• Published 8th Oct 2012
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Blueblood: Hero of Equestria - Raleigh



Like all heroes, Blueblood will always do the right thing... after he has exhausted every other option.

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Honour and Blood: Part 19

The whip struck. A lance of fire ripped through my back from shoulder to hip. I had not been given the usual piece of cork to bite down on, so I cried out in unbearable pain; dear Faust, I had never known such horrible agony before. I recoiled, instinctively trying to escape the long reach of the whip, but the chains held me secure. That didn't stop me from trying by pulling uselessly at my restraints, however. The crowd roared in appreciation of my torment, with jeers and clopping of hooves on the ground filling my ears with noise and my soul with shame.

I had wanted to face my punishment with as much dignity as one could possibly muster, like a proper stallion ought to, but such things are better said than done. Earthshaker swung the whip again and again, each strike was a fresh strip of hot, searing pain laid upon my back. My hindlegs quivered under the onslaught of blows, and soon gave way so that I hung sagging by forehooves. It was not long before tears streamed down my cheeks and I howled most wretchedly.

"Please!" I shrieked. "For the love of Faust, stop!"

I braced myself for another blow, but it did not come. It would have been no use anyway; it would all hurt just the same. My back felt as though it was burning, and my vision swam drunkenly. A field of stars sparkled, swirled, and danced before my dazed eyes as though Princess Luna had taken absinthe before crafting the night sky, blurring my vision. The audience of gathered ponies that stretched out before me became a grotesque kaleidoscope of mocking, hate-filled daemons luxuriating in the misery and debasement inflicted upon me. I felt the distinctly unpleasant sensation of something very warm and wet trickle slowly from the lattice-work of wounds upon my back, down to my rump, and then to my hindlegs or tail to splatter onto the floor. When I tried to raise my head to look over my shoulder at my tormentor standing behind me, the borders of my sight closed in and the bile rose rapidly up to burn my throat. Nevertheless, I willed myself on, despite the contents of my skull feeling much too heavy for my neck to support, and stared at him.

Earthshaker stepped back, though the handle of his whip was still held in his aura. His chest rose and fell heavily, as though he had over-exerted himself in flogging me. His whole demeanour was such that I feared he might at any moment discard the whip and just tear me to pieces with his bare hooves; the monstrous, twisted expression that looked as though his face was trying to eat itself, as all facial muscles clenched and contorted in unnatural ways.

"Stop?" he said through gritted teeth. "Why?"

I was at a complete loss as to what to say, but talking meant at least a brief reprieve from the torture. "I'll give you anything," I said, between ragged, desperate breaths. "I'm close to Princess Celestia. Anything you want, just please make it stop!"

"Anything?" Earthshaker grinned widely, demonstrating to me that the concept of dental hygiene had yet to be fully accepted by these natives. That might have been an odd thought to enter my mind as I was being flogged, but I was desperate for anything at all that might distract me from the horror being inflicted upon me. He lowered the whip a little and approached, close enough for me to feel the warmth of his stinking breath disturbing what fur on my back hadn't been already torn away by the lashings I had received. "What could you possibly have to offer me?"

He was toying with me, certainly, indulging in prolonging my torment as long as possible like a cat with a mouse, but with my back feeling like a solid block of pure agony and the fear that death was all but certain, I was willing to try anything at all.

"Money!" I exclaimed, being the first thing that I could think of that these impoverished ponies might want. "Gold, gems, steel, weapons, my sisters' hooves in marriage. Anything! Just stop, please!"

His grin slowly and inelegantly turned back into its hate-filled snarl over the course of my frantic pleadings. "What I want," he said, sotto voce, but still filled with so much hatred that I recoiled from the sheer venom directed at me, "is for my brother's life back, for my wife unsullied by your filth, and for Equestria to leave us alone!"

I held his gaze as best I could, despite my head lolling pathetically atop a neck that struggled to support it and my blurred vision swinging from side to side with vertigo. First, I spat on the cobbled floor between us, and then said with as much sangfroid as I could muster in the rather compromising state I found myself in, "I don't know about the first two, but I’ll arrange the third if you stop this and let me go."

Earthshaker barked a short, hacking, mirthless laugh. "But only after I make you into a eunuch, you motherless bastard. It will be a tiny recompense for what you have done."

If I was going to die, I thought, then I wanted it to be something memorable - an anecdote, as it were, to be recited by soldiers gathered around in the pub close to last orders, or for history students to snicker about as they read of my untimely demise in some dusty old book. It was an unpleasant, fatalistic thought, but one can hardly blame me for allowing my thoughts to stray in such a direction while I was held up by my forehooves and flogged by a vengeful cuckolded husband. I had no way to hurt him, at least physically, but I could at least wound his pride, such as it was.

"Why?" I said. "Are you going to take my stallion-hood so you can see what you need to satisfy Dahlia?"

In hindsight, this was all a very bad idea. Taunting one's enemy might be an activity that adventure book heroes might readily engage in, or a simple part of the 'theatre' around a duel or a fencing match, but out here in the real world, with somepony with both the inclination and the means to kill me, it was about on par with feeding a Yakyakistani some cocaine and letting him loose in an operating theatre in terms of bad ideas. I heard a wordless cry of anger, the crack of the whip, and half a second later, a fresh line of agony erupted across my back.

There were two more lashes, and then nothing. The pain was indescribable, but I'll try anyway; it reached beyond mere skin and seemed to seep straight into my vitals, and while I could not see the damage I imagined the ribbons of hide that the whip had turned my back into. I felt as though I was being burned alive and stabbed at the same time. I heard voices, but my strength at last failed me and I could only leave my head sagging to my chest. The first I recognised was Chipped Urn, and it sounded like he was imploring Earthshaker to stop killing me.

"You saw what the Tyrant of the Sun did to the Changelings," he said, at least as far as I could tell according to my limited grasp of their tongue. "The sun burned them. That is what will happen to your tribe if you make her too angry."

"He has wronged me," barked Earthshaker. "He must die for this."

"Make him suffer, yes," said Chipped Urn, apparently trying to be the voice of reason for purposes I could not quite understand at the time. "Throw him back in the cave with the others. Make the other foreigners feel fear for what you did to him and what you may in turn do to them. He is more useful to you alive than dead."

Silence, damnable silence, ensued. I spat on the ground once more, and was disturbed to see blood splatter on the tiles. Either something life-threatening had happened to me or I had merely bitten my own tongue, I could not tell. I looked out at the crowd, all apparently enraptured by my suffering. There were even foals amongst them, watching me with varying expressions of horror or enthusiasm, or merely running around as they are wont to do when adults are distracted. There was a strange party-like atmosphere that I found sickening, as though this was the audience to the Summer Sun Celebration and not corporal punishment. I cast my mind back to the pillar of fire that Princess Celestia had summoned from the heavens to burn away the Changeling horde, and I imagined the same happening to this miserable tribe. Auntie 'Tia would never countenance such a thing, and a good thing too that our beneficent, immortal ruler has more patience and wisdom than I, but standing there with my flesh being gradually turned into minced meat [A Griffon culinary practice by which the meat of their prey is finely chopped with either a knife or a machine called a 'meat grinder'] it was a very entertaining fantasy to indulge in.

I must have fainted, because the next thing I can remember is waking up on the rough, uncomfortable floor of the cave, resting on my front with my limbs splayed out awkwardly and my back raging in agony. A low moan, followed by a spluttering, hacking cough that only exacerbated my pain, had apparently signalled to the other prisoners that I was awake and alive. Shining Armour's face suddenly filled my vision, and had I any strength left I'd have pushed him away.

"He's awake!" he announced, sounding rather optimistic about it too. He looked back to me with an expression of genuine concern that I found worrying. "How do you feel?"

Well, how did he think I felt? I almost snapped at him, but decided that being tactful was probably for the best if I wanted to milk some sympathy. "I've been better," I said, my voice hoarse and rough as though I had been gargling with gravel. It felt like it too, my mouth and throat were awfully dry. "How does it look?"

Shining Armour sucked air through his teeth, which was never a good sign from anypony.

"Looks like an amateur did this," I heard Corporal Slipstream say, in the same tone of voice as if he was appraising some shoddy work a tradespony had done on his garden fence. "Look at that. I think I can see a rib there."

"Slipstream," hissed Shining Armour.

"Oh Celestia!" I cried out, and buried my face in my hooves. I was going to die here, I was certain of it, and the stiff upper lip routine expected of officers was of scant comfort here. There was no point, if the wounds didn't kill me outright then some kind of infection from the awful conditions we were forced to endure would, and it would be a slow, painful, lingering sort of death.

I had ordered floggings before, and right there and then I regretted each and every single time a pony was struck by the lash at my command. The Royal Guard is at least professional about it, however, before corporal punishment was banned, of course; a medic was always on hoof to observe and administer healing if necessary to preserve the offender's life, and the provosts were trained in the gentle art of inflicting a maximum amount of pain with a minimum of lasting, physical damage. Yet after having suffered such a thing, at the hooves of an 'amateur' as Slipstream had put it, I understood now that the wounds of the psychological sort were far deeper and more permanent than the lines of scars inflicted upon mere flesh.

"You'll live, sir," said Cannon Fodder, as he wandered lazily into view. Hearing his voice was an immense relief, for I knew he was so lacking in tact that if I truly was doomed then he would have just said so. "Do you have your hipflask with you?"

If there was any time to start sipping from the chalice of regret, now was as good a time as any. I might not get another chance to partake in such a fine vintage again. "It's in my jacket pocket," I said.

My aide disappeared from view momentarily, and then returned with the said silver flask. He dutifully unscrewed the top and offered it to me, and in the manner of a foal suckling on a bottle I greedily drank down the dark, heady cognac that I had filled it with prior to embarking upon this doomed excursion. Much of it was wasted dribbling down my chin and onto the floor, and I was far too distracted to fully appreciate the generations of hard work and expertise that came into crafting that most noble drink of princes, but it helped nevertheless. The effect was almost instantaneous; I did not feel 'better', but the strong liquor at least had a warming and comforting effect upon me. Little did I know that it was simply to brace me for what was to come next.

"That's one for you," said Cannon Fodder. "And one for your back."

Before I could utter a single word of protest, the remaining contents of my hipflask, XO Neighpoléon Grande Champagne cognac, was poured all over the open wound that was my back. What had dulled to a throbbing ache just on the periphery of becoming somewhat bearable if I had more to drink suddenly ignited into sharp, stabbing pains as though a thousand needles had been thrust into each gaping laceration. I swore, loudly and profusely, and promised Cannon Fodder a cut to his wages should we ever get out of this alive. [Cannon Fodder most likely saved Blueblood's life by pouring the brandy on his back, as the strong alcohol disinfected the wounds. This was something of a tradition in the Royal Guard after floggings, which fell out of practice when flogging was abolished.]

***

To this day I don't know exactly how long I spent in that cave, switching between moments of horrid wakefulness where every moment was spent in agony and terror to a sort of mad, incoherent delirium where I must have babbled incessantly about everything and nothing. [Both Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash reported that he pleaded for 'Celly', his nickname for me when he was a very young foal, to save him.] The pain had dulled somewhat into a persistent ache, though now I felt thoroughly nauseated and a pounding headache ensued. There was nothing to be done, or could be done, except to lay on my front and await whatever it was that fate had planned for me. I remember very little of the intervening period, only that time seemed to pass strangely; from moments where every excruciating second dragged horrendously, and then I would blink and hours would have passed in an instant.

Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash tried their collective best to cheer me up, but my mind was too distracted by both the pain of the present and the fear of the future to listen to their drivel about staying positive and waiting for the perfect opportunity to escape. What use would I be in a breakout if I could barely stand or even think? I feared that if such a chance did arise, that I would be left behind so as not to slow everypony else down. It all felt very hopeless, and even death itself was starting to feel like an attractive option.

Dahlia came thrice to attend to me, always accompanied by guards, of course, who observed with barely-disguised disgust at the two of us. She would sit quietly next to me, applying and re-applying strips of cloth to my wounds that would soak up the blood until it was all one great ugly scab. My feelings towards her were now only of hatred, however, despite the affection she continued to show me. This was all her fault; she had lured me on, exploited my wanton desires for her own selfish pleasure, and it was for that I had been viciously flogged. After a few minutes of tending to my wounds she would leave at the barked orders of one of her guards, and I would overhear my fellow captives speculate on just who this mare was and why she was so concerned about me. I thought it best not to tell them the truth just yet.

At some point my body and mind agreed to give up, and I must have drifted asleep. I found myself standing once more in that damned cemetery from my nightmares; endless rows of grey headstones in serried ranks like soldiers standing to attention on parade stretched on into infinity in all directions. The sky was dark and overcast with a leaden layer of solid cloud cover, through which a curiously dimmed sun struggled to penetrate. As if a filter had been placed over it, the glow of Celestia's great orb was an ominous shade of blood red, which stained about half the sky in a mottled patchwork of dark crimson and charcoal grey.

The absence of any physical pain alerted me to the fact that this was merely a nightmare, but this time lucidity did not allow me mastery over my dream as common knowledge implied. Regardless of how hard I tried, the demented hellscape around me failed to transform into the pleasant gardens around Canterlot Castle. The realisation caused my pulse to quicken, and though I knew it to be a completely illusory stimulus it still felt utterly and dreadfully real. This was no ordinary bad dream, that much was certain.

I turned frantically, but each view was almost completely identical. Everywhere I looked I saw those matching headstones receding endlessly into the distance. I examined one, trying to find something to centre myself upon, but the words engraved in the crumbling stone were vague and indistinct. I moved to the next one along and found that this one was the same, and the one next to it, and so on. The names were different, I could tell that much, but my eyes refused to focus on the words themselves. The letters were finely chiselled into the stone and I recognised them as such, but for some queer reason I could not articulate them into actual words. It was maddening, as if trying to remember a hazy, distant memory that failed to materialise in one's mind, no matter how hard one tried.

My chest felt tight - every breath that I knew was not real took conscious effort. I wanted to wake up, for even the pain of the real world with all of its agony was preferable to the rising fear that wrapped its claws around my throat and squeezed tighter and tighter. Looking away from the headstones I stared at the ground and my hooves standing atop it. It was neatly trimmed grass, though what should have been a verdant green had faded to a macabre grey. I noticed that I felt neither warm nor cold, but merely the absence of those sensations that caused my skin to crawl over my flesh.

Alone. I was utterly alone here. The tightness around my chest worsened until my rapidly beating heart felt like it was straining to escape from a vice. Looking this way and that, I looked for any sign, no matter how fleeting or remote, that there was something, anything, here, besides these headstones and their mockingly vague names. There was nothing, no change, no breeze to shift the grass. Only the graves remained, and in all directions the view was damnably the same.

"Princess Luna!" I shouted desperately to the crimson sky. Only she could help me, the mare who fought the encroaching forces of the Nightmare in the dream realm for night after thankless night. "For pity's sake, help me!"

Nothing happened. My voice disappeared into the ether. I sank to my haunches next to one of the headstones, waiting for either wakefulness or Princess Luna to save me from this nightmare. She must have been busy again with more deserving dreamers. Perhaps this was real, I thought; I had finally expired from my wounds and ended up in Tartarus where damned sinners like me belonged, and this was the sort of ironic punishment that I deserved.

Leaning against this one headstone, the stone edifice felt cold. No, it was more than that, it was not cold in the traditional sense of lacking heat, but a sharp, sucking sort of chill that seemed to leech away the warmth from my body instead. Curious, and having exhausted just about anything else to do, I tried to read the name engraved upon its weathered, chipped surface. To my faint surprise I found this time I could decipher the letters clearly: 'Gliding Moth'.

"Please," I whimpered, bowing my head before the headstone, "don't do this to me."

I saw now that the grave that it marked had some kind of silvery cable, about an inch in diameter, plunged straight into the very centre of it, as if it had descended straight down and penetrated the earth to reach the coffin and its grim contents. Looking at the others, the rest of them had one such thread too, and while I felt that they weren't there before, one could never be so sure in the dream realm - reality, permanence, and the linear passage of time itself were things that we took for granted in the waking world, but here were regarded as mere suggestions. I looked up, my eyes following the mess of cables up and up to see their source.

Princess Luna, or rather, a monstrous vision of her crafted by my subconscious to torment me, loomed over the entire landscape like a titan. Great forehooves shod in silver, each large enough to grind the Sanguine Palace into dust, stretched out over the infinite cemetery, and these were where these cables were connected. Her pose was like that of a puppet master, poised and ready to bring her grim marionettes into a sick parody of life. She was clad in the distinctive red tunic of a general, complete with the gold braid and rank pips along the starched mandarin collar. Upon her head sat a peaked cap, which cast her eyes in a deep shadow so they could not be seen. Her lips were curled into an arrogant, superior sneer, as she regarded all beneath her as being quite literally just that; beneath her notice or caring.

This figure had haunted my nightmares for some time, but this time it seemed more vivid and terrifying. Everything that had happened to me since Fancy Pants' benefit party was Luna's doing; if she hadn't placed that damned cap on my head and tied that sash around my waist, apparently deluded to think that I wanted to be pulled from my comfortable if boring desk job and hurled head first into the war, then I wouldn't be in this appalling mess to begin with. This titanic figure representing the Princess drowned me in its vast shadow, and I felt tiny and useless in its presence.

"Princess Luna!" I cried out. "Why are you doing this to me?"

The clouds parted suddenly, and everything was lit up with stark, white moonlight as if from a powerful spotlight. I looked away from this giant horror that hissed and recoiled and writhed as if in pain from the light, to see the moon shining brightly through a growing hole in the leaden cloud cover. Everything this sacred light touched dissolved away into nothingness; the headstones, the demonic vision of Princess Luna, even the dead grass beneath my hooves faded away like, well, like the memory of a bad dream.

Princess Luna, the real one, as it were, landed before me with a delicate flutter of her large wings, which she still spread to grant her already tall stature even more grandeur. She wore her more standard regalia, consisting of a black gorget around her neck depicting the crescent moon, highly polished horseshoes that reflected my gaunt, haunted expression back at me, and the simple black tiara perched atop her head. It was less extravagant than her sister's, but its simple elegance combined with the stern, regal bearing of its wearer to give the alicorn standing before me a most commanding and empowering impression.

"Is this how you see me?" she said. Her expression was unreadable; she stared down at me as I sat most pitifully before her, tears streaming down my cheeks. I don't know what felt worse, that she had seen how my subconscious mind viewed her or that she saw me, her apparent champion, in a state of duress unbecoming of a prince of the realm.

"I'm sorry," I muttered. Unable to meet her gaze, I bowed my head and looked to my hooves; there was no use in feigning strength that I did not possess any more.

The Princess of the Night then did something most unexpected. I felt strong forelegs wrap around my torso, and I was pulled forwards until my face was pressed against a wall of soft, velvety, midnight blue fur. It took me a second or two to realise that I was being hugged, and after a moment to overcome the initial shock I found that the sensation of being embraced was not altogether unpleasant. In fact, after all that I had been through over the past day or so it was rather pleasant and soothing. All princely decorum and aristocratic detachment was cast aside as I buried my face into Luna's chest. A hug from Celestia, of which I have had a great deal since I was a little foal, is like being bathed in the warmth of the first light of dawn in high summer. With Luna, however, it put one in mind of sitting beneath a cloudless night sky, and being overwhelmed by the cold, awe-inspiring majesty of the endless expanse of stars and the soft, delicate light of the moon. Different, perhaps, but no less pleasant.

"I don't want ponies to be afraid of me," she said, her voice curiously soft and gentle compared to the more imperious and loud tone that she usually took with me. "Least of all you, Blueblood."

The embrace ended, and we pulled away from one another. I recovered enough of my aristocratic composure to stand as tall and erect as I could, enjoying the ability to do so without agonising pain wracking through my body as much as I possibly could. Luna, however, merely sat rather more casually on her haunches before me; this, the dream realm, was her domain, inviolate and the one place where her power and authority outstripped that of her elder sibling's entirely, so it made sense that she would drop the regal masque that she wore in the waking world when she engaged in her duty of banishing nightmares and playing therapist to dreamers. Tonight was my turn, for once, and frankly I didn't really know what to make of it.

We were now in the gardens around Canterlot Castle, or a representation of such, though it seemed utterly devoid of all other life including the usual guards who patrolled the grounds and the servants and nobles engaging in clandestine trysts behind Auntie 'Tia's prized bougainvilleas. It was night time, and a cloudless one at that which allowed one a perfect and untarnished view of the stellar artistry that blanketed the world. The castle itself loomed up next to us, the elegant alabaster walls reflecting the stark white light of the moon, which itself shone down over the sleeping realm.

"Do you like it?" said Luna. I realised that I had been gawking in silence at the vista stretched out before us. She must have created it to try and put me at ease, and although this was the safest that I had felt in years I still could never truly lower my guard around the dark mistress of the night.

"It's wonderful," I said. The detail was impressive, too, right down to the view of the city of Canterlot below the balcony a short distance away, where the pinpricks of light from the multitude of streetlights were but a shallow reflection of the stars above, and beyond that the vastness of the realm of Equestria lay open for us to gaze upon. Forgiving the absence of other ponies, it was as though I was really there, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart as I wanted more than anything else in Equus to stand upon the same patch of delicately cut lawn in the real world and take in this view once more.

Overcome by this hopeless nostalgia, I rambled on. "This is the spot where Princess Celestia told me the story of the Mare in the Moon when I was a foal. I think I had a fight with my sisters, or something, I can't remember why, only the story. I never thought I'd get to meet her."

"Or that she might be family," she said, with a soft smile. I could only splutter in response, which she seemed to find amusing; I had never heard her even imply acknowledgement of the rather tenuous familial relationship between the two of us, but this marked a first. Then again, it had been a year or so since our last meeting, which was under rather more testing circumstances to say the least, and I could only assume that Celestia had a little word with her in the intervening time.

"I fear I have neglected your dreams," she continued, a hint of guilt colouring her tone. "The Nightmare draws strength from feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and guilt. There are few feeding grounds more bountiful than the psyches of those ponies who have suffered the traumas of war."

"So it's decided to pick on me." Of course, just when I thought things could not get any worse, now I was under attack from a metaphysical force of corruption.

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Guilt is a tempting morsel for the Nightmare, and so easily can it be directed into other negative emotions for it to feast upon. I don't suppose there's anything you feel particularly guilty about?"

Dear Faust, where do I begin? There was much for me to feel guilty about, or at least I should based on society's rules on propriety and behaviour of its upper class, which, I should point out, very few of us nobles actually follow to any degree of acceptability. She was looking for one thing in particular, however. Was it my drunkenness, whoring, lavish spending, casual blasphemy, general cowardliness, lying, cheating, gambling, cheating at gambling, philandering, bullying, or snobbishness? No, it had to be something that I felt genuine guilt for, and those sins were rather petty compared to those committed by the supposedly saintly members of Equestrian society, who moralise against such wicked things while indulging in them once they think nopony is looking. At the very least I had integrity enough not to try and conceal these faults; in some cases I was rather proud of them, but ponies have the tendency to block out facts that clash with their own deeply held ideas of how the world should run, and the myth of my reputation appeared to supersede all of the times that I had been caught with my hoof in the metaphorical cookie jar fondling the goods within. Besides, the more I sinned, the more others would pray for my soul on my behalf, as if Faust herself had any special interest in it; it was a most equitable arrangement that I simply could not be happier with.

I scanned Luna's expression, looking for any implication that she might be trying to entrap me into confessing to being a pathetic coward and a generally useless waste of resources, but found only genuine concern hidden in that gentle smile and slight frown. There could only be one thing that she was thinking of, and the realisation hit me like a punch to the stomach.

"Gliding Moth," I said, remembering the one legible name on the gravestones. "I was supposed to keep her safe, and I couldn't."

"She knew what she was getting into," said Luna. "Every soldier knows that when they march into battle there is every chance that they might not make it back. She gave her life for Equestria."

And for you, I thought. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. [An Old Equestrian saying - 'It is sweet and proper to die for one's country'.] There was nothing decorous about being stabbed through the chest with a spear and bleeding to death on a scrap of foreign land hundreds of miles away from one's home. I almost told her that, but bit my tongue; Princess Luna meant well, but the old platitudes sounded more hollow and more insulting each time I heard them from ponies who exhorted others to fight in their stead from the safety of their homes.

"She would still be here if I did my duty and executed Scarlet Letter after that, uh..." I paused, waving my hoof to try and coax the word that described the utter mess that was the Siege of Fort E-5150 without descending into vulgarity and offending the Princess. Fortunately, she did that for me.

"That shit-storm," she posited, grinning inanely. If she wanted to get some sort of humorous reaction out of me then she certainly succeeded; I almost choked on my own breath at a Princess of Equestria, and Luna, no less, swearing. It was like seeing Celestia kick a puppy; it simply was not done. "I have been learning the modern vernacular," she explained.

I felt my cheeks flush red, in spite of the non-reality of the dream realm. "Yes, most apt, that. I should have killed Scarlet Letter when I had the chance."

Luna tilted her head to one side, making her ethereal mane swish in the gentle night's breeze. "So why didn't you?"

I shrugged. This was a conversation I'd already had with Shining Armour, and neither of us could come to any kind of closure except by drinking ourselves into a stupor, and I had no such luck playing this talk out in my mind either. "Because I could not bring myself to do it, and I thought being sent home in disgrace was enough to stop him. Because I couldn't conceive of the depths of his ambition and his incompetence, which together always spell disaster when such a pony is placed in a command position."

"It's all too easy to look back on the past and think about what you should have done." Luna reached out and touched my shoulder, stroking it in a rather tender way. I felt somewhat embarrassed by her attempts to provoke some kind of familial bond, as if this made up for all the abuse I suffered at her hooves since her return from the moon. "When we have all of the information to hoof the best option is obvious, but in the moment when one is forced to make a difficult choice the truth becomes clouded and elusive. You did what many would consider to be the right thing, not to kill a pony in cold blood, but none could have foreseen the consequences of that decision."

"It doesn't change the fact that it was my decision that led to all of this."

"We must all live with the consequences of our decisions, but we can still choose to let guilt hold us back, or move on and learn from it. You do not honour Gliding Moth's spirit by punishing yourself for her death, instead you should let her memory guide you forward." Her hoof moved from my shoulder to my cheek, which she stroked affectionately. In spite of the awkwardness of the gesture, it still felt 'nice' in a strange way. Perhaps her desire to help me was genuine after all.

"Listen to me very carefully," she continued. "We haven't much more time; you're going to wake up soon. I tried to organise a rescue, but Parliament has blocked my efforts. Some nonsense about not wanting to risk starting another war, even though the foalnapping of Equestrian royalty constitutes a declaration of war anyway. Celestia is taking the diplomatic route, but nopony knows how long that will take. Blueblood" -she suddenly held my chin very firmly, such that I could not move my head, and her eyes became cold and determined as the old, more familiar Luna took hold once more- "you must survive. Help is coming for you, but if you die then a state of war will exist between Equestria and the Badlands ponies."

So, no pressure, then. I'm not sure I can say that I truly felt better about myself after that little motivational speech, but being told that my best course of action was, essentially, to sit around and wait for rescue grated on me a little. Once again my life had been reduced to that of a playing piece in that vast and convoluted board game called war, and while circumstances beyond my control (since when have they ever been?) had made me momentarily important to the players, sooner or later that usefulness would expire and I would be cast aside once more, assuming that I survived. Still, I appreciated the sentiment, and thus I thanked Princess Luna for her assistance.

"I will do everything within my power to help you," said Luna. "The dreams of your captors are open to me, and I will sieve through their thoughts and confound their plans as best as I can. Though, it is strange that the wife of the Chieftain is closed to me."

Dahlia?” I blurted out. My knowledge of all things to do with the dream realm was lacking, as I must admit is the case with very many things in the world, but somepony strong enough to keep Princess Luna from invading one’s dreams had to be a particularly powerful mage. I could hardly imagine that sex-crazed harlot brushing up on her Meadowbrook’s ‘Fundamentals of Magic’ in between being rutted by a succession of stallions queuing outside her bedroom door. My hooves itched - Dahlia was not to be trusted.

Princess Luna arched an eyebrow imperiously at me, and a faint smirk appeared on her lips. “Thou knew her?” she said.

The sudden switch to her archaic, Middle-Equestrian tongue left me in no doubt exactly what she was implying. Oh Faust, she knew everything. “I, uh, overheard the other slaves…”

“I must go now,” she said, mercifully interrupting my pathetic attempts to talk my way out of being caught out. “Good luck, Blueblood.”

The dream-constructed vision of Canterlot Castle began to fade around me, as though the colour and light was being drained from it until it was all absorbed by the impenetrable darkness. I awoke to the sensation of thousands of tiny needles piercing the flesh across the entire surface of my back. Reality, and all the misery that it entailed, ensued.

[While Princess Luna patrols the dream realm nightly to provide relief from nightmares for all of our little ponies, such things are deeply personal. These memoirs are one of the very few accounts of this written in detail. Their subsequent publication has seen a marked increase in what might be called ‘fan-mail’ directed to my sister, for which she is very appreciative.]

Wakefulness was not a particularly pleasant sensation at that time, but when I lifted my head from the ground, I noticed that everypony was staring at me expectantly. Rainbow Dash in particular looked as though she was about to explode with anxiety, sitting there with that big stupid grin on her face and her body twitching as though she had drunk much too many cups of espresso. In addition to the more obvious pain of the flogging I also felt like I had a bad hangover, only without the half-remembered Night Before to provide succour from the very many painful sensations of the Morning After. My usual cure for hangovers - being merely a palliative, but had served me exceptionally well in the past for its stimulating effect on the morale - consisting of a close shave, a very hot bath with as much lavender scent as possible, followed by the donning of full morning dress to armour myself for the day ahead, would most likely be ineffective here, and not least because my back being one enormous open wound would make getting into a tailcoat both impractical and unhygienic. At the very least, it would make me feel marginally better, and it had occurred to me that I hadn't had much in the way of opportunity to wear day formal dress since I rejoined the Royal Guard, and the realisation saddened me.

"What?" I croaked out.

It was Shining Armour who answered, with a twinkle in his eye and that absurdly handsome grin of his almost splitting his face in two. Something was definitely up, and I wished that everypony would stop holding me in suspense and actually tell me what was going on in a straightforward manner for once. "Private Cannon Fodder, why don't you tell him?"

I followed the source of that familiar odour to see my aide sitting in his corner of the cave, next to me as usual. He had that rather sheepish look on his face that he always got when he found himself unexpectedly the centre of attention, which tended to make him feel uncomfortable as far as I could make out.

"Well, sir," he said, in that curiously quiet tone of voice that ponies adopt when explicitly told to speak as quietly as possible, "they took me out to do some mining, but when they put me back in here and chained me up the guard didn't do the lock properly. It's fallen off my leg, sir."

I could have kissed him, if it didn't mean getting some kind of interesting skin disease hitherto unknown to Equestrian medical science. For once my luck had started to turn; I had a bad run of it lately, so it was about time that whatever fates out there decided such things smiled generously down upon me, and they had delivered in the form of a freak of nature who regarded personal hygiene as something that applied only to other ponies. It was probably that very trait which disinclined the guard from securing Cannon Fodder properly, and this was that opportunity I had been waiting for, and by Faust you can be certain that I was going to take it.

Princess Luna had told me to sit around and wait for Celestia to do something. Merely 'survive', as she had so eloquently put it. Well, I tell you, dear reader, at that point I had just about reached the limits of what I could take, and being flogged like a common guardspony caught drinking the colonel's sherry was sufficient to tip me over the edge. I was quite sick of having my fate decided by others - mad officers, callous generals, Scarlet Letter, Twilight Sparkle, Luna, the Changelings, Celestia, these damned heathens - to Tartarus with the lot of them! This time, I was getting out of here, and it would be entirely on my terms for once and Faust help anypony who was going to get in my way. This might have been uncharacteristically brave of me, and you're probably right, as looking back I might have avoided a great deal more personal suffering if I did simply curl up and wait for Celestia to fix everything for me, but the indignities that I had suffered awakened a certain fire within me that I had not known was there before. Or, as is most likely, the pain and fever had so addled the decision-making processes of my mind that I was quite willing to try just about anything in the vaguest hope that I might see the conclusive end of this recent misery.

My mind had been made up, and I was set upon this enterprise for better or worse. I beckoned Shining Armour, Cannon Fodder, and Rainbow Dash closer. "Very well," I rasped out, "this is what we're going to do."

Author's Note:

I can personally vouch for Blueblood's cure for a hangover. Morning dress really does help.

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