• 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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Tidings Of Civil War

Chapter Eighty: Tidings of Civil War

Innocence, Avalon, and Ersatz were crouched just a block away from the Sanctuary, watching as people flooded through the streets eagerly towards the building. They were half-hidden inside a small alley, using garbage cans to shield them from any glances in their direction... although the only reason they hadn't been discovered was likely because there was such a rush for the Sanctuary.

“See? It's like poison.” Avalon grumbled moodily, and although it was a little disturbing how eager and excited everyone was over going into the temple, Innocence had to admit she wasn't entirely convinced that meant all of the Light was pure evil just yet.

“They're distracted just getting in. It's... weird.” Innocence shook her head uneasily, and then she shifted and looked up towards the darkening sky. “They should be getting started soon... I wonder what'll happen if there's no seats left...”

She found out the answer after about half a minute passed: two Pious emerged and held up their hands in front of themselves, their wing-like appendages bowing forwards, and there was a disappointed murmur through the crowd that remained in front of the church before the ponies that hadn't made it inside all bowed deeply to the Pious. Then they started to turn and disperse as the Pious retreated into their Sanctuary, calmly closing the doors behind themselves.

Within minutes, the street around the church was empty... but the church itself was almost glowing with radiance through its stained glass windows, and countless voices were already happily chanting away from within the Sanctuary's walls. The three all grimaced at this, before Ersatz Major murmured: “Such devotion... it's... it's dangerous. We should be careful.”

Innocence nodded hesitantly, and then she said quietly: “Avalon, go get ready. Come on, Ersatz: you seal the front doors, I'll seal everything else. Avalon, we'll let you know when.”

The two mares nodded sharply, and then the three ponies ran quickly out into the street, hurrying down the road: but even in spite of her misgivings, the mare gritted her teeth and forced herself to just keep moving, running down along the side of the building and flicking her horn sharply as she passed a door, a thick layering of black crystal shooting upwards over it.

She curled around to the back to the back of the surprisingly-humble, rectangular building, flicking her horn again to coat two more doors in solid frost before she curled around the other side of the building, her eyes studying it: the structure was tall and statuesque but simple, and thankfully there were no other exits... unless someone decided to smash out one of the windows, of course, but if they were half as obsessed with all the Light's rules and laws as they acted, they would prefer to die before they started throwing chairs at the windows of the Sanctuary.

Ersatz had sealed the front doors and most of the front steps in ice, and Innocence smiled to her with a sharp nod before both ponies looked up as the chanting inside morphed into shouting and angry disapproval. Innocence shot a quick look at Ersatz, and the Envy demon simply nodded before Innocence dropped low, focusing her magic into her limbs before she snarled and kicked off the ground as hard as she could, launching herself up to the roof and landing on it with loud thud.

She heard shouts and yells from inside from the moment she landed, and then she started to look up, ready to signal Avalon: but the Pegasus apparently took just the sight of her as signal enough, the tiny mare shooting downwards and going into a wild spiral before she smashed straight down through the shingled rooftop, then twisted upwards and and smashed back into the air in a hail of splinters and wood.

Innocence gaped at the damage Avalon had done without anything but brute force and a ridiculously-resilient little body covered in spiked belts, the tiny mare grinning widely before she shouted as she smashed her crosshatch blades together challengingly: “Hey, assholes! Come and get me! I'm right here!”

The crowd inside the Sanctuary roared like a wounded animal before three Pious shot out of the hole one after the other, and then Innocence gritted her teeth and snapped her horn out, a thick sheet of ice forming a solid patch over the hole. Something bumped uselessly into this a moment later, and Innocence looked up before wincing as a Pious shot towards her, quickly snapping her horn out to send a blue fireball into its face.

The Pious was knocked backwards, wing-appendages flapping and making its impossibly-floating body jerk back and forth in midair, before the mare snapped her horn sharply outwards again and sent a black jet of flames tearing over angel, leaving awful burns over its body and knocking it staggering further.

The other two Pious were sweeping after Avalon, the Pegasus grinning coldly even as they flanked her from either side before one lashed its claws towards her as the other drew its wing-like appendages back as if to strike: but in a flash, the small mare shot forwards into the stomach of the first Pious, getting inside of its claw strike before she slashed both of her crosshatch blades into its stomach and half-spun, flinging it with a roar into the other Pious just as it began to stab its wing appendages towards the mare.

The wing-limbs tore through the stomach and breast of its own ally instead of Avalon, the pierced Pious writhing helplessly before Avalon shot forwards and swung her crosshatch blades out in wide, crescent slashes. The ends of the wing appendages belonging to the second Pious were torn off, sending the creature flopping out of the air as if Avalon had just severed real wings instead of the impossible skeletal frames.

Both Pious plummeted to the roof of the Sanctuary, crashing with a loud thump, and Avalon instantly dropped on top of them, stomping furiously up and down on their bodies, crushing in frail forms, breaking limbs, ripping holes in fragile flesh. Then she huffed and hopped off the crushed pair of Pious before glaring over her shoulder as the last Pious slowly crumpled to the ground in front of Innocence, a rotten wing appendage tearing loose from its body thanks to the tight grip Innocence still had on it with one front claw.

“Thanks. Thief.” Avalon growled, and then she looked up almost sulkily at the sound of a wounded roar, and something being smashed loudly apart in the distance. “Dammit. Looks like Terra's on top of her job, too.”

Innocence sighed, and then she winced when Avalon shot towards her, the unicorn half-flinging the rotten Pious limb at the tiny Pegasus, but Avalon easily avoided this and then dropped to her hooves in front of the scaled unicorn, glaring up at her. “Now hurry up and turn this place to mire or something and fix all those people inside.”

“I... don't think it's going to be that easy. But...” Innocence hesitated, then she turned and leapt off the roof of the building despite the fact part of her recoiled in shock at how high she was: but a few moments later, she landed with only the faintest twitch of pain as she concentrated magic into her legs. She always learned best on the move, after all...

Avalon followed her with a grumble, and Innocence glanced over her shoulder at her before saying finally: “I'm going to try. Ersatz, you need to start blocking transmissions, and Avalon, you need to start keeping an eye out above Ponyville. I'll see about... clearing the Light out.”

The two nodded, and Avalon looked over at Ersatz before saying quietly: “I'll escort you out of town, first. You just hurry over the roads and I'll follow you from above, okay?”

Ersatz Major smiled, then she turned her eyes towards Innocence, saying softly: “Good luck. Trust your instincts, Sin. You don't have bad instincts.”

“I don't know about that.” Innocence said softly, but she gave a small smile and a nod all the same before the scaled mare turned her eyes towards the Sanctuary as Ersatz and Avalon both turned to leave, silently studying the Sanctuary before she shook her head quickly and muttered: “Well. I guess... I'll just try my best.”

Innocence stepped nervously up to onto the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the thick blockade of ice over the entrance before she licked her lips slowly, then steeled herself and strode calmly up the stairs. Her horn glowed darkly as she approached, and the ice trembled before cracking and shifting, a narrow tunnel forming through the frost to the doors of the Sanctuary.

Innocence strode down this, then she calmly rose her claws and placed them against the wood, closing her eyes as she pushed forwards with her powers. Heat spread through the wood, and then it began to melt, dissolving into bubbling black mire that slowly sloughed down to form an oval hole in the doors, Innocence gazing into the worship hall of the Sanctuary beyond and at the pews and pews filled with shocked-looking ponies.

She stepped calmly inside, and the ponies all recoiled, whispering amongst themselves before one of them shouted: “Heretic! Nonbeliever! Atheist!”

“No, I believe. I believe in a lot of things...” Innocence said quietly, looking slowly back and forth before she grimaced as someone flung something at her. But with a flick of her horn, she created a shield around herself, and the trinket bounced harmlessly off this before the mare sighed softly and dug her claws into the floor of the Sanctuary, saying quietly: “I'm sorry.”

“She's defiling this place! Stop it! Murderer! Freak!” Other shouts rose up, of horror and disbelief and terror, as the floor rippled violently before rapidly transforming into dark ooze, ponies leaping up onto the pews and taking to the air to try and avoid contact with it, screaming in fear and terror as the wooden floor easily and quickly became thick, deep black mire. “Stop her!”

But no one wanted to get close to her. No one wanted to risk being touched by her darkness, she thought bitterly, but then she gritted her teeth and forced the thoughts away as she drew in energy from her Panacea, looking coldly back and forth as she watched the dark slime crawling up over whatever it touched, a few pones crying out in terror as the muck started to spread up over them, as other tendrils slowly crept up walls and pews started to dissolve and totter...

Innocence felt her magic growing, her eyes closing as she drank in the fear and anger and hate and bitterness of the ponies in the room, gritting her teeth before her whole body tensed in shock as there was a faint flash of light deep inside the darkness... and then her eyes snapped open and she lashed her horn upwards with a roar, and a terrible black wave tore out of her body, the mire surging upwards with the expanding sphere of darkness that tore through the air as ponies were knocked to the ground from the force of the spell, screaming in terror and disbelief...

And then, for a moment, there was only blackness, and a mesmerizing hum, the Sanctuary and parts of the surrounding building trapped inside an almost-perfectly-spherical orb of deep shadow. Innocence breathed hard, staring out into this and into the silence, not knowing what had just happened before she looked down in shock as the Panacea beneath her claws turned to solid stone, all the energy sapped out of it from the spell as her body shivered... and she realized stupidly that she could see again.

The darkness was gone, faster than it had come: and, as she looked back and forth slowly, she had no idea what had happened. All the ponies gathered here were laying in unconscious heaps, still and silent, some of the dotted with ashes from the mire that had dissolved over their bodies... and then Innocence sighed in relief as a mare nearby shifted slowly.

Other ponies across the Sanctuary began to uneasily pick themselves up, a few of them mumbling to each other, one or two managing to climb to their hooves with little trouble at all as they stared around in confusion. Slowly, Innocence felt most of the attention in the room turning to her, and the scaled unicorn looked uneasily out over all the gathered ponies, asking uneasily: “Are you... do you know what happened?”

“No...” murmured a mare after a moment, and there were a few uneasy looks before that same mare blurted: “Sort of... we... I don't know...”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Innocence said quietly: “The Light took all of you over. I freed you all from its grip, and my friends and I are rounding up all the other people who have been... blinded, we call it. Most of Equestria was blinded, and... a lot of ponies have been hurt. We're... we're trying to save them.”

Ponies traded confused looks at this, and then one of them asked slowly: “You... so you... saved us, is that what you're saying? You saved us because the Light... was... bad?”

“But the Light... it felt so good. The Light... never wanted to hurt anyone...” muttered another voice, and there were a few uneasy mumbles of consent before someone laughed dryly near the back of the room, this pony shaking his head slowly.

“Yes, right. The Light was perfectly peaceful. It's not like it ever tried to kill any of the nonbelievers... I...” The stallion looked down at his trembling hooves as he sat back in one half-collapsed pew, and then he whispered: “I was a rebel. Then the Pious killed my brother and captured me and... tortured me until they could... force the Light on me...”

There were more murmurs, and Innocence hesitated before she said finally: “If you have... if you have any friends or family here in Ponyville, who aren't here right now... don't go home to them. You have to find somewhere else to stay... because otherwise, well... they might try and hurt you.”

The ponies shifted worriedly, and Innocence thought about how Clinker had been... but how could she explain that to them? She had to keep it simple, in order to keep these ponies safe. But all the same, the scaled unicorn hesitated for a moment longer before she sighed and added hesitantly: “But if you have no choice, then you have to pretend like you still adore the Light. You have to play along and... make it through tonight, at least. We're currently blockading Ponyville-”

“I want to help with the blockades!” said one of the ponies, and several others gave sounds of agreement as the stallion stepped forwards, saying sharply: “My marefriend is still under the Light's control! I can't have them... make her run away or steal her or hurt her!”

Innocence smiled a little, raising her head in surprise before she nodded uneasily, then pointed to the hole in the door, saying quickly: “If you need a safe place to hide, go to the Clockworks. It's abandoned but not locked up, you should be able to find a place to at least keep warm for the night. Or head into the Everfree Forest, but... be careful and keep your eyes open. The Forest can't protect us anymore. The Light... destroyed it.”

She stopped, shivering for a moment before returning her eyes to the ponies that were still looking at her resolutely. “If you really want to help, then... come with me. We need to run through Ponyville, though, so... be prepared. We could get attacked. I don't know how aggressive the Light is going to be, especially now that we've destroyed this Sanctuary.”

The other ponies nodded, and Innocence looked up as the other ponies lingered, looking like they were dumbly waiting for something, so after a moment the mare finally rose her head and snapped: “Now! Let's get going now!”

The ponies stumbled all over themselves, before hurrying forwards as Innocence led the way out the door, the scaled unicorn stepping to the side of the steps and watching as ponies flooded the streets, looking panicked as they began to run in all directions. Some stayed back, intent on helping out as promised... but Innocence was admittedly glad it was only a small group of ponies. It was great to have help, but she would have preferred not getting any of these ponies involved in fighting their own neighbors at all.

“This way.” the mare muttered, jerking her head down the street, and the five nodded, following quickly after her as Innocence started down the road, her eyes nervously flicking back and forth. But no one came out to attack them, no forces of the Light appeared suddenly before them, no ponies tried to rush them: instead, Innocence could almost swear that she saw terrified ponies looking out at what was going on, watching them with fear as they passed, even though the Light's army had always been vicious and remorseless in battle, facing down even the fiercest demons with maddening zeal...

They made it to the northern road with little event... but as they began to pass between the ranch houses and farmland, several Hounds of Heaven appeared out of nowhere in front of them, snarling furiously. Innocence's eyes widened as something pricked at her senses, remembering these creatures never made a frontal attack... and the scaled unicorn barely managed to wheel herself around in time, looking past the ponies that had been following her towards several distinct distortions in the air...

She snapped her horn out, and the ponies all hit the ground with yelps and shouts of terror as several massive blasts of lightning hammered down from the sky, smashing across the invisible Hounds of Heaven and knocking them into plain sight as they shrieked and stumbled backwards. Then Innocence snarled as she half-spun, lashing her horn up and outwards to summon a wave of black fire that shot through the air and washed over the three hounds on her other side, knocking them screaming and squealing backwards in agony as the black fire rapidly ate away at flesh and spirit.

Innocence snapped her horn out, sending a powerful telekinetic blast hammering home into the three Hounds and knocking them rolling away. Then the mare's horn glowed as she spun around again just as one of the Hounds of Heaven began to leap at a pony's back, and it was blown apart by a sapphire fireball as the scaled unicorn shouted: “Keep running!”

The group of ponies scrambled for their hooves before bolting down the road, the small stampede knocking one Hound to the ground and crushing it senselessly into the dirt as the other was smacked out of the way with a yelp of pain. Innocence, meanwhile, was focused on the two Hounds in front of her, glaring at them before she snapped her horn suddenly outwards, blasting one backwards before she lashed her horn down and struck it in midair with telekinesis, crushing it flat into the ground with a shriek before it fell still and shivered.

But the other Hound used the opportunity to vanish, and Innocence cursed as she looked back and forth before her eyes widened as she heard a snarl from behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see a Hound of Heaven leaping at her, and she barely managed to slam a kick back into its face... leaving her completely defenseless against the Hound that sparked into reality on her other side before its teeth sank into her shoulder, barely missing her neck as the heavy beast tackled her to the ground.

She screamed in agony, shoving a claw up against it as it shook its head wildly back and forth, tearing and ripping flesh and muscle, and then another Hound leapt in: a wild kick managed to knock this one stumbling, at least, before Innocence shrieked and arched her back, a powerful shockwave erupting from her form and launching the Hound on top of her flying. It crashed bonelessly down some twenty feet away as Innocence sat up with a snarl, her shoulder a flayed mess, before her eyes widened as another Hound appeared in front of her, as if readying itself to pounce-

Her horn flicked upwards, and a spike of rock tore up through its lower jaw and out the back of its head, knocking it limp. But instead of victory, Innocence felt horror as she realized too late that even if she'd killed it... it was just another goddamn distraction. A realization that added insult to injury as a Hound managed to leap on top of her, biting wildly at her neck as its claws tore at her back for purchase against her smooth hide.

Innocence staggered back and forth, and then she bucked hard forwards, falling on her own face as her bad leg crumpled beneath her. The Hound was flung off with a yelp, but it managed to catch itself and roll up to its paws as the other remaining war-beast charged eagerly in at her back.

The scaled mare knew she had only a moment to react, and she gritted her teeth as she shoved a claw against the ground, her other foreleg trembling, limp and useless... and the mare cursed before she shoved herself suddenly upwards as she threw herself backwards, flinging herself onto her back in a painful flop as the Hounds of Heaven leapt at her from either side. Her claw lashed wildly out and caught one Hound by its face, shoving it down into the ground with a yelp as both rear hooves slammed into the face of the other war dog, its neck cracking sickeningly as it was knocked in a broken sprawl.

The survivor was trying to yank his face out from under her claw, but Innocence dug her claws viciously into his features before she snarled and pulled savagely, absorbing its life energy, the Hound shrieking as its body became a deader, emptier gray... and then it slumped brokenly, and Innocence gasped as she yanked her claw away, feeling her body shivering and her wounds slowly knitting closed as she whispered: “Guess... I'm okay with that as part of my code of honor after all.”

Innocence breathed hard in and out, then she slowly rolled over and pushed herself up... and stared in disbelief at the sight of the group of mortal ponies staring at her dumbly. She stared back, then twitched before snapping sharply: “And why the hell didn't any of you guys try and help me?”

The ponies traded dumb looks, before one of them held up a hoof and said weakly: “Y-You... you didn't say anything about the Light using monsters!”

Innocence slowly closed her eyes, and then she cursed quietly, flinching and grasping at her bloody shoulder before she took a slow breath, horn glowing faintly and the wound lighting up with black, thrumming energy. Panacea gradually filled up the slashes and gouges in her shoulder, then solidified, and the mare gave a sigh of relief as she carefully forced herself to stand up, looking moodily over at the other ponies as she muttered: “Let's just get going for now, okay?”

The mortals nodded hurriedly, and Innocence forced herself not to roll her eyes as she shook herself out a little. Her body was aching with pain, and she gritted her teeth at how... fragile she was. She hated thinking about that: for all her strength and power, unless she managed to armor herself up in crystal, once something started getting its claws into her she had a hard time fighting it off. All the mighty power of endless darkness and she could barely take a punch... there had to be a way to fix that.

She realized the ponies were staring at her, and she scowled in response, making them all wince and flinch backwards before the scaled unicorn grumbled: “Seriously, don't make me repeat myself. Start moving or I swear I'll start turning you guys into monsters, too.”

The ponies all winced at this, scurrying around in a circle and hurrying down the road, and Innocence sighed tiredly before she started to lope after them, limping only slightly as they headed up the northern road. She couldn't help but look silently back and forth as they passed farmsteads that still looked so familiar and pretty orchards full of rich trees...

Innocence realized she was staring too much at things, and she shook her head out before looking quickly forwards and sighing in relief as she realized that Applejack was standing in the road not far ahead, frowning at them. The ponies were slowing as they approached her, even if it was clear just from looking at the large, wooden-hide pony wearing the old cowboy hat that she was no servant of the Light.

“Okay, slow down.” Innocence said moodily, and she limped ahead of the ponies as they all-but-stopped, the scaled unicorn sighing tiredly before she smiled wryly at Applejack as she approached, gesturing with her head over her shoulder at the ponies behind her and saying quietly: “Don't worry. I already know bringing these idiots was a mistake, but... they wanted to help. They're scared, but maybe... I don't know.”

“No, I'll put 'em to work, don't you worry about that, Innocence. If they want to help, they can help.” Applejack said evenly, and Innocence smiled a little: she did a pretty good job of hiding the disapproval in her voice. Then the wooden-hided pony frowned a bit before leaning forwards and asking uncertainly: “But are you okay yourself, Innocence? You look like you ran into a little bit of trouble, and by that I don't mean the Pious.”

“Hounds.” Innocence grumbled, and then she looked uneasily at the farmhouses, asking finally: “Are there... ponies in there? I mean, it'd be pointless to block off the roads if...”

“Oh, don't you worry now, Innocence. I already took care of them here, and Eventide called some Nightmares to come and watch things for us once night falls.” Applejack responded with a shake of her head, and then she turned her eyes towards the setting sun. “Burning Desire is gonna join us as well, maybe even bring friends. I think it's against orders, but... I don't think Burning entirely has a head for listening to orders.”

Innocence laughed a little despite herself as the ponies awkwardly clustered behind her, and there was silence for a few moments before she sighed a bit and said finally: “I guess that I'd better leave these guys in your care, anyway, and head back into town... or... well, maybe I should go and take the Light out of the heads of the ponies inside, first.”

“Alright, Innocence. You do what you think is right, and we'll support you along the way.” Applejack stopped, then she softened a little and said in a more careful voice: “And if I may say so... I'm glad to see you're getting better, if you know what I mean. After what Gymbr did to you... well... it's a relief to see that you're finding yourself.”

“Don't jinx it, Wormwood.” Innocence said softly, giving a small smile, and Applejack gave the scaled mare an amused smile, fixing her with an entertained look before Innocence turned away and headed towards the nearest house.

It only took her half an hour, going from farm to farm, to remove the Light from the minds of the ponies that lived here in the furthest outskirts. Some of the ponies reacted with happiness at being freed, others were upset, and one stallion politely thanked her and then told her to get the hell out. All-in-all, she wasn't getting the greatest collection of reactions again, which made her feel... worried, once more, whether or not they were really doing the right thing.

Not long after darkness fell, and as Innocence was helping Applejack and the ponies set up traps along the road, a glowing firebird shot down from the air before transforming in a burst of flames into Burning Desire. The demonic stallion bounced easily through the field, fiery mane and tail flowing backwards as he grinned widely at Innocence, and the scaled unicorn scowled a bit at him before wincing when the stallion reached up and caught her by the cheeks with his front hooves, squeezing her face happily as he declared brightly: “Oh, I knew you had it in you! I knew it, look at you, so pretty and so grown-up and truly finding herself!”

“Let go of my face.” Innocence grumbled through her mashed cheeks, and then she reached up and swatted his hooves away, giving him a cranky look. “Look. I'm glad to have your help here but we can't have you getting seen by any Pious or attracting the Light or anything. Do you understand that?”

Burning Desire sniffed disdainfully at this, and then he said mildly: “Believe me, Innocence. I'm the very last thing the Pious are concerned about right now... after all, I'm just a silly demon whose real power lays not in his magical potential, but in his absolute handsomeness.” Burning reached up, brushing his front hooves through his mane and making it flare brightly for a moment as the others stared at him, before the demon suddenly became serious, leaning forwards and saying quietly: “We need to speak in private about Freya.”

Innocence frowned uneasily at this, and then she nodded slowly before wincing when Burning Desire began to stroll towards Ponyville, the mare saying awkwardly: “I... I don't think that's a very good idea... the Light...”

“Oh, Innocence. Believe me, these ponies aren't quite the true 'Light.' They're just victims, one way or another.” Burning Desire said gently, and then he smiled and shook his head slowly, gesturing up at the dark, deepening night sky. “And do you see this, Innocence? Darkness is all around us. Now for us, darkness is safety... but to the Light, darkness represents everything they hate and fear. Even the Pious grow less bold in darkness. These poor little souls won't harm us.”

Innocence nodded hesitantly, and then Burning Desire began to stroll calmly down the road before he paused and clicked his tongue, looking over his shoulder with a wink at Applejack and asking easily: “Are you sure that I could never entice you to provide a little fuel for my flame? You're such a pretty thing, still! And I'm sure your husband won't mind at all.”

“My husband still has plenty of kick left in the can, Burning. Nice of you to offer, though.” Applejack smiled wryly, rolling her eyes before she added mildly: “Just do me a favor, and keep your hooves off of Innocence there. And my daughter, if you two happen to run into her.”

“Oh, don't worry. I've learned my lesson there. Your daughter happens to be a little surly about fun and games, especially in times like these. But I've always been one to think that in the hardest times, we need our smiles and warmth the most.” Burning Desire replied easily, and then he turned his eyes back forwards as they gleamed longingly, murmuring: “Especially because it's at times like these we find ourselves separated so often from the very people we want to protect.”

Innocence looked at him curiously, then she simply followed as they started calmly forwards, walking a little down the road in silence before the demon sighed softly and said quietly: “Most of the rebels are dead, Innocence. The Light's army, all of its attention, is focused on Quietus Clime, and all the demons, the Blessed, everyone else has been sent away. The diplomats are doing diplomacy still in every direction as if getting new allies will somehow replace all the lives that have been lost, but... even if Freya rose a new army and marched it immediately from all sides against the army the Light is attacking Quietus Clime with...”

Innocence looked down, shivering and shaking her head weakly. This wasn't what she wanted to hear. This wasn't what she'd wanted to happen, as she looked uncomfortably over at Burning Desire and studied him for a few long moments, then said quietly: “And you... you look kind of like that's not the worst part.”

“It's... it's not, I'm afraid.” Burning Desire grimaced a bit, looking ahead and shaking his head briefly. “Freya has no intention of pulling out of Quietus Clime, from what we've all seen... and more than that, there's a rumor floating around us demons that she's trying to get everyone killed. After all, she's right in the territory of a Dracolich...”

Innocence shook her head weakly, then she gritted her teeth and looked down, stomping a claw and muttering: “And she told me that I was an honorless monster and... and even I think that's wrong! How can she do things like this, Burning? Why is she... what the hell is wrong with her? What about honor?”

“Honor can mean a thousand different things, Innocence, and it gets more complicated when you're trying to measure logic against emotion. Freya is still going to do whatever it takes to win, no matter how... we end up looking at her for it. That's just the kind of person she is; determined that she knows better than everyone else.” Burning Desire paused, then he gave a faint smile. “The sad part, Innocence, is that she likely does, and she likely will save more lives in the long run doing this than... trying to protect these lives now.”

Innocence shivered a little, then she looked down and shook her head slowly, murmuring: “And that makes her honorable? That makes her... it doesn't make sense to me.”

Burning Desire shrugged a bit, and they were silent as they headed into town before the demon rose his head and said quietly: “But that's all just a rumor, Innocence. You know us demons, and our silly gossip and all that. Like I heard a rumor that Freya will be coming here once she's done with... whatever she's getting up to over at Quietus Clime with her brand new friend. He's a very talkative one, I hear. Sounds rather like a thesaurus with diarrhea, I believe he was described to me as. I bet he and violet would get along just swimmingly. Although I'm not so sure about Scrivener Blooms, he always seems to get so cranky when it comes to things like that.”

Innocence smiled faintly at this, and then she looked down for a moment before Burning Desire added kindly: “I believe they're out there somewhere, you know. It's very hard for me to believe that and it hurts sometimes, but I believe it all the same, Innocence. And even if I'm proven wrong, I won't ever give up the hope of seeing gorgeous violet and your parents again... and even Sleipnir! Sleipnir must be out there somewhere, because you know there's no pony quite as strong as that strapping, handsome stallion. He's a stallion's stallion.”

Innocence sighed and shook her head slowly, and Burning Desire merely winked as they strode into Ponyville. A faint smile spread over his face as he looked back and forth, murmuring: “Look at it, Innocence. No walls and no Nibelung and... all these poor ponies, blinded by the Light. Scared of little old us... oh, this will never do. Even if they're scared of us we don't have to linger around in the dark like dirty but attractive bad colts waiting in a back alley to ravish maidens.”

“Why do all your metaphors have to be about that?” Innocence asked sourly, and Burning Desire shrugged as he flicked his mane towards a tall lightpost, the old lamp atop it flaring into life.

“Because I'm a Passion. Because I enjoy that. And because it's what's expected of me, Innocence... I mean, I wouldn't be much of a playful, seductive demon if I didn't play the role of a playful, seductive demon, now would I?” Burning Desire said reasonably, and then he paused before looking up with a soft smile. “There she is.”

Innocence cocked her head curiously... and then Aphrodisia all-but-dove out of the air to ram into Burning Desire, the demon catching her in a fierce hug as she snuggled herself into his broad chest with a beaming smile, saying happily: “Burning Desire! It's great to see you!”

“Aphrodisia, you haven't grown up at all!” Burning said kindly, and the mare giggled against his chest, closing her eyes and snuggling happily closer as he squeezed her gently: somehow, coming from him, that didn't at all sound like an insult.

Innocence sighed a little, rolling her eyes at the reunion... but she knew that was jealousy more than anything else gnawing at her, and she wasn't quite as upset as she was putting on. She looked at the two of them for a moment, then turned her eyes away, looking uneasily back and forth through the street as she muttered: “We're really tempting fate here. We should go and find a safer place.”

“No, it's okay. I don't think any of them are going to hurt us, Innocence... they're scared. Especially since the Pious are gone, and Terra's killed all the wyverns and dogs, and... well, they don't really seem like 'doing' kind of ponies anymore.” She paused, then slapped Burning Desire's chest with a huff when he grinned at her, waggling his eyebrows. “Not that kind of 'doing,' Burning! Don't be so gross and silly. I mean they're just... hiding in their homes, praying and waiting for the Light to save them. I kind of feel bad for them.”

“Well, we're... going to fix them. We're not going to hurt them.” Innocence said after a moment, although she wasn't entirely sure... how true that was anymore. She shifted uneasily, then turned her eyes towards the rows of houses, asking quietly: “Should we... what should we do, then? I need your help, I'm not a leader.”

Aphrodisia smiled a little at this, and then she quietly pushed herself away from Burning Desire, turning her eyes towards the scaled unicorn and becoming surprisingly-serious as she said softly: “You need to keep these ponies here. Just because there's a ninety-nine percent chance no one's going to run away doesn't mean we can all just go and sleep things off and come back tomorrow, because there's that one percent chance someone will try to get out of here. And if they do, all our plans are ruined.

“But they're really scared of us, especially right now. We can't coexist in this town, but we can hopefully draw out who's been blinded by the Light and who's not. And we can mark the homes of the ponies we know absolutely are blinded, and sort of isolate them from the rest.” Aphrodisia continued, nodding slowly a few times. “Me and Burning and you can do that, while Applejack, Eventide, and her Greater Nightmares all keep an eye on things outside of town, and Avalon keeps in the air. And maybe... maybe you should talk to them, Sin. You did really really good with Clinker, after all.”

Innocence frowned at this, then she shifted and shook her head quickly, mumbling: “No, no... that... that was different. Clinker was my friend, that's all. That doesn't count.”

Aphrodisia smiled at this, saying kindly: “I think that makes it even more impressive, Innocence, that you were willing to talk to him and all that. Not a stranger and stuff. I find it a lot easier to talk to strangers than I do talking to anyone else, you know. I mean, I'll probably never see them again and all that.”

Innocence sighed a little at this, shaking her head grumpily before she said moodily: “Let's save talking to people for afterwards. I'm a little sore, but it's not too hard for me to pull the Light out of ponies. Let's stick to doing that.”

“Okay!” Aphrodisia said cheerfully, shrugging a bit, and then the demon looked warmly over at Burning Desire, asking curiously: “So what do you think?”

Burning looked thoughtfully at his goddaughter, reaching up to gently tap her on the nose, and she giggled and childishly grasped at the end of her own muzzle as he said kindly: “I think that you've gotten much, much brighter since the last time we met, Aphrodisia. Your darling mother must be so proud of you. I also agree, with one minor little modification: we move whoever is willing into an area like town hall or one of the other larger buildings, where someone can stay with them and keep an eye on them tomorrow, while the rest of us withdraw into the Everfree Forest. The last thing we want is for the ponies to start hurting each other or anything, after all.”

Innocence nodded hesitantly, and Aphrodisia smiled up at the stallion, nodding fervently a few times in agreement. Burning gazed warmly from one mare to the other, and then he chuckled and said easily: “You know, it makes all the time I spent in Helheim worthwhile to be here, able to help out such beautiful mares as yourselves save the world. I love saving the world! It's so fun and we get to do it so often these days!”

“I don't think we're actually saving the world, Burning Desire. Sometimes I'm worried we're actually the ones ruining it.” Innocence muttered, and then she sighed and looked up, saying finally: “Then let's not waste time talking and just get to work.”

Burning Desire smiled a little after a moment, and Aphrodisia nodded firmly; it felt strange, but also like the most natural thing in the world as they all turned to go about their tasks of canvassing Ponyville in the dead of night, Burning Desire and Innocence lighting the lamps along the street as all three knocked on doors and called out when they saw ponies in the windows.

Most ponies hid from them: a rare few affected by the Light shouted angrily at them and threatened them, but none quite dared to open their doors. The only ponies who emerged from their houses were the ones who hadn't been taken in by the Light... although plenty of them preferred to awkwardly speak to the demons and Innocence through the safety of their doors, not entirely trusting these newcomers. Not that Innocence could blame them: they had killed three Pious, ruined a Sanctuary, caused a mass panic and were now going door-to-door in the middle of the night, looking for anyone who hadn't been taken over by the Light.

But they were able to get quite a few ponies to move to city hall, and Aphrodisia promised to stay in town, to watch over them. And finally, with only an hour or so remaining before sunrise, most of the ragtag group retreated to the Everfree Forest to set up camp in the safety of the trees so the Light wouldn't be able to see them from above.

It was the fifth day: miles and miles away, Freya was sending the last of her forces to death and preparing Chrysophylax Dives to raise an undead army and complete her plans. Innocence couldn't know that this was going on, but she almost felt it all the same, shifting uneasily as she let Avalon occasionally go to check around Ponyville for any disturbances, but her patrols were much less necessary with Aphrodisia on watch and quite a few ponies there who weren't infected with the Light keeping an eye on things.

That was, until Monkshood calmly intruded on their little settlement, the ponies and demons looking curiously up at the moody stallion before he said quietly: “We need you back in town. There's no less than twenty Devout heading straight towards Ponyville as we speak. At least two of them look like messengers. Either way, once they see the Sanctuary and the state it's in, they're going to turn around and go straight for the checkpoint.”

“Oh no.” Innocence said weakly, and then she looked quickly back and forth as the others all looked sharply at her. “We... Ersatz, you stay back here! The rest of us, let's get moving, quick!”

The others all nodded sharply, leaping up to their feet and sprinting after Innocence as the scaled unicorn turned and bolted, gritting her teeth. This was absolutely the last thing they needed right now... a whole platoon of Devout coming in out of nowhere for some reason. Had the Light seen them? Had a message gotten through because Ersatz and Burning had been cuddling and teasing each other all night, or had Avalon or Apps missed a Pegasus flying past, or had somepony somehow gotten through all the traps they had set up over the ground or managed to just walk around them and sneak through the fields?

Innocence cursed under her breath as she shot through the forest, heading towards Ponyville. They had been so goddamn careful, and now, all of that could end up going right down the drain. The mare ground her teeth together in frustration as Terra called clearly from behind her: “Be careful now, lass! This is either a clever trap or nothing but ill luck... and personally, I lean much towards the latter! An ambush wouldn't make the folly of letting a prowler like that one see them coming!”

Monkshood only grunted beside Terra, and the Ironjaw winced in surprise at the sight of the stallion running silently and swiftly alongside her despite his almost-unhealthy look, the earth pony saying sourly: “And I'm sure if this was an ambush the Pious would have quickly keyed in on something as large and unpleasant as you.”

“Well there's no need for bein' nasty now, is there?” Terra grumbled, scowling at the stallion, and he only looked fearlessly, moodily back at her before she growled and turned her eyes forwards, muttering: “This one scares me. Like the stories about the ones cursed by Hel's mischief.”

“Close enough.” Monkshood growled, and then he looked over his shoulder at the others, eyes swiftly taking them in before he looked back forwards and added in a low voice: “Surprised there's this many of you left after everything the Light's been doing. Even more surprised you came back here. I guess this means that Celestia is staging a 'coming home,' isn't she?”

Innocence only grunted, not wanting to try and explain that Celestia was gone, and it was Freya who was planning this out... well. Who knew how far or little in advance? And considering her impulsiveness and the way she changed her plans based on whatever she felt like at the time...

“I don't know what's going to happen. All I know is that I'm supposed to try and liberate Ponyville as quickly and quietly as possible.” Innocence said finally as they tore out of the forest, heading across the sprawling fields and towards the village. And the scaled unicorn winced a bit as her eyes locked on the half-destroyed animal care center, several dead wyverns sprawled in bloody heaps around the building. “Although I guess we weren't exactly quiet about it.”

“You haven't been quick, either.” Monkshood said moodily, and then he shook his head distastefully and added: “Wolfsbane makes less of a mess than you've all stirred up here.”

“He does not. I've responded to calls in the countryside dealing with that freak's leftovers.” Avalon growled grumpily, and then the small mare added crankily: “You're lucky the Thunderbolts never hunted you down, asshole.”

Monkshood only grunted moodily, and then he said distastefully: “I'm going to head around to pretend to look after those idiot blockades you've set up. They're nothing but eyesores that are going to make the Devout even more suspicious.”

Innocence rolled her eyes, then looked over her shoulder... but Monkshood was already gone, and the scaled unicorn stumbled a bit before looking forwards and cursing under her breath. She forced herself to focus on Ponyville, grimacing a little as she said sharply: “We're going to have to stop any Devout from escaping! If even one gets away, this whole thing is a failure!”

The ponies grunted, and then Avalon flew forwards and said moodily: “We know. We're going to have to ambush the Devout: Burning should come with me and watch the air, and you should go... stand on top of their sanctuary. Defile it somehow. Piss them off, you saw how aggressive they are.”

“We should conceal ourselves, a fair distance apart if at all possible.” Terra said moodily, nodding shortly. “I'll squeeze into the Sanctuary myself. Eventide, Applejack, you two should conceal yourselves at a distance. We wait until Innocence starts engaging the horde and then we spring our attack, hopefully catch enough of the bastards off guard we can get rid of 'em quickly.”

Innocence nodded shortly, and the others gave their own sounds of agreement with the rough, fast plan: at least with both Avalon and Burning Desire in the air, they would be able to minimize the chance of any Devout escaping.

Ponies stared in shock at the group that hurried into Ponyville, and Innocence grimaced a bit: even if the Light-blinded scurried immediately for their homes, there was still the chance they might be able to warn the Devout somehow. But there wasn't really anything they could do about that, as they simply pushed forwards towards the damaged Sanctuary.

Without her needing to say anything, the group automatically divided itself up... although Innocence couldn't help but groan when Terra smashed through the front doors and took out most of the front wall with her. She looked back and forth, noting that the others had dispersed before she took a breath and concentrated her magic energies into her own body, then sprung up to the roof of the rectangular church.

She breathed slowly in and out, then looked down at her bare claws before grimacing and holding them up. Her gauntlets sparked into being around them after a moment, and she winced only a little as she felt the metal painfully dig against her scales before settling into place. She grimaced a bit, then shook her head briefly before muttering: “Okay. Draw their attention. Draw their attention...”

Innocence looked down at the shingled roof beneath her, and then she dug her claws into it, breathing slowly before closing her eyes. The shingles beneath her trembled, then bubbled and rotted into mire that spread in a wide, thin layer overtop the rooftop. She was careful not to rot too much, however: bringing the roof crashing down beneath her would be a great way to screw up the entire plan. Not to mention make her look like an idiot.

Innocence rose her head slowly, scaled body flexing as she gazed silently up into the sky, and then the mare grimaced a little as she saw shapes in the distance, flying in a double-V formation towards Ponyville. The mare rose her head, concentrating dark energies into her horn to send up a distinct spark of magic that was amplified further by the thrum of the mire she was seated on: if the Devout hadn't sensed her before now, that definitely got their attention, as the winged unicorns all visibly turned and shot towards her.

One flock of Devout shot by above her head as the other curled to the side, and they neatly formed into two large rings of ten that circled above: their movements were synchronized, yet somehow clunky, like chickens attempting to do ballet. Although at least chickens recognized they couldn't actually fly, unlike these beasts.

The scaled unicorn looked coldly up as the winged unicorns hovered ungainly around her, glaring down at her coldly, their gnarled, misshapen horns sparking with white energy. Most of them were clad in golden armor, but two of them had large carrier bags strung to their sides and wore plain white uniforms. They all looked different... apart from the fury over their faces, as one of the uniformed Devout finally snapped: “What have you done, heretic?”

“What I had to do.” Innocence retorted, and she she rose her head proudly, saying sharply: “I am not going to just surrender without a fight! If you want me, come and get me!”

“You heard her! Kill her!” snarled the other uniformed Devout, and the bleached-white, malformed winged unicorns all roared before shooting eagerly down towards the scaled mare, who glared up at them with defiance... even as she felt the faintest hint of apology for what she had to do.

Her horn snapped upwards, and a blast of black flames shot up through the air, knocking Devout in all directions like bowling pins as they screamed in agony. Others sloppily managed to yank themselves out of the way of the attack, but their flailing movements through the air made them easy targets as the mare snapped her horn viciously out again and sent a crosswise wave of black fire tearing through the sky, smashing more winged unicorns from the air as dark flames ravaged their bodies.

Then a pair of hooves slammed into Innocence's skull, knocking her bouncing backwards across the rooftop with a shriek. Her eyes widened in horror as she slipped off the edge, flailing wildly before she managed to just catch the side of the roof with one claw, but she only managed to cling for a moment before her claws slipped, and she fell with a shriek towards the ground below.

Devout swarmed down eagerly after her, but a dark streak shot through the air and snatched the mare out of the way, the winged unicorns immediately attempting to turn to follow... but their clunky movements meant that the ones closest to the ground just rammed themselves into the earth or made stumbling, painful landings.

A few others managed to shoot after the Greater Nightmare that had just snatched Innocence out of harm's way, but a massive stream of blue flames erupted from inside the Sanctuary, and Devout screamed as they rammed through the wall of blue fire and were burnt rapidly away to cinders. And from above , one of the uniformed officers stared in horror before he half-turned, starting to open his mouth to shout an order-

He saw the tiny Pegasus too late before Avalon slammed a crosshatch blade across his face, and the officer reeled back with a howl of agony before Avalon swung both rear hooves up into a savage kick into his throat. He choked helplessly, clawing at his neck, and then the tiny Pegasus grinned savagely as she twisted and rolled her entire body into a smash of a crosshatch blade, shattering the officer's skull and sending him shooting straight down like a rocket into the ground.

The other officer cursed, then whistled sharply, and four Devout instantly turned from their chase to shoot into formation around the Devout. The tiny Pegasus looked up, gritting her teeth, expecting them to flee: instead, the officer leaned forwards with a snarl, shouting: “Twin formation, bring her down!”

The Devout shot forwards, two streaking ahead and both reaching up a foreleg to lock together, meaning to clothesline the tiny Pegasus or force her to dodge: instead, Avalon slammed both front hooves forwards into the faces of the Devout as she flipped herself forwards over them, already scissoring both rear hooves out: and just as she'd expected, they both slammed home into the faces of the second pair of Devout, who had been rushing in side-by-side to attempt to snag her in midair.

Her body flipped fully and her crosshatch blades both lashed cruelly downwards, smashing into the foreheads of the two winged unicorns and knocking them both bonelessly towards the ground. Then Avalon grinned coldly as she spread her wings, the officer staring at her with shock before she flapped them fiercely... and went backwards instead of forwards, spinning around at the last moment to smash her hoof in into the face of a Devout that already had her hoofprint on it.

The winged unicorn rose his forelegs uselessly as he flapped his wings wildly, but Avalon shot forwards, snarling as she slammed hoof after hoof into the winged unicorn, cracking his forelegs, breaking his shoulders, leaving his features a bloody mess before she finally lashed both crosshatch blades across him in a rending slice that sent the Devout rocketing out of the air.

And like liquid, she spun around, kicking both rear legs out and slamming them into the face of the last Devout still in the air, knocking it off balance as its eyes bulged, blood and saliva flying from his mouth before Avalon slammed both crosshatch blades down in a tomahawk to his breast that knocked him shooting out of the air like a meteor.

The remaining officer trembled, then spun around to flee... and a firebird landed calmly on top of his head before Burning Desire leaned down with a pleasant smile on his beak, the officer staring dumbly up at this before the demon said conversationally: “So sorry.”

He spread his wings wide, and crimson flames engulfed both the firebird and the messenger, the winged unicorn howling and flailing miserably in all directions before the flames whiffed out in a burst of smoke: the winged unicorn fell bonelessly out of this cloud, charred and staring stupidly at nothing as the firebird sailed out of another section of dark smog to curl around and zip downwards, calling clearly: “Seven!”

Innocence looked up in surprise from where Eventide had deposited her, before she nodded sharply and turned her eyes back forwards. Terra was spitting blasts of blue flame after the Devout and clawing furiously at the winged unicorns shooting around above her head, the winged unicorns every now and then bouncing uselessly off her steel body but mostly trying to pelt her with bolts of purification from a safe distance. The Ironjaw looked frustrated at most, and most of that was clearly coming from the fact that the winged unicorns were staying just out of her reach, making her look like a cat attempting to claw down several mocking birds.

The scaled unicorn rolled her eyes... and then she winced when Terra caught one of the winged unicorns and slammed it into the ground with such force it all-but-exploded. The steel dragon flung the corpse aside, then turned and roared at another, a massive blast of blue flames bursting up over the winged unicorn and reducing it to ashes as the last Devout dropped onto her back and hammered uselessly at her back... and Innocence had to admit, they were brave. Or stupid. Or insane.

Terra flexed, then grinned over her shoulder before suddenly arching her back, and long spikes of steel shot out along her spine, ripping through the winged unicorn on her back as her metal scales shivered, before the spikes distended just as fast as they'd thrusted outwards. The Devout rolled off her back with a gargle, and Terra crushed it under one large hindclaw before she asked disdainfully: “And what are you doing, lass, just watching the sodding fight?”

“There's only... four left, now. If that.” Innocence said quietly, approaching and shaking her head briefly before she looked over her shoulder as Eventide and Applejack approached. The wooden hide mare was dragging several tied up Devout behind her, the winged unicorns wrapped in vines and covered in bruises and blood, and the scaled unicorn gave a small smile as she asked quietly: “Did we take down all of them?”

“Yeah, looks like it.” Avalon muttered, shooting down and floating calmly above the group. Burning Desire flitted down a moment later, transforming back into a stallion, and the tiny Pegasus grimaced before she looked up and muttered: “Gonna go do another sweep just in case. But I definitely counted at least twenty.”

Innocence nodded slowly, watching as the Pegasus zipped back up into the sky, and then the scaled unicorn turned her eyes towards Applejack, who gestured at the Devout she'd captured and said quietly: “I was thinking you might want to try your powers on these guys. See if you can take the Light out of their heads like you did with the others...”

Sin gave a hesitant nod, and then she approached the stunned, vine-wrapped Devout as Eventide gave her a curious look before smiling supportively and striding past. The scaled unicorn shivered a bit as she looked at the malformed Devout, and then she hesitantly looked up at Applejack and murmured: “I guess this is the real reason we're trying to stop the Light, isn't it?”

“Yeah, it is.” Applejack said quietly, and there was silence for a few moments before the wooden mare gestured quietly at the winged unicorns. “But they're real ponies. Or... were, anyway. I don't really know what they're supposed to be now, flingin' all of one spell around and made up of... all those mismatched parts.”

The scaled unicorn gave a faint smile, and then she shook her head briefly before carefully reaching forwards and grasping into the skull of one of the stunned Devout. She closed her eyes, sinking her claws through flesh and into spirit as he groaned a little and shivered weakly... and then the mare gritted her teeth in surprise as she felt something... stupid and hostile lash back at her. It was the Light, but it wasn't the Light... it was... it was blinding and burning and all-consuming, and after a moment the mare cursed and quickly drew her claw back, muttering: “Why's that so different...”

Applejack frowned, and then Terra muttered as she approached: “I do not think you'll be able to fix these ones. They've become monsters, pure and simple.”

Innocence swallowed thickly at this, shifting uneasily as Applejack winced over at the Ironjaw, and the demon sighed a little and shifted awkwardly before saying lamely: “But don't listen to me, lass, I'm speaking of things I know nothing about. Go on, try some other way, perhaps.”

The mare nodded hesitantly, and then she dug her claws into the ground and took a slow breath as she converted some of the road around them into mire, before gritting her teeth as her horn glowed with darkness and a black sphere of shadows slowly formed around the three Devout, who all writhed and struggled as the mire beneath Innocence turned gray...

And then there was silence, and the orb of blackness that had engulfed the three slowly shrank and dissipated, leaving the Devout... empty. They were only staring blankly, drooling and unmoving, and Innocence trembled as she reached up and touched her own lips before Applejack whispered: “Horses of Heaven... they're... it must have...”

“No, don't say anything yet now.” Terra said, a little too quickly, a little too sharply. The Ironjaw grimaced as she studied the three drooling, slack winged unicorns, and then she attempted to be positive as she said weakly: “Perhaps... well... perhaps they'll wake up shortly!”

The false optimism didn't make Innocence feel better: it made her feel worse. It made her feel like a child that had just done some incredible wrong, as she shivered and stared slowly over the three broken, drooling ponies. Three Devout, winged unicorns she couldn't save... and that meant... Antares...

But before she could lose herself too deeply in fear of what she might have to do in the future, Eventide calmly approached carrying several scrolls, the Greater Nightmare saying quietly: “I think that you should look at these.”

She passed out the scrolls, and Innocence took one, wondering if she could even force herself to focus... but as she read quickly through the scroll, she found herself pushing her other worries to the side as she gritted her teeth, wondering silently how they were going to respond to this new threat on the horizon.

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