• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven



Luna and Scrivener struggle to set right all the wrongs from their past and save their family and friends. Tenth and final story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

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A Meeting Of Different Minds

Chapter Eleven: A Meeting Of Different Minds
~BlackRoseRaven

It wasn't the most awkward meeting Scrivener Blooms had ever attended, but it was very close. The stallion looked back and forth slowly as he lightly tapped a tattoo against the polished black stone tabletop, and then Twilight leaned over and grasped his shoulder, giving him a pointed look through the fresh stitching over her features... which only made Luna, sitting on the opposite side of the table, drum her hooves much more loudly against the furnishing.

Then she stopped, and Morning Glory slowly, sourly turned her eyes from where she was seated at the head of the table towards the grinning sapphire mare. Scrivener and Twilight both winced as Innocence giggled on Luna's other side.

Celestia smiled slightly, reaching up a hoof to half-cover this as Hecate rolled her eyes sourly: the two were ironically placed to the left and right side of Morning Glory, armored winged unicorn seated and disembodied head floating eerily on its strange little saucer. And at the foot of the table, a nervous-looking, gray-white unicorn was looking apprehensively up over the group, dressed in a regal-looking violet half-robe with a gilded-black mantle. His mane was a rough, wooden brown, almost the same dark color as the clipboard he was nervously jotting notes over.

Antares was seated beside this unicorn, the delegate from Heaven. The glossy-black stallion yawned loudly and visibly as silence continued to fill the air, and then he sat up and dropped his own front hooves against the table, asking mildly: “What are we waiting for, again?”

“I'm waiting for you all to die. Preferably slowly. Hopefully in a way that lets me harvest your bodies for research purposes. Or eat. I'm not sure which I'd prefer.” Hecate said grouchily, and Morning Glory closed her eyes slowly, looking pained.

Antares was clearly unperturbed by this response, the stallion only reaching up and poking pointedly at his throat as he said mildly: “Wouldn't anything you tried to eat just... fall through? Or get stuck in your neck, since like. There's that cap there and all? Doesn't that make you like an evil purse?”

“Aye, Antares has a point! Hecate, we should stuff thy giant mouth full of coins, and thou shall finally serve a use. Thou can be my changepurse. Or Scrivy's, I hear that changepurses are carried only by mares these days.” Luna said positively, and Scrivener and Twilight both glared at the sapphire mare as Hecate bared her fangs at the winged unicorn.

The floating head opened her mouth, beginning to float down the table... and then Morning Glory's front hoof swung down and squashed the head into the table, knocking her loose from her saucer and sending the disc-shaped object flying away. All eyes stared as Hecate wheezed a little beneath the enormous metal hoof squashing her down into the stone, and then Morning Glory picked the head up and turned her around, meeting Hecate's eyes evenly. “Don't.”

Hecate tried to glare back, but then Morning Glory simply flung the head over her shoulder, Hecate cursing as she hit the ground behind the demon and bounced away from the table. Luna coughed loudly behind a hoof as Innocence and most of the others stared, and then Antares called cheerfully: “Thanks, Morning! I like you too!”

“Be quiet, Antares Mīrus. I did not do that for you and your precious little feelings.” Morning Glory said sourly, and then she shook her head slowly before saying distastefully: “We are waiting for a status report to arrive. If you desire to speed things up, however, perhaps Excelsior can grace us with whatever message he is here to deliver.”

The unicorn delegate shifted nervously back and forth, then he winced when Antares grasped his shoulder, smiling supportively. “Hey, that sounds like a good idea, why don't you start with.... or... okay.” Antares winced at the sight of Excelsior going dead pale, and the glossy black unicorn awkwardly reached out and gently slid the clipboard on the table in front of himself. “Nevermind, I'll read it myself then.

“Uh... let's see... okay. The assassin you reported bears a striking resemblance to the assassin that Lord Kvasir fought. That's a large part of what interested us.” Antares began, and Celestia looked up sharply, frowning slightly as the glossy-black unicorn continued: “No one realized that right away because... Aunt Tia, you were the one who drove it off in Heaven, and no one else got a good look at it. Mom's descriptions probably weren't the best to go by when it attacked again.”

Luna huffed loudly at this, but she didn't otherwise interrupt, leaning forwards and looking intent herself. Scrivener and Twilight were both looking up, and Morning Glory only looked moody, tapping a hoof slowly as Antares continued: “There was also an energy flux not long after the assassin vanished... it was very small, but very powerful, like a singularity. It looks like something created some kind of escape portal for it... but it didn't originate from this world. It came from somewhere else, and drilled into Looking Glass World.”

“Which points to someone watching us, tracking the Whistler. Maybe using the Whistler as not just a scout, but a relay, getting information from it in real time instead of simply waiting for a report, like a search construct.” Celestia stopped, then frowned a little, lowering her head and murmuring: “But for something to be capable of that kind of magic, it would require some kind of special link, or incredible psychic power...”

Luna grimaced at this, becoming serious before Hecate's voice floated moodily up from behind Morning Glory: “Incredible psychic power is more likely here. You're all worried about the patchwork theater watching us after all, right? Then stop operating on the assumption none of these things are connected. Stop feebly hoping for a coincidence.”

Celestia sighed, shaking her head slowly before she turned her eyes towards Hecate... and then winced backwards when the head flung itself with telekinesis in an arc, landing with a bang on the table. Hecate gritted her teeth as she bounced once before managing to awkwardly stop herself by swinging her horn down into the table, and then her eyes flicked crankily upwards as Celestia said quietly: “I still don't believe these events are connected directly. What we have to do is prepare the best defenses we can, get ready but not try and focus on any specific-”

“The coward's way and the fool's way. But I always suspected that you were both of those things.” Hecate said icily, then she slowly glowered towards Luna when the mare reached out to awkwardly poke at the cap on the base of her neck. “Keep your grubby hooves to yourself, Brynhild.”

Celestia shook her head slowly, and then she leaned down and said gently but firmly, treating Hecate with unexpected compassion: “I understand where you're coming from, Hecate, but my instincts tell me that this assassin isn't involved with whatever's coming, with... what has the Draconequus of Ginnungagap so excited and afraid. That's why I want to reach out to them, to ensure that-”

Hecate rolled her eyes, then said acerbically, wiggling a little so she could better glare up at Celestia: “Oh, yes, chaos entities. Just because one of them is willing to have sex with you doesn't mean the other Draconequus are going to fling themselves all over you when you open the window, Celestia.”

Innocence winced as Luna cleared her throat loudly and Morning Glory sighed tiredly, and then Antares held up a hoof and said in a mild voice: “There's. Kind of a lot more information in this report, guys. So, Hecate, if you could stop being head bitch, then that'd be, you know, really great.”

Hecate attempted to wiggle around to glare at Antares, and then Luna leaned forwards as she cocked her front hoof back, saying cheerfully: “Allow me!”

With that, she slapped Hecate hard down the table, the head whizzing past Antares and Excelsior to whack into the back of the chair at the foot of the table and flop down into the seat. Luna grinned widely as Scrivener slowly shrank down in his chair and Twilight rubbed slowly at her face, but as Hecate mumbled disconsolately, Morning Glory only dropped her head back and said in an exasperated voice: “One day you will find some foolish Pride demon to replace me. And then I will finally be able to walk out of these idiotic charades of 'meetings.'”

Luna Brynhild huffed at this, but before anyone could speak, Eventide appeared beside Morning Glory and drew the Destroyer's attention as the Overseer grumbled: “Finally. Make it quick.”

Eventide nodded, then leaned forwards, murmuring quietly to Morning Glory as the demon frowned and looked down meditatively. Luna only caught a few words, but it was the way the Overseer shifted, how her eyes darkened, that told her far more about what she needed to know than her words could have.

Then Eventide bowed her head politely before vanishing from the spot, and Morning Glory sighed as she looked up and said distastefully: “I had a team of Hunter-Trackers dispatched to see if they could find any anomalies in the area. Unfortunately, reality in a fairly wide zone around Ponyville has become a little damaged, just as it is around Canterlot. Too many uses of the Bifrost and other methods to travel between worlds. It's made it impossible to track any magic resonance or psychic footprints.”

She glared over at Antares and Excelsior, and the diplomat from Heaven whimpered and tried to hide as Antares only glowered over at Morning Glory. “Oh, yeah, sure, blame the dudes working for Heaven. Really doing a great job avoiding your stereotype there, Morning Glory.”

“Shut up, messenger boy, or I'll rip that flapping tongue of yours out and use it to tie your muzzle shut. You're becoming too much like your arrogant mother.” Morning Glory's eyes flicked moodily to Luna as the sapphire mare shouted indignantly at this. “Believe me, Luna Brynhild. I could call you much worse.”

“Perhaps Antares should continue to read the report, and then we can discuss things.” Celestia suggested calmly, and there were grumbles around the table, but soon enough everyone present fell quiet again as all eyes turned to the young stallion.

He grumbled a bit, but flipped through the pages of the clipboard to find more information before continuing: “It says that uh... we did construct a timeline of resonances, even though Morning Glory was just complaining about the fabric of reality being damaged. Well it's not damaged enough to not be able to spot when and where holes are being torn, even little ones. We've got all the energy signatures, too, and now we just need to kind of sort out who is what, since there's two weeks of jumping around.”

“And no guarantee you'll get any useful data. More of Valhalla's posturing, although it's at least better than Hel's excuses and mockery.” Morning Glory muttered, and there was some grumble of possible agreement from Hecate. Antares rolled his eyes as Excelsior shifted uncomfortably, and then the Overseer looked over at Celestia and asked with more respect, if also abruptly: “Why do you think that these events aren't related, Valkyrie?”

Celestia lowered her head for a moment, likely to think of the best way to present it... and then Hecate's voice floated tiredly up from the foot of the table: “Inconsistency, that's why.”

The chair at the end of the table took on an eerie, pale glow, and then it lifted itself into the air, carrying Hecate upwards, then dumping her gently off onto the top of the furnishing. Her head flopped along the flat surface before she grumbled and wiggled herself straighter, looking moodily around the table as she said sourly: “During the attempted assassination of Kvasir by this... Whistler, if it is indeed the same assassin – and 'cloaked figure with knife' is not a strong indicator it is – there was no major upheaval from any of the planes. No stupid patchwork dolls watching, no demons drooling, Heaven did not tremble even with its King under attack.

“Furthermore, Kvasir was reported to be... extra. That's the only real bit of evidence that supports the idea these assassin attacks are from the same creature: the habit of trying to bite off more than it can chew.” Hecate continued, her eyes grouchily flicking back and forth. “Even if it was sent as an advance scout, it returned home and there's been no other contact with it. If I had to argue that these events weren't connected, I'd say it was working for another god who's eying Valhalla, and before you whine that theory makes no sense because of Looking Glass World, when you're looking to put the king in check, the first thing you do is check the position of the queen.”

Luna and Scrivener traded grimaces, and Twilight frowned before she asked hesitantly: “Wait, but you were just saying-”

“Yes, and I still don't believe these things aren't connected. I think what the Draconequus are so delighted about is that a big bully of another universe is coming to gobble down ours.” Hecate grinned widely, her eyes lighting up with a malicious passion. “Some new wannabe ruler who's been hiding under the rug is coming out to play. Coming to try and make our Heaven, Hell, and all the crap sandwiched in-between his.”

“And you clearly also think that either we will have to wipe out the enemy's entire world or let them take over our own.” Celestia said quietly, and Hecate turned darkly-entertained eyes towards the ivory winged unicorn, who shook her head slowly and murmured: “That's insanity.”

“It's preparedness.” Hecate retorted, and then she sniffed loudly before adding disgustedly: “And don't look at me like that. You know as well as I do: when you're dealing with insects, you burn the whole hive and don't spare a single life. Wasps, maggots, eggs and all... you want to make sure no new queen rises out of the ashes.”

“Actually I'd throw you at the hive and then laugh at you.” Antares muttered, and Luna grunted in agreement before the glossy-black unicorn added mildly, as he flipped through pages of the report attached to the clipboard, saying finally: “There's not a lot of other real information here, though. Just indexes and appendices and a few notes from Terra.”

Excelsior mumbled something to the stallion beside him, and Antares frowned a little in surprise as he glanced up, then looked down when the nervous stallion from Valhalla hurriedly tapped the side of the clipboard a few times. Antares flipped through a few pages, looking over the notes and ignoring Luna as she complained: “Damnation, Excelsior, thou could just speak! We are mostly friends here, Blessed of Heaven!”

The unicorn only shrank down at this as Scrivener looked dryly over at the starry-maned mare, and then Antares answered finally: “Here we go, okay... so on the assumption this is the same guy, Terra's building up a profile. I got everything on here from 'rotten breath' to how he attempted to maim Kvasir, lots of weird details...”

Celestia's eyes sharpened even as she didn't speak, while Innocence frowned a little and asked uneasily: “He's not... you don't think he's blending in somehow, do you?”

“Oh shut up and stay quiet. You're more annoying than Thesis ever was.” Hecate said crankily, and then Luna growled and lunged down the table, knocking chairs aside before she swept the head up, then smashed it face-first into the table before spinning Hecate around and glaring down into her eyes.

“Keep thy horrid mouth shut.” Luna growled, but Hecate only glared defiantly back before the sapphire mare grumbled as she turned around, cradling the head under one foreleg and returning to her seat to sit with Hecate awkwardly cradled to her chest, Antares staring, Innocence blushing a little, and Scrivener and Twilight only looking crankily at the starry-maned mare.

Luna only grumbled, then said moodily: “'Tis not my fault. Hecate requires a foalsitter, 'lest her mouth go out of control.”

“If you don't put me down, I'm going to electrocute us both until one of us dies.” Hecate growled, her horn sparking... and then her eyes bulged when Luna reached up and calmly grasped her spire, twisting it firmly a few times before there was a small spark as the base of the head's crystal-and-metal horn popped out of place and the hum of energy stuttered out from it.

Hecate sulked visibly, the cables of her mane twitching as her living-electricity mane sizzled uselessly, and Luna sniffed disdainfully as she cradled the head a little closer and remarked: “'Tis actually oddly comforting. 'Tis like holding an angry, bitey little badger. It is so cuddly despite being so vicious and dangerous.”

Innocence giggled a bit as Antares rolled his eyes, and then Morning Glory sighed and gestured down the table at Antares and Excelsior. “I want two copies of that report. And before we break, I want solutions to this problem and I want a damage appraisal.”

“Hecate and I will work together to build a scrying lens that might let us reach Ginnungagap with Discombobulation's help. It will let us know more. Apart from that, I suggest sending out Greater Nightmare messengers across Equestria. We should contact the wild and neutral demons we know of as well, and perhaps consider reaching out to the Strange Ones.” Celestia said quietly, raising her head. “We have to ready ourselves for whatever's coming, and we have to assume it's going to happen soon.”

“Yes, perfect. Rile everyone up with a false alarm, because you're so afraid of what's going to happen and jumping at shadows.” Hecate said distastefully from Luna's forelegs. “Prepare a false front. Assemble the conscripts and the weak, to sacrifice as a buffer in the event we are attacked shortly. Demons can maintain a state of high alert longer than soldiers, but eventually they'll start to relax, to get sloppy. They're not like Clockwork Ponies.

“Let me get back to work. And useless as it is to ask this, get the Clockwork Ponies out of the Skin Walker's prisons and sent here. Let me upgrade them for combat purposes, since you won't let me make more.” Hecate said moodily, and then she winced when Luna shook her violently.

“Thou art an idiot.” Luna declared, and then she looked up and said firmly: “Set up thy... fancy demon sensors and send message to Valhalla, tell them to watch for any signs of those coming or leaving. Without doubt, the force will come for us, as it always does... has the Whistler not already expressed interest in us, after all? Then we shall simply pummel it. The Draconequus get their show, evil shall be repelled, and I shall get to pummel something. My solution is the best because 'tis a victory for everyone.”

Morning Glory grimaced at these solutions, and then Excelsior leaned over and mumbled something hurriedly to Antares, who blinked in surprise before he looked at the delegate. Excelsior nodded rapidly to him, and the glossy-black unicorn shrugged after a moment before he cleared his throat loudly and turned, saying: “Excelsior says we should try and coordinate efforts between Hel's Archives and Heaven's Watchers. Working side-by-side, they could create some kind of massive network, give us all kinds of information about what's coming and going.”

All eyes turned expectantly towards Morning Glory, who frowned and lowered her head in thought before she nodded slowly and looked meditatively upwards. “I think we're done here. At least one or two of you had good ideas.”

Luna grumbled, then she firmly screwed Hecate's horn back into place, the head wincing a bit as there was a small spark before the artificial spire thrummed with energy. Then she cursed when Luna flung her easily across the table to Celestia, who grimaced and leaned back slightly even as she caught the less-pleasant alternate version of herself. “Very well then. Innocence, as we still have most of the day let us make good use of it. We shall take thee down to train.”

“I'll come with you guys. Excelsior, you can at least handle copying the reports by yourself, right?” Antares looked almost pleadingly at the delegate, who shifted back and forth before he finally sighed and nodded, sweeping up his clipboard and half-hiding behind it as the glossy-black unicorn smiled and slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Great, thank you!”

Scrivener and Twilight traded looks and shrugs, then the violet mare turned her eyes to Celestia, who had carefully put Hecate's head down on the table for the moment. “If you guys need any help, just let me know... I'm sure between training, I can-”

“Your help isn't wanted or needed.” Hecate said rudely, and Twilight shifted away a little before the head added nastily to Luna when she caught her glare: “And you should watch yourself, Luna Brynhild. I swear that the moment the chance presents itself, I will make you feel what it's like to be groped and bounced around like a foal's ball.”

“I do not think of foals in that way and nor am I fat enough to be considered a ball, but I am rather certain I have more experience with groping and bouncing than thou does!” Luna shot back, then she paused and looked reflectively at the head as Hecate growled at them. “Well. In thy current state, 'twould be very awkward. But 'tis even more awkward to think that in the past thou got thy gropes and bounces from Valthrudnir.”

“We never did once.” Hecate said coolly, and then she added in a moodier voice: “And even by your standards that was a low blow, Valkyrie. Like me talking about how you still have problems when it comes to your taste for your husband's blood.”

Luna froze up for a moment, baring her fangs as Innocence frowned over her shoulder in confusion and the others reacted with everything from shocked nervousness to suppressed anger... and then the sapphire mare suddenly relaxed and took a slow breath before muttering shortly: “Perhaps 'twas. I apologize.”

Hecate only snorted, and Luna turned her eyes ahead and strode sharply past Innocence, quickly leading the way out. Daughter uneasily followed quickly after her Móðer, not understanding as she asked slowly: “What did she mean, Mutt?”

“Nothing... nothing, 'tis...” Luna shifted, then she shook her head and murmured a little more honestly: “'Tis nothing I want to talk about.”

Innocence shifted a bit at this, looking a little surprised and... maybe a little upset, too. But then Antares stepped up beside her and smiled, nudging the mare firmly with his shoulder and saying easily: “Always asking so many damn questions, Sin. And look at you, you already got a shiny new set of armor, you trying to figure out a polite way to ask for more?”

“I am not.” Innocence huffed, and then she firmly tried to bodycheck her sibling, but Antares quickly rose a hoof and caught her side, clearing his throat loudly. Innocence glanced awkwardly back at herself, noting the sharp edges of her armor, and then she cleared her throat before saying lamely: “Sorry. Not used to the whole. Well. You know.”

Antares only nodded, and Luna paused as she smiled over her shoulder a little at her children, then glanced up to look at Twilight and Scrivener, who were trailing a few feet behind their son and daughter. Scrivener smiled supportively to her as Twilight nodded with a soft look in her eyes, and the sapphire mare grunted before she moved her eyes to Innocence. “Perhaps for the rest of today, we shall... practice the basics, get thee better acquainted with thy gear. Antares, thou art wearing nothing but frills, so thou and Innocence may go ahead and begin training whilst I bring my mares to throw off all our extra equipment.”

Luna patted her armored breast lightly, and Antares huffed as he reached up and tugged lightly at the simple cloth uniform vest he was wearing. “Look, you see this? This is not frilly. This is the uniform of a real stallion. You're frilly.”

“Thou art frilly!” Luna retorted immediately, and then she poked quickly at Antares with her horn, but the stallion fended her off with his own. It made Innocence feel a prick of envy for a moment, glancing up at her own curved horn: it was wider, more-blade like, almost as if deigned to cut and slash... and yet she was nowhere near the level of her Móðer or sibling. She just kind of swung her head around until she hit something.

That was probably why they had put horn foiling out of mind for now and were just concentrating on her magic. But all the same, seeing Luna and Antares playfighting again...

Innocence remained oddly quiet as they broke into their two different groups, parents going one way and kids the other. They were plenty of quiet places around Subterra where they could just run some drills together, and Antares was certainly more than happy to work with his little sister.

It wasn't until they were walking down the road together that Innocence really realized where they were: she had been thinking too much. About horn foiling, training, all the scary stuff that was going on and Mutt's odd reaction to Hecate's weird taunt. The young unicorn bit her lip, looking over at Antares, and he sighed as he caught her look in the corner of his eye. He didn't need his acuity to know what she was going to ask, so he preempted her by saying softly: “Luna wasn't mad at you. She was just a little upset. And look, you saw how quick she cheered up.”

“Yeah, but that's Mutt. The worst possible thing could happen to her, and she'd be really sad and depressed and then... five minutes later, she could be happy or angry or anything else. She has those big mood swings all the time.” Innocence halted, then added softly, eyes gazing at him insistently from beneath her faceplate: “And you know what I'm going to ask.”

“I do. And I don't know how to answer or what I should say.” Antares replied honestly, shaking his head a little before he smiled at his sibling. There was silence between them for a few moments, and then the glossy-black unicorn said finally, as he glanced up: “Móðer has a problem.”

Innocence frowned at this, then awkwardly looked ahead herself down the packed dirt road, as they passed between the dark and strange and beautiful architecture of the buildings that filled Subterra. They passed demons, and spirits, and ponies with sharp teeth and cloven hooves and all kinds of other strange things, but it all felt so natural that Innocence was able to keep all her focus on Antares, asking quietly but insistently: “What problem? What problem, Tarry?”

Antares sighed, then he shook his head and looked up at Subterra's dark cavern ceiling, far, far above. Enormous crystals were embedded along the roof and hung by heavy chains, all of these enormous gemstones glowing like powerful lanterns and casting warmth and energy and tainted-blue light throughout the underground city, supplying a constant flow of power that helped feed and energize its inhabitants, and also served to create a buffer that stopped the raw presence of so many demons from filtering upwards and having adverse effects on the emotions of the ponies above.

The stallion looked at one of these crystals, focused on it, and on the faint darkness he could see twisting through it: they had added more of these enormous feeders over the last few years because of the swelling population in Subterra, and some of these gemstones had been modified by adding infusions of corruption to them. Corruption that amplified the effects of the crystals... “You know about the Clay of Prometheus, how Dad can control it, and what it can be used for. It's an amplifier and a power source. But I don't think anyone's ever told you... what can happen when someone drinks it or... injects it into themselves or... well, I know our parents wouldn't want to scare you. I don't want to scare or worry you, or make you think...”

He looked over at his sister, and dammit, now she really was scared. The glossy-black unicorn grimaced a bit, then he shook his head quickly before saying softly: “Listen, Sin. I think partly because of the connection they have... Dad's corruption has always had a kind of a different effect on Luna. And after... many too much time of being exposed to that constantly, well, Móðer now craves to have that in her system. Dad's blood.”

Innocence frowned over at Antares at this, biting her lip before she asked: “And well, what does that mean? Dad's blood, but Mutt's not... I meant she doesn't, and Dad doesn't-”

“Why is this so hard to explain?” Antares mumbled to himself, and then he shook his head hurriedly and looked over at his younger sibling almost pleadingly as they slowed to a halt at an intersection, letting several large, bull-like demons pass. “Okay, listen. I'm just going to say it. Mutt used to be addicted to the corruption. Móðer... I guess she still is addicted to the corruption, but she also... she doesn't... I mean I don't think she does...”

Innocence shifted on her claws, gazing up at her big brother, and the stallion looked back at her before he sighed and mumbled: “This is really hard. I don't know why I can't just tell you, none of us are ashamed of her or anything. It's just maybe hard to think that... our mom has that kind of weakness, when she's so strong at the same time.”

The young mare and her brother stood in silence for a few moments, and then she looked down at her own claw and flexed it slowly, asking quietly: “So like... it's like a drinking problem or something or... drugs? But Móðer never... I mean, I've never seen her...”

“Like I said, Luna is strong.” Antares said firmly, leaning towards his little sister, and Innocence blinked in surprise and reared back a bit before the stallion blushed and shook his head, mumbling: “Sorry. I know you don't mean anything bad, it's just... sensitive and I hate that I'm doing such a bad job explaining all this. Remember, you're still kind of a kid, kid.”

“What the hell's that supposed to mean?” Innocence frowned at this, raising her head and glaring up at Antares. “What, I don't get to know the family secrets yet, or I'm not to be trusted or... what? What?”

Antares was only grinning, though, and then he shook his head before he turned down the road to their right, heading calmly away as Innocence hurried after him and he said mildly: “Now you're starting to sound like I used to, Sin. Just... trust me. Of course Mutt and Dad aren't going to talk about it, and Twilight's always respected their privacy. When things are in the past, sometimes you just leave them there, in the past, and don't disturb them anymore. The only reason I'm telling you is because I don't want you asking our parents all kinds of questions about this and upsetting them. It's... it's really hard for Luna to talk about.”

Innocence sighed, lowering her head as there was an awkward quiet, and then the young mare looked up and said grudgingly: “It's really weird when you use our parents' names. I never do, like a good little filly. You're a bad filly.”

“I'm a bad filly.” Antares agreed mildly, looking ahead and smiling despite himself. Then he glanced over at his sister as Innocence ran up beside him before he nudged her lightly with his shoulder, saying easily: “You just make sure you stay a good little filly, okay? I put our parents through enough problems as it is.”

“You still do.” Innocence informed, and Antares looked at her meditatively before he suddenly snapped his horn down, unleashing a bright flare of light in her eyes that made her squeak and trip over her own hooves. She blinked several times, then scrambled to her claws and glared as Antares ran down the road with a wide grin, the young mare shouting furiously at her brother's retreating back: “I'm gonna get you for that!”

With that, the mare bolted after her brother, stumbling a little now and then in her heavy armor as Antares only laughed, looking over his shoulder with warmth in his eyes, silently reaffirming his promise he would do anything to protect his baby sister and help her find her way through life.

Luna Brynhild shook herself briskly out as they approached the front of the gorgeous palace: from the lush, flowering vines that covered it, to the red stone and softer curves of its architecture, it was very different from most of the other buildings that filled Subterra. Behind her, Twilight and Scrivener were arguing over something, as usual, but Luna only rolled her eyes before she complained: “Thou art both tremendous idiots and tremendous prostitutes. Tremendous. Cease flirting with each other. Thou art always flirting with each other. I am thy mistress, thou should both be flirting with me.”

Scrivener and Twilight looked sourly at Luna as she glared back at them challengingly, and then they both calmly strode along either side of the winged unicorn and walked past her, heading up the steps towards the open gates as Twilight resumed: “So that's why you're wrong. It's contemporary reflective prose and it's not meant to be taken so seriously, Scrivy. You're being more sensitive than me, which is weird, because you're the one who always makes all those nasty jokes about unicorns.”

“There's a huge difference between when I tell a joke about a unicorn and actual discrimination.” Scrivener replied mildly, shaking his head quickly. “I mean, I might make some... disparaging horn comments. But I would never talk about unicorns as my lessers. They're not my lessers. In fact, they're better jerks than I am, oftentimes. But you can't write something that says 'all unicorns are genetically-wired to be indolent scumbags' in so many words and then hide behind 'oh, but it's a philosophical treatise, so I can say anything I want and anyone who argues with me is stupid,' that's cowardly. And dumb. And yes, I feel dirty for taking the unicorn's position on this.”

“Did somebody say a unicorn's getting into position?” asked a roguish voice as the two stepped through the gates with Luna grumbling along in their wake, and all three ponies looked up to see a tall, handsome stallion striding towards him with a wide grin. He looked like a unicorn, with his rune-covered horn, but his coat shifted through different hues like magma and his mane and tail were made of radiant flames, his ruby eyes drawing over them with excitement. “Violet! Scrivener! Luna! Oh, it's such a pleasure to have you all here!”

He laughed loudly, and Scrivener and Twilight both smiled warmly even as they did their best to keep their eyes forwards: where this bottleneck hall widened out, either wall was lined with all variety of statues of mares, perfect to the last, awkward detail and all of them in sultry, compromising, and often downright debauched positions. But that was to be expected, really: this First Tier demon was a Passion, a mix of Lust and Greed with a penchant for physical pleasures.

“Burning Desire. It's great to see you too.” Twilight said softly, and the two traded a tight, warm embrace. Then she felt the demon's hooves tickling down her sides, and Twilight pushed him away even as she laughed despite herself, shaking her head and looking up at him warmly. “You'll never change, will you?”

Burning Desire only shrugged cheerfully, and then he gestured to them quickly, saying positively: “Well, come on, come on inside! Ersatz Major is just finishing up your rooms... your cousin, I swear sometimes, Scrivener, she's more interested in you than she is me!”

Scrivener only sighed and shook his head, and Luna said mildly: “Thou has such an awkward obsession with family. 'Tis a wonder thy little sister Morning Glory hasn't yet punched thee into a pulp for how often thou skirts such a dangerous subject with her, really.”

“Well, she has punched me into a pulp many times, actually, which is why I don't make those jokes around her anymore. She's not a believer in letting things go through humor and I've learned that now.” Burning Desire said carefully, and Luna grinned despite herself before the fiery stallion pranced towards the doors at the end of the hall. “But come, come! Oh, and where is sweet little Innocence? I have a gift for her here somewhere!”

Luna looked up brightly at this, but Twilight winced and shook her head hurriedly, saying awkwardly: “No offense, Burning, but... I would please like to double-check what your gift is before you give it to her. I know that... well...”

Burning Desire only glowered at the Lich as the three followed him out of the entrance hall and into the corridor, the fiery demon sniffing disdainfully as he said mildly: “I would like to point out that was a joke gift, for one thing. For another, Innocence got a great giggle out of it, and so did Luna. As a matter of fact, I think you secretly enjoyed it yourself, violet, you simply didn't want to lose your strong maternal composure. Which is very attractive, by the way.”

“Thank you. I think.” Twilight said awkwardly, and then she cleared her throat and shook her head before saying finally: “I do trust you, Burning Desire. And I like you. I really honestly do. You're just... not what I'd call 'child appropriate.'”

“But I am very good with children.” The fiery stallion grinned... then faltered when Scrivener coughed loudly, Luna giggled, and Twilight looked a little horrified. “I... I didn't mean like that! I mean that I like foals, I'm very... no, not like that!”

Luna cackled and fell over, and Scrivener covered his muzzle to suppress his grin as Twilight slowly closed her eyes. Burning Desire stumbled lamely around in a circle in the middle of the hall to look at them pleadingly, and then he groaned and stomped his hooves childishly as he whined: “You three are always so mean to me! And yes, I include you in that number, violet, because you encourage these... these rapscallions!”

“I think that makes us rapacious.” Scrivener said over to Luna without even knowing why, and the sapphire mare only laughed harder as Twilight looked flatly over her shoulder at the two, feeling their amusement, their mischief, their... lunacy.

Twilight realized after a moment what a ridiculously-apt word that was for her partners, and she mentally groaned to herself before turning her eyes towards Burning Desire. He looked at her with large eyes, seeming more like a pouty little dog than a powerful, handsome demon lord, and the Lich shook her head a little before saying finally: “Okay, okay. Then... I'll trust you. Just... please. It's not another 'joke' gift, right?”

“You have my word.” Burning Desire straightened and smiled warmly, nodding firmly to her before he glared at Luna and Scrivener as he added: “I'm glad at least one pony here has the sense to be kind to your honorable host!”

Scrivener only shrugged, and Luna huffed as she popped up to her hooves, shaking off the last of her giggles as she strode forwards and replied firmly: “Well, thou should be happy I even let thee live, pest of a demon! Do not forget how courteous and generous and... goodess I have been to thee and thine, for 'twas well within my power to simply smite all thee wicked demons and devils and night-bumpers!”

“Now hey. I know you like night-bumping as much as I do.” Burning Desire said pointedly, and Luna paused and nodded thoughtfully in agreement after a moment before the fiery stallion continued mildly: “And you can't say we haven't done great stuff for you. I gave you that candy machine once.”

“'Twas a stupid kettle and some stupid glass!” Luna retorted, and then she poked at Burning Desire with her horn, making the demon wince and skitter backwards. “Damn thy handsome face, demon. Come here so I may punish thee.”

“Are you going to spank me?” Burning Desire rose his head with a grin, and Luna huffed and glowered, then paused and looked meditatively over at Scrivener Blooms.

The charcoal stallion winced away from her, not liking the look on the sapphire mare's face, and even less the thoughts that were starting to form in her mind, but he was saved from dealing with any further awkward comments by the approach of another unicorn from down the hall. The sound of cloven hooves gently tapping against the floor caught Burning's attention as well, and he smiled warmly over his shoulder, saying easily to the moss-green, slender mare drawing close: “Now, darling, we were just coming to see you.”

“Well, forgive me for being eager to see our friends.” Ersatz Major smiled slightly: her mane was a mix of white and blonde, styled in gorgeous waves, and her horn was tall and gold and metallic-looking. She was so beautiful it was almost painful to look at her, and her eyes were a vivacious, glowing blue. And unlike most demons, she had a clearly visible cutie mark: the profile of a unicorn in black, framed against a burst of flames. It was the sign of a pony who'd made a contract with a demon, but that stamp had never faded out because that demon had never claimed her soul... or at least not in the usual way demons did.

She was adorned with a simple gemstone choker around her neck, and several simple bands of gold that jingled quietly when the mare leaned forwards to share a tight, quick hug with Scrivener for a moment before the two drew apart, gazing at one another warmly. “It's good to see you, cousin. And I hear that you'll be looking into meeting with Xeric while you're here. I'd like to see another book come out of this.”

Scrivener smiled despite himself at this, shaking his head and saying softly: “Well, I think you're about the only one who wants to see that. I'm not popular these days... a momentary spark, and then everything was gone.”

Ersatz only shook her head in entertainment, and then she smiled over at Twilight Sparkle, saying gently: “And you look marvelous, Twilight Sparkle. I'm eager to see little Sin... she's growing up so pretty.”

“She shall be pretty, and she shall be strong as well.” Luna said firmly, nodding and straightening. “And how art thou, Ersatz Major? No further troubles, I pray?”

Ersatz shrugged at this, trading a soft look with Burning Desire before she replied gently: “Nothing important, let's put it that way, darling. I'm learning more basic magic and simple polymorphs, and I think I'm getting better at... focusing, as well as prettying myself up.”

Ersatz reached up and brushed at her coiffed mane with a small smile, and then she stepped aside and said kindly: “I set you up in the usual set of rooms. It's clean and tidy, and there's a few presents for Innocence. But it seems she's... out with Antares right now?”

The mare tilted her head curiously, and Scrivener smiled despite himself, shaking his head as he said mildly: “I really wish you wouldn't practice your emotional reading on us. Even if you are getting pretty good at it.”

“Well, it's a talent I'd like to develop. It's very useful for a pony of my persuasion.” Ersatz bowed her head politely, and then she smiled softly over at Burning Desire when he grinned at her. “I don't need emotional reading to know what's always on your mind, Burning, but not in front of guests. Let's try and be appropriate hosts, shall we?”

“Oh, what fun is that? Besides, I'm quite sure Luna would loathe to have us acting all... 'appropriate.'” Burning Desire said mildly, and the sapphire winged unicorn grunted and nodded thoughtfully in agreement, even as Scrivener Blooms and Twilight Sparkle walked past, heading towards the familiar guest rooms. Then the Passion grinned, the demon sneaking forwards on the tips of his hooves and whispering loudly to Luna: “I can't help but notice that your mares seem to be more interested in each other than you...”

“Oh, stop causing trouble, Burning.” Ersatz laughed as she caught up to the demon, nudging him lightly, and he only gave her an innocent look, ignoring the dry expression Twilight favored him with from over her shoulder. “You'll have to excuse him. He thinks that being 'playful,' as he calls it, impresses me. He really is quite wrong, though.”

“I don't think I'm wrong at all. Why, you seem to just delight in all the mischief I make, really.” Burning said cheerfully, and then he and the Envy demon halted as the three ponies turned into their room, the fiery stallion shaking his head with a smile and calling: “We'll wait out here while you strip down, but do feel free to invite us in if you need help or want a few extra hooves on hoof for... oh, just about anything, really!”

Ersatz snorted in amusement and gave the fiery stallion an amused look, and Luna rolled her eyes inside the room before striding across the plush carpet, between the comfy-looking couch in a little sitting area and the enormous bed resting against the wall, and then she seized Scrivener Blooms and yanked him around so she could kiss him slowly and firmly.

He blinked dumbly, and then Luna dropped him before he could kiss her back before the sapphire mare turned to Twilight and repeated the affection, with much the same result. Then the starry-maned mare stepped back and rose her head proudly as both ponies looked at her with dumb smiles, declaring. “And that is why I am the most important pony in the universe.”

“Yes. Yes, that's you.” Scrivener Blooms said wryly, and then he shook his head slowly before clearing his throat and awkwardly pushing himself up to his hooves, turning to head to the mini-bar in the back corner of the room and mumble: “We really are the weirdest family ever.”

Luna only shrugged amiably at this as she began to shake herself quickly, her soulstone horn glowing and her polished-black armor lighting up before the belts suddenly loosened themselves and the buckles snapped open, plates and other pieces of equipment bursting off her body almost in a wave as the rest fell loose. Pieces of gear clanked loudly down around her as her sheathed rifle spun lazily in the air above her, and then Luna tossed this onto the bed with her helm as she climbed out of the last of her gear. “I do not think so. It could be much weirder. Twilight Sparkle could be a stallion for example, and then her pregnancy with Innocence would have been something of legend.”

Twilight sighed at this, shaking her head slowly as she pulled off her gemstone vest, cloak, and the holstered Andlitstingar, the Lich taking a moment to absently feel along her new stitches and make sure none of them had popped open before she replied mildly: “I don't think that's even possible, Luna. There are a few anatomical differences you might want to look into.”

“Oh, what does thou know? Magic makes all things possible... nay, my battering ram is fierce enough that 'twould inspire any stallion lucky enough to feel its terrible hammer pregnant!” Luna paused, then she peered over at Scrivener, saying slowly: “Perhaps we should test its potency...”

Scrivener only gave Luna a flat look, throwing one of his pauldrons at her, but she huffed and batted it away, saying flatly: “Take care of thy armor, Scrivy! Thou should be caring for thy armor better than thou cares for thyself!”

“Says the mare who just used magic to explode her armor off her body, and left it covering half the room.” Scrivener said dryly, gesturing at the large puddle of metal and mesh over the floor before he went back to removing his gear and other equipment, and Luna looked contemplatively back at this for a moment.

Then she turned her eyes back towards Scrivener Blooms, sniffing loudly once as she declared: “For one, 'tis not even a fifth of the room that I have covered. For another, my armor happens to like laying upon the floor. But thou would not know this because thou ignores my armor when she tries to speak to thee. Thou art an abuser. A neglector.”

Scrivener slowly dropped his head into a hoof, closing his eyes and looking pained before Twilight Sparkle interrupted: “So shouldn't we hurry over to see Innocence? And... well, Luna, about... what Hecate said...”

“I do not need thy sympathies or condolences or... pah.” Luna grumbled, blushing slightly and dropping her head before she mumbled: “The damned witch knows too much, that is all. And I am sure that... if Innocence has questions, we shall all answer them honestly, aye? 'Twill be tough but... 'tis what our daughter deserves. Honesty.”

Twilight and Scrivener both smiled, but Luna only grumbled and spun around, striding towards the doorway and absently kicking off one last bracer that was still stuck on her hind leg. Then she poked her head through the open door and glowered over at Burning Desire and Ersatz Major, who both looked back at her inquisitively. “Spies.”

“We're not spying, Lady Luna. We're just... waiting here, and we want to offer to help however we can, that's all. You know that-” The mare demon was cut off by Luna blowing a loud raspberry at her, before she sighed a little and turned her eyes towards Scrivener Blooms when he and Twilight emerged from the room. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, it's okay Ersatz. We're just going to go and find Innocence and Antares now and hope that they haven't gotten into too much trouble.” Scrivener paused, then he made a bit of a face and glanced over at Twilight, saying mildly: “Remember when Antares used to be more like you than us? Those were good days. It's amazing how he can spend most of his time in Valhalla and he attracts more trouble towards us than he ever used to in the past.”

“Aye, 'tis a good sign, I think. It means he is growing up.” Luna said positively with a nod to the stallion, and then she turned her eyes back towards Burning Desire and said firmly: “When I return, I expect for there to be many prostitutes in my room. For... massage purposes.”

Scrivener and Twilight both glared at Luna's back, and Burning Desire sniffed loudly before he straightened and said pointedly: “They are not prostitutes, Luna Brynhild, they're...” A pause. “Well, alright, maybe one or two. But they're mostly not prostitutes. They are... specially-trained servants, who are adept at sharing physical comforts. Not prostitutes.”

He paused, then winked over at Luna, adding cheerfully: “But they do live to serve. So I'll ensure that you have my very best at your disposal. They're very fond of you three, after all, even if they tell me it always takes them a while to get Scrivener to warm up to them.”

The fiery stallion winked over at the charcoal earth pony, who gave a dry smile before he pointed awkwardly at Twilight as the Lich glowered a little. “Twilight's possessive. That's not my fault. I like your uh. Not-prostitutes, really.”

The violet mare gave a sour look to Scrivener Blooms, who shifted and shrugged lamely before the Lich sighed and shook her head, saying finally: “I'm not that possessive. I just. Really don't like the idea of... you know. Just... can we go and find Innocence now?”

Ersatz smiled kindly at Twilight, and it just made the Lich feel all the more awkward and embarrassed as she shifted uncomfortably, but thankfully all the Envy demon said was: “Don't worry, Twilight Sparkle. I'll make sure that they all know to respect your boundaries.”

The Lich smiled embarrassedly, and then she glanced towards Luna as the sapphire mare grunted and jerked her head quickly. “Well, then let us move forwards and find our children. There is much to be done before we can surrender ourselves to the pleasure of prostitutes.”

“They're not prostitutes! And anyway, what about Innocence and Antares? Or should I have separate rooms prepared for them, you know that's really no trouble at all. I could even find some handsome young demons to-” And then Ersatz reached up and covered Burning's mouth with one hoof, the green mare still smiling pleasantly.

“What Burning means is that we'll set up the room across the hall for them. It's no trouble at all, and it's a divided room, so they can have some privacy. Besides, Antares seems to spend a lot of his time wandering around Subterra when he's here.” Ersatz said softly, nodding once. Luna nodded thoughtfully at this as Twilight looked up with a smile, and then the sapphire mare turned to stride past them with a grunt.

“Then thou hast our thanks, Ersatz. 'Tis most appreciated.” Luna paused, then she looked over her shoulder as both Twilight and Scrivener lingered, the sapphire mare huffing a bit. “Well, thou wert the two so anxious to leave, but now I see thee are loitering like... like ducks.”

“Ducks never loiter, Luna. They're quackers about being on time.” Scrivener said mildly, and all eyes stared at him for a moment before Luna turned around, strode over, and firmly bopped him with her horn, making him wince and shrink his head back. “I may have deserved that.”

Luna grunted, and then Twilight shook her head slowly before she said softly, glancing almost shyly at Burning Desire for a moment: “I'm... really happy to see you happy, Burning. Maybe when I get back, you can help with my daughter a little... she needs some magic training, and you did so well with Prestige, after all...”

Burning Desire smiled softly at this, then he nodded firmly once before replying gently: “It would be my honor, Twilight Sparkle. I'm always more than happy to help out you and your wonderful family. We both are, yes, dear?”

“Of course. They're our family too, after all.” Ersatz said softly, smiling as well, and then she and Scrivener traded a quick hug. “Don't let yourself get beaten up too badly, Scrivener. Even if you very strangely seem to like that sort of thing.”

“Scrivener is a very good mare.” Luna agreed with a wry grin, leering over at the stallion for a moment, and he winced as Twilight glowered before the sapphire winged unicorn spun around again and strode quickly down the hall, calling: “But fear not, we shan't break the important parts, Ersatz Major. 'Twould be a waste of good pony parts.”

Scrivy only sighed as he shook his head and followed, and Twilight Sparkle gave one last, quick smile to the two, then she hurried to catch up to her partners. Burning Desire and Ersatz Major watched the three as they headed away down the corridor, and then the fiery stallion chuckled quietly before he turned his eyes towards the mare, saying softly: “It's good to have friends.”

“It's good that things have worked out.” Ersatz said in agreement, and the demons traded smiles before Burning leaned over and kissed the base of Ersatz's golden horn. Then the fiery stallion turned and pranced away, and Ersatz Major chuckled quietly and shook her head slowly, gazing down the hall for a moment after her cousin and feeling both the faint tickle of envy as well as the soft wonder of admiration for her strange family. A family she cherished more with each passing day, and desired only the best for; a family, she had promised herself, she would one day be as important to as they were to her, no matter how long and hard that path would take.

But she had all the time in the world to make up for past mistakes now. And she was determined to make the most of every second of it.

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