• 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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A Wonderful, Fortunate Family

Chapter Forty: A Wonderful, Fortunate Family
~BlackRoseRaven

Cowlick wheezed quietly in and out as she sat back on a cushion in Luna and Scrivener's den, fumbling at a bottle of pills. Luna attempted to reach out to help her with it, and the engineer growled and slapped at her hoof, Luna cursing and slapping back before the two childishly flailed at each other for a few moments. Then Cowlick grumbled when the winged unicorn's horn finally glowed brightly and yanked the bottle of pills free from the mare's grip, Luna loudly blowing a raspberry at the engineer before she scowled down at the bottle as she began to struggle with the foalproof cap.

Scrivener and Twilight both looked at Luna for a few long moments as Cowlick continued to rasp slowly in and out for breath, and then Scrivener sighed and plucked the bottle moodily away from the sapphire mare, quickly opening it with his dexterous claws before passing it to the engineer, who growled something that was either a curse or a thank you.

Cowlick simply upended the bottle over her muzzle, pouring several pills into her maw before she loudly chewed them up, then shivered once and gave a long sigh of relief. She shook the bottle lightly, then glanced down at it before shrugging and holding it out towards Luna, who took it curiously and examined the front. “Narcotics. Got a nice kick to 'em. Scarlet Sage got me them, said normally they're reserved for people who've just had like... bone surgery or something.”

The sapphire mare shook a large pill out onto her hoof, looking at it thoughtfully before she shrugged and easily tossed it into her muzzle. Scrivener and Twilight both stared at her with disbelief, while Cowlick only grinned tiredly and said wryly: “Don't you go doin' that too much now. Especially 'cause you're already an addict and the other half of you is a drunk.”

“Shut up.” Luna said huffily, and then she chewed up the pill before her muzzle wrinkled up in horror. “By Asgard, 'tis so foul and wretched it stings and steals all the sense from mine tongue!”

“The way you talk. I'm gonna miss that. Well, I guess I'm gonna miss a lot of things once I'm down in the icebox...” Cowlick lowered her head moodily, then she shook her head out before grunting when Luna passed the bottle back to her, the engineer slowly twisting the cap back on with shaky hooves as she coughed a few times.

Twilight winced a little, leaning forwards uncertainly, but Cowlick only grumbled at her and gave her a sour look. “Don't be an asshole. I'm dying. I know you wanna offer me a glass of water or something but it ain't exactly going to help me all that much. So I ain't gonna thank you for it because you ain't gonna offer it to me.”

The Lich looked lamely at the earth pony mare for a few moments, and then she cleared her throat and nodded finally as Luna blinked a few times, then gave a little giggle. Scrivener only gave her a flat look, but he could feel his own faint tickle in his mind, shifting a bit before he turned his eyes awkwardly towards Cowlick, asking finally: “Are those... uh... how strong would you say those are?”

“Well, three of 'em make me feel like I've just been kicked in the chops instead of like I've swallowed a bucketload of knives.” Cowlick paused meditatively. “Guess one of 'em would be more than enough to kill a kid.”

There was silence for a few moments, then Luna giggled again, swaying a little on the spot before she asked dumbly: “When will I see the pretty colors?”

“It ain't acid, moron. It's just going to make you fuzzy in the head. And a little pleasant and stuff.” Cowlick replied dryly, and Scrivener groaned and grasped at his head as Twilight Sparkle turned a moody look towards the starry-maned pony as well. But Luna only gave another little giggle, and even though her eyes were sparkling and she looked like a mischievous foal who had just helped herself to several hoof-fulls of sugar, she all the same seemed to be focusing fairly well through the euphoria. “Idjit. Anyway, take a look at this.”

Cowlick grunted as she turned, feeling carefully towards a large leather case sitting nearby, and then she yanked it slowly towards her and dropped it, popping the latches open one at a time as she muttered: “Since I figured I'm already going to Hell, I went and made this into the best damn weapon I could. Sure, Mk. II was pretty. But Mk. III blows Apple Bloom's designs out of the water.”

“Modesty, Cowlick. That's why we like you.” Scrivener said blandly, and Cowlick grinned wryly, making her look both radiant and menacing for a moment.

“The funny thing is, I am bein' modest this time around.” Cowlick replied as she popped the latches on the hard case open, and Luna's eyes widened, throwing off both real and imagined delights at the sight of the weapon Cowlick unveiled... Nay, not weapon, but masterpiece.

The weapon was larger and heavier than Sting Mk. II had been, but followed the same basic principles: the biggest differences were in the cylinder, the larger, rectangular barrel and the solid support bar beneath it, and the single-edged, six-inch bayonet blade extending from the underside of the weighted, fortified barrel.

Luna picked it up, looking slowly over the silver and black metal as she whistled quietly to herself, murmuring: “The weight, 'tis fantastic... and these runes, they are... aye, these are painted in soulstone. The blade is... I do not recognize this metal...”

“It's a superalloy, that's why. We just cooked it up in the lab recently, and it's designed more for channeling than it is cutting. But it'll hold an edge, and better yet, it'll carry a hell of a charge, magic or otherwise.” Cowlick grinned slightly, shaking her head and muttering: “Kind of makes me hope that when I get to Hell... I'm gonna one day be able to play with all these fancy metals that the demons and the Nibelung bring me.”

“I wish you wouldn't say things like that, Cowlick. No one... nothing's for certain, okay?” Twilight said softly, and Cowlick only chuckled quietly before she reached out and gently plucked the gun from Luna.

She was silent for a few moments, and then she stroked along the rectangular barrel, murmuring: “This is a recoil-reduced 52 caliber Kingmaker. Or Queenmaker, I guess, since it seems it's only us mares who ever do any real fighting around here. She holds six rounds instead of four, and the barrel is fortified on the outside and contains an experimental accelerator on the inside, called a 'rail.' Believe me, you'll see the difference when she fires.

“This gun is the greatest thing I've ever built. I got Nibelung runes along the side of the barrel to draw in the energy that powers the rail, it's made of an alloy that would put the good folks at Hellhorse to shame, it's... it's pretty.” Cowlick chuckled quietly, smiling faintly and shaking her head slowly. “She's pretty. Polished every piece of her myself, and by hoof, too. She's got enough oomph to blow a hole in an armored bunker and still hit whoever you're aiming at on the other side. And I built her specifically for you, Luna... her handle is shaped for your hoof, her balance and recoil are designed for the way you grip her... a hoof on the handle, the rest of the weapon steadied by your mind.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Cowlick said quietly: “I broke my promise to Rusty. I didn't just make Iron Horses after all... I got dragged back into building these things. Weapons. And what I mean by that, is that all I had in mind while I made this thing wasn't how many ponies you were going to protect, or how you were going to use this tool I'm giving you... it's how many of those Pious you're going to kill. And I hope you kill a lot, because... my Rusty is up there in Heaven. And he's either... he's either gone forever, or he's stuck somewhere, between Gymbr's monsters and those Angels of Greater Heaven...”

Cowlick looked down, breathing slowly in and out before she turned and began to cough, her eyes clenching shut, her whole body shaking. Luna winced as she took the gun quickly out of the engineer's hooves, and Twilight worriedly strode over to the sick mare, but was promptly shoved back as Cowlick got herself under control and rasped: “I'm... I'm okay. I'm okay.”

She shook her head briefly then rubbed uncomfortably at her throat, breathing a little hard before she muttered: “God... goddammit. I don't deserve to go to Heaven, so I ain't going to Heaven. Sounds like that's best, anyway... like it's all... screwed up anyway. Well, whatever. In a few days... I'm gonna be gone.”

Cowlick stopped, Luna frowning as she silently hugged Sting Mk. III close, Scrivener tilting his head slowly, and Twilight trembling a little before the Lich shook her head, whispering: “Cowlick, I know what you must be going through-”

“Really? Do you?” Cowlick glared over at Twilight, then she turned and spat into the fireplace, blue flames greedily dissolving the red blood that splattered into the hearth. “You got any concept in your head about what it's like to die, with no last minute snatch-back from the brink of death waiting for you? You know what it feels like to have cancer, cancer like what killed your Daddy, ripping through your body and turning your lungs to mush?

“I'm dying, and I don't want your sympathy, I don't want your salvation, I just want to die.” Cowlick said forcefully, and then she shook her head sharply and growled: “Might not have any dignity at the end. Might end up being messy. Might be the coward's way out. I don't give a crowbait's flank: all I can do now is make sure that Ross is gonna get through this as best he can, and that you guys don't screw up everything I've written down in my will. I got the funeral already planned and paid for.”

“Damnation, Cowlick... what is wrong with thee?” But it was more a plea than it was anger that came from Luna, the sapphire mare shaking her head firmly before she cursed quietly and added sharply: “And what of Ross? Why can't-”

“Because I never deserved that beautiful bastard in the first place, and because...” Cowlick trembled, reaching up and touching her own face as she whispered: “You really think that I want to burden my husband, who has trouble looking at kiddy comic books because they're too violent for his tastes, with my dying? Ross knows. I know he knows what's going on, he understands, no matter what people think or say. Ross... Ross is goddamn smart. But it's easier on us both for me to tell him, that... that I'm gonna be going away, for a long, deep sleep soon; it's easier for us both if I let him have that hope that one day, I'm gonna be back. I love him. I love you guys, too, you're my friends. You been better to me than I ever, ever deserved. And there's no way in hell I'm going to drag you down with me into the place I know I'm headed. I'm not gonna rot away in a bed, and I'm not going to force you guys to suffer through that either. And fuck you if you disagree.”

There was silence for a few moments, Scrivener Blooms lowering his head and Twilight trembling as tears ran down her cheeks, before Luna looked up and murmured quietly: “I... I do not disagree, Cowlick. Not entirely. But I do believe that thou art... going too fast for my liking.”

“And I've been living too long for mine.” Cowlick replied quietly, giving a faint smile and shaking her head slowly. “It's over, guys. Sometimes, you just have to... recognize that the game is over. And mine is.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener looked down and said softly: “Ross isn't going to... well, I don't know. I don't know. I understand what you're doing, why you're doing this... maybe the best of all of us here.” The charcoal stallion looked up, giving a faint smile. “He'll forgive you one day, yeah. Maybe he won't even be angry at you long. But you know this is going to upset him.”

“Thanks, Scrivy. Normally we'd be hearing the whole 'he'll never forgive you' speech, but what you said is a little bit less of a guilt trip. Really gotta appreciate that.” Cowlick said wryly, and then she shook her head slowly and murmured: “Funny thing is how much I actually do.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the mare cleared her throat before looking up and saying finally: “Look, just... let's forget about it, okay? The point is, I've built you the finest weapon in the entire goddamn universe, and you're gonna use it, and you're gonna love the goddamn thing. Got it?”

Luna hesitated, then she lifted the weapon and looked back and forth over it, murmuring: “Mk. III... aye, this Sting will serve me well.” She paused, then smiled a little as she tested the weight, aiming it across the room. “The barrel... 'tis about a meter in length, aye?”

Cowlick nodded with a grunt. “Close. Just under three feet... a Kingmaker ain't a carbine, and it ain't a rifle. I don't think any guns like this have ever existed before in Equestria... and I ain't about to give away the schematics for them, either. I didn't even leave a blueprint behind for this one, so except for Apple Bloom... I don't think any pony could ever hope to replicate that new weapon of yours.”

Luna looked down at the rifle thoughtfully, tilting it back and forth before she smiled a little and nodded slowly, murmuring: “Aye. Then thou hast my heartfelt thanks, Cowlick... even if at the same time, much of me... do not hate me for this, but I wish thou wert going to be around to make more of these tools for us. And more tools to protect Ponyville.”

“Weapons, you mean.” Cowlick looked down, and then she licked her lips slowly before glancing up and saying quietly: “We'll see how you feel about that, Luna. Since... I'm goin' to Hell anyway after all's said and done... I'm gonna help Hecate with her body. I even got a special horn on the way for her, from some buddies in Subterra... I'm calling in the last of my favors before I die, because why the hell not?”

“I do not know if I entirely approve of thou assisting Hecate with her nefarity, but...” Luna sighed and smiled wryly. “I also do not desire to have any of this time with thee... spoiled by what could very well simply be... misplaced, forced distrust. For I suppose that Hecate is not... truly an awful specimen, all things considered.”

Cowlick grunted, then she looked meditatively over Luna before asking mildly: “So. You really believe that, or are you just saying that because you're so buzzed?”

“I am not buzzed! That is... I am not acidic!” Luna retorted crankily, and then she giggled a little before hurriedly clearing her throat and covering her muzzle with one hoof, even as her eyes glimmered a little and Scrivener and Twilight both stared at her with disbelief: for as sober as she was trying to act, the sapphire mare was inwardly giggling over how her face had gone numb and her lips felt like floppy fish. Neither Scrivy nor Twilight precisely knew why Luna chose that of all metaphors, but it probably had something to do with the pill she had taken.

They were both surprised, though: her mind was a little fuzzy, she seemed to be going a little... numb... in places, but otherwise, she was doing surprisingly well. Then again, it wasn't like Luna was precisely inexperienced in the realm of drugs and other such foolery.

“Thou art both foolery.” Luna grumbled, glowering over her shoulder. “I lived in a time when we were not told by the Celestias Upon High what we were and were not permitted to put in our bodies. Aye, the clergy did speak out against vice and sin, but the snakeweed was no more crime than alcohol, the laughing lotus nothing worse than adultery... and of course, in those old merry days, 'twas harder to find a pony who had not slept with another mare besides his wife than it was one who had been loyal all his days.”

Twilight and Scrivener both looked awkwardly at Luna, and then Cowlick sighed and said wryly: “Yeah, I gotta say, Luna. My husband ain't never cheated on me, ain't never gone behind my back, lied to me or kept secrets from me... and of all the things, I feel bad for him, not good for me, you know? Hell, I feel... bad for us.

“We never argue. We never disagree. Ross just gives me that big smile, or asks me why, or nods to me...” Cowlick shook her head slowly, looking down and smiling faintly. “He's never gone off on his own, had his own fun, spent a moment not considerin' my feelings... and what I've always believed is that... it's whatever you gotta fight for that has the most value. But I ain't ever had to fight for Ross, or with Ross. Our relationship's never been about fighting. And honestly, who do you trust more? The two who just magically get along and don't ever fight or... hell, even three freaks like you, who act a hell of a lot more normal than Ross and I do.”

Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight traded looks, and then the winged unicorn shook her head slowly and said wryly: “Thou does realize that thou art being incredibly thick-headed, does thou not, Cowlick? Ross is a blessing. And thou art whining about him being a blessing. Perhaps he truly is far too good for thee, after all.”

“Finally, somepony gets it.” Cowlick grumbled, and then she shook her head and said flatly: “He is too goddamn good for me. Way too goddamn good for me, as a matter of fact... I deserve him about as much as you deserve having two ponies all for yourself, you selfish bitch.”

“Well, I am bisexual. This means I must have sex with two ponies, or I shall die.” Luna replied seriously, and then she giggled stupidly at her own joke as she covered her muzzle with her hooves. “I am also very funny.”

Scrivener sighed, even as he felt a small smile bridge his own lips, but he decided to attribute this to Luna's little adventure with narcotics. Instead, he said mildly: “You know, Cowlick, I'm sure that you could have had all the ponies you wanted yourself. Assuming they could put up with you, that is.”

“Yeah, that ain't what I meant at all and you goddamn well know it.” Cowlick retorted, and then she shook her head and carefully pushed herself up to her hooves, adding after a moment: “Anyway, I think it's time for me to go. I gotta plan my death party and all, you know... it's kind of like a bachelorette, but I won't be getting nearly as drunk and a lot of the ponies there are going to be pissed off at me. Be funny to see how many of 'em try and talk me out of it, though. Probably less than would've tried to talk me out of marriage.”

“You're not married.” Scrivener said, his curious tone almost making it a question, and Cowlick grinned wryly, tilting her head towards him and tipping a wink at the charcoal stallion.

“I ain't. You know, I didn't just magically appear in Ponyville one day, bitchy best friend of Dash's and all. I lived in Manehattan for thirty-some goddamn years. Spent most of 'em a know-it-all drug addict, too, working on and off contract for weapons developers and engineering firms.” the earth pony mare said flatly, and then she brushed absently at herself before pausing and adding curiously: “Hey. By the way, where the hell are your kids? Both the good one and the bad one.”

Luna glowered, and Twilight winced a little before the violet mare shook her head hurriedly, saying awkwardly: “They're not... Innocence isn't a bad girl at all, I... she's just trying really hard right now to fit in again with everyone...”

Cowlick shrugged and said mildly: “Okay, okay, I ain't gonna judge either of 'em, you happy? And I like 'em both, I do... I feel sorry for that little girl of yours. I just wanted to ask 'em both to come to my dyin' party... you guys are invited too, of course. It's gonna take the place of my funeral, really, since I don't want no flashy funeral, or any priest or anything. I'm just gonna be burnt up and whatever left will be put in that coffin we used during Rusty's funeral and... they're gonna burn that and whatever's left of my ashes in the incinerator in the engineering building.”

Twilight Sparkle looked a little horrified at this, mouthing slowly and wordlessly, but Luna only grinned wryly and said mildly: “I shall have thee know that simply destroying the body does not always destroy the spirit. Thou might merely make thyself even more a part of the home away from home thou built up with thine own hooves. But we shall pass on the message... Antares will be returning shortly with Prestige from dinner, and Innocence...”

The sapphire winged unicorn broke off as Twilight shifted uncomfortably; none of them knew where Innocence had vanished off to, hours ago now. But Cowlick took it in stride, and only cleared her throat before she replied as if she hadn't noticed anything was wrong: “It was more than my hooves that built that place... and a lot more than just me that found it home, too. No, I'm... I'm ready to move on. Maybe I ain't entirely willing yet, but I am ready.”

The three nodded slowly, all of them studying the engineer for a few moments before Cowlick grinned wryly, looking over at the starry-maned mare and saying softly: “Sucks that your stupid brother is gone now of all times, though... I was considerin' havin' one last wild night out, and I'm sure Sleipnir would have shown me a good time. Pinkamena always talks about him, in her... weird way, where she doesn't really talk about anything but... you know all the same, you know?”

“Aye... aye. And Sleipnir will be back... Pinkamena too. They both will return from wherever Gymbr sent them. I am sure of it.” Luna replied quietly, nodding firmly a few times before she smiled a little as Cowlick grunted and limped past, heading slowly for the door. “Normally I would not offer this... but we have a store of ambrosia if thou would like to sample it, to ease thy pains...”

“Nah. I'm not that big on fruit juice.” Cowlick replied blandly, shaking her head briefly, and Luna smiled amusedly despite herself as she, Scrivener Blooms, and Twilight Sparkle followed the sapphire winged unicorn into the hall. “I'll send you guys a letter. Or have Hecate deliver it, I can boss her around a little now that I promised to help her out so long as she behaves herself for the next few days. Been kind of nice.”

Luna grunted and nodded, then Cowlick shoved the door open and looked over her shoulder at the sapphire mare, hesitating for a moment... but then only smiling a little and turning back forwards, striding slowly through the door as she called over her shoulder: “Take care of that gun I gave you, y'hear? I'll come up here and haunt your ass if I find out you've been mistreating her!”

“Oh shut up, Cowlick, I have tamed far worse spirits in my day than the wretched boggart thou would end up being.” the sapphire mare scoffed, and Cowlick only laughed as she walked slowly across the yard, striding onto the path leading to Ponyville and forcing herself to not look back.

A smile lingered on her face, and tears almost came to her eyes as she slowly dragged herself down the dirt road back to Ponyville: not from the physical pain, oh no. She could handle that... it sucked, sure, but she could still handle it, force herself through it, a lot easier than she could... these goddamn stupid feelings of guilt. But it was her life, right? It was her life... and her death. No one had the right to take that away from her. No one had the right to make her feel bad for wanting this... incurable, unassailable pain to end. Especially when they didn't even understand that these pills weren't to make her pain manageable, or even bearable: they were purely to make her muscles work, her body move, her nerves sensitive enough so that even if the pain got worse during the day, she didn't get so numb to everything else she was suffocated under the fog of sufferance. So she could still feel when she was touched, hear when she was talked to... understand when other ponies were looking at her, instead of just pitying her.

Cowlick stumbled over a tree root, cursing quietly and staggering before she frowned a bit, looking slowly up. It was evening out here, and she smelled like engine oil and machine parts and smoke... masking the faint reek of urine and fear and blood, from how she'd started to lose a little bit of control over her own body, how her lungs had gotten so chewed up that every breath smelled like rot and carried a whiff of copper with it.

She smelled like a freshly-dead corpse, which was probably why the manticores and other beasts big and mean enough to try and eat a pony left her alone. But manticores and most beasties weren't all that smart... and there was something up ahead, standing in the middle of the path, lurking in the shadows of the tall trees and just watching her, that looked like it might have a taste for carrion...

Cowlick gritted her teeth, setting herself as her eyes blazed, a hoof reaching up towards her jacket... but then she blinked in surprise as light glowed around the shape's head, before the engineer relaxed and sighed tiredly as she realized it was Innocence. She was still polymorphed, even, in that pretty unicorn form. “Hey! You scared the hell out of me, Sin.”

The unicorn smiled at her as she strode in close, bowing her head apologetically as Cowlick calmly grasped a box of cigarettes instead of the handle of the weapon tucked away beneath her denim vest, and she roughly shook a cigarette up out of the hole to bite into the base of, muttering around it: “The hell are you lurking in the dark for? Or don't tell me, you feel more at home there now than you do back in your own damn house, kid?”

Innocence scowled at this, and then she simply snorted as the glow faded from around her horn, but she was close enough now that Cowlick could still see her... except in the shadows, Sin looked so much more... sinister, and somehow less like a pony in this polymorphed shape. This... disguise... she cloaked herself in. “You should try and be nicer to me, at least in private. There's no one here to save you if you push me too far, Cowlick.”

“Babe, hate to point this out, but there's no one here to save me at all.” Cowlick said dryly, snorting as she put a cigarette in her muzzle... and then she blinked in surprise when Innocence simply flicked her horn, and the cylinder was instantly lit, the engineer hesitating before muttering: “Thanks, kid. Glad you got some respect for the dead and dying.”

“I don't.” Innocence said shortly, and then she leaned in, studying the mare for a few moments in silence as Cowlick looked at Innocence uneasily, before the strange, dark unicorn suddenly gave an almost-sultry smile as she said softly: “But you don't have to be dead or dying. I can heal you... or at the very least, make sure your soul doesn't go to Helheim.”

“Not interested.” Cowlick said moodily, and then she shook her head briefly and carefully climbed back up to her hooves, adding in a mutter: “In a few days, I'm gonna be gone, Sin. How about you drop this jackass routine of yours and you try and be a decent goddamn pony? Believe me, you don't wanna be like me, spending half your life pissing everything away to end up getting a rude wakeup call at the end of it.”

Innocence snorted in derision at this, replying coldly: “I don't need advice from someone so cowardly she apparently can't even put up with a little bit of pain.”

Cowlick halted, then nodded a few times to herself before glaring over her shoulder at the mare, saying disgustedly: “Yeah, I'm so goddamn weak I can't put up with my lungs slowly shredding themselves into pieces while every other part of my body starts to malfunction from all the goddamn tumors cropping up through my body. But at least I'm not so goddamn weak that I had to crawl over to the big bad god when he said 'ooga booga' and start licking his clawsies so he'd give me my catnip.”

The unicorn flushed and snarled furiously at this, her eyes blazing as she leaned forwards and shouted: “You have no idea what it was like in Valhalla!” She halted, then sneered suddenly, adding contritely: “And I guess you never will, either. But don't worry, Cowlick, I'm sure Hell is going to treat you just fine... and when I get back up to Valhalla, I'll do my very best to make sure your son writes you a little love letter so you can know how he's doing.”

Cowlick's eyes widened at this, and then she spun around as Innocence smiled coldly, her eyes glowing as she rose her head proudly, looking down at the shocked engineer with victory. “Yes, that's right. Your little boy, Rustproof. I met him, you know. So did Gymbr. Gymbr was just fascinated with him... a stupid little earth pony who was so good with machinery. We put him right to work making things for us... as a matter of fact, Gymbr gave him a personal gift. A personal touch. Made it so that your little boy would have even more in common with all the machines he worked on...”

“What the hell are you talking about...” Cowlick whispered, staring disbelievingly... and then Innocence flicked her horn as it gave a sharp pulse, and Cowlick grabbed at her head with a cry of agony as psychic pain ripped through her mind, clenching her eyes shut before she snarled and opened them-

And there was sky all around her as she stood up on top of a cloud, the engineer mouthing wordlessly before her eyes slowly widened in horror as she stared up at the behemoth in front of her. The half-stallion, half-machine pony, looking down at her expressionlessly with one brown eye, and one eye made of crystalline glass...

She mouthed wordlessly, then trembled violently before shaking her head weakly, whispering: “No... no, no, Rusty... oh... oh Rusty...”

She stumbled forwards, reaching out.. and the huge, half-blue, half cold, cold steel earth pony pulled carefully away from her, Cowlick feeling like she'd just been punched before she clenched her eyes shut as he asked quietly: “Why'd you fail me, Momma?”

“No... I... I didn't...” Cowlick covered her face, trembling, tears leaking down her cheeks before she looked up and stared at Rusty... and the image flickered, showing her something behind it, a snarling, grinning, nasty beast lapping up her pain, laughing at her, mocking her, using her dead son's image against her-

Cowlick leapt forwards and swung a hoof out, and Innocence was knocked backwards with a cry of pain before she was tackled onto her back by the earth pony. She was flattened onto her back, and the earth pony snarled furiously as she shoved Innocence down with one hoof and slammed the other down into the mare's face again and again, shouting furiously: “You goddamn little bitch! You stupid little punk! You think this is okay? I was about to give you a goddamn chance and this is what you do? You... you ain't that sweet little girl, you're some freak, some changeling, some bug in a goddamn pony suit and I'm not gonna stop hitting you until-”

Innocence finally blasted Cowlick backwards, knocking the earth pony crumpling into the middle of the path before the unicorn scrambled hurriedly to her hooves, rasping for breath, her eyes terrified, horrified, disbelieving all at once. The stupid... this sick, dying earth pony had just bloodied and bruised her face, had... had torn through her psychic attack like it was paper, like she was nothing but an amateur... where was all the power Gymbr had given her? How could... how could a weakling like a worthless slave hoof like this break through her thought-elite powers?

She breathed hard in and out as Cowlick slowly picked herself up, tears still streaming down the engineer's face before she looked up with a snarl and whispered: “You stay the hell away from me, you bitch. You stay the hell away from me, and away from my boy... and... and I swear. I swear to Hel herself or whoever it is that runs the icebox... if I find out you did that to my boy... if you showed me... reality, not just some sick joke of yours to get your giggles... I'm gonna crawl up out of Helheim, and I'm gonna kill you. And no one's going to stop me, because you are not Innocence. I don't know who the hell you really are... but I know you ain't the daughter of Twilight Sparkle, or Luna Brynhild, or Scrivener Blooms. You're a monster.”

“You're weak. I have every right to do... to do anything I want to you.” Innocence responded, but her answer was less the snarl she meant it to be, more a weak whisper, trembling with... with hurt, before she shivered and then shouted almost desperately: “You started it! You pushed me first-”

Cowlick laughed harshly at this, and then she shook her head slowly before turning around and striding off, snarling over her shoulder: “And I'll end it too, if you even come near me again. Don't you even think my boy's name again... he's better than you. No matter what you and your sick pimp did to him, he's still gonna be better than you... he's still better than me... and you'd best remember that. You'd best remember, Sin, that...” Cowlick turned her head forwards, eyes almost glowing as she strode into the shadows, body quaking with pain, and hate, and anger. “That I ain't no nice filly either.”

Innocence watched as the engineer strode away, and then she reached up a claw, touching her bruised cheek and shaking her head weakly before she drew her claw away... and stared at the sight of blood. Cowlick had actually hurt her. Cowlick had actually broken out of her psychic link... why, how? And why hadn't she been able to immediately start draining the earth pony's emotional energies, or even feed off her pain? She all but radiated so much... such intense torment, that Innocence should have easily been able to lock into those energies and use them to temporarily boost her powers...

That was all she had wanted to do. She had even planned to help the stupid mare... her powers would have numbed her after she'd opened a hole with the psychic intrusion, and then she would have left Cowlick to daydream about the little colt that wasn't even her real son, any more than Scarlet Sage was the real daughter of Luna and Scrivener. Innocence spat to the side with a curse, trying to make anger rise up... but it failed to so much as simmer, with how shaken she was. With how disbelieving she still was that... Cowlick had hurt her.

Was this also because of the Hourglass, one of the side effects of it collapsing from the kinetic pulse in Valhalla? But her magic worked, didn't it? She hadn't had the time or privacy to test many of her spells, true, but she could still fly, she could use thaumaturgy as naturally as she ever had, she could drain emotions, affect others... but it seemed like some of her spells... needed more practice. Like she just... wasn't nearly as powerful as she'd always been... or maybe Gymbr had led her to believe...

Innocence looked down, cursing quietly before she closed her eyes tightly. Her horn flashed, and the blood vanished in a burst of black smoke as her features rapidly healed. She was left healed, the pain vanishing after a moment... but the nerves still tingled, like they remembered being hurt. Like they were still as shocked as she was over the pain Cowlick had inflicted on her, and... her blows had actually hurt her...

No, it... it had to be because she wasn't yet completely back up to full strength. She still had some recovery to do, after what Antares and Twilight Sparkle had done to her in Heaven. And more importantly, the pulse. That had to be it; she just had to heal. She just had to bide her time and grow strong again, and then... then everything would be back to normal. That was all.

Innocence nodded briefly to herself, closing her eyes and breathing uneasily in and out as she slowly lowered her head, then she gave a weak shiver. She looked back and forth for a few moments through the dark evening air, then shuddered again at how she felt... watched, instead of safe here. At how the forest seemed like it was trying to protect her, but... reluctantly, as if it didn't entirely welcome or recognize her, but... she was like a family member that it couldn't turn away, no matter how much of a black sheep she was...

She grimaced a little at this, shivering: unwanted little Innocence, strange little Innocence... she shook her head slowly and closed her eyes tightly. They all saw her as Gymbr's little slave, that had to be why they didn't trust her. And no matter how many times she did, they all just treated her like she was lying... she was stuck, until she could prove that she no longer cared about Gymbr. Until she could show them that she didn't want to have anything to do with the god...

Her eyes narrowed as he looked down, reaching up and rubbing uneasily at her damaged face. But Gymbr... maybe he had manipulated her this whole time into believing she was so strong, when really she was so weak. Maybe she had been played by him all along, and that made her very eager to do whatever it would take to prove that she wasn't just his slave.

She could slip into his cell, torture him, make him suffer, even kill him... but what would that accomplish? She wasn't stupid enough to believe they'd overlook her sneaking through their security to get to him, that they wouldn't draw all the worst possible conclusions from anything she did, even when all she was doing was something that they were apparently too weak to do themselves. And killing him... if Gymbr really had been toying with her instead of making her truly strong, then he had to know the secrets to granting her true power. To making her feel... the way she had always felt in Valhalla, before the invasion, before the time flux.

That left torture, and these ponies didn't seem to have a stomach for torture... nasty as they could be when you hurt their sensitive little feelings. Innocence grimaced and rubbed moodily at her face again, then she shook her head slowly before finally deciding it was time to head back home. The plan she wanted to put in motion was starting a little... off-kilter, perhaps, but she thought she could still get herself moving, and get her family to start to trust her... and before Gymbr, before everything else, that was what she had to concentrate on and work on.

The unicorn made her way back to the house in the middle of the forest... her home, her mind automatically called it. She smiled faintly as she glanced up over this slowly, then she shook her head briefly and muttered: “It... it is home. I guess it never stopped being home, no matter... no matter what happened or how many years passed.”

That felt strangely... true. And it was strangely... reassuring, too. She nodded a little to herself, then shook herself quickly before striding towards the doorway and opening it... before rearing back, her eyes widening in horror at the sight of the enormous gun being aimed straight at her face.

Then Luna Brynhild grinned widely and rose Sting Mk. III quickly, saying easily: “My apologies, daughter. I did not know if it was thou or Antares. 'Tis nice to see thee back, though. I trust... in better spirits?”

“I...” Innocence hesitated, then she nodded slowly, remembering what Gymbr had taught her. Remembering how Imago and Dusk had both explained different ways to manipulate others to her, how to make sure they would bend to her will in the right way. That the best lies were always based in truth, and came naturally. “Yes. I am. I'm sorry about before... I lost my temper.”

She stopped, then looked down with surprise. She... she actually was sorry. The mare licked her lips slowly, then she hesitantly looked up and added in a rush: “I want things to work out between us, but I'm confused about what you all want from me. I love you all. Don't you believe that? I want to be... I want to be important to you, special to you. I want to make you strong as I become stronger myself... why is it so wrong that... why is it so wrong that I desire what I do?”

“Because thou wert taught those things by a coward and monster with no decency and no compassion, that bore no respect for others... nor even himself.” Luna hesitated, then she looked over her shoulder at Twilight Sparkle, who smiled faintly as she glanced up from where she and Scrivener Blooms were carefully mending the old sheath for her gun so it would better fit the Sting Mk. III. “But I suppose that... perhaps... we continue to forget again and again how much time thou thyself spent with that creature. How much thou wert... taught... at his claws. And the suffering thou must have endured is often forgotten in the face of thine... well...”

“Bitchiness.” Scrivener supplied, and when Luna shrugged amiably and Twilight glared at him, the stallion only smiled at awkward-looking Innocence. “Hey, you don't get it both ways. You get to claim being as old as Antares and I'll treat you like I do him, or you can claim to be sixteen and I'll be nicer to you. Probably.”

“Scrivy.” Twilight slapped his shoulder gently, and the stallion smiled again and shrugged as he turned his eyes to her. The Lich was smiling a little herself, though, and she sighed before turning her eyes to Innocence, saying softly: “I want us to be understanding with you, not reprimanding. I think... I think you just need to be taught a few things all over again, that's all. And I'm trying to remember that maybe... having this entirely different environment around you, even if it's better for you, healthier and positive... you haven't adapted to it yet. You don't know how to act or react inside it. You just need time to learn and to get used to things here again.”

Innocence stared for a few moments at Twilight Sparkle, swallowing the urge to laugh before she forced a smile and a slow nod, saying finally: “Yes. Yes, of course, that's... that's... precisely it. That must just be it. I... I just need time to learn and adjust and... you really are... really smart, Momma.”

Luna looked mildly at Innocence, feeling sorely tempted to shoot her, but Twilight gave the sapphire mare a pointed look before she turned her eyes back to her daughter and said softly: “Thank you, Innocence.”

The polymorphed unicorn smiled lamely, not really trusting herself to say anything further in case she either giggled or... said something that would give away her ruse, which would probably be worse. There was an awkward silence as Luna simply studied her, while her other parents went back to working on the sheath, and Innocence hesitated before he strode inside and looked curiously at Luna's gun, asking: “Can I hold it?”

“No. 'Tis like my vaunted Iron Horse, no pony may touch this apart from I.” Luna replied with a huff, hugging the gun up against her body, and Innocence grumbled a little as Twilight rolled her eyes and Scrivener Blooms only shrugged absently. “Precisely. Foolish fools. Thou art all foolish fools.”

“And you're our queen.” Scrivener said absently without looking up, and Luna looked proud of herself for a moment before she blinked, then scowled over at the stallion as she realized that wasn't precisely a compliment. Then she took aim at him with the gun, and the stallion sighed tiredly as he said wryly: “I really hate to point this out, but I think you're breaking roughly a dozen safety rules right now. Not that you likely care at all.”

Twilight grimaced a bit as well, and Luna huffed before popping the cylinder open, saying pointedly: “Look, there is not a bullet in the barrel, now is there? 'Tis perfectly safe.”

With that, Luna flicked it closed, then paused and peered curiously at a tiny switch on the side above the trigger: it was simply labeled '0' on one side, and 'X' on the other, and Luna flicked this lightly to the 'X' setting before she winced in surprise as the runes along the barrel lit up, Innocence staring in amazement as a sense of energy suddenly radiated from the weapon. “How ingenious... look, Scrivy! The gun has a lamp switch!”

“That's...” Scrivener and Twilight traded looks, and then the Lich simply gestured moodily at the stallion, and he sighed tiredly before looking over at Luna and attempting to explain: “Cowlick must have... found a way to create a circuit or-”

“To turn the magic on and off, because if you left it on while those runes were generating energy, it could damage the weapon. Most enchantments of that nature use codewords or dials...” Innocence said suddenly, and all three ponies looked at her with surprise before the polymorphed unicorn lowered her head with an awkward blush, mumbling: “It... was one of the lessons Gymbr taught me, that's all. It always stuck with me because it was how we... warded much of Valhalla. But all that extra security was disrupted and destroyed by the pulse...”

Innocence looked down moodily, then hurriedly shook her head, realizing this probably wasn't the right path to take if she wanted to try and get on her parents' good side. There was no promise of power, no real discussion, nothing but her talking about boring things that she remembered from the days wasted in Heaven, a subject she knew was sore for them all... but when she looked up, she saw actual... interest in their eyes, that they were actually... paying attention to her talking about a simple enchantment of all things.

She looked back and forth at them blankly, before Luna asked with interest: “Could thou lay down those runes thyself? Perhaps upon our own doors? And are they simply to hold a charge, or can they be linked to any magic?”

“Well... we used them to draw in energy that was projected as a shield. A form of permanent barrier spell.” Innocence said slowly, hardly believing that this... this was what they were interested in. This was what was getting their attention and making them treat her like... like their daughter. Like she was some little filly showing her parents her first art project... except that mockery had no sting even for herself, because somehow they were making her feel that way, but without being patronized; she wanted to tell them more. She wanted to hear them praising her. And she wanted her gold goddamn star, when it came right down to it.

The young mare hesitated for only a moment before she looked up, continuing almost hurriedly: “We could apply the runes to draw in energy in such amounts that they would project barriers nearly impenetrable even to Gymbr's powers... but the problem was that they would overheat and burn themselves out, or simply melt the floor around them after a period of time. So instead we ended up designing them to turn on and off... and we also layered multiple strings of runes over multiple surfaces. That way, the runes powering the forcefield could switch, and wouldn't burn up as fast.”

Twilight nodded with a smile as Luna looked down meditatively, before Sin added almost eagerly: “And it would be really easy to add those charms myself, too, anywhere you wanted... I could make them do anything you wanted as well! Gymbr trained me in every school of magic, taught me...”

Innocence's voice slowly faded out, and then she lowered her head, thinking for a moment about what had just happened outside: how maybe she wasn't nearly as strong as she'd once been led to think. But her parents were all looking at her curiously now, so she quickly cleared her throat before forcing a smile and saying finally: “Gymbr taught me enough. I can lay down the runes.”

“Alright Innocence... does thou remember the enchantments that already protect this house? The runes must be compatible.” Luna said gently, and Innocence nodded briefly after a moment. The sapphire mare studied her daughter curiously at this, but when Twilight gave her an almost-pleading look, she simply grunted and shrugged. “Good, then. I am sure Twilight Sparkle can tell thee more, in any event. And runic magic is not something I am exceptional at.”

“You are so, Luna.” Twilight smiled a little over at the starry-maned winged unicorn, and then the Lich laughed quietly before turning a soft look towards Scrivener Blooms. “And from what I remember, you're pretty good at carving them too.”

The stallion only shrugged a little as he finished loosening his end of the sheath, saying mildly: “Yeah, because I steal from you and Luna. You both have the full runic alphabet memorized.”

Luna grunted, then she turned her eyes to Innocence and asked: “What other magic arts does thou know? Hast thou been taught alchemy?”

Innocence nodded, smiling up at Luna. “Gymbr and his Fates trained me intensively in everything they could think of. And almost everything can be further enhanced by my blood, my... corruption. But I still don't like that name for it.”

That was a half-truth, but Innocence backed it up by smiling and shifting almost shyly, trying to be coy and... well, innocent. Scrivener only looked entertained at most, however, and Luna clearly didn't buy it either, but Twilight shot her another look, so the starry-maned pony gave a wry smile and questioned softly instead: “Aye. Then what would thou have us call it?”

Innocence looked surprised at this, then she glanced down awkwardly and bit her lip before finally looking up and saying softly: “Panacea.”

Scrivener smiled wryly at this, and then he looked down at one of his Talons and flexed it slowly as he murmured: “I think this black blood that flows in our veins is more of a nostrum than it is a panacea, Innocence.”

But his daughter only turned an affectionate look towards her father, gazing at him and feeling a strange tenderness as she said gently: “Because you've fought against using and learning more about the black blood in your veins, Daddy, all your life... even though the mire strengthens you. Strengthens Móðer, and can strengthen Momma too. You just need to learn to harness it, use it as I have, by practicing with it every day... by finding a use for it, every single day.”

For some reason, this made Scrivener Blooms shiver a little, shifting uncomfortably, but Luna only scowled a little before she said evenly: “Do not forget that Scrivener Blooms is thy father, Innocence. He has lived for many years with these poisons in his veins, learned to harness them in many ways: merely because we are not so 'showy' with these powers does not mean they are any lesser in us than they are in thou, daughter.”

Innocence half-wanted to argue, but instead made herself bow her head, saying quietly after a moment: “Okay. I do believe in all of you, I just want to help you, as much as I can.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Scrivener and Luna traded looks as Twilight studied her daughter quietly. Innocence looked back at them, almost hopefully, and then a smile spread over her face as Luna asked: “Then tomorrow, shall we put effort into working with thy thaumaturgy? It seems every time we plan something, it fails to occur, but... well, let us etch this in stone, if we must.”

“And tonight I'd like to read through some of that magic theory book with you.” Twilight said quietly, and Innocence had to visibly bite back a response... but she managed to, all the same, and the Lich smiled a little in relief and approval that leaked its way onto Scrivy and Luna's faces as well. And at the sight of that, all three of her parents smiling at her, Innocence felt more confident in her plans a well as a... strange, unexpected happiness. Not just that her plan seemed to be working but... more than that, something else...

Sin didn't have the time to really examine herself beyond more than a cursory sift through her feelings before Luna nodded firmly, then said with a glance over her shoulder: “Now we need merely wait for that idiot Antares to get here, and then we shall attempt a family night... but, oh, Innocence, hast thou eaten? Art thou hungry at all? Scrivy, food!”

Innocence blushed a little at this, and Scrivener Blooms simply nodded before he picked himself up and headed for the kitchen. “I guess we could all do with a little bit of something to eat, really. I'll put on those venison dumplings.”

“Delightful. Although I still desire to one day discover whether or not intelligent deer taste as good as their lesser cousins.” Luna said blandly, and Scrivener Blooms sighed tiredly as Twilight shook her head and gave the sapphire mare a flat look, but the starry-maned winged unicorn only huffed loudly and glowered at them in response. “'Tis a perfectly valid curiosity!”

“No. No it isn't.” Scrivener muttered from the kitchen as he shifted through pans, looking for the one they had that Luna hadn't managed to somehow melt or warp. “Luna, you weren't trying to cook again, were you? Where's... oh, nevermind, here it is.”

“Here it is, here it is, Luna didn't ruin it after all.” Luna mumbled sulkily to herself, and then her soulstone horn glowed faintly as she rose it slightly, making Scrivener Bloom twitch and wince, then glare over his shoulder in her direction. Luna glared back... which was awkward, considering there was a wall between them. “I am not a complete idiot, Scrivy. Besides, when would I have found time to pretend I was thy wife and cook?”

“When I'm asleep. Like you usually do. Frittering around out here in my apron and going 'look at me, I'm Scrivener Blooms, I'm going to bake a cake!'” Scrivener retorted, badly faking a high pitched voice, and Luna scowled horribly before she tossed her gun aside, then stormed around the corner and into the kitchen.

“And now I shall be Luna, then!” She firmly bopped him with her horn, then grabbed him by the head and shoved him down, but even as Scrivener was knocked flat he managed to hook a claw out and seize her by a foreleg, yanking her limb out from beneath her and sending her toppling down... unfortunately, right on top of him.

The two shouted and squabbled as they wrestled with each other, and Innocence looked awkwardly around the corner as Twilight Sparkle sighed and shook her head slowly, then she said finally: “Come on, Sin, we should... Sin?”

But Innocence was completely distracted by watching her parents wrestle, seeing the way... they weren't using their full strength or trying to seriously injure each other, maybe, but neither seemed to mind hurting each other a little, and neither was holding back, just letting the other win. They were rolling back and forth like foals, cursing and flailing at each other, but... it was nothing like with Gymbr. When Gymbr sparred, whoever was fighting him put on a show... but there was clear submission in his servants even then. It was always clear from the very start who was going to win, and who was going to lose.

Here, though... her parents were arguing like foals, but wrestling to outdo the other. Scrivener would manage to roll on top and try to his the weight of his body to pin Luna; Luna would use her eternities of experience and her flexibility to wriggle out from beneath him, then raw muscle to try and slam Scrivy down on his side. It wasn't clear who was going to win, because both of them were fighting with all their strength... and yet none of their powers. Neither bowed their head to the other...

Sin watched as Luna finally managed to yank one of Scrivener's Talons high behind his back as she got her other foreleg across the back of his neck, pinning him down on his stomach. He groaned in pain, then gritted his teeth, trying to shove off the floor, but the mare bore down in just the right place and left him unable to move until he finally cursed and tapped his free Talon against the floor several times, and Luna grinned widely as she slipped off him... and to Sin's surprise, Scrivener was smiling already as well as he pushed himself up, shaking his head briskly before he said finally: “You're still a massive pain in the flank.”

“I would rather be nothing else.” Luna said kindly, and the two traded a quick kiss before the sapphire mare turned her eyes towards her daughter, giving a kind smile to Innocence. “Go, go and sit down. We shall have a little dinner, wait for Antares to return, and then celebrate tonight as a family. Because that is what we are... a wonderful, fortunate family.”

Innocence gave a brief smile in return, bowing her head and feeling a strange blush rise through her cheeks as she simply nodded a little, but even as she stepped backwards and allowed Luna to stride past her, even as Twilight Sparkle stepped up and touched her daughter's shoulder gently, Sin gazed into the kitchen; not at her father, but at the spot where her parents had been wrestling. Where they had been treating each other as equals, where they had shown they loved each other so much that one didn't have to submit to the other just to keep some delicate balance between them... where she had seen something she didn't entirely understand with the way Gymbr had twisted her, but that had stirred something strange inside her and made her long all the more to be part of this family again.

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