Chapter Thirty Five: Finishing What Was Started
Antares glanced apprehensively over at Cowlick as they stood in the hangar containing the completed probe, asking anxiously: “Shouldn't we be... you know, in the safe place behind the super-thick glass?”
“Don't be such a goddamn coward. I don't have to be here, but look at me, here anyway to support you, because you agreed to hang out here, Mir. Now do you want to go to Clockwork World or not?” Cowlick asked waspishly, and Antares grimaced before he looked nervously over the probe: the steel cradle gleamed brightly, filled with countless shining gemstones of varying shape and size, all surrounding that enormous core. Rods and supports fed down into rune-covered tiles that thrummed faintly with power, and had been further reinforced by a border of steel.
Then his eyes roved upwards, looking awkwardly at the ceiling above: Cowlick had set up some kind of dish with a large, crystalline antennae, and massive cables held in place by oversized staples lined roof, feeding down into a steel box beside Cowlick. The engineer was glaring at him, an unlit cigarette standing out of her muzzle and grease-stained coveralls on: both of these were bad signs. “I know you need a unicorn, but... why me? Celestia is right there, and... I mean, there are academy unicorns who are way better at this stuff than me, and...”
“Because if something goes wrong, Celestia has to save us.” Cowlick replied mildly, jerking her head towards the plated glass: glass that hadn't been repaired or replaced despite several large cracks through it since their first attempt at starting this up. Behind it, Celestia looked apprehensive, although at least Greece seemed confident. He could also see Meadowlark, Avalon, and Aphrodisia, the latter two females looking a bit too eager for his liking. “Look, kid, it's going to work. It screwed up last time because I misinterpreted what the Strange Ones built that channeling altar for. It's not to record the signal, it's just to further amplify it, make it nice and loud so we actually can pick it up. Now with your freaky mind powers-”
“I don't have freaky mind powers.” Antares said flatly, looking grumpily at Cowlick, and then he winced when she glowered at him, holding up his hooves. “Can we please move a little slower, here, Cowlick I still-”
“Oh stop whining, you've been on holiday for a month.” Cowlick grumbled, and Antares sighed and closed his eyes, not knowing if he should argue or not: he knew that Rustproof's loss still ached for her, like how he hurt to think about Prestige, but this was also Cowlick's peculiar way of... moving forwards, and making sure no pony was left behind. “Listen, that dish is going to catch the signal as it's emitted, translate it into data. It'll transmit those coordinates to that box there, which has a memory crystal inside it. Said crystal will capture that translated data... or should at least. There's a lot of chaos theory involved in this stuff that Ross says makes perfect sense, but I have no idea how the hell this all works, so... you're the backup plan.”
“Great.” Antares mumbled, then he rubbed slowly at his head, adding dryly: “I basically stand here, right?”
“Right. Remember, last time we powered this up, every unicorn in Ponyville got a fuzzy feeling. Even though that room behind us has lead-lined walls, you and Celestia were both almost knocked on your butts by it.” Cowlick replied, nodding before she became more serious, saying in a gentler voice: “Kid... don't be a hero, though. If it hurts too much, run for it, and we'll shut things down. But you are our best shot, even better than Celestia because of that way you read into stuff, you know? I don't understand your crazy unicorn stuff, but... all you gotta do is catch that charge on your horn. How hard can that be?”
Antares mumbled a little at this, thinking of how difficult it had been for him to mimic even the simplest of magic done by Amdusias, and he sighed after a moment before nodding a few times. “Okay, I'll... try, at least. I know I have to try. Your machine will work though, right?”
Cowlick only shrugged at this, and Antares did not like this response, wincing a little before the engineer grunted and held up a hoof. “Get ready, kid.”
Antares breathed slowly, looking up, shivering once before Cowlick hesitated, then asked finally, even with her hoof still raised: “Listen, are you sure you're up for this? You don't look so healthy these days, Mir. You're all skin and bones and ashen and you kind of need a shower.”
The young stallion blushed, looking down awkwardly for a moment, shifting and not wanting to admit that he probably wasn't in top form. Even after the time he'd spent relaxing with his friends... he kept having nightmares, awful nightmares, about Prestige, and Cancer, and worst of all... himself, what he'd become when Cancer had pushed him too far, about darkness rising up from inside him and making him into...
He shivered and shook his head, then looked up and finally gave a smile, saying quietly: “I'm... I'm okay. I just haven't been taking care of myself lately, but... maybe that's just all the more reason we should find my parents, huh?”
“Please tell me you aren't fantasizing about Mom and Dad taking care of you like a little foal.” Cowlick said wryly, and she seemed both surprised and relieved when Antares actually laughed... and it was the rare, honest laugh that came from him these days. But the very fact he had started being able to laugh again... it was reassuring. “Okay, okay. Greece, let 'er rip!”
Cowlick swung her hoof down at the same time as she spoke, and Greece nodded from behind the plated glass as Antares winced, hurriedly anchoring himself and raising his head as he snapped: “Cowlick, you can't just-”
And then there was a loud crackle as a power surge burst along the meteor, before the countless gemstones that filled the cradle of the probe all began to glow, the core antennae at the center sparking with electricity as a thrum filled the air. Runes shone with iridescent, supernatural light that spilled up from the carved altar, and Antares cursed in pain as electricity sizzled over his horn before it began to glow in response to the tremendous force of energy being emitted from the probe.
They had purposefully enhanced the design of the meteor to emit a signal far more powerful than necessary: it greatly heightened their chances of being able to trace the signal to the coordinates they were bound for, after all. The problem was that all that power created some very intense side-effects, not the least of which shocks of energy and force that had caused the cracks in the heavy glass and started to damage the meteor itself.
Antares struggled to think, gasping in shock at how much psychic pressure he felt being exerted against his mind this close to the meteor, as images of a world he'd only briefly seen flashed violently through his mind. He saw a hulking ruin, and a castle, and a broken train bridge, and a deep dark pit, and Antares latched onto these visions and the power he felt thrumming through them, onto the thoughts of this world before Cowlick gave a loud yell as she was knocked off her hooves by a booming explosion.
Antares cursed as another shockwave rippled through the area, before his eyes widened as he heard a whisper, saw gears, felt something both inside him and across time and space stir... and then the large dish above sparked before it tore loose from the ceiling and toppled down, crashing into the meteor. The probe sizzled with electricity as gemstones exploded like fireworks, rattling the dish as Antares stumbled backwards, cursing and staring at the meteor, at his one hope of reaching Clockwork World, as it shattered and energy sizzled through the air-
The young stallion blinked... and frowned stupidly as he stared at the ceiling above. It looked white, and there were bright lights, and he didn't smell electricity or fire or metal before he groaned as he sat up. He looked dumbly down as he realized he was in a folding bed, before staring across from him at Cowlick as the engineer asked moodily: “So did you get anything out of that or are we back to square one?”
“I... is this the clinic?” Antares asked stupidly, looking back and forth, and Cowlick grumbled before the young stallion looked across at her with shock, realizing one of her forelegs was heavily bandaged as she puffed moodily on a cigarette. “You're hurt...”
“You're a genius, Antares, really. Those mental powers of yours really are just friggin' shining right about now.” Cowlick said grumpily, and Antares looked at her sourly before the engineer sniffed and blew out a plume of smoke. “Since you were obviously out of it, what happened is everything basically freaking exploded. Too much electrical buildup from the meteor, and so... everything just went to hell. Celestia said she tried to copy the energy pulse but she couldn't... she was really hoping you did, but you were just drooling and staring until you-”
“Dammit, Cowlick!” interrupted a voice, and Scarlet Sage stormed in through the open clinic door, the engineer wincing away before the Pegasus reached up and yanked the cigarette out of her muzzle, then crushed it out on a side table, glaring down at the earth pony. “Give me your cigarettes, you can have them back when you leave.”
“Why don't we just skip a whole bunch of stuff and you let me leave right now?” Cowlick asked mildly, and when Scarlet Sage only looked at her pointedly, the engineer mumbled before sighing and reaching into a side pocket, pulling out a rumpled back of smokes. Scarlet Sage took these with a grumble and tucked it into a pack at her side, and the earth pony said dryly: “I better have all eight in there when I get that pack back.”
“I might just throw them out now.” Scarlet Sage grumbled, and Cowlick huffed before the Pegasus turned and strode quickly over to her brother's bedside, the unicorn smiling lamely at her, but she only reached up and gently checked his pulse as she asked softly: “How are you feeling?”
Antares shook his head, rubbing at his face slowly before he hesitated and said quietly: “I... I think I might know where Clockwork World is.”
Cowlick looked up sharply at this as Scarlet Sage leaned down intently, and the young stallion frowned and reached up to touch his face, murmuring: “I'm not... entirely sure, but I felt... I felt something. Something intense, and I feel like I know the way to the world, I just have to... to... reach out, you know?”
“Wait, Antares, we're doing blood work on you and Cowlick, just in case, and you came in unconscious and bleeding a little.” Scarlet Sage said slowly, and then she began to shake her head, looking over the young stallion and saying quietly: “And you haven't been taking care of yourself, look at you... you should rest, and I'll get you a good meal, and-”
And then Scarlet Sage winced in surprise when she felt a hoof reach into her pack, glaring over her shoulder as Cowlick yanked her cigarettes free to cradle them in her wounded limb before grunting and jerking her head at Antares as if Scarlet Sage wasn't even there, saying mildly: “Come on, let's go see Celestia, kid.”
“Cowlick, you can't just walk out of here!” Scarlet Sage said in a frustrated voice, rounding immediately on the earth pony as Antares winced and shrank back a bit in bed, wondering awkwardly which pony he was more afraid of. “Your blood work is still being processed, and you suffered a concussion and some extremely large lacerations, and-”
“Look, me and Antares are just going to fidget and whine and make your life hell if you force us to stay, and I don't want to take the risk that whatever the kid figured out, it fades out of memory before he gets to see Celestia. Furthermore, I'm pretty sure that you're the only pony in this clinic with the balls to try and stop me from leaving.” the engineer retorted, and Scarlet Sage glowered at her before Cowlick leaned forwards, adding moodily: “The emphasis is on try, by the way, 'cause I will kick your flank if you try and stop me, understood?”
Slowly, Scarlet Sage rubbed at her face before muttering: “You're even worse than Pinkamena. Fine. Fine, Antares, if you feel well enough, you can go...” She halted, then reached up and squeezed his shoulder firmly, looking down into his eyes quietly. “But come and stay at the house with me and Apple Bloom tonight. We'll make you a good dinner and you can just relax, okay?”
“Now if only she wasn't your sister, right, Antares? Unless you're into that.” Cowlick said dryly, and Scarlet Sage looked slowly, grouchily up at the engineer, who leaned down and nuzzled into her pack of cigarettes as she muttered: “I'm nicotine-deprived, sore as hell, and about half of my facility is still in a state of 'blown-to-pieces.' You should all feel lucky I ain't running my mouth worse than I already am, since you're a stallion now and all, Antares.”
“I...” Antares shifted a bit, then he shook his head and smiled faintly, shaking his head as he murmured: “Not for a few months yet, Cowlick, it hasn't even really cooled down into autumn yet.”
“Kid, age doesn't make you an adult. If it did, Dash would have a way bigger brain and I wouldn't be popping amphetamines and drinking all the time.” Cowlick replied mildly as she finally managed to pull a cigarette free from the pack, and Antares sighed before he smiled a bit as Scarlet Sage helped him out of bed, before wincing when Cowlick slapped him on the shoulder as she turned and limped towards the exit. “Now come on, let's go see Celestia. I'm starting to really believe what Luna used to say, you know, that Celestia always knows something. Mare plays her cards close and always has too many of them in her hoof, you know what I mean?”
“Not at all.” Antares muttered, and Cowlick only grunted as Scarlet Sage followed behind them, the young stallion adding over his shoulder to the Pegasus: “But... I'll definitely come by tonight. Is it okay if Aphrodisia wants to come, too?”
“It always is.” Scarlet Sage said softly, and Antares smiled a little before she sighed when Cowlick grinned wryly. “Don't say anything or I swear that I'll make your head explode.”
“Touchy, touchy. And here I thought you lesbians were supposed to be nice.” Cowlick muttered, and Scarlet Sage grumbled under her breath as Antares simply dropped his head, following the engineer awkwardly out of the building as the Pegasus waved them moodily away.
They headed towards the library, the young stallion striding up beside the limping earth pony and nervously looking at her, but Cowlick only shook her head as she rolled her unlit cigarette back and forth between her teeth, murmuring: “Don't gimme that look, Antares. I'm fine, I've had a lot worse than this happen to me... hell, Rusty... when he was young, first learning the work, engine blew up on the kid, right in front of him. Hurt him real bad, I remember... I was so scared for the poor colt. He had to spend a week in hospital...”
“I remember that.” Antares said softly, and he smiled a little, shaking his head slowly. “Avalon and I were so worried about him. I remember some dumb kid made fun of him, and Avalon just... zoomed over and rammed into his head and knocked him out. She got in so much trouble.”
Cowlick laughed and shook her head, grinning a bit as she looked up. “Yeah? Good on her. I always liked that little firecracker. Tiny little runt, but Dash is always saying how she makes him look slow and AJ never shuts up about her either, even these days. But I get that... and I know that I still talk about Rusty all the time and how much... he's always made me proud.”
She nodded a little, looking down before asking quietly: “How are you coping over Prestige, kid? You holding up okay? And be honest, don't give me your usual horseapples.”
“It's hard, but... I dunno.” Antares halted, glancing over at the engineer and smiling faintly, and when Cowlick grunted at him, he added quietly: “I don't want to say I'm okay, because... I don't know if I am, and I don't know if that's the right thing to even say, you know? I'm scared of what other ponies-”
“Oh, screw other ponies.” Cowlick muttered, shaking her head and saying irritably: “Who cares what they think, because... because you or I ain't crying in our sheets every night. I don't give a rat's ass what anypony thinks about how I should or shouldn't remember my son... I'm remembering him my way, and I'm moving forwards with life. And nopony loved that boy more than me and Ross did, not one, but I ain't gonna turn into some sad sack over the fact he's gone. He's supposed to be in a better place, right? He hated to see me crying, right? Then I want him to know that I'm happy. I'm goddamn happy, because that's all my kid wanted for me, wanted for the world. Screw wasting time being sad. You don't have to be sad to honor and respect and remember the people you've lost.”
Cowlick shook her head violently... and then she winced when Pinkamena all but materialized beside her, grinning as she tilted her head towards the engineer and said mildly: “Careful, Cowlick, you keep talking like that and you'll end up sounding just like an angrier version of Slippers.”
“Yeah, well, I don't go around screwing everything, do I?” Cowlick asked mildly, and Pinkamena gave the engineer a sour look before the demon reached out and swiped her cigarettes away, Cowlick halting in the road with an outraged shout.
Antares sighed as Pinkamena shoved a cigarette in her muzzle, then rolled her eyes and pushed the cigarettes a little too hard back into Cowlick's wounded foreleg, making the engineer wince as the demon said moodily: “Anyway, dyke. I'm here because Princess Sunshine is looking for you and Antares, but I see you two are on the way anyway. She got a message from Kvasir about Clockwork World: apparently they have an idea of where it is from that last signal. And oh, Antares, by the way: if you don't let me come with you, I'm going to gut you like a fish and eat your intestines.”
“Yes, Aunt Pinkamena.” Antares said tiredly, shaking his head slowly, and the demon looked grumpy at this lack of response before the young stallion glanced up and said quietly: “Dad was really that important to you, huh?”
Pinkamena only grumbled, and then Cowlick snorted in amusement before she glanced up at the sky as she started to limp down the dusty road again, murmuring: “Gotta admit though, kid. It'll be nice to have your parents back... and with all the hype and stuff in the air, I can't help but feel and hope that you're right. I mean I always hoped, but... it felt like a wild hope before, you know? Now... now I almost believe a hundred percent myself that they must be out there somewhere, waiting for us.”
Antares smiled a little, nodding slowly before the engineer smiled a bit, looking forwards as she said quietly: “Yeah. Your Mom and Dad were great damn ponies, Antares. I'm eager to see both of 'em, but especially Luna... she was always so damn fun. Your Dad was more of a creepy dude.”
Pinkamena grunted in agreement, and Antares smiled and shook his head as the trio continued onwards towards the library, crossing the square at a slow pace as Cowlick grumbled and limped moodily along. The demon pulled ahead when they reached the door, kicking it open to stride inside and announce loudly as Celestia looked up from the table: “I brought the losers back with me.”
“Did the CIA blow up their helicopter and leave them for dead?” asked Discombobulation mildly, the Draconequus leaning over Celestia and grasping her shoulders lightly, and the ivory mare smiled slightly even as the chimerical creature added in a loud whisper: “Clearly that stands for the Celestia Intelligence Agency. Alas, betrayal. Always a great way to jump-start a bloody revenge story.”
Pinkamena grunted in agreement as Cowlick limped in and Antares followed behind her, and the Baroness leaned forwards with concern, saying quietly: “Cowlick, it looks like you should rest...”
“Screw it, I'm fine. Besides, better to be out of that damn clinic and away from your niece. She bugs me. She's way too nice for someone who can kill people by touching them. If I could kill people like she could I'd be a royal pain in the ass all the time because no one could say boo to me about it.” Cowlick grumbled, then she pulled her cigarette out of her mouth, holding it up and asking mildly: “Anyone got a light?”
“Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.” Discombobulation remarked dryly, and then he flicked his wrist, a lighter appearing in his metallic hand. He began to lean forwards as he clicked it open... then he cleared his throat at the flat look Celestia gave him before she turned her moody eyes on Cowlick, who winced and sat back as the Draconequus mumbled: “Well, they are bad for one's health and all, yes. And without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”
Cowlick mumbled a little in response to this, before Pinkamena pulled her own cigarette out of her muzzle and said dryly: “You, Bob, are officially now a bigger suck-up than sissy. Not that I can really blame you. You ever beat him, Princess Sunshine? Your brother seems to like it.”
Celestia only sighed as Antares winced and looked awkwardly at Pinkamena, before the ivory mare replied dryly: “I wish you would really keep the details about your so-called 'games' with my brother to yourself. It's bad enough when Sleipnir decides to tell me about them.”
“At least I'm not like your sister. She used to beat Scrivy in front of everyone all the time.” Pinkamena replied mildly, and Antares visibly winced again before the demon grinned widely, winking over at the young stallion. “Oh don't worry, Antares, your Dad seemed to like it. Then again, there were a lot of twisted things he liked, which is why me and him got along so well.”
“Okay, okay, okay, you've made your point, please... stop trying to scar me for life.” Antares mumbled, but Pinkamena only snorted in amusement in response to this.
“Kid, if I wanted to scar you for life, I'd light up this cigarette or use my teeth.” Pinkamena replied derisively, and then she strode towards the table, adding moodily: “Anyway, Princess Sunshine. We're clear that I'm part of the first strike, right?”
“I take it that you have some good news of your own, then, Antares?” Celestia seemed surprised all the same as she glanced towards the young stallion, who smiled and nodded hesitantly. The ivory winged unicorn tilted her head curiously, studying him in the awkward silence that followed before she prompted gently: “You were able to...”
Antares hesitated a moment longer, biting his lower lip before he said finally: “I think I... know the way to Clockwork World. I can't explain it completely but... I saw images in my mind, and felt like something... inside me responded to something... on the other side. Do... do you think that maybe... Mom or Dad...”
He fell quiet, and Celestia softened, studying the young stallion before she leaned forwards and asked quietly: “What did you see, Antares?”
“Darkness and mire, and... a big castle. I think it was Canterlot once, but now it was just ruins... metallic, ancient ruins.” Antares said softly, looking down and nodding slowly before he closed his eyes. “A broken bridge, and... a deep, dark pit. My instincts tell me that the last is really important... that it's where we have to go. The end of that path on the map...”
Celestia nodded back, studying him, and the young stallion murmured: “And I feel like... there's this thin, frail connection right now, between me and Clockwork World... like something inside me is stretching out towards it, and something else is reaching back to me. It feels so weird, and it's so hard to describe... it's like... a wire.”
“Or a string. Specifically, puppet-string.” Pinkamena muttered darkly, and Antares frowned at this before the demon said distastefully, glancing towards Celestia with eyes that betrayed a strange, sudden nervousness: “We never figured out whether or not it was Valthrudnir behind all this, did we?”
“Scrivener and Luna both believed it wasn't Valthrudnir behind everything. I believe they were right... and either way, if he had survived, we likely wouldn't be here right now.” Celestia replied calmly, shaking her head as Antares shifted uncomfortably and Cowlick looked up with a grimace.
“Okay then, Princess Sunshine. Here's another thought. What about Gymbr?” Pinkamena tilted her head, moodily leaning forwards over the table as her gaze locked with the Baroness' own. “Whatever the hell that thing was I still don't know, but we do know that he liked to play games, and he didn't like playing fair. What if Gymbr has been sitting pretty these ten years, building some new nasty empire, waiting for us to come to him? Waiting, maybe specifically, for Antares, with the way he seemed to haunt him for all those years.”
But Antares shook his head slowly, murmuring: “It isn't Gymbr. At his core, Gymbr was... lost, and alone, and... sad. He didn't want to be what he had become, how with all his power, he was still only a destroyer... he was the opposite of Cancer.”
Antares grimaced a bit, then he rubbed slowly at his face as he felt a shiver run down his spine, heard Cancer's chuckling in his mind, remembered the broken body of the monster sprawled over the ground... and worst of all, remembering that feeling of standing over him, grinning and burning him and making the monster scream and cry for mercy and relishing it...
Pinkamena struck the back of Antares' head lightly, and the glossy-black stallion winced and shook his head hurriedly. Celestia only tilted her head a bit, and the young male said quietly: “I'm sorry. I just got... caught up in bad memories for a minute there. But I think if we work together to open the Bifrost, Aunt Tia, I can give you the coordinates. I think I remember how to... combine my magic with other unicorns. I just don't know how well I'll handle such a big spell. I'm scared your magic could just overpower mine completely, since I'm no good at stuff like that.”
“You just need to believe more in yourself, Antares. Your mother would be proud to see you using her magic... and prouder still to see you learning to do without it.” Celestia replied quietly, smiling a little and shaking her head slowly. “But no, our magic works well together because... its distinct, yet similar. Like...” She smiled, glancing over her shoulder at Discombobulation. “Bob and I.”
“It's weird is what it is.” Pinkamena muttered, glancing moodily over at the two as Cowlick grunted in agreement. “Both the fact that little prince's magic apparently contains so much positive energy and the fact that you and him are all...”
“She's Big Barda and I'm Mister Miracle.” Discombobulation said informatively, and then he paused and added thoughtfully, as Celestia looked back at him with amusement while the Draconequus squeezed lightly into her shoulders: “I like that name a lot because I really don't have to go ahead and explain to you that she's this Amazonian giantess who likes to beat on things.”
“Yes, that describes me well.” Celestia said mildly, and Antares smiled a little as he shook his head slowly before the ivory mare hesitated, then studied the young stallion before she asked quietly: “Do you feel the connection strengthening or weakening?”
Antares hesitated, and then he shook his head slowly, reaching up and touching his own chest thoughtfully as he murmured: “No. It feels like... like something woke up in my mind. It's weird... it's like there was something there all along that knew the way, but... it just needed the right boost. And I guess I got that from being so close to the meteor.”
The winged unicorn studied him silently, and then she nodded slowly before asking finally: “How are you doing physically?”
“I... I'm okay.” Antares nodded hesitantly, stretching out his leathery wings with a wince and flapping them once before furling them back at his sides. “Backaches as usual, but nothing new. I just feel... you know. Not exactly happy.”
Antares laughed a little despite himself, shaking his head slowly before he began to close his eyes, but they snapped back open in surprise when Celestia said quietly: “Then we leave tomorrow. Take the rest of today to rest and get ready, Antares. I'll get everyone together and have our supplies and equipment put together.”
“You can't do that! I can't run the goddamn Bifrost like this!” Cowlick flailed her wounded limb, looking outraged even as she winced. “And goddammit, I deserve to be part of that team and-”
Celestia glanced over at her, horn glowing brightly, and Cowlick hissed in pain as a golden aura surrounded her limb. Steam hissed up from the bandages as Antares and Pinkamena stared, and Discombobulation winced back, before the engineer wheezed loudly and grabbed at her foreleg as the glow died down, the winged unicorn saying calmly: “I've fused the worst of the damage back together. It won't be pretty and the stitches should remain in, but the graft should all the same hold.”
Cowlick reached up and winced a bit as she peeled away a bit of smoldering bandage, muttering under her breath before saying dryly: “Not that I'm ungrateful or anything, Baroness, but... oh holy hell what did you do to me?”
The engineer stared as she drew back some of the bandaging, looking at the marred, faintly-pulsing scar tissue and burnt skin around a large, deep cut that had sealed almost completely closed. She winced away from the sight instinctively, then poked at her leg a little as Celestia said quietly: “Cauterization mixed with a simple healing spell. It stings and it doesn't look pleasant, but you'll be able to make the run.”
“Well, Tia, that may have been just a touch unnecessary.” Discombobulation said pointedly, and Celestia shifted awkwardly before the chimerical creature added moodily: “But then again, it's not like you have any X-Potions available, either. I've always wondered how those work, really. I mean, do you drink them, or do you splash them all over yourself?”
“No, no, it's fine. Damn, though, feels stiff.” Cowlick muttered, flexing her foreleg with a wince before she half-tucked the bandages back closed. Then the engineer grinned awkwardly over at Celestia, rubbing slowly at the slightly-seared cloth as she added: “You... might want a bit more tact there, but... yeah, I appreciate it.”
The ivory winged unicorn smiled after a moment, but Antares was only continuing to almost nervously study his aunt: he could see the almost glow that had lit up in her eyes, the trembles in her body, the smallest of fidgets in the way she moved one hoof back and forth unconsciously along the tabletop. Her ephemeral mane gave short, faint pulses, and she was breathing unevenly... but most telling of all, Antares thought, was the way that Discombobulation was leaning back from her, with one hand gripping into her shoulder as he gazed at her with apprehension and concern.
Antares hesitated, then he asked quietly: “Are... are you sure, Aunt Tia? I'm... I want to do this too, but... it looked like late afternoon outside, and-”
“Tomorrow would be best.” Celestia said quietly, her eyes shifting quickly towards Antares, focusing in on him: and when she next spoke, he heard both her words, and the words beneath her words. “I don't want to wait any longer: the best course of action is to head as soon as possible towards Clockwork World. I would want to leave immediately, Antares, if it was possible, but I understand that we'll require the aid of others and... they have a right to take part in this mission, too.”
Celestia stopped, then shook her head and said quietly: “But you should go and speak to your mother, Antares. Let her know what's going on.”
Antares shifted apprehensively, and then he slipped out of his seat as Pinkamena moodily stepped forwards and said quietly: “Better be careful. It's a slippery slope you're on.”
The young stallion smiled faintly, not entirely sure who Pinkamena was talking to, and yet he knew it was true for them both. Inside him, after all, warred a thousand emotions: and what truly had him scared, as he headed for the back steps of the library, was the fact that he suddenly was so afraid of the idea of going to Clockwork World that he almost wished he could just hide away, and leave some other pony to do all the hard work of bringing his parents back to him.
Antares headed up to the guest room, where even now, Twilight was cloistered... but he smiled softly when he stepped through the door and saw that at least she was sitting up in bed, with Burning Desire resting in an armchair he'd dragged up into here at some point. The fiery stallion glanced up with a quiet laugh as the Lich put down the book she had been reading, gazing quietly across at Antares with a violet eye and a socket filled with unnatural blue fire, murmuring: “It's good to see you. Did I hear what I think I did?”
The glossy-black unicorn smiled faintly as he strode forwards, nodding a little as he studied her silently: even as Twilight Sparkle had gotten stronger over the last month, her damaged phylactery meant her body didn't have the same cohesion it once did. She was emaciated where purple coat still clung to her frame, and one foreleg was nothing but bleached bones; likewise, half of her features were nothing but bare skull, with those strange, shimmering flames burning in one socket. And yet looking at her, Antares saw only his mother: saw only a loving, wonderful, kindhearted mare as he sat quietly down on the edge of the bed, then reached out to gently take one of the Lich's hooves in both his own, making her smile. “Yeah. I'm... I'm really worried, though, Mom. I... I mean, I'm anxious, and I'm excited, but at the same time I'm so scared that... what if I do find them, and they...”
“Antares, they're going to be so proud of you. So truly, incredibly proud.” Twilight soothed, putting her book aside before she glanced over at Burning Desire, adding softly as the demon smiled faintly: “And you and I still have the week together, Burning... I'm not going to ask you to go to Clockwork World on my behalf, when... we both know what it means.”
“Yes, we do.” Burning said softly, and then he shook his head before adding in a quiet, firm voice, pride and tenderness overwhelming the sorrow in his eyes: “But my sweet violet... I would gladly, gladly go if you requested it. To protect your son, and to help... bring you back the happiness that I know I can't give you myself. And besides, it's only right that I meet these ponies and make sure they're everything you say they are. I'm very protective of you, even if you protect me more often than I succeed in protecting you.”
“I know. I know, and I appreciate it, and... I care about you, deeply. And we're going to make the most of this week... I have enough strength for that, even with my phylactery still bleeding energy.” Twilight smiled, then she glanced towards Antares and softened at the look of concern on his features. “No, it's okay. I'm still anchored, it's just... why I'm healing so slowly, and why I haven't really been able to properly recover from... what happened. My essence regenerates faster than it bleeds into the air, so... you honestly don't have to worry.”
“I'm always going to worry.” Antares said softly, squeezing her hoof gently before he looked at the side table where the pieces of her phylactery laid. For a moment, he felt a tremor of pain... and then he closed his eyes before saying quietly: “When I bring Mom and Dad back... are they going to be able to help fix you, too?”
“I think so. I hope so... Celestia made me into a Lich with Gymbr's guidance and assistance, but it was Luna's realm of magic that I used to bind myself to the music box. Once I'm stronger, and if I have Luna helping me... I can create a new phylactery.” Twilight hesitated, opened her mouth... then simply smiled and shook her head, casting off whatever she had been about to say as she suggested quietly: “Why don't you go out to the cottage, get your things together, and then come back here? We'll go out for dinner tonight.”
She looked over at Burning Desire softly, and the fiery stallion smiled a little before Antares laughed and shook his head. “Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage already invited me over for dinner with them... I know, Mom, let's ask them too, or maybe have you two can come with me. And probably Apps, I'm going to look for her, too.”
“I'll go and find out!” Burning Desire said cheerfully, before Twilight could reply, and then the demon burst into flames that whirled into his firebird shape, flying quickly out of the room as Twilight sighed and rolled her eyes, but smiled in amusement all the same.
Antares smiled lamely as well, and then the Lich softened as she reached a hoof up, stroking slowly through his mane before she said quietly: “I love you, Antares. You're my son. And I hope that I can still be Twilight-Mommy to you even after Luna and Scrivy are back.”
“Well I'm not going to call you 'Twilight-Mommy' but you are my mom still. You always have been. You always will be a mother to me, and I'll always be your son... and I love you too. Without you, I'd... I'd be a lot dumber.” Antares replied with a faint smile, and the violet mare smiled softly back before Antares quietly leaned forwards and gently kissed her forehead, the Lich closing her eye with a touched look on her face. “Take care, okay? I'll be back soon, but I know that I should go and get my things from the cottage, you're right. I gotta be ready for tomorrow.”
“Good, Antares. You go ahead, and I'll meet up with you tonight, one way or the other.” Twilight replied softly, and then she gazed silently after the young stallion as he turned and left with a last smile over his shoulder, the Lich quieting as she reached up and rubbed at her face slowly before murmuring: “You'll bring them back, Antares. I know you will.”
The night that followed was soft and quiet, almost solemn: despite how much everyone wanted to be happy and excited, the gravity of what they were getting into weighed down on each and every pony. But it wasn't sorrowful, or unhappy: it was merely the understanding that they were getting ready to enter what had once been one of the most dangerous places across the layers of reality... and more than that, they were finally going to discover what had happened to Luna and Scrivener, after nearly a decade of not knowing if they were dead or alive.
Antares spent the night at Scarlet Sage's townhouse with his family: Twilight Sparkle and Burning Desire left in the early evening, however, so that Twilight could get her rest. The fiery stallion had been clear in saying that if he was wanted, he would be willing to come with Antares... but Antares had told him quietly to enjoy his time with Twilight instead. He also reminded the demon gently that he wouldn't be forgotten or cast aside... Antares made sure to make it clear that if anything, Luna and Scrivener would want to thank and befriend Burning Desire for everything he had done.
The demon looked quiet at this, and then he had smiled a little, saying softly: “And in the future, I'm sure we will be friends, Antares. But I'm not made of the same stuff as Sleipnir: while I'll always love and eagerly be at your mother's side, I fear I might be bitter for a while with your parents. Still, though... if they treat my sweet violet well... if they are good to her, and I see they make her happy, and they show her proudly to the world... then perhaps one day we'll all be friends together. And I am eager to meet them, I am. It's only... difficult to temper my longing sometimes.”
And Antares could understand, in a way: he thought of other happy couples he had seen, now that he had lost Prestige, and how sometimes bitterness rose up in him. He thought of the anger he felt, and the desire to lash out that he knew made no sense, and yet was always there anyway: he thought of how sometimes he would wonder quietly why he had to lose Prestige, while other ponies got to live happy lives forever in peace and harmony, in little lucky pockets safe from mayhem and violence, and he wondered silently why he had been born into the opposite life: why he had to give so much, and was paid in return with blood and heartache. And he couldn't imagine the kind of strength that Burning Desire must have to willingly give up the love of his life like he was.
The young stallion had managed to keep his thoughts peaceful for the most part: dinner and talking with everyone helped, as had the long, hot bath he'd relaxed in afterwards, soothing his body and helping clear his mind. That was, until the point when he'd opened his eyes and stared at Aphrodisia, who had apparently decided to join him in the tub that was far too small for two ponies to comfortably fit into, and he'd scrambled hurriedly out while she'd whined loudly at him about not being any fun.
But Aphrodisia was good for him, in spite of her eccentricities, lack of understanding about boundaries or personal space, and her bubbly sadomasochism. After Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage had gone to bed and Antares and Aphrodisia had retreated to the guest room, the demon insisted on building a fortress out of pillows and blankets, then on hiding in it together as she rambled away about all sorts of gossip and things until finally, the cousins ended up sprawled out over each other.
In the morning, Antares felt... ready. He didn't know how else to describe it: it was like while he slept, everything that had worried him had fallen away, and now all he could think about was forging forwards and finding his parents. He hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder at Aphrodisia, who was snoozing on his back... and then he carefully leaned up and kissed her cheek, whispering: “Thanks, little sister, for always... knowing what to do.”
“Big brother...” Aphrodisia murmured sleepily, and she smiled in her dreams, shifting forwards and half-hugging him with a foreleg, burying her face against him as she murmured drowsily. And Antares simply looked up at her, soft and quiet: he reflected on how fortunate he was in spite of everything, to have people like this in his life. She was a demon, and yet she was family and his very best friend, probably even closer to him than Meadowlark... even if Meadowlark was someone he could turn to for things he couldn't even talk to Aphrodisia about.
Antares smiled at this thought, mulling over what it meant, thinking about friendship and family and values. After only a few minutes, though, Aphrodisia's eyes opened, and the demon yawned before smiling and crawling forwards, making the stallion wheeze as she crawled on top of him, hugged him tightly around the neck, and mashed her face down against him, mumbling: “You're comfy.”
“Get off me, Apps, we gotta get up. Also, this is creepy.” Antares paused, then looked down at her moodily as Aphrodisia only grumbled, continuing to cling stubbornly against him as she yawned tiredly and curled herself up into a little ball. “Demons don't need to sleep.”
“That's why it makes it... so... so hard to get up... afterwards...” Aphrodisia mumbled tiredly, then she grumbled a little. “Besides. I'm half-Lust. I like physical touch, and... you're comforting. So don't be poo-brain.”
“That's Avalon's word.” All the same, Antares only rolled his eyes, resting back for a few moments, letting Aphrodisia relax. It was nice, admittedly, and it brought a strange, almost gentle sadness to him as he thought of Prestige... how much she liked to curl up with him, how warm she had always been...
He closed his eyes, reaching up to stroke slowly through the demon's mane, and Aphrodisia mumbled: “Don't start anything, Nova. I'll call your bluff and Mommy and Aunt Tia will get really mad at us both.”
“Don't be gross, Apps.” Antares pushed at her a bit, and Aphrodisia finally grumbled and sat up, yawning loudly before she looked blearily around. Antares sat up... and then he winced when she turned and belched out a burst of orange fog over his face, the young stallion hurriedly waving this away as he complained: “Dammit, I just said don't be gross!”
“I'm not being gross, I'm making sure you don't be a butt today.” Aphrodisia argued grumpily, as Antares felt a strange mix of numbness and pleasure lighting up his nerves, blurring his thoughts a little before Aphrodisia poked his chest quietly with a cloven hoof. “Look, Nova. We're gonna find Aunt Brynhild and Uncle Scrivy, okay? But you can't get self-loathing and self-upset and stuff, that won't help. So just... let me know if you need me to calm you down and I'll do it. I can do that. I can look after you a little for how often you look after me.”
Antares softened a bit at this, and then he gave a small smile, reaching up and squeezing her shoulder gently as he said quietly: “I appreciate it, but... honestly, I do feel good, and I am ready, I think. We... we are going to find my Mom and Dad, yeah. Maybe not today, but we're going to Clockwork World, and I know that once we're there, we won't let anything stop us.”
“Good.” Aphrodisia nodded approvingly, and the two smiled at each other before she reached up and touched his face quietly. “You better be telling the truth, Antares. You still look.. twitchy.”
“Do I?” Antares reached up and rubbed slowly at his face, and then he shook his head as he let his thoughts trail out: it was easier than usual with the numbness and the soft pleasure tickling through his nerves here and there, and after a few moments, the young unicorn finally smiled a little, saying quietly: “Well, let's go downstairs, and I'll let you know if I need... any more help. But no more ambushes.”
“Fine, fine.” Aphrodisia grumbled and nodded back, and then she glanced around at the blankets, sheets, and pillows set up in a tent around them, adding moodily: “I wish I could do this with Daddy more, but he's big and clumsy and always knocks everything over. He was real grumpy about not getting to go with us, too... but I'm glad Mommy is coming, at least. That makes me feel safer.”
“Me too.” The young stallion laughed and nodded, carefully wiggling out of an opening in the sheets as he reflected mildly: “Although sometimes I think only you and I are the ones who ever feel safer around your Mom.”
Aphrodisia simply plowed through the pillow fort, knocking sheets and other thankfully-soft things in all directions, and Antares grumbled as he turned around to clean up the guest room... only for the demon to bull into him and force him out into the corridor even as she remarked cheerfully: “I like how she's your aunt and I'm your cousin but it's like she's your big sister and I'm your little sister. That makes our family even weirder than it already is. Sometimes I wish we really were all siblings, though, but I guess that would probably be bad.”
“Probably.” Antares rubbed slowly at his face with a sigh, but he was smiling all the same before he turned and added wryly: “I wish you didn't think like that, Apps.”
Aphrodisia only huffed, adding mildly as they made their way to the stairs: “Again, demon. But I just really want... us all to be close. That's all I care about. That we're family, and we can share things and we all have each other, always...”
“And we always will be.” came Scarlet Sage's voice, and Antares smiled warmly, looking as he and the demon strode down the hall and into the kitchen. The Pegasus was waiting for them there, already pouring them each a mug of tea on the small table as she said softly: “I thought I heard you two up. I'm gonna let Red sleep a little longer, then I'll get her, too, and we'll head over to meet Celestia.”
The young stallion nodded slowly as they approached and each sat down. For a few moments, he studied the Pegasus, and she gazed quietly back at him before reaching out and touching his hoof, saying softly: “It's gonna go well, Antares. I know it is. We're going to find Mom and Dad... and we're going to save them.”
She stopped, then smiled faintly and closed her eyes. “Well, you are, I should say. I wish now that I had done more, little brother... but you never gave up, never stopped fighting, and... I know that's all going to pay off now.”
Antares closed his eyes, smiling a little as he dropped his head and nodded hesitantly, and for a little while there was quiet between the three. They spoke in the silence all the same, however, as they traded looks, hoofs brushed against one-another's, and Scarlet Sage quietly passed food to both younger ponies, silently nudging them into eating a little to keep up their strength.
Apple Bloom came down on her own after a little while, smiling as she entered the kitchen, walking over to Scarlet Sage and trading a short kiss with her before turning to put on coffee. Antares admired the way the couple didn't need words, and he thought quietly of how things had been with Prestige... but as he closed his eyes he reflected that they had possessed their own silent language, too, that by the end, she was able to see into him as deep as he could see into her...
Scarlet Sage left while Apple Bloom sipped at her coffee slowly, and the Pegasus returned in her silvery scale mail. She was wearing crosshatch blades instead of a simple edged bracelet, however, and this above everything else made Antares understand how serious his big sister was taking things... and in return, how serious he himself had to be. She was confident, but also prepared, as she said quietly: “You two should go get dressed as well.”
Antares nodded slowly, finishing the last of a roll of bread as Aphrodisia grunted and hurried off. The young stallion paused as he glanced over Scarlet Sage again, from the silver helm protecting her head to the blades gleaming on her forelegs, and then he smiled over his shoulder at Apple Bloom, saying quietly: “I'm really, really glad you're both coming with me. It means a lot to me.”
“It means more to us to get to, kiddo.” Apple Bloom replied quietly, and Antares lowered his head respectfully before the earth pony winked. “Don't worry though. The way I hear it, you can give Celestia a run for her money.”
“Now that's a huge exaggeration.” All the same, Antares laughed before he turned and quickly headed upstairs, to find Aphrodisia already quickly pulling on a ridged, dark-metal breastplate. The young stallion smiled amusedly at the sight of her grumbling as she tried to wiggle into it, then he turned his attention to where he'd left his own armor, knowing better than to try and help Aphrodisia with her gear. He hesitated as he drew his eyes over his equipment, then reached down and made sure the small, black notebook he was bringing along was safely secured in a hidden pocket beneath his breastplate before hurriedly pulling his gear on.
When Antares donned his equipment, everything he was doing sank in, but at the same time he began to feel truly confident, and truly ready for whatever challenges laid ahead. He rubbed a hoof over his polished breastplate, feeling the comfort of the onyx star beneath his armor before he adjusted the rose-etched vambraces, coronet gleaming around his head as he murmured quietly: “I'm ready.”
“Me too.” Aphrodisia added, and Antares glanced up at her with a smile: she had wiggled into her dangerous-looking armor, locked heavy, spiked pauldrons over her shoulder, and secured a skirt of steel plates around her waist with a belt of chain. Her mane was neatly knotted back behind one shoulder, and the two studied each other before they both stepped forwards at the same time and shared a tight, fierce embrace, Aphrodisia murmuring: “We're gonna do it, Nova. We're gonna bring 'em back.”
“Yeah.” Antares agreed in a soft voice, and then the two turned to head downstairs: they were unsurprised to find in the time it had taken them to put on their gear, Apple Bloom had gone upstairs, fitted on her own, and was now back down in the kitchen, drinking another cup of coffee. She smiled from beneath the golden helm that covered her head, solid bracers locked around her limbs and form-fitting light plate covering her body. A rifle was holstered over her back, and she had a rawhide belt with several pouches over it secured tight around her waist.
Scarlet Sage had been trained by Luna, in addition to her Blood Seer powers; Apple Bloom, on the other hoof, had been trained in combat by Sleipnir, even if she was an engineer before she was a warrior. But she knew her way well around the battlefield, and could handle herself with her hooves or with a rifle, on top of her engineering ability. Antares admired her: after all, he was a fighter, but had scarce few other physical skills apart from hitting things with his hooves and horn. Apple Bloom could build or repair anything on top of being skilled at both ranged and melee combat.
They looked over each other, double-checked each other's armor and their own, and then left once Apple Bloom finished her third cup of coffee. On the way, they were joined by Pinkamena in her own banded mail, axe gleaming on her back and a grin on her face as she nodded to Antares and her daughter, and Sleipnir grumbled as he brought up the rear behind them, but looked with soft concern after his family as well as a bit of jealousy over the fact he wouldn't be going.
The others were already waiting for them outside the library: Rainbow Dash, Avalon, Meadowlark, Cowlick, Discombobulation, Big Mac, Soarin' and Celestia. Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Nirvana and Fluttershy, Spike and Rarity, Twilight Sparkle and Burning Desire, Greece and many of the Nibelung all stood a little bit apart, gazing quietly at the others who were all dressed and ready for battle, and Antares looked quietly towards the wagons nearby around which were clustered Celestia's Yamato, and the demons Atrus and Hevatica.
And others were lingering, too, watching with respectful interest, like they wanted to watch but didn't want to interfere, or take away from the solemnity and seriousness of what was going on. Celestia slowly looked over those gathered in front of her, and then she looked at Antares with a faint smile as the young stallion strode forwards and said simply: “I'm ready.”
They simply looked at each other, as Celestia straightened slowly, heavy armor clanking quietly and Tyrfing gleaming on her back, almost as if reflecting her eagerness. The morning sun shone down through the skies, almost making the armored ponies glow before Applejack called clearly from the crowd: “You guys better all take care of yourselves, you hear? Already frustrating enough that my whole damn family gets to go but I gotta stay behind.”
“Aye, Celestia, 'tis the same for me!” Sleipnir said in an outraged voice, and then he paused before leaning over and grinning at Applejack, winking at her. “Perhaps we should take this time and chance to make our own adventure and our own family, does thou not agree with my wisdom?”
Pinkamena grumbled as Aphrodisia only giggled at her father's behavior, and Avalon looked almost jealous: something that clearly made Rainbow's frustration all the more evident as the Pegasus stallion said in a surly voice: “Can you not hit on my wife in front of me? Actually, stop. Flirting with my entire family.”
“I haven't yet flirted with thy pretty daughter! Although 'tis mostly because I have been told it is very rude to flirt with a mare so much my younger, but she is truly prettier by far than many I have laid mine eyes upon. And truly, her talents only bolster the shieldmaiden's beauty!” Sleipnir declared, and then he winced when Applejack punched him in the shoulder and glared at him and Rainbow gave a horrible look to the enormous earth pony, as Avalon covered her mouth and giggled, then hurriedly cleared her throat and tried to look serious when Pinkamena and Aphrodisia both glared at her.
“Sleipnir, focus.” Celestia said gently, and the enormous, vine-maned stallion grunted and nodded after a moment, looking up as the ivory mare smiled a little and drew her eyes over those around her. “Everypony staying here... I'm counting on you to protect Ponyville in my absence. Everypony who will be coming with us... we have a long, harsh journey ahead, into unknown territory, with the possibility of facing unknown foes. We must be careful but steadfast.”
“We'll push until we can't push no more, don't you worry about that, Princess Sunshine.” Pinkamena said moodily, stomping a hoof... but when Antares looked over his shoulder at her, he saw excitement, anxiety, eagerness in her eyes, like she was actually nervous about what was ahead... but all the same, felt that the risk was worth it. “Let's just get moving. No time for long goodbyes.”
“Antares, Celestia... good luck to you both. And bring Scrivener and Luna back.” Twilight said quietly, and Burning Desire nodded even as he wrapped a foreleg tightly around the violet mare's shoulders, smiling faintly.
Antares nodded slowly to his mother, then glanced up at Celestia, barely hearing the others as they spoke goodbyes and wished them luck, as they cheered them on and reassured them that everything would be fine. For a few moments, Celestia and Antares only looked at each other, the young stallion reading deep into Celestia's soul... and then he closed his eyes as the strangest vision of a cardinal perched inside a shining golden cage flooded through his mind, but there were two shapes in the darkness outside that were reaching up as if to force the bars open...
Before Antares could say anything, however, Celestia looked up and said calmly: “Then if we're all packed and ready, it's time to leave. Antares, concentrate on what you described yesterday. I'll open the Bifrost...”
“We'll help.” Twilight said quietly, and then she smiled a little when Celestia looked at her with concern, the Lich shaking her head slowly as she murmured: “I can spare a little strength for Luna and Scrivy, Celestia, and Burning Desire can add his own...”
“And I, too. I may not know how such magic works, but all the same I can give a little more power to the spell.” Rarity added quietly, and Celestia nodded slowly.
She began to turn forwards, then frowned as a voice called out to them, and Antares looked over his shoulder in surprise to see Scutum approaching with Rosewood. The pink unicorn was wheezing for breath, but Scutum looked implacable as ever in his heavy armor and with his sword sheathed over his back, striding towards Celestia before he bowed his head politely to her, saying quietly: “With all respect, your highness, it wouldn't be proper for me to sit back while you go placing yourself in danger. I request permission to join this operation.”
“Antares!” Rosewood snapped, once she'd gotten her breath back, and the young stallion winced before the pink unicorn stormed towards him and glared down at him. “No goodbye? No warning? No letter?”
The young stallion turned beet-red, train of thought derailing completely as he looked wildly back and forth before Rosewood grabbed his shoulders and looked down into his eyes, saying firmly: “Don't do it again, Scutum and I barely managed to get here in time, I see... and I'll help with whatever spell you're doing, too. I know this has something to do with your parents, Prestige... wrote often about that. Told me many stories about what you got up to with that, but... please. Remember that I'm here to help, too. Let me honor my daughter's memory that way.”
Antares softened at this, and when Celestia glanced at him, the young stallion nodded without hesitation. Celestia nodded back, then she said quietly: “Very well then. Just focus your magic towards me, Rosewood, as the others do. I'll open the Bifrost, and Scutum... you are welcome to join us.”
“It's for my daughter. And for the stallion my daughter loved.” Scutum replied quietly with a shake of his head, and Antares smiled faintly before the one-eyed unicorn turned around, head raised high as he said quietly: “Loyalty, above all.”
Celestia nodded slowly, looking down at the soldier for a moment before she raised her head and closed her eyes, horn beginning to glow with golden light as she said quietly: “Honor is everything. And now, let us show our loyalty, our honor, our compassion for the friends who rescued us... by rescuing them.”
Other unicorns rose their heads, horns glowing, adding to the rumble of power that was building in the air, as Antares breathed slowly, feeling that twist inside him, dredging up all the strength he could before he gritted his teeth and rose his head as his own horn grew brighter and brighter... and then his eyes widened, taking on their own luminescence as he saw another flurry of visions, heard clanking, heard the howls of machinery and ponies before he cried out as his head snapped back and his blood boiled in his veins.
Celestia looked down at him sharply, but kept her concentration on the spell before she gritted her teeth, feeling the mix of energies in the air before she snapped her horn upwards with a curse of effort: and a moment later, a golden swirl of flames erupted from the ground, startling those present as it became a cyclone that shot high up into the air before twisting around and smashing into the sky itself like a living, flaming serpent. Reality shattered into puzzle pieces of sky that hailed down like they had become physical, and the fiery cyclone burrowed through this hole in the universe, becoming a glowing tunnel as the flames swirled and transformed into an arcing bridge of rainbow light.
And without hesitation, Celestia dashed for this, running though the crowd of ponies with Antares following close behind on instinct, Scutum and others falling in behind. Her hooves hit the slope of the bridge and charged up along it as if magnetized, gritting her teeth as she felt arcs of energy shocking along her armor before she charged headlong into the hole in reality itself.
The winged unicorn found herself surrounded by sound and swirling light, energy filling up her body as arcs of raw power burst over her frame, adrenaline pumping through her muscles as she shot down the passage in seconds that felt like minutes. It was impossible to know how long she ran for, as she heard the yells and shouts of the other ponies who had followed her up onto the Bifrost, as she sensed Antares behind her, sprinting as fast as he could.
Aunt and nephew tore out the other side of the tunnel almost side-by-side to run down the other side of the bridge... and it was only instinct that kept the two running down the arch as they both looked up in shock at the red sky above. It was the color of wet blood, cloudless and corrupt, with no sun or moon or stars twinkling in the crimson hell above... but the sky was only the beginning.
They ran off the bridge, and the feeling of energy was immediately replaced by feelings of disgust and repulsion, Antares' stomach twisting into knots as he staggered through the dark mess beneath his hooves and stared down in horror: the ground itself was nothing but oily, black mire and ashes and chunks of broken, burnt stone, and as he looked up, he shivered in disbelief at the sight of the only landmarks he could clearly make out: immense, steel pipes, some feeding into strange, long-shut-down structures of some sort, the nearest broken open and scabbed over with dark sludge: with the corruption of Clockwork World, weapon and shield of the Tyrant Wyrms, lifeblood of Valthrudnir's treacherous plans and projects.
Antares staggered weakly, shaking his head as other ponies ran down the Bifrost, the group steadily growing larger until the Yamato Guard finally dragged the armored, golden wagon through last. The Bifrost shattered like glass just as the armored Nightmares cleared the ramp, and the heavy wheels stuck in the sludge as Rainbow Dash looked back and forth, he and the other Pegasi keeping to the safety of the air as he whispered: “This... this can't be Equestria...”
“Oh Horses of Heaven...” Cowlick groaned, and then she yanked a cigarette and lighter hurriedly free from beneath the gemstone vest she was wearing, shoving it into her mouth and lighting up, taking a long, steadying drag before she exhaled and whispered: “Luna and Scrivener... fought through here? This... this was that lunatic's idea of paradise?”
“Perfect, working order...” Celestia murmured, following the pipeline with her eyes towards the mountains in the distance... and the single landmark she could see, a broken and ruptured steel castle that had once been... “Canterlot...”
Antares shook his head weakly, disbelievingly, as ponies shifted uneasily, even Scutum seeming unnerved. The young stallion felt his head swimming, and the corruption along his hooves seemed almost to be trying to drag itself up his body, stirring awful memories in his mind as he swallowed heavily again before looking towards Celestia.
The ivory mare had walked a little bit ahead, was staring blankly towards Canterlot still, as the oppressive, heavy air bore down against them, and Antares quickly began to stride towards her. He opened his mouth... and then everything went blurry as something twisted painfully inside of him, grabbing his stomach and groaning loudly as visions tore through his mind, as he felt the corruption... calling to him...
But then he felt a hoof on his shoulder, looking up to see Celestia there, leaning over him worriedly, and the young stallion forced himself to swallow before whispering: “We need to... get moving.”
For a few moments, Celestia was silent, looking both anxious and almost regretful... but finally, she nodded slowly, and Antares closed his eyes with a shiver. It was going to be a long journey.