• 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 Storm On The Horizon

Chapter Twenty Two: The Storm On The Horizon

There was little cheer in the air in Canterlot: the Magic Academy was currently in a state of high security, although few people were aware of why, and Subterra had been locked down and fortified as well. The worry was that Gymbr might come for some of them... although he clearly had no interest in invading their world. It was ironic: Heaven had fallen, but it seemed like at least for now the mortal world wasn't in any danger.

Celestia had set up a base of sorts in the Magic Academy, calling in all sorts of favors in order to temporarily take it over. But she needed access to the laboratories and control over the sensitive instruments used to measure magical effects and scan for anomalies in the area surrounding Canterlot.

The ivory mare was still in terrible shape partly because of the fact she had been spending so much time tinkering in the laboratories instead of resting. The little time spent not working in Canterlot was spent down in Subterra, where she had half-threatened, half-reasoned Hecate into cooperating with them and now had Cowlick working hard in a laboratory.

Cowlick and Hecate were working on a multitude of projects together: even if it seemed like it was a little late, Hecate was finishing up the window that would let them create a connection with Ginnungagap, and Cowlick was helping the unpleasant head cobble together a better body and a few other things that normally Celestia would balk at. But in this case, they had no real choice, no other option... and right now, they could use a few mechanical horrors to fight Gymbr's own synthetic terrors.

Luna and Scrivener wanted to help, but even a few days after their return from the exile world, the most they could do was help keeping things organized and simply... rest and recover. They had removed the broken soulstone prosthetic from Luna's head for now and fitted her with a simple iron cap to keep the hole from trying to heal closed, and Celestia had promised to help them make a new horn, even if it seemed like the ivory mare was already doing the work of a dozen ponies.

Celestia had also already helped them secure a new body for Twilight Sparkle, and at the moment, the Lich was slowly trying to adjust to this as she rested silently in a pool filled with nearly-scalding, tea-colored liquid. It seemed almost gelatinous, not rippling around the bodies of the three ponies that rested in it together even when they shifted.

They were in a recessed pool beneath glowing, focused lamps with crystalline lenses, showering them with more energy to help them all heal faster. This sanctuary of metal floors and shelves and equipment made for mending broken bodies was beneath the Thorn Palace, and over the years had become more and more like a home-away-from-home instead of just a sterile laboratory where Twilight came to change her body, or Luna did to fix her soulstone horn.

Now there was a bookshelf with more than just medical texts in it, and a gramophone that was currently playing a bit of soft music, and a few photographs on the wall. And Twilight kept staring over at the portrait of Innocence, trembling a little as he worried for her daughter: no anger, no disappoint, not even really fear... just worry. And if she was upset with anyone, it was herself.

“Now shush, 'tis not at all thy fault.” Luna soothed quietly, squeezing the violet mare supportively around the waist, and Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly and shook her head a little. Then she dropped it quietly against Scrivener's shoulder, and the stallion gave his own small smile, looking silently at the Lich.

It was taking a while for her to adjust to this new body, but her horn had mostly grown in, and her wings had strengthened and changed, even though her hide had torn in places from her body growing and expanding. Her coat looked more bruised than it did purple, but her eyes had changed... her eyes were always one of the first things to truly become her own, and Scrivener smiled faintly into them as she looked quietly up at the stallion.

She reached through the dark liquid to silently touch one of his forelimbs, and Scrivener winced a bit but carefully rose a front leg that was wrapped in a thick, porous brown bandaging. His claws were currently closed tightly together and thrumming faintly inside little plastic boots he had to wear for the moment, and Twilight sighed softly as she stroked slowly over this, whispering: “Every second we take to heal feels like another second Innocence gets... gets closer to making a mistake I'm scared she's going to regret forever. I just wish... I wish...”

“I know, Twilight, but... incredibly difficult as 'tis for me...” Luna smiled faintly over at the mare, reaching up to caress her cheek tenderly. “We must be patient. Thou said so thyself, and thou knows the truth of the matter too. But I know that thou needs a reminder too now and then, especially when thy mother's instincts are in play.”

Twilight nodded a little, silently shifting a bit before reached up and took Luna's hoof silently in her own, and they met one-another's eyes as Scrivener looked up at the glowing lamps, thinking quietly of the few things they could do, the steps they could take while still recovering from their ordeal. The steps were small, but at least one was important... although it was a rather sensitive issue, since they would have to talk to Terra.

Terra herself Celestia had been forced to all-but-literally drag out of Heaven, and the only reason she had finally been able to convince the Ironjaw to leave was because Taruos had already lost one parent, and the child needed to be protected. Especially since one of Gymbr's messages had subtly threatened the young prince.

Her son was safe, but Terra had been forced to abandon what had been the life's work of her husband to a monstrous god she had been powerless to fight against. Who had humiliated her and betrayed her trust, and now the Ironjaw dragon found herself an unhappy refugee with her son in Subterra. The fact she was now forced to accept the charity and protection of the very ponies she had once boasted she could easily overpower the strongest of had done a lot of damage to her ego, but it was also further fuel for her desire for revenge against Gymbr, and had at least helped convince her to stop underestimating just what ponies like Celestia and Luna and others were capable of. After all, in spite of her proud heritage, she had been even less effective at fighting Gymbr's soldiers than many of the Valkyries had been.

Except now almost all the Valkyries were lost: either killed or taken prisoner, with very few who had survived the onslaught. Too little of Heaven had managed to escape and take shelter in Subterra, and Gymbr's first order of business had been to seal the Vale of Valhalla, preventing anyone from opening portals into Heaven: the only way in now was by dying and ascending into what was no longer paradise.

That hurt all three ponies to think about: now good souls, who believed in Heaven and life after death, were rising to what they thought would be the Vale of Valhalla... but was instead a slowly corrupting, nightmare playground that Gymbr was transforming into some kind of dark training ground.

They had already sent messengers across Equestria, to other encampments of demons, to the Strange Ones, to allies they knew that would listen to them, warning them about Gymbr and Heaven's current state. Celestia had also asked Rosewood to push the rest of the Barons on healthcare issues, looking to do something, anything, that would keep ponies alive: right now they needed to keep as many souls as possible from reaching Heaven, after all.

Kismet had reapers netting souls to place them in limbo or repositories, but even they could only do so much: a reaper was only one creature, not even a true force of death but a cogwheel meant to keep things running smoothly, and the Great Reaper wasn't entirely comfortable with going against his task of ferrying souls from one plane to the next. The only reason he was doing it at all was because of how Gymbr had poisoned Heaven, and he had been assured several times over these souls would all be allowed to depart, not shuffled back onto the mortal coil.

But many, many souls were still making it through. There were hundreds of deaths across Equestria every day: old age, accidents, violence both premeditated and random, disease and stupidity. There was no way a hoofful of reapers could flit around, capturing all those souls before they floated into the ether and began their journey for Heaven or Hell.

“I have never felt so screwed.” Scrivener Blooms said finally, and Luna grunted moodily in agreement as Twilight smiled faintly even as she tried to make herself small as he curled up between her lovers. He sighed softly as he slid his foreleg around her shoulders, pulling the Lich closer as he murmured: “But I guess we'll... find a way to get through.”

“And we will save Innocence. We will. This cannot be her fault.” Luna said firmly, looking over at the two, and both Twilight and Scrivener gazed quietly back at the winged unicorn, both giving small smiles even as they both felt a pang of sorrow, and that twist that went through Luna's gut; the knowledge that she was talking out of a hope she herself knew was most likely vain.

Innocence was made up of their good qualities and their bad qualities, after all... and how could someone with Twilight's thirst for knowledge, Luna's pride in being the best, and Scrivener's desire for power resist the temptations of a god like Gymbr? Especially since Innocence didn't understand that Gymbr was willing to say and do anything to get his way: that even if he was telling the truth, there was no way he wanted to just destroy this coming 'light' and then peacefully... what? Be best friends? Hang out, have non-alcoholic drinks together? Take up a hobby and whittle away his days, or go back to whatever dark world he had come from and make everything he'd done wrong, right?

Scrivener grimaced a little at this, shaking his head slowly before he attempted to splash the liquid of the pool disconsolately. But it didn't give more than an awkward blurp, and the stallion shook his head a little as Luna mumbled: “Oh, do not be a foal, poet. 'Tis my job. But, loathe as I am, Twilight Sparkle... perhaps we shall leave thee here while we go and find Terra. We will need her help to make our way to Hel, who is still treating this like a silly game...”

Luna growled in irritation, but she couldn't muster up much real anger: she knew how Hel worked, after all. She knew this really was like a game to the dark goddess, and one that Hel was probably watching with glee... just as much as she knew that this was also Hel's way of testing precisely how 'worthy' they were.

Twilight nodded a little, and then the Lich looked up Luna and gave a faint smile, murmuring: “Just... you two make sure you take care of yourselves, okay? I'll stay here and put the finishing touches on the elixir.”

“Don't strain yourself. We can get to that any time.” Scrivener said quietly, and when Twilight only smiled up at him, the stallion sighed before he nodded a little as Luna gazed down at the Lich with affection and a little bit of exasperation. “Alright. Still... just... try and focus on taking care of yourself, okay? You've already done a lot for both of us.”

Twilight nodded a little, sitting up before she quietly took one of Scrivener's hooves, rubbing gingerly along the hard plastic as she murmured: “I know. But I like to help, Scrivy. It helps me keep my mind off everything else and... it's so hard to...”

The Lich shook her head quickly, then smiled after a moment up at Scrivener, murmuring: “But I still have a lot of faith that our daughter isn't Midnight Hour, and that together, we can... bring her back. She just made a mistake.”

“I know. I know.” Scrivener replied quietly, and then he leaned forwards and gently kissed Twilight's forehead as Luna hugged the Lich from behind, and Twilight Sparkle trembled as she clutched Scrivener's hoof tightly before steadying herself and simply nodding once.

Scrivener and Luna pulled themselves up out of the pool, the heavy fluid spilling off their bodies freely before they traded small smiles as Twilight turned around, gazing up at them and saying softly: “I'll be waiting for you two here, so... take care of yourselves. And please don't pick a fight with Terra right now.”

Luna huffed at this, reaching up and pointedly knocking on the cap stuck in her skull as she said wryly: “There is no better reminder of that than this, Twilight. The large piece of metal sticking out of my skull that feels much like a rock lodged in my brain.”

“Technically your soulstone horn is that too.” Scrivener said mildly, and Luna gave him a flat look before the stallion shrugged and smiled despite himself as Twilight laughed a little and gazed up at them with the smallest smile on her face. “No, don't worry, we'll... try our hardest to be adults, Twilight, at least for the next day or so.”

“Good.” Twilight said softly, and Luna and Scrivener nodded to her before they turned reluctantly away and strode towards the exit. Twilight watched them go, staring after them longingly as all other thoughts slowly drained from her mind... and then she frowned a little before suddenly shivering and looking down, thinking about how moments before, she'd been so sad. Now she was just staring after the ponies she called her lovers, wistful, thinking about them more than her own lost daughter... was she really that dependent on them, or...

Scrivener and Luna both closed their own eyes as they felt Twilight's mental shivers, and both ponies wanted to turn back, to reassure her, to acknowledge her somehow... but instead, they kept themselves moving forwards. It was something Twilight had to work through on her own, and the irony was that if they went back and helped her feel better it might only worsen that anxiety. In all likelihood, it was because all of their emotions were in such a goddamn jumble right now, and the Lich was settling into a new body...

The two ponies traded looks, studying each other... and then Luna rose her head slightly and said quietly: “No, it is no crime if we feel happiness even while... such awful things are happening. As my brother says, Scrivy: 'if we do not seek joy during times of strife, then of course no joy will be found.' We must strive for happiness, even when... it feels... impossible.”

She nodded firmly, and Scrivener smiled after a moment before he looked ahead through the earthen tunnel they had entered, the stallion saying softly: “And it was because I had been to the depths of the pit of ignorance that I understood how truly high I was, when I ascended the mountain of truth.”

“Shut up, beetle.” Luna said gently, and then she stepped closer and mashed her face into his neck, mumbling: “Stupid, damnable idiot Scrivener Blooms. Thou art so damned... thou.”

“I am. I am me.” Scrivener agreed softly after a moment, and then he winced a bit as he looked down along his bandaged forelegs and over his plastic boots, mumbling: “And these are crap. It feels like my claws are turning into broken glass.”

Luna mumbled against his neck, but when she shifted to look at him with one eye, there was worry in her dark iris as she murmured: “I know, but... thou must bear through the pain, Scrivy. We must be in top form when we go to Helheim and seek our way down to Hel herself: and even if we still have... much time to pass before then...” Luna ground her teeth together in frustration at precisely how long Celestia and others had asked them to wait. “Thou must still rest thy hooves first and foremost 'Twill do us no good if we are forced to amputate thy stupid forelegs.”

“I wonder if your forelegs would come off if mine did.” Scrivener mumbled, and Luna made a face at this thought before the stallion shook his head a little. “I know, I know. Not helpful thoughts. I'm just worried, and you know how I get.”

“I do. 'Tis annoying.” Luna said mildly, and then she headbutted the side of his neck gently before sighing and straightening, saying softly: “But it shan't come to that, Scrivy. Thou shall just have to... rebuild the muscle that has been torn apart and destroyed, and build back... everything else.”

Scrivener grunted and nodded, doing his best to believe her words... but they were uncomfortably silent as they made their way up into the Thorn Palace. Once they reached the Eastern Wing of the massive structure, however, Luna gained a bit of her mood back and smiled faintly at the sight of young prince Taruos sitting in frayed robes, playing by himself in the middle of the hall.

Well, not precisely by himself: there were a few invisible Nightmares lurking around, and Terra was never far away from her son. The little god was grumbling angrily as he built up block structures, then knocked others down, not looking up at Luna and Scrivener until they were right in front of them.

He only scowled up at them, then picked up a block: for a moment Scrivener thought he was going to throw it at them, but instead the child simply slammed it down on top of a tower of blocks, almost knocking the structure over as he asked acidly: “What do you want?”

“We are looking to speak to thy mother. She promised to help us with Helheim business.” Luna replied after a moment, keeping her tone as cordial as possible. Taruos looked up at the sapphire mare, frowning at first... but when he saw Luna was only looking at him calmly, not talking down to him, not patronizing him, the child settled a little and nodded grudgingly.

“She's in her room.” Taruos said moodily, and then he knocked over the block structure before beginning to rebuild it, muttering: “She won't let me help with anything. Infrastructure, analysis, placement... those are supposed to be my jobs, but she just spends all day working with Excelsior and Pipsqueak. Who insists on telling me all about being a little foal every time we meet, and how much he wanted to be a pirate, and then an adventurer, and then he developed a sailing hobby. I don't care.”

He swung a hand out, knocking down the blocks he had just set up, and Scrivener Blooms was unable to stop himself from asking: “If you don't care, then why exactly do you remember all that?”

Taruos scowled horribly up at the charcoal stallion as Luna cleared her throat loudly, then she reached up and squeezed his shoulder quickly, saying kindly down to Taruos: “We are going to see thy mother now. And let me remind thee, young prince, thy duties are not just to thy kingdom, but to support thy family as well. I fully understand thy frustration with thy mother, but one of thy duties as prince is to support her all the same, even when thou disagrees with her. For we mothers find it very hard to let go of our children, or accept that they no longer need our advice.”

Taruos and Luna looked at each other for a few moments, and then the child frowned and said sourly: “You don't sound like the same dumb horse I talked to before.”

“Dumb horse! What? Damn indolent little child, does thou think I will not bend thee over my knee and spank thee just because thy mother is Queen of Heaven? I will spank her too!” Luna snapped, glaring furiously down at Taruos as Scrivener dropped his face in a hoof.

The young prince only snorted, not in the least bit perturbed as he grumbled: “I guess you are the same dumb horse after all.”

“Taruos! You'd best not be insulting our hosts now!” scolded Terra's voice, and the dragon herself emerged from down the hall, looking ruffled as she approached. Taruos grumbled and dropped his head forwards, then he winced as his mother grasped his skull lightly and shook him gently back and forth, looking pointedly down at her child. “Don't be making a bigger fool out of us now than we've already both done a swell job of doing. Be polite, child.”

Taruos muttered to himself, but he nodded even as he sullenly crossed his arms when his mother let go of him. The Ironjaw looked up meditatively at Luna Brynhild as the winged unicorn looked pointedly back, and after a moment Terra sighed and gestured at her son. “Go ahead and help Pipsqueak and Excelsior, lad. They could the assistance of sharp eyes like yours.”

The young prince nodded, looking a little... well, it wasn't quite happiness, but Luna thought it was close. The sapphire mare smiled wryly as she looked up and watched the child stride quickly off, looking as professional and calm as Celestia, and the sapphire mare sighed after a moment as she shook her head and murmured: “Thy child is an absolute nightmare, Terra. But all the same, I feel great sympathy for both him and thee.”

“We don't want nor need either, Luna Brynhild.” Terra replied almost stiffly, and when both ponies looked up at the dragon with faint amusement, she grumbled and dropped her head, muttering: “With no disrespect intended, of course. You just have plenty enough on your own plates as it is.”

Luna and Scrivy traded looks, then shrugs, before the sapphire mare returned her eyes to Terra, saying quietly: “Well, as much as I dearly would enjoy continuing to poke at thee, Ironjaw, I have promised Twilight Sparkle I would be adult, if not professional. So instead, let us talk about what thou knows I have come to talk about. Hel will not respond to any personal messages I send and refuses to aid us. She has not withdrawn her support, but nor will she extend any further assistance to us. Assistance we direly need, I have learned. And as much as it hurts...”

“You're doing a wise thing, Luna Brynhild. Well... wise in a very stupid way.” Terra said after a moment, smiling a little before she gestured easily with one claw. “But I like to walk around this place. Tarry with me a little and I'll tell you all about Underdark.”

“Tarry...” Luna softened, looking down for a moment, feeling strangely struck by this word. Terra frowned and cocked her head curiously, but Luna only laughed a little and shook her own, glancing up after a moment with a small smile. “'Tis nothing. 'Tis just that... well, 'tis silly, but that is what Innocence calls Antares.”

“Aye. I see...” Terra's features became a little grimmer as she looked down at the two, but then she only shook her head when they both frowned a little at her, the Queen of Heaven murmuring: “Nay, don't think badly of me. I think badly of myself for even thinking poorly of your daughter, for I know from you lot you raised her dear and well. And even I felt the strangeness that Gymbr exuded...”

“Our daughter is strong. She has just... made a mistake. We are going to save her.” Luna said quietly but firmly, and Scrivener Blooms nodded slowly in agreement as Terra sighed and smiled faintly, the dragon studying them intently.

“And if saving your daughter means... doing what no parent should have to do, then will you?” she asked quietly, and Luna gritted her teeth as Scrivener closed his eyes tightly, and there was silence for a few moments. Then, surprisingly, the dragon gave a small laugh and shook her head, murmuring: “I apologize again. This whole experience has just put me in a right foul mood, that's all. Beaten up by ponies and then forced to den here in Subterra and accept the help and blankets of others. It's hard.”

Luna nodded a little, and then Terra strode past them and gestured at them to walk with her, and the two ponies let themselves fall in on either side of the Ironjaw, keeping pace with her. Terra looked off into the distance as they walked before she cleared her throat and began: “Now. I was going to tell you two about Underdark, aye? Well, first off, as it is right now you can't get in. And even if you could, there's nothing but dead, open space in front of the perimeter wall: a wall of lodestone, completely impermeable and guarded by never less than ten Destroyers and dozens of my Clan brothers and sisters. There's only one way in and out, Luna Brynhild, and that's right through the main gate.

“Inside Underdark, you'll find at least thirty more Destroyers, and dozens, mayhaps a hundred of my Clan siblings, all of whom will fight to the death to protect Hel. And even were you to find your way past them, through the Snow Gardens and the mansion that makes all of Subterra look small, even if you dealt with the First Tier demon servants and her golems and that monster, Theodore... you'd still find all of Hel's traps and toys between yourself and her. And by that point, you'd be so drained and tired from fighting, you'd probably just throw yourself into one of the lightning grids.”

Luna scowled at this, shaking her head in disgust as she asked disbelievingly: “And all this and more guard the abysmal witch in her lair? Have any ever made it through?”

Terra chuckled at this, then she grinned widely as the three pushed through a large set of doors to head out onto one of the bridges leading to the top of the flat pyramid. “Oh no, lass. No invader has ever made it past the first line of defense. It isn't enough that we're all trained to work together, or all of us powerful enough to take on an army by ourselves. Nor that we're all armed to the teeth with weapons that carry curses that could level a Jötnar. No, the very air of Hel's world empowers those who have made a pledge to serve her. Makes them stronger, tougher, harder to kill... and freezes the blood of those who would stand against her. You can't begin to imagine the kind of danger you want to throw yourself headfirst into, whether you're supposed to be some Valkyrie reborn or not.”

“The Valkyries fought worse odds. The Valkyries lived worse odds, and we always came out on top.” Luna replied firmly, looking up at Terra challengingly as they halted on top of the pyramid, and then the winged unicorn grimaced a bit as she looked up at the grinning statue of Nightmare Moon, studying it silently. “Thou forgets that I have powerful allies of my own, Ironjaw. The passion entity inside me... I think she is more dangerous than many realize.”

Terra only laughed at this, then she shook her head and said wryly: “Really? Do you truly believe that the demons in your heart are capable of giving you power enough to rival the demons in reality?”

Luna grunted at this, her eyes sliding meditatively towards Terra as Scrivener Blooms replied mildly: “Change the world inside, you change the universe outside. Or, you know, make yourself immune to pain you can keep punching someone no matter how much they hurt you, to skip all the philosophical crap.”

The Ironjaw dragon looked at them with amusement before another voice said with grudging agreement: “As much as I want to disagree with them on principle, I've learned myself it's best not to underestimate what they're capable of. I thought you would have learned that after all the time I heard you spent on your back in Heaven, Queen Valhalla.”

The dragon slowly turned a glare in the direction of Morning Glory as the Destroyer approached, her metallic scales rippling before she rose her head proudly and retorted: “Well, Queen Subterra, you'll pardon me for being a little out of sorts. I was only attempting to defend all of Heaven and all of Heaven's guests as well, seeing as how the great and mighty demons like yourself were busy hiding out down here, whimpering at the mere thought of fighting the enemy.”

The Destroyer didn't rise to the bait, only looking contemptible as she replied evenly: “And many in Subterra are still afraid... and I'm glad they are. Only an arrogant fool would have walked into war with something like Gymbr without fear. Fear of Gymbr is what will make my soldiers be cautious. Fear of what I will do to them if they fail me is what will make them be bold. One day, you'll understand that, even if I have to make you understand it myself.”

Luna looked back and forth between the two demons as they glared at each other, and then the sapphire mare said thoughtfully: “There truly is quite a resemblance between the two of thee. Thou art like twins. Angry twins.” She paused, then leered between them and rubbed her hooves together as both demons glared at her. “I bet thee could have the most delicious of angry sex.”

“I would never lay with another lass!” Terra huffed at this, and Morning Glory snorted in amusement, the dragon turning a sour glower to her. “Especially not such a girl-child as this one, blessed with so much power and yet naught but a wee little waitress still, taking orders and serving demons less used to war than she is.”

Morning Glory slowly narrowed her eyes, and then she cocked her head and asked calmly: “So did Kvasir enjoy your attitude, or did he choose to leave with Gymbr just to get away from you?”

Terra snarled and leapt forwards in a flash... and just as fast, Morning Glory had her by the throat, crushing the Ironjaw's armored neck in as the demonic dragon gargled in surprise. Her claws began to rise, her maw to open to breathe out a gout of flame as Morning Glory's chains rose up and her horn started to glow, but Luna slipped quickly between them and shoved them both apart with a grumble of frustration.

They both staggered backwards, looking surprised at the strength of the mare, and Scrivener gave a silent sigh of relief: she was still energized from the Pool of Tears in their little sanctuary, and that and built-up frustration was giving Luna a bit more raw strength than usual. Enough to startle the two demons, who continued to stare as the sapphire mare snapped: “This is all useless! Morons, if thou want to duel, thou shall do so honorably... but Terra, I still require information from thee on how in Hel's own accursed name I am supposed to breach her mansion, and Morning Glory, I strongly suspect and hope thou art not here simply to harass the Queen of Heaven and do not admire this momentary lapse of professionalism on thy part.”

“I apologize, Luna Brynhild. I simply take issue with those who would consider themselves my superiors... when I do not know if I should even consider them equals.” Morning Glory responded, and she looked moodily across at Terra as the Ironjaw growled and rubbed at the visibly-crushed scales of her throat slowly. “Hecate wants to see you about something. The tinkerer is with her.”

“Then we shall go and see the accursed head in a moment. Morning Glory, thou art excused. I do not need thee acting like me, after all.” Luna said dryly, but the Destroyer only grunted and glowered over at Terra, who narrowed her eyes in return before spitting to the side and muttering a curse in her own language. “Oh, idiots.”

“Two hours. Training grounds.” Morning Glory said shortly, and the Ironjaw grinned wryly, leaning forwards contemptuously.

“Are you really that scared of me, lass, that you have to pretend to pick a fight when you know I'm going to be busy?” Terra asked mockingly, and then she said calmly: “Five hours' time, we meet here and you can take me anywhere you like, fair enough? We can waltz right on into some genius trap of yours, little lass, if you so desire.”

Morning Glory looked meditative, and then the Destroyer nodded once and turned without another word, Luna rolling her eyes before she turned a sour look to Terra. “Perhaps 'tis not my place to say... but thou art a bit of a bitch.”

“I am not! She started it!” Terra complained, reaching up to rub at her throat moodily again before she huffed and added: “Besides, I like to think I'm doing you a favor here. After all, you cannot have an administrator who cannot back up her own words. Kvas taught me that.”

Terra looked down, softening as she rubbed at her features briefly, and then she shook her head quickly before turning a small smile towards them. “But I suppose you're less interested in these little follies and much more in how to get to Helheim, aye?”

“Aye.” Luna grunted, looking moodily up at the draconic demon. “And it must be as fast as possible a route as well. We must not give Gymbr time: I dare not to dream what the god will do if he has all the time in the world and no weaknesses.”

“No weaknesses you can exploit, you mean.” Terra replied pointedly, and Luna scowled up at this as the demonic dragon gave a wry smile. “You'll have to excuse me, but all my time with Kvas has left me with an eye for details. It's a little disappointing, though, to know you couldn't affect that soulstone core in any way.”

“What does thou mean? Striking it?” Luna asked slowly, and Terra looked at the sapphire mare with surprise, cocking her head curiously as she studied the pony.

“Are you daft? I mean the overheating.” Terra said plainly, and when Luna and Scrivener both stared up at her blankly, she scoffed at them. “Did you not read even Kvasir's final entries? That and the index both had a wealth of information on Gymbr, how he's learned to master his weaknesses, but antimagic does great harm to him, and he cannot use his powers for long periods of time before his core starts to heat up and harm him.”

“I read his journal cover-to-cover at least three times and never saw any information about that.” Scrivener said with a quick shake of his head, and when Terra looked surprised, the stallion lowered his head and muttered, as Luna gritted her teeth: “The edits...”

Terra frowned at them, and the sapphire mare cursed under her breath before muttering: “Oh damnation... so that is why Gymbr was not using his powers against us, and what Hel decided to try and hide from our eyes...”

The Ironjaw stared in disbelief, and then she shook her head, muttering: “No. No, that can't be right. I am no servant of Hel, but I trusted her not to put us at great risk... why would she hide Gymbr's vulnerability from you? Why would she help or protect him?”

“In order to make us reliant upon her, and it has worked.” Luna growled, looking down and shaking her head slowly. “Aye. Much as it sickens me, even if this makes me all the more loathe the thought of trying to work with this foul goddess... we cannot afford to pick and choose our allies. We must make the most use of Hel we can.”

Terra grunted, studying the sapphire mare moodily before she said finally: “Then, seeing as you're serious about this... when you've healed up, I'll take you to Helheim and Cairnmór. There, you and your husband shall earn the respect of Clan Isernertos, the clan that protects Hel. Through Cairnmór, you can reach the Underdark: and through Cairnmór, if you can hold your own and earn the respect of the clan, you can also earn a way into Hel's mansion.”

Luna and Scrivener both frowned at this, looking up curiously, and Terra grinned wryly before she said softly: “We do our duties, aye. But as legend goes, Hel is both goddess and trickster: hundreds of thousands of years ago, she is said to have stolen the Ironjaw from their true gods through gifts and treachery. We serve her, because we are loyal, and because of our sense of honor and duty... but we have never forgotten that we are slaves to her, too, that she cheated our Clan. So we have always been eager to pay her back the favor: if you earn the respect of Isernertos, then I have no doubt the Ironjaw will let you march right in to Underdark. And even if we cannot help with the traps and Teddy, the Destroyers have always bowed their heads in respect to our clan, and we can help you through to find Hel herself, even if we cannot raise a claw against her ourselves.”

Luna nodded slowly, looking down meditatively and furrowing her brow in thought. Scrivener Blooms looked awkwardly over at the mare, and then he lamely turned his eyes towards Terra, asking finally as he rose a plastic-booted hoof: “How uh... precisely how are we supposed to earn the respect of a whole bunch of Ironjaw dragons? I mean, Cairnmór... that's literally a city of Ironjaw, right?”

“Aye.” Terra grinned widely, looking with entertainment at Scrivener Blooms. “Aye, 'tis. And you will earn the respect of my brothers and sisters the same way you would earn the respect of any tribe of proud warriors. By accomplishing a series of tasks to show your strength, your skill, and your honor. If you succeed, then you'll be accepted into the Clan; if you fail, then my brothers and sisters will likely kill you and eat you.”

“Oh. Oh, that's fantastic, then.” Scrivener said dryly, looking sourly up at the bright, cheerful-looking dragon. She only gave a positive nod in return, and the stallion sighed and looked morbidly over at Luna as the winged unicorn looked slowly up. “Please tell me you're not actually considering this. I don't know how we're even supposed to fit in with a bunch of dragons.”

“Kvasir did it. And I have never been prouder of him.” Terra replied firmly, and Luna gave Scrivener a pointed look, which made the stallion sigh tiredly and drop his head.

“Great. I guess that means we have to now. Thanks, Luna's pride, for getting us maimed and possibly killed and eaten.” Scrivener muttered, and then he winced when the sapphire mare reached up and swatted him lightly.

“Have a little faith, poet.” Luna said grumpily, and then she turned her eyes back towards Terra, saying calmly: “It will be a few days while my partners and I finish healing before we are prepared to make the journey. I believe it will be a few days before thou art able to make the journey as well. Excuse us, now: we must not keep Hecate and Cowlick waiting.”

Terra snorted at this, saying loudly as Luna and Scrivener headed for the stairs leading down from the palace: “There's a difference between confidence and naivety, Luna Brynhild!”

Luna smiled slightly over her shoulder, calling back mildly: “And precisely upon which side of the fence does thou sit, Terra?”

The Ironjaw only shook her head and turned away, and Luna turned her own eyes back forwards as she and Scrivener strode down the stairs together. The stallion grimaced a little at every step, and by the time they reached the end of the stairs, he was frowning so horribly that Luna couldn't help but laugh at the expression on his face, in spite of the faint stinging in her own hooves carrying over from Scrivener Blooms.

He gave her a cranky look, and it only made Luna laugh more as they walked into Subterra... and it felt good to laugh. So good, that even Scrivener couldn't help but smile after a moment, lifting what felt like years of wear away from his features before he sighed and shook his head a little when the mare leaned in and kissed his cheek suddenly. “I guess I should count myself lucky, really. How can we be so lucky and so horribly not lucky at the same time?”

“Because life is stupid.” Luna answered after a moment, and Scrivener shrugged meditatively in agreement, nodding a little before the two turned their eyes forwards as they strode down the road together, both ponies smiling a bit. The streets of Subterra weren't very busy, but the demons that remained here were all working hard, training, putting together weapons and armor, preparing for the conflict ahead, whether they were scared or eager.

And it was both a thrilling and terrifying challenge ahead: not just Gymbr, but the fact they would be staging an attack on Heaven, with their Mistress backing them... and of course rumors were already swirling about how Luna was seeking the aid of Hel herself as well.

So the fear and the excitement were both understandable. And it was likely that both were just going to continue to build as time went on, until they were finally prepared, but Luna had faith that her loyal servants would help her see things through until the very end. And that, if they worked together, they would be able to force open Heaven's gates... except from there, Luna wasn't entirely sure what they were going to do.

She tried not to think about it, though: for too long now, she had been thinking and worrying about Gymbr, while not knowing how they would possibly take the monster on. Thinking about it any more, with so many possibilities and holes in the future, wasn't going to do anything but frustrate her and make Scrivener give her that look that always made her feel like a filly in a way that she kind of hated even if it wasn't entirely a bad thing.

He gave her that precise look after a moment as he heard her thoughts and saw her grouchy expression, mouth quirking in a smile, and Luna glared over at him before firmly butting her head into his with a loud clunk of metal on bone, the stallion seeing stars and staggering stupidly as Luna's eyes bulged in pain at the feeling of the cap shifting. Then they glared at each other for a moment before both ponies continued onwards, heading out of the tunnel they had entered and stepping into another cavern of Subterra.

This cave was smaller, although still more than enormous enough to contain several large structures. They could hear machinery and rumbling, and fewer but brighter crystal lamps were all along the roof of this area, making it seem a little more ghostly, and a little more... synthetic, and sterile. This was where much of the machinery that helped power Subterra was kept, and it showed.

They headed towards a steel structure that had been expanded so many times and grown so large it was literally fused and built into one wall and the ceiling of the cavern. Several Nibelung were standing around in front of an open shutter, one of them smoking and all of them dressed in heavy coveralls that marked them as part of the engineering crew.

The ponies passed by them and through the open shutter, Luna glancing back and forth around the small workshop they entered and smiling at the sight of the half-constructed mechanical monstrosities they passed: two motorcycles, and some kind of larger framework that for some reason scared Scrivener even more.

Luna shoved through a door at the back before leading the way down the narrow hall, shivering a little at how cold it was. On the bright side, she at least had a vague idea of where they were going, as Scrivener muttered: “I think I'm a little afraid of what those two have likely put together...”

“Aye, precisely.” Luna grunted and nodded in agreement, then she tossed a slight smile to Scrivener Blooms. “The funny thing is, poet, that is a large part of what makes me so excited to see what our friends have created.”

Scrivy made a face, then looked up in surprise as an armored door slid open and Hecate's head buzzed out on its little flying saucer, then sharply banked and ascended almost to the ceiling, narrowly avoiding a wrench as Cowlick's voice ranted: “-on your side of the goddamn lab!”

Hecate glared in response through the open doorway, then she turned her sour eyes towards Luna and Scrivener, saying acidly: “Oh good, you're finally here to try and help save your pretty little Heaven. It's incredible how fast you move when something you care about is in danger.”

“Shut up, Hecate, or I shall swat thee like the buzzing fly thou art.” Luna said grumpily, looking pointedly up at the creature, and Hecate only snorted as she dropped slowly down until she was just above head level with the winged unicorn.

Then Cowlick poked her head out of the doorway, and the engineer grinned at them, gesturing quickly with a front hoof. “The hell took you two so long? Come on, get your asses in here and take a look at the... at what...”

Cowlick broke off into a short fit of coughing, then she made a horrible retching sound before spitting off to the side, Scrivener Blooms wincing a little before the engineer rubbed at her lips and retreated back into the room. Luna gave her husband an amused look as Hecate floated through the doorway, muttering: “I suppose I should stay to make sure you idiots don't break anything.”

“Yeah, right. Us, break something. All you know is how to break things.” Cowlick grumbled moodily, and Hecate scowled, the head hovering towards the earth pony as her horn began to glow dangerously, but Cowlick looked unperturbed, only glaring fearlessly up at the foul-tempered pseudo-immortal. “Go ahead, shoot me. I'll shoot you right back. And mine'll be a lot worse.”

Hecate grumbled, then she suddenly spun around and said sourly to Luna and Scrivener as they approached: “We've managed to do what you and the Draconequus and Celestia were all too weak to: create a window that can see into Ginnungagap.”

Cowlick swung a hoof absently in the direction of the head, but she was grinning as she gestured calmly behind her, towards the massive portal ring that sat in the center of the monolithic workshop. Even with the strange machines and tools lining the walls and scattered over the tables, it was on this central project that all attention automatically focused, thanks in part to how many cables were feeding out of the ceiling and the floor into the enormous, cylindrical power stations to either side of the portal.

Luna scowled a little at this, and then she asked slowly: “Thou art entirely sure it works? That when thou turns it on, it simply isn't going to turn into a great black hole that will devour us all, after sucking up all the power from Subterra and Canterlot?”

“Hey, screw you, Luna. I know my business.” Cowlick retorted, patting herself on the chest. “Besides, most of this is from Hecate. And while I hate her a different way for every hour of the goddamn week, she seems to know her stuff.”

“A half-compliment. Touching.” Hecate gave a grumpy look towards Cowlick, and then she shook her head; a simple gesture made much more awkward by the fact her head was essentially her entire body. “It will work. But I need a Draconequus to activate it and translate Ginnungagap's chaos. Preferably the idiot love-toy of the Good Little Princess.”

Luna grunted moodily, then she nodded hesitantly before meeting Hecate's eyes and saying quietly: “And I take it thou hast been busy with other projects as well, aye?”

The head looked coldly back as Cowlick shifted awkwardly, rubbing slowly at her features as she cleared her throat nervously... and then Hecate suddenly smiled icily, saying softly: “But, it may surprise you, this is not entirely where I want to be. I've done the hard work, the theory and the layout. Any slave hoof can pick up the pieces as indicated on the schematics and put them together, once the more delicate synthetic nervous system has been attended to. The blustering Nibelung can handle the body work and I am confident that Kilby Kwolek can do a satisfactory job with the rest of the parts.”

Cowlick looked up in surprise at this, her head rearing back as Luna and Scrivener both frowned as well, but Hecate kept her eyes on them as she said steadily: “I've spent most of my long, long life working with Clockwork Ponies and other forms of bio-organic warfare. Let me do what I do best: I can empower your demons, upgrade the Clockwork Ponies you've captured, and build a signal tower that will let me call the rest of Decretum's toy soldiers here to help.”

It was tempting... but terribly dangerous, too. Luna gritted her teeth as Scrivener frowned at Hecate, and her eyes coldly roved to him before she promised quietly: “And I can make you stronger, too, and make sure every Clockwork Pony is loyal to you, Replicant. You have no idea how well I understand that sometimes you have to cast off your pride and find a place in the enemy's camp. I worked for Valthrudnir for countless years, after all.”

Scrivener and Luna both shivered a little, and then the sapphire mare looked down before she murmured quietly: “No. I shall not permit thee to experiment on my servants, nor pursue the rest of thy treacherous arts... not yet, at least. Even after all these years I know I must tread lightly with thee, and 'tis not even because I do not trust thee, even though I certainly do not. 'Tis because, Hecate, I fear very much that we could easily become best of friends. And I fear what I would let thee get away with. And I fear, most of all, what thou would do for me.”

Hecate frowned darkly at this, but there was a strange glimmer in the head's eyes before Luna looked up as she felt Scrivener's uneasy agreement, the mare saying calmly: “But I shall speak to Celestia and have the Clockwork Ponies freed and put in service here in Subterra, and the ones who serve the Strange Ones as well. Thou may repair their damages, but I ask thee to refrain from any... 'upgrades,' as thou calls them.”

“Except Shiny. If you want, and so long as I'm present, and he agrees... and he has to honestly agree, you can't intimidate the poor bastard... then I think Shiny could use the fixes.” Cowlick said quietly, looking up and nodding firmly once. Luna grumbled, wanting to argue, but Cowlick shot her a scathing glare, and the sapphire mare sighed grouchily as she understood it was useless: Shiny, after all, wasn't just a machine-pony to Cowlick, but a lot like a son. She knew better than to mess with another mare's plans for her child.

Hecate looked moody, then she nodded grudgingly before asking insistently: “And what about the signal? Subterra has more than enough resources for me to easily reprogram this Ginnungagap window into an amplifier.”

Luna and Scrivener traded looks, and then the stallion uneasily looked at one of the towering power stations next to the ring, asking finally: “What the hell really is it, anyway? We're not going to go through that, right?”

“I would not recommend it.” Hecate smiled thinly. “It will serve as a window into another reality. We'll have to get the attention of something on the other side, but that will be easy if we have a Draconequus here with us. The only danger, of course, is that once we make contact... we could let something in.”

“Personally, I'm less worried about that and more about what this thing is made with.” Cowlick muttered, shivering once as she looked over her shoulder at one of the cylindrical towers. “Blood, demonic crystal, bones. How the hell did you learn to stick a bone in there to conduct magic better?”

Hecate only smiled contemptibly again, and Cowlick grimaced... then leaned to the side, covering her mouth and coughing hard several times. Scrivener and Luna both frowned as Hecate rolled her eyes, the head lifting higher into the air and buzzing quietly away through the enormous workshop as Cowlick continued to hack and wheeze.

Luna stepped forwards uneasily, but the engineer grumbled and rose a hoof, spitting to the side a few times and muttering: “I'm okay. I'm fine, okay?”

“I don't think you are.” Scrivener said quietly, and Cowlick frowned before she reached up to touch her lips... then slowly wipe the speckling of blood off her chin. She didn't look surprised, though, glancing down at it and shrugging a bit before simply wiping it off against her vest.

“Yeah, so what? My throat hurts like hell and my lungs are sore.” Cowlick grumbled, then she reached up and pulled out her box of cigarettes... and glared when Luna caught her hoof, stopping her from raising them to her muzzle. “I said, I'm fine.”

“No, thou art clearly not. What is going on?” Luna asked sharply, and Cowlick shook her head and looked at her with something like amusement, which only made the winged unicorn scowl deeper. “Damnation, Cowlick, I am thy friend and-”

“Look at me, you idjits.” Cowlick gestured moodily at herself, sighing and shaking her head slowly as she shook Luna's hoof away, then rose the box to her muzzle and nuzzled into the open top to pull out a cigarette. “I'm old. I'm old, and I've spent roughly half my life wasted out of my mind. I don't take amphetamines anymore to excite myself, but because my dumbass body now needs 'em just to get up in the morning and stay awake to lunch. I got three ulcers and I can't drink a cold beer anymore without my teeth starting to hurt. I've been smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day since Rusty died and... I ain't no demon. I'm just a pony. And I got pony problems and pony diseases, and like every other pony, I'm gonna die. And I'm probably gonna die soon.”

Cowlick chewed on the end of her cigarette slowly as she tucked the box back in her pocket, and then she closed her eyes as she murmured: “Cancer. Lungs. Found out two months ago. Which is about a month longer than I was supposed to live. Frigging doctors, don't know nothing, though...”

Luna and Scrivener both stared in disbelief, and then the sapphire winged unicorn shook her head violently before whispering: “Thou... thou never told us? Why not? We are thy friends!”

“I was gonna say something, but... I wanted to wait until I knew that... it was over. It took some time to sink in, and...” Cowlick shook her head slowly, murmuring: “There's lots else to worry about, other than me, anyway, you assholes. Besides, look at me, on my hooves and helping you guys put a stop to that bastard up-top. And every goddamn day I stay alive, I stay strong, that's another day where those assholes were wrong and I was right.”

Cowlick grinned and stomped a hoof, and Luna snarled as she stepped forwards, snapping: “This is no laughing matter! We can help thee, stupid, foul idiot! We have magic, and powerful allies, and much else that-”

“I'm not letting you carve me open and stick something else inside of me. I've lived my goddamn life, Luna. A good life, and I'm just sticking around as long as I can now until I hear one of those reapers coming for me.” Cowlick argued staunchly, shaking her head and looking stubbornly back at Luna. “And once things start... getting bad, I got something just as good as your magic to take away my pain. 'Cept mine is going to do a hell of a lot better job.”

Luna stared at Cowlick, mouthing wordlessly for a few moments as Scrivener shook his head in disbelief, whispering: “You can't have... Cowlick, this is your life you're talking about-”

“Yeah, and it's going to be my death too, and I don't give a crowbait's flank if you agree or disagree with me.” the engineer retorted, and then she reached up and poked her lighter out of her vest, flicking it and touching the flame to her cigarette. She inhaled, then blew out two ribbons of smoke from her nostrils, saying quietly: “This is my life. I'll decide how the hell I live, I'll decide what I'm going to do with myself... and I've decided how I'm gonna die, too. Between then and there, you can either cry about it like a little bitch or you can just accept it, and we can enjoy each other's company before I go.”

Luna gritted her teeth at this, then strode forwards and slapped the cigarette out of Cowlick's mouth before punching her across the jaw, making her wince and stumble with a curse. She snapped her head back up, baring her teeth, and then Luna snagged her by the neck and yanked her in as the engineer winced...

Then she blinked, looking surprised as the winged unicorn clenched her eyes shut and embraced her fiercely, whispering: “Stupid, foul idiot. Aye. I know... this is thy life. But thou art my friend and I... I do not like the culling that we cursed with immortality must bear witness to. I do not like watching all my friends die, for thou will not be the first... thou will not be the last... and this process is hard. I hate thee because I am selfish; I admire and love thee for the pride thou faces this adversity with.”

Luna halted, then stepped suddenly backwards and shoved Cowlick away, glaring at her. “But how dare thou keep it a secret! Thou hast chosen thy life and death, but the rest is not about thee, 'tis about how thy loss will affect those around thee! Thou art important... not just a friend, but a leader, and... and thou must hold off death as long as possible, for if thou dies-”

“I'm not going to Heaven, Luna.” Cowlick said quietly, and Luna slowly closed her mouth before the engineer smiled a little and looked steadily across at the mare, whispering: “But I gotta ask you one thing, in case I don't make it. When you find your way into Heaven... find my boy. Make sure he's safe. Get him out of there, if you can't stop Gymbr.”

“We're going to stop Gymbr, Cowlick.” Scrivener promised quietly, and then he hesitated before reaching up and touching Luna's shoulder: “We should go. And... I'm sorry.”

“So am I. Don't worry... I'll keep you all updated.” Cowlick nodded to them, then she reached down and picked up her cigarette, studying it before simply shrugging and putting it back in her mouth when she saw it was still lit.

She turned away, and Scrivy and Luna lingered for a moment before turning to leave themselves, both understanding that even if they could stop a god like Gymbr, they could never stop the universe from continuing its relentless, endless march.

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