• 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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Enochian Ranks

Chapter Forty Eight: Enochian Ranks

Ponyville was on alert, and Celestia was doing her best to keep everypony calm, even though she herself was filled with fury and disgust by what had happened. Gymbr, however... both sides of the god were only smiling, even as Luna and Scrivener both loomed over their alter egos in the cell, neither exactly appreciating the creature's reaction to the fact that two – possibly three, if the surgeons didn't work fast enough – foals were dead, and the Light had made a blatant attack against them. “Accursed monster, wipe that look off thy foul features.”

“We apologize.” Gymbr smiled up at them again all the same, and Scrivener grimaced a little. He didn't know why, but the thing that always had and always would bother him most about this entity was how it was clearly... one person, split into two ponies. “But we are merely entertained that you have failed to see the truth of the matter. The Light does not care about what it calls the unwashed, but the Light will recognize your attachment to the mortals and use it against you. Just as Thesis did. Just as Decretum did. Just as every opponent has and will: the price of declaring your love for something is that it becomes a target for those you hate.”

Scrivener and Luna both grimaced and traded looks, and there was silence for a moment before Gymbr said softly: “The Light is learning about you. It is likely watching you, and it is likely conscripting those in Heaven who knew you into its flock. You have been foolish to make your friendships known, your allegiances so public.”

“'Tis better than to be like thou... so unable to find a friend thou wert forced to make soulless puppets out of the very ponies thou claimed thou wert trying to save.” Luna said disgustedly, and both sides of Gymbr narrowed their eyes and looked up with matching scowls, before the sapphire mare pointedly leaned toward Gymbr Luna and said loudly: “Besides, what has the cost been to thee of trying to hide all thy motives and do everything thyself?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then both sides of Gymbr looked down. They shook their heads slowly, then both looked up calmly before saying quietly: “Yes. We know of the Nephilim. We have fought and killed several ourselves. The Light considers them to be Necessary Evil, outlaw and rarely treated as if they are even alive... but powerful living weapons, all the same.

“The Pious communicate with one-another telepathically... and it is also how the Light controls them and sends them orders. They are like the drones and workers of the hive, and the Nephilim are meant to serve as warriors and destroyers.” Gymbr paused, then asked calmly: “Did you retrieve the sarcophagus? It is important.”

Luna and Scrivener traded uneasy looks, and then they both nodded slowly before the stallion said finally: “Yeah, the iron maiden... how did you know-”

“Because that is how the Nephilim are kept. Dogs inside kennels.” Both sides of Gymbr slowly looked towards Scrivener Blooms, and when they smiled, the earth pony shuddered a little. “They value their soldiers highly, do not ever doubt that. And these Nephilim inside the hive mind have no choice but to serve. But as we have learned... because Nephilim are born of a Pious and a demon, sometimes they are born outside the hive mind. These Nephilim are usually exterminated...”

“Selene. That's why her mother must have abandoned her... I guess she was supposed to die.” Scrivener murmured, and yet that didn't sound quite right to him. After all... frail or not, abandoning a creature like a Nephilim in the wilderness was far from a guaranteed method of killing it.

Luna grunted, then shook her head briefly before she turned her eyes back towards Gymbr, drawing her eyes between the weak-looking, still-wounded ponies both resting complacently on the ground. “Why is the... whatever thou called it so important?”

“The Nephilim may be the weapon of the Pious, but it is a sin to open their cages, as they disgust the Light.” Gymbr replied evenly, looking up at Luna with a discomforting smile. “But the cages can only be opened by those who are part of the Light's flock... and those who are willing to pay punishment in blood or death.”

“Thou... thou art saying that it is sealed by such wicked necromancy, that it requires a living sacrifice in order to open the sarcophagus? More, a sacrifice of those specifically bound to the Light itself?” Luna asked disbelievingly, and then she snarled and shook her head sharply, muttering: “By Mimir's head, this... this horrendous force of Light becomes more and more insane and terrible with every moment that passes...”

Scrivener grunted in agreement, but Gymbr only shrugged, replying calmly: “The Light is cunning and ruthless. It is not insane, it will not allow itself to be predicted, and even if you force your way into Heaven, defeating every foe in your path... the Light itself will still await you.

“But yet you did defeat us...” Gymbr said softly, looking more thoughtful as both of its heads lowered, the creature nodding more to itself than them as it murmured: “We have never tasted such defeat before. Perhaps, if you were able to stop us... you will also be able to stop the Light.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna said finally, trying to awkwardly push all the other countless streams of thought out of her mind for now: “We require information on the Light then, Gymbr. And on everything else thou knows. No more games.”

“Games are all we have.” Gymbr replied with a slow shrug, and there was silence for a few moments before the dual entity said quietly: “We are not friends, but we are allies by circumstance. You are free to punish us as you like, free to torment us, and once the Light is destroyed, you are free to kill us... but it would be beneficial for us all if you allow us to help. We wish to see the Light eradicated as much as you do... perhaps even more so.”

Luna grimaced at this, then she and Scrivener traded looks before the sapphire mare returned cold eyes to the split god. “There is no way we shall allow thou to merge back together, Gymbr. Thou shall stay Scrivener and Luna, and thou shall not leave this cell.”

“We are not Scrivener and Luna. We are Gymbr.” the two ponies said quietly as one, and then they both looked up and shook their heads, muttering: “And we cannot reunite. Not without our soulstone core, which we no longer sense in your possession. You are fools to give such power to Hel... she will use it only for her own misfortune.”

“Yeah, I'm sure she's going to use it for. I dunno, volleyball or something stupid that always brings bad luck.” Scrivener muttered, and Luna gave him a dry look. The charcoal stallion shrugged in response, then he said wryly: “Hey, do you know how many ponies die from volleyball? You'd be surprised. It's pretty dangerous for a non-contact sport.”

“Is this why thou won't let me play such games?” Luna asked, tilting her head, and Scrivener just looked at her for a few moments, which finally made her huff. “The point is to try as hard as thou can, aye? So I put my best into playing the game!”

“Yeah, and you're a Valkyrie, Luna, while Twilight and I are essentially nerds. Oh, sure, she's a Lich and I'm a Clockwork Pony, but that's just an undead nerd and a... poet.” Scrivener said finally, shrugging and gesturing awkwardly with one hoof towards her.

Luna glowered at him, and Scrivener looked lamely back before Gymbr said softly: “Your tricks won't work on us, Luna Brynhild, Scrivener Blooms, because we are you. We are the... penultimate versions of you both. We are one step away from perfection.”

The charcoal stallion and the sapphire, soulstone-horned mare silently turned their eyes towards Gymbr, and they both couldn't help but narrow their eyes slightly, unconsciously mirroring each other as they both felt the same strange feeling run down their spines. Gymbr knew them... probably much better than they knew Gymbr.

The two ponies looked steadily down at their alternate, so-called 'evil' twins, while they gazed steadily back, one with eyes tinged the faintest-bit greener, the other with sightless cataracts, before Scrivener finally remarked quietly: “That's nothing to be proud of.”

“It is not.” Gymbr agreed, and both sides of the god looked silently down as they each rose a front leg, one silently studying claw, the other gazing at her hoof. “It is not, because we were perfect, once. We were the most powerful thing in the universe... once.”

“Discombobulation gave me a quote to say to you. He said... 'there have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it: always.'” Scrivener said quietly, and Gymbr glared up almost defiantly at the earth pony.

“Yes, because those tyrants and murderers have always been mortal. Mortality is diseased with complacency, arrogance... and vulnerability.” Gymbr replied sharply, and both sides of the creature raised their heads high. “We are not mortal, nor soft, nor weak... we were, are, a god!”

“And here you lay, fallen.” Scrivener said quietly, and before Gymbr could speak, the charcoal stallion reached out and firmly flicked his alter self's nose with a single claw, making both sides of the god wince back. “You fell. Valthrudnir fell. Think that's a pretty solid proof for that statement.”

Both sides of the dual entity scowled, both reaching up to rub at their muzzles with the same short, quick gestures, and then they muttered in response: “But we are not destroyed. We may yet have one final moment of glory, where our ultimate goal is accomplished... and then it will be the tyrant, the dictator, the monster that has ensured the destruction of a force that would bring peace to the universe. It would declare us as ultimate victor.”

Scrivener and Luna traded looks at this, and then the sapphire mare glared down at Gymbr, snapping: “Wouldst thou stop referring to the Light as the savior of the universe? What the Light offers is not salvation! It is only chains and bondage!”

Both sides of Gymbr looked slowly up at Luna, studying her for a few moments before it simply smiled, replying quietly: “And how else would you save the universe that does not want to be saved, naïve Luna Brynhild? If not caged, songbirds will fly into the maws and claws of predators. If not leashed, dogs will feast on garbage and roll in their own excrement. If not captured, precious creatures would become extinct.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Luna shook her head slowly, murmuring: “There is no salvation without free will-”

“Why? Because you value yours so greatly? That is an action in and of itself of what you call 'free will,' and what any intelligent designer can see is a flaw. Intelligence and the ability to choose should not go hoof-in-hoof: they inevitably lead to destruction and suffering, as we the intelligent begin to oppress those we view as beneath us, to regard ourselves as higher than our stations simply because we are gifted with what we consider to be a superior ability to think... when perhaps that is precisely what makes so many ponies weak and inferior.”

Gymbr breathed slowly in and out, and Scrivener and Luna traded uneasy looks. Not just at the fact they had apparently just managed to strike a nerve, but at everything Gymbr was implying, everything the god was saying.

There was silence for a few moments, and then the god visibly shook both sides of itself out before looking up, saying coldly: “The Light is the only thing that can save the universe. We have seen what it does: it seeks to unify everything, as one family, one presence, one wholeness. It will eradicate the notion of free will, and under it, all thing will be ordered and supreme... but not simply a machine, as Valthrudnir imagined. As a whole, as a Great Congregation, as a Holy Family where all serve He Of Many Countless Faces and strive for the betterment of one-another. We cannot allow this to pass.”

Scrivener Blooms looked down, then he muttered: “If you really believe all that, Gymbr, then you're even more screwed up than I thought. We're protecting the world. We're not trying to stop it from being saved or anything insane like that. Free will... that's what lets us do anything we put our minds to, come up with new ideas, create-”

Both sides of Gymbr laughed at this, shaking their heads slowly before replying calmly: “And if you did not have it you would not care. Imagine, being able to be happy when you are told to be happy. Imagine, never feeling boredom, even when repeating the same tedious task over and over again. Imagine being free of pain, and responsibility, and jealousy and all the other emotions that make life... difficult. Imagine always knowing that you have a purpose, however large or small, and being able to be satisfied with that.”

“And I imagine that He Of Many Countless Faces may preach these glories to his followers, but has a will of his own. I do not trust the doctor that will not taste his own medicine... and nor do I trust the whims of a god who desires such complete control over his adoring flock.” Luna replied moodily, shaking her head slowly. “I can see now that thou art in no mood for further discussion. Scrivy, perhaps 'tis best if we leave this wretched cell.”

“Wait.” Gymbr looked up at them, and Luna and Scrivener both looked back, both ponies grimacing slightly... and then shuddering a bit when they felt themselves mirroring one-another, feeling especially self-conscious of that here and the presence of the dual entity.

Gymbr studied them in the silence, and then the creature said calmly: “We desire something. Some small comforts... they are nothing that you cannot afford, and we feel that we must deserve at least a few small tributes by now, for all we have provided for you. Furthermore, you desire more information in the future, do you not?”

Luna bared her teeth at the monster... but then she slowly took a breath, raising her head moodily and saying sourly: “Speak, foul wretch. What is it that thou desires? Small foals, perhaps, or wouldst thou like some vestal virgin's blood?”

The dual entity only shrugged its shoulders, then replied calmly: “We desire paper and pencils. Crayons, if you do not trust us with anything sharp or pointed.”

Luna scowled moodily, and Scrivener Blooms shifted slowly, frowning a little before he asked finally: “And how do we know you're not going to draw out some kind of... crazy runic magic thing? Old runic magic doesn't require anything but... knowing what to draw, pretty much. I know it's a little more complicated than that but...”

“Yes, we could still perform runic magic... we are not sure, but we think we can also still create mire, and perform some small spells...” Both sides of Gymbr glanced up, studying the gnarled and deformed horn standing out of Gymbr Luna's forehead. “Although we have not tried any of the above. Tell us: if we escape, where will we go? Freya would kill us. The Pious would kill us. Hel would torment us, and then throw us to Freya or the Pious. Or perhaps if she desired to bolster your confidence in her, to you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener and Luna traded looks again before they both felt Twilight Sparkle shift inside of them uneasily... and after a moment, the two ponies sighed and muttered, trading a quiet headbutt before they both turned their eyes towards Gymbr. “Fine. We'll get you one of those cheap paper booklets and some pencils or pens or something.”

“Thank you. We appreciate it.” Gymbr smiled at the two, and then both sides of the dual entity said softly: “We shall make you something as a token of our gratitude.”

“Oh joy. I shall stick it upon the cold box with a magnet.” Luna said sourly, and then she sighed and shook her head slowly before gesturing moodily at Scrivener Blooms with her head, and the charcoal stallion nodded a bit before he turned to follow Luna to the cell door.

They let themselves out, both tossing only one last, nervous look over their shoulders at the god, and Gymbr simply smiled at them. Then the heavy, armored door of the cell closed behind them, and the ponies traded uneasy looks before Luna mumbled: “'Tis a pox, Scrivener Blooms. 'Tis a damned pox upon us.”

Scrivener shrugged a bit, then he leaned over and pressed his head silently against the side of her neck, and Luna softened as she reached up and squeezed firmly into his shoulder. There was silence for a few moments between them, and then stallion drew back and traded a nod with her before he said finally: “We should get out of here. See if... we can help out in Ponyville.”

“The grieving parents do not desire our help...” Luna sighed quietly, shaking her head briefly. “We failed, Scrivy. We failed those poor foals... and still, at least four are missing, and even if Monkshood himself is leading the search for them...”

“We did everything we could.” Scrivener said quietly, but it didn't come across as a reassurance. It sounded bitter even in his own ears, and the stallion grimaced as he shook his head and muttered: “It just... it just wasn't enough. Our best wasn't good enough to stop him.”

“Aye, but the Whistler is gone, and we have destroyed a Nephilim. Let that be worth something, Scrivy, since all clues point to it being sent to destroy us... or at least test us.” Luna muttered, and Scrivener grunted in return before the sapphire mare began down the hall, the stallion following behind her and shaking his head out briefly.

They made their way in silence back up to the first floor of Kwolek Labs, and were stopped briefly by Greece, the Nibelung waving at them from down a hall and excusing himself from a conversation with several other dwarves. They looked at him curiously, and the Nibelung's smile toned down a little as he approached, saying gently: “I just thought you'd want to know that they have that foal you rescued in intensive care, but he survived surgery. If he makes it through tonight, he'll be fine. I think the parents want to thank you.”

“Then we had best avoid them until they come to their senses, and realize that they should hate us for allowing this to happen in the first place.” Luna grumbled moodily. Greece winced a bit at this, shifting uncomfortably, but then the sapphire mare sighed and shook her head slowly, murmuring: “Nay, nay. Excuse me, Greece... I have a serpent's tongue today. We saved many foals but... each that was lost is a tragedy and a travesty. The children...”

“I know. But Monkshood will find the foals that are lost, and Fluttershy has the Phooka searching as well. Their losses are sad, but... don't let it overwhelm you, Luna Brynhild. That may be the real point of this entire exercise... to hurt you, to get to you, to test you.” Greece said gently, and both ponies frowned up at him before the dwarf gave a small smile. “But excuse me. There are a lot of things for me to look after, now that... well, excuse me.”

The Nibelung awkwardly slipped away, and Luna and Scrivener gazed for a moment after the dwarf before they traded small smiles and slow shrugs. Then Scrivener said softly: “Methinks that someone needs to follow their own advice.”

“Shut up, Scrivy. 'Tis... well, 'tis good enough advice, after all. Particularly because we are... stupid that way.” the sapphire mare said softly, and Scrivener grunted in agreement after a moment before the two ponies turned to head down the hall, exiting first into the lobby, and then outside in silence, but trading so much between themselves without the need for words, or even to look or gesture at one another.

They looked back and forth, then strode quickly down the road in the opposite direction they usually went, just... letting their hooves guide them for now. Neither was really aware of where they were going, as they took a few back roads to avoid the gossip and groups of ponies and Nibelung all chatting and worrying about everything that was going on.

Yet all the same, neither was surprised as they found themselves exiting the northern gates, the stallion and the mare striding side-by-side together before they smiled a little as they both understood precisely where they were headed, and why. There was a certain other someone they needed to talk to, after all... well, two someones, really, because there was a pony they could definitely use the help of in keeping Ponyville safe, if the Light really was going to target friends and family just to try and lure them out and hurt them.

The two ponies strode through the open gates leading to Sweet Apple Acres... and then Luna smiled warmly, brightening as she saw Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom were here, talking with Avalon... and Pinkie Pie and Aphrodisia were even here as well, distracting Mercury and Lily

Luna shouted a greeting, and Mercury looked up sharply before she gave a wide, warm smile and leapt into the air, bolting towards her grandmother. Luna laughed as she leapt up, catching the young mare and spinning around with her once before she landed easily on three hooves, the last foreleg wrapped tight around the young mare and squeezing her close. “Oh gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous family! How glad I am to see all of thee safe!”

“Yeah, that about sums up how relieved I was, too.” Applejack's voice came, and Scrivener and Luna looked up as the wooden-hide mare strode almost shyly around the corner, carrying a tray of glasses of cider on her back... and Rainbow Dash was hovering nearby, looking grumpy but all the same still there, maybe even looking... protective of the mare who was his wife, as he carried a large keg of the same stuff between his legs.

Rainbow Dash dropped the barrel beside Applejack before he landed next to it, and then he awkwardly slipped a little away from her, clearing his throat before he greeted lamely: “Uh. Hey, guys.” He stopped, then frowned a little, becoming more serious as he added quietly: “We heard what happened, by the way...”

“We...” Luna stopped, then looked down at the twins: Mercury, smiling brightly up at Luna and still in one foreleg, while Lily was almost meekly standing a few paces away, but looking happily up at the sapphire mare all the same.

She looked up to her daughter, and Scarlet Sage smiled faintly before saying softly: “Lily, Mercury, why don't you go in with Pinkie Pie to get a snack, okay? Maybe you can grab a few things for us to eat, too, to go with the cider.”

Mercury scowled even as Lily simply nodded, before Applejack easily shrugged the tray off onto Rainbow Dash, who grumbled grouchily but took it willingly enough as the wooden-hide mare said almost desperately: “Here, let me, I mean... I still know my way well enough around my kitchen and all, and Pinkie, you should sit down and rest, and-”

“And they probably want to talk to you.” Avalon said flatly, glowering over at her mother. Applejack winced a bit, then turned a half-pleading look to her daughter, and the tiny Pegasus flitted back and forth before sighing and adding moodily: “You just... you should just stay... mom.”

Applejack smiled a little, and then Luna gently set Mercury down and ruffled her mane, making her huff. “Little terror, take thy much-nicer sister and go with big, scary Applejack. Harass her terribly about the mistakes she has made in life, but all the same remember that she is a good pony. She is a good pony, she has just... made an error in judgment. One that we shall take full advantage of in the future, fear not, but... we should ensure she remembers that she is always welcome here. All friends are always welcome here, no matter what happens.”

Luna looked back and forth pointedly, and Rainbow Dash sighed and slumped before he nodded awkwardly, while Avalon grunted and crossed her forelegs moodily, hovering on the spot. Applejack looked oddly touched as Pinkie Pie and Aphrodisia both looked up with smiles, and then Scrivener Blooms added mildly: “By the way, Avalon. We need to talk to you.”

Avalon blinked in surprise, and then Luna leaned down and winked at Mercury, saying pointedly: “So hurry back, sweet little filly. Thou may yet hear the sordid details of adult conversation yet, if thou art fast enough.”

Mercury grinned brightly at this, then she turned and bolted off for the house as Lily sighed and turned around, trotting after her sister calmly. Applejack laughed and shook her head, then she looked up with a small smile and said softly: “Thank you, Luna. I don't think... I ever truly appreciated what good folk you and Scrivy are.”

“Well, we are not, silly young oak. Besides, I know that thou art not like our enemies...” Luna stopped, then looked down and shook her head slowly, murmuring: “But I do not desire to speak of this at this juncture. Avalon, instead, I have a question to put to thee.”

Avalon traded a look with Apple Bloom, and then the tiny Pegasus tilted her head uneasily, asking sourly: “Why am I worried about how this is going to affect my health? Look, there is no way in hell I'm going to work with that crazy kid of yours... either crazy kid.”

“Hey, they're both trying really, really hard!” Aphrodisia complained, bouncing quickly across the lawn as Applejack turned to walk towards the ranch, and then the demon paused before suddenly bolting over to Scrivener Blooms, hugging him fiercely and making the stallion blink in surprise, then smile awkwardly and embraced the demon firmly in return. “Uncle Scrivy, Aunt Brynhild... don't take things too hard, okay? You did your best. We all know that... you would never, ever let anyone hurt anyone if you could stop them.”

“I would let many ponies hurt Scrivener Blooms. Or at least that is the way I feel sometimes.” Luna said mildly, but she couldn't hide the faint smile on her features as she felt a quiet tug at her heart. And when Aphrodisia looked up at her pointedly, the sapphire mare sighed before holding open her own forelegs, asking: “And where is my embrace?”

Aphrodisia smiled brightly, then popped away from Scrivener to spring over to Luna and hug her tightly, the sapphire mare returning the embrace tightly before Avalon cleared her throat loudly, asking mildly: “Hey, I-”

“Feel left out?” asked Pinkie Pie warmly, and the mare hopped over with a surprising fleetness of hoof for her age before she snatched the tiny Pegasus out of the air in a tight hug, making her wheeze and flail wildly. “There you go!”

“Dammit, come on!” Avalon complained, even as Apple Bloom and Rainbow Dash both laughed, Scarlet Sage smiling with amusement behind a hoof before the tiny Pegasus wriggled free, then glared over at Luna and flitted a safe distance into the air, out of the easy reach of any possible hugs. “You all suck so much.”

“Oh shush, buzzing little bug.” Luna huffed, and then the sapphire mare shook her head quickly and became more serious as Aphrodisia pulled away and sat companionably beside her aunt, smiling and resting her head on her shoulder as she half-clung to the winged unicorn. “But I have a request for thee. Ponyville will require defenders... and while the forces here are well-trained and strong, they are not... I cannot tell our militia to prepare to defend against monsters such as the Light plans to bring against us. But thou, Avalon... thou art strong, and brave, and even my son speaks highly of thee. I would like to ask thee to form a team that will defend Ponyville against anything the Light may send against the village, as I fear they might.”

Avalon frowned at this, and then she looked down, crossing her forelegs and hovering silently before Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom both looked up, the engineer volunteering quietly: “You got two right here that would be willing to listen to you.”

The young mare looked surprised at this, hesitating, and then Aphrodisia smiled and waved a hoof through the air, adding: “And I got a message telling me my training is going to be accelerated, because... you know, Hel wants to treat us special. So I'll be back up in Ponyville sooner rather than later, and you might not be my big brother, but... you know, I could stand listening to you, too.”

Avalon shifted awkwardly, and then the mare reached up and rubbed at her face, muttering: “I... no, it can't just... be a team of my friends or something. That's stupid.”

“Thou art stupid.” Luna retorted, as if she took personal insult at this, and Avalon gave the sapphire mare a sour look before the winged unicorn said firmly: “Tender Trust would be an excellent addition. Antares may volunteer, but he is loud and annoying and enjoys the role of leader far too much. Thou should slap him and remind him that he already has much promised with us. From there, though, thou must find others thou can work with, trust, and fight alongside.”

The tiny Pegasus flitted back and forth indecisively, and then she shook her head violently before gesturing almost pleadingly at Luna, snapping out: “I quit the Thunderbolts to come out here, and run Sweet Apple Acres, and now... now you're asking me to, what, abandon everything a second time and start being some die-hard military captain again?”

“Nay, I am asking thou to protect Ponyville.” Luna said quietly but firmly, and the small mare clearly had no response to this as she shifted uncomfortably, then sighed and dropped her head, nodding grouchily after a moment. Luna smiled, and Aphrodisia cheered a little, and then the starry-maned mare said softly: “Thou shan't regret this, Avalon Apple.”

“I already do.” Avalon grumbled, dropping her head before she glanced over her shoulder at her father, who gave her a smile. The Pegasus took heart at this, at least, fluttering up a bit higher into the air before she hesitated and turned her eyes back to Luna, asking quietly: “But... what the hell happened out there, Luna?”

“Bad things. Awful things.” Luna replied after a moment, lowering her head and shaking it briefly before she reached up to silently toy at the black pearl in her collar. She shivered a bit, then muttered: “The Whistler... was luring the foals away... even...” She bit her lip, then growled and gritted her teeth. “But 'twas all a cowardly trick! The Whistler was sacrificed to summon a Nephilim, and...”

“And we felt that from here.” Rainbow Dash muttered, grimacing and shaking his head briefly. “I don't know if you guys know or not, but there was a small earthquake. Well, more like an aftershock... knocked a whole bunch of apples off the trees in a burst, was like... watching a shockwave run past through the ground.”

Luna nodded with a grunt, then Apple Bloom added quietly: “Wasn't a real quake, of course... seismology equipment at the engineering lab didn't register any deep earth activity, but the magic instruments freaked right out, so we had an idea of what was going on right away. Well... that and the fact the foals marched right out of town...”

“Lily and Mercury didn't, though... they didn't seem... affected by it. And while I'm glad for it...” Scarlet Sage smiled faintly, reaching up and touching her own features as she closed her eyes. “The only reason I can think of why they were the only foals who weren't lured out by those strange psychic vibrations was because of... the same reason I could feel it, and Red could feel strings of it...”

“Thou thinks that thy blood has been passed onto them both. But 'twould be rare, and strange...” Luna smiled a bit all the same, making Scarlet Sage frown a bit before the sapphire mare looked up and said softly: “And perhaps not entirely an awful thing. Whether the powers are weak, or the powers are strong, daughter... I would rather see Blood Seers born to thee than to many other ponies the world over, if I am to speak true.”

“I know you mean something nice by that, Mom, but... I wish my kids had been spared this curse entirely. Even if they're just born with special perception, or youth that lasts a little longer than it should, they could be hunted, or treated as outsiders. They could end up with people wanting to hurt and study them...” Scarlet said worriedly, shaking her head, and Luna laughed quietly and smiled faintly as she studied her daughter for a few moments.

Then she stepped forwards, reaching up and touching Scarlet Sage's face as she said softly: “And because of their bloodline, daughter... perhaps they shall be anyway. Look at the coward Pious, look what they have done just to try and hurt myself and thy father: they attacked Ponyville's foals, sacrificed one of their own, slung a tortured and mutilated monstrosity at us. All because of who we are, and because they are the enemy.”

Scarlet Sage looked down, and Apple Bloom silently reached up to touch her shoulder before Pinkie Pie smiled faintly as she and Rainbow Dash approached, the pink mare reaching up to take a mug of cider off the tray on his back as she said softly: “But there's a lot of good stuff too, right? I mean, I might not really know a whole lot about all this stuff myself but... what I do know is that you guys have all stuck it out together, and you've helped all of us... really find our place with you, too. Right, Dash?”

Dash grunted, then he sighed and looked towards the house, chewing on his lower lip for a moment before he murmured: “You're right. You're... you're all right. Bad stuff is gonna happen and people are gonna hurt us no matter what, so all we can do is stick together... because all we really got is each other, right?”

Avalon looked up, and then the tiny Pegasus sighed before she nodded a little, saying almost grudgingly after a moment: “Yeah, Dad. You're right and... you're right. Just. You're also really just a giant cream puff, okay?”

Rainbow Dash huffed a little, but he was smiling faintly too as he nodded briefly and said finally: “I guess I kind of am. But your Mom and me... we went through a lot. I can't... abandon her after everything she did with me. Hell, I mean, on top of all that she kind of put up with me for all these years, and while I might still be pretty awesome and all...”

He stopped, then looked towards the house as Applejack exited, old worn cowboy hat on her head, Mercury riding proudly on her aunt's back with a box of cookies clutched against her chest and Lily smiling fearlessly up at the mare despite her wooden hide and her strange appearance.

Applejack responded to some question of Lily's, then looked ahead... and met Rainbow Dash's gaze automatically, her emerald eyes widening slightly before a faint, golden blush suffused her cheeks, and she almost stumbled on the steps. Rainbow grinned despite himself at this, stepping forwards as Applejack cleared her throat and shook herself out as she descended to the grass, and then she smiled as the Pegasus stallion teased quietly: “What, you forget how handsome I am?”

“I might have for a moment, Dashie. Forgot that and... other things.” Applejack replied softly, and she smiled faintly as she strode towards him, hesitating a little before leaning in and sharing a quick, chaste kiss on the lips with her husband. Immediately, Mercury made a gagging sound and buzzed up into the air with the box of cookies, while Lily only giggled quietly and looked adoringly at her aunt and uncle.

Apple Bloom sighed and shook her head, but she gave a small smile and a brief nod after a moment as Scarlet Sage gazed silently over at Applejack, then gave her own faint smile of approval, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards. Avalon only scowled, but her body visibly loosened up as she turned back towards Luna, asking moodily: “What's my time frame for assembling this team? Soon as possible, yeah, but how many days are you giving me to get equipment together and coordinate everyone?”

“Three days. A week at the very most.” Luna responded, and then she turned her eyes towards Applejack, who was sitting and looking... relaxed, even happy, beside Rainbow Dash, her head on his shoulder as he relaxed while Aphrodisia served the tray of cold beverages around. “What does thou remember of the Light? Thou must have seen some of Gymbr's plans.”

Mercury looked up excitedly as Lily shifted worriedly away, and Applejack glanced awkwardly at her nieces before she said finally: “I know you're looking for answers, Luna, and... I'd give 'em to you if I could, but I really wasn't there all that long. Can't say I was ever really taught anything, either... wouldn't you be better off asking the Fates, anyway? They were the ones who knew Gymbr best.”

Luna shook her head briefly, saying softly: “I shall speak to them soon, but... I fear that they may have been tampered with by Gymbr. Their memories may not be entirely intact, or they may be... modified. Or worst of all, perhaps they will simply give me the answer I desire to hear, not what is truth, which could have dire consequences.”

Applejack nodded slowly, and then the wooden-hide mare shifted before she said hesitantly: “All I... really remember is that the Pious are supposed to be terribly, awfully strong... but they break like anything else. Gymbr called 'em 'brittle' a lot, even if I never actually saw... how brittle.”

“But I bet you would have really smashed 'em to bits, right?” Mercury said enthusiastically, grinning widely as she pumped her front hooves in the air, and Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage both winced a bit. Applejack only smiled faintly at the young mare's excitement, however, shaking her head briefly even as the filly continued excitedly: “I mean you're like, super strong, right, like even stronger than Big Mac strong now, and-”

“Mercury, come now! Leave thy aunt alone, quacking duck, or thou art going to get scolded later by thy mothers!” Luna half-chastised, half-warned, and Mercury blushed a bit before she nodded awkwardly and flitted around in a circle, still clutching the cookies close. “And give me that accursed box or I shall kick thee to the-”

She didn't get a chance to finish, as a black mass splashed upwards from the ground, and Luna and Scrivener both winced as Avalon bared her teeth, readying herself to fight. But a moment later, the semi-liquid mass twisted on itself and transformed, solidifying quickly into Myre, who shook herself out before turning her eyes towards the soulbound ponies worriedly. “You're safe! I was sent by Freya to find you... but... I feel her presence, but where's Twilight?”

“Gone. For the moment. But she'll be back.” Scrivener said quietly, looking awkwardly at Myre: the strange mass of living corruption seemed maybe a little too anxious for his liking, the stallion trading an awkward look with Luna before he said finally: “Don't worry about us, huh?”

The effect was immediate, Myre loosening up and smiling across at them as she rose her head a little, and then he pawed a hoof at the ground, saying lamely: “I apologize, Luna, Scrivener. But all of us were worried about you... we worry that we failed our masters. And we should have recognized what was going on, but Freya had us lock down the perimeter of Ponyville and corral as many foals as we could before they could leave...”

“Then thou did not fail us at all, did thou? Thou had thy job. We had our own.” Luna replied gently, and then she looked mildly over at Avalon, who was still glaring daggers at Myre. “Thou art putting on a great show of hospitality, truly. Sweet Apple Acres continue to earn its renown as-”

“Knock it off.” Avalon grumbled, and then she buzzed down out of the air to snatch the box of cookies away from Mercury, who huffed loudly and glared at the tiny Pegasus... who was maybe a little smaller than her, although Luna did her best not to comment on this even as Myre looked awkwardly at the little mare. “You know what the whole point of owning this place is? It's that I don't have to be nice to everypony who marches in through those gates.”

Applejack cleared her throat pointedly, and Rainbow Dash looked mildly at his daughter as he sipped slowly at his glass of cider, and the tiny mare grumbled under her breath before she finally scowled over at Myre, muttering: “Nice to meet the first of the weird-ass pony slaves.”

“Avalon, language, come on now.” Apple Bloom said pointedly, gesturing at Mercury and Lily: the former was grinning behind her hooves, while the latter was covering her ears with a blush. “And uh... Myre, right? Well you'll excuse us for being a little... tense. Especially around-”

She winced as Scarlet Sage stomped on one of her hooves and smiled awkwardly, but Myre only shrugged and smiled in return, saying softly: “I understand completely. I served Gymbr... but I'd like to point out that so did someone else here.”

Applejack glanced awkwardly away at this, and Apple Bloom looked both sour and impressed all at once as Luna frowned over at Myre. Scrivener studied the entity as well, but his eyes were a little more appraising, focusing on what Myre had just done: challenged Apple Bloom, spoken to her in a way that she never would to him or Luna.

She had said precisely what would make Apple Bloom respect her: she was reflecting again, instead of displaying any of her own thoughts or emotions. The stallion wondered uneasily how she managed to do it so quickly, so smoothly, whether it was some kind of psychic ability or an acuity even sharper than Antares' own.

Mercury looked up curiously as Lily looked uneasily over at Applejack, but the wooden-hide mare only smiled faintly even as Rainbow Dash stepped forwards and said firmly: “Look, we all... she was just doing what she thought was right, so don't-”

“I was, but I still did it.” Applejack said quietly, reaching up and gently grasping the blue Pegasus' shoulder, and the stallion glanced over at her and gave a faint smile before he closed his eyes and nodded briefly. The wooden-hide mare nodded back, then she turned her eyes quietly back towards Myre, saying softly: “Luna and Scrivener fought a Nephilim. They need some help figuring out... what Gymbr was up to against the Pious.”

Myre nodded after a moment, turning a smile towards Scrivener and Luna before she dropped her head forwards and said softly: “I'd be glad to tell you everything I can. I hope it makes up a little for us not being there to help.”

Luna grunted, then the sapphire mare looked over at Avalon, who was hovering moodily nearby. “Well, thou knows what is expected of thee. We must... well, I suppose we should go see my sister first, Scrivy. Then we will have to go home and ensure Innocence is safe.”

Scrivener nodded, before Myre said helpfully: “Twilight Shadow was sent to find Innocence, and make sure she was safe.”

“Well, 'twill be interesting to see if she can make her way past the wards... assuming Innocence remembers what we taught her as a child.” Luna said mildly, trading looks with Scrivener Blooms, and the stallion nodded, admittedly a little curious himself. After the attacks that had been made on their home over the years, Luna and Twilight had both gone to great lengths to set up wards around their house that could be activated from inside to make it impenetrable and invisible. Of course, a powerful enough mage could probably still sense it out and power their way through it, but the massive magic battery that kept everything in their home functioning would put up a hell of a fight before breaking or letting itself be drained.

“I guess that's our cue to go. You know. Apart from the angry little pony glaring at us.” Scrivener Blooms said pointedly, glancing over at Avalon, who only blew a loud raspberry in response. Luna snorted in amusement, then nudged Scrivener a few times even as she mentally egged him on, and after a moment the stallion couldn't help but say: “You know, just because your everything else is short doesn't mean your temper has to be, too.”

“I could kick your ass, you know.” Avalon threatened, zooming over to lean threatening down into Scrivener's face, and then the stallion winced as she shoved a hoof up against his nose, glaring at him challengingly. “And I wouldn't have to hold back or feel bad about it either, Mister Clockwork Butthead. No wonder Antares turned out to be such a crazy douche, you're a douche and she's crazy.”

“Well thou art... thou hast a heavy buttocks!” Luna retorted after a moment, and Avalon only looked at the winged unicorn sourly before the starry-maned mare huffed and spun on her heel, declaring: “Come, Scrivy! We have dealt long enough with the dwarf, 'tis time for us to go.”

“Dwarf. Dwarf!” Avalon growled, and then she glared over at Mercury when the foal giggled and Apple Bloom smiled amusedly despite herself, rolling her eyes. “You two are a lot less funny than when I was a kid, you know that, right?”

Luna only shrugged amiably as she led Scrivener away, Myre tossing a smile to the others before hurrying after the two, and as they strode away from Sweet Apple Acres the sapphire mare became a little more serious, looking over at the Fate before saying quietly: “I need thou to be honest with me, and I want for thou to be... thyself. Listen, but be thyself.”

Myre smiled a little, dropping her head as her darker mane swayed silently around herself, before she murmured: “I'm trying, Luna. But everything in me... I want to please you. Both yourself and Scrivener Blooms, as a matter of fact... it's very hard to rebel, to push back against what I've been programmed to do.”

Luna nodded after a moment, smiling faintly before she and Scrivener traded looks, and then the soulstone-horned pony finally said softly: “Aye, I understand. But all the same, thou must try, because I must know the answers thou gives me are honest ones.”

Myre nodded hesitantly, then she lowered her head for a moment before smiling faintly. “Alright, Luna. I will do my very best. It helps to think... that this is what you truly want of me. I can turn the programming against itself and... feel...”

Myre shivered and shook her head a little, before taking a slow breath and saying softly: “My siblings and I, as you call them... we were designed specifically to counteract the Light's forces, so that Gymbr could focus on fighting the Light... He Of Many Countless Faces... Himself. We have fought and killed Nephilim ourselves, and... other things. Worse things. The Nephilim are only Necessary Evil... beneath the Low Born, beneath the bourgeoisie of the Powers and Dominae, beneath the Most Loved Choirs... beneath, of course, the Cardinals.”

Luna frowned at this, and Scrivener asked slowly: “Are you talking about the hierarchy of the Light? How do you know all this?”

“From... from when we were taken over by the Light.” Myre shivered again, stopping in the middle of the road leading back to Ponyville, and Scrivener and Luna both halted and turned around, studying the mare as she closed her eyes and dropped her head forwards, breathing slowly in and out. “So much information was pushed into our minds... so many prayers and rituals and recitations. So much that Gymbr had to overrule and wash out with the darkness, but...”

Myre looked silently down at one of her hooves, then she looked up with a faint smile. “But what did he do to us in return? He did the exact same thing, didn't he...”

Myre shuddered, and then she looked up almost pleadingly as she rubbed at her features, whispering: “Please don't make me remember anymore. Please don't... don't make me face the truth... I... I can't do it...”

“Thou can.” Luna said softly, and Myre clenched her eyes shut before the sapphire mare smiled faintly. “But... nay, not right now, Myre, I can show thee some small mercy. Be... be at peace, and walk beside us. Thou can... tell us a little of the Light as we walk. But do not strain thyself, and do not let the memories take over. Be at peace.”

The Fate smiled and immediately relaxed, and Scrivener and Luna both smiled faintly at the strange winged unicorn... but in spite of the sadness they felt for her, the gratitude in Myre's eyes seemed like something more than programmed. There was silence for a few moments, and then she cleared her throat before nodding once, murmuring: “Thank you. Should we keep walking?”

“Yes. And tell us about the Light... what are the Cardinals? Are they Pious?” Luna asked quietly, and Myre shook her head. Mares and stallion turned to head down the road, Myre letting herself follow a little behind the two, looking almost like a fawning escort as she explained:

“No. At least... at least I don't think so. They're the ruling council for He Of Many Countless Faces... we've only ever glimpsed them, and Gymbr only ever managed to kill one of them.” Myre paused, then shook her head briefly. “All we really know is that we're supposed to listen to them, but they... I'm almost completely sure they're not Pious. The Pious range from Low Born to Powers, but the Dominae upwards are other forces of the Light.”

“The Whistler was Low Born.” Luna muttered, and then she shivered and shook her head, growling: “I dare not guess what these... higher-classes comprise, then, but I am sure that sooner or later they too shall try their fortune against us. We shall simply have to be prepared for when that time comes, that is all.”

“They only threaten other heavens.” almost blurted Myre, and Luna and Scrivener both looked over their shoulders with surprise, the Fate looking back at them with a small smile. “They don't care about mortals or hell or demons... they only retaliate against them. But they'll actively hunt down other angels and heavens to infect them with their Light... and you are... Valkyrie.”

Luna stopped, and the other ponies halted as well before the sapphire mare grinned bitterly and laughed in spite of herself, shaking her head slowly and muttering: “Well, 'tis the first time in... ever, that I have been attacked for being seen as angel instead of Nightmare Moon or demon. Now if only I truly was a monster of the night, Scrivener Blooms... think of it, the so-called Light might actually have forgotten about us. But then does that mean Freya...”

“And Terra, and Taruos. Only Lord Kvasir might be safe, but that's because of what he's become... the Light can't track the Mad Hatter. No one can.” Myre replied quietly, and there was silence for a few moments before she studied Luna's reaction curiously.

The soulstone-horned mare was looking down, grimacing a little as Scrivener Blooms studied his soulmate silently. There was quiet for a few moments, before Luna finally looked up and said softly: “Then 'tis unfortunate that we shall have to learn to trace the untraceable. And I suppose that means we will need to speak to Hel, and get her assistance in this matter... damnation.”

“Hel wishes to help. That's all.” Myre smiled after a moment, studying Luna and Scrivener silently. “Haven't you ever had a place or a person that you wanted to protect, no matter what? Haven't you ever had feelings for something... for someone... that, even if they didn't return them, even if they hated you, you'd still try and stretch out to protect them all the same?”

Luna and Scrivener traded looks, then they both nodded a little before Myre nodded back, closing her eyes. “I feel Lady Hel's energies coursing through my spirit. She wants to help. I'm sure of it, no matter what she says or does otherwise.”

The stallion only grunted, and the sapphire mare sighed a little before she glanced away, saying wryly: “Well, the goddess has a strange way of showing it. Come though, we... we have to see Celestia, and I am anxious to see my daughter as well.”

Inside her, Twilight Sparkle shifted quietly in agreement, and Scrivener Blooms smiled a little himself before he said softly. “Yeah, but... well, can you communicate with Twilight Shadow or anything, find out what's going on with her?”

Myre hesitantly nodded, saying finally: “We sort of... sense each other, but even if we have the same anchor, we don't really feel anything beyond each other's presence.”

There was a pause for a moment, and then she smiled a bit. “But if something was wrong, I'm sure Twilight Shadow would have sent up a flare or... gotten our attention somehow. By now she must have reported back, either way.”

Luna only grunted and nodded, and the three continued on mostly in quiet as the two soulbound ponies digested the information that Myre had passed on to them. In spite of Gymbr's warnings, they had always assumed that the Light was really just the Pious, and their God, He Of Many Countless Faces... but now it sounded like the Light was far more expansive and far more organized than they had assumed. Yet all they had seen so far was the Pious... was that a good sign, or did that just mean that they had only seen the start of what the Light was capable of?

They headed back into the village, and did their best to smile to ponies who ran up to them to congratulate them and thank them for saving the foals: something neither pony felt they deserved any thanks for. Luna was almost tempted to use magic to veil them from sight, but they managed to make the library without too many delays or much conversation, and Luna and Scrivener pushed their way in with sighs of relief as Myre glanced awkwardly over her shoulder once at the ponies that were half-following them, then she quickly closed the door.

Celestia looked up from beside Dusk, and Luna smiled wryly despite herself: somehow, they looked even more similar with Celestia's ivory mane. “I suppose Freya requires a debriefing from her soldier Brynhild?”

“Actually, I just need to make sure my little sister is okay, especially with what I heard happened. But Twilight Shadow already returned here and performed... an interesting piece of magic.” Celestia smiled a bit, even as she studied Luna and Scrivener intently. “She was able to copy the energies in the air from where you fought the Nephilim and show me the last few moments of the battle. Do you remember that magic, Luna?”

“I remember thou used to use a spell of that kind to see what Sleipnir and I were up to.” The sapphire mare smiled in return despite herself, shaking her head briefly before she murmured: “Thou once used that spell on us and then threatened to beat us both within an inch of our lives, as I recall. Well... on more than one occasion, actually.”

Celestia smiled slightly wider herself at this, replying gently: “Because as I recall, on more than one occasion you and Sleipnir had to go out and do things that would very quickly attract the attention of the Barons, or the bounties we were hunting, or something else that would either impede our current objective or leave you both covered in sores, boils, rashes...”

“Oh, that happened once.” Luna scoffed, and Celestia laughed, Dusk smiling a bit beside her before the sapphire mare hesitated, then asked finally: “So what does thou think?”

Celestia looked down, expression toning down into a small, faint smile that betrayed her concern as she said softly: “I think you're fortunate. If Twilight Sparkle hadn't been a Lich, and absorbed the brunt of the attack while using her magic to shield you both...”

Luna nodded slowly, looking down and muttering: “These Nephilim will be powerful foes. And if thou hast not already been informed, they are considered to be the dregs of the Light. Hunting dogs.”

“Hunting dogs are often more dangerous than their handlers, Luna. It's neither good news nor bad news, but it is useful information.” Celestia replied quietly, and then she shook her head briefly before saying softly: “Twilight Shadow is doing some research for me in the other room, on wards we might be able to use to stop the Pious from dropping another soul cask into our world.”

“'Tis not a soul cask, 'tis just a giant damned cage. There was no great whoosh of magic, but only an opening door... no portal, for all the magic it emanates.” Luna shivered a bit. “'Tis an awful thought, but I believe the magic is simply used to keep the Nephilim inside and in agony. They madden their own animals, like the sand-hunters used to.”

Celestia grimaced at this before a voice remarked mildly: “You two really have seen a whole lot of crap, haven't you? That's cute, how you always got some metaphor from your memories to bounce back to no matter what the me we're talking about. It's pretty good. Not as good as it could be maybe, but... pretty damn good all the same and all.”

All eyes looked up before Dusk and Myre bowed deeply: one of Hel's ice puppets was leaning calmly against the shelves, a slight smile on her face before she cocked her head strangely, then huffed and remarked grumpily: “Oh shut the me up, you watered down biscuit. I'm... oh, great, forgot. Sorry, ignore that. I was just talking to our favorite new friend, he's somehow managed to sneak his way into my cloister. But I guess when you're chaos incarnate, the rules don't if you don't use a goddamn coaster on that table I am going to rip your teabag off, do I make myself clear?”

Hel glared furiously off to the side, twitching a few times before she cleared her throat and fanned herself, smiling over at Celestia. “Sorry, darling. Well, you must know what it's like. You have a chaos entity of your own, yes? Can't live with them, can't housetrain them. Although at least Theophilius isn't a Draconequus, so he doesn't shed all over the place.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Celestia simply asked: “So you trust Kvasir enough to let him into your home, even with as... careful... as you're known to be?”

“Honey, I don't trust anyone enough to just open the door to them. But you know, sometimes pests move in whether you want them to or not.” Hel replied mildly, shrugging a bit and making a twirling gesture with one hand. “Then you just need to make the best of it. Breed the maggots into butterflies or something, I don't know, I don't know bugs or birds or... whatever they are.”

Luna snorted in wry amusement at this, and then she winced in shock as a pair of friendly hands grasped her shoulder and the Mad Hatter himself leaned in beside her as if he'd always been there, smiling pleasantly as he remarked cheerfully: “I like to think I'm a little of neither, and a little of all of the above! I fear that I may have worn out my welcome with the White Queen, though.”

“Why you gotta be so racist?” Hel asked mildly, and then the ice puppet easily flicked a wrist, creating a pair of sunglasses she put on over her eyes. “I'm just chilling with my homies in FreyFrey's crib, lookin' to hook her up with some sweet info and sweeter bling, if she got the green.”

Scrivener ground his teeth together and shuddered a little as Luna looked mildly over at the goddess, saying dryly: “Normally I would encourage thee to speak further along this theme, but... we are at a rather serious juncture, Hel, and the last thing we need is for my husband's little mind to implode. 'Tis normally Celestia's duties, but... let us dispense with the madness for the moment.”

“Easier said than done! It's time for tea, Brynhild!” the Mad Hatter chirped, leaping backwards as he held up his hands with a bright smile, a large teapot appearing in his grip as he looked excitedly around. “Oh, look at you all, gathered here! Now we're just missing the Dormouse and the March Hare, and Alice, Alice, oh, where is dearest Alice? I... I...”

Then the Mad Hatter trembled, before he cursed and dropped the teapot, the porcelain shattering against the floor with a spray of amber essence, tea spreading like a puddle of blood from the corpse of the ceramic before the strange mix of Jötnar and god looked up, everything and yet nothing changing as Kvasir said quietly: “I can only hold this for a few minutes. Drop the act, Hel.”

“Don't tell me what to do, Kvasir, or I'll make blood pudding out of you.” Hel retorted, glowering moodily over her sunglasses before she rolled her eyes when Kvasir glared at her. Luna turned towards the former King of Heaven, opening her mouth... but then forcing herself to close it when the goddess added distastefully: “And hey, we get it, you're all glad to see him. But if you don't want to waste Kvasir's limited time, we should have a talk. Not that I'm actually listening to you or anything, honeybutt.”

Kvasir smiled wryly at this, and then he glanced down at Luna as she and Scrivener gazed up at him before Celestia said quietly: “I'm sorry I failed you, Kvasir.”

“You didn't, Celestia. But on to business.” Kvasir shook himself quickly, breathing slowly as he rubbed at his features before muttering: “I can already feel my personality... being absorbed back into Theophilius. And I know you need and deserve explanations, but I simply don't have the time to give them. All I have time for is...”

He shook his head briefly, and Hel said quietly: “Tell them about Theophilius, Kvasir. I'll fill in the rest of the bakery afterwards, honeybutt, but I don't think they'll believe me if I tell them.”

Kvasir nodded shortly, and he took a slow breath before reaching up to absently adjust his tie, neatening his suit as best he could as he said quietly: “ Theophilius Carter, the Mad Hatter... a figment of Draconequus Prophecy. The first, and the last god of chaos... a living oxymoron.” Kvasir smiled bitterly. “Emphasis on the 'moron.'

“I am not Theophilius. Theophilius... is what's taking me over.” Kvasir looked down silently, clenching a gloved hand into a fist. “Hel's messenger, Foldraumr, was... absorbed and transformed immediately. But I am not just essence and spirit. It's my body, and I can still... for brief flashes, I can control myself. And even when I'm gone... perhaps part of me will remain in Theophilius' subconscious, and I'll be able to influence him... assuming I'll have any awareness at all.”

Kvasir breathed slowly, and then he gritted his teeth and gestured sharply at Luna when she began to open her mouth, and the mare's eyes bulged in shock as an enormous, shiny red apple appeared in her mouth. “I do not have the time for any... distractions...”

He shuddered, then shook himself out and smiled wryly after a moment, looking down at his own hand as Luna cursed and shook her head wildly back and forth, trying to get the apple out of her jaws as Scrivener stared at her in disbelief. “I would apologize, but I don't feel particularly sorry. These powers do have... some uses. Strange as they tend to manifest themselves.”

“Theophilius, honeybutt. Concentrate.” Hel said mildly, but there was something urgent in her tone, and the god nodded briefly a few times before he closed his eyes.

He straightened after a moment, then returned his eyes to Celestia even as Luna finally simply crushed the apple in her jaws and spat the pieces out, shaking her head out fiercely. “No, you can't save me... I was dead the moment I was wounded in the battle against the Light. Theophilius is... in a sense, he is me, turned upside down and mixed with Foldraumr. The Draconequus... they said that the purpose of the Mad Hatter was to signal the end of days, to bring ultimate chaos, but... I don't... believe that is truly the Mad Hatter's purpose. Yes, he is chaos, I have become... chaos incarnate, but...”

Kvasir shuddered, hugging himself as he fought against something before he clenched his eyes shut, saying raggedly: “But it is not that... the... the Mad Hatter, and the White Queen, and even the Jabberwocky... all of us... we have to stop what threatens our beautiful Wonderland... we have to destroy the a-a-absence of imagination... no, fix it, the... the Lonely Child...”

“Honeybutt, come on, hold on for a minute more! Don't leave me hanging here!” Hel snapped, but there was a strange edge to her voice that almost turned it into a plea, and Luna looked up in surprise as both she and Scrivener heard it: was that actual worry? Fear? Pain? “Come on, I don't want to... explain all this crap myself!”

“I... I...” Kvasir grabbed at either side of his head, shivering... and then it was clearly Theophilius Carter who looked up with a smile, flicking his wrists out to either side before rapidly brushing wrinkles into his neatened suit and absently loosening his tie, saying kindly: “I apologize, White Queen, but you know that even you can't tell Father Time it's not time for tea: and why, I imagine if you ever did, he might agree with you! And then you might never experience teatime again!”

“I've gone without it for a long time, Theophilius.” the goddess said quietly, and she sounded... almost disappointed, as the Mad Hatter gazed at her with sympathy. “Kvasir...”

“There are no Kvasirs here, I fear. Only a Mad Hatter, and... oh, I am terribly sorry. Gryphon, Mock Turtle, and all the other members of the Parliament of Roses, I am late, so late, running so late for tea! I have to see Alice, oh, something inside me cries out that I have to find Alice and tell her everything is going to be okay.” Theophilus clutched at his breast, even as he smiled warmly around at them all. “We'll all sit down and have tea later, shall we? All of us, and you can even bring your pretty dolls, and even the Jabberwocky and the Cheshire Cat and oh, we'll have a seat for everyone... but I must see Alice, I must see Alice, so excuse me excuse me and away I go!”

And with that, Theophilius reached up and pulled off his hat, sweeping it out in a low bow, but he vanished in mid-movement, as if he had never really been there at all. The ponies could only stare in disbelief, as Myre and Dusk only continued to sit with their heads bowed silently at Hel's presence, before the goddess herself sighed and reached up to take off her sunglasses, looking down at these silently and saying quietly: “Somehow, this just doesn't seem funny anymore.”

She was silent for a moment, and then Celestia looked up and said quietly: “Theophilius... you think he's the key to stopping He Of Many Countless Faces.”

“I don't, actually. But I do think he is a key.” replied Hel evenly, the puppet glancing up and looking squarely across at Celestia. “The Mad Hatter can slip his way past even my defenses, and that ain't no mean feat. And as loathe as I am to admit he, he's probably as strong as I am, too. But he has no focus, and Kvasir can only... every time he surfaces, every time he takes control, it's for a shorter and shorter time, and it's killing him, sweet pop. There's not much of Kvasir left in there...

“So here's the rub. You have to either find a way to get Kvasir in control of Theophilius... or you have to figure out some way to make chaos incarnate listen to your orders and focus. And unfortunately, a buttload of Ritalin ain't gonna cut it. Tried that already. Just made him giggle a lot.” Hel stopped, then rolled her eyes as the ponies looked at her. “And there goes one perfectly good joke wasted on you dumb ponies. Get with the program, will you? The damn cartoon has a human alternate universe or something. But I like to think it's strayed slightly from the core world mechanics. I mean, the whole Princess thing, that's really more of a final episode deal than anything else, am I right?”

Luna and Scrivener traded awkward looks, and then Discombobulation carefully leaned up from behind Celestia as if he had been hiding there the whole time as he said pointedly: “Even though this goes against my better judgment, telling a goddess of bad stuff not to do things that I do all the time... please don't troll the bronies, Hel.”

“It's kind of my job.” Hel replied pointedly, and then she brushed at herself before making the sunglasses vanish, the ice puppet adding mildly: “Hey, puppets. Get lost. The big kids have to talk about something important.”

Myre and Dusk both looked up and nodded quickly before turning to scurry out, and Luna scowled a little before she said moodily: “I dislike where all this is headed, Hel. Thou rarely brings us gifts and good news, and we are... in a complex situation.”

“Oh, I do have a gift today, though.” Hel's smile turned colder as she held up a hand... and a moment later, a dead Pious appeared in it in a burst of blue mist. Discombobulation stared for a moment, then he slowly hid back behind Celestia again even as the ivory mare's eyes sharpened and she leaned forwards with interest: the corpse was covered in red marker, and Hel said calmly: “Meat. And I was even nice enough to mark where all the good cuts are and applied a permanency charm so it won't rot. Should provide a nice anatomy model for you.”

She slung the corpse onto the table, scattering papers in all directions as it landed in front of Celestia, but the ivory mare only looked up evenly, not speaking, not reacting. Luna grimaced as Scrivener looked uneasily over at Hel, before the goddess added mildly: “And I got one other thing to tell you, too. A story about another world, with a little something-something on it left behind from the days me and Vally-wally were almost-friends. You could almost call it... an interdimensional garage-door opener. You know, if you used a hydrogen bomb to open your garage. Either way, it's a great way to ruin someone's day and blow open the doors to Valhalla.”

Scrivener, Luna, and Celestia all turned their full attention to Hel, even as Discombobulation uncomfortably twiddled his fingers behind the ivory mare. And even though the ponies could see from Hel's grin they were undoubtedly going to end up striding right into danger... they knew they had no choice but to continue towards the end of this three-act tragedy, no matter how it was destined to end.

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