• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,578 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven



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

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Dedication

Chapter Thirty One: Dedication
~BlackRoseRaven

Outside Ponyville, there was still wreckage everywhere: signs of battle, broken traps, barricades that had yet to be taken down. The many, many corpses had been taken care of, at least: the dead of friends and family attended to, the bodies of bugs thrown in with the hulking ruins of their former queen and burned until nothing was left.

There was still much damage to be repaired throughout the town, but the blood had been wiped up, and the most necessary repairs had already been made. More important than tending to the village, however, was the rituals of tending to their lost and dead. And today, only a few days after everything that had happened, there was a gathering in front of the library around a polished ironwood casket that sat upon a golden stand, Rustproof's cutie mark carved into the lid, and bouquets of flowers laid out all along the surface of the coffin and the base of the supporting frame.

Celestia stood silently behind the coffin adorned only in bandages, looking silently over at Cowlick and Ross. The earth pony mare was breathing shakily, eyes red from crying, a veil over her face and black scarf tied around her neck. Ross had a black band around one upper limb, his eyes low, a foreleg wrapped tightly around Cowlick as he trembled a little now and then: death was hard for him to see. The death of his son was almost impossible for him to deal with.

Antares sat at the front row, rubbing at his eyes over and over, tears spilling down his cheeks now and then despite his best efforts to be strong. He felt like a miserable, worthless failure, and he couldn't believe that Rustproof had sacrificed himself, still couldn't grasp that his friend... was gone.

Prestige sat beside him, carefully rubbing Antares' back, creating a gentle rasp with each pass of her hoof over the bandages wrapped around the glossy black stallion's ribs. And Meadowlark was on his other side, trembling violently, rubbing at her own eyes every so often as her other hoof tightly clutched a bauble hanging on a string around her neck. A toy Rustproof had given her when he was just a baby and she had been a young, mean-tempered foal. A token that she had always kept... that she would never, ever let go.

Rainbow Dash and Applejack were with Avalon, who had her head bowed silently, one wing in a cast. And Twilight was here as well, wearing a thick cloak to keep her body out of sight, stitching over her face and the Lich's features mostly restored, but still a little visibly unstable, visibly strange. But even if she wasn't complete yet, she had to be here for Cowlick and Ross. She had to be here to support her friends, and her family's own suffering. And she had to be here to honor Rustproof and what the colt had done for his friends and family and Ponyville.

There was silence... and then finally, Cowlick shakily stepped forwards, taking a slow breath before she rose her head and said quietly: “Rustproof... was my son. Was the greatest damn boy... the greatest damn blessing... I could have ever asked for in my whole stupid life. I look out over all of you today, and... I know that I... didn't deserve him. I don't know how the hell he turned out as wonderful as he did. I only know that each and every one of us here owes him our lives, and I know that he did it for... for me, too. That he saw his Momma being... being an i-idiot... and he s-s-saved me like he'll never know that he always goddamn did so many times...”

Cowlick clenched her jaw, shivering violently as she leaned over the coffin, then she looked up and slowly over the group: almost every pony in Ponyville was here, every Nibelung, demons, faces she knew and faces she didn't before she breathed slowly and forced herself to straighten, shaking her head out violently. “Don't any of you forget what he's done, why he did it. He didn't do it to hurt nobody, Rusty wasn't ever like that, not even... not even with people who deserved it. He didn't do it to kill or destroy, he did it to save us. He took on that monster to save us, not to take revenge, not because he wanted to hurt it. All of you remember that. And all of you... make sure you do what it takes to prove we all deserved that. Because I sure as hell didn't.”

Cowlick dropped her head forwards, breathing slowly in and out as she trembled a little, then swallowed thickly before stepping back and nodding to Celestia. The ivory winged unicorn bowed her head silently to Cowlick, then she stepped forwards and said quietly: “We will now proceed to what has been chosen as Rustproof's final resting place.”

Antares trembled for a moment, then he took a slow breath as he stood, along with Rainbow Dash, Greece, and Meadowlark. The four strode silently to the coffin, regarding it for a few moments before Celestia nodded slowly, and they each walked to a corner of the casket, Antares reaching up to silently touch the ornate, shaped black handle.

He looked at the coffin: smaller than Rustproof would have fit in, and he wondered silently for a moment why they were doing this. But as he and the the other three all lifted the handles at once, the ponies settling the larger grips across their necks and Greece setting his own on his shoulder, keeping it gripped steady in one hand, he realized why as his eyes traveled to Ross and Cowlick. This was closure. This was a ritual not for the dead, but for the living, as Celestia strode ahead with the mourning parents, and the pallbearers followed... and following them, came first Rustproof's friends and family, and then the rest of those who had gathered.

It felt like they were leading all of Ponyville in procession, as Antares bowed his head low, keeping his pace slow and steady. At the other front corner was Rainbow Dash, while Meadowlark and Greece brought up the back. It was hard, and it hurt, and Antares felt tears pricking his eyes again and on his cheeks as he breathed quietly in and out, but moving made the pain easier. Carrying this coffin didn't feel like a weight: it felt like an honor he didn't deserve, as he wondered silently where Rustproof was... if he was gone forever, if his spirit lingered here in Ponyville, if he was in Valhalla above.

They headed outside of Ponyville, and to a beautiful little hill lit by the bright noonday sun, as clouds rolled carelessly through the blue skies above that were free, and happy, and gazed down upon the earth below and all the trials that the world faced without either mockery or compassion. Antares breathed quietly as they reached the top of the hill, where a tombstone had been placed... but no hole had been dug in the earth, no grave gaped, waiting hungrily for the coffin.

Celestia, however, gestured gently at them to set the coffin down, and the pallbearers did so, not questioning what was going on before they stepped carefully back. Others began to gather around them in a loose circle, blanketing the hilltop and gazing silently at the coffin. Then Celestia rose her head and began to speak, but Antares barely heard the words: all he was able to do was study the coffin, and think of Rustproof, and everything that the earth pony had done... how the young colt had been everything Antares knew he had to try and become himself.

He didn't realize how much time had passed, or even that the funeral was over until Meadowlark quietly touched his shoulder, and the young stallion looked up to see everypony was filtering away. He looked back and forth, and Prestige smiled faintly before she simply bowed her head to him silently and respectfully turned to follow Celestia, and Antares gazed after her with thankfulness before Aphrodisia said quietly: “I miss him.”

“Me too. He... he was always...” Avalon shook her head slowly, trembling a bit, and Rainbow Dash nodded silently as he reached up to touch his daughter's shoulder gently, as Applejack sat back with her hat held tight to her chest.

Cowlick and Ross were standing on the other side of the grave as well, and then the engineer mare trembled a bit before she looked up and asked in a surprisingly dry voice: “You still up for... spending some time together tonight, Dash?”

“Yeah. Definitely, Big Mac and Applejack will have the whole... everything set up. Pinkamena's helped a lot too.” Rainbow said finally, and Applejack nodded firmly. Cowlick only gave a faint smile, and Rainbow hesitated... then simply nodded, patting his daughter on the shoulder before he turned to leave with his wife.

Avalon rubbed at her face again, and then she looked up finally and said quietly: “I wish I'd treated him better.”

“You treated him fine. You treated him good.” Ross murmured, and then he looked up and smiled faintly, the unicorn trembling a little. “Rustproof always liked you, he did. He wouldn't want you to feel bad... he... he always just wanted to make ponies smile.”

“He did. He always did.” Avalon whispered, and then she trembled a bit before cursing quietly to herself and turning away. After a few moments, Aphrodisia followed her as well, giving a faint smile to Rustproof's parents but clearly not knowing what to say or do otherwise, as she and Avalon left.

Meadowlark and Antares simply stood for a while at the base of the coffin... and then Cowlick finally leaned up and whispered something to Ross, and the unicorn nodded quietly before he and the engineer traded a fierce, tight hug. Then he turned, walking quietly towards town, and Cowlick gazed after him silently as she said quietly: “There's nothing wrong with Ross, you know. Best goddamn thing that ever happened to me... except for Rusty. And I'm... I'm glad that Rustproof grew up so much like his Dad, nothing at all like... me...”

She almost spat the last word, and Antares glanced up silently as Cowlick shook her head slowly, then closed her eyes and leaned over the coffin, resting her hooves against it as she murmured: “I wish... I'd never kept anything from him, whether it was for good or bad. He deserved more. He deserved to know that... that...”

“He did know.” Antares said quietly, and Cowlick looked up sharply, the young stallion gazing silently down at the coffin. “He knew, Cowlick, that you and Ross... weren't his birth parents. But he said it didn't matter. He said he was lucky to have you... both of you. He loved you, Cowlick, with all of his heart. He admired you... you and Ross... you were all he wanted to ever impress. To ever be like.”

“I...” Cowlick trembled a bit, and then she dropped her head forwards, shivering a little. Antares and Meadowlark were silent, and then both traded a look before beginning to turn away... but before they could get very far, Cowlick looked up and asked quietly: “Hey, where do you think you're going? We ain't done yet.”

Antares frowned, looking over his shoulder as Cowlick reached up and yanked off her veil... and then she smiled faintly, even through her tears, as she walked over to them. Meadowlark and Antares both winced when she threw a foreleg around them both, hugging them firmly up against her before they returned the embrace, and the engineer dropped her head forwards, closing her eyes as she whispered: “All you kids are so goddamn important to me... now, now more than ever. Meadowlark... he adored you. And you were always good to him, no matter what else you might have once been. And Antares...”

Cowlick drew back as Antares glanced up at her... and then he yelled in shock when she punched him hard in the face, knocking him onto his back as he grabbed at his bloody nose in shock, staring up at her stupidly before the earth pony seized him by the ruff of the neck and jerked him up off the ground, glaring down into his eyes. “Don't piss on my son's memory by thinking you should have done better, or whimpering about how it's all your fault. Learn a thing or two from him, 'cause goddammit, he looked up to you like a big brother, always counted on you. And you didn't fail him. You didn't fail anyone. This wasn't your fault.”

Cowlick closed her eyes, then she dropped him and shook her head out, looking silently over at the coffin as Antares breathed heavily, laying on his back as Meadowlark stared in shocked silence, and then the engineer nodded once to herself before turning and quietly striding back up beside the casket. Slowly, Antares forced himself up to his hooves... and then he stared as Cowlick grasped the lid of the coffin and opened the top half of it. She reached in... and to Antares' further disbelief, pulled out a six pack of beer.

She yanked one of the cans free and tossed it to Meadowlark, who caught it out of luck more than anything else, then tossed one to Antares, who fumbled it, then clutched it between his hooves as the mare sat back against the open casket. She pulled a can free herself, then dropped the rest in her lap as she gazed up at the sky overhead, saying quietly: “Rusty wouldn't want us to be sad, and I'm not very good at this whole... funeral business. After my Dad died, I didn't cope too well... lots of drugs, uppers and downers. I think it'd be better to honor my son's memory... to remember him... if you two will share a beer or two with me, and we can talk about old times.”

There was silence for a few moments... and then Meadowlark slowly walked forwards, and quietly sat down beside the engineer. Both mares looked towards Antares, who breathed slowly in and out, feeling tears drying on his face and blood still running from his nose... and then he sighed tiredly and shook his head before striding forwards, sitting down beside Meadowlark and dropping his back against the coffin as he mumbled: “Cowlick, if anyone sees us...”

“Screw 'em and screw what they think.” Cowlick muttered, and then she cracked her beer open. Meadowlark smiled faintly as she did the same, and Antares hesitated a moment longer, then sighed and nodded, opening his own. The three bumped their cans together, then Cowlick nodded firmly once before raising hers high and saying firmly: “To Rustproof. To my son. The best engineer who ever lived, and the bravest son of a bitch ever to set hoof in Ponyville.”

“To Rustproof.” echoed Meadowlark and Antares, and then all three ponies drank deeply, Antares closing his eyes at the coarse taste of the beer before he lowered his cane as Meadowlark grimaced a little, and Cowlick drained at least half of her can in several large swallows. Then the engineer sighed and settled, the three lowering their heads silently.

Finally, Antares couldn't help but look up and ask finally: “Is the whole coffin full of beer? And how did you get that past Celestia, anyway?”

“No, there's only a few packs in there, and either Celestia didn't notice me throwing stuff in or she just didn't care. This thing is just... just for show, anyway.” Cowlick reached back and knocked quietly on the coffin, lowering her head a little as she closed her eyes. “I ain't gonna even bother putting it in the ground. I don't need to, I guess I just needed... to get it out here. To go through all the motions to... start... processing what happened.

“Rustproof...” Cowlick lowered her head, and then she smiled faintly even as a tear spilled down her cheek. “Always so good tempered. And so goddamn big, I remember that even as a foal he was so goddamn big. Ross and me... we were so scared when we first adopted him. I mean, us, parents, of this kid I was basically getting not because I even wanted one, because I wasn't about to let that jackass Narcissa sell some poor baby off to the highest bidder.

“And Ross, well... yeah, his wiring's a little funny, so I was worried about him. But wouldn't you know it, I'm the one who ends up being cranky and whiny all day, who doesn't cope well with the baby, and Ross... Ross, he blossomed. You shoulda seen it, the way he handled that kid... he was goddamn amazing. So gentle, so good, just... always knew what to do.” Cowlick laughed, shaking her head slowly as she whispered: “But Ross has got so much empathy... such a big damn heart. Me, I don't got that.”

She quieted, then shook her head slowly as Meadowlark laughed a little and glanced over at her, murmuring: “You're too hard on yourself, Cowlick... Rusty always told us... how good you were to him. How much he didn't deserve you two... how he hated when he made you guys upset.”

Antares nodded as Cowlick glanced up quietly, looking at them silently. “He was never mad at you two... and I know that sometimes, even I was... I didn't always get along with my parents. But Rustproof, I never heard him say a bad word about either of you once, and he always knew you were fair with him. If anything, he was only ever upset with himself... like with smoking. He knew he deserved the punishment and... he was always most worried about... if he was just disappointing you two all over again.”

Cowlick nodded slowly, looking down before she shook her head and murmured: “Seems so stupid now. And what a hypocrite I am, right? I was always telling Rustproof not to do this or that but half the time I'm hopped up on amphetamines or got a cigarette jutting out of my face. I was never a good girl... got in all kinds of crap all the time because I can't keep my mouth shut and I always had to be so damn tough. But Ross, and Rusty... they... they were so gentle to me. Good to me. They made me understand I could just be me... that I didn't need...”

She fell silent again, and for a few moments there was quiet before Meadowlark murmured softly: “I think Avalon really is sorry about... you know.”

“So what, she was tough on Rusty now and then, called him poo-brain. The kid was a little poo-brain.” Cowlick was smiling again as she shook her head though, closing her eyes. “But it wasn't nothin' bad. It just went to show that... he had his flaws. And you know, he worked for everything he did, worked his flank off. If he was a prodigy, it wasn't because he had all the right switches on upstairs. It was 'cause he was so... so... I don't wanna say driven...”

“Dedicated.” Antares said quietly, looking up, and Cowlick grunted as she gestured towards him with a firm nod.

“Dedicated! Exactly! And in everything that was important to him in life...” Cowlick smiled faintly once more, looking down and murmuring softly: “I like to think he got that from me, but... I dunno. I've always had a knack for stuff, but... if something got too tough I bitched and moaned and gave up. Rusty... he never gave up. And the results of that... that Iron Horse of his! You two missed it but...”

Cowlick looked up at the sky with shining eyes, laughing even through her tears. “I thought he was crazy when he told me about his idea, motorize a bicycle... I mean, who the hell rides bikes around here anyway? Not even the Nibelung do... but he came up with the idea, he drew it all out, and I still thought he was crazy as hell but decided to let him try and put her together. And the Iron Horse... Horses of Heaven, of all the names he could have chosen, why the hell did he have to go with that?”

The engineer mare shook her head slowly, laughing again as Antares and Meadowlark both listened intently, leaning towards Cowlick as she continued: “But I'll be damned if he didn't start putting things together in ways that... that I never even envisioned, and you've seen that crap I've been up to before, how I've tinkered in robotics. But he didn't need no stupid magic... the most he ever had to do was put together voltaic topaz batteries, and those things hold electricity naturally. And he finished the project and... and...”

Cowlick looked down slowly, sipping at her beer before she shook her head and murmured: “She was a beaut. Big, heavy thing, powerful engine, decorated and detailed. He impressed me. I told him he impressed me. But I never let him test drive her... we turned her engine on, sure, made sure she didn't explode but I still didn't ever let him get on that thing. I was... I was scared for him. And maybe I was even jealous of my own son. I should have let him, though, and I should have celebrated with him, because now the only time I saw that monster working was when... when he...”

She closed her eyes, biting her lower lip for a moment before a shudder ran through her, and there was silence until Antares said quietly: “He saved us.”

“He did. He goddamn did.” Cowlick murmured, closing her eyes before she drained her beer and tossed the can down the hill. Then she nodded firmly once to herself, eyes opening again as she rubbed her tears away and said quietly: “I think I'm gonna take a look at Rusty's schematics. See if I can figure out his doodles for that thing, and when... when I get better and my brain's all in order again, and my hooves start listening properly, I'm gonna see about building some of those things. Motorcycles, he called 'em. Yeah... and enough weapons. I've built enough stupid weapons over my lifetime, it's time for a change of pace. It's time to build stuff that saves people, like Rustproof would have done.”

Cowlick looked ahead, then she fumbled another beer out of the six pack before opening it. And for a little while, there was quiet as the three ponies drank, Antares and Meadowlark finishing their own cans and neither complaining or arguing when Cowlick tossed them each a new beer. The trio just sat back together, letting the conversation come when it did, talking now and then about things Rustproof had said or done until they were joined by Celestia... and with her was a beetroot-colored unicorn who was walking on his hind legs, his mane and tail flaxen gold, his horn and eyes both ivory.

Antares' eyes widened in surprise as the strange unicorn reached up with not a hoof, but a black, lineless hand to calmly adjust the lapels of the simple suit he was wearing, and Celestia gestured to him quietly as she said softly: “Cowlick, as... a gesture of gratitude, I've asked Kvasir to let us know when Rustproof finds his way to Valhalla. Because I am sure that your son has well-earned a place there.”

Cowlick glanced up moodily, and Kvasir nodded as he glanced meditatively over the trio of ponies before looking mildly at Celestia, asking dryly: “Is this a common funeral rite?”

“Very funny, jerk. Here.” Cowlick reached back into the coffin, pulling out another six pack of beer as Celestia looked meditatively at the engineer... but when Cowlick distributed the cans to each of the people there, none complained, none declined. They opened their cans almost as one, and then the engineer rose her can, saying quietly: “Here's to my kid, again. And not just him, but every single one of us. Except for you, Kvasir. God or not.”

Kvasir only smiled wryly, but he joined them in the toast as they clacked their cans together before they all drank deeply, and there was silence for a few moments as the five sat back. Then, after a moment, Cowlick looked at the strange unicorn and asked quietly: “You can't... give him back, can you? You're boss of Heaven and all, but... you can't bring my boy back to me, can you?”

“Not if his spirit has moved on willingly to Valhalla. And even if his Pale wanders reality here, his spirit may be looking for closure, not new life.” Kvasir replied quietly, shrugging a little before he glanced at Celestia hesitantly, but when she gestured to him with a hoof, the god nodded a little and said awkwardly: “I am... sorry for your loss. But...”

“No, I get it. I do.” Cowlick shook her head silently, then closed her eyes as she murmured: “I wish he could come back... I do. With all my goddamn heart. But you can't... change some things. And I wouldn't want to bring my son back as... as something he wasn't, or worse.”

Antares lowered his head a little as Celestia nodded quietly, and Kvasir silently sipped at his can of beer. For a few moments, there was silence, and then Cowlick looked up and asked moodily: “So when does god himself have time to make social calls?”

“The Valkyrie asked me to. Furthermore, we all know what I am, a homunculus created by Valthrudnir out of the blood of the Aesir and Vanir.” Kvasir looked distasteful, but Antares smiled faintly: the fact that the god was talking about his origins at all was a good thing, meant he was moving past that shame he had once carried and becoming more confident in himself. In who he was, not just what he was. “I'm a glorified administrator. And besides, I decided to oversee the latest shipment of blessed oil from Valhalla personally. Business.”

“Business.” Cowlick repeated, and then she shook her head slowly and took another drink from her can of beer before sighing and glancing moodily over at Celestia. “I bet you were never very good at giving gifts, were you?”

Celestia only smiled and shrugged in response, drinking from her own can as Antares shifted a bit and Meadowlark gazed quietly between Baroness and Kvasir, looking a little out of her element. But after a few moments, Kvasir turned his attention to Antares, asking quietly: “Have you reflected at all on recent events, Antares, and your own quest?”

“I... my parents aren't dead.” Antares murmured, shifting a bit as Celestia shot a sharp look at Kvasir, but the god only surveyed him silently as the glossy black stallion closed his eyes. “I believe they're out there. And... I know I'm not very good at letting go, but... I don't... see any reason to let go, not just yet.”

There was silence, and then Kvasir nodded before he glanced down at the can of alcohol in his grip, saying quietly: “If I could bring Odin back, I would. I... miss him. And I know that you do too.” He glanced towards Celestia, who shifted a little and looked down with a silent nod. “But as painful as it is... I know that I have to move on without him. Just reflect on things, Antares... I'm not asking you to give up your quest, or saying that you're being foolish. Only that... you need to be ready for what you might discover at the end of your journey.

“And on another matter, I'll also be speaking to the Strange Ones on your behalf, even if they are not quite as... obedient to me as they were with Odin.” Kvasir paused meditatively, before his eyes roved to Cowlick. “If you desire, while I'm there I can have something made to honor Rustproof.”

“Like a commemorative plaque?” Cowlick asked distastefully, and then she guzzled the rest of her beer before flinging the empty can at Kvasir, the homonculus god wincing as it bounced off him. “Thanks but no thanks. I already got lots to remember my colt by. And I got friends and family to help me feel better so... why don't you leave me to mourn?”

Kvasir sighed a little, but then he nodded after a moment as Cowlick picked up the last beer in the six pack and cracked it open. The god glanced down at his own beer, then he shrugged and sipped at it before turning around, saying mildly over his shoulder: “Thank you for the water.”

Cowlick smiled wryly despite herself, then she shook her head slowly before glancing over at Celestia, asking mildly as the Baroness sipped slowly at her can: “Are you going to lecture me too? Or are you really going to just sit there are enjoy a drink with me?”

“I think I'd prefer the latter, even if you could have gone with something better, Cowlick.” Celestia glanced down at the can in her hoof, and Cowlick laughed and nodded, smiling faintly as she sat up a bit.

“I could have, but... I don't want to be getting drunk today or anything, Celestia. That's no way to honor my son. Just... a good drink, and a good talk with friends.” Cowlick replied quietly, raising her own can, and Celestia smiled after a moment before the engineer closed her eyes. “Yeah. I'm glad you understand. And thanks for... the offer and stuff. I know you mean well and it's appreciated, even if... I think it kind of hurts more, to think my Rusty might end up way up there in Heaven, but it's a place that... you know. I can't ever get him to come down from, any more than I can get up there myself. Like I'm a midget and it's the real high shelf in the supermarket.”

“I thought you said you weren't trying to get drunk.” Celestia said gently, and Cowlick grunted and shrugged as she smiled wryly. Then silence fell between the group, but there was no real need for words for a little while, as they sat together, thinking of Rustproof... thinking of everything he had meant to them all, and everything that the earth pony had saved.

Celestia studied the maps silently, jotting down notes and locations on a paper pad every now and then as she murmured to herself a little. On the floor across the room, Discombobulation and Discord were sitting and playing a game of battleship: Discord would use his powers every now and then to move the positions of the ships on his side of the board around, but Discombobulation only continued to calmly bombard his ships peg after peg, turn after turn.

Then Discord grouchily looked up at Celestia before he leaned forwards and asked mildly: “Just what is she doing, puppy? You should know, you're her girlfriend.”

“And she's my boyfriend. She wears the pants. She has the p-” Celestia looked sourly up from the table, and Discombobulation hurriedly cleared his throat as Discord giggled childishly before slowly leaning a little further forwards, then wincing when Discombobulation slapped a hand against his face and shoved him backwards. “Don't be even more of a cheat than you already are. Battleship was always the one game you played with some degree of honor, even if you move the pieces around more often than a shark goes swimming.”

“Ships move. This is battleship, not battle island. Battle island would be lame. 'Oh no you sunk my immobile island!'” Discord grabbed either side of his face in mock-vexation, and Celestia rolled her eyes as she went back to work before the chaos entity added grumpily: “But I always knew you were a girl. All that screaming and moaning and primping your mane.”

“You never made me scream and moan, Discord. And if you think about making me scream and moan than I have to politely point out that while my girlfriend is also my boyfriend she is also very clearly a she.” Discombobulation replied mildly, gesturing absently at the winged unicorn, who was pointedly ignoring both Draconequus now. “But to answer your question, she's looking for the particularly nasty piece of work that's slipped into this layer.”

“The destruction entity.” Discord grimaced, then he poked a stick into place in the grid, and there was a whistling sound as a miniature missile shot down from the sky and struck the field on the other side of the game board, exploding with a small pop but not hitting any of the playing pieces. “And I know you're cheating, by the way.”

“On Tia? Never. On you? Always.” Discombobulation remarked, and then he rose a peg before pausing, then closing his eyes and saying mildly: “A5, A6, B10, C10, C1, D1, E1.”

Discord looked dumbly down at his board, then winced at the tiny gray ships resting in each of the areas Discombobulation had named exploded piece-by-piece, before the red-eyed Draconequus sulked and waved the game away. “How wonderful. Do you mind if I leave now? I think I've fulfilled my quota of helping stupid little ponies and playing childish games with my gimp of an ex-acolyte.”

“I learned it from watching you!” Discombobulation whined in return, and when Discord gave him a horrible look, the metal-armed chimerical creature added mildly: “And if you really wanted to leave, you'd just leave. It's very clear to everyone here that you secretly want to help. You're just embarrassed. And scared.”

“I am not afraid of anything!” Discord retorted indignantly, and then he paused and tapped meditatively at his chin. “Well, okay. Perhaps that's a stretch. The thought of just what you and that giant of a pony over there get up to in bed together, that scares me a lot. Also for some reason, socks and sandals. I mean, honestly, who does that?”

“It is a very horrible offense.” Discombobulation agreed almost solemnly, nodding slowly. “And believe me. It scares me as well. That's why usually I can't remember anything afterwards. At least I think I can't remember anything afterwards: how can you remember not remembering something if you don't remember it, after all?”

Discord looked at him for a few moments, then opened his mouth to reply in as rude a manner as possible, but he was interrupted Celestia glanced up and asked curiously: “Can either of you sense Cancer's presence? I'm... concerned that he didn't die in the fire, even though I saw him fall myself...”

“You saw what you want to see, Celestia, you ponies always see what you want to see, which is why you're just oh so fun and easy to play with.” Discord replied dryly, and then he twiddled his lion paw and eagle talon together as he looked moodily across at Discombobulation. “So uh. That is a good question though, puppy. What's the answer?”

Discombobulation frowned, and Discord winced visibly at this: at the sight of both Draconequus showing such clear unease, Celestia felt a nervous twist run through her body before she leaned forwards and asked in a sharper voice than she intended: “What is it?”

Both chimerical creatures flailed a bit, and Celestia sighed tiredly, looking both exasperated and a little embarrassed before Discombobulation rose his metal arm and muttered: “Well, before, yes, we could easily sense him. He's destruction and all, that reeks even worse than Helheim. At least Helheim often has a point, unless the demons have gone completely Willy Wonka on us. But neither of us could sense him in that last battle... like something has hidden his reek in the air, like an invisibility cloak.”

“Yeah, sorry, my bad.” mumbled another voice, and Celestia glanced up in surprise as Discombobulation gave a little shriek and leapt into Discord's arms, the Draconequus clinging to each other with winces before the red-eyed chimerical creature glared and threw Discombobulation off.

Allonym was sitting on the back steps of the library, smiling wryly, wrapped in bandages and still looking bruised and battered. A black fedora was on his head, and he was playing slowly with his mala of onyx beads as he murmured quietly: “One hundred and eight beads... ninety and nine, plus nine again. A different prayer for every bead, to be repeated a hundred and eight times... to gain transcendence. Freedom. Peace.”

The Avatar closed his eyes, then he said softly: “I'm sorry, although... relieved, in a sense, too. Cancer, as you'll recall, sank his claws in me. I don't know if he's even aware of it, but he managed to get a piece of me, absorb some of my abilities. Thankfully, since I'm ridiculously underwhelming in that department without my tools of the trade, it seems all he managed to make off with is my stealthiness. And you'll be pleased to know, Celestia, that even if these two idjits can no longer sense him, Antares will still be able to see him and know where he is. Him and those x-ray eyes of his.”

Celestia looked quietly at Allonym as Discombobulation and Discord both grumbled a little, and then the ivory mare shook her head slowly before asking quietly: “Antares and Cancer... they're polar opposites, and you've been trying to guide Antares into destroying Cancer from the very beginning, haven't you?”

“Cancer is... not entirely my main concern.” Allonym said carefully, continuing to slowly play his prayer beads through his hands, and then he sighed a little and lowered his head, murmuring: “But he is dangerous, yes, very dangerous, and a large part of the reason that I've gotten involved is to make sure that... that he's stopped. That nothing worse happens than already has... that we don't end up with something... going wrong, and everything ending up...”

He quieted, and Discord rose a hand before announcing loudly: “I have a question on behalf of the class. Hey, Mr. Poser? Why don't you just write him out of existence?”

“Didn't you two already try that?” Allonym asked sourly, and Discord and Discombobulation both shrugged and looked at the Avatar pointedly, who rolled his eyes and muttered: “Okay, let's pretend for a moment this isn't real life. That this is just a story, probably written by some douchebag who has too much time on his hands... or maybe he just cleverly has no social life and a job where he sits around bored all day, don't know, don't care.

“Now, in a story, you have a clear progression of some sort, right? Even in a horrible story with no plot, you have progression from A to B to C. But imagine if you removed parts B through Y to cut right to the end. For the person writing that story and whoever is unfortunate enough to read it, sure. It's godawful but it's still kind of a story. Kind of. For those unlucky characters in that imaginary story, however, I imagine... something unfortunate may happen. Since parts B to Y have been tossed into the Void, there's bound to be paradoxes everything, dissimilarities and simply put... problems. Mr. Writer Up Above might still be able to see the story, but us unlucky characters? We all get...”

Allonym reached up, making a loud squelching noise as he made a cutting gesture across his throat, and Discord slowly closed his mouth as Celestia frowned, leaning forwards and saying quietly: “I thought you said your powers were limited.”

“Yes, they are. They are extremely limited, Celestia, because if they aren't limited and I write 'and then they all lived happily ever after' I create a black hole that sucks us all in. Sure, we get to all smile and dance and wave sparklers around while we're crushed into absolute nothingness, but somehow I'm guessing that's not a whole lot of consolation.” Allonym replied dourly, making a grumpy gesture before he finally tucked his mala safely back away beneath his suit jacket. “Besides, there's always a chance that when I do try and affect reality, nothing will happen or things will react in an unexpected way. There's a lot of laws and rules and tenets to keep in mind... you know, like any big magic. God, I hate magic.”

Celestia smiled a little at this despite herself, shaking her head slowly before she murmured: “I think I'm starting to understand, Allonym. But doesn't that mean you could theoretically use your powers to modify or destroy Cancer?”

“No, it doesn't work like that.” Allonym reached up and rubbed at his face slowly, as the other three measured him with their eyes, the Avatar grimacing before he said finally: “What I do is more like... I insert extra. I create these... checkpoints, these moments of destiny, if you'll let me be a little whimsical. I can't go back and change the past, and it's pretty goddamn hard to change the present when I need to physically write in my journal. And like I said before, there's all kinds of weird rules I need to follow... at most I could write down something like 'and then Cancer exploded,' but he'd probably put himself back together. And reality has a funny way of twisting exactly what I write, so he'd probably explode near an orphanage or something, infect all the foals inside, and become even stronger when he puts himself back together from consuming an entire pack of children.”

The white winged unicorn grimaced at this, shaking her head slowly as Discombobulation and Discord traded looks, and then the latter Draconequus rose a finger and said distastefully: “So essentially you want us to believe that your powers are so flawed that if you try to do anything apart from party tricks, we'll all die?”

“Well, that's the gist of it. I'm obviously not sure what happens if my powers backfire entirely, I might just be the one who explodes.” Allonym replied wryly, and then he looked down at his prayer beads, muttering: “Things also tend to go wrong when I'm not uber-specific about just what I want to happen. You'd be amazed how many ways 'a bird flew into the air' could be interpreted badly. And for some reason it's always 'badly,' it's never 'oh, hey, that wasn't what I was expecting but gee is it ever a pleasant surprise!'”

“You are whinier than Eeyore. Then again, he does represent chronic depression. And he's not nearly as annoying as you.” Discombobulation added mildly, and Allonym grumbled under his breath before the Draconequus added moodily: “Also, none of us want you here. Go back to your own... wherever it is.”

“Yeah, poser, get out of here and stop stirring the pot. It's my job to stir the pot, not yours. You aren't nearly as handsome or charismatic as I am.” Discord added mildly, touching his own chest as he preened a little. “Me? I'm the Draconequus everyone loves, even if they love me 'cause they hate me. You? You're like... uh... puppy, give me a good reference here.”

“You're Waluigi. You're the evil version of a sidekick no one cares about and who is really just a tall running joke. You're a miscarriage of Japanese comedy.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he and Discord traded serious looks. “He gets involved in stupid games too, with ghosts and tennis and monsters from different worlds all brawling it out like brothers as they smash everything in a real super melee. Like elves with robot pants. Genre mixing alert, anyone?”

With that, the two Draconequus began to make mocking siren noises, swaying slowly back and forth as they did so. Allonym glowered at the two, then he sighed tiredly and reached up to rub at his forehead, muttering over the incessant 'wee-oo wee-oo's:' “Guys. Guys. Guys, come on. Guys. Guys, seriously. Guys...”

The Draconequus continued on for a few moments as Celestia only rolled her eyes, and then finally quieted before Discombobulation announced dryly: “Baffling.”

“Baffling. Baffling.” Discord repeated, nodding in agreement, and the two continued to echo this sentiment for almost a minute as Allonym glowered at them. But as he opened his mouth, Celestia cleared her throat loudly before things could fall into further chaos.

“How can you help us, Allonym?” Celestia paused after a moment, then smiled a little as she added quietly: “By the way, I have something of yours. It's much more solid than I expected it to be, but I certainly can't complain about that point. It's a fine tool.”

Allonym glanced up curiously, studying her for a moment before he smiled and snapped his fingers. “You found my cane! Excellent, then maybe I can be a little help after all... as I already mentioned, I do require particular objects to be able to actually put my few abilities to any use. The cane is one of those things... I'm glad I don't have to go digging through bug-guts for it.”

“It's his magic staff.” Discombobulation whispered loudly, and Discord nodded seriously before both Draconequus winced when Celestia shot them a moody look, both holding up their hands hurriedly in a gesture of surrender. “It's not my fault that Pseudonym wants to be a multi-class Gandalf. Even though really, he's far more of a wretched little Gollum than anything else.”

“Wretched little ponieses has my precious, but we won't let the precious go, oh no, oh no.” Allonym said in a raspy, high-pitched voice, and then he gave a broken little giggle as he grinned widely, twisting his head almost upside down as he stared across at the two Draconequus, who both winced and leaned back. But a moment later, Allonym was suddenly serious again, sitting back and moodily rolling his head on his shoulders as he said dryly: “Not so much fun when people actually understand your deluge of references, is it? And Allonym is not a Pseudonym. It's just my nym.”

“It. It could be. If you didn't suck.” Discombobulation argued lamely, and then he rose his metal hand and added: “I volunteer for patrol duty.”

With that, the metal-armed Draconequus simply vanished, and Discord huffed before he glowered moodily between Celestia and Allonym, crossing his arms. “Well. I'm not staying and playing Chatty-Cathy with you two. You two are weird. So I'm going to go and pick on some ponies. Goodbye.”

Discord vanished a moment later as well, and Celestia sighed and shook her head slowly before glancing towards Allonym, saying softly: “While I understand that it's not really my place to offer advice... you may want to work on your people skills, Allonym. The Draconequus seem to be afraid of you for some reason.”

“I wouldn't say 'afraid,' more like...” Allonym paused thoughtfully, tilting his head back and forth as he made rolling gestures with his hands. “Discomfited. They're without law and boundary: I'm a force of control. Of course we're going to butt heads.”

Celestia only smiled a little at him in response, and Allonym shifted before he mumbled awkwardly: “You're far too good at this game, Celestia. You've mastered the art of forceful silence. You could make the hardiest of sociopaths sweat and start spilling their guts.”

The Draconequus fell quiet for a moment, then glanced up and began to open his mouth before he simply stared dumbly as the library door swung open, and Antares, Prestige and Twilight all strode inside. They looked with surprise at Allonym as he stared dumbly back, and then Antares glared at him and the Avatar shut his mouth with a wince.

He began to hold up a hand, but Antares snapped his horn hard forwards, sending a bolt of white light hammering into Allonym's face. Twilight immediately yelled something at Antares and Prestige gasped as the Draconequus was knocked sprawling backwards, and then he slid painfully down the steps to the floor, head thumping loudly against each and every step until he finally laid prone on his back, as Antares shouted: “Why didn't you warn me? Why didn't you do... something?”

“Because I don't write the stories.” Allonym muttered, and he slowly sat up, adjusting his skewed fedora before wincing when both Prestige and Antares glared at him, even though Twilight had a hoof on her son's shoulder and Prestige was almost clinging to his neck. “I'm being honest! I can't make everything better, Antares, and I did warn you, I have warned you every step of the way that things aren't going to turn out perfect, haven't I?”

Antares pawed a hoof against the ground, gritting his teeth and snorting as he shivered a little, and then Allonym stood up and rubbed absently at a large welt on his face with a grimace. “Believe me, kid. I understand that you're angry with me. And you're going to continue to be pissed at me, and that even if there's good stuff in the future... sometimes beautiful flowers have ugly thorns, and sometimes their blossoms look gorgeous but are full of poison. And until you reach the end of the story, there's still a chance everything can go to hell, that we could end up at the bad ending instead of the good one. All I can say is... cherish the time you have with the people around you. Who knows what could happen even an hour from now?”

With that, Allonym rose his hand... then halted, looking awkwardly at Celestia. “Can I have my cane back, before I go?”

“Of course. I'll go get it for you.” Celestia said calmly, standing up and heading towards the hallway, and she gave a look over her shoulder to the trio that had just entered, Antares nodding once with response with a bit of a sigh.

The glossy-black young stallion cast his eyes down, and for a few moments, there was silence as Twilight and Prestige both loosened their grip on him before he murmured: “I'm sorry, Allonym. My temper got away from me... I swear, all this... all this struggle has changed me. Brought out... more of my mom or something.”

He laughed a little, glancing up awkwardly, and Allonym smiled after a moment before he shrugged slowly. “Well... don't worry about it, kid. Just please don't set my head on fire or anything, but... I guess I probably deserve a smack or two.” He stopped, then softened as he strode forwards, reaching up and grasping the back of one of the chairs at the table. “And listen. I want to be clear with you three that I don't... enjoy seeing you three suffer like this. Sure, I might be a little twisted, but I feel for you all. Especially you, Antares... in a lot of ways I envy you. Family...”

Allonym silently stroked over the back of the chair, closing his eyes, and then he shook his head slowly before smiling a bit and glancing up. “But that's why I'm going to help as much as I can with things. Celestia asked me before what I can really do, and a lot of what it comes down to is getting information and helping out with things like that. Even if I'm useless everywhere else, I think I might just be able to help you on the way to Clockwork World.”

“I hope so. The meteor project has been stalled for a little while with... with everything that happened.” Twilight said quietly, hesitantly drawing her eyes over the Draconequus. “We know what we need to do... it's just the actual doing it that's been proving kind of tough.”

Allonym nodded, and then he glanced over his shoulder as Celestia returned, the Draconequus smiling at the sight of his cane floating along beside her before he held up a hand: immediately, the cane flew out of Celestia's telekinetic grip and returned to the Avatar, and he spun this easily between his fingers before catching it by the body in both hands, gazing affectionately over the walking stick and down at the dragon-headed handle. “Thanks, Celestia. I see you polished her up.”

“Your cane's a female?” Antares asked dryly, and Allonym looked sourly over at the young stallion, who winced and cleared his throat a bit as Twilight smiled despite herself.

“Ignore Antares, that's just his father coming out.” she said softly, reaching up and ruffling his mane, and then she smiled and glanced up... before blinking in surprise as she saw that Allonym had simply vanished, the Lich staring at the blank space where the Draconequus had been before she shook her head slowly. “Is it just me, or are all Draconequus really bad at goodbyes?”

“It does seem that way.” Celestia said softly, and then she glanced towards Antares, who shifted awkwardly under his aunt's gaze. “And Antares... please try and contain yourself a little more in the future. You've managed to last quite a few years without picking up your mother's bad habits, after all.”

“I'm sorry, Aunt Tia. I just... Rustproof, and everything, and with his funeral only yesterday...” Antares halted, and then he smiled faintly, reaching up and rubbing slowly at his forehead. “And I'm still hung over from that... gathering at Sweet Apple Acres.”

“You held your own well, though, Antares.” Celestia smiled slightly, nodding after a moment before she added gently: “But try and show a bit more discretion in the future. Although I'm somehow sure that Luna would be proud of you.”

Antares laughed despite himself, nodding again before he strode towards the table, Twilight and Prestige joining him before the young unicorn mare asked quietly: “Have you had any luck looking for Cancer, Celestia?”

“Not yet. I've scanned the area with my scrying mirror, and I've asked my Yamato to search thoroughly through the Everfree Forest nearby, but there's no sign of him. It's why I'm keeping Ponyville on a state of heightened alert for now.” Celestia replied, becoming more serious before she gestured at the map in front of her. “As you can see, I've circled several areas where scouts have come across unnatural phenomenon, or what looks like areas affected by pestilence or plague. Each of these areas will need to be scoured for any and all signs of Cancer.”

The other three nodded slowly, and then the ivory equine shook her head slowly, murmuring quietly: “I never thought I'd be as glad as I am today that Luna made her pact with these darker forces. It's strange, Twilight: in the past, I would have been... I would have thought it was treachery. Now, I recognize it as the one thing that might save us from this true abomination we're faced with.”

“We live in strange times.” Twilight replied quietly, smiling faintly as she reached up to touch some of the stitching crossing her face, and Celestia gazed at her silently before the Lich shook her head and pointed down at the map, changing the subject hurriedly. “Are you sure he hasn't tried to hide out in the sewer systems or maintenance tunnels again?”

Celestia nodded, glancing down at the map and saying softly: “Positive. Not only did I send Hevatica and several other Kelpies to sweep through, Greece and the Nibelung installed sensors at every entrance and random points throughout the tunnels. We've had minimal activity of any kind.”

The others nodded, and Celestia paused for a moment, glancing at the three... but when she saw not just their willingness to work, but that same desire to keep busy, that same need to keep herself moving, she began quietly: “Here's what I've established so far, and some of my ideas...”

The others listened intently to Celestia, and Antares was more thankful than he could say for this: not just the distraction, but working side-by-side with his family on a solution to the biggest threat that still loomed over their heads. It was comforting, to push forwards... to feel like they were working to ensure that Rustproof's sacrifice wouldn't be in vain, that they would finish everything he had given them a chance to complete.

And more than ever, Antares understood Celestia's words: the pain was tremendous, and he knew that it would hurt for a long time now... but it made him cherish and understand, too, how important his friends and family that he still had were. It helped him truly understand the pain of loss... but also understand that in that pain, there was a lesson to be learned, that death had meaning and a place in the world, hard as it was... that more than ever, he had to stand firm beside his friends and family, and take solace in the fact that they were still here. Not to turn away... to embrace, in spite of understanding just how deep loss cut... how short time could be... how any moment of any day, something could happen.

They worked until late in the evening, and then Celestia asked if they would mind her spending the night with them: Twilight had been more than happy to accept her presence, though. And almost the moment they left the library, Discombobulation appeared with a courteous bow to join them, and a firebird flitted down from the sky to transform into Burning Desire, who winked and grinned as Twilight blushed a little at the comments he promptly made, but gazed at him with soft, true affection in her eyes.

Three strange couples made their way to the gates of Ponyville, and out into the Everfree Forest, enjoying the walk together as they shared soft conversation. Celestia and Discombobulation strode in the lead, the Draconequus making calm, easy gestures as he spoke, and Burning Desire laughed as he followed close behind with Twilight, grinning at the quirky sense of humor of the eccentric creature. Prestige and Antares trailed a little behind, side-by-side, the young mare resting her head against the glossy-black unicorn as he smiled a little at her and traded soft affections every now and then.

When they reached the cottage, they chatted until Twilight and Antares put on a simple dinner: salads for Prestige and Celestia, venison dumplings for Burning Desire, Antares and Twilight, and Discombobulation was content with a cup of the strong tea Twilight put on. It was a soft, quiet evening that they spent together, until Antares and Prestige headed quietly to the young stallion's bedroom, and Celestia and Discombobulation to the guest room upstairs.

Antares closed the door to his room gently, and then he smiled softly as Prestige reached up and rubbed his shoulders, studying his bandaged body slowly before she leaned in and they shared a slow, passionate kiss. Her hoof slid up and grasped him gently by the necklace, pulling him over to the bed, and the two slipped quietly, carefully in together... but they only curled tightly up, Prestige settling against him as they embraced each other tightly, breathing slowly and listening to one-another: their breaths, their heartbeats, the whisper of their thoughts in the movements of their bodies.

Finally, Prestige smiled a bit, pushing a hoof against his chest as she murmured softly: “I love you, Antares Mīrus. I love you with all my heart and soul, and... I know things have been very hard lately. For all of us, but for you especially... because I always looked down on Rustproof, until it was almost too late.” She looked down quietly, murmuring: “I'm only glad that... I was able to see him for who he was before he... did what he did. And any delusions I may have had left about unicorn pride or worth... what Rustproof did...”

“Yeah.” Antares murmured quietly, and he pulled Prestige closer as he closed his eyes, wondering if that ache would ever stop hurting... but it was tempered now, by not just pride, but good memories: joys that he had shared, and thoughts of all the things that had made up the young blue earth pony. “It... I only hope I can be half as brave as he was, Prestige. It hurts now, but... almost in a good way, too. I remember why he did what he did and it's... it's not so hard to smile. I remember who he was and what he taught me, and... I think I understand how Cowlick can already be pushing herself forwards. Well, that and she's... she's tough.”

“She's incredible. I always thought she was just rude and arrogant, but... I see now that she's... she is strong. Admirable, even.” Prestige murmured, then she smiled a little as she added quietly: “But don't tell her I said that. I... have to admit that I do find her method of mourning a little... reprehensible in spite of everything, after all.”

“Yeah. She's... yeah.” Antares laughed a little despite himself, shaking his head slowly before he closed his eyes. “But I wouldn't want her to change, either.”

“I know.” Prestige fell quiet, and the two let the silence spin out between them before Prestige hesitated, then looked up and said quietly: “Antares... I do... believe in some unicorn teachings still. There are some tales that I'd like to have faith in... and one is that... when two unicorns find each other, are drawn together by Destiny... they can never be torn apart. No matter how different they are, no matter what happens between them... their magic will resonate with each other's, from hoof to horn they will join together. They will simply know that they are meant to be together, and they will. Forever. I believe in that... and I want to be with you, Antares. Forever.”

Antares was silent as he leaned back a bit, the two gazing deeply into each other's eyes before Prestige smiled softly, bowing her head forwards as she blushed a little and whispered: “You've brought me into a new world, and I don't want to leave, I see nothing of value left anymore in my old home. I feel safe, and like I belong, and... I feel as if we've found each other. I'm going to live my life with you, Antares, if you'll have me... I'm going to spend every hour of every day beside you. I want to raise children with you one day, and I see myself waking up every day beside you in the future. And being happy, and proud of you. I love you.”

“I love you too, Prestige...” Antares murmured quietly, and he opened his mouth... before simply smiling at her, knowing he didn't need to say anything more. She smiled back at him radiantly, and the young stallion leaned down to kiss her softly. She returned the affection, and then they embraced fiercely, pulling each other close and holding tightly onto one-another's bodies, silently promising each other a future that would be shared together.