• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener struggle to set right all the wrongs from their past and save their family and friends. Tenth and final story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

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The Power Of Faith

Chapter Seventy Nine: The Power of Faith

When Innocence had first left Quietus Clime, she had her misgivings. She, Terra, and the rest of their little ragtag group had been rushed out on the pretense that there was no time for small talk, as the Light was rapidly approaching, and they couldn't risk being seen or followed. While the Light was focused on Quietus Clime, they had to take over Ponyville... at any cost.

Innocence had her misgivings... more of which settled in as they began to cross the wintry tundra, pushing through the hissing squall that was kicking across the snowy fields. It was a rough journey on hoof, but it wasn't like everyone could fly, either. But it did at least give her time to think: to realize that if she really did want to live honorably, she couldn't just... kill everyone in Ponyville, because she had been ordered to take the town back from the Light.

She didn't think some of the other ponies in their group would appreciate it, either: Eventide would probably be quietly disapproving in her own way of killing innocents, but Avalon and Aphrodisia would certainly both be a little more resistant to the idea of hurting anyone in their old hometown. Applejack hated the Light with a passion and was willing to kill when it was necessary, but... she wasn't entirely sure what precisely would make for 'necessity.'

Ersatz Major, lastly, had looked like she was both a little embarrassed and pining for someone; Innocence sympathized with both. They had ended up being quite a strange little ragtag band, and all that they had been able to do on the way was... talk a little, and try and figure out both what they were supposed to do and what Freya was up to.

They knew that Freya had quietly dispatched quite a few rebels to speak to possible allies, but all of them doubted that had anything to do with whatever Freya was preparing at Quietus Clime. Likewise, they knew that many groups of demons and Blessed had been sent to other bases and to lay in wait, but a pincer or ambush seemed unlikely against an army the size of the one the Light had been marching on them, last they knew.

It took them about two days, spending most of that time moving, to reach the mountain range surrounding Canterlot. It took them the better part of another day to sneak around a checkpoint on the far side of the mountains, and make their way towards Ponyville. For now, they decided to give it a wide berth to head into the Everfree Forest... which was really just a forest now, with no exceptional life to it, no feeling of unique awareness.

Aphrodisia went ahead to scout out Ponyville that night, while the others sat back in the darkness and Innocence created a small, smokeless blue flame for them to sit around. Avalon took the moment to flop down and go to sleep, and Applejack sat beside her daughter, silently reaching out to rub along her armored back, the blue light almost making her wooden hide seem more like the natural skin it had once been.

Ersatz Major sat to one side with Eventide, both gazing into the flames quietly, and Terra rested back against a tree with a moody rumble. Innocence let herself sprawl out, her head lowered, her gauntlet-covered claws quietly resting together before she looked up curiously as Terra said finally: “I sent Taruos out to the island. Didn't want to. Did it anyway.”

“Good. He'll be safe there.” Applejack said quietly, and Terra smiled bitterly as she dropped her head with a soft sigh.

“Aye, 'safe.' But now my lad's angry with me, and railed against me the the whole of the last night we spent together. And really, there's nowhere 'safe' anymore, is there? Just places that we like to pretend the Light can't reach... but even with that mobile island out in the seas, guarded by all the strength of my own kin and yours... if the Light really wanted to go there, it would.” Terra muttered, shaking her head angrily. “Safety. I don't want my lad growing up in nothing but safe havens anyway. I want him to learn to fight back against the world, to take risks, and make mistakes. I want him to be able to help us...”

“But you sent him anyway.” Applejack glanced up, and when Terra bristled, the wooden mare simply gave a small smile and shook her head, looking down at Avalon, asleep despite the heavy armor she was still wearing. “It weren't no insult or accusation now, Terra. I'm a mother, too. I understand.”

Terra shifted a bit, and then she nodded grudgingly, and there was silence for a few moments before Innocence said quietly: “We should be trying to get the ponies who still haven't been absorbed by the Light out of here. Send them to the island, too.”

“There just ain't enough capacity for that, Sin. It's a nice thought, but... they gotta try and push through this too. Either ride it out or join one side or the other.” Applejack replied in a soft voice, shaking her head and giving a small smile. “But Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie are both on the island now, did you hear? They ain't kids, but they ain't... they can't fight no more, either. So they're helping take care of all the foals and such.”

“Dad could still fight if he wanted to... he just... it's better if he works out there and carries messages and stuff. He can still easily outfly those stupid wyverns and all.” Avalon mumbled quietly, and the ponies looked with surprise at the mare as she sat up like she'd never been asleep, stretching out a little bit and making her light armor flex against her body. “So what are we going to do here?”

“I don't know.” Innocence murmured after a moment, and then the scaled unicorn sat up and shook her head out, looking around at the others before she said finally: “I don't want to... I don't want to kill the ponies here, though. That wouldn't be right.”

Avalon cocked her head slowly as Terra looked surprised, and Eventide gave a small, reassuring smile. But no one really seemed to know what to say, and Innocence grimaced a bit as they fell into an uncomfortable silence for a moment, the only sounds coming from the sorrowful cries of night birds through the trees and the crackle of the blue flames.

But then Ersatz Major looked up, asking hesitantly: “Innocence... can't your Panacea cleanse the Light from ponies? Perhaps if we could subdue the blinded, you could heal them...”

Innocence shifted at this, licking her lips slowly before she said hesitantly: “I... I haven't tried to for a long time, though. Freya said it was a waste of my strength... half the time the Light would just infect the ponies again. I don't know if I can do a big group, though, there's kind of a lot of ponies in Ponyville who are probably all... blind...”

Avalon snorted at this, saying mildly: “Believe me, Sin. There's not that many ponies. It might seem like it sometimes but Ponyville ain't that big.”

“Not a lot of towns are 'big' when you live in Canterlot, Avalon.” Applejack said mildly, and the tiny Pegasus grumbled a little and rolled her eyes before the earth pony turned her attention towards Innocence, saying quietly: “I think that you can do it, if you're willin' to put your mind to it, Innocence. And if you're willin' to... well, you know. It'll be up to you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the scaled unicorn looked up and said quietly: “I know. And... this is my choice. This is what I want to do. I want to be honorable, even though I know it's... it's probably going to hurt. And it's probably going to cost me.”

The others gathered around the flame traded looks, and then Ersatz Major said softly: “I think you're doing the right thing. In fact, I'm sure of it.”

Applejack smiled a little, and Avalon sighed as she looked up before the tiny Pegasus flinched when Aphrodisia hopped through the bushes and landed beside her, wrapping a foreleg tightly around her neck and smiling brightly. “I really am too! You're gonna do great, Innocence! And good news, super good news: there's only a few Pious in Ponyville, and they're all located at the Sanctuary... if we move fast, we should be able to kill them long before they can call in any reinforcements!”

“What about the animal care center? They were keeping wyverns there.” Avalon asked quickly, and Apps huffed a little at the professionalism of the tiny mare, who sighed and rolled her eyes, saying flatly: “Look, let me put it this way, then. The sooner we get this over and done with the sooner we can have some time to just screw around.”

Aphrodisia looked thoughtful at this, and then she nodded a few times before saying hesitantly: “Only two. I think. That's all I saw... but I think I smelled Hounds of Heaven, too. I'd be a lot more worried about them than any other of Greater Heaven's animal thingies.”

Innocence nodded, and Terra snorted, saying moodily: “Little pups are nothing to be afraid of. Aye, we can do this cleanly and quickly, I think, so long as we are careful and we move with haste. The Light's made all this country feel safe and unified: even as the Pious seek to guard their prey, they tear down and take over the mortal's defenses to ensure their supremacy.”

“Well, we should try and take advantage of that.” Avalon said mildly, looking up and nodding firmly before she gave a slight smile. “We should get all the Light-followers into the Sanctuary, or at least as many as possible. Then seal 'em in.”

“And what, burn them? I'm trying not to kill people these days. At least, not the blinded ponies.” Innocence said flatly. Avalon only gave her a sour look in return, however, and Innocence said moodily: “Well, I don't get what you're saying, then. They won't stay in there for very long, the Sanctuary has all kinds of windows and flimsy doors. Flimsy walls, too, really.”

Avalon huffed at this, saying pointedly: “And what, you and Ersatz can't do any of your fancy unicorn magic to make sure they stay stuck in there? Look, it doesn't even have to be all that long, anyway. Just long enough for me or Terra or whoever to draw out the Pious. We'll take care of them while you keep the ponies corralled so we don't have to fight around blinded people.”

Innocence nodded hesitantly after a moment at this, shifting back and forth before she finally sighed and muttered: “Just better hope that the Pious don't call for reinforcements right away, then. And you know when the Pious die, the wyverns are going to try and come looking for them.”

“I'll deal with the wyverns, then, and whatever other beasts are out in that great barn you call a care center.” Terra grumbled, looking off in the direction of Ponyville. “Won't be hard.”

Aphrodisia nodded, adding quickly: “And I don't really think we have to worry too much about the Pious trying to call for help right away or anything. They don't seem to like to do that unless they're really outnumbered.”

“Or outgunned. Which they totally are, but it'll be way too late before they figure that out.” Avalon added, flexing a foreleg lightly, and Applejack chuckled. The tiny Pegasus shot her mother a grouchy look, but thankfully didn't try to start a fight as she returned her eyes to the scaled unicorn, saying in a more serious voice: “After that, I guess it'll be up to you what we do with them. If you wanna try... fixing them all at once or one at a time or whatever.”

Innocence grimaced a little, rubbing at her scaled cheek before she said quietly: “Okay. I'll have to figure that out, then... I'm not sure I can even do it anymore. I wish we had someone to test on.”

Aphrodisia brightened at this, then turned into a puff of black smoke, streaking up through the forest canopy even as Avalon groaned loudly and Eventide winced a bit. But Ersatz only smiled after the small mare, saying reassuringly: “I'm sure she'll be fine. Her skills are very impressive.”

“They sure are.” Applejack agreed with her own smile, and there was clear pride in her eyes as she looked warmly up in the direction that the mare had gone before she shook her head briefly and asked finally: “So what about... I mean, if we're going to free Ponyville, what do we do from there?”

“Hold it down, try to make things look normal in case any of the Light's forces pass through, and otherwise wait for Freya.” Terra halted, then the Ironjaw looked down and muttered: “And hope that she brings at least half the army with her. I'm worried, though... either she had some desperate, stupid gamble planned, or something sodding horrible. And she's surely not stupid.”

“But she is... scary.” Innocence mumbled after a moment, and Terra grunted and nodded in agreement as the scaled unicorn shook her head briefly, then sighed softly as she looked up. Eventide was trying to look reassuring, and Ersatz was only smiling faintly, while Applejack and Avalon both clearly declined to comment... not out of loyalty to Freya, Innocence thought, but because they didn't want to worry too much themselves.

After about twenty minutes, Aphrodisia returned with a large burlap sack on her back, flinging this down as something inside it writhed and gave a muffled yell. Apps only giggled, however, then she looked brightly over at Innocence as she declared: “I brought you a friend!”

The scaled unicorn winced a little, but it wasn't until Apps reached out and yanked the string holding the bag shut loose that the scaled unicorn saw the full extent of what Aphrodisia had done. She was left staring in horror as none other than Clinker shoved his chubby head up through the bag, looking back and forth in confusion before his beady little eyes settled on Innocence, and after a moment he whimpered around the ball gag in his mouth and carefully ducked his head back into the bag, mumbling weak, muffled prayers.

“Where uh... where'd you get that?” Avalon asked after a moment, gesturing a few times at her mouth, and Aphrodisia only smiled brightly.

“Oh, I carry them around with me.” she said positively, and when Avalon cleared her throat and gestured at the fact Aphrodisia was only wearing a vest, the demon explained: “No, no, no! It's part of my Inquisitor equipment stuff. I'm not allowed to tell you how it works but Hel sets it up for all her new Inquisitors when they're vowed in. We get like this magical space that we can pull stuff out of whenever we need it.”

Innocence looked mildly at Apps for a few moments as Avalon simply studied the demon, and then she said dryly: “The only thing magical I can think of about you is apparently how you're a lot bigger on the inside than you are on the outside. At least, that's what I hear from all the guys who've-”

Aphrodisia shoved a hoof against Avalon's mouth, huffing and complaining: “You make it sound like I'm loosey-goosey, but I'm not. You're mean.”

Then the demon paused and drew a hoof back, sketching a quick rune in the air before she shoved her hoof forwards, and reality rippled for a moment around this. When she pulled her hoof out of the hazy ether, she was now holding another bright orange ball gag, which she promptly shoved into Avalon's mouth, and the Pegasus squawked as the leather straps on either side of it clamped themselves painfully tight around the mare's head.

The tiny Pegasus shook herself wildly, grumbling in frustration, but the gag was latched tight and Aphrodisia was giggling away. Innocence looked at the two for a moment, then rolled her eyes before turning her attention back to the burlap sack and the large, thankfully-docile pony inside it: Clinker was acting a little more emotional than she ever remembered him being, but fortunately otherwise it seemed to be the same Clinker she had known while... well... growing up.

Innocence smiled faintly at this thought, and then she leaned forwards and cleared her throat quietly, saying softly: “Clinker. It's me... I know you must have recognized me and... well, I'm not going to hurt you. I... I want to talk to you about the Light.”

The others watched curiously, even Avalon looking up despite the clear grouchiness in her eyes as she bit down on the gag. The others all looked up from this, watching the bag shift awkwardly, and even Terra had to admit some curiosity as she shifted grudgingly, looking curiously at the pony in the burlap sack: it wasn't like they ever really tried to.. talk to the blinded ponies, after all. They just spouted nonsense about the Light and promised both Greater Heaven would one day save them, and terrible, hellish punishments would be visited on nonbelievers...

Slowly, Clinker poked his head out, and Innocence smiled a little as she looked at him encouragingly. She thought of Antares, and she thought of her mother, as she wondered how much she could do without breaking the fragile little niblet of honor she had been trying to develop inside of herself, and the mare licked her lips before she glanced at Aphrodisia, asking a little awkwardly: “Can you take that off him?”

She paused, then returned her eyes towards Clinker, asking him quietly: “And can you do me a favor, Clinker? A favor for... for an old friend? I don't want you to yell or cause a ruckus or anything. That wouldn't be good for any of us. When the gag comes off, just... well... just... tell me you understand, okay?”

There was silence as Clinker shifted slowly, the large, rotund earth pony looking less than thrilled, but his features slowly settled into something more like his old, complacent self as he nodded hesitantly. Innocence smiled at this with relief before Aphrodisia stepped forwards, reaching up and gently grasping the ball gag before she tugged on it lightly, and the straps undid themselves, letting the demon remove the gag as Clinker spat it hurriedly out.

He wheezed a little, and then looked up, opening his mouth, and Innocence reached quickly up and seized him by the nose with one claw as she rose the other in a shushing gesture, glaring at him. Clinker winced, and then the pony shifted back and forth before mumbling: “The others... the others will know where I am. The Light protects us all.”

“Nice try, boyo, but we know that's not what the hive mind does.” Terra rumbled moodily, glowering down at the pony. “They might be able to sense you if they come lookin' for you, but otherwise you're just like drones or other sodding insects.”

Clinker looked a little hurt and a little upset, and Innocence grimaced a bit as she let go of his snout, turning a pointed look on Terra as she said mildly: “We're going to be nice to Clinker. We're going to let him tell us about the Light, okay? I'm curious.”

“Why should I tell you anything?” Clinker asked slowly, but there was part of him – likely, ironically, that part that had been completely taken in by the Light – that clearly wanted to start rambling away about all the magnificence and munificence and glory of the very thing that had taken over his mind.

Innocence looked over at him, hesitating again, and then she carefully sat back and studied the pony still sitting warily in the burlap sack before she finally invited quietly: “Can't you tell us anything? We clearly don't really know... anything about the Light. We're all... we're all scared of the Light, Clinker. It seems so... enormous. Dominating. I don't want to give up my free will to something that might not care about me.”

Avalon mumbled something about not being scared around the gag in her mouth, and Applejack simply reached up and squeezed her daughter's shoulder as Clinker studied Innocence, as if trying to figure out whether or not she was telling the truth. But maybe it was because of their childhood connection, or maybe it was because the Light really did make such powerful believers and zealots out of the ponies it infected that part of him believed he could convert them all with the right words, that the earth pony suddenly leaned forwards and said almost urgently: “You don't have to be scared.”

The two looked at each other, and then Clinker nodded a few times, and a smile spread over his face, speaking with more emotion than she'd ever heard him use before as he declared: “The Light is wonderful, and generous, and it helps each and every one of us through our daily lives. It loves us all, each and every one of us...”

Innocence leaned forwards a little, listening intently as Clinker rambled away about the Light, how glorious it was, and about how it made everyone unified and care about each other for almost an hour. Terra and Avalon were both moody and twitchy the entire time, but the rest of the group listened closely, Aphrodisia even asking a few curious questions about demons and their concept of good and evil. And when Clinker seemed to realize he really wasn't in any danger right now, he loosened up and acted like a normal pony... which, well, wasn't quite like his old, introverted, almost-toneless old self, but it was a lot more than Innocence had expected to see.

He really, honestly believed that what had happened to him was a good thing. He really, honestly believed that the Light would save the world, and wanted to help bring all the nonbelievers into the fold. But Innocence couldn't help but notice there seemed to be strange little pauses now and then, and some of the things he said didn't entirely match up to other tenets or rules that he talked about: things like how the Light was supposed to be peaceful and respectful, and how the Light's goal was to wash away all darkness, but not if that meant hurting innocents in the process.

The Light had hurt a lot of innocent people. The Light had forced itself on a lot of minds and souls. The Light was preying on its own flock right now, as a matter of fact... and as Innocence studied the pony, she couldn't help but ask uncertainly: “But if your God wants all these things... why are the Pious at war with us? Why did they invade Equestria?”

Clinker shrugged and smiled at her, saying quietly: “Lord God knows what's best. We have to have faith in Him, and what He declares. He's been very sad about what He had to do, you know, I don't think any of you realize how much it hurts Him. Why, only His Voice has been speaking through the Great Webwork to us all, telling us what to do in place of His glory. I've never even heard Lord God Himself, but the Pious say it's like being touched by the sun... I hope one day soon He feels better.”

Clinker smiled almost dreamily, hugging himself and closing his eyes, and Innocence shivered a little as she looked at the stallion. Terra growled as well, her own eyes narrowing slightly at this, and Clinker turned a worried look at the Ironjaw... but then his eyes lit up when the dragon said quietly: “Maybe all of us here have the wrong idea about your Lord God, lad. Mayhap you could tell us a little more about this 'voice' you hear... that you say gives the orders on Lord God's behalf.”

“The Metatron. The Cardinal, everyone calls him... the only Cardinal who has not returned to Greater Heaven.” Clinker said enthusiastically, nodding quickly a few times. “He speaks for Lord God, tells us what to do. He's been giving us new laws and rules, and promises that the world shall be united under one empire... and that will only be the start! The Light will spread its glory to every corner of the universe in time, and we will all be united... doesn't that sound wonderful?”

Aphrodisia shifted worriedly at this, looking across at Innocence, and the scaled unicorn swallowed a little as Terra bared her fangs. And then Ersatz Major calmly stepped forwards, reaching up and gently touching the back of Clinker's neck as she said softly: “I'm sorry, dear.”

Clinker began to look over his shoulder... and then there was a small jolt of electricity, and a moment later his eyes rolled up in his head before he keeled forwards. Innocence winced and caught him against her body, and then she sighed quietly as she studied the young stallion, shaking her head slowly as Ersatz smiled a little. “I apologize, but. I'm sure you all sense it as well. Pious are close by: they might be searching for their little lost lamb.”

“Heal him.” Eventide urged, and Innocence looked at her with surprise before the Greater Nightmare bowed her head politely forwards. “I know you can do it, Innocence. Your powers are more than strong enough to remove this infestation from his mind.”

The others nodded, and Innocence hesitated only a moment before her own horn sparked faintly as she picked up a distinct psychic pulse: there really were Pious nearby. She cursed quietly under her breath, then turned her eyes hurriedly back towards Clinker, reaching up and settling one claw over his head... before wincing as she realized she was still wearing her gauntlets.

But there wasn't any time to take them off: it would make it a lot harder, but all the same, Innocence gritted her teeth before she carefully stretched her claws into Clinker's being. And immediately, she felt the Light recoil from her, but Innocence closed her eyes tightly, visualizing what was happening in her mind, stretching her claws down towards the Light as it quivered...

Something strange ran through her, a shiver of... excitement, and fear. The Light seemed to be afraid of her... and she knew she could grab it, strangle it, blot it out... but something told her not to. Instead, the image of a black claw flexed in her mind... then slowly opened. She sensed the Light studying this, even as she heard Avalon in reality, muffling out for her to hurry up.

Then the Light stretched up and wrapped itself around the darkness, and Innocence smiled a little bit before she carefully pulled this back in her mind, gently pulling her gauntlet away from Clinker's head... and then she stared down at it, seeing the golden pulse of energy around the steel before it was absorbed quickly into the metal, and Innocence gritted her teeth as the holy energy was drawn into her own body.

She cursed under her breath, hugging herself as her black blood boiled... and then she blinked stupidly as the sizzle faded, the energy filtered through her darkness and either destroyed or made dormant. She looked dumbly down at her claw again, her mind blank, Clinker stirring weakly, and then Terra muttered: “All of you. Heads down and close your eyes, hold only a single object in your minds. And put out that sodding fire.”

Ersatz flicked her horn, the blue flames whiffing out as the group all dropped themselves low into the grasses, and Innocence clenched her eyes shut as she did her best to focus on the image of a tree. A tree, and a tree alone... but the Light kept trying to crawl into her thoughts, and all her worries and rationalizations refused to go away, and she was sure that the Pious were going to detect them...

Above, two Pious eerily glided over the treetops, before the group sensed one of them halting almost right above their heads and looking down. There was silence as the two Pious likely conversed telepathically, one of them slowly circling and the other floating... and then the group shivered as a psychic pulse washed over them all, one of the Angels of Greater Heaven asking quietly through their minds: “Who are you?”

And then Aphrodisia leapt to her hooves, and all eyes stared in horror as the mare started barking wildly up through the canopy, then she dropped into a low, long growl. The group stared, Innocence slowly grinding her teeth together... before Aphrodisia gave a little whimper and twitch, and then both Pious simply continued on their way.

There was silence for almost a minute, and then Apps reached up and grouchily rubbed at her forehead, mumbling: “Meanie. That was like kicking a dog. In the brain.”

Avalon gave a muffled exclamation of disbelief, and Aphrodisia only shrugged and smiled brightly, saying cheerfully: “Nope! They can't really tell what you are, after all, not unless you start throwing a whole bunch of thoughts at them or something silly like that.”

The others all stared at her, and then Avalon grumbled something behind the gag, Aphrodisia huffing loudly and looking insulted at whatever it was before she reached out and shoved the plastic ball a little further into the mare's jaws, making her squawk and huff. “I am not! You're so mean, Avalon, why do you always have to be so mean to everything? This is why you never had a real coltfriend or anything. You're mean.”

Avalon grumbled and rolled her eyes, and Innocence shook her head slowly before glancing down at Clinker, who was slowly stirring. He blinked blearily, then sat carefully up, rubbing at his head before looking around through the darkness at the demons and ponies he was with... and then his eyes slowly, awkwardly returned to Innocence, studying her before he finally gave a lame little wave and said finally: “Hi.”

“Hi.” Innocence smiled a little, and then she looked up at the sky for a moment... but any trace of the Pious was long gone, so she flicked her horn lightly and created another small blue flame over the little pile of logs, the sapphire fire crackling and dancing quietly and dimly lighting the woods around them once more.

There was silence for a few moments, and then Clinker looked back and forth again... before he simply shrugged a little, then looked in the direction of Ponyville. Innocence shook her head, however, saying quietly: “You can't go back. At least not tonight... how much do you remember?”

Clinker slowly turned an owlish gaze on her, and then he shrugged a little. Innocence sighed tiredly at this, then she reached up and grouchily smacked the end of his muzzle, making him wince a bit. “I need a solid answer, Clinker, this is important.”

The earth pony swayed a little as he thought, and then he finally said after a moment: “Bits and pieces. I remember I felt... happy. And connected. I don't remember how the Light got me. I don't remember if I wanted it or not. I just remember that I was happy.”

Innocence shifted uneasily at this, and Clinker shrugged a bit before he turned around to face the fire, then flopped listlessly down. Terra frowned uneasily at the pony, before she leaned towards Aphrodisia, asking: “Lass, d'you think this is a side effect of the Light?”

“No, that's just her friend Clinker, that's all. Innocence always had weird friends.” Aphrodisia informed with a few short nods, and Sin sighed as Clinker didn't so much as stir. “But what should we do with him, do you think?”

Innocence looked moodily down at Clinker, then she poked him in the flank, getting his attention as he sighed a little. He looked over his shoulder at her, and the mare asked mildly: “If we leave you here tomorrow while we go and free Ponyville from the Light, will you stay out of trouble? Do you promise to wait until we're done in Ponyville before you come back to town?”

Clinker only shrugged after a moment, and then he looked into the flames and settled slowly against the ground before closing his eyes. A long, awkward silence followed, and Innocence glowered at her friend's back as Aphrodisia giggled a little and Avalon groaned around the gag in her mouth and rolled her eyes.

The stallion seemed content just to go to sleep. Innocence, meanwhile, couldn't relax in the slightest, despite the fact that Avalon managed to pull off her old trick of napping despite everything herself. Aphrodisia giggled at her friend, who was drooling around the ball gag and sucking on it like a pacifier, while Applejack, Eventide, and Ersatz talked on and off.

Terra was sitting a little apart from everyone, polishing her metal scales, checking to ensure they were all properly shaped into natural ridges and bladed armor over her body, and every so often playing her claws through her bone or claw charms. Innocence could tell just from looking at the dragon that she had the same worries the scaled unicorn was currently wrestling with... what if they were doing the wrong thing here? What if the Light that, yes, while it had rudely intruded into their lives... did they have any right to take away the unity and happiness it had apparently given all the citizens of Ponyville? Would they really be saving the town, or just ensuring that they would make it another target for the Light to destroy?

And worse, there was the fact that He Of Many Countless Faces might not be the one behind everything after all. The Cardinal... why did that sound almost familiar to Innocence? Had Freya mentioned something about it before, or had she overheard something from Gymbr or... well, who knew? She sure as hell didn't.

The scaled unicorn kept to herself, spending most of the night thinking... and on the morning of the fourth day, they put out the fire, and Aphrodisia finally removed the ball gag from Avalon before the two went off to forage for food and water. They came back after a little while, Apps carrying a dead deer and Avalon the burlap sack, now filled with fruit.

Innocence found herself looking at the deer as Terra skinned it quickly: in some worlds, deer were apparently as intelligent as any pony. She didn't know why they weren't in this one... maybe because the ponies hadn't been all that smart themselves, since they'd gone and gotten themselves killed across this realm. Maybe deer were supposed to be dumb, but some crazy ponies had... interbred with them or something, and the smart ones were all really just the results of crazy pony deer sex, who the hell really knew?

The scaled unicorn rolled her eyes at her own thoughts, hating how she was dancing around the subject: she needed meat, but now that she was trying out this whole 'honor' thing... was it right for her to kill and eat something like this? At what level did something become too intelligent to eat? And if deer was okay, then what about dragons? They were smart, but tried to eat them: was it right to try and eat a dragon in return?

Ask Rarity. some sarcastic voice in her mind said, and this time Innocence managed to smile a bit before she stared with something like horror as Terra calmly popped a deer kidney she had removed into her mouth and loudly chewed it up.

The Ironjaw Dragon's eyes roved to her curiously, and then she smiled slightly at the staring unicorn, asking mildly: “What's wrong there, Sin? Did you want to share that?”

“No no no, no... no, that's... that's fine!” Innocence said hurriedly, wincing back and raising her claws to shake them wildly as the others looked over at her curiously. “I just... Terra... well, how does... how does honor work for you?”

Terra looked surprised at this, and then her gaze turned thoughtful as she looked down, saying after a moment: “Honor... honor is a funny thing, lass, and it's different to different people. For example, Freya claims to have honor, and aye, I agree that she has some. But to her, it's all well and fine to manipulate people to make them do what she pleases, and to use her strength to shove around others and make them listen to her. Now, I agree with the second part, and I don't mind throwin' my weight around to get some idiot to sod off. But if I ever tried to manipulate anyone, I'd feel dirty.

“And well, your brother...” Terra softened a little, smiling faintly as she murmured: “Not even at his worst, when he was full of anger and stress, would he have ever used the fact he could hurt another pony as a reason to do something. He would never have found that honorable, not in the slightest. So it's a strange and hard question you're asking me, Innocence. But the long and short of it is that you have to do what's right, one way or another. You have to follow what your heart tells you, your mind knows, and soul feels is right.”

“What if I felt killing and eating other ponies was right?” Innocence asked sourly, and Terra laughed at this, shaking her head and smiling amusedly at her.

“Then I'd say you'd be just lying to yourself, Innocence, and that's betraying your honor right from the start, now isn't it?” Terra replied easily, and then she shrugged and said kindly: “You're fretting too much, Innocence. Honor means to do what's right. To not be selfish. To help your fellows, be it your friends or family or the innocent at large.”

“Virtue, actually, means to do what's right. You're more virtuous than you are honorable. But the terms are used interchangeably and become... confused.” Ersatz said softly, and then the Envy demon turned her kind eyes towards Innocence, saying quietly: “If you want to know if you're doing the right thing or not, Innocence, then listen to yourself. Not just for your conscience, but for that little, selfish voice that tries to make you do things without regard for the feelings of others. And try to do the opposite of what he says. That's often how I make my decisions, Innocence. For example, that voice has told me many times that I should betray you all to the Light, not for a reward, but merely to hurt those who hold themselves as better than me...”

Ersatz calmly picked up an apple from the overspilled burlap sack, and then she smiled softly, looking around at the ground. “And that's part of how I can be so sure that helping all of you as much as possible, in spite of how afraid I am, is the very best thing I can do right now.”

There was quiet for a few moments, and then Avalon picked up a funny-looking, fuzzy fruit and said mildly: “Virtue sounds girly. I'll stick with honor, thank you.”

“You're silly.” Aphrodisia said kindly, and then she turned a smile towards Innocence, saying warmly: “You have to find it for yourself, Sin, but you're doing great and going the right way! Try not to worry yourself too much though, okay? You're doing really really really well, you really are, considering that... you know...”

“You were on a very dark path before.” Eventide finished, and then the Greater Nightmare and Applejack traded looks, before the smoky mare asked hesitantly: “Would you like me to take your metal claws from you, Innocence? I know that they must make... certain things tempting... and most here would agree that stealing the souls of others is not... 'honorable.'”

Innocence hesitated, looking down at her metal claws... and then she shook her head, blushing a little bit. The others looked surprised at this, but after a moment the scaled mare said quietly: “I think... I mean, I know that it's not really... 'honorable' or anything, I do recognize that. But at the same time... I don't think getting rid of them will really help. It felt... funny, when I pulled the Light out of Clinker, and I don't know if my claws helped or not, but they might have and I don't want to risk giving that up. And there's... the Light has some very dangerous things. I think these weapons are... we're going to need things like this. We're just... going to have to make sure I only use them when it's necessary.”

The others traded looks, and then Applejack sighed softly before she said quietly: “Well, I gotta admit, Sin, you're a far sight different than you were with Gymbr.”

Innocence smiled faintly at this, reaching up and rubbing at her scaled cheek before Terra looked up and asked cheerfully: “So who wants venison?”

Most of those present rose a hoof, while Clinker only continued to snore on the ground, Applejack awkwardly refrained, and Avalon stuck out her tongue with a look of disgust. “Horses of Heaven no. And it's not even the fact it's meat. It's the fact it's deer meat, and that stuff is just gross.”

“Well, lass, if you feel so strongly about it, then bottle your whine and maybe you can trade it in at the store for somethin' more suiting to your tastes.” Terra replied with a slight smile, and Innocence couldn't help but reflect from the dragon's almost-playfulness that she certainly seemed to be a lot peppier when there was food around.

Avalon glowered horribly at the dragon, but then grumbled and instead went back to stuffing her own face with what she had picked and gathered. They relaxed a little as they ate, taking their time, talking a little to each other while Innocence occasionally poked Clinker, but he didn't seem to have any interest in standing up, much less joining their conversation.

That was Clinker, though: the real Clinker, who just kind of loitered his way through everything with minimal effort and minimal emotions. The scaled unicorn sighed a little as she eventually found herself sitting on his back, thinking about all the old times that had passed and they had spent together, before she looked up curiously as Terra approached and calmly sat herself across from her.

The two looked at one-another, and then Terra said quietly: “I never gave you a fair chance, lass. I always judged you, and I've been cruel to you, but I can see you honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. So I want to make a deal with you: you listen to me, and I'll do my best to listen to you.”

Innocence only shrugged a little, shifting awkwardly before she said finally: “I don't think you were ever that mean to me, Terra. I... I certainly didn't deserve a lot of kindness and understanding at first, after all.”

Terra only gave a quiet laugh at this, however, the Ironjaw shaking her head slowly as she said softly: “Aye, perhaps not. But perhaps if we'd all been just a little bit nicer, you would have been able to wake up a little earlier, lass. But the past is past. Let's try and focus together on the future, shall we?”

Innocence smiled a little and nodded after a moment, and the two studied each other quietly before the Ironjaw said quietly: “If I recall correctly what I know of the Light, they hold mass or some celebration in the evening, do they not?”

“I... don't actually know. I never learned a lot about the Light... not from Gymbr, not from Celestia or Freya. I just was told how to kill them, and that they were trying to enslave everything they came across... and I'm not even sure what's true anymore.” Innocence confessed after a moment.

Terra nodded to her, then she said softly: “Well, you'll have to put as much of those fears out of mind as possible, lassie, while we make our move against Ponyville. You'll have to be prepared to do what's necessary, do you ken? I know you know it, but I need you to understand it, and that honor... well... honor will understand that sometimes you must do what you must, in order to keep your loved ones alive and well.”

Innocence shifted a little, giving a brief smile, and Terra nodded again before the Ironjaw said calmly: “Now listen. We should sneak into town in the evening, and seal them inside their temple while they're all saying their prayers and making nice with god. Your tiny pony friend has a surprisingly good plan, considering how little she seems to use that head on her shoulders for anything but ramming into walls and people.”

The scaled unicorn smiled a little as Avalon growled from where she was hovering nearby, the tiny Pegasus saying flatly: “I seriously am going to start kicking flanks around here if you guys keep this up. I was the Commander of the Thunderbolts.”

“Aye, and once my friends and I put on a play for Hel when we were but younglings. We were all very proud little boys and girls.” Terra retorted, and the tiny Pegasus fixed her with a smoldering look before the Ironjaw looked back at Innocence. “Are you going to have to exorcise the blinded mortals one-by-one, or can you do it all at once?”

For a moment, the scaled unicorn looked down, licking her lips slowly before she finally gave a hesitant 'no.' “I... I think that I might be able to do a bunch of them at once, but I'll have to create a whole area of mire for that. And I'll need to be able to concentrate and keep myself safe.”

“So like. Turn the building into that goop or something. I've seen you turn solid stuff into mire before.” Avalon said mildly as she flitted over to land in front of Clinker, and then she stepped forwards onto his head so she could lean closer in towards her. “And you know, it wouldn't hurt if you did something to help draw the Pious out faster.”

“They'll try and protect their Sanctuary. Put a hole in the Sanctuary and they'll come right after you. But you're good at pissing people off, Avalon.” Innocence paused, then looked moodily down at where Avalon's hooves were currently pressing into Clinker's skull, the stallion looking completely unfettered by this as he only blinked blearily a few times before closing his eyes. “Can you please get off my friend?”

“Your friend is like a log. Seriously.” Avalon complained, and then she sighed and shoved herself away, flitting in a circle and rolling her body through the air at the same time in an acrobatic movement she somehow made look lazy. “This is boring. I'm bored.”

Applejack looked up with a strange fondness at her daughter as Aphrodisia only shrugged cheerfully, and Terra sighed tiredly as she looked up and watched the Pegasus, saying dryly: “Then why don't you make yourself useful and scout out Ponyville? Give us an idea of what's ahead, lass, if you're so unable to keep yourself from fidgeting around.”

“Gladly.” Avalon grumbled, and then she shot straight up through the canopy, shattering tree branches as she sailed up into the sky. Aphrodisia clapped and giggled at the sight of this, while Eventide only shook her head with a small smile and Ersatz gave a soft, relaxed sigh as a few broken bits of wood pattered down from the trees.

Avalon returned after roughly forty minutes: quite a long time, considering the speed of the mare, and she had a thunderous look on her face that worried Innocence immediately. But after she landed, she trembled a little before glaring over at Applejack, snapping: “Why the hell didn't you tell me that's what happened to Big Mac and Soarin'? I thought... I thought they...”

Applejack sighed softly, dropping her head forwards before she said quietly: “Because they stayed behind to distract the Pious while we escaped Sweet Apple Acres. To be honest, I'm surprised you didn't know already, Ava... I'm sorry.”

“Sorry... sorry! You lied to me! And after I saw them I... I went down and tried to talk to them in the field and... I had to knock both of them out and tie them up in a shed together.” Avalon cursed under her breath, then she clenched her eyes shut. “I... I could have handled it...”

The wooden mare smiled faintly at her daughter, and then she stepped forwards and touched her face gently, and Avalon looked up at her mother for a few moments before Applejack said quietly: “Maybe I just couldn't handle telling you. And then, so much time passed, and we were always on the move... I didn't want you distracted.”

“I'm not distracted. I'm... I'm angry.” Avalon gritted her teeth, glaring almost defiantly up at her mother as her eyes flashed. “I'm angry. And I do my best goddamn work when I'm angry so... so you and everypony else just stay the hell out of my way and let me work! Tonight, I swear, we're gonna free every single one of those ponies from the goddamn Light...”

Avalon cursed again and stomped the ground angrily, and the others looked at her silently for a few moments before the tiny mare shook her head quickly and took a few slow breaths, calming herself as much as possible before she looked up and muttered: “There... I can't tell how many ponies are left in the village any more. Maybe a few hundred, a lot of them are blinded, plenty are just playing along. I saw Monkshood... he looks as pissed off as ever, so I think he's okay.”

Innocence nodded briefly, and then Avalon took another calming breath, shaking herself out briefly before she continued in a more-rational voice: “The Sanctuary had one of those big boards out in front of it with a whole bunch of posters and stuff on it. I checked it out. No one noticed me, don't worry: it looks like they must hold three meetings a day, morning, noon and night, for their... weird rituals or whatever...”

“No one noticed you because you're so short.” Aphrodisia said helpfully, and Avalon slowly turned a scowl towards the mare, who gazed back at her positively before the demon suddenly became a little more serious, adding quietly: “But that was really dangerous. Don't do stuff like that, Ava, just because you're upset.”

“I'm... I'm not upset. Besides, I got away with it, totally...” Avalon mumbled, shifting awkwardly before she huffed a little and turned away with a grumble, turning her eyes back towards the Ironjaw. “I think they can only fit maybe... eighty people into the Sanctuary at once. We're gonna have a whole lot of blinded ponies on our tails even if we do manage to seal a bunch up inside. But we really gotta get rid of those Pious, first and foremost. Even then... I mean, unicorns can send letters and magic warnings, Pegasi can fly out of there, earth ponies could make a run for it. I don't see how we can cut an entire town off from the Light.”

“Well, there's really only one direction they're going to go in. Towards Canterlot: that's the closest Light outpost. There's nothing west except the Strange One's settlement and everything east is way too far, over a lot of exposed land.” Innocence reasoned after a moment, looking down and rubbing slowly at her face. “And I can set up magic snares on the roads, and intercept letters... well... I can't do both at once...”

“I know how to intercept any letters sent by dragon's breath or spell.” Ersatz said kindly, raising a hoof, and Innocence smiled a bit before the Envy demon added softly: “And I can call Burning Desire to come and help us as well, if you like. It may be a little selfish, but I know he'll come if I call, and... I've wanted an excuse to do so.”

Aphrodisia nodded firmly, smiling warmly over at the mare. “You should definitely do that! I really wanna see Burning, it's been way, way, way too long... and of course, I can definitely kidnap ponies and help keep the skies and ground clear-”

“I can handle the skies myself. I could take out every Pegasus in Ponyville in ten seconds flat.” Avalon said cockily, raising her head proudly, and then she frowned when Applejack laughed and smiled warmly at this. “What?”

“Oh, nothin'... you just remind me of someone, that's all.” Applejack replied wryly, and then she shook her head slowly and added quietly: “I can help out, too. I can set up some snares... nothin' fancy like your powers, but sometimes the good old fashioned stuff works just as well. Should be able to at least slow anyone trying to flee right down.”

Terra grunted at this, adding mildly: “And it shouldn't take us more than a few nights at most to finish the rest of the blinded ponies off... particularly if you're able to do more than a few at a time, Innocence. But either way, we'll save 'em all and we'll do it fast, to make sure Freya doesn't decide to try and 'save' them in her own way.”

Innocence grimaced a little at this, before she frowned and looked down as Clinker said quietly: “They already are safe. You should just leave them alone, Sin. We were all... happy. And now I just don't feel anything anymore again.”

Then he closed his eyes again, and the scaled unicorn shifted uneasily before sliding off his back and looking down at the earth pony, asking quietly: “You can't really mean that... can you? Clinker, come on... weren't you happy when we were friends? What about your birthday party, wasn't that amazing? There's... so much that was good in life.”

Clinker only shrugged slowly, and then he finally opened one eye and looked up at her... emptily, she thought. Like he didn't care about anyone or anything. Like she had accidentally torn out what little emotion Clinker had ever had along with the Light... “So what? The Light made me happy. Made all of us happy. Now I'm confused again and don't know what to do with myself and feel lost and listless. I was never like that with the Light. The Light... made everything better.”

“The Light sounds more like it was a drug, lad. Better to kick the addiction now, than wait until it leads you to trouble down the road.” Terra said quietly, but Clinker only looked away, closing his eyes... and Innocence wasn't sure herself if what the Ironjaw said was true. All the scaled unicorn knew was that she had plenty of misgivings about this entire conflict with the Light, and it hurt to see her friend laying here, so empty and lost, instead of showing all the warmth and happiness he had while the Light had still been shining through his spirit.

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