• 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 Rebirth Of Hope

Chapter Eighty Two: The Rebirth Of Hope

Over the next two days, Innocence found herself amazed by the influx of arrivals... and the fact that very few of them were ponies. But then again, until now, that was who the Light had been fighting: ponies. Even Zecora and Meadowlark had been forced to return to the zebra homeland to pick up the war against Pious missionaries there, and the griffins had mostly closed down their borders against the overzealous Equestrians. Dragons had been driven back by the packs of wyverns that were seeking to take over their aeries and hoards, and other Equestrian allies either couldn't help or didn't want to risk helping the rebels, for fear of retribution from the almost-completely-converted country and their alien Pious allies.

But now, there was a massive gathering of Phooka in the Everfree Forest and its outskirts. Many of these Phooka had tamed or hypnotized all variety of wild beast, from manticores to chimeras to even massive, vicious marsh drakes, and these occupied corrals and pens set up all around the exterior of Ponyville and were tended to by groups of Phooka and a few willing ponies.

Along with the Phooka, there were war bands of minotaurs, who quickly built their own little community outside of the town in the fields, but gladly put Ponyville's impressive smithy to work, manufacturing mauls and axes and other massive, terrifying weapons. They were a fearsome sight, like nothing Innocence had ever seen before, and Applejack had told her that if they were anything like the minotaurs she had once had the honor of fighting alongside, then the Light was in for a hell of a rude awakening if they thought the rebels were going to go down easy.

There were Diamond Dogs, and Nibelung as well: the sight of the latter brought a lot of nostalgia to certain residents of Ponyville, and many seemed to take it as a good sign that the dwarves here here, helping the minotaurs in the smithy, rapidly assembling defenses and barriers, getting old machinery back into use.

But most surprising of all wasn't the fact that they had demon lords and dragons coming to their aid... but late on the second night, Innocence was all-but-dragged out to the edge of Ponyville to find three Clockwork Ponies waiting calmly for her... and before she could even say anything, the apparent leader had said in a calm, mechanical voice: “Empress Hecate sends a gift, and her regards.”

And then the tight column of soldiers behind the Clockwork Ponies rose their heads... or at least the ones that had heads did. There were dozens of Worker Drones and Soldier Drones, at least six Hobby Horses and a phalanx of Dullahan... and most terrifying of all, two drake-sized, cruelly grinning Tyrant Wyrms. Innocence had stared over this, then barely managed to ask: “H-How?”

“Empress Hecate is not blind to your plight. If the Light is not destroyed, her empire will be threatened. We have been sent to ensure that you do not fail.” the Clockwork Pony had replied in its same cold steel tones, and then it looked back and forth with its glass eyes, the heavy exoskeleton of steel bars and cables that enshelled its body sparking with electricity. “We have been designed specifically to destroy Pious. We have been told to insist that you make full use of our facilities. Empress Hecate fears that you have grown... soft.”

For some reason, this had sounded like a veiled compliment... and even now, the thought of it made Innocence smile faintly as she sat quietly in front of Sugar Cube Corners, looking quietly at the candy shoppe. It still had the same name, the same decorations... but these baked goods and hot chocolate just weren't as good as Pinkie Pie made, even if the new owners were clearly trying really, really hard.

She picked up one of the cookies and studied it, then turned her eyes towards the sunrise, looking out at it quietly. They had gotten news that Freya would be arriving sometime today, likely in the morning... but unfortunately, Freya had run afoul of an ambush of Strange Ones and Devout. The battle had apparently been exceptionally vicious, and Freya had sent them a message to warn them that the Strange Ones might try and stage an attack against Ponyville. Even if the town was now more like a gigantic, sprawling military center, the Skin Walkers had no fear of superior numbers or power or darkness: as a matter of fact, they would be drawn to the possible threat. The only real hope they could realistically have was that even if the Strange Ones staged an assault, they wouldn't tell the Light about it: they had always kept very closely to themselves, after all.

Innocence sipped quietly at her hot chocolate, then she looked down at one bare claw and flexed it slowly. She had actually gotten some sleep last night, in spite of all the excitement, and now she felt... good. Strong. Not quite ready to take on the Light, but... she didn't feel like running in terror from it, either.

Well, it was hard to say... exactly what she felt. Sure, there was this kind of... tightness in her chest, and this shivering in her nerves. But there was also determination, and anger. The funny thing, though, was that she thought she was less angry than she'd been before, and that helped her mind feel less crowded and like she was going to give in to some stupid impulse.

The mare shook her head a bit, smiling a little before she glanced up at the sound of approaching hoofsteps... and she couldn't help but smile warmly at the unexpected but welcome sight of Pinkamena sauntering towards her, the demon looking moodily past her and towards the candy shoppe before she grunted at Innocence and held up a hoof. “Cookie.”

Innocence couldn't help but roll her eyes in amusement before she handed one of these over, and the dull-pink, armored demon grunted again as she took it between two hooves, then snapped it in half and moodily watched part of it crumble. Then she licked one half before smacking her lips a few times, before finally growling in disgust as she simply tossed both cookie pieces away. “This crap comes out of a goddamn can. Pathetic. And it's got raisins in it. Who the hell wants raisins in their goddamn cookies?”

“I like raisins.” Innocence replied with a shrug, and Pinkamena rolled her eyes before the scaled mare said in a softer voice: “I can't tell you how relieved I am to see you.”

“Screw you, lizard. You make it sound like I wasn't going to show up here at all.” Pinkamena snorted and rolled her eyes, then she shook her head and sat down at the table, saying quietly: “I ran into some trouble with the demons I was sent out to talk to. They didn't exactly like my offer so I was forced to cut a few of them down to size.

“On the way back, though, I came across some Strange Ones. Merchants. But they had that bastard Whistler with them and a bunch of those new winged unicorn freaks.” Pinkamena looked moodily over at Innocence, tilting her head. “What the hell is going on?”

Innocence only sighed a little, shaking her head and murmuring: “Somehow, the Light made an alliance with the Skin Walkers... and they're going around, drafting all the blinded, the converts, to... make a new army. Did you hear about Freya?”

“Nothing she does surprises me, Sin. She's like Princess Sunshine, but worse. Sure, I think she's a lot more fun and would be great at a party. But Princess Sunshine you could at least always count on to keep her cool and use her head. Freya likes to run the whole goddamn gamut of emotions and has a different sword for every different feeling she has.” Pinkamena made a face, shaking her head distastefully. “Even I wouldn't piss her off.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Innocence looked down and sighed quietly before she closed her eyes. “I screwed up, didn't I?”

“No, kid. You did what you had to do. Celestia wouldn't have won this war: sure, she would have kept fighting and killing long past us being dead, but the one thing I'll say about Freya is that she's got brass balls.” Pinkamena smiled grimly, looking moodily towards the sunrise. “Even I would think twice about a stunt like she pulled. But she got an army of the dead together without so much as a goddamn twitch.”

Innocence smiled a little, and Pinkamena looked over at her before she hesitated, then said finally: “You look good.”

The scaled mare looked up in surprise at this, blinking, and then she shrugged awkwardly as she squeezed her hot chocolate between her hooves, mumbling: “Well... I slept and everything, and I guess that really helps. And I'm not... I just feel... I dunno, better today.”

“Yeah.” Pinkamena stopped, then studied her for a few moments before she said quietly: “I heard what happened to Antares. I'm sorry.”

“It's my fault.” Innocence murmured, and then she didn't even have the time to react before Pinkamena slapped her, making her blink stupidly.

“Don't start that crap. It's more self-indulgence than anything else and we really don't have the time for it right now.” Pinkamena said distastefully, and then she added moodily: “And I didn't say it wasn't your fault anyway. I said I was sorry to hear about it, and I am, because I care a lot more about him than I do about you. So you better save his sorry ass, do you hear me?”

Innocence smiled a little, shaking her head briefly as she looked up at the demonic mare before she finally nodded, murmuring: “Okay. I'm going to do my best to, Pinkamena... I can promise you that at least. But...”

She shook her head slowly, looking down and quieting, and the demon only looked at her before Innocence said finally: “The Devout are... the Light in them is different from the Light in the other ponies, the converts. The Light in them is... more aggressive, more vicious. I can't just wash or pull it out... it tears out part of their mind with them.”

Pinkamena shrugged at this, and then she shoved herself up from the table, the scaled unicorn looking up after her with surprise as the demon said moodily: “The hell do I care? It's your problem to fix it, not mine. Besides, it's not even like that's a hard riddle. If it kicks and screams when you try and take it out while it's alive, then next time break its goddamn neck before you yank it free. Got it?”

Innocence blinked in surprise at this, mouthing slowly, but the demon was already shoving herself past, striding towards the ajar door of Sugar Cube Corners and shouting: “Hey! Morons! This store is about doing your own goddamn baking, not relying on crappy my little kiddy oven mix! If you can't mix a goddamn bowl of cookie dough then go back to playing with your goddamn dollies!”

The scaled unicorn watched as Pinkamena shoved her way through the door, and then she sighed a little before smiling faintly despite herself, feeling an odd sense of... relief? Happiness? Something positive, in any event, in spite of everything. That, and that in spite of Pinkamena's firm stance that she wasn't going to help... she had definitely just helped her.

After a few moments, the mare sighed and pushed herself away from the table, picking up her hot chocolate and guzzling down the last of it. She dropped the cup on the table, then shook herself briefly out before muttering: “Well, let's see what everyone else is up to.”

The mare headed out towards the road, only glancing back once as a few yells came from the candy store behind her, but then she simply rolled her eyes and continued forwards. Let Pinkamena have a little fun: this had been the demon's home, after all. If there was one thing she understood, it was wanting to protect your home.

Innocence made her way north, towards the farms on the outskirts of Ponyville: she wanted to see how Applejack and the others were doing with the food production, and if she could give them any help. It was funny, but her magic seemed to work quite well when it came to helping plants grow... but she rarely used any of those spells, since it always reminded her of the fiasco that had happened when she'd first gotten her cutie mark.

Before she could reach the outskirts of Ponyville, however, she ran into another familiar face she hadn't entirely expected to see: Prestige Luster, who was wearing a black scarf around her neck and shouting orders to Blessed and Knights of Valhalla, arranging them into different units and sending them to various locations around and outside of the town. The scaled mare smiled faintly, sitting down and watching with a faint twist of nervousness, until the Valkyrie turned and spotted her.

She quickly excused herself from the other Valkyries with her, striding quickly over to Innocence and reaching up to grasp her shoulders tightly. Innocence looked back at her for a few moments, feeling... uncomfortable, not knowing what to say... and then, finally, she said quietly: “I... Prestige, I am sorry. I really am.”

Prestige looked at Innocence silently for a few moments, and then she gave a brief, faint smile before nodding slowly and closing her eyes tightly, trembling a little for only a second before she caught herself and regained her composure. Instead, she looked up with a small smile and murmured: “I appreciate that. Thank you.”

The Valkyrie halted, then she smiled a little and studied the mare for a few moments before she said softly: “You seem different, Innocence. I don't mean any offense, but in the past... I don't think you would have been quite as... compassionate.”

Innocence shrugged awkwardly, then she looked away and mumbled: “You know, you're the second person to tell me that today. I know you all probably mean well but it's kind of... I'm not that much different or anything... am I?”

Prestige Luster only shrugged a little, and then the Valkyrie shook her head quickly before saying softly: “I think it's less that you're different and more that you've... become a little more like your old self, if I may say so.”

The scaled unicorn gave a small smile and shifted a little, shrugging a bit, and then the Valkyrie cleared her throat before straightening and saying a bit more seriously: “I'm looking to report to Terra. All the Knights of Heaven and Blessed are here, and I found several more escapees from Heaven while I was marshaling our forces.”

Innocence shifted awkwardly at this, and then she said hesitantly: “I... really wish that I could, but Terra was taken by Theophilius a few days ago... I... don't know what else I could really suggest, but Freya is going to be here soon...”

“Who should I talk to in the meantime?” Prestige tilted her head, and Innocence looked stumped by this before the Valkyrie asked with a slight smile: “Who has everyone been talking to? Who's in charge of coordinating all the information?”

Innocence shrugged a bit, and then she said finally: “I guess that... well... for some reason, a lot of ponies have been talking to me for some reason...”

Prestige nodded calmly, then she said quietly: “Then in that case, I will too. Well... my unit ran into a small cadre of Devout. We engaged and destroyed them, and found out they were recruiters. I'll save you too many details, but the long and short of it is-”

“They're gathering ponies, I know.” Innocence said quietly,, shaking her head slowly. “And they've also managed to make some kind of alliance with the Strange Ones. While we've been gathering allies they've been trying to do the same.”

Prestige nodded slowly, then she glanced over her shoulder, studying the other Valkyries as she asked briskly: “What can we do to help, then? We can run patrols for you or help keep the peace in the encampment. I can already see that there's quite a lot of different people here... and what about your security measures, what do you have in place?”

Innocence shrugged a bit, and then she said finally: “Well, if the Valkyries want to help keep an eye on things, it would be appreciated. Right now we have a lot of demons and Phooka acting as scouts, and we haven't had too many altercations...”

“Well, we'll do our best to make sure there's no further trouble, then.” Prestige said calmly, and then she looked over her shoulder and shouted: “Valkyries! Security detail, help keep the peace!”

The scaled mare watched with a small smile as the other golden-armored Valkyries turned and saluted sharply, nodding respectfully to Prestige, and Innocence couldn't help but say softly: “I have to admit. It's impressive how well they listen to you.”

“Well, I am a superior, pureblooded unicorn, Innocence. Of course I make a superior Valkyrie.” Prestige said kindly, giving a slight smile to the other mare, and the scaled unicorn gave her a quietly-entertained look before the Valkyrie added in a more serious voice: “And I will listen to you. I want to be clear about that, Innocence. Everyone trusts your judgment for a reason.”

The scaled unicorn laughed a little at this, shaking her head slowly before she mumbled: “I don't know why. I'm not a leader.”

But Prestige Luster only gave a slight smile and a shake of her head, saying gently: “Antares used to say the same thing, you know. But leadership runs in your family, Innocence. You may not recognize it, but from birth, this is what you've been guided towards. And you'll do well with it. You do do well with it.”

Innocence shrugged awkwardly, and then Prestige Luster bowed her head and said kindly: “But if you'll excuse me, I prefer to lead by example. My Valkyries and I have work to do.”

“Of course. I need to go outside and check on the farms myself.” Innocence replied quietly, nodding in return, and the two looked at each other for a few moments before trading smiles, the Valkyrie leading her battle-sisters into town and Innocence turning her attention back towards her original goal, resuming her trek down the dusty highway.

She reached Sweet Apple Acres in good time, and smiled a little, feeling a sense of bittersweet nostalgia wash over her as she entered through the open gates and walked slowly down the short path to the ranch house, somehow finding herself unsurprised to see the Apple Family sitting calmly together on the front porch. Avalon looked as grouchy as ever, but Applejack looked almost serene in the company of Big Mac and Soarin', like some of the meaning had been given back to her life.

“Hey, Innocence!” Applejack called cheerfully, and the wooden-hide pony waved a hoof easily at her, making the scaled unicorn smile a little: she definitely wasn't used to seeing Applejack quite this happy. “Come on up, join us! Big Mac's got the coffee goin' and we're havin' a bit of breakfast before we get to work.”

“Yeah. This is just great. Sitting here in a house that isn't even our own anymore, drinking coffee on the front porch and doing work for these jerks who haven't even thanked us for saving their flanks.” Avalon grumbled, and Big Mac and Applejack both looked at the tiny Pegasus pointedly. She only huffed loudly in response to them though, grumbling and shrugging as she turned her eyes away and muttered: “Well, it's true. This is our goddamn home. Or supposed to be.”

Big Mac only gave a small smile, and Soarin' gave a small laugh before he said quietly: “I know it takes some getting used to, Ava, but honestly it's not all bad... we talked about this, right?”

“Shut up, Soarin'. You're gay. Everypony knows that gay people like having all kinds of stallions around.” Avalon grumbled, and Soarin' sighed tiredly before the mare added grumpily: “I like stallions plenty too but not as much as you do.”

Applejack sighed, then she said mildly: “I apologize, Innocence. I'm pretty sure you didn't come all the way out here just to hear us discussing stallions.”

“I just wanted to find out how food production was going, that's all.” Innocence replied as she halted at the foot of the steps, looking back and forth. “Wormwood... I mean, Applejack, have you been able to accelerate the crops any further?”

“I've been doin' my best, Innocence. The Phooka and the others are all helpin', though, and we're getting quite a bit harvested and prepared. I don't think it'll be quite enough for a longer haul, but it should be enough to feed our forces for a few days. And I don't imagine it's going to be more than a few before we start moving, one way or another.” Applejack replied, nodding as she glanced back and forth between the other members of her family.

Innocence nodded slowly in return, then she said after a moment: “Just try and prepare as much as you can. It's not likely we'll be here for long, but we should still be as ready as possible, after all.”

The others nodded, and Avalon looked up with a scowl before she said moodily: “Hey, we'll do our part, okay? You just do your part, too. Get everyone organized and don't let Freya kill everybody. And get rid of the goddamn Light.”

Innocence sighed a little, but she found herself agreeing all the same before she promised softly: “I'll do what I can. Do you guys need anything here or are you all okay?”

The ponies traded looks, and then Big Mac smiled and shrugged easily, Applejack chuckling before she answered: “Nah, I think we're okay. Thanks for asking though, Innocence, it's good that you're helpin' look out for us all.”

Avalon grunted and the two stallions nodded, and Innocence didn't really know what to do or say, feeling strangely awkward and uncomfortable. After all, for the first time in... maybe ever, she wasn't doing any of this just for the praise. She was trying to be strong, and honorable, and... well, different from how she'd been before.

She looked back and forth almost lamely between the ponies, then shifted a little before Applejack asked kindly: “Are you sure you don't want some coffee or something, Innocence? Or heck, we should still have some muffins or something 'round here at least... you don't have to be shy now. We're all friends here, after all.”

Innocence only shook her head, fumbling her words a little as she answered: “No, I should... I should probably go. I should head into town and talk to Monkshood, see where everyone's at... and prepare for Freya's arrival, too. I don't know what she's actually bringing back with her, after all, or what's happened since she apparently ran into contact with the Light... there's a lot to get done.”

The others looked at Innocence for a few moments, and then the scaled mare gave a lame smile before she glanced towards the apple orchard, shivering a little as she murmured: “And it just feels kind of like... there's some kind of storm on the way.”

“I understand. Just take care of yourself, then, Innocence. And remember, we're all behind you.” Applejack said encouragingly, and Innocence gave a small smile before she turned around, leaving with only one last glance over her shoulder at the Apple Family on the porch.

She headed back to the road, feeling a little strange and like she'd all of a sudden found herself in a role she direly did not want to have... and furthermore, one she didn't think that she was quite ready for, either. Even under Gymbr, she hadn't really been a leader, as much as she'd always declared herself some dark goddess or mistress or Queen of Heaven. Gymbr had been in the one in control: she had always just repeated his orders and pretended she wasn't a puppet.

Now they were actually treating her like... well, not quite like a leader yet, but somewhere up there. Like she was something more than she actually was, and the scaled mare felt a strange... pain inside her chest. It didn't make sense, but she guessed it was the stress upsetting her more than anything else, and the mare gave a faint smile as she made her way slowly back into Ponyville.

Now that warmth and light were spreading through the town thanks to the morning sun's rays, more ponies were getting out and hurrying around. Not that there was actually a whole lot of business to be done: the town itself wasn't going to be heavily fortified, because the forces would be mobilizing as soon as possible, and most of the actual excitement was taking place in each of the little separate outposts set up in the fields.

But the ponies still had their own jobs to do, their own efforts to contribute: food to be grown and prepared, equipment to be manufactured and repaired, intelligence to gather and go over, and all manner of administrative work and research duties. Innocence sighed a little as she made her way slowly towards town hall past the crowds and knots of ponies all hurrying about on these tasks, doing her best to smile at the people that looked her way but hating the way that they gave her such a wide berth, looking awkwardly at the scaled, half-Tyrant Wyrm, half-unicorn...

She thought briefly about falling back into an old habit and polymorphing herself, and for a moment, she was tempted to: she could disguise herself quite well these days, after all, even hide her claws if she really wanted to. And yet for some reason, she didn't want to: even with all the people looking at her with so much worry and even fear, she knew that was for a deeper reason than because she had scales and claws. It was because she was the one who had destroyed the Light that had both infected and unified them. A pretty face might help remove some of their unease, but it wouldn't be enough to take away the fact that they knew she was a dark creature, with dark powers... and if she ever did win over their trust, she didn't want to do it while wearing a mask.

Innocence looked ahead, focusing herself and reminding herself that it didn't matter, anyway, as she breathed slowly in and out and kept herself moving calmly forwards. She tried to tell herself that she was resolved, and strong, and confident in her choice... even as much as it wavered, and she felt her horn almost thrumming, wanting badly to call on the magic that would disguise her in a beautiful mare's body instead of this... rougher scaled form. This ugly scaled body...

She shivered a little as she pushed through the doors... and winced as immediately, Monkshood barked at her: “About time! We've been waiting for you all day, where were you dallying?”

Innocence looked dumbly up, and Monkshood looked moodily at her from the center of the wide foyer, the mare asking awkwardly: “Why... were you... wait, I never said-”

“It was assumed. As it was assumed that you'd understand to come here at the start of the business day.” Monkshood said sourly, and Innocence scowled at him horribly, approaching the mayor even as his attendants flitted fearfully back and forth. Likely afraid of his dry, sour personality, she guessed, as much as the fact he was a farkasember. “City Hall is where we have been trying to monitor and coordinate the efforts of our allies' camps, after all. You represent a particularly large faction of that, in the absence of both Terra and Freya. You're a representative. Act like one.”

“I like how you call this place City Hall when it's not much of a city, or a hall.” Innocence shot back, and Monkshood scowled at her before she added moodily: “And I'm not scared of you, or of Wolfsbane. So don't talk to me like that.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Monkshood suddenly gave a dour little smile, saying dryly: “I admit that it's a nice change of pace to deal with someone with a little bit of courage left in their bones. But you'll have to earn your respect.”

“I think I just did.” Innocence replied evenly, and then she sat up and looked back and forth, asking finally: “Also, if all the representatives are supposed to be here... where are they?”

“They're all using pony diplomats as go-betweens, who come to me early each morning and let me know what they need for their camp. But Fluttershy was absent for this morning's meeting. If you want to help, then why don't you do both of us a favor and head out to the Phooka forest, find out what's going on?” Monkshood stopped, then he quieted a little, lowering his head as he said softly: “She has the smell of age and lost time on her. Be gentle with her if you find her. She puts on a strong face, but she's very old, and very worn down.”

Innocence softened, looking silently at Monkshood for a few moments before she nodded slowly and said quietly: “Okay. I'll... go and see if I can find her, then. They're in the Everfree Forest, right? I shouldn't have too much trouble finding them.”

Monkshood only gave a shrug in response to this, and Innocence looked at him for a moment longer before she finally turned and headed out of the building. Yet she felt his gaze on her long after she left, making her grimace a little: she had to admit, he had the kind of eyes that you could feel on you from a mile away, that when they focused on you, he seemed to look right through everything else and stare into your very soul.

The scaled mare grumbled a little to herself as she made her way towards the Everfree Forest, but she couldn't help but linger a little as she exited Ponyville, striding down the road between two large guard towers safeguarded by Nibelung. Pegasi were also hovering around these structures, in the blue, distinct armor of Starlit Knights: an elite organization that Antares had always used to talk about... and so had her parents.

For a few moments, Sin lost herself a little in memories, lingering and gazing over her shoulder as she walked out of Ponyville, until she accidentally bumped into something large and solid and unyielding. She blinked stupidly, then stepped away from this and looked lamely forwards to see a large pair of legs ending in hooves, before her eyes drew slowly up, over a barrel chest and a pair of crossed arms to a bull's head that was glaring down at her, the golden ring in his nostrils glinting. “Oh. Uh. I apologize.”

“Is alright, little one, but you try and watch where you are going, yes?” said the minotaur pointedly in his strongly-accented voice, and Innocence smiled a little despite herself before the large, bull-creature looked down at her and asked curiously: “Where is little dragon going?”

“I'm not a dragon.” Innocence said tiredly, and then she shook her head quickly and said finally: “I'm going to go speak to the Phooka... why, is there something you need?”

The minotaur only shrugged, then gestured easily off to the right of the road: Innocence noted the large tents that had been set up, smelled sweet smoke, saw piles and piles of lumber and heard the brazen singing of masculine, strong voices. “My brothers are only curious of strange allies, that is all. Is funny that ponies seem to be more afraid of us than of demon or real monster.”

“Don't worry. They're plenty afraid of people like me, too.” Innocence said softly, and she gave a small smile up to the minotaurs. “Just give them time. They'll warm up to you. Try and remember that the Light, the... enemy we're fighting against, has done a lot of damage to many of these ponies' minds. They're still dreaming of angels and Heaven, not all... in the real world quite yet.”

The minotaur nodded slowly, then he rested his hands on his sides and said thoughtfully: “I do not see why ponies would be so afraid of you though, little one. You are very nice.”

“I wasn't always.” Innocence shrugged and laughed a bit, then she and the minotaur traded nods before the mare continued towards the Everfree Forest and the minotaur wandered on his way towards Ponyville. The scaled unicorn couldn't help but look back at him, smiling a bit: this was the first time she'd ever actually run into a minotaur, and she admittedly hadn't expected them to be... well... intelligent, from what she'd seen.

But she guessed that was a bit of her own prejudices showing, and she shook her head briefly before murmuring: “Funny. I guess we just... try and visit our miseries on others. Didn't Dad used to say that now and then?”

She lowered her eyes a little, then shook her head quickly out before she could get distracted again, striding towards the edge of the Everfree Forest and reminding herself that she was here on business, not for fun. She looked back and forth curiously as she approached the end of the path leading into the forest, noting that there were Phooka calmly on silent guard in the brush and even in the trees.

The mare hesitantly strode past them, along the path, and none of the Phooka stopped her: they were wary of her, though, and she admittedly felt a little less at ease with them than she normally felt around Phooka. Even if they couldn't exactly hurt her physically, they could still set up traps and they did have powerful hypnotic and illusionary abilities. She didn't want to match her will against any of those, especially since... she couldn't stop certain memories from floating around right on the surface of her mind right now, just begging to be used against her.

She made her way down the path, then turned automatically in the direction of the Phooka Den, but she didn't make it very far before she found herself surrounded by Phooka. They lurked all around her, stepping out from behind trees and pushing up through the brush, and Innocence winced a bit before she lowered her head respectfully and murmured: “I'm here to try and find Fluttershy. She wasn't at the meeting this morning and we don't know what the Phooka need.”

“Nothing from you, outsider.” growled one of the dark, smoky equines, and Innocence rose her head slightly in his direction, but she kept her eyes carefully tilted down, not wanting to chance looking into his eldritch eyes. He sounded extremely unhappy to have her present, after all. “Why don't you head back to your other monster friends, demon?”

“Well, at least you're not calling me a dragon.” Innocence muttered, and then she shook her head before saying finally: “I'm not your enemy. I'm a friend of Fluttershy's.”

The Phooka all rumbled between themselves, trading short messages in their scintillating tongue before a voice shouted at them. And immediately, all the Phooka encircling her winced and lowered their heads before Nirvana strode calmly through the group, approaching the scaled mare and halting in front of her. She looked up in relief, and the two bowed their heads to each other before Nirvana muttered: “I apologize. Come with me.”

He paused, then shouted something over his shoulder, and the surrounding Phooka quailed and fled in all directions, Nirvana sighing after a moment before he grumbled something under his breath as he turned around. And Innocence couldn't help but look at him curiously as they made their way through the forest, the mare shifting back and forth awkwardly before she asked impulsively: “Do the other tribes not trust us at all?”

“They trust little these days. The Phooka have been hurt badly by the Light... but they see the ponies hurting them, so it is the ponies many of them hate and fear. They think of the wild demons that used to prey on us, and decide it is their fault, too, for inciting the ponies' wrath.” Nirvana replied moodily, looking back and forth before he added distastefully: “And younglings are stupid.”

“I understand that.” Innocence murmured, nodding a little as she gave a faint smile, then she shook her head briefly before asking quietly: “Is Fluttershy okay?”

Nirvana didn't reply, and this made the mare shift uneasily, frowning worriedly at the back of the darkly-ethereal equine as they made their way through the forest. Animals and Phooka both shifted all around them, along with other nature spirits that Innocence only caught glimpses of, and felt more than she saw. But in spite of the fact it seemed like some of the life had returned to the Everfree Fores despite the death of its soul, all Innocence could focus on was worry for Fluttershy.

Fluttershy, after all, had never treated her badly. Had used to help foalsit her, and had been a dear, dear friend of her mother's. All things she had never really valued until now... but now, helped her understand just what a wonderful pony the one-winged Pegasus was. And that was even before all the selfless contributions she'd given to Ponyville, and then to the war effort, even if war was the furthest thing from what the peaceful mare wanted to be involved in.

Innocence was a little surprised when they didn't go to the Phooka den, but instead arrived at a lean-to that had been set up outside of a circle of stones. Phooka were singing and praying and beating on drums, and although Innocence didn't recognize the ceremony, she felt there was a reverence, a respect to it... that in a way, it was like prayer.

She saw Tender Trust, Virtue, and Temperance all gathered outside the lean-to, and the scaled unicorn couldn't help but shift a little in concern as she strode quickly forwards and around to the open front of the structure. And inside, there lay Fluttershy, the Pegasus' head down and her eyes closed, resting on a bed of leaves and flower petals.

Innocence looked silently up at her children, but although there was worry in the eyes of the triplets, Tender Trust was smiling all the same. She glanced over at Innocence, then bowed her head towards her and said quietly: “Okâwîmâw would be honored to have you here, Innocence. It may be forwards of me, but... will you please stay? If you are here... then it is as if your whole family is here.”

“Tender Trust.” Nirvana said quietly, looking at his daughter and shaking his head slightly, but when the young half-Phooka looked up at him almost pleadingly, he shifted and sighed before turning his eyes towards Fluttershy apprehensively. “I... am not sure...”

“Only if she wants to.” whispered Fluttershy, and Nirvana quickly stepped forwards and leaned down towards her as Innocence smiled faintly, before Fluttershy's eyes quietly opened and she gave a faint smile up at the scaled unicorn. “Oh, Innocence... I... I'm sorry you have to see me like this... and if you're too busy...”

“I'm not at all. We're worried about you, that's all... would you like me to go back to Ponyville, get... well...” She stopped, then smiled faintly, glancing down and murmuring: “Someone must be there who can help you.”

“I... don't want to be a bother...” Fluttershy allowed her eyes to slip closed, breathing slowly in and out before Nirvana reached a hoof out and silently touched her shoulder, and after a moment the Pegasus murmured quietly: “Then if they're not busy... maybe... maybe Applejack, and Avalon.”

“Pinkamena is back. I can get her, too.” Innocence said softly, and then she looked hesitantly over Fluttershy before she turned an uneasy look to Nirvana, asking after a moment: “Should I go and get them or should I call them here with magic? I mean... I'm not sure...”

But Fluttershy only smiled, then whispered something to Nirvana in the Phooka language, and the stallion nodded slowly before he looked up and said quietly: “Please call them here. Temperance, go and wait at the forest entrance.”

Temperance nodded quickly before he all-but-vanished, and Innocence looked worriedly at Fluttershy before she glanced back at the ritual going on around the circle of stones, the mare licking her lips slowly before she murmured: “Excuse me, then. I'll... be right back.”

The scaled unicorn strode away from the lean-to, heading a bit back into the trees: not so much to give herself privacy, but more because she didn't want her magic interrupting or mixing with whatever strange, natural magic the Phooka were calling up with their rites. Her horn glowed darkly as she shifted a bit, then tilted her head back and closed her eyes, sending out a thrum of energy as she murmured: “Applejack, Pinkamena, Avalon. Fluttershy... needs you. Everfree Forest.”

She halted, then shivered a bit as the mental message went on its way before the mare reached up and rubbed slowly at her scaled cheek, looking silently over her shoulder at Fluttershy. She wasn't honestly entirely sure what she felt about the Pegasus, or how much she owed her or what she was even doing here, trying to be a friend a little too late for it to really matter... but she was determined to see this through all the same, even if all she was doing was serving as a proxy for her family.

She was surprised when, after only twenty minutes, Avalon and Pinkamena both showed up: ten minutes after that, Applejack arrived, even swift-hoofed Temperance looking a little winded as he lagged his way back to the lean-to. And Innocence lingered, but smiled a little and felt more relieved as the three friends talked with Fluttershy, even Pinkamena acting a little softer than she usually was, exposing more of a gentler side that surprised Innocence.

Fluttershy seemed to recover a bit of strength: enough to drink a bowl of tea, helped by Nirvana. And in the background, the Phooka sang and beat their drums... not stopping even when Fluttershy silently closed her eyes and settled to the bed of leaves and flower petals as Avalon was telling a story, the small mare's voice petering out as Applejack looked down silently and Pinkamena lowered her own head with a quiet curse.

And yet the first thing Innocence noticed was that... her family only lowered their heads, not panicking, not even showing that much fear, or sadness, or anything else that she'd expected to see. They only sat for a moment with their heads lowered... and then Nirvana silently slipped forwards and gently lifted Fluttershy's body, slipping her onto his back and quietly striding towards the circle of stones as the singing and the drums halted.

Avalon trembled, tears running down her cheeks as Pinkamena and Applejack both shifted, and Innocence watched with an uneasy frown. The half-Phooka triplets slipped past them, all of them approaching the edge of the circle and bowing low as Nirvana gently laid Fluttershy's body in the middle of the ring, and then he slowly stepped back as he whispered something his own scintillating tongue, his head bowed and green-fire eyes locked on the mare's body.

There was silence for a moment... and then the drums slowly began to beat, and the singing rose up again, this time joined by Nirvana and her family. The ponies all watched as the ritual either continued or commenced, none of them could be sure... but within minutes, Innocence wasn't just feeling the sensation of magic... she was able to see it, as the consecrated circle of stones glowed brightly, and Fluttershy's body... it moved.

The ponies stared in awe as Fluttershy's single wing twitched, then flicked... then her body shivered, back arching slightly, her eyes remaining closed and her mane spilling messily around her features before there was a sound like a gasp. And then something began to rise: not Fluttershy, but something indistinct, seeming to boil out and around her body, invisible but slowly taking form...

And they could only stare, as a black shape pulled itself out of Fluttershy's back, a pair of smoky wings spreading and flapping silently once before they furled tight against the sides of what at first looked like a tainted-black Pale... but in moments, took on the liquid solidity of a Phooka.

Her fiery eyes opened... and unlike any other Phooka they had ever seen, the flames burned blue. Soft and loving blue, that seemed to fade and brighten for a moment before she smiled softly, then shivered once and shook herself out before she silently looked down at the body in front of her.

The Phooka mare stepped forwards, gently rubbing along the spine of the Pegasus' body as the ponies stared in disbelief, even Pinkamena looking lost for words as Innocence gaped in amazement... and then, the drums thudded to a halt, and the Phooka's song faded.

The new Phooka gazed over her shoulder with a warm smile, and Nirvana simply bowed his head low, perhaps the faintest blush appearing in the dark cheeks of the smoky equine. Then the blue-eyed Phooka looked forwards, and strode calmly towards the triplets, trading tight, fierce hugs with each of them in turn, all of them looking with delight and happiness up at the mare... up at their mother.

And a moment later, reborn Fluttershy slipped past her children, gazing slowly between Applejack, Avalon, Pinkamena and Innocence, before she said quietly: “It means a world to me that all of you were here to see this. Thank you. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you about it beforehoof... but... I didn't want anyone to worry, and I thought that... I had longer.”

“You're... you're a Phooka?” Avalon asked stupidly, looking dumbfounded, and then she shook her head violently before spluttering: “A Phooka? You're really a Phooka?”

“You were dying... and they used nature magic to transform your spirit. You abandoned your physical body and... became a Phooka.” Innocence said slowly, looking at the mare with awe before she laughed faintly and whispered: “I... I never would have believed that kind of magic was even possible before this...”

“I'm very fortunate to have the wonderful family that I do. That's all.” Fluttershy smiled softly over her shoulder at the triplets, at Nirvana... and at the other Phooka by the drums, Innocence realized. It took her a moment, but she understood after a few seconds that Fluttershy was actually referring to the entire clan... that she had grown so close to the Phooka that she felt like kin with all of them. And maybe that was the real reason why such incredible magic could work in the first place; because inside of her, maybe Fluttershy had always been... Phooka, more than pony.

Innocence looked at her with admiration, and then Avalon laughed, reaching up and rubbing at her eyes before she said in a voice that shook only a little bit: “Horses of Heaven, you... you really scared me there for a minute, you know! I thought... I was worried that you...”

“I'm sorry, Avalon. I didn't mean to upset or frighten any of you... and I hope that you're not too angry with me.” Fluttershy bowed her head humbly, but Applejack only laughed and shook her head slowly, the wooden-hide pony smiling faintly as she gazed affectionately at the Pegasus.

“Hey now, if anypony here can understand... it's ponies like us, right, Pinkamena?” The mare looked over at the demon, who had resumed her normal poker face, only giving Applejack a flat look. But the wooden earth pony saw right through this, smiling and nodding to her before she turned her eyes back towards Fluttershy. “Thank you for... havin' us here. It meant a lot to see this. I just hope this doesn't mean that... anything has to change.”

“Of course not.” Fluttershy said softly, and then she smiled a little, her blue-flame eyes glowing with warmth before she glanced back over her shoulder at her children, who all looked up at her with love and respect. “We're the same as ever, aren't we?”

The three nodded, and Fluttershy drew her eyes up to Nirvana as he approached, the two trading a quick nuzzle before she turned her attention back towards the ponies, looking over at Innocence and asking softly: “But, oh, I almost forgot... was there something important you wanted to talk to me about, Innocence? I've been so rude...”

“Not at all, Fluttershy.” Innocence smiled despite herself, shaking her head slowly before she hesitated a little, wanting to tell the newly-reborn Phooka not to worry about it... but after a moment, she finally said almost grudgingly: “Although, well... if you feel up for it... Monkshood wants a status report about the Phooka.”

“Don't worry. I'm taking over for Monkshood.” said a calm, kind... yet somehow cold voice, and all eyes looked up in surprise to see Freya standing at the edge of the little clearing, dented armor over her body, swords sheathed across her form and Tyrfing glinting dangerously, as if in response to the near-anger in one amethyst eye. “Innocence. Please come with me. I can see the Phooka are... doing well. Fluttershy, it's nice to see you.”

“It's... nice to see you too.” Fluttershy lowered her head, shifting meekly as Nirvana grimaced a little and stepped forwards, before the Pegasus asked uneasily: “Are you sure you wouldn't rather-”

“Innocence and I have other things to discuss, and I've already gotten an idea of how many Phooka are present and what their current needs are from my own observations, thank you.” Freya's voice was a little curt now, and Innocence shifted uneasily: Freya was more emotional than Celestia, but she had always been better at putting on a kind air. But not she sounded... “Innocence. Let's go.”

The scaled unicorn grimaced a bit, and then Pinkamena rose her head and said evenly: “I think I'll walk back with you guys, too. All this lovey-dovey crap is making me feel sick to my stomach. You don't mind, Queenie, do you?”

“Not at all.” Freya replied pleasantly, but there was a hidden edge to her voice, and her eye narrowed slightly before she half-turned, gesturing shortly at the two. “Let's get moving.”

Innocence shifted uneasily, but she followed all the same: it wasn't exactly like she had much of a choice in the matter, though. But it reassured her to have Pinkamena at her side... even if part of her was also surprised by the fact that the demon was apparently willing to put herself into what was very-possibly harm's way, considering the fact that Celestia had been volatile enough herself, and Freya looked angry enough at the moment to tear the head off whatever so much as accidentally brushed up against her.

They were silent as they made their way back to the path through the forest, the Phooka keeping their distance with the all-but-tangible waves of malice rolling off Freya. Innocence wasn't even sure what to make of it as she shifted uncomfortably, studying the ivory mare silently as Pinkamena only grinned and kept her eyes locked ahead, only looking at Freya from the corners of her vision.

Innocence was surprised when they reached the road and simply stopped, Freya looking back and forth slowly before she turned around and asked calmly: “What is in this direction?”

She rose a hoof, pointing down the wide dirt path, and after a moment Innocence said awkwardly, almost questioningly: “Ponyville?”

Freya nodded, then she pointed down the other path and asked calmly: “And what is in this direction, Innocence?”

“Home.” Innocence said automatically, and then she blinked in surprise as she realized what she'd said, surprised. And then she winced when Freya shook her head in disgust, shifting uneasily as the ivory mare glared down at her.

“No. That is not 'home.'” Freya said coldly, looking at the scaled mare icily. “Nor is Ponyville your home, or any other place. You have no home, Innocence. You are a monster. The only reason we are in Ponyville right now is to marshal our forces for an assault on Canterlot, remember that: just as I want you to remember that no matter what we do, where we go, we have no friends, only allies. We have no safety, only less danger. We are moving into a crucial stage of this war and I will not have your weakness cost us another Everfree Forest, or another rebel base, or another person I could depend on.”

Innocence trembled and lowered her head, mouthing wordlessly at this before Pinkamena asked rudely: “And what the hell's crawled up your ass and died? Leave the kid alone.”

“She has put us all at risk for the last time. First she accepted a gift from the Light's forces, instead of destroying it. Secondly, she sent Burning Desire with a message to me, and the Skin Walkers followed him like a beacon right to my encampment, and they launched an attack that cost me almost a full platoon. Third, her childish notions of suddenly making up for all the mistakes and sins of her past mean that she's making sloppy, stupid, unforgivable mistakes that have cost us morale, soldiers, and even territory. Look at Ponyville! It's a mess! She can't maintain order and somehow she's convinced them that we are the enemy, not the Light!”

“That's not her fault, it's the fact that you're the bitch who's making zombies out of our own crew and using slaughter-tactics to win the day.” Pinkamena snarled, suddenly stepping forwards and almost shoving her face against Freya's. “Watch your mouth, Freya, or I'm going to shut it for you. That kid there is all I got left of Scrivener and Luna and even Antares. You keep this up and I'm going to cram your head up your ass and then rip it back out your goddamn neck.”

Freya narrowed her eye, and the two glared at each other for a few moments before the ivory mare snorted and looked away, muttering: “Of course. You would try to defend her, demon.”

Pinkamena only smiled icily at this, shaking her head slowly before she said moodily: “Much as I hate to take this tack, there ain't no sides here, Queenie. There's no you or me or her, it's just us. And you're the one currently screwing with that, so why don't you just calm down, and we'll try and be rational or whatever? I hate being rational, but I'd rather not kill you until after the Light's gone.”

Freya rolled her eyes at this, and then the ivory mare turned in the direction of Ponyville, saying moodily: “I'll remember that, Devourer. And one day, I'll test just what you mean by those words, too. But enough wasting time here. The Skin Walkers are likely already on the move and we don't have a lot of time to set up defenses against them. The Light was also tracking us, and I have no doubt that by now they've noticed the gathering at Ponyville. Which means we only have a very short amount of time to prepare our attack against Canterlot.”

“Wait!” Innocence almost pleaded, stumbling forwards, and the ivory mare frowned and looked moodily over her shoulder before the scaled mare said quietly: “I... I accepted the gift from those strange ponies because it seemed like the right thing to do. And I know that probably just sounds stupid to you, but I'm not going to lie about why I did it.

“And they told me... what they said sounded like the truth. More than that, it's... it won't be hard to test. We just need to bring one of the cards to a portal... it's some kind of... map or... coordinates or something. Something that can take us into Heaven.” Innocence said quietly, and now Freya's frown became more curious than angry, the mare slowly turning around and tilting her head.

Innocence hesitated, not knowing quite what else to say... but thankfully, Pinkamena was able to easily pick up, raising her head and saying calmly: “See? The kid might be on to something. And I remember at least three goddamn stupid ponies who would always give even their worst enemy another chance. Ponies people like me and you didn't always understand, Queenie... which was why it pissed both of us off so much whenever they ended up being right. Because me and you forget that the world isn't all blood and gore, isn't just about the failures. It's about how you handle yourself while you play the game too, isn't it?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Freya looked down for a few moments before she sighed softly and closed her eye, visibly reining herself in before she murmured: “Alright. I hear you. Innocence... perhaps I've been harder on you than you deserve. But I need you to understand something... this is war. This is serious. And it's nice that you're trying to find honor, but now is not the time for that.”

Innocence wanted to argue, but Pinkamena reached up and squeezed her shoulder firmly, glaring at her, and the scaled unicorn grimaced a bit before she hesitantly nodded and dropped her head forwards, murmuring: “I... well... okay. I won't... I'm still going to do what I think is right, but... well, I think that our best shot is using these cards.”

“I want to see them, then. Either way, we have to see to our defenses right away, the Light isn't long from attacking us right now and we have to be prepared.” Freya said quietly, and Innocence nodded awkwardly as Pinkamena grunted in agreement.

The three ponies looked at each other in silence for a few moments, and then Innocence dropped her head forwards, and that seemed to be enough to satisfy Freya for now. The ivory mare turned, her amethyst eye cold as she began slowly to head back towards Ponyville, and Pinkamena and Innocence both slowly followed, neither able to stop themselves from wondering whether or not Freya was going to last through this war herself, or if sooner rather than later she was going to end up losing her mind to the battle, the bloodlust, and the seemingly-endless suffering of their friends and family just like Celestia had.

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