• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,751 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

Kin And Kindred

Chapter Twenty Three: Kin And Kindred

Winter remained heavy and cold, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant, and did little to slow anypony down: Antares and his friends continued to train anywhere and everywhere they could, sometimes even braving heavy blizzards; in fact, on more than one occasion they forced themselves to work together in the worst of conditions with a minimum of gear, Antares shouting orders and Meadowlark learning to belt out her own commands over the screaming wind and through the most muffling hail of snow. They also began to learn to communicate using taps and gestures... but it took a while for Avalon to understand that being tapped on the shoulder didn't mean she should immediately spin around and punch whoever had just touched her.

The young ponies also continued to run short missions for Celestia, whenever she asked them to: often they were assigned to work with other Starlit Knights, sent in pairs or trios, and only rarely were all six sent off together. Antares wished that Celestia would send them more often as a group, but he knew why she was doing this: not only because it was safer to send them out in smaller units, but because they had to learn to work with others, as well as themselves. If they wanted to one day be Starlit Knights themselves, they had to understand they wouldn't have the luxury of picking and choosing their units or platoons, nor who they worked under, and they would have to learn to get along with whoever they worked with, not just those who knew them best.

Antares felt like he and his friends were in a strange kind of place now: they were halfway between living the dream they had always wanted to, and being forced to adjust to reality. Some of them were better off than others: Rustproof was well on his way to becoming Ponyville's best and brightest engineer, Avalon was able to work often with Soarin' or Rainbow Dash or other Pegasi she knew... and others less so.

Meadowlark, for example, had a hard time adjusting: other units tended to treat her with kit gloves, and some of the less-understanding Knights often told her to keep out of the way or to back off from her duties. But she was a good medic, augmented by the fact she was learning more and more zebra medicine and craft from Zecora. It was taking her a long while to master even the basics, but that was partly because she was learning about zebra culture perhaps even more than she was learning about alchemy and potions: the Pegasus had gained the shaman's trust in more than one way.

But Meadow was strong, never failed on the field, despite the fact she had to avoid combat and sometimes flagged, grasping at her still-scarred, slightly malformed side. She always wore something these days: a vest, a chemise, even just oversized saddlebags, anything to keep her side hidden from view. She was ashamed of it... and Antares often wondered silently how she could still not blame him for everything that had happened.

Antares, meanwhile, was getting more respect despite his age... and while he preferred leading and working with his friends, he had gotten used to leading smaller groups of rookies on training exercises, and in one field test he had actually been placed in charge of two of the younger Starlit Knights on a short, simple scouting mission. They had been wary at first, but Antares had been firm and concise in his orders, and had only been forced to fall back on 'the Baroness ordered this herself: do you really want to argue with her orders?' once.

They had scouted about five miles to the west of Ponyville, where fires had been reported: during winter, Nibelung raiders and other mercenary bands often became more aggressive and desperate, and it was important to keep an eye on any suspicious sightings round the village.

They found a small mercenary band of Nibelung, but they were clearly in no shape for combat with how beaten up they all looked: the smoke had come from them burning the remains of several carriages. One of the young Knights had wanted to attack, looking furious, but Antares had hurriedly stopped him and said quietly: “No, there's no point.”

“It looks like they just burnt out a caravan, and who knows how many they killed! Look at them, we'll take them by surprise!” the Knight hissed in return, but Antares had only shaken his head shortly. “Why not? Kid, seriously, this is our chance to-”

“No, it's not.” Antares said forcefully, and the Knight frowned before the young leather-winged unicorn pointed down, saying quietly: “Weapons buried in the ground, the wagons and their remains dragged into a circle, and the Nibelung are still sitting around. They didn't attack a trade caravan. Their caravan was attacked and destroyed. From the surrounding damage and the injuries, I'd guess a dragon, maybe two.”

Both Knights had looked again, then the one who had spoken out had grudgingly nodded after a few moments and calmed visibly. They had returned to Ponyville to announce what they'd found, and one of the Knights apparently said a few good words about Antares that reached Celestia, who had congratulated him quietly. He was making good progress... and while he was young, she was glad she had made the decision to give him more and more responsibility.

This wasn't precisely what Antares had dreamed of, all the same: he and his friends all working together, their own little unit, working to save Equestria and bring back his parents. And Antares couldn't help but mull over this one day near the end of winter, as he sat quietly by himself on top of a fallen tree deep in the Everfree Forest, in a quiet little thinking spot.

Prestige was busy with Twilight and Burning Desire today, learning magic... Meadowlark was working with Zecora, Avalon had a message to deliver all the way to Cloudsdale, Aphrodisia was on a short courier mission to Subterra with her father to pick up some more pieces for the meteor project, and Rustproof and Cowlick were re-purposing the old water defense system that surrounded Ponyville. Originally, it had been designed to create a sheet of water around the village that would hold back any attacking Clockwork creatures, since many of their drones were destroyed or weakened by contact with liquid; now, Cowlick had gotten the idea to add a purifier to the water system, something that could make it painful for Cancer or his infected to pass through the barrier.

But since Celestia was gone today, too, it meant that Antares had little to do, little to keep himself busy. He half-wished that she had brought him with her to Canterlot, just so he could watch how she handled her own leadership responsibilities at the Royal Court, and negotiating as Baroness with the other Barons... it would have been something to do, at least.

He'd already polished his armor and all his equipment, he had exercised and run through a few drills, he had done some flight practice until his wings had gotten sore and worked on the magic he'd been taught by Burning Desire. Slowly, he was beginning to pick up on more advanced magic, bit-by-bit he was mastering his abilities... but it took him so much effort to master a single spell that he wondered moodily sometimes if it was worth it at all. Particularly because his magical energies regenerated so slowly on top of that... he could toss out maybe three spells before he felt drained and started risking not just recoil, but hurting himself or miscasting his magic.

And it was only just after noon now, so here he was, sitting alone in this little field in the forest. It wasn't too far away from the Phooka den, and he thought in a little while he might walk over there, see if they needed help with anything or if Fluttershy or anyone else he knew was hanging around. She might need help out at the care center or something, after all, and by now, he really felt like he needed something to do.

Part of him was glad for the little break, though, as he sat quietly back, looking up at the gray skies above as a few of the hardy birds that stayed through winter chirped in the trees. He closed his eyes, thinking of how hard they had worked over these last few months, how many ponies told him he deserved little breaks like this... but did he really? For all the work they'd been doing over winter, Antares could only be thankful that they had never had to contend with Cancer, or any of his infected. Plague and disease were still cropping up here and there, but there had been no signs of him... and Cowlick, between all her other projects, had been working on and off with Greece and Tenochtitlan on designing a system that could detect the monster's disease, or at least warn them of his presence if he got close to the village.

Antares sighed a little, absently brushing at the half-frozen log he was seated on before shaking his head out a bit and closing his eyes, murmuring: “I just wish... we were stronger. All of us are supposed to be... I dunno. Better. But are we really?”

He shook his head a little, thinking quietly of all the stories he'd heard about his parents, and the parents and older family of his friends. They all had so much to live up to, so much to strive to be... and that was just to be equal. Yet he knew that even Avalon felt it sometimes, like they had an impossible goal ahead of them: when their parents had been only a few years older than they were now, they had already been seen as heroes and saviors. Well, except for Antares' own parents... but he had the heritage of a Valkyrie to try and live up to. And he had no idea how in the name of hell he was supposed to manage that.

“Excuse me.” said a soft voice, and Antares flinched in surprise before he looked quickly around, then smiled in relief at the sight of Fluttershy, who was gazing at him with gentle warmth. “I don't want to intrude, but are you okay, Antares? You seem a little sad, sitting out here all alone...”

“I just... I guess I've been thinking too much, Fluttershy.” Antares answered finally, and then he nodded a little and looked down, quietly turning around and shifting off the log as he paced through the powder, smiling a bit as it crunched under his hooves. “You're so quiet. How do you move like that, so... silently, so gracefully?”

“I had to learn how to when I was just a filly, Antares, to... get safely around my own home.” Fluttershy quieted, then she looked down and said softly: “I was never really allowed outside in Hoofston, you know. Every day was... training, training, training, unless I was lucky and mother was away on a business trip or a... a hunt.” She stopped and shivered a little. “And then one day I was sent to Cloudsdale, for flight camp, and... it was so strange, Antares. Blue sky, all around. Soft clouds. No smoke in the air, no blood, no... 'trophies.' But I was still always careful to be quiet, because I was so afraid that these other Pegasi were going to be like mother.”

Antares nodded a little, studying the blonde Pegasus quietly. He hesitated as they looked at each other, and then he asked finally, as respectfully as he could: “How... how is it after everything she did to you, Fluttershy, you can still... you still talk about her as your mother? You still...”

But Fluttershy only smiled a little, closing her eyes and bowing her head. “Yes, she was... she was cruel, and heartless, and evil. She did terrible things, for terrible reasons. But all the same, Antares, she was still my mother... nothing can change that. So there's no point in trying to, no point in pretending otherwise, that her blood doesn't flow in my veins... but my father's blood does, too. And I stop and think about...”

Fluttershy looked down at one of her hooves quietly, then she shook her head slowly and murmured: “It wasn't entirely my mother's fault. I think she was brought up... harder than I was. She was broken by her experiences, Antares, and they made her into a predator, made her into a destroyer. But somehow... maybe because of my father's nature, maybe... maybe because of my mother's own strength in me... what she put me through taught me such empathy for others, and taught me no matter how bad our pain is, we can learn to push through it. I thought of the pain and suffering inflicted on me, and how mother was always so cold, and distant... I thought of all her trophies, and how she only looked at them sometimes, with... disappointment.

“But when I helped others, in spite of my own pain... it made my pain less. It made them smile, and seeing others happy made me happy.” Fluttershy glanced up, laughing quietly. “And I thought of all the animals, when I saw them for the first time, how wonderful they were when alive, how kind and gentle. How beautiful nature was compared to the prison of my home or the lonely clouds in the vast blue sky. I think if only my mother had been able to experience that herself... she could have been a good person. But she was never allowed to experience that, or see that way, Antares.”

The young stallion nodded slowly, and then he shook his head and said quietly: “You're still a far better pony than me, Fluttershy. And... it makes me understand how lucky I really am, even now. My Mom and Dad... they truly loved me, after all. They took care of me, and they... they helped make me strong. And I need to repay them for that, if I can.”

“You do every day, Antares.” Fluttershy said softly, and the young stallion blushed but smiled warmly before Fluttershy hesitated, then asked curiously: “Would you like to come back to the den with me? The Phooka and I are having... there's going to be a little celebration today. It... it would mean a lot to me if you would come.”

“Of course, Fluttershy, you know that I'd be happy to.” Antares replied with a smile, glancing up at the Pegasus and nodding one, and she blushed a little and nodded almost shyly in return. For a few moments, Antares studied her... and then understanding dawned over his features before he smiled up at her, asking: “Do you want me to ask Mom to come, too? Or some of the others?”

“No, Antares, this isn't anything... too big. This is just... a welcoming. Besides, they're busy, but you're here... and you've always been welcome in the Phooka den, you treat them with kindness and respect and they think very highly of you. Not that they don't like the others, only that...” Fluttershy smiled a little. “Well, you know how they are. Protective. Quiet. And they like to tease and play their games. I think it's best if just you come for now... it means no one will get too anxious. Then, later...”

Antares nodded slowly, then he stood up with a soft smile, bowing his head forwards as he murmured quietly: “Then of course, Fluttershy, it's the very least I can do... I... Mom and Dad would be really proud of you. Really happy for you, too. And Twilight will be thrilled, I know she will.”

Fluttershy smiled softly, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards, and there was silence for a few moments between them before she turned and gestured silently, and Antares nodded and followed. They were quiet as they made their way through the forest, but it was comfortable... and again, Antares marveled a little over the way Fluttershy moved, with both gentility and dignity, and how the forest itself seemed to bend around her, moved and swayed to give her a clear path.

They reached the Phooka den in good time, and Antares bowed his head politely to a group of the semi-ethereal beings, who bowed their heads almost solemnly back. He could feel seriousness in the air... and also pride, as he looked up with a smile when they strode carefully down into the beautiful field, before the young stallion laughed a little as he saw a familiar Kelpie striding towards them. “Hevatica, what are you doing here?”

“Well, darling, you don't think I'd miss this, do you?” Hevatica smiled warmly, then her eyes roved tenderly to Fluttershy, who blushed a little but gave a small, warm nod all the same. “I'm here to support a dear friend. Because you are, Fluttershy... you take such good care of the children, and you're so gorgeous and compassionate. And it's very nice to see the way that over the last while you've finally started to loosen up, instead of being such a bundle of nerves...”

“I'm very glad to see you, Hevatica... although I do have to admit it's a little odd.” murmured Fluttershy, blushing a bit as she bowed her head forwards, and Antares only smiled warmly. “You're such a pretty, popular person, after all, and I'm, well...”

“Oh don't even start that, now.” Hevatica laughed quietly, the sound seeming to echo strangely in the air, tantalizing the senses of those close by. “A demon like me has much to learn from mortals, and there is a world you can teach me, Fluttershy... and of course, I should selfishly admit that your emotions help fuel me as well... but I like to think we help each other there. You become nervous so easy, darling, when I know if you wanted to, you could likely bring down a dragon with your bare hooves: I feed off your nervousness, and gobble up that nastiness so instead you're only left with tranquility. It's good for us both, is it not?”

Fluttershy blushed and shifted lamely, and Hevatica gazed at her for a few moments before saying softly: “But silly Fluttershy. Just because I'm an old girl doesn't mean that we can't be friends. You underestimate your value... you have much my kind longs for. Such a pretty voice... such grace... so good with the younglings.”

Hevatica gazed affectionately over at Antares, then she reached up and stroked his face gently, smiling kindly. “You should tell her more often how proud you are of her. She's a beauty, isn't she? And aren't the Phooka fortunate to have her looking out for them, especially Nirvana?”

“They are, Fluttershy. You shouldn't ever doubt that... you're the one who really helped the Phooka and the ponies adjust to one-another, after all. Helped Ponyville see how they were worthy of being treated as equals, and... how much good they could do to help out the town.” Antares smiled, nodding a few times in agreement with the Kelpie, and the Pegasus closed her eyes and bowed her head forwards in silent thanks.

Several Phooka approached them, and Antares glanced curiously over at these before he smiled as he realized that among them was Nirvana. The distinct Phooka looked almost nervous, fidgeting a little, but as Fluttershy gazed kindly into his eyes, he seemed to relax almost immediately. They both fell quiet, studying each other for a few moments... and then Fluttershy simply nodded before looking up and saying softly: “Excuse me. I need to get ready... but... thank you both for being here.”

“It's our pleasure.” Hevatica said kindly, and Fluttershy bowed her head to them again with another happy blush before she turned and left with Nirvana and the other Phooka. Antares and Hevatica watched, and then they glanced at each other before the Kelpie shook her head and chuckled quietly. “This is cute. And it's a nice change of pace, I have to admit, darling. We demons aren't usually so calmly invited to such pretty gatherings.”

“Times are changing. I think we're... all evolving, in a sense.” Antares said softly, and the Kelpie nodded thoughtfully in response to this statement before the young stallion glanced back and forth at the other Phooka around the den: some were hurrying through the area, others were milling around, some were gazing towards their guests with interest, and the glossy-black unicorn murmured: “It's weird, you know? I don't think Mom and Dad were ever this accepted.”

“You're special, Antares. And you're special to Fluttershy... and it's less that your mother and father weren't accepted out here, it was more that Luna and Scrivener were so often busy, and did not desire to enforce their presence over these children of nature.” Hevatica replied calmly, smiling softly. “Silly young stallion. Always so concerned you're being put up on a pedestal.”

Antares shrugged lamely, and Hevatica studied him for a few moments before she asked curiously: “Tell me, young one. How is your training with the twit going?”

The glossy-black unicorn gazed amusedly up at Hevatica, but she only sniffed disdainfully, replying mildly to this: “No matter what I may think of Burning Desire, no matter how important he might be to you and Lady Twilight, he's still a twit. For many reasons.”

Antares sighed a bit, then he asked finally: “Why can't demons ever just, you know, be nice to each other? I mean, why all the mind games and the teasing and the... everything else?”

“Because we all are victims of our own natures.” Hevatica replied kindly, and Antares looked meditative at this, bowing his head forwards before he nodded a little to himself. Hevatica nodded firmly back, then she tilted her head, gazing down at the male questioningly.

For a few moments, Antares gathered his thoughts, and then he shrugged and gazed back up at the Kelpie, replying quietly: “I wish I had my Mom's talents a lot, to be honest. He's working really hard with me, and I'm putting my all into it, but... all the same, I still can't seem to grasp everything that I want to. I still find myself having so much trouble with even just the basics...”

“But you are learning, Antares, don't be so hard on yourself.” the Kelpie half-chastened gently, and Antares blushed but nodded a little before Hevatica reached up and touched his face gently. “Tell you what, darling. Let's enjoy this little ceremony here, and then we'll head back to your cottage and I'll help you train a little. Would you like that?”

“I really would. Thank you.” Antares replied with a smile, and Hevatica only smiled back and shrugged before the young stallion glanced towards where the Phooka had begun clearing snow from the natural stone step in the center of the pond, murmuring: “I'm really glad I get to see this. I almost feel bad that... the others don't.”

“They'll see something similar in time. Such strange rites these Phooka have, but I suppose it could be worse.” the Kelpie said thoughtfully, and then she huffed a bit when a Phooka walked up to her and nuzzled against her, half-pushing at it grumpily. “Oh stop. You're all as touchy as Lust demons.”

Some of the Phooka seemed to chuckle in response as one nuzzled her insistently again, and the Kelpie rolled her eyes as she reached a cloven hoof up and stroked slowly down the back of its neck. Antares laughed despite himself, shaking his head before he smiled when a Phooka approached his other side, reaching up to quietly rub a hoof along its back as it rumbled contentedly. “They only like to be touched by those they trust.”

“Yes, and then they want to be petted constantly. Like cats. The act is much less cute when you know they're intelligent and rational beings.” Hevatica replied dryly, even as she continued to moodily stroke along the Phooka's spine. Antares only smiled across at her, shaking his own head a little as he relaxed and more of the Phooka made themselves comfortable around them even as their attention was drawn up towards the front of the field, when more-industrious Phooka began to set up some kind of stage around the stone.

For a few more minutes there was quiet, with only the rumbles of the Phooka and Hevatica's occasional complaints spilling through the field, and then silence fell as the Phooka stepped away from the ritual site they had finished. Carved staves formed a crisscrossing backdrop around the frozen pond, sweet-smelling braids of grasses and herbs curled around many of these, and sitting around the stage with a strange pattern to their placement. Antares watched curiously as the crowd of Phooka all sat up, almost going rigid as they rose their heads proudly before bowing forwards respectfully as Nirvana and Fluttershy approached the stage from different sides, and Hevatica and Antares both hurriedly mimicked the Phooka around them, dropping their heads respectfully as the two strode to the cleared stone in the center of the pond.

They both stepped onto it at the same time, trading a tight, fierce embrace as the Phooka rose their heads. They all gazed respectfully at the two as Antares felt a strange twist of amazement run through his body and Hevatica smiled softly, before Nirvana began to speak in his own language. And while Antares couldn't understand the words, he recognized the tone, felt the emotion in the strange entity's voice, and the young stallion smiled warmly at the honor and warmth of the Phooka.

After a few minutes, he quieted, and Fluttershy rose her head, saying something softly first in the language of the Phooka before she closed her eyes with a soft smile, murmuring in her own tongue in a voice that all the same carried clearly through the field: “We're two people coming together. Two cultures, but... we have many similarities. We come from the same nature, and have formed a bond I will always cherish, and am honored to have. I'm only glad that this is being witnessed by two people very dear to me... both friends. Thank you for being here, and being with us. For accepting us...”

Fluttershy reached up, rubbing a hoof quietly at her eye before she and Nirvana gazed at one-another softly, and he said something quietly as he rose a hoof and touched her forehead gently. And Fluttershy smiled in return even as tears filled her eyes, repeating the gesture, and replying in her own language: “And I see you, Nirvana. I see you and I welcome you.”

They looked across at one another, eyes locked... and then both lowered their hooves and they pulled each other into a fierce embrace, and the Phooka threw their heads back and released a single long, drawn out note that echoed through the field, Antares' eyes widening in surprise as Hevatica closed her eyes and shivered in strange pleasure, a smile lingering on her face. And then the Phooka fell silent, gazing up towards the two as Fluttershy and Nirvana smiled at one another, then traded a short, brief nuzzle, followed by a short, soft kiss, and then another tight hug.

When the two finally parted, Phooka strode quickly forwards, rumbling what could only be congratulations and warm welcomes. Antares hopped to his hooves, joining the jostling crowd, eager to give his own... but before he even had a chance to speak, Fluttershy jumped towards him and hugged him tightly around the neck, making the young stallion blush and smile as she whispered: “Thank you.”

Antares only hugged her tightly back, and Hevatica laughed quietly as she joined them and reached up to touch the Pegasus' shoulder. When the mare drew back, Antares smiled... only to laugh in surprise when Nirvana hugged him as well, reaching up and blushing as he awkwardly returned the surprisingly-tight embrace. “Hey, I... I was just happy to be here, guys. You both... I was really... you deserve this, Fluttershy. This was... more than a welcome, wasn't it?”

“It's how the Phooka acknowledge a newcomer to their tribe, and... make them feel that they belong. It's rare for a pony to become part of their clan, but... it happens sometimes.” Fluttershy looked softly over at Nirvana as the Phooka stepped back and nodded with a quiet rumble, gazing back at her affectionately. “They keep telling me that... I'm special. I don't think I am... but I do like to think that there's plenty we share. That they and I... are much the same.”

Antares stayed to talk with Fluttershy and Nirvana, spending some time with the other Phooka as Hevatica seemed to drink in the energy in the atmosphere, looking delighted by it. She seemed to enjoy herself, so Antares took his time, learning more about the Phooka, warmed by the way Fluttershy and Nirvana were more openly expressing their obvious affection for each other, and reassuring her the few times she needed it that her friends would accept and welcome her and Nirvana when she finally put the rumors about her relationship with the Phooka to rest. When she finally shared with them that she and Nirvana were intimate, and more than just friends: that on top of that, she had been given the honor of becoming part of his tribe.

When the demon and the young stallion left, he fell into thought as the Kelpie studied him with interest, before the glossy-black unicorn finally looked up and said softly: “Love can change you, can't it? I mean... I think about how Prestige has affected me, made me... more resilient in a lot of ways. Given me more to fight for, in the here and now, instead of the future... and I think of her. She's so much looser than she used to be, and a lot less racist... even if, you know, when she gets mad...”

“She goes back to her old ways, yes. Love is a delicious emotion, even at its weakest, Antares, especially for my kind.” Hevatica softened, glancing over their shoulder. “The love that Fluttershy and Nirvana experience... it is an almost forbidden love. The Phooka are close to pony, but nature spirits... although many think of them like beasts, or monsters. Their love grew slowly, and took its time. But they were patient with one-another... even if it has taken them many, many years to finally be ready, to reach this point... if you could taste their love like I do, you would understand that the time and care they have taken with each other has become like an indomitable mountain.

“Your love with Prestige is... spicier. A fast and vibrant and living courtship, but it burns like fire.” Hevatica smiled softly at the young pony, bowing her head towards him. “She is your first relationship, Antares. Do you think she'll be your last? Your father and mother both had many suitors.”

“I... I don't know.” Antares said honestly, then he shook his head and said softly: “I try not to think about it, to be honest. I just... want to do the best I can with her. I want us to... always be friends, and I don't know sometimes if that means we're going to be together forever... or in order to stay friends, we'll have to... break up.”

“A very strange sentiment, but I understand.” Hevatica said softly, then she looked ahead and nodded once before looking at him tenderly. “Please don't misunderstand, young Antares. I only want to see the very best for you... you're important to me. Very, very important... I've known you since you were just a baby, helping care for you beside your mother.”

Antares nodded with a small smile, studying her quietly before the Kelpie looked ahead as they strode side-by-side through the forest, her eyes glowing with warmth. “I like this place. Equestria has everything my kind could desire: strife and chaos, love and affection, the young to nurture, the old to fascinate, the handsome in the middle to adore. And best of all, it has you, and it has your family. And somehow I know that when you bring back Mistress Luna... everything will only get better.”

“Sometimes I think... people are just humoring me when they say stuff like that.” Antares said softly, and Hevatica gave him an entertained look as the young stallion glanced over at her with a bit of a laugh. “Seriously! I just... so many people have so much faith in me... and so much faith in my parents, too, that... when they come back, things will be... better. But Equestria is already wonderful, apart from... well, the current problems.”

Hevatica only smiled softly, however, saying quietly: “Yes, but as much as the Dawn Bringer and Lady Twilight try, young Antares, and as much as you speak for us... it was Mistress Luna who truly brought us together first. Who gave us demons reason to work alongside you ponies, who was always able to bring light into darkness, and darkness into light. She was special in that way... and we look forwards to the era of peace and strength she will continue to build. I and my kind, young stallion, simply believe in her, feel our contract to her still alive and well, which gives us faith that somewhere out there, your parents wait... and you don't have to grow up any faster than you already have in trying to act as our perfect ambassador. You don't need that pressure or weight, handsome child. Stay in the daylight for a while longer, or at least in the gorgeous dusk... our kind has no desire to tar you with our darkness quite yet.”

Antares blushed at this, dropping his head forwards as he murmured softly: “I think I'm already a creature of the night, Hevatica...”

“No, you are a creature born of night, that came from darkness, but burns brightly all day long.” Hevatica smiled kindly, leaning over to kiss his cheek gently, making him blush. “You are a knight of the day still, Antares Mīrus. And your parents will be pleased to see you haven't yet been forced to suffer what they did in the past.”

Antares only nodded a little, and there was thoughtful quiet between them as they headed back to the cottage: even while they trained, Antares remained mostly silent, deep in thought even as he worked hard to follow Hevatica's instructions as closely as possible. Hevatica gave him the time to think, moving through the exercises slowly, studying him with interest the whole time until Antares finally loosened his stance and looked up embarrassedly as they stood in the snowy backyard together, saying embarrassedly: “Sorry. I... can't clear my head.”

“It's alright, Antares. You've been doing well all the same. Let's try just one last thing before we stop for the day, sweet young colt.” Hevatica said kindly, and Antares hesitated, but then nodded with a small smile in agreement, shifting a little as the demon approached and studied him. For a few moments, they were quiet, and then the Kelpie leaned in closer, their eyes locking before her own glowed as she said softly: “Relax.”

Antares forced himself to do so, even as he winced a little at the feeling of the demon reaching into his mind... but to his surprise, he didn't feel her grasping at his thoughts or feeling out his emotions, he felt something slipped into his brain, locking into place before she smiled slightly and drew back as her eyes lost their glow, gesturing calmly with one hoof at a small mound of snow in the distance. “Draw upon the memories I have shared with you, and the magic that flows in your veins and heritage. Combine the powers.”

Antares nodded slowly, breathing in and out before his horn glowed as he leaned forwards, concentrating hard as memories rose up in his mind, letting the images form... and feeling shock run through his body as he saw the image of a grinning, sapphire winged unicorn, almost felt her presence, his body thrumming with the mental imagery of her snapping her horn upwards as her magic flowed through her blood, the same blood that ran through his own veins...

He mimicked the mental image without even realizing it, letting out a short, sharp cry, and his horn gave a sharp pulse before a large spike of solid ice tore up from the earth and blew apart the snowy mound. Antares stumbled backwards with a wince as recoil jarred down his body, and then he gave a sharp, surprised laugh, staring in surprise as Hevatica smiled slightly over at the pale, almost perfectly-clear stalactite of frost, murmuring softly: “Excellently done, sweet Antares. Remember who you take after... but remember also that your magic is different from your mother, or your father's. You are your parents' redemption. You are light in the darkness.”

“I... I just... I saw that memory of my mother you planted in my mind, felt her magic... saw her magic, and tried to copy it... how did you know?” Antares asked quietly, glancing over at Hevatica, who only shook her head with a soft smile.

“You love your parents. I just needed to give your memories a little boost, Antares... and I still remember how eagerly you trained beside your mother and father as a little colt.” Hevatica winked to him, nudging him gently. “Your magic is not as strong as your mother's, may never be... but don't forget that her powers run through you, as do your father's.”

Antares nodded with a blush, bowing his head forwards and closing his eyes in gratitude, and Hevatica looked at him for a few moments before she smiled and asked: “Do you have time for a cup of tea, Antares? We can sit and talk inside. I'd like that.”

“I would too.” Antares replied with a smile, straightening a bit and gazing warmly at the Kelpie, and then he looked towards the gleaming cone of ice that was already beginning to melt away into pure water, thinking of his parents before he closed his eyes and murmured softly: “Thank you.”

The mottled white monster crawled slowly along the clifftop through the snow, giggling quietly to himself as he licked his lips eagerly. Down below, four Strange Ones in cloaks were striding calmly through the narrow gorge that led to what had once been a prison cave, and now served as a storage cell to the enormous, infected hive that had grown through these poisoned mountains.

On the outside, though, everything looked the same: sure, the Strange One village was in shambles, and the once-beacons of the bonfires had burned down to nothing but ashes that had been swallowed up beneath the powdery snow... but apart from the wreckage, at a distance it looked almost the same as it always had. There were no visible signs of Cancer's presence, or of his lovely wife's... Cancer had been very careful to make sure of that.

Other Strange Ones had been regularly showing up all winter: they seemed to know that something was wrong out here somehow, but weren't quite sure of what it was. Either that, or they were just stupid and suicidal, and Cancer didn't really care which it was. All he knew was that they were providing lovely meals for himself and Griselda... and their ever-growing family. But it was a lot of mouths to feed, and Cancer was only glad that he didn't have to worry about shoving food down the little snots' throats too often: instead, they had one big meal or two while they quickly grew up big and strong, then went down for a long nap in one of the other hollowed-out caves.

Oh, they had been lucky! The mountainous region beyond the Strange One village was just a mess of empty caverns and hidden chambers and secret places likely made by the Strange Ones. And there had been a few more caged up nasties... but since Cancer already had his lovely wife, he had just made good, delicious meals of these unfortunates instead of bothering with infecting them.

Griselda – he had already forgotten her actual name – was parked back in what had clearly once been some kind of enormous underground cemetery that the Strange Ones had built. She had made a feast of the corpses she had been able to tear out of the ground and crypts, and it had delighted Cancer. She was primal, vicious, ever-hungry and in a state of semi-hibernation, surrounded by her children, surrounded by eggs and slime and wax and flesh. She was getting stronger and more beautiful every single day, and oh, how eager he was to ride her all the way to the white weasel...

But the cold had slowed them both down: at night, and when the temperature plummeted, Griselda fell into a deep sleep: she wasn't able to move much, and just getting her out of the prison cave and back into the mountains had been difficult enough... and Cancer spat to the side at this thought, muttering: “Moving her fat ass was no small feat. Nothin' about her be small anymore. Gonna have to be patient, oh yes, oh yes... gonna have to wait. But waiting will make it sweeter, 'cause the longer we wait, the bigger our family...”

He licked his teeth slowly, then looked down into the narrow pass below, before giggling as the Strange Ones turned to the prison cave, apparently not noticing or caring about the strange heat emanating from within, nor the dark mosses growing here and there along the stone. Then again, they didn't seem to even notice or care about the fleshy, slimy substances that grew all over the deeper regions of the cave... they only started reacting and recognizing something was wrong when...

Animal shrieks rose up out of the cavern, and Cancer sighed dreamily as he dropped his muzzle in his front hooves, listening to the sound of primal screaming and raging that echoed up out of the cave tunnel with a look of delight on his mottled features. He shifted a bit in the snow, then huffed to himself as he realized pieces of his body were beginning to freeze, so he hurriedly scuttled forwards and scurried down the rock wall of the cliff like an enormous, mutant bug, his red eyes glowing as he muttered: “Do I ever hate this cold, though... and I'm gonna have to figure out me a way to get to that stupid little village, take a look-see around there... yeah, yeah, I wanna make them know I'm a-comin', after all, I wanna make 'em scared, so scared, they bring all the pretties to one place... the white weasel, the zombie, the demons and that punk kid who thinks he's king dung beetle, sittin' on his throne of crap and garbage. Yeah... gonna take me my time with him, ooh yeah...”

Cancer grumbled to himself as reached the ground, then turned down the trench and strode towards the front, ignoring the crunching and strange roars echoing up out of the tunnel behind him. They no longer held his attention as his mind drifted angrily through schemes of revenge and tilted, shadowy memories, growling under his breath before he stepped out of the narrow pass and into the snow-strewn field in front of the once-village he had taken over and destroyed.

He sat back, looking grumpily up at the dark sky and the setting sun, and then he shook his head out before tapping a hoof against the frosted ground. For a few moments, he only thought, even as coldness began to spread up through his body... but the monster had become not only arrogant, but fearless out here. Even if he froze solid – as he had on more than one occasion – either his sweet little babies would come out and rescue him, or he would thaw the next time the sun came out and shined on down on him, the monster often continuing to just sit and think like nothing had happened.

Cancer licked his lips slowly, then he spat to the side before shivering and shaking himself violently, raising his internal body heat as his fleshy form rippled violently and heated up. Then he winced as he heard an echoing, almost-mournful roar, and he sighed tiredly, slumping visibly... then a moment later, that roar came again, and Cancer's head twisted almost backwards on his shoulders as he screamed: “Will you give me a goddamn minute to myself, you crazy needy stupid fat lady!”

There was silence for a few moments, and then another roar, and Cancer groaned, rolling his eyes before his body spun around almost like a top to match the position his head was in, beginning to storm forwards and back down the path as he called tiredly: “Coming, dearie, oh, I'm coming, rotten apple of my eye. Don't you go tying yourself up in knots now, sweetie-pie, big daddy's comin' to give mommy her tender kiss goodnight...”

The whole world around him rumbled as a hiss echoed through the air, but Cancer barely paid attention to this, grumbling under his breath. Griselda had extended her reach down deep into the ground and all through these mountains, and the living hive itself worked to feed her eagerly. Her children – those who had grown large and strong enough to survive the cold – hunted for her as well, as did Cancer when he felt like it. But Griselda needed him to survive, too: needed his presence, needed to be exposed regularly to his poisons, needed to be 'refueled,' so to speak. Except he knew she was greedy, too... she was more and more becoming a raw animal, but that animal hungered for two things: food and power. And he was the catalyst that made her stronger...

“I ain't blind to it, baby, and I ain't saying it's a bad quality or nothin', sweetie, but still. It's annoying as hell.” Cancer muttered, then he licked his own lips slowly, adding meditatively: “Still, I'd do the same thing myself, so I guess I ain't so much one to talk. And as long as you remember your place, well, I'll give you all the munchies you want...”

A rumble tore through the mountains as Cancer reached what looked like the end of the path, where the cliffs on either side of the gorge converged into one jumbled, messy wall... but Cancer didn't even slow down, his body rippling as he slipped like living syrup into a large crack in the wall, twisting slowly through the narrow, zigzagging passage. He felt a distinct rumble pass through the rock passage, and Cancer grunted irritably before he poured out the other side and into a wide stone tunnel like a waterfall of disease, forming a puddle that lazily laid for a few moments on a warm patch of stone.

Then a rumble echoed around him again, and Cancer's head pushed up from the muck, groaning before he shouted irritably: “I said I was comin', didn't I? Will you give me five minutes to get to you, honeybuns, it's a long damn walk and I swear I'll give you all the kisses you want when I get there!”

The voice rumbled again, sounding almost worried and yet affectionate, and Cancer sighed... then the puddle burst upwards, transforming quickly back into the creature as he popped to his hooves and said with a grumble despite his suddenly-tender smile: “Oh, I just can't stay mad at you... mad as hell as that makes me. Fine, sweetie, fine... look, I know. I'll sing away the tears and the blues, honey, how about I do that?”

There was another rumble that shook the wide tunnel Cancer was now striding down, and the creature grinned to himself as he nodded a little, saying soothingly: “Exactly, babe... exactly! Yeah, you should know that you never gotta fret, silly... big daddy Cancer, he's always got your back. Warts and pustules and eyes and all, sweetie, he loves every little part of you... 'cept, well, there ain't much of you that's little no more.”

He laughed, shaking his head and smiling lovingly as he began to walk over a green, red and black, flesh-like substance that had spread over the surfaces of the tunnel here, and only grew thicker and larger the deeper he went into the passage, with strange, pulsating tumors here and there in the gunk. Cancer sighed in delight, feeling heat and warmth and sickness throbbing up out of the webbing before he began to hum softly, tilting his head back and forth as he continued down the long passage, eyes glowing in the darkness.

The only light came from strange pustules here and there in the webbing itself, glowing with ill, trapped green fire. It made the atmosphere feel strangely, deliciously romantic to the monster, as he licked his lips before singing in a coy, teasing voice:

“Oh, honey, you know that I love you so much... so deep...
Even when I lose my temper, oh, your touch... makes my heart leap...
Oh honey honey, baby doll, I wanna make you... all mine...
You know that what I say is only the truth... I think you're real fine...”

There was a loud, pleased rumble at this, and Cancer grinned widely, leaning forwards and adding in a teasing, playful voice: “Oh, well, don't you worry dollface, 'cause I'm just gettin' started on telling you how...

You're my favorite disease! You're my most delightful disgrace!
You're a poisonous breeze! You're a curse on the pony-wony race!
Hey, hey, oh... ba-da, do-dop, oh whoa ho-oh...
You're the raven dressed out in black! You're the curse on the innocent's head!
You're the fever, the chills that wrack! You're the one who's gonna make 'em all dead!
Ha-ha! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Ha ha ho ho hoo hee hee haw, wha-cha da da-doodle, dah...”

There was a loud roar that shook the cave, as if in approval, tinged with pleasure, and Cancer threw his head back and laughed as he cried: “Oh, finally, someone who appreciates my fine music! Yeah, honey, it's what I wrote for you, 'cause it's all true, true, true!”

He grinned wider, his eyes glowing in the darkness as he followed the passage around a corner, almost strutting now as he let his head bob back and forth, singing delightedly:

“Oh! You and me are gonna go far, we're not gonna give up, we're gonna be the stars,
You and me are gonna make it to the top, we're gonna kill 'em all, 'cause ain't no one can stop...
Cancer, Cancer, I'm Cancer honey, and you're my sweet missus darling, you're the Mrs. Cancer too!
We're a plague, a disease, a wretched blood curse, we're gonna beat 'em all black and blue!
And when we're done, we're gonna eat 'em up, we're gonna crunch 'em like candy between our teeth,
Oh Mrs. Cancer, I promise you this, 'cause you and me are at the top of the food chain... and they are...

beneath.” Cancer rumbled hungrily, as he slowly licked his teeth and shivered in delight. He heard the monstrous Griselda rumble in agreement from the cave ahead, as he walked over hot, fleshy webbing, past enormous, thick cables of the same horrible substance that looked like immense veins, pumping slime and poison through them both into the massive cavern beyond and out of it, to further fuel the spread of their hive. And here and there, Cancer's own white and mottled ooze had spread over the walls, mixing with awful, poisonous kinship into the netting and webbing of hive.

Here and there, broken pieces of stone monument still stood around the hive, broken stone guardians that diseased and dying Strange Ones and a few Nibelung and other creatures were bound to by strings of fleshy rope and gooey slime. This enormous burial ground had become the perfect home for the destruction entity and his so-called wife... and slowly, Cancer grinned as his eyes roved upwards, over the massive, monstrous silhouette of the entity that towered in the center of the room, larger than a dragon and breathing hungrily as the mottled white creature slowly approached.

“Oh my sweet, my beautiful, my big bad girl... I'm so glad we decided to give it a whirl...
Together we're better than we ever were apart, ooh, you fill me up honey, warm my dark heart!
Oh whoa, whoa oh ho ho... I ain't never felt this way about no one before...
Oh no, no, whoa whoa oh... you make feel like I got somethin' to fight for...
Yeah, yeah, hear me my sweet, destruction is our purpose, for you and me!
The body ain't nothin' but a lock, and we're the ones with a skeleton key...

Oh baby, baby, do you hear my voice? We'll be together forever, you're my girl, and I'm your boy,
'Cause there ain't no greater purpose in our lives than to reach out and destroy, destroy, destroy,
'Cause you and me, will always be, the makers of death's latest and greatest and coolest toy,
And oh there's no greater pleasure than when we move forwards with our latest ploy,
To thrill 'em, to kill 'em, to spill their blood... to destroy!

Kill, kill, kill... destroy! Kill, kill, kill... destroy! Kill, kill kill... destroy!
That's our job, honey-child of mine... in a single word, our job, our life's work... is to... destroy!”

Cancer threw his head back and laughed long and loud, and before him, the enormous monster that had once been Chrysalis roared in delight and agreement, as all around her smaller, hideous shapes buzzed their wings and looked up with hisses of agreement, wretched, soulless eyes glowing with unquestioning servitude to the mottled white monster and his horrific bride. And Cancer grinned widely as he dropped his head forwards, red eyes flashing brightly as he whispered: “That's real good honey, sweetie, lovey-dovey baby-pie. Yeah... yeah, you and me, oh, we're gonna have us some fun soon enough. Now come on, lean on back so Cancer can go give you a big delicious kiss and put you to bed, baby, safe and sound inside your shell... and when you wake up, I'm gonna feed you a good home-cooked meal, and we're gonna cuddle, and then my growing girl can take her vitamins so she gets bigger and stronger... 'cause oh, just you wait and see, baby. Just you wait and see.

“Ain't gonna be long now, sweetie, before you and me pay the ponies a little visit...” Cancer grinned, looking up and licking his teeth slowly as he gazed into the eyes of Griselda, which gazed down at him with servile, glowing green eyes filled with lust for power, and loyalty to the living disease that had enslaved her. “And we're gonna have us a great, grand ol' party when we get there, the kind that ain't never gonna be forgotten.

“And then, honey...” Cancer reached slowly up as the monster leaned down, touching her snout as he half-lidded his fiery red eyes. “We'll move on to the main course, once I've taken care of a few little nasties who need a spanking... and you and me are gonna devour this whole world whole.”

And in the darkness of the cave, Cancer laughed, joined by the eager growl of the monstrosity he had created... and in this wretched place, it seemed not like a wild dream, but a terrible and unstoppable promise for the future.