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Chapter 1: Grace is Gone

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 1: Grace is Gone
“Karma’s a real bitch; you’d be wise to remember that.”

|*| Into the Howling Dark |*|

I could see myself in her blood. With the edges of my mane burning under the fluorescent light, and my face blotted out in its shadows, I was left as little more than a ring of pale gold, like an eclipsed sun casting itself across a great, red sea. The music that had followed me here, as a choir caught in step behind a vagrant priest, stopped, as the Faith pressed so many hymn books shut far below. Their voices still rang out, rising through rock and steel and the very air that might have carried the Stable’s first songs, to touch these cold and administrative places that even their Gods had failed to reach.

The song had come like any sunrise, carrying the Last Light of Equestria on its back, falling over the great cradle in the earth, to stir the sleeping pieces of the old world. And, though the melody was hollow now, I let it push against my heart like a pillow, if only to slow its beat, and take me away from the corpse.

This was a children’s hymn, and I filled in the words as I had once sung them: an orphan in circle with the others, presented like a trained songbird before the faces of unfamiliar parents, all swollen with pride.

Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone’s thinking of me, and loving me tonight.

Somewhere out there, someone’s saying a prayer
That we’ll find one another in that big somewhere out there.

These songs had been my lullabies, and had raised me right along with the veins of scripture from which they were mined, though neither had done enough to convince me of that promised Kingdom of the Skies, or to see me bow before its two astral gatekeepers. But now, I almost wanted to believe.

My Overmare, my Shady Sands, lay slumped on the floor behind her desk, with her head cocked back at a sickening angle, and her body sprawled like that of an outgrown doll. Around her face, which had been drained of all its prettiness and politics, was blood; as if to bead fraying braids in the color of her lone-star cutie mark. Her eyes were wide, screaming, though a third had come, like a sinkhole in the middle of her forehead. It looked to have been carved out, leaving me to stare deeper and deeper into the inside of her.

And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think that we might be wishing on the same bright star.

And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky.

I wanted it to go away. I wanted to shut myself down, to forget the gore painted in pink ribbons on the wall, the smell of death in the air, and the unearthly music driven on by those terrible voices in my head. I would have given anything; I would have fallen to my knees before a devil, to escape it all.

Somewhere out there, if love can see us through
Then we’ll be together, somewhere out there
Out where dreams
Come true.

With a loud, gasping cry, my tears finally came, and I collapsed into the gore; choking on salt and iron. Shady Sands was everywhere, and the taste of her only whipped at my panic, as if it were a beast caught in a thicket. This was nothing like lying beside a hospital bed, as a filly done with the day’s crusading, to watch as life slowly left my mother. This was too fast. It couldn’t have been right. It wasn’t fair.

Hoofsteps broke the roar of silence then, and I let them surround me. My tears turned red as they ran down stained cheeks, soiled as the blood injected itself like a dye, making them heavy and polluted. The faceless ponies dragged me away, but I was no farther from her, for her colors were painted on my face.

*** *** ***

I found myself in a cell, left to marinate in my tears and her blood. I curled up into a ball, as if I couldn’t decide how best to mourn the mare and the mantle fallen from her shoulders. For having hope, the Overmare was dead, and for tipping the scales on an issue that had for so long, and in such seclusion, been snared in conflict; I was buried. A bullet had torn up my ballot, and I knew exactly who to blame.

They had ruined everything. They had clawed up the seed that had been her idea, only a day after I was chosen, to decide whether it should be planted at all, to decide if the Stable was ready to see it grow.

I got up, barely able to stand for passing waves of dizziness, and limped over to the cell bars. Now, pillars of black steel cooled my skin, and I pressed up against them as if it might undo all the wrong that had been done. I whispered to myself at first, rehearsing, and then started to scream.

All language was cut down to its primal root, and I found myself caught in a tantrum, as what could only be an imitation of blind rage swept over me, as if to drown out the frightened little mare who knew that, even for begging and beating her hooves red, she couldn’t get what she wanted. I wanted to be angry, just as I wanted to believe in some divine court, but I couldn’t do it. Like a pony dangling meat at the mouth of an empty lion’s den, I could make myself into nothing more than a fool.

In the hour that followed, I emptied out my voice, and let the silence crowd around me. The paths of red tears streaked down my face like those of clay mascara, even though the anger that I had been so desperate to draw out, to give sovereign rule over my body, remained a mouse.

When the guards came to take up their posts on the far side of the room, wearing dark glass to shield their faces, I did nothing. They might have seen a mare with blood striped across her face and naked chest like war paint, a mare with white fury in her eyes and an animal in her heart, or they might have seen the truth. If they opened the cell door, I wouldn’t resist them, and my mask would fall to pieces.

My throat felt tender, raw, and it hurt me to speak up. “Security!” I whispered to the guards, as if I was afraid of waking the ponies sleeping through the wee small hours below. “Excuse me, sir? … ma’am?” They didn’t stir. “Please, I didn’t do this. Just listen to me… I can explain everything!” They were statues at the foot of a temple, guards before the throne of a Princess. Why would they listen to me? “My name is Grace, and if you give me a chance: I can help you find the Overmare’s killer.”

“I know who did it.” The armored buck, standing to the cell’s left, said: with a face of stone under glass.

“I… I can see why you’d think that. But it wasn’t me! Please!” I was practically begging now.

“I know.”

“What? Did you-” I clicked a hoof against my temple and smiled, as if it had been so obvious. “You arrested Saber already!” Of course! They needed me to testify, to rack up evidence against the head of our Commissary. After all, the buck who would now call himself our leader, for the corpse behind the Overmare’s desk, would not be easy to dethrone. “You might want to let a girl in on the plan next time.” I laughed, with a playful nudge at the bars. “At least before she paints her hooves in bruises.”

Statues at the foot of a counterfeit temple: Guards before the throne of a turncoat tyrant.
“Sir?” But it was no use: They were a part of this. The Commissary had their reins in its hooves, just as it did so much of the Stable below, and it was all too likely that they could not be steered by anyone else, and knew full well that this was not my cell, but their master’s. “Let me talk to him… Get me Saber.”

“Your trial is scheduled for this afternoon. You’ll have your chance to talk then,” The mare said, in a monotone. I’d never seen a Security Officer fully kitted out like this, and it almost seemed like I was in another place entirely: a place that the Commissary ruled as a police state.

For all I knew, the guards might have been scoured of all their compassion, left as little more than tools. “You must know what happened… you must see how wrong this is.” Nothing but mirrored visors, like dead eyes. “Please, you can help me. Shady Sands deserves justice, and Equestria must be reclaimed.”

“Putting you both down before your madness spreads is what’s best for the Stable. You’ll do well to remember that,” The mare concluded, shutting me off. It’s for the good of the Stable. They all used those words as a shield, as if they could shut out the truth, and cast themselves in bronze, to pass as heroes.

They were indoctrinated; the drones to a hive mind. And, without so much as a step out of line, the Commissary would fall in line with Saber’s merciless plan, even if they crushed me under their hooves.

Pity came to make the emotional tangle at the back of my mind into even more of a mess, as I couldn’t even frown at these two ponies: these instruments. After all, they were victims to the same demon that had doomed the Overmare, and I couldn’t hate them for the shadowy hooves that covered their eyes.

I had to reform them - all of them - from the Commissary to the civilians, though the latter knew so little about Shady Sands’ plan: As it had fallen before its time, like wings of wax, for cutthroat politics.

Saber might just leave me to rot, without so much as a villainous speech, as all the ponies below knew nothing of their leader’s death. Come the morning, there would be panic, and he would no doubt mold it into anger, to turn on me as if it were another weapon. And I knew, though Saber might never have heard that first gun going off, he had aimed it at the head of our Stable, and pulled the trigger all the same.

I came into the eye of the storm then, as I was so eager to beat him - so sure that I could fix everything - that all else fell away. I would win back my innocence, and cut the ties that bound puppets to puppetmaster, to see Saber answer for their crimes alone. It wouldn’t be easy, as even the Faith - despite their short and turbulent history: their boycotting of the Artificial Afterlife system and its Karma counting Pipbucks - trusted him to protect them… Almost as surely as they did their own Goddesses.

Sleep would come no easier than it did before Hearth’s Warming Eve, and I dialed through my Pipbuck’s Data section, hoping to sharpen what weapons I had before the coming fight. I paced the cell, as if I was trying to shake off a fever, and cycled through the sprawling list that I’d only put together the night before.

In the years of unemployment that followed my graduation, I had dipped my hooves partway into history, and picked through everything from Future Weapons Today to True Police Stories.

Last night, I might have used evidence of this self-prescribed education, to show Shady Sands that I was ready to be one of her instruments in reclaiming Equestria; that I was ready to begin. And so, when Aloe Vera lied, and said that the Overmare wanted to see me in her office, I had run off with magazines waving at my neighbors from a saddlebag, and memories flooding the banks of my Pipbuck.

Now, I turned to those that I hadn’t yet read, paging through an immense library, in whose shelves the key to this cell was hidden. One log stood out, and I hovered over it, as if it was something to be feared. It was from about a year after the Stable was sealed, and called itself a report on the AAI’s introduction: The birth of the very system that now threatened to cast me out into an uncultivated Equestria.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Log of Autumn Blossom
Year 1, Day 17

About two weeks ago, we had something of a celebration for the Stable’s one year anniversary. It was…nice. Honestly, it was the most normal thing I feel like I’ve done in a while. There was cake and music and games for the children, everyone seemed so happy. But, despite how nice the Stable is, it’s hard to forget why we’re here, and how many aren’t. The Overstallion had some interesting ideas for our schools, to make sure that the children born here <data corrupted>.

Everypony was called into the Atrium this morning, to hear the Overstallion make his big announcement. He explained this Commissary we’ve all been whispering about: sort of a board of advisors to the Overstallion and all his descendants, like a council or a roundtable. They’re here to rein in any despotic rulers, and take some of the weight off the good ones. Nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed a bit too much like the induction of the Ministry Mares to me. But, then again, there’s no war here.

There’s no war here… Celestia, it feels so good to say that.

And that reminds me. One thing I noticed in orientation last year, is that the ponies here are all very… contemporary. In a group this big, you’d expect to find at least a dozen followers of some old religion. But not here. You might not know what I mean. I’m sure talk of all things holy must have fallen away by now… by then. But anyway: to us, it was like a very loud, very colorful, piece was missing from the puzzle.

What the Overstallion said next… well, it sort of explained that. But I still have to wonder if the religious weren’t turned away from this place. I suppose that wouldn’t be so bad. Zion has <data corrupted>.

Those Karma counters finally make sense now. But, to be honest, they frighten me a little. To know what’s hidden behind that smiling buck: a gauge, a measure of our worth as ponies, is kind of eerie. Especially considering what’s at stake after retirement… the Artificial Afterlife, as the Overstallion put it.

It might be some time before we see it put to use, unless the worst should happen, but it’s clear that the system was based on one of those abandoned religions… Ideologically, the two couldn’t be more different, though: Facts in place of Faith, machines instead of Gods. Like I said, it’s a little creepy.

It goes a little something like this: At retirement, a neutral karmic score doesn’t get you much more than a pat on the head and an encouraging ‘try again next year’. While the punishment for a negative score isn’t all that different from old world exile… Can you believe we’re already calling it that? The Old World.

The idea of Ascension got rooted in us deep, and it finally explained the elevator on the upper level. Apparently, it leads to an entirely sealed off floor of the Stable… where some of the most advanced pieces of Equestrian technology wait for those who are granted the freedom, the right, to use them.

He called them Stasis Pods, and said there are hundreds upon hundreds waiting for the best of our generation, and every generation to come. So that, when the steel door of the Stable finally rolls open for good, the new Equestria will be filled with the purest of heart, woken as if it had only been a night’s sleep. I’ll say that makes for a better start than a couple of warring tribes fighting over which flag to plant.

The electricity that passed through us then didn’t suffer much as the Overstallion went into detail, even though he said that the threshold for Ascension is no easy thing to meet. Your score would have to be exceptional. Still, I’ve never seen a room of ponies so excited. And why not? Life in a new world, to be born again… kind of puts the old religions into perspective. I can’t say there weren’t stars in my eyes.

In any case, the database will remain open for a while longer, but I think this should be my last public log. If I had to leave anything for the next few generations to read, I’m sure my stories of growing up in the Plains will be more than enough to give you my picture of the world before the megaspells. If you’re looking for pre-war material, Boulder put up plenty of his stories, and I’d recommend those.

Happy Reading fellow citizen, I have to admire you for your interest in this dusty old past.
Maybe if we’re both lucky, I’ll see you after the doors open… in the new Equestria.

Autumn Blossom

---------------- --------- ---------------

I had to wonder if Autumn Blossom could be somewhere down there, waiting to wake with Equestria, and I couldn’t blame her for how little her last log had helped me. I felt bad enough knowing that her paradise might never come, as all those that tried to carry her closer to it were fated to end up dead or damned.

But not if I win.

One of the guards came back from their break with something for me to eat, but the taste of salt and iron made the meal difficult to enjoy. And besides that: it was nutrient paste, plain and undisguised.

The Security wing made for a good distraction and, as I ate, I explored the unfamiliar room with my eyes. Being Little Gracie Goodyear, I hadn’t come anywhere near the Stable’s brig before, and even during the Great Ethanol Epidemic, which had been a dark season for my graduating class, I hadn’t seen this side of the bars. As far as I remembered, this was the first place that I was visiting for the first time, and I was glad to have something to think about other than my aching stomach, the coming trial, and the corpse.

An announcement was made over the Stable PA system, and its muffled voice was all that I could use to divide that long morning. They were no doubt making the Overmare’s murder public, painting me as a killer, and crowning Saber as our king through the chaos. I didn’t know what happened when our bluest bloodline ran dry, but I could guess that the Commissary would take their time working through the paperwork, with their flanks sinking deeper into the cushioning of thrones all the while.

The hurt in my stomach only got worse at the thought, and I went looking for comfort at the bottom of my Pipbuck’s databanks. The next log that caught my attention was called The First Damnation, and a part of me knew that opening it would be a mistake.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Log of: Crane
Year 1, Day 306

I can’t think of anything that’s more important to record than this. Round about ten months ago we got introduced to the Commissary, and the AAI system came right along with them – that’s the Artificial Afterlife Incorporation System, in case you all aren’t calling it that anymore – and it showed its teeth yesterday. Couldn’t have asked for a cleaner first impression, let me tell you. Ponies were worried that they’d boot someone out just for show, to get us set on how the system works, we were afraid that the bar wouldn’t be set low enough. But it just got set real low… real fucking low.

Billington snapped: Just lost it. I’d almost feel sorry for her… But you don’t get my sympathy after you kill a filly. I’ve seen ponies fall from grace before, back when the world was tipping over the edge, but this was just sick. That bitch murdered a little girl, someone’s daughter! If we were anywhere but here… I’d have seen her hang. But she might as well be strung up on a noose now. You can almost hear Equestria burning outside. Storms will tear her up as soon as she crawls her way out of the earth. Or she’ll starve. Either fucking way: Nothing less than she deserves for little Abellene.

Doesn’t look like this AAI thing is gonna work with trials much, so no lawyers and the like. The Overstallion and Commissary acted as judge and jury, now it’s left to whatever’s out there to play executioner. They kept Billington in a holding cell for the night, and then made a show of Damning her in the morning. Pretty private, for the most part. They gave us more evidence than we needed; made sure we understood that she was guilty. But that was pretty damn clear. She just sat there, quiet through the whole show, until she broke down and tried to apologize near the end. Don’t know who she expects forgiveness from, ‘cause she’s not getting it from us.

The Commissary did a good job making sure we were happy. We had our doubts about them, about this whole system. Wasn’t expecting the Stable to be more than just a big bomb shelter. But they earned their place today. I’m not about to doubt these ponies when it comes to the law, not after this. Most of us saw her do it anyway, so her goose was pretty well cooked. Still, I can appreciate a good show.

Marched her out through the aisles, towards the airlock. They even encouraged us to watch as that psycho was dragged to her doom. She just cried. I wanted an explanation, a reason behind dashing a little filly’s head open against the Stable floor. But it almost looked like she couldn’t even tell herself. I’m just glad she couldn’t get out of this on some kind of insanity plea.

The Overstallion talked us through it, told us that he understood what we were going through. The first few years are gonna be tough, he said. We have to adjust. To forget everything we saw out there. Maybe he wants us to write our worst stories here so we have a place to put them besides our heads. But the Great War has a way of burrowing in deep.

That bitch got what she deserved. Just thought I’d take the time to say that. I’m going to little Abellene’s remembrance ceremony, to put this behind me, to let the anger lie, and give our support to that poor filly’s parents. If anyone knows why Billington did it, post something while the database is open, would you?
I know I’d really like to find out.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Billington had been the first Damnation and, had we managed to open the Stable doors and end this, my father would have forever remained the last. I had never dared to look for a record on him, and could only imagine the kind of anger, the kind of disgust, that might have been left in the database for his sake.

I was trying to lose track of time, but each second might as well have whipped me across the back, drawing a prisoner’s calendar of wounds. I had no idea when the trial would start… until it did.

Almost at once, the guards drew their 10mm pistols with magic and muzzle. It was kind of funny, that they would so readily walk me to damnation for such a bloody and ballistic crime, and yet, couldn’t imagine that I might wrestle the weapons from their grip, and take them into my own magic. I had to believe that the Stable would look at me in the same way, as a mare who couldn’t even flirt with violence.

But they might remember me differently, as I’d had something of a crush on those hardnosed Tri-beam laser rifles, and even tried to build one of my own as a filly. With it, I had charged through the Stable: a girl at war with nopony in particular. The weapon - if that - was really a collection of cardboard strips and discarded mechanical parts from the lower floor, taped together over half a broomstick. Just as the schematics I’d drawn up, in the most intimidating shade of crayon that I could find, had instructed.

As the buck, whose mouth had closed around a key, worked at the cell door, I had to watch my naked gray reflection bloat in his visor; to make an unpolished silver dollar of my face, and leave two shiny bits in place of my eyes. Though, like my hair, they lost their gold to brown for the reflection’s tint.

My mane had great potential, according to my mother, and she had often styled it to mirror her own, which was in itself inspired by the mares of magazine covers and advertisements. I always ended up looking a little more like the shaken up temptresses, distracting readers from the very products they sold, than those trying to promote things more wholesomely. But this was more a curse to my mother than it was to me. I kind of preferred my layers of swept up bangs and disobedient sides to the solid helmets that were standard issue to those no-nonsense soldiers on the front lines of domestic warfare.

Ever since I’d started taking care of myself, it had been free to curl at its untamed edges, despite the occasionally haircut to keep in line with a well ingrained sense of length. I may have forgotten my mother’s opinions on ponies’ with a mane that turned every direction but down, but Long-haired mares are just waiting to be shared was a warning that had stuck with me, if only because it was fun to say.

“Don’t try anything,” The buck warned, getting me out of my hair, and out of my head. “It’ll be over soon.” I thought I might be trusted to follow them, but then he clamped a heavy shackle around my neck, chaining me to his partner’s barding, leashing me like a rabid dog on its way to be put down.

*** *** ***

It was like the verdict had already been read, as I stood before a sea of angry faces, where my neighbors had been waiting in rows. Some screamed Murderer, while others spat profane slurs and gibberish, as if they’d invented an ugly language just for the sake of hating me. A few simply glared at me in heated silence, and to them I was nothing but a killer, as I heard one terrible whisper pass through the Atrium: Daughter of the Damned.

Even now, they could only say the words under their breath, as if they were still afraid of him.
Daughter of the Damned, as if it was a crime to have called a criminal, long since condemned: Father.

It was only then that I began to see how easily they had come to detest me. The black heart cast across my chest – as some ponies seemed to think that black hearts were inherited just as plainly as fair hair - was enough evidence to turn them into something like a lynch mob, and it was almost as if they had been waiting for this day, looking forward to the moment when all their suspicions could be said to ring true, and I revealed myself as a poison apple fallen from an infamous and infected tree.

Tears drowned them out, blotting their faces behind a thin veil. Crying could only make me look guiltier, especially as it dampened all the blood that had dried into a scarce pattern across my coat, but I very nearly didn’t care. My Stable, my home, did not want to see me damned: they wanted me dead.

But I had to tell them. I had to spread the plan of a murdered mare, if only to see the idea falling on more ears than the Commissary’s and mine. Only I had been pulled into the political storm that surrounded Shady’s steps towards a brave new world, a country rebuilt, tended under the Stable’s care. And only I, for an old friendship between two fillies, had been given the power to push her over the edge of change, or pull her back to the Commissary’s side, where the Stable was treated like a butterfly in a glass case.

“I understand your anger, I do. But to keep our heads clear, and our eyes clouded, is the only way to see justice.” Saber’s horn lit up, as he began to talk in a tired voice that came as if from everywhere at once, nothing like the one, swollen with cool arrogance, that I’d heard at the presentation yesterday.

He was an old buck, with a mane that had gone gray before Shady Sand’s and I had our first birthdays, and could look as frail as a beggar when he needed to. Even the blue of his coat had started to wash out, like a dye, but there was still a terrible light in his eyes, as tireless fires burned beneath the ice.

“Thank you, thank you all. We are gathered in the wake of a great tragedy. But we are bound for our laws, and to the memory of our Overmare, Shady Sands. Whose light was put out far too soon after her father’s.” The word father was enough to send a shiver through the Stable, be it for fresh grief, or old fear. “I was to be ascended in the weeks to come. But I am bound in the place of our stolen leaders, until a new family comes into the Overmare’s chambers… So you see, we all have our bindings.”

“It has been some time since our last trial - almost two decades, I believe - and though we have such a… similar pony standing before the doorstep, I will steer us through these bitter proceedings.” That was low. “Once I have opened the case, our chief of security will walk us all through the evidence.” I saw a pistol and a bloody round set out beside Chief Silverback, who I knew to be more like a bear than a bull.

“After him, we will hear testimony from a civilian witness.” This had to be Aloe Vera, the pony that had sent me to the crime scene the night before, on the word of a mare who was already dead. “The suspect too, will have her chance to speak from where she is chained.”

He turned to me, and the arctic light of his flat eyes and megaphone magic was enough to make me shiver. “This is, of course, optional. But if you should decide to use this time, then choose your words well, as they will be the last that you speak to the ponies of Equestria’s Last Light.” I didn’t feel any need to interrupt, and kept waiting. For now I had to act innocent - to be innocent - for fear of emotions that might paint me as a madmare… Or worse: my father’s daughter.

“The Faith never took to our suspect, though her parents were both followers. Few of you know her, and none call her a colleague. The crime for which she is now on trial was committed last night in Ms. Sands’ office, soon after a messenger, sent by the Overmare, asked her to the office.” He waved a hoof towards Aloe Vera on the bench. “Misses Vera was that messenger.” But it wasn’t Shady Sands that sent her

“The murder weapon,” He began, after drawing the 45 automatic pistol, which seemed to catch all of the Atrium’s light at once, “Has never been on the Stable’s ordinance records, but is known only for its part in a previous trial… the previous trial: The last Damnation.” Oh no. “Make of that what you will.”

A Father’s sins… pass to his son. It was written on the walls now, as the Faith’s scripture had put it into words. All my life, their eyes had lingered on me, but now they could stare me down like a swollen piece of livestock, seeing me for the sinner whose sins I had never known. Still, as I looked back into the light of Saber’s horn, I knew not to do anything stupid. Better to behave.

“The bullet,” He said, as it rose like a little yellow star on the fabric of some icy nebula. “pierced her skull. And though this crime was brutal, our Overmare’s death would have been painless.” To this, a few ponies in the crowd bowed their heads, as Saber wove Chief Silverback to his side. “Now, let’s begin…”

His horn stopped glowing as he stepped back, and I felt something like hatred rise in tides towards the old buck. I had respected him once, but now saw the murderer for what he was: a monster, with law shut up in its mouth. I pulled against my chains, only to be yanked back into place by the mare who anchored me.
I wanted to get him, to hurt him. But the steel held tight, and I was afraid that they might see me fighting.

Chief Silverback towered over the pedestal, and began to speak. His voice could not match Saber’s, and it was clear that the far edge of the audience couldn’t quite hear him. Saber crept up to the larger buck’s side, and his horn lit up, taking to the chief’s voice like a knife to hot butter, spreading it across the Atrium.

I stopped pulling at my chains, and came into a soldier’s stance. As if I could only be an animal or a statue, I felt the savagery inside me die out, and became still. I needed to follow procedure. I needed to behave. This was the best way to save the Stable: Standing here, covered in her blood. I was the best piece of evidence Saber could have asked for, and the trial went on only to beat a dead horse.

As Silverback returned to his post beside the stage, Saber’s magic flickered out, and everything in my head was turned upside down. Anger came flaring up again, and I realized that it had been walled off at the back of my mind, gnawing at whatever leash was binding it, becoming an unbearable, dull pulse.

I had to stop this. I couldn’t wait. I had to tell everypony the truth. I was about to call out to them, to scream anything that might relay even a piece of Shady Sands, but then Saber started to speak, and the desire was washed away by his magic. He was doing something to me, pacifying me… Controlling me.

His shackles closed around my body, and now that I knew to look for them, it was like they were choking me: bending my bones out of place. I could barely squirm, as the tip of his horn came to shine as if it had pierced the first star. I was trapped, and no one could see it. I was bound. He had put on the perfect show, for ponies who were more than happy to play the part of fools. The entire trial was forfeit.

*** *** ***

By the time Aloe Vera had given her testimony, which would have been rehearsed like any play and recited like any sermon in the light of Saber’s horn, I felt as if my insides were tearing themselves apart, for how many times I’d been thrown from obedience to a clot of emotions that I could only call madness.

“Now, if she so chooses, the suspect will have her chance to deny these charges, or confess to them.” Saber looked over to me, and his face was empty of all emotion, icy as his eyes.

The struggle might have come bursting out of me then, as a bloody and faceless animal in its own right. Screams, all chained to a post, fought to be heard, coming together in one final charge. They melted into each other, becoming little more than red noise; a headache and a fever. And, just as I was about to suffer what felt like a brain hemorrhage for the pressure: his horn stopped glowing, and it all came out.

He must have seen it in my eyes, the desperation, and turned it loose like a lion with neither teeth nor claw. I was rearing and bucking then, pulling on the chain that bound me to the Security mare, who I threw to the ground in my frenzy. There were no words, no meaning to my screams, only what had to be a boiling reservoir of fear and loathing, breaking through a weary dam.

I couldn’t stop it. But then, almost as quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even as I wrestled for control over my spasmodic body, replacing his shackles with my own, Saber locked me back into place, as if sliding a chess piece to the edge of the board. He had released me, if only to let me finish digging my own grave.

The Stable was quiet now. There were no cheers, no fits of applause, as ponies slid back into their stalls, as if their spines had been untethered. I must have looked insane, like a wild animal…like a murderer. And to Saber, I looked perfect.

He turned back to the jurors - smaller heads on the hydra that was the Commissary - ready to receive their verdict. But it was all too clear. We were all ready for me to leave… desperate for me to leave.
Still as cold as ever, he nodded. “We’ll take that as a confession.”

I gathered my courage, and looked out over the crowd, singling out the colorless face of Nurse Clearheart, who I had come to know after being taken under the wing of Doctor Cross, through my volunteer work in her serene hospital. Together, we had fantasies of playing captain to the medical bay, standing over the table and dreaming. I still had the strength to find her in the crowd, reaching out with my eyes, but there was nothing I could do to change the fact that she looked away.

I stood before all the ponies that might be left to the world, clothed only for the blood of their leader, as a target for all their blame. I loved the Stable, despite it all, and wanted nothing more than to fix it. As if a lie could be treated with medicine, flushed out like any disease. But I knew, just as surely as Saber’s magic kept me bound in my own mind: I was going to be damned.

We were done. It was over.

*** *** ***

“You may walk the path of sin for a time… but change your first hoofstep out into the darkness, bear your cross, and you might still be welcomed to the Kingdom of the Skies. Before you: waits the undiscovered country of both Sun and Moon, but before that: waits the abandoned country, where the skies are empty.”

The Confessor’s words rang out like bells over the sound of beating drums, as the unicorns of the Faith played out a slow and steady beat with their horns, which quickened for every hoofstep we took towards the airlock. This was the music they played for the damned. “May the virtues that were given to us by the Goddesses find you - just as they did our earliest, quarrelling ancestors - and lead you to absolution, just as we were once united under their great, Equestrian banner.”

I closed my eyes, trying to block it all out. This was the way it ended, but it didn’t have to be the way I remembered it. “The Goddesses are nothing if not forgiving, and they would steer you, if only you would let them. Please, do better than those who came before: those lost souls who tore the world apart.”

The Faith had begun generations ago, after earning religious freedom through something very much like a revolution. The Stable would have been an entirely different place then, with the fires of civil cold war drawing lines between those believed, and those who followed no doctrine but our design. And yet I found myself wishing to have been a soldier in that conflict instead, if only so I wouldn’t have to fight alone.

After we’d reached the end of that unending hallway, where all the voices I could never hear again echoed, the guards removed my collar, to let deep bruises breathe. I had made those marks for my own violent outburst, and even as they removed the snare, I could tell how gentle they were trying to be.

They knew that I was innocent… and were good ponies, after all. Chief Silverback looked back at me, as the airlock door slid open, and sighed. I wasn’t sure if I was crying, but my eyes felt wet and sore. “I hate that it had to be you.” Of course he had his hooves in this: The whole Commissary did. “I really do.”

“How many knew…all of you?” I asked softly, to which he just nodded. “And you would just stand for this? I felt like I had been screaming for hours on end, though I hadn’t even been allowed that.

“These are the means to an end, ma’am. But I know that, from where you’re standing, it must seem like the game was rigged from the start… Truth is, it’s just an 18 carat string of bad luck.”

“I’m not going to die out there,” I decided, feeling like a filly with my eyes at his chest. Saber had only saved the Stable through death and deceit, sloughing off its ideals like a molting insect, leaving all that defined us as Equestria’s last light behind. “I’m going to follow the path that Saber buried in the sand.” The ends did not justify the means, and he would have to live with that. “I’m going to beat him.”

It would be wrong to start calling myself The Last Light of Equestria, but I couldn’t help thinking it then, as The Stable was being cradled like a candle against the storm. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on it. “With the whole Stable together, we could’ve faced whatever stands between Equestria and the dawn. Why couldn’t we have sent scouts? Why couldn’t we try?”

He shook his head. “An idea is a powerful thing; and nothing mattered more than stopping the Overmare from sharing hers. You know that Saber tried talking her out of it but, in the end, we did what had to be done: We protected the Stable. Trust me, I’d do anything to say it didn’t have to come to this.”

“It didn’t.”

The chief had no response to that but a sad look, as if he knew my limits better than I did. I’d never felt so driven to do something, so desperate to prove myself, and I wasn’t surprised to find that I was, if not eager to leave, then eager to begin. “I left you some things in the airlock… had to do something.”

I stayed quiet. “They were your father’s. Confiscated on the day he was damned. I got it all out of storage right along with the pistol, figured I’d owe you… that we all would.” The guards had backed away, but I could still feel them watching. “I packed the saddlebags for you. You don’t have to take them, but I want you to survive out there. And it looks like padre put it all together with the same idea.”

I knew that this would be my last chance to find out how my father had come to beat this path for me, but I shut myself up, deciding that it would be better to let this place sink into the earth behind me, so that I might truly begin again.

Silverback drew out the pistol that had killed her, that had paved this road, and I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it was up close. It was silver, with its hilt speckled in a cluster of golden dots, like an edgeless field of stars spread out over the darkness. It had an inscription running along its length, written in the ancient language that I had only ever been able to read in small pieces.

“Don’t know what the weather's like up there. But you should get dressed before strapping this on in a holster.” I looked back over my naked body, taking in all the stains and bruises of this last day, and the cryptic cutie mark that might have its meaning buried in lines of scripture or some foreign library. Still, I had come to like the pretty pair of ones, and even the dot that hovered between them like a distant sun.

“One last thing.” He grabbed my hoof, even as I tried to step out into the airlock. “There are a few things that I should show you on your Pipbuck… might help keep you alive.” After looking up into his eyes for a moment, and realizing that the old buck was trying to dry out some of the guiltiness there, I let him turn the device’s screen over to face him. “Okay… let’s start with S.A.T.S.”

*** *** ***

His clothes fit me well and, with them on, I almost felt ready for what came next. First, I had dressed myself in a collared shirt, which had broken circles stitched into the pale and papery fabric of its shoulders. Its collar was stiff, and curled at the edges like old parchment. Next, came one of the same vests that all active Security officers wore, though this one had been beaten down to a dusty brown, and its edges looked to have become a grave to that dead language.

Over both, came the coat, which was a few shades lighter, and collared around my neck in a thick ring. It was long enough to cover my cutie mark, and even replaced it with a simple cross tilted on its arm. My father’s pistol was holstered at my side, just as my mother’s locket had always hung over my heart; to see us brave our abandoned country together, as a family long since torn apart by death and damnation.

It was time to go. There would be no more silver hallways, wearing yellow borders like surgical scars, no more volunteer work in the whitewashed medical wing to fill the empty days. No more sermons with the Confessor and his congregation, who flooded the lower atrium under a frail tide of gold, with their mock candlelight burning at the tips of a few scattered unicorn horns.

The world outside, however, might only be darkness. And the spells that I’d once used to escape this place through midnight stories or imagined adventures, to break out of its steel walls, could end up being my only guide against a waterlogged sun, setting over a country whose power lay in so many pieces.

But, despite it all, I felt ready to leave. I’d grown up as far as up goes here. But I was stuck in the past now more than ever, recycling the younger days of both Equestria and II was buried in myself and my country, with nothing else to guide me, to steer me through life, like a parent, or a God.

They would always be happy here. Be it despite me, or without me. The door stirred, and seemed to shake the entire Stable by the shoulders as it woke. I could hear something hissing, as the insides of this ancient thing were put to work, and the atmosphere of the room might have been warped, like that of a bubble pressing against a nail, as soon as the great cog clicked its way out of place.

The door lorded over me, before rolling away like a drunk king, to reveal the darkness of the outlands: to show me the line between everything and nothing. I had no reason to stay: no reason to hesitate, and fear fell away even as I stared down the unending black beast, swallowing its own tail. Goodnight, the Stable groaned into its pillow, as I stepped out into the howling dark, to make the most of my damnation.




Footnote: Level up!
Perk Added: Daughter of the Damned: The poison apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You gain +5 in small guns and +5 in explosives.