• Published 28th Jan 2014
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Zecora's Pinata - BlackRoseRaven



A zebra spirit meets an unlikely ally after he's sent to right a wrong in Equestria.

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Justice For La Croix

Chapter Eleven: Justice For La Croix
~BlackRoseRaven

Honor and pride... that was all La Croix had left, but those things too were fading rapidly. How could he pride himself on being a Loa when his own kind were chasing him, coming to destroy him? And what honor did he actually have, when he was forced to lie, to cheat, to steal from the innocent just so he could struggle to survive the evils chasing after them?

La Croix plodded silently down the road, breathing hard as he kept his head low, his eyes roving nervously back and forth. But it was hard to see anything on this dark and empty night, with the stars and moon above concealed by heavy clouds and nothing but abandoned, lightless countryside around. La Croix had come out here to try and conceal himself amidst the sprawling plains; a funny thought, but in his enchanted cape, he would be invisible to the eyes of the evil spirits Bondye had hunting for him.

All he had to really worry about were zombies, but he was able to conceal his scent by using a musky cologne he'd mixed up. He was also able to draw the zombies away with false rituals and a few other nasty tricks, but La Croix was hesitant to try and destroy them. Not because it would be difficult, but because he had a feeling that if he started trying to fight back, Bondye might start sending in more of the big league bêtes. And even if Bondye wouldn't risk trying to manipulate more demon thugs into doing his dirty work for him, he still had quite a few nasty underlings he could call on.

La Croix shivered, looking back and forth again: he knew they'd expected him to make a jump by now. Hell, he had expected to make a jump by now, but... what was the point, honestly? Bondye's servants would catch up with him after a few hours at the most: he could feel the eyes watching for any sign of someone trying to jump from this world to another.

The Loa stopped in the middle of the road, looking back and forth: there was nothing but desolation and darkness, rolling, endless fields of dry grasses and packed dirt. He sighed quietly, then walked over to the side of the road, studying the remains of the old wooden fencing that lined it before he muttered: “That's right. Nothing lasts forever. Whether we keep runnin' or we stand still... ain't nothing gonna last forever. We all decay. We all die.”

He silently pushed a hoof against one of the rotting posts, making it creak and bend before he sighed and let it straighten, dropping his head forwards as he closed his eyes. Everything was so goddamn complicated and he really, honestly, had no idea whatsoever what to do...

And as always, his mind shifted to Zecora, and he bit his lip, trembling a little bit. It had been almost a week since she'd passed on, but every day just hurt worse... every day just made him question more and more why the hell she'd saved his worthless hide. Every day made feel less and less able to protect this gift she had given him...

After all, even with all of these tricks and traps and everything else he'd been working on and putting together, in spite of escaping out here, to a safe haven amidst the dust and emptiness... he couldn't live his life like this. Just roaming these empty fields for eternity, or until Bondye's lackeys caught up to him. And they were never going to stop... they were never going to stop. What the hell was even the point if being caught was inevitable?

La Croix swore under his breath... then looked up sharply at the sound of a mournful howl cutting through the night air. His ears pricked, and a chill ran down his spine before he swore under his breath, looking sharply back and forth.

That was something bad... really bad. Worse than zombies, worse than ghouls or ghosts. La Croix bit his lip as he trembled a little, before his whole body froze up as he heard it: a long, mournful wail that died down into a gurgling moan... and oh god, it was close.

“No... no, no, no! You fou and cruel, Bondye, but you ain't never been stupid!” whispered La Croix, trembling violently as he looked up at the sky... and then he heard that thing again, crying out miserably to the skies, making La Croix's blood run cold before he swore under his breath and suddenly leapt the rotted fence, running as fast and hard as he could away from the awful sound.

But he knew he couldn't run fast or far enough to escape this: not out here in the empty plains, not without weapons or tools or powerful wards. His only chance was to find a place where he could try and hole up, then make a jump to a different world and hope, hope that this monstrosity of Bondye's didn't follow after him.

La Croix sprinted through the fields of tall grasses until he suddenly stumbled out into a weedy clearing. He looked back and forth before his eyes locked on the welcome sight of a large, rickety old barn nearby: it didn't look like it had been in use for quite some time. The stallion was thankful for that as he ran towards it... then skidded to a stop as he looked to the side, trembling and staring as he saw there was a little ranch house in the distance, and the lights of old lanterns were still quietly burning in the windows.

There was someone in there. And Bondye's beast would be attracted to the light and life of that pony... or ponies, or... whatever was in there! And sure, La Croix could let them die... could even use them as bait to try and make a run for the next farmhouse, even though he knew it was probably miles and miles away, and he'd be lucky to come across it like he had this one.

He couldn't fight Bondye's monster. He had utterly no chance to destroying it. And in the past, he wouldn't have hesitated to simply abandon this fight and run away. But things had changed since then... he had changed. He was better than that. He was more than that, and goddammit, Zecora... Zecora had believed in him, that he would use this gift she'd given him in the right way...

La Croix gritted his teeth, trembling... then he swore under his breath and ran towards the ranch house, even as the monster's wails cut through the air again. It was sniffing him out, but the beast hadn't seen him yet... at least there was that. Maybe he'd get lucky and he'd be able to get these ponies going one way while he lured the monster in the other...

The zebra clattered up the steps, and almost rammed into the front door, hammering on it. He heard sounds of surprise from inside, and then La Croix leaned forwards and shouted through the wood: “Hey! Hey, y'all better open up! You gotta run, there's a diable comin' and it ain't gonna slow down for no one or nothin'!”

“Who the hell is out there?” shouted a gruff voice, and a moment later the door was yanked open, an old farmpony stumbling into the entrance and pointing an old, rusty shotgun out in the general direction of the zebra's face.

La Croix winced and held up his front hooves immediately, and the farmpony glared at him... before his eyes widened in surprise at the sound of another banshee-wail ripping through the air, and La Croix shivered as he looked sharply to the side. The monster was getting close... worse, it was starting to lock onto their scent. It knew there was more than just warmth and heat and lifeforce in this direction now, there was something that it could consume... “The hell is that?”

“You don't wanna know, papere. Look, you gotta get out of here right now... that thing is comin' fast, and it ain't gonna stop no matter what you do!” La Croix urged, and the old stallion glared at him defiantly, raising the shotgun slightly as an elderly mare appeared behind him, looking frightened.

“I ain't movin'! We've lived here for forty years, and I ain't about to give up now!” snapped the old stallion, shaking his head vehemently. “Look, youngster, whatever that thing is, I'm not about to let it chase me off my property and-”

“Y'all are an idiot!” La Croix snapped, beginning to lower his hooves... and then he winced when the old stallion yanked back the hammers of his shotgun, the zebra flinching and freezing again.

“You just stay right where you are. How do I know this ain't some silly prank? You zebras can't be trusted!” the old stallion growled... and then he scowled at that awful wailing again, adding almost angrily: “We've survived everything out here! We weathered the worst and survived rampages from beasts you can't imagine! And ol' Bessy here's never failed me when I needed her to give a thug like you or a big beast of a dragon a little reminder why they aren't welcome in these here parts!”

“Honey, stop! Listen to the zebra, listen to that noise! I've never heard anything like it!” The mare behind him said almost urgently, grabbing his shoulder, but the farmpony only growled and shook her off before looking back at her... and La Croix saw his chance.

He swatted the barrel of the gun away before trying to grab it... and the old stallion pulled both triggers on instinct. The shot went wild, but the force of it was enough to knock the pony on his rump and send La Croix sprawling over with a yelp, hugging his throbbing hooves to his chest as he spat a litany of curses... then he froze and looked up in horror as he heard not a wail, but an almost-gleeful scream as Bondye's monster locked on where they were.

La Croix swore under his breath, scrambling to his hooves as the old stallion yelled for his wife to get more ammunition. But the zebra ignored them both as he ran down into the clearing, trying to ignore his body's trembles as he felt the ground shaking with the monster's approach, and the world around him seeming to darken.

Out of nowhere, a white shape leapt past La Croix, the stallion wincing before he stared in disbelief as the spirit of a dog ran in a short circle around him, barking silently before it blinked out of reality... only to reappear a short distance away, running back and forth as if terrified. Phantasmal birds shot through the air next, and La Croix gritted his teeth and steadied himself even as more of the dead appeared, leaping and running away in terror.

But these ghosts meant him no harm: they were little more than husks of energy that retained enough of what they had once been to come to unlife. They were memories and emotions that had imprinted themselves into this world, tied here by instinct, because this had been their territory, this had been where their final moments had lived out; but now they were all trying to flee, trying to rip their anchors and roots loose, even if that meant dissolving into nothingness.

There was a fate worse than erasure coming, after all: there was a horrific, muddy nightmare-sentience stalking its way towards them, howling and gasping as it came. It was all the poisons of the mind made real, and it vacuumed up life and energy as it went, eating the memories and emotions attached to a place and leaving a tract of barren death behind it...

La Croix trembled, looking up as the monster finally stepped into view, parting the tall grasses as it surged and writhed; for a moment, it was formless, nothing but a living lake of sludge and hell. Its gelatinous form was blacker than the night, but studded with white bones that shifted and rolled through it constantly as it undulated and flowed endlessly... and then La Croix shivered and stumbled when several of the larger skeletons all suddenly tried to lurch upwards at once, screaming loudly as they shone with eerie green light before they collapsed back into the muck.

And then the horrible, nightmarish mass writhed and shifted violently before it surged upwards, twisting on itself to form into a hideous imitation of Bondye. The alligator-slime growled, its teeth formed from broken bones and sharpened ribs, its eyes nothing but hollow sockets that glowed with preternatural emerald light, its claws digging deep scours into the earth as skeletons continued to swim and shift through the endless goop that made up its distorted form.

Then its jaws opened wide, and La Croix trembled as Bondye's voice rasped out of it: “La Croix. The time has come for you to pay in full for your crimes, your distortions.”

“My crimes? Bondye, I ain't the one who released The Dreaded into this world! I'm already exiled, without a home, scrapin' the bottom of the barrel... you took everything away from me except my life!” the Loa shouted furiously in response, but the look on his face was almost desperate even as he glared up at the monstrosity. “You the one puttin' the cycle at risk now! You the one upsettin' the balance here, not me!”

“Be quiet, La Croix. If you're so worried about what the presence of this nightmare will do in the physical world, then just roll over and give yourself up to it.” Bondye said disgustedly, and La Croix snarled before the beast's mouth slowly closed.

The skeletons over its frame shivered and wailed as the living nightmare lost some of its shape and form... but it retained more than enough to lunge forwards and lash its claws down at La Croix. The zebra was barely able to fling himself out of the way before he gritted his teeth and concentrated, and he vanished just before hitting the ground, reappearing in front of the barn a moment later in a gasp of smoke and green lightning.

The monstrosity roared at him, and La Croix gritted his teeth before he yanked his hat off his head and dug in it, pulling out a small cloth bundle. But before he could throw it, there was another tremendous bang and a splatter of ooze from the beast, and La Croix looked up in horror as he saw the elderly stallion breaking open his shotgun to fumblingly reload it.

Bondye's monster turned its attention with an eager gasp towards the farmpony and his wife, and La Croix cursed before he shouted: “Connards, get the hell inside! Your boomstick ain't gonna do a damn thing against this bête!

The ponies only stared for a moment... and then the monster turned towards the farmhouse and lurched into an awkward gait, and both ponies screamed in terror and bolted inside, slamming the door behind them. A moment later, the mass of black goop and bones lost its form and became a surging tsunami that smashed violently against the front of the house, and La Croix swore under his breath before he gritted his teeth and shook the bundle in his hoof back and forth threateningly.

It burst into eerie green flames, and La Croix stepped forwards and flung it as hard as he could, the eldritch fireball whapping into the back of the slime-monster before it exploded in a tremendous blast of poisonous light. La Croix winced away, covering his eyes before he looked up... and shouted in horror and denial as the amorphous entity completely ignored the results of the blast, the deep wound he had left behind already rapidly filling in.

La Croix cursed, then gritted his teeth, tossing his hat into the air as he rose both his hooves and concentrated. It landed perfectly in position, but the stallion didn't notice as he concentrated, his hooves thrumming with emerald energy before he shouted: “Y'all had better not ignore me!”

He thrusted his hooves forwards, and green lightning blasted out of his forelimbs, striking violently against the slime and surging wildly over it... and doing absolutely nothing. Again, it failed to draw the monstrosity's attention as it smashed down the door, osmosed through the wall, flooded in through the window... and La Croix dropped forwards to his knees, trembling and staring in disbelief as he heard a single, terrified scream before it was blotted out by the monster's greedy wailing.

He couldn't hurt it with magic or an exorcism, and yet it wasn't harmed by the physical, either. It had just completely ignored the Loa in favor of crunching up two old ponies, likely much more hungry for their flesh and bones than it was for his spiritual energies. Physical as he was, he didn't emit quite the same distinct life force...

And he knew that this nightmare would just keep gobbling down all the organic life it could come across, spreading woe and misery. But that wasn't the worst part: the worst part was those lives could never be freed from the monster's lack-of-consciousness, that they would be trapped inside that sea of hunger and hatred, helping to fuel it, spending an eternity being slowly digested as their emotions, souls, their everything was slowly sapped out of them...

La Croix shouted angrily... then looked up and snarled as something shot by above. It was small and gleamed brightly, seeming to almost eagerly study the house before it spun around to look down at the stallion.

He looked at this wisp, then shouted angrily up at it: “You want to watch me die that bad, Bondye? Then you look at what your bête did to those innocents! I... I won't just stand here and let this happen, y'hear me?”

The zebra turned his snarl back down to the house, watching as the black goo writhed throughout it, seeing spirits trying to leap up and flee... but as La Croix watched, a long, slimy black tendril shattered out a window and lashed around one of these ghosts, yanking the screaming specter out of the air and down into itself. Living or dead, reality or memory... nothing was safe.

The Loa gritted his teeth, then he reached into his cloak before swearing under his breath as he yanked out a flask. He had only one slim chance, even though as far as he knew, only Bondye could exert any kind of control over this horrific beast. But goddammit, he wasn't going to just sit here and do nothing, or run away when he knew the monster would always pursue him, consuming everything in its path. Zecora... Zecora had believed that he was a better person than that, goddammit, even if he still couldn't believe it himself!

La Croix slung the potion towards the house, and it shattered against the steps before exploding in a tremendous bang, the stallion wincing backwards as the intense flames rapidly, violently spread along the old wood of the house.

The monstrosity wailed... but La Croix didn't think it was pain. Maybe irritation, even as the house became a burning bonfire around it... but without hesitation, La Croix pulled a tiny packet out of his cape, gritting his teeth before he closed his eyes and whispered roughly in the old language: “Ancestors now, I plead for your help...

But he didn't know what else to say, what else to ask for... hell, he couldn't even remember how to properly pray, with all the years it had been. La Croix trembled as he watched the flames spreading over the house, saw ancient wood collapsing, but that horrible, evil thing inside only roiling and slowly shifting its attention back towards La Croix-

C'est des conneries!” La Croix shouted, and he flung the packet into the flames, snarling: “I ain't askin' you to do the work for me... just tell me how the hell I can hurt that monster! No monster deserves to be protected by a gris-gris like this one is!”

The packet burst apart, and the searing flames roared higher, the ranch house creaking before part of the roof caved in with a tremendous bang. And inside, the monster wailed, and La Croix felt a wild, stupid hope.... before swearing angrily as the beast smashed through the front wall of the ranch house, sending chunks of burning wood in all directions. La Croix staggered backwards as the hideous slime writhed and pulled itself into the sick imitation of Bondye again, lurching down onto the ground as it roared hungrily at La Croix.

The zebra cursed and readied himself, flexing his body and calling up all the energy he could... and then he looked up with a frown as a single drop of water hit his nose. He blinked in surprise, staring at the dark clouds as more droplets fell, pattering over his face as he asked disbelievingly: “The hell is this?”

And then he looked sharply down as the malformed slime-beast wailed in misery, shaking itself back and forth as steam rose up from where the droplets of water hit. La Croix laughed in disbelief, and then his eyes widened as he looked past the monster to see the thick white smoke that was pouring up from the flames around the monster and up into the low-hanging clouds above. The purifiers were rising in that smog, spreading into the clouds above, and falling back down as blessed rain...

His prayer was being answered: whether because the spirits from back home were really that nice, or because of sheer dumb luck, he didn't know nor care. All he could see was that while the fire couldn't boil or pierce the muck, the water was slipping right through the sludgy armor of the monstrosity, burning holes right down into the creature's very spirit.

Then the slime-beast roared, and La Croix winced before leaping backwards when it half-pounced, half-fell towards him, splashing violently down in a great splatter of dark ooze that the zebra narrowly avoided being caught by. He cursed and spun around, then swore again as the monstrosity became more liquid than solid even as the rain started to fall in greater earnest, the slime-beast splashing around in a vicious curl to try and cut off his escape.

La Croix was left with one choice as the beast tried to cut him off from escape through the field: he ran quickly towards the barn, almost ramming into the rickety doors before he shoved wildly against them, trying to pry them open. But they refused to budge, and he heard the slime-beast roaring behind him, closing rapidly in-

La Croix clenched his eyes shut, and he vanished before reappearing with a pop inside the barn, staggering stupidly and then falling on his face in a sprawl. But the sound of the monster smashing into the door with a miserable wail brought him quickly back to his senses, the Loa hurriedly leaping to his hooves and gritting his teeth as he ran for the ladder leading up into the hayloft.

He leapt onto it just as the doors were smashed into again, groaning loudly as black splatters of ooze eagerly wormed their way through the boards of the barn. The sound of the creature drawing back was almost as audible as it sloshed and writhed, then dove viciously forwards again, slamming a second time into the barred doors and this time almost knocking them off their hinges, chunks of wood flying in all directions and letting black ooze spill hurriedly into the barn.

The monster tore several large chunks of wood out of place as its body broke into pieces to rush inside... but it was much slower pulling itself together, and some of it seemed to have been reduced to nothing but filthy, mucky slurry. La Croix grimaced as he leaned carefully over several moldering bales of hay to look uncertainly down at the beast, listening closely as it gurgled and whimpered, studying the strange, oily sheen it had taken on...

It was taking its time pulling itself back together, and La Croix took a silent breath as he drew back, closing his eyes and nervously leaning away, not daring to move. Then he winced as he heard a hissing sound, looking to the side... and staring in horror at the sight of an old, dusty mirror mounted on one support beam, which had not just his own shocked reflection in it, but Cimetaire and Samedi staring out at him and gesturing violently.

La Croix winced at them, and then Samedi violently tapped on his wrist as Cimetaire waved his hooves back and forth... what the hell was all that supposed to mean? The stallion glared at the two, then shivered as he heard a whimpering, followed by a sloshing sound as the monstrosity shifted, and La Croix carefully leaned forwards again, ignoring his brothers as he watched the beast warily.

The slime slithered to a halt just below him, and then a malformed alligator head pushed up out of the ooze as it rasped loudly for breath. La Croix shivered as this gazed back and forth... then suddenly twisted around, and the slime-beast roared hungrily up at La Croix, who swore in shock and threw himself backwards. His hind legs kicked out, knocking the unsteady wall of hay bales forwards, and several crashed down with loud thuds into the monster's slimy body, sending up great splatters of ooze as it howled in fury.

Tentacles of black slime lashed up from the nightmarish pile, whipping outwards and smashing through one of the supports holding up the loft, as the others grabbed wildly at the floor above. And La Croix swore as he barely managed to fling himself backwards as the floor buckled beneath him, then was jerked down to form a ramp as the slime-beast eagerly stretched itself upwards, yanking harder on the broken flooring to try and pull La Croix all the faster down into itself, a monstrous set of jaws forming in the middle of the beast-

La Croix grabbed at his hat as he looked with horror down at the creature, then his eyes widened as he saw the hay bales were only floating in the muck, the stallion gritting his teeth before he leapt off the ramp and onto one of these safe islands before he flung himself hurriedly away.

He hit the ground and rolled, the slime beast snarling and twisting itself after him... but with it, it yanked much of the hayloft, sending bales of straw and chunks of wood smashing down across its murky form. The monster howled in indignation... and pain as well, La Croix thought, as he staggered away from the pile of debris before cursing and looking up as a shudder ran through the walls of the old, creaky barn.

Something cracked somewhere, and the zebra winced before he popped his hat off, reaching into it and hurriedly digging around before he yanked out a potion. But before he could throw it, a rafter smashed down on him from above, striking his shoulder and knocking him sprawling with a shout of pain and disbelief.

The vial flew from his hand and hit the ground only a few feet away, shattering and bursting into flames, and the stallion swore under his breath as he limped backwards, watching with horror as the fire leapt to a hay bale, then the walls, and in moments much of the barn had caught alight.

Another rafter fell, and La Croix stumbled narrowly out of the path... then tripped over his own hat, wincing before he snatched it up... just before a massive surge of black ooze smashed its way upwards with a howl, then started to yank itself towards him, dragging itself over fire and wreckage with single-minded, all-consuming desire.

But the monstrosity was smoking now, its former imperviousness gone, and La Croix gritted his teeth before he flipped his hat down to cradle it in one foreleg, shouting: “I ain't dyin' here alone!”

He dug into his hat, slinging one, two, three potions out into the murky beast even as it surged forwards, ignoring the bottles: but as they were absorbed into its superheated body, the glass jars exploded one after another, making it scream and withdraw for a moment before another rafter fell from the ceiling and smashed down over the black ooze, splitting the freakish entity in half.

Both sides of it wailed miserably and attempted to crawl together, even as chunks of hardened black gunk and broken bones spilled out of its decaying body. It was weakened, and La Croix thought for one wild moment he might actually stand a chance... except then he realized he had not a damn thing left in his hat, and not a single trick to get him out of this mess... unless...

La Croix gritted his teeth... and then he grinned. It was a desperate and terrified expression, and yet there was still some wild surge of hope as he looked at the broken, smoldering doors on the other side of the barn, further than he had the energy to teleport... but that wasn't his only power.

The zebra rose his hooves high, and green lightning sparked along them before he leapt into the air and lashed his forelegs out to either side, pain ripping through his body as his own magic blasted across his body.

And with an emerald flash, La Croix was transformed into an enormous black bird, the Loa flapping his wings wildly and shooting straight ahead, over the burning, fallen timbers, past flame and black ooze that blasted up from the ground in one last, wild attempt to grab him as his lungs filled with smoke and his whole body blazed with anguish and agony...

A moment before he reached the smoking, battered-apart doors, La Croix transformed back into a zebra with a pop, his whole body going rigid before he simply smashed through the ruined, warped wood. He crashed and rolled out into the field with a gasp, then rolled onto his stomach, coughing and wheezing violently even as he dragged himself slowly away on his belly.

He heard the monster scream... and then it was overcome by a much-louder, all-consuming rumble as the barn behind him collapsed, imploding in a great blast of smoke and flames. The fires danced in the falling rain, steaming but fighting to stay alive all the same as La Croix trembled and looked back over his shoulder at the ruins, barely able to believe he had actually... survived.

He breathed weakly in and out, then slowly picked himself up and brushed himself off, wheezing weakly. The fire burned, and even from here, the heat was painful as it seemed to challenge the still-burning ranch house for dominance in this little, ruined field; the rain fell, pattering over both and quickly soaking La Croix, and yet all the same it felt good against his skin, and it seemed to be soothing, not suffocating, those raging fires. They burned on, and the rain fell, opposing forces of nature that somehow seemed to be keeping each other in check.

La Croix shook his head slowly, rubbing uncomfortably at his face before he stumbled forwards and picked up his hat. He brushed it off, scowling a little bit before grumpily reaching up and rubbing a hoof absently through his messy mane several times... and he huffed as both ashes and a few feathers fell out of it, muttering: “Now I see why people get so damn mad when I do that. Still. Surprised I can actually transform my own damn self.”

He shook his head briefly, then looked silently over the ruins of the barn before his eyes roved up to the clouds above. The rain felt so pure and good, felt like it was healing him, soothing him... and on impulse, La Croix opened his mouth, tasting the water, feeling it on his tongue... and then laughing after a moment as he realized he really did taste it. More than that, he could actually smell it, and the fire, and the smoke, and everything that Bondye had taken away...

“But I guess Bondye ain't the king he thinks he is, anyway.” La Croix said softly, and then he smiled a little before murmuring up to the clouds: “Merci. I guess I owe y'all one for helping me deal with that thing... although, y'know, I still did most of the work, hear?”

La Croix chuckled, and then he swirled a bit of the water through his jaws before spitting to the side and taking a long, slow breath: sure, everything stank, but for once in his life he was glad to smell the reek of grass and smoke and manure and even... rot?

The ground beneath him exploded upwards, and La Croix was knocked crashing onto his back with a cry of agony before he stared up in horror as black ooze flooded out of the ground like a geyser, rearing up towards the sky... then screaming in agony, the few skulls and bones that remained attached to the horrific mass all glowing with terrible, toxic light. It twisted back and forth beneath the rain, and La Croix snarled as he rolled over and staggered to his hooves before a black tendril shot suddenly from the mass and slammed across his body.

He was knocked flopping backwards, gasping in agony as his entire body went cold from the contact before the monstrosity twisted itself around, the mass of slime bursting into a wave that surged down towards him. La Croix barely managed to shove himself backwards... but still, the edge of the wave caught him by the hind legs, and he screamed in agony as a hellish pain like he'd never felt before ripped through his entire body, yanking himself helplessly back and forth even as the dark goop lurched forwards and hauled him up into the air, as the writhing slime became a tongue wrapped around his legs, bones formed into teeth in one body-sized jaw that opened eagerly wide to swallow him up-

La Croix seized into his hat and yanked it downwards as he desperately tried to launch himself straight up, and with a sickening plop, he felt his body ripped loose of the monstrosity as he vanished into the not-quite safety of his own headgear. He gasped inside the void, trembling violently as he reached down and grabbed his lower legs, staring in horror at the sight of them: burned raw, one of his hooves almost melted away completely, the other a mangled mess. And steaming, still steaming, still burning from the toxicity of that awful monstrosity as blackness surged over the brim of his hat, and he saw dark gunk beginning to tear through the walls all around him...

He knew what was going to happen, and there was only one thing he could think of doing, yanking his cloak off and wrapping it quickly around his head and shoulders and as much of his body as he could. And a moment later, there was a sensation of being yanked towards something, a whirl of vertigo and pressure-pain, and La Croix clenched his eyes shut and pulled the cloth as tight as he could.

The hat melting in the monstrosity's slimy gullet suddenly exploded as the enchantment in it was destroyed, sending La Croix firing like a cannonball straight through the monster and arcing high into the air. The slime-beast howled in misery, pieces of black matter flying in all directions before it collapsed in a puddle of ooze as La Croix crashed painfully to the ground, bouncing violently several times across the field before he unrolled from the burning cloak.

He shivered on the ground, gasping in pain, his whole body quaking with agony. The cloak was rotting away into nothing already, and it hadn't done nearly enough to protect him from ripping through that monster. And now, he had nothing left to protect him, the zebra staring weakly up at the clouds even as the rain continued to fall, even as blessed water tried to soothe him and mend these horrific damages to his body. Was this all his prayers would accomplish in the end? Was this thing made of pain and suffering, without even a real mind to call its own, that much more powerful than the blessings of the god he'd once loved and served?

La Croix trembled violently as he rolled onto his side, then he coughed a few times before pushing himself up as tears ran down his face... but he had no plans on fighting, or running. He just needed to see how close he had been to stopping this malevolent thing... he just wanted to face his death, even if he'd die crying, on his knees... at least he could say that he didn't try to run away.

The stallion trembled violently as the creature slowly began to pull itself together, before he laughed bitterly as that wisp shot by above again. It circled the area, taking in everything that was going on and apparently unfettered by the blessed rain, and La Croix whispered: “Fine, Bondye. Watch me die. Have your last laugh... but I ain't gonna die afraid. I ain't gonna give you that pleasure, at least.”

“Who says you gonna die at all?” asked a pleasant voice, and La Croix looked up in shock to see Samedi was now standing beside him, smiling pleasantly as he reached up and adjusted his collar. “Always getting in over your head, La Croix. But hey. We're frères, no?”

“Painful as that can be to admit.” Cimetaire's voice added moodily, and La Croix gave a weak laugh as he trembled and looked over at his fellow sibling, a stupid, disbelieving smile spreading over his face before the middle brother leaned on his cane and growled: “Bondye is gonna haul us over the coals for this. I hope you appreciate that, petite frère.”

“We're just respondin' to a call for help, that's all. Settlin' down a monstre that's gone out of control. Now shush up and concentrate.” Samedi replied calmly, raising a hoof, and Cimetaire growled and rose both his own as the black ooze attempted to drag itself upwards, gurgled and gasped as it tried to form into a mockery of Bondye's shape beneath the pouring blessed rain-

Green lightning shot from the extended limbs of both Loa, Samedi narrowing his eyes and Cimetaire baring his teeth, and the monstrous slime gurgled and then screamed, losing its consistency and instead becoming a bubbling mound of dark ooze. It shook itself back and forth as the skeletal remains throughout it screamed... but both Loa were already gasping in exertion, and La Croix swore, shouting: “There ain't no way y'all can win against it! We should run!”

“We're not trying to win, La Croix... we're just holding it off until your cavalry arrives!” Samedi shouted over the crackle of magic and the screams and roars of the black ooze.

La Croix mouthed wordlessly at this, and Cimetaire added darkly, features tense with strain: “Funny, though. You wouldn't need our help if you'd just lasted two minutes longer, you ouaouaron...”

La Croix laughed disbelievingly at this, but he didn't even know what to say... and then both Cimetaire and Samedi gasped again and staggered backwards, green electricity surging over their bodies as they were struck by magical recoil, before Samedi muttered: “Although perhaps we can't entirely blame you. Even hexed, this nightmare is immune to most of our magic.”

“Ain't a hex, Samedi... that's a blessing.” muttered La Croix, shaking his head as the slime-beast gurgled and writhed back and forth, trying to shake off the last of the Loas' magic and regain control over its murky body. “You can't poison poison. You gotta fix it. Ain't no gris-gris on that thing... just... raw hate, and evil, and... Bondye's lies...”

“You're making me wonder if we were too late to save your brain from getting fried, mon ami.” grumbled Cimetaire, and then he whistled sharply over to La Croix as the wisp passed suddenly over their heads. “Hey, tuyau!

La Croix looked up with a growl as the wisp shot towards the nightmarish mass... and then he stared in surprise as it simply plunged down into the goop, the stallion mouthing wordlessly before the thing he'd mistaken for one of Bondye's eyes exploded in a burst of electricity and powerful anti-magic. The slime-beast squealed in agony at this, writhing back and forth, and La Croix mouthed wordlessly before Samedi and Cimetaire both hit the ground and shoved La Croix down by the shoulders.

A moment later, something immense and metallic crashed down on top of the writhing mass of the monster: it sent up a fine splash of black goo, but the creature's bipedal steel frame was barely stained by the acidic slime: it only straightened, a mane of electricity sparking around a cruel, pale face that La Croix almost recognized.

The creature held one steel claw out as the monster writhed beneath her, and then the metallic horn protruding from its head sparked before a blast of lightning shot from one extended claw and into the monster it was pinning beneath iron hooves. The vile ooze screamed in agony, writhing helplessly, and yet this terrible, synthetic goliath didn't so much as twitch, dealing with a monster that La Croix and his brothers had been helpless against like it was no more than an annoying pest to be swatted.

The skeletons still caught in the black ooze exploded one after the other, and splatters of oily gunk flew in every direction as the monster howled and shrieked. But in only moments, the monstrosity was reduced to nothing more than a few boiling puddles of dark slime, one of which writhed weakly for a second... and then a large, bladed hoof stomped savagely down on it and slowly twisted, grinding the last of the horror out of existence.

And instead, this new, much more terrifying creature was left to replace it, La Croix and his brothers all staring in shock up at this... is that a mare? Oh sweet He Above, what in Your Name is this thing? Oh no, she's looking right at us!

“Uh... merci, madame! And may I say, what... what amazing... what an amazingly powerful and tres belle uh... mare?” La Croix stuttered and cocked his head almost questioningly, then exclaimed hurriedly when the newcomer narrowed her eyes dangerously. “Mare! Mare! What a-”

“Shut up, La Croix.” said the mare icily, and La Croix stared dumbly up at her, wondering how the hell she knew his name.

For the moment, however, the metal mare only turned away and surveyed the field moodily, before Samedi leaned carefully over and whispered: “Nanan here came lookin' for you. Not in Darkwater, no, but she knew well enough how to call to us Loa, and-”

“Do not call me that. I am not your... 'Nanan.' Nor am I 'mamere' or anything else you have called me.” the golem-mare said contemptibly, and Samedi squeaked and dropped his head... and oh, it was almost worth the utter terror La Croix was feeling right now to see Samedi knocked out of his usual calm, cool demeanor.

La Croix gave a weak little giggle, and then he quailed when this terrible creature rounded on him, looking down at him coldly. “You may call me Hecate. I am the Queen of a world known as Decretum, where I have established a place of asylum for... certain gifted individuals.”

The trio of Loa looked dumbly up at Hecate, and Hecate scowled as her mane of electricity and black cables swirled and sparked around her head. Then she rolled her eyes before saying irritably: “I was informed by a mutual... 'friend...' that there was a little lost lamb who might be of some use to me being chased by his former employers. If you come and work for me, then I will protect you, give you a home, teach you to fend for yourself. That's what my orphanage is all about.”

“Orphanage?” La Croix asked dubiously, and Hecate gave a thin smile.

“Yes. Hecate's Orphanage for Wayward Youth.” Hecate looked down at one of her metal claws, absently flexing it before she glanced up and met La Croix's eyes calmly. “There are many worlds out there, La Croix. And I am interested in building an empire that will span across them all... and yet at the same time, none will even know of our existence. Does that interest you?”

La Croix licked his lips slowly... then he looked up hesitantly and gave a faint smile, breathing slowly as he carefully stood. The rain was starting to lighten now, more of a misting than a patter from the sky, but it still gave him enough strength to stand even with his injuries, even with the agony that came from his rear limbs when he put even a little weight on them.

But he wanted to stand for this, as Cimetaire and Samedi looked at him with surprise, before the stallion said quietly: “Merci beaucoup, mademoiselle... but I have a very important promise I kind of made, you see. Hey, rulin' the worlds, that sounds real nice... but... I ain't interested in hurtin' anyone no more. You saved my life, and I would like to repay you, lady. But if you're askin' me to be a thug in your new world order, I ain't gonna do it.”

Hecate looked with slight surprise down at La Croix, and La Croix looked silently back even as Samedi and Cimetaire both gaped in disbelief. For the longest time there was silence, until the rain stopped and starlight pierced the veil of the clouds above... and then Hecate suddenly gave a quiet laugh before saying softly: “Perhaps there's more to you than I thought, Loa. No, ponies annoy and irritate me. I have no desire to rule hordes of them. You can consider our job to be something more like... doing the heavy lifting when worlds can't take care of themselves.”

She paused for a moment, then crossed her metallic arms, tapping one steel claw against her bicep as she continued in a colder voice: “Furthermore, you don't have much of a choice. Your pathetic little moral quandary aside, what else can you do? Where else can you go? Those idiot Loa can't protect you, they won't even be able to protect themselves from Bondye's anger. The beast demons of Helheim would eat you alive. And I highly doubt Valhalla would welcome you or be willing to find a use for you. I am the only possible sanctuary you can find.”

La Croix bit his lip, shifting uneasily as his brothers both looked nervously between La Croix and the gigantic metal mare, and then Samedi cleared his throat and stepped forwards, holding up a hoof and saying awkwardly: “Madame, not to step on any hooves here-”

“You won't, because I don't have any. Like I have no use for you or any interest in your opinion.” Hecate said shortly, and Samedi was again struck dumb, wincing and shrinking his head back into his collar before the sallow, electric-maned creature said distastefully: “My business with you is already complete. I summoned you both from Darkwater to track down La Croix, and you have done so for me. Now you're only wasting my time.”

Hecate stopped, then she simply gestured sharply to the side, and a rift between worlds tore open in reality, La Croix whistling in surprise as the Queen of Decretum finished calmly: “Like this is a waste of time. Let's return to Decretum. One of my Dogmatists can fill you in there on your new duties. Say goodbye to your friends and get moving.”

“Lady, you bossy. But I guess I kind of like that.” La Croix smiled as he limped forwards, before he looked over his shoulder and winked at his stunned brothers. He didn't entirely know why, but... in spite of how big and scary she was, he found himself trusting Hecate. And it wasn't just the fact that she made it very clear that he didn't have anywhere else to go. It was the fact that if she really wanted to, she could easily just pick him up and fling him into that portal... but she was still waiting for him to make his own decision. She was letting him make the choice.

And so, La Croix made his choice, smiling a bit as he looked back towards her and said easily: “There ain't no need to say goodbye to them. I know they gonna be runnin' to try and get their own invitations to this soirée.”

Hecate only grunted as she gestured impatiently at the portal, but La Croix stopped in front of the vortex before he grinned over his shoulder, winking at his brothers before facing ahead as he said proudly: “After all... I always been the one ahead.”

And with that, La Croix vanished into the portal, leaving everything he had ever known behind.