• 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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Heaven's Backdoor

Chapter Ninety Two: Heaven's Backdoor

It had been a long time since they'd suited up, and Luna Brynhild smiled slightly as she slipped on her armor, flexing her body slowly against the sapphire leather and the black, polished plates. Maybe Scrivener and Twilight were both a little surprised by that feeling of... of coming home that came with putting on this gear after so long... but for Luna, for so many years, her armor had been the only home she'd ever really known.

“You're not a turtle, Luna.” Scrivener Blooms said softly, and Luna gave him an entertained look. The stallion's armor looked the same at first glance, but Cowlick had modified it heavily: it was actually comprised of multiple, separate sections that could all snap apart or expand and contract, thanks to the enchantments on them.

Twilight Sparkle's own equipment was much lighter: a heavy vest, layered with plates of silvery metal, and a lightweight black cloak that would hide her magic signature and protect her from holy energies. There was no need for any heavier armor, now that she could restore her physical body with much greater ease.

The three ponies stood in the front hall of their mansion, waiting anxiously for Hel to arrive. Over the last week or so, they had... indulged, and enjoyed themselves, and bathed in darkness... and watched as the darker characteristics, the reflections of their inner evils on their actual bodies, had grown more prominent. And yet somehow, they weren't demons, even if they were also completely under Hel's control: the stronger they got, the more they allowed darkness into themselves... the more power and influence Hel gained over them.

They would never escape Hel: the thought... hurt, but it was also something they were growing accustomed to, even if the trio wrestled with it every day. Luna sometimes wondered if Odin had engineered this somehow long ago; Scrivener Blooms wanted to deny his fate still, try and prove that even as some sadomasochistic Clockwork Pony abomination, he could still do the right thing, redeem his birthright somehow; Twilight Sparkle was still trying to wrap her mind around the idea of being Hel's daughter, and found herself wondering silently if she'd ever get a chance to find the parents who'd birthed her, raised her... and yet they had been surrogates, and she was some cuckoo that had been slipped into their unsuspecting nest by Hel...

The three shifted slowly together, trading soft looks between one-another before Twilight said finally: “Maybe we should go and sit down somewhere else. We could take a few last looks over the Holy Word, maybe memorize the last of the passages...”

“Between us, I'm pretty sure we have the entire book memorized. And you can... well, you can read the language, at least. And I don't know if there's actually a way to speak it or anything... the Pious all communicate through that weird audio-telepathy crap, after all.” Scrivener Blooms replied with a shrug, and Luna grunted before the charcoal stallion sighed beneath his horned helm, reaching up and slowly rubbing at this. “Do you think Hel's going to show up, or she's just going to send La Croix?”

“I think 'twill be Cowlick. The damnable engineer still has our weapons, after all... and how are we to fight the Light without... well, aye. We could simply pummel them all to death. But that seems so... ineloquent.” Luna paused, then licked her teeth musingly. “But I do enjoy the ineloquent...”

“I like that you're creepy, even by Helheim's standards.” Scrivener Blooms remarked mildly, and the sapphire mare huffed loudly at him, then poked at him a few times with her soulstone horn. Scrivener shifted away from this, then reached up and gently grasped the almost-bladed, screw-like spire, softening a little as it thrummed slowly with dark energies.

Luna blushed a bit, then huffed and quickly pulled her horn away, grumbling: “'Tis... 'tis no time for that. If thou so desires it, then go and stroke thine own horn.”

Scrivener Blooms sighed and rolled his eyes, then he reached out and firmly flicked Luna's prosthetic, making her flinch a bit. “I think Juliette and Justine are watching us, so no. Also I'm in my armor. And finally, you're gross.”

Twilight Sparkle only shook her head briefly, then she said finally: “What about other equipment? Usually we have bags of stuff...”

“And I am sure Cowlick will bring us plenty of use.” Luna said soothingly, smiling a little as she turned towards Twilight Sparkle and softened. “Aye, I know thou art worried. I am worried as well. Hel has revealed snippets of what is going on above, and none of it is pleasant: a great battle is being waged across Heaven, and...”

Luna glanced down, then shook her head briefly, murmuring: “And we do not truly know the fate of those we love. Only that... 'tis nothing good. What we must prepare ourselves for, Twilight Sparkle... is seeing truths that we do not desire to know. Innocence is alive, but even her fate is... uncertain. Hel will not tell us what she has become. Antares and Celestia... I do not desire to think about. But we will have to discover their fates, all the same.”

Scrivener and Twilight both looked at the sapphire mare, then they both nodded slowly. Not knowing had a certain... a feeling of ignorant bliss, certainly. But they could only hide for so long before they would suffocate in it: not knowing, in the long run, would hurt them far, far more than finding out when they had the chance. Knowing could lead to regrets, certainly... never knowing would almost definitely lead to far, far more.

They all lowered their heads, mirroring each other as they sighed quietly, then looked up. The unconscious synchronization continued as they smiled faintly, eyes flicking back and forth before Scrivener finally shivered a bit, and Luna shifted a little before shaking herself wildly out and muttering: “Damnation. If we keep this up, we shall become a three-headed Gymbr.”

Scrivener Blooms grunted at this, and then the sapphire mare looked thoughtfully at the stallion before saying musingly: “'Twould be very interesting, though... imagine what other parts of our anatomy would be tripled.”

“Luna. Go away.” Scrivener Blooms said flatly, and Luna huffed and poked at him with her horn as Twilight Sparkle only smiled a little and shook her head slowly, giving him a quietly-entertained look.

Then all three ponies looked up as there was a hammering on the main doors, before they were thrown open by Cowlick hard enough to slam into the walls on either side of the doorway. The three ponies winced a bit, and then awkwardly watched as the massive, greatly-sized-up mare lumbered inside, dragging a huge cart behind her as she growled: “Move.”

Seeing as Cowlick was currently more than double their combined size, the three ponies skittered out of the way and allowed the giant earth pony to drag the cart into the main hall. Scrivener grimaced as the wheels tore up the carpet before he turned towards the door... and glowered as La Croix, Hel, and Nightmare Moon all followed Cowlick in, the dark goddess crowing: “Oh, good, you're waiting for us, my delicious little muffins! Hey, great to see you all, great to be here, thanks for having me over and we're gonna have a real good time!”

“Yeah, fantastic.” Cowlick muttered crankily as she yanked the harness off her body and tossed it grouchily back at the covered cart, and then her body flexed before shrinking rapidly down as she winced and cursed, two empty vials popping free with hisses from her collar before she shivered a little and lowered her head, gasping in pain.

She fumbled at her foreleg until she managed to yank open the panel on it and nuzzle out a cigarette, then she lit it with a few shaky grinds of her hooves. After a few puffs, the engineer calmed down a little, and then she shook herself briskly out before muttering: “Let's make this quick.”

“What's wrong, little lady? You don't got enough of your moonshine to keep you on your hooves? Well ain't that just too bad, madam bête.” sneered La Croix, and Cowlick focused her sallow gaze on the Loa, but he only continued to look at her disdainfully. “Fumer tue, you know.”

“Well in my case, fumer vie, asshole.” Cowlick retorted, and La Croix glowered sourly at her before the engineer shook her head and said irritably: “Brought you stuff. You can unload the goddamn cart yourselves, I ain't your mommy.”

“I am!” Hel said brightly, as she reached out and grasped the tarp covering the cart, then she yanked it off in a flourish, several latches popping open and allowing the back gate of the large cart to flop open with a clank.

Luna strode quickly around to the back of the cart, followed by Scrivener and Twilight, as Cowlick began moodily: “You guys better thank me for this. I went through a hell of a lot of trouble to get all this crap together. Try not to wreck it all.”

The sapphire mare's eyes widened: not just at the sight of all the equipment waiting for them, but at the fact that sitting there, gleaming and beautiful and just waiting for her touch, was a gorgeous motorcycle. Was her motorcycle... “Epona! How... how did thou retrieve her? Oh, she is beautiful!”

Luna laughed in delight, then grinned widely, noting even the little oval sidecar was the same as Scrivener Blooms stared in horror, then looked down at himself, saying hurriedly: “There is no way I'll fit in that thing anymore, and I am definitely not-”

“Actually, if you two weren't stupid, you'd realize that the motorcycle is bigger. You're welcome, by the way.” Cowlick said crankily, as Luna pranced into the large cart and marveled over the motorcycle, and Nightmare Moon gave a cryptic smile as she strode slowly to the edge of the open cart, as if she was waiting for something to happen. “Outer body's mostly the same, but the inner workings are... redesigned, I guess you could say. Enough that I wouldn't really call it Epona anymore, if I were you.”

Luna grinned widely, reaching out and touching the silver demon's skull that ornamented the front... and then her eyes widened in shock as blue fire flared into the sockets, and the motorcycle's engine roared to life on its own... except it sounded all too alive, and angry. She stepped back in surprise, then gritted her teeth as the wheels tried to spin, blue flames bursting into life around the tires... but metal clamps stopped the large tires from revolving, and the motorcycle simply jounced helplessly back and forth before it snarled and came to a halt, rumbling ominously. “But I heard you shouldn't have any problems reacquainting yourself with this old friend of yours...”

“Don't ruin the surprise!” hissed Hel, as Luna stared at her motorcycle. The living machine growled at her, struggling, twisting back and forth as a phantasmal shape flickered around it before she reached suddenly forwards, shoving her hoof against the silver and closing her eyes...

“Hex?” she whispered, and the motorcycle immediately, suddenly calmed, seeming as shocked as she was. There was silence for a few moments... and then Luna's eyes blazed, a snarl spreading over her jaws as she tore both Prúðbikkja and Andlitstingar free from the rack at one side of the cart, spinning around and leaping out to spear both weapons viciously through Hel's ice puppet as she roared up at her: “What has thou done to my steed?”

Hel looked down at her with a calm, almost gentle smile, even as frosty smoke bled out of the wounds in her puppet body. She reached tenderly down, stroking gently over Luna's face as she said softly: “I reunited you, that's all. Mistress and her mount... it's all very pretty, even though one thing we always made fun of down here in funland was how much you ladies likely loved your mounts. I'm sure Freya did on more than one occasion... nature gods, so gross! So free! So hilarious! And you know what they say, you kill an army of Nibelung, and do they call you the dwarf killer? No, no. You kill a dozen giants, and do they call you the giant killer? Hell no. But you screw one horse...”

Luna snarled and tore her spears to either side, and the puppet of Hel shattered before the sapphire mare roared: “That joke was not funny an eon ago and 'tis not funny now! Our rides were not our toys, or pets, they were our brothers! Our family! Partners in battle we could trust on the level of our own sisters, and thou defiles that!”

“Yeah, hi, Hel. Nice to meet you too.” the ice puppet replied mildly as it reformed into the dark goddess, twiddling her fingers pleasantly before she absently snapped her fingers when Luna began to lunge forwards, and the sapphire mare's eyes bulged before she simply dropped flat, all the energy drained from her body. Her spears fell to the ground with her, bouncing and rolling away as the light in her soulstone horn fluttered out, the mare horrified at the ease with which Hel had just... stopped her.

Scrivener Blooms and Twilight Sparkle both gasped and shivered, then were forced to kneel as their strength bled out of their forms, snarling up at the frost puppet. But Hel only smiled contritely before she clapped her hands together, saying warmly: “But hey, I did you a favor! I reunited you with your steed... isn't that something to be happy for? And now you'll never have to worry about-”

Before Hel could finish, the motorcycle's engine suddenly roared as blue flames burst up around the tires, licking along the frame of the living machine before it suddenly tore free of the locking clamps holding it in place, launching forwards and rocketing out of the cart. And Hel had a moment to look up in dumb surprise before the huge motorcycle smashed through her, then hit the ground and screamed around in a half-circle.

It growled like an animal, and La Croix squealed in terror and bolted across the room as Cowlick narrowed her eyes, blowing a stream of smoke out of her nose. The engineer started forwards, and the motorcycle's engine revved as it spun itself towards her, then shot forwards, leaving a rooster tail of ghostly flames behind it as it streaked past Luna.

It smashed into Cowlick, sending her skidding backwards before she snarled, body increasing in size and weight and strength as her rear hooves tore trenches in the floor and her front hooves grabbed into the front of the motorcycle. The two wrestled, Cowlick slowly starting to lift the living machine even as blue flames seared her and powerful, living metal strained her muscles... and then Luna gritted her teeth and managed to half-push herself up, shouting: “Hex! To me!”

The motorcycle immediately dropped and yanked backwards, Cowlick staggering before the machine neatly spun itself in a short circle, smacking Cowlick off balance. The engineer snarled, but then cursed as her body shrank quickly down, shivering as she panted a little around the cigarette and the remaining vials over her body bubbled violently.

Hex rolled towards Luna, the living motorcycle rumbling quietly as the blue light in the skull's sockets seemed to stare down at her, and Luna smiled faintly as she slowly reached a hoof up. The motorcycle hesitated... but then it slowly let itself coast forwards until Luna's hoof pressed gently against the silver skull, the mare sighing quietly and whispering: “It looks as if... we have both changed, old friend... and yet look at thou now.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then she shook her head briefly before pulling herself up as her energy began to return to her body. Hex rumbled, the living machine pushing forwards to help her, and Luna closed her eyes she half-sprawled over the front of the machine, looking down silently and breathing quietly as she stroked along the rim of the silver skull, whispering: “Damn thou, Hex. Oh, but how I missed thee...”

She hesitated... then looked up and grimaced at Hel, who had already reformed and was leaning casually against the edge of the doorway, the dark goddess gesturing towards her and asking pleasantly: “Well? Don't you have something you want to say?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then the sapphire mare grimaced a little, glaring defiantly at the dark goddess as she spat: “Nothing of thanks! Thou may have reunited us, but only as we are both in thy servitude, both... transformed into puppets!”

“Whiny whiny whiny.” Hel remarked distastefully, and then she gave a sniff and crossed her arms sulkily. “Well. I'm never going to do anything nice for you ever again, little miss ungrateful.”

Luna only growled irritably, and Nightmare Moon gave a quiet laugh, shaking her head slowly and saying tenderly: “Please, Queen Hel... remember that this is much for sweet Luna Brynhild to handle at once... and perhaps she doesn't realize this is not merely a game on your part, or a tease. Luna, there is a reason that our mistress has fused the soul of your old war steed into this living machine... after all, you cannot open the Bifrost to return home.”

Luna's eyes narrowed slightly as she looked up with surprise and suspicion, and La Croix grunted as he hesitantly made his way back towards them. He scowled at the sapphire mare, who was now resting against the large motorcycle with one foreleg around it, the living machine rumbling slowly as the zebra muttered: “I don't like that thing. Gives me the heebie-jeebies... and if the bosses knew that this was how you planned to cross Darkwater...”

La Croix shivered a bit, then he shook his head hurriedly before grimacing over at Hel. “This is gonna get me in trouble, you hear? You gonna cause all kinds of trouble for me, Nanny Hel. More so if these ouaouarons don't succeed... they gonna succeed, yeah? You promise me that, you promise me that now, Nanny Hel!”

Hel slowly leaned forwards and glared down at the Loa, and the spirit winced and shrank hurriedly down, covering his head and adding hurriedly: “Not that I'm demandin' anything, don't mean to be rude, nope! Hey, it's a pleasure, it's a real pleasure for someone like me to help! I'll be doin' it a bon couer, Nanny Hel, you... you just don't fret now, hear? We gonna make this good together!”

La Croix grinned weakly, and Nightmare Moon gave a quiet laugh before she said kindly: “I'm sure he means no harm, Mistress. He just... talks. Like dogs bark.”

“That's me, just a silly chien.” muttered La Croix, but he stepped backwards nervously and lowered his head respectfully to Hel all the same, mumbling finally: “Mo chagren.”

“Well, I'm gonna make you even mo' mo chagren if you don't learn to keep that fat trap of yours shut.” Hel said mildly, reaching down and poking the zebra's nose firmly several times. Then she turned her eyes back towards Luna, adding in a whine: “And you need to stop assuming the absolute worst about me. That really hurts my feelings, you know?”

Luna only grumbled as Scrivener and Twilight both hesitantly approached her and the living motorcycle, the latter rumbling steadily away. It growled at them when they drew a little too close, but then Luna huffed and lightly smacked the silver skull, making it settle as she said: “Cease that. These are my partners, Hex. Scrivener Blooms, Twilight Sparkle, this is... Hex.”

The mare looked quietly down, and then she laughed faintly and shook her head briefly before murmuring: “Damnation. I never imagined that thou wert still... well, not alive, but... Hel, how did thou retrieve the spirit of my steed?”

“Well, once I found out that Vally-wally had just gone and undermined me and completely ruined any chance of us ever being friends again by dumping half the population of Helheim into Heaven, I figured that the smarter boys and girls would probably make a beeline for your horses. Cut the gods off from their steeds so they couldn't escape, and beat them into submission to drag them down to Helheim.” Hel paused, looking reflective. “Where, you know, they were raped and mutilated and forced to breed and all kinds of nasty things happened to them. Once I took control back over Helheim and Niflheim, though, I was pretty quick to end all that. And along the way, I scooped up the souls of all the steeds I could find. Very valuable, after all... and the fantastic part is that technically they're like, your ancestors now.”

“I hate to interrupt this whole creepy lecture, but... I have heard several times that... we are supposed to somehow ride this thing into Heaven through some place that Cross is going to take us.” Scrivener Blooms said flatly, holding up a hoof, and Hex snorted at him, making the stallion wince away a little from the living motorcycle. “In short, my question is 'what the hell is going on?'”

“I've got it going on. And I know you've waited for so long. But Scrivy can't you see, you're just not the one for me: it'd be kinda wrong, since I'm kinda Twilight's mom.” Hel singsonged cheerfully, and then she threw her arms out and posed for a moment before huffing when Scrivener, Luna, and Twilight only looked up at her blankly. “No sale?”

La Croix hurriedly clapped, and Hel glared over at him, the zebra wincing backwards before the dark goddess rounded on Scrivener... and then answered with surprising seriousness: “It's simple. Valkyries always rode their steeds into combat. Partly because they were trained to fight on horseback... but mostly, because these special war-horses could step from step from one reality to the next. Brynhild, come on, work with me here.”

Luna looked up sharply at this, then she turned her eyes back towards the living motorcycle, saying slowly: “Thou art saying that Hex will have retained his powers... that this contraption thou hast trapped his soul inside will be able to run through the ether and travel between realms, just as he could whilst alive...”

Hex growled, and Luna sighed and stroked soothingly along the body of the motorcycle, murmuring: “Aye, aye, thou art still alive, I know. Do not fear, Hex, I am not thinking any less of thee... although... 'twill certainly take some adjustment, all the same. I am only surprised that...”

She looked up at Hel, who smiled slightly and tapped her own temple gently. “See? Easy as cake. As angel food cake, as a matter of fact... everyone knows that's the sluttiest of all foods, after all. Of course, Heaven's got all those nasty barriers up that my magic can't pass through... but our friend La Croix here is going to open a portal for you into a little place called Darkwater by the locals. All you gotta do is get across it, and reach the crossroads on the other side. Then you can ride right on through Heaven's backdoor.”

“Darkwater...” Twilight frowned a little, then she asked hesitantly: “Do you mean the place... 'beneath the waters,' I think Zecora called it? Where the dead sleep?”

La Croix nodded nervously, reaching up and adjusting his top hat with one hoof as he muttered: “Close enough. Yeah, normally it's a pleasant, peaceful little place... but oh, the livin' passin' through... that's gonna rile 'em up. They won't like that, no oh no... especially you on a big hunk o' metal like that, makin' enough noise to... well... wake the dead.”

“Pun!” Hel blurted, and then she covered her mouth and giggled a little when Luna and Scrivener both glared at her, and Twilight Sparkle only sighed quietly. “Sorry. I'm a little bit silly today, I admit that. And I know that's not good when you guys are really kind of super serious worried about all this crap that's happening all around us, I know, I know. I'm sorry, I really honestly am.”

Luna only grunted, then she turned her eyes towards La Croix, asking moodily: “Will there be any dangers there? And do note that we are accustomed to Helheim.”

“Well, like I said. You gonna wake the dead, riding that big ugly thing... I mean, that pretty pretty horse...” La Croix winced as the living motorcycle growled and Luna glared at the zebra. “They ain't gonna like that, in Darkwater. And it ain't 'bout good spirits, or bad spirits... but think of it this way. Every one of them, they gonna be like big ol' grizzlies you just done woke up out of what was shapin' u p to be the best sleep of their lives.”

“Your accent gets a lot thicker when you're scared about something. That's a pretty awful tell.” Scrivener Blooms said mildly, and La Croix glowered at him before the charcoal stallion said dryly: “Well, it is. Watch your glottal stop. You run all your words together. And skip letters everywhere.”

You makin' it real temptin' to tell you the wrong way out of Darkwater, mon ami.” La Croix said crankily, and then the zebra began to hold up a hoof... but winced when both Nightmare Moon and Hel glared at him, sulking and dropping it to grind it anxiously against the ground. “Okay, okay, I ain't gonna cause any trouble, even if this particular ouaouaron is gonna croak himself right into the pot one day. Just you wait and see.”

“Technically they already did. They're dead and in my icebox and everything.” Hel said mildly, and then she glanced across at Cowlick as the engineer shoved another cigarette into her mouth, using the butt of her first to light it up. “Hey, you put that thing in there like I asked you to, right?”

Cowlick looked mildly up at Hel as the dark goddess tipped her a large wink, and then the engineer nodded, saying sourly: “Yeah, I did. Luna, Hex there has a shell of living metal, like Scrivener's Talons, and construct parts like a golem mixed with flesh and magic crystal. So we can track wherever the hell he goes and whatever the hell you do with him, understood?”

“So I cannot simply take Hex and leave.” Luna grumbled and nodded, and La Croix looked a little relieved at hearing this, before the sapphire mare glanced back and forth before flicking her horn sharply. A moment later, Prúðbikkja shot up into the air, spinning once before it shrank down and flew to her, vanishing with a puff into her galactic mane.

Twilight Sparkle smiled a bit as she picked up Andlitstingar, studying the spear before it glowed faintly and collapsed down to a baton, then floated over to Luna. The violet mare's horn glowed a little brighter as the weapon lowered, securing itself beneath one wing of the sapphire mare with magic, and earning a smile from Luna. Then both mares turned her eyes back towards Hel as Scrivener Blooms scraped a Talon against the torn rug, muttering: “So basically we're going to go and piss off a giant... river of the dead or something by riding a living motorcycle that used to be Brynhild's war-horse over it, and if we don't follow your specific instructions...”

“Then I'll probably have to kill you horribly.” Hel said cheerfully, and then she pointed at La Croix, adding: “Not my idea, though. Totally the idea of him and his bosses.”

La Croix grimaced at this, saying sourly: “Look. I ain't gonna explain this, but there's life and there's death and rebirth, and it all serves a purpose in the cycle. And even when the cycle ends and a soul ain't reborn no more, they still become part of the greater cycle of the universe; cosmic energy, that helps feed all things. That powers your afterlife just as much as mine.”

“We're all valid! No one has to be a loser!” Hel said positively, swaying back and forth on the spot before she became serious again, looking down at the Luna and pointing over at Nightmare Moon as she said calmly: “You three should suit up now, but while you do, I want you to keep one little thing in mind. One part of your soul is staying behind with me, while the rest of you go up to Heaven. She volunteered, as a matter of fact.”

Luna's eyes widened slightly as she looked over at Nightmare Moon, but the passion entity only smiled faintly... and with both sadness and tenderness in her eyes, as she said quietly: “I am apart from you now, Luna Brynhild. But as much as this hurts... I must do what is truly best for us all. There's nothing greater that I can do for you, the people I love, than this... and nothing greater for myself, either. Because now you will love me forever.”

La Croix was looking at them strangely, and Luna shook her head slowly, staring between the ice puppet and Nightmare Moon as she realized... what was at play here. That in spite of everything... maybe, just maybe...

But then Hel leaned forwards and said kindly: “Okay, kids, that's enough googly-eyes at each other for now. I don't like to repeat myself, but... oh, who am I kidding, I love repeating myself! It's kind of like getting to give twice as many orders but then they get magically carried out all at once.

“So you know. Go put your stuff on. Go get ready! You gotta go!” Hel said cheerfully, making a shooing motion at the trio before her eyes glinted as she leaned towards Luna, the goddess' voice whispering through her mind: I don't give out freebies. But I'm just as fond of fun and games as Valthrudnir. The difference is that I'm in it for the game itself... not the victory.

There was silence for a few moments between them, and then Luna finally nodded before she grimaced a bit and turned to head towards the cart. Hex rumbled and turned a little bit as if to watch her, and Twilight studied the living motorcycle with a mix of unease and fascination before Hex turned towards her. The Lich blushed a little, but then she smiled a bit, reaching up and silently touching the silver mask even as she felt strangely self-conscious, murmuring: “Hi there.”

Hex seemed to push forwards a little against her hoof, and the violet mare's smile widened as Scrivener looked uneasily at the living machine. He awkwardly reached a Talon up to touch it, and the motorcycle growled at him loudly, making him wince back a bit before Luna commented mildly: “Beware now, Scrivy. Hex is no passive-aggressive mare like thou art, but a brave and sometimes-violent stallion. Not that he is cruel, only... well... rough.”

Scrivener grimaced a bit, then he mumbled: “Great. So now I'm going to have to compete with a motorcycle for the affections of my mares.”

“Thy mares. Thy mares.” Luna said wryly as she strode back out of the cart, a holster now fitted over her back and a saddlebag and a rifle floating calmly by her side. It looked almost exactly like Sting Mk. III: the only difference was in the runes lining the barrel, and the bayonet sticking out of the end gleamed silver. “Cowlick, what hast thou done to my gun?”

“Reinforced it and replaced the blade with gianttooth, modified the runes to reduce the magic energy wasted by recoil, and I made you enough bullets to kill half of Heaven.” Cowlick replied dryly, tapping ashes away from her cigarette before she added moodily: “See that you put this Mk. IV to use. I didn't make it just so you could show it off.”

Luna grunted, then easily tossed her saddlebag to Scrivener Blooms, who caught it and slipped it on as Hex rumbled loudly. The sapphire mare smiled wryly at this, spinning her gun at her side before she slipped it into the holster on her back, saying softly: “Fear not, valiant Hex. Very shortly, we shall see battle... damnable beast of a stallion.”

Hex roared, half-mechanical, half-animal, and Scrivener winced a bit away before he asked awkwardly: “Are you sure that this thing was originally a riding-horse? Because uh. Hex doesn't exactly sound like any horse I've ever met. And I think, as one myself, I've met a few.”

“Oh shut up, thou art not just a pony but a damned Clockwork creature at that... why, because of that, thou and Hex should get along very well, no?” Luna asked positively, even as her eyes drew towards Hel and Nightmare Moon instead of her husband, feeling a strange unease again as she looked between the two schemers, manipulators... and yet, for all their flaws and evil... have they not proven their strange honor as well? “Hel, we... are ready to go. And I will thank thee, for... Hex.”

“There, a little bit of manners!” Hel said brightly, looking delighted before she smiled calmly and glanced over at Scrivener Blooms as the stallion tightened the straps of the saddlebag, securing it against his body. “You don't have to thank me, though. I don't really have anything for you.”

“Great.” Scrivener Blooms said dryly, and then he sighed a little and said finally: “But... thank you anyway, I guess. If only because I feel if I don't say it now, something horrible is going to happen to me.”

“You're smart.” Hel remarked, and then she studied him intently, and Scrivener Blooms winced a bit before the dark goddess ordered: “Before you leave, you gotta tell a joke, and a good joke at that, though, you hear? It has to be so good that Mimir's head will roll around, laughing at it. Which shouldn't be too hard. He's just a giant head. So. You know. Just make it funny. And dirty. It's gotta be dirty, too.”

Scrivener stared up at Hel, feeling distinctly that this wasn't the time for this as Twilight mouthed wordlessly and Luna glared... then grudgingly brightened a little as she turned towards Scrivener Blooms slowly, and he groaned loudly before sighing tiredly as he muttered: “This is stupid. This is really not the time for jokes.”

“I hate to agree with the cocodril...” hesitantly began La Croix, and then he winced and sat back, holding up his hooves when Hel glared at him. “Okay, okay, Nanny! But... hey, if you say we got the time, we got the time...”

Nightmare Moon smiled, and Cowlick grunted as she slowly approached, looking sourly at the trio. “Yeah. You must know some dirty jokes. So at least make it a good one.”

Scrivener Blooms sighed quietly and dropped his head for a moment, and then he looked up and said dryly: “A pair of twins walk up to a mare in a bar and ask, 'would you like to make a palindrome with us?' 'What's that,' she asks, and they reply: 'why, it's when something 's the same at the start as it is in the end. So we'll be the ends and you'll be in the middle.'”

He halted, and Hel giggled behind her hands as Luna grinned widely, before the stallion deadpanned: “And then they had a threesome and were all arrested for having sex in public and improper use of language metaphors. And in prison they helped some large burly convict learn new words, and all about duplicate endings. Like singing. And ringing. And dinging.”

“Oh, thou ruined it!” Luna laughed and slapped his shoulder, and then the sapphire mare winced as Hel cackled and slapped her on back... except she felt something pushed into her mane as the goddess giggled loudly and leaned over her, then suddenly cleared her throat and straightened as Luna looked up at her with disbelief.

“What? I like jokes.” Hel said in an injured voice, and there was silence for a few moments before she suddenly turned a cold look over at La Croix, who shrank back with a weak giggle. “Take care of them. Because if you don't, I'm gonna make you regret it.”

“That's uh... okay, Nanny Hel. I'll... I'll look after 'em like my own!” said the zebra hurriedly, and Hel nodded firmly before she vanished in a puff. Cowlick gave her own mutter of what sounded almost like relief at this, striding past the others without a word. But as she passed Luna, she slapped her on the shoulder, and she nodded silently to Twilight and Scrivener, earning faint smiles from them both even as the motorcycle growled moodily at the engineer's back.

La Croix looked up for a moment, then shook his head with a wheeze before he turned his eyes towards the trio and their motorcycle, the stallion making a distasteful face before he said grumpily: “I suppose that I should go ahead and bring y'all to Darkwater now... but before I do, I wanna lay down some ground rules, hear? You gonna be in my territory, and all y'all are already loud, obnoxious ouaouarons even without a bête like that.”

Luna sighed tiredly, flicking her head to toss her mane... but also to absorb whatever Hel had shoved in there further in, keeping it hidden from La Croix. She had no idea what the goddess had possibly passed to her, but it felt more and more like Hel was trying to play La Croix, and not them... even if the dark goddess clearly didn't mind screwing with them to see whatever weird goals she had through to completion.

Scrivener and Twilight both traded grimaces, and then the violet mare said hesitantly: “I have a reaper's bell... I could maybe use it to calm the spirits of the dead...”

The zebra huffed loudly at this, retorting: “You really think that them sleepin' folk are gonna appreciate an undead demon-thingy like you rattling a big ol' bell when they're already bein' bothered by the sounds of that monster? Come on, ouaouaron, think!”

Scrivener's eyes narrowed slightly at this as Luna frowned darkly, and Twilight shifted uncomfortably on the spot before Nightmare Moon said softly: “Careful, La Croix. You're still in our territory right now... and Hel would not appreciate hearing you speaking to her daughter with such unkind and unwise words.”

The zebra shifted awkwardly at this, looking up for a moment before he cleared his throat and nodded a few times, saying lamely: “Well uh... we... we should stick to bein' professional, anyway, sure. Keep it all above board and all that.

“So here, in real simple words: you go as fast as you can, right down the river. If you stop, you sink, and the dead gonna drag you down. You don't hurt or fight back, though, that's real important: these ain't tortured souls, these ain't no zombies. You're gonna be the ones invadin' their happy resting place, somethin' sacred to us, and you keep that in mind.” La Croix said moodily, pointing at them. “If the damn Light didn't threaten our whole of everything, we wouldn't be darin' to allow this. But the Darkwater is just a little step right beneath your heaven: when you reach the crossroads at the other side of Darkwater, you'll see. There's a path, leadin' right up there to your Vale of Heaven.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Scrivener Blooms asked hesitantly: “And why can't you just drop us at this crossroads?”

La Croix only smiled wryly at this, replying mildly: “Because I point the way, but I don't walk the damn journey for you. And 'cause I kinda don't like y'all... and if you want me to be totally honest, it's because I just do what the bosses tell me to do. I don't go questionin' their motives. Maybe they wanna test you: maybe they're hopin' you freaks of Helheim will be dragged down Beneath, and there you'll be put to sleep 'til the Loa and the greater spirits can think of what to do with you.”

“Great. So the Light is a threat, but not so much of a threat you're willing to completely work with us. Just enough that you're willing to show us the way there and then leave us to live or die.” Scrivener Blooms said flatly, and La Croix shrugged.

“Hey, maybe it ain't the nicest, no. But that's the way the bones have fallen, that's all. Ain't nothin' I can do about that.” La Croix replied placidly, and then he sniffed loudly before straightening and calmly brushing at himself. “Now, I'm hopin' all the best for all y'all, but... I guess we'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out, right?”

“Right.” Luna muttered, and then she glanced at the living motorcycle before taking a slow breath and easily leaping onto it... before she closed her eyes with a smile as Hex growled beneath her, blue fire bursting up around the wheels and in the sockets of the skull. “Oh...”

Scrivener and Twilight both looked at Luna as she shivered a little, gripping tightly into the handlebars before she sighed in contentment as she sat herself lower on the seat, as her body tremored and she felt a wonderful feeling of... contentment. Of wholeness, as she whispered softly: “Aye... I had almost forgotten this. 'Tis just like when I first held Andlitstingar again after so long... completeness.”

Hex growled beneath her, the living machine shivering with the very same excitement. Scrivener smiled a little as Twilight closed her eyes and bowed her head forwards with a faint blush, feeling Luna's so-electric excitement, before the sapphire mare forced herself to look up and over her shoulder, saying calmly to her partners: “Twilight Sparkle, thou can still fit comfortably in that sidecar. Scrivener Blooms, thou shall ride with me. Come, there is enough room on the back...” Luna paused, reaching forwards and gently touching the metal dashboard, but feeling a very living heat pulsing through it as Hex rumbled. “Calm thyself, Hex. Scrivy may not seem like much, but I guarantee he is at least half the stallion thou art.”

“Thanks, Luna.” Scrivener Blooms said dryly, as Twilight laughed a little and then hesitantly slipped forwards, climbing into the sidecar. It didn't feel quite as warm or real as the rest of the motorcycle, but in a way, Twilight was glad for that: a living machine, well... it freaked her out a little bit just to think about.

She touched the side of the motorcycle, and it was like the vehicle flexed against her hoof. Scrivener Blooms felt the same shift as well as he sat on the back of the seat, wrapping his forelegs around Luna's waist and pressing himself forwards against her.

Hex growled beneath them, and then it turned slowly around in a circle to face La Croix, who shivered a bit before he muttered: “I swear, once my business here is done, I ain't ever comin' to Helheim again. This place ain't nothing but a whole lot of crazy. Coldest and nuttiest damn bayou I ever did set hoof in.”

The charcoal stallion muttered a little, not knowing if it was in argument or agreement, but Luna only smiled wryly and said moodily: “Then let us make our exit swift, Loa. Open the way, and we shall go through thy abode of the dead and thou shall never have to see us again.”

“Here's hopin'.” La Croix replied with a wry smile, but then he sighed and nodded, hesitating before saying finally: “Maybe it ain't much, but... bonheur.”

Luna Brynhild only nodded calmly, and there was silence between the two for a moment before the zebra turned and reached up to calmly adjust his top hat, then flick his cape out and smooth it gently, saying clearly: “Okay then, ladies and gents, allons! Laisser les bons temps rouler!

Scrivener sighed as Luna nodded firmly, and she leaned forwards as Scrivener Blooms winced and half-clung to the mare. And then La Croix flicked both front hooves forwards before making a sharp cutting motion to either side, a rift ripping open in reality a short distance away as he shouted: “Go on, get goin', ouaouarons!

Luna needed no further encouragement, twisting the throttle of her living motorcycle, and Hex roared and leapt forwards, Twilight Sparkle wincing and clinging to the hidden handle in the sidecar as Scrivener almost threw himself overtop Luna, staring in horror as they shot forwards and through the portal. And then the stallion looked over his shoulder in disbelief as La Croix leapt and followed them through before he simply shot through the stagnant air of the gray-and-black, wild world they entered into, the spectral zebra shouting at them: “Keep goin'! You keep runnin' 'til you reach the end of the waters, don't stop for no one or nothin'!”

Scrivener winced, gaping after the zebra before La Croix simply shot up into the cloudy air with a cackle, vanishing into what looked like thick fog more than thunderhead only a short distance above. Twilight, meanwhile, was staring with disbelief around them: there were small islands here and there, and marshy sections of ground, and ferns and totems dotting the earth, and everything was flooded with dark water. And everything was nothing but grays and blacks and... so strange to her. So... not hostile, but she couldn't understand it...

Luna only had her eyes locked ahead as Hex growled beneath her, the living motorcycle carrying her as easily as he always had in life: never hesitating, never panicking, never breaking pace even when hooves began to shoot up out of the brackish water and earth around them. She gritted her teeth, but the guide bars tilted almost by themselves, the sapphire mare barely needing to adjust Hex's movements with the fact that the living bike was apparently as sharp and agile now as he had ever been in life.

They zigzagged back and forth as zebras and a few other equines began to pull themselves out of the dark water: they looked furious at their rest being interrupted, and Luna snarled, half-tempted to reach for her rifle... but as if he had read her mind, La Croix suddenly zipped down out of the fog, the Loa apparently much more powerful here than he had been in Helheim as he flew easily alongside them, chastising sharply: “Hey, what'd I already tell you? You ain't allowed to hurt these folk, y'hear? They ain't like you demons, demon!”

“I am no demon.” Luna growled, and then she cursed and yanked Hex's handlebars to the side, Twilight yelping as she was almost thrown out of the sidecar when the living motorcycle narrowly twisted past a zebra that was climbing to its hooves out of the murk.

They streaked into a more-open area of water, sending up a thick spray of muck behind them as more souls began to rise out of the dark waters all throughout the lake-like expanse. Luna cursed as Hex lunged back and forth, narrowly avoiding the spirits rising from the murky waters and the zebras and occasional pony and other creature that flung itself at them.

La Croix was still shooting along above their heads, grinning down and watching them before he laughed suddenly, calling with entertainment: “Well, mes amis, maybe you gonna surprise me after all with what you can do! Look at this, look at you, racin' across the Darkwater like it ain't no thing! You impressin' me, ouaouarons!”

“Stop being such a jackass and either help us or go away!” Scrivener Blooms shouted, half-tempted to yank Sting Mk. IV off Luna's back and take a few shots at the Loa. La Croix only grinned, however, and then the Loa vanished in a burst of black smoke that shot back up into the foggy clouds above.

Twilight winced, then shouted a warning as a wall of spirits rose out of the waters ahead, but Luna only gritted her teeth before she snapped her horn forwards, a ramp of ice rising up out of the brackish blackness. The dark water was already chewing at the ice like acid, turning it quickly to slush, but it held just long enough for them to shoot up it and launch them just over the heads of the spirits.

They hit the water, sinking beneath the gelatinous surface for a moment and sending up a dark spray before Hex shot forwards with a half-alive roar, launching forwards as Luna's eyes sharpened. In the distance ahead, she could vaguely make out more islands and hillocks of mud, many of these with enormous trees standing silent sentinel, and the sapphire mare's eyes narrowed. “Hex! Weave!”

The motorcycle shot forwards with a growl of acknowledgment, and Luna grinned even as several spirits tore upwards, glaring with fury at the ponies... but moving with her living motorcycle, the sapphire mare twisted the guide bars and leaned to the side as Hex tilted itself, shooting up the side of a steep hillock and streaking along it before zagging sharply across the waterbed to another, zipping up along the slope of the small island and using it like a half-pipe to launch itself back across to another hillock.

The living motorcycle tore over the top of this ramping mound, Twilight yelling and Scrivener clutching against Luna with a look of horror as they tore through the narrow space between a pair of trees, scraping bark from the trunks and sending down a hail of shattered branches before they crashed back to the surface of the lake. Then Luna grinned savagely as she grabbed the lever at one side of the motorcycle and yanked it backwards, the jets on the back of the motorcycle flaring into life as Hex roared with power.

The motorcycle sprinted across the lake, glowing with sapphire flames as they shot towards the other side of the dark waters, and Luna leaned forwards behind the windshield as Scrivener clung to the mare for dear life, his eyes bulging as the wind tore against his body and threatened to yank him into the air. Twilight Sparkle had her own teeth grit, cloak flying back around her as they bolted across the lake, almost vanishing with the speed that they dodged around spirits as Hex roared with eagerness.

Ahead, the mare could make out an embankment: the other side of the lake. Luna Brynhild gritted her teeth as she yanked back on the lever, not wanting to risk overexerting the motorcycle... especially now that it was no longer a beautiful hunk of metal, but a living construct, imbued with the soul of her steed. They swerved back and forth easily around the last few souls that rose up out of the lake before finally crashing up and over the edge of the dark waters to skid to a halt for a moment, Scrivener Blooms wheezing loudly as he clung to Luna's back, mane blown back and almost frozen in position as Twilight whimpered a little, her own ephemeral black mane frazzled and messy, the single streak of light through it sparking and stuttering weakly.

A few listless souls were still staggering towards them from the dark waters, but most of them were settling or had already sunken back into the depths. Luna snorted at this, and then Hex rumbled before complacently turning as she gave only the gentlest of nudges to the guide bars in the direction she wanted to go.

The living machine rumbled, obeying her with the same unconscious precision that it always had, ever since they had first been side-by-side. They rolled along the embankment slowly, none of them sensing any danger... but the ground here was solid, the grasses crackling quietly beneath the wheels as the living machine rolled slowly forwards until it reached a dusty crossroads.

The dirt paths that formed the X were wide, but none of them were very long, all of them ending a short distance away, looking like they'd been washed out and the land reclaimed by wild grasses and weeds. An old, faded wooden sign sat between the two arms that stretched weakly and widely towards the horizon, and La Croix was resting comfortably back against this with a pleasant grin on his features, slowly playing an old harmonica.

They rolled to the center of the crossroads and halted, the three listening in silence as La Croix hummed to a finish before he simply tossed the harmonica away, standing up and saying softly: “Gotta admit, didn't think you'd make it. You passed quite a stretch in quite a little bit of time, you know... but Darkwater is only as big as you think it is, and you didn't wake up so many souls as I thought you might. Your motorcycle, she don't disturb the waters as much as I thought she would after all. Good thing, though. Had you hit one o' them, the bosses... they wouldn't be so pleased.”

“He. Hex is a stallion.” Luna said moodily, and the motorcycle growled in agreement before the sapphire mare shot a distasteful look over her shoulder. “And I must say, La Croix, thy resting place for thy dead... 'tis not quite as pleasant as I had imagined the zebras would take to.”

La Croix only laughed loudly at this, and then he said mildly: “Really? And what do you think I see every time I take a peek in Heaven or go waltzin' 'round your Hell? Furthermore, if I came into either place, bangin' it up and makin' a ruckus, the hell do you think the souls that lived there would do? They certainly wouldn't be puttin' on their Sunday best to come and say hello to all me or y'all, that's for sure... now, why don't you ouaouarons look again, and this time don't just see the bayou you think you gonna see. Take a real good, long look, with your eyes open.”

The three ponies hesitated, but then all three gazed back towards the lake... and were stunned as they saw it. As they really saw it, from this angle, looking with their eyes open wide...

Beautiful, black water, that bodies floated just beneath the surface of, serene and peaceful in sleep. Here and there stood totems, covered in slips of paper that held prayers, and trees and little islands stood here and there, swaying quietly in the windless air. The skies were black and glassy, reflecting the water, but there was a hint of something beyond... something beautiful and terrible all at once, like the vastness of space...

The three turned back towards the crossroads, and La Croix calmly tipped his hat to them and said quietly: “Now don't look too long, ouaouarons. You gotta go back to your own swamp, after all. Y'ain't welcome here, and those souls don't need to share the bed with your kind, y'hear? So get goin'.”

La Croix pointed along the path to the upper right, and Luna gave a brief smile after a moment before she nodded shortly and murmured: “Then... thou hast my thanks, La Croix, for all thy assistance. Hex, can thou sense where reality is thin and we may step into Heaven?”

The motorcycle revved uncertainly for a moment, then growled in response and did a short circle, facing forwards down the path that La Croix had gestured at. The mare smiled briefly as Scrivener and Twilight both winced a bit, before the stallion asked awkwardly: “Uh... Luna? This whole... worldstepping thing. Is this going to hurt more or less than the Bifrost? Just. Twilight and I are curious, that's all.”

“Oh, come now, the Valkyries use to have contests to see who could pile the most warriors upon their steeds and carry them all up to Valhalla! And very few warriors were ever disintegrated in the process over all the years we did it.” Luna said cheerfully, patting Hex firmly. “Thou must merely hold tightly on. And we shall pass through safely, fear not.”

“We both choose to fear, Luna. Neither of us trust you that much. We love you. But we know much better than to trust you.” Scrivener replied dryly, and Hex rumbled as the sapphire mare scowled before gunning the engine, and the stallion and Twilight Sparkle both winced and immediately shrank down, seizing the sapphire mare and the living motorcycle respectively as tightly as possible.

The machine roared before shooting forwards, streaking towards the end of the path as blue flames burst into life around it... and then Luna grinned widely as she yanked the bars back and went up on one wheel, reality splitting apart like thin paper in front of them before the living motorcycle lunged into a tunnel of light and sound, Luna laughing and her soulstone horn glowing brightly as they vanished into the swirling vortex.

It sparked out of existence a moment later, and La Croix calmly tapped a hoof a few times before the zebra sighed tiredly, looking out across the beautiful black lake before he said softly: “I hope you know what you're doin' Nanny Hel. Not just for our sake... for yours, too. But hey, my part in all this be over now. Au revoir, ponies. I'll be seein' you on the other side.”

Then La Croix calmly picked himself up, brushed himself off, and strode down another branch of the crossroads, humming pleasantly to himself as he walked away with a bit of bounce in his hooves despite the fact he was well aware he was probably being played for a fool... but hey, if bein' the fool would help put a stop to the Light, then he would be the biggest damn fool on the face of the planet. He might not trust or even like those three, after all... but they sure as hell knew how to put up a fight where it counted and didn't seem to care about breaking the rules.

And sometimes, that kind of flaw was just what you needed to keep the bigger picture beautiful.

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