• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,585 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven



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

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The Hunt Begins

Chapter Six: The Hunt Begins
~BlackRoseRaven

Cancer huffed and snarled as he stumbled through the tunnels, splashing through the water and past dead vermin and debris, then he shouted a flurry of curses in frustration as he came to another dead end. These tunnels were like a labyrinth of brick and wood that had quickly become obsolete and been replaced by a newer sewage and piping system he couldn't find a way into. He couldn't pass through solid concrete or metal, after all...

The monster reached up and rubbed slowly at his right foreleg, the white, ugly flesh rippling slowly. It hadn't taken long to regenerate, but it still hurt like hell: he hadn't expected the stupid little whiny demon he'd caught so easily would have a powerful Gluttony demon for a mother. It was not something he wanted to tangle with: as it was, he couldn't do much to poison normal demons quite yet, but Gluttony demons had massive constitutions to make up for the fact they loved to stuff everything they could find into their mouths. He could throw the most lethal strains he had absorbed at her, stuff that would turn the ponies into mush in a few hours, and she would probably get the sniffles at most.

“Helheim cheaters. Helheim liars. Helheim scum!” Cancer raged, snarling and spinning around before splashing back through the water, the mottled, goblinoid monster hissing in frustration as it made its way down towards another narrow tunnel. “I need to grab some of those demons... make me a nice demon sandwich... gobble that up, gobble them down, teach myself how I can hurt them...”

The monster mumbled to himself furiously, then his eyes flicked to the side as he noticed a large crack in the wall that a bit of water was spilling in through, and he hurried towards this before leaping forwards, body morphing into twisting, living slime that slithered easily through the narrow space. He squirmed into wetness, and felt something cold, felt water all around him as he pushed against the flow... then hit some kind of covering at the end.

For a few moments he twisted back and forth, before he firmly shoved upwards, splitting into goopy strings that spread up through the drain and into the thin pool above before they merged back together, becoming a thick, gooey puddle that floated on top of the shallow water. Then, bit-by-bit, he began to reform, head slowly lifting up before he grinned widely as his eyes flashed at his new surroundings: a narrower, octagonal tunnel that reeked of filth and rot and garbage and waste, dirty water spilling around him as he whispered: “Hello kitty.”

He looked back and forth, then hurried forwards, grinning wider as his red eyes flashed, feeling excited, energetic, delighted... before he rounded a corner and yelled in frustration at the sight of a closed, locked-down shutter.

Cancer snarled: the ponies had moved much faster than he'd expected to, and he glared furiously at his foreleg. He had taken maybe an hour, maybe a little longer, to hide away and regenerate, just in case the Devourer came looking for him... but thankfully, the demon hadn't chased him through the catacomb of tunnels. Then he'd simply hurried forwards, running wildly back and forth through the half-collapsed maintenance and drainage tunnels in search of what he needed most right now: new diseases, new prey, new evolution.

“But oh, my sweet sickness reached their town somehow... there must be some way into that village, there has to be! It's so polluted with hideous, clean energies and Helheim's reek that it's like a beacon in my mind's eye, but... oh, oh, oh, why can't I find the way to it?” Cancer snarled furiously, then he stepped forwards and hammered his head violently against the shutter, leaving smears of ugly goop over it before he stepped back, then turned around and hissed: “But I ain't gonna let this stop me or set me back, no way, no how. We're just getting started here. We haven't even begun to get started yet, no, no, you listen to me 'cause what I say is true, what I say is...”

Cancer gargled, then he hurried back into the tunnel even as his eyes glowed red and his head wrenched to the side, rasping: “They will all die. They will join the Void, their frail bodies destroyed, their spirits broken, their souls dissolved...”

Cancer's head snapped to the other side, and he squawked before shivering violently, stumbling into the wall and leaving a long smear of sludge before he shoved himself off, cursing under his breath. “Come on, come on, come on... oh, sweet sublime infection, how'd my sweet little disease make it all the way to the ponies, come on, come on... walkin', walkin', walkin', gettin' pissed off, come on, come on, come on...”

The monster mumbled to himself, hissing under his breath before he shook his head violently, then he emerged into an intersection and rumbled moodily. His eyes flicked back and forth before he turned and hurried down the left path... then he skidded to a halt, sniffing at the air with a frown as he muttered: “I know that smell...”

Cancer licked his lips nervously, then the monster hurried forwards, glancing up as he saw the end of the tunnel was in sight... and then he squawked as he bolted out into thin air, falling with a loud splash into a deep pool of water.

For a few moments, there was only silence in the large, rounded chamber... and then, slowly, Cancer surfaced, spitting out water as he shook himself violently and glared back and forth. The creature's eyes alit on a ladder leading up to a wider tunnel than the one he had fallen out of, and the monster swam slowly over towards this, muttering: “Don't understand pony designs whatsoever...”

Slowly, Cancer began to yank himself up the ladder, then he crawled out into the wide tunnel, glaring balefully back and forth. Then he sniffed the air curiously, raising his head slightly... but before he could even take a step forwards, a voice whispered softly: “Look, sisters. A Ginnungagap monster, just as Mistress Twilight warned us... a rot-crawler. No rat like the Draconequus, but the disease that seeks to infest the vermin...”

“Fe-fi-fo-fum, something wicked this way comes!” snapped Cancer, glaring back and forth before he grinned savagely as two Nightmares materialized in front of him, the shadowy creatures striding calmly towards the monster before his eyes flicked to the side, breathing a little harder as a third appeared in the mouth of a connecting tunnel to his right. “Well, la-di-da. Hey, you girls wanna know my name, or should I just eat you up, even though you ain't nothin' but smoke? So I guess really what I gotta do is snort you, but ooh, that'll be sweet too. It's a blood-brain-barrier thing, baby, gimme that more efficient delivery system right to the synapses and make me see wild, wild colors...”

“Surrender to us, and we'll bring you peacefully to the Dawn Bringer and Mistress Twilight for inspection and execution. Attempt to resist, and we'll torture you, and bring what pieces of you are left over to our masters.” one of the Nightmares said gently, as its eyes glowed with sadistic pleasure.

“Ain't you just a sweetie-pie, giving me that kind of choice? You really expect me to lay down all nice-like, knowing what's at the end of the road if I skip down that yellow-brick street with you mortal-enslaved mooks?” Cancer cocked his head, looking both amused and contemptible.

“No. We merely gave you the option so that we could honestly tell our masters we gave you a chance to surrender. Ginnungagap and Helheim are not allies, and childish destruction-bringers disgust us... come, sisters. Let's burn away this trash. We only need to leave just enough of him alive to give to Mistress Twilight...” One of the Nightmares stepped forwards, eyes flashing before it added quietly: “It is a rare pleasure when our duty aligns with our desires.”

Cancer only snorted in disgust, then he grinned suddenly before suddenly flicking a foreleg out, a thick wad of goo tearing free from his body to fly into the face of the Nightmare that had stepped forwards with a loud splatter. She cried out in disgust and anger, but before she could do anything further, Cancer yelled gleefully: “Boom!”

The wad of flesh exploded in a powerful, reeking blast, poisonous smog filling the air... but it wasn't thick enough to block out the sight of the Nightmare toppling backwards, now missing most of its head. It dissolved into smoke and ashes even before it hit the ground as one Nightmares stumbled, and the other snarled, its body glowing darkly as it concentrated.

Cancer turned towards this one, and then he screeched when a blast of electricity hammered into him, stumbling him as his body smoldered before he replied by vomiting a stream of acid at the attacker. The Nightmare vanished, however, even as the acid splattered through the tunnel, and Cancer snarled before turning his attention to the other Nightmare instead, charging towards it even as it tried to prepare a spell.

Its body glowed distinctly as it glared up at the monster, another blast of lightning hammering into Cancer just as he pounced, knocking him out of the air and flat to the ground with a shriek, and the Nightmare immediately leapt forwards, bowing its head low. A moment later, blue flames ripped out of the ground, spreading rapidly over Cancer's body, and the Ginnungagap monster screamed and writhed in agony before shoving himself off the cold cement floor in a burst of strength and rage, the Nightmare's eyes widening in shock before Cancer's forelegs transformed from slimy limbs into tentacles, his jaws gaping open in a roaring snarl that showed countless jagged teeth-

Above, the remaining Nightmare reappeared and stared in horror as the tentacles constricted Cancer's victim and his jaws settled over the demonic equine's neck. There was a sickening crunch as smoke and ashes floated up from the creature, before Cancer's body rippled violently forwards, losing most of its form and shape as it rippled upwards over its own tentacles, coating the dying Nightmare even as the slime steamed... and the surviving Nightmare shivered before spinning around and vanishing from sight again, hurriedly fleeing from the monstrosity.

For a few minutes, the ugly, bulging shape that was Cancer twisted and writhed... then slowly, he straightened and reformed, licking his lips hungrily as he rubbed at its own body. He had managed to absorb most of the Nightmare, and the demonic creature had been utterly delicious: not a true demon, perhaps, but a good start, and an excellent boost of strength. He could feel his strength growing, could feel his body assimilating the Nightmare's strengths and weaknesses, could feel the poison in his body changing, adapting, learning more about his foes... and Cancer closed his eyes with a rumble of delight. “Ooh... yeah...”

Slowly, his red eyes half-opened, gleaming brightly, and then he slowly looked up with a wide grin as his eyes glowed brighter: the last Nightmare, the runaway, had left a fresh trail behind that he could now clearly see, like particles of smoke floating silently in the air. He sniffed at this delicately, then slithered quickly forwards and hauled himself up into the tunnel entrance, whispering: “Yeah, you're gonna lead me out, aren't you, honey? Lead me right on over to your masters...

I'm getting stronger, better, bigger and badder every day,
Getting meaner and crueler and nastier in every way,
And I hunger, oh how I hunger, but I'm gonna get my fill...
One day all too soon, my sweets, I'll be movin' in for the kill...

Sha-do-do-wop, ta-ta-ta,
Sha-ba-de-do-de-do-da, la-di-da,
Sha-do-do-ta, do-si-do...
Gonna eat my fill, of all them pony folk...”

Cancer chuckled to himself, inhaling deeply as he followed the trail, his eyes gleaming hungrily. Yes, he was going to have himself a delicious feast... and this village was just a single appetizer on the menu: by the end of the day, he planned to eat his way through this entire world.

Twilight Sparkle shook her head nervously, surveying the Nightmare in front of her apprehensively: it was early afternoon, but they were inside Cowlick's engineering lab and all the shutters had been closed. In this dark, dank basement, the Nightmare didn't have to worry about being injured by the sun's rays.

What it reported was disturbing: the monster was much more powerful than Twilight had imagined, especially if it had killed two Nightmares so easily. She looked apprehensively at the open hatch in the floor, and then glanced up as Cowlick approached from where she'd been standing at the other side of the room, the earth pony mare saying quietly: “Look, I ain't about to tell you your business and all, Twilight, but if that thing is in the sewers we need to flush it out somehow, and we need to make sure we drive it out at a choke point we can control. And can we please close that goddamn hatch? I don't want that monster getting into this facility.”

“I... you're right.” Twilight nodded nervously, and Cowlick sighed in relief before the violet mare's horn glowed and she closed her eyes. The heavy, dome-shaped hatch lit up with the same aura, then swung slowly back into place, crashing down with an audible rumble before Cowlick stepped forwards and sealed it with an easy spin of the valve on top of the hatch door.

Cowlick wheezed a bit, then looked back and forth around the mostly-empty room: apart from a set of lockers that contained overalls and protective gear, this room was only used for storing some cleaning supplies and gear for tromping down through the sewers. All the same, Cowlick grimaced as she looked around the room, noting the vents, the door leading to the stairs, the larger doors leading to the supply lift... “Goddammit, locking this place down is going to be a pain in my flank, but I would much rather be safe than sorry dealing with this kind of thing. We still need to track down how the hell the infection got into Ponyville in the first place, too...”

“What do you suggest to get rid of it?” Twilight asked quietly, and Cowlick hesitated, then simply shrugged with a sigh, and the Lich smiled faintly. “Alright. I'll ask Celestia, then... and Nightmare. I'd like you to stay here, please. Keep an eye on that hatch, and if anything tries to disturb it, come find someone immediately.”

“Of course, Mistress Twilight. I... apologize for my failure.” The Nightmare bowed its head, and Twilight only smiled faintly, reaching up to touch its shoulder. It was a foreign gesture to the creature, which looked both surprised and confused at first... but then humbled when Twilight turned away, the Nightmare adding in a murmur: “I shall praise your mercy to my siblings.”

Twilight and Cowlick made their way to the door, and Cowlick sighed tiredly as she led the way up the stairs, the earth pony mare muttering: “This is godawful. My poor Ross is sick as a dog in bed still, I caught Rusty smoking again, Antares looks like someone pooped on his head, and now I don't have any goddamn idea of how to drive this freak out of the sewers. Well, that's not entirely true, but I figure you guys won't let me burn it out or blow the tunnels up.”

“No, because I don't want to see Ponyville on fire or turned into a crater.” Twilight replied dryly, sighing a little before she shook her head and asked finally: “What's with all those tunnels, anyway? Maintenance tunnels, sewer tunnels, aqueducts... what's down there, Cowlick?”

Cowlick shrugged as they stepped out into the sterile halls of the first floor of the lab facility, and she gestured at the Lich to follow, Twilight curiously striding along behind the earth pony as the engineer explained: “The Nibelung had to rebuild all of Ponyville, remember. While they were digging foundations, apparently they also decided to start digging out the sewers, too. Since their kind is used to working underground, they built a lot of the sewer system by digging extensions outta what would eventually be house foundations and stuff: you know, made a whole series of tunnels that crisscrossed all underneath what's now Ponyville. Then they turned half of those tunnels into the sewer system, while the other half eventually fell into disuse or were just used to store stuff or... you get the drift of the story, anyway.”

Twilight Sparkle nodded after a moment, then Cowlick turned and shoved open a door, stepping into a workshop: Nibelung were busy at metal tables on the other side of the wide cement room, putting together filter masks as Cowlick muttered: “Those are gonna be useless as hell if that monster can spread his disease by contact. Anyway, look at this.”

Cowlick turned and approached a table that sat in front of an enormous rack of neat, polished tools, and the engineer dug through the papers scattered over the surface of it before she grumbled and yanked the center drawer open, giving a grunt as she picked up a large, rolled-up map. “Here it is.”

She unrolled it and held it open, and Twilight looked down curiously at what was clearly a copied map of the tunnel systems... except Cowlick had already made several marks over it here and there, the engineer explaining over her shoulder: “As you know, I already sent Applejack and a bunch of them out to lock down the wells and stuff. I was gonna go myself but... I figured I'd be more useful here, planning and nonsense.

“Now, these red dots are culverts, wells, holes, stuff that connects to the maintenance tunnels that we can't lock down easily for one reason or another. There's five in total, scattered throughout Ponyville... and that's the stuff we know of, since over the years deterioration may have ripped another hole or two open in our system. But this one, here, that I've circled in blue...” Cowlick tapped a place on the western end of the map. “This is a tricky little choke point. It's a good distance outside of Ponyville, and pours into a natural pit. It's an uphill slope, so it only drains occasionally, like after a big storm, and what it pours into was used as a dump site by the Nibelung for a whole bunch of long-decomposed crud.

“If we can force that monster into anywhere along this route, we can use a wave of pressure to shove the son of a bitch all the way down the tunnel and out this drain. Unless he's got wings he'll have nowhere to go but right down into this pit... which I will have loaded with oil, explosives, and a whole bunch of nails and ball bearings. Once he falls in, I'll toss a flare, and you can say bye-bye to this beast.” Cowlick grinned slightly, glancing at Twilight. “The only real tricky part will be forcing him into that section of tunnel... but I think if we get enough demons and you're willing to get a little dirty yourself, Twilight, we can block off enough escape routes to leave him with no choice but to flee into there, and then you can drive him out with one good blast of fire or force.”

Twilight nodded slowly, murmuring quietly: “You make it sound almost easy, Cowlick... but it never is, is it? For all we know, that thing could be a thousand miles away by now...”

Cowlick only looked sourly in response at the Lich, then she shoved at her lightly and replied dryly: “You're a real ray of sunshine, huh? Yeah, I know, this thing might not be down there right now. But where the hell else is it going to go? I think it's going to stick to using those tunnels like a lair... they're just too perfect for a scum-sucking monster that thrives in disease, he won't be able to resist. And this is gonna take time to prepare, anyway... while I get the stuff ready, you and Celestia can figure out a way to track this thing, or at least make sure he's hiding out down in the sewers. And Greece and my boys still need to close up every other entrance they can.”

The violet mare nodded a few times looking down meditatively and rubbing thoughtfully at the underside of her muzzle, and Cowlick frowned a bit, asking moodily: “What? Did I miss something here? Or are you just having undead PMS or something?”

Twilight sighed and looked flatly at the earth pony, then she shook her head and said finally: “No, it just... I just have a bad feeling, that's all. And I'm worried that while we're spending all our effort setting this trap and sealing it in... it's going to attack Ponyville or something.”

“Well, again. My job is building the better mousetrap. Go on, get out of here, Twilight, talk to Celestia. The Baroness will know what to do, she knows all this strategy stuff better than any other pony around these parts.” Cowlick shook her head, then she smiled a little. “This ain't nothing big. This is just some filthy disease that snuck its way into our world, but we got lots of allies and we can take this thing down.”

“Okay. Yeah, you're right. I'll let Celestia know what you're planning... I mean, doing.” Twilight smiled after a moment, then she turned as Cowlick grunted and waved at her, the engineer turning her eyes back to the map as the Lich headed out the door and into the halls.

She strode slowly down the corridor, following the signs to the exit, and smiling at the receptionist as she made her way across the lobby and then out the doors. She paused for a moment as the double doors of the facility swung closed behind her, gazing over her shoulder at the building and murmuring softly: “I just wish Luna and Scrivener were here, that's all.”

“You really can't depend on them for everything, you know. But funnily enough, at the same time, you can, can't you?” said a soft voice, and Twilight looked up in surprise, then smiled a little at the sight of Discombobulation, the Draconequus lounging placidly against a wall across the street. He nodded to her as he straightened, and Twilight approached him gladly before the chimerical creature said gently: “They're always in your heart, Twilight Sparkle. Or. Well. Something like that, since you don't have a heart, do you?”

“Maybe not in my chest, but... somewhere in me. I feel something beating.” Twilight said quietly, reaching up and touching her breast through the thick sweater she was wearing... and then she smiled and shook her head slowly, saying softly: “But you're right. They are always with me. I just wish... they were still here.”

Discombobulation shrugged slowly, then the two fell into pace as they began to calmly make their way through Ponyville, the Draconequus crossing his arms as he said softly: “You know that video game, where the chick gets killed by the villain about halfway through? Well, her death propels the story forwards, doesn't it? Perhaps it's in death that she was able to get her true message across... although it helps she's still there from time to time, all the same. Then again, I like to think myself that death is merely a transitive state... it's hard for us Draconequus, you know. We're all scared of death: when we die, we don't get to go to Heaven, or to Hell, or even to Purgatory. We just cease to be... poof. All of it gone, just like that.”

He snapped his fingers, then shook his head slowly and smiled over at Twilight Sparkle. “I do love a good theological discussion all the same, though... where do you think you'll go when you die, Twilight Sparkle? Paradiso? Helheim? Or will it be eternal reruns of that old cartoon, living out happy times with friends and family forever...”

“I don't know, Discombobulation. But I know where I want to go.” Twilight said softly, glancing up and shaking her head a bit as she smiled a little. “I think... Celestia will be there, too. And I hope some of my friends, but I don't know what they would think... if it would... suit them, you know? Yet all the same, I... I wonder. What's Heaven supposed to be like when... you're like me? Like Luna, or Scrivener? And worse... what's Hell?”

“Now that's a very easy question. For Luna Brynhild, Hell is obviously a crowded bar frequented by other poets during open mic night. For Scrivener Blooms, it's probably a Sunday school where the uniforms are ambiguous and no one has any boy or girl parts.” Discombobulation said mildly, and Twilight laughed despite herself, before she smiled warmly up at him.

“You know, I'm finally beginning to understand why you've always referred to them by each other's name.” She stopped, hesitated, then asked curiously: “If you had to choose a name for me, what would it be?”

“It would be the name of something I would never have to put in my mouth.” Discombobulation said kindly, and Twilight couldn't help but laugh: and it was warm, true, real laughter, as the Draconequus smiled slightly down at her before he reached a hand down to gently rest on her shoulder as they continued to walk.

When they entered the library, Twilight was surprised to see Prestige and Meadowlark both helping Celestia go over files. She was calmly reading a book herself, even though she was dressed in her golden armor: but then again, by now, Twilight knew that her equipment was almost as comfortable for her as her own skin. A Nibelung Architect was here, too: it was the fact his tusks were shorn down – or in this case, completely removed – that gave away what he was. The dwarf smiled over at her, smoothing down the open vest he was wearing as he said warmly: “Twilight Sparkle... it's nice to see you here.”

“Tenochtitlan.” Twilight smiled and nodded, bowing her head politely to the Architect: they were the keepers of ancient Nibelung lore, the few dwarves who did their best to preserve their ancient history and culture, before Niflheim had been invaded and destroyed by Helheim and the Nibelung race turned from proud masters of their domain to thugs and mercenaries. “It's good to see you too. I'm just coming from Cowlick's lab, actually.”

Discombobulation calmly strolled past the Lich to walk around the table, ignoring the way Prestige peered at him distrustfully before the Draconequus leaned curiously over Celestia's shoulder to look at the book on the table in front of her, and the ivory equine smiled a little despite herself, before looking up in interest as Twilight continued: “She... she has a plan she's already put in motion, to drive this monster out of the sewers... she's sealing off all the entrances she can, and the she wants us to use demons and others immune to the infection to drive it into one of the drainage tunnels and blast it out into a deathtrap.”

Celestia nodded slowly, then she asked quietly: “I suppose in the meantime Cowlick wants us to keep an eye out for the monster, to make sure it's in the sewers, and to keep it there if at all possible?”

“Pretty much.” Twilight smiled a little as she approached the table, then she shook her head slowly and added quietly: “But I'm nervous... I have a bad feeling. The plan seems foolproof, but... that's assuming Cowlick's right about it wanting to stay in the sewers.”

Celestia closed her eyes, bowing her head forwards in thought for a moment before she glanced up over her shoulder at Discombobulation and asked curiously: “What do you know about this kind of monstrosity? We're fairly sure it's a Ginnungagap entity... have the Draconequus ever encountered it before?”

“Oh, Draconequus have encountered each and every and any sort of thing, as I'm sure I've mentioned at some point. We know everything, but all that amounts to is knowing nothing in really fancy terms.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he shook his head as he sat down at the table beside the ivory winged unicorn, looking thoughtful as he began to beat a light tattoo against it. “Remember, Ginnungagap is nothing but garbage and filth and where all the missing puzzle pieces go. Everything's wild, rampant chaos there, us rats and cats and cows and chickens. But all of those things can carry some very nasty diseases, can't they? And diseases thrive in rotting garbage...

“They say that Ginnungagap is so wild and happy and carefree because it dances eternally on the edge of disaster. That literally, if you dig down deep enough through the floor that's piled up high with junk, you'll end up eventually falling through the chairs and used cars and stereos and cassettes and dusty appliances that no one ever uses, and you'll land right smack-dab in the middle of Nothingness. They say that we smiling clowns and rats of Ginnungagap have the universe's darkest secret right beneath our floor: the Void, where there's nothing... but Nothing.” Discombobulation fell quiet, shaking his head slowly as he murmured: “Nothing is a very awful thing. Just thinking about it gives me chills, as a matter of fact.

“Now imagine what would happen if you mixed rampant, gleeful chaos with the emotionless end-to-all-things of the Void? Well, some people have and they've made very famous comic book characters out of it.” Discombobulation smiled wryly, glancing up before he shook his head slowly. “But this is what we're dealing with here. Normally, something like this isn't all that serious: in an environment of chaos, none of us have the time to take a cold, disease, or death very seriously, so we simply laugh off the worst of ailments and continue happily on our way, and if it gets drawn back into the Void... then destruction becomes destroyed. But that destruction entity has been removed from those environments somehow, and tossed into this world. This world, where it can chew people up and gobble them down, and where even I would be forced to take it seriously if it rose its ugly, mocking head. It's going to get strong and get mean fast, my friends... because there's nothing here to restrain it, nothing to contain it, nothing to stop it from unleashing its full potential.”

He fell quiet, and Celestia frowned as she nodded slowly once, then looked up and said quietly: “Then we have no choice but to hope that Cowlick's plan works, and destroy it as soon as possible. I trust in Cowlick's ability enough to have faith it's viable, but keeping it in the sewers... if it is a creature of chaos, it may be hard to predict its movements.”

She paused, then glanced over at Tenochtitlan as he rubbed slowly at the underside of his muzzle, murmuring: “Maybe we can lure the creature in when we're ready, however... it attacked the hospital first, didn't it? And it was likewise attracted to the old drainage tunnels instead of directly to Ponyville. If it's attracted to disease or illness, maybe Greece and I can build something that will lure it into the tunnels.”

Celestia looked curiously over at the Architect, and the dwarf smiled after a moment before he nodded firmly once, looking up and asking: “Would you mind excusing me, Celestia? I'd like to get started on this project, see what I can come up with.”

“Not at all, friend. Go right ahead.” Celestia nodded back, and the dwarf smiled before saluting and heading quickly for the door. The ivory winged unicorn drew her eyes to Twilight... but she couldn't help but frown a little at the sight of the worried expression still on the violet mare's features. “What is it?”

Twilight only shook her head, and there was quiet for a moment before Prestige cleared her throat loudly, then broke the silence by saying awkwardly: “I believe that I may have some idea of how the infection reached Ponyville.”

The others looked up with interest at this, even Meadowlark unable to hide her curiosity, and the young unicorn cleared her throat loudly before saying quietly: “The creek ecology indicates that mosquitoes regularly nest there, and there are leeches and grubs in the water. Both of these serve as food for birds, and for fish in the larger stream downriver. Fish that are regularly caught from the ponds and streams and brought into Ponyville to be prepared as food for demons...”

“The fish are more likely than the birds, we would have noticed dead birds... but the fishers often simply set up simple nets across narrow choke points in the water. Already dead or infected fish could go unnoticed with the rest of the catch.” Celestia murmured, then she shook her head and said quietly: “The animal care center gets a share of raw fish, the rest is brought to specialty shops to be prepared for demons and mulched for pet stores. The infection would have to spread on contact, though, not consumption...”

Twilight shivered a bit at this thought, looking nervously over at Celestia. “But why didn't everypony get sick, then? If you only needed to touch an infected... anything... for it to spread onto you...”

“Because of chaos.” Discombobulation said quietly, shaking his head slowly as he traded a look with Celestia. “And maybe it spread so effectively because of another factor you haven't considered: the Nibelung and demons are immune to its effects – at least for now – but what if they still carry the disease? What if they can still pass it on to others? Or what if they are sick... but the symptoms in their kind are so faint – a cough, a runny nose, a tired feeling – that they simply go unnoticed, and yet when they accidentally breathe on one pony or another...”

Celestia shook her head slowly, closing her eyes. “Then perhaps even Twilight Sparkle and I are both carrying the illness as well, and it simply hasn't affected us. We'll need to ensure that if infected, our bodies are able to fight off and destroy the infection completely, not just keep it in check.”

Twilight nodded, cursing under her breath. For a few moments, there was silence... and then Celestia finally sighed and stood slowly, saying quietly to Meadowlark and Prestige: “You've done more than enough for now. You both have my gratitude. Meadowlark, you should go home, though, and Prestige, you should get some rest.”

“Can... where's Antares?” Meadowlark asked quietly, and Celestia smiled after a moment, her amethyst eyes glancing towards Twilight Sparkle.

Twilight shifted a bit, then she said finally: “I sent him back home, actually, to work on his magic. He was looking rough, and he wanted to help but there just wasn't a lot for him to do here...”

She shifted embarrassedly: she had also been worried about the young stallion, too, and didn't want to see him getting sick or put in harm's way. Meadowlark frowned a bit, seeming to pick up on this, before the Pegasus said quietly: “Miss Twilight, I... know it's none of my business, but I think Antares is just going to be more upset, being removed from this whole situation. He really wants to help...”

“I know.” Twilight said softly, then she smiled faintly. “But Meadowlark, you're all still almost kids. Antares just turned seventeen, you're only a year and a half older, and Aphrodisia may be an adult, but she's very young mentally and emotionally. Let us handle this, okay? There's no need to put yourselves in danger quite yet, and...”

She stopped, then laughed a little, glancing up and saying quietly: “Maybe it's selfish, but I do want to make sure Antares gets out there to find his parents, whether I can come with him or not. But if he's going to get there, then he has to be alive and well... and I don't want him losing that chance because of something this monster does to him.”

“Cancer. It called itself Cancer.” Meadowlark said quietly, and Twilight frowned curiously; the red Pegasus only shook her head in response, however, smiling a little. “Sorry. I... just remembered what it was singing... before, all I could think of was... when Aphrodisia...”

Meadowlark shook her head quickly, then she looked up and said quietly: “But this is important too. This is our home, and... you and Celestia don't have to do this alone. Maybe we all are still kids, but we deserve a chance to help, don't we? You can't... shield us all forever, Twilight... and maybe Antares deserves a chance to protect you, too.”

Twilight frowned a bit at this as Celestia tilted her head and Discombobulation smiled slightly, crossing his arms... and then, to Meadowlark's surprise, Prestige stood up and strode up beside her, saying quietly: “The... Pegasus... is right. Antares may be foolish and brash... but he'll never learn to be anything except for that unless given the chance.”

Meadowlark looked with surprise at Prestige for a few moments... and then she smiled faintly, shaking her head slowly and looking up as she said quietly: “You gotta give us a chance. We can help.”

Twilight sighed quietly, but she nodded slowly and smiled faintly all the same as her eyes roved to Celestia. For a few moments, the ivory winged unicorn looked thoughtful... and then she smiled softly before standing up, golden armor gleaming as she straightened and rolled her head on her shoulders. “Twilight, can you handle keeping things in order here? I'm sure you'll be able to organize patrols of the streets and a watch by yourself, and many of your friends are among the on-duty Starlit Knights. I think I'll go and pay a visit to Antares.”

The violet mare cocked her head curiously, but then she nodded slowly as Prestige and Meadowlark both smiled warmly at the ivory winged unicorn. Celestia smiled back, making her way slowly around the table before adding gently: “Prestige, please go to the clinic and speak to the unicorn healers there, there are still many ill who need our help, and the faster the Starlit Knights are back on their hooves, the better. Meadowlark, the hospital and clinics have all already compiled a list of ponies who were admitted around the time the illness first hit Ponyville: check who these patients are, and where they worked. It's the fastest possible way to track down if Prestige's theory is correct. It will be almost pointless to eradicate Cancer, as it's chosen to call itself, if the disease continues to thrive and fester. Even without a sentient entity like Cancer spreading it, it could still mutate and become even more toxic then it already is.”

Celestia paused, then she glanced at Discombobulation, asking mildly: “Coming, friend? Or are you going to wait here?”

“Well, I do appreciate the invitation, Celestia, but I think Twilight Sparkle's going to need my help a little more around here. Also, my butt is nice and comfortable in this chair.” Discombobulation wiggled a little in his seat, and Celestia smiled despite herself as the Draconequus rose a hand and twiddled his fingers at her. “But don't worry. If you need me, just use a town portal spell. You can do that, right?”

“I'll whistle.” Celestia said softly, and Discombobulation smiled before the ivory winged unicorn turned around and easily made her way to the doorway, giving one last, supportive look over her shoulder at Twilight Sparkle before she stepped out into the afternoon sun.

Celestia glanced up at the sky, face smoothing out into soft thought as she looked up at the sun: the sun she had once had to move to bring the day by herself, but now which was moved by some strange and elaborate machine made by the Strange Ones. She had only seen the wondrous device once, when Odin had taken her to see it... and she closed her eyes as she felt both warmth, and a soft sting of sorrow. Odin... who had created the core reality in the first place when he had bee King of the Aesir and the mightiest of Gods... who had lost everything to one of Valthrudnir's arrogant games, and made one last desperate attempt to save reality by replicating it to create ninety nine worlds, ninety nine layers, and scattering the souls of the fallen Aesir and their guardians across these myriad of worlds to slow Valthrudnir's destruction of them... who as a husk of what he'd formerly been, had been a greater and better person than he'd ever been as a god. Whom she had loved, dearly, truly, deeply, for all his flaws.

His death still ached these days, and yet she was proud of him, too. She smiled a little as she strode slowly through Ponyville on the familiar route towards Twilight's home: it was funny, how she would change everything, and she would change nothing, if given the chance. She just wished she'd had the courage to tell him... she regretted that she never had, never just said those words, never let him know... what she had felt for him.

Celestia cleared her throat and shook her head as she looked up, continuing in silence: she passed through the gates with a polite nod to the Nibelung guards, and made her way along the path from Ponyville and into the Everfree Forest. Once this had been a secret road, but the trail had long been worn into a comfortable, visible trek by the passage of all the countless hooves among it... and Celestia smiled as she looked down, hearing for a moment both Luna and Scrivener's voices...

She shook herself out, then looked up and sighed softly, murmuring: “Brother... sister... I don't know if Twilight or Antares know this, but... every single day, I think about you both, and I miss you, and... I would do anything to have you back. Or to have died in your place, in Clockwork World... selfish as that is.”

“It is selfish, Celestia. It's very selfish.” remarked a voice, and Celestia looked up sharply, her intense gaze searching back and forth through the trees. She frowned a bit, then leaned forwards slightly, her eyes widening in surprise as a figure stepped out of the trees ahead and smiled, the tall, bipedal creature leaning calmly on a steel cane topped with a golden handle in the shape of a roaring dragon's head, precious gemstones glinting for its eyes.

It was a Draconequus, dressed in a purple suit that was stitched badly together and patched up here and there with random pieces of cloth. One of his visible hands was covered in white scales and adorned with silver rings, and the other black fur, each finger ending in chipped, short claws. Its features were that of a pony, cropped mane stiff and brush-like, and its eyes were a mismatched emerald green and rustic brown.

For a moment, Celestia could only continue to stare at it... and then the Draconequus clicked the heels of its scuffed boots together and strode easily forwards, bowing his head politely to her and saying kindly: “Don't you recognize me?”

“Allonym.” Celestia said after a moment, and the Draconequus smiled as he nodded, spinning his cane at his side before leaning on it again as Celestia frowned up at him, looking surprised. “This is strange, I have to say... usually you only speak to Antares. The only time you ever came to speak to me was when Ponyville was in danger... you warned me there was a monster on the way.”

“Well, yes, I couldn't have Ponyville put in too much danger before now. And... even now, I don't like that Ponyville's in danger, or how fast this Cancer freak has moved in.” Allonym muttered, taking his cane in both his hands and squeezing it compulsively. Celestia immediately frowned up at him, drawing her eyes up along his purple vest to the green, badly-done-up tie around his neck, and Allonym cleared his throat before he gestured forwards, asking mildly: “Do you want to keep moving? I don't want to slow you down at all on the way to Antares, and I want to talk to him too.”

“I... answer me one question first.” Celestia looked up into the Draconequus's mismatched eyes, meeting his gaze evenly. “You claim to have known Luna and Scrivener, to have been the last person to have spoken to them... and Antares said to do that, you trapped them in a dream world. Why did you play a game with them, Allonym? Why didn't you save them?”

“Because I couldn't. And because...” Allonym smiled a little, squeezing his cane slowly between his hands as he studied the ivory winged unicorn for a few moments. “Luna asked me to try and show Scrivener there could be life without her. To try and save him... but she was wrong. There was no life for them without the other. I wanted to help... in a way, I think I did. But I think that might just be wishful thinking, too. I think.”

Celestia nodded slowly, looking down for a moment, and then she strode past and gestured with her head at the Draconequus, who nodded politely back to her. He tossed his cane into the air and caught it by the foot, letting the neck rest against his shoulder as pony and Draconequus walked side-by-side... before Celestia laughed a little and shook her head slowly, murmuring: “Funny. The old me would have never believed this scene to be possible. Walking alongside a strange Draconequus... but you're not really a Draconequus, are you?”

“Your mystical prestidigitation is made a whole lot less impressive by the fact I know Antares has already told you what I am.” the Draconequus remarked mildly, and then he glanced absently down at his free hand, turning it slowly back and forth as he examined the rings on the scaled fingers. “Whoever made me is clearly a jerk, though. Pieces of Nibelung and pony and douchebag, and I talk all funny. Don't think I haven't noticed that I talk all funny. And I stumble and stutter my speech a lot. Do you think anyone notices?”

“I'm sure they don't.” Celestia said softly, glancing over at the Draconequus, and then she shook her head slowly, asking curiously: “What do you want to talk to Antares about?”

“His parents. Cancer. And to be careful... which is what I want to talk to you about too, Celestia.” Allonym said in a softer voice, looking ahead as he swung his cane slowly at his side in a wide, windmilling motion, then he spun it easily, fingers dancing up along the body of the cane before he easily caught it by the neck and gazed over at the ivory winged unicorn quietly. “There's no certain end to this story, Celestia. Oh, sure, there's a way we'd all like it to end, but... how often does that happen? And how often do we get what we want, only to find it either... not as fulfilling, or worse... it ends up being poisoned, twisted in some way?”

Celestia only nodded calmly, not speaking, and Allonym seemed almost surprised by this before he glanced ahead and asked quietly: “Don't you think it's a little strange, that even now... you think so much of Luna and Scrivener? That you, Freya, unstoppable Warrior Queen of the unconquerable Valkyries, can't... let go?”

“Not at all.” Celestia smiled faintly, glancing over at Allonym as she replied gently: “As you said, we were unconquerable... until Brynhild was... put to sleep, I had never lost any of my warriors, my sisters. Yes, they were wounded, even crippled... but we were not mortals. We could heal from almost any injury, we could almost always rise back up to fight another day... I cannot begin to express the torment, what it felt like, to see Brynhild placed into eternal sleep by my own patriarch, after countless years of countless victories against countless foes. Nor can I express the agony of what it was like to watch all my thought-invincible sisters... cut down like wheat, one after the other, in that final, awful battle. Especially after losing... losing someone very special to me.

“I don't think I ever recovered from Sleipnir's death, either.” Celestia shook her head slowly, murmuring quietly: “I think that was the last straw, that drove me from simply wanting to destroy Discord, to turning it into that grand and awful scheme I hatched. And it's strange and ironic, but that same pain was what drove me to driving my sister from this world when she became Nightmare Moon... I couldn't kill her, but I could exile her. I could keep her locked away for a thousand years, where she would be safe and quiet and out of my way while I made Equestria into my vision.

“It's incredible, when I think about it, how much I must have had in common with Valthrudnir. It's no wonder his poisons worked so easily on my mind.” Celestia laughed a little, shaking her head slowly and closing her eyes. “And now my sister and my brother are gone, who I betrayed time and time again, who I failed on more than one occasion, who I... was jealous of, more often than not. Allonym, I have to believe they're still out there, because they deserved to live while I feel that I do not, and for an even more selfish reason than that: because I need them. They are my friends, and my family. I adore and love my brother, Sleipnir, and Twilight Sparkle brings me a joy I cannot describe, but all the same... there is still a hole in my heart and my honor that no one else can fill.”

Allonym nodded slowly, lowering his head moodily as he murmured: “A square peg can't fit in a circular hole, no matter how much you love squares, right?”

Celestia looked up at this metaphor... then she nodded thoughtfully after a moment, saying softly: “Yes. That's right.”

“You know that doesn't make any sense, right? People aren't pegs.” Allonym smiled in return, then he shook his head slowly as Celestia laughed quietly despite herself, the two walking on in quiet for a few moments before the Draconequus said softly: “Twilight doesn't think you brought her back out of selfishness, Celestia. She doesn't believe that you somehow orchestrated all this, sent Luna and Scrivener off to die after making her a Lich... making her owe you her life while taking away the things you imagine she imagines you imagine were the only things blocking you from having her all to herself.”

Celestia looked sharply at the Draconequus, even as he only continued to amble onwards at the easy pace they had set: to anyone else it would probably sound like gibberish, but to her, who had been feeling, wondering, thinking exactly that... “How did you know that? What... what precisely are you, Allonym? What is an Avatar?”

“An obnoxious loudspeaker for a particular puppetmaster way too old to be playing with the pony toys he collects and who really needs to get out more.” Allonym muttered, tossing a moody glance at the sky, and then he shook his head and glanced over at Celestia. “I'm a friend and an admirer. And I'm here to help. That's all I can really explain.”

For a few moments there was silence... and then Celestia asked finally, as her eyes studied the Draconequus: “Do you have the power to see the future?”

“Yeah, you're about to walk face-first right into that branch.” Allonym said mildly, and Celestia winced as she looked ahead with surprise, rearing back quickly... and finding absolutely nothing in front of her but open path, the Draconequus clearing his throat loudly as he half-hid a grin behind one hand. “That should answer your question.”

Celestia shook her head slowly, sighing a little as she simply gazed moodily after the strange, chimerical creature for a few moments, then she hurried forwards and fell back into pace alongside him, remarking dryly: “I think you may in fact be worse than Discombobulation.”

“Good old Bob. I wonder what Ponyville must look like from up above these days... not just because of the fact it's got such a dense population of demons and such living around the area, but also since shortly there's going to be three Draconequus hanging out there.” Allonym said mildly, and Celestia cocked her head curiously, looking at him with interest.

“Discord is on the way from Canterlot? Should we turn around and find out what he has to say?” Celestia asked curiously, and Allonym smiled and shook his head quickly.

“I... don't think so. Doesn't seem precisely pressing but... again, can't tell the future, although I probably gave away that I can guess at what else is happening on the storyboard right now.” Allonym paused, then he snorted in amusement. “I love his uniform, by the way. Now tell the truth, Celestia... was the funny hat really your idea, or did you let Discombobulation add in just a few touches here and there?”

Celestia only looked ahead, giving a slight smile as she said calmly: “What kind of Baroness would I be if I didn't allow my subjects to give their input on my decisions, Allonym? Besides, it's a small price to pay. If Discord didn't have an official uniform for his new position as a courier for the Royal Court, we might find him strung up and beaten to death by angry Nibelung or minotaurs. He has a very bad habit of forgetting that he can no longer use his chaos powers thanks to his own hex band, and he's too terrified of what might happen if we try to remove it from his stomach by surgery.”

“Well, getting gutted like a fish doesn't appeal to most people, Celestia.” Allonym remarked mildly, and he smiled slightly before tipping her a wink. “Thank you for that succinct summary through dialogue, by the way. A nice way to keep the ball rolling, and... I like your voice. It's very pretty.”

The Baroness looked surprised at this, smiling a little all the same as she looked at the Draconequus with interest, but Allonym only cleared his throat and waved a hand at her, saying mildly: “Hey, don't you go getting ideas now. Besides, I don't want to fight Discombobulation for your affections. Or that demon, Amdusias. Or... well... do you have any pony admirers? I'm not quite sure.”

“The problem is that most of my pony admirers, admire me for my strength, or because I am Baroness. They see who they think I am and want that, want to be a part of that... they don't see me for who I really am.” Celestia paused, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I believe Pinkamena referred to it as... they want all cake, and no obligations.”

“I like that you two are friends. That works well in my favor.” Allonym said mildly, and Celestia gave him a curious look at this odd comment. But the Draconequus didn't say anything further, only shaking his head a bit before he continued quietly: “Aren't we all guilty of that to some degree, Celestia? For example... Antares. Do you really think that through-and-through, he's some pure, shining star?”

“He is pure... but he's not perfect, Allonym, far from it.” Celestia smiled a little, shaking her head slowly. “Twilight Sparkle would not have had to send him home if he really was perfect. He wouldn't have made the mistakes he has... but I'm glad he did. He's learning, Allonym. And he's still... innocent, and a good pony. I think I was a good person for all of thirteen seconds when I first came to this world, and then I lost that.”

Allonym smiled, and the two were quiet again for a short time. They walked down the path, side-by-side, comfortable as old friends despite having just met... yet there was still familiarity in their movements, they didn't have to look at one another to check the pace or adjust their speed... they looked at each other to study the other with fascination and interest.

Finally, they strode quietly onto a grassy lawn at the end of the long path through the Everfree Forest: to either side of them were trees, but in front of them was a beautiful, two-floor house, wide and made of gorgeous dark ironwood. It was almost ridiculous, a house simply sitting out here, lawn and all, in the middle of the forest... but Celestia and Allonym both smiled, the ivory winged unicorn murmuring: “I've always admired what Scrivener Blooms and Luna did... living out here, just on the fringe of exile, in such a beautiful home they built for themselves.”

The Draconequus nodded slowly, and then he half-bowed, letting Celestia take the lead and approach the front door. She glanced at the large hillock at one side of the house cursorily: there was a door built into the front of the landscaped mound, and it served as a storage shed of sorts... but often, Celestia could find Antares out here, sitting on top of it and just staring at the sky, more his personal lookout than anything else.

But he wasn't there: so instead, the winged unicorn simply pushed the door open, hesitating only a moment before letting herself inside. She glanced to her left, unable to stop herself, gazing at the closed door that led into Scrivener and Luna's long-unused bedroom... and then she shook her head and strode forwards, past other doors on either side of her as she called calmly: “Antares! I'm here with... a friend.”

Allonym smiled slightly at this, the Draconequus ducking into the house and closing the door behind him as he gazed almost raptly back and forth. He was quickly to hurry after Celestia into the den at the end of the hall, gazing around almost excitedly as the winged unicorn looked over her shoulder at him curiously: he seemed to be taking in every detail, from the portraits and paintings on the wall that had been done by Luna's own hoof, to the simple furniture, the stacked papers, Scrivener's writing desk, like it was all part of some magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime exhibit.

The Draconequus dropped to a kneel, tossing his cane aside with a clutter to the floor as he reached down and touched the well-worn bedding, rubbing scaled fingers over it, and Celestia closed her eyes as she breathed silently in. She could still faintly smell them both, she thought, or maybe it was only a trick of her mind, and the well-used fireplace, before Allonym murmured quietly: “No. Their presence lingers here... even now. Ghosts, in a sense... everything they were, everything they are, has pervaded these walls... this house lives with them.”

“Allonym...” Celestia didn't know what else to say, so she only let her words drift off... and then she shook her head quickly as the Draconequus slowly stood and laced his fingers together in front of himself, gazing silently at the painting that hung above the mantel. And on instinct, Celestia knew she didn't have to tell him what it was of, why it held so much meaning: that long ago, Luna had painted that shadowy image of Scrivener, running through a forest of trees and roses in black and white, by far one of the most meaningful gifts she had ever given anyone.

“Love, oh love, oh careless love... look what careless love has done...” Allonym murmured quietly, shaking his head slowly, and then he smiled faintly before clearing his throat loudly as he quickly picked up his cane, turning around and saying calmly: “Outside, shall we? I think Antares is waiting for us there.”

Celestia nodded slowly, studying Allonym curiously for a few moments before turning and leading the way. She stepped into the kitchen, gazing quietly back and forth, thinking of how the strangest things brought back such powerful memories at times: the sink, where she and Scrivener Blooms had stood side-by-side, washing the dishes together; the scuffed floor, marked by Luna's hooves; the jar marked 'Lies' where Luna had thrown candy and Scrivener dropped in a bit every time one of them told an untruth.

The ivory equine realized she was standing in front of the back door, and she shook herself out quickly before pushing forwards, stepping through the door and onto the wide back porch with a bit of a smile. Her eyes roved curiously out over the back yard, taking in the gnarled and warped Ambrosia tree that rested above a pretty, semi-landscaped pool: Ambrosia, fruit of the gods, which granted strength and power to those who ate it.

For a few moments, Celestia studied this, neither ignoring nor focusing on Antares as he looked up at her, the young stallion breathing hard and seeming surprised to see her. Beside him, a strange, wet-looking green pony cocked her head curiously, then smiled brightly, revealing sharp, large teeth as she reached up and brushed back her mane of seaweed, saying in a harmonious, delighted voice: “What a surprise! The Dawn Bringer and a guest!”

“Aunt Tia... and... Allonym, what are you doing here?” Antares asked in surprise as Celestia finally turned her eyes to him. The ivory winged unicorn only smiled softly, however, giving a slight tilt of her head, and Antares blushed a bit before he glanced over at the Draconequus, saying finally: “I just... I never really expected to see you... you know. Actually out talking to ponies.”

“But the story's finally started, Antares! Do you know how excited I am for that?” Allonym smiled slightly, tilting his head as he easily rested his cane across his shoulders, grasping it by the body and leaning forwards with a single firm nod. “There's so much to do, and this is going to end up being much longer than I expected it to, but for once... I think I'm actually okay with that. It's pretty straightforwards, after all... you know, as long as you don't lose sight of your main objective, Antares. And what is that?”

The Draconequus cocked his head curiously, and Antares traded a glance with the Kelpie beside him before he looked up and said quietly: “It's... finding my parents. Even with this monster in town and the plague it brought with it, I... I can't forget that first of all, I need to concentrate on finding my parents.”

“But you must be careful, Antares, you must always be careful.” the demon chided gently, and the young stallion smiled awkwardly as he glanced over at the Kelpie: the demon was named Hevatica, and while she was a mischievous, lustful creature with many other ponies, she had always been protective, even maternal, when it came to Antares. “Sometimes it's better to take the long way around then head straight for your objective. And other times, you have to deal with the roadblocks carefully and slowly... not simply attempt to jump over them on your way to your mother and father.”

Hevatica paused, then she smiled softly, leaning over and adding gently: “And they are still alive, my sweet, don't ever doubt in that. But know that no matter what, beloved Antares Mīrus, I'm here for you and you first. Luna was good to us, and we who served her loyally have all come to adore you... and my, every day you look more and more like your handsome father...”

Hevatica reached up, gently brushing back Antares' mane, and the young stallion laughed despite himself as he blushed and shifted awkwardly. Then he turned his gaze back towards Allonym, and the Draconequus studied him for a few moments before he smiled softly and said quietly: “Never expected to hear you getting such good advice from a silly fish.”

“Shut up, patchwork doll.” Hevatica replied with an entertained look at the Draconequus, studying the creature curiously. “Yes, you feel different from the other Ginnungagap entities... you tickle my nose. Oh, Antares, sweetie, is this the Avatar you were talking about? He reminds me, so strongly, of someone I knew once...”

Allonym cleared his throat and shifted apprehensively as Antares looked up curiously, but then Celestia interrupted gently, looking across at the young stallion: “Antares, Twilight Sparkle and I... we both want your help with what's going on in Ponyville. It's... it's simply hard for us to let you grow up, and let you make these decisions for yourself, even though we both know you have every right to. You're not a colt anymore... and even if you're not quite a stallion in age, you're stronger, sharper, and most of all wiser than many adults I've met.

“I think about... how many friends and the family I've lost, Antares, and I think about how young you are compared to me, the experiences you've already had... how much I want to protect you, and it blinds me. Just as the thought of what would happen if I allowed you to do something that resulted in you being injured... and then your parents returned.” Celestia smiled a little, shaking her head slowly. “A lot of what compels me to be so protective of you is selfishness. I can admit that. I don't want to see you getting hurt.”

“I know, Aunt Tia. I know you and Mom both want the very best for me and... I appreciate that. But I'd appreciate more... being allowed to take those risks and make those mistakes. Nothing... nothing makes me more proud, more happy, than when I'm standing beside you and Twilight and all our friends and family.” Antares said quietly, looking up at her and nodding slowly as he smiled faintly. “I know I still have... a little bit of growing up to do. But I want to make sure I do it right and one day... I'll be able to protect all of you, instead of you having to protect me. I can only get there by learning on the field, though... I can't study this stuff in books, or in stories. I gotta get that experience.”

Celestia nodded slowly, and then Allonym asked curiously as he tapped his cane against his hand: “Tell me, what kind of magic have you two been working on out here?”

Hevatica smiled, bowing her head and replying easily: “I'm no expert at most magical arts... I always have my voice to fall back on, after all, and a certain... compelling... gaze.” Hevatica smiled slightly, licking her teeth slowly as she pawed a cloven hoof slowly against the ground. “But I do remember Mistress Luna's magic very well. I was helping Antares focus.”

“It's hard.” Antares murmured quietly, shaking his head a bit as he smiled a little and glanced down embarrassedly. “I can't... I can't even seem to make more than a few flickers of light. I feel really... well... you know.”

Celestia nodded again, and then she looked thoughtfully at the glossy black unicorn for a few moments, then to Allonym. The Draconequus looked back at her before he shrugged thoughtfully, and the ivory winged unicorn smiled and returned her eyes to the young stallion, saying quietly: “I have a spell I'd like to teach you, Antares. It will be difficult, but I think you have the skill to learn it in time. I believe Allonym wants to talk to you as well, and then we can head into town.”

“All in good time. I'm in no rush, Celestia... I think I'll just have me a nice seat here and watch.” The Draconequus said mildly, walking over the patio to the worn, comfortable table and chairs set out, and the chimerical creature easily sat back on the table, gazing at them with interest.

Celestia simply nodded, and Antares didn't seem to mind either Allonym's gaze or Hevatica's interest, instead turning his attention to the white winged unicorn. It made her feel strangely proud of him as she smiled softly, then began calmly: “Your mother's magic and mine are very different, but I have a feeling you may be able to apply some of my spells with the right effort...”