• 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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Agony And Ecstasy

Chapter Fifty Five: Agony and Ecstasy

Both halves of Gymbr looked curiously down at the pad of paper Luna had just flung to the ground in front of it, and then they both smiled before saying softly: “You should not blame us for what has happened. Our senses are weak, but... we have heard the noises above. And Antares came to visit us... we enjoyed that very-”

“Shut up.” Luna growled, and then she disdainfully tossed a few pencils and a worn-down eraser on top of the cheap paper pad, saying sourly: “Here. Tomorrow, perhaps, thou may be moved to a new facility. By which we mean we plan to lock thee up in the library basement where thou can moulder for the rest of eternity, creature, since thou does not seem to be getting any stronger.”

“It is difficult to regain our strength while lacking a heart of any kind.” Gymbr replied calmly, and then both sides of Gymbr reached forwards, mirroring each other: only Gymbr Luna touched the sketchpad, however, dragging it in front of her... yet even as she carefully swept the pencils and eraser off the top, Gymbr Scrivener continued to unconsciously move with her, making the ponies they darkly reflected wince. “We thank you for providing this for us. We shall get to work immediately on a present for you. We know that you may be tortured beyond recognition in the near future, after all.”

Luna looked sourly at the two halves, and Scrivener gave a wry smile, asking dryly: “Is that a note of defiance I hear? Or is that just you trying to be a complete jerk and failing? Because it's not really a threat or anything when we're both well-aware the Pious are going to do that.”

The sapphire mare gave him an exasperated look as both sides of Gymbr laughed quietly, and then the creature said calmly: “Yes, they will. All we are unsure of is whether or not it will be before or after He Of Many Countless Faces is destroyed... we have been thinking, you see.”

Both Luna and Scrivener scowled a little, but Gymbr was unfettered, and Scrivener had to repress a shiver: the Luna half of Gymbr had calmly started to sketch, and the Scrivener half was mirroring her movements perfectly, drawing on an invisible sketchpad with an invisible pencil, and again the charcoal stallion found himself wondering.... would he and Luna eventually become like this? “We kill the King to elect a Prince: if there are no suitable heirs, then a thousand new 'Kings' rise up, declaring themselves the rightful heir to the throne. If you destroy He Of The Many Countless Faces... if you defeat the Light... who will take Lord God's place?”

“This is not the time for such philosophy. We must drive the Light out of Heaven, and to do that He Of Many Countless Faces must be destroyed. Let them squabble over the throne, and elect a warlord if they so desire: when we kill their so-called 'True God,' our cruelty will make even the most brash and brazen of barbarians give pause at the thought of starting war with us anew.” Luna growled, and Scrivener nodded slowly, much as he loathed the thought... much as he hated how the idea gave him a strange, dark pleasure.

Gymbr shrugged at this, and then both halves of the dual entity paused in their sketching before they replied softly: “Then we shall only wish you good fortune, and let the question be held over until another day. We instead ask you this: will you be prepared to attack Greater Heaven? You are... off-balance and allowing your emotions to cloud your judgments, you have lost allies and friends. We... care, in our own way, about what happens to you. In a sense, you are still us: we think sometimes that we exist so long as you continue to exist.”

Luna shivered at this, opening her mouth to retort... then she simply studied Gymbr Luna silently, as the half of Gymbr calmly gazed back at her. And finally, the sapphire mare could only nod briefly, sighing softly as she murmured: “The only way I can stomach this thought is if I also believe that thy existence is solely to warn myself and Scrivener Blooms of what we must not become... Tulpa, god, our shadow... whatever thou art, thou exists as our opposite number. Not antithesis, but parallel... vision glimpsed through a scanner darkly.”

Scrivener smiled faintly over at Luna, half-recognizing this reference, and she simply laughed a little and shook her head slowly before Gymbr said softly: “Poetic. You are listening to the advice of friends, Luna Brynhild... this is something we failed to do. This is perhaps the reason we became... what we did at the end of the day. We were weak...”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the two halves sighed softly before looking up and studying the two intently. “We know you do not desire our aid, and that you have made many deals with Hel. But remember that the cost will always be high: even that which she gives freely is not without cost to yourselves, Luna Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms.”

“And what else are we to do?” Luna asked sharply, shaking her head and leaning forwards, but she sounded more frustrated than aggressive as she continued harshly: “We have lost more than half the Nibelung, we have lost our most talented Architects, a pony we know from that wretched story even thou respected at least the talents of has died and... thou, thou art useless and broken! All we have left is Hel to advise and assist us!”

Both halves of Gymbr only smiled for a moment, before the dual entity said softly: “Perhaps, but this does not mean all her gifts should be accepted, or all these opportunities pursued. Nightmare Moon, for example...”

Luna growled and looked up, and both halves of Gymbr studied Luna, but then didn't say anything further, simply bowing their heads and murmuring: “If we are truly opposites, then you will recall that our Nightmare Moon was... a source of conscience. We fear where your Nightmare Moon will try and lead you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the sapphire mare simply shook her head briefly and muttered: “'Tis no business of thine, Gymbr. And if thou must know, Nightmare Moon has been... quiet. Very quiet, and... well-behaved, I suppose.”

“Yes. Because even foals know that if you desire something, you should close your mouth and smile.” replied Gymbr, both sides of the god shrugging in perfect time. “Ask yourselves: is this behavior a means to an end? Is this usual for her, or is this part of some cunning game? Just looking at you tells us that there is an ultimate end here for her, that you have made a promise of-”

“Enough. That... that is enough.” Luna muttered finally, shaking her head and grimacing in distaste as she held up a hoof before the sapphire mare dropped her head and sighed quietly, asking finally: “Does thou have anything of use to tell us, or ask us? Or shall we just leave thee to thy devices, wretch? I have no desire to waste my time here when there is... so much to be done today.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Gymbr looked slowly up and said quietly: “Come back tonight. We will have a gift for you then. We promise it will be worth your while.”

“And another order from a prisoner, wonderful.” Luna said ironically, and then she shook her head and turned around, horn glowing and slowly shoving the unlocked prison door open. “Hecate may come down to take samples from thee and to inspect thee. We do not recommend resisting her.”

“We shall not. Nor shall we resist Innocence if she desires to come and harm us.” Gymbr said calmly, and Luna and Scrivener both shot smoldering glares over their shoulders at the dual entity even as they forced themselves to keep moving forwards, but Gymbr only smiled kindly and said softly: “One day, she will understand that we gave her something even greater than power. We are her savior.”

“Congratulations, Gymbr. I am reminded of all the reasons why we shall have thee executed after we are finished dealing with the Pious.” Luna growled moodily, but Gymbr only laughed quietly before the sapphire mare swung her horn to the side, slamming the armored door of the cell shut with telekinesis before she shivered a little and muttered to Scrivener Blooms: “Well. Let us get out of this awful dungeon and... off to make deals with the devil.”

Scrivener shook his head slowly, and Luna sighed as she dropped her face against his neck, the two walking silently through the otherwise empty prison. For some reason, it was the lack of guards, the empty security station, the ajar and unlocked gates that made it really sink in that... the Nibelung were gone. And how could she really blame the laborers and the workers, for wanting to be part of rebuilding their old culture, for leaving with the Architects that they looked up to as their real leaders?

Luna sighed again, and Scrivener smiled faintly as they walked through the empty halls, made their way slowly upwards. The door to Gymbr's cell was locked, at least, and if anything, the creature seemed to be getting weaker... not to mention the strange sense they had that the god wanted to stick around at least until the Pious were destroyed, even if death would probably be a blessing to the broken dual god.

They headed upwards in silence, into chemical-stained halls that smelled like solvent and were being eaten little-by-little by the cleaner that had been splattered carelessly all over them. They only passed one Clockwork Pony on the way, who was checking the structural stability and how much longer they had before this entire mess started to rot out: whatever this solvent was, there was more than just concentrated bleach in it, and it was rotting out both the wood and the metal.

Narcissa had already 'graciously' renounced her claim on the building itself: once they had gutted it, she and her cronies had all left en masse on their land-trains filled with bleached and piled-up machine parts. The chemical vats had been emptied all over the road, and half of Ponyville now stank of chemical they couldn't entirely get out. And most of the Nibelung had gone with them...

Luna cursed under her breath: she hated that she kept going back to this point but... it was what was hurting the most right now. The betrayal by allies she had come to trust, to depend on to always be there... but no, even Greece had left... had abandoned them.

She'd always thought... well, it didn't matter. Clearly, she'd thought wrong, and it was like a punch in the gut. Even if part of her sympathized and understood, at the same time she was still... mad as hell and almost felt like she should be seeking out some stupid, pointless revenge. But then, as they emerged from the lab and strode out over whitewashed, bleach-stinking and ruined earth, Scrivener Blooms muttered: “We have to... focus on other things.”

Yes, our King of the Night is correct. You do. murmured a silken, seductive voice through their minds, and Luna shivered a little at the eagerness she heard in Nightmare Moon's tone, seeing a flash of hungry green eyes in her own mind before the passion entity whispered: I understand your fears, your worries... but focus on the here and now. And remember, that soon... I will be able to help and serve you both even better. In reality as well as here, inside your mind...

Scrivener Blooms shook his head a little, but both he and Luna forced themselves to keep walking, to not let themselves start worrying about... everything that could go wrong. Everything that felt guaranteed to go wrong in the very near future... but they needed every advantage they could get. And neither pony was going to pretend that Nightmare Moon wasn't precisely a powerful ally.

But Nightmare Moon's shifting had awakened Twilight Sparkle from her own slumber inside them, and they felt her spirit shifting uneasily, doing her best not to question the slope they were slipping down: dangerous as it was for the soul of Twilight Sparkle to spend an extended period of time in her living phylacteries, she had done so for this week to keep her spirit as intact and strong as possible before they transferred it to... whatever Hel had planned on providing for them.

Their soulmate shifted inside them again, and Scrivener and Luna traded small smiles before the sapphire mare said quietly: “Aye. 'Tis not... perhaps there are many reasons to be worried, but all the same we must... do our best and accept these gifts we have been offered. I know 'tis not comfortable. I know there are many risks. But... my family... what other choice do we have? Allow Innocence to 'empower' us as she has begged to do so many times? Attempt to attack the Gates of Heaven without being sure if we truly have the means to destroy them a second time? Throw away a powerful ally simply because she is icky?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener sighed a little, looking over at Luna and saying quietly: “You know that neither of us are arguing. And I know that you're not really trying to convince us, Luna... you're trying to remind yourself of... well, everything you just said. That we kind of have to do this, whether we like it or not. Because the alternative is that... we screw up and die. Well. We screw up, probably get captured, tortured and mutilated, and turned into unwilling servants of the Light to... you know, do the bidding of their True God...”

“Thanks to thee, Scrivy, thou has such a wonderful way of phrasing things.” Luna said sourly, glowering at the stallion and bopping him firmly with her horn before she grumbled and buried her face back into his neck, mumbling: “I shall never allow us to be taken prisoner. If I see such a thing beginning to happen, I shall simply cut thy head off, Scrivy, to kill us all.”

“Oh. Fantastic, that's... really fantastic.” Scrivener Blooms said after a moment, and he felt Twilight Sparkle give her own wince in his mind before the stallion looked awkwardly at the sapphire mare as she simply mumbled into his neck and attempted to chew on him grumpily. “We're going to find you a better way to communicate. Or at least get you a chew toy of some kind.”

“Shut up, Scrivy.” Luna bit the side of his neck firmly, just above his collar, and the stallion grumbled under his breath before a drop of his black blood slid into Luna's maw, rolled teasingly along her tongue... and the winged unicorn shivered as she quickly yanked her head away and spat to the side, both of the ponies shivering as they continued onwards before the mare mumbled: “Idiot Scrivener Blooms. This... all of everything is all thy fault.”

“Yes. I'm secret god. I'm the narrator.” Scrivener said sourly, and Luna nodded violently a few times and glared at him before the stallion sighed and rolled his eyes, then headbutted her lightly. She huffed and headbutted him back, and the two childishly continued to bump and bodycheck and slap at each other as they continued down the road towards the library.

As foalish as their bickering was, it helped keep the two distracted until they reached the library, and they finally both stopped in mid-shove at each other, hoof resting on Scrivener's shoulder, Talon pressed into the mare's breast. They looked at one-another in silence in front of the door, and then Luna smiled faintly and simply shook her head, their gazes locked as she murmured quietly: “Damnation, Scrivener Blooms... simply, damnation.”

The charcoal stallion simply nodded a few times, and Luna sighed softly before she slid her hoof up, turning manufactured conflict into a tight, fierce embrace. Scrivener's Talons silently squeezed through her starry locks and into her back as her hooves trembled against him, before she whispered: “Damnation, Scrivener Blooms. Simply... damnation.”

“Damnation.” Scrivener agreed quietly, and both ponies closed their eyes, lowering their heads... and then they winced when the library door swung open, turning dumb looks towards Antares Mīrus as he leaned in the doorway with a small smile.

“I knew I smelled self-pity. Come on, guys, get in here, stop... crying and groping each other in public. It's pretty gross.” Antares said softly, and Luna smiled faintly despite herself and swung a hoof lightly at her son, but the glossy black unicorn easily reached up and caught it, then squeezed it gently. “It's okay. Or at least... it's going to be.”

“Oh, shut up, Antares.” Luna mumbled, but she smiled faintly all the same as she shook her head slowly, and then she sighed and yanked her hoof loose before reaching up and firmly ruffling the stallion's mane. “Great idiot.”

Antares only grinned and shrugged a little, sitting back, and Luna and Scrivener parted so they could stride into the library. Innocence was seated at the table, looking up at them with a small smile as she twiddled her claws across from Celestia, who had her head lowered as Discombobulation slowly rubbed a hand along his back.

Celestia glanced up from beneath the curtain of her loose ivory braids as they approached, and then she smiled wryly, saying finally: “I think I'm going to give up my left eye. I think that's the one with the worse vision.”

“Oh Celestia. Thou... thou great stupid.” Luna said softly, shaking her head and smiling faintly at her older sibling, and then she glanced mildly over at Discombobulation, asking softly: “So does thou look forwards to being partner to a girl-Odin?”

“Because I wasn't already.” Discombobulation said mildly, and Celestia laughed and shook her head slowly before the chimerical creature added gently: “But whether or not Freya is just a Rule 63 Odin, I'm still going to sit beside her. In fact, I look forwards to you only having one eye, Tia: it means I might be able to actually hide from you.”

“You can try, at least, Bob, but you know I track you by much more than just sight. You're distinct... in touch, and energy, and scent...” Celestia leaned slowly towards the chimerical creature, who cleared his throat violently as he reached up and tugged at an invisible collar.

“Well uh, before you start singing du riechst so gut to me in your sultry operatic tones, I should point out that we're expecting company. And I really don't think that Hel wants to show up here to find us all in the middle of some perverse verbal orgy talking about everyone's sights and smells and uh... tastes. That would be rather awkward.” Discombobulation said pointedly, before he frowned a little as he saw that Celestia had lost much of her playfulness, her eyes sharp, her head tilted upwards-

“Oh no, no, no worries there, I don't mind at all!” declared a cheerful voice, and Discombobulation paled and jumped, grasping the back of his chair and staring straight ahead as Hel slowly leaned in from behind him, her ice puppet grinning widely and her eyes gleaming with mischief. “Nothing better than a little bit of drama now and then, I think. Internet popcorn and all that. And really, I haven't heard any girl talk in ages and ages!”

Luna glowered at the dark goddess as Scrivener made a bit of a face, and Antares only cocked his head curiously; Innocence, on the other hoof, was now staring at Hel intently, her eyes wide, disbelief and amazement and very palpable fear spreading through her expression before Hel suddenly cooed and vanished in a burst of blue mist, reappearing beside Innocence and grinning widely as she reached a single finger down to calmly stroke along the underside of the mare's chin, making the strange unicorn whimper as the polymorph she had cloaked herself in bled off her body like ink. “Oh, look at you, let me look at you, sweetie! Oh, what a delicious little morsel you are... Innocence, right? What a cute name for a cute little cupcake like yourself!”

Innocence trembled, and Hel chuckled quietly before she smiled coyly, saying softly: “Now, don't give me that look. I won't hurt you... I won't hurt a single hair on your head...” Hel reached up, gently tugging on a single long, loose hair and making Innocence wince a bit as Luna snarled and Scrivener narrowed his own eyes, but Hel smiled kindly over at the two ponies as she suddenly leapt backwards and landed neatly beside Antares, putting her hands on her hips and looking down at the stallion. “And look at you! Aren't you a handsome little boy? Yes, yes, yes, you and I have to talk!”

“Uh... nice to meet you too.” Antares said lamely after a moment, and then he cleared his throat and offered a hoof, Hel looking delighted as she dropped with a flump onto her knees so she could take it and shake it firmly. “You know, I expected that you'd be... I dunno. More of a jerk.”

“I can be more of a jerk, I can always be more of a jerk. I'm just trying real hard to make a good first impression on you little kiddies, mudpie.” Hel said pleasantly, touching her own chest and winking once before she popped back up to her feet. “You little ponies are all so cute! But... okay, okay, stop giving me that look, Freya, we can get right on down to business. Send the little kids away with your cute little boy-toy now.”

“Hey! I'm totally like. Not little. I'm not little at all, as a matter of fact.” Antares said proudly, raising his head and grinning widely, then he looked seriously over at Luna as she smiled slightly despite herself. “I get that from my Mommy.”

“Damned right thou does!” Luna said with equal pride, and Scrivener Blooms dropped his face in one Talon before Luna strode over to her son and threw a foreleg around his shoulders, grinning widely up at Hel. “Antares may stay if he so desires. I shall not make that decision for him... and Innocence... well...”

Luna hesitated at this, and Scrivener looked up as well as the strange unicorn shrank down a little even as a premature blush spread through her cheeks... and then she blinked in surprise when the sapphire mare said softly: “She may also choose whether or not she desires to stay or to leave. She is... I believe she is ready to.”

There was silence at this, Celestia grimacing a bit, but then slowly nodding as Innocence sat up uneasily... then flinched when Hel's eyes roved towards her, the goddess studying the strange unicorn intently before she said softly: “Funny. Even after a millennia... Daddy never let me decide anything. In the name of the place named after me, Daddy never even let me help out when it got down to zero hour, and he really needed it... he was always so intent on keeping his secrets. Protecting his hidden kingdoms. With pride and honor and the value of his stupid name. And maybe... oh, just maybe... watching out for his little girl...”

She reached up, silently tapping her own breast a few times with one finger, and then she sighed loudly and easily windmilled her arms, smiling over at Luna. “If they're old enough to stay, then, let 'em stay. I like your kids. I want to get to know 'em better. But remember, it's their choice... and you know that I'm very generous. Very giving. If I wanna say... hey, Innocence, how'd you like the power to turn into a real Tyrant Wyrm? I can make it happen. Or Antares, I can bring your... oh, right, your girlfriend already came back from the dead, nevermind. Damn. Uh. I can make her boobs bigger?”

“Maybe thou should make thine own bigger first.” Luna said sourly, and Hel covered her mouth as her eyes went wide, giving a long, drawn out gasp.

Antares, however, only smiled and reached up to pat his mother on the shoulder, saying easily: “Don't worry about Móðer here. She's a little touchy on that subject, that's all. You know, boobs. But we should probably avoid the small subjects...” He ducked under a swipe from Luna. “And instead, let's talk about what's going on with Heaven.”

Luna grumbled as she became serious, and Innocence shifted uneasily as Discombobulation carefully slipped down under the table to hide. Celestia, meanwhile, frowned and leaned forwards, opening her mouth, but Hel quickly held up a finger and said gently: “We'll get to all these things in a few moments, my sweets and sours. But if we're going to talk, we're going to do it on my time, on my schedule. And first thing's first... we're all bein' real rude here and keeping someone out of the conversation who really deserves a word in edgewise!”

Hel paused, then she looked back and forth before groaning and slapping at her forehead. “Right! My bad, I forgot the suitcase. Well, if you all believe, if you all really believe with me, we can use my super-duper... okay, okay, stop looking at me like that, I'll just... Mimir's head, why the hell are you all so serious?”

The goddess rolled her eyes at the dark looks she was receiving from Luna, Scrivener, and Celestia, and then she held up a hand and snapped her fingers: there was a spark of energy and a gasp of blue smoke, and it slowly cleared to reveal a violet winged unicorn calmly standing beside the goddess, who grinned widely and said softly, as she gestured easily with both hands to the creature she had summoned: “Ta-da.”

The ponies could all only stare, and Antares' sharp eyes roved along it quickly, sizing it up even through the stupefaction he was feeling: this pony body looked almost exactly like Twilight Sparkle. Except there were no stitches, and swirling black tattoos covered her forelegs and ran along either side of her face, like profiles of black flame... no, wait...

Antares' sharp eyes narrowed, and then he said quietly: “Runes. There are runes hidden all throughout those tattoos... and... there's something else...”

“Yes, ruin the fun, sport.” Hel rolled her eyes, then she absently pointed at Luna and Scrivener before making a firm yanking motion, and both ponies gasped as a sapphire mist was ripped out of their bodies with enough force to stumble them. It formed into a sphere that Hel caught, completely ignoring Celestia even as the ivory mare snarled and leapt to her hooves, and the goddess regarded this for a moment before shrugging and half-turning to slam the sphere of spiritual energy home into the breast of the pony body.

There was a whooshing sound, like flames bursting up through a fireplace, and then the pony body staggered backwards before gasping for breath as violet life filled the mare's eyes. She looked wildly back and forth as Scrivener and Luna looked up dumbly, and then Twilight Sparkle stared down at herself before wildly patting over her breast, mouthing wordlessly as Hel said kindly: “There you go. Kept the seat warm and everything for you, so... should be great to go!”

“I... I feel... alive.” Twilight Sparkle whispered, and then she looked down at her hooves, looking back and forth between them before she touched her whole, if tattooed, chest again. “No... I can't feel... a heart, but I feel alive... and there's something inside me...”

“Blood. Bones. Little tiny bacteria. Oxygen and nitrogen. Molecules. Mitochondria. Midi-chlorians. Atomics. Arguing physicists. Pieces of angel, literally, figuratively, metaphorically, theologically.” Hel said brightly, then she clapped childishly a few times as the mare stared up at her before the dark goddess nodded wisely. “Oh, wait, no, you just mean the pieces of soulstone in place of your heart. I figured you could use a magic booster. You're like... like a portable generator!”

Twilight Sparkle winced a bit, and then Hel became a little more serious, leaning down and saying quietly as she poked a finger into Twilight Sparkle's nose: “But listen to me. This body of yours is made of rough and tough... uh... we'll call it... 'For-Real Flesh.' FRF is pretty tough and hardy and makes real skin look all wimpy...”

Hel paused, peered over at Antares, then vanished in a puff of icy smog before reappearing beside the unicorn and firmly poking him in the shoulder, making him flinch away as she left a large, ugly red scratch. “See how wimpy that is? Yours won't rip or tear or bruise or bend or break so easy, not one bit. But your energy, and all your magic, well... you're gonna start wearing it out eventually. And even though that same magic is going to help you heal, you're still going to end up in stitches, vanilla cake, so... try and enjoy having a full-fledged real body while you can, right? And maybe Scrivener Blooms there can pump a little of that black goo of his into you. Not that, you gross little ponies. You know what I mean.”

Luna grunted as Twilight shifted awkwardly, looking uncomfortably up at the goddess, but Hel only smiled and shrugged before she turned her eyes back towards the sapphire mare as Luna stepped awkwardly forwards and said finally: “Hel, well... as... difficult as this is for me to say... thou hast our thanks for... well... for this. For giving my sweet Twilight Sparkle... a new body, a better body.”

“Well, nice to see you have a little gratitude in your muffintop after all.” Hel said pleasantly, raising her head and looking with entertainment over at the sapphire mare, who only grumbled and glowered in return. “Okay, okay, don't be such a prissy buttwart. I'm happy you're happy. If you're happy, I'm happy, right? Right! Fantastic!”

Luna grunted, and the goddess grinned widely before she laced her fingers together beside her head and turned her full focus on the sapphire mare, saying softly: “And now, before I start taking pieces away... I suppose I should tell you all about how to make your own For-Real Flesh, and help you guys get started on a body so your inner friend can become your outer friend. But oh, we should have a little extra help... you don't mind me calling the Call Girls, right?”

With that, the Hel puppet held up a hand and snapped its fingers calmly, and a faint chime reverberated through the air before Hel smiled and held her hand out in front of her, long, dexterous fingers stretching out as she flicked them gently: “And now, supplies.”

The air twisted strangely on itself, and then a massive black cauldron more than half the height of the puppet appeared in a rumble, Luna and Twilight both staggering backwards and Scrivener Blooms wincing at the sound of the screams that echoed out of the enormous onyx tub. Sin whimpered and almost fell out of her chair as Antares stared in disbelief over the terrible designs depicted over the face of the cauldron, and then Hel waved a hand airily as she grasped the dome-shaped lid sitting atop the cauldron and lifted it off, completely ignoring the burst of violent malevolence and emerald lightning that tore out of it as she said easily: “Oh, don't none of you ponies get your knickers in knots... or... well, whatever it is that ponies wear. Reins, I guess. Halters, probably, too.”

She tossed the lid aside and absently held one hand out, a huge, leatherbound black tome appearing in it, and she paged through this quickly, leaning back and humming to herself as sounds of agony continued to well up out of the cauldron. The others were staring in disbelief, but Celestia finally shook herself out and found her voice, saying sharply: “The last thing we need is a dangerous artifact like this-”

“Oh, right, you guys do have a Curse Jar around here somewhere, right? Hey, I'm gonna borrow it. Watch me work my mojo.” Hel screwed up her face in concentration, tongue sticking childishly out as she rubbed vigorously at her temple with one hand, and then her sunken eyes gleamed before she snapped her fingers and a large, ancient urn appeared in front of her, Antares and Twilight both wincing and scrambling forwards, but the puppet easily snatched this out of the air and tossed it unhurriedly into the cauldron. “Hey guys, chill out. Sweeties, mommy knows what she's doing, now either be good little muffins for me or get the hell out of my kitchen.”

Celestia sighed tiredly and shook her head, but then her eyes were drawn to the doorway as it was flung open and Myre proudly strode inside, her head raised and a wide grin on her face as Dusk, Imago, and Twilight Shadow all calmly followed the Fate into the building. Myre's pride dropped a little when she saw Luna and Scrivener, however, becoming a little shyer, and Hel rolled her eyes before she muttered: “This is what happens when you give puppets emotions and personalities. Oh, Gymbr, you had to go halfway instead of having just cake or biscuits.”

Hel paused, then pointed at the four servants, saying mildly: “Go stay out of the way for now, we're a little busy, little lollipops. But Myre, if you really want to make up with Luna and Scrivy, I'll let you donate the biggest chunk of energy to the pot and some of your corruption. Otherwise, for this particular trick, I'm going to be needing some blood donations. So who wants to help bring Nightmare Moon into the real world?”

There was silence for a few moments as Luna and Scrivener both looked up with matching grimaces, and Twilight Sparkle sighed quietly... but before she could step forwards, Antares rose his head and said calmly: “I will.”

Luna blinked in surprise, and Scrivener looked dumbly over at his son as Twilight frowned uneasily, but after a moment Antares simply smiled as Hel turned an interested grin on him. “Hey, what can I say? I'm naive, and I'm stupid, and... well, I guess I want to pay back an old debt. She gave me wings, and they were... they were great, like it or not. And she saved me, once upon a time, when I really needed saving and no one else could do it. Sure, maybe she said she would always be there for me, but... the point is she actually showed up. I owe her for that. And I owe her a little bit of trust, too. And even more than that, I guess I owe my parents plenty of trust themselves.”

Antares smiled over at Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight, and there was silence before Innocence looked up and said quietly: “Me too. I... I can't just let Tarry... and I mean, if Mom and Dad and Mutt and... I... well, there's...”

Innocence fumbled for her words, then opened her mouth as she started to regain her almost-arrogant composure... but this was blasted back out of her by a simple grin from Hel, the strange unicorn whimpering a little and shrinking a bit again before she swallowed thickly and said finally: “I just want to help.”

“Good. That's a good little girl.” Hel said warmly, and the dark goddess turned her eyes back down to the book, humming absently as she flipped through a few pages before poking at a sheet thoughtfully. “This recipe should do nice and easy... okay, let's see, first we need to fill the Agony Pot halfway full with... freshly-ground souls! Well, okay, not really. I just wanted to see the reactions.”

The goddess looked back and forth, then huffed a bit at the dry looks and glares she received. “None of you guys are any fun whatsoever, you know that? Okay, fine. First, we fill it halfway with carcasses. And lucky for you, I had some demons all specially prepared and stuff.”

Hel snapped her fingers, and there was a sick thudding sound inside the cauldron, Twilight shuddering and turning away as Scrivener winced, but Luna and Celestia only looked grimly at the enormous onyx pot, neither surprised... and neither allowing themselves to turn away, remembering all too well some of the more unpleasant old magic of the old days and what it had required. “Okay, next... blood quartz. But you know me, I'm generous, I'm lovely, I'm the best goddamn thing since those incredible little chocolates you can get where they like, have the creamy goodness all up inside them somehow. So we're going to use soulstone instead.”

Hel held out a hand, and it glowed faintly as bright blue powder sprinkled out of it and into the groaning, whimpering cauldron, the goddess grinning after a moment before she added sweetly: “And I can hear you out there calling me an old witch, by the way! But that's cool. Witches are cool. They make the most delicious cornbread. Oh, I miss carbohydrates.”

Luna grumbled at this, and Celestia only shook her head before asking calmly: “Do we add our blood now? Or do you require other ingredients? Ingredients that perhaps we could actually fetch for you instead of you bending and altering reality-”

“Oh, stop that, Freya, I've got a direct link here and the Pious can't attack along these energy wavelengths. They're too distorted and narrow: it's portals they like to go after.” Hel interrupted rudely, and Celestia slowly narrowed her eyes before the goddess added mildly: “And if you're worried about me taking over Nightmare Moon... don't. I'm just mixing up the raw goods. It'll be your responsibility to do the actual magic.”

Luna and Scrivener could both feel Nightmare Moon shifting and twisting eagerly inside them, like she was writhing just beneath the surface of their skin. And Twilight Sparkle grimaced a little as she looked up, watching as Hel referred to her spellbook before summoning more strange ingredients out of thin air, pouring what looked like crushed flower petals and bits of bone into the cauldron, as the Lich asked uneasily: “But isn't the mixing itself-”

“Superstition. Whether the baker makes their own dough or not, it's how they shape it and make it and bake it that turns it into a tasty treat.” Hel replied mildly, shrugging easily before she glanced at the heavy leatherbound tome again, then cheerfully flung it aside: it would have been almost lackadaisical, except for the fact it landed on the table right in front of Innocence, who flinched back from the book. Luna growled and Celestia leaned over to grasp the tome, but Hel quickly caught their attention as she said sweetly: “Now, honeybuttons, everything happens for a reason, doesn't it? Let the little girl take her looksee if she wants to, that's perfectly well and fine.”

Luna growled moodily, but Twilight Sparkle hesitated and bit her lip before she looked over at Sin and said quietly: “Go ahead.”

Innocence looked up in surprise at her mother, and Celestia grimaced, but turned her eyes to Hel after a moment as the goddess licked her lips slowly. Luna and Scrivener both shifted uncomfortably, but Antares only smiled, turning his eyes to the goddess as he asked mildly: “Really, a book? That's the best you can do right now?”

“Books are totally evil and subversive. Some of them even have hurtful words.” replied Hel seriously, nodding a few times before she pointed at the cauldron and added: “Also, kids, time to add the blood. Come on, I'll give you a choice of cutting yourselves to ribbons and bleeding a pint out, or I can yank a pound of blood out without harming a drop of flesh. That's how that saying goes, right?”

“You're a disgrace.” Discombobulation's voice mumbled from beneath the table, and Hel glowered at this before the Draconequus nervously poked his head up from the other side of the furnishing, looking uneasily at Hel as Celestia sighed a little. “The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in health, or we suffer in soul, or we get fat.”

“Yeah, speaking from the Devil's standpoint, you guys are just as crappy to me. I mean, seriously, look at me.” Hel gestured crankily at her ice puppet. “You think this is fun? You think I have time to twirl my mustache and cackle maniacally and, you know, work every insidious evil known to mortals? You know, I have feelings. And every time someone blames me for... this holocaust, that murder, here a toe getting stubbed, there a politician getting elected, well. It hurts. Hurts. Hurtful.”

“Does thou need a hug?” Luna asked dryly, and Hel looked thoughtful, then nodded a few times and opened her arms, and the sapphire mare said mildly: “Scrivy, go hug her.”

The stallion gave a short, sour laugh at this, glaring over at Luna, and Hel rolled her eyes before she instead glowered over at Antares as he approached the whimpering, moaning cauldron. “Your parents are real jerks, kid. So what's it going to be? Cut or dry?”

“Dry.” Antares responded, and Hel smiled before she simply flicked a finger at him in a beckoning gesture, and the unicorn frowned up at her before he gargled and leaned forwards, his body beginning to shake and shiver violently. Luna and Scrivener both immediately looked up with matching snarls as Twilight shouted something wordlessly, but Celestia only watched calmly, reaching out a hoof to catch Innocence's shoulder as the strange mare knocked the book out of the way and barely resisted the urge to lunge across the table.

Antares twisted back and forth, and then he grasped at his chest, crying out in pain as red droplets began to spill over his body, his eyes bulging as his shaking form literally began to sweat blood. He gasped, then arched his back, gritting his teeth as Hel held up a hand and the blood that had oozed out of his pores was drawn quickly upwards, a red arc of liquid spilling into the cauldron as the goddess smiled kindly and said softly: “Good sweetie. Good.”

“Oh God. You're a bitch.” Antares wheezed loudly, then he shook his head briefly before slowly straightening and rubbing at his features with a grimace, turning a sour look towards the dark goddess as she only smiled pleasantly and shrugged easily. “That... that it?”

“Unless you want to bleed some more, but it'll pretty much just be for fun.” Hel said cheerfully, and Antares winced and stumbled backwards, the goddess huffing a bit before she glared as Luna and Scrivener started forwards. “Hey, no, we have to be specific here. Innocence next, if she's still willing to donate. Your kids have to give first.”

“I... I am.” Innocence murmured after a moment, looking uneasily up before she carefully pushed away from the table and strode around it. She gave the goddess a visible berth, which only seemed to make Hel grin all the wider before the strange unicorn held a up a claw, then winced a bit when the goddess leaned towards her eagerly. “N-No. No. I can do this myself.”

The dark goddess huffed a bit, but then simply gestured at her, and Sin shrank her head down before she carefully rose her foreleg higher and lowered her horn, breathing slowly as she cut into her limb. Black blood ebbed out of the wound, and the mare slowly drew her head back, her horn glowing brighter and drawing more blood free with a thrum of magic.

The river of dark essence twisted upwards, then swayed around and spilled down into the cauldron, joining the mixture already there and earning a few whimpers from the maw of the dark artifact. Hel smiled at this, and then she clucked her tongue as Sin carefully stepped back and rubbed at the wound, the goddess saying gently: “Pretty good, little girl. I mean, sure, you were a little off... but for all the time you wasted with Gymbr that you could have spent with yours truly, I have to say I'm rather impressed.”

Innocence looked uneasily up at this, and then Luna asked sourly: “And now, we add our own, creature? Or art thou going to keep gossiping?”

“Oh stop, you. Besides, no, it's Freya's turn if she wants to contribute to raising the dark and insidious creature she once declared archenemy from the dead and into its own corporeal body.” Hel paused, then she winked over at Celestia as the ivory mare glared at her from behind her braided locks. “Oh come on! Do it for the irony! It's good for your liver, you already look so goddamn anemic.”

“I'm doing it for my sister. And because I believe that Nightmare Moon is binding herself into a trap.” Celestia said evenly, and Hel rolled her eyes before the ivory mare strode forwards, breathing slowly and visibly struggling to calm herself down. It took her a few moments, but Luna was honestly both surprised and impressed that Celestia managed to get herself under control as she looked up, saying quietly: “Take whatever you need from me. I won't resist.”

“I plan to, bananacake. But only after this.” Hel replied gently, and then she rose a finger and twirled it slowly, and the ivory mare gasped quietly and shivered hard as her body began to shake, Hel adding kindly: “If it's any consolation, dear... I really, really wish that I had a big sister like you. But even if I wasn't All-Daddy's only little girl... I was also All-Daddy's big secret, so... Thor, Loki, all of them never really knew...”

Red droplets began to sweat out of Celestia's body, and the ivory mare gritted her teeth, twisting her head back and forth with a curse of pain before she looked up with a rasp as the blood flowed off her body when Hel simply made a gesture, twisting upwards and spilling into the pot in a crimson rain as the goddess smiled slightly. “Yes. A loyal sister. A loyal queen, too... nothing's more honorable than a monarch loyal to the people, even when the people aren't completely loyal to her.”

Celestia slumped a little, eyes fluttering before she shook herself quickly and looked slowly up: while Antares and Innocence had both sat back, the stallion flopped out and wheezing loudly and Innocence rubbing uneasily at her healing foreleg as she shivered a little, the ivory mare had her head raised and was refusing to show any signs of weakness despite the fact she still had streaks of red here and there along her coat, saying evenly: “Stop commenting on everything and do your job.”

“Bitch.” Hel sounded both entertained and a little impressed all the same, however, looking with interest down at Celestia before she rubbed her hands together and turned towards Luna and Scrivener. “Now, you two are last. No, Twilight Sparkle, not you: your body likely hasn't gotten used to you enough yet to make that blood your real own blood instead of just red tomato paste. You can contribute to the magic afterwards, though, don't you worry your pretty little cabbage.”

The violet mare shifted uneasily, and Scrivener and Luna both frowned up at the goddess before Luna asked moodily: “And this is all to create just the body?”

“Yes, cinnaminnamon, it is.” Hel reached down and patted Luna several times on the head, and the mare grumbled and swung her soulstone horn grouchily at Hel, making her huff a bit before she flicked Luna's soulstone horn firmly with one finger. It reverberated, and the sapphire mare winced as Scrivener did his best not to shiver at the echoing jangle that ran through his own mind, before the goddess gestured easily at the cauldron. “You two, spill your blood, and don't lick at it, I'll let you have the icing spoons later if you're good little boys.”

Luna grumbled grouchily at this as Scrivener Blooms sighed and rolled his eyes, and then the two ponies turned towards the cauldron and pulled themselves up. They shivered a bit, barely able to look over the top of the moaning, crying maw of the black cauldron, and after a moment the two traded uneasy looks before the sapphire mare sighed a little and said wryly: “Well... then let it be done.”

They both stretched a foreleg forwards, and then Scrivener began to raise a Talon... but in a quick movement, Luna leaned down and slashed across the stallion's already-extended limb, making him wince and curse as a splatter of blood hailed down into the pot from both Scrivener's leg as well as Luna's own stretched out foreleg as a mirrored cut appeared across it.

The two watched their blood drain down into the pot, both gazing down at the brackish mixture already twisting and swirling itself slowly inside the cauldron before Hel instructed, tone kind but the playfulness gone from her voice: “Now, Scrivener Blooms. Start transforming it. Myre, add your own corruption to the mix, honeypot.”

Scrivener shivered a bit as Myre stepped eagerly forwards, hopping up onto the other side of the cauldron and shoving both forelegs forwards as they turned dead black. Dark poison immediately began to flow off the Fate, and she tossed a glance at Scrivener Blooms as he uneasily pushed his own claws down into the turbulent surface of the mixture before she whispered: “Hey guys. I... I'm sorry.”

“It's okay.” Scrivener said quietly, glancing back at the Fate... and right now, he didn't really care if she was just reflecting or not. It was a little bit of comfort at a time when he and Luna kind of needed something else to focus on, and so he only smiled faintly as Luna shoved herself away from the pot and turned away with a grimace, looking moodily towards Hel.

Hel was smiling, though, her arms crossed as all eyes in the room focused on the ice puppet, and then she gestured easily towards the cauldron before saying kindly: “Now, my little candy shop. Give it four, three, two, one... and... okay, you two. That's enough of that Prometheus garbage. We don't want to have to accidentally give Vally-wally any credit, right?”

Scrivener grimaced a bit, and he and Myre both drew back, the Fate shivering once before smiling faintly when the stallion looked at her uneasily. Her body was gaunter, and her consistency was less-fleshy, more bog-like... and for a few moments, the two studied each other before Myre simply dropped her head forwards and murmured: “I'm okay. And ready to keep helping.”

“I know you are, honey. I know.” Hel said almost soothingly, and then she turned her eyes towards the other Fates and Imago, saying calmly: “The solution is prepared. Now, we're going to put the soul into this Agony Pot, using the same kind of magic that bound you four. But we're going to twist it just a little... isn't that right, Luna Brynhild?”

“We... have the basic idea of what we desire to do, yes. We will take elements of the enchantment used to create the Deathless, and mix with it the spell used to bind and create these... puppets, for wanting of a better term.” Luna said finally, looking slowly back and forth along the ponies. Innocence looked surprised, mouthing wordlessly at this as Antares only smiled faintly and Celestia simply nodded, her features not betraying the slightest hint of either approval or recrimination.

“Good. Because this weird black beauty is already intertwined so heavily with you, Luna Brynhild, that's actually easier than tearing her out completely. The body will feel and see and do all the stuff the body's supposed to do, but her consciousness will still stem from you... only we're gonna make her a little more dependent on you. Just keep one thing in mind, sweethearts. If and when you do die... Nightmare Moon will end up being treated like a completely separate entity. And Nightmare Moon, sweet chocolate cookie, part of your payment is when you die, you're gonna end up downstairs.” Hel trilled cheerfully, and Luna grimaced at this as Scrivener shifted uneasily: they didn't completely understand the implications, but they sure as hell got the basics: when they died, Nightmare Moon was going to become Hel's personal servant.

Luna felt the shift inside her from Nightmare Moon... and then there was strange twist, like... pride and strength and some mutant honor, as the monster inside her murmured: That is fine. My entire existence is devoted to serving you, and Scrivener Blooms, and Twilight Sparkle... I accept that the cost for this act of selfishness is high.

“I suppose I did not expect thou to view a second chance at life as punishment, Nightmare Moon.” Luna said softly, and Nightmare Moon only laughed quietly inside her mind before the sapphire mare sighed and shook her head slowly, then looked up and nodded to the dark goddess. “Very well. We agree to thy terms.”

Hel smiled at this, bowing to them politely before she gestured easily in the direction of the cauldron. “Then let's take a hop, a skip, a jump forwards into a world of pure and dangerous imagination, my little cinnamon stick. All you have to do is focus on the cauldron while the Fates and Imago are going to get the magic going. The rest of you, you all know how to add your powers to a spell, right? Well, start giving it all the juice you can, because believe you me, this is going to take a hell of a lot of juice to pull off. I don't usually bake me such a savory soufflé after all.”

The sapphire mare gave a thin smile in return, feeling a shiver of apprehension run down her spine: for a moment, she felt the impulse to call everything off, to simply... run away. But she steeled herself, refusing to be intimidated, refusing to let the fear of what could happen take her over or the contempt and disgust she felt at needing the help of Hel in order to do something like this. “Very well. Family and... friends. I am indebted to all of thee.”

“We're just doing what we were programmed to do. That's all.” Imago said softly, smiling over her shoulder, and this made Luna shiver a little as the vainly-beautiful pony's horn began to glow. “Friendship has nothing to do with it.”

Dusk and Twilight Shadow both gave the same smiles as they rose their own heads... but Scrivener noticed that Myre didn't. Myre looked at them almost awkwardly, and the stallion wondered silently if this was because she was better at reflecting what they wanted to see... or there really was some spark of individuality inside her struggling to get out.

But a moment later, Myre turned her full attention to the Agony Pot, breathing slowly as her horn began to thrum with the same magic as the others. The cauldron groaned, then cries of pain rose from inside it as a dark aura surrounded the trembling onyx pot, violet and green smoke starting to twist and writhe out of the cauldron's maw.

Luna gritted her teeth, feeling the power of the magic already ripping through the air as Hel looked on eagerly, and then the sapphire mare rose her own horn and added her own energy to the almost-malicious magic she felt writhing and twisting around the Agony Pot. Scrivener Blooms closed his eyes and lowered his head, adding his own strength to Luna as Twilight, Celestia, and Antares all rose their own horns, pouring their magic forwards into the maelstrom of energy.

The Agony Pot clattered and shook, and the screams from inside it intensified as the ponies poured their might forwards. And at the back of the group, Innocence trembled, only watching as the foul smoke poured upwards and the cauldron howled and glowed with growing energy and misery. But then she winced as Hel seemed to appear out of nowhere beside her, the ice puppet catching her by the shoulder as she leaned down and said softly: “Give a little bit, Innocence. Give a little bit. If you wanna get, then you gotta give.”

Innocence looked up, and then she bit her lip before turning her eyes forwards, her horn starting to glow as Hel grinned slightly. Then the ice puppet paced calmly ahead as the energy in the air grew, reality rippling around the pot as it screamed and jumped back and forth and shook, scarring up the floor around it and making the entire world seem to ripple and shake before the goddess called clearly to Luna as she approached her back: “This is gonna sting, Brynhild, but for the love of me, don't lose focus, okay?”

With that, the dark goddess shoved a hand forwards and into Luna's back, her arm glowing as it passed through flesh like rippling water, and Luna's eyes bulged before she bit down and snarled in agony. Her legs threatened to buckle beneath her as she shook and cursed, her head snapping back and forth, but she kept all her focus on just concentrating, concentrating, in spite of that... oh not agony, pain was nothing, but that sense that was like feeling some living thing that had nested inside of her for so many years being grasped and slowly pulled out of the tumor it had made its home, as it mewled and flailed and cried out...

Hel yanked something black, and sickly, and awful-looking out of Luna's back, splattering ooze and blood over her as the sapphire mare gasped and almost fell forwards. Scrivener Blooms winced, and Twilight Sparkle shivered as she fought back against the trembles cascading through her own body and the... the desire to just drop to her knees and cry, almost inexplicable, railing through her like she had just felt Luna lose... a child, not some... other, dark part of her...

The goddess slung the dark, amorphous thing into the Agony Pot, and the screams from inside doubled in volume before a new voice joined the chorus, crying out miserably as the smoke flowing up from the trembling cauldron turned dead black. Energy sparked and pulsed up out of the pot as a ripple rolled through reality: it washed over them all, but it was slow, like a soft but hot wind, a sigh that was felt but went unheard over the shrieks echoing up out of the cauldron.

The Fates and Imago cut off their magic as suddenly as they had begun the spell, and Luna cursed as the recoil that jolted down her horn knocked her on her flank, sending her flopping over with a groan of pain. Scrivener winced and stumbled a little, while Twilight Sparkle simply winced, then looked worriedly over at the sapphire mare as she picked herself up with a curse.

Antares and Celestia had both caught themselves before they could waste too much magical energy focusing on nothing, while Innocence was shaking her head quickly, blushing a bit and her mane singed by the blast of magical energy she had accidentally zapped herself with when the spell had ended. She began to open her mouth, to ask worriedly what was going on as energy flashed and sizzled around the cauldron, but was cut off as Hel slammed the lid back on top of the Agony Pot and it went as still as a grave, immediately losing all sense of energy apart from the ominous malice the artifact exuded. “The oven's hot, and now we let it bake!”

The ponies all looked up, breathing hard, and Hel smiled slightly before she strode calmly over to Luna and reached down to gently poke her nose as the winged unicorn bared her teeth up at the goddess. “And you, sweetie? You're our thermometer.”

Luna opened her mouth... and then she frowned a bit, hearing it: the faint whispers of Nightmare Moon, what sounded almost like... “She is in pain. She is in pain, and I feel... I feel bad for her, Hel, and I do not know why!”

“Because when you spend long enough around someone, even if you hate their guts... you kinda start getting used to havin' them there. And when they're not around for you to hate their guts, you miss 'em a little bit.” Hel replied kindly, and Luna grimaced a little before the goddess straightened, sighed, then clapped her hands together and said leisurely: “Fates, Imago, go take five, my little poppets. Freya? You and me have to have a nice little chat now.”

Celestia grimaced a little as she looked up at Hecate, but then she simply nodded slowly, and Luna growled as she staggered to her hooves. But Hel only gently caught the sapphire mare by the shoulder, leaning down and saying to her softly: “Now come on, cinnamon. You know I'm not going to cause a ruckus now. I could, oh sure, I could... and I know you're just worried too, sweetiebear. But at the same time... this little bit of business is between me and your big sister. Not you.”

The sapphire mare cursed under her breath, then she looked down and nodded uneasily before Celestia rose her head and called quietly: “Discombobulation. I could use your... I would please like for you to come with me. And if my little sister wants, she-”

“No, she'll get in the way. You should be happy I'm going to let you take your dolly in with you.” Hel said mildly, and then she gestured easily towards the stairs, saying pleasantly: “How about we go have a sit-down up there, away from everyone? We'll go over the ins-and-outs, and then I'll take what's mine and you'll get what's yours. Fair?”

“I... fair enough.” Celestia looked out over her family all the same almost longingly, and then she smiled a little when Discombobulation awkwardly wriggled out from under the table to stand beside her, looking lamely down at the ivory pony before she tilted her head towards him, and he silently reached up to gently rest his metal hand amidst her braids. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Tia. I feel very special. Even if I'm also as terrified as a small-time crook faced with the goddamn Batman.” Discombobulation said wryly, and then he sighed a little and shook his head before murmuring: “Well, do what you can to do what you ought, and leave hoping and fearing alone.”

“Good advice.” Celestia said softly, and then she turned her eyes back to Hel, nodding once and saying finally: “I'm ready. My... left eye.”

Hel smiled at this, then she reached up and covered her own left eye with one hand, asking mildly: “So do you see the resemblance now?”

For a moment, Celestia frowned... and then, suddenly, she smiled faintly at the bovine-headed puppet, saying quietly: “Actually... I do.”

Hel blinked, then drew her hand away, clearing her throat and shifting embarrassedly before she finally looked up and smiled slightly. “You sly tik you. Alright, but let's get going before this gets any more complicated than it already is. You might want to take one last look out at your family, though, for... well, you know why.”

Celestia hesitated, then she turned around, surveying them with both eyes silently as Luna smiled faintly to her sister and Scrivener and Twilight both gazed with compassion and respect and... the faintest hint of sorrow. Not just mirrored emotions from Luna, but real familial love for her, for their own reasons... just as Antares and Innocence both looked at her with their own worry and warmth, even if the glossy-black unicorn was doing his best to smile and encourage her silently.

She looked down, both her eyes closing... and then they opened, and she looked up at Discombobulation as he gazed quietly back. His metal fingers stroked her right cheek tenderly, and then he said softly: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

“I only hope I'm brave enough to open them.” Celestia said quietly, and then she turned towards Hel and simply nodded to her. The goddess smiled, and then she reached out and gently turned Celestia around and patted her flank to get her moving... and the ivory mare looked back only once as she headed up the stairs, her eyes sweeping over them before she stepped onto the floor above, and was gone.

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