• 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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Some Of Our Closest Friends

Chapter Sixty Two: Some of Our Closest Friends

They were ready. Well, physically, they were ready, Scrivener thought was more correct. Mentally he wished he was still hiding in bed, and he knew Twilight Sparkle felt the same way, even if Luna was all growls and aggressiveness and maybe honestly excited about what was lying ahead.

“Although I guess it helps that Luna seems to think we're going to have a pleasant little visit before running off and killing... everyone.” Scrivener mumbled, and Twilight grumbled in agreement with a short nod, before the two sighed tiredly and dropped their heads together, the stallion adding crankily as he glowered over at the sight of the mare strutting around, shouting orders through the town square to the various ponies: “She always says she hates being a leader. Then immediately takes right over every time something happens.”

“She hates responsibility. She loves bossing everyone around.” Twilight mumbled, and the two nodded grouchily in unconscious synchronization with each other, the armor they were both clad in clinking gently. Most of their gear had been repaired and restocked, and Scrivener and Twilight were both wearing satchels, but there were still discolored patches here and there and they hadn't had the time to properly polish everything, leaving them looking a little... unprofessional.

“Our profession is killing angels?” Twilight asked mildly, and Scrivener gave her an amused look, the Lich awkwardly smiling at him after a moment. “Sorry. I guess I'm just in... one of those moods. Everything feels pretty tense right now, and... well...”

She quieted, looking slowly around Ponyville. There were civilians and worried ponies standing here and there who didn't know what was going on, and Monkshood was trying to calm ponies down, reassuring them it was 'otherworld' business and that they weren't in any danger. Which was kind of true... but the fact encampments were being built outside of town, and so many strange creatures had been seen lately coming and going likely wasn't helping at all with reassuring the normal ponies that everything was going to be okay.

Innocence was here, shifting uneasily from claw-to-claw, back in her usual polymorphed form, and Myre was standing beside her, her own body shaped into spiky, dangerous-looking plate mail that looked and felt completely real... but Scrivener had started picking up on the little details, like how when Myre moved, her armor moved a little too fluidly with her, making it clear that it wasn't anything she was actually wearing, but part of her own strange body.

Scrivener admittedly envied that a little. Here he was, still unsure whether or not he could go Tyrant Wyrm at will without a huge boost of power from Luna and Twilight – and if that happened, then he didn't know he could actually change back into a pony by himself – and Myre could just turn herself into whatever the hell she wanted. Her only limit seemed to be that she couldn't turn into anything more than twice her original size. And he guessed that... whether she was reflecting or not... he kind of liked her. And for Scrivener, it was always easier to envy the people he actually liked. Not in a bad way, not jealousy, but... a sort of admiring envy.

Twilight gave him a softly-amused look, and the stallion huffed at her before they both were interrupted by Nightmare Moon striding towards them, the enormous passion entity smiling almost tenderly at the two as she said softly: “I'm very excited to be going with you.”

“I'm... glad.” Scrivener said awkwardly as he looked up at the large, dark-coated mare, and then he cleared his throat as he looked over her, asking finally: “You're really not going to wear any armor or anything?”

“No. I am not.” Nightmare Moon smiled down at him, then she reached up a hoof and gently stroked under his muzzle, making him wince a bit. “I am Deathless, and my spirit is safely housed inside Luna Brynhild and yourself. My body is only... an extension of my power. And one that doesn't entirely suit me yet, either: This temple needs... refinement.”

“Refinement. Scars and... all the other twisted thoughts you have, that's refinement.” Scrivener said dryly, and Nightmare Moon simply nodded before turning her loving eyes to Twilight Sparkle.

“You understand, don't you?” she asked the Lich softly, and Twilight shifted uneasily before Nightmare Moon gave a quiet laugh. “Don't worry. There's no ill intent, no manipulations, no nothing... I just feel that the more you understand me, the better I will be able to serve you. None of you trust me just yet, and that's fine. I still am your loyal, humble servant.”

Twilight Sparkle looked awkwardly down, and there was silence before the three looked up as Celestia approached, moving almost soundlessly in spite of her massive golden armor. Tyrfing rested across her back, and her three shorter swords were sheathed around her body.

“Are we ready yet?” she asked almost impatiently, and Scrivener smiled a little despite himself as, some twenty feet away, Luna perked up and suddenly abandoned the argument she had been having with Monkshood to hurry towards them, even as Celestia closed her eyes and took a calming breath. “I apologize. I'm... I suppose I'm just overeager, that's all. I want to make the most of this, and-”

“No, no, no, do not apologize, Celestia! 'Tis most delightful to see thee like this!” Luna said cheerfully as she reached them, and the ivory mare gave her little sister a sour look before Luna punched her golden-armored chest lightly. “Look at thee, Freya! All eager to wet thy swords with the blood of enemies, covered from head-to-hoof in battle raiment and swords. It brings back fond memories, my beloved big sister. And thy eyepatch only makes thee all the more fearsome.”

Celestia only shook her head slowly, then glanced towards the saddlebag on Twilight's side before smiling a little and saying gently: “It's a nice thought, but you're needed here.”

Twilight frowned and cocked her head curiously, and Scrivener looked up dumbly before the saddlebag rustled. Then the Lich stared as first Ratatoskr, and then Abaddon flung themselves out... and when Celestia cleared her throat pointedly, the saddlebag rustled again before Bob poked his own head out, saying wryly: “And here I thought that if I hid under all the other magical pets, even your spidey-senses wouldn't be able to find me, Tia.”

Celestia only smiled and shrugged, and then Discombobulation sighed as he half-flopped out of the sidepack, landing smoothly on his feet but still roughly the size of a ferret. He looked up at her, and she gazed back down at him before holding out a hoof, and Discombobulation calmly strode forwards and stepped up onto this, letting her lift him up in front of her features as he said softly: “Now, do me a favor, won't you? Come back in one piece. Think of all the killing you'll miss out on if you don't.”

“I'm not all about killing things, Bob.” Celestia smiled all the same, however, then leaned forwards and gently kissed the forehead of the Draconequus, before lowering her features almost gingerly against him. And Discombobulation silently embraced her features, pressing his small body close for a moment against her before he sighed softly and simply vanished, Celestia murmuring: “I know. I hate goodbyes, too.”

Then she looked up, closing her eye and composing herself before raising her head, braided locks spilling around her shoulders as she nodded once and said quietly: “Once Hecate gets here, we should leave immediately. Even if the Pious aren't watching us right now, we're still drawing too much attention from the rest of Ponyville.”

“I agree. Let's get going.” came Hecate's contemptible voice, and the ponies looked up in surprise to see her already standing nearby, massive automatic shotgun resting against one shoulder and Lucy on her waist. She had modified the legs of her mechanical body with what looked like large pistons and some kind of exoskeletal piping, and it looked like she had tightened the armor plating around her upper limbs to make them a little sleeker-looking, better locked together.

The real surprise was that she was silent: there was no hum of machinery coming from her, no sense of energy or electricity, and her mechanical body barely clanked as she gestured moodily at her own frame. “I have the bomb stored safely inside my shell. I took the liberty of upping the destructive power of the explosive a little further, but at a cost. The radioactive materials are beginning to eat through the bomb casing, so we'll have to move quickly. If a hole forms in the casing, the explosive will go off prematurely. Don't make me spell out why that would be bad for you.”

Luna rolled her eyes, but then she grunted and nodded, looking moodily over Hecate's legs before saying distastefully: “Thou hast gone and given thyself spiky new hips. They disturb me.”

“Focus, Luna Brynhild.” Hecate said icily, and then she turned around as her mane of lightning crackled, shifting her massive rifle to lock against some kind of magnetic holster over her back as she held up a steel claw, horn starting to glow brightly. “Let's open the Bifrost.”

“Pushy, pushy creature.” Luna said dryly, and then she rose her own horn as Celestia and Twilight's also glowed, the sapphire mare smiling wryly as she felt the magic building in the air around them as excitement thrummed in her veins.

And between their combined might, it was only moments before a cyclone of golden flames erupted upwards from the ground in front of them, twisting around to smash into the sky itself and form that all-too-familiar tunnel from this reality into the next. Luna only hoped that this time it wouldn't be taken over by the Pious... but either way, she was already lunging towards it, shouting cheerfully: “And now, into the breach!”

The others followed Luna: Twilight and Scrivener raced side-by-side, feeling the mare's excitement infecting them as energy rumbled through the air, and then throughout their bodies when the entered into the passageway between worlds. Celestia was next, her smile breaking into a full-out grin as she passed into the tunnel of swirling light and sound, her mane flowing backwards as energy burst and crackled along her golden-armored body.

Hecate and Nightmare Moon followed last, the passion entity looking like a blue comet as she laughed loudly, the steel-bodied goddess refusing to show so much as a smile despite the way her mane crackled and her eyes glowed with energy. And moments later, they were through the other side, the mechanical mare leaping off the ramping rainbow bridge to land heavily behind Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight, who had all skidded to a halt to marvel around at the late evening of the world they had just charged into, Celestia a few feet ahead and standing with her eye closed and a smile lingering on her features.

The bridge shattered as Nightmare Moon stepped off it, and the hole in reality sealed shut behind them: something Luna only noticed because she gave herself a mental reminder to check for the Pious. But no, it looked like they were safe for now, and the sapphire mare looked back and forth before she said finally: “Well, let us stride onwards to Ponyville. There, can thou see the town in the distance? 'Tis so prettily lit up tonight...”

“There's no festivals or anything, right?” Scrivener asked curiously, and Luna simply shrugged before both ponies frowned uneasily as another thought ran through their minds. “The Pious can't be there already... I mean, we'd feel that... right?”

“The only way to know for sure is to go and see for ourselves.” Celestia said calmly, and Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight looked dumbly at the ivory mare as Celestia shrugged easily, then glanced over her shoulder with a slight smile. “The worst that could happen is we've come in the middle of a celebration.”

“Uh... I thought we just figured the worst that could happen was that we're walking right into a trap set by the Pious.” Scrivener said mildly, raising a Talon, and Celestia's amethyst eye gleamed as she looked calmly ahead towards Ponyville.

“Practice is never a bad thing.” Celestia responded, and Luna Brynhild grinned widely at this, nodding firmly a few times before the ivory mare began to stride forwards, Luna hurrying up behind her and Scrivener and Twilight trading looks and sighs before they quickly strode after the two.

Nightmare Moon and Hecate followed, and ahead, Luna suddenly glanced up before looking awkwardly over her shoulder, studying Nightmare Moon thoughtfully before saying finally: “Thou may want to try and be... calm. Although I suppose thou does not at all look like the Nightmare Moon to which this world would be accustomed... although who knows? Perhaps thy black coat and great size will be enough to give away who thou art to these ponies. After all, 'tis not like they have likely seen many creatures like thyself.”

“Like us, you mean... we're all a little strange.” Nightmare Moon said softly, and Luna grumbled after a moment before the passion entity asked curiously: “Is my hostility really so familiar and comforting to you? Because yes, I can certainly be cruel if you want me to, Luna Brynhild... I can pretend things are the way they used to be, and make my demands, and tease Scrivener and Twilight, and try to steal them from you... if that is what you desire.”

“I do not... I do not desire that, 'tis just... 'tis not my fault thou art so damned creepy!” Luna complained, shaking her head vehemently before she growled moodily in frustration, dropping her head forwards and muttering: “Damnation. Very well, fine. Be... be all nice. Perhaps 'twill help hide who thou art.”

“Brynhild, stop picking on Nightmare Moon.” Celestia said absently, and Luna squawked, glaring furiously over at her older sibling as Nightmare Moon smiled a little and Scrivener and Twilight both quickly looked away to hide their grins. “I understand you aren't fond of change: neither am I. But everything changes. You have changed, I have changed... is it so hard to believe that, now that Nightmare Moon has everything she's spent her whole life longing for, she can change as well?”

Luna grumbled under her breath, and then her soulstone horn glowed, yanking Sting Mk. III out of the holster on her back to poke grouchily at Celestia with the bayonet, but the ivory mare only unhurriedly flicked a wing out, not looking fettered in the slightest by the fact her younger sibling was attempting to jab her with a large blade on the end of an even larger gun. “Curses upon thy face, Freya. Curses. I curse thee with mine pointy gun.”

“Please stop doing that. You're going to end up shooting me with it and we'll both regret what happens after that.” Celestia said absently, as she flicked her wing up again and pushed the gun away by the barrel before Luna could wedge the blade into a thin space in her armor. “And... wait. Is someone coming towards us?”

Luna frowned at this, drawing her rifle back with a scowl to catch it by the handle and shoulder it, peering into the dusky distance at a rooster tail of dust approaching them before she grinned slightly, saying wryly: “Yes, 'tis, and I am willing to be that it is none other than-”

“Pinkie Pie!” Twilight stepped forwards as the bright pink earth pony shot towards them, then skidded to a halt with wide eyes and a giggle, happily dancing from hoof-to-hoof as she looked back and forth over them... and Luna was admittedly enthralled to see that, in spite of all the years that had passed since they had last been here, Pinkie Pie looked young and vital, with only the faintest hints of maturity starting to show across her features.

She giggled and danced back and forth on the spot before bouncing high in the air and saying cheerily: “Hi guys! I knew it, I knew it, I knew I knew it! I knew I heard you guys were here! Oh, I'm so so so happy to see you all, and Twilight's going to be thrilled and just... oh wow, I gotta go tell everyone you brought new friends!”

Pinkie Pie bounced back and forth, then suddenly spun around and shot back towards Ponyville, and there was silence for a few moments before Hecate asked moodily: “Can I kill it if it comes back?”

“Oh, stop that. Great, awful brute. Thou does not have to kill everyone.” Luna said huffily, and then she added in a more positive voice: “But things seem much the same as when last we were here... although after Antares visited, he spoke of time distortions and... chains of events and... bah, I do not recall. 'Tis all foppery, anyway. All I know is I am very glad that every time we have visited, they always seem so young and happy.”

“The acceleration of particles and structure of the submolecular strata can affect the perception of time in certain worlds.” Hecate grumbled, and when Luna and Scrivener halted to stare dumbly at the mechanical goddess, she simply rolled her eyes and kept striding forwards, absently booting Scrivener out of the way with a distasteful look at the stallion. “Yes. Time is faster in some worlds than in others. I'll just use little words and faulty pseudo-scientific explanations from now on.”

“You could try not being a bitch, too.” Scrivener muttered from where he was now laying on his back, and then he sighed tiredly and wriggled back and forth before carefully picking himself up, adding grouchily: “I hate this armor because I feel like a turtle in it.”

“Turtles cannot get up when knocked upon their backsides. It only goes to confirm that thou art a great and silly beetle.” Luna replied mildly as she spun her gun once before sliding it into her back, adding moodily: “Now come, Scrivener Blooms. Although I fear what we have brought to Ponyville. For they are not merely monsters, but fun killers. 'Tis the greatest sin of all.”

Scrivener Blooms sighed tiredly at this, but he didn't bother a response as Twilight Sparkle only smiled a little before saying softly: “Well, I'm really looking forwards to seeing Little Luna again. And maybe this time we can actually see Twilight Sparkle... it was really too bad she was in the Crystal Kingdom when we brought Innocence here last time, after all.”

Luna nodded a few times with a grunt, then she smiled warmly at Ponyville as they began to make their approach, shaking herself briefly out before glancing quickly over herself and muttering: “'Tis too bad I am not still undead. We could have had a most delightful time with that. And-”

“We're here on business. Keep that in mind.” Hecate growled from where she was now striding beside Celestia at the head of the group, her eyes narrowed and her expression cold. “Once Hel arrives, we're going to leave this wretched little mudhole and go do our job in Heaven, correct? So maybe you should try to keep your focus on that above all else. This isn't a vacation and all your nice little friends are unimportant. We have a job to do.”

Scrivener and Twilight traded looks as Luna scowled a little at Hecate, and then the sapphire mare said moodily: “Damnation, Hecate. We are beginning a campaign that will not end well for any of us involved. Hast thou never heard of living in the moment, and taking thy joys where thou can find them? 'Tis not about what we are going to do, 'tis about what we have at our helms right now!”

“I'm not a ship, and neither are you.” Hecate said disgustedly, and then she looked upwards with a glower, shaking her head slowly. “Living in the moment might suit mortals and fools like yourself, but it doesn't work in the long run.”

Scrivener shrugged moodily, and then replied after a moment in a wry voice: “Well, even if it's stupid, it's a good kind of stupid. I don't think we really care, either, whether or not you understand. You're kind of a giant, evil bucket of bolts who abandoned her own everything.”

The sapphire mare smiled slightly over at Scrivener Blooms, then said mildly: “I agree, Scrivy, and fully back thee, but thou does not have to be so cruel to Hecate about it. 'Tis not her fault she does not understand. Do not be such a bitch, to quote thine own words back at thee, great hypocrite.”

“You're a bitch. So. Shut up.” Scrivener replied grumpily after a moment, and the mare huffed at him before he added dryly: “And maybe I'm just tired of not being the pessimistic one of the group all the time. Silver linings hurt my eyes.”

Celestia shook her head slowly at this, and then she glanced curiously up as a pretty paper object floated silently down from the sky towards them, carried on a gentle breeze. It looked almost like a cylinder of patterned and brightly-colored paper, rounded at either end, and lit from within...

“Sky lanterns... from the southern islands.” Celestia whispered, her eye lighting up as the lantern of paper slowly floated by, glowing quietly and casting shadowy shapes from the profiles of ponies in thick black over its sides.

Luna looked back and forth curiously as Hecate glowered, swatting away another lantern that fell gently through the air towards her, and both Scrivener Blooms and Twilight Sparkle were gazing into the sky with almost as much fascination as Celestia was. The sky was filling with the gorgeous lanterns as they were released in one massive wave from Ponyville, spreading upwards like a gorgeous cloud of... of hope, made tangible, so many tiny lights forming one magnificent, beautiful aura.

It was a rising, growing omen of hope: it was a gentle light, spreading up into the dusky evening sky, and not marring the twilight but instead making it all the more beautiful, not attempting to rule or overcome, but instead further the glory of the night. And the sapphire mare felt wonderment starting to rise in her own system as Celestia silently covered her own mouth, a warm, delighted smile on her features as even Hecate seemed to lose some of her eternal seriousness.

They watched the lanterns spreading out, turning into so-close stars that dotted the night sky, illuminating symbols and patterns and shapes in black pasted onto the thin-but-stiff paper. They watched, as the lanterns filled the sky, a thousand points of light framed in darkness before Celestia whispered: “It's just like the festivals in Kazegami...”

Luna smiled slightly over at her sibling, murmuring: “And one would never think thou would have such fond memories of the times before thou met thy family, Celestia. But I suppose even back then, thy heart of ice was thawed on occasion.”

“Some things, I suppose, have always stayed with me.” Celestia said softly, and then she drew her eye down, smiling warmly at the sight of several approaching ponies. “Did you organize all this? It's... it's beautiful.”

“Thank you.” responded Twilight Sparkle almost shyly... but it wasn't the Twilight Sparkle that had come with them from Looking Glass World, but a Twilight Sparkle who still looked young, and pretty, and was burning with life. And furthermore, who was only a unicorn, even if there was something... special about her.

She looked over them radiantly... and their own Twilight Sparkle gazed warmly not just at this version of herself that still seemed so youthful, so... positive, but over Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity. They all looked healthy, and happy, and so much like the ponies she had known in her youth: Dash was a mare, not a stallion, and Fluttershy had both wings, and Applejack was alive and no pony was worn down by age...

“Oh, I'm sorry! I just... it's such a surprise to see you all here, I...” The Twilight Sparkle of this world drew her eyes over the ponies of Looking Glass World fearlessly: but even if they were a rare sight here, they had long become a very welcome one to the ponies of this world, too. Even if almost every occasion they showed up ended up being business-related. “I just... I...”

Twilight Sparkle stumbled to a halt as she looked across at... herself. But not simply herself: a self who was older, and stronger, and so much wiser. A self who had wings, and looked both shy and proud in the same moment, and who didn't hide the stitching stretching up one side of her face... but didn't strive to show it off, either. And who was gazing back at her with as much fascination as she couldn't help but stare at her twinned self with, feeling such intense magic and emotion reverberating from her...

“Wow.” the unicorn whispered, and then she blushed a bit before clearing her throat when she realized that Celestia was still looking at her expectantly... and even though her eyes widened a moment later when she realized this Celestia also only had a single eye, she managed to mumble out: “But this is all part of the uh, the... a festival where we embrace and celebrate other cultures. It's the third annual festival and... well, it's really amazing to see you here, right here, right now, even if...”

“Aye, there have been... changes. And as thou may have guessed from how we are girded, 'tis not all pleasant business.” Luna paused, then looked thoughtfully back and forth and added: “Well, perhaps that is not so much a giveaway after all. This is the way we are oft-dressed for fun and pleasure as well as business.”

Scrivener Blooms sighed tiredly, and then Pinkie Pie looked excitedly back and forth, asking quickly: “Did my interdimensional twin sister come with you guys? But wow, Twilight, look, it's your interdimensional twin sister, too!”

The purple unicorn smiled despite herself as the Lich laughed quietly, and then she blushed before stepping forwards when Luna nodded to her firmly. The violet winged unicorn looked awkwardly over at Hecate, but the mechanical goddess was only standing with her arms crossed and a disgusted look on her face. And Celestia was again enraptured with the lanterns, and since the others were all pushing her to do so...

“Uh... hi.” Okay, it was a bit of a weak start. But it was still enough to get the attention of the ponies of this world, and the Lich smiled a little more as she rose her head, saying in a more confident voice: “I'm sure you all know me as Twilight Sparkle, but you can call me Morgan. I've heard all kinds of things about you and this world, and... I'm really excited to be here-”

“Yes, it's not like we're here on business or anything, let's just fritter away all our time with these worthless little flesh-sack copies.” Hecate growled moodily, and then she glared when Pinkie Pie began to giggle, covering her mouth with a hoof.

“Sorry, sorry, you just... I mean, you're acting so serious and, well...” Pinkie Pie began to giggle a little harder, and Hecate scowled, but this only made the earth pony laugh louder even as Fluttershy and Rarity traded winces. “You make funny faces!”

Hecate ground her teeth together, then stepped forwards and seized Pinkie Pie by the back of the neck, yanking her into the air to eye-level with her, and the earth pony was dumbstruck as Hecate asked her icily: “Am I funny now?”

Pinkie Pie began to nod, and when Hecate narrowed her eyes, she instead hurriedly shook her head, half-covering her own face with a weak grin as she mumbled: “You're... you're a little bit scary.”

“I'm a lot more than a little bit.” Hecate said icily, and then she flung the mare away. Pinkie squeaked, but then landed on a soft cushion of purple magic that Twilight Morgan created with only an absent flick of her horn, sighing as she looked imploringly up at Hecate. Hecate only glowered back, however, then she shook her head before muttering: “I'm not about to lower myself to the levels of these ponies.”

Luna rolled her eyes, then complained loudly: “Hecate, thou art making a horrible first impression on the ponies of this world thus far. Do not make me tear thy silly head off and use it to play kickball. Thou great bully.”

Hecate only growled moodily, and then Pinkie rolled quickly backwards to a sitting position on the cushion of magic, bouncing on it a little as she gazed thoughtfully up at Hecate before hopping off and smiling up at her. “You are scary. But you know, sometimes I make a bad first impression too, but then I try to spend more time with people and prove that I'm not a bad pony after all! I bet if I spend more time with you-”

“No.” Hecate said moodily, and then she looked disgustedly up at the paper lanterns floating through the sky, adding coldly: “Furthermore, attempting to welcome or embrace other cultures is the first step to surrendering to them. A strong society does not kowtow to others: they learn to obey its laws and regimen, or suffer the consequences.”

“I... I don't think that's quite right...” Twilight Sparkle said awkwardly, and Twilight Morgan dropped her face in a hoof with a tired sigh before the violet unicorn gave a lame smile across at the ponies from Looking Glass World. “But... I know, let's all head into town and I'll write a letter to Princess Celestia and Princess Little Luna, and we can catch up. I mean, unless your business really is that urgent, but... well...”

“Fear not, 'tis not. Well... 'tis, but 'tisn't, 'tis difficult to describe.” Luna said mildly, stepping forwards and slapping her older sibling on the shoulder with a slight smile, and Celestia almost jumped, blushing slightly as she finally tore her gaze away from the lanterns spreading throughout the sky. “Come now, Freya. Damnation, thou looks like a little filly. And thou, creature, do not go stirring up trouble, either. Cease looking at the ponies as if they are treats to gobble up.”

Nightmare Moon, who had remained quiet and off to the side until now, only smiled and shrugged. The eyes of the ponies turned towards her, and Luna shifted a little, feeling wary... but a moment later, she felt relief when Twilight Sparkle asked: “Who is this? Another friend of yours?”

“Thou could say that.” Luna grumbled, then she gestured easily at the enormous, dark-coated mare, saying mildly: “She does not deserve a name. At least, not yet. 'Tis all still taking some getting used to, aye, Scrivener Blooms?”

“A little.” Scrivener admitted, then he shook his head a bit before looking querulously at Luna, but the sapphire mare simply looked back at him pointedly. She just didn't want to reveal who Nightmare Moon was right now: she had a few reasons to back her up, certainly, but at the end of the day it came down to the fact she simply didn't want to talk about it.

Luna grunted at him in thanks, then turned her attention forwards, pointedly ignoring Nightmare Moon when she smiled and said kindly: “Well, nameless or not, it's still a delight to see you all... looking so happy and young and strong. It's a pleasure for-”

“Shut up, thou. To Ponyville with us!” Luna declared loudly, and then she began forwards, poking at the ponies she passed with her horn to try and get them moving as she added: “We do not have all day to dally, so come now, come on, 'tis time for us to get going. We should not waste our time here, for we can only have pleasure until our associate arrives.”

“Well, can I ask what's going on or... do you want to wait? I mean, the princesses will certainly want to see you, you know that Little Luna will drop pretty much everything to rush out here and try to meet with you, and there's so much I want to talk about... and if we can help you at all, my friends and I really want to.” Twilight added, nodding hurriedly, and Morgan smiled softly at how... enthusiastic, how positive this version of her was. “I really just want to do what's going to help make everyone happy in the long run.”

“And if you can't do that?” Twilight Morgan asked curiously, wanting to know what the twinned mare thought of a situation like that.

But without fear or hesitation, the violet unicorn smiled before answering: “When you can't please everyone, then you have to do what's the most right. Even if it means you and your friends have to suffer a little.”

“Aye, thou hast learned well. Good lessons, too... not like the lessons thou would teach, wretched Freya. Thou would teach them all about selfishly pursuing pleasure and how to molest stallions.” Luna said mildly, nudging Celestia a few times as they started towards Ponyville, and Celestia only laughed and shook her head.

“Be fair, little sister. I wouldn't just teach them that. I'd teach them how to kill each other, too.” Celestia said gently, and then she shook her head slowly before smiling a little as Luna gave a wide grin up at her sibling. “I know it might not be fair, Twilight Sparkle, with us not answering any of your questions, but I just have to ask... why the lantern festival? Why Kazegami?”

The purple unicorn shrugged a little, but it was only to give herself time to gather her thoughts: Celestia gave her that time, gazing warmly at this youthful, so-innocent version of her former apprentice before Twilight Sparkle answered finally: “Because it's a celebration of hope. And all week, all the celebrations we've been having have been about... hope, and making friends. I didn't even realize that was the theme we'd selected until now...”

“There's an interesting story behind the lantern festival, at least where I come from. It's a very old story, and I highly doubt your Celestia has the same history as I do, so you may have never heard it before. Would you like to?” Celestia asked, and Luna looked up in surprise, but then smiled warmly: it was rare indeed that Celestia was so open, especially on any subject related to her long-ago past. Twilight Morgan and Scrivener Blooms both looked up with curiosity as well, and even Hecate seemed to turn her head a little.

Twilight Sparkle, thankfully, was as interested as any of them as she looked up with a warm smile, nodding a few times. “I'd love to hear it! Right, guys?”

“I bet you come from a real scary place though... uh, no offense or anything.” Rainbow Dash said quickly, and then she grinned as she flitted up through the air, wings carrying her easily back and forth over her friends as Twilight Morgan smiled faintly: she missed seeing the Rainbow Dash of Looking Glass World do that. “You're just... kind of a lot uh... different from our princess.”

“Harder.” Celestia gave a slight smile, and she nodded as she said softly: “I lived in Kazegami at the start of my life, and only came to Equestria later... quite a few years later, as a matter of fact. But what I remember, when I first walked into the town of Kusanagimura, was the lanterns. They were everywhere, hung outside homes and over merchant's stalls and none of them lit. But such detail had been taken in making all of them, including the wishes painted onto the sides of the lanterns.

“I took shelter at an inn, and even though back then I thought it was all silly distractions, I found myself drawn out that night when all the townsfolk gathered in the square with their lanterns. They were all lit, and thanks to a little bit of magic and a cloth roof at the top of the lanterns, they were able to float. And as I watched, all these hundreds of lanterns were thrown into the air by all the ponies gathered, and it was like... it was like watching the sun rise in the middle of the night.” Celestia smiled a little over at Luna. “I never really knew until just recently how important that was going to be to me.”

She stopped, then shook her head before saying softly: “But I was curious. More than just the lanterns being let go, almost every light in the village was out. I was told that it was so they could watch the lanterns spread across the sky, and so they could watch them go out, one after the other: once every lantern went out, they would know that the spirits had heard all their prayers, and they would all go to bed and hope that tomorrow, their prayers would be answered. I said... it was nonsense.” Celestia gave a slight smile at the looks of surprise on the faces of the ponies ahead. “I was cruel back then. It took me a long time to become who I am today: even if we're all born innocent, that doesn't mean we're all born good. We're just born without crimes to be guilty of.

“But before I get off topic again.” Celestia shook her head briefly before she looked up into the distance, smiling at the lanterns. “What I said didn't matter to these ponies. They still believed what they believed in... if anything, they took pity on me. It wasn't that they all believed in the same thing, either: over my years in Kazegami, I heard everything from the lantern ceremony was to give honor to the dead, that it was to pray to the gods, that it was to say thanks... but always, it was something positive, something... good. It was hope for more.”

She quieted for a moment, then said softly: “Every year, on the night of the lantern ceremony, all the towns across Kazegami celebrated. The sky became a sea of candles, and entire cities were black as night, but no one was afraid. Not of goblins or monsters or ghosts or thieves. Not even of me. It was a sacred night, a holy night, and protected by that sheer hope that everypony radiated... when the lanterns were lit, and released to the sky... everyone knew that everything was going to be okay.”

Celestia fell silent, then smiled softly, looking back and forth as the group strode slowly into Ponyville. Twilight Sparkle was looking back at her wonderingly, but Celestia's eyes were only studying the world around them instead of this twinned version of her former student, murmuring: “And I can honestly feel the hope here, too. It's a good feeling. It's a very welcome feeling.”

“Aye, 'tis. I agree, Celestia.” Luna said softly, and then she laughed quietly and shook her head slowly before turning warm eyes towards Scrivener Blooms. “Look, Ponyville has not changed in the slightest, and thou art a great, superstitious goof, so even thou must believe this is a fine omen of fine times to come!”

Scrivener only grunted, shrugging after a moment before he replied mildly: “I could totally turn it upside down if I wanted to. But... maybe just this once, I'll try and be positive. You know. For Celestia, since it's so rare to hear you talk about things.”

“Don't thank Celestia. Thank Freya.” the ivory mare said softly, gazing up into the sky and smiling a little, and then she shook her head when some of the other ponies looked at her curiously. “It might take some time to explain. Let's wait until the princesses arrive... or maybe we should go to them. That might be a better idea.”

“Oh, wonderful.” Hecate said in a disgusted voice, and then she looked off into the distance, glaring at distance, faintly-illuminated Canterlot. “Why don't we just abandon the mission completely? We might as well just get rid of this bomb I'm carrying and have some twisted orgy.”

“Oh shut up, Hecate. Besides, 'tis not like thou could do anything in an orgy, anyway, thou art nothing but a head on a gigantic metal doll. A sharp metal doll at that. Not even Sleipnir would have anything to do with thee.” Luna retorted, and then she looked moodily over at Nightmare Moon, who was remaining quiet and smiling, continuing to look respectful, pleasant, almost servile... which is starting to make me nervous. “Thou can shut up too.”

Nightmare Moon smiled again and shrugged, and Luna growled grumpily before saying grouchily: “Well, very well. Say something idiotic, and then I shall tell thee to shut up.”

“Luna. Seriously. Stop poking the Ursa Major. Or demon, in this case.” Scrivener Blooms said dryly, and then he winced when Luna huffed at him and leaned over to grouchily poke at the stallion with her soulstone horn, glaring balefully at the charcoal earth pony.

“Poke the Ursa Major. I shall poke thee. I shall poke thee right in thy eye.” Luna grumbled at him, and then she looked thoughtfully over at Celestia, adding meditatively: “But thou has a point. And perhaps Hecate will cease to be so... sulky if she gets to ride the train. Wouldst thou like to ride the train, Hecate? Train? How about the train?”

“I swear, Luna Brynhild, I will rip out your ovaries and use them to garrote you if you keep this up.” Hecate seethed, and Luna looked dumbly at the mechanical goddess, who eventually ground her teeth together and said disgustedly: “Choke you. I'll choke you to death with them. Or do you want me to use smaller words?”

“Nay, I am very familiar with choking. Very familiar. I have often been choked before. And have done much choking of others, as well.” Luna waggled her eyebrows, and Hecate ground her teeth together as one of her eyes twitched, glaring furiously at Luna Brynhild as Rainbow Dash snorted in entertainment and Scrivener Blooms closed his eyes, looking pained.

There was an awkward silence for a few moments, but thankfully, it was smoothly and quickly interrupted by Twilight Sparkle saying hurriedly: “I'm not sure you can get the train right now, but Canterlot isn't that far of a walk, and we even have a few travel carriages available, I think... a few rich ponies came down from Canterlot to witness this ceremony. The princesses wanted to come, too, but couldn't make it because of their royal duties...”

Twilight Morgan looked over at Luna at this, saying slowly: “Well, you know... if they are busy, maybe we shouldn't interrupt them, Luna...”

“Oh, fie on thee. And fie upon them, too.” Luna huffed loudly, then she rose her head proudly. “We are even greater than a public holiday. Public holidays come more than once a year, and wear many guises. Our appearance is more like... some great celestial event. And I am not talking about thou, Freya.”

Celestia only looked mildly over at Luna, before the sapphire mare continued cheerfully: “Aye, so therefore, let us head to these carriages. My only question is whether or not they will be able to pull a beast such as Hecate. Look upon her, she is a like a statue. A statue of metal that is alive and mobile. A titan. A living forge.”

Hecate didn't say anything, only continuing to stride along with the faintest clinking of metal before she said distastefully: “Unlike you ponies, my body doesn't get tired. And since you're all whining so much about wasting time here, I'll just walk by myself.”

Hecate looked grouchily forwards, and Twilight Sparkle started carefully: “You know, Miss Hecate, it's... I mean, it wouldn't be any trouble at all to-”

“No.” Hecate cut her off simply, and then she turned her eyes forwards and said in a contemptible voice: “I'll let you stupid little ponies play your games together, and you'll leave me alone in return. Just don't forget why we're here, Luna Brynhild. Nor that we don't have all the time in the world for you to live out your little homemaker fantasies.”

Luna looked ruffled at this, but surprisingly, it was Nightmare Moon who replied tactfully: “And maybe the reason you're trying to avoid spending any time here is because this place scares you, doesn't it Hecate? Considering your own past... I certainly can't blame you for the guilt you must feel.”

Hecate only smiled thinly at this, electrical mane sparking and cables writhing around her head, but she didn't bother to respond as she simply turned her eyes forwards, pacing a little faster and making the ponies ahead scatter out of her way as she stormed down the road by herself.

The group of ponies from both worlds slowed, and then Celestia said softly: “Please excuse her. She's had a difficult life. More difficult than I think any of us can really comprehend.”

“She loved a fool. Thou loves a fool too, although one of a different and more lovable sort, I am glad to see. But I swear, Celestia, thou must have a thing for dragons.” Luna remarked wryly, and the ivory mare gave her younger sibling a mild look before the starry-maned pony glanced forwards with a slight smile at Twilight Sparkle. “Thou art very polite, by the way. Thou hast not remarked upon myself, nor Freya, nor Scrivy, nor even our own Twilight Morgan. I am impressed. By now, I would have blurted out all the things I see different and be pleading for the stories behind them.”

Twilight Sparkle blushed a bit at this, looking hesitantly back at the ponies as her friends all clustered together and traded awkward looks, and then the violet mare said softly: “Well, I knew about your... your horn from the princesses, but... I guess since you said you'd tell us your stories when we have time to sit down, and you said you were here on business... well, I remember how 'business' went with Antares when he was here.”

Luna grunted and nodded, looking down for a moment as Twilight Morgan softened, and then Twilight Sparkle blushed a bit before turning around to her friends, adding quickly: “So who's up for accompanying our friends to Canterlot? And... oh, no, I need to stop by the library, pick up a few things... Rainbow Dash, maybe you and Applejack could take our friends to the carriages...”

“And of course we're coming, darling.” Rarity said with a kind smile towards the ponies from Looking Glass World, and Fluttershy gave a small smile and a nod as Pinkie Pie bounced in anticipation. “We wouldn't want to miss this for the world, especially after everything they've done for us. And I must say, I'm just bursting with questions for you, Miss Morgan.”

Twilight Morgan smiled softly in return to the gorgeous ivory unicorn, bowing her head forwards as she said softly: “And I've got all kinds of questions myself for all of you. I'm sure we'll be able to talk some in the carriages, though... I just hope we haven't come at a bad time. You don't need to put anything aside for us, after-”

Luna Brynhild cleared her throat loudly at this, and Twilight Morgan gave the sapphire mare an amused look before the starry-maned winged unicorn said blandly: “Yes. Yes they do. We are special.”

“You're special.” Scrivener Blooms said mildly, and he received a glower in return from Luna before the charcoal stallion glanced up at the lanterns slowly spilling across the sky, saying finally: “But I'm sure we're not going to be here that long, anyway. What's the worst that could happen?”

As always, Scrivener Blooms found himself regretting having uttered one of the most forbidden phrases in his vocabulary: soon he found himself sitting in a carriage and scowling horribly as Luna cheerfully urged Rarity on in helping Scrivener Blooms look 'more presentable.' And then Luna had avoided getting her own miniature makeover when she had realized that Celestia was actually pulling one of the carriages that had just gone by, the large, burly-stallions that had been doing the job before now both awkwardly sitting on the roof and watching her with something like awe.

So Luna had no choice but to answer the unspoken challenge, leaping out of their carriage, almost plowing over the two stallions pulling it, and harnessing herself quickly up before roaring and charging violently down the road. Inside the carriage, Scrivener and Morgan only glowered as Rarity and Twilight Sparkle yelled and hugged each other for dear life as they shot down the dusty road and tore past Celestia.

For a moment, Celestia only smiled over at her sister, watching her run doggedly past... and then she set herself, eye gleaming, body flexing enough to make her armor shift, a faint glow suffusing her body before she suddenly lunged forwards, the stallions on top of the carriage clinging for dear life to the top as there came a great rollicking and crashing from inside.

Celestia quickly overtook Luna, who shouted a volley of profanities before gritting her teeth and bearing forwards as hard as she dared, cursing and wheezing as they hit the pass leading up to Canterlot Castle. Celestia easily kept the lead, however: in fact, she was gaining inch-after-inch, little-by-little, which only made Luna all the more frustrated as she both valiantly and foolishly attempted to keep up to her sister.

They reached the entrance to Canterlot Castle in only a few minutes, and Celestia calmly cantered to a halt as Luna staggered slowly up beside her, then flopped over on her face with a mumble, completely ignoring the staring lines of guards. Celestia rose her head, then smiled warmly at the ponies approaching, but Luna completely ignored them until she heard the hooves come to a halt right in front of her, muttering: “Let it be known that Freya cheated.”

“Now, Brynhild, don't bark just because you lost. Show a little Valkyrie pride: besides, you always were my second.” the armored ivory mare replied easily, winking over at the flopped-out mare before she rose her eyes to the two ponies standing in front of her, both of them surveying the ponies with awe, warmth... and a little bit of worry. “Princess Celestia. Princess... I mean, Little Luna. It's good to see you both.”

“And we're very happy to see you, Freya and Brynhild... although it looks like there have been certain... changes.” Princess Celestia halted, the rainbow-maned winged unicorn smiling a little, her amethyst eyes drawing slowly over Luna Brynhild, then along Celestia Freya. “Twilight Sparkle's short letter mentioned you being here on business... does this have to do with Decretum, or...”

“Nay, fear not. 'Tis... well, 'tis more serious in some ways, less in others.” Luna Brynhild said thoughtfully as she picked herself up, and then she shook herself out before smiling warmly across at this world's version of herself: a sapphire winged unicorn who was just an inch or two smaller than her, gazing across at her with an almost childlike expression of awe and joy. “We only have time for a short visit, but while we are visiting... it will be joys, not business that we shall discuss. Or if we must, we shall not take the business seriously, for 'tis nothing thou should be working thyselves up over anyway.”

Princess Celestia and Little Luna traded looks, then the Princess of the Sun sighed before nodding hesitantly. She looked thoughtful, as if she was trying to find the right words as the carriage doors opened, and her eyes flicked absently up before widening slightly as Scrivener Blooms emerged from one of the doors. Little Luna's own eyes were drawn to the charcoal stallion, and she couldn't help but stare a little as well at the sight of his Talons flexing against the ground.

Then Morgan emerged, as Twilight Sparkle and Rarity crawled out the other side of the carriage, looking stunned still... and last came Nightmare Moon, striding calmly out behind the Lich and smiling as she stepped down onto the gravel landing. Princess Celestia frowned curiously, but Little Luna's eyes widened in shock as she staggered backwards and then fell on her rump, trembling as she whispered: “Nightmare Moon.”

The words cut through the air like a knife, and shocked eyes looked up from all around as Fluttershy stumbled out of the other carriage and Twilight Sparkle turned disbelieving eyes towards the enormous, black-coated winged unicorn that was now striding slowly towards Little Luna. And Little Luna could only look up, trembling, mouthing wordlessly as her mane writhed and twisted wildly back and forth, pulsing as the constellations seemed to shift and try to hide themselves beneath the depths of her ephemeral locks...

“Hello, Luna. You still haven't made peace with yourself, I see...” Nightmare Moon leaned contemplatively back and forth, and when Brynhild growled, the passion entity only gave a slight smile over her shoulder. “It's nothing. I'm just offering my assistance to our mutual friend. Her Nightmare Moon is... haughty. Envious. And a coward. Little Luna doesn't deserve to suffer under the constant threat of a crying monkey on her back, does she?”

Little Luna stared up at the passion entity, and before anyone could say anything, she whispered: “You? Help me? How?”

Nightmare Moon smiled... then suddenly leaned forwards as her eyes and horn glowed, and sharp fangs bit savagely down into the side of Little Luna's neck. She cried out in agony, and ponies shouted as Luna Brynhild snarled and snapped her horn to the side even as Princess Celestia leapt forwards to try and shove Nightmare Moon off: the latter was ineffective, but the former made Nightmare Moon almost choke for a moment before she was yanked backwards by a leash of energy.

But even as she choked, she grinned widely as Little Luna spasmed, then arched her back with a cry of pain as Nightmare Moon's horn continued to glow brightly before she snapped this back... and not just blood, but dark energies burst from the wound in the side of the winged unicorn's neck. She stared blankly up into the air before falling to the side, staring sightlessly as a horrible, keening wail rose up... but it didn't come from her, or any of the ponies present. It came from the amorphous shape that formed in the energy, that was twisting and turning, trying to pull away even as Nightmare Moon leaned forwards and greedily inhaled.

The energy was pulled into her jaws, and in the last brief moment there was almost a face visible in the mist before Nightmare Moon's jaws clamped savagely down over it and she closed her eyes tightly, shivering as her body flexed. For a few moments, there was silence, Princess Celestia standing over her stunned, bloodied sister, ponies staring in terror and disbelief, Luna Brynhild snarling in fury as Scrivener and Twilight both gaped before Nightmare Moon slowly relaxed and licked her lips as her cunning eyes opened, murmuring: “Sumptuous. Like that. The stronger passion always devours the weaker, you see...”

“Cannibalism, aye. That is a wondrous trait indeed.” Luna growled, and then she shook her head slowly before snapping: “How dare thou! We are guests in their home, they are friends to us, how dare thou attack them! How dare thou steal from Little Luna what is part of her!”

“Thank you, Luna Brynhild. It gives me a strange pleasure to see you defending even an alternate, weak version of myself as necessary.” Nightmare Moon said kindly, and this just made Luna look even more furious before the passion entity gestured gently towards Little Luna. “Better a quick, short pain, than something long and drawn out. This Nightmare Moon served no purpose: she was hurting Little Luna. If Little Luna desires, we can give her true strength in place of the nattering goblin that was trying to hurt her.”

Luna Brynhild looked disgusted, shaking her head slowly before Little Luna coughed once and slowly shook herself out, breathing hard as she shivered once before whispering: “Wait... wait, I am... I am alright. The pain is already fading...”

“Little sister, please, don't strain yourself.” Princess Celestia soothed, and then she leaned over as her horn glowed a gentle gold, and Little Luna closed her eyes, breathing quietly and trembling a bit as the wound on her neck slowly healed. Then Princess Celestia looked up uncomfortably, saying slowly: “I would... appreciate it if you would keep Nightmare Moon... at a distance from my sister.”

“I would appreciate it if Nightmare Moon would go crawl into a hole and die.” Luna Brynhild growled moodily, but the passion entity only smiled, and Luna shivered a bit as she felt the dark passion entity stroking almost soothingly through her mind as she picked up on her thoughts. “Get thee hence, creature. Go wait for Hecate under a rock somewhere, we did not pass her that long ago.”

“Of course. I'll bring her to you.” Nightmare Moon said kindly, and then she turned her eyes to Little Luna, gazing at her almost fondly for a moment before saying softly: “You're welcome.”

Little Luna shivered a bit, but then gamely nodded and slowly pushed herself up to her hooves, shaking herself out. Princess Celestia looked at her worriedly, wrapping a foreleg around her shoulders, but the sapphire mare only shook her head briefly and murmured: “I'm alright. I'm... please, don't worry about me. I just feel... strange.”

“What happened?” Twilight Sparkle whispered, striding worriedly ahead, but Little Luna only smiled faintly and shook her head briefly as the other ponies shifted nervously, several looking uneasily towards Nightmare Moon as the tall, dark pony strode calmly away from them, a smile lingering on her features even with the disapproval from both Scrivener Blooms and Luna Brynhild.

Except that wasn't entirely disapproval, not deep down inside: there was the smallest, faintest hint, like it or not, of praise for the creature's actions. Of being impressed with her power; of curiosity about what precisely she had done. Things they didn't want to feel, but couldn't suffocate all the same.

Brynhild shook her head quickly, then stepped forwards and said softly: “I apologize, Little Luna. This was my failing. I did not expect the monster to try and slip her leash so quickly, and if there is anything I can do for thee-”

“No, no, it's... it is alright, Brynhild. A small price to pay to see you again, and Freya and Scrivener and even Morgan.” Little Luna shook herself again, but she was clearly fighting to regain her composure, smiling a little more after a moment and trying to move past what had just happened even as she silently reached up to touch the side of her neck. “Can... can we move inside, and discuss what business brings you to our world? Or at least catch up... this is just... not even a flesh wound. I'm perfectly fine, don't worry.”

“Thou art getting stronger, I see... but do not try and follow mine own image too much, Little Luna. Otherwise thou shall become a Little Brynhild, and 'twould be a terror for Nice Celestia.” Brynhild smiled a little, and Little Luna laughed a bit even as she visibly brightened. And Princess Celestia sighed but smiled faintly all the same herself, the sight of her younger sibling's returning happiness helping her push past her own insecurities and worries.

Twilight Sparkle still looked uneasy, but Little Luna cleared her throat as she noticed this, shaking her head out before saying finally: “I'm alright, Twilight Sparkle. I was just a little surprised, but... perhaps this is for the best. I do feel more lucid, more aware of myself... that is good, is it not?”

“Oh, do not go saying what Nightmare Moon did was a good thing, I shall never hear the end of it otherwise.” Brynhild complained, glancing grouchily over her shoulder before she shook her head quickly when she realized the passion entity had already vanished into the darkness. Then instead she turned her eyes meditatively to the burly stallions, who were looking at the still-harnessed mares awkwardly. “What? Oh, art thou already going? But I was thinking the four of thee could come and entertain us gorgeous mares. And fear not, Scrivy is a mare too. He may be a stallion but he is also a mare. Either way, he would be entertained by thee.”

“Hi Luna, this is just a reminder that I hate you.” Scrivener said sourly, and Luna gave him a saccharine smile over her shoulder before the charcoal earth pony dropped his head and muttered: “Besides, you're the one who loves to flaunt her 'battering ram' so much.”

“Aye, I do. Little Luna, I should teach thou how to do this, too!” Luna grinned roguishly, and then she sighed when Freya gently grasped her shoulder with a hoof, her horn glowing and pulling the harnesses loose from both their bodies. “Oh, fine, Freya. Ruin my fun. 'Tis not like thou would not do so if thou could, though.”

“I don't need a 'battering ram' to get the job done, Brynhild. I never have.” Celestia Freya replied kindly, and Luna Brynhild glared up at her furiously as Little Luna smiled and Nice Celestia shook her head slowly with a look of faint entertainment. Twilight Sparkle was only staring blankly, but then looked visibly relived when Freya changed the subject, asking calmly: “So is there a place where we can sit down and talk, until our contact arrives?”

Princess Celestia smiled... and twenty minutes later, the group of ponies from Looking Glass World and native to this version of Equestria were gathered in a conference room that had a few extra amenities attached, like the circular bar at one side. Rainbow Dash had flitted excitedly over to this with a wide grin... then glowered as she realized that the only thing with any alcohol in it was a hard cider... and it wasn't exactly all that hard, either.

“Rainbow, maybe you could bring us drinks, since you're over there?” Twilight suggested as she sat herself at the table, and Rainbow groaned loudly.

Applejack grinned and shook her head, then nudged Pinkie Pie, saying mildly: “Come on, let's go help out Dashie. Otherwise she'll just spill the drinks all over the place.”

“Oh come on, that happened once. You guys suck.” Rainbow Dash grumbled, shaking her head before she turned back towards the bar, flitting up to inspect the top shelf lackadaisically. “Princesses, no offense or anything, but... why can't I get a drink to drink?”

Princess Celestia only smiled, however, replying easily: “Because all the beverages in that bar are from other cultures, and this room is used for diplomatic conferences. Using alcohol to soften up and sway a diplomat's opinion is generally a frowned-upon practice.”

Rainbow Dash grumbled a little at this, and then Pinkie Pie asked brightly: “So who wants something to drink? There's colas and waters and all kinds of juice and I could definitely mix a few of these up into something even better, if any of you want!”

“Just some cola, thanks.” Scrivener said mildly, holding up a Talon, and when several ponies looked at this, he shifted awkwardly and dropped it, self-consciously lacing his Talons together to try and hide them from view as he mumbled: “But uh. Well... Brynhild?”

The soulstone-horned pony huffed at him, then leaned over and poked at the stallion seated to one side of her a few times. Then Twilight Morgan grasped her shoulder from her other side, and Luna Brynhild settled before nodding grudgingly, gazing over at Freya and asking wryly: “Does thou desire to speak, or shall I?”

“It's your story to tell, not mine, Brynhild. Well, yours and Scrivener's... and since our time is limited, I'm not sure how much time we should spend on the subject right now.” Freya replied gently, shrugging a little, and Luna Brynhild nodded thoughtfully before she smiled a little as she turned her eyes appraisingly towards the princesses.

She hesitated as she looked for a few long moments at Little Luna, and then she asked finally: “Art thou sure thou art alright? I would understand if thou wert angry with us. And if thou wanted to drop a large rock upon Nightmare Moon's head, I could certainly arrange it.”

Little Luna only shook her head, reaching up and rubbing at the side of her neck as she said softly: “No, it's... fine.” She stopped, looking slowly over the other ponies: Fluttershy was watching almost meekly, and Twilight Sparkle was gazing at her with a small, supportive smile, while Rarity was lecturing Rainbow Dash and Applejack on making sure the cups were clean as Pinkie Pie went about her own business mixing up colorful beverages.

The Princess of the Night smiled a little more after this, and Luna Brynhild understood why only all too well: it was that sense of normalcy, of being accepted for who you were that she guessed Little Luna still must crave, even after all the years that had passed. After all, in spite of all the positives of this layer, how slow they were to age, to mature, probably meant that changes came just as slowly, whether they were positive or negative... although negative always tended to come much faster than positive ever did.

“I did... a few years ago, I did attempt to make contact with Nightmare Moon...” Little Luna said softly, and then she smiled faintly and touched her own breast. “With the voice inside of me. And it... I discovered I was not nearly as strong as you are, Brynhild. She scared me. She scared me, because for all the ways she was different, and evil, and... wrong, she was also...”

“Thyself.” Brynhild said softly, and Little Luna nodded a few times. There was silence for a few moments, and then the sapphire mare said gently: “Aye, I understand this very well. But how does thou feel now? I fear more the consequences of what my own awful shadow has done to thee...”

“No, I... I feel fine. I feel less like part of me was torn out and more like... I don't know how to describe it.” Little Luna smiled faintly and shook her head, then she reached up and rubbed reflexively at her neck. “Like... an infection was weakened? But if Nightmare Moon is a part of me, I know she can't simply be destroyed, or wiped out... but maybe that part can be... healed.”

“Aye, they used to use leeches to heal poisoning of the blood and treat other ailments.” Brynhild said blandly, and Scrivener sighed as several ponies winced. “I suppose that is all Nightmare Moon is. A great, fat, spiritual leech. She is certainly slug-like enough.”

Morgan and Scrivener both looked flatly at Luna Brynhild, who sniffed disdainfully, and there was awkward silence for a few moments before Little Luna ventured: “How did... Nightmare Moon become... free, though? Yours must be very different from mine...”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Nightmare Moon is a Deathless, and her spirit and consciousness still seems to reside within my body... and I see from thy expression thou understands what that is, Nice Celestia.” Luna said with a pointed look at the rainbow maned mare, as the Princess of the Sun shifted uncomfortably. “I am not going to have to make it hoof party in thy face's house again, am I?”

“No, Brynhild. I'm just... surprised.” Celestia said delicately, and then she smiled a little over at Twilight Sparkle when the purple mare looked at her curiously. “A Deathless is very similar to a Lich. It means Nightmare Moon cannot be destroyed, unless Luna Brynhild herself is destroyed.”

The soulstone-horned mare grunted and nodded a few times, saying mildly: “'Tis a good enough explanation without wasting our time nattering on about it. In any event, she is supposed to serve me without question, but I fear that she still seems to be most interested in her own strange agendas.”

“I think she wants to help, to be honest. The problem is that Nightmare Moon's idea of help isn't always very... helpful.” Scrivener Blooms said moodily, nodding meditatively before he glanced over at Twilight Morgan. “It's probably your fault. Mostly because I'm preempting Luna... I mean, Brynhild saying it's got to be my fault.”

Twilight Morgan shook her head with a slight smile, then glanced across at the unicorn version of herself as the still-so-innocent purple mare looked back at her silently for a few moments, drawing her eyes slowly along the Lich. Morgan shifted awkwardly, and Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly as she reached up and unconsciously touched her face where the stitching was over the Lich's body, before she asked quietly: “And you're... you're really tied to Luna and Scrivener, huh?”

Twilight Morgan nodded as the other ponies returned to the table to pass out drinks, and there was silence for a few moments as the group settled and then sipped at their drinks. Scrivener ended up with some... sugar tasting monstrosity, but it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever had... really, it had a nice aftertaste. He was just afraid that he and Luna were going to end up jittery from a sugar high while they were trying to take down the Gatekeeper, which would be awkward.

“Maybe you could tell us who this contact is you're waiting for, just to avoid any misunderstandings.” Princess Celestia suggested as she lowered her teacup, and Luna Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms traded grumpy looks, which earned a curious look from several of the other ponies.

“I fear that only makes me desire not to reveal her identity at all. 'Twould be wonderful if there was a misunderstanding...” Luna stopped, then grumbled moodily: “Well, if we did not think that she would not simply... nay, I would rather not get into that. Fear not, I have no doubt she will simply... appear when she desires to appear. But if thou art curious, her name is Hel, the Goddess of Helheim. We have been forced to ask for her aid against... a particularly pernicious enemy.”

Now they were getting stares of disbelief, before Rainbow Dash laughed uneasily and said slowly: “You're kidding, right? I mean... you mean Hell, right? Last time I checked, you guys said you were Valkyries, and they guard Heaven or something, right?”

“It is very complicated, but... I promise we will return one day and explain it all to thee.” Luna hesitated, then looked slowly over the group, saying quietly: “But if I may make one suggestion... thy friends, thy family, if all of thee truly care about them... then this may sound strange, but do not allow them to die. There is... there is a flaw in the chain of souls at the moment.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Celestia said quietly: “And you're asking for the apparent ruler of the underworld to help with this.”

“Believe me. Our only other choice in the matter was even worse than Hel. Hel, at least, is...” Luna grimaced, not wanting to defend or discuss the strange, gleeful goddess unless absolutely necessary. “Hel has her reasons. Perhaps chief amongst them is the fact that our enemies may be attempting to siphon up souls that would otherwise go to Helheim. The energy that souls provide is extremely important to the other realms.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight Sparkle asked worriedly: “How long has this been going on for? And what are you fighting?”

“Not long, and yet it feels like years. And we have been fighting... I cannot describe them.” Luna Brynhild hesitated, then asked uneasily: “Hast thy world been visited by creatures known as 'Pious?' They are alien, extremely distinct...”

Princess Celestia and Little Luna traded looks, then shook their heads as Twilight Sparkle said hesitantly: “The only 'pious' I've ever heard of are the monks from eastern Equestria...”

“Those are not the pious I speak of. Their order is silly. They wear scarves sewn with meditations and stand upon their heads to pray.” Brynhild smiled in relief all the same, and then she nodded a few times before saying gently: “If thou ever sees the Pious, they will come to thee, and ask for sanctuary. Thou must not give it to them. Thou must deny them, and do whatever thou must to force them out of thy nation.”

Princess Celestia frowned uneasily, and Little Luna shifted before simply nodding once. Her older sibling looked at her worriedly, but Little Luna shook her head and said softly: “I trust Brynhild. If she says they cannot be trusted, then I shall not trust them.”

The Princess of the Sun hesitated only a moment longer before she nodded slowly as well, saying softly: “You're right. She's already saved us from many powerful enemies in the past.”

Twilight Sparkle smiled a little at this, and then turned her eyes back towards Morgan, studying her again. Morgan gazed back at her, and then Twilight Sparkle asked softly, seemingly without even realizing she was speaking: “I wonder how it feels...”

“It just is.” Morgan smiled a little, and Twilight Sparkle blushed in surprise before bowing her head forwards embarrassedly, and the Lich simply shrugged before adding hesitantly: “Sometimes... it does feel good, though. I won't lie, and pretend that being undead is so morally wrong, so awful and terrible a fate there's no good to be found in it... few things are like that. I wouldn't want to change who I am now, because... I'm strong, and I'm connected to the two ponies I love most in all the world.”

There were a few shifts at this, and Twilight Morgan smiled a little as she glanced softly over at Luna and Scrivener, even as she said: “Sorry. I know it's a little weird... probably a lot weird when you consider what I am on top of all that.”

Scrivener smiled and shrugged easily, and Luna Brynhild grunted as Twilight Sparkle gazed over the three... almost with jealousy, she thought. Then the violet mare suddenly shifted backwards and cleared her throat, rubbing violently at her cheek before she mumbled: “Just... excuse me for a moment, I think I just need...”

She stumbled out of her seat, heading to the door... then yelped and was knocked flat on her flank when they were shoved violently open. And Luna scowled horribly as a construct of ice strode in, the bovine head of the frost puppet grinning widely before Hel said cheerfully: “Isn't this the cutest thing ever? It's like when you walk into the toy store, and all the different versions of the superhero toys are lined up side-by-side! This one's a pirate, and this one's a ninja, and this one's an intergalactic space warrior, but the kicker is they're all different versions of the same dude!”

Brynhild scowled as Freya sighed tiredly, while the princesses and the ponies were only staring in disbelief. Twilight Sparkle, meanwhile, was still sitting back on her rump, gaping up at Hel before the ice puppet grinned as she leaned forwards, saying kindly: “Get out of my way now, dear. Whenever little kitties tried to do that whole squirmy thing around my feet, I always made it a point to kick 'em.”

Then, before Luna could say anything, Hel looked up and became more serious, adding calmly: “But enough fun and games. Sorry to interrupt, kiddies, but Hecate and Nightmare Moon are out and waiting for us by a little makeshift portal I threw together. We have a gate to break.”

Luna Brynhild sighed, but she stood all the same and nodded. Freya, Scrivener, and Morgan did the same... and a moment later, so did the princesses, Little Luna saying quietly but firmly: “Please. Allow us to help you. Maybe we can't go with you, but we can put our magic towards opening the portal for you.”

Brynhild frowned a bit, then looked uneasily over at Hel, but the ice goddess only shrugged and smiled, gesturing back at the soulstone-horned mare. So after a moment, Luna Brynhild nodded and gave a small smile to her twinned self... but at the same time, felt a strange stirring of guilt, like she was encouraging Little Luna to follow her down this slippery slope into the endless depths of darkness lurking below.

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