• Published 8th Sep 2012
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Starlit Knights - BlackRoseRaven

Darkness has come to Equestria, and the world is threatened with destruction. Can Luna stop it?

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Fear Realized

Chapter Seventeen: Fear Realized

The Starlit Knights had been assembled in the early afternoon, and had done so by themselves, even before Luna could go searching for them. When she strode out into the fields in her armor, with a polished leather holster over her back that held her telescopic spear, she hadn’t even required a head count to make sure: they stood in rank and file, they stood unafraid and ready… and she had traded a smile with Scrivener Blooms, the male rolling his shoulders in his own armor, nodding in agreement to the feeling of pride in Luna’s heart.

Celestia had seen them off, thankfully with little ceremony… but there had been ponies crowding either side of the path all the same, eager to catch glimpses of the caravan as they had made their way back down the mountain so they could circle around Canterlot and head down the other side to continue northward. For now, they were moving in one large parade, but the vanguard unit would pull away once they reached the next long section of road… for now, Luna preferred to keep moving as one group, so she could survey the Pegasus Guard and confirm their loyalty and professionalism for herself.

It seemed like Celestia had been telling the truth, however: the twenty or so soldiers the Queen of Equestria had assigned were calm and serious, bowing their heads to Luna’s orders, treating the Starlit Knights as equals despite their far-different training. When Luna set them in rear guard formation, focusing mostly on their own wagon and following in the hoofprints of the others, none of them had complained and they had efficiently organized themselves to her orders.

The wagon they were pulling required two harnessed Pegasi to keep it moving, but the interior was magically-enlarged. The few supplies they carried in the interior of the ironwood wagon were mostly large-size tents and perishables, kept in a secure area at the front behind a wooden separator: the back of the wagon, meanwhile, was designed with bedding and benches for wounded or exhausted ponies to rest in, easily accessible through the large doors on the rear of the heavy carriage.

Luna was already glad for this: it meant that Scarlet Sage and Ross had a more comfortable place to ride in than the crowded back of one of their own wagons, and safer, too, since the ironwood transport was like a fortress on wheels. Of course, Luna also couldn’t help but notice that despite the fact Ross was supposed to be a noncombatant, he was now cheerfully walking side-by-side with Cowlick, a rifle over his own back as he rambled endlessly and she strode along beside him, smiling the whole while.

The winged unicorn glanced over her shoulder, along the flank of the group as they wended their way down the mountainside: on this side, it was mostly Pegasi who carried themselves slowly through the air, most of the earth ponies and unicorns wary of the slanted edge of the road. They would reassemble themselves into better formation once they had reached the bottom of the gorge and began making their way along the low road through the clustered peaks of these sharp-toothed mountains.

They would also be able to separate into vanguard and following caravan… and Luna was anxious to do so. Armed with the knowledge that she may very well be a target of the forces of darkness, to her it was all the more appealing to make herself as big of one as possible. She wanted these creatures to come to her, so she could see the faces of her foes and take violent action against them. It wasn’t facing even the demons of Helheim, even the awful Black Wolves of Hell that scared her anymore. It was the suspense… and the knowledge that the longer these creatures schemed in the shadows, the more evil they could plan and hatch.

Then she glanced up as Twilight Sparkle stepped beside her, offering a small smile: the newly-winged unicorn was now dressed in golden scale-mail that covered her upper body and upper limbs as well as a black cloak in which had been cut holes for her wings, and the Element of Magic shimmered around her neck as she said quietly: “I don’t need to be Scrivy to see you’re worrying about something, Luna. But then again, he looks pretty worried himself.”

“Oh, you know, just imagining what it’s going to be like walking into North Neigh, how welcome I’m sure they’ll make us all very quickly feel.” Scrivy said moodily, glancing up towards the sky… and on his back, Sammy chittered softly and nipped at his mane. “Oh, stop that, you. It’s not my fault you decided to go sightseeing and got yourself locked up in my old room. Just be glad we checked around for you before we left.”

Sammy huffed at this, then scampered quietly onto Scrivener’s head and sat down primly, and the equine rolled his eyes but smiled despite himself before he glanced towards Twilight Sparkle as she asked quietly: “But won’t it be different? I mean, you’re going to be walking into the village to save it, with an entire army and… well, a winged unicorn on either side of you.”

She smiled a little, and Scrivener only smiled faintly back, replying quietly: “Yes, and even if I was in the lead of a thousand unicorns and riding on the backs of Celestia and Nightmare Moon, they would still look down on me, Twilight Sparkle. That’s the way it works in places like that… you don’t get to decide your place. You don’t get to earn your place. Your birthright decides all of that for you… and I was born a hornless unicorn, the greatest disappointment two proud unicorn parents could ever know. My worries aren’t for myself, but how they’ll treat everyone else… to them, you’ll all be ‘traitors’ to their traditions.”

“Then I shall burn the village down and tell Celestia we arrived too late to save it and that there is nothing further to be done.” Luna muttered, shaking her head grimly before she sighed a little as she looked towards Scrivy, Sammy chirping from on top of the male’s head. “Samael, we are attempting a serious conversation. Twilight Sparkle, bring thine own pet out to play and entertain the beast.”

“Spike?” Twilight said dumbly, looking up… and both Scrivy and Luna looked at her for a moment, then both laughed and shook their heads as the winged unicorn blushed. “Oh, you mean… oh! Oh, quiet, I’ve… I’ve had a lot to adjust to this last while, I’m not thinking clearly.”

“As if it’s ever possible to think clearly.” said an echoing voice, and then Scrivener looked up dumbly, staggering in mid-step as he realized it had come from Sammy… or more precisely, inside Sammy’s skull, as one of the blue flames filling a socket puffed outwards as the skeletal pseudodragon squawked before a tiny Discombobulation strode out of it, polishing his eagle talon against his chest as Luna and Twilight both stared at him, barely managing to keep moving at the head of the line. “You rang, Master Twilight?”

“I… why are you…” Twilight shook her head quickly, then glowered at him and said irritably: “Get off his head.”

“Very well.” Discombobulation snapped his fingers and vanished from the spot… then reappeared, the size of a ferret now, and seated on top of Twilight’s head, one leg primly crossed and his hands resting on his knee. He gazed calmly ahead like he resting on the prow of a ship, not looking down even as Twilight halted for a moment and her face twitched horribly before she forced herself to storm onwards to avoid the entire convoy coming to a halt, ponies behind her staring at them as Luna and Scrivy stared… then both began to giggle. “It’s only a small joke, Twilight Sparkle, there’s no need to become so upset about it. When two roads diverge in the forest, and you take the one less travelled by… it can be as boring as the more-travelled one when you aren’t particularly fond of leaves and trees. You can also get lost and die in a forest, did you know that? I would expect you to, but you ponies take the simplest things for granted sometimes. Look at Luna and Scrivener Blooms, I have brought two angry, bitter, cynical little ponies childlike smiles. Would you really steal that all away?”

“Get. Off. My. Head.” Twilight pronounced slowly and firmly, and the Draconequus winced as he finally hopped off, at the same time returning to his normal height and stature so he could stride alongside the winged unicorn… before Sammy chirped loudly and hopped onto the Draconequus, rapidly twining his way over the creature’s chimerical body before he ended up seated on one shoulder.

Discombobulation gave it a thoughtful look, seeming to ignore Twilight Sparkle as she said grouchily: “Now listen. I know you’re supposed to be helping us and all, but if that’s the case I need you to be more helpful and less of a nuisance. You can start by helping us figure out what’s ahead… or at least what kinds of roadblocks we’ll meet up with. Or maybe you could… are you even listening?”

“I have to listen to you, Twilight Sparkle, but the best listeners listen without looking like they’re listening. Then they have the element of surprise, which I have always thought is stronger than your Elements of Harmony… but again, it’s how we use our tools that determines their worth, not the tools themselves. Give a pony a fish, he’ll eat for a day… teach a pony to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life… assuming ponies can eat fish, that is. Can ponies eat fish? Can ponies even eat at all?”

Sammy chirped as if in answer, and Discombobulation nodded seriously before he looked towards Twilight, twisting his head upside down on his long neck as he calmly crossed his arms. “But metaphors are a matter of perspective, and no perspective is without a little topsy-turvy in it. For example, in the eyes of the present, the Nibelung are either exceedingly-stupid or exceedingly-vicious. In the eyes of the past, which Scrivener Blooms has yet to open in her future, you may just see that they were once noble artisans… but artisans of steel and sword and war often ultimately craft their own necessary destruction.”

“Tell me, how does thee know this, and give us not another lecture upon Ginnungagap as a garbage heap… for even in my past, I remember battling the dwarves, and while they were more the savvy than these wretches we have fought in the present, they were still crude, callous, and often cowardly if they had not been driven mad by bloodlust.” Luna looked curiously towards the creature, frowning slightly, and Discombobulation automatically glanced towards Twilight, who nodded quickly, understanding what the chimerical creature was asking.

It sighed, rubbing absently at its features before nodding meditatively. “Very well, although by now, Scrivener Blooms, you should understand that your past isn’t your past… it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump back in time, compared to the actual years you may or may not have lived… assuming, of course, you were you back then even when you went by a different name and title and everything else. But who is to say that the soul changes at all when it changes bodies? Who is to say that the spirit is not like a gas, filling up whatever it inhabits instead of trapped in one solid form… yes, yes, do not rush me. All in good time, and good time takes a little building up to.”

He stopped, absently reached up to lift Sammy off his shoulder… but then he only hugged the skeletal pseudodragon close to his chest, almost gingerly stroking along the skeleton’s skull as he awkwardly half-cradled it and murmured: “We all come from the same source, at the end of the day. We are all nothing but flakes and dandruff, sweat and blood, lumps of flesh and bone and sinew that are made of particles and particles that are made of energy and who knows what energy is made up of? Perhaps it is the entire world, perhaps we are all walking Wonderlands, and inside every one of us there is an Alice, holding tea parties with the Mad Hatter, remarking boldly upon the grin of the Cheshire Cat… or, if that metaphor is becoming tired, for even metaphors may suffer fatigue when you use them too long and too hard, perhaps in all our minds lurk the Great Old Ones as they sit and calmly wait for the stars above to slide silently on their course so they may emerge into the universe and restart all the old machinery that grows rusty and dusty with the passage of time, but oh, they are patient… they are more patient than us, and that is why so many of us go a little insane as time goes on, fearing the things that lurk in the darkness… fearing most of all the reaching tentacles of the nameless gods that whisper and skulk in the recesses of our own minds.

“Do I speak without a point? Or do I point, without speaking it directly? I know, Twilight Sparkle, get to the point, you are obsessed with points of fact and facts of points and points of every other pointy persuasion.” Discombobulation rolled his eyes, making the violet pony glare before he said calmly: “But the Nibelung fell prey to the darkness, you see. In themselves, the machinations, the gears, were started… powered by greed and pride. They wanted to be the best… they wanted more. They tried to make a magic ring, a silly thing, a magical ring… and while legend tells you it was stolen from them, they simply fell to infighting over it, over the powers it would grant the one who wore it, telling each other it would give such strength to make the wearer King of the Nibelung and Master of Niflheim. And during that civil war in low, dark, Niflheim, their bloodshed attracted beasts from a world over… and Helheim’s forces devoured them like the squealing pigs they were, not understanding that even if you became an elephant… you’d still run away from the ten thousand soldier ants. Numbers win over strength, every time.”

Discombobulation fell silent as he petted Samael, then he smiled strangely and held the skeletal beast in front of himself, Sammy chirping as he said kindly: “I enjoy this creature. Look at it! Dead, and yet alive… it has no beating heart and fire instead of eyes and yet it smiles at me! It is living death and shadow and yet it acts like a silly little foal… it’s everything I enjoy rolled up into one ball of confusion-not-making-sensation. Yes, I meant what I said and I said what I meant, a Draconequus is faithful one-hundred percent.”

Luna looked up with quiet entertainment at this as Twilight Sparkle frowned deeply, and then the violet winged unicorn asked hesitantly: “So that’s why they’re… mercenaries now? Because they were destroyed?”

“The collapse of one’s society leaves only a few marketable job choices available, Twilight Sparkle. We watched from the safe balcony of Ginnungagap with both glee and horror over what happened… it was utter and complete chaos, but even Discord found little to delight in. Rioting and destruction is a sharp, short-lived thrill that quickly becomes withdrawal when things… stop moving.” The Draconequus paused meditatively, then nodded more to himself than them. “Cigarettes and cocaine only make sense at the end of life, not the middle, and certainly not the beginning. After all, you wouldn’t want to have a requiem for a dream, would you? Better to be little miss sunshine.”

“Look, there’s the highway.” Scrivener Blooms said quietly, and Luna and Twilight both glanced up as they strode down the last of the sloped pass through the mountains, towards the wide, dusty, but clearly-marked road that led along the stony earth, weeds pushing weakly up here and there amidst stone and shale. “It’s as ugly down here as I remember.”

“Luna, Luna, Luna. You walked this entire road alone as one so young… Equestria truly must have been a peaceful, boring land for a thousand years if you weren’t maimed or murdered like what always happens to the lone traveler in horror stories or police shows. No wonder everyone always wanted to change the channel when your cartoon was on.” Discombobulation rolled his eyes, and Scrivener gave the creature a flat look before the Draconequus looked moodily ahead. “But it’s not boring anymore, at least. I smell roast pork: the smell of an ambush lurking somewhere past the mountains. The smell of Nibelung that have spent too long being slow-roasted in Hell… for Helheim is cold, and nothing burns better than ice.”

“I do not doubt thee, creature… for I would be disappointed were we not attacked before the day’s end, especially if there are creatures with an assumed interest in me.” Luna muttered, then she grimaced and glanced to the side, saying quietly: “We will call the caravan to a halt and rest for dinner after we find a suitable safe location. Bob, I do not suppose you could tell us of what lurks ahead, then, since thou seems capable of divining the path?”

“There is nothing divine about a path of dirt and a smell of burnt meat. Those are things all very much connected to this physical, rotten, fetid earth.” Discombobulation replied mildly, and then he glanced down and added moodily: “I could show you something different from your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I could show you fear in a handful of dust. I can only tell you that there are ideas ahead, whispering in the black-and-white world, kissing the monotone; I can hear vicious thoughts, as they scream loudest, but they are unclear… I can smell roasted flesh, and a foul plan to ensnare us in eager, arrogant jaws. But since you plan to go boldly forth no matter what, pretending that you know nothing… wouldn’t it be more convincing for you to know no further, walk into the jaws of this trap, and trigger it with such violence that its jaws will shatter when they close upon the iron-clad limb that knowingly set hoof upon it?”

“Bob of Ginnungagap… there is a strange and alien wisdom in thy words. A wisdom that makes me wish to roundly club thee in the face, but I wish for thee to know this is out of affection, not spite.” Luna replied kindly, and she paused meditatively before looking at Scrivener Blooms, asking curiously: “Does thou truly think so?”

Scrivy nodded as Twilight frowned, and then the male glanced towards her with a bit of a smile, saying quietly: “Since Discombobulation says there’s enemies ahead, and Luna trusts him, and whoever they are, it sounds like they’re looking for their best target… I think we should make ourselves an even better target. You, me, Luna, and only a few other ponies… make it all too appetizing a chance for them to take out who they probably see as the biggest threats instead of possibly waiting for us to pass so they can go after the caravan.”

“Luna is a very self-destructive pony, if you haven’t noticed quite yet, Twilight Sparkle. I think that’s why Scrivener Blooms is so attracted to him… possibly why you find him fascinating as well, with your messiah complex and all.” Discombobulation said informatively, and Twilight winced before she glared at him sharply, and the Draconequus glowered, hugging Sammy almost protectively against his body for a moment before grumbling: “Very well, since I have reached the… twilight of your impatience, Twilight, I shall recede. As always, just call my name, and I’ll be there… since we do all need somebody to lean on.”

And with that, he reached over and gently dropped the skeletal pseudodragon back on Scrivy’s head, then strode quickly forwards, reaching up and making the air sizzle as he brushed reality aside like it was nothing more than a curtain to reveal a glowing tunnel beyond, vanishing through this before the wound in thin air sealed closed. Luna shook her head slowly as Twilight Sparkle grimaced a bit, then glanced towards them and asked quietly: “Are you sure it’s a good idea? You said yourself we had to be careful listening to him…”

“Aye, but sometimes that means trusting in what he says instead of believing all he says to be nonsense.” Luna smiled a bit, saying quietly: “But we have time yet, if what he spoke was indeed the truth… he was specific in saying ‘past the mountains,’ after all. And as I look at these treacherous peaks, I see that while they would give an advantage of height… they are slippery and steep. The Nibelung could hail arrows upon us, but then they would be forced to contend with armored Pegasi, magic-wielding unicorns, and a lack of sufficient cover… and to try and charge down such steep and jagged rocks would be the makings of a grand comedy on our side and a tragedy on theirs.”

Twilight nodded hesitantly after a moment, looking at the slopes to either side of the wide road: the looming peaks, imposing and high, with cliff faces that were thorny and dangerous… and she laughed after a moment, saying quietly: “I never realized until now that Canterlot… really was built in such a strategic location. It’s such a scenic approach to the castle you forget all about everything else… but it’s on the largest mountain, built into the mighty rock, with only a few roads leading up to it… and half the paths surrounding it are like this, large enough for a convoy like ours to pass through, but a real army…”

“Aye, exactly. Once in the past, Canterlot was marched upon while Celestia, Sleipnir and I lived in the city… Nibelung, goblins, Velites, and other quarrelsome creatures had all banded together, and they strode down this very path, stupidly seeking revenge after Equestria had slain many of the barbarian war-leaders and other masterminds of the darkness.” Luna paused meditatively. “We did not need to do much in that battle. Boulders were dropped at one end of this highway and the other, cutting off routes of access and escape… and then arrows, fire, and boiling oil were poured down from the mountains. It goes to show why such brutes require a puppet master to guide them… on their own, they have never been capable of thinking of more than ‘gather as many as possible, and attack.’”

Twilight grimaced, glancing down at the path with a shudder, and Luna laughed quietly, looking ahead as she murmured: “Equestria has seen much death and destruction. ‘Twas all buried under Celestia’s suppression and stories and propaganda… but ‘tis always the most peaceful, quiet land thou should be most wary of, my friend. Tranquility comes only after dedication and time… and all too often leaves the soil stained red.”

Luna fell silent as Twilight nodded slowly and gazed ahead quietly: the dark sapphire winged unicorn let her take her time to think, her starry locks glimmering softly as she tossed a look to Scrivy, their eyes locking for a moment as they traded thoughts back and forth in a flash before both faced ahead, even as their minds continued to push gently at one-another’s, trading ideas and rationalizations. Luna half-wanted to go on with only Scrivy and Twilight by her side… Scrivener could understand, but was concerned that the three of them – and possibly Discombobulation, but no pony quite knew what the Draconequus would do in a serious battle – could be overwhelmed by numbers in an ambush: the Nibelung liked to move in large groups, after all, and it sounded like that and worse was what they were faced against.

The winged unicorn’s other worry was that the ambush wouldn’t be drawn out by them: in that case, they needed strong ponies who could stay back and defend the caravan. Between the two, tossing pros and cons mentally back and forth even as the only sound was the conversation from the ponies behind them and the steady beat of hooves striding over the hard earth, they eventually managed to conclude what would hopefully leave them prepared for any situation that might occur, although it still leaned heavily on the hope that the ambush would be drawn towards the vanguard.

Luna, Scrivy, Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie: the bare minimum. They would leave Aleksandr, Cowlick, and Applejack to lead and organize the caravan… an experienced warrior and two sharp mares they knew they could rely on in case something went wrong. But with all luck, lightning-fast Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie’s savage Pinkamena side would help ensure that Twilight was well-supported while Luna and Scrivener Blooms worked together to draw the brunt of the attackers.

When they halted near a wide stone bridge over a shallow, muddy canyon, Luna had allowed fifteen minutes of rest before she had calmly divided them up, Rainbow Dash looking particularly-pleased with himself on being selected as Aleksandr looked thoughtful and Cowlick looked insulted, grumbling under her breath. Applejack also seemed to understand something was up, as she stayed apprehensively back with Rarity and Fluttershy… and Pinkie Pie, meanwhile, smiled and bounced, but a gleam lurked beneath her eye that hinted she understood something was going on.

The caravan would give them a fifteen minute head start before they followed… and with Spike staying back and Scrivener still carrying Samael on his shoulder, they had the option of sending a quick alarm message as well as simply sending up a warning flare. Every additional layer of protection would count at this juncture, every additional caution was a necessary one, as Luna could feel the chill in the air, could almost hear the shadows whispering to her… and as she strode at the head of the group, Pinkie Pie beside Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash flying slowly overhead and Scrivener Blooms on the other flank with Samael shivering a little on his back, the sapphire winged unicorn could feel the pressure building… and could hear Nightmare Moon’s whispers inside her mind.

She glanced towards Scrivy to see the male already looking at her quietly… and she offered an awkward smile, knowing that it was half-because of her worries, and half-because Nightmare Moon was directing some of those thoughts towards him. It was funny, how she was almost jealous of what was essentially herself at times with how Nightmare Moon enjoyed teasing her husband… and then she shook her head quickly before she frowned a bit as the road began to widen, the mountains around them becoming crumbled cliffs and mounds of broken hillock. “Wait, something is wrong…”

“The air feels… heavy.” Rainbow Dash grimaced as he dropped to his hooves, shaking his head briskly and making the armor covering his body rattle, as Pinkie Pie looked worriedly back and forth… and Luna paused, feeling not only the weight in the air… but aware that even though the sun was shining overhead, the world around them seemed darker, vested in shadows. “Something feels really wrong here… and is it just me or is it…”

“Aye, the shadows are growing, sunlight is battered away by some foul presence…” Luna set herself, grimacing as she looked back and forth sharply… but the dusty road seemed as silent and empty as it had ever been, even widened into wasteland with only a few ugly, monolithic cliffs scattered here and there throughout. “Can thou-”

And before she could finish, there was a hiss and a glimmer, the air seeming to ripple before some sparkling object flew towards them, and Luna looked up in surprise before this hit the hard ground and then shattered like glass with a rumbling blast, a gush of force and electricity ripping over the winged unicorns as Luna and Twilight both cried out in pain before several more glass spheres flew from all sides, shattering around them and sending bursts of anti-magic ripping over both winged unicorns, Scrivener Blooms wincing and staggering towards Luna as both she and Twilight were forced to their knees by the flurry of explosions.

Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie immediately set themselves, Scrivener Blooms looking back and forth as a bit of blood dripped from his nose, linked as he was to Luna but not nearly as drained by the anti-magic as she was, his body pulsing with adrenaline as he gritted his teeth, breathing hard… and a soft, mocking laugh rose through the thin air around them before Nibelung faded into existence on all sides, these wolf-pigs with burning eyes and ashen fur, carrying ugly, chipped axes and swords and clad in studded leather armor that was stained with blood. They grinned savagely, their eyes hollow white and devoid of emotion, of life, one of them slowly bouncing an anti-magic sphere in his hand before he lobbed it hard forwards… but Rainbow Dash jumped in front of the toss and batted it quickly away with one of his wings, the sphere striking uselessly against the ground and exploding in a blast that ruptured only the air.

It earned another quiet laugh… and then the five looked up to watch as another figure faded into view. At first, it seemed like an enormous black unicorn… but as it drew within a few feet of them, as it solidified from whatever hole in reality it had been hiding in, they were able to see all too clearly that even if it had once been a pony, it was now something else entirely.

His hooves were invisible or simply not there at all, clear as they marked the ground beneath him with both his weight and putrefaction as he strode forwards, his limbs ending instead of flickering black flames. His entire body was composed of awful dark smog and smoke, and where it became solid, it seemed to last only for a few moments before a screaming face would push out as if from inside his hide, stretching and distorting his form, making him ripple as the pony’s features cried out soundlessly in anguish and despair. His teeth were sharp and ivory, and his eyes dark pits that no light escaped, that held no gleam and yet were blacker by far than the smog that composed the rest of the awful creature as his horn of black fire-made-solid glowed with shadows.

“Ignominious…” Luna rasped, and she slowly forced herself up to her hooves even as Twilight continued to breathe hard, shivering as anti-magic shocks sizzled along her weakened body and horn. The demon-horse looked surprised as the sapphire winged unicorn managed to stand, but then he only smiled mockingly when Luna hissed: “Thou should have stayed in Helheim, foul monster. I know much of these evils that have befallen both myself and Equestria are of thine doing, deny it not… and now thou have forced my hoof, and I shall have to slay thee again and as many times as it shall take to ensure thou does not once more rise from the grave.”

“Now, now, Luna, it’ll take more than your horn and your magic to keep me from coming back. I have to say, the last time we met, things ended badly… but after my fall back to Helheim, I was able to make the acquaintance of some friends with mutual interests. I should really thank the unicorn they call Twilight Sparkle… except I see she’s no longer a mere unicorn.” For a moment, the features of the dark equine twisted with both scorn and envy as he glared past Luna towards Twilight, asking disgustedly: “Added her to your harem, Luna? You were always a whore.”

“Oh please. This is why I fear neither thy wrath nor thy words, Ignominious… thou art uncreative and uninspired, and have always relied too heavily upon the expensive gifts of others… gifts that are not gifts at all.” Luna shook her head in disgust, looking slowly back and forth at the Nibelung as Scrivener Blooms set himself, Sammy whimpering as he clung down against the earth pony’s back. “Who art thou working for? What does thou know, Ignominious?”

“Enough.” Ignominious replied calmly, but his head twitched slightly to the side… and Luna snorted in derision, which made him glare furiously at her. “What does it matter, Luna? I’m going to torture and kill you and all your friends now. This is what I came for, this is why I chose to assist Ekleíp and their wild aims and their sanctimonious masters. I care not about Equestria, whether it continues in prosperity or dies horribly… I only care about taking my revenge on you, little Luna Lightblade. Now stop fighting, and let yourself perish, it’ll make it easier for me to take you home to Helheim.”

Luna snorted in disgust and contempt, and Ignominious narrowed his eyes before he leaned forwards and said quietly: “Then maybe this will change your mind, Luna…”

He glanced over his shoulder and snapped an order in a rough, growling language… and a moment later, reality shimmered behind him before four shapes appeared from thick, dark air, two Nibelung with deadly, wide-bladed axes that shoved a pair of ponies in front of themselves. They were both bloody and battered, bodies pale, manes disheveled… and then Twilight staggered to her feet with a hoarse denial as the mare was shoved forwards to fall on her face and the Nibelung lowered the axe against the back of her neck, grinning, as Ignominious said in a soft, almost-tender voice: “Loving parents… talking all about their exceptional daughter to their friends, how she was on a mission for Equestria. Very proud of her… very proud of the daughter they created… so proud that when a unicorn student from the academy who claimed to know Twilight came knocking, they gladly let him in so they could brag all about their daughter… but silly them, you should never trust a stranger.”

Ignominious grinned, and Twilight snarled, tears leaking from her eyes as Luna leaned forwards, eyes blazing with fury. “Thou wretch! Thou monster! Release them, they have no part in this!”

“I would be glad to release them from the bonds of flesh and life… but first, I need you and your friends to hold still.” The dark equine’s eyes flashed as he leaned forwards, his horn beginning to glow, and the five ponies set themselves… but Ignominious only smiled and clicked his tongue, and the Nibelung standing guard by Twilight’s father seized him by the mane and yanked him up into a chokehold, making him gag weakly as the dwarf held him half-off the ground with his axe glimmering dangerously at his side. “Oh no, you’ll play my game. Or we’ll spill the guts of Twilight’s parents… and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“It’s okay, Twilight…” whispered the mare, closing her eyes with a tremble even as the blade of the Nibelung’s axe ground into the back of her neck, her light-blue eyes looking weakly across at her daughter, her purple-and-ivory striped mane hanging in ripped tatters around her face even as she tried to offer a weak smile. “We’re sorry… we were so proud…”

“Mom…” Twilight trembled as Ignominious looked displeased, and then the winged unicorn snarled and shouted furiously: “Let them go, don’t make me-”

“I’ll make you suffer, and then I’ll make you die.” Ignominious said coldly, and his horn gave a dark flash as he leaned forwards, the ground beneath the five gathered ponies cracking as black mist spilled up from the earth, making them cough and choke, blotting out the sight of everything around them as the demon horse’s voice carried through their minds: “Fear is the best seasoning for the soul. Fear opens all doors. Fear is what I will use to discover the little information I require from your breathing bodies before I destroy you all.”

Luna snarled as she lurched forwards, trying to concentrate, but even as she felt the last shocks of anti-magic leaving her body, a new, terrible sensation was crawling through her body and ruining her concentration… and then she winced as the smog in front of her whisked suddenly away as it torn through by a sharp wind, and she found herself staring at Scrivener Blooms… except his eyes were empty and malevolent, no armor over a body that glimmered with shadows as he leaned forwards and said softly: “You know I’m going to leave you, right Luna? You know that no matter what you do… you can’t make me stay with you. I’ll see through your selfishness sooner or later, and just like everyone else, I’ll abandon you, because even you know inside of yourself it’s better that way, because you are poison…”

“No…” Luna shivered, her mind telling herself it wasn’t real… but the blood in her veins turning to ice, tears forming in her eyes as her heart twisted in her chest, gasping and shuddering as she backed up a step and dug her hooves into the ground, looking wildly back and forth but only able to see black smog… and the now-grinning shade of Scrivener Blooms that stood towards her, shaking her head wildly as she tried to tear her eyes away. “Thou… art not real! Stay back, stay back!”

Scrivy glanced up, cursing as he heard Luna, but unable to see through the fog, turning and trying to run through the mist even though he knew she should be right next to him, and yet no matter how hard he sprinted, no matter where he turned, he couldn’t see her, couldn’t see anyone or anything… but then his body tensed, a shiver rolling through his form as he heard a childlike chuckle before spinning around… and staring in shock down at the image of himself as a young foal, a bleeding hole in his forehead, a saccharine smile on his too-thin, skull-like features.

“It’s sad, isn’t it? Luna works and works and works for you. You know that half the things she does, she only does it to try and make you smile… and what are you, really? A slave-hoof, and even more worthless than that. You laze around all day long, you drag your hooves after her, you spend all your time whining and crying and making her carry you… you know you’re just a weight around her neck, an anchor, a chain that binds her down. And now, she’ll never, ever be free of you… and she’ll have to carry you forever.” The foal shook his head slowly, and Scrivener closed his eyes, breathing hard before he winced away as the silky voice whispered beside him: “You’d kill yourself… but that would kill her. And you know one day everypony will see you for who you are. Worthless, broken, nothing but a leech…”

Scrivener shouted in denial, striking blindly at the air even as tears rolled down his cheeks… and Rainbow Dash looked up, almost hearing the shout as he tried to jump into the air, but his wings refused to work, refused to flap, sending him crashing back down on his front with a wince before he looked up… and then scampered backwards to his hooves as a female face leaned down out of the darkness, of grinning black-and-white. It studied him for a few moments, then laughed before sinuously sliding forwards, saying in a teasing voice: “You’d like to pretend I was gone but… I never really am, am I?”

It was the old him… when he’d been female. Rainbow Dash shivered and looked at this apparition as it smiled coyly, striding forwards, wings spread, body lithe and beautiful and perfect in every sculpted detail… and yet the eyes were hollow and awful, as she said softly: “Keep running, Dashie. Keep flying. Keep pretending. You can’t escape me… oh, sure, let’s go and be a boy, that’ll really help, that’s really healthy. But the truth is you’re just a big failure and you can’t escape that, can you? You can’t keep up this false pride. All you can do is pretend to be someone you’re not… no matter how many victories you win, no matter how you change and disguise yourself… you can’t escape who you really are. Nothing but a failure. Nothing but a scared little filly, shivering and useless, all that arrogance hiding the fact you know too damn well that even if you’re the best in the world you’ll never, ever have the approval of the ponies who matter…”

Dash shook his head, cursing under his breath before he clenched his eyes shut, then he turned around… and almost ran straight into the apparition as it appeared behind him through the smog, staggering backwards as she asked mockingly: “See what I mean? You’re nothing but a coward. You’re weak. You’ve always been weak.”

Twilight Sparkle looked back and forth, breathing hard through the smoke… and then she staggered backwards when a brilliant light shone ahead, bright and blinding, ripping the smog apart before she looked up as Celestia strode forwards, for a moment feeling relief… and then a shiver of fear passed through her, her eyes widening as she fell back on her haunches as her eyes drew slowly up over the golden, heavy plate mail that covered Celestia’s body, over the emotionless, cold features of the ivory equine, over the regal crown upon her head and a mane that was ivory and braded tightly… before Twilight whimpered as golden swords gleamed and slowly drew themselves on either side of the enormous female as her horn shimmered, Celestia saying quietly: “Come, Twilight Sparkle. It is time to bring peace to Equestria. First, bring Scrivener Blooms to me. Killing him is the most efficient way to eliminate Luna as well, as she has become… difficult. Bow your head before me, Twilight Sparkle… you know you can’t fight me. You know you can’t resist me. I am Celestia the Radiant, it is I who gave you your gifts… hesitate or fight… and I shall take them away.”

Twilight moaned weakly, shuddering as she tried to back away, but her body felt paralyzed with terror, with despair, shaking her head violently… and Celestia smiled at her grimly, her eyes glowing as she leaned forwards, the three swords floating silently ahead of her to hover dangerously around the violet pony as the ivory equine said softly: “Harmony cannot be brought about in a nation full of strife, full of opposites. The simplest path is the best path: the simplest path to peace is to annihilate anything that would disturb it.”

Pinkie Pie looked back and forth through the smog, whimpering a little as she breathed hard… then she gritted her teeth, a pulse of pain travelling through her body as the smog invaded her body, spilled into her lungs, made her feel ill. She shivered, then staggered to the side and bumped against something… and she looked blearily up to see Twilight sitting, her jaw hanging open, her eyes glowing faintly as she mumbled mindlessly to herself. Pinkie began to turn towards her… and then she wretched loudly and instead staggered to the side as the smoke began to clear around her, hearing a voice mutter disgustedly: “A pony is resisting? Very well, I’ll amplify the spell’s power.”

A moment later, black bolts of energy shocked over Pinkie’s body, and she screamed, arching her back as her eyes glowed, her body stuttering violently as it went from bright to dull, bright to dull… and then she lurched forwards, gagging ahead, her mind reeling before she fell forwards as her stomach lurched and she let out a miserable wail as steam hissed up off her body, black tears dripping from her eyes and strings of darkness spilling from her mouth as the smog around her writhed and twisted… and then she leaned forwards, heaving an awful, dark mass that spilled out of her jaws and splattered over the ground, a blob of blackness landing with a thick, fleshy thud in front of her as she staggered backwards and stared, drool and blood and dark bile dripping from her maw.

Smoke and smog twisted around this amorphous dark shape as it burbled on the ground, bubbles spilling through it, steam hissing upwards, silhouetted under the dark mist as it expanded, as it stretched in alien, hideous ways… and then Pinkie whimpered in horror, almost falling backwards, her mind reeling as a very physical hoof stretched through the smog and settled against the ground. It hauled the twisted form upwards as other limbs formed, and then a head stretched upwards, a straight mane and tail spilling back as jaws grinned, showing off white, sharp, shark-like teeth as red-rimmed blue eyes shone with hellish vibrancy through the pall of black fog.

Pinkie Pie whimpered as the figure laughed… and then Pinkamena, in all her physical glory, emerged through the smoke and leaned down, grinning widely in the face of the staring, trembling Pinkie Pie as she said mockingly: “Hey there, sissy. Why so serious? I thought you were all about laughter?”

She reached forwards and firmly punched the Element of Laughter hanging around Pinkie’s neck, making her body shake as she lowered her head, breathing hard, a weak giggle escaping her as she stared with almost-lunatic terror up at Pinkamena, the dull, gray-pink earth pony winking slowly down at her before she turned around and sauntered through the mist… and Ignominious frowned darkly, then his eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the earth pony emerging, before a slow grin spread over his face as she gave him a mocking, ruthless smile. “What’s this? A creature consumed entirely by fear… or made from it?”

The Nibelung both growled… but Pinkamena snarled back at them, making them hesitate even as the one pinning Twilight’s mother raised its axe slightly, threateningly… but Pinkamena sinuously slid towards the dwarf, licking her lips slowly as she arched her back and rose herself on her hind legs, gazing eye-to-eye with it as her hooves stroked over its armored front as she murmured: “Oh, don’t mind me, little piggy. I’m just a harmless little pony… the big bad wolf isn’t really scared of the pony-wony, is he?”

The dwarf half-fumbled its axe as she leaned forwards with half-lidded eyes and a wide grin, her sharp teeth flashing as her hooves stroked down its front… and then one grasped the handle of the ugly sword at its side and yanked it free from its sheath as she turned around, balancing easily on her hind hooves as the Nibelung gave a short snarl… but Ignominious quickly rose a hoof to the dwarf even as it began to raise its axe, and it sulkily relaxed. Pinkamena, meanwhile, stroked slowly along the blade of the sword with her other hoof, whistling a little under her breath before she grinned towards Ignominious with half-lidded eyes, saying kindly: “The pig-boys aren’t my type, but you, on the other hand…”

She leaned forwards, slowly licking up the blade of the sword, and Ignominious grinned widely, obviously flattered as he leaned towards her and replied eagerly, his eyes glowing: “Oh, who knew there would be such a delightful creature inside one of these worthless pony’s shells… tell me your name? And is that demonic residue I smell?”

“You could say I had a friend before who was a demon, but not nearly as handsome as you…” Pinkamena said easily, stepping forwards and brandishing the sword, bringing it up with a wink as she stroked the flat slowly along his face, and then she leaned in close as Ignominious grinned widely, whispering into his ear: “Pinkamena’s what they always called me. But you can call me a different name… you brought me out of silly Pinkie Pie after all, didn’t you?”

“And am glad that I have, Pinkamena…” Ignominious laughed and gestured towards the smoky mist, through which the suffering forms of the other ponies were visible as he said in an exhilarated voice: “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s artwork… they’re being broken down by fear, until they’re nothing but insane wrecks… and in a glorious flaw, you were created, fear given life… you must have existed in some way, some form beforehand, but without this spell, acting as lightning to whatever primordial state you were in before, you never would have existed… I can think of nothing more wondrous than to conquer my enemies and create such a delightful creature at the same time…”

“I can.” Pinkamena half-lidded her eyes, leaning forwards, and Ignominious grinned as he leaned towards her… before he hissed in shock, his eyes bulging as Pinkamena savagely thrusted the sword in her hoof upwards, burying it through his chest as the earth pony smiled at him mockingly, her straight mane half-veiling her features before she twisted the sword and shoved hard upwards again, the tip of the blade ripping out his back in a burst of dark essence as she leaned in and licked slowly up the side of his neck. “Weren’t you the one just saying you shouldn’t trust a stranger?”

Ignominious gargled, white cracks spreading through his body as the faces of ponies over his smoky formed writhed and shrieked soundlessly as his horn flickered, the mist of fear that had fallen over the other ponies quickly beginning to dissolve as the Nibelung stared in shock… and then Ignominious burst apart into smog, lashing violently backwards and sending Pinkamena stumbling with a grimace before the hell-horse reformed with a snarl some twenty feet away, half-screaming as he clutched at his chest: “Crowbait! Kill her, kill her!”

The Nibelung standing over Twilight’s mother snarled as it began to raise its axe… but in a flash, Pinkamena leapt towards it, stabbing the sword upwards and ripping through its throat. The dwarf’s eyes bulged, the creature gagging as it dropped its weapon and staggered backwards, grabbing weakly at the weapon sticking jaggedly out of its neck as Pinkamena grinned, a whirlwind of dull grey as her eyes glowed with unnatural savagery, leaping towards the next wolf-pig as it threw Twilight’s father out of the way and rose its axe with a growl.

The earth pony slipped forwards and headbutted the body of the pole as the weapon swung downwards, catching it against her skull before she arched her back and flicked her head upwards, knocking the dwarf staggering with a hiss as the axe was almost knocked out of his hands… and then he wheezed when Pinkamena’s hoof slammed forwards into his groin before she leapt upwards and smashed both front legs into his chest, sending him crashing down onto his back in a stunned heap.

As the cloud of fear faded and the spell lost its strength, the ponies trapped under the effects of terror felt their senses returning, Luna’s sharpened warrior instincts coming back all the faster as she heard Pinkamena’s laughter and the sounds of battle and hissing Nibelung… and then she snarled and lunged forwards, ripping through the static-riddled illusion in front of her and barreling straight into another Nibelung charging towards the earth pony, her horn ripping through its back before she lashed to the side and sent it down with a shriek of agony as its spine was severed and her eyes glowed with rage. “Ignominious, we will flay every last pound of flesh from your body for this!”

“Kill them, stop them!” Ignominious howled miserably, wincing as he staggered backwards, rasping for breath… but Pinkamena was straddling one of the wolf-pigs she had taken down, laughing as she smashed her hooves almost mockingly back and forth over its bloodied features, and even as the three remaining dwarves charged towards the ponies, there was a crackle of energy and magic, a sense of unstoppable, incoming wrath-

Twilight Sparkle arched her back with a sharp cry, her eyes flashing, her horn glowing as a shockwave of force erupted from her body, knocking Scrivener Blooms and Rainbow Dash sprawling and awakening them from their living nightmares as the Nibelung were knocked backwards, before the violet winged unicorn dropped her head forwards with a snarl, a fireball shooting into the closest dwarf and incinerating it as she shouted: “Get away!”

One of the dwarves staggered… then it was crushed flat as Rainbow Dash leapt forwards, fear becoming rage as he slammed into it with the force of a train before he smashed his hoof down into its squat features, and the other wolf-pig had enough time to squeal before Twilight crashed into it, her horn glowing with radiance as she slammed it through its armor like butter and pierced deep into its body before she released another blast of force that sent it limply flying away. And Ignominious could only stare in horror for a moment before he winced at the sight of Scrivener Blooms charging towards him, his own eyes almost glowing, feeling the rage emanating off both him and Luna as the sapphire winged unicorn lunged in from the side-

Ignominious burst apart into a cloud of noxious smoke, shooting up into the air and twisting around in an arc to slam down into the ground on his hooves some twenty feet away, and Scrivy and Luna almost crashed into each other before the demon horse shouted at them in a strained, furious voice that couldn’t hide his fear and panic: “This isn’t over, Luna! This is far from over, just you wait!”

And with that, the smoky equine burst once more apart into dark smog that shot quickly through the air, the weight of darkness fading from around them as Rainbow Dash jumped into the air and shouted after him: “You better run, because we ain’t afraid of you! Yeah, that’s right, who’s the coward now, huh?”

Luna snorted in disgust, Scrivener growling low in his throat before he winced a bit as he felt Sammy nip the back of his neck worriedly from where the skeletal beast was still curled tightly down against him, and he shook his head quickly before letting it drop forwards with a soft breath. And, as he calmed, he felt Luna shiver, then her own tumultuous rage begin to quiet as she breathed hard in and out, the ivory glow fading from her eyes as she muttered: “I should have let Nightmare Moon come out to play… then the foul creature wouldst not have escaped so easily. But… yes, thou art right, we have other things to attend to.”

Luna turned around, then sighed in relief at the sight of Twilight Sparkle already helping her parents up, already beginning to heal them as they both smiled at her weakly… and then Luna’s eyes looked sharply towards where Rainbow Dash was now standing, staring dumbly, at the sight of Pinkamena grumbling as she hauled a battered, filthy Pinkie Pie to her hooves, and Scrivener couldn’t help but stare in shock as well as the sapphire winged unicorn said slowly: “We. Have more to attend to than I had first expected, it seems… the spell Ignominious used was to bring our deepest fears as close to the real as possible, and as Pinkamena already existed to a point, already was touched by demonic influence in the past…”

She shook her head slowly, then halted before looking silently at Scrivy as he looked back, their thoughts linking as they looked at each other before they both blushed and lowered their heads silently, Luna whispering: “I… am sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry, Luna. I am.” Scrivener said empathetically, then he laughed a little when she gave him a look that was half-frustrated, half-pleading. “I know, I know. But Luna, you know that-”

“Aye, as thou knows thyself, but all the same, fears are not always rational.” Luna muttered, shaking her head before she firmly bumped against him and sighed a little, saying quietly: “Attend to Pinkamena, I shall see to Twilight’s parents.”

Scrivener nodded, striding towards the ponies… and Luna watched him for a moment before she turned and quietly joined Twilight’s side as she silently embraced her father: the unicorn’s coat was deep blue, his mane and tail an even darker shade of azure and short… and soft, sandstone-gold eyes looked with relief over Twilight as he said quietly: “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“And both of thee are… alright?” Luna asked softly, and the unicorns both turned to her with a blush as Twilight looked up with a faint smile. They nodded as the sapphire winged unicorn studied them slowly… and then she nodded slowly in return, saying quietly: “We shall wait here for the caravan, then… and then I shall send thee back to Canterlot with a safe escort of Pegasus Guard after tending to thy wounds, if thou art up to the journey.”

“Thank you, Princess Luna.” murmured the male, bowing his head respectfully, but Luna only smiled and rose her hoof, shaking her head with a quiet laugh.

“Nay, I am no Princess, only a warrior.” she replied softly, then she glanced towards Twilight as the female bowed her head shamefully. “And stop that now, my friend. All is well… Ignominious is beaten and… a strange thing has happened, but perhaps ‘twill be good in the long run.”

She paused, looking hesitantly over her shoulder as Twilight frowned, glancing up and following Luna’s gaze… and then she stared at the sight of Pinkamena and Pinkie Pie studying each other as Rainbow Dash continued to gape and Scrivener awkwardly looked over both the ponies. “Is… that who I think it is? But… but how?”

“Because Ignominious is an idiot who could never properly handle his own magic.” Luna muttered, shaking her head before she glanced towards Twilight’s parents, asking quietly: “I hesitate to ask, but ‘tis important. Did thou see or hear anything when thou wert… captured?”

The two unicorns glanced at each other, then the mare shook her head slowly, saying quietly: “I just remember… darkness, and those awful wolf-things… and it was very cold. That monstrous unicorn, Ignominious… he kept talking about revenge, but it didn’t make sense.”

“He interrogated us, but he seemed to know you were coming this way anyway… he said something about wanting insurance.” Twilight’s father added after a moment, grimacing a little and glancing quietly towards their daughter, who blushed a bit and lowered her head shamefully. “It’s not your fault… it’s ours. We both knew there was something wrong about the unicorn that showed up but… neither of us suspected him to turn into… that thing…”

Luna nodded with a grimace, saying distastefully: “I would recommend staying with friends… or perhaps at Canterlot Castle. Celestia will make room for thee, I would guarantee it.”

“Would she use her magic to try and deep-read them, like she tried to do with Ross?” Twilight asked hesitantly, and Luna paused for a moment, then shook her head, and the violet winged unicorn looked a little better after this. “Alright, because… I was talking with Cowlick on the way, and it seems that Ross was a little… upset, afterwards.”

“Likely because he remembered more of being puppeted as he was… not that any useful information was gotten.” Luna grumbled, shaking her head grimly. “One unicorn thrall lures and tattoos another and links their minds… ‘tis puppets making puppets making puppets. We are fortunate that it is not Ignominious behind this machination, or thy parents… could have been much worse off.”

She glanced towards the unicorns, who both winced as they seemed to understand what was said, and Twilight nodded slowly before she sighed a little as she glanced towards the nearby corpse of a Nibelung, murmuring: “I’m sorry you had to see me… like this. I’m sorry you were… victims of this darkness.”

“It’s okay.” Twilight’s mother soothed, stepping forwards and hugging her quietly… and Luna smiled at them for a moment before she silently excused herself to stride towards where Pinkamena was now sitting moodily as Pinkie Pie bounced around her, inspecting her darker half with fascination now that she had gotten over her initial terror.

Luna shook her head, then she flicked her horn forwards as it glowed, and the bile and blood on Pinkie’s features steamed as she winced back before it vanished from sight, leaving her much less filthy as Pinkamena glanced towards her meditatively. “So you used to date that douchebag?”

“’Tis a sore nerve Pinkamena, one I would rather thou not address.” Luna said stiffly, as Scrivener dropped his forehead against a hoof with a grumble. “Must thou already make trouble? Forget not that now thou cannot hide as thou pleases back inside Pinkie Pie.”

“I could hide inside her. I could cut her open and make a tent out of her.” Pinkamena replied thoughtfully, glancing over at Pinkie Pie… but the bouncy bright pony only giggled before hugging her tightly around the neck, making Pinkamena wince and flail her limbs. “Get off me, sissy!”

“Oh, don’t be so silly, Pinkamena! You saved us, that must mean you really like us all, after all.” Pinkie replied positively… and then she winced when Pinkamena shoved a hoof against her face and pried her off, pushing her firmly back onto her rump.

“I wouldn’t say I like you, I just hated that egotistical jerk more. Don’t tempt me to shove a sword into your brain next, not that you have one.” Pinkamena said grouchily, and Pinkie Pie huffed and crossed her front legs, pouting a little before the sharp-toothed pony moodily looked over at Rainbow Dash. “Stop staring at me. I’m not going to comfort you if you need to have a little cry.”

“Oh great, you’re as nasty as ever.” Rainbow muttered finally, shaking his head before he grimaced at Pinkie Pie as she bounced up to her hooves and hummed a little, springing around her spryly. “Pinkie, calm down a little, too. You’re getting all manic.”

“Sorry, but… I dunno, I feel so… so light! So energetic!” Pinkie laughed a little, gazing warmly over the four, but then she blushed at the flat look Rainbow gave her, forcing herself to steady on her hooves as she took a slow breath, then smiled a bit. “Okay, okay. Maybe it’s because we’re not connected anymore, what do you think, Pinkamena?”

“I think a lot of things.” Pinkamena muttered, then she stood up and cracked her back before looking pointedly at Luna. “So when the hell do I get a thank you?”

Luna looked at her for a moment, and Scrivener had the distinct feeling she wanted to barbecue the earth pony… but when Pinkamena grinned, the winged unicorn sighed and rolled her eyes, saying distastefully: “Very well. We are indebted to thee, Pinkamena, for engaging in thy obvious talent of slaughter, even if the emblem upon thy haunch says differently.”

Pinkamena frowned at this, then half-turned to look back at her cutie mark of gray and black balloons… but then she only shrugged and glanced up, saying mildly: “Funeral’s a kind of party too. Gotta be good at getting dead bodies if you’re going to be good at funerals.”

For a moment, the others stared at her… and then Scrivener Blooms said in an almost-admiring voice: “You’re more sick and depraved than Luna.”

“I like how you like that.” Pinkamena gave him an entertained look, then she turned and strode moodily towards one of the corpses, looking thoughtfully down at this. “Hey, Nightmare Moon. How much of this do you think is pork?”

“Once I jested I would feed a Nibelung to thee, Pinkamena. I am both disgusted and amused to see this jest nearly become reality… but they are corrupted bodies, Nibelung that have been amplified further by Helheim’s poisons. Even ignoring the fact thou wishes to eat the dead body of another sentient being, ‘twould likely be hazardous to thy health, not just thy already-lacking morals.” Luna answered, torn between exasperation and entertainment as Rainbow Dash stuck his tongue out and Pinkie Pie looked a little ill at the thought.

Pinkamena only smiled over her shoulder, however, red-rimmed blue eyes giving a faint gleam as she said softly: “And who’s to say I’m not just like them, overexposed to poison already? But I guess we’ll find out on the road ahead, won’t we?”

And Luna couldn’t help but grimace at this thought, even as Twilight Sparkle and her parents finally strode over to join the other ponies and Pinkamena stood alone by the Nibelung corpse, a twisted grin on the features of the twisted pony, fear-made-real who was fighting alongside them for her own alien reasons.