• 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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Chapter Seventy Four: Dracohippopotomonstrosesquipedalianishness

Innocence grimaced a bit as she looked back and forth nervously, striding up to the almost-visible border that separated the winterlands around her from the territory that belonged to... well, they didn't know what it was just yet. Only that it was hostile... but the dead Pious left impaled on tall stakes of ice meant it was probably intelligent, even if barbaric. They formed clear warnings to either side of the path, and made Innocence's stomach twist with unease... but it was the scattered bones of ponies around the base of each spike of ice that made her truly nervous.

Then she looked up as a hoof gently settled on her back, and Freya smiled at her kindly, saying gently: “This is as far as I can escort you, Innocence. But I'm counting on you to get this done, okay? Report to me as soon as you've carried out your mission.”

“What if I fail?” Innocence asked nervously, and then she winced a bit as the icy wind seemed to roar almost in response, her cloak fluttering around her body as she tried to shrink back into the heavy cloth.

But then the icy wind was dispersed by a sudden wave of warmth, and the scaled unicorn blinked a few times before blushing and looking up with a small smile at Freya, who had easily cut through the cold with a flick of her horn. She was also the only pony here not outfitted in winter clothing, but just her heavy armor: even Prestige had a thick, fur-lined cape on overtop her own cherished Valkyrie gear.

“You're not going to fail. I have faith in all of you.” Freya said calmly, and then she nodded to the four mares before stepping backwards and instructing: “Remember. Contact me as soon as you've finished your mission. We'll send a message back to you with further instructions once you do.”

“Okay Aunt FreyFrey! We'll try and be fast!” Aphrodisia said brightly from behind her heavy scarf, a cute wool cap with kitty ears and a cat's smiling face on her head. The rest of her equipment was much more professional, but Innocence couldn't help but smile faintly all the same: not at Apps, but at the fact that Celestia would have probably killed the demon just for speaking out of turn, much less allowing her to go anywhere dressed as she was.

Freya, however, only smiled and nodded once before turning to leave, and the four mares watched her vanish quickly into the blizzard currently whirling through the snowy tundra. Innocence softened a little, then glanced with surprise towards Ersatz Major as the demon said quietly: “I have a bad feeling about all of this, Innocence. About where we're headed, and about Freya.”

“Well, with all due respect, Ersatz Major, maybe that's because you're an Envy demon.” Innocence said sharply, and Ersatz shifted uncomfortably beneath the heavy, silken coat covering her body. “Besides, who would you choose between Freya and Celestia?”

“I wish we could have both.” Aphrodisia said quietly, and Innocence looked up in surprise before the Dominia turned around, reaching up to strip off her scarf and instead tie it tightly around her waist, the demon continuing in a surprisingly-serious voice: “I think we need Freya right now more than Celestia. But even if Freya wants to protect us all right now, we shouldn't pretend she wouldn't do what she had to do if her plans were forced to change somewhere down the line.”

Innocence shifted uncomfortably, and then Aphrodisia suddenly smiled and shook her head, gazing forwards down the path between the dead Pious and pointing into the rocky, ugly valley that stood between two tall, looming cliffs that curled towards each other, like they had once been one mighty mountain that an angry giant had decided to split right down the center. “But look, you guys! The weather around here is completely different than the weather just behind us! No snow!”

“There's also a lot of heat coming up from the ground. And dark magic...” Prestige said quietly, stepping forwards onto the path, and the Valkyrie grimaced a little bit before she reached silently up over her shoulder, touching the shield secured to her back. “Innocence, can you... sense it?”

It sounded like Prestige had been about to ask something else... but Innocence only swallowed a silent sigh before the scaled unicorn concentrated a little, stepping forwards and saying after a moment: “I can, yes. It's not any kind of pony magic... I only half-recognize it. It's very... strange.”

“It's not demonic, either...” Aphrodisia mumbled, and then she frowned a little as she cocked her head thoughtfully, looking meditative before she suddenly smiled and shrugged, saying positively: “Well, I guess that we should just keep our heads up and eyes peeled, right? Although that's pretty gross, peeling eyes. Hel made me do that.”

The others stared for a few moments at the demoness, and she simply shrugged again before beginning to bounce forwards, whistling cheerfully to herself. Innocence groaned and rolled her eyes, then hurried after the demon with the others, quickly catching up and forming into an awkward unit as the scaled mare said flatly: “We need to take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously.” Aphrodisia complained, slowing to a halt, before the Dominia's ears twitched as she looked uneasily around herself. The others couldn't help but check the area as well, seeing more stone and rock than ice and snow, feeling the faint pulse of slick and humid heat beneath their hooves. And above, the sky was unnaturally deep and dark, like there was more than just heavy clouds blocking the sun's rays.

“I wish Daddy was here. He'd know what was happening, and he'd make a joke and we'd all laugh and it would chase away this... badness.” Aphrodisia murmured anxiously, continuing to look nervously over their surroundings, and Innocence couldn't help but smile faintly before the demon shook herself quickly out. “But Daddy isn't here, and I know he needs me to be strong. So I'm gonna be strong, strong as I can be.”

Prestige smiled faintly at this, reaching up and squeezing the demon's shoulder gently as she said softly: “You are strong. Come on now, I thought demons were always bragging about how much tougher than us Valkyries they're supposed to be.”

Ersatz chuckled softly at this, shaking her head slowly before she looked up and said softly: “Not all of us are warriors... many of us demons prefer to work through subterfuge, after all. So I certainly don't think of myself as tougher than something as... prestigious as a Valkyrie, if you'll forgive me for my wit.”

Aphrodisia giggled a little, and Innocence looked up with a shake of her head before the scaled unicorn said finally: “Standing here isn't a good idea. We'll attract attention from both sides if we do. We should keep moving forwards and... stay on guard.”

The other mares nodded, and Innocence strode forwards, taking the lead and trying to swallow her fears as she rose her head high. Prestige fell in on one side of her as Aphrodisia flanked her other, and Ersatz Major followed calmly behind the three, her eyes and golden horn glowing faintly as she scanned the area around them slowly for any signs of life.

The path widened as the stone beneath their hooves gave way to an uneven, marshy slope, chunks of rock sticking here and there out of the fetid, reeking earth. Innocence grimaced at this substance, feeling her own Panacea quivering strangely in her veins in response to the muck: it was like the two substances recognized and reviled each other, although Innocence had no clue how that could even be possible, all things considered.

The scaled unicorn shook her head a little, then glanced up in surprise as Prestige said softly, giving a small smile towards Innocence: “I can't help but notice that you're not polymorphing yourself as often these days... I... your parents and Antares would both like that, I think.”

Innocence smiled a little after a moment, then she shook her head and glanced down, murmuring: “I guess I'm just... it would just be a waste of energy, that's all. Besides, the Pious would see right through it, anyway, that's all.”

Prestige smiled despite herself, shrugging and looking forwards as Aphrodisia looked curiously over at them for a moment, before the demon winced a bit and glanced uneasily up as there was a rumble through the mountains ahead, a few bits and pieces of stone tumbling and spilling down the sides of either curled peak.

The four halted and looked uneasily up at the mountainside... then all four mares winced and caught themselves, staring in surprise as a howling roar echoed through the world around them. They all couldn't help but flinch: not just at the raw power of the roar, but the hidden edge of magic it had, vibrations traveling along the horns of the unicorns and making them twitch as Aphrodisia bared her fangs, eyes flashing as the Dominia leaned forwards and roared furiously back.

The roars mixed together... and then slowly, both faded out, leaving Aphrodisia's back arched like a cat as she leaned forwards, eyes glowing and teeth bared in a furious snarl. Her whole body was shaking and her cloven hooves were digging into the boggy ground, glaring into the dark, trench-like valley that descended between the two enormous mountains: the source of both the maleficence and that hateful roar they had heard.

Innocence slowly relaxed, feeling her dark blood settling before the mare closed her eyes and breathed slowly in and out, shivering a little bit. Then she rose her head nervously, licking her lips slowly as she forced herself not to ask an obviously-stupid question and instead turn her attention to Aphrodisia. “Are you okay?”

The demon growled for a moment, and then Prestige stepped quickly forwards and grasped the mare's shoulder, giving it a firm shake. Apps blinked at this, then rose her head and shook herself hurriedly out before slumping a little, nodding after a moment and mumbling: “Sorry. I got... it was just my Wrath acting up. My kind really don't like being challenged, that's all. Especially not like... that.”

“That wasn't demonic energy, but it was similar to it, wasn't it?” Ersatz asked quietly, and Aphrodisia nodded as Prestige frowned into the dark gorge, the halved mountain gaping eagerly, like a mouth that was hungrily waiting to gobble them up.

“We... we just need to keep moving forwards, that's all.” Innocence said finally, shaking her head quickly and not wanting to be put off from their objective. There was too much at stake for them to failure... especially since failure would likely mean their demise... or worse. “Keep your eyes open, though. We all felt that magic, and we all know it was some kind of dark magic. That leaves only a few things it can possibly be, and I think with the extent of the corruption in the ground here... the most likely candidate is a Lich.”

Ersatz grimaced as Prestige and Aphrodisia both looked up sharply, then gazed back and forth, automatically searching either side of the area as they stepped protectively in front of Innocence. It made the scaled unicorn scowl a little, but she forced herself not to react too much to it, instead saying calmly: “We keep moving forwards. We watch for any signs of any undead and keep an eye on the ground to make sure we're not walking into any traps or... contamination. I'm not sure how my Panacea will affect any of you if I have to try and... heal anyone here.”

The others nodded, and then Ersatz Major said softly: “I'll extend my range as far as I can. My magic isn't really suited for combat or dealing with the undead... you three are the warriors here. The least I can do is ensure that I keep as close an eye on things as possible.”

Innocence nodded after a moment, scanning back and forth before she sighed a little and murmured: “Okay. But don't use up all your strength, Ersatz. We also can't babysit you if something does happen to attack us. We need to be on full guard and at the ready to react to whatever might be waiting for us ahead.”

The demons and Valkyrie nodded, and Innocence was glad they were at least acknowledging and listening to her, even if they seemed to be... well, treating her a little like she was a child still, too. Slowly, Innocence flexed one claw beneath her robes, and the steel gauntlet she was wearing clinked quietly as she muttered: “Let's just keep going for now.”

Prestige and Aphrodisia both nodded, then started forwards... and both winced when Innocence almost shoved herself between them, keeping her amethyst eyes locked ahead as the demon and Valkyrie traded lame looks before silently moving into flanking positions, with Ersatz bringing up the rear and keeping an eye on the area around them with magic.

They slowed again at the edge of the mountains, however, Innocence looking uncertainly up over these cracked, crumbling faces: they looked like little more than piles of sharp stony debris that were managing to cling together by sheer luck and prayer instead of thanks to any actual balance. And now that they were this close, Innocence could note vents and deep, deep cracks throughout the two mountains, which almost seemed to be... breathing.

Innocence honestly didn't know what to make of it: there was a sense of evil and... not life, but something like machinery. Something inorganic but all the same filled with energy and power. It made Sin a lot more nervous than a distinct demonic or psionic signal would. She didn't like dealing with the undead, or magical constructs: having seen Twilight Sparkle's powers in action, she recognized that the undead could have a vast variety of abilities, remain all-but-unreadable, and could be much harder to take down than demon or angel.

And there was that corrupted muck that they were walking over, too... it felt so strangely similar to corruption, and yet there was no way it could have anything to do with the Clay of Prometheus. Not just because only Tyrant Wyrms created the Clay, but because something about the corrupted earth conflicted with the very essence of dark life that fueled Sin's spirit.

The valley they were descending into was deep, and wide, and terribly dark: the black and poisoned earth gave it its own strange, alien ecosystem, and phosphorescent moss and crystals glowed eerily here and there over the rocky, uneven stone walls. Above, the mountains loomed and covered the sky, forming a strange, jagged ceiling that only faint lines of light managed to shine down through from above, and even though the valley and slope were both widening as they descended, Innocence felt less and less at ease as they descended, as that poisonous influence wrapped itself around them.

Aphrodisia was growling quietly, her shoulders squared, her eyes glaring back and forth as Prestige seemed to all-but-glow, the Valkyrie's eyes focusing straight ahead as much as possible. Ersatz, lastly, had her head bowed and her golden horn thrumming in uneven pulses as she fidgeted as they walked, looking uneasily back and forth at the darkness they were descending into.

It took almost half an hour to finally reach the bottom of the deep gorge, and Sin was surprised by how large it was: a small city could almost fit down in the mostly-open catacombs of rocky outcrops and crystalline structures and what looked suspiciously like walls and towers of bone. The mare studied these silently as Aphrodisia and Prestige both automatically turned to either side, studying along the walls before the Dominia said nervously: “I don't like this, Prestige. I don't like this at all. There's a lot of holes in the walls... there's probably tunnels all throughout the mountains. And every one of those weird crystals...”

“Is lit up with some kind of dark energy. I never even knew this place existed, though... did you, Innocence? I thought your mother kept track of all the more dangerous demons and supernaturals, too.” Prestige turned her eyes towards Innocence questioningly, and the scaled unicorn grimaced a little and closed her eyes for a moment in thought.

But it was Ersatz who answered, saying quietly: “Both Luna and Morning Glory always did, and everything was shared between them. This place was never mentioned before the war, however... and ever since the Light began to take over Equestria, we haven't had time for much more than concentrating on escape and recruiting. Neutral and dangerous zones are marked, but never investigated, never really... explored.”

Aphrodisia nodded, then she growled under her breath as she looked suddenly forwards, her eyes narrowing a bit at something in the distance. Innocence frowned as she opened her eyes, gazing off into the catacombs of rocks and crystal and bone as well... and then her eyes widened a bit as she saw something flit quickly by, then nervously look around the corner, staring at the group before quickly vanishing again into the labyrinth. From what Innocence had seen, it looked like a pony of some kind... “We should follow him.”

“We should wait.” Prestige overrode, and Innocence glared over at the Valkyrie, but Prestige Luster only shook her head and said quietly, looking almost pleadingly at Sin: “I don't want to lose you... as a matter of fact, I won't lose you like we already lost Antares, Innocence. Let's wait and see if anything will come to us before we go chasing after them. Twenty minutes, I promise, okay?”

“Twenty minutes?” Sin looked distraught for a moment, but then she forced herself to take a breath before grumbling under her breath and looking up with a moody nod. “I mean... fine, twenty minutes. And I hate to point out that we're already in enemy territory... but we are.”

Prestige shrugged a little, then gestured towards the jagged maze, saying carefully: “And we'd be a lot worse off in there than out here. Here, we can a full, unobstructed view of the area around us... and maybe whatever lives here will be drawn out. We're here to try and negotiate an alliance, after all.”

“I guess you're right.” Innocence grumbled for a moment, then halted before looking up meditatively and nodding suddenly. The other mares looked at her curiously, and then winced when the scaled unicorn rose her horn, a blue glow suffusing it as she said mildly: “We might as well get their attention, then.”

And without another thought or stopping to listen to the exclamations of her allies, she flicked her horn sharply and sent up a bright blue flare of light that exploded some forty feet above, rattling the walls of the cavern and sending a powerful pulse of raw energy through the cavernous vale. The world around them rumbled as the gemstones pulsed a little brighter, and then Sin took a slow breath before raising her head and shouting imperiously, her voice making the rocky walls tremble and quake: “I am Innocence, here on behalf of the rebel forces! We are here to discuss and negotiate an alliance with you! So come out!”

She halted, then cleared her throat loudly before spitting to the side, reaching up and muttering: “Móðer taught me how to do that. Fancy, huh? I should have prepared a better speech, though, I just sounded kind of silly.”

There was silence for a few moments as Aphrodisia stared and Prestige glowered at Innocence, and then Ersatz Major sighed tiredly before grimacing a little as she rose her horn uneasily, her eyes flicking apprehensively back and forth. “I'm picking up... fluctuations...”

“That was probably me, don't worry. I sent out a charge of dark energy to try and lure our friend out, that's all.” Innocence said absently, and Aphrodisia groaned as Prestige sighed, but the scaled unicorn only smiled thinly between the two, feeling oddly insulted. “Look, ponies. You know all about... honor, and making nice, and silly things like that. But if this is a Lich, it'll be interested in power. I'm also interested in power. This is why Freya chose me for this job... we'll understand each other. So let me do the talking.”

Aphrodisia and Prestige only looked uncertainly at Innocence, but then Ersatz interrupted any further argument by saying nervously: “This... this wasn't from you, Innocence... these aren't magical fluctuations, but... something invisible. Something... coming closer.”

The ponies looked back and forth as Innocence turned her gaze sharply upwards... and then she shivered a little, leaning back a bit and feeling repulsed despite herself at the sight of the specters in the air above, looming silently over their heads. They weren't Pales, but... ghastlier, thinner, and yet somehow more solid, too. No, not more solid... it was their hostility that seemed to give them more of a sense of physicality, like they could reach out and touch them in spite of their ethereal, hollow states...

A nearby rock picked itself up and flung itself at Innocence, but the mare reached up and caught this in one steel claw before she rose this higher in warning. The spirits only stared at them lifelessly, however, not seeming to understand the threat as another rock seemed to pick itself up, before it was flung at them... but this time Aphrodisia knocked it aside, grimacing a bit as she muttered: “Sin, seriously, don't think you want to piss off the angry spirits anymore than they already are... there's lots of big rocks for the Poltergeists to fling at us...”

“And they're Mundi Poltergeists... angry and bitter, still retaining a little bit of mind and memory... which means they'll understand what this is.” Sin muttered, and then she flexed her claw before concentrating on it, her horn glowing brightly before the claw lit up... and energy visibly swirled around it, sapped into the gauntlet and fed back into the mare's own body as she shouted up at the angry spirits: “And the same thing will happen to you if you don't buck off!”

The spirits shifted around them... and then one by one, flickered out of reality. A few stones trembled on the ground around them, but as the spirits left, much of the sense of psychic malice in the air faded out. That almost-tangible malignancy was formed from their violent lives and exceptionally-violent deaths, and as they became bitter, resentful, even hateful of the living, that violence started to manifest towards whatever the spirits focused their attention on, starting small but getting larger and larger over time.

Prestige Luster sighed softly, and Innocence gave a self-satisfied little smile and lowered her claw before wincing when Aphrodisia grasped her shoulder, the demon saying quietly: “We should be careful, Sin. I mean you did really good, you did really good, but we should still be careful. What if those had been Aether Poltergeists? You would have just made them really really mad by trying to threaten them and gotten something big and heavy dropped on our heads.”

“Don't talk to me like I'm a child, Aphrodisia Pie. I know what I'm doing.” Innocence grumbled moodily, shaking her head shortly and pushing the demon quickly away. Then she turned her eyes moodily back ahead, scraping her gauntlet against the ground a few times before she gestured pointedly ahead, and any other reprimands the ponies might have had for her were cut off as they all turned their eyes upwards to see something approaching them.

At first, they thought it was a gorgeous pony... but as it drew closer, the mares realized it was shrouded by a glammer, the beautiful, smiling mare-form it wore nothing but an illusion. Innocence focused her eyes in on it... and then winced in surprise as her gaze pierced the magical veil it covered itself with and she saw the monstrosity beneath.

Leathery, stretched skin, heavy stitching, glass eyes and a dry mouth with metal teeth: it was some kind of... undead puppet. And when Innocence lost her concentration, she was left seeing only the illusionary shell that protected it again, the newcomer smiling at them before saying in an echoing, soporific voice: “Greetings from Lord Chrysophylax Dives. He sends his regards and wishes to express his interest. You have been granted a rare audience with our most generous lord, who has graciously promised not to consume your souls.”

“Well, that's very nice of him.” Aphrodisia said brightly, and Prestige closed her eyes slowly as Innocence stared over her shoulder at the demon, who only looked back and forth before saying huffily: “Well, it is. I mean, he's promising not to eat us, right? I don't like being eaten. Well, actually-”

“Please be quiet.” Prestige said tiredly, and then she turned her eyes towards the creature, asking calmly: “What is Lord Chrysophylax?”

“Lord Chrysophylax Dives is the mightiest of all kings, who has awakened from his ten thousand year slumber to establish his great and sprawling empire over this world of mortals.” replied the creature in forcedly-happy tones... not that it seemed to dislike its master, whatever it was. It sounded forced simply because the undead puppet didn't seem to have any real emotions of its own. “But you shall see Lord Chrysophylax Dives for yourselves. You shall come to understand his might and his glory. You have been granted a rare audience with our most generous Lord Chrysophylax Dives, who has graciously promised not to consume your souls.”

“I think she said that already.” Aphrodisia whispered loudly over to the others, and Innocence scowled a little as Prestige shivered a bit, then looked nervously over at Innocence as the smiling, glammer-protected pony simply stood in front of them, pretty and vivacious and spotless and so... fake.

“It's just playing back whatever it was taught to say, like a recorded message. It's a Dead Doll.” Prestige replied quietly, and Innocence looked up in surprise before Prestige shook her head slowly, murmuring: “We have stories about them up north, that's all. My... parents told me about them.”

She quieted, looking down for a moment before shaking her head quickly again and turning her eyes questioningly towards Innocence. The scaled unicorn realized that everyone was looking at her... and then she grimaced when the Dead Doll began to repeat in its falsely-warm tones: “You have been granted a rare audience with our-”

“Okay, okay, we get it.” Innocence interrupted flatly, turning towards the Dead Doll, and then the scaled unicorn took a breath before raising her head and replying calmly: “We graciously accept your invitation and desire to meet Lord Chrysophylax. As I have already demonstrated, we have powerful magic at our disposal that we are willing to share with your... generous master.”

The Dead Doll bowed deeply, then turned calmly around and began to stride towards the labyrinth, and Prestige grimaced as Ersatz said anxiously: “I know it may not be my place to judge the actions of warriors such as yourselves, but is this really such a good idea? I've read my cousin's accounts of the Dead Dolls in North Neigh...”

“We don't really have a choice. We're here to make an ally. We have to figure this puzzle out.” Innocence said quietly as she started to follow the undead puppet, and the other mares fell in behind her as the scaled unicorn tried to reassure: “And well... don't worry, any of you. He'll at least wait and talk to us, he'll want to see our magic before he attacks us.”

“I hope you're right.” Prestige muttered as they headed into the jagged labyrinth, and the ponies naturally clustered themselves a little closer together, looking back and forth. Many of the walls here were reflective, but their reflections were always distorted and made monstrous... and seemed to move differently than they did, like mirror-selves were stalking their real selves through the crystal and polished stone.

Fortunately, they didn't spend too long in the maze: they passed several dangerous-looking traps and barred-off areas, but the Dead Doll led them quickly through the twisting and turning labyrinth along a safe path. Innocence tried to memorize it, but couldn't manage to get down more than a few of the landmarks: there was simply too much to try and remember.

On the other side, they came out between two massive statues of snarling drakes, each made of black rock and with glowing gemstone eyes. They resonated with powerful magic, and Innocence paused to study these for a few moments curiously before the Dead Doll standing in the field ahead called calmly: “Please follow me.”

The scaled unicorn turned her attention back forwards, nodding awkwardly: she kept her eyes forwards, getting a bit distracted by her own thoughts even as Prestige and Aphrodisia both tensed and looked worriedly back and forth: the ground here wasn't just toxic-feeling and sprinkled with ashes and rot, but spirits were floating silently through the air above, and there was a small army of Dead Dolls lurking in the shadows beneath the rocky walls of the deep gorge. If they were attacked here, the sheer numbers would probably suffocate them... even before considering none of the ponies knew what these creatures were capable of.

The Dead Doll led them to a massive cave entrance, then turned around and said calmly: “Please wait here. I shall inform Lord Chrysophylax Dives that you have arrived.”

Innocence simply nodded, then she watched as the Dead Doll turned and vanished into the cave, disappearing behind a curtain of dark miasma that either protected it or simply shrouded it. The scaled unicorn's eyes traveled slowly back and forth, drawn by the sound of hammers and stone being chiseled to one side of the cave entrance.

There was a small pack of sallow, miserable-looking Diamond Dogs here, mumbling to each other and trying to carve the cave entrance into a more-regal archway. So far, they had managed to do only a few feet, and Innocence smiled despite herself, striding curiously towards these three even as Ersatz Major said uncertainly: “There are all kinds of undead here... and the cavern is protected by... Innocence? Innocence, please wait, it's not safe to wander off.”

“I'm fine.” Innocence said grouchily, even as the three mares hurried after her all the same, but the scaled unicorn quickly turned her eyes back to the Diamond Dogs, ignoring the others. These beasts were descendants of the Nibelung: gemstone-loving, somewhat-greedy beasts that retained the dwarves' natural talent with working underground, but far fewer of their remaining traits.

Innocence halted a few feet away from the five Diamond Dogs, who were all grumbling, gray coats covered in dirt, two of them shoving at each other childishly as another worked slowly with the hammer and chisel along the rock. The scaled unicorn couldn't help but roll her eyes at the excruciatingly-slow method they had adopted to try and carve the archway, studying the five for a few moments before she cleared her throat loudly.

Immediately, all five Diamond Dogs yelped and staggered around towards the mare, shoving each other over and the one working the archway almost bashing one of his compatriots' head in with his hammer. Innocence rolled her eyes at this, and then she smiled despite herself when the Diamond Dogs hit the dirt in front of her, bowing and whimpering and babbling all kinds of pleas and apologies.

Innocence grinned a little, and Prestige rolled her eyes before she stepped up beside the scaled unicorn, holding up a hoof and saying gently: “Calm down. We're not going to hurt you. We're ponies.”

“We're also demons. Well, two of us are. And you're a Valkyrie. And I dunno what Innocence is. She's... special. Are you technically undead because your Mom was undead when you were born?” asked Aphrodisia curiously, and Innocence slowly soured before she glared over her shoulder at the demoness, but the Dominia simply shrugged, looking honestly curious. “I wanna know!”

The scaled unicorn replied to this by sticking out her tongue and blowing a raspberry at her childishly, and then she turned her attention back to the Diamond Dogs as the pack looked uneasily up at her. “Is Lord Chrysophylax your master?”

The Diamond Dogs looked nervously at each other, and then one answered hesitantly, shifting awkwardly on the spot: “Yes?”

“You don't sound exactly sure of yourselves.” Innocence said dryly, and the Diamond Dogs shuffled back and forth before they all yelped and spun around, trying to look busy as a Dead Doll calmly strode through the curtain of miasma. As the twisted, misshapen puppet approached, there was a tinkling like glass bells before a glammer appeared over it, making it look again like the gorgeous mare that had escorted them here in the first place.

Innocence shifted uneasily as she turned towards this, and the Dead Doll bowed her head to them respectfully before saying calmly: “You have been granted a rare audience with our most generous Lord Chrysophylax Dives. Please follow me.”

“She has as much personality as I used to.” Ersatz remarked meditatively, and Prestige smiled despite herself over her shoulder before the four ponies started forwards, heading towards the swirling curtain of miasma.

The others all shifted nervously, but Innocence only smiled fearlessly, feeling the dark energy radiating from the cloud and half-recognizing it as they stepped into it... and she was prepared for what happened next, saying clearly through the poison as she felt the others twitch: “Just keep walking forwards. It can't hurt you.”

Innocence closed her eyes and simply smiled as she walked through the dark energy, holding her breath... while the ponies behind her coughed and wheezed, staring into the black fog and realizing they could see through it... but this thick curtain of black energy was filled with onyx flames and dark smoke and terrible monsters of every shape and size, silently-screaming spirits whipping past as the minds of demons and Valkyrie alike were torn with wild images. They stumbled after Innocence and almost flung themselves out of the other side of the barrier, and the scaled unicorn glanced over her shoulder at them with a badly-repressed smile.

She recognized it was maybe a little cruel, but all the same she looked at them with entertainment and a faint feeling of superiority, studying the way they reacted so badly to the smog before she said mildly: “Sorry. I should have told you three to hold your breath and close your eyes until we got to the other side. It would have made it a little easier.”

Prestige looked up sourly at this, and Aphrodisia shook herself before giving a hurt frown, rubbing silently at one foreleg. Ersatz Major only sighed and shivered, even if she looked like she wanted to say something... but before anypony could try and speak, they were interrupted by the Dead Doll instructing calmly: “Please follow me.”

So instead, the four turned their attention back forwards, and forgot their quarrel almost instantly as they stared through the massive cave. Enormous pillars stood here and there, carved with runes and hung with massive gemstone lanterns that cast a pale white glow over everything, radiating a faintly-toxic energy that made Innocence's scales crawl. And treasure... treasure was everywhere, glinting in the ghostly light, stray coins and gemstone spilled over the long, plush carpet that led to a massive pool surrounded by piles and piles of gold and gemstones and chests and... bones.

The Dead Doll led them down the center of the cavern towards the bubbling, black pool: Innocence noted that it was surrounded by braziers and large incense burners that reeked of sweet oils, and she could feel the dark energies being radiated from the pool... and yet for all the unholy power it gave off, there was something about it that actually settled her worries instead of worsening them. She could feel the other three mares shifting nervously behind her, but she put them out of her mind for now, concentrating only on what was ahead of her as the Dead Doll stopped and turned around.

“It is my honor to introduce to you the most glorious Lord Chrysophylax Dives, master of all territories that he chooses to set his eyes upon, prince of darkness, ruler of the realm of shadows, Grand High Inquisitor of Helheim, and ancient sage of great and divine power.” the Dead Doll rattled off, and Ersatz, Prestige, and Aphrodisia all winced as Innocence scowled a little, feeling the blast of magic that tore through the air around them.

The braziers surrounding the pool all burst into bright flames that danced and rose higher, then turned cold blue as the water started to boil and bubble, thrumming with energy. Ersatz winced as Aphrodisia leaned back in surprise and Prestige set herself, but Innocence only grimaced a bit and looked moodily at the water, watching as a massive form started to slowly rise up out of it.

The flames burned brighter as the massive dragon straightened slowly, armored in a mix of stone and bleached bones. Brackish, black water spilled off its huge frame as it rose itself high, grinning down at them: its bare skull gleamed, red eyes glaring down at them from its horned head. Spikes and ridges stood up along its chiseled exterior, and it was regal, potent, and terrifying, laughing loudly before it threw its head back and roared.

The world around them shook, and Aphrodisia, Prestige, and Ersatz stumbled backwards in horror at the malignant energies that writhed through the air with its war cry, ghosts and spirits flickering into being throughout the cavern and zipping back and forth in terror around the monstrous undead dragon. It was magnificent and terrible... and yet Innocence was still only glaring up at it without fear even as the beast settled slowly and leaned forwards with a cold smile, settling enormous, bony claws to either side of Innocence as he leaned down towards her and asked pompously: “And whom is it that ingresses upon my personal chambers, seeking an audience with I, the mighty Lord Chrysophylax Dives? Bold little dragonlet, do you not recognize what your unworthy presence has been accepted into the good graces of upon this extraordinary occasion?”

“I am a pony, and my name is Innocence.” the mare said clearly, looking calmly up at the undead dragon before she nodded. “And I do, Lord Chrysophylax Dives. You are a Dracolich.”

“That is very perceptive of you, dragonlet who calls herself by the title of our lessers. But please, you need not be so formal. By all means, please refer to me as Lord Chrysophylax. Or Prince Chrysophylax, if you happen to be in a gamesome mood.” replied the dragon in a confident voice, smiling before he sighed in relaxation and rested on one enormous, half-stone and half-bone forelimb. He was easily the size of a house, if not larger: by far, bigger than any dragon Innocence had ever seen before: perhaps even larger than the Tyrant Wyrms Gymbr had created. “Please pardon my informality. I fear that I was but recently in the midst of a siesta from the long and arduous task of running my mighty and ever-expanding empire and I am still of lassitudinous bearing.”

“Right.” Innocence said moodily, and then she glanced over her shoulder and couldn't help but feel exasperated with the three ponies, who were all looking up at Chrysophylax like he was some kind of dark god that had just risen from Helheim. But something about him didn't ring entirely true to Innocence: he was certainly massive, certainly radiated a terrible, dark power, and he had an army of minions at his command, but... something about him was... off.

She cleared her throat after a moment as the Dracolich looked down at her from his lazy position, and then the mare asked finally: “Lord Chrysophylax... I'm here on behalf of the rebel forces, to ask if you'll join us in our war against the Light.”

“Oh, please, the Light is no threat.” Chrysophylax sniffed disdainfully, shifting so he was half-sprawled comfortably back in his enormous pool, raising a claw above his head and studying it with a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “The silly little angels are nothing but flies to be swatted as they happen to annoy me, at the behest of my own schedule. Now, unless you happen to be offering your entire band of insurrectionists to the current superintendence as servants, I see not how helping you and lowering myself to the level of brutal barbarian would be an intelligent use of my valuable time.”

Innocence glowered for a few moments up at the Dracolich, and then she took a slow breath before saying calmly: “We can offer you treasure. The Light has many artifacts and valuables that we will be more than happy to give to you as payment... and we have powerful magic that could further increase your own strength.”

“Ha!” Chrysophylax sat suddenly up, slapping a claw against the ground and making the earth rattle, Innocence wincing and staggering to the side as the Dracolich grinned widely. “Oh, please! I would be insulted, were you not but a small dragonlet and clearly of equal portions gullible and naïve with how you believe yourself to be a citizen among the race of diminutive equines! Of what use could the magic of such creatures that are so infinitesimal compared to my eminence be? Your powers are nothing more than a pittance compared to the verdure in my smallest claw!”

The dragon leaned almost jeeringly forwards, bringing his massive claw up in front of Innocence and waggling his pinkie claw in her face: it was still almost the size of the mare's body, and yet Innocence only scowled at him, which made Chrysophylax laugh. “You are fortunate I am in such a jesting mood, little dragonlet, and pity your clear mental handicap with what you believe yourself to be and the very fact you agreed to undertake such a treacherous mission into the heart of my empire to plead assistance! But listen to me, dragonlet, and heed what I advise: before you presume to know so much about me, then gaze upon the differences between us... why, how can such a little dragonlet assume to have powers that would make a creature as mighty as I shake, when you are not even the size of the smallest digit of my phalanges?”

He poked Innocence a few times with the end of his smallest bony claw, and the scaled unicorn's eyes narrowed slowly before she reached suddenly up and seized into the end of it with her own metallic claw. The Dracolich blinked down at this, then stared in disbelief as blue smoke began to hiss into the air, energy burning rapidly out of the talon before the massive Dracolich squeaked when his pinkie claw crumbled away into ashes and dust. He yanked his large talon hurriedly back, grasping the smoldering stump of the digit, and Innocence glared up at him before snapping: “Well maybe if you tried shutting up and listening you wouldn't be missing a finger right now!”

Chrysophylax looked dumbly down at this, wiggling his claws slowly before he suddenly snarled furiously, leaning down into Innocence's face and shouting: “Insolent dragonlet whelp, how dare you use such chicane tricks upon the great and glorious Lord-”

Innocence reached her claw up and seized into the end of the Dracolich's face, and then her horn glowed as her body flexed, baring her teeth and snarling as she yanked down with all the strength in her body. And the Dracolich's lower jaw was slammed into the ground, biting his own tongue with a whimper as cracks spread through the end of his bony skull, and Innocence breathed hard in and out. She had just started to learn how to focus her magic into her own body to increase her strength from Freya... and she was very glad she'd been studying as hard as possible now, since it seemed like a little brute force had finally gotten her message through to the Dracolich.

“Listen Dives, or whatever your name is. I'll make this clear. We're here to get your help, but if I have to, I will not hesitate to kill you. You may be a mighty Dracolich, and I have no doubt you have a phylactery hidden somewhere in all this treasure, but I will tear you into little pieces and then melt every single coin in this cave if I have to, do you understand?” Innocence asked in a growl, even as Prestige and Aphrodisia both winced, and Ersatz sighed and dropped her head tiredly.

The Dracolich stared at Innocence for a few moments... and then he snarled furiously before suddenly flicking his head upwards, launching Innocence into the air with a squawk as the massive undead dragon straightened, roaring: “Impudent child! How dare you treat me with such derision within the halls of my own commorancy! I am older than the seas and more powerful than the chariot of Helios that races across the empyrean firmament every-”

“Will you just shut the hell up and fight?” Innocence snapped furiously as she lashed her horn out, sending a black fireball rocketing at the Dracolich, and Chrysophylax's mouth fell open before this struck squarely into one of his eyes, his head snapping backwards as chunks of bone flew in all directions before Innocence landed with a vicious grin.

Chrysophylax clutched at his face, yelling furiously before he snarled in rage, claws dropping away from his shattered skull. Sick, naked red flesh run through with black, pulsing veins was left bare to the world from beneath what was actually some kind of exoskeletal mask, the monster glaring down at the mare before he opened his mouth... and Innocence was admittedly relieved when he leaned forwards and roared, breathing out a blast of swirling black flames and toxic, violet miasma.

She rose her horn high as the other three mares were forced to retreat down the hall, Innocence cutting into the blast with waves of pure force before she snarled and reared back, drawing her horn upwards and pulling the dark fire and poison into a swirling, toxic ball above her head. Chrysophylax failed to realize what was going on as he leaned back with a cruel laugh, the last of the flames washing down over Innocence as the purple, poisonous fog swirled around the mare, obscuring her from view as he mocked: “So, dragonlet, now you may conceive the true might of a Dracolich without compare such as myself! What do you have to say in response to my inordinate power, microscopic-”

A comet of black and purple flame tore through the violet smog, and Chrysophylax had enough time to stare before this smashed into his breast and exploded in a tremendous eruption of power, almost knocking the Dracolich out of his pool and sending him flopping back into his pile of treasure. Gold and jewels flew everywhere, falling in a hail around Innocence as she strode calmly forwards, then plunged one gauntlet-covered claw into the pool and simply pushed outwards with her power.

The unholy energy rebelled against her, tried to push back... but then her Panacea overwhelmed and mutated it, spreading rapidly through the black liquid and turning it to solid crystal as the Dracolich growled and started to push himself up, again failing to realize what was going on.

His eyes widened as the water splashed up against his body and turned to obsidian gemstone, and he squawked in pain before shouting in horror as the pool turned to solid black crystal, flailing uselessly before snarling and shoving one claw viciously down into the gemstone. He laughed as it shattered, beginning to open his mouth again... and then stared in horror when a geyser of black water burst up over his limb and petrified, effectively trapping his forelimb in front of him.

He trembled a little, mouthing slowly as Innocence calmly strode onto the crystalline pool, striding moodily towards his arm. The Dracolich smiled weakly at her, and Innocence shook her head slowly in distaste before she stepped onto his snared foreleg and began to slowly stride up it, saying quietly: “You're a disappointment. I heard great things about Dracoliches. That they were supposed to be terrifying, and nearly omnipotent.”

“We... well... I am merely testing your strength, learning more about you. The real battle has yet to begin, and you have no grasp of my true potentiality!” Lord Chrysophylax declared, and Innocence gave him a flat look as she sat down on a squarer section of stone on his upper limb, the undead dragon wincing a bit and asking uneasily: “What are you doing, dragonlet?”

“I'm a pony. And I'm waiting for you to do your worst, then. Show me what you can do.” Innocence said distastefully, and the two looked at each other for a few moments before Chrysophylax suddenly snarled and leaned forwards, his red eyes flashing brightly.

Innocence felt the attack hit her, wincing and shivering as terrible feelings ripped through her body. She trembled and hugged her stomach with one claw as Chrysophylax grinned and rose his other claw quickly, moving to squash her... and then Innocence looked sharply up and snapped her horn out, sending a blast of black flames into his bony talon and knocking it backwards as he yelped, before the mare leapt sharply forwards and landed on the end of his broad, skull-masked muzzle.

Chrysophylax stared up at her, and she looked coldly back down at him before leaning forwards and studying him moodily. Then she suddenly smiled, saying softly: “So that's your trick. Poisons. Not just the poison you laced the ground with, but you poison the spirit. You control and corrupt from a safe distance and let your toxins do all your work for you. Interesting...”

She stopped, then smiled down at her own claw, flexing it slowly. “And that's why you couldn't hurt me, why I wasn't afraid of you. My Panacea makes me immune to most of your powers. But we can still use you.”

Chrysophylax looked warily at Innocence, and then he rose his head and sneered, asking distastefully: “Then while fortune has apparently favored you in your endeavor, why should I consider your offers? You cannot kill me. Destroy me, and my body will regenerate to full power within an allotment of a half-fortnight, and the next time we meet I shall not be so gracious as I have been today. Oh, you may have won this battle, dragonlet, but know now that I shall not sojourn until-”

Innocence moodily reached down and pried a chunk of bone free from broken mask, then flung it into Chrysophylax's eye, the Dracolich wincing and whimpering before Innocence said moodily: “You're forgetting something, Dives.”

She flexed a claw slowly, then plunged it downwards, passing through the monster's features with a ripple... and the Dracolich's eyes widened in horror as she seized into his spirit instead of flesh, his head shaking wildly back and forth before he grabbed at his face with his claw, almost managing to catch Innocence and knock her loose. But the scaled unicorn quickly slid between two digits, gritting her teeth before sending a shock of magic through the creature's very spirit, shouting: “Calm down!”

Chrysophylax winced and then sulkily dropped his head, rubbing slowly at his muzzle before his eyes gleamed, and his claw trembled. And most telling of all was the way he tensed up and hesitated, visibly trying to steel himself for what Innocence knew he was going to do before his claw lashed suddenly up and wrapped around her, shouting: “I have apprehended you!”

Innocence let him seize her, grimacing even as she was yanked off his muzzle and into the air before she felt him gathering his dark energies... not that much of his magic could hurt her. He thought he was darkness, evil incarnate, the night? He was none of those things, and she was going to show him just how useless all his flailing at her was-

Except then a scythe buried deep into Chrysophylax's wrist, and his claws spasmed open as he screeched in pain, Aphrodisia grinning widely before the demon tore downwards and ripped bone and stone away from his limb as she dropped to the crystalline mire below. Innocence cursed as she was ejected from the Dracolich's grip, snarling as she shouted even as she spun around to land on her claws: “This was my fight! He was my enemy, go get your own!”

“You miscreant! You atrocious little maniacal whelp, how dare you defy the might and splendor of the all-powerful Lord C-” A fireball hammered into Chrysophylax's face and cut him off in a tremendous bang, knocking him reeling backwards before it turned into solid ice, tightly locking his muzzle shut.

Innocence growled in irritation in spite of how glad she was that the Dracolich had been shut up, while Prestige hurried to the mare's side as she said sharply: “We can't risk underestimating any of our enemies, Innocence, you can't-”

“You should have let me handle this alone!” Innocence snapped, and then she looked up just as Chrysophylax leaned forwards, his eyes flashing as he unleashed a traumatic psionic shock. It only made Innocence wince backwards even as bad memories stirred inside her, but Prestige and Aphrodisia both staggered, clutching at their heads before the Valkyrie screamed in agony, her back arching as her body started to char and black smoke filtered up from her form.

Aphrodisia was gurgling, hugging herself as her body rippled violently, struggling to repress her demonic side from emerging before Chrysophylax snarled and swung one mighty fist down, crushing her beneath it with a sickening crack. Innocence gritted her teeth at this, and Chrysophylax shifted forwards, grinning viciously in response to her before he hissed out a blast of black flame from beneath his sealed-shut jaws and nostrils, weakening the ice enough that he was able to wrench his own jaws apart and then growl: “I believe that our playtime has come to an end, my little dragonlet. I have neither patience nor time left to waste in a quarrel with you. Therefore...”

Chrysophylax flexed, then finally managed to yank his foreleg free of the mire around it, shattering the black crystal in a burst of dark shards as he looked contemptibly down at Innocence. “I must insist that you vacate the premises and leave your little pony friends behind as tribute and payment for all the damage you have wrought upon my resplendent abode.”

“No.” Innocence said coldly, and then she glanced over her shoulder at Prestige and simply flicked her horn sharply, and the Valkyrie staggered as the ground beneath her shifted before a wave of mire exploded upwards over her, Prestige screaming for a moment before the black ooze turned to solid crystal around the angelic mare. Chrysophylax's eyes widened in disbelief, and Innocence looked calmly up before she said quietly: “Kill them if you want. I don't care. My job is to make a deal with you, Chrysophylax. And if you refuse to become an ally, then I'll just kill you, too, and rip out your spirit to add to my own power.”

The Dracolich stared down at her, uneasily touching his chin with one claw as the other shifted against the ground... and then he stared down at this as it twitched violently before Aphrodisia smashed straight through the center of it, the demoness snarling and landing on the Dracolich's wrist before she slung the scythe still in her hooves viciously forwards. It spun through the air as Chrysophylax roared in pain, and then this turned to a scream when the scythe plunged into one crimson eye, the undead dragon reaching up and covering his face with his claws as he twisted back and forth, making the pool of frozen mire around him ripple and crack.

Black mist bled out of his features as he twisted back and forth in agony, and then Innocence whistled loudly at Aphrodisia as the Dominia landed at one side of the pool. The demon bared her fangs as she looked at Innocence, but then grudgingly nodded and hopped backwards instead, raising a hoof and making a sharp beckoning gesture, and her scythe tore free of the Dracolich's eye, quickly returning to her hooves.

The massive Dracolich wailed in pain, and then he trembled and slumped forwards, slowly drawing his claws away from his features. Black smoke was streaming up out of the now-empty socket as he shivered a little, then whispered: “A Reaper's tool, in the claws of a wretched little pony... I fail to believe this. It is impossible... this is all unfeasible and preposterous... you are nonentities compared to the might of I, Lord Chrysophylax Dives, the greatest-”

“I swear I will go down your throat and rip out your beating heart!” Innocence shouted as one of her eyes twitched, and the Dracolich winced a bit before slowly settling, looking uneasily down at the scaled unicorn as she took a slow breath before asking coldly: “Are you ready to negotiate now or do you want to waste more of my time?”

Chrysophylax shifted moodily, and then he nodded and crossed his massive forelegs almost sulkily, pieces of stone and broken bits of bone tumbling off his enormous frame as he glared down at her with his remaining eye. Then it suddenly widened as if he'd had an idea, and the Dracolich rose his head arrogantly as he declared: “Very well. I will entertain the presupposed notion that your skills surpass my expectations, dragonlet, but that was merely all a trial to deduce and perform analysis of your capabilities in an importunate situation to assay your endowments. Had we truly engaged in a scrimmage, the true power I put forth would have been so overwhelming and vast that you would have been crushed like nothing more than the paltry insect you are. But very well: you may relax in the ardent glow of my beneficence and we shall discuss a possible collusion of our respective coteries. It serves me little purpose, of course, but as such a humble dragonlet is before me, I cannot help but feel that I should extend some of my vast reserves of magnanimosity towards you.”

There was silence for a few moments, and the Aphrodisia held up a hoof, waving it back and forth through the air until the Dracolich scowled at her, and then she asked curiously: “Are you like Alma the Learning Dragon from my old schoolbooks? Is that why you use so many funny words, because we're supposed to go on magical adventures together, learning about stuff from you?”

“Yes, little pony, that's exactly what we're supposed to do.” Lord Chrysophylax said acidly, voice dripping with sarcasm. “We are supposed to go on 'magical learning adventures' together.”

“Then... then can I climb up on your back and can we learn about art? I really liked arts and crafts before I got kicked out of school.” Aphrodisia said brightly, clapping her hooves together happily, and Innocence slowly dropped her face in a hoof as the Dracolich stared at her disbelievingly. “And can you use smaller words, Mr. Learning Dragon? Otherwise I don't think I'll really learn anything at all from you.”

Chrysophylax hissed smoke and black fire out between his teeth, reaching his claws down to dig into the rim of the pool, cracking the crystallized mire around him as his red eye glowed balefully, and then Innocence said calmly over to Aphrodisia: “Find Ersatz. I don't know where she went.”

“Okay!” Apps chirped, and then she turned quickly around, smiling and looking pleased with herself: Innocence wasn't sure why, but she hoped that pissing off Chrysophylax had been worth it.

The scaled unicorn shook her head moodily, then turned her eyes up towards the Dracolich, who glared back down at her balefully. There was silence for a few moments between them as they studied each other warily, and then Innocence decided to take a leap forwards: after all, if he started talking again he probably wouldn't stop.

“The rebel forces are seeking out allies in everything and everyone who wants to resist the Light. I can see that you're protected here, Chrysophylax Dives, but I think you're overestimating your strength.” Innocence said calmly, looking up at him evenly. “I know you use Dead Dolls, and I'm willing to bet you have something to do with all the angry spirits around you. You can corrupt the earth and you can protect yourself with dark powers, but these powers will not be enough against the Light alone. I've seen what the Light is truly capable of. When they want your territory, they'll bring the whole mountain crashing down on top of you.”

Chrysophylax grimaced uneasily... then he shifted uncomfortably before reaching down and carefully picking up a piece of black crystal between his claws, studying it moodily. “I fail to see, in that matter of fact, how it is within the scope of my foremost interests to expedite that eventuality by joining this world's petty squabbles. I am a master of the dead, a great and powerful lord in Helheim-”

“No you're not.” Innocence said dryly, and Chrysophylax huffed loudly before the scaled unicorn snorted and shrugged, saying sourly: “Fine. Do you recognize this rune?”

She quickly sketched a symbol in the soft earth with one claw, and Chrysophylax leaned forwards before he scowled, saying distastefully: “Yes, it is the symbol of Hel. But come now. Any petty demon would tell you the same. I had demons in my employ even when I was but a whelp, long before your ancestors were conceived, little dragonlet.”

Innocence rolled her eyes, and then she lowered her head forwards, and the symbol started to glow. The Dracolich's eyes widened in surprise at this, and then it quickly turned to horror before he asked hurriedly: “Upon what premise are you contriving to act? I order you to cease this behavior immediately! Your conduct will draw the scrutiny of Hel directly upon us!”

“I know. She's a friend of mine, I suppose you could say.” Innocence muttered, and the Dracolich shook his head in disbelief before he suddenly grinned derisively, leaning forwards.

“You're bluffing.” he said coldly, and then he sat back with a loud sniff, crossing his arms and saying derisively: “There is no sensible hypothesis behind why a little dragonlet such as yourself could know the numinous divinity Hel. You likely have no conception of even something as banal as the Archives, or what the numerous ranks of demons are numbered and denominated! This dramatic little farce is no match for my highly-advanced intellect.”

Innocence rolled her eyes at this, lowering her head a bit further... and then she winced in surprise as a reaper's scythe tore down into the rune, making it spark out as Aphrodisia wheezed in relief before smiling awkwardly at Innocence when the mare glared at her. “Sorry. But we can't call Hel right now, okay? I'll get in lots and lots of trouble.”

She paused, then smiled up at the Dracolich, waving at him happily. The Dracolich scowled down at her... before staring in disbelief as Aphrodisia burst apart into a stream of dark smoke that shot up and landed on the undead dragon's muzzle, his red eye blinking dumbly as she leaned forwards with a smile and asked: “Can we be friends?”

“You're... you're a First Tier demon. I... I don't understand.” Lord Chrysophylax said weakly, and Aphrodisia giggled behind a hoof before the undead dragon reached up and hurriedly swatted at her, but the demon only laughed and easily hopped over his claws, landing back on his muzzle and flopping out against him as she almost hugged his face, the Dracolich wincing in disgust at this. “Oh, remove yourself from my material frame! Now I smell your reek, demon!”

“Hey, that's not fair! You're dead and I'm not talking about how much you smell.” Apps said huffily, popping back up to her hooves, and then she paused and poked at his bony mask a few times. “I also didn't know that undead Lich things that have never been to Hell could be Inquisitors. But... you were fibbing, weren't you? Because I'm an Inquisitor, so I usually feel it when I'm around other Inquisitors. You get a kind of tingling sensation.”

Chrysophylax stared at her, mouthing wordlessly, and then the Dominia smiled before striding up towards his large red eye and leaning down towards it, saying brightly: “You're free to read my mind if you want to check that I'm telling the truth! But you know... the Archives get really really mad at people who say they work for them when they don't...”

“Oh, I... I n-never meant that, you must have misunderstood my words due to my verbiage, clearly it was nothing but a misunderstanding!” Chrysophylax stammered out hurriedly, shaking his head quickly as Aphrodisia looked at him thoughtfully. “Now... I... I am very busy discussing a treatise with your doyen, the dragonlet Innocence, and we are very busy adults, so I must ask that you refrain from interrupting any further in our discussion and tend to your allies.”

Aphrodisia looked searchingly at Chrysophylax Dives for a few moments... and then she finally nodded and gave a bright smile, and the Dracolich looked relieved as he slumped a little. “Okay! I'll see you guys later!”

With that, she turned and hopped away, landing squarely on top of Prestige and sending cracks through the black crystal covering her, and then the mare easily jumped off and slammed a headbutt into the shell of black gemstone, shattering it. Prestige gasped for breath and slumped, shaking herself briskly out, and then the Valkyrie looked up with a tired smile.

Innocence turned her back on the two as Prestige wiggled free and the demon pulled her out onto her back, the Dracolich frowning at the emerging pony, but then the scaled unicorn drew his attention by saying clearly: “Like you said. We're discussing an important treaty, so I think we should try and avoid distractions, Dives.”

“Lord. Chrysophylax.” the Dracolich said icily, and the two glared at each other for a few moments before he finally sniffed disdainfully and straightened. “But fine. Then say your piece, dragonlet, and I will tell you whether or not your terms are palatable. Remember that even though I am generous and-”

“First of all, shut up. And if you can't do that, keep it short.” Innocence said sourly, and the undead dragon glowered horribly down at her before the scaled unicorn shook her head slowly, feeling strangely like trying to discuss terms with this eccentric, verbose creature was going to be far more painful than fighting him ever would have been.

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