Chapter Fourteen: Piecing Things Together
In the mountainous region outside of Canterlot, a group of Nibelung were excavating a private, semi-legal dig site under the waning light of the setting sun. It was only partly-illegal because they had all the deeds and paperwork: the problem came into play from the fact they had stolen said papers off a corpse they had discovered about a hundred feet away several days ago.
One of the Nibelung sneezed loudly, then shook his head out wildly before he complained as he tossed his pickaxe away: “This no good!”
“Oh, shut up.” snapped another Nibelung, before he added: “And if was no good, pony would not have worked self to death. Remember, we chase off Diamond Dogs from here, we find big bag of jewels. Must be more, yes?”
The other two Nibelung only mumbled disconsolately as they hacked away at the stone with their own tools, and then one of them sneezed loudly as the other rubbed with a miserable look at an ugly rash that had spread over his arm and body. He groaned as several chunks of fur fell out around this, then rose his limb and whined: “I need go home! Need ice!”
“Ice not help rash, stupid!” The leader of the quartet smacked the rashy Nibelung with the shovel in his hands, making him yelp before he growled moodily. But the leader only grumbled, then turned and stormed into the little campsite: it was little more than a big tent and a table with some maps over it, a wagon with a broken wheel sprawled nearby. “Idiot.”
The trio of Nibelung all grumbled, and then one of the Nibelung sighed and looked almost longingly at Canterlot in the distance, leaning on his sledgehammer. They had only uncovered a few gemstones here: in all likelihood, the pony had already gotten the most out of this little claim that he could, and had just been scraping out the last of the scraps when he'd died. “Boss, pony-city right there, road to pony-city only short walk away... pony pay good money for big bag of gemstones we got...”
The other Nibelung looked up at this, but the leader only huffed before pointing violently at the rocky face of the slope. “Keep going! I go check body!”
The three Nibelung grumbled, but they went back to work as their leader grunted at them, then turned and headed around the side of the mountain they were working at the base of, following a path tread into the dust by Nibelung paws. He looked back and forth, the dwarf making a face at the fact the only sounds he could hear were coming from their little work site. Then again, they were far enough off the main road that they rarely heard ponies or other creatures passing... but all the same, even though these mountains were mostly stone and rock and dust, the lack of life was still disconcerting at times.
After a minute or two, the dwarf slowed his pace as he reached a narrow cave in the mountainside, blocked up by several rocks. He began to reach towards this, where they had stored the pony's dead body out of habit more than anything else: if they just left it sitting out in the open, after all, it would look like they killed him, even if the pony had clearly died of some kind of poison or disease. So he had made one of his minions drag the body out of the open, and then they had covered it up while he had hunted down the location on the map they'd found on his body.
Then the dwarf stopped and frowned as he grasped the first rock on top of the pile, before making a disgusted face as he stepped backwards and looked down at his now-slimy hands. He cursed under his breath, then groaned as he realized the rocks had been disturbed and moved out of place here and there, muttering: “Stupids not pack good...”
He reached forwards... and some kind of horrible white claw tore up out of a gap in the rocks, seizing into the Nibelung's wrist, and he yelled in surprise and fear before something terrible smashed its way up through the loose stones...
Back at the camp, the other Nibelung heard the yell, immediately halting their work... and then one of them coughed loudly. It seemed to echo through the mountains in the silence of the fading day, and one of the other Nibelung whimpered: “Oh no. Oh no.”
“B-Boss?” called one Nibelung nervously, while the other two rose their pick and sledgehammer respectively. Then the Nibelung with the rash coughed again, before he clutched at his throat, wheezing and rasping for a moment as the other dwarf beside him hurriedly patted on his back.
When his coughing fit ended, there was only silence again... before all three Nibelung looked quickly at the sound of several stones rolling down the mountainside. It was little more than a sprinkle of gravel... and yet it sounded as loud as an avalanche before a quiet chuckle spilled through the air, and the Nibelung traded terrified looks with one-another as the unarmed dwarf hurriedly picked up rock from the ground, trembling as he drew his arm back and shouted: “We... we not afraid! You go away, and we not kill you!”
The chuckle again... and then a mocking voice sang, seeming to come from all around them:
“Sha-ba, do-do-do-do-doo, have I ever got a story for you!
It's about four little piggies, who thought they were wolves,
Hangin' 'round in the mountains, diggin' silly little holes,
Oh, ba-da-ba, yeah, yeah, hey...
Ain't that a funny thought... pork chops who think they got teeth.”
“S-Shut up! We not afraid of you!” yelled one of the Nibelung, staring back and forth in terror, and this time the voice giggled before all three dwarves turned in the direction of a small slide of dust and dirt that trickled down the side of the mountain, staring desperately around for any sign of their attacker.
“La la da-ha, la da-ha-ha haa... mm, first little piggy, I knew him well,
I felt every part of him when down my gullet he fell,
And oh little piggies, I gotta say it was his taste that was the sell...
Oh, yeah, that's right, right there... la-di-da...
Ha, ha, ha... that made me wanna eat you all up... tonight.”
There was a crash like cymbals, and the Nibelung carrying the rock howled and flung the stone wildly in the direction of the sound, hitting nothing but the mountain before he turned and bolted away. The other two Nibelung called after him as he stumbled past the wagon... and then both stared in horror when something seized him, yanked him backwards as he screamed... and then the howls were cut off by a horrible, crunching, slurping sound.
Both Nibelung stared in shock, whimpering and raising their weapons uselessly as a slithering sound filled the air, stumbling backwards... and then something wet and slick and hot wrapped around both of their shoulders companionably, and they both slowly turned to stare with horror at a monstrous, goblinoid face as it said cheerfully: “Hey boys!
Second little piggy, he was so fine, I knew I had to cut in line!
Oh ba-da-ba-da-doo, yeah! Second little piggy had damn fine taste,
I crunched up his bones so I could lick out the sweet marrow paste...
Ooh, ha ha! Don't you fret boys, I'm hungry tonight!
You won't feel a damn thing when I... make you both... my...
dinner.” Cancer growled, then he licked his lips before his forelimbs both transformed into savage sets of tentacles that snapped viciously around the dwarves, drool leaking from his jaws as his grin stretched wider and his eyes glowed with hunger, the dwarves screaming...
Cancer sighed in delight as he sat back on the ground, slowly slurping his claws clean before he glanced up irritably as what looked like a sallow clone of himself slouched its way slowly out from around the wagon. The monster sniffed, then the destruction entity beckoned irritably, and the copy of Cancer stumbled forwards before transforming into slime that merged back into Cancer's body, the monster grunting before rolling his head on his shoulders as he sighed in relief. “Ooh, delightful, much better, much better, yeah, yeah, yeah... gonna be a real handy trick...”
Cancer grinned to himself, nodding as he licked his teeth slowly, and then he looked up at the deepening dusk above before grumbling to himself and popping to his hooves. His forelimbs transformed back into pony-like legs from claws as he began to stride slowly around the mining camp, looking moodily back and forth as he muttered: “But even with all this... ain't enough, no, no, not yet. Not after what they did to me... I gotta get my claws into something good.”
He ground his teeth together in frustration, then shook his head slowly before glaring towards Canterlot in the distance, half-slithering up along the side of a mountain in his way as he whispered: “Oh, you think you're safe in that great big city, right? Safe, hiding away from Cancer... but Cancer's gonna get you, yes he is, yes he is, yes he is...”
The monster ground his teeth together, then he twitched violently before his eyes glowed bright red as he rasped: “Poison, destroy, make them suffer...”
“Yeah, yeah, you bet I'm gonna make them suffer!” the destruction entity shouted furiously, as his head snapped to the other side and he shivered in fury once, then glared forwards and screamed: “You hear me out there? Oh, I'm gonna rip you all up to pieces and chew you to the bones and then I'm gonna puke you out and drink you like soup!”
He raved and foamed at the jaws, shaking his head wildly back and forth for a moment before hissing in disgust... and then the monster glowered at a patch of flowers as he passed, spitting on them in disgust. A moment later, the flowers shriveled up and rotted rapidly away into a patch of reeking death, and Cancer muttered as he continued onwards: “All part of the master plan, though, oh, it is. Don't you ever doubt it, don't no one ever doubt that for one single little moment. That stupid little village is locked down good and tight, the sewers are all full of the stink of polish and prettiness, but I'm gonna force my way in through the front gate. And I'll be more than powerful enough to, too, once I bag me a white weasel and all those scumbag punks I saw her walking with...”
He growled, then snarled: “Not to mention that bastard kid! Stalked him and his pretty and the zombie almost all the way there, but... oh, oh, why couldn't they give me a single opening when they weren't... cuddling on the road the whole... stupid... time... but oh, I'm patient, I'm patient, I'm...”
Cancer halted, then he howled at the darkening sky and flopped over, screaming and convulsing on the stony ground as he kicked and flailed wildly in all directions. “Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on! I need to get in there, I gotta have it, I gotta get in, I need it, need it, need it need it need it! Gimme a chance, you'll see, I'll do it!”
He came to a halt, breathing hard in and out, eyes glowing and body shivering before he snarled furiously and spat to the side, looking disgusted. “What a mess. Oh, oh, oh, what a mess, and it ain't a good one. I gotta get inside there... but all those demon scum, I need something... something strong. Something powerful...”
He looked up, then whined at the sky: “Where the hell is a dragon when you need one? Come on! I deserve a little something, yeah? Gimme something better than these Nibelung! They make a tasty snack, sure, but their bodies break down too fast... I don't need food, oh no, I need a monster. I need something I can use my newest new power on...”
Cancer rolled onto his stomach, then he glared at a centipede that was crawling by before reaching out and squishing it under a hoof, burying it in white slime. Then his eyes narrowed and flashed before he drew his hoof back... and grinned as he watched the centipede convulsing before it grew rapidly in size, jaws growing monstrous, limbs distorting, body warping... and then the mutated bug simply exploded, splattering Cancer's face with green goo.
He squealed and shrieked and rolled backwards, flailing wildly in all directions in frustration: his infective powers were growing in leaps and bounds, but all the same, he still required a host that was powerful enough to handle the mutations... anything else, well...
He huffed, then rolled onto his stomach, muttering to himself as he dropped his face against the ground. Then he slowly rose his head, peering at the bug's corpse before his tongue shot out, licking it up and drawing it into his jaws with a loud crunch as he said moodily: “Waste not, want not. But those demons... they're careful. And oh, I get stronger with every meal... no, with every passing day! But I can't just barge into demon-town that I smell beneath that big ugly-ass white stone city... I need me soldiers. An army. Zombies!”
He huffed, then rolled onto his back, mumbling: “Maybe if I infect enough ponies... yeah, that might be fun. 'Cept the demons will catch on way too fast to what's happening above, oh, they are such a nuisance. No, I needs me a tank. Something big and scary to distract 'em all, while I bag me the weasel... the weasel's gonna make me strong. I'm gonna infect her, get inside her, eat her up and ooh, she's gonna be delicious and make me like a damn god...”
He drooled a little at this thought, then shook his head and whispered: “But it'll be nothing compared to when I get into that hot place in Ponyville. It all stinks of chemicals, but there's something even better there, that draws me on in... that I need, need, need so bad I wanna pee myself. Oh, there's gotta be a way I can do this... there's gotta be an answer! Gimme a sign, sweet disease-ridden Heaven! Gimme a clue!”
Cancer grinned up at the stars hopefully... but they only looked coldly down at him as the moon slowly began to rise, a giant eye that stared down with contempt and disdain. Cancer stuck his tongue out in disgust and blew a raspberry, and then he turned with a huff and stormed off, Canterlot to his back as he muttered: “Gotta figure this one out. Gonna figure this one out, oh yes I am... and then I'm gonna have me some fun.
“Yeah... gonna eat me a white weasel, one way or another.” Cancer licked his lips slowly, then he shivered with rage and whispered: “And gonna kill that kiddy bat, too, for what he did to me. Gonna have me the perfect revenge before I get my booster shots... and then I'm gonna make this whole world just like me, sweet baby, yeah, yeah, yeah...”
Antares awoke, breathing a little hard, bathed in cold sweat, and Prestige leaned up with concern, looking down at him worriedly as she asked quietly: “Are you okay, hero?”
“I... don't call me that.” Antares mumbled embarrassedly, and then he nodded a little as Prestige reached up and stroked slowly his mane gently out of his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine, I am. Just had a bad dream, I guess...”
Prestige smiled a little down at him, and Antares gazed up at her quietly as she brushed their covers back a little before closing her eyes and settling on his chest. She listened to the strong beat of his heart as it slowly settled, her forelegs wrapping around his neck as he settled one limb over her, gazing down at her with silent gratitude.
His relationship with Prestige was moving fast: they spent their nights together like this, in this quiet little room they had made their own over the last two weeks of staying here, training in Subterra. Their friends, meanwhile, had slowly spread out to their own quarters throughout Thorn Palace, and gradually grown comfortable with both their immediate surroundings and Subterra itself. Better yet, training was going well for all of them, and Antares could say he was honestly proud of how he and his friends were all holding themselves up.
Twilight was back on her hooves, too, looking vibrant and alive... but here in Subterra, she didn't feel the need to hide the fact she was a Lich with one of her thick sweaters. Instead, she walked around, wearing only her collar and her stud earrings as she discussed things with her son or his friends and the various friends she had around this place... or those who came to visit her from Ponyville. Rarity, Spike, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Sleipnir, Cowlick and Ross... they had all been here at some point or another, while Pinkamena and Fluttershy were essentially staying in Subterra for as long as Antares and his friends were here, training.
Antares had learned a lot about himself in these last few weeks, and a lot about Prestige. They had shared secrets and grown comfortable with each other, and their trust grew every day. Avalon and Aphrodisia were both still skeptical of the relationship, although they did their best to try and support them – well, mostly Antares – and Rustproof only just smiled, as he always did... while Meadowlark, little-by-little, was adjusting to things. It still made her visibly ache... but all the same she was striving her hardest to get past her problem for everyone's sake.
Antares ached for her, but at the same time... Prestige made him happy. Now that he was able to see her, the real her that had been locked away under her superior unicorn exterior, he could see how truly... vibrant she was. How beautiful, and how wonderful, and how strong she was inside.
They laid together, cuddling in the darkness, before Prestige gently kissed the side of his neck, and Antares smiled a little before she slowly pushed herself up and murmured: “We should get ready to go, hero. It's going to get late if we stay here much longer.”
“Yeah. You're right.” Antares shook his head a little, then he studied her before saying softly: “You help me sleep, you know that? I used to always have problems getting... a good, long sleep in, but... with you here...”
“Well, they say beautiful sights help you to sleep.” Prestige said softly, and Antares laughed before he reached up and stroked her face gently with a hoof, and she smiled softly before turning and kissing this gently. “Come on, hero. I don't want them blaming me for making you lazy.”
Antares smiled and nodded: they slipped out of bed, shared another quick kiss, and then headed out into the hall and began to trace the now-familiar route towards the dining room, where they always met the others for breakfast these days. On the way, they found Meadowlark waiting for them, her back to her door and a large notebook open in front of her, the Pegasus glancing up with a faint smile as they approached.
She closed the book and tossed it into a satchel sitting beside her, then slipped this on without speaking. Antares and Prestige both smiled at her hesitantly, and then Meadowlark nodded to them before she asked quietly: “You two sleep well?”
“Yeah. What about you?” Antares tilted his head, and when the Pegasus gave a small smile and nodded, he hesitantly returned the gesture and murmured: “You really... don't have to wait for us if you don't want to...”
“I... I like to.” Meadowlark replied after a moment, then she shook her head and turned, adding in a firmer voice: “Anyway, I have something to show you, too. Twilight and I found it while working late last night... you were already in bed and... well, I didn't want to disturb you.”
Antares smiled lamely as Prestige blushed a bit, before she said awkwardly: “It... wouldn't have been any disturbance at all, Meadow, I... understand that this is all very important.”
Meadowlark just smiled a bit, saying softly: “Well... still. Anyway, I don't know how important this is, but the historical records say that years ago, a probe meteor from Clockwork World was sent into our world. The reports state that it was dismantled by Strange Ones, which Celestia and your... your parents, Antares, all witnessed. Celestia was given samples, but nothing ever came of them.
“I was crosschecking this with invoices from the magic school on a hunch, since it's a Canterlot-run institution... it turns out that they were the ones who ended up buying much of the dismantled probe.” Meadowlark continued quietly. “They've been keeping it in storage, and while... Celestia's tests were all negative on the smaller pieces... maybe if something larger is reassembled, something more like the full probe, it might still try to call home to Clockwork World. If that's true, we might be able to trace the signal back to Decretum...”
Antares looked up at this, nodding slowly as he whispered: “And find my Mom and Dad... Meadowlark, you're a genius!”
“Not yet. Not until we know if it's possible or not, we'll have to talk to Celestia about it.” Meadowlark smiled a little. “And then there's the issue of getting it working, amongst everything else...”
“We'll figure it out.” Antares smiled warmly over at Prestige, then he nodded firmly to the red Pegasus, saying quietly: “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for... for not forgetting about this. For working on that for me between everything else, it... it means a world to me.”
“It... means a lot to us both.” Prestige said quietly, blushing a little as she looked awkwardly at the Pegasus: even as she felt a twist of envy and jealousy and perhaps a bit of overprotectiveness, she was all the same honestly glad, too... the way Antares had lit up...
Meadowlark only smiled again, and the rest of the journey was spent mostly in quiet. When they reached the dining room, they were unsurprised to find the enormous, black table was empty, the long hall almost seeming ghoulish thanks to its creepy decorations like the gargoyles that lurked on the rafters above, but by now the three were used to it, as they took their places at the table.
A moment later, a Nightmare appeared with a calm smile nearby, bowing its head courteously: something else they had thankfully gotten used to, although when the Nightmares appeared at seeming random in other areas of the Thorn Palace it usually caused more than a slight fright. “Shall I fetch breakfast?”
“Uh...” Antares looked awkwardly back and forth, but Meadowlark shook her head and Prestige shrugged, so the glossy-black stallion replied after a moment: “No, we're fine for now, thanks. We want to wait for the others to get here.”
“As you wish. Simply call if you need anything, Antares Mīrus.” the Nightmare said softly, smiling at him kindly, and then it vanished from sight. Antares looked awkwardly at the space where it had been as he wondered whether it was really gone or not, and then he cleared his throat and shook himself out a little before turning his eyes back to Meadowlark as she pulled her notepad out.
She began to go over notes again, and Prestige shifted awkwardly and sighed inwardly, looking anxiously up towards the ceiling as Antares asked curiously: “What's that?”
“Just... something. Amdusias told me to do it.” Meadowlark said quietly, shifting a bit and then looking pointedly at Antares when he leaned forwards to try and see, and he gave her an embarrassed look before nodding and hurriedly sitting back, glancing over at Prestige and gently touching her hoof.
The unicorn mare softened as she glanced towards him, and there was a strange silence between the three for a little while. It was uncomfortable... and yet none of them wanted to break it, or move, or do anything. It was bittersweet: it felt bad, and yet all the same it felt... good.
Thankfully, Avalon and Aphrodisia showed up shortly, and Rustproof followed with Twilight, Cowlick, and Ross. The last was a smiling ivory unicorn, with a golden blonde mane and tail and matching eyes, his cutie mark that of a puzzle piece. He was a little different from most ponies, but he was gentle, kind, and Cowlick adored him for a hundred different reasons. He was her special somepony, her husband in every way... except legally, of course, since they had never actually had a wedding or gotten married. But to Cowlick, he had been her husband since the day she had given him a set of monogrammed coveralls and a toolbox of his own. Even if said toolbox was now decorated with stickers of cartoon animals.
Antares often found himself watching Ross closely, curiously, ever since he had realized that it seemed often like Ross reacted to events before they happened, and he could sense things better than Antares could. He had mentioned this one to Cowlick, who had only grinned and replied cheerfully: “Yeah, I could have told you that after how often I come home randy and find Ross hiding under the bed.”
Ross glanced to the side, before Antares even felt it... and a moment later, a Nightmare appeared, Cowlick wincing away with a wheeze that interrupted Twilight's rambling as the Nightmare asked calmly: “May I fetch breakfast?”
“You idjits need bells.” Cowlick muttered, and then she rose a hoof, saying mildly: “Get me and Ross something that doesn't have meat, will you? Seriously, we ain't all freaks like Twilight and Antares. And Celestia, I guess, but... is she coming?”
“Yes, Cowlick, if you'd listen to me you'd know that.” Twilight said tiredly, taking her seat on the other side of Meadowlark as Ross and Cowlick sat with Rustproof. Avalon and Aphrodisia had already found their own seats a good distance down the table, and Twilight looked meditatively down at them before rolling her eyes and deciding to leave them alone as demon and young Pegasus visibly schemed something together, tossing looks every now and then at Antares. “Oh, my friend Fluttershy is also joining us this morning, she's going to be here in a few minutes with Celestia. Please bring her a salad, too, she doesn't like meat.”
“Of course, Mistress Twilight.” the Nightmare said kindly, and it smiled before vanishing once more. Ross waved a little after it, and Cowlick gave her husband an amused look before the engineer glanced down the table, yawning and stretching slowly.
“You know I usually listen to you, but... it's morning. God, I hate mornings.” Cowlick mumbled, rubbing slowly at her face. “Dunno why everypony thinks I must like 'em. Six AM should only exist as a bedtime, though, after you've spent the last six hours drinking. Not for you, though, Rusty, you're too young for that still. Speaking of which, you been stayin' away from cigarettes, yeah?”
“Yes, Momma, I have been.” Rustproof smiled honestly, gazing up at them with a quiet nod. Cowlick grunted, then looked at him pointedly, and the growing colt shrugged a little. “Guess it's the work.”
“If work stopped you from smoking, you'd never have started in the first goddamn place.” the mare engineer muttered, rubbing at the underside of her muzzle, and then she cocked her head curiously as she looked around the table. “So what's going on with all you guys, precisely?”
This was only answered by a few awkward looks, and Cowlick huffed, saying flatly: “Hey, I can be curious! 'Sides, it's weird not having any of you kids around Ponyville, right, Ross?”
“Right.” Ross agreed with a smile, then he added kindly: “But they aren't really kids, Cowlick. Nope. Not even Rustproof, no, no, no. He's growing up big and fast and not a goat.”
“Not a... oh, Ross.” Cowlick rolled her eyes, but she was smiling all the same as she looked over at him, then turned her eyes towards the enormous, blue-coated earth pony that was her son. “No, my kid's always gonna be my kid, no matter what happens. And I'll always be his Momma and there to take care of him.”
Rustproof smiled awkwardly and blushed a little even as he bowed his head towards Cowlick, and then the engineer turned her eyes back down the table, asking loudly: “Pinkslap, are you ten years old today or twenty years old? I hate keeping track.”
“Fifteen!” Aphrodisia replied brightly, and then she added informatively: “Antares and Prestige are sleeping together.”
“Yeah, we already knew that, but Twilight would have a lot more popped stitches if they were finally getting down and dirty with each other.” Cowlick replied absently, jerking her head at the Lich. The violet mare flushed deeply, her stitches visibly creaking as Antares and Prestige both stared with horror at Cowlick, who simply turned her attention to Avalon and asked curiously: “And you, your daddy told me that you're actually being a good girl these days.”
“Hey! I'm always good.” Avalon retorted, huffing and raising her head before she smiled a little. “But... I'm tryin', Auntie Cowlick. Fluttershy is teaching me a whole lot.”
“Only what I can.” murmured a soft voice, and all eyes glanced up as Fluttershy entered the room with a quiet smile, followed by Celestia. They took their own places at the table as Twilight gazed warmly across at her friends and Antares sat up a little, as the blonde, one-winged Pegasus looked back and forth before smiling again. “It's wonderful to see so many ponies here, though. But it's never very lonely here in Subterra. There are many strange and wonderful things here.”
Cowlick grunted, and Celestia nodded slowly before gazing around the table. “And I'm glad to see all of you here... Meadowlark, Twilight tells me that you have an interesting idea.”
Meadowlark glanced up abashedly, then she nodded awkwardly before answering quietly: “Well, without the help of Twilight and Amdusias I never would have come up with this before. But... simply put, I want to reconstruct the probe that was sent here from Decretum... purchase records show that most of it was bought back from the Strange Ones and locked in the magic school's vaults...”
Celestia tilted her head with interest at this, asking curiously: “When did this transaction take place? Five years ago I tried to locate the meteor fragments myself, but I only managed to find a few of the crystals and that a caravan had already left with the rest.”
“Two years ago, from...” Meadowlark flipped through her notebook, murmuring: “They bought it off a Strange One freight wagon.”
The ivory winged unicorn nodded thoughtfully at this, then she bowed her head and frowned a little. “It's possible. But there are two problems: the Strange Ones destroyed many of the crystals to ensure that the probe's signal was halted, and the probe will require a power source that I'm not sure unicorn magic can provide alone.”
Meadowlark flipped through her notebook again, and then she looked up and said hesitantly: “There were some notes that I cross-referenced with other logs and records, Baroness... the Strange Ones are more than capable of designing imitations of other enchantments and magic sources. I think... I think it might be very possible for them to make replicas of the same crystals they destroyed, if we can provide them with the right material...”
“Just Celestia, titles of the above world mean nothing in Subterra.” Celestia said quietly, but she was smiling now, looking interested before she glanced curiously over at Cowlick as the engineer waved a hoof through the air.
“If you get Greece and me some samples, we'll figure out how it works and build us a nice big battery source.” Cowlick grinned a little, glancing over at Ross as he nodded hesitantly in agreement. “Yeah, thought so. Power's power. We can figure out how to build a convertor if we gotta, but me and Greece have done a good bit of experimentation with voltaic topazes, ever since Rarity told us about 'em. I bet those'll work if we can give 'em the right charge.”
Celestia looked thoughtful, but she was spared from answering right away as a small group of Nightmares strode in through the doors, heavy, covered trays floating through the air around them. They smiled as they put them on the table and removed the lids, revealing a full banquet: all kinds of baked goods and foods preferred by ponies, salads for those who had requested it, and a few simple meats for those who were interested: sausages, dumplings, and bacon.
Antares smiled awkwardly as he helped himself to both a few muffins as well as some of the meat, unable to deny how good it smelled to him even as Ross and Fluttershy both carefully kept their eyes on the vegetable fair. Hesitantly, Prestige took a single dumpling, and Meadowlark looked as she always did with a strange kind of wanting over at the two, before she turned her eyes embarrassedly back to the baked goods and just took some toast for now: the one time she had tried to eat just a slice or two of bacon, she had ended up throwing up for most of the morning.
They ate breakfast in quiet as Celestia contemplated things: it was only near the end of the meal when the Baroness broke the silence, saying softly: “This is an excellent chance. Meadowlark, you've done a phenomenal job: I never thought to check the sale records and receipts. If you don't mind, I'd like you and Twilight Sparkle to both come with me today to the archives, I could use your help.”
Meadowlark smiled at this, glancing up and nodding hurriedly, and Twilight tilted her head curiously as she glanced up to ask: “What about training, Celestia?”
“Antares can go to Amdusias today instead, and Prestige seems to be getting along well with Burning Desire.” Celestia nodded slowly, then she glanced up and called calmly: “Discombobulation?”
There was silence for a few moments... and then a long, tired sigh from above, and all eyes looked up to see the Draconequus sitting upside-down on the ceiling, most of the ponies looking surprised as Celestia only smiled. “It's very embarrassing when you actually do ask for my help, Celestia. I come here, show up, and all you silly ponies go 'what Disco-Bob actually showed up when Tia called him? That implies so much!'”
He flailed around a little, then glowered a bit down at Celestia, but she only smiled up at him and asked courteously: “Could you please take a message to the Strange Ones for me?”
At this, Discombobulation winced and shook his head violently, earning a frown from Celestia: but it was a look of concern, not of irritation, at the vehemence of the Draconequus. “Oh, no, no no no. Definitely can't do that, Celestia. Uh. Send Discord, they won't stab him.”
“What are you talking about?” Celestia frowned up at Discombobulation, who cleared his throat and tugged at an invisible collar. “Did something happen between you and the Strange Ones that I should know about?”
“Well, everyone should know something, Celestia. What we should know precisely varies from person-to-person, and too few people understand they should just be happy with what they do know instead of going out and seeking all that delicious forbidden knowledge. You'll end up getting your face melted off.” Discombobulation replied reasonably, and when the ivory winged unicorn only continued to look at him mildly, he finally awkwardly rose a finger and said delicately: “This may come as a great shock to all of you, but I'm not actually a pony. I am a Draconequus.”
“No, really?” Aphrodisia asked ironically, and when Discombobulation gave her a flat look, she growled and then barked at him several times, making him wince back.
He grumbled under his breath, then glanced down as Celestia said slowly: “The Strange Ones were told to work beside us by Odin, but since Odin is... gone...” Celestia's eyes flickered slightly, and Antares softened as he looked towards his aunt before she continued slowly: “Odin told the Strange Ones that Discord was not our enemy, that he was now in a much more effective prison and rendered harmless. But you always avoided contact with the Strange Ones...”
“They think of me as an interloper. Which is funny, because I've technically been here longer than any of you.” Discombobulation said moodily, rubbing absently at his chest with his metallic claw. “But us patchwork dolls have never gotten along with anyone, especially not ourselves, as you've seen very clearly. Oh, I have an idea, don't send Discord. Antares, send your silly friend Allonym. That would be fantastic.”
Antares only shook his head, and then Celestia glanced up and nodded slowly. “I'll ask Kvasir to talk to the Strange Ones on your account, the next time I have a chance. They... don't listen to him as much as I'd like, but they also aren't hostile towards him. For now, please find Discord, then, and ask him to find me in the archives in roughly an hour. I'll have a message for him to take to the Strange Ones on my behalf.”
“I still say Allonym should go. If I had to compare us to celebrities, I'm obviously the actor who can play both an exiled angel in a comedy but also be a super action hero, Discord is clearly a scientologist that likes to jump on couches, but Allonym is a soap opera guest star.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he paused before looking nervously back and forth. “He's... he's not here right now, is he? I think I'm going to indulge my inner coward and run away now.”
With that, Discombobulation slowly sank into the ceiling as it rippled like water, still peering nervously back and forth until he finally vanished. For a few moments, the roof continued to ripple like water, and then it turned solid again as Celestia shook her head slowly before she looked curiously over at Antares. “On that note... have you seen Allonym at all?”
“Only glimpses.” Antares replied with a bit of a smile, as Prestige nodded slowly beside him, nibbling carefully at her dumpling. “He's been... trying to give us privacy, I think. I mean, all of us, not... I mean...”
Antares blushed a little, but Celestia only smiled; all the same, her eyes were drawn to the side as Meadowlark shifted uncomfortably, and for a few moments there was awkward silence before the ivory mare said softly: “Alright. Meadowlark, Twilight, would you like to join me now on the walk up to the Canterlot archives? And to the rest of you, good luck with your duties and training today... and if I can offer a bit of advice, Antares, perhaps you should try to talk to Allonym. We can use every bit of insight we can get at this point.”
The young stallion smiled and nodded a little, then he glanced over at Meadowlark as she hurriedly stood up and tossed her notebook into her satchel. The red Pegasus hurried after Twilight and Celestia as the two adults left, and Antares felt his eyes lingering over her despite himself, and he felt something – Shame? Fear? Affection? – when she glanced quietly over her shoulder at him just before hurrying out the doorway.
There was a little bit of conversation, but Antares missed most of it, lost in thought even as he wrapped a foreleg around Prestige and she leaned against him, looking nervous. The two remained sitting even as others started to filter out... and then the young stallion finally glanced up, smiling a bit as he said quietly when they were alone: “Go ahead, Prestige... I'll see you after... tonight.”
“Yeah.” Prestige said softly, and the two ponies looked at one another for a few moments before they shared a short, sweet kiss, and then a tight embrace. They lingered, and then she pulled away and smiled a little at him over her shoulder as she headed out, adding quietly: “Don't hurt yourself, Antares. You're doing well, hero.”
Antares only smiled lamely at her as she vanished out into the hall beyond, leaving him alone in silence: it lasted only a few seconds, though, before the glossy-black unicorn closed his eyes and laughed a little as someone pulled out the chair beside him to sit down at the table. “Do you actually come when I call or... are you going to blame this on coincidence?”
“Neither. There were a whole bunch of ponies talking about me and asking for me, and... well, what kind of benevolent Draconequus would I be if I didn't answer the prayers of all you silly ponies?” Allonym said comfortably, putting his cane aside as he leaned back in the chair that was a little small for him, then he grimaced and shifted back and forth, rubbing absently at one of his legs. “Today isn't precisely a good concentration day, by the way. Storm's rolling in, and it makes me sore. Makes me... twitchy... and the future probably isn't going to be pleasant.”
“I think I'm starting to understand you're not psychic, you're just really pessimistic, Allonym.” Antares opened his eyes, glancing over at him and hesitating before he felt his eyes slowly reading through the Draconequus, picking up his emotions and the thoughts turning calmly way beneath the facade of the chimerical creature before the young unicorn asked slowly: “Did you always know about this... darkness... in me, as Selene put it? Is that why you're here to help?”
“Yes and no.” Allonym said softly, then he reached up and squeezed Antares' shoulder gently. “We all have darkness inside us. But that's important: that's good, as a matter of fact. It teaches us balance, and it helps us understand that...we are all flawed, and to understand that we are all equals. And that those who are truly worthy of respect are those who overcome their failings and their darkness; tell me, honestly, what's to admire in someone who's so pure of heart they have no evil, no weaknesses, no flaws to overcome in themselves? If your nature is nothing but pure good, and you do nothing but pure good... are you really brave, are you really a hero? Or are you just a slave to your nature, not even like an animal, but a machine, following its predetermined course, set by... chemicals and energy and oh who knows what the hell else?”
“You're so jaded and cynical.” Antares said softly, smiling faintly, and Allonym shrugged. “I... but someone like that could save thousands of lives...”
Allonym laughed quietly, looking down and murmuring: “If the world was black and white, maybe. But it's not... I don't think our pure good hero would last very long in this world before becoming consumed with bitterness and self-loathing over some of the dirt he's had to plunge his hands into.”
Antares was silent, and then Allonym reached up and squeezed his shoulder slowly, saying softly: “You're going to suffer, Antares, with the choices you'll have to make in the future and the things you're going to see. But you're going to survive, and I have faith you'll make the right decisions, because inside you is that darkness. That willingness... to dip in blacker waters if it's necessary. You're going to kill Cancer, aren't you?”
“Yeah, I am.” Antares said quietly, without hesitation, and Allonym smiled a little as Antares closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. “He's a monster, though. I don't think anyone could show him mercy, or feel sorry for him.”
“You'd be surprised.” Allonym replied softly, looking up at the ceiling before he pulled a set of prayer beads out of his inner jacket, beginning to slowly play them one-by-one between his fingers. The eyes of the Draconequus slipped closed as his breathing evened out, working slowly and calmly as he rested back in his seat, and there was silence between the two before the strange creature murmured: “The idea is a good one, about the meteor I mean... it might work. A lot of it depends on how much the others are able to figure out, but... I think they'll be able to start putting things together. But... Antares, you have to deal with Cancer first. You cannot permit Cancer to set foot in a place like Decretum, do you understand?”
Allonym sat up and looked calmly over at Antares, his eyes sharp and serious, and Antares frowned a little as he leaned nervously back before saying apprehensively: “I... I think so. Is... wait, does that mean that Clockwork World... everything's still powered on there, or...”
“Just trust me on this. If Cancer were to reach Clockwork World, it would be... bad.” Allonym said delicately, shaking his head slowly before he sighed and looked up moodily at the ceiling. “One last thing, too. Trust in your friends... I can't help but notice that despite all this training, the only ponies you're really working side-by-side with are Prestige and Aphrodisia. You need to develop your teamwork more thoroughly with all of them if you want to save your parents, Antares. You're talented beyond your years, sure, and your friends are all amazing individually... but that's not enough. None of you are adults, and none of you have a lot of battle experience yet. If you want to stand a chance against Cancer, you need to work together.”
Antares shifted, then he hesitated before looking up and saying quietly: “We do, and I appreciate the advice, Allonym, but... I also have Twilight, and Celestia to help me, and many ponies who do have a lot of combat experience. I feel that it's more important we first concentrate on getting our strength up... on preparing for what's ahead, before we start teamwork exercises. That won't take us as long to master, not with how long we've all been friends.”
“Selene?” Allonym asked curiously, and Antares blushed a little and nodded, making the Draconequus smile a little. “Well, at least you're taking someone's advice and speaking your mind more, instead of just shying away or using your crazy x-ray eyes to say what the other person wants to hear. But Antares... believe me: your friends are the hardest people to learn to work together with. Just ask Twilight Sparkle.”
“Maybe I will, then, and... I'll consider it. But we need to be strong, Allonym.” Antares said quietly, leaning forwards and shaking his head a bit, before he winced when Allonym picked up his cane and bopped him gently with the dragon-shaped handle. “Hey!”
“See, there's that inner darkness of yours rearing its ugly head and making you a little stupid.” Allonym calmly stood up as he tucked his onyx prayer beads back into a pocket, and Antares scowled despite himself before the Draconequus said quietly: “Most powerful is he who controls his own power, Antares. And this is your most powerful weapon right up here.”
Allonym brought his cane up, bopping Antares gently on the head and making him wince a little, rubbing awkwardly at the crown of his skull before the Draconequus smiled slightly. “Just because you've mastered a few nasty tricks and treats, don't forget your most basic talent, Antares... to analyze someone, to see inside them, and react based on that. Don't forget that your mother and father brought down a Jötnar whose strength far dwarfed their own by seizing the opportunities they were given and turning his machinations against him.”
Antares nodded a little, rubbing slowly at his head still, and then the Draconequus turned and strolled calmly towards the door before the young stallion said impulsively: “I'm... I'm not like my Mom and Dad, even if I wish I was. But I'm... trying to be what they wanted me to be.”
“You are, Antares, you need to stop worrying about that. And what they really wanted... was for you to be yourself.” Allonym answered, then he smiled and said softly: “Don't disappoint them, huh?”
With that, the Draconequus turned and strode out of the room, leaving the young stallion to gaze after him as he swallowed... then he closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards, promising as he hugged himself tightly: “I won't.”