• 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 Garden Of Light

Chapter Eighty Nine: The Garden of Light

Innocence breathed hard, leading her group sharply away from the marching column of the army: as the main force continued to move towards Canterlot Castle, their group took a side path, careful to keep their eyes open for any traps.

On the way into Canterlot, their army had engaged multiple Nephilim: but these broken, monstrous half-angels were shells of whatever they had once been, so broken and badly-mangled that it was their violent deaths that caused the most damage to their forces, not their struggling. Noting this, Freya had ordered them to try and destroy the Nephilim at range, and if they did manage to get close, to try and subdue, not kill.

But subduing them was incredibly difficult: they simply didn't stop struggling wildly against even the most powerful magic or restraints, and had no problem self-destructing if there was a large concentration of soldiers around them. Destroying them at range, however, was fairly easy: they were capable of stopping even powerful single attacks, but multiple magic missiles or hails of arrows easily got around their defenses and did quite a bit of damage.

The scaled unicorn had faith that either way, Freya was going to make it to Canterlot: Innocence just hoped that the army didn't suffer too many more losses on the way. Nephilim, fragile or not, were a serious threat... and worse, the mare felt almost... sorry for the mauled and ruined states they had been left in. She also didn't want to guess how many might be around and inside the Canterlot area itself: and in groups, the Nephilim were always far more dangerous, since their other allies would soak up some of the attacks meant for the deformed creatures.

But with all the chaos being thrown up by the main force mowing its way through the Nephilim and the other forces of Light that had begun to draw out of the castle, it gave Innocence and her small team what she hoped would be enough cover to sneak into the Canterlot Gardens without being noticed. If they could take out the guards without setting off any alarms, and start freeing prisoners without being noticed, they might actually be able to sneak around and stage an ambush on the enemy's flank.

She had high hopes for this, and for her team: but with Aphrodisia, Avalon, Ersatz, Prestige, and Monkshood all here to assist her, why shouldn't she? Ersatz was able to cloak them, keeping them hidden from the eyes of the Light and safe from being targeted by the blasts of purification shooting down every now and then from Canterlot Castle, and the others were all talented fighters... well, she wasn't sure about Monkshood. Monkshood was vegan and looking around at everything with a constant expression of disgust and contempt. But then again, it probably wasn't actually Monkshood who would be doing any of the fighting...

The scaled unicorn looked up sharply as they began to near a large, spike-topped fence, just visible over the next rise: she slowed her pace, scowling a little and keeping herself low, and the others did the same as Ersatz said quietly: “I don't have enough power alone to cloak us from sight...”

“Allow me.” Prestige's own horn glowed... and a moment later, the group turned translucent, Innocence smiling a bit in surprise as the Valkyrie said after a moment: “I can't... completely synchronize with your magic, I'm sorry. I think it's because your horn...”

“Isn't natural, yes. But I think this is more than enough: they won't notice us until we draw closer, I can be confident of that.” Ersatz said quietly, and Innocence nodded slowly in agreement before grimacing a bit as she realized that gestures probably weren't the best way to communicate right now, even with all eyes on her.

“Avalon. Fly a little up... not too high. Tell us what you see.” Innocence said quietly, and the tiny Pegasus grunted and saluted before flapping her wings once, launching herself a good ten feet up before she lazily allowed herself to float back down, and Innocence asked: “Well?”

“No guards at the gates, can't see through the fence that well, but I caught a glimpse of the Gardens past it. Looks like... looks like there's a lot of statues in there. Possibly in the hedge maze, too, but I don't think we wanna waste our time searching it.” Avalon halted, then looked down, hammering a hoof against her head before saying finally: “Saw three solo patrols in the Garden itself, but there's probably way more than that. What do you want us to do?”

Innocence looked down for a moment thoughtfully, and then she said quietly: “We'll approach the gates, and you can take another look from there, maybe risk a sweep. Everyone, move slowly. The more we move, the easier we are to see.”

The others nodded before Monkshood sniffed the air, his ears flicking before he growled: “Pious. I doubt that not being able to see us is going to stop them from making us.”

“Focus on a single object in your minds, like the hedge ahead. Hold that image. Even if they sense the magic energy, they won't investigate it right away.” Innocence said as calmly as she could: of course, she had no real guarantee of what the Pious would or wouldn't do, especially since they were likely on alert right now. But her confidence made the others confident, and they were able to sneak carefully forwards until they reached the gates.

Most of the fencing was overgrown with blossoming ivy and hedges, apart from the swinging gate itself: this was tall and narrow and... Blessed iron. Fantastic. “It's locked and demonic magic is just going to bounce off it. If we tear it open the Pious are going to be on us immediately. Ideas?”

There was silence for a moment, and then Prestige said suddenly: “Use your magic, Innocence.”

“What did I just say, Prestige?” Innocence asked irritably over her shoulder, and then she frowned when the Valkyrie shook her head quickly.

“No, not all your magic is demonic or dark. You can do nature magic, I've seen you: maybe you can use the vines to unlock the door.” Prestige suggested, and Innocence looked at her disbelievingly before she groaned under her breath and turned her eyes forwards. “I can't help otherwise... the most I could do is freeze and shatter the door, and as you said yourself...”

“Right. Right.” Innocence muttered, and then she shook her head briefly before sighing, her horn starting to glow as she tried to focus on the vines around the door, mumbling: “Okay, nature... come on... let's see if I can still do this...”

Her eyes narrowed slowly in concentration, breathing a little harder, and the vines on either side of the door rustled... then gradually began to twist outwards, spreading and growing, slithering over the other side of the frame.

The brushes rattled quietly, and Innocence winced a bit as she saw a Pious in the distance seem to glance towards them... but then it only calmly turned to stride off in another direction, and the mare gave a relieved grin... before staring as the vines wrapped not around the locking mechanism, but the bars of the iron door itself, a quiet groaning reaching her ears before the gate was torn off its hinges with a muffled clank.

For a moment, it stood, supported by the vines... and then slowly, it keeled forwards and gently settled into the grasses, the vines stretching and quietly tearing as Innocence gaped in disbelief and Prestige said uncertainly: “That... well, that's certainly one way to handle things, Innocence...”

“I... uh... let's just move in.” Innocence muttered, peering through the open gate before she gritted her teeth: the area here wasn't entirely clear, thanks to the large hedges... and the disconcerting, gleaming white statues standing here and there, many of them frozen as if pleading for mercy or screaming in terror, seeming to glow faintly still with the holy energies they had been irradiated with...

There was a path through the Gardens, leading between beautiful flowers grown around the arranged statues, but it curved and zigzagged and meandered back and forth. Pious could be around any corner, and Innocence grimaced a little before she muttered: “I'm going to have to send out a psychic signal to figure out-”

“There's only five. Three are patrolling in this area, one is by the rear gate, one is standing at the entrance to the hedge maze. But there's the faint reek of wyverns and more Pious in the distance: they have a group of Angelic Knights, likely waiting to ambush the main army once they draw in closer to Canterlot. But I have no doubt they might attack us instead." Monkshood said moodily, and Innocence stared at him before he half-ordered, half-advised: “Avalon should take the guard at the hedge maze. Aphrodisia should take the guard by the gates. You three stay back and I'll lure out the rest. They won't set off the alarms if they only see a single pony.”

“Are you asking or...” And then the scaled unicorn stared as Monkshood rolled his eyes and strode forwards, heading away from the group and calmly into the Gardens, Innocence wincing before she muttered: “Fantastic. Ava, Apps, you better both listen to what he said.”

Aphrodisia became a streak of black smoke that shot quickly along the ground as Avalon launched up into the air, shooting out of sight into the sky: meanwhile, Monkshood flickered into visibility as he stepped out of the field of magic and Ersatz and Prestige winced, both quickly concentrating the spell back around their little huddle of unicorns as the stallion calmly reached up and loosened his tie.

Three Pious, as he'd predicted, calmly strode out along the path and formed a semicircle in front of Monkshood. The stallion looked coldly up at them, surveying their white armor and the longspear one of them was carrying, and then he said calmly: “I am here to negotiate the terms of the release of these prisoners. My initial offer is that your lives will be spared if you release everyone here and surrender immediately.”

There was silence for a moment, and then the Pious with the spear simply lowered it and stabbed it forwards into Monkshood's chest, Innocence wincing as Prestige and Ersatz both stared in shock... but Monkshood barely flinched, his expression curling into one of distaste and his eyes flashing before he said in a distinctly-displeased voice: “And here I was hoping for a peaceful solution. But it looks like negotiations have already failed.”

“He is stained with darkness. Destroy him.” said another Pious calmly, and the three stepped forwards as wing appendages shuddered and then stabbed downwards, piercing through Monkshood's body in all directions as the armed Pious twisted his spear and attempted to drive it deeper.

Monkshood dropped his head forwards, clenching his eyes shut... and then a guttural growl rose from his throat, his hoof reaching up to yank his tie off before he rose his head as his eyes snapped open, irises glowing fierce crimson as a high-pitched voice that wasn't Monkshood's snarled from his jaws: “Oh, now you've gone and done it!”

A sickening crackling sound mixed with the hiss of tearing fabric as the stallion's body humped up and expanded, thick, shaggy fur rippling out of his body as his features became narrower and more bestial. Jaws opened and twisted in a grin that revealed teeth that had become jagged and sharp, and his red eyes flashed again as he reached up not a hoof, but a large paw to grab the neck of the spear buried in his chest.

The paw twisted, snapping the spear like a twig before he yanked the weapon out of his chest with a roar, swinging his forelimbs wide, huge body flexing and knocking the scythe-like appendages buried through his frame free. The three Pious were knocked stumbling, and then the wolf pounced forwards, stabbing the spear downwards to stake through the heart of the angel in front of him before he flung himself into another angel of Greater Heaven, jaws clamping onto its throat as his huge paws crushed down on its shoulders.

Its head was torn from its shoulders as the collarbone snapped like a twig, the wolf-beast flinging body in one direction and skull in the other, turning with the absent toss of the angel's head as a grin spread over the wolf's features. He faced the last angel, the two frozen for a moment before the Pious calmly lashed a claw upwards, sending a blast of white flames hammering home into the wolf's grinning face.

The beast yelped, staggering backwards, and the Pious immediately rushed forwards, swinging a claw out almost desperately... and with ease, the lupine caught the angel's wrist in its jaws before twisting savagely to the side, yanking the Pious off balance before its paws reached up, one shoving into the angel's chest as the other grabbed its upper arm and pulled...

The angel's limb was torn from its body, and the monster flung this aside as it shoved forwards and slammed the Pious down onto its back before leaping on top of it, jaws biting down again and again, crushing and rending flesh. And then the beast shivered before throwing its head back and howling to the sky... a howl that turned into a loud cackle as Innocence winced at both the malign energies and the sheer force of sound.

The scaled unicorn hurried forwards as Ersatz and Prestige let the cloak around them drop, and then Innocence winced and skidded to a halt when the wolf-beast snarled over its shoulder at her... but then grinned, growling in a pitch that grated the mare's ears: “It's been far too long since Monkey let me out to play... do you know how long it's been? Long!”

“Well, you probably just attracted the Pious' attention to us.” Innocence said coldly, and then she hesitated for only a moment before stepping forwards and ordering sharply: “If you want to play, then go hunt down that ambush unit, Wolfsbane!”

“Don't give me orders!” Wolfsbane roared at her, snarling furiously, hackles raising as he rounded on her... and then he suddenly grinned again, almost half-lidding his eyes as he said kindly: “Give me suggestions.”

Innocence winced backwards, shivering a bit: a farkasember couldn't be killed unless it was in wolf form, and even then it required decapitation or other very difficult methods. But that wasn't to say that enough holes in him wouldn't slow him down... yet all the same, Innocence didn't really have a choice except to make one suggestion in particular... “Then maybe you should go ahead of us towards Canterlot. Otherwise... we might kill all the Pious before you get a chance to.”

Wolfsbane growled loudly at this, and then without another word, he spun around and bolted off. As he left, Avalon and Aphrodisia both returned, the Pegasus flitting down from the air as the demon trotted in from a side path with an uneasy look after Wolfsbane, asking nervously: “Should we... really let him go ahead by himself?”

“Monkshood isn't stupid. He probably knew this would happen...” Innocence shook her head briefly, then she gave a faint smile and glanced back and forth, shivering a little: so many of the statues were posed around gray stone monoliths of Pious and symbols of He Of Many Countless Faces... and so many of these statues were of ponies she had actually known, rebels unlucky enough to be caught in the blast of Miracles from Greater Heaven... “We need to concentrate on freeing these ponies. Prestige, Ersatz, can you set up a buffer shield around us? I don't want them detecting any of my magic.”

“I can create a muffling resonance in a small area... but it'll be harder for you to cast spells inside it.” Ersatz said hesitantly, and Innocence smiled a little and nodded.

“That's fine. It's better if my magic is a little suppressed, anyway... I don't want to put too much energy into them or I could shatter the stone instead of counteracting the holy energy.” Innocence said quietly, and then she shivered a little as she glanced at a nearby statue of a solider. “I... I can feel them still alive in there, though, in stasis... at least, I hope they're in stasis. Otherwise they've been aware and suffering for all these years...”

Aphrodisia winced at this, and then she frowned suddenly, raising her head as her shoulders hunched. Innocence noticed this out of the corner of her eye, turning towards her... before she stared as Apps' scythe appeared on her back with a spark, the weapon sizzling erratically with energy as Aphrodisia's features tightened into a skull-like mask, baring her fangs as she snapped: “Get down!”

Innocence, Ersatz, and Prestige all dropped as Avalon shot high into the air, a moment before a reaper appeared, viciously slashing its scythe outwards. But all it hit was Aphrodisia's own scythe, the demon snarling before she lashed her polearm outwards with a surge of demonic energy, driving the reaper back.

Two others appeared, one resting its scythe across its shoulders, the other holding its weapon loosely: they were all like the one that Innocence had seen at the rebel base, wearing cracked golden masks inset with gemstones and jewels. And all of the emanated a strange mixture of hatred and longing, as Aphrodisia rose her weapon and hissed: “Atropii.”

The three reapers shot in, but Prestige snapped her horn upwards, unleashing a shockwave of lightning that surged past her allies and smashed through the reapers, knocking them all backwards before the electricity crackling over their bodies turned to ice. The Atropii were quick to shatter the bonds of frost, but Aphrodisia took the split second of vulnerability to leap forwards, hooking her scythe out and tearing the soul-stealing weapon from the hands of one of the reapers, knocking it off balance before her hoof swung out and tore its mask off its head.

The reaper screamed and covered its face as glowing light shone through its gauntlets, swaying back and forth wildly before it exploded into smoke and energy. And as Aphrodisia hit the ground, she shouted at the others who were already engaging the remaining Atropii: “They're dishonored reapers! Their masks keep them stable!”

Prestige lashed her horn out, sending a blast of flames at another reaper, but the Atropii quickly swung its scythe out, absorbing the magic into the blade to prevent the talented Valkyrie from transforming or redirecting the magic. It lashed the weapon back down, firing a bolt of dark energy in return that Prestige barely evaded with a wince, but Ersatz surprisingly took advantage of its distraction, snapping her horn out and sending a fireball into the Atropii's face.

The blast was almost forceless, but released a flare of light, disorienting the reaper for a moment: more than long enough for Prestige to regain her balance and snap her horn forwards, sending out a string of lightning that hammered into the Atropii's mask and spread over it before turning to clinging ice.

Then the mare simply yanked her horn backwards, and the icy claw gripping the mask tore it free from the reaper's head, the creature howling in misery and shaking itself back and forth as blinding light bled out of its featureless face before it exploded. And a moment later, the second reaper sparked out of existence as well, its scythe falling to the ground along with pieces of shattered mask as Avalon moodily rubbed one of her front hooves.

Aphrodisia growled at the air, then slowly straightened and muttered: “Elska doesn't like Atropii. Neither do I. They're monsters.”

“That death entity must be in Canterlot... we have to move fast.” Innocence said worriedly, looking back and forth before she grimaced and hurried down the path, calling over he shoulder: “Ersatz, I need you to start generating that interference!”

The demon nodded, raising her horn as it glowed faintly, and then the scaled unicorn winced a bit as a staticky feeling tickled over her body and horn. But Innocence did her best to keep her concentration on the world around her as she looked back and forth, before her eyes finally locked on what she was looking for, just ahead... and in spite of the hope she had to fix this, it still ached to see, much more than she had expected it to.

The petrified figures of Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom both stood with their heads proudly raised and eyes frozen closed, in dignified and regal poise even in their defeat. The scaled unicorn trembled a little as she studied them, posed facing each other in front of a monument of an omega embracing a circle... and then Innocence laughed weakly as she saw two smaller figures posed on the cubical base of this monolith, whispering: “Even you guys.”

Ratatoskr and Abaddon: Innocence had thought they were dead. But here they were, turned to stone as well, the squirrel frozen as if pleading, the pseudodragon staring helplessly upwards and head raised, too proud to submit to even an impossible enemy... and it made the pain worse. Seeing how the Light had taken both animal and pony and made them ornaments to better declare the superiority of their beliefs...

Innocence gritted her teeth, and then she shook her head fiercely before raising her horn as it crackled with dark energy, her eyes glowing faintly as she keyed in to the holy energy with ease even through the baffling of the magic field Ersatz was generating. It was powerful... but the power of it was only going to make it all the easier for her to cancel it out, as she breathed hard and whispered: “I'm going to fix this. I'm not going to lose you, too.”

The mare's horn sparked, and then she closed her eyes and arched her back slowly, her horn crackling with dark energy before an orb of shadows formed around the monument, swallowing the statues and monolith whole as it crackled with black lightning. It darkened and thrummed, Innocence concentrating on it, gritting her teeth and filling it with the same power that she had used to cast the exorcisms that had cleansed the Light from the ponies.

There was a rumble, a shattering... and then the orb of shadows dissipated, leaving behind only a pile of crumbled remains. And Innocence's jaw dropped, staring in horror at this tall mound of gravel and broken rock before she whimpered weakly in disbelief, the others all staring in horror...

“N-No...” Innocence whispered, stepping forwards, staring back and forth over the pile of stone... and then she reached a claw forwards, trembling and touching rocks that felt strangely warm now, smoky miasma still bleeding out of the pile as she felt tears threatening her eyes. “What... what have I done...”

Then the pile of rocks shivered, and Innocence drew her claw back in shock, feeling a wild burst of hope... before a small, black head poked itself out of the pile of stone, squeaking in surprise as it looked back and forth. Abaddon... and a moment later, the pile of rock shuddered before spilling down in a small avalanche around the ponies, and the group was left staring in awe as two ponies and a terrified-looking squirrel emerged from the runes, the mares gasping for breath and gazing back and forth, covered in energy burns and bruises... but alive. Alive, and breathing... “Scarlet Sage!”

Innocence all-but-leapt forwards, hugging the silvery Pegasus around the neck, and Scarlet Sage flinched and gave a little whimper before she managed a smile, breathing hard and looking down at Innocence with a faint laugh. And Innocence laughed loudly as well, gazing up at her sibling adoringly before she whispered: “Scar... I... I never even realized how much I missed you un... until...”

“It's... it's okay.” Scarlet smiled faintly, and then she looked over at Apple Bloom as the earth pony shook herself vigorously out, then gave a small smile over at Avalon as the tiny mare looked at her with a wide grin, her own eyes shining with excitement... and hope. “You okay there, Red?”

“Yeah. I am. I guess you could say I've had some experience with getting stoned from working for Cowlick for so long.” Apple Bloom said wryly, and Avalon laughed as Innocence stepped back and gazed with relief between the mares, as Ratatoskr and Abaddon both twined and danced around the group of ponies, chirping and squeaking excitedly. “Still a hell of a relief to see you all, though... I feel like it must have been years, stuck in there.”

“It was.” Innocence said quietly, and both mares looked at the scaled unicorn with surprise before Scarlet Sage leaned forwards, studying Innocence intently.

She looked back with a faint smile, and there was silence for a few moments before the Pegasus gave a quite laugh, saying softly: “But it looks like the wait was worth it. Innocence... I'm glad to see you're back to your old self.”

Innocence blushed a bit, and then Prestige looked up and said softly: “As wonderful as it is that all this has worked out so well... we shouldn't linger here. Innocence, how many other ponies can you free? And Scarlet Sage, do you think your powers will work on these statues?”

“Only one way to find out.” the Pegasus replied gamely, smiling a little and straightening as if she hadn't just spent years trapped as a petrified statue. “I'll start on the left. You take the right side of the path, Sin. And if I can't break the enchantment then I'll instead tend to whoever you free.”

“Thank you, Scarlet Sage.” Innocence said quietly, looking up at her big sister: she always seemed to fade into the background, to work behind the scenes... but she never failed to rise to the occasion when she was needed, no matter how much she had suffered herself.

Innocence turned as Ersatz followed, smiling through the faint strain of muffling Sin's magic: the scaled unicorn's power was tremendous, almost enough to cancel out any buffer she could put up. But she didn't complain... any more than Innocence revealed how much effort it took to concentrate her magic with the energy field sizzling around her.

And, with a bit of effort, Scarlet Sage was able to use her own powers to crack the stone shells holding other ponies prisoner and free ponies from stasis and petrification. Rebels, demons, and others who had defied the Light all picked themselves up as stone crumbled around them, many of them shaky on their feet, but a few quickly regaining their senses, growling and eager to rejoin the battle against the Light, once they understood what was going on.

Within twenty minutes, both Innocence and Scarlet Sage had exhausted themselves. There were still quite a few statues remaining, but for now, Innocence thought this would more than suffice: they had everything from a massive Hellhound that Aphrodisia was muttering in the ear of, to a young dragon that was storming moodily back and forth, spiked tail swishing back and forth as he glared towards the castle in the distance, occasionally snorting out small gusts of smoke from his nostrils.

“I don't want to leave them here but... we should get moving. We can't leave Wolfsbane out there by himself.” Innocence murmured, and Ersatz nodded as she allowed the baffling field to drop, the scaled unicorn giving a small sigh of relief as she felt a little of her strength and concentration return.

“I'll stay here. I'll free as many people as I can and tend to the injured.” Scarlet Sage said quietly, gesturing towards Apple Bloom: the earth pony was currently wrapping a makeshift bandage around a pony who had been turned to stone with his foreleg in a grotesque, shattered position, the rebel trembling violently as the engineer did her best to splint the damage. “I'll get them out of here, to safety, then come back here and see what else I can do... Ponyville is free, right?”

“Yeah. Thank you, Scarlet Sage. Don't strain yourself, okay?” Innocence halted, then smiled a little as Ratatoskr and Abaddon both ran up to her, chirping and looking up almost expectantly at the scaled unicorn. “And you two. Go find Freya: by now, they're probably staging an attack against Canterlot Castle... let her know we were successful here, then get yourselves to safety.”

Innocence hesitated, glancing towards the massive, almost fairytale structure in the distance, and she shivered a bit: every now and then, faint roars reached their ears, and while there was no sight of great blasts of magic... the whole castle looked like it was glowing with holy energy. They had apparently focused on erecting some kind of holy barrier... “Don't get yourselves killed, you two.”

Both the squirrel and the pseudodragon seemed to nod, and then turned to bolt off as Aphrodisia hopped quickly onto the back of the massive Hellhound, the demon whistling loudly to draw the attention of the others before she shouted: “Hey, all of you! You want revenge? Well, this is your chance to get it! But all of us have to listen to that mare there, Innocence, got it?”

The scaled mare blinked in surprise, then smiled awkwardly at this, clearing her throat before she looked lamely around at group as all attention was fixed on her. Then she forced herself to take a breath, raising her head and saying firmly: “Alright. We're going to move towards Canterlot, in groups: Avalon, take the Pegasi to the air and fly high, but don't go ahead. Wait for us to get moving and follow: I'll send up a signal flare when I want you to attack, so try and keep out of the enemy's sight. Apps, I want you to wait back here with the demons, keep a small distance between our groups: the rest of you are with me. We'll draw the Pious out, so that Avalon's team can cut them off and Aphrodisia's can mop up afterwards. Understood?”

There were nods and shouts of agreement, before Innocence looked up in surprise as a voice said mildly: “Perhaps we can offer our assistance as well.”

The scaled unicorn smiled over at the sight of Dysphoria, who was standing with his two brothers and a slight smile on his face as he gestured pleasantly towards the hedge maze. “Unfortunately, it seems our cousins failed to retrieve Discord... we saw they had been turned to stone, likely by the nasty magic emanating from that awful castle. With that magic disabled for the moment by the barrier around Canterlot, however... we believe that we are more than sufficient to revive both our fallen comrades and Discord. And I'm very certain that Discord most definitely desires to pay back the Light for what they've done to him. Or rather, mostly-certain: you can never be entirely sure with chaos. That's dangerous.”

Innocence nodded quickly, and then she replied with a slight smile: “Then free them. We won't wait up, though.”

“Hey, are you saying we're slow? We're not slow! We're way faster than you!” Donnybrook squawked, flailing his little arms before he turned and waddled hurriedly off towards the hedge maze. Diminish groaned, then spun around and almost slithered after his brother as the middle Draconequus smiled pleasantly and bowed politely, before he simply vanished in a puff of green smoke.

“Let's go.” Innocence said to Prestige and Ersatz, not wanting to lose any more time. Avalon grunted at this as well before she shot up into the air, and Aphrodisia waved from the enormous Hellhound's back as the three unicorns turned and headed quickly for the other end of the Gardens.

Innocence gave one last glance over her shoulder at Scarlet Sage, who was already turning back to the statues... and then the scaled unicorn turned her eyes back forwards, locking her gaze on the path ahead. They passed through a torn-down gate, and Innocence grimaced only a bit as they passed the corpse of a Pious that had been torn in half, muttering: “He's definitely strong...”

Ersatz grimaced a bit as Prestige looked ahead, her horn sparking as she muttered: “I think I sense him ahead... and Pious residue, too. Except...”

Innocence nodded briefly, grimacing and unsure of what to expect as she felt it too: bloodlust. A hunger so great that it overwhelmed everything else... and only a few minutes later, along the pretty, wide path leading around to the side of the immense Canterlot Castle, they found Wolfsbane busily tearing apart a dead wyvern, torn-apart Pious covered in claw and bite marks sprawled all throughout the field, their blood dyeing the grass and flowers crimson.

The scaled unicorn hesitantly slowed, and Wolfsbane looked up with a growl before he giggled and grinned, licking his lips slowly as he turned towards her. He was covered with blood, scraps of clothing still clinging to his matted fur as he asked hungrily: “Did you bring me a treat?”

Innocence shifted a bit, then she looked back and forth before asking finally: “Were these the only Pious here?”

“Unfortunately.” Wolfsbane sniffed disdainfully, kicking one hindpaw grouchily at the corpse of the dragon before he growled: “I smelled more and ran ahead, but they locked themselves in the castle! The cowards won't come out and die.”

The scaled unicorn strode around the dragon's corpse and the wolf-beast, noting the edge of the barrier at the end of the path. “You can't get through it?”

“Do I look stupid to you?” Wolfsbane snarled, glaring at the scaled unicorn, and then he sat back on his rear and absently scratched behind one ear with a large paw, adding moodily: “Hurts. Hurts like fire. I don't like fire.”

Innocence looked up at the barrier, and then she asked quietly: “And if I break down that barrier for you, Wolfsbane, would that make you happy?”

Wolfsbane looked up attentively at this, and then he grinned slowly and licked his lips, nodding a few times and growling: “That would make me very, very happy, oh yes yes yes... and then I can feast? I can hunt? I can kill?”

“As many as you want.” Innocence said grimly, and then she turned her eyes towards the barrier, concentrating her magic along her horn as Wolfsbane giggled in delight. “Prestige, Ersatz, I need you both to boost my magic.”

Both unicorns nodded, raising their horns and concentrating their energies on the scaled unicorn as Wolfsbane gleefully leapt back and forth behind them, the enormous wolf prancing happily after the mares as he said eagerly: “Oh, oh, oh I could just eat you three up! Bones and all! Yes, yes, yes, tear it down, tear it down, rip and shred and smash it all down!”

Innocence did the best she could to ignore Wolfsbane as she took a slow breath, raising her head high and concentrating, black lightning crackling up the length of her horn to form into a sphere that thrummed dangerously just above her head. Her eyes narrowed as she flexed a bit, leaning forwards and gazing coldly out at the barrier as she felt more strength flooding through her system and up into the growing sphere of malignant energies.

It pulsated and thrummed above her head, the energy growing and sparking with malevolence as the mare gritted her teeth and slowly drew her horn back, the sphere moving slowly with her... and then she lashed her horn outwards with a snarl, and the black fireball streaked forwards, hurtling through the air and smashing into the white barrier with a thunderous boom of poisonous energy, the scaled unicorn wincing back from the dark explosion that went up before she smiled grimly as the flames quickly died out... but a terrible, hideous bruising began to spread rapidly through the barrier, rotting the energy quickly away.

The barrier began to flicker and dissolve, and Wolfsbane howled gleefully before he charged fearlessly forwards, grinning as a large, gaping wound formed in the forcefield. He dove through this and crashed into the door beyond, smashing it off its hinges as he called gleefully: “Hey hey hey, everybody! Any of you got a treat for a hungry dog?”

Several Devout looked up before Wolfsbane leapt on the nearest, jaws clamping into its throat before he shook it wildly like a ragdoll, neck snap and blood splattering over the ground before he flung the limp corpse aside and threw himself at another winged unicorn that attempted to scramble away far too late.

Innocence winced a bit as she jogged forwards, before glancing up towards the sky: she could faintly see Avalon above, and the scaled unicorn hesitated for only a moment before she said quickly to Prestige and Ersatz: “You two wait here for the others. Prestige, I trust your judgment: either lead them into the castle or around the side of it to try and pincer whatever Freya must be dealing with right now. I'm going to go and get Avalon.”

Prestige nodded sharply, and then she reached up and caught Innocence's shoulder as the unicorn's horn began to glow, the scaled mare looking at her for a moment before she said quietly: “Good luck, Valkyrie.”

“You too.” Innocence smiled briefly, then her dark aura spread over her body before she launched herself upwards, shooting into the air in a streak of dark energy. The castle walls whipped by, the unicorn facing upwards as she breathed hard, heading quickly towards Avalon... then yelping and flinching to the side when a massive blast of purification tore past her, zigzagging wildly out of control before she snarled over her shoulder.

A huge cannon of some kind had been mounted on top of a tower, and several unicorns were clustered around this, likely providing the power for it. Then Innocence yelped as another cannon blast shot at her, narrowly evading it... and then she stared in shock as a yellow-and-red blur streaked past her, heading straight for the weapon.

A unicorn shouted in panic to his accomplices as a Pegasus streaked through the air towards them, the ponies quickly attempting to move the cannon even as they charged the crystal batteries along its sides with energy to try and fire it again: just before it could, however, the small Pegasus crashed into the end the cannon with the force of a meteor, bending the barrel and knocking it to point towards the ground.

The cannon fired, and the blast of energy hammered uselessly into the ground below as ruptures tore through the body of the weapon and several of the crystals overloaded and explode. Unicorns were knocked sprawling with howls of pain, only one of them managing to escape the brunt of the blast before he tried to turn and scramble away, but Avalon crashed down on top of him a moment later, both rear hooves driving savagely into the middle of his back.

He was knocked bonelessly to the ground, laying prone and twitching weakly, and the Pegasus grinned widely over her shoulder at Innocence, shouting: “Hey, you sneak in through the top! Me and my new friends will hit the other side of Canterlot and keep 'em panicked, right guys?”

Innocence heard several shouts of agreement from behind her, and she turned around in surprise to see not just ponies and dragons flying past, but several Draconequus running upside-down along the clouds, Discord in the lead and pumping his eagle talon in the air, blue war paint over his face as he howled: “Freedom!”

Then three of the Draconequus suddenly hopped off the cloud, one of them flipping gracefully and landing neatly in the air in front of Innocence, making her stare before Dysphoria reached out and calmly caught squealing Donnybrook in one arm and Diminish by his long, rat-like tail before he could fall past. Then the bulky Draconequus calmly sketched a bow, still holding his brothers in midair as he said pleasantly: “We would humbly ask that you allow us to participate in your infiltration of the castle. We feel that our services would be much more useful to you inside than out: Discord will certainly be more than sufficient to cause quite the ruckus.”

“Yeah, let us come with you! We're great!” chimed in Donnybrook, punching wildly at the air, and Diminish only grunted moodily.

Innocence hesitated only a moment before she nodded, glancing towards Canterlot. “Okay. But you three have to listen to me, at least as much as you can, okay? We have to be careful.”

“Right. Because all Draconequus are nothing but stupid troublemakers, right? We know the propaganda. We've heard it all before. You ponies don't think we even have feelings.” Diminish said sourly, crossing both his arms and his legs and seeming to sit upside down as he dangled from Dysphoria's grip. “But you're the bully here. The jerk. And everything else that's bad, too.”

Innocence only rolled her eyes, then glanced quickly over Canterlot again before she shot forwards, grimacing as she headed for the nearest window she could see. Thankfully, they didn't seem to have many defenses up: she guessed that the reason they had tried to shield themselves with the forcefield was because the Light hadn't taken the time to fortify Canterlot.

She flicked her horn, shattering the glass panes into dust before she landed inside the tower, looking back and forth quickly: but the office she'd entered seemed abandoned, and the scaled unicorn hesitated for only a moment before hurrying to the door.

She ignored the loud thuds of Donnybrook and Diminish crashing into the room behind her before Dysphoria calmly landed behind his stunned brothers. The bulky Draconequus frowned a little as he looked towards Innocence, and then he strode quickly forwards to squat beside Innocence, asking her quietly: “Do you sense something, miss?”

“I thought I did, for a moment, but it's either gone or cloaked itself. There aren't any signs of life nearby, either... but I can feel magic somewhere a floor or so down. We should try and find a way down there.” Innocence advised, and Dysphoria nodded almost solemnly.

“I can help with that!” said Donnybrook excitedly as he hopped up to his feet, Diminish wincing as the rotund little Draconequus bounced on top of his head, and then his short sibling hopped forwards, gritting his teeth and giving a little growl of preparation before he madly began to punch and chop and kick at the floor, dancing wildly around in a circle.

Innocence stared stupidly at the Draconequus as dust puffed up around him from his wild attacks before he finally slowed to a halt, wheezing loudly and slumping a little. He hadn't even left a scratch on the section of floor he'd attacked wildly, and Innocence mouthed wordlessly before Diminish calmly stood up, brushed himself off, then suddenly snatched Donnybrook up and flung him viciously straight down into the floor, the chubby Draconequus cannonballing through the stone with a thunderous bang.

Innocence gaped, then stumbled forwards to the edge of the wide hole in the floor as Diminish calmly crossed his arms, then hopped down to land on top of his rotund brother, who gave a little whimper of pain before the tall, gangly Draconequus stepped off him. Then Donnybrook shook only a little as he carefully rose an arm and gave a thumbs-up, whimpering: “S-See? Totally... did it.”

Dysphoria sighed tiredly and dropped his head in one hand, and Innocence winced a bit before her horn glowed brightly, quickly scanning the area: but apparently no one had noticed the racket they'd made, so after a moment the scaled unicorn quickly slipped through the hole and dropped down to the ground below, landing beside Donnybrook and muttering after a moment: “That's great, but let's try and keep it quiet now, okay?”

Dysphoria silently dropped down to join them, nodding briefly as he chastised gently: “That's right, brothers. Be careful: there are things much more dangerous than us in these waters.”

“We're in water?” Donnybrook asked dubiously, and Diminish groaned and flicked his wrist, creating a pair of headphones that he promptly jammed over his own head. Innocence only ignored the two for now, however: the room they had just blown their way into looked like an unused guest room, now covered in dirt from them smashing their way in.

Innocence strode to the door, then grimaced as she tried the handle: locked. But a simple spell took care of that, although for some reason that worried the mare. Canterlot Castle should be more secure than this... but open windows, empty upper floors, a door that no one had bothered to put a locking enchantment on and she probably could have forced open the cheap way with a hard kick...

She thought of the energy signature she'd picked up earlier, and then of the Atropii: maybe Minos was here, prowling these halls. Maybe he was waiting for them ahead... and then mare hesitated before looking over her shoulders at the Draconequus, asking: “Can you three sense anything?”

Two of the Draconequus shook their heads, and Diminish simply glared at the ceiling, looking annoyed. Innocence sighed a little, then turned her eyes back to the door and pulled it open, murmuring: “I've got a bad feeling about this. Watch out for Atropii... and for a Great Reaper.”

The Draconequus gave varying degrees of acknowledgment, and Innocence breathed slowly in and out as she made her way carefully forwards, shifting nervously back and forth as they headed into the halls. She could sense magic pulling her in one distinct direction, and she hesitated only for a moment before following this tug: if there was a trap waiting for her ahead, she'd prefer to at least find out what was giving off that energy.

They didn't have very far to go before they came to an open archway that led into... a shrine, Innocence thought it was. A large, rounded portal sat in the center of a grassy courtyard, floored with rich soil: the sides of the portal were gripped tightly by statues of Pious, which both emanated that powerful magic... magic that wasn't just powering the portal, the mare realized, but also creating some kind of powerful interference, so that no one could use it.

Except she could feel the metal cards against her breast resonating with energy in response, and her mouth went dry as she realized this was their way into Greater Heaven. This was what she and Freya had been hoping for, looking for: the back door that they had been given the keys to.

They strode into the shrine, the mare glancing away from the portal for a moment to look at the glass skylight above before she drew her eyes back down... and stumbled to a halt as she saw the Great Reaper that had taken Antares standing calmly in front of the portal. Behind her, the Draconequus brothers had all frozen with fear: fear that only grew more palpable as Atropii materialized all around them, floating ominously in the air.

The scaled unicorn swallowed thickly, then gritted her teeth and set herself, even as Judge Minos calmly cocked his head and asked quietly: “What are you doing here, little girl? Shouldn't you be out killing, instead of skulking around here, pretending to be a hero?”

Innocence shivered, but all the same countered coolly: “I... I'm no hero, but I'm better than just a killer, too. Not like you... why are you here? Why are you obeying the Light instead of the Cycle?”

“The Cycle is too slow. My duty is to judge the value of the dead, and I am a Great Reaper. It is well-within my purview to annihilate all that I see fit. Or to aid with the extermination of a world full of souls.” Minos rose his head slowly, hollow eyes looking callously down at her. “The story does not matter. Life does not matter. The beginning and the journey do not matter. All that matters is the very end; and I am the writer of the final page of every mortal.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Innocence shook her head slowly and whispered: “You're wrong. How can you attribute value to something if you refuse to actually look at it? How can you cut so many lives short and then pretend that doesn't affect any of your... your...”

She broke off, but Minos didn't respond, only surveying Innocence with his hollow, empty eyes. They looked at each other silently for a few moments, and then the scaled mare straightened slowly and said quietly: “I don't... I don't care who or what you are. Get out of my way, or... I'm going to force you out of my way.”

Minos gave a quiet laugh at this as the Atropii readied their scythes around him, and then the Great Reaper leaned forwards slightly as his cloak rippled around him, saying softly: “Really, girl? Do you remember the last time we met? I assure you that your brother still does... but Virgil has thanked me many times for bringing him to the Light.”

Innocence gritted her teeth, and then she straightened, eyes blazing as anger began to beat back fear, the scaled unicorn saying sharply: “Alright, this is your last chance! Get out of my way or I'm going to go through you, Minos!”

“Your tainted soul is barely worth my time.” Minos said derisively, and then the Great Reaper lunged suddenly forwards, spreading his arms wide to send his cloak flapping wide before he thrusted an arm forwards, and one of the scrolls wrapped around his gangly body shot forwards, spiraling itself into a drill shape around his limb. Innocence leapt to the side, wincing... and then staring in shock as the drill of paper glowed with dark energy and tore a deep gash into the ground, before Minos vanished in a burst of black smoke and reappeared right in front of her, stabbing the drill upwards-

Innocence slashed her own horn into it, the two struggling against each other fiercely as dark energy blasted between the clashing death entity and scaled unicorn. Then Atropii appeared all around Innocence, scythes raised... but even as her eyes widened in horror, there was a wild yell before Donnybrook smashed bodily into one of the reapers and ricocheted back and forth between them like a rubber ball, before the chubby Draconequus flew straight at Minos and collided with his serpent-masked features, clinging to his skull and wildly hammering his tiny fists against his head.

The reapers were knocked out of the air as the death entity reached up to slowly pry the chubby chimerical creature off his face, then finally yank him free. Donnybrook flailed wildly before squeaking as Minos rose the paper drill around one arm... and then Innocence leapt forwards with a snarl as her gauntlets burst into golden flames, slamming a punch directly into his gut that sent Minos skidding backwards with a gargle of shock, the tiny, chubby Draconequus flying out of his grip.

He caught himself, swaying on the spot with his arms out as the scrolls wrapped back around his body, shivering weakly as one charred from the impact. And Innocence stood at the ready, holy, golden flames burning around both her gauntlets, a snarl on her face as she shouted: “Come on!”

Two Atropii lunged at her back... but both of these collided with an enormous pane of invisible glass, sending cracks spiderwebbing through it as Diminish appeared in a puff of smoke on the other side of the window. Both reapers looked blankly up, and then the Draconequus made a face at them childishly before the enormous glass panel fell forwards, driving them both flat against the ground.

One of the reapers vanished from sight, but the other wasn't fast enough and was seized by Donnybrook, who yelled wildly as he hurriedly backpedaled, yanking on the Atropii's mask until it was torn free. The reaper screamed as it exploded before Donnybrook spun around with his prize held high, and then the chubby Draconequus' eyes widened in horror at the sight of another reaper shooting in, before he hurriedly flung the mask forwards.

It bounced loudly off the mask of the charging Atropii, surprising it into stopping, and Donnybrook stared for a moment at the reaper before he spun around and ran away, squealing in terror. The attention of several more reapers were drawn by this, all of them shooting after the Draconequus as Diminish simply crossed his arms and sulked, while Dysphoria had produced an umbrella and was fencing artfully with another Atropii, parrying every vicious swing of its scythe.

Minos snapped a claw out, and a blast of black flames erupted in front of Innocence, but the scaled mare only grinned and slashed her own horn outwards, transforming them with a swirl into black serpents of fire that twisted around and shot towards Minos. But the Great Reaper slew this with a single flick of his wrist, the flames whiffing out of existence before he said quietly: “You are not half as talented as you seem to believe that you are.”

Innocence replied to this by snapping her horn down, sending a blue fireball at Minos, but the death entity calmly caught this... except even as he charged it with malignant energies to fling back at her, Innocence snapped her horn back up and vines shot out of the ground, seizing around his wrists and gauntlets to bind his claws together, the Great Reaper looking down in disbelief at this sight before hissing and attempting too late to make the fireball vanish-

The overcharged fireball exploded, and Minos was knocked staggering to the side, his cloak torn to tatters, smoke bursting out of his body as the scrolls were ripped and frayed from the blast. He barely managed to catch himself before his hollow eyes rose coldly towards Innocence, his gauntlets flexing and betraying his anger as he said quietly: “I will tear your soul apart for that.”

Innocence only smiled coldly, the two facing each other before Minos vanished and appeared beside her, slashing one claw down. But the mare quickly dodged to the side as she slashed her horn out, deflecting the steel claw.

She felt pride for a moment... a bare second before a scroll shot forwards and wrapped violently around her several times, constricting and crushing her, driving plates of her own Valkyrie armor into her flesh. She gasped in pain, then snarled in desperation as she focused her magic across her body, breathing hard as her dark aura burst into life across her body and she writhed desperately for freedom.

Minos reached a claw down and seized into her horn, and Innocence gasped in pain, back arching as she felt him siphoning her energy out of her. The golden flames whiffed out from around her gauntlets as her dark aura dwindled, and then Innocence desperately channeled her energy forwards into one wild, telekinetic blast.

Massive recoil surged along her body as she was blown backwards, finally ripping free of the scroll around her at the cost of her armor and hide being flayed by the enchanted papyrus and her head left pounding from the blast of telekinesis as she bounced painfully along the ground before managing to roll and catch herself with a curse.

But as she looked up, she saw that Minos hadn't been spared, either. His gauntlet was a swirling mass of broken metal shards, his arm a smoky, unsightly mess. His hollow eyes regarded Innocence coldly before one of his scrolls wrapped tightly around the limb and broken, floating shards of metal, forming a thick bandaging around it as he said contemptibly: “You will pay dearly for this. Atropii... I will be waiting for you to deliver her soul.”

With that, Minos simply vanished from sight, and Innocence snarled at this act of cowardice before two more Atropii appeared where the Great Reaper had been, the mare's eyes widening... and then Dysphoria leapt in front of her, swinging his umbrella sharply back and forth as he shouted: “Have at you, sirs!”

The reapers tried to forge forwards, but every lash and swing of their scythes was parried before they both vanished, appearing on either side of the Draconequus: but without missing a beat, he rose his umbrella into the air and popped it open, and a moment later he shot straight up into the sky before kicking both legs out in a perfect splits, feet smashing into the faces of the reapers on either side of him and sending them reeling backwards.

Dysphoria released the umbrella, and it shot upwards to strike against the skylight and shatter it, shards of glass hailing down all around them and sparkling with green, chaotic light, confusing the Atropii even as Dysphoria called calmly: “Brothers! There are too many of them! We have no choice but to rely upon the most contemptible, loathed method of all street fighters! We must spam the Red Cyclone's Double Lariat!”

“Right!” Both Draconequus vanished, then reappeared crouching on either side of Dysphoria as there was a flash between his feet. Then both stood, at the same time yanking a red speedo up tightly over his groin.

Dysphoria thrust his arms out to either side, and Diminish grasped one fist with a cruel grin as Donnybrook leapt up and hung from the other arm of his sibling, kicking his legs helplessly at the air. Then, as the Atropii began to recover, Dysphoria roared, and both of his brothers flung his arms in opposing directions as hard as they could, sending the bulky Draconequus spinning violently like a top towards the nearest Atropii.

Innocence stared in disbelief as the Draconequus whirled into the nearest Atropii, sucking it into the miniature tornado created by the bulky male before tearing it apart, sending up a burst of smoke and metal and energy before he moved on to the next reaper. It too was torn apart, before another attempted to slash viciously inwards against Dysphoria, but its scythe bounced off with a burst of green lightning before it rasped as it was yanked down into the tornado, scythe smashed into debris before its mask and body exploded.

Innocence saw that Diminish and Donnybrook were both kneeling, hands planted in the ground, expressions of concentration almost the same across their faces, and she realized that they were currently pumping all the energy they could into Dysphoria, as he spun wildly through the crowd of Atropii, tearing them apart. But as he collided with two reapers at once, he began to slow... and to Innocence's horror, four more appeared all around him, scythes raised and ready to try and take advantage of his loss of momentum.

She reacted before she even realized she was reacting, snapping her horn forwards: what shocked her wasn't that she moved on instinct, but what she summoned up wasn't dark energy but vibrant green life, vines tearing out of the ground around the reapers and seizing into their weapons, yanking them down, interrupting them. They struggled... and then the two reapers that had been pulled into the tornado were torn apart before Dysphoria yanked the four Atropii around him, one after the other, into his wild whirl.

One, then two reapers exploded... and then Dysphoria finally slowed to a halt, the remaining reapers both caught in headlocks before Dysphoria calmly dropped them, catching the backs of their masks before he yanked upwards with only the faintest grimace. Both reapers screamed, grasping at their empty faces as light shone out between their claws... and then they simply exploded, and Dysphoria took a few slow breaths and lowered his head before he whispered: “Well, mum. I think that's all we'll be able to manage for now. Go on without us, will you?”

Donnybrook whimpered and fell forwards on his face, and Diminish slowly sat back with a groan before he carefully pulled his headphones out of thin air, then stuck them over his ears before sprawling loudly backwards. Innocence looked back and forth slowly, but then she smiled faintly: the Atropii were gone, and Minos had fled... fled like the goddamn coward she had expected he was. Fled up to Greater Heaven, unaware that they could follow him... and she had every intention of chasing after him and making sure he understood that he had just made a grievous mistake.

But first... Innocence looked back towards the archway, knowing that she couldn't do this alone. And more importantly, that she didn't have to, as she said quietly: “You three have done more than enough. Stay here and keep an eye on things... I have to go and help my friends.”

With that, the scaled mare lunged towards the archway, and Dysphoria smiled faintly before he glanced quietly to the side, towards a figure resting against the wall with his arms crossed and a frown on his features as the bulky chaos entity said softly: “Even chaos can appreciate such a notion, can't we? Aren't even the best laid plans of mice and mortals victim to the happenstance of circumstance and relation-stance and emotion-stance?”

Theophilius didn't reply, only looking uneasy for a few moments before he shook his head and said quietly: “Yes, but soon high will be low and low will stretch high, all part of the plan to deal with that which I never could have imagined would happen, I could never have known was coming. Isn't that enough? Isn't my mincing and prancing, my pretending and academic quandarying enough?”

Dysphoria only smiled again and shrugged before he closed his eyes and peacefully laced his fingers together, and Theophilius looked down for a moment before silently stepping backwards and sinking into the wall, wondering why part of him always felt that even as a Mad Hatter, he should try and pursue these fleeting moments of sanity.

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