• 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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The Weight Of Our Sins

Chapter Seventy: The Weight of Our Sins

Antares smiled a little as Innocence tended silently to his wounds, the two sitting alone together in an empty corridor of Echo Base in the middle of the night, the stallion's gear laying in a discarded pile nearby. It had been three days, and every single day, Antares had been outside, drawing attention away from their base camp before sneaking his way back here. So far, it seemed to be working: the Light's military was combing the area about five kilometers away, trying to investigate the tens – if not hundreds – of limestone caverns that ran along the seashore. Even with the Light's enormous resources, it would take them weeks to scour the caverns... and by then, they'd be long gone.

“So today, I fought... thirteen wyverns, twenty Pious, twenty... two? Yeah. Twenty-two conscripts, mostly Pegasi... and two Nephilim. Nephilim, seriously. They must be really pissed off at me, but... I guess I do keep beating the crap out of them.”

Innocence sighed quietly, silently rubbing salve along a bruise as she murmured: “Prestige is really pissed off at you, still... this... Antares, even I think this is stupid. And it's more dangerous for you to keep running back and forth between there and here than just to... wait it out now. They think you're in the caves, just leave it be.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. I'll just ask Celestia if I can stay home tomorrow. You know, like when I was a foal and wanted to stay home from school, that always worked out great.” Antares said moodily, and then he grimaced when Innocence shoved a wad of cotton into one bloody nostril.

“You never went to school.” Innocence stopped, then softened a little, silently reaching down to sweep up a bit more salve on her claws, rubbing it gently over another large cut on his bare shoulder. “Antares, don't... kill yourself. Please. I... I need you.”

Antares blinked in surprise, looking up, and Innocence gave a faint smile even as she looked away, silently squeezing into his shoulder and smearing salve over his hide as she said quietly: “You're the only family I really have left. You, Aunt Pinkamena, Aphrodisia... and Prestige, I guess. Celestia's... Celestia's losing her mind, Antares. And our parents are gone. And I only... I only just got my big brother back a few weeks ago.”

The glossy-black unicorn looked down silently, and then he reached up and gently touched her claw, saying softly: “I'm not going to abandon you, Sin. I'm not going to go out and get myself killed... but I do have to be out there. Celestia... Celestia isn't seeing the big picture right now, and yes. I know that going back and forth so much... it's putting us all in danger. But at least while I'm out there, I can fight against the Light, and Shelly gives me a lot of mobile power. And while I'm out there, the Light is distracted... I don't think Celestia understands that she's putting us all in danger herself. Our gatherers are working overtime and people are getting sloppy in their hurry to get supplies packed up and hidden outside of the base so we'll be able to just pick up and leave... we're going to be noticed. Unless I'm out there, fighting the Light. Pretending I'm a one-stallion army.”

He stopped, then grinned over at Innocence, shrugging and adding easily: “And it's pretty sexy too, right? I mean, Prestige thinks so, right?”

“Yeah, Tarry, sure. You're dead sexy. Just... please don't end up putting too much emphasis on the 'dead' part.” Innocence said quietly, and Antares smiled a little before he nodded briefly, the two looking at one-another for a few moments before the mare sighed and drew back, flicking her claw absently as her horn glowed and the salve on it dissolved into steam. “I wish we had more than just cleansing spells sometimes. I wish...”

She stopped, then looked down and muttered: “Well, wishing is all kind of useless right now. Antares, but... what do we do? I don't trust Celestia anymore. She's just... anger and hatred. She's... she's treating you like you did this on purpose.”

Antares looked down quietly, then he sighed a little, body flexing against the bandages wrapping across his scarred form, his eyes roving upwards before he said softly: “She's not Celestia right now, Sin, that's why. She's Freya.”

“Yes, it's very sad, but it seems that the Red Queen is getting back up to some of her old tricks... off with her head, and all that.” remarked a voice gently, and Innocence and Antares both looked up in dumb surprise to see Theophilius Carter seated calmly crosslegged nearby, sipping easily at a teacup as he gave them a kind smile. “Dear Alice is sleeping, with the little boy. Poor boy, he is... oh, they make me feel such a strange stirring inside me, my friends, and I don't entirely know why... but perhaps you two understand. You're the Lion and the Unicorn, after all, although I must say it's very nice not to see you fighting all about the town.”

“We're both unicorns.” Antares said dryly after a moment, before he paused and added: “Well, we're both unicorns but I'm clearly the Lion. Lions are badass.”

“But trim his whiskers and shave his mane, and what are you left with? A great big tabby-cat, and such a laughingstock that the hyenas will all have fits! Not that they don't already, mind you.” The Mad Hatter looked thoughtful at this, swirling his tea easily before he smiled suddenly and asked kindly: “Lion, do you remember, a long time ago, when you were not even a scrap of an idea... do you remember the last time the Red Queen became convinced that chopping necks was a good way to get all the bad eggheads out of her kingdom?”

“Uh. No. Seeing as if I wasn't born yet, I can't remember something.” Antares said mildly, and then he winced when the Mad Hatter shoved a finger against his nose, looking at him very seriously.

This was undercut slightly by the fact that Theophilius giggled a little, then suddenly cleared his throat and sat back, tossing teacup and saucer aside as he said pointedly: “You can remember perfectly well if you're aware of what's happened, my dear friend. But I will remind you, then: the Red Queen wanted to clean up her kingdom, ironically in a way that the Light seems to desire to. But she was stopped, by a force of darkness that fought her on her own terms, and defeated her under her own sun.”

Antares and Innocence traded looks, half-understanding: they both were aware that long ago now, Celestia and Luna had fought and nearly killed each other, before Luna had struck down Celestia and... freed her. Somehow. From something... “And you're... what are you getting at?”

“Well, that's funny, isn't it? Defeated by her own hubris, really: had she been fighting intelligently – excuse the oxymoron – then she would certainly never have lost so spectacularly. But she was wearing quite a heavy crown, and it was putting all those poisons in her head...” Theophilius shrugged easily, reaching up and tapping his own hat slowly. “But I find it funny, that's all, that the Dragon would put all that time and effort into poisoning her so subtly... and then screw it up so spectacularly. But that's the thing about certain magical items: sometimes you don't see the effect they might have on a person until too late.”

Antares and Innocence both frowned, and then the glossy-black unicorn leaned forwards, asking sharply: “Her eye? Hel has something to do with this?”

“What? Oh no no no, you misunderstand! The White Queen would never do something like this, not even to the Red Queen... they're very much like sisters, you know.” The Mad Hatter nodded almost violently several times, smiling widely. “But some sisters are allergic to onions.”

Antares blinked at this, staring at the Mad Hatter before Theophilius suddenly looked up and said disbelievingly: “Oh my. Well, this is not at all a good sign. Excuse me, friends, I have to quickly run away... and if you're intelligent at all in the slightest, Lion and Unicorn, you'll both recognize that it may be a much better choice to put on your dancing shoes and hop, skip, and trot away from here yourselves instead of making a ruckus.”

The two ponies stared at him in confusion... and then Antares' eyes widened as there was a loud bang that came from somewhere above, a bit of sand rumbling down from the ceiling as Theophilius winced and seized his hat, then yanked it down and vanished in a puff of green smoke. Antares cursed, up on his hooves only a moment later and shouting: “Sound the alarm! Everyone, we're under attack!”

Yelling began to rise, and bells rang throughout the entire base, left to clang themselves into silence: but it was more than enough of an alarm to spread rapidly through the base and warn everyone of what was going on, as Antares and Innocence both staggered up to their claws and looked down the corridor as more dust hailed down from the ceiling. “We have to seal the entrance!”

Innocence nodded sharply, and then she grimaced as Antares swept up the grenade launcher and his satchel bag, tossing them on even as he almost stumbled over his broken armor. Then he took off like a shot, bag bouncing loosely against his side and gun barely secured to his back by a strip of magic energy, the mare shouting: “I can do it, you should-”

“Yeah, shut up, Sin.” Antares called back mildly, leading the way quickly down the corridor and leaping into the entrance chamber, both ponies wincing as something smashed into the sealed armored gates at the same time, knocking the rebels trying to hold it closed sprawling backwards before they scrambled up to try and shove against it again. “Hey, get away from the gate! That is not a good idea!”

The rebels all looked up as Antares slung off his sidepack and popped the drum of his grenade launcher open, saying quickly: “Sin, buy me time.”

“Already on it.” Innocence muttered, her horn thrumming with energy before she flicked it sharply, and just as the door was smashed into from the other side, massive pillars of rock shot up over it and tore out of the earth at an angle, bracing the newly-formed barrier as the rebels stumbled hurriedly backwards. And then Innocence smiled, her horn continuing to glow as black mire splashed up around the pillars, transforming rapidly into solid, dark crystal.

“Alright, that. Could work.” Antares said after a moment, whistling a little before he looked at the staring rebels, saying quickly as he finished loading the grenade launcher and slammed it back shut: “Guys, get moving! Clear the base, you have to evacuate, we'll hold them off as long as we can!”

The rebels saluted sharply, then turned and staggered around in a circle, hurriedly bolting down the corridors as Antares and Innocence both set themselves, the stallion saying wryly: “I'm half-tempted to tell you to run away, too, Innocence, but the last thing I need is for you to throw another temper tantrum on me.”

“Shut up, Tarry. And don't do anything stupid.” Innocence replied in a mutter, as the door rattled loudly and pieces of stone and loose, frozen debris tumbled down from the barrier, as something smashed again and again into the other side.

“Can't promise that.” Antares said almost amiably, and then he grimaced a bit as cracks started to spread through the ice, dust hailing down from the earthen ceiling as Innocence shivered, all too aware of the fact they were trapped in this dirty burrow and there was nothing but sand and earth and rock around them. That if the Light managed to find and block off all the other entrances, they would end up imprisoned in their own home... “Focus, Sin.”

Innocence nodded sharply, breathing slowly, horn glowing and claws flexing as she readied herself... and then both she and Antares were knocked stumbling backwards as part of the ceiling exploded, rocks and dirt hailing down all around them.

The scaled unicorn forced herself to look up with a curse, wincing through the sand cloud obscuring her senses before she thought she caught sight of some kind of massive drill... but in front of her eyes, it seemed to unfurl into a single long, thin strip that quickly yanked itself up and out through the breach it had created.

But before she could even think about what the hell had just happened, several large, snarling Hounds of Heaven leapt down through the hole in the ceiling, the supernatural hunting dogs barking loudly. And Innocence cursed as her eyes glowed, looking sharply back and forth as Antares' own sharp irises roved over the three, quickly realizing those Hounds weren't the real threat: it was the invisible ones he could hear padding over the ground, cutting ripples in the swirling dust around them, that were the actual danger.

A Hound of Heaven seemed to appear out of thin air in mid-lunge at his side, and a moment before it could contact, Antares slammed the butt of his grenade launcher into its features, knocking it limply out of the air with a shattered muzzle.

Another Hound appeared lunging at Innocence's throat, but she caught it with telekinesis and a cold grin, rearing back as she snapped horn viciously forwards and launched the canine into the three Hounds still in front of them. The whole group was knocked sprawling before Innocence snapped her horn cruelly upwards, and a massive blast of mire exploded out of the earth, slamming all four into the barrier she had formed as the black muck cemented around the, leaving them helplessly dangling from the rocky blockade.

Antares caught the Hound of Heaven beside him before it could scurry away, holding it by the ruff with his free hoof. It snarled and lunged up at him immediately, and the stallion half-turned gracefully and slung it headfirst into the ground, leaving it standing almost comically on its face. Then Innocence rolled her eyes and snapped her horn firmly outwards, the Hound of Heaven shooting through the air-

And it was slashed in half by a gleaming blade, the creature giving a weak whimper before hindquarters hit one side of the room and headquarters landed on the other. Antares and Innocence both immediately looked sharply forwards, setting themselves as the strange weapon furled quickly backwards and slipped beneath the cloak of the creature now standing in front of them, looking at them meditatively from beneath its golden snake-helm.

It was a death entity: that feeling they both got, it was so much like the aura that Kismet exuded... and yet at the same time, it was the complete opposite, cruel and perverted and uncaring. There was no serenity in it, only emptiness and condescension: something too arrogant to be malicious, too cruel to be anything but intentional.

“Interesting souls. Valuable ones.” the death entity said softly, and then he held up a hand, and a reaper appeared in midair next to him... except this was no normal reaper. Its golden mask was cracked and inset with gemstones, a scroll clutched loosely in its skeletal claws as it floated next to its tall, thin master. “Identify them.”

“You could just ask.” Antares said brazenly, stepping forwards and leveling the grenade launcher at the death entity. “I am Antares Mīrus, and this is Innocence. Now that we've politely introduced ourselves... who the hell are you?”

“I am Lord Minos. My duty is to judge the living, and assist them in finding their proper place in death.” the death entity replied in his soft, cold voice, and then he reached up and gestured at his reaper servant.

The reaper unfurled the scroll and looked down at it, seeming to read off something before nodding and looking over at the Great Reaper, who nodded calmly after a moment in silent response. The reaper quickly closed the scroll after this and bowed deeply, then vanished, leaving the three alone, the only sound coming from something smashing violently against the other side of the barrier.

And then Antares' eyes widened as Minos simply vanished, before his instincts screamed at him: without hesitating, he dropped low, head lowering as Minos appeared beside him with his cloak already sharply slicing through the air, the smoking fabric just passing over Antares' head before the stallion snapped his horn upwards and blasted Minos into the wall.

The death entity hit the packed earth with a thud, catching himself as his cloak flew open for a moment, revealing a terribly-thin body with long, skeletal limbs, his legs ending only in ethereal black flame and his arms and hands nothing but polished bone. And all around his body and arms writhed scrolls, making hissing noises as they scraped together and moved in a way that was terribly serpentine before he vanished again.

But Antares only set himself as Innocence rose her head, the two watching as Minos appeared once more in front of the barrier, shaking his head slowly. His cloak fluttered around him, but again hid his skeletal frame from view as he said softly: “How frustrating.”

He shifted and straightened, his golden snake mask gleaming before he glanced calmly over his shoulder as the barrier cracked further. And then both Antares and Innocence's eyes widened as Minos tilted his head ever-so-slightly towards them, one skeletal claw pushing out of his cloak-

Antares rose his grenade launcher and fired a round straight at Minos, who became translucent and ghostly, the round passing through his body even as he waved his skeletal claw forwards. And behind him, the entire barrier simply exploded, chunks of ice and stone flying in all directions... although it also met Antares' grenade, which exploded with such a tremendous bang that it made the entire room quake, Innocence wincing and lashing her horn out to shield them almost too late as they were pelted by chunks of shrapnel and stone and Hound gore.

Minos vanished as Pious dressed in white armor flooded into the room, accompanied by conscripts: ponies blinded by the Light, shoved into white armor, and forced to fight in the Light's army. Not that they were without zeal: they all but flung themselves into battle, shouting at Antares and Innocence, but they were sloppy and untrained and thankfully got in the way of the Angelic Knights more than they helped.

Antares snarled, then shouted at Innocence when she stomped her hooves down and sent several massive spikes of corruption tearing up from the earth to rip apart both conscripts and Pious; Innocence, however, only snapped her horn out, sending a massive blast of force through the room to stumble the Pious and knock conscripts flying, shouting angrily: “We don't have a choice, Antares! It's them or us!”

“We need to-” Antares was cut off as Minos appeared beside Innocence, and for a moment, time froze for the stallion. He felt the grenade launcher in his hooves, the thrum of magic through his horn, muscle in mid-flex but now as unmoving as everything else... but in that moment, he could see perfectly. And not just see, but see, in the special way that only his eyes could.

Minos was going to lunge at Innocence, and she wasn't going to be able to stop him; he would either rip out her spirit or break her neck, and her magic would drop all at once, letting the Light-blinded conscripts pile on to Antares. The Pious were moving forwards, but their armor was heavy and bulky and they had lost all their momentum from Innocence's pulse. But once the conscripts were on top of Antares, they would be able to get to him almost at their leisure.

Numbers beat strength. But Antares didn't just have strength, he had a gift, to understand the world around him. And he could see the answer, the way out... if not for him, then at least for Innocence.

The stallion moved like a whirlwind: his horn snapped towards Minos and blasted the death entity off his sister even as he lunged towards her, even as, in the same moment, his grenade launcher rose high and he fired a single round into the rim of the hole in the ceiling.

Chunks of rock and an avalanche of dirt poured down from the roof, smashing into the soldiers that had flooded the underground burrow and knocking them sprawling with yells and shouts as Antares seized Innocence and pointed his grenade launcher at the death entity even as the Great Reaper skidded backwards into the wall. And Minos didn't have enough time to react before Antares pulled the trigger and shot an explosive round directly into his stomach, the death entity snarling in frustration and pain as Antares and Innocence were both flung backwards by the explosion.

They crashed down by the door, and the stallion looked up with a snarl before he dragged Innocence up to her claws... and before she knew what was happening, he half-flung her hard through the doorway, sending her rolling down the short corridor beyond before the stallion turned around and said calmly, shouldering the grenade launcher and raising his bloody features proudly: “You want her, then you're going to have to go through me.”

There was a flicker, and then Minos appeared in front of the stallion, looking down at him contempt beneath his cracked golden mask as he hissed softly: “And why do you think that will be a problem for us, boy?”

Antares shrugged, looking slowly back and forth over the dozen or so conscripts and the hoof full of Pious, before his eyes roved upwards to the wide, dirt-bleeding hole in the ceiling, Hounds of Heaven snarling furiously out of this... and then the glossy black unicorn finally looked over his shoulder at his little sister, smiling at her and saying quietly: “Because I'm stupid.”

Antares pulled the trigger of the grenade launcher resting against his shoulder, and a single round shot out of the gun, hammering into the top of the archway and exploding in a tremendous blast that sent an avalanche of dirt and stone pouring down, blocking the way forwards. The stallion was knocked in a sprawl by the blast as his back and hindquarters were both seared, knocked senseless from the explosion... but after only a few moments, his head was seized and he was yanked off his hooves, hauled into the air by his scalp as his gun fell free, clattering against the packed earth.

“I suppose this is what mortals call... nobility.” Minos said softly, and Antares slowly opened one eye, the other swollen shut. He managed a grin after a moment all the same, however, and the death entity studied him for a few seconds before saying with gentle, patronizing contempt: “It is not a strength. It is a failing, boy.”

Antares chuckled quietly, then he spat out a bit of blood: he couldn't quite make it splatter over Minos' mask, but he managed to get a bit on the death entity's robes as he rasped: “Well, just being death doesn't make you cool.”

“I am not simply death, Antares Mīrus. I am a Judge of Death. It is my duty... my calling... to place souls in their proper places. The Light assists me in serving this purpose.” Minos almost tenderly stroked over Antares' face with one bony thumb, then he gently pushed the bony digit into the stallion's eye, slowly grinding down and making Antares gasp and twitch, then snarl even as bloody tears began to leak from beneath his spasming eyelid. “Oh. More resilient than I expected. Perhaps you deserve a place in my collection after all...”

Antares shivered a little, and then he looked up in surprise as a Pious approached in its white armor, saying from beneath the egg-shaped helm: “Do not take this one, Death. The Cardinal has requested that the black warrior be sent to Doctor Greller. For... redemption.”

“A pity.” Minos said after a moment, and then he finally removed his thumb, tilting the stallion back and forth before flinging the unicorn to the ground and withdrawing his limb beneath his heavy cloak. “Take his toy as well. I am sure Greller will find a use for it.”

The Pious crossed an arm over its body as it bowed respectfully to the death entity, and then it reached down to carefully sweep up both Antares and his grenade launcher. The stallion shivered a bit in the grip of the Pious' hand as it studied the weapon calmly in the other, then said softly: “Yes. You will be greatly rewarded for this, Minos. You have served the Light very well.”

Minos only gazed after the creature with his empty, soulless socket-eyes, watching the Pious turn away and two more fall in to escort the angel that had taken Antares hostage out, and then the Judge of Death said quietly: “I serve my own interests, Light-bringer. You should remember that lesson: it has much bearing on your own orthodoxy.”

Then Minos looked calmly towards the collapsed archway, and the death entity studied this mild inconvenience for a moment before he said softly: “Quantity matters now, not quality. We'll kill more rebels if we find where they are escaping from instead of combing their base. Serve the Light.”

“For the Light!” echoed the conscripts and the Pious, and almost as one, they all turned to hurry back outside, as Minos simply vanished into the ether, no longer interested in playing games with these little mortals when it seemed like the Cardinal had claimed all the best souls for himself.

Innocence rushed and stumbled through the base, gasping and trembling as she felt the tremors rocking the earthen walls. She knew there wasn't much time to get out before the base simply collapsed: not just because of the wyverns and dig teams above tearing up the field and trying to burrow into their home, but because Celestia had apparently already activated the immolation charms set up around the facility. Once they all heated up to a certain degree, they would start exploding, one after the other, creating a conflagration that would burn the very earth and turn the world around them to ash and cinder.

She looked back, for the hundredth time... and yet she knew that Antares wasn't coming. She knew that Antares was... he was gone. He had... he had done something stupid she would never, ever forgive him for, and never, ever be able to thank him for, either.

She stumbled around a corner, and then gritted her teeth and looked up as she corpses laying throughout the hall ahead: rebels and monsters alike, with a whimpering Hound the only creature still alive, pinned against a wall by a spear. Innocence bared her fangs as she walked over to this and shoved her claw against its head, and the Hound writhed, then screamed as she pumped her black poisons into it, making it suffer, hurting it for the sake of hurting it as she hissed down into its face: “I'm going to get even, with all of you, for what you've done. I want you to understand that.”

Then she yanked her claw back, and slashed the Hound's face open before shoving away from it, glancing into what had once been a bunk room... now was a mess of sheets and blood and dead bodies, a hole torn in the ceiling that Innocence stared up at before she closed her eyes and leapt up into the air. A dark aura surrounded her, and a moment later, she shot high into the sky, not caring who saw her: but by now, she was sure the rebel forces were spreading out to go to ground, and the Light were likely just as spread out, trying to hunt them down.

Innocence heard the roars of wyverns, though, and she opened her eyes to see three, each with their own armored Pious rider, were shooting towards her. The riders all had longspears, already aiming to pierce her, and Innocence looked at them with contempt before fearlessly turning her attention away, taking a moment to study the ground below as she sailed lazily backwards while the cold air whipped around her darkly-glowing form.

What she saw was awful: she had expected to see plenty of the Light's forces. But there was an entire army gathered in the field, and even if she could no longer sense the presence of that bastard death entity, she could still see Paladins and other units that served as field commanders for the Light's forces. And there were at least twenty wyverns, although most of them were already on the hunt... and the rest were coming right at her.

But there was a reason Sin was fearless: she looked coldly up as the wyverns shot in, even as the weapons leveled towards her, and the glow around her body faded out, letting her drop like a stone. She didn't twist into the air current or try to resist it, but instead simply let herself freefall, back-first, towards the ground, as the wyverns awkwardly veered all around each other in the airspace she had been a moment before, screaming and growling as one of the riders leaned over to look down at her.

And only some ten feet above the patchy field, as conscripts wildly flocked towards her, the aura surrounded Innocence's entire body again and sent her rocketing forwards, shooting like a black star over the heads of the Light before she twisted around, streamlining her frame and squeezing her forelegs against her sides.

Pegasi leapt up to try and fly after her, but not even the wyverns could move fast enough to stand a chance at pursuing the flying unicorn, as she stared out into the distance before veering suddenly to the side, letting her instincts guide her more than anything else as she whispered her brother's name.

But there was no sign of him among the army, and now there were bolts of magic and arrows being shot at her: some of these were actually hitting the pursuers behind her, but in their mania, their fervor, even the Pegasi barely seemed to notice unless they were knocked out of the sky. And Innocence was barely aware of being pursued or attacked, her mind wanting to blank out, and the mare struggling just to hold onto some lucidity, some consciousness...

She suddenly shot up into the sky, and looked up almost too late to see a wyvern diving towards her with its jaws wide: she reacted on instinct, lunging to the side and snarling as she slashed her blackly-burning horn out, catching it just in the side of its mouth and flaying apart its cheek, then shooting past and smashing through one wing as the wyvern howled in misery. It crumpled from the sky, and now the pursuers were finally halted by the comet of the white dragon falling through them and scattering them like bowling pins.

Innocence, meanwhile, vanished into the dark night sky, streaking across it and trembling as she hugged herself, looking once over her shoulder... but she could hear it now. The faint booming of the charges going off, and when she looked back, she could see the light of spreading, rising fire...

But it was becoming a memory in the distance already, as she sailed backwards into dark and heavy clouds, and the scaled unicorn trembled as she passed through the night... alone. Alone, completely alone, away from everyone else... and oh, sure, she knew the emergency protocols. They would all divide up, hide out for a week across Equestria, and then they would slowly gather in small factions at the different bases they had been assigned by Celestia, to await news of what was going on...

And Innocence didn't know... where she was supposed to go. Celestia had never assigned her a base to return to... hell, probably because the ivory mare had likely expected her to be the traitor. As it was, she would probably be blamed for this whole thing, or worse... Antares...

Innocence gritted her teeth as she flew along, then grimaced as she almost overbalanced before forcing herself to straighten, breathing slowly in and out to calm herself down as much as possible as she sank carefully down through the dark sky.

She looked over her shoulder, but already, the ruins of Echo Bade were nothing but a few flickering candles in the distance, half-hidden in a valley obscured by its own tall walls. She couldn't make out anything else, apart from a twisting of white here and there in the sky... but they were so small already...

She had flown faster than she'd ever had before, and Innocence looked down silently before wincing as she almost overbalanced in midair again. Flying for her felt like laying on a thin board, balanced precariously on a fast-flowing river: it was something that, when she started to think about it, made her feel like at any moment she could end up toppling off and falling into that endless ocean of the sky...

The scaled unicorn winced as she almost overbalanced again, then she took a slow breath as she concentrated on letting herself descend little-by-little. She wobbled a little on her slow fall downwards, gritting her sharp teeth as she flexed uneasily before muttering: “Come on, come on... just...”

She flinched a little as she looked down, realizing she was passing over a wasteland speckled with sharp rocks and deep cracks and trenches: not the best place for a landing. She gritted her teeth, wanting to press on and take her chances elsewhere... and instead, as she wavered back and forth, she felt the magic suddenly peeling away from her body, and the mare's eyes widened before she dropped straight towards the rocky earth below.

Innocence winced and covered her face as her horn sparked, then flashed brightly... and left her levitating only a few inches above the rocky earth, catching her at the last moment as she hesitantly opened one eye before dropping out of the air and landing in a sprawl. She groaned moodily, but slowly picked herself up and shook herself out, glowering back and forth before she mumbled: “Just fantastic. Really. I... I better get going.”

The mare looked up and shook her head briefly, and then she sighed softly before closing her eyes and slowly picking herself up. There was silence for a few moments as she looked up uneasily at the sky above, at the clouds rolling across the night sky, masking the moon and the stars, before she shook her head slowly and turned her back on the barely-visible encampment.

She plodded slowly onwards, head bowed, her claws clicking quietly against the ground as her eyes roved back and forth silently. All she was sure of was that she had to put as much space as possible between herself and Echo Base right now... she had to get away from the Light, and then find the nearest rebel encampment and... start making her way back to Celestia.

Innocence shook her head briefly, kicking at the wastes, but only succeeding in making herself stumble over a large crack before she halted and looked uneasily down. Her claws squeezed and pressed slowly against the earth for a moment, and she realized that she could feel the wound in the ground, that it was radiating some kind of poisonous energy... one that her own body didn't like.

Furthermore, she realized that there were no wastes she knew of around this area... and then her eyes slowly roved downwards, and she trembled violently as she saw something ahead, sticking out of the dirt and rock. A stone, she desperately tried to convince herself, nothing more than a rounded stone... but even as she lied to herself, she knew what it was.

A skull. She saw the eye sockets, the grinning teeth, the bleached whiteness of it... and Innocence shuddered before she slowly strode over to the piece of bone, reaching down and nervously picking it up to stare disbelievingly over the skull. It was as brittle as old glass, feeling like it wanted to shatter apart in her claw, and the mare tilted it slowly back and forth before she lowered it as she gazed at the area around herself, understanding where she was standing... even if she didn't want to.

This wasteland... this had been the village closest to their encampment. The Light hadn't just purified or destroyed this village... the Light had burned every last inch of it, then salted the earth and bleached the remains. The Light had left a scar in the earth itself that would never heal... and Innocence had no idea what kind of magic could even cause this level of devastation.

Her grip on the skull loosened, and it fell to the ground, shattering against the stony earth. Innocence winced a little at this, looking down at the broken pieces of white spread out over the dead rock and ash, and then she shivered a bit as she felt the wounded pulse of the scarred earth. She breathed slowly in and out, then shook her head and whispered: “But they had... nothing to do with either side. This... this doesn't make sense. Antares was trying to protect them, protect us...”

Antares... he'd given his everything for everyone around him, selfless and generous and... and good. And what was his reward? He had likely been taken prisoner, or... killed, or... no. No, she didn't want to imagine anything else. It made her stomach clench just to think that Antares might be dead, let alone that he might have been...

No, he was too strong for that. The strong-willed could resist the Light's influence... or so she thought. It was just that these normal little ponies were so weak, but Antares was different from them. Antares was strong. Antares was her brother, her only family, and...

Innocence shook her head, then she looked down at the ground again, studying it uneasily, shivering at the sight of it. It just felt so... so toxic. It wasn't like anything the Light had used before... was this a result of the changes they'd heard were being made to the Light's hierarchy? Or was this just a sign that the Light was done playing games with them, and was going to start destroying anything that refused to bow to its so-called 'glory?'

The unicorn shivered a little, then she hurried forwards, stumbling a little through the razed, magic-bleached village and shaking her head with a faint whimper of disbelief. No, she had to concentrate on getting to safety, first... her own safety. Then she could contact the rebels and... they could deal with this. Her main concern had to be herself, and getting everything in order... Celestia, after all, hadn't yet made good on any part of their deal.

The dark unicorn nodded briefly to herself as she stumbled past the village ruins, moving quickly onwards. She traveled for half-an-hour before she finally realized she wasn't alone, that something was following her, as she did her best to try and stick to brush and bramble and avoid being out in the open.

She looked back and forth, but she could only sense it in flickers... which meant that whatever it was, it was small, and probably not magical by itself. But it had either been enchanted or... modified in some way... and the thought made Innocence shiver a little. It didn't help there wasn't much cover: there wasn't much apart from tall grass and a few bushes along the road, which she had no choice but to follow if she wanted to get to somewhere she was more familiar with. She had never traveled this way without a guide before... without family, her brother...

She shook her head... then flinched when something dove down past her, nearly hitting her scalp. Innocence looked quickly up as the black shape wheeled around, then slowed and fluttered calmly to a landing on a rock a short distance away. Innocence frowned uneasily, shifting a bit as she studied it: at first she thought it was a massive bat, but after a moment she realized it was feathered, and as it eyed her almost warily, it released the telltale caw of a crow.

Innocence strode uneasily towards it, and the crow stared at her before it croaked: “Celestia! Celestia! Celestia!”

Innocence frowned uneasily at this, and then she asked slowly: “Are you... are you a messenger from Celestia? Is she out there somewhere?”

The crow cawed again, then suddenly took to the air, startling the mare backwards before it wheeled around and flapped its wings firmly, taking flight back in the direction that Innocence had come. The mare stared after this blankly for a moment, and then the crow wheeled around and cawed angrily at her, and the scaled unicorn sighed tiredly and dropped her head forwards, mumbling: “Alright, alright. I'm coming, bird.”

She turned around, grumpily heading back the way she came, but feeling a distinct unease crawling down her spine. Celestia was calling her... why? Celestia could just as easily have headed to another base and then sent a messenger from there, and it wasn't like her aunt actually cared about her anymore... in fact, she didn't seem to care about anything except for destroying the Light.

The mare looked nervously up at the crow, following it slowly into a field of narrow trees: she didn't recognize them, but they were tall and thin and were covered in flowers and small fruits. They were planted a little irregularly, but she recognized it was a crop all the same... although one that hadn't been tended to for at least a few weeks, from the gathering detritus and the slumping support posts.

Then the crow cawed and flitted down as a shape stepped out of the shadows, and the scaled unicorn smiled uneasily in relief at the sight of Celestia. She looked perfectly fine, not a scratch on her armor... but her expression was cold and unreadable as the crow landed on her shoulder, before Innocence shifted nervously as she realized there was a large raven resting on her other shoulder as well. “You... those are...”

“Huginn and Muninn. Nothing like the predecessors originally owned by Odin, of course... but they serve their purposes well enough.” Celestia said quietly, and Innocence shifted nervously as that strange glow filtered out from beneath Celestia's eyepatch again, her other eye studying Innocence before she asked softly: “So I have to ask, Innocence. Was it worth it?”

“What? I don't... I don't understand...” Innocence shifted nervously, staring up at Celestia, who only smiled coldly in return.

“Enough games. It all makes sense now... you and Antares were working for the Light.” Celestia accused... no, stated, coldly. Like she already had evidence, in a voice that told Sin that there was nothing she could say that would convince the ivory mare otherwise... and yet Sin could only gape despite the fear beginning to quiver through her system, as Celestia continued in a calm, terribly-rational voice: “That was why Antares destroyed those wyverns. The Light would be perfectly willing to sacrifice two pawns for the chance to deceive us into checkmate... it's not like they didn't once destroy their own ambassadors just to make themselves look like victims.

“All you care about is power. And over these last few weeks, you've been steadily poisoning Antares' mind, taking away a pony I could trust and making him into someone who questioned me. Who questioned my rule, my order, and who made the other rebels question my leadership. Cracks, subtle, but flaws that the enemy could exploit all the same.” Celestia said coldly, and Innocence laughed weakly, shaking her head slowly.

“Listen to yourself, Celestia... I... you're not the sole leader of the rebels! If I wanted to hurt anyone, if we were working for the Light, what about Terra-”

“Terra is nothing more than a demon! She will never be a true Lady of Valhalla and she is nothing but a pathetic wetnurse to that overgrown toddler, giving him her teat instead of making him stand on his own two feet!” Celestia shouted in sudden rage, and Innocence staggered backwards as both crows took off with caws and cries, fleeing into the sky as the ivory mare gritted her teeth, then closed her eyes and slowly composed herself.

There was silence between the two for a few moments, and then Celestia said quietly: “Whether or not Antares was controlled doesn't matter. I recognize he'll give up all our information to the Light... but in the last few days I have completely reorganized evacuation orders, just in case of an event like this. You and Antares may have led the Light right to us, but-”

“This wasn't our doing, our fault! This...” Innocence trembled, then straightened and shouted angrily: “This is your fault! You were the one who ordered Antares out there, to 'fix his mistake!' You were the one who had soldiers constantly coming and going from the base, had everyone running ragged... it was your orders that got us caught!”

Celestia went dead silent at his, her amethyst eye looking coldly at Innocence for a few moments as the glow beneath her patch pulsed slowly. Electricity crackled along her horn, and then she slowly rose her head, her three swords unsheathing themselves and rising to the ready as she said quietly: “Very well. If this is what you prefer, Innocence, I'll just kill you and bind your spirit to your body. Then I'll cut off your head, and extract the answers from you later.”

“You've lost your mind, Celestia... I'm your niece! What would Luna-” Innocence didn't get any further as Celestia crossed the field in a flash, stabbing a sword forwards and burying it through the scaled unicorn's breast, making her whimper and stare weakly in disbelief up at the ivory mare.

Celestia loomed over her, leaning down and gazing coldly into her eyes as she said softly: “Don't you ever talk about my sister again. Not her, not Twilight, not Scrivener. You are not their child. You are nothing more than a toy of Gymbr's... a weapon that bit the hoof of its master.”

With that, Celestia twisted the sword and lashed viciously to the side, slamming Innocence down on the ground with a gasp. She barely caught herself, heart thudding in her chest, something inside her burning with agony: but before she could shove herself up, Celestia's hooked sword cut down across her face before the falcate blade caught her muzzle, tearing into it and making her scream before her face was slammed down into the ground, Celestia cruelly stomping on her before the massive, battering blade swung viciously out and slapped her backwards.

She landed and bounced painfully over the hard ground, gasping before she caught herself and looked up with a snarl, body trembling weakly, unable to believe how... how remorseless, how cruel, her aunt could truly be. The scaled unicorn slowly lifted herself up as Celestia looked at her calmly, then she shook her head slowly and said softly: “But a weapon that's not nearly as strong as it seems to think it is, after all.”

“We'll see.” Innocence began to focus... then cried out as a crow dove down into her face, pecking at her eyes and clawing at her cheek, startling her into stumbling backwards. She swung her horn into it and knocked it away, only to look up too late to see Celestia in front of her again.

The ivory mare's swords lashed back and forth across her body, sawing her open, smashing her around like a doll, breaking every defense she tried to put up and ignoring what weak and wild magic she could summon against the barrage. Finally, Celestia hooked her falcate blade into her chest, making Innocence scream as she was hauled up onto her rear hooves before the massive, flat sword slammed down on her face once, twice, thrice, and the hook buried through her flesh finally tore loose through her thick hide and sent her limply down on her back.

She gasped weakly... then screamed in agony when the sawtooth sword buried to the hilt through Innocence's stomach, Celestia looking down at her coldly and binding her in place. Innocence gargled, black blood running out of her jaws, her body flexing and shivering violently, pinned and terrified as the ivory mare loomed over her.

The hooked blade rose up, and Innocence stared in terror before she threw her head back, screaming in agony as she tried to make one last desperate escape. Celestia snarled, swinging her blade down... but then her own sawtooth blade shot upwards, blasted out of Innocence's body as dark, pressurized blood exploded out of the mare's wounds, and the hilt of the sword smashed into Celestia's face and knocked her staggering backwards before she cursed in frustration as black, burning-hot blood washed over her frame.

It hardened rapidly into crystal as Innocence crawled backwards, feeling lightheaded and nauseated... but her body felt numbed to pain, too, as she gasped weakly and crawled quickly to her claws. She shivered violently as she backed away from Celestia, who looked disgusted by the hardening dark mire covering her body, gumming up her armor and blunting her swords as she said coldly: “The more you draw this out, the more I'm going to hurt you.”

Innocence rasped slowly for breath, but she felt the pain returning and her daze diminishing. Her Panacea, her black blood, regenerated quickly... but her whole body now felt like a piece of rubber that had just been stretched to the breaking point, then twisted into a brand new shape. She felt like she was dying, as she breathed slowly in and out before flexing her claws weakly and whispering: “Stop it, Celestia... stop it. You're not... I'm not your enemy...”

Celestia didn't reply, her horn glowing and golden fire suffusing her body and her blades, and Innocence staggered backwards, whimpering. She only had a few moments before Celestia would free herself from the gunk covering her, and limited options. Fleeing? She couldn't risk turning her back on a juggernaut like Celestia. The moment she did, Celestia would charge or hit her with a spell. If Celestia got close again, she wouldn't 'play' this time... and Celestia's playing had been nearly enough to tear her in two. She'd be killed, and it would only be instantaneous if she was absurdly lucky or Celestia was pissed off enough to accidentally hit a vital spot.

She couldn't outthink, overpower, or evade Celestia. There were very few things she could do that Celestia couldn't... and before Innocence could even try and figure out what those things were, the ivory mare slowly reared back as the golden fire finished dissolving the black gunk over her body, ashes spilling away from her form the aureate flames coalesced into a massive fireball above her head. Innocence stared at this in horror, and then Celestia snapped her horn forwards, sending the comet of golden flame streaking straight towards her.

Innocence reacted purely on instinct, leaping forwards to snap her horn out and smash the comet away, knocking it in a high arc through the air. For a moment, Innocence thought she had actually succeeded... and then Celestia leapt into the air, flapping her wings hard and catching the golden ball of fire against her body, almost embracing it with her forelegs as her horn glowed brightly before the sphere expanded, becoming a miniature sun that surrounded Celestia completely... then dropped out of the sky, arcing down back towards Innocence.

The scaled unicorn stared in horror at the meteor streaking towards her, and then she leapt backwards, concentrating what little energy she had into her flight spell to streak unevenly into the air instead of landing. And Celestia crashed down only a moment later, a massive explosion of golden flame ripping through the air around her as a shockwave of light tore over the ground, setting the trees around her aflame and lighting up the darkness like a beacon.

Innocence looked down at this with horror, then she shouted almost desperately, as Celestia looked coldly up at her from the eye of the hurricane of flames ravaging the world around her: “Celestia, all you're going to do is alert the Light! We're-”

“Stop playing games! Even if you haven't already called your allies out, let them come! I have no fear of them or you!” the ivory mare roared in response, and then she launched herself upwards, swords whirling into ready positions around her as her wings sent her flying straight towards the scaled unicorn, her teeth bared and her horn already glowing with gathering magical energy.

Sin trembled in mid-flight, then gritted her teeth before flicking her foreleg out, sending down a splatter of her black blood. Celestia calmly launched herself to the side, however, moving as agilely in the air as she did over the ground before... no, not quite as agilely, the mare realized. There was a moment of readjustment, of bare vulnerability that Innocence only recognized because of her own constant shifting and calibration in the air...

Celestia's swords whickered out, and Innocence lost her concentration as she tried to fling herself backwards: instead, she ended up launching herself towards the ground, flailing wildly before the dark aura flickered into being around her and she was able to shoot back through the air and gradually slope up towards the sky again. Celestia was snarling in frustration as she winged upwards after Innocence, her heavy armor weighing her down as she sent blasts of golden flame snaking after the mare, but the unicorn was too fast for the magic, the bolts of flame vanishing to ash before they could finish homing in against her.

Innocence twisted suddenly upwards, and Celestia rose to meet her, drawing her swords back as her horn glowed brightly, locked onto the mare... and then Innocence spun suddenly around, the aura vanishing around her body as she snapped her horn down and sent a blast of black flame at Celestia's face. The ivory mare grimaced in disgust at this, simply knocking it away with one of her swords before the desperate unicorn above flicked her foreleg out and sent another splatter of dark blood at her, but Celestia simply dodged to the side, her body twisting a little to make sure none of the corrupting ooze got on her.

Then her eye widened as she realized Innocence herself was already falling towards her, and the winged unicorn rose her swords as she tried to come to a stop... and thanks to all the energy she had expended, her balance still off from the evasion, her concentration spread too thin, she wobbled like a Pegasus foal first learning to hover, tilting slightly to one side.

Her swords lashed out, but the cuts were uneven, going a little high as Innocence tried to duck low, and the falcate Gæfa only just managed to tear through her shoulder before the unicorn slammed into Celestia's breast. The ivory mare's wings flapped wildly as she reared back, swinging her forelegs out, but Innocence pressed tightly against her as she reached a claw wildly up and seized into her face, and Celestia cried out in shock and agony: not at the claws sinking into her flesh, but at the feeling of her energy being greedily torn out of her body even as she tried to shake herself wildly back and forth.

Innocence gasped, draining as much energy as she could from Celestia before she kicked viciously off the mare with her rear hooves, and Celestia was knocked backwards with a grunt of shock as her armor was dented in from the force of the scaled unicorn leaping off her. Innocence caught herself in midair, her dark aura bursting to life around her as her eyes glowed for a moment, and her body shivered with the power that flowed through her. The energy was unbelievable: she never imagined that Celestia had so much... so much raw power flowing through her body...

And Celestia flagged backwards, gasping for breath, bleeding heavily from the face as her swords trembled in the air around her. Her wings flapped hard, her expression one of disbelief... and then it became flushed with humiliated fury as her teeth bared in an animal snarl.

The ivory mare shot towards her, but this time, Innocence was able to retaliate, snapping her horn out and creating a barrier of dark flames. Celestia's swords slashed into this, but the ivory mare was barely able to make a dent in the shield, forced instead to catch the handles of two of her swords in her front hooves and stop herself before her horn snapped forwards.

A blast of golden flames washed over the dark energy, but it wasn't strong enough to neutralize the barrier, and Innocence smiled coldly before she snapped her own horn sharply forwards, the shield erupting outwards and knocking Celestia reeling backwards through the air before her eyes widened as the black flames condensed all around her into long spears of dark energy. These shot at her one after the other, the ivory mare hissing as she slashed her swords back and forth, smashing away the lances of darkness before she cried out as one managed to rip through her wing in a burst of blood and feathers.

Celestia flapped desperately to try and keep aloft, but her heavy body was already dragging her down, and a moment later she fell from the sky, Innocence watching coldly as the ivory mare sailed downwards, falling end over end until she hit the ground with a tremendous bang. For a moment, Innocence thought she was victorious... and then her eyes widened in surprise as she saw that Celestia had managed to land on her hooves, although the fall had visibly broken one of her legs, leaving the hind limb twisted and ungainly.

She stood amidst the burning grove, golden flames scouring the world around her, and Innocence slowly let herself descend to land across from the ivory mare. Their eyes met icily, and Innocence felt like taunting her, felt like declaring her superiority... but something kept her back. Maybe it was the well-ingrained fear of the juggernaut across from her; maybe it was because she knew Antares wouldn't want her to. Or maybe it was because, even with the energy she'd drained from Celestia, she didn't feel entirely confident about winning against someone who could still probably resist most of her spells and cut her into ribbons if she got close.

They were silent as they regarded each other, and then Celestia shook her head slowly, looking at her damaged wing as she extended it before saying quietly: “Honorless. But what else can be expected from you? You're nothing but Gymbr's whore, after all.”

Innocence twitched, feeling hurt and shocked as she reared back a little, and without batting an eyelash Celestia suddenly flung her falcate blade at the unicorn. Innocence had a moment to stare blankly at this before she winced and ducked, the sword whirling past as the scaled unicorn shouted: “So much for honor! You talk like you're so high and mighty, then-”

Innocence's ear twitched as she registered the fact Celestia's expression hadn't changed, a moment before Gæfa whizzed back out of the air and buried into her back, the hook sinking deep as she gasped before Celestia coldly flicked her horn. And the weapon tore upwards and flipped Innocence violently, smashing her face-first into the ground down in front of Celestia as blood exploded from the wound, the mare screaming before she saw huge, bludgeoning Dómr swinging down almost too late.

Innocence yanked herself backwards, the club-like blade smashing into the ground before sawtoothed Drengr stabbed towards her face as Celestia limped forwards, but Innocence swung her horn down, the sword screaming against this before the mare hooked her natural crescent blade against one of the teeth in the lower section of the sword and lashed to the side as hard as she could, flinging the blade away as Celestia winced at the telekinetic recoil.

The ivory mare staggered slightly, beginning to swing her bludgeoning sword upwards, and Innocence seized the end of this heavy blade between her claws before shoving backwards as hard as she could, smashing the pommel into Celestia's face. The winged unicorn's head snapped to the side as she cursed, blood flying from her features, and then Innocence hit the top of the blade with a blast of telekinesis, bouncing it off Celestia's face and sending the ivory mare staggering stupidly backwards to fall to her knees, listing heavily on the side of her broken leg.

Sin began to reach forwards... and then she screamed as the hooked blade buried in her back lifted into the air, leaving her dangling helplessly as she writhed with agony, eyes rolling in her head as Celestia breathed hard in and out, then whispered through her bloody muzzle: “You're becoming a nuisance now. I think I'll just kill you, and get my answers from someone else.”

Innocence writhed weakly... and then Celestia lashed Gæfa upwards, the scaled mare ripping free from the hooked blade as she was slung straight up into the air, flipping helplessly. She felt her body starting to fall, and as she revolved, she saw Celestia bringing her sword back to decapitate her on the way down... but just as the blade swung forwards, Innocence gritted her teeth and half-rolled, bringing her claws up and half-catching the blade against them even as she howled in misery.

She yanked the sword down with her, but Celestia cursed and whiplashed the blade, flinging Innocence down on her back with her claws mangled and bleeding black gunk. Immediately, the scaled unicorn was pinned by one heavy hoof as Celestia brought back her falcate blade, and Innocence bared her fangs before she reacted on instinct, swinging her claw up and outwards to splatter her black blood over Celestia's face, before clenching it fiercely shut.

Black blood turned to black crystal, and Celestia reared back, then dropped her sword and howled in misery as her remaining eye was covered in flakes of onyx, leaving her blinded and reeling. Her horn glowed as she grabbed wildly at her face, and Innocence flung herself forwards with a snarl even as Celestia's features were enveloped in golden light, plunging both bloody claws into the glow and seizing viciously into either side of Celestia's features.

Celestia gasped, then roared, shaking her head wildly, golden fire burning and spreading up Innocence's forelimbs, but the mare refused to let go even as she cried out in agony, struggling with all her might to contain, control, absorb this, her eyes and horn glowing with power. And then both ponies were blown off their hooves by a tremendous pulse of magical energy, Innocence crashing down on her back with her forelegs still wreathed in golden flame, Celestia crashing down and falling limp a few feet away in a smoldering heap, her features bruised, burnt, and yet strangely peaceful.

Innocence shivered on her back, staring up at the sky for a few moments before she slowly sat up... then she winced at the sight of the golden flames still twining around her forelegs. But as she raised her trembling claws, she felt like the flames were caressing her, and she could see the fire healing her wounds slowly but surely... but after only a few more seconds, it slowly began to die down, and then whiffed out entirely, leaving her forelegs bruised and aching... but also faintly numbed, and the worst of the damages healed.

She studied her claws silently, then gave a faint smile before carefully pulling herself to a standing position, looking uneasily over at Celestia. The mare slowly made her way forwards, then carefully reached down and grasped her shoulder... before scowling a bit at the eyepatch, reaching up and yanking this off to reveal the staring crystal eye beneath.

She reached out and grasped this, meaning to tear it out... then winced in shock as an icy hand formed and seized her wrist, yanking it backwards. A moment later, the rest of Hel's ice puppet constructed itself beside the mare, leaning over her and waggling a finger as she said mildly: “Naughty naughty. I wouldn't do that if I were you, sweetie. You'll have a real nasty mess on your hands... er, claws, sorry.”

“You did this!” Innocence snarled, flinging off Hel's hand and glaring furiously at the goddess, but Hel only looked injured, placing a hand innocently against her chest. “Don't play games with me, I know that you-”

“You don't know jack, kiddo.” Hel huffed loudly, then she reached out and shoved a finger into Innocence's nose, making her wince a bit. “Listen, lady, if you hadn't just gobbled down all that life energy you vampired like a fat kid at an ice cream buffet, you might have noticed something a little funny about it. Take another look.”

Innocence shifted uneasily... and then she grimaced a bit before closing her eyes, raising her claw, sampling the strength, the heat still running through her veins. She concentrated on it, feeling Celestia's distinct energy, and all that power, all that... raw rage...

“There's...” Innocence halted, then shivered as she realized what was off, frowning uneasily as she murmured: “There's so much anger. So much, it's blotting out everything else...”

Hel smiled at this, then reached up and tapped her bovine nose a few times. “Precisely, miss fudge. You see, that crystal eye is like a two-way cork. It keeps the Celestia out of Freya, and it keeps the Freya out of Celestia. They can function as one being, oh, certainly, but it's like... well, you know how you with your magic, you use acids and bases together in the right mixture, but you'd never, ever, ever just dump them both into one big bottle at once? Well, I mean. I totally would. But I kind of have these indestructible bodies.”

Hel patted herself easily, and Innocence frowned nervously before the goddess smiled softly down at Celestia, shaking her head slowly. “It keeps them at the right level... and the right dilution. Or rather, the cork is supposed to... but unfortunately, as of late, all the passion that's been pouring into your curdled coconut cream pie here... it's been adding a lot more pressure to the Freya bottle. So much so that side of her has been overflowing... leaking into the rational Celestia side, poisoning it. Making that ordered, structured side of her... passionately angry.”

Innocence didn't look convinced, but Hel only shook her head, saying softly: “I made a silly. I forgot all about that pressure... that both sides of her naturally rise and fall. So now she's gone crazy and that's my bad, yes, but it's not my fault. Still, I can fix this. We just need to balance her out again.”

The dark goddess hopped up to her feet, then smiled and reached down, tenderly stroking a finger against the side of Celestia's face. The ivory mare twitched, then her eye snapped open, looking up at her and then snarling furiously, readying herself to lunge despite how visibly weak she was, before Hel simply held up a hand and spoke a name: “Frey.”

Celestia froze, then her eye glowed as she readied herself, opening her mouth, but Hel only put her hands behind her back and said kindly: “Frey says to remind you about the time you beat him up. I believe it was over fruit.”

Celestia's mouth fell open, and then her hindquarters simply fell, leaving her sitting stunned before Hel calmly flicked her wrist, a bright red apple appearing in her hand. She looked at this thoughtfully, then calmly offered it to Celestia, continuing pleasantly: “Take a bite.”

The ivory mare slowly rose her hooves, taking the apple and staring down at it, before she whispered: “How... how did you... is he alive? I... I... wait, no, this... you're trying to trick me...”

“You were working in Vanaheim. Well, planting trees. I don't know if that counts as 'working' for a nature god.” Hel shrugged absently, as Innocence only looked up in confusion but Celestia clung on to every word, trembling violently. “Something was wrong with your trees, though. They weren't sprouting or something, I don't remember, I just know something was wrong. And you blamed Frey. And instead of being reasonable about it, you kicked his face in. Because you're just that kind of person. You still seem that way.”

“No... no, this is a trick! Stop it!” Celestia snarled, staggering backwards and flinging the apple away, and Hel looked surprised as Innocence winced, watching as she staggered backwards on her broken leg, glaring at them furiously with crystalline and natural eye. “Stay away from me, both of you! I don't know your game, your allegiance... but it is not with me and we will not be pawns of darkness any more than we will be pawns of the Light!”

With that, Celestia snapped her horn sharply, a bright flash going off that stunned both Innocence and Hel before they looked up... and to the surprise of both of them, broken leg and drained magic or not, Celestia had managed to vanish through the golden flames twisting and swirling around them.

“Huh. Usually the whole. Deus ex machina thing works. But I guess Girl Satan can't solve every problem the same way some god could.” Hel said moodily, looking slowly back and forth before she strode over to the apple and picked it up. The ice puppet regarded this for a moment, and it gleamed strangely before the goddess half-turned and tossed it to Innocence.

The mare caught it with a wince, then stared down at it as the dark goddess said cheerfully: “Well, you gotta make Celestia eat that. It contains important memories... and a little something extra, too. I wouldn't recommend eating it yourself but... what do I know? All I managed to do was scare Freya off. Kind of proud of that, though,` in a weird way.”

Innocence looked at the apple for a few moments, then nervously turned her eyes up to Hel, asking nervously: “Why... why can't you just talk to her, tell her-”

“You're her niece. Freya's own blood and kin, which nothing is more sacred then.” Hel paused, then gestured calmly out at the still-burning field: the golden flames had lapsed into natural fires now, though, which were spreading slowly further out around them and beginning to slowly eat in through the previously safe zone they were standing in. “And she tried to tear you apart. She's paranoid, scared, and angry. Freya is trying to take over, and logic is trying to fight back, and that's bringing out the worst of both sides of Celestia. Now she thinks I probably have my own designs on you guys... which I do, which makes it harder for me to pretend I don't.”

The scaled unicorn shifted, gritting her teeth, but Hel only chuckled quietly: “Oh, don't worry now, it's nothing bad. But if you want to save your friends... you have to save Celestia first. Get her to eat the apple, and remind Freya of who she is and what she's fighting for. Otherwise, she'll end up killing everyone. The Light and you and maybe me included.”

And with that, Hel vanished in a puff of blue smoke, leaving Innocence standing for a moment amidst the flaming field before she shook her head and decided to hurry away from here before any forces of the Light came to investigate. She clutched the apple close against her breast as she ran, and it gleamed invitingly, like it knew a secret: like a riddle more than a challenge, and this was all part of some grand scheme long masterminded by a conniving goddess of darkness.

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