• 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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The White Queen

Chapter Seventeen: The White Queen

Twilight Sparkle smiled warmly as she helped Taruos build a castle out of blocks, the two sitting together in the grasses as Luna watched almost enviously and Scrivener went over some heavy study materials with Innocence. The charcoal stallion kept glancing at his daughter – who was still dressed in her armor, although the others had long taken their gear off – and smiling despite himself at the fact that she also seemed a little jealous of the fact her mother was apparently enjoying herself so much babysitting the young prince of Valhalla.

They were having a sort of little picnic out here in the courtyard, just enjoying the warmth in the air as tall trees swayed and creaked quietly in the windless air, as if trying to whisper to their guests. It was mostly quiet, with only the occasional person straying by along the dirt path that cut through the grasses, and it was a welcome escape from how hectic everything had started to get; a reminder that even where there was bad, they could still find little places of sanctuary.

At least, until something darkened their doorsteps, and insisted on bringing that beautiful sanctuary crumbling down around them.

Scrivener Blooms halted in his reading, looking up with a frown as a distinct chill cut through the air, and Luna looked sharply back and forth as well before she snarled at the sound of a quiet giggle. Nearby, a tall apple tree twisted as if in pain before its branches curled inwards and its leaves withered and died, tumbling to the ground among the rotten fruit in masses of blacks and browns flecked with the white of decaying frost.

Slowly, a tall, ominous figure slid its way around the tree, grasping the thick trunk and half-spinning itself forwards with a long, loud sigh of what sounded like pleasure. It was bipedal and terribly thin, with a dress made of blue-tinged snow swirling around a body composed of pale ice. Her fingers were long and dexterous claws, and her head was cow-like, with big teeth, gaunt and sunken eyes, and floppy ears that flapped away beneath short horns.

The cow-headed puppet of ice and frost danced towards them, and then she half-bowed almost mockingly before straightening and saying in a falsely-friendly voice: “Luna Brynhild, these little birdies keep whispering in my ears that you're looking for me! And you know I really, really, really would hate to disappoint a former Valkyrie and one of my new best friends. Especially now that a certain someone seems to have returned a day late and a Kvasir short.”

Luna growled at this, but then visibly fought to control herself, taking a slow breath before she rose her head and said carefully: “We have been wanting to make contact with thee, aye. We are curious what thou knows about Gymbr.”

Scrivener slowly closed the textbook in front of him and put it aside as Innocence stared up at Hel, and Twilight Sparkle had shifted to automatically try and protect Taruos. Not that the child even seemed the slightest bit afraid: if anything, he was glaring defiantly up at Hel, and as the goddess drew her eyes slowly over the group and their little blanket that was littered with bits of food and a few books, she giggled a little and said in a strangely-chipper voice: “Oh, yes! Such defiance! Such resolve! It's been a long time since everyone in the room hasn't been afraid to stare.”

She paused, then clicked her tongue and turned back towards Luna, smiling and putting her hands behind her back as she said kindly: “You want answers, and you know what? I'm more than happy to give them to you. But I find it funny that you want all these damn answers when, sweetie-buns, I'm pretty sure you have plenty of them already. You just don't want to accept them.”

Luna frowned as Scrivener stood up and strode over to the sapphire mare's side, the two ponies shifting themselves to stand between Hel and their daughter, as Twilight Sparkle glanced back at Taruos and murmured: “Go and find your mother.”

“Oh, no, no, he should stay! He should watch!” Hel said enthusiastically, and with an absent gesture to the side, ice exploded out of the ground and spread rapidly up over the double doors behind Twilight and Taruos, sealing them shut. Then Hel grinned and snapped her fingers as she crossed her arm over her body, and the remaining set of door were frozen shut as well as massive claws and blades of ice tore free from the ground, the goddess saying softly: “And let's make sure we're not interrupted, either. Don't worry, you sillies, I'm not gonna hurt any of you. Not even the pissy little kid.”

Hel paused, then the ice puppet burst apart into a cloud of sparkling, frosty mist before the goddess reformed laying on her stomach in the grasses in front of Taruos, one hand propping her chin up as the other reached up and poked the boy firmly in the nose. “And you really are a pissy little brat, by the way. Always sulking. You really gotta smile more, kid!”

Taruos only continued to glare, not shrinking away even as Twilight herself couldn't help but shudder, and then Hel laughed and shoved herself to her feet, prancing back towards Luna and Scrivener and skidding to a halt in front of them before leaning up and waving childishly at Innocence. “Hello there, little girl! Say hi to your Granny Hel now!”

“Thou art far too old and ugly to be her grandmother.” Luna snapped, and Hel feigned a hurt look before the starry-maned mare asked coldly: “Now tell me, Hel. Did thou truly provide a core of soulstone to Gymbr? Why would thou take such a sordid risk?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Hel said mildly, shrugging almost cheerfully, and Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight all stared in disbelief before the goddess threw her head back and laughed. “Look at your faces! Oh, cinnamon, come on, it isn't that bad: I've got a wonderful backup plan, as a matter of fact, and all kinds of tricks or treats to keep me safe and maybe even stop the big bad wannabe god. Because you know, if you're not born a god, then you ain't never gonna be a true god. Isn't that right, ickle little Taruos-waruos?”

Taruos didn't respond: his eyes were still icy, gaze unblinking, and Twilight carefully slipped a wing around him as she said quietly: “Please, leave him alone, Hel. What did you mean, though, you have a plan to stop Gymbr? Did you expect something like this to happen?”

Hel only shrugged, sniffing disdainfully as she looked up towards the sky and crossed her arms, replying mildly: “Oh, sure, when I'm preparing all my plans, everyone's always saying, look at Hel, Hel is so paranoid, Hel is such a big crazy lady, Hel's nothing but a mad queen, and now look at you all, begging for my help, praising me for being so prepared-”

“'Tis not exactly praise I have for thee, goddess, believe me when I say this.” Luna growled, shaking her head quickly before she added moodily: “And furthermore, it makes thee no less paranoid. Rather, it only makes us all the more glad that thou art so paranoid for such an insane meddler.”

“Meddler! You're a meddler!” Hel said childishly, flailing her arms before she straightened and added sourly: “And I'll have you know, sweetums, that I really don't care all that much how much lives and how much dies. You know what I care about? Numero uno, number one, that would be me. You are not me. Not even the Lich-face over there is me.”

Scrivener gritted his teeth as Luna's eye twitched with frustration, her soulstone horn sparking and her mane swirling violently backwards as she said harshly: “Well, 'tis no great surprise that a great coward like thee would deny us her help after starting the mess in the first place, and-”

Hel yawned loudly, covering her mouth with one hand and snapping the fingers of her other, and a thick layering of ice spread violently up the sapphire mare's legs and locked tightly over her muzzle, her eyes widening in shock as the goddess turned and said gently: “You should be careful, little muffin. You don't want to go picking a fight with someone you can't win against, do you? Why, I saw you were already pissing Terra off... what, Valkyrie, you think you can go after Kvasir's mistake all alone? Because really, I already applied a fix to it. He was the one who screwed up in the first place.”

“My father was a great king.” Taruos said quietly, looking angrily up at Hel, and the goddess rolled her eyes and turned around as Luna cursed and shook herself violently, uselessly pulling at the shackles of ice around her legs as Scrivener winced and attempted to pry one of the frosty manacles off.

“Oh please, brat. Your father was no better and no worse than a thousand other administrators out there, and that was all he was... an administrator. But I'm not saying anything bad here, squirt. I liked the guy, I really, honestly did: it's just that he made a major boo-boo and I'm not about to stand here and take the blame for it.” Hel replied almost reasonably, and then she clapped her hands together and turned around, adding positively: “Now, Brynhild, back on subject-”

Luna snapped her soulstone horn forwards, sending a blue fireball hammering into Hel's stomach, and the upper half of the ice puppet exploded into frosty shrapnel. The legs stood dumbly alone for a moment as the waist twisted back and forth, and Luna cursed as she finally managed to rip herself free of the ice, the manacles and muzzle both losing some of their grip with their frosty master shattered.

But after a moment, the ice puppet rapidly reformed, larger pieces of ice flying back into place as snow spread almost like liquid through an invisible mold, then hardened into blue, crystalline body. Hel was left standing with her hands on her hips, looking down at them grouchily before she said mildly: “Now see, see that? Now you've gone and done it. I've played nice, I've offered to answer question, I even wasn't making fun of the big crystal dildo you have sticking right out of your face. But there, you had to attack me for no good reason-”

“Thou froze me to the ground! Thou... thou art Hel, here in Valhalla, in times past that was reason enough to attempt to execute thee, thou great and wicked bitch!” Luna snapped in response, shaking her head violently as she glared furiously up at the construct through which the goddess acted. “Damn thee, and... damnation, were this anything but Gymbr I would tell thee to shove thy plans right up thy bony buttocks, but... instead, I demand-”

“I demand you stop making demands of me!” Hel interrupted as she glared down at Luna, and then the icy goddess waggled a finger and said flatly: “You seem to forget, honeycakes, that I'm under no obligation to help you or your kind. And y'know what? I hear that you guys want my help, and gosh, I'm thrilled, really, I'm just so thrilled I take time out of my busy schedule to come on up here and play nice, and here you are, making yourself such a tremendous pain in my ass when I mean, come on, what have I really done wrong? No, no way, no how. So I'll tell you what, cinnabun. You want my help so badly? You think you can earn your way into my favor? Well, why don't we just throw together a quick and dirty little test to show you once and for all why I'm the one here who deserves respect, and you're the ones who should be doing all the bowing and pleading!”

With that, the goddess grinned as she stepped back and snapped her fingers, and a portal ripped open in midair, the vortex swirling violently as the ponies all looked up in shock. Then Hel threw her head back and laughed, hugging herself as an alarm began to blare through Valhalla, the skies above seeming to swirl with warning as a voice called clearly: “Level One! Level One!”

“That alarm, it means...” But the answer came before Luna could say it, as a massive shape fell out of the vortex and crashed to the ground on all fours. The walls of Valhalla trembled at the creature's arrival as Hel grinned and flitted quickly up beside the lumbering beast as it rose up, covered in massive, black metal plates that were locked together over its body to form impenetrable armor.

The monster rose its head, most of its features hidden by an opaque black visor and a heavy, head-clutching helmet: only its large lipless jaw was visible, filled with grinding teeth. It was massive, looming fifteen feet tall, its upper body gargantuan and limbs like the trunk of mighty Yggdrasil itself, huge hands shoved against the ground to help support its short, squat legs. There was no weak point visible in its armored body; there was little space left between its joints, and the plates that armored it looked as if they were fused together. Yet every single plate over its body and limbs was also etched with runes that glowed a faint gold, each forming a circle that surrounded a distinct, black divot: likely recesses where the bolts that held the armor into the monster's frame had been screwed in.

It growled as it straightened as much as it could, head craning back and forth as Twilight quickly grabbed Taruos and spread her wings, but before she could take flight, Hel simply flicked a hand towards her. The Lich cried out in pain as her wings were covered in ice, and Luna snarled furiously before the sapphire mare leaned forwards and shouted: “The fight is with us, monster!”

“Fight? Oh no, no. This isn't a real fight. This is just about teaching and earning respect, that's all.” Hel said kindly, shaking her head slowly and reaching out to pat the armored behemoth several times, then she glanced grouchily up as the alarms continued to blare before raising a hand and snapping her fingers. A moment later, the alarms fizzled out, and Hel sighed peacefully before she gestured dismissively at the behemoth. “Theodore, Teddy honey, be a good little dear and mash those two ponies into goop. Keep them alive, though, sweetie.”

Teddy roared loudly, straightening and pounding his fists against his chest like a gorilla before he lunged forwards, throwing himself at Luna and Scrivener. Both ponies immediately leapt to either side, then Luna's eyes widened in horror as Teddy smashed into the ground right in front of Innocence, the young mare staggering backwards with a scream before the monstrous behemoth swung one of its arms out as it spun towards the sapphire mare, swatting Innocence as it turned and knocking her on her back in a stunned heap.

“Bad, Teddy, bad! Get the Valkyrie and the homunculus pony, not the little girl!” Hel called in a frustrated voice, and the monster named Theodore looked up with a rumble before Luna smashed into the side of its head, knocking the giant staggering.

“Even if thou art supposed to be Hel's greatest weapon, we shall test how indestructible thou truly are!” Luna snarled, and then she snapped her horn down, unleashing a powerful blast of thunder and telekinesis that knocked Teddy's head back and sent the behemoth stumbling to the side with a roar of frustration. “I shall rip thee limb-from-limb!”

Scrivener grimaced as he hurried over to Innocence as Teddy uselessly swatted at Luna, snarling and growling at her as his arms swept back and forth through the air. Twilight gritted her teeth as she stayed back beside Taruos, before the Lich looked up with a wince as Hel seemed to all-but-appear beside them, the goddess grinning down at the violet mare and saying kindly: “I know you three are all linked together like a daisy chain, so take a listen to this, baby girl: if you can manage to even put a dent in my precious Teddy, then I'll help you girls out. But if Teddy puts a dent in you, then you can consider our deal off.”

Luna cursed at this, hearing Hel's words as clearly as if the goddess was speaking into her ear, and then the sapphire mare kicked off Teddy's head and launched herself high into the air. The giant stumbled again, but there wasn't so much as a scratch on his armor from the impact, and it was only a moment before the monster's attention turned towards Scrivener Blooms, who was trying to wake up his stunned daughter.

Theodore roared and jumped forwards, and Scrivener looked up almost too late before he flung himself backwards with the young mare, cursing under his breath. Teddy's hand crushed in the ground where he had been a moment before, and then the behemoth flung itself forwards, clawing wildly after Scrivener Blooms with its other arm before it crashed down and skidded over the grasses with a growl.

The charcoal stallion half-turned and flung his daughter backwards as hard as he could before he rolled quickly to the side, watching as the faceless beast seemed to follow him with eyes hidden beneath that impenetrable visor. It began to drag itself to its feet... and didn't even seem to notice Luna when she dropped out of the air and crashed down onto its back, stomping furiously up and down as her soulstone horn glowed with energy. “Traitor! Coward! Fool! How dare thou try and make a deal like this with-”

Theodore half-spun and snapped one massive arm out, and Luna was knocked hurtling backwards with a cry of agony, her ribs cracking loudly and her wings refusing to catch the air. She crashed into the bough of a tree, gasping for breath before she looked up in horror as the titan charged with a roar, swinging an arm out at the last moment to smash the tree with such force that most of the trunk was reduced to splinters.

Branches and chunks of wood flew in all directions as Luna flung herself upwards, forcing her wings to spread and flap as she wheezed for breath, and Teddy grabbed at her uselessly as the sapphire mare glared furiously down at the monstrosity. Then she looked sharply up at Scrivener Blooms, their eyes meeting for a moment and trading a quick plan before the stallion nodded and ran forwards, gritting his teeth as he covered the thirty or so between him and Theodore in a matter of moments, and then he flung himself upwards, crashing into the monster's lower back just as it made another swipe at low-hovering Luna.

Teddy was knocked stumbling, and his massive arms worked against him as they both swung forwards and acted like weights, dragging the goliath down with a tremendous crash and bang onto its front. Scrivener quickly leapt backwards, slamming his claws into the ground as he lowered his head and pushed as hard as he could, as Luna snapped her horn upwards with a spell she hoped desperately would work.

As black mire spread in a wave through the earth, green, thorny vines and brambles tore upwards out of the ooze, seizing around Teddy's limbs and body and yanking them down to restrain him. The behemoth snarled in frustration, unable to stand as it sank slightly into the mire and the dark ooze seemed to cling to it with unnatural tenacity, vines and brambles constricting fiercely around its body and armor and attempting to drag it further down into the muck.

Scrivener Blooms tore his claws out of the mire and leapt forwards, running along Teddy's spine before seizing into the beast's head and using this as an axle. He spun his body as he flung himself overtop the creature, landing on his hooves and leaning forwards into a fierce double-rend of his claws against Theodore's visor.

Sparks flew and the stallion's claws were knocked back as he cursed in surprise, stumbling away as his eyes widened even as Luna slammed down into the creature's back again, attempting to hammer in the same place she had hit again and again as lightning sizzled over her body and her hooves glowed with blue flames that flared almost white on impact with the monster's armor. But she couldn't make a dent, couldn't even make the creature twitch as it roared and yanked at the vines, ignoring Luna as she hammered wildly away at its back and Scrivener Blooms as he leaned forwards and began a vicious barrage of blows against Theodore's visor-covered face.

Hel clucked her tongue in what sounded almost like disapproval, shaking her head slowly and saying mildly: “Now, this is just a damn shame, a damn shame indeed! They're putting all this hard work into fighting Teddy, and not stopping just to think for a moment... oh, haven't they learned anything over the years about being careful not to bite off more than they can chew?”

“Stop it! What's even the point of all this?” Twilight shouted, glaring up at Hel, and Hel smiled coolly in return as she looked measuringly down at Twilight Sparkle.

“It's exactly what I said it is, girl. I've been giving you three gifts so long you've gotten complacent and greedy. Now, if you want something from me, you're going to have to earn it, and I don't take credit. I only accept fear.” Hel responded calmly, and then she looked up and shouted: “Theodore, Mommy is getting bored! Hurry up and squash them!”

Teddy growled, then yanked both of his massive arms firmly back towards his body, ripping his limbs free of the vines and brambles and sending black mire splashing in all directions, and a moment later he swatted Scrivener Blooms away like a toy before the shocked stallion could react. Atop the behemoth's back, Luna winced and stumbled, distracted for a moment before she yelped as Theodore shoved himself backwards and up onto his knees, catapulting the sapphire mare off his back.

Luna managed to flip her body in midair, twisting around and slamming down on her hooves to skid backwards, glaring furiously at Theodore's back before she charged forwards as Scrivener managed to stand and glare at the giant. The behemoth seemed to glare back despite his visor, snarling furiously as he crawled up to his feet... and then Luna slammed into the monster's back, knocking him staggering into the puddle of mire before she snapped her horn forwards, unleashing a tremendous surge of lightning that sent up a blinding flash of light when it collided with Teddy's body.

Luna grinned savagely as Scrivener shoved his hooves down into the edge of the muck, black, crystalline spikes erupting all around the creature as the black earth trembled and began to twist, to drag the giant down into cavernous, fanged jaws of earth... and then a huge hand shot out of the deluge of spikes and lightning, seizing into Luna's face and crushing her skull, bone fracturing and Scrivener's eyes bulging as he gagged and staggered. He felt the same incredible pressure as his back arched, staring mindlessly at nothing as the mire convulsed like it was feeling his pain, drops of red spilling from his nostrils, his eyes, his ears... and then Teddy turned and flung Luna like she was no heavier than a baseball, the mare crashing into Scrivener's stunned features and sending them both rolling backwards into a broken heap.

Teddy ripped free of the spikes, electricity still jolting over his metal-plated body, but the giant seeming completely unaware of it as he reached both massive hands forwards and seized into fallen stallion and mare. And Twilight cried out in denial as Innocence looked up with a tremble of disbelief from where she had woken up in a sprawl, staring as Theodore smashed her Father and Móðer together again and again and again like a tantruming child punishing unwanted toys.

Blood flew from both ponies as they were jarred again and again by the collisions, the monster's fingers crushing painfully into them even as every strike together threatened to knock them loose from its grip. Then, as it drew them back, Luna suddenly snapped her horn back, knowing she only had enough strength left in her body for one final, desperate attack.

A wild surge of telekinetic energy blasted through the air around her, loosening Teddy's fingers enough she was able to spring free into the air, then flap her wings and dive straight at the behemoth's chest as she lowered her glowing horn. She slammed herself into the giant's body like a spear, and Theodore flinched backwards at the impact as her horn sank into something.

She heard something clank before it sprang forwards with just enough force to dislodge her, knocking the mare backwards with a curse before her eyes widened in amazement... a moment before Theodore's hand hammered down on her and crushed her face-first into the mire, leaving her in a broken crater in the black ooze. She rasped for breath, tasting poison and earth before her eyes slid slowly upwards, and she saw it again.

Her horn had accidentally stabbed into the hole in the large plate that armored the creature's breast, and the magic from her horn had charged it somehow, caused the mechanism to activate and the plate to spring open.

It was glowing a faint gold, and there was something beneath it that Luna couldn't quite see: the plate was barely raised, some kind of slack netting holding it in place, apparently attached to the other plates. There was some kind of failsafe, and the mare gritted her teeth before she began to pick herself up... and then Teddy stomped viciously on her back, and the mare vomited blood as Scrivener cried out in agony... only for one of Theodore's massive fists to smash into his features a moment later, then hammer again and again into the stallion's head, mashing his head into an almost unrecognizable, bruised and bloody mess before the giant flung him disdainfully down.

Luna gurgled on the ground, choking on blood and mire that couldn't help either of them now as Theodore began to raise one huge fist... but then Hel touched his shoulder gently, and the monster automatically turned towards her with a grunt, the goddess tut-tutting and shaking her head quickly. “Now, don't be like that, Teddy! They're plenty squished, even if I see little Miss Brynhild almost tried using her brain for a second instead of her brawn. Little late though, cinnabun.”

With that, Hel reached up and simply pushed the plate back into place, and it clicked shut before the goddess squatted with a grin over the two badly-beaten ponies. Luna breathed hard as she slowly forced her head to rise, but Hel only smiled before the goddess reached down and flicked the sapphire mare's horn, and Luna clenched her eyes shut with a moan of agony as the light sparked out of the soulstone and her mane and tail went from ephemeral, starry locks to light blue strands that fell messily around her, dipping in the puddle of blood and blackness surrounding her body. “I appreciate the strong face, sweetie, but you really don't have to put it on for me. I think you might need a new pancreas, and that's pretty urgent.

“Now, I'm a goddess of my word, as you know, Luna... or should I say Brynhild? You seem to respond oh so much better when I call you by that name, don't you?” Hel leaned back thoughtfully as Theodore only stood, rasping breaths in and out through his mouth, but otherwise as motionless as a statue as he loomed over them. “Oh well, I'll call you whatever I feel like at the time, how about that? It doesn't really matter, after all... our deal, after all, was that I would continue to help you if you managed to make a dent in Teddy here. And you didn't even put so much as a scratch on him before he squished you, and your little... what the hell are you again?”

Hel reached down and seized Scrivener by the back of the neck, the stallion wincing in pain as a chill ran down the back of his spine before the goddess hefted him easily into the air and examined him thoughtfully. “Puppet? Construct? Homunculus? Stud-boy? I really can't tell. I think you're more or less the same as the Lich, though... just another toy to this nasty little Valkyrie here who seems to be after my job. And I mean that as a compliment, sweetie.”

“Shut up, foul... monster! I have no desire to... I am not...” Luna tried to scrabble up to her hooves, and Hel grinned before she simply flung Scrivener down on top of the mare, making them both cry out in agony and their throbbing heads blur with light and sound for a moment.

They flopped over together in the muck, and Hel clicked her tongue and shook her head disapprovingly. “Now, cinnamon stick, chocolate tart, you two and vanilla sprinkles over there have a lot to learn! Just because you seem to be doing something nice, doin' what's best for everyone involved, doesn't mean you're not doing it out of selfish motives. Oh sure, they're happy with you, and sweetie, that's fantastic... but that doesn't mean you didn't do it because you happen to like having servants. Especially servants of the kind you can order to beat you up a little. You're into that, huh?”

Luna growled and glared up at Hel as the cow-headed construct licked her lips, then threw her head back and laughed. “Well, don't matter! Because you see, I've gone and proven my point. Teddy-bear here is insulated against magic and his armor in a composite of soulstone mixed with gianttooth. Nothing can pierce that plating, not even Gymbr! And in my dimension, rule number one is that you have to go in through the gates... gates lined with Ironjaw demons, Destroyers, and snipers with arrows that could kill Jötnar.

Hel mimed aiming a bow and pulling back on it, then she turned her smile down to Luna, putting her hands behind her back as she said pleasantly: “So I'm pretty much a hundred percent secure from Gymbr, because Gymbr doesn't have the time or patience to figure out a way past the fifty layers of security in what people like to call the Underdark and I call home sweet home. And since you girls just can't manage to be respectful for one damn fool minute, I'm going to go home, take off my socks, and call it a day. I've done all I can to earn your respect, Valkyrie, and now I'm a little tired of playing the game your way. You want answers? You want help? You want to know what my sure-to-work plan to defeat Gymbr is? Then you come and find me when you're ready. When you girls can finally earn my respect.”

Luna cursed under her breath as she tried to force herself up to her hooves, and Scrivener rose his head, but neither were able to speak as Hel sniffed disdainfully and turned away. She strode across the courtyard as Theodore lumbered after her, not paying attention to the books he crushed beneath his large, flat feet or the muck he stomped through, only stopping when his goddess halted in front of Twilight Sparkle and Taruos.

She leaned slowly down, studying the Lich for a moment: Twilight was dripping with blood, badly maimed and wounded, her stitches popped and one wing hanging brokenly... and all just from shared damage through her link with Scrivener and Luna. Yet she was also still standing, still trying to protect Taruos, and Hel clucked quietly as she said softly: “Now, you poor little thing. You aren't going to be able to save anyone if you can't save yourself... and you can never save yourself if you remain leashed to the same fates as the Valkyire and Vally-wally's little pet project over there.”

Twilight only shook her head, whispering in response: “Why are you doing this? Why won't you just help us if you're so strong? Why do you want to... to...”

“To push you? To challenge you? To make you better than you already are? I never realized that was a crime, little miss vanilla milkshake.” Hel said kindly, touching her own breast before she turned her eyes to Taruos. “And you, sullen little brat. Let this be a lesson to you: keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, and always have some heavy artillery on hand. Because look at how badly these mighty heroes have fallen under the fists of my big dumb robot. He don't got no smarts, but you don't need no brains when you pack a punch like a drunken Irish troll.”

“You're a coward. Valhalla doesn't need the help of cowards.” Taruos replied quietly, still defiant, still fearless in spite of everything that had happened, and Twilight almost recoiled at it, blinking in surprise as she looked down at this child who was so young but... so much tougher than she had thought at first.

Hel only smiled, however, shaking her head slowly and saying tenderly: “Just like your Daddy. Bigger balls than most people would ever give you credit for under that indifferent, whiny facade. You ain't half bad kid, but you're still pretty dumb, too... because your Daddy knew best that sometimes cowards were your very best allies. Remember that.”

Hel straightened, then she paused and glanced at Twilight Sparkle, reaching out to poke her horn lightly and make her wince. “Sweetie, do me a favor. When cinnamon stick and chocolate cake have more than the glue that Theodore mashed them into holding them together, you go ahead and try to remind them I'm really just trying to help here. Even now, this is me, trying to help. Oh, sure, it's a little awkward maybe, and I probably need to work on my 'sharing is caring' lessons, but... hey, you can't fault a pretty girl like me for trying, right?”

“'Tis too bad thou art not pretty, then, for I am fairly sure I can fault an ugly old hag just for existing.” Luna muttered, and then she flumped forwards into the muck, unable to lift herself to her hooves as her head swam, groaning in pain.

“I'm going to let you get away with that because you have a concussion and you're clearly not thinking straight.” Hel said pettishly, and then she paused and pointed over her shoulder, and both Luna and Scrivener gasped and flinched in pain as the mire around them froze solid, sharp points of ice stabbing into their sides and bodies and making them twitch and shiver uncomfortably, Twilight cursing and hugging herself at the biting cold that ran through her own body: something extremely unfamiliar for her now with what she had become. “Or not.”

Hel giggled, then she shook her head and smiled down at Twilight, reaching out to pat the Lich several times on the head before the goddess grasped Teddy's wrist childishly. She blew a raspberry at Taruos as the young prince only continued to glare up at her, then threw a wink over her shoulder at Innocence, who winced back before clenching her eyes shut as Hel's voice whispered silkily through her mind: Be a good little girl and help your parents see my way's the best way, and I'll reward you with something better than the Valkyries can, sweetie. I've got buckets of power and no one to share with, after all... don't you want that?

Innocence kept her eyes shut until she felt the icy presence fade, until Hel's laughter vanished into a blur of sound, and then silence... and then the young mare opened her eyes, trembling hard as she stared at the sight of Luna and Scrivener half-trapped in the frozen mire before she bolted forwards and slid to a stop in front of them, unable to stop herself from asking what she knew from the start was an incredibly stupid question: “Mutt! Daddy! Are you okay?”

“Oh, aye. We are only reclining here after a flawless victory against a terrible menace no others could ever hope to match.” Luna mumbled, and then she grimaced as there was a thundering crash against one of the doors still covered in ice, before groaning as there was a second monumental bang, the doors shuddering but the glacial frost only just beginning to crack. “Oh damnation. Go... 'tis probably Celestia, tell her Hel is gone and we are fine.”

Innocence shivered a bit, then she nodded, taking one last, long and worried look over her parents before the young mare turned and hurried towards the doors. Luna and Scrivener were unable to do anything in response, however: they couldn't speak, they couldn't move, they couldn't look up, even when they both sensed Twilight approach them and gaze down at them silently.

They heard Innocence trying to shout over the sound of whoever was smashing against the doors, and they felt Twilight studying them silently before the sapphire mare finally mumbled: “Thou can disapprove all thou likes, but for once, I do not believe Scrivy and I are quite to blame here. Thou can whine that we did not do our best but perhaps next time thou should have thy head squished like a ripe tomato, and then thou can brag about thy strength and skill in battle.”

“I didn't even say anything. And it's not that, either... it's that you two are...” Twilight closed her eyes, then she shook her head slowly before the Lich lowered her head and sighed softly. “So what are we going to do? Hel was... I think she made a pretty nasty point.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna Brynhild laughed dryly before the sapphire mare sighed quietly and looked down silently. She noted an icicle of mire in front of her, and she hesitated only a moment before leaning forwards and silently suckled on it, closing her eyes as Twilight frowned worriedly down at the sapphire mare. But after a moment, Luna glanced up and gave a small smile, saying quietly: “Shush. 'Tis... I deserve a little pity, my sweet mare, at times like these. Even if 'tis self pity.”

“I don't want to see you going down into that dark place again, Luna. Only you can pull yourself out of there but... only you decide to go down into that dark place, too.” Twilight said softly, and the sapphire mare smiled faintly as she closed her eyes and shrugged a little, continuing to quietly suckle on the frozen black poison.

Twilight continued to look down at her worriedly, and Scrivener sighed as he rose his own head and gave a pointed look to Luna. The sapphire mare finally grumbled a little, and then she bit off the frozen mire-sicle and chewed it quickly up, swallowing the frozen poison back and shivering once, but then clenching her eyes shut as she felt the dark poison being rapidly pulled into her body, giving her a sparse, momentary pleasure, a twist of strength, and enough energy that her soulstone horn quietly lit back up and her mane and tail fluttered before transforming back into flowing ephemerality instead of light blue hairs. “There. Happy?”

“No. Not entirely.” Twilight shook her head slowly, then she smiled faintly at the two and sighed a little, murmuring quietly: “It's funny how I can stay on my hooves these days even when you two can't. It used to be I'd be the one who fell over first.”

Scrivener grunted at this, and then he slowly slid his front limbs out and grasped into the ground before gritting his teeth and carefully trying to push himself up. But he could still feel the ice grasping against his sides, and combined with the incredible pain twisting through his system, it was too much for the stallion to fight, and he sighed tiredly and let himself slump back to the ground. “Can you. Set us on fire or something? I think that might be for the best.”

Luna mumbled in agreement, and Twilight sighed softly and shook her head slowly before she glanced up in surprise as Innocence yelped and leapt away from the double doors as they were blown off their hinges, the ice that had held them shut dissolving into blue flakes.

All three stared as Celestia strode quickly in through the destroyed doors in full armor, giving Innocence a quick glance and nod before she turned her attention towards Scrivener and Luna, walking over to the two and studying them silently. Twilight Sparkle, meanwhile, looked up with a faint smile at her former mentor and murmured: “It was Hel. Well, I guess really it was Teddy, but... Teddy is just a machine golem, isn't he?”

“Something like that.” Celestia said softly, and the ivory winged unicorn shook her head slowly as she studied Scrivener and Luna before her horn glowed a quiet gold, the same aura surrounding the two and filling them with a heat that melted away the ice around them and helped relax their sore muscles, although Luna grimaced a bit as a bit more blood ran from her wounds and she groaned quietly, hugging her stomach with one leg.

Celestia only continued to focus magic over them, however, studying their reactions as the two fidgeted and shifted uncomfortably, before the ivory mare asked quietly: “So I take it that Hel has decided not to help us? Did you learn anything of any consequence at all?”

Twilight hesitantly looked up, opening her mouth, but then Luna shook her head vehemently as the glow finally began to fade out from around her, the sapphire mare carefully picking herself up as she muttered: “Aye, thou could say that. She said that we were not... appreciating her enough or somesuch, I do not entirely recall. I only remember that she sent her damned bodyguard after us and then it... cheated and that is how we ended up like this.”

“I'm sure.” Celestia gave a small smile despite herself, shaking her head slowly before the ivory mare sighed and turned her eyes towards Twilight. “Is this a challenge from Hel, or is this a denial?”

“I think it's a challenge. In fact, I know that it's a challenge.” Twilight said honestly, looking up before she sighed softly when Luna and Scrivener both mumbled and carefully stood up. “Hel just... didn't take to being ordered around and interrogated very well. I think we maybe should have tried to be... a little more tactful with her.”

“Oh, 'twas not that at all.” Luna grumbled, shaking her head and glowering over at the Lich, and then she sighed and looked down at Scrivener Blooms as he mumbled a little on the ground. “Shush, it... thou knows that Hel is crafty and cunning and designs such arguments to try and be everyone's fault but her own. And get up off thy lazy rump, thou art as healed as I am.”

“Yeah, I don't know about that.” Scrivener Blooms muttered, and then he sighed and carefully stood up, shaking himself out a little before he gave an awkward smile to Twilight, relieved to see that she had healed up a little as well. But before he could say anything further, he blinked in surprise as little Taruos walked over to them and yanked at his mane, making the stallion wince a bit and lower his head awkwardly towards the young prince.

“I wish to find my mother.” Taruos all-but-ordered, and Scrivener stared at him blankly as Innocence awkwardly approached. The stallion started to look up, but then the young prince yanked on his mane again, making him wince and drop his head back down before the boy scampered up to Scrivener's side and hauled himself onto the earth pony's back, making him twitch and shiver painfully as he gave a low groan of misery.

Luna winced and arched her own back, then she gritted her teeth and slowly turned a scowl on Taruos as he sat astride Scrivener Blooms, still clutching his mane like reins as he looked calmly towards the doors and said: “The Queen will be in the war room. We should head there immediately.”

“Thou acts like a little Baron. And no, 'twas not a compliment.” Luna grumbled, shaking her head moodily as Celestia sighed and Scrivener looked helplessly at Twilight, who only shrugged in return. Then the sapphire mare turned her eyes towards Innocence, asking in a softer voice: “And thou. Art thou hurt? Thou took a wicked wallop from that beast.”

“No, it was just a glancing blow. I'm okay.” Innocence smiled faintly as she felt Twilight's eyes on her, the Lich examining her for a moment before they returned to Scrivener and Taruos... and the young mare felt an odd twist inside her. Sure, she hated it when her mother jumped all over her, but... here she was, barely paying any attention to her, and sure, her parents traded information back and forth between them constantly so they all knew she was perfectly okay. She had just been stunned taking the hit from the giant: it had been so strong, and...

She shook herself out hurriedly as she felt Celestia's eyes measuring her, and then the young unicorn turned an awkward smile up at Taruos, asking the young prince hesitantly: “Why don't you ride on my back instead? I know I'm still wearing this funny armor, but-”

“No. I chose the stallion. The stallion is the most fitting.” Taruos said calmly, shaking his head firmly, and Luna and Twilight both stared: this six year old had more seriousness and dignity than most officers they knew. “We've wasted enough time. Hel must not be allowed to trespass. Into Valhalla!”

The young child yanked firmly on Scrivener's mane, and the stallion winced as his head was jerked fiercely to the side before he groaned and began to trot forwards, not knowing what else to do. Luna and Twilight stumbled into step with him as Celestia shook her head slowly, then glanced over at Innocence before the young mare could leave, asking calmly: “Would you please wait for a moment?”

Innocence looked up with an awkward smile and a quick nod, hesitantly glancing over at Celestia, and the ivory winged gazed back quietly before she smiled faintly and shook her head slowly as the others left, Twilight casting a worried look over her shoulder but only faltering once before she focused head on walking with her partners.

Strange unicorn looked at white winged unicorn, and then Celestia reached up and gently touched the younger mare's face, saying softly: “Your polymorph has been damaged. You're only partly transformed.”

“Oh, oops.” Innocence smiled lamely, reaching a claw up and touching scales instead of hide, and she shook her head quickly before closing her eyes and concentrating, hurriedly repairing the damage done to her magical guise. Then she opened her amethyst irises and gazed up into Celestia's own similar-colored eyes, asking: “Is that better?”

“A little.” Celestia smiled back, then she said gently: “When you fail to pay attention to details, Innocence... when you fail to react on the battlefield, that's when people get hurt. If you're lucky, it's just you... but more likely, your friends and family will suffer the consequences as well. Is that part of what happened here?”

“I... no, I...” Innocence bit her lip, then she realized she couldn't say exactly what had happened... she'd been stunned for most of the fight, after all. First she'd frozen up, and then...

The young mare silently reached up, touching the dented metal over her chest before she looked up and said finally: “I just... I guess that... I don't know what happened, Aunt Tia, but... I didn't mean to freeze up, and it wasn't after me... Dad was just close to me and Teddy was after him and-”

“That doesn't make the situation any better, Innocence. In fact, it makes it worse in some ways: it means you weren't paying attention to what was going on around you, and you put your father in danger.” Celestia said softly, and Innocence flushed as she lowered her head a bit in shame. “If you want to be a Valkyrie, if you want to be like us, Innocence, you have to be prepared to rise to each and every occasion, even if that just means getting out of the way. And I'm only being so direct right now, Sin, because I went through this with Antares and I wasn't hard enough on him and his friends at first. Then, some would say I was too hard on him, even though that lesson was the one that finally got through to them, too.”

Innocence glanced up and shook her head slowly, then she gave a small smile and murmured: “I hate being compared to Tarry, Aunt Tia. I know he's better than me. He's supposed to have been the hero, and he uses purification, and I'm just... darkness.”

“No, Innocence, you're wrong there.” Celestia laughed quietly and shook her head slowly, saying softly: “Antares was not always a hero. Yes, he was looked at as a shining beacon, but much of that was because he was thought of as the young prince. He's had a long time to grow up, to become strong, to turn into the pony he is today: on the way, I can confidently say he made more mistakes than you have so far, Innocence, and I just want to help you... not make the same errors. I and your parents understand that yes, you do have to make some mistakes, you do have to find your own way... but some mistakes aren't worth seeing made twice.”

Celestia stopped, lowering her head for a moment and thinking of Cancer, of Psukhikos, of others who had taken so much from Antares and their family as a whole... and of herself, too. Then she looked up with a sigh and a gentle gesture of her head, saying finally: “If you could tell me what you recall from the fight here, I would appreciate it. Was it only Theodore?”

“Yeah... what... what is he?” Innocence asked uneasily as she strode forwards, and Celestia smiled faintly as she turned, aunt and niece falling in step and walking towards the shattered doors. Nibelung and ponies were examining the damage and staring out into the courtyard, but they parted for the two as Innocence hesitantly added another question: “And why... Mom and Dad, all it did was pound on them, but they're so strong... how...”

“In comparison, an ant is stronger than almost all of us, Innocence. The weakest can move ten times its body weight, their entire society can function flawlessly together like one superorganism, and they're capable of solving complex problems and teaching each other. They build nests with architecture that could rival our own military structures in function, if not form, and some can even cultivate their own food, terraform the world, perform tasks very similar to what we would have to use magic to do.” Celestia smiled after a moment, glancing over at Innocence. “But an ant is still only an ant, in spite of everything it can do, and a plodding pony not watching where he's going could accidentally step on a group of their workers and crush dozens beneath his hoof without ever being aware of what happened.”

“You always taught me numbers beat strength, though.” Innocence said quietly, and Celestia nodded with a quiet laugh, gazing kindly down at the young unicorn.

“They do. A thousand ants will overwhelm a war elephant. But two or three won't be able to do much against it, unless they have superior strategy and a weakness to exploit.” the ivory mare replied softly, and then she shook her head slowly and smiled over at the young mare. “Luna and Scrivener are very strong, but Theodore we now know for certain is physically stronger. And to answer your other question, I'm not entirely sure what he is: he seems like some kind of mechanical monstrosity, maybe a former project of Valthrudnir's that Hel took control of.”

“Mutt and Dad couldn't hurt him. Couldn't put a scratch on his armor... Hel... Hel said it was gianttooth and soulstone. But both those things are really rare, I thought, almost impossible to get in big quantities. I know that Mutt's spear is made of it, but I thought she used up almost all of Subterra's store of it to make Prúðbikkja .” Innocence said uneasily, and Celestia smiled wryly as she looked ahead down the hall.

“For us it is... and by that, I mean both Valhalla and Midgard. But don't forget that Hel has total dominion over Helheim, the one place where soulstone is produced. And I wouldn't be surprised if she knew how to mine gianttooth as well.” Celestia responded with a short shake of her head, before she sighed and looked up as yelling filtered down the hall towards them, Innocence cocking her head dumbly at what sounded suspiciously like her Móðer.

They turned a corner to find Luna glaring up at Taruos as Twilight winced and tried to get the sapphire mare to calm down, while Scrivener was only looking dumbly ahead. Taruos, on the stallion's back, was only glowering back at Luna even as she raged: “-pompous little brat! If I had but a little less self control I would slap thee so hard that 'twould send thee back into thy mother's womb!”

“I am a prince, and you are a subordinate. My duty is to help run Valhalla, a duty I have been trained for my entire life, and you will assist in those functions.” retorted Taruos, shaking his head firmly before the child straightened and looked calmly over at Celestia as she approached. “Queen Freya. Please get your soldier back in order.”

“She is not my soldier, Taruos. She is my little sister. And the Valkyries are not subjects of Valhalla anymore.” Celestia replied tactfully, as Luna yelled in outrage and did a furious little dance, and Scrivener Blooms only winced away from the sapphire mare, clearly concerned that she might take her anger out on the ridden since she couldn't punch the rider.

Taruos looked contemplatively at Celestia for a few moments, but then his eyes were drawn upwards, giving a very small start of surprise as a voice shouted his name. The others looked up to see Terra was hurrying towards them, looking both relieved and exasperated, her metallic scales slowly settling as she smiled warmly.

“Oh, Taruos, I was worried sick about you!” Terra leapt forwards, hugging Taruos fiercely with one forelimb and nuzzling into him, and the young prince winced and fidgeted wildly before Terra drew back with a sigh and a shake of her head, looking thankfully between the ponies. “Oh, blessings on you all for taking care of him while I had to settle down Valhalla.”

“The Queen is supposed to be in the war room, you told me this yourself, mother.” Taruos said, sounding half-exasperated, half-confused, and Terra gave her son a flat look before she huffed and reached up, firmly grasping her child by the scruff of his neck and pulling him off the stallion.

“Now, Taruos, you watch your tone. The Queen will do whatever she wants, and she has your welfare in mind as much as that of Valhalla, laddie.” Terra lightly slapped Taruos' rump, making him wince and stumble forwards before she added: “And you best not be treating our guests foully. It looks like they just went ten rounds with Teddy.”

“One round, actually. It wasn't really a fair fight, though.” Scrivener Blooms mumbled, and Terra stared at the stallion before he slowly cracked his back, then wheezed loudly and shivered once. “Oh hell. I think that was one of my ribs, too.”

“Oh shut up, Scrivy. It did not hurt that much.” Luna mumbled, even as she reached up and rubbed slowly at her breast, and then her nose wrinkled up as she added: “And 'twas not our fault! Hel ambushed us with the damnable monster and... cheated! She is a cheat!”

Terra rolled her eyes at this, then she picked up Taruos and placed her son on her back, saying wryly: “I'm sure she did, Luna Brynhild. But do you now understand what I was saying before? Aye, you might be strong, and perhaps you've even conquered things stronger than I and many others could hope to. But you aren't the biggest fish in these parts.”

Luna only growled in frustration at this, and then she shook her head vehemently before muttering: “Well, we shall see what thou says once we defeat Gymbr. And without the help of that... idiot hag, Hel! I shall not play her games, I shall not be humiliated like this, and I shan't go pleading and wheedling for her help!”

“I do not know if that's such a good idea, Luna Brynhild.” Terra said warningly as she turned around, and Luna growled at the dragon's back as Scrivener grimaced a little and Twilight looked with concern over at her partners. Celestia had her own unsure look in her eyes, and as Innocence paced slowly behind the group, she shivered a little at all the disagreement, the confusion she felt. “It's not that I don't grasp your anger, I do. I felt the same fury many a time while working for Hel, with her games and the way she enjoys stirring the pot. But she's-”

“She is a bitch and a clown, and I shan't put up with either. And after I pummel Gymbr I shall pummel her.” Luna grumbled, shaking her head sourly, and Scrivener winced a bit as Twilight Sparkle bit her lip, but the sapphire mare looked pleadingly back and forth between the two, saying almost sharply: “We do not need her help! Nay, we shall recover, we shall build our strength, and then the three of us shall meet Gymbr and whatever machinations he plans to bring against us head on!”

Celestia sighed softly at this, lowering her head a little as Twilight and Scrivener traded nervous looks past Luna... but when the sapphire mare gave them another frustrated, insistent look, they both nodded hesitantly. And Celestia was unable to do anything but give a short shake of her head before she murmured softly: “Then I hope you three know what you're doing.”

“Aye, I do as well... and I hope you aren't too proud to at least accept our help in getting ready for whatever's to come.” Terra said calmly, glancing over her shoulder, and Luna looked up in genuine surprise before the metallic dragon gave a wry smile. “My duty isn't just to look after Valhalla now, is it? Kvas was always firm that the first job was to take care of you little ponies.”

Luna smiled despite herself at this, shaking her head slowly before she murmured: “Aye. I suppose that is the true point of Valhalla after all. Then I welcome thy aid, Terra, and think that we should begin our work posthaste. For we cannot allow ourselves to be caught unaware again, whether it be from Hel or Gymbr. I fear another meeting will not be so kind to us.”

Terra nodded firmly and smiled as she turned her eyes back forwards, and Celestia did her best to smile as well... but as she walked through these hallowed halls with her family, she couldn't help but worry and wonder if they were making the right decision... or if Luna's pride wasn't going to cost them more than Hel's malice when the time came to face Gymbr again.

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