• 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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Chapter Seventy Seven: Honor

Innocence shivered a bit, her breath misting around her features as she plodded through the snowy tundra. Quietus Clime wasn't very far in the distance, but it didn't fill her with the reassurance she'd hoped that it would. Maybe that was just because she was so exhausted after the long journey, but... she thought that there was more to it than that.

She still felt... betrayed by Freya. Her mind still couldn't process what had happened to Antares. She just... hurt, pure and simple. The scaled unicorn shivered again, shaking her head briefly before she looked uneasily again at the mountains only a few kilometers away now, studying the dark smoke pouring up from the jagged, rocky peaks and trying her hardest to smile. At least once she arrived there, she'd be safe... right?

And then, out of nowhere, a blast of purification slammed into the middle of her back, Innocence screaming in agony as she staggered forwards before flopping to the ground with a gurgle, most of her back neutralized into stone as Virgil calmly landed behind her. She trembled violently, tears leaking down her face as the stallion smiled at her coldly, before he strode slowly forwards and simply walked over her, hooves crunching in the brittle rock over her back and shoving her face down into the dirty white powder as he asked calmly: “So is that where Celestia has gathered the rebels?”

“Celestia is dead.” the mare whispered, and Virgil looked over his shoulder before he turned around and reached down, grasping her by the throat and hauling her back to her hooves, looking into her eyes as she repeatedly weakly: “Celestia's dead.”

She looked resolutely back into his cold, faintly-glowing irises as tears ran down her cheeks, and after a few moments, Virgil tut-tutted before shoving her over, saying contemptibly: “That's disappointing. I wanted to deliver her to the Light myself as tribute... or at least her head. But all the same, I have you at least. Hold still.”

Virgil's horn glowed, and a ray of white light burst from the spire, washing upwards over Innocence's lower legs and making her arch her back and scream in agony, flailing uselessly as her hind legs petrified, followed by her lower body. The stone spread rapidly upwards, the mare gargling and howling in pain before she slammed her claws into the ground in desperation, and Virgil cursed as mire exploded out of the earth around the mare, covering them both as the tundra rippled violently and transformed rapidly into black bog around them.

Innocence felt her Panacea giving her strength and eating away the stone, numbing the pain enough that she was able to concentrate before snarling and charging her body with dark energy. And across her form, stone plates shattered like glass, leaving patches of scalded and torn hide over her frame as she rolled backwards to her hooves, still glowing blackly before her eyes widened at the sight of Virgil.

He was writhing back and forth, refusing to cry out, but the Panacea was reacting badly with his body, sending up steam from where it was clinging to him as it dripped off in long, gooey strands that prevented him from moving. He uselessly pulled back and forth, and Innocence began to draw her horn back as her eyes blazed with anger... and then she hesitated.

This was Antares.

This was her big brother.

She stared at Virgil, and Virgil looked up at her sharply before he threw his head back as he unleashed a massive shockwave of purification, Innocence barely leaping back in time as she swung a claw upwards, creating a barrier of mire that was almost instantaneously turned to stone. Blazing white shone across the tundra, the stallion a miniature star in the center of the supernova of radiance before it burst apart into motes that stuttered and danced quietly through the air.

Innocence breathed hard in and out, then she nervously began to lean out from behind the wall of rock in front of her, but a white fireball crashed into the other side before she could even start to peer around it, pelting her with chunks of stone and knocking her skidding backwards through the thin line of mire that remained on the tundra, the mare cursing under her breath before she rolled quickly up to her claws as Virgil snapped: “Your little tricks won't work on me, you stupid little girl! You're nothing without all your friends around to protect you!”

Innocence trembled violently, and then Virgil flexed, gritting his teeth as he charged his horn with magic before slashing it viciously back and forth through the air, sending crescent blades of light shooting straight for the mare. She yelped and dodged to the side, throwing herself out of the way as the waves of purification ripped past her before she snarled and snapped her own horn out, a blast of black flames rocketing towards Virgil as she shouted: “I've always been...”

Her voice died out as she stared in disbelief, watching as Virgil calmly caught the black fireball between his hooves as they glowed white, smiling coldly as the magic was transformed into harmless, spongy-looking rock. “Better at magic? Well, that doesn't matter when all you can do is throw fire, and I happen to have an endless supply of water.”

He calmly tossed the sphere aside, and it collapsed into ashes even before it hit the ground, gazing at her coldly before suddenly leaping backwards, a platform of white energy appearing behind him. It bent beneath him, and the mare cursed as she quickly shoved her claws into the ground, turning the earth beneath her to mire even as Virgil streaked up into the air, arcing himself towards her before his wings suddenly snapped open as he grinned, revolving his body as a wall of white energy appeared in front of him.

His hooves kicked off this, launching him down at a sharp angle as his wings flapped, and Innocence snapped a claw upwards, blades and knives of black crystal shooting straight up at the stallion, but a steep, long ramp of white energy formed: crystallized mire hit the bottom of this and dissolved as the winged unicorn hit the top and skidded harmlessly down it, white flames bursting into life around his hooves before he dove off the bottom of it and twisted his body around in a graceful flip, Innocence barely able to look up in time before both his rear hooves slammed into her face.

She was knocked backwards with a cry of pain, petrified scales flying from her features before she snarled and stomped a claw into the ground, and a geyser of mire erupted out of the earth, splattering dark ooze over Virgil in midair. He was knocked off balance by it, and more, distracted, looking back over his shoulder... and in a flash, Innocence took that moment, slamming him with a telekinetic hammer and knocking him backwards before she snapped her horn downwards, and a blast of black fire erupted from her horn, smashing the stallion backwards with a howl of pain.

He flipped violently through the air, and Innocence screamed as she lashed her horn down, a massive surge of lightning erupting from the sky and hammering into Virgil, driving the winged unicorn face-first down into the ground. His crash spat up a tremendous burst of snow, and Innocence grinned weakly as the stallion lay still for a few moments... then stared in disbelief as he slowly began to pick himself up, the mare whispering: “No... no, you can't after all that, you... you always gave up...”

“Yes. But this time we're not playing make-believe.” Virgil said coldly as he shook his smoldering body out, and then he smiled as he straightened, his eyes flashing before he suddenly broke into a sprint straight towards her.

Innocence stumbled backwards, letting fear get the better of her, and by the time she realized she had made a mistake it was too late: Virgil was already right in front of her, ducking under a wild swing of her horn before he slammed a hoof into her throat, then slashed his horn upwards in a follow-up that just missed her neck and instead cut through her cheek, making her shriek in pain. Then he lashed his horn downwards, but the mare slashed her own against his, teeth grit as she struggled to hold back his fearsome strength.

Virgil smiled coldly at her, then stepped forwards, slashing his horn cruelly back and forth, forcing her to stagger backwards as she fought to parry and defend herself before screaming and lashing out with telekinesis: Virgil easily ducked beneath it, however, and slammed a hoof into her throat again, knocking her backwards as she gagged and coughed blood. She tried to keep her head down this time, but she was dazed and helpless... something Virgil clearly knew and took advantage of as he seized her by the horn, then slammed hoof after hoof after hoof after hoof down into her face, crushing in her cheek, cracking her jaw, bloodying her features before he leaned down as his horn glowed white.

Purification blasted over her features at close quarters, and Innocence screamed in agony: it wasn't enough to turn her to stone, but it was more than enough to torture her until she went limp, and Virgil finally released her and let her fall to the ground before he rose a hoof and stomped cruelly down on her skull. She gargled, stunned by the attack before the stallion wrapped both his hooves in her mane and hefted her up in front of him, her features broken and bloody, the mare glaring at him through one eye as tears leaked down her features. “You're worthless.”

He slammed her face down into the snow, then yanked her mane back before forcing her to twist around, yanking her body back against his and trapping her, back to his chest, hooves still in her hair and forcing her to bend her head back as he snared her against his powerful frame, saying coldly: “You're useless.”

He dropped forwards, pinning her beneath his heavy body as he caught her by the back of the scalp and slammed her face down into the snow, laying overtop her and smiling cruelly as he dragged her head back, then flicked his horn,the ground in front of her bursting into white flames as he leaned over her and said quietly: “You're nothing.”

Innocence tried to resist... but Virgil overpowered her. Pinned her, pushed down against her, ground her into the tundra with his heavy stallion's form as he shoved her face down into the pool of white flames, and she cried out in agony as her features were charred, beginning to slowly turn to stone as her eyes rolled wildly in her head, feeling Virgil channeling more energy into the fire as he smothered her in the holy flames and said coldly: “Darkness is weak, and the Light will always rule. The Light is true power. And if you won't acknowledge this power, you deserve to be destroyed.”

He yanked her face back: half-frozen in rock, his hooves still tangled in her mane before he ripped one loose, tearing out chunks of her hair with it, and she shrieked again in pain before he slammed his hoof into her cheek, sending cracks ripping through the stone over her face. He pushed harder down against her, making her ribs creak as he began to push her face down towards the pool of purification again with just one hoof, leaning up slightly so he could straddle her more comfortably as he reached the other hoof forwards as he began to mock her again... but all Innocence saw or heard was her chance to get free.

She screamed as she swung her horn out, ripping through his lower leg, and he howled in agony and fell forwards as Innocence bucked at the same time, flinging him off. The pool of white flames vanished as the stallion lost concentration, and Innocence snarled in fury as she channeled all the pain, the anger, the betrayal, the hate inside her into her horn, black lightning sparking over her features before she viciously lashed her horn out with a raw shriek of rage just as Virgil began to roll around to his hooves.

He was caught directly into the face by a roaring, concentrated inferno of black flames, the ray of dark energy blasting over him as black lightning twisted with serpentine grace around his body, tearing through his armor and flesh as the onyx fire scoured his frame. Feathers flew from his wings as he was carried through the air by the force of the hellish magic, and his screams were almost swallowed up beneath the crackle and snarl of fire and lightning before he dropped bonelessly to the ground, rolling to flop helplessly down in the white powder, red blood slowly spilling out his slashed and tattered frame.

Innocence breathed hard in and out, then she trembled at the sight of her brother, slowly straightening as she shook herself out. She had used up almost all of her magic with that spell, and she could hardly believe what she had done to him... that she had just... she had just killed her own brother. Her own blood, her own family, who she had... she...

Tears spilled down her cheeks as she whimpered weakly, unable to believe what her power, her hate, her stupid blind rage had just cost her... and then her eyes widened as the black stallion struggled to shift weakly on the ground, his crumpled wings spasming as feathers floated down from them before he whispered, his eyes closed, blood dripping from his mouth with his words: “In... Innocence... are you... are you there, Innocence?”

“Antares! Antares, I'm here!” Innocence sprung forwards, trembling violently as she looked down at her brother, breathing hard as she stumbled to a halt, then hesitated, whispering: “Is that... is that really... I... oh Horses of H-Heaven...”

“It's... I'm... I'm sorry, Sin... but you did... you did the right thing. You... saved me.” whispered her brother, and Innocence trembled violently, striding forwards towards him before he struggled to open an eye, then smiled weakly up at her. “Innocence... I love you... I... I... you... you have to know something, though, about... we've... we've all been...”

He rasped for breath, struggling to raise his head as his voice grew weaker and weaker, and Innocence hurried forwards, dropping down as he forced himself to look up, the mare trembling as she drew in close. She felt him trying to edge closer, and she reached up, grasping his bloody shoulders, breathing hard as she leaned down until his lips almost touched his ear, and he whispered: “Gotcha.”

Innocence didn't have time to react before the stallion threw his head back with a roar, and a massive shockwave of purification erupted from his frame, knocking her backwards with a scream of agony as white energy surged over her form... and this time, when she landed on her back, more than half of her body was petrified, gargling and trembling, unable to move her neck, her leg, to focus magic at all as her horn sparked uselessly.

Slowly, Virgil picked himself up, rolling his head on his shoulders before he dropped his head forwards, and Innocence stared in horror at the gaping wounds in his body... before the stallion simply smiled coldly, his horn glowing brightly. The wounds took on the same somehow-ghastly aura as steam hissed up from the gashes and tears across his body, and then most of these slowly closed even as Virgil snarled in pain and shivered a bit.

He dropped his head forwards, then shook himself out and slowly limped towards the mare, looking down at her coldly as tears leaked from Innocence's eyes... or rather, from the eye that hadn't been turned to stone, trying to whisper through her frozen-open jaws the only thing that she could think of right now, no matter how ludicrous it sounded: “That's n-not... fair...”

“Not fair? Too bad. Life isn't fair. Nothing is fair.” Virgil said coldly, striding towards her and looking down at her contemptibly. “You know better than that, anyway, don't you Innocence? There's no such thing as honor. The strong rule over the weak. That's all there is to it. I am powerful.”

Innocence stared in horror up at her brother: her brother, who had once been even more honorable than her Móðer. Her brother, who in victory or defeat, had always been humble and generous and kind, had never treated anyone like they were anything less than an equal. Her brother, who had always done his best to laugh at even the worst misfortunes like Sleipnir always had. He had always treated others with warmth, with compassion, with... honor. Honor had been everything to him. Honor had been his entire life.

The scaled unicorn trembled on the ground, rasping weakly for breath as Virgil loomed over her, and then she looked up, shivering and asking disbelievingly: “What... what about... honor?”

Virgil looked down at her, then he laughed: he actually laughed, shaking his head in contempt and looking down at her with disgust. “Really? Honor? Didn't you just hear me? It's worthless! And I'd thought you'd actually understand the value of power, of what I'm trying to give you.”

“Give... me?” Innocence laughed weakly, shivering before she attempted to raise her head, purification sparking weakly over her spire... but then Virgil stepped forwards and stomped viciously down against her face, sending up a burst of blood and sending cracks through her half-petrified head.

“Yes. You will join the Light, or you will die.” Virgil said softly, and Innocence trembled, breathing weakly before the stallion stepped forwards and looked down at her with a cold smile, his horn beginning to glow with white energy. “You should thank me, little sister. I'm going to give you the power you always craved.”

His horn pulsed with light as he prepared magic that his sister still couldn't believe he'd actually use on her, his eyes alight with the same hellish, soulless white radiance, and the mare trembled and stared up at him disbelievingly before there was a tremendous flash and an all-consuming agony ripped across her body and tore apart her mind...

Innocence fell limp, her body almost completely petrified, unconscious and all-but-broken as tears still leaked from eyes that had both turned to stone. Virgil studied the mare for a moment, and then he leaned down into her terrified, petrified features and said softly: “You can't have everything. But don't worry. What we're asking you to get rid of is worthless, anyway. As worthless as you are right now, heretic.”

He absently cracked his back, then flexed his body as his wings spread and flapped several times, a few loose feathers falling from his aching wings before he positioned his body overtop the mare's petrified form. He hooked his forelegs up beneath hers before hefting her into the air with a grunt, kicking off the ground and gritting his teeth as he flapped his wings hard, his horn glowing and sparking as he used telekinesis to bolster his grip and strength.

He began to rise slowly but steadily: he didn't have to get her very far, but he did have to put some distance between them and that reeking pit of darkness in the distance. After all, the last thing he wanted to do was attract too much attention to himself. Even if Celestia was dead, there were still ponies who could give him a little bit of trouble if he got into a fight with them right now.

And as if on cue, a blast of golden flame streaked by, the stallion's eyes flicking up with a scowl of distaste as he looked sharply over his shoulder to see a golden-armored, familiar looking mare standing calmly a short distance away down the tundra... but even if it looked like Celestia... “Did you do something with your mane?”

“You could say that.” Freya replied calmly, watching as the winged unicorn that resembled Antares slowly turned around... but even if it looked like him, she had seen more than enough to know it wasn't him. “You look a little different from what I recall, too. It must be all the ticks from the dogs you've taken to laying down with.”

Virgil smiled contemptibly at this, flapping his wings firmly to gain altitude as he said softly: “Now I'd be careful if I were you, Celestia. You wouldn't want me to drop her now, would you?”

“Actually, my name is Freya. And I would.” the ivory mare replied eloquently, and with a flick of her horn, she shot a golden fireball straight at the winged unicorn. Virgil reacted by snarling and flinging Innocence into the way of the blast without hesitation, and Freya simply smiled coldly, her eyes glinting. Child's play.

The golden fireball burst apart before it could strike the petrified mare, splitting into six separate blasts of flame that curled around the living statue and slammed one after the other into Virgil, battering him backwards with howls of pain. And without taking her eyes off the stallion, Freya flicked her horn to create a cushion of air beneath Innocence, the petrified unicorn bouncing off this before settling almost gently to the snowy earth.

Virgil cursed, then his horn glowed white before he lashed it viciously downwards, sending a white fireball at his stone sibling: but with a simple flick of her horn, Freya yanked Drengr free from its sheath and hurled the weapon into the blast of purification, dissolving the magic attack before it could smash into Innocence.

There was silence for a moment, and then Virgil cursed before he turned and flapped his wings hard, quickly shooting away through the skies as Drengr landed, point-down, beside Innocence. Freya calmly watched him go, letting him: there would be enough time to deal with him later. Chasing him down right now would be a waste of time... and time was a precious and limited resource at the moment, since Freya had no doubt they were going to very shortly be under attack by the Light.

The mare slowly strode forwards, looking down at the petrified mare and hesitating all the same. Innocence was powerful... but who knew how what she had just gone through would affect her? Freya didn't want to imagine what it would be like to have a sibling – especially a sibling you were so close to – betray you like that... and she glanced down silently at Drengr before she carefully yanked the saw-toothed sword free from beside the mare, letting the flat of the blade tap silently against the side of the statue's face.

The weapon slowly turned and sheathed itself quietly, before she looked down as she rose a hoof, flexing it slowly above the stone mare... and then she sighed softly and gently dropped it against Innocence's body, looking up and calling clearly: “Eventide! Bring the other Greater Nightmares!”

There was silence for a moment... and then Eventide appeared out of thin air with her red eyes wide and staring, looking fearfully down at the petrified mare, her body quaking as she reached slowly forwards. But before her hoof could make contact, Freya said calmly: “Get a hold of yourself. She wasn't fully neutralized, so she's in a state of stasis, not coma or slow death.”

Three other Greater Nightmares flickered into being around them, the dark, smoky equines looking nervously back and forth before Freya continued quietly: “Bring her into Quietus Clime and bring her to Chrysophylax Dives. Saturate her in poison... inundate her body with dark magic and dark energy. I don't want her to just wake up... I want her to wake up stronger than she's ever felt before.”

“In... she might... Lady Freya, not to question you, but... she's just been through an incredible trauma. And she looks... she looks so hurt, and terrified... who did this to her?” Eventide asked worriedly, looking down and staring over the petrified mare, before wincing when Freya's single eye looked up at her coldly.

“I know what I'm doing.” Freya said evenly, and then she added in a calmer, and yet somehow more dangerous voice: “And that's not important right now. What's important is that we heal her before there can be any permanent damage, and we give her the tools to fight back against what did this to her. The Light is going to attack shortly, Eventide, so unless you'd rather have her upset and defenseless instead of upset and ready to take revenge on what hurt her, I recommend you listen to my orders.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Eventide bowed deeply, and the other Greater Nightmares all dropped their heads in concordance as she murmured: “No, Freya. I apologize. I only wish to protect my ward.”

“Yes, I know.” Freya smiled a little after a moment, becoming gentler as she said tactfully: “But if you want to protect her, you have to help her find herself. No matter who that is, or what that may be... leaving her without knowing who she really is will just hurt us all in the long run. Now go, take her, and wake her up.”

Eventide nodded and saluted, and then the four Greater Nightmares stepped forwards, each grasping a different limb of the mare before they all vanished at once. Freya was able to follow them with her eye all the same: even if they moved quickly and defied gravity, they all the same had only turned invisible instead of teleporting, no matter what it looked like.

For a moment longer, the ivory mare only stood before she turned her cold amethyst eye up towards the sky, saying calmly and clearly: “I know you're watching. And we are not afraid. We'll be waiting for you.”

Fearlessly, Freya turned back towards the twin mountains and Quietus Clime, striding towards the jagged peaks and making herself look as proud and confident as she could. But she was far from proud of herself for what she was going to have to encourage, and the only thing she was confident in right now was that there would be a high cost to both sides in the upcoming conflict. She only hoped that the rebels were as prepared as she was to make whatever sacrifices were necessary in order to secure a victory... however high the price of freedom was.

Innocence was trembling violently, trapped in a broken, dead world made of nothing but poisonous mire and bare, yellowing bones. She shivered weakly, then looked down at her claws, watching the red blood streaming constantly through her digits and down along her forelegs... but it wasn't hers. It was... it was the blood of all the people she had hurt, marking her: warning the entire world that she was... she was a monster. She was cursed.

The mare hugged herself tightly, shivering violently, not knowing what to do or say or even think. But hugging herself only made blood stream down her body instead of just out between her claws, and she whimpered weakly, swallowing thickly as she stared around the world again, and now saw countless, immeasurably-tall stakes, all of them with dozens of corpses skewered through their bodies and the restless undead left to writhe and whisper for mercy...

“Yes. You are beginning to understand.” came a soft voice, and Innocence shrieked and stumbled to the side, then automatically tried to cover her mouth with a flush at how startled she'd allowed herself to get, and she tasted copper and salt and sweat and... blood. The mare drew her claw away in a hurry, shivering weakly as she realized she'd just smeared the crimson stuff all over her own features even as her eyes roved nervously over to stare at Gymbr.

Gymbr sat calmly only a few feet away, his emerald eyes glowing faintly, his expression... distant, and sorrowful, as he said softly: “Hello, Innocence. We have a gift for you.”

“I... I don't want any more gifts! I don't want p-p-power anymore, stop it, get away!” Innocence shouted desperately, shaking her head violently and hurriedly backing away from the dual god, looking at him with terror in her eyes. “I d-don't... no, no! Did you even see Antares? They destroyed him! That's not my b-b-big b-brother...”

She trembled violently, then dropped her head forwards, reaching her claws up and dropping her face into them, beginning to sob and not caring about the blood that spilled along her features with her tears, her whole body quaking as she simply let gave vent and cried.

Gymbr only watched her calmly from a distance, not saying anything to her, neither comforting nor imposing. He just watched, allowed her to cry until she had exhausted herself into sniffling and whimpering, and then the god tilted his head towards her and asked quietly: “Do you feel better now?”

“No...” Innocence mumbled, rubbing quietly at her face before she shook her head with a curse, clenching her eyes shut and trembling a little. “What do you want from me, Gymbr? You never, ever gave me anything without... without some ulterior motive of your own in mind, without... some selfish or stupid or insane reason, or...”

She halted, looking across at him and continuing to shiver as she hugged herself quietly, and there was silence for a few moments as the ever-flowing blood continued to spill down off her, drenching the dry ground around her feet, but it never stained the earth red for more than a moment. She breathed uneasily in and out as she dropped her head forwards, trying her hardest to just... block out everything, wanting to give up and either descend into oblivion or blind and deafen herself to what she knew was her own goddamn mind until she could wake up from this... this hell...

“This is not hell. Well... no. This is hell, but... this is not Hell, Innocence. This is the Hell that you have made for yourself, with all your own power.” Gymbr said calmly, gesturing with one claw towards the corpses, and the mare whimpered and tried to turn away, tried to cover her eyes... but all that did was spill more blood over her own features, soak her further in the just reward for her sins as she struggled not to break down into sobbing again. “You have seen the world of ruin we created with our selfish desires. Be thankful this is all that you have suffered.”

“So what! I don't care about this!” Innocence shouted, gesturing violently around herself as she trembled hard. “This doesn't s-scare me, this is nothing but... nothing but stupid make-believe in my own head! But A-Antares... the power... he was so powerful and yet he was so... it wasn't fair!”

Gymbr looked at her for a few moments, and then he shook his head slowly and said quietly: “Enough. You cannot lie to us, Innocence... we knew you, inside and out. We knew all your secrets, and all your desires. We were your generous master, giving our gifts to you, teaching and instructing you; we were your cruel monster, haunting you and hunting you and hurting you, making sport of your pain. We are Gymbr.”

Innocence shivered and tried to look away, breathing hard as she hugged herself and clenched her eyes shut, and Gymbr looked at her calmly before the mare shivered and looked down, whispering: “Then what do you want me to do? What do you want me to say? Admit that...”

She shivered, looking down and swallowing thickly before she grasped the sides of her head, hiding her face from view as she whispered: “Antares... what do you want me to say? That... that I saw... I saw my big brother turned into an awful, horrible monster, and all I kept thinking of was... was no m-matter how powerful he was, if my real big brother had been there, he would have kicked Virgil's ass? All the... the stupid thoughts... about... how I just kept thinking that Antares would never, ever have done any of the things that Virgil did, and... this... that he cheated! He beat me but... he never would have won without... ambushing me and attacking me when I was w-weak and... what he did at the end, there... there was no... I mean, it wasn't fair!”

“You almost said it. That there was no honor... just as we see, Innocence, that you believe honorable Antares, bound by his beliefs and personal codes of conduct, would have not only been victorious over Virgil... there would have been more meaning in his victory than Virgil gained in his victory over you. You believe that honor limits... but also that honor gives structure to the battle, and meaning to victory.” Gymbr said softly, and Innocence shivered, hating how the god pulled all her words apart, analyzed her like she was nothing more than a simple logic problem. Like everything about her could be summed up and torn down and... and...

“I'm not that simple!” Innocence shouted, turning angrily towards the god, trembling violently as she slammed her bloody claws against the ground. “I... this is just a moment of weakness!”

“No. What you spoke just now was a moment of weakness, and childish petulance. Recognizing that you have made mistakes, a desire to escape your hell before it can worsen... that is strength.” Gymbr said quietly, gesturing calmly around at the broken world. “You must reap what you sow, Innocence. This is a simple fact of life. We learned too late that no matter what you do, you cannot avoid the harvest... and that from only a few small seeds, the most vengeful of crops can grow.”

Innocence shook her head weakly, looking down and swallowing thickly before she whispered: “No. No, I... I don't believe you... look at you! Look at how you lived! No one, nothing could match your power... you were a god... you... you are a god. A god that I still can't get out of my head... that I h-h-hate and yet I want to love you, I want to worship you in spite of the way you treated me and all the things y-you did to me... you... you...”

Gymbr chuckled quietly at this, lowering his head and smiling faintly as he murmured: “That is because of what we did to you, Innocence. How badly we hurt you... but we swore we would save you, too. But you are so strong-willed... so determined, and so intrepid. We could not simply tell you what your costs would be... we had to show you. We will not lie and say we had this altruism in mind from the very start; absorbed with our own power, we thought we were doing what was necessary when we first hurt you. We thought it was pleasure, and that pleasure and strength could only be good.”

The god quieted, looking down for a moment, and then he simply smiled a little as Innocence shivered a bit, whispering: “Power is good. I want more of it. But... I... I don't want it from you. I don't want your gifts. Your power is... is this.” Innocence held out her hands, trembling as red flowed from her palms, spilled down between her digits in a never-ending stream. “Your power isn't the... the power my parents had. The power that Tarry had. The power that... that we need to stop the Light. You tried to drown the Light in darkness and all you did was end up destroying... everything you ever worked for. Into making yourself into... into a monster. Power... without restraints, power doesn't corrupt. Power turns into poison. Without structure or guidance, power is useless... power is just... is just a giant toddler, crying and screaming and breaking things until mommy or daddy get him whatever he wants!”

Innocence trembled, breathing hard, clenching her eyes shut... and then they snapped open as two distinct voices said softly: “That's right.”

She looked up, and stared in disbelief as she saw her Móðer, Luna, smiling softly at her, with her father, Scrivener Blooms, standing beside her. The mare swallowed thickly, then desperately looked back and forth, but the two ponies shook their heads slowly before both unblemished, young-looking equines said gently: “No. It is still us, Gymbr... only... the part of us that never ceased to be two, even when we were one. The best pieces of Scrivener Blooms and Luna Brynhild... fortitude, and courage.”

Both halves of Gymbr stopped, then they smiled faintly, saying quietly: “We have a gift for you, Innocence. A gift of true power. A gift that will save you. Do you know what it is?”

Innocence looked back and forth between the two ponies, then she shook her head uneasily, shifting backwards worriedly even as she asked finally: “What... what is it?”

The two halves of one entity smiled at her, and then they both lowered their heads as white light spread through the world, blinding Innocence and making her stumble backwards before Gymbr said quietly: “Hope.”

The mare felt the light fill her up... and then her eyes snapped open as she arched her back, bubbles bursting from her jaws in shock as she realized she was under water before her horn automatically lit up with magic, and a moment later she shot straight upwards and exploded out of the pool, splashing the shocked Greater Nightmares and Chrysophylax Dives. The Dracolich groaned loudly, cursing and shaking himself out as the Greater Nightmares only looked up excitedly at Innocence, who was coughing and hacking loudly, spitting out water as she hovered in the air above the pool, her dark aura glowing and swirling around her body.

“Oh, how splendiferous, you have revivified from your state of ossification, and with the lifting of the prostration you celebrate by showering us all with the pharmacon provided by my divine aqua regis.” Lord Chrysophylax complained loudly, continuing to brush at himself uselessly with one claw before he scowled up at Innocence. “And all without even the barest utterance of a factitious requital in purview of the graces owed for the charities with which-”

“Will you just shut up?” Innocence shouted, loud enough to make the cavern around them seem to quake, and the Dracolich winced backwards a little bit before the scaled unicorn shook her head out grouchily before becoming more serious, looking worriedly down at Eventide as she quickly glided out of the air to land in front of the Greater Nightmare. “What's going on? I... we're going to be attacked! Has the Light arrived yet?”

Eventide only smiled soothingly, reaching up and gently squeezing into the scaled mare's shoulders as she said softly: “No, the Light has not, and Freya already has all of Quietus Clime preparing for the invasion. Messages have been sent out across Equestria, carried by demonic couriers to every rebel base we know of that has yet to be destroyed: other scouts are moving to check on the Light's movements.

“Freya says she has a plan, for just this situation. Is that not correct, Lord Chrysophylax?” The Greater Nightmare smiled up at the enormous Dracolich knowingly, who only shifted with a grumble as Innocence looked nervously towards the undead dragon. Their base wasn't even fully established here: only a few of their defenses were in place, and it wasn't like they could depend on hiding behind walls of evil spirits and undead... Chrysophylax hadn't even been paid his first tribute of corpses yet, so he had no one here to really help them apart from his hordes of semicorporeal minions, Dead Dolls, and the Diamond Dogs he had enslaved through sheer intimidation, even if he claimed it was his superior intellect and 'generosity' that had 'resulted in their gainful employment.'

Innocence didn't like the way Chrysophylax was trying to avoid looking at her: considering that even if he was a fop, he was also a gigantic undead dragon, it severely bothered her that he wasn't bragging about whatever he and Freya were up to. Especially since Innocence remembered when he had offered to make a deal with her for power...

She shivered a little at this thought, then opened her mouth before frowning a little bit in surprise, realizing what else was off as she looked down at her claws. Her whole body felt healed and alive with energy, and she flexed a claw that was still covered by one battered steel gauntlet slowly, watching as energy fizzled quietly around it before she asked uneasily: “What... what happened?”

“So now your powers of perception have ultimately deduced the causatum that has been lauded upon your personage by the empyrean waters of my inviolable bath, although it is apparently more of a natatorium to a picayune dragonlet such as yourself.” Lord Chrysophylax Dives rodomontaded as he proudly rose his head, looking down at Innocence with arrogant superiority in his eyes... and maybe just a hint of relief, too. “Not to say I was not given every guaranty that you would be anything but alright: as a matter of fact, even my guaranty was guaranteed by the guarantee given to me by those guarantors who first guarantied this most affable wellspring would allow even the most wounded physique to convalesce in opulence.”

Innocence only looked up at Chrysophlyax Dives for a moment, and then she shook her head and grumbled under her breath before turning her eyes to Eventide, asking a second time: “So what happened to me?”

Chrysophylax slowly rose a claw and slapped this against his forehead, but the others ignored the Dracolich as the Greater Nightmare gestured towards the pool. “We charged this bath with as much energy as possible, and then placed you into it. Lord Chrysophylax was a great help, and added several valuable ingredients that-”

“So you are most welcome for my unrivaled act of munificence, dragonlet, in assisting your resumption and continuing the venery for paramountcy.” the Dracolich promulgated tactlessly, and the Greater Nightmares and Innocence all looked up at him for a moment before he added prepensely: “Not that you have allocated even a snippet of gratitude to me for my philanthropy.”

Innocence looked up at the undead dragon for a few moments, and then she reached out and firmly grasped into his forelimb, and the Dracolich winced as the bone-and-stone plates over his foreleg bled energy into the air before several large pieces flaked and rotted away, the undead creature yanking his forelimb into the air before he huffed and glared down at her sourly. “Your ingracious behavior only fortifies the notion that you are nothing but a boorish primitive.”

Innocence only grunted loudly at the Dracolich in reply to this, then she sighed after a moment before muttering finally as she brushed past the massive dragon: “Well, thanks, then, I guess, but I have to go and find Freya. I... I have to find out what's going on here.”

She stopped, then ground her teeth together in frustration before looking over her shoulder and adding grudgingly, trying to keep her eyes on Eventide more than Chrysophylax: “But honestly... thank you. I appreciate all the help you've... all... given me, and... if I can return the favor one day, I... I will. I'm... I'm going to try and... do stuff like that now.”

It felt... strange, that the first people she sort of confessed her new goals in life to ended up being her old nanny, several curious Greater Nightmares, and an overtalkative Dracolich, but in a funny way... it also felt right. And more, saying those words, even to mostly-almost-strangers, was enough to strengthen her resolve to do just what she said.

She started to turn... and blinked in surprise when Eventide was suddenly in front of her, the Greater Nightmare looking at her with a tender smile before she stepped forwards and embraced her fiercely, whispering: “Your parents would be proud of you, Lady Innocence. Please don't take offense... but I am proud of you.”

Innocence blushed a little, then she smiled faintly and silently reached a foreleg up to half-hug the Greater Nightmare back, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards. She held the embrace for a few moments, and then nodded firmly before pulling away from the Greater Nightmare, smiling to her and quickly leaping past to run towards the curtain of miasma that blocked the cavern entrance. The others watched her go, Eventide still smiling radiantly before Chrysophylax Dives said moodily: “And for what cause do you celebrate the enervation of the dragonlet's once lofty goals of nopareil pith?”

“That is not weakness, Dracolich. You may not understand, but my sisters and I do. A weak mistress would never have been able to bring the darkness and the light together as Mistress Luna did.” the Greater Nightmare replied quietly, looking over her shoulder before she reached up and touched her breast, smiling softly. “A weak master would have used us and destroyed us, out of fear. But the King of the Night did not. Their daughter is finally learning what true strength is, Lord Chrysophylax Dives: my sisters and I pray that you will watch her as we once watched those who we came to serve willingly and eagerly, even though we too thought they were weak and foolish at first. You may be surprised at the amount of true strength you see.”

Chrysophylax snorted loudly, but his crimson eyes flicked almost uneasily upwards all the same, the massive dragon shifting awkwardly as if memories of the past had just brushed by him. He watched as Innocence fearlessly ran into the curtain of smog... and how it almost seemed to part around her, like the poisons didn't dare to try and touch her.

Innocence herself felt... strange, as she hurried through the miasma without even noticing the way it pulled away from her, heading out into the dark, sprawling wastes of Quietus Clime's trench floor. She looked back and forth quickly as she ran, knowing it would just be silly to try and see the sky from here,whether it was bright day or dark night – not that either the moon or sun could piece through the dark clouds above – but there were other signs that could tell her whether it was day or night.

And she was relieved when she saw both the soft glow of the phosphorescent mosses as well as the roaming spirits floating amidst the angrier-looking Poltergeists and the ghosts that served Chrysophylax: wandering, lost souls only came out late at night. She doubted that a whole day had passed, so it meant she had woken up quickly... even if she was surprised that... she wasn't feeling worse than she was with... what had happened.

She shivered a little at this, shaking her head quickly and forcing herself not to think about it. Instead she wanted to focus on getting to Freya, and helping however she could with the counterattack against the Light... even if part of her had its own misgivings about whatever it was that the war leader of the rebel forces might be up to. She had made the mistake of forgetting that Celestia and Freya were parallels, not opposites: they were the same person, only with the weight concentrated in different portions of their personality.

Innocence moved quickly towards the maze, then cursed under her breath before her dark aura burst into life over her body, and without hesitation she leapt up into the air, streaking upwards in a black comet and heading straight for the top of the trench. Ghosts and spirits flitted out of her way, quite a few of the ethereal beings surprised by the sight of the unicorn shooting past, and others fleeing in fear of the dark energy that the mare was emanating... but as Innocence flew upwards, she promised silently that she was going to learn what real strength was. She was going to find a structure, a sense of honor that worked for her: she was going to be more than powerful. She was going to learn how to control herself, and control her strength.

And no matter what happened, she swore that she was going to save Antares. Memories of her big brother sparked through her mind as she sailed upwards, then twisted through the sea of spirits towards a narrow ledge, landing on it with a grunt and squeezing quickly into a half-hidden crack to emerge inside the mountain, watching several rebels rush by before she reached out and caught one by the shoulder, asking: “Where's Freya?”

He winced at her, then hurriedly pointed upwards several times, blurting: “Lookout Peak! Don't... I gotta go!”

He turned and bolted away, and Innocence sighed a little, shaking her head briefly before she glanced back and forth, then started quickly forwards, running up through the tessellated passages and making her way steadily up towards the top of the mountain, focused on finding Freya and... getting answers. Helping, yes, but also getting answers.

It took her about twenty minutes: quite a good time, considering how massive Quietus Clime was, not to mention how many rebels were running back and forth, trying to get all their defenses into some kind of order. Fortunately, the upper levels were mostly deserted... although that also made Innocence feel uneasy. That was where a lot of the noncombatants should have been hiding, in the insulated safe rooms, but the few she passed were abandoned...

She found Freya standing outside on the wide lookout, near the very top of one of the mountains. It was formed from a natural ledge that a railing of rock had been built around, turning it into a somewhat-protected balcony, and a single large telescope was mounted on a steel pole at the end of this. Above their heads, several large, crystal-and-metal antennae stood out of the mountainside: these were designed to draw in any magic shot in the direction of the balcony, to better protect whoever was keeping an eye on the base.

Freya smiled over her shoulder at Innocence as the scaled unicorn approaching quickly, smiling... and yet she felt the faintest touch of unease, too, as she asked uncertainly: “Do... do you know about Antares? And about the Light?”

The winged unicorn only nodded calmly, answering in an unfettered voice that only made Innocence more nervous: “I had an encounter with him a little earlier. And I'm well-aware that the Light tracked you: I expected this eventuality, Innocence. And in a way, it's worked to our advantage.”

Innocence looked disbelievingly up at the larger mare for a few moments, and Freya only smiled and shrugged, saying almost offhoofedly: “We were actually in the same area, Innocence. While you were distracting and drawing the Light's attention, I rescued an old friend and planted several explosives around Canterlot. They should be going off any moment now.”

“You... you what?” Innocence asked stupidly, staring blankly at Freya, and the ivory mare only smiled again, her amethyst eye glinting as she looked across at the scaled unicorn evenly.

“Chrysophylax Dives was kind enough to help me with the devices: simple miasma explosives, nothing that will cause major structural damage, but will instead poison key areas around the magic academy, Canterlot Castle, and the military barracks. If I'm right, the poisons will flush the Light out of the bodies of those poisoned... although it may kill them, as well.” Freya said indifferently, and Innocence stared with horror at the mare, who only shook her head slowly. “This is war, Innocence. We have to weaken and cripple the enemy however and wherever possible. It's not a pleasant task, but it's one that must be done all the same.”

The younger mare mouthed wordlessly, and then Freya stepped forwards and gently touched her face, saying softly: “My goal isn't to kill. Just to confuse them. I recognize I've put whoever these bombs poison in danger, but if they have a little common sense, they'll know what to do, and the delirium and sickness will stop the Light from understanding right away what's going on and that it's lost control over these people. It may be a long shot, but it's a chance we have to take.”

Innocence trembled a little, and then she shook her head weakly again, but then forced herself to take a slow breath, looking up and asking weakly: “So you planned all this from the start? I... I was just a pawn in your games?”

“No, of course not.” Freya looked both surprised and a little insulted, shaking her head and smiling reassuringly. “I told you. I'm not like Celestia, trying to plan out everything in advance and doing whatever is necessary to reach those specific goals. I adjust to the situation and do whatever is best for the moment. I saw a moment to strike. I took it.”

“And... you said you...” Innocence halted, putting two and two together in her mind before she whispered: “The Canterlot Gardens...”

“That's correct. I saved Discombobulation.” Freya smiled wider, raising her head a little, seeming... proud of herself, and yet more relaxed at the same time. “He was the only one I could escape with, but I'll return for the others at some point, some day. Now it's just a matter of canceling out the Light's neutralization in order to save him. We just need to find Theophilius.”

Innocence didn't know why this made her shiver as she stared up at the ivory mare, and then Freya said gently: “But we don't have any more time for small talk, Innocence. We have to prepare everyone to get ready for war: I need you to work with Chrysophylax Dives and extended our territory as far as possible outwards from these mountains.”

The mare shifted uneasily, grimacing a little bit as she licked her lips hesitantly, and then she asked nervously: “Don't you... what about Antares? What about what happened to me, or my mission? I failed you, and... yet it sounds almost like you expected me to fail and... Celestia, what's going on?”

“Freya.” the ivory mare corrected calmly, and then she shook her head slowly before saying quietly: “And what's going on is that we are fighting a war, and it's a war I'm determined we're going to win, Innocence, by any means necessary. I won't accept any other outcome. All I've done is adjusted our plans according to the situations that continue to arise: I don't have the time to show or embrace my feelings on each and every little tragedy that occurs.”

The scaled mare shifted, hating what Freya sounded like. How she reminded her so much of Celestia... and not just Celestia, but the Celestia who had been perfectly willing to sacrifice an entire army just in the wild hope of crippling the Light.

Innocence swallowed thickly, and then she looked up and tried her best to nod, asking finally: “Then what... what do you want Dives and I to do?”

Freya's gaze seemed to intensify for a few moments, studying her meditatively as the ivory mare clearly heard the words beneath Innocence's question, but she only answered in an even voice: “Just what I said, Innocence. Your powers should be able to lay a fertile base for Lord Chrysophylax to rot into dead land. The Light won't be comfortable on this terrain, and it may help give us a larger battlefield that won't be inhibited by the winter storms.”

Innocence shifted worriedly again, and then she looked up, studying Freya for a few moments before asking her hesitantly: “Are you sure that's all you have planned?”

The ivory mare looked at her consideringly... and then she frowned slightly, her amethyst eye narrowing a little, some of the gentility falling away from her features as she asked slowly: “What precisely are you getting at, Innocence? You're acting differently. As a matter of fact, you're acting very strange considering what I've come to expect of you.”

The scaled unicorn smiled faintly at this, and then she murmured before she could stop herself: “Good.” A pause, and then she flushed and added hurriedly: “I'm... I'm trying to find honor.”

She looked up at Freya, who looked back down at her for a few moments before the ivory mare sighed quietly, shaking her head slowly and looking almost... disappointed. It wasn't the reaction that Innocence had expected to see on the face of Freya, of all ponies, and the scaled mare stared up at her almost pleadingly before Freya said softly: “Honor is well and good for ponies like myself. For warriors, and for soldiers, for heroes. You are none of those things.”

Innocence stared, trembling and feeling... crushed. She swallowed a little, shaking her head weakly before Freya smiled calmly and said softly, almost mockingly: “Honor is no good to politicians, to thieves, to murderers. Like you.”

The scaled unicorn was left wordless, unable to even think of what she wanted to say before she swallowed thickly and shook her head weakly, her body slumping a little bit before she whispered: “How... how could you say something like that?”

“Because it's true. You're a killer, Innocence. You steal souls. You use poison, and illusions, and the tools of cowards. You feed off of others and thrive off pain and suffering. You're the only thing that remains of Gymbr's fallen empire, and the corruption of my sister's child. You're not a Valkyrie, but only a witch.” Freya said dismissively, shaking her head slowly, and Innocence trembled harder and whimpered, mouth moving but unable to form words or speak as her whole body twisted with pain. “But you're necessary. And I do love you, don't get me wrong. But you're not like me, and you're not like... us. You're different, and apart. Brynhild was always different, too, but she at least knew when to fall in line, and it was her differences that I cherished. It's your differences I cherish too, Sin. But that doesn't change who and what you are.”

The scaled unicorn slumped, tears forming in her eyes, breathing hard before Freya said with what sounded horribly like encouragement: “But that's who we need to win this war. A monster. A murderer. Someone who is willing to do whatever I have to say and carry out my plans as my sword, no matter what they are.”

Innocence gritted her teeth, and then she looked up through teary eyes, shouting: “No! No, I... how can you claim to have honor, but then be willing to use me like... like a weapon! Antares had honor! Antares had honor, more honor than you will ever have, Freya!”

“Innocence...” Freya closed her eye for a moment... and then her expression became cold as she looked up, her eye darkening. “Watch your mouth.”

Innocence snarled... and then stared in shock as there was a gleam of gold, a sound of metal singing through the air... and then she had three swords encircling her throat, ready to decapitate her in a moment's notice as Freya said icily: “I recognize that I owe you. So I have been trying to repay that debt by treating you with more love and kindness than you deserve. I am not usually so gentle with even my own family, especially when they fail to accomplish what I've asked them to do. But for you, I was making an exception.

“Here is the cold, hard truth, Innocence. I want the Light dead. I will do anything to see the Light dead. They took what I loved from me and I am passion, and anger... and even if I can hide that behind a smile with all the years I spent seeing Celestia do the same in this body, it's fury and revenge that guide my blades. Do not get in their way, because sometimes it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe.” Freya closed her eye... and then her swords drew slowly back, sheathing themselves slowly one after the other before she said quietly: “You want power. I'm willing to give you that power, and help you find your parents, and give you your place in this world and coddle your pathetic rump so long as you listen to me. What I don't need is you to have some ridiculous epiphany and try to model yourself into... some brand new Antares, just because you saw what he became. If you want defeat the Light, then you have to be able to defeat him. You're too weak to do that now.”

“No... Virgil is the weak one, not me.” Innocence said quietly but firmly, looking up and shaking her head shortly, her eyes cold as she looked across at Freya with a tremble. “I saved you. I saved you and stopped Celestia because Celestia was going to kill all of us, just to hurt the Light.”

“It was your error that gave the Light the upper hand here, Innocence. All I can do is minimize the damage to ourselves and maximize the damage to the Light in response.” Freya replied in confident, inarguable tones. “If you don't have the stomach for it, little girl, then I recommend you leave. I don't need your assistance so badly that I'm willing to put up with your whimpering and troublemaking for it. Leave... and take Terra and the other troublemakers with you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and Innocence trembled before Freya softened a little, leaning forwards and adding quietly: “Or stay. Stay, and I'll give you the power you want, and you can help. Together, we can stop the Light. We can save as many lives as possible. But we have no choice in this matter, Innocence. Either you're fighting with us, or you're fighting against us.”

The scaled unicorn closed her eyes tightly, breathing slowly in and out before she looked slowly up, meeting Freya's gaze and trembling a little before she whispered: “I can't. I can't do this. I have to be honorable, Freya. I have to... I have to go.”

Freya stared down in surprise at the scaled unicorn, then watched as Innocence began to go, and the Queen of the Valkyries bit her lip nervously, shifting uncomfortably before she sighed quietly and dropped her gaze as Innocence began to walk away, saying in an almost-grudging voice: “Then go... with Terra. Go to Ponyville. The... Terra will tell you more on the way.”

Innocence looked in surprise over her shoulder, and Freya slowly rose her head, looking at her silently before she simply gave a small smile, shrugging a little. “I'm just... adjusting my plans for you, that's all, and this... this unexpected change of heart. I don't think it's the best thing for us... but even if you won't help here... I want you helping us.”

“Celestia would never have backtracked like that.” Innocence said quietly before she could stop herself, not knowing what she even meant by that.

Freya only smiled though, shrugging again and saying softly: “I'm not taking anything back. I'm just making a minor adjustment, that's all there is to it. Trees will be trees, and there's no point in trying to change that.”

The scaled unicorn looked at her for a few moments... and then she gave a faint, silent smile before turning around and heading into the caverns. Yet all the same, she felt distinct worry running through her system, wondering silently whether or not this was another manipulation of Freya's, and only realizing now that for all of Freya's smiles... the emotions beneath that mask were even more wild and torpid than Celestia's had ever been, and her impulsive decisions could end up costing them more in the long run than Celestia's endless machinations ever would have.

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