• 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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Chapter Forty Seven: Atrocities

They spent the night in the library with Celestia... or maybe it was really Freya they spent the night with, considering how raucous she and Luna got. They sang, and they argued, and Celestia teased them and simply... relaxed.

But by morning, Celestia settled and seemed to regain her old, calm composure, like the coming of the sun was helping to settle Freya's spirit. And as Luna and Celestia sat side-by-side on a balcony off the second floor, watching the sun rise, the ivory mare said softly: “Thank you. I appreciate you being here... reminding me that while we're waiting for war... we have to celebrate. We have to take our joy where we can find it.”

Luna only smiled at this, replying softly: “Well, thou hast my thanks for dealing so well with being Freya. As I recall, thy old self used to pummel me for trying to cheer thee up more oft than thou embraced me. So 'twas a pleasure to see thee loosen up for mine own selfish reasons.”

Celestia shook her head slowly, smiling despite herself before she turned her eyes upwards, watching as the sun slowly rose over the horizon before she murmured: “Sometimes a little selfishness is a good thing, Luna. It's funny, but... I wish that I could focus on the little details individually, instead of always seeing the big picture and the thousands of things that make it up all at once. If I could just learn to look at what I do have instead of everything that's wrong, I think I'd be a much happier person.”

Luna nodded a few times, and there was silence for a few moments before the starry-maned mare smiled over at Celestia. “Write a letter to Morning Glory. And gather up the Fates, unless... well, thou hast not lost control of them already, hast thou?”

The ivory mare was silent, then she shook her head slowly and murmured: “But part of me... probably that Freya part... almost wishes that I had. They're so sad, Luna... puppets, just reflecting what's going on around them. Even if they do have some kind of... of self locked away inside them, I don't know how often it actually comes to the surface... and I'm not sure it would be anything but cruelty to try and make them remember who they are.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Celestia shook her head briefly before she gave a faint smile over to Luna. “No. After they reported back in to me, I sent Imago, Dusk, and Myre on patrols, and Twilight Shadow is doing research in the engineering building. I'm surprised you haven't run into them... not as surprised they haven't returned yet. I told them to do a full patrol of the surrounding area and then to help out the Nibelung until the shift change.”

The sapphire mare nodded thoughtfully, then she shrugged a bit and said finally: “Well, perhaps we shall see them when we leave then, Celestia. And as dearly as I would enjoy staying here and chatting with thee, I think 'tis time for us to go. But again, get in touch with Morning Glory, gather the Fates, and if Hel does not contact us soon, then we shall force a contact with her.”

Celestia smiled over at the ivory mare, then she nodded slowly and said softly: “I agree, Luna. I think that would be the best possible solution for all of us.”

Luna nodded firmly back, and then she leaned over and suddenly kissed her sister's cheek, making Celestia blink in surprise before the starry maned mare smiled up at her. “'Twas good to spend time with the old Freya, but I love thee as Celestia more because thou art truly my sister, and we are both ponies... which makes it much easier to pretend we are equals, when I know thou shall always be... a little better than me, hard as that is to admit. But 'tis... 'tis all well and good, perhaps. Thou art my big sister, after all, and a juggernaut, as Scrivy calls thee.”

Celestia laughed and shook her head slowly, and then she reached up and squeezed her sister's shoulder gently, saying softly: “And I appreciate the simple fact... you're here, Luna, and you know how to treat me. As Freya, or as Celestia. Come back soon.”

“We shall. I simply desire to get Innocence home... for a mare who claims to be immortal and a goddess and 'old as Antares' – as if that is old at all to me! – she does not seem all that different from when she was a foal, now that she is passed out on the floor downstairs.” Luna paused, cocking her head and closing one eye as she looked through Scrivener's gaze, and then she smiled slightly. “Aye. Sleeping and drooling a little. Just like a foal.”

“Then go, and... make sure she spends some time with Twilight Sparkle. I think we're very slowly getting through to your daughter, it's just... going to take time. And patience. More patience than I might have.” Celestia smiled after a moment down at the sapphire mare, who gazed back up warmly. “It never fails to amaze me what you're capable of when you put your mind to it.”

“Aye. I find it rather impressive myself.” Luna said cheerfully as she turned away, striding calmly through the guest room as she called easily over her shoulder: “Ensure thou gets some rest when thou can, Celestia, there is no point in working thyself to the bone yet.”

Then Luna exited the room, heading to the stairs and down to the first floor... and softening at the sight of Scrivener Blooms standing with Innocence on his back, the polymorphed unicorn half-curled up on top of her father and snoring softly, her claw instinctively clutching against his mane and body. Twilight Sparkle was gazing tenderly over the both, and Scrivener simply shrugged a little before he said softly: “Bob ran off already.”

“He has never been good at farewells. Nor is Celestia.” Luna said softy, and then she smiled a little and shook her head briefly. “But all is well and good. Scrivener Blooms, Twilight Sparkle... let us return home. Innocence looks as if she will sleep for a year and a day. We can check in upon Poe and his companions whilst there, then perhaps Scrivy and I will return to Ponyville to... perhaps we shall try and speak with Gymbr again. We have been putting it off enough.”

“I guess she forgot that... using magic so much can catch up with you.” Twilight stopped, then gazed softly over her daughter and murmured: “Look at her, though... still polymorphed, even deep asleep like she is. Her control's gotten incredible.”

“No, Twilight. Her power alone is incredible. If she had control, she would truly be marvelous... perhaps better than even thou art.” Luna replied gently, smiling faintly after a moment before she shook her head briefly. “But come. Let us not meander any longer than we already have. We have already wasted enough time as it is, after all.”

The stallion nodded, and Twilight Sparkle glanced back and forth before smiling as she heard a quiet chittering, looking up to see Ratatoskr peering curiously down at them from a shelf. “You help take care of Bob and Celestia now, okay? Even if it's just to hang around a little. I know they both really appreciate having the company.”

Ratatoskr almost seemed to nod, chirping a few times before he hopped down from the shelf, scurrying quickly over the wall to vanish into a nook, and Twilight shook her head with a quiet laugh. Then she turned her warm eyes to her partners, and they both nodded before striding towards the door, Innocence only mumbling a little on her father's back and curling herself up tighter.

Innocence was dreaming: she was just a little foal again in these dreams, and she was safe, being carried around by her Father, who loved and adored her. Móðer and Mother were both nearby, and in the dream she didn't feel hatred or jealousy... she was happy. They were in a dark world, and the ground was mire... but the forest around them was beautiful, full of life, and there was freedom, and serenity, and joy in the air. Everyone was happy... at least most of the time. It wasn't a perfect world, where all the problems had been solved, but they did what they could to make the world a better place.

It was such a simple dream, but she felt so content: She felt like everything was coming together, and everything was going to be okay. She could trust. She could love. No one was going to use that against her again, no one was going to hurt her, and she didn't need to be the most powerful thing in existence to ensure she was safe...

And then, from not far away, she heard it: gorgeous, beautiful music, a flute trilling through the air and calling to her, inviting her to enter a new, perfect world. She looked up with excitement, her eyes widening as she gazed off into the distance through the trees, and she saw fairies and fae and all the other things she'd believed in as a foal, as good things, as nice things, as wonderful things, all dancing around a bright, brilliant beacon of white light...

Innocence began to reach towards it, smiling, delighted, thrilled... and then suddenly she was falling, everything around her gone, hurtling down into darkness head over heels as she screamed in fear before her eyes widened in terror as she straightened into a dive and saw ice and skeletons and all the stuff of her nightmares waiting down below-

She covered her eyes with a cry of fear, then crashed painfully down into the ground before panicking as she felt something grabbing at her. She flailed violently, her horn glowing brightly before she squeaked in agony as electricity blasted from her horn in every direction, charring her own scales and knocking whatever was trying to grab her stumbling away.

Then she opened her eyes... and blinked stupidly as she stared dumbly up into the air, awkwardly raising her head and looking back and forth before she smiled lamely at the sight of her parents. Luna was glowering at her, Scrivener was awkwardly rubbing at his chest, and Twilight Sparkle was looking at her with concern, the violet mare asking: “Are you okay?”

“Y-Yes... I'm... I just thought I saw...” Innocence said shakily, looking back and forth before she shivered a little, dropping all her usual acts as for some reason, happiness curdled into fear and loathing in her stomach at the thought of that strange, brilliant light.

Scrivener frowned, and Luna tilted her head slowly, saying softly: “Thou hast not done such a thing as this since thou wert a child, Innocence... and furthermore, thou only ever cried thunder when something threatened thee or made thou truly furious. Sometimes both.”

The polymorphed mare shifted uneasily, and then she shook her head... before her ears pricked up, and her eyes widened as she heard that beautiful music again. But she was wide awake, and she was still hearing it, and to her conscious mind it sounded far different than it had in her unconscious. Oh, it was powerful, and cloying, and sweet... but in the same way the scent of rot was. It was an insult, an assault on the senses, a reek-made-sound that caused her stomach to clench and made shivers run up and down her spine.

And she couldn't answer her Mutt. She couldn't speak, unable to do anything but whimper as she felt herself dragged up to her claws despite how hard she was suddenly trying to pull back, feeling her thoughts going fuzzy as that music rippled through her mind. Her horn sparked painfully, but the haze growing through her mind was blocking out her magic, making it impossible to do anything but vainly shake her body and follow the compulsion of the rotting music...

The other three ponies stared as Innocence was visibly pulled to her feet by some... outside force. She was like a puppet being pulled by some artless, careless practitioner, her body humping up high and her limbs shivering as they struggled to support her on the very tips of her claws, gurgling and shaking her head wildly.

Twilight Sparkle was the first to react, looking sharply over the mare and assessing her before the violet winged unicorn snapped her horn quickly, and Innocence gasped as she felt magic wrapping tightly around her before she stumbled as her senses were suffocated by the rumbling force of energy. She looked stupidly back and forth, mouthing wordlessly as she felt her mind going numb... but it was a completely different sensation than the compulsion and the daze that had blanked out her thoughts before. She breathed hard in and out before shivering a little, reaching up and grasping her face with both claws as she shivered.

She tried to say something, but she was able to do little more than groan loudly. She could barely feel her face, let alone think... and when she opened her eyes, everything was a blur, just like all she could hear was... rumbles, mumbles. And the mare blinked heavily a few times before he trembled, tears almost pricking at her eyes as a surge of childish emotion tore through her. Twilight Sparkle had just done it again: a single flick of magic, and all her senses were blanked out. All her power, and she was helpless, and Mommy had come to the rescue again.

Innocence tried to curse, but it was muffled and weak. She trembled and gritted her teeth, and then she felt Twilight Sparkle soothingly rubbing a hoof along her back, and it made her so... it made her so goddamn upset, and it made her so... so...

She trembled a little, and then Twilight leaned in close, asking her quietly: “What was it? Was it aural or was it psychic? I need to know what sense I have to blanket out...”

“I... I can do it...” It was hard to talk, but she forced the word out all the same before she focused, gritting her teeth and powering through the discomfort and dizziness to concentrate her magic and then snap her horn upwards, blocking out her ability to hear. She took a slow breath, and then she straightened slowly, looking warily back and forth before she mumbled: “It's... it was a sound. It's music... can't you hear it?”

Twilight frowned at this, and Luna and Scrivener traded looks before the sapphire mare bared her teeth and said coldly: “There is only one foe we have met that uses music.”

“But we can't hear it. I mean, I can't hear anything... I don't think you two can hear anything, do you?” Scrivener Blooms said uneasily, looking back and forth before the charcoal stallion frowned a little, concentrating and drawing on the senses of both mares he was bound to as he muttered: “Wait... I... I can pick up little bits and pieces of...”

“Cacophony. 'Tis awful. Discordant.” Luna grimaced as she felt the faintest strings of music touch her own ears when she raised them as high as she could... but to her, they sounded out of tune, surreal, and more like a warning than an invitation. “Where is it coming from...”

Innocence looked uneasily back and forth: she wasn't able to tell what her parents were saying at the moment, but she could tell by their expressions that it probably wasn't anything pleasant. Then her eyes widened as Twilight Sparkle gestured to them and they began to stride towards the edge of the forest, the polymorphed mare leaping forwards and blurting before she could stop herself: “Please wait! You... you can't!”

Twilight only turned a reassuring smile to Innocence, beginning to speak... then catching herself when she remembered Innocence had just deafened herself for the moment. The violet mare studied her daughter, then she grasped her shoulders and gently pushed her back, before the Lich pointed calmly in the direction of home.

And without fear or hesitation, she turned calmly around and strode into the forest, with Scrivener and Luna following shortly after, Innocence trembling and staring in disbelief as her parents simply... left her. Walked into danger without her, as she shook her head wordlessly before whispering weakly: “But... I'm... I'm strong...”

But was she? She had been the only one who could hear the siren's song at first, but she was also the only one who had been affected by it... and the polymorphed unicorn grasped at her features as she shivered hard, magic stuttering over her body, beginning to lose her shapeshifted disguise as she fought back tears and emotions before turning and bolting down the path in the direction of... of home. Because that was where she had been told to go, and she didn't know anymore what else she could do.

Twilight Sparkle could feel the ripples of magic in the air from how upset her daughter was, and it killed her inside... but all the same, she forced herself not to look back. She forced herself to keep moving, lowering her head as her horn lowed and she used magic to scan for the source of the noise, Scrivener and Luna both striding on either side of her and reassuring her silently.

But even worried about her daughter as she was, she wasn't distracted enough to fail to notice the... the noiselessness. Apart from their hooves crunching quietly against the ground, the only sound came from the trees bending and groaning, and the occasional rustle of what was more likely living flora than fauna. No animals were scurrying about, no bugs buzzing, no birds singing...

Then Twilight looked up sharply as she detected something, gritting her teeth... before her eyes widened when of all ponies, Monkshood poked his head out from behind a tree before he scowled at them. There was a certain amount of relief in his eyes too, however, even as Luna asked sourly: “And precisely what has brought thou out on the prowl, farkasember? Are there tasty rabbits to be nibbled on? Hast thou finished gorging thyself on tax dollars, and now feel like a yearling or two for dessert?”

Monkshood smiled icily at this, even as he replied evenly: “If we could dispense with the nonsense, Luna Brynhild, it would be most appreciated. As Mayor, my obligations to Ponyville extend into protecting it with... every ability and resource at my disposal.”

Luna frowned at this, tilting her head and leaning forwards “Ponyville, protecting it... what, has something happened in the five minutes since we were gone?”

Monkshood merely nodded, and Luna growled at him in frustration. Before she could spit an insult or say anything else, however, Twilight Sparkle looked up as the music intensified, whispering: “Wait. I felt... that sensation...”

Monkshood looked up as well, his eyes darkening as he bristled a little, almond coat rippling strangely as he growled: “There's the smell. It took the foals.”

“What?” Luna asked sharply, looking over at Monkshood with surprise that turned quickly into fury as she said coldly: “Return to Ponyville. We will bring back the children back. And we will deal with the monster that has taken them. We do not need thy help or Wolfsbane's.”

The almond-colored earth pony regarded them for a few moments, and then he simply nodded briefly before turning and vanishing into the trees. Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight traded looks, and then the three hurried forwards, the sapphire mare growling: “Although the wolf's violence will be nothing compared to mine own. Aye, I feel it too, growing... stronger. We must be quick!”

The three ponies hurried onwards through the Everfree Forest, cutting quickly down a path that the forest itself seemed to shape for them. They ran, and the music grew steadily and louder around them, and the forest itself began to change: oaks and pines and mighty trees had lost their strength here and there, branches withered, bark torn and faded, entire trees transformed by the ill magic into groaning white birches and warped, dying beeches.

These weakened, poisoned trees had formed into a cage, a barrier all around them, and Scrivener could barely believe what he was seeing. A forest of diseased, skeletal trees that they had no choice but to force their way into, one with roots and branches that subtly twisted and turned and changed position to try and slow them down, that swayed with the disjointed, broken melody. But it didn't slow them for long: even as branches all-too-visibly netted down and attempted to form a barrier in their way, Luna only snarled and snapped her horn forwards, sending a blast of blue flame out that shattered the wooden limbs and sent them raining down in all directions.

The three ponies leapt out onto a narrow path of cold sand, and all three looked up in surprise to see several foals smiling dreamily, wandering listlessly down this strange road through the woods and swaying weakly to the toxic melody as they moved. Twilight shot immediately forwards, but then stopped herself before she could grab up one of the children, instead snapping a hoof back to halt Luna when she almost dived right into a foal.

“They're in a somnambulist state... there's no telling what will happen if we try and grab them while they're like this.” Twilight said quickly, shaking her head and shivering as she studied one of the foals. “We... we need to deal with whatever did this...”

“Right here, little ponies!” catcalled a voice, and Twilight looked up in shock as Luna immediately snarled and leapt forwards on instinct, even as a cloaked shape launched itself out of thin air at them... and then it burst apart into smoke the moment before collision, covering them both in smog and making the two cough as the Whistler heehawed with malicious glee. “Oh, I got you good with that! Come on, come on, come on out and play, boys and girlies!”

Luna cursed under her breath, then she looked up and snapped: “We are not to be trifled with, freak of nature, thou art-”

She was cut off as a knife shot at her from the bushes, the sapphire mare turning and slashing her horn into this... and gritting her teeth in surprise as the weapon she deflected ended up being very real. It arced high into the air, then vanished in a flash of light as something in the bushes puffed out in a mass of black smoke, as several more young foals only marched mindlessly onwards into the woods past the three ponies.

Scrivener cursed under his breath, then he slammed a Talon into the ground... and grimaced in disgust as he only managed to turn the ground into mush and ash. His powers and the toxicity in the air and ground were just negating each other. Luna growled in frustration at this, but then both she and Twilight winced and stumbled, bowing their heads forwards as the melody changed and electricity sparked painfully along their horns. “Oh no no no you don't! No tricks this time, babe! You want me, you're gonna have to play hide and seek!”

“'Tis too bad I cheat.” Luna growled, and then she began to sprint down the path, Twilight and Scrivener both grimacing and following quickly after the sapphire mare, the three ponies weaving in and out between hypnotized foals. The Whistler growled at this, and Luna looked back and forth before her eyes widened in horror and she skidded to a halt as she saw a foal sprawled out at the edge of the path, laying broken and... “Monster...”

She reached out and silently touched the foal's body: it was ice cold to the touch. All the heat, the life, the very soul had been drained from the child... there was no pallor, not even a splotch of color left in either mane or body. And Luna trembled with fury, snarling slowly before her eyes blazed with light as her mane and tail burst into blue flames, roaring: “Come out and fight us, coward! Come out and die! We will not stand for this atrocity!”

“But it was so yummy-yummy-in-my-tummy...” whispered a voice, and Luna froze as the Whistler appeared right next to her, the flat of the knife tenderly stroking her throat, its mouth pressed up right against her ear before it murmured: “And he wasn't even my first catch of the day.”

Luna's eyes flicked up as Nightmare Moon twisted violently inside her and Twilight Sparkle snarled in rage, her body trembling, tears pricking at her eyes as Scrivener Blooms dug his claws tightly into the ground, his eyes burning with hate. And then the Whistler snarled as it twisted its blade and tried to tear upwards, but Luna was faster, snapping her head back so the knife narrowly scraped along her throat and the bottom of her muzzle as she stood tall on her rear hooves for a moment, then flapped her wings hard to throw herself away when the Whistler attempted to stab viciously into her breast, her horn snapping down at the same moment to blast him with telekinesis.

He was knocked flying backwards, but vanished in a puff of dark smoke, his mocking laughter echoing all around them before Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight launched forwards, charging down the path again, knowing that wherever the foals were going, the Whistler had to be there.

The trees thinned as they hurried down the path, becoming a wide, spaced-out copse that Luna could see the foals were simply settling in, many seated in groups, some settled into peaceful slumber, some swaying mindlessly with expressions of wonderment on their faces as their hooves swayed back and forth through the air, back and forth, back and forth.

And as Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight skidded to a halt, the Whistler appeared with a puff near the center of this thin section of trees, grinning widely as he snatched up a foal by the back of the neck. And in front of the horrified eyes of the ponies, he held the foal up in front of his maw and inhaled loudly, and the foal writhed for a moment before it lost all color, all vitality, as its very soul was pulled out of its jaws, and devoured greedily into the darkness beneath the Whistler's cloak.

“Stop it! Stop hurting them!” Twilight cried, and her voice was shrill, panicked, terrified... but there was so much hate, so much anger under her tone. Yet the Whistler only laughed, recklessly unafraid of the three ponies before it slung the corpse to the ground... and in front of their horrified eyes, stomped on it viciously.

“Why should I? All are the same under the eyes of my master, the true God of all that is Light!” The monster threw its head back and laughed, spinning the knife easily back and forth to either side of itself. “What's so special about your kiddies, other than their taste? They're ignorant, they're dirty, they're not part of our Great Congregation... and all outsiders will either join our flock, or be exterminated!”

“Hope that I am merciful, monster. Hope that all I do is kill thee...” Luna trembled with fury, eyes glowing before she stomped her hooves down as her fiery mane snapped and whipped around her. “Because if thou survives the battle, it will only be so that I can ensure thou will wish shortly after thou wert never born.”

“I wasn't never anyway.” the Whistler retorted, spinning the knife easily before its eyes gleamed like red spotlights through the darkness beneath the hood, and there was a burst of smoke to either side of the creature before an illusionary copy appeared on either side of the assassin. They looked, felt real, but what gave them away was the faint blurring around their bodies, and the way they didn't disturb the ground as they landed. “Let's party!”

Both illusions launched forwards, and it took all of Luna's strength not to react as they closed in on her, slashing at her with their knives... and passing harmlessly through her before her eyes widened as she saw the Whistler itself vanish in a puff of dark smoke. To either side of her, the illusions popped out of existence as well, and Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight all covered their ears as a maddening melody began to ring and clang through the air, joined and empowered by a chorus line raised by raving foals as they all leapt to their hooves, stomping eagerly and howling along with the cacophonous music.

It distracted Luna... and there was a burst of smoke before a cloaked monster lunged forwards and lashed its knife across her face, sending up a splatter of blood. Luna stumbled, but by the time she whirled to face her aggressor, the monster had already vanished with a cackle.

There was another burst of smoke, and the Whistler leapt in at Twilight Sparkle, who snarled through her tears as she lashed her horn to the side... but the psychokinetic blast did nothing but tear the illusion apart, sending up a blast of dark smog.

Another Whistler appeared beside Scrivener Blooms in a thrum of black smoke, crouched and with knife readied, and he half-turned with a roar and smashed it with a strike from one Talon. But the illusion burst apart into a thick cloud of smog, and the stallion staggered backwards as he heard the damned children laughing at him, mocking him, driving up his already-wild emotions and rage before he howled like a wounded animal when he felt a knife plunge deep into his side, then twist.

The Whistler yanked the weapon back as it skittered away from Scrivener, giggling wildly as the stallion turned with a furious snarl and launched himself at the assassin... but all he hit was another cloud of smoke when the monster vanished in a puff, voice echoing around them: “Oh come on, come on! You can, you gotta, you better do better!”

Two Whistlers appeared, and Luna flexed, baring her fangs... but with the foals all around, she couldn't just blast the entire area with magic, as much as she wanted to. But at the same time, her mind was blurred and enraged, she couldn't focus any of her more precise abilities, and Twilight Sparkle was already blasting telekinesis at one as Scrivener Blooms turned all his attention to the other...

Luna's instincts yelled at her, and the sapphire mare threw herself forwards on instinct: the real Whistler hit the ground with a curse, knife only cutting through the blue flames of her tail, and Luna responded to this by snapping the appendage sharply upwards as she focused all her magic into it, turning her whole tail into a searing whip that lashed across the Whistler's body.

It squealed as it was knocked stumbling backwards, and Twilight Sparkle spun around with a shout of fury, snapping her horn down and sending a fireball rocketing dead-center into the Whistler. The monster howled in misery as the blast of flames exploded against it and sent it rocketing backwards, but it showed off a freakish amount of agility, flipping its body around in midair to catch itself on all fours and skid to a halt.

The monster hissed, its cloak burnt and charred, several pieces of cloth falling around it as the shadows hiding its features flickered in and out. Then it vanished in a puff of smoke... except this time, Luna could almost see it as it moved, a streak of light that shot up into the air above them before there was a puff of smoke, and the Whistler dropped out of this dark smog, aiming straight for Scrivener Blooms.

Two illusionary copies had appeared as well, on either side of the trio, but Luna had already sent a mental warning to the others. So instead of reacting to the illusions, Scrivener snarled as he slashed a Talon out, his own black blood spraying from the claws and forming quickly into sharp needles that shot upwards, peppering the features and body of the monster and knocking it off balance in midair with a yelp.

And then both Luna and Twilight snapped their horns upwards, and blasts of blue flame and psychokinesis hammered viciously into the monster, ripping apart its cloak and knocking it flopping backwards in a squealing arc. It crashed down into a heap of foals, and that was the only thing that stopped the mares from following up, both of them snarling but freezing up: they were both afraid that if they moved in, the monster would lash out and hurt the children.

There was silence for a moment... and then several foals were flung away as the monster yanked itself up, shivering as its cloak fell in burnt, ashen tatters around itself. And both ponies stared in disbelief at what they saw.

The Whistler... was a pony. It was no freakish monster, either, like they had expected from the Pious: it had sharp teeth, and it had three large, thick claws that it grasped its knife with, and a strange assortment of holes down its muzzle... but otherwise it was a handsome, pure-white unicorn, with a lithe build and boyish features half-covered by long golden locks. But its eyes... its eyes were terrible red pits, hellish and somehow empty.

It grinned at them, then licked its teeth before straightening and flicking its mane out of its eyes, saying softly: “Y'all should have just given in, y'know. The Light is coming. No one can stop it. No one should stop it, because we could all be together forever... but instead... because of you...”

The Whistler seized a nearby foal, and the child smiled even as it was hefted into the air by the mane, the Whistler grinning widely as it spun its knife dexterously before the blade ended up at the child's throat. And Luna froze as Twilight's eyes widened, the Lich whispering: “Don't. D-Don't.”

“You treat your little babies so special. But they're not. They're just meat, like all the rest of you ponies.” the Whistler said pleasantly, and then he lowered the knife to rest it lightly against the child's stomach, tickling its navel with the blade as the foal giggled, eye glassy and unaware of what was actually going on. “Me? I was designed with all your likes and loves and dislikes in mind, to sing to you, to get you involved, to make you happy about us believers coming in, to make you celebrate the coming of the Light. But that, sweetpea... is also why it's my job to destroy you.”

With that, the Whistler yanked its knife across the midsection of the foal, and the child screamed in agony as there was a sick tearing, a wet sopping, a fall of red... and then Luna snapped her horn savagely forwards as Twilight lashed out with her own spire, but the Whistler flung the dying foal forwards with a laugh into the blasts of magic.

The foal was instantly turned to stone by the first attack, and the second slammed the statue of the child backwards and smashed it into the Whistler's face, knocking it sprawling with a gurgle of shock. Then Scrivener Blooms leapt forwards, and Luna and Twilight both caught and flung him with telekinesis, sending the stallion across the battlefield just as the Whistler began to stand.

Scrivener smashed into the monster Talons-first, shoving it back down to the ground before straddling it and snarling in fury as he began to pound the monster's face back into the earth. The Whistler howled in agony as its muzzle was crunched in by the strength of the charcoal stallion's blows and rage,before it managed to lash its knife up, nicking Scrivener's features and knocking his head to the side as he cursed and grabbed at his face.

The Whistler shoved him off, then vanished in a puff of black smoke: but it left a streak of white behind itself as it shot through the air before reappearing on the other side of the copse. And Luna was already lashing her horn down, a blade of energy shooting through the air towards the Whistler, but the monster ducked the high attack with a wide grin-

The blade of energy slashed through the birch tree behind it, and the tall trunk fell heavily, crashing down on top of the Whistler and smashing it into the ground before Twilight Sparkle's horn glowed brightly. The tree tore itself apart as it became a writhing mass of vines and thorns instead of wood, these wrapping violently around the Whistler and constricting him painfully as he howled in frustration, before wincing in pain as the vines turned to green stone.

Scrivener Blooms seized into the emerald rock with a snarl before he half-turned and flung it towards the mares: Twilight Sparkle caught it with a crushing telekinetic grip as Luna concentrated her magic, her eyes and soulstone horn pulsing with power as the Whistler struggled helplessly against his bonds, the physical and magical restraints making it impossible for him to escape before Luna shouted furiously: “This will be the fate of all thy kind, so-called angel!”

Luna's horn flashed, and blue flames burst into life over the green stone, the monster howling in misery as it writhed uncontrollably in the pyre. It screamed, eyes widening, head shaking in denial, its maw working wildly as its features rapidly began to thin out, making the creature skinny, then gaunt, then almost skeletal as it shrieked: “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

Luna only grinned savagely as Twilight bore down all the harder, breathing hard as Scrivener bared his fangs up at the monster... and then all three ponies were knocked stumbling as the Whistler suddenly tore itself free in a burst of green shrapnel and dark smog, landing with a ragged gasp and stumbling back and forth before it shook itself hurriedly out.

Its mane and tail had been entirely burnt away, leaving nothing but a tiny, flicking stub and a few burnt, strangled hairs, and the spiritual essence of its body had been devoured, leaving it nothing but an emaciated shell. But if anything, its hellish red eyes burned all the brighter with insanity and rage, and only the muscle was left and flexing eagerly with its weight freed of any excess.

“You gonna die for that!” it snared, and then it leapt forwards and vanished in a burst of smoke, a streak of light shooting on a sharp, narrow angle above Luna before it reappeared and dropped from the sky, slashing its knife down. But Luna leaned up and met the blow with her own horn, repelling the attack before she lashed the spire outwards and blasted the Whistler away with telekinesis.

It vanished in a puff of smoke, its telltale light streaking away before it reappeared beside a group of foals, and it lashed a claw into this to pick one of the children up. But something in Twilight snapped as she saw its jaws opening wide, saw the way this disgusting, mangled monster eagerly leaned down as energy wafted up from the child's body towards its gaping jaws-

The mare slashed her horn down, and a blade of dark energy shot through the air, slicing through the monster's wrist and knocking it staggering backwards with a scream. No blood, but only a strange, putrid steam burst from the wound, the Whistler dropping its knife to clutch at its missing appendage before Luna snapped her horn viciously upwards, and crescents of ice tore upwards all around the monster as it flinched.

It looked back and forth, grinning widely as it realized none of the large, curving blades had hit it... and then Nightmare Moon smiled coyly through Luna's mouth before the winged unicorn's soulstone horn glowed as she said softly: “Goodbye.”

She flicked her horn almost disdainfully, and the Whistler screamed as the blades surrounding it all snapped inwards, slicing apart what couldn't be crushed, crushing what couldn't be sliced apart. Then Luna's smile stretched into a cruel grin as she snapped her horn downwards, and the blades trembled before twisting cruelly inwards, crunches sounding from the corpse as sapphire flames burst into life over the prison of ice.

There was silence for a few moments as Luna trembled, and then she let out a slow breath as the malevolent light faded from her eyes. She shook her head briefly, then closed her eyes tightly as the last strings of music faded from the copse of trees around them, foals either slumping into unconsciousness or groggily pulling themselves to them hooves.

Luna and Scrivener looked silently around at the foals, and Twilight tossed the rapidly-melting prison of ice a single disgusted look before she hurried towards the foal that they had petrified. She trembled, looking down at its frozen expression of agony, and then she drew her eyes downwards to its stomach... or rather, the... the... s-stop it. Get it together. “We... okay. If we take him to Ponyville, they can save him. We'll just have to turn him back... very slowly. And put a sleeping spell on-”

The prison of ice shattered, the blue flames whiffing out, and the explosion sent Twilight Sparkle rolling backwards and foals screaming and panicking as the Whistler tore itself upwards, screaming: “You stupid ponies really think I'm that soft?”

Twilight Sparkle shrieked, and Luna and Scrivener ran forwards as the monster dragged itself slowly forwards on its single whole front limb, broken, mangled back legs wobbling behind it as its twisted and distorted body shivered violently. It was burnt, blackened, scarred and devastated: it looked nothing like a pony anymore, and Twilight Sparkle stared in horror as she scrambled away from it, the Whistler rasping: “T-This... this is just the... s-s-start... you don't understand, you don't... get it, do you? You stupid... stupid ponies!”

The Whistler dragged itself up to the petrified pony, and then it looked down at the foal before raising a hoof as if to crush this... and all the fear in Twilight turned to anger, her eyes flashing as she sent all that rage and hate and fear in a single blast of raw magic at the Whistler.

The monster was smashed backwards, wildly flailing it foreleg as its hind legs scraped and kicked at the ground before it flopped down, gasping and breathing hard as it stared across at Twilight Sparkle for a few moments... then gave a weak, twisted grin, shivering for a few moments before it whispered: “You stupid ponies. We are all nothing more than meat. We are all part of the Great Plan, even better than the Holy Word, by the real master, the true God of Light. And all of us gots a part to play in his designs. Even the Low Born like me... even the unwashed like you.”

The Whistler giggled to himself, and then he threw his head back and sang out a long, wordless cry that echoed up towards the skies, making the air reverberate with its force, sending the rest of the foals scattering in terror as waves of force and sound ripped through the world. It drove Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight backwards until they fell in together side-by-side, staring at the creature as its voice split the air and it stared upwards as if in euphoria...

And then a massive, white-iron casket fell from the sky, crushing the Whistler in a splatter of the little gore that remained. The three ponies stared in disbelief at the dark comedy of what had just happened... except a moment later, the two realized it was anything but, as runes slowly began to draw themselves up from the bottom over the face of the heavy, layered casket. Over what Luna realized, from the stylized arms etched over the front of it as if it was hugging itself, from the grill in the face of the sarcophagus that was marked with holy symbols she didn't realize... was an iron maiden.

The case shook violently as the three ponies set themselves, and an awful wailing tore out of the maw of the casket as those runes slowly continued to scrawl up the face of the casing. Luna bared her fangs as Scrivener set himself and Twilight Sparkle looked back and forth, then she looked almost desperately at her partners. And without looking at her, they both nodded sharply to the Lich, who broke quickly away to snatch up the petrified foal with telekinesis and turn, shouting: “Kids, come on, get out of here! This way, follow this path back to Ponyville, you have to go now, run, run and don't stop for anything!”

The Iron Maiden shuddered violently again, the sense of malice growing heavier in the air as the two ponies prepared themselves, watching as the runes spread completely over the shivering casket... and then it simply stopped.

There was silence, apart from the sound of Twilight Sparkle guiding the last of the foals out of the field and sending them running down the path, dropping the petrified foal in what she hoped would be a safe place for now before she turned around. But then her eyes widened, and she stumbled to a stop to drop automatically to the ready... even though she was anything but. Except none of them could be prepared for what happened next, for what they saw as the iron maiden's doors slowly swung open.

The casket itself was large, terrifying... but the thing that pushed out of the casket just seemed to unfurl and unfold and stretch out and out and out, body draped in heavy chains that clinked and clanked around itself as it slowly stood. Its maw was lipless, huge teeth yellowed and disjointed, the upper half of its flat, rubbery features covered almost entirely by a rotting blindfold.

It was Pious, and yet not: it didn't have the countless joints of the Angels of Greater Heaven, but its upper arms were short fat and thick, with huge, tumorous shoulders. But its forearms were long and thin, feeding down into agile-fingered hands with curling, hooked nails. Enormous manacles kept its hands only inches apart, but its fingers were already grasping greedily as it hissed loudly at the three ponies, a long, forked tongue flopping out of its jaws.

The monster's legs were thick and short, covered in spikes and draped in more chains, while it had a long, draconic tail that was covered in spikes, and ended in a dangerous, bladed anchor. Needle-like spines stuck out all along its back, shivering violently as it leaned forwards and shook itself, and mangled, torn-apart wings hung limply from its shoulderblades as it rasped loudly, the ponies feeling the sheer waves of hate and malice emanating off this awful, broken thing before they all felt the gathering of energy too late to react.

The monster leaned forwards and screamed at them, and Scrivener and Luna had enough time to look down in shock before cracks ripped through the ground beneath them and vomited upwards, spikes of rock and stone and chunks of earth erupting in all directions and pelting them with filth and chunks of clay and gravel and shrapnel.

They were flung in opposite directions, both covered in bruises and wounds as Twilight flinched, several rows of stitches snapping open before she shivered as the ground collapsed back into place, staring in disbelief. The power was tremendous, but even if she'd never seen magic like that before, she had felt that same sensation. That same immense force...

“Nephilim.” Twilight whispered, and the monster, the half-Pious, half-something else, immediately turned towards her. The Lich saw into it, and the monster glared back into the Lich, and Twilight felt herself slinging a spell even before she knew the beast was responding with a blast of magic of its own.

Blades of earth tore out of the ground on an angle towards her, but were torn apart by a blast of raw force, stony shrapnel flung into the air before Twilight Sparkle gritted her teeth and caught the chunks of rock with telekinesis. She snapped her horn violently forwards, and there was a whipcrack as the stones were launched through the air with tremendous force, smashing violently in the Nephilim and knocking it staggering backwards with a scream of pain against the iron maiden.

The beast shuddered, the rocks leaving bruises, and Luna's eyes sharpened as she looked up. Selene had taught them two things about Nephilim, that were confirmed by this monster in front of them: one was that they were incredibly powerful... and the second was that the tradeoff for all that power stored inside them was that they had surprisingly-fragile bodies.

She leapt up to her hooves, then flung herself into the air, snarling and snapping her horn out to launch a blue fireball at the Nephilim. But in response, the monster only glared up at her with its blindfolded features, her magic canceled out by a wave of psychic force that battered Luna backwards and filled her mind with pain before the monster threw its head back and screamed as Scrivener tried to scramble into a wild charge at the creature.

A whopping surge of telekinesis blasted outwards in all directions, driving Luna and Scrivener backwards and even making Twilight wince, before the Nephilim howled as it almost twisted on itself, a second shockwave of tremendous force tearing through the air and surging through the ground. The sapphire mare was battered painfully away by it, while Scrivener Blooms was knocked off his claws as if a tidal wave had just torn through the earth beneath him. The wave of force that followed it was enough to knock the wind out of him and send him flying through the air, bouncing painfully over the broken land before he cursed and rolled to a halt beside Twilight Sparkle, who had barely managed to anchor herself against the blast. And yet what happened to the stallion wasn't nearly as awful as it could have been from the trees that had been both uprooted and torn into splinters all around them.

“We have to distract and flank it! It's not going to let any of our magic past, and we need to get close to it!” Twilight Sparkle shouted, and Scrivener winced and grimaced as he stood up, shaking himself out hurriedly before he and the Lich both ran forwards without needing any further discussion, Luna hovering in the air above before she grimaced and flew skywards, going just beyond the safe distance she could be from Scrivener Blooms and gritting her teeth as she bore through the pain.

The charcoal stallion and the violet mare split to either side, and the Nephilim only snarled as it reached back, seizing the lip of the iron maiden with both hands before it half-spun and flung the heavy metal casket at Twilight Sparkle. The Lich cursed as she dropped on her stomach and snapped her horn upwards, barely diverting the case past her with telekinesis: it arced high thanks to her telekinetic spike, crashing down a moment later on one side of the Lich as she felt recoil twisting painfully over her horn: whatever else, the iron maiden was clearly designed to resist all kinds of magical forces.

Scrivener Blooms, meanwhile, thought he was actually going to be able to get in close... but then the Nephilim simply turned towards him and howled, and a blast of sonic force tore over the charcoal stallion, driving him backwards with a snarl of pain as the wind itself threatened to tear his hide open from the sheer pressure passing over him.

Then the Nephilim turned towards him, slamming its hands down into the earth, and the stallion was battered backwards by several large spikes of rock that tore out of the ground, cursing in frustration as black blood splattered in all directions. Luna cringed in midair, but then shook herself violently and bared her teeth: the wounds weren't actually that deep, but they were painful enough that it hurt like hell, and thin gashes had appeared over her body...

But on the bright side, the monster had drawn its attention away: Twilight Sparkle was trying to rush forwards again, and the Nephilim struck at her with more earth magic. Luna took the chance it granted her, dropping like a stone from high above as her soulstone horn glowed brightly, preparing herself to strike-

The Nephilim's arms suddenly shot upwards as the creature arched its back, and Luna choked as the beast caught her by the throat with its long but terribly-strong fingers, crushing viciously down on her as she gasped and grasped uselessly at its manacled wrists. Chains clanked and swayed around the Nephilim as it straightened slowly, holding Luna high above its head like a sacrifice as Scrivener's eyes bulged and bruises formed around his own neck, feeling flesh crushing inwards and contorting as the monster squeezed.

Twilight spasmed in pain, then bared her teeth, all that pent-up frustration and anger in her system boiling over as she straightened and rose her horn high. It glowed with black light as her eyes flashed with malign energies, and then she snapped her horn forwards, a burst of dark light illuminating a cruel grin over her face for a moment as the magical recoil from the blast launched her into the air, but she smoothly flapped her wings to use the momentum to launch herself backwards.

The wild blast of dark energies solidified itself into a spear of black malevolence a moment before it tore into the Nephilim's stomach, and the monster wailed and stumbled backwards as its grip loosened and it curled forwards.

Twilight lashed her horn down, then sketched several sharp runes through the air; these same runes drew themselves rapidly over the surface of the spear of dark matter, glowing a painful white before the spear violently expanded inside and through the Nephilim, more than doubling in size and making the monster screech as it all-but-crumpled.

It fell to its knees as it lost it grip on Luna with one hand, the other barely clutching her neck as its long arms helplessly moved down as if to shield itself, and the sapphire mare flapped her wings hard and managed to wrench herself free. The monster clawed at her, but Luna slashed her horn down, almost tearing one of the Nephilim's hands in half before she dove down in a violent corkscrew, smashing directly into the creature's face and knocking it as far over as the spear of dark energy would allow before she landed on its gangly, bent-backwards chest and began to hammer her front hooves viciously down into its features.

At the same time, Twilight Sparkle lashed her horn back and forth, thick brambles ripping out of the ground around the Nephilim to snap around its throat and wrists and body, restraining it and leaving it defenseless before her eyes locked on Scrivener Blooms as the stallion charged in. And without needing to warn him, the violet mare snapped her horn upwards, the ground in front of the stallion ripping upwards into a ramp that he quickly loped up before flinging himself forwards.

Luna twisted to the side, letting Scrivener pass through the space where she had been a moment before even as she swept her horn down as the stallion drew a foreleg back; the spire struck one of Scrivener's Talons in a hail of sparks, and the metal claw burst into blue flames before Scrivener struck out with it, slamming a rending slice into the face of the Nephilim.

The monster shrieked as it was knocked backwards, ripping the horrible wound through its body wider before it screamed to the skies, and Luna and Scrivener were both buffeted backward by a tremendous shockwave of force. They crashed to the ground at almost the same time, bouncing and rolling in opposite directions as the black spear buried through the beast dissolved.

The Nephilim twisted back and forth, and Twilight's eyes widened as she felt the growing energy in the air even as the creature gave an awful death rattle before the Lich gritted her teeth and threw all the energy she had into one last spell, lashing her horn out-

There was a tremendous blast of force and sound, deafening and blinding both Luna and Scrivener as they covered their faces, feeling the earth violently shaking beneath them, the air ripping around them for several long seconds before the sense of force began to fade. Scrivener could taste dust, and he felt warm wetness trickling along his body... blood, he knew. He just didn't know if he was wounded, or Luna was, or if they had both been hurt. He didn't even know what had happened yet.

His mind ached. Slowly, he staggered up to his claws, rasping for breath as he shivered weakly, trying to force some order, some coherency to his thoughts, but he couldn't quite manage it. He blinked uneasily as he looked back and forth, breathing hard before he clutched at his chest and grimaced, another shiver running through his body.

He looked up after catching his breath, waving a claw to clear away some of the dust in front of himself as he heard Luna mutter disconsolately... and then, as the dust cleared from around them, both ponies simply stared at the ruin all around them.

They were standing in a wide crater now, and they could both feel a strange, weak wind still whirling silently around them, tickling their numbed bodies and driving away the dust. The ground itself had been reduced to sand and a few pieces of shale and glass from whatever last great blast the monster had given, and even the iron maiden had been crumpled like a tin can by the force the the blast, flung violently into the rocky lip around the edge of the crater.

The Nephilim was no more: and as Luna and Scrivener looked back and forth, they realized they couldn't see Twilight Sparkle, either. Not until the sapphire mare's sharp eyes caught on something broken and mangled halfway down the gentle slope of the crater...

She and Scrivener hurried towards this, and Twilight Sparkle blinked blearily before giving a faint smile. But there was little more than a skeleton left... her horn had been torn free, most of her skull was visible, and only the upper half of her body was intact... and by intact, that meant a little bit of hide that was peeling like leather ,and a few whole, visible, polished-looking bones.

“Sorry... I didn't... react fast enough to protect you completely...” Twilight whispered, and Scrivener smiled faintly as Luna shook her head slowly, reaching out and silently touching the Lich's face. Twilight smiled at the contact, pushing her head against Luna's hoof before her body shuddered a little, and she let her remaining eye slide closed as she murmured: “I'm... I'm pretty drained. But we stopped it, right? We... we saved all the foals, right?”

“We... did what we could.” Luna said softly, not willing to lie to the violet mare. There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight Sparkle simply nodded a little before she settled, and Scrivener and Luna felt her spirit drawing free from its earthly vessel, felt that strange tingling sensation as Twilight's essence naturally slipped into their link, made the bonds of magic between them feel all the tighter, drew them all the closer together.

For a few moments, there was silence, and then Scrivener Blooms watched as Twilight's corpse slowly disintegrated, the stallion murmuring: “The phoenix dies, and turns to ash; but soon enough she'll rise anew, just like the everglorious sun.”

“Quote not old poets about Twilight Sparkle. 'Tis rude.” Luna muttered, and the two looked at each other for a few moments before the sapphire mare shivered. But as they turned around, they could see that this entire patch of transformed forest was dying, rotting, falling apart... well, apart from the section that had already been destroyed by the Nephilim's final attack. “We... we should perhaps attempt to drag the remains of that strange casket back to town, Scrivy. The iron maiden may hold some clues as to the Pious' magic or machinations.”

“And we have to talk to Gymbr. See what he knows about... Nephilim. That really was a Nephilim, wasn't it? Even though it looked nothing like Selene, but....” Scrivener shuddered and shook his head slowly. “That power was tremendous. Even though it looked so...”

“Beaten.” Luna murmured, and there was silence for a few moments before the sapphire mare grimaced a little. “I wonder if that was Selene's true face... and I wonder precisely why the Pious would keep one Nephilim, but not another. I... wonder many things.”

Scrivener nodded, and then he and Luna felt a silent twist through their minds, and they both sighed and gave faint smiles of agreement. “Aye, thou art correct, Twilight Sparkle. We need to ensure the foals have reached home safely. And somehow explain...”

“We were too late.” Scrivener said quietly, looking down and shaking his head briefly, and Luna opened her mouth... but then simply nodded silently, looking down as well.

For a few moments, there was silence between them, and then the two turned. Scrivener headed over to the iron maiden to study it for a few moments, poking carefully along the remains and noting that the torture device didn't have spikes, but what looked like large nubs: he grasped one of these with a Talon, then shivered. It was like braided sandpaper, and he didn't want to think of how much pain that would cause. It would be a slow pain, to make it worse, something you'd underestimate and shrug off... then it would turn to irritation, then frustration, then something you'd plead for an end to. But there wouldn't be: they would just continue to grind and bite and rub flesh off inch by inch by inch...

The charcoal stallion shook his head briefly, then he looked up as Luna silently levitated the petrified foal out of hiding from behind a torn-up stump. She approached, and the stallion smiled a bit before he said quietly: “I should be able to drag it back to Ponyville. It's rounded and all, and maybe... Hecate can take a look at it for us.”

Scrivener glanced awkwardly to the side: he'd almost said 'Cowlick' at first. Luna smiled at him faintly, then she simply nodded briefly, and the two studied each other for a few moments before the sapphire mare said softly: “Good. 'Tis time to go, then, and... let those in Ponyville know what has happened. And... the bodies, Scrivener...”

Scrivener looked down, then he nodded briefly, knowing what they had to do. They searched the area around the crater, and he and Luna found a broken body, the sapphire mare lifting it gently and delicately placing it on Scrivener's back, before she murmured quietly: “And there is at least one more on the path.”

“Yeah.” Scrivener bit his lip, then he looked up at the sapphire mare and smiled faintly. “I guess even superheroes can't make it in time, every time, huh?”

“Nay, Scrivy. We cannot... save everyone. We cannot protect every foal. We are not aware of everything that goes on behind closed doors, or...” Luna reached up, silently stroking the pale cheek of the cold child's body. “But we will avenge them. We know now... what the Light is willing to do. That it either acts without reason or...”

She fell quiet, and Scrivener Blooms nodded a little. There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna and Scrivener met each other's eyes, gazing deep into one another as they shared a promise. That they would stop the Light at any cost, that they would avenge the innocent lives it had taken... and that no matter what, they weren't going to let themselves fall so deeply into darkness they would become Gymbr.

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