• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener struggle to set right all the wrongs from their past and save their family and friends. Tenth and final story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

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Struggling To Understand

Chapter Thirty Nine: Struggling To Understand

Innocence looked very pleased with herself, happily toting a massive book on necromancy as she reflected on how easy it was to get these ponies to go along with her, so long as she acted nice and stopped being up front about her motives. It felt ironic to her: they told her so seriously all they wanted for her to be honest, but when she was, they disapproved of her and acted like they were so much better than her. When she pretended to have purer motives, however, they suddenly became so willing to negotiate and treated her like a little lost kitten.

Antares strode calmly behind her, letting her lead the way out towards Sweet Apple Acres. Unlike Innocence, he was still impressed with Celestia and recognized fully how spectacularly she had played the mare, like she was nothing but an immature filly. And finally, he couldn't help but say wryly: “I gotta say. You're pretty stupid.”

The polymorphed unicorn glowered at him as the stallion pranced up beside her, then she shouted at him when he snatched the book away from her with his own telekinetic grip, the mare bad-temperedly swinging her horn at him. “Hey! Give it back!”

“Sure.” Antares said cheerfully, and he opened the book to a random page, spinning it towards her and flinging it into her face. Innocence cursed as it covered her head, and then she blinked stupidly before quickly raising the book away with telekinesis, paling slightly and staring wildly over the pages as she spluttered: “What... but these... I thought this was in demonic! I can read demonic, what happened to the book?”

“Yeah, it is. But it's in old demonic, Sin. The stuff they speak in Helheim nowadays, it's all slang and nonsense. You whippersnappers don't have no respect for us old folk.” Antares said seriously, and Innocence looked at him, flabbergasted, for a moment made just his silly little sister again by the rather-spectacular prank Celestia had just pulled.

“W-Wait, are you... you can read this?” Sin asked disbelievingly, and then she looked stupidly back at the book, hurriedly flipping through it as they walked along and several ponies jumped out of Sin's path, making Antares grin widely despite knowing he probably shouldn't take so much glee from this. “Oh... I... are these... alchemical symbols? I don't understand them...”

Antares gave a sigh almost of contentment, and Innocence looked at him furiously before he said mildly: “In the past... like, the long, long past... they used a different measuring system. And guess what? Hafrbjarg means 'goat stone' but it actually refers to a bezoar. So even after you translate everything, well. You still aren't going to know what the hell anything is. And that makes me giggle.”

Sin growled and spun to the side with a curse, slamming the book closed and throwing it angrily to the side, but Antares easily swept it up with telekinesis. He considered scolding her for a moment, but after a few seconds settled on something that he felt would do a much better job of making her remember this lesson. “I want you to know that I've been really upset and worried and stressed about this whole Heaven thing, Sin. But this, well. This helps me feel a lot better.”

“Shut up, Antares. Let's just go see Wormwood and get your stupid groceries.” Innocence growled in irritation, and the stallion smiled and shook his head, slipping the heavy, ancient tome into one of his satchels.

He caught up to her, and then tilted his head curiously towards her: she looked frustrated and irritable and moody, and like she wanted to do anything except for answer questions right now... but Antares thought that there might never be a better time than now to ask... “Applejack, you mean... how did Gymbr convince her to do... that to herself?”

Innocence didn't seem to realize that this was a trick to get her to start talking, far too eager to change the subject to consider whether or not she should answer such a sudden question. “Gymbr showed her the danger that the Light posed. With Valhalla at his beck and call, it was easy: he was able to use the Watcher's equipment to show her proof of what the Light was doing, and that everything he was doing... it was necessary. So she chose to willingly undergo enhancement... to have her... to use the darkness in her soul. In this case, to armor herself with it.”

Antares nodded slowly, studying his sister as they strode through the northern gates and out onto the highway north of Ponyville, and the mare looked at him before asking moodily: “Let me guess. You don't believe me, right?”

“No, it's not that, it's... I can tell you're telling the truth.” Antares looked ahead, softening and saying quietly: “This Light... it must just be terrifying. I mean, now it's taking over Valhalla... at least the Vale, if not the Castle itself. We've got no contact with anyone up there, though, so we can't know for sure, but-”

“But all the same, the Light is here, you won't let me pursue the power I'd need to become stronger than Gymbr to drive back the Light, and it's all the fault of you and our parents that Gymbr is gone.” Innocence said bitterly, and Antares grimaced, tensing up a bit and narrowing his eyes as he looked over at her, but she only looked darkly back. “It's all true, isn't it? But don't worry. All I care about is staying out of the Light's way right now. And I doubt it'll come hunting for us.”

Antares grunted, then he muttered: “For one thing, you're making it really, really hard for me not to punch you again. For another, you really haven't been part of this family long. Believe me, whether we like it or not, we're going to get dragged into a fight with this... Light. But for me, the sooner we can do something, the better.”

“You wouldn't have to worry at all if you and our parents had just listened to Gymbr. He would have made all of us... all of us, powerful.” Innocence muttered, and then she shook her head slowly. “It's better if we stay out of the Light's way. It's too powerful to stop now. Even if Mutt and Daddy are stronger than Gymbr, Gymbr was only strong enough to drive the Light back and force it into a stalemate. You have no idea how powerful, how... how... how awful He Of Many Countless Faces is...”

Innocence shivered a little, looking down, and Antares frowned at her before he said slowly: “But I thought what you were interested in was pursuing power, Sin.”

“And he'd steal my free will, too.” Innocence murmured, shaking her head with disgust. “What use is being powerful if I have to be his puppet? That's not real power.”

Antares smiled ironically at this, and the two fell into an awkward quiet as they continued down the road together, past farms and ranches and orchards. It didn't take them long to reach Sweet Apple Acres all the same, however... and admittedly, Antares thought the thoughtfulness Sin lapsed into... it was a good sign from her.

As they walked together down the dusty, wide path leading up to the ranch house, Antares found his attention drawn to side orchard by the sound of grumbling. He turned, then tilted his head with interest, Innocence halting and following his gaze moodily as he strode over to lean past an old wooden fence, gazing into the field and looking at the strange sight of two ponies hard at work.

Big Mac was sitting calmly some twenty feet away, head raised warily, his eye locked moodily on Wormwood... no, Antares saw. Wormwood might be what she had called herself, but this was clearly still Applejack, in spite of the thick wood armoring her body, the cracks here and there through which amber was still visible. And what made him feel both relieved and amused was the way she kept shrinking beneath her big brother's scowl, slinking from tree to tree like a beaten mongrel and bucking them dry of apples and dead branches.

Antares watched curiously: most of these apples were rotting or bruised, and it looked like Applejack was tossing the smaller branches and even some leaves into two of the enormous wooden tubs they used for harvesting. Then, as Applejack managed to fill both of these up, Big Mac said sternly: “Mulch.”

“Oh, come on, Big Mac!” Applejack complained, turning a pleading look towards her big brother. “Y'aven't made me do this since I was a foal and I stole that whole pie, and... and hey, look, there's Innocence and Antares, I bet they need me for somethin' real important and-”

“Mulch.” Big Mac ordered, and Applejack slumped and sulkily stepped into one of the tubs, beginning to stomp up and down to turn the mixture into mush. The crimson stallion nodded firmly at this, then he turned around, giving a brief smile as Antares grinned widely and shook his head slowly, likely feeling far more amused than he rightfully should at the mare's plight. “Hey.”

“Hey, Big Mac. I see you got big brother duties too, huh?” Antares said cheerfully, and Big Mac nodded with a grunt before he calmly approached, and the two stallions lightly bumped a front hoof together. “I got some orders to pick up for my parents. But hey, how's AJ doin'?”

“Working.” The red earth pony glared over his shoulder at Applejack, who mumbled disconsolately before the old stallion softened, saying in a quieter voice: “She's okay, though.”

“Good. So's Sin... kind of. Bet she's a bigger pain in the flank than your little sister is...” Antares stopped, then he looked towards the house, asking tactfully: “Avalon and Dash inside?”

Big Mac smiled faintly again, then he nodded once before looking over at Innocence, studying her. Innocence looked moodily back, and then she sighed and nodded to him grudgingly, and the large earth pony looked a little appeased by this, nodding slowly once more in return. Then he turned around and calmly strode back towards Applejack, who called awkwardly as she stomped up and down: “I'll... I'll be right with you now, don't you-”

“Nope.” Big Mac said flatly, and Applejack slumped as Antares laughed and shook his head as Innocence barely repressed her own smile, and then the two unicorns turned to head towards the ranch house, unconsciously falling in step side-by-side.

They just managed to reach the staircase before the door was flung open and Avalon shot out, landing at the top of the stairs and glaring daggers down at them. Antares winced at this as Sin glared back at the tiny Pegasus challengingly, but then Dash's voice called tiredly: “Leave them alone, kid. It's... it's just not worth it, okay?”

“I... okay, Dad.” Avalon replied after a moment, and she looked pained... but with that sound of defeat in Rainbow's voice, Antares wasn't surprised. The glossy-black unicorn smiled faintly and shook his head slowly as he looked up the stairs at her, and then Avalon shook herself quickly out before looking down and asking finally: “The hell do you guys want?”

It was as polite as they were going to get with Ava right now, so Antares simply shrugged before he answered: “Some apples, some cider, some milk and eggs. Oh, yeah, if you don't recognize her because it's apparently been a bajillion years to her, this is Innocence, my big lame sister.”

“Yeah, I see her.” growled Avalon, and then she buzzed up into the air, grinding her teeth together before adding darkly: “I don't know if I want her here on my ranch through, Mir. You see what she did to my Mom?”

Innocence growled and glared up at Avalon, telling herself that the thoughts of an insect like her didn't matter in the slightest even as a strange twitch of pain ran through her insides. She opened her mouth to retort, but was cut off by Antares... and surprised into silence when the stallion said gently: “She's my sister, Avalon, so don't talk about her like that, okay? Otherwise I'm gonna have to kick your flank. Again.” He paused, then grinned. “I seem to be kicking everyone's flank lately. That's fantastic.”

“Fluke.” muttered Avalon sulkily, and then she sighed and nodded grudgingly, looking out into the apple field and mumbling: “And I guess... I guess it could be worse. We had Mom tied up in the barn for a while, but it seemed kind of stupid. I mean, even when she was... you know, even after she got... old... she could break or slip out of a rope. Now Big Mac says she's stronger than him at his best.”

Innocence smiled and opened her mouth... then winced when Antares slapped his hoof over her muzzle, the stallion saying mildly: “I also get the feeling she's a lot more miserable getting bossed around by Big Mac than she ever was locked up in the barn, yeah?”

Avalon smiled for an amused moment at this, then shot a look over her shoulder at the open door before flitting backwards and quickly closing it, then gliding down to Antares to hover beside him, murmuring quietly: “That, and Dad's pissed off at her. I've never seen him so angry at Mom before, not even when she accidentally ruined one of his old dress uniforms trying to wash it for him.”

Antares nodded a little, softening as he looked up at the closed door for a moment before clearing his throat and shaking his head a little. “Well, uh... so let's pick up those apples, huh? And all the stuff that I'm supposed to grab and probably some of the stuff I'm not supposed to, too.”

“Yeah, sounds good. Focus on what we can do, yeah.” Avalon nodded moodily, shaking her head slowly. “That's what I learned leading the Thunderbolts. Screw everything that you can't do a damn thing about, and focus on doing what you can do.”

Antares nodded firmly in agreement, and the two looked at each other for a few moments before Avalon grunted and flitted away, muttering: “Anyway, come on then. I ain't very good at this whole farm thing yet but... I still remember where everything is, at least.”

The young stallion smiled and nodded, while Innocence took a few steps after the two before she halted and turned her attention towards where Big Mac was lecturing his little sister. The polymorphed unicorn looked at the two for a moment, and then she glanced quickly over her shoulder to make sure Antares was distracted before she leapt into the air, a dark aura surrounding her body as she smoothly took flight.

Well, smooth to her: she wobbled back and forth, but not having wings, nor being a natural flier made flying very difficult for her. She grumbled a little under her breath as she rose herself high into the air, then took a slow breath as she steadied herself out before she firmly flicked her horn as she glared down at Big Mac.

Applejack was looking horribly chastened by now: she always knew when her big brother was actually mad at her because he'd start scolding her and wouldn't stop until she was browbeaten into a puddle of shame. And whether or not she had become some sort of... demonic tree angel thing, she was still the little sister, he was still her big brother, and she respected that. She had to respect that. And she knew she'd done wrong. She just also really, really badly wanted the punishments to be over so she could try and make up for everything she'd done.

So she blinked in surprise when Big Mac suddenly yawned, before his eye blinked blearily... and then, slowly, he toppled forwards and into the grass, beginning to snore loudly. Applejack stared down at him blankly for a few moments, and then she winced and looked up as Innocence calmly glided own out of the sky to land beside her fallen brother, the polymorphed unicorn giving a serene smile as she greeted: “Wormwood.”

“Not to disrespect you or anything, Innocence... but it's Applejack. I... I appreciate the powers you and Gymbr gave me, and I was honored to be chosen as a Knight of Valhalla once we worked past our differences... but my name here is Applejack.” the wood-hided pony replied quietly, and Innocence looked surprised at this before Applejack gestured at her brother with a small smile. “And if you don't wake Big Mac up right quick, I'm gonna be in even more trouble than I already am. So I would be much obliged if you could just give him a gentle nudge back to consciousness.”

“I... what?” Innocence stared for a few moments, and then she bared her teeth at Applejack, leaning forwards and snapping: “How dare you speak to me that way, Wormwood! You are a servant of Valhalla... that means you serve me! You are a Black Knight, and your loyalty is to-”

“To Gymbr, who's been defeated. So were you. I made a deal: I keep my free will, and become this... this thing.” Applejack gestured at herself, grimacing a little. “And in return, I fight the Light, and I serve Gymbr. Not you, Innocence... you were his second-in-command, and I always respected that, and I respected your strength. But... I know... I know you spent longer in that place than I did. I know... I know you got darkened more than I did. But... this is our home. I feel it in my... bark, I guess I got.” Applejack looked moodily back and forth over herself. “This place feels like home more'n Heaven ever did, and this second chance means... means a universe to me. But sad as I am to say, it ain't just you and Gymbr who gave it to me. It's Pinkamena and Twilight, for not killing me, and Discombobulation, for bringing me here, and... well, you know.”

“No, I don't know. I can't believe this. You're not making any sense.” Innocence said disgustedly, shaking her head before she stomped a front claw angrily. “Wormwood, they hate you! You are my servant, don't make me invoke-”

Then Innocence was cut off as an apple whacked painfully into her face, head twisting to the side as she stared blankly and blinked slowly before Antares said dryly: “Do you know like, how much magic energy you exude and waste when you do your fancy flying trick? And you know, Big Mac's back was to you, anyway. Did you really do that all just so you could feel cool, or do you think you get some super special awesome bonus from flittering around above our heads all... daintily?”

Innocence slowly glared over at Antares, who approached calmly before he looked at Applejack for a few moments, then suddenly stepped forwards and slashed his horn out several times, the mare wincing before staring in disbelief as Antares left a heart carved over her side with 'A + P' written in the center of it. “I'd cut my whole name, but this way you can say it's... uh... Applejack and Pen-”

“Colt, if you finish that sentence, I'm going to whoop you.” Applejack said grouchily, glowering at him horribly, and Antares only gave a cheery grin in response before the wooden pony looked moodily over her shoulder, then slumped and sighed tiredly. “Thanks, by the way, for makin' me into a worse sideshow attraction than I already am.”

“You should go see Dash. And kiss him right on the mouth, then give him a big hug and apologize. Don't be specific, don't be prideful, just be sincere and apologetic and everything's going to be just fine.” Antares said firmly, and Applejack stared at him for a few moments before the glossy black unicorn leaned forwards pointedly. “Or keep doing what you're doing, sure, because that's totally working out great for you.”

“Oh, and now here y'are, givin' me advice on my love life and how to treat the pony I've been with for more years'n you've been alive?” Applejack asked flatly, and Antares only nodded a few times which made the wood-hided mare slump a little. “Great. I guess it ain't exactly the worst advice, either... and I guess you're the first pony to really... treat me like I ain't...”

She stopped, then smiled faintly down at Big Mac before she cleared her throat and turned her eyes back to Innocence, who was glaring furiously at her brother. But the polymorphed unicorn was surprised into drawing her attention to Applejack when the wood-hided mare said softly: “Y'know, it's the job of a good big brother to make his little sister suffer a little now and then. Especially when she's gone and done something wrong.”

Innocence looked moodily over at Applejack, and then she shook her head briefly before muttering: “You live your life the way you want to, Wormwood. I'll live my life the way I want to. And there are things above so-called 'familial obligations.'”

“Not for some of us.” Applejack replied quietly, bowing her head forwards with a small smile, and then she shook her head slowly and reached down, gently grasping Big Mac's shoulder and shaking him lightly until the crimson earth pony blinked blearily and slowly rose his head. “Hey, c'mon now. You can't just pass out on me in the middle of a lecture, Mac.”

Big Mac yawned loudly, then slowly climbed to his hooves as he looked mildly down at Applejack, who smiled faintly in return before she sighed a little and gestured at the tubs, asking finally: “You... want me to make more mulch?”

For a few moments, her brother regarded her, then turned a curious look to Antares. Antares nodded firmly several times, and after another moment Big Mac nodded back, then drew his eye to Applejack, studying her before he said finally: “Go see Dash.”

Applejack smiled warmly at this, then she stepped forwards, the siblings trading a fierce hug for a few moments before she turned to hurry away and up the stairs. Antares smiled after her, then he turned his eyes to Sin, asking mildly: “See, one day we could have something like that, too. You know, so long as you stop being a butt.”

Innocence only glowered over at him, but before she could respond, Avalon came flying back carrying a large, heavy sack at least double her size. She dropped this onto the glossy-black unicorn's back as she flew over him, and his legs buckled a little under him as he wheezed loudly, wincing and arching his spine as Avalon said loudly: “Got your stuff.”

“Gee. Thanks.” Antares mumbled, and then he shifted and straightened, glancing over his shoulder moodily at the heavy burlap sack. “Okay, seriously. The eggs better be-”

“The eggs are in a hard goddamn case, stop being such a baby. They're not going to break on you. Baby.” Avalon grumbled, and then she scowled and looked back and forth before asking Big Mac: “Hey, where did Mom go? You... you didn't plant her in the ground like you were threatening to, right?”

Big Mac only smiled wryly, then he gestured pointedly at the house, and Avalon made a face before muttering: “Fantastic. Seriously, I just got Dad calmed down. So thanks, really, because I really wanted to spend another afternoon reassuring him and trying to help him get over this.”

“You're mean. And selfish.” Antares said mildly, and then he simply tilted his horn forwards and created a white barrier of energy in front of himself that Avalon plowed into face-first when she lunged at him, the tiny Pegasus wincing as this bent around her, before it snapped like a rubber band and launched her through the air with a curse.

All the same, she managed to spin her body violently and realign herself with a growl, glaring furiously over at the stallion before he asked curiously: “So, what, you want them to get a divorce?”

“Just... just shut the hell up, Antares. I don't want to talk about this.” Avalon growled, and then she shook her head fiercely before muttering: “I'm going for a flight. I'll see you later. Asshole.”

With that, Avalon flapped her wings hard and launched herself into the air, and Big Mac sighed before looking pointedly over at the stallion, but Antares just smiled a little and shrugged, saying quietly: “Hey, you know as well as I do. She needs a kick now and then.”

Big Mac hesitated, then he simply nodded once before tilting his head, but Antares shook his own and smiled over at Innocence. “We got everything we came for. Right, Sin? Besides, we'll have to stop at the animal care center on the way back, get milk and all the other stuff.” He paused, then glanced awkwardly over his shoulder at the burlap bag on his back, adding: “And this is... I mean, this isn't going to break on me, right? And there weren't... this isn't a fertilizer bag, right?”

The red earth pony shrugged a little, and Antares looked at him sourly for a few moments before he grumbled under his breath and said dryly: “Well. Thanks.”

Big Mac simply shrugged again and gave the slightest smile, and Antares rolled his eyes before he said mildly: “Come on, Sin. Let's leave these dumb not-unicorns alone.”

Innocence grumbled moodily, looking sourly at Big Mac before she briefly nodded and turned to follow her brother. The glossy-black unicorn paused after a moment, however, looking over his shoulder and adding to the mare as they walked away: “You know that everyone except you knows I wasn't serious, right?”

“I'm not an idiot.” Innocence said sourly, and then she glowered when the stallion shrugged and tilted his head back and forth. She only rolled her eyes, then added disgustedly: “Everyone here is so soft and weak and... pathetic. Completely pathetic.”

“You're pathetic.” Antares retorted childishly, earning a horrible look from the mare before he simply shrugged and added mildly: “And hey, like, we're all the same. But we're definitely not pathetic: we just don't try to kill each other over the smallest things and we're not all power-crazed bitches like you are. Which is a good thing, really, because it means we're not all trying to constantly one up or kill each other for more, more, more.”

The polymorphed unicorn only looked at her sibling with distaste for a few moments, then she sighed and rolled her eyes. “Power comes with a solid pecking order. The weak must bow to the strong. That's the way it is in nature, and that's the way it should be in real life, as well.”

“Nature is real life.” Antares corrected, and Sin glowered at him as they exited Sweet Apple Acres and stepped back out onto the highway, heading towards Ponyville. “And not always, by the way. Crocodiles are stronger than those birds that eat stuff out of their teeth, but they don't go eating their faces off, now do they? Really, they're kind of serving the birds. Yes, yes, I know they help each other but my point is still valid.”

Prestige only shook her head in distaste, and they continued on in silence for a few moments before the mare said moodily: “You're a lot dumber than I remember you being.”

“I am not. I'm as dumb as I was a week ago. You're the one who's sixty years dumber than she was when she first left.” Antares paused, glancing at her and studying her thoughtfully. “Although I also think you're just making that number up, too.”

“I am not. I was gone for that many years, at least. Gymbr found a way to speed up the Hourglass further... although he was too stupid to stop it.” Innocence said bitterly, shaking her head slowly before she muttered: “What an idiot.”

“Loyalty. That's clearly your thing. Gosh, Rainbow Dash has nothing on you.” Antares said ironically, and then he shook his head slowly before halting suddenly, making Innocence frown and stop beside him. He carefully tilted his head so he was looking just past her, and Sin blinked before looking uneasily over her shoulder, but the stallion muttered “No. No, don't turn around. And look back at me, okay?”

Something in Antares' voice made Innocence obey, and she looked back at the stallion, staying very still before the glossy black unicorn turned a smile back to her that didn't reach his eyes, asking casually: “So Sin, do you think that you can go ahead and cast a spell at me? You like to fling that black fire stuff around, yeah?”

“Nightfire, yes. I enhance it with corruption through thaumaturgy. It gives it a lot more impact.” Innocence muttered back after a moment, and then she shook her head briefly before adding uncertainly: “Antares, I don't sense anything, it can't be the Light...”

“Yeah, okay, you keep telling yourself that.” the stallion said dryly, and then he smiled at her and said: “Fireball me.”

Innocence looked at him for a moment, and then the glossy-black unicorn rolled his eyes before he asked wryly: “Fireball me please?”

After a moment, Sin narrowed her eyes at him before she suddenly reared back, then snapped her horn forwards, unleashing a blast of black flames straight at Antares. The stallion winced, but his body was already reacting, horn flashing as he slashed it down and knocked the black fireball shooting past her, sending it zooming into a tall patch of grasses at one side of the road.

It struck something solid and exploded, but the black flames were suffocated by a second shockwave of energy even as something was knocked loose from hiding. The creature snarled at them, and Antares and Innocence both set themselves side-by-side as they faced a cloaked entity clutching a knife, some kind of extra enchantment making it flicker in and out of sight. But Antares knew what he was looking at all too well, all the same, and Innocence's own eyes widened as memories flooded back, making her a scared little filly again as she whispered: “The Whistler.”

“You just went and made a big mistake, you dumb punk. But my dance card is all filled up at the moment, so I'll have to skin you later.” the Whistler snarled at Antares, and then the creature simply flung itself backwards and vanished with a spark of energy, its presence fading completely.

Antares only grimaced and shook his head, then he muttered: “Yeah, right, coward. Run away while you... hey, Sin. Sin, you okay?”

Innocence was staring disbelievingly at the place where the Whistler had been moments before, mouthing slowly before she shook her head and said finally: “I don't... I just... I just don't... I don't understand! I... I couldn't sense him at all...”

“Neither could I, really... I don't know how long he must have been following us for. Any more than I have any idea what the hell he was doing here. Watching us, gathering information, or waiting to attack us when our backs were turned...” Antares shook his head briefly, then he hesitantly reached up to squeeze Sin's shoulder. “But hey. He's gone now, okay? You can relax... I'm not gonna let any of these guys get to you.”

“I... I don't need your help.” Sin said disgustedly, but it was self-loathing and embarrassment that brought color to her cheeks, not anger. And Antares only smiled a little at his little sister, reaching up to quietly tousle her mane even as she snarled and shoved at him, then muttered: “The Whistler is a bad sign. He's the scout and assassin for He Of Many Countless Faces... he's not Pious, but... something else. Something... twisted.”

“Yeah. I've seen the Pious. This Light... why does it seem like it makes everything into monsters?” Antares asked quietly, then he shook his head slowly before returning a small smile to Innocence. “Come on, let's go back home. We'll tell Mom and Móðer what we saw and that you drove the Whistler off. Earn you some brownie points with them.”

“I don't need your sympathy, Antares, and I certainly don't need your help. Maybe you should just try and concentrate on yourself.” the mare replied moodily, and Antares only shrugged a little before turning and starting towards Ponyville.

Innocence hesitantly looked over her shoulder, shivering a bit, and then she turned and hurried after Antares. But all the same, it wasn't until they reached the town that she finally felt safe, that she was finally able to relax and throw off the worry that at any moment a coward's knife was going to slide into her back, that at any moment, the Light was going to lock around her throat and strangle her... and all the power in the world wouldn't be enough to save her.

“So I drove off the Whistler... after Antares identified its location.” Innocence said proudly, raising her head high as Twilight smiled at her warmly. Meanwhile, Luna looked with entertainment at Antares, tapping her nose, and he shrugged amiably and reached up to simply draw a hoof over his lips. It was more or less the truth, after all, and the fact that Sin had actually included him, well... that was a good sign at least.

“I'm glad, even if I'm also worried what this might mean: if the Whistler is part of the Light's forces, and the Whistler is here...” Twilight shook her head briefly, looking uneasily over at Scrivener Blooms, but the stallion was in the kitchen, unhurriedly unpacking the bags Antares had brought back. After a few moments, then Lich sighed and rolled her eyes, then he said finally: “Guys. This is important. This is bad news.”

“Aye, 'tis. But it does us no good to simply sit and whine about it.” Luna responded with a brief shrug, giving a small smile after a moment. “Furthermore, the Whistler is not as dangerous to us as the Pious, and we must not plan to deal with the Whistler himself, but rather, what he foreshadows.”

Luna turned her eyes towards Innocence, and the polymorphed unicorn gave a small smile as she nodded slowly, saying quietly: “The coming of the Light. But it won't be with great armies... at least, not right away. The Light is craftier than that.”

She stopped herself from saying any more, however, swallowing back her words and gathering her courage before she put on her best alluring smile, bowing her head forwards as she said softly: “But if you want to know more, well... I think I deserve something in return.”

The sapphire mare sighed tiredly as Antares frowned over at his little sister, but Twilight Sparkle was the first to speak, saying quietly: “I think that's fair... but I also think, in order to keep it fair, we'll share equally. You tell us something of value, and we'll tell you something, of equal value.”

Innocence frowned a little, and then she nodded moodily before saying grudgingly: “Fine. But it has to be equal value... and as my information is extremely precious, I think that you had better be ready to compensate me with equally precious information.”

Scrivener looked over his shoulder mildly at this as he lifted an apple, saying pointedly: “You know, to us, these apples are common and boring. But in the Northlands, apples and fruits are delicacies, only for the elite.”

“And your blood is just your blood to you, Daddy, but to me, it would be a precious, delicious treat...” Innocence almost purred, leaning forwards and giving a sly smile: she was doing her best to be seductive, but instead it only came across as greedy and overeager, making Scrivener wince back a little as Luna narrowed her eyes moodily.

There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight looked hesitantly over at Scrivener Blooms, and the stallion looked back at the Lich with surprise before he nodded slowly. Then Twilight turned her eyes back to Innocence, saying steadily: “We're willing to give you... a small vial of corruption, made by your father. But in return, we want three important questions answered. And we'd like them answered first.”

“Dinner, then dessert.” Innocence muttered, and there was silence for a few moments before she nodded with a grunt. “Fine. I'll tell you what I can, then. About the Light.”

“Bargaining with information... information that thou may save thine own life with, and much more the lives of others.” Luna shook her head slowly, looking disapproving, and Innocence tried to pretend that it didn't hurt, that her smile didn't give the slightest twitch even as she felt herself almost shrinking down at her Móðer's look. “'Tis difficult for me to stomach, Innocence, that thou could even be okay with this.”

There was silence for a few moments as Innocence shifted awkwardly, and then she looked up defensively and said firmly: “Well, I'm your greatest defense against the coming Light, I'm the only pony here truly willing to fully embrace the darkness!”

“Aye. And there is no winning with extremes. We must not aim to completely blot out the Light. We must instead create shadow.” Luna replied calmly, shaking her head briefly before she stomped a hoof lightly and nodded firmly. “We must create shadow. I like that.”

“I'm glad you like your own words, dearest.” Scrivener said mildly as he went back to putting away groceries, even as he felt a bit of a twinge run through his body at the thought of offering up his dark blood to his own daughter. The thought of it... it felt wrong somehow. It felt dangerous at this juncture... and as much as he wanted to trust his daughter, he was worried that he couldn't. That somehow, this was only going to lead to heartache.

He looked down after a moment, then shook his head briefly as Twilight Sparkle silently reassured him, and Luna gave her own small smile, glancing up with a short nod to Scrivener's back. The charcoal stallion could feel their encouragement, and the belief that the Lich had that their daughter was going to make the right choice, and the pure love for Sin that the sapphire mare had.

Scrivener Blooms sighed a bit after a moment, and then he finally looked over his shoulder and said wryly: “Darkness comes and darkness beckons, but when I approach away she hastens.”

“Cease quoting old, perennial authors, beetle. Thou art a stupid... stupidhead.” Luna said mildly, and then she huffed a little at him before turning her eyes back to Innocence, saying mildly: “'Tis time for thy first question. How did Gymbr drive back the Light?”

Sin smiled hesitantly at this, and it was her hesitance that gave her away as Antares said quietly: “He didn't, huh? He screwed up somehow, is that it?”

The polymorphed unicorn grimaced a little, shifting away before she sighed a little and dropped her head forwards, muttering moodily: “In... in a manner of speaking. I already told you that the Light... blinds. That it leaves a mark on whoever it touches, that it steals something from inside them.” There was silence for a moment, and then she said softly: “But Gymbr could wipe it out by staining people's souls with darkness. And it's from their people that gods draw their power...”

“Imago.” Antares said quietly, and Innocence shifted uncomfortably, looking surprised at how quickly her brother had solved the riddle. “He used the spiritual energy of his own people. And He Of Many Countless Faces... well, if he sacrificed Pious just to hide the fact that the Whistler was investigating and attacking Valhalla, not the Pious themselves... and more than that, the Pious are so willing to play along with their god's games...”

“What else are they supposed to do?” Innocence asked with a frown, raising her head moodily. “The weak are supposed to obey the strong. That's how the world is supposed to work: if the strong, if the person who rules you, orders you to do something... then you obey.”

“Then why won't you obey us?” Twilight Sparkle asked quietly, and an awkward, uncomfortable silence fell before Antares cleared his throat and carefully turned with a mumble, feeling like it was time for him to excuse himself from this conversation.

The glossy-black unicorn left through the kitchen, and after the door clicked closed, the mare turned her eyes calmly towards her mother, answering her with a confidence she didn't actually feel: “Because you and Mutt and Daddy are... you're not like Gymbr. You're... weak.”

Her last word came out tinny and quiet, but it still hurt Scrivener Blooms to hear it, and Twilight sighed softly and lowered her head, while Luna only glowered at Innocence. Then the sapphire mare slowly rose her head, looking coldly down at her daughter as Innocence's eyes widened slightly at the sight of her mother looming over her, shrinking down little-by-little in spite of herself.

“Weak.” Luna pronounced, and then she shook her head slowly before she slowly advanced on her daughter, and Innocence winced and quailed back, lowering her head and flushing a little as the starry-maned pony continued: “Weak, thou calls me. Weak, thou says we are. But if it is demands that will make thee find us strong... I am certainly more than happy to provide thee with several.”

Innocence winced as she was cornered against the counter, and then Luna leaned forwards and seized her daughter's shoulders, pinning her back as the young mare swallowed thickly and looked up at her fearfully, whispering: “M-Mutt... I... I don't like this...”

“But what, thou liked it from Gymbr?” Luna shook the polymorphed unicorn forcefully once, making her wince and attempt to reach up, but she was immediately shoved and pinned back as the sapphire mare glared down at her child angrily. “I am not weak. Scrivener is not weak. Thy mother, Twilight Sparkle, least of all of us... is not weak!”

“Luna... that's enough now, come on.” Twilight said quietly, looking softly over at the young mare, and there was silence for a few moments before the starry-maned winged unicorn nodded moodily and drew back. Innocence still looked shocked: in spite of everything she had said, in spite of everything he had claimed, here she was... terrified of being treated as anything less than a spoiled little girl by the Mutt she still clearly looked at as mentor and best friend and protector.

Scrivener Blooms shook his head a little, putting the last of the groceries Antares had brought away before he turned around and leaned over the counter, sighing quietly as he looked down at the trembling, suddenly-scared... so-young-seeming mare. “Sin... I have to ask; how much of what happened in Heaven was like a game to you? How much of it was just playing along and theater? Do you even really understand what it is to give your body and soul to someone, or did Gymbr just play with you, manipulate you into becoming...”

He broke off, not really wanting to finish that sentence, since all the words he could think of for what Sin had become... well, none of them were exactly pleasant. The charcoal stallion shook his head briefly, and Innocence looked down before she gritted her teeth and muttered, hugging herself tightly: “That's not a question about the Pious... and... and I would. I know the cost. I paid a high cost for this power from Gymbr and... I... I just don't recognize you and Luna as... I mean...”

Innocence stuttered out, then she cursed and scrambled up to her claws, trying to glare across at Luna... but the expression came across as something... petulant but fearful, anxious more than angry. She looked like a toddler who had misbehaved vainly scrambling at straws, to try and turn all the guilt onto her accuser. Her much-better equipped accuser, mentally speaking. “Enough, I'm not interested in... being patronized like this and made a fool of! Whenever I offered myself to you, you always said my free will was my own, that it was disgusting that I would want to obey you as masters, and now that I show the slightest sign of... of trying to follow my own free will, you turn on me, try to force me to obey you! I... trusted you!”

She trembled a little, looking down and biting her lip, and Luna sighed quietly, lowering her head as Scrivener Blooms looked awkwardly away. But Twilight Sparkle was only smiling faintly, studying her daughter for a few moments before she shook her head slowly and said softly: “So you know, in your heart... you're not making the right choice.”

“I am. I am going to make the right choice. The right choice for myself, just not for... all of you. I don't care about any of you. I don't.” Innocence said sharply after a moment, but she was trembling a little before he shoved suddenly away from her family, striding down the front hall and snapping over her shoulder: “I don't care what you say or do! I'm going to become more powerful, and you can either help me and accept me or you can try and get in my way and... I'll go through you if I have to in order to get what I want!”

With that, Innocence slammed through the front door, then shoved it closed behind herself, gritting her teeth and clenching her eyes shut. She forced herself to calm down as she felt her polymorph weakening... and worse, her bubbling emotions were making her confused. Memories near and far in the past were rollicking through her mind, nearly suffocating her as she shivered violently, and everything that Gymbr had taught her was conflicting with all those stupid rules and laws and codes she'd been taught growing up...

But no, that was the easy part to throw off. The hard part was this... this affection she had for her parents, that was... it was making her weak! First she had convinced herself it was okay not to kill them; now she was convincing herself that it would be okay to... to accept Twilight Sparkle as a teacher, to share information with them, to even look up to them, like they could ever properly serve as idols like Gymbr had!

And Gymbr... Gymbr had always taken what he'd wanted from her. Even when... she hadn't wanted him. Even when she had desired for... anything except what Gymbr wanted, even when she cried or begged him to stop... but he had also always made her stronger. He had loved her, he was just... rough, and vicious, and sometimes a little gluttonous, sometimes a little greedy, sometimes a little too passionate for her liking. And not just about his pleasures, no. She had gotten used to that: it was the experimentation that she'd never gotten entirely used to. When Gymbr wanted to test something out on her, nothing would convince him otherwise... no matter how much he had to hurt her and others to do it. No matter how much he might even get hurt himself.

But she had accepted that as a price of living with him. And little-by-little, she had been catching up to the god's mighty power, and now... he was nothing but a broken shell. Now she had simply cast him aside and had no desire to aid him, nor any want of revenge: what was there to avenge, really, after all? She had deserved it, because she had gone ahead and agreed to it at the beginning. And she was weaker than he was. The strong had every right to take what they wanted from the weak; just as she had every right to manipulate every little vulnerability she could in those around her.

Innocence looked up after a moment, and then stared back and forth as she realized she was already walking down the path leading through the Everfree Forest. She had apparently lost herself in her thoughts... and the mare shook her head briefly before she forced herself to take a few calming breaths, soothing herself little-by-little before she lowered her head and muttered: “It... it doesn't matter. They are weak, they are, and they're not going to hurt me. And even if they did, that's... that's fine. It wouldn't be a betrayal. It would be... proof of their strength.”

She stopped, then shook her head and swallowed a little as she felt something... coil inside her. Something that told her that it was one thing to offer herself to them... and it would be an entirely different thing if they just decided to take from her, like Gymbr had taken so much, even if she'd been so blessed, so gifted in return... no, not gifted, not really. All this power she had... it was just payment. Blood payment, for her soul, for her body... not a gift. It had never been a gift.

The young mare shook her head slowly and closed her eyes, breathing uneasily in and out before she finally shuddered a little. And that was what she wanted to be different wasn't it? She wanted to continue to pursue power... to become powerful. To rule over the weak... perhaps as mercilessly, as ruthlessly, and as confidently as Gymbr always had, but also... to be given gifts, and paid tribute. So many had given themselves willingly to Gymbr, after all... and then they were rewarded with such happiness. Hell, Sin herself had given her body and soul willingly to Gymbr – was it? What about the payment... there was always the carrot... and always the stick... – and she had been so happy... never as happy as the Fates, never as happy as when she ruled...

She didn't completely understand what love was anymore. To her, love came with costs and prices: love was a thing you could buy, and love was a thing you could sell, and oh, it always sold for more than she thought it was actually worth. But with her parents... everything she'd learned with Gymbr wasn't working. And power... they were making her stray from her pursuit of it. And she hated it... and yet still, she strayed. She wanted more, yes... but what she hungered for was this... love.

She wondered silently if this was what Imago felt like, after so long without emotions: she wondered, for a moment, whether or not she had developed a taste for emotions herself. After all, she didn't know what she truly was: she looked like a cross between an equine and a Tyrant Wyrm, born of a Lich and a Clockwork Pony. She called herself unicorn... she took the form of a unicorn... but she didn't know what she really was. That was why she liked to call herself 'goddess:' it blotted out everything else, and meant she didn't have to worry about any identity other than just that: the goddess. The nearly-all-powerful. The ruler.

Sin lowered her head, trembling a little. And now where was she? In an entirely alien world, surrounded by chances, opportunities... vulnerabilities to exploit. And that's precisely what she was trying to do, scurrying around, seizing into every weakness, trying to play all these ponies, all these different cards, travel all these different routes to power... and all she was doing was spreading herself so thin that instead of getting anything, she was just getting herself played by each and every pony she came across.

She... she needed to focus, focus on one thing, focus on taking advantage of one of these ponies at a time. That was the key, that was the trick, that was what she needed to do with herself. The mare breathed slowly in and out as she slowed her pace a little, dropping her head forwards until she finally came to a halt beneath an old, enormous oak tree, leaning against it and closing her eyes tightly as he tried to sort out... everything.

Power. Above all, she wanted power... she would do anything for more power. She couldn't let herself get distracted by the... how good these emotions felt, how she could all-but-taste them, how... how it was all playing tricks with her mind. She shivered a little, reaching up and digging her claws into the wood before she looked up along this ancient, timeworn tree, then she shook her head briefly and whispered: “But... Gymbr was struck down. He thought he was so powerful that no one would ever challenge him... apart from the Light, I mean. He thought... he was beyond flaw, beyond wrong, beyond being accused, because he could punish anyone who got in his way... he thought by boldly being so powerful, showing such strength... no one would ever risk rebellion against him. Would ever try to hurt him, let alone stand up to him...”

But he had been wrong. So clearly, completely wrong, hadn't he? Innocence looked down silently, thinking about how Gymbr had stupidly tried to change all of reality, had challenged the natural order, had attempted to override the very instincts of society at large...

Sin closed her eyes. Strong kings, good kings, tyrant kings... they were all overthrown. They were all targeted and crushed. Even the fiercest barbarian warlord was eventually slaughtered like a mewling calf, even the wiliest, sharpest tactician couldn't escape being a victim of his own war machines sooner or later. When you taught people, they would turn those teachings against you. When you rose your head high, they would go for your exposed throat. When you tried to help them up, they would drag you down into the mud.

No one was immune to that. No one could last forever on a pedestal, as a target... and Sin turned her eyes away as she grasped both claws into the tree, gritting her teeth before her eyes narrowed slightly in thought. But there were certain time-honored positions, used by fairytale villains and all too often in real life as well that were nice and safe, that offered prestige but also protection... the role of the adviser... the role of the councilor... the role of... a good daughter, even. Or a servant... a servant, who in reality, was the master. But they held up their puppet carefully in front of them, they gave their puppet advice and strength, and even as they built up their own secret agendas and pockets of influence and power, they were careful to do it in secret, in safety...

Innocence licked her lips slowly, then she nodded briefly and dug her claws into the oak tree... then looked up with a smile as the tree groaned and rumbled, the large, heavy branches visibly stirring as black veins spilled through it. The mare injected both magic and corruption into the tree as she grinned slowly, her eyes gleaming as an idea came to mind that delighted her, that let her tell herself it was all for her benefit, her power... but made some little part of her, some hidden part of her, cavort childishly in delight at the thought of how it would let her bask in that parental love, that feeling of... safety she had already become addicted to.

Although admittedly, that was in her best interests as well, wasn't it? And maybe she could slow down her manipulations, draw out what she was doing, take her time and really start putting ideas in her parents' heads. Make them think that they were changing her, 'helping' her after all... then start making little nudges. Giving extra little directions. Getting what she was after... what she desired so badly. More power... and oh, was she really the helpless daughter, the pleasant little servant, if they would share more of that unconditional love with her... if they were going to protect her from any dangers that might come her way and try to harm her.

Innocence slid away from the tree as it rumbled, and then she smiled up over it. The oak had turned almost completely black, and enormous vines had sprouted all along its length, covered in deadly, poisonous thorns. The branches twisted by themselves, and dark, toxic sap slowly bled from wounds in the pulsing bark. “And even after I become stronger than them... I can just continue to pretend to serve them. I... maybe I'll even do it willingly... but I'll still be the most powerful there. Gymbr was an idiot...”

Innocence reached up, slowly stroking along the blackened bark of the oak tree. “He had to show all the worlds he was the most powerful thing in the universe... and they tore him apart. Literally, in his case...” Innocence smiled and shook her head slowly. “But why? Why is it so important to bark loudest if you're already the biggest Hellhound in the pack? I get it now... that's why Aunt Tia is always so quiet. That's why she lets everyone else advance first and waits calmly back, even though she can kill a dragon with a single flick of her horn.”

The polymorphed unicorn tapped her claws absently against the tree, then she licked her lips slowly and looked down. Love... but... would they really love her? Or if she offered herself to them, would they... no, they wouldn't. They weren't like Gymbr, eager to learn, to experiment and enhance. Their Greater Nightmares were nothing compared to the abominations Gymbr had created, and even Scrivener's Talons or Luna's horn were little in comparison to that awful soulstone core Gymbr had stuck in his own chest...

They were weak. But they were weak in a way she felt... comfortable with. They were like... like pillows, or beds, or... well, other soft things that weren't really completing her metaphor, but all the same she associated with comfort. Innocence smiled a little as she stepped away from the tree calmly, then watched as a living vine twisted around and snagged a squirrel by the throat, choking the life out of it. She made things strong... but weakness was okay now and then, too. If it was the right sort of weakness... the sort she could exploit, manipulate, protect herself with.

Luna and Scrivener had power, certainly. What made them so weak was their refusal to use that power, no matter what the situation was. Was their desire to grant things... mercy, and reprieves. Was the fact that her tears alone had been enough to stop them from doing whatever they wanted, and how they had just allowed her to walk away. She was certainly very glad that they had, but... all the same, part of her was actually disappointed, and even with how twisted she had been, part of her recognized how... strange that was.

She shook her head briefly, then decided to attribute it to... silly things, instead. She was getting too used to the ways of these weak ponies, her mind was getting all... jumbled up with how she'd been raised compared to the world she'd come to actually live in. The mare nodded a few times to herself at this, and then she turned and strode calmly onwards down the path, headed for Ponyille as she let her thoughts turn to schemes and strange dreams and wishful, longing thoughts that no pony should have, a faint smile lingering over her features as she thought of all the ways she could use the weakness of her parents to her advantage... all the strength she could gain from them... and all the delights that she was going to experience in her future, as the willing slave, the servant that pulled her parents' strings.

And behind her, the corrupted tree swayed and gurgled, not understanding its own life, only able to follow its instinct to kill everything soft and fleshy and small that came its way.

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