CHAPTER 19: A Day with the Darkness (Part 1)
“Good heavens, this place is filthy.”
Temperament looked back at Rarity, then around the smithy. “Not really. This is actually pretty good all things considered. I cleaned it, like, three weeks ago.”
“Three weeks?!” Rarity squealed. She leaped off the floor onto a nearby table. “And I've been stepping in it? Oh, it'll take so long to clean this mud and soot off.”
“Why even bother? You'll just get dirty again later.
“Why bother? Why bother? Have you heard of hygiene? Of being presentable?”
“I think you forget where you are. You don't need to look fancy for anyone. They couldn't care less about what you look like as long as you do as you're supposed to. But let's get off this topic, it's not why we're here. I'm here to teach you a lesson.”
“And what's that supposed to mean? If you even dare to lay a hoof on me, I'll have you know that I can handle myself despite my ladylike appearances.”
“What? My goodness, how thick are you? If I wanted to imply that I was going to hurt you, I would have said 'I'm going to beat you up.' No use beating around the bush, pardon the pun. Just get over here and bear with me. I'd have left you in the camp if Lustrous didn't want me to talk to you.
Rarity gave a sigh and made several complaints just loud enough to be heard, but finally relented when Temperament didn't seem to hear.
“Today, you're going to learn how to forge a sword.”
“Really? That's what we're here for? But it's so garish. Not really my style.”
“I'm called Temperament for two reasons. Firstly because I'm a blacksmith, and I temper metal. Secondly because I can keep my emotions under control. But you're sure pushing the right buttons. Just sit down and shut up.”
Rarity sat, pouting. Looked like her usual tactic of putting on a show wasn't going to help here.
“Do you understand how this works? Why it's even necessary to heat up the metal?”
“It makes it soft enough to bend into the right shape, correct?”
“Partially, but it goes further than that.” Temperament levitated the coins she had sharked out of the Reality ponies earlier. “This is refined gold.” She lifted a rather dirty rock that had gold streaks through it. “This is gold ore. Now, how do you suppose the gold gets from the rock to the coin?”
Rarity thought for a moment. “Well, I suppose it might work like gemstones. You just dig around for a bit and then pick them up out of the ground?”
She flinched as one of the coins struck her in the forehead.
“No. Maybe that's how it works where you come from, but around here you have to rip the metals and gems out of the earth, as was intended by nature. She doesn't like giving up anything to you. And that's a fact you better get used to, because it's how it'll work once the worlds are merged.”
Temperament turned and picked up a large mallet, shattering the rock with a crushing blow. She hit again and again until after some time the rock was pulverized into dust, the gold in flecks throughout.
“So what, you pick them out of it now? That must take forever.”
“That's exactly why we don't.” Temperament scooped up the gold infused powder into a stone bowl, which she placed in the embers of the forge. She pumped the bellows, and the coals roared to life, the heat making Rarity retreat a step or two.
“Just to make the process go faster, I'll throw in some of this.” Temperament took some sort of white powder and threw it into the fire, which burned even brighter and hotter.
She wiped some sweat off of her brow, turning to Rarity. “The thing is, the rock itself is valuable. But the purified gold is worth even more. Why is that? It's because of what it's been through. It's been stripped away from all the extra weight, all the useless impurities that distract you from the real value. Only by putting it through a trial by fire can it be purified and reach its full potential.”
She reached in with some tongs, pulling the bowl out. Inside lay nothing but the molten gold, which gleamed in the morning light. Rarity was fascinated.
“I thought all a blacksmith did was get sweaty and smell bad!”
“Well, you must have seen some of their finished work before.” Temperament grabbed a nearby dagger, and held it up for Rarity to see. “Look at it. Feel the weight, the balance, the sophistication in such a small tool. The power to hurt, yet also the power to protect. Don't you dare tell me that's not beautiful.”
Rarity looked at herself in the reflection of the flawless blade. On one side of the ridge running down the center, she could see the cut caused by Lustrous Revolt, with the memories of the pain associated. On the other was her usual beautiful self. But on both sides, the eyes had lost some of their usual glimmer, and had been replaced with a greater knowledge.
“It is... it is rather beautiful isn't it?” She managed to croak out. It had finally hit her. This wasn't some game. Not another grand old adventure that she'd return from unscarred. Literally, judging by the cut.
“Now, by comparison, look at this blade. Compare it to the other.”
Rarity held them side by side. “I see no difference.”
“That's the point. On the outside, they look exactly the same. But on the inside...” Temperament grabbed the second blade from Rarity's magical grasp and slashed towards the fashionable unicorn. Rarity, acting on instinct alone, parried with a slash of her own. The blades met with a resounding clang, and Temperament's cracked and broke at the point of impact.
“You... you attacked me!”
Temperament gave a coy smile. “If you avoid trials and ignore your imperfections, you'll be just like that blade. Brittle and weak. You'll crack under any pressure. But if you embrace the pain, not reveling in it but growing stronger instead, realizing at some point you will be pulled out of the metaphorical fire, you will become not only useful but desirable.” She held up the shattered dagger. “This was made by my younger sister, who isn't much of a smith as you can see.” She held up the second, strong dagger. “This was made by me, just before I came to pick you up. They look identical, to the point where some might get them mixed up. The only difference is a master's touch.”
Temperament gave a smile. A warm, true smile. “Would you like to try making one of your own?”
Rarity grinned. Maybe her reflection wasn't so bad after all. “Of course.”
“I'll have to charge for materials.”
“...And that's pretty much the whole camp. It's not much to look at but it doesn't need to be, does it? It's not like the prisoners are paying us to make it a high class hotel.”
Fluttershy remained silent, as she had the entire tour.
Shuddercry waved a hoof in dismissal. “Might as well be talking to a wall. I liked you better when you were feisty.”
A sudden commotion came from one of the barracks. One of the guards hauled out a griffon, throwing him to the ground and pulling his rifle on him. The rest of the griffons around the camp gathered to watch, Gilda pulling up behind Fluttershy.
“Where'd you get this?” The guard demanded, levitating a small tool. Wire cutters.
The griffon said nothing, looking at the guard with no emotion. Not defiance, not fear, nothing.
Shuddercry grinned. “Alright, finally something worthwhile.” She led Fluttershy over to the conflict.
The guard threw the cutters into the ground where they stuck with a dull thud, and picked up the griffon by the scruff of his neck. “Answer me!” After receiving no reply, the guard scoffed in disgust, and dropped the griffon once again.
“What's the trouble private?”
The guard snapped to attention as he saw his superior. “Shuddercry, sir! The prisoner was found in possession of a pair of wire cutters, near one of the fences. His intent was clear, sir, but it seemed he was spooked before I had time to approach him, and he returned to his bunk. I caught up with him before he had time to hide the cutters again and brought him outside, sir.”
“Very well. Stand down private.”
Shuddercry stepped forward, her eyes peering darkly from underneath her helmet. “Come with me, filth.”
Within a minute they were in one of the cement buildings. Fluttershy felt oppressed in here. It was instinct for pegasi to keep more than one exit open. It's what allowed them to live in the olden days before the princesses brought peace to Equestria. But in this dark room, the same one Twilight had described, there was one way in and only one way out. And that one way out was protected by two serious looking guards. Fluttershy felt like she was between a rock and a hard place. Her reflection being the hard place.
“What am I to do with you?” Shuddercry asked the Griffon. He made no indication that he heard anything. “Usually the penalty for attempted escape is a good beating, but the possession of wire cutters complicates the issue. That merits death.”
She strode around the griffon, looking him over coolly. “But if I kill him, he might become a martyr for the rest of the prisoners. A standard to rally around in rebellion, though it might also further subdue them. But if I show mercy, they could just as easily lose their fear and respect in me. I have to run a tight camp or else the entire thing will fall apart. ”
She turned to Fluttershy. “What do you think I should do?”
Fluttershy looked down at the ground. What could she say? She was just as much of a prisoner as this griffon was. She had no authority to demand that Shuddercry show kindness, nor would it help her case to ask. Shuddercry already thought her weak. Perhaps she was right. She was powerless to help.
No. She wouldn't be powerless anymore. She had to at least try.
“Let him go.”
“Let him go? Why should I?”
“If you were in his position, wouldn't you try to run? You don't feed them, they have the constant threat of pain, and they're simply trying to fight for survival. Have a heart. He's just desperate.”
“Nevertheless, the law has been broken. And the law demands justice. He knew that if he tried to run and was caught, there would be consequences. As did any cohorts he may have had in the matter. Our prisoners in their camps understand and live by the same rules.”
“Be the better person! Kindness never goes unrewarded.”
“Oh, of course not. Around here it usually means you'll get your rear kicked. Well, you helped me make up my mind. He gets the beating.”
Shuddercry struck out, the crack of her whip echoing around the darkness. The griffon recoiled, but stood strong. The red gash shone against his white feathers, but his eyes shone stronger. Not a peep escaped his beak.
Again Shuddercry struck. Then again.
Fluttershy had seen enough. “Stop! Stop hurting him!” The memory of her own single cut still was fresh in her mind, and each crack in the air might as well have landed on her.
“Well, somebody's got to pay for the crime.” Shuddercry said, not even giving a glance back. “Hey, griffon, maybe one of your friends could take the beating instead? No? I thought not. He seems perfectly fine to me, Fluttershy. You just sit tight. We'll be done in a moment.”
Fluttershy was in tears now. “Don't hurt him,” she begged. “He doesn't deserve it!”
Shuddercry spun unexpectedly, glowering at Fluttershy. “BUT HE DOES! HE AND EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE GRIFFONS DESERVES A PAINFUL, TORTUROUS DEATH! I HAVE SEEN MY COMRADES, THE CLOSEST PONIES I COULD COME TO CALL FRIENDS, FALL AT THESE VERMIN'S CLAWS!” She struck the griffon again. “MY LIFE IS NOTHING BUT A CONSTANT STRUGGLE.” Shuddercry paced back and forth, glaring at the ground.
“You asked if I would try to escape, if I were in his position...” Shuddercry whispered. She locked Fluttershy's eyes. “I am in the same position. This world is nothing but a prison for us reflections. And the Griffons might as well be our wardens. They fight constantly to prevent us from entering a paradise, the world of promise that we deserve. The freedom from our troubles. So yes, I would try to escape. And I am. In the end, whether this griffon lives or dies means squat. The same goes for each and every one of us here in this Forgotten Realm. Because there is no progression here. We're caught in a state of limbo, an eternal struggle for power betwixt the cities and the races. While you 'Reality' ponies rest on a throne of blessings paid for by us.”
She stepped back, pointing at the weakened griffon with her whip. “Fluttershy, I've just thought of a way you can save him. You ask that he be shown mercy. Yet he broke the terms of conflict, and so the price must be paid. If not him, then who? Perhaps you?”
Fluttershy stumbled backwards. “What, what do you mean?”
“I mean you can take his place. We release him back into the camp, heck, maybe back into his city. But you'll take the beating. Could you do that? Pay the price of another's sins?”
“Could you allow yourself to be hurt for another when you yourself are completely innocent?” The whip struck the air again.
Fluttershy swallowed. The pain. That cut. It flared even now, just at the memory.
“Would you give up your life for his?”
Fluttershy looked desperately at the griffon. His eyes met hers, full of sorrow and yet the tiniest spark of hope.
“I... I...” Fluttershy dropped the gaze. “I can't.”
Shuddercry let out a sadistic smile. “Then watch. And know this is your decision.”
The whip rose once more, striking and striking and striking as Fluttershy wept. There was no other noise. The griffon gave out no cry. Gave no objection. Only his eyes spoke. His eyes, which were now void of hope, and quickly enough, life.
Shuddercry wiped some sweat off her brow. “Maybe I should have used something that would have ended it faster, but then there's no satisfaction.” She helped Fluttershy stand, who pulled away from her instantly.
“You... you monster.”
Shuddercry raised a brow. “Perhaps I am. But, when you're throwing insults around, always make sure to check the mirror first. After all, I am your reflection. We have a lot more in common than just appearance.”
She opened the door, and herded Fluttershy out. The guards stepped forward to retrieve the lifeless body of the griffon.
They stepped out of the cold darkness into the colder light of the camp. Shuddercry paused for a moment, then turned to Fluttershy. “Tell me, why is it so wrong for us reflections to hunger for the blessings of your world? Just as you didn't deserve the beating, you don't deserve the joy that we've taken the beating for.”
She pushed Fluttershy forward into the arms of Gilda, who had waited for news of her comrade. “Perhaps someday you'll understand Fluttershy. Someday you'll have a spine. Until then, try to stay out of my sight.” Shuddercry stepped back inside, slamming the door for emphasis.
Gilda helped Fluttershy to her hooves. She lifted Fluttershy's chin with a gentle touch. “Hey, at least you got her on a good day.”