• 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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Strangers In A Strange Land

Chapter Fifty Eight: Strangers In A Strange Land

Luna Brynhild's eyes fluttered open, and she stared up at the moon. The beautiful full moon, casting its pale, reflected light over the... forest? Yes, she saw as she sat up... they were in a little forest of some kind. She smelled pine, and something musky... but that curiosity was answered when she looked up and saw Hecate calmly skinning a bear, the immortal head saying softly: “Undead and yet so fragile still. You and Twilight Sparkle are pathetic specimens.”

“Where are we?” the sapphire mare asked quietly as she carefully sat up. The tree cover was dense around them, but they were in a little... it wasn't even a field, really. More like just a patch of grass, with the canopy above thin enough to gaze up at the dark night sky.

She felt Scrivener and Twilight's presence before she saw them, and the mare smiled a little as her eyes settled on the two, able to easily see them through the darkness. The charcoal stallion was sprawled on his side, Talons shifting and twitching a little, and Twilight Sparkle looked as if she had rolled from her original position and was trying to push her head against Scrivener's chest, the violet mare's chest rising and falling. Funny, how the Lich seemed to breathe in her sleep...

Then Luna shook her head slowly and turned towards Hecate, who still hadn't answered her question... and didn't look like she was going to. So instead, the sapphire mare cleared her throat and decided to try asking something else: “Precisely what is it thou art doing with that dead bear?”

Hecate looked moodily up for a moment, then returned her eyes to her task, continuing to carefully cut the bear's hide from its body. Luna sighed a little, and then she muttered finally: “Very well, be that way, wretched witch. Then I shan't give thee any thanks for saving us.”

“I'll take that as a thank you itself. You're welcome, Luna Brynhild.” Hecate retorted scathingly, and then she finished skinning the bear and let the slick corpse drop to the ground, Luna wincing and grimacing a little as the mechanical goddess said moodily: “You've killed more intelligent and more innocent things than a stupid bear.”

“Can there be more innocent than nature, Hecate? For even when a beast kills, 'tis not oft with malice, is it?” Luna asked wryly, and then she shook herself up before glancing over her shoulder and grimacing a bit at the sight of a missing wing, muttering: “Well. That is not good.”

“You're still dead, though. We can find a new one... or perhaps Scrivener Blooms can restore it, considering your connection to him.” Hecate shrugged, then she tossed down the 'knife' she had been using to cut away the hide, and Luna realized it was a metal plate that had apparently come loose from either Hecate's body or their own armor: they were all more damaged than she'd expected them to be, but then again, she also hadn't expected a Pious army to attack them.

The sapphire mare looked down, then glanced up towards the mechanical goddess, asking quietly: “What happened?”

“I killed the remaining Pious and dragged you out of the Clay of Prometheus after your little temper tantrum.” Hecate said distastefully, shaking her head slowly. “The Angels of Greater Heaven opened a portal somewhere else, and they seem to be sweeping the area, looking for us. But I created several false leads that should draw the Pious away for long enough for us to find a portal point. There must be one somewhere in this world, as Valthrudnir stored a world-cracking explosive here.”

Luna grunted, then she sighed quietly and shook her head briefly before turning her eyes towards Scrivener Blooms. She wanted to wake him up, but... she could feel his presence in her mind, and that was enough for now. He was in dreamless darkness, and so instead she decided he deserved to sleep... and besides...

“Kismet is gone.” Luna said quietly, and Hecate shrugged moodily as she looked over the bear skin. The sapphire mare gritted her teeth, glaring up at the mechanical goddess at her reaction, but at the same time knowing... well... what else could she have expected? “Damnation, foul and... wretched creature! Can thou not-”

“No, I can't be bothered to pretend I care, actually. So let's cut this conversation short and you shut up.” Hecate said acerbically, and the sapphire mare snarled before Hecate held up a steel claw and added moodily: “And before you think about lashing out like an idiot foal, abusing your magic could alert the Pious. Just sitting here is likely enough to put us in danger.”

Luna grimaced, then shifted back and forth before she cursed under her breath and muttered: “Then oh how I wish I could make thee hurt with mine words alone, foul and wretched, wretched harpy. Thou art... can thou at least comprehend the kind of pain thou causes others? Or that we are able to feel hurt, we have emotions, that... Kismet's loss is... especially not easy for Twilight Sparkle?”

“Feelings are for the soft, the weak, and little ponies. I am not soft, I am not weak, and I am not a little pony.” Hecate said distastefully, and then she stood up, carrying the bear skin over to a set of bent tree limbs and torn vines. As she began to tie the skin up to stretch it out, the mechanical goddess continued coldly: “I think you understand that, even if you want to keep up this farce of caring about the world. You don't. You care because it suits your purposes, Luna Brynhild.”

The sapphire mare shook her head moodily at this, and then she said finally: “Just what kind of creature art thou, monster? Must thou see everything as nothing more than a mirror of thyself?”

“There is nothing like me in the world.” Hecate said coolly as she finished stringing the skin up, and then she moodily looked up at the night sky, changing the subject. “The Pious were more interested in destroying you than in attempting to take the explosive from me. I don't think they know what we've retrieved here. They do understand that you are a threat, however.”

Luna grunted moodily at this, studying Hecate for a few moments before she said finally: “Then we must return home with all speed. We may have defeated them, but... we are all weakened from the exertion. Well. Not thou. 'Tis just us ponies that I clearly speak of.”

Hecate rolled her eyes with a tired sigh, and then she brushed absently at herself and said distastefully: “You ponies, yes. You say that like it's something to be proud of. And yet you once had a very different body that makes every step in this one an act of bestiality, didn't you?”

“Perhaps I was always fond of bestiality!” Luna shot back, and Hecate simply looked at her before the sapphire mare cleared her throat and muttered: “'Tis Scrivener's fault. He is not awake at the moment and he has stolen all my brain.”

“No, that sounds like the usual drivel that comes out of your mouth.” Hecate said contemptibly, and then the mechanical goddess strode moodily over to Luna Brynhild before seizing her under the jaw, making the winged unicorn growl and wince as her head was forcefully turned back and forth. “Your wounds are healing, slowly. But that might be more because your body is still dead at this point. I can tell you're weak, though... or rather, weaker than usual.”

“Oh, ha ha, Hecate, art thou not such a wit?” Luna asked sourly, and then she shook her head moodily before yanking her head back from the goddess, adding crankily: “And I do not need thy appraisals. Not of myself, nor of my partners.”

Hecate simply shrugged moodily, and then the mechanical goddess turned her eyes towards Scrivener and Twilight, asking finally: “Then how are they? I don't care about whether you survive or not, but I care that the job gets done, and-”

“Damnation Hecate, I have had enough of thee!” Luna snapped, and the two glared at each other before Luna stepped forwards... and whatever the goddess was going to retort was lost as Luna simply hugged one of her large metal legs, saying firmly: “Feel! Feel! Open thy tiny heart to new emotion, oh wretched and bleak and wounded harpy!”

The mechanical goddess looked down at Luna with disbelief... and then she growled and reached down, firmly shoving the mare off her leg as she said darkly: “This is no time for idiotic games, Luna Brynhild.”

The sapphire mare grumbled as she picked herself up, shaking herself briskly out before retorting: “With thou there never is, so why not play them while we are all at risk of demise? Do not insult me for trying to get thee to smile once in thy life, thou should be thanking me for that instead.”

Hecate rolled her eyes, and then the mechanical goddess looked moodily down at Luna as the winged unicorn continued to glare challengingly up at her. And then, finally, Hecate sighed and gestured towards Scrivener and Twilight, asking: “Well?”

“They are fine.” Luna stopped, then shook her head briefly and murmured: “Well, perhaps 'fine' is too generous a word for it. But they are... they are alive, and they are... not insane. But Scrivy... I feel like my old self now, but fear when he awakens... the power will again flow through him, and twist his mind, and it will make me...”

Luna shivered a little, and she licked her lips slowly before turning her eyes uneasily towards Hecate. “Does thou think we have done this to Twilight Sparkle? Am I experiencing what connecting her to us, making her a Lich dependent upon us-”

“Stop whining.” Hecate interrupted rudely, and then she reached out and flicked Luna's soulstone horn to make her flinch before she said coldly: “From what I've seen, the Lich might be the most pathetic member of your little harem.”

The starry-maned mare looked sourly up at Hecate for a few moments, and then she rolled her eyes and muttered: “'Tis funny how that is actually comforting, coming from thee. Annoying, aye, but... comforting, all the same.”

She halted, then sighed and shook her head slowly before rubbing absently at her features, then murmuring: “I must work harder to keep myself in check. I must not... we must not descend so deep into the darkness again. What did we do, Hecate? Why did we...”

“I'm not going to indulge or comfort you.” Hecate said moodily, and then she simply sat herself back down on a fallen log, her gaze locking on Luna's as she broke down the situation. “We have to get moving sooner rather than later. The Pious will eventually find us if we simply camp out like this. Our choice is between finding pony civilization or a portal point.”

“Why would thou actually... no, wait, thou thinks the Pious will not tamper with this world's residents?” Luna asked curiously, and Hecate shrugged as she turned her eyes moodily up towards the sky, studying the moon silently.

“I don't know, and I also don't care. What I do know is that we'll be able to better blend in around the ponies and we can hide out. Even if the Pious start killing them, it will help serve our own purposes.” Hecate replied calmly. Luna grimaced a little... but then bit the inside of her cheek, and Hecate smiled thinly. “Well. Are you actually considering taking an intelligent course of action for once?”

Luna grunted, then she shook her head slowly before muttering: “I am not as heartless as thou art, creature, but I do not believe the Pious would harm these ponies. 'Tis very clearly us they are after. Nay, we shall have to stay alert, but... if one of Valthrudnir's portal rings is not close, if we cannot find it within a few hours... we should avoid further conflict, head to the nearest pony settlement. Although... they may not treat us kindly.”

“They'll be easier to deal with than Pious or Nephilim.” Hecate said distastefully, and then she hesitated for a moment before shaking her head and adding moodily: “I think I saw other creatures coming out of the portals as well, but thanks to your temper tantrum I couldn't tell, and I didn't have the time to dig up any specimens for analysis. We should attempt to catch a Pious or a Nephilim if possible, however: take it alive, and dissect it.”

“Hel already provided us with a dead Pious.” Luna said mildly, and Hecate gave a cold smile.

“Yes, pre-dissected. That doesn't teach us enough. I want to take it apart while it's still alive to get a better grasp of how they function, what hurts them, and what kills them. Dead is useless to me, even if they're covered in labels.” the mechanical goddess replied, and Luna sighed and shook her head slowly before the goddess added: “I shouldn't have to point out that all the half-breed Pious are mutants that likely have few similarities, as well. All the same, I want to find out what these similarities are.”

“Heads. Arms. Bodies.” Luna said sourly, and then she reached up and grumpily tapped her own skull. “And destroying this seems to kill the beasts. But I suppose that is the same for many things.”

Hecate only shook her own head slowly, and there was silence for a few moments before the mechanical goddess muttered: “Rest mode. Authorization code alpha.”

A distinct humming came from her mechanical body as its claws reached up and grasped her head, and the collar clicked loose before the body's claws easily lifted Hecate herself free from her steel frame. It gently settled her head into her lap, and Luna smiled wryly at the immortal before she said wryly: “I cannot help but look at thee, Hecate, and think that whilst thou art very much a goddess in thine own right... 'tis adorable how foals could make a beachball out of thee if they really wanted to.”

Hecate rolled her eyes, shifting back a bit: in the cradle of her heavy steel claws, resting back against the massive metal body that was humming quietly as the machinery inside slowly geared down to a rest, she looked almost like a tiny queen, crowned with her mane of lightning and cables, resting back in her mighty metal throne.

She didn't reply, and Luna shifted a bit, then softened as she glanced at Scrivener and Twilight again, studying the two for a few moments before she shook her head briefly and returned her eyes towards Hecate, saying quietly: “Thou can trust us.”

Hecate rolled her eyes instead of replying, grumbling moodily to herself, and the sapphire mare smiled a little at this before she settled back. There was silence between the two, and then, finally, Luna looked up and asked: “What kind of life did thou live before... this metal body of thine? Thou wert... how did Valthrudnir...”

Hecate laughed sourly, then she asked contemptibly: “Is this the part where we share stories and become best friends? Where we discuss my tragic past, and all the things that made me into the cruel and cold monster I am today? Where we peel away my veneer of bitch and look at the secret soft heart beneath? I don't think so, Luna Brynhild. I'm not interested. And I'm not protecting you three, either: I've geared down my body to keep myself out of the Pious' sight.”

“Hecate, enough.” Luna said quietly, and then she shook her head before saying softly: “Thou art not... Pinkamena, cruel, but with a generous heart. Thou art not like Cheshire, a tormented soul only doing what he was because of the whip used against him. Thou art not like... many friends we have had over the years. I know thou art going to do what is best for thyself, and I know that beneath thy metal is only more metal, but that is... why I feel thou art important to have here. Thou offers balance. My darkness cannot be all soft: there must be hard edges, like thou.”

The head only looked sourly at Luna in response, and the sapphire mare smiled a bit before she said wryly: “And besides, I think that what compels thee truly not to leave Ponyville behind... is us, ourselves. Myself, and the few others thou... likes, in thy odd way.”

Hecate rolled her eyes in distaste, then muttered: “Believe whatever you want, Luna Brynhild. But it doesn't make any of it true.”

“And nor does it make any of what I believe false, wretched little monster.” Luna said mildly, and Hecate growled irritably before the sapphire mare said softly: “I do not judge by words, but by actions. Which is why thou art still alive, for all the threats thou makes and insults thou spews. Imagine for a moment what I would have done to thee if I did believe everything thou says: so do not try and convince me now that everything thou hast said is true, Hecate. I will have to leave thee impaled on a stick somewhere.”

The immortal head looked moody for a few moments, and then she sighed quietly before looking uneasily at Luna Brynhild as the sapphire mare gazed at her pointedly. There was silence for a few moments, and then Hecate said finally: “It wasn't Valthrudnir who made me... into what I became. Thesis... Thesis was in the military, but even with what I knew he was... he still lived a fairly normal life. As normal as a Prince could, anyway.”

Luna frowned at this, tilting her head curiously, and Hecate smiled dryly. “Oh, let me guess. You think that Valthrudnir pulled some grand scheme over me, made some... incredible plan, or fantastic manipulation, yes? No, he never did. We...”

Hecate looked away, and for a moment, she actually looked vulnerable before it quickly vanished as she shook her head fiercely, muttering: “It's not important. What's important is that I knew from the start. If I still had a body, I could even produce another Clockwork Pony, likely with similar characteristics to Thesis. From a utilitarian standpoint, it's a pity I don't.”

“Speak not that way. Next thou will be saying that we should make Celestia bear terrible little monster-babies with Scrivy.” Luna shivered and shook her head quickly, and Hecate rolled her eyes in distaste before the sapphire mare asked curiously: “And 'twas Valthrudnir's experiments that cost thee thy body, was it not?”

“In part. Mostly it was my own, though... my body became powerful. So powerful, it couldn't handle its own strength.” Hecate looked moodily across at Luna. “I suppose you're starting to understand a little something about that, aren't you?”

Luna smiled sourly, then shook her head slowly before she muttered: “Wonderful. Even when we sit together as friends thou art still a bitch. And part of me now wonders if thou wert always this way. Evil Celestia, and then Evil Hecate.”

“We're not friends. And you're the one who said you prefer me this way.” Hecate said flatly, and Luna shrugged amiably before the head shook herself grouchily, and then muttered: “Evil is a way for the weak to whimper about the strong so that any reprisals they might receive only help to prove their point. The idea of evil is in itself stupid and weak and paltry.”

She stopped, then looked down for a moment before sighing tiredly. “But no. I used to believe... in all the things these ponies do. Maybe that's my weakness, Brynhild... part of me insists on pitying them, and their naivety. If... when I leave and build my own empire, I will ensure my citizens are strong, and know the harsh reality of the world that faces them.”

“When thou builds thy own empire, will we be welcome there?” Luna asked curiously, and Hecate scowled as she looked up moodily, as if this was a joke... before the head frowned deeper in confusion as she realized that Luna was just as serious as she herself was.

The goddess licked her lips, hesitating... and then she finally gave a brief nod, even as her eyes flicked awkwardly away. “Perhaps. As long as you have the decency to behave yourselves in my empire the same way I have served you in yours.”

“So I shall be rude and hostile, excellent.” Luna said mildly, and Hecate sighed, but maybe gave the faintest smile before the sapphire mare said softly: “I know thou shan't be around forever, Hecate. One day, thou shall ask to leave and I shall let thee. I do not like the idea of it, and I fear what thou will do. But all the same, I shall, because I... I do not desire to make a slave of thee, either.”

Hecate looked moodily up at Luna, and then she said finally: “I might become inclined to attack other worlds. To expand my borders. And we may be enemies.”

“We were enemies before; for now, we are friends. The future will hold what it will.” Luna smiled and shrugged complacently, and the goddess looked at her almost with disbelief before the sapphire winged unicorn laughed quietly and gazed up towards the night sky with warmth in her eyes. “Aye... and now, all my brother's lessons return to me, Hecate, and I feel... soothed, and in control. 'Tis a nice feeling.”

Hecate only shook her head slowly, then sighed and looked grouchily upwards into the night sky as well, muttering: “Wonderful. Wake up your idiot partners, Luna Brynhild, we've dallied here long enough. Let's get looking for that portal before we lose any more time.”

“Thou says that, but I do not see thee in any great rush. Let us rest awhile, Hecate. Thou can spit insults but I promise to be a little quieter.” Luna replied softly, and the head looked warily at the sapphire mare for a few moments before finally sighing and nodding, but all the same seeming oddly relieved as the strange friends sat together, wrapped in the safe shroud of the night.

Ten hours later, the three ponies were walking with Hecate moodily leading them onwards across a vast, dusty plain, heading for the mountains that eternally seemed to loom at the same distance on the horizon. Luna looked meditatively up at this, and then the sapphire mare shook her head grumpily before she muttered: “Awful. This is awful. Is this not awful, Scrivener Blooms, Twilight Sparkle? Is this not?”

Both ponies simply looked dryly at Luna, and the sapphire mare huffed at them before she turned her eyes forwards, grumbling: “They are still mad at me, Hecate. Thou shall be my new best friend, shan't thou?”

“No.” Hecate said sourly, and then she looked back and forth, adding grouchily as she adjusted the bearskin cape she'd made around her metal frame: “I still can't sense any of Valthrudnir's technologies or wards. It's unlikely that he decided to take extra precautions, but if the Pious had any idea about what they were looking for, they may have tracked down the portal and destroyed it.”

“They did make portals a priority in Heaven, from what we know...” Luna said meditatively, looking up, and then she looked over her shoulder at Scrivener and Twilight... but both ponies only looked pointedly away from her, and she groaned and rolled her eyes before saying pleadingly: “Then will thee not at least forgive me for the next few minutes?”

Scrivener and Twilight traded meditative looks, then both glowered at Luna... who had earlier cheerfully torn off her own head and thrown it at Scrivener Blooms, 'just to see what would happen.' She was far, far too thoroughly enjoying all the advantages of being whatever Kismet had turned her into... particularly since her severed wing had already been regenerated, although it was a dark black right now instead of her normal sapphire color.

All Scrivener Blooms had to do was touch her and focus a bit of mire into her, and it was enough to heal the currently-undead mare's wounds. They had no idea how long it would last for, but Luna was apparently determined to abuse this... although there was the faintest whisper of sorrow in the back of her mind, too. Kismet had given them this gift, and his final act afterwards had been to save Twilight Sparkle: she wanted to honor what he had done for them, but she wasn't entirely sure how. Abusing it to its full potential, to get smiles and shouts and laughs and frustration, was the best she could think of for now.

Scrivener and Twilight both softened a little as they looked at the starry-maned winged unicorn, and she smiled warmly over at them before bowing her head forwards and saying quietly: “Now come, my friends, my family. Let us keep ourselves moving forwards, shall we? 'Twould be silly to think too hard on things so... well, instead, what do thee think about the Pious?”

The two other ponies traded looks, then they both shrugged almost at the same moment: but Twilight was thinking about Kismet, now, and Scrivener wasn't able to focus much past... well, every time he looked at Luna, he couldn't help but stare at her, study her. How beautiful she was, even in undeath... and how she looked at him so adoringly, and he always felt the urge to pull her in close. How her linked like this made him feel so...

Luna poked at him with her horn, and Scrivener winced a bit before he smiled lamely, then said finally: “Sorry. I think... what I think is that we need to just keep looking, I guess. For the portals, I mean, I'm not. I don't... the Pious aren't really on my mind right now.”

“So it would seem.” Luna said wryly, and then she shook her head slowly before prompting gently: “Twilight Sparkle? Any thoughts at all?”

Twilight looked up, the violet mare biting her lip before she shook her head quickly and murmured: “None really. I think it's really important that we keep moving, though... and the Pious... I dunno. Something must have tipped them off that we're going to be attacking them. They've never been this aggressive, this hostile before, after all.”

Luna nodded moodily at this, and Scrivener Blooms glanced uneasily up at the sky, wondering if there were any angels in Heaven studying them right now before he said hesitantly: “But Hecate, you were saying that they didn't seem interested in the bomb, right?”

“Yes, Scrivener Blooms. Say it out loud, so that everyone can hear it. Especially since we're probably being tracked right now.” Hecate said disgustedly, and the stallion smiled lamely before the mechanical goddess shook her head moodily, rolling her steel shoulders slowly. “No. I don't think they are. The only thing that's changed is the state of Luna Brynhild.”

“And the fact we are on a hostile world, alone. They are not exactly warmakers, are they?” Luna said mildly, and then she added thoughtfully: “Gymbr said they fought through subterfuge as well, as I recall. They converted ponies to their cause, gained numbers and... made soldiers of their slaves before they made any attacks.”

Hecate grunted moodily, then she glanced upwards with a frown as she muttered: “I felt... something. The cowards may attempt to swarm us again. If that happens, you three need to keep yourselves in control instead of creating another mess, do you understand? They'll simply wait you out, then send a single thrall to kill you all after you've exhausted yourselves. For all your power, you're very weak.”

“Thanks.” Scrivener said sourly before he could stop himself, and Hecate looked at him darkly, making the charcoal stallion wince a bit as he looked awkwardly away. Then he hesitantly glanced back and forth between Twilight and Luna, noting the absence of dark veins... although his own hide felt too tight, he felt... literally larger, and his Talons kept flexing almost eagerly against the ground as he muttered: “Well, I haven't gone Tyrant Wyrm in quite a while. Maybe I should try and transform.”

“Yes, do that. Make yourself a giant target. Then maybe all the Pious can grab onto you all at once and drain all the life out of your body, killing the three of you quickly so I don't have to listen to your whimpering.” Hecate said disgustedly, and then she shook her head slowly before glancing up again and asking moodily as she calmly adjusted her cape: “Did you feel that?”

Even Twilight looked up dumbly, and Hecate rolled her eyes and sighed tiredly as she muttered: “Of course none of you did. All this fretting and you can't do one useful thing and attempt to detect magic or psychic wavelengths yourselves, you leave that all to me. Like everything else.”

“Oh, aye, yes. 'Tis all our fault.” Luna said dryly, shaking her head moodily before she looked uneasily up into the sky, then back and forth. “From which direction did it come?”

Hecate didn't respond as her own eyes flicked back and forth, before the mechanical goddess slowly moved her claw to rest on the spiked ball hanging from her hip, her eyes narrowing slightly as she shrugged her cape back over her shoulders and said contemptibly: “I'm not going to do all your work for you, Luna Brynhild. Especially since your senses should be enhanced from what you've become.”

“I do not even know what I've become.” Luna complained loudly, even as her own eyes narrowed slightly, the handle of Sting Mk. III glowing with a telekinetic aura as her soulstone horn finally detected it: a subtle ripple of energy in the air behind them, flickering from point-to-point, starting to close in... “And I do not know what that is, either, but that energy reeks of righteousness.”

And with that, Luna spun around, grinning widely as she caught her gun by the handle as it yanked itself out of its holster, then she took aim at the faint ripple in the air behind them before pulling the trigger. The weapon's boom was thunderous, one, two, three rounds pounding into what looked like thin air and sending up splatters of white blood before a fourth bullet smashed the shape into reality, sending a yelping beast rolling backwards before it managed to catch itself on its long, hooked claws with a snarl of fury.

Luna made a face of disgust as Hecate snorted, and Scrivener and Twilight both readied themselves even as the Lich shivered at the sight of the beast. Then she looked up in surprise even as she felt Luna's memories in her own mind confirming what the sapphire mare said next: “It looks as if the Pious are not simply content to steal Heaven's land: they have stolen our hunting animals as well.”

“What?” Twilight Sparkle stared at the dog-like monster: 'dog-like' in only the vaguest sense of the term, with its huge hooked claws, its gaping, fanged maw, the fins sticking out of its back and running along its reptilian, forked tail. It had rubbery white skin, and sunken, black eyes that looked at them with nothing but hate and malice as the Lich asked incredulously: “T-That? That thing is a Hound of Heaven?”

“Or Guardian Angel, aye.” Luna grinned wryly, looking with entertainment over at Twilight Sparkle before the sapphire mare calmly took aim at the bleeding beast as it snarled and barked at them. “Valhalla was never a pretty place, Twilight Sparkle: why would thou think that our hunting animals would be any less savage than those of this world? And by the way, this one is only a distraction. While it draws our eyes, its kin are flanking in on our sides.”

Twilight stared to the side in shock as Hecate smiled coldly, and then the enormous, mechanical mare yanked Lucy off her hip and viciously swung it outwards: there was a sickening crack as it collided with an invisible hound, a burst of blood seeming to come from the air itself before the war dog flickered into being and fell with a thump on its back, staring lifelessly into the distance as its corpse quickly turned to stone. And Hecate stomped cruelly down on this, shattering it to dust as several more Hounds flickered into being around them, all of them snarling furiously as Luna said wryly: “Congratulations, Hecate. Now thou hast angered the dogs of war and they shall forgo the niceties to attempt to maul us to pieces.”

And then the starry-maned mare simply grinned when one of the Hounds suddenly leapt forwards, the mare taking quick aim with her gun before she fired the remaining two shots off into its skull, blowing apart its head and sending it flopping bonelessly backwards. It turned to stone even before it hit the ground, then shattered like glass as the sapphire mare added sharply: “The brain is the most vulnerable point!”

“As always. Mammal configurations are pathetic.” Hecate said disdainfully, and then she dropped the spiked ball, letting the chain run through her claws before she caught the weapon and swung it quickly outwards when another Hound of Heaven leapt forwards, looking unfettered and asking calmly even as the beast was slammed backwards with a yelp and a burst of silvery blood: “Can they be tracked?”

“As if the Pious are not already onto us. Twilight Sparkle, thou and Hecate will have to close any portals if they begin to appear.” Luna replied with the same calm even as she leapt forwards, stabbing her rifle upwards and slamming the bayonet into the breast of another beast. It screamed in agony, then yanked itself backwards, almost dropping on its belly, and its lowered position let the sapphire mare move quickly forwards and slam the butt of her rifle down between its ears, crunching in its skull and knocking it in a senseless heap before she winced as another Hound of Heaven leapt in beside her and bit viciously into her foreleg.

It crunched through metal, crushed flesh, snapped bone, and the mare grimaced... and then grinned in spite of herself as she simply swung her foreleg out and flung the surprised Hound out: there was no pain, not even any loss of strength despite the fact the beast had mangled her limb, the sapphire mare's eyes flashing as she flicked her horn towards the Hound of Heaven and blasted it away. It hit the ground and rolled quickly backwards to its claws... then screamed and rapidly backpedaled when Twilight Sparkle blasted it in the face with a bolt of lightning.

Another two hounds charged in, and Scrivener Blooms gritted his teeth before he stomped one Talon down, creating a wall of black spikes in front of him that made the first Hound skid to a halt and fling itself away, while the second simply curled around the deadly flower of black blades and lunged at Scrivener's throat. The stallion managed to swing his other Talon up, however, smashing it under the jaw, but even though the blow knocked the sense out of the beast, it wasn't strong enough to deflect its body, and the charcoal earth pony was tackled onto his back by the heavy Hound of Heaven before he cursed and covered his face as it clawed and scrabbled at him wildly, then snarled and bit down-

Its jaws clamped uselessly down on the reinforced barrel of Sting Mk. III, and Luna yanked this quickly backwards, teeth sending up sparks as they ground along the sides of the weapon before she stabbed the bayonet up through its maw and into the creature's soft gums, the beast shrieking before it tried to yank itself quickly away. But even as it did so, it was already turning to stone, and its own momentum caused it to crack and shatter apart into dust as it toppled backwards in a hail of gray dust and silver blood.

Hecate flung down another corpse, then turned her cold eyes towards a flicker of light, her horn glowing behind its protective metal sheath before she lashed Lucy outwards. The spiked ball glowed as it swung through the air, moving in one direction as if suddenly yanked by a magnet as Twilight blasted a Hound of Heaven apart with a fireball and Scrivener Blooms tackled the last, gritting his teeth as he snapped its neck before he looked up at the loud shout of frustration that echoed through the air.

A figure was knocked stumbling by a firm strike of the spiked ball against its chest, ripped tatters of cloth falling through the air as electricity sparked over the creature, forcing it into reality... and the three ponies could only stare in disbelief as a handsome pony grinned widely at them, a thick, flipper-like appendage slowly squeezing around the handle of a long-bladed knife as it licked its lips and growled: “Ain't I just thrilled to see you boys and girls again?”

“The Whistler? But thou wert destroyed!” Luna said disbelievingly... and then she looked back and forth in horror as two more cloaked figures appeared in bursts of smoke on either side of them... and these weren't illusions, but very real as they grinned widely, each with their hoods drawn back to reveal identical features, knives gleaming in their grips.

“Yeah, well, I got a higher power lookin' out after me, now don't I? I've been given immortality, babe, and in a way you fleshbags can't match... mass-production.” The Whistler grinned viciously, spinning its knife easily between its fingers before it caught the blade and licked slowly up the flat, eyes burning with zealotry and hate and anger. “I got me just one mission now, too. Kiss the heretics and make 'em die.”

“Kill 'em all!” shouted the others on either side in perfect time, and then they both lunged forwards at the flanks of the group: Hecate, however, only blasted one backwards with a tremendous surge of lightning, and the other slammed into a shield thrown quickly up by a horrified Twilight Sparkle, bouncing off this with a curse of frustration.

The first Whistler cackled, then only grinned when Luna leapt forwards and tackled the creature onto its back, pinning the assassin beneath her as she shouted down into its face: “And what kind of 'power' must thou serve if he resurrects a killer of foals?”

“The very best kind!” the Whistler snapped back, and then it swung its knife viciously up at Luna's face: she blocked its foreleg but flinched slightly, and the monster immediately took the opportunity to vanish in a burst of smoke, becoming a streak of light that shot backwards before the Whistler reappeared, skidding backwards as it caught itself and grinned widely. “I'm just doing my job, sweetheart... if they won't play for you, then kill 'em all!”

The Whistler lunged forwards again, and Luna swung her gun out, the bayonet clashing with the knife and sending up sparks before the sapphire mare yanked the rifle back: she flicked it firmly as she yanked it to the side, the cylinder popping open and spilling shell casings out in a hail even as her other hoof swung up and caught the Whistler's wrist when he slashed the knife down at her.

He snarled, then leapt forwards and brought both rear legs up, kicking them savagely out at Luna's body, but the sapphire mare grinned as she half-ducked and both his rear hooves instead shot over her shoulders, the Whistler looking stupefied for the second he had before Luna roared and swung the monster savagely down like a living weapon into the ground. He bounced backwards with a squeak before the mare snapped her horn forwards, blasting the monster away with a squawk as several bullets yanked themselves free from the belt of the strap across her chest and slammed quickly home into the cylinder as she growled: “Thou shall have to do better than that!”

Her horn flashed, and the lever on the side of the Mk. III snapped forwards, the runes over the gun glowing brightly before the mare pulled the trigger... and the recoil from the shot almost tore the gun out of the grip of both her hoof and telekinesis, the mare wincing in surprise as there was a bright flare of light before the single round almost tore the skull off the Whistler, knocking it backwards with a scream of agony.

It grabbed at its broken, crushed skull, shaking its head wildly back and forth, and Luna growled as she took the Mk. III in both hooves, horn glowing as she balanced it with telekinesis and fired twice more, wincing both times at the tremendous recoil that surged through the weapon. Both rounds slammed into the Whistler's chest, and it wasn't even able to scream as it was dragged forwards from the force of the rounds tearing through its body, flopping onto its stomach with a lifeless gargle.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle had her teeth grit, her horn lashing back and forth as the copy of the Whistler she was fencing with slashed and cut viciously at her. Knife and spire deflected and blocked each other, natural and steel weapons almost a blur before the Whistler suddenly leapt backwards and instead flung the knife straight at Twilight's face.

And without hesitation, the Lich leapt up and purposefully took the knife to the chest, gritting her teeth as she felt it tear through her armor and into her body before she stomped down on all fours, and the Whistler stared dumbly at the Lich as he stood empty-handed and she leaned aggressively forwards, her horn glowing brightly before the copy squawked: “That's not fair, bitch!”

Twilight only lashed her horn down in reply, and a black fireball slammed into the monster, blowing it backwards and making the Whistler scream as it rolled back and forth wildly, trying uselessly to put out the flames devouring its form. The Lich only shook her head in contempt before she started to turn away... and then her eyes widened as she sensed the creatures before two more Hounds of Heaven appeared in mid-lunge at her, one slamming into her and biting savagely into her shoulder, yanking her down as the other dug its claws into her other side to attempt to pin her down.

And Scrivener Blooms, meanwhile, caught the forelimb of the last Whistler as it slashed towards him with the knife, then he twisted savagely to disjoint the limb, the creature howling in misery before the stallion half-turned, yanking brutally on the dislocated foreleg before he slung the monster into the ground, then seized it by the back of the head with one Talon and drove its face once, twice, thrice into the ground to crush the life out of it.

The Whistler fell still as the stallion ground the monster's face into the hard earth, before he looked up in shock as a Hound of Heaven appeared right beside him, barking loudly at him. Immediately, the charcoal earth pony yanked the Whistler's corpse off the ground before flinging it at the dog-beast, which nimbly leapt backwards... and Scrivener made the mistake of following it with his eyes, not realizing that two more Hounds of Heaven had just appeared behind him and were both already leaping at his hind legs.

Their jaws clamped viciously around his ankles, and the stallion's eyes widened in shock and pain before he was yanked backwards off his hooves, sent crashing down onto his stomach before the Hounds viciously dragged him along on his stomach by his bloodied lower limbs. He snarled in pain, grabbing wildly at the ground with his Talons before he stared up in shock as another Whistler appeared in front of him with a wide grin, eyes blazing beneath his pushed-back hood as he rose a knife and shouted: “You can't kill me if there's hundreds of me, kids!”

Luna snarled in fury, but her own hind legs felt mangled and she was unable to launch herself forwards, even as Twilight roared loudly and snapped her horn upwards, a shockwave of magic force bursting from her body and sending the Hounds flying in all directions... but the expulsion of magic only made it harder for the sapphire mare to see what was going on as the Whistler's knife stabbed down towards Scrivener's face, made it impossible for her to target through the blast.

Thankfully, she didn't have to: Lucy whipped out and smashed into the face of the Whistler, knocking it backwards with a squawk before Hecate's horn glowed as several Hounds appeared around her, leaping at her leg, her torso, and her breast in an attempt to swarm her and shove her down. But instead they only shrieked in surprise and pain as they collided with her metallic frame, lightning blasting over their bodies and making them writhe uncontrollably as Hecate's entire body surged with electrical energy, before the ruined, burnt husks of the creatures fell away, turning into dust and ash-smeared stone even before they hit the earth.

Scrivener was able to stagger up to a standing position, then he snarled as he slammed a Talon into the ground, beginning to transform the earth beneath him into mire... and from above, a bright light shone down over him, blinding him and startling him as the mire lit up with a dark glow. The stallion cursed before he realized the light was glowing more intense, and Luna and Twilight both shouted warnings too late to the stallion-

A massive beam of white energy hammered down around Scrivener Blooms, the stallion arching his back and howling in misery as he was slammed down into the ground by the ray of light... and as the beam fractured, thinned, and finally faded into motes, he was left laying brokenly in a crater of ashes and chalk dust, one eye closed and the other frozen in a sightless stare: that side of his face, along with several other large parts of his entire body, had been turned to stone.

Luna and Twilight both collapsed helplessly, shivering weakly as their own bodies took on a strange rubbery texture: they could both feel the creeping sensation of the spreading paralysis and petrification as well, and Hecate cursed under her breath before she flung Lucy out at the Whistler when it leapt overeagerly forwards to try and plunge its knife into Scrivener's throat.

Instead, it took the spiked ball directly to the face, flopping backwards and landing with a puff in the ashes as it gurgled weakly before falling still, but the only response to the violent reprisal was loud, mocking laughter that echoed out of the woods all around her. Hecate growled as she looked back and forth in disgust, her eyes narrowing as both Hounds and Whistler copies appeared on all sides of her. “Over all the years I spent programming and adapting ponies into Dogmatists and for Valthrudnir's various experiments, I never made anything as useless or ugly as you fragile little toy soldiers seem.”

“Hey, words hurt, y'know!” mocked a Whistler... the Whistler, Hecate thought. Even though the others laughed, after all, it seemed like only one soldier at a time was doing more than just going through the motions, was acting like it had actual emotions and its own sentient thoughts. It was like the Whistler's spirit was jumping from body-to-body, leading the other puppets forwards into battle as it giggled gleefully and pointed a knife towards her. “Now listen, miss tin-can. We're gonna kill these heretics here. We're going to stone these blasphemers... hell, one's halfway stoned already! You get it? You get it? Ain't that a good one?”

The Whistler threw his head back and cackled, and Hecate rolled her eyes in disgust before she grimaced as several Hounds appeared around her legs, all of them snarling and ready to pounce as the Whistler added kindly: “Now listen. We got kennels and kennels of these things, and if worst comes to worst, I ain't above just drowning you in their corpses. So here's the deal. Step away, and we'll let you live. Hell, maybe you can even join us! I'm supposed to be a messenger of God, babe, and haven't you gotten my message yet?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Hecate shook her head slowly before she said softly: “How dare you...”

Slowly, she began to calmly spin the spiked ball at her side, her teeth gritting, her eyes cold as she looked up and said disgustedly: “You pathetic angels are nothing but weak flesh, and soft minds, and thieves. I am not a thief. I am a creator, a designer, and an empress... and an empress does not bow her head to a charlatan god!”

Hecate slammed Lucy ferociously downwards, and a Hound of Heaven was crushed with a shriek by the heavy spiked ball as the mechanical goddess' eyes flared with fury. But the Whistler looked unperturbed, only throwing his head back and laughing before his eyes gleamed as he looked back forwards. “Good. To be honest, I was kinda hoping you'd say that. More for me.”

“Let's kill her!” crowed one of the Whistler copies, and there were gleeful shouts of agreement with this before the monsters swarmed eagerly forwards, as the Whistler that seemed to be in the lead grinned viciously and spread his arms wide, simply letting the others swarm forwards around him as the mechanical goddess snarled.

Hounds surged forwards with the Whistlers, trampling the paralyzed ponies under their feet as they rolled in a wave towards Hecate, and the mechanical goddess snarled at them as her horn glowed brightly and lightning surged over her body, fearlessly readying herself to meet the army charging towards her.

Scrivener wasn't able to move, wasn't even able to cry out in pain as hooves and claws stomped viciously over his body, pounding him down into the ashes, and Luna and Twilight weren't much better off, crushed, squished, unable to so much as push back against the tide of monsters surging over them. All the stallion was aware of was a haze of pain: he didn't hear or see the army, or Hecate meeting it, any more than he heard or saw the Whistler as it calmly sauntered over through the sea of Hounds and copies appearing out of thin air and running eagerly forwards, saying almost mockingly: “My true master gave me a gift, he worked me a miracle... and what the hell kind of zealot would I be if I didn't make his will-be-done? You get that, don't you ponies?”

Hecate, for all her power, was only able to crush, and kill, and maim so many enemies at once, and more and more were flickering into being all around her. The Hounds and Whistler copies both kept vanishing and reappearing, not altering reality or phasing through it, but simply confusing, making it impossible to tell what she destroyed, what she paralyzed, what she simply flung away. And even as the mechanical goddess lunged, the crowd surged back against her, forcing her electrified steel frame backwards with the weight of the bodies and corpses and dying that were shoved against her by the greedy, howling living behind their meat-shield brethren.

The Whistler grinned as he stepped over Scrivener's helpless body, reaching down to seize him by the throat as he calmly spun his knife in his other hand before whispering: “Look at you. All still and pretty. Easy prey now... easy prey.”

The Whistler giggled in delight, then drew his knife slowly down and rested it gently against Scrivener's throat, grinning widely as the countless horde charged around him, as Hecate uselessly tried to force forwards, and the monster only licked his lips slowly before he drew it slowly upwards. It cut a thin line across the stallion's throat, a bit of gooey black blood dribbling from the scratch as he whispered: “One lick...”

The knife flicked down again, then pulled slowly upwards, and Scrivener shuddered and rasped weakly as it bit slightly deeper, tore a little more blood out of his neck as he trembled helplessly. Luna and Twilight, meanwhile, couldn't move beneath the hooves and claws stomping them, and the Whistler grinned widely as he mocked: “What's wrong? That's just two licks...”

The knife came down, tore deeper into Scrivener's throat, more black blood splurting out of his neck as the Whistler whispered eagerly: “Three licks...”

The blade gleamed as it bit again, and then sawed, Scrivener's eyes bulging, black blood leaking from his half-petrified maw as his whole body trembled with agony, and the monster rasped in a hungry voice: “Four licks...”

The Whistler rose the knife and licked it slowly, then he laughed loudly... and Luna snarled in fury and desperation as Twilight tried to push herself up, but... the worst part was that the crowd wasn't even trying to hurt them. The stampede was simply blanketing them, crushing them, stomping over their half-paralyzed bodies and making it impossible for them to struggle or stand up or even really see, even if both ponies could focus their magic and there was no pain, except for the pain from...

Luna's eyes widened, and she sent the message to Twilight Sparkle, the Lich blinking in surprise even as a hoof mashed her face down into the ground before both undead ponies bared their fangs and concentrated their magic.

Scrivener's eyes widened in shock as he felt the energy flooding his body, his body flexing, petrified sections of his body trembling violently as the Whistler only laughed and looked eagerly down at the stallion, asking cheerily: “Oh, what's this? You scared, little boy? Oh, but we're so close to finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a crunchy little pony like-”

Plates of stone shattered, cement shrapnel flying in all directions as Scrivener Blooms roared and stomped his Talons forwards as his body rippled and expanded, his armor popping loose, his mane and tail both falling away as the Whistler yelped and fell backwards, scrambling away. And the horde of creatures around them split and stumbled, staggering to a halt and all staring as Scrivener Blooms rose a now-reptilian head, eyes glowing sapphire as his fanged maw fell open, a crown of horns gleaming around his skull as the Tyrant Wyrm snarled: “You'll have to start again.”

The Whistler stared up at the enormous black-scaled creature looming over him, and then he gave a weak grin before screaming when Scrivener Blooms slammed one enlarged Talon down on top of him, crushing the creature into the ground. Energy and raw power surged through his body as the Tyrant Wyrm grinned viciously, then leaned forwards, roaring out a stream of blue mist that melted and burned the Hounds and copies of the Whistler, scattering the horde into disarray.

The ashes beneath the stallion rippled, then burst upwards as the ground around the Tyrant Wyrm transformed into mire, the shapeshifted Scrivener Blooms grinning viciously as the dark sludge spread rapidly through the field. Luna and Twilight felt it as it rose around them, felt power and primal hungers and raw violence filling their minds and systems, and Luna embraced it even as Twilight Sparkle struggled to keep her mind under control.

The sapphire mare lunged upwards and snapped her horn out, and a blast of electricity rent the air around her and knocked Hounds of Heaven and Whistlers flying in all directions. Twilight Sparkle, meanwhile, concentrated on the dark ooze, and winced as it welcomed her into its embrace, yanking her down beneath the black swamp, surrounding her on all sides with heat and earth that felt like flesh, but doing little to drown out the sound of Scrivener Blooms' roars or Luna's cruel laughter as she flung herself into combat.

The Hounds of Heaven and the copies of the Whistler were all attempting to regroup, but mire kept splashing upwards, leaving black stains over their bodies that refused to vanish even as they turned invisible, making them easy targets. And now, no longer trying to push forwards, Hecate was able to simply concentrate on simply killing everything around her.

Their numbers were vast, but now the environment itself had turned against them... and when Twilight Sparkle exploded out of another part of the bog, her magic sending blades of crystallized mire flying through the air in all directions to slice apart and stagger the brutal forces of Heaven, the creatures began to lose confidence. The Whistlers fought on, but with snarls and desperation; the Hounds of Heaven, meanwhile, first began to slow, becoming almost lethargic in their fighting before the few that remained finally turned and ran.

“Come back here!” shouted the Whistler furiously, staggering around in a circle after a stupidly-wide slash at Luna Brynhild... and then he was torn almost in half by a vicious, energized slash of her horn, toppling forwards with a gasp. His hands clutched at the dark, swampy earth, spasming weakly before he looked over his shoulder as Luna stepped up onto his back and pinned him with one hoof.

“Pathetic. Thou art pathetic.” she said coldly, and then she leaned down and snarled through the blood war-painting her features: “Leave while thou has the chance. Because for all the miracles thy god may grant you, we have our own to work as well.”

With that, Luna snapped her horn down as it flashed, and the Whistler's corpse crumpled to the ground: at the same time, there was an almost tangible pulse through the crowd of monsters, before Whistler copies began to hurriedly vanish one after the other in bursts of smoke, Scrivener Blooms snarling as he leapt towards the closest enemy and managed to catch it before it could flee, crushing it viciously under his claws.

Then he looked up with a growl as the remaining Whistlers managed to vanish: all except for one that was at the very edge of the scrubby field, this Whistler shouting: “It ain't over yet, you just wait and see! I got the powers of Heaven on my side, you ain't got nothing but dirt!”

Scrivener Blooms responded to this by stomping a Talon savagely down and sending a wave of mire straight at the Whistler, but the creature yelped and hurriedly vanished in a burst of smoke, the mire hitting nothing but the ground where the Whistler had stood a moment ago.

The enormous Tyrant Wyrm growled in frustration, and Luna cursed before starting forwards, but Hecate snapped sharply: “Don't be an idiot, following them is pointless! We need to move as far as possible as fast as possible, unless you want another run in with that holy energy.”

Scrivener growled moodily, and Luna snorted, her eyes glowing faintly as she opened her mouth to retort, to brag, to boast about powerful they were... but she was cut off by Twilight Sparkle, the Lich shivering as she said quietly: “Hecate is right. If Scrivy is blasted in that body, he'll... he'll probably die. Even if he managed to transform without the mire-egg, I think...”

The Tyrant Wyrm quieted, the sapphire light fading slowly from his dark eyes as he looked towards Twilight Sparkle, who gazed almost pleadingly back at him before he sighed softly and nodded with a soft rumble. Luna frowned for a moment, and then it slowly turned to a look of shame as she lowered her head, closing her eyes and murmuring: “Aye. Aye, I understand that... we have been foolish. Very well, we... come, Twilight Sparkle. Up atop Scrivy. Thou too, Hecate, a Tyrant Wyrm can move faster than thy burdensome metal body.”

The goddess looked moodily at Scrivener Blooms as Luna turned and flapped her wings... then winced as one simply fell limp with a crunch, the sapphire mare staring as she realized what a mangled mess both her wings – no, her entire body – looked like. She shook her head slowly, then glanced up to watch as Twilight awkwardly clambered up onto Scrivener's back, the Tyrant Wyrm mumbling moodily before Hecate said sourly: “You might be an undersized runt of a reptile, but that does not mean you've lost your ability to muddle through sentences. Talk, like an adult.”

“I could eat you.” Scrivener threatened, and Hecate rolled her eyes as she calmly wound Lucy up, as Luna grumbled and hopped up and down at Scrivener's side, then leaned forwards and jabbed him several times with a hoof, until he finally sighed tiredly and lowered his heavy body, leaning one scaled foreleg out to the side so Luna could use it like a step. “And you're right. I'm small. Far too small for you. You'll just have to walk.”

Hecate rolled her eyes, and then her metallic, dinged and dented body flexed before she leapt upwards as the boosters hidden in her lower limbs kicked into sudden life, all three staring as the enormous, mechanical goddess calmly launched herself over Scrivener's head, then dropped heavily onto his back as the jets of flame cut out, the Tyrant Wyrm's eyes bulging and back arching with a gasp as he felt her steel hooves searing his scales. “Oh come on!”

“I did. Now let's get moving.” Hecate said moodily as Luna and Twilight Sparkle both glared at her, but Hecate simply crossed her forearms and looked coldly ahead as Scrivener moodily considered trying to buck her off for a moment. But she seemed implacable, still as a statue despite the way his scaled hide rippled with his movements... although she probably fused her hooves to my back, thanks to how hot they were. That might help. “Are you deaf or just stupid? Move. We're an easy target.”

Scrivener Blooms grumbled, the enormous, streamlined Tyrant Wyrm shaking his head briefly out before he dug his Talons into the mire for a moment, draining all the energy he could from the bogland. Then he hesitated for only a few seconds longer as he gazed down over his silvery claws, studied how they had expanded with his form before he began to lope forwards through the trees.

Yet for some reason, being in this shape again after so long was helping him steady his mind, allowed him to focus through the rush of power. Usually it was the opposite, but right now... everything seemed so upside-down anyway that this felt perfectly natural.

“Head for civilization. Unless they've had experience with Tyrant Wyrms, they'll likely consider you a dragon or drake, and a tame one from the ponies on your back.” Hecate instructed, and Scrivener muttered under his breath before the goddess looked over her shoulder at Luna Brynhild, who was fidgeting a bit as Twilight Sparkle carefully straightened out her wings: not from discomfort, but simply from not wanting to sit still. “Those were hunting dogs from Valhalla?”

“Aye. Sent out after troublemaking demons on the mortal plane, or brought on the hunt in Asgard or... well, any number of things, really. But it has been long since I have seen them, especially in great number... I do not know how the Light could have bred or created so many, so quickly.” Luna hesitated, looking down moodily before she finally grumbled and half-shrugged Twilight Sparkle off, adding dourly: “Perhaps this is the Light's true purpose. Thievery.”

“The Light wants to assimilate.” Hecate said calmly, gazing moodily forwards over the Tyrant Wyrm's shoulder, and Scrivener shifted uneasily as Luna frowned up at the mechanical goddess, but Hecate only smiled thinly. “Powerful or not, the tactic is... weak. It's not truly conquering the enemy... it leaves too many loose ends.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna shook her head briefly before she muttered: “Thou can speak of such only after we conquer the enemy, Hecate. At the moment, we would do best not to underestimate our foe. The Light seems very eager to destroy us.”

“And that beam that came down from the sky... that blast of holy energy...” Twilight murmured, looking anxiously up. “That wasn't from the Whistler or any of the Hounds, that was... that came from a completely different world. How could something be so powerful that it could cast a spell in one place, and have it take form and shape in another?”

“Do not underestimate what thou thyself are capable of, Twilight Sparkle: I am confident that thou could do it as well. It just takes time and training... gods are not so distant as we like to imagine.” Luna said softly, and Hecate snorted and shook her head slowly, but the sapphire mare only looked up challengingly. “Nay, not even thou art. But all the same, my darling mare has a point: the raw power behind that blast of purification... 'tis incredible all the charge it carried for a translocational spell.”

Hecate lowered her head moodily at this, nodding slowly before she said quietly: “And that's what worries me. This... 'True God.' He's a powerful enemy, constantly trying to convert others to his ways, his cause. And even though he represents order, he's a different kind of order than Decretum. Valthrudnir at least had vision.”

“Funny. That almost sounds like you want to defend Valthrudnir.” Scrivener muttered, and then he winced when Hecate stomped firmly on his spine, making him hiss and arch his back before he mumbled: “Okay. I take that back. Nevermind.”

“I give Valthrudnir the credit he deserves. I'm willing to recognize his achievements and his victories. There's no point in pretending otherwise.” Hecate shook her head slowly, then said quietly: “Besides, his victories were mine too, in the past. Even if he abandoned me to a far corner of it, I was still part of his empire. Until you two killed him.”

Hecate ground her hoof slowly down into the Tyrant Wyrm's back, and Scrivener Blooms gave an awkward smile before he said finally: “I guess... that makes you a better pony than we took you for. You know, those... uh... feelings and all... and I guess... well, even Valthrudnir could have... stuff that had feelings for him, that's... understandable, I guess, and-”

Hecate stomped viciously down on the Tyrant Wyrm's back, and Scrivener decided it was better to just shut up for now. Luna and Twilight traded small smiles despite themselves beyond the monolithic mare all the same: even if it was compassion for the enemy, after all, Hecate was still showing a moment of softness beneath all the hard edges of her metal frame, not just for them, but for someone from her past she and they both hated... and maybe if she could show a little compassion, they could learn to tame this darkness threatening to take them both over, that the Light seemed intent on both exacerbating and destroying at once.

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