• 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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Retribution's Dirge

Chapter Ninety Three: Retribution's Dirge

Innocence looked uneasily back and forth at the strange, alien place they had entered through the portal. She thought they were inside Castle Valhalla... except everything here was strange and mechanical and sterile and... so goddamn cold. She shivered a bit, then looked over her shoulder at the glowing portal, past the small group of ponies that had come with her.

“Should we just... leave it on?” she asked uncertainly, and Freya looked back at the portal ring for a moment as well before giving a brief nod. Terra growled in agreement herself, and that was more than enough to convince the others... or at least Prestige, since Pinkamena, Avalon, and Aphrodisia were all around looking around the room, poking at the other large portal rings and inspecting the various panels and artifacts.

It was some kind of shipping room, Innocence guessed. There were a few dollies for moving crates, and a single larger pushcart, mostly covered in dust, and otherwise the floor was wide and open, focused around these three rings. Innocence glanced again at the portal, and then she shook her head before Freya said quietly: “We should get moving. Our soldiers have been fighting for... an hour, at least. And I don't like the thought of all the time we wasted before getting here, tending to our wounds and resting when we could have already infiltrated this facility.”

“We had to be in top condition for this, Freya... and we had to wait for the enemy to be good and distracted. Or d'you not think it hurts me too, lass, to think that out there my soldiers are fighting and dying without me? And they're mine as much as yours, if not more so.” Terra added sharply, and she and Freya glared at each other for a few moments, which made Innocence sigh a little and shake her head slowly before she looked up at them almost pleadingly.

“Can we please focus on our objective?” she implored quietly, and both Queens looked at her grouchily before nodding, as Prestige stepped up beside Terra and Apps, Pinkamena, and Avalon all strode in to form a semicircle on Innocence's other side. The scaled mare felt awkward at this, but she only stumbled a little as she quickly rehashed: “Our roles are simple. Terra and Freya are going to disable... whatever the Light's using to keep the castle under their control. They're also going to destroy any other power sources they can find, try and weaken any automated defenses or disable any traps that might have been set up.”

Terra and Freya both nodded grudgingly, and then Innocence looked over her shoulder at Avalon, Aphrodisia, and Pinkamena. “And you three are going to attack Valhalla's defenders from behind. You should be able to ambush at least a few groups so long as you're fast and careful, open up several entrances to the castle so that the army can move inside without having to try and push through any Pious. Lastly, Prestige and I are going to push our way into Heaven. We... we have to try and find Antares, and put a stop to the Cardinal as fast as possible.”

Freya sighed quietly, but she nodded all the same, even as her amethyst eye looked almost resentfully at Innocence. “We don't know how powerful or how dangerous the Cardinal is. But... your dark magic should be able to overwhelm his purification. Just... be careful, Innocence. And I want you both to recognize the fact you may have to kill Antares.”

“No.” Prestige said quietly, and Freya frowned a little as Terra smiled a bit, and the young Valkyrie slowly forced herself to look up, to meet her superior's gaze before she said quietly: “I will not kill Antares, Freya. I'm going to save him, one way or the other. I owe him that much, and more.”

Freya sighed softly, but then Terra said with surprising gentility: “Then be prepared to make him feel just how much you love him with a good blow to the head, lass, if it comes to that. Do us proud, though, aye, and save the poor sod's life. We'll be with you every step of the way, whatever may happen, so remember that, Prestige Luster.”

“I suppose so.” Freya agreed in a mumble after a moment, and then the ivory mare shook her head slowly before she said finally: “We'll... try and assist you any way we can. Just send out a pulse if you need our help, we'll find you as soon as possible. I promise.”

Terra smiled warmly at Freya at this, reaching up to clasp her shoulder with a claw and squeeze it firmly, and Innocence looked up at the ivory winged unicorn with a mix of... relief, and renewed confidence, and even a little bit of restored trust. Prestige nodded and saluted to the two, and then Pinkamena growled moodily: “Every moment we spend here talking is another moment that the Light might see us. We should...”

Then Pinkamena turned sharply, snarling and grasping her axe handle as her eyes blazed, Innocence looking up with her own wince as three ponies who had been clearly touched by the Light strode into the room from the connecting passage. But then Freya whistled sharply as Pinkamena began to lunge, the Devourer staggering to a halt and catching herself on her front hoof with a glare over her shoulder as the Queen of the Valkyries said calmly: “As much as I would like to see you chop the Light's soldiers into pieces, demon, those are not hostiles.”

Pinkamena took another look at the three ponies, and then Innocence's own eyes widened before the scaled unicorn strode quickly forwards, recognizing these creatures as the strange ponies who had given them the metal cards that had allowed them to slip into Heaven in the first place. She smiled at them, looking back and forth between the three and saying in as friendly but also serious a voice as she could manage: “I'm really happy to see you three... can you help us? We don't know where we are or... where we should go. We need to stop the Light. We have a plan but...”

She broke off, smiling awkwardly, and the three strangely-empty ponies regarded her silently before they simply turned and strode slowly down the corridor. Innocence winced a bit at this, then looked uncomfortably over her shoulder at the others, but there were only shrugs and curious looks in response before the scaled mare said finally: “I guess we should follow them. Maybe they're... going to help us again.”

“You shouldn't trust so readily in others.” Freya said quietly, but all the same, the ivory mare strode forwards, and the rest of the group walked with her as she muttered: “We're likely going to be betrayed. We're already likely on a razor's edge here... a single false move could alert the Light and ruin everything we've planned.”

“Aye, and then you'll have the chance to start the bloodbath you wanted to in the first place, Freya, so why don't you cease your endless bellyaching for once in your life and just enjoy the walk?” Terra asked in a grumble, and Innocence couldn't help but wince a little as Pinkamena grinned wryly and Avalon snorted.

Freya looked less than thrilled with everyone, but didn't reply even as she gritted her teeth, single amethyst eye focused forwards. Innocence tried not to look back over her shoulder or argue herself, uneasily leading the group down the hall and wishing she could pass this off on someone else... but at least Prestige was at her side, and the young Valkyrie – but so much more real a Valkyrie than her, she felt – smiled at her supportively as they strode down the empty corridor.

The three ponies were a good distance ahead, but every now and then one of them would stop and calmly close an open door: Innocence couldn't help but look at these as they passed, wondering quietly what was beyond, if the unicorns were helping hide them or if instead they were preparing some kind of ambush...

They reached an intersection, and the empty ponies halted before turning around, studying them silently. Then one of them slowly rose a hoof and waved silently at the ceiling, and the group of rebels looked up to see a crystal mounted on the ceiling above: likely some kind of security eye. Innocence winced as Freya began to tilt her horn forwards, but then the light died out from the gemstone, and the ivory mare was left frowning in surprise.

A sound grew: hooves approaching, Innocence realized it was after a moment, and she realized that it was coming from all sides. The mare hesitantly stepped forwards into the intersection, looking down each of the halls... and she couldn't help but stare at what she saw, trembling a little as the rest of her group followed her into the wide space and formed a circle, none of them able to believe what they were watching approach.

Ponies were coming down the halls, on all sides: many of them looked as if they had been experimented on, and all of them were... empty. Emotionless. Blank and lost and like all the purpose had been stolen from them... and there were so many of them. So many that were... Hollow.

Innocence swallowed thickly, and she shivered and reared back slightly as her eyes roved with horror over what looked like unicorns that had not horns, but huge, twisted walls of alicorn growing out of their heads, and past broken, mutant ponies with extra legs or three wings or misshapen bodies that they could barely support. The rejects and the freaks and the failures of the Light's experiments, she realized, and all of them were gathered here. All of them were staring at her, before a voice said quietly: “Save us.”

Innocence turned slowly towards the three empty ponies that had led them here, staring at them, and one of the ponies stepped forwards. They stared at each other, and then the Hollow struggled for a moment before repeating: “Save us.”

“I'm... I'm going to do my best to.” Innocence whispered, looking back and forth again and trembling at the sight of these freaks, these rejects, these stillborn that had been forced to live all the same before she swallowed thickly, turning her eyes back to the Hollow that had spoken to her and asking: “Where... we need to disable any other defenses that the Light might have and deal with whatever forces of the Light are defending the Cardinal...”

The Hollow looked at her silently, and for a few moments, Innocence didn't think she was going to get an answer... but then the pony slowly rose a foreleg, pointing down one hall and saying quietly: “Master control.”

It halted, lowered its limb as if it was an exhausting process, and then rose its other to point in the opposite direction. “Experiment chambers.”

Finally, the empty, emotionless pony forced itself to turn slowly around, gesturing down the last hallway. “Exit. To Castle.”

Innocence nodded a few times, smiling faintly as the creature turned back to face her, and then the scaled unicorn glanced over her shoulder as Freya said quietly: “Terra and I will deal with cleaning out this laboratory first and foremost. A few of these places sound important to the Light's aims. And... empty vessels. Perhaps you want to leave. The portal we came in through has been left open, you are free to use it to exit into Canterlot.”

Freya sounded grudging and less-than-thrilled, but Terra smiled warmly and Innocence nodded firmly, gazing over her shoulder at the ivory mare. But Freya didn't lose any of her displeasure or bitterness, instead adding quietly: “I don't care about you. But I would prefer that you were out of the way, is this understood? And I will not hesitate to hunt all of you down if any problems whatsoever occur here and now or in the future and they can be traced back to our dealings with you.”

The scaled mare winced a bit as Pinkamena grumbled something about tact, but none of the Hollows seemed affected. They only continued to stand, a silent audience all looking calmly and emptily over the rebels that had infiltrated the castle, Freya shifting with the faintest unease after a moment before she said finally: “But I won't... pursue you, either, if you stay out of our way.”

The creatures remained silent. Terra and Freya traded looks, and then the ivory mare grimaced before muttering: “We don't have time for this right now. We should keep moving forwards. These... vessels can decide for themselves what they want to do.”

Innocence hesitantly nodded, and without another word, the ivory mare turned in the first direction the emotionless, lethargic pony had indicated. Towards the 'master control,' which Freya was hoping was exactly what it sounded like, the ivory mare striding fearlessly towards the mass of gathered, emotionless ponies that filled these halls... although even she couldn't hide her relief when the group of empty ponies parted like a wave for her, allowing her to pass unscathed.

Terra gave a shrug, then quickly turned to follow after Freya, Innocence watching uneasily before she shook her head briefly and murmured: “Good luck, you two.”

The Ironjaw smiled over her shoulder, then squeezed through the crowd after Freya, trying to keep her metallic body from grinding too much against the strange ponies as she half-muttered apologies, although she was unsure whether or not these creatures understood what she was saying. Once on the other side of the mass, she caught up to Freya, the two striding quickly down the smooth, sterile hall in silence until Terra remarked: “You could try bein' a little bit nicer, sodding monarch.”

“Funny, you referring to me like that, Queen of Heaven, who has tried in the past to flaunt her authority and her strength over me... and failed miserably both times.” Freya muttered in response, and Terra glowered moodily at the winged unicorn, who only shot a sour look back at the Ironjaw with her single eye. “Enough banter. Let's focus on the objective.”

“Aye, well, it would be enough if you didn't always have to have the last word in everything. It's not an admirable quality, Freya.” Terra replied wryly, and the ivory mare visibly fought back a retort, grinding her teeth a little as the two made their way down the corridor.

But then both grew serious, Terra's metal scales shivering and raising slightly and Freya's eye narrowing as saw-toothed Drengr slowly drew itself free from its sheath: just ahead was an open room, where several Pious were calmly standing in front of a series of large, crystalline screens that displayed a map of the castle of Canterlot, and various other readings in the Pious' strange language. The dragon and winged unicorn traded looks, and then Freya grudgingly nodded, and Terra gave a wry grin.

One of the Pious straightened and began to turn, likely sensing them, but far too late: in a flash, Freya was across the room, slamming her short sword up through its back, and the Pious arched its spine and threw its arms almost comically wide.

The other Pious immediately began to turn, but Terra seized both their heads in her claws and growled as she slammed them face-first down into the control panel with enough force to knock it off the rails holding it to the wall. One of the Pious she flung to the side into the wall as she bent the other backwards, then seized it by the shoulder with her freed claw as she pulled viciously upwards, ripping its head from its shoulders.

She tossed it aside almost casually, then half-turned and slammed her claw into the chest of the Pious that was just beginning to get up, crunching in its ribs and making it spasm before it slumped brokenly. The headless Pious, meanwhile, was still spasming weakly against the floor, skeletal, wing-like appendages carefully stabbing through the air around it before Freya stabbed her sword down and through its back, making it twitch one last time before it slumped brokenly.

The ivory mare looked up with distaste as she yanked her sword free from the corpse, and Terra glared back at her as the Queen of the Valkyries said calmly: “Your brutality might be a little arousing at times, Terra, but try and be professional, not put on a show. The Pious can't use their psychic powers without their heads, but they can still function.”

“Not very well. And I'm more worried about them sending out an alarm than I am about them trying to put up a fight, Freya. Maybe you should try and bear that in mind before rushing to judge me.” Terra replied moodily, and the two glared at each other for a moment before Terra gestured grouchily up at the screen, which was fizzling only slightly from the control panel being smashed. “What do you think of that?”

“I think if you weren't so messy, we'd have a better chance of understanding what was going on.” Freya said patronizingly, looking up over the screens and studying them intently all the same, and Terra grinned widely at this, shaking her head slowly.

“Cranky little girl today, aren't you? Aye, you don't play very well with others when you aren't in charge, do you, Freya?” Terra asked ironically, and the ivory mare ignored her even as her features tensed a little. “And yet you claim that you need a second who'll challenge you, and stand up to you. But why do you expect anyone to do that when you react like a sodding viper every time someone says a damned word to you like such a fiochag?”

The ivory mare only scowled, refusing to look at Terra before she pointed at an image on one of the lower sections of monitor, muttering: “Look at that. It's some kind of enormous power converter... that must be what's keeping Heaven under their control. It's probably being kept in the lower levels... but unfortunately, since the controls have been destroyed, I can't check for sure.”

Terra gave Freya an icy look, and then she said distastefully: “Well, some use your great big brain is, then. Of course, you're the one who also wanted to march in here and die fighting, like that would actually accomplish something.”

“Taking it slow and steady doesn't seem to be doing a whole lot of good either, now does it?” Freya replied sourly, and the two glared at each other for a moment before Freya sheathed her sword and smashed her hoof into the panel that was still hanging from the wall, bending and warping the metal as the screens sparked violently with static before simply blinking out. “It's a waste of time trying to fiddle with this any longer, anyway. We know where the experiment halls are, and that machine is likely beneath this section of Valhalla. It looks like this has suffered the most... structural change.”

“They've perverted our home. Ruined it.” Terra muttered, and Freya looked at the metallic dragon for a moment before she gave a thin smile.

“There's something we can actually agree on, Terra.” the ivory mare said moodily, and then she nodded briefly before turning around, the Ironjaw falling in step beside her as they made their way back into the corridor.

They were both a little surprised to find that the emotionless ponies had all left: they paused for a moment to look down the other halls, but there weren't any visible... well, anywhere. It gave Freya a distinct feeling of unease, but Terra only smiled, saying wryly: “Looks like they took your advice. Aye, see? Not all these wretches are so bad.”

Freya didn't reply, only moodily turning her attention towards the corridor leading to the experiment wing and beginning to lead the way down it. Terra rolled her eyes at this, then followed quickly after the ivory winged unicorn and stubbornly striding up to her side again. “You're not going to lose me that easily, Freya. And there's no need to be so damned stubborn.”

The Queen of the Valkyries gave a dry smile at this, but again refused to say anything, only continuing to stride down the uncomfortable metal and stone halls. Terra scowled a little, but it was more at their surroundings than the aloofness of the ivory mare: so much of Valhalla had been changed, made so empty and... cold. Her scales might be metal, but they still had luster and movement, covered real flesh: everything they saw here was dreary and mechanical and lacked any kind of life... and like those empty ponies, seemed like the very soul had been stolen from them.

After a few minutes, Freya and Terra slowed as they entered a large room filled with thrumming capsules, and both dragon and mare silently turned to survey the contents of these awful pods. Inside each and every one was a floating body... the body of a Whistler. Freya's eyes narrowed slightly at this as Terra growled under her breath, before the ivory mare said quietly: “De Sade.”

“That's my name, honeybunch. Don't you go wearin' it out.” growled a voice, and Terra looked up in surprise as Freya only calmly turned to face the end of the hallway, where the Whistler stood, the assassin looking at them with fury and hatred in his eyes: not fear, not mockery, not arrogance, but pure, unbridled hate as he slowly ground the flat of his knife against his other fin-like hoof. “You two just waltzed right on in to the exact wrong place.”

Freya flicked her horn, her three short swords drawing themselves free as Tyrfing glinted almost eagerly on her back, before the ivory mare slammed the pommel of her sword into one of the capsules. Cracks spiderwebbed through the glass, and the Whistler snarled at them before the ivory mare said calmly: “It's nice to finally know your name after all these years. Now, I'm curious: if we kill every last body of yours, what's going to happen to you?”

The Whistler grinned icily, and then he replied in a cold voice: “Why don't you come and find out, huh? If you think you can, that is.”

“I don't know why I should bother.” Freya replied moodily, her head high, a patronizing smile crossing her face as De Sade glared at her. “I know you're probably already running off to tell your master all about us being here... maybe I should ignore you and just go straight to him. I'm sure he'll be thrilled to learn that you were the one who led us right up into Heaven as well.”

“All he's gonna know is that I killed two rebels who snuck on in here, and brought him their heads as tribute!” the Whistler snarled, then he leapt forwards, spinning his silver knife around in his grip. But without hesitation, Terra leapt forwards and smashed the Whistler out of the air with one claw, sending him flying backwards in a squealing rain of blood.

But all around them, more Whistlers flashed into being, dropping down from midair and leaping out between capsules before several of the pods cracked, then shattered in a hail of glass and green liquid, assassin copies ripping themselves free of tubes and wires to leap towards Freya. But the Queen of the Valkyries only smiled coldly as she dropped her head and readied herself: apparently she had touched a nerve.

Her short swords whirled around her, slicing apart copies of De Sade as the Whistler himself roared: “Kill the bitches! Kill 'em dead! How dare you shove your noses into here, this is my damn home, these are like my damn kids!”

“Funny, you sending your children to be slaughtered like this, then.” Freya said calmly, her swords whickering back and forth: Dómr smashed assassins backwards, Gæfa caught and flung De Sade copies in all directions, and Drengr bit and slashed through the staggering ranks of Whistlers around her.

And then the ivory mare flinched in surprise and pain as a Whistler half-flung itself up from the floor despite the devastating wound to its abdomen, clinging to her back leg and stabbing its knife wildly into her limb before she managed to firmly kick it off with a bone-crunching crack. They weren't just going into a frenzy: they were actually more durable thanks to the energies running though Heaven, putting up a harder fight...

Terra snarled and leapt back and forth, heavy body smashing against the glass pods and sending cracks ripping through the capsules as her claws raked back and forth and her tail lashed through the Whistlers around her. But they were ferocious, their knives scraping and sending up sparks against her scales as they attempted to pile onto her body to force her down.

She flung most of these off, and others she flexed against, sending metal needles up into their bodies to loosen their grips before she tore them off to fling them into other Whistlers. But the area was narrow and the De Sade copies were sparking in and out of reality rapidly, leaping immediately back on top of her, and she was surprised by both their ferocity as well as how much punishment they were taking, as she roared: “This was not a good idea, Freya!”

“There's no such thing as good ideas! Only ideas that work and ones that don't!” the ivory mare replied coldly as her swords tore back and forth, her amethyst eye glowing as she put more strength into her swings before gritting her teeth as her senses warned her of what was coming a moment before she heard the crack of glass. And then several capsules beside her shattered in waves of green liquid and crystalline shards, but Freya smoothly lashed her horn towards this without any hesitation, and the beryl ooze turned to emerald ice, leaving the De Sade copies frozen inside it before Freya sharply lashed her horn forwards.

The ice and the frozen bodies shattered into shrapnel that shot through the air in a wave, smashing a group of Whistler copies backwards before her gaze sharpened as the real Whistler vanished from the crowd, landing on top of a capsule near the far side of the room as he snarled: “You wanna play like that? Fine! Let's play like that!”

He dropped his head forwards as he began to emit a terrible, cacophonous melody, sound vibrating violently through the air around them and filling their minds with pain and static. Freya and Terra both gritted their teeth, flinching a bit before Terra stepped forwards and roared, breathing out a torrent of sapphire flames that shattered a row of capsules, melting glass and metal and boiling away bodies as easily as it did the liquid it washed over.

The Whistler vanished from the spot in a burst of smoke, light streaking through the air before he landed on the capsules on the other side of the hall, a cold, wide grin on his face as he called cheerfully: “Don't like that, do you, you punks? That's what you get, heretics!”

Freya responded to this by lashing her horn upwards, unleashing a pulse of raw force that made Terra flinch but shattered the capsules and bodies of Whistlers alike throughout the room, the assassin screeching as he was flung painfully back into the wall and the room was left covered in shards of glass and metal. Bodies slumped and green liquid spilled over the floor, wires and cables sparking as pieces of pod slumped to the ground and listed to the side.

Freya coldly rose her amethyst gaze, and the Whistler half-pried himself off the wall, but managed to cling to it as he gave a vicious grin. They looked at each other for a few moments, and then the Whistler vanished from the spot and reappeared at the far end of the hall, in the archway leading out. “You girls want me that badly? Come and get me!”

The Whistler laughed, then he began to emit that horrible, toxic melody again, Terra and Freya wincing as it scraped at their minds once more before the other Whistlers picked up with their own chorus, the jagged music cutting and screaming through their minds as they stumbled back and forth before both warriors gritted their teeth, turning towards the humming, singing assassins closest to them and launching into the fray.

Freya's swords lashed out, crushing, slicking, catching: Gæfa's falcate blade hooked around the neck of a De Sade copy, yanking it in so she could slam her hoof into its face hard enough to crunch its features into putty. At the same time, heavy Dómr slammed into the spine of a clone on the ground and shattered it, while Drengr shot forwards and buried through the chest of a third before ripping downwards, severing the assassin's ribs and disemboweling it with a shriek.

Terra leapt back and forth, crushing creatures beneath her body and rending her claws through any assassins she could get close to, spitting short blasts of blue flame out and over the faces of yet more copies. Her tail snapped to the side, the blades along the appendage tearing through the anything foolish enough to get in her way as she roared: “Cowards! Stop these games!”

The Whistler copies only laughed: they slashed, they cut, and they danced backwards, luring them towards the hallway as their minds sizzled with pain and static and rage that was boiling ever higher from the broken melodies. All the two were aware of was that they had to kill everything in their way: they couldn't let a single De Sade clone escape, even if it was starting to feel more and more like they were being led into a trap.

Yet even through the haze of anger and pain, Freya couldn't help but realize that the copies weren't fighting nearly as aggressively as they had before. They occasionally lashed at them with their knives and fin-hooves, they leapt at their flanks and tore at their legs, but even when Freya purposefully stumbled and lashed her swords out to her sides to leave her front and hindquarters both vulnerable, none of the monsters took advantage of her apparent vulnerability... and it wasn't like De Sade was smart enough to know she was bluffing, either.

Freya and Terra both pushed after the herd of Whistlers, swords whickering out and claws crushing and slashing as the mare and the dragon viciously forged forwards. But as they began to move into the corridor, the acoustics channeled the sound all the louder around them, made them both stagger and wince before Freya's eye widened in horror as she felt a familiar warmth running down her face from beneath her eyepatch.

Terra shivered, fangs clenched so hard they were nearly cracking, the song of the Whistler amplified to such levels that it was almost blurring out everything else in her pain. She cursed under her breath as colors flared across her vision before she threw her head back and roared furiously, but it wasn't nearly enough to drown out the song of the assassins.

Then Freya snapped her horn forwards as she threw all her anger and energy into a single mighty blast, and the De Sade copies were blown down the hall with a thunderous bang that knocked both dragon and mare skidding backwards. It didn't drown out the song, and it didn't even completely stop the chorus, but for a bare moment it left them unable to hear or comprehend what was going on, giving them a violent pause.

Then Freya's eye widened as she looked up and saw not Whistlers, but Devout shooting towards them down the hallway, the Whistlers that had survived the blast picking themselves up and singing loudly and clearly, throwing everything they had into their chorus as they grinned viciously. The melody tore through their minds, making it hard to concentrate or react before the five Devout all snapped their horns forwards almost at once, peppering the dragon and mare with blasts of purification.

Freya only staggered with a curse, bruised and burnt but otherwise only glaring furiously, while Terra cried out as her metal scales were turned to stone in places before a snarl of rage spread over her features and she leapt forwards, roaring loudly and replying with a massive, concentrated line of sapphire hellfire.

The Devout were incinerated, flaming, ashen remains streaking out of the cone of deadly fire to crash down past them, nothing left but smoldering husks. And as the stream of flames ended, Freya ran forwards into the crowd of remaining Whistlers, swords cutting and rending and crushing as Terra loped behind her, claws ripping apart whatever Freya didn't finish off immediately.

They reached the end of the corridor and lunged into another room, the Whistler still singing loudly even as he stared at them from the other side of this torture theater. Terra immediately lunged past Freya, rushing straight for him, but Freya's eye automatically glanced sharply over the room, the metal tables, the hanging white crystals above and...

“Terra, stop!” Freya shouted, but too late: there was a cackle from above, and the Ironjaw looked up in disbelief before she screamed in agony as several concentrated blasts of white energy hammered down into her from the suspended crystal, the rays of light driving her to the ground as she screamed and writhed.

Freya snarled, snapping her horn immediately upwards, but the Whistler clinging to one of the metal arms vanished before the golden fireball could make contact: all the same, the blast of aureate flames smashed apart the frame holding the white crystal suspended in the air, and the sensitive machinery squealed as the other arms were knocked away, tracing lasers of white energy around the room and away from Terra's prone body.

Before the ivory mare could make any further moves, four De Sade copies appeared on all sides of her, all of them slashing in viciously with their knives: immediately, Freya's three swords snapped out in response, blocking the slashes from her sides and behind as she reached up a front hoof to catch the fin holding the knife. But she trembled as she glared at the copy, all of them emitting that noxious melody still as the master Whistler laughed loudly through his own song, declaring amidst the middle of the broken cacophony: “There just ain't no damn way you even got a hope in hell of beating me!”

Freya's eyes narrowed slightly at this, and then the Whistler copy in front of her attempted to drop its knife to its free hoof: but Freya moved like lightning, snatching the knife out of the air as her three swords all revolved sharply, parrying the blades grinding against them before Dómr slammed cruelly downwards and Drengr and Gæfa both lashed sharply out.

As two Whistlers were decapitated and the third was crushed into the ground, Freya drove the knife into the stunned De Sade copy in front of her, sinking it through the assassin's own skull before she jerked the handle to the side to fling the corpse out of her way. The ivory mare looked coldly, callously up as De Sade's eyes widened, and then she said calmly and quietly: “That's funny. Because it looks like you're the one who's running out of bodies.”

“I'm never gonna run out, unlike you! These bodies ain't nothin' but clothes to me, and I got a thousand more cheap suits where they came from!” the Whistler snarled, and then he vanished in a black puff o f smoke, Freya readying herself even as she gave silent thanks as the melody ended.

But a moment later, dozens of Whistlers seemed to appear throughout the room, perched on the tables, kneeling and ready to pounce, standing with their weapons raised high and eyes glowing. The mare's eye narrowed and flicked back and forth before she noticed that most of them weren't casting any shadow, had strange, blurry outlines... illusions. “Let's see how you deal with this!”

Freya gritted her teeth, then rose her swords gamely before the Whistlers charged and dove at her, and her eyes widened as the illusions purposefully flung themselves through each other, overlapped and moved in jarring, impossible ways to further confuse her as an eerie, terrible melody started to hum through the air around her. It was beautiful and exotic, not painful and vicious, but instead it drew her attention, distracted her...

A knife cut across her face, and Freya lashed viciously out at the offender, barely managing to knick it amidst the horde of illusions all around her. Her swords tore back and forth, trying to defend and strike back at as many of the Whistlers as possible, moving in almost a blur as she stepped back and forth to avoid as many blades as she couldn't block.

But all the same, daggers caught her, blades sparked against her armor, tore her flesh, drew blood, the song continuing to draw her attention towards the real Whistler skulking in the corner of the room as the illusions danced and cavorted and whirled around her.

Freya snarled, then she snapped her horn back, unleashing a tremendous pulse of golden flames that knocked Whistlers flying in all directions before she broke into a sprint straight for the De Sade in control of the puppets... but he only grinned at her, cutting off his song to vanish as the copies and their illusions all did as well.

Then several reappeared on the mechanical arms above as more burst into being across the room, and Freya hurriedly brought her swords up and slashed them into the beams of white energy that were redirected towards her, De Sade cackling as the lasers of ivory light ricocheted off her silver swords to scorch along the walls and ceiling, struggling to keep the swords in the path of the light lasers as the Whistlers attempted to wiggle the mechanical arms into different positions. Blasts cut across her armor and scorched her, and Freya stumbled backwards before she snapped her horn forwards, sending a golden fireball rocketing through the air to smash into the arms and explode.

The earth-shaking blast knocked the remaining machinery loose from the ceiling and sent De Sade copies crashing brokenly to the ground, and Freya winced as some of this wreckage landed with loud bangs across Terra's unconscious form. She breathed hard, then winced as the toxic melody filled her mind again, flinching and then cursing as she brought up her swords as the De Sade puppets swarmed forwards again.

“You can't win.” The assassin's voice was cold and arrogant and self-assured, as he said icily: “This time, I ain't working with limited numbers. You don't know what's real and what's not. I can just keep wearin' you down, I don't even have to bring in more than five or six... and stay back here, and play my songs, and what can you do?

“Nothing.” he said triumphantly, as a knife cut across Freya's forehead and blood spilled down into her eye, making her curse as she staggered backwards while whirling her swords violently back and forth in wide spins around herself. But even that didn't drive back all the Whistlers, and she cursed as she felt a knife rip through one unprotected wing before she turned blindly with a snarl, lashing one of her swords out and hitting... something...

But she couldn't see. There was too much sticky red in one eye, and the other was... was a dead, crystalline orb thrumming with dark magic. She snarled, staggering backwards, her horn sending out a sharp pulse as the Whistler laughed and the melody distracted her, her mind reeling with pain and confusion and torment...

You're pathetic! shouted a voice in her head, and Freya's eye widened at this, looking up through the blurs of stinging crimson before Hel said disdainfully: For a Valkyrie, you sure as hell don't seem to know how to fight.

Freya growled, her body shivering, a snarl spreading across her muzzle before she sensed more than saw the Whistlers leaping at her, and the mare responded by lashing her horn viciously upwards, unleashing a powerful telekinetic shockwave that knocked the real copies back but did nothing to the illusions. The Whistler only laughed at her, however, and Freya cursed as she tried to move forwards... and stepped on one of the copies she'd knocked flat by accident, stumbling on the body before the copy stabbed his knife up into her breast, denting and cracking her armor before she stomped it viciously under one hoof.

Knives stabbed at her, fins seized her. From all sides, they swarmed her again, and all she could do was shake them off as her swords spun and swung outwards and defended her as best they could, stabbing and cutting and slashing at the enemies around her as she cursed under her breath, stumbling back and forth beneath the hail of cutting and slicing and ripping knives...

Her swords windmilled, then lashed viciously out with the added momentum, and she struck a target: immediately, she hooked out Gæfa, catching whatever it was and then flinging it cruelly to the side. The body hit something else with a fleshy thud, and the ivory mare gritted her teeth as she flung a shoulder to the side at the same time, sensing something there as she kept her eyes tightly closed.

She was being watched. She was being judged, this entire time, by Hel: by a goddess she direly wanted to sink her swords into, by someone she would gladly wreak a horrible vengeance on for having abandoned them and run away to her safe little hidey-hole in Helheim instead of helping them find Theophilius Carter, or fight off the Light, or do... anything to help. She had cut herself and Helheim off from the demons of this world... she had left them to die.

Freya gritted her teeth as her anger built, and that rage, that passion, gave her focus: let her swords swing harder, made it easy to ignore the distract melody and focus on the sounds of the Whistlers dancing around her, made her instincts heighten and her senses sharpen...

De Sade growled at her, and then he leaned forwards, pouring more strength into the melody, trying to catch her off balance as the Queen of the Valkyries fought blind, and yet with perfect precision. The illusions were no longer effecting her, and De Sade had no idea what the hell was going on, why suddenly she was able to dance out of the way of attacks and cut and rend through the copies, even as he summoned more puppets in to replace those that fell, shouting: “Come on, kill her! Swarm her, get on top of her!”

Freya heard this, as she heard the sound of the Whistler copies all around her beginning to throw themselves at her... and without hesitation, the mare slashed all three of her swords out in a rending cut in front of her, tearing apart a De Sade copy and leaping through the bloody spray to snap her horn sharply downwards.

A bolt of light shot across the room, smashing into De Sade and knocking him back into the corner with a gurgle before he snarled in frustration, cursing under his breath as golden strings wrapped around his body and began to painfully constrict. Then he looked up, grinning viciously in spite of the growing pain, snapping at Freya as she walked towards him with one eye cemented shut with blood, the crystal sphere in the other socket half-revealed by her askew eyepatch: “And now we get to play all over again. Kill me as many times as you want. I'll just come right on back.”

“Yes. You phrased it like possession. You see, I'd thought it was more complex than that, originally... which is why I feel a little foolish right now.” Freya said calmly, and she smiled, eye still closed, but seeming to glare into De Sade's soul all the same as she said quietly: “I've always been especially effective at dealing with possessions. Even more so when I don't have to worry about any collateral damage in regards to a physical body.”

She snapped her horn to the side, and the golden strings tightened around De Sade's body as a bright, sun-like aura built around his body, the assassin twitching before screaming in agony as he wrenched his head back and forth. He flailed violently as his copies all staggered drunkenly, then fell down one after the other before the body of the assassin simply exploded, Freya grimacing only a little bit at the splatter of gore that landed over her.

Slowly, she forced her bloody eye open, grimacing and looking moodily outwards as she saw a spirit floating helplessly in the air, glaring at her, still trapped in strings of golden light. They regarded each other for a few moments, and then the mare shook her head slowly as she studied this misshapen, ugly thing, twisted and bony and half-pony, half-bird. “You have more in common with beast-demons than you do with angels, De Sade. But I knew that from the moment we met.”

De Sade screamed at her silently, struggling against the golden bonds, then grinning as he began to rip one foreleg free... but Freya only smiled at him calmly, and De Sade had a moment to snarl at her as he tried to tug his other arm loose before a roar ripped through the air, and a wave of blue flames tore up across De Sade's spirit, the creature screaming in agony as the blue hellfire rapidly ate away at his ghostly frame before he simply sparked out of existence, the golden bands of light shattering as the torrent of blue flames died out, and left a strange, beautiful swirl of floating motes of various hues of light slowly spilling through the room.

There was silence for a few moments, and then Freya turned a slight smile towards Terra as the Ironjaw dragged herself up to her claws, the dragon shaking herself briefly out before the ivory mare said calmly: “You took your time.”

“I... I took my time? Oh, and what, you weren't lallygagging at all, playing with your swords and getting yourself injured in your little game, you bloody witch?” the Ironjaw growled in frustration, and then she slowly pushed herself up to her claws, shaking off the broken pieces of metal and dead bodies that had fallen across her. “Took my time. Aye, I'm the problem here, right.”

The dragon and the ivory mare looked at each other for a few moments, and then Freya calmly rose a hoof and held it out to the dragon. Terra looked for a few moments back at Freya, and then she grinned a little after a moment and reached up to take her hoof, squeezing it firmly in her claw and saying quietly: “Aye. I owe you, lass. I appreciate that.”

“You owe me nothing. Just keep your eyes open. We still have a lot to do.” Freya replied quietly, and Terra nodded firmly as claw and hoof squeezed together again for a moment before pulling apart, and the two Queens smiled...

And then Freya's eye widened as she felt a shock run through her mind, before she hissed in pain and grabbed at her crystalline eye as it glowed brightly. Terra snarled at this, leaning forwards as she felt that distinct, malevolent energy, shouting: “Leave her be, Hel!”

A giggling spread through their minds as bloody tears ran from the socket holding the crystal eye, before Hel's voice whispered through their minds: Oh, but it'll just sting for a second while I bounce a little message off this from me to you... I'm sending you a present! Just head for the throne room, and I'll be hand-delivering it to you all: don't you worry about anything else. Some mutual friends of ours are going to take care of everything for us.

Freya gritted her teeth, the crystal vibrating in her eye, sending agony through her system before the magic faded, and with it went Hel's presence... and then she cursed quietly, shivering a little as she slumped a bit before asking in a mutter: “Did you hear that?”

“Aye, I did... and it worries me, Freya. Worries me more than your thoughts do... for I felt your own emotions too.” She stopped, then sighed softly, studying the ivory mare quietly before asking softly: “How can the Queen of the Valkyries be such a victim of her own mind?”

“How can the Queen of Heaven waste all her time with stupid questions?” muttered Freya, and then she shook herself out and said quietly: “Let's just keep moving forwards for now, Terra. Hel... doesn't lie. And something... something about what she said...”

Freya frowned... but the thought that came to her mind was ridiculous, if not flat-out impossible, so she shook her head briefly before forcing herself to turn her mind towards other things. No, for now, the best thing they could do was finish their objective, hunt down whatever was keeping Castle Valhalla under the Light's control... and from there, they could worry about Hel's gifts, and whatever secrets she might have been keeping from them for all the years they had been left to fight against the Light alone.

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