• Published 8th Sep 2012
  • 2,732 Views, 343 Comments

Starlit Knights - BlackRoseRaven

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

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Against All Odds

Chapter Twenty Four: Against All Odds

Luna and Scrivener Blooms were tired and sore in their worn armor, carrying minimal supplies, and pushing through a wild pine forest alone but for one another and Sammy, who hissed every now and then at the snow-covered trees around them. The caravan had moved on, or would be, after seeing to their dozen dead: Pinkie Pie, five Pegasus Guard, two Starlit Knights as well as two minotaurs… but Luna refused to lose Scarlet Sage. No matter what it meant she had to do… she had vowed to find the filly.

Ross was also missing: it was likely that he had been taken along with Scarlet Sage, possibly to be brainwashed once again, and if they could, they would rescue him as well. And again and again, Luna cursed herself in her mind and out loud, as Scrivener strode quickly behind her, the winged unicorn using both a location spell as well as her tracking skills and every ounce of knowledge she had to chase after the creatures that had taken Scarlet Sage.

They were unicorns: they had found the tracks leading into the tundra, and Luna had given Twilight Sparkle hurried orders to take control of the caravan. Twilight had panicked, had given reasons why she couldn’t, had tried to dissuade her… and Luna had shouted at her to get under control and told her clearly and sharply she wasn’t making requests as a friend… she was giving orders as a superior.

Twilight had relented at this… still scared, Scrivener thought, by the ruthless fury Luna had shown Ignominious. Sometimes, Twilight could forget that just as coldness lurked in Celestia’s heart, there was a darkness in Luna’s own… and Luna grimaced ahead, halting to examine a set of tracks that seemed to follow a natural path through the forest as she muttered: “Comparing me to Celestia at this juncture is an excellent way to get beaten, Scrivener Blooms.”

“I know, I’m sorry. My mind wanders at the worst of times… but Horses of Heaven, Luna, I hope you do worse things to these Ekleíp scumbags than Celestia would do if they’ve hurt even a hair on Scarlet Sage’s head.” Scrivener Blooms muttered, and Luna grunted in agreement before she nodded and broke into a light run, the male falling into pace behind her as he opened his mouth… but when she looked over her shoulder sharply, he nodded as Sammy clung quietly to his mane, concentrating and asking mentally: Close?

Close enough. Luna’s voice replied in his mind, and he could feel her anger… and self-loathing, too, amidst everything else. Blaming herself for everything that had happened… for not paying closer attention, as the two ran along the path before Luna’s eyes flashed and she skidded to a halt, Scrivener immediately looking down as he felt her instincts and nodding sharply as he saw the gleam of a tripwire amidst the shadows cast by the enormous trees around them.

They carefully stepped over this, and Luna narrowed her eyes as she slipped through the trees, the forest unnaturally quiet but for the occasional growl of some far-off predator. It made them both nervous… but then Luna cursed under her breath as she stepped carefully around a high drift of snow and lowered herself, her starry mane layering itself tightly back and down along her frame as she gazed out at a small clearing in front of an ugly, snow-covered hillock… but this small bump of a hill had a deep overhang that shadowed a heavy, reinforced oak door that was further secured by a circle of magical runes glowing eerily over it.

The door wouldn’t pose a problem to get through: the problem was the two Phooka that stood sentinel outside it. Smoky, indistinct dark shapes a little larger than a pony and only roughly equine, they had eyes of awful green fire and possessed the ability to hypnotize anything that dared make eye contact with them. Nothing but malicious tricksters in the past, they had nonetheless become a greater threat in recent times: the darkness had influenced them to go from simply taking ponies on wild rides or chases through marsh and bog and forest to hypnotizing their prey and luring them into death traps and to nastier predators of the shadows.

Both of them had collars around their necks of heavy, rune-covered iron, likely used to keep them under control and to force them to obey the commands of whoever called this hovel their home… and Luna shook her head with disgust as she slipped backwards, muttering: “This situation worsens by the moment. If Ekleíp has such powerful old magic at its disposal that it may even bind monsters to its bidding, they may be a greater threat than I had ever anticipated… and their madness and longing for Ragnarok will make them all the more dangerous.”

Scrivy grimaced, then Luna closed her eyes as her horn took on a faint blue glow, and Scrivener looked down in surprise as the female smiled grimly. “I wish to wait back and see if there are worse surprises in store for us… and we must be careful. My reserves of strength are not as great as I would like them to be, after the attack on the encampment… therefore it only makes sense that thou, in all thy self-destructive, stubborn glory, plays the role of monster slayer for a change.”

Scrivener Blooms glanced meditatively down at his hooves as they burned with blue light… and then he smiled grimly as he glanced up, thinking of Scarlet Sage, of Ignominious, of North Neigh still waiting beyond… and then he grunted and nodded, turning and heading boldly out into the field as the Phooka both looked up dumbly before the earth pony gritted his teeth and leapt forwards, swinging both of his blue-flaming hooves into the face of the first Phooka and crushing it into the ground as he winced away, knowing that the blows of these ephemeral creatures couldn’t hurt but any eye contact at all would be dangerous.

The Phooka shrieked, flailing wildly before it exploded into black mist, the iron collar flying away as the other Phooka immediately turned and tried to flee… but it seemed to ram into an invisible barrier at the edge of the field, hissing loudly deep in its throat as it shook its head wildly before scrabbling madly at the collar as Scrivener Blooms approached, before glaring at him over its shoulder… but the male kept his eyes firmly down, keeping on the barest hint of the creature’s ephemeral form in his vision before he grimaced a little and held a glowing hoof up, saying distastefully: “I… ugh. Don’t hypnotize me, and I’ll set you free.”

The Phooka hissed distrustfully at this as the male felt Luna’s doubt and curiosity in his mind… and Scrivener thought long and hard for a moment before he answered both with a mutter of: “There’s… no honor in it.”

Sammy, still clinging to his back, rose his head at this and chirped… and, as Scrivy slowly rose his eyes, he saw the Phooka looking at him grouchily, its green-flame eyes glowing before they locked with Scrivy’s, and he winced as he felt something, a connection but not outright hypnotism, before it spoke to him in a twisted version of his own voice: “That concept is older than my kind… ponies do not grasp what it means.”

“Oh, and you do?” Scrivy hesitantly stepped forwards as the blue glow died out around his hooves, and the Phooka snorted, then hissed and grumbled as it lowered its head, the earth pony reaching up and carefully working the complex clasp on the back of the collar, grimacing a little to himself at the runes that sparked painfully against his hooves before he managed to loosen it and let it fall free.

It clanked to the ground, and the Phooka immediately looked up and met his eyes for a moment with its own… and then it grinned slowly, saying softly: “You feel sorry for our kind? How eccentric. You killed one of us, freed the other… but it’s better than those real monsters behind that door. Watch out for their tricks and traps, slave pony. Kindness won’t take you very far with them.”

With that, the Phooka turned and ran off into the forest, vanishing amidst the trees as Scrivy grumbled under his breath and stepped moodily backwards, rubbing his hooves against the tundra as he approached the door… and Luna quietly slipped out of hiding, frowning at him curiously even as he said moodily: “I feel dirty.”

“That was strange indeed, Scrivener Blooms…” She paused, then smiled a little, reaching up and touching his shoulder quietly. “But… I am glad thou has an odd, tender place in thy heart for monsters. Or perhaps it is because thou wishes to see unicorn foals gobbled down by these beasts.”

“Well, they’re only malicious because of the surging evil, right? Besides, I… I dunno, killing a chained-down guard dog that’s whimpering and trying to run away, I don’t… like the idea of that.” Scrivener grimaced again and muttered as he reached up and hammered his hoof against his head: “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Thou art not. But come. I am surprised there seem to be no further defenses, but the beast did whisper in thy mind of traps… we will have to be wary.” Luna hesitated, and then she leaned across and kissed his cheek gently, the male looking surprised as she murmured: “We have much to do. And thou must continue to be my conscience when I feel only like destroying.”

The earth pony smiled despite himself as they approached the door, Sammy chirping quietly on the charcoal male’s back before Scrivy awkwardly glanced towards Luna… but she only grinned slightly, lowering her head forwards as her horn sparked and the runic circle on the door glowed violently, shouting: “Nightmare Moon requests an audience!”

Cracks ripped through the wood, the circle sparking violently before Luna flicked her horn to the side, and the entire door was simply ripped out of place and thrown into the trees, revealing a stone corridor beyond. Immediately, a red-robed unicorn strode quickly around the corner, but Luna flicked her horn forwards, sending a blast of lightning into the tattooed thrall, and it howled as it was knocked crashing backwards into the wall, falling into a stunned heap. Immediately, both she and Scrivener strode into the stone hallway, both grimacing as they passed from biting cold into packed, unnatural humidity, hurrying to the end of the hall before Luna peered around the corner.

Then she winced and leaned sharply back a moment before several crossbow bolts flew past and smacked into the corner wall, their gemstone tips burying deep through solid stone as she muttered: “More thralls. Not unicorn, earth pony and Pegasus, but they are tattooed and wear the same colors of the cult. I wish to kill them but I know that not thou, not Twilight, perhaps no longer even Celestia will approve.”

“Barrier me.” Scrivener said dryly, and Sammy squeaked before leaping off the earth pony as he readied himself, and Luna grinned widely at this as the male grimaced and muttered: “I never really wanted to be a train growing up.”

“Thou were a strange child in a terrible place, though.” Luna said kindly, then her horn glowed brightly as she lowered her head forwards, and a blue, angled barrier appeared in front of Scrivy before he gritted his teeth and shot around the corner, charging straight down the hall towards the three thralls that aimed their crossbows at him and fired a useless volley into the semi-translucent sapphire wall the male was pushing ahead of him, bolts bouncing off the energy before Scrivener simply plowed into the three, the barrier plowing them backwards until they loudly crashed into a wall.

The barrier shattered and Scrivy staggered backwards with a wheeze of pain as recoil burst over his body, shaking his head stupidly as the three thralls fell to a battered heap in front of him… and then he cursed in pain as a bolt shot into his shoulder from an adjoining hall, the crystal arrowhead ripping through his armor and Luna wincing as she rounded the corner, feeling the pain herself before Scrivy looked up as he ripped the bolt out just in time to see a unicorn thrall beside the reloading Pegasus.

Then a blast of lightning smashed into him, electrifying his armor and making him hiss in pain as he staggered backwards… then gritted his teeth and shook his head briskly, shrugging the attack off before Luna shot in front of him and flicked her own horn downwards, replying with a much-more-powerful blast of lightning that blew both thralls off their feet and sucked all the fight from their bodies. Then she charged forwards down the hall, Scrivener following after her with a grimace and gladder than usual for his resistance to magic before he winced as doors began to open on either side of them, at least half a dozen cold voices saying in awful synchronization: “Stop the intruders. Capture Nightmare Moon.”

“All thee shall catch is pain!” Luna shouted, flicking her horn upwards as they barreled towards the door in front of them, and a blue ball of glowing, liquid light sailed gently into the air before beginning to fall behind them. Immediately, Scrivener instinctively put on a burst of speed, as he lowered his head and charged straight into the door at the end of the hall, smashing through it and diving into a wide room beyond as the unicorn and other thralls looked calmly towards the sphere of slowly-falling light… and Luna grinned as she leapt through the doorway, propelling herself faster with her wings as she half-flipped and her horn glowed, slamming the door a moment before the sphere hit the ground on the other side.

A sonic boom erupted with a flash of blinding blue light, the blast powerful enough to crack the door Luna had had just thrown closed and knock it ajar as well as send both the ponies skidding backwards… while the thralls on the other side were deafened and blinded, the reverberation from Luna’s flash-flare spell likely enough to carry into whatever was controlling these thralls as well. Scrivy thought he could faintly hear screams of pain… but as he staggered to his hooves, he could barely hear anything at all, apart from Luna’s instincts and thoughts urging him to hurry up as the winged unicorn scrambled up and hurried through the large dining area they had landed in.

The thralls here barely noticed them, grabbing instead at their faces as if they had been hit by the flare as well, twitching violently as Luna yanked Scrivener towards a side door on instinct and they made their way up a long, sloping passage to barrel through another door… and then both ponies skidded to a halt, setting themselves as they entered into a much messier dining area, the tables here crudely repaired many times over and badly-bolted together, the walls ugly stone, a few twitching earth pony thralls throughout the room… but for the most part, they were instead faced with snarling Nibelung dressed in both armor and the strange, ripped garments that likely passed for their casual clothes, their eyes glowing pits of red fury before one in heavier armor leapt up on top of a table, yanking a hatchet out of his belt and pumping it in the air as he screamed: “Kill the intruders!”

The dozen or so Nibelung swarmed to their feet as the thralls began to shake off the last of their trauma, and Scrivy and Luna both winced before the winged unicorn set herself as a wolf-pig charged towards her with a long spear, quickly bringing up her horn and parrying the weapon to knock it to the side and make the dwarf stagger before she stepped forwards and thrusted her horn through his chest, then shoved him savagely back with her hooves as she shouted: “Suggestions, Scrivener Blooms?”

“You’re the warrior here!” Scrivy retorted in a strangled voice, then he winced as a Nibelung charged towards him, concentrating and drawing on Luna’s memories before he lunged forwards as the wolf-pig drew back its sword, slamming a hoof into the end of its nose and making it squeal as it grabbed the sensitive end of its muzzle with both hands, eyes watering before Scrivener’s other hoof slammed into the underside of its jaw, knocking it flat. “Door, door to nine o’clock!”

Luna grimaced and flicked her horn to pick up the fallen sword with telekinesis, flinging it wildly towards the surging crowd, and the Nibelung scattered before several of the dwarf-pigs threw their weapons in return at the ponies as they shot towards the opening. Hatchets and knives slammed into the wall past them and bounced off the ground near their hooves before a Nibelung managed to dive into the way… and Scrivener Blooms winced before simply ducking when Luna flicked her horn downwards, sending a blast of lightning shooting into the dwarf and sending it crashing backwards with a squeal, and the two made it to the archway, followed closely by their skeletal pseudodragon, and charged up the steps beyond towards another doorway.

Without looking, Luna flicked her horn upwards with a curse, and cracks began to tear through the ceiling as the walls around them rumbled and Nibelung began to mount the stairs. The winged unicorn and the earth pony barely managed to reach the door at the top before the cracks in the ceiling turned into jagged, collapsing fractures, the two leaping through and into the room beyond, followed by squeaking Sammy, as heavy chunks of rock and stone and objects from above tore down into the tunnel, Nibelung howling in misery as they were buried and knocked back down the stairs by the avalanche of debris that blockaded the entrance.

The two ponies breathed hard… and then Luna screamed in pain as an anti-magic sphere exploded next to her, shocks ripping along her horn and stunning her as Scrivener looked to the side in horror before a knife plunged through his armor and into his back, making him gasp in shock and pain as he looked to the side in horror to see Ross standing over him… but the unicorn was back in his red robes, his tattooed features calm and cold, his eyes emotionless as Scrivy snarled… before his vision went hazy, gagging weakly and flopping forwards as Sammy whimpered and grabbed at the pony’s head.

He groaned, unable to see, objects swimming in front of his eyes in a swirl of disjointed color as a voice that seemed to echo said distastefully: “Incredible. Simply incredible… an army of thralls, Velites, and Nibelung, and still, Nightmare Moon… you live up to your reputation. And yet… while I should be delighted, I am only frustrated. Frustrated that for all this… you continue to defy us.”

Ekleíp…” Luna whispered raggedly, looking up as her own vision swam, feeling the effects of the poisons running their course through her husband’s body as well as the pain from the anti-magic pulse still playing hell on her senses. Yet still, she gritted her teeth and shook her head, forcing herself to focus if only for a moment as she slowly looked up and across this cold, miserable room.

The carved hillside was to their back, rocky and forming a wall of jaggedly-chiseled stone, but the only thing that stood between them and the snowy, barren air outside to the front was a row of thick pillars… and the three ponies in red robes. Ross was on one side, dagger still held tightly in a hoof, dripping both blood and poison… and another cultist thrall was on the other, Scarlet Sage held tightly beneath one hoof, the filly trembling and shivering as the unicorn stared with the same emotionless blankness that Ross did.

And in the center, was no thrall, but a Blood Seer. He was a unicorn, with a ragged gray mane and patchy golden coat. His eyes were red, and blue veins pulsed visibly through his worn, ancient features, a pendant that symbolized the lunar eclipse hanging in platinum around his neck. His robes left his limbs bare, and these were all covered in swirling tattoos of runes… runes that glowed here and there, likely amplifying his connection to his thralls. “Nightmare Moon, I wish… I wish I could say this was an honor. You have no idea how much I wish I could honestly say that… but I cannot. Ekleíp has noble aims: why won’t you accept that? Why won’t you accept us? Ignominious, I understand your revilement of… he went against everypony’s wishes. And he couldn’t even be trusted with more than a little bit of information… any time we told him something, he would use it to his advantage, even when warned not to. He betrayed Ekleíp, and he betrayed Ekleíp’s masters. He deserved to be torn apart by the Hounds of Doom and all the souls that he offended over his life… but you, you…”

The Blood Seer shook his head slowly, muttering: “Perhaps it is our fault. We have relied for too long on outside sources… Sol Seraph turned out to be a disappointment, did not retrieve or kill this foal and challenged you openly, but maybe that, at least, was for the best. We have spent a long time trying to get this girl either killed or into our care, and it was a delight to discover you had begun training her yourself, Nightmare Moon-”

“Aye, I have, so thou will now return her to me and perhaps I shall go about my business, instead of ripping thou and all thy friends into pieces.” Luna said coldly, trying to stand… and then cursing as her legs betrayed her, falling forwards again with a grimace of pain.

The Blood Seer, however, only laughed, shaking his head and saying distastefully: “Like I said… things have changed, sadly, and not for the better. Nightmare Moon… the Ekleíp have been around for countless years, countless generations. We have been watching and waiting patiently, for a sign… not just your return, but what occurred now, above Canterlot, to the awe of countless ponies. A lunar eclipse… the moon, obscuring the sun, the most unnatural, spectacular of events that could occur in this world… and you brought it about, and then you felled Celestia. Oh, we were in awe, we knew that the prophecies were true from that day forwards, every word of their strange and twisting verses. And even now, I do not doubt in you. I do not doubt in your power, I do not doubt in what you can and cannot do, Nightmare Moon… but all the same, I feel fear and contempt for you.

“I do not know if it is petty jealousy, or rightful fear, but I look at you, Nightmare Moon… at this… body, you cloak yourself in, at how you have chosen a mud-walker for your husband and how you have come all this way just to save the life of an untrained foal…” The Blood Seer made a face, and Luna snarled in fury, her eyes glowing with rage as electricity sparked through her starry mane. “I wonder what you would do, if you knew the truth. If you had all the power that Ekleíp wants to give you… would you really build a free and peaceful world? Or would you selfishly build a world in your image, catering to your rumored… perverse enjoyments, among other things? A world where rule was determined by who you liked most instead of order, and justice, and most of all, power… no, I will not bow my head to a slave-hoof, Nightmare Moon. I would rather try and kill you and kill your husband than bow my head to a slave hoof.”

“Scum!” Luna shouted, and then she shoved herself to her hooves, the Blood Seer stumbling backwards in surprise before Luna flicked her horn outwards, releasing a powerful blast of lightning… but immediately, both thralls leapt in front of this, Ross and the cultist sent flying from the blast, one landing and skidding in a broken heap to the snowy edge of the open-faced room, the other flying into a pillar to crash against it before Ross gasped and fell forwards on the ground, knocked unconscious.

Then Luna’s legs wobbled before she fell forwards as the Blood Seer cursed and ducked down, quickly picking up the knife even as Scarlet Sage scampered away and Sammy ran over to her, hissing as the unicorn glared at them balefully… but instead, he only licked the blood off the blade and tossed it away, his eyes beginning to glow eerily even as Luna snarled and tried to force herself to her feet… before Scrivener screamed in agony as the Blood Seer shoved a hoof towards him, and Luna gargled as she felt her own blood beginning to boil in her veins, clogging up in her muscles and becoming too thin beneath her skin, leaking from her nose and mouth as Scrivener convulsed violently and the Blood Seer hissed: “I am no novice, and no thrall. I am a unicorn mage and a Blood Seer of Cimmerian lineage, fully aware of the powers in my blood and immune to the poisons that suck the strength from you even now. And now I have your husband’s blood, and through him, a connection that now lets me control your blood, your body, twist your very soul… you will bow your head to me, Nightmare Moon, or I will kill you and your slave-hoof bedroom toy!”

Luna arched her back, screaming in pain as her mane fizzled violently, but all the same, began to force herself to her hooves as Scrivener Blooms gritted his teeth and curled up, even as he continued to shiver and convulse violently, biting back his screams as his eyes rolled in his head… and then the Blood Seer cursed in surprise as Sammy leapt up onto his face, the pseudodragon hissing and clawing wildly at his features and distracting him as the unicorn staggered backwards in surprise before he managed to tear the skeleton off and throw him across the room… then he yelped in pain as Scarlet Sage bit firmly into one of his forelegs, kicking at her angrily and knocking her rolling backwards as he shouted: “Ingrate!”

Scarlet Sage breathed hard, and the Blood Seer snarled, stepping towards her before he looked sharply up as both Luna and Scrivener Blooms began to crawl to their hooves, his eyes glowing as he focused on them… and they both hissed in agony, forced to drop back on their stomachs as he said ruthlessly: “Well, foal, how would you like to watch me torture and maim these two? They seem to care about you… but compassion is the first thing we stomp out in our order. If we want to achieve harmony… we must be willing to show we will sacrifice everything for the greater good of our world.”

“You let them go. Now.” Scarlet Sage said quietly, as her eyes took on their own crimson glow… and the Blood Seer looked at her with disbelief, then threw his head back and laughed incredulously, sneering at her as she snarled at him. “Last warning.”

“Oh please, you’re less than a novice! What have you been taught, but to catch indistinct glimpses of the future, and see another’s thoughts? What are you going to do with my blood, threaten me with the knowledge that an hour from now, I’ll be dining with reeking Nibelung?” The Blood Seer retorted in disgust… and then he frowned and slowly reached up with his extended hoof, losing his concentration as he wiped slowly at a trail of blood dripping from one eye, blinking stupidly down at the sight of this on his hoof.

“Yes, all I could do was read your mind… but that’s okay. It taught me everything else I needed to know.” Scarlet Sage snarled, and when the Blood Seer stared at her with horror, the Pegasus filly cocked her head, her eyes glowing crimson, a twisted grin spilling over her features. “Time’s up.”

The Blood Seer opened his mouth… and then his head whiplashed backwards as it seemed to simply explode in a crimson blast, staggering stupidly before his body flopped weakly to the floor, Scarlet Sage breathing hard as blood spilled from her own eyes and nostrils before she trembled, then collapsed with a whimper of pain. Luna and Scrivener could only stare in shock, in horror, at what had just happened… and then Luna clenched her eyes shut, shivering violently, before Nightmare Moon whispered softly into their minds: No, my children. Do not dwell on it, there is time for that later. She saved your lives… and we have done worse, have we not, Luna?

Luna nodded mutely… and then the winged unicorn cursed weakly and shoved herself towards Scrivy, rasping: “I need thee to aid me… put thy… damnable focus to good use, Scrivener Blooms…”

“I’ll… try.” Scrivy mumbled, even as his head swam, but no longer just from the poison, as he closed his eyes… and shivered as the memory of what had just happened replayed in his mind. Luna grimaced as she caught it too, but then, slowly, it smoothed out as the male pictured the moon, tried to focus in on it, and as the image forced itself slowly to the top of his mind, Luna took a rasping breath and then closed her eyes, finding her own mind clearing, letting herself concentrate enough to focus what reserves of energy she had into her magic.

Her horn glowed faintly as she pressed it against Scrivener’s neck… and the male hissed in discomfort as his blood seemed to boil for a moment before his head slowly began to clear, the dizziness and pain fading from his system as he coughed before forcing himself unsteadily to his hooves. Once he was actually standing, however, it was easier… and he looked tiredly down to see Luna shaking her head briskly before she did the same, even as her starry locks flickered quietly around her and she muttered: “And now, thou sees why I detested Blood Seers so.”

“Horses of Heaven, let’s just get out of here before we have to deal with Nibelung on top of everything else.” Scrivy grimaced a bit as he strode quickly towards Scarlet Sage, giving Sammy a faint smile as the skeletal pseudodragon scampered over the floor towards him, looking as stunned as they had been… and then he winced as he shook the filly gently, cursing under his breath as she only lay still.

Luna, however, only shook her head quickly, reaching down and gently picking her up to set her carefully on Scrivener’s back, muttering: “’Tis no surprise, she will be extremely weak for some time now…” She halted, then glared at the corpse of the Blood Seer, adding in a disgusted voice: “Serves the fool right…”

She halted at this, then glanced at the thralls before sighing a little as she strode towards Ross, firmly grasping the unicorn by a shoulder and shaking him roughly… and thankfully, Ross’s eyes fluttered before he jumped to his hooves, looking back and forth… then screaming at the sight of the Blood Seer’s body, trying to hide between two of the pillars that went around the edge of the room as he babbled: “N-No, that’s not good, oh no oh no oh no no n-”

Luna slapped him firmly, and Ross blinked stupidly a few times, falling on his haunches as he touched his cheek with a dumb look at her, the winged unicorn leaning down and saying calmly: “Ross. I have not the time to attempt to be kind. I am sore, badly-beaten, and tired, so I shall say this but once, and I expect thou to listen, or I shall leave thee here with the other captured thralls. That was a very bad unicorn, and thou shall not speak of it in front of Scarlet Sage, understood? Now, we must escape this place with all haste and return to our friends, because there are other very bad things here… and unless thou wishes to be their snack or worse, for them to make thou cold again-”

“They made me cold, they made Ross very cold, colder than the snow…” the unicorn muttered, reaching up and touching his other cheek this time, where the tattoos had been… but they had vanished now, likely gone with the unicorn seer’s head. “Okay, let’s go, get out of here fast, away from the bad.”

And with that, Ross turned around, looking quickly back and forth before he simply hopped out of the room, and Luna leaned out of the open wall with surprise that grew even greater when she saw Ross land safely in a snowdrift some twenty feet below, Ross looking up and calling: “I got out.”

“Oh for… Scrivener Blooms, go next, I shall take Scarlet Sage down.” Luna muttered, and Scrivy nodded as the winged unicorn gently lifted the Pegasus safely from his back, before the earth pony turned and grimaced as he hopped out, followed a moment later by his pet pseudodragon… and they both landed in a puff of white snow next to Ross, the earth pony blinking in surprise as he sat up and the unicorn only gave him a dumb smile.

Luna followed last, carrying Scarlet Sage carefully down in a glide and setting her gently once more on the male’s back, before the small group headed quickly down the steep-sloped hillside and across the ugly tundra towards the forest that surrounded this half-natural, half-carved strange temple, the winged unicorn muttering in disgust as she turned them north and said moodily: “Come, we shall walk for a time, then… and if necessary, I shall fly above to get our bearings. With luck, we shall either reach the caravan or North Neigh within a few hours… we will all need… rest.”

She quieted, looking silently towards Scrivy as the male gave her a faint smile in return, the Pegasus filly shivering a little on his back as Luna shook her head slowly… and then she looked to the side in surprise as Ross halted and yanked his cloak off, the unicorn smiling awkwardly as he quietly: “I’m okay. She looks hurt.”

“Aye Ross. Aye, she is, hurt to the soul… thou has my gratitude.” Luna said quietly, taking the red robes with a faint smile and turning to carefully wrap Scarlet Sage in it before she settled the bundled-up Pegasus filly gently back down across Scrivy’s back. She hesitated a moment, resting her hoof silently on top of filly… but then she smiled a little as her horn glowed, stroking silently over the red robes and turning them a softer shade of blue as she leaned forwards and kissed the filly’s forehead, whispering: “Thou does not need to be reminded of that color right now, Scarlet Sage. Think for now… of softer things, and dream of what fillies should dream… not nightmares, of the illness of power.”

Then she drew back as Scrivy gazed over his shoulder softly, smiling faintly before their eyes met as Ross studied them quietly… and then the unicorn gave a small smile of his own, saying kindly: “You guys are real nice parents to your daughter. She’s your daughter, that’s right, right?”

“Yes. Yes, she is.” Luna said softly, not hesitating, only gazing up with a quiet smile towards Ross… and Scrivener smiled wider as well as Sammy hopped up on Luna’s back and chirped, burying himself into her starry mane and making her laugh. “And yes, Samael, thou art our loyal pet. Where would we be without thee at our side?”

The group made its way carefully onwards through the pine forest, not talking much, Ross occasionally spouting some seemingly-random fact or mumbling about directions… and then Luna realized that somehow, Ross was actually helping plot the way. He seemed to instinctively know which way to go, and when she asked him curiously for directions, he had smiled and replied seriously: “It was twenty-two degrees north of about where we are now on the map. The map wasn’t entirely right, oh no, but it was right enough, right enough, that’s what it was.”

For a moment, the two had looked at him… and then Scrivener had asked mildly: “Ross, what does Cowlick look like?”

“South-Equestrian descent, saddle-tan coat, blonde mane with yellow color highlights roughly four to six inches long sky blue eyes and eight facial piercings varying in polish from silver to gray-silver but those aren’t her only piercings, she also has-” Ross halted as Scrivy held up a hoof and Luna gaped, and the unicorn blushed. “Did I say a bad?”

“No, not at all.” Scrivener smiled despite himself, and then he glanced towards Luna as she gaped stupidly at him, saying quietly: “He has a photographic memory, I’m guessing… that, combined with his mathematical ability, means he’s kind of… a genius, just like Cowlick said.”

“I like Cowlick. She’s always real nice to me. She treats me real different from anypony else… makes me feel real different from anypony else.” Ross said with a small smile, glancing down and nodding slowly, and the two ponies nodded with soft looks to the unicorn before he asked curiously: “Are we going to see her?”

“Yes, Ross, we’re going to meet her in North Neigh… it would help us a little if you could give us directions, though. Luna’s never been here before and I haven’t been to the town for… quite a few years now.” Scrivy said softly, and Ross smiled at them as he nodded firmly before he turned, his horn glowing slightly as the two looked at him curiously.

“Okay, I like to help! Twenty-two degrees… watch out for the nasty rocks.” Ross said brightly, and the two traded a look at this before both ponies only shrugged and followed the unicorn carefully as he walked along, humming to himself under his breath and barely seeming aware of the biting cold, even as Luna shivered a little now and then.

The ‘nasty rocks’ soon made themselves apparent when Ross halted at what looked only like a snow-covered slope, shaking his head violently before he had slapped almost wildly at the snow in front of him as the two had stared… but then the powder and crust had tumbled away to reveal a dangerous perfectly-smooth slide of iced-over stone that was much steeper than it had looked beneath the veil of powder. Ross had led them carefully around these slides… many of which led to cracks in the earth, thin ice, or ugly collections of broken tree and blade-like shale only half-covered by snow.

Some of the slides were natural, others had obviously been sculpted in: and Scrivener grimaced as he glanced up once and saw a Phooka lingering on a fallen tree at the top of the hill above them. It only watched them moodily, however, seeming to understand t was safe at a distance and not daring to risk itself against several ponies, and Luna had glanced up as well, then simply grimaced and looked back down, as Ross only continued cheerfully along.

They passed another trap that a deer had been snared in, laying dead amidst the rocks, mostly-eaten and the remains long frozen, and they had to calm Ross down at the sight of this and help him move carefully past… but it was the worst incident of their trek through the dangerous region that was more than obviously used by Phooka and their kin for hunting prey. And then both Luna and Scrivener were surprised and amazed when Ross easily led them through the last of the trees and they stepped out onto the dusty, half-plowed road that was surrounded on either side by thick forest, Ross saying brightly: “Turn right, head north!”

It had been perhaps an hour, and the unicorn had successfully led them on the shortest route back to the northern highway… and Luna laughed to herself before she turned and reached up to grasp Ross’s shoulder lightly, saying quietly: “I am glad thou art here with us, Ross. Thou hast proven to be a rescuer and saved us from what I know would have been a far rougher journey fraught with far-greater risk without thy aid. But then come… these tracks have not yet been smoothed away by the wind, and look fresh to mine eyes in the snow. Perhaps we shall catch up to the caravan before they reach North Neigh.”

Ross nodded a few times as they turned, beginning to trudge along the path… and although tired, Scrivy could feel a renewed sense of energy, of hope, all the same. They had rescued Scarlet Sage… and once they were able to make it to the town, even to the caravan, they would be far safer than they were alone, even if Nibelung raiders were tracking them through the snow. Yet Luna doubted they had pursuers: the Blood Seer had obviously been the head of the ugly little base Ekleíp had put together and Scarlet Sage had certainly taken care of that problem.

Luna gazed softly at the little filly on Scrivy’s back, and it was not with fear, or revilement, or even anger… only worry, only tender affection. She was just a little girl, after all, a Pegasus filly who had been doing her best to protect her… her mother and father, after losing her real parents to death and fire. And she had been raised not just in Ponyville, but also by the pony that Equestria had called ‘Nightmare Moon…’ and Luna smiled faintly at this as Scrivener gave her a quiet look, nodding slowly all the same in silent agreement. No matter what came of this… no matter what had happened when Scarlet Sage’s powers had manifested with such violence, in such rage… they would remember that she was still their little girl. And that in these dark and savage times especially, none of them were without their own sins.

After two hours of pushing forwards – and keeping Ross entertained by giving him math problems to do that Scrivener Blooms had utterly no clue how the unicorn solved, such as the estimated distance of the wagon and even their current hoof-speed – they caught sight of the back of the caravan in the distance, rumbling slowly up a shallow but long incline through the powdery snow as grey clouds listlessly rumbled through the sky overhead… and Scrivy had smiled a bit, clicking his tongue to Sammy, and the pseudodragon chirped cheerfully before leaping down into the snow and racing ahead, powder bursting up through his body but light enough that he was able to scramble easily over the crust and the packed snow in the shallow trenches left from the wheels of the wagons.

The ponies hurried onwards… and Twilight Sparkle came running back to meet them with Cowlick, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy. Twilight almost plowed into Luna and Scrivy, hugging them fiercely and dropping her head against the female’s neck as she closed her eyes in relief, and Cowlick laughed warmly at the sight of Ross, grabbing him and grinning as she planted a firm kiss on his mouth that made him blush and blink a few times with a silly smile. “God, finally, a little bit of good news!”

Fluttershy inspected Scarlet Sage with relief, and Scrivy and Rainbow Dash lightly bumped their hooves together as Applejack explained quietly, as Twilight still half-rested against Luna: “Rarity and Spike are with Pinkamena. She ain’t doing too well… but we all talked about this, and we’re gonna do everything we can for her. God, losing Pinkie Pie… it hurts to the deep, cuts right down to the bone. But you know what else hurts? Thinking that Pinkamena never really cared about her, and now seeing her more shook up and hurt over this than any of us are. And she’s all… we got left of Pinkie Pie now. Don’t matter anymore who she is, even what she is… we all agree we gotta take care of her and help her out of this, even if we all want to mourn over what happened, too.”

“I can’t believe it… and I know you kept warning us about this, but…” Rainbow Dash grimaced and shuddered as Twilight finally stepped away from Luna, nodding silently and glancing down shamefully. “I kept telling myself I was prepared for the worst but… I don’t think any of us are. We’re all just… glad to have you back here, Luna. Glad you could at least save Scarlet Sage. But… hell…”

He shivered a little as Applejack silently wrapped a foreleg around him, and Luna nodded slowly, saying quietly: “There will be time tonight to speak more of this, but for now, we must head to the caravan. Scarlet Sage requires rest, and North Neigh is but a few kilometers ahead. We still have a job to do… a difficult and painful one, aye, but it is our job all the same, and we must not shirk our responsibility. I know for a fact that if we slow for even a moment, forget why we have come this far, for what reasons our friends… our loved ones… have suffered… we will suffer worse in self-pity than in pushing forwards. The greatest way we can honor their memories is to do what we came here to do. To ensure that monsters like Ignominious can never again rise from Helheim, to destroy the darkness and drive the Nibelung back down into Niflheim.”

The others nodded slowly, and the ponies turned quietly, Fluttershy smiling faintly as Luna gently picked up bundled-up Scarlet Sage and passed her to the Pegasus before the group began to walk forwards, trudging towards where the caravan awaited. Twilight Sparkle walked with head lowered, her eyes downcast, before she murmured softly to Luna: “I’m sorry.”

“Thou has nothing to be sorry for, Twilight Sparkle… I am sorry, if anything. I know thou art not used to seeing… the rougher side of me, and I apologize, too, for raising my voice to thee in anger that should have been directed towards others.” Luna replied quietly, glancing towards her with a faint smile, and Twilight glanced up a little, her violet irises glimmering quietly. “The days ahead will be difficult. I will need thee to listen to me… and I know, too, that I shall need to listen to thee as well. Thou art intelligent and strong… and…”

She halted, then glanced worriedly over her shoulder at Scrivy: the male was silent and expressionless, his eyes distant as they began to make their way up the incline, and Luna looked at him for a few long moments before she shook her head and returned her eyes to Twilight, who frowned quietly. “’Tis… nothing. Only memories… Scrivy will return to us momentarily, but let us not rush him. Twilight Sparkle… I am sorry for many things. I am. If I can help thee in any way, only ask and I shall… if I can give to thee anything, only ask, and I gladly shall.”

Twilight smiled faintly at this, and then she stepped a little closer to Luna, lowering her head and murmuring: “Thank you, Luna, honestly. You and Scrivy both have helped me a lot already, though, and… I know this isn’t just about me, or even about you. This is about… Equestria, and more than that, about saving the ponies and peoples of this world from… this overwhelming, awful shadow that’s spreading across it.”

Luna nodded slowly, sighing quietly as she lowered her head forwards and murmured: “Aye, sadly… no matter how big or small our role, ‘tis true. It is not merely about us… even if at the same time, much of it seems to be about myself and Nightmare Moon. And I will not lie, Twilight Sparkle… my goal is not noble, to save the world. My goal is to save myself, and the ponies I care for… my goal is to save Scrivener Blooms, and thee, and Scarlet Sage, and my friends. Believe me, glad as I am to have rescued Ross… that was a happy accident more than it was intentional, I will admit that.”

“I think you’re just trying to convince yourself you’re evil still, Luna, when you’re not. That you’re the darkness but… I see so much more in you.” Twilight said quietly, looking ahead and smiling faintly, and Luna looked at her curiously as they approached the back of the supply caravan, but the winged unicorn fell silent as they rejoined the wagons, greeted quietly by the warriors with muted salutes and faint, sad smiles.

The ponies fell back into their places: Fluttershy took Scarlet Sage quietly to the Pegasus Guard wagon, which was scratched and dented but in better shape than the others: they had all taken damage from the battle that had erupted that morning, all of them scuffed, one of them moving on a rickety, cracked wooden wheel that had been hastily patched back together. Rainbow Dash and Applejack trudged with Aleksandr and several other minotaurs that murmured war songs under their breath, exhaling clouds of white into the frozen air as they looked nervously back and forth at the trees and large, ugly jutting chunks of rock on either side of the dirty, frosted road, and Luna, Scrivener Blooms, and Twilight found themselves at the head of the group, leading the caravan forwards as they finally crested the long slope to reach a flat plateau… and in the distance, gazed upon their objective.

North Neigh: a rickety, ugly town surrounded by rickety, ugly fencing, large, gray buildings with snow-patched black rooftops looming over plowed and salted streets. A few large, ancient and dead trees stood in the snow fields around the small city, which rested in the barren shadows of enormous, looming mountains in the distance that stretched towards the sky above like leviathan teeth, snow-covered pyramids of rock that were a maze of passes, cliffs, and gorges… and inside the catacombs of which Luna knew lurked monsters that were far more terrible than in any dark myth.

She shivered as her eyes drew along the mountains and then returned to the city ahead: despite the weak fencing that was strung with sharp wire and tipped with ugly stakes, there were no gates at the road, and only a single creaky, obviously-unused guard tower that stood lonely sentinel. The defenses were minimal, looking as though they had been built by miserable hooves that had already given themselves over to death and doom. Yet the signs of life were there all the same… the plowed and trodden streets, the banks of snow, the lamps that burned quietly along the road… and of course, the gathering ponies that looked out at them with distrust and even disgust.

Scrivener Blooms rose his head, gritting his teeth as he stepped forwards, breathing hard enough to almost fog up his glasses. Sleipnir’s helm rested over his head, and his battered armor covered his body, but he faced forwards, not trying to hide his identity as he took the lead… and Luna was all too glad to allow him, stepping up to one side of her husband and nodding firmly as she felt his emotions, felt how hard this was for him… and admired how all the same, he was determined to do this. To stride boldly into the town that had chased him through life and almost ruined him from birth, to even try and save those who saw him as nothing but a slave… and yet it was not all kindness. There was a tinge of bitter humor in it… a twist of sadomasochistic irony that flavored his every thought and action.

Twilight Sparkle strode up to Scrivener’s other side, looking at him encouragingly… and the male looked back at her for a moment, then smiled awkwardly and nodded to the winged unicorn before she surprised him by stepping forwards and kissing his cheek, whispering softly into his ear: “You can do this. We’re here to help every step of the way, all of us.”

Scrivy smiled a little at her, nodding slowly before he faced forwards again, grimacing a little as the caravan approached the entrance even as several unicorns marched into the road and down towards them, halting and glaring at them like they were hated interlopers instead of the knights and champions of Canterlot and Equestria sent to rescue them… and Scrivener Blooms grimaced, the feeling almost like a physical shock as he stepped between the fencing, as he stepped into the city for the first time since he had been a foal, crossing that invisible border from Equestria into North Neigh as the three unicorns in the road looked at him with scorn, with hatred, with contempt, and yes, with a little fear, as Twilight and Luna stepped up on either side of him, both feeling the vibrations in the air, Twilight grim and Luna snarling a challenge.

The silence spiraled out as the caravan halted, no one speaking… and then Scrivener Blooms stepped forwards as he looked over the unicorns in front of him: two he didn’t recognize, but the furious unicorn to his left he knew all too well. “On behalf of Queen Celestia, the Starlit Knights, led by Champion Luna, have arrived to investigate the destruction of Silver Hoof and ensure that North Neigh is safe and protected. We will require safe lodgings and supplies and the cooperation of the city.” He stopped, then looked squarely at the unicorn to the left, adding in a quieter voice: “After all, family comes first… right, Dad?”