• 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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Decisions And Alliances

Chapter Sixty One: Decisions and Alliances
~BlackRoseRaven

“What?” Innocence exclaimed, looking dumbly up at her parents. “What do you mean, I'm not going to be allowed to participate in the war? I'm... I'm an adult! I was trained for most of my life to fight and destroy the Light, you can't-”

“We can. 'Tis what we have decided on... all three of us.” Luna said firmly, and Twilight smiled faintly as she nodded slowly. The violet mare hadn't been completely sure at first, but she and Luna and Scrivener had talked about it throughout the night and the morning... and now she agreed fully that it was the best thing they could do. “Thou art mouthing half thy lessons, Innocence... how much hast thou truly improved, and how much art thou just playing out to make us believe thou art seeing the world our way? Are thy motivations honest, or still laced with self-interest and power alone?”

“I don't just want power, I want...” Innocence bit her lip, then she gritted her teeth, glaring up at her three parents before her eyes locked on Twilight Sparkle, snapping: “Look at you, hiding and cowering behind Mutt, because you can't just treat me like an adult and-”

Luna stomped a hoof firmly on the floor, and Innocence winced and shrank back even as Twilight flushed and looked away, and Luna said quietly: “Thou art not an adult. When thou behaves like this it only proves it all the further, Innocence. This is for thy own good.”

Innocence gritted her teeth at this, but she didn't even dare to look up to meet her Móðer's, didn't dare to speak... not simply because she was afraid, but because she felt so... hurt, and upset. And after a moment, she turned and stormed out of the den towards her room, slamming the door behind her, and Scrivener Blooms sighed as Luna grumbled and Twilight shook her head, muttering: “I knew I should have told her. It probably feels like I made you gang up on her...”

“No, she knows we will listen to her, and that we are bound by soul-link. She is just upset.” Luna said after a moment, and then she turned her eyes towards Antares, who was leaning on the kitchen divider and chewing slowly on a piece of toast. “What?”

Antares shrugged, and then he said mildly: “Well, you know. Having three big ponies looming over you is pretty tough, even if they're the nicest ponies in the world... and not your parents. No offense, Mom, but I don't think you entirely get the whole 'parents' thing. I love and respect you guys, but it's hard as hell even for me to speak up against you when all three of you are standing there on the opposite side of the debate.”

“It does not seem to be stopping thee now. Nor has it any time in the past.” Luna said dryly, and then she sighed before asking finally: “What is it, Antares Mīrus? What does thou wish to express? Thy extreme disapproval? Or just moderate disapproval?”

“Somewhere between.” Antares shrugged and sighed a little, saying quietly: “We talked about this. She's gotta learn. It's how I learned, and Scarlet thinks it's a good idea too, and-”

“And Innocence just isn't ready.” Scrivener said softly, and then he smiled a little and added quietly: “And nor is she you or Scarlet Sage. Besides, we all know you can't just... magically learn honor, as nice as that would be.”

Antares shrugged, and then he said softly: “But she would be useful up there. And she'd get to see, up close and personal, what was going on. Maybe finally understand that there's good people out there fighting, and getting hurt and tortured and dying and worse, and it would stop her from doing all that strutting around and bragging about how powerful she is and all that.”

Scrivener shrugged a little himself, and Twilight looked uncertainly at Luna, but the sapphire mare shook her head and said quietly: “But is she an adult, Antares? Or is she... has she been, for who knows how many years, a teenage mare that was tortured and hurt and survived awful things? That is her shell, with which she protects herself. We do not want it to break upon the battlefield.”

Antares didn't look like he agreed completely, but he did give a hesitant nod, taking one last bite from his toast before the glossy-black unicorn muttered: “Still. She needs to do... something. Be involved somehow. Leaving her just sitting here while we're up there seems like... well, a waste.”

“A waste.” Luna said dryly, and Antares gave an awkward smile and shrug before the sapphire mare sighed softly and lowered her head, muttering: “What a wondrous way to refer to thy sister. Irksome little creature. But aye, no, I know what thou means, and 'twould be a waste for her as well. Perhaps we shall put her on medical duty. She can mix tonics and salves, aye?”

“Yeah, but... well... Zecora apparently sent a letter to Meadowlark about everything that's going on so... uh... yeah.” Antares awkwardly away, and Luna smiled amusedly despite herself as Twilight looked up curiously and Scrivener only gave his son a sympathetic look. “So apparently she's coming to Ponyville to help. Prepare potions and stuff. So unless all four of my legs get cut off and my teeth get knocked out so I can't bite my way around the battlefield, I'll be spending the entire campaign in Heaven. Risking only the field tents. At the most.”

“Thou art a great coward.” Luna said with relish, and Antares glowered as Scrivener rolled his eyes, before the sapphire mare elbowed her husband teasingly. “And of course thou art the only one with sympathy for him! Stallions!”

“And of course you have no sympathy for him. Mares.” Scrivener shot back, shoving at her lightly, and Luna huffed and poked at him with her horn.

Then she sniffed and straightened as Scrivener managed to push her away, the starry-maned winged unicorn declaring: “'Tis not that I have no sympathy for him, 'tis only that I find his predicament very humorous. That is what thou gets, foolish Antares.”

The glossy black unicorn sighed tiredly and dropped his head forwards, muttering: “It's on days like this that I wish you guys were still frozen in mire, and I'd just... cut you out of there or something and put you on display at the local museum.”

Luna huffed at this even as Twilight winced a bit, but Scrivener remarked mildly: “That wouldn't really change anything that happened so... you know, you'd really be in an even worse state than you are right now. I mean, you wouldn't have us to talk to.”

Antares looked meditatively at his father, and Luna slowly frowned before she said mildly: “Scrivener Blooms. I believe that Antares is silently wishing that he did not have us to talk to. Our own son is rebelling against us.”

The glossy black unicorn sighed tiredly and shook his head before turning around, heading out back and saying dryly: “I'll get my armor, then join you guys going into town.”

A moment later, the back door closed behind him as he exited the house, and Luna huffed loudly before she looked grouchily over at Scrivener Blooms, complaining: “We are good parents, are we not? Damnation, Scrivy! Why does our son wish to have nothing to do with us? Why are we being second-guessed by the stallion we... well... Twilight raised! And Twilight Sparkle, thou art us, art thou not? Therefore we raised him almost as much, did we not?”

“You did raise him as much as I did. You were gone for ten years, but... you were there for all the time before that. You didn't abandon him.” Twilight Sparkle said softly, and the sapphire mare blushed a little bit as Scrivener Blooms smiled despite himself, dropping his head in silent thanks. Twilight Sparkle only shrugged, however, gazing quietly between the two ponies before gazing towards Innocence's room, saying finally: “I'm going to go talk to her.”

Luna and Scrivener traded winces, and then both ponies opened their mouths, but the Lich looked over her shoulder at them pointedly, saying quietly but firmly: “Who's the Mom?”

“I... well... thou art.” Luna deflated a little, grumbling and then sighing as she nodded grouchily, before adding hurriedly: “Then just... if we cannot dissuade thee, be careful. And mind not her barbs! And remember that she is-”

“She's my daughter. I can handle talking to her.” Twilight said with a small smile, and then she turned forwards, heading towards the door as the smile faded and she mumbled: “I should be able to handle talking to her, at least...”

She shook her head quickly, then cleared her throat before reaching up and knocking twice at the door, saying clearly through the frame: “Innocence? It's... it's just me. Alone. I'll talk to you alone, okay? I'm sorry about before... we didn't think it would be so... we don't want you to feel like you don't have a say, because you do.”

There was silence from the other side of the door, and Twilight shifted back and forth before looking uneasily over her shoulder at Luna, then almost pleadingly at Scrivener Blooms. And the stallion sighed tiredly before he looked at the winged unicorn, saying finally: “Let's... go out back and wait for Antares. Twilight, we'll meet you and Innocence in town, okay?”

Luna grumbled moodily, then she nodded before giving the most encouraging smile she could manage to Twilight. It probably wasn't much, but all the same the Lich lit up with thankfulness. She watched the two leave, then knocked quietly at the door again before saying quietly: “Everyone's gone so... I... we can talk, wherever you're comfortable. I'm going to go put on some tea, and then I'll come back and... I hope you'll be ready to talk then. Okay?”

Silence... but in her room, Innocence was sitting with her back against the door and her doll Dinah curled up against her chest, looking down silently and feeling childish. Both at her own actions and... just in general. Like she was a child; it felt like all the years she'd spent in accelerated time had just bled out of her, and left her only with bitterness and scorn and... bad emotions.

She clutched Dinah tighter against her, clenching her eyes shut with a quiet curse before she shivered and sighed once, slumping a little as she silently stroked her claws through Dinah's mane. Her claws... claws she always had, claws she would never be rid of. She cursed under her breath again, then shook her head quickly before looking over her shoulder and hesitating for a moment before carefully climbing up to a standing position.

She spent a long time just staring at the door, Dinah clutched in one claw, not able to tell if she was sixteen or sixty, and it left her stomach feeling nauseated and her whole self... confused. She didn't even know what she wanted to do or say: part of her wanted to tantrum, part of her wanted to try and seduce and allure, part of her wanted to shout, part of her wanted to try and rationally explain all the reasons she thought it was a bad idea for her to stay home.

Then the door swung open, and Innocence stiffened up, blushing as Twilight stepped inside, then blinked in surprise at the sight of the strange unicorn before the violet mare awkwardly offered the tea tray, saying finally: “Peppermint. I hope that's okay.”

Peppermint was her favorite... she was surprised by how much Twilight knew about her. By how much the Lich must have picked up on... and the strange unicorn simply nodded before she shyly rubbed at one foreleg... then winced as she realized she was still holding Dinah, quickly tossing this onto the bed. Twilight smiled a bit, but averted her eyes purposefully, as if to try and spare her the embarrassment of having been seen with her doll, and Innocence both appreciated it and felt further embarrassed by it as she dropped her head forwards.

After a few moments, though, the strange mare finally looked up and mumbled: “Maybe we could talk out in the living room, if everyone's gone. I think I'd prefer to talk out there.”

“Okay, sure. That's fine, Innocence.” Twilight Sparkle smiled and nodded, looking at her tenderly before she turned around and headed back out the door, carefully guiding the tea tray in front of her with telekinesis. For a moment, Innocence was sorely tempted to simply slam the door and hide in her room, but then she sighed quietly and shook her head, following moodily after her mother and out into the den.

Innocence sat herself on a cushion, rubbing awkwardly at a foreleg again as Twilight Sparkle sat on the futon and set the tea tray between them. She smiled a little, gesturing towards the cups as she said softly: “Go ahead. Help yourself... is there anything else I can get you?”

Innocence shook her head awkwardly, looking down as she mumbled: “No. I just... no. I... thank you.” She halted, then forced herself to take a breath before shaking her head and murmuring: “Don't... don't try to win me over and don't... I can choose if I want... stuff.”

“Okay. At your own pace, Innocence. It's just me and you here right now and... I'm in no rush to head to Ponyville.” Twilight said soothingly, and she picked up her own cup of tea, settling down and sipping from it as she smiled reassuringly to her daughter, then turned her eyes away towards the empty fireplace, to give her child a little time to think.

Sin shifted back and forth, then looked up: after studying Twilight for a few moments, she finally nodded briefly, then hesitantly picked her own cup of tea up with telekinesis. When the Lich didn't pounce on her or offer anything further, Innocence relaxed a little and added some milk and sugar from the little jars on the tray, stirring it up before drawing the tea over to herself.

She sipped slowly at her drink, and Twilight turned her eyes towards her, which made the polymorphed unicorn stiffen up slightly... but then the Lich simply nodded, and Innocence shifted before nodding uneasily back and slowly settling. There was silence between them – one that Innocence wasn't eager to break – until Twilight Sparkle finally looked at her and opened her mouth, and Innocence grimaced at the impending question.

But it took her by surprise, because Twilight didn't ask about her feelings or her fears or anything like that: instead, the Lich asked curiously: “How does your flight spell work?”

“I... well, I mean...” Innocence shifted back and forth, then said lamely: “I guess... well, Gymbr helped me with it. I aspects of levitation and telekinesis together to make... you know, a spell to propel yourself through the air. It's not very... I guess the control isn't the best but...”

She looked down quietly, shrugging after a moment and feeling suddenly embarrassed. And almost ashamed of herself, for some reason... her spell wasn't the best it could be, after all, and she had no doubt that Twilight Sparkle could take it apart in moments. And for some reason, that bothered the polymorphed unicorn as she shifted back and forth, before she suddenly said almost defensively: “I didn't want to just create wings, I wanted... I wanted real flight, not flight stolen under false pretenses! I'm not a winged unicorn, after all, I'm... I'm a... I don't know what I am.”

She looked down again, shifting a bit before sighing and settling silently, and then she looked up when Twilight Sparkle said softly: “You're my daughter. You're Scrivener's daughter. You're Luna's daughter. You're a pony, and a great person. Maybe not a good person all the time, Innocence, but you're a great person.”

There was silence for a few moments as Innocence blushed quietly and looked down, and Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly before she glanced away, murmuring: “But I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I think and hope you're a good person at heart, Innocence. I know... I'm not going to say I understand all your motivations and everything. But I do understand... darker urges, and wanting strange things.”

Innocence laughed dryly at this, looking away, and Twilight gazed at her daughter softly as Innocence muttered: “Of course you do. Twilight Sparkle, the nicest Lich in all of existence, understands what it's like to be me.”

“No, I didn't say that. I think I just said I promised not to say that, too.” Twilight Sparkle said pointedly, and Innocence glanced down and mumbled a little to herself before the violet mare sighed, then hesitated before asking finally: “Do you want to know some of my inner thoughts, Innocence? What I sometimes think about and wish for?”

Innocence grimaced at this, but to her it sounded like it was a hidden challenge. If she said 'no,' she'd just be validating some of her mother's beliefs about her... but saying 'yes,' well. She was afraid of what Twilight might reveal. Her top thoughts were prideful and arrogant, telling herself that it was because she didn't want to put up with stories about how Twilight maybe sometimes dreamed about cuddling longer with her parents or getting treated nicer on her birthday or something else equally pathetic, but a quieter voice inside the polymorphed unicorn warned her cautiously that she had already underestimated Twilight on more than one occasion...

All the same, Innocence forced herself to look up, almost challenging in return: “Fine, go ahead and tell me. I'm sure it can't be as bad as the fantasies I've had about having you in chains, or showing Daddy just how much I love him.”

She hated that she sounded petulant and unconvincing... probably because she had stopped having those kinds of thoughts except on rare occasion. Now she longed for love and comfort, more than anything else... even if she would be willing to do absolutely anything to attain that. And she hated more when Twilight smiled at her, stirring her tea slowly before the violet mare said gently: “Last night I had a wonderful dream... where I killed all my friends.”

Innocence stared, and Twilight stirred her tea slowly before she said softly: “We almost lost Applejack... and it's awful of me to say this, to feel this way... but I'm so glad about what Gymbr did to her. Gave her new life. New strength. And every day I look at my friends, I see how old they've gotten, how weak they've gotten, and I... I'm not like that. I'm happy, as a matter of fact, as what I would have called a 'monster' as a little filly. And they could all be happy, too. I can't fix their mortal bodies, they're old, and weak, and... I don't know if I understand anymore what's so special about keeping your own body. Not now that I've been through so many, even though... I guess I kind of do keep what's important to me.

“But I could kill them. Catch their souls. Then bring them back as demons, or undead like I am. I could make them powerful. Indestructible. I could make sure we were together forever, Innocence.” Twilight looked up calmly, stirring her tea silently once before she lifted the spoon free with telekinesis and quietly set it down on the tray. “I could make sure the Light could never, ever take them away from me. Or anything else, for that matter.”

Innocence shifted uneasily, and Twilight laughed quietly, saying softly: “But those are just silly thoughts. It wouldn't be right, and I'd never act on it. Not unless I had to.”

The polymorphed unicorn fidgeted again, then put her teacup quickly down and shook her head out, mumbling: “That's... that's nice, but that's not the kind of darkness I meant, anyway, so... you know. But I guess that's... well, I mean... I'm not that impressed, but I guess it's good to know that... you're not completely perfect.”

Twilight Sparkle smiled a little and shrugged, saying softly: “I'm not. Not by far. You and I... we're a lot more alike than you might want to think, Innocence. The difference between us is that I compartmentalize, and hide all my emotions: you wear them on your sleeve, and you've been taught to try and... use your wiles and your body to get what you want. That's never something I was taught and... not something I completely approve of.”

Innocence snorted, then muttered: “Then I don't see how we're similar at-”

“I don't approve of it, Innocence, but I do recognize it's value. That it must be useful.” Twilight looked up quietly, then she smiled faintly and reached up to touch her features. “And look at me. Do you really think that I could seduce ponies, or use my body to my advantage? Even if I wanted to, I'm a Lich, and I'm not the most beautiful mare around.

“I know that I can't argue morals with you. And you know what? I'm not interested in arguing morality with you, Innocence. I'm not even trying to tell you that you're wrong, or what I disapprove of... what I approve or disapprove of doesn't matter right now.” Twilight looked down, shaking her head slowly as she said softly: “You're so damn strong willed. And that's good, but... it's bad when you combine it with the fact that you tend to deal with things like I do. I died because I... I had to refuse to be afraid. I refused to take extra safety measures constantly, to live in fear... I think I even wanted Decretum to come after me, because part of me thought I could deal with it. And they did, and I couldn't... and it was stupid.”

Twilight looked down, shaking her head briefly before she murmured: “I won't be pushed around. But that means I don't always do what's right for myself... I know you're the same way. You refuse to let yourself be told what to do, you refuse to... to keep yourself safe all the time. To go the safe route. You have to walk your own path, and that's great... right up until something goes wrong.”

Innocence didn't know what to say, and Twilight only shook her head and squeezed her teacup for a moment between her hooves, before she sighed softly and glanced up with a faint smile. “I'm sorry, Sin. I know I'm not entirely making sense. It's hard to get what I want to say into words, that's all: I just... I want to find common ground with you. I don't care about anything else right now. I just want to find something we can agree on.”

“So you can, what? Get me to listen to you? So you can say that you were right all along?” Innocence asked moodily, scowling at Twilight Sparkle, but the Lich only laughed quietly and shook her head slowly.

“No, Innocence. I'd like you to listen to me, but more important than that is... I don't want you repeating the past mistakes I have.” The Lich looked down, then she sipped slowly at her tea before she smiled a little. “And I want to be your friend as well as your mother... difficult, almost impossible as I know that is. I want you to trust me, because I trust and love you... and I want to share everything I can with you because I'm not always going to be here.”

For some reason, this made the polymorphed unicorn shift uncertainly, feeling a strange twist inside of herself before she shook her head quickly and muttered: “You make it sound like you're going to die soon or something. Or maybe you're just planning to... to give up, and give yourself completely over to Mutt and Daddy... but that'd be the smart thing for you to do.”

Twilight only laughed quietly at this, replying softly: “I already did, a long time ago, Innocence. Just because I'm walking around still and I make my own decisions doesn't make me any less devoted to them... if anything, I think it makes me more devoted. But I just don't want either of us left with any regrets. That's all I'm saying.”

Sin sighed and only shrugged moodily, but Twilight smiled softly at her daughter: she didn't have the heart to be mad at her. Not when Innocence was trying so hard to figure things out, not when they were actually sitting here, talking... or well, kind of talking. Innocence was at least listening, and that was a lot more than the Lich had managed to get her to do in the past.

The polymorphed unicorn sipped slowly at her tea, and there was quiet for a few moments before Twilight said softly: “You shouldn't have to feel that you have to polymorph yourself... at least, not while you're here at home. You never used to.”

“I just... I feel better this way, okay?” Innocence muttered, looking awkwardly away and shaking her head briefly before she sighed a little and asked quickly, if only to change the subject: “Look, why can't I come with you to Heaven? You need my help. You know you need my help, my strength, if you're going to stand any chance of winning.”

“You are strong, Innocence. But you're not that strong. And it's not strength alone that's going to help us win against the Pious, but teamwork. If we just needed raw power, Hel would have gone and taken over Heaven a long time ago.” Twilight Sparkle replied, and Innocence grumbled moodily even as she was forced to reluctantly agree. “We want you... I want you to stay here. And whether you work with the medical team or not is up to you, but... Celestia, Luna, myself, a lot of people are all going to be in Heaven. We're leaving very minimal forces behind here. It's just smarter if you stay back.”

“Don't patronize me. You're not leaving me behind because you're scared Greater Heaven is going to ambush us here to try and draw your attention away. You're leaving me behind because you're scared of me, and scared of how strong I am, and what I can do. Because I don't believe in your stupid concepts of honor and morality and... everything that just makes ponies weak.” Innocence said bitterly, and then she gritted her teeth and suddenly spat: “I tried, though! I tried to be a good little girl, and look what it's gotten me, absolutely nothing! Here I am, being lectured by you anyway, being forced to stay back home even though Tarry and even Scarlet Sage think that I should be up fighting alongside them in Heaven! Why should I behave and listen to you at all when you're going to treat me however the hell you want anyway?”

The polymorphed unicorn slapped her teacup away, spilling milky tea across the floor before it rolled to a halt with a quiet clink. Innocence breathed hard in and out, but it felt good... just as good as it felt to look up and glare at Twilight and say firmly: “I'm going back to my way of doing things. Power and pleasure. But power... power is all that matters. I tried to trust you, to be there for you, to help, and... this is what happened, so... so forget it, Twilight Sparkle. And if something bad does happen while in Heaven, then it's going to be all your fault for making me stay home when I have the power to change things.”

“I'm okay with that.” Twilight said softly, and Innocence blinked in surprise at this response before the violet mare shook her head slowly, saying quietly: “Keeping you safe is my number one priority, Innocence. Likewise, it's the most important thing to your Dad and Móðer, too. And you've been through too much, you're too confused, and I don't think you even know how you're going to handle seeing this conflict in motion, much less taking part in it. I'd rather have you angry at me, but safe, than happy with me and in danger.”

Innocence rolled her eyes, then said disgustedly: “I would never die for someone else. Especially if I had the power or... friends or allies who could just bring the dead back.”

“You can't always bring the dead back. Not if a soul's moved on, not if it's their time to die, not if their very spirit has been torn apart.” Twilight shook her head slowly, putting her tea aside and looking evenly across at Innocence. “I know that you're still thinking the way that you were taught by Gymbr. The way you had to think in order to survive life in his world-”

“And maybe his world was a better world!” Innocence snapped, shaking her head violently. “He loved me and respected me enough to... to give me power and trust me to grow stronger, and... to let me experience... m-make me experience...”

Innocence was trembling, grabbing at her face as the memories surged and twisted inside of her, but now even the good ones of her time in Gymbr's paradise felt like poison and the bad ones were nightmares of needless torture and sadism, not just what she had understood as necessity at the time. The darkness yawned so much deeper and wider, like a sea waiting to swallow her up, but when she looked at her mother she felt so many conflicting, confused emotions that it scared her almost as badly, like she was being given a choice between dying in the sea or smashing herself into a reef that would kill her instead of save her.

She was afraid, and she was in pain, and she didn't know what to do or say as she covered her features with her claws, feeling her polymorph becoming unstable, but not caring. Why pretend to fit in? Why try to hide? She belonged with the freaks like Gymbr, the monsters, the forsaken: she wasn't welcome here. Worse, she didn't belong here, as hard as she tried... as much as she wanted to fit in. She tried to be good, they hated her. She went ahead and was bad, they hated her. All she wanted was their respect, their attention, their love...

Twilight Sparkle softened, then climbed up to her hooves and walked quietly over to her daughter before sliding her forelegs around her and pulling her close. Innocence stiffened, then trembled and shoved at her, almost like an animal caught in a trap, but Twilight soothed her by stroking gently through her mane, keeping her grip gentle yet firm enough to not let her daughter slip away.

And Innocence settled before pushing herself against her mother, breaking down like a foal... or a teenager not yet able to control her emotions, which she really was. Twilight Sparkle only gazed down at her daughter, thinking of everything she'd been through and how much she wanted to do, like she was trying to override her own emotions and instincts, like the young mare could make herself believe that this was all some game she was destined to win.

But it wasn't. And even before they started to try and help Innocence understand she had friends and family, that honor was more important than power, they had to help Innocence see this wasn't a game. Sure, a little exposure to the battlefield would probably do that quickly enough: she still remembered so clearly how Innocence had reacted to the Whistler, after all. But that would also be asking too much of a mare who was clearly nothing but a ball of emotions and confusion and pain, in spite of all the hard faces she put on and the way she behaved.

Twilight rocked her gently, and little-by-little, Innocence settled, until she looked up at her mother, and the Lich gazed back at her softly. Innocence's lips parted, and then she leaned up... but Twilight gently caught her muzzle and pushed her back down, saying quietly: “We're not like that, Sin. You should know that by now. I love you, and my love doesn't come with any costs or hidden strings or agendas. All I want is to keep you safe, and make sure that you're okay at the end of the day. That's all.”

There was silence for a few moments, and Innocence looked down uncertainly before she shifted quietly in her mother's limbs, then closed her eyes and dropped her head against her chest. There was no heartbeat, but all the same, there was a pulse of magic... and Innocence silently tuned into this, feeling it, her own energies lining up with her mother's as she relaxed bit-by-bit before murmuring: “Okay... Twilight. But I just... I want... I don't know who I am anymore.”

“Just be my daughter.” Twilight said softly, and even though she knew it was something easier said than done, all the same Innocence gave a tiny nod and seemed to find some comfort in this, nestling herself closer as she shuddered quietly.

After a few moments, she finally wiggled herself away from Twilight, mumbled something that could have been a 'thank you' or an embarrassed defense of her actions, and then she looked up and said quietly: “I really want to go.”

“I know. But you have to stay here. Please.” Twilight said softly, reaching up to gently stroke her daughter's face, and Innocence looked down before closing her eyes and nodding once.

It wasn't like she really had a choice in the matter, after all. She could scream and fight and argue, but... even if she didn't have to worry about being punished, like she would have with Gymbr, she also realized quickly that her mother wasn't going to budge from what had been decided, no matter what the strange unicorn did or said.

Innocence looked down at the floor, and even if she knew it was useless, she was unable to stop herself from looking up and saying quietly: “I'm an adult. I should have a say.”

“You do.” Twilight smiled a little, and then she said softly: “I'll be honest. If it was just me... you know that you'd probably get to go anyway. But it's not just me. And I think Scarlet Sage and Antares both tend to forget that what you've been through didn't just... change you. It hurt you, too, and left you a little... vulnerable at times, even though you do your best to hide that.”

“I'm... I'm fine.” Innocence muttered, turning her gaze away and grimacing a bit before she shook her head hurriedly out, dropping her eyes and mumbling: “I'm perfectly fine. I just... don't want to be stuck here doing nothing and... stuck. I'm not weak. I'll never, ever be weak.”

She halted, not knowing what else to say as she turned away from Twilight Sparkle, but the violet mare only gave a small smile and shook her head slowly. Neither spoke for a few moments, and then the Lich said softly: “Okay. Tell you what, Innocence. I'll talk to Luna and Scrivener about this, and... we'll see how things go with Heaven. And if you handle yourself well, hold your ground against anything that might attack Ponyville or Subterra or wherever you end up stationed.. maybe then you can help out with scouting or protecting the rifts we're going to make to Heaven.”

Innocence looked up at this, then nodded briefly once, not wanting to reveal how... happy that made her. All the same, Twilight Sparkle picked up on it, in the way that Innocence blushed faintly, how her eyes flicked to her, how she rose her head a bit prouder and straightened her shoulders, and the violet mare smiled softly before asking quietly: “Do you want to stay here, or come into town?”

Innocence looked up... then she hesitated before finally shrugging and mumbling: “I... I guess I should probably come into town so... you know. Mutt and Daddy don't worry.”

“Yeah. Of course. I think they'll be really glad to see you.” Twilight replied with a nod, and then she flicked her horn gently, the spilled tea across the floor steaming and evaporating quickly away before the Lich picked up the cups and tray, saying softly: “I'll be out in just a moment.”

“Okay, Momma.” Innocence said before she even realized what she was saying, and Twilight Sparkle gave her daughter a warm look as the strange unicorn blushed, the last strings of her polymorph falling away with her embarrassment. But Twilight only strode towards the kitchen, and Innocence dropped her head with a mumble, closing her eyes and trying not to think about her mother, and how sometimes she felt she was lucky to be Twilight Sparkle's daughter.

By nightfall, plans had been made, people across not just Ponyville, but all of Equestria had been informed of their decision, and now the library was packed with all assortment of strange, weird, and wonderful creatures. But they were all people, all ready to unite for a common cause: to free Heaven from the grips of the Pious.

Monkshood looked irritable as he sat beside Burning Desire, who was grinning widely over at Imago, but the deathless servant was pointedly ignoring him. Celestia was sitting back and polishing one of her swords beside Hecate, who was unconsciously mimicking the mare she was twinned with as she calmly cleaned her massive automatic shotgun.

One of Hel's ice puppets was lounging and sipping obnoxiously at a large slushie: she wasn't actually drinking any of it, just being as loud and rude as she could. Discombobulation and Discord were shoving absently at each other near her, and Underbrush looked disgusted as he sat with his forelegs crossed, not scared in the slightest by any of the demons, godlings, or other supernatural entities: instead, everyone gave the mogul a wide berth, and it wasn't exactly like Scrivener could blame any of them.

Antares was sitting beside Prestige and sweating bullets, although Aphrodisia seemed as cheery as ever and Avalon had greeted the deep red Pegasus who had joined them amiably enough. At least by Avalon's standards, anyway. But the Pegasus hadn't been offended: had in fact traded hugs with both a grumpy Avalon and bubbly Aphrodisia, smiling warmly.

Meadowlark: an old flame of Antares', who had left Ponyville to eventually become a writer for an adventure magazine and a well-known translator and guide to the zebra lands. Her two-tone, chestnut and black mane was tied tightly into braids, and she had tribal tattoos along the sides of her neck and over her back. And she looked as youthful as she had been decades ago, in spite of the fact that even Avalon's features had been worn by time, if not her strength and body.

Seated by the Pegasus was a zebra who was draped in golden jewelry, her gemstone green eyes looking calmly back and forth through the mass of entities. Zecora, who seemed young as ever herself: as a matter of fact, Twilight Sparkle didn't think she'd aged a day since she'd first seen her, and that had been... far, far too many years ago now. But the zebras had their own potent skills and magic, even if once upon a time Twilight had tried to dismiss all that as just superstition and mumbo-jumbo.

Then again, once upon a time, she never would have believed in demons, or the living dead, or gods and goddesses... and now, here they were. The Lich smiled faintly, then drew her eyes towards Tender Trust, who was here with Nirvana to represent the Phooka's interests.

Terra and Taruos were also present, as was a representative from the Ironjaw Clan: Morning Glory was sitting moodily nearby, glowering every now and then at Taruos and quietly ordering him to do this or that, much to Terra's chagrin. And it was probably made even worse by the fact that Taruos seemed to have an odd respect for Morning Glory and obeyed most of her instructions.

Last but not least an assortment of ponies that included Pinkamena, Applejack, Scarlet Sage, Apple Bloom, and Eventide were sitting near the stairs, and at the top of these Innocence was half-hiding, grumpily looking out over the room from her little safe haven: it left Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight looking out over a wide and varied group of order and chaos, good and evil, demons and angelic forces. It also meant the air was very tense, and Luna grimaced a little as she looked back and forth before mumbling: “Curses and damnation, Scrivy. I do not like this at all.”

“You're the one who wanted to be champion, who just had to say she was in charge.” Scrivener muttered back, and then he winced when Luna bopped him firmly with her soulstone horn before the charcoal stallion sighed tiredly, adding dryly: “Although really it's Celestia's fault.”

Celestia glanced up at this with her single eye, then she shrugged mildly before returning her gaze to her sword, continuing to complacently polish it. Luna grumbled grouchily at this, then nodded vehemently several times in agreement with Scrivener Blooms, saying sourly: “Thou art correct. This is all Celestia's fault. But... well, if it looks like all are gathered...”

“I don't see Ten anywhere, but I guess he's probably out at the labs... Horses of Heaven know the fact we only have a few Nibelung left here now really isn't helping matters much.” Scrivener said quietly, and then he shook his head briefly before drawing his eyes over the group, adding dryly: “We should have made Monkshood and Underbrush sit together, though. They either would have loved each other or murdered each other.”

“Shut up and let's get this over with, I'm sick of wasting time here.” Underbrush growled from where he was seated, and Scrivener winced as Hel chortled.

An almost-tangible ripple passed through the crowd, and then Luna finally sighed before clearing her throat and raising her head, calling clearly: “To order! As Celestia plainly refuses to lead this meeting, I shall instead. We have invited all of thee here tonight because we have tasks for all of thee in our fight against the Pious.

“Very soon, Scrivener Blooms and I shall be leaving for a familiar world with Twilight Sparkle, Hecate, and Celestia. We will take no more than twelve hours to prepare from there and make a jump to Asgard, with the assistance of Hel.” Luna continued calmly: she sounded serious and professional, enough to almost convince everyone this was her own plan, and one that was guaranteed to work... but most of the ponies here were well-aware that she was really just repeating a plan put together by Nightmare Moon, Hel, and Celestia. “We should be able to take the Gatekeeper by surprise, and destroy both him and the Gates of Heaven he guards. Then Hel will create a rift that the Pious will neither be able to tamper with nor seal, and our invasion of Heaven will begin.

“But we have more to contend with than simply assaulting Heaven.” Luna smiled grimly, looking slowly back and forth before her eyes locked on Underbrush. “Thou said once that religion runs on money, as all things do. We have heard there are still ponies preaching about the Pious, even trying to create Sanctuaries in Canterlot and other towns, Is this true?”

“It's the current popular thing.” Underbrush said distastefully, and then he brushed moodily at himself and muttered: “All this talk of Heaven and Hell has only convinced me further there is no real god and no real afterlife. Just more unicorns, and more slave hoofs.”

“Hey. Hey. I'm a goddess here.” Hel said grouchily, waving a hand before she paused and added reflectively: “I'm also kind of the devil. I'm the devil goddess. Goddess devil. Anyway, your words totally hurt my feelings and I'm going to drag you to the place named after me when you die now.”

Luna cleared her throat loudly before the argument could continue, and then she said calmly: “Underbrush. Thou art a wretched, foul-tempered bastard. Thou should be able to erode the Pious' support in this world. We do not need Pious telling ponies 'tis their holy duty to burn down Ponyville or Canterlot whilst we are trying to attack the home they have created in Heaven.”

Underbrush looked meditative at this, and then he nodded briefly before saying moodily: “I might actually enjoy that. Fine. I'll do it.”

Luna smiled slightly as Scrivener Blooms felt both thankful and a little uncomfortable, and then the sapphire mare turned her eyes towards Monkshood, adding quietly: “And thou, Mayor Monkshood, must ensure that Ponyville stays safe and protected. The Pious may attempt to target friends, family, even innocent lives if it thinks it can distract us. Thou must be on high alert and ensure that Ponyville is safe while we are away.”

“I'll have Wolfsbane talk to the Timberwolves and Hellhounds. Ensure that the territory around Ponyville is kept under heavy watch.” Monkshood said moodily, looking up and giving a brief nod before he added distastefully: “By the way. There was a meeting recently discussing what a problem you are, Luna Brynhild. They want proof that you're doing something about these recent problems, and information on why suddenly medical issues are such a huge issue, but I won't be able to keep this meeting and the contents of it secret forever.”

“Thou shan't have to. But we cannot start a panic. No one can know that the Pious have proven to be so... hostile. Bear with me, Monkshood, but a few more days, then all will be... well, I will have thy answers then, at least.” Luna grimaced a little, then she shook her head briefly before turning her eyes towards Eventide. “Thou art going to act as an envoy to the Strange Ones for us. We will require their aid... assuming nothing has happened to them. It is very strange we have not heard from them. Do not worry, they will not attack thee if thou approaches them peacefully and carries the symbol of Equestria on thy person. And 'twill only be a short meeting.”

“The Skin Walkers? Oh, well, they're nature elementals. Kind of like made of water and natural rubber. Not the brightest, but decent enough, I guess.” Hel said positively, and when Luna scowled at her, the goddess cleared her throat before adding awkwardly: “No, see. The Skin Walkers probably won't fight the Pious because of the way All-Daddy made them. They won't see the Light as a threat because the Light is kind of... in a really weird way, they're the good guys, and we're the bad guys here, you see.”

Luna looked up in disbelief at this, and then she growled in frustration before saying grumpily to an uneasy-looking Tender Trust. “Well, fear not, thou shall still take a message and hope for the best. At the very worst, perhaps they can offer us aid... Hel, we shall ask thee more about the Strange Ones later, since... apparently thou knows more about them than we do.”

“Yeah, but that kind of goes for everything.” Hel said airily, and when Luna scowled at her, the goddess shrugged and sipped at her slurpie. “Hey, comes with the territory.”

“Don't hate the player, hate the game.” Discombobulation said ironically, and Hel nodded seriously a few times in agreement before Bob rubbed moodily at his metal arm, glancing over at Discord. “I feel dirty now. Like I just acted as defense counsel for someone who kicked jolly old Saint Nicholas in the testicles and told all the kids he wasn't real solely because they don't like religion.”

“Oh, stop whining, puppy. Your girlfriend may like it when you whimper but I'm not your dominatrix.” Discord retorted rudely, and then he held up a hand and asked loudly: “What happens if I decide that I don't want to help out and just. Run away?”

“I'll kill you.” Hel said brightly, waggling her fingers, and Discord paled a little as Discombobulation cleared his throat awkwardly. “And I'll make it real painful too. Like. I'll twist you inside out and throw you in a sea of confetti. I know that doesn't sound like much but it'll be that cheap confetti that's really hard and has all the sharp edges. So you'll get paper cuts all over your inside-out intestines and stuff while drowning in reverse in this inescapable sea of brightly-colored flakes of cheap cardboard that's probably made of cut-up cereal boxes.”

Discord stared at Hel, mouthing wordlessly, and Luna stomped a hoof a few times before she said moodily: “I do not need thy help keeping the peace, Hel. We would now respectfully ask thou to shut the hell up, to quote my husband.”

Hel huffed at this, but then she grumbled and crossed her arms, looking grudging but remaining silent, and Luna gave a grunt of relief before she drew her eyes towards Tender Trust and Nirvana. “We do not know if the Phooka and nature will be placed in danger by the Pious. We do not assume so, but... well, 'tis a difficult thing, obviously. We do desire the Phooka's help in ensuring the safety of this world, but we do not ask thee to join the fight. Thy aid will be welcomed but we think it best if the Phooka instead only keep an eye on things, and perhaps tend to the encampments that we shall be establishing outside of Ponyville.”

Nirvana nodded, then he hesitated before saying something in his own language to Tender Trust, who smiled up at her father, even if she looked nervous. She turned her eyes forwards, then took a slow breath before saying quietly: “The Phooka are also willing to offer sanctuary to ponies not involved in the war at our den, if something does happen... but we do not desire to get involved in fighting the Pious. We are not warriors, and they do not threaten us.”

Luna nodded with a grunt, and then she thought for a moment before asking quietly: “And what if the Pious do threaten thy kind, Tender Trust? What shall thou do then?”

Tender Trust looked at her father anxiously, but when he only looked calmly back at her, the half-Phooka, half-Pegasus took a slow breath before saying finally: “Then we would... do whatever is necessary to protect our people. All of our people.”

Luna smiled slightly, then she turned her eyes to Nirvana questioningly, and he only gave a brief smile in return. The sapphire mare decided this was confirmation enough, and let her eyes slide across the group towards Celestia, saying quietly: “And my sister, Freya... Celestia... thou shall lead the first wave of our forces through the rift. Thy Yamato, demons, and a few select mortals who are ready to brave what lies above.”

Avalon held up a hoof at this, and Luna turned her eyes to her curiously, the tiny mare asking moodily: “Why the hell am I on scouting duty instead of combat? And why don't I have my own unit? I could get the Thunderbolts to assemble with just a little bit of flank-kicking.”

Luna turned her eyes towards Celestia, who answered calmly as she gently stroked along the sharp edge of her sword: “Because the Thunderbolts might be needed in Canterlot. Furthermore, you're not a scout following a predetermined course or a safe, already-marked route, Avalon Apple. You'll be going into enemy territory with only one or two ponies supporting you, with a high possibility of being forced to engage the enemy before you complete your mission. You should be honored. And perhaps a little bit afraid, too.”

Avalon shifted with a grimace, then hesitantly nodded, looking over at Celestia before she muttered: “Funny. You're different, but what you really remind me of is back when you beat the crap out of all of us for not falling in line.”

Celestia only gave a brief smile at this, then she shrugged a bit before turning her eyes towards Luna, saying quietly: “My first priority once in Heaven will be creating a safe perimeter around the rifts. After that, I'll fall back to help establish a base camp.”

Luna grunted and nodded, then she turned her eyes towards Zecora and Meadowlark, smiling a bit as she said quietly: “'Tis very nice to see both of thee here after so long, old friends. And I cannot express my relief at having thy aid, 'tis extremely welcome. But if I may speak of business now, I will require healers in Ponyville, in Subterra, and wherever else Hel shall anchor her rifts to this world; I will also require at least one healer at the camp Celestia plans to establish in Heaven. And I assume thou both understand that I will be asking thee to create a constant supply of healing ointments, salves, and other remedies.”

Meadowlark and Zecora both nodded, before the zebra said softly: “My folk and I will work on the earth we know; as to Heaven, I think that Meadowlark should go.”

“I agree, I'll be glad to do it.” Meadowlark said softly, even as her eyes glanced towards Antares and lingered there for a moment, and then she returned them to Luna and added: “I'll bring my husband with me. He can help with healing.”

Antares almost fell over, which earned a glare from Prestige as Aphrodisia giggled and looked excitedly over at Meadowlark, but the Pegasus did a very good job of not doing more than letting her eyes flick in Antares' direction again... although there certainly was a little bit of vengeance there, Luna thought wryly. But the sapphire mare did her best to keep things professional as she instead looked at Terra, saying calmly: “As soon as Celestia has secured the Rifts, thou shall lead thy forces into Heaven. Valkyries and Knights and the rest of thy army of loyalists: they shall be the ones to secure the base camp, and reinforce Celestia's army.”

“I think I should go in first.” Terra said calmly, looking up with determination in her eyes, and then she scowled when Morning Glory snorted. “Oh, dunna even start with me, you sodding great-”

“Cease, cease. I cannot have thou and Morning Glory arguing, 'twill bring down the whole library around our heads.” Luna said flatly, holding up a hoof, and then she said firmly: “Thou art not just a warrior, Terra, but Queen of Heaven. Before thou can enter, Heaven must be secure. 'Tis a job for the Queen of the Valkyries.”

Terra grumbled at this as Celestia looked up with a smile, but after a few moments she finally nodded and sighed tiredly, mumbling: “I... I suppose, aye. Still, I don't have to like it. And who will look after Taruos while I am gone?”

“I can look after myself. I'll stay in Subterra, it's much nicer there than it is around all these entitled little mortals.” Taruos said grouchily, crossing his arms as the bull-headed child looked grumpily back and forth, and Luna glowered at the boy grouchily. Taruos caught her look and glared defiantly back, however, raising his head and saying sourly: “You should be glad that I'm willing to listen to your suggestions at all.”

“The nerve of thou, foul little monster.” Luna grumbled, glowering at Taruos before she shook her head with distaste, then looked at Morning Glory. But one look at the Destroyer told her that there was no way she was passing the child off on her... but as Luna's eyes roved thoughtfully over the group, she saw another person she trusted was looking up with distinct interest, perhaps even hopefulness in her eyes, and after a moment Luna asked hesitantly: “Well... Eventide, would thou be so inclined...”

Eventide began to smile, and then Terra said moodily: “I am not sitting back and allowing my son to be guardianed by one of your pet Nightmares. I mean no disrespect to either of you, and I'm sure you're a very fine person, missy... but is there anything at all even a Greater Nightmare like yourself could do should a Pious attack?”

The Greater Nightmare lowered her head quietly, then said softly: “Perhaps not. But I would give my life to protect your child, Lady Terra. And even if I could not fight the Pious, I could still elude them and keep your son safe.”

“Hey. Terra. Don't be a bitch. Why are you being such a bitch?” Hel asked curiously, and the Ironjaw grumbled under her breath and glowered over at Hel, but at the same time she seemed to defer a little to the dark goddess as Hel absently tossed her drink from hand-to-hand. “Y'know, I seem to remember a certain someone here once went out after a big old feather in her cap, and kind of failed miserably. But I still gave her another chance to prove herself, didn't I? Whether she got laughed at by her entire Clan or not.”

Terra growled in irritation, and then she glared at Luna when the sapphire mare cocked her head curiously, the dragon cutting her off with a threat of: “If you even open your mouth, lass, I'll shove my claw down your throat and make haggis out of what I tear from your gullet.”

“That would be pretty horrible. Not just for us, but for you, too. You really don't want to know what goes into Luna's stomach on a regular basis.” Scrivener said mildly, and Luna huffed... then grinned widely at him, waggling her eyebrows, and Scrivener winced away from her. “Stop turning everything I say into... you're gross. Just. Go away.”

The sapphire mare grumbled and rolled her eyes grouchily, then she whined loudly: “Why do all of thee always treat me as if I am the twisted and sick one here? 'Tis clearly not I, but Scrivener Blooms who is the awful one. And Twilight Sparkle. None of thee would believe the awful degradations that run through the mind of terrible, twisted, heinous Twilight Sparkle. She is naught but pure sin in purest form. 'Tis why her daughter is named Sin.”

Twilight sighed, and Innocence blushed and grumbled a little as she hugged herself moodily, flicking her mane out of her eyes before Antares said loudly: “So what the hell are you going to be doing, Mom, after you do the big dramatic break and enter? Are you just going to sit on your butt, then steal all the glory at the end?”

“Nay, Scrivy and I shall lead a battalion to storm Valhalla once Greater Heaven's attention is elsewhere. We will lead the ambush, but then stay back and secure the Castle of Valhalla and establish another base camp there.” Luna informed, shaking her head briefly as she became more serious again. “Our role is mainly gatebreaker. Then we shall act as liaisons with Hel and others in Valhalla. We do not plan on entering the battlefield often, compelling as it may be.”

Antares nodded and smiled, but his eyes remained uncertain before Prestige looked towards Terra, saying calmly: “I would like permission to lead a unit of Valkyries to secure Valhalla with Lady Brynhild, Queen Terra.”

Terra grunted at this, the Ironjaw looking moodily down for a few moments before she finally nodded reluctantly. “I... I suppose I cannot deny you that, lassie. Even if I was hoping, honestly, you would look after my lad...” She looked at Taruos, bit her lip as he scowled up at her in a way that was somehow both defiant and quietly-affectionate, and then she groaned and dropped her head before mumbling: “Oh, sod it all. Taruos, do you trust the Nightmare to look after you?”

“I can look after myself.” Taruos grumbled, and then he sighed tiredly before adding moodily: “Lexrex will be with us and I suppose the Greater Nightmare will be armored. It will be adequate for the purpose of my defense.”

Terra smiled despite herself at her son, reaching up and silently ruffling his mane, which made him grimace and cross his arms sulkily, unwittingly making himself look even more like a child before she murmured: “Aye, fine then. Well, you heard him, Eventide. My child will be in your care, along with his pet. I just hope you like dogs.”

Eventide only smiled and bowed her head politely, and then Luna turned her eyes towards Morning Glory, saying mildly: “And thou. Thou hast chosen officers and assembled all the forces thou could? What of the wild demons, have any more been tamed or pledged their assistance? I know my offers of granting sanctuary and peace have not convinced every demon to throw their lot in with us, but what about the threat and promise of war?”

“Oh, I'll take this one. Ersatz and I have been very hard at work, reaching out near and far... you know, you'd be surprised to learn just how many so-called 'wild' demons are in the mountains even around Canterlot.” Burning said cheerfully, waving a hoof easily. “No, not every demon has been what you'd call 'receptive' to our presence, but quite a few are. I mean, like you said yourself. We're offering some of them war, war on Heaven to be precise, and that tickles the noses of more demons than you'd expect. It's encouraging.”

Luna grunted and nodded, and Burning Desire hesitated before he glanced over at Scrivener Blooms, adding: “And I have to admit that your beautiful cousin is doing a much better job at this whole thing than I am. All I can really do is seduce and occasionally get a laugh or two. She always knows just what to poke, when to provoke, when to allure. It's all very impressive, to say the least. You should be proud of her.”

“I... am.” Scrivener smiled a little after a moment, then he shook his head briefly before clearing his throat and asking quickly: “And you'll be serving as one of the officers during the invasion, right?”

“Captain Burning Desire. It does have a rather pleasant ring to it. Don't you agree, oh undying violet?” Burning Desire asked cheerfully, winking over at the Lich, and Twilight smiled despite herself and rolled her eyes, even as the demon looked at her almost pleadingly, adding dramatically: “Now don't leave me wondering what you think of me, gorgeous mare, or-”

“Shut up.” Hecate said moodily, and Burning Desire immediately clamped his mouth shut before the mechanical goddess looked distastefully out over the room, tossing her rag aside with a contemptible flick of her wrist as she shouldered the massive automatic shotgun. “We've wasted enough time here. Or rather, I have. I know my job. I don't have to be here.”

“Thou does not, but I will ask thee to stay all the same, Hecate. Thou art part of this team.” Luna replied evenly, and when Hecate looked at her sourly, the sapphire mare gazed back with surprising tact and seriousness. “This is not fun for me. This is not easy for me. And if 'twere all the same I would not bother with this long, drawn out session with all of thee. But 'tis not. This is about more than strategy. This is about reassuring all present that we are in this together. And reminding all of thee that we either succeed together, or we fail.”

There was silence for a few moments, until Antares looked up moodily from beneath the rag that had landed over his face, saying dryly: “I vote that if one of us does have to leave, it's Hecate, though. She's kind of a bitch.”

“Shut up, hero.” Prestige grumbled, and Luna sighed but smiled wryly all the same even as Scrivener looked almost pleadingly at his son and Twilight only seemed pained. Antares really was just like his mother... the bad one, that is. Not the one we are blessed with.

Luna glanced over at the Lich for a moment, then shook her head quickly before turning her eyes towards Dusk, asking calmly: “Speaking of darker allies. Thou and Imago have promised to... bolster our army, I believe. And from what I have heard, thou hast...”

“I have produced seven Tyrant Wyrm eggs. They'll hatch into larva, and then grow into fully-fledged Tyrant Wyrms. Similar to Knights, not very powerful but... effective enough, Mistress. And of course, you and Scrivener Blooms can always modify them however you please.” Dusk replied calmly, bowing her head forwards with a slight smile.

“And I've gone and... introduced myself to some of the Takers, I suppose you could say. They've built a little nest for me, and I should be able to hatch some pretty babies for you soon.” Imago added quickly, smiling and sounding a little too eager, like she was trying to outdo her servant sibling. “As the war wages on, I'll convert more of these so-called Takers to your cause and make sure they aren't so... foolish. That they understand who their real Mistress is.”

Luna grunted, not exactly wanting to hear or discuss anything further as Zecora looked away with a grimace as Avalon's eyes darkened, the tiny Pegasus muttering: “We should just kill all those bug bastards.”

“After the war, if you like, you can. Right now, I think they'll better serve you even as cannon fodder.” Imago responded almost kindly, bowing her head forwards with a sultry smile, and Avalon shivered and quickly turned her gaze away.

Meadowlark shifted uneasily, and Antares dropped his own eyes before Luna turned her eyes moodily to Twilight Shadow, asking distastefully: “And thou? Hast thou been assembling golems in Canterlot, as we asked?”

“Yes, I have. The Magic Academy has been very welcoming, but I suppose that's because they think I'm Twilight Sparkle.” Shadow glanced over at the other Lich, and Sparkle gave an awkward smile to her servile counterpart. “Don't worry, though. I always make sure to correct them and make sure they know who I really am when I can.”

“Thanks. That's uh... great.” Twilight Sparkle said awkwardly, and then she shook her head quickly before looking over at Luna, asking uncertainly: “Are you... are you really sure this is a good idea, trying to use all these... well... things?”

“Not in the slightest.” Luna confessed, and then she sighed a little before smiling faintly as she felt Scarlet Sage's near glare on her, the starry-maned mare nodding a few times before she murmured softly: “Daughter. Now do not give me such a look. I promise, I was just getting to thee.”

“I want to at least work in the base camp in Heaven. My powers will let me provide medical care even to demons... maybe even to the undead, although I might need... practice.” Scarlet Sage looked over at Twilight Sparkle, who grimaced a bit but then nodded a little, and the silver Pegasus smiled a bit, loosening up a little before she murmured: “Good. Okay. I just don't want to be left behind again, not when there's so much at stake.”

“Thou shan't be. Mostly because I know that if we do, I shall never hear the end of it until thou makes mine head explode. And not with thy powers but thy endless nattering.” Luna said mildly, and when Scarlet Sage glared at her, the sapphire mare huffed and opened her mouth-

And Scrivener Blooms hurriedly covered her jaws with a Talon, saying awkwardly: “I think that's about everything we need to cover. If you have any questions about your placement, just come see us. Or any concerns at all. We'll... we're gonna deal with everything the very best we can.”

“Which clearly isn't very well at all.” Underbrush grumbled as he stood up, then he stretched and cracked his back before he looked over at Hecate, asking moodily: “What do you need to make more toys like that?”

“Metal and chemicals, what do you think?” Hecate retorted distastefully, but Underbrush only grinned sourly in return to her, and the two glared at each other for a few moments with surprising evenness between them before the mogul simply nodded.

He turned towards the door, saying disdainfully over his shoulder as he pushed his way through the crowd: “I'll have some metal and chemicals dropped off by tomorrow at the latest at that condemned ruin you used to call a research lab. See that you make the most of it. You seem like the only pony with half a goddamn brain in this den of lunatics.”

Luna glared at this, then giggled a little, making Scrivener slap his forehead with one Talon before Underbrush called grumpily, even as he shoved the library door open: “And by the way, slave hoof. This doesn't excuse you from your goddamn job. Get that manuscript to me or I'm going to sue you for breach of contract.”

With that, Underbrush left, and there was silence for a moment before Hel said admirably: “That guy's gonna go real far in the ice box. I might have to keep an eye on my toilet, he might steal it right out from under me.”

“Great. That's fantastic.” Scrivener Blooms said sourly, and then the charcoal stallion sighed tiredly and dropped his head forwards as Luna smiled despite herself, giving him a faintly-entertained look. “And in Helheim, Underbrush is king.”

“Methinks his kind are kings everywhere, Scrivy, except perhaps in their own minds.” Luna said musingly, and when Scrivener gave her a dry look, she only huffed and leaned over to bop him with her horn, before pausing and then firmly whacking Scrivener between the ears with the spire, causing a loud double-thud as he was knocked flat into the floor, and the mare declared with a dumb, half-dazed grin: “Meeting adjourned!”

There were a few laughs at this, but most of the people present simply took it in stride and quite a few were already leaving. Antares, for example, took the distraction as his chance to skitter towards the door... and without even looking, Meadowlark reached out as he tried to sneak past, grabbing his shoulder gently and saying softly: “Hi, Mir.”

“Uh. I. Hi there, Meadow. Really... good to see you.” Antares grinned lamely, straightening and looking at her awkwardly as she turned towards him with a small smile. Prestige strode up to the stallion's side, but stayed respectfully quiet as the Pegasus and the glossy-black unicorn sized each other up, before he asked awkwardly: “How uh... did you hear about this?”

“You're not the only ponies who have connections to the spiritual world. Zecora's tribe has been uneasy over the whole Pious issue for weeks now... they're a danger to the natural cycle of things. Which I guess you guys have learned.” Meadowlark smiled a little, and then her eyes turned to Prestige as she said softly: “It's nice to see you, too. How are you doing these days?”

Prestige smiled a little, replying after a moment: “I wish I could say 'good' but honestly... stressed. Understandably so, I think... so it makes me very glad to see you here, Meadowlark, and know that the zebras are offering their aid. It means a lot to us.”

Meadowlark only shrugged and smiled again, then said softly: “It's all our concern. The Pious are trying to steal all this world's souls, to modify the balance of things. The real job of a shaman like Zecora is to protect that.”

“You speak too kindly of me, my dear: selfishness plays a role in my decisions too, I fear.” Zecora said softly, looking up with a small smile and shaking her head briefly, her green eyes gazing kindly over at the stallion as she joined them. “You are powerful people, who I trust and stand beside... although I admit in part because from the Pious we cannot hide. These so-called angels are doing worse than hunting their foes: they fight by attacking the spirit, not with physical blows.”

Antares nodded, grimacing a little before he said quietly: “So you don't really have a choice then, huh? But still. We're glad to have you on board... and working together, we can stop the Pious. And uh... Meadow, well... it's uh. It's really good to see you.”

“You said that already.” Meadowlark smiled a little, straightening before she looked to the side as Avalon and Aphrodisia both joined them, the tiny mare sniffing disdainfully but the demon bouncing happily along on her hooves. “Hey girls. It's been quite a while, hasn't it?”

“Kinda.” Avalon shrugged moodily, looking over Meadowlark for a few moments before she said finally: “That big scar on your side is gone.”

Aphrodisia stomped on Avalon, but the small Pegasus only grumbled and shoved moodily back at the demon as Antares blushed and Meadowlark only sighed and shook her head, saying wryly: “I guess some things never change, huh, Ava?”

“Nope. I guess not.” Avalon looked moodily over Meadowlark before glowering over at Antares as he attempted to slip away. “Hey, coward. Don't be a jackass. After she dumped you, I had to make nice with her and beat up that asshole Underbrush. Which... I guess I should kind of thank you for. If I'd never met Underbrush and punched him in the face, I doubt I'd have gotten any funding for the Thunderbolts. But dude has his hooves in every pie.”

“I like pie.” Apps said brightly, and Avalon gave the demon a mild look before the demon asked excitedly: “So is your husband cute, Meadow? When'd you get married? Tell me tell me tell me!”

Meadowlark laughed and shook her head at this, and Antares grinned weakly as Prestige gave her coltfriend a sour look; across the room, Luna relished this, smiling wryly at the sight of the two before she glanced over at Scrivener Blooms and remarked: “See that? 'Tis just like us, Scrivy. Are they not adorable when they spat?”

“Prestige and Antares are fine... I think. I dunno. I'd put forwards some guesses but I don't want to sound like an asshole.” Scrivener said mildly, and then he shook his head briefly before gazing slowly around the room: a lot of the remaining people were talking and confirming with each other instead of them, and it was good to see. It was a sign of trust in each other, how they communicated and shared ideas readily, and they seemed to recognize that while Luna was the loudest voice, she wasn't by any means the official leader.

And then Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight all looked curiously up as Hel's ice puppet sauntered over to them, smiling cordially as she waved Myre forwards, before the dark goddess said kindly: “Little miss mudpies here has something she wants to say.”

The three ponies tilted their heads as Myre shifted back and forth, then said finally: “I want to help. Please give me a job or let me come with you.”

“Myre, thou does have a job. Thou art assigned to protect Innocence, our daughter... 'tis a most important mission, and the most difficult task I could assign.” Luna said gently, smiling a little, and Myre rose her head in surprise before the sapphire mare looked a bit more moodily up as Nightmare Moon calmly approached. “And before thou opens thy big mouth, yes, Nightmare Moon, thou shall be coming with us as well. But I try not to think of thee as anything more than a weapon.”

“If a weapon is what you desire me to be, then I shall be your weapon. Only remember that I am here to serve you... in every way I can.” Nightmare Moon gave a sultry smile, bowing her head forwards, and Scrivener and Twilight both shifted awkwardly as Hel snorted in amusement.

“Well, isn't she a sweet cookie?” The dark goddess paused, looked back and forth around the room, and then suddenly she leaned forwards, eyes darkening as she said quietly: “This was cute, but your friends better be prepared for more than just doing their jobs. The whole bakery is going to get upset sooner or later, and we're going to have to turn all these doughboys into butchers. For your sake, I hope they're ready to handle cutting some meat.”

Luna grimaced at this, but didn't draw her eyes away from Hel's. And after a few moments, the sapphire mare gave the briefest of nods and a silent promise: that she, her friends, and her family would all be ready to do whatever it took to put a stop to the Light. And even if they faltered, Scrivener and Twilight felt Luna's determination... and her readiness to do whatever it took to ensure that the forces of He Of Many Countless Faces were stopped.

Hel saw this in the mare's eyes, and smiled after a moment before she reached up and silently tapped the end of her bovine nose... and then she was simply gone, leaving behind a sense of silent warning and a sinking feeling in Luna's stomach, like her desire to save Heaven from the Light had just started her down a dark path of no return.

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