• 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 Closest Thing To Home

Chapter Eighty One: The Closest Thing to Home

Innocence sat with her eyes closed, a cup of tea in front of her and a faint smile on her face as she sat in an unfamiliar tavern. It felt strangely comforting... although Avalon had chased out the few other ponies who had been sitting around at the table so they could all have a little bit of quiet time together here, and just relax after the long, long day.

“Drink up. Come on, you look exhausted.” Aphrodisia said softly, and Innocence looked up blearily before the demon smiled a little. “Even you can't cast giant spells like that all the time, Sin. You look really sore and tired.”

“We had to do it quickly, though...” Innocence shivered a little, reaching up and rubbing a claw over her face as she mumbled: “I hated how we had to do it, too. Breaking down doors, dragging anyone touched by the Light out of their homes to... corral them like... like animals...”

“Yeah, but. They're fixed now, and we kind of ran out of time. That's good, right?” Avalon said mildly, gesturing at Innocence. “And I get that... some of them are actually kind of upset about what we did, sure. I can even sort of understand it and sympathize and all, for a few reasons. But you know what? We're doing a good thing here.”

The scaled unicorn looked at the tiny Pegasus as she slammed a hoof against the table before sweeping up her bottle of beer, and then she hesitated and asked finally: “And seriously. What would you prefer, Innocence? That we just let them go on their merry way to be fed to the Light's brand new scheme or something?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Innocence sighed quietly and lowered her head a little, nodding uneasily as she murmured: “You're right. I know you're right. I just... you know. The whole... stupid honor thing.”

Aphrodisia smiled warmly, saying softly: “But it's really good you're trying so hard to live up to that, Sin, it really really is. But unfortunately, we have to do bad or scary things sometimes. We have to be willing to... to hurt ourselves a little if we really want to save everypony we can.”

Innocence looked down and nodded slowly, and there was silence for a few moments before the scaled mare finally picked up her tea and sipped at it slowly, then she looked back and forth around the bar, asking finally: “So uh... this is where Rainbow Dash and Big Mac used to come a lot, right?”

Avalon smiled a little, then she looked silently towards the bar and the shelves of glittering glass bottles behind it, murmuring: “Yeah. And it's where Antares and me... we used to come here a lot too, right Pinkslap? Was great times...”

“I miss him. But I know you're going to save him, too.” Aphrodisia said softly, looking across at Innocence with a small smile, and Innocence shifted a little, laughing a bit as she looked down before closing her eyes as laughter fell into a soft sigh.

“I... I really do too. But I don't know whether or not I can. I want to, but... you saw what my powers did to the Devout already. They're almost... they're just completely different than the blinded ones... the converts, I guess the Light calls them.” She stopped, then shook her head briefly before murmuring: “But I guess if this war picks up, I'll have plenty of chances to practice, at least.”

Innocence shifted a little, then she grasped her teacup in her claws, just to feel the warmth and try to stop her claws from trembling as she closed her eyes. That brought all kinds of unpleasant thoughts and new worries to mind...

The Devout hadn't been a patrol, or messengers, or delivery boys. They had been recruiters: the Light was trying to rebuild its army by conscripting and drafting the blinded ponies – what the scrolls referred to as 'converts' – and having them all report to the nearest metropolis for... 'enlightenment.' That term made Innocence extremely nervous: it sounded like they were going to turn all of Equestria into... those monstrous Devout.

And to complicate things further, there was another announcement that the recruiters had been carrying: apparently the Strange Ones were allying with the Light. Innocence couldn't imagine why: the Skin Walkers were supposed to be the weird guardians of this world and ponies, not their mortal enemies. Except as she thought about it, it started to make a horrible kind of sense: their tactics often had a lot of collateral damage, their armies were composed heavily of demons and undead and... well, monsters, to be perfectly blunt... and the Light's original intent at least seemed to be to protect the ponies and unite them into one peaceful nation.

Although from what they'd put together, the Cardinal hiding out in Heaven had apparently corrupted all of this to serve his own purposes, his vision of some... endless empire, and all of it under his control. Innocence didn't want to imagine how that had happened... she felt like they were all pawns in some great game of chess, but there was only one person actually playing. Someone who was just interested in smashing the pieces into each other so he could wipe the board clean and put it to use in some other nefarious scheme...

She shivered a bit, then looked awkwardly up as the other mares looked at her pointedly. After a moment, Innocence gave a lame smile, straightening a bit and mumbling: “Sorry. Thinking too much. I... well, at least Freya will be here soon, right?”

Avalon grunted at this, muttering: “Yeah, because that's something to be glad about. I dunno... she scares me. She scares me like, a hell of a lot to be entirely honest. I don't know if I really want her to show up here with her whole army of the dead or whatever. I think we should just go to Canterlot ourselves, beat the crap out of all the ponies there and free 'em all. That'd be a great start, right?”

Innocence stared at Avalon with disbelief as Aphrodisia only shrugged a little, then said thoughtfully: “Well, aren't all the actual bad guys up in Heaven, though? That's where we need to go, Ava, don't be silly. If we freed Canterlot, then more Pious might just come down and take it right back. And that would just be a big waste of time.”

“I don't think we can take on Canterlot by ourselves, girls.” Innocence said sourly, and then she shook herself out a little, feeling a little more awake... although not yet at the point where she could make too many coherent arguments. “Apparently Freya's diplomats are all coming here, to join the big army she's bringing... we might actually have a force large enough to take on whatever the Light has to throw at us. Once we have our forces gathered, then we can think about liberating Canterlot.”

Avalon snorted and rolled her eyes, sitting back and looking grouchy, but she thankfully didn't argue. The trio sipped their drinks and settled a little in the quiet of the empty bar, and Innocence wondered silently what the 'normal' ponies of Ponyville were all up to right now... recovering, she guessed, from being hauled around all day to places where she could mass-cast her weird... exorcism, she guessed it was.

She couldn't blame them. She'd kind of hated it herself, and she thought that was part of why she was so tired and sore right now. It was always a lot harder to use magic when she didn't... feel it was a good idea. Her instincts and her emotions got all tangled up and everything just kind of went to hell and... well...

Innocence shook her head briefly, then she looked up curiously as they heard hoofsteps hurrying across the bar above, then stumble down the stairs to the lower level they were in, a pony hurrying towards them and calling worriedly: “Excuse me, I... the dragon said you should all come immediately! We have visitors from the Light!”

Innocence's eyes widened before she stumbled up to her claws, and Avalon and Aphrodisia were both out of their seats in a flash as the scaled unicorn took off, the three hurrying past the pony. They dashed out of the bar, then looked back and forth before Aphrodisia sniffed at the air and said quickly: “She's at the edge of Ponyville, this way!”

The others followed the Dominia as she bolted down the road, and they found Terra sitting calmly across from three ponies in strange, thick white coats... laboratory coats, they reminded Innocence of. All three of them had... well, she wasn't sure what they were. They looked kind of like square pieces of metal or something in their mouths, all different colors...

But as Innocence approached, the three ponies turned towards her, and she shivered at how... emotionless they were. They were like the Devout she had accidentally wiped the minds of, left empty and broken... except these ponies were still somehow on their hooves and walking around.

All three of them reached up and took their little bundles out of their mouths, before the lead unicorn's horn glowed. Terra tensed a bit as the others readied themselves and the group of gawkers around the ponies all shifted worriedly, but Innocence quickly held up a hoof, muttering: “Wait. There's no hostility, no major magic...”

And after a moment, the bundles all stacked themselves gently together, forming one long group of twelve squares of metal. This floated over to Innocence, who awkwardly caught it in her own telekinetic grip before the lead pony said in a toneless voice: “Use these. Use these to stop the Cardinal.”

Innocence stared at the trio of ponies as Terra frowned darkly, and then the Ironjaw stepped forwards and asked coldly: “And how can we trust you colts? It isn't like the Light's never deceived us in the past... nor like they care anything about their own, as I remember all too well. Pious were slain by their own in our very halls to confuse us, treated like they were slag... I'm sure the Light wouldn't shed any tears over the loss of a few zombies like your lot!”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the emotionless ponies simply turned their attention from Terra back to Innocence, the one in front repeating: “Use these to destroy the Cardinal.”

Innocence shifted uncomfortably, and then she looked almost disbelievingly at the metal cards, studying them before bringing one off the top of the stack to float in front of her eyes, asking nervously: “What... what are they? And why do you want us to stop the Cardinal?”

“We were ordered to. Doctor Greller ordered us to.” said one of the other ponies, and all three nodded solemnly before he continued: “Because Doctor Greller was betrayed. Doctor Greller is dead. Doctor Greller is... dead.”

There seemed to be a faint shift through the three ponies, and then they shook their heads almost in unison before the lead unicorn said calmly: “These are data cards. They are used to transmit information between portal rings. These override cards are used in emergencies to force open portals even in protected areas.”

Innocence stared at them, and then she looked slowly up as the third emotionless pony explained tonelessly: “Greater Heaven's portal rings all use these cards for more efficient mapping and energy use. Activating a portal with these override cards will allow you to create portals directly into Heaven.”

The scaled mare turned her wondering eyes to the cards, staring over them before she quickly brought the bundle in closer to ensure it was safe, saying quickly: “We have to let Freya know about this! This could be the way to get to Heaven that we've been looking for, to counterattack against the Light! We can finally strike back!”

“You must stop the Cardinal. The Cardinal is the center. Remove the Cardinal and the Great Webwork will collapse.” said one of the emotionless, strange ponies, and Innocence nodded slowly before the three simply went still, lowering their heads as if they were ready to go to sleep.

For a few moments, the mare stared at the strange ponies... and then she leaned forwards, asking almost urgently: “Who was Doctor Greller? Why... why did the Light betray him? Why are you trying to help us... are you...”

She halted, looking uneasily at the three as they slowly rose their heads, and then the lead pony said quietly: “Doctor Greller was a scientist of Greater Heaven. He created the Cardinal's biological weapons, genetic weapons, and portal technology. The Cardinal is power hungry and had Virgil kill him. Doctor Greller was...”

The three strange, emotionless ponies slowly traded looks, as if they were all struggling to put their wills together to try and form something just outside of their grasp, and then then one of them said quietly: “He did not hurt us. The Light hurt us. The Cardinal hurt us. Doctor Greller did not hurt us.”

Innocence nodded uneasily, looking silently at the cards again and shivering a little, wondering silently whether or not she was really comfortable with the idea of... taking the help of someone not just from the Light's camp, but someone who had apparently contributed so much to the awful things she now saw all around her... but after a moment, Aphrodisia stepped forwards, and the demon said quietly: “Thank you. This is really, really going to help us. This is what we need to try and save our friends. We're going to stop the Cardinal, we promise.”

The emotionless ponies all looked emptily at the group, and then they simply turned around, striding off into the darkness outside of the village. Terra stepped forwards and shouted after them, but they neither slowed nor hurried: they just kept along on their way, vanishing into the night.

Innocence was silent for a moment, and then she shook her head quickly before looking uneasily over at the cards, saying quietly: “I... I need to go and store these in a safe place. Apps, Ava... do you two want to come with me?”

“Aye, and so will I. I don't know if I trust those strange lads half as far as I could throw them... but... we are in a bind. We'll have to see what Freya thinks.” Terra muttered, and then the Ironjaw glared around at the ponies all around them, shouting: “Go back to hiding, you cowards! Aye, you bunch of Light-junkies, trading away freedom so easily for false happiness and now acting like we've done you a wrong, but just as quickly simpering and gossiping about this news! Get gone!”

“Terra, leave them alone.” Innocence said quietly even as many of the ponies scattered, and the Ironjaw dragon rumbled moodily and snorted blue fire out her nostrils before Innocence shook her head and smiled a little. “We're not all warriors from a warrior clan, you know. For some of us, the thought of what's going on... it must be just about unbearable.”

Terra only grunted, shaking her head briefly before she sighed a little and dropped her head, mumbling: “Aye. I suppose. Doesn't mean I have to be nicer than I already am to them, though.”

Avalon grunted in agreement as the ponies made their way through the dark streets: along the road, they were joined by Ersatz Major and Burning Desire, who both looked curiously at the cards Innocence was carrying as the fiery stallion asked with interest: “What was all that racket about? Something to do with those funny-looking things you have there, I take it?”

Innocence smiled a little at this, and Terra nodded moodily before looking thoughtfully at the stallion, saying mildly: “Perhaps you can put yourself to use, loose-hooves, and take a message to Freya for us. I expect that even for a little birdy like yourself, it won't be all that hard to find a great sodding army of dead folk.”

The scaled unicorn shivered at this as Avalon grimaced, muttering: “Yeah, that's really what I want to think about. All the other rebels being dead... you know, it's only because he got reassigned that my Dad wasn't there.”

“Aye, I know, and it's not that I have no sympathy for the dead and no anger for what Freya has done, especially while our backs were turned.” Terra stopped, then the Ironjaw sighed softly and said quietly: “But what would you prefer, honestly? The moment the Light descended on Quietus Clime, the rebels were dead. There was no escaping an army the size of the one that marched upon us, and aye, I wish that we could have fought the Light as one...”

“Don't defend her, Terra. Just... don't defend what she did. What she did is crap.” Avalon muttered, shaking her head fiercely before she gritted her teeth and said quietly: “We should have fought. Even when it seems impossible, we can still always fight.”

Terra smiled a little at this, then she looked ahead and said quietly: “Sometimes a Queen has to do what is best for her empire and her rule... not just her subjects. Although you all the same are a lass after my own heart, young one. It warms me to see.”

Avalon simply gave a brief smile at this, shrugging a little bit, and there was silence until Burning Desire prompted gently: “So what message am I supposed to bring Freya, then?”

“Tell her to get here as fast as she can. Tell her that we have something that could help us reach Heaven.” Innocence said quietly, and Burning Desire looked intrigued by this, cocking his head curiously, but the scaled mare only smiled a little. “That's the message, Burning.”

“Darn, and here I was hoping I'd get at least a little more information out of you.” Burning smiled wryly, and then he leaned over and kissed Ersatz's cheek gently when she gazed at him softly. “Now, don't give me those eyes, my sweet. We'll be back together soon enough, just wait and see.”

Ersatz Major nodded, then the two traded a gentle kiss before she said softly: “Please hurry then, Burning Desire. I'm longing for you already.”

The Passion gave a warm smile at this, then he tipped her a wink before leaping into the air and transforming in a burst of flames into a firebird, sailing quickly up towards the sky as he called: “We'll be together again soon, oh precious jewel of my eye! Until then, wait for me!”

Ersatz smiled faintly, watching the demon streak through the night sky, and then she shook her head slowly and turned her attention towards Innocence, asking finally: “So how may I be of help? Whenever Burning has to leave for somewhere, I always feel... a little more envious and angry than usual. I like to try and stifle those emotions with work.”

Innocence looked awkwardly over at Aphrodisia, who smiled warmly before she said encouragingly: “You're doing really great, though, Ersatz! I was never, ever able to hold my emotions in check the way you can... I'm pretty jealous of that, you know, I still have trouble keeping myself in check all the time.”

Ersatz only smiled and shrugged a little, and then Terra suggested: “Perhaps you could do some coordination with the Hel-cursed stallion? We're going to have an army here, and who knows how many new allies joining the fray. There'll have to be room and board and food to feed them.”

Ersatz nodded at this, then she said softly: “I'll go and find Eventide. She and her Greater Nightmares can help us gather supplies. Excuse me.”

Innocence watched as Ersatz calmly turned to stride away, and then the scaled mare smiled after her a little as she turned her eyes forwards and murmured: “We're really lucky to have so many people who are willing to... to help. Who can fight the worst parts of themselves and... help us all come together like this.”

Avalon only grumbled in response, and there wasn't much further conversation until they reached the one place Innocence thought these cards would be safe: the Clockworks. Innocence hesitated at the ajar door, and then she carefully pushed it open and murmured: “It doesn't look like anyone tried to hide here after all...”

“Dude, even I wouldn't go in there if I didn't have a damn good reason. Especially knowing that ghosts and spirits aren't just made up. As it is, I think I'm going to stay out here.” Avalon muttered, looking uneasily at the Clockworks. “Even if it's not haunted like it damn well should be, I never got along so great with Hecate.”

Aphrodisia only shrugged, and then the demon said positively: “I'll come in with you if you want, Innocence. Although... well, Terra, I don't think you can fit in there.”

The Ironjaw looked meditatively over the damaged, strange steel structure, and then she muttered: “It looks like it's made of my clan's bones, anyway. Aye, I'll stay out here with the little one and not tempt fate.”

“Yeah, I think... it's better if just I go in anyway. If there are any security systems active on the lower levels or anything, I can probably sneak past them by myself.” Innocence said after a moment, smiling a little over at Aphrodisia.

The demon looked a little disappointed, but then she nodded a little, giving a small smile. “Well... okay, Innocence, if you insist. Well, we'll be waiting for you!”

Innocence nodded a bit, then she looked at the bundle of cards floating to one side of her before taking a breath and striding into the Clockworks. And it was distinctly creepy, and felt more than just haunted... a haunting was often nothing more than a lingering spirit or two causing trouble. This felt... far, far beyond that. This felt poisoned.

The mare slowly made her way down into depths of the Clockworks, to the prison facility at the very bottom of the area. As she strode through the halls, she could swear she had passed eyes and even ponies standing in the shadows, but she never quite dared look at them. That would be inviting trouble: it was better to get her business done here, and then get out.

The prison facility was dusty, but the power source for the Clockworks was apparently still working, because the lights were still on here and she could hear something weakly beeping. She kept herself from investigating, however, making her way into the single high-security cellblock... and she couldn't help but shiver as she stared at the vault door at the back past broken crates and dusty, shoved-aside equipment.

The door was open... and inside the cell, she could see papers pasted all over the wall. Slowly, Innocence made her way towards this... and then she shivered a little as she thought she saw Gymbr for a moment, sitting there calmly, waiting for her to step inside his cell. To join him, in that twisted little hell he'd earned for himself...

She shivered and closed her eyes, forcing herself to take a breath before she leaned carefully forwards past the vault door and into the cell, looking back and forth slowly. She wondered silently why the hell Gymbr would do all this, as she looked over the papers that covered literally every inch of wall of the cell and part of the floor and ceiling, covered with lines and streaks and... and...

Innocence cursed, trembling and slumping a little as the cards floating beside her shivered in the air before spilling to the ground, and the mare gasped for breath before she looked up disbelievingly as she felt a painful spark in her mind. And then her eyes slowly widened in amazement as she straightened slowly and realized what she was looking at.

It was some kind of... spell. All the papers and clutter, the doodles and the random information and lines and scars over the paper made it almost impossible to tell for sure, but as her eyes flicked over the sheet, she saw distinct patterns here and there, almost glowing in her vision as she felt a strange pulse inside of her body. She drew her eyes back and forth over the papers before stepping quickly forwards, reaching up and touching one of the shapes as she whispered: “This is the start of it. It requires a massive amount of energy, though... I don't know if I can generate that much power...”

She hesitated, then looked down at her claws, flexing one slowly: it wasn't like it would be impossible for her to gain that power, though... but even as part of her rose its head eagerly at this thought, even as part of her seized excitedly on this excuse to start pursuing old foolishness again... she forced herself to breathe, and instead closed her eyes, silently lowering her head as she murmured: “No. I... but I can at least study this spell...”

The mare hesitantly opened her amethyst eyes, which flicked excitedly back and forth over the pages pasted over the walls as if they had a life of their own. Her mind thrummed as she looked over the complex magic again, murmuring: “It draws on so much energy... and it requires a willing sacrifice of life force, which means I can't use Blood Drawing to cast this spell. It strictly requires both spiritual and vital energies, not one or the other, not one posing as the other... and... precise control...”

Her eyes roved quickly over the papers again, and then Innocence looked back and forth before she closed her eyes, repeating the spell instructions to herself several times until she was sure that she had it memorized. But that was more to try and calm her own anxieties down than anything else: the spell already seemed to be alive in her mind, telling her everything it needed to be cast... even if she had no idea whatsoever what the hell this spell could be.

She finally shook her head slowly, and then blinked and winced, looking at the fallen cards, flushing slightly as she wondered how long she'd been here and how the hell she could forget what she'd come here to do. The mare studied them for a moment, and then she shoved a claw against the cell floor, concentrating as she mumbled: “Stupid, stupid, stupid...”

Part of the floor transformed into black mire, then rose up as Innocence concentrated on it, the mare carefully forming it into a rectangular box before she picked up the cards with telekinesis and tossed these into the chest made of black crystal. Then this box sank slowly down into the ground before a lid of the same dark crystal gradually spread and solidified over it, the mare sighing in relief and shaking her head briefly as she muttered: “There.”

She turned around... and stared dumbly in surprise as she looked outside of the cell and saw the entire area behind her had been... transformed. At the other end of the hall, she could see prison bars and an ajar gate, but the room itself had transformed completely into a gorgeously-decorated banquet hall, with ribbons and bows all along the edge of the ceiling and a massive table running down the center, chairs of all shape and size encircling the furnishing.

The table was littered with plates and saucers and cups and cutlery, but there wasn't much food: mostly scones, cookies, baked things and many, many pots of tea of all shape and size and smell. Innocence slowly stumbled forwards, mouthing wordlessly as she stared back and forth, and Theophilius Carter looked brightly up from the enormous armchair he was seated in at the head of the table, leaping on top of this and saying delightedly: “A guest, a guest, just in time for tea!”

“For tea!” shouted a chorus of voices, and Innocence staggered backwards with a little squeak of shock as at least sixteen Draconequus popped into being in the chairs running the length of the table, thrusting various cups of shape and size – and a bowl or two – into the air to bang together, before they all tipped back their various vessels and drank deeply from them.

Theophilius laughed, clapping his gloved hands together with a wide, pleased grin before he easily kicked a teapot into the air, kicking it lightly from foot-to-foot with ease before catching it on one knee as he put his hands behind his back and winked. “It's just too bad that we don't have more guests! Alice, oh Alice, I miss her so much these days... and the poor Dormouse and the March Hare! Neither of them are built for this kind of awful thing, my dear...”

The Mad Hatter halted, then he rubbed thoughtfully at his face before he asked curiously: “But Cheshire Cat, tell me... how well did you know the Jabberwocky? I mean, he was a good friend of mine and a very bad friend of mine, both of those things at once, you know. And it's so very complicated to have a friend who is both, but it can be quite rewarding, too, I must say. I learned so much from him and I like to hope that he learned plenty from me, too... what little a silly, mercurial fool like myself can learn another, anyway.”

He paused, then clapped his hands and brightened, smiling warmly. “But enough! We are here for tea, but that is not to say we can't turn such a thing into another!” The Mad Hatter demonstrated by reaching up and pulling off his hat, then he firmly punched in the top to turn it inside out before complacently placing the hat back on top of his head. “So let us make the most of this auspicious occasion and share with you all the luck we can!”

“Hear, hear!' shouted the Draconequus, all of them raising their cups high, then this time simply pouring them over their faces, and Innocence gave an awkward smile as she approached the foot of the table, where a spot had been left open for her.

She hesitantly pulled back the chair, and then she asked slowly: “Theophilius... can you help us with the war? I mean, not that you haven't been helpful already... but... we need more help. We're all in trouble here...”

“So am I!” Theophilus leapt down the table and punted a teapot fiercely, sending it flying into a wall to shatter in an explosion of amber liquid and porcelain fragments. “Look at this madness!”

He gestured down as another teapot appeared where the previous one had been, except it was even larger. “How am I ever going to get rid of all this tea? Never! I drink and drink and empty cup after cup, and yet even bigger teapots appear in their place! Oh, crappy day, fabrool fallay!”

Innocence sighed tiredly at this, lowering her head and rubbing slowly at her temples before she looked up and said slowly: “Theophilius. Please try and listen and concentrate, okay? We're in danger. The Light is forming an army...”

“We're an army!” said one Draconequus helpfully, and then his neighbor firmly hammered down on his skull, knocking his head literally into his body with a squawk before he crossed his arms and muttered in a muffled voice: “And some of us are even jerks.”

Another Draconequus clearly took offense at this, yelling angrily and grasping the edge of the table, but when he went to flip it, instead his own chair flipped upside down with the Draconequus still in it, violently rotating through the air until the chair legs hit the ceiling and locked into place. He sniffed loudly as he crossed his arms and his legs primly, now sulking upside and down and glaring at the wall instead of over the table.

Another Draconequus started to wail loudly, crying into his tea, and Theophilius looked back and forth at the cacophony rising up around him before he reached into his pocket and yanked out his pocketwatch, clicking the button on top of it. And instantly, time froze around the Mad Hatter, Innocence staring back and forth in shock at the unmoving Draconequus before she reached up and hurriedly patted over her own features, realizing that she was still able to move herself.

There was silence for a few moments as Theophilius Carter dropped his watch to hold it by the long, thin chain attached to it, spinning it leisurely before he said kindly: “Now, Cheshire Cat, you'll have to accept my apologies for pausing the party. It was just about to get so loud, you see, and I really don't have quite the head on my shoulders for noise right now.”

The Mad Hatter calmly reached up and pulled his head off his neck as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and then he easily spun his own skull on one finger before smoothly rolling his head down the top of his arm and across his shoulders to catch it in his other hand, letting the pocketwatch swing back and forth by the chain. “But oh, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye, as they say... I wonder what that means if you lose two eyes, though? What about other body parts? Is it still fun should I lose a tooth, a finger, perhaps a nostril? Can you even lose a nostril?”

Theophilius tossed his head into the air, and this landed with a loud click back on his shoulders before he calmly laced his fingers together and smiled pleasantly at Innocence as she only stared at him with disbelief. “I'm sorry, what were we talking about? I'm afraid I got everything in my head all mixed up from all that shaking and baking I just did.”

He paused, then reached up and absently reached into his mouth before removing a cupcake, and then he smiled brightly and offered it to Innocence. She mouthed wordlessly at this, then winced when he shoved it insistently towards her several times, and the scaled mare sighed a little and took it with telekinesis, saying moodily: “Thanks. But we were talking about-”

“Oh, right! We were talking about birds!” Theophilius said brightly, clapping his hands together. “Do you know that I'm very fond of doves? They're very stately and regal and always in order, and look at me, I'm just about falling apart!” He laughed, tugging at a frayed string on his jacket before adding seriously: “And I have always been quite fond of cranes as well, although never egrets or ostriches. Ostriches are rather terrible to try and play croquet with, you know. They're far more suited to golf, which is a sport that requires the striking of a little ball in the general direction of a little hole. It's rarely much more specific than that, apart from the fact that they prefer the holes to be numbered: but I believe that you want to avoid too high a number. The lower the better, not the higher the fewer, of course, of course, because that is reserved for ravens!”

Innocence had no idea what to say, so she said nothing. And for a moment, Theophilius looked at her quizzically before he suddenly reached up into the air, seizing into something invisible and wrestling violently with it for a few moments before he cursed in frustration and yanked something down, and Innocence gave a shriek of shock, a few large, black objects tumbling to the table and the ground out of nowhere.

One bounced off the head of a Draconequus, who winced and grabbed at his skull, then hurriedly tried to resume his previous frozen position when Innocence stared at him, the chimerical creature looking terrified as the neighboring Draconequus glared at him accusingly. But before the scaled unicorn could even think of what the hell to say or do, her eyes returned to Theophilius as she realized he was holding some kind of... long, strangely-patterned...

She didn't know what it was. It was hanging slackly like he'd just torn a strip of fabric partway out of some kind of cloth, feeding up into the ether at either end before Theophilius hummed as he quickly yanked on the odd black patterns. Then his eyes brightened as he pulled the large shapes taut between his hands and held it up like a sheet... and Innocence stared in shock as she realized they were... “Words, yes! Because everything is made of words, Innocence, if you stop and think about it. I mean, honestly, what do you think came first in all of reality? Words, of course! You cannot make something if you have no name for it; the wheel is not the wheel but still a stone until you make up the word 'wheel,' you see.”

Theophilius chuckled to himself, then he simply through the large string of words up over his head, and it vanished into the air before he said kindly: “I apologize. I merely wanted to check the narration of our reality to see whether or not you were going to say anything further, Cheshire Cat. Oh, please do smile again for me, but don't disappear, my friend! You have such a pretty smile, and there's no need for you to be so shy you fade away; we're all friends here, aren't we, friends?”

The Mad Hatter looked back and forth brightly, and then he frowned at the Draconequus before snapping his fingers. “Oh, right, of course!”

He reached down, seizing into his pocketwatch, and then he simply yanked it free from the chain it was on and flung it down, stomping wildly up and down on the small golden object. The Draconequus all winced backwards at this, the one on the ceiling falling off with a yelp before his chair followed him and down before Theophilius said positively: “There we are.”

“I need you to help us!” Innocence shouted suddenly, and the Mad Hatter blinked dumbly in surprise, looking up and flinching before the scaled unicorn leaned up and cried: “You have the power to stop this war, to stop everyone from getting hurt! I need you to use that!”

Theophilius stared at her... and then he gritted his teeth, trembling and grasping at his face for a moment... and when he looked up, it was Kvasir's serious eyes that locked on her, the god saying coldly: “Power is nothing without the mind or skill to use it. I lack both of those things and the Mad Hatter is not interested in killing, in getting his hands dirty with w-what would be...”

He shivered, then grasped at his face and rasped: “Hold... hold on... Theophilius, let me speak!” A shiver ran through the god's body as the Draconequus looked up uneasily, and then Kvasir's eyes flashed before he suddenly pointed at several of the chimerical creatures, snapping: “Go and help the rebels, now! Two more of you, go to Canterlot, rescue Discord! S-Someone...”

Kvasir fell to his knees, clutching at his head in agony before he slammed a fist down into the table, other hand curling into his messy blond locks as he looked slowly up towards Innocence and rasped: “Can't... can't control chaos... not through r-reason or logic. Theophilius cares. Theophilius cares, but he is scared! He c-c-cannot be killed but he can be hurt, and he is... like... a child... r-responsibility... hates responsibility... but... m-m-make him... care and... and...”

Kvasir arched his back, snarling in agony, eyes staring up at the ceiling... and then his arms fell limp, and a moment later Theophilius Carter looked up curiously, blinking a few times as he looked back and forth as his hat rolled off his head. “Was I doing a dramatic monologue?”

There was silence for a moment, and then a Draconequus awkwardly produced a small, golden statuette and held this up to the god, who brightened immediately and snatched it away before giggling and shoving this against his cheek, exclaiming brightly: “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you! Oh, I want to thank my agent, and all my friends, and Charles Ludwidge Dodgson and uh... Alice, oh Alice, of course! Come on down, Alice!”

Theophilius waved a hand out brightly, and there was a puff of blue smoke before the Ironjaw Dragon fell out of the cloud, landing with a loud thud on the table and sending dishes and cutlery flying in all directions. She blinked stupidly a few times, then stared back and forth before she looked over her shoulder at Theophilius, her mouth falling open as she whispered: “Kvasir?”

The Mad Hatter smiled at her brightly, bowing his head towards her and saying cheerfully: “Theophilius, Alice, but I know you often tend to mix us up. We are a very similar pair, I suppose, in that we're absolute opposites and all. Why, I always tend to mix up what's right and what's left myself, after all, even though you know that they come from completely different families.”

The Ironjaw Dragon gave a faint smile, and then she shivered a little before turning around, either not seeing or completely ignoring Innocence as she whispered: “Kvas. It's me. Please...”

Theophilius only looked up at her curiously, and then he suddenly smiled at her kindly, popping up to his feet and tossing away the golden trophy as he said thoughtfully: “Now, Alice, perhaps this is my fault. Falling up the rabbit hole and landing down here in Wonderland can be all very disorienting, after all, even if you end up with nothing but bops and bruises and a bare bit of bumptiousness for your bother and busyness.”

“It's... nay, I'm... sorry, Theophilius. You're right. It was just... I was just confused for a moment, that's all.” Terra said finally, giving a faint smile before she shook her head slowly and closed her eyes. “I... missed you.”

“And I missed you, Alice!” the Mad Hatter said brightly, and then he clapped his hands before suddenly leaping off the table, landing smoothly on his feet before he kicked his heels together happily and did a little jig. “Alice and the Cheshire Cat, oh, what a pleasure it is to have two such fine souls in my company, especially now that one is so much more polished than the other!”

Terra frowned, then she looked over her shoulder and cocked her head almost suspiciously at Innocence, asking moodily: “And what are you doing here, lass? Please tell me you didn't tell the Hatter here you were in the mood for a tea party at now of all times... we've wasted enough as it is, and we have to prepare for-”

“Oh, be nice now, Alice, that's no way to talk to the Cheshire Cat! She just popped in while passing through, that's all!” Theophilius said kindly, and then he held out a hand towards the Ironjaw, asking with a smile: “But if we're all busy together, Alice, and the Cheshire Cat has places to be as she so often must, perhaps she can go along on her way and you and I can go on ours.”

Terra shifted awkwardly, and then Innocence looked up with a small smile, saying quietly: “If you're okay with that... Alice... then I'll head back upstairs and you can spend some time with... Theophilius Carter.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Terra gave a faint smile before she said quietly: “I appreciate that, Innocence. And... I apologize for being a little short with you. I suppose that... well, you know. Having the world turned upside down always tends to put me in a bit of a rough mood.”

Innocence only gave another small smile and a bit of a shrug, and then she said quietly: “Don't worry about it. I guess I can-”

“Fantastic, then!” Theophilius Carter crowed, and then he leapt up and seized firmly into one of Terra's horns, her eyes bulging as her head was yanked firmly down before the Ironjaw, the god of chaos, and the entire room and its Draconequus occupants vanished, leaving Innocence standing alone in the prison block in sudden silence.

The scaled unicorn looked dumbly back and forth, and then she sighed a little, dropping her head forwards and shaking herself out, feeling suddenly... tired. And admittedly more than a little confused with everything that she had just witnessed: it all felt like she had just gone through something that was both a giant waste of time and somehow very important.

She stretched out slowly, then shook her head quickly before hesitantly looking over her shoulder, at the ajar vault door leading into the prison... and then the scaled unicorn gave a small smile, going over the spell in her mind again before she turned her eyes forwards... and almost walked right into a Draconequus.

She blinked and stumbled backwards, looking stupidly up at the horse-headed equine as he leaned seriously down over her. He was broad shouldered and most of his body was covered in thick fur, apart from one roughly-scaled arm and a leg that was long and birdlike. His lower limbs were thin and short, while his upper body was enormous and powerful.

She looked at him lamely as a second tiny, chubby Draconequus peered up from behind one of the large one's legs, and a third Draconequus who was even taller but far thinner slowly poked narrow, antelope-like features up over the first one's shoulder.

Innocence stared at the three of them, mouthing wordlessly before the middle Draconequus said conversationally: “Good day, young lady. We believe we were tasked with helping the rebels.”

“We're not the Para Para Brothers, though, so don't go expecting us to do any fancy dance moves or anything!” squeaked the little one, waving one pig-like forelimb. “And I don't like bowling, rugs, or existentialism, either!”

“I suppose we're not Harry, Ron, and Hermione, either.” said the tall, thin one in a gravelly, raspy voice, his antelope-like features curling in distaste: one horn was enormous and almost-ring like with the way it curled, while the other was spiraled and jagged. “And nor can we be the Three Stooges, either. Or the three little pigs, or Sandy, Cindi, and Mindy, or the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

“Now, now. There's no need to bring that into the equation, is there, Donnybrook? And Diminish, don't be so defensive.” said the middle Draconequus equably, before he calmly reached up and slipped a monocle onto his draft horse features, reaching up to carefully tug out his enormous, thick mustache before he pulled lightly down his beard. “And now, young lady, please do allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dysphoria, and these are my little brothers.”

He gestured to either side, and the two Draconequus both grumbled and stepped out from hiding behind the large, solid body of Dysphoria. Then all three bowed together to Innocence as the mare stared at them before they rose as one, Dysphoria continuing pleasantly: “We have been told to help the rebels by our rather odd master during one of his rather odd moments of rather odd lucidity. 'Twas all very... rather odd, to be entirely honest. But that I am anything less than thrilled, of course, fear not. I am very happy to make a new acquaintance with such a refined young feline.”

“I'm not a cat.” Innocence said moodily, and the three traded surprised looks before the two Draconequus leaned quickly in on either side of their brother, whispering quickly into his ears. The draft-horse head of the enormous Draconequus nodded solemnly a few times, and then he looked back and forth before clasping his hands together in front of himself, his large ears flicking as he closed his lucid blue eyes.

“Yes. Yes, we see our error now, forgive us.” Dysphoria said gravely, and the scaled mare simply gave an awkward smile and shrugged lamely. The bulky Draconequus gave another nod in response, and then he asked curiously: “So what do the rebels need help with?”

Innocence blinked at this, and then she looked awkwardly over the three Draconequus before she questioned slowly: “So uh... you're going to actually help us?”

Dysphoria nodded calmly, saying pleasantly as he gestured at the tiny and tall Draconequus to either side of him: “Most certainly. We three brothers may not be the most powerful of Draconequus, but there are few who can actually match our teamwork. And numbers always beat strength.”

“If that were true, we would have lost this war a long time ago.” Innocence said softly, and then she smiled a little before looking curiously between the three, feeling an odd sense of... well, she wasn't quite sure if that was hope or this was just something that was making her smile in spite of how cruddy everything else in life was right now. “Well... what can you three do?”

“Anything! We kick ass!” said the tiny Draconequus boldly, leaping forwards as his eyes darted back and forth: his rotund, hippo stomach jiggled a little over rabbit-like lower legs, waving his piggy and flabby squirrel arm. His deer head glared up at her challengingly as he bounced back and forth, then shouted: “Yeah, we're a thousand times better than anyone else!”

“Oh shut up, Donnybrook.” groaned the tall, serpentine and slender one, crossing his gangly, patterned arms as he tapped a hoof slowly against the ground. “We're okay. We're not gay. We're better than you are, but we're probably worse than the other guys. So we're just not going to listen to you.”

“Now, brother, I must disagree. We'll listen fine and fair to whatever you have to ask us, just as we were told to do by our current... benefactor.” Dysphoria said in his polite but charming tones, and the other two Draconequus shrugged a little, looking grumpy but eventually nodding in agreement. “Good. We are capable, or at least we like to think so.”

Innocence looked at them uncomfortably for a few moments, and then the mare said awkwardly: “I don't think you told me anything about exactly what kind of powers you have.”

Dysphoria nodded calmly, spreading his arms as he replied easily: “We are Draconequus who deal in a rather specific realm; the realm of emotions. Precious few things, after all, embody chaos so well as emotions do. We draw upon such emotions to convey them in the physical realm.”

The scaled mare looked thoughtful at this, tilting her head with interest, and Donnybrook huffed loudly as Diminish gave a sour little smile, rolling his eyes before he muttered: “Well what the hell do you think we do? We're Draconequus. We're crazy. We cause trouble.”

“I've met Draconequus before.” Innocence said dryly, and then she shook her head and she finally drew her eyes over the trio before gesturing at them. “I guess we should head up to Ponyville, then, and introduce you to the other rebels.”

The three chimerical creatures all nodded, and Innocence looked at them awkwardly for a few moments longer before she cleared her throat and carefully strode past them, gesturing for them to follow. They did willingly enough... or at least it seemed willing: the middle-sized one casually, the tall one grumbling, the short one waddling along with a wheeze and flailing his arms a little to try and stay balanced.

The scaled unicorn felt awkward as she glanced over her shoulder at this strange trio, not entirely sure of what to make of them. How they were supposed to be of help, why Kvasir – and not Theophilius, but Kvasir – thought they were going to help them... well, Innocence had no idea. But she also knew enough from the stories about Kvasir and the little she'd witnessed of the strange god herself to know that he wouldn't do something like this without a reason.

They were definitely an oddball set, though: she really didn't know what quite to make of the three of them, and their oddly... well, at first she thought they were opposing, but she realized they were actually quite well balanced. They played off each other in an odd yet harmonic way... a funny thing for chaos. But then again, thinking chaos was all things that just smashed off each other was silly, she'd learned, considering the way the different Draconequus liked to stick to particular hidden rhyme and pattern, and even Theophilius Carter had his odd... near-predictabilities.

They reached the top of the area without incident, but she was admittedly surprised when she found only Eventide waiting patiently for her. The Greater Nightmare cocked her head curiously at the company Innocence brought with her, but reacted with surprising tact, bowing her head politely and greeting: “I felt the spike of energies, and I'm very glad to see it brought allies, not enemies.”

The tall, thin Draconequus and the short fat one both blew loud raspberries, and then they both squawked when the medium-sized, bulkier Draconequus firmly punched both his brothers, replying kindly: “And it is very nice indeed to be greeted so charmingly by someone who, I must say to be entirely honest, would perhaps not normally be so agreeable with my kind.”

“Times change, and conflict can sow the seeds of stranger friendships and alliances.” The Greater Nightmare bowed her head again, then turned her attention towards Innocence, saying quietly: “Avalon and Aphrodisia were called away, and Terra has... disappeared momentarily.”

“Terra is with Theophilius right now. She'll be back, though... he always helps her find the way back, one way or another.” Innocence said wryly, shaking her head briefly before she frowned uneasily. “What happened with Avalon and Apps, though? Something to do with the Light, or...”

“No. An advance message arrived from the Phooka. The tribes were apparently ready to vote against the proposed war against the Light and instead choose to recede into the forests, but then learned of the attack against the Everfree Forest. All twelve great tribes are now coming here, having heard the warnings from my sisters.” Eventide said softly, nodding once. “Avalon and Aphrodisia have gone to help prepare a place for them to rest, and to start repairs on the animal care center.”

Innocence smiled a little, closing her eyes and feeling strangely relieved before Dysphoria rose a hand, saying pleasantly: “Excuse me, young lady, but my brothers and I would be very glad to help with building shelters and helping with repairs. We should be able to handle this task well enough.”

“Speak for yourself.” grumbled Diminish, the tall, serpentine Draconequus sulkily crossing his arms, and Donnybrook seemed to growl in agreement before they both yelped when Dysphoria simply punched both of them again without looking, the two whining loudly in their throats before Diminish mumbled: “Fine, fine. We can build... doghouses for the silly savages.”

Innocence frowned a little, and Dysphroria and Donnybrook both immediately glared over at Diminish, who huffed and then created a pair of earplugs with a flick of his thin wrists, shoving them firmly into his ears. Then he yelped when the middle Draconequus firmly seized his ring-shaped horn, bending him backwards by it as she said politely: “Pardon my brother. He was dropped on his head many times as a small child.”

“And hit many more times on the head after he started talking.” Donnybrook added helpfully, and Dysphoria sighed tiredly before the fat, rotund little chaos entity whined: “Well, it's true!”

“Just. Please go and help them, okay?” Innocence almost pleaded, and the three Draconequus gave various gestures of agreement before they all vanished in a puff of green smoke, the scaled mare coughing loudly at the cloud of reeking gas that filled the air before she slumped a little, looking moody. “Great. But... apparently they're supposed to help us. And I think Kvasir sent two others to rescue Discord... I just hope they don't get turned to stone along with him.”

“Kvasir would not send them unless he was sure they could save him, or he determined that the prize was well worth the risk. He must have a plan in mind.” Eventide said softly, and Innocence nodded hesitantly after a moment: she wanted to believe that, with all her heart.

The scaled unicorn looked up silently at the deepening afternoon sky, and Eventide smiled a little, studying the mare quietly before she finally said gently: “Try not to worry, Innocence. The Light has yet to discover what we have done here, and our allies are gathering. Freya will arrive soon, and we've gained new knowledge and new weapons against the Light. Everything is moving into place.”

“I hope you're right, Eventide.” Innocence murmured quietly as she looked up at the sky, studying it silently as if she was trying to make out Heaven in the distance through the diaphanous ceiling above, and then she sighed softly and smiled faintly. “I hope you're right.”

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