Cleaning up the cart hadn't taken all that long, not with two ponies working at it. Ditzy, however, had needed to stay with the cart until her supervisor could travel down, assess the damage and determine what disciplinary actions needed to be taken. So, Bonbon found herself traveling the rest of the way alone.
Still, talking with the lich had greatly improved her mood; Ditzy always seemed to know how to make her friends just that little bit happier when they needed it most. The rest of her trip passed much quicker than she had expected, and she even managed a smile when she finally caught a glimpse of her town.
Ponyville wasn't big -- the average pony could cover it in a brisk trot without too much effort -- but the residents made it feel far larger than it actually was.
She paused as a colt galloped past her, followed by an identical colt a moment later... then a small herd of colts, each one identical to the first and giggling wildly. Finally, a mare galloped past her in hot pursuit, shouting at the crowd of clones.
“Don't think I can't tell you apart from your friends, Morning Star!” she bellowed as she passed one; green flames burst from the disregarded duplicate, and a tiny changeling buzzed away. Seeing this, several more split from the colt group, reverting to their natural forms, but most stayed disguised as they each picked a direction and bolted, the mare following one in particular. “When I catch you, you are grounded for a month!”
Bonbon shook her head, watching the mother gallop down the street. She knew the tricks to see through a changeling's glamour, even when she only saw the disguise for a moment. So, she was well aware that the mare was chasing the wrong image of her son. But there wasn't much she could do about it now.
She stopped, then turned around as everything's colors inverted. It only lasted a moment, before a skilepony* darted out of the shadows with a giggle and the colors went right. She considered chasing after the half-kitsune, but the troublemaker looked less than ten years old, and color shifting was hardly a punishable offense. Besides, she'd just lost sight of his fox tail, so he was in the wind by now.
Just another day in Ponyville.
Bonbon paused suddenly, something feeling even more off than usual. Living in Ponyville was an exercise in preparedness, instinct, and luck, and it had an effect on ponies. She took several wary steps back and away from nearby structures, crouched down slightly to brace herself, and tensed her body up for whatever was coming. She wouldn't have to wait long.
A building not far from her exploded, blasting a gaping hole in its upper level. Several ponies screamed in shock, but most were already running from the falling debris or knocking the few too stunned to react out of harm's way. Bonbon herself took several bounds around to dodge masonry flying toward her, but her eyes never left the smoldering hole.
Three tiny blurs shot out of the new exit: white, yellow and orange. Bonbon quickly moved to the side, letting them zoom by her with a sigh. She counted down from six, reaching zero as an earth pony mare with a light brown coat, a gray mane and tail galloped up, shouting out several curse words in Abyssal.
She turned from shouting at the retreating forms, now directing her attention to Bonbon as she continued to speak the dark tongue, gesturing wildly between the paladin, the damaged house, and the three figures that had almost vanished from sight.
Bonbon, for her part, blinked.
“Madame Mayor,” she said, “I can't speak the devil language.” This was met with a blank stare from Ponyville's mayor, as though Bonbon's words were as foreign to her as hers were to the paladin.
Before she could pursue the matter further, another earth pony mare galloped up. Her white coat was matted with sweat and she had to pause to brush her black mane out of her glasses.
“Sorry, sorry about that. Got – got separated from her after the explosion. I can handle the translation.” She turned to the mayor, then started speaking Abyssal as well, though with a very clear accent, even to Bonbon's untrained ears. Still, the mayor responded easily enough, speaking the tongue fluently as she gestured around. “She wants to know if you saw the ones that did this,” her assistant translated, “and could identify them.”
Bonbon raised an eyebrow, but let it be for the moment. She'd had a feeling it would be something like that anyway. “Who do you think it was? Probably trying to get cutie marks in something or other again.”
The other mare groaned, her hoof slapping against her face, but she translated for the mayor anyway. A fresh stream of curses was spewed and ignored, and the mayor, still muttering to herself, wandered off. The other mare held back for a moment to speak with Bonbon. “Sorry about this, I’m guessing you’ve never met her while she was stressed.” And she took off after the mayor.
Bonbon quirked an eyebrow once again but took that as her cue to leave. She was, technically, a civil servant as part of her job, but the mayor was in no state to do anything more than shout incoherently until she calmed down. Plus, given the age of the perpetrators involved, all this would entail was informing their guardians and having them help fix the hole. Hardly something they needed a paladin for.
Besides, she wanted to see Lyra again.
“Speak of a devil, and she will appear.”
Bonbon grunted as she felt the weight of another pony drape itself across her back. She smirked as she glanced back, her blue eyes meeting her marefriend's golden ones. “I never said your name, hon.”
“No, but you had that wistful look you get whenever you think of me.”
Bonbon chuckled, rolling her eyes as she resumed walking. The added load was a challenge, but it wasn't anything she couldn't handle. Earth pony strength had its benefits. “You seem to be feeling better.”
Lyra sighed, watching the ground go by as she lay draped over Bonbon's back. “Yeah, took most of the day to recover from the hangover, and a bit longer to get over the guilt... I'm sorry, by the way, for getting drunk like that.”
“Don't worry about it; holding a grudge over that isn't going to help either of us. One back-slide isn't going to be the end of you.” Righteous's voice echoed in her mind, berating her for giving a known dark magic user an inch, saying she'd take a mile. Bonbon pushed the words back down, never in the mood for the other paladin's zealotry. The Lyra she knew wasn't Shoeshine... she wasn't.
“Equestria to Bonbon. Anyone in there?” The necromancer in question tapped the top of Bonbon's head.
“Sorry about that," Bonbon apologized, pausing to wave Lyra's hoof away from her head. "last job was worse than usual.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Bonbon bit her lip, thinking for a moment. There was something to be said for voicing her problems, especially when they could relate to the other pony... but something in her just wouldn't let it come out. “Not yet, hon. I.. I need some time to make peace with something I did first.”
The moment that followed was tense for her, but Lyra just made a grunt of acceptance.
“Okay, I know how you paladins can be about these things. Take your time, I'll even take care of dinner tonight so you can think.”
Bonbon smiled, doing her best to hide the guilt stabbing in her heart as she continued on. “Thanks, sweetie. I knew I fell in love with you for a reason.”
“Oh stop being sappy, babe. You're supposed to be a big, tough paladin; mushy stuff doesn't suit you.”
She chuckled at the old joke, shaking her head as she managed to slip into the familiar routine. “Oh? Should I start ordering you around like a more traditional warden?”
Lyra's tail twitched about wildly. “Oooh, will you use the collar again?”
She burst out laughing. “Lyra, you are a bucking pervert.”
“A shameless bucking pervert, hon, get it right.”
Lyra joined in on her laugh this time as she finally reached their house. It was nice to act like a normal couple now and again. Away from all the necromancy and holy quests.
She was still chuckling as Lyra's magic touched their warded lock and opened the door for her. A chuckle that quickly died, along with the good mood that had been building, as she spotted a certain mare in a brown cloak standing in their living room.
“You two need a better locking spell,” Roseluck said.
To say that neither of them were happy to see the druid was an understatement.
They were friends, true, but there was a time and a place for friends. Between Bonbon's concerns about Lyra and Lyra's wanting to make up for what had happened, neither of them wanted to be around friends right now.
“I could arrest you for breaking and entering!” Bonbon growled. She hadn't even gotten out of her armor, and – for a mare of average size – she could manage a fairly intimidating presence. “So, think very carefully about the next words out of your mouth.”
“Technically, nothing was broken, and that locking spell was as basic as they come, so you can't have any expectation of privacy with it.”
“Wrong!” Bonbon made to cast her usual binding spell, but only got out “Constr-” before the golden aura of her marefriend's magic clamped her mouth shut.
Lyra, who had remained silent since she'd climbed off Bonbon's back, was staring intently at Roseluck. Her gaze was narrowed and calculating as she scrutinized the other mare. “Rose,” she started, “are you... sober?”
The druid gave them a humorless smirk. “I was wondering when you'd figure that part out.” She turned away from the pair, sighing to herself as Lyra and Bonbon exchanged looks. They had known the druid for several years, ever since an embarrassing incident involving too much wine, a semi-sentient plant and a night both of them were uncertain they wanted to remember, and the few times either recalled her sober were far from good.
Lyra was the first to ask what she felt was the obvious question. “Did somepony die?”
Roseluck snapped her head toward Lyra, glowering fiercely for a moment. “No...” she finally said, “somepony didn't.”
Bonbon could already feel the awkward silence forming, so she cut it off. “Did something happen to the forest?” At Roseluck's nod, she continued. “And it's not a natural thing, not if you're looking for us.”
The druid scoffed. “What you call natural and what I call natural are two wildly different things, Bon... but, yeah, got it in one.”
Lyra and Bonbon both exchanged a glance, each silently trying to apologize to the other for the way things had gone. But, deep down, both of them knew what was going to happen next.
Lyra pulled over a chair with her magic and plopped down in a strange slouch nopony else had ever been able to imitate. “Okay, Rose.” She watched as Bonbon started to get as comfortable as her armor would allow. “Let's hear it.”
“Where do I begin...”
Lyra held a cup of tea in her magic, while Bonbon balanced a cup of coffee between her hooves. Both tried their best to stay silent while Roseluck had explained her experience in the forest.
Lyra finally gave in, unable to hold her tongue any longer. “So... you're saying you were attacked by zombie... trees?”
Roseluck frowned at the necromancer. “A little less skepticism would be appreciated, Lyra.”
“Excuse me, but which of us has been doing this since she was a pre-teen? I've never heard of undead trees, either in myth or any sort of lesson. So I've got a bit of a right to be skeptical.”
“Can we please not argue now? There are more important matters at hoof.” Bonbon set her coffee down, trying to head off a confrontation as soon as possible. Her drink had calmed her down considerably, and she had sported a serious expression throughout Rose's story. She turned to Roseluck. “Given your history, your claims are a bit hard to believe.”
She turned to Lyra before the unicorn could even get her gloating face on, though. “However, Roseluck has never bothered us with trivial matters. So, giving her the benefit of the doubt – as outrageous as her claims may be – might be prudent.”
Lyra frowned. As much as she loved Bonbon, there were just times she hated how the paladin could defuse things like that. Half envy, half annoyance at being made into the wrong party. “Okay, fine. But you owe me for this, big time.”
“Of course, hun, of course.” Bonbon calmly sipped her coffee and turned back to Roseluck. “Could you find the area again if you had to?”
“I could find it blindfolded, the land is still screaming in agony.”
“... I'll take your word for it.” Bonbon turned to Lyra now. “Even if you don't believe her, we need to at least check out a potential threat to the town. And, if necromancy is involved, then we both know you're the best pony for the job.”
Lyra's frown remained, but mostly out of spite at the situation. She wasn't truly mad at Bonbon, or even at Roseluck, she was just frustrated. And she knew her marefriend was right, Roseluck may have been stoned out of her mind most of the time, but she had never lied to them or steered them wrong.
Finally, she sighed and dropped the frown, shifting out of her strange slouch. “I'll get Orpheus.”
She left the two earth ponies alone for the moment, heading upstairs and into the main bedroom. Her horn flared, and the chest at the end of the bed unlocked with an audible click as she approached it. Lifting the lid was like taking a forceful trip into her memories. The trunk was full of everything she had collected over her life. Some were good memories, like the scarf she'd been wearing when she'd first started dating Bonbon, or the pictures of the two of them with Ditzy and her daughters. But most of them were memories of fear, hatred and especially regret.
The item she finally removed, however, had the dubious distinction of being associated with both.
It was a lyre, very similar to her cutie mark in design, and almost as old as she was. It was well taken care of, but its age was showing through regardless. This was Orpheus, the lyre that Lyra had earned her cutie mark with, the one given to her father as a birthday present while she was still a foal. And the one good thing the stallion had ever given her.
Harpsichord, her father, had practiced necromancy most of his life, and started training her once he saw the signs of her sharing his talent. He had also shown her, albeit unintentionally, the effects losing yourself to the magic could have on a pony.
Lyra shuddered at those memories, but closed the lid and kept a telekinetic hold on the instrument. Orpheus was what she needed now, and her father wouldn't take that away from her.
Still fighting the mental images of her past, she opened the door of her wardrobe and selected her preferred cloak. Black, of course, since the color of a cloak had a significant effect on the flow of mana around you. It was why practitioners of magics like hers were always seen wearing black cloaks; she really wished magic wasn't so picky about these things. At least the enchantment to add extra billow had gone on without a hitch – that was one cliché she had no trouble indulging in – and the other simple spells to regulate her temperature and offer basic protection in battle seemed in working order when she checked them.
She slipped the cloak on with a sigh, fastening the clasp with a practiced hoof and snagging her saddlebags from the wardrobe bottom. They would still have to stop to pick up supplies for this whole wild goose chase, but she was as ready as she could be right now.
Lyra started back downstairs with her items, her ears twitching as she heard the two earth ponies discussing something as she neared them again.
“ – too busy for something like that,” Bonbon said. “It's nearly harvest time for her. And you know her brother is retired.”
“Well... you said Ditzy had other responsibilities, and getting into contact with other druids would take some time... what about that other 'Doo' pony?.”
Bonbon scoffed at this. “Daring? You actually trust that glorified thief?”
“I thought she was a scholar of some sort.”
The paladin gave a rather undignified snort. “Oh please, if she ever actually cared about her studies, I'll eat my hammer. She's a grave-robber, nothing more. Not to mention all the rumors of her consorting with demons.”
A sigh followed this. “Well, that was my last suggestion, unless you have any other ideas, it's just the three of us.”
Lyra entered the room in silence, watching as Bonbon and Roseluck debated about who they should ask for help with the matter. Lyra had to give her credit, she didn't do things in half-measure.
“Well...” Bonbon hesitated. “There's always Octavia.”
“WHAT?!” Lyra didn't react to the stares she was getting for her outburst, only gaping at her marefriend. “I did not just hear you say that!”
Bonbon fidgeted in her seat, avoiding her gaze. “Sweetie, she's one of the best at what she does, and – even if I don't approve on principle – having a pony around skilled at killing other ponies is usually useful for these sorts of things.”
“Provided she doesn't try to finish one of her other jobs.”
“Lyra, you know she hasn't killed anyone that hasn't had a list of crimes longer than your leg. Not since she willingly surrendered to us.”
“She didn't surrender, Righteous stopped her! And we both know the only reason Righteous didn't kill the bitch is because I was Octavia's target!” Lyra was turning red with anger, furiously glaring at Bonbon now. “She would have killed me, and Righteous probably wouldn't have done a damned thing to stop her!”
“You know that's not how Righteous works, Honey.” Bonbon had to work to keep her temper, since she didn't want to start yelling at Lyra, but it was getting difficult. And Righteous's words filtering into her mind weren't making things any easier. “And besides that, she's the only option either of us can think of, and more to the point, I am your warden.”
A dead silence followed those words, with even Roseluck gaping at Bonbon. Lyra's eyes were wide with shock, her mouth opening and closing wordlessly.
Bonbon kept her face set through the oppressive silence. She wasn't truly glaring at Lyra, but her expression was stern. Roseluck glanced rapidly between the two of them, fidgeting in her seat. And Lyra only gaped.
The unicorn in question finally found her tongue, and she leveled a seething glare at her lover. “Yes, you are.” With that, she turned from the room.
“Lyra,” Bonbon called out, “where do you think you're going?”
“I'm going to prove to you that we don't need somepony like Octavia around, Warden!” Lyra spat the word out like it was poison. “I'm going to show you that this whole thing is just a stupid hallucination of Rose's, and nothing more!” She yanked the door open with her magic, stomping out.
“Lyra, just-” Bonbon never got to finish, the door slammed shut just as she was getting to her hooves and she was left with her hoof outstretched to nothing. Silence fell on the house again, broken only by the soft 'clop' of Bonbon's hoof falling to the floor. “I just... I didn't mean to...”
Roseluck stood, leaving a patch of dirt where she'd been sitting. “And they call where I live uncivilized.”
Bonbon leveled a glare at the druid, not in the mood for her normal disdain for civilization.
Roseluck, for her part, didn't react to the paladin's displeased glare. She merely trotted toward the door. “Well, assuming you haven't completely written her off, we should go get her before she does anything stupid.”
Bonbon feared her teeth would crack if she clenched them any harder. Dark magic just wasn't something you could afford to take chances with. As much as the Gray Guard claimed otherwise, even they admitted that it took great strength of character to not be lost to the darkness.
With a grunt, the she stood and popped a few joints before starting after the two of them.
Lyra would understand; it was for her own good.
She sometimes didn't understand her lover.
Bonbon was a good pony, Lyra knew that for a fact, but she was so confusing at times!
Bonbon knew her history with Octavia, knew Octavia's history with the assassins' guild. Octavia herself made no secret of the ponies she'd killed before Righteous had arrested her. It utterly baffled Lyra that the former assassin was not only able to walk free, but was actually a warden herself! What was Shining on when he made that decision?
Plus, this whole thing was just plain stupid; they were on the hunt for zombie trees, for Luna's sake!
She could, without being egotistical, say she was a very powerful necromancer. She had never heard of any necromancer that worked with trees of all things. As far as she was concerned, she was just going to debunk Roseluck's stoner dreams, then go back home and have a long talk with Bonbon about crossing the line.
At some point, the other two managed to catch up with her and they switched positions so Roseluck was leading them. However, they hadn't spoken a word to each other the entire time. Rose was too busy listening to her sixth sense, but Lyra just couldn't find it in herself to talk to Bonbon right now, she was just too angry with her.
“We're nearly there.”
Lyra glanced to Roseluck to acknowledge her, but remained silent. She turned her head to Bonbon, opening her mouth to try and at least speak a word or two to her, only to find her suddenly absent.
She blinked a few times, then glanced behind them.
Bonbon stood several pony lengths behind then, her eyes bulging and her skin looking rather pale. As Lyra trotted back, she noticed the earth pony breathing heavily and sweating noticeably.
“Uh... Bonbon? Is something wrong?”
“Th-this place,” Bonbon gasped, “N-need, need to stop.” She stumbled over to the closest tree and lay on the ground, panting and coughing.
Lyra sat down with a clear line of sight to the paladin and called to Roseluck to pause for a moment. Then, she turned back to Bonbon with concern in her voice. “Bonbon, what's actually wrong?”
Bonbon took several deep breaths, pushing herself up to a sitting position and leaning against the tree. Even resting, she still looked pale and about to be sick. “There's something wrong with this place. It’s… it’s just… evil.”
Lyra blinked a few times, tilting her head just a bit. “Uh… is this an earth pony thing? Or a paladin thing?”
“Little of both, I’d guess.” Roseluck had finally returned to the group, herself looking just a bit green. “We’re almost to the edge of the rot I mentioned, and I can already feel something wrong with this soil.” She almost smirked. “Guess you haven’t completely lost who you are under all that metal.”
Bonbon glared at Roseluck, still panting. “Not remotely the time, Rose.”
The druid barely even reacted to the glare, turning her gaze to the trees around them. “These trees are dying, a few of them are already dead and just aren't showing it yet. Whatever... whoever did this... they're not leaving my forest alive.”
“No, you're going to let me take them in and let the Order decide what will be done with them.”
Now it was Roseluck's turn to glare. “Your laws have no place in the wild, paladin. This is my forest, I will handle it my way.”
“You asked for help dealing with the problem, not with your desire to hurt someone.”
The druid started to respond, but Lyra interposed herself between the two. “Look, we can worry about what we're going to do with whoever this is after we've caught them.”
“I thought you didn't believe me.”
Lyra locked eyes with Roseluck. “Still not sure I do.” She turned to look at Bonbon as the paladin stood once more. “But something's doing that to her, and I want to know what. Now, find this place.”
Roseluck's eyes narrowed at the necromancer, but slowly turned away. “We're nearly there, try to keep up.”
Lyra's gaze followed her, then glanced back to Bonbon. The paladin was returning to her hooves, but still looking worse for wear. “Might want to head back. If it's hitting you this bad, and we're not even there yet, it'll probably just get worse as we go.”
“Your concern is appreciated,” Bonbon said with a grunt, “but I'll manage.” She took several steps forward, staggering just once, and continued on.
Lyra frowned, shaking her head at her lover's actions. “Whatever you say... warden.” She watched for a flinch, but none came, and she quietly sighed.
Silence reigned again as they continued on. Bonbon's sickly appearance didn't change, but she walked on without complaint, and Roseluck was too focused on what could be ahead to do much in the way of talking. This left Lyra with plenty of time to think.
Bonbon could sense evil, that was just part of being a paladin. All paladins felt a slight buzz in the back of their mind when around something their beliefs labeled as 'evil', with touch making the sensation stronger. However, she had been told that paladins that fought great and corrupting evils wore some manner of protective talisman or armor, so as not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of evil they fought.
Thanks to her running off like she had, and Bonbon and Rose immediately following her, preparations for their little quest had amounted to: Snag whatever you could afford in the marketplace and hope it was enough. A few healing potions and some liquid mana suddenly seemed severely lacking.
Of course, it was a little late for those type of thoughts.
“We're here.” Roseluck's words jarred Lyra out of her contemplating and she recoiled at what she saw.
The trees around them weren't just dead, they were rotting. Several appeared to be close to falling, and many sported large fractures along their trunks. Even more were discolored to a charcoal gray and creaked ominously in even the slightest breeze.
The ground beneath their hooves might as well have been ash and dust. Every movement sent up a minor cloud in their wake, filling the air and giving every breath the taste of decay.
And, although Bonbon seemed to be handling it the worst, even Lyra couldn't deny that something just felt... wrong with the place.
“So,” Rose said. “Is this still all in my head, or… ?”
The necromancer and the paladin both managed to spare the time to glare at the druid, but neither said a word. Then, Bonbon turned her gaze to Lyra.
“Well, you're the expert in death. Any ideas?”
Lyra frowned slightly, but stepped away from the group and touched one of the dead trees around them. Something was definitely not right here, even discounting the fact they were surrounded by dead and decaying plants.
There was magic, in the trees and in the ground below them. But it wasn't the usual magic that pervaded the world; this magic was just so... black. There was more than just the usual anger and rage that fed dark magic behind this, there was hatred. Raw, biting, ice-cold hatred for living things.
And, in its own way, it was absolutely fascinating.
Having practiced necromancy for so long, she had seen a lot of different variations on her craft, but this one was entirely new to her. It made sense in a way, since trees were technically living beings and all, but she had never heard of anypony actually working with them.
“In a second, Bonbon.” She reached out her own magic, getting a better feel for how this kind of necromancy worked.
The strongest part was in the core of the tree, coming up from the roots like a poison. It seeped up, slowly killing the tree, and then started slowly raising it one part at a time. In theory, they could probably follow the spell into the ground, and then start working their way back to the source and just eliminate it.
“I said 'In a second'.”
She was starting to wonder just what could be capable of something like this. From what little she understood of their magic, it almost seemed like the work of a dr–
She rounded on her marefriend. “What?”
And immediately found several black roots wrapped around Bonbon's legs and midsection.
The paladin glared at her, grunting as she struggled to pull free of the dead and rotting limbs. “Thank you for finally noticing. Now, mind getting me out of this mess?”
Lyra trotted over, inspecting the vine-like bindings closely. “Not to used to working with plants, that's more a druid thing, but I'll see what I can do.”
Roseluck glared at Lyra. “I work with living plants, not undead ones.”
“Yeah, yeah...” Lyra walked around Bonbon a few times, examining the vines from more angles.
“A little more haste would be appreciated, Lyra!” Bonbon grunted, biting at one of the bindings on her hooves, then spitting to get the taste out of her mouth. “I'm not exactly comfortable right now.”
“Relax, Bonbon, they don't seem to be all the strong right now. Your armor's going to hold.” She paused, then chuckled a bit. “You know, this is pretty much what I wanted you to do to me the other night.”
Roseluck groaned as Bonbon blushed furiously.
“Now is not remotely the time for those comments!”
“TMI, you two; just... TMI.”
Lyra chuckled a bit more at their responses, still examining the roots. It wasn't exactly easy to separate something from a spell that wasn't your own, but it could be done. Besides, she was right; Bonbon wasn't in any immediate danger. The roots were just holding her in place, wrapping around her hooves, her mid-section, her barrel, her neck-
Lyra started as she watched the roots suddenly snake themselves around the paladin's neck, strangling her.
“Horseapples! Rose, I need-” She turned to the druid, only to watch her be pinned to the ground by more roots, her hooves splayed far away from each other and bound in place. She still struggled, shouting words that only held meaning to other druids, but her magic wouldn't react without the proper hoof movements.
Bonbon let out a strangled cry, the roots tightening around her neck like a noose. Her struggles, already weaker thanks to her previous state, started to slow and her eyes began to roll back in her head. Her struggles grew weaker and weaker, until finally stopping altogether. The decayed limbs, not satisfied with the cessation of movement, squeezed harder, creaking and cracking in their quest to utterly end the paladin's life.
With a tightly focused burst of magic, Lyra tore open two gashes just about her hooves. Blood gushed out from the cut arteries, but that was exactly what she wanted. Her magic flared as one word echoed in her mind.
The blood flowed around her hooves and the inky darkness of black magic came at her call, mixing and twisting with the blood she provided it. The miasma enveloped her forehooves, growing and solidifying as it went. Images danced in her mind, of dragons and the deadly claws at the ends of their forelimbs, and the magic responded. The blood and the miasma became a set of dark red claws at the end of her legs, each 'finger' as sharp and hard as the finest sword and responding to her will as if it had always been there. And all more than ready to rip and tear whatever she so desired.
She twisted in the roots' grip, swiping at the ones that held her and slicing them apart. Once severed from the magic source, they became loose and brittle, easily breaking. Then she jumped, crossing the distance between her and Bonbon in an instant. Her claws didn't even slow, slicing into the roots around Bonbon's neck with vicious precision. They were severed from the spell source and loosened immediately.
Bonbon inhaled sharply, gasping for air now that she could breathe again. Her body was weakened from the evil infecting the area, but she would survive. Earth ponies were hardy like that.
Lyra's mind was a rage-addled mess, not helped by the inherent corruption of the magic she was using, but something of her old self lingered beneath all that rage. Just enough that thinking about earth ponies kindled a memory in her.
Lyra turned toward the druid, finding her slowly being pulled into the ground by the roots.
Her claws flashed again sundering the roots at her hooves and allowing Rose to pull them free.
A moment later, Roseluck shouted a spellword in her kind's secret language, slamming her hooves back into the ground. The sandy earth burst open, razor sharp rocks shooting up in a circle around her. One seemed to have severed the roots binding her mid-section, as its grip was lost a moment later and she stood again.
“I already nearly died here once, not in the mood to give it a second chance. Time to go.”
“No!” Lyra snarled. The dark magic was coursing through her, fueling the fire of her rage, and her desire for revenge against anything that hurt Bonbon.
Even if that included trees.
Her claws slashed into the root of another tree as it tried to bind her again, then turned her ire on the nearest tree itself. They found purchase, the dead wood splinting at her slice, and violently tore a chunk out of the trunk.
More roots came out, attempting to bind her, but she just hacked away at the tree, heedless of them all. At one point, her claws curled in on themselves, balling up like some sort of deformed hoof, and she lashed out. The claw-hoof hit the mangled tree with all the force of an enraged unicorn behind it; the limb itself felt no pain, but the tree finally toppled over, withering before it even hit the ground. For added satisfaction, she impaled her claws into the stump and forced her own magic into it. Even in her addled state, necromancy was necromancy, and she could manipulate it.
With a final burst of energy, the tree (as well as several more nearby) was severed from the source keeping it animate and each rotted where they stood.
Not that this stopped all the other trees from sending roots their way, of course.
Lyra hacked away with her claws, slicing every limb that neared her, but they just kept coming. A quick glance at Rose showed her faring about as well, having pulled a sickle from under her cloak and holding it using that 'sticky hoof' trick of the earth ponies. It wasn't as effective as her claws, but Lyra was glad for one less pony she had to worry about.
She suddenly jumped away from Roseluck, her bloody claws tearing into more roots as they got close to Bonbon once more. The paladin was moving again, which gave Lyra some comfort that her marefriend was going to be okay.
“Lyra...” Bonbon groaned, her eyes just barely staying open. “Lyra... dark magic... you have... you have to stop... you can't use it.”
“I don't–” she sliced into a particularly thick root and tore a good chunk of it out, finishing it a moment later. “I don't have a lot of options right now, Bonbon! I need all the power I can get!”
“I'm with her on this one!” Roseluck had managed to clear some of the roots away with her sickle and charged up to one of the undead trees. She stopped short, pivoting her body around, and slammed her back hooves into the dead wood. The tree splintered under her earth pony strength and toppled over, decaying as it fell. “I want to live to see another day.”
“Co-corruption!” Bonbon gasped out. “Can't let the corruption get a hold of-”
“If I can't use this power to keep you safe,” Lyra shouted, “then what's the point of having it?”
Bonbon's eyes widened at the words.
'I have all this power, and I'm supposed to just not use it? What's the bucking point of having it then?'
Bonbon watched as Lyra hacked and slashed at the roots around them, her lover's eyes wild and full of anger and rage. Her teeth were gritted in a manic grin, and her movements imprecise and unfocused as she stumbled about on her hind legs.
No, she thought. No. NO! I will not lose her!
With a strained grunt, Bonbon forced herself to stand, and then reached into her saddlebags, still holding items from her last mission.
She retrieved a glass bottle bearing the mark of Celestia, and, not having much time for finesse, pulled the stopper out with her teeth. She threw the contents about randomly, sprinkling the ashy ground with water flecked with gold. Some got on Roseluck and Lyra, but that wouldn't affect what she was about to do.
“Mare Celestia,” she spoke, raising a hoof to her sun amulet. “Unconquered Sol, heed my cry from out of the darkness, and make this once holy land yours again!”
Bonbon reared, then slammed both of her hooves down. The amulet flashed with white light, which traveled down her legs and into the cursed ground. A wave of force washed over her, then spread outwards. Some of the dust and ash was blown away, and Lyra staggered as the wave passed her, but the immediate area remained mostly untouched; the trees, however, were blasted into rotting splinters, most of which didn't even make it to the ground before turning to dust.
When the wave finally settled, the three were standing in the middle of a sizable clearing. There were clearly more trees visible at the edges; but, for the moment, they were safe.
Roseluck was the first to recover, slowly lowering her sickle and returning it to under her cloak. “Nice trick. Don't suppose you could do it with the rest of my forest?”
“Not without at least six more paladins. And a lot more holy water.”
Lyra, currently balanced on her hind legs, panted slightly from all the leaping about she'd done. The fact she was using her own blood to form her claws (even if the spell kept it circulating back into her body) was starting to catch up to her, even more so now that the heat of battle had passed. She did not drop the spell, however.
“Okay,” she panted. “Now might be a good time to call for help.”
“Agreed.” Now that the evil had been purged from the land, even in this small area, Bonbon was feeling significantly better. “And, after we do, you can I are going to have a very long talk, Lyra.”
Lyra flinched, gritting her teeth, but held her tongue and nodded. She could argue later.
“Right, follow me.” Roseluck turned and started to gallop away. She staggered a bit as she reached the edge of Bonbon's consecrated area, but she kept her footing and barely slowed.
Bonbon had her own difficulties, but would manage for the run And Lyra brought up the rear, her speed hampered by the dragon's claws she still sported.
However, the trees were no longer able to trap them thanks to their movements. Undead and animate they may have been, but they did not seem to possess the higher thoughts of most ponies. The three of them honestly dared to believe they would get away.
Then, Roseluck fell.
She landed hard on the ashy ground, rolling to a stop a moment later, and lay without moving.
“Rose!” Bonbon made to gallop over to her, only to gasp and fall to the ground herself. She panted heavily, black spots flashing and swimming before here eyes. She heard the sound of another pony hitting the ground and had to assume Lyra was in the same boat as her. Something was wrong, some sort of spell.
Bonbon panted, inhaling and exhaling as evenly as possible. Magically induced or not, lightheadedness could be managed if you didn't panic.
Slowly, her vision returned to her. Though she could still feel something in her chest, specifically over her heart, she managed to stand and keep her focus. Rose seemed to be stirring as well, so she moved as quickly as she dared back over to Lyra.
The unicorn's spell was gone, lost as her concentration had left her, so now the blood from her cuts was flowing freely. The blood that had formed her claws had been spilled, so she was barely conscious.
Bonbon, still fighting the spots that occasionally popped in and out of her vision, trudged back to her lover. The paladin touched a hoof to her amulet again, and prayed. “Mare Celestia, let your ethereal fire bless our allies and ease their suffering, so that we may uphold the light of justice once more.” She touched her hoof to Lyra.
A golden glow flowed from within the paladin, down her leg, and into Lyra. The glow concentrated on the cuts, sealing them, then spread throughout her body. It wouldn't stop the dizziness, but it would at least keep the blood loss from doing her in immediately.
“You should have let her pass,” said a new voice. Bonbon whirled to face the voice, but staggered from the sudden movement; her dizziness was getting worse and worse. “It would have been the kind thing to do.”
Blinking away the spots, Bonbon finally got a decent look at the speaker.
It was a mare, a white earth mare. She had a pink, disheveled mane that hung about her shoulders and a pink tail that was similarly messy. Her hooves bore the dirt of endless travel and what looked like dried blood discolored her fur. Her blue eyes seemed distant, even as she looked at Bonbon, and her expression was blank. The white mare slowly walked passed Bonbon, giving her a chance to spot the stranger's cutie mark: A red cross with hearts at each corner.
The stranger casually walked around Lyra's frighteningly still form, her distant gaze now focused on the necromancer.
“This one... the scent of Death is on her.” The mare touched a hoof to her, shivering slightly. “Yes... the scent is very strong. Would she not prefer to journey into the realm she dabbles in?” She then turned back to Bonbon. “And you... a warrior in the Sun's name. What would mean more to you than to meet your goddess? To walk the streets of her kingdom of light?”
Bonbon felt her dizziness return, sending her to her knees once more. Her vision was nearly gone, the spots of blackness crowding out the light. She had to... had to focus...
“You shouldn't resist, paladin, your goddess is waiting.”
“And she can wait a bit longer, blighter bitch!”
An almighty crash and a plume of dust broke the mare's gaze, and some of Bonbon's vision returned. She blinked away some of the spots and coughed as the dust began to settle. She could hear some more coughing, meaning Lyra was still alive as well. Whatever had been strangling her heart to a stop was still there, but its hold was much looser, so she could stand once more. And she could finally see what had happened.
One of the rotted trees lay on it's side, decaying before her. It was right where the strange mare had been standing, and the hoof prints still visible in its dead bark told the rest of the story.
Sure enough, Roseluck jumped over the fallen tree a moment later, her sickle swinging wildly. “You are not welcome in my forest! None of your kind will ever be welcome here!”
The strange mare gritted her teeth slightly. “You should know, best of all, Druid, how everything eventually d–”
Roseluck shouted a druidic word, pulling a small snake's skin from under her cloak. She threw the skin, and it burst into fire as soon as it left her hoof. The flames snaked about like a mad serpent, and the stranger let out a shrieking whinny as she reared away. “I don't care what you have to say.”
The stranger growled, then shouted a druidic word back. She stomped her hooves, and black vines slithered out from beneath them. Rose made to dodge them, but they moved too quickly and ensnared one of her hooves. Her sickle proved ineffective, no matter how much she hacked, and her other hoof was snared a moment later.
“Now then, where were we?”
“Right here!” Bonbon's hammer smashed into the mare's side, sending her flying. However, Bonbon herself nearly dropped her weapon afterward. Her heart was still struggling to beat at its normal pace, let alone the rapid heartbeat of battle.
Even without the strange mare to guide them, the vines still held Roseluck, but she was slowly working herself free, so that meant at least one ally back in the fight soon. A glance toward Lyra showed her to still be recovering, but she was moving, just not fighting ready yet.
“Why?” The stranger was speaking again. “Why do they always resist?”
“Because we don't want to die!” Roseluck finally tore her hooves out of the vines, glaring at the other mare. “Not before you do at least.”
“So afraid, so misguided, so uninformed.” The mare stood once more, barely slowed from what had to be several broken ribs. “Your suffering will end soon.”
Bonbon gritted her teeth as her heart slowed just a bit more. She was expecting it, and it still left her head swimming. They had to end this quickly, or they were as good as dead.
Sharp notes that Bonbon had heard many a late night suddenly pierced the air, and all eyes turned to Lyra.
The necromancer's lyre was out, held in her hooves as she stood on two legs. Her forehooves flashed across the strings, plucking out a song in rapid tempo. She panted, still pale from the blood loss, but giving the stranger a manic glare.
“What are y–” The white mare suddenly gasped. Her eyes widened and her breath quickened as she took several steps back.
“Not so cocky now, are you?” Lyra smirked, getting more of her wind back as the stranger's concentration went. Her magic enveloped Orpheus, holding it and letting her go back to a more normal stance. “Amazing how far a little fear goes, isn't it?”
Roseluck made to charge forward, a druidic word already spilling out of her mouth, but Bonbon snagged her by the tail. “Think for a moment, Rose! You can't pretend you don't feel what she does to us, and that fear won't last forever. We need to get away.”
Roseluck growled at her, but didn't raise an actual objection. “Follow me, I have an idea.” She turned and ran, Bonbon following her a moment later.
Lyra was, again, last, though she took the moment to pluck another short tune on her lyre. The strange mare screamed as her eyes lost focus and blindness took her. Lyra chuckled a bit, but did remember to gallop after the other two.
The weight atop their hearts faded as the left the white mare behind, but a shrieking cry followed no more than a minute later and they pushed their speed just a bit more.
“I,” Rose gasped as they ran, “think. We're. Almost. There!” Rose stopped so sharply her hooves slid across the damp ground. She had led them to a gorge, one that looked to be several hundred feet deep.
Lyra blinked a few times. “...well, I can't say this is an overly-complex plan. Any idea how we're going to get little miss creepy into the hole?”
“What do you want? I made this 'plan' up on the spot!”
Before Bonbon could intervene, however, the three of them suddenly felt their hearts constrict once again.
“You three are very annoying ponies.” The mare walked slowly into view, the plants withering and the ground drying beneath her step. “I have ended the suffering of many before you, and only a hoof-full have been as troublesome about it as you.” She glared at Roseluck as the druid tried to stand, sending her back to the ground. “Though, I really should have expected as much from a druid. None of your kind will ever understand my mission.”
“Why do they always talk so much?”
The stranger's eyes snapped to Lyra now, causing the unicorn to gasp for air. “You'd think a necromancer, of all ponies, would understand.”
Lyra groaned, but managed to look the other mare right in her eyes. “You know, I get kinda sick of hearing that all the time. Is there a newsletter or something I can write into? Let the bad guys know that I don't understand their psychosis?”
The stranger blinked, then scowled. “Damn snarky adventurers, never go quietly.”
“Well, you guys never shut up either, so I thought I'd try it out.” The mare opened her mouth to retort, but Lyra interrupted her again. “So, mind telling me when you took the Hypocritical Oath, Nurse?”
The stranger narrowed her eyes and Lyra fell back to the ground, gasping and holding her chest. “You have no idea... no idea what it's like. You've never seen a pony begging, pleading with you to end it! You've never seen a pony just linger on the edge of death because the family won't let them go! Clinging to the false hope that they can recover! Doctors, Healers, Surgeons, they keep fighting a battle they can never win. Death is the only end to their suffering, Death is the only kindness that they can ever find!” She walked closer to Lyra. “You've spoken with the dead, you have to know what comes after, what awaits them. How can you say life has more worth, knowing what you know?”
Lyra's breaths came in sharp gasps as her head swam and her heart struggled for every beat. But she managed a weak chuckle. “I'll say anything I want, as long as it distracts you.”
The stranger froze, just for a moment, before Bonbon's hammer smashed into her from the side once more.
Lyra felt the hold fade yet again, and she magically snatched up Orpheus once more. She rolled onto her back, not having the energy to stand, and quickly strummed a, rather flat, tune on her lyre. Black energy surrounded her instrument, and with one final pluck of the strings, shot at the white mare.
The stranger cried out in pain, first from hitting the ground, then from the blackness hitting her.
Lyra smirked as she panted. “Taste of your own medicine, Nurse?”
The 'nurse' growled, panting heavily herself now. “Your banter is weak, necromancer.” She inhaled deeply, then breathed out sharply, spewing forth a cloud of green smoke that flooded through the area.
Lyra and even Roseluck started coughing almost immediately, but all the cloud did to Bonbon was make her eyes sting a bit. Blinking away some of the water in them, the paladin charged toward where she'd last seen the stranger.
Her hammer swung down and... nothing. She had moved, her movements hidden by the vision obscuring cloud and and sounds covered by Lyra and Rose's coughing fits.
“So, what they say is true then.” The mare's voice spoke, but Bonbon was driven to the ground once more, that damnable hold back. “I had heard paladins enjoyed protection from the sicknesses, but I figured it was just a rumor. Soon, it won't matter.”
Bonbon found herself starting to fight for each breath, the disease-ridden air seemingly growing more virulent by the moment. She struggled to stay on her hooves, the nurse's black magic not helping, tightening on her heart with every passing moment.
“Don't worry, Paladin, you'll be meeting with your goddess soon.” The mare slowly stepped out of the smoke, a sadistic grin upon her face. “And I'll be all the more powerful.”
Bonbon couldn't even form a retort, collapsing in a heap. Every beat of her heart felt strained and she could barely even see anything anymore. Her hoof slowly moved to her amulet, mentally praying to Celestia for help, any sort of help...
Suddenly, a druidic word cut through the fog and heat washed over Bonbon. She felt the stranglehold on her heart weaken and her vision returned just in time catch the fading flickers of a column of flame. The noxious fog had been partially burned away by the flames, allowing her to see the 'nurse' had been forced away from her and was favoring one of her legs, seemingly badly burned from the attack.
Roseluck walked out of the fog, sneering at the white mare, her nostrils stuffed with herbs. “It doesn't matter how thick you make the fog, or what you do to hide yourself," she declared, pointing a hoof. "You don't belong in this forest, I can hear the land screaming in pain wherever you step.”
Lyra followed her a moment later, Orpheus held in her telekinetic grip and her black cloak wrapped around her mouth. She glared at the 'nurse', her eye twitching every now and then. “I will end you.”
The stranger gritted her teeth. “Not happening, I have to end the suffering.” She inhaled again, and breathed out more of the green smoke.
“Let the Sun burn away all evil!” Bonbon held her amulet up and golden light burst from it. The fog around her vanished, then more and of the noxious plume burned away in the light. It was slow at first, with the 'nurse' pouring her own will into the other spell, but Lyra plucked out another tune on her lyre, then wiped her forehead and pointed her hoof at the white mare. Black energy shot out and hit the stranger, breaking her concentration and causing what little fog she could still muster to dissipate in the light of Bonbon's amulet.
“Damn you, damn all three of you!” The 'nurse' took several steps back, but stopped once she realized where she was. During all the confusion with the fog, she had ended up near the cliff's edge, exactly where they had wanted her. She glared at the trio. “Don't think you've won. I still have one trick left.”
The three of them felt the ever-present hold on their hearts constrict, more than it had the entire fight. None of them could remain standing and they each fought to stay conscious. To black out now meant nothing but their death.
“I could have made this painless for you! Could have sent you all to a paradise like none that exist on this gods forsake lump of dirt and rock! But no, you all had to be >i>stubborn</i> and stupid about it! You all had to cling to your worthless lives, as though they held some greater meaning!” She stomped over to Bonbon and kicked away her amulet. “No! No more dispelling, Paladin!” She stomped a hoof and black vines bound Roseluck once more. “And no more fire from you, Druid!”
She finally turned to Lyra. “And you! You disgust me, Necromancer! You could do so much more with your gifts! Yet you help the very ponies who would kill you as soon as look at you! You are such a… a waste of talent!”
Lyra, still on the ground, muttered something.
“Oh, of course, now comes the rebuttal, where you talk about friendship and love and all that other stuff. Come on then, maybe you can think of something I haven't heard before.”
“I said, Shut! Up!” Lyra suddenly surged up, her hoof slamming into the white mare's jaw with a sickening crack.
The hold was loosened as the 'nurse' staggered back in pain and Lyra snatched up Orpheus. She strummed out a short, sharp tune and the other mare screamed out, her hoof going to her eyes as blood leaked out of them. She took another step, and nearly fell of the cliff, now out of room.
Lyra panted, her manic grin back. “Nopony hurts the ones I care about.” She plucked out another another tune, then inhaled sharply. The necromancer let loose an unearthly wail, focused directly at the 'nurse'.
The white mare gasped, feeling her strength and her very life ebbing away. Her legs grew weak and her balance faltered, until – finally – one of her hooves moved a bit too close to the edge. She slipped and made to grab the edge, but her enfeebled state left her without the strength to grip at the ground, now sandy thanks to her very presence.
Lyra stopped screaming, just in time to hear the stranger's own wail fade away as she fell. “Good riddance.”
Her face met the ground as she passed out from exhaustion.
The first thing she noticed was the lingering smell of rotted flesh and something warm and wet touching her face. Not all that unusual for her, given her profession, but still not something she wanted to wake up to.
Lyra groaned, making to push whatever this was away. When she touched something very furry, she slowly forced her eyes open and found herself face to face with a wolf.
“Ahh!” She awkwardly scuttled several feet away from the beast, pulling at her cloak and practically sitting on Orpheus.
“Oh relax, he's not going to hurt you.” Roseluck trotted out from behind the wolf, idly petting it as she did. “Orion is an old friend.”
Lyra blinked a few times, then gave Rose a look. “Really? 'Orion'?”
“Oh shut up, the constellation was in the sky when I met him.”
Lyra just shook her head, inspecting her lyre for damage, noticing a familiar hammer nearby. “Where's Bonbon?”
“She went looking to see if that psycho murder-nurse had any friends. I don't sense anything, but she wanted to make sure.”
“One can never be too careful, Rose.” Bonbon's return was heralded by the crashing of the undergrowth. “But you're right, the area's clear.”
“Never doubt a druid in her own environment.” Roseluck continued to pet Orion, the wolf laying down beside her. “Anyway, now that the blighter is gone, the rot should finally stop and I should be able to start taking my forest back.”
“There's that word again,” Lyra said. “What is a 'blighter'?”
“A worthless rotter, disgusting and vile in all–”
“Alright! They're druids that turned against nature and Epona, they exist to kill nature and cause strife.” Roseluck scowled at nothing. “They deserve to die.”
Bonbon gave her a look. “You're starting to sound like Righteous.”
“Did you miss all of that monologuing she was doing during the fight? Don't you dare start claiming she was just 'misunderstood'.”
“I saw how she was, and yes, she was clearly a violent psychopath. But I don't take one pony as the blanket example of every member of their group.”
"Obviously. Why am I surprised to hear this from you?"
“Can we worry about other things?” Lyra suddenly got between the two of them. “Like, say, what in all the hells she was actually doing here? I don't think somepony like her could just show up without being noticed a lot sooner than this.”
Silence followed Lyra's statement, neither of the other two able to refute it.
Finally, Bonbon spoke up. “Roseluck, you're coming back with us. We need someone who understands how someone like her works and can track where she's been.”
“Great,” Rose deadpanned, “more 'civilization'. Whoopee.”
“Complain all you want, you're still the only druid we know. And I'd rather let Shining know about this as soon as possible.” Bonbon hefted her hammer once more. “Let's go, it's a long walk back to Ponyville.”
Lyra was quick to follow, ready to get home and shower after all of this, and slipped Orpheus back under her cloak.
Roseluck grumbled, but spoke to Orion in the Druidic tongue and sent him off into the woods. She watched him go, then fell into step behind the other two.
At least the bitch is dead.
Down in the canyon, the white mare's body lay on the craggy ground. Several of her bones were sticking through her skin and dried blood was staining her coat. Her lifeless eyes were unfocused and wide, staring out at nothing.
And then, she blinked.
The light slowly returned to her gaze as she shifted around, several of her bones popping back into place from the movement alone. “Been a while since I've fallen off a cliff.” She shoved the bones poking out of her skin back inside, only an occasional grunt to show any pain from the act.
Once she'd mostly pieced her legs back together, she stood and took several shambling steps, each moderately better than the last. That'll sort out by the time I run into anypony, she thought. But I need to get going.
Still shambling a bit, the mare started walking along the canyon. They're going to start the meeting without me if I'm late.