It was chaos.
Smoke still billowed up from the grove, twisting into impossible shapes as it filtered through the treetops. Pockets of Hellfire still refused to be extinguished, even as more and more water was conjured to quench them. And the screams, the air was full of the sounds of screaming ponies; screams of pain, screams of mourning, screams of panic; they all blended together and made it impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.
Bonbon was no stranger to screams. They were usually what she ran toward when the time came to serve Celestia, but that didn't make them any easier to hear when there was nothing she could do about them.
It was all she could do to keep running past the screams, past the ponies that needed help. There were healers working already; they would have to do until she could take care of the major concern.
“Rose!” she called out, sliding to a stop as she reached the loose and charred dirt of their battlefield. “We have a problem!”
“We have a lot of them,” Rose snapped back, magically forcing some of the displaced rocks back into the ground. “We still don't even know how much damage was done and how many–”
“That Rock Steady guy is dead,” Bonbon interrupted. “And I don't even know what happened to Lyra! I can't find her anywhere!”
“What?” Roseluck rounded on Bonbon, grabbing the paladin's face between her hooves. “Tell me this is some sick joke!”
Bonbon pulled herself out of Rose's grip, pushing the druid back a bit. “I don't have time for jokes, especially not ones like that. Now, come on if we hurry, we might be able to–”
“Archdruid!” Another pony galloped up, his cloak flapping around wildly and still smoldering from the effects of the battle. “Rock Steady! He's... he's dead!”
“–avoid that...” Bonbon couldn't help but grit her teeth in frustration as she watched things start to fall apart in short order.
“-that bastard necromancer-”
“-should have never left him alone with her-”
“She planned this-”
“-find her and kill-”
“You will do no such thing!” Bonbon's voice carried over the budding mob the druids were forming. “I am warden to Lyra Heartstrings, and her fate is for me to–”
Druidic words were shouted out and sharpened rocks whizzed by her face and struck her armor painfully.
“Your goddess is meaningless, Paladin,” sneered the druid that had attacked her. “We of Epona know the natural order, and that useless alicorn will not–”
Bonbon didn't let him finish before one of her armor-clad hooves connected with his face. “Attacking one of the Order is grounds enough to let us fight back,” she coldly explained as the druid staggered back in pain. “As I was saying–”
More words were shouted, from multiple ponies this time, as ice shards and whips of water assailed Bonbon. Her hooves reached both for her hammer and her pendant, but she suddenly felt the ground beneath her give way and a pair of hooves grasp her about the midsection as she fell into the earth.
Bonbon gasped as she finally saw light again, several moments having passed. She was ejected from the ground with enough force that she actually bounced as she landed, knocking the breath from her. As she wheezed and gasped, her hammer hit the dirt a few feet away, and she heard a set of hooves behind her.
“Sorry,” came Rose's voice. “I had to get you out of there before–”
Rose didn’t get to finish; Bonbon managed to surge to her hooves at last and drove her head into Rose's chest, knocking her back several paces with a pained gasp. “This is your fault!” Bonbon's shout sent birds flying from the nearby trees in a minor panic. Her vision blurred as her frustration boiled over at long last. “You let her get taken! You and your damned flowers!” She reared back to strike at Rose, but a quick word from her and the ground shifted, knocking Bonbon off balance.
“And what were my options?” the druid snapped back. “Lie to my people? Let a blighter roam free when the only ones who had the resources to deal with her were left in the dark? I had to call in every favor I was owed not to have them kill Lyra outright!”
“You should have told them–”
“What? That she wasn't a threat? That she's one of the good guys?” Now it was Rose who looked ready to attack. “Do you have any idea what blighter magic is, Bonbon? It's Necromancy, mixed with the Druidic Arts; it's a perversion of everything we do and everything Epona has taught us! It doesn't matter that I know Lyra's a good pony, they're not going to believe me!
“More to the point!” Rose continued as Bonbon finally got to her hooves and reached for her hammer. “Every moment we spend here arguing and blaming each other is another moment that Lyra spends ponynapped!”
Bonbon stopped, her face contorting between so many emotions as a few tears leaked out of her eyes. “...you're right,” she finally admitted. “Finding Lyra is the priority right now. If we hurry, we might be able to–”
“I can't come with you.”
Bonbon froze, her anger rising once more. “Why not?” she snapped.
“Because I have to go back and make sure that the grove isn't going to start a war or something now!” Rose groaned, rubbing her head. “Rock Steady might have been an ass to you and me, but he was pretty popular back in the grove. Now that he's dead, and because of that fight, everypony is going to be clamoring for retribution.”
“And you call where I'm from 'uncivilized'.”
Rose opened her mouth to retort... and closed it just as quickly. “...yeah, I do.” She turned away from Bonbon, looking at the loose dirt from her tunnel. “Now I remember why I left in the first place...” She stomped one of her hooves and the tunnel opened once more. “The edge of the woods isn't far, just head east... that way–” she pointed “–and you should reach it in a few minutes.”
Bonbon nodded and turned to walk away.
“And, Bonbon?” Rose looked back over her shoulder as the Paladin did the same. “Good luck.” With that, the druid dove into the earth once more, the tunnel sealing up behind her.
“You should have let them finish patching you up, Righteous. You'll tear your wounds open in a heartbeat if we get into a fight.”
Righteous Fury winced as she continued to trot along, her newly mended flesh still tender and her eye still partially swollen from being punched in the face earlier. Still, she was managing a respectable speed without complaint, and waved off Octavia's concerns about her health. “We've already wasted enough time waiting for me; if we don't hurry, any potential leads on those two will have dried up. Or, Celestia forbid, they could have done even more damage. I'll not have that happen when I could have prevented it.”
Octavia scowled deeply, but kept whatever bitter words she'd thought up within her mouth. She knew better than most just how useless trying to argue a point with Righteous could be. “Can you at least try to take it easy on yourself? You'll be no help to anypony dead.”
“I make no promises, Octavia. My duty to Celestia comes before my personal health.”
Octavia scowled once again as Righteous continued to wince at every fourth step.
She sighed, feeling an all too familiar set of eyes upon her. “Don't give me that look, Vinyl.” The cellist turned her scowl to the demon, who was indeed giving her 'that look,’ a mixture of confusion, annoyance, and incredulity usually reserved for their arguments over musical style. “Righteous doesn't like you, and you don't like her, but she's still too powerful an ally to simply leave behind. Even if she is too stubborn for her own good.”
“I can still hear you, Octavia,” Righteous grumbled up ahead.
“And your point is? I've been saying nothing less to you since you left the hospital against the doctor's orders.”
Righteous only muttered a few unsavory words under her breath in response to that, making Octavia's scowl deepen.
“And I told you, I am not being nearly that unprofessional with my ward.”
Vinyl just rolled her eyes, now joining the other two in outright scowling as she trotted along. Even she was starting to think it would be an honest to... the sun mare... miracle if the three of them managed to get anything done, much less find a bard and that impossible cleric. Octavia was right about one thing: she definitely didn't like Righteous Fury, so the thought of Righteous injuring herself in her own stupidity did little to stir the tiny amount of empathy within the demon. Still, Vinyl could agree with Octavia’s point that having an uninjured paladin with them would be better than an injured one the next time they faced their adversaries. Her horn lit up as Righteous and Octavia began to bicker about what defined 'adequate rest', and sound faded away to nothing for her.
The noise canceling spell was a bit of a drain on her own magic, even as a magical creature herself, but it was better than putting up with the two of them going back and forth over nothing. With that distraction finally removed, Vinyl focused on the task at hoof and shut her eyes. As a demon, her senses were significantly more acute than a normal pony's, at the trade off of occasionally being so distracting they made it difficult to focus on any one in particular. With sound a non-issue, and her eyes shut, she bent down to the road and quietly sniffed.
Thousands of scents filled her nose in an instant, from crushed petals trampled underhoof to the stale vomit of a drunkard that had soaked into the soil. It was only through centuries of experience and acclimation to far worse smells within the pits of Tartarus that she was able to keep all the information straight. With another sniff, Vinyl began to sort through them, seeking out any of the scents that could lead them to their targets.
The brimstone of Hellfire was distinctive enough on its own, but as her own scent was saturated in it, she couldn't rely on it, and there was enough blood on the road from so many sources that trying to follow them by any wounds they still had was a wasted effort. Vinyl's brow furrowed as she took another sniff, still looking for anything unique as she silently cursed herself for not knowing other methods of tracking.
She was just about to give up, when a fairly unique scent filtered through her nose: burnt feathers.
Vinyl's eyes snapped open, flashing red for a brief second as she reached up to touch a part of mane that was still blackened from Righteous's magical spear grazing it. While it was a long shot, possibly just some pegasus who'd had a bad encounter with a fire mage, it was strong and fresh, and probably the best bet she had right now. She closed her eyes once more, taking several deep sniffs to familiarize herself with the scent trail, and dropped her spell.
“–worse wounds while I was outnumbered. I don't need–” Righteous's indignant shouting was cut off as Vinyl's magic produced a screech like metal being dragged across a blackboard. “What do you want, demon?”
Octavia’s eyes narrowed slightly a Vinyl tapped her hoof on the road. “I think she's found something.” She stepped forward as Vinyl nodded and turned around, leading them off down the road. “And don't think this conversation is done, Righteous.”
“You have us following a demon, Octavia. You're not in any position to be trying to call me out on perceived faults.”
“Believe me, they're not perceived.”
Neither of them said anything after that, simply choosing to follow Vinyl as she occasionally bent down to sniff at the ground to keep them on track. Even with her senses, the trail was still tough to follow, and several times she was left having to guess as to where it was actually heading. Eventually, she came to a dead stop in the middle of the road, scowling down at the dirt.
With a mute sigh, Vinyl turned to face Octavia and mimed slashing a hoof across her own throat, making the other mare scowl.
“The trail just ends here; somepony probably teleported them off to goddess knows where.”
“Well, this was a waste of time,” Righteous grumbled. “Some help your demon turned out to be.”
Octavia frowned at Righteous, Vinyl making a rude gesture behind her back. “She got us this far, didn't she?”
“And what good is being this far?” Righteous countered. “We have no way of knowing where they went, no way of tracking them without something of theirs to act as a focus, and no leads to follow up on.”
Vinyl glared at Righteous, who glared right back, forcing Octavia to step between the two of them before anything could happen. “Look, I can see a town a bit further on, let’s ask around there and see if they've seen anything unusual. If nothing else, we can stop and rest.”
Righteous continued to glare, but eventually nodded in acquiescence. “Fine, but I'm not paying for any food the demon wants.”
“I'm not asking you to,” Octavia said, starting to head toward the distant visage of the town she'd mentioned. Vinyl and Righteous both held each other's gaze for several moments, as if waiting to see who would turn first. Finally, Vinyl stuck her tongue out at Righteous and turned to follow after Octavia, leaving the paladin to follow last, still occasionally wincing as she walked.
By the time the three of them had reached the town, the sun was starting to get low in the sky, and hunger was starting to grow within their bellies, leading Octavia toward the nearest inn. Upon reaching the door, however, she paused and turned to Vinyl. “Twenty minutes, not a second longer.”
Vinyl nodded, and turned away, silently walking down the street.
“Where do you think you're going?” Righteous snapped, moving to intercept her. “You can't just wander off like that.”
“Yes, she can; at least, for the next twenty minutes.” Octavia cut Righteous off, letting Vinyl slowly slip into the crowd and seemingly vanish from sight. Under Righteous's disbelieving stare, Octavia calmly led the other mare into the inn and took a seat at one of the tables. “Vinyl's body is... unusual,” she explained. “She'll still eat plants and the like for a snack, but she needs meat for real sustenance. It's easier to let her go hunt for rats and other pests than to try and find a place that's comfortable serving meat to a pony.”
Righteous frowned at Octavia, shaking her head. “You're still letting her wander around, unsupervised! What if she kills somepony, or makes a deal?”
“I have reasonable confidence that she won't, and as she hasn't violated any of the stipulations of her confinement. She has earned a few freedoms as per regulations.”
“Do you have the damned book memorized?” Righteous snarked without humor. “She's a demon, Octavia, a demon. Lying and deceit are their native tongue; even if she isn't speaking, you shouldn't trust her even a single inch.”
“And yet, I do, and I have yet to be disappointed. Disapprove if you wish, but I will not revoke her freedoms without reason.”
Righteous held her glare, but said nothing as the owner of the inn came to offer them food. This was not the type of conversation to have when other ponies were paying attention. She simply ordered a sunflower salad and a bit of ale; if nothing else, the alcohol would take the edge off for now.
“So,” Righteous began again, once the owner had left to get their food. “If we assume your misguided faith in the demon doesn't result in several deaths, how shall we be handling this? The mark of Celestia will only get us so far, and we both know how well strangers asking about others goes in a small town.”
“Which is why we don't ask,” Octavia responded, closing her eyes. “We listen.”
Righteous frowned deeply, but kept silent. Because of her musical cutie mark, Octavia had a strange gift when it came to sounds. Righteous had often tried to imitate it, even resorting to trying to cast a spell to augment her senses on more than one occasion, but could never achieve the same effects as her friend managed. It was best for her to wait and find out what Octavia could hear.
“...crops aren't doing so good this year, might need....”
“...only ever wanted what was best for her, but she wouldn't...”
“...needs some space, has a lot going...”
“...says I'm immature, the nerve of that mare; I ought to...”
Octavia's ears were twitching, the right one occasionally flicking up and down as she 'Listened', as she called it. It was one of the best ways to get information; ponies rarely bothered to hide things when they didn't think they could be overheard.
“...still doesn't know the baby isn't his, not sure when I'll...”
“...wife has no idea, don't worry about...”
“...never stopped singing, or trying to anyway...”
Octavia frowned, focusing on a stream of conversation, to the exclusion of all other.
“...end came into the store and started looking through every magic book I owned and even some I had in the backroom since they were discontinued. The mare would have been bad enough on her own, especially with all that damned singing, but she had to bring her damned coltfriend along. Stallion stank to; I swear, he literally smelled like a bad egg.”
Octavia's eyes snapped open, her ears swiveling as she followed the sounds of the conversation, slowly coming to a stop as she turned her head toward a table against the far wall. Without a word, Octavia stood up, with Righteous following a moment later, the pair of them silently weaving between the tables.
“..what they were look... ing... for...” A gray stallion trailed off as Octavia calmly walked up to the table and looked down her nose at him and the other stallion he was dining with.
“The two of them,” she said, not waiting for introductions. “What were they looking for?”
The stallion blinked a few times, blue eyes sliding over to Righteous, who just stared back silently, and then to the sun pendant around her neck. “Er... books. I mean... I run a store, and I'm something of a collector.”
“What sort of books?”
The stallion hesitated, beads of sweat starting to form on his brow. “W-well, I'm... not sure if I should–”
“What. Sort. Of. Books?” Octavia repeated, narrowing her eyes ever so slightly.
The stallion audibly gulped as his eyes darted around. “Just.. just books... about... certain types of magic.”
“Dark magic,” Righteous interrupted, taking a step forward, her expression darkening. “Why else would you be acting like this?” When the stallion didn’t respond, light began to gather at Righteous’s hooves. She opened her mouth to speak a word of power, only to get cut of by Octavia placing herself between the stallion and the paladin.
“Do you have a permit for that?” she questioned, glancing back at Righteous briefly with a shake of the head.
“N-no,” he admitted, but quickly held up a hoof. “B-but, I-I don't actually practice it, I'm just a collector; I can't even cast a cantrip!”
Righteous scowled at him, but said nothing in response, leaving Octavia to continue pressing. “What were they looking for, specifically.”
“Ah...” The stallion looked down at the table in thought, his brow furrowing. “I... I don't think they ever mentioned a specific title, but... they did mention an author. Wasn't one I ever heard of, though...” He frowned. “It started with an 'H'... Ha... Harp... something?”
“...Harpsichord.” Octavia's eyes darted to Righteous, who was scowling heavily. “That was the author, correct?”
“Uh... yeah, now that you mention it, that was the name!”
Righteous didn't respond to the stallion, simply turning away from the conversation while Octavia blinked in confusion. Celestia damn it all, Righteous thought, clenching her teeth. As if one Heartstrings wasn’t bad enough, now I have to deal with two!