• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven



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

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The Final Threshold

Chapter Twenty Eight: The Final Threshold
~BlackRoseRaven

Hel's mansion was ornate, gorgeous, and... disarming, was a good word for it. The gilded halls seemed to have no edges, the paintings and decorations seemed to encourage them to relax and take pause to study their beauty, and soft, warm light spilled warmth through their bodies, massaging their muscles, making them feel pleasant and lethargic.

To make matters more difficult, many of the corridors seemed to feed around in circular, gentle curves, routing them constantly back towards the entrance hall. And to further frustrate and fascinate, the decorations in the hallways changed every time they stepped into them: gorgeous landscapes became portraits of demons, display cases proudly showed off new marvels, statues put themselves into new poses and donned new costumes.

And the worst part was how comfortable and defenseless they all felt, as they wandered from room-to-room, Luna poking at things now and then with Prúðbikkja and Scrivener staring around in fascination. Twilight Sparkle was doing her best to resist the magic and the allure, but even she felt herself falling victim to the trap: after all, she was feeling the enchantment swaddling not just her own mind, but Scrivener and Luna's as well.

But by the fifth time they had done a complete circle of the lodge and found nothing more dangerous than a letter opener, Luna was beginning to get cranky even with the comforting haze in the air. They had to have opened every single door in the maze of hallways, and yet found no trace of Hel herself, and no way towards her inner sanctum.

Luna stomped a hoof... then scowled and looked down at the soft carpet before she cursed and began to stomp and claw wildly at it. Twilight winced slightly, but Luna's temper tantrum did at least have the effect of helping clear her mind, while Scrivener Blooms was only sitting complacently nearby and staring at a painting on the wall.

The sapphire mare finally managed to tear up the large section of carpeting to reveal paneling beneath it, and she stomped on this with both hooves and a huff, cracking it... before frowning and looking down thoughtfully, stomping firmly a few more times. Then Twilight Sparkle stared in disbelief as Luna began to hammer her hooves viciously against the floor, almost jumping up and down as she growled in effort.

“What the hell are you doing?” Twilight asked incredulously, and the sapphire mare only huffed loudly as Scrivener absently tilted his head, furrowing his brow as he studied the painting intently.

“We have been up to the second floor, but we have yet to be down in the basement, and there is empty space not far beneath this flooring.” Luna replied, glancing up as she continued to stomp and punch away at the paneling, which was now beginning to sink slowly down. “'Tis thin. And where better for a witch to den than-”

And then the floor suddenly gave out beneath Luna's hooves with a tremendous crack, sending her spilling face-first through the hole with a yelp: she was only saved by the fact that Prúðbikkja seemed to act on its own for a moment, lunging forwards and snaking into her hoof before the long spear caught on either side of the hole in the floor, Luna danging from this bar by one hoof as she wheezed loudly. “See? I was right.”

Twilight stared at the hole, and Scrivener blinked lethargically before he looked over and asked curiously, tilting his head slowly: “Hey... that painting... is that the Aesir of Asgard?”

Twilight turned disbelieving eyes to Scrivener, but Luna only huffed as she easily pulled herself up to rest her forelegs across the pole of her spear, saying mildly: “Do not fear, the poet is just a little woozy from blood loss, and I think the beetle being stupid makes him an easier target for Hel's trickery. Although at the same time...” Luna eyed the painting thoughtfully. “Aye. He has a good point. Why has Hel put up a painting of the gods said to be her enemies on the wall?”

Scrivener was only looking flatly at the sapphire mare, while Twilight turned uneasy eyes to Scrivener, then drew her gaze down to his claw, asking quietly: “Are you going to be... I mean... do you think you can keep going?”

“I'm fine. Really, even if... I don't look it.” Scrivener shook himself a little... but admittedly, it had been nice to give in to the pleasant lethargy, letting that take away his pain for a little while. Now, though, he tried to fight it off as he looked at the hole Luna had torn in the floor, saying finally: “I hope we don't have to pay for that.”

“Well, at least thou art trying to be witty.” Luna muttered, and then she dropped herself off the pole, hanging by both hooves and looking down to study the darkness beneath her before allowing herself to drop. It was only ten feet or so before she hit the ground with a grimace, landing on hard concrete... and shivering at the immediate chill that ran through her body. “Aye. This feels more like Hel here.”

She paused, then checked her surroundings as Twilight and Scrivener nervously looked down at the mare through the hole in the floor: there wasn't much light apart from what was filtering down through the breach, and as Luna's eyes adjusted, she noted that the walls and floor were... irregular in places, not crude but strangely riffled or misshapen. There was a door some thirty feet in front of her, and another ten feet from her back: the former was made of steel, the latter was gold and encrusted with gemstones and reeked of copper... no, not copper. Blood.

Prúðbikkja twisted down through the hole and readied itself beside her: a moment later, Twilight descended into the passage, and then a nervous Scrivener awkwardly half-fell and landed with a hiss on his hooves, his front legs trembling before he breathed slowly and straightened, muttering: “Okay. I lost my happy now.”

“Thou never had happy. The only things that make thee happy are suffering and stupidity. Therefore thou art either stupid or suffering but never happy.” Luna grumbled, and she and Scrivener glowered at each other before the sapphire mare suddenly became serious, looking up sharply and whispering: “Wait. Something... something is wrong.”

Scrivener and Twilight both looked up sharply, and then the Lich's eyes glowed before they widened slightly as she saw what Luna was sensing: the invisible, shambling thing slowly drawing closer to them. It was naked and translucent, its eyes sunken holes, its mouth gaping and awful, and its skeletal arms ending in terrible, gnarled claws. Once it had likely been some kind of demon... now, now it had been drained of all its essence, and only a husk of a tortured spirit was left behind.

“Wraith.” Twilight whispered, and Luna nodded as her soulstone horn glowed before she snapped it forwards, sending a blue fireball slamming into the invisible beast. The spirit howled silently in misery, staggering backwards before it dissolved rapidly away, and Twilight shivered a bit as the spirit finally vanished. Wraiths like this were dangerous: they would remain invisible and barnacle themselves to a source of energy until they drained it of all life in an attempt to try and restore some strength to their own faded souls. All they ever managed, however, was to make themselves hungrier... and create a new wraith that would wander silently until it came across prey of its own.

Twilight checked back and forth... and shuddered as she saw the golden door through her spectral vision instead of her normal eyes: with her powers focused, she didn't see gold, but bones and blood and... faces. Staring, horrible faces... “We... we should stay far away from those doors.”

“I figured. I cannot see it but I can smell it.” Luna muttered, and then she shook her head slowly before gesturing uneasily towards the steel doors. “I know thou both do not like to, but... keep thy eyes open. We cannot risk being ambushed by such creatures here.”

The other ponies nodded, and Scrivener Blooms closed his eyes tightly, concentrating for a moment before he opened them with a wince... then gritting his teeth and reaching out to catch Luna's shoulder before she could step forwards, the mare frowning at him.

Their eyes met, and Luna's own widened slightly before she looked up at Prúðbikkja and guided the spear just in front of her, waving it through the air. At first, there was nothing, and Luna began to scoff... and then several massive, twisted blades corkscrewed out of the walls and ceiling in all directions before they clicked loudly and slowly began to withdraw.

Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight all stared down the hall as the traps reset, and then Luna grumbled and snapped her horn forwards, coating the surfaces of the corridor with thick ice. Immediately, several blades tried to leap free again, but they only tore partway through the heavy ice, gears clanking and grinding as the blades shuddered uselessly where they were caught.

“Come!” Luna leapt forwards, running down the open hall as Scrivener and Twilight hurried after her, the sapphire mare glaring back and forth before she cursed and snapped her polearm out when an enormous razorblade sprung out of the wall towards her, weapon and trap colliding and the gears powering the weapon stripping loudly as the blade was knocked loose.

Twilight ducked under a razor that snapped out of the wall at neck level, while Scrivener cursed and barely staggered out of the way when several large spikes shattered up through the ice on the floor, their movement thankfully stuttered enough he was able to leap out of the way.

Luna smashed into the steel doors and knocked them open, leading the way into a wide, circular room beyond... before her eyes widened in surprise as the steel doors slammed shut behind them before several large steel rods shot back and forth in a crisscrossing pattern across the gates, barring them closed. Scrivener and Twilight, meanwhile, were already scanning the arena-like room as the sapphire mare grumbled: “Please tell me this is not another trial.”

“I... don't think so...” Twilight said uneasily as she strode slowly forwards, and Scrivener looked up as well, even though his eyes were aching from not just exerting his powers, but the sheer amount of energy and malice in the air. Then both ponies stared at one of the three large tubes standing out of the ceiling, hearing the growing rumble and vibration, both sensing what was coming before the Lich shouted: “Luna, we have to get out of here!”

Luna turned around, just in time to watch as a thick gush of greenish water vomited out of the nearest pipe. Moments later, the other pipes opened up as well, spraying sludgy liquid into what wasn't an arena, but a dead end and a drowning pool.

The sapphire mare gritted her teeth as she looked sharply back and forth as Scrivener and Twilight searched desperately for somewhere, anywhere they could go... and then Luna gestured violently at several large, covered culverts: a row of them ran along the back wall, likely used to drain the water from the area. “Open them! We must smash them open!”

Twilight and Scrivener both nodded, running across the rapidly-flooding area and the stallion cursing in pain: the acidic water burned against his ravaged claws, and the liquid was thick and sludgy, making it hard to move. Twilight and Luna, at least, were both able to take to the air and fly quickly towards the other side of the deathtrap.

Scrivener stumbled and flopped into the shallow water with a splash, less than halfway across the arena, while Luna slammed bodily into one of the closed shutters and nearly knocked it out of place. She grinned savagely, and Twilight felt her eyes drawn towards the sapphire mare's victory as she prepared her own charge-

She saw the water, too little, too late to warn Luna: all she could do was twist her body to land unevenly against the culvert opening and shout a warning she knew wasn't going to stop the mare in time: “Wait, stop!”

Luna smashed into the culvert covering again... and was blown backwards with it as floodwaters gushed forwards, knocking her back into the sickly liquid with a splash. Then she cried out in agony as she felt something bite savagely into her, snapping her horn and electrifying her body to drive back the sharp-toothed fish and fry the blood-sucking eels attempting to swarm in on her, as more hungry, vicious aquatic life was flung in from the broken-open pipe.

The sapphire mare snarled and splashed backwards: in the middle of the room, Scrivener Blooms cursed as he looked up, then tripped over something heavy and metal before he looked down, trying desperately to stare through the murk as he felt around with his oversensitive claws. He was standing on some kind of... grating, it felt like, although there was metal beneath this... and the stallion gritted his teeth before doing the only thing he could think of, digging his hooves into whatever was beneath him and focusing his powers forwards, starting to transform metal into mire even as agony screamed through his system.

Luna and Twilight both turned towards Scrivener, both leaping to the air and shooting towards him as the sapphire mare shouted: “Damnation, get out of the way!”

Without hesitation, Luna curled into a divebomb, smashing to the ground in front of Scrivener and stabbing Prúðbikkja straight down into rotted metal floor as the spear unleashed a tremendous blast of force. The liquid around them was repelled in an almost perfect circle, forming high, wide waves and a nearly solid wave of water, and Twilight Sparkle acted on instinct in perfect time with Luna, a swirl of biting cold ripping through the air around the ponies and turning the liquid into a wall of green-tinted ice, leaving them safe for the moment inside a ring of frozen walls.

Luna grasped her spear with both front hooves, gritting her teeth as both her soulstone horn and the alicorn speartip glowed brightly, the polearm slowly, gradually burning its way down through what looked like an enormous drainage covering. Of course, they had already screwed up once... and so much water was pouring in – and now laced with hungry, vicious, thoroughly-disgusting fish, on top of that – that they really didn't have more than this one last shot before everything went to hell.

Scrivener clutched his claws down against the metal plating, gasping in pain but refusing to relent as Twilight Sparkle leaned forwards and concentrated on the mire: she didn't know how much she could really affect it, but she pushed with all her might and prayed with all her heart that they could tear off this cap and find a way to escape...

Then, just as green liquid began to trickle over the high walls of ice around them, just as cracks started to form and leak through the pale emerald walls, there was a hideous clanking sound before a hail of sludge spilled down into the pipe, followed by several enormous pieces of rotting metal. And... Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight all stared in horror as they splashed down into what looked like some kind of brackish slurry, sinking rapidly away through the ugly liquid.

Luna cursed as she heard the ice cracking, looking over her shoulder before snapping her soulstone horn out, and Scrivener winced as a crystalline bubble formed around both his head and the mare's own. Then, without hesitation, Luna dove into the open pit... and Scrivener knew there was no other choice but to follow, diving in with Twilight close behind.

The slurry burned their skin as they swam down into it... and Luna gritted her teeth in disgust as they swam down through what she now very clearly understood was a drainage pipe. She led the path forwards with Prúðbikkja held out in front of her, the speartip glowing brightly and casting a pale blue light around them, every now and then using it to push pieces of rotting meat and the remains of long-dead demons out of the way.

They swam downwards, and around a bend in the pipe to find a ripped steel screen blocking the way forwards. But Luna simply slashed her spear outwards, and the glowing alicorn sliced through the metal with ease before Twilight Sparkle concentrated, using telekinesis to tear the hole wider and bend the ripped metal strings out of the way.

The trio of ponies swam carefully forwards through this, and Luna glanced up uneasily as she heard a heavy rumbling somewhere behind them. But then she only shook her head and forced herself to focus forwards again, leading the way slowly down a long, slightly-clearer pipe.

Scrivener fell a little behind: his claws weren't exactly good for paddling, and Luna and Twilight were both naturally using their wings to steer and rudder a little, accelerating themselves faster through the water. Furthermore, the stallion was leaving faint trails of black blood from his claws, and he kept tossing apprehensive looks over his shoulder, worried that at any moment something was going to lunge up out of the depths, drawn by the scent of his poisonous essence, to try and gobble him up.

Luna drifted to a halt with a worried look over her shoulder, and Twilight Sparkle paused uncertainly herself. Scrivener looked at them sourly as he swam closer, but then he nodded a little before frowning and pointing awkwardly at his head as he traded thoughts with the two.

Luna noted what had caught Scrivener's attention after a moment: a vague whup-whup-whup noise, with something higher in pitch that the water was distorting a little more just beneath this. She bit her tongue uncertainly, then she shook her head quickly before looking back and forth before her eyes locked on an offshoot where the water was visibly vibrating slightly.

The sapphire mare led the way down, Scrivener and Twilight following uneasily after her before Luna grimaced as she felt a pull against her body, something attempting to drag her down into the passage. She caught the edge of the tunnel so she could lean safety into it, and then narrowed her eyes at the sight of several large fans that took up the entire narrow passage, spinning rapidly... and past that, there seemed to be some kind of larger duct, but also a much larger fan.

The sapphire mare studied this silently for a few moments, and then she flicked her horn firmly, and the blade at the front of the passage screamed in protest as thick ice spread rapidly over it, the large, curved blades cracking and the central axis disjointing as chunks of machinery snapped loose. Luna smiled grimly at this before cocking her spear back, then she flung it as hard as she could, hitting the center of the fan and shattering the hub, knocking a hail of broken pieces backwards to crash and bang into the fan beneath it.

Machinery clanked and screamed as it smashed apart, collapsing further in a domino effect that blew apart the third fan as well, before the broken litter of metal was pulled down with a tremendous clang and crash into the machinery below.

There was one final, tremendous bang, and a wave of heat and bubbles as something ruptured, the sapphire mare wincing backwards and then watching with surprise as her spear was ejected from the tunnel. But she quickly caught it and yanked it back down to a ready position beside her, poking her head back into the tunnel as Scrivener and Twilight both stared at the sapphire mare before Luna Brynhild shoved into the passage and swam her way quickly downwards.

Scrivener and Twilight followed uneasily after a moment, the three swimming down the passage and into the room at the bottom of the area. Broken pieces of machinery were floating and resting along the surfaces of the room, larger chunks of metal and fan-blade clogging up a half-destroyed vent.

Luna looked back and forth grouchily before her eyes locked on a large hatch in the wall. The sapphire mare swam quickly over to this, grasping the valve handle in the center of the armored door and slowly rotating it until she couldn't turn it any further.

The sapphire mare pulled back with all her strength, and she felt the door budge slightly: immediately, Twilight and Scrivener both swam down, grasping into the handle and the door to forcefully yank the door open little-by-little as water rushed eagerly down through the opening.

Without letting go of the handle, Luna stabbed Prúðbikkja down into the narrow space they managed to force open, both Scrivener and Twilight fighting not to be pulled down by the rushing water even as they switched their grips to the raised edge of the door. Luna joined them after a moment, then looked quickly at Twilight Sparkle, whose eyes widened before she nodded hurriedly and rose her head as her horn glowed.

At the mouth of the passage, water coalesced and began to freeze as it spun slowly, transforming into a solid, durable cap. It continued to thicken and solidify as Luna turned her own eyes towards the broken vent, concentrating on it and freezing the water there into a solid wall of ice. And almost immediately, all three ponies could feel the weight on the hatch door lifting as the water rapidly drained down through it.

By the time the room was half-drained, they were able to yank the door up wide enough for a pony to pass through... which Scrivener Blooms found out when he lost his footing and was sucked down in the rush of liquid ass-first, painfully bouncing off the narrow walls of a short steel shaft until he smashed through a leaking trapdoor at the bottom and crashed down into a metal hallway with a great splash of water. He blinked stupidly a few times as he laid in a puddle, then gasped and clutched at his chest as Luna cursed under her breath, clenching her eyes shut as her body trembled in pain.

She forced herself to focus despite the fact she could feel her energy bleeding out of her body from the distance she and Scrivener were at, and then she straightened and flung the hatch open with a roar, sending it splashing back through the water and letting the flow yank her down. Unlike Scrivener, however, she easily braced her hooves against a metal wall, skidding down it in a hail of sparks until she finally fell free to land easily beside Scrivener Blooms with a wheeze, muttering: “Stupid idiot.”

“I know. I know.” Scrivener mumbled tiredly, and then he carefully began to pick himself up before he smiled a little when Luna silently dropped her neck across his, closing his eyes and murmuring: “Hey. We're okay. And we must be... close.”

Luna shrugged... then glanced up at a loud bang from above: a few moments later, Twilight Sparkle dropped down out of the shaft with Prúðbikkja floating beside her, and Luna smiled at how well the spear responded to the violet mare. “I shut that hatch so... I don't think that we'll have to worry about being flooded out. But where are we now?”

“I'd guess a maintenance area, since... Luna and I always seem to end up passing through one when we're attacking the enemy stronghold.” Scrivener muttered pessimistically, and Luna sighed and looked at him pointedly, but the stallion only smiled wryly as he gestured around at the concrete walls, the grated floor, the pipes and cables that ran willy-nilly over many of the surfaces. “I think reality sides with me for once.”

Luna responded to this by bopping the stallion with her soulstone horn, and then she reached out and grasped one of his claws, softening and studying it as she murmured: “Idiot Scrivener Blooms. Look at what thou hast done to thyself.”

Scrivener only shrugged a little as he glanced down at one soggy, broken-looking claw, and then he mumbled: “On the bright side it doesn't really hurt anymore, but. That's really probably not actually much of a bright side, is it?”

Luna sighed tiredly as Twilight shook her head slowly, and then the stallion awkwardly shoved himself up to a standing position, swaying a little on the spot before he said quietly: “Well, we should keep moving. We should probably continue to keep our eyes open...”

“For more than traps, though. We might be able to find whatever's helping to power all this machinery... I get the feeling that aqueduct we just passed through is more than just for Hel to drown her enemies in, after all.” Twilight murmured, and Luna and Scrivener both nodded slowly before the Lich looked back and forth hesitantly. “I feel energy in the air...”

They fell into an awkward quiet as they continued onwards: Luna took the lead, Scrivener stumbled along in the center, and Twilight followed last, a little bit at a distance, not seeming to realize she was still carrying Prúðbikkja as the spear glowed with eerie light. The corridors around them were enclosed, metallic, rusted and uncomfortable more than they were sterile: now and then, they could hear rustling in the walls and clanking in the pipes.

Then Luna frowned as she saw something strange flit around the corner ahead, floating haphazardly along and casting a dim spotlight beneath it that was scanning over the ground. She recognized it after a moment as a willowisp: only the 'lantern' of the spirit was visible, that glowing flame of light, but previous experience told her that above this was a ghost, likely of a pony... and Twilight looked up to confirm this before wincing at the sight.

She saw it: the phantasm was dressed in old traveler's clothes, an ancient, hexagonal glass lantern dangling by a ring clutched in one hoof. But the specter also had its eyes and mouth sewn shut, and it was clearly using the lantern's light to feel its way forwards, its ears twitching every so often...

“Here.” Luna muttered, gesturing towards a nook between several pipes, and Scrivener grimaced before he squeezed into this as the sapphire mare leapt up and flapped her wings, propelling herself to the top of the niche and bracing herself against the piping and wall. That left Twilight to awkwardly scramble half on top of Scrivener, smiling embarrassedly as he only mumbled a little.

Prúðbikkja bobbed awkwardly below Luna, and the sapphire mare absently flicked her horn to take this back from Twilight, raising the spear high as the willowisp passed. The spotlight from the lantern scanned silently over the ground, twisting towards the wall as Scrivener furled his claws in and shoved himself backwards as much as possible, Twilight balancing awkwardly on the stallion as best she could as the light slowly, slowly swept past...

And then the willowisp moved on. For a few moments, there was an awkward silence, and then Scrivener sighed and slumped forwards, which made Twilight wince and cling to his head with both front hooves as she was nearly flipped over him. “Oh good, we-”

Then Luna slapped Prúðbikkja downwards, whacking both Twilight and Scrivener in the face with the pole before using the spear to yank them backwards, and a second willowisp slowly floated past, scanning the floor with its own lantern in a zigzagging pattern. Just behind this one came a third willowisp that had its lantern raised high and was scanning the ceiling, and the sapphire mare gritted her teeth as she muttered: “It looks as if Hel knows we are here.”

Scrivener mumbled a little against the pole pushing against his face, and Twilight awkwardly leaned around the spear, putting one hoof against the piping as she whispered: “So what do we do? What will happen if one of those things finds us?”

“An alarm, no doubt. And Hel has more than mere demons at her disposal. We will have to be careful.” Luna said softly, and then she leapt forwards and flapped her wings, hovering in the hall and gazing down the narrow corridor as she muttered: “It looks clear for now. Let us find a place to regroup and regain our wits, then we shall press onwards.”

She pulled Prúðbikkja up to a ready position beside her with a flick of her horn, and Scrivener rubbed slowly at his face as Twilight hopped over him and shivered a little, murmuring: “I never realized that Hel could exert so much control over the living dead, too... but... why isn't she just using her magic or her puppets to find us?”

“Either she's playing a game with us or they don't work here... remember how her puppet disintegrated when it tried to pass into her home? Her own anti-summon charms must still be in effect.” Scrivener said quietly, and then he rose a splintered claw and studied it uneasily. His claw itself was only giving a dull throb, even if his veins felt like they were on fire, and he was worried that wasn't exactly a good sign... “We better keep moving.”

“The poet is right. The longer we linger, the more chance we will be found.” Luna dropped back down to the ground, shaking her head briefly. “Let's go.”

Twilight and Scrivener both nodded, and the sapphire mare hesitated before gesturing at the Lich, murmuring: “Thou should lead. I will follow at the back. Thou has a better eye than I do, at least when it comes to these sad souls.”

“Thanks. I think.” Twilight mumbled, and then she shook he head a little before starting down the corridor, leading the way. They reached an intersection shortly, but Twilight grimaced: more willowisps were slowly coming towards them down one hall, so it made the choice easy.

They hurried down the other branch, Luna checking uneasily behind them: two willowisps turned at the intersection, and another two were coming straight down the hall towards them. The sapphire mare gritted her teeth before she turned her attention ahead, before sending Twilight a sharp mental signal when she noted they were nearing a large metal door.

Twilight stopped in front of it, then simply stared dumbly, mouthing slowly: the door was heavy, fortified, and had some kind of massive gemstone in the center of it giving off a malicious sense of energy. She began to open her mouth... and without slowing, Luna whirled Prúðbikkja around and stabbed her spear into the gemstone, sending a charge of magical energy ripping down the weapon and into the door.

It sparked brightly and howled like a living thing, and Twilight winced as she looked down the hall towards the willowisps: even if they were likely deaf, they had both clearly heard the scream, and were both hurrying forwards as they scanned all around themselves with their lanterns. But a moment later, the armored door rumbled slowly backwards before it slid smoothly up into the ceiling, and Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight hurried inside with the spear floating behind them.

Twilight flicked her horn down on instincts half-taken from Luna, and the door rumbled before it slowly lowered and locked back into place, just as one of the willowisps began to scan past. Luna gave a loud sigh of relief at this, and Twilight smiled... while Scrivener was only staring to the side, mouthing wordlessly in horror before he whispered: “Oh holy hell. Those aren't what I think they are, are they?”

Luna and Twilight both frowned and turned their eyes in the direction Scrivener was facing... and both mares shivered before Luna gritted her teeth and Twilight only whispered: “How? How could she do something like this...”

Across from them were several massive, cylindrical tanks with plate glass walls, enormous cables feeding out of the steel, dome-like tops and up into the ceiling. And inside, other cables and wires fed down, pierced into the bodies of the chained and bound demons inside.

A single First Tier demon was in each tube: each was shackled and bound, blindfolds over their eyes and enormous silver spikes sticking out of their scarred bodies. They all bore the signs of torture and mutilation, and Scrivener shivered a little as he studied the cables and wires sticking out of them... that were sucking the life force out of these once-mighty demon lords that had clearly all displeased Hel. “Batteries...”

Luna growled, and Twilight clenched her eyes shut and shivered before she muttered: “Who... who knows how much these three alone are powering? We should shut the machinery down, free them... it might even disable some of Hel's traps.”

“Shut it down, aye... free them...” Luna licked her lips slowly, hesitating and studying the demons moodily. “I would like to, for many reasons. But they are First Tier demons Hel has saw fit to weaken and shove into these... evil technologies of Valthrudnir's. They may not thank us for freeing them. They may not be interested in thanking anyone.”

There was silence for a few moments, and Scrivener grimaced a bit as he nodded slowly. Twilight leaned uneasily forwards all the same, reaching up and silently pressing a hoof against the magic-reinforced glass before she murmured: “I guess I understand. But all the same, I just... I wish we could do something for them. Even if they might be monsters, even if there's a ninety-nine percent chance they'd turn on us, try to hurt us... no one deserves this. Look at them... think of how long they must have been here... and likely all they did was upset Hel...”

Scrivener and Luna both smiled faintly, sharing nods as they looked over their shoulders at Twilight, and the sapphire mare hesitated before muttering: “Mercy must not be given only to those who we desire to benefit. Mercy must be given to all, if all are to be treated equal. Everyone deserves a second chance... or none do. Aye, very well...”

Luna paused and looked thoughtfully at the machinery before she said slowly: “But the quality of the mercy we must give... that is up for debate. Perhaps we can grant them mercy and at the same time, serve our own ends...”

“I really hate when you think out loud. It somehow makes all your ideas sound... worse.” Scrivener said dryly, and Luna huffed at him grouchily.

“Shut up, Scrivy.” She paused, then drew her eyes over the machinery before stabbing Prúðbikkja savagely several times into the capsule in front of them, shattering holes in the glass as alarms began to blare. Green liquid gushed out, sparking with electricity, and Luna smiled grimly as the sensitive equipment beneath the tanks sizzled violently, parts of it shorting out. “There. Come, let us hastily make our escape.”

The others nodded, Twilight wincing a little as Luna flicked her horn at the door: from this side it only took a telekinetic yank on the thin handle on the back of it to pull it open before it slid automatically up into the ceiling. Luna led the way out, Twilight and Scrivener hurrying after her and turning hurriedly to the side as willowisps floated down the hall from the other direction to investigate the source of the noise.

The ponies turned the corner, and Luna's eyes widened as they locked on some kind of awful, mechanical beast lumbering down the halls towards them, with enormous metal claws for hands and a body of steel and plastic wrapped around fleshy, real organs. Its head was shaped like a big, thick rectangular block with a single glaring lens, although from the way it moved it seemed like it could only see a few feet in front of itself.

“Damnation, I... Twilight, up!” Luna snapped as she looked over her shoulder, noting two other willowisps were coming down the hall opposite. The Lich winced, but leapt to the air, flying up towards the ceiling as Luna glared pointedly at Scrivener, and the stallion groaned before he clambered hurriedly onto Luna's back, then winced when she leapt into the air with a grunt and flapped her wings hard, carrying him upwards as he clung anxiously to her.

The machine passed beneath them without a pause, and Luna grimaced as she looked ahead: more and similar strange golem-things were coming down the hall towards them, emerging from a large, open shutter some thirty feet down the hall. An alarm light was flashing beside this, and Luna's eyes narrowed: something about the design drew her, made her think of how the security golems for the old Mage Towers had always been kept in checkpoints right outside the most vulnerable areas...

The shutter whirred before it began to close, and Luna gave a mental shout to Twilight as she lunged forwards, staying high near the ceiling and flying over the heads of the security drones as Scrivener Blooms winced and clung to the sapphire mare's back.

Luna snapped her horn forwards as she realized the shutter was closing far too fast for them to make it, and Prúðbikkja shot through the air to spear into the ground and stand straight beneath the descending armored door.

Gears clanked, then squalled in protest as the shutter was halted by the polearm, the alicorn speartip digging slowly into the ground as the heavy gate attempted to force down against the unbreakable gianttooth spear. Luna grinned as she shot forwards, then winged swiftly down behind the marching drones and shot through the opening... and Scrivener had enough time to stare blankly before his helmeted head banged painfully into the bottom of the shutter, knocking him flopping off Luna's back to land in a stupefied sprawl.

Twilight winced as she dropped down beside the stallion and staggered to a halt, looking down at the charcoal earth pony worriedly, but he only weakly shook his head and mumbled: “Just. Kick me through the big hole. The hole. The... doorway?”

“Come on, get up, Scrivy.” Twilight reached down, pulling the stallion up to his hooves... and then both she and Scrivener winced at a thunderous smashing that ripped through the air, followed by a furious roar.

“I got my second wind.” Scrivener wheezed, and then he scurried through the shutter opening, Twilight hurrying after the stallion as Luna grimaced and looked back through the gateway. Then she cursed and flicked her horn to the side, ripping Prúðbikkja free from beneath the dented shutter, and the heavy armored gate slammed down to the ground with a scream of broken gears... although Luna noted wryly that Scrivener had managed to hit the shutter with so much force it had actually dented in the bottom of it.

Then she turned around... and joined the other two ponies in staring in disbelief at the terrible factory they had stepped into. Immense drones were working calmly away beside massive mechanical arms that stood out of the ground and hung off large rails above rumbling conveyor belts, assembling golems and automated drones. Machines building machines; Scrivener shivered at the sight of it.

And Twilight stared upwards, staring in disbelief: all along the top of the room, there were large green capsules: batteries, containing demons both whole and in pieces, huge cables running to and from the various tanks and powering all this awful machinery, this terrible factory that looked like another Clockwork World, another Endworld.

Luna's eyes roved with disgust though the assembly line: at the end of the conveyors assembling together golems, there were massive clusters of arms and what looked almost like a mechanical tree, that spat not fruits, but hearts of blood quartz out of its cylindrical branches and into waiting bowls. These fruits were plucked up by synthetic claws, which placed them into the chests of mechanical puppets before other sets of arms fastened on heavy plates and armor. Then the readied golems were picked up by an enormous crane claw and carried off into some deep dark tunnel...

Scrivener forced his eyes away, drawing his eyes through the area before he locked on a metal staircase on the far side of the room. His eyes followed it upwards, noting not just an armored door, but what looked like some kind of lounge area, where someone could watch what was going on...

“Hel.” Twilight said quietly, locking on to who must use that room above before Scrivener could even think about it, and Luna smiled grimly at this before the sapphire mare simply broke into a run along the front wall of the factory, recklessly charging past machinery and racks of machine parts. Twilight and Scrivener winced and scrambled after the mare after a moment, the stallion wheezing as he felt a second of pain when Luna put too much distance between them before he and the Lich started to catch up to the sapphire mare as she skidded to a halt, then gestured sharply down an aisle between conveyors before running down it.

Twilight and Scrivener both winced, but leapt around the corner, following her down the narrow aisle and leaping past whirring mechanical arms and large frames and racks of machine parts, the stallion wanting to shout... but this close to the drones, not daring to do more than growl and send a frantic mental signal to Luna to slow down before he stared when she leapt up onto one of the conveyors and scrambled past a half-assembled golem to leap off the other side and run towards the metal stairway.

Twilight grimaced before she leapt up, flapping her wings to propel herself safely high over the conveyor as Scrivener dropped low and scrambled through a narrow space beneath it, grimacing as he passed beneath sparking wires and rumbling motors. He wiggled out the other side with a curse, then followed in Luna's hoofsteps as Twilight Sparkle dropped right down onto the metal staircase behind the sapphire mare, saying quickly: “Luna, wait, there's no hurry, there's-”

An alarm blared just as Scrivener stumbled onto the staircase, and both winged unicorns above turned to stare back and forth over the factory, thinking they had just been caught. Except a moment later, there was a tremendous banging on the shutter they had entered through before a massive, blood-soaked demon ripped it up and out of place, clearly using the large, handle-shaped imprint formed by Scrivener's head to hold it up.

The stallion grinned weakly as the enormous demon strode inside, roaring furiously as it yanked itself forwards and glared back and forth furiously. Several of the large automatons stepped away from the conveyors, striding towards the invader, but the First Tier demon leapt forwards and hefted the nearest golem into the air, turning and slamming it viciously into the wall before ripping it in half like paper, flinging both chunks of sparking, oil-bleeding construct at the other drones.

“Hurry!” Scrivener shouted in a strangled voice, as willowisps floated quickly in though the torn-open shutter and out of tunnels near the roof, but Luna didn't stay to watch what happened as she leapt up towards the armored door. It was the same as the heavy door that had blocked the way into the generator room where they had found the three First Tier demons, and Luna thrusted Prúðbikkja into the crystal emblem on the front with her teeth grit.

It rumbled and resisted for a moment, and Luna sent another charge of magic into the door, overriding the locking mechanism. Slowly, it slid backwards before rising up into the ceiling as Luna yanked her spear back, and she couldn't help but toss a look over her shoulder at the chaos in the factory, even with the way out right in front of her.

The willowisps were all converging around the First Tier demon, shining their lanterns on it as more of the large golems attempted to try and restrain the creature. It was resisting the machines with ease, ripping off limbs and swatting them backwards, but there was something else wrong... and Twilight shivered as she looked over her shoulder and realized she could see wraiths emerging out of the walls, the floor, everywhere, to throw themselves at the demon and leech out its energies. And First Tier or not, the Wrath demon couldn't see them, couldn't strike them, couldn't grasp them, and it wouldn't be able to keep running forever.

“So the Wraiths and wisps are trained to work together. Hel is cruel and devious.” Luna muttered, then she turned and strode quickly through the doorway, Twilight and Scrivener following with winces over their shoulders before the door closed with a clank behind them.

The room they entered into was plush and elegant, with large crystals inset into the roof that shone a gentle, warming light down over their bodies. Even Luna felt herself relaxing as the energy massaged her muscles and filled her form with warmth, and Scrivener let his eyes slowly slip closed before he mumbled: “I saw a couch over there I want to go to sleep on.”

“Later, poet, after we have bashed Hel roundly. Then thou may sleep...” Luna yawned a bit, and then she shook her head hurriedly and muttered: “Is this another trick, or yet another trap?”

“No, I... I don't think so...” Twilight murmured quietly, and the violet mare shook her own head quickly before she looked back and forth. It wasn't just the beauty of the place, the lavish furnishings, or how from this side she could see it wasn't just reinforced glass filling the windows, but metal that had been enchanted to be translucent. It was the personal touches, and the sense that whoever used this place recognized it was a cage of sorts... but all the same had tried to gild it, make it pretty, left a picture crooked here, a few books laying messily out atop a table there...

Scrivener slowly looked up at the glowing gemstones in the ceiling, and then he murmured: “Wow. I think I just got it. She's crazy. I mean, Hel is really crazy, right? That lethargy...”

“It's not to hurt us. It must be to help her... which means she does use this room, and we're close to her. She wouldn't stray far from her stronghold.” Twilight shivered, stepping towards the window and looking uneasily down into the factory: the chaos had increased, but at the same time, it felt distant, almost unimportant with that constant hum of calm energy flowing over them.

The stallion nodded a little, still staring up at the ceiling, and Luna shook her head briefly before drawing her eyes through the room until they locked on a massive, ominous-looking door. The handle was formed by a large steel bar clutched in heavy stone claws, and above this was a stone bust in the shape of an Ironjaw head, lowered as if in thought with the stony eyes closed.

Luna approached this slowly... then winced, Scrivener and Twilight both turning around with shock as the eyes of the head opened, before it rasped in ancient tongue: “Who approaches me?

Valkyrie Brynhild, the Night Maiden of Valhalla.” Luna answered: her voice was calm and even, but even she was surprised by the response... by how easy she slipped back into the language of old. “I wish to pass with my companions, Guardian.

The draconian bust stared at them, with eyes of glowing red crystal. It licked teeth of diamond with a tongue of stone, claws flexing around the handle it gripped before it said calmly: “I cannot let you pass if you wish harm upon my Mistress.”

I can honestly say, Guardian, that I wish for her aid. If I must harm her to convince her of my strength, I will do so; I am not so foolish to think I can promise you I will not hurt her.” Luna replied evenly, looking up into the construct's eyes, knowing that lying to the construct would be much more dangerous than telling the truth.

There was silence for a few moments, and then the Guardian give a grim smile before it nodded calmly and slowly flexed its claws, pushing the steel bar between them downwards. The door clanked loudly as locks opened throughout it, before the Guardian said softly: “Harm is not harm when its aim is to help, Valkyrie Brynhild. Helheim is based upon that principle; that amputating a limb is a worthy cause if it saves the rest of the body.

Luna shook her head briefly as the huge door swung open, and then she strode calmly through and into an airlock of sorts. Scrivener and Twilight both followed her into the squat passage as she pushed uselessly at the door opposite, before cursing under her breath when the Guardian door slammed shut and left them enclosed in the short metal tube.

There was a hum, and then all three ponies shouted and panicked for a moment as some kind of cleansing mist was vented in from all sides, painfully scouring their bodies as they flailed and shoved helplessly at each other. They almost trampled one-another as they banged into the walls, Luna stabbing Prúðbikkja wildly in every direction as Scrivener shouted about poison and Twilight's horn glowed brightly. Thankfully, she didn't have the time to prepare or release a spell: the vents rumbled to a halt, and the ponies were left staring back and forth in the airlock before the door opposite clanked and opened with a beep.

“Damnation.” Luna mumbled, and then the sapphire mare strode forwards and shoved the heavy, foot-thick door open, shouldering through as Scrivener and Twilight traded embarrassed looks. The stallion let the Lich go first as he winced and flexed his claws: they were hurting all over again now, and he wheezed a little as he hobbled carefully into the corridor as Luna scowled.

They were in a cul-de-sac: there was a massive vault door at one end of the hall, and four more – including the one they had just come through – placed in pairs on either wall. In the opposite direction, the bottleneck bridged out into a massive hall, and Luna was drawn towards this, Twilight and Scrivener following uneasily behind her as the sapphire mare whispered: “Mimir's head...”

The hall they stepped into was as tall as it was wide, with a curved ceiling and rippled walls covered in glowing, ornate gold runes. Massive braziers filled with glowing gold flame that chased away all shadow lit the path, making the lines of aureate symbols gleam ominously over the ground; past these, pearl doors were guarded by massive, thin statues of Ironjaw, both dragons holding spears made entirely out of soulstone and emanating a powerful magic Luna could feel from here.

The sapphire mare leaned forwards, studying the runes intently as Twilight gazed slowly up, her eyes picking up a supernatural gleam before her vision sharpened... and then she shuddered, licking her lips slowly as she whispered: “Luna...”

Above, there were countless spirits, all sitting calmly upside-down on the rounded ceiling. Some of them were watching them curiously others were simply talking to each other, and a few were playing chess, or toying with other apparently-spectral games. She had no idea what to make of it, but Luna only shook her head and murmured: “And to think... I had always imagined Purgatory much larger, but I suppose there are precious few souls who belong in such a place.”

The stallion nodded slowly, then he gazed ahead towards the ivory gates and said quietly: “You know there's no way we're just walking to those doors, right? I don't need my freaky vision power to tell you this is all going to go hell. No pun intended.”

“Aye, I know. But in a way, I look forwards to it.” Luna hesitated, then she frowned and leaned forwards before her soulstone horn pulsed... and to her surprise, she felt both the large, crystalline spears reverberate in response. “My horn... I can key to the other soulstone...”

Scrivener Blooms and Twilight Sparkle both looked at the sapphire mare, and then Luna smiled wryly before she gestured forwards, saying calmly: “It should not surprise thee, but there are nine lines of runes. Nine lines of trials we shall likely have to survive: but no matter what, we must push forwards. I believe I know how to open the gates, but I do not know how much time it will take, nor how long I can hold it for. So... ready thyselves. We charge.”

The stallion and the Lich both grimaced a little, then nodded slowly as they stepped up beside the sapphire mare, and they dropped themselves into ready positions as they all faced calmly forwards. For a few moments, there was silence... and then, in perfect time, the three lunged forwards, sprinting down the hall as Luna's soulstone horn began to glow brightly.

They passed the first line of runes, and Scrivener had to bite back a scream as Luna's eyes widened in horror as the floor around them burst into golden flames. They kept running forwards all the same, however, even as Scrivener felt pieces of his body turning to stone and Luna's own concentration shuddered before she forced herself to use the pain to her advantage, using the agony to further empower her magic.

They shot past the second line of runes, and reality around them distorted, the floor transforming into ice as a cold snow whipped down and tore past them, blinding and staggering them. They slipped wildly back and forth along the frosty surface, but then Scrivener dug his claws down against the frost and lunged forwards, catching Luna against his body before she could fall.

The sapphire mare winced as Twilight whacked into her other side, but the Lich bounced off her and was able to straighten herself, the three continuing to run and passing into the next section: and here, black smoke filled the air, Luna and Scrivener choking and coughing and nearly falling over, but Twilight Sparkle only grimacing as she was blinded before she snapped her horn out.

A blast of wind shot through the air around them, cutting a hole towards the next section as Luna and Scrivener staggered back into full runs as they were able to breathe again, and Luna's soulstone horn began to glow brighter; as they reached the fourth line of runes, the soulstone spears clutched by the dragon statues began to glow brightly, and the pearl doors between them to tremble open, the sapphire mare's fangs baring in a grin...

But the moment they stepped over the fourth line, reality around them distorted and they were suddenly hundreds of feet away from the door, the hallway now stretched disproportionately through twisted and mangled reality. Luna's eyes widened, but then she snarled and leaned forwards, keeping her concentration on the doors as she shouted: “Just keep moving!”

Scrivener and Twilight both nodded, and neither looked back even as they heard a crackling behind them: neither wanted to guess at what was chasing them now. As they passed the fifth line of runes, however, the crackling didn't stop; if anything, it grew more intense even as dark spirits ripped out of the walls and floor all around them, grabbing wildly at them, all skeletal, screaming, and emanating a burning hatred that made Scrivener's mind reel with psychic pain.

The three ponies dodged back and forth, doing their best to keep moving even as ghostly claws ripped into their hide, stealing energy and leaving trails of rot wherever they managed to touch: but as they crossed the sixth line, the specters vanished... even as enormous sawblades ripped out of the border at the other end of this section and began to roll towards them as the walls on either side shattered out of place and rapidly began to crush inwards.

Luna and Twilight both leapt into the air, and the sapphire mare lunged to the side overtop Scrivener Blooms before the stallion flung himself desperately into the sky as the rolling wall of blades shot towards them: both mares caught him by either foreleg, however, then flung him hard forwards as they shot in high arcs themselves, the three ponies passing just over the spinning network of blades before all three ponies shot down and landed beyond the seventh line.

And reality here bent, the floor turning into a steep ramp as a wall of spikes and blades of ice ripped into being at the end of the section: Luna's eyes widened, but when she spread her wings, they couldn't catch the air, and Twilight Sparkle snarled before snapping her horn out as Scrivener only flailed helplessly as he fell.

Most of the spike wall was shattered by a psychokinetic hammer, leaving fragments of shrapnel floating eerily in the air that battered and sliced the ponies as they fell through. Then reality suddenly altered again, and Scrivener crashed down on his back on the floor past the eighth line of runes, Twilight hitting the ground hard face-first with a grisly crack as only Luna managed to land on her hooves, skidding hard enough against the stone floor to send up sparks.

The stallion began to get up... and then he froze, only able to stare: only a short distance away, reality was ripping itself apart, draining into a terrible, endless void all around them, and the charcoal stallion shook his head wildly before he scrambled up and shouted: “We should go!”

Luna nodded sharply, and the three sprinted for the final line of runes... except when they passed over it, there was a spark of magic before the ponies were all standing once more at the back of the section, as if they had never crossed it. Except behind them, reality was still crumbling along the warped and distorted hall, closing rapidly in on them.

“Time-space distortion...” Luna snarled, her soulstone horn still glowing even as a bit of blood ran from the base, before she looked desperately at the end of the hall: the pearl doors were vibrating violently, beginning to creak open little by little as the magic spears held by both dragons thrummed. “We do not have the time to puzzle it out! Catapult!”

Scrivener winced in horror at this, but without hesitation, Twilight Sparkle hefted the stallion with telekinesis and flung him forwards, the charcoal stallion flailing wildly in all directions: the moment he reached the ninth line of runes, however, he sparked out existence, and the line of runes behind them glowed as Scrivener seemed to appear out of thin air, landing painfully on his face.

Twilight felt the pulse of magic as well as saw the effect, and she and Luna both turned around and studied the runes quickly before Luna cursed, snapping: “There are at least a dozen different enchantments twined together of every shape and measure... we cannot just destroy this spell without tremendous power...”

Scrivener grimaced as he looked over his shoulder, watching as the approaching void crumbled away another section behind them, feeling the vacuum from it beginning to pull them in before his eyes widened as he shouted hurriedly: “Maybe we don't have to! Let's get to the other side, and Luna, you have to open those gates!”

Luna looked up, trading a wild flurry of emotions with Scrivener before she nodded sharply, and Twilight shivered as she stared at the nothingness devouring the world rapidly behind them for a moment before forcing herself to turn away, hurrying up beside her partners. The air distorted around them as chunks of reality were ripped out of existence, the three feeling the way the air itself seemed to tremble in terror as Scrivener and Twilight gazed into the abyss, and the abyss hungrily charged towards them...

And Luna, meanwhile, was focusing all her power on the soulstone spears, her soulstone horn vibrating and the cracks through it spreading further as she poured every last ounce of strength towards them... before her eyes widened as gleaming, blinding golden light shone out of the doorway as the doors swung open maybe one foot... then two, then three, but no more. And such blinding, burning radiance poured out of them that Luna almost wanted to fling herself into the emptiness behind them to escape it...

“Now!” Scrivener shouted, as the line of runes behind them was torn apart by the sense of malicious nothingness behind them, and he and Twilight both turned around and fought not to be stunned by the dazzling light as they and Luna staggered across the ninth line of runes. And the moment they did, the dragon statues came to life, raising their soulstone spears high, and Luna's eyes widened in horror as the door began to close...

“No!” Luna's soulstone horn blazed with light as she charged forwards, and Twilight and Scrivener followed the mare as she battered her way through almost-physical radiance as her partners poured their strength into her, and she flung all the raw power, raw emotion, raw desperation she could into one mighty blast: not looking to power the soulstone spears, but a wild attack aimed directly at the gates themselves.

The doors were smashed by the telekinetic wave, cracks ripping through them as a spiderweb of fractures tore through her horn. Luna gasped, staggering... but Scrivener and Twilight were both immediately there, helping her onwards, keeping her on her hooves as they staggered across the threshold of the shuddering, wounded doors, and into the blinding light.

And a moment later, the pearl gates slammed shut, and all damage vanished as the hallway returned to normal, spotless, pristine, and quiet as the spirits above calmly went back to playing their ghostly games and trading gossip about the strange little creatures that had just breached the inner sanctum of Goddess Hel.

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