• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,706 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

The Confession Of Sins

Chapter Thirty Seven: The Confession Of Sins

They took a few hours to rest and recover, during which Antares spent a long time sitting quietly by himself up on top of the rail bridge, just staring out into the distance, thinking about things. They had lost three of Celestia's Yamato Guard, everyone had sustained moderate to serious injuries, but Antares understood that they were fortunate overall... even Celestia. She had almost died, but when Cancer had finally been destroyed, his disease had gone with him, and the illness had slowly faded from the ivory equine.

Antares lowered his head a bit, thinking quietly to himself... and then he smiled faintly, closing his eyes as he murmured: “You weren't there.”

“I know. It took me longer to catch up to you than I expected... I didn't know Cancer was lurking around until too late.” Allonym said quietly, as he dropped to sit down on the edge of the rail bridge before smiling a little, pointing down at the gathering of ponies. “But I did stop in to heal your friends and Celestia. Although I think she was working hard not to set me on fire and Discombobulation threw some mud at me.”

The Draconequus brushed at himself absently, and the young stallion laughed a little as he nodded slowly. Then there was silence for a few moments, before he looked up and asked finally: “So you really... didn't know?”

Allonym shook his head slowly, murmuring quietly: “In retrospect I should have, and I understand you being upset with me... but you're not for some reason, are you?” Allonym tilted his head with interest, absently fiddling with his cane. “Well, you seem a little peeved, but at the same time...”

“It was a chance to do things over, and do things right this time. And I did.” Antares laughed a little, glancing to the side and shaking his head slowly before he slowly looked up at the red sky above. “It hurt, and it was hard, and... I had to fight down instincts I didn't even know I had. But I did it, and we beat him... we stopped him, and we did it the right way.”

Allonym nodded slowly, and then the Draconequus looked up as well, saying softly: “I'll be accompanying you until the end of this journey now, Antares. I don't know what awaits us, but I do know that we have a long road ahead... but a boring one, too, I think. I hope, anyway... the last thing I want is to run into more Tyrant Wyrms. I have a feeling I wouldn't be all that much help against them.”

Antares only shrugged a little, and then he hesitated before glancing over at the Draconequus. Most of his bandaging had been removed and the worst damages had all healed, and the young stallion smiled a little before he hesitantly said: “Allonym, I'm... I'm glad you're here. I know we don't exactly always see eye-to-eye on things but your presence... does reassure me.”

“Yeah, well, it shouldn't. I'm usually a prelude to things getting bad, after all.” Allonym replied mildly, rubbing slowly at the underside of his muzzle before he drew his eyes down to the young stallion, laughing quietly: “Thanks, though, kid. Considering how selfish and all this is, that means a lot to me to hear.”

The young stallion nodded, and then he hesitated before he asked quietly: “Allonym... am I going to find my parents? Do you know if... if they're alive? If they're okay?”

“You'll find them, Antares, you've got everything you need. The biggest problem is the chasm ahead...” Allonym hesitated, then he shook his head slowly and murmured quietly: “Except no, I don't think that will prove a great difficulty after all. We have to go down, after all, if you're really intent on finding your parents... into the darkness, the depths of Clockwork World.”

Antares nodded slowly, and then he gazed silently down the bridge. They were both quiet as Allonym looked meditatively down, before both Allonym and Antares flinched as a voice asked quietly: “Can I join you?”

The Draconequus flailed a bit as he half-turned, only to slip off the edge with a yelp and plummet from the bridge as Antares stared down in shock. And then he winced as Allonym crashed loudly into the mire below, sending up a burst of sludge and goo as Meadowlark ran forwards to the edge of the structure, breathing hard. “I... I didn't mean to scare him off the bridge, I... oh god, do you think he's okay?”

Antares opened his mouth to respond... and then Allonym twitched a little far, far below, the young stallion's sharp eyes barely able to pick up on it before the Draconequus flopped around and yelled in a half-frustrated, half-miserable voice: “I think my everything's broken! Oh hell, why does it hurt so damn much?”

Antares sighed in relief as he sat back a bit, then he smiled lamely over at Meadowlark as she leaned forwards worriedly before the young stallion finally reached up and touched her shoulder, saying quietly: “He'll be okay. He's coming with us too, actually... and... Meadow, what are you doing up here? You're not usually... you know. Aerial.”

“I know, but... I wanted to see you.” Meadowlark sat back, looking nervously down at where Allonym was slowly picking himself up before she shook her head and sighed softly, fidgeting a little and offering an awkward smile over to the pony. “I just... I thought you should have someone around. I didn't know you were talking to Allonym...”

“It's okay. I... do need someone around, yeah. And Allonym is... it's always kind of weird with him, you know?” Antares glanced down at the chimerical creature, smiling a little before he shook his head slowly. “I guess he's kind of like my guide.”

Meadowlark nodded a bit, and then the two traded looks before she lowered her head a little, saying softly: “Antares, I'm... I wanna say that I'm sorry, again. For hurting you, and for... you know, not being more help against Cancer...”

“Meadow, you saved my life.” Antares said softly, looking over at her with a faint smile before he shook his head slowly. “And you destroyed one of those pumps by yourself, too... how did you do that?”

“Hornet Needles are made to pierce through armor if necessary to do an injection, that's all... Zecora said I should always carry an acid with me, just in case.” The Pegasus smiled a bit, glancing down and rubbing at her side slowly. “Acids, explosives, reagents and medical elixirs... there's so much that I have to balance carrying as part of my kit, you know?”

The Pegasus glanced down, then she shook her head slowly as she laughed a little. “Still, though, I... I am sorry, and I wish that I had done more. I wish that I was better, Antares, and I feel like I screwed up in not figuring out sooner that Cancer was actually there, inside you.” Meadowlark glanced down quietly. “I was the one who treated you, after all, and who was trying to help you. I know that not even Scarlet Sage found him in your bloodstream but... all the same. I... I should have known.”

Antares only shook his head slowly, smiling faintly as he murmured quietly: “It's okay, Meadow. It really is, there... not even I knew. If anyone should have known, I should have, but I didn't, and Allonym didn't and... you know.”

He quieted, looking down before shaking his head slowly and closing his eyes. “But Cancer's gone now, destroyed and defeated. And we can move on. We can push forwards, and find my parents, and soon it's all going to be over. We'll bring them back home, and everything will be okay again, and we'll finally have the time to pick up all the pieces and figure things out. Figure everything out.”

Meadowlark nodded slowly, hesitantly reaching over to take one of his hooves, and Antares squeezed it firmly as he smiled a little and closed his eyes. “I hope you're right, Antares. I really do. But I mean... don't take this the wrong way... will finding your parents really fix everything?”

“No, it won't. I know it won't.” Antares murmured after a moment, and then he smiled a little over at the Pegasus, shaking his head a little as he said quietly: “But it's a start, you know? And it's something I've been waiting ten years for, Meadow... they... they mean so much to me. Mom and Dad were... they were parents, and they were my friends, and I could always, always count on them. And when they're back, I... I know it's selfish, but I know a lot of the focus will go from people depending on me to... people will look up to them again. And I'll have them to guide me, in ways even Twilight hasn't been able to... I know how lucky I've been, but... I'm greedy, I guess.”

“That's not greedy, Antares, I understand. And... I'm happy for you, I am. I still hope, some days, that... my parents will...” Meadowlark quieted, and then she closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. Antares looked over at her silently, and then she slipped a little closer to him, squeezing his hoof between her own before she said softly: “I believe you, though. And I guess I know what you meant by... how things are going to be okay. I just... want to make sure that you aren't going to obsess or anything.”

“I know, Meadow. I... I remember how I was in the past, yeah, but I know that... we all have to come first. Before the mission, before even my parents. And honestly, I think that... if we'd come into Clockwork World and it had been awful... I would have ordered everyone to turn back if it was at all possible.” Antares smiled faintly after a moment, shaking his head slowly, and then he laughed a little before confessing: “Although... I might have wanted to go on alone.”

“That would be the obsessing I was worrying about, you idiot.” Meadowlark chided quietly, and Antares smiled a little as she looked across at him, before closing her eyes and silently dropping her head on his shoulder, asking hesitantly: “So... is... is he really dead?”

“No, I'm fine and well, thank you so much for your concern.” muttered a grumpy voice, and Antares and Meadowlark both winced before looking back at the sight of Allonym standing behind them, leaning heavily on his cane and splattered with mire and mud. He glowered at them, and Antares stared... then the young stallion began to giggle a bit despite himself, hurriedly trying to cover his muzzle as Meadowlark looked incredulously at the young stallion, then returned her own eyes to the muddy, glowering Draconequus... and couldn't help but start giggling herself.

“Oh yeah, laugh it up fuzzball, and you too, princess. I'd shove you both off the bridge but the point is moot due to your stupid wings.” Allonym grumbled, and then he limped forwards and poked Antares lightly in the back a few times with his cane, muttering: “Your wings are stupid. They're cheating. They shouldn't exist. They're retarded. Boo, I'm assuming this alicorn-styled character is clearly a Gary Stu of some kind, especially since he's such a nice guy.”

“What's wrong with my horn?” Antares Mīrus glanced up with surprise at this, and the Draconequus looked meditative for a few moments before he nodded wisely in understanding, carefully stepping past the young stallion to sit down with a grunt again at the edge of the rail bridge. “And usually Discombobulation is the one who does all the... references, I guess they are, right?”

Allonym nodded, grunting as he put the cane aside. “Yeah, but I'm a Draconequus, I can do that too. Besides, I use specific references from specific things. And you'll forgive me, I forgot the word 'alicorn' has a different meaning here than a lot of the other layers. You guys are all so... weird, you know that? You're really hard to work with.”

He paused, then glanced up and shrugged after a moment, murmuring: “But then again, I suppose I probably am myself, so I really shouldn't talk. Besides, like I remind myself now and then... I'm not the potter, only the potter's clay. Or maybe I'm just the tool through which the potter shapes his clay... that... you know, that thing that spins around.”

“A potter's wheel?” Meadowlark said curiously, and the Draconequus snapped his fingers and pointed at her, making a face as he rubbed at his head with his other hand.

“Precisely. I forget the simplest, stupidest words sometimes... the thesaurus is probably my best friend. You know, if I had friends.” Allonym said dryly, and then he glanced meditatively over at Antares as the young stallion smiled and opened his mouth, before the Draconequus rose a finger quickly. “Don't say it. For one thing, you wouldn't want me as a friend. For another thing, I think it would look really bad if I said 'oh, these ponies in this story are my best friends.'”

Allonym put a big, vapid grin on his face, eyes sparkling unnaturally, and Antares couldn't help but laugh and shake his head before the Draconequus returned to his usual dry expression. “It's funny that you get that, even if you don't entirely get what I'm talking about, or how being an Avatar works. Also, it's really not fun. I'm just glad that the ground is soft down there and I don't seem to break too easy. Although I have no doubt I'm going to hurt for a while.”

The Draconequus mumbled to himself, rolling his shoulders slowly before Meadowlark glanced up and said with a small smile: “Maybe you worry too much. Maybe you're thinking about what everyone else thinks too much. Maybe you need to just sit back, relax with us... your friends... and know that... you know, we're always here for you.”

Allonym looked over at her thoughtfully, and then he glanced down, fumbling in his jacket before producing his notebook and fountain pen. Both ponies looked curiously at the Draconequus as he jotted something quickly down, then smiled a little, glancing over whatever line he had just written before slamming the book closed when Antares tried to lean over to read it, saying curtly: “Mine. Not yours.”

Antares only shook his head slowly as Meadowlark laughed a little, and then the three quietly looked up towards the crimson sky above: three strange friends, but sharing a friendship that was all the better for it.

It took them a day and a half to cross the wasteland, moving at a slow and easy pace. In spite of the corruption still gnawing at them, Antares felt himself not nearly as bothered any longer by the corruption... although Celestia had pointed out at some point while they'd been talking about things, that maybe Cancer had been the entire reason they had reached Clockwork World in the first place. The monster had clearly absorbed the same corruption that made up Decretum... it wasn't so hard to imagine that he'd been what had locked onto the other end of the pulse that had been sent out, forming that tether Antares had described.

The young stallion had shivered at this thought, but then Celestia had awkwardly apologized for her comment and blamed her injuries and the atmosphere of where they were, saying she was letting things get to her. But as they stood at the edge of the wasteland, gazing down into a deep, seemingly-endless trench that led down into the darkness side-by-side, Antares couldn't help but marvel at how together she seemed, at how calm she was as she said quietly: “It's at least three kilometers deep, I can say that for certain... even with the weak light, with how wide it is, we'd be able to see the bottom if it was any shallower. Allonym, do you have specific estimates?”

Allonym glanced up moodily from where he was standing a few feet away, rubbing slowly at his side as Discombobulation leaned grumpily forwards beside the Avatar, only to be grouchily pushed back. “Personal space. But I'd say... ten kilometers, at least. This goes down into the Corruption Sea that runs all throughout the underbelly of Decretum. It stopped flowing a long time ago, and that corruption has basically hardened into one cystic mass, but... that just means that going down there will be... intense.”

Antares nodded nervously, swallowing a little before Celestia smiled faintly, shaking her head slowly as she looked moodily down into the darkness and murmured: “Cystic. A strange word to use, but I get the feeling that it's an apt word, too. This whole place... it feels...”

She shook her head slowly, then glanced hesitantly over her shoulder: the ponies and demons were in various states of health, both physically and mentally, and the march had taken a rough toll on the mortals, while the demons were visibly fighting to resist their primal drives thanks to the corruption in the air. Discombobulation and Allonym were the least affected now, although both of them complained a lot about the environment and everything else... except Antares thought that was fairly normal behavior from a Draconequus by now, from the way they acted.

The young stallion knew what Celestia was thinking, and he hesitated before looking over at her, not needing for her to ask, nor for him to phrase what he was answering as he said quietly: “Meadowlark, Avalon, Aphrodisia, Scarlet Sage, you, Scutum, Cowlick, and Allonym. And Pinkamena, I guess... I want the others to come too, but...”

“Yes, I agree.” Celestia glanced towards Discombobulation, who sighed grumpily and slumped, but he actually seemed relieved. All the same, Celestia smiled a little, saying quietly: “I'll make it up to you, Bob. We can have some quiet time once we get back home, and do anything you like.”

“Anything I like is nothing you'd like. Better we do something I'll be moderately okay with and you'll enjoy. That's the closest to winning any couple can get.” Discombobulation muttered, and then he glowered over at Allonym. “I just wish that we didn't have to put up with this tag-along over here. He's a third wheel. Which is much less useful than a fifth wheel, although I don't entirely fathom the reasoning behind that.”

“Some spares are better than others. Think of bowling, or... you know, that other sport. Or keys. And some spares are just useless, like... you.” Allonym replied kindly, and Discombobulation glowered at him, the two Draconequus huffing at each other before the Avatar added in a more serious voice: “You got the flares, right?”

“If something goes wrong, I'll send up a signal. But don't worry, I recognize that if captured by the enemy, the CIA will deny all knowledge of my existence and involvement in the events.” Discombobulation replied mildly, and then he swung up his metal fist and Allonym tapped it with the handle of his cane, the two smiling at each other for a brief moment. “Take care of Tia.”

Celestia blushed a little at this, but she smiled warmly as Allonym snorted in amusement, turning to look back into the trench as he muttered: “Oh yeah, because she really needs so much protecting. Still, very cute, Bob. I'm sure the readers will just eat that up.”

“Oh, yes, we do have an audience, don't we?” Discombobulation remarked mildly, glancing up towards the crimson sky, and then he added pleasantly: “And just to make sure no one gets the wrong idea and thinks that I actually like you...”

With that, the Draconequus rose his giraffe leg and firmly booted Allonym in the rear, kicking the Avatar off the edge of the pit and sending him plummeting into the darkness with a yell of frustration as the others leaned forwards to stare in shock. Then Antares glared up at Discombobulation, but the Draconequus only polished his metal fingers against his chest, saying mildly: “Oh, don't get your panties in a twist. He'll be perfectly fine, I checked his skill sets. He's ninety-five percent resistant to falling damage. Plus there's that cheat you can do, like in that game with the fighting anime chick with the purple hair, where you hit the flip button just before you hit the ground and you don't die.”

Celestia only sighed softly, shaking her head slowly before she looked back and forth, then finally gestured hesitantly towards what looked like a natural step leading down to several large rifts in the mountainside, forming a half-tunnel, half-ramp that stretched down towards the darkness. “We might be able to get down through there. Avalon will have to scout ahead for us as we move. Go get your group together, Antares, I'll take a look ahead and see what I can see.”

Antares nodded slowly as Celestia spread her wings, leaping forwards to glide smoothly into the chasm, and then the young stallion turned and made his way quietly back towards the group. As expected, there was some complaining, some grumbling... but surprisingly, Pinkamena shook her head and said moodily: “No, I'll wait here. You guys go ahead without me.”

The young stallion – and several others – stared at her for a few moments, and then Pinkamena snorted, shrugging and looking awkwardly away as she mumbled: “Oh what the hell does it matter, I have no reputation left anyway. I... just want to avoid... stupid emotional reunions, that's all.”

For a few moments, Antares only studied her: the way her eyes turned away, the faint tinge of red in her grayish cheeks, the language of her body. And finally, he had simply walked over and hugged her, and Pinkamena threw her head back and groaned, muttering: “Oh, this is great. Get off me, tumor, or I'll throw you over that cliff.”

Not wanting to test her patience, Antares decided it was best to leave the demon alone, but he did trade a quick smile with her, meeting her eyes as he pulled away before assembling the others. Aphrodisia instead walked over to talk with her mother, and Pinkamena pointedly turned her back on the group as she spoke gently and tenderly to her daughter, stroking her mane soothingly: they were almost the same size, both looked like adult mares and demons... but it was clearer than ever how young Apps really was, just as easy as it was to see how truly deeply Pinkamena cared for her daughter.

They were ready in only twenty minutes: Antares had expected to take much longer to get everyone settled and figure out who should be in charge and all the other business to attend to, but with Pinkamena staying behind, everyone naturally looked at her as the leader of the little group. Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom didn't like being separated, but it was also practical: thanks to the blood link between the wives, they would be able to share information with each other in case something bad happened.

They wasted little time: once everyone was ready, Celestia had returned from scouting, and the supplies had been divided between the groups, Antares conferred with the winged unicorn and the demon for a few moments to get a hopeful schedule into place. If they weren't back within three days, Pinkamena would come looking for them, and they would try and keep in contact through Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage's link... although it wasn't known how great a distance they could sustain that over, and how Clockwork World's hostile environment would affect their mental connection.

And then they parted ways, and it was harder than Antares had expected, to leave this group of ponies behind. With his own small team, he knew that they would move faster, and it would be safer... but at the same time, he still felt responsible for the others, and knew that if anything happened it would be his fault. He kept looking back over his shoulder, and Celestia and Meadowlark could only do so much to reassure him as Scarlet Sage, Cowlick, Scutum and Aphrodisia trailed behind, and Avalon sailed slowly through the air above their heads.

But the young stallion was forced to put all his attention forwards as they made their way down the crumbled stone steps, and then onto the ramping pass leading down, Antares shivering a bit at how uneven and damaged everything seemed. Celestia, Avalon, Scarlet Sage and Meadowlark were all keeping to the air as much as they could, to avoid putting too much weight on the cracked rock floor, and Scutum, Aphrodisia and Cowlick moved in single file at a good distance from each other, with Antares far ahead, looking back and forth and pointing out anything that looked particularly-unsteady to his sharp eyes.

Thankfully, the pass became a little more solid after an hour or so of travel downwards... but Antares was starting to get nervous about how deep they had descended. It was dark down here, and yet as they went lower and lower into the monumental abyss, he was aware that the blackness at the bottom of the pit seemed... almost glowing. Like it had its own dark radiance, and that thought made him shiver. He, Celestia, and Scutum lit the way with their horns, while Avalon did short dives every now and then, but so far she had failed to reach the bottom.

It took them almost five hours of travel before Avalon dove down... and didn't come back up. Antares halted the group nervously, looking over the edge of the pit, breathing hard as seconds passed into almost a minute before he whispered in a voice that seemed horribly loud in the still, dark silence around them: “Aviator?”

The quiet continued to roll outwards... and then there was a sound from ahead, and Antares looked up in surprise as steps approached calmly up the ramp. For a wild moment, he felt paranoia, he imagined that some grisly, horrific thing was approaching, but a moment later Avalon and Allonym emerged from the thick shadows, the young Pegasus calling: “Hey, I found bottom, and this guy! Sound is... weird down here, though. Everything feels muffled...”

Antares winced: for him, every word she spoke smashed through his mind and made him terrified that she was going to trigger an avalanche from the unstable cliff walls above, but then Allonym shook his head and said quietly: “You'll be glad to know we're not very far. But the walk through the Corruption Sea is going to be... unpleasant.”

“Yeah, you touch it and it's... it's so much more powerful down here than up there.” Avalon murmured after a moment, dropping her head forwards and giving a bit of a shiver before she cleared her throat and looked up quietly. “But it's different, too. It's not better or worse, it's... different, and heavier and... I guess you'll see.”

Allonym nodded slowly, rubbing moodily at his mire-splattered clothing as the others assembled behind Antares, before the Draconequus said quietly: “What I find helps when the madness comes is to recite a little something in my mind. A mantra, a prayer, a meditation. Just keep it running through your head: it's hard to start at first, but once you get the momentum going, it'll help.”

The others nodded, and then Allonym turned and spun his cane at his side before catching it by the neck and resting it across his shoulders. He led them down the ramp as Antares started forwards, and Avalon hopped into the air, flying just above the heads of her friends as the Draconequus murmured softly: “Due north. We'll be passing into deep darkness, beneath the skin of Clockwork World, but only for a little while. For now we stand in an open wound, but soon enough... you'll be missing that red sky above.”

Antares shivered a little at this, then he looked down in surprise as he stepped off stone and onto the strange texture of dark murk, shivering a little before he took another step forwards as Allonym turned, putting the stone wall to his back as the group made their way off the bottom of the ramp and onto the Corruption Sea. And while at first Antares felt only a gradual build of pressure, after a few steps he began to feel what Avalon had said: how it was different, and it was heavier.

He heard voices whispering in his head, and felt memories flooding through his mind that he didn't entirely recognize... he felt alien in his own body, and something pulsing through his blood that he had never excepted to be there. He felt like he belonged here, but he was unwanted as well; the exile and outcast who had returned to his dark homeland.

Aphrodisia was shivering, and Celestia had her own eyes closed as she walked just behind them: and as Antares looked back and forth, he realized that again, he and his friends were in the lead. Allonym had dropped back beside Celestia, and the young stallion was flanked by his cousin and Meadowlark, while Avalon sailed slowly above them, cringing and hugging herself. And in the back, Scutum and Cowlick were bringing up the rear, while Scarlet Sage had her head bowed low and was unevenly pacing beside Celestia.

He looked over his shoulder at his big sister, and she opened her red eyes to gaze back at him silently before whispering: “I've always felt I could never be good enough for them. No matter how smart I am, or how strong, Antares... I'm so different from Mom and Dad. But you can be everything they wanted to be... it scared me. I never feared being replaced... I was scared I was a waste of their time...”

“Mommy and Daddy are so strong... I want to be just like them, but... I'm weaker. I'm more demon than Mommy is... more animal... nothing but sick primal drives...” Aphrodisia murmured, trembling weakly as she shook her head slowly. “And I want that. I want power and pleasure and nothing else, even if I'm so scared of what that means I'm going to become...”

“I miss Prestige, and I wish you had her back, Antares... but part of me was happy when she died. A sad, selfish part of me that would do anything for the love I've always been cheated out of...” Meadowlark murmured, and Antares clenched his eyes shut... yet at the same time, he understood. He could hear the agony in Meadow's words, as she gave a hitching sob. “What kind of person am I, though, to think like that? To be that way...”

Scutum's voice came next, saying quietly: “When Prestige died... when I heard what happened, part of me thought it was for the best. Evidence... erased. No marred honor. But then I realized... to think like that, even in the darkest part of me, the coldest, cruelest part of me... that means I must have no honor at all...”

Cowlick laughed dryly, whispering: “That ain't nothin' bad. I've always been jealous of my own goddamn son... and the sick thing is I still am. He died in a way that I never will... sure, I'll go down fighting, but it'll be screaming, probably half-drunk or high. I'm a coward. I'm unwell. And I lash out all the goddamn time at the people who don't deserve it... I don't know why Ross sticks with me, he could do better. He could find someone who loves him more... he deserves that.”

“I wish sometimes... my family was more normal. I look at my Dad and I... get scared sometimes, does that mean me, I'm... going to want.... am I supposed to be, because...” Avalon shivered and looked up at the crescent of red sky in the distance high above, shaking her head slowly. “No. I know it doesn't work like that, but all the same some part of me just gets so upset but I know I'm not supposed to bring it up. And everypony is always judging me... I don't want to be judged, I just want to be me...”

“Freedom...” Celestia murmured, closing her eyes before she dropped her head forwards, saying quietly: “I dream of freedom all the time... and I want to reclaim all my old habits, even if I know... none of them were particularly healthy. I want to drown myself in the battlefield and... other things. And I want to stop smiling and speaking gently: I want to raise my weapons high and simply bring my wrath down on those who continue to insult my siblings... my sister and my brother, who I will do anything to have back... anything at all, anything...”

“We're going to get Mom and Dad back... we're going to save them, no matter what. We... we just need to keep pushing forwards.” Antares whispered, nodding slowly, breathing a little harder as he looked ahead and trembled: “I'm not worthy of being your leader. I'm not who any of you think I am, I... I'll never live up to what my parents accomplished. But that's why I'm so determined to save them and why I need you guys to listen to me right now and just keep marching ahead... please, please, we can get there... we can do this... and when we find them, they can make us safe... they'll make me safe...”

Tremors ran through the group as Allonym closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, before he murmured: “Chin up, ponies... we all have that dark space inside ourselves, but each and every one of you is capable of pushing through this. Tear down your mental barriers, breathe in and out, keep moving forwards... we're close to the end. One way or another, we're almost at the very end of everything.”

Allonym breathed slowly in and out, and then he shifted his cane up to cradle in one arm, digging in his jacket with trembling hands before he pulled out one of his large, black cans. He popped it open, then stared down into the fizz as trembles ran through the ponies present, before the Draconequus whispered: “God grant me serenity... to accept the things I cannot change... the courage to change the things I can... and the wisdom to know the difference...”

“God isn't here.” Celestia murmured, her head lowered, and Allonym laughed faintly beside her with a slow nod in agreement.

“Yes... thankfully, the god of this world is long gone. But I prefer to think of 'god' as just a metaphor... this isn't the time or place for a theological discussion though, Celestia.” Allonym murmured, and he took a deep swig of his energy drink before holding it out to the winged unicorn, who glanced up in surprise. “Pass it around.”

One-by-one, ponies drank, pace slowing so they could share it out before Allonym tossed the empty can away when it came back to him, leaving it sitting like a lonely landmark in the strange, thrumming mire. The act of passing around the can had helped more than the actual cherry-flavored liquid, and as the group strode onwards, Antares finally asked quietly: “What does that prayer mean?”

“It means some things you can't fix, but you can deal with it being broken and not make it any worse than it already is.” Allonym murmured, lowering his head forwards as he rubbed slowly at his face. “It's a reminder and a meditation. It's... a lot of things.”

There was silence as they continued onwards, and then Antares shivered and looked up as the darkness became heavier around them... and yet all the same, no one had any trouble seeing what was around them. It was like there was some kind of black luminescence in the air, irradiating this dark underworld even as the sky was blocked out by a ceiling of jutting stone above, held in place by both natural columns of rock extending up around them, and enormous, synthetic pillars of steel.

They walked onwards, all of them shivering a little, feeling the corruption flowing through them, trying to bring out their darkest selves, their deepest urges. And Antares could only breathe hard and try to focus on remembering the meditation that Allonym had spoken, and on the fact that up ahead, he knew his parents were waiting.

They walked onwards, until ahead, Antares saw a gleam... and his eyes widened slowly at the sight of a circle of silent radiance ahead, like a spotlight shining down from an invisible lamp above. There was nothing to cast that glow, and yet all the same it was there, making the pieces of stone and metal buried in an almost perfect circle in the mire gleam and twinkle silently. Here, the mire had turned almost to black crystal, frozen in mid-ripple as if some massive force had passed through it, and Antares felt his breath catch in his throat as he knew that here, this was where his parents were. He had found where they were kept secret, kept safe... and now he only had to free them. Free them from beneath the rubble, free them from...

Antares strode slowly forwards as the others stayed back, even Allonym... and then the young stallion looked slowly down into the crystal, and trembled as he realized the radiance wasn't coming from above, from the stony shaft above their heads that was clogged with metal and debris and other garbage... but below. Below, inside the crystal, where two shapes were frozen forever in time together, forming a strange S-shape that looked as if some incredible force had tried to tear it apart in the center... but he could see that all the same, Scrivener Blooms and Luna Brynhild still reached for each other, still clung tenaciously, if by but a single hoof...

The young stallion breathed hard, staring down into the mire. The light was shimmering up from below from pieces of glowing gemstone that had been trapped in the crystalline corruption around them, and the young stallion trembled before he began to hammer furiously at the ground with his hooves. But he wasn't able to do anything, wasn't able to leave more than a crack in the surface of the crystallized corruption before he leaned down and howled: “Mom! Dad! I'm here, I'm here to save you!”

“Stop, Antares. Stop.” Allonym said gently, and the young stallion looked over his shoulder, trembling, as the Draconequus and Celestia approached with Scarlet Sage. The Pegasus was staring down with despair into the crystal, and tears slid down Celestia's face as Allonym closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards. “I'm sorry.”

“Sorry? Why? We... we found them! They're okay, they're gonna be okay, we just have to get them out of there and I know they'll be okay!” Antares replied sharply, sounding almost hysterical as he breathed hard in and out, his eyes glowing fervently up at the Draconequus. “I know, use... use your powers! Just make the crystal weaker, or... help them wake up, or...”

“Antares... Luna and Scrivener... my sister, my brother...” Celestia trembled, tears spilling down her face as she stared down into the crystal, at the sight of the two frozen forever, image marred only by the faintest spiderweb of cracks. “I'm so sorry. But they are not... going to wake up.”

“Little brother, you... you did everything you could. Mom and Dad...” Scarlet Sage clenched her eyes shut, biting back a sob as she turned her head away, whispering: “I love you, Mommy, Daddy. I love you so much...”

“You're... no! No, they're okay!” Antares shouted, and he looked desperately past them, at the line of friends, Scutum, and Cowlick for reassurance. “They're okay! We can get them out of there, I know we can, please... please... oh, oh please...”

Allonym shook his head silently as Celestia stepped forwards and touched Antares' shoulder, then looked silently down into the dark crystal, her tears pattering down over the corruption as she said quietly: “Let's spend a while with them here, Antares... and we can talk, and I'll... take care of you. We... know what happened now, at least. It will hurt, but... we'll keep them alive in our hearts and-”

“I won't come this far to lose them! To turn back, not when they have to be alive, they have to be alive, I have to save them!” Antares almost screamed, and Celestia looked miserably at the young stallion as Allonym only sighed softly, turning away. The Draconequus gently stroked through Scarlet Sage's mane as he passed, and the Pegasus lowered her head, trembling before she began to cry quietly, even as Antares shook his head wildly and cried out: “I have to save them!”

“Stop, Antares... please... please stop...” Celestia whispered, and it was how her voice was almost meek, how she was pleading with him, not ordering, not at all her usual self, that made Antares look weakly up as the ivory mare trembled. “I don't want this either. I don't want to accept the truth but Antares, they are... we can't do anything for them...”

“Yes we can! I'll prove it!” Antares reached up, yanking off his coronet before he fumbled wildly at his armor, and Celestia only watched mutely as Scarlet Sage continued to cry. Antares wrestled with his breastplate, tears in his own eyes before he tore it off, and a book flopped free... and halfway back towards the waiting, miserable-looking line of ponies, Allonym's eyes widened before he spun around as Antares ripped this open.

A single, strangely-glowing card fluttered out, and Celestia stared down at this in surprise as Antares yanked it up, even as Allonym whirled around and rose a hand, shouting: “Stop, Antares! Don't do it, you have no idea what-”

“I'm going to save them! I have to save them, and no one is going to stop me!” Antares snapped furiously back, his eyes burning with madness and devotion and crazed love. But all the same, for a moment, he hesitated as he stared down at the card: a card that contained the powers of a defeated Jötnar, a miracle and a wish disguised as nothing more than a playing card. Its powers were unfathomable, and two of these had been enough to restore all the souls that Luna and Scrivener had managed to save once upon a time... Antares thought it was only fitting that they deserved to be saved by this last card. Thought that his parents deserved this miracle, this wish... as much as he deserved to not have to suffer losing yet more loved ones to Fate's cruel twists and games.

“Stop him! Don't let him do it!” Allonym said frantically, but Scarlet Sage only looked up disbelievingly, not processing what was going on, as Celestia looked up hollowly for a moment, gazing across at Allonym... and when the Draconequus started forwards, the ivory mare stepped into his path. She looked up at him silently, almost imploringly, and he stared back in surprise before whispering: “No. You don't understand.”

And then Antares closed his eyes and pulled the card close, shouting in a raw, broken voice: “Free my parents! Free Luna Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms! Save them, free them, bring them back to me, please, please, oh please!”

The card glowed in his embrace, becoming a point of white light in his forelegs before he was knocked sprawling by a shockwave of force, staring up in shock as the radiance made the world rumble, blinded him and everyone else as Allonym staggered and Celestia looked over her shoulder desperately, staring into the white light. The others, too, could only watch as the light faded slowly, gradually... leaving Antares panting weakly, his mind sizzling and vulnerable, whimpering like a child as he stared at the crystalline floor.

There was silence... and then cracks tore through the ground, trembles rumbling through the world as Allonym cursed before the Draconequus grabbed at his face and simply vanished from the spot. But Antares didn't care: he didn't care about anything except what was happening right in front of him, as chunks of crystal were knocked into the air and steam and smoke vented up out of the ground, the young stallion laughing almost hysterically, a wide smile spreading over his face as he half-fell forwards and cried out: “Mom! Dad! Mommy, Daddy, I'm here, come on, come on!”

A hoof smashed out of the ground as black corruption exploded upwards, Antares wincing back in shock before a body armored in blue leather and cobalt plating yanked itself out of the crystallized corruption, a mane that rippled and twisted like blue fire snapping backwards as her fanged jaw grinned. Her sapphire coat seemed to ripple as her eyes glowed like ivory spotlights, and Antares' breath caught in his throat as the winged unicorn pulled herself up out of the hole. Her beautiful, woven vine collar was tight around her neck, and a black pearl rested in a silver hollow attached to the front of this, the black stone engraved with the gorgeous image of a rose blossom.

A moment later, a second bulky form pulled itself upwards: a charcoal-coated earth pony wearing cracked and damaged armor, a broken piece of piping sticking up out of his back as the large, imposing figure stood slowly up. His sockets blazed like pits of sapphire flame, ragged white mane hanging over a face marred by a hoof-shaped scar before he closed his eyes and simply rolled his shoulders, and the broken length of pipe tore free in a splatter of not blood, but dark, liquid corruption. Around his neck was a collar of silver and platinum, and inset into the front of this was a crescent moon formed from slices of white pearl and black onyx: the match to the collar that the winged unicorn wore.

Luna Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms both bowed their heads forwards, then arched their backs at the same time as the tall, proud horn standing from Luna's skull lit up with dark radiance when her own eyes closed... and then a shockwave pulsed through the area, almost knocking Antares off his hooves as he stared up at his parents with respect and love and adoration... and a deep twist of fear that ran through his stomach, the young stallion trembling weakly before he whispered: “Mom, Dad...”

Finally, the two ponies opened their eyes again, before frowning and trembling once... and they both slumped as the strange glows faded, as Luna's mane and tail became ephemeral, trapped starlight instead of ravaging blue fire, and she cursed weakly as she slumped, midnight-cyan eyes that were the same beautiful blue-green as her son's blinking rapidly. Scrivener groaned as well, dropping his head forwards as his chestnut irises opened and looked stupidly around... but then he laughed weakly as Luna slowly looked up and stared at Antares, then at Celestia, and Scarlet Sage...

“Oh... my family!” Luna whispered, and then a radiant smile spread over her face the sapphire winged unicorn leapt forwards and almost tackled Antares, the young stallion laughing brightly as they embraced, while Scarlet Sage leapt to her hooves and towards her father, Scrivener catching her and hugging her fiercely as he gave his own warm, surprised smile. “Scrivy, oh, Scrivy, look at how they have grown! All that time in darkness, and now here we are, saved by our beloved family... and Celestia, oh, Celestia!”

Celestia was smiling widely, her amethyst eyes glowing, and Luna and Scrivener both gazed towards the ivory winged unicorn before Scrivener said quietly, bowing his head forwards as he stroked lovingly through his daughter's mane as she clung to him: “We... we're sorry we let you down. But we always had faith that one day... we'd be together again.”

“We are, we are... I...” Celestia laughed, staring back and forth in awe and adoration, still looking both amazed and ecstatic before Scrivy and Luna both gently pulled away from their children to stride quickly over to her, and the three traded a tight, firm embrace. Antares could only stare, smiling widely, his eyes almost glowing with happiness before he laughed and ran forwards as Scarlet Sage leapt up and sailed across the hole, rejoining their parents in a tight group hug as Luna and Scrivener both laughed.

The others came forwards, and the two revived ponies gazed with awe at how the foals had grown, surprise at Scutum, and softened when Cowlick said softly that she was here in Rusty's place, understanding. Then the two gazed back at their son, as Antares looked up at them, feeling like a small child again, and here he was: he was with his parents, who were heroes, who could do anything in the world – no, anything in the universe! – and who were going to take care of him now as Luna kissed his forehead gently, and Scrivener hugged him tightly. He had succeeded, and everything was safe.

And yet even as Antares and Celestia and Scarlet Sage welcomed and lavished attention on the returned Luna and Scrivener and seemed to forget about everypony else, the other five ponies couldn't deny the feeling of apprehension they all got as Scrivener and Luna preened like king and queen, smiling lovingly and benevolently over their family. It was beautiful, and heartwarming... and yet all the same, something felt terribly, terribly wrong.