• 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 Gathering Storm

Chapter Thirty One: The Gathering Storm

They were almost ready: they just had one final stop to make, to pick up the last piece of the puzzle... and greet the forces that Hecate had apparently already summoned without waiting to ask anyone's permission. Then again, all things considered, it was probably for the best. Luna was already having second thoughts about the idea of bringing in Clockwork Ponies, after all: not because she didn't trust that they could control them, but because she wasn't sure how many innocent ponies in Heaven had been corrupted by Gymbr, or whether or not they could be saved. All she knew was that if they sent Clockwork Ponies into Valhalla, a lot of people were going to end up dead.

Over the last eighteen hours or so, they had been kept exceptionally busy: one notable event from earlier, for example, had been Morning Glory gathering some fifty demons and Nightmares in all who she thought were worthy of being boosted by the corruption. Scrivener and Luna had gone through their ranks, the sapphire mare using dark magic to balance out the effects of the dark blood each and every one of the creatures received.

Some of the demons they had expected, like Atrus: the giant had only closed his eyes, given the barest flex at the dark blessing, and then simply nodded briefly to them. Others, like Ersatz Major, were a complete surprise. But Ersatz had only smiled and bowed her head, saying softly: “I know how important family is. And I want to be able to help.”

Morning Glory was the last in line: she and Scrivener Blooms simply looked at each other for the longest time, and then the Destroyer grudgingly bowed her head forwards, and the stallion wheezed in relief as he muttered: “Good. You're not going to eat me.”

“Shut up and hurry up.” Morning Glory had growled, and Scrivener grimaced bit, but obliged as he pushed his claw against her metallic breast, breathing slowly before focusing and digging his claws lightly into her steel-plated body.

He remembered so clearly how it had felt as the corruption flowed through him; as he had felt it absorbed eagerly into the network of metal plates that covered the Destroyer's body to spread rapidly through her armor, all the better for it to saturate her skin. And the demon had gritted her teeth and dropped her head forwards as her mane and tail of golden flames flared brightly with power, with a strength that startled even the Destroyer.

Scrivener had winced and begun to pull back, and one of Morning Glory's chains snapped out of her back and seized his wrist, the Destroyer leaning forwards as her eyes glowed and she had rasped: “More. I can handle more...”

The stallion had yanked himself backwards in a hurry, while Luna only glared up at the Destroyer before snapping: “And who is thy Mistress? Who rules thee, Destroyer, who must thou bow to and respect?”

Morning Glory turned her glare on Luna, but Luna met her gaze without flinching... and after a moment, the Destroyer had relaxed and closed her eyes tightly, the chain quickly loosening from around Scrivener's wrist and drawing back as the demon had muttered: “I apologize. It's... I can see how you could develop a... fondness for it.”

She had shaken herself briefly, breathing slowly before she looked down at the front of her armor: a distinct black dent had been left behind, in the shape of the stallion's claw. The Destroyer had made a face at this before she flexed her body, and the plates of metal across her form rippled visibly, then turned solid once more, clean and polished... except now the clawprint looked like it had been etched in, instead of simply a dark stain.

“Wonderful. Like any stallion, you want to leave your mark on whatever mare you put your filthy hooves on.” Morning Glory had rolled her eyes as Scrivener smiled lamely up at her, and then she looked moodily down at the stallion and added: “I do not find your blush cute. And I do not enjoy this kind of passivity, either. It annoys me.”

“Well, you're... a bitch.” Scrivener had retorted finally, and Morning Glory just scowled at him in response, the stallion clearing his throat and dropping his head as he mumbled: “Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut from now on. That might be best for all concerned.”

“I do not know how many times a day thou reaches that conclusion, Scrivy, but it never seems to stick. Idiot.” Luna had noted wryly, and then she shook her head slowly and drew her eyes hesitantly over Morning Glory. “Thou art sane?”

“It was a momentary weakness, Luna Brynhild. That is all.” Morning Glory answered grouchily, and her crankiness reassured Luna more than anything else as the sapphire mare smiled a little and nodded after a moment. The two had studied each other for the longest time, and then the Destroyer had grumbled and turned her eyes down the line of demons, saying calmly: “I'll get them prepared. When we break into Valhalla, I'll lead this unit.”

They had agreed: it was a good idea, after all, and Luna had a world of faith in Morning Glory. More faith than she had in herself sometimes, since she had almost reneged on the idea of making the pendant for Eventide, just as she'd almost found it impossible to agree to Antares' request that he be the one to track down Innocence once they were able to access Heaven.

Yet it made sense: they could trust Antares not to do more than was necessary to bring down Innocence, just as they could trust that he actually would. If push came to shove, the stallion was strong and mature enough to fight back against his own sibling without letting his emotions get in the way. And furthermore, Antares was familiar with Heaven, and with Prestige Luster and Aphrodisia supporting him, he would be ready for just about anything.

The mare sighed quietly as she lowered her head a little, and Twilight shook her head briefly, murmuring: “No. No, Innocence just needs... she just needs someone to reach out to her, that's all. Gymbr is just... trying to brainwash her and control her. Antares will be able to see right through that and find the real Innocence, I know it.”

Luna and Scrivener both smiled a little, and then the stallion nodded briefly before he murmured: “I hope you're right, but... Twilight...”

“I know. I just... I just don't want to consider it until nothing else is an option anymore, okay?” Twilight whispered, and both ponies nodded and looked at her softly: it was better to have their hopes for now. They didn't have a whole lot else to help keep themselves going, after all.

The three ponies didn't look up until they entered the workshop run by Hecate and Cowlick, and were greeted by an admittedly strange sight. At least twenty Clockwork Ponies in various states of disrepair were calmly standing around a flickering portal ring, and both Nibelung and the earth pony engineer were working to fix up what damages they could over their battered frames.

Hecate was buzzing around above their heads, glaring around and snapping orders before she turned her baleful eyes on the three ponies. “There you morons are. Scrivener Blooms, call them to order. As an officer-class Replicant, they'll obey your commands but need to be familiarized with you.”

The stallion only looked at her dumbly, half-understanding, and then Hecate buzzed down as her horn glowed, a short blast of electricity shooting into the earth pony and making him wince. “Don't give me that look. Just do what I said. Order them to attention, now.”

Scrivener grumbled under his breath, not even entirely sure of what he was supposed to do, and then he groaned when Luna leaned over and poked him insistently with her horn a few times. He glowered at her, then yelped when Hecate zapped him again, and Twilight sighed and dropped her face in a hoof as she looked pleadingly over at the sapphire mare.

But the starry-maned winged unicorn only continued to look insistently at the stallion, and then he sighed and turned his eyes outwards, waving one Talon-covered claw and calling awkwardly: “Uh... so hi there, everyone.”

One-by-one, the Clockwork Ponies turned calmly towards them, and the charcoal stallion shrank little-by-little as Hecate rolled her eyes and Luna frowned curiously. The Clockwork Ponies were all just... staring silently, metal plates gleaming, eyes locked without hostility, without curiosity, emotionless and yet... not without intelligence.

The stallion looked awkwardly back and forth before he cleared his throat lamely, rubbing the back of his head with one of his Talons. Hecate rolled her eyes, then said flatly down to the stallion: “Are you that pathetic? Access your programming. Try and make a single gesture of command. Stop sitting there, sulking and whimpering, and do something with yourself, idiot.”

“You're making it very tempting to see I can order them to eat you.” Scrivener muttered, and then he winced as Luna firmly poked him a few times with her horn, forcing him to straighten up as Twilight looked up almost sourly at the sapphire mare. The stallion felt a grudging sort of gratitude towards Luna in spite of everything as he was pushed up into a more commanding posture, looking back and forth before he said calmly: “Step forwards.”

There was a moment where the Clockwork Ponies seemed to process the order, and then they all did exactly as the stallion had said: they took a single step forwards. All except for a few notable exceptions, one of whom sighed almost in embarrassment and dropped his head... but there was a shiver through the white unicorn as well, as he remembered the time he'd spent himself trapped in that same droning state.

Scrivener looked awkwardly back and forth, and Hecate sighed tiredly before floating around in a circle and shouting loudly: “Replicants, assemble and stand ready!”

The charcoal stallion couldn't help but stare in disbelief as several ponies hurried out of the crowd, then fell into line in front of them... and he mouthed wordlessly, staring back and forth as he whispered: “But... I thought that Thesis... I mean, he... didn't he...”

“You thought those were the only Replicants Valthrudnir created? Please. No, Cheshire, Protelea and Psukhikos were merely the most advanced and developed Replicants that Thesis could get in short order... and the best to serve Thesis' purposes. Military grade or higher, a watchdog and two designed for infiltration, intelligence gathering, and destruction-at-range. Artillery.” Hecate looked contemptibly towards the other Replicants. “These were merely harvested... but contained no useful data, and nothing that made them worth keeping around. But I figured you bleeding hearts would want them out of hibernation and to pretend that they might be useful.”

Scrivener Blooms slowly drew his eyes over the five ponies as Luna stared with more fascination than she knew she should have, and Twilight Sparkle admittedly felt the same, but did her best to draw her eyes up to Hecate as the violet mare asked: “Are... but Scrivener isn't a military model either, right? I mean... I'm sorry, Scrivy, you know that-”

“I do and... I really don't care right now because this is goddamn terrifying.” Scrivener said after a moment, studying the five ponies with morbid interest before he smiled lamely, asking awkwardly: “None of you are... I mean... you're not going to go crazy and try to kill me and Luna and suck out our DNA or something, right?”

Hecate groaned loudly, and then one of the Replicants bounded forwards: a small mare, smiling up at him brightly, vibrant red in color. She had a sky-blue, jagged mane, and although she looked like an earth pony, she had an enlarged jaw with enlarged teeth and a squarer, muscular body. “We're here to serve, sir!”

The other Replicants didn't look quite so enthusiastic, but they at least displayed clearer emotions than most of the other Clockwork Ponies and seemed to show both interest and respect towards Scrivener Blooms. Three were mares – including the fiery-red earth pony – and two were stallions: they all looked like ponies, acted like ponies, and yet... they clearly weren't, with the modifications and pure strangeness they had to their bodies here and there.

One of the stallions, for example, had half his face covered by metal plating, the eye on this side removed and instead some kind of red, glimmering scope sticking out of the socket. He looked wariest of them all, scraping his hooves slowly against the ground even as he kept his head bowed in deference towards Scrivener Blooms: clearly not happy to be here, but ready and willing to obey, all the same.

That scared Scrivener a little, as he looked over these creatures, then out over the other Clockwork Ponies: the metallic, puppet-like machine ponies that were far less engaged, far less emotional, only waiting silently for orders instead of trying to communicate or make any gesture towards individuality. But the Replicants were synthetic too, and it made Scrivener's stomach clench as he wondered silently whether the Replicants were all really just as emotionless as the Clockwork Ponies were, and only following their false face programming... or if the Clockwork Ponies were just unable to scream, and shout, and reveal the true selves hidden beneath those metal-puppet bodies.

And what about him? He was a Clockwork Pony, a Replicant, himself: Valthrudnir had always said that all his emotions, all his thoughts, the way he acted... it was just because his very design had been for him to infiltrate pony society and get close to certain important people. To act the way they wanted him to...

Luna gently bopped the stallion with her horn, and he winced a bit before the sapphire mare chastised gently: “'Tis not the time for that, poet. Save thy angst for later.”

“It's not angst if I don't express it. If I don't express it, it's bottled up torment. Much more writerly.” Scrivener replied after a moment, and Luna gave him a quietly amused look before the stallion turned his eyes up to Hecate. When the head only glared at him, he winced away and decided to just go for it, turning his attention back to the eager Replicants as he asked finally: “So I guess the other Clockwork Ponies will listen to you, right?”

They all nodded, and the bouncy red mare leaned forwards eagerly, saying quickly: “But we're not combat models, and we don't have the programming or training to command them properly in any kind of conflict, so we automatically defer to you and Queen Hecate. And... Valkyrie Brynhild. We've been told to listen to Valkyrie Brynhild, too, and to Sanctifier Wisdom.”

“My name is Twilight Sparkle, not Wisdom.” the violet mare said awkwardly, and the Replicant nodded fervently as she turned excited eyes towards her. “I... do... you have names?”

“Yes, Mistress! I'm Necrophage! These are Node, Vitae, Gasp, and my sister Muse!” chirped the mare brightly, and then she turned her eyes proudly to Scrivener. “I'm a Class Four, which means I'm the highest ranking and most advanced, so I'll be your lieutenant and you can-”

“Emotions off.” snapped Hecate sourly, and Necrophage suddenly went very still, staring glassy-eyed at Scrivener Blooms as she became expressionless. The stallion winced away from this as Hecate floated down in front of the red Replicant, then said sourly: “Just because you're so proud of being at a level where you can mimic the emotional output of ponies doesn't mean you have to abuse it constantly. Take the other puppets and assist with repairing the Dogmatists. Gasp, vent the area.”

A sallow-faced stallion looked up with his sunken eyes and simply nodded: he wasn't expressionless, but simply... quiet, Scrivener thought. Although admittedly the charcoal stallion couldn't help be a little nervous at the sight of the darkly-marbled unicorn: he had all manner of cables twisting through the flesh of his upper body, and large vents that clicked open and shut on his sides with each heavy breath he took.

Then Scrivener winced backwards as Luna leapt to a ready position in spite of herself when steam vented out of the Replicant's side before the machinery that was built into him began to thrum loudly, a tart smell filling the air. Cowlick shouted something angrily from where she was fixing a Clockwork Pony's foreleg, but Hecate only rolled her eyes and called disgustedly back: “It would take at least three hours for the fumes to concentrate enough to be toxic Besides, what do you care, you're long past your expiration date anyway.”

“That's a little mean, Hecate, even for you.” Twilight Sparkle said quietly, looking up with a bit of a grimace, and Hecate rolled her eyes as she buzzed around in a circle, glaring down at them as the Replicants strode away.

“I want you ponies to understand something. I am not your friend. I do not like any of you. The reason I'm here, the reason I help you, is because this existence is slightly-less miserable than I imagine being dead would be.” Hecate said bitterly, looking sourly back and forth over them. “So why don't you do us all a favor and stop pretending that you can make friends with me, kiss away my boo-boos, and turn me into some kinder, gentler bitch? Because you can't, Twilight Sparkle. In my Endworld, you never existed, so I have no emotional connection to you like Celestia does: the only creature in your guise I knew was Wisdom, and only as an inferior test subject.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Cowlick approached and said pleasantly: “Hey, Hecate, guess what? Turns out that buggy of yours had a few loose bearings. I wouldn't want you being unsafe and all, I'd just cry a creek of tears if something happened to you, so I sent 'er on down to the repair shop. Nibelung should be done with it in a week.”

“What?” Hecate spun around, her eyes widening slightly before she snarled in fury, horn beginning to glow, but Cowlick only grinned as she reached up and put a cigarette in her muzzle, fearlessly facing the floating head.

“Now, careful there. Once the battery on your hoverdisc craps out, you'll need all the magic you can dredge up out of that weak-ass horn to keep yourself afloat.” Cowlick said mildly, and one of Hecate's eyes twitched as she bared her teeth and hissed furiously. But the engineer only turned her attention away, looking curiously at Gasp as the Replicant calmly laid itself on its stomach, studying the vents and making a face at the gas pumping out of it. “What a reek. That's...”

Cowlick sniffed a few times, then absently reached down and ruffled Gasp's black and silver mane. “Well, whatever. I don't got the time anymore to be angry about Clockwork Ponies being here or any crap like that. The only thing that bugs me anymore is the way you treat them, Hecate... even if they really are all just machines now, unlike my colt Shiny, you still should respect 'em and treat 'em well. If they got any lights still on upstairs, you know if you continue to treat 'em like garbage, one day they might return the favor.”

Hecate only scowled down at the engineer, and Cowlick simply shrugged before she winked over at Luna. “But don't you worry. I've got a nice little chariot for her high-and-mightiness here. Something I think you'll get a particular kick out of.”

The sapphire mare smiled slightly at this, nodding after a moment before she turned a mild look towards Hecate when Cowlick turned to walk away. “Perhaps thou should take this lesson in stride, wretched creature. Cowlick has a rare point, after all.”

Hecate only scowled, then turned her attention to Scrivener Blooms, saying nastily: “Try and be a bigger boy than Thesis ever was and handle this on your own. I apparently have to go euthanize the cancer patient.”

With that, Hecate spun around and buzzed away, and the stallion looked after her mildly for a few moments before he said finally: “She really is just. Pure meanness. I mean, when I think she's evil, you know there's a problem.”

“Oh, she is just trying to assert her place in the hierarchy...” Luna paused, then cocked her head curiously as Decay wandered out of the crowd of Clockwork Ponies, the strange, dark spirit making its way over to Gasp to study the Replicant silently. Gasp ignored the dark spirit completely, his eyes closed, looking perfectly at peace as he continued to vent what Scrivener guessed was some kind of carbon gas into the air: if he remembered right, that was what helped Clockwork creatures function.

Then Decay simply flopped down beside Gasp, and Twilight smiled despite herself as Luna rolled her eyes. “Well, at least they have the entertainment of each other now. 'Tis cute in an appalling, horrifying fashion. But... look at them...”

Scrivener and Twilight both glanced up as Luna became more serious, silently drawing her eyes back and forth over the crowd as she murmured: “Clockwork Ponies... and they obey us. What must we be to them, I wonder? What lies did Hecate spin... or what truths did she speak that we do not yet recognize? What did Valthrudnir... do to us?”

The stallion didn't reply: he wasn't sure that he wanted to know. He only lowered his head, shaking it out briefly before he muttered: “Maybe we should get out of here. We have to... we still kind of have to get our armor on and gear together, then meet up with everyone and... you know.”

“Aye, better than thou does, probably, but we should wait for Hecate. And 'tis not so awful, really: these Clockwork Ponies... mayhaps we can help them one day, as we helped Shiny. Well, as Cowlick helped Shiny.” Luna paused. “By stabbing him in the brain, as I recall.”

“I dunno. I think the Replicants are more programmed and... well, not every Clockwork Pony has... thingies in its head.” Scrivener made a bit of a face, muttering: “I think Valthrudnir probably experimented with all different kinds of brainwashing. He was never really one to shirk away from screwing with people however he liked, after all.”

Luna grunted, and Twilight shook her head slowly as she looked down and murmured: “He really did just like to play with people, didn't he? He always said it was about efficiency, finding better methods of control, all kinds of reasons... but he was really just a child, treating us like toys he could... trade parts in and out on. It makes me feel a little sick to my stomach.”

Luna and Scrivener only nodded in agreement, and then the stallion awkwardly drew his eyes towards Necrophage, looking uneasily at the Replicant. She had been so bouncy, so excited, and he'd sworn those had been real emotions... but now, she was just listless, hollow, calmly and silently calibrating a large and frightening-looking drill on the back of an armor-plated earth pony. At a single irritated order from Hecate, she had gone from happy and exuberant to... empty.

Scrivener strode forwards before he could stop himself, studying the Replicant for a few moments, her build, her large jaw and crunching teeth. The other Replicants had hidden themselves among the crowd – well, with the exception of Gasp, of course – so he couldn't see them and how they were reacting to this, but... this bothered him. And before he could stop himself, he hesitantly said: “Emotions... on?”

Necrophage stopped, blinked a few times... and then turned towards him with a bright smile. “Hello! Oh, thank you, Lord Scrivener!”

“Yeah, no... lord stuff. Just... treat me like... a friend.” Scrivener said awkwardly, and the mare smiled at him warmly before he cleared his throat and asked lamely: “So uh... what's... your job?”

Luna coughed hard, fighting not to giggle as even Twilight gave Scrivener a half-exasperated, half-amused look, but Necrophage's cheerful answer made all three ponies stop and stare: “I eat and digest corpses! Sometimes I turn them into fuel for the Dogmatists or weaponize them into nerve gas!”

“That's. That's... fantastic.” Scrivener said weakly after a moment, and then he cleared his throat before hurriedly switching the topic: “Dogmatists?”

“Lower-class Clockwork Ponies. We're Replicants, Class III to V. They're Dogmatists, Class A, B, C, I and II.” Necrophage informed, nodding a few times. “I'm surprised you don't know, or that Queen Hecate didn't tell you. They uphold the Law of Decretum and follow orders from officers and command units, like you!”

“I'm... not really a 'command unit.'” Scrivener said hesitantly, but Necrophage only looked up at him with that bright, beaming, more-than-a-little-awkward look on her face, her eyes warm and friendly and almost encouraging.

Luna strode forwards, cocking her head curiously as she asked with interest: “So thou knew Hecate before? How long hast thou been... well... around? And where wert thou for all this time?”

Necrophage turned her eyes towards Luna, answering cheerfully: “Well, I'm a Class IV, which means I was actually born, unlike the Class IIIs. Gasp is a Class III: he was made in a laboratory, kind of put together from an adult pony. But me and my sister were modified and programmed while still in our mother's womb, which is why we have more emotions and stuff.”

Necrophage smiled at Scrivener, who couldn't help but feel a little ill even as he fought to smile back. Twilight, meanwhile, was staring with horror, and Luna simply blurted: “How can thou be so damned... cheerful? By Asgard! What is wrong with thee?”

“Nothing at all! Well. I don't think I was ever programmed right.” Necrophage confessed after a moment, nodding and tapping at the underside of her muzzle lightly. “Because of the extent of the behavioral programming, our personalities had to basically be wiped out and new ones pasted in. We're supposed to have personalities that would appeal to normal ponies and allow us to blend in, but we were only given very simple behaviors. I'm happy a lot. I like being happy a lot, though, it's really fun, although my poor sister is never as happy as I am.”

Scrivener nodded awkwardly, and there were a few moments of silence before Luna asked slowly: “So thou.... did thou ever... do missions for Valthrudnir? Thou actually knew him?”

“Not very well. My sister and I were the last Class IVs, and I'm Blue Delegation. That means I'm a worker. My sister is White Delegation, which is more of an officer class, but then we were all phased out and either placed into hibernation or sent to be remodeled when the Class Vs came out. Protelea, Psukhikos, Ferrous, they were Class Vs.”

“They never met Ferrous. He was destroyed in an... accident.” said Hecate's sour voice, and all eyes turned up to watch as Cowlick approached, carrying the head with her... and Luna grinned widely, as Hecate only scowled. “I'm going to kill you all for this one day.”

Scrivener and Twilight both stared as Necrophage covered her mouth and giggled: Hecate had a heavy, sphere-shaped helmet on, securely strapped around her head and covered in deadly-looking conical spikes, and leaving only a narrow space for Hecate's eyes to glower out of. But attached to the cap on the bottom of her neck was a heavy iron chain that was anchored to a foreleg-encompassing bracer, and Luna's eyes widened before she beckoned greedily at the engineer. “Oh, oh, oh! I must try this out!”

“I know her name's Hecate, but I call this Lucy.” Cowlick said mildly as she shrugged the weapon off her back, letting Hecate fall face-first into the ground with a clank: the metal sphere surrounding her face was so large, however, that Hecate's nose didn't even touch the ground. “You'll notice that one of the spikes standing out of that big ball is actually her horn. Well, that whole sphere is lined with soulstone, which is the only reason I convinced the crazy bitch to get in there in the first place, it's like she's in a massive amplifier armored with half a foot of silvered steel.”

Hecate growled inside the sphere, and then Cowlick lightly poked where the chain was anchored to a circular base on the bracer. “This section here is actually a magnet you can pull off and hook onto your own armor, and Hecate can make those spikes withdraw and magnetize the sphere if she wants to. She's just being a sulky little filly right now. But hey, she's a living weapon. Just like she always wanted to be.”

“When I finish my body and my new horn, you're the first pony I'm going to kill.” Hecate growled, but Luna only snorted in amusement as she held a foreleg up and grinned as Cowlick slipped the bracer onto the sapphire mare. Then, with ease, Luna yanked on the ten foot chain and flicked Lucy into the air, catching the sphere on one hoof like a ball between the evenly-spaced spikes and grinning widely through the slot at Hecate.

Hecate glowered back, and Luna looked back and forth before she suddenly spun around and flung the sphere hard: the spiked ball snapped out, the chain going taut, and Luna snapped it upwards before she half-turned and slammed it down on top of a metal table... and to the mare's delight, Lucy smashed a hole through the furnishing, sending spare tools flying in all directions as Cowlick gave a shout of frustration.

Then Luna yanked on the chain and easily caught the large sphere against one hoof, spinning it around and grinning down at Hecate. “Art thou alright in there?”

Hecate only looked sourly up at Luna, replying shortly: “Fine.” She halted, then her eyes flicked towards Cowlick, who was grumbling still but looking a little pleased all the same. “It works fine. I can't even feel the vibrations from contact. And I can increase my perceptions enough to tell what's going on even while she's swinging me around.”

“See, told you? Safe as a bug in a rug.” Cowlick said mildly, and then she glowered at Scrivener when he looked at her awkwardly. “Hey, screw you, my mom used to say that all the time.”

Scrivener only held up his claws, and Luna grunted before Hecate interrupted: “I think it's time for us to go. Necrophage, emotions off. Get back to work.”

Necrophage blinked, then dropped her head as she once more became expressionless. Scrivener made a face over at Hecate, but the head only snorted from her safe enclosure before she muttered: “Let's just get going. This shell serves more purpose than just so you can smash me into things, however, so try not to break it.”

“Well, do not be a tremendous bitch, and I shall think about it.” Luna said mildly, and then she drew her eyes towards Cowlick, studying the engineer. The earth pony mare only looked back almost challengingly, however, and after a moment Luna sighed before saying finally: “Thou hast our thanks.”

“Yeah, well. This definitely isn't all for you... especially not anymore. You guys better stop wasting time and get your asses moving, though... Applejack isn't going to be able to fight all of Heaven by herself, you know, and I'm kind of sick and tired of listening to Dash cryin' all the time. It'll do him good to hear that she's okay. I think he needs that, even more than the rest of her family does.” Cowlick replied softly, and then she rubbed absently at her throat before gesturing at them moodily. “Get out of here now. The Replicants will listen to me and the rest of the Clockwork Ponies listen to them, so. I'll finish up here, then have them all start getting ready.”

Twilight, Luna, and Scrivener nodded, and then the sapphire mare glanced at Lucy as the spikes on the weapon retracted, the winged unicorn shrugging a bit before tossing this onto her back and leaving it half-hanging off her side by the chain. Hecate only sighed tiredly as the three ponies turned to leave, muttering: “And yet somehow this is still more dignified than the work I did for Valthrudnir.”

Luna rolled her shoulders against her armor, checking herself over thoughtfully: her equipment was snug to her body, and she had Prúðbikkja hidden in her mane beneath her helm, Sting Mk. II holstered on her back, Lucy – and Hecate snug inside it – anchored to one bracer and the chain enchanted so that it could stretch like elastic, while the ball itself was magnetized to her upper back. All-in-all, she thought she was very well-prepared.

Scrivener's armor had been modified slightly by Sleipnir so that the Talons could remain free, almost snugly attached into the rest of the armor. He was carrying their equipment satchels, and was admittedly very glad that they had such powerful enlargement enchantments on them. It meant if he got battered around, their stuff would still remain okay... unless the bags got ripped, of course. Then the stretched space inside the bags would rupture and vomit everything out and possibly kill them all.

Twilight Sparkle's own armor gleamed over her body: she had made a few quick last-minute modifications with Luna's help, increasing the potency of the protective enchantments with a soulstone powder they had hurriedly mixed up and painted the gear with. She also had Andlitstingar holstered on her back, and she thought she was just about as ready as she was going to be for what they were walking into.

They were waiting for the rest of the strike team: Terra, Celestia, Discombobulation, Sleipnir, Pinkamena, and Morning Glory. They would make for a noticeable group, but Luna hoped they would be able to speed through any ambushes that might be sent their way and reach the portal to Asgard before Gymbr could understand what they were doing.

Luna was getting a little impatient as she looked moodily up at the statue of Nightmare Moon, the three sitting in front of the reflecting pool atop the Thorn Palace's pyramid. She could hear Nightmare Moon whispering to her... whispering to all three of the minds she could touch, really... but they were doing their very best to ignore her for now, all of them. All she wanted to do was tempt them, or remind them they had to crush Gymbr... or make suggestions none of the three ponies really wanted to hear, no matter how often Nightmare Moon whispered that their shared subconscious told a very different story.

Morning Glory was ensuring that the army of demons would be ready, and Celestia had gone to speak with the few surviving Pious that had managed to find refuge here in Subterra. Sleipnir and Pinkamena were likely helping Antares prepare his strike team, and the last they'd seen, Terra was lecturing Airid while her son gave orders to the soldiers of Heaven that wanted to participate in the attack on Valhalla from the vantage point of his mother's back. And who knew where Discombobulation was: after all, he did pride himself on being a chaos entity.

Luna sighed tiredly as she shook her head briskly... then she cocked her head curiously as footsteps approached before half-scowling, half-smiling at the sight of Kismet. “And what does thou have to say about all this, Great Reaper? More drudgery, or hast thou agreed to help us liberate Valhalla? I cannot see how thou can be against freeing Heaven from Gymbr.”

“I am not. But nor is that my battleground, Luna Brynhild.” Kismet replied calmly, bowing his head politely. “I only walk the journey's path: Heaven lies a step beyond that, and I cannot take that step, no matter how much I may want to. Besides, I was already asked to stay and watch over Subterra by both Morning Glory and Celestia, and to keep especial eyes on the souls of your friends and family.”

“I'm sorry. I know you don't like the favoritism or anything, but... thank you anyway, and...” Twilight Sparkle broke off, smiling awkwardly up at the Great Reaper, and Kismet only chuckled quietly and nodded calmly, bowing his head towards her politely.

“Do not fear, child. I understand emotion, even if I also understand... the cycle, and how some things must simply be.” Kismet paused, then he added softly: “And I do wish to help, too. So I have decided to offer my assistance the one way I can: indirectly.”

He calmly rose one silver gauntlet to the side, flicking it gently, and Twilight stared blankly as a pillar of black smoke rose up from the ground, obscuring some... large object. The Lich leaned forwards a little as Luna and Scrivener both cocked their heads... and then all three ponies stared as the smoke faded to reveal an enormous bell, hovering calmly a few inches above the ground. It was made of gorgeous onyx metal, covered in runes that would have been old and forgotten even at the birth of Asgard, and there was a single large chip out of the lower rim of the massive instrument. “I would like you to have this, Twilight Sparkle.”

“I... isn't that... yours?” Twilight asked awkwardly, which sounded a little more polite than the question that actually came to mind: what the hell am I supposed to do with a giant bell? “And I... I'm not a Great Reaper or even a... not-great reaper... I mean, I'm the living dead, even, not death. I don't... quite think that I could use that or anything, is what I'm saying... and I know that must mean a lot to you, too...”

“The only gifts worth giving are ones that we have cherished ourselves.” Kismet said kindly, and then he reached back and gently stroked along the enormous bell, saying softly: “It will obey you, Twilight Sparkle, if you have faith in yourself. It suits you better than you may think. Please, step forwards and touch it, let it know you, and see how you feel then.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the violet mare nodded uncomfortably before she hesitantly strode towards the onyx bell as it floated almost ominously. She looked at it awkwardly, more like she was surveying a dog that might bite her than she was looking over a Great Reaper's tool, and then she sighed before reaching up and touching the bell gently.

It was cool, pleasant to the touch. And she could feel a strange vibration in it; almost a pulse, like the bell itself was alive. Slowly, the Lich closed her eyes as she stroked along those runes... and some instinct told her suddenly that these were stories. As her hoof brushed over the embossed symbols, she heard laughter, saw flashes of images, simply felt all the things this bell had seen. She saw civilizations rise and fall, felt triumph and despair, watched as heroes slew monsters and new gods built new worlds and... and...

She pulled suddenly back, flushing slightly as she stared over the bell with awe before turning her eyes towards Kismet, who seemed to be smiling at her through his mask as he said quietly: “I think this is fitting, Twilight Sparkle. Years ago now, I was happily defeated: my bell has never forgotten that, or the worthiness of the three who stopped me... because you were very much there, Twilight Sparkle. Even if only in spirit... your presence was enough to make those who love you fly.”

Twilight only laughed a little at this, bowing her head and blushing a little before she murmured: “Thank you, but... well...”

The Lich looked lamely up at the bell as it floated in front of her, and Kismet simply gestured to it, saying softly: “It is yours now, Twilight Sparkle. Do not think of it as a weapon, as something apart from you: think of it like a memory. Summon it to your mind, hold it in focus, and for a moment that reality will overtake you and it will be there, it will become your reality. But all it takes is another thought to banish it, send it back into your mind; still there, but out of sight, waiting patiently to be called upon once more.”

Twilight nodded a little, looking at the bell, studying it for a few moments before she closed her eyes and concentrated, taking a slow breath. On instinct, she reached a hoof up to rest it against the instrument as her horn thrummed... and then a shiver ran down her spine and her eyes widened slightly as she felt the texture of the metal soften beneath her hoof... then just a warm breath before she looked up just in time to watch the bell become nothing more than smoke that faded quickly from sight.

“I... thank you, Kismet.” Twilight looked up at the death entity, smiling a little more openly now even as she shifted uncomfortably, and then he mumbled: “It still... you know. That's a big gift you just gave me and all and... well... I mean, I don't know what I'm going to do with it.”

“You'll find a purpose for it. Now please, excuse me.” Kismet paused, then glanced at the metal ball on Luna's back, adding kindly: “It is very nice to see you trying to help out, Hecate.”

Hecate growled at the Great Reaper, but Kismet only nodded once before he turned and left, Luna watching with wry amusement. Scrivener winced and rose a Talon to call a 'thank you,' but it was a little late, since Kismet was already almost to one of the doors leading into the Thorn Palace.

Scrivener let his shoulders slump as Luna gave him an amused look, and then the charcoal stallion and the Lich traded awkward looks before he said finally: “So uh. You got a bell.”

“Yeah. I do.” Twilight said after a moment, and then she reached up and rubbed absently at her horn in a nervous gesture, mumbling: “And I really have no idea whatsoever what I'm supposed to do with it. I mean... it's a bell. And a Great Reaper's tool. I'm the living dead, what if I... banish myself by accident or something?”

“Then I'll laugh at you.” Scrivener replied blandly, and Luna snorted in amusement as Twilight Sparkle sighed tiredly, before the stallion smiled a bit and said in a more reassuring voice: “Look, Kismet wouldn't give you something unless he had faith in you being able to use it... especially something like this. Besides, you were able to unsummon it pretty easy, it looked like.”

Twilight nodded hesitantly, then she muttered: “But I have no clue how I'm supposed to actually call it up. I wish he'd given me it... you know, before we were mounting this assault. I don't think I'm going to really be able to use it in a pinch.”

Luna shrugged, then she held the foreleg that her ball-and-chain was anchored to up. “Well, look at this, Twilight Sparkle. I was only given Lucy an hour ago, and already I am a master of this fantastic weapon.”

“No you're not, I'm just stuck inside here and helping guide you around. And this isn't just a weapon. This shielding is so you can throw me into the portal and I can find out if Valthrudnir left any of the defense mechanisms in the rift active. If he did, you won't like what's on the other side.” Hecate grumbled, and Luna only shrugged absently.

They fell into quiet for a few moments... not that their conversation had ended. The three ponies continued it with looks, trading thoughts and emotions with one-another, answering with gestures and expressions. Twilight felt herself being reassured little-by-little: but as her anxieties over the bell faded, her worries about what they were doing began to creep back.

She didn't have a lot of time to work up her frustrations, however: soon enough, Terra arrived with a wide grin on her features, golden crown glinting on her head and heavy hide armor over her body. The symbol of Valhalla was emblazoned over this in gold, and Luna smiled at this before she looked up and said softly: “We are going to free Heaven today, Terra. One way or the other, fear not.”

“The only thing I fear, lass, is that Gymbr will give up the fight too quickly.” Terra replied easily, and Luna laughed and shook her head despite herself before the dragon peered at the metallic sphere on Luna's back. “And is that truly the living head enclosed in that weapon?”

Hecate only growled in irritation, and Luna winked up at Terra, replying easily: “Well, as oft as I would cheerfully engage in the mockery of a wretched wench like Hecate, today I must instead defend her honor; after all, how else is a mare without a body supposed to engage in the battlefield? I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be, to be able to see all earthly delights and yet participate in none of them... but then again, I have heard part of that is because of her tendency to bite.”

The head gave another sound of anger, but Hecate managed to bite back her retort, instead saying acidly: “If you little fillies are done, we need to get ready for a dangerous journey and a dangerous confrontation. Furthermore, if your demons fail to calibrate any of the portals to Valhalla properly, we can expect to die very painful deaths in Heaven. Which is the place I want to die least.”

“They won't fail. I've ensured that myself.” Morning Glory's voice came calmly as the Destroyer approached, and all eyes turned towards the Overseer. She halted a few feet away, traded a brief nod with Terra, and then turned her eyes back to Luna as she added in a voice that had the faintest trace of amusement: “We also have others who wish to engage in the battle. Twelve Destroyers from the Helherlið are here, and the Ironjaw also wish to lend their assistance. In fact, have been ordered to lend their assistance by Hel.”

Luna looked up in surprise... that only grew greater when Celestia's voice added as the ivory mare approached from the other side of the pyramid, dressed in full armor and with Pinkamena and Sleipnir both in tow: “I've also managed to convince the Pious to lend us their assistance. Even though Gymbr has managed to destroy their Sanctuaries on other worlds, the Cenobium outside of Valhalla is still standing, simply because Gymbr can't open the Gates while the Hourglass is running. And whether it's because of arrogance or something else, he refuses to shut the Hourglass down.”

“So ironically, the Pious who are right next to the hornet's nest are the safest.” Luna muttered, and then she shook her head slowly. “It disgusts me, Celestia. It angers me, in fact. He claims they are a terrible enemy, a plague to be wiped out... and yet he overlooks the very ones seated upon his doorstep, when 'twould require only a few scant minutes to destroy them if he truly pleased. Instead, he targets the ones that... what, he will not have to go out of his way to reach?”

Celestia only gave a shrug and a small smile, and Luna grunted and nodded a few times before Sleipnir said softly: “The foe has no honor, dear and sweet sisters: perhaps to him, he sees them not as enemy to be culled, but rather like tamed prey to be harvested when he pleases. And power, perhaps, has made him foolish: he thinks himself master of the infinite, does he not?”

Luna nodded, and Pinkamena snorted at this, the gray-pink mare grinning wryly as she straightened in the ribbed, heavy black armor she was wearing, one hoof reaching up to lightly squeeze the handle of the massive, obsidian Nibelung battle axe on her back. “Well, we're gonna give the bastard a real nice surprise in that case, aren't we? Assuming you're not about to wimp out on us, Nightmare Moon.”

The sapphire mare snorted at this, and then she smiled despite herself as Discombobulation poked his head out of one of the satchels hanging from Sleipnir's side. “I'd really like to wimp out if I had that option right about now. But unfortunately, this isn't a game designed to simply make you give up, or one of those fights where you have no choice but to lose. Nice as that would be.”

Discombobulation hopped up out of the satchel, and Sleipnir smiled benevolently at the Draconequus as Bob absently knocked a fist against his engraved breastplate. “By the way, have I ever told you just how stylish you look in that? Simple armor, always with a shield for a weapon and your cute little purse.”

“My purse has saved me many a time, I shall have thee know. I would rather carry a purse than burden myself with all manner of weapons like my sisters, but I suppose that I am not nearly as mighty a stallion as they both are.” Sleipnir said kindly, winking over at the two mares, and Celestia smiled despite herself even as she glanced absently back at the weapons hanging over her body.

Tyrfing was over her back, and her three smaller swords rested across her frame, the weapons themselves almost glowing with eagerness, as if excited to see battle after so long. Discombobulation glanced mildly over at this himself, and then he said pointedly: “Well, you know. Some people would have you believe we can equip six magical weapons at once, and they all give us magical bonuses with their magical abilities even though we never actually use them. Personally, I'm very fond of status effects. But I am confusion, after all.”

Sleipnir only nodded pleasantly, as if he understood perfectly what the Draconequus was talking about, while Celestia drew her eyes to Twilight Sparkle, softening as she said quietly: “Antares is also ready and fully equipped, and Scarlet Sage will be providing extra support with Prestige and Aphrodisia. They're going to rescue Innocence.”

“Yeah, stop worrying about your kid, Twilight. Sure, she's screwed up. But look at yourself, and look at those morons there, of course she's screwed the hell up.” Pinkamena added mildly, and Twilight glared at the demon, but the Devourer gave a brief smile after a moment that softened her features. “But it's always been exactly because Scrivy's so screwed up himself that I knew I could always count on him, and I think you understand that. Sin is going to be okay. She's being a complete moron right now, but it's going to be okay.”

Twilight Sparkle looked down, then she nodded hesitantly, and Sleipnir smiled warmly as he slapped his wife on the back, the demon wincing slightly as he declared: “Aye, my phoenix is right, all shall be well! So there is no need to cry, beautiful mare. Instead, focus on the present, and upon the hopes for the future... and remember that such a future when all are together again is very near. We must nearly make it over the bumps in our path now.”

“We should get moving.” Morning Glory interrupted moodily, and the Overseer looked back and forth as there were a few nods of agreement, before the Destroyer turned her eyes to Luna and bowed her head in deference.

Luna smiled wryly at this, then she nodded back before raising her head high, her eyes proud as she said calmly: “If all of us have said what needed to be said, and prepared our forces as promised, then aye, 'tis time for us to leave. Remember, my friends, we must work as a group... and without a doubt, once Gymbr understands that we are in a different world, he will undoubtedly send forces to stall us. He may not know what we are up to... if we are fortunate, he will not have any idea of what is going on until we portal into Asgard. But he will know something, and arrogant or not, Gymbr must not be taken for a fool. He is not. And he will doubtlessly act to interfere with us because of this.

“Normally 'tis my sister's job to be the overcautious one, but today I shall remind thee of the caution we must take: no one is to mention our objective once we are in the next world. No one is to speak of Gymbr nor Asgard. If at all possible, we shall not speak at all: we shall simply allow Hecate to guide us to the portal, then use it before Gymbr can stop us.” Luna said calmly, gesturing at the metal sphere on her back. “I have been told that much of the area around the portal may still be warded against even the most prying of eyes, but we cannot count on that alone. We must be fast.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna nodded once before she turned slowly around, raising her soulstone horn high as she said quietly: “Then let us dally no longer. My friends... 'tis time for us to go. 'Tis time to take back what Gymbr has tried to steal from us... and it is time for us to punish those who would do us harm and steal and corrupt our foals.”

Celestia rose her horn as it began to glow, and so did Twilight Sparkle, and Morning Glory. And all eyes faced forwards as a rumble began to build through the air, as reality shivered before a golden tornado of flame tore the air itself open, as the Bifrost ripped into reality and formed a bridge between their world and another, one that Luna charged fearlessly for.

And over the exhilaration that always came with crossing between worlds, over the pride of leadership and the way her blood was already boiling with the thought of the battle ahead, what she felt most of all was determination: one way or another, they were going to stop Gymbr, free Valhalla, and save their daughter... and not even death was going to stand in her way.

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