• 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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Hel Beneath Hell

Chapter Twenty Six: Hel Beneath Hell

Luna Brynhild stretched slowly out with a sigh of relief on the heated bed: she had shed her dragon polymorph, and Scrivener Blooms had returned to his own normal pony form. He was currently flopped out over on his own narrow bed, a small smile on his features as Twilight soothingly massaged along his back. “This is nice. It's nice to have nice things.”

“Yeah.” Twilight said softly, smiling despite herself: they were in a little one-room guest hut, resting up for the journey ahead. Stiúir was getting his own wounds tended to, and Terra was off with her grandfather: they still had a sort of guide, however, in the form of Airid.

The former prisoner was sitting in a corner, gobbling down fish and looking almost giddy: not that anyone could blame him, since apparently being freed from the Ironjaw version of prison was a very rare occurrence. Being let back into society, on the other hoof – even if apparently he was now essentially a servant to Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight – was almost unheard of, and it only took place when some rare feat was accomplished. In this case, it was because the Ironjaw Chieftain had been defeated by the 'dragons' who had wanted to spare Airid's life... even if Luna and Scrivener both knew that was mostly because of luck, and... overindulgence in their own darkness.

Scrivener cast aside those thoughts for now, sighing a little in relaxation. These beds emanated energy and warmth that was exceptionally welcome in the cold environment, they had blankets and food and potions to boost their strength, they had three hours ahead to finish healing and to polish up their armor a little. They could also use that time to wander the village, but... instead, they thought they were better off spending it here. This, after all, could be the last period of peace for a long while.

Twilight softened and looked down, quieting, and she licked her lips slowly before stepping away from Scrivener as he gazed up at her with a small smile. Luna looked up as well, then she shook her head and said softly: “Now come, my gorgeous mare. Thou agreed this was for the best, did thou not? Aye, 'tis... difficult in its own way, but let us try and be happy. Let us try and put faith in the fact that... we will save our daughter.”

“I... I am trying, I am. I just...” Twilight looked down, then she shook her head slowly and murmured: “But thinking about Gymbr... putting his claws on her, doing things to her, and Innocence so... so vulnerable, so... it just makes me sick to think about. And she was so... the sense of magic emanating from her...”

“That is not what bothers thee. Well, not the magic.” Luna sat up, then she smiled softly as she gestured gently at the Lich, who gladly strode over to the sapphire mare and slipped up onto the narrow bed beside her, letting Luna wrap a foreleg around her and pull her comfortingly close.

Twilight nodded silently against her, murmuring: “She used corruption. And Gymbr must have taught her... forbidden magic, dark magic, all the terrible things we've been trying to keep from her. Given her powers that I don't want to imagine... not because I think she... I...”

“Because of what they might do to her. Even now, even though there is the very real possibility she may turn against us, her own parents, and try to use such full power against us, thou worries for what it will do to her. Oh, thou art a strange one, Twilight Sparkle.” Luna smiled a little, hugging the violet mare a little closer as she closed her eyes and dropped her muzzle silently across the Lich's head. “But I understand. I fear what we may have to do to our own daughter.”

“We can't hurt her. No matter what. We can't...” Twilight stopped, then sighed and lowered her head, shaking it slowly and murmuring: “I... I'm sorry. I know that might not be an option. But... we can't kill her, I won't... kill her.”

“Nay, we shan't. We shan't. We shall save her.” Luna soothed quietly, and then she sighed softly and looked away, hesitating before glancing up as Scrivener sat up and nodded a little, and the sapphire mare murmured quietly to Twilight: “I hate to say this, but... perhaps... we should make Innocence our own offer of power. I do not like to say it but I... with all the love and loyalty she seemed to have to Gymbr... it seemed most of it was not to him, but his power...”

Twilight only shook her head vehemently at the idea, replying a little roughly: “Our little girl isn't like that, Luna. No matter what kind of darkness is inside us, no matter... what's wrong with her, what happens to her she... she's not... she's not a bad girl. She's not like that, giving her... giving herself to the strongest people in the room...”

Luna and Scrivener traded faint smiles, then they both lowered their heads and closed their eyes, neither quite daring to speak. There was only an awkward quiet for a few moments, and then Twilight Sparkle shivered once as she murmured: “Besides, I won't... lie to her or bribe her, either. I want to save her. I want to honestly save her.”

“Then we will. That is what we shall do.” Luna promised quietly, and there was silence for a little while before Scrivener Blooms sighed and slipped out of his own bed to stride over and join the two mares. He sat on Twilight's other side, and she shifted to rest against him, hugging him tightly around the neck as Luna rubbed a hoof soothingly up and down her back, gazing silently down at the violet mare.

Luna and Scrivener looked up, meeting one another's eyes, sharing all their thoughts, their worries, and... below that, the dangerous, darkest secrets that they held inside their hearts, that even Twilight hated to hear... no, that wasn't entirely true, because they were in her heart, too. She hated that she felt herself considering them as much as Luna and Scrivener seemed to: things like a secret hope that Innocence truly was mastering herself and all these powers. A dark, awful pride in the thought that Gymbr had apparently hoof-picked their daughter, was able to teach her so much, that she was already so strong. And maybe worst of all, a strange relief that their daughter wasn't so different from them after all... but maybe that meant that even if she had become so soaked in darkness already, there really was a chance to save her. To bring her back into the light.

They rested together like that for a little while, before Luna looked up with a wry smile as Airid awkwardly approached with a plate of seasoned fish from the buffet counter that ran along one side of the hut. He smiled lamely at them, then he cleared his throat and offered it, Twilight looking up as the dragon mumbled: “If you can save a coward like me from certain death, then... I believe that you can save anyone.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight smiled a little and nodded slowly, before she shifted to reach out and take the plate. Airid sat across from them as the three ponies each took a piece of grilled fish, and Scrivener Blooms couldn't help but look up and ask curiously as the others ate: “So is it normal around here to have... multiple partners or something? I mean, no one really seemed to think it was weird that we're weird. Which is weird.”

“The poet flaunts his way with words.” Luna said ironically, and Scrivener gave her a sour look before the sapphire mare nodded agreeably as Scrivener tossed his own food into his mouth. “'Tis true, though. Just as they do not seem to find it strange we are ponies, not dragons.”

Airid smiled at this, replying maybe a little too eagerly: “Well, it's not strange in our society, at least... across Helheim, really, there's... everything you can imagine. Your kind of relationship is very normal here... and as you saw with the Chieftain, lots of us can change our shape to some extent.”

Luna nodded, looking almost disappointed with the idea of being 'normal' before Twilight asked gently: “Are you okay? It sounds like you went through a lot being kept prisoner at the coliseum, after all... and your scars, well... I don't want to press you...”

“No, it's fine.” Airid shook his head and smiled a little, looking a bit embarrassed even as he continued quietly: “I was a coward. I was born here, trained here alongside my brothers and sisters, but... I was a coward. On my first hunting mission, I failed miserably, I... I couldn't bring myself to attack the demons we were hunting. I was scared. And so when we came back and it was reported to the elders, I was put in chains, thrown in the coliseum, and Marked.”

He silently touched the acid burns, shaking his head a little. “The Mark is put on all of... us. Prisoners, traitors. The moment you are marked, you are no longer Ironjaw, you no longer have rights, or are even thought of as anything but... dead, even while still on your claws.”

The Ironjaw lowered his head a little, then he cleared his throat and gazed up with a smile. “That's why I've been so excited to be back here. To be able to walk among my people again... and call them my people, feel like I'm part of the Clan again, even if... I'm at your mercy, of course.”

He bowed his head shyly, and Twilight tilted her head curiously... but before she could ask anything, Luna grinned eagerly and leaned forwards, saying with a little too much excitement in her voice: “So thou must do anything, absolutely anything we must ask, like a life debt?”

“Aye, very much like that.” Airid answered, then he blushed and lowered his head, glancing embarrassedly over his shoulder at the ravaged food table. “Although I seem to have done an awful job of remembering that so far, and again only thinking of myself. Cowardice, they say, is a sin that takes a hundred forms at once, all stemming from one weakness in your heart.”

“What a strange truth. And it seems thou like to phrase things in the way of poets thyselves.” Luna said wryly, and then she shook her head slowly before stroking a hoof gently down Twilight Sparkle's spine, looking thoughtfully at Airid. “So clearly, thou art no fighter, no warrior, and I suspect thou art likely terrified of most things and rather weak after thy long stay at the coliseum.”

Airid looked less than pleased at this, frowning a bit at Luna, but she only glowered pointedly back after a moment, making him wince and shrink his head back, mumbling: “I guess it's all true but... I am Ironjaw all the same. Again. And I'm very proud of my heritage.”

“Aye, and I am proud to be a Valkyrie, and of who I was in that role. But thou does not see me strutting around on my hind legs, attempting to wear gloves or showing off my breasts.” Luna paused, then reached down to grope herself thoughtfully as both Scrivener and Twilight looked at her sourly. “'Tis both nice and a source of great despair they are no longer worn like emblem of honor upon my chest. For they did get in the way. They were very voluminous and large, I shall have thee know.”

“Yeah, I'm sure they were. Just like they really stand out now. They're like hills. Mountains, even.” Scrivener said dryly, and Luna slowly turned a glare towards him before the stallion awkwardly shifted Twilight Sparkle in front of him like a shield. “There's not a hint of sarcasm in my voice.”

“Even that was sarcastic!” Luna complained, trying to swat him past Twilight, but the stallion only ducked awkwardly behind her as the Lich sighed tiredly. “I never insult thy pride, Scrivy, and I damned well could if I wanted to. Do not insult mine, beetle!”

Scrivener Blooms only grunted as the Ironjaw looked lamely at the three, then he held up a claw and said finally: “I don't want to be a Valkyrie, though. I want to be the Ironjaw I was. And I've been accepted into the Clan so-”

Luna only huffed at this, turning and gesturing at him pointedly. “For one, Airid, the Ironjaw thou was ended up a coward in the coliseum. For another, look at thee: thou cannot go back to being that Ironjaw anyway. Thou carries scars, has seen too much, and most of all now are indebted to us, and thou should know by now our plans: to first go and find Hel, and then to return to our own world for a short day or two before we attack Heaven itself.”

“But... you'll be returning here, right? This is the home of the Ironjaw. This is your home now, you're part of Isenertos, and the reason most dragons join our clan is simply so they can live here. Live among us. Grow stronger among our kind.” Airid said almost desperately, and the three ponies all traded small smiles and shook their heads almost as one.

Airid slumped a bit at this, staring dejectedly as Twilight Sparkle said quietly: “This isn't our home. Our home is Looking Glass World... that's where we belong, with our friends and family. We didn't come here just to join Isenertos, Airid: we came here to open a path to Hel.”

The Ironjaw sighed a little, then he grimaced a bit as he mumbled: “Well... honor dictates I must follow you, no matter where you go, unless... well...”

“Oh, do not fear. I had no intention of bringing thee with us when we go to see Hel.” Luna said dryly, and Airid looked both embarrassed and relieved as he nodded a few times, before the sapphire mare huffed. “Thou truly are a great coward, however. Look at thee! Giant dragon of metal and part of a warrior clan, and thou seems scared of thine own shadow. Perhaps I would have done thee a favor had I chopped off thy foolish head.”

Airid mumbled and dropped his own head at this, and Twilight nudged Luna gently, giving her a gentle look. The sapphire mare sighed tiredly after a moment, and then she nodded grudgingly before saying finally: “Perhaps thou can at least handle a simple favor, though. Our energy has mostly returned thanks to whatever strange elixirs thy healers have brewed for us, but we must be at full strength for what is ahead. Please fetch whatever healing aids thou can for us from thy... I do not know what metal dragons have for healers. Alchemists? Blacksmith-drinkers? Polish makers?”

“Druids.” Airid said mildly, looking perhaps the slightest bit cranky, and Luna grinned a little at this before the Ironjaw turned an uneasy look to the door. “And well, I do not know how well they'll take that... all things must be earned, and... I've only just returned to-”

“Well, then tell them if they have a problem with my question, they are free to come to me and ask to judge my worth. And then I shall teach them with my hooves.” Luna said mildly, raising a hoof and shaking it firmly, and Airid nodded awkwardly before he turned and scurried for the door. The sapphire mare watched him leave, then she turned her eyes to Scrivener, leaning towards the stallion and grinning widely as she half-lidded her eyes. “Now, lay thy own hooves upon me, Scrivy, and remind thyself of thy beloved's curves.”

Scrivener looked at Luna for a moment, then he reached up a claw and covered her face with it, and Luna scowled through his digits before he said mildly: “Your skull is just huge.”

When Airid trundled back into the little hut, he found Scrivener Blooms now sprawled out over the floor and Luna sitting on top of Twilight Sparkle, who looked cranky even as the sapphire mare vigorously massaged the Lich's back. The dragon stared blankly at the three before Luna looked up and brightened, saying cheerfully: “Most excellent! See? It never hurts to ask, Airid, thou must always keep that in mind. It never hurts to ask, so long as thou does not expect agreement.”

The Ironjaw awkwardly approached with the belt of potions, and Luna's soulstone horn glowed, lifting it quickly free with telekinesis from his jaws and floating it over to her as she nodded in approval. There were six jars, each filled with a burgundy-colored liquid and the black rubber caps each marked with a bright yellow rune: the Ironjaw were more fastidious than she had really given them credit for.

She dropped the belt from her mental grip, and Twilight easily caught it in her hooves, grimacing a little at the feel of it: it was some kind of rawhide. She had noticed that most things around here were made out of either stone or what had once been living, likely-intelligent creatures, and whether she was a Lich or not it still freaked her out just the slightest amount to think that even these beds were likely made out of what had formerly been social demons as well, if not civilized.

But all the same, the Lich slid out from beneath Luna and strapped the belt on, making a bit of a face even as the sapphire mare nodded firmly. Airid looked at them curiously, but Luna only shrugged and said easily: “Well, I have changed my mind. I think instead we shall hold onto these potions and use them at a later time, instead of wasting them now. We are very nearly recovered, after all.”

“So... you just made me lie to the druids and steal potions for you.” Airid said slowly, and Luna simply nodded positively a few times before the Ironjaw whimpered, looking at her pleadingly. “You can't do things like that here! You'll get us all thrown into the coliseum to be tortured!”

“So thy kind will torture and mutilate each other, march prisoners into Helheim's wilds to leave them to be feasted upon or turned into thralls or slaves or worse, but thou will not kill each other? 'Tis such a strange culture thou has.” Luna remarked mildly, then she shook her head and looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “'Tis funny. I do not think even in Asgard we were so ill. But marriages were oft a running joke there... I shall have thee know, 'twas the gods who did not cheat upon their spouses who were considered strange.”

She paused, then looked down at Scrivener Blooms, dropping onto her stomach to poke at him with one hoof. “Thou would have been very strange indeed. But I would have it no other way, poet. Thou art not allowed to sleep with those I have not decreed worthy.”

“If I was cheating on you, it wouldn't be by running around and sleeping with strangers. It would be by having nice candlelit dinners and cuddling and worst of all, talking and trying to form an emotional, real bond with someone. Someone who doesn't feel the need to beat on me daily.” Scrivener said mildly, gesturing pointedly with his hooves, and Luna huffed and reached down to slap him, making the stallion wince a little. “Goddammit. This is what I'm talking about.”

“Oh shut up, great idiot, thou likes it.” Luna huffed, and then she poked his nose several times before resting her hoof against his face as she looked up thoughtfully at Airid. “If I order thee to kiss my husband like a sloppy drunken harlot, will thou do so?”

Airid slowly reared his head back, staring with horrified eyes at Luna, and then he awkwardly scampered around in a circle and half-rammed his way through the door. The sapphire mare huffed at this, then she looked mildly down at Scrivener, saying dryly: “He is a greater coward than thou art, Scrivener Blooms.”

“I dunno about that. I still remember my reaction when you first wanted to drag a stallion into bed with us.” Scrivener said wryly, lacing his claws together across his breast before he grimaced a little: not at the memory so much as at the pain in his claws. These days, he could look back and smile at most of the crazy things Luna had made him do... mostly because he'd come to realize they were all incredibly tame compared to the crap they got up to these days. “We're sick.”

“Yeah. But I wouldn't have you two any other way. Bad role models or not.” Twilight said softly, smiling a little and shaking her head slowly, and Luna and Scrivener both smiled at the violet mare, looking back at her and silently thinking the same.

Stiúir and Terra arrived some two hours after the three ponies settled into quiet talking, reminiscing about all the ways they had changed and helped each other to grow, and all the stupid things they had done together over the years. The Chieftain let himself and his granddaughter in quietly and waited for Luna to finish her silly story, one they all knew but one that never failed to make both Scrivener and Twilight laugh and grin despite themselves, hating the way the sapphire mare could always make them enjoy even the worst of humiliating stories.

Terra looked a little... prouder than usual, Scrivener thought was the best way to put it. She had her chest puffed out and her head held high, and Stiúir himself was smiling with interest at the ponies as they all turned towards him and the sapphire mare asked curiously: “So art thou ready to lead us onwards, down into Hel's domain?”

“Nay, I won't be coming with you... that's my Terra's job.” Stiúir smiled over at his granddaughter, who nodded firmly and bowed her head respectfully. “But she has told me a little more about your aims and goals: I must warn you, though. Even if word has spread to the other Ironjaw, and even if they can keep the Destroyers and the other Helherlið at bay, some of her guard will still attempt to fight you. And there is little chance of avoiding Theodore.”

Luna nodded calmly, replying with a slight smile: “Destroyers respect those who have power. They follow a leader, but their loyalty can be swayed if one can prove their strength is the greater, their rule the better. We do not plan to play a game of hide and seek with Teddy: we shall engage him as quickly as possible, and bring him down. It should make the journey into Underdark that much easier.”

“Easier, lass, would be not dealing with Teddy at all.” Stiúir paused, then he shook his head slowly, saying softly: “But aye. Terra picked well with you three. Even if you're foolish, even if you do not shirk at using such things we Ironjaw would shun, I find that I admire you all the same, and still feel I should be glad you've chosen to make yourselves part of Isenertos. These doors will always be open to you, friends.”

The sapphire mare nodded firmly, and there was silence for a few moments before the dragon chuckled and straightened. “Well, I just wanted to wish you luck before you left, and tell you that word has been passed down to Underdark about the new members of Clan Isenertos. The Ironjaw will not attack you unless you give them reason to...”

Stiúir paused, then he licked his lips slowly as he studied them with a small smile. “I never thought I would see this day though, when someone finally came who would dare to threaten Hel in her own home, our savior and our devil. When we could finally see the trickster tricked... and by three dragons in the shape of ponies, no less!”

“Aye, but we are very fierce. And before I am either pony or dragon, I am Valkyrie, Stiúir.” Luna grinned, nodding firmly once to the Ironjaw Chieftain. “And that alone should be reason enough to give Hel pause and make her fear.”

Scrivener Blooms smiled despite himself, and Twilight Sparkle glanced up, adding softly: “We couldn't do this without all your help though... so... thank you, Stiúir, for letting us be part of your clan and helping us with this. I know it must be a narrow, difficult path to walk, to balance out all your loyalties like you are.”

Stiúir only shrugged, then he smiled over at Terra and said softly: “Family first. For all Hel has given us, for all our loyalty to her and how we pray, we also never forget to treat her gifts with caution, and think twice about her orders. Hel is said to have stolen us from our first masters, after all, and Hel is said to have remade us from what we have once been. I am proud to be Ironjaw, but sometimes I still wonder, Luna Brynhild... has she not made us worse than we once were?”

Luna nodded slowly at this, and then the sapphire mare turned a soft look towards Scrivener Blooms and Twilight Sparkle, murmuring: “Aye, we understand that well, do we not? But do not fear, Stiúir: no matter what thou wert meant to be, thou has led to Ironjaw to being strong and supreme a culture. Perhaps there could be some adjustments, aye... but that is surely Scrivy talking anyway and not me, and so perhaps thou art perfect the way thou art.”

Scrivener Blooms gave a tired sigh as Luna grinned over at him and Twilight Sparkle smiled behind a hoof, and there was silence for a few moments before Stiúir simply nodded to them. He seemed oddly quiet for a second, but then the Chieftain smiled and questioned: “If you don't plan to bring Airid with you... would you mind if I took him off your claws for a little while?”

“We do not have... well, no, nevermind, Scrivy does. Aye, thou may. Just do not torture or maim him, Stiúir, I am very protective of my property. Even when my property is scared of its own shadow.” Luna said mildly, and Stiúir chuckled and nodded.

“Good. Then I shall await your return, and I do hope that it is alive and well instead of in pieces.” Stiúir replied easily, and Luna grinned as the Chieftain nodded politely before he turned to calmly let himself out.

Terra smiled over her shoulder as the Ironjaw left, then she stomped a claw and looked back towards the others, saying firmly: “Off your haunches, now, lazy bums. We'd best get up and get moving to the tunnel to Underdark. The journey is not a long one, nor usually dangerous... but who knows what Hel may have placed in our path? She has much more than simply demons at her beck and call, do not ever forget that.”

“We have not, we have not, great irritating lizard. Do not make me pummel thee.” Luna grumbled, and then she hopped off the narrow bed and headed towards her piled-up armor, becoming a little more serious as she added: “I will ask thee not to interfere in our battles, Terra. I appreciate thou serving as guide, bringing us into Underdark... but from there, thou should wait outside. Even if thou wert once part of Hel's personal guard, I do not imagine she will treat thee kindly if she catches thou pummeling her soldiers beside us.”

“Very well, Luna Brynhild. I would argue, but... I suppose I understand that this test is for you three alone, and this is all part of Hel's game.” Terra said evenly, and Scrivener and Twilight both nodded slowly as Luna only grunted. “All the same, I won't hesitate to offer my help for as long as you'll let me accompany you.”

“Aye, I know. And 'tis appreciated, as Clan sister.” Luna smiled slightly over her shoulder, and Terra smiled back, bowing her head politely to the sapphire mare.

Within ten minutes, the three ponies had once more donned their full armor and equipment, Luna double-checking her weapons before tucking Prúðbikkja away in her mane and holstering Sting Mk. II on her back with a grunt.

Scrivener had the equipment satchel, as usual, and Twilight had split the belt of potions in half and strapped thee two pieces to either side of her. The three were as ready as they were going to be, and the Lich was growing particularly anxious again to get under way: it was killing her, imagining how every second that passed could be days in Heaven. Days were Innocence was growing stronger, and darker, and Gymbr was doing things to her that...

Luna reached up and squeezed her shoulder gently, and Twilight blushed a little as she rose her head and gave an awkward smile. Then the three ponies turned their attention towards Terra, and the Ironjaw studied them for a moment before grunting and nodding, saying softly: “We're going to make a deal now, before I help you see this through, lass. I understand this is Hel's test to you, just as I understand now how strong you three are, and that you stand a rare chance at beating the goddess at her own game. If and when you do, though... you will allow me to come with you when you find your way into Heaven. And you will allow me to fight Gymbr alongside you. He's done us both terrible wrongs that have to be righted by spilling his blood.”

“I suppose... I am in no position to deny thee, Terra, even if I fear for thee.” Luna said quietly, looking up at the Ironjaw dragon evenly, and then she nodded slowly once. “Very well. I agree to thy terms. We shall stand side-by-side against Gymbr... assuming thou can keep up.”

Terra grinned wryly at this, shaking her head slowly, but to the surprise of the ponies she managed to resist responding as she turned and said calmly: “Then let's be off for now. The sooner we get you to Underdark, the sooner we can be taking back Heaven and I can avenge Kvasir.”

Luna and Scrivener both nodded as Twilight gave a hesitant smile, and Terra turned to lead them out. They strode past Airid, who winced and hurriedly fell into step with them, but Terra only huffed and snorted smoke in his direction, saying acidly: “Get gone, you little newt.”

“Oh, try and be kind, Terra, even Morning Glory is more pleasant than thou art to those weaker than her. Which includes thyself, if I remember correctly.” Luna said pointedly, and Terra fixed a sour glare on the mare before the sapphire winged unicorn turned her eyes and a smile towards Airid. “And thou. Stiúir has asked for thy presence while we are gone. Try and make a good impression on the Chieftain, won't thou?”

“I will do my best, most definitely!” the Ironjaw said brightly, raising his head and nodding rapidly a few times, and Luna smiled after a moment before the smaller metal dragon turned to scamper hurriedly away down the street, getting a few mild looks from other Ironjaw... but Luna was glad to note it seemed like there were very few treating him with outright hostility.

Terra sighed and shook her head, and then she almost scolded: “Giving scraps to strays might seem like a kindness, but all it does is invite more lost little babes to come and beg food from your table. Many of whom would bite you as soon as look at you.”

Scrivener Blooms shrugged at this, saying mildly: “You could always just be fattening them up to kill them and eat them.” Twilight stared at him, and the stallion huffed at her. “What? We were all thinking it, I just said it.”

“Twisted, terrible poet.” Luna smiled amusedly after a moment, shaking her head before she looked ahead and added: “And I do not fear being used, Terra. Sometimes... thou must simply have a little faith. Besides, I like to think... the days of being used are over.”

Terra shrugged a little at this, the Ironjaw studying them thoughtfully as they walked along the frosty streets together before she finally said softly: “Well, for your sakes, I hope you're right. I just don't think any good will come of helping Airid.”

“I don't expect it to, either. But nor do I expect it to result in great catastrophe. Why do I need to be given a reason to help someone? Why must it benefit me first? Why must I expect something in return, and 'tis stupidity or weakness when I do not? That is a very Celestia way of thinking.” Luna said mildly, and when Scrivener and Twilight both gave her an amused look, the sapphire mare huffed. “Oh shut up. Celestia still thinks so logically. I do not. I think emotionalogically.”

“You think best.” Scrivener said kindly, and Luna nodded firmly several times before he turned his eyes ahead and added softly: “You can't live your life in fear. Even when it seems stupid, you can't just... walk around everywhere, being afraid of every little thing that could happen.”

“Sometimes, bad things lead to the very best things.” Twilight said softly before she could stop herself, and both Luna and Scrivener looked at her with surprise, but the violet mare only smiled a little and shook her head embarrassedly. “Sorry. Just... slipped out.”

The ponies only smiled, however, and Terra shrugged a bit. They walked on in silence for a little while, and then the Ironjaw said softly: “Anyway, friends. The entrance to Underdark is in the very center of Cairnmór. The Clan guards it zealously, and only Ironjaw can enter it... nay, not honorary Ironjaw like yourselves, but those born and bred. Our blood is the key.”

Luna nodded, and they were quiet the rest of the way through the city: somehow, Scrivener was unsurprised by the almost-solemn air that fell over them, or by the dozens of draconic demons that had gathered around the large square they entered into.

At the center of this was a massive, gorgeous statue of Hel made from ice and gemstones, small streams of water arcing unnaturally through the air around this in a beautiful, graceful fountain. Large gemstones twinkled and glimmered, orbiting the statue slowly, many of them glowing with trapped light as well as the magic that kept them afloat... although something about them seemed to be warning as well as decorative, like their beauty was just a distraction from their real purpose.

The statue itself stood on a base inset into an enormous basin, which was raised just slightly off the frosty ground by several squat pillars. There were several openings cut into the ground around this, with curling staircases leading below the basin, and the statue was watched over by Ironjaw in gorgeous crystalline armor and armed with quivers of javelins.

Luna whistled a little as her eyes drew over these sights, and Terra nodded, saying calmly: “Hel watches and rules over us all, Valkyrie. She is always present, always there to guide us... but also always the greatest obstacle in our path. 'Tis only fitting she stands watch herself over the Underdark.”

The sapphire mare grunted in agreement, then she shook her head briefly before saying softly: “And what of these Ironjaw, then? Do they truly guard the pass into the tunnel... or do they guard the doorway into Cairnmór?”

Terra only smiled amusedly at this as they approached one of the stairways leading down, and the guards on either side bowed their heads respectfully, Twilight looking back and forth apprehensively and Scrivener trying only to keep his eyes forwards. There wasn't a whole lot to see, though: a short flight of stairs down, and then they came to a massive iron door, fortified by heavy bands of metal going across it and a spiderweb of steel cables.

The Ironjaw dragon gestured for the ponies to wait a moment, and the trio halted as Terra walked forwards and stepped into a circle carved into the floor in front of the doors. She gazed up steadily over the closed gates, then rose a claw and shouted: “I am Terra of Clan Isenertos, and I am Ironjaw! I demand entrance to the Underdark, so that clan siblings may seek council with Mistress Hel, and it is in their name that I present the key, and pay your fare!”

The doors rumbled... and then the steel cables writhed like they were alive before suddenly snapping free from the door, curling themselves into the floors and walls as the bands of metal popped loose and slung themselves to the side with savage force, rattling the walls as they collided with them. Then the heavy iron doors themselves shuddered before slowly rumbling open, revealing a long passage beyond lit by blue torches.

Terra trembled, then dropped her head forwards... and it was only then Luna realized the ring she was standing it had filled with crimson. Terra's blood, drained from her body without leaving a mark and now slowly boiling away, and the Ironjaw rasped: “Go. The gates will only stay open until the blood is gone.”

Luna nodded shortly, and then she hurried forwards, Scrivener and Twilight following after and both looking at Terra with gratitude as they passed. The Ironjaw smiled tiredly after them, then she rose her head and called: “It's a straight shot to the Underdark from here, friends... there's no need for me to go further. Watch out for each other, and I will be waiting for you to return to us.”

Luna nodded quickly, then turned her eyes forwards and began to run down the passage, and Scrivener and Twilight both turned to follow even as the Lich tossed a hurried 'thank you' over her shoulder to the Ironjaw dragon. She saw the beginning of a nod, she thought, but then the doors slammed closed, and they were left in the darkness of the narrow, high-ceilinged passage, surrounded by nothing but stone and dark blue light from the flickering torches.

The three ponies rushed ahead, keeping their eyes forwards, even though there was nothing in sight but more darkness, more stone, more faint blue light from flickering ethereal flames. But Luna could feel the air changing around them, and Twilight shivered from it: there was a magic in the air that her body greedily attempted to pull into itself, that made her horn spark faintly and her eyes take on an eldritch glow as Luna's own soulstone horn thrummed with energy.

Scrivener could feel it too... but to him it felt almost hostile, making the corruption in his veins boil and his muscles bulge, a strange, aggressive, almost angry feeling filling him up as he growled a little under his breath. It was like something instinctive, something programmed into him was rising up with a snarl, something that was nemesis to this sense of... of chaos and boundless energy...

Then Luna's sharp eyes narrowed, and she sent a mental signal to the other two ponies, both of whom nodded curtly as they turned their own attention ahead towards the strange, black hole Luna had pointed out. It looked like a terrible, toxic smoke that formed an almost-alive curtain in a narrow archway, and Luna gritted her teeth as they charged recklessly towards this despite the way it made her mind ache, her heart clench, the blood in her veins run cold-

She leapt forwards, Scrivener and Twilight right behind her, and all three ponies vanished into a whirl of darkness and pain before they were rudely ejected into thin air, crashing painfully down on top of each other. Scrivener Blooms groaned loudly, caught on the bottom as Twilight Sparkle blinked stupidly and Luna carefully pushed herself up, her eyes fluttering before she murmured: “Underdark.”

They had arrived: they had landed on some kind of frosty, carved path through plains of ice and snow and brimstone, large, black rocks jutting like teeth towards a roof of black miasma high above. Luna shivered as she looked up at this, studying the violet lightning that twisted back and forth like serpents dancing through the clouds, and then she shook her head in slow disbelief as she realized there was a rain of sorts falling, too... except this was a rain of fire and meteors and charred bits and pieces of tormented souls that turned to ashes long before they hit the ground, sprinkling the plains around them with dirt and debris.

Luna checked over her shoulder.... and she was unsurprised to see a heavy stone wall, with a massive circle of inactive magic runes carved over it. To either side was a pillar of crystal for channeling magical energies, but Luna had no doubt these wouldn't work unless Hel wanted them to... and Hel had them right where the goddess had always dreamed, so there was no way that they were going to be able to turn around and just leave.

Twilight was staring blankly at the sky, visions twisting through her mind... and then she looked down with a small squeak of surprise as a voice asked cheerfully: “How do you like it? Pretty damn snazzy, right? Well, okay, I could use a tree or two, but there's some around here somewhere...”

The trio of ponies set themselves, looking sharply at Hel... or rather, one of her ice puppets. It was grinning widely, rubbing its hands together as the bovine-headed goddess said eagerly: “Guys, guys, guys, I am... I'm thrilled to see how seriously you're taking this! Oh, okay, maybe a little teensy-tiny bit pissed off with what you just did with the Ironjaw, sure. Maybe I think you're overreacting slightly, and maybe I think-”

Luna leapt forwards and swung a hoof out, smashing apart the ice puppet's torso and sending the legs stumbling backwards as the whole of the upper body shattered, and the sapphire mare shouted as she landed: “We do not care what thou thinks! Of all the wretched times to play a wretched game, we need thy aid and Gymbr must be stopped!”

Hel's legs caught themselves, then calmly stomped some debris off themselves before ice and snow whirled up off the ground and rapidly reformed into the goddess, who sniffed disdainfully and crossed her arms. “See, what was I just saying? Overreacting. That's exactly what I was talking about, right there, overreacting. It's all perfectly fine.”

Luna stared as Scrivener mouthed wordlessly at how dismissive the goddess was of Heaven being taken over and all-but-destroyed... but it was Twilight who spoke next, her voice trembling with fury as she glared up at the goddess: “Fine? Fine? My daughter is being treated and used like... like some kind of toy by that sick monster, and all of Heaven is being turned into a playground for his sick desires and... and countless souls could be at risk of being subjected to things I don't even want to imagine and you're telling me that-”

“It's fine.” Hel interrupted and finished, looking down at Twilight Sparkle with an almost challenging smile. “Well, okay, maybe it's not fine right now for you guys personally, but... do you think I'd ever let any of this happen, and not have a backup plan? Oh, sure, I look out for myself first, but you guys are an investment of mine. Or rather... I'm interested in investing in you, if you can pass my little test here first.”

Luna snarled and Twilight shook her head in disbelief as Scrivener only silently bared his fangs, but Hel snorted and shook her head fiercely, holding up her hands. “Hey, whoa, stop right there before you dumb little ponies embarrass yourselves any further. I mean... you guys are the one who just stomped right on into my home like this! Who are trying to steal my pet project, eons in the making, away from me, and who are basically screwing up this whole entire everything. So, you know. I should be the one saying 'screw you' here, not you guys.”

Hel stopped, turned around, then looked up and gestured towards the distance, saying mildly: “Now, look out over there, sweeties. You see that giant black wall in the distance, and how there's that whole obscured area where your eyes just won't focus? Well, that's where I am. And there's no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks you're going to get in there just because some lousy Ironjaw lost a fight to you. I've got armies and golems and rakes that I've put on the ground and hidden in the snow so you're going to step on them and they're going to spring up and hit you in the face and we're all going to laugh at you. Actually, I tried that before, and one of those moron demons that guards my place stepped on it and instead of being all, springy-uppy and hitting him in the nose it just tore right into his foot. Needed stitches. Probably should have used something less sharp.”

Luna slowly closed her eyes and lowered her head as Scrivener stared in disbelief, and Twilight trembled with barely-contained anger, her stitches writhing over her body. “Don't you understand how many people are being hurt? How many lives are at risk? Gymbr might even be a threat to you!”

“Might makes right.” Hel quipped, and the ice puppet turned with a smile, Hel tenting her fingers together as her eyes gleamed. “Not entirely connected to what you're saying. But not entirely disconnected either. Because as long as I'm mighty, I'm going to be righty: and what I have to say is that I'm a lot more important than a whole bunch of stupid mortals getting turned into lunchmeat, and I'm also more important than you and you and you. Even if I like you three. And most of all, do you know what I am? I'm safe.”

Hel gestured again towards the massive, looming wall in the distance, giving a wry grin. “Do you really think Gymbr has the firepower to get through that? Do you really think that he can even make it here? Well, no, scratch that, I'm sure he could break down at least one of the entrances to Underdark, but you three are forgetting this is my dimension. What I want to happen, happens.”

Hel snapped her fingers, and a moment later, a massive meteor of crystal crashed down between her and the ponies, knocking them staggering backwards. Luna opened her mouth to shout... then stared in horror at the crystalline prison, and the ponies trapped inside it, writhing silently, their bodies slowly charring away as Hel said softly: “The furnace is burnin' above our heads, roasting up fresh souls... and these souls are just infusing this whole dimension with more and more power, letting me change it, enhance it, do whatever I please here. You three seem to think you have a chance at getting to me. Do you know why you do? Because I'm giving you that chance. I've set the game to 'easy,' and left all the tutorials and crap on for you so you can figure out what to do as you go along. But if I wanted...”

The ice puppet flicked a hand in their direction, and chains and bindings of ice ripped out of the ground around the ponies, wrapping around them and snapping closed and dragging them down towards the ground as they all cursed, Luna snarling... and then looking up in shock as her soulstone horn simply refused to work, and Scrivener Blooms gargled as his skin began to turn to stone, while Twilight Sparkle felt herself beginning to rot. “I could go ahead and set the game to European Extreme. How do you like that, huh?”

Luna gritted her teeth, snarling up at Hel as her eyes blazed... and then, in a flash, they were just standing in front of the goddess, no fallen meteor filled with tormented souls in front of them, no restraints or chains holding them in place, nothing wrong with their bodies as the goddess smiled. “But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, huh? I should go pretend to be a good girl and wait for you, because I'm sure you can at least survive the walk there, right? I mean, hey, what could go wrong? It's only Hell beneath Hell that belongs to me, Hel.”

The goddess laughed at her own pun, hugging herself before she simply vanished into thin air, and Luna growled in disgust as Twilight shook her head and murmured: “She... she really doesn't care about anyone other than herself.”

“Perhaps not. But we shall teach her to care as soon as we reach her.” Luna muttered, and then she shook her head briefly before stepping forwards and narrowing her eyes as she gazed at the enormous wall in the distance. “But now, I fear we must be careful. We will have neither the element of surprise, nor as much control over the situation as I had hoped: it seems Underdark truly does respond to Hel's every whim and desire...”

“So really, our survival depends on Hel's whims.” Scrivener said moodily, and Twilight grimaced as Luna growled but nodded slowly in agreement. “Fantastic. This place is... I still feel... strange, though. Angry. Violent. Like something just... like I've got an itch I just can't scratch...”

He flexed his claws slowly against the snow, then winced a bit: even with the rings supporting them, they were starting to feel more and more sensitive. Luna, however, was frowning at him worriedly for a different reason, but the stallion shook his head briefly and murmured: “No, it's okay. I'm not going to lose control or anything. I just... I don't know what to make of it. You two don't seem to be... well, angry, in the same way.”

“But I am angry. I think I... hate her.” Twilight murmured, looking off into the distance before the violet mare quickly shook her head, feeling strangely uncertain about her own emotions. Because if that wasn't hatred... “We... we had better get moving. I really don't like the way things are going right now. We... I want to...”

She broke off, but both Scrivener and Luna nodded slowly in understanding. They both gazed at the Lich, feeling her emotions and sharing their own thoughts with her, and Twilight slowly closed her eyes as she calmed little-by-little at the mental and emotional contact. But after a few moments, she forced herself to open her eyes again and shake off the reassuring presence of her partners instead of basking in it, making herself look ahead and say firmly: “We need to go.”

Luna and Scrivener studied her, the way the violet mare seemed almost like she wanted to suffer a little, wanted to be tense, to be angry, to even be vengeful... and then they both simply nodded, understanding whether they wanted to or not as they turned ahead. And as Scrivener's blood boiled and Luna felt a strange twist of eagerness run through her body, both ponies wondered again how much they had changed Twilight Sparkle from the pony she had once been... and worried all the more about what further changes awaited down the road, with the dangerous decisions they would no doubt have to make if they wanted to stop Gymbr.

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