• 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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Ruin And Failure

Chapter Seventy Six: Ruin and Failure

Innocence reached the rebel base in good time, and was surprised by the group of ponies she found once inside: Morning Glory, Avalon, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash were among the ponies she knew, and there was a smattering of people she was less familiar with but who all looked hardy and up to the long journey ahead of them.

The scaled unicorn hadn't really had more time than that to check over her forces, however, before Morning Glory had walked over to her and asked moodily: “So are we going or not?”

It wasn't like Innocence could blame them for being eager: she was a little anxious herself to get underway, especially with the checkpoint she'd been forced to shove her way through. Not that she was worried the Pious were tracking her: if the Light had managed to lock onto her movements, they would have attacked her when she was out at the ruins of her old home, not waited until she reached a base they likely already knew about.

Even without asking, Innocence recognized that was why Morning Glory was so worried: with how bases had already been targeted and destroyed by the Light, it was very likely that the enemy knew exactly where they were, and would home in on them if it had any reason to suspect this base might be in use. She likely wanted to move out before the Light had a chance to home in on them.

As they traveled quickly on hoof through the forest, Innocence couldn't help but look back at Morning Glory: the enormous Destroyer cut through the trees with the ease of a battleship, her metal body gleaming but her features left unmasked as her golden mane whipped around her. She was breathing slowly and steadily, but there was a sharpness, an anger in her eyes... and yet Innocence had never seen the demon so composed and controlled as she was these days.

Avalon and Applejack were on either side of the mare, rounding off their small group: Innocence was only glad to see that mother and daughter were able to put aside their differences for the mission, even if part of her was nervous that they were going to start arguing at the worst possible moment. Avalon was still having trouble forgiving her mother, but Innocence didn't think it was because she had given in to the darkness anymore: she thought it was now because she had tried to face the Light herself instead of letting her family fight by her side.

Innocence was admittedly impressed by Avalon: both by the way she could hold a grudge and that in spite of the fact she was traveling with a self-described goddess, a dark creation of Gymbr, and one of the most feared species of demon that could be born from Helheim's Wrath, the mortal Pegasus was proving that she could keep up with the best of them.

She only wore a light leather vest that was enchanted to protect her from magic: as she had reasoned, heavy armor would only slow her down, and they were fighting monsters that would either cut through metal like butter or concentrated on attacking the spirit anyway. So instead of protective gear, she had concentrated on wrapping belts that were covered in metal spikes securely around her body and put on a helm with large, bladed wings standing off the sides and a row of spiky fins running down the center of it.

Silvered crosshatch blades hung off her forelegs, and spiked shinguards covered her lower limbs: the tiny mare was a living ball of barbs and blades. Her tinted goggles were looked over her eyes, helping mask her emotions as she kept all her attention ahead, and Innocence smiled faintly: she could barely believe this was the same Avalon Antares had used to tell her all kinds of silly stories about. But she guessed that time and conflict changed people.

They reached Hu and Ỏðr in good time, but it almost felt like the Everfree Forest was inviting them in to find the forest's soul. Innocence had only been here a few times with her parents many years ago, and yet she could swear that it hadn't changed in the slightest: there was a small field around a narrow pond, that had a short embankment to one side of it out of which stood a jutting, smooth stone that almost formed a narrow stage or altar. And to one side of the field were the massive trees themselves that they had come for, the gnarled and twisted twins that bent in impossible ways and directions, seeming to cast shadows over the entire forest as their bare branches swayed enticingly.

Innocence breathed slowly in and out as she looked over the trees, and then she forced herself to straighten before glancing up as Morning Glory said calmly: “Get your job done, Innocence. But I doubt the forest is going to just let you infect its heart.”

Innocence shifted awkwardly at this, then she shook her head briefly and mumbled: “I'm not... I just want to protect it with my Panacea, that's all. And we shouldn't... Freya said that we have to immunize it to the Light. Even if...”

She shook herself out, biting down on the words she kept stumbling all over before taking a slow breath and raising her head. Avalon grumbled as she hovered in the air, and Applejack smiled a little, the wooden mare shrugging a bit from beneath her ever-present, worn-down hat as she said quietly: “Maybe this is just me, but I think if you ask nicely, Innocence, and make it clear what you're doin' here, we won't have to worry about the Forest trying to kill us.”

“I guess you'd know. Being a tree and all.” Avalon grumbled, and when Applejack sighed and gave her daughter a half-sour, half-pleading look, the tiny Pegasus moodily dropped her gaze and mumbled: “Fine. Sorry. Let's just get this over with, I feel like we're being watched.”

The scaled unicorn shifted uneasily, and then she looked over her shoulder at the three and nodded, saying finally: “Okay. Keep an eye out, and... you know, watch my back. I'll need to concentrate and my Panacea isn't as strong as Scrivener Blooms' corruption.”

“Don't worry. That matches the rest of you.” Morning Glory said distastefully, reaching up and brushing absently at her armored chest, and Innocence gave her a sour look before she turned around, grumbling and approaching the two trees.

They shifted: Innocence saw it, the way they actually moved against the faint breeze, heard the crackling of their enormous wooden trunks bending. It made the mare wince back a bit before she dropped into a sitting position, and for a moment she ground her teeth together nervously before she lowered her head in supplication, saying uneasily: “I... I'm here to help... I want to protect you against the... I mean...”

Here she was. Talking to trees. Trying to get these enormous, living plants that gave the Everfree Forest such chaotic, powerful life to listen to her. She blushed a little, then gritted her teeth, opening her mouth... and then she was struck dumb as a powerful hoof clamped down on her shoulder and Morning Glory leaned down beside her, whispering sharply into her ear: “This forest is a larger and more aggressive opponent than I am. They are merely trees, but as you said yourself... we are trying to avoid destroying them. Do not antagonize them and do not mistreat them: neither you nor I know what these trees really are.”

There was silence for a few moments, and the Morning Glory stepped calmly backwards, and Innocence dropped her head almost sulkily forwards before she nodded a few times and mumbled: “Okay. Okay. I'll... think of them as... real people. Even if they're covered in bark and made of wood.”

“So's Mom.” Avalon said grumpily, and Applejack gave her daughter a flat look again, but the tiny Pegasus only shrugged grouchily in response this time.

Innocence ignored the two for now, however: she tried to ignore Morning Glory as well, but she could feel the enormous demon glaring holes in her, and it kept her from saying anything stupid as she looked across at the living trees. The scaled unicorn swallowed thickly as she kept her attention on these, and then she finally said awkwardly: “I... I really am here to help.”

The trees creaked and swayed a little, and Innocence winced a bit and felt like the trees were judging her. Which was stupid. And what we even more stupid was that she was actually scared of what these goddamn stupid trees might be thinking of her... or feeling about her or... however the hell trees processed things. The scaled mare swallowed another sigh and her frustration, and then she looked up and opened her mouth before finally saying honestly: “I don't know what's going to happen... I don't know if this is going to give us power over you, but... we... we want you to be free. We want you to be protected. I'm... I promise that I'm not going to try and change you, or take control of you. I just want to try and protect you.”

The trees rumbled as if in response, and Innocence could almost feel them weighing her words. It made her nervous as she shifted back and forth on her claws, and then she bit her lip for a moment before looking up and almost pleading: “If you don't let me do this, then the Light might be able to infect you, and... and they will steal your free will, numb you, turn you into something that can only obey orders! I don't want that to happen, because... it's wrong.”

The wind blew through the trees, and yet not a single branch stirred, not a single leaf fell: they all seemed to be frozen in contemplation, leaning subtly forwards over the field and seeming to study the ponies below, as Innocence lowered her head and trembled a little. Morning Glory frowned and looked uneasily back and forth, and Avalon blinked in surprise as she looked back and forth, her enchanted goggles showing faint auras rising and falling in pulses around the different trees, like they were all suddenly very much sentient and very much reaching out to each other...

Only Applejack didn't seem surprised, smiling faintly as she lowered her head forwards, one hoof buried in the ground before she lowered her head and murmured: “Yeah. I think she's tellin' the truth. Sure, she's a little mean and selfish now and again, but she's been real confused these last few years. Lost her parents, lost her whole family... can you imagine that? Think of it. This whole forest, y'all are one big family: imagine if you woke up tomorrow with all your brothers and sisters cut down.”

The trees rumbled as Innocence looked over her shoulder in surprise at the wooden earth pony, and Applejack glanced up, green eyes gentle as she said softly: “They asked me about you, that's all. And I ain't sayin' nothing that ain't true. I know you still have a ways to go, Innocence. But I think you're starting to get there, little-by-little.”

The scaled unicorn grumbled a little, but the flush that threatened to rise from her collar wasn't anger, but embarrassment and maybe... a little bit of thanks, as she turned her eyes back towards Hu and Ỏðr. She watched as they shifted slowly, both long, thin trees raising themselves slightly out of their hunched and curled postures before they finally seemed to visibly relax.

Innocence could almost feel them hesitantly inviting her forwards, and the mare sighed in relief before she smiled faintly and nodded, striding quietly towards the twin trees. She smiled a little, then nodded respectfully to the soul of the forest before she began to stride towards them-

A blast of light shot over her head and smashed into one of the gnarled trees, and the whole forest roared in rage as Innocence looked over her shoulder in shock. The others looked up as well as the ground quaked and the trees around the field writhed, but all of these sensations were swallowed up by shock as Innocence stared into the air and saw... winged unicorns.

Ponies in golden armor descended from the air, their manes and features bleached white and only faint splotches of their former colors showing through like bruises against pale hides. Their wings were wide and powerful, and their horns proud and tall, all glowing with white energy and already pelting the area with blasts of purification as they shot down from the sky in a crude formation. And yet somehow these winged unicorns all looked misshapen and unnatural, like their wings and horns had only been crudely pasted onto their bodies.

“Devout! Wipe out the wicked!” roared the winged unicorn at the front of the pack, and the so-called Devout all roared battle cries in agreement as they shot down from the air, snapping their horns out and peppering the area with bolts of white light. Applejack and Innocence were both forced to leap for cover as Avalon zipped back and forth in a blur, snarling as she evaded the rain of magic.

But Morning Glory only turned around with a furious look on her face, the blasts of purification exploding uselessly against her body and occasionally ricocheting off her massive frame as she roared up at the sky: “Cowards! How dare you ambush us with these pathetic puppets!”

Her horn glowed brightly, and then she lashed hr horn upwards, sending a blast of purification back at one of the angelic ponies, and it was knocked rolling backwards through the air before it managed to catch itself: even if they seemed somehow twisted, their wings still clearly functioned as well as any Pegasus'. But as the Devout began to charge its magic again, Morning Glory grinned viciously as her own horn glowed brightly, saying icily: “Allow me to help.”

The Devout's entire body glowed with purification, and the winged unicorn arched its back with a scream before it exploded into white flames, flailing uselessly as it fell in a zigzagging comet through the air until it smashed into the ground with a tremendous explosion. The other Devout were knocked off balance by it as Morning Glory rose her eyes coldly, silver bleeding out of her features and solidifying rapidly into her metallic mask.

Chains leapt up from Morning Glory's back, snapping outwards as the Destroyer snarled, and Avalon roared as she shot fearlessly upwards into the Devout as well, dodging back and forth around blasts of white energy before she put on a burst of speed and half-flipped her body, both rear hooves slamming directly into the face of a winged unicorn. It gargled in agony, back arching before the Pegasus let her momentum carry herself forwards to slam front hoof after front hoof into the stomach of the Devout, driving it backwards through the air.

It toppled backwards, vomiting blood, and Avalon seized the winged unicorn by the face before yanking the Devout into a satellite throw, flinging it viciously into another winged unicorn and knocking them both out of the sky.

Applejack leapt towards these two, smashing both hooves in an angled tomahawk into the Devout and knocking them flying across the field even as she snarled: she thought she recognized one of the ponies as a farmer who had lived down the road from Sweet Apple Acres. And even as her heart twisted in pain, she stomped a hoof down into the ground, vines erupting around the stunned Devout to constrict and strangle them as she whispered: “Better dead than a mindless slave.”

Innocence swung her horn out from behind a tree, and a dark fireball curled through the air, homing quickly in on another Devout: but before it could strike, a Pious in white armor dropped out of the sky, the Angelic Knight swinging its ivory shield out into the dark magic. And in a crackle, the orb was dissipated harmlessly before the Knight stabbed the lance in its other hand forwards, tearing through the trunk of the tree Innocence was hiding behind in a shower of wood and sap.

The mare flung herself away with a wince, the tip of the spear just missing her as the Forest roared in fury. And in front of Innocence's shocked eyes, branched lashed downwards and seized around the lance of the Pious, locking it in place even as more Angelic Knights appeared with weapons and shield at the ready.

All around the field, trees were leaning forwards, some even uprooting themselves as branches twisted outwards as if their wood had lost all rigidity, lashing down against both the Devout and the Pious. The Light fought back without fear, however, blasting the trees with magic as the Pious smashed into the trunks and attempted to topple the living wood.

Hu and Ỏðr both twisted wildly as the forest roared again, and Innocence stumbled as the ground quaked before she snarled and leapt back into the field when a Pious was staggered, weapon torn from its hand by a thick treebranch. It rose its shield as Innocence charged, but she slammed into this with her shoulder: their equipment was designed to deflect magic, not physical blows, and the Pious was stumbled even as its wing-like appendages stabbed viciously outwards at her.

But Innocence launched herself between these, gracefully landing on the other side of the Pious before she skidded around and leapt upwards, horn glowing with dark energy before it tore into the back of the Angel of Greater Heaven. It knocked the monster stumbling, and then Innocence tore viciously downwards, her blade-like horn cutting through both flesh and armor with ease as she severed its spine and destroyed its strange organs, knocking forwards into a dead sprawl.

More Devout were flying in, but Avalon was already tangling with them, smashing into the face of one and launching her spiked body into another, both crunching in its armor and using it as a shield as the Devout launched bolt after bolt of purification at her. She grinned viciously as the winged unicorn was pelted from behind, her small but strong body almost bending the zealot in half as she rammed him through the air and straight into another Devout, knocking them both towards the ground as she snarled: “You guys are a disappointment!”

A blast of purification shot through the air, and Avalon had just enough time to look up before the bolt of light smashed across her face, knocking her backwards with a curse before another winged unicorn shot in towards her. The Pegasus reacted on instinct as she brought a rear hoof up and kicked viciously off his face, knocking him off course with a burst of blood from his nose, but another winged unicorn smashed across her body and knocked her off into a spin.

But the Pegasus managed to catch herself in midair, spinning back up to a ready position even as three Devout all encircled her, grinning coldly despite the fact that her goggles were cracked and half her face was burned and steaming, saying darkly: “Yeah, like I said. Disappointing.”

The Devout rushed forwards, and Avalon roared as she lunged at the first, swinging her crosshatch blade directly into its face and almost cutting its head in half as she knocked the winged unicorn shooting straight down. And as if she had been waiting for it, Morning Glory snared the corpse in one of her chains, flinging it viciously at a Pious: the Angelic Knight was forced to block with a shield, staggering backwards from the force of the body bouncing off it and giving Morning Glory the chance to rush forwards and slam her own hoof directly into the weakened shield with her full strength, crunching the metal in like tin and sending the Pious flying backwards into the trees.

The Pious all but vanished as branches lashed down around it, crushing, crunching, and tearing it apart. Its lance flew out of the mess of wild growth, and Morning Glory caught this with telekinesis before half-turning and flinging it through the chest of another Pious, launching it straight back into a tree and pinning it like a bug.

The angel attempted to struggle forwards despite the weapon buried halfway through it, and then the tree it was pinned to reached down and calmly laced its branches around the end of the lance before pulling cruelly towards itself, ripping more of the weapon through both its own trunk and the Pious' body. It pulled the lance in until its branches were pressed against the trapped Pious, and then its wooden limbs constricted the angel and crushed cruelly downwards.

Morning Glory was already attacking another Pious, which just managed to stab its longspear forwards and dig a thin wound through her armor and over one shoulder, the Destroyer snarling in frustration before she slammed both front hooves down on the Angelic Knight, crushing it brokenly into the ground. Then she cursed as winged unicorns dove down to try and throttle her from behind and haul her backwards, but she managed to shake one off before the other was blasted away by a bolt of dark energy.

Innocence lashed her horn out, blasting the winged unicorn Morning Glory had flung off before it could recover in midair, and it was knocked from the skies with a scream of agony. And then the scaled unicorn looked up in horror as the forest roared again... but this time it was tinged with agony as a Pious stabbed its lance into Hu, sap that looked almost like blood bursting from the trunk.

There were simply too many: more and more Devout were streaming down from the night sky, easily clear as white and gold glimmers against the darkness, and more Pious were appearing all around them through rips in reality. Another began to form beside Innocence, and she snapped her horn towards it, sealing it back shut and hopefully dissolving the Pious that had beginning to pass through, but there was no way she could stop the rest of the Pious from forcing their way into the field, even if she wasn't so distracted by the forces already attacking them.

She flicked her horn at the Pious that was trying to widen the wound it had made with its weapon, and black flames burst up over the angel's body: its armor absorbed most of the magic, but a few of the flames slipped through the spaces in the angel's equipment. It stumbled backwards, smoldering, and Innocence began to run forwards... but then a bolt of white energy caught her in the side, and she was knocked skidding to the side with a shriek of pain as part of her hide turned to stone.

More bolts of light shot down towards her as the Devout swarmed in, and Innocence was pelted backwards, shrieking in agony as every blast petrified another chunk of her body and made her black blood boil in her veins. In desperation, she slammed her claws into the ground, and a wall of dark mire gushed out of the earth, forming quickly into crystal that almost immediately began to turn to gray stone as it was peppered by blasts of purification from the Devout.

She was pinned down, unable to move as she grasped at a shoulder that had been turned to stone, trembling in pain as her lower limb spasmed but refused to move. She cursed weakly, then tried to concentrate, horn glowing with dark energy that she focused against her own body, her petrified flesh burning with pain as it slowly began to soften.

Without warning, a lance stabbed through the wall of black crystal and pierced into her breast, the scaled unicorn gasping in disbelief before she trembled violently and slowly looked down. She could feel the Light's power spreading into her body, turning her slowly to stone as her magic fizzled out, and her mouth fell open weakly, staring up at the Angelic Knight...

And then she felt claws grasp her shoulders, and hot breath over her face, lips press against her ear as Gymbr's voice whispered softly: “You are weak.”

Innocence trembled violently, and then she snarled furiously before she felt her Panacea writhe violently inside of her veins, head raising proudly as she shouted: “I am not weak!”

Dark energy sparked over her body, then crackled over the lance, the Angelic Knight's arm trembling as he attempted to push the weapon forwards... but Innocence snarled in fury, her eyes glowing as she pumped as much dark energy into the lance as she could, and cracks tore through the weapon before it burst into dark flames. The lance was knocked out of the Pious' grip as it twitched backwards, and then Innocence leapt forwards and slashed quickly through one of its legs, knocking it falling forwards over her so she could stab her horn up through its stomach and lift it as a shield.

Devout fired bolt after bolt of magic energy at her, but all they hit was the back of the Pious, purification ricocheting off the armored body as the Angelic Knight shivered before beginning to reach a claw forwards. Innocence felt the creature moving, and she gritted her teeth before snapping her horn out, blindly launching the angel into a winged unicorn.

She leapt backwards, breathing hard, body shivering with both adrenaline and agony before she looked up sharply as she heard another roar of agony from the forest. She looked up just in time to see several blasts of purification hammer into the tree that already had one of the Pious' lances buried through it, and the scaled unicorn cursed before raising her horn-

A Pious tore through reality right beside her, and she turned too late before its shield smashed across her face. She was knocked sprawling, and the Angelic Knight looked down at her for a moment before it rose its head towards the tree. And even as Devout roared and began to swarm in, the Pious' voice sounded calmly through the minds of all present as it said: “Concentrate on the objective. We must destroy these possessed trees. We cut the root of darkness, not the branches.”

Two Angelic Knights looked up from where they were attempt to pin Morning Glory from either side with her shields, and the Destroyer roared as she arched her back, flinging them both off. But even as one caught itself and the other landed heavily, they both turned their attention away from the massive metal demon and instead towards Hu and Ỏðr.

Applejack was struggling with another Pious, a lasso of vines slowly hauling its lance slowly out to the side as the wooden pony grinned widely... then yelped when the Pious suddenly let go of its weapon and instead calmly turned around, creating a white fireball in one claw before it flung this easily into one of the gnarled master trees of the forest. It exploded amidst a sudden flurry of other blasts all aimed at the trees, and Applejack snarled from where she had fallen in a sprawl before she rolled and yanked her vines outwards at the same time, lashing the lance through the air and sending it ripping through the back of the Angel of Greater Heaven in front of her.

The Pious staggered forwards... and then it calmly created another white fireball and flung this at the twin trees, ignoring both the weapon buried through it as the mare completely, Applejack unable to do anything but stare in disbelief at the creature's back.

Morning Glory snarled, eyes blazing even as she reached up and plucked a Devout out of the air to crush beneath one hoof like an insect, striding forwards as she roared furiously: “Fight me! Fight me, damn you, we're right here!”

Both Pious and Devout ignored her completely, just as they were ignoring Avalon even as she slashed viciously through wings and the back of necks, knocking winged unicorns from the sky one after the other... and yet even as they fell, they focused their attacks on Hu and Ỏðr. It made Avalon roar in both frustration and desperation, unable to believe what was going on.

Then one of the trees gave a terrible howl as it suddenly arched itself upwards, and all around the field, trees splintered and cracked, branches falling and the earth rippling as the mighty, ancient tree cracked... then slowly, terribly, tumbled backwards beneath the hail of purification, bursting into white flames as it fell with an awful groan. The sound it made as it collapsed woke Innocence up, the mare staring in horror, unable to process what was going on around her as the Light turned all its attention to the remaining tree.

Blast after blast hammered into it, and they were powerless to do anything to stop it, as cracks tore through the bark and white fire ate into the energies of the ancient tree. The forest quaked around them, screaming in agony as the other half of its living soul was torn into, and Innocence shivered as she shoved herself up, beginning to open her mouth to cry out into the cacophony, like she could do anything to stop it-

But she never did: instead, a chain wrapped around her body and yanked her into the air, stealing her breath away as Morning Glory plunged into the woods with the young mare clutched tightly in her coils. It was the sight of Applejack and Avalon following them that snapped Innocence out of her shocked daze, the scaled unicorn snarling as they shot through the trees before she screamed: “Put me down! Put me down, we have to go back, we can't fail, we can't-”

The sound of the forest's screams cut her off, before a rumbling rose as the earth quaked and the trees shivered, branches collapsing from the canopy above and leaves spilling down as the trees twisted on themselves, like they all felt the same pain as Hu and Ỏðr fell. Innocence mouthed wordlessly as the world around her fell into ruin, but Morning Glory only snarled and pushed onwards, racing the decay spreading through the living forest as she shouted: “We have to return to base and evacuate!”

“We can't run! We have to kill them, we have to kill all of them!” Innocence shouted furiously, struggling against the Destroyer's chains helplessly, before the wind was choked out of her as the coils constricted against her body.

Morning Glory's eyes were focused ahead, but her smile was ruthless and her entire body pulsed with anger as she said coldly: “We will, but now is not the time. If we die here, you never accomplish your dream of being powerful, Innocence.”

“I am powerful... powerful enough to kill them all!” Innocence snarled, trying to yank the chains around her free... and then Morning Glory skidded to a halt before the Destroyer flung her savagely down into the ground in front of her, the scaled unicorn bouncing with a gargle before she was punted onto her back and then stomped on, pinned with a rasp of shock beneath one huge metal hoof.

“No, you're not. You're weak.” the Destroyer said coldly, glaring down at the mare through her steel mask. “You are weak, and you will remain weak until you stop trying to play both sides of the field and either embrace your pursuit of power or find honor. For now, you're nothing but a pathetic little girl who can't handle her own strength and continues to fail to impress me with her behavior.”

Morning Glory stepped off her, and Innocence trembled violently, tears in her eyes as she snarled helplessly up at the Wrath demon, but the Destroyer only flicked one hoof and pointed forwards, saying disgustedly: “March back to base and stop talking. All you're going to do is get us killed. You are not a war leader, Innocence. You are not worthy of the name of any of your parents.”

It hurt, and Innocence hated how much it hurt... couldn't even really believe how much it goddamn hurt. She trembled weakly, staring up at Morning Glory for a moment before Avalon flitted down and landed on the demon's back, then punched her firmly in the back of the neck. It sent up a loud clunk and barely made the Destroyer flinch, but at least managed to draw her attention as the small Pegasus said quietly: “Knock it off. Antares wouldn't want to see you treating her like that.”

Morning Glory was silent for a moment, and then the Destroyer simply shook her head, the flames of her mane and tail lowering slightly as she said quietly: “Well, they always had more faith in me than I deserved, anyway.”

“We can't dally. The Light is going to catch up with us any minute. We gotta lose 'em and then get back to base.” Applejack said quietly but urgently, and Morning Glory grumbled as Innocence trembled and turned quickly around, rubbing at her eyes swiftly with one foreleg swiftly.

“Let's just go then.” she whispered, and without waiting for any acknowledgment, stumbled into a run in the direction of the base. The others followed after a moment, and the scaled unicorn did her best to repress her anger and her sorrow and her stupid, childish tears as they headed quickly back towards the base.

As they ran, they saw that the Everfree Forest hadn't completely died out... but there was no more sense of life in the trees, the branches barely quivering as they passed by, the animals silent and a sense of... emptiness pervading the air of the once-vibrant forest. And it hurt, and it hammered into Innocence's mind that... they had failed here. She had failed Freya.

There was nothing she could do... nothing any of them could do, as they sprinted all the way back to the rebel base, hoping they were far enough ahead of the Light that they could evacuate. After all, the forest was dead, they had been spotted, and the Light rarely gave up their quarry: they simply moved from one objective to the next, letting nothing stop or slow them down along the way.

Morning Glory shoved Innocence out of the way as they reached the base exterior, leaping down through the hidden entrance and then simply snarling and smashing into the armored door, knocking it open with a loud crunch as the rebels inside all looked up in shock. But before any of them could speak, the Destroyer stomped a hoof forwards and shouted: “Evacuate, now! Grab everything you can and get out of here, the Light was there! Scatter!”

“No, I'm supposed to-” Innocence started as she skidded down to a stop behind the Destroyer, but Morning Glory only shot a dark look over her shoulder at the mare, shaking her head shortly.

“No. We scatter, as per Freya's own orders.” Morning Glory said coldly, and Innocence felt a twist inside her gut, body going limp as she stared up dumbly. “She knew you might fail and sent additional orders in the event this came to pass. Only you will return to Quietus Clime. The rest of us will evacuate and go to ground, to avoid a large group being tracked back to our base before our defenses are fully prepared.”

Innocence trembled a little, then she shook her head weakly before whispering: “But... Freya said... I mean, she wouldn't...”

“Freya will do whatever is necessary in order to win this war.” Morning Glory replied evenly, and then the Destroyer shook her head and glanced over her shoulder, shouting: “You have five minutes to evacuate! If enemies attack, do not engage, concentrate on escaping. Understood?”

The Destroyer looked down at Innocence, who stared up at her blankly before she winced when Morning Glory slapped her sharply across the face, then repeated: “Understood?”

“Y-Yes.” Innocence whispered, and then she began to climb shakily to her claws, but then looked up in surprise when the Destroyer caught her by the shoulder.

“No. Wait here and get yourself together. Then leave.” Morning Glory said calmly, and the Wrath demon gave her a brief nod before turning around and striding quickly out, leaving the scaled unicorn sitting near the doorway, trembling weakly as rebels hurriedly passed all around her in a rush to escape the base before it became a deathtrap.

Innocence struggled to comprehend everything that was going on... but before she could do more than get her thoughts in order, there were yells from outside, followed by the sound of explosions. Innocence looked up at disbelief in this, and then she stared in horror through the broken-open door as she saw Devout dropping into the hidden passageway and already swarming towards them.

The mare did the only thing she could think of, shoving her claws into the ground and sending up a geyser of black ooze that filled the doorway before transforming into solid crystal, Innocence shivering before she looked over her shoulder and shouted: “That barricade isn't going to hold for very long! Everyone, you need to get out of here right now!”

Some of the mire was already turning to stone, and Innocence cursed as she stepped backwards before her horn glowed brightly, and ice began to quickly form along the barrier, giving it more support and solidity. She backpedaled slowly, then checked over her shoulder again, watching the ponies rushing in every direction and hurrying towards the emergency exits, before her eyes widened in shock as she felt a tremendous surge of magic.

Her crystalline barrier was punched in by whatever blasted into it from the other side, transformed completely into stone as the wall of ice shattered, and Innocence felt a second burst of magic before she leapt backwards and cried out in shock at the massive blast of purification that smashed in the blockade. The blinding light faded slowly, and Innocence snarled as she looked up, readying herself to face whatever was on the other side, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw next.

A Devout in silver and black ornate armor stepped calmly through the barrier, his enormous white wings flapping once before calmly furling at either side of his body. He smiled thinly, and Innocence felt her entire body go weak as she stared at the sight of her brother, mouthing wordlessly before she whispered: “Tarry?”

The now winged unicorn looked at her coldly for a few moments his eyes glowing with the Light's holy radiance before he suddenly pounced forwards, catching her by the shoulders and flipping her backwards to pin her to the floor. She gasped in pain, then trembled as her brother bore down against her, leaning coldly down into her face before he said calmly: “That isn't my name. My name is Virgil, rebel.”

Innocence stared up at the stallion with disbelief, tears leaking down her features as she whimpered and shook her head slowly, and Antares smiled at her icily before he drew a hoof back. But before he could slam it down into her face, a bolt of magic was flung from another unicorn, smashing into the stallion and knocking him off her as several of the rebels shouted: in desperation, in fear, and in anger as they lunged forwards into the fray as Devout rushed with equal zeal to meet the few desperate defenders that remained.

The scaled mare scrambled up to her hooves, trembling violently, not knowing whether to fight or simply run, shivering and staring for a moment before she looked up too slowly as Virgil lunged towards her, smashing a hoof across her jaw and knocking her staggering with a cry of pain and shock.

She caught herself, and another hoof slammed up under her muzzle, knocking her rearing back with a gasp of pain before she snarled and snapped her horn forwards, blasting Virgil backwards with a telekinetic hammer. He gritted his teeth, but his body dropped low as his hooves dug into the ground, skidding a few feet as he shrugged off the worst of the force before his horn glowed brightly a moment before a white flash filled the air.

Innocence staggered backwards, crying out and grasping at her blinded eyes before a hoof slammed into her face, knocking her flopping backwards and sending her skidding painfully over the ground on her features. She hurriedly clawed herself up to a standing position, but then she was driven to the ground with a scream by an elbow to her spine, knocking her in a flat sprawl before a hoof stomped down on the back of her neck, gasping weakly.

Virgil slowly leaned down over her, looking coldly down at the scaled unicorn as she trembled helplessly, staring back up at him as she rasped slowly for breath. The two studied each other as rebels were driven backwards by Devout, before the glossy-black winged unicorn suddenly stood and turned, shouting: “We're done here! Let's move out!”

Innocence stared up in disbelief as the stallion turned and led the Devout out as quickly as they'd broken into the base. She didn't understand what had just happened, as she looked slowly back and forth between the few other rebels who hadn't been able to escape the base in time.

She breathed weakly in and out, then shook herself weakly as she carefully stood up. She was shaken, and confused, and her body ached as she rubbed slowly at her features, then asked uncertainly: “Any... is everyone... alive?”

She didn't know what else to say or ask, looking back and forth slowly, and the rebels looked back up at her with varying levels of disbelief and exhaustion. Innocence smiled weakly as she realized that at least none of them were dead, and she breathed slowly as she looked uneasily over her shoulder at the torn-open entrance, wondering silently... what the hell had just happen.

Antares... Virgil... had clearly gotten the drop on them. Had likely been waiting the entire time for them, with how fast he'd been to attack. Innocence struggled to get her thoughts in order as she cracked her back and grimaced a little, cursing under her breath as she felt a tumult of emotions, everything from anger and sorrow to joy and hope...

The mare sighed softly, and then she forced herself to smile at the other rebels, who looked just as stunned as her, but for the most part were in much-worse states, saying quietly: “C-Come on. We... we don't want to press our luck. We should... we should get out of here before they come back.”

The others looked at her, but after a moment they started to rouse themselves, and the scaled unicorn gave a quiet sigh of relief, smiling faintly and glad that at least they were listening to her. She turned around, gazing uneasily at the entrance to the base before she shook her head and turned her eyes towards the rear of the base, murmuring: “We'll head out the back exits. It's... it'd be too much of a risk to go out the front.”

The ponies looked at her, then the three nodded to her before following, one of them cursing and dragging a rear hoof as the mauled quartet made their way slowly to the rear of the base. Here, the emergency exit had been torn open, and although there were a few splatters of blood, there were no corpses. Signs of battle, yes... dead bodies, no. Which honestly surprised the mare, considering the ferocity that the Light had attacked with...

But they had all just left. Antares... no, no, he said... he's Virgil now... had just made them all leave. Did that maybe mean Antares was still in there? Or was the Light after something that they clearly hadn't found in this base?

She shivered a little and shook her head weakly, then cursed under her breath and forced herself to straighten, grinding her teeth together in frustration before she started to lead her way up the long, dark tunnel that stretched out of the rebel base. The three rebels followed her, until they emerged into a field that was splattered with more red... but not enough for anyone to have died, maybe not even enough for anyone to have been seriously wounded... even if she already knew that was a silly hope.

She shook herself out with a quiet sigh, closing her eyes and rubbing slowly at her features before her claw reached down and silently touched her necklace. She had been completely outclassed... completely useless in the fight that had just occurred. She looked silently over her shoulder at the trio of wounded ponies, and then she shook her head briefly before saying quietly: “You two, go ahead. Get out of here as fast as you can.”

The two she gestured at looked up, then nodded and hurried off as the last shivered nervously, before Innocence approached him, then pointed at his wounded rear leg. “That's broken. Sit down.”

“Oh no.” he whispered, and then he shook his head weakly, stumbling backwards once and swallowing thickly as Innocence loomed over him, saying hurriedly: “I... I won't get in the way, I swear! Don't hurt me!”

“Oh shut up.” Innocence said disgustedly, and then she grabbed him by the head and shoved him over, the stallion yelping before she reached down and caught his broken leg. He hissed in agony, then stared down at her in shock as his damaged limb glowed faintly, watching in disbelief as dark veins pulsed through the limb for a moment before gasping in surprise as broken bones and flesh knitted themselves back together.

Then Innocence released him and shook her head briefly, gesturing at him grumpily and asking: “Can you stand?”

There was silence for a moment, and then the stallion hesitantly wiggled his leg before he sat up and slowly stood. He looked down at himself, then laughed a little, bouncing from hoof-to-hoof before smiling awkwardly up at her. “I... I'm sorry. Thank you for... for saving my life.”

“I didn't save your life. I might have just forced you to live longer before you die, that's all. Now get out of here, go find a place to hide.” Innocence grumbled, and the stallion gave her another smile before he nodded and turned quickly, hurrying along on his way. The scaled mare watched as he departed, and then she sighed softly and shook her head slowly, murmuring: “And try not to get yourself killed, idiot.”

She was silent for a moment longer, and then, knowing no other choice, she looked up into the night sky before whispering: “I don't know if you're in there, Antares. I don't know what you were doing. But... I hope it's still you.”

The scaled unicorn closed her eyes as darkness flowed from her horn, the aura twining around her body... and then, without another word, she leapt into the air and took flight into the dark night sky, sailing towards the stars.

The scaled unicorn rose into the black sky, completely unaware of the fact that in Heaven, the Cardinal sat in his throne, robes flowing around him as he rested his chin across his laced fingers, his eyes meditative as he gazed into the crystal ball locked into the pedestal in front of him. He gazed deeply into the glass orb before drawing his eyes up to look past it at Doctor Greller, who was giggling excitedly near the middle of the wide hall, clapping his hands together as he danced back and forth. “See? See milord? See? They work perfectly!”

“I wouldn't say perfectly. When they are perfect, they will be able to do more than just badly mimic our holy light and outfly any of the winged ponies.” the Cardinal said distastefully, sitting back in his throne before he glanced moodily down into the crystal ball again, watching as the strange, scaled unicorn flitting through the air... what a disgusting monster. But... “Are you sure you want Virgil to capture this one? She is... tainted.”

“Yes, exactly! We will be able to study her, perhaps learn to harness and weaponize her... she'll make a perfect subject for experimentation and modification, Lord Cardinal!” Greller said hurriedly, nodding in excitement as he clapped his hands together, and then he added quickly: “But Virgil is proving most exceptional, is he not? Look at the way he moves! How expertly he enforces the orchestrations you have so masterfully devised, my Lord Cardinal!”

The Cardinal looked less than pleased, his lips curling in distaste, but he didn't bother saying anything. Apparently he was cursed to be called by his former title until the day he either died or finally was able to fully override the programming of the One True God... not that Greller was a victim of the Light's blindness himself, of course. Greller was just an incredible idiot for all the genius he possessed in his chosen craft. “He is... serviceable.”

Doctor Greller nodded excitedly a few times, then he promised in an eager voice: “And as I learn more about these mortal equines, the more I shall be able to better constitute the Devout, milord, just wait and see!”

For a few moments, the Cardinal only looked meditatively at the scientist, and then he sighed and shook his head slowly before leaning impatiently back in his throne. “The fact that you are having any trouble with them at all is a disappointment in and of itself, Greller. I expected you to have anatomized and mapped every single molecule of their being years ago. They are horses. Horses that mock us with their false intellect and paltry 'magic.'”

The scientist winced a little at this, dropping his head forwards and nervously putting his hands together as he half-bowed a few times in imploration. “Sir, just hold on a little while longer, and... I will have everything, everything I promised! Besides, sir, the Light itself is already far too much for their minds to handle, it works magnificently on these little ponies, doesn't it? And they're better-”

“Do not presume to know better than I what is best for my radiant empire.” the Cardinal almost growled, and Doctor Greller whimpered and cowered like a beaten dog. The Cardinal only looked at him with distaste for a few moments though, before he shook his head slowly and returned his eyes moodily to the crystal ball.

He studied this silently for a few moments, and then he reached out and stroked the glass ball with one finger, saying moodily: “You assume that this one is the child of the guardians who killed He Of Many Countless Faces. Just as you assume that Virgil was a child of theirs as well. Personally, I do not care who they are or how they are related, or what they might have to say. Those guardians were exterminated along with the God of Light and are no longer of any threat or consequence to me. Virgil was blinded by the Light, and this one is still nothing but a young and easily-manipulated child.

“You have promised me results with this little diversion, Greller. I sincerely hope that you rise to exceed my expectations in this circumstance, because at the moment what I expect is that you will fail me once again. Your plan allowed for the escape of several rebels who could be considered... troublesome.” The Cardinal tapped his fingers slowly against the arm of his chair, looking coldly and evenly across at Greller. “Any consequences that may result in the future because of your failure to deal with these expediencies now will be severely punished.”

Greller giggled weakly, and then he shook his head hurriedly, holding up his hands and soothing: “My Lord Cardinal, sir, the plan will work perfectly... it already has worked perfectly! I have many, quite many, many many things in mind for what we can do should by some flaw in my thinking that it fails to succeed!”

The Cardinal looked less-than-convinced, and Greller cleared his throat before he strode hurriedly forwards, saying quickly: “Sir, look at her, sir... she's running home! To wherever the rebels have gathered, to where... they are trying to amass their forces, sir, out of our sight... but not for long! And the Eye of Heaven and Virgil are both upon her, following her... they will find the rebel base and then we will crush it out!

“And while they track her, the rest of the rebels, like idiots, like the little ants they are, sir, they are all flocking to their different hives and nests, revealing the locations of the enemy bases to us that we have not already destroyed with the information supplied by Virgil, sir, information that he so willingly shared with you himself... thanks to my experimentations, if you will allow me to remind you, sir, my-”

“Experiments, yes, that I have supplied all the necessary souls and labor for.” the Cardinal shook his head slowly, then he returned his eyes to the crystal ball, studying it silently before simply waving a hand over the sphere, and it once more became nothing but glass. Not that this was the mighty Eye of Heaven... this was only a simple scrying ball, one of many throughout Heaven. And there would be others watching those, as the Eye of Heaven itself continued to calmly track the movements of the little dark horse...

The Cardinal looked at the empty glass ball... and then he finally nodded slowly and glanced up, saying distastefully: “I suppose it is a suitable enough plan, Greller. But like all things, this plan is ultimately a product of my own reckoning, not yours. You are merely the imagination, able to do nothing more than dream up silly ideas and unable to separate the impossibilities from reality, nor calculate the cost of any of your... flights of fancy. I am the body. I am what makes things real. I am the creator, the designer, the orchestrator.”

Greller smiled weakly at this, his gloved hands trembling ever so slightly as he twined his fingers nervously together, breathing hard in and out. He seethed with rage, but the Cardinal merely smiled at him contemptibly, and after a moment the scientist slowly forced himself to bow, whispering: “As... as you say, my lord. You speak the truth and I am... I am nothing without you, of course.”

But even as the Cardinal rested calmly back, Greller promised silently, from where he was drowning in the raging, tormented waters of his soul, that he would one day his genius would have the last laugh on the power-obsessed Cardinal of Greater Heaven, and he'd bring this petty Empire of Light crumbling down around his head.

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