• Published 21st Mar 2013
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Synthesis of the Atheist - BlackRoseRaven



Luna and Scrivener become the targets of a malicious, narcissistic psychopath. 8th story in the 99 Worlds Saga/Blooming Moon Chronicles.

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The Puppetmaster's Return

Chapter Six: The Puppetmaster's Return
~BlackRoseRaven

Scrivener Blooms sat behind the little desk that had been set up in the bookshop, chewing slowly on one of his front hooves before Barry grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him firmly, whispering for the hundredth time into his ear through a strained grin: “Get your hoof out of your mouth before someone takes another damn picture!”

The charcoal stallion winced and dropped his hoof, then he looked awkwardly back and forth: there were already several copies of his book piled up on either side of the desk, and an assistant was opening another box beside him. But this wasn't the library in Ponyville: this was a massive book store in the heart of Canterlot City, with aisles upon aisles of texts and tomes, and Scrivener Blooms sitting in what was normally a 'reading area' that expensive furniture had been cleared out of to leave a big open space. A big open space crowded with aristocratic-looking ponies, reporters, other important figures... and horribly, some of his patrons.

Lights shone down mercilessly from hanging lamps above, chasing away any shadows and possible hiding places apart from under the desk. A walkway went around the top of the reading area, leading to private rooms and a second floor filled with more books: this was admittedly the kind of place Scrivener would love to wander and get lost in until he found the mythology aisle, but right now it was purgatory instead of paradise with how he was trapped here, just waiting for it to become hell when Barry signaled the start of this whole... show.

Because that's what this was, wasn't it? A show, where he was the entertainment. Right now, Celestia was mingling a little with Rosewood puttering around beside her, making the occasional note and helping keep order. But soon, all that attention would go from Celestia to him, and he had no idea what the hell he was going to do or say.

His hoof rose towards his mouth again, and Barry smacked the back of his head, Scrivener wincing before his agent said hurriedly: “Champ, get it together, stallion! Look at you, you're a stud, you're a king, you're”

so weak and pathetic

“the hot new thing!” Barry tried to reassure, but Scrivener grabbed at his head as a dull throb of pain went through his skull, wincing a little. He had heard something... something like a whisper that echoed throughout his skull...

He hammered a hoof against his head lightly, and when he realized Barry was staring at him, the charcoal stallion shook his head and muttered: “It's... it's nothing. I just have a headache and... this isn't like last time. I know a bunch of my friends are here again to support me, but they won't be front and center and... there's a lot of ponies here. A lot of important ones, at that.”

“It's going to be fine, okay? You're going to do great.” Barry said empathetically, and then he patted Scrivener firmly on the shoulder before smiling and pointing outwards at Antares, who was standing with Aphrodisia and Pinkamena. “And look there, there's your support team right there.”

Scrivener looked mildly at Pinkamena, who looked back for a moment before making a particularly-rude gesture at him, and the earth pony sighed and dropped his head forwards to clunk loudly into the desk. “I'm so screwed.”

“Okay, look, just get through this and then”

you can go cry, pathetic little plebeian. I was wrong, you're not just a hack: you're a trained monkey, dancing for the organ grinder so the jeering crowd will dangle a treat above your drooling maw.

“we'll be done and you can go back to your vacation. Well, you know, after you show how dedicated to the cause you are by meeting up with Underbrush.” Barry said quickly, and then he frowned a little at the fact that Scrivener had gone rigid and pale, staring blankly outwards. “Champ?”

“Oh no. No, no, no, any time but now, please, please, please not now...” Scrivener grabbed at his head, trembling as he heard Valthrudnir's mocking laughter before he caught a sharp vision of the Jötnar grinning and looking into some enormous, curious window. Then the vision was gone, and Scrivener looked back and forth before he said hurriedly to Barry: “You... you should... I mean, I think I'm getting sick, this-”

Oh come now, philistine! Are you truly so arrogant to think this... 'book signing' is something important enough I would lower myself to interrupting your worthless little 'victory?' Valthrudnir sounded almost disgusted, but there was a malicious amusement in his voice, too, that made Scrivener grind his teeth together and grab at his skull in vexation. Do not be a child, Nihete. Your stress levels simply rose sharply... and I desired to take a little look outside and see just what could be upsetting your childish mind so. And somehow I'm unsurprised to find it's nothing more serious than engaging in a session of egotistical self-indulgence, for what you think of as 'intellectual pursuits' and I, on the other hand, only see as much a victory as when primitives learned to slather muddy sticks together and form their savage little dwellings.

“Get out of my head!” Scrivener snarled, and Barry stared at him, slowly opening his mouth before the charcoal pony slammed his hooves against his own temples, cursing under his breath. “You're not real!”

Oh, as if your insectile mind could comprehend what is necessary to even imitate such a magnificence like mine. Valthrudnir retorted, and Scrivener grimaced as he heard the riffling of cards before the Jötnar said dismissively: Begone, puerile little pony. I wish to enjoy your squirming and suffering without having to put up with your wheedling and whining today. I will not interrupt your colloquial body-rubbing session, that is far too crude for my taste and intellect. Besides, I see that you do a good enough job of ruining whatever favor comes your way as it is.

“Uh... so, champ, I'm... going to ask the guys to come forwards now... just hold it together, alright?” Barry said slowly, and Scrivener winced and looked up, but too late, as the agent strode forwards around the desk and called in a cheery voice: “Okay, colts and fillies, come on, let's get this show on the road!”

What a miserable metaphor. Valthrudnir remarked, and Scrivener felt like smashing his head into the desk as he wondered miserably if he was going to have to put up with Valthrudnir editorializing this entire session. Shut up and focus, idiot equus. Or do you want to appear like a drooling, slack moron? Which admittedly would be a little more intelligent than you usually appear to be.

Scrivener fought back the urge to respond and forced a smile as Barry gestured at him, and there was polite applause from the audience: the very large audience that spanned back into the shelves, he realized, and the stallion swallowed thickly. He could only see a few people he knew here and there, and even though Celestia was standing nearby, he couldn't see Luna or Twilight Sparkle... and realized that his link with them was filled with static as well, likely a side effect of Valthrudnir's presence.

But he realized he wasn't saying anything – apt deduction, cretin! – and Scrivener reached up and hammered the side of his head once before he forced his own smile, saying finally: “Wow, there's a whole lot of you here today.”

The crowd didn't quite react the same way Ponyville had to his... particular charm, and Valthrudnir laughed loudly in his mind, making his brain twist and ache. Scrivener fought down a flush as he rubbed at the rumpled suit he was wearing, suddenly wishing he actually had tried to dress a little neater before he cleared his throat and began: “It's just... humbling to look out and see all of you here. To think that already, my book is being read, and that you've all come here today to see me. Well, I suppose the fact the Baroness is here helps, too.”

Scrivener smiled over at Celestia, who smiled back... but he saw the concern in her eyes as well. For now, though, Scrivener gave the smallest shake of his head, then turned his eyes back to the audience. He let himself fall into a short summary of I Am, You Are, every now and then looking towards his small knot of family near the front: and seeing Antares smiling, Pinkamena looking at him intently, Aphrodisia's bright, happy look... it all helped him push through.

Luna also managed to squeeze to the front of the crowd with Twilight, and he could tell that the sapphire mare was working hard not to interrupt what was going on, looking at him worriedly. But he gave her a smile, even as he finished quietly: “And well, I know I can't give away the whole story, so... that's enough for now. Now uh... we're going to take questions first, I believe, before we get on to the book signing, so... let's do that.”

What a remarkable solecism, even for a hack like you. Valthrudnir's voice mocked, and Scrivener reached up and struck himself in the temple lightly, then pretended to smooth down his mane as the Jötnar added dryly: Yes, simpleton. Keep striking yourself in the skull. Perhaps one day you'll strike yourself hard enough to dislodge my spiritual essence. I would add that you could possibly also give yourself brain damage, but it doesn't seem there's enough actual brain present for that to be worrisome.

“Stop. Talking.” Scrivener muttered though grit teeth, low enough that only Barry heard him, the agent tossing him a nervous look before the charcoal stallion cleared his throat and gestured to the murmuring crowd and one of the ponies waving for his attention. “Yes uh... you, miss, with the... the thing. The necklace.”

Valthrudnir only laughed at him again, but the young mare only gazed at him with shining eyes as she reached up and touched her golden chain. “Mr. Blooms, is... wow, is that true that you have two wives? Really? Like, really?”

“Uh. Sure.” Scrivener said finally, and the mare giggled and turned to another young mare, the two gossiping excitedly as Twilight and Luna both glared moodily through the crowd, and the stallion couldn't help but add: “Although as Luna likes to say, it's more like she's the one with two wives.”

That, at least, managed to get a few chuckles, and Scrivener smiled a bit before he gestured towards a stallion with a notepad near the front. The young Pegasus looked surprised but pleased to be chosen, asking quickly: “You go over your childhood in the north as one of the anecdotal stories at the end of the book... how did you survive? Where are your parents now?”

“I survived because... I had to. It's not something I can explain very well... I just have always felt that there has to be some balance in life, that maybe if I managed to survive a crappy childhood, I could find... a good life as an adult. I know it's a huge logical fallacy now but...” Scrivener smiled a little over at Luna. “At the same time, I don't seem to have been entirely wrong. As to my parents... they're... both dead. And neither of them had any... real family I knew about. Nor who I really want to know about, to be honest. I don't think they'd treat me any better than my father did.”

He quieted, then frowned a little at the lack of reaction from Valthrudnir. No, he could still feel the Jötnar's presence in his mind, but... it felt like he was calmly waiting for something, and it made the stallion nervous, before Barry said firmly: “Champ here is proof that anypony can be who and what they wanna be, or at least that's what I tell myself... probably 'cause I hope one day I'll manage to be as successful as he's been, that is. Now hey uh... how about-”

“How about me?” asked a pleasant voice, and Scrivener stared in shock as a unicorn near the front looked up with a derisive smile, dressed in a beautiful, flowing blue hat and matching feathered fascinator that hid her horn. But her eyes were focused and intent, and Scrivener recognized her all too well now that her hat was no longer covering her face: Ersatz Major. “Unless you're too afraid, Scrivener Blooms, of any more illicit secrets coming to light.”

“You know, no one's actually let me read the first article you did on me yet. But believe me, I really, really want to.” Scrivener said dryly, and Ersatz touched her own chest, giving him a flattered look. “So uh... what are you going to focus on for this article?”

“Oh, well, you know. Whatever comes to mind.” Ersatz said kindly, as Barry hissed loudly at one of the assistants, who hurried quickly off. Then the mare gave a smile, asking in a falsely-friendly voice: “So, before your storm troopers come to drag me off, Scrivener Blooms, do answer this: you once wrote a story where you raped your own daughter into slavery, isn't that right?”

Scrivener stared for a moment... then he shook his head slowly and asked incredulously: “Where the hell did that come from? I think your sources may have misled you a teensy-tiny bit, Ersatz, on that call. Because I'm pretty sure I'd remember writing a story like that.”

Ersatz frowned ever-so-slightly, as Valthrudnir said distastefully in his mind: I don't know what I should applaud: the fact you managed to outwit another idiot insect or all the effort you've put into deluding yourself that you think this was a cunning sidestep.

Scrivener resisted the urge to punch himself in the head again, and instead sat back before grimacing when Ersatz's eyes seemed to narrow, and she asked smoothly: “So you deny the existence of a story known as 'Because Love Conquers All?'”

The stallion hesitated, wondering at the same time how the hell Ersatz could strut in here and know... so much about him. Then he forced himself to smile, and replied calmly: “I wrote that story down, sure, but it was originally told by a good friend. And it was a dark romance, but... not quite as dark as you made it. And a little more romantic.”

Ersatz was smiling again now, though, and Scrivener direly didn't like that expression on her face before the mare glanced over her shoulder as the crowd parted for several Royal Guards and a one-eyed unicorn in a black security uniform. Then she looked back ahead, asking kindly: “One more question, before I go?”

“Go ahead.” Scrivener almost challenged, and the two locked eyes as Scrivener studied her, tried to place her, wondered why the hell she had such a clear vendetta against him.

“I was just curious about these passages about you being a Clockwork Pony... it strikes me that you must be very eager for attention. I mean, either you really have these powers, and you're desperate to be recognized as some powerful otherwordly entity, or you actually don't, and instead you're just a pathetic little stallion living in a dreamworld. Which is it?” Ersatz asked curiously.

Scrivener opened his mouth, and Celestia gave him a pointed look as Barry reached up and grabbed the stallion's shoulder with something like a whimper, and the charcoal earth pony grumbled to himself and forced himself to calm down before he replied in as calm a voice as he could: “I am what I am. I couldn't lie about it or skip over it... that would ruin the entire point of this book.”

“Quaint.” Ersatz said, and then she turned around and strode calmly away, and Scrivener wished moodily he could throw the desk at her as the guards fell in on either side of her to escort her out. All the same, she called over her shoulder: “Goodbye, Scrivener Blooms. I'll send you an advance copy of my new article.”

“Really looking forwards to it.” Scrivener snapped in return before he could stop himself, and then he sighed tiredly before turning a moody look on Barry, who quailed a little.

The crowd was murmuring to one-another, though, and the stallion forced himself to look forwards, quickly saying: “Let's... let's keep moving, shall we? Uh... does anypony else have any questions for me?”

There was a little bit of awkward shifting, and Barry tugged at the collar of his suit with a strained smile out at Underbrush, as the publisher scowled at them moodily. But then someone rose their hoof, and Barry hurriedly gestured to the bespectacled pony, who smiled and said courteously: “Scrivener Blooms, I've been discussing your story with my class at the university, and we were curious about your development as a writer... you said you have no formal training, correct?”

“None. I taught myself to read and write, pretty much... although... to be fair, I think I remember times when my mother would read to me, but...” Scrivener smiled a little after a moment. “That might be wishful thinking. I learned most of my stuff on my own, though... and no offense, I think that if you want to be a writer, it's something you have to learn by doing. You can learn all the theory you want, all the rules and everything... but even when I worked with students at the university myself, it was the misfits and the ones who didn't do as well in other subjects that often really shone in their writing.”

He hesitated, glancing at Barry, and then sighed inwardly as he added: “You know, I'm in Canterlot for a few days. I would be happy to stop in at your class, if you'd be interested.”

The professor smiled warmly behind her glasses, and in the crowd, Underbrush looked meditative as Barry half-turned away, doing a bad job of hiding his grin and hoof-pump. “That would be wonderful, Mr. Blooms! As a matter of fact, we're doing a unit on poetry in a few days... perhaps you could start us off with a reading from your book, Rose Thorns?”

“Sure.” Scrivener fought to keep the surprise out of his voice, but then he smiled and nodded, adding: “Just uh... stick around for a minute or two after I get all this out of the way, and I'm sure my agent will be happy to set everything up.”

“Thrilled, just thrilled to!” Barry added positively, straightening and nodding rapidly before he glanced back and forth, then pointed quickly to another pony, saying easily: “And you, sir, what question do you have for the author?”

The rest of the session went well, and afterwards, Scrivener settled a little as he signed books and gave smiles he only had to force a little to ponies who came up to the table. Luna and Twilight were able to join him, and he was sharply-aware of Underbrush's eyes on him, feeling himself being judged the entire time but trying to concentrate on his work.

Barry was quick to chat up the professor, too, making her laugh and smile and setting up a time as Scrivener reflected that more and more of his vacation was getting eaten away at. Yet all the same he did feel a little good... even with that sensation of Valthrudnir looking down at him with disdain and distaste from inside his own head.

It didn't take long, and Scrivener sighed in relief as ponies began to filter away... before he smiled a little and looked up as the unicorn in the black security uniform approached, nodding respectfully to Celestia before turning his single, sharp hazel eye to Scrivener Blooms. His coat was a dark chestnut, and his mane was black and cut short, like his tail: but it was his stance as much as anything else that made it clear this was a unicorn from the far north. “Scrivener Blooms. I apologize for allowing Ersatz in. It won't happen again.”

“Oh, don't apologize to the slave hoof, Scutum.” Rosewood grumbled from where she was scribbling in a notebook, and the charcoal stallion turned a sour look on the pale pink unicorn, who only glared back at him distastefully. “Don't look down on me, mudwalker.”

“So did you get divorced from your husband yet, or is the fact you're sleeping with Scutum still technically adultery?” Scrivener asked sourly, and Rosewood gave him a furious look as Celestia sighed and looked up at the ceiling tiredly.

Scutum remained as impassive as ever as Rosewood and Scrivener glowered at one-another, and then the earth pony was distracted when a throat cleared loudly, turning his eyes dumbly across the desk to see Underbrush looming towards him. “I assume you have time for a short chat.”

“Uh. Yes.” Scrivener said finally, recognizing that tone all too well: it clearly was not a question. He smiled awkwardly, then slipped away from the desk and smiled as he passed Luna, who gazed encouragingly back at him before turning and striding quickly towards Rosewood to take his place in bickering with her.

Underbrush led the charcoal pony away, Scrivener looking lamely after the much-better dressed earth pony and through an employee's only door, into an empty, cold stone corridor. Scrivener looked lamely back and forth as they stopped, and then Underbrush turned around and fixed the larger but far-more-nervous stallion with a measuring look. But the only thing Scrivener could think of was to ask lamely: “Should we... be here?”

“I own the building.” Underbrush said shortly, and Scrivener felt dumbfounded but not surprised. He reached up and rubbed awkwardly at his forehead, then realized with a small measure of relief that the presence of Valthrudnir was gone at least... before he winced when Underbrush said quietly: “I don't like you.”

Scrivener opened his mouth, and Underbrush tilted his head slightly and made a sharp clicking sound with his tongue: immediately, Scrivener fell silent, before he recoiled slightly in surprise as he recognized the gesture, his eyes widening... and Underbrush nodded slowly as he said softly: “Yes, precisely. And that's why I don't like you, slave hoof.

“You escaped the north, but what have you done with your freedom, with the possibility to advance in life?” Underbrush gestured at him contemptibly, and Scrivener leaned back a little before the moss-colored earth pony stomped his hoof angrily down, gritting his teeth. “Do you know how happy I was when my master died, and I was disbanded instead of passed on to a new owner? I was free to leave. And I left, with nothing but my rags, and I pursued the one thing the unicorns always hated to see us earth ponies touch: literature. I found a job as a fact-checker for a newspaper, worked my way up to editor, and eventually found a position with a publishing company. I made it onto the board of directors, and built an empire of gold and silver out of rags and ashes.

“And you, what have you done, slave hoof?” Underbrush looked at him darkly, then he shook his head and stomped his hoof again, dropping his head and closing his eyes as he said quietly: “I hate you. I have money, power, and I make the pathetic, slovenly proud-horns bow to me. And you? I read that story about your mother, you want to... to forgive her for what she did to you? I never knew my parents but the last thing I'd ever do is forgive them for leaving me a slave. You've wasted all your talents and life and freedom hiding away until you wrote this stupid book, and you don't even care about gaining all the things they stole before you were even born!”

Scrivener didn't know what to say, shifting and looking back and forth before Underbrush looked up and said quietly: “And that's why I hate you. If a proud-horn like the Baroness' assistant ever called me a 'slave hoof,' I would ensure she was dragged through Canterlot's muddiest roads on her face by earth pony knights. Yet you talk to her with respect. You have no wealth, no status... and you talk about yourself like you're happy with yourself, as some... half-slave soldier of your winged unicorn wife and her undead mistress.”

“You hate me... because I'm happy... and you're not?” Scrivener said incredulously, and Underbrush glared at him angrily before the charcoal stallion shook his head and said finally: “Underbrush, listen-”

Underbrush made that gesture again with his head, clicking his tongue: the same motion unicorns made to their slaves to silence them, and again, Scrivener couldn't help but shut his mouth before the moss-colored earth pony closed his eyes tightly. Then he took a slow breath and opened them, seeming to regain some of his control as he asked coldly: “Who is Ersatz Major to you?”

Scrivener shook his head, and when Underbrush glared at him, he winced back and said hurriedly: “I don't know! She... she looks like some northern unicorn, but... I've never met her before. I have no idea why the hell she seems determined to attack me and everypony I'm connected to.”

“You're going to agree to an interview with her, because she's undoubtedly going to ask.” Underbrush said moodily, and Scrivener stared in disbelief at the earth pony across from him, mouthing wordlessly before the business mogul added quietly: “And you're going to find out who she is. I want to know why she hates you, because until you do, you are a liability, and I will not have let any unicorn get any kind of advantage over me. But if you do find out, Scrivener Blooms, you'll have carte blanche. You want it published, I will publish it, whether it will sell or not.”

The earth pony mouthed stupidly again, and then Underbrush turned and strode towards the door, before the charcoal stallion finally managed: “Who is Ersatz Major to you to... to offer me that much just to find out what she wants?”

“Why don't you pick up one of her trash-talk articles and find out for yourself?” Underbrush replied over his shoulder, and then he halted at the door and added moodily: “I do have some... special experience with her, yes, but I can tell she has a special interest in destroying you. She wouldn't be so forwards otherwise... she wouldn't risk upsetting too many big names like she is right now.”

Scrivener Blooms shifted nervously at this, and then Underbrush shoved the door open and left. For a few moments, the charcoal stallion only sat in the hallway, reaching up to rub slowly at his aching head as he mumbled: “This... this is wonderful. Please. Please, let's go back to fighting monsters. Horses of Heaven, monsters were easier to deal with than this.”

The charcoal stallion slumped a little, dropping his head forwards before he finally picked himself up with a mumble, striding towards the doorway and pushing it open. He poked his head out, glancing awkwardly back and forth to make sure Underbrush or any other scary ponies weren't lingering around, and then he carefully stepped back out into the room... only to immediately find Barry in his face, his agent grinning eagerly up at him. “Well? Well? What did Underbrush have to say, champ? Good stuff I bet, right? Right?”

“He hates me.” Scrivener said absently, glancing back and forth nervously, and Barry turned dead white and stared at him with utter horror, and the charcoal stallion winced a little before continuing carefully: “But he says he'll... pretty much publish anything I want if we can find out what Ersatz wants with me. He really hates her for some reason.”

“I'll get to digging immediately!” Barry said hurriedly, some of his color returning before he turned and dashed off, and Scrivener only looked mildly after the small earth pony before his eyes were drawn to Pinkamena as the demon approached, looking moodily after the lanky male as well.

“You know, I hate it when small ponies run away from me. I get this urge to chase after them, kill them, and eat them.” she remarked conversationally, and Scrivener simply shrugged a little before the gray-pink pony studied him for a moment. “You... okay?”

Scrivener hesitated, then lowered his head a little before he smiled a bit when Aphrodisia and Antares approached. His son was looking at him uneasily as well, but Aphrodisia only smiled brightly, gazing up at him and saying warmly: “You did really good, Uncle Scrivy! And you know, Mommy and I can go kill those people who bothered you, if you wanted.”

“Scrivener can kill his own douchebags, sweetie.” Pinkamena said mildly, reaching up and ruffling her daughter's mane, and Aphrodisia giggled a little as Antares sighed and shook his head, but gave a bit of a smile all the same. “I do look forwards to the day when you finally snap though, Scrivy. It'll be great, seeing you transform into a Tyrant Wyrm or something and eat a whole bunch of stupid little ponies.”

The charcoal stallion sighed at this, then he glanced up as Luna approached, remarking: “Now, Pinkamena, do not be so optimistic. Aye, 'twould be great to see Scrivener become some terrible monster, but knowing him, he is far more likely to cry about it than wreak horrible vengeance.”

Scrivener gave a sour look to Luna, and then the sapphire mare leaned in and locked gazes with him: her closeness as well as their locked gaze helped force the static blocking their link to diminish, and the mare frowned after a moment before turning her eyes to Celestia. The ivory winged unicorn was already approaching, however, and Scrivener shifted awkwardly before smiling lamely when Luna said quietly: “I believe we should see Selene as soon as possible. It seems that stress... aggravates my husband's... condition, so to speak.”

“Are you okay, Dad?” Antares asked quietly, and Scrivener glanced over at his son before a strange memory rose to mind, and he smiled faintly in spite of himself; it was just like when he'd been a baby, looking up at his parents with those knowing eyes of his, asking in his so-serious toddler's voice: Daddy hurt? “Dad?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sorry, just... lost in memories for a moment.” Scrivener shook his head a bit, then he glanced back and forth curiously before asking: “Where's Twilight?”

Luna huffed at this, but Celestia only smiled, replying quietly: “Paying a friend a visit, I believe. I'm sure she'll join us when she can in Subterra, but... well, first, Scrivener, it seems you have some fans to attend to.”

Scrivener looked up in surprise to see there were indeed a few ponies lingering, and the charcoal stallion shifted a bit before nodding and reaching up to squeeze Luna's shoulder, reassuring her that he could handle this as he smiled lamely and stepped away from the group.

Pinkamena watched as he walked away, and then she sniffed a bit and glanced moodily at the others, saying dryly: “Better him than me. I still think he's more stupid than brave though. Isn't courageous to go walking all nice-like over to ponies when you're scared of dealing with them. It's just stupid. People suck.”

“So positive, Pinkamena.” Luna said drolly, and the demon shrugged as Aphrodisia giggled again and Antares shook his head with an amused look at his mother. “But... still. I do agree all the same. And the last thing I want to deal with is a socialist Scrivener Blooms.”

Celestia opened her mouth to correct Luna's word choice, and then she simply sighed and closed it when her younger sibling gave her a sour look, shaking her head. Then the ivory mare's eyes drew back up to the charcoal stallion, silently praising him not just for trying to be a little more social... but doing it in spite of all the other problems she knew he was dealing with right now. She just hoped that this extra stress wouldn't be what helped whatever was going on in Scrivener's mind help take further hold than it already had.

Twilight Sparkle quietly strode through the streets of Subterra, the city beneath Canterlot. It was a massive catacomb of squat structures that filled enormous, half-natural caverns and tunnels, surprisingly vast and deep, and it naturally formed what was almost a honeycomb pattern around the Thorn Palace where the Overseer kept a close eye over the city's inhabitants.

Ponies and mortals were few and far between: instead, Nightmares, demons, and other creatures of the night made this labyrinthine city their home. But their population was carefully monitored, so that the vital forces that filtered down from Canterlot above were always enough to sate the needs of the populace, and extra energy was supplied from the enormous, glowing crystals that cast an empowering light throughout the caverns.

Demons and many of the other creatures that resided here fed off emotional energy and bioenergies produced by mortals: in cities like Canterlot so much was generated by its inhabitants that demons, Nightmares, and most other creatures could comfortably live nearby and thrive off the energies produced without ever having to actively prey on the populace. The rest of their dietary needs were provided for by fish and game animals, both of which were in plenty in this wild world, where apparently ponies had died out, and the rest of the world had regressed into a land of beasts.

Twilight glanced quietly up from the cobbled streets, past the strange stone houses and towards the roof, eyes locking on a particularly-large crystal held in place by several support chains. Mortals couldn't feel it, but she could... the energy the gemstones provided nourished demons, but also created a kind of supernatural layering between Subterra and Canterlot: just the presence of a demon could influence the emotions of mortals, but this layering between the two cities helped prevent the presence of so many demons from causing any emotional outbursts in the city above.

She had helped design that with Celestia... she had helped a lot with establishing Subterra, and the city felt like home to her. When she looked around, she saw demons of every shape and size, acting just the same as mortals did above: talking and walking around, gathering food, resting and enjoying a meal or haggling for goods and services. A lot of them lived surprisingly-normal lives, and Twilight smiled faintly at this: once she had believed they were all monsters too, after all, but now...

She shook her head out a little, then glanced up as she reached the end of the street, gazing quietly at the large, red stone palace that stood here, gates thrown invitingly open at the top of a short flight of stairs. Gorgeous flora crawled over the structure, adding to the beauty, and the palace was rounded, smooth, somehow... gentle compared to the rest of the structures that filled Subterra, yet it wasn't out of place, either. It just... was.

The Lich breathed slowly, walking quietly towards the steps and putting one hoof down on the lowest stone riser, before she hesitated... and then she blushed as there was a flash of flame from beyond the gate before an enormous unicorn with a coat that shifted colors like magma strode out, his mane and tail of burning flames twisting quietly behind him as he gazed down at her with tender red eyes. His tall, orange horn was covered with spiraling black runes, and while he was a pony... he was clearly also a demon.

“Violet. You avoided me the whole time I was at the party.” he said softly, and Twilight blushed and lowered her head before he almost hesitantly stepped onto the staircase... and when Twilight only straightened and gazed up at him quietly, he smiled and took another step, his eyes locking with hers. He was tender, gentle, careful... even though there was a hint of bitterness there too. “But maybe waiting has only made seeing you now all the sweeter, so it's a good thing, isn't it?”

“Burning Desire...” Twilight blushed a bit, shifting awkwardly and looking back and forth before she closed her eyes, trying to find the words. And when she opened them, he was there in front of her, gazing at her kindly, and she gave a small smile as she looked into his eyes. “You don't have to force anything for me. I just... I wanted to... see how you were doing. And maybe try to make things between us... right.”

“Things are already right, violet.” Burning Desire said softly, and then he stepped carefully down and reached up to hug her gently, and the Lich trembled before straightening and hugging him fiercely back, feeling her emotions twist, knowing her heart would be thudding in her chest if she only still had one. “You never lied to me. And I let you go, and happily... and I still smile for you. I've never cared for anypony the way I do for you, yet... I know that I can't make you happy like they do. And I'm honestly okay with that, because... to see you smile, darling... that's all that matters in the world to me.”

He stopped, then smiled again, stepping back and sliding his hooves to her shoulders as they gazed at each other quietly. “We still have each other, anyway. I'll always be your friend, Twilight Sparkle. And if you're still hurting over... that silly bad dream we all had... then just rest assured you don't have anything to make up for there, either. Unless you really want to, of course.”

He grinned at her, and Twilight laughed and shook her head like she always did before she smiled a little, gazing up at him silently. “And there you are... still telling jokes about everything and... and Burning, I'm sorry that-”

“No, no, don't be. Don't be.” Burning Desire soothed, and then he shook his head and sighed a little, but he was still smiling faintly all the same as he murmured: “It's difficult, I won't lie. But I'd rather put up with a little pain to have the pleasure of you in my life, darling, than to not have you at all. I've learned from the mistakes of my past, and... believe me when I say, there were many.”

He halted, then let his hooves finally slide away from her shoulders as they looked at each other, the Lich blushing faintly, and the demon gazing at her with fondness. They were a strange pair, standing on the steps of the crimson palace, and Twilight closed her eyes as she murmured: “I wish things worked out better. And I hope you'll find somepony one day, Burning, who can love you more than I can.”

Burning Desire reached up and touched her face gently, replying softly: “Yet somehow I think no one will ever replace you in my heart, my sweet.”

Twilight closed her eyes, resting her face against his hoof before the demon hesitated, then asked quietly: “But you are happy with them? They treat you well, you never feel out of place, you're an equal? They take care of you?”

The violet mare laughed a little, then she nodded slowly before reaching up and touching the hoof cupping her cheek gently. “Yes, Burning, yes. They do. If anypony's ever been holding back... it was always me, to be honest. I was scared of... I don't know. Intruding on them somehow. But Scrivener and Luna have been helping me a lot with that. I feel comfortable with them, and they never hide anything from me.”

“Good. Good.” Burning Desire said softly, and he looked honestly happy for her... even if he hurt. Twilight opened her violet eyes to look at him quietly, then hesitantly opened her mouth... but the demon only shook his head firmly, answering quietly: “No, don't. I want to be here, Twilight... of course I ache, I'm a demon of longing, a Passion. But at the same time it's taught me how much to value this. That even the pain, perhaps, is a good thing.”

“I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to walk away.” Twilight said quietly, looking up into his ruby irises, and Burning Desire chuckled softly as he shook his head slowly, reaching up and taking her face in his hooves gently.

“I would blame myself. And besides, we're both near-eternal, both better than silly mortals, aren't we?” Burning Desire winked at her, and Twilight Sparkle sighed but smiled a little all the same. “Perhaps I'm a little bit of a masochist, too, though. I've always liked being around mares that can do a great deal of harm to me, one way or another. It's why I get along so well with Pinkamena and her daughter.”

Twilight sighed again, rolling her eyes before she stepped down from the stairs, and Burning Desire quickly trotted after her, the Lich looking surprised as the demon smiled at her faintly. “I want to be by your side as long as you'll allow me to, Twilight Sparkle. It's been more than four years, hasn't it? I've had those years to be jealous and bitter... by which I mean crying into my pillows... and by pillows, of course, I mean pretty mares, and their-”

The Lich reached up and covered his mouth with one hoof, looking at him sourly before she rolled her eyes and said dryly: “It's amazing how fast I can go from feeling sympathy for you to wanting to hit you. I think that must count as a special talent of yours or something.”

“Well, yes, I was always very good at getting myself beaten up.” Burning Desire agreed as her hoof dropped away from his muzzle, and then he gave her a wink even as his expression softened a little. “I want to spend time with you, Twilight Sparkle, and... I desire to try and better get to know Luna and Scrivener as well. I feel that I'll be able to better find peace with how things are if... if I'm able to see for myself the kind of ponies they are. If I see that you're in good hooves.”

Twilight nodded hesitantly... and then she glanced up in surprise, and Burning Desire cocked his head curiously before blinking when a Nightmare appeared out of thin air nearby, gazing tenderly between the two before it bowed its head politely. “I apologize for my interruption, Mistress Twilight and friend... but Overseer Selene has requested your presence, Twilight Sparkle. She wishes for you to assist in the process of inspecting the mind of our beloved King of the Night.”

“Scrivener hates it when you refer to him as that.” Twilight murmured, but the Nightmare only smiled in its sultry, soft way before the violet mare shook her head a bit, then glanced with a small smile towards Burning Desire, who frowned a little in concern. “It looks like I should probably go...”

“Wait, what's wrong with Scrivener? Neither he nor Luna seem exactly like the type to just let others wander into their minds, after all.” Burning Desire tilted his head, and Twilight blushed and only shook her own before the demon leaned away with a theatrical sigh. “Very well, don't trust me, then, violet... but just know that if you or your beloved need my help, I'll be here.”

He stopped, then smiled a little as Twilight nodded almost shyly, asking softly: “Since it appears I won't be able to spend the day with you and your family as I'd hoped... would you mind terribly asking Meadowlark and Antares to stop in at some point? I miss seeing them around and I want to find out how they're doing. Little Meadowlark... she's always been so strong, after all.”

Twilight hesitated, then glanced over at the Nightmare that was sitting patiently, the Lich saying quietly: “Go on ahead and let them know I'm coming. And let Antares know that Burning wants to see him, and Meadowlark if you can find her, too... I think she might be in the archives.”

The Nightmare nodded, then vanished from sight, and Twilight returned her eyes to Burning Desire with a small smile as he gazed at her affectionately. “I have to go but... you know, Meadowlark... actually said no to Antares when he asked her out. He did it because everyone was pushing him to, I think, and she told him that she wanted him to ask... for real. When he was ready.”

“She's a stronger pony than me.” Burning Desire said softly, and then he hesitated for a moment before stepping forwards and leaning down to kiss Twilight's forehead gently, making her smile faintly as her eyes slipped closed, before the demon reached up and touched her collar quietly, gazing down at her fondly. “I'll be waiting for you, violet. Promise me you'll remember that I'm your friend.”

“I promise. And thank you.” Twilight said softly, looking up at the fiery unicorn for a moment. And then she stepped backwards and hesitantly turned away, unable to help herself from glancing over her shoulder even as she strode quickly down the road.

Burning Desire watched her, sitting quietly and staring after her longingly until she rounded the corner, and the mare couldn't help but sigh a little and shake her head a bit. On the one hoof, she felt... lighter, better, knew that they had moved forwards one way or another. On the other, her stomach felt all bunched up in knots and she ached more than a little for him. But for a demon like Burning Desire... she knew that it would be torture for him to stay by her side like he was, but it would be even worse if she was gone. All she could do was be honest with him, and be as gentle and kind as she could. But a Passion like Burning Desire was cursed with endless longing, for the things he couldn't have... she didn't want to imagine what it must be like for him, each and every day, suffering for his sins of Lust and Greed as a mortal.

Not that it was that simple, she thought. Burning Desire smiled, and laughed, and always put up a cheery and more-than-a-little-perverted front, but she knew there was so much more to him. He was thoughtful, and kind, and considerate, he went to incredible lengths to protect those he cared about, and he seemed strangely protective of mortal ponies, even for a demon. He got edgy talking about his past; but then again, he was more than a thousand years old and from what he'd told her, he'd been cheated in a contact he'd made as a mortal by a particularly-powerful Greed demon, and killed by an ex-lover.

There was always something a little funny about the way he told the story, like it was more than that, but Twilight had never pressed the subject. She had plenty of experience with what it was like to find yourself thrust into... an uncomfortable new life, after all. And like she never pressed him for details about his transformation, he had never asked her to detail out her own changes into a Lich.

Twilight had always appreciated that... even if the memories were burned into her mind, rose to the surface of her thoughts with just the faintest touch, like a spider racing to a trembling fly caught in its devious web. And she was the fly, and the spider was named Wisdom, even though it wore her face and her body, but it was something far, far different than a pony...

She remembered it: how with a single look, Wisdom had assaulted her mind, driven her to near-insanity... and then the feeling of the Clockwork Pony's horn, piercing her chest, destroying her heart. She remembered that for a few moments, the torn-apart organ had tried to keep beating, even after Wisdom left... she remembered the despair, and the sounds of the music box. She remembered twelve long, agonizing seconds, where she whispered words she barely understood and invoked magic she didn't know she possessed...

She hadn't been strong enough to finish the ritual, but she had anchored her spirit to the music box, and she had remembered... Gymbr, the impossible creature. She remembered its touch, its voice, and how it had waited for Celestia to find Twilight's corpse, and then whispered its silky promises to her, and guided her into completing the ritual.

Twilight Sparkle still wasn't sure why Gymbr hadn't finished the ritual itself: the creature had been more than powerful enough to, whatever else the unknowable thing had been. Of course, none of them knew a lot of things about Gymbr, even now... just that he was a self-proclaimed god from a story they had all listened to, and many of them had read again at one time or another after Scrivener had transcribed it. Because Love Conquers All...

The Lich shook her head as she continued quickly on her way through Subterra, smiling as naturally at the demons and other 'monsters' that greeted her as she did to the ponies of Ponyville. But then again, she fit in here more than she did in Ponyville these days...

Thankfully, before her thoughts could darken too much, she found herself approaching the base of a massive, pyramidal structure that was embraced from behind and the sides by a second, U-shaped building, the two connected by several large bridges that stretched between them. Twilight's eyes roved back and forth as she approached the stairs of the step pyramid, studying the enormous statues of terrible angels that guarded either side of the way up, and the Lich wondered for the thousandth time just what kind of 'Heaven' Selene had visions of.

She made her way carefully to the top of the pyramid: it was wide and flat, lit by four glowing braziers and dominated by a statue of Nightmare Moon that towered over a reflecting pool. An idol of the true Nightmare Moon at that, detailed to the last torture implement trapped in her back. Twilight hated the way her eyes were drawn to it... hated the way part of her revered it, almost as much as she revered – loved, loved, I mean... – Luna...

Her eyes settled on the group of ponies already waiting for them: Celestia, Luna and Scrivener. And just past them was the Overseer Selene herself, smiling her strange, distant smile: a gorgeous winged unicorn the white of purest snow, with a mane and tail of glowing, rippling ethereality from which fell both feathers and flower petals. Her horn was a gold so bright it glowed, but none of these things compared to her eyes: there were both a dark void and a glowing wholeness, rich and velvet and galactic...

Twilight hurriedly let her gaze drop, and Selene laughed quietly before she said in her scintillating, compassionate voice: “It is nice to see you, Twilight Sparkle... and there is no need to fear. I have of course ensured that Father's mind is undamaged, but as you are part of their triad... you deserve to be present for this. To experience this, if you will lend your strength for it.”

“I still don't remember adopting you.” Scrivener muttered before he could stop himself, and then he smiled lamely when Selene looked slowly up at him, that strange smile still on her face. The charcoal stallion cleared his throat after a moment, then glanced awkwardly away as he added lamely: “Not that... I don't think you make a very nice... daughter.”

“Shut up, Scrivener.” Luna said crankily, and then she looked calmly over at Selene, meeting her eyes fearlessly as the glowing white winged unicorn – Nephilim, Twilight reminded herself as she approached, she calls herself a Nephilim... – turned her gaze towards the sapphire mare. “Now, we are all here, Selene. Will thou please explain what thou meant by thy riddlesome talk?”

“Of course, Mother.” Selene said tenderly, and Twilight couldn't help but marvel again at the effect Luna had on the Nephilim. Selene had always helped them, after all, always served them loyally, and treated them with respect... but Luna was the only pony who could match and even defeat Selene's endless gaze, just as Luna was the only pony who Selene seemed to truly respond to.

The Nephilim was an enigma: they had found her hidden deep in the earth, a creature that had apparently communed with Luna and Scrivener on some level in their dreams, but who had only awoken from her dormancy after the two had vanished into the maw of Clockwork World. She was immensely powerful, but seemed to have little recollection of her past, except that she had been abandoned by her mother when she had 'returned to Heaven.'

The form that Selene took wasn't her true shape: she only reflected those around her, to help fit in. Not even Luna could morph her form with the ease that Selene did, nor hold a body that wasn't her own indefinitely. The Nephilim was as alien as she was strong though, and she seemed only to mimic the emotions of ponies around her, like she never entirely understood them, always standing too still or staring too long with those both awful and beautiful eyes of hers... she was apart.

Except with Luna, who Selene had her head bowed to as she explained in a gentle voice: “There is a presence inside Father's mind... it shields itself from my powers, and hides in the maze of Father's thoughts and instincts. I can hear it still, laughing to itself... but I cannot find it.

“However, with the help of the Dawn Bringer...” Selene's eyes roved for a moment to Celestia, before returning to Luna. “I can bring you three together. I do not doubt this entity will attempt to block you out... but I believe with both Twilight Sparkle and Luna Brynhild putting pressure on their link with Scrivener Blooms will be enough to strain this entity's powers, and with your permission, Mother and Father, I will attempt to force entry into your linked subconscious as well. Together, we should be more than strong enough to destroy the barrier this creature defends itself with.”

Scrivener and Luna shared a hesitant look, then both glanced at Twilight as she bit her lip... before blushing quietly as she felt the tingle of their emotions. They weren't scared of her forcing the link and witnessing... that shared, mental world... they were afraid of asking her to do this for them. Never of her seeing their innermost sanctum, the very seat of their mixed souls...

“I'm ready.” Twilight Sparkle said quietly, and Selene smiled softly at this, the Nephilim nodding slowly as Scrivener and Luna both gave grateful and compassionate looks to the Lich, mirroring one another for a moment and making the violet mare laugh a bit. “It's... been a while since you two have reflected so much.”

“Well... now you reflect us too.” Scrivener said softly, and Twilight blushed but smiled in agreement, nodding herself. Then the charcoal stallion sighed a little, returning his eyes to Selene and saying hesitantly, carefully avoiding meeting her endless gaze: “It's... I don't like this entirely, but... if you think it'll force Valthrudnir out of hiding, let's do it. It's going to hurt though, isn't it?”

“I didn't mention that it would because I know you do not care.” Selene said with a strange kindness in her voice, and Scrivener slumped with a mumble as Luna glowered at the Nephilim. The alien creature only turned her eyes towards Celestia, however, tilting her head and asking curiously: “What is your concern?”

All eyes roved up to Celestia, who was frowning nervously as her eyes roved over the four, before she finally sighed quietly as she turned her gaze down to Scrivener, saying softly: “Just worries for you, brother. Especially if this is some form of Valthrudnir... even if it's only your mind playing tricks on you, a replica of Valthrudnir would still be... dangerous.”

“Say what truly bothers you, Dawn Bringer.” Selene said kindly, and Celestia grimaced a little and gave the Nephilim an almost-frustrated look, but the strange entity only smiled in response. “They are your family, and I am but a humble servant. There is no need to not speak your mind here.”

“I...” Celestia stopped, and then she shook her head slowly before sighing quietly as the ponies gazed up at her silently, and her own eyes looked between the three pairs of irises locked on her. “I wish that I could go with you.”

“Thou art here, and thou can help us... find our way in, and if necessary, bring us out of danger, Celestia. Thou already does more than enough for us, big sister. In fact, thou all too often does too much.” Luna replied quietly, and the two siblings gazed at one another before they traded a quick, fierce embrace for a moment, then pulled apart as the sapphire mare grinned a little up at Celestia. “Besides, say true: thou art just jealous thou cannot join us in the blissful nightmare inside Scrivener's mind. Sick and warped Celestia, go get thy own husband.”

Celestia only sighed and shook her head slowly, but a faint smile lingered around her features all the same before Luna turned back to Selene, becoming a little more serious as she asked quietly: “I take it thy powers will aid in guiding us? When the static blocks our link with Scrivener...”

She traded a look with Twilight, who nodded hesitantly: since she was still getting used to the whole feeling of 'connecting,' it wasn't as familiar for her... but all the same, she had still felt something was wrong when Scrivener had started acting a little strange during the book signing. A feeling like... rough wool cloth, or humming white noise, inside the wall of her skull.

Selene only smiled calmly in response, slowly turning her alien gaze to Scrivener as she half-answered softly: “I shall create a resonance, yes. It should be easy for yourself and Lady Twilight to follow, Mother.”

“Mother... 'tis so strange. The Nightmares and demons call me sister, the Nephilim calls me 'mother,' and I suppose soon enough the dragons will begin referring to me as 'cousin.'” Luna remarked dourly, rolling her eyes before moodily glancing over at Celestia. “Just so long as thou does not refer to me as 'daughter.' 'Twould be disturbing. Mostly because I do not want to grow up into thee.”

“Yes, that's what's wrong with the picture.” Scrivener mumbled as Twilight strode up beside him, and when Luna glared at the stallion, he cleared his throat and lamely looked towards Selene. “So uh... I guess we should probably get moving with this, then.”

Selene nodded in agreement before her dark eyes roved towards Celestia, even as she instructed kindly to the three linked ponies: “Sit and lower your heads. Breathe slowly, and do not resist either the Dawn Bringer's influence or my own. Scrivener Blooms, it is particularly important that you do not fight us... no matter how afraid you are, no matter what is threatened to be revealed.”

The stallion looked up nervously, not liking what that implied, before Luna said quietly: “Do not be an idiot, Scrivy. I love thee for thy... monstrousness.”

“You don't have to hide anything from us, Scrivener. We both... we both care about you. Not just in spite of your flaws but... because of them.” Twilight added softly, and the charcoal stallion smiled a little as he closed his eyes and nodded.

“Yeah, I know. But I think I know what Selene is talking about too, and... it's instinct, I guess, to try and hide what's inside your heart of hearts, in the shadows of your soul.” Scrivener murmured quietly, before he shook his head and cleared his throat, dropping down to a sitting position and closing his eyes as he nodded a little to himself, breathing slowly in and out. “But... I'm ready, if the others are. Let's get this over with.”

Twilight and Luna both sat and nodded as well, mirroring each other unconsciously, and Selene smiled again in her strange, soft way as she gazed over them all before she murmured: “Very well then. Relax... Dawn Bringer, put them to sleep, and I shall work with you as best I can. I am only half-pure, after all. Twilight Sparkle, Luna Brynhild... concentrate on Scrivener Blooms.”

Celestia only nodded uneasily, then bowed her head forwards as Luna and Twilight did as bid, and the charcoal stallion could feel the powers of both Nephilim and ivory winged unicorn behind him beginning to work against his mind. He felt his breath catch in his throat, his heart thud, and heard static fill his ears before his anxiety spiked as Valthrudnir whispered: And precisely what do you plan to achieve by this, pathetic little creature? Doesn't it strike you as fruitless to plot against me when I hear every word spoken, every thought archived? Or have I already made you this terrified and desperate?

Scrivener heard the words growing louder in his mind as he listed forwards, legs trembling beneath him as he closed his eyes tightly... and when he opened them, he was no longer on the pyramidal structure that formed the front of the Thorn Palace, but instead on black mire almost as solid and hot as asphalt, in a world where massive blades and statues of ice jutted up beside dead, bleeding trees. A world that he knew was in his head, yet felt even more real than the temple-top in Subterra had.

And standing beside a large table outfitted with a gorgeous silver chessboard, was Valthrudnir. He was idly playing with one of the knights, smiling coldly as he tilted the jade, horse shaped piece back and forth before setting it calmly down in front of the rows of pawns, saying softly: “Knight to C3. Your move, Scrivener Blooms.”

“I don't know how to play chess.” Scrivener said blandly, and then he glanced moodily down at his clawed forelimb, flexing it slowly as the Jötnar gave him a distasteful look. Somehow, though, Scrivener was far from surprised to find himself once more in his half-wyrm, half-pony shape: this form was as familiar to him in his subconscious as his real body in the physical world by now, after all. “Why don't we play checkers instead? Or I know, we can play 'get the hell out of my head.'”

“You should be honored by the fact I so much as consider lowering myself to your infantile level and am willing to play this game with you at all. It's a little more aesthetically-pleasing than most tafl games, but I would prefer something more... entertaining.” Valthrudnir reached out and rested a finger on the head of the king piece: unsurprisingly, Scrivener noted it was in the shape of a dragon.

He grimaced and shook his head slowly, then looked up in surprise as the Jötnar glanced distastefully towards the dark, swirling sky above, where shimmers of golden energy were beginning to spark through the obscuring smog. Then the earth pony cursed under his breath as a ringing began to build in his ears, grabbing at his head, and Valthrudnir muttered: “Idiot philistines. No, I am confident that your little friends-”

He was interrupted by a pulse of sound as the mire around them rippled, then turned to black glass, and Valthrudnir looked down in surprise before cracks tore through the earth in every direction. And Scrivener cursed and fell forwards, shivering as the agony in his mind grew worse, but he grinned widely at the same time, forcing his eyes to open, looking up and rasping: “I'm sorry... were you saying something?”

Valthrudnir only scowled as the golden light in the sky grew brighter and larger, driving away more of the obscuring fog as the earth quaked. Nearby, a tall blade of ice vibrated, emitting a faint ringing that grew louder and louder, making Scrivener grab at his head as he curled forwards with a moan until it finally shattered into pieces of tiny shrapnel.

And through it all, the Jötnar only looked displeased at most, before growling in disgust as the earth gave a short but firm rumble; enough to toss Scrivener to the ground and send the chessboard and pieces flying off the table, as more cracks shot through both ice and blackened trees nearby. One of the latter all-but-exploded into splinters and awful, gooey sap that was as red and thick as coagulated blood, splattering down over the glassy earth as Scrivener fought back the urge to scream when that godawful, horrible ringing began to build in his head again.

“They're only hurting you, idiot insect.” Valthrudnir said contemptibly, his amber eyes glowing with disdain: he seemed to stand alone in his own little pocket of indifference, not hearing the ringing, not shaken by the trembling earth, not caring in the slightest as Scrivener began to writhe and give short, barking cries of misery. “I understand you desire to flush me out of this fortress, fool... but did you ever stop to think about the fact my fortress is within your mind? Oh, yes, all you've given me to work with here are shoddy and next-to-worthless materials... but their crudity doesn't change the fact that in order to get to me, they are going to have to very literally go through you.”

Scrivener arched his back with a howl as the ringing intensified, his eyes snapping open and glowing sapphire for a moment as blood burst out of his maw and nostrils, and then he tumbled backwards as there was a sound like shattering glass and the darkness was blown away from the skies above.

Slowly, a single figure descended, as tranquil and patient in its graceful flight as if it were a dove settling towards a familiar roost. It landed quietly and gracefully on the shattered, blackened earth, before galactic eyes looked slowly and calmly up at Valthrudnir, and the glowing entity's wings slowly folded at its sides as it studied the Jötnar quietly.

Scrivener shivered weakly, coughing once and spitting out black blood before he cursed under his breath and slowly, carefully pushed himself to his hooves. His vision swam as he hugged his stomach with his scaled forelimb, and then he looked tiredly up as the dragon studied the Nephilim with interest in his amber eyes, murmuring thoughtfully: “An adequate energy source... Nihete's mind suffices well enough because of the Clay of Prometheus, but your power is that of the divine...”

Valthrudnir reached out towards her... and Selene only smiled calmly as white sparks flashed over the dragon's hand, making him recoil in surprise. He grasped at his hand for a moment, frowning, then looking disgusted as he glared up at Selene, who murmured softly: “Not the shell, but the soft spirit, the will and life energies of such a powerful being... but...”

There was a rumble, and a crackle of golden flame and lightning burst upwards over the Jötnar... but this time Valthrudnir didn't flinch, only continuing to look with loathing at the Nephilim as she murmured: “I cannot harm him even now. I do not believe any of us can.”

“That remains to be seen!” snapped a voice, and Scrivener smiled faintly as he slowly hauled himself back up to his hooves, as a familiar presence strode up to one side... and then a second joined him on his other, the stallion bowing his head forwards and feeling almost overwhelming gratitude for the presence of Luna Brynhild and Twilight Sparkle.

The Lich was staring with disbelief at Valthrudnir, who had turned his cold amber eyes to these newcomers, while Luna had anchored herself, snarling furiously as her mane and tail burned like blue flames, her eyes glowing with rage. Scrivener could feel the anger, the hate, and the determination pulsing off her in waves, and it excited his own emotions, made him stronger as he gritted his teeth and straightened, setting himself as Luna snapped: “Thou has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide now, cur! Wretched abomination, leave my husband and I in peace!”

“Oh, Brynhild, believe me. I would be very glad to leave if I could, but it seems that I'm trapped here for now.” Valthrudnir retorted disgustedly, shaking his hand out absently once before he glared over at the Nephilim, who was only continuing to regard him with her silent smile. “Cease staring at me, vile little harlot. If you have no further purpose here, then leave.”

“How dare thou act like this is thy home, thy fortress, thy kingdom! I care not for what thou art, Scrivener, Twilight, Selene, we destroy the monster now!” Luna roared, and Scrivener snarled before he and the sapphire mare both shot forwards. But Valthrudnir only looked at them with disgust over his shoulder, barely even reacting as Scrivener felt too late something was wrong-

Luna smashed straight into... thin air. There was nothing there, and yet she was halted like she had run headfirst into a solid steel wall, her eyes bulging in shock as Scrivener's head twisted to the side to stare in disbelief. The sapphire mare simply tumbled backwards out of the air, hitting the ground heavily with a groan of pain as Scrivener continued to stagger dumbly forwards... at least, until Valthrudnir's loafer-clad foot smashed into the half-wyrm, half-pony and knocked him flopping onto his back with a curse.

“Idiots.” Valthrudnir muttered, and then he only glanced up when Twilight shook her head quickly before snarling and snapping her horn forwards, unleashing a blast of blue flames, but the sapphire fireball seemed to strike the same invisible barrier that Luna had hit, exploding uselessly a short distance away from the Jötnar. “No, I was clearly wrong: your mental capacity clearly hasn't even developed to that stage of cognizance!”

Twilight winced, then shook her head and hurried forwards as Scrivener and Luna both picked themselves up, the stallion withdrawing slightly as the sapphire mare glared furiously at Valthrudnir, then turned her eyes to Selene when the Nephilim said quietly: “It is pointless. He cannot hurt us... but nor can we hurt him. For better or worse... he is entrenched in Father's mind.”

Luna's eyes narrowed darkly at Selene, feeling both fear and fury as she shoved herself to her hooves: the Nephilim was calmly sitting in the same place where she had been before, only looking at them with her distant, casual interest, before she remarked softly: “He is very powerful, even now. We would do well to make an ally of him, not an enemy.”

“No, Selene, I do not think you understand what you speak...” whispered another voice, and Valthrudnir looked up with a frown as the world around them darkened, the golden light above become poisoned with purples and blacks. “This interloper is not welcome here...”

Blue mist swirled through the air, then twisted and solidified into the shape of Nightmare Moon, as Scrivener winced and grabbed at his skull when it gave a pulse. He could feel a strange heaviness in his mind, and both Luna and Twilight twitched as well, even as the sapphire mare ignored her discomfort in favor of fury with a snarl. “Run away, mincing coward, or stay and die... but know that either way, thou shan't have any mercy from us!”

“I do not fear a mental construct any more than I fear the rest of you ignorant little insects.” Valthrudnir retorted coldly, crossing his arms and looking balefully across at Nightmare Moon, as the enormous, dark entity slowly approached him. “You cannot harm me... at least, not without harming your precious little slave Nihete, too.”

“His name is Scrivener Blooms, and he is King of the Night. He is my soulmate... all mine.” Nightmare Moon whispered, her eyes glowing dangerously, her voice filled with venom. And even in her rage, Luna shivered a little, and Twilight looked up uncertainly before her eyes turned worriedly to Scrivener when he grasped his skull tightly with his claw, feeling that static ache building. “First you will bleed. Then you will suffer. Then you will be broken... but I will never let you die, arrogant beast.”

Valthrudnir growled, baring his fangs, his amber eyes flashing as they locked with the intensely-glowing irises of Nightmare Moon... and then the dark equine entity's horn began to glow as her mane of blue flames wafted backwards.

The air around them began to darken as the world rumbled, and then Scrivener looked up in shock as Luna stumbled and Twilight cried out when the earth around them began to transform. Ice spread over the ground and liquid, black ooze vomited out of cracks in the land, as enormous towers and structures of frost and bone and what looked awfully like pulsing, diseased flesh began to rip up from the earth all around them.

And yet Valthrudnir looked unimpressed, even as the world rumbled, as screams sounded in the darkness, as chains and vines crawled up and pushed out of the horrific, living-nightmare structures surrounding them. He still stood in his own little pocket of being, the ground around him undisturbed, his arms still crossed even as he said disdainfully: “Circus tricks.”

Scrivener Blooms, meanwhile, had fallen over, clutching his skull and groaning in an awful mix of pain, frustration, fury and despair, his body writhing, spitting mire as Twilight leaned over him with worry. He kept twitching in agony, nausea racing through his body as the strain on his mind grew worse and worse with every passing moment, as he felt so many different urges and needs and desires racing through his body, and so few of them made any sense whatsoever as Twilight cried out above him: “Wait! It's hurting Scrivener!”

But Luna had an almost-insane, terrible look on her face, her own sharp fangs bared in a wide grin, her eyes and horn both glowing as her mane writhed and whipped around her. She looked every inch as much a monster as Nightmare Moon in that moment, as she straightened and roared in a voice that shook the world around them: “Pathetic dog, thou would mock us? Thou only invites thy own suffering faster!”

“Hurt him... hurt him... blood and...” Scrivener rasped, trembling and grasping at his features, and then he snarled and clenched his eyes shut even as his eyes pulsed with sapphire light, trying to grin even through the agony running through his body as his form rippled and flexed. “Don't... can't...”

Twilight could feel it too, and it scared her: the desire for revenge, the anger, the hatred, the sheer thrill. The power... it was almost enough to blind her own senses, except she was terrified, too. Yes, some of that came from seeing Luna and Nightmare Moon so enraged, and more from how Scrivener was writhing on the ground in agony but still somehow... grinning... but most of it was because of the way that power... that desire... that hate and pain and fear and rage... it was all infecting her mind, crawling through her thoughts, and she wanted... she wanted...

The Lich trembled, then she leaned down and embraced Scrivener fiercely, burying her face against his neck and giving a hitching sob, and the stallion's eyes flickered before he frowned slowly as he looked up. And almost hesitantly, he reached a foreleg up, wrapping it around Twilight's neck... and when the Lich gave a second weak sob, this time Luna almost stumbled in place before looking hurriedly over her shoulder towards the two.

And now she actually saw the state they were in: Twilight, scared, and worse was Scrivener, shivering in agony, a mess of emotions he couldn't control thanks to the immense mental pressure she and Nightmare Moon were creating in his mind. Enough to reshape the world around them into... into what she saw mirrored the darkest parts inside themselves, but Valthrudnir was still looking contemptible, unhindered... and her hatred of the Jötnar had blinded her. His presence had filled her with so much anger and... need to punish... and... and fear... she had forgotten everything but old and vicious instincts and almost...

Nightmare Moon was still snarling, but Luna shook her head hurriedly before saying sharply: “Cease! We are hurting only ourselves... thou art hurting only Scrivener!”

The dark entity looked up sharply at this, immediately recoiling, and the world around them rumbled ominously as her magic faded. Valthrudnir simply smiled coldly at this, bringing his hands up to slowly clap as he looked patronizingly over at Luna, and the mare had to fight not to be swallowed up in berserk rage again as he asked mockingly: “And did you figure that out all on your own, little Valkyrie, or did you have some help from the other special little infants in your class?”

“Interesting.” Selene murmured, and when Nightmare Moon turned a cold gaze to the Nephilim, the ivory creature lowered her head, saying softly: “Of course I mean no disrespect, Mother. It is only that... this creature's life force is entwined with Scrivener's. They have a symbiotic link, but this strange entity has made it... parasitic. It feeds and uses Scrivener's energy, and hides behind him even now.”

Scrivener breathed weakly in and out, trembling at these words even as the pain slowly began to fade, before he managed to whisper a near-silent 'thank you' to Twilight Sparkle. But she only clung to him, her eyes tightly closed, red-tinged tears running down her own cheeks as she kept her face buried into his neck even as the charcoal stallion shifted to sit up a little, asking quietly: “What does that mean? Does that mean...”

“It means what I said before, Nihete. We are trapped together for the moment...” Valthrudnir looked down at one hand disdainfully, studying his claws before he said softly: “But do not think that like last time I will give you the opportunity to turn my own powers against me. Besides, there is no need to try and force a metamorphosis this time... you are transforming quite well enough on your own into a monster and a battleship which I intend to use to reconstruct a suitable vessel for my spirit.”

“Like a bag of sh-” Scrivener began moodily, but the Jötnar rose a hand and clenched it into a fist, and the stallion's jaw snapped shut as he winced in pain and surprise. A moment later, the force vanished, but Scrivener was still left unsettled, rubbing slowly at his jaw as he mumbled: “Tactful as ever.”

“Yes, says the insect who continues to aggravate the superior being in residence inside his puerile mind.” Valthrudnir replied disdainfully, and then the Jötnar shook his head contemptibly before he asked coldly, as his amber eyes traveled around the group that still had him pointlessly surrounded. “So tell me, plebeians and inferior beings, are we done acting out this pathetic little ruse? Because I have several much more interesting games in mind if you insist upon playing.”

“I would be careful, entity... the hatred that both Mother and Father harbor for you is great. Great enough they are willing to put themselves in harm's way to see you hurt yourself.” Selene said softly, and the Jötnar looked moodily towards her. “We are all not so different. Let us put our provocations aside and aid each other, or at least negotiate.”

Luna growled in disgust at this, and Valthrudnir's own amber eyes narrowed as Scrivener almost retched at the thought of trying to find common ground with the Jötnar. Only Twilight looked up with something like nervous hope, before Nightmare Moon voiced the thoughts of the others in cool, cruel tones: “We would rather die before working together. And were I less generous, Selene, I would be eager to see you punished and tortured for even daring to suggest such an atrocity.”

Selene only bowed her head politely, and Valthrudnir snorted in disgust before Twilight looked up and asked almost weakly: “But then... what do we do?”

There was a surprised moment of silence as the Jötnar's attention slowly roved towards where the three ponies were standing close together, Luna still glaring, Twilight afraid – although she was no longer sure what scared her most – and Scrivener breathing hard as the pain and pressure in his mind pulsed faintly. Then the dragon simply smiled coldly and he held up a hand, saying derisively: “You mortals go back to your childish amusements, and I will be kind enough to retire into the depths of my glorious hovel in the sinking ship of worthless Nihete.”

“If I'm worthless and you depend on me to survive, that makes you less than worthless.” Scrivener muttered, and Valthrudnir's amber eyes flashed at this response, the white-scaled dragon gritting his teeth before Scrivener forced himself to look up, and asked almost pleadingly: “Why?”

There was silence, echoing through the dark world... and then Valthrudnir calmly snapped his fingers and vanished without answering, the calm island he had been standing on amidst the turbulence of the twisted world immediately dissolving in a geyser of mire. Scrivener only stared off into space before he glanced back and forth as Nightmare Moon slowly approached, but Selene was gone as well.

He cursed under his breath, and then he realized Twilight was still hugging him, turning his eyes almost embarrassedly towards her before the Lich glanced up at him. But she had no words, and neither did Luna as the sapphire mare gazed at Scrivener for a few long moments, then swallowed and looked towards Nightmare Moon.

The enormous entity of passion looked down over them slowly, her blue mane twisting uncertainly, her eyes apprehensive... and then she closed them and said finally, in a surprisingly-soft voice: “We will find the answer. There is no parasite that cannot be expunged... we... will find the answer to this menace, even if it means...”

“Valthrudnir's back.” Scrivener said finally, and then he closed his eyes and pulled Twilight closer as the Lich shivered. Luna looked at them for a moment, then hurried over and joined the embrace, and for a little while that's all they did: sit there, holding each other, trying to reassure one another that it would be okay... even if Nightmare Moon herself continued to look almost fearful as she stayed and kept silent watch over her family in this corrupted, dark world.

Author's Note:

Chapter Theme:
Soilwork - Antidotes in Passing

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