• 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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Old Hunting Grounds

Chapter Seventy Five: Old Hunting Grounds

Lord Chrysophylax Dives had completely restored his body by the time the first wave of rebels arrived at Quietus Clime, and he now sat near the edge of his expansive territories, ignoring the occasional gust of cold wind that tried to creep in from the winterlands around them. Innocence was sitting on one of his shoulders, admittedly impressed: he had been rapidly able to rebuild themselves, and she thought that she could learn a lot from him... although she'd probably be able to learn a lot more if he wasn't such an aristocratic fop.

Chrysophylax had claimed that there was no way the rebels could set up base in his 'fortress,' what he called the massive mountains: they were in fact riddled with caverns and heated by both natural and unnatural sources, but he said that they were 'filled to the brim with his hoard of treasures.' Then Aphrodisia had happily gone to check if this was true, and returned with only a few large, shiny rocks, asking him curiously if these were the treasures he meant, because there was lots of room up there.

At first, the Dracolich had been embarrassed... and then he had gone off on some horrible lie about how all his vast wealth must have been stolen while he was asleep, until Innocence had snapped at him. He'd sulked and pouted and dallied about, but finally, they had gotten him to agree to let the rebels use the caverns above his home... although all of this would come at a price.

The Dracolich wanted this territory to be permanently his, which Innocence was sure would be fine. He also wanted a tribute of corpses every week... and while Innocence had warned him not to get greedy, she had hesitantly agreed. She didn't know how people would feel, giving up their dead to the machinations of the Dracolich... but she also felt there wasn't a lot of choice. And at the worst, she could go out and gather up a whole bunch of corpses from the Light's forces and graveyards herself.

Lastly, he wanted treasure. He wanted gold, and jewels, and magical artifacts, and important books and scrolls of knowledge. Innocence had thought about this for a little while... then told him slowly and carefully that since the rebels were making their main base here, it meant that the treasure vaults would probably be here as well. So he would have access to all the treasures and knowledge that he might desire.

So now here they were. Chrysophylax was finally out of his stupid wading pool and watching moodily as rebels of all shape and size approached, some of them looking with awe up at the giant Dracolich, others too tired and worn down to even look up from their own hooves. Innocence softened, watching as they walked onwards before she sighed tiredly as the Dracolich rose his head, saying loudly: “Yes, make yourselves at home, my many disciples shall help attend to your needs, weary travelers, and together we shall begin forging a new great empire that shall be rid of the-”

Innocence hopped off his shoulder, then reached a claw up and seized into his foreleg, and rot and ugly bruising spread along the stone before Chrysophylax flinched and yanked his limb away, glowering down at her as the scaled mare slowly looked up and said sourly: “Just stop talking.”

The Dracolich grumbled under his breath, then he shook his head quickly and dropped his gaze sulkily. They sat in silence for a few moments together, until the last of the rebels made their way by, and then Chrysophylax sighed tiredly and said moodily: “Well, dragonlet. There you have it. My beautiful home, the Quietus Clime, is now nothing but a disgraceful stable-house. How peculiar, though: I expected more rebels than that to have survived, but I suppose that I overestimate the tenacity and fortitude of little ponies. Or perhaps it is their sapience that I put too much faith into.”

Innocence sighed tiredly at this, shaking her head briefly before she looked up and said moodily: “You are the most annoying person I have ever met. I want you to know that. And those were just the rebels who were close by. It'll be weeks before everyone's moved into this base. Freya's actually using some of Celestia's old plans to make sure the Light can't track us here right away while we're setting up... we would probably still fall to a full assault, even with you here.”

“You underestimate me, dragonlet. I would be remiss to inform, as you yourself have noted, you carry an aberrant immunity to a substantial passel of my abilities, in gratitude to your... Panacea, as you referred to it. It was not neglect or lack of ability on my part that allowed you to uh... prosper... in our trivial little skirmish. That means nothing, anyway, as I was using merely a fraction of my true power.” the Dracolich retorted haughtily, awkwardly glancing away.

Innocence only shook her head slowly, giving a tired sigh before she said dryly: “You're not convincing anyone, Dives. Anyway, my friends and I are going to settle in: tomorrow, Freya should be arriving here. You'll want to treat her with respect.”

“This Freya is only a pony, and shall earn the respect she warrants to be treated with. As it is, I am already being generous enough to allow these ignorant masses to peruse and modify my sacred ancestral home at their discretion. The seat of my empire is being rebuilt and refurbished into something that is not even of my own design! I can barely cognate how you can be so rude as to give me further orders after the indecencies you have already wheedled me into submitting to, thanks only to the fault of my ever-gracious nature.” Chrysophylax retorted crankily, although Innocence managed to tune most of this out.

The Dracolich looked irritably down at her for a few moments, and then he rose a claw and firmly poked her a few times, the scaled unicorn flinching and then glowering over her shoulder up at the gigantic undead dragon. They glared at each other, and then Innocence sighed and shook her head, saying sourly: “Don't send your goons to kill everyone while they're asleep.”

“How dare you accuse me of ever even being tempted to resort to such inhospitable tactics! Did I not give you an audience instead of having you attended to by the Poltergeists? Have I not, at every juncture, attempted to maneuver beyond what was merely required of me? I have been nothing but beneficent and humble in every regard!” argued Chrysophylax, and Innocence sighed tiredly, rolling her eyes and grumbling under her breath.

Instead of replying, however, she simply strode away, muttering to herself the whole time as she headed down the path. The rebels were striding up hidden roads here and there, but the scaled unicorn kept herself moving straight, descending into the darker trench of Quietus Clime.

It was as dark and spooky as when they had first stepped into the bottom of the vale, with spirits floating miserably back and forth around the area, but Innocence no longer had any fear of this place. Instead, she made her way off to a quiet niche in the wall, curling up inside it and closing her eyes to attempt to get a little bit of privacy. Freya had promised to come as soon as she could, but she and the others were very busy right now... and Innocence didn't know why, but that kind of hurt her. She knew what she'd done was very important... but at the same time... she wondered if Freya had also just been trying to get her out of the way.

Then the mare sighed tiredly as she heard the loud, distinct sound of what could only be one thing, and one eye slowly opened as Chrysophylax sat down in front of her. The Dracolich looked down at her mildly, and she looked back up at him before he leaned down and asked: “Why are you giving them aid, dragonlet? You are far superior to any of them. There are multitudinous things you could achieve with your existence that would be much more beneficial to you and the pursuit of knowledge and power: instead, all you seem to be doing is placing yourself in harm's way.”

“Why aren't you killing them all? Why did you agree to help us in the first place?” Innocence asked moodily, and Chrysophylax gave her a sour look.

“While I know that ruminating upon your intellect will only lead me to the inevitable conclusion that you are far from a coherent and intelligent being, I all the same thought it was very clear why I would choose to assist you instead of choosing to die. While valiant, death begets us nothing. It is only oblivion and darkness. I much prefer life, even in a form such as one composed of corpses and stone, over nonexistence.” replied the undead dragon distastefully.

Innocence smiled a little at this, shaking her head briefly before she looked down and said softly: “Yeah. Exactly that, Dives. If I try to fight the Light on my own, the Light will kill me. It'll just keep chasing after me until it hunts me down and destroys me, no matter where I try and run.”

There was silence for a few moments at this, and then the Dracolich leaned down thoughtfully before snorting out black smoke. “You are prevaricating. That is nowhere near contiguous to the actual reason why you are here. As a matter of fact, I believe that you are ashamed of the real reason you find yourself helping these little mortals.”

“I am not! They don't matter to me, none of them do!” Innocence snapped, leaping up to her claws and glaring up at the Dracolich. “All I care about is survival and power! Power is the only thing in the entire universe that matters!”

“Very well, dragonlet, if that is what you believe... then perhaps we are more kindred in spirit than I was willing to entertain the notion of at first.” Chrysophylax paused, then he suddenly smiled and held up a bony claw, a massive, glowing blue flame appearing in it as he said softly: “And perhaps you will understand, then, why I propose that we begin exterminating and making nourishment of these equine dissenters. I retain no desire to pursue a course of war against you, dragonlet, and I would optate an uncomfortable alliance in preference to neutral ground. Furthermore, if we were to work together, we could easily overpower even a thousand more little pony soldiers, should your rebels number so many. Their souls will fuel both our designs.”

Innocence grimaced a bit at this... and then she bared her fangs up at the Dracolich, feeling revulsion twist her stomach even as she snapped: “I don't share power, Dives. Keep that in mind. Now get lost, I want to be alone right now.”

The dragon looked down at her for a few moments... and then he gave a cold, cynical smile, saying contemptibly as the flame whiffed out around his claw. “I see now, Innocence. Yes, you are unfortunately as weak as I had imagined you to be. But fear not: as I have no desire to create hostilities within my own home, I shall not harm a single pony through my own means or beneath the guise of another. I merely find it disappointing that a dragonlet such as yourself fails to appreciate the larger canvas: my generous methods would have ensured that those whom paid their respects to us were honored with a place within our esteemed empire, after all... and is not a world impregnable from the Light what they so desire anyway?”

Innocence shook her head disdainfully, standing up and snapping in response: “Maybe my problem is that I do see the big picture, Dives, and I know what would happen to me if I did betray these ponies and what they're really after. I hope for your sake you don't try and do anything stupid.”

Chrysophylax Dives glowered moodily down at the scaled unicorn, then watched as she strode quickly away, the Dracolich saying distastefully: “Stupidity is not something that happens to be in my vocabulary, dragonlet. I hope that you remember that.”

Over the next few days, more rebels flocked towards Quietus Clime, and several wyverns attempted to do a fly-by of the twin mountains. They were quickly repelled, however, and Chrysophylax bragged about the special enchantments he had woven into all the glowing crystals scattered throughout the mountain to help keep the Light blind and unable to spy on anything that was going on around his home.

Freya arrived, and Innocence was a mix of surprised, elated, and a little upset that the winged unicorn said calmly she had targeted and destroyed a Sanctuary on the other side of the country. The Light would hopefully flock there now to protect that area of its domain, buying them a little more time to work on their home base and figure out where to go from here.

There was a lot to do: they had to build better defenses, help Chrysophylax expand his territory, reach out to more allies, and coordinate rebel movements to bring them safely in small caravans and groups into this area without letting the Light figure out what was going on. It was going to grow more and more difficult as they established an actual facility in the hollowed-out mountains, but Freya wanted to maintain an element of surprise for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, there was bad news as well: the Light had discovered the location of several of their bases and destroyed them entirely. Equestria was also locking down its borders much more tightly, making it harder for the rebels to get supplies and for trade of any kind to pass through. And wyverns were attacking dragon aeries in groups, using numbers and coordination to outflank and drive off or kill the much-stronger dragons.

The Light was trying to cut off every possible escape or advantage they could find, and it seemed like something had tipped them off to the locations of their old bases. Innocence hated to imagine what it could be... but one thing came to her mind that she simply didn't want to say. Prestige was thinking it too, but the Valkyrie looked like she refused to believe that Antares would have given in, whether to torture or conversion.

Chrysophylax didn't exactly enjoy the presence of the ponies, but apart from ranting at them he didn't seem interested in hurting them, at least. He also wasn't letting his spirits kill anyone, which was also admittedly good, since the air here was inundated with lost and cursed souls that had been drawn in by the Dracolich's dark magic. He bragged often, but to Innocence's surprise, Freya seemed to listen to the Dracolich... even more, seemed to be able to filter the few intelligent things he said out of the intellectual nonsense he spouted constantly.

Innocence just wished she could do more than... wander around, helping here and there with little things. It was frustrating her, and it made her feel useless, even when Freya consulted with her or came to ask her opinion about something. The scaled unicorn wanted to be out there, fighting against the Light and doing more than just... chores, really. Chores weren't going to win the war against the Light, after all. She could be doing so much more...

All the same, she was surprised when Freya came to her after roughly a week had passed, the ivory mare smiling at the young mare and saying gently: “I have a mission for you, Innocence. It's going to be a dangerous one, though, and I'm afraid you're going to have to leave alone. But you'll be able to pick up a few friends along the way.”

Innocence smiled warmly, gladly dropping the book she had been reading back on the table. A few other curious eyes looked up from the bed quarters they were housed in, but Innocence didn't pay the others any attention: she was used to the constant presence of other ponies in this cramped cave full of cots by now. “What do you need me to do?”

Freya gestured at her to follow, the ivory mare turning calmly around, and Innocence hurried up to her side: the side that could see, that was. It was a little easier to remember these days, at least, thanks to the eyepatch she was wearing.

They headed into the twisting, narrow corridors of Quietus Clime, striding past several awkward looking rebels and a Dead Doll that was carrying a load of equipment for them: mostly to appease Freya and so he could continue to avoid contact with the rebels, Lord Chrysophylax had ordered most of his undead servants to obey the rebels. So apart from the Poltergeists, the undead were now making themselves surprisingly helpful.

Innocence did her best not to poke the subject as they strode down the corridor, but finally, she was unable to resist leaning over and asking a little impatiently: “What do you want me to do?”

Freya only smiled amusedly at her, then she said gently: “I think that's a new record for you, Innocence. Almost five minutes before you gave in and proved you're as bad as Brynhild always was.”

The scaled unicorn grumbled a little under her breath, and then she sighed tiredly as they strode through an archway and out onto a steep path leading down the side of one of the twin mountains. Freya paused to check the sky as they made their way leisurely downwards, and then she nodded a little at the swirling storm above before drawing her eyes back to Innocence, saying quietly: “I need for you to go to the old base near Ponyville. Quite a few of our allies are gathered there, waiting for you: your mission is to first secure the Everfree Forest, and then to return here with the rebel forces.”

Innocence blinked in surprise, and then she shifted uneasily as they stopped at the edge of a rocky crag, the mare saying hesitantly: “That sounds... I mean, how am I supposed to secure the forest? Besides, I thought it was already rejecting the Light's presence...”

“It is, but only because the Light has yet to discover what gives the forest life. Hu and Ỏðr, which give the Everfree Forest life, said to stem from Yggdrasil itself. These trees have to be protected, and the best way that we can do that is by having you push your Panacea into them both. It will protect them against the Light's purification.” Freya explained gently, and Innocence looked up uneasily.

“But... they'll be corrupted too, won't they? I mean... well, I don't actually know how my corruption works...” Innocence looked down at one claw, flexing it slowly. “I've never really used it like... like Daddy did.”

“At worst, it will ensure our control over the Everfree Forest. But if Quietus Clime were to ever fall, we'd need a place to retreat to, that would be large and safe enough for our entire force to take cover.” Freya reasoned almost encouragingly, and Innocence shifted apprehensively back and forth before the ivory mare reached out and gently touched her cheek. “We need to be prepared to do everything we can to protect ourselves and our world from the Light.”

“I... you're right.” Innocence shook off the strange misgivings she had, before she looked up and smiled briefly at Freya. “Okay, Aunt Freya. I'll do it.”

“Good.” Freya glanced off into the distance, looking past the dark, desolate earth that surrounded the mountains and into the seemingly-endless snowstorm raging through the tundra all around them. “While you do that, I'm going to be mounting an attack of my own. There's some other allies I think we can free from the Light... and we need to send a signal that we're not afraid of them. I have something in mind to do both.”

Innocence looked curiously at Freya, but the winged unicorn only smiled before reaching up and stroking her face gently. “Don't worry, Innocence. You'll know it when you see it. Just try and trust in me, okay?”

The scaled unicorn bit her tongue for a moment, and then she finally nodded a few times before smiling when Freya easily pulled her into a tight embrace, reaching up to squeeze into her shoulders as she settled against her. Freya held her close for a few moments, then let her slip backwards in her own time, and when Innocence looked up with a warm smile, the winged unicorn kissed first her forehead, and then her lips before leaning back and saying softly: “Just keep your objectives in mind, Innocence. And maybe after you get back and our base has been better established, I'll be able to put together those new claws for you. Now go on: the faster you leave, the sooner you'll get back.”

Innocence nodded a few times, and then Freya ruffled her mane and pushed her gently on her way, the scaled unicorn smiling warmly before she turned and hurried off. And the winged unicorn watched her go with a faint, lingering smile on her face before she shook her head slowly, saying softly: “Just like a young Valkyrie. But she'll learn in time, just like they did too: the ends will always justify the means.”

The scaled unicorn was already hurrying on her way, despite the fact that something wasn't sitting right with her as she made her way back into the catacomb of the mountain tunnels and down into the depths of Quietus Clime. She was excited and determined to accomplish this mission with the same level of success as she'd finished her first job... no, to do even better, since it wasn't like Lord Chrysophylax Dives was the greatest trophy ever.

“Even though he probably thinks he is.” Innocence muttered, and then she shook her head briefly as she continued down her path, twisting and turning through the corridors she'd already committed to memory until she reached a crack that let her out onto the sloping mountainside. She ran down this, then skidded to a halt and hesitated, looking over her shoulder.

Prestige Luster would be with the Blessed, helping keep an eye on them and direct them... Aphrodisia was probably off with some demons, just having a good time and picking on the Poltergeists. And Ersatz Major was probably helping organize their makeshift library, which was the only part of their entire facility that Chrysophylax seemed to appreciate. Ersatz herself was still feeling a little awkward after having run away during the fight with the Dracolich, but... not even Innocence could really blame her for that.

She wanted to go and say goodbye to them, but that was silly, wasn't it? No, she couldn't be hesitating because... she didn't need anyone. Antares was gone, and she had survived without him and proved that... that had all just been... weakness before. She liked them, but whether or not they were her friends, she didn't owe them a thing. She didn't need them or depend on them.

Innocence stopped, then looked down at her claws before sitting back and lifting them as her horn glowed brightly. Magic crackled around her limbs, and then she smiled widely as her gauntlets appeared, fitting themselves snugly over her raised claws as she flexed her digits slowly. There, that was why she had been hesitating, what she had forgotten. Her weapons. And all she was wearing was...

Her claw reached up, silently touching the star hanging around her neck, and then she shook herself quickly out before closing her eyes as she flicked her wrist. A moment later, her good luck charm appeared in it, and the scaled mare looked silently down at this small silver statuette of Luna before she said quietly: “Look at me. I am powerful. I've got Freya for a mentor now, too, and she's been teaching me more and more of her magic... soon I'll be able to do anything she can. I'm powerful. I'm not alone. But I don't... owe anyone anything. I don't need honor, I don't need to give back to people when they're giving me everything I want, that's... that's their choice, not mine...”

She bit her lip, then shook her head briefly before finally sighing and making the statuette vanish back into the ether, smiling faintly. A single day: that's how long it had taken her to master the spell to summon and banish objects as she pleased. Nothing too large or heavy yet, but she could do it with everything she used regularly.

And yet it was so hard to take pride in it... but Innocence shook these thoughts off before they could start, and then she rose her horn proudly, a dark aura encompassing her body before she slowly began to lift into the air. As always, she felt her worries peeling slowly away as she ascended, her smile spreading wider over her face at what she'd accomplished: flight. She had gained the one thing she had always wanted to: she could fly. She didn't know any other unicorn who could do the kinds of things that she could do.

Innocence breathed slowly in and out, and soon enough, even that didn't matter: it wasn't about being the best, or stronger than everyone, or being able to do something that no one else could. It was about achieving her dream, as she laughed and then looked down at her cutie mark, silently stroking over the rune of Ceres: so much for her special talent being... whatever that was supposed to mean. She knew what her talent was: magic.

Innocence leaned forwards with a confident smile, and then she shot through the air, a black streak through the sky. Snow and wind buffeted her, but she pushed back against it, keeping her forelegs tight to the side as her mane and tail whipped out behind her, breathing hard as she shot through the air in a straight line before she gritted her teeth and forced herself to turn sharply.

She winced as she almost overbalanced, losing her poise and flailing a little, but she managed to quickly right herself as she zoomed off in the direction of Ponyville. Or at least, what she was pretty sure was in the general direction of Ponyville: she couldn't really cast any magic that required a lot of concentration or attention while she was flying, after all. But after she traveled a good distance, she could find a nice landing spot and double-check from there. At worst, she was sure she was probably only a few degrees off.

The mare flew for about forty minutes, grinning and proud of the fact that she was likely the only thing in the air without wings. She made it through the snowstorm with only a few incidents, and none of them were ever things she didn't manage to recover from.

But not long after she was out of the snow-speckled north, as she was sailing over a murky marshland, she felt her magic beginning to fade out and her flight began to stutter a little, waking her up from her pleasant reverie and making the mare grumble under her breath. She quickly looked back and forth, then noted a pretty patch of green grasses like an oasis amidst the gross wastes only a short distance ahead: she was sure she could reach it without any trouble.

She'd been on the approach, lowering herself little-by-little and using her powers to glide instead of propel her forwards, smiling confidently to herself... and then she felt her magic simply give out, and the mare blinked for a few moments before her glide turned into a freefall that sent her plummeting twenty feet and face-first into the marshwater.

The mare surfaced, gasping and cursing in frustration, spitting muck and slime in all directions and flailing wildly at the murk around her: she wasn't exactly the best swimmer to begin with, and trying to haul claws wearing steel gauntlets through filth and muck that was already burning her scales felt damned near impossible. She coughed and gagged: the swamp was probably only as deep as her shoulders, but the bottom of it was soggy and already had a firm grasp of her rear hooves, sucking her down into the sludge as she tried to drag herself uselessly forwards through the grime.

Acting on instinct, as the gunk around her threatened to swallow her whole, she shoved her claws out and lashed out with her powers, since her magic wasn't working: the entire marshland rippled with her ability before water and muck became mire that spat her upwards in a black geyser, the mare flailing wildly in all directions before she fell face-first into the black sludge... but this time, for both better and worse, it remained solid enough that she landed painfully on top of it instead of drowning in the dark goo.

She rasped for breath, shivering a little before cursing under her breath and carefully pushing herself to a standing position. She shook herself briefly out with a growl of frustration, then glared down at the mire beneath her claws, scraping at it grouchily and muttering: “Great. Thanks, really.”

The mare rolled her eyes, then sat down and forced herself to take a slow breath as the muck rippled beneath her. She could feel it warming her body, relaxing her muscles, and restoring her lost energy... and then Innocence's features trembled a little before she silently looked down, realizing that she hadn't really done this since her parents had been alive. Because her Panacea, for as strong as it was... it didn't affect things the same way Scrivener's corruption had.

She silently stroked her claws through it, then lifted some of the dark goop, letting it spill through her digits before she smiled faintly and shook her head briefly. No, it was easier for her just to sap life, not to create mire and sit there while it slowly restored her strength... but now that she was thinking about her parents and how this had been the way Scrivener and Luna and Twilight had always fixed themselves in a hurry, she couldn't really... make herself move.

She sat there for a while, contemplating silently, eyes closed and head lowered until she finally felt her strength fully return, and like the mire was gently telling her to go. The Panacea... the differences were subtle, yes, but they were there, and they deserved to be honored, at least a little. The scaled unicorn laughed quietly at this thought, and then she silently swirled a digit through the dark mire in front of her before she nodded briefly, raising her head and closing her eyes.

Her horn glowed faintly, and Innocence let it slowly tilt to one side, before she turned to face the direction it was pointing in. She concentrated again, and her horn tilted just a little more to the right before she felt something click in her mind, and the scaled unicorn nodded briefly as she murmured: “Okay, that's it. I'm ready.”

Innocence halted and flexed for a moment, then sprung upwards, her dark aura bursting into life over her entire body before she shot forwards through the sky, now heading straight for Ponyville. She hadn't been entirely off, at least... but she thought she was doing well, all things considered. Besides, it wasn't like any other pony would be able to make this journey nearly as fast. Well. Unless they were a Pegasus. Or a demon. Or could open a portal. Or... well...

She grumbled and shook herself out briefly, a dark comet zipping through the air: this time, she managed to continue forwards for more than an hour without incident before she winced at the sight of Canterlot in the distance, hurriedly dropping herself to the fields and managing to drop into a trot, slowing to a halt to grimace at the way Canterlot all-but-shone with bright radiance among the range of mountains that it loomed proudly over.

Canterlot had been one of the first places hit by the Light's full force: almost the entire city had been blinded overnight, and that included all the Barons and Baronesses who had been present at the Royal Council. And unfortunately, that had meant Rosewood, one of their most important allies, had become one of the enemy. In fact, it was Rosewood who had first begun speaking out on the Light's behalf against Celestia... something that Innocence thought had contributed to the winged unicorn's growing madness and hatred.

They had no allies in Canterlot, and Subterra had been forced to wall itself completely off from the city above, and then its citizens had evacuated. All the same, the demonic city had been invaded and disfigured by the Light, buildings razed, any remaining demons slaughtered, the statue of Nightmare Moon torn down as a false idol and the final resting places of demons and Selene desecrated and ransacked by converts and fanatics. Now Subterra was nothing but a husk, a forgotten once-utopia that had been destroyed by the very ponies they had tried so long to protect.

So Canterlot was not a place that would be safe for Innocence to even get close to. There were too many Pious there, as well as too many believers, and the magic academy had been turned to serve the interests of the Light, along with all their tools and equipment.

Sin sighed tiredly, studying the mountains in the distance before she rolled her eyes and turned, beginning to trot grumpily to the west as she shook her head in distaste. There was a road around the mountains that she could take, but it would be a pain in the flank and add a few hours to her time... not to mention the fact that there would probably be a guard post waiting for her there anyway...

The mare found out in time that she was right, and she grimaced as she reached the path that would take her just through the edge of the mountain range, outside the sight of Canterlot's ever-watchful eyes. Up ahead, there were two Pious calmly standing in the middle of the road, simple robes flowing around their strange bodies and soldiers clad in golden armor striding back and forth around the checkpoint, most of them Pegasi with crossbows on their backs, but the commanding officer was a unicorn, dressed in the distinct purple armor of a Captain of the Guard.

Innocence looked meditative for a moment from where she was crouched a good distance away behind a narrow rock wall, then she licked her lips slowly before flicking her horn and creating a spark of magical energy. Immediately, both Pious looked up at the disturbance, even as Innocence spun towards the wall and quickly started to climb it, keeping the image of a tree in her mind as one of the Angels of Greater Heaven pointed forwards silently, but the other ponies – the ones within range of its psionic powers – looked up as it spoke to them telepathically before they saluted sharply. “Yes sir!”

Two Pegasi took to the skies, shooting smoothly forwards as they slung their crossbows into their front hooves, looking sharply back and forth. Innocence breathed quietly from the height she had scaled to, clinging to the rock roughly thirty feet up.

The Pegasi slowed, hovering almost below her as they glared over the ground, then looked sharply back and forth. One of them turned around, and even as Innocence felt herself tense, she smiled coldly, watching as he flew calmly back towards the Pious. Most Pegasi had a very silly flaw: they always forgot to check the sky when they were in the air themselves.

The other Pegasus started to turn, and Innocence yanked a loose rock free from the cliff wall before tossing it into the air in front of her and launching it with telekinesis as hard as she could: the rock shot through the sky and smashed into the face of the Pegasus, and he fell like a stone, hitting the ground with an awful thump. Immediately, both Pious shot forwards as the other ponies shouted in disbelief, but even as both alien angels scanned up along the cliffs, neither could see nor sense anything in the area apart from some vague images of plant life.

One of the Pious put its long-fingered hands together, bowing its head as if to pray as it concentrated, and the other continued to look back and forth slowly. But a moment later, a long blade of black corruption seemed to shoot out of nowhere, tearing through the breast of the searching Pious and knocking it staggering to the side before the blade dissolved, and the creature fell in a gush of blood, falling to the ground in a broken heap.

“Get him! Find him, kill him!” shouted the Captain, snarling as he looked back and forth almost desperately, and the remaining Pegasi both leapt forwards, desperately searching back and forth, their crossbows in hoof. Then one of them spotted a shape crawling low amidst the stone, and he shouted, firing a bolt at it and catching Innocence in the shoulder as she hissed in pain before wincing and looking up as the remaining Pious shot towards her, the Angel of Greater Heaven swinging a claw on a terribly long limb out towards her.

Innocence flung herself backwards and snapped her horn out, unleashing a wild blast of blue flames that knocked the Pious staggering backwards. Then she snarled almost in desperation as several bolts shot past her before a sphere of magic energy from the unicorn zipped past the Pious and smashed into the mare, blasting her away from the angel as she cried out in agony.

But the scaled unicorn gritted her teeth and flipped her body at the last moment, cursing in pain as she barely managed to catch herself on her hooves, skidding backwards before the Pious lunged at her again, already recovered despite the fact its body was alight with blue flames. She snapped her horn down, smashing the angel with another blue fireball, but this time it barely staggered, lunging straight through the attack as its skeletal wing-limbs both stabbed viciously up and outwards, attempting to hook into the mare.

Innocence barely ducked in time, one of the sharpened appendages just managing to catch and scratch her, and the unicorn gasped at how much energy she felt torn from her body with the mere touch before she snarled and lashed her horn upwards, blasting the Pious with a bolt of black fire that carried it backwards into the air before the magic missile of onyx flame exploded in a tremendous flare of darkness. The Pious was flung backwards bonelessly by it, and the remaining ponies shouted in terror that cut through their zealous blindness, stumbling away from the floating sphere of sparkling blackness in awe and disbelief.

After only a few moments, however, the orb of almost-solid enegy sparked out of existence, and the Royal Guards looked back and forth in dumb surprise before the Captain of the Guard snarled, then shouted over at one of the Pegasi: “Inform Canterlot! Tell them that we spotted one of the heretics!”

“They are already informed.” said the Pious quietly, and then the badly-charred angel slowly sat up, its long, multi-jointed arms carefully crossing over its chest as it seemed to stare out from behind its visor, the blinded ponies bowing reverently to it as its psychic voice said softly: “But they already saw the signs of her coming. A Servant of Heaven has been dispatched to deal with her.”

Innocence felt a shiver as she fled, as bits and pieces of the Pious' voice touched her mind: not enough for her to understand what it was saying, but enough to know that something bad was on its way. But she was already hurrying down the mountain path towards a hidden path the rebels often used to move through this mountainous region safely, the mare cursing under her breath as she leapt through a patch of scrub...

And then she flailed wildly, staring in horror as she fell straight into a gaping pit, swinging her claws out and just managing to catch herself against the jagged stone wall. She swung into it with a cry of pain, then trembled and looked down over her shoulder in disbelief at the bottom of the pit.

It was lined with jagged silver spikes, and the corpses of several ponies were impaled over these spikes, along with a writhing, gurgling demon that was clearly at the end of its life. Innocence looked uneasily down at this, then shivered once before she turned her eyes upwards and carefully began to climb towards the top of the spike trap.

How the hell had they known just where to put this? Was the Light watching them that closely, and they were just clueless as to its full ability to spy on them? Or did it have something to do with... whoever had confessed the locations of the bases to them? Innocence did her best to cut this thought off, shaking her head hurriedly and trying not to think about it: she had an awful feeling about Antares, but part of her still refused to acknowledge the fact that... maybe...

She shoved her thoughts away, breathing slowly as she grasped the lip of the pit and hauled herself out of it, shaking herself briefly off before looking down the hidden path and hurrying on her way. She kept her eyes open now, however, looking uneasily back and forth as she felt paranoia creeping through her mind, making her think there might be a trap around every corner, or that she was going to reach the end of the road, only to find more Pious waiting for her...

Fortunately, all that was waiting for her was another spike pit, hidden near where the trail connected back to a wider, better-known path. The mare grimaced and edged around this, relieved to see that there were fewer corpses in this one, and from what she could see, they were only the bodies of animals, not ponies.

She half-expected another checkpoint, and was pleasantly surprised when all she found guarding this side of the mountains were a pair of Pegasi. But that made sense: on this side, you hit the mountainside before you ran into Canterlot, and a massive wyvern aerie had been built along the pass that faced Ponyville. In other words, it made attempting to approach from this side an act of suicide.

Innocence turned her attention back to business, taking flight in a burst of dark smoke and glancing up at the sun, which was slowly beginning to set in the distance. She had lost quite a bit of time thanks to taking the mountain path so slow, but she preferred to be a little late than dead... and furthermore, it was probably a much better idea to wait until nightfall before they went into the Everfree Forest, to make sure the Light wasn't able to spy on them too closely and understand what they were up to with Hu and Ỏðr.

The scaled unicorn sighed quietly as she sailed low over the ground, glancing silently towards the village in the distance before she forced her attention to turn ahead. Crying over Ponyville was pointless... they just had to keep moving forwards. That was all there was to it. When the Light was gone, everything would... go back to normal.

But all the same, Innocence wondered if she was just lying to herself, as she gazed at the village in the distance, at the symbols and totems that displayed proud allegiance to the Light raised up here and there all around even the outskirts, and how the walls that had once protected Ponyville had all been almost completely torn down, only a few still left standing as testament to the great wars that the town had stood through. And she knew that everyone and everything had changed: by now, who knew? Maybe even Monkshood had been converted by the Light...

She shook her head, shivering a little before she turned her eyes upwards and shot into the sky, a black comet that streaked through the clouds above and burst out into deep indigo twilight, the mare staring longingly at the top of the setting sun in the distance as she thought of her mother. Her mother, named for that special time between day and night, that moment when everything was possible... those precious few seconds when all the creatures of night and day could commingle, and it was said that spirits could pass between the realms...

The mare floated more than flew onwards, savoring the settling darkness and lingering in the evening air until she realized that it was now late night, and she'd been flying for... well, she wasn't sure how long. She shook herself out... and then winced as she toppled out of the air, falling through the clouds below with a yell and flailing wildly as she plummeted towards the ground in the distance, cursing under her breath before she barely managed to catch herself and slow to a halt just above the swaying trees.

She grumbled under her breath, looking back and forth grumpily... and then her eyes widened in surprise as she realized where she was, staring at what looked like a small mound sitting in the middle of a burnt field. The mare hesitated for only a moment before she shot forwards, in spite of all the times she had been warned coming back here was stupid and unsafe... but she couldn't help herself. She was here now, and she just had to go in and take one last look around this place that had once been the entire world to her.

Innocence settled slowly to the burnt grass, and then she swallowed thickly as she looked at the scorched remains of her home. The upper level had long collapsed and the whole house was lopsided and charred, parts of it looking almost like they were still smoldering even after all these long years. The doorway was listed to one side, and the door itself had been shattered into pieces: kicked in, she thought, by angry, blinded ponies who were all doing the bidding of the Light...

Innocence shook her head slowly, striding silently forwards and hesitating for a moment at the threshold, feeling the rotten, weakened boards beneath her claws before she took a slow breath, then strode carefully inside. Around her, the old building creaked as if greeting her, and Sin gave a small smile before she looked back and forth, then silently strode down the short hallway, past the broken and inaccessible doors and into the den room.

Valuables and paintings had been piled up here and burned... this was where the whole fire had started, she could see. There was nothing left of what they had used as kindling except for a pile of ashes, and Innocence silently reached down and stroked a claw through this, before her horn glowed brightly: but even before she cast the spell, she knew it was useless. Cremated and then left for years, for time to slowly peel away what little sense and structure remained... no magic, no miracle could ever restore what had been lost here.

So Innocence only silently pawed through the ashes, as if touching them would help resurrect her memories of what had been lost here... and then the mare closed her eyes and shook her head briefly, looking down as she whispered: “It's not fair. I don't... I never wanted this to happen. Why would they do this to us...”

But she knew why. Because the Light hated them. Because they were darkness, and they were different. And because the Light wanted her parents erased, turned from heroes into monsters... but Innocence knew better than to call them either. They had been something else entirely... something Innocence could never be. They had been honorable and strong and always done right, even with all the darkness inside the three ponies she missed so goddamn badly...

She sighed softly, shaking her head slowly before turning her eyes away, looking past the collapsed divider and into the ruined kitchen. She frowned a little as her eyes caught on a faint flicker, and she stepped carefully over a fallen rafter and the shattered remains of the counter to poke her way through the fallen, crumbled pile of wood and brittle metal that made up the collapsed ruin of the cupboards, scraping the loose wreckage out of the way before she smiled slightly as she saw several glowing wires amidst the wreckage.

The magical battery that had powered the appliances and other technological bits and bobs in the household was apparently still working, and Innocence hesitated only a moment before she reached down and grasped the loose wires, then gritted her teeth as magic energy flooded her being. And the mare trembled before pulling as hard as she dared on that magical energy, drawing it rapidly into her body even as electricity sparked over her form and pain filled her up... but it wasn't a physical or spiritual pain. It was pain that came from the fact she could feel Luna Brynhild's energies so clearly in the magic she was drawing into her body, pain that came from the fact she was siphoning up maybe the last little bit of her Móðer's magical essence that remained on this Midgard...

No, Innocence... because you're still here. And we'll always be here with you... murmured a voice in the mare's mind, and Innocence looked up in shock as she stumbled backwards and then slipped on a blackened board, falling to the ground with a thud that shook the entire house and made the unstable ceiling creak loudly, a bit of dust and ash filtering down through the cracked boards. But Innocence was only able to stare up at the ceiling, trembling violently as tears formed in her eyes, whispering: “Momma? M-Momma, is that you?”

But all that greeted her in response was silence, and the scaled unicorn swallowed thickly as she pushed herself up, trembling a little and reaching up to clutch her star necklace as she forced herself to calm down. It had... she had just been imagining things. She was just stressed from traveling such a long distance by flight and... being here. Being in her old home, surrounded by all these... memories...

She shook herself out, then licked her lips slowly as she finally released her hold on the necklace, looking silently up at the ceiling and telling herself that there was no way she could have heard that voice. That it was all just in her head... reminding herself that her parents were... they were gone. She rubbed compulsively at one cheek, then sighed softly and relaxed a little as she flexed her claw absently, feeling the energy spark along the metal. Sure, it wasn't much of a boost, since she was absorbing the magic secondhoof after it had laid dormant for quite a long time... but it was enough to give her a little bit of a boost, and it made her feel... well... strange. Comforted.

She smiled faintly, then turned around and stepped back into the living room, looking down at the thick pile of ashes that she had half-brushed apart. Then she frowned curiously, cocking her head as she realized there was still something buried beneath the ash and char, brushing it quickly out of the way before she curiously picked up a small metal box that had somehow survived being burned along with the other valuables... possibly because it had been buried so deeply that it had been protected by the sheer amount of stuff piled on top of it.

She shook the tin lightly, and heard something faintly jangle inside, the scaled mare looking thoughtfully at this before she grasped the brittle lid and pulled. Then she scowled a little, grumbling under her breath as it refused to budge, and the mare wiggled it back and forth before yanking again on the lid, and this time it finally gave, popping off with a burst of dust as the metal crumpled slightly inwards, the mare cursing as she almost flung the lid across the room and the tin tumbled to the ground.

It bounced, ejecting its contents onto the dark floor, and Innocence looked down, wondering curiously what her parents had been trying to protect so badly they had actually stored it in the surprisingly tough little box... and then her eyes widened as she saw the bracelet laying on the ground in front of her, making memories flood back through her mind.

She trembled a little as she strode towards this, gazing down at it silently and swallowing thickly as she reached down and carefully picked it up, the polished wood beads clicking quietly and spilling between her claws. She almost dropped it from between her digits, but then she hurriedly shifted it to catch it in her palm and look down at the little clasp on either end of the steel blue horsehair string... string that was made from her own mane.

She had made the whole thing for Mommy and Daddy and Móðer all by herself, just like any four year old would want to... which meant, of course, that she'd had quite a lot of help in putting it together, from almost everypony she'd known back then. Antares had made the metal clasp for her, which had her parents' cutie marks etched on it side-by-side-by-side, and Sleipnir had helped her make the string, and Pinkamena had helped her put on the beads and the clasp, and Scarlet Sage had gotten the box together for her and told her in the first place what day it was.

It was a child's gift for her parents: it was little more than a silly toy, and it was really the only thing she'd ever tried to make them as a child. This one little bracelet: she'd thought they could share it, but of course, she'd just been a dumb little filly back then, hadn't understood that...

She shook her head slowly, forcing those thoughts away as she looked down at the little piece of simple jewelry, studying itself. It looked like it was in perfect condition... and she could feel a faint magic radiating from it that confused her a little. She didn't remember enchanting it at all, but just holding it was making her feel warm, and comforted, and she sensed a life in these beads... had her parents done something to them? Had they figured out a way to put her silly little foalish gift to use, was that the real reason it had been locked away?

Innocence looked at it silently, then she licked her lips hesitantly before lifting it with telekinesis and holding her foreleg out. The bracelet slipped down, wrapping around her extended limb before it clicked together, and the mare winced a bit as she expected some burst of magic, or to feel some kind of enchantment take hold...

Instead, she only felt... warmth. A strange warmth, yes, but there was nothing magical about it, as the beads clicked quietly and the bracelet shifted against her foreleg a little, sliding a bit beneath the cusp of one gauntlet. She frowned uncertainly at it, then reached up and toyed at her necklace for a few moments before she sighed softly, mumbling: “Great. Now I look really stupid.”

At least, she felt really stupid: she had mistaken stupid sentimentality for actual magic. No, this warmth just came from... silly memories that the bracelet called back, that was all.

For a few moments, Innocence studied this... and then she finally shook her head before flexing a claw slowly and sighing quietly, pulling herself together. She had wasted enough time here. It was time for her to get out of here, and get moving towards her goal.

Yet even as Innocence told herself this, the scaled unicorn found herself lingering, looking back and forth through the burnt room as if she could find some other little miracle to take with her. She shifted silently back and forth... then finally sighed and grumbled a bit, shaking herself briskly before stepping carefully back into the ruined kitchen, making her way towards the decaying back door.

She hesitated as she stopped in front of it, pushing a claw against it experimentally... and then she winced when it simply fell off its remaining hinge to clatter against the ground with a puff of ashes. The scaled mare looked uncomfortably down at this, and then she shook her head briefly before carefully stepping through the slanted doorway, ducking beneath the moldering, fallen staircase.

She slowed as the back lawn caught her eye, the mare staring in surprise as she came to a halt... and for some reason, a tremble ran through her body, and she couldn't help but smile faintly as she reached up to touch her lips. The Ambrosia tree had been cut down, the whole garden and lawn had been burned... and yet all the same, black roses, white lunar lilies, and curling brambles were all growing together, blossoms raised proudly towards the shimmering moonlight through the bed of ashes that covered the earth.

It was a reminder that no matter what happened... her parents were always there. Or rather, they had always been there... but as Innocence studied the flowers silently, she reached up and quietly touched her necklace, trailing a claw along the lightning bolt of metal embossed into the onyx, feeling both the faint magic radiating from this as well as the shimmer of warmth that was still coming from the bracelet around her foreleg. Little mementos of the family she had lost... that she loved, and cherished, and still had hope that she would see again one day.

The mare shook her head slowly, then she forced herself to breathe before she looked up into the night sky, studying the stars above silently before her dark aura flickered to life around her horn, then spread down over her body as she readied herself before leaping upwards and taking to the air. Her flight twisted around, then shot just above the Everfree Forest, sailing through the dark skies in the direction of where the rebel base was hidden as she forced herself to keep her eyes straight ahead, her mind clearing itself little by little.

And as she sailed through the sky, she gripped tightly into her star pendant, closing her eyes and promising herself silently that when she gained all the power she craved, she wouldn't just use it to destroy the Light. She would use it to bring back everything that the Light had stolen from her, so that she would never have to be alone, ever again.

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