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Chapter 25: Deep Waters
‘Oh, Clover the Clever, just how deep did you delve?’
Luna turned another page, her eyes narrowing as more of the spidery scrip seemed to float before her. Having taken it upon herself to decipher the book and discover Clover the Clever’s plan to open the way to the Blasphemous Rift, she had gone straight to the Chamber of Harmony as soon as she finished breakfast.
Having to do all this deciphering in the presence of Starswirl the Bearded’s coffin was a little uncomfortable, but her brother had insisted on delaying its burial until he was absolutely sure it and its contents were not needed elsewhere. Reluctantly, Luna had agreed. Propriety demanded that they treat the corpse with respect and let it be buried, but worse things than being improper would happen if it turned out that they actually needed it.
As for the actual work, progress has been slow. Not only did she have to be constantly disturbed as her other responsibilities demanded attention, the actual reading was difficult. It was clear now why Clover the Clever wasn’t called Clover the Elegant Writer. The entire book was also written in reverse, much to Luna’s irritation. There didn’t even seem to be any purpose for doing so except to make it extra difficult for anypony to make heads or tails of what was written.
The earlier sections of the book dealt with an incomplete and crude version of an ascension ritual. Luna didn’t bother too much with this part. Her brother had created a complete and more efficient one. It did impress on her that the Six Companions, or at least Clover the Clever, were already aware of Oceanus’s spark within each mortal pony. This part wasn’t useful to them and only served to ensure that this book’s contents must not spread.
The next section included Clover’s notes on the poison she used on Starswirl the Bearded. Again, more known information. What caught Luna's attention was that this section resembled a cross between laboratory notes and a diary.
“That mud-brained donkey just added bells to his hat. Bells! He looks like jester going around the villages to amuse foals with bowl-shaping spells and pyrotechnics! At this rate, they’ll forget that he was a great spellcaster. All I’ll be known as is the disciple of Starswirl the Clown!”
Luna shook her head. Just how angry and obsessed did one pony have to be to jot these tiny ramblings down alongside serious work? The notes themselves were meticulous, almost too detailed. Clover savored developing this section. Several pages were dedicated solely to her gloating over having finally murdered Starswirl the Bearded. As Luna read on, she began to suspect that the coffin was not much of a further use. It was a remnant of Clover the Clever’s obsession with surpassing her mentor and should be buried at last.
Finally, Luna reached the section involving something new. New and disturbing. She spotted the first mention of Princess Platinum’s “discovery”, likely referring to the still dormant Regia Carnifex. The notes now became more difficult to read. Clover the Clever’s writing was further worsened by her excited pace. Various spells, all attempts to free Regia Carnifex were listed down, each one written off as a failure. Luna’s lips pressed together tightly as she read the next passage.
“A handmaiden of the Deep Father contacted me today. She called herself Lunalux Umbra and told me about who the pony trapped in the crystal was.”
“Nightmare Moon,” Luna muttered. “Of course she’s involved somehow.” She read on, the dread within her continuing to mount.
“Lunalux Umbra offered to merge with me, but I refused. If I had agreed, then everything we accomplish will only be to her credit. I will rise in the Deep Father’s service on my own.”
Luna’s frown only deepened as she skimmed over more pages of ranting. They were becoming more prevalent now. As time went along, Clover became more prone to these delusions of grandeur. She couldn't stop talking about her “Everlasting Kingdom”. Hours passed before something useful showed up.
“The key lies in Regia Carnifex. Through him, I can create a mental link to the Deep Father himself and I can do so as far as being a mile away. I cannot do this now with the Deep Father still slumbering, but the chances of success will rise as the time of his return draws nearer.”
Luna turned the pages more carefully now. After wading through Clover's crazy, this was a relief. The words filled her with foreboding. More than a thousand years had passed since this was written and Oceanus’s time was all but looming at them now. The next several pages did not contain whatever spell Clover had developed, however. They were filled with rants against Lexarius. She had to smile as she read on. Lexarius had arrived just in time.
“I must get to the Crystal Grave. The spell is ready and, with the amplifier Pudding Head and Smart Cookie created, I can break through the seals that Lexarius created and loose the Deep Father’s weapon upon him.”
Luna stopped on the word “amplifier” for a while. The ponies in charge of sifting through the hidden archives mentioned nothing about such a thing.
“The amplifier is gone. Curse you, Rock Maven! There is no time to lose, I must make it to the Refuge Burrows and take it from him.”
The name “Rock Maven” was a familiar one. The archive ponies mentioned it. So whatever “amplifier” that Pudding Head and Smart Cookie came up with was taken by the founder of the True Earth Ponies. Where was it now? Was it still with them? Was it lost when the True Earth Ponies migrated to the Barrier Lands? Where was this “Refuge Burrows” now?”
“I am in danger of being caught. Lexarius has been persistent in chasing after me. I have no choice but to write the spell down. If I fail, perhaps one day, a true son or daughter of the Deep Father will take up our rightful destiny. For now, our Everlasting Kingdom must sleep along with the Deep Father until the time is right.”
That was the last entry as far as Clover the Clever’s movements were concerned. Luna turned one more page out of curiosity. What was this spell that the poor deluded mortal had accomplished? At the turn of the page, however, Luna suddenly realized that she had made a mistake. The spidery letters, much bigger than how the rest of the book was written, danced before her eyes. She tried to look away to avoid reading the words, but she found herself frozen on the spot. Each letter seemed to burn itself into her mind and it was a slow, slide to completely reading the spell.
Upon reading the entire thing, the floor beneath Luna disappeared. She heard a vague splashing sound. The next thing she knew, she was completely submerged in water. The Chamber of Harmony had turned into a darkness so deep that she couldn't even see her own hoof in front of her. She tried to cast a spell, but her power fizzled before she could even begin. Fighting the rising panic within her, she tried to get her bearings. The task proved impossible. She was completely submerged and she couldn't see. She didn't even know if she was upside down or not. The freezing water pricked at her skin like hundreds of tiny needles.
“What…is…this? It…is…not yet…time…”
The voice was barely a whisper and sounded languid, as if the one speaking had been rudely awakened and was barely aware of where he was and what was going on. Still, the mere sound gripped Luna’s heart tightly. Oceanus. She had never heard him speak before. She had never even seen him throughout her life. All she knew of the firstborn was from what she heard and read within the Eternal Herd. Still, she recognized this voice. She wasn't sure if it sounded only within her mind or if it traveled through the water, but she refused to answer. Unfortunately, that meant that she had to stop thinking and, deprived of every one of her senses, that was impossible.
She felt something touch one of her hooves.
The thing felt cold, so cold that it stood out despite the freezing water. She realized that it was some kind of snake or tendril, no thicker than typical rope. It wrapped around her left hind leg, gently tugging her towards its direction. Disgusted, she tried to pull away, but the tendril held her fast. A second one wrapped itself around her other hind leg.
There was no fighting back the panic anymore. Her lungs starting to burn, Luna struggled to free herself from the tendrils, but all she accomplished was entangle herself even more. A third tendril wrapped around her torso, pinning both her wings in place. Its tip rested where her cutie mark was.
Disgust mingled with panic when Luna heard her name. More of the vile limbs tangled themselves around her. All her legs were now stretched out in different directions. Another tendril coiled itself around her neck and made its way to her face.
“I…am your king…swear…fealty.”
Unable to open her mouth, Luna could only shake her head. Something was welling up inside her, something that wanted desperately to say yes. With her lungs starting to give way, she gave up physically struggling and focused everything on holding back this part of her. Even that was a losing battle.
Oceanus’s voice was gathering strength. Though still weak, its confidence was unmistakable. “You let Umbra inside…you have no defense against me. Upon my return…I will call you to my side… and you will answer joyously…”
Luna felt herself slipping away. The tendrils pulled her under effortlessly, dragging her deeper and deeper into the abyss. The freezing pain had gone away, replaced by a numbing ache.
Terrato’s shout broke through the oppressive nothingness. Luna’s eyes fluttered open at that sound as she felt a pair of powerful forelegs wrap around her torso. The next thing she knew, she had been pulled out of the water and onto a hard, stone floor. At once, she took a great lungful of air and started coughing violently.
“Terrato! She’s freezing and soaking wet!”
That sounded like Celestia. Luna tried to look around, but she could barely make out anything. She tried to rise only to flop against the floor. All she could make out was that she was somewhere that had light and she was starting to shiver uncontrollably. Two pairs of forelegs wrapped around her in a tight hug.
“Hold still!” Terrato said. Luna heard felt his magic gather, then heard him exhale loudly. Warmth, blessed and much needed warmth, enveloped her, taking away the chill that gnawed at her bones. This wasn't the warmth of sunlight, but of the great heat within the earth itself. Luna pressed against her siblings, savoring the feeling when she caught a whiff of something that accompanied that wonderful warmth.
Celestia was already coughing and gagging when Luna noticed it. Her nose wrinkled and she poked her brother with a hoof weakly. “Big brother!” she said.
“What?” Terrato asked.
“Your breath reeks of booze!" Luna said. "I swear, if I had a match, I could light it on fire right now!”
“Don’t be a prissy milksop!” Terrato said, the chagrin unmistakable in his voice. “I was sharing a barrel with some of the officers when you decided to take your little swim. And it’s not like you should complain when you smell of salt spray and dead fish, little sister!”
“I asked you to get rid of those extra barrels stashed in the palace, Terrato,” Celestia said.
“What did you think we were doing?”
Celestia was about to say something else but a glimpse of Luna still recovering from whatever happened silenced her. “Are you feeling better now?” she asked Luna. “What happened?”
Luna nodded. Her coat was dry now and she had already cast her own spells to quickly recover. “That Clover the Clever…” she said. “She’s created a spell that could link to Oceanus’s realm by drawing from Regia Carnifex’s proximity.”
Terrato didn't reply right away. Instead, his eyes narrowed in thought. Luna guessed that he was considering the implications and likely arrived at the same conclusion she did. The power of Oceanus was most likely enough to break through the seals that blocked access to the Blasphemous Rift. There wasn't even any need to release Regia Carnifex. His dormant form simply needed to be close.
“Is that what happened to you? You linked to Oceanus’s realm?” Celestia asked.
“I think,” Luna replied. She looked at her two siblings. This was the first time she had seen the two of them so close to each other in a long, long time. “Clover the Clever needed an amplifier developed by Pudding Head and Smart Cookie, but it may not be needed with the ninth rebellion so close.” She paused and stared at the two of them. “How did the two of you get here anyway?” she asked.
“I was taking care of some reports when I just felt that something terrible was happening here,” Celestia said. “I rushed over to see and I met Terrato along the way.”
“I felt the exact same thing,” Terrato said. “When we got here, you were floating and your eyes were glowing. We had to snap you out of it and, when we did, you were suddenly soaking wet and freezing. Just what did you see while you were in that spell?”
“It was too dark to see anything,” Luna replied. “He was there, though. I heard him speak.” Her voice trembled as she recalled those moments. “He toyed with me as if I was some helpless foal and he was barely even awake!”
“It’s alright,” Celestia said. “It’s over now and there’s no need to feel ashamed. Oceanus had the might to challenge our father, remember?”
Luna nodded. She kept the horrible feeling of joy she felt when Oceanus was speaking to herself. There were too many worries already without adding to those concerns. On the day of the ninth rebellion, she was going to have to find the strength to resist the firstborn's influence. She nestled between her two siblings, seeking more of their warmth. ‘You’re wrong, Oceanus,’ she thought. ‘I still have some defense against you.’
Rainbow Dash opened her eyes for the first time in what felt like years. Her entire body still felt numb and heavy. A fly buzzed around her head, then landed on her ear. When that ear flicked instinctively, she suddenly became aware that she had control over her body again. She stood up, only to find that, while she could rise, she was chained to the spot. Her wings were bound tightly in chains. She was also wearing a set of reins and a bridle. Pain suddenly shot through her body, forcing her to kneel down. She looked towards her flank and found it wrapped in bloody bandages.
‘Where am I?’
Even thinking that lone thought felt as if Rainbow was trying to squeeze water out of a rock. Her head felt so heavy and she seemed to look at the world through a haze of garbled, unfinished thoughts. All she could tell was that she was inside some kind of tent. What had happened? She tried to remember the last few events before she fell unconscious. Her eyes squinted from the effort, but all that came to mind was a dim moment of flying and then falling.
The tent flap suddenly rose and Rainbow Dash backed away from it instinctively. She gasped as some creature, a monstrous snake, slithered inside. The thing was around six feet from its nose to its tail and was covered in dull brown scales. It had a muscular torso, more like an ape's than a snake's, and a pair of arms sprouted from its side. Golden, unblinking, reptilian eyes appraised her coldly while a pair hands rubbed against each other in anticipation.
“The coatl-pony is finally awake,” the snake creature hissed. “Good, good, now you can stop being dead-weight.” It fiddled with a ring of keys and unlocked the chains that kept Rainbow bound to the ground. With one hand, it grabbed hold of the reins and tugged at them, forcing her to take a step forward. “Move, coatl-pony!”
Rainbow tried to pull back, but the snake creature was relentless. Her hooves dragged on the ground as it continued to pull. Coatl-pony? That wasn’t her name. Her name was…it was…she shook her head in a futile attempt to clear it. It was Rain…Rainbow…something. It was just so hard to think. With a powerful tug, the snake creature pulled her out of the tent. She looked upward and saw stars. Was it the night immediately after she was knocked out or had she spent an entire day being unconscious?
“Stand here,” the snake creature hissed. It pulled her to a spot in front of the tent. Others came toward them and they were surrounded by four ponies, all of them pegasi. Rainbow tried to pull away again. She didn't like all the eyes on her, but the chains were heavy and snake creature held her in place. The nearby ponies eyed her with indifference. “This one’s spirited,” the snake creature crowed. “The Befuddling Grass extract is fogging her brain up, but she still insists on putting up a fight!” The snake creature produced some kind of pointed prod, shaped to resemble a snake fang in its hand. With one swift flick of the wrist, it pricked Rainbow's back with the weapon.
Rainbow cried out and fell to her knees. The tiny wound burned as if a red-hot poker had been jabbed into her back. Her body seized up and the pain spread to her legs.
“Nasty isn't it?” the snake creature hissed. “This is called ‘Emperor’s Tears’. It does little lasting damage, but even a drop is pure pain.” The snake creature held its face close to Rainbow’s. “Do you want me to prick you again?” it asked.
Tears welling up in her eyes, Rainbow shook her head. The pain was already beginning to subside and she didn't want to feel it anymore.
“Get up,” the snake creature said. It produced something else in its other hand. This time it looked like a small piece of white bread. “Eat this.” Rainbow took a sniff when the snake creature held it up close to her snout. “Now!”
Still frightful of the awful sting, Rainbow bit the piece and ate it. The piece of food was chewy and a little tough, not like bread at all. She hadn't even swallowed when she started to feel it. Elation, like a soothing balm that took away the painful sting, briefly washed over her. For a few seconds, she simply stood there dumbfounded and expecting more. By the time she swallowed, however, the feeling was gone.
“And that is called ‘Fool’s Cap’ or, as you ponies call it, ‘the ‘shrooms’. Obey me and you may yet find out what a full dose feels like.” Rainbow closed her eyes, trying to hold on to the lingering traces of euphoria. The snake creature shook her out of it and forced her to stand again. “Hold still.”
The snake creature grabbed hold of Rainbow’s head and began to feel around her face. “Skull is in good condition,” it said. “No deformities.” Nearby, one pegasus was writing down on a piece of paper. The snake creature’s fingers pried into Rainbow’s lips, eventually forcing her to open her mouth. “Teeth are complete and healthy.”
The snake creature’s hands moved down Rainbow’s neck, then torso. “Small build. Wings are well developed. Hips are narrow, possible problems with breeding. Coat is in good condition.” Rainbow felt the scaly hands move down her legs. She shuddered when the snake creature took hold of a hoof and lifted it up. “Legs are strong. Hooves show no signs of cracking.” The snake creature grabbed hold of Rainbow’s tail and held it up with both hands. “Mane and tail are in excellent condition. And the coloration…” The snake creature sounded breathless. “Remarkable.”
Rainbow seemed to shrink on the spot. The constant staring and attention was just too much. She was about to breathe a sigh of relief that the snake creature’s “inspection” was done when she felt its grip on her tail tighten. Before she could tell what was going on, the snake creature lifted her tail for several seconds and stared intently. Seemingly satisfied, it released its grip. “Good, good,” it hissed. “Hassyth’s sources were not exaggerating. This one is an excellent find. We must get her to Ophidus as quickly as possible.”
“Mistress Hashymissa,” one of the pegasi said. “The other one is still struggling against his bonds. Should we use the Befuddling Grass extract on him too?”
“No,” Hashymissa replied. “Scarlet Rabbit is too angry and too familiar with us. It won’t have any effect on him. A pity too. It is likely that we are bringing him back only for Hassyth to personally cut his losses. Make sure his bonds are secure and load him into the cart. As for this one…” Hashymissa rubbed her hands together as she stared at Rainbow. “Such a find. This mare will ensure that we live in luxury for the rest of our lives!”
With that, Hashymissa grabbed hold of the reins. Exhausted, humiliated, and still unable to think straight, Rainbow could only let herself be led away.
Sugarcube Corner, once one of Ponyville’s busiest places, now found itself in a particular bind. Many of its valued customers had been drafted and had already gone off to the training camp near Cloudsdale. A few ponies still occupied the tables and enjoyed their famous pastries, but the mood was not what it used to be and both Cakes knew that it likely will never be what it used to. A loud wail made them turn their heads. One of their foals was crying, likely having soiled him or herself.
“I’ll get it,” Carrot Cake said with a smile. He trotted off and Cup Cake could only sigh and be glad that he was still around. As it turned out, there was another exemption to the draft. Ponies with very young foals were not expected to join the Legion. Cup Cake saw that some of the legionnaires conducting the draft were not happy with this, but they followed their rules without complaint.
It was early evening and the last customer of the day had just finished paying when the door to the bakery burst open. Cup Cake looked worriedly to see what had happened. To her shock, it was Pinkie Pie. She was drenched with sweat and gasping for air. She took a few steps into the bakery, then collapsed.
“Pinkie!” Cup Cake exclaimed. She ran over to the fallen pony, hesitant as to whether she should help Pinkie to her hooves or get her something to drink.
“Mrs. Cake!” Pinkie gasped. “Where’s Mr. Cake? And the twins? Are they safe? They’re not hurt are they?”
“They’re fine, dearie,” Cup Cake said. “Certainly in much better condition than you. Come on, let’s get you to a sofa. Goodness, what happened to you?”
“They’re fine?” Pinkie’s face brightened. “That’s wonderful!” The happy expression quickly crumbled into fresh worry. “Quick, you have to get to Canterlot! I could make sure you’re safe better there! And I have to get to Canterlot! She could be after my friends!” Pinkie started to head for the door when Cup Cake pulled her back.
“Hold on a minute here!” Cup Cake said. “What are you talking about? Why should we go to Canterlot? And why do you need to get there?”
“The pony wasp! I mean Stable Seal! I mean Sablesteel! She’s out to get ponies who are important to me, but I don’t know who!" She struggled against Cup Cake’s hold, but she couldn't break free.
“What’s going on out here?” Carrot Cake asked as he walked back into the bakery with the twins sitting on his back. Both Pumpkin and Pound Cake looked delighted to see Pinkie again. “Pinkie Pie? Shouldn't you be in Canterlot? How did you even get here? Wait a minute…did you actually run here?”
“She says that somepony is out to get us, honey,” Cup Cake said. “Some kind of seal…or was it a wasp?”
“Sablesteel!” Pinkie exclaimed. “She could still be out to get you! I need you somewhere nearby!”
“Pinkie, I’m glad that you care so much, but you can’t just expect us to suddenly move to Canterlot this very minute,” Cup Cake said. “I mean we’d have to relocate our whole business and-!”
“But you’ll die!” Pinkie Pie covered her mouth with her hooves after that outburst. Both Carrot and Cup Cake looked at her in shock. Pumpkin, startled by the yell, started to cry and her brother soon followed.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I…I just don’t know what to do! She could be out there right now! She-she-!” She struggled to break free from Cup Cake, but she was just so exhausted that she couldn’t.
“Pinkie Pie, it’s alright,” Cup Cake said, rubbing the pink pony’s fluffy mane. “We’re going to be alright.”
Pinkie tried to say something else, but her lips quivered and then she simply burst into tears. She buried her face against Cup Cake and started sobbing. “I-I just don’t-!”
“Shush now, Pinkie,” Cup Cake said. “We’ll get through this.”
“You just stay here for the night,” Carrot Cake added. “Not even you can run from Canterlot to Ponyville and back again. You get some sleep and, tomorrow, things will be clearer.”
Pinkie let herself be mollified and brought towards her old room upstairs. As she started to climb the stairs, however, she seemed to catch a glimpse of something by the window. She blinked once several times and looked harder. The Cakes looked to see what it was and saw nothing. Pinkie then bit her lip and trembled and it was all that both Cakes could do to keep her from bolting.