• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,707 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

  • ...

Springing The Trap

Chapter Ten: Springing The Trap

Antares awoke with a grunt and a start, looking up in surprise to see Twilight standing over him in the library. He blinked blearily a few times, and then the Lich gestured quickly to his armor, saying sharply: “Get dressed, quick! They're hunting down Cancer as we speak!”

“What?” Antares bolted off the bedding in the back room of the library, and then he nodded hurriedly and jumped over to his equipment, beginning to quickly slip himself into his gear as he asked quickly: “What happened? How, when did this happen?”

Twilight shook her head, smiling grimly as she explained: “Our plan, to drive it out... Tenochtitlan, with Cowlick's help, was able to put together a series of explosives: not powerful ones, not ones designed to even work, as a matter of fact. They were layered over canisters of liquid nitrogen, and it worked even better than we expected: Cancer was apparently drawn to one almost the moment they were setting them up, and he was frozen solid. He started to thaw immediately, of course, nothing is ever that easy, but Pinkamena, Hevatica, and Aphrodisia are chasing him through the tunnels, driving him towards the drop-off!”

“When... when did all this happen?” Antares asked incredulously, as he slapped a set of vambraces over his forelegs... and then he looked down at these, startled, before raising one: they were made of beautiful black alloy, covered in etchings of black roses. “These... these aren't mine...”

“They were your father's. I had Sleipnir alter them just a little, to better fit you.” Twilight said quietly, and she smiled a little as Antares looked up at her with surprise. “It was going to be a present for you when you left but... look, we can talk about that later. For now, we need to get moving. There are several teams of demons working to drive Cancer through the sewers right now, we need to get all the way out to the pit. Cowlick's already there, throwing Horses of Heaven know what into that death-trap.”

Antares nodded quickly, giving her a brief, warm smile as he finished fitting his armor on, horn glowing and tightening clasps along his body as Twilight turned and headed quickly out to the front of the library. The young stallion was surprised as he followed her and saw Prestige and Avalon both there: the young unicorn mare was uncomfortably wearing a gemstone-studded vest, while Avalon was grinning widely, a helmet ornamented with blade-like fins half-masking her features and tight, lightweight metal armor over her body.

Her limbs were protected as well, but by what were more weapon than armor: her lower legs had spiked guards over her shins, and her upper legs had crosshatch blades: the deadly, traditional weapons of Pegasus hunters, they were bracers that covered the entire lower portion of one limb, with four long, razor-like blades that ran the length of the vambrace at each cardinal compass point. Dangerous to use, but incredibly effective when mastered.

“Avalon, Prestige, Antares... you three and I will all be part of the security group at the pit.” Twilight said quickly as she headed for the door and gestured for the others to follow, and Avalon grinned widely, speeding along through the air behind the Lich as Antares and Prestige both hurried out after the tiny Pegasus. The group broke into a quick but easy run as they began to make their way through the streets of Ponyville: streets that were lit up almost as bright as day from the many houses that had turned all their lights on, plainly aware something was going on. “Our job is to make sure that Cancer falls into the pit.

“They managed to start driving Cancer through the sewer tunnels about an hour ago: it's taking so long to push him where we want him to go because he keeps trying to hide or dissolving himself, and we have to keep double-checking all exits are locked down and sealed. But he's getting close now, and soon he'll be in the final stretch... Celestia herself is going to wait near there, to give him the final push out.” Twilight continued, and when Antares looked worriedly at Twilight, she smiled faintly and shook her head quickly. “Don't worry, she'll be fine. She's strong, Antares. Have... have faith in her.”

Twilight looked back at him softly, and Antares knew the last comment wasn't just about Celestia's ability in battle... and Antares nodded hesitantly. No, dessert hadn't proven to be the best or most comfortable experience, and coming back to the library had felt strange and Antares had felt like just getting away from everypony and taking a nap... but he still cared about Celestia. He didn't want anything to happen to her, any more than he wanted anything to happen to Twilight, as he asked nervously: “When did Cowlick start setting all this up?”

“A few hours ago. She's had teams running through the sewers and helped Tenochtitlan finish off his devices...” Twilight smiled despite herself again as she continued to lead them quickly onwards. “She works fast; and I think that's the only reason we managed to actually get ahead of the monster in the sewers this time...”

“Where's Meadowlark and Rusty? And what about the other Starlit Knights?” Antares asked quickly, tilting his head, and Avalon grinned wryly as she looked over her shoulder at him: no matter how much he denied it, he was their leader, and they listened to him for a reason. “Is Sleipnir leading his own contingent?”

“Sleipnir will be on the far side of the pit with Rainbow Dash, Spike, Big Mac, and a few other Starlit Knights. Rustproof and Meadowlark are both helping out Cowlick.” Twilight replied quickly, then she looked up and added: “Everyone's being outfitted with additional protective gear, and I'll need you three to wear masks yourselves. We can't take any risks, Antares, even if for some reason contact with Cancer didn't make you sick.”

Antares nodded quickly, knowing better than to argue as they raced on through the night: knowing that the Lich could be right, as he thought of the destruction entity and grimaced as a shiver of revulsion ran through him. No, it was even deeper than that... and when Antares thought of those awful, red eyes, he couldn't stop himself from gritting his teeth, silently promising: I... I'm going to help stop that thing. No matter what else... I'm going to help put a stop to that monster.

Cancer wheezed as he staggered around a corner, looking wildly back and forth before cursing under his breath: demons, undead, other nasty things had been chasing him for longer than he could count, now, and every time he tried to wiggle into a crack or sneak his way out, some Helheim filth would blast him back into the tunnels.

He hissed to himself as he ran up a long, gentle incline, rasping in and out as his hooves clawed against slimy cement, his red eyes darting back and forth. “No, no, no, gotta keep it on moving, move it on over, rock it on over...”

He breathed hard, stumbling up the sloped tunnel before frowning and puttering to a halt, slowly looking over his shoulder... and when he didn't see anything, Cancer grinned a little, relaxing a bit as he muttered: “Or hey, hey, hey, maybe look at this! Maybe I lost 'em after all... stupid demons, couldn't find their own butts in broad daylight if they had flashlights crammed on up their-”

A rumble passed through the tunnel, and Cancer cocked his head before he squawked and staggered backwards when an explosion ripped through the air behind him, tearing through a wall in a gout of golden flames that left the sheen of slime over the stone boiling and the stone itself burning. Cancer squealed as he stumbled hurriedly away from the fire before he snarled as an ivory winged unicorn strode calmly through the shattered hole in the wall, her heavy golden armor seeming to glow faintly in the darkness. “White weasel! Oh, I remember you, lemme remind you of what happened last time you messed with me!”

The monster leaned forwards and vomited out a thick gout of greenish smoke that spilled down the tunnel, and Celestia flinched backwards as it filled the air around her, leaving her nothing but a dark shape obscured by clinging, toxic mist. Cancer grinned widely, his red eyes glowing as he licked his lips eagerly... and then the winged unicorn's wings spread before flapping firmly once, sending out a strong wind that tore the toxic smog to tatters.

Cancer stumbled stupidly backwards, his eyes widening in surprise as Celestia calmly rolled her head on her shoulders, then opened her eyes behind the protective, clear visor locked that was locked overtop them. She breathed slowly and easily through the mask over her muzzle: an impermeable, tightly-clasped rubber sleeve that locked into the bottom of the visor, and had several large, circular filters on its front and sides.

Cancer's eyes widened, and then Celestia tilted her head forwards slightly as her horn began to glow with golden flames. Electricity sparked through her rainbow mane as energy built in the air, and Cancer squeaked before he spun around and bolted up the tunnel, shouting desperately over his shoulder: “Now hang on, hang on, there's no need to get all hot under the collar, I just-”

Celestia flicked her horn forwards as it flashed, and a blast of golden flames exploded up the passage, charring the walls of the tunnel as a wave of heat and fire rushed after the monster. The mottled, ugly beast squealed as it sprinted as fast as its malformed, ugly limbs could carry it, bolting up the sloped tunnel before it looked up with a cackle as it suddenly tasted night air and saw the cloudy, black night sky ahead, blocked only by a few rusted bars...

The monster rushed forwards towards freedom as golden hellfire licked at its legs and back, charring its body before it easily tore its way between the rusting, ugly bars... and then screeched when it looked down in shock and found itself at the edge of a gaping, deep pit, scrambling almost comically for moment at the ragged end of the passage before the blast of golden flames smashed into it from behind and knocked it flying forwards with a scream of misery.

The monster became a mottled meteor that arced through the air, squealing loudly as it shot over the stony pit with a rooster tail of smoke and embers twisting out behind it... and then Cancer snarled, lashing both front legs forwards as they tore apart into thick messes of tentacles that slammed home into the rock face opposite.

Cancer reeled itself in with a wince and splattered loudly against the cliff face, then it winced as voices rose up all around it, looking up with horror to see that ponies were gathered all along the top of the pit it had been forced into... and oh, it could smell a garbage heap of delicious, delightful, wonderful chemicals and toxins beneath it, but it didn't take a genius to figure out these ponies were just trying to lure him in...

“Think fast, think fast!” Cancer hissed, as the monster's limbs and tentacles transformed, melded and warped into long, spindly claws that it used to quickly begin scurrying along the cliff face, rasping and looking desperately back and forth for some escape... but the wide, gaping garbage pit was maybe thirty feet in diameter, and every inch of the top guarded by ponies that were shouting and pointing at him and...

There was a loud bang, and then Cancer squealed as something tore through his back before he snarled furiously over his shoulder as more bullets peppered into the rock around him, Pegasi taking aim with rifles from the safety of the air a good distance above, and earth ponies sniping from the cliffs. Cancer hissed as several more rounds smashed into his body, sending up ugly splashes of goop and slime... and then his eyes widened with horror as he saw the violet, undead winged unicorn stride calmly to the front of the group, her horn glowing blackly.

The Lich flicked her horn forwards, releasing a blast of black flames, and Cancer yanked himself hurriedly along the cliff wall with a yelp, throwing himself along the rock face with a wince before the black fireball collided with the cliff and exploded in a tremendous blast. Chunks of stone hailed down into the swampy, tarry ooze below as ponies staggered, and Cancer looked up with a rasp, hauling himself rapidly upwards with surprising speed and tenacity before he cackled as he flung himself up and over the edge of the pit.

He grinned as he lunged forwards... and then a vine-maned head smashed in a savage butt into Cancer's own goopy skull, and the destruction entity was knocked staggering backwards with a squeak before he pinwheeled his forelegs violently as he reared back on his hind limbs, staring in shock at the grinning, massive earth pony in front of him. Cancer snarled, bringing a foreleg back as he managed to regain his balance, the limb splitting into a mess of thorny tentacles... and then the enormous earth pony winked before slamming both front hooves down into the ground.

Cracks ripped through the earth as the edge of the clifftop shattered, and the monster squealed as it fell backwards in a hail of broken stone and sod, tentacles snapping forwards in a wild, desperate grab at the rock face. They managed to snag into the crumbled, split stone, and Cancer yelled incoherently in victory before he squawked as he swung face-first into the cliff wall with a loud splat.

He snarled desperately, grabbing at the rock and knowing he didn't have long to figure out a way to escape, before his eyes widened as he felt a deep, cavernous crack in the surface of the stone just beneath his body. Immediately, he pushed himself closer, grinning widely as an idea came to mind even as several bullets hammered into his back, sending up blasts of goo as they tried to knock him into the trap waiting below...

“Blast him!” Cowlick's voice shouted over the din, and Twilight gritted her teeth before she flicked her horn forwards, unleashing a blue fireball. It tore through the air and crashed into the cliff face just above the monster, tearing apart the mess of tentacles still desperately clinging to the wall and launching it off the rocky surface, sending the creature sailing down into the depths of the pit.

Cowlick grinned widely even as Twilight frowned slightly... and behind her, Antares gritted his teeth behind the thick mask over his muzzle, feeling like something was wrong. Avalon looked down at him sharply as Prestige frowned over at the young stallion, both ponies wearing their filter masks, but then Cowlick's voice rang out through the air: “Heat it up, people!”

All around the battlefield, Nibelung and ponies both snapped open flares, tossing them in wide arcs over the edge of the cliff: almost a dozen fell like shining red stars, following the mottled body of the monster down into the murky liquid below. Cancer struck the bottom first, sending up a blast of brown and black gunk... but the moment the first flare touched the chemicals and poisons that had been poured into the pit, there was a tremendous explosion as a massive blast of red and orange flame vomited up towards the skies above.

Ponies yelled and staggered backwards in surprise as Nibelung winced and Cowlick only cackled, grinning widely as she stomped a hoof as the massive candle of heat and fire blasted to the sky above, shouting: “Yeah! Let's see how the hell he deals with that!”

Antares winced back a bit, feeling his worries settling some... but still, there was some lurking sense of unease as he nervously approached the edge of the cliffs as the flames gave way to smoke with a rumble. He leaned awkwardly forwards, but for now all he could see was thick black smoke that rose in a near-solid wall.

Then he winced when Cowlick strode over to him and firmly slapped his back, the young stallion looking at her awkwardly as she said in a pleased voice: “Look at this! We got him, Antares... damn, Rusty was right, too, I love that kid to death! He's got his momma's talent for explosions, that's for sure.”

Cowlick laughed, then looked almost delightedly forwards again as Antares only managed a weak smile, and Twilight frowned quietly as she strode over to him, the Lich asking slowly: “What is it, Antares? You don't think...”

“I... I don't know.” Antares said finally, reaching up to slowly pull down his mask, and Cowlick's grin slowly faded on her own face before the male hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder, calling: “Avalon, can you circle the perimeter?”

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” Avalon muttered through her mask, and then she flitted down, snatching Cowlick's goggles off her head and making the earth pony shout even as the Pegasus slipped them on and darted into the cloud of smog.

“Crazy little monster. Reminds me of Dash. You know, if he was actually a stallion and all.” Cowlick rubbed absently at her muzzle, then she sighed and looked almost pleadingly at Antares. “And for the love of all that is holy, can you wipe that damn look off your face and let me celebrate for one damn minute? Let me at least pretend now that we got that thing? How the hell could it escape, anyway?”

She grimaced, then muttered: “Foolproof trap. Fool-proof, dammit. Not even Sleipnir could have screwed this one up, and he didn't, see? Now you go telling me that we might not have gotten the slimy monster, whatever the hell he is, and I wanna laugh you off, kid, I do. I really want to. Except what keeps gnawing at me is how every time I fill a jar up with nuts and bolts you can tell me exactly how many are in there, every damn time.”

Antares smiled awkwardly in response, glancing over at Cowlick before he simply shook his head slowly. “I'm... sorry, but... it's almost too perfect, you know? And he's sly, more sly than we think because he's so...”

The young stallion shivered a bit, looking down as Cowlick frowned at him and Twilight tilted her head apprehensively, asking quietly: “What did you see, Antares? What did your eyes pick up?”

But Antares only shook his head again, then he glanced up awkwardly as Celestia emerged through the dark plume of smoke to wing her way towards them. She landed beside them, and for a moment, she and Antares only looked at each other quietly, their eyes meeting, silent communications passing between them before Antares finally asked softly: “You okay, Aunt Tia?”

Celestia smiled beneath her mask, nodding slowly to the young equine before she replied quietly: “I'm alright, Antares.” A pause, and then she looked slowly back and forth, asking calmly: “What's the decision regarding Cancer?”

“Ain't come to one yet.” Cowlick said moodily, glaring at Antares for a moment, and he winced and grinned lamely in response. “Your nephew says he's got some bad feeling. And now, even though I really want to be right and have this all over and done with, I've got a goddamn bad feeling too. But either way, Baroness, Mir... the only way we're going to find out for sure is once the fire dies down, and that ain't gonna be for a while.”

Cowlick gestured moodily towards the pit, and Antares leaned forwards apprehensively: the smoke was still streaming up thickly from the chasm, but he could see a little bit down the sides of the cliffs... and he couldn't help but wince at the sight of flames here and there burning along the rock wall, catching anything that was even the slightest bit flammable and greedily feasting on it. Even the rock itself seemed to be melting here and there, and the young stallion reared back a little as he asked incredulously: “And there's no magic at all here?”

“Hey, don't doubt me. Rusty, Greece and I all know what we're doing, and Rusty's got... Narcissa's talent for mixing up chemicals.” Cowlick wrinkled up her face as she nervously glanced back and forth, like she always did when mentioning Rustproof's biological mother. To this day, Rustproof didn't know he was adopted, and Cowlick saw no point in telling him: he was her son, through and through, and that's all that mattered to her. “Just glad that's the only part of her he got. Well, no, I'm gonna blame her for the cigarettes, too.”

Cowlick halted, then she glanced over at Celestia, saying in a quieter voice: “Chemicals will burn out in about forty minutes or so. I know it ain't my place to make suggestions, but all the same I'd suggest taking a look around the area. Let's make sure the bastard didn't sneak past anyone or anything, see if we can throw a little bit of doubt on mister cynical over here.”

The engineer grunted as she jerked her head at Antares, who smiled a little despite himself as Twilight nodded slowly, turning her curious eyes to Celestia. For a few moments, the ivory winged unicorn lowered her head in thought, and then she nodded hesitantly.

Before she could speak, however, Avalon came zipping back out of the smoke, zigzagging awkwardly through the air as she rubbed at her sooty goggles before she half-landed, half-crashed in front of Antares. The young stallion winced a bit and leaned down in concern as Prestige reared away with a look of distaste, and then Avalon coughed loudly through her mask before wheezing and looking up with swollen eyes through her stained goggles. “Oh hell, guys, it's gross down there.”

“You frigging idiot, I dumped so many chemicals in there we all already probably got our life expectancies shortened by a few years just from standing up here!” Cowlick snapped, and then she glared around at the ponies even as they all looked up and stared at her. “Okay, so maybe that smoke's just a little toxic, but it ain't nothing compared to that Cancer freak. Besides, what the hell do you all care? I see at least three ponies around me that don't have to worry about old age, and personally, I'd rather die long, long, long before I turn into an old mare. Furthermore, if I'd just let that Cancer freak run rampant all of us would be dead as sh-”

“Momma?” Rustproof cocked his head curiously as he approached, a Nibelung Architect striding along beside him, and Cowlick's mouth immediately slammed shut hard enough to knock her teeth together. She winced a bit over at her son, but Rustproof only looked at her calmly for a few moments before he gestured to the Architect beside him: a well-built dwarf, wearing a traditional, leather battle kilt and matching rawhide jacket. “Greece and me got the stuff for the tunnels ready.”

“Well, enough to start.” The Nibelung smiled, reaching up to absently rub at one nub of a shorn-down tusk before he hesitated and looked towards Antares with his intelligent, curious eyes. “Fancy-corn... what do you think?”

“Hey, I was here first!” Avalon wheezed loudly, and Rustproof and Greece both glanced down at the half-collapsed Pegasus with surprise: then again, she was curled up on the ground and her gear was stained dark from grime, making her even harder to see. “Jerks. And... I dunno, Mir, it looks pretty clean. I went all the way down to the pit, deep as I could take the frigging heat, and it's just a lake of frigging fire down there, dude. I ain't never seen anything like it. If I was a pyro I'd say it was real pretty.”

Antares sighed a little, and when all eyes looked at him, he shifted embarrassedly before dropping his head forwards. His mouth felt dry, and anxiety twisted through his mind... but then Cowlick looked up and said quietly: “Kid, go ahead. Ain't no one here going to doubt your instincts. You're a real special candle, Antares, you burn bright and we respect that, and we respect your crazy eyes.”

Antares smiled faintly, then he glanced up and said softly over to Greece, as the Nibelung frowned a little: “No. I don't think we got Cancer. I think he escaped somehow... Ava, what did the walls look like? Was there any way he could have escaped?”

“Dude, walls be on fire.” Avalon reached up, fumbling at her mask before yelping when Cowlick grabbed the back strap of the goggles with a huff, knocking the tiny Pegasus' helm loose as she yanked them off. “Hey, watch it, auntie!”

“Dammit, don't call me that, makes me sound so frigging old or nice or something. I ain't either.” Cowlick grumbled, and then she added moodily, as Avalon pulled her mask down and glowered at her: “And seriously, kid, you need to learn to calm the hell down. Don't go putting yourself into too much danger now, you ain't your daddy. We can afford to lose him and all now that he's slowing up in his old age.”

“Hey!” Avalon snapped, glaring up at Cowlick challengingly, but the engineer only grinned in return, and Twilight sighed tiredly. The Lich cleared her throat loudly, looking pointedly at the two as Celestia only stood with her head bowed in silent thought, and Avalon mumbled under her breath before sulking. “She started it. She's the grown-up, the one supposed to be setting the mature example for us 'little teenagers.'”

And with that, Avalon grumpily dropped flat, splaying her front legs out wide to avoid nicking herself with her crosshatch blades before she dropped her face against the charred grasses and promptly went to sleep. Cowlick looked at her almost enviously, and then Celestia rose her head, saying quietly: “I'm going to go and speak to Sleipnir and help with the search. Antares, wait here with your friends. Greece, Cowlick... please begin cleaning up the tunnels as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, you got it, Baroness.” Cowlick saluted, then she glanced over at Antares as he frowned a little. “Guess you haven't heard, but the demons and Nightmares had two jobs: hunting down Cancer, and purging the tunnels of any signs of disease. Me and Greece are gonna flush and fumigate the sewers now, too... it'll take a week or so, but we're gonna destroy every last trace of that psychotic... whatever the hell he is.”

“Destruction entity. Living disease.” Antares murmured, shaking his head a little before he smiled a bit and glanced up at Cowlick. “You really hate him, huh?”

“My... daddy, died of cancer. Not the schmuck, the actual... stuff. Every time I hear his name, brings back bad memories. Every time I see somepony sick...” Cowlick quieted, then she cleared her throat and looked over at Rustproof as Greece smiled faintly at the piercing-adorned mare. “Okay, enough sharing our feelings for one day. Come on, son, you can put those muscles of yours to use and carry the stuff for us.”

Rustproof smiled in response, and Cowlick nodded firmly as Greece half-bowed politely to the others before the Nibelung turned to lead the way. As they left, Celestia glanced over at Twilight, hesitated for a moment... then said finally: “You should join them, Twilight, just in case. Antares, I have a job for you and your friends, if you're willing.”

Twilight nodded slowly, then she strode past, sharing one quick, reassuring touch with her son before she headed on her way. Celestia glanced down at dozing Avalon for a moment as Antares turned his eyes to her, and then the ivory winged unicorn gave a small smile, murmuring: “In the past, seeing such a display would have made me feel... contempt, and anger. But I've learned not to underestimate any pony's worth, or hold their quirks against them... even if I would much prefer Avalon were awake right now.

“But the task I have isn't too serious, although it will require some effort.” Celestia looked up calmly, meeting Antares' eyes. “I am... not sure myself, whether or not Cancer was destroyed. Chaos entities are incredibly hardy, and incarnations of destruction even more so. Even with his vulnerability to fire, if only a single piece of Cancer remained, it might be enough for him to reconstruct himself. And I was watching closely myself when Cancer fell, and agree there was something... strange about what happened.

“Our only choice may be to wait and see, but this time, I want to be better prepared.” Celestia said quietly, shaking her head slowly. “I do have faith in my friends, and our allies of the night... and I know that no matter how reckless and violent our foe is, he's cunning as well. He'll find somewhere else to slip off to and hide, and we need to use this time to prepare.

“Find Discord at the library. I've left several letters for him in my room, they won't be hard for you to find, Antares.” Celestia smiled after a moment. “Tell him to deliver them on my orders. Then come back here... I'll be waiting for you with the second half of your job.”

“Running a message, no sweat.” Avalon yawned loudly as she sat up, shaking herself briskly out, and Celestia looked down with a slight smile at the Pegasus as she grinned up at the Baroness. “Hey, I don't sleep that much, you know. Mostly I just like to catch a wink here and there between everything boring.”

“Of course, it just... this seems a little strange.” Prestige said slowly, tilting her head with a frown. “Couldn't this wait? Or couldn't you send a servant?”

Celestia only smiled at them, and Antares studied the enormous, armored ivory equine for a few moments before he simply nodded slowly and murmured: “Okay. Come on guys... and wait, what about Meadowlark and Aphrodisia?”

“I'm sure they're helping out Cowlick and the others right now.” Celestia replied gently, and then she shook her head and said softly: “You and the rest of your friends all have different jobs to do, but right now we're all working together on this one thing. Go on, Antares.”

Antares hesitated only a moment, then he nodded quickly again and turned. Prestige bowed politely to the Baroness before she hurried after the male, and Avalon gave a smile, then buzzed into the air and flew after her friends.

They were quiet as they made their way back into town, Prestige looking awkward until Avalon finally buzzed down and landed on Antares' back to grin over at the unicorn mare, asking playfully: “What's wrong, Prestige? You trying to impress your coltfriend by being nice?”

Prestige glared at Avalon as Antares sighed, and then the tiny Pegasus looked moodily up, saying grumpily: “But seriously, I don't really like this. I thought we were being given something important but we're doing like... servant work.”

“How come when I say it, it's obviously some abhorrent slur, while when the angry midget speaks it everything is perfectly okay?” Prestige asked sourly, and Avalon gave the unicorn mare a glower as Antares mumbled to himself. “Well, it's true!”

Her only response was a particularly-rude gesture from Avalon, and then there was silence until they reached the gates of Ponyville and passed back into the village. Then Prestige finally rose her head, saying quietly: “I have a feeling of foreboding, Antares, and... worse... I think I'm only just beginning to understand what both you and Celestia said, and I don't enjoy the implications. If Cancer is truly... living disease, destruction incarnate, poison... how do we destroy him? How can we fight against something that awful, that... evil?”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Avalon looked up with a smile and a shrug, saying quietly: “We just keep beating on him until he stops. That's what I think anyway... and I know I might not be like, a unicorn genius like you two are, but... sometimes brute force works best, right?”

Antares laughed despite himself, shaking his head a little as he glanced up and murmured: “Oh, Ava. But... yeah, Aviator's right, Prestige. We gotta... train, though, and much as I don't like to, I know that we gotta rely a lot on my Mom and Aunt Tia. They've fought things like this before, and I know they'll figure it out. We... I want to be a hero like my Mom and Dad were, but...”

He lowered his head a bit, quieting, and Avalon softened even as she firmly stomped a hoof against his back, saying quietly: “Now hey, Mir, don't you start getting down on yourself. We all look up to you for a reason... ain't that right, Prestige?”

“I...” Prestige hesitated, then she smiled faintly and nodded silently once, and Avalon looked relieved as Antares smiled a little in return to the silver-eyed mare. She studied him, his expression, his eyes, his honest thanks and modesty... and she felt a warmth inside her that she couldn't explain, that gave her strength and helped steady her resolve.

They walked the rest of the way in quiet, and Antares smiled as he looked up and saw Discombobulation standing outside the library, the Draconequus looking down and remarking: “You're all much better looking than Larry, Moe, and Curly, but I have to say you're not nearly as funny. But then again, not everyone is as big a fan of slapstick humor as I am.”

“What are you doing here?” Avalon asked curiously, hopping into the air and buzzing easily up to head level with the Draconequus, and then she frowned and leaned forwards accusingly. “Wait, why aren't you helping out, you big coward?”

“Objection, your honor, asked-and-answered.” Discombobulation glanced up at the sky, and then he reached up and carefully placed one finger against Avalon's helmet-clad skull, gently pushing her back through the air as she huffed a little. “I am supposed to be here. As everyone should know, in times of emergencies useful Draconequus are always filed outside the library, while the useless Draconequus are stored inside as cannon-fodder.”

“You were asked to stay back and protect the town.” Antares translated, and Discombobulation looked down at him mildly, making the young stallion blush a bit. “Sorry.”

“'Sorry' is one of the most abused and overused words of our language: we speak it every day, often without meaning it, using it for everything from: 'I pity the situation which you are in' to 'I clearly have no real remorse for you and am in fact adding insult to injury with my feigned apology.'” Discombobulation paused, then said ironically: “Sorry. I rambled.”

Avalon rolled her eyes, and Prestige looked apprehensively up at the Draconequus. He looked back at her, then made a bit of a face before asking mildly: “Have you ever reflected on how lucky you are that Scrivener Blooms isn't here? If she saw you dating her precious little boy she might...” Discombobulation paused, then reached up and rubbed at one of his horns in vexation. “My train of thought seems to have derailed. There's simply too many different metaphors I want to use all at once and they don't mash very well together. Like modern art.”

Prestige sighed a little, grumbling, before Antares asked awkwardly: “So uh... is Discord in there? Celestia wants us to deliver something.”

Discombobulation nodded, gesturing absently at the door, and it swung open: sitting inside at the table, Discord glanced moodily up from where he was reading a book with a little, tinny radio playing beside him, and then the Draconequus groaned as Antares walked in with Prestige and Avalon. “Oh great, it's the do-gooder. Don't tell me, you're collecting for charity for Little Miss Little to buy some growth hormone, so ponies other than pedophiles will try to date her, right?”

“He's in a bad mood. He's very good at spreading his misery around.” Discombobulation said mildly, even as he reached up to catch Avalon by the tail as she tried to shoot forwards, glaring and flailing her forelegs at the air violently while Discord winced and half-hid behind the table.

“Let me go and hit him just once, just once!” Avalon grumbled, flailing her hooves through the air violently, and Discord glared at her before he rose his fist and shook it angrily from where he was half-hiding.

“Don't start a fight you can't win, kid, I was big dog king of chaos and mischief!” Discord said challengingly, and then he winced when Discombobulation let go of her tail and Avalon buzzed through the air, ducking under the table to hide from the Pegasus as he waved a hand in surrender. “Okay, okay, wait, wait, wait, you have those sharp edgy things and I don't even have my fighting face on!”

He paused, then poked his head nervously up as Avalon glared down at him before threateningly making a sharp gesture across her throat, and Discord grinned lamely, saying awkwardly: “I heard that short people were in this year.”

“Shut up, Slinky.” Avalon said flatly, and then she jerked her head at Antares, adding: “Mir has a message for you from Celestia. Something about letters.”

“Gee, how wonderful it must be to be so important, you use tiny angry messengers to deliver messages to other messengers who are in the same freaking room as you.” Discord said moodily, and then he winced and ducked when Avalon kicked a rear leg at him, before poking his head back up with a huff as he adjusted his beret. “It's a crime to attack me, you know, I'm a Royal Messenger. A stupid, lousy delivery boy when I was once counted amongst the most powerful of beings on this wretched little dirtball...”

Antares looked with sympathy at Discord as the Draconequus began to get up, while Avalon only continued to glare, before Discombobulation leaned in the doorway and added: “Before you got drunk that one time and accidentally destroyed the galaxy, correct? And then you made me run around the world rolling giant balls of everything you could imagine to launch into space and create new stars?” He paused and frowned meditatively, as Discord simply glared at his fellow Draconequus. “Or was that the strangely-addicting game I played the other day? I sometimes get other people's mistakes messed up with yours, Discord, but you can't really blame me; weren't you an accident yourself?”

“Oh very funny, Discombobulation, I see your wit is as sharp as ever.” Discord said moodily, and then he stood up as Avalon snickered, the Draconequus glowering up at her. “You annoy me, runt, almost as much as action figure puppy does. Who will never, ever be anything more than the little puppy he always has been.”

“Well, at least I'm not afraid of rainbows.” Discombobulation retorted, and then he rose his metal fist in front of him before miming turning an invisible crank: as he did so, whimsical, familiar music began to play through the air, and Discord watched sourly before there was a loud pop, and one of Discombobulation's digits rose as the melody finished playing itself out.

Discord muttered under his breath as Antares sighed and dropped his face against a hoof, then he looked up and asked almost pleadingly: “Will you please deliver the letters for Canterlot if I get them for you?”

“Anything to get out of here and retire to my cozy little nook away from you ponies for a little while.” Discord grumbled, nodding a little after a moment, and Antares smiled briefly before he hurried towards the hall to fetch them from Celestia's room.

As expected, she had left them sitting out on her bed table, two that were addressed to Canterlot and already sealed... but the last letter hadn't yet been put in its envelope, sitting invitingly open, and Antares hesitated only a moment before his horn glowed and he lifted it in front of himself with telekinesis.

He glanced quickly through it... and then his eyes widened before he looked down and closed his eyes. It was all too clear that Celestia had meant for him to read this, to see this... and he hesitated for only a moment before quickly folding it up and tucking it into the envelope.

He sealed it shut, looking at it for a moment: this third envelope wasn't going to Canterlot, but Subterra, and part of him marveled that Celestia would trust him with this at all... while the rest of him worried with unease that he wasn't prepared, he wasn't ready, he couldn't handle something like this. But then he forced himself to take a slow breath, nodding once as he gathered up the letters, then turned and hurried back out to the main room.

Discord looked up in relief as both Prestige and Avalon glared at him, and he held out his hands, making eager gestures. “Gimme, gimme, so I can get the hell out of here!”

“Two for the Royal Court, one for Subterra.” Antares said quietly, and Discord winced a bit at this before the young stallion smiled a little. “Don't worry, they won't hurt you. You just have to deliver it, that's all.”

“You know, they really like to kill the messenger down there, so it better be good news. Stupid, smelly demons.” Discord muttered, then he glared at Discombobulation. “You should do this! Or... make your stupid friend with the saxophone do it, since you're so debased you've gone about making nice even with their lowly kind.”

“Not all demons are scum, Discord, just as you being an idiot most certainly doesn't make all Draconequus whiny jerks.” Discombobulation replied mildly, crossing his arms, and when Discord gave him a flat look, Discombobulation rolled his eyes with a tired sigh. “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided... but fine. Since you're going to whine all day and night otherwise, I'll deliver it for you.”

Discord wheezed in relief as Discombobulation strolled through the room, then he paused and said thoughtfully: “Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies. You know, if you would-”

“Oh shut up, puppy.” Discord said flatly, shoving the black envelope into his metal hand, and Discombobulation looked moodily across at the cranky Draconequus before Discord muttered: “It's like you think your obnoxious little habit of quoting everything under the sun makes us all think you're smart or something. Watch, watch me, I'll quote someone right now: 'some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.' See? Do I sound smarter? And yes, I was referring to you.”

Discombobulation continued to look at Discord mildly for a moment, and then the metal-armed Draconequus slowly, calmly pointed a single finger upwards. Discord winced immediately, shrinking his head back a bit as he carefully peered towards the ceiling before frowning when he saw nothing there... and just as he began to look back down, Discombobulation suddenly stomped firmly down on Discord's dragon-like foot, making him yelp and leap backwards, spouting vulgarities as he hopped around on his hoof while grabbing wildly at his injured leg.

Discombobulation blew a raspberry at Discord before simply vanishing, and Avalon burst into laughter as she fell out of the air with a loud clank, hugging herself and rolling back and forth on the ground as she cackled. Prestige only sighed tiredly, and Antares looked up with a groan. Discord, meanwhile, was still hopping around and cursing, tiny wings flapping on his back to try and keep him balance before he finally, inevitably toppled over with a yelp, whining: “He broke my foot! I'm gonna neuter that puppy, oh, just wait and see!”

“You're fine, Discord, it's just bruised, not broken.” Antares said tiredly, looking moodily across at the Draconequus as he rocked back and forth on his back, cradling his injury. Discord shot him a horrible look, but the young stallion ignored it, saying hesitantly: “Listen, my friends and I should really head back...”

“Oh, yeah, great. Stupid... goody-two-hooves...” Discord mumbled, carefully rubbing along his foot before he glowered a bit over at the ponies, sitting up and grumbling. “I'm going to help myself to some of Celestia's food, then I'll go. I'll hobble all the way there on my injured foot. I hope you're happy.”

“I am.” Avalon said mildly, sitting up herself, and Discord snorted at her before the Pegasus flitted easily into the air with a wide grin, shaking her head slowly. “Amazing how you never learn anything, it really is. Even my Dad learned when to not pick on Mom, you know.”

“Well, old dogs can't learn new tricks.” Discord muttered, then he added waspishly: “And well, I'm sure it's much easier for your father to learn about mares, seeing as...” Discord halted as Avalon's eyes narrowed dangerously and she bared her teeth. “As... he... is... a very handsome and mighty stallion with... good. Taste.”

“Good.” Avalon grumbled, looking ruffled before she turned and shot out through the door. Discord made a face at her retreating back, and Antares grumbled before he turned to follow the Pegasus out with Prestige at his side.

The two found Avalon grumbling and making short, violent circles above the ground, and Antares reached out a hoof to stop Prestige when she began to step forwards. The unicorn mare glanced over at him with confusion, and maybe even a bit of concern, but Antares only shook his head and said softly: “It's fine. It's just a sore nerve. Give her a minute, you'll see.”

Avalon continued to circle violently for about ten more seconds... and then she simply halted in midair, breathing hard and looking down before nodding a few times and glancing over at them, asking irritably: “Well, are we going or not?”

“Just waiting for you.” Antares said with a smile, and Avalon grumbled as she flitted down in front of him, half-glowering at him... but then nodding once with a grunt and neatly flying over his head, landing on his back and making him wince as she flopped down and her crosshatch blades scraped lightly against his armored sides. “Hey, careful! You almost got my wings with those!”

“I'm careful!” Avalon complained, and Prestige sighed tiredly, favoring the Pegasus with an ill look as Avalon huffed a little and glowered over at her. “Oh, shut up, Prissy. I'm not trying to steal your coltfriend.”

“I know, I know.” Prestige muttered, and the two unicorns began to walk slowly back through town, Antares tossing a look up at the night sky, his eyes drawing to the moon and lingering on it before the silver-eyed mare asked hesitantly: “Antares... do you know what those letters were about?”

“Two were just Royal Court documents, I think, but... the last one... the one to Subterra...” Antares hesitated a moment, and then he shook his head and smiled a little, looking across at Prestige quietly. “Aunt Tia is sending all of us... you, me, Ava, Rusty, Apps, even Meadowlark, all of us, to Subterra for training.”

Avalon's head rose sharply at this, the young mare snapping awake from her half-doze as she said incredulously: “Really? But... but my Mom won't even let me try out for the Starlit Knights recon division until I'm an adult, and that's gotta be less dangerous than a city of... well... demons.”

“Subterra? Why Subterra? Why not Canterlot, that's... where the magic school is.” Prestige said nervously, wincing a little, and Antares gazed at her softly as he felt her shiver of fear. “I mean, that would make much more sense for you and me and... I'm... sure that Avalon could train with the guards and... well, the pros- I mean, your cousin might like Subterra, but...”

“Look, it's okay. Aunt Tia has something in mind... something big, I think, but I dunno for sure what.” Antares soothed, and then he added quietly: “And they're not monsters, Prestige, you've seen that for yourself... they're... just... demons. Different from us, sure, but... well, come on, you see some demons every day.”

“It's different, though. This is our territory, and Subterra is theirs.” Prestige mumbled, and Avalon grunted something that might have actually been a rare, moody agreement with the unicorn mare. “The Nightmares are always talking about how they protect us in 'our home,' but... how are we going to be expected to act in their home? I still don't understand how Baroness Celestia was talked into helping establish Subterra in the first place...”

“Because the demons and Nightmares help us, and they needed a place of their own. A... home.” Antares said awkwardly, although he'd almost used the word 'nest.' “Yeah, okay, I know that it's weird. But they protect Canterlot too, yeah? They keep it and everywhere in that area safe. And you know by now, Prestige, that Celestia's own bodyguards are Nightmares. My Mom and her... they established Subterra as...”

He fell quiet, and Prestige blushed a little as she lowered her head. They walked on in silence for a while, until Avalon rose her own head and asked quietly: “What's it like in Subterra, Mir? I think you're the only one who's ever been down there.”

“But only for a short visit, with Twilight.” Antares smiled a little, nodding slowly. He laughed a it as he realized both his friends were listening with interest, and he shifted almost embarrassedly before saying softly: “Well... it was really... I liked it down there, actually. They've done a lot of work to make sure all the catacombs and tunnels are safe, and there are enormous caverns that contain... almost little villages. And there are these giant crystals in the ceiling, that resonate with energy and light... it helps feed them, and keeps them from having too much of an effect on Canterlot above. Greece, Tenochtitlan, and Illyria apparently built the crystals, and Aunt Tia and Mom helped enchant them.”

He hesitated, then shook his head and continued thoughtfully: “If Aunt Tia... really wants us to go there, I... I think we should. There are all kinds of demons, after all... my Mom and Dad, they actually put together a bestiary long time ago, detailing all sorts of things about the different kinds of demons they encountered and it's amazing to see some of the things they've written down. Funny stories, notes about etiquette and stuff, how to work with certain demons...”

Antares blushed a little after a moment, then he quickly shook his head out and murmured: “But most important of all, they always said... that people are people. No matter what they look like, what they are, people are people, and deserve to be treated as such. That we only become monsters when we willingly give in to doing the wrong thing.”

Prestige looked thoughtful, then she snorted softly... but all the same, she was smiling faintly, as if for the first time Antares' often repeated message had reached her. Avalon, meanwhile, had gone back to half-dozing on the young stallion's back, smiling as she mumbled dreamily: “I wonder if I could get magic demon powers like Apps...”

“You're not a demon, Avalon, you just act like one.” Antares replied, and then he laughed when she headbutted the back of his neck lightly. Prestige laughed a little as well, then blushed when Antares looked over at her, before the eyes of the two locked and they shared awkward but tender smiles.

They returned in comfortable quiet to the pit outside of town, which was still smoldering, but now smoke and embers were all that were left of the great inferno that had once raged here. Antares looked curiously towards this as they walked around the edge of the pit, past Starlit Knights in their distinctive blue armor that were helping clean up all and lock down the area around the cliffs.

Celestia was standing with Sleipnir, who smiled warmly as the three approached... and then he wrinkled up his muzzle before giving a tiny, squeaking sneeze, and Celestia turned her head away to half-hide a smile as the enormous earth pony blushed and shook his head out violently. “Damned illness! Oh, how I suffer so, Celestia, a mighty brute as I that-” He squeakily sneezed again. “-that... that sneezes like a tiny filly! Damnation, set me aflame, sister, and burn the illness out of me!”

“No, Sleipnir, you just have a head cold. You should feel fortunate that your affinity with nature helps protect you even from Cancer's diseases.” Celestia half-chastised, and Sleipnir grumbled and pawed at the ground, looking sulky. Antares smiled despite himself at his uncle as Avalon giggled and flitted off his back into the air, and Prestige only sighed and shook her head before all three young ponies looked up at the enormous, ivory winged unicorn as she asked quietly: “Before I ask for your help with this second task... Antares Mīrus, do you understand what I request of you? Do you agree with my proposal?”

Antares hesitated, looking back and forth at Prestige and Avalon before he said slowly: “Wait, you... you want me to speak for my friends, too, don't you?”

“You're a leader, Antares. From birth... that duty rested on you.” Celestia smiled faintly, as Antares fidgeted and blushed, looking hurriedly away before the ivory mare said quietly: “I'm sorry, and I honestly am. I know it's not fun... but the most important thing you can learn, is how to be a good leader. To bear up the hardest of responsibilities, and to be able to make decisions that serve the best interests of those who follow you. Be they your friends, your unit, your army... you have to learn to speak for them at times like this, when a decision must be made quickly.”

Antares dropped his head forwards, and Sleipnir softened, adding quietly: “Thy mother, Antares... she placed great faith and trust in thee. And aye, an unfair burden, too, but... thou art gifted with a great lineage and great strength. Thou must learn to handle these gifts with all the grace and nobility and honor that sings in thy blood, my nephew. And 'tis a sad truth, but whilst thou must always be keen to listen to the voices of those who would follow thy leadership... sometimes thou must also go against what they speak and make a wiser or better choice.” Sleipnir paused, then smiled over at his sister, adding mildly: “Well, so long as it does not turn thou into Celestia, Antares. For the worst decision Celestia ever made was to never permit herself to risk a bad decision, is this not true?”

“Yes, Sleipnir, yes.” Celestia shook her head slowly, then returned her eyes to Antares, who was looking nervously back and forth between Prestige and Avalon even as they both gazed back supportively. “Go ahead, Antares.”

“Yeah. I... I know we all have to do this. But I want to know one thing, too, before I say anything final... Meadowlark and Rustproof. Rusty's just a kid and he's an engineer, and Meadowlark's talents are in gathering information, she's not really... a fighter. What will they do in Subterra?” Antares asked quietly, tilting his head.

Celestia smiled a bit at this as Sleipnir reached up and firmly grasped his sister's armored shoulder, shaking her lightly but insistently with an approving look on his face. Without looking, the ivory mare absently pushed her younger brother's hoof off, then answered gently: “There are Nibelung in and around the Subterra area that Rustproof can learn from, and he can also learn about demonic design and architecture; Meadowlark can spend her time at the archives, learning the history of demons and perhaps some of their language. She can also directly aid in investigating and analyzing Cancer, as well as putting together the clues we have about Clockwork World's location.”

Antares frowned at this, tilting his head and asking nervously: “So I was right? We didn't kill him after all?”

“That's what we're about to find out.” Celestia gestured towards the pit, looking calmly at Antares. “The fires finished burning down a short time ago, and the bottom of the pit has been cooled and hosed down. I'd like your help searching for any evidence.”

“Fire is a destroyer, though, sister, as thou well knows.” Sleipnir looked pointedly at Celestia, who sighed tiredly... and then the vine-maned stallion sneezed and cursed, grabbing at his nose with vexation before he glared up at Avalon when she snorted laughter. “Oh, quiet, thou tiny buzzing bird. Make me not use thee as a tissue.”

Avalon opened her mouth with a grin, then huffed when Antares glared up at her before Celestia interrupted smoothly: “Yes, the conflagration was incredible and intense... but if we're fortunate, there may still be remains, or perhaps we'll be able to note... a possible point of escape. And admittedly I also hope to find evidence that our worries are groundless and we did destroy the monster...” Celestia hesitated, then shook her head and added quietly: “But I also need you answer, Antares, regarding Subterra.”

Antares looked back and forth again, but Avalon only smiled and Prestige nodded nervously, both displaying their trust in him. Trust he didn't think he had entirely earned or deserved, as he shifted nervously... then sighed a little as he met his aunt's amethyst eyes, murmuring: “Of course. I know that my friends would want to do this and I know... we have to, anyway. Especially if they want to come with me still when I do leave. And even if... Cancer is still alive... we could use the extra training to help fight against him.”

Celestia nodded slowly, then she paused before gesturing towards the pit, saying calmly: “Let's head down into the site, then. Prestige, I'll teleport you safely-”

“Nonsense! Fear not, Celestia, I shall handle this!” Sleipnir said cheerfully, and Prestige had a moment to look up dumbly before the enormous earth pony leapt forwards and swept her up, tossing her onto his back with a squeak before he spun around and simply galloped towards the edge of the pit. “Hold on now, pretty mare... and say, is it true that my nephew is courting thee?”

Then Sleipnir hopped off the cliff, and Celestia dropped her face into a hoof as ponies and Nibelung around the area all looked dumbly up at the sound of Prestige's terrified screams. This was followed by a loud, echoing whump, and then a loud laugh that was cut off by Prestige's furious yelling, brazen and high-pitched enough it echoed up out of the chasm.

Antares stared in disbelief as Avalon floated dumbly by his head, and then Celestia shook her head slowly out before she spread her wings and leapt into the air, muttering as she hovered: “I suppose some things never change, no matter how much time passes. Come, then, let's go and ensure Sleipnir hasn't hurt himself.”

With that, the ivory equine turned and calmly sailed towards the edge of the cliff, letting herself veer downwards to dive gracefully, and Avalon snorted in amusement before she shot easily through the air after the Baroness. Antares stood for a moment, then he sighed and followed last, spreading his leathery wings at the last moment as he jumped over the edge of the cliff.

He dove down, wincing as he passed through one of the pillars of smoke still wreathing up out from the blackened, ashen ground below, and he grimaced a little as one of his wings twitched and his back gave a muted throb. But it was only a few more moments before he was nervously gliding just over the dark, ugly ground... and hesitantly, he dropped his hooves into the mushy ashes, shivering once at the feeling of the ill humidity steaming up from the burnt earth.

Slowly, Antares looked towards Sleipnir... who was smiling cheerfully even though he had ended up burying himself halfway into the sallow, ugly ground. Celestia was standing nearby, shaking her head moodily as Prestige breathed hard in and out and glared at him and Avalon circled the group with a grin, before the enormous earth pony called cheerfully: “Hello, Antares! My, but I can see now how much work thou has cut out for thee in taming this fearsome shrew of a mare, she is most rude. 'Tis funny, though: being called a 'slave hoof' brings back fair memories as well as foul.”

He paused, then looked curiously up at Celestia as he wiggled a little: “Now, in more important matters, can thou not offer me thy mighty stallion's strength, big sister? I seem to be stuck and 'tis rather hot and uncomfortable. Nature here has been blistered by poison, and I believe that I am getting a rash.”

“No.” Celestia said mildly, and Sleipnir looked up at her dumbly before he winced and began to wiggle frantically, trying to get himself free of the mushy ground. Antares could only stare, and then Celestia frowned before she asked apprehensively: “Do you feel any sign of Cancer?”

Sleipnir became serious again at this, frowning up at her before he closed his eyes and bowed his head, his strange mane of vines seeming to twist of its own accord... and then his irises opened, and he muttered: “I do not, not in this deluge of ashes and poison... none of these toxins have his foul reek, all of them make nature ache but are made from her own blood and sweat... Cancer is made of much different stuff than these bitter tastes.”

Celestia nodded slowly, then her horn glowed gold as she raised her head slightly, and Sleipnir grunted as the earth beneath his body rumbled upwards, leaving him sprawled on a mound instead of stuck in a depression. He smiled at her, nodding once, then picked himself up and shook his body firmly, legs and lower form coated with ugly gunk. “If thou art willing to listen to my humble advice, dear sister... thou should take the far side, and I shall continue to investigate here. Nature's burns are worse for some reason on that side of the field.”

Celestia glanced over her shoulder, and then she nodded slowly, saying quietly: “Yes, and I can see why. There's a slope... it was probably hidden under the water and chemicals. But all that was boiled away by the flames...”

“Aye, but there is bedrock not ten feet beneath us, Celestia, and this... disgusting sponge we stand upon.” Sleipnir grimaced, patting the packed ashes and charred soil. “Yet all the same there must be a drain that perhaps leads to some unknown, deep canal. 'Twill be on this side, I shall find it.”

Celestia nodded, then she closed her eyes and flicked her horn, a bright ball of golden light bursting from the tip of this to sail high into the air. It floated eerily above their heads in the center of the pit, the younger ponies wincing and blinking in surprise as their eyes adjusted from the deep darkness to sudden brightness.

The Baroness gave them a moment, then she instructed quietly: “Antares, please go with your uncle. Prestige, come with me. Avalon, I'd like for you to circle above, scan the entire area. You might be able to see something we'd miss on the ground.”

“Got it.” Avalon saluted as she flew up into the air, staying just a little lower than the burning ball of light as she began to scan over the ground below, and Antares and Prestige traded smiles before they turned their separate ways. Sleipnir gazed down at his nephew as he approached, and then the enormous earth pony chuckled before he gestured for the young stallion to follow.

“'Tis good to spend time with thee, even if we must spend it at such a time as this...” Sleipnir said softly, as he led Antares toward the stony wall, and the glossy-black unicorn smiled and nodded. He looked up at his uncle, not questioning his methods and instincts: Sleipnir was odd and more than a little eccentric, but there were precious few others Antares would pick to learn from over his uncle. “I dislike how busy I am, teaching and training the Starlit Knights, aiding with much around Ponyville... but as big sister reasons, if she must contend with dealing with the Royal Court, I must bear my own burdens fairly, and I know that I am fortunate. I only wish I was freer to travel... sometimes, I admit, I dream of convincing Celestia to go traipsing off with me just like the old days, when we and thy mother wandered Equestria...”

He laughed and shook his head, then paused and leaned forwards curiously as they reached the wall, knocking a hoof against it firmly. Antares cocked his head curiously, remaining quiet, and Sleipnir paused for a moment, looked thoughtful... and then simply brought his hoof back before punching the wall hard, sending an enormous spiderweb of cracks ripping through the surface of the rock wall. Antares' jaw dropped at the sight, despite full well knowing Sleipnir's supernatural strength, while the immense earth pony only leaned forwards curiously before he whistled loudly as he yanked a chunk of broken stone free, sending down all manner of fragments as he half-turned and flung the piece of rock through the air.

It sailed across the pit, and with only a glance upwards, Celestia caught it with telekinesis just before it reached it, halting the stone fragment in front of her face. She frowned after a moment, then cursed under her breath and nodded slowly, as Prestige looked up and asked apprehensively: “What is it?”

In answer, Celestia's horn glowed brighter, and the brittle stone fragment shattered to reveal several hollows inside. “The rock is permeable, and it looks like there maybe larger air pockets here and there... Avalon, check the walls above, tell me if there are cracks and flaws in the stone, if it feels brittle!”

Avalon looked down at Celestia's call, then the Pegasus saluted quickly before shooting off on her request. Antares barely had time to put together what this all meant before the Pegasus called down to them: “Yeah, there's... lots of cracks and stuff, but... that's just from the explosion, right? Right?”

The Pegasus winced when she received no answer, and Antares looked nervously towards Celestia: she looked tense, deep in thought, before her head rose and she ordered clearly: “Send word through the Starlit Knights to be careful and that our foe may still be alive. We'll finish the search here... and hope that at least Cancer has been driven back for now.”