, and it will remind all of you that you are damned to spend eternity in Black Canter!”
Thus “justice” was dispensed as the bards knew it would be. As the cart was pushed out of the massive hall, Fluttershy looked up to the center balcony to see Artistic Finish receiving accolades and praise from Froussard and the other nobles. Those who still held fury in their eyes and venom on their lips shouted curses and damnations to the bards.
One soldier, whether he was incensed by the accused betrayal or wanting to earn a name for himself, did not wait for the massive cart to leave the Hall before leaping onto the mobile platform. “Vive le Empress!” he rallied, before slicing a bound pegasus pony’s neck wide open. The pegasus tried to get away, but could only flap his wings helplessly as the soldier struck.
The murder did not go unnoticed, as several guards held the soldier back. There were no charges laid against him though, not even words condemning a lack of discipline. Just the guards telling the pony in plated armour, “The bards would soon meet their fate at the guillotine’s blade. No need to send them to Black Canter early.”
The cart was rolled to the main plaza of the Capital, which would lead to the Hall of Justice, the Empress’ Palace, and the Cathedral to Celestia. Peasants, as far as the eye could see, were crowded there to join in the collective anger aimed at the traitors. Several carts filled with rotten fruit and vegetables were lined and ready for ponies to fling at the accused.
So they did, rotten produce hurled by hoof and tail, smashing against the bards and covering them in foul muck. Fluttershy was not safe in the center as a blackened tomato struck her cutie mark, while a soiled squash smashed against her head, the contents of the legume dripping down her face and into her mane.
“Behold!” shouted a peasant pointing at Fluttershy’s flank, “The cutie mark of traitors! Rotten! Disgusting! Foul! Vive le Empress! Vive Filais! Death to traitors!”
Fluttershy tried to hide again as her fellow bards were pelted by produce. This was surreal, a bad nightmare that she was going to wake up from at any moment, and be told to bring the morning tea for the General and take care of the menagerie on the estate. The rabbits needed their carrots, the otters their fish, the birds their seeds. This isn’t happening this isn’t happening, please Celestia, please let this be a bad dream…
The smack of a rock against her head startled Fluttershy from her prayers. The peasants had apparently ran out of vegetables and began throwing rocks. Rubbing the wound with a hoof, she looked at the telltale red of blood as it trickled down her face, mixing with her tears and the rotten muck of the squash. Lowering herself as small and as unnoticeable as possible, she wept until she had no more tears to shed, and unconsciousness drifted over her until only the shouts of blame acted as an impromptu lullaby.
The roar of thunder awoke Fluttershy as she felt heavy rain wash over her. She looked up to the looming shadow of a fortress on the horizon, belonging to La Détention Criminelle, the largest prison complex known in the world. It was said to be impossible to escape from, in addition to being an impregnable stronghold. The prison was a sight of doom for any pony who was unfortunate enough to be sentenced there. Ponies with life sentences, prisoners to be interrogated, and those awaiting executions were sent to La Détention Criminelle. No prisoner had ever left there with a heart still beating.
Ponies around Fluttershy shivered in the cold from the thunderstorm or, more likely, from the sight of the prison. Many recited prayers and pleadings to higher powers for mercy, knowing that the guards would show them none. The great wooden cart came to a halt near the outskirts of La Détention Criminelle, until a detachment of soldiers emerged from the great gate to meet the prisoners’ escort.
The sound of turning gears underneath the bards alerted them that they were being released from their bindings. As she watched the shackles fall from her hooves, Fluttershy dared not move until given the command from the guards. Many of the soldiers were angry enough that they were escorting traitors; the bad weather was not helping their moods, as many were gripping weapon-bits tight in their jaws.
From the stronghold came a troop of guards, with a very large earth pony leading the group. Covered head to hoof in plate armour with a greatsword strapped to his back, the warden of the stronghold appeared to be a match for the great structure he commanded. He looked over the large group of prisoners with a disdainful eye before turning to the officer in charge of the escort.
“One’s dead already,” the warden observed, looking at the slain bard who was not moved since the city.
“One of ours did that, I am proud to say. A bit of zeal isn’t so bad, warden captain,” replied the officer, “They are going to die anyways. In any event, I hand over the responsibility of the prisoners to you. As per the High Justice’s orders, they are to be executed, one per day by guillotine.”
“I accept the responsibility.” The warden of the prison looked to the assembled huddling mass as the escort marched them towards the prison. He barked marching orders to both his soldiers and the prisoners as the guards kept spears trained. Fluttershy was pushed to keep pace as the rain continued to pour.
Unlike the Capital, La Détention Criminelle was devoid of any sign of Filesian culture. There were no etchings on the stone, no words from poems or stories, not even a menacing gargoyle or two. It was, in relation to other structures, a rather plain castle surrounded by equally drab high stone walls. However, this only added to the intimidation of the complex: a pegasus pony would have to fly a great distance to make it over the wall, and with several veteran archers keeping watch, they would be skewered by arrows in short order.
The storm did not lessen the image of a brooding monster that the prison rather aptly resembled. Fluttershy wondered if old pegasi magics were at work to create a permanent storm here, and that this was why the place had been chosen for the fortress. Rumours always abounded of the stronghold, the most prevalent was that the clouds never drifted away, and that the La Détention Criminelle had never seen the light of the sun nor the moon since the first execution here during the occupation of Equestria.
Celestia and Luna condemned this place, Fluttershy thought as she looked up to the sky, but do they also condemn the ponies sent here as well? Is it foolish to ask for mercy for a crime we did not commit?
The courtyard of the prison was also filled with guards watching the prisoners file in. They sneered and spat at the bards but were otherwise silent. One tried to shout a curse, only to be cut short by the quick gaze of the warden.
In the center of the courtyard stood the guillotine, the blade appearing eager for necks to sever. Fluttershy whined at the sight of the execution device as the bards were forced to a halt. The ground around the guillotine was stained with blood, the basket that awaited heads even more so.
The grinding of metal behind them signaled the main gate closing shut. Flutterhsy watched the warden approach the guillotine, nodding at a guard to bring a prisoner forward. With a shove, the guard brought an earth pony forward towards the block. She looked at the edge of the blade with terrified eyes as the warden raised his voice.
“As the gate closes behind you, know that none of you will ever leave this place, the Black Canter of the World, before you enter the damnation of the Black Canter in the Fade.” As he spoke, the guards forced the mare into the wooden yoke of the instrument, securing the yoke in place as she wailed for mercy and innocence. The executioner, a mare under a black hood, nodded to the guards as she locked the yoke in place and took the pull-cord in her teeth.
Fluttershy tried to look away, to avoid seeing yet another of her fellow bards beheaded in front of her. A guard drew his blade and pressed the flat side against her throat, forcing her eyes towards the guillotine.
Her knees buckled as she watched the preparations and heard the words of the prison’s master. Never had the yellow pegasus shook with fear as she did now. This was to be her fate the torture was wondering when she would be sent to the block. Tomorrow? Next week?
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” the warden continued, “Pray that your name comes next on the morrow, for death is swift and painless. Life will bring you pain, the likes of which you will beg for the executioner’s blade before long.” With a nod, he signaled to the executioner, who smiled with the cord in her mouth.
With sadistic glee on her lips, the executioner pulled the cord, allowing the blade to fall. The screams of the bard were quickly silenced as the blade passed through flesh and bone like they were butter, the head rolling into the basket with a light thud.
Fluttershy froze in place. She did not know the mare personally, as many bards did not have much communication with another, but the sight of the body still standing upright, only to fall to the side, headless and bloody as the executioner lifted the wooden yoke, was enough to haunt her dreams forever. Her throat and lips were dry, despite the rain. She wanted to cry, but shock stole her tears. She wanted to shout, but horror silenced her scream.
Celestia, Luna… why did you abandon us? Fluttershy could not avert her gaze from the guillotine as she and the others were pushed into the fortress. Everything she had known, from being a bard, the memory of the General and his family, to even the trial in the morning simply ceased. All she could recall was the smile on the executioner and the sound of the blade severing the head: a fate she would soon share.
Thankfully, she was unable to see the severed head, but her imagination filled in the missing image quickly. She retched at the thought, only to be pushed into the waiting castle prison by the guards with the pommel of their swords.
The inside of the stronghold was no better than the outside. Dark and dank, the only light came from torches and candles which barely illuminated the halls of crafted stone. One by one, the bards were escorted to their cells throughout the castle, with Fluttershy being led to her cell in the upper levels. The stone was cold under her hooves, and a cold draft blew through the halls of the prison, chilling her to the bone.
The cells were worse than she imagined. Several aged prisoners were already in the tight, closed-in alcoves, many sickly and moaning either from disease or hunger, and very possibly both. The guard escorting Fluttershy pushed her into a cell with an emancipated earth pony, who weakly lifted a hoof to the guard as if begging for something to eat.
The room was cramped and smelled of rotten corpses, but at least there was a window she could look through. Unfortunately, it overlooked the courtyard and, most prominently, the guillotine. The guards mentioned that this cell was specifically requested by Justice Artistic Finish. This was a cruel “gift” for the falsely accused Bardmaster of Filais. How would she wrench herself away from the sight of the executions when they happened right outside her window?
The guard closed the door with a powerful slam, leaving Fluttershy and her sickly cellmate alone in the cold quarters. With a heavy sigh, she looked over her new accommodations. There were two small piles of straw to sleep on, with the sickly blue earth pony writhing on one. On the floor was a small bowl filled with grey gruel that appeared more like sludge than anything even remotely edible.
Fluttershy looked at the bowl and then back to her cellmate. Carefully she sat on her haunches and lifted the bowl up with both hooves towards her fellow prisoner, offering a small smile as raised the gruel to his face. Even if I’m in this awful place, Fluttershy thought as she waited for a response, I can bring some level of kindness to this place. I won’t be a monster like what Finish framed me as.
The prisoner opened one blood-shot eye, looked at the food offered him, and quickly dug in, burying his muzzle into the bowl. He ate with surprising gusto and not so surprising messiness, with portions of the gruel splashing out of the bowl and onto Fluttershy’s forelegs. The mess did not bother her; working with animals and foals made her accustomed to the sloppy eating habits.
Once he was done, the prisoner laid back against the straw stack as the yellow pegasus wiped her legs against her own bedding. As she was about to sit down and rest for the night, her cellmate coughed, then spoke in a low, raspy voice.
“What are you in for?” he asked, turning his head towards Fluttershy. The lack of proper light made it difficult to see, but she could tell that the circles under his eyes were heavy and black, trophies from years of poor sleeping habits. Fluttershy recounted the short, unfair trial and the trip to the prison, all while her new acquaintance nodded along to every word.
“Sounds about right,” he muttered, closing his eyes. “Nobles send ponies they don’t like here, not just criminals and war prisoners. Political dissidents, artists, a pony who cut them off or bought the last sweetroll they wanted. Empress fuels it all with her Game, to see who was the most intelligence or the most cunning. Filais will gut herself if they keep playing.”
“Then there are ponies like you, pawns of the Game for the players. Don’t do anything wrong, but still considered an expendable piece.” Talking sent the prisoner into another coughing fit with loud hacking from his throat causing Fluttershy to wince at the obvious pain he was in. She moved to his side and patted him, rubbing the bony back of her cellmate until he was in control of his cough again.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you in here?” She looked away as she asked, not wanting to offend him. He chuckled in between small coughs as he turned to contemplate the stonework of the floor.
“Officially, I’m here for murder,” he explained, “Though it was a framing, just like you. Didn’t have an alibi though… what I did commit was treason to my best friend. Couldn’t say anything at the trial because he was there, and on the night of the murder I… knew his wife. In the Chantry meaning of the word.”
Fluttershy nodded as she stepped back to her straw bed as she curled up best she could to get into a comfortable position. It was unfair for a pony to be framed for a crime he did not commit, but it seemed he had sentenced himself as much as the courts had. Every pony had their own way of judging themselves for the crimes they perceived that they had committed. All the same, they also had their own ways of punishing themselves when the guilt was great enough.
She did betray the trust of several ponies by acting as their caretaker while she was a spy. The family of General Puissant was in danger because of her. If anypony had the right to punish Fluttershy for the years of deceit, it was the General. More than anything though, all Fluttershy wanted was to see the faces of unicorns and earth ponies who trusted her and wanted her near.
“I’m sorry,” the cellmate said as he closed his eyes, “You seem like a nice pegasus. Shouldn’t be in a place like this. I’m sorry it had to end this way. Watch out for the black hood.”
Fluttershy closed her eyes as he spoke, trying to let sleep come over her. As her cellmate gave a long, drawn-out sigh, she shed more tears of sorrow for lives unfairly lost to the cruelty of ponies. Celestia and Luna protect us, she prayed, please redeem our souls. We don’t deserve this fate.
The iron door of the cell swung wide as three guards moved in. One carried his sword in his mouth and motioned for Fluttershy to move to the corner of the room. She stood still, expression blank as the two others checked on the body of her cellmate. Sure enough, they announced him dead and carried the body with little ceremony, more like a dirty old sack than a pony.
He wasn’t a bad pony; he just made a bad decision. “Wait,” Fluttershy said, only to be met by a brandished blade and a sour guard, “What about his last rites?”
“Are you joking, traitor?” ridiculed one of the guards, “Why would Celestia want any criminal like this scum to have any rites at all? Besides, we have no Chantry priestess here. None would ever come to a light forsaken place as this.”
“She’s right, though,” spoke another. “The Chantry speaks that all ponies should be treated well after death, and be sent to Celestia for judgment. He should be given his final rites, lest we take another curse upon ourselves.”
Even though she had only known her cellmate for such a short time, Fluttershy knew she had to do something for him. As they debated and all admitted not knowing the proper words of the Chant to give final rites, Fluttershy stepped forward, once again met by the hateful stares of the guards.
“I know the Chant,” she explained, “My mother taught me every morning and every night. I can help ease his passage into the Seat of the Sisters.”
The soldiers looked at one another in confusion. It must have seemed quite unusual for a known traitor to also have such intimate knowledge of the sacred text for ponies everywhere. Still, to them, it was the best and only solution they had. Stepping back to the doors, they laid the body on the ground as respectfully as they could while they waited for Fluttershy to begin the rites.
She had always found groups rather awkward, even if there were only three guards and a dead body. Still, for her new friend, Fluttershy would do the best she could. Closing her eyes and shutting out the world around her, she focused solely on her cellmate. I don’t even know your name, Fluttershy lamented, but I’ll try to give you what peace I can. It is the right thing to do. I hope you have forgiven yourself.
“…and so spoke Luna, after the deaths of a thousand ponies following her, and the deaths of the thousand ponies who served the false ones, ‘Know not fear for thy fate, for We extend Our light, forgiveness, and love to all who seek it. In this truth, lay thy fears to rest as thy body is laid to rest, for We wish harmony for all ponies who repent in their wickedness, and know that I seek to bring harmony to all under Our Sun and Moon.”
Fluttershy laid a hoof on the forehead of the deceased prisoner as she bowed her head. “Reposez en paix,” she whispered, then opened her eyes and slowly stood back from the body, so as to not alarm the guards..
“Reposez en paix,” the guards muttered back solemnly. Fluttershy could hear some hesitation in their voices, though she did not blame them. They believed what they were doing was right and in the best interests of their Empress and their nation.
“Let’s get him to the graveyard. Bury him properly.” They lifted the body much more respectfully now, the corpse being laid across the backs of two of the guards as they sidestepped out of the cell. The third guard, the one who had threatened Fluttershy with his sword earlier, stepped towards her, though did not make eye contact.
“I will speak with the prison warden,” he said, after clearing his throat, “but the dead do need their rites. Perhaps we can work out an understanding where you give their souls ease into the next world. You are still a traitor but now I… I should go.”
Fluttershy said nothing as the guard left. She looked around her empty cell, already missing the company of having another pony with her. It was awfully lonely in the cell and it no longer seemed so cramped, instead appearing too large and menacing as she heard the sound of water dripping from the cracks in the stone and falling to the floor below.
The next day, the iron door opened and the guards pushed a new pegasus mare into the cell. She was cursing at the guard in what sounded like a variety of dialects, from Filesian and Common to something sounding like the harsh language of the Yokalach. From what Fluttershy could catch, the white pegasus with the wild, stormy mane was making several lewd comments about the guards’ mothers and how much she apparently enjoyed certain bawdy activities.
“Mmm, mmm! Can’t wait to see your mothers again! Maybe I’ll do them all at the same time! Wouldn’t that make for a story?” The white pegasus laughed as the guards resisted the urge to beat her, simply yelling back as they closed the door and locked it shut. Once her laughing died down, she began to scan the room, pressing her hooves against every stone she could.
“Not here, not here, not there,” she muttered as Fluttershy moved out of her way, “This is going to be tougher than last time. Less time to do it all in as well. I do love a challenge though.” Fluttershy looked at her new cellmate, taking note of the whirlwind for a cutie mark on her flank, wondering what sort of special talent a tornado could specialize in. Her hooves were covered in large metal casings, each locked by small padlocks that rattled as she moved. Her wings were also bound by leather straps held together with their own padlock.
What stood out beyond the scars and the shackles, however, were the tattoos painted across the new prisoner’s face. Red ink marked her features, making her appear more bestial and savage. Fluttershy had heard of pegasi marking their faces with war paint, but tattoos and the application of them in such detail were the property of the Pegasi of the Eastern Dales.
Fluttershy kept her distance as the white pegasus searched the room. The dozens of scars lining her body were matched only by a few choice markings on her face. Every once in a while she would look at Fluttershy, only to scoff and begin her search anew.
“Spit and damnation, no loose stones.” Taking a deep breath, she turned to Fluttershy, eyeing the imprisoned bard with a critical eye as she moved to her haystack. She tossed herself on the bedding, still keeping watch of the yellow pegasus as she nestled herself against the hay.
Fluttershy was finding it hard keep her heart steady as it hammered her chest. This pegasus, whoever she was, looked the part of the hardened criminal who had been to La Détention Criminelle on more than one occasion. For all she knew, her new acquaintance was a real criminal who deserved to be locked up for real crimes.
Now Fluttershy, no need to make judgments so quickly, she chided herself; maybe she got those scars in an unfortunate farming accident. Or maybe she’s a political prisoner and all those scars were from a long career as a soldier, or maybe…
“Thirteen counts of murder, if you were wondering,” the white pegasus said, causing Fluttershy to squeak and hide her face under her pink mane, “At least that’s how much they know. They also only know of twenty-five counts of arson, one hundred and thirty-three counts of burglary, counterfeiting, vandalism, and impersonating a Chantry sister. That was a good time. The sisters in that chapel agreed.”
Oh Celestia and Luna on high, she is a criminal. Fluttershy turned away from the pegasus and focused all her attention on the wall. The guards had placed a dangerous offender of the law in the cell with her; what was the criminal going to do to her when she got bored? Fluttershy tried to shut out all her thoughts on the criminal and the prison, focusing on brighter memories as she heard the iron clods clang against the stone as the pegasus moved closer.
Think about the sun. The sun is nice in a bright blue sky, with only a few fluffy clouds overhead.
Oh! Don’t forget the birds flying high, with so many different coloured feathers. When they sing, they create such a lovely melody.
The flowers on the ground are nice too, with all their colours and aromas. All of the critters playing and running through the green grass like the bunnies and the…
Oh Celestia she’s coming closer, why won’t she leave me alone why won’t she turn around and just sit in her hay.
Please don’t hurt me, please don’t touch me, please just leave me alone and turn around, please please oh please…
Fluttershy looked up to find she was face to face to the white pegasus. She let out a small mewl as she stared into the grey eyes of her cellmate. The criminal opened her mouth in a wide leering grin.
“Hey there, Sunshine,” said the criminal, “I’m Twister. Looks like we’re gonna be great friends, aren’t we? We’ll be eating meals together of delicious grey slop, bunking together in piles of stingy straw under the cold oppressive stone. Real romantic like. Cuddle up real close as I figure out how to get out of here. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
Fluttershy could only tremble as she felt the breath from Twister rush to her face. This was it, then. She was going to die in prison under the guillotine but, before that, she was going to suffer the humiliation of being Twister’s plaything. There was no point in resisting or putting up a fight; she was too weak and helpless, and Twister would just hurt her more.
All she had to do was think happy thoughts, and get through each day and each night, and every morning with such a pony like Twister. All she had to do was endure, and be strong, and pray that Celestia and Luna would give her some measure of protection.
Fluttershy closed her eyes as she waited for the inevitable.
Then… there was nothing. No ravaging, no pain, no force. Fluttershy opened one eye to see a rather bored Twister sitting on her haunches as she looked over one of her manacles. “Didn’t you hear me the first time? I enjoy the challenge. You? You ain’t one.” Twister plopped herself against the hay as she tapped her forelegs together, the sound of the iron clods clanging against one another, waking Fluttershy from her stupor.
It took several moments of waiting and watching Twister pout on her straw bedding for Fluttershy’s heart to stop racing. As she sat on her own straw, Fluttershy took note of the tattoos once again, seeing how they snaked down from Twister’s eyes down her neck until they ended in sharp edges across her flank, just before the whirlwind cutie mark.
“So you don’t want any but you’ll stare at my flank,” Twister commented, causing Fluttershy to blush and hide away again, “You confuse me, Sunshine.”
“It’s your tattoos,” Fluttershy replied, though barely above a mumble, “They’re… nice.”
“Dal’nel’nier,” Twister replied, “‘Markings of the Sky Ponies.’ After the Dalish Sky Kingdoms fell to the Unicorn Imperium, those free Dalish pegasi marked their bodies with ink to show they were still free from Imperium oppression. Red ink like mine means ‘warrior’.”
“So you are Dalish?” Fluttershy was legitimately curious. She had never met a Dalish pegasi before, only hearing of them from other winged ponies who wished to join them and their roving bands across the land. Fluttershy had no desire to join the Dalish, knowing they were looked upon as marauding bandits, thieves, vagrants and worse: heretics who worshipped nature and animal totems instead of the Alicorn Sisters.
On more than one occasion, battles were fought between the Dalish and armies of the nations across the world, and there was an Exalted Gallop against the Dalish shortly after the second Blight recorded in Chantry histories. That horrific event all but ended Dalish power, turning the pegasi into the migrants they were now.
To meet a Dalish like Twister seemed to only reinforce the negative stereotypes the Dalish had endured, while adding a few more, like depravity, to the list. Twister nodded as she turned to look at Fluttershy, who broke eye contact. Twister could only sigh in frustration.
“Yeah, I’m Dalish,” explained Twister, “Born and raised along with my clan, as we travelled the countryside, from Equestria to the Yokalach to Filais. Wasn’t welcome most anywhere by earth ponies. Kept calling us thieves and squatters. I guess after a while you get angry enough, and you become what you are called. Then it’s just one hop, skip and jump right off the slippery slope.”
“Do you regret anything?”
“Hay no!” Twister pounded a metal clod hoof on the ground, causing the floor to crack. She looked at the cracked floor in surprise for a moment before turning an angry look at Fluttershy. “I don’t regret a damn thing. All those ponies I made kick the bucket deserved to be. Corrupt nobles, soldiers who tried to kill me, ponies who were going to hurt my clan. Sure the Keeper didn’t like my ‘aggressive negotiations’, but I kept the clan alive and safe. No stone prison or army of Filesian soldiers is going to keep me tied down. Not for long anyways.”
It was too much to hope for, but she was going to die in the prison anyways. If Twister had a plan to escape, Fluttershy knew she had to take it. Staying here and listening to more executions of her fellow bards would prove maddening until it was her turn to face the executioner’s guillotine.
Before she could ask Twister if she even had a plan, Twister laid down on the straw matting. “Sleeping now, escape later,” she said, “You can always join me if you like. Ha!” Sighing, Fluttershy curled herself up in a ball on the straw bedding near the cell window and waited for another fitful night of sleep to come.
The warden had agreed that Fluttershy would give last rites to the executed and the deceased to ease their souls into the next life. This was fine by her, as it allowed her to leave the confines of her cell and go into the outside world. All she had to do was obey the commands of the soldiers, recite the words of the Chant, and then follow them back to her cell.
Her new duty led her right past the guillotine, and the sight of the death machine was still frightening. More often than not, the guards had to make sure she did not faint. This proved difficult thanks to the sight of the blade, the smell of freshly spilled blood, and the black hooded mare who watched Fluttershy walk past as they headed to the graveyard. Every time they passed, the executioner smiled at her with a wide, toothy grin as she sharpened a large, brutal-looking axe.
“Hey there,” she cooed on a cold morning, “Time’s running out, pretty pegasus. One little grain of sand at a time. That’s what those ponies before you are. Little grains of sand. Chop. Chop. Chop. Maybe I’ll take your pretty neck with Choppy here. Been a while since he had a nice little neck to chop.”
Fluttershy recoiled as the executioner laughed, only to be pushed towards the graveyard by the guards. They seemed just as unsettled as she was, though, with several of the guards looking back at the mare with the black hood turning away, dragging the giant axe behind her in her teeth. Having never met such a deranged pony before, Fluttershy couldn’t help but wonder how the executioner came to be, and what sort of decisions she made to become this way.
After reciting the last rites to yet another executed bard and watching his remains become buried in an unmarked grave, Fluttershy was escorted from the path back to the prison by two new guards she did not recognize. Instead of returning to her cell, they took her behind a wooden shed. Without another word, they struck her with heavy armoured hooves.
No pony could have been ready to receive a beating then and there. Unready for the strikes, Fluttershy crumpled to her knees, sobbing as each hit caused another bruise, another open wound. They kicked dirt in her face as they laughed, their accents thick with the tongue from Pura Raza.
“This is a message from Artistic Finish,” sneered one of her assailants, “You are going to die here, slowly and painfully. We are here to make sure of that.”
For well over ten minutes the beatings continued. Thankfully that was all they did, and Fluttershy was strangely grateful they were not the creative kinds of torturers. They forced her back to her hooves and marched her back to the cells. Every time she fell, they beat her more until she became almost unconscious from the pain. She did not make it to the first staircase.
Fluttershy awoke in her cell a short while later, with several rags tied as bandages around her wounds. One of her eyes was covered in cloth, and her body ached all over. She looked up to see the concerned look of Twister, still dressing her wounds with red poultice.
“They gave half a bottle, and I’m pretty sure the stuff is older than I am,” Twister explained. “Did what I could. Had to cut up some of your clothes to make bandages. Hope you don’t mind. Nice legs by the way.”
Too weak to protest, Fluttershy turned away from her cellmate instead of talking to her further. She had never been spoken to like that by anypony, especially not a crass mare like Twister. Sure, there were the catcalls by drunken ponies who had lost their wits in wine jugs and tankards of Equestrian cider, but she could ignore those stallions and move on quickly. Having wings helped, even if she was not the strongest flyer.
This was just too close for comfort and entirely inappropriate. Granted, so was the giant guillotine that she was doomed to face. All Fluttershy could hope for was facing the executioner with some sort of dignity, but Twister kept challenging that every day and every night.
“How do you do it?” Twister looked over at Fluttershy, who in turn directed her good eye back to the scarred pegasus. “How do you keep being so meek and nice to everypony in a hellhole like this? Ponies who come here either go mad, give up on their lives, or become hardened. You? You go out and give last rites, then get beaten. Not once have I heard you complain. Not once have I seen you get mad at the guards, at me, at the world, at Celestia, anypony!”
“No use getting mad at something I can’t change,” Fluttershy replied, “They are not bad ponies. They just make bad decisions. I can’t be mad at the world. Maybe somewhere there is a place where life is peaceful and happy, but that’s not the fault of the world, just the ponies who make those bad decisions. I can’t be mad at Celestia either. She left ponies to make their own decisions, good or bad. She has no hoof in our lives, because she wants us to grow on our own.”
“They hurt you!”
“I know.” Fluttershy sighed as she looked up to the ceiling of their cell. “I forgive them. If I lash out at them, if I get hateful and hurt them, I’m just helping the cycle. Somepony has to stop the hurt.”
Twister looked away, contemplating the masonry of the floor before speaking again. For whatever reason she could not place, Fluttershy found the silence more awkward than whenever the lewd mare spoke. “Are you afraid of death?”
“Yes. I don’t want to die.” Fluttershy bit her bottom lip as memories of death announced themselves in full force. It was painful to remember, yet the pain eased away, as she felt comfortable talking about it with Twister. “I saw what happened to my mother during the plague in Filais ten years ago, when we lived in the pegasi alienage. She was in constant pain and delirium. I was with her every night, with no help from healers who were already overtaxed from helping the city’s earth ponies. What was one pegasus worth to them? I tried to bring her Luna’s Tears flowers every day. They were her favourite, and she always smiled when I brought them to her.”
“Then one day I came back home, and she was gone. No pony would tell me what happened. Some say that some corpse wagons came by and other pegasi in the alienage loaded her onto the cart. Others said she got up and left, not wanting me to see her suffer anymore. I don’t know what to believe, but I am very afraid of death. Of suffering.”
Fluttershy remembered the plague all too well. How it hit the alienage the hardest, reducing pegasi numbers in the capital city drastically. Several pegasi, she included, were somehow immune to the plague. Some said it was the work of the ponyspawn, others placed blame on dragon worshippers trying to attack the spiritual capital of the Chantry. Whatever the reason, Fluttershy did not care. Her mother died and she did not, and she was powerless to prevent it.
It was for this reason that a young filly off the streets made her way to the bard society, and found herself under the tutelage of Artistic Finish. Fate, as random and unpredictable as it was, had a sadistic streak when she looked back in hindsight.
Twister remained silent as Fluttershy closed her eyes, wanting nothing more than to sleep away the aches and pains of the day. Her body screamed for some sort of respite, and she was going to comply, even if her legs burned and her stomach felt like it was simultaneously performing backflips and somersaults.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little flank, Sunshine,” Twister said, though Fluttershy was barely listening, “We’ll get out of here. Maybe I deserve to be locked up, but you don’t.”
Fluttershy tried to stay awake as Twister spoke, but the pain from the beating was too much, and her consciousness was slipping. As Fluttershy closed her eyes, she could hear Twister speak one last time.
“Fal’aniel du masare, Fluttershy. I’ll get you out of here.”