• 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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Two Steps Into Hell

Chapter Twenty Four: Two Steps Into Hell

Scrivener Blooms wasn't wearing the stupid little plastic boots anymore, but his forelegs were still heavily bandaged, and he had grouchily consented to taking some painkillers that a demon had mixed up for him. They worked well enough to let him melee with his claws despite the fact they looked... almost fragile these days, but he had to be extremely careful about using his mire powers now. Something seemed to be wrong with whatever strange vessels let him exert the corruption: anything more than calling up a trickle of his powers made his forelegs feel like they were on fire and his claws start bleeding.

Luna, on the other hoof, had healed fully... if anything, she seemed stronger than she had been before. She had also not only repaired and polished up her armor, but gone the extra mile during one sleepless night and done some further trimming and modification to better her gear. Nothing that was entirely noticeable, but rather she had tightened plates in some areas and trimmed some of the excess insulation: but every little bit counted.

Twilight Sparkle, lastly, had been helping Celestia out, occasionally dropping by to check on Hecate and Cowlick, and she had also been working on her own body armor. It was rare that the Lich went into battle with equipment: generally the things they fought tended to tear through their armor like paper, and there was no point in overburdening herself when she could sew most wounds closed and reattach severed limbs. Plus, if they were fighting something strong enough to really send them south, she liked having the option of detonating herself to hopefully take down or drive off whatever it was they were dealing with.

On some occasions, though, it was better to take precautions... so with a little help, she had put together a lightweight set of armor that wouldn't interfere with her mobility, and more importantly, would insulate her against magic and attacks that targeted her spiritual energy. Kismet had been kind enough to help her with a lot of it: the Lich and the Great Reaper were on particularly-amiable terms, and not just because of Twilight's odd ability to make friends everywhere she went with everyone she met. The two just liked each other, and all their quirks and oddities.

And now, Twilight Sparkle was checking over this heavy, silver-and-black armor that was designed to match Scrivener and Luna's, made of segmented scale-like plates. The front of her armor was engraved with the symbol of a rose blossom in front of a full moon, cradled by a wreath of thorns and brambles. The rest of her armor lacked details or decoration: even the small, cleat-like obsidian spikes that stood out of the sides of her armor here and there had a purpose. They would absorb hostile magic into the thin plates of crystal that insulated her gear, converting it into a protective charge.

She was only wearing a simple helm, with a ring of similar black crystal that cradled her horn to enhance her magic and prevent any excess energy from going unused. The violet mare smiled a little as she reached up and touched this quietly: all the black crystal was made from painting voltaic topazes with the Prometheus Elixir. So much of what they used these days was made from... darker sources...

“Aye, but we are still ponies who always strive to do what is right, are we not?” Luna asked softly as she pushed open the door to their room, and Twilight smiled out at her companions: they were both dressed in their own gear, and Luna had Sting Mk. II holstered over her back... although she still hadn't been able to recall Prúðbikkja from wherever Gymbr had exiled it. “Well, Celestia has an idea to attend to that, as a matter of fact. She wishes to see us and try it before we go.”

Twilight simply nodded with a small smile, half-hating how... comfortable she was with the fact that Luna and Scrivy could both read her mind and emotions so easily. But it made her feel... fuzzy inside when they did, too. Like it was a reminder of how much they loved her...

She blushed a little as she shook her head hurriedly out as she realized both ponies were smiling at her amusedly, and then she gestured awkwardly at the rings Scrivener was wearing around his claws, asking finally: “Are those helping?”

“They're a pain in the ass since I keep trying to close my claws into hooves when I clearly can't, but... otherwise, yeah, I think they are.” Scrivener absently rubbed at the rings one one claw: they felt a little uncomfortable and made his claws feel stiff, but it was better than hurting when he walked. “But are you ready then? Got Andlitstingar?”

Twilight nodded, raising one wing to reveal the collapsed spear in its sheath beneath it before she smiled a little. “I do... really appreciate you sharing this with me, Luna, but I don't think it's quite my kind of weapon.”

“Nay, 'tis not. Thou art awful with it. But all the same, 'tis receptive to thee and thou can channel thy magic through it, so for now 'tis the best we can do.” Luna replied kindly, and Twilight laughed a little before Luna turned and gestured at them to follow. “Come, I am growing more and more anxious to leave by the minute. It has been a long, long time since I have raided Helheim itself.”

“Valkyrie days, huh?” Scrivener asked mildly, and Luna huffed at him and bopped him lightly with her soulstone horn, but the earth pony only winced out of reflex as it banged painlessly against his heavy helm. “Am I ever glad to be wearing a helmet.”

Luna grumbled, then she poked him firmly in the cheek instead with the spire, and the stallion cursed at her as he stumbled away as Twilight shook her head and smiled despite herself. She watched the two affectionately as they bickered on their way down the hall, glad that things had... never really changed. None of them ever really grew up, and it made things... so much easier to deal with.

The group emerged onto the top of Subterra to find Celestia was waiting for them, smiling kindly and standing in front of a circle of runes she had written in some red substance: likely her own blood, from the knife resting in the small pail beside her. Luna whistled a bit at this, studying the mare with surprise before a grouchy voice said: “Not to rush you at all, but can we make this quick? I'm eager to see my kin and drink away my shame.”

Luna turned amused eyes to Terra, who was looking vindictive and sour as Morning Glory sat calmly nearby with the slightest smile on her features. Terra tossed a scowl over at the Destroyer, but didn't quite dare say anything further: the demons had fought a fierce duel a few days ago, and while Terra had managed to almost eviscerate Morning Glory, the Destroyer had broken both of Terra's front legs and then roasted her alive with purification inside her own metallic armor. Unable to move and suffering massively under the torment of the holy fire, Terra had been forced to surrender.

The Ironjaw had spent the last few days sulking: she didn't deal with losing very well. And Morning Glory probably wasn't helping matters much by calmly following Terra around, hovering over her, not needing to speak. In fact, her silence probably drove Terra even more insane: the dragon tried to fill it with scoffing and insults and promises of retribution, and Morning Glory just... smiled calmly and looked down on the dragon and showed just how malicious she could be.

Celestia shook her head slowly, then she said softly: “In a moment. First of all, my sister and I are going to perform a short summoning ritual together. As you can see, I've written out most of a Raven's Key... I need you to finish the symbol with your own blood. Then we'll use the old magic side-by-side and... see what happens.”

The sapphire mare looked thoughtful at this, and then she nodded slowly before raising a foreleg, her horn glowing and undoing the locks that held a bracer in place over her foreleg. She pushed back the insulating mesh beneath, then, without hesitating, used her horn to slice open her limb and spill out a thin stream of her blood, grimacing a bit... but not at the pain, as her eyes flicked uneasily up to the statue of Nightmare Moon, feeling strangely like it was watching her somehow.

She shook her head hurriedly out, then returned her eyes to the trickle of blood: her horn glowed as she used magic to open the wound a bit wider and keep the red essence flowing, and she used her other hoof to crudely paint the rest of the diagram, gradually forming an eight-pointed star and several crescent-shaped runes inside the circle.

Finally, she sat back and nodded firmly, tossing one awkward glance up at Celestia: the ivory mare smiled in agreement, and then she lowered her head... and in perfect time, Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight all lowered their own as the Valkyries both murmured softly: “By my blood and honor, by my spirit and soul...”

Both winged unicorns took slow breaths, then lapsed into their old language, eyes closing, speaking what was half-prayer, half-command. The bloody symbol they had painted began to bubble and visibly flow, circulating along the lines they had drawn, and Terra and Morning Glory both forgot their rivalry to lean forwards and watch with interest.

Luna and Celestia's voices rose in their chant, their horns glowing and sparking with energy, but this magic was far older, far more powerful than unicorn magic: it was power that thrummed up from their hearts and souls, that came from their glory days as Valkyries, that called on powers that had been long forgotten across most of the myriad worlds Odin had seeded...

Both winged unicorns rose their heads slowly, eyes opening, energy rippling around them before they both gritted their teeth and snapped their heads downwards, and there was a tremendous ripple through reality, followed by a bright, sharp flash of light.

And a moment later, Luna was grinning in delight, her eyes gleaming as Prúðbikkja floated in the air above her head, sparking with electricity. She licked her lips slowly, then turned her eyes towards Celestia... and laughed, her grin stretching all the wider as said warmly: “Now there is a sight that stirs memories inside me! Dómr, Drengr, Gæfa... if it warms my heart to see thee, I can only imagine how thy mistress must feel!”

Celestia had her eyes closed, but she was smiling softly as she breathed slowly in and out, her head lowered, her expression almost content as the three weapons floated silently around her... and then, slowly, she opened her eyes and looked up, answering softly: “Complete.”

Scrivener and Twilight both stared in surprise: while Celestia's swords created through her hjorleikr were all identical short swords, these three weapons were all very different. Even though they were clearly all part of a set, with each was inscribed with a series of runes over either side of the silver blades that Scrivener guessed was their names, and a long, smooth steel grip wrapped in hide, they were also all shaped uniquely and meant for different purposes.

One was thin and sickle-shaped, the hook wide and long and reaching and so sharp it hurt Scrivener's eyes just to look at; another was almost rectangular, with a flat tip instead of a point and growing thicker near the end, the design more bludgeoning than it was sharp; the last was both elegant and savage at the same time, the upper half of the blade double-edged and smooth, but the lower half serrated teeth meant for sawing into other weapons and flaying apart armor and flesh. Gæfa, Dómr, and Drengr: the stallion could catch glimpses of what Celestia had done with these weapons in the past, and it made him both eager and terrified to see what she would do with them in the future.

The ivory mare was smiling radiantly at Luna, and Luna was still grinning widely back before they both stepped forwards and swung a foreleg out, front hooves punching together as their weapon clashed in midair. They both leaned forwards, then clashed their weapons again as they roared together before stepping back and nodding proudly to one-another.

“Aye, very cute. Now can we get going?” Terra asked after she managed to regain her composure, but she was smiling in spite of herself, shaking her head slowly and looking impressed beneath the grumpiness she was attempting to hold onto as she said wryly: “I would dearly like not to waste any more time, after all. Nice as it is to see the Lady Freya has regained her old playthings.”

“I just needed a little help, that's all. Valkyries... sisters... stick together.” Celestia looked down warmly at Luna, who gazed ardently back up at her sibling. “Now get out of here, little sister. My swords are already complaining that we won't be joining you in Helheim. If you don't leave soon, I might have to go with you anyway.”

Luna laughed and shook her head at this, saying easily: “Nay, thou has to stay here until Sleipnir arrives, then play the role of diplomat with Canterlot, does thou not? Aye, but I must say, Celestia... thou hast never seemed less like a monarch and more like a Queen then thou does now.”

Celestia smiled warmly at this, clearly touched before Luna turned away, winking over at Terra. “Now, Ironjaw. We are ready to leave. If thou needs any aid opening the portal, however, I am sure that Morning Glory shall be glad to assist thee.”

“You keep this up, Luna Brynhild, and I'll feed you to my clan brothers myself.” Terra grumbled, and then she turned around and rose her head high, saying calmly: “Nay, all Ironjaw know the way home, lass. Unlike your wretched magic portals, it's simply a matter of openin' the door and walkin' the right path.”

With that, Terra took a deep breath, then leaned forwards and spat out a blast of blue flame that seemed to strike against the air itself, seeming to catch against some invisible wall it greedily spread over, then burned rapidly away into ashes that collapsed away and revealed a rectangular doorway framed in sapphire flames, leading into a swirling crimson light.

She began to grin... then frowned even as Luna started forwards, raising a claw and saying sharply: “Wait, something's not right... there's something...”

Terra leaned towards the doorway, then her eyes widened before the Ironjaw snarled and cursed as she was blasted backwards by a flare of crimson fire. Morning Glory leapt immediately to her side as Luna snarled and set herself, her partners dropping into position on either side of her as Celestia's swords snapped into position around her.

Then Luna shivered, her eyes widening as Twilight almost fell limp when a familiar figure stepped through the portal, the young unicorn shaking her head slowly as she murmured softly: “Gymbr was right... you were going to try and go to Hel.”

“Innocence...” Twilight whispered, and she began forwards... before stumbling to a halt, staring weakly as Twilight Shadow calmly walked out of the portal and strode up to Innocence's side, the dark Lich dressed in a heavy cloak and smiling coldly.

Twilight trembled as she stared at her daughter, who looked back up calmly at her mother, with that doppelganger by her side. And as mother studied child, she saw all the differences in her... not just the cape and the lightweight armor that had replaced the Valkyrie gear they had worked so hard to make for their daughter, or how her coat looked darker, her eyes brighter, how her features seemed older... but how her polymorph was so much better, giving her softer curves, looking less synthetic. And the sense of magic from her...

Innocence smiled softly, leaning forwards and opening her mouth... and Luna stepped immediately forwards, shouting angrily: “Say that we should come and join Gymbr, Innocence, and whether thou art my daughter or not I shall pummel thee into the ground!”

The young mare looked shocked by this response, and then she shook her head in disbelief before sighing quietly, looking with disappointment across at her mother as she rubbed a hoof – a hoof, for the first time Innocence had hooves, not claws, and how Twilight couldn't help but stare! – against the ground. She studied the three of them, then shook her head slowly and said softly: “And he was right about that too, I guess... but Momma, Móðer, Daddy... I don't want it to be this way. I want us to be together.”

“Then come to us. Don't ask us to come to that monster.” Luna said quietly, shaking her head and leaning forwards, and Innocence closed her eyes tightly. “Sin, thou does not know what thou art getting into... what he is capable of...”

“But I do. He's capable of great things. And terrible things, and wonderful things... and things that you would not believe.” Innocence smiled faintly as she gestured at the swirling crimson portal behind her, saying softly: “For example. He knew that you'd try and get to Hel... and that the only way you possibly could do that was by passing through Cairnmór. He knew that Terra would open a portal for you... and he helped Twilight Shadow create a distortion on the Dragon's Way that we could use to intercept you. To choose us instead of her.”

There was silence until Celestia asked quietly, striding slowly forwards and lowering her head politely, even as he kept her weapons at the ready around her: “And what does that mean, Innocence? Are you prepared to declare war on us for your new master?”

“Gymbr is not my master. I love him, but he's not my master. He's my teacher, my mentor...” Innocence closed her eyes, a faint blush and a strange smile cresting her muzzle as she murmured: “And we've spent so much time together... years. I've missed you so much, but he knows how to make me feel good... feel better, and remember that one way or the other, we'll all be together one day. He is my god, and my patron... but not my ruler, or my master. I'm free to decide whatever I want for myself; I could take his power and leave but...”

She shook her head slowly, then looked up as Twilight shivered in disbelief and horror, almost whimpering in her throat as Luna stared and Scrivener trembled, a sick, twisted feeling in his stomach. Innocence only smiled at them, though, looking at them with pleading eyes as she whispered: “Please. You can't win. Gymbr's taken me to other worlds... shown me dimensions you wouldn't believe. He's made us all so powerful... even compared to First Tier demons and monsters, we're godlike. He's transformed Valhalla into a true warrior's paradise, and in only a few short years he took control of the entire Vale. How can you stop that?”

Celestia frowned at this as Twilight Sparkle laughed weakly, shaking her head. “Innocence... what's... no, it's only been days since...”

But Innocence only smiled softly, shaking her head slowly and saying softly: “Gymbr is more powerful than you can imagine, Mom. He's tapped into Valhalla's energy... with that added to his own, he's changed the very flow of time in Asgard. In Heaven, it's been decades since we last saw you. I've been training with him for decades. And every day, he makes me stronger.”

Innocence hesitantly strode forwards as the ponies stared in disbelief, and Terra shook her head in denial, saying urgently: “Nay... nay, lass, you fool. Your god Gymbr is no great magician, but only a silly illusionist, playing with Heaven's gears... but those gears will strip, lass, unless you tell him that he has to reset the flow of time in Valhalla! 'Tis not something to be played with at will!”

“The Hourglass. But only the King of Valhalla can access it...” Celestia whispered, and then she leaned forwards and said sharply: “It was never meant to be used for longer than a few days, to give us the necessary time to build up our defenses in case we heard about giants or Hel coming to attack! It's an ancient artifact keyed to Valhalla alone, Innocence! If the Gates of Valhalla are opened into Asgard while the Hourglass is running, all of Heaven will suffer consequences you cannot begin to imagine!”

Innocence only shook her head at this with a tired sigh, replying quietly: “I know you mean well. But your ways of thinking are outdated and... afraid. Gymbr knows what he's doing... and I'm an adult now. Older than Tarry, as a matter of fact.” Innocence looked up calmly, shaking her head briefly. “I have power, and I am Champion of Valhalla now... I love Gymbr. And he loves me.”

“Gymbr doesn't understand love. He's using you.” Scrivener said quietly, and Innocence smiled faintly over at him, studying her father silently.

“No. He does. He's taught me... a lot.” The young, corrupted mare laughed quietly as she reached up and silently stroked a hoof over her own features. “Power is all that matters. I'm generous to the people who are good to me, and cruel to those who won't listen. I do whatever I want, whatever I please, because I have the right to. My strength gives me the right to do anything I want, to anyone I want. But I still care about people... I still try to be good to people, patient, and I haven't entirely... forgotten all those lessons about 'honor' and 'doing right' you guys taught me... I've just... I'm trying to look at the big picture now. If I'm going to be part of what saves this universe... I have every right to treat all the slaves and mortals beneath me however I want. But I still love you all so much, you're family, friends, and...”

Innocence strode slowly forwards, gazing almost hungrily at her parents as Twilight trembled and leaned back, shaking her head weakly. “Come with me, let me... let me show you. Join us. I want you with us. I won't even complain if Gymbr makes you stronger than he has me... if he loves you more. I want to love you too...”

Innocence leaned forwards as she turned towards Twilight, lips moving forwards, brushing tenderly against her mother's, making the Lich pale further... and then she stumbled backwards a moment before Innocence could kiss her, and the unicorn looked strangely hurt as Twilight Sparkle shivered, then whispered: “Oh... oh my little girl... no, no, I... no...”

“Innocence... stop. Stop. Listen to thyself. Thou art better than this...” Luna swallowed thickly, shaking her head weakly before she stepped forwards, gazing silently into her daughter's eyes... but if her daughter was in there, it was buried deep, beneath this greedy, immoral, self-proclaimed goddess. “Thou art not... thou cannot be...”

“We have to go, Innocence. Too long will have passed in Valhalla... and they're not going to change their minds.” Twilight Shadow looked coldly over the group, then she smiled icily. “But it doesn't matter. When they find out how wrong they were about everything, that we really are trying to save all their lives... I'm sure they'll be falling all over themselves to make it up to you.”

Innocence sighed softly, then she nodded briefly as she gestured at the Lich, saying softly: “Go back to Gymbr. Give him a kiss for me and tell him that I'll be there soon.”

Twilight Shadow nodded and turned, heading into the portal... and immediately, Terra leapt forwards, clearly moving to seal it closed. Innocence only flicked her horn, however, and massive spikes of dark crystal ripped out of the ground, making Terra skid to a stop with a curse of surprise before the unicorn snapped her horn upwards, and a tremendous blast of force slammed the Ironjaw onto her back with a gasp of shock.

“Don't. I'm stronger than all of you.” Innocence said quietly, shaking her head slowly before she straightened and looked silently over at her parents. “I just want to make you strong too. I want to share with you what I've learned: we're free, and above everyone else in the entire world. We're gods, and we make our own rules, choose how to live... and who should entertain us, who should suffer, who should be given gifts, who should die. Mom, Dad, Mutt... I don't want to lose all of you. I don't want to hate all of you. I want to love you. But you have to accept me, and you have to accept Gymbr.”

“Then the die is cast.” Luna whispered, and she slowly straightened before shaking her head slowly as Prúðbikkja shuddered in the air beside her as if in pain, her features hardening even as Twilight looked at her desperately, and Scrivener clenched his eyes shut and lowered his head. “I swear Innocence... we will save thee. And I swear, we will stop Gymbr... for no matter what thou says, what is truth and lie... he will be the death of the universe if the so-called light is not.”

Innocence lowered her head a little, closing her eyes, and then she said softly: “Fine. Then I'll go back to him... and I'll get stronger... and one day, I'll put a stop to you before you can hurt him. And I'll bring you to him, and I'll help him make you see, whatever it takes.”

The mare's eye flashed as she looked up coldly at them, and then she smiled as her eyes roved over her parents. But for all her words, the malice she clearly wanted to exude, the strength she thought she had... this mare who was still their daughter somewhere inside faltered instead of saying something else, finishing either threat or promise, and she simply turned and strode into the swirl of crimson.

Luna looked slowly down, and Scrivener opened his eyes, looking up and not knowing what to say... before both ponies looked with surprise at Twilight as she said in a rough whisper: “Let's go.”

“Twilight... wait, we can take a moment, and...” Luna began soothingly, and Twilight Sparkle whirled around, her eyes blazing with almost feverish light, her head raising high.

“I'm fine, let's go!” Twilight shouted, and Luna winced slightly as she heard her own anger in that voice, and Scrivener was startled out of the misery he had let himself sink into. Both ponies stared at Twilight as she breathed hard in and out, the Lich trembled violently before she stormed around in a circle and glared at Terra as the dragon picked herself up, the violet mare asking harshly: “How quickly can we get this done?”

“'Tis... a straight enough route lass, fear not.” Terra said after a moment, shifting awkwardly as she stared at Twilight herself before the dragon shook her head and started uneasily: “I don't dare imagine what you're going through, Miss Twilight, but if I can suggest-”

“If you can't imagine the answer, then don't ask the question.” Twilight retorted, and then the Lich clenched her eyes shut and lowered her head, taking a shuddering breath as all the rage and sorrow and the fury and the... the hate, oh, the hate boiled inside her, threatened to make her either break down or lash out before she whispered: “I have to keep moving. I have to keep moving, okay? I just have to keep moving and... we have to get to Gymbr as soon as possible. We have to stop him. We have to... to hurt him.”

Scrivener and Luna both looked up in silent agreement, Luna doing her best to swallow back her rage as the stallion attempted to fight down his own despair... and beneath that, the animal. All three of them were affecting each other, but Twilight was the one being hit hardest, hurt most, twisted so much by their emotions... emotions that Luna and Scrivener themselves had no idea how to deal with, or what they should even be feeling.

Then Celestia strode forwards, pushing past the two ponies and settling her hooves on Twilight's shoulders as she turned her firmly to look up at her. Twilight rose her eyes, opening her mouth, not even knowing what she was going to say, but it was cut off as Celestia said quietly: “If you want to save Innocence, don't lose yourself.”

Twilight clenched her eyes shut, feeling her stitches writhing... and then she took a slow, shuddering breath before she simply nodded once and relaxed slowly, turning her eyes quietly upwards and whispering: “He corrupted my daughter. He turned her into his... his toy. She's...”

“We can't change what's happened... but we can still change the future, and save her.” Celestia promised quietly, and Luna and Scrivener both smiled faintly as they stepped forwards, nodding in agreement. And little-by-little, they felt Twilight Sparkle settling down, coming to her senses even as tears began to flow down the Lich's cheeks... but maybe that was the best sign of all.

She took a shuddering breath, then reached up and wiped at her features even as Celestia hugged the violet mare tightly, closing her eyes and squeezing the mare silently into her body as she silently pulled her head into her chest. Twilight went willingly, and Celestia smiled faintly despite everything, feeling her former student responding to her, letting herself be held.

Celestia looked up across at Terra, and Terra shook her head briefly, murmuring: “Fear not. The door will stay open for a long time... there's nothing else I can see in the way, either. But the time distortion... it will make them unstoppable...”

“No, it won't.” Celestia said softly, looking down at Twilight and soothingly rubbing along the Lich's back. “The Hourglass can adjust how Valhalla's time flows in relation to the mortal world, but at a cost. When it flows out of synchronization, the Gates cannot be opened without causing a massive backlash, which means time in Asgard is actually flowing normally. Rifts can't be opened, either, without running the risk of turning them into wormholes as slow time and fast time collide. And Innocence thinks she's strong, and in Valhalla, she would be... but that energy gained and gathered in Valhalla's fast time will bleed out of her body in a normal environment. Time itself is just a concept, a measurement: the Hourglass doesn't control time, but the flow of energy and particles in a static atmosphere.”

“Complicated. And stupid.” Morning Glory muttered, shaking her head in distaste. “Then it's like an arena of blood quartz.”

“Which thou kept thyself, if I recall.” Luna remarked ironically, and the Destroyer gave her a sour look. “Well, in thy defense, thou wert indeed insane when thou ruled from there. But all the same, the point still stands that thou art a silly hypocrite.”

Morning Glory growled moodily, and Terra shivered and lowered her head, murmuring: “I cannot believe Gymbr has done this... this is not just madness, but idiocy. Why would he risk this?”

“Because he believes he's powerful enough to stop anything that might happen as a consequence. And because he wants to spend decades playing with his toys, not just build an army.” Scrivener Blooms said bitterly, shaking his head slowly before he looked up. “Twilight's right. We need to get to Helheim as soon as possible. Because in the few seconds Innocence has been gone...”

“Perhaps it has been hours in Heaven. Perhaps days. Perhaps longer.” Luna cursed, and Prúðbikkja sparked as if in agreement before the sapphire mare shook her head and looked up at Celestia, saying quietly: “Thou must help Hecate prepare the Clockwork Ponies. And thou must... we must make allies everywhere we can. We must be prepared.”

“We will be.” Celestia promised quietly, nodding slowly before she let Twilight slip away, and the ivory winged unicorn looked down, saying softly: “By the time you get back, I promise I'll have a way into Valhalla. We're going to put a stop to Gymbr, and we're going to do it before he can hurt anyone else or bring chaos to the world.”

Twilight nodded silently, then she looked up with trust at Celestia: trust that the ivory mare was not going to break or violate, no matter what it meant she had to do. There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight Sparkle turned towards the portal, shaking her armored body out before she looked over her shoulder at Scrivener and Luna.

They both strode forwards, nodding to her, giving her promises and reassuring thoughts, and the violet mare took a slow breath before she faced ahead towards the crimson portal again, murmuring: “Okay. Let's... let's get moving. I'd rather be moving than crying.”

Scrivener smiled a little at this, and Luna nodded as she approached and traded a fierce, one-limbed hug with Twilight for a moment, dropping their heads together. The Lich smiled faintly at this, then closed her eyes and dropped her head against Scrivener's neck when he strode up to her other side, feeling her partners on either side of her and trusting them to keep her moving, to keep her focused, to keep their eyes on the mission.

Terra looked hesitant for only a moment longer, and then she grunted and jerked her head at the red rift, murmuring: “Well, into the breach, my friends. Hopefully 'twill be a boring enough walk... just don't go wandering off now, you hear?”

The ponies nodded, and Celestia and Morning Glory both watched silently, the Destroyer with her head high and Celestia with her swords lowered and a faint smile on her features. But as Terra led the three into the rift, the trio did its best not to look back, even as the red flares of light threatened to blind them, even as pain and heat sizzled over their bodies as they stepped into the doorway of fire.

They couldn't look back. They could only move forwards, and hope that they could put a stop to Gymbr before he corrupted anything else they loved.

The walk through the Dragon's Road was a strange one: it was like a floating, wide road of dirt in the sky, over a void of vast redness and a thousand other intertwining paths. Here and there were patches of forest, and in other places they seemed to pass through massive tunnels of rock and wild gemstone, these often filled with strange, reptilian life.

But mostly, it was boring, enough that Luna eventually hid her spear away: they saw a few other Ironjaw dragons, but these were always too far away to really make out the details of apart from their metallic frames. And at the end of it, it was surprisingly anticlimactic: there was simply a set of crystalline pillars at the end of the long and winding dirt road, which Terra breathed life into with her sapphire breath, and between them a hole in reality ripped open.

Then they stepped out into Helheim, and immediately, things got interesting.

The moment the three ponies followed the Ironjaw dragon into Helheim, a horrible screaming rose through the air before massive claws of ice ripped out of the frost covered ground, seizing into the portal and ripping it apart like it was ribbons of paper, not a distortion in the fabric of reality itself. Luna and Scrivener immediately set themselves as Twilight shivered and looked back and forth in shock, feeling a chill in her bones that she almost never felt these days: but worse than that, was feeling almost like... she was home.

There was nothing but frost and snow and rock, and high above, a ceiling of cracked and desolate gray stone. It was dark, and yet not: the atmosphere was simply heavy, making all light seem faded, and the twinkling of snow and gemstone that stood here and here amidst the broken, barren tundra seem malicious.

Almost as malicious as the glint of light off the three monstrosities that had encircled them. Icy, blue-white ponies, except they were terribly tall, with terribly long-legs that ended in flexible claws. Crimson smears surrounded lipless mouths twisted into cruel grins, and soulless white eyes stared at them with hatred beneath manes that whipped back and forth, made of frost and blowing snow.

“Windygoes?” Twilight Sparkle asked in disbelief, staring at these monsters, and then one leaned forwards and screamed at them as Terra snarled and set herself, and Luna gave a short laugh, her eyes blazing with fury.

“Oh nay, these are neither the North Wind nor foal's bedside fable! These are Wendigo, Twilight Sparkle, and they can only be harmed with fire!” Luna replied sharply, flicking her soulstone horn to the side, and Scrivener gritted his teeth as he set himself, feeling enchanted flames spreading rapidly over his claws and forelegs.

“Aye, and they're far fiercer here in Helheim than they are in the mortal realm. Even we Ironjaw try to avoid them.” Terra growled, snorting smoke out of her nostrils before she added sharply: “Do not let the creatures sink their claws into you: what's lethal upstairs is much, much worse here!”

One of the Wendigo leapt forwards with a terrible wail, seeming to glide through the air as it stretched its gangly limbs eagerly towards them, but Luna was quick to snap her horn out, sending a sapphire fireball shooting into the monster's face. It was blown backwards with a howl of misery, but if anything, it only seemed to excite the others further, one monster sprinting in to try and flank them as the other leapt in an impossible pounce at Twilight Sparkle's side.

Scrivener gritted his teeth as he turned towards the last, leaping forwards and using Twilight's back like a step to launch himself into the air, and he slammed a claw home into the Wendigo's face, spiking it straight down into the frozen earth like a volleyball. It shrieked as it bounced painfully, and then Twilight snapped her horn towards it, a crimson fireball smashing into the creature.

It exploded in a tremendous bang, knocking it backwards as natural fire began to rapidly devour the monster, the Wendigo howling and writhing as it hurriedly withdrew. The others, meanwhile, were driven back by Terra's fire and Luna's fireballs, both charring away the spirits of the monsters before one of them snarled and lunged straight through Terra's breath, rushing straight towards the dragon-

Terra's eyes glowed as she grinned and stomped the ground, and a massive wave of cold and ice rushed over the Wendigo, freezing it solid and leaving it trapped helplessly in the glacier. It still glared at them with absolute hatred, but the creature couldn't move out of its frosty prison.

The last Wendigo hissed at them, then rose its head and roared to the rocky sky of Helheim, and all three ponies winced as a biting wind ripped past them, carrying with it a blinding flurry of snow... and when the ponies and dragon were able to look up again, the monsters had simply vanished, ice prison and all. Terra grimaced and spat to the side, then she shook her head and gestured quickly with her head at a mountainous region behind her, growling: “Come, we'd best make haste. It's only ten minutes or so to walk to Cairnmór, but the Wendigo will take much shorter than that to regroup and give chase. And once they have your scent, they never forget it.”

“Then we should move quickly. Such foes are too dangerous to face in unknown territory such as this.” Luna muttered, nodding and making a face over her shoulder before she nudged Twilight Sparkle gently, and the Lich nodded a little as the sapphire flames died out from around Scrivener's claws, the stallion absently flicking these a few times.

Terra turned to lead them onwards, and the three ponies followed after the dragon as she strode quickly in the direction of the mountains: soon enough, it became clear that she was following a path of some kind, one that was faintly marked among the snow by the position of rocks here and there. Every now and then, Terra would stop and breathe flames onto a charred-looking crystal here and there, and the stone would burst into flames, turning into a miniature torch that sent curls of brimstone smoke rising through the air.

“A signal to my clan... and to slow down any pursuers. The Wendigo loathe the smoke and heat.” Terra explained after a few minutes, and then she gestured ahead with a slight smile as they began up a mountain pass, gesturing at a billow of smoke in the distance. “Aye, there. They know we approach, so there won't be any panic at the sight of you three. But they won't be quite as polite to you as I am, you know. We are a proud clan, Isernertos.”

The dragon paused, then she looked thoughtfully over her shoulder as they made their way up the rise, beginning to open her mouth... and then grimacing as her eyes flicked up, muttering: “We'd best pick up the pace. More Wendigo are coming, and it looks like they've rounded up some thralls to thicken up their hunting party.”

The ponies winced, looking over their shoulders to see shapes in the distance hurriedly approaching, and then they focused ahead and ran after the dragon as she broke into a run, growling: “Damned animals, far more dangerous than any demon lord... they've lost their minds and neither fear nor can be controlled by the Archives. All they do is follow what their instincts tell them to.”

“And I take it that means most of them just want to murder and devour whatever they come across, right?” Scrivener Blooms asked moodily, and Terra grinned and shrugged a bit as the group hurried onwards up the pass. They could hear the monsters behind them gaining on them little-by-little, but as they ran Terra spat out blasts of flame to either side, lighting up more of the strange stones and setting the ice itself aflame here and there.

Within a minute, they crested the top of the pass, and Terra let out a sigh of relief as the ponies stared down in surprise: the mountains formed a natural ridge around a deep, bowl-shaped valley that was filled with large stone dwellings that were mostly square in their construction, and bonfires burned on top and around immense statues, filling the frosty air with a strange cheer, all the more alien for being here in Helheim.

They slowed as they jogged down the hill, and Terra grinned over her shoulder as she came to a halt some twenty feet away from the massive statues that formed the entrance to the city. The Wendigo were simply standing at the top of the hill, not daring to come closer as they snarled down at their quarry, and Terra blew a loud raspberry in their direction before she shouted: “Not so tough now, are you? Great stupid cowards, the lot of you!”

“I am starting to understand why some ponies may not find me as cute as I like to believe I am.” Luna said wryly, and then she shook her head slowly, murmuring as she gazed up at the creatures in the distance: “So either they still have some trace of intelligence there, or thou and thy clan truly are as terrifying as thou likes to brag.”

“I'm glad you're finally starting to understand that.” Terra replied with a wide grin, and then she shook her head and straightened, turning around and smiling as she strode fearlessly towards the monolithic city, her mood clearly lighter than it had been in days. “Now come, friends. Never you fear, I'll take you straight to the Chieftain so he can determine your worth and what you'll have to do.”

Luna nodded firmly as Twilight smiled faintly, although she already looked like she was distracted by worries and other thoughts. Scrivener Blooms nudged her gently, gazing at her softly, and the violet mare looked back and nodded to him reassuringly: she was still ready to move forwards, and focused on what they had to do.

The three ponies turned to follow the dragon onwards, looking back and forth at architecture that seemed both primitive and somehow beautiful, and at the other Ironjaw dragons that were emerging from the buildings and pausing in the street to gaze with interest and frowns at the ponies. Some seemed simply curious, while others were baring their fangs in challenge as metallic scales bristled, but the one dragon that stepped towards them aggressively was quickly driven back by Terra leaping forwards and snarling back, her frame seeming to double in size as her metal scales rippled, her eyes glowing with challenge.

The smaller Ironjaw skittered backwards, wincing and scurrying away down the road as several other dragons laughed, and Terra blew a smoke ring after him before she said with a mild glance towards the ponies: “Don't you worry none. Those who have newly been anointed or have come to us from the few rare places in Midgard where mortal Ironjaw live tend to be a little soft behind the ears for a little while. Especially if they've yet to earn a few trophies.”

Terra reached up and jangled her necklace of teeth and claws absently, and Scrivener Blooms winced a little as Luna only grunted and nodded, before Twilight asked hesitantly, both curious and wanting to try and focus on something other than her daughter: “So Ironjaw... even though you worship and serve Hel, you're born... mortal?”

Terra smiled over her shoulder, then she started forwards, leading them onwards through the massive stone city... but loitering a little now so she could answer with pride: “Some are, aye... I was, for example. And while we're mortal, we're referred to as 'softskins...' partly because 'tis what we are. Our scales do not turn to metal until we're exposed to Helheim's energies... 'tis said to be a blessing of Hel's. Furthermore, it is said that only those Ironjaw who fight in Hel's name and spend their lives following the laws of the Clan will be blessed to come to Helheim.

“For us, after all, Helheim is not punishment... it's our paradise, it is where we are meant to go, to serve our Mistress Hel. For us, our mortal lives are not about living well, or happiness, or trying to please some unknown creator: a mortal life is about training ourselves to be the best we can be, learning to commune with Helheim and the rest of the clan, mastering the ways of our ancestors so that when we die in battle, we are prepared for our pilgrimage to this place. To Cairnmór.”

Terra smiled warmly as she rose her head proudly, gesturing around at the massive city of stone before she grinned and pointed ahead at a palace made from gorgeous, polished crystal, the ice around it shaped into enormous sculptures of dragons dressed in armor and posed as if in the midst of battle. “And there, the Chieftain's palace!”

Scrivener looked awkwardly at the building: it was enormous, but almost dome like... no, more like a stubby cone. There were large, curved spikes of ice jutting out of it here and there, but apart from those and the statues, there were no other real decorations, and the windows were nothing but large holes and the doorway a curtain of hide. “Palace, huh?”

“I hear that note of scorn in your voice, pony, but just because we don't live in some gorgeous den of gold and metal, it doesn't make us any less civilized than you damned ponies are.” Terra grumbled as she led the way onwards, and the stallion winced as Luna grinned over her shoulder at him and Twilight simply shook her head slowly. “Now, the Chieftain must be treated with respect. But not in the sense that you silly ponies seem to think respect works. 'Tis not respectful to keep your elders and betters at a leg's distance and always depend on them for every little thing; you must heed their words, listen to their orders, but treat them as friend.”

“Excellent. Fear not, I am very familiar with this.” Luna said positively, nodding firmly once, and Scrivener and Twilight traded uneasy looks. But before either pony could say anything, Terra was already leading them through the heavy curtain and into the so-called 'palace;' which, in reality, was nothing more than a single massive room. The walls were carved with murals and depictions of hundred of different dragons, and several guards stood at the ready, watching the newcomers warily.

At the back of the room sat five dragons on enormous crystalline beds, forming a semicircle: the Ironjaw in the center was clearly the Chieftain, his necklace composed not just of fangs and claws, but several small skulls. A narrow crown of gold rested atop his head, shaped to hook into his horns: Scrivener noted that one of these was broken near the base, and that there were quite a few other scars over this dragon's body as well... and yet he was only a little larger than Terra, even the other four elders that sat with him all larger and stronger and much-younger looking.

Terra approached and performed a quick little curtsey before she looked up with a warm smile, saying easily: “Daideó! It's good to be home, even if 'tis on business! I've missed you... and what I hope I bring you now aren't just friends, but worthy people, even if they not be Ironjaw.”

“Terra, proud daughter of Isenertos. Here I set my eyes upon you and what do I see, but you dragging in more of the little ponies of Odin.” The Ironjaw Chieftain studied them with interest all the same, smiling before he nodded to the three ponies as Scrivener and Twilight both bowed, then the stallion quickly punched Luna in the side, making her grumble and at least nod in respectful acknowledgment. “I suppose 'tis to be expected, though. I cannot say you have not done well for yourself in their world. I did question Goddess Hel's wisdom in this matter, but am glad to see she was right all the same.”

“Thank you, Daideó.” Terra smiled and nodded again, then she gestured to the ponies, introducing: “These are friends of us, and friends of Isenertos. Allow me to introduce Valkyrie Luna Brynhild, Scrivener Blooms, and Twilight Sparkle. Friends, this is my Chieftain and my grandfather, Stiúir.”

Stiúir smiled, bowing his head forwards as Twilight and Scrivener both nodded awkwardly, then stared as Luna strode forwards and lightly punched the Ironjaw in the forelimb, looking up at him with a smile. “'Tis nice to meet thee.”

The guards were glaring, and the other four elders stared as Terra slowly closed her eyes and lowered her head in disbelief, while Scrivener and Twilight both mouthed wordlessly at the sight. Stiúir was looking curiously down at Luna, as Luna looked fearlessly back up at the Ironjaw... and then the Chieftain through his head back and laughed loudly. “Oh, bold as a hungry Frostshark! Aye, we're going to get along either very well or very badly, aren't we, Luna Brynhild?”

“'Twill be very well so long as we may move forwards. For while I would enjoy making pleasantries here with thou and thy kind, Lord Stiúir, I fear I have much to ask and very little time to ask it.” Luna stopped, stepping backwards and looking at Twilight for a moment before she turned her eyes back upwards, meeting the steady green irises of Stiúir. “My family is in danger. And every moment we spend here, 'tis not seconds lost, but perhaps days or weeks in the place where my daughter is being kept. We require the aid of Hel to save her, and to get to Hel, we require the assistance of thy clan to enter the Underdark.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the Ironjaw Chieftain nodded after a moment before he said calmly: “Then aye, I understand your hurry, Luna Brynhild. But for all the pity and sympathy I have for you and yours, I cannot offer you neither mercy nor exception: but Terra would not bring you here if she did not think you worthy and ready to pass our tests, so I will not question you here much further.”

The Chieftain sat back, and Terra sighed in relief as she stepped away: Luna, meanwhile, was only continuing to look up at the dragon as Twilight and Scrivener both shifted awkwardly, neither entirely sure of what was going to happen... what they could even do. They thought Terra was large and fierce, but by a dragon's standards, she was small: many of the other Ironjaw they had seen made her look tiny in comparison, and even some of these elders had clearly molded and forged their own scales into fierce armor over their bodies.

“You three are soulbound, are you not? Aye, Terra's told me much about you...” The Chieftain looked thoughtfully back and forth, and then he leaned down and said gently: “But I do wonder. Has Terra mentioned that our rituals are meant only for other dragons? You must be Ironjaw to take these tests, or at least a softskin of another tribe.”

Twilight looked up almost desperately, and Terra leaned forwards, saying pointedly: “But you allowed Kvasir to take the tests, Daideó, did you not? And that was not exception, was it?”

“Aye, but Kvasir came on his own terms, not because he was either desperate nor coerced by the world around him.” replied Stiúir, the dragon shaking his head briefly as several of the elders rumbled, two of them looking disapproving, but Stiúir only looked over his shoulder and said pointedly: “And he was Ironjaw inside, and was able to make himself dragon outside.”

“I am equal to any Ironjaw inside.” Luna Brynhild said suddenly, raising her head high and proud, and this gained several growls from the elders even as Stiúir turned his eyes towards her curiously, before Luna grinned widely as she stepped backwards, Scrivener and Twilight both staring at her with disbelief as her horn began to glow. “But if 'twill settle thee, then I shall wear my face outside as well, and we shall see how thou feels about me then.”

With that, Luna arched her back, her mane and tail both sparking violently as her body was engulfed in glowing light, her armor popping free of her frame and swirling towards the ceiling as Scrivener Bloom and Twilight Sparkle both winced away. The shape consumed by light grew and transformed, the glow growing all the more intense before there was a single loud rumble, and then the light faded rapidly away from the creature that was left behind.

A grinning blue dragon now sat complacently where Luna had been, covered in dark blue scales that lightened over her chest slightly, and Scrivener and Twilight both stared in disbelief at the polymorph: Luna had modeled it after Scrivener's own Tyrant Wyrm form, but her body was a little more slender, and instead of the bone pistons she had a set of enormous, leathery wings that were stretched high into the air, but slowly furled down against her as she shook her head and the tall, crystalline unicorn horn still standing tall from her forehead gave a glimmer.

“There. See?” Luna winked, now almost the same size as Terra. The sapphire now-dragon straightened and licked her sharp teeth as she absently rose a claw and flexed it, saying positively: “I had forgotten how much fun it is to shapeshift so freely.”

The Chieftain laughed at this, shaking his head and looking entertained... but when all four dragon elders immediately began to rant away in their own language, he groaned and rolled his eyes, looking over his shoulder and snapping something back at them.

Two of them settled, and one sulkily flopped back on his crystalline bed, but another stepped off the raised dais of gemstone to snarl something challengingly at Stiúir. Terra's eyes narrowed as she growled, and Scrivener grimaced a bit: he had no idea what the elder had just said, but it was clear that it hadn't been something pleasant.

Stiúir looked unperturbed, though, gazing steadily back before he gave the briefest nod, and then he turned his eyes to Luna Brynhild, saying calmly: “Aye, that is a fine trick. But even if you are soulbound, and I would gladly count you all as one... the other elders disagree with me. They say this is nothing but an illusion to try and gain our Clan's trust.”

Luna only smiled calmly in return, however, before she glanced up and pointed at her armor, which was still swirling slowly in the air near the ceiling. “Nay, that is a parlor trick. And aye, perhaps I am no great dragon... but thou hast recognized we are soulbound, so we are all one in the same, we all share each other's blood, spirit, strength... so permit me ask thee this. If my husband reveals his own true nature, and 'tis fitting enough to stand beside Ironjaw in thy eyes, shall thou allow us to take the tests to join thy Clan?”

The Chieftain looked meditatively over at Scrivener Blooms, and then he said mildly: “But it had best be no trick, lass. I fear these old rustbuckets do not have nearly as good a sense of humor as I do, you see.”

Luna only winked at this, then she looked pointedly over at Scrivener Blooms, who groaned and dropped his head before he muttered: “Great. Well... uh...”

The stallion looked grumpily down at the ground, pawing awkwardly at the floor as he realized it was just some kind of soft, mashed-up gemstone, and then he looked up lamely as he asked: “This is an awkward question, but... do you guys mind if I ruin your floor?”

“Are you that great and fierce a dragon, lad? Should I fear for the walls and ceiling as well?” Stiúir asked teasingly, and Scrivener grumbled before the Chieftain sat back with a curious look on his face, as the other elders frowned and studied the charcoal stallion moodily. “Let's see what you've got inside you, little one.”

The charcoal stallion sighed tiredly, then he nodded awkwardly and strode a short distance away, Twilight smiling supportively as Luna grinned widely. He began to pull off his armor piece-by-piece, muttering to himself before wincing when he felt a burst of magic run over his body, then yank suddenly back, undoing the belts and buckles holding his gear on and flinging his equipment into the air to join the slowly-swirling maelstrom of metal above.

Scrivener glared over his shoulder at Luna Brynhild as he was left in only his collar, who looked pointedly back at him before the mare-dragon simply shrugged and said mildly: “'Tis not my fault, Scrivy. 'Tis thine own fault for being so slow. Now hurry up, we do not have all day.”

The stallion sighed tiredly, then he simply gave a nod as he turned back around, shoving his claws against the ground as he looked moodily over them to make sure the rings had come off. “This is going to hurt. And I'm glad. Because it's going to hurt you too. Because you're a jerk.”

“Thou has such a way with words, Scrivener Blooms. Truly.” Luna said dryly, and the stallion only shrugged with a grunt before he closed his eyes, digging his claws into the pebbly floor and breathing slowly as he pushed with his powers and turned the earth around him to dark mire.

Now Stiúir was leaning forwards with marked interest as the elders growled and grumbled to themselves, but Scrivener Blooms kept his focus on the mire and the task at hoof. He breathed slowly in and out, his head lowered, his eyes closed as he focused, and little-by-little he felt the puddle of mire expanding even as the pain in his claws worsened, the stallion gritting his teeth before he muttered as the pond of darkness began to ripple: “Okay. Here we go.”

He closed his eyes, dropping his head forwards as he pulled on the shared energies of himself, Luna, and Twilight, and he gritted his teeth before arching his back, the dark mire surging upwards and washing over him as it coalesced into a solid dome.

For a few moments, there was nothing but that strange sensation that was both comforting and suffocating, like being wrapped in the tight embrace of a womb. He could feel his body already starting to change, his eyes clenching shut as hide turned to scale, and spread as flesh grew, muscle thickened. He could feel the changes, even though he was almost resisting them, as something thudded and writhed in his chest that wasn't precisely his heart... was more than that, was less than that: Kundalini.

The stallion gritted his teeth... and then he shoved upwards as he drew on all the energy from the mire that he could, sending flecks of gray in all directions as he stood tall. His draconic head rose as he growled, shaking off the excess sludge as the rest of the bog-like gunk around him crumbled away into gray dust.

He breathed slowly as he straightened, in full Tyrant Wyrm glory. Stiúir looked impressed as the elders looked up, but the one who had come down off his crystalline bed immediately began to make... well, Scrivener thought it was pretty clear they were denials and accusations and probably threats.

The black Wyrm snorted out blue smoke from his nostrils, looking grumpily in the direction of the objecting elder, and Stiúir seemed to agree with Scrivener's irritation as the Chieftain turned and said something sharply to the protesting Ironjaw. The elder looked almost surprised, and then he huffed and dropped his head, mumbling some last remark before falling quiet.

“Well now... and since you're no unicorn and I saw no telling glow from either lass' horn, I suppose that means that came under your own power. And strange as it may be...” He looked pointedly over his shoulder at the other elders, enunciating clearly: “He still wears the shape of our brothers. Whether or not he has the spirit worthy to join the Clan, however, we shall have to test.”

There were grumbles from the others, but after a moment, nods of consent and agreement from three of the elders, and the last was smart enough to simply drop his head and sulk. Terra sighed in relief as Scrivener strode forwards with a wry smile, before Twilight hesitantly looked up and said quietly: “I don't... I mean, I can't transform myself.”

Stiúir looked down at the Lich, then he smiled kindly, leaning down and saying gently: “No, you cannot. So you cannot take part in these tests, lass... but I see the bond between you three all the same, lass. So here is the deal I will make with you: if these two pass the challenges we have for them, they shall be named clan brother and sister, and you shall be called cousin.”

Twilight began to smile a little, before Luna looked up and said firmly: “No. That is not acceptable. Twilight Sparkle shall be a sister to thee as I shall be, or Scrivener Blooms and I shall not run thy tests. Instead, we proud creatures shall show thee what true dragons we are in spirit and pummel thy entire spirit. Then thou shan't call us siblings, but masters.”

Stiúir looked less amused at this, leaning forwards and saying mildly: “You have a habit of overstepping your bounds lass, don't you?”

Luna only grinned wryly at this, however, shaking her head and replying easily: “Believe me, thou has no idea. And thou does not want to challenge me and see what I am capable of.”

Terra shifted uneasily as Scrivener and Luna traded awkward looks, and there was silence for a few moments before Stiúir chuckled quietly, lowering his head and saying softly: “We do not accept non-dragons as sisters, Luna Brynhild.”

“Aye, but does thou have to be a great lizard in order to be a dragon?” Luna asked calmly, raising her head and quirking one eye, and the Ironjaw Chieftain gave her a mild look. “Oh please, thou knows as well as I do there are many dragons who are naught but newts in disguise, and many others who would be better off by the name of 'glutton' or 'beast.' What is a dragon to thee, Caoránamac?”

The elders all growled, but Stiúir rose his head in thought, frowning across at Luna before the sapphire now-dragon said quietly: “I will not have my wife be any less an equal than I am. To myself, or to my husband.”

Stiúir nodded slowly at this, and then he gave a smile, saying softly: “Aye, you should have said so in the first place. Now I understand this connection between you all the better, and what you mean to each other. Very well, Valkyrie. If you all are as one, then it's only fair to treat you all as one. But the tests will be that the much harder now: we will treat you two dragons as three, and you shall not be allowed to compete, Twilight Sparkle.

“We relish the challenge.” Luna said firmly, and then she winked as her horn glowed brightly before there was a crackle, their equipment falling out of the air and swirling quickly into a pile on the floor, Luna's weapons landing neatly on top. “I shall trust all of thee not to poke our armor too much then. 'Tis very rude to poke a mare's armor while she is not in it, I shall have thee know.”

“We have a similar rule.” Stiúir said mildly, and then the Ironjaw Chieftain stood, Luna and Scrivener both facing him as the elders all bowed their heads and Terra looked up in what was clearly excitement. “Then let us waste no further time. Terra, as they are your friends you may stay and witness the trials. Let's just hope they continue to bring honor to your name, shall we?”

Terra nodded firmly, and Luna grinned as Scrivener looked up with a small smile... but it was a smile all the same as Stiúir looked from sapphire dragon to Tyrant Wyrm before he declared: “Luna Brynhild, Scrivener Blooms... may Hel's luck be with you, and the challenge of Clan Isenertos begin!”

The elder dragons all rose their head and roared, soon joined by Terra and the guards stationed around the room, until the entire city of Ironjaw shook with it... and not knowing what else to do, Scrivener and Luna both threw their own heads back and joined in the chorus, as Twilight Sparkle lowered her head and only prayed they could make it through all of this in time, before Gymbr could unleash any more horrors upon Paradise... or even more importantly, her daughter.

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