• 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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No Good At Goodbyes

Chapter Sixty Nine: No Good At Goodbyes

Antares Mīrus strode calmly through the abandoned mine, looking back and forth before his ears flicked at the sound of a hammer smashing down against an anvil. He smiled a little as he strode through the darkness, the only rays of light shimmering through deep cracks in the ceiling here and there... but it was more than enough for the glossy-black unicorn to be able to make his way forwards. He was used to moving through the darkness by now.

He finally reached a heavy steel door, and the stallion knocked twice at this. Immediately, the hammering from the other side halted, and a moment later, Antares winced and covered his face as the door was yanked open to reveal Hecate on the other side in a blinding glow of light, the mechanical goddess looking down at him coldly before she simply jerked her head at him.

He rolled his eyes, then grumbled as he stepped into the brightly lit, almost perfectly dome-shaped room beyond. A forge was cracking merrily away, built into one wall, and there were neatly stacked crates along the wall opposite, all filled with munitions and weapons. Several deactivated Drones sat near these: puppet-ponies that Hecate occasionally used to send deliveries to various rebel forces, or to carry supplies between the rotating set of bases they used.

Antares looked over at the anvil, studying the armor plating on it before glancing back at Hecate: one of her forearms was nothing but a skeletal frame and a bundle of wires and electronic things, and the stallion couldn't help but quip: “If you're getting changed I can come back later.”

Hecate gave him a sour look, then turned her eyes back to the plating on the anvil, beginning to hammer away at it again as Antares winced a little, then said awkwardly: “You know, brute force isn't... you should really heat that up again, you're just-”

“I'm leaving.” Hecate interrupted shortly, and Antares went silent as he looked up at her in disbelief, before she shook her head and said calmly: “Decretum might be salvageable. I'm going to leave tonight and I've already sent twenty Clockwork Ponies ahead to start turning on what machinery they can and to wake up any dormant technology. I have no reason to be here anymore.”

“What?” Antares shouted, and then he stepped forwards, glaring up at her. “You can't just abandon us! Meadowlark and the zebras already left, but at least I could understand them going back to defend their home... where do you have to go? What about my parents, and Sin, and Celestia? Hecate, goddammit, what about the Light, you know that-”

“They're interested in you, not me. And your parents are dead.” Hecate replied callously, and Antares stared up at her with disbelief before Hecate sighed and almost imperceptibly softened as she added rationally: “And I've given you everything I can. You have enough ammunition for five, maybe ten years of fighting. I've provided weapons of every caliber. And I've helped you build bases and develop magic and done more for you than you've done for yourselves. But now the Light is getting more aggressive, and I can't stand these guerrilla tactics and constantly running away.”

“So you're going to run away to a different world.” Antares said bitterly, and Hecate gave an icy smile, her eyes flicking towards him.

For a few moments, she didn't speak... then she finally tossed the hammer away and picked up her arm plating from the anvil, carefully sliding it over her limb as it clicked and locked into place. “The Light is not my problem. It has no interest in Decretum. There, I can begin building my empire, and ensure that if the Light ever does turn its attention to me, I will have the means to fight back. Besides, I'm sure that you'll keep Greater Heaven distracted for at least a year or so... and I only have a real problem if you don't succeed, Antares Mīrus. But you'll succeed.”

She stopped, then added moodily, looking up evenly at him as he glared up at her: “But if you're so worried, I'll take you and Innocence with me. Perhaps even Celestia. You would all make interesting test subjects and powerful Clockwork Ponies.”

Antares laughed shortly at this, opening his mouth... and then, for a moment, he glimpsed past the cold steel shell of Hecate and saw everything beneath her masks and armor, and he hesitated before simply closing his mouth and looking down silently, almost wishing he could agree.

Neither spoke for the longest time, as Hecate only concentrated on fitting the plating back over her arm... and then, finally, Antares looked up and said quietly: “I can't stop you from leaving. And I guess I understand why you want to go, Hecate. But... come back and visit us sometime. Just... leave the invasion force at home. And if we do screw up and the Light wins... promise me you'll... do something about it.”

“Of course. I can't allow for a competing empire. And while the Light can convert souls to join it, once the factories are up and running again, I'll be able to manufacture hundreds of warriors overnight. None of you would stand a chance.” Hecate said contemptibly, and Antares sighed a little, but smiled faintly all the same.

They looked at each other, and then Antares rose a hoof towards her, and Hecate reached down and punched it gently, saying after a moment: “I've left weapons behind at every base. And I have a parting gift for you. Put it to good use.”

Antares cocked his head curiously as Hecate strode past him, heading over to a rack on the wall and easily hefting a large, cylindrical black gun free. The barrel was fat and stocky, and it had a massive drum cylinder in the wide body and an elongated grip, with a handle sticking out of the side of the cannon's top. It was weird-looking to Antares: he didn't recognize a lot of the parts, and he'd gotten pretty used to guns by now, thanks to all the ponies he'd met over his lifetime who'd worked with them.

“I'm not very good at hitting things with these.” Antares said delicately, and then he winced when Hecate simply shoved the gun into his body, fumbling at it before wheezing as he hefted it in one foreleg: it fit his grip perfectly, but... “This thing is heavy as hell!”

“You don't have to be accurate with this.” Hecate's steel-sheathed horn glowed, and the drum was pulled open, revealing that it was already loaded with large, tube-like charges that Antares stared stupidly at. “These are High-Explosive grenades. Don't shoot anything within twenty feet. I've left you a few dozen of these, as well as some different types of ammunition and the tools you'll need to make more. Put it to good use against the Pious.”

Antares looked awkwardly down into the drum, then he shoved it closed: he counted eight shots. Even if the drum was quite large, so were the rounds that went into the cylinder... which were apparently also extremely dangerous, since he knew very well what the word 'grenade' meant... “Why... why in the name of Hell are you giving me this?”

“Stopped you from crying and bitching at me.” Hecate said rudely, and she shoved him backwards, the stallion wincing and then glowering at her before the mechanical goddess added distastefully: “Because you're the only one I trust with it. Your acuity should let you know when it's safe to shoot. If I gave this to your idiot midget friend, she'd kill herself and her entire platoon with it.”

The stallion sighed and shook his head slowly, then he studied the weapon silently before looking up and asking quietly: “Are you taking all the Clockwork Ponies with you?”

Hecate shook her head distastefully. “Twenty. I already said that I sent them on ahead, didn't I? That's more than enough to get Decretum up and running... or at least to build and create a portal to Endworld. But that's none of your concern.”

Antares nodded briefly, smiling a little at her before he said quietly: “Alright. Don't... you know. Don't go over there and screw up or anything. I don't want to have to fight you in the future, Hecate.”

“Then stay out of my way in the future, and we'll be just fine.” Hecate replied calmly, and then she added quietly: “Besides. I can think of at least three worlds that Valthrudnir utilized for his projects. Those should keep me busy for the next few years. And that's assuming I won't have to clean up your mess with the Light afterward.”

Antares smiled again, then he looked down once more at the grenade launcher in his hooves before he slipped it onto his back, his horn glowing faintly and securing the large weapon against his frame with a band of sticky magic energy, the stallion hesitating before he said finally: “I'm gonna miss you, you know.”

“Don't even start.” Hecate said disgustedly, and Antares laughed despite himself and shook his head slowly before the mechanical goddess sighed tiredly and looked away. “We'll see each other again. One way or another. And if you're really going to beg, Antares, I'll have my Clockwork Ponies deliver some supplies to you when they can. But you already get enough of a handicap from the Mad Hatter's little gifts.”

The glossy-black unicorn nodded a little before he said softly: “I'm glad you stuck around for as long as you did. Thank you.”

“I had my own reasons to. Now I have more reasons to leave than stay. That's all. Get out.” Hecate gestured moodily at the door, and Antares hesitated before he strode over to her and hugged her metal leg awkwardly. Hecate looked down at him with distaste, moodily kicking him off after a moment, and Antares gave one last look at her before he simply nodded.

He was still angry... but more than angry, he was upset. But he wanted this last moment to be a good one: no begging, no pleading, no recriminations. They were both doing what had to be done, that was all, dealing with their different missions in the different worlds they lived in.

He flicked his horn, and the heavy steel door slid ajar, the stallion smiling a little before he looked back over his shoulder at Hecate. But she had turned away, quietly adjusting the armor plating over her limb, and he studied her for a few moments, watching the way her mane of lightning and cables swayed and flowed before he shook his head slowly and murmured quietly: “Goodbye, Celestia. I hope that you find what you're looking for.”

With that, he turned and left, heading into the tunnel. Light flooded around him from the brightly lit room, and then it dimmed, a long shadow falling over his body... but the stallion forced himself not to look back even as he felt Hecate's eyes on him, sensed her lingering in the doorway until he began to round a bend.

His eyes slid to the side as he turned the corner, just in time to see Hecate shut the armored door, and the stallion smiled a little despite himself as he strode towards the mouth of the abandoned mine, murmuring to himself: “Big softie.”

After only a few moments, the stallion emerged from the mines with a sigh, glancing back and forth slowly: but all he saw around himself were piles of dirt, a few rusted, abandoned minecarts, and stacks of rotting timbers and some abandoned, low-quality chunks of ore. He kicked at one of these, then shook his head briefly before striding calmly out of the sandy lot and into the sparse woodland that had grown up around this old, long-abandoned operation.

It was a short walk to a lumber road that Antares let himself linger a little along, even though it was at least an hour's march back to Echo Base. But he was off-duty, technically... his only job had been to go out and see what Hecate was doing, since she had apparently been avoiding them since the rebel forces had transferred bases more than a month ago. Not that it had been anything unusual: Hecate's technology had always been a worry point for Celestia, since the heat and electrical energy they radiated were both things the Light could use to track them down.

Hecate had been glad to set up her own little forges and factories away from everyone else, which Antares guessed should have been a reminder that she had never really seen herself as... part of their world. But he'd always tried to visit her, had always been the pony sent to negotiate with her, and trade supplies, and deal with all the other little odds and ends... maybe that was why he hadn't really ever seen this coming.

He sighed a little, looking down and shaking his head briefly. Celestia was going to be angry... but at least right now, they were able to relax a little. Their informants were continuing to provide them with information about what was going on in Heaven, and Celestia was planning several attacks aiming to push back the Light from this area of the country completely. If they could just free part of Equestria, it could give them a place to set up a real base of operations, instead of leaving them constantly on the move and trying to coordinate with half a dozen other rebel factions of varying usefulness...

“'Varying usefulness.' Wow, that's an awful way to put it.” Antares muttered to himself, shaking his head briefly: he was thinking too much like Celestia had started to, and he hated that. And he was nervous as hell about what Celestia had started to make with Innocence, too: it wasn't that he didn't think the world of his little sister, but he knew she had her own demons, too. She didn't need all the extra temptation and responsibility that would come with weapons like Celestia had agreed to make for the half-unicorn, half-Tyrant Wyrm mare...

“Dammit.” Antares muttered, and then he sighed softly before shaking his head again, silently looking back and forth. But the forest around him was cheery and alive, animals brushing through the trees and birds singing softly: all signs that the Light wasn't around, and that it likely wasn't watching, either. Animals tended to get weird when they felt psychic eyes in the vicinity, which was why the first thing they did any time they arrived in base camp was go out and speak to the local Phooka.

The Phooka hated the Light: the news that a den had been destroyed just for helping a few wounded rebels had sparked outrage throughout the tribes... and there were quite a few different tribes of Phooka, Antares had learned, each with slightly-different customs and beliefs. And right now, there was some special meeting going on between the chieftains of all the tribe and some important council they had, far up north. Fluttershy was there, representing both her tribe and the interests of the rebels.

Antares smiled a little at this thought, thinking of how important every last person still free of the Light's grip was, and that for all the powers and abilities ponies like him had... it was the 'normal' ponies that had all been given the most important jobs. Like Rarity and Spike: they were currently traveling across Equestria in carriage, exhausting all the money Rarity had saved up over the years as they pretended to be on one final pilgrimage, even if the unicorn was still in surprisingly good health for all her apparent porcelain frailty. They were visiting fashion icons and famous cities and all sorts of places... many of them close to known dragon aeries and demon dens, the two acting as ambassadors on behalf of the rebel forces.

Pinkie Pie was directing the kitchens, even if she had grown... so weak over the years. But she could still at least make sure everything was going right, correct mistakes where necessary, and she did plenty of cooking and cleaning herself when Pinkamena's back was turned. And Rainbow Dash was working as part of their weather team, helping stir up storms when they needed cover, even if Applejack and Avalon were both worried for the blue Pegasus.

Many of them were fighters, strong fighters, sure... but how could they defeat the numbers the Light had, especially when what comprised much of the Light's fighting force on this world was their own friends and family?

It was a lot more than just soldiers that kept an army running. Demons like Burning Desire, who could hide even their energy signature, were a lot more valuable right now than enforcers like Antares and Avalon. Antares knew they would eventually have a part to play, but he also knew that what they were doing right now – quick, vicious attacks against the Light's Sanctuaries and bases – wasn't working at all. At most, they were just annoying the Light, which always rebuilt after a rebel attack and then used whatever they'd just done in the propaganda against them.

It was a slanted, unfair war, where the most they could do was keep alive. But at least there were still places like this: the small village outside Echo Base didn't want to get involved in the struggle, but they didn't help the Light, and they allowed the rebels to walk around as they pleased so long as they didn't cause any trouble. Celestia thought that they could get this village and all the other towns in this seaside region to stand with them if they destroyed the Light's few outposts in the area, but... Antares wasn't sure whether or not he really wanted them involved. They had been able to avoid both sides of the war, just by virtue of being in the right place, at the right time: why force them to get involved, when all it would do was put them at even greater risk of the Light aggressively expanding into this territory, while brainwashing everyone it came across?

Antares sighed a little again, feeling muddled as he trod down the lumber road. He hated when he started thinking too much like this... he always ended up cranky and just... confused. And worse, sometimes he thought back to some of the things they had been forced to do, and he felt so... so damned conflicted over what they were doing.

They were supposed to be the good guys. But... the entire country hated them, called them everything from cowards to terrorists. Even a lot of people who hadn't been blinded by the Light hated them, thanks to the fact they were well-known to cause a lot of collateral damage with their strikes. More than once, they had destroyed an entire city's power supply or defensive measures just so they could follow up with an attack directly on a Sanctuary or a Cenobium... and little as Antares liked to admit it, those were both places of worship, even if the Pious used them as bases for the Light as well.

It felt... wrong to attack what was basically a church. To burn them down... and Antares could still hear the screams from when they had once set a Sanctuary on fire while the congregation had still been inside. Celestia had then ordered them to wait by the doors... but as the masses had rushed out, trampling and shoving at each other, they had tried their best to target only the Pious and the hostile Blessed and the threats of the Light, but...

Even when they killed only the people who were going to hurt them... Antares was forced to deal with the fact that it had far-reaching consequences. At that same Sanctuary, he remembered killing a Pious that had lunged at him, and its body had fallen into the thronging Blessed and knocked ponies who were trying to flee the fire sprawling, causing them to be trampled, to trip over each other, to sprawl and fall and end up sending others spilling down into a mess that was choking up the only means for innocent and guilty alike to escape, and instead punishing everyone for the sins of a few.

Wasn't that what this whole war was about, to both sides, though? They all knew the Light were all puppets to He Of Many Countless Faces and the few other faceless masters in charge. And likewise, the Light was targeting them, the few who refused to accept their rule, their 'salvation...' but on the way to doing so, they were willing to tear apart anything and everything that got in their way, including their own congregations and other servants of the so-called True God.

Antares shook his head slowly, looking down silently. They didn't want the blessings of the Light. The Light was determined to bless and blind them anyway. But everyone who was blinded... who gave in to the Light... became happy. Complacent. They lived normal lives and had friendships and they probably argued with their spouses and siblings rivaled and students misbehaved and parents did their best to teach... all that changed was that they became... zealous. They got to believe in something higher, better than themselves. They served it, and attended rituals and prayed to He Of Many Countless Faces... but it helped keep them happy. Celestia called it a drug, an opiate, a poison: Antares... wasn't so sure anymore.

Part of him even believed... they were lucky. They had something to believe in, some... guiding light, even if from what they knew, He Of Many Countless Faces was just some other god that had wormed his way into their universe, looking to further bolster his power and extend his empire. Antares told himself a lot that tyranny was tyranny, no matter what form it took, but... that was something easy to say. Easy to believe from an academic standpoint. Easy to stand around with your friends and talk over and look wise and nod seriously to each other about it, all of you pretending you were so goddamned enlightened and strong-willed...

But here, Antares was seeing something completely different from what he wanted, what he desperately needed to believe. He was seeing cities that were thriving, and ponies who were happy, and who didn't care in the slightest where that happiness had come from... only that they were. They weren't picky, and they weren't... overthinking things, or throwing away what they had because it came from some theoretically-amoral place for theoretically-amoral reasons...

And more and more, Antares was picking up some strange vibe from their meetings with the Light. There was definitely something to fight, but he was no longer sure... quite what it was. His acuity picked up weird behaviors sometimes: left alone, the Light could be hostile towards them, sure, but usually in a way that was... protective, much as he hated to apply that word to them. They put their congregation first, they defended their so-called flocks and sacred places, they only became aggressive when they were threatened or... scared, he guessed it was.

But then there were the times when the Light was... vicious. There were the freaks who didn't seem to fit perfectly with the rest of the Light, like the Nephilim and the Whistler, and when the Pious went into horrible killing frenzies, and there were the seemingly out-of-character assaults and attacks on not just rebel bases, but any place that showed any kind of resistance towards the Light's slow and sure domination.

He was worried they were fighting the wrong enemy here: that there was more going on with the Light than met the eye, that there was something moving behind the scenes, trying to manipulate events to its own advantage. Antares didn't like thinking about that, because the more he did, the more he wondered if somehow they were being tricked into doing someone else's dirty work...

The stallion shook his head slowly, then reached up to absently toy with his necklace... and smiled after a moment when he only touched his own bare breast. He'd forgotten: he'd passed that on to Sin. Which was funny, because every time he looked at her and saw she was wearing it, he always smiled and felt a little more like his old self, no matter what was going on, or how serious a front he had to put up so Celestia wouldn't treat him like a foal.

Celestia... now that was someone who had him worried. He softened a little as he strode along, shaking his head slowly. Even Terra was doing better than Celestia right now... but then again, at least Terra had both her Clan and her son, Taruos, who was handling a lot of the administrative work for the rebels. And even if Terra got a little... funny... during Theophilius' visits, she still was there with him. She put up with being called Alice, while Pipsqueak and Excelsior were the Dormouse and the March Hare respectively, and there were a thousand other fancy names for everyone else...

Celestia had... well, him and Innocence. And clearly, Celestia didn't believe in Innocence like Antares did, which he found... disheartening. After all they had been through and all they had fought together, after all, he was really starting to think that Sin was finding a real reason to fight alongside them... that Innocence was healing, in a strange way, possibly in part because of all the trauma she had gone through. Her mind was trying to find something good, something right to focus on, and it was squeezing all the poison out of itself to try and survive.

Sure, they were still having trouble with the entire... 'honor' subject. Innocence didn't understand why you had to show mercy, or be honorable, or sometimes do nice things for bad people, or hold good people accountable for the bad things they did. Sin's view of the world was still a little warped, and twisted, and libertine and self-centric: but they were making progress, little-by-little. For one thing, now she actually seemed to be able to emphasize with others... or at least, she thought everyone deserved to be happy so long as they didn't get in her way.

Antares laughed a little, then shook his head slowly before he felt a sudden whisper run through the world around him, his instincts catching it as the breeze seemed to speak a warning in his ear, and in a flash the stallion was off the lumber road and crouched behind a tree, gazing uneasily up towards the sky visible beyond the scraggly branches of the trees.

A moment later, a white dragon flew by just above the treetops, growling as it scanned the road beneath it. Its enormous, bat-like wings flapped hard as its two large talons hung loosely, long neck craning back and forth: its structure was disturbingly birdlike, with scales that were overgrown and loose like feathers, and large, pointed ears and frills instead of ridges or horns.

“The hell is a wyvern doing here?” Antares muttered as he peered out from behind the tree: the strange, large dragons usually served as the 'holy mounts' of the Angelic Knights, and they had some little smattering of intelligence, sometimes doing scouting and hunting on their own before returning to their masters to report what they had seen. They couldn't seem to talk like normal dragons could, but they could communicate through gesture, growls, and stomping their talons... and of course, in the same way that many Light-Bringers preferred to: through psychic resonance.

Wyverns rarely traveled alone: even an advance scout meant that another one was probably lingering only a few klicks away, or there was an Angelic Knight searching the road, heading for some preplanned rendezvous point. Antares grimaced as he looked back and forth, then he pushed away from the tree and hurried down the side of the road through the forest, wondering what the hell had tipped the Light off... worried, as always, that they actually weren't nearly as secure as they liked to think they were, or that they might even have a traitor in their midst again...

Antares shook these thoughts off, knowing full well this could also just be a random patrol that had smelled pony walking around in the middle of nowhere, and was curious about it. The Light was everywhere, after all: assuming that he was clearly being stalked or followed by the Light wasn't going to help them in any way whatsoever. Right now, he just needed to get back home without being seen, or eliminate whatever was scouting the area without attracting too much attention. Or worse, giving them the time to send out a psychic call for help.

He shifted a little, then reached back with a grimace and touched the butt of his grenade launcher. This thing might be getting a trial run faster than he'd expected... “And I haven't even named you yet. Maybe I'll call you... Shelly. That sounds about right.”

Antares shifted slightly around the tree, looking up through the thin canopy and watching as the wyvern flew slowly onwards, before the stallion sighed in relief and quickly turned, plotting the course in his mind before he leapt forwards and almost vanished into the sparse forest. He covered ground quickly, moving through shadows and brush to cloak his movements as best as possible, making barely a rustle even when he seemed to charge headfirst into a bush.

He ran for almost twenty minutes before letting his pace slow as he reached the edge of the forest, then slowed to a halt in the bushes. There was an enormous cornfield... but also twenty feet of empty dirt that had been plowed into a wide, flat road, separating wild forest from tamed crops. Antares peered uneasily up into the sky, but he only saw a few fluffy clouds above... but what made him nervous was the lack of sound from the forest around him.

The stallion looked back and forth slowly, and then the glossy-black unicorn straightened and stepped apprehensively out onto the road. He checked everywhere around himself again, then grimaced before running out onto the path...

And, only halfway across the road, he was cut off as two enormous white wyvern dragons slammed down in front of him, both roaring furiously as the unicorn winced and skidded to a halt. Then he scowled up between the pair, saying grouchily: “I really can't get a break, can I?”

One of the wyverns replied by hopping forwards on its large talons and swinging its head down, and Antares reared back, the lunge narrowly missing him and the muzzle of the dragon smashing into the ground. Without hesitating, Antares leapt forwards and ran up onto its head, then kicked off its curled-down neck even as it snapped its skull quickly upwards with a roar.

Antares landed on the head of the other wyvern, kicking off its skull and knocking it stumbling backwards as it squawked, flapping its wings in frustration. Antares, meanwhile, shot straight up into the air, streamlining his body as his horn glowed before an angled white platform of energy appeared, the glossy-black unicorn grinning as he hit this and it launched him even higher.

Both wyverns roared as they leapt upwards, flapping their wings, but they were slow and ponderous taking off, and Antares was high above. High above, and his hoof was already moving, yanking the grenade gun off his back and aiming straight down with it as he steadied his aim, then yanked back on the trigger.

There was a ka-thump, and a cylinder shot out of the weapon, streaking straight down before it struck into the head of one of the wyverns... and exploded in a tremendous blast of heat and force, both wyverns roaring in surprise as they were knocked out of the sky and sent flopping to the ground. One was more stunned than anything else, but the other was howling miserably, kicking up dirt as it rolled back and forth, its features burnt and smashed by the explosion.

Antares spent only a moment in shock as he continued to sail upwards through the air... and then he grinned and steadied the recoilless grenade launcher as he pulled the trigger twice, sending two more high explosive rounds shooting down with only a second's interval between them.

The first one smashed into the breast of the stunned wyvern, blowing a crater in its body as it roared in pain, as the second round struck the wounded, flailing white dragon in the throat and blew most of its head away in a splatter of blood. And Antares flipped his body around with a grimace as, despite the loss of its head, the second wyvern hauled itself up to its talons, flapping its wings wildly as it staggered back and forth, while the first gurgled and shifted uselessly over the ground.

Antares fell, wishing he could be more surprised, but he only gritted his teeth as he streamlined his body and let himself tilt into a sharp dive, focusing forwards on the second wyvern as its wings flapped weakly and it fought to slowly try and sit up. But Antares dropped like a stone, then half-flipped and landed with three hooves shoving violently down into its crunched in chest, sending up a splatter of blood as the stallion felt bones shattering and organs crush beneath his hooves.

The white wyvern gargled and whimpered, then fell back in a dead sprawl. Antares smiled grimly at this, then leapt off the body of the beast and took aim at the other wyvern as it continued to stumble back and forth across the road, the stallion muttering: “Sorry.”

He fired a round as it turned, and it smashed into one stumpy leg, knocking the creature flat with a gurgle from its stump of throat before Antares quickly ran forwards, lowering his head as he gritted his teeth before leaping over the fallen dragon and twisting himself agilely in midair so he could bury his horn through the wyvern's scaled back.

It gargled, and then Antares unleashed a raw blast of force and purification that liquefied most of its heart, the dragon flinching and shivering before it fell still. Antares grimaced a bit as he yanked his horn free, then he shook his head briskly and muttered: “Great. These aren't suspicious deaths at all. Where the hell do I hide a corpse that's eight times my size?”

“You don't.” said a voice shortly, and Antares grinned weakly before he slowly turned around in a circle to see Celestia was standing at the edge of the cornfield, her eyes cold and narrowed before she flicked her horn firmly, and golden flames burst into life over both corpses, the stallion wincing and staggering hurriedly offto the side. “Hopefully that will help conceal the damages you've left, but you've just compromised our entire operation here, Antares Mīrus. I hope you're happy.”

“Look, I ran into a patrol, I killed them, that's that. The Light will investigate and raise security in the area, but we can wait them out as long as we don't go kicking the dragon any further.” Antares reasoned quietly, raising a hoof and shaking his head quickly. “Look, let's concentrate on getting out of here, okay? You can scold me on the way.”

Celestia nodded after a moment, looking with unhidden contempt at the grenade launcher in Antares' hoof, and the stallion sighed tiredly as he shifted this to place it on his back, muttering: “You can lecture me about this, too. And yes, yes, about respecting you. Although, Celestia, before you do, let me just piss you off a little more by pointing out you want me to respect you because you're bigger and stronger and a lot more brutal than me, not because you're smarter, supposed to be wiser, and, you know, a billion years old.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the ivory mare said quietly: “Well, welcome to the real world, Antares Mīrus. You can talk about beliefs, and morals, and quibble over what's academically wrong and right, but you can't talk down the Light and you can't just make it go away. You have to deal with this, with the reality we live in: we all do. Now move.”

Antares shifted uneasily, and then he nodded awkwardly before striding quickly towards her, past the burning corpses of the dragons. Celestia turned and calmly began to push her way through the cornfield, and Antares followed, remaining silent, waiting for the inevitable...

And just as he expected, it came, Celestia saying coldly: “If the Light finds us, it's on your head. If the Light interfere with any of our operations, it's your fault. When the Light inevitably increase security in this area, then you are going to deal with it, Antares, not us. Killing a pair of wyverns out in the open was stupid and irrational. Using that toy on your back was stupid and careless. Being caught at all by a patrol is ridiculous. I expect better.”

“They hunt by smelling out brainwaves, Celestia. You and I both know they're like giant radar dishes: an intelligent being out wandering around alone, worse, an immortal like me, it was just bad luck that one happened to be flying over at the time. Besides, you know that wyverns are servants of the Light and the Angelic Knights use them, but the Pious have been releasing them and letting them breed. The problem is that, 'wild' or not ,they're still born into servitude to the Light. They still have that psychic link and they only hunt things that aren't Light-connected.” Antares replied moodily, shaking his head shortly. “It was bad luck.”

“It was bad luck. That's a coward's and a child's excuse.” Celestia replied with equal distaste, and then she shook her head slowly in contempt. “You still have a responsibility-”

“To fix my mistakes. Whether it was because of something I did or just the way the blocks fell, it's mine to fix. I understand and recognize that.” Antares muttered, shaking his head briefly before he sighed a little, dropping his head forwards. “But it's a vicious circle, Celestia, and I know you recognize that. If they set up an encampment, and I destroy it, they'll build a base. If I destroy a base, they'll build a keep. If I destroy their keep, they'll build a castle. It goes on and on... and that's not even getting into what the Light-”

“You know what you have to do. That's all.” Celestia said shortly, and Antares looked up silently before shaking his head slowly and dropping his gaze, realizing it was useless. He had just been trying to convince himself that Celestia was speaking out of anger, hadn't taken into account the full sentence she was dropping on his head... but apparently she meant every last word. And he did know how this was going to end. What he had to do.

They walked on in silence through the cornfield, and skirted the farmhouse on the other side before they reached a narrow road that forked, one lane going high, the other sloping down into the valley where the rebel base was located. Celestia took the low road, but Antares kept going straight, walking out into the open and following the curve towards the village in the distance, closing his eyes and wishing silently that there was another way.

Innocence was sitting with Aphrodisia and Prestige Luster in one of the bunk rooms, chatting with them on and off and playing with her star necklace. She didn't know if they were good friends or not, but... they were both ponies she felt that she could trust, and she enjoyed the company of.

Aphrodisia had her scythe buried in the ground behind her, leaning comfortably back into the weapon as she sipped ceramic cups of various alcohols she had gotten her claws on. Prestige, meanwhile, was dressed in her golden Valkyrie armor and had Antares' shield on her back, along with a short golden sword. Their skirmishes against the Light were beginning to make her proficient with both, but it was her magic that had grown truly devastating, even Innocence impressed by the fact that she could manipulate the elements so smoothly.

Echo Base was filled with activity: it was a large series of subground caverns, with tunnels that connected to the cellars of several abandoned homes that had burned down years ago. The whole rebel force was here... well, except for Antares and a few scouts, and Hecate and her Clockwork Ponies.

Even demons were able to stay here, as long as they wore collars that shielded their presence from psychic detection or stayed in the area of the base specifically designed to accommodate the supernatural, with shielded walls and insulation that prevented detection by most forms of magic.

Of course, there were also demons like Hevatica, who exuded so little demonic energy they were essentially able to pass undetected unless psychics were very specifically trying to find their precise energy signatures, and there were demons like Aphrodisia: Aphrodisia, whom as Innocence had finally triumphantly confirmed, had been trained as an assassin in Helheim and was able to completely cloak her presence as she pleased.

Innocence had... a strange kind of respect for Aphrodisia. They were cousins, and they were good friends, and Aphrodisia had her own inner demons to fight and tame... no pun intended. She was a Dominia, and constantly dealt with a need to both control and be controlled, desires for pleasure and violence and... not power, like Innocence longed for, but something more primal; Aphrodisia wanted a challenge, a fight, something she could tear apart... or that would tear her apart if she failed to rise to the occasion it gave.

And yet she was controlling that... more, she was channeling that, and she had that weird sense of honor and even virtue. Innocence smiled a little at the demon, hesitating as she studied her before she asked impulsively: “Why aren't you in Helheim right now?”

“Because Hel told me to pick a side. She said I could either work with Helheim and have zero contact with Mommy and Nova, or I could stay here and have zero contact with Helheim.” Aphrodisia shrugged, picking up a cup and sipping from it before licking her lips slowly. “This stuff is really good. What is it again? Socky?”

“Saké.” Prestige corrected with a smile, picking up a long-necked jar and pouring the demon another shot. “We got a whole bunch of bottles of it from the traders. Lots of cabbage, too.”

“I hate cabbage. Cabbage is gross.” Aphrodisia complained, then she looked at the little cup before shrugging and instead swiping the bottle from Prestige, drinking greedily from the neck as the Valkyrie rolled her eyes with a tired sigh.

Innocence was still looking curiously at Aphrodisia, however, and after a moment she shifted before asking finally: “Why would Hel give you that choice?”

“Because... I don't know. Hel is weird. All I know is that if I do go down to Helheim, I won't be able to come back until Hel says I can. Right now it's more important that I be here than anything else.” Aphrodisia nodded firmly a few times, and then she looked up with a warm smile as Pinkamena shoved her way past a few other groups of people sitting amidst the mess of cots and sleeping bags. “Hi Mommy! Want some socky?”

“Hi kid. And not right now.” The older pink mare grimaced a little, her sharp blue eyes turning towards Innocence as she said quietly: “Listen, kiddo. Princess Sunshine just got back here, but I got no idea where Antares is. But she said she saw him.”

“He's not back yet?” Innocence looked up uneasily, failing to hide the sharper note of worry in her voice as Prestige frowned, immediately on her own hooves. Aphrodisia also shifted worriedly, slowly putting down the bottle as the scaled unicorn asked hesitantly: “Where's Celestia? Maybe I should go and talk to her...”

“I don't know, Sin. I don't know if anyone should, especially while she's gone and locked herself up in her study.” Pinkamena shook her head slowly, then she turned her eyes towards Apps, gesturing to her. “Kid, let's go take a look for Antares ourselves. Poking Princess Sunshine right now is like poking an Ursa Major after you've made fireworks out of its kid.”

“I'll go with you, Innocence, if you want to talk to her. I want to know what's happened to Antares.” Prestige said quietly, and Innocence gave a small smile before nodding to the Valkyrie. Pinkamena scowled at them with distaste that didn't completely cloak her unease, but Prestige shook her head and said softly: “She hasn't lost her mind, Pinkamena. She won't hurt us.”

The demon laughed sourly at this, then she looked down and muttered: “That's exactly what scares me, kids. She hasn't lost her mind. So I wouldn't be so sure about the second part of that sentence, if I were you.”

Prestige and Innocence traded uneasy looks, and then Pinkamena shook her head slowly before simply gesturing moodily to Aphrodisia: a moment later, both demons vanished in puffs of smoke, shooting through the room as Aphrodisia's scythe trembled before sparking out of existence as well.

The two mares shifted uneasily... then traded another awkward look before Prestige forced a smile, saying quietly: “Celestia was very tough on us when we were... children, really. But she helped us get our acts together in the first place... was part of my inspiration to become a Valkyrie in the first place. It'll be alright, Innocence.”

Innocence wasn't entirely sure it would be, though... a worry that grew worse as they made their way towards Celestia's study. She had an office in every rebel base, always carefully kept and often doubling as a war room. Everything was always neat, and codified, and encrypted by runes and magic...

But as the two mares approached, they noted not only the way other people were avoiding the room as much as possible, there were papers scattered here and there, left crumpled and torn. Even if there was nothing important on them, normally they'd quickly be swept up: even the least important piece of paper could give the Light some clues to their locations or where they were moving next, or where they had come from... and the latter could sometimes have much worse consequences than the former.

The door to the study was ajar, and Prestige and Innocence halted in front of this, shifting uneasily for a few moments before the ivory mare's voice came icily: “Come inside, or stay outside. I don't care which you choose, but make it quick. I don't have time to deal with your demands today, Innocence.”

Innocence shivered a little, and then she shook her head quickly before stepping forwards and pushing the door open, taking a breath... and then simply staring in disbelief at the disarray the office was in. Papers were everywhere, boxes had simply been flung aside and turned over, and Celestia was carving runes that Innocence recognized all too well into the shelving and over her own desk with the tips of her swords... “Are... are those immolation runes?”

“We're going to have to abandon the base sooner than anticipated. Antares Mīrus killed a patrol of wyverns outside the corn field, only twenty minutes away from our base.” Celestia said coldly, looking over her shoulder with her single glaring eye. “He's currently creating a false trail, but we have no choice except but to act quickly. Over the next few days this entire facility will be rigged to self-destruct, and in no more than a week, we will be abandoning it. All plans are on hold until we move on to Gamma Base.”

“What?” Prestige looked up in shock, then she shook her head, spluttering: “But... that means... you're having Antares take all the blame for his actions?”

Celestia smiled icily at this wording, turning around and looking from one pony to the other with distaste as reality around her seemed to distort. “It's a novel concept, isn't it, girls? I'm making him take responsibility for his own actions. He didn't just kill the wyverns in a public area, likely while being watched by the Light. He killed the wyverns with an explosive projectile weapon of Hecate's. The Light is going to recognize this is our technology and will try to hunt us down, even if I've bought us a few hours by burning the bodies.”

“No, let's... calm down. The... Antares getting himself seen somewhere by the Light... that's not going to do anything but help lead the Light here! Or put him in extreme danger!” Prestige shouted, shaking her head vehemently. “Look, let's be calm and try to wait-”

“Wait for them to come and pour fuel into this cavern to burn us alive, or wait for them to gather an army to subdue us so they can convert us one-by-one to the Light's cause?” Celestia asked sharply, shaking her head slowly. “We have to act now, before the Light can move its forces in against us. That patrol was no coincidence.”

“You don't know that... you can't know what's going to happen. This is stupid, you're-” And then Prestige and Innocence both stared in shock and shrank back as Celestia's three swords yanked themselves away from the shelves and desk, pointing threateningly towards the two ponies.

“I am the only person here thinking straight any longer. I am the only person here who truly appreciates the cost of this war! I am Freya, Queen of the Valkyries, and I know what is best for all of us!” Celestia snapped, her eye blazing, her braided mane shivering. “And you are soldiers under my command, who will do as you are told, is that understood?”

Prestige trembled, raising her head... and then she simply swallowed thickly and lowered her head as Innocence stared across at Celestia. Then the scaled unicorn gritted her teeth, lowering her head slowly before she whispered: “I'll never forgive you if something happens to Antares.”

“I don't need your forgiveness. I don't care about you, Innocence. You're a weapon and a traitor, nothing more.” Celestia said contemptibly, her swords twisting around to sheath themselves over her body, and the scaled unicorn swallowed thickly before Celestia turned slowly away, looking over the runes carved along the shelves as she said quietly: “Get out of my sight. Both of you. Antares chose his path: you should both choose your own as well.”

Innocence trembled a little as she turned around, then cursed and strode hurriedly off. Prestige followed after her, and then the Valkyrie sighed and slumped a little, falling behind as Innocence broke into a run and shot off through the earthen corridors.

Prestige's eyes flicked up and back over her shoulder for a moment, staring weakly at the Celestia she didn't even know anymore... and what could she do? Tell Terra? Break the rebels into two factions, when they were already being torn apart as just one?

The Valkyrie looked back forwards, stopping in the hall and hanging her head... before her eyes widened slightly, and she felt some faint spark of hope as she felt Celestia's presence drawing close. Maybe this was like before, that had just been Celestia lashing out in frustration and anger, and-

Celestia shoved her aside and into a wall, Prestige hitting it hard with a grunt of pain and then sliding down it, barely catching herself as she stared in disbelief at Celestia... no, at Freya. Furious, hateful, angry Freya, who stormed a little further down the hall before she hammered at a door and shouted through the frame: “Council meeting! Now, Pipsqueak!”

“Ma'am, coming ma'am!” squeaked a terrified voice from the other side, and Celestia glowered at the door for a moment longer before her eye narrowed and looked back at Prestige, glaring at her, challenging her, questioning her.

It took every ounce of courage and discipline she had not to look away, to make Prestige raise her head as she swallowed thickly, meeting Celestia... Freya's... burning gaze, before she whispered: “Please. This... this isn't what a Valkyrie is supposed to do.”

“You have a lot to learn, Prestige Luster. This is precisely what a Valkyrie is supposed to do: defend the laws first set by the Aesir, at cost of everything else.” Celestia said coldly, shaking her head slowly as she gritted her teeth. “The Light has cost me everything. It has taken most of my family, and most of my country, and completely destroyed my home and turned it into a mockery of what Heaven once was. I am going to stop the Light, no matter what. I am going to use every tool at my disposal to do so. And you can either help me, or get out of my way, or I will force you to stay out of my way, no matter who you are. Revenge is all I have left. Revenge is why I exist.”

Her horn sparked, her braided mane trembling before Celestia closed her eye and took a slow, unsteady breath, a strange light radiating from beneath her eyepatch before she shook her head shortly. Prestige looked uneasily at Celestia, shifting worriedly before the ivory mare calmly turned back down the hall, striding slowly forwards as she said quietly: “Nothing matters except destroying the Light. When the Light is destroyed, and Equestria is free, you can go back to having morals and philosophizing and we can all say that torture and brute force and murder are bad things, to be used by barbarians. Until that time, Prestige, if we want to win this war... we will use every tool at our disposal. We will do whatever it takes to stop the Light. And anyone... anyone who assists the Light in any fashion, accidental, coincidental, or purposeful... is an enemy to me. Keep that in mind.”

Celestia strode off down the hall, and Prestige trembled, shaking her head weakly. But the ivory mare never looked back: she only continued to walk forwards, a pale horse of death, striding onwards as darkness spread through her strained, overstressed mind, making her remember all the glories and vengeances she'd dealt as Freya... and forget how high the cost of revenge could run.

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