• 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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The Keystone

Chapter Seventy Three: The Keystone

So far, Helheim was not exactly proving to be what Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight had expected. Well, alright, maybe that wasn't entirely true. Hell was definitely living up to its name in a few ways... it was just that none of them had really expected that just like in the mortal world, demons tended to want to take the weekend off.

Of course, Hel was their benefactor, and they had been given quite a few 'gifts' by her, including the house that they were currently living in: a gorgeous, vastly oversized manse that had fallen into disrepair, most of the magic wards around it long shorted-out and several areas of the gigantic building itself rendered inaccessible thanks to all the damage and the encroaching ice. Frost had shattered several windows, and the wide yard in front of it was now a sea of snow... but Hel had told them eagerly this was a prime location, with its back against the massive, icy cliffs of the Glacial Shield, a range of massive mountains that stretched across half of Helheim.

Once this had apparently belonged to a demon lord, but after his untimely demise, the premises had been vacated: not even Greed demons wanted anything to do with this place, in case his killer came back. But this wasn't just their home: Hel wanted the gigantic mansion fixed up so that she could turn it into a training area for Inquisitors, and Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight were in charge of repairing the entire building by themselves.

Hel told them cheerfully they had all the time they wanted... but that they wouldn't be leaving Helheim until the job was done. So during their free time, Luna, Scrivy, and Twilight were usually hard at work on the mansion, clearing out the old décor, thawing and shattering almost organic ice that had spread into the building, and working hard on fixing the damage and deterioration that, if Hel had actually cared about at all, the goddess could have fixed with a snap of her fingers.

But to Hel, this was all a game, of course: she had also ordered each of them to train for so many hours each and every day, to slow them down further... and on top of that, they had to deal with the set of Inquisitors Hel had assigned to punish them, to break them down further so Hel could better rebuild them into the perfect guardians she had envisioned. And the torture, the pain they had suffered so far... well, it turned out that Helheim was as creative a place as it was terrible. And there was nothing any of the three could do about it: thanks to the power granted to the Archives by Hel, the Inquisitors could do things to them that should have left them maimed and dying, but instead they always found themselves back in one piece by the end of each punishment session, even the worst pains turned to nothing more than dull aches.

Furthermore, because they were now damned souls in Hell, they were powerless to disobey Helheim's laws, or the Archives. They had discovered now the real reason why the Archives were so feared: not even Luna could pummel her way through the magical protection that Inquisitors had against other damned souls. And for Luna, it was the powerlessness that made this all truly unbearable, not the pains and tribulations of the torments they went through.

But at the moment, Luna and Scrivener were exercising while Twilight Sparkle did repairs to the third floor hallway. A punishment session had recently ended for the three, and this was how they worked through it: by focusing on other things. By trying to get stronger, and doing what they were told... if only so they could escape Hell's grip on them.

Not that it would mean much once they were done being punished... they would just end up as Hel's personal bodyguards. And even as Scrivener breathed slowly, trying to focus on the weight he was bench-pressing, that thought crept into his mind again that always scared him above all others: it was the tortured who made the best torturers.

Scrivener closed his eyes, letting the weight lower, then grunting and pushing it slowly up. His muscles flexed, dark veins pulsing through his hide as he rose it high in his Talons, his large frame burning with a power he'd never known before... and yet in spite of all of it, he was helpless. They all were. There wasn't a goddamn thing any of them could do.

Scrivener dropped the weight back in the bar and sat up, letting himself rest as he flexed a Talon slowly, and felt the conical spikes on his back slowly rising back up, sparking faintly. They had become a permanent fixture to his body, although they retracted when pushed on hard enough or he laid on his back, even if they ached until they could emerge again.

His hide flexed: it was more rubbery, even scaled in places, and his Talons had... they had changed, too. The metal looked more alive than it had before, and more... scaly, too, was probably the best word, the claws a little larger and more hooked than they had been before. And his whole body was... bigger, simply put, although the stallion had learned he had some control over his height and mass, but nothing he could actually maintain for longer periods of time.

He was changing. So were Luna and Twilight... and while Twilight was more subtle, Luna was beginning to show outward changes as well. Small triangular horns were hidden in her mane, and her hooves had begun to split into cloven almost-blades. She radiated power and hunger... and right now, frustration, as she hauled the arms of the machine she was sitting on forwards before letting them fall back, but never quite letting herself relax.

Scrivener watched for a few moments, breathing slowly in and out, just letting her work out the frustration. At this stage, weight training wasn't of a whole lot of use to them... but after being tortured for between one and two hours, an intense, hard workout was the best way to get themselves to calm down... at least, without giving in to any of their less-desirable urges, which was probably Hel's entire goal. And none of them wanted to give Hel that satisfaction, for as long as they could hold out.

But then again, of course he calmed down first: he was probably more vain than Luna, and it never failed to amaze him... how strong he was getting. The stallion looked over his shoulder at the weight on the apparently-unbreakable bar, which itself was probably a hundred pounds... and on top of that, he was probably lifting the weight equivalent to a small dragon. And barely breaking a sweat.

He looked down at his Talon, flexing it, clenching it slowly, his eyes glinting faint blue as he made the muscle bulge. He studied it, licking his lips, feeling truly powerful... before shivering a little and closing his eyes tightly, reminding himself that for all his strength, he was still stuck here in Helheim. So what, he could probably chuck a dragon at someone now: they were in a realm where that wasn't just not special, that wasn't even laugh-worthy.

Luna sighed as she finally let go of the arms of the weight machine she was on, and they snapped back into resting position as the sapphire mare said softly: “Oh, damnation, Scrivener Blooms. Go back to being arrogant and self-righteous. I do not desire to wipe thy tears from thy face.”

“Sorry, sorry. Thinking too much.” Scrivener muttered, and then he sighed a little and shook himself out before saying finally: “I hate it here. And I hate it here because I... don't hate it here, you know? And I really hate that, too.”

“Hateful creature.” Luna remarked mildly, and then she smiled despite herself and slipped off the weight machine, Scrivener grumbling as he slid off the bench before the two traded nuzzles, and then the sapphire mare said gently into his ear: “Let us go find Twilight Sparkle, and bring her outside to exercise, and allow ourselves to... relax.”

Scrivener grunted after a moment at this, and then he sighed a little and reached up to moodily touch his stomach, saying dryly: “I was just disemboweled this morning and forced to eat my own intestines. I don't wish to repeat anything near this experience. So if you so much as touch my stomach I'm going to punch you right in the face.”

“What if I desire to give thee a belly rub?” Luna asked easily, reaching a hoof up beneath the stallion and rubbing at his stomach, and Scrivener winced awkwardly and tensed up before Luna huffed and headbutted him firmly, grumbling: “Fall over, great ogre, so I can rub thy tummy.”

“No.” Scrivener glowered at her grumpily: he was now a few inches taller than her, and he greatly enjoyed flaunting the fact she could no longer knock him over nearly as easily, since his mass had apparently increased even more than his height. “You... fall over.”

“Will thou give me tummy rubs?” Luna asked with a sudden grin up at him, pushing the ends of their muzzles together, and the stallion winced a bit before the sapphire mare snorted in entertainment and reached up to tug at his platinum collar gently. “Look at thou, great stupid idiot. My... my handsome monster. My glorious Clockwork Pony.”

Scrivener Blooms smiled faintly, and then Luna shook her head quickly before murmuring: “But enough, enough. Twilight waits for us impatiently. Damn her, Scrivener Blooms. Thou had crunchy intestines and Twilight Sparkle was flayed and I was...”

Luna shivered a little, but then shook her head and rose her horn high, breathing quietly. Here in Helheim, you either learned to accept and deal with the punishments of each and every day, or you let it break you. All three of them were humiliated, violated, tormented and abused each and every day, in ways that were indescribable at times, that left all three of them in broken, crying misery... but it helped Luna to remember this wasn't just the cost of the lives they had lived, and living so much in darkness. This was also their redemption, in a strange and twisted way.

They were being taught through pain and agony, humiliation and degradation. They were being shaped by it, and the lessons the Inquisitors ground into their heads: that just because they were suffering did not give them the right to make others suffer, that this was the kind of pain they had put others through, that... pain, was better than oblivion, and that was why they struggled to live even when they wanted to die, and was what made life sacred. That your soul clung to existence so powerfully that even when every other part of you wanted to give in, it had to be something worth cherishing. It had to.

Scrivener and Luna looked at one-another, seeing into each other's eyes and souls, feeling their energy passing between each other before they shared a gentle kiss. Something they could do even here in Hell... never apart, never alone. It helped them survive, and having Twilight Sparkle with them helped them stay sane. The two traded small smiles, and then they both turned before heading to the door and out into the corridor, following the distinct energy of the Lich.

They found her standing next to the large doors leading out into the courtyard, the violet mare smiling at them softly. She had no other visible changes apart from what they had seen when they'd first arrived in Helheim: that glowing core in her chest, and that gorgeous, flowing mane. She studied them, and they looked back at her before she strode forwards and shared a kiss first with Luna Brynhild, and then with Scrivener Blooms.

Then she stepped back, gazing at them fondly before the violet mare said softly: “You two are thinking too much again. I know that's funny coming from me, but... Hell is Hell. And Hel is trying to break us. Even if she's... a weird almost-mentor, she wants to break us a lot more than she wants to be friends with us or anything.”

The stallion shrugged a bit as Luna grunted, looking meditatively down before she said finally: “I do not know. I dare not guess at Hel's true intentions... she is nearly as frustrating and cryptic as Scrivener Blooms likes to be. Or rather, tries to be. He is a very bad ridiculer.”

“That's the cutest mispronunciation I've heard all day.” Scrivener said mildly, and Luna huffed at him loudly as Twilight smiled despite herself, before the stallion looked up and admitted finally: “With some of the things they do to us, I wish that I could kill all of them.”

Twilight and Luna both gazed softly at the charcoal stallion at this, and then Twilight Sparkle smiled a little and glanced down, saying quietly: “It bothers me less what they do to me than what they do to you. It... it hurts, but no matter how they... hurt me, my body is just a shell. You two are my spirit and my soul. What happens to me physically doesn't matter.”

“That's either a really nice or a really crappy way of looking at life, Twilight.” Scrivener said mildly, and when both mares looked at him dryly, he shrugged and said finally: “Hey, it's true. I mean, you're either... 'look at me, I'm so anti-materialistic' or 'look at me, I'm such a limp doormat of a dishrag and you can do anything you want to me and I'll just lay there like a starfish.'”

Scrivener held up his Talons, twiddling them on either side of his head with a silly smile on his face before he dropped back to all fours and looked plainly over at Twilight Sparkle. The Lich continued to gaze at him for a few moments, and then she calmly flicked her head to the side, and Luna stepped smoothly backwards as Twilight's enormous bell appeared in an unhurried swing towards Scrivener Blooms, the stallion looking dumbly to the side at this before it smashed into him and knocked him crashing through the double doors and the heavy gates beyond, bouncing and skidding painfully over his face through the icy courtyard before he rolled to a stop in a snowbank.

The stallion grumbled under his breath, then he slowly picked himself up, shaking himself off as Luna giggled a little and Twilight Sparkle called easily: “So which one am I, Scrivy?”

“The bitchier one.” the stallion said sourly in response, and then he shook himself briefly before looking crankily over at Luna as she all-but-bounced happily in after the Lich, the stallion gesturing grouchily at the icy, frozen courtyard around them, the walls still lined with creeping veins of frost and cold, snow-speckled stone beneath their hooves. “Luna, did you just forget where the hell we are?”

“I did not forget where in Hell we are at all.” Luna said smartly in return, and the stallion closed his eyes and dropped his head forwards moodily before the sapphire mare looked with entertainment over at Twilight Sparkle, who was gazing affectionately at Scrivener even as her huge bell rumbled and loomed nearby. “'Tis incredible, my sweet mare, how thou looks so lovingly upon our stallion, and yet I see thou art full well ready to squash him flat with that bell, too.”

Twilight only shrugged a bit, turning her eyes towards Luna as a small smile played over her features, replying quietly: “Well, you know. These last few years... I've been... adjusting.”

“Aye... years. I had forgotten so long had past...” Luna looked down for a moment, then glanced up towards the stony ceiling of Helheim high above, saying quietly: “But there is no sky, little sense of day or night or the passage of time... and as Hel has both reassured us and tormented us with... Helheim bows to Hel. Even time is hers to control here...”

Scrivener shook his head a bit as he stood up, then he sighed softly and said quietly: “I think she just wants to hold onto us for as long as possible while we turn into... whatever it is that we're turning into. Something else.”

He held up a Talon, studying it silently... then winced as there was a puff of blue smoke behind him before one of Hel's ice puppet's appeared, slinging a companionable arm around his neck and saying cheerfully: “Now hey, haven't you guys been listening? Sure, you're in Helheim. Sure, you belong to me, like property. But you're not going to become demons, no no no!”

Hel reached up and pinched one of Scrivener's cheeks, making him wince and glare up at her as Luna grumbled and Twilight Sparkle sighed a little, the Lich letting her bell vanish into smoke as the dark goddess said brightly: “You're just way too cute to turn into demons! No, you're more like... Pokemon Evolutions! Bigger, stronger, a little scarier and a little bit uglier.”

“Wonderful.” Scrivener shoved the ice puppet off after another moment, but Hel only giggled as she stumbled backwards, then tripped over the hem of her own snowy dress and landed with a thump on her butt. “So what are you doing here?”

Luna cleared her throat loudly, and Scrivener Blooms grumbled a bit as Twilight strode forwards, saying softly: “We mean no disrespect, Hel, but... you coming in and showing up unannounced and all just after we had a... 'punishment' session...”

“Torture, say it for what it is, sweetie. And that was like a whole hour ago, come on, get over yourselves already!” Hel smiled at them, her eyes glinting before she held up a finger and said kindly: “But that's a big part of why I'm here, actually. I have a special offer for you three. A way to help get your punishments to end a little bit earlier.”

Scrivener Blooms grimaced a bit as Luna scowled and Twilight tilted her head, even though the violet mare felt uneasy, like she always did when Hel looked at her. Because the way Hel stared at her was so much different from the way she looked at Luna or Scrivener: there was more there than a sense of eagerness and excitement and the strange delight of someone who thought she wasn't just in the presence of friends, but people who respected and admired her... even if they were forced to respect and admire her. There was something... tender in her eyes.

Then Hel smiled, tenting her fingers together and suddenly turning her eyes away before huffing and saying grouchily: “Oh, I can't talk to the three of you like this, look at you, all... spread out all over the damn place. Here, here, here, get together.”

Hel flicked both her wrists, then clapped her hands sharply, and Scrivener, Twilight, and Luna all flinched in pain as they were forcefully yanked into the air and dropped firmly in a trio together, left sitting in a scrunched group side-by-side-by-side. Then Hel sighed in relief, rubbing her hands slowly together before she said cheerfully: “There, that's a lot better! Now I can see all y'all and I can talk to you all at once. Now...”

She stopped for a moment, tapping at her chin and muttering: “What was I talking... oh, right, right, yes! I have an offer for you sweeties... something right up your alley, as a matter of fact. You see, my Archives are very busy these days: we're establishing an absolutely gorgeous Grand Archive, but while that is being furnished, a lot of my Inquisitors are being kept busy with work outside of Helheim. And because I've assigned six Inquisitors specifically to you three special little troublemakers, we're running a little shorthanded. Shorthooved. Shortclawed. Short. I'll just stick with short. Not that you are, Brynhild, don't take it personally.”

She reached out and patted the starry-maned mare's head a few times, and Luna scowled horribly before Twilight Sparkle asked quietly: “So what do you want us to do? Police the area for you, act as deputies for the Archives?”

Hel smiled at this, shaking her head slowly and saying softly: “Read all the books in this mansion's library already, haven't you, Twilight Sparkle? But that's a good thing, actually, darling... I'm really glad you're getting to know my world, just like I got to know all about your world. I think it's helped us connect, gotten rid of a whole lot of misconceptions about us... but my sweet little muffins, much as I adore you three, I can't make you deputy Inquisitors. That wouldn't be fair at all, oh no no no. That's far too much power for your little... things.”

Hel reached down and delicately poked Scrivener's nose, the stallion wrinkling up his muzzle and looking grouchily up at the dark goddess. But it was Luna who scowled and asked distastefully: “So what does thou want us to do? Laundry? Cleaning? Cookery? I cannot do any of these things. They are Scrivener's jobs.”

Scrivener slowly turned a sour look towards Luna, even though Hel's finger was still firmly jabbing into his muzzle, and the goddess giggled and drew back after a moment, waving a hand and saying easily: “No, no, no no no, no! That's just silly, Brynhild! No, I have a very simple job for you three. Something you'll excel at.”

Hel smiled affectionately, then said casually, as Twilight Sparkle looked up worriedly and Scrivener and Luna both felt twists of unease: “It's a real easy job, dealing with people... less fortunate than you three are, to have friends in high places with a special ultimate purpose in mind for you.

“I'm short a few proper torturers to deal with some souls that need punishment.” Hel said graciously, clapping her hands together, and the three stared up at the dark goddess before she shrugged and smiled over them warmly. “Look at you, honey-bunnies. You're just growin' up so fast! Three years here, and you've already settled in, done a hell of a good job fixing this place up, gotten used to all kinds of tortures like-”

“Do not speak of them.” Luna growled, but Hel only laughed, and the sapphire mare shivered before shaking her head vehemently and saying disgustedly: “And thou comes to us, offers us the chance to... to do unto others as has been done unto us when we know well, Hel, we cannot torment others merely because we are in pain-”

“And apart from a few little fights here and there, you three have been very well-behaved. Model prisoners, really, it's fantastic. It's got me all tied up in knots inside.” Hel smiled warmly, rubbing her hands over her own stomach before she suddenly leaned forwards, the very air around them seeming to resonate with her unexpected seriousness as she said quietly: “I don't care what you're learning about morals, my little ponies. What I care about is that you're learning the far more important lesson: listen to Hel, and you'll be rewarded. Disobey her...”

Hel slowly clenched a fist, and large, deadly-looking spikes of ice began to rise up all around the ponies, who winced uneasily back and forth before the spikes slowed to a halt a moment after just managing to scratch the stallion's side. Then Hel giggled and snapped her fingers, the blades of frost vanishing from sight as she said positively: “But we don't really need to talk about that, now do we? No, let's talk about what I want to give you instead of everything I can take away.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener and Twilight both looked uncomfortably towards Luna Brynhild, who sighed moodily at being elected as spokespony before she asked distastefully: “Very well, Hel: then what would thou have us do, in that case?”

The dark goddess smiled warmly at this, clapping her hands quietly together a few times. “Well, since you're willing to listen now, sweetie, we can talk about it a little and work out something that suits all of us. But it'd be easy work... start you off nice and slow, with just some ickle little pony souls that would be easy pickings. And first-timers in Helheim, all strapped up nice and proper, their sins all charted out so you know that they're just getting a touch of what they deserve.”

The three ponies looked uneasily back and forth between each other, and then Twilight Sparkle licked her lips slowly before she asked quietly: “How can you be so... how can you rationalize that this is right? That this is how people who have done wrong should be punished?”

Hel only chuckled quietly at this, gazing genially at Twilight Sparkle before she said tenderly: “I like the way you think, pretty little pony. Believe me, I honestly do... you question, but never in a bad way. You're always so polite. So... so good. Oh, sweet little girl...”

The dark goddess giggled and laced her fingers together beside her head, swaying slowly back and forth with a bright look on her face, and Scrivener Blooms couldn't help but grimace before he said moodily: “I can't help but feel that you have some kind of creepy ulterior motive or something. And you know that all of us see the way you look at Twilight, right?”

“She is not thine, Hel. Thou can go steal thy own Twilight Sparkle from somewhere else, I am sure thou can find one who is suitably evil enough from one of the layers.”

Hel snorted at this, crossing her arms and looking insulted as she whined: “And what would I do with an evil Twilight Sparkle? That'd be silly. Besides, if I wanted to, I could make a thousand Twilights...” Hel snapped her fingers, and at least a dozen almost-perfect replicas of the Lich formed out of the ice and snow around them, all with different expressions on their faces. “But they're not my little Twilight. Just copies.”

With that, Hel flicked her wrist disdainfully, and the Twilight replicas shattered loudly one after the other, the three ponies wincing as the Lich herself flushed slightly, lowering her head a little before she bit her lip, then finally looked up and asked finally: “Why?”

Hel cocked her head curiously, and then the puppet sniffed loudly and gestured to the side, saying mildly: “Because I'm all powerful, that's why I can do that. Or... oh, do you mean why I want you to work for me? Because you three are so good at hurting people, and I think you really need to get more into-”

“Why me? Why am I so special to you, Hel? Why do I trust you and why do you look at me like... like...” Twilight Sparkle trembled a little, gazing up at Hel, and Hel looked back at Twilight in silence for a few moments before the ice puppet gave a soft sigh, lowering her head.

The snow whistled around them quietly, then slowly crawled up the walls of the courtyard, the doors slowly pushed closed by the flow of frost encapsulating the group as thin sheets of ice spread in a ceiling above. The world around them turned cold... and beautiful, and somehow safe, enshrining them within what was both a gilded glass prison and a gorgeous, crystalline sanctuary, the sheets of ice gleaming silently around them as Hel said softly: “I hate being asked direct questions. I have to answer them. I mean, I don't have to, not like I always have to tell the truth, sweetie... but... oh, it stresses me out not to. I guess that's just another of my silly little mental tics... because you know, not answering a question, that's a lot like lying. And I don't can't won't lie, not ever anymore.

“You're a little miracle, Twilight Sparkle, aren't you? Your parents loved you very much, didn't they?” Hel said gently, and although Luna bristled and Scrivener looked up sharply, Twilight only nodded quietly... and both of the ponies bound to her both softened a little as they looked at the Lich, then back at Hel. And there was no malice, no teasing, no threat in Hel's voice as she smiled softly, saying tenderly: “Yes they were. Loving. Wonderful. Not entirely permissive, not too strict either, though... just about perfect.

“But oh, did they ever spoil you, didn't they?” Hel laughed and shook her head, gazing kindly at Twilight Sparkle, and the violet mare gave a faint smile. “Oh, hey, don't look so down, vanilla cupcake! You might see them again... they might be in Heaven, they might be here in Hell, they might have even escaped into the mortal world. And don't you ever think for a moment they ever thought you abandoned them. They knew what you are, and adored you for all the times you visited them. I'm sure of it.”

Twilight blushed a little, dropping her head forwards before she looked up and said uncertainly: “But... none of that answers my question...”

Hel chuckled quietly, then she murmured softly: “Perceptive. I like that, sweetie. But it's a pain too. But haven't you added it all up, darling? The reason why there's only a Twilight Sparkle in this world, no Shining Armor? All the stories about how long your parents took to get pregnant? And your magic... so powerful... such a mix of light...” Hel rose her arms, opening one hand and creating a white flame. “And darkness...”

Hel's other hand opened, creating a flare of black light, and Twilight Sparkle's eyes slowly widened, the Lich staring in disbelief before Hel calmly drew these flames together, the two swirling into one beautiful, impossible black star with an orb of swirling white energy. “Twilight.”

“N-No...” Twilight Sparkle stumbled backwards, trembling and shaking her head weakly as both Scrivener and Luna looked shocked, mouthing wordlessly before the violet mare shouted: “No! You can't... I'm not your creation! I'm not your toy!”

“No, you're nothing like that at all, my darling.” Hel flicked her hands to either side, and the black star exploded, the three ponies wincing as darkness flooded the world around them... but throughout it, pinpricks of gorgeous light twinkled, leaving them standing inside a miniature galaxy as Hel smiled lovingly at them, the shadows stroking over them and points of light blinking and shining throughout the swirling space surrounding the four.

And then the ice puppet calmly rose a hand and gestured gently into the galaxy swirling slowly around them, and stars shining throughout the darkness twinkled before sailing upwards, forming gorgeous outlines against the velvety blackness. Outlines of ponies, who were hugging each other as a male voice whispered: “Please... please... she wants this so badly...”

“I don't know if I even believe in God, but please... I c-can't... I just want to have a baby with my husband... every other mare, every normal mare gets to experience this, please, just... p-please...” added a mare's trembling words, and both outlines looked desperately upwards before Hel laughed quietly and strode slowly over to the shapes.

And the ice puppet reached down, gently touching the female outline, and it twitched as a tiny spark appeared within it, a little blue star that glimmered and danced as the dark goddess said quietly: “It touched me. I don't know why... maybe because of the good fortune these ponies had in almost every other layer of reality they existed, but these two people I knew would make such loving parents... couldn't have a child. And more than that... I wondered, what if you couldn't be born, Twilight Sparkle? Would your layer be in even greater danger? I had to help protect All Daddy's project... even if it was only in a subtle way.”

Hel smiled faintly, then she touched her own stomach and said softly: “It's not like I was using this, anyway. So there was a snip-snip... and one night I went to see Vally-wally. I harassed him for a while until he spat out that he was having trouble with one specific world, and I told him just to go stomp it himself if it was proving so tedious and he couldn't figure it out. And of course, that made him mad as home sweet home here and he said he could make this world destroy itself. I just laughed at him... that's all it ever took, really.” Hel smiled and tapped her nose gently. “A laugh in the right place. And then Valthrudnir never set foot in that world again and instead devised the most idiotic Rube Goldberg machine you ever did see to try and bring the whole playset crashing down.

“I admit, it was selfish. I got to have something I never, ever could, otherwise...” Hel looked tenderly at Twilight Sparkle, and then she strode slowly forwards, saying softly: “I didn't even know if it would work... if it would be a boy or a girl. I didn't know if Vally-wally would keep his word. I didn't have any idea what I was doing... or that I'd become so attached to you, my sweet little darling, or see so much of myself in you. And I'm sorry for that, and happy for that, and sorry for how happy I am... my beloved daughter. My special little girl.”

Hel knelt silently in front of Twilight, reaching out and taking her face tenderly in her hands, and Twilight Sparkle trembled as red-tinged tears spilled slowly down her cheeks, breathing hard in and out before she whispered: “No... it... it c-c-can't be... you... you...”

The dark goddess only gave the mare a soft, loving look, gently wiping away her tears with hands made of ice that all the same felt so warm against Twilight's skin, before Hel said softly: “Silly duck. It's been there from the very start, though... there's no absence of evidence, no evidence of absence. Look at yourself: a single, solitary child, who was drawn in so quickly by Freya... who had such powerful magic, despite such mundane parents. Who mastered light and darkness. It's been there from the very start, my sweet: don't you remember the ease with which you opened a portal to Helheim, when you were still little more than a child?”

Twilight Sparkle stared up in disbelief, shaking her head weakly, mouthing slowly and wordlessly as she thought back to Ignominious, driving the demon into a rip in reality after he'd hurt Scrivener Blooms. She looked at Hel, and Hel smiled back at her before the dark goddess tapped her nose gently. “See? You know. You know, deep inside you, that this is the truth. That this is why you and me... we're so alike, my darling Twilight Sparkle.”

Neither Luna nor Scrivener knew what to say as Hel gently tilted Twilight's face upwards, the ice puppet gazing at her lovingly. “And that is why I brought you down here. This is the only place where you can rise to your true potential... where the three of you can all become what you were all meant to be. My darlings, my darlings...”

Hel laughed, then she stood up, her hands sliding away from Twilight's features before the dark goddess slipped backwards and turned her eyes towards Scrivener and Luna. Both ponies looked at her for a moment, then turned their eyes towards the Lich, who was shivering, her head lowered, weak whimpers rising up out of her throat as her horn and soulstone core both sparked...

Scrivener and Luna hurried forwards, both ponies hugging the Lich tightly around the neck, and Twilight all-but-collapsed against them, clenching her eyes shut and trembling violently as she curled herself close against the two. She breathed shakily in and out, tears leaking down her face as both charcoal stallion and sapphire mare looked up at Hel with helplessness and misdirected anger, but the ice puppet only gazed back at them lovingly before waving a hand easily in a circle above her head.

The darkness around them vanished as ice shattered over the walls and above their heads, but the air continued to sparkle with motes of light that settled and fell slowly around them. And neither pony knew what to say until Hel finally smiled softly and said quietly: “I've been studying you two for a long time. Both far and near... watching how you treat my special little girl. She seems happy with you both, though... she's grown up with you two, and started to really open up, to find herself. That makes me happy, because if I had to choose... I really would like my little girl to spend a stint as a Valkyrie. You know, now that All Daddy isn't here to try and molest them all the time.”

Hel laughed again, then she clapped her hands together and smiled compassionately at the three. “It hurts me to put you through this. But we have to follow the rules, my little darlings... and once all is said and done, we'll be a family together. My friends... my family. I'll introduce you as my daughter to all our relatives in purgatory if you want, Twilight Sparkle, or I'll just call you my favorite little pony, whichever you prefer.”

Twilight shivered a little, curling back against Scrivener and clenching her eyes shut as Luna Brynhild silently rubbed a hoof along her back slowly, before the sapphire mare looked up and asked quietly: “And all of this... this is true?”

“This is not just true, Brynhild. This is truth.” Hel replied gently, and then the ice puppet looked down at one hand with a small, lingering smile, saying quietly: “I'm sorry I had to tell you three like this. I really would have preferred to have you here in person, with me. You've turned out so good, Twilight Sparkle, you really deserved to hear it face-to-face...”

Twilight laughed bitterly at this, looking up as tears flooded down her face, asking roughly: “You mean b-because here I am in Hell, a Lich and a monster, and... I've b-become so-”

“You gave me ginger snaps. You overheard one silly little thing about how much I like them and you went out of your way not just to fulfill a frankly-stupid request, but you tried to get my favorites.” Hel smiled softly, reaching up and touching her own breast as Twilight looked up in disbelief and Luna and Scrivener both mouthed wordlessly. “The last time I ate a cookie, Twilight Sparkle, was when I was still Aesir... which is to say, before these worlds were even really formed. And it's not like my little sanctuary comes equipped with a kitchen or anything.”

Hel laughed quietly, rubbing her stomach slowly as she said quietly: “Once while I was being a little bit cranky, a wise god once told me that for all my power, despite these invulnerable puppets... I can never really feel anything. He was right, and I relented. This kind of loneliness... has a funny effect on you, you see. It's like the internet. No one can actually see me, no one can actually touch me, no one can actually hurt me... so I giggle and cavort and bounce around in this body, forgetting that every single person I interact with is another living, breathing, real being, with their own beliefs and ideas and emotions. All I end up thinking about is how I can do anything... but really, I'm powerless.”

The goddess sighed, raising her head and gazing at the ceiling of Helheim far above, and then she absently snapped her fingers and the roof of stone vanished, replaced a moment later by distorted black and blue clouds that twisted like a writhing, sick bruise. “There. That's more what I'm in the mood for today.

“Now, I'll be sending whoever I happen to feel like tormenting by in about an hour to pick you three up and acquaint you with your new jobs. Don't worry, we'll take it nice and slow, today's just going to be some on-the-job training, that's all.” Hel shrugged easily, waving a hand as the motes of light around them finally began to fade out. “I know, I know. But before you three start arguing with me, remember. The faster you make yourselves useful to me, the faster this can all be over. I trust you, sweeties... but only as much as you'll allow me to.”

Scrivener Blooms shifted uneasily, automatically pulling Twilight closer as Luna Brynhild leaned forwards and bared her sharp teeth. But Hel only laughed at this, smiling warmly and touching her own breast. “Pull yourselves together, my scrumptious trio. Don't worry. I'm not even here.”

And by the time Hel spoke the last word of her sentence, she had dissolved into a puff of snowy powder that simply fell to the frost-covered earth. For a few moments, there was silence as the three ponies looked at this... and then Twilight Sparkle gritted her teeth, clenched her eyes shut, and her horn sparked violently before she threw her head back with a frustrated scream.

The air around them rippled, Scrivener and Luna both wincing as Twilight's eyes glowed brightly, intense light filling the courtyard around them as the Lich stared sightlessly up at the chaos above... and then she suddenly slumped, going limp and cursing weakly under her breath, her head shaking slowly as she breathed hard in and out and her smoky mane writhed and pulsed.

Luna and Scrivener both looked quietly at the Lich, as ice and loose boards fell from the mansion walls around them in a tinkling, clacking hail. But after only a few moments, Twilight Sparkle reached up and rubbed at her face slowly, whispering: “I'm okay. I'm... I'm sorry. I just... I had to let that out, I guess.”

“It's okay. We understand.” Scrivener Blooms said softly, and there was silence for a few moments before the charcoal stallion gave a small smile. “Guess... Luna and I are rubbing off on you after all. That's how we deal with stress.”

“Nay, thou usually bottles it all up inside until thou finally snaps, and then pummels some unfortunate into mush. 'Tis very attractive, really.” Luna remarked wryly, and Scrivener laughed a little despite himself before the two returned their eyes towards the Lich, who was quietly wiping bloody tears from her features. “But thou... thou suspected...”

“Something like it. That she... I don't know, touched me somehow.” Twilight murmured, and when Luna's mouth curled upwards slightly, doing her best to suppress a giggle, the violet mare sighed tiredly and said almost pleadingly: “Luna. Come on. This is really, really serious.”

“I... I know! I am not... 'tis Scrivener's fault!” Luna said hurriedly, then she turned and punched Scrivener Blooms in the side of the head, the stallion wincing as he flopped over and went face-first into the ground, sending up a puff of snow. He groaned loudly, grasping at his head with his Talons, rump still raised high in the air, and Luna prodded this with her hoof a few times before giggling stupidly and saying positively: “I have touched thy buttocks, Scrivy.”

Twilight Sparkle glared at Luna, who was only continuing to poke Scrivener's rump cheerfully before she finally sensed the other mare's scowl, and the sapphire pony looked slowly up before smiling lamely, saying awkwardly: “I. I apologize. 'Tis the air of Helheim, it makes it... difficult to focus. Does... shall we speak of... well...”

“Oh, forget it.” Twilight said tiredly, slumping a little and shaking her head, and Luna softened a bit as Scrivener picked himself up, both ponies feeling the faint sense of hurt in Twilight's heart before the Lich shook her head quickly and said quietly: “No, it's okay. I just... maybe we can... I don't know. I don't want to talk about this. I don't want to think about this.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener Blooms strode forwards and gently stroked the Lich's face, cupping it in one Talon before he leaned forwards and kissed her forehead tenderly. Twilight smiled a little at this, and then Luna approached and wrapped a foreleg around her shoulders, massaging gently through her flowing, inky mane, pulling the Lich's head against her breast.

They sat together, and Twilight Sparkle felt herself... not healing, not yet, but they stopped the ache. They reminded her this was just another step forwards, and that no matter what, they were always going to be together. It wasn't like they hadn't deal with strange changes and stranger still discoveries in the past, after all... in a way, this was all fitting. This was just another piece of the puzzle, falling into place, and helping Twilight understand... why she fit in so well with not one, but two strange ponies.

After a little while, they left the cold courtyard to head back inside... not that any of them really felt the biting cold of Helheim anymore. They had learned that the ice could make them comfortably numb, or help them isolate themselves from the world in their own little beacon of warmth amidst all the frozen nightmare of Helheim.

They headed to the kitchen together: the room was massive, clearly having been built to be run by a crew of chefs to feed what might be the equivalent of a small town. But most of the appliances in here had been destroyed by age and malfunctioning pipework that had left half the kitchen covered in ice, and all of the food had been either rotten or destroyed by the spread of frost.

So for now, it was mostly an empty room with unpainted cabinets, heavy stone countertops, and the little wooden table off to one side. Twilight and Luna sat at this, while Scrivener Blooms went to fill the kettle. This had been one of the first projects, but the plumbing had actually only been recently completed: before when they'd wanted water, it meant melting snow or ice from outside on the tiny little portable burner that they had picked up.

Most of their luxuries were in this room: the aforementioned burner that ran off a magical battery, a rusty kettle, a simple manual drip funnel, and a few tins of coffee. Every few weeks, the three ponies would walk across the icy tundra and head into a small settlement that was about an hour's march away through the wastes. There, they'd wander around the markets, mingling with other demons and lost souls, and look longingly at all the things they wanted but couldn't afford. They only made a few coins every week doing all this work for Hel, after all... and if they really wanted money, they had to resort to... other methods. Unpleasant methods.

Luna smiled faintly, catching Scrivener's thoughts, and the charcoal stallion shook his head quickly before he sighed softly and glanced up, saying quietly: “I have to admit. I am kind of surprised that you haven't just tried to steal everything or beat other demons up.”

“Well, that does not work too well, as we have found. The beating demons up, aye, but we are under constant surveillance here in Helheim... and having mine most beloved front hooves cut off for being a thief was not a pleasant experience.” Luna said moodily, raising her hooves and flexing them slowly. “Although 'twas really very silly, because I stole with my mane, not with my hooves.”

Scrivener Blooms grunted, looking moodily down at his own Talons and adding dryly: “They removed my Talons and Twilight's hooves too, which I think is the real reason why you haven't tried to steel anything. You're scared of what we'll do to you.”

The sapphire mare grunted, then she sighed tiredly and said grumpily: “But I am pleased we are at least permitted to defend ourselves. And take from others when they attempt to take from us. This place is all very... cruel, though. In some ways, I think even more so purely because of the fact that we cannot die and will regenerate from almost any wound. 'Tis frustrating.”

Twilight Sparkle looked down at one of her own hooves quietly, then she silently touched her soulstone core, saying softly: “But all the same, it feels... I don't know. It's not unbearable because of the fact... we know we'll heal. And we're all here because... we're bad people.”

Scrivener looked up for a moment, but then the shrill call of the kettle caught his attention, and Luna shifted awkwardly before the sapphire mare turned her eyes towards the Lich and said quietly: “I am not very good with words or with offering comforting platitudes. But thou art here for a much more complex reason than simply that thou art 'good' or 'bad,' Twilight Sparkle. Bear that in mind when thou begins to get so... down upon thyself.”

Twilight smiled a little, then nodded briefly, and there was silence for a few moments apart from the sound of coffee spilling slowly through the sieve into a chipped mug. They remained quiet until Scrivener rejoined them at the table, passing out the mugs of black coffee, and Twilight murmured a 'thank you' as she reached out and squeezed the stallion's Talon.

He only smiled briefly in response, and there was silence for a few moments before they all sighed softly, minds linking, trading thoughts back and forth until the three ponies winced as a voice called mildly: “Am I interrupting?”

Luna glared angrily towards the voice, and then squawked and cursed as there was a flash of bright light, blinding her as Scrivener and Twilight both winced away, then only sighed loudly in unison as Luna rubbed wildly at her eyes and shouted profanities. And the newcomer only laughed loudly, saying with relish: “Oh, I ain't never gonna get tired of that.”

“Buck off, Cross.” Scrivener said sourly as he looked up, but the zebra only grinned at him as he strolled calmly into the room, the charcoal stallion adding moodily: “We're waiting for an Inquisitor. Besides, shouldn't you be off getting drunk or whatever it is you people do?”

“We people? We people?” The zebra put a hoof against his chest, pretending to look injured, and Luna scowled at him as she straightened, but her eyes were apprehensive as much as irritated. Just a single look at La Croix told you that he was no normal zebra, after all: for one thing, his colors were inverted, with a black body and white stripes. For another, the markings over his face formed a distinct, grinning white skull, his green eyes glowing with mischief through these.

His mane was also a mix of white and blacks, short bangs hanging just above his eyes and his long, elegant tail secured with several bone talismans. A black, beautiful top hat sat jauntily atop his head, and he wore a strange half-cape that was held on by polished stone brooches, cloth spilling down one side of his body and over his foreleg as he said teasingly: “What is it about we people that bugs you people so much, Scrivener Blooms?”

Scrivener only rolled his eyes, and Luna scowled before she said grumpily: “My husband has a point, though. Thou art not even of this pantheon. What art thou doing here?”

“Oh please, like we can't all get along.” La Croix only gave a quick wink, before he reached up and flicked his top hat back, saying pleasantly: “And as a matter of fact, I'm here helping Nanny Hel out. Besides, I like you three. You interest me. You don't fit right, and you don't belong here in the afterlife, yet here y'are anyway. It's got a certain... je ne sais quoi to it!”

He strutted forwards, bouncing a little with every step before leaning on the table, smiling between the three before he clicked his tongue and tipped a wink at Twilight Sparkle, who only glowered at him in response. Scrivener gave his own sour look to the zebra, but he only sniffed and shoved away from the table before spinning easily on one rear hoof, landing with a click on the very tips of his hooves and saying cheerfully: “Now come on, you three, we got ground to cover. Nanny Hel ain't gonna wait forever for your pretty little behinds to get in gear, you people.”

“We people take offense at that.” Scrivener said sourly, and then he shook his head briefly before picking himself up and grumbling a little, trading moody looks with Luna and Twilight before the three ponies picked up their mugs of coffee in synchronization and guzzled the rest of the contents. And a moment later, all three sighed and lowered the cups back to the table at the same time.

La Croix laughed loudly at this, then he shook his head, grinning widely. “Pouyaille! I ain't never gonna get tired of watching you three crows and the way you bob and curl all at once. Come on now, though, I don't got all day. We Loa are busy spirits, you know. Ain't nothin' but generosity on my part that I be takin' the time out of my day to escort you three ouaouarons like this.”

Scrivener grunted, and Luna growled as Twilight Sparkle only grimaced a bit, and La Croix snorted in entertainment, watching with a gleam in his eye before he flicked his cape out and strode quickly forwards, grinning widely to himself. “Just like I said, ouaouarons, loud as the bayou be dark. Now tell me, you three, what are you up to?”

The three ponies were silent, and La Croix huffed in disappointment even as he led them out of the mansion and into the front yard. It was little more than an uneven sea of snow, with a long path carved through it to the broken, frozen-open gates, and La Croix wrinkled up his muzzle before muttering: “I do must admit, though, my dear friends, this is an awful place here. Ain't no fine fais do-do but a place that even our nastiest spirits wouldn't want to send no soul from the crossroads to. I don't blame you for not wanting to talk to me none about it.”

The charcoal stallion shifted a little, and Luna and Twilight both looked up for a moment before the Lich finally asked hesitantly: “Why did Hel want you to fetch us?”

“Oh, Nanny Hel don't order me around none! I'm my own proud stallion, I am, we don't bow to no-” And then a bolt of lightning struck the ground nearby, and La Croix flinched backwards as the three ponies behind the Loa stumbled to a halt before clearing his throat and tipping his top hat politely towards the chaotic crowds above. “By which I mean I cannot thank her or my other bosses enough for being so kind and good towards me, letting me... helpin' me to get this great experience in with other whole... uh... qu'est-ce que c'est mot...”

Scrivener and Luna traded looks as Twilight Sparkle sighed a little, and then La Croix nervously adjusted his top hat before he straightened quickly and looked back and forth. “Okay, I think we're in the clear. My smooth-talking got us out of that mess smooth as a serpent slippin' out of the bayou.”

“Yeah. That bastardized creole you speak really isn't clunky at all.” Scrivener Blooms said blandly, and La Croix looked sourly over his shoulder before Scrivener added mildly: “By the way, Cross, is delivery boy more or less complicated than what you usually do? Because most of the zebras I've met are way too smart to fall for your cheap parlor tricks.”

“You mean like this one, cocodril?” La Croix asked sourly, raising a hoof and flicking it towards Scrivener Blooms, and green lightning blasted from the extended limb of the zebra, Scrivener yelping and shivering violently before there was a puff of dark smoke... and a moment later, the charcoal stallion had been transformed into a charcoal alligator, which scowled horribly at the Loa.

Luna only giggled and clapped gleefully, then hopped on Scrivener's back, making him wheeze in pain before the alligator growled in a barely-coherent voice: “You know that this will wear off in ten minutes or so. Assuming I don't eat you before that.”

“I did nothing but make you look a little more like what you act like: a big mean bayou lizard. Ain't no wonder you don't got no friends down here, you three actin' so uppity all the time.” La Croix retorted childishly, raising his head with a loud sniff before he spun around and began quickly forwards. “Now come on, enough time for games. Don't make me turn you three into mosquitoes.”

“Oh silence, Loa, thou art bound by laws and rules just as demons are. Thou needs not behave like a foal just because Scrivener Blooms cannot help but be rude to that which annoys him.” Luna said mildly as she sat back on top of her currently alligatorized husband, Scrivener shivering a little before he grumbled and started to yank himself through the cold snow, Twilight Sparkle only shaking her head slowly as she followed behind the two with a faint smile.

La Croix only sniffed loudly, not replying as they headed out into the vast tundra. They walked on in silence, and Scrivener barely noticed when he transformed back into a stallion, Luna only smiling down at her husband from where she was still perched atop him and stroking a hoof through his mane tenderly before turning her eyes back upwards. And La Croix paced ever at the head, smiling a little to himself and whistling a simple tune as they made their way through the icy wastes and towards the settlement in the distance.

“We're not actually going to the Inquisitors yet, are we?” Scrivener finally asked, and La Croix shrugged cheerfully, Scrivener Blooms sighing a little before he said dryly: “Not that I'm eager to torture people or anything, but... pissing off the Inquisitors isn't a good idea. For any of us.”

“Oh, tais-toi, or I'll turn you back into a little tadpole, ouaouaron.” La Croix replied crossly, and Scrivener only shrugged grouchily as Luna looked thoughtful and Twilight Sparkle looked worried. But La Croix simply sniffed loudly, saying mildly: “I don't get out much, you know. Me, Cimetaire, and Samedi are always so busy, 'specially of late. 'Sall the fault of all y'all, too, I may add, so you can damn well put up with my diversions. Asides, it'll only take us a hop through a portal to get to your little den of inequity, so for now why don't you just laisser les bons temps rouler, eh?”

Luna grumbled under her breath, and Twilight Sparkle gave a small smile before glancing over at Scrivener Blooms pointedly when he began to open his mouth. The stallion rolled his eyes at this, but nodded and didn't say anything as the Lich asked hesitantly: “You've mentioned before that you... you sort of work for... I don't remember...”

“Oh, I work for a whole bunch of people. And things. And places, even. My job's kind of a special job, y'see, and we spirits have a certain... special job we do, oh yes indeed.” La Croix's eyes hardened a little even as he smiled, however, gazing off into the distance as he said quietly: “Just gotten a whole lot harder lately. And sure, we have all kinds of run-ins with you and yours, but... ain't been 'cept right lately that we've had to really try and play nice, letting each other into each other's encampments, sharin' info with each other... because we all got to work together to stop this Light.”

“We do. What the Light's doing is-” But then La Croix halted, holding up a hoof and smiling kindly over his shoulder.

Slowly, he brought his hoof back to his lips, shushing her before saying kindly: “I'm gonna stop you right there now, okay? Because I don't really care about the lives lost or found that much. What I care about is that the Light is mucking up the natural cycle of things... where I come from, we don't like that none. Tit-for-tat, natural balance, you see. Makes my friends up-top real antsy when that's played with, and what the Light's doin' is playing with that whole balance, that whole give-and-take of the cycle. But don't you go thinkin' that we're friends for the wrong reasons now, hear? You get the right reasons in mind, ma petite souer.”

Twilight Sparkle nodded hesitantly, and La Croix smiled at them, large teeth gleaming brilliantly before he spun around on one hoof and began forwards again, saying easily: “Good. But you just wait and see, friends. We gonna get along just fine.

“After all, ain't like Nanny Hel's the only lady with dibs on the ouaouarons from the bayou.”

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