• Published 19th May 2020
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Rekindled Embers - applezombi



Hundreds of years after the death of Twilight Sparkle, a brutal theocracy rules over ponies with an iron hoof. A young pegasus mare slowly learns the truth about her world, and the lies her faith is built on.

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Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The Five Exalted Tenets of the Holy Equestrian Diarchy

One: The Diarchs, Celestia and Luna, did create all ponies, and commanded us to learn and grow. They are our mothers. Their names are sacred, only to be spoken aloud by the sanctified.

Two: As we grow in holiness, we grow closer to the Diarchs. With each life lived well, we are reborn into a better situation. With each life lived poorly, we step back on the path, but may always continue onward.

Three: Unicorns seek to elevate themselves along the path through blasphemous magics. Only by accepting their role on the path, and refraining from magic, can they hope to be reborn into a better station.

Four: To be born as a pegasus is a gift. Those who live well may be reborn with wings, one step closer to the Saints and the Diarchs.

Five: The Six Holy Saints are the closest to the Diarchs. Ponies live their best lives through obedience to their words, and the words of their servants. Even the earth ponies among them show how to make the most of our lives.

1109 AF, New Canterlot City

“Jogging again? You are silly mare,” came a gruff accented voice from behind Emberglow as she stretched just outside her parent’s shop.

“Awake again? You are silly old stallion,” Emberglow mimicked Oak Chips’ accent and smiled, turning to see the old pony sitting in his rocking chair outside his shop. Oak Chips was already hard at work, turning a toaster sized chunk of wood into… something. It looked vaguely canine to Emberglow.

“Bah. When you get older, sleep is harder to find. You should know that, doctor pony. Also, why jogging? Did you forget you have wings?”

“Pegasus ponies have to live in an earth pony world. Besides, I’m not a doctor yet,” Emberglow protested, stretching her wings carefully, one at a time.

“A little bird told me you were graduating today,” Oak Chips said.

“Mom?”

“Yes, she did tell me, about four hours after Ms. Lavish came by with the news.” Oak Chips chuckled. “That mare. If she’s not gossiping she’s busy-bodying. Thinks its ‘improper’ for me to be without a wife. What do I want another wife for? One was good enough.”

“Who’d she try to set you up with this time?” Emberglow asked her friend. Oak Chips snorted.

“Her aunt. Nice enough pony, but I am not lonely. I have friends. Good neighbors. Even a silly mare that thinks four thirty AM is good jogging time that says ‘hi’ to me. Don’t need another wife.”

“You old grump. You and I both know you wake up early just so you can tease me for jogging,” Emberglow said. Oak Chips rolled his eyes, gently scraping his knife over the soft wood. “What are you making?”

“Timberwolf. There aren’t any left, only in stories. Like a wolf, but made out of wood. Had a taste for ponies,” Oak Chips said, a little too gleefully, snapping his jaws. “Saint Applejack used to kick them. BAM! Timberwolf would explode, sticks flying everywhere. Only sticks would reform into a timberwolf, and the wolf would run away, until it forgot how much it hurt to get kicked by Saint Applejack. Then it would come back, just in time for… BAM!” He slammed a hoof against the street for emphasis, laughing.

“Well, I’m sure it’ll be great when you’re done. See you when I get back!” she called out, taking off down the street. Oak Chips waved to her, his eyes never leaving his work, though she could see his ears following her movement.

It had been three years since he had first moved in next door to her parents, and they had become fast friends. It was an odd relationship to be sure; she was barely fifteen, and he was a retiree. But Emberglow loved to hear the stories of Oak Chips’ life; growing up in Stalliongrad, getting married to the love of his life, his successful carpentry work, their two foals, seven grandfoals, and even his wife Yellowjacket dying of cancer, just five years before he retired. Oak Chips had a way of making even the most mundane story interesting, at least to Emberglow’s mind. It also helped that she had someone to speak with on her morning jogs; starting last year Textile’s joints had started misbehaving, and the family doctor had told him he shouldn’t jog any longer. She missed her father on their morning expeditions, but she still loved to run. It was now a time of solitude for her, and meditation. Her life was about to change dramatically.

Emberglow set off on a taxing pace, running down the road in the early morning starlight. The moon was full, bathing the empty street in silvery light, and the cool air, yet untouched by the sun, blew pleasantly over her fur. There were a few lights in second and third story rooms, but no shops were open. A few ponies in windows waved to Emberglow as she ran past; the entire neighborhood knew about her early morning exercise habits, and though she received a fair amount of ribbing about it, she could tell that the entire neighborhood was proud of her. Like Lavish Essence had told her once, Emerald Street saw her as a mascot at this point; a pony with dreams and ambitions that they could all share, by proxy. She wasn’t a noble pony, so her upcoming Knight training was rare.

She ran past shops and store fronts, her thoughts churning. It was her last day as a med student. Tomorrow she would be a graduate. She was young, but she knew that if tomorrow she wanted to walk into a hospital, or a doctor’s office, she would be accepted as an intern, to begin her practical training as a doctor. She would have a fine career, making many times more bits than her parents. She could even settle down, and make a family… well, that was less possible.

One of her confessors, back when she had first realized who she was, and who she was attracted to, had suggested that there were ways to ‘cure’ homosexuality. It didn’t seem likely to her; the Saints had made her this way, after all. It was a test, a trial she had to overcome, and not something that could be ‘cured’. Besides, a family and foals were not her future. Nor was a doctor’s coat, a family practice, or even a hospital. Emberglow was destined for greater things, and she knew it.

Just as she’d promised, Emberglow had kept meeting with Sir Steadfast. The older Knight had been a mentor to her, giving suggestions to her exercise program, and even serving as a pressure valve when medical school had turned out to be more difficult than she had imagined. His constant support, and that of her parents, had been invaluable. There had been pride in his eyes last week when she had personally hoof-delivered the announcement of her graduation to his office, at the inquisition building.

Textile and Needle Point, obviously, were beside themselves with worry. During her medical training, she had lived at home. Though it had been a bit of a trial not to have Emberglow helping in the store as much, her parents had managed just fine. With Knight training, however, she would be moving out of the house and staying at the same dorms with all of the other pages. It would be the first time Emberglow had been out of her home for any significant length of time, and it would last for eighteen months. Pages still had one weekend free every month, and she had promised them she would come home every single time, but that didn’t help the sense of dread, or the fear of separation, that cast shade over her excitement to be moving on with her goals.

She breathed slowly, bringing her thoughts back to the present. It was still intensely quiet, the staccato beats of her hooves against the paved street the only noise in the otherwise deserted section of her jog. Emberglow reveled in the solitude; she felt absolutely comfortable accompanied only by the sound of her own hoofsteps echoing off of the still-dark buildings around her.

Her route would soon take her into the Everfree district, where the air was full of sounds of birds and insects. She still favored the Everfree Cathedral over her local one; especially when it was dark and quiet, like now. Three years of grueling medical school, filled mostly with ponies who were at least four years older than her, had done nothing to help Emberglow make friends her own age. She preferred it that way; she was friends with Oak Chips, and with her parents, she supposed, but she didn’t feel like she needed much more than that. She guessed that made her a bit of an introvert.

The Everfree Cathedral was empty of ponies, as she had suspected. The gardeners had put out fresh birdseed, though, so several of the local avian population were flitting about, chattering at each other as only early morning birds did. Several of them complained loudly at her arrival, but soon went back to their own gossip as they made liberal use of the offerings spread throughout the outside of the open air structure. There were even a few birds that had landed on the statue of Saint Fluttershy, though Emberglow couldn’t understand why; there was no birdseed on the statue, only the usual white cloth draped over her eyes to hide her from the shame of her children.

The story was a sad one, and something that had always awakened a sort of pitying fascination in Emberglow. Saint Fluttershy had once had her own Holy Order — the Knights Angelic. But three centuries ago, the entire Order stood up and abandoned New Canterlot City, vowing to bring the entire Holy Equestrian Diarchy to its knees. The former Holy Order now called itself the Knights Discordant.

To this day, nopony knew why they had done it. There had been no lead up, no warning, and no apparent reason. There were rumors of a shadowy figure involved, somepony known only as the ‘Arch Heretic’, who supposedly had orchestrated the entire fall, but nopony knew anything about him, or what his motivations were, or if he even existed at all. Ever since that day, however, statues of Saint Fluttershy had had their faces covered by a gentle white cloth, so the blessed Saint wouldn’t have to witness the shame of her children’s betrayal. Emberglow had never seen the eyes of a Saint Fluttershy statue; she imagined the stone gaze would be somehow full of warmth and acceptance.

Emberglow came to a stop, as usual, right in front of Saint Rarity. She offered her prayers to her favored saint, then moved on to each of the others in turn. This was a morning ritual for her; a quiet moment of solitude before she threw herself into her studies. She wouldn’t find much time for quiet in the dorms she’d be living in. When she was done, she returned to the same path that, years ago, she and her father had run into Lady Ruby Berry on.

Emberglow managed to do four miles in the time it used to take her to do one, as a younger foal. She was quite proud of herself; she was already running as far as Squires were required to, and she wasn’t even a page yet. When she was done with her four miles, tired and sweaty but feeling good, she cooled down with a gentle trot home.

Her return trip took her down her home street, now with a few more lights on in the shops and houses as ponies began to wake for the morning. Oak Chips was inside his shop when Emberglow passed by, but the two ponies waved at each other through the window before Emberglow continued on to her parent’s shop. She pushed the door open with one hoof and inhaled deeply, breathing in the welcome scent of fresh coffee and baking cinnamon.

“I’m home!” she called out.

“Hi, honey! We altered your dress for your graduation ceremony!” Her mother’s voice came from upstairs. “It’s all ready for you, dear. Just shower and have some breakfast. Your father made cinnamon rolls.”

“Yay!” Emberglow cried back, rushing up the stairs to the bathroom. A quick shower and a hop back to the middle floor and she was in the kitchen with her parents, sipping on her coffee (black, no sugar or cream; the way REAL ponies drink coffee) and munching her father’s cinnamon roll. Her parents were happily chatting away about the graduation ceremony that would begin in just a few hours. Emberglow knew they were proud; it shone through their every word and action. She was happy that they were happy, but it didn’t seem like a huge deal for her, just another check mark in her ultimate list. Maybe it would be more real when she was up on stage, accepting the diploma. She swallowed her bite of pastry and washed it down with a sip of coffee, looking at her parent’s beaming faces as a worrisome thought crossed her mind.

“Um, Dad? Mom?” she began hesitantly. Her parents, ever attuned to her moods, immediately stopped what they were doing and focused on her. “Um, are you both going to be okay?” She cringed; her words were failing her. “I mean, I’ve never been gone for more than a day. I’m not going to be at home any more, and that means you’ll be by yourselves, in the shop alone, and there’s so much to do and…” she was rambling, her concerns spilling out of her lips without filter. Needle Point was shaking her head, and Textile rolled his eyes.

“Emberglow,” he said firmly. “How many times have we had this same conversation? Or some variant?”

“Um…” Emberglow floundered.

“Needle?” Textile turned to his wife. “What’s the count to now?”

“Nine, I think,” Needle Point said with a soft smile. Emberglow’s eyes narrowed.

“I only remember two,” she muttered. Her parents laughed.

“We’re counting all the times while you were studying medicine as well, dear,” Needle Point explained. “Every couple of months you…” she paused, as if searching for the right word “...become rather anxious about whether or not we’ll be able to cope without you. Emberglow, we’ve had several years to grow used to the idea. Of course we’re worried. Of course we’ll miss you. We love you so much. And part of that love means we’ll be proud as peacocks when you spread your wings and fly out of our little nest, okay?”

“Okay,” Emberglow murmured, blushing. She did remember now; it was the same freak out every few months, almost like on a schedule. “But…”

“No,” her father interrupted. “Today’s a day for celebration, not worry. Eat another cinnamon roll. You can’t worry yourself silly if you’re eating a cinnamon roll.” He held one up before her muzzle. Emberglow rolled her eyes, but took the pastry anyways; he was right, after all, about all of it. She let her father’s cooking and both her parents’ loving assurances calm her worries about moving out.

After breakfast, the small family left a sign at the front door and locked up for the day. The chalkboard placard read ‘Closed for the day because OUR DAUGHTER’S GRADUATING FROM MEDICAL SCHOOL!’ with a frankly embarrassing number of exclamation points, and a few crudely drawn smiling pony faces that were supposed to represent the three of them. They all left for the ceremony, which was being held at the Central Cathedral down near the middle of the city.

The Central Cathedral was huge, far larger than any others. The exterior’s vast walls of white stone were covered in frescoes of the most heroic martial achievements of the six saints. There was Saint Twilight, with her freshly earned wings, facing off against the a mad rampaging centaur. Another had Saint Rainbow, armed with a spear and shield, casting the bandit queen Gilda the Griffon out of Equestria; still another had Saint Fluttershy binding the God of Chaos in chains. Emberglow’s favorite was Saint Rarity singlehoofedly defending herself against an army of nameless, bipedal canine horrors. For today’s special ceremony, the exterior walls had been decorated with violet banners announcing the occasion.

Inside, the cheerful cacophony of happy graduates and their families echoed through the cathedral. The interior was mostly a wide empty space that extended far above the ponies’ heads. The cathedral had been built in a time when most buildings hadn’t had any sort of electric lighting, so all the light was natural, provided by huge windows on the sides of the building, as well as skylights in the roof far up above. Streams of sunlight from the skylights drew Emberglow’s eyes to the centerpiece of the cathedral, the statues of the six Saints. The statues were huge, so much larger than those in the Everfree Cathedral. Each one was easily ten times the size of a pony; the cloth that covered Saint Fluttershy’s face was larger than a king size quilt.

Today, a dozen temporary benches had been set up to make room for all the spectators coming to watch Emberglow and her classmates accept their diplomas. The half-circle benches, always in place for the worship of supplicants, were reserved for the graduates themselves.

Emberglow gave her parents a quick goodbye and a nuzzle each before finding her own seat within the half-circle benches. All around her, graduates clustered in small groups, chatting, giggling, and greeting friends. Emberglow sat by herself, comfortable in her solitude.

The speeches were predictable, and that made Emberglow smile. ‘Chase your dreams, be the best you can be, represent your Alma Mater’, and so on. Emberglow only half listened, a bit bored as she waited for her part in the ceremony. Her gaze drifted over all of the other ponies around hers. Each one of them was going on to an internship with an experienced doctor. Her idle mind wandered a bit as she wondered about their futures: working in hospitals, in family practice, in emergency medicine, or maybe even in military medical service. They were all paths she could have trod, if this were the limit of her ambition.

Most of the ponies around her, even though they were much older, were also shifting in their seats, adjusting their clothing, or fidgeting with the graduation ceremony’s paper program. Eventually the school president moved on to announcing specific honors earned by various students. Before long, it was her turn.

“This year, we have a graduate who has broken a very unique record at our school. Today we recognize Emberglow, the very youngest medical school graduate we have ever hosted in our halls.” The old stallion’s eyes sought out a widely grinning Emberglow in the crowd of graduates, and he motioned with his hoof. “Congratulations, young pony. You will do us all proud as you move on to the next stage of your life, which I understand is the Ivy Seminary and Knighthood.”

Finally it was time to walk across the stage. Her name was called, and she stepped up onto a stage lit by bright spotlights. Squinting a bit in the direct light, she trotted up towards the lines of robed ponies smiling at her and holding out their hooves to shake. The school president, several instructors, and even some local dignitaries all offered whispered well-wishes. Despite her earlier boredom, Emberglow found herself smiling so hard her cheeks were nearly sore. When she reached the school president in the hoof-shaking line, he lifted a polished medallion, looped with red velvet. It bore the asklepian, the image of a single snake curled around a rod, an ancient symbol of medicine that predated even the founding of the Diarchy.

As the school president slipped the medallion around her neck, she heard raucous cheering from a dozen or so ponies in the audience. She looked over and saw her parents, Oak Chips, and a hoof full of ponies from the neighborhood gathered to cheer her on. She also saw Sir Steadfast sitting there, though with a slightly more subdued smile on his face. With a swell of pride, she waved and grinned at them all. Emberglow felt like her name, practically glowing with pride.

“Ponies, look at your medallions,” the school president spoke again, after everypony had taken their seats. “Notice the construction. The velvet ribbon is violet, the color of our dear Saint Rarity, the bringer of healing and medicine. The outside of the medallion polished surgical steel, while the inside is heavy pewter. Look and remember the weight of your responsibility, and the bright, shining future in medicine that awaits you.”

Afterwards the small family gathered outside, and several neighbors clustered around her to offer congratulations and well wishes. Sir Steadfast shook her hoof before begging their pardon to return to his Knight business. Oak Chips pulled an ancient looking camera out of a battered velveteen case and insisted on taking the family’s photograph. This was a new experience for the family; cameras were too expensive for everyday ponies to own.

“I’ll bring the photo over to you as soon as I get it developed,” Oak Chips promised, before leaving himself, letting Emberglow and her parents share some time together by themselves. They walked slowly, not minding the extra time as Emberglow’s parents heaped praises on their daughter.

Her parents continued to gush over her graduation as the three of them made their way home. Emberglow accepted their attention with as much embarrassed grace as she could. As they passed in front of the Hall of the Upright, the headquarters of the Knights Vigilant, their joyous family moment was interrupted by the commotion of a crowd. They very nearly ignored it and continued on their way; the big city was always experiencing some sort of commotion or event. All three ponies froze, however, when a sudden scream of pain broke over the sound of the crowd.

The plaza directly in front of the austere stone-façade building was usually reserved for public punishment of lawbreakers, and today was no exception. A crowd was already gathering around a half dozen Knights Vigilant wearing their full, polished orange armor with the sign of Saint Applejack on the flank, standing guard over four ponies in brown robes. The ponies were bound with chains at all four hooves, connected by a shorter chain, and another oppressive iron collar around each of their necks. One of the four was on the ground, whimpering in pain as a stern-looking Vigilant stood over her, holding a truncheon.

One by one, the prisoners, three mares and a stallion, were dragged to a collection of wooden pillory that sat in front of the Hall of the Upright. Each pony wore a rough, uncomfortable looking brown robe and a placard announcing their crime. When the first mare reached the pillory, she was unlocked from her chains and shoved, unresisting, into one of the pillory.

“Prisoner Harpsichord. You have pled guilty to fraud. Your sentence is four days in the pillory; after which you will be released and banished from New Canterlot City.” The Knight slammed down the heavy wooden top piece, locking the mare’s head and forehooves into an uncomfortable bent position. Her head was hung in shame, and her eyes were closed. The second prisoner was dragged into place.

“Prisoner Rosepetal. You have been found guilty of homosexual acts. Your sentence is one week in the pillory, after which you will be whipped with twenty lashes, then banished from New Canterlot City.” The mare nodded once right before being locked into the pillory herself. Emberglow could see the tears on her cheeks. The third mare was not nearly as cooperative, as two Knights had to drag her to the pillory. Her muffled screams of rage filtered through the muzzle the Knights had placed on her.

“Prisoner Nine Leaves. You have been found guilty of heresy, and acts of depravity with a non-pony creature. Your sentence is one day in the pillory, after which you will be put to death.” This was the mare who had screamed; there was more than one bruise showing the results of her resistance. She wouldn’t submit to have her head shoved into the pillory; it took two of the Knights holding her in place, and another grabbing her cruelly by the mane and dragging her head down so they could enclose her into the torture device. Finally the fourth prisoner, the stallion, was brought forward to the pillory.

“Prisoner Grey Gull. You have confessed to homosexual acts. Your sentence is four days in the pillory, after which you will be whipped with fifteen lashes.” Unlike the prisoner before him, Grey Gull allowed the Knights to place him in the pillory. With a loud thump, the final pillory closed around the prisoner, and some of the observing crowd began to disperse.

Emberglow was horrified, and riveted in place. Nothing else could have killed her mood so effectively. Her parents, who had also stopped, shook their heads silently as Needle Point motioned for the family to go on their way. The mood was somber.

“Why do ponies do that?” Emberglow asked softly, after walking in silence for a while. Her mother looked at her in surprise, then sighed. “I mean, why can’t ponies just…” she trailed off, frustrated. There was no way she could put her real questions to words. Not in front of her parents, at least.

“I don’t know, sweetie.”

“If we could all just listen to the Saints,” Emberglow mused, “none of this would ever happen.”

“Remember the Saints gave us choice, sweetie. A choice doesn’t mean anything if it’s forced; temptation and sin exists so that we can choose not to indulge,” her mom responded. “Those ponies made poor choices.”

“But some ponies are born homosexual, right?” Emberglow asked carefully. “At least, that’s what the confessors say. Are they basically cursed to be sinners? Where’s their choice?”

“Only the Saints know all the answers, Emberglow. But ponies always have the choice to act, even if they are born one way or another. And it’s the choice that is either righteous or sinful.”

“Right…” Emberglow whispered. She took a deep breath, trying to force her mind away from her thoughts. “Let’s… let’s talk about something else. I don’t wanna think about it right now.”

“Me neither,” Textile agreed, with a somewhat strained, upbeat tone. “I’d rather be talking about you and your graduation anyways. Leave the theology to the Knights and confessors.”

“We have to have a party tonight, a huge one,” Needle Point said, taking the subject change and running with it. “After all, soon you’ll be living in the page’s dorms, and we’ll only see you once a month. We have to really make the most of it; live it up while we still have you to spoil!”

“Mom, really…” Emberglow said, both embarrassed and pleased. The conversation still weighed on her mind, and she could tell it was on her parents’ as well, but she could pretend if they could. “I don’t need a huge party. Besides, it’s Wednesday night. We have to attend Liturgy.”

“Psht. I’ll be the laughingstock of the neighborhood if I don’t throw you something big. Everypony on the street’s probably going to stop by tonight after services at the cathedral. You’re famous.”

“You know, in a one-block radius,” Textile teased, and Emberglow laughed. She could set aside her spiritual questions for at least one night. It wasn’t every day that she got to be a local celebrity, after all.

Every Wednesday evening was the Liturgy, in which every pony would gather to one of the nearest cathedrals as an act of public worship. It was not optional; refusing to attend would result in fines, and possibly investigations into the reasoning behind a pony’s absence. Injured, sick, or aged ponies could of course be given a doctor’s note for absence, and there were certain other exceptions as well, such as emergency response ponies like firefighters and EMTs.

Like all of the other good ponies of the Diarchy, Emberglow’s family attended Liturgy at their local cathedral. Though she preferred personal worship at the Everfree building, attendance was taken at the Wednesday meeting so she had to go to their nearest building, a stale structure when compared to her favorite green, garden themed place of worship. You needed a special dispensation to attend a cathedral for Liturgy other than the one you were assigned, after all, and nopony was issued a dispensation just because they liked the décor at the next cathedral over a little better.

Everypony always wore their best to Liturgy; confessors often taught that it was a sign of respect and reverence for the Saints. Usually that meant changing into her birthday dress, but Emberglow had already worn that for her graduation, so she didn’t have to change. The family shared a quick snack of oatmeal with dried strawberries before heading off to the cathedral.

All of their neighbors were leaving at around the same time, and several of the ponies that lived and worked near Emberglow’s parents’ shop came by to offer their congratulations to the young graduate. Dozens of colorful ponies, all dressed in their Liturgy best, were chatting and greeting each other on their way to the cathedral.

The local building was practical, at least, if not decorative. Most cathedrals in New Canterlot City were at least a little rote in their architecture; as neighborhoods had expanded, the confessors had become more interested in filling the needs of growing populations than in making unique and decorative cathedrals. It was constructed of brick and mortar, with a yellow shingle roof. Every time she saw it, Emberglow was reminded how much more she enjoyed the Everfree cathedral over this cookie-cutter structure. It felt antiseptic to her.

The senior confessor assigned to Ward 14 of the Merchant’s walk was June Leaves, an ancient earth pony mare who liked to stand at the open door of her cathedral and greet each pony by name as they entered. There was a twinkle in the mare’s green, wrinkled face as Emberglow and her family approached.

“Congratulations, young lady,” the confessor said, reaching out to ruffle Emberglow’s red mane. “We’re all so proud of you.” She reached out and shook hooves with Emberglow’s parents. “Textile, Needle Point, congratulations to you two as well. Welcome.”

The family made their way into the cathedral and found a spot among the half-circle benches that sat in the center. Emberglow’s eyes were drawn to the dark purple cloth draped over Saint Fluttershy’s eyes, before sitting on her padded bench to wait for June Leaves’ sermon. As ponies shuffled into the seats around them, Emberglow saw the confessor make her way to the front of the room, underneath the gaze of the stone Saints. She winked at Emberglow before clearing her throat, signaling silence to her congregation. Two of the younger confessors, seated on benches behind June Leaves, rose to roll over the mobile podium that the older confessor mare used to lean against and organize her notes while she gave her speech. A large print edition of the Book of the Saints, particularly suited for older eyes such as June Leaves’, had been opened beforehand to a passage somewhere in the middle of the book. June Leaves stood silently as the murmurs of the congregation slowed from roar to a hushed smattering of whispers. As soon as she knew her voice would carry over the congregation, June Leaves opened her mouth.

“Tonight I’m going to talk to you about a tightrope act,” June Leaves began, her voice deceptively strong for her advanced age. “I’m sure many ponies here have seen acrobats walking a tightrope. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? Especially if they’re really high up without a net. Especially for those of us without wings.” She waggled a hoof in Emberglow’s direction with a grin, and the audience chuckled a bit. Emberglow knew she was one of only about ten or so pegasi in the entire congregation of a hundred. “It must take an incredible amount of training, skill, and luck to remain upright on one of those ropes. Imagine the courage. Imagine the risk. I’m afraid of heights, I know a lot of other earth ponies are too. I hate airships.” More laughter rose from the audience.

“But I want to talk about another kind of tightrope walk. A kind of walk we trot down nearly every day of our lives. And while a fall off of this tightrope might not kill you, its consequences may be even more dire. Tonight, we’re going to talk about pride.

“What would you ponies say pride is? A sense of pleasure, or satisfaction in our own accomplishments, or the accomplishments of others? Maybe a sense of rightness, feelings of justification in the correctness of one’s beliefs or actions? Or maybe it’s a sin. Perhaps the most grievous sin of all.

“I believe it is all of these things, and that is why pride is a tightrope walk. You see, there isn’t anything wrong with being proud of our victories, our successes, or triumphs, is there?” June Leaves paused for a moment, waiting for her parishioners to think over her rhetorical question. “But pride doesn’t limit itself to our justly earned success. Pride is a cliff. A canyon. It can so easily separate us from the love of the Saints, if we let it.

“You see, when we feel pride, we feel full of ourselves. We feel right, we feel entitled, and we can feel like our way is maybe even better than the Saints’ ways. ‘Why should I read from the Book of the Saints? I know better than some old ponies dead for centuries,’ you might say. When we question, even subconsciously, the will of the Saints in our lives, when we allow our own opinions or thoughts to supplant what is written in holy word, our lives and our destinies spiral out of control. This is when pride damns us. Pride is enmity, a gulf that drags us away from the love of the Diarchs and their true servants, the Six.

“Does this mean that it is sinful to feel pride in what we have accomplished? When we have overcome great obstacles, climbed great mountains both literal and metaphorical, can we not stop to take pleasure in our victory? My little ponies, this is the tightrope we must walk. There is a way to take joy in our wins. It is through our gratitude and worship of the Saints.”

Emberglow couldn’t take her eyes off of June Leaves. There was a cadence and rhythm to her voice that sucked in her listeners, and the young mare was no exception. There were a few moments in the sermon, though, when Emberglow knew the Confessor was speaking directly to her. It wasn’t really that subtle; June Leaves had clearly had the young student’s recent graduation in mind when she had written her sermon. But she didn’t feel singled out; no, she was enraptured. Emberglow knew that the confessor was inspired. Whatever the older mare was speaking about was surely a message from the Saints directly for her.

“Ponies, you are nothing. You are worthless, you are dirt. Your accomplishments, your victories, on their own, are meaningless, lost the moment you step into the grave. Everything you have ever done, everything you have ever achieved, was a gift from the Diarchs, through the Saints themselves. Your shop is not successful because of you, it is because Saint Applejack recognized your hard work and honesty and decided to bless you. Your health isn’t a result of your diet or exercise, it’s because Saint Rarity decided to ward you from the ravages of illness. Your children aren’t well behaved and beautiful because of your brilliant parenting tactics, they are that way because Saint Twilight decided to bless them with intelligence and maturity. The second we take credit for the gifts the Saints have given us, the second we take pride in ourselves, rather than gratitude in the grace of the Saints, we have separated ourselves from them.

“And that, my little ponies, leads to a place nopony wants to be. Let’s go to the scriptures.” The large print Book of the Saints was already open at Confessor June’s pedestal, but Emberglow heard several of the other ponies in the congregation flip open their own copies of the Book of the Saints. Needle Point and Emberglow retrieved their own copies, while Textile preferred to merely listen. “Those of you following along in your own books, turn to The Word, chapter twenty, verse fifteen through seventeen.” She paused enough that everypony could hear the rustling of turning pages. “’The hooves of the Diarchs ever reach for their ponies, extended in mercy and love. The Sun in the daytime, and the Moon in the night, radiate their love. But ponies are cruel, ignorant, and hateful, and reject the freely offered gifts of the divine’.” She looked up from her book and gazed over her congregation. “Seems silly, doesn’t it? Ponies, in their arrogance, rejecting the gifts of the divine? But it happens every day. The unicorns do it with their very existence. The Northern Empire does it with their barrier. The griffons, zebra, dragons, and other non-pony races do it with their unending aggression and raids. And we do it, every day, with our sinful pride.”

The emotion of guilt, as Emberglow had been taught, was a divine gift. A force for change, for improvement. For a pony such as her, a pony who had dedicated all of her teenaged energy and effort into self-improvement and perfectionism, guilt was a constant companion. She was never quite good enough, never quite smart enough, or perfect enough, or accomplished enough. As Confessor June Leaves continued her sermon, Emberglow’s mind began to gallop in circles. It was obvious that the wise Confessor had been inspired to write her sermon by Emberglow’s graduation. Was it just convenient timing? Or were the Saints trying to send her a message? Was she becoming too proud of her own accomplishments?

That had to be the message she was receiving from the Saints. She looked up at the five uncovered faces, particularly the stern visage of Saint Twilight, and silently vowed that she wouldn’t let her own accomplishments or victories come between her and the will of the Saints. She embraced her guilt, allowing it to mold and shape her into whatever the Saints had intended. Emberglow knew that some of her hardest challenges were coming ahead, and only with the strength of the Six would she be able to overcome them, not her own talents or willpower.

Author's Note:

I don't usually like author's notes. I probably won't include any in further chapters. But I need to put this one here.

This chapter includes some very toxic ideas and doctrine, including bigotry. I do not condone bigotry in any form, including homophobia, racism, or anything else. The fictional Diarchy in my story does not represent my personal views in any way. I do not condone or associate with any organization that teaches hate.

If you have experienced hate or bigotry in any form, please know that I love you, and I accept you. I am so sorry for the hurt you have experienced, and I hope that things will get better.

Thanks for reading.

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