• 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 Deepest Heart Of Darkness

Chapter Twenty Nine: The Deepest Heart Of Darkness
~BlackRoseRaven

The room around them was clean, and neat, and polished. There was not a speck of dust on the white walls or the white floor, and Luna blinked slowly as she looked back and forth in disbelief.

It wasn't what she had imagined. The single room was massive and cathedral-like, with soft corners edged in a pretty silver-black. Glass spheres that trapped eternally-burning magic flames floated here and there, keeping the room brightly-lit and almost cheery; around some of these, spheres of crystal floated quietly, like planets in their eternal chase around the sun.

And all of it was dominated by... Luna didn't know what the hell it was. It was like a curved, crescent-shaped cradle-chair on a tall metal pillar, and all around it were strange, floating screens of crystal. At least sixteen, all of them floating and eerie, some large and some small and displaying countless different images...

“So you've come...” A chuckle, and all three ponies looked in surprise as a figure calmly approached them, pushing her way through a beaded curtain. A wrinkled white dress covered a too-thin body, her skin ghostly, her hair long and jet black, knotted and messy but clean. And Luna wasn't surprised to see she didn't have a cow's head after all: her features were narrow and thin and... surprisingly, not nearly as ugly as the legends had always said. She wasn't pretty, no... but she wasn't ugly, either. She bordered on blandness, with her sharp blue-white eyes the most defining thing about her: perhaps she had been beautiful once, but age and sleeplessness and worries had made her features drawn and sullen.

What was surprising was the cane she leaned on heavily, the metal tip clicking quietly against the floor as she came towards them, tightly gripping the plain derby handle. She all-but-dragged one leg behind her, with none of the energy and bounce they all had come to associate with the goddess... but it was clearly Hel's voice as she said pleasantly: “I really didn't expect you to actually make it in here... I mean, sure, I guess I'm glad that you did, even if I also kind of am starting to think all of you dying might be better for me-”

Luna reached a hoof up as her cracked horn sparked with energy: it hurt, but it provided more than enough magic to launch Sting Mk. II into her hoof before she quickly took aim at Hel and pulled the trigger. The iron round smashed into Hel's limp leg and almost knocked the flimsy goddess flying before she crashed down on her stomach with a howl of pain, cane clattering away before she looked up at them and screamed: “Are you completely out of your goddamn mind, Valkyrie?”

Then Hel fell silent as Luna leveled the gun at her face, the mare's eyes almost glowing as she bared her fangs and said darkly: “Try me, Hel. I dare thee to push me just a little more.”

“Okay. Okay, you made your point. Get the... pointy-shooty thing out of my face, please.” Hel winced a bit, carefully pushing herself up to her knees before she cursed quietly and grasped at her leg. “Oh, and of course you shoot my bad one. You bitch.”

“Thou should thank me for not hobbling the other one.” Luna growled in response, and Hel grumbled under her breath before Luna lowered Sting Mk II... but only slightly, keeping her icy eyes locked on the goddess. “We require thy assistance. I desire to know what great plan thou has, that thou hast been bragging constantly about. And I think thou should answer the many questions I have about this sick place thou calls Underdark, too... I thought thou wert of chaos, Hel, so why do I see so many machines of Valthrudnir in this place? Why does thou have an assembly line building golems?”

“Everyone needs a hobby.” Hel deadpanned, and then she winced when Luna glared at her and rose her weapon, the frail goddess flinching backward. “Okay, okay! Oh everything's so much less fun when I have to be stuck in the same room as you violent little balls of flesh and anger.”

The sapphire mare only growled moodily, and Scrivener and Twilight traded looks before the goddess stuck her wounded leg out childishly and yanked her dress away from it. And Scrivener frowned in surprise: not at the pale foot or skin, but the fact most of her leg was locked in a heavy iron brace, runes thrumming over it... and Luna's iron round was lodged halfway through the metal and into her shin, Hel hissing before she began to poke at it childishly. “Look! Look at that, just... just look at that!”

Luna only scowled, but Twilight frowned uneasily before she murmured: “Wait... that's mercury-lined. And those are holy-based runes...”

The sapphire mare blinked, then leaned in closer, looking disbelieving as Hel scowled over at Twilight, narrowing her eyes and saying sourly: “You're just going to be a giant pain in my ass, aren't you? Go ahead, little miss know-it-all. Keep talking, really, tell everyone everything about me.”

Twilight blushed and shifted awkwardly, too confused to know what else to do, and Luna added quietly: “And those doors were locked in the same manner as parts of Asgard were secured... responded to the same magic charge. And there have been glimpses of both the Aesir and Vanir and... wait, those specters outside in the hall...”

“I was formerly Aesir before All Daddy threw me out of Asgard. But I guess that was before your time... before the Vanir and the Aesir knew each other more than in passing, too. Before Thor, and before Loki...” Hel reached down, carefully wiggling the iron bullet free before she grimaced and carefully tucked it away into a hidden pocket in her dress, muttering: “Before Midgard, and before Ymir died, and before Odin began gathering his quote-unquote 'family' together.”

Slowly, the goddess stood, rubbing at her shin and cursing quietly in pain before straightening with a grim smile. “In the beginning, Odin and his cronies weren't in charge of Valhalla... they were just the muscle. But you know All Daddy was greedy, and stupid, and he made a deal. Oh, back then, we desperately needed to forge an alliance with the Jötnar... so Odin said that in exchange for being named as our leader Skati's inheritor, he would arrange for his beautiful firstborn daughter to be married off to a Frost Giant that had an interest in her...”

Hel smiled calmly, raising her right hand and showing off a sapphire ring as the three ponies stared up with disbelief at her. “And it almost worked out. Her husband tended to be a little stupid and a little drunk, but he wasn't a bad man. Very tender. Cold hands, though, like ice... although, you know, being a Frost Giant and all might have had something to do with that, even though his blood was plenty warm... which she found out when Odin came to fetch her after he'd been named King of the Aesir, and Skati mysteriously died in his sleep. After being mysteriously stabbed and mysteriously set on fire.”

Luna stared up at this, breathing slowly as she lowered her gun until it clunked quietly against the ground, and Hel flicked her wrist, her cane floating gently up to her grip so she could lean on it as she said wryly: “All Daddy was never a fan of subtlety. After that, well. He was top dog, and he was quick to gather a whole bunch of dumb-dumb followers to consolidate his power... and just to make sure no one was ever going to tell on him, he made an arrangement with the Norns and the Jötnar after his little girl's husband 'mysteriously died.' His little girl, since it was probably her who killed her husband since... you know, women are traitorous bitches and all.”

Hel sniffed loudly at this, then she shook her head slowly and gestured calmly around at her home. “She was given a stronghold... and a prison. She was made oh, so very powerful... and so weak, at the same time. Like a clam with an indestructible shell... but as you three just proved, not completely impenetrable. And the insides are mushy and soft, and can't do much to protect themselves.”

Hel chuckled quietly, gesturing widely around herself and saying bitterly: “Welcome to my home, my prison! Underdark amplifies my powers to levels you can't believe... outside of my home, that is. Inside my own gilded cage, I'm little more than a mortal... just as All Daddy once was, so long, long, long ago now.”

The goddess stopped, then she turned slowly back towards the ponies, smiling coldly over at them and waggling a finger. “But look at me. They locked me in a cage, used me for their own ends, abandoned me, and now I'm the only one left. I survived, each and every one of them... Odin, the Norns, Ymir, Vally-wally... and I'll survive you three, too, because you need my help. My nearly-infinite powers. You need to stop Gymbr, and I know just the way to do it.”

The three ponies looked up at the goddess, then traded silent looks, sharing emotions, thoughts, worries and unease... and then Luna shook her head briefly before saying finally: “How can we trust thee? And... we do not simply require... power, Hel...”

“Hey, I know what you three need.” Hel grumbled, and then she turned slowly around in a circle before limping towards the archway, gesturing for them to follow as she said mildly: “Come on, come on. We don't have all day and I can't do a lot to Heaven anymore. Your nasty friend has put some very complicated wards down. He's such a silly-billy fruit.”

Luna grumbled, but then holstered her gun and strode quickly forwards, falling into step beside Hel. She glared challengingly at the goddess, but Hel only gave her a calm smile in return before Luna said dryly: “Thou does not seem like an insane goddess.”

“Well, I have a lot of practice faking it. Plus, you know, the thought of being killed doesn't really drive up my anxiety. Killed is dead, so what?” Hel shrugged, sniffing disdainfully. “Furthermore, I'm not so crazy as to believe you're willing to gank me just to have a little taste of revenge. You guys need me, and I can give you stuff. Lots of stuff. Cool stuff. So stop trying to drive me into having an anxiety attack. Also because if you succeed it'll be a lot more embarrassing for you than it'll be for me.”

“I do not see how.” Luna said sourly, glowering moodily up at the goddess as they slowly made their way through the archway, heading into a hallway that had narrow walls polished to a mirror finish. Luna could feel a faint tickle of warmth along her skin from the crystalline lamps on the walls: the same sensation as she had felt in the strange office-theater above the factory, although not nearly as strong. “Where art thou taking us?”

“Yeah, I'm clearly taking you so far you have to ask that question to make sure we're not walking off the edge of the world or something.” Hel said shortly, knocking her cane against her bad leg. “You and Vally-wally, questions questions questions. And worse than that, you both went after the same leg. Except you at least just shot me. Vally-girl attempted to rip it off. You wanna see the scars?”

She grasped at her dress with her free hand, turning an inquisitive look to Luna, and Luna only continued to glare before Hel suddenly turned her attention forwards as they stepped through another curtained archway, spreading her arms and trilling: “Here we are!”

Luna only looked back and forth crankily, however: she had seen too many libraries over her many years to be particularly impressed by this one. Even with the curving shelves of marble, the gorgeous furnishings of dark blue stone, the spotless fireplace that had a neat pile of wood sitting in a rack beside it...

Then the sapphire mare's eyes drew upwards, and she halted, staring in disbelief at the portrait above the fireplace. She stepped slowly forwards, mouthing wordlessly, and Hel grinned widely at this as she gestured easily to a small set of paints and brushes on one of the tables nearby, next to a small easel. “I do a little bit of art stuff myself to pass the time, Luna Brynhild. What do you think? I think I captured it pretty well.”

“That is...” Luna stared at the two painted figures, shaking her head, drinking in every detail before she turned disbelieving eyes to Hel. “That is myself and Freya! When we were Valkyries!”

“You're pretty blonde! And you know, not a horse.” Hel said encouragingly, and then she half-covered her mouth and whispered loudly to Scrivener as he walked past: “She's not, I'm just being nice. Especially about the 'not as a horse' part.”

Scrivener and Twilight only strode quickly up beside Luna to gaze up at the painting as well, as the sapphire mare continued to only stare with fascination, ignoring the goddess. She studied it almost obsessively, seeing how so much was so incredibly different, and yet all the same... “It is us. It is us...”

Hel sighed and tapped her cane loudly against the ground a few times before she cleared her throat, and finally, Luna dragged her eyes away and turned towards the goddess, who was looking at them dryly. “While I'm oh so flattered that you step into a repository of endless knowledge and it's my silly doodles on the wall that catch your attention, I also you think you guys are complete idiots. Because, again, repository of endless knowledge.”

Twilight shook herself out of her trance as Luna only grumbled and turned her eyes back to the painting, while Scrivener studied it for a moment longer before turning his eyes towards Hel and saying mildly: “Well, why do I get the feeling that's exactly what you were hoping would happen?”

“J'accuse!” Hel shouted, swinging her cane wildly through the air, and then she huffed and leaned forwards on it, saying sourly: “You guys and Vally-wally. Always sweating the small stuff. For such braniacs you guys sure are all really stupid.”

“You have a weird obsession with Valthrudnir.” Scrivener said dryly, and Luna grunted in agreement as she turned around, while Twilight only began to pace along the shelves and study the books with growing interest.

“He was only the most powerful Jötnar ever to exist. Hell, possibly the most powerful thing ever to exist, and there are a whole lot of things in the universe, in case you lost count.” Hel replied mildly, leaning her forearms across the top of her cane before she informed: “That's precisely why I used some blood I stabbed out of him to make the Ironjaw.”

“What?” Scrivener and Luna both stared with shock at Hel, and Twilight stumbled away from the shelves, looking disbelieving.

Hel, meanwhile, winced over at Twilight, straightening and gesturing anxiously at her. “N-No, no, not that section, please. It's all a mess but please step away from my books, not right now, now is not reading time, sugar sweetie.”

“I... what?” Twilight took a cursory glance over the shelves of books, and then she said slowly, even as she stepped away: “They all seem fine to me...”

“Oh, they are, they just need to be neatened a little, that's all, please... please don't make them messy now, dear.” Hel said hurriedly, shaking herself out a she straightened, clutching her cane by the neck and kneading it firmly: a nervous gesture if Scrivener ever saw one. And, as he awkwardly drew his eyes around the room, he realized how neat and tidy and organized everything was... except the painting had a slight, distinct tilt to it.

Luna frowned at this, then grinned slightly as she glance over her shoulder and straightened the painting out with telekinesis, and Hel stared at this and went a little bit pale before she quickly hobbled across the room, as Luna said kindly: “Oh, if thou will just help us a little bit, Hel, we will be more than glad to clean thy house a little...”

“No, no, no, I don't need your help.” Hel grumbled, grasping the painting and carefully tilting it slightly, and she turned around, glaring daggers at Luna. “I see what you're up to, honeycake. Trying to drive me crazier than I already am. Treating me like I'm a moron, like I don't know when people are trying to screw with me. Well, people have been screwing with me my whole life! I'm a master of knowing when people are screwing with me, and I'm just as good at getting revenge, so you watch your fat chocolate-maker or I'll have to spank it.”

“I wish it made chocolate.” Luna grumbled, glancing over her shoulder as she wiggled her rear, and Scrivener slowly closed his eyes before the mare turned her eyes back towards Hel, saying mildly: “Well, then let me make this clear. As both of my pretty mares can attest, I am extremely gifted when it comes to creating chaos. I will turn this entire library upside down and then pummel thee if thou does not begin to answer our questions.”

Hel winced at this, looking uneasily back and forth around the library before she reached up a hand and nibbled at her nails when Twilight took a step towards another shelf, looking over the titles with interest. “Honey, sweet-pea, okay, maybe you shouldn't look at the shelves, you should.. there's books on the table. Go read the books on the table. Books on the table are fine, please... don't... touch anything else. I need to clean the shelves.”

Scrivener Blooms almost felt pity for Hel, but Luna only grinned widely before she strode up to the goddess, saying with relish: “Oh look at thou. Pathetic witch. Not so mighty and goddessy now, art thou? Nay, thou art nothing but a... a crazed old hag.”

Hel glared down at Luna, then she leaned down and shoved a finger against her nose, saying icily: “Once you leave this place, you will be at the total mercy of my full powers. So drink a long, tall glass of shut the me up before I go and skin the people you love alive.”

The two glared at each other furiously for a few moments, and then Scrivener Blooms awkwardly rose one broken claw and said finally: “Can you please tell us what the hell the Ironjaw are, then? Is that... I mean, is that why they seem to react differently to my...”

He lowered his claw, studying the black blood running from the splintered digits, and Hel looked over at him grumpily before her eyes widened slightly as she saw his claws were bleeding. She made a strange, rattling inhale, and then she half-stumbled around in a circle, dragging her bad leg behind her as she said in a strangled voice: “Just... just hold on a minute, bananacake, I'll be right with you, I just... oh damn it all to here...”

She hurried back out the archway, and Luna scowled after the goddess before she turned her eyes towards Scrivener Blooms and said dryly: “This is not quite as enjoyable as I had hoped it would be. The creature is almost too pathetic even for me to torment in excess. And so long as she keeps her promises... I fear she is too useful to dispose of.”

“You're a nice person.” Scrivener said mildly, and then he winced when Luna bopped him with her horn, giving her a flat look. She only glared back, and then both ponies looked up as Twilight wandered over to one of the small tables to curiously investigate the books laid out over it.

After a few moments, Hel returned, dragging a rubber mat behind her. Scrivener and Luna both stared before Hel tossed this down in front of the ponies, and then she pointed at it insistently as she looked at Scrivener Blooms, saying almost pleadingly: “Would you please, please sit on this? Please?”

The stallion lamely stepped onto the rubber mat, wincing a bit at the pebbly texture, and Hel visibly relaxed slightly... then relaxed more when she saw Twilight had settled into one of the chairs with a book from the table. The goddess turned her eyes towards Luna, who looked staunchly up at Hel before she asked clearly: “What hast thou done to the Ironjaw? And how, precisely, shall we deal with Gymbr? What great plan does thou have?”

“Hey, hey, one question at a time, pushy.” Hel said grumpily, raising her hand before she shook her head and closed her eyes, calmly tapping her cane against the floor before she opened one eye and peered meditatively at Luna. “Fine. Let's start with the easy one, the Ironjaw.”

Luna looked distrustfully at Hel, but Hel only huffed, placing a hand over her own heart as she complained: “Oh come on, stop looking at me like it's some kind of plot to make an army of Vally-wallys. That would be just about the most obnoxious thing ever, nevermind the fact they'd probably all kill each other trying to prove who's the most superior. Plus I mean, I totally tried to be his friend, but emphasis on the word tried. We didn't hang out much after he tried to tear my leg off. That was kind of a friendship-ender.”

Hel paused, then tapped her cane firmly against the ground several times. “Which is precisely why I had to make those Ironjaw. And okay, maybe I didn't entirely 'make' them. I went and stole a few rare babies out of another world... metal-eating Furnacemaw. They were kind of ugly little bastards, but with a little tender-loving care and a dabble of Valthrudnir's blood, I was able to turn them into much-prettier looking demons. And more importantly, with Valthrudnir's blood, they were immunized against his powers. You get it?”

Luna and Scrivener traded looks of surprise before Twilight frowned as she looked up from the armchair she had curled up in, asking uneasily: “But... wouldn't that be dangerous? I mean...they could all develop Jötnar powers or something one day... couldn't they?”

“Yeah, because I was too retarded to ensure they were not only absolutely loyal, the blood is plenty diluted and I left them all sitting out in the wilds instead of a place where I could watch them and make them worship me twenty-eight seven.” Hel paused, adding helpfully: “We have twenty eight hour days in Helheim, by the way. Although not really, it's only twenty four. But I schedule by twenty-eight hour days and so it's really hilarious to watch those idiot demons scrambling around, trying to figure out how to fit four extra hours of work into... nowhere.”

“Thou art making it incredibly tempting to put another bullet into thee, Hel.” Luna warned, and Hel only snorted, leaning on her cane and looking coolly down at the sapphire mare. Clearly, the goddess didn't fear death or pain after all... but then again, after having lived in this gilded cage for so long, Luna imagined that even for otherwise-omnipotent Hel... death truly would be a release.

So instead, she looked back and forth before walking over to the fireplace, and the goddess frowned, leaning forwards warily: “What are you doing? Hey, hey, I just-”

Luna stuck a hoof in the fireplace, then kicked out some ashes, and Hel groaned and grasped at her face with her free hand, shaking her head vehemently. “No, no, no! Stop that!”

The goddess grumbled as she limped over, lifting her cane by the neck and twisting her hands anxiously back and forth along it as she mumbled: “Messy is unnessy and dirty is hurty and come on, there's no need for you to be such a sour lemon fritter. You should be fun and sparkly and explosive, like pop rocks... hey, we had fun that one time, didn't we?”

“We can have fun again as well, Hel. But whilst I have the chance, I think I am going to have some fun at thine own expense so that thou, in the future, may better understand why thou should not be so mean to others. I am going to teach thee a little empathy.” Luna responded calmly, and then her mouth quirked into a smile when Hel polymorphed her cane into a large mop so she could begin sweeping up the ashes. “Look at thou, mighty goddess. Doing such menial work all by thyself, when thou has an army of golems at thy disposal. 'Tis sad, really.”

“Let the Dollies in here, are you crazy? They'll leave footprints everywhere and smash up the place and knock everything out of order and drip oil everywhere and... it's bad enough having you filthy little ponies in here, bleeding on my nice clean floor and causing trouble and...” Hel looked up from her scrubbing, then stared as Luna strode across the room, one hoof leaving ashen smears behind her. “Oh come on!”

“Thou come on.” Luna grumbled as she approached a shelf, and then she began to peer over the books as Hel almost whimpered, following hurriedly behind her and mopping as she went. “Tell me about those golems.”

“Look, I can't... I can't talk when you're screwing around there, can you... just,step away from the shelves, okay? Please? I get... I get all flustered and panicky and... please, they're all in perfect order, chronologically, alphabetically, and by page count.” Hel wheezed, and Luna looked thoughtfully at the goddess before the sapphire mare slowly began to reach up a foreleg...

Hel winced and hurriedly shoved herself between the shelf and the pony, knocking Luna backwards even as the sapphire mare grinned before the goddess glared frustrated daggers down at the pony. “We need to work out some ground rules. And consequences.”

“Aye, we do. But first, thou should answer the question.” Luna said calmly, looking up at Hel mildly. Their eyes locked, and then Hel finally groaned and sighed before pointing grumpily at Luna's dirty hoof.

The mare rolled her eyes and rose it... then winced awkwardly backwards when Hel grabbed it with her free hand, the mop transforming into a scrubbing brush that she rapidly began to scour the mare's hoof with as she muttered: “You ponies are so disgusting. I should wash you three from head to hoof, you're probably... leaking disease into the air, just brimming with bacteria and I don't want to guess what else...”

Luna growled grumpily at this, and the goddess sniffed disdainfully as she continued to scrub quickly away before saying abruptly: “The first Dolly was a gift from Valthrudnir. Well, okay, less of a gift, more something I stole from him. I made a whole bunch more from that one: they don't got brains, so you don't have to worry about their programming going crazy or anything, so they're... safe.”

Scrivener tilted his head at this wording, while Luna awkwardly pulled her hoof away... then slapped childishly at Hel when the goddess attempted to grab her other leg. “Get thee gone, witch! I am already clean enough for all good things.”

“You're as filthy as a lollipop in a stable.” Hel grumbled, then she awkwardly straightened and shook the scrubbing brush firmly a few times as a quiet light glittered over it. A moment later, it transformed back into a cane, and Hel leaned on this and glowered down at Luna. “And that's precisely why I don't trust even the Ironjaw inside my home. Sure, they might be loyal... but look at what they let inside! They can be twisted. They can be used against me. And I know they all hate me, I'm no fool. But these puppets can't feel love or hate. They can just do what they're programmed to do. Safe.”

Hel paused, then she limped past Luna, her eyes locking on Twilight Sparkle as she said softly: “And of course, I keep a bevy of the living dead, too. Because the things that hate life are often the things that will serve life best; because spirits and ghosts and lost souls are even easier than silly robots to tune up and order around.”

Twilight shifted awkwardly as Luna glared furiously over her shoulder at the goddess and Scrivener Blooms scowled, and then Hel reached down and gently played her fingers through Twilight's mane. “But you remind me of me, angelcake. You're just... trapped in your role, just like I was... but just like me, sweetie, I know that one day you'll figure out how to open all those locks on all those chains holding you back from your true potential...”

The Lich smiled uneasily up at Hel, as Hel continued to comb tenderly through her mane. “You're a good little girly, aren't you? Yes, you are. But you shouldn't worry about being good so often, strawberry shortcake. You should try and be bad a little now and then.”

“She's plenty bad now and then.” Scrivener said mildly, stepping forwards... and Hel glared at him when he placed a splintered claw off the rubber mat, the stallion looking down at this and then glowering back up at Hel. “They were a lot better before you decided to try and kill us about a dozen times, you know.”

“Oh shut up, they were not, you big baby.” Hel retorted, and then she lightly bopped Twilight with her cane, making the Lich blink dumbly before the goddess limped her way slowly around the couch, heading towards Scrivener Blooms. “Let me look at your claws.”

“Let you... don't... not look at my... claws. Go away.” Scrivener retorted awkwardly, hugging his forelimbs up against his chest and looking lamely up at the goddess: unlike Luna, he couldn't help but feel at least a little afraid of the goddess still. Something about her just... made him nervous.

Hel ignored him, poking him in the forehead with her cane and making the stallion wince before she easily flicked her cane down and whacked across one of his sensitive claws, making him hiss in pain and automatically hold them up to inspect them.

Hel immediately reached out and snagged one of his claws by the wrist, yanking it up and almost hauling Scrivener off the ground as he whimpered, while Luna glared furiously at Hel and Twilight looked uncomfortably up from her reading. But the Lich didn't really know what to say herself: part of her strangely wanted to do more than trust Hel. Part of her almost wanted to ask for advice... but she only stayed quiet for the moment as Hel said mildly: “Look at this. Look, genius, you've gone and ruptured these from the inside-out. Didn't Valthrudnir shut you down and you performed some messy last-minute patch-job to try and get going again?”

The stallion looked sourly up at the goddess, and then he winced when she twisted his claw back and forth, muttering: “Yep, this is just as bad as I imagined it would be. We should just cut these off, it would be easier in the long run. Maybe grow you some new legs. Or sew on Ironjaw legs, they'd be compatible enough. Ironjaw legs, would you like that, huh?”

“No!” Scrivener blurted in a strangled voice, yanking his limbs hurriedly backwards before he glared up at the goddess. “What is wrong with you?”

“You're not seriously asking me that, right?” Hel whacked the stallion lightly with her cane, and then she winced and dropped his claw, straightening and holding her hands up in surrender when Luna yanked her gun off her back and aimed at her. “Okay, hey hey hey, peppermint, you don't have to go all angry redneck on me.”

Luna only glared, and then Hel held up a finger, saying carefully: “Look. If you put down the gun, cinnabun, I've got a gift to give your hubby-wubby here. I was originally going to save it for a mentor moment... you know, 'take this, you'll need it on your epic quest,' but I see that you two still need some buttering up. And I don't really want to be shot.”

Luna grumbled at this, and then she nodded slowly before grouchily holstering Sting Mk II again. Hel relaxed with a sigh of relief... and then Luna dealt a firm kick into the shelf behind her with one hoof, and the goddess grasped her stomach as if the wind had just been knocked out of her, crumpling slightly as her eyes flicked wildly back and forth over the shelves before she staggered away from Scrivener and hobbled as fast as her bad leg would carry her to the furnishing.

She began to hurriedly neaten and straighten the books, Luna watching with the sort of nasty entertainment that had a faint hint of shame mixed into it. But most of that was negated by the fact that Hel liked to torture people shamelessly herself, knowing there would be no punishment for it, no retribution, not even a hope of revenge...

Except they were here, right now, and Luna knew that if she wanted to... she could raise her gun, point it at Hel's head, and blow the goddess' brains out. And goddess or not, Hel had a very frail, nearly-mortal body: killing her would be easy. And killing her would be good, wouldn't it? It wouldn't just feel good... it would be good. Hel, after all, was supposed to be the incarnate of evil... and that aside, she was a tremendous pain in the ass.

But it wouldn't be right. Not in cold blood, not when Hel had a role to serve and play... not when Hel might even offer them help. And furthermore, what would it accomplish? Yes, sometimes Hel targeted innocents. Yes, those innocents would be avenged. But without Hel, the Archives would be without a master and would likely collapse. A power struggle for Hel's position would rise, and who knew what would happen here in Underdark? Luna didn't doubt that Hel had ensured if something happened to her... something would happen to everything else, too.

Hel slowly looked up and scowled at Luna, and Luna looked awkwardly back before the goddess asked crankily: “You were just thinking about killing me, weren't you?”

The sapphire mare simply shrugged after a moment, and Hel huffed as she finished neatening the shelf, leaning back and studying it for a few moments before giving a sigh. “Well, that's as good as it's going to be for now. But you damned ponies... oh, just wait here and keep your dirty hooves off everything. I'll be right back.”

Luna only huffed as Hel turned and limped her way quickly out of the room again, an Twilight awkwardly looked up from her chair, putting the book down in her lap as she said finally: “Maybe we should try... being a little nicer to her. I mean, I know she's... well, she scares and frustrates me, too, but I think she can actually help us.”

The sapphire mare looked meditatively at Twilight for a few moments at this, then she spun around and quickly patted her hooves across a variety of books on the shelves, and Twilight slowly closed her eyes and lowered her head with a sigh. Then Luna turned back around and glowered over at Scrivener, saying moodily: “Unfortunately, our darling mare is right, Scrivy. Thou must accept her assistance. Even if 'tis.. hellish. And I mean that in more than one sense.”

“Because puns are a great way to break the tension from possible incoming torment and death.” Scrivener Blooms muttered, and then he shook his head slowly before turning his eyes towards Twilight, asking finally: “So... you seem calmer.”

Twilight smiled a bit, then she held up the book between her hooves, showing the cover to Scrivener: it was titled simply 'Underdark.' “This says that in Hel's dimension... time moves slower the closer you get to the Sanctum. It's how Hel manages so much at once: inside here, time might be moving even slower than it is in Heaven.”

The charcoal stallion nodded a little, and Luna admittedly felt a bit of relief herself at that thought, closing her eyes and murmuring: “So things may not yet be as dire as we fear, even with the time lost at Cairnmór. That is a relief.”

The Lich nodded slowly, then she turned her eyes back down to the book,saying quietly: “Hel wrote this herself. It's sort of... a manual to her dimension. It says that those with the right powers... the ability to access the correct magical wavelengths... can actually modify reality in outer Underdark...”

Luna frowned at this, tilting her head curiously and saying finally: “Strange that Hel would leave such a vulnerability... stranger still that she has informed us of this. What other information is in that book, Twilight Sparkle?”

“Lots. A lot I can't make sense of... she's... smart.” Twilight said finally, and when Scrivener and Luna both looked at the Lich with a mixture of amusement and disbelief, the violet mare shook her head quickly. “Not like me. I might be smart, and I know a lot about magic, but I really don't know a lot of technical information like this... she's got element listings and wavelengths and... atomic measurements. I've never even heard of some of these things...”

Luna only grunted, shaking her head before she said softly: “Well, the gods knew much. Strength in part comes from understanding, Twilight Sparkle, and science and magic are not so far apart as we like to think. After all, what else would you call bashing rocks together to create flame?”

Scrivener Blooms looked mildly over at Luna, saying wryly: “Chemical reactions are a little different from waving your horn around and making explosions shoot out of it.”

“It is not. 'Tis the same damn principle. Creating a reaction.” Luna retorted, striding over towards him so she could poke at him with her horn before she looked grouchily up, adding flatly: “And where is that damned Hel? She is taking forever. The only reason I do not fear ambush is because I know she would not dare splash our blood everywhere.”

“Most powerful magic is nullified inside the Sanctum anyway.” Twilight added, as she looked back down at the book, and Luna frowned curiously at this before she waved her horn back and forth, but the violet mare only winced and quickly gestured at her. “Don't... don't try it! It says anything that emits an energy level above twelve bæns... what's a bæn?”

“'Tis an ancient unit of measurement.” Luna said absently, looking back and forth. “A single bæn is roughly equivalent to the magic energy thou must exert to create a point of light around thy horn. Twelve bæns would be... let us see...”

Luna peered over at Scrivener, her cracked soulstone horn glowing steadily brighter as Scrivener winced backwards... then sighed in relief even as he and Twilight both twitched at the recoil that zapped over Luna's horn as she grasped at her head with a curse and a groan. “Oh damn this accursed prosthetic. Twelve bæns is one more than it can handle right now.”

“Question answered.” Scrivener said mildly as he rubbed absently at his head... then grimaced and drew his claw slowly away, shivering and making a face as he smeared sticky gunk against his features from the sluggishly-bleeding appendage. “Oh Horses of Heaven.”

“There are none of those here.” Hel's voice came moodily through the passage, and then she complained: “And why is it that everyone thinks demons have to be so different but angels, oh, they must be just like you and me but bigger and cooler and nicer? I mean that metaphorically, clearly. They're not like me.”

Luna and Scrivener both looked sourly at the archway as Hel limped back through it... before both frowned as they looked at the large, durable case she was carrying, wincing a bit and listing visibly to the side as she complained: “I hope you guys appreciate this. I had to do all kinds of work for months at my forge to build these things. They're super cool and they're going to turn you from a fruit snack into something with a little more zing, but seriously. Work is hard, okay?”

Hel wheezed as she managed to stumble over to the stallion, then she delicately set the case down and sighed in relief... before wincing and twitching when Luna headbutted the large, leatherbound object over. It gave a tremendous bang, the clasps popping loose, and Hel said in a frustrated voice: “Don't do that, don't do that! Watch the floor, don't scratch the floor!”

The sapphire mare only huffed and leaned down, shoving her face against the suitcase before she forced it open with her muzzle, then she blinked in surprise as she drew her head back, mouthing slowly at the sight of what was inside. “These are... what are these?”

The goddess straightened and brushed at herself, then she leaned on her cane and smiled, gesturing easily down at the open case. “These are the Talons. You could say they're a... a helping hand for your hubby-wubby. Because, Mr. Poet, those broken claws of yours need to be... fixed.”

Scrivener looked up uneasily, then slowly turned his eyes back down to the objects in the case: large, white-silver gauntlets with extended metal sleeves that would cover Scrivener's lower front leg, and with additional cusps that would give some extra protection to his elbow joint. They had large, extended digits that were shaped like dexterous claws, which looked solid... and yet somehow, Scrivener thought they must be able to bend and move. He wasn't sure why he thought that, but it just felt... right. In fact, the whole claws felt... right.

He didn't like that. Well, he did in a way but... it also scared him a little, to gaze down at these metallic things made by a dark goddess and think... “These were made for me.”

“You figure that out all by yourself, genius?” Hel asked mildly, and Scrivener made a face and looked up at her dryly as Luna only continued to stare over the Talons with fascination. Then the goddess grinned, tapping the side of the case gently with her cane as she said: “Still, I'm glad you've got brains enough to be impressed. You see, Scrivener Blooms... these are designed to work perfectly with those strange Clockwork Pony powers of yours. Now, in the past, I always wanted to play with Vally-wally's toys, but he never let me lay so much as a finger on the ones I didn't steal out from under his button-little-nosey... so this, well, this is a real treat.”

The charcoal stallion glared up at Hel, but for some reason, he wasn't able to form the words, to tell her that he was no project of Valthrudnir's. He and Hel only looked at each other for a few moments, and then the goddess smiled, saying softly: “Good, chocolate pudding. Looks like you're starting to recognize your place in the grand scheme of things.”

Scrivener shook his head slowly and returned his eyes to the Talons as Luna lifted one carefully free of the case, inspecting the metal and how... beautiful it was. Where perfectly-shaped, strangely soft-textured plates locked together, the metal was distinctly silvered and slightly raised, and the mare smiled a bit as she drew her eyes over metallic knuckles that were the same color, murmuring: “These look... nay, they are not like a dragon's claws. The design is... more fortified. Dragons' claws are for grasping: these are for slashing.”

“And they're not meant to come off, are they?” Twilight asked uneasily as she approached, studying the Talon Luna was holding up, and the sapphire mare frowned as her eyes slid up to the top of the sleeve, and what she realized were some kind of loose bolts.

Scrivener blinked, then he slowly leaned backwards, wincing and shaking his head awkwardly as he said uneasily: “Wait, I'm... you want those to permanently...”

“'Tis some trick! Some cunning design! My husband only needs time and a little bit of magic, both we shall find soon enough!” Luna snapped, glaring up at Hel, but the goddess only looked calmly down at the sapphire mare. “I shall not be made part or party to thy sick experiments, Hel!”

Hel clucked her tongue at this, then shook her head slowly and said softly: “Oh, you silly little cinnamon bun. Do I have an angle here? Sure I do. I want you three to owe me. And of course I want to give you reasons not to kill me, that's another big thing on the agenda.

“But you don't have to be a genius or a doctor to see that Scrivy here... he just isn't healing up right. I mean, come on, just look at these poor things!” Hel flicked her cane upwards, and Scrivener winced as both of his claws were forcefully hefted into the air by some kind of telekinetic force. “And don't even try lying to me and say they've been getting better. The corruption has just been crystallizing, like big gross scabs. That isn't better by a long shot.”

She let her cane drop, and Scrivener's own claws were released, the stallion clutching them close against his chest as Hel said softly: “It's time to move on to higher and better things. To an injection system that can handle the corruption, and give you an edge in battle. To something that isn't going to hurt constantly and leave you vulnerable right at the time you need strength most. Yeah, and I have a whole bunch of other reasons, too, but I'm getting bored of making a sales pitch out of this. You really got no other choice, and I think you know that. 'Cause if it wasn't for all the soothing energy running through the air of this place, you'd be on the floor, crying and begging for the pain to end.”

Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight all looked up at the goddess, and then Luna trembled as her eyes slowly roved up to her own prosthetic horn. A soulstone horn, provided by Valthrudnir... and now, here they were with the ancient enemy of Valhalla, and she wanted to give Scrivener... new claws. New Talons. “We... what if we refuse? I am not saying thou art... lying or speaking truth about Scrivy's condition, I only desire to know... what if we refuse these weapons?”

“They're tools, not weapons.” Hel replied disapprovingly, and then the goddess shook her head before adding in a calmer voice, gesturing easily at them with one hand: “Then we lose against Gymbr, and he kills us all. Because, sweethearts... my backup plan happens to be you.”

The trio stared up at Hel in disbelief, Luna mouthing wordlessly and Twilight shifting back and forth as she tried to understand, before Hel laughed and grinned, gesturing around them. “Oh come on, look around, look at this! No one has ever, ever made it this far before unless I invited them in! And even if we made a game out of it, you guys still pushed through literally Hell and literally high water to get to me.

“And Gymbr, lest we forget... is made from you. But he's not the original... he's a creation of the Norns. He's still apparently bound by all kinds of rules and little follies he doesn't even seem to know about, still nothing more than a puppet on a string... even if he happens to think he's a Mister Big Shot now because of that soulstone core in his heart, you three have just the tools to beat him. Or you're going to, if you accept these Talons and agree to just sit down, shut up, and listen to me for once in your miserable little lives, sweetie pies.”

Scrivener looked back down at the metal claws, shaking his head weakly as Luna glared up at Hel and Twilight only silently reached up and touched Scrivener's back... and after a moment, the stallion laughed faintly and murmured: “It always ends up being me, doesn't it?”

“That's what happens when you make yourself the scapegoat, little clay pony. Sometimes you get more than you bargained for.” Hel replied almost gently, and then she tapped the case with her cane as Luna set down Talon, staring at them and swallowing a little. “Now, I'm not gonna lie to you. After we screw those bolts into place, it's going to hurt like hell as they fuse to you. They're never going to come off... but you'll be able to feel through them, a little. Oh, no, not like you feel with these claws here, of course...”

Hel squatted, reaching down and grasping one of Scrivener's claws to yank it up between them, but her eyes were unflinching as she said softly: “So... since this is the last time you'll really be able to feel anything at all with your own hand-like implements... you might want to touch your girls' faces one last time. And hold that memory very, very close... because believe me, even the things you think you'll never forget will start to fade one day.”

Scrivener lowered his head, breathing slowly... and then, silently, he reached both forelimbs up as Luna and Twilight both slipped in close. They embraced tightly for a few moments, then drew slowly apart as Scrivener Blooms silently slipped his claws up, cupping the features of these ponies he loved, thinking silently of how it felt to hold their hooves, slide his claws through their manes, to grip a quill made of a feather taken from Luna or Twilight or touch their bodies, feel out the shapes, the hidden scars, the muscle and flesh and softness and all the hidden things that eyes could never see...

And then, slowly, his claw fell away as Twilight smiled at him faintly, and Luna glared over at Hel, whispering: “This had best not be some cheating revenge on thy part, Hel. And thou had best not be lying. Or I swear to thee now, there will be a reckoning.”

“You'll thank me one day. All three of you.” Hel replied kindly, and then she stepped backwards and pointed at the Talons with her cane. “Put them on, to start with. Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen until we start putting those bolts in... hey, just think of it as an upgrade.”

“I'm not a machine. I'm not a puppet.” Scrivener said quietly, grimacing as he carefully picked up one of the Talons... and then he gritted his teeth and nodded, sliding his claw into the dark sleeve and wincing at how it felt... almost like his claw had been wrapped in some kind of hot skin. Worse yet was the fact it seemed to pulse against him, like he was putting on something... alive...

His digits stretched into the fingers of the gauntlet, and he shivered a bit as he rose the Talon, flexing it slowly. It already moved with ease, even before being... fused. He didn't want to imagine what that process was going to entail, though, so instead he focused on the other Talon as Luna asked almost desperately: “And there is no other way? Thou must... must make a monster of my husband?”

“As if you have a problem with that.” Hel said mildly, and Luna bared her fangs in a furious snarl that made Hel wince backwards. “Hey! Just saying!”

“Stop it! Please... both of you.” Twilight's voice softened as she looked from Hel to Luna, and the sapphire mare slumped as the Lich trembled a little, then looked up and said almost harshly: “Luna and Scrivener and I love each other and we're connected. If we are monsters... we're monsters together. But all we really are is people, trying to do our best, trying to save our friends and family, and we're here asking for your help, Hel. We're here to help you too, if we can, so... please. Stop it.”

“Because clearly this is all my fault.” Hel grumbled, crossing her arms sulkily, but then she simply nodded before the goddess returned her eyes to Scrivener Blooms when the stallion finished sliding on the second Talon. “But alright. Moon pie, angel cake, you wanna help out chocolate sauce here? Well, you see those loose bolts on the limbs? Twist those around and around and around, until you can't twist them anymore. Oh, it's going to hurt like hell, yes... especially with the three of you connected and all... but don't worry. It won't leave anything permanent... on you two, at least.”

Hel's eyes gleamed as they drew almost greedily to Luna and Twilight: the Lich shivered, but the sapphire mare only looked almost challengingly up at Hel. She didn't speak, though, letting her eyes, her raw emotions do the talking for her, and after a moment the goddess only shrugged and stepped backwards, saying softly: “I suppose you could say I found a way to do localized, low-key magic that the Sanctum around us doesn't pick up... magic that's more... encouragement than it is transformation. I get bored, after all... and I do so love finding loopholes. Even the ones in my own rules. Now... one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four... to...”

Luna and Twilight both looked at Scrivener, and the stallion nodded curtly, gritting his teeth before he felt the winged unicorns grasp a bolt on either sleeve with telekinesis. And a moment later, the bolts started to spin, and it took all of Scrivener's strength not to cry out or move as he felt them drilling painfully into his flesh, Hel grinning widely as she whispered: “Go.”

Twilight gasped as he felt the bolt lock into place, and Luna flinched as the screw on her side clicked into same before she looked down... but only growled at the sight of the bleeding, almost inch-diameter hole in her own leg before she and Twilight both grasped another bolt.

For Scrivener, all he was aware of was pain that rose to a scream, then slowly dulled down to a pained throb and a strange stiffness in one arm... and then the pain came on again in both limbs, this time from different angles. And again it was a fight not to cry out as Hel watched almost greedily: the goddess only leaned on her cane, silent the whole time, her only movement from her heavy breathing and the way she eagerly licked her lips. And Scrivener didn't want to give her any more entertainment than she already had: he refused to scream. He refused to show how much it just goddamn hurt.

The last two bolts clicked into place, and Luna's legs wobbled, threatening to collapse beneath her... before her eyes widened as a sudden numbness tore through her limbs, staring down at her hooves as Twilight almost fell over from the same sensation. But what Scrivener felt was agony, and he fell backwards with a howl of surprised that turned into a shriek of misery: all the pride in the world, all the bitterness and stubbornness he had couldn't stop him from screaming in torment as he rolled back and forth, Talons flexing and rippling and almost melting with the way they were changing.

“Oh, hey, cool, my dismemberment charm worked.” Hel said positively, and when Twilight and Luna both stared at her with horror, Hel laughed over the sound of Scrivener's screaming and waved a hand airily, correcting casually: “Not like, physical dismemberment, don't worry. Spiritual dismemberment. Actually I should probably drop the 'dismemberment' part of that, it's kind of a misnomer but like... see how you guys aren't rolling around crying and possibly dying? That's 'cause the Talons just absorbed the network of energy running through your husband's forelegs.”

“I don't... stop hurting him! What's happening to him?” Twilight shouted, looking up at Hel with desperation, but the goddess only smiled calmly and tented her fingers together over her cane.

“You're not going to listen right now anyway. Just watch. It's almost over.” Hel soothed, and Luna snarled... then cursed as she looked down, feeling her forelegs heating up as her skin seemed to ripple and then she hugged them tightly against her body as flares of pain traveled along her nerves. “Oh, whoops. Looks like things are reconnecting just a little too soon.”

Luna gasped, then snarled furiously up at Hel as Twilight glared at the goddess, inarticulate rage filling up the violet mare... but before either winged unicorn could give in to their anger, the pain was gone as suddenly as it had come as Scrivener curled up in the fetal position, breathing shakily and clutching his metallic claws against his chest even as sick, stale ooze leaked from his damaged claws.

Luna and Twilight both turned towards him, the violet mare almost throwing herself on top of Scrivener in her worry as Luna leaned down and grimaced in disgust at the pus-like substance dripping out of the Talons. But then Hel made a retching noise and hurriedly flicked her cane, and all three ponies were startled as the ichors burst into flames, rapidly boiling away to nothing as Scrivener slapped his claws wildly against the ground and his own body before he glowered over at Hel.

Hel only grinned back, and Scrivener frowned before he looked dumbly down as he realized he was supporting himself easily with the Talons. They didn't hurt at all, as he carefully stood up, then awkwardly hopped his back legs into the air once, then twice, putting as much weight as he dared on the metal claws.

But they didn't hurt and... yes. It felt like he was touching things through some kind of cloth, but when he rose a claw in front of his wondering eyes, he marveled over the way it moved so easily when he wiggled his digits. He clenched them into a fist, then stomped a claw down against the rubber mat, then reached up... and laughed a bit when Luna shoved her face against his Talon, automatically stroking tenderly along her cheek and closing his eyes as he cupped her features.

Twilight, meanwhile, was inspecting the other Talon closely... and she frowned a little as she realized it was smaller. That even if the sleeves still had a sort of enlarged rip where metal tightly-gripped flesh, the rest of the Talons had... “Fused. They shrank, they... but... they would have crushed his flesh...”

“Not if I simply got rid of it.” Hel replied kindly, and Scrivener and Luna both froze, then slowly looked up at this, but the goddess only smiled pleasantly and shrugged, saying easily: “Hey, it's not just 'put these on and I'll glue them to your skin,' you know. To make sure they're at their very best... well, think of those like an exoskeleton. And beneath it... well. You shouldn't think about it too much. It's probably all mush. Or sponge. Or whatever else happens to corruption and blood when you boil it at temperatures roughly approximating the surface of the sun.”

Luna's eye twitched as she gnashed her teeth together, and Twilight Sparkle gaped as Scrivener stared blankly down at one of the Talons. The prosthetic limbs... but before he could dissolve into either anger or hatred or just miserable regret, faint blue lines of energy streaked suddenly over the metallic appendages before faint runes glimmered along his steel limbs, the stallion wincing and falling backwards on his rump. “What the hell is that?”

“I made you bigger, better, and badder. The three B's. And for your information, Valkyrie, being a bitch isn't one of them.” Hel said pointedly, and Luna growled up at the goddess before Hel continued cheerfully: “I just threw on a few enchantments... some of my own design, you know. All Daddy didn't kill me for a lot of reasons... he wanted me around, not just because every hero needs a villain, but because I was always fantastic at working with charms and enchantments and synthetic spells. My name, you guys know my puppets!”

Luna grumbled moodily as Twilight looked uneasily at Scrivener's claws, and the stallion slowly flexed the Talon again, asking uncertainly: “What... what does it do?”

Hel smiled... then flicked her cane, sending a spark of lightning at the stallion. Scrivener winced, blocking this with his claw... before he stared in disbelief as the lightning was absorbed into it, faint twists of electricity running up and down the limb as Hel said softly: “Oh, a whole lot of things. A lot I'm going to let you figure out on your own, but you should always share a hint or two to get going. Besides, I like you three. I feel comfortable with you three. And we're going to be the very best of friends, even if one day...”

Hel covered her mouth as if she had almost told a secret, giving a sly smile, and Scrivener grimaced before he slammed his claw bad-temperedly against the floor... then stared in surprise as both Luna and Twilight yelled and flailed wildly as electricity sparked over the ground in a narrow shockwave around him, the stallion looking lamely back and forth before Luna shouted furiously and flailed at him violently with her hooves. “Idiot!”

“How the hell was I supposed to know?” Scrivener asked in a strangled voice, wincing away from the sapphire mare and nearly falling over before he managed to catch one of her hooves in his claws, and Luna halted immediately, the two looking at this for a few moments as if hypnotized before they both blushed slightly and pulled hurriedly away, glowering up at Hel.

The goddess only gave them a saccharine smile, however, leaning down and saying seriously: “I would never mock two ponies in love! Especially if they were in love with a third pony. I mean, every night a threesome! Every day like being hung over!”

“It's not quite like that.” Twilight said sourly, and then she shook her head and gestured at Scrivener, and without having to look the stallion held a claw out in front of the Lich so she could feel along the Talon, murmuring: “This is so... strange...”

“Please, vanilla fritter, this can't be the first metalflesh charm you've ever seen. Once bonded, it'll retain the properties of the metal it was made of – in this case, mercurial silver – but it'll also take on the properties of the flesh it was bound into. Which means it'll heal nice and quick for you, and it can channel corruption. The best of both worlds.” Hel smiled and gestured at the Talons, grinning slightly as Scrivener flexed one uneasily. “But be careful. That doesn't mean they're indestructible, and it doesn't mean they don't have weaknesses. If pieces get chopped off, they won't grow back... they'll have to be forged back on. Most cuts in the metal won't clot. Intense cold will make them brittle, intense heat will make them melt.

“I'll let you figure the rest out on your own.” Hel absently waved a hand at them, then she slowly drew her eyes over the trio of ponies as she said softly: “Now, for the next... five, ten minutes... we're not going to bite, or growl, or mock. We're not going to laugh or cry or even be the littlest bit silly. We're going to talk about Gymbr.”

Luna frowned at this, and Twilight looked up apprehensively as Scrivener Blooms shifted a bit, still flexing his Talons uneasily. But Hel looked serious: more serious than any of them had ever seen her before, and it made them hesitate to deny her.

And when Luna finally gave a brief nod, Hel smiled and strode slowly over to a small couch, sitting down in it with a grunt and putting her cane on the table in front of her. Twilight headed back to the armchair she had been in before as Luna and Scrivener both took up seats in a different couch, and the four surveyed each other almost warily for a few moments before Hel said softly: “You three are my backup plan. Since I first saw you three, oh, I knew that if things ever went really south, for any reason... I could count on you. You started off... so small, so unimportant, but how you've blossomed, all three of you!”

Hel chuckled quietly, smiling kindly over at Twilight. “I suppose you've heard about how you and your friends are in nearly every world.. are so important not just to your nation, but the entirety of Midgard. Vally-wally got so frustrated looking for that core reality, you know... he tried to do it every possible way. Giant drills, rampant destruction, old scrolls, bargains with gods and demons, pressing the home button a whole bunch of times on his GPS, making a Prophet and sending spies throughout every reality...

“He never did find it. He never could find it. The closest he ever got was the Prophet, who at least was able to tell him what precisely he was looking for... but I don't think she really knew the way, either. Ideas and reality trickle from one world to the next, you see: some people, attuned people, pick up on these. Write books and compose stories they think are just fantasy – always altered a little, to sell to a better crowd, to hit that target audience, to get past the editor! – when in reality, that's what they are. Reality.” Hel tapped her cane calmly against her own temple, smiling slightly. “And none of us, not me, not you, not anyone out there... knows how much is out there.

“I'm telling you this because you keep thinking to yourselves that Gymbr is just an altered story that's come alive and is currently attempting to alter reality to his liking. What I'm telling you is that he might be as real as you and me... maybe even more in some ways. Maybe he really did exist, outside of a story: maybe he's not trying to reenact the narrative you know him from. Maybe he really has learned a thing or two about not being a complete rosebud.” Hel leaned forwards, looking between the three ponies slowly. “Do you understand that?”

“What art thou saying? That Gymbr really is trying to stop something even more destructive than he is?” Luna stopped, then growled and shook her head. “No games, Hel: I thought thou had just suggested that thyself, after all.”

Hel held up a hand, bowing her head forwards politely. “No games, none at all.” She smiled across at them, saying softly: “I'm saying you three have to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Now, these Pious? Please. I'd know long before Gymbr if they were running around, trying to infect our worlds instead of crying and panicking in their own weird way with Gymbr out to try and eat them all like french fries. What I'm saying is that our sweet Gymbr is... a confused, lost animal. One that is suffering and inflicting suffering, and something we ourselves have to put down. He's a threat: to me, to you, to everything you hold dear.”

“But you helped him. You're the one who made that soulstone core for him.” Twilight Sparkle said quietly, and Hel grinned at this, shaking her head and clicking her tongue.

“Oh no, no I didn't. I made it for Kvasir... and very strictly, too. I designed it just the way Kvasir wanted it, as Gymbr had told him, but... I tied a few of the rules together, you see. For one, it shouldn't function without Kvasir still being alive and well. I always liked Kvasir, you know, he was a better man than I ever took him for.” Hel looked down for a moment, and then she sighed and said softly: “But apparently Gymbr recognized that tampering, and he must have drained a whole lot of Kvasir's blood out of his body before killing him. He loopholed my knot so he could free himself from the sort of control Kvasir had over the soulstone... I probably should have warned the silly honeybutt about that.”

Scrivener grimaced as Luna looked down with a quiet curse, before Twilight asked softly: “So you're scared, is that it? Afraid of what Gymbr might do to you...”

Hel looked sourly at Twilight Sparkle, saying moodily: “I hate to point this out, but if you're not afraid of what Gymbr might do to us, then you're just plain stupid. I thought that was pretty clear from that skirmish you lost.”

“Perhaps we would not have lost if thou had not modified Kvasir's journals.” Luna growled, straightening slightly and narrowing her eyes at the goddess, but Hel only tapped her cane slowly against the floor, looking evenly back.

“Look, sugarplum. You can blame me all you like, but the reality is that you still would have lost. You're not going to out-tough Gymbr.” Hel said moodily, then she pointed at the sapphire mare's soulstone horn. “But with that, you might stand half a chance. I bet Vally-wally would be rolling in his grave if he only knew... he gave you the greatest weapon you have against Gymbr.”

Luna frowned at this, looking up at her cracked soulstone horn, and Hel gestured at the books on the table, saying mildly: “These, you can take with you when you leave, and at least the one smart person in your group will figure it out. The short version is that soulstone responds to soulstone, especially when it's made by the same hands... and I have a brand new horn and recipe for you to take with you.”

“So you are going to help us. I mean...” Scrivener stopped, looking down silently at one of his Talons and flexing it slowly before he said grudgingly: “I guess... you already have helped us quite a bit. So... well... thank you, I guess. And we do... appreciate the further help and stuff.”

“What the poet said.” Luna grumbled, and Twilight gave a more-honest smile. Hel looked over the three ponies for a moment, and then she simply nodded before grunting and forcing herself up to her feet, leaning forwards on her cane as she studied them all intently.

“Good.” she said finally, and then she rubbed thoughtfully at the underside of her chin before nodding firmly a few times. “Yes, good. You three at least can fake a little gratitude, whether you mean it or not, and that's something I like. And yes, I am going to help you more... but less for your sakes and more because I know that once Gymbr's done with Valhalla and 'saving' it from the so-called 'light,' he's probably going to turn his cannons on me. And that's really the last thing I need to worry about dealing with right now.”

“Still. Thank you.” Twilight said softly, and Scrivener and Luna traded looks before they both finally nodded a little.

Hel only pretended to look flattered for a moment in response, half-bowing towards them before the goddess limped around in a circle and gestured at them mildly. “Come on. Let's shove a new horn into your head, Brynhild. And then I'll show you a little trick I learned that used to make All Daddy mad as here and should piss off Gymbr even more.”

The ponies nodded, and then Hel hesitated before glancing over her shoulder and adding awkwardly: “And I'm really no good at goodbyes but after this you'll have to leave. Really. You've probably left microbes and filth all over and the books need rearranging and oh, there's always so much to do and nice as it is to have visitors... it's not nice at all.”

The three ponies only looked at Hel with varying levels of exasperation, and then Twilight asked finally, since both Scrivener and Luna gave her a look that clearly told her to and she was the only one who seemed capable of getting along with the goddess: “But... what if we need to come back? I mean... well... what if we need-”

“Oh stop that, five minutes are up.” Hel grumbled as she limped into the main room, and then she slowly made her way over to the metal pillar holding the cradle high in the air. She tapped it twice with her cane, and the pillar rumbled before slowly lowering, screens and all, as the goddess said calmly without looking around: “You know the way now, Twilight Sparkle. Your gift is magic. You'll figure it out.”

Twilight shifted uneasily, and then Hel grinned as the cradle lowered in front of her, slipping into the seat with a sigh and facing the crescent of different screens as she tucked her cane in beside her. She laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles loudly before beginning to tap rapidly over the screens, her eyes glowing as she said cheerfully: “A little twist here, a little nick there... and... ta-da! And Gymbr won't notice until too late that I've gone and done a few remote adjustments to his precious Hourglass and sped time up in Valhalla.”

“You can do that?” Twilight couldn't keep the awe out of her voice as she stared up at Hel, and Hel only smiled kindly over at the violet mare, gesturing at her with one hand.

“I helped build it, after all, long before All Daddy was All Daddy.” Hel said softly, and Luna couldn't help but feel a strange new respect for the goddess before Hel leaned out of her cradle, saying mildly: “But I've gone and gotten ahead of myself, haven't I? Let me rest a minute, then we'll get your horn, Brynhild. And I'll put up with a few more annoying pony questions.”

Luna smiled wryly, then she hesitantly nodded to the goddess, looking at her evenly: but now, all too clearly, the sapphire mare could see the resemblance between the old Odin and Hel, in that smile, in the way they acted, in that hidden wisdom they both had... and in the way they were well-worthy of respect, but always had to be treated with care, and never someone you could risk turning your back on. Respected, treated well even... but never entirely trusted, no matter what gifts they gave, or what they promised.

Promises, after all, could be the most dangerous things of all.

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