The night's darkness was quiet, the moon slowly descending in the last hours before the dawn, a few glimmers of wavering light barely visible in one of Canterlot Castle's arched windows. A Griffon sat at a table under the open window, the light of two candles illuminating the documents neatly stacked on either side of him. His pristine coat was a deceptively regal burnt shade of amber with a tinge of crimson, not too dissimilar from the king's, and his bright amber eyes showed that he was on constant high alert, even in the dead of night. He drew the next sheet from the sizable pile of papers to his right and frowned at the contents. "'Failure to receive shipment from facility 87'? This should go over just swimmingly." He shook his head and scrawled out instructions on the parchment to deploy an investigative team to the facility, then finished it with his signature, 'A Grimtalon.'
Avris Grimtalon was a model Griffon citizen. He was an exemplary soldier with infallible dedication, resolve, and strength of will; he had spent years steadily increasing both his strategic and combat expertise to be promoted up to his current status; and he was always willing to spend whatever time and effort was necessary to increase his operational knowledge so as to better perform his duties. Even his wedding had been an event with exceptional military attendance, his lovely wife having been a fairly high ranking officer herself before she retired from military life to raise their little girl.
Avris sighed and looked out the window at the moon. By his calculations, he would have just enough time to finish his work before his morning briefing with General Bloodwing. As chief advisor to the general, his workload was staggering, so finding him still in his office many hours after the rest of the city had gone to sleep was a regrettably common occurrence at this point. Spending yet another night away from home was not something he was pleased about, but his position and responsibilities could not be ignored. He grimaced slightly when he thought of the earful his wife would surely have for him when he got home. He couldn't blame her. Eyra was a patient woman, especially when it came to military matters, but recently it seemed he was always stuck in the castle at night drawing up work orders or dealing with matters which the general felt he hadn't the time for.
With great effort Avris pulled his eyes away from the night sky and focused back onto the papers in front of him. You can worry about your strained life at home later, he told himself. Right now it's time to work.
The strained Griffon grimaced at each work order and mandate he signed. While he was utterly dedicated to the empire, General Bloodwing's orders as of late had become almost criminal. He expected higher output from every facility, and ordered for decreased food rations for any work camp not meeting quota. The base restrictions for what ponies could and could not do in Equestria were much the same as they had been for years now, but there were more and more errors they could be punished for, and the range on those penalties was becoming ever larger, and leaning toward the more severe options every year. The love Avris had for his country and king was unquestionable, but the brutal laws signed into action by his own hand weighed heavily on his conscience. He had felt the urge on numerous occasions to speak up to the general about it, but it was not his place to question his superiors.
The twilight hours quickly dwindled as Avris finished his work. He sorted the papers and rose from his desk, reports clutched firmly in his beak, then proceeded out the door, careful that he heard it lock behind him. As he padded down the long corridor, the light from the rising sun began to beam through the arched windows. How many times now had he watched the sun set and then rise through the castle windows instead of through the ones in his bedroom? How many mornings since he last awoke curled up with his wife? The only thing he missed more than the feeling of Eyra beside him was the sight of their daughter bounding into their room and crash landing onto their bed. Once the issue with facility 87 was under control, he would request some time off. The minimal time he had been able to devote to his family as of late was simply becoming unacceptable.
When he reached the general's door, he promptly shoved his personal concerns to the back of his mind. The general loathed being awoken at sunrise, but Avris knew that the documents held in his beak were matters which could not wait. There was no doubt that the general needed to hear about the issue at facility 87, although it would surely infuriate him, especially at this hour, and he would more than likely pass the responsibility of overseeing the investigation off to his advisor. After quickly preparing his thoughts, Avris rapped soundly on the large, ornate door.
He heard light footsteps approach the door, and when the heavy door swung slowly open he was greeted by the general's hand servant, Princess Celestia herself. General Bloodwing had kept the princess of the sun close by as his own personal servant since the invasion twenty years ago. With downcast eyes, the Alicorn ushered him into the room and disappeared into the general's walk-in wardrobe. Avris stepped in and turned to his left where Bloodwing's massive frame was slowly rising from his bed, his wings stretching out to their impressive six meter span.
"Avris, I'm certain I've told you how much I dislike being awoken at daybreak," he rumbled irritatedly. A string of pops and cracks then echoed around the room as he twisted his neck back and forth. Celestia stepped lightly out of the wardrobe, wearing a small, pale pink chemise and holding a pitch black tunic for Bloodwing. Her eyes were still fixed squarely on the floor slightly in front of her as she walked over to him. There had been a time when she would blush in embarrassment at being seen in such clothing, but her eyes and expression now were quiet, betraying nothing of her feelings on the matter.
"I know, sir, but this particular information is something which must be attended to immediately."
"Very well," he grumbled, stretching an arm out for Celestia to slide on the tunic. "What do you have to report." It was much more of a statement than a question. Avris decided to start with good news to try and brighten the general's mood before moving onto the more problematic documents.
"I received a letter from the king last night. It appears the royal runecrafters have finally devised a way to destroy the Elements of Harmony. Within a week's time they can be shattered, and the being known as Discord shall uphold his end of the bargain and free the sun and the moon from the control of the princesses."
Bloodwing seemed to swell with glee. "Excellent!" he boomed out. "Truly it has been far too long that such an aspect of daily life has been controlled by the whims of such pathetic beings. It will be delightful to see the sun and moon rise and fall on their own each day instead of being shackled to the wills of some worldly harlots." His deep, throaty chuckle resounded around the room. Celestia's eyes had widened slightly when Avris had made his announcement, and her face was not quite as inscrutable as before as she stood behind the general.
Avris swallowed, bracing himself. "In other news, sir, it appears there has been another rebel attack on the supply lines running through the mountains. Reports indicate that the group was comprised largely of Pegasi, no doubt organized by the Crimson Wing offensive." He almost recoiled at the look on Bloodwing's face. The mere mention of rebel activities was enough to enrage him. Luckily he seemed to recompose himself quickly this morning, causing Avris to breathe a mental sigh of relief at starting with the news from the capital.
"Any other news, Avris?" Bloodwing snapped as he walked over to his refreshments table.
"Just one other thing, sir. I've been informed that facility 87 is late on their delivery and report this week." He did his best to hold his head high as he saw the general's wings stiffen and his arm freeze as he reached for a goblet. Bloodwing whirled around, almost knocking the small table over, his golden eyes full of fury.
"I want a full team dispatched immediately to determine the cause of the delay!" His voice was steadily raising to a shout. "That camp holds two invaluable pieces of cargo, and I will see heads roll if they are not accounted for!" The sheer intensity of the general's command left his shoulders heaving in its wake. Avris simply nodded sharply.
Bloodwing turned back to his refreshments table. "If that is all you have to report, then leave me. Seeing your sorry face isn't a way I enjoy starting my day to begin with, and I've no interest in any more news of general incompetence," Bloodwing grunted over his shoulder as he poured himself a glass of wine. Avris saluted the general silently and turned to leave, but paused for a moment. He turned back slightly.
"Sir," he began. Bloodwing turned, surprised his advisor had not yet exited his chambers. "When the business with the Elements is settled and the delays at facility 87 are investigated and dealt with, I'd like to request a leave of absence. I've been here from dawn to dusk and frequently overnight for over a month now, and my family is beginning to worry." For once, Avris looked Bloodwing dead in the eye.
The general met his gaze, holding it for a few silent moments before huffing, then turning back to his goblet and nodding slightly. "Very well, Avris. Once the current matters are handled, I'll sign off on a week of leave. Your exemplary service indeed merits some time with your family." He then waved Avris away, who saluted once more and exited the room.
Once the door swung shut, Bloodwing turned to his servant and sneered. "You hear that, Celestia? By week's end, the Elements of Harmony will be gone, and you and your wretched race will lose your monopoly on the sun and moon." His deep laughter filled the chamber before he tossed a chunk of smoked fish in the air, catching it in his beak with a precise snap. He picked up his goblet and proceeded over to his desk, placing it down. Celestia bit her lip as the general passed by her, but she couldn't stop herself from speaking up.
"My good general, please, you must ask the king to reconsider. Discord is not a being to be trusted, and giving him the chance to toy with something of such great importance could end disastrously!" The general again froze for a moment before whirling around, eyes burning with rage. Celestia braced herself for what she knew was coming as the hulking Griffon took one long stride toward her, lifting his arm as he moved, and backhanded her with such force that she was sent tumbling backward into the wall behind her. As she began to pick herself up, blood trickling from her lip, a shadow fell over her and the general gripped her muzzle like a vice, pulling her entire torso and forelegs off the polished floor.
"How dare you question the king's plans, you cheap harlot! If I hear so much as another word out of you about this, I'll ensure you're never able to eat solid food again, and I'll see the same done to your sister." The mention of any harm coming to Luna changed Celestia's eyes from dull to fearful instantly. She had been conditioned at this point to care little for her own physical well-being, but threats against her sister were still very real to her. Satisfied that his message was clear, Bloodwing let go of Celestia's muzzle, allowing her to drop unceremoniously onto the floor again, and seated himself at his desk.
"Pick yourself up and retrieve my equipment from the armory. When you return, you will prepare my luggage, and be quick about it," he barked over his shoulder. "I will be leaving for the capital tonight to oversee the dealings with this Discord fellow, and I will not stand for any delays."
After Celestia exited the room, Bloodwing quickly padded over to the door and locked it shut behind her before making his way over to the left wall of the room, past his bed. He placed his talons against the wall and pressed one of the small stones, causing it to sink into the wall with a click. The false wall slid to the side to reveal Avris standing at attention in a corridor just large enough for a single Griffon to walk through, a bundle of parchments clutched to his side. The general ushered him in and cleared his desk, then greedily snatched the bundle and placed it down.
"I must say, Avris," he remarked as he spread out the parchments, "if the military life were ever to lose its luster, you should consider taking up theater. That particular performance was magnificent."
"I am humbled by your praise, sir, but I'm not sure I'm really suited for any life other than military life."
Bloodwing chuckled at the remark, now inspecting each document before him. After ascertaining that everything was in order, he turned back to Avris. "Excellent. Inform the alchemists to continue their experiments with Luna. I want the new formula completed as soon as possible and distributed to all ranking officers." He quickly gathered up the parchments and tossed them into his fireplace along with a match, then watched them begin to curl up and turn to ash.
"It shall be done at once, and, sir, about my earlier performance, I was serious about the leave. My country is always at the front of my mind, but I really have been absent from home for far longer than I would like." Avris spoke in a firm but respectful tone and stood resolute as his superior finally turned from the fire, finally sure no traces of the documents remained.
"I had a feeling that was the case, my friend," Bloodwing stated in the same tone, locking eyes with his subordinate. "I would issue the time starting today, but I require you to oversee Equestria in my absence. I would trust no one but you with this task. Once I return from the capital, you may take an entire month's leave if you so desire."
Avris bowed low to the ground. "You honor me with this task, General. I shall ensure Equestria remains exactly as you leave it for when you return."
"Good, now make yourself scarce before my servant returns." Bloodwing handed Avris another stack of letters. "Ensure these reach the proper messengers as well. It is important that the king be kept properly appraised of the goings-on in Equestria." He smirked darkly as his advisor exited through the secret passage, then clicked the stone in once more, causing the wall to slide back to its normal shape. There is no greater feeling than seeing a long-term plan finally come to fruition, he thought as he went to unlock the main door to his chamber.
As he sat back down at his desk and pulled over the papers he had swept aside, he heard Celestia's soft hoofsteps approaching the room. He cast a disdainful glance at the Alicorn as she entered the room, his armor and sword clutched by the minimal magic she was capable of utilizing with the intricate steel suppressor ring affixed to her horn.
"About time," he snapped at her as she carefully lowered his pristine equipment onto his bed. "Pack enough in my bags for one week, and be thorough about it. You know what's in store for you should something be missing when I reach the capital."
Celestia bowed her head low and mumbled, "at once, sir," then disappeared into his wardrobe.
Bloodwing returned to the documents he was preparing. If he was to be absent from Canterlot for a week, he needed the proper containment staff notified. After he completed all the instructions which would be sent to various Griffons around the castle and city, he wrote up a brief but precise letter for Avris, who he knew would need little direction on procedures while he was gone. He stood and bound the parchments together with a short length of black string, then pulled a short rope located on the wall next to his desk. Within moments there was a knock on his door. He sauntered over and opened it to see a small messenger Griffon standing at attention.
He glared down his beak at the soldier and bent down close to him. "See that these get to their proper destinations or I will have every last member of your family eviscerated in their sleep," the general hissed darkly. The smaller Griffon accepted the documents with shaking talons and nodded fervently, doing his best to keep his posture straight and tall. It pleased Bloodwing to no end that no matter how many years these peons were under his command, he could still make them quiver in fear. He stood back up at his full height and nodded curtly, and the soldier rushed down the hallway and out of sight.
While closing the door, Bloodwing saw Celestia exiting his wardrobe out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see her carrying an array of silk clothing in various dark shades of red, blue, and black over to his bed in her faint magical grip. He watched as she carefully placed them onto his bed beside the bags she had taken out, methodically folded each article, and placed them all into the bags. It still infuriated him that even after twenty years of abuse and servitude, she still endeavored to carry herself like royalty. He stifled his rage for the moment, as there were more pressing issues to focus on, and turned his attention to his equipment.
As he finished affixing his sword belt, he heard his servant quietly clear her throat behind him. He turned to see her standing before him, head bowed low, his bag held in the air before him.
"I prepared one week's worth of attire, sir." She dared not even raise her head, much less look him in the eye. Bloodwing took the bag from her magical grip and was turning back to put on his sword when he head another muted sound from the Alicorn.
"I begin to tire of your presence, Celestia. You have my permission to speak, but be quick about it before I lose my patience."
Celestia hesitated for a moment before clearing her throat and responding softly, "I was wondering, sir, if I would be accompanying you to the capital."
Bloodwing said nothing at first, but then allowed a long, hearty laugh to burst forth. "Oh, Celestia, that is simply precious. Do you really think I intend to let you within one hundred leagues of the king? I'm sure you'd love to try and convince him of all the terrible things happening to you and your precious ponies, but I'll die before that happens. No. You, my dear, will be staying here in Canterlot. You will attend to Brigadier Avris while I am gone, and you had best serve him just as well as you serve me," he said as he picked up his bag again and placed his helm upon his head.
With that, the hulking Griffon left the room, and Celestia was left to her thoughts. She knew it had been but a fool's hope. Bloodwing would never allow her even a fleeting chance to speak with King Ozarian. She knew far too much about all of the horrific things happening in Equestria to which the king was being kept blind. She also knew it was no mistake that she had seen so much. Everything Bloodwing did concerning her was for the express purpose of making her life a living hell. She had been reduced from being the ruler of a nation to a mere servant girl, forced to follow every whim of a man who took sadistic pleasure in brutally punishing her for even the slightest missteps. She was now forced to spend her days listening to him discuss every terrible thing he did to Equestria and its citizens.
General Varzeros Bloodwing was, at his very core, a ruthless, power-hungry, manipulative, narcissistic demon. Celestia hated him with every fiber of her being, but all of her hate was for naught. There was nothing she could do in her current situation. As she did on most occasions when she was alone, the broken, defeated Alicorn slumped to the floor and broke down into tears. She wept for all of her failures. She wept for letting Equestria fall, for every pony harmed because she hadn't been a better leader, for her sister who she hadn't seen in nearly ten years.
After some long moments, in a masterful show of willpower, she collected herself. She would not let him or anyone else see her cry. She rose to her feet and, knowing that remaining idle for long would earn her a punishment, she set about her normal daily tasks. At least I'll be free of him for a week, she thought to herself as she finished making the general's bed and went about emptying his chamber pot. She knew Avris Grimtalon was a Griffon of honor. She had seen his brief looks of disgust whenever Bloodwing hit her in his presence. Serving him while Bloodwing was away would be the closest thing to freedom she had experienced in over a decade.
With that thought rooted firmly in her head, she continued her cleaning duties, all too eager to watch the general fly off into the night sky.