Absolution

by BlackRoseRaven

First published

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

Almost a decade after his parents vanished in the war with Clockwork World, Antares Mirus is finally ready to try and find his parents, to save them as they saved him. But his plans are interrupted when a psychotic force of destruction rises out of dormancy, targeting first Ponyville... and then the unfortunate Antares himself. Seventh story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

Prologue: The Road Thus Far

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Prologue: The Road Thus Far
~BlackRoseRaven

“Once upon a time, before the Nibelung came to our land, Equestria was ruled by two princesses: one who rose the sun and brought the day, and the other who rose the moon, and brought the night. Together, they worked in harmony... until the younger princess fell victim to an evil, and became the wicked Nightmare Moon. But Nightmare Moon was defeated... and sealed away for a thousand years, while the older sister used this as an opportunity to not just rule night as well as day... but to take control of all of Equestria.”

Foals sitting around the circular reading room all gazed raptly up at the violet mare who was sitting in front of a high set of shelves, a soft smile on her features. Dark bangs fell half-over her purple irises, with a proud horn rising from her forehead through these, and her mane and tail were both streaked with a single line of dark mauve and brighter pink. Despite the warmth of the royal library, she wore a thick black turtleneck sweater that covered most of her body, leaving only her wings, haunch and rear legs exposed: here, her cutie mark all but glowed, a six-pointed pink star backed by white sparkles and surrounded by a circle of fire-red runes.

Just visible around her neck, the edge of a leather collar with a clasp shaped like an ivory lunar lily glinted, and onyx studs gleamed in her ears: one of the moon, the other of a black rose blossom. Things that could tell you everything about her, if you knew what they meant, and for a moment, she reached up to adjust the collar beneath the thick cloth of the turtleneck in a strange, nostalgic gesture, before clearing her throat and continuing quietly: “Nightmare Moon left exile when her sentence was completed, and came back to Equestria. There was a mighty battle... but at the end of it, she was cleansed, and the younger sister returned. But the older sister would not give up her power so easily. Not after a thousand years of control, and rule, and power. She devised a cunning plan to fortify her strength even further... but the younger sister, for all her failings... would take no part in it. Fought her older sister... and made her see what she had done wrong. Made her understand that ponies could live their own lives, find their own paths... that she did not have to control or purify the world, that it was the fine way it was. Made her want to redeem herself, for the life she had lived...”

Slowly, the violet mare rose her head, smiling a little across at another mare that had entered the library silently, standing at the back of the reading room and gazing with almost maternal pride to the purple pony. She was a winged unicorn herself, with an ivory coat, but a mane and tail that twisted gently with ephemeral beauty, her amethyst irises filled with wisdom gained over countless years, and the warrior's courage she had possessed since the day she had been born. Over her breast rested a golden peytral engraved with the symbol of Equestria, and a coronet rested over her locks, as golden as the crest of the sun on her flank.

For a few moments, the two mares only studied one another... and then a foal rose his hoof curiously and asked: “Miss Twilight? What happened to the princesses?”

Twilight Sparkle smiled softly at this, even as a faint longing came into her eyes, saying softly: “Well, the older princess once more resumed her rule of Equestria... and the younger princess became a champion of the people, of the nation. She fought for everyone here, along with her husband, a... a warrior poet. She and him and... countless others fought, against many evils, that some of you may have heard the legends about... until...”

She quieted, then shook her head and smiled softly, her eyes half-believing her own words as she leaned forwards and said quietly: “Well, they're still out there. The Princess of the Sun watches over us and protects us instead of ruling us... and the Princess of the Night is... adventuring, with her husband, somewhere far, far away. Now okay, kids, all of you find a book and I'll help you sign it out, okay? Then I think it's just about time for you all to go home. Your teacher is waiting for you back in the main room.”

The foals all smiled and nodded, hopping to their hooves and scattering around the reading room to the shelves filled with children's stories, and the violet mare glanced up as the tall, rainbow-maned winged unicorn approached: she was much larger than Twilight, impressive but not imposing, radiating a gentle warmth as she said said softly: “It's funny, Twilight... in the past, you never would have given up your work to spend time with some foals. I heard you all but wrestled them away from their teacher to tell them a few stories... but I'm glad for it, all the same.”

“Thank you, Celestia. And I'm... well... I'm not the Twilight I once was.” The violet mare reached up and absently touched her chest through the material of her heavy sweater, and then she smiled a bit and shook her head slowly, glancing over at her former mentor softly. “Do you need help with anything?”

“No... no, I just decided it would be a better use of my time to come and see what you were up to, instead of wasting it with another pointless debate at a council meeting. They need to learn to make decisions outside of my presence.” Celestia smiled after a moment, studying Twilight before she softened and added quietly: “It means a lot to me that you've been spending all this time with me. In the past, we... we have had our differences, after all, and I feel responsible for what happened to you...”

“But you're not, Celestia. You're not. No one could have predicted...” Twilight shook her head slowly, hesitating before she glanced up and added quietly: “And we... we are friends, you and I. What's past is past. And I like having you in my life and you're a good role model for Antares... you're his family.”

“So are you.” Celestia smiled after a moment, then shook her head slowly, reaching a hoof up to rest gently on Twilight's shoulder. “I may be his aunt, but you're his mother.”

Twilight Sparkle laughed after a moment, then she shook her head slowly, murmuring softly: “But I'll never replace Luna. I just hope that one day... Antares' prediction will come true, and we'll see them both again. I miss them both, her and Scrivener...”

“I do too, Twilight. We all do... it's been almost a decade and still I can't help but think about them every day, all the things we shared, and all the things we... never got a chance to talk about, or experience together.” Celestia closed her eyes, nodding slowly before she smiled a little, squeezing Twilight's shoulder gently. “But come. Your student, Prestige Luster, has been looking for you. And I'm sure that Antares will be coming to find you soon as well.”

“She's... not really my student, more like... my... job.” Twilight sighed a little, then she nodded and smiled faintly, standing up and hesitating only a moment before saying softly: “I think Antares is getting anxious to leave. To start looking for his parents.”

Celestia's only response was to smile, however, nodding silently, and Twilight Sparkle studied her curiously for a few moments before she simply smiled in return as well at the quiet approval she saw there before turning to head out, side-by-side, both thinking the same thoughts: of their faith in Antares Mīrus, and of Luna Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms... and the hope that somewhere out there, they were still alive.

Act I: The Innocent Dove

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Act I: The Innocent Dove
~BlackRoseRaven


The gorgeous Dove, she sits high above,
Resting in the laurels of the olive tree.
Singing her song, never doing wrong,
Always she has been so happy and free.

White Dove, White Dove, so high above!
Safe and sound and enraptured with peace.
Little bird, little bird, singing a sweet word,
Never forced to kneel to a tyrant on knee.

But now she longs, to spread further her songs,
Little bird that wishes to see the world,
Oh foolish child, don't journey into the wild,
Not with your innocence brazenly unfurled.

Yet she spreads her wings, yet on she goes and sings,
Into the darkness that awaits beyond,
She flies into the unknown, to adventure she has flown,
With only her wings and voice she did abscond.

The darkness is deep, and beasts do not know sleep,
And predators are filled with wanton lust,
The Dove will still smile, at least for a while,
Before her mind and heart begin to rust.

Feathers fall down as she flies into a ghost town,
Finding only the wretched and the dead,
They want to silence her song, and it won't be long,
Until they've tried to tear off her sweet head.

The innocent dove, filled up with love,
Was young and naïve and a fool,
She tried to spread peace, to love the very least,
Not knowing the world was cruel.

I pray she'll fly to the sky, fly up on high,
And escape from our world forever:
For the world would break you, and forsake you,
Your innocence it would gladly sever.

Something New, Something Old

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Chapter One: Something New, Something Old
~BlackRoseRaven

The Canterlot Magic Academy was silent: in the far research wing, there were still unicorns and other creatures skilled with enchantment and the arcane arts toiling endlessly away, but most of the building was quiet. Students were asleep in their rooms and dormitories, teachers had gone home or were resting up in their own residences, the few patrols of Royal Guards passed through the halls quickly. Depending on where they were stationed, some looked bored, others looked tense, others couldn't help but marvel over some of the architecture and arts they passed... but the patrols were mostly limited to keeping an eye on the archives and the exterior grounds. The more-interesting parts of the school had their own special security.

A patrol of three armored unicorns slowly made their way through the spacious lobby, one glancing curiously up at one of the third floor balconies high, high above in the dome-shaped room, pausing for a moment... but then simply shrugging and hurrying after his companions as they made their way through a set of doors at the far side of the lobby.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then a rope was thrown over the edge of the balcony before a stout figure half-fell over the edge of the landing, grabbing wildly at the rope with his black-furred hands before whimpering as he caught it and slid most of the way down. The wolfish creature came to a halt just above the floor, then released the rope and fell with a loud thud on his rump, holding up his hands in front of his muzzle and blowing on them as he complained: “We gonna get caught.”

“Only if you not shut mouth!” hissed his companion as he quickly descend the rope: he landed on heavy paws, baring his fangs as his large tusks gleamed in the dim light coming from the low-burning lanterns on the wall. “Get up, up!”

They were Nibelung: what most ponies simply called dwarves or 'wolf-pigs,' and these two were clearly down on their luck from the fact the whiny Nibelung was dressed only in rags of clothes, and the surly boss of the pair was wearing tattered leather armor and a patched battle-kilt. The leader hauled his companion forcefully to his feet by the scruff of his neck, making him yelp before the larger, brawnier, and bossier of the two slapped his hand hurriedly over the smaller thug's mouth. “Shut up, or we get caught!”

The smaller Nibelung mumbled, then his eyes roved upwards... and he stared for a moment, entranced, at the crystalline chandeliers that hung high above, held in place by heavy ropes on pulleys anchored here and there. They glittered with gemstones and enormous, curved sheets of crystalline glass to form beautiful patterns and swirls, with unlit lanterns in the center of each: in all likelihood, when lit, they would become beacons of patterned radiance. The thug pointed slowly at one of these... but his partner only slapped his hand hard, making him yelp again. “Stupid! No, we find better shinies! Or steal a Steely!”

“How we steal a Steely? Besides, they not really metal, they more... rock. Rockies.” reasoned the other dwarf... only to be smacked firmly by his companion once more, making him give another yelp of pain. “Boss!”

Boss only grumbled... and then looked up in horror as a set of double doors opened, a violet mare frowning as she strode inside and looked back and forth, calling : “Hello, is someone...”

Her eyes locked on the Nibelung thugs, who both stared at her for a few moments... and then Boss snarled and yanked a rusty dagger free from his belt, leaping forwards and brandishing it violently. “We take you hostage, pony! You try anything, I stab you good!”

For a few moments, there was silence... and then the violet mare simply looked at him flatly, gesturing at the twenty or so feet of space between them as she asked dryly: “Seriously? You do know this is a magic school, right? So why don't you just put that down and I'll let you leave instead of turning you over to the Royal Guards.”

Boss glowered as the subordinate thug slowly began to raise a hand... and then the larger, meaner Nibelung suddenly lunged to the side, swiping his rusty dagger down and cutting through a rope attached to a ring on the wall. It snapped loudly, and all three looked up as above, one of the chandeliers listed violently, swinging towards the other side of the room before the other supports gave out and sent it plummeting down.

It crashed down on top of the violet mare in an explosion of sheets of glass and crystalline fragments, chunks of framework and shards of broken glass sheeting flying in all directions, and the thug gaped as Boss gritted his teeth, before glaring when his partner pointed at the heap of debris and babbled: “Boss, what you do! You kill fancy-corn!”

“Fancy-corn got in way! Now we get out of way before more pony-pony show up!” snapped the Nibelung, grabbing his partner by the arm. But before he could drag him off, the pile of rubble shifted, and both dwarves looked with surprise at the debris as a groan floated up... and stranger still, it sounded more exasperated than it did pained.

The rubble shifted back and forth... and a moment later, churned as a ripple of magic ran through it before the heavy remains of the chandelier were forcibly thrown aside with another loud crash. Boss began to raise his knife with a snarl... but then he faltered as his partner paled and gaped as the pony stood up, her wings flapping once as she straightened and cracked her back, then looked down and muttered at the sight of her severed front leg: “Oh, great.”

“P-P-P-P-P-P-Pony... not... pony!” The smaller Nibelung thug fell on his rear, grabbing at his muzzle and staring in horror as the violet mare sat back... and calmly reached down to pick her dismembered limb up, pressing joint to shoulder as her horn glowed dark purple. Where severed joint and shoulder met glowed with the same aura, then steamed violently as a tart, sharp smell filled the air... before the pony calmly rolled her reattached limb as if nothing had happened, absently brushing away a few strings of her torn turtleneck sweater.

She looked back up with a sigh and a forced smile, as the thug began gibbering while Boss stared at her disbelievingly, and then the violet mare leaned forwards and said calmly: “Please surrender now, okay? The Guards will be here any minute and I'd really prefer not to hurt you.”

“Hurt... you!” Boss shouted in a strangled voice, and then he yelled wildly and charged forwards, stabbing the knife downwards... and the violet mare didn't even bother to move or react, only making a face as the knife sank through her chest to the hilt. Then she glowered, her horn glowing before she blasted Boss backwards into a stunned heap, knocking him sprawling and prone before she sighed and reached up to jerk the knife free of the bloodless wound.

The other Nibelung was still babbling away, staring in horror at her before she shook her head and rolled her eyes, muttering: “Great. Why does this always happen to me? Uh... excuse me, but I'm not going to hurt you, okay?”

The dwarf stared at her as he fell silent under her almost-imploring gaze... and then he toppled backwards in a dead faint, and the violet winged unicorn groaned before wincing at the sound of approaching hooves. She hurriedly turned and scrambled back out the doors, not wanting to be caught like this: even after years of being... what she had become... she still wasn't used to the looks that other ponies gave her. Whether she did something good or bad, it didn't matter... they still saw her the same way, if they found out about her... particularity.

“Oh no, Twilight Sparkle's a Lich, she must eat babies and be rotting and... smelly.” Twilight mumbled, hurrying down the hall towards one of the exits into the garden outside the academy. “It's no wonder Luna was so weird if this is like what she went through every day...”

The violet mare quieted, then she lowered her head forwards as she hurried out the doors and into the safety, the comfort, of the darkness. The moon and stars were both hidden by a dark veil of clouds, but to Twilight's eyes, everything was as clear as day. In her sight, living ponies almost glowed, and she could see the things that roamed these long nights apart from ponies just as clearly... such as the Nightmare currently sitting curiously by a large fountain and studying her with interest.

Twilight smiled after a moment, turning her eyes towards this creature and approaching it slowly: they were darkly-ethereal creatures, looking almost as if they were ponies made of shifting shadow and smoke, and with glowing, sharp red eyes. Nightmares were somewhere between demon and living dead, feeding off emotions and living energy, capable of turning invisible and insubstantial at will, true servants of the night.

A long time ago now, they had made a pact with Luna to be saved, along with countless others, from their original Equestria... but that was a long story, that Twilight had trouble believing herself some days, even with everything she had seen... everything she had become. So instead, she only smiled, approaching it fearlessly, and it flickered in her sight as it became more tangible, leaning forwards and asking gently: “How may we serve you, Mistress Twilight?”

“Just... Twilight is fine. I'm no ruler of the night.” Twilight said awkwardly, laughing a little and looking embarrassed before she glanced down at herself... then grumbled and finally pulled her turtleneck off. She absently folded the ruined sweater up even as she put it aside on the fountain, then she rubbed slowly at what the thick cloth had been hiding: thick, heavy black stitching across her body that helped... hold her together, so to speak, and helped her heal, as she looked moodily at an open, gaping wound in her chest from where the knife had hit.

All around her shoulder joint, too, her coat hadn't sealed together: she could easily reattach her limbs, but they would look ugly until she managed to add stitching to seal the wounds and help herself heal at her slow, slow rate. Not that it ever looks pretty ever again...

She sighed quietly, then glanced up almost embarrassedly when the Nightmare said soothingly: “But it is the truth: while Mistress Luna and Master Scrivener are away, we bow our heads to you and to the Dawn Bringer. We must still honor our pact and promises, after all... but we will not lie. We all eagerly await the return of the Mistress of the Night...”

Twilight closed her eyes and nodded slowly, the Lich quietly rubbing at her stitched chest as she murmured softly: “Yeah. That I understand... and I agree with you, as well. Listen, I was going into the Academy to pick up some samples of demon blood, but... I guess instead I'll just go directly to the source. Can you ask Atrus or Hevatica to come by my room sometime tonight? They should both be in Subterra. It's not urgent or anything, I just need it to help with my... student's... training.”

“Your apprentice. Mistress Luna would be...” The Nightmare hesitated. “Proud that you took on a student. Although, with no disrespect... I and my sisters are not... the fondest... of...”

“Yes, well, neither am I, really.” Twilight mumbled, and then she shook her head before glancing up towards the mighty castle of Canterlot in the distance, adding finally: “Speaking of which, I should be on my way. Antares and Prestige are probably arguing again, and I should stop them before things get out of hoof.”

“Of course, Mistress. I shall be on my way as well. Remember, we are here to serve.” The Nightmare bowed its head politely, and then it simply vanished completely, even Twilight's eyes unable to track it as it disappeared off to its duty. Likely heading to Subterra... and Twilight smiled faintly, shaking her head slowly as she thought about how much things had changed.

Once, Equestria had been a peaceful, happy nation, where Celestia ruled, had moved the sun and moon herself to bring day and night, and everything had been organized and under some kind of control. Until the darkness had come... until the Black Wolves had devoured their beloved Equestria, and brought Ragnarok to their world. Everyone had died... but it was thanks to Luna and Scrivener they'd been restored.

And now they were gone... it hurt Twilight to think about, as she closed her eyes. They had been special to her... she had dearly, deeply, direly loved them both. Luna, grinning, bold and courageous; Scrivener, sarcastic, cynical, but always there for her...

She sighed softly as she made her way across the grounds and down the path leading back to the castle, letting herself run on autopilot as her mind sorted through the countless stories, the long history, the emotions that still hurt even now. Almost ten years later and it still hurt to think about what had happened... how they had been attacked by the twisted and warped Clockwork World, remnants of which still existed even now, were still biding their time, waiting for orders that would never come from the Clockwork King...

At the end, Antares had been kidnapped to lure Luna and Scrivener in, and all they knew was that somehow, the Bifrost, the bridge between worlds, had been wrenched open, and Antares had come spilling out of it... alone. In all likelihood, it had been Gymbr's power that had opened the bridge... a being that had gone with Luna and Scrivener to their final confrontation, but who even now Twilight didn't know if she fully believed the truth of. A story, brought to life... seeking redemption for its role of villain. Or maybe... it just didn't want to be alone anymore...

Twilight shook her head out, closing her eyes before she spread her wings and flapped them hard, leaping upwards to propel herself into the air. She wasn't the best flier, but the journey was short: from near the base of Canterlot Castle, she ascended upwards, flying past the roof and into the forest of towers and spires as she guided herself carefully back and forth towards her personal quarters.

For a few moments, she felt lost: Canterlot's strange and beautiful architecture could be confusing, particularly on a dark night like tonight. But after a moment, her attention was drawn towards the sound of shouting voices, and she sighed tiredly as she flapped her wings, ascending a bit higher to land on a balcony facing out over the majestic city of Canterlot, which sprawled out along the side of the immense mountain below the castle.

Twilight grumbled under her breath as she walked through the open glass doors and into the brightly-lit den beyond, noting the books piled over the table, the couch, the armchair, and pretty much everything else. She winced at the sight of one that was sitting a little too close to the merrily-burning fireplace for comfort, horn glowing to pick this up with telekinesis and bring it over in front of her, ignoring the still-arguing voices for a moment before she called loudly: “Antares, Prestige!”

The arguing petered out as Twilight kept the book floating beside her, and a few moments later, there was the sound of hooves hurrying down the hall before both Antares and Prestige stumbled out, glaring at each other before looking at the Lich... and Antares' eyes widened in alarm as he asked hurriedly: “Are you okay, Twilight?”

“I'm fine, Antares...” Twilight smiled after a moment, shaking her head quickly... and then she winced as a large shard of loose glass fell out of her mane, tinkling to the ground. She cleared her throat at this as both ponies stared down at the piece of shrapnel, and the violet mare explained awkwardly: “A chandelier fell on me.”

Antares looked up with concern again on his glossy-black features, his rugged white mane almost floating around him as he asked worriedly: “Are you sure you're okay? You look a little downtrodden, Mom.”

Twilight smiled faintly at this, gazing at the young stallion for a moment: he looked so much like his father. Well, minus the scars... and the fact that he clearly had his mother's cyan-green eyes. He was a unicorn, with a tall, proud black horn, but he also possessed large, leathery wings that were furled loosely against his sides: a 'gift' from Nightmare Moon when he had just been a child. He could fly as well as any Pegasus, but the wings had all the same never quite adjusted to his body: if he flew for too long, pushed himself too hard, they would quickly begin to ache, and the pain often wouldn't go away for days.

And there were other strange things about him, too: he had sharp teeth, inherited from Nightmare Moon as well, and his messy mane and tail both had a faint shimmer to them, seemed to move even when there was no wind. His cutie mark was a constellation of nine stars, with lines of light between them forming a rose blossom; his talent had to do with acuity and understanding, making him seem like a mind-reader at times with how easily he could see into someone.

Then Prestige huffed, and Antares shot her a sour look as the verdant green mare rose her head and stated in her obnoxious, overconfident voice: “Don't be such a child, Antares. Miss Sparkle is a Lich, which you should know by now cannot be destroyed by physical battery. Rather, in order to effectively combat a Lich, one must use magic that damages and affects the spiritual and vital essence of an organic or directly attack and destroy its phylactery. To her, physical wounds are meaningless.”

“Actually, they're very annoying.” Twilight said moodily, rubbing slowly at her damaged shoulder before she sighed and flicked her horn, making the book of magic theory float in front of her. “Is this yours? Because it was just about in the fire, and I've told you both again and again to please try and keep this place neat... you both have your own rooms that you can mess up all you want but these are my quarters, and my books.”

Prestige dropped her head a bit, looking sour beneath her coiffed silver mane: lines of gray and white ran through both it and her cut-short tail, matching her proud, metallic-colored eyes almost perfectly... except for the flaw of red in one eye. A single little oddity that worked to describe Prestige Luster very well, Twilight thought, as the green mare finally mumbled a grumpy apology.

She wore no adornments apart from a simple aqua-blue scarf around her neck... but Prestige Luster's stance and mannerisms told the entire world that she had grown up as an aristocrat in an elitist society. Specifically, Prestige was from Silver Hoof: a village in far northern Equestria, and part of a band of cities that had never entirely made it out of the old traditions, where unicorns ruled and the earth ponies were nothing but slaves.

Prestige was not just a unicorn, however: her father was the mayor of Silver Hoof, and her mother worked as the second-in-command for the far north's ruling baroness, Caitiff Caprice. She had lived a life of wonderful luxury while even other 'noble unicorns' often lived in dilapidated homes and squalor... and with how self-centered she was, she had become used to seeing the impoverished and suffering and dismissing them from her mind while enjoying her wealth and power.

Her cutie mark was an image of three interlocked swirls of red, blue, and white: her special talent was magic, and specifically controlling and weaving different elements together. After her talent had been discovered, she had been privately tutored by the very best that money could buy... until finally, Caprice had pulled some strings for her parents, and after incessantly badgering Celestia, Prestige Luster had been sent to Twilight Sparkle to train under her as a personal apprentice.

Twilight still wasn't entirely sure why Celestia had not only agreed to this, but furthermore instructed her to watch over Prestige as a student. Yet all the same, she did her best not to question it, not because she saw Celestia as a mentor in some ways still... but because Celestia was her friend, and deserved a little trust. Even though, all the same, Twilight Sparkle did sometimes wish that Prestige had gotten lost on the way to Ponyville and the Lich could continue to simply train and work with Antares as both her son and her student.

Antares looked awkwardly up at Twilight as the violet mare's eyes roved to him, but she smiled after a moment, and he relaxed: he and Prestige were as different as they could possibly be. Antares was optimistic, put effort into everything he did, and worked hard to be nice to everyone around him and to always make the right decision. Not that he didn't have his flaws, of course, but they were again opposites to Prestige: while Prestige was nasty to most ponies and felt she was superior, Antares had a bit of an inferiority complex and was often scared of ever hurting anypony's feelings. But he had a lot to live up to, in his parents' shadow... even if Twilight knew that if anything, his parents had felt Antares was already purer of heart and soul than either of them had ever been.

Then the violet mare shook herself out before she finally glanced up and asked: “So what were you two arguing about this time? You could probably hear it all the way across the castle.”

“Slave hoofs.” Prestige said moodily, and Antares glared at her as he ground his teeth together, Twilight looking sourly at Prestige as well, but the unicorn mare only huffed and tossed her silver mane. “Well, it's what they are, isn't it? I know we've discussed this before but-”

“Prestige, stop.” Twilight said tiredly, shaking her head and glancing apprehensively towards Antares, but the glossy-black stallion was calming himself, little by little. His father, after all, had been an earth pony... and Scrivener had grown up in North Neigh, next door to Silver Hoof, and lived as a slave in a kennel behind his father's shop for most of his childhood. 'Slave hoof' was one of the few terms that could get usually calm and friendly Antares riled up and angry. “Look, I'm not going to debate this with you again. Whatever you believe, fine. Believe it all you want... but try and at least remember that this is not the north. Ponies here are equal, no matter whether they're earth pony, Pegasus, or unicorn.”

“Foolishness.” Prestige mumbled, and then she sighed loudly and dramatically before asking grumpily: “And this place is simply revolting. Canterlot is nothing like I was promised, it's merely another big city with too many ponies, and I am tired of being talked down to by insolent shorn-wings and slave-hoofs. Ponyville is even worse but at least there I can recline in the library or hide away in your quaint little cottage.”

“How can you look at other ponies and think they're inferior to you, just because of the way they look, because... they don't have wings, or a horn?” Antares burst out, shaking his head violently as he glared across at Prestige. “How can you not see that... maybe that's what makes earth ponies better than us unicorns or Pegasi, because they have to live their entire lives without the handicap of magic, or... or being able to fly!”

“Your soapbox ceased to amuse me years ago, Antares, and I'm so very tired of pointing out what a hypocrite you are.” Prestige said dourly, and then she sniffed loudly before tilting her head up. “I'm only saying what I know we're all thinking. 'Thank the powers that be I wasn't born a slave hoof.'”

Antares growled at her, and Twilight grimaced before she hurriedly stepped forwards, saying sharply: “Prestige, go back to your quarters, that's enough. Antares, go sit down for a minute. You know she's just trying to goad you on.”

Antares mumbled but nodded with a sigh, and Prestige Luster groaned, but then turned towards the door leading out of the quarters. “Fine, fine. I'll see you tomorrow, teacher.”

“And make sure you have that essay complete.” Twilight said sourly, and Prestige mumbled but nodded as she pushed through the door and headed down the steps beyond. For a moment, the violet mare looked towards her... and then she sighed softly, turning her eyes to Antares as she murmured quietly: “It always stuns me how you two are almost the exact same age, but you're so smart and Prestige is so... blind.”

The young stallion glanced awkwardly up from where he had taken a seat beside the couch, and then he sighed and lowered his head, murmuring: “Yeah, I guess, Twilight. But... you're right. I get drawn into her arguments and I get mad and... I guess that's my mom coming out, huh? My... blood mother, I mean. Not you, Mom, you're smarter than that.”

Twilight smiled faintly at this, then she quietly walked up beside him and gently reached up, wrapping a foreleg around his shoulders. Antares smiled a little at this, and then he closed his eyes and dropped his head against her shoulder as she turned her eyes towards him, then quietly kissed his forehead in silent thanks. He would never know what it meant to her, that he thought of her the way he did... and even more, that he was never repulsed by her touch. Most ponies, even ponies who had known her for years, after all, tended to get tense or twitch away on instinct from her undead body... but Antares never did.

Then he opened his eyes, looking towards her with quiet concern as he asked hesitantly: “I know it's dumb but... but are you okay, really?”

“It's not dumb, I appreciate it. But yeah, I'm fine. I only lost a foreleg, but I got it back on before it could start to decay or anything.” Twilight smiled a bit and shook her head slowly, then she sighed softly and looked up towards the open doors, murmuring: “I still remember when I was alive. You were less than half my size instead of almost as big as me, and Luna and Scrivener... well, every day I work to treat you as good as they did.”

Antares smiled, not saying anything as he nodded a little, and Twilight glanced up for a moment before she said finally: “I think we'll only be a few more days in Canterlot before we head back to Ponyville, so make sure you make the best of your time here. Try and spend some time in the Magic Academy, and don't be shy about asking Celestia to help out. I know she'd be more than glad to, Antares. She adores you, and... we can always make time for you, always.”

“I know, Twilight. And I really do appreciate it, I just... you and Aunt Tia are both already so good to me. I don't want to abuse that at all.” Antares said softly, shaking his head with a small smile. “And besides. You have Prestige to worry about and try to stop from getting lynched, and Aunt Tia's the baroness and the head of the Royal Council. And I know we're in Canterlot on business, and even anxious as I am, even as much as I want to find my parents, that... that can't overrule everything in my life.”

Antares sighed a little, looking down as he reached a hoof up to toy quietly at the necklace he wore: an onyx star that glowed faintly with its own inner light. Twilight watched him softly as the young stallion murmuring: “As much as I want it to, of course, but... me and Scarlet have had lots of talks about that. Taking time, being patient, accepting help from my friends... not letting this consume my life. But I think I'm almost ready, too... I know I'm young, but... soon, really soon, I think, I'm... I'm gonna start looking for Mom and Dad. I know they gotta be out there somewhere, and I know my best bet to finding them is getting to Clockwork World, and finding out what happened.”

Twilight nodded slowly, studying the stallion quietly before she said softly: “You're so different from your parents, Antares... but so much the same, too. You have that same determined streak both Luna and Scrivy did...” She smiled a bit when Antares gave her a look that was almost imploring. “I'm sorry. I mean... that they do. I... I honestly do want to believe they're out there, even if...”

Twilight reached up, silently stroking over the stitching on her body... and then Antares gave a faint smile to the violet mare, shaking his head and saying softly: “It doesn't matter what you are, Mom. Lich or unicorn or anything else, you know that... they always cared about you, more than almost anything else. They aren't going to be revolted by you.”

“I... I do know, it's just... hard sometimes, Antares. I think you understand a little.” Twilight smiled a bit, glancing over at the stallion: after all, with his leathery wings and sharp teeth, he had more than once been mistaken for a demon. And outside of Ponyville, even the demons that worked alongside Equestria weren't as readily or eagerly accepted. “Our minds and hearts... both like to play tricks on us, don't they?”

“Yeah. Yeah, they do.” Antares agreed quietly, and he looked ahead, towards the open doors leading out onto the balcony before he asked finally: “Have you seen Allonym around?”

“The weird Draconequus? I've only caught glimpses of him... has he been hanging around here?” Twilight asked curiously, tilting her head, and Antares nodded a few times with a bit of a smile. “Usually he only talks to you, though, tries to avoid the rest of us...”

“He says he's getting excited, that a new story is about to start. One he might even play a role in...” Antares shook his head and laughed a little. “I can never make much sense of what he's saying, though, he's worse than Discombobulation. More manic, too... but I always get the sense that beneath it all he's up to something. Good or bad, I don't know, but I guess I half-trust him by now... he's... he's a lot of the reason why I really believe that Mom and Dad are out there.”

The Lich couldn't help but give Antares an amused look, tilting her head towards him and asking mildly: “Even though he also basically confessed to trapping Luna and Scrivener both in some kind of insane dreamworld to study them in their last few moments of life, and now he won't just tell you the way to Clockwork World?”

“I believe him when he says he doesn't know the way... he just jumps around until he eventually gets where he wants to go.” Antares shook his head after a moment, giving a small smile. “Besides, he also... promised to help. I don't think he'd help me if he wanted to stop me or had some evil plan up his sleeve... but... I know I can be naïve. I know that... there's a lot more to adventuring and exploration and battle than just physical matters, and I need to learn to use my talents better, read people deeper.”

Twilight soothingly rubbed a hoof along Antares' back, and he lowered his head a bit, murmuring softly: “I know I'm no warrior like Mom, or even Dad was. Or like you are, Twilight... I know you don't think of yourself as a fighter first and foremost, but all the same... you're amazing. Lich or not, you're still a hero to Ponyville, and I think even around Canterlot... even though I know ponies don't treat you too nicely all the time, either, and you gotta keep your nature... hidden, a lot.”

“Yeah.” Twilight closed her eyes, shaking her head slowly as she murmured softly: “It's hard, Antares, I can admit that freely. I mean, I'll always have Ponyville, and I can't imagine what life would be like for me... or... you know, existence, since I'm not exactly alive... without that place, and my friends who are all there. Good friends, friends I'm blessed with... and family, like you and Scarlet Sage.” Twilight turned and gave him a quick hug, and the young stallion smiled, closing his eyes and reaching a hoof up to squeeze one of her forelegs silently in gratitude. “And even Celestia, too. But I still don't always find it... easy.

“Still, we have each other, and... I'm glad for that. I never really saw myself as a parent, even when I was taking care of Spike...” Twilight laughed a little at this, shaking her head slowly and smiling faintly. “He was like my little brother. That's... what I always told myself, anyway, but then when he moved out, the way I felt...”

She quieted, then laughed again and shook her head, straightening and murmuring: “Now I'm just rambling though, Antares, I'm sorry. You're just... easy to talk to, and get things off my chest with. I trust you, and I... I don't really know how to be your mother, even after ten years of trying. And I think even with our age difference and everything, I'm still your friend first.”

“Mom and Dad would have liked that.” Antares said softly, glancing over at the Lich and giving a small smile, nodding a little before he closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards. “And I trust you, too. I feel that's true, because... I feel relaxed with you, and I can see you really mean it. I just... want to make sure I grow up and make you proud, and... that I'm able to bring my parents back. For all of us.”

Twilight Sparkle only smiled softly at this, nodding slowly, and she and the young stallion both turned their eyes ahead, gazing silently out into the night sky beyond the open doors, watching as clouds rolled by and the faint glimmers of the stars above shone through here and there.

Straw Crown was not happy: it was two in the morning, the Royal Guards had all but rousted him out of his bed, and all he wanted to do was go back to his home in Canterlot and sleep off the hangover he'd gotten from looking a little too deep into the whiskey bottle last night. But then again, he'd thought he'd have a day off, for once...

“Horses of Heaven, is this even in our jurisdiction?” asked the old, graying unicorn tiredly, dressed in a rumpled, ugly black suit as he frowned at the distance, noting the walls of some village close enough to be seen even under the shroud of night. “It looks like there's a town less than a mile away...”

“It doesn't matter. We found it on the thoroughfare in open land. Therefore it was reported to Canterlot, therefore it is treated as the barony's problem, not Ponyville's.” retorted a soldier, and Crown glared over at him before he grumbled as he noted he was wearing the heavy-duty purple armor of a Captain of the Guard, not the standard soldier. Not someone worth picking a fight with, in other words.

There were at least twenty Royal Guards tromping all over the area, although they'd at least had sense to mark off the area around the dead body. Spheres of light floated here and there in the air, lighting it clearly, and he could see several enormous freight wagons in the distance, the coroner frowning before he asked finally: “What were you doing out here, anyway?”

“Returning from a late night supply run to Ponyville on her majesty's orders.” the Captain replied calmly, becoming more professional and less hostile as he continued: “We would not have spotted the body amongst the scrub, except for the fact that I had Pegasus patrols scanning the fields. We've been having bandit problems... I didn't expect we'd find one of these things, though.”

Crown nodded slowly as he carefully made his way forwards, horn glowing and opening the satchel at his side even as he frowned in distaste at the sight of the body, muttering: “This is the fourth or fifth I've had the... dubious pleasure of dealing with. If Ponyville is the closest town we'll need to move the body to the morgue there for further examination...”

The Captain of the Guard grunted, but Crown only shook his head, saying sourly: “Don't think I like it any more than you do. But apparently Ponyville was also the site of the worst attacks during the war with Decretum, all those years ago... then again, I don't know more than rumors myself.”

The coroner turned his attention back to the body as he carefully ducked under the ropes marking off the area, and he approached the body: it didn't look like there had been a struggle of any kind, but it was very clearly dead, and already reeked of decay. Despite the visible rot, it didn't look as abnormal as some of the so-called 'Clockwork Ponies' did, but it was still enough to make him shudder and mutter: “Sickening. Abominations, all of them.”

Metal plates lined its half-rotted body, and it had some kind of tubing that had fallen loose here and there from it. There had been some kind of glass tube over its back, but this had been shattered by some tremendous force, and the goop inside had leaked out all around the creature like blood. Yet strangest of all, even as the unicorn carefully looked back and forth, he couldn't see any signs of battery or combat. Except for that broken tube...

He frowned thoughtfully as a notepad floated out of his satchel, along with a pencil, beginning to rapidly jot down notes as he asked meditatively: “Captain, is this the state you found the body in?”

“We haven't touched a thing... frankly, I think my troops and I both were too afraid to. It looks diseased.” The Captain of the Guard made a disgusted face, shaking his head slowly. “Do you think someone else was here before us? How did it die?”

“One thing at a time...” The coroner leaned down, reaching out hesitantly and touching the side of the glass tube, and then he nodded hesitantly. “Yes, this was smashed... likely postmortem, from the lack of any sign of struggle or even movement. This body has been settling here, dead, for quite some time. Something was taken out of it...”

He shook his head slowly, then sighed as he looked over his shoulder into his satchel and muttered: “Wonderful. I forgot my gloves... well, it doesn't matter.”

All the same, he hesitated for a moment before reaching forwards, carefully grasping either side of the Clockwork Pony's head as the Captain of the Guard grimaced and leaned towards him, asking apprehensively: “Are you sure you should be touching that thing?”

“It looks like it died of natural causes... besides, it's been dead for quite some time now. If a disease rampaged through its body, by now it's likely broken down itself, from the state of decay... besides, anything particularly virulent would have already infected your soldiers or possibly even reached Ponyville.” the coroner muttered, leaning down, beginning to carefully move the Clockwork Pony's head to the side to try and get a better look at some of the tubing... and he cursed in shock, falling backwards and scrambling away when the corpses' whole head snapped off, hitting the ground before collapsing into brittle pieces of half-petrified flesh and metal.

The coroner breathed hard in and out, staring at the hollow neck of the creature as the Captain of the Guard gritted his teeth, then asked sharply: “And what the hell was that?”

“Decomposition is... is much more advanced than I thought...” The coroner shook his head, then he sighed and reached up to wipe sweat off his forehead, absently pressing his hoof to one eye before cursing under his breath as he felt something wet on it. He drew his hoof quickly back, then grimaced at the sight of the dark goo on it before he shook his head tiredly, feeling another throb of pain from his hangover. “Alright, there's nothing I can do here, the corpse is going to fall apart if I try to run any exams. Get... get your troops to put it on a stretcher, and carry it carefully back to Ponyville. I'll examine it there tomorrow. I'm going to hitch a ride with your convoy back to Canterlot so I can get some sleep.”

“Are you sure about this? Don't we have to examine that thing immediately?” asked the Captain of the Guard pessimistically, and the coroner shot him a sour look, even as his horn glowed to pick up his dropped notebook and shove it back in his pack.

“Yes, I'm very sure. I've been doing my job for twenty-five years. How long have you been doing yours?” he asked waspishly, and that finally shut the Captain of the Guard up before the coroner sighed and made his way towards the freight wagons, feeling his headache give another throb. “The Ponyville hospital has a serviceable morgue. Make sure your soldiers tell them it's restricted access, otherwise we'll end up dealing with medical students and unpleasant characters like Kilby Kwolek.”

“Right.” the Captain of the Guard muttered, but the coroner wasn't paying attention anymore. Instead, Crown found his way towards one of the freight wagons and let himself into the back, finding a place to sit down between the strapped-down crates and rubbing slowly at his face as he sighed tiredly. His hangover was getting worse... or maybe by now it was a stress headache. He was too old for these long late nights, after all, and all the years he'd spent doing this were catching up to him.

It was a long, uncomfortable ride back to Canterlot, and Crown shivered as they let himself out of the freight car downtown, so he wouldn't have too far to walk, at least. He slowly paced through the streets, looking nervously back and forth before his eyes locked on the sight of several Nightmares pacing through the street, staring around with fascination. He hurried into an alley to bypass them, muttering to himself: “Horses of Heaven, this is why I hate nights most of all...”

By now, it was well-known that dark creatures roamed Canterlot in the deep of night... some were even brazen enough to do it during the early evening, when ponies were still walking around. And for some reason, Baroness Celestia allowed them to: she had even announced that she had made some sort of treaty with them several years ago, and they were to be treated and respected as equal citizens.

“Nonsense.” Crown mumbled, hurrying down the ally and turning down another street... but he was halted shortly by a fit of coughing, stumbling up against the side of a building as he hacked and wheezed. Then he shook his head with a shiver, grasping at his face and breathing hard... but after a few moments, the fit of whatever it had been passed, and he smiled weakly, muttering: “And here I thought I could handle my alcohol better...”

He shook his head slowly, then rubbed quietly at his face before walking quickly onwards, breathing a little heavily through his mouth. Thankfully, he made it home without further event, heading up to his apartment.

His wife was still asleep, at least, and Crown felt envious of her, sleeping comfortably in bed. Instead of heading to sleep himself, he decided to have a quick shower, hopefully wash away the worst of his soreness and that dirty feeling that had been left behind from the corpse of the Clockwork Pony.

The shower was quick, but it did make him feel a lot better: afterwards, he crawled into bed, dropped his face in a pillow, and went almost immediately into a deep, heavy slumber. But in the depths of his sleep, he dreamed, dreams that he would only vaguely remember come the morning, dreams that made him toss and turn for most of the night. Of a glowing gemstone, and electricity, and pumping poisons: of fire rampaging through his veins, and of something hungry and evil that had been locked away beginning to raise its head, beginning to come back to its senses. Of the broken corpse of a Clockwork Pony, laying in ruin in the morgue, the body dead... but oh, most certainly there was something inside that broken hulk that was still alive, still hungry, and gaining sentience...

When morning came, Crown sat slowly up and rubbed at his face tiredly, then he groaned in disgust as he sniffled loudly and blinked puffy, achy eyes. All the drinking he'd done last night had likely combined with the cold autumn air and given him a headcold. He grumbled under his breath as he carefully slipped to the edge of the bed, cursed his wife for being perfectly healthy and still asleep, and half-flopped to his hooves, smacking his lips loudly as he mumbled: “Well, I'll send a letter to Ponyville and tell the attendants at the morgue to start the exam without me. I'll head over late tonight or tomorrow to review their findings, that should be fine.”

Crown nodded to himself thoughtfully, looking down... and then he sneezed loudly before groaning and cursing his luck, rubbing at his puffy eyes tiredly. It was going to be a long day.

Warrior Bloodlines

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Chapter Two: Warrior Bloodlines
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares looked grouchily at Prestige as they walked side-by-side together through Canterlot, the green mare saying arrogantly: “You should feel lucky that I associate with you at all, Antares Mīrus. After all, in my society you would be considered an outcast, a splinter-horn, and no self-respecting unicorn or Pegasus would have anything to do with you. You are very fortunate to have such social privilege in Canterlot, and that I do not entirely revile your company.”

“Will you drop it?” Antares asked sourly, and in response Prestige only sniffed disdainfully. “Why are you even here? Go... go away. Go to the magic lab or something, Mom worked really hard to get you that research pass.”

“No, I desire to meet with Baroness Celestia as well. She is the entire reason I was sent here, after all, I was supposed to be training beneath the Baroness herself.” Prestige said haughtily, raising her head proudly. “My magical abilities are immense, after all, and was the Lich not so strong itself-”

“Twilight. Her name is Twilight Sparkle and she's a person still, even if she's... she's not...” Antares grimaced, then he shook his head and snapped as Prestige gave him an almost mocking look: “Seriously, you need to cut this out! Can't you be nice to other ponies for more than two seconds?”

“Not if they're my lessers.” Prestige scoffed, shaking her head quickly before she sniffed loudly. “I am a noble, high-born and with exceptional magical prowess. You should understand the former, at least, Antares... although, unlike me, you seem to have trouble so much as opening a door with your powers, much less perform any intensive magic.”

Antares grumbled under his breath, then he flicked his horn firmly forwards as they approached a pair of double doors, knocking them both flying open as he said sourly: “See? No problem.”

Then he paused, and slowly looked up to see Celestia calmly sitting in the room behind, drinking a cup of tea as she looked mildly over at them. Antares grinned lamely and blushed a bit as Prestige sniffed disdainfully and began to step forwards... and then she squeaked when guards clad in golden armor from head to hoof leapt in front of her, blocking her passage threateningly as she complained: “He did it, not me!”

“It's okay, she's just a pain in the flank, not any kind of threat.” Antares muttered as he walked forwards and past the golden armored warriors, and then he smiled a little as he rose his head towards Celestia, adding quietly: “Sorry, Aunt Tia. Guess that's my Mom coming out again.”

“I understand.” Celestia said softly, and then she held up a hoof, and the guards blocking Prestige's path both stepped out of the way. Prestige huffed at them, but she shied nervously away all the same: not a single piece of their body was left uncovered by the strange, glowing golden plating, and their eyes seemed to glow unnaturally through the sockets of the masks over their faces, as the ivory winged unicorn said calmly: “You are dismissed for now. You may return to Subterra or linger through the castle, I'll call if I need you.”

The guards nodded silently, and the six golden armored soldiers around the room left through the open doors, one stepping up beside Antares to let its side brush against him as it passed. It felt warm even through the armor, and Antares laughed despite himself as he glanced embarrassedly over his shoulder, but he could almost see the smile beneath the facemask when the bodyguard looked back at him.

Prestige only looked surly, and Celestia smiled after a moment to her, saying quietly: “You should be more careful. My Yamato don't like surprises.”

“They look like earth ponies dressed in armor. Why should I fear slave hoofs?” Prestige asked impudently, striding towards the table, and Antares snorted in amusement as Celestia sighed.

“Please don't use that term, Prestige. And they are not earth ponies, in any event... they are Nightmares, and that armor shields them from sunlight.” Celestia replied calmly, and Prestige looked up with dumb shock even as Celestia simply sipped at her tea.

For a few moments, there was awkward silence... and then Prestige finally spluttered out: “N-Nightmares? Why would you u-use Nightmares as bodyguards?”

“Because for the sun to rise, first there must be darkness.” Celestia smiled, gazing over at Antares as Prestige looked stupefied, realizing a little too late this wasn't an answer at all as Celestia said kindly: “Antares, I'd like to take your training in a different direction today. It would mean a lot to me if you would indulge me in a short sparring session.”

“Sparring?” Antares looked surprised at this, and then he blushed and dropped his head, mumbling embarrassedly: “Aunt Tia, honestly, I'm... I'm honored, but really, I don't think that I could hold my own against you for more than a minute... and that's at the very most.”

“Well, I'm glad you recognize someone's magical superiority.” Prestige said sourly as she approached the table, then she sat down and looked moodily back and forth. “You should fire your servants, Baroness, I do not see any in attendance. They should know that simply fetching your food is not enough.”

But Celestia only smiled a little at this, drawing her eyes to Prestige even as Antares visibly bit his tongue to hold back a retort. “I don't have any servants, Prestige Luster. Not personally, although Canterlot does employ a large staff... but they are exactly that, staff. Employees. And I actually made this tea myself.”

Prestige looked dumbly at Celestia for a few moments, and then she grumbled under her breath before the ivory winged unicorn turned her eyes back to her nephew, saying softly: “Antares, you are much more capable than you give yourself credit for. Besides, I'll only use my short swords: I want to evaluate how you've been doing in your training.”

Antares shifted a little, blushing and lowering his head embarrassedly before he finally nodded, glancing up at her and saying finally: “What should I use, then, Aunt Tia? I mean, I'm normally just a horn-fencer, so...”

“So simply use your horn then, Antares.” Celestia replied softly, smiling slightly. “Besides, there's no rush. I'd like to finish my tea first, and talk with you a little as well. You and your... friend... Prestige Luster.”

“He is not my friend.” Prestige said grumpily, and Antares mumbled an agreement before the unicorn mare leaned forwards and asked imploringly: “And please, can't you teach me something, Baroness? With all due respect, your Lich servant is wonderful, but-”

“Twilight Sparkle is my friend. A very close friend.” Celestia said quietly, her horn glowing as her teacup settled to the table in front of her, and there was a distinct hardening in her amethyst eyes that made Prestige swallow thickly and sit back, even as the ivory winged unicorn's tone remained civil, even gentle. “Please do not speak of her that way. And I would not have assigned you to her if I didn't believe she could teach you everything you need to know, Prestige... but you have much more important lessons to learn than magic.”

Prestige grumbled under her breath, looking moodily down at the table as she nodded a little, and Antares was glad that she was smart enough not to argue before he asked hesitantly: “Do you know about... I mean, did Twilight tell you...”

“Yes, she did. And I'm worried about you, of course, but... I promise to respect your choice in this.” Celestia said quietly, turning her eyes to Antares, who smiled faintly up at his aunt. “But as I'm sure Twilight told you... please, accept our help at least, and if you can, our advice. Do what my brother and sister couldn't do... and remember, we'll be here for you every step of the way to finding them and bringing them home.”

“What are you talking about? Antares, I thought your parents were dead.” Prestige said pessimistically, and Antares glared at her as Celestia slowly closed her eyes, looking exasperated. “Well, I did. It's not like anypony ever tells me anything.”

“Because it's none of your business.” Antares said moodily, and then he shook his head quickly before sighing and adding quietly: “And I don't know if they're alive or dead, okay? I... I just believe that they're alive, out there, somewhere. And I'm going to find them.”

Prestige huffed a little at this, but thankfully otherwise didn't say anything, and Antares was glad for this small mercy before he returned his eyes to Celestia as she said softly: “In the past, I would have thought of you as childish, Antares, or... said that you were clinging to false hopes, despite wanting to believe myself that Luna and Scrivener are both out there somewhere. But... I do believe you. I honestly do: you have a strange and wonderful gift for seeing the truth in things, and ever since you began talking about the Draconequus, Allonym-”

“Draconequus are chaos entities, they cannot be trusted.” Prestige interrupted immediately, and both Celestia and Antares fixed her with moody looks, even as she continued: “The exception to this rule, of course, is your servant Discord, who has been enfeebled and drained of his powers and thus presents no real threat-”

“Discord is not a threat because he lacks powers: it's not our powers that kill people, it's the actions we choose to take and what we do with them.” Celestia replied pointedly, and then she shook her head slowly and added quietly: “And Discord may not be happy but he is not a servant. He does honest work for me and that is to be respected, considering his past.”

Prestige grumbled a bit at this, then she said sulkily: “It sounds as if all things are to be respected, Baroness Celestia, and treated as equal... except, of course, for those few who deserve true respect and are in no way equal to the commoners and the lower class. Don't you think that you, with your high standing and great power, deserve so much more worship than some... some lowly servant or powerless, unimportant sla- uh... earth pony?”

“If raw power was really the only thing worthy of respect, Prestige, then we would all worship monsters.” Celestia replied calmly, and then she stood up from the table, and Antares smiled a bit as he hurriedly stood himself. “Please meet me at the training arena in say... half an hour from now. That should give us both more than enough time to prepare.”

“Okay, Aunt Tia. I'll be there.” Antares looked up with a firm nod, even if he still seemed a little nervous, and Celestia smiled softly at him before she turned and headed for a set of double doors. The two ponies watched her go, Prestige seeming moody and Antares fidgeting a bit, and then the glossy-black unicorn turned... only to wince as Prestige hurriedly jumped away from the table to follow beside him as he headed back into the halls. “What do you want now?”

Prestige only huffed, responding sourly: “Do not speak to me in such a tone, Antares, I am a guest and of noble esteem. And I deserve to watch this duel-”

“It's not a duel. If it was a duel, I'd probably run away because I'd be scared of what Aunt Tia would do to me.” He halted, then mumbled: “I'm already scared of what she's going to do to me. I'm no good at this stuff, I always want to pull my punches even though I know I'm not supposed to...”

The unicorn mare sniffed loudly at this, then she commented mildly: “You're a particularly pathetic kind of person, Antares. I hope you're aware of this.”

Antares gave Prestige a sour look, then he turned his gaze ahead through the halls, beginning to jog easily forwards. He winced when Prestige doggedly attempted to keep up with him, however, although the unicorn mare was clearly not as athletic as the young stallion was. “It... it's rude to run in a castle, you know!”

“I'm not running. Not yet, anyway. Look, I need to go get ready, if you really want to watch the sparring session then go find the arena.” Antares grumbled as he hurried forwards, moving a little faster: his gait was smooth and easy, while at his side Prestige was almost wheezing already, half- staggering after him.

Finally, Antares groaned as they reached an intersection in the halls, skidding to a halt as Prestige stumbled to a stop and almost plowed into a Royal Guard, who quickly stepped out of the way and gave the two a glare as he continued on his patrol. Antares only looked at her sourly as the unicorn mare panted loudly, head bowed, looking exhausted despite the fact Antares hadn't been pacing himself at much more than a fast walk. “I... I want... to come with... you...”

“Uh... no.” Antares said dryly, and Prestige shot him a horrible glare in response to this. “Look, you can't keep up with me, one way or the other, for one thing. For another, Prestige Luster, I... I really am not very fond of your company. I think you know that. So why the heck do you want to come with me? You can find the arena fine yourself if you really want to watch.”

“I... do not question... those above your... station...” Prestige grumbled, and then she winced when Antares turned and made as if to start running again, blurting: “I don't want to be alone!”

Antares stumbled a few steps, then he sighed tiredly before dropping his head dejectedly, mumbling: “Wonderful. I... okay, Prestige, just... just please. Please. Please try and keep your mouth shut, okay?”

Prestige gave him another sour look as she mumbled to herself, then she straightened and gave a single surly nod. Antares gave a small smile despite himself at this, then he turned to lead the way onwards as Prestige fell into pace beside him, the glossy-black unicorn saying quietly: “See? This doesn't have to be so bad. We might never be friends but we don't have to be enemies, either.”

“My station is far too high to ever consider you worthy of being an enemy.” Prestige muttered, and Antares sighed tiredly, shaking his head slowly as the two walked on in quiet for a few minutes. Then, awkwardly, Prestige rose her head and looked at the young stallion for a few long moments, before she asked finally: “Your mother and father are considered heroes, are they not?”

“I... yeah.” Antares said quietly after a moment, shaking his head as he glanced down with a bit of a smile. “There's a statue of them in Ponyville, near the memorial for Trixie the Brave, and there's a shrine here in Canterlot dedicated to them. But I've never visited it here...”

“Why not?” Prestige cocked her head, then she smiled wryly. “Oh, wait, no, let me guess. Little Antares is too afraid of never being able to live up to what his parents were, so he avoids all memory of their achievements, is that it?”

“Do you want to come with me or do you want me to leave you here?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige grumbled but nodded, mumbling moodily under her breath. “And it's not that at all, anyway. It's... it's that... if I go and visit their shrine, it would feel like I'm admitting they're... they're gone. And they're not, I believe with all my heart that they're not.”

Prestige was quiet at this, and her expression changed a little, her tone softening just a bit as she asked quietly: “How can you be so sure, Antares Mīrus? Twilight Sparkle made me learn all the history of the events of the war with Decretum, which still aren't that widely known... only that we were at war with aggressors thought to have originally come from a distant country, and not another world. I still find it exceptionally difficult to believe that travel between different worlds is possible... that there are different worlds out there at all. And if that is true... your parents have been gone for nine years, soon to be ten, and have been trapped in the home of your enemy for all that time.”

“I believe they're alive.” Antares said sharply, and Prestige looked surprised by his tone before the glossy black unicorn dropped his head awkwardly, mumbling: “Sorry. But... but I believe they're alive, I honestly do. Mom and Dad... they're tough, and they don't give up, and... and they made a promise. They never break a promise...”

He turned his gaze away, and Prestige studied him for a few moments before she mumbled a little and gazed ahead, asking moodily: “And you expect to find them somehow, someday... Baroness Celestia and Miss Twilight both seem to think you have some plan to leave, but I simply cannot see you leaving behind all your friends and family on some wild adventure into nowhere. Do you even have the means to find your parents?”

“Not yet, and not that it's any of your business, Prestige, but my friends and I and the rest of my family have been working hard on figuring out a way to hunt down Decretum.” Antares said stiffly. “Mom and Dad knew the way there, after all, and Gymbr was able to open the Bifrost from there when... when they rescued me. That means that the Bifrost can reach it, we just... need to figure out the exact coordinates.

“And furthermore, I'm not dumb enough to think that I can just waltz into Decretum. Once my training's done, once... I feel ready enough to leave, I'm not going to go alone. Some of my friends will be coming with me, and we'll be gathering up tools and equipment from across Equestria.” Antares replied quietly, shaking his head quickly. “I plan to meet with Strange Ones and Nibelung Architects, to find other ponies who have fought Clockwork World or knew my parents and see if they can help too, and I'm going to get help from Allonym. My ultimate goal is getting to Decretum, but I know to get there, I gotta get stronger, first. I gotta do everything I can to prepare.”

“Allonym, your imaginary Draconequus friend.” Prestige said sourly, and Antares gave her a horrible look before she sniffed disdainfully. “I do not see why such an elaborate creature would speak to only you, and you alone. Precious few others have seen this Draconequus... and furthermore, your friends are... shall we say... unexceptional.”

“You're calling Avalon unexceptional?” Antares said disbelievingly, and Prestige sniffed again before the glossy-black unicorn glared at the mare. “And Rustproof, and even Aphrodisia? Even Meadowlark is amazing, have you ever seen her at work?”

“I just fail to see how any of them can help you. With the possible exception of the psychotic midget Pegasus, you have a demonic prostatot, a slow-witted mechanic, and a journalist.” Prestige said sourly, and Antares looked at Prestige moodily as he wished absently he was better at magic so he could set her on fire. “And you, Antares Mīrus, are rather incapable of magic, which is what truly separates the successful from the failures. You will require at least one exceptional mage upon your journey.”

Antares opened his mouth... and then he halted in front of the door leading into his own personal room, frowning slowly as he leaned forwards and studied her. Prestige only looked back at him with her smug expression, and then the young stallion shook his head before saying disbelievingly: “You? You want to come with us?”

“Well, while I appreciate you entreating my aid and recognizing my superior magical prowess... I shall have to think about whether or not I really desire to lend you any assistance at all.” Prestige Luster flicked her silver mane, raising her head proudly and looking pleased with herself, and Antares just stared at her. “Of course, there are certain appealing notions to this remarkably-vague plan of yours... traveling across Equestria, gathering equipment, adventure, it seems oh so fantastical and romantic but it would make for a very nice little vacation, which I think I've well-earned after all the history and schooling I've done here for the last four or five years. And furthermore-”

The young stallion turned, kicked his door in, and stormed through it, and Prestige spluttered to a halt before Antares loudly kicked his door shut in her face. The unicorn mare glared at this, then her horn glowed... before she cursed under her breath when the door refused to budge, instead hammering on it with a hoof as she complained: “Antares! Antares, you know you need my help! Antares, open this door this instant, I am a noble and I will not be treated this way!”

Antares pointedly ignored the unicorn mare's pleas and insistent knocking, heading across the almost-obsessively-neat room to the armor stand in the corner. He sighed after a moment as the knocking continued, grumpily glaring at the locked door, but then he only shook his head and absently reached out to smooth down a corner of his bed, shaking his head after a moment as he tried to put the unicorn mare out of his mind and focus on the task at hoof.

He turned his eyes towards his armor stand, carefully looking over it as he reached up to gently touch the lightweight black breastplate. It was plain but beautiful, a gift from his uncle, Sleipnir: he had designed it after Luna's own battle armor, and it favored mobility over weighty protection, perfect for Antares' preferred style of combat.

The cusps that would lock over shoulders and hips were slightly enlarged and embellished, and sleeves of dark navy, dragon-scale leather hung loose, each with a metal bracelet at the end to lock them securely into place when worn. They matched a blue vest that rested on the other side of the armor stand, which would act as the buffer layer between his body and the metal plating: often during his sparring sessions, he just wore the leather, but today he had a feeling he'd need to go in full gear.

It didn't take him long to fit everything on, shaking his head out once he had finished securing his armor and obsessively checking it again for any dings, scratches, or dirt. Then he nodded firmly once before awkwardly reaching up and brushing his rugged mane back, bowing his head and murmuring quietly: “Stars and nature grant me strength.”

He hesitated, then turned and picked up the last piece of armor on the stand, holding it in his front hooves before he sighed and carefully fitted the black metal circlet around his head before securing the single chin strap that held it firmly in place. He grumbled a little under his breath, but the crescent-shaped band of metal held his mane out of his eyes, fit comfortably against his skull, and it was good for protecting his forehead and giving more support to the base of his horn with the U-shaped hollow that fit around the natural spire... but it always felt a little... silly, with the crown of six dragon-like horns that twisted up from either side of it.

He mumbled to himself, then glanced over the top of his dresser, bare except for a sketchpad... and Antares smiled after a moment as he stepped towards this, opening it to gaze silently down at the drawings inside. Sketches by his mother, of friends, and family, and other things... and he nodded once before closing it and taking a slow breath, murmuring: “I'm gonna do you proud today, Mom, I promise.”

Antares shook his head out, then he turned and quietly made his way back across the room to the door, pulling it open and stepping outside as he kept his head high and proud... and promptly tripped over the curled-up form of Prestige, making her squawk indignantly as Antares cursed under his breath. Passing ponies stopped and stared at the two as they struggled and flailed at each other, Prestige shouting indignantly: “I demand you get off of me!”

“Stop kicking me!” Antares cursed, then he finally managed to yank himself backwards, stumbling hurriedly away from Prestige and glaring down at her as she sat up and shook herself out, the young stallion snapping : “What are you even doing?”

“I was waiting for you! You should thank me, that I, a high-born unicorn would bother to wait for a lowly splinter-horn like yourself!” Prestige spat, and the two glared at each other before she suddenly frowned and leaned forwards, reaching a hoof up to poke curiously at his armor. “What is this? Why are you wearing this? This is nonsense, I didn't think you were so low-born that you would wear common armor like a common soldier.”

Several nearby Royal Guards glared at Prestige at this, but she ignored them completely as Antares only stared at the unicorn, then groaned and rolled his eyes, muttering: “Oh yeah, it's no wonder you just have so many friends, Prestige. Look, let's... go. Before the 'low-born' guards decide to arrest you for being a public nuisance.”

“I am a mage and a unicorn, they may not lay a hoof upon me.” Prestige said huffily, raising her head arrogantly, and Antares only sighed tiredly as he closed the door and then turned, muttering under his breath as he started down the corridor, the unicorn mare hurrying after him as she continued mildly: “Your equipment is based on old Equestrian earth pony battle raiment, isn't it? A breastplate that encompasses the full chest instead of simply covering the back. I see it's been modified with holes for your wings, though... and of course, that coronet you're wearing is a barbaric pre-Equestrian design, from the... víkingr tribes?”

“I... how do you know that?” Antares looked surprised as he glanced over at Prestige, who simply sniffed disdainfully and smiled at him almost mockingly, making him glower at her. “You know what? Forget I asked.”

“Oh come now, don't be jealous just because I happen to pay attention.” Prestige retorted, rubbing a hoof absently against her chest before she added mildly: “Besides, it's really quite obvious to anypony who pays any attention in history. And the víkingr earth pony barbarians are what paved the way for unicorns to assert their dominance, anyway... they forced the Pegasi to move from ground camps into the safety of cloud cities, and then were easily subdued and employed by the allure and power of unicorn magic.”

“You mean enslaved.” Antares said dryly, and Prestige only shrugged before the glossy-black stallion asked quietly: “How the hell can you be okay with that stuff, Prestige? I think of what my Dad's side of the family must have been like and... and I get the shivers. I even think about what I'd do if some angry earth pony came looking for payback and found me... I don't think I could entirely blame him if he took his pain out on me for what my ancestors did.”

“That's because you are oversensitive and silly, Antares.” scoffed Prestige, shaking her head with an almost-mocking laugh. “We cannot be held accountable for the indiscretions of our families. Besides, slave-hooves are not as pure as you and your kind like to believe...”

She looked moodily away, shaking her head with disgust as Antares looked at her quietly, before she added quietly: “And yes, I believe unicorns are superior and stronger and better, because... we are. We have magic, and powers that earth ponies and even Pegasi can only dream of... and will never attain. Not unless they trade for it like Blood Seers do, and we all know that is not a fair trade. But don't look at me as if I'm scum, because I am not. I even appreciate some earth ponies, and their abilities: the engineer in Ponyville, Cowlick, is a rude and obnoxious twit, but even I recognize her crafting ability is exceptional. And while I may tote my superiority, I am nothing like some unicorns in the north, Antares.

“Did you know my family's slaves were employed fairly?” she inquired, and Antares turned his head away in disgust... but found himself listening all the same, his sharp senses picking up what sounded like... honesty, in Prestige's words. Or at least she believes it so much it's true to her... “My mother gave these miserable little earth ponies, who had no real rights in Silver Hoof, a full-time job, a roof over their heads, and work. We even paid them wages. Yes, there were many rules, and yes, we were hard on them, but we were never cruel to them. We never beat them, we gave them days off, and we lorded over them but we also did not permit other families to mistreat them or even give them orders. They were servants, really, not slaves. Slaves have no rights, and I have seen my neighbors practicing slavery eagerly. We at least kept our servants healthy and alive. Some would even say happy: not many earth ponies could claim they earned wages, after all.”

“So you're the lesser of evils, huh?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige smiled icily at him in response to this. “Look, I don't like the way you look at the world, Prestige. It's as simple as that. You're not better than everypony else, and being a unicorn doesn't make you special. Maybe you weren't as bad as some ponies, I... I can believe that. You're rude but you don't seem... cruel.”

Prestige Luster laughed shortly at this, saying sourly: “Well, Heavens be, is that almost a compliment? But I don't expect you to understand. I know none of you like me, Antares Mīrus, and that's fine. I don't much care for any of you, either.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Antares asked finally, and Prestige grumbled, blushing a little as she turned away, and the two were silent on the rest of the short walk through Canterlot and out into the fields outside the castle.

They made their way down a gentle slope, towards a large barracks building in the distance: the training arena was built into the side of this, its rounded stone walls higher than the squat building beside it and almost gleaming, like it had been recently washed and polished. And Antares blushed a bit as they approached the open iron gates and made their way past a group of off-duty Royal Guards, all of whom were watching eagerly. “Oh great...”

“Well, I suppose they can't be blamed for taking an interest. I must admit, I look forwards to seeing just what kind of... magic...” Prestige stuttered to a halt as they strode out the other side of the short tunnel into the arena grounds and through another gate, her eyes locking on the sight of Celestia before she stammered: “I... I... what's going on?”

Antares only smiled, blushing as he strode forwards and bowed his head respectfully... and Celestia, in her heavy full plate mail, smiled softly as she bowed her head back. The huge, ornate armor gleamed like the radiant sun over her body, making her look even more titanic than she already was: the few joints and other areas that weren't protected by the golden plate were instead insulated by thick, flexible chainmail mesh. It made her look every inch the warrior she was at heart, however softly she spoke in the Royal Court and gentle she seemed at other times.

Prestige was gaping stupidly, and Celestia smiled as she glanced towards the unicorn mare, saying kindly: “It's a surprise to see you here, Prestige Luster. But you're welcome to sit in the stands and watch. I hope you don't mind, Antares, but we have a small audience.”

Antares winced a bit as he glanced awkwardly towards the seats that went all around the arena: here and there, groups of ponies were sitting, and he blushed awkwardly and rose a hoof as he noted Twilight Sparkle herself was in one of the balcony seats that went around the edge of arena walls. She waved back at him, and it reassured him as he breathed hard before nodding once, turning his eyes back to Celestia as he said quietly: “Of course, Aunt Tia. I gotta learn to focus under pressure anyway, right?”

Celestia only smiled and nodded, and Prestige shook her head stupidly before she glanced hurriedly around the arena, as if expecting to find the real Celestia hiding behind one of the enormous stone pillars that stood here and there around the outer edge of the twenty-foot stone walls that enclosed the tournament grounds. “I... this is... you...”

“Even today, few ponies know my past, know... my true face and heart. But I am trying to be more open... not to present myself as a tyrant or warrior queen, but as simply... who I am.” Celestia said softly, and then she flicked her horn, and three bursts of golden flame tore through the air around her before they solidified into golden, gladius-shaped swords, the double-edged blades glinting as the enormous winged unicorn bowed her head politely. “Now please, Prestige, if you'll excuse us, there's a stairway right over there you can take to reach the stands and join Twilight Sparkle. Perhaps you can learn something from this contest.”

“No contest, Aunt Tia, we both already know how this is going to go.” Antares smiled embarrassedly, looking up at the much-larger mare before he hesitated, then bowed his head and said quietly: “I'm honored to... to do this, though. I don't know if I'm ready and I don't think I'm worthy, but... thank you.”

“Just make sure you come at me with all your strength, Antares Mīrus, no holding back, no pulling your punches... and I'll be the one who is honored by this.” Celestia replied quietly, and Antares smiled after a moment as the two surveyed each other. Prestige stared at them for a few moments longer, and then the unicorn mare hurriedly turned and ran towards the side of the arena, bolting for the nearest staircase as Celestia laughed quietly and gazed with tenderness at her nephew as her three swords floated at the ready around her. “She seems to like you.”

Antares only shook his head, laughing as well as he said quietly: “She... seems to want to come with me on my journey. I... I don't really know what to do, though, to be honest. You and Twilight have been telling me so often how important it is to accept help, and I think of Mom and Dad... how they so rarely accepted anyone's aid but... when it came down to it, they were ready to help even the worst of their enemies, weren't they? I mean... the demons, the Nibelung, they were enemies at first, yeah?”

“Yes, they were. But now I trust and even have friends amongst them both... the time I've spent with both the dwarves and the entities of darkness has helped me see how all people are truly people... and in many ways, helped me come to terms with who and what I am. With my past, and with my present... and I hope, will help me be a better person in the future.” Celestia replied softly, and then she rolled her head slowly on her shoulders before straightening and saying gently: “I promise I'll be careful, Antares. If you want to stop, just let me know.”

“I know.” Antares said softly, blushing a bit before he anchored himself, leaning forwards slightly and then nodding firmly once. “I'm ready, Aunt Tia.”

“Good.” Celestia said softly... and then she lunged forwards, moving gracefully despite the heavy armor shrouding her body as her swords whickered up in front of her, two staying in ready positions as the third lashed down in a vicious slash. But Antares sidestepped in a flash, the blade biting only into the ground before he sprinted forwards as his horn began to glow with sapphire light.

A second sword lashed towards him as Celestia half-twisted to face him, and Antares swung his horn out, parrying the attack with the natural weapon before he leapt forwards... only for the third sword to snap upwards, the flat slapping across his body before Celestia flicked her horn down and hammered the young stallion with a telekinetic blast. It sent him flying backwards with a wince, but he quickly spread his wings, catching the air as he flipped backwards and then landed heavily on all four hooves with a grunt.

“Good. But you need to be faster and not make your attacks so direct. Use your eyes, Antares; you have a gift.” Celestia said calmly, before she smiled slightly as her horn glowed brightly. With a flick forwards, she sent a golden fireball rocketing towards the young stallion... but Antares only gritted his teeth, his own horn glowing as he raised a hoof before swatting the fireball away like it was no more threatening than a thrown stone. It flew to the side, then struck the ground a short distance away and exploded in a blast of golden light and fire. “Excellent. You've learned well from Sleipnir.”

Antares only smiled a bit before he ran forwards, concentrating... and this time, when his eyes locked on Celestia, he could almost see the tensing of her muscles, could read beneath her smile and see the true emotions in her amethyst eyes...

She flicked her horn, sending out a telekinetic blast, and Antares gritted his teeth as he slashed his horn forwards, releasing his own blast of telekinesis in response: it muffled Celestia's much-more powerful attack, letting him continue to charge forwards through the wave of force that washed over him before he leapt upwards and spread his leathery wings, flapping them hard to shoot forwards through the air even as Celestia's swords lashed towards him.

He parried one with his horn in midair, a hoof flying out to punch the flat of another blade and knock it flying before he swung both rear hooves forwards as the third lashed towards him in a horizontal cut, kicking off it like it was a step in midair to launch higher and gracefully flip once before dropping like a stone and swinging both hooves down in a vicious tomahawk towards Celestia's surprised features-

Celestia's three swords formed a wall in front of her, and he smashed uselessly into this crisscrossed shield of blades before they all snapped powerfully upwards, ripping gouges through his armor and sending Antares flying backwards with a curse of surprise. Then his eyes widened a moment before he was smashed by a telekinetic hammer, sent shooting through the air like a black star as Celestia charged after him as a smile spread wider over her features, almost becoming a grin of surprised delight.

Antares forced himself not to panic before he half-flipped himself, trusting in his instincts... and his hooves smashed into the surface of one of the pillars that lined the battlefield, skidding up the solid stone as sparks hailed down from his hooves. He halted for a moment, defying gravity as he looked sharply up, watching Celestia sprinting forwards before he gritted his teeth and shoved himself off the pillar when Celestia's entire body burst into golden flame before she simply rammed into the pillar in a shoulder charge, smashing the base of it into pieces.

It toppled slowly behind her as Antares unfurled his wings, flapping them hard once to launch himself above the falling pillar before he landed on it while it was still slanted down towards her, his hooves pounding along the surface of the stone as he ran quickly down the column. Celestia looked over her shoulder in surprise as the golden flames died out from around her before she tensed, then kicked both rear legs hard out towards Antares as he reached the bottom of the falling stone structure... but the young stallion threw himself low, his metal armor screaming against stone as he skidded over the base of the pillar and he forced himself to roll onto his back, then shoved himself onwards as hard as he could with all four hooves and flapped his wings, sending himself beneath Celestia's kicking legs and just beneath her body as the column crashed down behind him.

His horn lashed up, the stallion wincing at the crick it put in his neck even as he dragged his glowing horn fiercely along Celestia's plate mail, ripping a long scratch through her armor before he shot out between her front legs, spreading his wings again to try and give himself one more boost, make one more desperate lunge... but he was scooped easily up by Celestia's three blades, the control taken from his flight before the swords lashed back and forth in short cuts against the front of his armor, Antares wincing as he felt every single blow. Yet at the same time, Celestia handled herself with such precision that he never once felt the blades cutting into him: she only mauled his armor before all three swords lashed outwards and slammed him down onto his back, knocking him flat with a curse.

He breathed raggedly, staring up at her as she stood over him with a calm smile, her three swords all positioned with their points towards his neck as she said softly: “I'm very impressed, Antares. But I think our session is over now. Surrender.”

“Not yet.” Antares smiled a bit, and Celestia cocked her head before the young stallion gritted his teeth and flung himself backwards, his horn glowing brightly: a wall of blue energy appeared immediately between him and the three swords even as the weapons all stabbed downwards, colliding with the rippling energy... and then becoming stuck after piercing halfway through the sticky sapphire barrier.

Celestia's eyes widened in surprised as Antares rolled backwards into a lunge position, snapping his horn forwards, and the barrier became solid before exploding backwards into shards of blue light, pelting the ivory winged unicorn with navy shrapnel as her swords were flung uselessly through the air. Antares threw himself forwards, gritting his teeth... and crashed right into one of Celestia's front hooves before she leaned into the blow and stomped down on him, crushing him to the ground as he gasped in shock and twitched on the sandy earth of the arena, wheezing loudly as he stared dumbly up at her.

Celestia shook herself off briskly, the last of the blue energy fading into motes: her armor was a bit dented here and there, but the most damage he'd managed was a scrape and a few small cuts over her face. Her hoof crushed down on him, keeping him easily pinned beneath her... but a moment later, a slow smile spread over her features before she leaned down and said softly: “Again, I told you not to make your attacks so direct, Antares... but I didn't expect that at all. You've been trying to study your mother's magic, haven't you?”

“I don't have a lot to go on, since it's not like Mom wrote much down... but... I feel it inside me, I guess. It comes out on instinct sometimes, and then I teach myself to try and harness it.” Antares replied finally, and then he smiled awkwardly as he glanced down at her hoof. “Aunt Tia, uh... could you...”

“Surrender first, Antares.” Celestia said gently, and Antares hesitated, looking up at her... and Celestia smiled at this before pressing down a bit harder with her hoof, making him wheeze loudly. “You're as stubborn as your mother and father both.”

Antares only wheezed again in response, gritting his teeth before he grabbed at the winged unicorn's hoof, pushing weakly at it... but Celestia only bore down harder, and Antares gasped as he felt the breath whoosh out of him before he nodded violently and finally rasped: “Okay, okay! You win, Aunt Tia, don't squish me!”

Celestia smiled again and shook her head slowly, stepping calmly backwards off the young stallion, and Antares scrambled up to his hooves, rasping for breath before he looked up with a smile in return to the ivory mare. Then they both bowed their heads before Celestia stepped forwards and gently tapped her horn against Antares', saying softly: “You held up well. I think you should ask Sleipnir to help you with further training when you return to Ponyville, but... I think you're ready to learn a few techniques I've been wanting to try and teach you for a while now.”

Antares smiled radiantly at this, straightening and nodding firmly, and Celestia laughed quietly, asking gently: “What? I just defeated you and forced you to surrender, Antares... aren't you upset, or disappointed?”

“Not at all, why would I be?” Antares smiled again, shrugging a bit as he laughed and gazed quietly at Celestia. “I was honored by the chance to share this with you, Aunt Tia, you're... such an incredible person. You're so powerful and graceful, and you have such... strength. Even with you being nice enough to give me a chance, I knew there was no way I'd beat you. But... defeat can teach us more than victory, isn't that right? And I am honestly... honored and flattered by... by the fact you think I've developed enough to start learning your style of combat. Because I know that... it's sacred, and it's dangerous, and it means you must trust me. I only hope I live up to that.”

Celestia smiled warmly at this, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards as she murmured softly: “You're so different from your parents... but so much the same, too. Luna would be throwing a temper tantrum right now, and Scrivener would be laughing what happened off, or making some joke... but both of them always treated me with more respect than I deserved. Antares...”

The ivory winged unicorn looked up, opening her amethyst eyes, and then she smiled again and shook her head when he looked at her curiously. “But enough. Come with me, we need to repair our armor now, as you've been taught, and polish it up.”

Antares nodded, and then he strode up to the ivory mare and leaned up to hug her tightly, and Celestia returned the embrace firmly. They parted, and then both ponies gazed up around the arena with smiles as a few cheers sounded from those who weren't still shocked by the short but fierce display from their thought-passive Baroness and her young nephew. Antares laughed and waved shyly around at the crowd, and Celestia sighed but gave him an amused look all the same, nudging him gently. “Come, Antares. The last thing we need is for you to develop an ego like your mother's.”

The young stallion laughed and nodded, turning away to follow Celestia... and in the stands, Prestige stared after the unicorn from beside Twilight Sparkle before she shook her head violently, then gestured madly at the arena, spluttering: “That... that... that is not how unicorns duel!”

“I think those two would argue with you.” Twilight smiled despite herself, giving Prestige a mild look as the Lich absently reached up to adjust the thick wool sweater she was wearing. “Come on, Prestige, Atrus was kind enough to give me a little of his blood last night so we can work on an advanced homunculus creation spell today...”

Prestige only grumbled, glaring down into the arena as Antares and Celestia began to walk away, and then she turned and asked suddenly to the purple mare, as she began to get up: “What kind of magic did Antares use? Why haven't I been taught that kind of barrier magic?”

Twilight Sparkle sighed, shaking her head as she stood up and said gently: “Prestige, please. We've been over this. You've already got multiple magical talents, that's... enviable to begin with. Most unicorns can only master one or two realms of magic... you have the potential to master control over not just the elements, but enchantments and maybe even some creation magic... assuming today goes well, and you're able to create and control a homunculus.”

“But I want to know!” Prestige whined, then she huffed and looked grumpily into the arena. Twilight hesitantly reached up and touched her shoulder, and Prestige closed her eyes, then slumped a bit and nodded moodily, saying finally: “Fine. I will respect your wishes, Miss Twilight, but only because you're my teacher and only because I know you are a capable and resourceful magician.”

Twilight smiled a bit at this, and then she turned to head towards one of the aisles leading between the stands and towards an exit. Prestige followed after the Lich, then she hesitated before saying finally: “Twilight Sparkle, you tell me again and again how fortunate I am to be able to master all these different types of magic... yet all the same, there are certain kinds of magic I simply cannot learn, or you will not deign to teach me. Yet you yourself... very clearly have delved into forbidden arts, have you not? And furthermore-”

“I don't want to talk about that, Prestige Luster.” Twilight said quietly, shaking her head a bit as she started down the steps leading down the outer wall of the arena. “My choice was either become this or die... and it was far beyond my power to turn myself into a Lich. All I could do was... link myself to an object in this world.”

“Your phylactery.” Prestige pressed, hurrying forwards as they stepped off the stairs and began to pass through the fields, heading back towards the castle. Twilight grumbled under her breath, and Prestige looked at her thoughtfully as she paced beside her before asking carefully: “I've been your apprentice for years now, so I think you should trust me enough to answer at least one of my questions honestly, Miss Twilight...”

“Prestige, I just... I just don't want to talk about it.” Twilight said tiredly, dropping her head forwards as she muttered: “Becoming what I am was one of the stupidest decisions I've ever made in my life, okay? I mean, when I did it, it wasn't, but now... now it feels stupid, because the only two people who really appreciated me no matter what are...”

She broke off, then shook her head and looked down with a quiet sight, murmuring: “It's forbidden for a reason, Prestige, along with most other necromancy. It goes against the rules of life and death, and tampering with that order leads just to... pain and heartache.”

“But isn't that what Antares is trying to do? His parents are gone.” Prestige remarked... and then she winced and stumbled backwards when Twilight spun around, glaring at her as a snarl spread over her features and her body visibly rippled.

The Lich caught herself, however, closing her almost-glowing eyes before she took a slow breath. For a few moments, there was silence as they stood in the shadow of the castle together... and then Twilight finally looked up, saying quietly: “Antares believes his parents are alive... and I'm honestly inclined to believe him, for a lot of reasons. Reasons I don't think you'd entirely understand. But this is a subject I expect you to respect, Prestige, and recognize that it's not some ancient piece of history, or some theorem or academic problem. This is going on, right now, and it's harder than you can know for me, for Antares, for Celestia... for other ponies, too. So please. Show a little respect. I would really appreciate that.”

Prestige shifted awkwardly, blushing as she looked down, feeling strangely ashamed of herself as the Lich studied her silently. Then Twilight turned, heading towards the castle again, and Prestige trotted quickly after her in quiet.

Yet all the same, as they passed into Canterlot Castle, Prestige couldn't stop herself from asking curiously: “The history and legends you taught me about Luna Brynhild... are they true? And that shrine, has Antares really never visited it?”

“Yes, they're true, and no, he hasn't. And I was only there once.” Twilight shook her head slowly, closing her eyes as they walked slowly through the halls, the Lich murmuring after a moment: “Celestia wanted a monument to be built to honor them, to show them how much they were missed when they came back... not what feels more like... an empty coffin. But Celestia visits there sometimes late at night... spends time talking to them, or talking with... old friends.”

Prestige looked thoughtfully at Twilight as they walked onwards, until they reached the other side of the Castle and the adjoining magic academy. Twilight smiled at the Royal Guards at the door when they opened the double doors for her, and Prestige looked meditatively at the armored unicorns before hurrying after the Lich as she strode into the lobby.

Twilight grimaced at the empty space in the ceiling where the hanging chandelier had once been: it had all been cleaned up by now, but just thinking about it sent an ache through her. Her body didn't interpret pain the same way it did when she was a mortal, but still, having a large, heavy object dropped on you was never pleasant... and she sighed when Prestige cleared her throat loudly, turning towards the young mare and asking dryly: “Yes?”

“Baroness Celestia, you, Scrivener Blooms and Luna... you all form some kind of strange clique, don't you?” Prestige cocked her head curiously, and Twilight smiled despite herself at this thought. “Although I realize how this sounds with my background... if Scrivener Blooms is only an earth pony, how does he fit in with three winged unicorns?”

“Scrivener knew me back when I was only a unicorn... and we never got along very well at first. Likewise, Celestia and Scrivener... well, they had their problems, too.” Twilight smiled after a moment despite herself, shaking her head a bit. “It just... happened, that's all. That's how everything is, after all... look at yourself, Prestige, have you ever thought about how fortunate you are, a northern unicorn here in Canterlot? And you know me, Celestia, and Antares...”

“I'm not stupid, Twilight Sparkle, it sounds as if Scrivener Blooms was treated like a king. A unicorn king at that, not an earth pony barbarian warlord.” Prestige said mildly, and Twilight sighed and turned, grumbling as she headed for another set of doors, and Prestige winced before hurrying after her. “I mean no disrespect, of course!”

Twilight only shook her head, shoving the doors open... and then wincing when she almost hit another unicorn on his way out of the school. The aging stallion hurriedly backpedaled, then glared at her as the Lich blushed and said awkwardly: “Oh, I'm sorry, I... Crown, is that you?”

“Yes, yes, it's me, and... oh, Miss Sparkle, it's you.” Crown rubbed slowly at his face, blinking tiredly as he stood up, then rubbed at his throat moodily. He looked disheveled and tired, and Twilight Sparkle frowned worriedly before the coroner shook his head, muttering: “It's nothing, I seem to have caught a nasty cold, but not even the healers here were able to help me out at all. Probably from last night... I was drinking late and then got called out near Ponyville.”

“Ponyville? What happened?” Twilight asked apprehensively. For a moment, Crown only looked at her indecisively... and then Twilight smiled a little, leaning forwards and insisting quietly: “Come on, you know that I'm going to find out anyway. Spare me a little trouble, will you?”

“I... alright, alright.” Crown sighed tiredly, then he nodded and said moodily: “The corpse of one of your so-called Clockwork Ponies was found out there. Nasty, brittle thing. I...” He paused, grimaced, then turned his head and sneezed loudly. “Excuse me. I swear, the Royal Guard called me out just to make sure I'd be dead before I can collect my pension...”

He shook himself out, then glanced up and saw Twilight's expression, giving an absent wave of a hoof. “It was long dead when the Royal Guards found it, don't worry about that. I think it just broke down... these things have been running down their batteries for the last ten years or so, haven't they?”

“Clockwork Ponies? They still exist?” Prestige asked curiously, and when Crown frowned at her, she glared back at the coroner before saying clearly: “Do not look at me in such a manner, I am of noble esteem. You are a unicorn lowering himself to the work of an earth pony.”

Twilight slowly closed her eyes, and Crown glared at Prestige, looking ruffled as he snapped: “My wife is an earth pony young... y-young...”

Then he leaned forwards and sneezed loudly, and Prestige shrieked as she was splattered by snot before she fell over and started pawing wildly at her features, yelling: “Inconsiderate oaf! Oh, disgusting, how dare you! I'll have your horn for this!”

Crown only sniffled a little, rubbing at his nose before he grunted and stormed past, muttering: “If you'll excuse me, Twilight Sparkle, I need to go to Ponyville. I'll send you a copy of my report.”

“I'd appreciate it!” Twilight called awkwardly, and then she sighed and looked grouchily down at Prestige as the young mare continued to scrub wildly at her features and yell angrily, the Lich shaking her head slowly and closing her eyes. It's going to be a long day...

The Laughing Reaper

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Chapter Three: The Laughing Reaper
~BlackRoseRaven

Crown sighed tiredly as the wagon rolled up to the hospital at the edge of Ponyville, carefully climbing out the back of the vehicle and nodding to the driver. He adjusted his satchel at his side, then grimaced and rubbed at his stomach as a bolt of nausea passed through him, muttering: “Keep it together, Crown, keep it together...”

The pale-looking unicorn shook himself out, then he breathed hard as he strode forwards, heading through the double doors and into the reception area. He strode towards the desk, and the nurse on the other side looked at him with concern, saying slowly: “The emergency room is on the other side of the building, sir...”

“Do I really look that bad? No, no. My name is Straw Crown, I'm a coroner from Canterlot, here to inspect a body.” Crown fumbled at his satchel, then finally pulled out his ID, putting it down on the desk. The nurse looked surprised, but the aging stallion only shook his head tiredly, saying wryly: “Three weeks from retirement. Last night I was called out in the middle of the night and I caught a nasty cold. Such is life.”

The nurse smiled awkwardly, checking his ID before she said hesitantly: “Sir, you look quite ill... are you sure that...”

“No, no. It's nothing serious, my wife hasn't even caught it.” He paused, then muttered: “Then again, she never gets sick. But... alright, the morgue is downstairs and to the... left?”

“That's right.” The nurse nodded, passing back his ID, and she hesitated before adding: “If you still feel ill after the exam, sir, we have a healer here today who might be able to help. She's done all sorts of wonderful things with many of our patients...”

“I'll consider it, miss, thank you.” Crown gave a bit of a smile, tucking his ID back in his satchel before he turned and headed past the reception booth towards a set of double doors, pushing through with a tired sigh and muttering: “Now even the young ones are taking pity on me. I knew I should have stayed home...”

Crown made his way down the stairs, letting his hooves guide him: thankfully, he had been here more than a few times over his career, thanks to the proximity of Ponyville to Canterlot, and the route was fairly clearly marked, anyhow. It only took him a few minutes to reach the morgue, and he grimaced as he shoved through the heavy, almost-armored doors and into the small, metallic room.

The bright fluorescent lights made his eyes ache as he stepped inside, and the tiles felt almost slippery: as the scent of disinfectant and lemons hit his nose, it made his stomach heave, the unicorn shivering once before he looked up at the two ponies dressed in green gowns and masks, one of them beginning to raise a hoof nervously before Crown asked grumpily: “So what have you found?”

“Oh, you must be the coroner!” said one of the other ponies, looking relieved before they both glanced down at the body on the steel table in front of them: Crown shivered a bit at the sight of the elderly pony's body. It didn't look like there had been any foul play, but when someone died alone or in an unusual circumstance, it meant being put on the table... and for some reason, after all my years at this, I find natural death to be much more unnerving than a murdered corpse. “Sorry, we're just finishing up here...”

“Take your time. I need to get changed.” Crown muttered, glancing around before his eyes locked on a set of gowns hanging from hooks at the side of the room. He walked over, taking his satchel off to toss it aside before fitting himself into the medical clothing: gown, cap, gloves, and a mask because he was still coughing everywhere.

He cursed under his breath behind the flimsy fabric, wheezing a little as he heard the attendants putting the body away into one of cells. For some reason, that had always bothered him a little, too... that they had neat little cubicles for the dead to put them in for storage, then take them out when it was time to examine them, and then cart them off to the science lab or back to grieving families... who would then usually put them in a coffin that was no less a prison than those cells were for how pretty some of them were, a claustrophobic casket that would be burned or buried in the cold, desolate earth...

Crown shook himself out, feeling lightheaded before he hauled himself to his hooves and watched as the attendants carefully lifted the entire sliding metal rack out of another cabinet, balancing the dead body of the Clockwork Pony on top of it until they gently set it down on the exam table. The gaunt, pale-looking coroner grimaced as he made his way over to the corpse, looking up as one of the attendants said finally: “I've never seen this before. I mean, a dead Clockwork Pony... it makes me wonder how much of-”

“You can tell me your wonders after, we have a job right now.” Crown interrupted moodily, then he frowned as the attendants both shifted: even bleary and exhausted as he was, it was impossible to not notice how advanced the decomposition was. “What happened? Was there a temperature malfunction last night?”

“No sir. I... don't know.” one of the attendants said awkwardly, and Crown felt less than thrilled with this answer as he glowered at the two, who both winced. “Everything's been kept at low temperature, the body came in heavily decomposed last night, but... all the same, it's continued to deteriorate. There might be something festering in the internal organs, but...”

“Let's check the liver temp. Somepony get me...” Crown grimaced, then he turned and coughed loudly several times, cursing under his breath as his whole body shivered. One of the attendants stepped towards him, but the coroner only shook his head out hurriedly, wheezing: “No, no... I... I'm fine. Go on, check the liver temperature.”

“Alright...” one of the attendants said finally, trading a look with the other pony before they both shrugged. One of them picked up the thermometer, checking the long, sharp needle at the end used to pierce down into the liver, and then he stepped forwards and carefully guided it down, pushing it firmly in as he muttered: “But sir, you really look-”

There was a gurgle, and then the Clockwork Pony convulsed on the table, its body splitting open in a blast of noxious green fumes that quickly filled the morgue. The ponies all yelled and cursed before all three collapsed to the ground, leaving the corpse of the Clockwork Pony laying deflated and broken on the table as the green, misty poison filtered its way gradually upwards and out through the vents.

The attendants both shivered and twitched, one of them drooling behind his mask, the other bleeding from a large wound in his scalp from the fall... and then, slowly, Crown twitched before he gargled loudly as his eyes rolled up in his head, foaming out of his jaws around the mask covering his muzzle.

He convulsed once, then fell still, his eyes closing... before slowly, then opened again. They glowed with dark, unnatural light as the unicorn gurgled, yanking himself to his hooves like he was a puppet on a string, stumbling once before he flopped forwards to half-land over the exam table, crushing the brittle corpse of the Clockwork Pony and sending up another blast of poisonous gases as toxic organs popped like balloons.

The unicorn fidgeted weakly, then gargled... and horribly, his eyes rolled in his head as his body first began to steam, then smolder visibly. And bit-by-bit, skin peeled and flesh melted, spreading over the table, becoming a thick, gelatinous goo that pried itself away from his skeleton like it had decided to set out on a twisted life of its own, spreading over the exam table with a horrible slurping sound as it pried up pieces of the Clockwork Pony's corpse, before the slime of flesh rippled and rolled itself off the other end of the exam table.

It splattered down on the other side, and there was a sickening slurping sound as it rapidly spread itself over the prone bodies of the attendants, one of them managing a weak, gurgling cry before he was swallowed up. For a few minutes, there was only the sound of crunching and gargling... and then, slowly, the fleshy slime twisted back and forth before starting to rise slowly upwards as it gave a long, drawn-out sigh.

It bubbled and twisted, gurgled and shifted as limbs spread out of it and it began to take on a distinct form: the head pushed up out of shoulders as the rippling flesh formed into a body and legs, a tail flicked behind it before it slammed malformed hooves down on the other side of the exam table... and grinned widely as sharp teeth formed it blackened jaws. It was mottled white and streaked with bolts of yellow, its eyes sunken deep in its sockets and made up of dozens of cells, like some hideous insect's. As its body finished shaping itself, it flexed and rippled like water before turning solid... but its hide looked slimy, and even if it was clearly trying to imitate the shape of a pony, its pointed, stiff ears, the ridge of spikes along its spine, its whip-like tail, its sheer hideousness was goblinoid and monstrous.

“Ooh...” it whispered, and then it threw its head back and laughed before stomping its hooves against the table, dislodging the skeleton from the other side and knocking it loose. “How good it feels to be free! And oh, thank you, thank you so much, dear friend, for lending me that little boost to help wake me up... and all you fellas, too, couldn't have done it without you.”

It glanced over its shoulder with a laugh at the skeletons on the ground, then licked its teeth hungrily before leaping up onto the exam table, eyes glowing as it grinned down at the Clockwork Pony's corpse. “And to think, a few more days stuck festering in your dead tissue and I would have been gone forever... but as they say, fortune favors the foul, right? I got myself a nice, fleshy host I was able to rampage through, and oh, oh, oh, this world smells of sweet disease just ripe for the picking! Ooh, I'm gonna have me some fun!”

It threw its head back and laughed, then spun around, eyes lighting on the cabinets filled with corpses as it licked its teeth hungrily, saying eagerly: “And look! An audience, kept all nice and fresh just for me! Well, you must be wondering just who I am, but don't worry, I'm plenty hungry and I know just how to introduce myself...”

The creature rose one of its mottled limbs, then it flicked it easily forwards, and the foreleg split apart into several sticky tentacles that each collided with a cabinet door with sickening squelches. They squirmed for a moment, then the monster yanked backwards, and the doors were all yanked open by the movement as the tentacles snapped back as well, the monster singing in gravelly, sharp-pitched tones:

“Hey, nice to meet you all, I'm from the way out endless chaos sea,
The garbage heap, they call it, but Ginnungagap was always paradise to me...
I loved to fester in the rot, in the putrid dying piles,
I gave Draconequus the sniffles but what I'm gonna do to you is worse by miles.”

The monster grinned as the tentacles twisted back into the shape of a foreleg, before it leapt forwards, seizing into the wall of cabinets and reaching up to slowly, almost delicately pull a rack slowly out of one of the cabinets, revealing the pallid corpse within. “Ooh, delicious!

Oh sure, to chaos entities I was a nuisance, to demons just a minor ache,
But to mortals I'm already lethal... and that's even before I've filled my take,
I'm a destruction entity that ain't got a name of my own,
But I'm sure I'll find a name for me as I strip you down to the bones...”

The creature leaned forwards, licking slowly up the corpse's neck before it suddenly pounced upwards, tackling the corpse as it burst into a sick mire of slime, twisting and crunching around the corpse as the rack was knocked out of place... and when the slime leapt down a moment later, only a broken skeleton was left behind, as the monster reformed before it landed neatly on the ground with a wide grin as its eyes glowed, and it threw its head back to sing:

“Oh you mortals taste so sweet, you're so full of zest!
I thought at first I must be cursed but now I realize I was blessed,
Those stupid metal monsters had me sealed all away,
But now I'm out and free to eat my fill and you can bet I'm here to stay...”

As it sang, it almost strutted around in a circle, turning to another open cell before shoving its head inside, and there was a horrendous ripping sound before it drew back as its body rippled, arching its back with a sigh and leaving little more than another skeleton behind. “So delicious! So nutritious!

Your fleshy bodies ain't got no defenses against my hungry jaws,
You all might as well save me some time and climb right on into my maw!
Come and join the feast, help me strengthen this poison in my veins.
Make me stronger, make me better, give up your genes and flus and pains!

I'm disease, alive! I'm poison come to life!
I'm a toxic vibe! I'm all your pain and strife!
I'm your worst vice! I'm your nicotine addiction!
I'm festering lice! I'm your terminal condition!”

The creature laughed as it drew back from another cell, then its eyes blazed as hopped to the side, tearing two more cell doors open and shoving its forelegs into the cabinets, a sick slurping sound filling the air... but when the creature leapt back, it was followed by two corpses, one a bloated, half-rotten corpse of a drowned Nibelung, the other a pony with the clear Y-stitching of an autopsy over its form. And the monster laughed as it spun around, leaping up onto the exam table and landing on back legs to begin a macabre tapdance, as the puppeted corpses behind it followed its rhythm.

“I'm Cancer! Running through your veins!
Infecting everything so you'll never be the same!
I'm Cancer! I'm already in your brain!
I'm rotting you from inside out, without no shame!

I'm Cancer! I'm gonna rot you to bits,
'Cause that's just the way, honey, that I get my kicks!

Oh, sha-be-da-be-da-be-da-be-do-bop!
Oh, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-do-wop!
Hey, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-da-da!
Yeah, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-wa-ah!”

The monster easily backflipped off the table, both corpses stepping soullessly forwards to catch it, and the beast burst apart into thick, hideous slime that rippled over the two bodies, then tore free, leaving only skeletons behind as it reformed. It grinned over its shoulder at the skeletons as they fell to the ground, the monster still humming to itself before it turned its head... and its eyes alit on a shelf on the other side of the room, whispering: “Oh, what have we here? Yes, the corpses were good to start... I got myself a nice, yummy start to the day... but you, you, you...”

It strode quickly over to the shelving, licking its lips eagerly as it gazed back and forth over the jars of samples and chemicals, then it grinned widely and plucked one off the shelf, yanking it open and inhaling deeply. Then it shivered in bliss, whispering: “Fungus, where have you been all my life!”

It tilted the jar back, gobbling down the sample, then it tossed it aside and quickly began to yank down the other chemicals. Most of these it gobbled hungrily down, others it poured over itself, laughing: all it had to do was make contact with the disease, after all, for its cells to absorb the new material and take what it could. For it to rip information out of the disease, like it had gobbled down all the genetic data from the corpses as it had ripped their flesh from their bones to amplify and feed itself.

The monster paused as it picked up a large tank of some kind, tilting this back and forth curiously before it twisted the handle... and a hissing filled the air before the creature stuck its head in front of the faintly-visible spray of gas, sniffing loudly before its eyes widened in delight. “Nitrogen!” The monster crowed, then greedily shoved the tank into its jaws, guzzling down the chemical: anything and everything could be stored in its cells, could be used to further adapt itself, and the destruction entity adored volatile chemicals almost as much as it loved diseases and poisons.

There was a loud hammering at the door, and the monster frowned before it turned around, the tank still halfway stuck in its jaws before a pony in a security uniform shoved through the doors, beginning: “I heard a disturbance, and... oh my god, what happened? What... the... oh no, a demon!”

The monster's eyes widened, then it turned and spat the tank out as the security pony staggered backwards in terror as the creature raged in an incensed voice: “Demon! How dare you! You ever see a filthy demon that could do this?”

Then the beast rushed forwards, and the guard didn't even have time to react before the monster burst into streams of goo, smashing into the pony, constricting his body and ripping into his jaws, osmosing through his pores, making him scream in horror and agony as his eyes rolled wildly in his head before he collapsed to the ground, a faint, sticky sheen still visible on his body and splatters of sticky goo dotting the floor around him.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then the security guard opened his eyes, and they glowed with ill light as he grinned widely, licking his lips hungrily. “Oh, yes, yes, yes, this'll do just fine... I can puppet your body like a... well, a puppet on a string!”

The creature laughed from the stallion's jaws, then he easily stood up... before grunting and touching his stomach once, muttering: “Immune system is trying to reject me, though, but that ain't no threat... I need me some more diseases. And while I'm here, I think I'll strip your living tissue, start learning more about how you ponies tick... old dude was a fun ride, but that's about all he was, too, just a ride. A hopalong. A stagecoach. Helps that I made my way in through his eyes, though... got myself a one-way ticket right into his brain, and what a delight the brain is... oh, yes, here's yours now! And watch, boys and girls, as Mister Cancer throws a switch and...”

The security guard twitched, gargled, then shivered... and then the earth pony's head shook before Cancer sighed in relief from his jaws. “There we go! That's what I'm talkin' about... a nice little flick of a switch and your pain receptors turn off and I don't have to worry about getting all jacked up while your body basically kills itself tryin' to get rid of me. Cool how that works, ain't it? And if you haven't gotten it already, hi, I'm Cancer. I'm gonna kill you. I'm gonna kill your whole race, as a matter of fact. Hell, let's not be modest here, I got plans to destroy your whole world! Why? 'Cause that's just what I do, spread my disease, sprinkle my poisons, and make stuff dead. It's all for the greater good though, boy, don't you worry none about that.”

Cancer snickered to himself before he began to almost skip cheerfully forwards, licking his lips hungrily as he whispered: “Now, before you get too sick to be noticeable, we're gonna make our way upstairs. I spent all night wracking that silly old dude's brain, and just by a few glimpses into your memory banks I'm seeing that we're in some place called a hospital, where you thoughtful little ponies have been so nice as to stick all your dead and dying and diseased for me! Gosh, you rolled out the welcome mat and you didn't even know I was coming, I am just, I am just so touched! And I didn't even bring you guys anything!”

Cancer laughed, then he suddenly halted, foaming at the jaws as the earth pony's eyes glowed bright red and he rasped: “Except death.”

Then Cancer shivered before shaking his head violently and looking up with a bright grin again, wiping foam away from his jaws and flicking his tongue at the air. “Whoops. Sorry about that, happens now and again. Ain't nothing serious, don't worry about it. I guess we're all a little quirky, right?”

He laughed, then pranced his way down the hall to the stairs, hurrying up them and still grinning brightly even as he made his way past an attendant. The pony looked at him oddly ,and for a moment, Cancer considered attacking her... but then he realized he was still running up flights of stairs and she was long gone, and he grumbled under his breath as he said grumpily: “Oh well, who cares, just one little bitsy itsy pony-wony. There's plenty of time to get 'em all later.”

Cancer nodded vehemently to himself as he made his way onto the third floor, shoving through and looking back and forth as he licked his lips slowly, ignoring the looks a few ponies gave him before he hurried down the corridors, breathing a little harder. He could already feel the pony's body starting to break down: Cancer, after all, was spread through all of the pony's veins like he was wearing a far-too-tight costume, and his presence inside the pony's body was already creating friction and energy and nasty chemical reactions...

He had shut down the most visible immune responses, but all the same, fever was boiling and rampaging... and soon the pony would literally start to melt. Cancer knew this on instinct, just as he knew on instinct that his former host hadn't started really suffering his effects until the end because Cancer had been weak, and tiny, and nothing more than a batch of cells that had multiplied exponentially in his host, using his flesh and body as a medium to begin rebuilding and reconstructing himself after countless years kept in a cage, used as nothing more than fuel for some metal monster's weapons and kept subdued by a power convertor...

But all the same, oh, he had leeched his way into the metal creature through its own weapons... and even though he'd been unable to do more than simply kill the creature, his revenge had delightful consequences. Some other greedy creature had shattered his glass prison, removed the power convertor, and run away with it, not knowing just how precious that crystalline engine was... and then Cancer had hid in the dead body, and waited. Dead cells, he couldn't do more than puppet for short periods of time: he could rip their genetic data from them, but that would also destroy them. Likewise, the old pony's living body had been resisting him, right up until the body had been shocked from the toxins released from the corpse he'd been about to examine... and then, then Cancer had seized his opportunity.

And now here he was: manipulating a mortal's body, bent on getting his claws on more diseases. Because the more diseases, the more chemicals, the more poisons he absorbed, the stronger he'd become. Just like the dead and sickness-riddled flesh he'd absorbed in the morgue had already made him powerful enough to do this... imagine how fast he would grow if he was able to find this so called 'infectious disease center' in the hospital!

Cancer licked his lips hungrily at the thought: he already knew he was going to like it here. The mortals were easy prey for him as it was, and after he had time to evolve and grow further, he knew they 'd become even easier. Oh, they had vaccines, and antidotes, and pretty little pills... but he was willing to bet none of them had ever dealt with a disease like him before. A disease that could grow and evolve as it wished, that could do oh so much more than just fester in a body...

He grinned hungrily as he pushed his way through a set of double doors, then his eyes finally alit on a door at the end of an intersection, hurrying forwards as he growled in delight. He could all-but-smell the illness, the disease, the festering toxins on the other side of that door, as he panted roughly in and out... then he winced and skidded to a halt when a pony stepped in his way with a frown, glaring at him. A white coat hung around his lanky body, and Cancer identified this as a creature who would stupidly think of himself as his superior enemy, when he was only, in fact, easy prey: a doctor. “What are you doing here? Security patrols are restricted to the first floor halls unless otherwise ordered.”

Cancer sniffed, then he leaned forwards and whined: “I'm sick.” A pause, then he grinned as the doctor scowled, the possessed earth pony leaning forwards and belching out a cloud of green gases into the doctor's surprised face. “See?”

The doctor coughed once... then he trembled, looking stupefied before collapsing in a heap. He twitched weakly on the ground a few times, and Cancer peered down at him for a few moments, kicked him hard once in the head to make sure he was unconscious – and kicked him again out of pure spite – and then he rose his head and called loudly: “Hey, uh. We got a sick doctor here or something, I dunno. I didn't do it.”

Within moments, there was the sound of hooves, and Cancer simply stepped back and whistled a little as two nurses hurried over and looked down at the doctor. They both cursed, then one shouted something as the other began to check him over, and Cancer quickly slipped away, almost bouncing down the hall as he hummed under his breath before he hit the door at the end of the intersection and hopped on through. He grinned widely to himself, licking his lips in delight as he emerged into a large, square room beyond that was filled with shelves of samples in jars, bottles, and vials, all of them neatly labeled and sorted. “Oh... sweet merciful delights. We gonna have us some fun tonight!”

Cancer immediately went to work, twining back and forth through the shelves as he picked up containers and tore them open or shattered them, inhaling airborne diseases, guzzling down liquids, giggling as he spilled chemicals and biopsy samples and everything else that was stored in here. For him it was a wonderland, a paradise, a slice of heaven... and Cancer giggled again, the body he was in splattered with stains and ugly, spreading bruises and burns, sweat rolling down the earth pony's frame as he almost boiled... “But oh, it don't matter none now, not at all, not at all... I've gathered up all these lost and lonely little samples now, and we're gonna have one big party inside me!”

He giggled again to himself, twitching a bit as he licked his lips eagerly and picked up one last sample jar, overturning it above his head and drinking down the contents hungrily as the sick-smelling liquid spilled down his jaws and over his face... and then his eyes widened as there was a hammering at the door, a voice from beyond shouting: “Who's in there? Come out immediately!”

“Uh oh. Gotta bust a move while I percolate.” Cancer muttered, looking hurriedly back and forth before he threw the empty jar away and hurried down the row of shelves, skidding around an intersection as his eyes locked on a window. “Bingo-was-his-name-o!”

He ran towards this, bringing the earth pony's hooves up and smashing it out, sending a hail of glass raining down the side of the building... before he snarled in frustration at the sight of the steel bars beyond. And behind him, he could hear the door thrown open... but thankfully it was followed by yells and shouts as whoever was trying to stop him stumbled in the broken glass and puddles of chemical. Cancer giggled to himself at this thought, licking his lips... and then his eyes widened before he looked at the bars, made a horrible, disgusting gagging noise, then leaned forwards and vomited out a stream of acid that rapidly ate away at the metal caging.

Cancer grinned over his shoulder as he heard the sound of hooves approaching, then he simply dove forwards into the smoking, smoldering bars and crashed through them, laughing as chunks of warped and broken metal flew in all directions and he plummeted down to the sloped ground far below with a sickening splat. There was a loud crunch as he bounced once, a limb twisting awkwardly, body rolling down the slope at the side of the hospital before he finally came to a halt in the field, gurgling once as he twitched in a broken pile of blood and tangled limbs.

Then Cancer slowly rose the earth pony's head, his eyes glowing as he giggled and whispered: “Oh... clotting enzymes, and adrenaline, and... endorphins, oh my! And... ooh, delicious bone marrow leaking out, and all those other juices mixing together with everything else... it's like getting to the center of the chewy candy!”

The monster laughed as it shoved itself up to its hooves, gurgling once before it staggered back and forth... then grinned widely, licking its split lips slowly as sweat poured down the earth pony's body. Its hide was starting to char and peel in places, as fever worsened into what would eventually be akin to spontaneous combustion, but for now the monster could still use this body. Even broken and mangled as it was, it was only a casing, a puppet, a toy to the beast.

Slowly, Cancer dragged itself away from the hospital, breathing heavily through the foaming jaws of the earth pony, leaving a trail of blood and pus behind it as clouds rolled ominously through the skies above and a sharp, cold wind blew. It darkened the day as shouts and panic went through the hospital, allowing Cancer to make good on his escape as doctors and staff were instead forced to concentrate on quarantining the storage room.

The monster made his way slowly in the direction from which he could sense more mortals, and more diseases, and garbage and pollution and everything else it so loved: he moved towards Ponyville, grinning widely as he felt the chemicals and diseases inside him bubbling and boiling and merging into his alien cell structure. As it reached a bridge over a low, burbling creek, however, there was a loud shout from behind it, and Cancer turned, frowning in distaste as a pony dressed in some kind of officer's uniform approached, the unicorn with his head lowered and his horn glowing as he snapped: “Stop right there, whatever you are!”

Cancer grinned widely, looking slowly back and forth before he said easily: “Oh, little old me? Now come on, fella, don't you see I ain't doin' so hot? I'm all coughing and choking and wheezing and squeezing. Come on, you can let me go, officer, can't you just this one little time?”

“Get down on the ground, now! Surrender peacefully!” the soldier barked, and Cancer glared at him before the unicorn leaned forwards, horn glowing brighter. “Don't make me use force!”

“You really gonna kill this meatsack?” Cancer reached up and touched his own chest, and then he grinned through the earth pony's jaws, giggling as he leaned forwards and his eyes glowed hellish red, making the chemicals inside his body boil. “Here, lemme save you the trouble.”

Cancer threw his head back and his forelegs out as his body bloated and bulged, the soldier staring for a moment before the earth pony's body simply exploded in a terrible blast of force and gore and poisonous mist, knocking the soldier sprawling with a choked-off scream. In a matter of moments, the unicorn was dead, boils and bruising spreading rapidly over his pale features, twitching weakly as foam spilled out of his jaws.

There was little left of the earth pony, apart from a few splatters, and the bridge and surrounding area had been covered with corrosive, smelly white and red goo... but slowly, this began to tremble and shift, making a sick slurping as the slime quickly merged itself into one large puddle that swelled upwards and shaped itself back into Cancer's goblinoid, grinning semi-equine form. He rasped slowly in and out, then hugged himself with a cackle, looking mockingly down at the dead unicorn as he said cheerfully: “See, ain't I such a nice guy? Damn that nitrogen has a kick, though! But ooh, I'd best be hoppin' along now, find myself a nice little place to hole up and not lose any more of these sweet juices than I already have so I can...”

He twitched violently, eyes glowing red, fangs baring as he rasped: “Infect, destroy, kill, kill, kill...”

Cancer shivered, then shook his head out and giggled insanely, his entire body twitching before he bounced happily past the bridge and down into the creek, splashing into the water and beginning to wade his way up the river as he half-sang: “Gotta spread my disease, after all... that's how I grow, that's how I multiply, that's just what I do, honey-bunch. Gonna make a real name for myself here, a name they're all gonna know before they all die... but oh baby, they're all gonna die, they're all gonna die, 'cause I'm gonna make myself a nice little home here...”

The creature licked his lips slowly, then he approached a culvert and leaned forwards, inhaling deeply and releasing a sigh of delight as he stood up on his hind legs, grasping either side of the rusting steel tunnel with his front hooves. “Ooh, manna from heaven... what blissful paradise! Smells like sewage, and rats, and vermin and... yeah, yeah, I'm gonna like it here just fine...”

Cancer grinned widely, slithering into the culvert, breathing hungrily before its physical form began to melt slowly down into a puddle of slime that slipped greedily down into the ankle-deep water to feast on the bacteria and disease within. Yes, this place... this place was going to do just fine.

Celestia nodded to Antares as the young stallion wheezed and slumped a bit, head bowed and eyes closed, but a bright smile on his face as the ivory mare complimented: “Excellently done, Antares. You may not be able to harness many kinds of magic, but you're learning to mix what magic you can control very well into own style of combat.”

Antares gazed up at Celestia thankfully as he managed to straighten a bit: his armor had been repaired, polished, and cleaned, and he was dressed in full gear... and this time, wearing heavy, weighted bracers as well. Celestia, meanwhile, had taken her own armor off, but she looked almost envious as she sat at one side of the large training room, her eyes filled with pride for her nephew.

The training room they were in was taller than it was wide, and dominated by a towering and wild structure of girders, rings, hoops, ramps, and targets: in essence, it was a vertical obstacle course that almost reached the ceiling roughly fifty feet above them, with a single platform at the top that formed the finish line. Celestia had been guiding Antares up and down this for hours now, having him run different drills, occasionally changing the positions of girders or beams or platforms, sometimes even setting up traps and targets for Antares to avoid and try and destroy as he made his way up or down the course.

She was a hard taskmaster, but she was encouraging and fair: she gave Antares support and tutoring, and knew the best way to get through to him. There was one way he was particularly like his parents, after all: soft words got through to him a lot better than demands and orders. And by now, Celestia knew just how to prod him if he started slacking or slowing up... not that Antares often did. In fact, his obsessive training almost worried her at times: it reminded her of had-been-heroes who spent all their time training and working hard towards accomplishing some violent revenge... heroes who too often turned out to be worse than the so-called evils they wanted to destroy, when their obsession began to drive them to ripping apart any unfortunate bystander that made the mistake of getting between them and their objective.

What soothed her was that she knew Antares trained so hard for two reasons: because he wanted to one day become as strong as his parents had been, and because he wasn't seeking revenge... he was seeking to save his parents. And one thing that Antares clung to, no matter what, was the idea that in order to save Luna and Scrivener he would have to do it right: no shortcuts, no cutting corners, and most of all, he had to be what his parents had always seen him as. Their savior, their shining light, their guiding star. He worked every single day to be honorable, above all other things... and even if he didn't always succeed, even if he had his moments where Celestia was reminded all too clearly of who his parents were... he still made her proud, and almost jealous of his radiant light.

“I want you to ascend the tower one more time, Antares, and then we'll stop for the day. As fast as you can through the obstacle course.” Celestia said calmly, and Antares nodded firmly once before he set himself, as the ivory mare smiled slightly at her nephew. “I know you can still shave a few more seconds off your best time.”

“Maybe not today, Aunt Tia, but I'll try.” Antares nodded after a moment, blushing a bit as he looked towards the base of the obstacle course, eying the ramp as he gritted his teeth and dropped to a ready position. He took a slow breath, tensing himself, forcing his mind to override the soreness in his body... and then he felt more than heard Celestia's sharp command to start, and he sprung immediately forwards.

He let his body move on instinct: he already knew the rough layout of the course, after all, but his hooves knew it much better than his mind did, and so it was his instincts that he let take over, simply doing his best to act instead of think. And for the first few levels of the course, it was easy; he leapt from ramp to narrow girder, charging along it before leaping up and kicking off a steel column and gracefully twisting his body to land on top of another high beam, not even needing to spread his wings as he charged down it and ran up another ramp...

And then something lashed by him, dark and smoky and alive, and Antares gritted his teeth but forced himself not to react, to concentrate on the course as he continued to bolt upwards. He ran along a narrow catwalk, and then his eyes widened as the dark, smoky shape twisted around in midair and shot straight towards him-

Antares leapt high before he even realized what he was doing, flapping his wings once to launch himself over the shadowy missile, and it shot by just beneath him before twisting violently around a pillar and shooting at his back. Without missing a beat, however, Antares landed smoothly, then lunged upwards again, flapping his wings hard as he ran almost straight up another steel pillar and kicked off to gracefully twist and land atop another platform as the smoky shape shot by again. The glossy black young stallion gritted his teeth, knowing this could only be one thing as he charged forwards, weaving back and forth through a forest of metal bars, the shape closely following behind him: a demon.

The shape tore through the bars behind him, weaving much faster through them: then again, being incorporeal smoke gave it an advantage. Antares cursed, looking over his shoulder before he simply lunged upwards, reacting on instinct, and the shape tore beneath him as he flung all four hooves out and shoved each against a steel column, keeping himself balanced in the air before he tensed his body, then kicked upwards and flapped his wings as hard as he dared, launching himself higher on instinct.

He looked up to see the bottom of another girder, grabbing onto it and hauling himself easily up with a grunt before running along it to a connecting support. The demon was already chasing him again, but now Antares was only concentrating on getting higher, leaping from girder to girder to narrow platform, making his way upwards until he was only a few steps away from the finish line...

And in front of him, the demon smashed through the wooden platform that was the final step between him and the finish. Antares cursed, then he gritted his teeth before leaping forwards anyway, even as wooden shrapnel flew in all directions, and he landed with a grunt of pain on top of a narrow support column that had once held up the wooden walk before he threw himself in a final mad leap, flapping his wings wildly as he lifted his legs to try and counter the heavy weights attached to them and seizing the edge of the finish platform with a shout.

Then his eyes bulged as he felt his hindquarters slide backwards, kicking his legs wildly... before cloven hooves seized him behind his shoulders and yanked him forwards, laughter filling the air as a familiar voice said warmly: “Oh come on, Nova, you should have made that! Has Aunt Tia been running my poor cousin too hard?”

Antares wheezed in relief as he dropped flat on top of the tower, then he grinned widely as he looked up warmly at a light-pink colored mare with a raven-black, straight mane that fell in a waterfall to one side of her face, neatly braided into a knot by her shoulder. Her eyes were radiant emerald, a shade lighter than the cutie mark on her haunch of a green serpent coiled in a spiral. “Apps! What are you doing here?”

“Mommy and I came to find Celestia and Twilight Sparkle... something bad's happened in Ponyville.” She became more serious, and Antares frowned at this: his cousin, Aphrodisia Celeste Pie, was almost never serious, not unless something truly bad happened. For a moment, the demonic mare hesitated... then she licked her large, sharp teeth nervously with her forked tongue, flicking an ear that was studded with several gemstone earrings. “Daddy was really worried. I hate it when Daddy worries, little cousin.”

“You are six years younger than me.” Antares pointed out, but Aphrodisia only responded to this by almost purring as she stepped up beside him, pushing their sides together and making him roll his eyes in amusement. Despite her age, Aphrodisia had aged twice as fast as he did with her demonic heritage: it meant she was already a fully-developed mare, and well on her way to becoming a fully-developed demon as well. “Okay, okay. But shouldn't you be...”

“No, Mommy came too, see?” Aphrodisia leaned forwards, pointing over the edge of the platform, and Antares stepped forwards and looked down with surprise to see Celestia was talking with Pinkamena below. He smiled after a moment, then glanced at his cousin, and she smiled back before becoming nothing but black smoke that twisted sinuously around him before shooting down to the ground, easily reforming beside her mother.

“I wish I could do that.” Antares mumbled, and then he leapt off the top of the tower, spreading his wings to glide in a smooth, quick descent down to land beside Celestia. He looked up with a smile as Pinkamena's eyes flicked to him. “Hey, Aunt Pinkamena.”

“Hey, kid.” Pinkamena gave a slight smile, revealing some of her sharp teeth: she was a dull, grayish-pink color, her mane long and straight, silver piercings glimmering in her ears and seeming to reflect the strange glow of her unnatural, red-rimmed blue eyes. She wasn't large, but she gave off an aura of strength... and she was only made all the more impressive by the beautiful tattoo that took up the entire left side of her breast and half-scrawled down one leg, of twisting and twining ivy that wrapped around the profile of a black tree. It stood out even clearer than the emblem on her flank, of black and gray balloons. “Looks like you're coming back to Ponyville with us a little early.”

“What's going on?” Antares asked apprehensively, and Pinkamena grimaced, making Antares wince a little. “That bad?”

“Worse. There was an attack at the hospital and some kind of plague's broken out and hit Ponyville. We've already started looking into it, but not even your sister knows what the hell is going on. Ponies are getting real sick, real fast.” Pinkamena stopped, then he shook her head, saying quietly: “Nibelung too, but demons and Nightmares seem immune to it so far. Hard to say, though... just started a few hours ago, but already a lot of ponies are sick.”

Celestia frowned at this, shaking her head and saying quietly: “It must be a demonic or supernatural infection, then. I'll make all haste to Ponyville, along with Twilight Sparkle, Prestige, and Antares. Pinkamena, can you go immediately to the hospital, find out what happened there? Look into recent events as well: shipments, suspicious deaths, autopsies, anything that could have a link to this.”

“I hate it when you give me orders.” Pinkamena said sourly, but then she sighed and nodded before looking mildly over at Aphrodisia. “Behave for Princess Sunshine and take care of your cousin, you got that, filly? Make sure they all get to Ponyville in one piece.”

“Yes, Mommy.” Aphrodisia nodded firmly, and Pinkamena gave a small smile before the gray-pink demon mare turned and burst apart into dark smoke that vanished completely from sight a moment later. Aphrodisia gazed admiringly in her mother's wake for a moment, then she smiled over at the other ponies, saying quietly: “You heard her. Let's go.”

“I agree. I'm going to fetch my armor and the Yamato Guard, we may need the assistance of our allies of the night to deal with this infection. Antares, Aphrodisia, go ahead and find Twilight Sparkle and Prestige. We'll meet outside of the castle and leave for Ponyville together.” Celestia said calmly, and the two young ponies nodded before the ivory winged unicorn strode quickly past towards the door.

Antares hesitated for a moment, looking worriedly over at Aphrodisia... but the demon shook her head and smiled a little, saying finally: “Look, it's gonna be fine, Nova, okay? Avalon, Rusty and Meadowlark are all okay.” She paused, then made a face, adding moodily: “But maybe Meadowlark we can let get a little sick.”

The young stallion sighed and shook his head, then he strode quickly forwards, and the demon grinned as she followed after him, saying positively: “What about Prestige, then? Can we let her get sick? I wouldn't mind her dying on us, too. She can die.”

“Apps, try and behave a little, huh?” Antares asked mildly as they headed quickly down the hall, and the demon only shrugged amiably as the glossy black pony added dryly: “And I thought we worked through this whole Meadowlark thing.”

“No, no. I still don't like her.” Aphrodisia remarked almost cheerfully, and Antares rolled his eyes before she checked him lightly with a wink. “I know you do but you can do so much better than her, sweetie.”

Antares only gave her an amused look, and then he glanced up and gave a sigh of relief as he saw Twilight Sparkle hurrying down the hall towards him with Prestige stumbling along behind her, the violet mare calling: “Antares! Did you hear... oh, Aphrodisia, did you tell him?”

“Yes, Celestia said to meet her out in front of the castle, we have to head to... uh, Prestige, are you okay?” Antares frowned a bit as the unicorn stumbled to a halt beside the Lich, the young mare wheezing loudly in and out as Aphrodisia scowled at her. But for once, Prestige didn't look like she could even cough up an insult, her features pale, her limbs wobbling a little beneath her as sweat visibly spilled down her features. “Are... are you sick?”

“She's recovering... I think.” Twilight looked nervously over her shoulder at Prestige, shaking her head quickly. “I just heard about the epidemic in Ponyville, Spike sent a letter directly to me. Then Prestige collapsed and I was able to put two plus two together fast enough to stop her illness from progressing... but if what Prestige was sick with is the same as what hit in Ponyville...”

“Was sick... I am sick!” Prestige whined loudly, shivering violently before she moaned pitiably. “Look at me and say I'm not sick!”

Twilight only grimaced, however, looking over her shoulder and murmuring: “Yeah, you are still sick, but you could be much, much worse, Prestige. You were much worse, as a matter of fact... look, the only sick person Prestige had contact with was Straw Crown, a coroner from Canterlot. I've already contacted the Royal Guards and the heads of the magic academy... they might not like me much but they do at least respect my opinion, and they're going to be screening everyone they can in Canterlot for this illness. It took a powerful cleansing spell to dilute the disease, and as you can see, that doesn't even get rid of it entirely... but I'm confident that now Prestige should be able to cope with it, at least. Until we find a cure.”

“What? Cope? I wanna be healed!” Prestige complained loudly, and Twilight gritted her teeth before the young mare shivered and whispered: “I think I'm getting worse again... can't... can't you teach me the spell you used?”

The Lich frowned, then she shook her head and turned towards the young mare, her horn glowing as she scanned over her... then her eyes widened and she shook her head, murmuring: “No, that's not possible... now it seems like an entirely different disease, it's attacking... okay, okay Prestige, this is going to hurt, but then you're going to feel better, okay?”

Twilight took a slow breath, and Prestige looked up, pale from both pain and fear before her eyes widened, and she gave a strangled cry as Twilight's horn glowed brightly. Other ponies stopped to stare, even Royal Guards halting as a bright white light washed over and encased Prestige, Twilight gritting her teeth as her eyes glowed with the power of the spell... and then the Lich cursed and staggered backwards, her horn sparking violently as Prestige toppled over, body steaming faintly and trembling violently.

Antares stared in shock and Aphrodisia had winced backwards as well, her own sharp teeth grit before the demon shivered a little and hugged herself, muttering: “Almost makes me feel sorry for her. Almost.”

Prestige shuddered on the ground... and then slowly, the young mare shook her head dazedly before she sat up, groaning and rubbing at her face. She coughed once, then sniffled... but then blinked a few times as Twilight sighed in relief, some of the color returning to the unicorn mare's cheeks. Then the Lich winced when a Royal Guard approached and reached up to grasp her shoulder... but instead of scolding or reprimanding her, the Guard asked hurriedly: “Can you come with me and show that spell to the other guards and mages? We just got a report of an outbreak at the magic school and none of our spells have been working.”

“I... okay. Prestige, Antares, Aphrodisia, go ahead. I'll catch up when I can.” Twilight said after a moment, nodding quickly as she reached up and nervously brushed a hoof against her collar, and the demon and young stallion nodded as Prestige only looked blearily up. “Let Celestia know she doesn't have to wait for me, I'll meet you in Ponyville one way or the other.”

Twilight turned, following the Royal Guard down the hall with several other soldiers, and Antares looked back and forth, breathing a little harder as he realized that he could almost feel the panic all around them. There was a buzz in the air, as if rumors were adding fuel to a fire that was very real and quickly growing, and Antares shook his head worriedly as he murmured: “If it's spread this fast here, then Ponyville... come on, we gotta go.”

Prestige stumbled to her hooves as Antares and Aphrodisia both turned to hurry down the corridor, and the young mare wheezed as she staggered after them, half-calling out to the two. Antares winced, but Aphrodisia only growled under her breath before the demon suddenly lunged around in a circle, running quickly back to Prestige and scooping her up to toss her over her back, the young mare squeaking as she clung down against the demon with a terrified look on her face when Aphrodisia spun around and broke into a sprint that Antares easily matched. “Put me down, prostatot!”

“Oh you have no idea how much I would love to drop you on your face, but we're on a schedule here.” Aphrodisia retorted, sniffing loudly before she added mockingly, as she firmly bucked upwards mid-run to make Prestige yelp in pain and surprise: “Besides, I thought this was where us slave hoofs were supposed to be and all.”

“I hate you!” Prestige cried, and Antares rolled his eyes as he continued to run alongside the demon, the two making their way quickly through the corridors of Canterlot Castle: and more and more, now that he was looking for it, Antares saw the worry and concern on faces of ponies they passed, many of them rushing through the halls themselves. Both Aphrodisia and Antares were able to dodge around most of the ponies that got in their way, however, and Antares only had to call back one awkward apology when he leapt over a Royal Guard and his rear hooves slapped against the soldier's helmet.

They made good time to the exit, heading out a short distance onto the road leading to Ponyville... and then both ponies stopped as Prestige looked up, shivering and still clinging to Aphrodisia before she screeched when the demon bucked forwards and threw her off. It was almost a reflex gesture, however, since both young stallion and demon were staring around themselves in disbelief: wagons were being hitched, ponies were hurrying away, and it looked as if there was a mass exodus already under way... but to where, neither of them could guess.

Then Prestige shoved herself quickly up to her hooves, growling angrily before she snapped: “Excuse me, prostatot, but I did not require the help of a whore-demon to make my way here, especially since we have now arrived long before Celestia and are standing amidst a horde of cowardly mudwalkers all so frightened by a little sickness they're running wild!”

Aphrodisia looked for a moment at Prestige... then she suddenly leaned forwards and hissed, baring enormous, curved fangs and sharp, deadly teeth, her eyes glowing poison green and her features becoming skull-like. Prestige screeched at this and fell backwards, and then Aphrodisia straightened, features smoothing out into beauty once more as she smiled teasingly, saying kindly: “Remember, dummy, I'm only half whore-demon. The other half of me is kill-you-to-bits-demon.”

Antares sighed tiredly, looking quietly at the two as he asked almost pleadingly: “Can you two please focus? And Prestige, a lot of ponies here are terrified, not cowards. The news of the plague that hit Ponyville is just filtering in here... and on top of that, the magic academy and part of Canterlot Castle is being quarantined. If this keeps up, Aunt Tia might not be able to leave here...”

“She's gotta leave here, though, we need to save Ponyville first.” Aphrodisia said worriedly, frowning over at Antares, and when the glossy-black stallion gave her a pointed look, the demon only huffed and shook her head quickly. “Well, I don't care a whole lot about Canterlot and stuff, Nova. I care about Ponyville. That's where Mommy and Daddy are, and that's what Aunt Tia really cares about and everything, too.”

“Aunt Tia cares about all of Equestria, and everypony here.” Antares said gently, and when Aphrodisia gave him an amused look, he huffed a bit. “It's true, Pinkslap... and besides, if Canterlot falls apart, then Aunt Tia would have to move back to the Temple of the Sun or something. How would you like that?”

“Okay, okay.” Aphrodisia huffed, then she turned her eyes out over the crowd, murmuring: “I guess I'm just worried, Nova. I don't think Aunt Twilight can cast that fancy spell on everypony in Ponyville, and we all know that she's almost as strong as Aunt Tia.”

“The Lich is powerful, but she's not that strong.” Prestige muttered... then she squeaked when Aphrodisia bared her fangs and shoved her face against the unicorn's, eyes glowing balefully.

“Don't you talk about my Aunt Twilight that way, got it?” Aphrodisia asked moodily, and Prestige swallowed thickly before the demon huffed and reached both hooves up to firmly shove the young mare's head down into the ground, making her squawk. She held her in place, Prestige flailing uselessly as Aphrodisia looked grumpily over at Antares, who only looked sourly back. “Why haven't we killed her yet? If she behaved this way around Mommy, Mommy would eat her.”

“Well, please don't kill her now, Apps, we might need her help.” Antares said tiredly, and Aphrodisia grumbled, but then finally stepped off Prestige's head, letting the humiliated-looking unicorn hurriedly scramble back up to her hooves. She glared balefully at Aphrodisia, but at least was smart enough to keep her snide comments to herself this time before Antares looked worriedly off into the distance and murmured: “You're right, though, Aphrodisia, we gotta help Ponyville. But if that coroner was the one who got the disease first...”

“He said something about Ponyville, though...” Prestige muttered, and both the ponies looked at her curiously. Immediately, the young mare winced back, but when she realized they were interested instead of aggressive, she nervously glanced back and forth at the ponies hurrying past them before stepping closer and saying hesitantly: “He... he said something about a Clockwork Pony being held in Ponyville, at the hospital...”

Antares stiffened at this, his eyes widening... and then, without another word, he turned and shot down the road as Aphrodisia threw her head back and groaned, then glared angrily at Prestige, snapping: “Thanks a lot, genius! Nova, hey, wait up Nova!”

With that, the demon turned and bolted after Antares, and Prestige blinked a few times before she grumbled loudly and mumbled a few angry curses at the backs of the two. She dropped down on her haunches, raising her head with a sniff as she looked back and forth at the crowd of ponies around her, mumbling: “I'm going to do the right thing at least. Wait for the Baroness, yes, the Baroness, who may be soft on her subjects but is all the same a noble and valorous winged unicorn, penultimate of the species. Yes... I'm not really alone here at all, I'm just... waiting, and... I would be of no help to Antares and Aphrodisia, after all, better to wait for the Lich or the Baroness or...”

Prestige stuttered to a halt, then winced when a large wagon rolled by her, pulled by two enormous earth ponies and with several families stuffed inside it and trunks of luggage on the roof... and Prestige hesitated for a few moments before she groaned and dropped her head forwards, beginning to trot quickly down the path after Antares and Aphrodisia.

Epidemic

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Chapter Four: Epidemic
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares grimaced in pain as he finally stumbled to a halt in front of the hospital at the edge of Ponyville, head lowered and breathing hard. A moment later, Aphrodisia was beside him, glaring down at him, but her eyes betrayed her worry even as she snapped: “Nova, what's the point of this, anyway? We should have waited for Aunt Tia, she's gonna get all... disappointed at us and I hate it when she gets all disappointed at us! It's worse than when Twilight gets mad at us!”

“If this has something to do with Clockwork World, I gotta know, Apps!” Antares replied forcefully, shaking his head and looking over at her almost pleadingly. “Come on, if we're lucky, Scarlet Sage is working today... we can find out from her but... I gotta know, one way or the other.”

“Antares, look.” Aphrodisia pointed at the building... and Antares grimaced as he realized there were guards in front of the doors, and the only ponies going in and out were wearing all kinds of protective gear. “Look, maybe you could sneak in there... but I'm not gonna let you even if you can. I don't want you getting sick, Nova.”

“Apps...” Antares hesitated, looking up into the demon's eyes... and then he sighed a little, leaning forwards and sharing a short nuzzle with her before he stepped back and studied her thoughtfully. “Then... can you go inside and check if Scarlet Sage is there? You're a demon and a Starlit Knight, right?”

Aphrodisia hesitated... and then she sighed and grumbled, muttering: “Fine, but you owe me so big for this, do you hear me? I'll go see what I can do.”

The demon turned, resisting the urge to smile at the radiant look Antares gave her as she strode calmly over to the doors, and one of the guards stepped immediately forwards, saying clearly: “This is area is under quarantine, ma'am, all ponies are being told to go to the medical clinic in town if they have-”

“Hey, hotshot, look again.” Aphrodisia interrupted, and then her eyes glowed brightly, and the security guard winced and staggered backwards in surprise before the demon sniffed loudly. “Thought so. Listen, is Scarlet Sage in there? She's a healer. Red mane, looks younger than she is. But hell, everypony knows her.”

“Scarlet Sage?” asked another guard, glancing up, and when Aphrodisia nodded quickly, the guard shook his head and pointed towards Ponyville. “She was called away to the clinic to try and help who she could in town. This disease hit fast, whatever it is... hey, you're a demon, right? We could really some help from your kind out here. We just don't have the equipment to clean up this mess fast without a little help.”

“Well, it sounds like 'my kind' is a little busy in town too.” Aphrodisia replied sourly, and then she sighed and nodded, saying moodily: “I'll pass word along when I go into town... hey, any of you know about a Clockwork Pony being here?”

The guards traded looks, and then a pony wearing a white suit approached, some kind of protective helmet hanging around his neck with a full facemask. He frowned at her, studying her for a moment before he asked slowly: “Who are you?”

“A demon, sweetie.” Aphrodisia smiled, showing off her sharp teeth before her eyes glowed as she asked kindly: “Don't you wanna answer me?”

The pony in the protective suit winced away, half-covering his eyes before he said flatly: “Get her out of here and tell her to mind her own business.”

“Wow, such a big stallion you are.” Aphrodisia remarked, and then she bared her teeth in a half-smile, half-snarl that made the guards wince away before the demon turned with a huff, striding quickly back over to Antares as she muttered: “Loser crowbait.”

“No luck, huh? Then let's just head into town and talk to Scarlet Sage. I'm really worried about the others, anyway.” Antares said quietly as Aphrodisia approached, and the demon nodded with a grunt of agreement before they both fell into step, striding quickly towards the gates of Ponyville.

They found them closed tightly and guarded by both Nibelung and ponies... but as they approached, one particularly large stallion stepped forwards, polished oaken yoke almost gleaming around his neck. His coat was crimson and his mane and cropped tail hay-colored, his cutie mark of a green apple half standing out against the bright red almost as clearly as his soulful viridian eyes, as he said in his soft, deep voice: “You wanna turn back, kids.”

“We're here to help. Celestia is on her way, too, and Twilight Sparkle.” Antares shook his head quickly, looking up with a faint smile and concern in his eyes as he asked nervously: “How bad is it, Big Mac?”

The large earth pony hesitated... then he sighed and reached up to slowly rub at a thin scar over one side of his face, hoof making a quiet click as it tapped against his eye: an eye that looked almost as real as his other one, but was made of polished glass. “Ain't good, that's for sure. Half of Ponyville's sick... and it's just only just evening.”

Antares nodded nervously, then he shook his head quickly, trading a look with Aphrodisia. “Let us in, then, we can help. Aphrodisia's a demon and I'm... well... I don't think I'll get sick.”

Big Mac made a bit of a face, but then he finally nodded slowly and turned to gesture at the guards by the doors. They hesitated for a few moments, but then turned to begin pulling the massive gates open, as Antares nervously looked back and forth at the walls around the city: he could see soldiers standing here and there atop them, and Pegasi flying short patrols as well, like it was a city under siege.

The red stallion noticed his gaze, and he gave a faint smile, shaking his head slowly. “Ain't fair, but gotta make sure this disease don't spread any further than it already has. Until we find a cure, Ponyville's quarantined.”

Antares grimaced at this... and then he looked up in surprise as a shout cut through the air, looking stupidly over his shoulder as Aphrodisia groaned in disbelief. Then the demon glared back down the road as well as Prestige stumbled towards them, the young mare wheezing loudly as she babbled: “W-Wait... I'm coming too, don't... don't lock me out!”

“Oh great.” Antares mumbled, and then he sighed tiredly, saying finally as the young mare stumbled up to them and promptly fell on her face with a grunt: “Look, Prestige, why don't you stay out here and wait for Celestia to get here, okay? Besides, you already got sick once. You don't want to catch this thing again, do you?”

“But... I... I know what Twilight... did... figured it... out...” Prestige wheezed, and Antares frowned curiously as Aphrodisia cocked her head, interested despite herself when as the young mare hurriedly shoved herself to her hooves, then grunted and strode forwards, ignoring Big Mac completely as she stumbled onwards into Ponyville. None of the guards stopped her, and Antares and Aphrodisia both groaned before they hurried after the young mare, as she continued to ramble: “It should have been obvious, obvious from the start, but it was... it was... I was...”

Aphrodisia flung a hoof out, smacking Prestige in the face and knocking her to a dead halt as she let out a little whimper of pain, and then the demon leaned forwards and asked flatly: “What the hell are you talking about?”

For a moment, Prestige only stood dumbly... and then she hurriedly shook her head out before scowling between the two ponies. “Don't you two ever pay attention? She used a purification spell instead of a healing spell, she treated the disease like it was a supernatural entity instead of a natural infection. And because clearly this disease is of unnatural origin, it worked and burned it out of my body. Now come, come, we need to inform the healers.”

“I don't get it.” Antares said finally, and Prestige sighed tiredly even as she began to storm forwards, taking the lead as Aphrodisia looked sour.

“Of course you don't. Look, healing magic works in tandem with the body. It accelerates natural functions already present within our physiology and... oh, I'm going over your head again, aren't I, splinter-horn?” Prestige looked grumpily over her shoulder at him, and Antares resisted the urge to hit her as Aphrodisia leaned forwards with a moody growl. “Let me put it in a way you'll understand, Antares. She exorcised the evil disease out of me. Or does that require further explanation too?”

“It's not demonic, though. I would have sensed that.” Aphrodisia said pettishly, looking moodily down at Prestige, who only huffed and rose her head high. “But it explains the chill it gave me when Twilight used that magic. Now, tell me, Prestige, are you going to continue to be nothing but a useless pain in the flank or can you do that kind of magic, too?”

“Well... no... that's high level magic, and it's in a different school than I've been training in...” Prestige said slowly... and when Antares and Aphrodisia both increased their pace to hurry past her, she cursed before shouting as she ran after them: “But you two wouldn't know what was going on without my help! I deserve respect!”

Antares only grumbled as he ran onwards, the demon keeping pace beside him and Prestige sluggishly bringing up the rear as they hurried towards the center of Ponyville, and found what looked like a disaster camp being set up. Doctors and nurses were hurrying back and forth, most of them wearing masks and as much protective gear as they could comfortably carry, and sick ponies were everywhere, being tended to by relatives, healers, and others. Antares winced at the sight, then shivered a bit as his eyes drew over them and he read into their emotions without meaning to; the pain, the despair, the hopelessness he felt was almost overwhelming, as he looked up at the slowly-setting sun and whispered: “And this is after only a few hours?”

So many ponies were sick, and it looked like even more ill ponies were being carefully guided in by relatives and others... but already, the square was almost full. The smell in the air was putrid, and Antares stomach clenched and threatened to roll over as he closed his eyes tightly, shivering once before he felt Aphrodisia reach up and reassuringly touch his shoulder.

He retched a little all the same, and then Aphrodisia leaned over and breathed out a sweet-smelling orange mist into his face, Antares wincing and shivering... but the perfume of flowers filled his nostrils and numbed his senses, and he relaxed after a moment, nodding and closing his eyes as he mumbled: “Thanks, Apps. I owe you one.”

“You owe me about twenty, actually, but no sweat. If you need more I'll be glad to give it to you, too.” Aphrodisia bared her fangs in a smile, and Antares smiled faintly despite himself before he glanced up as a voice called loudly to him.

He sighed in relief at the sight of Scarlet Sage hurrying through the crowd: the silver-white Pegasus looked at him with concern as her braided red mane and tail streamed out behind her, wings flapping nervously once at her side before she skidded to a halt in front of him and gazed worriedly down into his eyes, crimson irises both frustrated and fearful. “Antares, Prestige, Aphrodisia, what are you doing here? Listen, it's not safe for any of you... this disease, whatever it is, it's out of control and it's like it's... like it's mutating every time we think we're a step ahead of it. Ponies are really sick and I don't want to risk any of you getting sick, too.”

“Has it started affecting demons?” Aphrodisia looked up in surprise, and Scarlet Sage hesitated, then she sighed and shook her head quickly before the demon sighed in relief, then looked awkwardly at Scarlet Sage's cutie mark: a red mirror, edged in black. “Can't you... you know...”

“No, I can't.” Scarlet grimaced, shaking her head and sighing quietly. “And if this disease keeps getting worse, we're going to have to set up a tighter quarantine and... no, I don't want to think about it. We... listen, guys, I know you want to help, but I don't know what jobs I could give you. So unless you've brought Celestia or Twilight or a cure...”

“Celestia and Twilight are on their way right now.” Antares said quickly, and Scarlet Sage sighed in relief at this before the young stallion hesitated, then glanced almost grudgingly at Prestige as he added finally: “And... Prestige had the disease, but Twilight managed to heal her. Prestige thinks that she knows what Twilight did, even though we could just wait for Twilight to get here...”

“Every second counts.” Scarlet Sage said empathetically, and she turned her eyes to Prestige, who almost quailed despite the fact she and Scarlet Sage were roughly the same size. “What was it? How did Twilight fix this?”

“I... I... I think it was purification magic.” Prestige halted, then she added in a sudden rush: “If what I suspect is correct, a group of unicorn mages should be capable of channeling their magic together to create what's referred to as a 'shockwave exorcism;' normally it's used to drive back mass quantities of demons or as part of warding ritual, but if harnessed properly it might be enough to cure those near the epicenter of the blast and severely weaken the disease in other ponies.”

“We'll need Celestia and Twilight for that... Prestige, go talk to the mages, tell them your theory. Aphrodisia, Antares, I... Fluttershy and Nirvana are handing out medicine. You can stay and help them out.” Scarlet Sage pointed towards the west, then she hesitated and reached out to grab Antares' shoulder when he began to turn, leaning down and saying quietly: “I need to talk to you tonight about what happened here. I think it might be related to Clockwork World... but then again, that's why you're here, isn't it?”

Antares smiled embarrassedly up at her, nodding a little, and Scarlet Sage sighed softly before she smiled faintly in return, murmuring quietly: “You have moments where you really remind me of Mom and Dad, Antares. Go on, Fluttershy could really use the help.”

The young stallion nodded again, firmer this time, and then he turned and hurried off between the rows of cots and ill ponies, glancing back and forth with a bit of a shiver despite himself. So many ponies here were in pain, were suffering, were ill... the only good thing he could see was that so far, no one had died. But at this rate... it wouldn't be long until not only all of Ponyville was infected, the town wouldn't last a week without some kind of cure.

Antares finally stumbled out from between two rows of hacking, coughing ponies to step into a cleared area, walking past soldiers wearing the blue armor of the Starlit Knights: an organization of warriors and soldiers, he had been told, that his mother had first led as Champion of Equestria, many years ago. Even now, glancing at them made him smile faintly with these memories, with thoughts of the comradeship that was touted between them all, before he looked ahead to a large medical wagon and smiled with relief at what he saw.

A sunshine-yellow Pegasus with a pink mane that fell in one long, natural bang to one side of her face was carefully pulling medical supplies out of the back of the carriage, passing them over to a Phooka: a pony-shaped entity that looked as if it was made of smoke and shadow, with green fire burning in its sockets. Yet for as fearsome as it looked, it was clearly no threat: few of the Phooka were these days, ever since they had developed friendship and an alliance with Equestria's ponies.

On the other side of the Phooka, nervously hopping from hoof-to-hoof, was a titanic earth pony: he was perhaps the size of Celestia, chestnut in coloration and with a mane and tail of thick, living vines. Gemstones glittered brightly inside of these, trapped inside the strange locks as if they had always been there, and covering the right side of his breast and along one powerful forelimb was a tattoo of vines intertwined with runes and celestial symbols: a strange match for his emblem, which was a profile of a proud ash tree. His warm, strangely-innocent brown eyes were nervous as he looked over the medicine, even with Aphrodisia gently rubbing his side and looking up at him softly.

Then the behemoth stallion glanced up before smiling a little at Antares. “Oh, nephew! Thou art a wonderful sight amidst all this pain and drudgery, but all the same I must admit 'tis painful to see thee here. This is no place for young stallions, after all...”

“Oh, Antares... yes, I have to agree. You're putting yourself at risk being here...” added the Pegasus, glancing up with a concerned frown, but when Antares only smiled a little, she nodded hesitantly before quickly picking up a basket filled with plastic bottles of pills and holding this out. As she turned towards him, her wing fluttered... and on the other side of her body, old scarring flexed a bit, revealing that she only had one wing.

Antares took the basket from her with telekinesis, saying quietly: “I know, Fluttershy, but... I need to help out and I think I'll be okay. My Mom was... special, and so was my Dad. And you guys seem okay... you're okay, right, Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy smiled faintly at this as the Phooka beside her rumbled nervously, looking at her... but Fluttershy only reached up, soothingly stroking along the back of his neck as she said softly: “Yes, I'm fine. Besides, Nirvana and I have to help as much as we can, too... Ponyville's our home, and it's been good to us. More importantly, some of our friends are sick... good ponies who don't deserve this. We need to help as much as we can.”

Antares nodded firmly in agreement, and then he glanced up as Sleipnir added moodily: “But something is very wrong here, heed my words.'Tis no natural disease that has done this... nature has her reasons for everything she does, and I see none of that here, only pointless pain and suffering and a wickedness that reeks of something foul and evil. And furthermore, the earth bodes this disease little better than the ponies... does thou not feel it too, Nirvana?”

The Phooka only rumbled quietly again, not speaking as it glanced towards Sleipnir, then gave the slightest of nods. Sleipnir nodded firmly in return, however, before Aphrodisia said quietly: “Now come on, Daddy, don't be that way. Aunt Tia is coming, and you always say Aunt Tia can solve any problem. It scares me when you're scared.”

“I know, my beloved little filly, but all the same I am afraid and I would rather be honest with thee than lie.” Sleipnir replied gently, then he reached out and hugged the demon tightly, who hugged her father fiercely back, looking much more like a young child in his strong embrace than a demonic mare... but in many ways, she was both. It was only with her parents and the few others she trusted and respected that Aphrodisia let her still-young emotions show themselves. “But thou art right, all the same. We must not fear. We must instead help all those whom we can, even if...”

Sleipnir's muzzle wrinkled up, and then he turned his head to the side and gave a dainty little sneeze, Aphrodisia giggling and Fluttershy and Antares both simply staring. Nirvana only rolled his green-fire eyes, however, picking up another satchel of medicine and carrying this over to Antares, and the young stallion hurriedly shook himself out and turned to follow the Phooka, even as Sleipnir said awkwardly: “I am usually far more masculine even when ill! 'Twas... 'twas simply a tickle! I shall sneeze most tremendously shortly!”

Antares rolled his eyes, but at the same time, he felt relieved: if that was the extent that this whatever-it-was had affected Sleipnir, it meant the rampaging pestilence hadn't yet become so threatening it was infecting demons and other supernatural entities yet. And while Antares still wasn't quite sure where he fell in that regard, he was more than willing to risk getting sick to lend what little aid he could here... although admittedly, the fact that Celestia and Twilight were on their way and they had some idea how to actually fight this illness helped a lot, too.

He walked side by side with the Phooka, who communicated with him mainly through gestures and looks: but it was comfortable despite the silence, all the same. He and Nirvana knew each other well, and trusted one-another, and Antares was glad for the quiet, the time to think, while he doled out medicine and nervously looked over the sick and ill.

Antares had to take a short five minute break after handing out the last of the medication in the basket to a group of parents and their foals, excusing himself quietly as he stepped quickly away from the tents and cots that had been set up and trembling a little as he stumbled out of the town square. Then he turned around, breathing hard as he looked silently at the back of the tent that the families had been in... but it was like his eyes were seeing right through the fabric, watching parents helping coughing and wheezing children to swallow medicine, seeing the smile on the face of a tired mother as she gave up her pills to give her child more, watching a father whose face was strained with worry cradling his baby and rocking him slowly and silently even as-

“Antares.” murmured a gentle voice, and Antares shook his head violently, hurriedly reaching up to rub wildly at his eyes before he turned with a faint flush to see Celestia striding towards him, the ivory equine frowning down at him with concern. “Why didn't you wait?”

“I... I'm sorry. I heard about the Clockwork Pony and took off, and... Prestige...” Antares halted, then looked up quickly. “Wait, yes, I ran off but Prestige had an idea on how to cure this plague!”

“She figured out what Twilight Sparkle did?” Celestia asked with surprise, and when Antares nodded, the ivory winged unicorn gave a small smile. “Then I am impressed. But Antares, you and Aphrodisia should not have run off by yourselves... it's dangerous here. Knowing that Clockwork World was involved should have made that all the more clear: what if this really had been some plot from Clockwork World?”

Antares shifted uneasily, glancing down as a faint blush suffused his features, and he nodded slowly before closing his eyes. “I know, Aunt Tia, but... I... I guess I let my... you know. That instinct passed down from Mom, I let it get the better of me. And I just couldn't... I just thought, 'what if this could lead me to Mom and Dad,' and...”

“I understand, Antares... but all the same, you need to be more careful.” Celestia said quietly, shaking her head slowly before she reached up and touched his shoulder gently. “You took a big risk coming here. And while it was noble of you to offer your aid and help out, it was also foolish: there's no guarantee you won't become ill yourself, nor any guarantee that a purification spell can cure everypony here. This illness is... strange. I don't dare make any guesses about what it's capable of.”

The glossy black young stallion nodded quietly, glancing down embarrassedly before Celestia hesitated, then shook her head and said quietly: “But as long as you're here, I could use your help. I need every available unicorn to join me in town square. When journeying through Old Equestria, more than once my family and I came across villages riddled with disease or cursed by dark magic, and I developed a cleansing spell to deal with these occurrences.”

“Will it cure them?” Antares asked after a moment, looking up... and when Celestia only shook her head, he nodded a little and glanced down nervously. “I guess we'll have to see then... what about Mom, is she here too?”

“Twilight is here, yes, and... I don't believe the magic will hurt her.” Celestia replied quietly, shaking her head again. “She may be a Lich, but that is only a state of being, as... I've come to terms with myself. If only so I can stop blaming myself for how everything turned out.”

Antares offered a faint smile, and Celestia shook her head before she turned, saying quietly: “But we shouldn't waste our time right now on this. The sooner we cast the spell, the better, and I'm sure by now my Yamato have finished laying the runework I requested to strengthen the spell's effects. They've all agreed to stay and help boost the power with their own magic...”

Celestia smiled a bit as Antares stood up, falling into pace with his aunt as she continued quietly: “I never expected Nightmares to be so loyal, pact or not. With luck, their armor will shield them from the magic, but if not they'll be injured by the purification, perhaps seriously. Yet all the same they've all insisted on staying. It humbles me, Antares.”

“People are people... that's what Mom and Dad taught me, what... Twilight taught me, even what you taught me, Aunt Tia.” Antares gazed over at her softly, then he laughed and shook his head a little. “And I guess it helps that I've got all kinds of friends and family who are all over the map, right? Discombobulation, Pinkamena and Aphrodisia, you, Twilight...”

Celestia nodded slowly, murmuring softly: “And it's a lesson I learn again and again, Antares, yet every time I do, I'm just as amazed, surprised, and humbled as if I had learned it for the first time. But come, we can discuss philosophy and these subjects later... for now, we have a job to do.”

Antares nodded firmly as they approached a cleared area at the center of the square: Celestia's Yamato guards had formed an outer circle, their golden armor gleaming even through the dusky dimness, the Nightmares prepared to amplify the magic of the ponies. As Celestia and Antares passed, one of the Nightmares leaned to the side, and the young stallion blushed as their sides brushed together and he felt the demonic mare's smile beneath her mask, without even looking over his shoulder: with his heritage, and the fact he was growing older, many of the servants of the night had taken a distinct interest in him.

The young stallion was surprised to find not just Twilight Sparkle, Prestige, and unicorn healers inside the ring of Yamato Guard, but also Rarity. The ivory unicorn smiled at him softly, her features grown only more beautiful with age, her violet mane and tail as well-groomed as ever and styled in corkscrewed swirls. Antares had heard she had once been a fashion designer or something... but now she was known for running not just her popular boutique and several clothing stores in town, she was also involved with the engineering labs run by Antares' friend Rustproof's crazy mom, Kilby Kwolek. She was as charitable as she was attractive, and as warm and kind as she was generous. “Miss Rarity...”

“Please, Antares, just Rarity. Or Aunt Rarity, if you can stand that. Although I like to think I'm still young enough I could believably pull off being 'big sister' too.” The ivory unicorn said gently, gazing at him fondly. Her blue eyes studied him curiously, her irises much darker than the image of brighter-blue cut gemstones she bore on her flank as her cutie mark. Her only adornment was a beautiful wedding band of gold around the base of her horn, topped with a polished, circular gemstone the same color as her eyes.

Antares smiled back to the white unicorn, then he looked back and forth before asking apprehensively: “Are... I mean, I know you're not usually much into magic...”

“No, I'm not, but Twilight said Celestia needed every possible unicorn...” Rarity glanced over her shoulder softly at the Lich, who was currently speaking quickly and quietly with Prestige and several of the healers. “Poor Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are both among the ill, and it's not as if I can just abandon them, after all. I only wish there were more unicorns capable of helping.”

“Your help will be invaluable all the same, Rarity.” Celestia said quietly, and the white unicorn blushed as the rainbow-maned winged unicorn straightened slightly, turning with a nervous frown. Evening was settling in... but both lanterns and floating orbs of magical light kept the square well lit, and there were so many sick here, so many ponies clearly in pain... “I should have asked this before, but is Spike sick?”

Rarity shook her head quickly. “No more than the Phooka or other creatures I've seen around town. I know as a dragon his immune system is more powerful than my own, but... he's spent the entire day helping out here at the clinic, while I was working with Cowlick, doing the little I could to help prepare medicine.”

Celestia looked down, frowning a bit before she nodded once and glanced over her shoulder at Twilight, as the Lich approached and said quietly: “We're ready at any time. But Celestia, are you sure...”

“We're only aiming to attack the supernatural side of this affliction, whatever it is. To drive the roots of the disease out of ponies and hopefully get rid of what's caused this. It will be far from an instant cure, but it should stop ponies from getting any worse, and their immune systems should be able to kick back in and start fighting off the illness with or without our further aid.” Celestia replied calmly, meeting Twilight's eyes for a moment. The Lich nodded slowly, her own eyes filled with trust and hope, and Celestia smiled faintly before she rose her head and called out clearly: “Yamato! Ready yourselves!”

The golden-armored Nightmares all anchored themselves, dropping their heads forwards and squaring their shoulders as eyes glowed brighter out of the sockets of their masks, and Celestia nodded once at the feeling of building power in the air before she straightened, her horn beginning to glow as she ordered calmly: “Focus all magic on me and lend me your strength, friends!”

The gathered unicorns all rose their own heads, looking towards Celestia as their horns began to glow, Antares feeling a flicker of worry run through him even as his own horn lit up with a radiant sapphire aura. He could see worry in Twilight's eyes too, even as Celestia closed her eyes, the golden aura around her horn building, growing...

Electricity crackled through the flowing rainbow locks of the mare as her horn rose a bit higher, gritting her teeth as golden light became radiant white fire around her horn, her features tensing even as Antares stared up at his aunt with amazement, seeing the power she was focusing, the raw energy crackling through her, the agony she was in that she refused to voice or show as the unicorns focused more energy to her, poured more of their magic through her like she was a lens... and then Celestia reared back, snapping her horn upwards with a single gasp, and Antares was almost blown off his hooves from the force of the blinding shockwave that tore through the air, hisses rising up from the Yamato guards even as they arched their backs in concert, adding their own might to the blast of magic even as it crackled painfully through their bodies.

The shockwave of light rippled through all of Ponyville, turning the village into a glowing white beacon for a few moments as the light settled over ponies, homes, and the ground like a shifting blanket... and then, slowly, the aura faded quietly from sight, Antares looking slowly up and blinking owlishly as he shivered a little in surprise. A bit of energy crackled over his horn, making him wince a little as he glanced up and realized how drained he felt, feeling his breath rushing in and out before he looked worriedly over his shoulder.

Celestia was slumped, breathing hard, a single trickle of blood falling from her mouth... but when he began to turn towards her, she shook her head quickly and closed her eyes, whispering: “It's not important. Did... did it work?”

Antares hesitated for a moment, looking past Celestia: Prestige and a few of the unicorn healers were still standing,but Rarity had half-fallen groggily over and Twilight was shivering hard, sparks of energy racing painfully over the Lich's body. And when he looked ahead, he saw the Yamato had all collapsed, making the glossy black young stallion swallow thickly before he whispered: “I... I hope so, Aunt Tia, because...”

“I know. But we have to be prepared to accept a high cost for ourselves if we want to save others.” Celestia murmured quietly, and then she slowly began to stand, shivering a bit before Antares hurried to her side. He pushed himself gently against her, helping give the little support he could to the enormous, armored winged unicorn, and she smiled faintly before raising her head, forcing her amethyst eyes to focus on the nearest patients that had been moved into the square as earth pony and Pegasus healers ran back and forth.

She stumbled forwards a bit, and Antares kept himself beside her, looking up at her worriedly. At the edge of the circle, Celestia hesitated for a moment to lean down and inspect one of her Yamato, but the Nightmare was only dazed, even if a sulfur-smelling black smoke was slowly floating up between the golden plates of armor. Celestia smiled faintly after a moment, then turned her attention back upwards, approaching the nearest cots.

She leaned forwards... then glanced up as a voice called to her, Scarlet Sage hurrying down the aisle with a relieved look on her face as she called quickly: “Celestia! I think it worked!”

“But... but they still look sick...” Antares began nervously, looking awkwardly over the fidgeting, pale ponies on the cots and sheets, before he glanced up apprehensively as Scarlet Sage skidded to a halt in front of them. “I mean... how do you know?”

Scarlet Sage blushed a bit, shifting a little, but Celestia only shook her head, saying quietly: “I'm not about to hold you using your powers against you. There will be time to lecture you later for that, for now my only concern is if the ponies are really okay.”

The Pegasus smiled in relief at this, looking up as she nodded quickly once, replying embarrassedly: “I... I used my powers, yeah. Scoot is at the outer edge of the area and she let me make a quick link, so...”

Scarlet Sage shifted: even after all these years, even after beginning to use her powers more and more often to help ponies, she was still uncomfortable talking about them. She was a Blood Seer: by making contact with another pony's blood, she could divine their future, read their mind, heal illness or wounds... or hurt ponies in a wide variety of ways. “Anyway, I... whatever you did hasn't gotten rid of the illness, but it... I don't know, I've never seen this before. It neutralized most of it, transformed it from pestilence into... well, now it just looks like a normal, pain-in-the-flank flu. Some bed rest and most of the ponies here will be okay.”

“Most?” Antares asked worriedly, and Scarlet Sage smiled faintly, shaking her head a little before the glossy-black young stallion said nervously: “But... wait, what if it comes back?”

“The wave of purification we sent through Ponyville will take time to dissipate. We have a few days to figure that out.” Celestia said quietly, and then she shook her head slowly. “And those hit first by the disease, I suspect, will need a little more care, won't they? I'd like to take a look at them myself if possible... and I'll also need to know who started showing symptoms first, if that's possible too.”

Scarlet Sage nodded quickly, saying quietly: “I'll get the clinic records for you but... Aunt Tia, maybe... maybe for now, you should go rest. You've done a lot and now we have to help clear out town square and get everypony back home.”

Celestia hesitated, but then she nodded a little when Antares gave her an insistent, worried look as well, murmuring quietly: “Perhaps you're right. I'll go to the library, then, and rest for a few hours. But please send me those records when you have the chance... and Antares, perhaps you could join me in the library with Twilight Sparkle once you're done helping out here.” She paused, then smiled a little as she straightened slowly. “By the way, you appear to still be wearing your training weights. You're going to be very sore tomorrow.”

“I am?” Antares looked down with surprise, then he laughed and blushed a bit, awkwardly holding a hoof up and studying the weighted bracelet around one ankle as he mumbled: “Well, that was stupid of me. No wonder it took me so long just to get to the Ponyville Hospital... I'm sorry, Aunt Tia, I got so caught up with everything...”

“There's no need to apologize, least of all to me.” Celestia said softly, and then she glanced over her shoulder as Twilight Sparkle slowly approached, the Lich still looking a little dazed, but the recoil at least gone from her body. “I'm glad to see you weren't badly hurt by the purification, my friend. Prestige, your student... it looked like she held up well, too.”

“Only because I don't think she gave as much focus as she could have.” Twilight muttered, and Antares smiled a little despite himself before the violet mare's eyes turned to Scarlet Sage, asking quietly: “Did it work?”

Scarlet Sage nodded, replying quietly: “I was just telling Celestia that it seems to have gone from ultra-virulent plague to no worse than a bad flu, so now we just need to get most of these ponies home and back in bed. Are you okay yourself, Twilight? I know you don't really have to worry about illness but... that wave of magic...”

“I... I'm fine. I'm surprised, but I'm okay.” Twilight hesitated, raising her head a bit as she added: “The purification in the air isn't too bad... why don't I call some of the servants of the night to help? And Fluttershy can ask the Phooka, too...”

Scarlet Sage smiled a little, relaxing a bit, but Antares still felt a strange chill of worry travel down his spine, feeling somehow like this was just a prelude of what awaited them in the future.

By midnight, they had managed to get most ponies back to their homes: many were groggy and complaining still, but a few were already healthy enough to pick themselves up and go. But there were several ponies on the other end of the spectrum as well, who had to be moved to the hospital or clinic for further care: ponies whom the rampaging plague had already damaged the organs of, or caused some other nasty medical malady they had to be closely monitored.

Antares felt strangely muted, even now: the hospital was out of quarantine, the plague was being handled in Canterlot and had been diluted here in Ponyville... but all the same, he couldn't shake the feeling that this was nothing more than a hint of what the future held for them. He sighed a little as he looked back and forth throughout the library's main room, armor discarded in a pile nearby as his eyes roved over the shelves that lined the walls of the rounded room, filled not just with books, but with papers and letters and documents...

Then he glanced up in surprise as the melodic voice of a saxophone filled the air, and he smiled after a moment as his eyes settled on the gramophone near one large table: Celestia was sitting beside it, gazing down at a paper sleeve as a record spun slowly on the turntable. More instruments joined in on the melody, as Celestia said gently over her shoulder: “I hope you don't mind, but it helps me relax. You're free to go to bed any time you like, too, Antares, you can use my room, since I believe that Prestige is already asleep in the guest room upstairs.”

“No, it's okay. I don't sleep much... I guess I inherited that from Mom and Dad, huh?” Antares smiled after a moment, striding towards the table to sit down at it. Celestia only nodded as she returned to the furnishing herself, glancing down at a pile of papers in front of her seat, and the young stallion shifted back and forth before he asked finally: “Aunt Tia... I... I'm really worried. I know you told me not to think about this too much already, but...”

“I know, Antares, and I'm concerned too. But I'm trying not to let my worries and my fears overwhelm either my common sense or the fact that tonight, we did something good. We stopped whatever this was before it was able to spread any further than it already had.” Celestia replied quietly, shaking her head slowly. Then she smiled a little, adding quietly: “Besides, when Twilight returns, she and Aphrodisia and Pinkamena may have been able to track down the source of all this. We'll know once they get back from the hospital. There's no point in worrying about anything until then.”

Antares nodded slowly after a moment, sighing a little as he looked down and shifted apprehensively again. For a little while, the only sounds were the soft, soulful jazz pouring out of the gramophone, and Celestia shuffling slowly through papers... and then the ivory winged unicorn frowned a bit, looking up and asking curiously: “Did you see any sick Nibelung, Antares?”

“I... no, I didn't. Why?” the young stallion asked curiously, tilting his head. But instead of answering, Celestia only put her papers aside and turned to glance quickly over the bookshelves, before her horn glowed and pulled several large texts free. “Aunt Tia?”

“We may have a clue to what happened here, Antares. Demons don't get sick, Nibelung don't get sick... if only Discombobulation or Discord were here, their reaction could have told us more.” Celestia said musingly, even as she passed a large textbook to Antares. The young stallion took it with a frown, and then Celestia reached down for the book in front of her, opening it as she began: “These are Nibelung history. Look for-”

Celestia was cut off as there was a loud pop, staring down at the open book to see a small, chimerical creature that looked as if it was made up of a mishmash of body parts sitting back on it with his legs primly crossed. He smiled wryly up at her, a metallic claw resting on one of his knees as his inverted, white pupils gazed thoughtfully up out of black irises at the Baroness, before he said mildly: “I never really thought you were into pop-up books, Celestia.”

The ivory winged unicorn only smiled in response, however, and the Draconequus nodded thoughtfully to her before he stood up and hopped off the book to the floor: with another pop, he was no longer tiny, but instead tall and sleek, at least seven feet high from his mismatched feline and giraffe leg to the brush-like black mohawk that stood between the horns pushing up out of his skull: one was long and pointed, like a dragon's, and the other was a curling ram's horn.

He reached out with a long, red furred arm, flicking Celestia's horn amiably with his gray-skinned hand, and then he smiled over his shoulder at Antares as the young stallion looked warmly up at him. The red scales that covered his draconic features gleamed, a pleasant contrast to the black scales that covered his almost serpentine body. “You two look like you've been busy. Then again, all of Ponyville was a touch under the weather, wasn't it? It was worse than a case of meningitis showing up at a crowded diving competition, and we didn't even have a subplot to keep things light.”

“So you were around Ponyville, Discombobulation?” Celestia asked curiously, and the chimerical creature shrugged, absently reaching up to rub slowly at his metallic arm: it was a prosthetic, held tightly on by both an enlarged shoulder cusp as well as a half-harness of rawhide, straps tightly cinched around the male's upper body. Stacked plates of metal laid over magically-charged crystals that reacted to the Draconequus's powers, letting him move it around just like a real arm, and it fed down into a complex claw that was just as dexterous as his real hand had once been. It was a little oversized for his frame... but that in and of itself only matched the chaotic creature all the more. “Why didn't you at least say something about what was going on?”

“Oh, because I can do that any old time. Watch, I'll do it right now. Ponies are gross when they're sick.” Discombobulation hugged himself, the shark-like fin and transparent, spiky frill paired with it on his back both flexing lightly. “Besides, I had this great routine all planned out, and then you unleashed that massive purification wave. I had to hightail it out of there with Hungry Hungry Hippo and her kid or risk getting myself turned to stone. Already been there, done that for you ponies.”

Discombobulation reached up and knocked twice on his metallic limb, and Celestia shook her head slowly with a small smile before the Draconequus turned his eyes to Antares, saying mildly: “And you. Stop encouraging Allonym. He's a twisted neurotic and he should be shot. And then fed to alligators. And then those weird birds who sit in the alligator's mouths would eat him too because they'd peck bits of him out of the alligator's teeth.”

Discombobulation opened his mouth wide, tilting his head back and making awkward chewing motions, and Antares laughed despite himself as Celestia shook her head slowly, then asked quietly: “Do you have any idea what could have caused this plague?”

Now the Draconequus became more serious, looking down moodily as he rubbed slowly at his arm and muttered: “Plague? I understand that it may have seemed that way to you, but to me it simply looked like... like the result of bad tuna salad, or that funny-smelling casserole your weird cousin always brings to the family reunion. No, no, I'm not saying at all that's how it got into you ponies... for I cannot think of anyone here who has a cousin that malicious or that strange, not even you, Celestia... but I am saying that this was maybe nothing more than a particularly cruel accident.”

“I don't like what that implies.” Celestia looked down with a bit of a frown, shaking her head slowly before she turned her eyes to Antares, as the young stallion shifted a little. “As I was saying. We need to look for diseases that may have infected the Nibelung in the past. We also-”

“That will work about as well as one of Gilligan's plans to get off the island.” Discombobulation interrupted, and when Celestia looked at him mildly, he cleared his throat and added seriously: “He was not as smart as he thought he was. Inventive, persevering, but really it's a wonder the Skipper never beat him to death, among other things. Usually you're better than this, Celestia, willy-nilly poking for needles amongst the haystack.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Celestia asked, and the Draconequus looked meditative, reaching up to rub the underside of his muzzle slowly. “I don't want to simply sit and wait. I know that when Twilight returns, she'll bring more information with her... but all the same, I feel the answer might be somewhere close by.”

Antares looked up at this, saying slowly: “Close by... whatever caused this might still be close to Ponyville, right? And aren't Rainbow Dash and Soarin' and Avalon all scouting the area still?”

“I hope they've had the sense to go home for the night by now. Cowlick and Greece are more likely to track down the source than they are.” Celestia replied quietly, shaking her head before she looked over at Discombobulation, who sighed and slumped a little at the look she gave him.

He grumbled under his breath for a few moments, but then finally nodded, reaching up to rub at his face as he mumbled: “I should demand overtime for this. Or a bonus. Or a puppy. No, nix the last: I would never be able to take care of it, and it would never fit in my apartment and if it peed all over the furniture I'd end up drowning. Fine, I'll go and take a look around the area and see what I can see, but if I get even the slightest bit sick, I warn you I will become exceedingly miserable and drag you all down into misery with me and will require much coddling and chicken soup.”

Celestia only smiled, and Discombobulation looked at her moodily for a moment before he reached up and honked her nose, making the ivory winged unicorn blink in surprise before the Draconequus vanished from the spot. Antares laughed, then hurriedly put his hooves over his muzzle... but a moment later, Celestia smiled wider before she laughed herself, and both she and her nephew visibly relaxed.

Sonorous, soft jazz continued to roll easily through the room as the two began to study the books in front of them, just in case, but after only a few minutes they were again interrupted when Twilight Sparkle entered the library, with Aphrodisia in tow. The Lich smiled faintly across at Celestia, and the rainbow-maned winged unicorn frowned a bit before she tilted her head, asking quietly: “What's wrong, Twilight?”

“I...” Twilight hesitated, then she sighed a little, smiling faintly as she looked slowly around at the library walls. “I remember when I used to live here, before... I moved in with Scrivener and Luna. And now you live here... and now, it feels even more comfortable, more like a true home than it ever did. I'm... glad for that. You fit in here.”

She fell quiet, Celestia and Antares both studying Twilight with concern still before the Lich shook her head and murmured: “Straw Crown, the coroner... he's dead. All that was left of him was a brittle skeleton. A bunch of bodies had also been... stripped... and the Clockwork Pony's corpse was torn apart. There was... some kind of mossy stuff on the walls here and there, stains and... I don't want to guess at it. They already sent samples of it off to Cowlick's lab, but.. it felt...”

Twilight shook her head slowly, reaching up to touch her own chest before she added awkwardly, as Aphrodisia stepped forwards with a small smile: “Antares, why don't you and Aphrodisia head up to the guest room? You two need some rest... and Celestia, honestly, I can take over here. I'll think on things for a while and in the morning we can put everything together.”

“Mom, I can stay up with you. I'm... sorry about Crown, I know he helped you out a lot with when you needed... parts.” Antares blushed a little, awkwardly gesturing at her, but the Lich only smiled a bit and shook her head slowly.

“Just hurts to think that he died like that... and whatever this is...” Twilight sighed as she slowly approached the table, glancing over at the gramophone and closing her eyes, letting the music flow over her before she nodded once. “Honestly, Antares. Go get some rest, because I'm going to need your help in the morning.”

“Go ahead, use my room, Prestige is already in the guest room.” Celestia said gently, half to Antares and half to Twilight, and the Lich nodded a little as the young stallion hesitated, but then smiled faintly when Aphrodisia almost bounced forwards and firmly butted her head into him, forcing him up to his hooves.

“Sleepover, cousin! Come on, come on, let's go!” Aphrodisia said warmly, and Antares nodded and blushed, barely managing to call out a hurried 'goodnight' as she pushed him through the room and the archway leading into a short corridor, the demon saying brightly: “I don't get to have sleepovers that often... Avalon's no fun because she actually sleeps and Rustproof is too busy half the time. And his Mom is crazy-protective.”

“Apps...” Antares started, and then he winced when she shoved him firmly through the doorway and into Celestia's bedroom: the bed here was enormous and rounded and neatly made, the centerpiece in a room composed of shelves filled with books and letters and strange odds and ends, several paintings over the walls and Celestia's armor placed aside in a heavy stand that also held a massive golden sword.

Aphrodisia shoved him towards the bed, and Antares yelped as he was all but thrown into it before the demon giggled and leapt forwards, bursting apart into dark smoke that twisted downwards under the blankets. Then the demon reformed, sitting up and sticking her head out from under the sheets and a thick comforter as she declared: “Let's tell ghost stories!”

Antares couldn't help but smile despite himself, his horn lighting up and casting a soft blue glow through the dark room before he flicked his head to the side, and the open door was gently closed with telekinesis. Aphrodisia smiled brightly at this, and then she scowled when Antares said mildly: “You're a demon, Apps. Somehow, that makes telling ghost stories seem a little silly.”

“You're silly.” Aphrodisia scoffed, then she shook her head vehemently before adding: “Besides, undead and demons are two totally different things. Mommy is a really powerful demon, but Aunt Twilight's undead and she might be even stronger than Mommy. Although I think Mommy could still beat her up if she wanted to.”

Antares laughed despite himself, gazing warmly over at his cousin: his cousin, showing how emotionally childlike she was in spite of her physical age. “You're so silly, Apps. But... honestly, maybe we should just sleep, too. It sounds like tomorrow's going to be a big day and all and... I got a lot on my mind.”

“I know, Nova.” Aphrodisia softened, then she wiggled her way over to him before tossing the sheets and comforter around the young stallion, making him smile as her foreleg wrapped tightly around his shoulders and she nuzzled him affectionately. “But Daddy always says if you can find a reason to be happy, then you gotta be happy, even if it's the saddest time in your life. Sadness isn't bad but smiling is better.”

Antares nodded a little, and then he allowed the glow to die out from around his horn, leaving the two in darkness and quiet for a few moments as they rested together. Aphrodisia closed her eyes, dropping her head against his shoulder, and then she gave a small smile as she added softly: “I'm glad we're family, Nova. I'm even more glad we're such good friends.”

“Me too.” Antares said softly, wrapping a forelimb gently around his cousin's shoulders, and he closed his eyes, letting his head rest against hers as they sat together in the darkness. It was comfortable, and Antares smiled a little before he asked finally: “So... how's your whole... demon thing going? You work hard with your Mom on that stuff all the time, right?”

Aphrodisia smiled again, and Antares could feel it through the darkness as she pushed her side against his, saying softly: “I do, yeah. Mommy says I'm really lucky and Daddy is always telling me how proud he is of me. I'm not ready for the tougher stuff yet, like possessions, but I'm going to get there, I am. I'm still just trying really hard to 'tame' myself, like Mommy says. If I get too worked up or anything, I go full-demon and it gets really hard for me to control myself.”

“You're already amazing, Apps. You're just gonna get better.” Antares said firmly, and Aphrodisia smiled at him warmly before the two finally drew apart: but it was only so they could lay down, side-by-side, bodies still lightly pressing together as Antares said softly: “Your Mom is still like a big sister to me more than an aunt... you know, she and Dad were best friends.”

“I know. She talks about him a lot. Our family's all really close and... Mommy says we should all be really thankful for that. That it's pretty rare, especially these days.” Aphrodisia said softly, then she shook her head out a bit before reaching up and absently undoing the braided knot that held her locks in place, letting her curtain of hair fall freely around her shoulders. “I'm really thankful for it. And I think it's really fitting that me and you are best friends, just like my Mommy and your Daddy were. And we're always gonna be best friends, right?”

Antares nodded, and then he laughed when Aphrodisia grabbed him and shoved him down, pinning him on his back as she smiled down at him through the darkness, saying firmly: “Promise. Promise or I'll spit on you.”

The demon proceeded to loudly make a horrible sound, and the young stallion laughed again before he shoved his hooves up against her face, saying quickly: “I promise, I promise, Pinkslap! Okay, okay, get off me!”

For a moment, the demon only looked thoughtful, slowly opening her mouth and letting her forked tongue roll out... and then she rolled her eyes with a snort when Antares winced away and flailed a bit at her. “Big coward.”

She slipped off him and smiled, gazing over at him warmly before she leaned over and firmly nipped the side of his neck, making him yelp a bit. “You're smarter than most boys, Nova. But it's still silly that you like Meadowlark so much. She's smelly.”

Antares only sighed and gave the demon a half-exasperated, half-amused look... but all the same he found himself calming little-by-little, finding happiness even amongst the worries that wanted to plague his mind in these moments of friendship spent with his cousin and closest friend.

First Contact

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Chapter Five: First Contact
~BlackRoseRaven

“This is ridiculous.” Prestige Luster complained loudly, and Antares and Aphrodisia both glared over their shoulders at her. “We're being sent to play with your silly little friends instead of actually helping out, you do understand this, don't you? Or are you really naïve enough to think that this 'research mission' for Twilight is an actual task of any import whatsoever?”

“Hey, I got an idea. Let's play 'shut up so I don't stab you fifty times in the face.'” Aphrodisia rounded on Prestige, glaring balefully down into her eyes, and the unicorn swallowed thickly at this.

“Apps, come on. Be nice.” Antares said tiredly: he was only wearing his necklace today, since it wasn't likely he would need his armor. He was also well aware this probably wasn't much more than make-work to keep them out of the way, but all the same the young stallion wanted to handle himself as professionally as possible.

Aphrodisia grumbled, then turned around and trotted quickly up beside the glossy-black unicorn, falling into pace beside him again as Prestige muttered to herself and hurried after them. The streets were relatively empty even though it was now mid-morning, and the few ponies they'd seen had been bleary and sick-looking... but they were on their hooves and walking around all the same, and it was a relief after seeing what dire straits the village had been in just yesterday.

Then Antares smiled a little and glanced up at the sight of the enormous, metal and stone structure just down the road... and importantly, at the sight of the ponies in front of the massive, remodeled warehouse that contained the engineering labs. One of these looked up sharply, then shouted loudly and leapt into the air, the small Pegasus shooting towards him like a bullet and tackling Antares backwards, making him laugh even as he crashed and skidded several feet on his back, Prestige squeaking and leaping quickly out of the way as the golden Pegasus grinned widely down at him from where she was now posed atop his chest. “Hey, Mir! Been a while!”

“Hey, Avalon.” Antares smiled warmly up at the tiny mare: she was maybe half his side, so brightly-colored she almost glowed, with a streaked red-and-gold mane and tail that were both short and messy. Her red eyes gazed warmly down into Antares' own, her features pretty in a rough, tomboyish way accented all the more by the single thin scar on one side of her face, as her powerful wings buzzed lightly at her sides with how fast they moved. Her cutie mark was of an apple that had been sliced in half: there was no pony fiercer and more stubborn than Avalon, who could push through anything and everything to get what she wanted.

She stomped a hoof lightly against his chest, then looked up at the demon, saying easily: “Hey Apple Pie.” A pause as Aphrodisia blew a raspberry at her, and then Avalon glared at Prestige, adding grumpily: “Hi. You.”

Prestige only mumbled to herself in distaste, and then she looked up with a sigh as another Pegasus approached: a slender, pretty mare with a deep scarlet coat and a mane that was a mix of chestnut and smooth black. She had her mane tied back in several long braids, her copper-colored eyes gazing almost admiringly to Antares. On her flank was an emblem of a quill overtop a notepad, showing her talent for journalism and research.

Antares wiggled a bit, and Avalon easily hopped off him and hovered in the air, flying beside Aphrodisia and making kissy-faces as the young stallion grinned brightly at the red Pegasus, who gazed affectionately back at him as he hurriedly sat up. “H-Hey, Meadowlark!”

“Hi, Antares.” Meadowlark smiled warmly, fidgeting a little before she gestured over her shoulder with a quiet laugh. “We were just waiting for-”

“What are these?” shouted a frustrated a voice, and all five young ponies awkwardly turned to watch as a mare with a short blonde mane held out of her eyes by a red bandanna yanked something away from an enormous indigo-blue pony, the reddish-brown mare beginning to wave this violently around. “Dammit, Rusty, what in the hell do you think you're doing? Ain't we been over this? I swore to the Horses of Heaven I would make you degrease and re-oil every last engine part in the shop if I caught you with cigarettes again, do you think I was kidding? Well I wasn't!”

“He's so poo-brain sometimes.” Avalon remarked mildly, as they all looked at the deep blue earth pony: he was enormous, as tall as Antares but with twice as much bulk and muscle, his mane falling in an unkempt, short mullet and soft orange, the same color as his short tail. He had a gray, grease-splattered jacket on and a set of welding goggles hung around his neck: his cutie mark was a large, blocky gray shape of a mechanical engine.

His nervous orange eyes flicked back and forth worriedly as the mare in front of him continued to rage: much smaller, piercings dotting her ears and a ring in one nostril and above an eyebrow, her sharp sapphire eyes glaring holes in the male as he shrank hurriedly under her gaze before wincing when she smacked him with the box of cigarettes. “Look, Rustproof, I get that the whole 'stunting your growth' argument is kind of moot here, but what about your lungs? What about your brain? What about your crotch, you want to end up never knowing what it's like to have sex, because if you keep smoking and it doesn't fall off I'll geld you myself!”

“Momma!” Rustproof winced, shrinking down further, and then he shook his head violently before straightening and pleading: “Momma, I'm sorry, I guess I just-”

“Don't lie to me, Rusty, don't you lie to me or I'll make you clean out all the bathrooms here too, and those Nibelung aren't very good at aiming.” the mare threatened, and Rustproof simply winced again before the earth pony mare grumbled, then she sighed and smacked his head lightly again with the box of cigarettes, saying moodily: “We'll talk about this later, Rustproof, and you're gonna be spending the whole night here working. You're still my colt, not nearly an adult yet. Now you do whatever job the Baroness has asked you to handle to the very best of your ability, got it?”

“Yes, Momma.” Rustproof began to turn away, looking chastened, and then he blushed when the mare reached up and smacked his flank, getting his attention. He turned back towards her embarrassedly, and then lowered his head, looking awkward and a little more ashamed of himself when his mother stepped forwards and gave him a quick, fierce hug, returning the embrace as he mumbled an apology before hurrying off.

The mare waved at the group of ponies, then she sighed and popped the package of cigarettes open, shoving one into her own muzzle before storming inside the facility as Rustproof turned to hurry away, her emblem of interlocked silver gears visible for just a moment before the doors swung closed behind her. The colt grinned lamely back and forth at his friends as he approached them, then winced when Meadowlark slapped the back off his head lightly and Avalon asked wryly: “You learn your lesson yet?”

Rustproof only dropped his head in embarrassment, and Antares sighed, shaking his head and smiling awkwardly over at his friend. “You're still a kid, Rusty... no offense. You know you shouldn't be smoking anyway.”

The indigo colt only shrugged absently, looking up with a bit of a smile before Avalon hurriedly rose a hoof, waving it wildly. “Oh, but let's stick around here for a few minutes! I bet Cowlick's going to go figure out who you got the cigarettes from in the first place and kick their flank!”

Rustproof only looked up with an awkward smile, however, and shrugged: just that look was enough to tell his friends, who knew the young not-quite-stallion well enough to understand his myriad of gestures and expressions clearly, that he hadn't been given these cigarettes by any Nibelung in the facility, but had picked them up himself. That was how he'd started smoking in the first place, despite being only thirteen years old: a Nibelung worker had started sharing cigarettes with him when Cowlick wasn't looking, and it had gone on for a good while until Rustproof had been caught.

What had happened then was a favorite story of many of the engineers: Cowlick, not content with simply firing the worker who had been slipping her son cigarettes, had set up on the roof of the engineering lab with a rifle loaded with rubber slugs. The Nibelung, always inventive storytellers, would often reenact this scene: the poor fool walking into work early one morning by himself, only to be greeted by a howl of 'you're fired!' followed by a rubber bullet to the head.

Rusty had never quite kicked his habit, however, and every few months Cowlick would catch him with a cigarette, or find a pack of smokes tucked haphazardly away in his dresser, and the young male would end up cleaning the entire facility by himself or doing some other horrible task while Cowlick lectured him up and down. And his father, Ross, would try and scold him too, but Ross was no good at being angry: instead, he would usually just come across as worried, although in a way that was even more effective in making gentle Rustproof feel guilty over his particularly-bad habit.

Apart from smoking, though, Rustproof was a healthy and happy colossus, carefree, gentle and kind, even if he was always a little quiet and tended to talk through his smiles and his eyes. He was the second youngest of the group, only a little more than two years older than Ambrosia: but even though he was still a colt and not yet a young stallion, he was as smart as they were and a welcome member of the circle of friends.

“You earth ponies. Truly it's a hallmark of your kind: you know it's bad for you, yet you continue to do it all the same, and often in plain sight of those whom you know will punish you for it.” Prestige said distastefully, ignoring the eyes that glared at her as Rustproof blushed a little. “What utter nonsense.”

“Funny, Prestige, it sounds like you're doing the same thing. Rusty might be poo-brain and all but even he ain't dumb enough to go running his mouth off like you do every five minutes.” Avalon said shortly, and then she paused and added: “Not that... you ever really run you mouth off at all, Rustproof. Which is weird. You won't swear, drink, or do anything else fun or bad but you'll smoke all the time, how does that even work?”

“I didn't know it was somethin' bad until too late, I guess.” Rustproof answered honestly, shrugging a little as he gave a bit of a smile. “And now it's just a part of who I am.”

“Oh, don't say that, Rusty. I don't like it when you smoke. I worry about you.” Meadowlark said softly, nudging the large male equine lightly and Antares nodded in agreement as Rustproof fidgeted a bit. Then the group fell quiet for a few moments as they strode onwards, Avalon buzzing quietly back and forth above them through the air, before Meadowlark finally asked quietly: “So... Antares, what are we supposed to be doing?”

“Avalon, you wanna tell them?” Antares asked curiously, and Avalon snorted and shook her head vehemently, making the young stallion sigh tiredly. “Great hustle, Aviator.”

“Shut up, Mir.” Avalon replied cheerfully, buzzing down and landing easily on his back: she was small and lightweight enough she could stand on top of him without difficulty, and Antares was by now so used to this that he simply kept walking.

He smiled over his shoulder at her, then looked ahead as he felt the rest of his friends' eyes settle on him, saying calmly as he led the way forwards and they naturally fell into pace around him: “It's pretty simple, guys...” Only Prestige looked miffed at being referred to as a 'guy.' “Aunt Tia and my Mom want us take a look at the area between Ponyville and the hospital, see if we can find anything. Rainbow Dash already came by this morning, said there was something wrong with the creek that runs through that area, so that's probably where we should head towards first... something about the coloration being off. The only reason he and Soarin' didn't take a closer look is because-”

“Dad's kind of a big baby about getting sick.” Avalon supplied cheerfully, and then she added in a softer voice: “And he's always scared of getting Mom sick, too, with her chewed-up lungs and all. Hey, Antares, is it true? Is there really a Clockwork Pony involved in all this?”

The glossy-black young stallion shifted uncomfortably at this, remaining silent... and surprisingly, Prestige spoke up, saying calmly: “The disease may have come from a Clockwork Pony, but as both my teacher, Twilight Sparkle, and the Baroness have stated... the malignancy is most certainly no attack from Clockwork World.”

She stopped, all the ponies looking at her for a few moments, before she added rudely: “Is that clear enough for all you mudwalkers or should I use smaller words with fewer syllables?”

“I'm going to throw you in the creek if you keep this up, Prissy.” Avalon threatened, glaring furiously at the unicorn as she pawed a hoof against Antares' back, and the glossy-black stallion winced a little before the tiny Pegasus added moodily: “Furthermore, don't think you're showing off or anything. We all know Twilight better than you do or ever will, same goes for Celestia.”

“I have more in common with them both than a whiny shorn-wing like yourself will ever have.” Prestige retorted, and then she winced and reared back when Avalon shot immediately through the air to hover ominously in front of her, glaring daggers down at the Pegasus.

They glowered at each other angrily, sparks flying between the two before Antares said tiredly: “Come on, can we all just... not do this today? Prestige, you were sick yesterday yourself, you know how serious this is. Heck, a lot of ponies were sick yesterday... do you really want that to happen again? What if there really is something important out there and we miss it because we're bickering?”

“Fine.” Avalon muttered, then she sighed and fluttered backwards, glancing over at he young stallion and hesitating before she shook her head quickly. “Hey, don't be so hard on yourself, Mir. I hate it when you get that look on your face.”

Antares only smiled a little, shaking his own head in response, and Avalon grumbled before she flew a little higher, adding: “Look, I'll go scout ahead, okay? If I see anything really weird I'll come right back and get you guys but otherwise I can take a look-see real fast on my own, and wait for you up ahead if there's nothing there. Sound good?”

The tiny Pegasus nodded quickly a few times to herself, and before Antares could even say anything, she was already off like a shot, heading high into the air and out of Ponyville. Antares groaned and rolled his eyes before Aphrodisia grinned at him, and the male stared before she burst apart into black smoke, twisting upwards in a swirling cloud that followed quickly in the wake of the little Pegasus.

“Oh come on!” Antares complained, and then he sighed and looked grumpily around at his remaining friends, as Prestige huffed, Meadowlark smiled despite herself, and Rustproof only continued to look amiable. “I guess we better step on it, then. At least they'll have each other to fall back on if something happens.”

“Oh yes, the demonic prostatot and Little Miss Solves Everything By Running Into It. That's sure to go over well.” Prestige grumbled, and when the others glared at her, she only sniffed loudly: “Well, let's not waste time, ponies, either way. Whether I'm wrong or right is irrelevant in the long run, since their enemy is an infection and not something either of them can seduce or beat to death.”

Antares and Meadowlark both grumbled but resisted the urge to argue as Rustproof only calmly looked ahead, keeping his eyes away from Prestige as the unicorn mare huffed grumpily. The rest of the walk through town to the gates was awkward... but shortly after they passed out onto the dusty road, the bridge only a short distance away and several figures visibly flitting around the area, Prestige looked up and asked hesitantly: “Antares, what do we do in the matter of course that... we do discover something?”

“What?” Antares looked almost stupefied for a moment as he realized that Prestige was actually asking his advice on a subject, the glossy-black young stallion trying to wrap his mind around this before he hurriedly shook his head and answered finally: “It... depends what it is, Prestige. If it's something that's... from Clockwork World, let's say, we'll do what we can to slow it down while we call for help. But if it's some kind of poison or... sludge or... I dunno, then we'll mark it off and make sure we don't get sick ourselves. Common sense stuff.”

“Fighting a disease-riddled monster does not sound like common sense. It sounds like stupidity masquerading as bravery and heroism.” Prestige mumbled, then she shook her head vehemently as she looked grudgingly at Meadowlark and Rustproof. “Only you and I and possibly the prostatot could battle a monster capable of infecting others. And one of us here could not fight at all, even if it was nothing more serious than an angry foal.”

Meadowlark flushed a bit at this as Antares glared at Prestige, but the red-coated Pegasus answered sharply: “I'll do what I have to do, Prestige. Besides, your magic isn't everything... and I've never even seen you cast more than a few spells in a row before you tire yourself out.”

“Please, my spells are so powerful they penetrate all but the strongest of defenses.” Prestige scoffed, raising her head proudly. “I am a superior specimen of a superior breed.”

Antares only groaned... then he sighed in relief as he realized they were approaching the bridge, before smiling warmly as two shapes shot down from the sky, side-by-side, and landed in perfect time together on the bridge. One of them was Avalon, who was grinning brightly; the other was a sky-blue Pegasus stallion, who straightened and squared his broad shoulders, shaking his messy rainbow mane out as he grinned widely and his magenta eyes lit up at the sight of the foals. “Hey, kids! Heard you guys were coming out here, so I thought I'd take a second look. Not... you know, too close, since that's your job and everything, but hey. Doesn't hurt to scan things over from way up there, right?”

Rainbow winked as he gestured at the sky, multicolored tail flicking as he stepped forwards, and Avalon looked brightly after her father, admiring the cutie mark on his haunch for a moment: a cloud, releasing a rainbow-colored thunderbolt. The tiny Pegasus often complained that she had gotten a cutie mark from her mother's side of the family instead of her father's. Then Avalon shook her head hurriedly out and bounced forwards, adding quickly: “And we might have found something, too! Apple Pie is up ahead, prowling around and stuff.”

“Let's go see, then.” Antares nodded firmly, before he smiled and added, as the group started forwards and Prestige peered almost suspiciously at the blue Pegasus: “It's good to see you, Rainbow.”

“You too, kid. You been practicing lately?” Rainbow smiled, flicking a wing out to lightly nudge Antares' own leathery appendage, the young stallion blushing a little. “I hope I didn't teach you all those tricks just to let 'em rot.”

He stopped, then laughed as Avalon leapt up beside him, buzzing excitedly around her father and the glossy black young stallion as Rainbow easily led the way along the creek bank. “Calm down, Ava, you're gonna wear yourself out again! But anyway, see down there?” Rainbow leapt into the air, easily flapping his wings to hold himself aloft as he pointed ahead with one hoof. “There's something weird starting to spread around here, and the water's real... well, you guys can see the problem by now, I'm sure.”

Antares frowned a bit, stepping over to the side of the creek and gazing down into the water, and he made a face at the sight of it: it was a murky, dark color, and as he watched, some kind of sludge floated by on the surface of the liquid. For some reason, Antares shivered at the sight of this, seeing something more, something deeper... something menacing, before Rainbow continued in a more serious voice: “I'm going to join Soarin' upriver and take a look around there, see if we can track the source of this down. But there's a culvert just up ahead that looks real slimy. Don't go inside it, but take a look around it. Maybe you and Prestige can use your magic to figure out what's growing on it. I'll let Cowlick and Twilight know when I get back in town.”

“Cowlick?” Antares cocked his head curiously, and Rainbow smiled after a moment with a nod in return. “Why does she have to know?”

“'Cause Momma will know the tunnels, or at least have access to the maps. Nibelung work crews from the tech center look after them.” Rustproof answered calmly, and Rainbow nodded with a grunt before the large earth pony leaned carefully to the side, murmuring: “I don't like this none. It don't look good.”

“No it don't.” Rainbow agreed, and then he shook his head before turning to begin flying away, calling easily: “No heroics, guys! Just take a look and find out what you can!”

Antares watched as Rainbow flew away... and a moment later, Avalon dropped in front of his face, grinning brightly as she asked cheerfully: “So, we gonna investigate that tunnel or what?”

“Do you know what a culvert is?” Prestige asked with disgust, and when the Pegasus glared at her, then unicorn mare sniffed disdainfully and strode quickly onwards, muttering: “Of course not. Low-brow midget thug.”

Avalon growled under her breath, then she landed primly on Antares' back and leaned over his head, asking moodily: “Can we shove her in? Please? I'll knock her out first.”

Antares sighed a little, even if a large part of him wanted very badly to agree... but when they reached the culvert, the young stallion's attention shifted to Aphrodisia. She was seated on the bank on the other side of the creek, staring into the wide culvert as if entranced... but she was shivering, too, and Antares frowned before he traded nervous looks with both Meadowlark, and then Avalon.

A moment later, the tiny Pegasus fluttered off the young stallion's back, and Antares leapt quickly outwards, flapping his wings once and ignoring the bolt of pain it sent through his system to land beside Aphrodisia on the other side of the embankment. She blinked in something like surprise when he did, baring her fangs as if she didn't recognize him, and Antares looked at her with concern before she blushed and shook her head, mumbling: “Oh, Nova... you... your fault. Bad timing.”

“I... are you okay? You almost look scared... I've never seen you scared, not even when that giant thing came and...” Antares shook his head quickly, pushing away bad memories before he smiled a little, reaching up and silently touching the demon's shoulder as she shook her head hurriedly.

“I don't know.” Aphrodisia whispered after a moment, and the answer scared Antares as he looked at her, studied her... and understood that she was being honest. “I don't know. I feel these weird instincts rising up inside me, Antares, like nothing I've ever felt before... it feels like I'm looking at something, like I'm fire and it's ice... I don't like this. I don't like this one bit.”

She growled a little, low in her throat, and Antares nodded slowly as Prestige carefully inspected along the top of the culvert, leaning carefully off the bank as the unicorn mare muttered: “It smells awful, but doesn't resemble any kind of magical flora or fauna I've ever studied... it looks like slime. Are there any kinds of living slime around Ponyville?”

“Living slime? Are you serious?” Avalon asked flatly, as Meadowlark frowned and then hopped carefully into the air, flapping her own wings to hover tentatively lower by the culvert and peer into the dark depths. And Antares shivered as he looked past the Pegasi into this, realized how much it looked like a gaping mouth, or a staring socket, filled with horrific life and beyond, deep inside there, there was some pulsating, evil brain thinking poisonous thoughts it wanted to infect the entire world with...

Antares shook his head hurriedly, breathing a bit harder before he looked up... then sighed at the sight of Rustproof nervously lighting a cigarette with a wooden match, the glossy-black young stallion saying in a sharper voice than he intended: “Oh come on, Rusty! You just got in trouble for that!”

“That thing scares me.” Rustproof said plaintively as he shook the match out, and then he blushed a bit when Meadowlark flew back up to the field and landed in front of him, yanking the cigarette out of his muzzle and tossing it over her shoulder.

It landed point-up, the little cylinder sitting in what was more sludge than water, smoke streaming up to the sky as Meadowlark began to chastise her younger friend... but then all went silent as a soft sigh echoed out of the culvert, Prestige stumbling backwards and Avalon shooting to the air, and Aphrodisia hissed like a cat and stiffened, leaning forwards with her eyes glowing and fangs bared.

A moment later, there was a rough, inhaling sound, and the cigarette smoke was drawn into the culvert instead of up into the sky, before a voice sang softly, almost sweetly:

“Oh me, oh my, what's this that entices my nose?
An after-dinner mint... the kind that brings the high with the lows...
Ooh, wait, oh wait, hey, do you hear my voice?
Who's out there, who's listening, speak out now, rejoice!”

The ponies remained silent, breathing harder... and then there was a sickening, squelching sound from the culvert, like something was slowly beginning to twist its way towards them, and Antares gritted his teeth as Aphrodisia snarled and shivered violently, leaping to her hooves and leaning forwards aggressively. Avalon, meanwhile, rose higher in the air, as Prestige, Meadowlark, and Rustproof all quickly backed away.

“What's wrong, don't you got no manners, no respect?
And just what is this I sense, I feel, I smell, I taste, I do detect?
Sha-da-da-de, well I'll be! It's a set of humble pony-folk...
And... a filthy Helheim harlot, hanging with ponies? Now that's a funny joke.”

The voice chuckled eagerly, and Antares leaned forwards as he saw an ill red light begin to glow in the darkness, leaning down towards the culvert and shouting clearly: “Whoever or whatever you are, this isn't a game! We are citizens of Ponyville... are you the one that caused the plague?”

“Ooh, there was a plague? A delicious, nutritious, resplendiforous plague? And I missed it?” called a cheery voice from the culvert, echoing strangely as the slimy gunk on the walls of the tunnel seemed to pulsate and twist in response to whatever was speaking. “Damn! I would have loved to see and gotten me a taste of all them dead and dyin'... where were they lyin'? Was they cryin'? Did they go about it moanin' and sighin'?”

The voice cackled, and then, slowly, a hideous thing stepped up into the edge of the tunnel, Antares leaning back in horror at the sight of its mottled white-and-yellow features. The monster grinned up at him, then its red eyes slowly drew down before widening delightedly at the sight of the cigarette, hurriedly reaching down to sweep this up and toss it into its own jaws. The beast chewed on this eagerly, then sighed dreamily as it whispered: “Ooh, nicotine, my beauty queen, don't you ever change... you're a slow killer, a thriller, a filler of my aches and pains...”

Then the monster rose its head and grinned slowly as its eyes locked on Antares and Aphrodisia, pony breathing hard and demon still snarling, body almost glowing as her skin rippled strangely. “Well, what, look what we have here... a little bitty pony-wony and an ickle baby slutty-wutty. Ooh, I bet you're both all full of all kinds of good juices I can squeeze out of you...”

The creature stepped forwards... then it grinned before twisting its head around completely on its neck, looking up at the staring, shocked faces of Avalon and Prestige before crowing cheerfully: “And more! All so young, so tender, so promising! Well, I promise, sweeties, that I'm gonna crunch you up real fast, okay?”

The monster twisted around, and then its eyes widened and it cursed sharply, head snapping back around as it reversed quickly into the culvert, muttering: “Wait, wait, wait, damn it all to Helheim, how could I forget? Gotta have a big entrance. Gotta introduce myself. I don't wanna go down in the history books as 'the unknown entity that trashed the world.' I wanna be well known! I wanna be better liked! But most of all I want each and every one of you punks to fear hearin' my name before I rip you apart outside-inside-out!”

Antares stared in horror, and then he shivered before leaning back in shock when the monster leapt back out of the well, striking a pose on its hind legs as it rose its front limbs into the air, singing:

“Well it's a real pleasure to meet you like this before I kill you all dead,
Except for the one who gets the honor to tell all your friends what I said:
Tell 'em, 'oh no, he's here, the very thing we've always had to dread!'
'Cause you see my name is Cancer, and you're already a corpse if you ain't fled.

Now I don't much care whether or not you call me Pope or God or King,
I like it when you beg for mercy, but in the same way I likes me some silly string,
If I get it then it's great, and if not somehow I'm sure I'll continue doin' my thing...
So get ready now to die my sweets, and don't waste my time by fighting.

So, just to be clear, my name is Cancer, and I'm going to kill you and you and you and you and you.” Cancer said cheerfully, twisting obscenely at the waist as he pointed at each of the ponies one by one, then paused and hesitated as he peered at trembling Meadowlark. “Except for you, babe. No, no, you're the one who gets to survive for now, so you can go tell all your friends what's on the way! Let 'em marinate for me in their own fear for a while, oh yeah, that'll be the sweet stuff... huh, huh, bet you understand me demon bitch, huh?”

Cancer spun around, waggling his eyebrows at Aphrodisia, and the demon only snarled before leaping suddenly forwards, pouncing towards Cancer... but the monster only laughed as he shoved a foreleg up towards her, which split apart into thick, gelatinous looking tentacles that constricted viciously around Aphrodisia's body, the demon screaming in pain as horrible, bony spikes ripped out along the lengths of the horrific appendages and tore against her as the tentacles squeezed all the fiercer against her struggling frame.

Cancer clucked his muzzle at her, raising his other foreleg and shaking it back and forth mockingly before he said easily: “Stupid little whore. Well, nice of you to volunteer to be the first to-”

“Mommy!” Aphrodisia screamed, her voice filled with rage more than pain, and Cancer snorted in disgust at this, looking at her with contempt even as Antares began to step forwards, horn glowing.

“Oh come on, crying for mommy-mommy-mommy already? I haven't even hurt you that much yet!” Cancer mocked, before he glared up at Antares. “And don't you go tossing your silly magic at me, boy, or I'll kill her and then kill you with the pieces of her left over, you got-”

A black, smoky shape twisted suddenly down out of the sky, Cancer looking up in surprise before it transformed into a terrible, massive beast that slammed into the monster's limb, ripping it off at the shoulder. Cancer immediately shrieked in horror, the severed limb and tentacles bursting apart into white slime as Aphrodisia fell into the murky, disgusting water of the creek, and Cancer hurriedly fled past her and into the tunnels, Antares staring in shock as he caught sight of the monster transforming, dissolving, becoming nothing more than shapeless slime even as his voice screamed: “I'll be back! This is just the prologue, we ain't even gotten started yet, you hear me? I'll be back!”

Antares breathed hard, finally tearing his eyes away from the tunnel to look towards the creature that had come down from the sky: its wings were angelic and gray-white, but its dull-pink body was warped and hulking, mane twisting of its own accord around large, draconic horns, and cloven hooves like claws at the end of enormous limbs. Its eyes were nothing but hellish blue fire rimmed with red in skull-like features, its teeth tombstone-like and too big even for its gigantic jaws.

The demon spat out some of the whitish goo that composed Cancer's body, then it hurried over to Aphrodisia, who was already picking herself up from the water, shivering: and as the monstrous demon drew closer, its body rippled and changed, wings collapsing into its frame, features smoothing out, form shrinking... and a moment later, it was Pinkamena who grasped Aphrodisia and leveled her up, quickly looking back and forth over her daughter's form as she cursed under her breath. “Wounded bad. Kiddo, what were you thinking? Come on, I got you...”

Aphrodisia shivered but nodded weakly as Prestige only sat back, pale and staring, and Meadowlark trembled violently. Avalon was staring down helplessly from the air, and Antares mouthed wordlessly, watching as Pinkamena carefully lifted Aphrodisia's bloody, battered body up over her own. The gray-pink mare gritted her sharp teeth, snarling at the culvert before she spat to the side, then looked sharply up and snapped: “Avalon! Fly into town, find Celestia or Twilight, get 'em out here fast!”

“I... I... okay!” Avalon nodded hurriedly, snapped out of her trance by Pinkamena's glare, and then she shot upwards before zooming through the skies like a bullet towards Ponyville. Antares swallowed thickly, then he winced and leapt forwards, flapping his wings once to cross the creek and pass over the culvert: the culvert that no longer simply seemed disgusting and suspicious, but like it contained the stuff of nightmares come to life.

“What... what was that?” he asked weakly as he landed on the other side, and Pinkamena carefully carried her daughter up the bank. The demon snorted at him in response, but even through his trembles of fear, Antares could see her gathering her thoughts, trying to form an answer... and worst of all, that she was scared. “Pinkamena...”

“It was putrid. It was vile. And only one gives us demons that knee-jerk reaction. Ginnungagap creatures... except unlike our good friend Bob, that thing isn't some slapstick chaos entity. You felt it, didn't you, kid?” Pinkamena narrowed her glowing blue eyes at him, the two studying each other as Meadowlark, Prestige, and Rustproof all gazed worriedly at the two, and Aphrodisia gave a weak whimper of pain... of fear. “That thing reeks of death.”

Antares swallowed thickly, shaking his head weakly as a shiver ran through him before Pinkamena gritted her teeth, adding sharply: “And what the hell were you all thinking? Sitting around here on your flanks like idiots, you all could have been torn apart... look at Aphrodisia, at what that thing did to her: that thing is so toxic makes even me wanna puke even now, you idiots would have been killed just by making contact with that living pile of snot, why the hell didn't any of you do a goddamn thing to escape? Especially you, Aphrodisia, you... goddammit, I already have to watch out for Sleipnir, I don't...”

Pinkamena snarled, baring her teeth, body rippling with a tremble that passed through her... and then Antares stepped forwards and hugged the Gluttony demon fiercely around the neck, trembling and burying his face against her as he whispered: “I'm sorry, Pinkamena. We all froze up and... and it's my fault Aphrodisia got hurt...”

“Hey, don't make this all about you.” Pinkamena muttered, closing her eyes and sighing... but she visibly relaxed as well, shaking her head moodily. “You remind me of your parents a lot, Antares. And no, that ain't exactly a compliment.”

Antares smiled faintly all the same, then he looked worriedly at Aphrodisia as Pinkamena carefully laid the young, wounded demon down in front of her, silently stroking her daughter's face as she murmured: “And you stay still, little girl. Mommy's here... and we're gonna hunt that monster down, you and me.”

Aphrodisia only whimpered a little, as the others nervously gathered around her, Meadowlark silently striding up beside Antares and touching his side gently. The young stallion swallowed nervously, looking at the awful wounds and bruises on his cousin's body, and then he glanced up in surprise when Pinkamena asked quietly: “Can you do Nightmare Moon's magic?”

“I... I don't know. Maybe... I'll try.” Antares said quietly, and his horn began to glow as he reached out, gently touching Aphrodisia's shoulder with a hoof as she looked up at him almost pleadingly, trembles wracking his cousin's body...

He swallowed thickly, trying to focus through the emotions, but it was harder than he'd expected: sure, he and his friends had taken their share of bruises and battering before, but most of that had been during training, and there had always been somepony around to fix things if they got really out of hoof. But he'd never seen Aphrodisia so hurt... and he was no good at magic at the best of times, and this kind of magic, healing demons, it was much more complicated than healing mortals...

His horn sparked faintly, and Antares felt his confidence crumbling even as he leaned forwards a bit further, knowing he had to try... but knowing at the same time he was going to fail. All the same, he pushed forwards, even if only driven by the need to not let down his family, by his friends' eyes on him, and his horn glowed a bit brighter as one of the larger wounds on Aphrodisia's body started to glow...

It steamed faintly, healing a little... and then Aphrodisia moaned in agony, and Antares hurriedly halted his magic, looking down at the wound and shivering as ill-smelling mist hissed quietly up from the wounded demon, and Aphrodisia curled up a bit, whimpering. He hadn't healed the wound so much as cauterized it. He gritted his teeth, leaning forwards again, but Pinkamena leaned over her daughter's body and shoved him backwards, making him tremble and stare even as she said in a surprisingly-gentle voice: “It's better if we wait.”

Antares nodded a few times, flushing and looking down as he whispered a weak apology, feeling an embarrassed blush tinging his cheeks as Meadowlark rubbed up and down his back soothingly. And yet that only made him feel worse: Aphrodisia was the one who deserved the praise and comfort, not him. He hadn't done anything but made things worse.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then all eyes turned upwards as Avalon shot down from the air, followed by Twilight Sparkle. The Lich grimaced as she landed beside Aphrodisia, and Antares began to open his mouth... before simply staring when Twilight's eyes closed and her horn glowed, bowing it quickly forwards, and a dark violet aura encased Aphrodisia for a moment before the demon released a cry tinged with both shock and pain.

Pinkamena gritted her teeth as steam hissed up from Aphrodisia's glowing body... but as it faded, the young demon was left laying unconscious, the worst of her wounds healed, the bleeding halted. Antares could only stare in disbelief and amazement at the ease that Twilight had cast the spell with... and maybe a little jealousy, too. No, that wasn't quite right... it was something else. Some other bitter, curdled emotion that made him feel sick to his stomach, thinking how he should have been able to do that, even as Twilight asked Pinkamena sharply: “Avalon said whatever did this ran into the tunnels... do you know what it was?”

“Reeked of Ginnungagap. Reeked like Fafnir did... I've never forgotten that smell, that feeling, but I doubt any of us have.” Pinkamena replied disgustedly, shaking her head slowly. Twilight shivered at this, and Antares caught this, looking sharply up and staring in disbelief at the emotions he felt emanating from his mother and guardian. “We should get Princess Sunshine, have her blow the whole tunnel system for us.”

“I already sent Avalon to tell Celestia what's going on, and after that she's to head to Cowlick. Cowlick can close down the maintenance hatches, trap that thing in there.” Twilight shook her head slowly, turning and striding nervously over to the edge of the embankment and gazing down into the murky water, and then she shivered a little at the sight of the goo coating the culvert. “It... it looks, it feels so toxic... I'm going to have to ask Greece to analyze this.”

She shook her head slowly, then frowned and looked over her shoulder, asking quietly: “Antares, what happened? Why didn't you report this immediately?”

“I... I just...” Antares shook his head a bit, then he said finally, weakly: “I don't know. We didn't know what it was, we were investigating the area like Celestia asked, and then... that thing just...”

“I got nervous so I had a cigarette. It's my fault.” Rustproof spoke up quietly, and both Twilight and Pinkamena looked at him with surprise as the enormous blue colt stepped forwards, bowing his head. “Ain't Antares or Aphrodisia's fault. They were trying to figure out what to do, and I lit up a cigarette. The smell of it woke that thing up.”

Meadowlark smiled faintly, shaking her head slowly before she began to open her mouth... but Rusty only smiled at her, giving her a look, and the crimson Pegasus blushed before closing her jaws silently. Twilight frowned a bit at Rustproof, obviously not knowing what to say before Pinkamena asked: “You got any more smokes on you, kid?”

Rustproof nodded, reaching into his jacket pocket and fumbling for a moment before he produced a cigarette, and Pinkamena strode over to him, taking this and studying the cylinder. Then she looked at him pointedly, and the colt smiled awkwardly, shrugging and saying finally: “Last one. Momma already took the rest of my smokes.”

“If you're lying to me, colt, I'll crawl out from under your bed one night and help myself to one of your ribs.” Pinkamena said mildly, and Rustproof nodded lamely before the dull-pink mare strode towards Twilight, questioning distastefully: “Can't you do some hocus-pocus and make sure that thing can't crawl out of this culvert once we leave?”

“I... I suppose I could. I could set up a barrier, at least, until we can station demons here, since you seem immune to the toxins that monster carries.” Twilight said slowly, and then her horn glowed as she concentrated. Her eyes slipped closed, and she grumbled and ignored the feeling of Pinkamena pressing the cigarette against her horn as it sparked with magic.

The end of the cigarette burst into flame, and Pinkamena grunted something like a 'thank you' as she put the cigarette in her mouth, blowing a stream of smoke through her nostrils as Twilight flicked her horn upwards and a violet barrier sparked into life, sizzling with energy and electricity. The slime around the energy field smoldered violently and charred rapidly away as purple arcs of lightning sizzled around the edge of the barrier, and Twilight shook her head slowly as she muttered: “Should be good enough.”

Pinkamena grunted, looking down over her daughter as Aphrodisia slowly began to pick herself up, and then the demon said moodily: “Let's just go and catch that thing before it makes Ponyville sick again. We already got enough to worry about without some fugly plague dog running around.”

Twilight sighed a little, but she nodded after a moment in agreement, murmuring: “There's nothing more we can do here ourselves anyway. Come on kids, we need to get you all back into town... Celestia will want to know what happened, and I want Scarlet Sage to look each and every one of you over. I don't want any of you getting sick, especially not with most of Ponyville still feeling the effects of this thing.”

Antares hung his head silently as the others nodded, and then the glossy black stallion quickly turned and hurried up to Aphrodisia's side as she carefully pulled herself to her hooves. Demon leaned against her cousin, mumbling weakly to him as they rested together and began to make their way carefully back towards town, Pinkamena striding slowly along on her daughter's other side as she quietly puffed on the cigarette.

Twilight followed as Prestige babbled out the events to her and her thoughts, and Rustproof and Meadowlark brought up the rear. Apart from Prestige's constant rambling, however, the walk was quiet: Antares was brimming with shame and self-loathing, Aphrodisia looked too sore and tired to do anything apart from concentrate on walking with her cousin's support, and Rustproof and Meadowlark both looked muted.

Just outside of Ponyville, however, they ran into a surprise: a goldenrod mare was waiting for them, her blonde mane and tail both tightly braided and a well-worn cowboy hat on her head. Her green eyes filled with concern at the sight of Aphrodisia... then disgust as Pinkamena grinned and loudly slurped the butt of her cigarette into her mouth, swallowing it before snorting and sending out a burst of ashes and smoke from her nostrils. “Well, look who it is. Miss Special Olympics. I thought you'd be home hiding in bed, Applejack.”

“You see this rifle on my back, Pinkamena? I swear I will shoot you with it.” Applejack replied flatly, gesturing at the walnut stock of the weapon held on by the strap over her shoulder. Then she shook her head quickly, frowning worriedly as she asked quietly: “You okay there, Aphrodisia? Ain't never seen you so badly beaten up before, not even when you were just a filly and that centaur monster attacked.”

Aphrodisia only managed a bit of a smile, and Twilight added quietly: “But Applejack, with your lungs...”

“Oh, screw my lungs. I'll be fine.” Applejack said crankily, reaching up to rub slowly at her chest with a grimace. “I ain't old or useless yet, and I don't plan on letting a little asthma slow me down neither. Anyway, Apple Bloom, Cowlick, and me are gonna grab some of the Starlit Knights, form up a rifle group and start locking down wells and exits from the tunnels.”

“Yeah, big sister, but you gotta wear your mask, that was part of the deal.” added another voice, and Applejack groaned loudly as a yellow earth pony strode quickly out of the gates, a smile on her warm features as her orange eyes looked with amusement at the goldenrod mare. She was actually a little taller now than her big sister: something that frustrated Applejack endlessly.

The sunshine-colored earth pony tossed her vibrant red mane: it was tied tightly back with a single white bow ornamented with a ruby shaped like an apple. She looked pointedly at her big sister, as Applejack looked flatly back, then she finally grumbled and nodded, mumbling: “Takin' orders from my little sister. What's the world coming to, Apple Bloom?”

Apple Bloom only smiled softly, however, reaching back into the satchel hanging at her side and extracting a thick, rubberized mask with a large filter built into the front. She passed this to Applejack, who grumbled but took it and put it on, and Antares smiled despite himself: the sisters were different in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways they were the same, too. Even though Applejack's emblem was of three apples and her talent was for farming, and Apple Bloom's was of blooming flowers for her skills in designing, improving, and growing anything from little more than scrap... they had that same stubbornness, that same determination, that same stance.

Then Apple Bloom glanced awkwardly over at the rest of the group, eyes lingering on Twilight and Antares before she cleared her throat and adjusted the gemstone-studded armor vest she was wearing. “Listen, Cowlick is looking for you, Twilight. And if you see her... can you send Scarlet Sage my way?”

“You lesbians are so cute together.” Pinkamena remarked wryly, and Apple Bloom glowered at her as Antares sighed and Twilight gave the demon a flat look. “I mean, this is the sixth time you two have 'broken up' and then come crawling back to each other, isn't it?”

“Well excuse me all to hell for not just beating her like you beat Sleipnir.” Apple Bloom said flatly, and then she sighed and mumbled: “Besides, ain't that easy. And this ain't about that, anyway, Cowlick wants her coming with us to check for infection and stuff.”

“Just don't run off to make out with her.” Applejack mumbled in a muffled, surly voice from behind her mask, and Apple Bloom flushed and glared at her big sister, who only grumbled in response. “I ain't apologizing for nothing. I hate this thing. Makes me feel like a bad dog.”

“Well, that's fitting. You are a bitch, after all.” Pinkamena said mildly, and then she easily paced forwards as Rustrpoof blushed, Aphrodisia groaned, and Antares sighed tiredly. Applejack only shrugged grouchily, however, but as the demon passed, she reached out and gently grasped the goldenrod earth pony's shoulder.

Applejack smiled a little behind the mask, and then she gestured easily with her head to the others, saying quietly: “Go on now, don't let us hold you up any. Aphrodisia, looks like you should try and lay your head down, get you some rest. Twilight... you take care of yourself, hear?”

Twilight smiled a little and nodded, and the Lich strode quietly up to her old friend to trade a short, tight embrace with her before striding past as the young ponies followed. Then Antares glanced up in surprise as Apple Bloom called his name, and he hesitated... but Aphrodisia half-pushed herself away from him, giving a bit of a smile as she said softly: “Go on, Nova. Besides, I don't need your help, see? I'm a big filly.”

“Even demons need help now and then.” Antares said softly, and Aphrodisia replied by blowing a raspberry at him, making him laugh a little before he nodded and turned. Meadowlark hesitated, looking back at the young stallion... but Rustproof gently nudged her, and the rest of the group continued on into town.

Antares turned to face Apple Bloom, then nodded when she gestured to the side of the road. He fell into pace with her in quiet as they walked out of the main street and towards a quieter nook... not that there were many ponies around, and even the gates had only a few tired-looking Nibelung guards standing around them.

They came to a stop next to a closed coffee shop, and Apple Bloom hesitated for a moment before she looked down at Antares, taking a slow breath before she reached her hooves up and grasped his shoulders. Antares winced a bit, feeling a strange sensation run through him before he began awkwardly: “Apple Bloom, I... I really don't want to get involved in an argument between you and my sister...”

“No, no, it... it ain't like that, Antares, it ain't like that at all. Besides, we just needed time to think about things this time, weren't no bad fight or anything.” Apple Bloom smiled at him, and Antares cocked his head curiously before the earth pony said quietly: “Listen, Antares. I love you like a little brother, and you know how much I love your sister, even if we butt heads. And I know it's my fault as much as it is your sister's... maybe even a little more. Yeah, we understand each other, we can feel each other, we read each other's emotions... we have that special link between us, that I asked Scarlet Sage to make all those years ago now. But... sometimes that just makes things harder, 'cause unless we're a good distance apart, we end up still feeling each other and hearing each other and we don't get no privacy and... I'm sorry, I'm... I'm nervous. I gotta tell you something.

“Antares, every time your sister and I have a bad quarrel, I end up runnin' off back to the family farm and cooling down there before I go back home to her. But this time was different: I didn't leave just 'cause we got into it again, I left 'cause I was thinking about... real stupid stuff I ain't gonna trouble you with. But Antares, Scarlet Sage makes me feel like... no matter where I am with her, I'm at home, and she's the best damn thing in the world to me. Even when I'm mad as hell at her, the reason I leave ain't 'cause I wanna get away from her... it's 'cause I don't want to hurt her none.

“But this time, when I was going to come back in, there was the quarantine in the way... and Scarlet Sage was in there. Helping ponies, putting all her own problems aside for them, I knew she was, and... it reminded me why I love her so much. And it made me feel downright stupid... if she wasn't a Blood Seer, if things had been just a little worse... what if she'd gotten sick, and I couldn't be there for her? It made me think a lot.” Apple Bloom stopped, looking down, and then she glanced up and said quietly: “Your sister and I... we always wanna be together. We always come back together, even when we try and spend time apart.

“So I'm gonna ask her to marry me, Antares, and I wanted to tell you first 'cause... I know how important she is to you, and you're... special to me, too.” Apple Bloom smiled a little, and Antares stared stupidly up at the earth pony. “And besides, I'm gonna need your help. I ain't stupid enough to think I know every little thing about your sister so... I need you to help me figure out... well, a lot of stuff.”

“Wow...” Antares murmured quietly, laughing a little before he asked hesitantly: “Do you want.. Celestia to preside? I can ask Aunt Tia, I'm sure she'd say yes...”

“Yeah. But I don't think either of us want nothin' too formal. Just something to show... we're together.” Apple Bloom smiled a little, then she leaned forwards and kissed Antares' forehead, adding quietly: “And one other thing, Antares. When I was a filly, me and Scoot and Sweetie... we screwed up a lot. And as we got older, we continued to screw up a lot... even today, I screw up a whole bunch. But Antares, that's part of life: that's how you learn, and you grow. You make mistakes, you wade in over your head, or you do something dumb. Antares, just 'cause things went wrong... don't mean it would have gone any better if things had went right, do you understand?”

Antares flushed and lowered his head silently, and Apple Bloom softened, saying quietly: “Don't go beating yourself up now. Ain't no point in that. Remember what Sleipnir's always telling us, huh? 'If you make a mistake, study it, learn from it, then smile and do it better next time.' Ain't that right?”

“Right. I... Apple Bloom, thank you.” Antares smiled and looked up, hesitantly nodding, and he shifted a bit on his hooves before saying finally: “Tell her right when you see her. Walk up to her, give her a kiss, and tell her. Nothing means more to her than when she's reminded you aren't ashamed of who you are, or who she is. That means more to her than any expensive jewelry or anything else.”

Apple Bloom looked at him thoughtfully, then she nodded slowly once and smiled, reaching up to ruffle his mane firmly. “Yeah. I should know that, too, shouldn't I? Thanks, Antares. You're a good kid.”

Antares only smiled at this, closing his eyes and bowing his head in thanks to the earth pony before they traded one last look, one last smile, then turned and hurried on their separate ways and their separate missions.

The Hunt Begins

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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...”

Bedlam And Mayhem

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Chapter Seven: Bedlam And Mayhem
~BlackRoseRaven

The mottled white monster grumbled under its breath as it slithered through the sewers, feeling disgusted. Oh, it had all been going so smoothly at first! And better yet, as it had followed the Nightmare, it had come across delicious, nutritious snacks and enticing little tasties here and there: motor oil, toxic solvents, poisonous bleaches and cleaning fluids that had all seeped down from above. And the smells had become all the more delicious and delightful as it had continued eagerly along the path: it hadn't just been chasing the Nightmare by that point, it had been following the cloying scent of what smelled like paradise.

But its progress had been blocked at the end of the road by some kind of hatch that it couldn't move, couldn't budge, couldn't slip past... and Cancer spat to the side in disgust, whispering: “Oh, but I'm gonna get in there, one way or another, yes, yes I am. That place tastes of chemicals and war and machines... after I cut up these ponies and put 'em in a stew, I'm gonna love me helping myself to that... whatever-that-is. Once I make my way into the village up above, won't be hard to find... everything in there is gonna be mine-mine-mine!”

He half-sang the last lines, then twitched before adding in a grumble: “Assuming I ever get out of this stupid place... what a... what... what a...”

Cancer's head rose suddenly as something caught his nostrils... and then his eyes widened as he heard something up ahead before quickly splashing down the tunnel. He'd been wandering for hours and hours through the sewers, trying to memorize the twists and turns, leaving large smears of slime and mold here and there, unconsciously spreading his disease as he got familiar with the place... and found with disgust that many of the entrances and exits had already been blocked off. But now, now he could smell it, he could hear it, and oh, he could feel the cold air brushing against his body and sending chills through his amorphous form.

“Freedom!” Cancer whispered eagerly, and then he grinned widely as he licked his teeth and suddenly twisted to the side, his lower legs half-dissolving into sticky goo as he trotted up the wall and up to the stone ceiling, his red eyes glowing brightly in the darkness as he half-crawled, half-snaked bizarrely along the ceiling, grinning viciously as he rounded a corner and his eyes widened at the sight of a large, ugly pile of rotting fish that had filled the sewer tunnel ahead.

The putrid, reeking pile glimmered like treasure in the eyes of the destruction entity, bathed in moonlight spilling down from a wide, round hole in the roof of the tunnel. Cancer giggled again as he carefully crawled forwards, and then he froze as he heard footsteps before a bucket's worth of more rotten fish were poured into the passage, as a voice asked nervously: “Are you sure about this?”

“Oh, shut up pony.” retorted another voice crankily: likely a Nibelung from the accent. “Pony ponies worry too much. We told get rid of bad food, we getting rid of bad food. Now go get bucket.”

“I... fine.” muttered the other voice, and Cancer grinned widely before he crawled rapidly forwards over the ceiling to the edge of the hole, his head craning outwards, neck stretching ridiculously as his unnatural white flesh rippled until he was able to peer into the deep night air. A pony was walking off, and there was a Nibelung standing right in front of him, back to the monster...

Cancer snapped a forelimb up and out of the hole, and it split apart into sinuous tentacles that rapidly wrapped around the Nibelung, one long appendage snapping around his muzzle and face to stop him from crying out. His arms whipped up into the air, tossing the steel bucket he was holding high into the sky before Cancer dragged him backwards, yanking him down into the hole. The dwarf just brushed against the pile of fish, and then he was whiplashed back upwards, his eyes widening in horror at the sight of Cancer's entire back splitting open like gaping jaws...

The bucket came down and hit a rock with a loud clank, and the pony spun around with surprise, looking back and forth before frowning worriedly. He carefully made his way back over towards the hole, calling nervously: “Brand? Brand, I... come on, this isn't the time for jokes...”

The pony looked back and forth, frowning worriedly before he winced as he approached the hole, leaning down slowly... and then he screeched and stumbled backwards when the Nibelung's head shoved up out of the hole, grinning widely. “Boo!”

“I... you scared the hell out of me, I thought.... I t-t-thought...” The pony's voice died out into a whimper as he stared in horror at the sight of the Nibelung's head as he realized it was now attached to some ugly, misshapen monster that was crawling slowly up from the hole, the pony beginning to hyperventilate as the beast hauled itself slowly, impossibly upwards. Then the grinning, decapitated head twisted before there was an ugly slurping sound as it was yanked backwards into a now-headless body, and a moment later Cancer's own head popped back out and into place with a slurp of flesh.

He winked at the pale, shaking pony, then made a horrible retching sound before spitting out a bare, cracked skull of a Nibelung and several bones, saying conversationally: “Ain't eaten me a dwarf for a long, long time, tastes even better than I remember! Ooh, they grown tougher over the years, but there's still some tender morsels if you poke 'em just right...”

The pony stared... then his eyes rolled up into the back of his head as he collapsed in a dead faint, and Cancer huffed at this, rearing back and looking offended. “Well then, screw you too, mister nappy! How dare you, I'm sharing my culinary prowess about this most delectable of delights and you go and die right in front of me? Shame, sir, shame on you! Shame on your family! Shame on your family's family! Shame on your... oh, wait. Oh. You're asleep. Hey, I totally knew that, really. Itty-bitty-baby just fell asleep 'cause he missed his bedtime, yeah, of course that's what happened.”

Cancer giggled as he looked back and forth, then frowned before he reared back again, snapping angrily: “Wait, you sayin' without sayin' that I bored you not to tears but right to sleep? Well, I think you need an attitude adjustment!'

With that, Cancer stepped forwards and shoved his hoof firmly against the pony's forehead, sending up a sick squelch as part of his leg dissolved and spread in white, gooey streamers over the pony's face. The earth pony gargled weakly, shivering and drooling a little as tiny tendrils burrowed through his skin, spreading numbing toxins and parasites through his flesh and blood and into his brain.. and then the pony's eyes snapped open as Cancer drew his leg back and grinned widely, his red eyes glowing as he marveled: “I didn't know I could do that!”

Slowly, the pony crawled his way up to his hooves in front of him, drooling slackly, his irises turned a putrid white and sclera bloody red. The pony inhaled deeply, then he whispered: “What do you want me to do?”

“Ooh, hello, hello, hello...” Cancer licked his lips hungrily, grinning widely as he paced rapidly around the pony in front of him, then he nodded rapidly as he murmured delightedly: “I put a bug in his brain! I put a bug in this damn fool's brain and now, now you gonna listen to me, right? You gotta listen to your mommy! I'm your mommy! And your daddy too, but mostly your mommy, I think, that just seems right... I'm King Mommy Cancer!”

The monster cackled, then he grinned as he danced in front of the pony, looking back and forth over the zombie-like pony before he asked curiously: “You gonna walk for me? You gonna talk for me? Hey, can I make you sing and dance?”

Cancer's eyes brightened, and then he grinned wider as the pony began to force itself to perform a jagged shuffle that smoothed out only slightly when the monster supplied a beat:

“Sha-ba-de-do-de-wop-bop-dop,
A deedle-doddle-beedle-boddle, ta, ta,
Sha-do, da-do, pa-do-do-wop,
Deeble-dobble deeble-dobble do-do-wa!”

He laughed, watching this puppeted pony continue to dance and writhe weakly in front of him, drool falling from its ajar jaws as it mumbled along with Cancer's nonsense. Then the monster crowed loudly, sitting back and clapping his front hooves violently together before the goblinoid creature exclaimed: “Oh, baby, I could just eat you up! I love it when the sparks fly! Honey, you're on fire! You're the bomb!”

“Bomb.” the pony said soullessly... and then it nodded once, and Cancer cocked his head before the pony in front of him gurgled, then simply exploded in a red typhoon of blood, splattering the monster and knocking him sprawling on his back with a squeak and a stupefied expression. For a few moments, Cancer only stared at the twinkling stars in the night sky above, blinking slowly, and then his long tongue snaked out and slowly licked over his muzzle as much of the blood was absorbed back into his body, pointing at the constellations.

“Hey, look at that. I think that's a planet, right?” Cancer paused, then he sat up, glancing back and forth before frowning when he saw the only thing left of the pony was its smoldering hooves. Then his eyes filled with understanding, nodding slowly as he reminded himself: “Right. Blowin' up kills other folks. Huh. That's cool.”

Cancer bounced back to his hooves, looking back and forth as he licked his lips absently, then he grinned widely as he noted a wagon in the distance still half-full of rotting fish. He began to prance towards this, attracted by the smell of rot... before his head slowly craned to the side as he caught a whiff of something else. Something alive, something that could fill his hungers a whole lot better than a tub of rotting fish gone putrid with plague...

The monster let his hooves guide him away from the wagon, bouncing along the faintly-visible tracks in the grasses that had been left by the wheels of the carriage. He hummed to himself as he looked back and forth, licking his teeth as he realized he was outside of the village... before he grinned slowly, eyes widening in delight as he realized there was some kind of large, barn-shaped structure up ahead, along with what looked like several large corrals and external kennels. There were a few other outbuildings as well, but it was the main structure and the corral closest to it that caught the monster's attention: he could smell the reek of Helheim, and he could see rumbling, large creatures pacing nervously... “And oh, oh, oh... what a delicious idea comes to mind...”

The monster grinned widely as he continued forwards, and one of the massive, scaled creatures in the kennel hissed at him... but even with as aggressive as they were reputed to be, the Marsh Drake shivered and backed away a few steps when Cancer bounded up to the fence, leaning over it and whispering: “Hey, there, aren't you a pretty lady? Now, don't you worry 'bout a thing, you and me and all your friends, we're gonna get along nice and fine...”

Cancer grinned widely, then he simply pushed forwards against the wooden fencing, his body melting and seeping between the slats to reform inside the corral as casually as if he'd stepped through a doorway, not a wall, and the other drakes rose their heads, hissing balefully but backing quickly away, eying the monster warily. Cancer only grinned as he walked forwards, eyes gleaming as he approached the closest Marsh Drake fearlessly, licking his teeth: a wall of gleaming black scales, enormous and powerful and dangerous, he thought it was wonderful that these silly little ponies had left him such a cute little present, all out in the open...

He stepped close to the reptile... and it roared before its jaws snapped down, biting savagely into Cancer, and the monster squawked before he was torn almost in half by the beast's jaws and sharp teeth. His upper body splattered into goo that filled the drake's jaws as his lower body simply fell over and twitched, and the Marsh Drake snarled, then rumbled.... then clawed at its own jaws as it chewed rapidly at the gunk still in its maw, giving a pitiful whimper as foam and saliva fell from its mouth.

Then it shivered violently, before gargling and leaning forwards as white goo spread out of Cancer's lower body and transformed back into the creature, as whole and grinning as if nothing had happened to it as it looked eagerly up at the beast in front of it. And within moments, the Marsh Drake ceased to struggle or fight, making one weak, final retch before its jaws fell slack as its eyes glowed.

White goo dropped out of its jaws, forming a puddle in front of it... and a moment later, a second Cancer rose up from this pile, giggling insanely, red eyes glowing before he exclaimed in delight: “Nice and easy! And picked me up some nice bacteria on the way in... ooh, we'll have to devour ourselves one or two of these big bad boys later!”

“High-five!” the first Cancer crowed, and the two stepped towards each other before they both swung a hoof up... and missed completely, both instead stumbling forwards and plowing into one-another with a loud squelch, before their gooey bodies twisted back together and formed into one single, monstrous entity, Cancer grinning widely over at the other Marsh Drakes even as they hissed and snarled. “Come on, sweeties. Mommy's got a lot plans for you, oh yes he does.”

It didn't take the monster long to infect the other Drakes... it took shorter still for him to slip his way easily into the main structure of the barn-shaped building, giggling in delight when he found cages containing all variety of wild animals and even demonic entities like Hellhounds. Their barking and snarling and panic were like music to his ears as he darted back and forth, infecting and devouring animals, ripping open cages to let out stumbling, zombified beasts to send outside, needing to stop only once when a single attendant came to see what all the noise was about. But the pony didn't even have a chance to react before Cancer was on top of her, devouring the unicorn greedily and leaving only a bleached skeleton behind.

Cancer danced out of the ravaged animal care center on his back legs, singing nonsense words to the night as a small army of infected animals stumbled behind him, drooling and slavering. The Marsh Drakes were already showing signs of fever and disease, their scales peeling and bruising, their immune systems and bodies going haywire from the poisons and parasites rampaging through them. Most of the other animals were quickly beginning to weaken from the disease as well... even the Hellhounds looked ill, as their visible, icy organs dripped water and their black, rubbery hide became paler and tauter over frosty bones. Even the blue flames of their eyes burned weaker, their naked skull features not fierce, but pitiable from what Cancer had done to them.

And the monster at the head of the pack giggled gleefully as he marched directly towards the closed gates of Ponyville, looking back and forth eagerly before he broke into a sudden sprint, yelling delightedly: “Hey, friends and neighbors! I just moved in and I thought I'd bring you a housewarming basket! I know it's usually the other way around but I'm just a really friendly guy!”

Cancer cackled as a Nibelung in a guard tower yelled an alarm, the sound carrying through Ponyville before a klaxon began to blare... but before the dwarves had time to do anything else, Cacner simply plowed into the wooden gates, then burst into slime that easily slipped through the narrow gap between doors, reforming immediately on the other side and pouncing into the village as he grinned viciously. “Hey boys! I brought you all something!”

With that, Cancer shoved a foreleg out to either side of himself as he reared back, front limbs transforming into bunches of tentacles that snapped outwards in a blur, each group tightly seizing a dwarf. They howled in agony as their bodies were crushed and constricted, before a third Nibelung ran forwards with a snarl, raising an axe and slamming it home between Cancer's pointy ears.

The monster twitched as goo splattered in all directions... then simply grinned, the axe buried halfway through its head but the creature showing no sign of pain, the dwarf only able to stand and stare in horror for a few moments before Cancer leaned forwards and vomited a stream of acid over the Nibelung. The wolf-pig was sent stumbling backwards with a scream of agony, clawing wildly at himself as his body smoldered and bubbled before he simply collapsed with a gargle, and Cancer grinned widely, then his eyes glowed red and his head twitched to the side, tentacles constricting and silencing the howls of the other two dwarves as he rasped: “Kill them all. Kill them all. Kill them all.”

Then Cancer twitched again before his tentacles tore free from the dead dwarves, dropping the bodies as they reformed into limbs, and he giggled as he reached up and slowly yanked the axe out of his head, saying delightedly: “But I'm gonna do it with style, too! I'm gonna ba-dop-do-wop, have me some fun... right now!”

The monster spun around, then slammed the axe down, easily smashing apart the heavy bar holding the gates shut, and Cancer cackled before he leaned forwards and shoved both heavy gates wide open with a manic grin, calling easily: “Come on, my cuties! We gonna paint the town red!

The infected animals wheezed and rasped in response, and Cancer cackled as he spun around and hurried down the road, letting himself be drawn onwards as he looked back and forth at the houses and small businesses and homes that he smelled living and sick and dying and crying ponies in, feeding off the growing fear in the air as klaxons blazed and terrified eyes stared out of windows at him. “Come on, come on, come on, come on! Come and join the party! Hey, hey, hey, yeah!”

Cancer's path was wild and erratic, veering down side alleys and streets, leaving his infected animals to stumble drunkenly after him: some of them fell behind or got lost or were drawn towards smells and sounds, one Marsh Drake plowing sightlessly into a building and beginning to paw and tear at it as the family of ponies inside screamed, another hacking and coughing acid and drool by accident more than design on a few soldiers that were running towards it, making them howl in pain and disgust.

Hellhounds were already seeking out any source of food they could find: they were still strong, but they loped slowly and their icy agility was lost. Still, one managed to smash its way through a low window into a household, sending the ponies inside screaming up the stairs as it barked and gargled and tried to chase after them.

The monster giggled as he leapt into what looked like a small park, prancing forwards before his eyes alit on two large statues of ponies lit up by a ring of crystalline lamps: they were of a proud winged unicorn, standing tall and ornamented with glittering blue gemstones worked into the statue's mane and tail, and a single large, onyx sphere in her breast, and an earth pony made of darker stone that sat at her side. They rested atop a large base inset with some kind of plaque, but Cancer didn't care about that, as he grinned and pranced forwards: the straight, stone path in front of the statues was also lit by glowing crystal lanterns, and the area was relatively open, houses to one side and what looked like some kind of school a short distance away, as Cancer whispered: “De-de-de-de-light-ful! Yeah, now we're gonna get a rockin' and a rollin', ain't we... perfect stage to make my entrance.”

He grinned, looking up in delight as two Marsh Drakes stumbled through the park, one of them bleeding an ugly substance from a wound cut in its side, but not seeming to notice nor care. They were followed by a small squadron of infected animals, and Cancer shouted loudly: “Make me a ring! Ring me in boys, come on, come on!”

Cancer giggled as the animals did as he instructed, acknowledging him with rumbles and groans, and then the monster glanced sharply over his shoulder as he heard a tired sigh before his eyes lit up with delight as a pony slowly rose his head, dressed only in rags and staring blearily over at the monster as he mumbled: “Ossifer... ain't... no crime... this is my bed, see, them nice ponies said I could sleep aside 'em any time I wanted...”

Cancer pranced over towards the homeless pony, and his red eyes locked on not the bottle of alcohol beside him, but the trumpet he was hugging against his chest. Cancer grinned, leaning down, and the pony swallowed thickly as he looked up at him before mumbling: “Oh, I... I think I had too much to drink...”

“I don't think you had near enough.” Cancer replied kindly, then he opened his mouth and belched out a blast of toxic gases, the homeless pony gargling and twitching before he collapsed backwards with a rasp, foaming at the jaws and beginning to convulse as Cancer's foreleg transformed into a slimy claw, and he wiggled the fleshy talons before snatching up the instrument and looking admiringly over it. “Now this, this ain't bad! A little dirty, but way too pretty for a filthy hobo to be using and abusing.”

The monster grinned, then looked over his shoulder brightly as there was a loud crack, a flare bursting to the air above as a voice shouted: “Whoever you are, stop what you're doing and surrender at once! I don't want to hurt you!”

Cancer pranced forwards on his rear hooves at this, eyes glowing malevolently as he hopped out between the two Marsh Drakes as his second foreleg turned to a claw as well, holding the trumpet easily as he peered out at a battle line of ponies and Nibelung. He looked back and forth and saw they had surrounded him on all sides before he giggled insanely, returning his eyes to the forefront of the line... and then his scarlet gaze narrowed thoughtfully. Not at the violet mare, or the enormous equine beside her... but instead at the young black stallion glaring at him. “Hey, I know you! We already met! Hey, how's the demon? I got me the munchies and I'm looking to take revenge on her and Miss Mommy.”

The young stallion didn't reply... but inside him, Antares felt a knot twist in his chest, gritting his teeth as he breathed hard in and out and tried to keep himself calm. He could feel both Twilight Sparkle and Celestia trembling with the same anger: not just that this creature had dared to attack Ponyville so brazenly, but that this creature, this Cancer, had torn his way through the village, leaving soldiers all over Ponyville struggling to clean up the infected beasts and the chaos he'd left behind, and somehow been drawn all the way to here, this memorial site for his mother and father.

Avalon and Aphrodisia were both in town, Prestige was helping Scarlet Sage, Fluttershy was out at the animal care center with Pinkamena, dealing with the plague and the lingering infected... all his friends and family were scattered throughout Ponyville, and so many of the Starlit Knights were still sick, or drained, and no one had fully recovered. And now, Cancer was here... but Antares didn't feel afraid. He felt angry, and upset, and disgusted, but he wasn't afraid. He refused to be afraid.

Twilight leaned forwards, and she shouted: “This is your last warning! Call off your attack, right now, or we'll be forced to take extreme measures! And we're prepared to kill you, if you push us... surrender peacefully and we might still be able to work this out!”

“I haven't even introduced myself properly yet!” Cancer shouted in an outraged voice, and he huffed before grinning widely as he leaned backwards, putting his mouth to the horn and blowing a quick progression of notes before he drew his head back and whistled. “Tastes like wine and plays in time! Hobos ain't so bad after all. Now, all of you flesh-bags, you listen up, you listen up real good: my name is Cancer, and I'm here to stay, 'cause I happen to like this delicious place!”

Celestia stepped up beside Twilight, her horn glowing and hefting her enormous sword free from where it was resting over her back: the six foot, fanged blade glinted dangerously, the red etchings of the nine worlds over the flat of the golden weapon seeming to glimmer with warning: Tyrfing, a gift from Odin. The massive blade hovered easily in front of her, and Cancer whistled as Celestia said quietly: “We won't show a destruction entity any mercy. I hope you're aware of this.”

“Well, I'll take that as a signal I should start the show, then. Boys... get 'em!” Cancer shouted, pointing with one claw before he grinned violently as he danced backwards, as the ring of infected animals howled and roared. “Let's all get to know each other and have one hell of a party before I kill you dead!”

Cancer rose the trumpet to his lips and started to blow a brassy, cheery tune that rose powerfully over the wails of the infected beasts as they charged forwards, and Twilight and Celestia both snarled before lunging into the fray, each heading for one of the massive Marsh Drakes. Celestia collided with her target and buried Tyrfing through its breast in a moment, likely obliterating its heart... and then her eyes widened as all the same, she was slammed backwards by one of the reptile's claws and knocked crashing onto her back, the massive beast growling and rasping as it lumbered towards the pony heedless of the sword in its chest.

Twilight's horn glowed as she slipped to the side, avoiding a bite from the second drake before she cursed when it coughed loudly, splattering acid and drool over her feature. Steam rose up as her flesh burned, yet she only snarled, showing no sign of pain as her horn flicked forwards and she retaliated with a ball of sapphire flame that smashed into its skull and knocked its head snapping backwards, the Marsh Drake groaning in pain.

Antares ran forwards, even though he had no idea what to do as other soldiers and warriors ran to engage the infected... and behind it all, in front of the memorial, Cancer danced and played the trumpet with finesse before he threw his head back and sang gleefully:

“Oh! Hey-ho, away we go, stainin' all the sidewalks red with your blood!
Oh! Hey-ho, dosey-do! Let's dance together while we bleed all night!
Oh ba-by, baby, I just wanna let you know that I long for your heart,
Sweet baby, baby... all of me just wants to tear all of you apart! Hey-hey!”

Cancer cackled, then he rose the horn to his mouth again, blowing a short, sharp melody as he played easily with one claw while dancing forwards and raising the other high in the air above his head, waving it back and forth wildly. Then he pulled the trumpet away from his mouth, swinging both front limbs out wide as he tap-danced rapidly forwards while the Drakes advanced on Celestia and Twilight, ripping at them with their claws as they snarled and bit before Antares collided with the throat of one in a tackle just as it was about to lunge at Twilight, stunning it with a gargle.

“Out in the moonlight, by the flickerin' firelight, all these peasant homes our firewood!
Yeah, havin' a great time, singing all our best rhymes... ain't this a wonderful fight?
Honey, sweetie, baby, you know I love you dear, and I have from the start!
Oh ba-by, baby, all bloodied up, you look like the sweetest work of art! Yeah!

Now pay attention, 'cause this is tricky!” Cancer called cheerfully, ignoring the fact that Celestia had just launched the Marsh Drake in front of her into the air and that Twilight and Antares had forced the other onto its back. Instead, the monster dropped his head forwards, swinging his clawed forelimbs back and forth as he started a rapid quickstep, rear hooves clicking loudly as he tap-danced forwards in smooth rhythm. His hooves clicked back and forth around each other as he spun in a circle while still moving forwards, windmilling his forelimbs before springing backwards and throwing all four limbs out, grinning brightly.

Then Cancer cackled as he made reeling motions with both forelegs while his hind hooves tapped in a violent tattoo against the ground, kicking back and forth as he swayed his body with his movements before he spun sideways and rose the trumpet back to his mouth, beginning a bright easy melody as he first danced backwards, then slowly began to strut forwards.

Celestia snarled, armor gouged and bloody as she used both her strength and a powerful telekinetic boost to spin the Marsh Drake she had hefted into the air around in a circle, then she snapped her horn downwards, flinging it as hard as she could straight down into the ground. It crashed onto its back with enough force to make the earth tremble, and then Celestia dropped like a stone, hammering her front hooves into the base of its neck and kicking her rear legs into its breast hard enough to knock Tyrfing loose before she simply flicked her head forwards, and the sword tore free from the beast completely and snapped past her in a single vicious cut that beheaded the drake.

Dark blood bubbled out of the wound as the head spasmed on the end of the serpentine neck, biting at the air for a moment before falling still. A moment later, Celestia looked sharply up as the other Marsh Drake howled as Twilight's horn glowed brightly and blue fire consumed the infected beast's skull, the reptile flopping listlessly as Antares cursed and held down its neck as best he could.

It fell still, and both Antares and Twilight looked up, breathing hard: the Lich's sweater had been torn apart and she had several acidic burns over her body, and Antares had a long, ugly cut over one cheek, looking a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to heal him: around them, the others were still fighting Cancer's minions, and the monster itself was grinning widely as he dropped the trumpet away from its muzzle and held one claw out invitingly, the other waving the instrument back and forth by his head.

“Yeah, hey, sweetie, if you think you got what it takes,
Come and find me honey... 'cause I'll still be awake,
Waiting all night, for you to come, hopin' you don't disappoint,
I'm waiting for you, love my love, to drive home my point!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Gimme, gimme, gimme all the blood you got to give... to-night!

Oh whoa, whoa, whoa, now... sing it!
Ba-da-ba-da-de-da-de-da-ba-ba-da-da!
Ba-ba-da-sha-la-la, ha-ha-ha-ha!
Ba-do, ta-do, da-do... hey! Hey! Hey, little missy, don't you cry!
Cancer's gonna sing you his lullaby!”

The mottled thing laughed, and Twilight gritted her teeth before she lunged suddenly forwards, spreading her black-edged wings and flapping them once to give herself an extra boost as her horn began to glow. She swung it down, sending a blast of blue fire bursting towards the monster, but Cancer nimbly leapt to the side before he half-turned and swung the instrument hard, smashing it across her face and knocking Twilight to the ground with a cry of pain before he grinned and stabbed a claw downwards, ripping it deep into her back as he rasped: “Now, you, sweet-pea, you look like you're gonna make a tasty little tidbit, ain't you?”

Twilight gasped in pain, snarling as she felt poison and disease spreading into her, felt tendrils of the beast's alien flesh trying to snake their way through her as the monster grinned down at her greedily... and then she gritted her teeth and glared up at it. “You should keep your... claws to yourself...”

Antares stared in shock, beginning to run forwards, but Celestia was past him a moment later: in that moment she passed, Antares' surprise only grew as he saw not only the coldness on her features, but the grim smile on her face... and then the young stallion looked up as his attention was drawn by a scream of shock from Cancer.

The monster was trying to yank his limb away, but it was like it had become fused to Twilight's body even as the Lich snarled in pain, her horn glowing brightly as the stitching over her form writhed and popped before one of her wings fell uselessly off, decaying rapidly... but the same rot was spreading violently up Cancer's limb, and the monster shrieked in torment before he yanked hard backwards and his front leg tore completely away at the shoulder. He staggered... then howled in pain when Celestia smashed into him like a freight train, knocking him rolling away.

Antares hurried to Twilight's side, but the Lich only shook her head violently, rasping hard as the glow around her horn died out. “Go help Celestia, I'll... be fine in a minute... need to reverse the cellular degeneration...”

The young stallion nodded hurriedly, then turned: Celestia was harrying Cancer with savage attacks, Tyrfing snapping back and forth and ripping through the mottled flesh of the monster as he howled miserably and tried wildly to scramble away. Then the destruction entity suddenly snarled when Tyrfing tore through his chest, raising his head and howling: “Fine! If that's how you really want to play the game, we'll play it like that!”

Cancer seized the sword, then grinned savagely as his body twisted and bloated, and Celestia's eyes widened before she leapt backwards: it was too little, too late, however, and a moment later the monster exploded in a blast of goo and toxic gases, hammering the ivory winged unicorn onto her back with a cry of pain as her own blade was flung into her from the explosion and poisonous gases seared her eyes and nostrils and mouth.

She collapsed, coughing and wheezing, as Antares stumbled to a halt in shock: the explosion had been powerful enough to shatter some of the nearby lanterns around the base of the monument, and oil and other fluids had spilled over the stone and grasses, flames spreading greedily as smoke poured up into the sky. For a wild moment, the young stallion thought it was over... and then his eyes stared as the whitish goo splattered through the area slowly began to pull itself together into one distinct puddle.

The slime humped upwards, transformed, and two red eyes opened in the mottled, goblinoid face that shoved out of the puddle, the monster grinning widely as it rasped: “Hey, did you miss me?”

Cancer laughed as he reformed, then he growled down at Celestia as she wheezed and slowly began to sit up despite the fact ugly boils and bruising were spreading over her features, and one of her eyes had already swollen shut. She coughed loudly, then spat blood and some unnameable substance out before whispering: “Antares... get out of here. I'll... handle...”

“Oh please, how pathetic! Maybe my poisons ain't strong enough to be lethal to a whatever-you-are like you yet, honey-bunch, but I sure as hell can finish the job myself with ease.” Cancer grinned widely as it rose a front leg, which twisted and split apart into several fleshy tentacles, each appendage barbed with hooks and blades of bone. “And you, little birdie, I'm not about to let fly away. You just look so sweet and savory, you punk little kid... oh yeah, ooh, I think I'm gonna gobble you right on up, yeah, yeah...”

Cancer licked his lips slowly as the tentacles squirmed slowly beside him, and Antares shook his head before he stepped forwards, breathing hard. The monster was terrifying, made all the more so by the way the light from the flames burning over the monument and slowly spreading through the grasses lit up its disgusting, mottled body, played over the dancing tentacles and grinning, lunatic features... but all the same, Antares forced himself to meet those scarlet eyes, to whisper defiantly: “I won't let you.”

“What? What? I can't hear you, little colt.” Cancer mocked, leaning forwards and cocking his head, raising an ear as his limb merged back together and he grinned widely. “Can you say it with a little more oomph, sing it with a bit of zest? Gimme a bar or two, kiddo! I wanna hear your hopes and dreams before I slash 'em up to make you scream!”

The destruction entity paused, then dropped his head thoughtfully forwards and mumbled: “Wait, wait, I can get a song outta that one, uh... gimme a minute, gimme a minute...”

As the monster became distracted, Antares grimaced and looked quickly over at Celestia, watching her struggling to sit up, and he hurried to her side. She reached up and seized his shoulder, her bloodshot amethyst eyes glaring into his own scared irises as she rasped: “Get Twilight. Escape. Now. That's an order.”

Antares trembled... and then he stepped slowly back and pushed her hoof away, shaking his head once and then pushing a hoof against Celestia's battered, armored chest. She gritted her teeth, but then groaned in pain as the glossy black young stallion gently forced her back down, saying quietly: “No, Aunt Tia. Just... stay still. I'll handle this.”

“What? You'll handle this? Like I'm... some kind of garbage to just be picked up and thrown out, is that it?” Cancer snapped, glaring furiously across at Antares, and the young stallion gritted his teeth as he looked up and forced himself to focus on the monster, despite how much it disgusted, it repulsed, it... it's going to attack!

Without warning, Cancer leaned forwards and vomited a thick gout of acid... but Antares was already reacting, his horn flashing as he winced and a barrier of blue energy appeared in front of him, shielding both himself and Celestia as the acid splashed uselessly against it. Then the young stallion flicked his horn to the side, dropping the barrier as Cancer stared, before slowly snarling, red eyes flashing. “So you got lucky, twitchy kid!”

Antares forced himself to focus, forced himself to lock on to the monster... and then he suddenly sidestepped, a moment before the creature lashed a limb out and sent a large, ugly chunk of white goo flying through the space where the stallion had been a moment before. Cancer let out a shout of incoherent rage, then the monster madly charged forwards, screaming furiously: “You stupid little brat, why don't you try staying still and fighting like a-”

Antares lunged, slashing his horn savagely forwards as it glowed blue, and Cancer squawked as a large slash was torn through his features, stumbling wildly before Antares forced forwards. His horn lashed back and forth gracefully, twisting and tearing its way through Cancer's mottled flesh, and the monster squealed in frustration and pain before Antares suddenly leapt upwards and slammed both hooves into Cancer's face, gritting his teeth and shoving the monster head-first into the ground.

Cancer flailed his forelimbs comically as his hindquarters wiggled wildly, and the young stallion leapt backwards, breathing hard. He winced when Cancer tore his head free of the ground, and Antares realized he'd accomplished nothing but make the monster even angrier a moment before it reared back as one of its forelegs split apart into a mess of tentacles. “I'm going to rip your face off and make you eat it!”

Antares leapt into the air as the mess of tentacles snapped cruelly towards him, just managing to throw himself overtop one before a second spiked appendage slammed against his side, knocking him out of the air. He cursed and hit the ground in a roll, but he was too slow to shove himself to his hooves and instead he half-stumbled, half-fell... and the four tentacles tore down, seizing him and constricting him, making him howl in agony as they crushed in his armor like a tin can before lifting him high into the air, and then slamming him savagely down in front of the burning monument of his parents, charred grass and ashes flying in all directions as the tentacles tore away from the young stallion and transformed back into a mottled limb.

Cancer strode forwards, spitting to the side and snarling as Antares shivered on the ground, breathing hard, staring at the sky: he had never felt pain like this before. He had never experienced this kind of agony, or numbing fear, or anything else, as he stared up at the seemingly-indestructible monster as it stepped overtop him and then slammed its hooves down against his shoulders, pinning him back as it rasped: “Cancer's a little upset now. You won't like me when I'm upset, boy. I get mean.”

Antares gritted his teeth, but that was all he could do as he stared fearfully up into those godawful ruby eyes: he couldn't fight, he couldn't bring himself to move, he couldn't do anything. Everything felt distant and impossible: the pain in his body, the feeling of the fire behind him singeing his mane, even the feeling of Cancer's hooves reaching up to lock around his throat, beginning to choke him as the monster leaned slowly down and whispered: “Yeah. I think I'm gonna hurt you a little. Get the blood and the juices flowing before I eat you up...”

“N-No...” Antares whispered, almost whimpering as he shook his head back and forth, front limbs sprawling wide as he stared up in terror at the evil, vicious thing over him, feeling the destruction entity's hooves squeezing tighter into his throat. Its eyes were like endless pools of blood, like deep crimson hells, like the skies of Armageddon... its mottled white flesh like... like...

Antares felt his eyes widen, his rasping breath catching, his heart thudding, screaming, as he saw that its forelegs were steaming strangely, and he realized its hooves felt hot... but in rage, the monster hadn't noticed. Cancer snarled at him as Antares looked back and forth desperately before his eyes locked on a broken, burning lamp nearby, and then he cursed when Cancer seized him by the horn and forcefully yanked his head back to look once more into those awful red eyes, the monster hissing: “Don't you turn away from me, honey, I want to watch that pretty face get all pale and sicky-wick after I give you a little taste of-”

Antares made a wild, desperate grab to the side, cursing in pain as he felt his hoof shove into the fire and seize on something hot and sharp and agonizing, but he forced himself to yank it upwards all the same as hard as he could, swinging it savagely into the side of Cancer's face. The broken, burning lantern crashed into the monster's head, and Cancer yelped in surprise,staggering sideways and grabbing at the lamp embedded in its squishy flesh... before it staggered backwards and screamed, desperately beginning to claw at its face as its volatile body burst into red flames, black, sick-smelling smoke pouring up from the monstrosity as its mottled flesh blackened, peeled, and crumbled away.

Cancer staggered away from the fire as he screamed loudly, flaming body a burning-red flare in the night, his tail snapping back and forth so strongly it eventually tore itself off as the monster melted like wax as he wailed: “Oh it hurts, it hurts it hurts hurts hurts so goddamn bad! Why, why, why, oh come on, gimme a break, dude, why? Get off, get off! Oh it hurts!”

He screamed again, shaking himself wildly, bucking and kicking in all directions before he fell over and began to roll back and forth over the sidewalk as smoke continued to pour up from his burning form and the crimson, toxic fire burned faster and hotter, sending out sparks and embers as Celestia stared in horror. Antares had rolled over, cradling his burned foreleg beneath his body and breathing hard, tears flowing down his cheeks: of shock, of pain, and of anger as he watched Cancer burn hotter and hotter...

Then the monster yelped... and simply exploded in an awful blast of white goo and red fire, black smoke clouding the area like fog as yells of surprise and shock filled the air. Pieces of blackened, hardened flesh hailed down in all directions as embers sailed through the night sky, and Antares breathed hard before he forced himself to his hooves, gritting his teeth as he stumbled into the smoke cloud even as Celestia called weakly to him from where she was trying to pick herself up.

Antares stumbled on three limbs, clutching his burnt foreleg tight to his body, gasping hard as he tasted death in his jaws and bittersweet smoke filled his nostrils... and then he gritted his teeth as he saw some awful thing slithering rapidly away, the young stallion shouting raggedly: “Stop that thing! Stop it!”

But it was already gone, the twisted, mutant form vanishing out of the cloud of smoke that had filled the world and into the night before Antares cursed weakly, legs shivering beneath him before he collapsed and whispered: “I couldn't... stop it...”

He cursed, then gritted his teeth before slamming his burnt hoof against the ground: the agony it sent through him was immeasurable, his eyes filling with tears as blood trickled down from raw, singed flesh, and then he slowly looked over his shoulder. Slowly, the fog of smoke was lifting, and the last of the infected beasts were being put down, many of them seeming to lose their fight with Cancer fleeing... but the statue of his parents was still burning, the fire beginning to crumble and melt the stone, dancing flames and warps in the rock making him feel like his parents were staring down at him with disappointment.

Antares swallowed weakly... and then he looked up, trembling, as Twilight slowly approached. The Lich was breathing quietly in and out, her eyes closed, her body heavily damaged and most of the stitching popped. Both wings were missing now, but all the same, she managed to smile at him faintly as she approached, then she reached up and hugged him fiercely around the neck, and Antares buried his face against her, hugging her tightly back as he shivered once.

“Come on. Let's get you cleaned up.” Twilight said quietly, drawing slowly back, and Antares nodded weakly before he cradled his foreleg against his chest with a quiet curse. The Lich looked at him softly as she sat down in front of him, reaching out to gingerly take his injured hoof, and then her horn glowed softly: the same aura spread over his hoof, and Antares swallowed thickly, feeling like his blood was boiling for a moment before a numbing coolness filled the entire limb. “Antares... you did well. Whatever else you're thinking, I want you to know you did well...”

“I should have done more... done better... we could have stopped him.” Antares whispered, and then he dropped his head forwards, clenching his eyes shut: but it wasn't because of the pain that filled body as burnt flesh was replaced with healing tissue.

Twilight only studied him silently, not speaking, not even knowing what to say as she finished healing the wound. There was no sense of victory as they tended to the wounded and help them to clinics, while a few soldiers stayed back to begin cleaning up: others went to help scan the town for any infected, working alongside demons, Phooka, and Nightmares.

Meanwhile, Twilight, Celestia, and Antares made their way slowly back to the library, and they were surprised to find it empty: when they had left, both Discord and Allonym had been here, arguing about what they should be doing. But it was probably for the best: all three of them were feeling low and weary and beaten, after all.

Then Twilight looked up and across at Celestia: she still looked ill, veins visibly pulsing through her bruised face, although the worst signs of disease had faded. “You need to go rest, Celestia. Sleep, get some of your strength back... maybe I should call a healer.”

“No, sleep will be enough. I just... don't want to go quite yet.” Celestia shook her head slowly, closing her eyes before she sighed softly and reached up to rub silently at her damaged, stained armor. “I feel foolish. We underestimated the foe. We should have handled it better... and Antares... you didn't listen to me. I need you to listen to me.”

“I needed to stop Cancer, and I almost did. I... I almost did.” Antares fell quiet, then he shivered before looking up and saying weakly: “I couldn't abandon you, and I'm sorry if that makes you mad, but I'm not losing you, too, Aunt Tia. Especially not if there's something I can do about it.”

“It does anger me, Antares, but it most of all makes me angry with myself.” Celestia said quietly, looking down and shaking her head slowly, and then she closed her eyes and murmured: “Twilight, you need a new body.”

“It can wait. I'll do a few grafts and staples tonight to make sure I hold together and... after we flush Cancer out of the sewers tomorrow, I'll find a new... donor.” Twilight shivered a little, not liking to think of the process she had to undergo now and then to replace her undead shell. Her body had a tendency to wear out, after all... something that happened more often when she was exerting herself or she took too much damage over too short a period of time.

Celestia nodded slowly, closing her eyes as she murmured: “If Cowlick's plan succeeds, we at least know that Cancer will not be able to survive her trap. It won't have anywhere to run to if we drop it in a pit of fire.”

Antares shivered a bit, looking quickly away, and Celestia glanced up to study the young stallion for a few moments before she sighed softly and said quietly: “You did well, Antares Mīrus. Your mother and father would be-”

“Don't say it, because I don't think they would be. I... I was so scared... I couldn't do anything. And I couldn't stop it.” Antares closed his eyes... then he slumped a bit when Twilight reached up and silently touched his shoulder. He gazed towards her, and then he trembled a little at how pleading her gaze was, shaking his head a bit and hurriedly averting his own eyes.

There was silence, and then Celestia quietly stood up from the table, saying softly: “I'll see you both in the morning. You should try and sleep as well, Twilight. Your body may not need it but I'm sure your mind would appreciate the rest.”

Twilight Sparkle hesitated, but then nodded a little after a moment in silent agreement, and Celestia gave a small smile before she turned and headed slowly off towards her room. Both Twilight and Antares watched her go, and then the Lich sighed softly before saying finally: “I'm going to head to my... my old bedroom, I guess. Take care of the wounds I can, then try to sleep. Make sure you get some rest in yourself, okay?”

Antares only nodded a little, and Twilight looked at him for a moment before she stood up and strode towards the stairs at the back of the room. Then she halted, hesitated for a moment... and finally looked over her shoulder, adding quietly: “Luna and Scrivener would have been proud of you. And I'm proud of you. But I don't like seeing you being so hard on yourself any more than they would, too. Get some sleep... you'll feel better in the morning.”

Antares glanced up, looking a little ashamed of himself as Twilight turned to head up the steps, and he hesitated for only a moment before calling quietly: “Goodnight, Mom. I... I will. I love you.”

“I love you too, Antares... son.” Twilight smiled a little, lingering for a moment at the top of the stairs before she turned and vanished through the archway, and Antares gazed after her before he looked quietly down at the hoof that had been burnt and injured. Now, the only real sign that he had ever been burnt was singed hair and the blank splotches of bare flesh... and Antares shook his head slowly, closing his eyes and resting his face in his hoof as he thought for a moment about how fortunate he was to have Twilight in his life. As a mother, and a guardian, and a friend.

He sighed a little... then glanced up in surprise as Allonym sat down in the empty seat across from him as if the Draconequus had always been there. He smiled across at him, putting his cane aside and resting his hands on the table before he said softly: “You know, I know it's not entirely fair, but I usually think badly of people who have a good relationship with their parents. Projecting, I know. And silly. Unless you end up being the kind of pony who brings Mommy to a job interview... not that, you know, I'd entirely blame you if you ended up being stalked to one by Luna. But she both likes to get her way and of course, she also falls under the category of Mom I'd Like to... Flaunt. I bet you thought I was going to say something different, didn't you?”

Antares smiled a little despite himself, studying the Draconequus quietly, and Allonym looked back at the young unicorn in silence. Finally, the quiet was broken when Allonym asked softly: “Why didn't you use Celestia's spell?”

“For the same reason I didn't grab the lamp with telekinesis, like I should have. I was scared.” Antares said simply, shaking his head slowly. “I didn't even think of using it. Then again, I... I don't think I would have had time to, even if I'd managed to summon up the concentration. Even if I'd tried just a wild telekinetic grab or attack... Cancer's as insane as he acts but he's not stupid. He would have... have hurt me.”

“You were scared that he was going to hurt you.” Allonym said softly, and Antares only nodded, knowing by now how the odd Draconequus worked, curious as to what the creature was getting at. “Are you scared of the pain in the future? Are you scared of what you now understand better the future holds?”

“I...” Antares hesitated, looking down at the table... and then he nodded slowly, closing his eyes. “Yeah, I am. But I have a newfound respect for my parents, too, and for Celestia and Twilight and... I mean, I... I thought I understood. When I was a kid...”

“Herrófriðr. He kidnapped you, and you were brought to Clockwork World. Terrified, out of your mind. Hurt.” Allonym said quietly, and Antares nodded a few times again, then glanced up as the Draconequus continued: “But what you didn't know... is how gently they handled you, compared to what they could have done. And the fear was mixed with confusion and uncertainty and eventually... numbness, and unconsciousness. Where you dreamed of your parents and your dreams were rewarded... almost.”

“Almost.” Antares echoed, and he shook his head slowly, sitting back and murmuring: “But fighting Cancer was an entirely different world. Because... it wasn't just me, scared and alone, waiting for rescue. It was me, and the only way I was getting out was to fight this thing... knowing that even if I did, I would likely die. Knowing that it was going to be all my fault that Aunt Tia was killed. Seeing her go down like that... it shook me worse than... than any injury that thing did to me, I think. It was awful. And then, looking into its eyes... seeing... that...”

He shivered violently, looking down, and Allonym smiled faintly as he said quietly: “No strength, no talent, comes without a price. Without a second edge, no matter how hidden it might be. Oh, your ability is wonderful Antares. You can see into people, you can understand them, you have a mental acuity and natural analytical skill that stage psychics and detectives would both kill for. You can see into the heart, the mind, and the very soul of a person and pick up on all the little details of what makes us, us, and apply that in any given situation.

“But you don't just see... you feel. And tonight, you looked into the eyes of a monster whose sole purpose is to destroy. To kill, to infect, to annihilate everything around it. It's no wonder you were so scared, Antares... having death breathing down your neck is one thing, but that was neither death nor Death with a capital D. You stared into the eyes of unadulterated... emptiness. Nothingness. A harbinger of the Void.” Allonym fell quiet, crossing his arms as he sat back and said softly: “Me? I wouldn't've been scared but still standing. I would have been terrified, curled up in a little ball, crying and trying to pretend it was all a bad dream. I have faith in you for a reason, Antares. Just don't end up being even more self-loathing than Scrivener was, huh?”

Antares Mīrus smiled faintly, nodding slowly as he bowed his head and closed his eyes. And for a little while, there was quiet as the strange Draconequus smiled and Antares only sat, unable to bring himself to ask all the questions he wanted to... and yet all the same somehow soothed despite everything that had happened.

Still Just Kids

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Chapter Eight: Still Just Kids
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares felt much more like his old self the next morning, and he felt even better when he left the bedding in the back room of the library and found Celestia was already up and drinking tea. She looked a little ill and weathered still, but she was smiling faintly all the same... and by the time Twilight joined them – wearing a sweater that did little to hide the fact she was undead now thanks to the additional stitching she'd been forced to apply around her face and over her haunches – both Antares and Celestia had helped one another feel better about things.

The plan for today was to head over to Cowlick's engineering facility and see if the Nibelung had finished sealing off the sewer and maintenance tunnels. Cancer was likely hiding out somewhere down there, and if they could confirm it, they could work on flushing him out and driving him into Cowlick's trap. Antares still had some lingering worries about this, but Twilight seemed to have gained a little more confidence, pointing out that no matter how viral and toxic Cancer might be, no matter what it was, the creature had been severely weakened last night and would probably take a long time to regenerate its powers. If they could lock it in the sewers and strike within the next few days, chances were they could drive the beast out without any further problems.

The three were talking about this even as they headed out the door of the library... and found a group of ponies and Nibelung all staring at a group of three Draconequus currently engaged in a loud argument with one-another. Discombobulation had his arms crossed, looking serious as always as Allonym leaned on his cane, grinning slightly, a black fedora now on his head topping off his strange outfit, and the third Draconequus was scowling moodily back and forth at them, rubbing miserably at a jaw that had one large fang sticking almost comically out of the end of his muzzle as he snapped: “Puppy, don't argue with your biggers and betters. And you, poser, go away. No one likes you. Just because you want to be here doesn't mean we want you to be here, right, puppy?”

“Au contraire, Discord, I enjoy anything that makes you miserable, big dog.” Discombobulation replied mildly, and Allonym snorted in amusement. “By the way, have I mentioned today how much I love your outfit? You look like a musketeer. Or a fop. You're the foppish musketeer.”

Slowly, Discord's expression grew even more sour than it had already been. His red eyes narrowed beneath his bushy eyebrows as he reached his eagle talon up and tugged on his white beard in vexation: his horns were mismatched, one a narrow antler and the other a gnarled blue spire, and his tail was long, red-scaled and draconic: one brown leg ended in a hoof, the other green limb a green claw, and the forelimb across from his eagle's talon was a lion's paw. On the back of the slender creature were two mismatched wings: one was feathered and blue, the other imp-like and leathery.

Allonym paused, then he brought his cane up, poking Discord in the chest a few times with a slight grin and further rumpling the bright red, pinstriped vest he was wearing; it matched his puffy shorts, and the red beret on his head that was topped by a white feather. “Or one of those dress up dolls you find in the bargain bin. Say, are you two a set, Discombobulation? You look like an action figure with that arm of yours, after all.”

“You stole that from me! Charlatan! Thief! I was calling the little puppy an action figure long before it was cool!” Discord snapped in an injured voice, and then he huffed and awkwardly smoothed down his vest before glaring over at Celestia as she, Twilight, and Antares exited the library with smiles. “Oh, what do you three want? Can I go home now?”

“No, please wait here, Discord. I'm not done looking over these reports yet.” Celestia paused, then she leaned forwards, adding gently: “Why don't you try and relax a little? You've been granted a second chance.”

“Actually, no. I've been imprisoned here against my free will and forced to work as a frigging delivery boy. And I look like a licorice stick.” Discord grabbed at his uniform, looking down sulkily, and then he glared when Allonym covered his mouth to try and suppress his laughter. “Oh, be quiet, poser. You're not even real. Even the puppy is better than you.”

“Why thank you, Discord. And I was just about to remark that you look like a peppermint lollipop, not licorice. You know, with that stick wedged up your rump and all.” Discombobulation remarked kindly, and then he gestured amiably over at Allonym. “But I suppose you know all about that, don't you, Allonym?”

“Hey, I already questioned your sexuality first by implying that you and Discord are a couple. Show a little originality here.” Allonym replied mildly, poking at the metal-armed Draconequus with his cane, and Discombobulation winced and poked the end of this with one finger before carefully guiding it away. “Oh wait, look who I'm talking to.”

Allonym smiled pleasantly as Discombobulation and Discord traded looks, then Discombobulation rose his metallic limb and said dryly: “If you were twice as smart as you are now, you'd be stupid.”

“Ordinarily, people live and learn. You just live. But don't worry, I bet your brain must feel good as new, seeing as you never use it.” Discord added mildly.

“I can see why you're so often lost in thought, after all. It must be unfamiliar territory. And I think it's wonderful how much you love nature considering everything it did to you... then again, really, all you are you owe to your parents. You should send them a penny, that should let you break even with them.” Discombobulation continued.

“Of course, brains aren't everything. In your case, they're nothing. Yours is just like a steel trap, after all, always closed. I wonder what things must be like from your point of view but I can't really cram my head that far up my own ass.” Discord grinned, winking across at Allonym.

“In short, you are dumb and smell like fart.” Discombobulation finished, then he and Discord turned and traded a high-five as Allonym stared, slack-jawed, his cane slowly toppling from his hands to fall to the ground.

Both Discombobulation and Discord crossed their arms and looked triumphantly across at Allonym, and the purple-suited Draconequus slowly made a moue of distaste before he held a hand out. In a puff of smoke, a leather-bound, well-cared for journal appeared, and Allonym grumbled under his breath as he reached into his suit jacket, producing a black and gold fountain pen. He continued to mutter grouchily to himself as Antares, Twilight, Celestia, and the other ponies all stared, pen racing along the page as he wrote something.

Discord and Discombobulation both leaned forwards uneasily, and then Allonym finished writing with a sudden flourish of the pen before he looked up with a pleased smile, announcing: “We'll see who's laughing by the next paragraph.”

“What are you-” Discombobulation halted, coughing once as he hammered a fist against his chest, and Discord winced before the two Draconequus slowly turned to look at each other... and then they seized one-another tightly, moving to kiss one-another fiercely for a few long moments as hands traveled up through each other's manes, eyes closed and-

Then Discord and Discombobulation both froze in mid-kiss, eyes snapping open as they registered each other with horror, both Draconequus paling before they shoved one another away. The group around them was only staring, even Celestia's jaw hanging open as the two flailed wildly and yelled curses and obscenities, Discord spitting violently in every direction and Discombobulation rubbing madly at his mouth and tongue.

Then the two Draconequus stared slowly towards the third, Allonym looking pleased with himself as he shut the journal tightly, and it vanished in a puff. He took his time tucking his pen away before holding his hand out, cane flying back up into his grip as he asked mildly: “Want to see what else I can make you two do?”

Discord and Discombobulation both shook their heads violently, and Discord shot like a rocket for the library door as Discombobulation vanished into thin air. Allonym brushed himself off and adjusted his rumpled suit with a positive smile on his features at this, then he cleared his throat and gazed over at Celestia, Antares, and Twilight. “Well then. Shall we?”

“What... what did you do?” Twilight spluttered out finally, as Celestia managed to shake herself out and sigh, and Antares only continued to stare disbelievingly. “I thought... you said... but... what did you do?”

“Humiliated them.” Allonym said with relish, and then the Draconequus cleared his throat and shook his head quickly, saying mildly: “Well, I'm not entirely without the capability to defend myself. But it's not like if something horrible ever happened I'd be able to just sit down and write my way out of it. I can make some minor changes here and there, edit this in or swap this out, but that's about it. I can't just write 'and then so-and-so exploded' and it happens.”

The Draconequus paused, glancing back and forth around him at the crowd, and a moment later he cleared his throat and gestured awkwardly with his cane, saying finally: “But perhaps we should get a move on. I don't like all these eyes on me. Makes me twitchy.”

“Well, I have to admit... I'm almost as surprised to see you standing out here, waiting for us, as I am by your display of power.” Celestia said after a moment, and then the ivory winged unicorn took the lead, the Draconequus turning to fall into pace beside her as Twilight and Antares stared for a moment, then both hurried quickly after her. “You've never spent so much time with us before. Been so open, and we've never seen you in a public place...”

“Like I said, I'm excited. But if you want me to go, I can go.” Allonym said mildly, glancing aside at Celestia, and she only favored him with a slight smile, making the male huff a little as he spun his cane easily at his side. “I don't like how hard it is to make you react to anything.”

Celestia only continued to smile for a moment, before she glanced over her shoulder with interest as Antares hurried forwards and asked quickly: “Is something wrong, Allonym? Why do you want to help us stop Cancer so badly?”

“Because I am a kind and helpful person?” Allonym suggested, raising a finger, and when it became clear none of the ponies believed this, he grumbled and took his cane between his hands, squeezing along the metal body of it compulsively. “Because maybe you ponies can't stop him without my help?”

Antares frowned a bit, leaning forwards and studying the Draconequus, and this plainly made Allonym look uncomfortable before the young stallion said slowly: “No. No, it's not just about Cancer, you're not here because of him, are you? There's something else... something you're trying to change...”

“Oh, look at the time, I have a dentist appointment.” Allonym said hurriedly, reaching into his suit jacket and yanking out a pocketwatch. He pretended to glance down at it, but he didn't even seem to realize he was holding it upside down. “Yep, yep, very late, very rushed, very got to go. Bye.”

And with that, Allonym simply vanished, and Antares winced and staggered to a halt as Twilight gave the air where the Draconequus had been an uneasy look. Celestia only shook her head as she continued to calmly walk forwards, however, saying quietly over her shoulder: “He'll return in time, I'm sure. But you should be more careful with your talent, Antares... you may not realize it, but your directness while using your acuity skills can be very unnerving. Particularly for our friends who like to keep their cards close.”

“I... sorry.” Antares said awkwardly, quickly following after the winged unicorn as Twilight Sparkle smiled a little, the Lich striding up to the young stallion's side as he glanced at her. She felt his eyes studying her, felt him seeing into her... but by now it was a feeling she was well used-to, had even learned to be glad for. She kept no secrets from the pony she thought of as her son, after all. “You feel nervous about him.”

“Of course I am. He's got... some kind of interest in you, Antares, and I worry about what that means.” Twilight replied quietly, nodding slowly once, and Antares nodded hesitantly in return as Celestia glanced over her shoulder. “It's not that I think he's... evil, for lack of a better word, but he does want something. I'm worried about what the fact he won't simply come clean about whatever it is that he wants means for us.”

Antares Mīrus nodded slowly, looking down and murmuring quietly: “Because you're worried it has something to do with me. But I'm not that special, Twilight... I just... I'm just trying to live up to my parents' name, and work towards finding them and... help out my friends and family. Isn't that what every pony is supposed to do?”

Celestia laughed quietly at this, looking ahead as she said softly: “Perhaps, but there are many ponies, Antares, who don't always do what they've been told to.” She paused, then shook her head slowly. “You're... optimistic, almost to the point of being an idealist, dedicated and honorable. You're very much the same as your parents, and very different, too. I just want you to know that I'll do anything to protect you. And if necessary, I'll protect you even from Allonym.”

Antares smiled despite himself, nodding slowly, and then the trio fell silent as they made their way to the engineering lab. Outside, they found Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage standing together and talking quietly, and Antares cocked his head curiously before he smiled when the two mares gazed warmly towards the approaching trio.

“Twilight, Celestia, Antares... I... I know you're probably in a hurry, but... do you have just a minute? I want to tell you something, I haven't... had a chance to yet.” Scarlet Sage said quickly, blushing deeply as she turned towards them, and Apple Bloom turned almost the same color, even as she reached out and gently took one of the Pegasus' hooves.

Twilight smiled softly and nodded as Celestia gazed curiously at the two, and Antares smiled widely as he stepped forwards as Scarlet Sage took a slow breath... then she looked up, eyes shining as she squeezed Apple Bloom's hoof gently. “Apple Bloom... asked me to marry her, and I said yes! I... I'm getting married!”

“Oh, Scarlet Sage...” Twilight smiled softly, the Lich straightening as her eyes grew warmer, gazing between the two. “That's wonderful! Your... your parents would be...” She caught herself, closing her eyes, then smiled firmly, looking up and saying quietly: “They will be so proud.”

“Congratulations to you both.” Celestia said softly, gazing from one pony to the other before tilting her head with interest. “Do you have any plans for the wedding yet? Have you told Applejack and Rainbow?”

“No, I just... I just worked up the courage to ask her today.” Apple Bloom cleared her throat, looking embarrassed as she rubbed at the side of her neck, and when Antares smiled at her she huffed a bit. “Now hey, I heard you didn't completely follow my advice either, mister. Besides, we... we got so busy and just... but I asked her right in front of Cowlick this morning, I did. Probably should have waited for her to leave, though, now that I think about it. Ain't never been so insulted and complimented by a pony all at once.”

Scarlet Sage laughed and shook her head, saying quietly as she gazed radiantly over at Apple Bloom: “Yeah, but you and I both know that's just the way she is, Red. And I wouldn't care even if she'd been serious, you're... you're what makes me happy.”

The two mares gazed at one another as Celestia and Twilight both smiled, and Antares brightened visibly, sitting back and nodding as he murmured: “I'm so glad, big sister. I'm so really glad that... despite everything else, you two found a way to be so happy. And that makes me happy and... and... I'm glad there's bright spots even in the darkness.”

“Light shines best in darkness.” Celestia said softly, then she bowed her head and added gently: “And this goes without saying, niece, but I'll gladly officiate for you. I'm sure it will ruffle a few feathers in the Royal Court for me to be marrying two mares, but...” Celestia smiled slightly. “Maybe I'm a little more like my sister these days than I should be, since I rather enjoy that thought.”

Scarlet Sage laughed again, blushing deeply as she looked up and nodded, and Apple Bloom bowed her head, mumbling awkwardly: “Thanks, Celestia. We... we didn't figure on getting anything more than... you know, some courtroom marriage, but we sure as hell ain't gonna turn down... well, you know. It means a lot.”

“You're family.” Celestia said gently, and both Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom looked humbled, bowing their heads low before the ivory winged unicorn smiled and asked: “Are you coming in with us to speak to Cowlick?”

“Red and I are going out to the animal care center, actually... we're going to double-check the sewer entrance over there, make sure it stays closed this time, and Fluttershy asked me to look at some of the surviving animals. Poor things...” Scarlet Sage shook her head slowly, closing her eyes. “Fluttershy was really upset, and she and Nirvana have been working hard all morning with Sleipnir and a few others. Just... trying to get things stable, trying to fix the damage Cancer did.”

Twilight nodded, saying quietly: “Let her know I'll try to stop in later, okay? I might be able to help a little, too.”

Scarlet Sage nodded back, then she said hesitantly: “Only... if you're sure, Twilight. You... you look pretty rough. You look like you need... do you want me to head over to the hospital, first? I can ask the morgue attendant...”

“No, it's fine. I already sent a letter this morning.” Twilight winced, glancing down and mumbling: “Sometimes I wish I was evil enough to dig up bodies from graveyards like in that story, it'd be less embarrassing... but probably even more uncomfortable than it already is, too. I wonder if any organ donors or ponies who donate their bodies to the science or medical schools in Canterlot expect this to happen to them...”

The ponies only looked at her softly, and then the Lich cleared her throat and shook her head quickly, saying finally: “No, I'll go over after Cancer's dealt with to get the bodies and... I'll find somewhere quiet to reconstitute myself. But let's... let's not talk about that. Besides, we all are... busy and... we should stay... busy.”

Twilight rambled to a stop, looking embarrassed before she shook her head quickly, and Scarlet Sage smiled faintly before Antares reached up and gently touched the violet unicorn's shoulder, saying softly: “You're not a freak, Mom. You're just a little different from other ponies, that's all.”

The Lich smiled faintly at this, nodding slowly as she glanced awkwardly at the young unicorn, then Apple Bloom cleared her throat before saying finally: “Well, uh... okay then. Guess Scarlet and me will be off but... hey, why don't you come on by our house tonight for dinner, Twilight, Antares? And you're more than welcome to join us too, Celestia.”

“I'd appreciate that. Thank you.” Celestia said softly, nodding once. “Good luck, and remember... keep yourselves safe as well. You're both very important to Ponyville, especially during troubled times like these.”

The two mares nodded with smiles before Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom left, the Pegasus gently nudging her younger brother as she passed with an affectionate look down at him. He gazed back after her warmly, and then he glanced over at Celestia as she tilted her head towards the double doors and opened them with telekinesis. “You and Twilight know the layout of this building much better than I do. To be entirely honest, I think it scares me a little. I have difficulty at times understanding Kilby Kwolek and her alchemy... it's really no wonder she and Luna got along so well.”

Twilight laughed quietly at this, nodding slowly as she and Antares headed in first, followed by Celestia: thankfully, almost the moment they stepped inside, the secretary at the lobby desk glanced up before smiling and calling: “Hello, Twilight! Cowlick's expecting you... she and Rustproof are down the hall in the testing room, do you remember where that is?”

“What are they testing?” Twilight asked almost nervously, and the secretary cleared her throat and went pointedly back to work behind the desk. The Lich turned a flat look at the doors, muttering: “Oh no. Maybe we should just come back later.”

“I think it's best that we face our fears, Twilight. Try to understand the things that make us uncomfortable instead of simply rejecting them.” Celestia said softly, and then she frowned curiously when Twilight only gave her a wry smile over her shoulder.

“I don't think this is going to help you very much with your uh... concerns about Cowlick.” Twilight said delicately, but then she nodded and sighed as she started forwards, mumbling: “But okay, we might as well get this over with.”

Celestia only looked curious... but a few minutes later, she was staring in disbelief at the sight of Cowlick as the engineer grinned widely, the earth pony gesturing cheerfully over her shoulder at the large, turret-like machine she had built, saying cheerfully: “Me and Rusty have been trying to get this piece of junk working for years and it's finally running smooth! My kid's a damn genius, and this proves it, he finally figured out the motor components and I supplied the rest... and... dammit, Rusty, are you smoking again?”

“Momma, the nav motor's overheating again!” Rustproof replied hurriedly, and then the enormous earth pony scrambled to his hooves and bolted away from the machine as Cowlick simply glared at the machine. A moment later, there was a loud pop, and then a blast of smoke vomited into the air as a few chunks of metal flew out of the side of the device, Celestia, Antares, and Twilight twitching but Cowlick not so much as batting an eyelash even as a large, half-melted gear flew past her head.

“Dammit, Rusty, I thought you fixed that!” she complained, then she sighed and turned her eyes to the device: it was composed of two distinct parts, one a metal chair sitting on a raised base, support bars standing out here and there amidst jumbles of wires and metal, and other part rested on a framework of bars and piping in front of the throne-like seat: it was composed of a set of grips and some kind of axis built into a large, cubical body, a panel open on the side of this to reveal an engine and a feeder system of some kind. And sticking out of the front of this body, where the feeder fed into, were six elongated barrels.

Cowlick referred to it as a 'vulcan cannon:' it was a rapid-firing gun that she been working on for years, and to this day Twilight had no idea why Cowlick, who often complained about being forced to use her talents to make things used solely for killing other people, had been treating this weapon for years as her pet project. The Lich could only stare at the weapon as Cowlick studied the chair, then she sighed and shook her head, muttering: “Well, fine. We'll figure out the mobility issues later, for now she'll make a damn good turret at least... and one day I'll be able to mount this thing on a rail system. Let's see those bastards from Hellhorse top that!”

“You're in competition with a weapons firm?” Celestia asked with a frown, looking up at this name. “I thought part of the reason you left Manehattan was to get away from Hellhorse's recruiters?”

“Hellhorse, Stampede Industries, oh a whole bunch of places wanted to recruit me, yeah. And I wouldn't say competition, Celestia. That's like saying it'd be a competition if you entered a 'best magic' contest meant for kindergarten kids.” Cowlick grinned, reaching up and patting the vulcan cannon. “But when I put Parsimony here out on exhibition, I'm gonna steal all their funding right out from under their hooves for the factory I wanna build.”

“You have plans for a weapons company?” Celestia frowned deeper, seeming surprised as Rustproof hesitantly strode back over the the turret, kneeling down to begin tinkering with whatever had just exploded.

“Hell no. I have plans for a security company, a real security company, not like the thugs that run Hellhorse and ESS and all those other fake-ass mercenary fronts.” Cowlick said disgustedly, shaking her head. “I don't want to manufacture lethal weapons like this. I want to design nonlethal weaponry and build armor for our boys, and I want to make sure that the killer weapons we do make go to the good guys, they aren't just sold for the highest frigging profit to crooks and criminal organizations and the kind of scum they hire on at HMH.”

Celestia tilted her head with interest as Twilight looked curiously over at Cowlick, before Antares asked slowly: “But then why build... Parsimony? What does that mean?”

Cowlick grinned widely, winking over at him. “Law of Parsimony, kid. The simplest answer is the right one.” She slapped the side of the gun, saying easily: “Hellhorse, Stampede, ESS, all of them have a kind of competition every year. Their best and brightest trot out all their new weapon designs and stuff, to secure funding from the rich folk who usually just want a private army while lookin' like they really, really care about the safety of the nation. Usually the winner is some stupid remake of an old invention, you know, a ballista they made lighter by changing out the coupling material or some kind of transport. Parsimony here will blow 'em all away... figuratively and literally.”

“I don't know if I appreciate your plan or feel like I should point out the many flaws in your idea.” Celestia remarked, and Cowlick only shrugged and continued to look pleased with herself. “But... Kilby Kwolek, we-”

“Cowlick, Cowlick, Cowlick, call me Cowlick. Nopony ever called me Kilby except for my mom.” Cowlick said dismissively, then she patted the motorized gun, adding: “Hey, you wanna see a test run? She handles pretty well, think we still got a belt of ammo here somewhere...”

“Uh, that's fine, Cowlick, but we should talk about the sewers and Cancer.” Twilight said awkwardly, glancing down the length of the long, concrete testing room: shelves and a few crates rested against the wall for about half the length, but the last thirty feet or so of the elongated room was made of a softer, almost-pliant looking material, and drains and narrow trenches lined the floor to the very back. Torn-apart paper targets hung from some kind of rail system, and the wall behind these was littered with cracks and bullet holes and discolored smears of cement patching.

The engineer looked almost disappointed, but she nodded and sighed, glancing over her shoulder and saying mildly: “Rusty, go find your dad and bring him to Conference Room A, and bring Greece too if you run into him or see him in the lounge or office.”

She paused, then glanced meditatively over at Antares, asking: “You wanna do me a favor? You know where we keep our records, right? Well, Meadowlark is over there right now, digging up old construction documents to make sure we ain't missed anything. Go fetch 'em for me. I think Prestige is there too but I'm fine if you just kind of forget about her.”

“Bring Prestige too if she's there, Antares, she is... my student.” Twilight said tiredly, and Cowlick grumbled as Antares nodded awkwardly. He smiled at Rustproof as the enormous colt walked past, the glossy black young stallion following his friend back out into the hall.

The two nodded to each other, and then Rustproof said softly: “Momma's got some funny ideas, but they're good ones, you'll see.”

“I know, Rusty.” Antares smiled after a moment, then he leaned over and nudged the colt gently before he turned down another hall, as Rustproof continued to amble straight ahead. “You should ask your Mom if she wants to use your project, too!”

Rustproof only chuckled, shaking his head, and then Antares turned his eyes forwards, looking ahead as he laughed a little and said softly: “I think sometimes Rusty's the most talented of us all. He always does what he puts his mind to, after all.”

Antares fell quiet as he walked onwards through the familiar halls: he'd spent a good bit of time here over the years, after all, helping out Rustproof, digging through records, working with the Nibelung. This facility housed both new and old together, after all, and as part of his training, Sleipnir had taught him how to work at a forge and do repairs to his own armor. He wasn't very good at it quite yet, but as always, his uncle had smiled and slapped him on the back and declared: 'give it time.'

Time... the unicorn shook his head a little, leathery wings flapping uneasily once at his sides before furling with a faint tickle of pain. He felt like time was against them, like in spite of everything, they were racing the clock... like maybe they were underestimating what Cancer was capable of. For some reason, Cowlick's plan still simply wasn't sitting right with him, and the unicorn sighed a little before he mumbled: “No, no. It's gonna turn out fine, it is... I just... concentrate, Antares, come on. Focus on this.”

The young stallion nodded firmly to himself, looking nervously up all the same as he headed through the halls until he reached a wooden door clearly labeled: 'Records.' His horn glowed, and Antares grumbled under his breath as he forced himself to focus a bit more when the door only shuddered in the frame, muttering: “Oh come on...”

After a few more moments, the handle finally clicked, and the door swung open with a groan on hinges that desperately needed oil. Antares poked his head into the musty room beyond: it was packed with shelves and cabinets all loaded down with papers and files of every shape and size, with a tiny table in the center of the room where Meadowlark was working with her back pointedly turned on Prestige. The Pegasus looked up with a sigh of relief when she saw Antares, smiling at him and putting a file quickly aside. “Antares! It's good to see-”

“Are we being called?” Prestige interrupted, and Antares and Meadowlark both glared at her, the unicorn sniffing loudly and disdainfully. “Oh please, you're the one who claims she has a talent for observation and intellectual analysis. The only reason Antares would be here is if he was sent by someone to fetch us... I would guess the Baroness, since the Lich will likely have to reconstruct her body.”

“Don't talk about my mom like that, please.” Antares' tone was more exasperated than angry, far too used to this by now before he added dryly: “And can you please show maybe just a little bit of empathy here, Prestige? She's a good teacher, even you know that, and you can't understand how much she suffers when she has to rebuild her body...”

“Oh, yes, I feel awful for her. She's only nearly invulnerable and personal adviser to the Baroness.” Prestige retorted, looking grumpily down at the papers in front of her, and Antares frowned at her as he examined her closer: she looked frazzled and exhausted, like she hadn't slept the night before. “Besides, do you understand what she goes through, Antares Mīrus? Or are you simply being her white knight?”

“I'm her son.” Antares said quietly, studying Prestige closer, and the young unicorn mare snorted angrily, glaring balefully up at him.

“Yes, that is also something I fail to understand and find disgusting. Luna is your mother, and Twilight is your mother. Your father must have been very fortunate or very wealthy.” Prestige said acerbically, and Meadowlark and Antares both glared at her. “Please go away.”

Antares shook his head, forcing himself to calm down before he walked slowly around the table, asking finally: “What's wrong with you, Prestige? Why are you being like this?”

Prestige only huffed, looking down as she muttered: “Nothing is wrong with me, splinter-horn, I simply reminded myself of where I was and... what you and your kind are. Go away and take the shorn-wing with you, I'll stay here and wait for something more worthy of my attentions than the welfare of slave hoofs and their preening protectors.”

“You're acting like a child because you feel bad that I fought Cancer last night and you curled up and cried like a filly in the clinic.” Antares said sharply, his eyes flashing, and Prestige shoved herself violently back from the table, but she looked more startled than angry, vulnerable... and Antares bared his sharp teeth as he felt his anger boil over in that one moment. “You're a genius unicorn, Prestige. Just like everyone else in your family. You hate me because I'm just like my Mom and Dad, and you're just like your Mom and Dad too, right?”

“Shut up!” Prestige yelled brokenly, tears forming in her eyes as she staggered out of her chair and looked almost as if she'd seen a ghost, breathing hard before she shook her head wildly and then simply barreled for the door. And Antares stared in surprise over his shoulder as the seething rage in him vanished and instead he was left feeling... ashamed, and awful.

It was made all the worse by the way Meadowlark was looking at him now, one of her hooves silently touching her lips, and Antares swallowed thickly before he looked down and rubbed at his head slowly, mumbling: “Oh wow. Oh... wow. I... I gotta go apologize to her. I... Horses of Heaven, what did I do...”

Antares shook his head quickly, hurrying around the table before he stumbled to a halt in the doorway, blushing as he looked over his shoulder and said awkwardly: “Conference Room... A, I think, uh... the one Cowlick always uses, I... I gotta go. Just... go and... fill me in later, okay?”

“Antares!” Meadowlark shouted, but the unicorn only shook his head hurriedly before he turned and ran out into the hall. His hooves guided him on instinct, and his sharp, analytical eyes glanced back and forth, picking up every little detail he needed to track the unicorn: here, papers knocked off a tack-board by someone, there, Nibelung that were glancing down the hall and talking in hushed voices about someone that had passed, there a door that was still ajar...

He ended up leaving through the rear doors, and hurrying down a short alleyway: he knew Ponyville well, and he knew Prestige better than she thought: the few fresh hoof prints he saw in the dirt that undoubtedly belonged to her were more than enough to tell him where she was probably going, and he hurried forwards before cutting down a side alley, to try and get ahead of her.

Prestige was faster than he'd expected, though, and her head start combined with how upset she was meant that she was already there by the time Antares emerged slowly from an alley: Prestige's favorite thinking spot... a bench behind the memorial park for his parents, that looked out onto the schoolhouse in the distance.

Antares silently, quietly made his way forwards, breathing slowly as he strode slowly past the statue of his parents, looking up at them silently as they seemed to look down at him with disapproval on their charred, carved features. The statue was blocked off by yellow tape and warning signs, and all around the park, the grass had been burned and sod torn up: there were still stains from the battle the night before even on the dusty, abandoned streets.

The young stallion cleared his throat as he walked up beside her, and then he carefully sat down on the bench beside the unicorn mare as she snuffled and rubbed silently at her eyes. Antares glanced over at her, and then he closed his eyes as he reached up and touched her shoulder, saying softly: “I'm sorry.”

“Leave me alone...” Prestige turned her eyes away, trembling violently before she suddenly turned, shouting at him in a hoarse, breaking voice: “Do you think it hasn't been hard for me, too? For years, trying to adjust to what feels like an entirely different society! Forced to be as equal to savages, to act like I am... am no better than some trollop earth pony who sells her body for money, like there are no differences between us! There are all the differences in the world, Antares, there are all the differences in the world!”

Antares only looked at her silently, and the young mare shivered before she dropped her head forwards, burying her face in her hooves before she sobbed: “I... I am special! I'm a unicorn! I'm twenty years ahead of my level, most unicorns never learn the m-magic I do! So... so... s-s-so w-why couldn't I... do anything...”

The young stallion sighed softly, then he wrapped a foreleg around her, and Prestige half-flung herself against him, grasping at him with her hooves as she buried her face against his neck and cried. Antares only looked down silently, trembling as he felt her emotions, her pain, her suffering beneath all her layers of arrogance and superiority, felt tears forming in his own eyes. He could see into her, feel her emotions... and it made his heart thunder with sympathy for her, as he whispered: “It's not your fault. I don't know what you heard but I'm no hero. I failed too, and I only escaped with my life because of a fluke.”

Prestige trembled, then she clenched her eyes shut and shoved herself up and away from him, tears still running down her face as she glared at him. “But you were there! You did something... I... I simply saw the sick and... I saw them, d-d-dying, and... I couldn't... I, I couldn't...”

“I know.” Antares closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards before he murmured: “Prestige, listen. You're not... a bad pony. You're talented, and you're smart, and you work hard. You helped us figure out how this disease was transmitted and you... you won't freeze up next time. I know you won't, because I know you'll never want to... be here, again.”

“But what if I do? What if I choke again, what if I can only... run and hide in a back room, hoping no one will find me...” Prestige shivered, clenching her eyes shut... and then she looked up at him, breathing slowly before asking abruptly: “How did you know about my parents? That my father...”

Antares shifted uncomfortably, and when Prestige trembled a little, he sighed and squeezed her reassuringly around the shoulders. She settled a bit, closing her eyes and dropping her head forwards, and the young stallion said finally: “It wasn't that hard to put together, Prestige... you... the way you talk about them sometimes, how determined you are to make something of yourself... things like that. A lot of things that come together and... well...”

Prestige only nodded silently, and then she looked up at him as he gazed back at her, her tears finally begin to slow as she whispered: “The worst part about living here is feeling second class, each and every day... being a unicorn means nothing here. And after all the time I've spent here, I think... I think that I'm never going to feel like being a unicorn meant anything special at all, no matter how I tout my banners. Look at me, Antares Mīrus... I am no inventor, no warrior, no... nothing. I was born with my magical power, I have no skills, no hobbies, cannot... c-can't...”

“Prestige, you've worked hard to become who you are and... and... I like you, when you're not being a pain and all hoity-toity, okay?” Antares said finally, then he sighed a little as he gazed at her silently. “Did you ever stop and think that maybe it's a good thing you're... you're learning all this? Don't you understand that... everyone here, they're who they are because that's who they want to be? Prestige, you can be who and what you want to be too...”

Prestige looked up at him, a few tears still spilling down her cheeks from her metallic eyes, accenting the red flaw in one iris all the more as her lips fell open, and Antares swallowed thickly as she saw pain and understanding and mercy reflected in the young stallion's dark, cyan-green irises. For a few long moments, they only stared at one another... and then slowly, Antares leaned down, and their lips met for a moment in a gentle, quiet kiss.

The kiss lasted only a few seconds... and then their mouths parted, and Prestige flushed red and shoved at him, sitting hurriedly up and looking away as Antares blushed and wiggled away from her, dropping his hooves in his lap and clearing his throat. For a few long moments, there was silence, and then Prestige reached up and rubbed violently at her eyes, mumbling: “Well... shall we... shall we return to that awful place?”

“Why don't we just go back to the library?” Antares suggested, and when Prestige looked at him measuringly, he said awkwardly: “Okay, why don't... you go back to the library, and... I'll get us something to eat at Sugar Cube Corners?”

Prestige looked pacified, shifting a little, and then she added finally: “And... Antares I... would prefer you did not go bragging to anypony that... you took advantage of my moment of clear weakness...”

“I don't know what you're talking about, at all.” Antares muttered, looking hurriedly away, and Prestige looked away as well... before the two unicorns slowly turned to look at each other again, studying each other for a few moments.

Then Prestige almost threw herself onto her hooves, mumbling as she hurried quickly off, and Antares sighed and jumped up to his own, blushing deeply as he turned to hurry off in the direction of the well-loved candy store, thinking about how this day couldn't get any more awkward. And then he winced as he felt a very distinct set of hooves land on his back, turning brighter red than he already was as he said weakly: “No. No, no, no, no, no. You did not see that.”

“Oh yes, yes I did.” Avalon said with relish, and Antares looked almost desperately over his shoulder at her as the tiny Pegasus grinned cheerfully down at him, her red eyes gleaming with gleeful mischief. “This right here. This makes my day. Prestige is your marefriend!”

“She is not!” Antares choked out, glaring horribly over his shoulder at Avalon, who cackled, then leapt up and easily began to buzz along above him when Antares tried to buck her off. “It was a... a... a moment of weakness!”

“Oh you are such a loser.” Avalon flipped upside down, making kissy-faces as she wrung her front hooves together. “Antares is all growin' up, he got his first kissy-wissy from a girl... but Horses of Heaven, even Meadowlark is a better choice than Prestige!”

Antares fumed and blushed deeper as he began to run, but Avalon easily kept pace with him, before she scowled when he said in a mumble: “Well, I'm sure it was better than your first kiss from a girl.”

“Oh, don't take it so personally, Mir! Seriously, I just... you realize she's probably going to plant her eggs inside you or something while you sleep, that's all I'm saying. Prestige is a scary piece of work. And everypony knows she's evil.” Avalon paused, then asked mildly: “Why are stallions so stupid? Do they like getting hurt or something?”

“Come on, drop it, Avalon. Please.” Antares pleaded, and Avalon grumbled, but finally nodded as she flitted down beside him, and Antares wheezed and finally let his pace slow as he dropped his head forwards, looking moody. “And Prestige isn't that bad, really. I mean... well, remember when we first met her?”

“How could I forget? She got her flank kicked by Aphrodisia.” Avalon looked almost dreamy at this thought as she landed beside Antares, the tiny Pegasus trotting easily in pace with him. “We were... what? Rusty's age? And she comes strutting in and Twilight introduces her and leaves us to make nice. Then she tries to order Rusty and Aphrodisia to go fetch drinks for her, gets mad at Apple Pie, and before you know it Prestige is crying and Apple Pie is sitting on her, preening.”

“We could have made a much better first impression.” Antares mumbled, and then he shook his head and added quietly: “But I mean, honestly, think about how she used to be. She's gotten better... she actually uses the words 'earth pony' now and then instead of slave hoof.”

“Yeah, because like. Pinkamena would turn her inside out for calling her daughter a slave hoof.” Avalon said pointedly, and then she cocked her head curiously as Antares turned suddenly towards a building with several tables set out in front filled by happy-looking ponies. “Hey, what are we doing here?”

Antares only smiled over his shoulder, replying mildly: “You complaining, Aviator? Come on, let's pick up some treats.”

Avalon snorted and bounced into the air, easily buzzing after him as she grinned and remarked: “Real nice of you, Antares. I see that Prestige already has you wrapped around her hoof, doin' whatever she pleases. Smooth cover, though, offering to get me candy too.”

The young stallion only sighed as he pushed his way into the shop, the bell jingling as he strode past the booths and tables towards the glass counter at the back, and a bright pink pony with a cotton-candy mane and tail looked up and beamed brightly. “Oh hi, guys!”

“Hey Pinkie Pie.” Antares greeted: apart from her mane and the bright colors of her body, she was almost the perfect twin of Pinkamena... minus the tattooing and sharp teeth, of course. “How are you doing?”

“I'm good... wish I could help out more, though.” Pinkie replied softly, then she laughed and glanced over her shoulder with her bright sapphire eyes at her cutie mark: a trio of balloons, two blue and the center yellow. “But Lemon Drop says that I can throw a big getting-better party for everypony after we deal with... that thing in the sewers.”

She shivered a bit, and then she glanced over her shoulder as a youthful-looking dragon pushed through the swinging doors at the back of the shop, striding easily on two legs. He smiled warmly at Antares, emerald eyes bright as he rose one violet-scaled hand. “Hey, Antares, Avalon. Nice to see you two.”

Antares smiled to the dragon: the scales on his underbelly were the same lime green as his ear frills, while a ridge of deep green fins went from his forehead and all the way down to the tip of his pointed tail. He was tall and lithe, but his build was athletic and handsome: years of training and working at the local forges. His looks were accented further by the runic band tattooed around one upper arm: an enchantment that stopped him from growing to full dragon size, and as much a symbol of his commitment to his wife as the wedding band around his finger that was topped with a single emerald stud. “I just wanted to let you know I finished repairing Pinkamena's armor and knives... and I really appreciate the snacks, too. Don't tell Rarity, huh?”

Avalon snorted in amusement, flitting down and poking easily along Spike's chest as she grinned at him. “You know, Dad says that when he first met you, you were this tiny little baby dragon, and you were all chubby and cute and stuff. I find that hard to believe... well, not the cute part.”

“Gee, thanks.” Spike laughed, waving an arm at Avalon, and the Pegasus drew back even as she flitted around him cheerfully. “But it's true, right, Pinkie?”

“That was so long ago, though, huh?” Pinkie Pie smiled warmly, looking both nostalgic... and a little sad, Antares thought, as he looked at her curiously. “Ponyville... wow, when I think of how far we've all come, each and every one of us...”

Spike softened, then he nodded a little as he said softly: “Yeah, it really was. And hey, Pinkie, thanks again... not just for the snacks, for the work. I know Sleipnir's a way better blacksmith than I am, but I appreciate getting to keep my hands busy. Twilight and Rarity were both really worried about me getting too close to the infection, just in case...”

Pinkie only smiled, however, shaking her head with a laugh. “Oh, Spike, you're great at your job, though! And besides, Sleipnir's been running himself so hard lately... he's as bad as Lemon Drop when it comes to not taking care of himself, I think. You helping out means a world... especially since I get to pay you in cupcakes and candy and all.”

“Just... again, don't tell Rarity.” Spike grinned lamely, raising his hands and waving them awkwardly. “She gets mad at me because I can eat all the candy I want and still look okay.”

“I'll say.” Avalon said with a grin, and Spike coughed and blushed a little before the tiny Pegasus hopped into the air and buzzed around Antares in an easy circle, beginning teasingly: “Isn't it lucky that Prestige doesn't feel that way about-”

Antares leapt up and grabbed Avalon, yanking her out of the air and covering her mouth, and both Pinkie and Spike cocked their heads curiously before the young stallion said hurriedly: “Sorry, uh... yes, Avalon was just reminding me that we're supposed to pick up candies for everyone and then run off for a meeting. Uh... we need a box of a whole bunch of... stuff and... some of Pinkamena's stuff, too.”

Antares grinned lamely, and Spike still looked confused, but Pinkie Pie only smiled brightly before she nodded firmly once, ducking under the counter for a moment to produce a large cardboard box before she began to flit around behind the counter. She easily picked up food from both the metal shelving as well as the 'darker' side of the store: in this area, the counter was solid stone, and the sliding racks were filled with treats shaped like hooves, body parts, and other somewhat disturbing things, clearly the design of Pinkamena.

Avalon grumbled and squirmed in his grip, and Antares released her before looking at her pointedly, and the Pegasus huffed but nodded as she flitted into the air with a mumble. Then both of the ponies looked up in surprise as Pinkie Pie closed the box and neatly tied a bow around it so quickly it seemed like magic, the earth pony smiling warmly and saying cheerfully: “Lots of stuff!”

“Thanks Pinkie.” Antares smiled, picking up the box with telekinesis to drop it on his broad back, and Pinkie winked at him in response before the young stallion turned and headed for the door, adding over his shoulder: “Take care, huh?”

“You too, Antares!” Pinkie called, as Avalon zoomed out after Antares, and then the pink pony smiled and glanced over at Spike, asking curiously: “So do you think he found a special somepony?”

Spike snorted in amusement at this, then he smiled warmly over at Pinkie and reached up to squeeze her shoulder, replying easily: “You think so too, huh? But it's good for Antares. Always seemed like he was growing up... too fast, you know?”

Antares Mīrus, meanwhile, was now grumbling as Avalon floated along beside him, the two heading towards the library as the Pegasus said mildly: “You know it's totally just a matter of time until everypony knows, right? Besides, what are you, ashamed of her?”

“No! It's not like that, because... it's not like that. I don't... I don't like her. I don't.” Antares mumbled, shifting awkwardly as he looked embarrassedly down at the ground, then he glanced up almost nervously and asked finally: “I mean. How much did you even see?”

“The crying, the groping, the kissing.” Avalon supplied easily, and then she grinned as Antares glared at her, visibly twitching, before easily zipping down to land on his back before she dropped herself flat with a yawn, smiling and closing her eyes as she curled comfortably up on top of him. “You are seriously in so much trouble dude. Meadowlark always liked you.”

This made Antares stumble a bit, blushing a little as he glanced awkwardly up toward the sky, then he shook his head hurriedly and mumbled: “I really... don't... it was stupid, Avalon. Besides, why are you making such a big deal out of this, anyway?”

Avalon yawned again, already well on her way to having a nap as she mumbled: “Simple, dude. Because if it's true it changes everything... we might have to actually start pretending to like Prestige, and I don't want to deal with that. You're kind of the leader, Antares... even the stupid stuff you do affects all of us.”

Antares swallowed a little at this, looking down before he shook his head, muttering: “No, no. No. I'm... I'm no leader, Ava. And how does the stuff I do affect anypony? There's no way I'm that important or anything, I mean... I make weird or dumb decisions all the time and no one complains, right? Right?”

But Avalon was already snoring away on his back, and Antares groaned and shook his head: even after all these years, the tiny Pegasus was still capable of simply flopping down and going to sleep wherever and whenever she liked, and more often than not took advantage of this odd little talent of hers to avoid any serious conversation or answering questions she didn't want to. Antares always found himself feeling strangely envious of this ability: he had trouble even napping for a few hours a night, after all, and even if he only rarely felt tired, he still often found himself wishing he could just magically go to sleep whenever he wanted to, wherever he was.

The rest of the walk back to the library was quiet, and Antares couldn't help but hesitate a little when he reached the doorway, studying it apprehensively before he finally steeled himself and mumbled: “Okay, okay, okay, you can do this, Antares.”

“Told you she was your marefriend.” Avalon's voice floated up, and Antares ground his teeth together as the Pegasus rose her head from his back, yawning loudly and adding: “You wouldn't be this nervous if you didn't like her. This is just weird, Mir, I don't really do so hot when the team roster changes, you know that.”

“Thank you for your concern, Avalon.” Antares mumbled, and the Pegasus nodded agreeably before the large, glossy black stallion sighed and then stepped forwards, pushing through the door and smiling awkwardly as the first thing his eyes settled on was Prestige, seated at the library table.

He looked at her, and she looked back, before the young male gestured at the box of treats floating beside him, giving a lame grin. Prestige gave a hesitant smile, and the two unicorns studied each other... and then Avalon stood up on Antares' back and put her front hooves on his head, leaning overtop the young stallion as she said cheerfully: “Do me a favor and don't make out while I'm eating, or I might hurl.”

Prestige turned scarlet as Antares winced and dropped the box of food, but Avalon dove quickly forwards, grinning as she caught the box just before it could hit the ground. She buzzed back up high into the air with a cackle, popping the box open and greedily shoving her head inside as she safely flew around the ceiling, as Prestige shouted angrily: “Upstart shorn-wing midget!”

“Ava, come on! It wasn't anything like that!” Antares pleaded, but the Pegasus only grinned widely as she continued to fly in an easy circle around the ceiling, and then Antares looked in surprise at Prestige when the young unicorn mare shot him a surprised, almost-hurt look, and he stared back at her before asking both her and himself: “Was... was it?”

For a few moments, the two unicorns only looked at each other, Prestige fumbling for words and Antares shifting awkwardly. But both of them were saved answering when Avalon cheerfully flung a cream-filled pastry at the unicorn mare and it struck the back of her head to explode in a great burst of sugary goo. Antares winced, Prestige stared, and Avalon seemed to realize she'd gone a little too far a moment before the library erupted into utter chaos.

After several minutes of wildly-thrown spells, shouting, shrieking, arguing, and threats, the three finally reached an awkward stalemate after Avalon crashed headfirst into a wall and flopped bonelessly to the ground, while Prestige fell over on her side, looking winded from both her emotions and her magic. Antares looked awkwardly back and forth between them, and then Avalon popped up to her hooves and simply shook her head briskly out before she winced as she looked up at the large crack she'd left in the wooden wall, mumbling: “Whoops. At least it wasn't a window this time.”

Antares sighed at this, then he looked awkwardly back and forth around the library as he headed slowly over to Prestige. Papers and books were laying in messes everywhere, crushed and splattered baked goods dotted the walls and floor, and here and there were scorch marks from Prestige's wildly-thrown spells and Antares' attempts to counter her magic.

“I hope it's not like this every time I tell somepony Prestige is my marefriend.” Antares mumbled to himself, as he leaned down towards the young unicorn mare... and her eyes opened in surprise as she looked up at him, and Antares cleared his throat and blushed before he began to babble some denial, some retraction...

But their eyes met, and they studied each other, and Antares saw into her as she saw her emotions reflected back again... before the young mare blushed and smiled faintly with the tiniest of nods, and he simply smiled in return before reaching down and carefully pulling her to her hooves, then into a tight embrace for a moment that she gladly returned.

Avalon made a retching sound, and Antares sighed as Prestige glared at her before the young mare huffed and stepped back from the young stallion. She rose her head imperiously as the Pegasus studied her moodily, and then Prestige twitched a few times before she forced out: “I hope in the future we can be better friends, Avalon. You are a very... talented... Pegasus.”

“Well. That's a start.” Avalon muttered, and Prestige ground her teeth before the before the golden-coated pony sighed and hopped into the air, flying easily across the room to land in front of them before she glowered up at Prestige. “I don't like you. At all. But if Mir likes you then I'll put up with you, okay? I'll even help sell you to the others. Not for you, but for Mir.”

Prestige looked grumpily down at Avalon, and Avalon narrowed her eyes before she suddenly shot up into the air, even Antares wincing backwards in surprise as the tiny Pegasus hovered just above Prestige and snapped: “But if you screw with his head or any of us, Apps and I will beat the crap out of you and shove your horn up your butt, do you understand me?”

“Avalon, I'm standing right here and...” Antares began, and when Avalon shot him a fuming look, the young stallion cleared his throat and turned awkwardly away. “I'm going to to grab you a cola to help you calm down.”

“I'm calm, I'm calm.” Avalon grumbled, then she fluttered down to the ground and mumbled while she stomped her hooves up and down as Prestige glared down at the tiny Pegasus. “Alright, guess we should clean up this stupid mess. Do you think Celestia will notice we wrecked up her library?”

“I'll repair the damage to the building, you and Antares can focus on cleaning up the mess.” Prestige replied distastefully, then she sighed and added morosely: “Please do not tell Aphrodisia I am dating her cousin. I wish to tell her myself at... some... point...”

Avalon only grinned as the young unicorn mare walked by, looking over her shoulder with a wink and saying mildly: “If I were you, pal, I'd be a little more worried about just how Meadowlark's gonna react to all this. Sparks are gonna fly, and not the good kind.”

“What are you talking about?” Prestige Luster asked curiously, but Avalon only grinned wider before she flapped her wings and flew quickly over the floor, beginning to gather up books to put them back on the shelves. Prestige frowned after the Pegasus, then simply sniffed and shrugged before she awkwardly turned to gaze towards Antares, watching as the young stallion headed towards the corridor... and a faint, honestly-thankful smile lit up her features for a moment before she hurriedly pushed these strange new thoughts and feelings out of her mind to focus on the task at hoof.

Discussions Over Dinner

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Chapter Nine: Discussions Over Dinner
~BlackRoseRaven

Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom lived in a cozy, large townhouse: their neighbors were friendly and they got along well with the ponies around them. They kept their little section of yard almost obsessively neat, and Scarlet Sage kept a small garden alongside the fencing that separated their property from their neighbor's. She and Apple Bloom loved to work in the garden together, even if all they had room for was a small, rectangular patch of flowers and herbs.

The inside of the house was gorgeous: the basement had Apple Bloom's shop, which was always kept neat and organized and polished, and mirrored what she'd been taught by Cowlick. The kitchen was kept just as tidy, and the den room had old, cozy furnishings, paintings on the wall, and a few pretty potted plants, including an enormous taper that was slowly trying to spread its domain through one entire corner of the room.

Their bedroom upstairs, likewise, told a world about the two: the bed was large and plush and soft, but while there were three pillows on one half, there was only one on the other. On either side of the comfy furnishing was a nightstand, and these mirrored each other in many ways: neatly organized, both with a family photo, both with books. But on one table, there was also a blindfold for sleeping, while the other had an artist's sketchpad and several pencils.

A trunk rested at the foot of the bed, filled with odds and ends, and stuffed animals sat on a folded blanket over the top of it: the plush toys faced towards a large closet with mirrored doors. Bookshelves rested against the side wall, opposite the large, open windows: they were filled with mythology, engineering and carpentry texts, a few art books and a few other pieces of particular literature half-hidden here and there. But all along the top of the shelves were figurines, binders, notes, and other trinkets: a bit of chaos amongst all the perfect order.

Antares marveled over the room, like he always did, as he stood in the doorway. His own room was much, much messier... but it was more than the neatness. For him, with his acuity and his ability to read into everything he saw, stepping into someone's bedroom was often like stepping into their mind, seeing their inner thoughts, their whole personality, laid out in front of him. And seeing the way that Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage reflected each other as much as they meshed together... it made him smile, and gave him a lot of hope for their future.

The young stallion glanced back and forth, then his eyes settled on a black binder with a large, red sticker stuck to it on the top shelf, and Antares smiled again as his horn glowed and he lifted it free with telekinesis. He put it gently down on the bed, flipping it open and beginning to page through the notes inside as he mumbled: “Now Scarlet Sage said... here it is.”

He paused and peered down at the page he had turned to, glancing quickly over it: they were notes that Scarlet Sage had made on Cancer, the monster's disease, and what had happened when she'd analyzed several samples of the destruction entity that they'd managed to scrape up. He read quickly through the file, then nodded and closed the binder, lifting it up with telekinesis... and groaning when he fumbled it in his psychic grip and accidentally tossed the binder through the air, sending it clattering down in front of the closet.

Antares mumbled as he approached the mirrored doors, making a bit of a face as he looked at his own crystal-clear reflection: he wasn't too fond of mirrors, for some reason. It was almost like they made him look into himself, and he wondered for the umpteenth time why Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage had...

Slowly, Antares looked back up into the mirror as he stood in front of it, seeing himself, and the bed behind him before he blushed red and scooped up the binder in his forelimbs, mumbling: “Oh not thoughts I want to think about, not thoughts I want to think about.”

He grumbled a little, beginning to turn before he paused and leaned to the side as he realized the doors were a little ajar... and Antares hesitated for a few moments before he carefully leaned forwards, peeking between the crack in the mirrored doors. Something glinted inside, and the young stallion smiled after a moment before he was unable to help himself from carefully pulling one of the doors open to gaze in at a beautiful set of battle armor secreted inside the closet.

It rested on an armor stand, gorgeous and lightweight and polished, and Antares pulled the second mirror door open so he could look in at the second set of armor that stood beside it. Both Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom had been trained in combat by his mother, Luna, even if neither of them seemed like fighters... but they could take care of themselves and each other well. For a few moments, he marveled over the battle armor, how it was clearly well-cared for despite being hidden away like a secret, before his eyes roved absently along the shelves and cubbyholes in the wall of the closet... and then he stared dumbly at a few objects he was fairly certain he wasn't supposed to see before he hurriedly closed both doors.

Antares turned... and almost ran right into Apple Bloom, who was looking down at him mildly. Antares creakily looked up at her, then he offered a weak smile before dumbly holding up the binder, saying lamely: “I. I got it.”

Apple Bloom looked at him for a few moments... then she sighed and reached forwards, messing up his mane with a hoof as she grumbled: “Anypony else and I'd tan their hide, you know that? But come on, Antares, dinner's about to be served and I guess I can let it slide. Did a lot of damn fool things myself when I was your age, after all... and made the much worse mistake of looking in your parents' closet, too.”

Antares laughed in spite of himself, feeling relieved as he lifted the binder with telekinesis before heading out the door, glancing curiously over his shoulder at Apple Bloom. “Yeah? Did my Mom catch you or anything?”

“Yeah, of course. And her inviting me to 'try 'em out' was way scarier than if she'd just yelled at me or something.” Apple Bloom smiled slightly, shaking her head slowly and saying ruefully: “Your Mom always scared me a little, to be entirely honest. Mostly 'cause I was afraid of what she'd do if I ever tried to call her bluff while she was acting like she was flirting with me. But I know she and your Dad were... were good ponies. Great ponies... some of the best.”

Antares nodded with a faint smile as they stepped out of the hall and headed down the stairs together, before the glossy-black stallion murmured softly: “They are, Apple Bloom. They really are.” Then he glanced up, and laughed a bit as they walked down the hall and into the kitchen, adding: “You're great ponies too, though, you and my big sister... much better with other ponies, too, I think.”

Apple Bloom only shrugged with a smile as they passed through the back door and out into the semi-enclosed back yard, where they'd set up a large, square table for their guests. Twilight and Celestia were already seated at the table, both looking comfortable: passing ponies greeted them and gazed with interest at the Baroness, and there were eyes here and there peering out of windows, but they were still more respectful of their semi-privacy than ponies would have been in a lot of other places.

Scarlet Sage was setting out dishes of salad and a few other plates she had prepared, including a bowl of venison dumplings she put down near Twilight with a bit of a smile. The Lich glanced up at her thankfully with a slow nod, even as she blushed and rubbed at her face a little, and the other pony that had joined them for this meal cocked her head curiously as she asked: “What's that? They smell good.”

Twilight only mumbled a little, glancing embarrassedly away from Prestige Luster, and Antares smiled as he approached and sat awkwardly down beside her. When Twilight and Celestia had returned to the library and found the two working diligently together, they had both forgone scolding them for running off and instead Celestia had mentioned the dinner they had been invited to. And surprisingly, Prestige had agreed to come of her own free will, only nodding lamely when she had been asked if she wanted to join.

Celestia kept looking at the two intently, as if she knew something was going on between them, and Antares knew he was going to have to tell everyone sooner or later. As he put the binder down on the table, Twilight's eyes turned towards him and she asked: “Did you see anything interesting?”

“No, what?” Antares winced, glancing over at Twilight with surprise, and when the Lich frowned at him he realized that she was talking about the notes, not... oh Horses of Heaven. “Uh. I mean... well, I don't think so. Aunt Tia, maybe you should take a look, though. You know a lot more about this kind of thing than me.”

“I do. And I'm glad to answer any questions you might have.” Celestia replied calmly, and Antares reflected morbidly that now everything sounded like innuendo. He picked up the book, and then the ivory winged unicorn continued in the same easy tones: “Although I wouldn't recommend trying to jump into bed with this kind of thing right away Antares. Not until you know more about what you're getting into, and have a firmer grasp of the situation.”

Antares stared across at Celestia, who looked at him with her calm amethyst eyes as Twilight only shifted in her seat and looked almost impatiently at the house, where Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom had run off to. Prestige, meanwhile, slowly rose her head as she saw Antares and Celestia looking at each other, before the ivory winged unicorn smiled and glanced back down at the binder now in front of her, adding almost offhandedly: “Of course, your mother would tell you to go right ahead with all speed, as would Sleipnir. But both would probably advise some degree of protection. Especially if it was your first time... otherwise you might end up being tied down by responsibilities you're not ready for to something you've put together with a pony you might not be with forever.”

Now Twilight glanced up curiously as Antares and Prestige both continued to stare at Celestia, before the rainbow-maned winged unicorn looked up with a slight smile and a wink. “But of course we're only talking about organic samples. A rubber glove should be enough protection for safe handling.”

Twilight glanced back down at her plate, even as Antares silently but wildly fidgeted, jaw working spasmodically as Prestige flailed her hooves and shook her head violently, but Celestia only hummed to herself, looking pleased as she returned her eyes to the binder. A few moments later Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom came back, the Pegasus carrying the last of the plates of food for dinner and the earth pony a large bottle of wine, and they both looked awkwardly at the spastic young ponies before Celestia drew their attention with a curious question: “Not that I doubt your abilities, Scarlet Sage... but are you sure these are correct? The regeneration rate you noted here is extraordinary, even by a chaos entity's standards...”

“I tested it three times over several hours, and it never decreased.” Scarlet Sage answered as she set the food out on the table before sitting down on Prestige's other side, and Apple Bloom sat beside her fiancee, between the Pegasus and Celestia. “I think the results are a few pages further on... and did you see the energy charge? That's only an estimate...”

“I did, and even if this was overgenerous, the amount of bioenergy this creature is giving off is incredible. We might be able to use that to track its movements.” Celestia said thoughtfully, nodding slowly. “Apple Bloom, what do you think? You know what technology and Kilby Kwolek are capable of far better than I do.”

Apple Bloom smiled at the ivory mare, nodding firmly once. “I think Cowlick could do it, no problem. I think I might even have an idea myself about how we could do it. Maybe we can put that scary new toy of Cowlick's to use once we do. After seeing that thing in action, I'm pretty sure there ain't much that could survive being caught in its sights.”

“Parsimony?” Antares asked curiously, glancing up, and Apple Bloom nodded before she frowned curiously at how flushed Antares still looked. But the young stallion hurriedly shook his head before he asked impulsively: “Hey, have you been helping out Rusty at all with his project?”

“That crazy thing he's trying to build to impress Cowlick?” Apple Bloom grinned widely, shaking her head. “I get him parts now and then sometimes, but that's about it. The colt wants to do the whole thing on his own, has for all these years now... and you know what? I think he's finally got a working design. I think he might even manage to impress Cowlick, once it's done... and should be finished real soon, at that.”

“Good. I can't wait.” Antares smiled warmly, relaxing a little more now as Celestia closed the binder and put aside the file. Conversation turned to other topics as they began to dole food out, and Antares nodded gratefully as he took some of the venison dumplings when Twilight offered him the bowl: unlike most ponies, he'd been eating meat his entire life. He knew that his parents had often eaten meat themselves, although he was fairly certain his ability to process this kind of food had been passed on from Nightmare Moon, like his sharp teeth.

About halfway through the meal, however, Prestige quietly touched his side, and Antares glanced at her, studied her, saw into her... and he smiled after a moment at the look she gave him, turning his eyes forwards and clearing his throat quietly. All eyes looked towards him curiously as he rose himself up a little, and then he said awkwardly: “I... I just wanna say something.”

He fell quiet for a moment, as Twilight tilted her head slowly before swallowing the dumpling in her jaws and asked: “Well, what is it, Antares? We're all family and friends here. Even... you, Prestige, you're a friend.”

“She is... Prestige and I are... she's my marefriend.” Antares stumbled out finally, looking lamely up, and Twilight's jaw fell open as Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom both stared, while Celestia only calmly continued to pick at her salad, eating slowly as she looked at the young stallion curiously. “We uh... yeah.”

Antares sat down, grinning dumbly over at Prestige, and the silver-maned mare sighed and closed her eyes, dropping her face against a hoof as she muttered: “Smoothly done, Antares.”

The young stallion grumbled a little, and then Twilight spluttered loudly before she asked incredulously: “And when did this happen? How did this happen? Oh Horses of Heaven, this didn't happen at the library, did it?”

“Mom!” Antares almost shouted, blushing deeply as he shook his head violently and rose his hooves. “I just... we haven't done anything, we just kissed and-”

“You what? When? Why? Where? What?” Twilight stared at him, jaw working as she looked almost desperately back and forth between the two. “But... I thought... I thought you and Meadowlark were...”

Antares blushed red again as Prestige looked up grumpily, but there was a pang of injury in her eyes as she crossed her forelegs and spat out: “What? Am I not good enough for him?”

“To be fair, we all know you do call pretty much everyone in Ponyville a splinter horn, slave hoof, or mudwalker on a regular basis.” Apple Bloom said pointedly, as she reached up and squeezed Scarlet Sage's shoulder soothingly, helping stir the Pegasus from her stupefaction. “We're just con... curious, I mean, we're curious about the way you two... got together.”

Prestige sulked a little, slumping back a bit in her seat, but thankfully either young pony was spared from answering as Celestia glanced up and said kindly: “I'm sure that they have their reasons, and Prestige and Antares both... are rational, reasonable ponies. At least most of the time.” She smiled a bit, adding quietly: “I'm hoping that you both learn from each other, through your relationship. However long or short it lasts.”

“Thanks, Aunt Tia.” Antares mumbled awkwardly, bowing his head forwards with a nod and a bit of a blush, and Celestia nodded slowly in return to him. Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage both traded apprehensive looks, and Twilight settled slowly back, still looking almost suspicious before she sighed quietly and nodded with a mumble in hesitant agreement.

The rest of dinner was a little awkward, interspersed with quiet conversation here and there, but the food was good and the ponies settled with each other. Prestige looked uncomfortable but appreciated the silence, and Antares glanced nervously back and forth before he winced at the look on Scarlet Sage's face as dinner came to an end, and he nodded awkwardly, not needing to be told as he stood up to help her gather up the used plates and cups and other trappings.

Brother and sister headed into the kitchen, putting the dirty dishware in the sink, and then he sighed a little and looked up at her awkwardly as she stood for a moment by the counter, then finally asked in an almost pleading voice: “Why?”

“I... I don't know.” Antares said awkwardly, and Scarlet Sage looked at him tiredly, but then just gestured for him to go on, and the glossy black stallion mumbled: “Well, she's... I dunno. I mean... she's...”

“She's racist, rude, mean and entitled.” Scarlet Sage said flatly, and Antares winced even as he looked up at her almost as if begging for mercy, and the Pegasus sighed again before she stepped forwards, reaching up and gently grasping his shoulders as she gazed down into his eyes quietly. “I just want you to be okay. I want to know that... this is really something you want. That she... is really someone you want in your life, like that. I'm scared you're going to get hurt.”

“I know. I know, and I can't... I can't pretend I don't understand or get mad and say that's impossible, because... well, we've spent four years with her.” Antares laughed a little, glancing down and nodding a little as he murmured: “But she's... she's getting better. I think beneath the... the 'proud unicorn' front she always puts up, she's not a bad person at all. She just needs time and understanding and I think... I know that she's learning. She's becoming a better person. She's not just a unicorn, she's a pony, and I know she's starting to get that.”

Scarlet Sage hesitated, then she sighed tiredly and finally nodded, murmuring as she reached up and stroked his mane back gently: “Okay. Okay, Antares, okay. I'll trust you, little brother, but... boys are stupid.”

Antares only smiled a little, saying softly: “Lucky for you and Apple Bloom then, huh?” He laughed when Scarlet Sage shoved him with a wry smile, then she shook her head slowly before their eyes met again. “Thank you for... for looking out for me, Scarlet Sage. I... I think I can handle this, though, I think I'm doing the right thing.”

“I hope you're right, little brother.” Scarlet Sage studied him, then she sighed a bit and added finally: “I guess Aunt Celestia's right, though, too... you two can learn a lot from each other. When I don't think of Prestige as... Prestige... it makes it easier for me to think about how she's talented, and she's smart, and she is pretty. Those things are all usually outweighed by the fact she's Prestige, but... I'll try and look past that for you.”

“Gee, thanks.” Antares said wryly, and then he began to turn to head back outside before cocking his head when Scarlet Sage smiled and caught his shoulder with a hoof.

The Pegasus turned, heading over to open the refrigerator... and Antares smiled warmly when she pulled out a blueberry pie, his eyes lighting up as he took this from her in a light telekinetic grip. “Hold on, I have a few more treats here, too... don't worry, I did the cooking but Red did the baking, she's way better at that than I am.”

Antares smiled warmly, nodding before he laughed a little, and Scarlet Sage looked over her shoulder curiously even as she pulled out another pie that he easily lifted into the air. “Nothing, nothing, just... you know, you really took after Mom and Dad in a lot of ways. You can cook but you can't bake, you speak your mind, you don't care what ponies think of you... I admire you a lot. I wish... I wish a lot that I was more like our parents.”

Scarlet Sage smiled softly at this, glancing down and murmuring softly: “You are, Antares, in more ways than I think you understand. You're honorable, and strong, and stubborn.” She paused, then glanced up and added easily: “And sometimes you do things that no other pony really approves of but you still make it okay.”

“Thanks, really.” Antares laughed and shook his head, then he hesitated as the Pegasus pulled out one last platter before he turned to head for the back door, asking curiously over his shoulder: “Mom and Dad... did they... I mean, I hear funny stories all the time, and I know they lived... a lot differently from other ponies did...”

“They did.” It was Twilight who answered, as Antares stepped outside and approached the table, and he turned his eyes towards her automatically. For a moment, the Lich hesitated, glancing at Prestige... and then she sighed a little and nodded, reaching up with a faint smile to rub at her collar as she said quietly: “After all, your parents and I... the three of us were... together, like you know.”

Prestige looked up in surprise at this admission, blurting out even as Scarlet Sage and Antares put the desserts down on the table: “So those rumors are true?”

“Yes and no.” Twilight said with a sigh, glancing awkwardly over at Prestige before she nodded a little. “It's... a little hard for me to talk about and ponies are... well, they're curious but they don't want to hear about it, you know?

“Antares, your parents were... strange, weird ponies.” Twilight smiled a little as Celestia glanced up with a quiet laugh and nod of agreement. “But that's just part of who they were... it was part of what made them wonderful, and open-minded, and... and special. And I know growing up was a little funny for you for a lot of reasons, in the years that they were there, but I want you to just always keep one thing in mind: what they meant to you, what they mean to you even now. Don't worry about anything else, not even my opinion of them, and... just think of how you felt they stacked up as your parents, Antares. That's what matters most.”

Antares Mīrus nodded slowly, looking down thoughtfully before he sat carefully back in his seat as Scarlet Sage gazed over at him with a faint smile. For a few moments, there was only quiet, and then Prestige looked up and asked softly: “Is it true that Scrivener Blooms could use magic?”

“Yes and no.” Twilight replied quietly, smiling a little as she glanced over at Celestia, who nodded slowly. “Scrivener and Luna are linked... they share one mixed soul. They could... reach into each other, affect each other in incredible ways: Scrivener was able to mimic Luna's ability to fight and her athleticism, and Luna was able to see through Scrivener's eyes.

“Scrivener was... was not a normal pony. Celestia and I have talked about this a lot over the years, Antares. And we think that... maybe we should share what we figured out with you, and I guess now's as good a time as any.” Twilight glanced hesitantly at Celestia, who nodded slowly as both Antares and Scarlet Sage looked up, Apple Bloom and Prestige both leaning forwards as well... but with more curiosity and less intent, even if Apple Bloom looked a little worried for her fiancee. “It's important you know, though.”

Antares nodded a little, looking quietly across at Twilight before he asked softly: “This has something to do with... with because of how he was sick, right? Because of the fact there was corruption inside him... and how he could see things.”

“That's right.” Twilight replied quietly, glancing towards Scarlet Sage. “You were both... gone, when it happened. When me, Celestia, Luna and Scrivener, and... Gymbr... killed Wisdom, and Scrivener got the last piece of the puzzle...”

She quieted, rubbing slowly at her features before she smiled faintly and closed her eyes, adding softly to Prestige: “That's how I became a Lich, Prestige, to answer your old question. Wisdom poisoned Scarlet Sage, and then she killed me. I... I was carrying a music box as a gift for Luna and Scrivener, and I was able to begin the process and bind myself to it, and... Gymbr and a close friend...”

“You don't have to protect me, Twilight Sparkle. It's okay.” Celestia said quietly, before she turned her eyes to Prestige with a calm nod as the young mare looked up with surprise in her silver irises. “I finished the ritual. I'm responsible for making her a Lich.”

“What you're responsible for is saving my life, Celestia. I may be dead but... I'm still alive, too.” Twilight said softly, gazing over at the ivory winged unicorn with a faint smile, and then the Lich hesitated before turning her eyes back towards Antares and Scarlet Sage, who both still looked anxious. “You both know that Scrivener was... healed. But that's not... entirely the truth. He wasn't simply healed, he was... it made him stronger. And the corruption didn't go away... it was flowing freely through his veins.”

“What do you mean? What does that mean?” Scarlet Sage asked apprehensively, and then she frowned and shook her head, saying finally: “But Mom and Dad went and saved Antares and... and... everypony always tells me they looked so good, so healthy... are you saying that means that even if they survived, he'd be sick again? He'd have died no matter what?”

“You think Dad... was...” Antares shook his head in disbelief, then he shook his head sharply as he studied Celestia and Twilight, feeling a twist of what was almost betrayal in his chest mixed with... “No. No, no, that's... that's not...”

Twilight lowered her head silently, and Antares saw the doubt in her... and then he swallowed as he looked towards Celestia, her amethyst irises meeting his own eyes calmly... but the confidence he felt in her wasn't reassuring this time. It scared him, as he shook his head again and whispered: “You think my Dad was... turned into one of them? And you think that... that he's...”

“I... Antares...” Twilight looked up hesitantly, shaking her head quickly as she rested her hooves on the tabletop with a sigh. “I know it's hard to think about, but... I...”

Celestia reached over and touched Twilight's shoulder as the Lich quieted, the ivory mare's eyes still locked with Antares' as she said softly: “Yes, I believe that.. for some reason, Scrivener became like the Hexad. Like Decretum's soldiers, a Clockwork Pony. It's not a pleasant explanation, and it brings unpleasant thoughts to light, but it's also the only possible explanation I've worked out over literal years of thinking about this. About why he gained the strength he did, about how he could survive the corruption, and how Visionary could pass her powers to him, the first Clockwork Pony your father and mother encountered and the only one who ever proved to be an ally.

“Antares, I'm not saying your parents aren't out there, and are not alive... I cling to that I still want them back, and no matter what, and I pray for your success...” Celestia quieted, then looked evenly across at Antares, murmuring: “But you have to be prepared for what you might see. What you might encounter. And to consider the alternative reasons that Luna and Scrivener may not have returned from Clockwork World...”

Scarlet Sage shivered a bit, shaking her head slowly before Antares paled a little as he looked across at Celestia, as she looked calmly back at him. He wasn't able to look away, wasn't able to tear his eyes free from hers, wasn't able to stop himself from seeing her honesty, her dedication, her honor... and yet below it all, there was something else, too. He saw a million turning gears as fire vomited out of great furnaces and splashed molten magma against indestructible metal; heard a thousand clocks ticking, countless hands moving in different directions and at different speeds but all for one single objective, all eager to ring out at midnight; he smelled polish, and golden metal, and most of all, the coppery scent of blood.

Antares shoved himself backwards, finally breaking eye contact as he knocked his chair over, gritting his teeth as he looked aside and Celestia closed her eyes, bowing her head forwards... and for a few moments, there was only silence before the young stallion breathed hard and turned around to stumble inside, shivering violently. The table was silent, and then Prestige stumbled to her own hooves and turned, hurrying after the young stallion, and the quiet was broken as Scarlet Sage looked at Celestia and asked weakly: “Why?”

“Because you deserve the truth, both of you. And because... Scarlet Sage, your brother is going to find your parents no matter what, you understand that, don't you?” Celestia said quietly, looking over at the Pegasus, who shivered a little even as she nodded hesitantly. “None of us here know what happened... only that the Decretum was destroyed, and Luna and Scrivener have not returned. They could be alive... they could be dead... or they could be... different. Antares needs to be prepared for that... even if I know that I could tell him his father and mother had transformed into Tyrant Wyrms and I know that he would still go after them, intent to save them.”

“Celestia... how can you be so callous?” Scarlet Sage whispered, shaking her head in slow disbelief... and the ivory winged unicorn looked up with a faint, sad smile, her amethyst eyes glowing with pain.

“Antares needs to be prepared for the worst, so that when the time comes, he can make the right decision.” Celestia said quietly, before she lowered her gaze and whispered: “Because I wouldn't. Even in the worst case scenario, even imagining the most awful thing I can... that Scrivener and Luna haven't returned from Decretum because they've not destroyed it, but conquered it, and are preparing their own war machines... I wouldn't, couldn't stop them. I'd ask them to come home, and if they refused... I'd ask them if I could stay with them, instead. I might... lie to myself, or maybe I'd put on a show of pretending to stand against them for a little while. But I'm not Sleipnir, and I'm not Luna: after everything that's happened, everything I remember and want... I just want my friends and family back together, and to once more share our conversations and comforts.

“The story Discombobulation told us, of Gymbr, supposedly written first by the Norns... it's still one of my favorites.” Celestia closed her eyes, shaking her head slowly as Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom both shivered, but Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly and reached up to touch the stitching along her features in understanding. “It's cruel and evil and violent, but we had one-another, and we were truly free. True freedom...”

She lowered her head, then confessed with a faint laugh: “Every day this last decade has been a struggle to not interfere with Antares' training, to not push him any harder than I already have. To not simply walk up to him and tell him: 'let's go find your parents,' and set off on a journey through every single layer, if we have to. I have a thousand years of betrayal to make up to Luna and Scrivener still... and countless more for everything else that has happened.”

Celestia fell silent, and Scarlet Sage lowered her head as Apple Bloom swallowed a bit and Twilight sighed softly, reaching out to pick up a dumpling from the bowl as she murmured: “I'm sorry, Scarlet Sage, Apple Bloom. We ruined dinner.”

The Lich bit down into the food, chewing slowly, and Scarlet Sage shook her head silently before Apple Bloom looked across at Celestia, asking finally: “You... you always put Equestria first, though. And you ain't left after them yet...”

“Only because I don't know where to go. And... I try, Apple Bloom, but I'm growing very tired of being a Baroness.” Celestia shook her head slowly with a quiet sigh, murmuring softly: “I know ponies look at me as a leader. I understand that, and I understand why. But... for the last few years, I've also been carefully, quietly pulling ponies aside to interview for a position of retainer. I would like a few years, perhaps a decade, where I don't need to worry about the problems of every other pony in Equestria. Where I don't need to be Equestria's figurehead and unofficial queen, with the way the other barons and baronesses all constantly look to me for advice. I need to find myself again, like I did long ago... except this time I need to do it properly.”

The table fell silent... and inside, Prestige was awkwardly standing across from Antares as he sat on a couch, eyes closed, hooves shoved up against his forehead, breathing a little hard. He had never seen that deeply into Celestia before: she had always guarded herself from him, and he had never truly been able to pierce through her defenses, see so deeply inside her... but now he had. She called herself a Valkyrie, and now he truly understood why, and what that meant: it scared him more than he could say.

Finally, he shivered a little and looked up, and Prestige frowned a bit before she said quietly: “I thought you... when you did that thing, you saw...”

“I see what's inside of people. But I can't... I saw... sometimes I see...” Antares fumbled his words, then he shivered and gritted his teeth before looking to the side and murmuring: “I saw my aunt's true face, and I saw... what she was willing to do, how far she was willing to go, to get my Mom and Dad back. I saw... who she was, a long time ago, and how that's still part of who she is today... I saw all that but that doesn't mean I can... that it doesn't have any power over me... she... she's my aunt. She's always been so good to me, so kind, I always admired her but now... and just looking into her I saw...”

He stuttered to a halt again, and shivered... and then Prestige stepped forwards and carefully hugged him around the neck, and the young stallion closed his eyes and instinctively wrapped a foreleg tightly back around her before pulling her closer. It surprised the young mare as she was yanked into a firm embrace... but then she settled against him, quietly resting her head against his own as she murmured: “It's... it's okay, Antares. It's okay.”

Antares Mīrus breathed a little harder, then he nodded slowly and slumped a bit, still holding tightly onto her as she squeezed him slowly around the neck. For a few moments, there was only silence between them, and then he finally relaxed little-by-little before glancing aside, murmuring: “My Mom and Dad are alive, and... and they're okay. My Dad isn't a monster. No matter what anypony thinks, my Dad isn't a monster.”

Prestige only nodded quietly against him, and then she sat back a bit and studied him quietly before hesitating and reaching out to touch one of his leathery wings. It flapped a bit as Antares looked up at her, and then Prestige said softly: “Antares... as you said to me, it's... we can become who we want to be. Some ponies, including... including myself at one point, would consider you a monster for these wings. Would assume you tampered too deeply in polymorphic magic or transfigurations, even if the truth is very different. I... I believe what you say about your parents.”

Antares smiled faintly at this, looking up at her as she gazed back at him, and then Prestige smiled hesitantly before quickly pulling away, shaking herself out and saying quietly: “Let's return and... fetch dessert, shall we? Put this behind us. I'm sure that the Baroness only wishes the best for you, no matter what her character may be. She deserves... the same understanding as me, does she not?”

“Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Thank you, Prestige.” Antares said softly, shaking his head a bit before he closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards in what was half-thought, and half-prayer. What you look like, what you are, none of that makes you a monster... it's what you do with what you're given. Your actions... my Mom and Dad aren't monsters, and they aren't dead. I'm gonna find them, I'm gonna save them... I'm gonna prove it. “Okay. Let's... let's go.”

Slowly, a hideous white limb stretched up out of a pool of slime and rotting garbage in the depths of the sewers, rising out a drainage canal to grasp the slick stone walkway and haul an ugly, mottled white and yellow body onto the cold cement. It laid like a beached whale for a few moments, an emaciated, ugly figure, and Cancer rasped quietly in and out before he snarled in fury as his red eyes glowed and slime spilled down his face like tears. “That little bastard...”

The monster pushed itself up to its claws, shivering once before retching, and then it snarled as it rose its head, eyes flashing as it began to haul itself along the narrow walkway. It passed through a set of bars without slowing, melding easily through the steel as it hissed to itself: “Oh, I'm gonna hurt him. I'm gonna hurt him good, I'm gonna hurt him bad, I'm gonna peel his skin right off his body and make him eat it, then I'm gonna cut it out of his stomach and drown him in it! Then I'm gonna set him on fire and see how he likes it!”

Cancer gargled, then he shook his head violently back and forth before snarling: the last thing the monster had expected was that its own volatile body would ever work against it. But apparently he had a nasty little vulnerability after all: beautiful as he thought fire was, he had gone up like a firecracker that had been dipped in gasoline for good measure. One little light, and poof...

Cancer shivered: his whole body ached from head-to-hoof, and he'd barely saved himself from being destroyed by blowing himself into pieces. He had sacrificed far too much strength in doing so, though, and his body was taking a long, long time to heal after the trauma it had sustained. He needed a fresh, living being to leech the life out of... preferably something big and stupid that he could easily rip his way into and use to lay low for a while. He had no idea what time it was now, if hours or entire days had passed... only that he was still hurting as much now as he had been before.

The destruction entity glared back and forth as it reached the end of the walk and slithered off into a larger tunnel, wading through the putrid water. It was just lucky for him that there were plenty of ways down into the sewers through the piping and a few open grates and cracks... but the piping was difficult for him to slither his way back up through, and he had no doubt they'd be sealing the rest of the easy ways in and out of his domain soon enough. But what did that matter? If they wanted to get him, they'd have to come down in here... and it was wet and slick and filthy in these sewers, all things that played to his advantage and would help keep him safe from being set on fire again.

“Need to work around that weakness... need to figure out a way to keep myself safe... need some goddamn eats!” Cancer yelled the last, and then he glared as several large insects skittered hurriedly by along a wall, muttering: “Sorry, boys, but small fry like you would just make my need for some munchies worse. Why ain't there ever a body around when you need one? Hey, I'll cut you bugs in if you lure me up something tasty.”

Cancer looked moodily at the wall, and then he turned his eyes away from the skittering bugs before he sniffed loudly at the air, looking back and forth before hurrying on ahead. He growled as he rounded the corner, then grimaced in disgust as his eyes locked on the carcasses of several rats, dead from nibbling on the slimy goo that was growing over the walls.

Then the monster blinked in surprise before he peered up at this, striding slowly forwards and reaching up to touch the goop... and he grinned after a moment, rasping: “Oh, sweetie! I left you behind? I'm so sorry, honey, you come back and give me a big old hug now, hear?”

The fleshy goop trembled, then bubbled for a moment before sliding slowly downwards, twisting its way up Cancer's forelimb and melding smoothly into his body. The creature twitched as his form thickened a little, some of the strength returning to him as he rasped quietly... before grinning slowly, licking his teeth eagerly as he murmured: “Baby oh baby. Not as good as a meal, but what do you know? Looks like my stuff grows down here real good, and ain't that a good turn of events for me?”

Cancer turned, approaching another slimy mess of goo over a wall, licking his teeth slowly: the goop he left behind seemed to continue to naturally try and grow and evolve even without his presence there to pull the strings and add mind to mayhem, and Cancer rumbled as the slime added to his body, restored some of his strength. Then he glowered down at the dead, rotting rats before he swept one up and dropped it into his jaws, swallowing it whole; for a moment, he made a face, swirled something in his cheeks... and then he spat out a tiny, broken skull, grumbling: “Just ain't as good as I hoped, dude, just ain't as good as I hoped.”

The monster sighed, then moodily turned and headed down the passage, muttering: “Gonna find me, gonna get me, gonna taste me some real good meat sooner or later, oh yes I am yes I am. But for now... I gotta find a safe place to hide, I gotta prowl around, growl around these catacombs, make sure ain't no one down here trying to mess up my day...”

He ground his teeth together with a snarl, then he twitched, his red eyes glowing brighter as he rasped: “Annihilate them. Murder them. Revenge...”

He shook his head quickly, then spat to the side and added in an indignant shout: “That's right, too! That's what I gotta do, moment I get me a chance! I gotta whole list of odds and ends to take care of while I kill every snotting creature above, but ooh, ooh, ooh, at the top of that list I'm putting 'kill the crap out of that stupid pony that burnt me up!' Yeah! I'm gonna rip him, and I'm gonna tear him, and I'm gonna kill the hell out of him! Kill the freaking hell out of him!”

Cancer stomped his hooves childishly, then he bounced back and forth with a yell of fury before dropping into the shallow water, rolling back and forth and flailing in all directions, sending up splashes of water as he screamed: “How dare he do that to me! How dare that stupid, worthless little runt think he's on par with me? How dare he try to dance my dance when toddler-boy looks like he ain't even old enough to give another pony herpes!”

The monster continued to shriek and yell to itself for a while, rolling and spasming through the water before it suddenly halted, all four limbs sticking high in the air, still on its back and snarling at the ceiling above as water flowed around the monster. “I should leave right now and go tear his ass a new hole... but I can't get outta here yet. I gotta get stronger, I gotta regain my old strength, and that little punk-ass bitch is gonna have all kinds of protection around him, I bet... he showed up with the big white weasel and the zombie. Stupid zombie... gonna stay the hell away from her. Gonna put her back in her grave if she messes with me again, but gonna stay the hell away from her while I do it. Don't wanna catch me no dead-pony cooties again.”

Cancer shivered a little, hugging himself with all four limbs before he rolled over and bounced to his feet, gritting his teeth and shaking his goblinoid head violently as he began to storm down the murky sewer corridor once more. “But that kid... that stupid, stupid kid... ooh, that damn, stupid, filthy, rotten kid... yeah, he smelled weird, though, didn't he?”

Cancer licked his teeth slowly, looking suddenly musing as he dropped his head a bit lower, muttering: “He smelled real funny. Weird-like. Edible-like... and the white weasel, the one who tried to cut me up, oh, why didn't I gobble her up when I had the chance? She looked so sweet and tasty, and if I could gnaw on one of those... well, that would solve all kinds of problems, yeah? I just gotta steer clear of the psycho zombie. Making herself rot... makin' me, me, die, when it's my job to make everything else in existence die... who the hell does she think she is? Ain't no one allowed to do that to me!”

The monster snarled in fury, then it twitched violently before dropping its head forwards, muttering: “They got all kinds of each-others, though, and that makes it harder. Ooh, I got my sweet poisons, and all my diseases, but... it was nice, real sweet, havin' me some pets to run ahead and gnaw on things for me, yeah. Yeah, I really liked that... they did some damn fine work, and I was damn proud of 'em. But... maybe, maybe, maybe...”

He looked away thoughtfully, then rumbled to himself as he reached up and rubbed at the underside of his muzzle. “I gotta find me some test subjects. See what else I can do if I just really believe in myself, if I put just a little faith in myself and then reach for the skies... well, not for the skies, really, more for their brains...”

The monster grumbled to himself, nodding a few times before he rose his head and scowled at the mossy ceiling above. Then his eyes narrowed as he heard something ahead before he grinned slowly as a voice murmured: “No, be careful... we be careful, monster is here...”

“Let it come.” muttered another voice, and Cancer slowly dropped down, body melting and reshaping, becoming serpentine as he began to slither easily forwards beneath the surface of the shallow water. “All the teams are getting in position. One of us is bound to run into that freak and the entire point of this is to drive the bastard out of hiding.”

“Now shush, sweetie, our enemy isn't deaf or dumb.” chided a third creature... and Cancer hissed to itself as it slithered into an intersection and peered through the murky muck at the sight of a Nibelung carefully adhering something to a wall, while a Pegasus hovered calmly with a rifle in his front hooves, and a demon of some kind smiled beneath her seaweed mane, eyes glowing, the water around her turned both dead black and yet sparkling clean from her presence alone. “You don't wanna give away the surprise now, do you?”

The Pegasus only snorted, shaking his head: he was dressed in light blue armor, and he looked warily at the Kelpie... and Hevatica looked calmly back, still smiling, even as her senses tingled faintly. Slowly, she blew the Pegasus above her a kiss, and he glared at her as their eyes met... and then his irises widened slightly as the Kelpie's glowed, and her voice sang softly through his mind: The beast is here... go on. Tell Lady Twilight or the Dawn Bringer.

“I... screw you.” The Pegasus muttered, shivering a bit, then he turned and flitted down the tunnel, and Hevatica grinned in approval even as she half-lidded her eyes: whether they were uncomfortable or not with the roles they played, the Starlit Knights all did their jobs well, and worked well alongside the servants of the night.

Her eyes slipped to the side, towards where the water was clearly being disturbed by the monster that she had heard coming from a hundred feet away... and then the Nibelung nodded once as he finished affixing the device to the wall. “Done. Fancy-corn could not do better!”

“I believe you, sweetie.” the Kelpie said kindly, and then she smiled and reached up to catch the Nibelung's arm as the dwarf began to turn away, the worker turning his attention to her with curiosity. “No, sweetie. Let's go this way. We should report in, first.”

The Nibelung paused for a moment, then he nodded slowly before the demon and dwarf both turned. Hevatica glanced over her shoulder once towards the device, checking it... and in her peripheral vision, making sure Cancer was still watching, before she turned her gaze ahead and began to hum softly as she half-led the Nibelung along the tunnel.

Cancer watched as the two left, then it licked its teeth before slowly reforming, pushing up out of the sewer water as it whispered after the two as they vanished into the darkness ahead: “Oh, don't hurry too fast now... what's this, what's this tasty delicacy you've left for me... ooh, I gotta poke it, I gotta, I gotta!”

The creature grinned as it slipped up to the strange, rectangular device before his eyes widened and he sniffed it greedily, whispering: “It's a bomb! A delicious, nutritious bomb! They were gonna try and blow me up or blow me down or seal me in, but ooh, ooh, ooh, look at this...”

Cancer grinned widely, shoving forelimb against the explosive device, and the monster's slime rapidly spread through the machine, devouring the explosive material it could smell within, swallowing down gunpowder, cramming its way through nodes and frying circuits as the monster cackled with delight... and then it frowned stupidly before the bomb beeped once, and Cancer squealed as it penetrated some kind of canister laced with pleasing chemicals and touched something that... “Oh Ginnungagap, that hurts!”

It yanked its limb back... and its foreleg shattered into pieces as Cancer shrieked, then looked down at itself in horror as coldness spread violently through its body. Blue mist was steaming up from the device now, turning everything around it instantly to ice as what felt like liquid Helheim burned through Cancer's veins, the monster's mottled white skin turning a faint bluish pallor as it literally froze from the inside-out.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then two Nightmares flickered into existence on either side of Cancer, smiling ruthlessly as one said quietly: “What pleasure. It is just as our mortal friends predicted, is it not, sister?”

“And it is delightful.” said the other Nightmare, before it easily flicked its horn forwards... and Cancer shattered like glass, frozen debris made of monster spilling through the water before the Nightmare whispered softly: “Goodbye, foul creature. Now be burned alive.”

Both Nightmares vanished from the spot, the water rippling where they had once been, leaving the broken pieces of frozen Cancer floating silently on the surface of the water for a few moments. Everything was quiet and silent, no sound in the tunnels but for the soft slosh of water and the tickling of the legs of unseen things crawling along the walls... and then this was joined by a quiet but insistent crackling as the frozen bits of Cancer trembled before sinking beneath the surface of the warm, sludgy water.

And a moment later, Cancer burst up from the shallows, gasping and panting hard, snarling in fury: large, horrific cracks were slowly merging and healing together like a grisly humpty-dumpty that was determined not to give in to fate, and the monster snarled before raising his head and screaming down the tunnel: “You're gonna have to do better than that! Come on, come on, come on, come and face me like the pissant little sissies you are!”

There was silence for a moment... and then Cancer slowly rose his head as a quiet splashing filled the tunnel, before his eyes widened at the sight of Hevatica strolling calmly towards him. On either side of her, Pinkamena and Aphrodisia were both grinning viciously, mother and daughter almost like twins in that look as Hevatica said sweetly: “Oh, I was so hoping, darling, that you would survive... now my delightful friends and I get to honor your request.”

Cancer stared stupidly at the three demons... and then the mottled white destruction entity screeched and spun around, bolting off down the tunnel as he called hurriedly over his shoulder: “Did I say 'pissant little sissies?' I meant to say 'sweet darlings who are so pretty!'”

Hevatica only smiled, trading a look with the demons on either side of her before they eagerly gave chase: everything was going exactly according to plan.

Springing The Trap

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Chapter Ten: Springing The Trap
~BlackRoseRaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act II: The Bitter Sparrow

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Act II: The Bitter Sparrow
~BlackRoseRaven


As we grow older, we grow wiser, we're supposed to grow up...
To journey outwards and into our futures.
As we grow older, we grow mature, we're supposed to be stronger...
And we're supposed to do better than our parents ever did...

But the world can be cruel, the world can be tough, it can break a pup;
Hurt them on the inside and rip open old sutures.
But the world can be cruel, and it likes to make the long days longer,
It can crush the spirit of any poor young naïve kid.

The blessed are those who'll never be stupid nor all that unique,
Those who don't know what it means to taste real pressure.
The blessed are those who get to follow instead of lead another,
'Cause the world loves to toy with kings and break 'em.

Poor little boy, you tried so hard, and now the world is so bleak,
And again and again you get salt in the wound from that lecture:
Poor little boy, all you really want is to save your mother,
But more and more the chances are seemin' slim.

Try and keep your head up, don't let the world turn you,
Don't let the pain go affectin' the way you think,
Try and keep your head up, remember your parents' lesson,
They matter more than ever in the times they're hardest to remember...

All the psychopomps are singing, in pairs two-by-two,
And all the demons are out and looking for a drink,
All the psychopomps are singing, of love and depression,
And I know all you got to keep warm is love's last ember...

The world can bend you, and can break you, but you can fight back,
You can handle the aggression, you can parry it's attack,
Don't let yourself become another bitter singin' little bird,
Drawin' on the souls of the dead, crying your every word,
Only interested in the bitter end, and makin' even demons cry,
Tellin' them all your made-up stories, every breath followed by a lie,
Fly away little sparrow, remember what your real job should be...
Honoring who you are at heart, not bein' what others want to see.

The City Beneath The City

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Chapter Eleven: The City Beneath The City
~BlackRoseRaven

Cowlick grumbled under her breath as she sat with her head in her hooves at the library table, rubbing slowly at her temples before she muttered: “Goddammit. I knew it was too good to be true. I should have known there was something wrong with that perfect site since there was so little water at the bottom but... goddammit.”

Twilight only smiled faintly, reaching up to gently touch the engineer's shoulder, and Cowlick grumbled and shrugged her off as she mumbled: “Don't gimme sympathy, I don't deserve it. I really screwed the pooch on this one. And anyway, shouldn't you be off... uh... cleaning up?”

The violet mare blushed awkwardly, rubbing at the front of her sweater embarrassedly: the Lich looked emaciated now, and her body had deteriorated much further from the strain put on it as she'd helped clean the sewer tunnels and then spent the rest of the night searching high and low for Cancer. They had found no traces of the body that had fallen in the pit, likely thanks to the volatile makeup of the destruction entity... but on the other hoof, several Starlit Knights had found what looked like some kind of slime only ten or so feet away from the hole, near an animal burrow.

A short inspection confirmed the worst: Cancer had somehow crawled through a hole in the cliff wall, then slithered his way through the cracks in the permeable stone until he'd hit some poor animal's nest and escaped through that. Ten feet away... if they hadn't all been so focused on the explosion, on the shell of a body Cancer had simply abandoned...

“Since Antares and his friends are all going to Subterra shortly...” Twilight halted awkwardly at the baleful glare Cowlick gave her as she sat up, and the Lich hurriedly looked around the table for support... but Sleipnir simply whistled innocently and looked up towards the ceiling as Antares shrank in his seat and Celestia offered an awkward smile. “I... listen.”

Cowlick grumbled, then gestured moodily around the table at the others: Antares' friends were all present, along with many of their respective parents and guardians, leaving the table a little crowded. “Yeah, that's real funny, you guys making that decision for us. Right, Rainbow?”

“Actually, AJ and I kind of think it's a good idea... I mean... scary, yeah, but good.” Rainbow Dash said awkwardly, and Applejack smiled faintly down at Avalon with a slow nod, as the young Pegasus gazed warmly up at her parents. She looked excited and enthusiastic, and oddly enough, seemed the least out of sorts this morning despite having been up all night.

“Oh come on.” Cowlick groaned, then she looked almost plaintively around the table before sighing tiredly as her eyes settled on Meadowlark. The young, red Pegasus was sleeping fitfully over the table, face in her forelegs, and Cowlick softened before she said quietly: “Rusty's just a kid, though, and Meadowlark... doesn't have anypony to watch out for her, just stays here at the library all the time. Ain't fair, you hear me?”

“No, it is fair.” Pinkamena said mildly, glancing up from where she was sitting with a foreleg wrapped around her daughter's shoulders, as Aphrodisia smiled happily from where she was safely snuggled between mother and father. “Don't turn into a wimp now, Cowlick. You're supposed to be miss butch here, not mega-mommy.”

“Oh, screw you.” Cowlick muttered, and then she sighed and looked at Rustproof when he touched her foreleg, gazing up at her silently... and after a moment, the engineer relented and mumbled: “Great. Yeah, okay, but... come on. You need to go home, take a nap, and then finish cleanin' the lab, kid. And we gotta see your Dad, too.”

Rustproof smiled and nodded a little, bowing his head in silent gratitude, and Cowlick shoved herself away from the table before holding up her hooves when Twilight opened her mouth. “No, no, enough. Besides, seriously, not everypony here is like you and Antares and the two giants. We gotta get some sleep, yeah?”

“Now that I can agree with.” Rainbow muttered, holding up a hoof before he turned his eyes to Twilight. “Besides, Canterlot's right around the corner. You can give us the day before you go, right?”

Twilight hesitated, then she turned her eyes to Celestia questioningly... but the ivory winged unicorn only smiled a little and nodded in response, saying quietly: “Of course. And rest assured, Twilight and I will take care of everypony... the only reason we don't invite you along as well is because you'll be needed here. Ponyville will need to be protected, just in the event that Cancer attacks again.”

“Let the freak come. I'll be real glad to welcome him back.” Pinkamena muttered, and she gave Sleipnir a flat look when he drew a fawning gaze over her. “Don't give me that look, idiot. Besides, what the hell are you so happy about? I'm the one who'll be getting all the action, not you, if that thing shows up again. I'm tired of your girly sneezes.”

“They are not girly sneezes!” Sleipnir whined, and then he huffed before adding positively: “And besides, sweet phoenix, 'tis always wonderful to watch thou at work. Thou art rarely more beautiful than when I watch thee taking the battlefield, thou absolutely glows with radiance, my darling.”

Pinkamena muttered under her breath as Sleipnir smiled at her warmly, and Aphrodisia giggled a little between them. Then Celestia glanced up and suggested quietly: “Twilight, why don't you go ahead and take Antares to Subterra now? And I'll be glad to answer any questions I can that anypony might have. Then, tonight, I'll bring the rest of the group to Subterra myself.”

“I...” Twilight hesitated, and when Celestia gave her a gently-pleading, softly-concerned look, and Twilight smiled faintly as she nodded slowly. “Okay, Celestia. I... I wrote ahead and asked them to prepare some... things... for me anyway. Antares, though, you don't have to come if you don't want to right now, you can stay...”

“No, I'd like to go with you, Mom.” Antares said softly, and the Lich bowed her head towards him with a faint smile before the young stallion looked up around the table, then promised on a whim: “I'll take care of all my friends, okay?”

“You better, kid.” Cowlick muttered, looking over at Rustproof... and then she grunted and nodded, saying tiredly: “Guess that's that. Dammit, yesterday I was queen of the world and today I can't even get my own damn son to listen to me.”

She gently smacked Rustproof's shoulder, and the large blue earth pony simply smiled at her before Applejack added softly, gazing down the table towards Antares: “Don't you worry. All of us know what kind of mettle you got, Antares... Avalon trusts you, so I trust you.”

“Yeah, don't worry about a thing. Ava's gonna have your back, right?” Rainbow asked positively, looking down at his daughter, who nodded firmly once before the Pegasus stallion grinned and reached up to ruffle her mane firmly. “Just don't go showing him up too much, huh?”

Avalon laughed as Antares smiled despite himself, and then Prestige hesitantly rose a hoof and said awkwardly: “I wish to come as well.”

“Following after your coltfriend, are you?” Avalon asked loudly, and all eyes stared at her before Meadowlark's eyes opened in shock, and the tiny, still-armored Pegasus grinned lamely when Prestige flushed red and glared at her... although it was more likely Antares' look of utter horror that made her feel embarrassed. “Whoops.”

Meadowlark pushed herself up from the table, shaking her head weakly for a moment... and then the red Pegasus shoved herself away and bolted for the door. She ran into it, and it would have been comical if not for the hitching breaths she was already taking as she yanked it open and ran outside, and Antares cursed as he pushed himself quickly out of his seat, running after her.

Outside, Meadowlark leapt into the air, flapping her wings hard to fly clumsily but quickly upwards, and Antares shouted after her before he leapt up, forcing his own strong, leathery wings to carry him into the air... before he gritted his teeth as a cramp ran through his back, and he felt one of his wings twitch hard. It knocked him off course for a moment, and above, Meadowlark vanished into the cloudy sky as Antares cursed under his breath, then wobbled a bit in his flight before he felt another bolt of pain run through his body.

All the same, he forced himself to fly higher... then hissed through his teeth in pain when the strain simply became too much, and he felt both his wings stiffening, refusing to flap. It took much of his strength just to keep them open, and he glided slowly back down towards the ground, landing across the square in front of the library with a quiet curse as he lowered his head. But he only had a moment before Aphrodisia tackled him, knocking him skidding violently on his side before she shoved him down and glared into his eyes, Antares staring up at her with surprise before the demon shouted: “And what in Helheim's name were you thinking?”

Antares fumbled for a response, blushing, seeing how angry, upset, confused Aphrodisia was... but he was both stunned and spared from needing to reply when Prestige herself hesitantly walked up to the demon's side and nervously touched her shoulder.

Aphrodisia turned her baleful glare on Prestige, who hesitated for a moment... then the unicorn quietly, silently lowered her head forwards in a sign of respect and apology. The silence rang out for a few seconds... and then Apps simply snorted, then muttered: “We'll talk about this later.”

The demon burst apart into black smoke that twisted indecisively backwards, then hurtled around and shot into the air in the direction Meadowlark had gone. Antares looked up with a quiet sigh after this before his eyes turned slowly to the young unicorn mare, and she smiled faintly before saying quietly: “I'm tempted to make some remark about the unnecessary drama of our lessers, but... it's becoming hard for me to feel that way about them. Even if I desire to set the midget shorn-wing aflame.”

“Look, Prestige, I'm kind of mad at Ava too right now, but please stop with all the racist names.” Antares hesitated, then he closed his eyes as he simply laid on his back in the town square, not caring who saw him as ponies and Nibelung both passed by curiously. “Although she is a midget. And a jerk.”

For a few moments there was silence, and then Antares finally opened his eyes at the sound of familiar steps approaching. He looked up quietly as Twilight Sparkle joined them, and the gaunt Lich smiled faintly down at them, a simple cloak swaying around her body and a pack hanging at her side. “If you two are ready, we can... leave now.”

“Thank you.” Antares said quietly, looking up at her with a silent smile: Twilight always seemed to know when to prod a subject, and when it would be best to just move on. He appreciated her leaving it alone as he carefully sat up, then brushed at his dirty, scuffed armor before smiling faintly as he looked down at himself, sore wings flapping once before they furled loosely against his sides. “Are you sure you're okay for the journey?”

“I should be asking you two that.” Twilight laughed a little, shaking her head with a faint smile. “I'm fine, Antares, honestly. Try not to worry about me too much... you and Prestige just concentrate on yourselves, okay? And if you ever need to stop and rest, let me know... we can always take a few minutes at the side of the road or something.”

Antares nodded a little as Prestige shook her head, the unicorn mumbling: “This is not my ideal method of travel, nor a journey I look forwards to... but I suppose it is necessary all the same.” She sighed, looking morosely down at her gemstone vest before adding moodily: “My armor is uncomfortable.”

The young stallion only looked at her mildly as Twilight sighed a little, but Prestige only grumbled in response, and turned to follow when Antares and the Lich started down the road. Both traded a glance, and both reflected on how much Prestige had grown, particularly over the last while: maybe everything about Cancer was awful, but fighting him, being forced to go through what they had side-by-side, had taught all of them lessons they would never forget.

Twilight pulled ahead a little, and Antares let himself fall back a bit, to stay in pace with Prestige, who smiled at him and seemed to appreciate it in her awkward way. The trio remained silent as they headed out of Ponyville and onto the highway towards Canterlot, but it wasn't uncomfortable: it was hard to describe, like this time together was helping them understand each other a little more.

They stopped twice to rest on the way to Canterlot, but the breaks were short and they made good time. Prestige seemed surprised at herself: both at the fact she had kept quiet the entire journey, and because she had actually managed the travel with far less pain than she'd thought. Antares only smiled faintly, however, and Prestige blushed a little as she turned her head away as they approached, but she was smiling herself, feeling proud of herself... and a little fuzzy inside, when Antares hesitantly stepped a bit closer to her, and she closed her eyes and let herself draw a little closer to him.

Entering Canterlot wasn't difficult: the Royal Guard knew Twilight and Antares well, with their frequent visits and relations with the Baroness. Entering Subterra, however, was a little more complicated, and Prestige cocked her head curiously as they turned down a side street that led away from the mighty Canterlot Castle in the distance and instead headed into the lower quarters, the young unicorn mare asking curiously: “Why are we descending into the servant blocks of the city?”

“And of course you go and ruin everything, Prestige.” Antares said mildly, and when Prestige glowered at him, he smiled a little. “I'm kidding. But honestly, you do need to watch what you say more.”

Prestige only grumbled a little, and ahead, Twilight shook her head as they passed several down-on-their-luck ponies who were huddled at the side of the road. “Subterra has several entrances hidden around Canterlot, this is the closest and the easiest to get to. We have to keep them protected, after all, since... not all ponies are as accepting of the under-city as we are.”

“I'm not sure if I'm accepting of it yet or not myself.” Prestige mumbled, but she nodded hesitantly all the same as she looked back and forth, at the worn-down stone buildings and the signs of disrepair and dereliction. “This cannot be the same Canterlot that I am accustomed to.”

“It is and it isn't. You might be surprised, Prestige. Just because something looks bad doesn't mean it is.” Antares said softly, smiling a little over at her, and Prestige mumbled a bit under her breath, but her eyes lingered strangely on an orphanage as they strode past it, inspecting the rusting bars over the windows, the weedy yard, the torn fencing that embraced it like frail arms. “Prestige? Is something wrong?”

“No. No.” Prestige said quietly, shaking her head briskly, and she remained oddly quiet as they made their way through the lower quarters of Canterlot. Then she frowned nervously when they turned down a shady back alley, Twilight striding calmly past several overflowing garbage bins and leading them around a tight corner to a rusted iron gate that barred access into a dim tunnel beyond.

The Lich smiled over her shoulder, her horn glowing: with a click, the gate unlocked and swung open silently despite the rust. Prestige hesitated, but then she nodded nervously when Antares reached up and touched her shoulder, and the two young ponies followed Twilight into the darkness when the violet mare started forwards again. The sloping tunnel quickly became a staircase that led deep down into the earth, lit by torches that burned with blue flames, and Prestige shivered a bit at the strange feeling in the air: it was neither hot nor cold, comfortable nor uncomfortable. It was a shiver that pulsed through her... before Prestige's eyes widened as they emerged at the bottom of the staircase into a wide, dark cavern that was lit by blue-tinged radiance, filled with strange-looking black stone dwellings and populated by creatures the likes of which she had rarely seen.

Demons, Nightmares, other beings all congregated calmly here, as naturally as ponies did in the world above: two Nightmares were gazing into a reflecting pool with smiles on their faces, while in an open square a demon was arguing loudly with another demon behind a counter, who simply glared at him with his arms crossed. Over by an enormous pillar, some kind of undead pony was reading calmly from a book as he gestured at the carvings along the support structure, captivating smaller creatures that Prestige realized with surprise were the demonic equivalent of foals.

Her breath caught in her throat as Twilight and Antares began forwards, the young unicorn mare gazing around with amazement. High above, enormous crystals suspended from the ceiling shone down that strange light that made her body tingle, and while the homes all looked the same, it was clear that the buildings on the upper plateaus of this massive cavern were the much-more desired ones, from the demons that were sunbathing – ...crystal light bathing? – on the rooftops nearest the gemstones. And as they walked, Prestige realized that now demons were looking at her with curiosity, and a little distrust, and she blushed as she lowered her head at the turned tables: here, normal ponies were the outsiders, not forces of darkness.

Then Twilight glanced up curiously as a grinning, demonic unicorn slid out of the crowd and strolled towards her, his mane made of burning flames and his red eyes glowing in his sockets, coat shifting between reds, oranges, and yellows like magma. Prestige's jaw dropped at the sight, but Antares only smiled as Twilight's mouth slowly puckered like she'd bitten into a lemon as the tall equine drew towards them. He was handsome, he radiated not only heat but confidence and power, and his hooves made the ground beneath him steam as he approached the Lich and said delightedly: “Well, what a wonderful surprise to see you here!”

“Go away.” Twilight said in a surly voice, but when the fiery demon only chuckled, she sighed and glanced over her shoulder at Prestige, introducing with a grumble: “Prestige Luster, this is Burning Desire. Burning Desire, this is my student, Prestige Luster. Now please go away.”

“Oh, don't be like that, darling!” Burning said cheerfully, and then he leaned down, studying Prestige intently as she couldn't help but look up at his horn: it was tall and glowed red, but black runes had been etched all along its length in a vaguely-spiraled pattern. “It's very nice to meet you, Prestige... and young Antares, how nice to see you, too!”

The demon straightened with a smile, then he half-lidded his eyes at Twilight, studying her as he asked in what was almost a purr: “You look like you need some help fitting into a new body, my gorgeous undying violet. Shall I assist you?”

“Go. Away.” Twilight said slowly and clearly, but Burning Desire only chuckled again before Twilight ground her teeth together, then simply strode past him. Antares couldn't help but smile despite his best efforts not to as Prestige followed curiously, cocking her head towards him as Burning Desire hurried up to pace at Twilight's side.

“Now don't be like that! I know, I know, you're loyal and dedicated to Luna and Scrivener, but oh, I'm not asking for forever!” Burning Desire wheedled, gazing at her affectionately. “We had such a wonderful time together, didn't we? And oh, our nights of passion...”

“My son is right behind me, Burning!” the Lich said flatly, and then she gritted her teeth and added grumpily, as they made their way down the wide street: “It just didn't work out. Let it go.”

“Oh, but how can I? My sins are greed and lust, my nature compels me so for you, oh darling violet!” Burning Desire proclaimed, then he stepped forwards and suddenly hugged her, Twilight wincing as she reared away from him as he leaned in with a lick of his lips. “Entire harems mean nothing to me compared to your beauty! And you know I know that from experience: but oh, pretty violet, you would be the shining star of any demon's collection!”

Slowly, Twilight narrowed her eyes at him... and Burning Desire cleared his throat and carefully let her go, stepping hesitantly back as he added awkwardly: “Not that... not that I think of you like just an object, of course, I... I didn't mean to say... that is to say, I'm here because I care about you. I care about you very much, Twilight Sparkle, and I respect that we cannot have forever, but... oh, tonight, tonight, spend tonight with me, won't you?”

“No.” Twilight said flatly, and Burning Desire clutched at his chest before the Lich rolled her eyes with a tired sigh. “Look, I'm not... getting into that with you again. But maybe you can at least help me teach Antares and Prestige... Celestia sent them here for training, and she'll be bringing his friends as well.”

Burning Desire cocked his head with interest at this, turning his eyes towards Antares as he asked curiously: “The Dawn Bringer wants our kind to train you and your friends? What an odd turn of events... truly, things must be serious. I would have perhaps expected your mother and father, Antares, to make such a decision, but not Celestia...”

For a few moments, he looked thoughtful, biting his lower lip before he smiled over at Twilight. “Very well. You know I can't turn down any request of yours, gorgeous, ever-blooming violet. And Antares, I do like you well enough. Your mother and father were good to me, and I suppose there's also the fact I do like the thought of being rewarded when they return for training you...” He looked dreamy for a moment, turning his gaze back towards Twilight. “Perhaps they'll agree to share you with me.”

Twilight gave him a horrible look, and Burning Desire winced, wilting as the flames of his mane and tail both visibly shrank and dimmed, but then the Lich reached up and rubbed at her temples as if she had a headache. “Fine. Now if you'll excuse us, we need to go visit Selene. Please. Please leave me alone until I call for you.”

“May I have a kiss, just upon the cheek? Oh, it would mean so much to me!” Burning Desire leaned forwards, smiling brightly, his eyes pleading, and Twilight looked at him for a few moments before she sighed, mumbled, and stepped over to him, leaning in and giving him a hurried peck on the cheek. The demon's eyes lit up with this, and then he nodded rapidly before turning and prancing away... and then Prestige's jaw dropped when he burst apart into flames that reformed into a firebird that flew quickly off into the air.

Twilight sighed, and Prestige's mouth worked wordlessly before the violet mare gestured grumpily to them, saying finally: “Come on. We have to visit the Overseer, and then find you a room, Prestige.”

“I... who was that?” Prestige asked incredulously, and Twilight grumbled to herself as Antares smiled in entertainment and the group walked onwards. For a few moments, Prestige only stared ahead, barely noticing as they passed through an archway and a dark tunnel, and then she asked insistently: “I demand to know what just happened! It... it was a unicorn of fire!”

“It was a demon. A very, very, very, very, very annoying demon.” Twilight muttered, and then she sighed a little as Antares tried his hardest to hold back a snicker. “Oh stop it.”

“It's okay, Mom. Besides... I know that... my Mom and Dad would have wanted to see you happy, Twilight.” Antares said with a smile, and Twilight relaxed a little before he glanced to the side and added, as Prestige only continued to look confused: “Burning Desire was a unicorn, once... more than a thousand years ago, but he bargained with Helheim for wealth and... attention, right?”

Twilight nodded after a moment, as they strode out of the tunnel and into another cavern, this one even more enormous than the last. The Lich remained quiet as Prestige looked back and forth at the larger stone buildings on either side of them and the imposing, palatial structures near the center of the underground city section, the architecture gothic and jutting and yet beautiful for how intimidating it was... and then Prestige shook her head hurriedly and asked: “Wait, he was a unicorn once? A normal pony?”

The violet mare sighed tiredly, her hopes that Prestige would let the subject drop dashed as she nodded moodily again. “He was. More than a hoof-full of the demons you'll see around Subterra were once ponies of this world, who existed more than a thousand years ago and before... their civilization basically fell apart. They're demons now because of the bargains they made with Helheim: many souls who fall to Hell eventually transform into demons themselves, if they manage to survive for long enough. And they were among the most eager to ally with us because... it keeps them safe from Helheim, and they're fascinated with us ponies who basically... took over their abandoned world and replaced their crumbled ruins with the civilization that could have been, if they'd only all learned to get along.”

The Lich fell quiet, looking down thoughtfully before she continued softly, as they continued along the cobbled wide road: “Burning Desire was a noble. A bit of an oddball, studying the occult while the other unicorns were learning 'real magic' and horn foiling. He didn't want power, but he wanted people to adore him, he wanted... well, sex... and he wanted money to keep his lifestyle going. He made his deal, trading his soul to Helheim for what he thought would be a lot.”

Twilight smiled faintly, glancing over her shoulder at Prestige. “Two months later he was killed by a jealous ex-lover because of how many mares he was suddenly getting into bed with. He went to Helheim, and... became... that. When... when a pony becomes a demon, they become a reflection of who they are inside, in a way: they wear their sins, metaphorically-speaking, on their bodies, and their natural urges intensify. They can become powerful, sure, but it's at a cost. And if they fail to learn how to control themselves, if they give in to Helheim's influence completely, they become drones and monsters and toys for stronger demons. And they suffer...”

Twilight looked down, then she shook her head and glanced up, saying softly: “But he's a good person, at heart. He's full of longing, Prestige, and I'd watch out to make sure his hooves don't get grabby, but he's gentle and he's kind. And you two can both learn a lot from him... his specialty is clearly fire, Prestige, and that's one of the realms of elemental magic you excel in.”

Prestige nodded slowly, looking surprisingly humble as they strode calmly into a large square, and the young unicorn's eyes turned to a beautiful fountain that dominated the center of this. The water was tinted black, but seemed pure all the same as faint, soft music hummed through the air, a tall reptilian demon with several large sets of spines jutting from his body standing with his eyes closed as he played a slow, steady melody on his saxophone. Twilight smiled at this as Antares' head perked, the Lich halting as the demon opened one amber eye, and then he smiled slightly before bringing the melody to a slow halt.

He lowered the silver instrument, absently rubbing at one cracked, dragon-like horn before he looked meditatively down at the ponies, asking mildly as his long, two-tined tail flicked lightly behind him: “And to what do I owe this pleasure, Twilight Sparkle? Has my gracious melody truly attracted you all the way from dumpy little Ponyville?”

“No, Amdusias, I'm afraid not.” Twilight said kindly, smiling up at him, and she gestured at Antares and Prestige. The demon tilted his head with interest, rubbing at the navy scales that covered most of his strong frame as the silver and gold hide of his inner body flexed with his musculature. “Celestia sent Antares and Prestige here for training. Their friends are coming, too...”

“Celestia is sending mortals here?” Amdusias looked down with interest, then he frowned a little, narrowing his eyes moodily as his gaze locked on Prestige, who was looking up at him distrustfully. “Wait. Celestia is sending mortals here?”

The difference in his tone made the second question almost an accusation, and Twilight Sparkle sighed and rolled her eyes before she said mildly: “Amdusias, it's nothing personal, I'm sure. Celestia likes you a lot, and it's... very kind that you offer your help to her so often-”

“Not often, merely... when she seems to need help, which is... more often than I'd like, to be completely honest.” Amdusias said stiffly, crossing his arms as he grumbled to himself and a faint blush rose in his cheeks. “I simply find it... discordant that this is a clear insult to my offer of aid. I was a Lord of Helheim, and you've seen what I've done with those miserable little ponies I had under my watch. Except now I think if you want my help you should plead like the chorus of any hymn to your zombie pony savior.”

Twilight only looked meditatively up at Amdusias for a moment, and then she said mildly: “That's alright, Burning Desire offered his help.”

“What?” Amdusias looked horrified at this, then he ground his teeth together loudly. “That wretched jumped-up organ-grinder dares to think he's worthy enough to teach? If he tried to teach a bird to sing, it would end up growling like a tone-deaf Nibelung!”

“Well, that's very nice, Amdusias, but I was just taking Antares and Prestige to see Overseer Selene... and I'm sure that she'll be offering her help, too...” Twilight continued calmly, completely overriding Amdusias' words, and the demon's eyes went wide before he grumbled in vexation and glowered at her.

“Fine. I understand, my help is unnecessary.” Amdusias muttered... then he visibly wrestled with himself for a moment, before raising a finger and adding in a grumble when Twilight began to turn away: “But I suppose that I can spare a rest or two here or there should Prince Antares or his... friend... come and plead for my assistance.”

“Thank you, Amdusias. I appreciate it... I'm sure Antares can learn a lot from you.” Twilight smiled over her shoulder at him, and Amdusias looked pacified before the Lich asked curiously: “By the way, what are you doing out here? Usually you're running around Canterlot with your friends.”

“Associates.” Amdusias mumbled embarrassedly, and then he cleared his throat and added: “And I did not feel like dressing up and pretending to be a dragon today so I could wander Canterlot unnoticed. Besides, Riffraff and Graceful told me to meet them here, although they seem to be taking an obnoxiously long time to arrive. I do not want to guess at why.”

With that, Amdusias rose his saxophone back to his lips, beginning to play a soft, thoughtful song as the trio of ponies looked at him for a moment longer, and then Twilight smiled and nodded, turning to leave. Antares and Prestige trailed after her, the last looking back over her shoulder curiously before she hurried up to Twilight's side, asking incredulously: “Just how many of the Baroness' associates are demons? That was the head of Celestia's personal ensemble that she has play at the Royal Court! I... I thought he was just a dragon, in his uniform he just looks like a dragon!”

Twilight only gave Prestige an amused look, and then she shook her head slowly before Antares asked curiously: “Are you really going to send me to Amdusias for training, Mom? What kind of things can I learn from him? I mean... I've never really seen or heard about him fighting... and wasn't he... hurt, or something, a long time ago?”

The Lich laughed quietly, responding quietly: “Oh, he's not a fighter, Antares, and he did lose a lot of his strength crossing through the barrier between layers with his half-demon friend... but I think you two would be able to work well together. I don't think you'd find it difficult to master his illusion spells, even if he prefers music as his medium. It would be good for you to learn some incantations that focus on that... and furthermore, I'm sure Selene will want to share some of her skills with you.”

Twilight hesitated as they continued onwards, Prestige and Antares sharing a look as they walked on in silence: but slowly, the young mare couldn't help but find her attention drawn from her coltfriend and mentor to the enormous structure they were approaching. It was near the center of the cavern, a squat but immense step pyramid with a wide, flat top, a large set of stone stairs in front of them guarded by enormous statues of creatures that Prestige didn't recognize. The back of the pyramid seemed to connect into some other colossal, U-shaped structure that half-wrapped itself around the strangely hallowed-feeling building: this palatial structure had tall turrets and branch-like arms of metal, stone gargoyles that seemed to move whenever they weren't be directly watched seated here and there on these arches and the roof.

Twilight led them to the stairs, then she halted and turned around, her eyes meeting her student's. “Prestige, this is Thorn Palace. Selene, Subterra's Overseer, lives here and rules here. She's like... kind of like the mayor, except she reports to me and Celestia. But all the same, don't antagonize her. Her home is... is a little creepy, but you'll be safe here as long as you aren't rude to her, okay?”

Prestige grimaced a bit, but then she nodded sullenly, and Twilight sighed before the Lich turned around to lead them calmly up the stone stairs. Antares smiled supportively at the young unicorn mare, and Prestige grumbled a little, but felt herself calming a bit despite the burst of jealousy and frustration she felt inside of herself as she mumbled: “I'm not going to mess up.”

“I know.” Antares said softly, and then he looked ahead as the trio reached the top of the short, strange pyramid, stepping out onto the wide plateau. It was decorated with four enormous braziers at each corner of the area, each filled with burning blue flames, and a massive statue of Nightmare Moon posed in front of the full moon stood behind a small reflecting pool, detailed and incredible.

Prestige stared at this and winced despite herself: it was not the Nightmare Moon of the storybooks, but the true Nightmare Moon: there were scars on the statue's face, horns extending up from a mane of carved fire, countless awful knives and implements of suffering sticking out of her back... but it was the sharp-fanged grin and the almost-alive eyes that struck her to the soul. The apprentice of Twilight Sparkle breathed hard, looking nervously down at the pool... and then she was struck dumb as she saw nothing more than a single, beautiful white swan quietly floating in the water, calm and silent, looking as if it hadn't yet noticed the presence of the ponies.

Prestige nervously leaned around Twilight to stare at this, even as the Lich winced... and then the young, silver-maned mare glanced back and forth worriedly. The steps were behind them, down the southern face of the pyramid: to the north, east, and west, there were bridges of stone and metal that attached into the strange, warped palace that held this strange place in its embrace. “Do... do we go inside?”

“Only if I am not the one you seek.” said a soft, scintillating voice, and when Prestige looked in surprise back at the reflecting pool, she saw not a swan, but an ivory winged unicorn with a mane and tail of soft, glowing whiteness: feathers and flower petals fell from both, touching the surface of the pool she was standing on as calmly as if it were glass before they dissolved into motes of light, sending ripples along the deep pool's surface. Her horn was gorgeous gold, and her eyes seemed as deep, as dark, as richly-infinite as space, without pupil or iris but like swirling velvet galaxies...

Prestige shivered as she looked hurriedly down, blushing deep red as he breath raced in and out, and the winged unicorn laughed quietly as she strode over the pool, chiding gently: “Oh, Twilight Sparkle, don't be so hard on this one. I am not hard on demons for their natures; why would I be any harder on this mortal?”

Twilight smiled a little, bowing her head respectfully as Antares quietly stepped forwards and dropped his own head low... but the almost-glowing winged unicorn only smiled softly, slowly descending into a deep bow as she murmured: “No, no, I bow to you... not the other way around. It is my honor to have you here... and the Dawn Bringer's letter, her request, has filled me with more joy than I may properly express...”

The strange creature looked back up, her unfathomable eyes roving over them before she returned her gaze to Prestige, saying kindly as the unicorn didn't quite dare to meet her eyes: “Yes, young one. I am Selene, Overseer of Subterra. I took the name in honor of our mistress, in honor of the moon, which I have served since I was young in any event. And yes, you may call me demon, but I am Nephilim, in truth: my nature is much different from the creatures you have seen.”

“Not so different.” Twilight Sparkle said softly, and the Nephilim regarded her for a moment... then suddenly the strange creature smiled and nodded slowly.

“Perhaps not, after all, yes. I must not forget why I carry this task. Thank you for reminding me, Lady Twilight.” Selene said softly, then she turned her eyes to Prestige and leaned down to study her thoughtfully. “You are curious about me. Go ahead, child, ask your questions. I will not harm you... not so long as you pay me what respects I earn.”

Prestige smiled awkwardly at this statement, trying not to look into the Nephilim's eyes: the slightest meeting of their gazes, and the young mare felt like her brain was being sucked out of her head to be examined by things far, far more powerful than she could ever be. “What... how... did you get here?”

“I was born here, of purity tainted by sin. And then my mother left me, and I tried to follow her... but I fell.” Selene said softly, frowning and looking down before she nodded slowly once. “Yes, I fell. And I slumbered, and nature held me in her arms, placed me in her cradle. The mountains rose above, while I slumped further down beneath the ground; before the first stones of Canterlot above were laid, I was old, older than you can imagine. But she visited me, in my restless dreams: your mother, Antares Mīrus.”

Selene smiled lovingly over at Antares, then returned her eyes to Prestige. “I have never met her, but I have seen both her faces, and her husband. I admire Luna, and I admire Nightmare Moon: they remind me of mother. Purity, stained with sin, but striving all the same for Heaven. I was very sad when Luna and Scrivener left, just like my mother did... so sad, that I awoke, and cried for their loss...”

“There was an earthquake nine years ago, it caused ruptures all throughout Subterra... the timing was awful, we thought, because it was only a few weeks after Luna and Scrivener... were gone.” Twilight said quietly, glancing over at Prestige. “Then I got a letter from Celestia, asking me to hurry as fast as I could to Subterra. There was such... the air was heavy, and we were drawn to a vent that had opened up...

“Deep in the earth, we found Selene. She knew all about us... all about Scrivener and Luna. And when I crosschecked what she said with... with one of Scrivener's dream diaries... a lot of it matched up. Stories and conversations that Luna and Scrivy mentioned off-hoof now and then, but it turns out they were real.” Twilight smiled a little, glancing over at the Nephilim. “Normally we don't explain it to ponies, but...”

“Prestige would have found out anyway, as Antares' lover.” Selene said softly, and Antares blushed deep red as Prestige looked down, embarrassed. “It's nothing bad, young ones. You have done well with each other.”

She paused, then smiled over at Twilight. “But I am similar to the demons in many ways. I am impure, yet desire to seek to be brighter. Not like the Dawn Bringer... like your mother, Antares. Like Twilight, and like Luna.” Selene laughed quietly, then looked slowly up, murmuring: “That is why I took the name of a lunar goddess. But I must be very careful: I have great pride. I have greater longing. And I am powerful.”

Selene paused, then she looked down thoughtfully, nodding once before Prestige turned bright red as the Nephilim murmured: “I appreciate that you admire me so much... and perhaps I take pleasure in your envy, as well. For I am beautiful and strong... that is why I am tasked to watch over and protect Subterra. But it is my wisdom, not my strength, and the support of the Dawn Bringer and Twilight Sparkle, that gives me true control here.

“And yes, Antares. I shall teach you what I know of your mother's magic, but Twilight Sparkle knows more than me... and I apologize, I forget myself. But your thoughts are so loud, especially this close...” Selene closed her eyes, smiling softly. “And I am eager to share my strength with you, Antares. I am eager for... many things...”

Prestige winced at this, looking uneasily at Selene, but the Nephilim only smiled quietly before her gaze roved back to the young mare. “Steal him away from you? No. I am ancient, and you are both young... I am Nephilim, and you are both pony. The form you see me in is simply that which is most convenient at this moment in time. I do not know what my real shape is... I see you, and I wish to reflect you, that is all, as I have always reflected those whose dreams I have traveled in. But I enjoy this particular form... a Moon Blessed is fitting for the self-named Selene, is it not?”

The three were quiet, and then Selene smiled softly and bowed her head, saying quietly: “Prestige, I desire your company. You have struck my interest. Antares and Twilight, however, have a task ahead of them, and would prefer to deal with it in privacy. Is this correct?”

“I...” Antares hesitated, then he looked at Twilight, the Lich shifting apprehensively. She began to smile, but then Antares nodded quickly and blushed, looking over at Prestige as he murmured: “Don't... don't take this the wrong way, but I would... you should stay with Selene.”

“I understand.” Prestige looked at him quietly... and then both young ponies looked up when Selene leaned forwards and gave them an encouraging smile. And then both unicorns looked at one another before stepping forwards and sharing a tight embrace, and Antares closed his eyes as Prestige pressed herself against him, squeezing her hooves around his neck, both feeling a deep roll of warmth through their bodies before they pulled quietly apart.

They smiled hesitantly, looking deep into each other's eyes before trading slow nods, and then Selene said gently: “I shall take care of her, Antares. I shall provide a private room for you and her and have it set up to your tastes.”

“Now, hey, wait, let's not go that far...” Twilight said awkwardly, and when Selene only favored her with a tilt of her head, the violet mare sighed tiredly and mumbled: “I guess. If something's going to happen, it's going to happen, but...”

“Mom, can. Can we please just go?” Antares asked in a strangled voice as Prestige blushed deeply, and Twilight grumbled a little but then nodded at the look on the young ponies' faces. She turned, and Antares sighed in relief as he followed after her, calling awkwardly over his shoulder: “Uh... see you soon, Selene and... Prestige.”

Prestige smiled lamely back at him despite how uncomfortable she looked, slowly raising a hoof, and Antares turned his eyes back forwards as he and Twilight crossed over a steel and stone bridge and through a set of double doors into the western wing of the castle. For a few moments, there was only the sound of their hooves tapping along the marble tile underhoof, as they strode past display cases filled with strange and beautiful artifacts and suits of posed armor... and then Twilight finally sighed quietly, dropping her head forwards.

Antares looked up at her hesitantly, and Twilight smiled a little as she looked over her shoulder, murmuring quietly: “Look. You're no colt, Antares... I know that you're a stallion. Sure, you're still young. Some ponies would say you're not an adult yet, but... if age was really what made us mature adults, I wouldn't have to put up with Burning Desire, now would I?”

She sighed a little as Antares laughed a bit despite himself, then the Lich shook her head slowly as they turned down a side hall, continuing quietly: “Life is about experiences... but I just... my goal as your mother is to try and help you. To try and minimize the mistakes, or at least make sure the mistakes you do make are... learning experiences. But I don't want you learning what it's like to raise a bastard foal out of wedlock with a pony you might not have any feelings for give a week or two while still teenage years old.”

Antares blushed deeply, dropping his head forwards as he mumbled: “Yeah, I remember Aunt Tia's talk way too clearly, Mom. I'm... I'm not interested in that right now, anyway.”

Twilight looked amusedly over her shoulder at him, and when Antares looked back up at her, she said finally: “You're so different from your mother.”

“I don't wanna hear that!” Antares groaned, throwing his head back, and Twilight laughed and shook her head slowly, smiling warmly despite herself before the young stallion couldn't help but add: “And I really wonder sometimes which mother of mine you're referring to... Mom.”

This soured Twilight's expression, and she tossed him a flat look even as she fought to hide a smile before replying quietly: “Hey, if you haven't noticed, I haven't done a lot of dating, have I? But I guess... this dead body of mine isn't exactly appealing, either.”

“You're more alive than most ponies I've met, Mom. And you're still really pretty.” Antares replied genuinely, and Twilight turned back ahead, looking abashed, eyes filled with warmth as she opened a door with a gentle telekinetic push.

They made their way down a curving staircase, until they emerged into a dimmer underground area: it almost seemed like some kind of abandoned storage room, heavy crates piled to one side of the area and a few shelves stocked with odds and ends along another wall. Twilight and Antares made their way across the unused room to a rusting steel door, the Lich grimacing a bit as they passed into a long, downwards-sloping tunnel, and Antares soothed quietly: “It's okay, Mom.”

Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly over her shoulder at Antares, nodding a little as they began to make their way down the mildewed passage. The walls here were slick and moist, strange, living tendrils of plant and bramble growing here and there out of the dark stone surfaces as their hooves trod slowly along humid rock, slowly but steadily going lower and lower into the earth.

Finally, they reached a heavy, red-iron gate at the end of the passage, and Twilight's horn glowed: the gates rumbled for a moment, then slowly squealed open to reveal a large, octagonal room beyond. The walls were lined with rusting doors of burial vaults, each with small placards in holders showing the date of the interment and what precisely was contained inside; but what truly drew the eye were the four metal tables that sat in a circle around the open center of the crypt, and Twilight sighed quietly: cadavers rested on two of the tables, features hidden beneath white sheets but shapes clear and distinctive.

Twilight lowered her head and trembled a bit, and Antares reached up to touch her back quietly... but then the violet mare only shook her head, murmuring: “It's... it's okay. I'm okay. I just... I just hate this part, that's all. And Antares, you don't have to stay...”

“I want to, Mom. I want to help.” Antares said quietly, and Twilight smiled faintly but gratefully at him as the glossy black young stallion reached up to touch her shoulder quietly. “I'll help you every step of the way I can.”

Twilight closed her eyes and nodded a little, and then she sighed as she turned and strode down to one of the covered bodies. She grimaced a little, then her horn glowed and pulled the tag hanging out from under the sheet free, lifting it up so she could read quietly: “Name omitted... I hate when they do that... career criminal, died in prison, organ donor. Died of... infection after being stabbed. Okay.”

She took a breath, then grasped the sheet and drew the sheet quickly back, revealing the stallion's pallid body. She looked over him moodily, then bit her lip and touched hesitantly along his stomach to check for damage. When she was done, she grimaced and nodded, shrugging her satchel bag off and putting it aside, before she pulled her jewelry off piece by piece. She put her earring studs and collar aside on top of her satchel, then she sighed quietly again as she reached up and carefully levered the corpse's jaws open, muttering: “Okay. I hate this part...”

Twilight took a slow breath, closing her eyes tightly and gritting her teeth as her horn glowed... and then, slowly, she leaned carefully down until her mouth almost met the corpse's before she breathed out, long and loud, some glowing ephemeral shape passing from her open jaws and into the dead body's...

For a moment, there was silence... and then Twilight's body slumped backwards her stitching popped and snapped, the light fading from her eyes as she collapsed: but even before she hit the ground, her body was already falling apart and rotting rapidly away beneath the cloak. Antares flinched back at the sight and the reek, but then he forced himself to hurry forwards, looking nervously down at the corpse of the earth pony stallion.

At first, nothing, and Antares hesitated before he began to reach carefully up... but then he flinched backwards when the dead stallion's eyes snapped open and the corpse spasmed on the table, inhaling loudly. Its irises glowed violet before the color settled, and then it shivered and hissed in pain as the same color began to twist through the pallid coat of the pony, Twilight rasping out of the corpse's jaws: “Always... hate this...”

“It's okay Mom, you're doing fine, you're okay.” Antares soothed, reaching up to touch the corpse's shoulder, and finding it now felt hot instead of cold. He steadied himself as the body spasmed on the table, the features changing, the shape twisting as bones cracked loudly and the hide tightened, ripping here and there as Twilight cursed in pain from the body's jaws.

“Just wish... I didn't have to s-steal... from the dead...” Twilight whispered, breathing hard through the mouth that was now becoming hers as the body reshaped itself, and she trembled before Antares tightly took one of the now-her hooves in both his own, squeezing it comfortingly and gazing down into her eyes.

It was a painful thirty minutes... but finally, Twilight Sparkle sat up on the metal table, breathing hard and shivering a bit. Wounds had torn open here and there over her body from the transformation, but they were bloodless, and she was missing both her wings and her horn... but her body's shape and size, her color, her eyes were all the same as they had originally been. Even her emblem had replaced the cutie mark that had been on this body's haunch.

Twilight shivered weakly, and Antares patted her silently on the back before he turned and headed quickly over to one of the sets of crypts in the wall. He glanced back and forth, but then his eyes found what he was looking for: a polished steel door, labeled: 'Supplies' instead of with a corpse code and date. He opened it to take out some of what was inside: thick black string, a large needle, and a box of wet cloths.

He carried these over to Twilight, and she smiled faintly, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards in thanks as the young stallion pulled out a wet nap to carefully wipe up around her messier wounds, murmuring quietly: “It's okay, Mom. Just try and relax, I'll clean you up, and then I'll help you find some wings.”

“No, it's okay, Antares. My wings will regenerate, just like my horn.” Twilight shook her messy, frazzled mane out before she reached up and silently tapped her forehead. “I just need to hibernate a little and... I should have brought my phylactery. It would have helped the process along a little faster.”

“It's okay, Mom. You've had a lot on your mind... we all have.” Antares replied quietly, and Twilight smiled a little as she closed her eyes and nodded slowly. For a few moments, there was silence, and then Antares hesitantly picked up the needle and thread.

Twilight opened an eye, looking at him softly, and then she murmured: “It's okay. I can do it, Antares, you're... you're here with me, and that helps more than I can say. I just... I just need to rest a minute or two more.”

“No, it's not that, I just...” Antares hesitated, then he leaned forwards and began to carefully sew up a particularly large, Y-shaped wound over her chest: a wound that her undead body always bore, that never healed. That was deep and wide enough when it wasn't sewn shut to reveal the fact that Twilight had no heart. “I just hate worrying that I'm going to hurt you.”

The Lich only smiled faintly, however, shaking her head slowly and saying quietly: “It's okay, Antares. My body is just a shell. Just... clothes. Stolen clothes.” She dropped her head forwards, muttering: “I hate when they just put 'criminal' on the donor label. I feel a little less bad at first and then I wonder whether I'm in the body of a murderer, a pedophile, or some poor idiot who mouthed off to the wrong police officer. And then I feel bad no matter what.”

“It doesn't matter, Mom. Like Sleipnir says, we only borrow our bodies during life: we come from nature, and when we die, we give our bodies back to nature.” Antares said quietly, continuing to neatly stitch up the visible, larger wounds over the Lich's frame. At first, seeing this, doing anything like this, had been almost impossible for him to handle without feeling ill, or scared... now he was just afraid for Twilight, with how much she could beat herself up over doing what was necessary for her to do once her body eventually wore out. “You're not killing these people, Mom. You work very, very hard to not disrespect their wishes. You don't steal bodies from graveyards or anything.”

Twilight nodded slowly, even as she continued to look down, before Antares smiled a little and said quietly: “You're not a monster. Mom and Dad... they'd still love you. They wouldn't feel any different about you now as they ever did. I... I only respect you more, each and every day.”

The violet mare looked up with a faint smile, then she closed her eyes in quiet gratitude as Antares continued to slowly work, his head bowed, the silence spiraling out between mother and son before the Lich reached up a hoof to touch the young stallion's shoulder. They both looked at one another and then Antares smiled and stepped forwards, and they shared a fierce, tight embrace before Twilight whispered quietly in his ear, as a single red tear spilled down her cheek: “I love you, Antares.”

Antares smiled at this, burying his face against the side of her neck, smelling not death, but lavender and life as her stitches tickled against him. He felt every thud of the heart that wasn't in her chest, every bit of warmth that boiled up from her very soul, felt her life as he murmured in return: “I love you too, Mom.”

And for a little while they just held onto each other in the quiet of the crypt, Twilight Sparkle feeling more alive in that moment than she had been for most of her long life.

Acting As Leader

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Chapter Twelve: Acting As Leader
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares Mīrus sighed in relief as a Nightmare opened a large steel door for him, smiling gratefully to it as he turned and strode into his guest room... and then he blushed awkwardly as he found it had only a single large bed that Prestige was already curled up on top of. He began to turn, but the Nightmare only smiled at him before the door closed, and the young stallion winced before looking hurriedly around.

The room was mostly empty: there was the large bed in one corner, a single crystalline lamp that hung overhead, and a small bed table. Prestige had taken her little gear off and tossed it all at the foot of the bed, and Antares hesitated before he carefully began to strip out of his own armor, taking his time so he could try and figure out what to do.

He grimaced at how dirty he was, brushing at himself before he grumbled a little under his breath, then he turned and pushed open the door. He looked back and forth, then bit his tongue before closing his eyes and focusing... but then he nixed the idea even as he began to cast the spell, wincing as a bit of electricity zapped over his horn from the sudden decision it would be better not to test his luck. It wasn't hard for him to send out a call to any Nightmares or demons in the area... but in a place like this, he'd end up calling an entire drove of creatures just to help him find a shower.

Instead, he stepped back inside with a sigh, closing the door quietly... before wincing a bit when Prestige said tiredly: “Oh, stop, Antares. I may not be fond of the idea of being forced to share a bed with you, but... your company is better than a demon's.”

Antares looked over his shoulder to see Prestige still laying quietly, but her eyes were open, studying him silently, and he smiled a little as he rubbed at his body. “I'm just... dirty.”

“Yes, you are.” Prestige said softly, smiling a bit in return, and when Antares sighed and gave her a look, she shook her head slowly and sat up a bit, before patting the ugly green blanket covering the bed. “Come here.”

The young stallion looked at her for a moment, then he walked over and slipped onto the bed, sitting down across from her as they studied one another. For a few moments, there was quiet, and then Antares asked curiously: “So what exactly did Selene talk to you about?”

Prestige remained quiet for a moment, then she shook her head and muttered: “I'm not sure. She made me uncomfortable, though, Antares... this whole place makes me uncomfortable. Living in darkness beneath Canterlot, so-called 'evil' entities all around us... why are we here? Why has the Baroness decided that these demons are the best teachers for us?”

Antares only shrugged and looked down a bit, and Prestige frowned at him before saying slowly: “Is there anything you won't consider a friend, Antares? Tell me, if you caught a cockroach out in the open, would you try to make friends with it or would you simply kill it?”

“Is it an intelligent talking cockroach?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige huffed at him before he shook his head slowly. “They're people. All people deserve a chance.”

“They're monsters.” Prestige retorted, sitting up a bit, and the two glared at each other. “Did you see that fire demon? Right in front of you, he was courting your mother!”

“I... I don't know if you've ever called Twilight Sparkle my mother before. Not... seriously.” Antares said with surprise, and Prestige blushed and glanced away as Antares smiled a little. This time, he didn't try to look away, didn't hide his gaze as he studied her, and she tried to look everywhere but his eyes... but slowly, inexorably, her gaze was drawn to his.

Irises locked, seeing into one another, and lips parted... and then Antares leaned forwards, but Prestige reached up her hooves to grasp his shoulders as she met him. They kissed, slowly, passionately, savoring it, drawing it out as long as they dared... and then they parted, and studied each other again as they breathed unevenly in time with one another.

Then Antares blushed deeply and dropped his head forwards, and Prestige smiled faintly at him, studying him as she leaned forwards. Her hooves reached up, stroking through his mane slowly, and she laughed after a moment before whispering: “I hate you so much, Antares Mīrus.”

“I know. I hate you too.” Antares mumbled, and then he smiled and closed his eyes when she wrapped her forelegs around his neck and leaned forwards to kiss the base of his horn, before she dropped her muzzle beside his. Their horns touched, rubbing side-by-side before a sizzle sparked between them, and both unicorns twitched before Prestige laughed and Antares shivered a little in pleasure, in warmth, in... he didn't know.

He almost shyly opened his eyes as they drew apart a little, almost nose-to-nose now, studying each other again. They looked at one-another, and then Prestige asked hesitantly: “Antares... do... is this nothing but foolishness on our parts or do you think we stand a chance of... well...”

She blushed, lowering her head forwards, and Antares stared at her with surprise before he smiled a little, asking quietly: “What, is this your way of already telling me that I'm no good for you? Or are you trying to scare me off?”

“I don't know.” Prestige replied honestly, looking up at him before she shifted again and murmured: “I like you. And I trust you. And both these things, Antares... they're sources of unease. We had one wild, silly kiss, spur of the moment stupidity, and... but... that kiss we just shared now...”

She flushed and looked down, then closed her eyes and dropped her head against him, and he wrapped his forelegs around her... and it felt good. It felt... right, somehow, as he held her close against his body, looking down at her softly... and then blushing a bit as he wondered silently: Is this how Dad felt when he held Mom?

She curled against him, feeling comfortable... feeling... safe. Prestige smiled a bit to herself, then she carefully levered herself forwards and pushed Antares gently down, and he let himself fall quietly onto his back with a laugh, snuggling her tighter against him. She pulled herself on top of him, and Antares blushed deeply, then winced when she pinned him back, straddling him and gazing down at him quietly before she murmured: “I like you like this. Beneath me. Where you belong.”

Antares glowered at her, and Prestige leaned down... then she giggled a little after a moment, and he laughed despite himself, shaking his head slowly. “I can't believe you, seriously. What is wrong with you, Prestige?”

“I don't know. I'm... confused.” Prestige smiled all the same, rubbing her hooves along his chest thoughtfully before she murmured: “I like you, though. I like the way you make me feel. I like that... you're you, and I'm me, but you make me a better person, Antares, and I like to think... I don't know, somehow I do the same. But you're annoyingly perfect already.”

“I wish.” Antares said softly, gazing up at Prestige with a faint smile as he shook his head slowly. “I think... I think you do help me, though, Prestige. You give me something else to fight for, feelings I've... I've never had before, not even for... Meadowlark...”

He blushed deeper, looking away, and Prestige studied him curiously before she asked softly: “Why do you feel so much for her, Antares? And no, I do not mean that because she's a shorn wing and you're a splinter-horn, you're such a perfect match for each other...” Antares looked at her dryly, but was thankful that she was at least being teasing instead of serious. “I mean... don't think I never noticed the hierarchy. You, our leader... and me, at the bottom, the most disliked... but Avalon and Aphrodisia seemed to enjoy punishing Meadowlark from time to time as much as they liked to make me miserable.”

Antares shifted a little, and then he nodded after a moment, saying softly: “Yeah, I... I guess that's true. But it just means that Apps and Ava are slower to forgive than I am, that's all. And there's nothing wrong with that, really.”

Prestige smiled a bit down at him, tilting her head and asking mildly: “So it's fine for me to continue to bear a grudge against you, until you make it up to me?”

“I guess... you know, except for the fact that you're the racist jerk here.” Antares replied dryly, and Prestige rolled her eyes before shoving her hooves down against his stomach, making him wheeze loudly. “Hey!”

Prestige only huffed, rubbing her hooves up along his chest... then blushing as she slowly rubbed her hooves back down, seeming to realize where she had settled into place... but if anything, only settling herself firmer as she smiled down at him tenderly. Antares looked awkwardly back up, a flush suffusing his features at her gentle touches, and then the mare leaned forwards and asked quietly: “So what happened with Meadowlark? Is there a reason you're so... gentle with her?”

“I... don't want to talk about it. It has to do with Avalon's dad and... stuff.” Antares said finally, and Prestige grumbled a bit. “Prestige, you're my marefriend and I care about you, but... you know. Some stories still aren't mine to tell. And we...”

He looked up at her, and she gazed back before he said quietly as he turned his eyes embarrassed away: “We are different people, aren't we? And much as I like this time with you, I... I can't imagine that you're... thrilled with me. I'm... not really pureblood like you are, I'm... well, you always call me a splinter horn, and we both have different beliefs and stuff and like you said, this all so weird and I know... I know that tomorrow you'll probably call someone a name and I'll yell at you for being a racist and we'll get in a big fight and...”

He broke off as Prestige grasped his face gently with a hoof, turning him to look up at her, and then she leaned down and kissed him softly: he closed his eyes, returning it, and it filled him with euphoria as his whole body almost shivered with pleasure before their mouths parted, and Prestige looked down into his eyes softly as she whispered: “It doesn't matter. We can change, and adapt... and you make me feel safe.”

Then she closed her eyes and laid over him, burying her face into his neck as she slipped her upper limbs around his neck, and he hugged her fiercely back, closing his eyes and holding her tightly down against him as he inhaled the sweet scent of her mane and promised quietly: “And I'll always keep you safe, Prestige. I'll always protect you.”

And Prestige smiled softly, believing him, hearing the honesty, the dedication in his words as they simply held one another close and savored the feeling of sanctuary and warmth that came with it.

Antares awoke a few hours later with Prestige still curled close to him, smiling a little down at her as he stroked her face slowly with a hoof. He shifted a little, but only so he could move one of his wings out from where it was pinched beneath him, and then he simply pulled her gently closer and silently nuzzled her in her sleep.

He felt good when he was with her: it was silly, that Prestige of all ponies, made him feel this way, but he smiled all the same at her... before his eyes widened, and he paled as a familiar voice whispered teasingly in his ear: “What a cute couple you two make. So how was it?”

“Apps!” Antares rasped in a strangled voice, looking in horror over his shoulder as he rolled over a little too fast, one leg still curled around Prestige. She grimaced and groaned in her sleep, mumbling and rolling over, but thankfully not waking up as Antares flinched, then sighed in relief when Prestige didn't wake up... before he returned his glare to Aphrodisia, who was sitting back against the door and grinning at him with delight. “Get... get out! And nothing happened!”

Aphrodisia wrinkled up her muzzle, sniffing the air... and then she grumbled and nodded. “That's lame, Nova. Only you would skip the chance to-”

“What are you talking about! You... I... get out!” Antares' voice was so high it was almost a squeak as he gestured wildly at the door, but this only made Aphrodisia giggle behind her hooves as her eyes gleamed brightly. “Go, go, go!”

“Please tell me you got around first base at least. Second, even. Please tell me something happened apart from your mooshy-mooshy goo-goo cuddle-wuddles.” Aphrodisia reached her hooves up, making kissy faces and baby noises as she flailed her hooves at the air, and then Antares twitched before he yanked the pillow out from beneath his head and whipped it at her, hitting the demon in the face.

She winced, then huffed before leaping forwards before Antares could react, tackling him and knocking him crashing into Prestige, who snapped awake with a yell before she screamed at the sight of Aphrodisia leaning down in her face with a grin, before the young unicorn mare's horn gave a bright flash.

Electricity blasted through the air, sizzling over all three ponies, and yells rose up from all of them as it broke down into a wild scuffle, hooves and blasts of wild magic flying in all directions until finally, Prestige whimpered, laying prone beneath sprawled out Antares as the bruised and bludgeoned young stallion groaned, and Aphrodisia smiled with pleasure. The demon sat on top of the pile, butt firmly planted between Antares' shoulderblades as she sniffed loudly. “You guys freaking suck.”

“Okay, Apps, you ambushed us, I'm so, so tired, and you don't ever pull your punches.” Antares mumbled, then he spat out a bit of blood to accent this before adding tiredly: “If you don't get off me, I'll tell Aunt Tia you were the one who poured hot sauce in her tea that one time.”

Aphrodisia winced, then she grumbled and hopped off him, landing easily on the ground and glowering over her shoulder at the bed before giving it a firm kick to make both ponies wince. “Butthead. That's not playing fair. But come on, sleepyheads. Mommy sent me to get you because-”

“Wait, Pinkamena's here?” Antares rose his head curiously, and Aphodisia nodded with a bright smile. “Is she going to help train us or something?”

“A little, yeah. Daddy wanted to come too, but since he can't travel like Mommy and I can, he had to stay in Ponyville.” Aphrodisia looked a little disappointed, then she shook her head quickly. “But Mommy promised to give me and you and Avalon combat training. And Aunt Tia says she wants to train you herself too, Antares, you're really lucky.”

Antares only smiled a little, sitting up slowly before Aphrodisia looked pessimistically between the two. “I can't believe you two, though. What a waste of a bed.”

“Shut up, prostatot. Don't be disgusting.” Prestige muttered in distaste, then she sniffed and shook herself out before reaching up and carefully beginning to smooth down her mane. “Can't we stop for a shower or something?”

“I bet you two want to shower together.” Aphrodisia muttered, and the two ponies glared at her before she shrugged a bit and said finally: “I don't know. Mommy wanted me to bring you right to her, though. I think you're just going to get dirty again anyway, showers are stupid.”

“You're...” Antares shook his head slowly, then he laughed a bit and slipped out of bed, wincing a little at how sore he felt. By the way that Prestige tottered to her hooves, he could see she was feeling sore, too. “Okay. Do we need our armor?”

“Don't think so. I don't think Mommy's going to train you right now anyway, she just wants to talk to you two about something.” Aphrodisia rubbed absently at her face, then added: “The others aren't here yet, anyway. Aunt Tia should get here soon, though, I hope... I can't wait to see what they think of it here in Subterra, it's so cool.”

“Yeah. I know, Apps.” Antares smiled despite himself, then he shook his head a bit before leaning over and kissing Prestige's cheek, making the unicorn mare blush but then smile happily even as Aphrodisia blew a loud raspberry at them. “Lead the way.”

The demon grunted, then she kicked the door behind her open, turning and striding out into the hall. Antares and Prestige both followed, letting the heavy door swing closed behind them, and they only walked a short distance before Aphrodisia suddenly spun around, looking sharply from one pony to the other before she narrowed her eyes and said moodily: “Now listen. Nova. You're my bestest friend, even better than Avalon, and you're family. You're my cousin, but really you're my big brother and I love you.

“Prestige, I hate you. You're smelly and dumb.” Aphrodisia paused for a moment, then she sighed and dropped her head forwards, saying grudgingly: “But if Nova likes you... I'll try and like you. Just like Avalon said.”

Both ponies began to smile, and Aphrodisia's response was to hiss at them as her eyes glowed and her features became skull-like. But even though Prestige winced and staggered backwards, Antares only smiled warmly and murmured: “Thanks, Pinkslap. It means a lot to hear you say that.”

“Good. Better.” Aphrodisia grumbled, then she hopped around in a circle and bounced down the hall, adding in a brighter voice: “Meadowlark was upset as hell, though. I liked that.”

Antares groaned and dropped his head forwards, plodding after her as Prestige awkwardly followed along at the glossy-black stallion's side. Thankfully, it was only a short walk back out to the top of the pyramid... and Antares and Prestige were surprised to find not only Pinkamena waiting for them, but Selene, Burning Desire, and Amdusias.

Aphrodisia pranced over to her mother, and Pinkamena smiled as her daughter nuzzled into her affectionately, mother absently stroking a hoof through her child's raven-black mane before her eyes flicked up and she said mildly: “Look at the happy newlyweds.”

“Why are you so mean some days, Pinkamena?” Antares asked curiously, and Pinkamena shrugged before the young stallion looked back and forth with interest. “What's going on, though?”

“Wait, where's Twilight Sparkle? Shouldn't all of us be gathered here?” Burning Desire asked quickly, looking back and forth, and then the fiery stallion grinned widely as he looked over at Pinkamena and Aphrodisia when they both glowered at him, half-lidding his eyes as he said kindly: “Thankfully, having such beautiful cohorts as yourselves present helps soften the pain in my chest...”

“Oh shut up, you piceous wretch, before you get yourself torn into pieces.” Amdusias said moodily, glowering over at the demon stallion, and Burning Desire made a childish face at him in response. “The advice was for your own good. But look at me, a symphony musician speaking to an amateur idiot who couldn't properly play the triangle.”

“I only play one instrument... and I must say, I've never disappointed anyone in the crowd when I do.” Burning Desire grinned widely and leaned towards Pinkamena and Aphrodisia, waggling his fiery eyebrows... and then Pinkamena reached up and shoved a hoof against his face to knock him sprawling with a yelp.

“Hit on me or my daughter again and I'll gut you and eat you from the inside out.” Pinkamena threatened, and Burning Desire stared, opened his mouth, then promptly closed it when Aphrodisia hissed at him and Pinkamena bared her fangs.

There was silence for a moment, and then Selene began to open her mouth before the Nephilim slowly turned her head towards Burning Desire when the demon stallion leapt up and grasped at his chest with one hoof, beginning seriously: “But Antares, honestly, you have to tell me! I must go to my beautiful, undying violet and offer her my sweet help! I can't let her suffer alone, after all... I am a mighty stallion of honor that-”

Selene's eyes narrowed slightly as her horn gave a faint white pulse, and Burning Desire's jaw snapped shut and his eyes went wide as the flames on his body whiffed out completely, his shifting coat turning to the color of dying embers. For a few moments he simply sat, posed awkwardly, and then he slowly, carefully stepped back into line with the other demons as Selene looked ahead with a kind smile. “Handsome Antares. The Dawn Bringer contacted me with an interesting request...

“As you can see, gathered in front of you are those who have agreed to help teach you. Minus, of course, Twilight Sparkle and Celestia herself. But they will join us in time.” Selene smiled, bowing her head politely. “The Dawn Bringer has asked that you choose who shall teach who, bearing in mind that we will be tutoring most of you one-on-one... and that the more teachers a student has, the less they may learn in each field.”

“And who died and made the child leader?” Amdusias asked grumpily, and when Selene slowly turned her gaze to him, the demon cleared his throat hurriedly and mumbled: “I apologize. Perhaps that was out of tune with the rest of the band. I'll... stick to the rhythm set by the rest of the orchestra.”

“A wise decision.” Selene said gently, and then she turned her attention back to Antares, continuing calmly: “You may also ask for other teachers if you so desire, but please understand that Subterra's resources are not infinite, and that neither I nor the Dawn Bringer will force those to bend to your will on your behalf...”

But as Antares dared to look into the infinite gaze of the Nephilim, she smiled slightly and her strange, galactic eyes narrowed as her voice whispered through his mind, alluring, seductive, and full of promise: Unless you truly want me to.

Antares shivered a bit at this, hurriedly dropping his gaze before he swallowed thickly and nodded, then looked up and hesitantly drew his eyes over the group in front of him. He frowned for a moment, then closed his eyes and thought quickly. He thought about himself, and his friends... and then he looked up and said slowly: “I... I'll train with Aunt Tia, Pinkamena, Amdusias, and yourself, Selene. It's greedy, but I need to make sure I round out my skills as much as I can.

“Prestige, I'd like for you to train with my Mom, Twilight Sparkle, and... Burning Desire.” He grimaced a bit, even as Burning Desire looked up with delight at this prospect, the flames bursting back into being over his body as he leered at Prestige, who winced back in distaste. “Aphrodisia, no one can teach you better than Pinkamena... but I'd like you to train with me and Aunt Tia, too.

“I have to do the others, too, don't I?” Antares asked quietly, and when Selene nodded, he sighed a little and looked down, murmuring: “It's not fun being the leader.”

“It can be, Antares. It depends on your perspective... and while you feel pain in your friends' pain and losses, concentrate on the fact you will feel great joy in their successes as well... that if you assign them properly, they will learn much, and owe you gratitude and favor.” Selene replied kindly, and Antares nodded a little even as he kept his gaze carefully away from the burning-white entity.

Finally, he looked up, almost meeting her eyes but just keeping himself from locking gazes with her as he said quietly: “Avalon will train with Pinkamena and I'd like for her to train up in Canterlot, with the Royal Guard or the Yamato Elite. Rustproof...” He frowned a little, then said slowly: “Rustproof will spend his time with the Royal Guard, if possible, and... with the Nibelung engineers and the demons that keep things running here. And last, Meadowlark...” He hesitated. “I'd like Meadowlark to work with Amdusias and with my Mom.”

Amdusias frowned at this, looking up moodily. “I don't recognize this pony's name. Is she another impertinent unicorn?”

Prestige glared, and Antares shook his head quickly, saying awkwardly: “Actually, Meadowlark is a Pegasus, and she doesn't... really have any fighting experience or anything, like Rusty, but-”

“Then what am I supposed to do with her? I already have two obnoxious Pegasi to fritter away my time with!” Amdusias complained, shaking his head grumpily before he asked dourly: “What precisely could a bird-pony learn from me?”

“Well, you're a Lord of Helheim, right? Twilight was talking about how wise and knowledgeable you are just the other day, I thought you could maybe teach Meadowlark some stuff about Helheim...” Antares said carefully, and Amdusias looked pleased with this as he raised his head with a slight smile, nodding thoughtfully before Antares added: “And she can sing, kinda?”

“So?” All the same, Amdusias looked intrigued, tilting his head a bit as he rubbed at his chin slowly.

“Well, I mean. She hasn't for a while. She... used to sing a lot, though, and... maybe you could help remind her how to. You're a master of music and all, right?” Antares asked slowly, drawing his eyes over the demon, and Amdusias puffed up immediately, nodding with more emphasis at this. “Thank you, Amdusias. I really owe you one.”

“Yes, well. I'm feeling generous, that's all.” Amdusias said comfortably, polishing his claws against the smooth scales of his chest, and Burning Desire muttered something and slapped a hoof against his forehead before he winced when Amdusias booted him lightly. “Oh shut up, soul-seller. Go bury yourself in your money pit. And never come back out.”

“I don't have a money pit, I have a mare pit. And I wish I never had to come back out...” Burning Desire looked dreamily over at Aphrodisia and Pinkamena, who both glared at him. “Except all the most gorgeous mares seem to keep getting away.”

Pinkamena leaned over and punched Burning Desire hard across the face, a bit of molten slag splattering out of his jaws like drool as his head snapped to the side, and then his eyes slowly began to water – or rather fill with liquid fire – before he whimpered a little and forced a grin. “How. How feisty. I love a fighter, really. They remind me of my mother.”

“You dream about screwing your mother?” Pinkamena asked distastefully, and Burning Desire looked dumbly up before the Gluttony demon snorted and muttered: “Well, whatever floats your boat, flamer. From the looks of you I would have guessed your dreams are all about daddy, though.”

“I. Wait. How?” the fiery demon asked, frowning before he looked down at one hoof that was wreathed in flame, and then he stomped it firmly, glaring over at her as he said flatly, head tilting back and forth: “Oh, I get it. Ha, ha, you're so funny! Oh, look at me, I'm just splitting my sides laughing. Ha, ha, ha.”

“I'll split your sides open. I'll split all of you open. I haven't had stallion flambe for a long time.” Pinkamena muttered, glaring over at him, and Burning Desire winced.

Before it could escalate any further, however, Selene looked up from where she had been thinking and said softly: “I shall prepare a schedule, Antares. Your choices are very interesting... and somewhat unexpected. When the Baroness arrives, I am sure she will be eager to speak to you on your decisions... I, however, merely accept and honor them, and will do my best to see that all of your wishes are fulfilled.”

Antares smiled awkwardly, nodding a little before Selene smiled softly back. “Our business is concluded for today. Your friends will be arriving in short time, so perhaps you should prepare for their arrival...” Selene paused, then her horn gave the faintest of hums as she glanced to the side, and a moment later, a Nightmare appeared, bowing deeply to those present. “Your swiftness is appreciated. Please take Prince Antares Mīrus and Prestige Luster to where they may bathe, and attend to any other needs they may have.”

Antares smiled awkwardly, raising his head and saying quickly: “Really, just... getting clean will be more than enough, Selene. Thank you, honestly, for... everything. And all of you have my thanks, too... especially you, Pinkamena. I know it must be tiring for you to jump back and forth.”

“Hey, I ain't just doin' it for you, tumor, my daughter's here.” Pinkamena reached up a foreleg and wrapped it around Aphrodisia's shoulders, and the young demon smiled brightly before the dull-gray mare looked up and added softly: “Besides, kid. What are big sisters for, right?”

Antares smiled again, much warmer, and Pinkamena gave him a wink before her face went flat when Burning Desire wrapped a companionable foreleg around her, leaning in cheerfully and asking kindly: “Well, do you look out for Twilight Sparkle as well as you do Antares? Because she could really use a special healing touch right now, and I would love to give her that...”

“If you don't take your hoof off me right now, I'm going to bite it off and never give it back.” Pinkamena threatened, and Burning Desire winced and drew back before the Gluttony demon glared at him, then spat on the fire demon, making him flinch again as a bit of steam hissed up from where it splattered against his body. “Also, keep away from Twilight. She can afford better stallion whores than you.”

“Hey, how do you know how good I am unless you spend a night in my bed of fire?” Burning Desire asked with half-lidded eyes, winking at her before he added brightly: “And I always give good deals if you want to share, but there's always more than enough to go around... my two-for-one might become your new favorite-”

Pinkamena growled, then reached out and seized Burning Desire by the nose, and he winced before yelping loudly as the Gluttony demon dragged him forcefully forwards past her staring daughter, the fiery stallion wrinkling up his muzzle before he squawked when she flung him forwards and sent him crashing and rolling down the staircase, every bounce against the heavy cement steps sending up a burst of ashes and fire. Finally, just before he hit the ground, he erupted into a geyser of flames that transformed into a firebird, this flying hurriedly away as Pinkamena shouted after him: “Keep your hooves to yourself or I'll be having cooked chicken for dinner!”

“He's annoying.” Aphrodisia nodded rapidly, then she paused and smiled almost dreamily as Pinkamena returned, adding: “But he is kind of handsome, Mommy.”

“You're too young for that, kid. Wait a century or two, then I won't complain about you manipulating handsome demons.” Pinkamena muttered, then she glared around at the others, snapping: “Why the hell are you all still here? Hell, why are we still here? Come on, Aphrodisia.”

With that, Pinkamena turned and burst apart into black smoke, and Aphrodisia giggled before waving brightly to Antares and Prestige, then she transformed herself into a dark missile that whizzed through the air after her mother. Antares watched them go with a slow shake of his head as Prestige glowered moodily off into the distance at the thought of learning under Burning Desire, and then they both looked up as the Nightmare approached with a kind smile. “Please follow me, friends, now that the distractions are done with.”

Antares nodded, tossing a last glance over at the remaining demons... but Amdusias had made his saxophone appear and was gazing thoughtfully off into the distance as he played his dexterous fingers compulsively along the keys, and Selene had returned to sitting calmly on top of her reflecting pool, gazing with a strange, tender smile at her reflection in the water as feathers and flower petals floated around her.

The young stallion turned his eyes back forwards, wondering if he should say something as they stepped onto the north bridge, then entered the halls of the strange but beautiful Thorn Palace... but Prestige saved him the trouble, as she asked hesitantly: “Do... do you work here as servants... miss?”

“Miss. I have never been called this before.” The Nightmare gave a quiet laugh at this, then it shook its head before murmuring: “In a way, yes. But to think we serve Selene because she is our mistress is false. We serve her because we were asked to serve her by the Dawn Bringer... ultimately, our allegiance lies with the Dawn Bringer, with Mistress Twilight... and with you, Antares Mīrus. And of course... with the true Mistress and Master of the Night: we look forwards to when you bring them back to us. We know you will succeed, Antares... we long for Luna so.”

“I do too.” Antares said quietly, before he could stop himself, and Prestige gave him a soft look before he hurriedly shook his head and glanced awkwardly up as he asked finally: “What makes you so sure that I'll succeed though? And... and why is my Mom so important to you?”

“Because your mother forged the alliance with our kind... saved many of us from destruction as our original world fell apart, brought us here, and spread her rule into this world. We are allies with new powers now... our strength grows with every passing day.” The Nightmare sighed with soft pleasure. “Mistress Luna and Master Scrivener... we first feared them, but it was foolishness. No, because they are like us... they are like what we desire to be. And in return for our loyalty, they make us strong... they have made best friends of those who were once our worst enemies, and our hatred has become reverence.”

The Nightmare smiled almost tenderly, then it halted and bowed its head toward an open white door. Antares leaned forwards, looking inside to see an immense, rounded tub built into the ground that was almost the size of a pool, complete with a small staircase running along one side to safely get in and out as the Nightmare said kindly: “If you like, I and my sisters can join you... or fetch others to tend to yourself and your beloved...”

“I... no, no!” Antares blushed deeply as he realized what the Nightmare meant, stammering: “This... this is perfectly fine, uh... Prestige and I are fine, right?”

Prestige only blushed awkwardly and hurried into the bathing room, and the Nightmare smiled after them before Antares added lamely: “You can... go, then. We're... I'm sure we can find our way back afterwards. Thanks, though, uh... thanks.”

The Nightmare nodded, but continued to simply sit and study him, and Antares felt his blush worsening as he carefully stepped forwards into the bathroom, then turned and slowly shut the door. He paused, then nervously leaned forwards, peering through the slight space between jamb and frame... then winced a little when he thought he saw the Nightmare still out there, mumbling: “Oh god.”

Prestige glanced up with a wince from where she was testing the water of the tub, and Antares shook his head as he stepped away from the door before turning and approaching it himself. Then he and Prestige traded a look, and they both blushed a little before Antares said lamely: “Well... uh...”

“Sharing a tub with a splinter horn.” Prestige muttered, then she shook her head violently before sighing tiredly and nodding a little, dropping her head forwards and grumbling: “You can help me with my mane, then. I think I can trust you to do at least that, yes?”

“Like one of your servants?” Antares asked before he could stop himself, and Prestige looked at him sourly before she splashed a bit of water at him when he approached, making him wince. “Hey. And I thought you were cutting back on the whole... being a racist jerk thing.”

“It's not racism when it's true, Antares Mīrus, you are what any of my proud kind would consider a splinter-horn.” Prestige retorted, and then she hesitated before adding quietly when the male glared at her: “And... and to be honest, I would not have it any other way. Because being what you are...”

She quieted, then shook her head with a blush before slipping forwards and into the tub, and she squirmed a little in surprise as she mumbled: “It's rather hot.”

“Yeah?” Antares stepped forwards, carefully reaching down and swirling the water with a hoof, and then he smiled a little before hesitantly sliding into the tub himself across from her. The two looked at one-another awkwardly for a few moments as the waters rippled around them, and then the young stallion cleared his throat lamely as he scrubbed a bit at himself and asked dumbly: “Do you... do you see the soap anywhere?”

“I...” Prestige blushed, and Antares coughed, the two looking awkward and embarrassed and almost like foals before she glanced to the side and hurriedly swept a large bar off a nearby tray. Then she fumbled it with a curse, dropping it into the depths of the tub with a plunk, and without thinking Antares dove down after it.

He surfaced a moment later in front of her with a bit of a splash and an awkward grin, soap held between his hooves as he looked up at her, and she gazed back at him dumbly... and then a smile twitched at her mouth before she giggled a little, and Antares laughed himself. And in that moment, everything was alright again, as their eyes locked and they smiled at each other before Prestige said through her blush: “Go ahead.”

Antares looked at her with surprise... but then he blushed a little himself as she turned around, and slowly, gently, he began to rub the soap along her back. He built up a lather, and soaped down her entire body, massaging as he cleaned her, nervous hooves stroking along her form, taking in her details... enjoying himself more than he wanted to admit as he breathed a little hard through a dry mouth. But he was careful, too, not letting his hooves wander overmuch... letting her guide him... slowing when she stiffened, moving away when she shifted, but slipping a little closer and obeying her body language and her wordless whispers.

He repeated the process with just his hooves to rinse and massage her, and she was more open, he was more bold... until at the end, she was pressing back against him, and he was half-curled over her, embracing her fiercely as they kissed slowly. When it parted, she smiled up at him, and murmured quietly: “Now, splinter-horn, let me give you an honor almost unique to your kind... let me do the same for you.”

“Prestige, you don't have to.” Antares said awkwardly, blushing deeply, suddenly nervous... especially since...

He blushed deeper as she looked at him insistently, and then he leaned back a little when she picked up the soap and turned towards him, guiding him first to the side of the tub. As he leaned forwards, she began to scrub first along his back... but her hooves were bolder than his. For all her changes, she still clearly held the belief she could and should take what she wanted... and when he squeaked as her hooves encircled him and rubbed downwards, she leaned against his back and murmured: “Stop it. I'm not... what's... oh.”

She blushed herself... and he felt her tremble, and a heat that couldn't compare to the water radiating through her as she rested for a moment before a slight smile rose to her features as she murmured: “Idiotic slave-hoof. Unable to control yourself, are you? Without a unicorn's superior discipline... strength...”

“Prestige.” Antares mumbled, the glossy-black unicorn almost fire-engine red by now, and Prestige laughed... and despite his discomfort, it filled him with joy before he sighed in relief as her hooves moved away, and he closed his eyes when she continued her gentle ministrations.

She rinsed him afterwards, then turned him around, and they looked at each other for a few moments. And then silently, without needing to be asked, Antares picked up the shampoo bottle nearby and smiled across at her.

He washed her mane for her, and Prestige looked like she was in bliss as she stayed mostly beneath the water, little more than her nose sticking out of the surface as she gave a soft sigh that bubbled up through the liquid. Antares enjoyed her pleasure more than he wanted to admit, gazing down at her with affection... but what surprised him was when, once he was done, she sat up slightly and smiled over her shoulder, murmuring: “Now do my tail, and then I'll wash your mane.”

“I... okay.” Antares studied her, seeing her honesty: seeing more than that, how she wanted to return the favor, she wanted to give back to him what he gave to her. The thought filled him with warmth, and reminded him again of his parents: how they had always shared so much with one-another, how they had almost been like an infinite cycle, one perpetually sustaining the other.

The rest of the bath was spent in silence, and Antares enjoyed Prestige's hooves working along his scalp far more than he should have, leaving him feeling almost euphoric. And when they were finally clean, they studied each other, smiled, and shared another kiss, their bodies pressing against each other's but unmindful of it now... instead, cherishing this, and all the sensations that came with it.

They climbed out of the tub together, and helped dry one-another off, still studying each other. These experiences were all so new, so fresh, and then Prestige smiled at him and said quietly: “Any other stallion would be pressuring me for sex right now. At least, in my experience that is the nature of most males.”

Antares blushed, mumbling: “Well it's not as if I'm not thinking about it but... I think we have other things to worry about, and... and well...” He looked up at her hesitantly. “Have you...”

“Oh, as if I've ever had the time with how hard I've been forced to train in magic.” Prestige said crossly, and Antares laughed in spite of himself before she said mildly: “Besides, a purebred unicorn like myself, in a melting pot like Canterlot. I never even found a suitable friend, much less a suitable bedmate. Not... not until you.”

She looked up at him, studying him for a few moments, and then she smiled a little. “And now look what I'm with. A boorish unicorn who wants to be an earth pony. I, the cultured, pristine and pure unicorn... with you...”

She strode forwards, murmuring as Antares blushed deeply and grinned awkwardly at the way her eyes half-lidded, her gaze almost hungry: “Dirty. Impure. A mutt. Rough and strong and masculine. You're like an animal, a beast, all your... thoughts of nature and striving to be equal instead of superior... oh, how I used to revile you, and now you fascinate me, you're exotic, you're so handsome and big and your friends are demons and it makes me wonder, Antares, what's inside you?”

She reached up, stroking a hoof slowly over his chest as he stared at her, and she grinned up at him, eyes sparkling... and then she shivered and shook her head hurriedly, looking embarrassed as she dropped her head against the side of his neck. “Oh Horses of Heaven. I... I think it's the air of this place...”

“It's... it's okay. I... yeah, Subterra makes... emotions run hot.” Antares said finally, although he wondered at the same time how true that was, and how much of that had been... Prestige, beneath her perfection and her masks. Yet even as it admittedly made him wonder if he was just eye-candy for her... at the same time, he could feel her emotions, could see not just lust in her eyes, but admiration... could feel her, clinging to him not just because he was large and big and handsome, but because he made her feel safe and secure and... something else. Something almost sacred...

He cleared his throat and turned his gaze quickly away as he realized he had started deep-reading her by accident, and then he smiled after a moment, reaching up and rubbing a hoof through her mane. She blushed a bit, her silver locks a little messy instead of done up in their coiffed perfection, before she smiled radiantly when he said quietly: “You're really beautiful natural, you know. I like your mane like this.”

“Do you?” she asked almost timidly, and when he nodded, she smiled again, then bowed her head forwards and murmured: “Mother and father would be... horrified. One must always look their best, after all, as we are the superior species... and more than that, we are superior to the superiors, we are supposed to be the apex...”

She sighed a little, though, speaking with irony instead of pride before she looked up at him and said quietly: “I still think unicorns are superior, Antares, don't get me wrong. But at the same time... striving to prove it the ways we did... it all strikes me as nonsense. We were lazy... we were preening birds.”

She quieted, then shook her head before burying her face against his neck, and Antares looked down at her with surprise as she murmured: “I don't know if I wish to return home any longer. I think sometimes... I think... I've found my home.”

He wrapped his forelegs around her, holding her close and closing his eyes, and for a few moments, there was silence. The only thing Prestige could hear was the beat of Antares' heart... the only thing she cared about, was the strong thuds of that drum in his chest, and it soothed her before she smiled a little and gazed up at him, kissing his chin quietly when he looked down at her with such honest tenderness. How he could be so good to her, after how they always argued, after how she had treated him... how she could feel so much for him, not just in spite of their conflicted past, but she thought because of how different they had been and still were in many ways...

“Let's go.” she said softly, and Antares nodded, but he kissed her forehead tenderly before letting her go, and the simple, small affection filled her with warmth. Then they turned and made their way to the door, Antares holding it open for Prestige with a smile before they both emerged into the hall, the two gazing at each other affectionately before the unicorn mare's eyes shifted to the side... and then she stared and cleared her throat hurriedly.

Antares frowned, then he turned curiously even as a twist of anxiety ran through him... and he stared in surprise at the sight of Meadowlark standing just a few feet away. The Pegasus stared at him, and he stared back... then she flushed and spun around, but Antares hurried forwards, calling almost desperately: “Meadow, wait, wait!”

The Pegasus stumbled to a halt, and then she trembled like a leaf, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards as Antares hesitantly came to a stop beside her, looking at her quietly. She breathed hard, shivering a little as Prestige nervously approached from behind, and then the Pegasus mare turned carefully around, looking from one to the other before she forced a weak smile. “Hi, guys... I... I was actually looking for you. I'm sorry I... I just...”

“No, you don't have to apologize, Meadowlark, I... I'm sorry you... I mean...” Antares felt his heart twist in his chest as Prestige shifted uncomfortably, and then the stallion hesitantly reached up and touched Meadowlark's shoulder. She didn't pull away, even as she continued to tremble weakly... and for a moment, the male simply looked at her before he sighed a little and murmured: “I'm so sorry.”

“No... it's... it's okay. You're... you two look good together.” Meadowlark said quietly, and she smiled again even though her eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. “Antares... I... it was silly, anyway. And... I'm glad you are happy. We're... we're still friends, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course, Meadowlark. We'll always be friends. And... you don't have to force anything...” Antares said quietly, looking at her almost pleadingly... and what broke his heart was the honesty in her words. He could see her ache, her pain... but at the same time, she was speaking the truth. She was upset and hurt and disappointed... and yet she was still happy for him. And even with his talents, he couldn't understand how she could still smile for him even if he had broken her heart.

Meadowlark only dropped her head forwards, whispering: “Good. I want to be friends... and... I'm not forcing anyway, I... I just...” She shivered a little, then looked up and breathed slowly, studying him with a tremble. “Don't... worry about me. I know it was stupid. You're a hero, Antares I... I... I'm just happy to be included. Especially after everything I did to you, and Avalon and...”

She shivered and looked away, then closed her eyes and nodded silently once before shaking her head violently when Antares began to speak. The unicorns instead remained silent and the Pegasus breathed hard before she finally looked up and murmured: “Celestia would like to meet with you. She's out with... that strange demon, Selene. And... thank you for... for including me. I know I'm useless to you here...”

“You're not useless... I...” Antares shifted, then he lowered his eyes when Meadowlark only looked silently at the ground. “I know you'll be a big help, Meadowlark. There's still a lot for you to do.”

Meadowlark laughed faintly at this, but then she nodded slowly and hesitated, before looking up and saying quietly: “Can I come back with you? This castle scares me and... I... I promise not to get in the way...”

“Meadow... I...” Antares shifted a bit, and then he nodded slowly before leaning forwards and quietly hugging her. Meadowlark hugged him tightly back, burying her face against the side of his neck and trembling... and even though he felt her pain flare up, he felt her silently thanking him, too, before they pulled slowly apart.

For a few moments, there was quiet, and then Prestige said softly: “Meadowlark... I'm sorry. Perhaps... perhaps we can be friends, too. But I understand if you'd... rather have nothing to do with me.”

“No, I... no. We need to work together, and get past this and... it was silly anyway...” Meadowlark shook her head vehemently, then she gave another faint, forced smile to Prestige, nodding a little and closing her eyes. “But Celestia is waiting and... yeah.”

Antares simply nodded, and he felt trapped for a moment: in front of him, Meadowlark, with so much pain and happiness he didn't understand, and behind him, Prestige, who was trying hard to be kind but he felt jealousy and fear mixing strangely with sympathy. Then the young stallion hurriedly turned, leading the two onwards... and he winced a bit over his shoulder at the two young mares, thinking morbidly of how complicated everything had gotten all of a sudden.

It didn't take them long to head back out to the top of the pyramid, where Selene was calmly talking with Celestia, although there was no sign of any of Antares' other friends. As they approached, Celestia glanced up and tilted her head with surprise at the trio, then she frowned a little and asked gently: “Meadowlark, wouldn't you prefer to head off to the guest quarters with the others? And Prestige, you may leave too if you desire... I only really need to speak to Antares.”

“I... would like to stay.” Prestige said hesitantly, and then she glanced over at Meadowlark as the Pegasus shifted awkwardly, before the unicorn mare visibly sighed inwardly, but said all the same: “And Meadowlark is... very intelligent. Perhaps... she could assist us if... she doesn't want to leave.”

“Kindness. A virtue, is it not?” Selene smiled a little, glancing with infinite, dark gaze towards Celestia, who nodded slowly as the ivory mare visibly softened. “You have strange thoughts and feelings, Dawn Bringer.”

“I do, Selene. I'm reminded of the past, that's all.” Celestia said softly, and then she turned her eyes calmly towards Antares, asking curiously: “Your choices for mentors... they were interesting. I'm glad that you made them, and I respect them, Antares, but I'm still curious all the same as to a few of them... Avalon and Rustproof, for example. The Royal Guard will not treat either of them kindly, you understand this?”

“I... didn't think of that.” Antares admitted, then he hesitated before shaking his head slowly. “But it doesn't change my opinion, either. It'll be good for them both, I think: I just... hope they aren't too mean to Rusty. But he can work with the rifle brigade, and I don't know who else could train Avalon. I figured your Yamato and the Royal Guard were the only real choices... well, and Pinkamena, of course.”

“I have a solution for that, as a matter of fact. A personal trainer who is willing to work with Avalon as a personal favor to me, although... it took quite a lot of convincing.” Celestia smiled slightly, and Antares tilted his head with interest. “Don't worry, Antares. It's a pony that I believe Avalon can honestly benefit from, in more than one way. And who will very likely teach her there is benefit to humility: Avalon Apple has some right to her bragging, after all, but... it does get a little... wearisome.”

Antares laughed a little despite himself, and then Celestia continued: “I hope you don't mind, but I've also taken the liberty of setting up a basic schedule, and where I could, I've paired together students. For example, I would prefer you and Aphrodisia to train side-by-side under Pinkamena. It's not just important that you learn to fight, Antares... it's important that you and your friends learn to better work together.”

Antares Mīrus nodded quickly, and then Celestia smiled softly, saying quietly: “Selfishly, I've scheduled us plenty of time together. I want you to know ahead of time I'm not going to give you gentler treatment because you are my nephew... if anything, I'll push you harder. Your mother would have wanted that... you understand, don't you?”

“I do, and I appreciate it, Aunt Tia.” The glossy-black young stallion bowed his head with a blush, and Celestia smiled approvingly. “I'm... sorry that I was so selfish in my choices.”

“No Antares, I understand. And it is necessary, even if I wish your mother was here... Luna could better train you than the rest of us put together.” Celestia said quietly, glancing away before she shook her head slowly, then she glanced over at Meadowlark. “Perhaps you could help me with the schedule. And... don't worry about Amdusias. He can be a little chaotic at times, but he's a good person at heart. He's more bark than bite.”

Meadowlark smiled a little, nodding slowly, and there was silence for a few moments before Celestia hesitated, then asked: “On... another matter... is Twilight Sparkle...”

“She's... regenerating in the crypt, yeah. Her wings and horn have to grow back still, and I know it's... it's not nearly as easy as she tells me it is. I know she doesn't want me to worry but... I do, all the same.” Antares laughed a little, glancing up at her hesitantly. “Could... could we visit her?”

“Of course. But first... let's walk your friends to their respective rooms, and deal with the business at hoof of letting them know what the days ahead hold. We can make a few small adjustments as necessary, then... go and visit Twilight.” Celestia replied quietly, and then she gave Selene a smile and nod. “Take care, friend.”

“You as well, Valkyrie... it settles my nerves to have you here, Dawn Bringer.” Selene replied softly, and then she settled slowly back down on top of the water of her reflecting pool, sending a quiet ripple through the water as she gazed down into it with a quiet laugh. “You remind me of mother, too. But not as much as Luna... we both look up to her, don't we?”

“She was my little sister... but she was also my guide, in more ways than she ever knew.” Celestia replied quietly, and Antares smiled silently as he looked up at his aunt as she calmly approached, before leaning down and nuzzling her nephew softly for a moment, and he blushed a bit but smiled wider in affection. “Come, Antares, and friends. Business before pleasure.”

Antares nodded firmly once, stepping aside to let Celestia pass, and then he turned to follow as Meadowlark and Prestige fell in pace on either side of him, both mares looking quietly towards the young stallion with longing and affection as for just a moment, everything else was forgotten.

Forever Longing

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Chapter Thirteen: Forever Longing
~BlackRoseRaven

Prestige Luster nervously strode through the streets of Subterra with her Nightmare guide, trying to ignore the looks she was getting here and there from demons and other creatures. The suspicious looks were bad enough... but there were plenty who were smiling tenderly, and some of them had already taken to calling her 'Lady Prestige,' and 'the Prince's lover.'

Prestige wondered awkwardly if Antares knew how much these creatures adored and looked up to him... and how many of them considered Antares to be just like them. And more, that made her wonder silently just what kind of darkness might lurk inside Antares himself, how many similarities he actually bore to these demons that were hidden beneath the surface, or maybe he only suppressed from the public eye...

But it didn't bother her: he made her feel safe, and good, and protected, and Prestige smiled a little before she stared as the Nightmare led her through the heavy, welcoming and open golden gates leading into the grounds of a beautiful palace. There was an enormous yard that strange trees and gardens of flowers and plants grew through in almost wild clusters in front of the gorgeous building of red stone and golden steel, and there was something... exotic about the whole design. It wasn't spiky and scary like the rest of the darker stone buildings that she had seen through the enormous cavern systems that made up Subterra, but rounded, and beautiful, and attractive, with strange wild flora growing here and there along it, soaking in the heat that radiated through the building.

The Nightmare smiled over at Prestige, then it bowed its head to her politely before simply vanishing, and Prestige squeaked a bit before she hesitantly looked at the golden stairs leading up to a beautiful, open archway leading into the palace. She felt like she was going to see some sultan or vizier, and she couldn't help but wonder how a demon that hadn't left an exactly good impression on her could afford all this.

Then Burning Desire pranced out of the open archway, looking down at her brightly and calling delightedly: “Come, come! What a pleasure, my sweet, oh, don't wait outside! How lucky am I, getting to teach such a pretty young thing, in my own home, and enjoy both the the benefits of tutoring another as well as the delight of having such a beautiful creature around!”

He laughed, and Prestige sighed tiredly before she nervously made her way up the steps as the fiery stallion eyed her appreciatively. She grimaced and shivered, half-wishing he'd at least hide his leering before he turned with a smile, turning and leading her forwards down the massive entrance hall. “Come, darling, I have a room all set up for us... and then once that's done, we can head over to the training area, how does that sound?”

He grinned roguishly down at her as Prestige flushed, looking hurriedly away at the red stone walls as they passed beautiful tapestries and coats of arms, before she stared: the hall was bottle shaped, and they were just stepping out of the thinner neck into the wide, open rectangular body... and here, lining the walls, were not tapestries but instead statues of gorgeous mares standing in sultry, provocative, and sometimes downright debauched poses that revealed every last detail of... “Oh god! How can you decorate your home like this! What about... god!”

“Oh, as if any god doesn't see this every day.” Burning Desire argued, shaking his head with a huff before the enormous, fiery demon leaned against her: he was almost twice the size of her, and his burning fire mane and tail both licked at her body... but the warmth they spread to her was only uncomfortable purely because the fire sent strange heat racing through her instead of burning painfully. “I have some statues of stallions down in the outer garden if you'd prefer to ogle, those, though... just as detailed, in various states of-”

“You horrible... pervert!” Prestige spat, looking up at him with horror as she stumbled to halt, looking once over her shoulder at the statues that lined one side of the wall before she glared forwards at Burning Desire.

The demon stallion struck a shocked pose as he grabbed his face with his front hooves, staring down at her as fiery mane and tail both burst backwards. “What? A Lust demon is a pervert? Oh, inform the magistrate, this is so unexpected and unacceptable!” Burning Desire proceeded to flail his hooves violently around, then he suddenly dropped them flat and leaned down, grinning widely as he pushed nose-to-nose with her, and Prestige stared stupidly up at him. “Some of the statues are modeled off me. Wanna guess which ones?”

“The ugly one at the very end with its rump raised in the air.” Prestige snapped, glaring towards the end of the hall, and Burning Desire's face puckered as he glared down at her. “Can we get to training? I'm beginning to think that you have nothing to teach but... but... how to be disgusting! And how to waste money on... there must be two dozen of these tacky statues here, and I dare not imagine how much other... filth and garbage you've lined this entire ridiculous castle with!”

“Hey!” Burning Desire put a hurt look on his face. “This isn't a castle. It's my palace of pleasure. My fiery furnace of fu-”

Prestige gave him the most horrible look she could, and Burning Desire cleared his throat before he sighed tiredly, then he nodded a few times before gesturing at the open set of crimson double doors at the far end of the hall. “Oh, fine, filly. You mortals are all so touchy these days. Even Twilight Sparkle, who I thought would be much more open-minded to this sort of thing. But it amuses me, I suppose, so it's a fair tradeoff.”

“My disgust amuses you.” Prestige said flatly, and Burning Desire nodded with a childlike smile before he turned and pranced forwards, and Prestige sighed tiredly before she mumbled and followed after him, wincing a bit at the posed statues on either side of the hall.

She followed him into another hallway, ignoring the pictures and tapestries that depicted things she tried her hardest not to look at... or worse, imagine... but thankfully, after a short walk, Burning Desire led her into a curiously-shaped room. At first Prestige winced a little when he closed the heavy metal door behind her, worried about what he was going to do... but then he simply strode down the center of the mostly-empty room, between the six plain pillars that fed up into the heavy ironwood rafters above.

He stopped in front of an empty fireplace, then flicked his horn with a smile, and it burst into vibrant life before he sighed in relief and turned around. Prestige was still looking hesitantly back and forth, but she was surprised to see no ornaments on the wall. Then she glanced up as Burning Desire said gently: “Come here, and gaze into the fire. This is my meditation room.”

Prestige hesitated, but then she grimaced and nodded, walking forwards, and she winced when he slipped a foreleg companionably around her when she sat down in front of the fireplace. She looked down into the fire, studying the way the orange flames danced before flinching a bit as the demon's mouth pressed almost to her ear, whispering: “This is where I come for quiet contemplation... my inner stronghold, my special place. Precious few ever see this... only those... who are special themselves...”

He stroked slowly along her side, then down her back, and Prestige swallowed hard as he leaned into her, nuzzling against the side of her neck as he licked his lips slowly, and the female shivered before muttering: “You need to learn personal space.”

“I can feel your desires, Prestige Luster. Come now, Antares wouldn't mind.” he almost pleaded, before smiling and dropping his face against her neck, making her flinch again... and yet she didn't pull away. Yes, he made her uncomfortable: he scared her a little, and he was touchy and grabby, but somehow, at the same time, she wasn't precisely worried... and Burning Desire chuckled quietly as he murmured, apparently tasting her emotions or her mind clearly enough to answer: “Because I can't force myself on you, darling. Oh, I can seduce, tease, touch, lust and long for you, but I can't force myself on anyone. I'm lust and greed, but what I want... what I need... is for people to give in to me...”

Slowly, his hoof rubbed down towards her flank, but he grasped her gently as he kissed a tender spot on the side of the unicorn's neck, making her shiver again as she shifted and muttered: “Get... off me.”

“Just a kiss? Just a taste?” Burning Desire leaned up, his breath slipping into her ear, making her tremble at the heat and the feeling and the desires that rollicked inside her even as she fought back against his influence, but everything was so hot and he was... he was so handsome...

Prestige clenched her eyes shut, resisting, and Burning Desire almost whimpered, making her curse in frustration as she glared at him before their eyes met, and she said slowly and firmly: “I... I love Antares.”

She twitched a bit, and then a thud ran through her at this confession: said to herself as much as him. The demon stared at her... and then he sighed wistfully, but smiled at her all the same as he leaned forwards and nuzzled her slowly, but it was different this time as his forelegs slipped up, not grasping her but instead embracing her as he smiled with genuine feeling for her. “Lucky filly.”

She frowned, freezing up a little in his embrace... but then he pulled back and gazed into her eyes, sliding his hooves up and grasping her shoulders as he smiled at her kindly. “You mortals are so silly. But I was silly once, too, and... I suppose I'm silly now. Very well, shall we get started?”

“I... what?” Prestige said slowly, staring across at him before she asked uneasily: “Is... are you... is this some kind of trick?”

“Oh, what, I stop groping you and now you get suspicious?” Burning Desire glared at her, and then he huffed a little. “No, filly. I do have my respect, and... no means no. Well. The fiftieth no means no. Of course, if you ever change your mind, just let me know...” He grinned toothily, leaning forwards and licking his lips as he added positively: “And oh, filly, I can help you learn just how to please a stallion in all the right ways if you want, too...”

He began to lean forwards, his hooves sliding down her sides as Prestige stared at him... before she almost fell over in shock when the metal door was smashed open and Aphrodisia charged in, barking wildly. Burning Desire squealed in terror as he hurriedly leapt away from Prestige, then he transformed in a burst of flame into a firebird that hurriedly shot up to the rafters above, half-flopping over one girder as Aphrodisia charged around in a circle below him, still barking like a dog and sending splatters of drool in all directions.

Then the young demon skidded to a halt before glaring over at Prestige, who was breathing hard as she stared dumbly back at Aphrodisia. The pale-pink mare growled at her, then she spat to the side before sitting down and glowering up at Burning Desire, shouting: “Mommy sent me to tell you to keep your hooves off Nova's marefriend, or she's going to geld you, dumb... bird-butt!”

“I wasn't doing anything!” Burning Desire half-argued, half-whined, and Prestige looked up in surprise as the firebird hopped up to his talons and glared down at him, the demon speaking as fluently now as ever. “You know the rules for my kind, or at least you should... I'm not like you, Dominia demon! Lust and Wrath get to take anything they want, they have to agree for me to get what I need... and besides, I don't interfere with love.”

“Love?” Aphrodisia stared stupidly over at Prestige, who turned beet-red as she glared angrily up at Burning Desire when the firebird nodded contritely. Then she growled again, turning towards Prestige and slowly storming over to her, before the unicorn yelped as the young demon easily pinned her by one shoulder with a strong hoof, glaring down into her eyes as she asked coldly: “Did you just tell the flaming demon up there that you love Antares?”

“Stop implying that I'm gay! Oh, I admire and respect a handsome male form, but I'd never have sex with another stallion... well... unless, you know, there wasn't anyone else around. Or it was me. I would have sex with myself a lot.” The firebird licked his beak, looking almost dreamy for a moment as he hugged himself with his wings. “That doesn't count, though.”

Aphrodisia glared up at the fire demon crankily, and then she returned her eyes to Prestige, who swallowed thickly before nodding weakly once... and for a few moments, there was silence before the young demon slowly stepped back off her, then she leaned down and said quietly: “You better. Because he could do so much better than you, Prestige Luster. Because you don't deserve him. But you show me you really care about him and I'll stick by you through anything, because he's my best friend ever and he always will be.”

She stopped, then sat up a little and sighed as Prestige didn't know whether to be insulted, scared, or touched, before the young demon grumbled and turned around. “I'm going to go play with your stuff, Burning Desire.”

“Please wash anything you touch.” the firebird muttered, then he hopped along the rafter when Aphrodisia glared up at him before he looked conspiratorially back and forth, then cupped his beak with a wing as he whispered: “I bought you a present, don't tell your mother. It's in my room, it's the big box. You'll like it.”

Aphrodisia's eyes lit up at this, her mood suddenly changing as she brightened and clapped her hooves as Prestige stared in confusion... and then shivered at she thought of all the horrible things it could possibly be. “Oh, oh, oh! Mommy wouldn't let me have one! Thank you, Burning Desire!”

“Yes, yes, yes, just go.” Burning Desire chuckled a little as Aphrodisia turned and scurried off, then the firebird calmly flitted down from the rafters. He hovered in front of the door, then flicked his head to the side, and it slammed closed as he murmured: “Such a little sweetheart, she is.”

The firebird turned, then flew easily through the air... and Prestige glowered upwards when Burning Desire landed on her head and then calmly turned around, furling his wings as his small talons pulled lightly at her mane before he settled comfortably. She cleared her throat loudly, and Burning Desire brightened as he craned his head down to peer at her upside down. “Oh, you're confused? Oh, don't worry, honestly, most of the time between us demons it's all just an act. And Pinkamena is such a wonderful soul... while Twilight Sparkle and I were seeing each other, she introduced me to her. I'm actually to be Aphrodisia's mentor when she's old enough... she's going to spend a decade or so learning about her heritage with me.”

“What?” Prestige looked up in surprise now, shaking her head a bit before she frowned: “Impossible. I... but Pinkamena herself is a demon, and training Aphrodisia!”

“Yes, but Pinkamena is a Devourer... Wrath and Gluttony. Aphrodisia is a Dominia, Lust and Wrath... her mother can only teach her to master half of herself.” Burning Desire replied cheerfully, shaking his head quickly. “And clearly I'm Lust and Greed, if you haven't already noticed. The eternal, hungering fire... Passion. I have a lot to teach Aphrodisia when she's ready... but always, always, we silly demons like to keep up appearances. Although mostly I do it for Pinkamena's sake... we all know how touchy she is about her reputation.”

He sighed in quiet pleasure, then the firebird paused before saying jovially: “But that's all in the future and what's important now is that we instead get you ready! Now, sweet little Prestige, I want you to know that I was a unicorn in life, and although I heard that you're very good at elemental manipulation I'd much rather start you off with a different kind of spell. Look into the fire, focus your magic on it... I've already started the enchantment and I'll help you along, if you'll trust me...” He paused, then added softly: “And you can trust me. Longing... is cursed to suffer, until what it desires is freely given to it. Those that long, can never steal, force, or snare... only take what is offered.”

He fell quiet, and Prestige shifted uncomfortably before she nodded a little, then sighed a bit and tilted her head forwards as the firebird settled itself a bit more comfortably atop her mane, mumbling: “I just wish you would get off my head, wretched demon.”

“Oh, shush. Do you know how many maidens I've wooed as a sweet-singing cardinal? And it's not a lie when I tell them I'll turn into the stallion of their dreams, if only they'll favor me with a kiss!” Burning Desire exclaimed, then he laughed and leaned down, winking into her eyes. “But focus! Focus on the fire!”

Prestige sighed tiredly, then grumbled as she did so, looking into the flames as her horn began to glow softly... and her eyes widened after a moment as the fire's dance and sway slowed, became strangely crystalline, and she whispered: “What... what is this...”

“Shh, shh, keep your mind steady and clear...” Burning Desire murmured, and then he instructed gently: “Think of one of your friends... not Antares or Aphrodisia, but someone out in the open...”

Prestige shifted and nodded, swallowing a bit as Avalon came to mind next... and her eyes widened as she stared into the flames as they hardened further, becoming like clear red glass as images began to form, and as she watched in amazement...

Avalon grinned widely, the Pegasus strutting proudly into the training arena used by the Royal Guard with Rainbow Dash beside her. The tiny Pegasus was in full armor, and her father smiled warmly as he said: “You're gonna do great, Ava. I'm so damn proud of you.”

“Thanks for coming, Dad... it... it means a lot that you did, you came to watch.” Avalon said with a small smile, looking up at him happily, and Rainbow Dash winked at her before they traded a fierce, tight hug... and in front of them, one of the Royal Guards gave a long, mocking catcall, to the laughter of the rest of the group.

Both Pegasi looked up sourly, across at the armored soldiers: there were five Pegasus Guard standing at the ready, two of them with crossbows. One of them stepped forwards in his polished golden armor, grinning mockingly as he asked easily: “Who are you, some new recruit? You're the one supposed to be wearing armor, not your ickle little filly there.”

Rainbow glared across at the Pegasus Guard sourly, then he glanced moodily back and forth, asking: “Who's in charge here? My girl Avalon is here for training.”

“What? Get the hell out of here, pal, this ain't a babysitting center.” The guard snorted in disgust and disdain, stepping forwards now as his friends behind him all chuckled. Rainbow Dash only glowered, however, and Avalon glared angrily up at the Pegasus Guard as he leaned down and asked mockingly: “Wouldn't you prefer to be playing with your dollies? What are you, five?”

“I'm seventeen.” Avalon said icily, and the Guard looked stunned... then he threw his head back and laughed before staring down at her again with something like amazement, and the tiny Pegasus leapt forwards, barking: “Yeah, big tough guy with all your friends, huh? My Daddy and I could trash you and every one of your friends here!”

Rainbow Dash winced a bit at this, looking awkwardly back and forth: Royal Guards, both on duty and off-duty, were up in the stands, and other soldiers were arriving through different gates, setting up targets and marking off sparring areas here and there in the coliseum, while others were just looking with interest at the developing argument. “Uh, sweetie...”

“Oh, yeah, your daddy looks like a real big tough guy, honey-cake.” the Pegasus Guard in front of them mocked, then he reached down and shoved Avalon backwards by the helmet, and Rainbow Dash snarled as he looked sharply up and Avalon glared furiously. “Go home. You got no business here.”

“Don't you touch my daughter.” Rainbow Dash said quietly, and the Guard glared across at him before Avalon reached up, grasping her father's shoulder firmly. He looked down at her, saw the plea in her eyes, and he hesitated... then he gritted his teeth and said sharply: “Not unless you think you're stallion enough to take her on, that is.”

“What? You gotta be kidding me.” The Pegasus Guard snorted in disgust, then he slowly grinned, shaking his head in disdain as he looked with entertainment over his shoulder at his friends. They all looked just as amused at the prospect, and the soldier looked forwards again with a snort, stepping back and smiling mockingly down at Avalon. “Okay, little girl. Tell you what. If you really want a spanking I guess I can dole one out for you. Come on, let's see your best shot!”

The Pegasus Guard grinned challengingly, and Rainbow Dash stepped carefully to the side as Avalon set herself and shivered, her wings slowly spreading, her body slowly straightening against her armor before the Guard jeered: “Yeah, like I thought, too scared to-”

In a blur, Avalon shot forwards, smashing like a bullet into the Guard's chest and cutting him off as he staggered backwards before she rose up in front of him and slammed her head into his face. He reared back with a yell of surprise, grabbing at his bloodied nose before both of Avalon's rear hooves shot up and kicked savagely off his chest, launching him staggering back on his rear hooves as Avalon flew backwards, then twisted her body gracefully and launched herself forwards like a missile.

She smashed into his chest while he was still staggering, and the Guard yelled in horror as the tiny Pegasus tackled him onto his back, his wings bending painfully as he skidded a good ten feet through the sand and his group of friends were sent scattering like scared rats. Then tiny Pegasus and Guard rolled together violently before the soldier's face smashed down into the ground as the small Pegasus ended up beneath him, a snarl of effort on her face as she pushed her back up against his stomach and all four powerful legs flexed.

Avalon launched herself savagely into the air before the stunned guard could react, reaching her front hooves up to seize him around the waist as she roared and he yelped in horror. Guards around the arena stared in dumb surprise as the tiny Pegasus hauled the fully grown, armored stallion high up above before she began to violently spin, and the Pegasus Guard flailed wildly before he shouted in frustration as Avalon half-threw him off her body... only so she could become like a blur, racing violently in a whirlwind around him as her tiny hooves smashed into his armor and every exposed bit of flesh she could find before she crashed savagely into his back.

The Guard howled as he stared in horror at the ground below, flailing his limbs wildly, but his wings were unable to get purchase even before Avalon started to spin violently as she held tightly onto him, forcing his body to corkscrew wildly. All he could do was yell incoherently until he crashed face-first into the sand in a puff, a single golden blur rocketing high into the air after the impact before it flipped gracefully once... and then Avalon dropped and slammed both rear hooves with a crunch into the unfortunate Guard's back, and he squeaked in pain.

The tiny Pegasus dropped back to all four hooves, standing on top of him primly before she stomped viciously up and down, and Rainbow Dash gave her a pointed look before his daughter snorted and rose her head proudly. “He just got what was coming to him, that's all.”

On the ground, the Pegasus Guard whimpered as he lay in a broken heap, slowly bleeding from the nose and mouth as tears leaked out of his eyes, and Avalon stepped carefully off him before she moodily kicked a bit of sand back into his face. He whimpered sluggishly again as soldiers stared and pointed, and Rainbow couldn't help but laugh before he chastised gently as Avalon bounced happily over to him: “Look, only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner, kid. No need to add insult to injury. Not after you did that to the poor jerk.”

Avalon only huffed, but she nodded and gazed up respectfully at her father, before both Rainbow Dash and Avalon looked up with surprise as a soft voice said: “Most impressive. Your daughter fights almost as well as my little sister.”

Avalon blushed and smiled radiantly at this compliment as Celestia calmly approached in her own armor, smiling softly at them, and then she glanced over at the Pegasus Guard as they saluted her, looking pale. “You are all dismissed. Take your comrade to the infirmary and have his wounds treated...” She paused, then added quietly: “I hope this serves as a lesson to all present not to underestimate any pony's worth, no matter what they might look like. And... on that note...”

Yamato Elite approached, and Avalon's eyes glittered as she grinned widely... and then stared when the guards parted, and Fluttershy made her way slowly forwards, head low and a meek smile on her face. For a few moments, Avalon's mouth worked stupidly as Rainbow stared dumbly at his friend, and then Celestia bowed her head and said quietly: “I've found you a tutor, Avalon.”

“I... but.. you're not, she's... Fluttershy, I... your wing, too...” Rainbow babbled awkwardly, and Fluttershy blushed deeply as she bowed her head a little.

Avalon was shaking her own head in disbelief, and then Fluttershy looked up at Celestia and said quietly: “If... I really don't want to cause any trouble, and there are so many ponies around that... well... you know. I... I don't know if...”

“It's perfectly alright, Fluttershy... don't worry. Your friends are only surprised, that's all.” Celestia soothed, and then she looked up and said in a gentle voice that all the same carried the tone of command to it: “Fluttershy is doing me an enormous favor, facing both her past and her own anxieties in order to help your daughter, Rainbow Dash... and more than that, she's doing both you and Avalon an immeasurable service. Please treat this opportunity with the respect that it deserves.”

Avalon shifted apprehensively, but Rainbow blushed and bowed his head forwards, saying quietly: “I'm sorry, Fluttershy, Celestia, I just... it surprised me, that's all. You never... well...” He halted, then smiled a little and nudged his daughter. “Thank you, Fluttershy.”

“Yeah... I... thanks?” Avalon said doubtfully, but Fluttershy smiled warmly all the same, seeming to draw strength from this as she looked up. Her single wing flapped a bit as she breathed quietly, and then Avalon couldn't stop herself from blurting: “But what am I thanking you for?”

Celestia sighed a little, but it was Fluttershy who answered, bowing her head and saying quietly: “My... my mother trained me since I was a child in... combat. I remember... enough, that I hope I can be of service. Ever since... ever since ten years ago, when Prudence attacked, I've... been having memories surface, and it's been very hard for me to deal with them. While Celestia has been so generous to me and treats me like I'm doing such an enormous favor to everypony here, I really think... this is a favor to me. Perhaps if I can use these memories for something good... I can forgive the past, and let things finally rest. Let my mother's memory... finally fade.”

She quieted, and Rainbow Dash nodded silently before he reached up and touched Avalon's shoulder when she opened her mouth. The tiny Pegasus frowned, looking over her shoulder at her father, but she remained quiet at the look on his face, and Celestia nodded approvingly before she said softly: “Perhaps, Fluttershy, if you're ready...”

“Just... just one moment, please.” Fluttershy said quietly, and she glanced over her shoulder... and Celestia smiled softly, stepping carefully back and aside as Nirvana approached. Phooka and one-winged Pegasus gazed into each other's eyes, and the Phooka's glowed faintly before Fluttershy smiled a little and nodded hesitantly as her own irises reflected the creature's green-fire eyes.

For a moment longer, there was quiet, and then the two embraced fiercely before Fluttershy drew back and took a slow breath, nodding once. Nirvana rumbled quietly, then he, Celestia, and the Yamato Elite drew back to watch as Fluttershy looked up and smiled hesitantly. “Before we begin... please let me know at any time if I'm too rough. I have no desire to hurt you. But don't be afraid of trying your hardest... I won't be mad if anything happens. Okay?”

“I... okay.” Avalon said, looking nonplussed, and then she looked lamely up at Rainbow Dash before sighing and fidgeting awkwardly as her father smiled before patting her and drawing back, the foal looking a little miserable as she mumbled: “Sorry, Fluttershy. I... guess I'll try not to hurt you.”

Fluttershy only smiled, bowing her head politely, and Avalon made a surly face before she simply strode forwards and threw a simple, straight punch, aiming for the shoulder of the one-winged Pegasus. The foal wasn't exactly shocked when Fluttershy flinched back... but she was surprised to realize that Fluttershy had actually caught her hoof, as the gentle mare murmured: “Excuse me, Avalon, I... don't mean to be rude, but I know you can fight much better than this... please try again, okay?”

Avalon glowered a little, and then she grunted and stepped back before swinging another hoof up, in a harder, sharper blow... and while Fluttershy winced a little again, she easily blocked the hook punch, saying quietly: “It's okay, honestly, Ava. I'm not going to be mad at you. You can try harder.”

“I don't want to hurt you, Fluttershy, I mean... no offense, but I just took down a Pegasus Guard.” Avalon complained; in the background, Rainbow Dash winced and then grinned lamely at Celestia as the Baroness frowned a little. “You're... really nice and all, but I don't know how much you can help me.”

She stepped back as Fluttershy blushed and lowered her head a little, murmuring: “I'm sorry you feel that way, Avalon... maybe you're right. But all the same, I would very much like to teach you what I could.”

From the sidelines, Nirvana rumbled something in his own language as Avalon sighed, then frowned when the one-winged Pegasus cocked her head curiously. Fluttershy looked back at Nirvana, then asked something in that strange, sibilant language that the Phooka spoke... and Nirvana replied quickly, leaning forwards a little, visibly encouraging her.

Fluttershy smiled after a moment, then she returned her eyes to Avalon, saying kindly: “Here's an idea. Why don't I attack you, and you block? I promise to be gentle. Only pins. And again, we can stop any time you feel uncomfortable.”

“I... don't...” Avalon looked almost desperately towards Rainbow Dash, and then she quailed at the glare her father gave her before turning towards Fluttershy, nodding quickly as she mumbled: “Well. Okay, fine. I guess that works. We can start when you're ready.”

Fluttershy smiled, then she nodded as she took a few deep breaths, straightening before murmuring quietly: “Okay. Here I come.”

Avalon smiled indulgently... and then stared stupidly, slowly blinking. The world was upside down, and there was nothing under her hooves... before she realized she was on her back, her jaw falling open as Fluttershy asked nervously: “I didn't hurt you, did I? Oh, Avalon, I'm sorry.”

“I... I... what?” Avalon asked stupidly, and then she rolled back to her hooves, gaping, staring back and forth. She looked desperately at her father, but Rainbow Dash was sitting with his own jaw dropped, and Celestia was smiling warmly, looking impressed. “I... what happened?”

“I'm sorry. I didn't hurt you, did I?” Fluttershy leaned forwards, looking over the tiny Pegasus with concern, but Avalon hurriedly shook her head before staring as Fluttershy said nervously: “Well, perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all...”

“N-No! I... let's do that again!” Avalon said hurriedly, frowning. Fluttershy nodded apprehensively, and Avalon gritted her teeth before snapping as she dropped to a ready position: “Okay, let's go!”

Now that she was paying attention, she saw it: Fluttershy made a grab at her, but Avalon hurriedly leapt backwards... before staring as the Pegasus in front of her moved like liquid, pursuing her with so much grace it was a like a ballet more than a battle. On instinct, Avalon swung a hoof out hard and fast, cursing herself even as she did so... and then gaping when Fluttershy easily locked her own forelimb around Avalon's before...

The world was upside down again, and Avalon was laying just as speechless and stunned as before, not entirely sure what had happened. She rolled to her hooves, breathing hard, and Fluttershy complimented quietly: “You're quite fast, Ava. I think you're even faster than Rainbow Dash was at your age... you must make him and Applejack very proud.”

“Again!” Avalon demanded desperately, and Fluttershy smiled kindly, nodding once... and then the two Pegasi moved like lightning, Fluttershy so graceful and elegant it was like gravity itself couldn't bear to hold her down, Avalon like golden electricity and limitless energy ricocheting itself in any direction it could move.

She leapt backwards, and Fluttershy's hoof grasped her head all the same, beginning to gently push her down; Avalon yanked her head back and swung both front hooves up to try and seize the limb, and Fluttershy's other hoof almost cradled her beneath the body, pulling gently to the side as she twisted the held limb at the same time. A moment of weightlessness... and Avalon flapped her wings hard, launching herself backwards to just barely escape.

But Fluttershy kept up with her: again, Avalon felt the hoof on her head pushing her down as the world seemed to move in slow motion, and in desperation, the tiny Pegasus yelled desperately before letting her front drop as she flipped herself, swinging both rear legs down in a savage bicycle kick.

And next thing the tiny Pegasus knew, she was somehow on her stomach, one of Fluttershy's hooves tenderly rubbing her back as the maternal Pegasus smiled down at her softly. “Are you okay?”

“What happened?” Avalon wheezed, staring stupidly up and vaguely aware that her body was trembling. Fluttershy only shrugged, and Avalon staggered to her hooves, breathing hard as she stared desperately up at the one-winged Pegasus. “How... how... how can you do all this stuff? I... you... but y-y-you're...”

“My... my mother taught me. Her name was Sol Seraph, and she was...” Fluttershy looked silently down, murmuring quietly: “She was a predator, and a hunter, Avalon. She taught me awful things, how to hurt, how to kill, tried to raise me to believe in... awful things. But I never... was very good at what she wanted me to do. I could never hurt, and the thought of killing... still makes me feel sick to my stomach.

“I was never... good... in my mother's eyes. But even though I couldn't bear the thought of harming another pony... I had to learn to protect myself. I had to learn to block her blows when she would 'train' me and I had to learn the evil things she taught me, if only so I could survive, because... she would have killed me many times as a foal, if I hadn't. And I'd like to teach you that, Avalon, how to protect yourself.” Fluttershy looked quietly down into Avalon's eyes, then she reached up a hoof to gently cup her cheek. “But you have to promise me you won't use these skills to hurt other people. If I'm going to do something good with these... awful talents... I need that promise, because you have a lot of skill, Avalon... but you have a bit of a temper, too.”

Avalon swallowed thickly, then she nodded slowly before whispering, trembling a little: “Fluttershy I'm... I'm so sorry for... I didn't think, I mean, I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you. And I promise. I promise, all I really want is to help ponies, I won't just... I'm sorry.”

“It's okay. You didn't hurt my feelings.” Fluttershy smiled softly, stepping forwards and hugging Avalon tightly, and the young Pegasus hugged her fiercely in return, burying her head against her body, humbled and trembling as Fluttershy murmured softly: “What's important to me is helping protect ponies. Maybe my mother's evil.. can become another pony's good, if we try hard enough.”

She closed her eyes... and Prestige gasped and staggered backwards in surprise, the red crystal becoming red flames again that swirled and danced as the vision faded. It had been like she had been right there, the whole time, somehow so much more intense than any scrying magic she had ever experienced before...

On top of her head, the firebird chuckled before he hopped off her, smiling warmly. In a burst of flames, Burning Desire transformed back into a fiery stallion beside her, the demon gazing down and saying delightedly: “Beautiful! You did gorgeously, pretty filly! What a grasp of magic you have... no wonder you were made the apprentice to Twilight Sparkle.”

He threw a companionable foreleg around her, and Prestige winced a bit... but she didn't try to shrug it off this time either, as she looked up and asked in disbelief: “What... what happened, precisely? Such magic...”

“Demonic magic.” Burning Desire waggled his eyebrows, and Prestige ground her teeth together nervously before the fire demon threw his head back and laughed, rubbing her back soothingly. “Oh stop! It's nothing evil or even sinful... just like your mortal magic, we demons have plenty of spells that are neither distinctly good nor distinctly evil... just gray, or perhaps not even that, more for... amusement than anything else. We've had a long, long time in Helheim to train in and learn magic, after all... but admittedly, this was a spell I worked on while a mortal, too. I only perfected it after I was dragged down to the pit, though... I must admit, the one nice thing about being in Hell was all the time I had to further work on my magical talents.”

Burning Desire looked up musingly, then he smiled down at her and asked gently: “Did you feel the basics of the spell out? This time, I'd like you to focus on another of your friends, and cast the spell without me amplifying its effects, and let's see if you can create such a powerful vision. The nicest thing about this spell is the fact that all those who gaze into the scrying medium will be able to experience the vision, you see...”

“Wait, when... when is this happening? Is this past, present or... or future?” Prestige whispered, and Burning Desire chuckled quietly, leaning down, inches from her face as his crimson eyes gazed affectionately into her own silver irises.

“Don't be silly. No one can truly see the future.” he said softly, and then he straightened and smiled down at her kindly. “What we're seeing is... technically, the past. But the beauty of this spell is that it's only one or two seconds behind... really, for all intents and purposes, we're gazing across the present, which is normally very hard... but that tiny buffer of spent time makes all the difference in the world to the casting difficulty. Yes, I know I'm a genius as well as handsome.”

Burning Desire leaned back, combing his hooves through his fiery mane as his strong, masculine body flexed slowly, and Prestige grimaced at him as she muttered: “You're handsome, at least.”

The demon glowered at her sourly, then he huffed a little and gestured with his horn towards the fireplace. “Come on, let's see what your other friends are up to.”

Prestige sighed a little, but then she nodded hesitantly before looking towards the fire... and then Burning Desire reached up and touched her shoulder, saying in a more serious voice: “But not Aphrodisia, nor Antares.”

Prestige winced a bit at this, not wanting to imagine what the young demon could be getting up to before she hesitated, then asked curiously: “You... called Aphrodisia a Dominia...”

“Yes, Lust and Wrath. Control, power, strength and hunger... but not the gluttony kind of hunger. In our demonic hierarchy, she would be First Tier.” Burning Desire said proudly, raising his head with a warm smile. “But look at her parents, what apart from exceptional could be expected?”

“What tier are you?” Prestige asked curiously, and Burning Desire immediately soured and mumbled under his breath, and the young unicorn smiled despite herself before she turned her eyes back to the fire, murmuring: “I suppose... it doesn't matter. Not if you spoke the truth earlier, and... not if you continue to be... a fair teacher.”

“Good.” The fiery stallion reached down and firmly swatted her flank, and Prestige twitched before glaring at him, but Burning Desire only smiled brightly at her. “Perhaps later you'd like me to teach you some of my other talents? I might have to charge you for the overtime as your tutor... but oh, I think we'd both be the winners with how I delight in taking my fee.”

Prestige muttered under her breath, looking into the flames as she concentrated, trying to replicate the spell she had cast before: without Burning Desire's help, it was much harder, making her strain a little as she breathed slowly in and out... and then her eyes widened before she saw Meadowlark...

The red Pegasus smiled awkwardly up at Amdusias as the demon looked down at her meditatively with his arms crossed, standing at the front of the wide concert stage. There was no orchestra present here, however, and no audience in the worn seats of the cozy theater, nor the boxes or balconies above. Instead, there was only the chair that Meadowlark was sitting in... and several tables near the back of the stage, stacked high with books, tomes, scrolls, and archive papers.

“Are... you... shouldn't we be working?” Meadowlark asked finally, and Amdusias huffed a bit, the Pegasus wincing a little as she held up her hooves embarrassedly. “I... I really appreciate all the time and stuff, I just... I mean, you want me to...”

“I want you to sing. Come now, you're named after a songbird, and Antares mentioned you have a beautiful voice.” Amdusias said mildly, flicking one hand... and then he winced at the look that passed over Meadowlark's face, before he sighed and mumbled, dropping his hand in his hand. “This is why I don't like singers. They're more broken than actors. And actors are nothing but hyperactive attention-seekers.”

“Antares and I were in a play together once, for Nightmare Moon... he just had a minor role, but... he... he really supported me. He helped me get the role of Nightmare Moon.” Meadowlark whispered quietly, and Amdusias gazed at her softly. “It meant... he... it was the first time I'd really sung in years. And I sang... for him... believing every word I belted out...”

“You still remember the song. You remember it, because you sang it for him.” Amdusias said quietly, and Meadowlark swallowed as she nodded a little, looking up at him quietly. The demon studied her for a few moments, then he sighed softly, crossing his arms and inviting gently: “Sing me a verse or two. Believe it all over again, little mortal. And remember... nothing fuels the poetry of music like unrequited love's hopes.”

Meadowlark trembled... then she looked up at the demon and closed her eyes, breathing slowly before she whispered in a voice that sounded a little hoarse and weak: “Okay. I'll do my best...”

Amdusias grimaced a little, shifting a bit... and then Meadowlark took a long breath before raising her head, eyes glowing with her unshed tears as her voice burst from her with a strength that surprised the demon:

“Why have you forsaken me, my people that I have served for years?
A thousand nights have passed, and not one did you revere...
I showed you stories in the stars that could never be seen in the day,
I gave you the beacon of the moon to always light your way...

And yet here you leave me, forsaken, alone, wishing away my night!
I gave you lullabies and dreams and you call my dark blanket 'blight?'
I have have never asked once for thanks or tribute despite how I slave away,
But do you think I'll just stand by and let you mock my night all day?

I'll teach you all a lesson that none of you ponies shall ever forget,
I declare the sun shall never rise again, after it next sets in the west,
Not until you little ponies learn about something called respect,
And you learn of the consequences that your cruelty can effect!”

Meadowlark dropped her head forwards, flushed, breathing hard as he rubbed slowly at her throat... and Amdusias smiled faintly, shaking his head slowly as he murmured quietly: “Remarkable. You still care about him, despite everything, don't you? Yes, a song of revenge... but you sang it with the tenor of a plea.”

Meadowlark flushed deeply, looking up silently... and then Prestige trembled as she dropped back from the fire, breathing hard as Burning Desire murmured quietly: “Poor girl. But you must hold on tightly, Prestige... even when the emotions are jarring. You must master the spell, and not let your emotions get the better of you, even when you see... something... painful.”

Burning Desire looked over at her softly, and then he smiled a little before saying quietly as Prestige began to open her mouth: “Now, why don't you see what Antares Mīrus is up to, if your thoughts turn so tightly to him?”

“I...” Prestige shivered a bit, shaking her head a little before she asked quietly: “Do I have to? And why... why are you so intent on...”

“Because this is more than learning a spell, my darling... this is learning discipline, and to override your emotions.” Burning Desire smiled at her, reaching up to gently stroke under her muzzle before he leaned down and kissed her forehead tenderly, and Prestige closed her eyes with a shiver before her eyes snapped open as the demon asked quietly: “Your father never loved you?”

“W-Why would... you... why would you...” She shivered, looking up at him and breathing hard... but there was gentility in Burning Desire's eyes before she gritted her teeth and looked away, whispering: “Unicorns are superior. But male unicorns are the most superior.”

“Yes, they are.” Burning Desire smiled sadly, before he lowered his head and murmured quietly: “Unless they're eccentric failures, of course. Then they'll never amount to anything in the eyes of anyone, not even after they die, especially not their fathers... but who needs a father, really?”

Prestige glanced up silently, and Burning Desire smiled again and closed his eyes, tilting his head to the side. “Well, I said you don't need a father, Prestige my sweet. But if you have the rare fortune of a good father... then I can think of no one who deserves more envy.”

Prestige laughed in surprise, looking up at him silently before she nodded slowly, sitting up as the demon said quietly: “You must learn to master your emotions, and your beliefs, and everything else inside of yourself. You must learn to use your magic under any circumstance, at any time, without hesitation, with ultimate focus. You must learn to be able to use magic even if it will hurt you: you must learn most of all... to never be afraid. Master yourself, Prestige, and you'll be able to learn any spell... and better yet, you won't end up like me, a mess of nothing but longing and silliness.”

Burning Desire smiled radiantly down at her, and Prestige nodded slowly, breathing quietly as she sat slowly up and gazed towards the fire. She leaned forwards a bit, then closed her eyes when the fiery stallion carefully slipped to the side and overtop her, pressing down against her back with a slight smile as she blushed a little but murmured quietly: “I do not believe this is part of your training.”

“Oh, what do you know, filly? It might very well be.” Burning Desire replied positively, and then he chuckled quietly before kissing the side of her neck, then he whispered into her ear as he wrapped his strong forelegs around her, making her blush as he pulled her back against him. “Prove your strength to me, Prestige. Prove your loyalty, and your focus. Then I'll go away.”

Prestige grumbled under her breath, then she nodded hesitantly before staring into the flames... but then she smiled faintly, feeling the demon curling over her... and the heat of his body, the strength of his form, it wasn't possessive, or lustful. It was protective: it was... he was... is this friendship?

She didn't need to speak it, as Burning Desire hugged her tighter, and curled closer, and she felt strength filling her body as she looked into the flames, her horn glowing... and then becoming all the brighter as she thought of Antares Mīrus, his smile, his...

The young stallion's midnight cyan eyes looked apprehensively towards Selene as she mulled over the question he had asked, before she simply nodded slowly, murmuring quietly: “Yes. I can try to teach you this, at least, Antares Mīrus... it is... interesting to me, that you desire to master such an art, though. I would have thought different faucets of your mother's magic would have interested you...”

“I... feel like this is important.” Antares said finally, bowing his head forwards. “Aunt Tia taught me a purification spell, but... I can't use it very well. But I was thinking... if I modify it with my mother's magic, one of her own exorcisms or spirit-burning spells... maybe I could... I dunno...”

“You wish to mix light and darkness together? I do not know if that is even possible.” Selene said softly, but her galactic eyes studied him with interest before she murmured softly: “Yes, it is true... light shines best in darkness. Brightest light has much more meaning in the deepest shadow... but that is metaphor, handsome Antares, and applies much more to the ups and downs of life than it does actual magic.”

The young stallion nodded slowly, and then Selene paused thoughtfully before asking curiously: “What is bothering you so much? Something is on your mind.”

Antares sighed after a moment, then he hesitantly glanced up, feeling a strange tickle run through his body before he looked back at Selene, saying quietly: “I'm scared. Cancer's out there somewhere, Selene... and I know that... we have to stop him before I can leave to find my parents. But at the same time, I'm getting... more and more and more afraid of what's going to happen when I finally leave for that. Yeah, I know, all my friends are training and stuff, but... what if I'm wrong? Celestia already had to make a few adjustments-”

“She did not make these changes because of a lack of faith in you and your abilities, Antares. She made these changes because new possibilities became available, that is all.” Selene interrupted gently but firmly. Antares shifted but nodded after a moment, and the two studied each other before the Nephilim smiled and slowly stood up, striding quietly off her pool and approaching Antares.

He shied back a bit, swallowing a little, and then she reached up and touched his shoulder, looking down into his eyes. He stared up at her, feeling her gazing beyond his mind, into the darkest reaches of his soul, with her unknowable, alien eyes... and then she smiled softly, whispering quietly: “You carry more of your father and mother in you than most ponies would ever guess. Antares, you are a natural leader. Do what your instincts compel you to, and you will lead your friends well. And you will find your parents... you will save them.”

“That's all I want.” Antares closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards, and Selene smiled softly as she hugged his head up against her body, laughing quietly.

“Yes... that is what many of us desire, Antares.” She paused, then finally slipped back, her body thrumming with energy as Antares shivered a little post-contact: it felt like he'd been touched by electricity, and she had left him feeling both numb but also... excited. Like her emotions had passed into him by her touch. “But my training comes with a cost, Antares. We have spoken much today, gotten to know one-another better, and you have held up your promise to dialogue with me. I enjoyed our conversation... but there is a further cost. I will require you to do something you will not like for me, Antares...”

Antares shifted nervously, studying the Nephilim before she said softly: “I cannot train you unless I know that you are honest. Unless you are willing to show your true face, your true heart. Do you understand?”

Antares only smiled faintly, however, bowing his head forwards as he said quietly: “I try to be honest every day of my life...”

“No, you try to live up to your parents' vision, and you are not always honest. No with yourself, not with your desires, not with many things.” the Nephilim replied calmly, and Antares shifted apprehensively before Selene asked conversationally: “Meadowlark and Prestige. You wish you did not have to choose between them, don't you?”

“Of course. I hate seeing Meadowlark in pain... I... I care a lot for her. But Prestige... makes me feel... we found...” Antares fidgeted, and then he finally looked up and said quietly: “I... care about her.”

“Yes, but you know little about her. If you knew more of her past, you would not be so fond of her.” Selene replied, and Antares made a face before Selene said quietly: “Speak your mind. Be honest.”

“I... you're wrong.” Antares said quietly, and when Selene tilted her head, he hesitated before continuing quietly: “The past is the past. I... I won't hold it against her. I'll stand beside her, and I'll help her... make what wrongs there may have been right, and... I can see her, becoming a better person every day. And she makes me... a better person.”

Selene laughed quietly at this, saying kindly: “That is a lie. She is racist and rude. How can a flawed person make someone who sees himself as perfect even better?”

“I... I don't!” Antares argued, shaking his head violently before he continued sharply: “And... because she's helped me understand that... she, and people like her, they're not... they believe in something really stupid but that doesn't mean they can't change! That they can't be shown why they're wrong, that they'll never understand-”

“Celestia still doesn't understand. She speaks quietly, but no one is faster to violence than her... nor more eager to kill.” Selene remarked, and Antares ground his teeth together in frustration.

“No, that... she... in the past, maybe, I-”

“But so was your mother. Luna, I mean... such beautiful darkness. A killer, alongside your father. They lured in Twilight with their gorgeous webs and she became like them, but... twisted. She kills the dead to live, and awaits their return... but she is thankful, you know.” Selene smiled as Antares trembled. “I expect she will bind herself to Luna and Scrivener when you bring them back. And she'll forget all about you... they all will. They'll thank you, but if your mother and father ever loved you they never would have abandoned you in the first-”

Antares lunged, tackling the Nephilim backwards as he bared his fangs and his eyes glowed, snarling down at her: “Stop talking about my parents like that or I swear by Yggdrasil itself that I'll kill you! Don't you ever talk about them or my family like that!”

He breathed hard, sharp fangs glinting, flexed body and spread leathery wings making him look monstrous... but Selene only smiled softly on her back, eyes gazing almost tenderly up into Antares' pale-glowing irises as she whispered: “And now, we see honesty. Hello, Antares. I am so glad you decided to join us down here, in Hell.”

The glow faded, and Antares breathed hard before he shoved himself backwards, shaking his head wildly as he stammered: “No, no, I... I'm not like that, y-you were... I mean, I'm sorry, Selene, I didn't mean to... I d-didn't...”

“What is spoken cannot be unspoken... what is done, cannot be undone.” Selene bowed her head politely, still smiling softly before she sat slowly up and gazed across at him, saying quietly: “Antares, you have bottled up all the sins of your parents inside of you. You hide it spectacularly well... I do not think even Celestia suspects the depths of darkness you possess. But as you were saying, the brightest light burns in darkness; what you forget, Antares, is that the greatest and deepest darkness may very well hide safely behind the brightest light. But I know this well.”

Selene closed her eyes, bowing her head forwards before she said kindly: “We will attend to your problem in time. But if you do not learn to vent this pain inside you, if you do not learn to truly trust others, to let your friends support you... Antares, you will become everything you've tried so hard to avoid becoming. You understand that you must accept help from your friends; what you fail to understand, is that sometimes you must do more: you must tell them you hurt. You must entrust them with your pain... for it is not a burden, Antares, to carry a friend's pain. It is a demonstration, of the deepest of trusts, where something awful may form into a concrete bond.”

Selene smiled, then slowly, she glanced up and said gently: “And this goes for you as well, Prestige Luster. Trust Antares Mīrus with your pain. You two have much to give each other, and much to learn from each other.”

Antares glanced up in shock, tears spilling down his cheeks with the jerk of his head upwards... and Prestige recoiled back against Burning Desire, who winced a bit with a grunt before he squeezed her firmly, murmuring quickly as she gasped for breath: “It's alright, it's alright...”

“I... I... I've never seen Antares... truly angry...” Prestige whispered, and then she trembled and shook her head. “And now he'll think I've been spying and-”

“No, Selene will explain it, I'm sure.” Burning Desire soothed, and then he smiled as he rocked her slowly in his limbs, grinning down at her and adding gently: “And you can always stay with me, Prestige. I'll always have a place for you here, sweetie.”

Prestige only glowered up at him, and the fiery stallion cleared his throat before he carefully let go of her and stepped back. She turned around, and then sighed and dropped her head... before looking up in surprise as he said kindly: “Go ahead, go see Antares. We can pick up with another magic lesson later... but, oh, oh, wait, I want to give you something first.”

The young mare winced when Burning Desire leaned forwards with a smile, his horn glowing... but before she could argue, he touched the tip of his against the base of hers, and Prestige winced at the sizzle she felt before blinking in surprise as she felt something lock into place around the base of her horn. Prestige chuckled, then he winked as he flicked a hoof up through the air, a sheet of fire bursting into life beside him that solidified into a crimson mirror. “A token of my affection.”

Prestige Luster stared in surprise at the red ring now locked around the base of her horn: it was in the shape of a serpent, spiraling several times around the base of her horn and magnificently detailed. Then the mirror burst back into flames that faded from existence and Burning Desire looked down into her eyes as he said softly: “If you ever require my aid... focus your magic into that ring, all the magic you can. I'll come running, my sweet.”

Then he paused before grinning, leaning forwards and licking his lips slowly: “Please don't be shy about using it if you're feeling particularly lonely or adventurous...”

“Goodbye, Burning Desire.” Prestige said flatly, shoving past him to the doors... before she hesitated, then smiled a little over her shoulder, saying quietly: “I am glad that... Twilight Sparkle was correct. You... are kinder than I expected, and a good teacher. Although repulsive, too.”

With that, she turned and left as Burning Desire sat back on his haunches, bowing his head forwards as his eyes closed in gratitude and a smile lingered over his tragic and handsome features.

Piecing Things Together

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Chapter Fourteen: Piecing Things Together
~BlackRoseRaven

In the mountainous region outside of Canterlot, a group of Nibelung were excavating a private, semi-legal dig site under the waning light of the setting sun. It was only partly-illegal because they had all the deeds and paperwork: the problem came into play from the fact they had stolen said papers off a corpse they had discovered about a hundred feet away several days ago.

One of the Nibelung sneezed loudly, then shook his head out wildly before he complained as he tossed his pickaxe away: “This no good!”

“Oh, shut up.” snapped another Nibelung, before he added: “And if was no good, pony would not have worked self to death. Remember, we chase off Diamond Dogs from here, we find big bag of jewels. Must be more, yes?”

The other two Nibelung only mumbled disconsolately as they hacked away at the stone with their own tools, and then one of them sneezed loudly as the other rubbed with a miserable look at an ugly rash that had spread over his arm and body. He groaned as several chunks of fur fell out around this, then rose his limb and whined: “I need go home! Need ice!”

“Ice not help rash, stupid!” The leader of the quartet smacked the rashy Nibelung with the shovel in his hands, making him yelp before he growled moodily. But the leader only grumbled, then turned and stormed into the little campsite: it was little more than a big tent and a table with some maps over it, a wagon with a broken wheel sprawled nearby. “Idiot.”

The trio of Nibelung all grumbled, and then one of the Nibelung sighed and looked almost longingly at Canterlot in the distance, leaning on his sledgehammer. They had only uncovered a few gemstones here: in all likelihood, the pony had already gotten the most out of this little claim that he could, and had just been scraping out the last of the scraps when he'd died. “Boss, pony-city right there, road to pony-city only short walk away... pony pay good money for big bag of gemstones we got...”

The other Nibelung looked up at this, but the leader only huffed before pointing violently at the rocky face of the slope. “Keep going! I go check body!”

The three Nibelung grumbled, but they went back to work as their leader grunted at them, then turned and headed around the side of the mountain they were working at the base of, following a path tread into the dust by Nibelung paws. He looked back and forth, the dwarf making a face at the fact the only sounds he could hear were coming from their little work site. Then again, they were far enough off the main road that they rarely heard ponies or other creatures passing... but all the same, even though these mountains were mostly stone and rock and dust, the lack of life was still disconcerting at times.

After a minute or two, the dwarf slowed his pace as he reached a narrow cave in the mountainside, blocked up by several rocks. He began to reach towards this, where they had stored the pony's dead body out of habit more than anything else: if they just left it sitting out in the open, after all, it would look like they killed him, even if the pony had clearly died of some kind of poison or disease. So he had made one of his minions drag the body out of the open, and then they had covered it up while he had hunted down the location on the map they'd found on his body.

Then the dwarf stopped and frowned as he grasped the first rock on top of the pile, before making a disgusted face as he stepped backwards and looked down at his now-slimy hands. He cursed under his breath, then groaned as he realized the rocks had been disturbed and moved out of place here and there, muttering: “Stupids not pack good...”

He reached forwards... and some kind of horrible white claw tore up out of a gap in the rocks, seizing into the Nibelung's wrist, and he yelled in surprise and fear before something terrible smashed its way up through the loose stones...

Back at the camp, the other Nibelung heard the yell, immediately halting their work... and then one of them coughed loudly. It seemed to echo through the mountains in the silence of the fading day, and one of the other Nibelung whimpered: “Oh no. Oh no.”

“B-Boss?” called one Nibelung nervously, while the other two rose their pick and sledgehammer respectively. Then the Nibelung with the rash coughed again, before he clutched at his throat, wheezing and rasping for a moment as the other dwarf beside him hurriedly patted on his back.

When his coughing fit ended, there was only silence again... before all three Nibelung looked quickly at the sound of several stones rolling down the mountainside. It was little more than a sprinkle of gravel... and yet it sounded as loud as an avalanche before a quiet chuckle spilled through the air, and the Nibelung traded terrified looks with one-another as the unarmed dwarf hurriedly picked up rock from the ground, trembling as he drew his arm back and shouted: “We... we not afraid! You go away, and we not kill you!”

The chuckle again... and then a mocking voice sang, seeming to come from all around them:

“Sha-ba, do-do-do-do-doo, have I ever got a story for you!
It's about four little piggies, who thought they were wolves,
Hangin' 'round in the mountains, diggin' silly little holes,
Oh, ba-da-ba, yeah, yeah, hey...
Ain't that a funny thought... pork chops who think they got teeth.”

“S-Shut up! We not afraid of you!” yelled one of the Nibelung, staring back and forth in terror, and this time the voice giggled before all three dwarves turned in the direction of a small slide of dust and dirt that trickled down the side of the mountain, staring desperately around for any sign of their attacker.

“La la da-ha, la da-ha-ha haa... mm, first little piggy, I knew him well,
I felt every part of him when down my gullet he fell,
And oh little piggies, I gotta say it was his taste that was the sell...
Oh, yeah, that's right, right there... la-di-da...
Ha, ha, ha... that made me wanna eat you all up... tonight.”

There was a crash like cymbals, and the Nibelung carrying the rock howled and flung the stone wildly in the direction of the sound, hitting nothing but the mountain before he turned and bolted away. The other two Nibelung called after him as he stumbled past the wagon... and then both stared in horror when something seized him, yanked him backwards as he screamed... and then the howls were cut off by a horrible, crunching, slurping sound.

Both Nibelung stared in shock, whimpering and raising their weapons uselessly as a slithering sound filled the air, stumbling backwards... and then something wet and slick and hot wrapped around both of their shoulders companionably, and they both slowly turned to stare with horror at a monstrous, goblinoid face as it said cheerfully: “Hey boys!

Second little piggy, he was so fine, I knew I had to cut in line!
Oh ba-da-ba-da-doo, yeah! Second little piggy had damn fine taste,
I crunched up his bones so I could lick out the sweet marrow paste...
Ooh, ha ha! Don't you fret boys, I'm hungry tonight!
You won't feel a damn thing when I... make you both... my...

dinner.” Cancer growled, then he licked his lips before his forelimbs both transformed into savage sets of tentacles that snapped viciously around the dwarves, drool leaking from his jaws as his grin stretched wider and his eyes glowed with hunger, the dwarves screaming...

Cancer sighed in delight as he sat back on the ground, slowly slurping his claws clean before he glanced up irritably as what looked like a sallow clone of himself slouched its way slowly out from around the wagon. The monster sniffed, then the destruction entity beckoned irritably, and the copy of Cancer stumbled forwards before transforming into slime that merged back into Cancer's body, the monster grunting before rolling his head on his shoulders as he sighed in relief. “Ooh, delightful, much better, much better, yeah, yeah, yeah... gonna be a real handy trick...”

Cancer grinned to himself, nodding as he licked his teeth slowly, and then he looked up at the deepening dusk above before grumbling to himself and popping to his hooves. His forelimbs transformed back into pony-like legs from claws as he began to stride slowly around the mining camp, looking moodily back and forth as he muttered: “But even with all this... ain't enough, no, no, not yet. Not after what they did to me... I gotta get my claws into something good.”

He ground his teeth together in frustration, then shook his head slowly before glaring towards Canterlot in the distance, half-slithering up along the side of a mountain in his way as he whispered: “Oh, you think you're safe in that great big city, right? Safe, hiding away from Cancer... but Cancer's gonna get you, yes he is, yes he is, yes he is...”

The monster ground his teeth together, then he twitched violently before his eyes glowed bright red as he rasped: “Poison, destroy, make them suffer...”

“Yeah, yeah, you bet I'm gonna make them suffer!” the destruction entity shouted furiously, as his head snapped to the other side and he shivered in fury once, then glared forwards and screamed: “You hear me out there? Oh, I'm gonna rip you all up to pieces and chew you to the bones and then I'm gonna puke you out and drink you like soup!”

He raved and foamed at the jaws, shaking his head wildly back and forth for a moment before hissing in disgust... and then the monster glowered at a patch of flowers as he passed, spitting on them in disgust. A moment later, the flowers shriveled up and rotted rapidly away into a patch of reeking death, and Cancer muttered as he continued onwards: “All part of the master plan, though, oh, it is. Don't you ever doubt it, don't no one ever doubt that for one single little moment. That stupid little village is locked down good and tight, the sewers are all full of the stink of polish and prettiness, but I'm gonna force my way in through the front gate. And I'll be more than powerful enough to, too, once I bag me a white weasel and all those scumbag punks I saw her walking with...”

He growled, then snarled: “Not to mention that bastard kid! Stalked him and his pretty and the zombie almost all the way there, but... oh, oh, why couldn't they give me a single opening when they weren't... cuddling on the road the whole... stupid... time... but oh, I'm patient, I'm patient, I'm...”

Cancer halted, then he howled at the darkening sky and flopped over, screaming and convulsing on the stony ground as he kicked and flailed wildly in all directions. “Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on! I need to get in there, I gotta have it, I gotta get in, I need it, need it, need it need it need it! Gimme a chance, you'll see, I'll do it!”

He came to a halt, breathing hard in and out, eyes glowing and body shivering before he snarled furiously and spat to the side, looking disgusted. “What a mess. Oh, oh, oh, what a mess, and it ain't a good one. I gotta get inside there... but all those demon scum, I need something... something strong. Something powerful...”

He looked up, then whined at the sky: “Where the hell is a dragon when you need one? Come on! I deserve a little something, yeah? Gimme something better than these Nibelung! They make a tasty snack, sure, but their bodies break down too fast... I don't need food, oh no, I need a monster. I need something I can use my newest new power on...”

Cancer rolled onto his stomach, then he glared at a centipede that was crawling by before reaching out and squishing it under a hoof, burying it in white slime. Then his eyes narrowed and flashed before he drew his hoof back... and grinned as he watched the centipede convulsing before it grew rapidly in size, jaws growing monstrous, limbs distorting, body warping... and then the mutated bug simply exploded, splattering Cancer's face with green goo.

He squealed and shrieked and rolled backwards, flailing wildly in all directions in frustration: his infective powers were growing in leaps and bounds, but all the same, he still required a host that was powerful enough to handle the mutations... anything else, well...

He huffed, then rolled onto his stomach, muttering to himself as he dropped his face against the ground. Then he slowly rose his head, peering at the bug's corpse before his tongue shot out, licking it up and drawing it into his jaws with a loud crunch as he said moodily: “Waste not, want not. But those demons... they're careful. And oh, I get stronger with every meal... no, with every passing day! But I can't just barge into demon-town that I smell beneath that big ugly-ass white stone city... I need me soldiers. An army. Zombies!”

He huffed, then rolled onto his back, mumbling: “Maybe if I infect enough ponies... yeah, that might be fun. 'Cept the demons will catch on way too fast to what's happening above, oh, they are such a nuisance. No, I needs me a tank. Something big and scary to distract 'em all, while I bag me the weasel... the weasel's gonna make me strong. I'm gonna infect her, get inside her, eat her up and ooh, she's gonna be delicious and make me like a damn god...”

He drooled a little at this thought, then shook his head and whispered: “But it'll be nothing compared to when I get into that hot place in Ponyville. It all stinks of chemicals, but there's something even better there, that draws me on in... that I need, need, need so bad I wanna pee myself. Oh, there's gotta be a way I can do this... there's gotta be an answer! Gimme a sign, sweet disease-ridden Heaven! Gimme a clue!”

Cancer grinned up at the stars hopefully... but they only looked coldly down at him as the moon slowly began to rise, a giant eye that stared down with contempt and disdain. Cancer stuck his tongue out in disgust and blew a raspberry, and then he turned with a huff and stormed off, Canterlot to his back as he muttered: “Gotta figure this one out. Gonna figure this one out, oh yes I am... and then I'm gonna have me some fun.

“Yeah... gonna eat me a white weasel, one way or another.” Cancer licked his lips slowly, then he shivered with rage and whispered: “And gonna kill that kiddy bat, too, for what he did to me. Gonna have me the perfect revenge before I get my booster shots... and then I'm gonna make this whole world just like me, sweet baby, yeah, yeah, yeah...”

Antares awoke, breathing a little hard, bathed in cold sweat, and Prestige leaned up with concern, looking down at him worriedly as she asked quietly: “Are you okay, hero?”

“I... don't call me that.” Antares mumbled embarrassedly, and then he nodded a little as Prestige reached up and stroked slowly his mane gently out of his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine, I am. Just had a bad dream, I guess...”

Prestige smiled a little down at him, and Antares gazed up at her quietly as she brushed their covers back a little before closing her eyes and settling on his chest. She listened to the strong beat of his heart as it slowly settled, her forelegs wrapping around his neck as he settled one limb over her, gazing down at her with silent gratitude.

His relationship with Prestige was moving fast: they spent their nights together like this, in this quiet little room they had made their own over the last two weeks of staying here, training in Subterra. Their friends, meanwhile, had slowly spread out to their own quarters throughout Thorn Palace, and gradually grown comfortable with both their immediate surroundings and Subterra itself. Better yet, training was going well for all of them, and Antares could say he was honestly proud of how he and his friends were all holding themselves up.

Twilight was back on her hooves, too, looking vibrant and alive... but here in Subterra, she didn't feel the need to hide the fact she was a Lich with one of her thick sweaters. Instead, she walked around, wearing only her collar and her stud earrings as she discussed things with her son or his friends and the various friends she had around this place... or those who came to visit her from Ponyville. Rarity, Spike, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Sleipnir, Cowlick and Ross... they had all been here at some point or another, while Pinkamena and Fluttershy were essentially staying in Subterra for as long as Antares and his friends were here, training.

Antares had learned a lot about himself in these last few weeks, and a lot about Prestige. They had shared secrets and grown comfortable with each other, and their trust grew every day. Avalon and Aphrodisia were both still skeptical of the relationship, although they did their best to try and support them – well, mostly Antares – and Rustproof only just smiled, as he always did... while Meadowlark, little-by-little, was adjusting to things. It still made her visibly ache... but all the same she was striving her hardest to get past her problem for everyone's sake.

Antares ached for her, but at the same time... Prestige made him happy. Now that he was able to see her, the real her that had been locked away under her superior unicorn exterior, he could see how truly... vibrant she was. How beautiful, and how wonderful, and how strong she was inside.

They laid together, cuddling in the darkness, before Prestige gently kissed the side of his neck, and Antares smiled a little before she slowly pushed herself up and murmured: “We should get ready to go, hero. It's going to get late if we stay here much longer.”

“Yeah. You're right.” Antares shook his head a little, then he studied her before saying softly: “You help me sleep, you know that? I used to always have problems getting... a good, long sleep in, but... with you here...”

“Well, they say beautiful sights help you to sleep.” Prestige said softly, and Antares laughed before he reached up and stroked her face gently with a hoof, and she smiled softly before turning and kissing this gently. “Come on, hero. I don't want them blaming me for making you lazy.”

Antares smiled and nodded: they slipped out of bed, shared another quick kiss, and then headed out into the hall and began to trace the now-familiar route towards the dining room, where they always met the others for breakfast these days. On the way, they found Meadowlark waiting for them, her back to her door and a large notebook open in front of her, the Pegasus glancing up with a faint smile as they approached.

She closed the book and tossed it into a satchel sitting beside her, then slipped this on without speaking. Antares and Prestige both smiled at her hesitantly, and then Meadowlark nodded to them before she asked quietly: “You two sleep well?”

“Yeah. What about you?” Antares tilted his head, and when the Pegasus gave a small smile and nodded, he hesitantly returned the gesture and murmured: “You really... don't have to wait for us if you don't want to...”

“I... I like to.” Meadowlark replied after a moment, then she shook her head and turned, adding in a firmer voice: “Anyway, I have something to show you, too. Twilight and I found it while working late last night... you were already in bed and... well, I didn't want to disturb you.”

Antares smiled lamely as Prestige blushed a bit, before she said awkwardly: “It... wouldn't have been any disturbance at all, Meadow, I... understand that this is all very important.”

Meadowlark just smiled a bit, saying softly: “Well... still. Anyway, I don't know how important this is, but the historical records say that years ago, a probe meteor from Clockwork World was sent into our world. The reports state that it was dismantled by Strange Ones, which Celestia and your... your parents, Antares, all witnessed. Celestia was given samples, but nothing ever came of them.

“I was crosschecking this with invoices from the magic school on a hunch, since it's a Canterlot-run institution... it turns out that they were the ones who ended up buying much of the dismantled probe.” Meadowlark continued quietly. “They've been keeping it in storage, and while... Celestia's tests were all negative on the smaller pieces... maybe if something larger is reassembled, something more like the full probe, it might still try to call home to Clockwork World. If that's true, we might be able to trace the signal back to Decretum...”

Antares looked up at this, nodding slowly as he whispered: “And find my Mom and Dad... Meadowlark, you're a genius!”

“Not yet. Not until we know if it's possible or not, we'll have to talk to Celestia about it.” Meadowlark smiled a little. “And then there's the issue of getting it working, amongst everything else...”

“We'll figure it out.” Antares smiled warmly over at Prestige, then he nodded firmly to the red Pegasus, saying quietly: “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for... for not forgetting about this. For working on that for me between everything else, it... it means a world to me.”

“It... means a lot to us both.” Prestige said quietly, blushing a little as she looked awkwardly at the Pegasus: even as she felt a twist of envy and jealousy and perhaps a bit of overprotectiveness, she was all the same honestly glad, too... the way Antares had lit up...

Meadowlark only smiled again, and the rest of the journey was spent mostly in quiet. When they reached the dining room, they were unsurprised to find the enormous, black table was empty, the long hall almost seeming ghoulish thanks to its creepy decorations like the gargoyles that lurked on the rafters above, but by now the three were used to it, as they took their places at the table.

A moment later, a Nightmare appeared with a calm smile nearby, bowing its head courteously: something else they had thankfully gotten used to, although when the Nightmares appeared at seeming random in other areas of the Thorn Palace it usually caused more than a slight fright. “Shall I fetch breakfast?”

“Uh...” Antares looked awkwardly back and forth, but Meadowlark shook her head and Prestige shrugged, so the glossy-black stallion replied after a moment: “No, we're fine for now, thanks. We want to wait for the others to get here.”

“As you wish. Simply call if you need anything, Antares Mīrus.” the Nightmare said softly, smiling at him kindly, and then it vanished from sight. Antares looked awkwardly at the space where it had been as he wondered whether it was really gone or not, and then he cleared his throat and shook himself out a little before turning his eyes back to Meadowlark as she pulled her notepad out.

She began to go over notes again, and Prestige shifted awkwardly and sighed inwardly, looking anxiously up towards the ceiling as Antares asked curiously: “What's that?”

“Just... something. Amdusias told me to do it.” Meadowlark said quietly, shifting a bit and then looking pointedly at Antares when he leaned forwards to try and see, and he gave her an embarrassed look before nodding and hurriedly sitting back, glancing over at Prestige and gently touching her hoof.

The unicorn mare softened as she glanced towards him, and there was a strange silence between the three for a little while. It was uncomfortable... and yet none of them wanted to break it, or move, or do anything. It was bittersweet: it felt bad, and yet all the same it felt... good.

Thankfully, Avalon and Aphrodisia showed up shortly, and Rustproof followed with Twilight, Cowlick, and Ross. The last was a smiling ivory unicorn, with a golden blonde mane and tail and matching eyes, his cutie mark that of a puzzle piece. He was a little different from most ponies, but he was gentle, kind, and Cowlick adored him for a hundred different reasons. He was her special somepony, her husband in every way... except legally, of course, since they had never actually had a wedding or gotten married. But to Cowlick, he had been her husband since the day she had given him a set of monogrammed coveralls and a toolbox of his own. Even if said toolbox was now decorated with stickers of cartoon animals.

Antares often found himself watching Ross closely, curiously, ever since he had realized that it seemed often like Ross reacted to events before they happened, and he could sense things better than Antares could. He had mentioned this one to Cowlick, who had only grinned and replied cheerfully: “Yeah, I could have told you that after how often I come home randy and find Ross hiding under the bed.”

Ross glanced to the side, before Antares even felt it... and a moment later, a Nightmare appeared, Cowlick wincing away with a wheeze that interrupted Twilight's rambling as the Nightmare asked calmly: “May I fetch breakfast?”

“You idjits need bells.” Cowlick muttered, and then she rose a hoof, saying mildly: “Get me and Ross something that doesn't have meat, will you? Seriously, we ain't all freaks like Twilight and Antares. And Celestia, I guess, but... is she coming?”

“Yes, Cowlick, if you'd listen to me you'd know that.” Twilight said tiredly, taking her seat on the other side of Meadowlark as Ross and Cowlick sat with Rustproof. Avalon and Aphrodisia had already found their own seats a good distance down the table, and Twilight looked meditatively down at them before rolling her eyes and deciding to leave them alone as demon and young Pegasus visibly schemed something together, tossing looks every now and then at Antares. “Oh, my friend Fluttershy is also joining us this morning, she's going to be here in a few minutes with Celestia. Please bring her a salad, too, she doesn't like meat.”

“Of course, Mistress Twilight.” the Nightmare said kindly, and it smiled before vanishing once more. Ross waved a little after it, and Cowlick gave her husband an amused look before the engineer glanced down the table, yawning and stretching slowly.

“You know I usually listen to you, but... it's morning. God, I hate mornings.” Cowlick mumbled, rubbing slowly at her face. “Dunno why everypony thinks I must like 'em. Six AM should only exist as a bedtime, though, after you've spent the last six hours drinking. Not for you, though, Rusty, you're too young for that still. Speaking of which, you been stayin' away from cigarettes, yeah?”

“Yes, Momma, I have been.” Rustproof smiled honestly, gazing up at them with a quiet nod. Cowlick grunted, then looked at him pointedly, and the growing colt shrugged a little. “Guess it's the work.”

“If work stopped you from smoking, you'd never have started in the first goddamn place.” the mare engineer muttered, rubbing at the underside of her muzzle, and then she cocked her head curiously as she looked around the table. “So what's going on with all you guys, precisely?”

This was only answered by a few awkward looks, and Cowlick huffed, saying flatly: “Hey, I can be curious! 'Sides, it's weird not having any of you kids around Ponyville, right, Ross?”

“Right.” Ross agreed with a smile, then he added kindly: “But they aren't really kids, Cowlick. Nope. Not even Rustproof, no, no, no. He's growing up big and fast and not a goat.”

“Not a... oh, Ross.” Cowlick rolled her eyes, but she was smiling all the same as she looked over at him, then turned her eyes towards the enormous, blue-coated earth pony that was her son. “No, my kid's always gonna be my kid, no matter what happens. And I'll always be his Momma and there to take care of him.”

Rustproof smiled awkwardly and blushed a little even as he bowed his head towards Cowlick, and then the engineer turned her eyes back down the table, asking loudly: “Pinkslap, are you ten years old today or twenty years old? I hate keeping track.”

“Fifteen!” Aphrodisia replied brightly, and then she added informatively: “Antares and Prestige are sleeping together.”

“Yeah, we already knew that, but Twilight would have a lot more popped stitches if they were finally getting down and dirty with each other.” Cowlick replied absently, jerking her head at the Lich. The violet mare flushed deeply, her stitches visibly creaking as Antares and Prestige both stared with horror at Cowlick, who simply turned her attention to Avalon and asked curiously: “And you, your daddy told me that you're actually being a good girl these days.”

“Hey! I'm always good.” Avalon retorted, huffing and raising her head before she smiled a little. “But... I'm tryin', Auntie Cowlick. Fluttershy is teaching me a whole lot.”

“Only what I can.” murmured a soft voice, and all eyes glanced up as Fluttershy entered the room with a quiet smile, followed by Celestia. They took their own places at the table as Twilight gazed warmly across at her friends and Antares sat up a little, as the blonde, one-winged Pegasus looked back and forth before smiling again. “It's wonderful to see so many ponies here, though. But it's never very lonely here in Subterra. There are many strange and wonderful things here.”

Cowlick grunted, and Celestia nodded slowly before gazing around the table. “And I'm glad to see all of you here... Meadowlark, Twilight tells me that you have an interesting idea.”

Meadowlark glanced up abashedly, then she nodded awkwardly before answering quietly: “Well, without the help of Twilight and Amdusias I never would have come up with this before. But... simply put, I want to reconstruct the probe that was sent here from Decretum... purchase records show that most of it was bought back from the Strange Ones and locked in the magic school's vaults...”

Celestia tilted her head with interest at this, asking curiously: “When did this transaction take place? Five years ago I tried to locate the meteor fragments myself, but I only managed to find a few of the crystals and that a caravan had already left with the rest.”

“Two years ago, from...” Meadowlark flipped through her notebook, murmuring: “They bought it off a Strange One freight wagon.”

The ivory winged unicorn nodded thoughtfully at this, then she bowed her head and frowned a little. “It's possible. But there are two problems: the Strange Ones destroyed many of the crystals to ensure that the probe's signal was halted, and the probe will require a power source that I'm not sure unicorn magic can provide alone.”

Meadowlark flipped through her notebook again, and then she looked up and said hesitantly: “There were some notes that I cross-referenced with other logs and records, Baroness... the Strange Ones are more than capable of designing imitations of other enchantments and magic sources. I think... I think it might be very possible for them to make replicas of the same crystals they destroyed, if we can provide them with the right material...”

“Just Celestia, titles of the above world mean nothing in Subterra.” Celestia said quietly, but she was smiling now, looking interested before she glanced curiously over at Cowlick as the engineer waved a hoof through the air.

“If you get Greece and me some samples, we'll figure out how it works and build us a nice big battery source.” Cowlick grinned a little, glancing over at Ross as he nodded hesitantly in agreement. “Yeah, thought so. Power's power. We can figure out how to build a convertor if we gotta, but me and Greece have done a good bit of experimentation with voltaic topazes, ever since Rarity told us about 'em. I bet those'll work if we can give 'em the right charge.”

Celestia looked thoughtful, but she was spared from answering right away as a small group of Nightmares strode in through the doors, heavy, covered trays floating through the air around them. They smiled as they put them on the table and removed the lids, revealing a full banquet: all kinds of baked goods and foods preferred by ponies, salads for those who had requested it, and a few simple meats for those who were interested: sausages, dumplings, and bacon.

Antares smiled awkwardly as he helped himself to both a few muffins as well as some of the meat, unable to deny how good it smelled to him even as Ross and Fluttershy both carefully kept their eyes on the vegetable fair. Hesitantly, Prestige took a single dumpling, and Meadowlark looked as she always did with a strange kind of wanting over at the two, before she turned her eyes embarrassedly back to the baked goods and just took some toast for now: the one time she had tried to eat just a slice or two of bacon, she had ended up throwing up for most of the morning.

They ate breakfast in quiet as Celestia contemplated things: it was only near the end of the meal when the Baroness broke the silence, saying softly: “This is an excellent chance. Meadowlark, you've done a phenomenal job: I never thought to check the sale records and receipts. If you don't mind, I'd like you and Twilight Sparkle to both come with me today to the archives, I could use your help.”

Meadowlark smiled at this, glancing up and nodding hurriedly, and Twilight tilted her head curiously as she glanced up to ask: “What about training, Celestia?”

“Antares can go to Amdusias today instead, and Prestige seems to be getting along well with Burning Desire.” Celestia nodded slowly, then she glanced up and called calmly: “Discombobulation?”

There was silence for a few moments... and then a long, tired sigh from above, and all eyes looked up to see the Draconequus sitting upside-down on the ceiling, most of the ponies looking surprised as Celestia only smiled. “It's very embarrassing when you actually do ask for my help, Celestia. I come here, show up, and all you silly ponies go 'what Disco-Bob actually showed up when Tia called him? That implies so much!'”

He flailed around a little, then glowered a bit down at Celestia, but she only smiled up at him and asked courteously: “Could you please take a message to the Strange Ones for me?”

At this, Discombobulation winced and shook his head violently, earning a frown from Celestia: but it was a look of concern, not of irritation, at the vehemence of the Draconequus. “Oh, no, no no no. Definitely can't do that, Celestia. Uh. Send Discord, they won't stab him.”

“What are you talking about?” Celestia frowned up at Discombobulation, who cleared his throat and tugged at an invisible collar. “Did something happen between you and the Strange Ones that I should know about?”

“Well, everyone should know something, Celestia. What we should know precisely varies from person-to-person, and too few people understand they should just be happy with what they do know instead of going out and seeking all that delicious forbidden knowledge. You'll end up getting your face melted off.” Discombobulation replied reasonably, and when the ivory winged unicorn only continued to look at him mildly, he finally awkwardly rose a finger and said delicately: “This may come as a great shock to all of you, but I'm not actually a pony. I am a Draconequus.”

“No, really?” Aphrodisia asked ironically, and when Discombobulation gave her a flat look, she growled and then barked at him several times, making him wince back.

He grumbled under his breath, then glanced down as Celestia said slowly: “The Strange Ones were told to work beside us by Odin, but since Odin is... gone...” Celestia's eyes flickered slightly, and Antares softened as he looked towards his aunt before she continued slowly: “Odin told the Strange Ones that Discord was not our enemy, that he was now in a much more effective prison and rendered harmless. But you always avoided contact with the Strange Ones...”

“They think of me as an interloper. Which is funny, because I've technically been here longer than any of you.” Discombobulation said moodily, rubbing absently at his chest with his metallic claw. “But us patchwork dolls have never gotten along with anyone, especially not ourselves, as you've seen very clearly. Oh, I have an idea, don't send Discord. Antares, send your silly friend Allonym. That would be fantastic.”

Antares only shook his head, and then Celestia glanced up and nodded slowly. “I'll ask Kvasir to talk to the Strange Ones on your account, the next time I have a chance. They... don't listen to him as much as I'd like, but they also aren't hostile towards him. For now, please find Discord, then, and ask him to find me in the archives in roughly an hour. I'll have a message for him to take to the Strange Ones on my behalf.”

“I still say Allonym should go. If I had to compare us to celebrities, I'm obviously the actor who can play both an exiled angel in a comedy but also be a super action hero, Discord is clearly a scientologist that likes to jump on couches, but Allonym is a soap opera guest star.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he paused before looking nervously back and forth. “He's... he's not here right now, is he? I think I'm going to indulge my inner coward and run away now.”

With that, Discombobulation slowly sank into the ceiling as it rippled like water, still peering nervously back and forth until he finally vanished. For a few moments, the roof continued to ripple like water, and then it turned solid again as Celestia shook her head slowly before she looked curiously over at Antares. “On that note... have you seen Allonym at all?”

“Only glimpses.” Antares replied with a bit of a smile, as Prestige nodded slowly beside him, nibbling carefully at her dumpling. “He's been... trying to give us privacy, I think. I mean, all of us, not... I mean...”

Antares blushed a little, but Celestia only smiled; all the same, her eyes were drawn to the side as Meadowlark shifted uncomfortably, and for a few moments there was awkward silence before the ivory mare said softly: “Alright. Meadowlark, Twilight, would you like to join me now on the walk up to the Canterlot archives? And to the rest of you, good luck with your duties and training today... and if I can offer a bit of advice, Antares, perhaps you should try to talk to Allonym. We can use every bit of insight we can get at this point.”

The young stallion smiled and nodded a little, then he glanced over at Meadowlark as she hurriedly stood up and tossed her notebook into her satchel. The red Pegasus hurried after Twilight and Celestia as the two adults left, and Antares felt his eyes lingering over her despite himself, and he felt something – Shame? Fear? Affection? – when she glanced quietly over her shoulder at him just before hurrying out the doorway.

There was a little bit of conversation, but Antares missed most of it, lost in thought even as he wrapped a foreleg around Prestige and she leaned against him, looking nervous. The two remained sitting even as others started to filter out... and then the young stallion finally glanced up, smiling a bit as he said quietly when they were alone: “Go ahead, Prestige... I'll see you after... tonight.”

“Yeah.” Prestige said softly, and the two ponies looked at one another for a few moments before they shared a short, sweet kiss, and then a tight embrace. They lingered, and then she pulled away and smiled a little at him over her shoulder as she headed out, adding quietly: “Don't hurt yourself, Antares. You're doing well, hero.”

Antares only smiled lamely at her as she vanished out into the hall beyond, leaving him alone in silence: it lasted only a few seconds, though, before the glossy-black unicorn closed his eyes and laughed a little as someone pulled out the chair beside him to sit down at the table. “Do you actually come when I call or... are you going to blame this on coincidence?”

“Neither. There were a whole bunch of ponies talking about me and asking for me, and... well, what kind of benevolent Draconequus would I be if I didn't answer the prayers of all you silly ponies?” Allonym said comfortably, putting his cane aside as he leaned back in the chair that was a little small for him, then he grimaced and shifted back and forth, rubbing absently at one of his legs. “Today isn't precisely a good concentration day, by the way. Storm's rolling in, and it makes me sore. Makes me... twitchy... and the future probably isn't going to be pleasant.”

“I think I'm starting to understand you're not psychic, you're just really pessimistic, Allonym.” Antares opened his eyes, glancing over at him and hesitating before he felt his eyes slowly reading through the Draconequus, picking up his emotions and the thoughts turning calmly way beneath the facade of the chimerical creature before the young unicorn asked slowly: “Did you always know about this... darkness... in me, as Selene put it? Is that why you're here to help?”

“Yes and no.” Allonym said softly, then he reached up and squeezed Antares' shoulder gently. “We all have darkness inside us. But that's important: that's good, as a matter of fact. It teaches us balance, and it helps us understand that...we are all flawed, and to understand that we are all equals. And that those who are truly worthy of respect are those who overcome their failings and their darkness; tell me, honestly, what's to admire in someone who's so pure of heart they have no evil, no weaknesses, no flaws to overcome in themselves? If your nature is nothing but pure good, and you do nothing but pure good... are you really brave, are you really a hero? Or are you just a slave to your nature, not even like an animal, but a machine, following its predetermined course, set by... chemicals and energy and oh who knows what the hell else?”

“You're so jaded and cynical.” Antares said softly, smiling faintly, and Allonym shrugged. “I... but someone like that could save thousands of lives...”

Allonym laughed quietly, looking down and murmuring: “If the world was black and white, maybe. But it's not... I don't think our pure good hero would last very long in this world before becoming consumed with bitterness and self-loathing over some of the dirt he's had to plunge his hands into.”

Antares was silent, and then Allonym reached up and squeezed his shoulder slowly, saying softly: “You're going to suffer, Antares, with the choices you'll have to make in the future and the things you're going to see. But you're going to survive, and I have faith you'll make the right decisions, because inside you is that darkness. That willingness... to dip in blacker waters if it's necessary. You're going to kill Cancer, aren't you?”

“Yeah, I am.” Antares said quietly, without hesitation, and Allonym smiled a little as Antares closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. “He's a monster, though. I don't think anyone could show him mercy, or feel sorry for him.”

“You'd be surprised.” Allonym replied softly, looking up at the ceiling before he pulled a set of prayer beads out of his inner jacket, beginning to slowly play them one-by-one between his fingers. The eyes of the Draconequus slipped closed as his breathing evened out, working slowly and calmly as he rested back in his seat, and there was silence between the two before the strange creature murmured: “The idea is a good one, about the meteor I mean... it might work. A lot of it depends on how much the others are able to figure out, but... I think they'll be able to start putting things together. But... Antares, you have to deal with Cancer first. You cannot permit Cancer to set foot in a place like Decretum, do you understand?”

Allonym sat up and looked calmly over at Antares, his eyes sharp and serious, and Antares frowned a little as he leaned nervously back before saying apprehensively: “I... I think so. Is... wait, does that mean that Clockwork World... everything's still powered on there, or...”

“Just trust me on this. If Cancer were to reach Clockwork World, it would be... bad.” Allonym said delicately, shaking his head slowly before he sighed and looked up moodily at the ceiling. “One last thing, too. Trust in your friends... I can't help but notice that despite all this training, the only ponies you're really working side-by-side with are Prestige and Aphrodisia. You need to develop your teamwork more thoroughly with all of them if you want to save your parents, Antares. You're talented beyond your years, sure, and your friends are all amazing individually... but that's not enough. None of you are adults, and none of you have a lot of battle experience yet. If you want to stand a chance against Cancer, you need to work together.”

Antares shifted, then he hesitated before looking up and saying quietly: “We do, and I appreciate the advice, Allonym, but... I also have Twilight, and Celestia to help me, and many ponies who do have a lot of combat experience. I feel that it's more important we first concentrate on getting our strength up... on preparing for what's ahead, before we start teamwork exercises. That won't take us as long to master, not with how long we've all been friends.”

“Selene?” Allonym asked curiously, and Antares blushed a little and nodded, making the Draconequus smile a little. “Well, at least you're taking someone's advice and speaking your mind more, instead of just shying away or using your crazy x-ray eyes to say what the other person wants to hear. But Antares... believe me: your friends are the hardest people to learn to work together with. Just ask Twilight Sparkle.”

“Maybe I will, then, and... I'll consider it. But we need to be strong, Allonym.” Antares said quietly, leaning forwards and shaking his head a bit, before he winced when Allonym picked up his cane and bopped him gently with the dragon-shaped handle. “Hey!”

“See, there's that inner darkness of yours rearing its ugly head and making you a little stupid.” Allonym calmly stood up as he tucked his onyx prayer beads back into a pocket, and Antares scowled despite himself before the Draconequus said quietly: “Most powerful is he who controls his own power, Antares. And this is your most powerful weapon right up here.”

Allonym brought his cane up, bopping Antares gently on the head and making him wince a little, rubbing awkwardly at the crown of his skull before the Draconequus smiled slightly. “Just because you've mastered a few nasty tricks and treats, don't forget your most basic talent, Antares... to analyze someone, to see inside them, and react based on that. Don't forget that your mother and father brought down a Jötnar whose strength far dwarfed their own by seizing the opportunities they were given and turning his machinations against him.”

Antares nodded a little, rubbing slowly at his head still, and then the Draconequus turned and strolled calmly towards the door before the young stallion said impulsively: “I'm... I'm not like my Mom and Dad, even if I wish I was. But I'm... trying to be what they wanted me to be.”

“You are, Antares, you need to stop worrying about that. And what they really wanted... was for you to be yourself.” Allonym answered, then he smiled and said softly: “Don't disappoint them, huh?”

With that, the Draconequus turned and strode out of the room, leaving the young stallion to gaze after him as he swallowed... then he closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards, promising as he hugged himself tightly: “I won't.”

Divided We Fall

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Chapter Fifteen: Divided We Fall
~BlackRoseRaven

A week passed, during which Antares hesitantly suggested doing group training exercises to Celestia, who agreed to the idea after some consideration. And Antares found himself more than a little horrified when Allonym's prediction proved right: their first training session was against simple wooden dummies, and the wooden dummies thoroughly trounced the young ponies despite the fact all they were supposed to do was smash them while Celestia timed how long it took.

Antares had shouted orders... and then promptly gotten his attention wrapped up in fighting and forgotten to give further directions. Avalon had disobeyed his directions to go for a closer target, and ended up being shot by Rustproof: thankfully, he was using rubber bullets, but Avalon had immediately dropped what she was doing in favor of tackling him. Meadowlark had simply sat in the background, not knowing what to do, while Prestige kept looking at Antares for approval she wasn't getting, and Aphrodisia tackled Avalon before Antares realized what the others were doing.

Allonym was right: they had trained so hard as individuals, they couldn't function as a group. Furthermore, when Antares had trained side-by-side with Aphrodisia and sometimes Avalon, he always let the other pony lead and used his perceptions to follow them in rhythm... and in spite of the fact they all looked up to him off the field, on the field, Avalon thought combat was like any other sports competition, where she was the most valuable player and essentially did her own thing no matter how often she was yelled at. Antares was their leader everywhere except where it counted, crunching in his self-confidence and making him feel like the fall guy: it affected his ability to give orders and made him meeker than usual, refusing to add anything to conversations unless poked and prodded for his opinion.

There were a lot of arguments during the week, as they failed out of training exercise after training exercise: Celestia often had to stop them during target practice when they turned on each other or started slowing down while Antares mumbled directions and they just stood awkwardly around. Even when Celestia tried to get them to work together by putting them in a simple game of rugby against a few Royal Guards, their dynamics fell quickly apart: Aphrodisia and Avalon were overaggressive, Antares didn't lead so much as react, and Prestige and Meadowlark both stayed far back afield, doing very little while the Royal Guards bruised and battered their way through the others.

Celestia's legendary patience finally came to an end when she arrived at the large, open square in Subterra they used for their exercises and found Meadowlark crying in a corner while Avalon berated her. Prestige was half-clinging to Antares, almost holding him back as he shouted weakly at Avalon, and Aphrodisia was only grumbling and lingering around the side of the area, acting completely disinterested in the others. Rustproof, lastly, was smoking anxiously on the other side of the field, several cigarette stubs around on the ground around his hooves.

“What is going on?” Celestia shouted furiously, and everyone went dead silent: it was loud enough that several demons peered curiously up over the walls that surrounded the wide, open cement field. Antares winced and shrank down as Avalon fell out of the air and turned beet-red, while Meadowlark turned away and rubbed violently at her face. Rustproof's cigarette fell out of his muzzle, and Aphrodisia's eyes slowly widened as she dropped heavily on her butt and shivered.

Celestia strode forwards, her eyes narrowed dangerously, her features tense: her golden armor almost glowed with her anger as her mane sparked with electricity before she closed her eyes and held up a hoof when Antares opened his mouth, saying sharply: “No. I don't want to hear it. I have had enough of this. Line formation in front of me, now.”

She looked up, saw the young ponies all staring at her, then she leaned forwards and ordered coldly: “I said now.”

That got the six ponies to hurry forwards, Rustproof stumbling and dropping his cigarettes all over, but not stopping to try and grab them up as they all sat at sharp attention in front of Celestia. She looked slowly back and forth over them, and then her eyes turned towards the side of the area, where tables had been set up... and her disgust and anger deepened at the sight of their equipment. It was laying willy-nilly all around the table, a few bits of gear here and there, one of Antares' vambraces half-polished... but the polish canister had been knocked over and left out, and the goo inside had dried all over the table and some of the other equipment in a hard, thick crust.

Slowly, she forced herself to breathe, then she looked forwards and shook her head grimly. “Perhaps my original expectations were high. Perhaps I do not know foals as well as I thought and perhaps I treated all of you as special and different for too long, and gave you too much leniency. But no more. Your parents would be disappointed in all of you... we've put in at least ten hours every day this week into team exercises, and you six friends have not learned to get along. Instead, you've all become so convinced of your own superiority or inferiority that you've devolved into a pack of animals. Except packs of animals at least have a hierarchy and order.”

“Meadowlark started it, she-” Avalon was cut off by Celestia stomping a hoof hard enough to shatter the stone beneath her, and the tiny Pegasus quailed, hurriedly dropping her eyes to the ground.

“We are going to train now.” Celestia said slowly, her gaze icy, drawing slowly back and forth over them. “Since every other method has failed, I'll teach you teamwork the same way I taught it in the old days. I will be your opponent, and you six will attack me. The training exercise will not end until I am satisfied. Is this clear?”

The six shared worried looks before Antares slowly began to turn towards the table, and Celestia said quietly as she stomped her hoof again to get his attention: “I did not give you permission to move, Antares Mīrus. Where do you think you're going?”

“I... Aunt Tia... I was just going to get our equipment and...” Antares broke off, shaking like a leaf as he looked up and saw the fury and the disappointment in Celestia's eyes. “Aunt... Aunt Tia...”

“Enough. You will refer to me as Celestia, and you will speak to me with respect.” Celestia said sharply, and Antares wilted before the ivory winged unicorn straightened and said quietly: “And none of you deserve that equipment. You will fight me as you are.”

Celestia's eyes looked coldly back and forth: her heart hurt, but at the same time, her mind had already locked on this course of action, and she would see it through no matter how much it pained her. Since they refused to learn any other way, she would teach them that there were consequences for their actions, for their failures... for the way they, six friends, were attacking each other and making a mockery of everything they had learned. Maybe they had all become strong... but that very same strength had made them all weak, as well.

“I'm... I'm not a fighter...” Meadowlark whispered, looking up pleadingly as tears fell from her eyes. “And I... I can't... help...”

“Be silent. I did not give you permission to speak. If you wish to speak you will raise your hoof like the children you are and wait for me to address you.” Celestia's voice was soft but dangerous, and then she gave a thin smile when Antares looked up and she saw the flash of anger, as Meadowlark's lower lip trembled.

She didn't say anything, only looked at him... and Antares dropped his eyes, trembling himself. The ivory winged unicorn shook her head slowly, electricity sparking through her mane again before she stepped calmly backwards and looked coldly over the group. “All of you are supposed to play a role in the team. Antares is your leader. Prestige provides magic artillery. Aphrodisia is your heavy hitter. Avalon is vanguard. Rustproof is range and technology. Meadowlark is planning and medicine. All of you have a role on the battlefield and none of you understand what your role is. But you will. This exercise does not stop until you understand or you can no longer stand.”

Celestia turned and strode slowly away, then she lowered her head and said coldly: “Let us begin. Attack me, now, and do not disappoint me like you've disappointed me every day his week.”

“I don't care that you're the Baroness, you can't talk to us like that!” Avalon shouted furiously, her eyes filled with tears, and then she launched into the air and shot forwards... only for one of Celestia's rear hooves to smash into her chest and knock her shooting across the field.

She hit the ground hard, rolling several times as the others looked in shock before the young Pegasus fell in a slump, shivering and coughing weakly. She clutched at herself, trembling violently as tears ran from her eyes, before slowly forcing herself to her hooves as Celestia turned around and said quietly: “This is not a game, Avalon, and you are not the strongest warrior on the field. I hope I have made that clear. You all desire to be treated as adults, to participate in a real war, on a real battlefield? None of you have any idea what that means. Especially not you, Antares.”

Antares trembled and shrank back, and Prestige gritted her teeth before she looked at him almost desperately. Then, on his other side, Aphrodisia roared before running forwards, and Prestige stumbled after the demon, not even knowing why even as her horn began to glow...

Aphrodisia lunged at Celestia... and was crushed out of the air by a simple swipe of a front hoof, her head smashing painfully into the stone ground before Celestia's horn glowed gold. Her eyes remained calm and emotionless as golden arcs of lightning blasted over the demon's body, Aphrodisia shrieking in pain as she wriggled helplessly beneath the pin and agony rapidly stole her will to fight.

Prestige flicked her horn, launching a blazing red fireball at Celestia... and the ivory equine's eyes flicked to the side before she rose her other hoof and simply slapped it away. Prestige could only keep running forwards, pumping all her strength into a second spell as she snapped her horn forwards, and a blast of force fired like a cannonball towards the winged unicorn.

And without missing a beat, Celestia simply scooped Aphrodisia into the air in front of her, and the blast of force smashed into the demon, knocking her limply backwards... only for Celestia to slam a vicious punch into her back and send the demon shooting through the air like a rocket, crashing into Prestige's head and knocking them both rolling backwards with screams of pain. Celestia's expression was neutral, unchanging, even as Avalon shot forwards and Rustproof desperately ran for the equipment table.

“I said you didn't earn that privilege.” Celestia said quietly, flicking her horn to the side... and spikes of stone erupted from the ground all around Rustproof, one jagged blade of rock ripping a gash in his side and knocking him sprawling before the young male curled up, rasping hard for breath in terror as he was caged in by the jutting blades of earth.

At almost the same time, without bothering to look, Celestia simply slapped Avalon to the side, knocking the Pegasus out of the air. The tiny female crashed face-first into the ground with a cry of agony, bouncing and rolling several times before she came to a halt, and Celestia shook her head slowly before turning her eyes coldly towards Antares and Meadowlark.

Meadowlark backed slowly up, breathing hard in fear as Celestia calmly approached, the red Pegasus staring weakly up at her as Antares simply shivered violently, his jaw hanging open, tears in his eyes... and then he cried out weakly when Celestia shoved a hoof into Meadowlark's chest and stepped forwards to slam her cruelly down onto her back. The Pegasus bounced once with a cry of agony, spittle flying from her jaws before she whimpered, rasping for breath as Celestia leaned slowly down and said quietly: “Do you think your enemies will have any mercy for you, just because you're crying? No. They won't. They'll have less mercy than me.”

Meadowlark only trembled, shivering beneath her hoof before Celestia rose up and calmly strode over to Antares, who was laying on the ground on his stomach, shivering as tears leaked down his cheeks. He stared up at her, and Celestia looked down at him, then she ordered quietly: “Stand up.”

Antares shivered, then he slowly hauled himself up to his hooves... and a hoof smashed across his face, knocking him crashing onto his side. He clenched his eyes shut, face throbbing, body trembling before he slowly looked up as a weak sob escaped his jaws to see Celestia looming over him again, before she repeated coldly: “Stand up.”

Antares trembled... and Celestia reached down, seizing him by the mane and hauling him to his hooves before she slammed a hoof once, twice into his chest. He gagged, leaning forwards, limbs going weak beneath him as his vision blurred, and he tried to mouth something before Celestia simply dropped him and shook her head slowly. “Your parents would be disappointed in you. In everyone here. Get up, Antares. Get up, and fight. Show me that you know this is not a game.”

Antares only trembled... and then he slowly curled up and began to cry like a child, trying to hide his face in his hooves as his entire body shuddered with his sobs. His friends all lay beaten and bloody, petrified and wounded, and Celestia shook her head slowly and closed her eyes, feeling pity... but also disgust, anger, and even contempt.

She didn't speak as she turned away, slowly making her way to the exit and leaving the six sprawled out and shivering in their various states of denial and suffering. She left them behind, and Antares sobbed all the harder, the pain, the self-loathing biting deeper and more savagely when he realized that she was gone... that Celestia hadn't just lost faith in him, she had decided they weren't worthwhile enough to even waste her time punishing them... that he had failed in her eyes, because he couldn't lead, he and his friends had turned against each other, and they weren't proud warriors... they were stupid, selfish children who still hadn't processed how the real world worked...

A pair of limbs wrapped around him, and Antares yelled and tried to shove at the pony that had embraced him, but it only clung tighter before a wet face buried into the side of his neck. And in response, he grabbed wildly at the shape, and before he knew it, he was hugging her back, and they cried together before he felt more ponies coming over, turning into one fierce embrace shared by six ponies.

When Antares' tears finally slowed and he managed to get a bit of control, he saw all his friends sitting around him. He breathed hard in and out, seeing the pain, the tears in their eyes, and then Avalon trembled before she said weakly: “I'm sorry. All of you guys, I'm sorry, I... I'm stupid. I got so much pride but I know I need to stop. I need to listen and... Antares, I'm gonna listen...”

“I won't be scared... I... we need to work together, I don't... I don't want to be like my parents, I don't want to run away anymore...” Meadowlark whispered... and Antares realized that she had been the one to first embrace him. That she was still clinging to him, even as Prestige rested her head on Antares' other shoulder, trembling.

“Aunt Tia's never been so mad at us, so disappointed...” Aphrodisia looked up, trembling, before she half-lunged forwards and hugged Antares fiercely, burying her face against his chest as she whispered: “I wish she had hit us more if it would have made her less disappointed in us, Nova. And I'm sorry. You're my best friend. You're my best friend, I should've listened all those times...”

Rustproof only snuffled a little as he dropped his head forwards, and then he closed his eyes and dropped his head against Meadowlark's shoulder when she reached up and wrapped her other foreleg around him silently. He breathed hard in and out, and Prestige whispered: “Antares, you're our leader. I don't call you hero just because it's cute and... and... I've never felt more proud than when I was working with you and your friends. And I've never been more disgusted with myself than now... we didn't work together, and...”

She laughed brokenly, and then Avalon looked over at her and said quietly: “You're our friend too, Prestige. And Meadowlark, you are too and... I'm sorry.”

Both Prestige and Meadowlark nodded silently, and then Antares closed his eyes before he whispered: “Then we need to work together. Forget... everything else, we need to work together... I'm sorry I couldn't bring us together before but... I... I... I'll find... I swear I'll find a way to make this work...”

“You already bring us together. We just... need to listen. Antares, believe in yourself... you're...” Aphrodisia broke off, bowing her head and trembling a little as she held onto him. “You're the big brother.”

Antares laughed weakly, but he nodded slowly as he reached down and stroked his cousin's mane back before closing his eyes. “Okay. I'll... I'll try. Then...” He looked up, silently turning his eyes towards the table of littered equipment, and shame flushed his features as he saw the carelessness, the contempt... the fact he had treated the prized vambraces given to him by Twilight sitting in waste like they were garbage. “Then first... we need to earn our equipment back. We need to start at the basics.”

The others nodded, hesitantly pulling apart... but the group was humbled, working in silence with each other. It was small thing, but important and necessary, as they cleaned up, then gathered their equipment, polished it, touched it up as best they could. Ponies passed their equipment over to Antares, who cleaned out the dings as best he could, while Meadowlark and Rustproof polished gear and ensured everything was clean and in working order. Avalon and Aphrodisia worked alongside Prestige to go over the rest of their equipment while this was being done, organizing everything and also working on figuring out how they could all work effectively in combat.

What it came down to, was that they would have to listen... but Antares would also have to give orders. He didn't like the idea, but he saw the necessity for it in their eyes, and felt their faith in him... and that gave him strength. Not confidence, but he was willing to try, if only to avoid disappointing his friends and save them from receiving another beating... or much worse.

Celestia was right, after all: in a real battle, they would have been destroyed. Celestia had hurt them, but she could have done worse, and Antares knew that... and what hurt a lot more than her hooves was the feeling of failure. Was her words... the pain of her hooves faded quickly, but the pain of what she had said, the thought of his parents being disappointed in him...

Twilight Sparkle came looking for them when Meadowlark didn't show up for work at the archives... and while at first she smiled at the sight of them working together, she then saw the signs of battle, the bruises, the splatters of blood. She ran in, but Antares only shook his head sharply to the others... and to his surprise, they all immediately dropped their heads forwards and let him slowly tell her what had happened, and not even Avalon had spoken out.

He had simply said that they had been taught a lesson. It wasn't a lie, even if it wasn't entirely the truth, and he thought Twilight had some idea of what had likely gone on, but she had only left in silence afterwards. Antares put his mind back to the task at hoof, helping finish organization and equipment preparation before saying quietly: “Every day, we meet here. No other training, we're going to come here, we're going to learn to work with each other, no matter what. Allonym is right: it doesn't matter how strong we are apart if we can't work as a team. And we're going to start today.”

The others had agreed: and the more they listened, the more confident Antares became in giving orders. Now that they were working together instead of trying to outdo each other, focus only on themselves and their training, or simply butt heads of the sake of butting heads, they were beginning to understand how they could all play separate roles but still work together as a team.

It was an important start, and they were dedicated to it: dedication that showed when they returned to Thorn Palace late at night simply to go to bed, and the next morning headed as a group back to the training area, all anxious to work as much as possible. It made them all the more surprised when they found another table set up in the center of the arena, with food set silently out, inviting them to breakfast. Someone had also left them a book of exercises and battle strategies, and Antares silently touched this, not eating as the others did; instead, he was looking quietly out towards the entrance to the training grounds, wondering if the glimmer of a glowing mane he'd seen was real or just his hopes and imagination playing tricks on him.

Discord grumbled under his breath as he adjusted his satchel bag at his side, rolling his sore shoulders as he muttered: “Stupid ponies... would it kill them to give me a backpack? No, the messenger needs a messenger bag... I look like a retarded post office employee.”

Discord stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes, saying in a falsely-bright voice: “Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck! Why hello everypony, look at me, I'm the post-Draconequus! I give happy letters to happy ponies and every day is happy happy happy...”

He blew a loud, angry raspberry as he slumped forwards, features souring as he stomped slowly along the road leading back to Canterlot through the mountains, mumbling: “Celestia could at least not send me on foot to the stupid Strange Ones. Lazy... glowy... prissy princess thingy. Ooh, look at me, I'm so pretty with my fancy swirling mane and my... shoes... and stuff. She can teleport! I have to hoof it through all the... sludge and forest and the singing ponies and the drunken Nibelung and the... stupid... everything.”

He grumbled under his breath, huffing a bit to himself before he frowned and halted in the middle of the road. Slowly, he looked back and forth apprehensively as he sniffed a bit at the air, reaching nervously up and grasping the strap of his mailbag as he realized there were no sounds coming from anywhere around him. No birds singing, no insects buzzing, just silence except for the whisper of the wind. It was sunny, it was bright, the blue sky overhead was pleasant and yet... he felt cold. He felt scared, as old instincts tickled along his spine, triggered a sensation he hadn't felt since Ginnungagap...

“I... I'm a messenger of the Royal Court, you know!” Discord tried to shout, but instead his voice came out hushed, weak, as he looked apprehensively back and forth and licked his lips nervously. “It's... a federal offense to annoy me! And... that's bad!”

Nothing, no response, and Discord hesitantly took a step forwards before a quiet chuckle spilled through the air. The Draconequus shivered, looking fearfully back and forth before he said hoarsely: “I warn you, don't make me get all crazy in here now! I can totally still do that if I want to, I just happen to... to like the color red!”

Discord rose his arms threateningly, waggling his fingers as he looked back and forth, but he felt pale, and scared, and... something reeked. Something smelled like burning and death and carnage and destruction, and his breath raced in and out as his eyes flicked back and forth before a voice sang softly:

“Well now, now... what do we have here? Is that Mr. Discord the Draconequus I hear?
Ooh... ha, ha, ha... how delightful... how insightful... how spiteful... how... rightful...”

“So you can rhyme, you should be really proud of yourself for that and... I'm going on my way now!” Discord shouted, wincing, and he spun to hurry down the path, looking back and forth in terror before he stumbled into a full-out run as several rocks spilled down a slope at his side, shaking his head and shouting as his hat flew off his head but he didn't dare turn back for it, sprinting down the road towards Canterlot.

And yet the castle was barely visible in the distance, he was hours away by the road, and whatever was here with him, whatever it was that filled him with such revulsion and terror and horror was easily keeping pace, moving so fast and sleekly along the mountains that he only caught glimpses of its shadow and profile, even as it continued mockingly:

“Hey, mister, mister, don't you be so afraid,
Even if you can sense that I'm the Ace of Spades,
And you're just a joker, yeah that's true...
But oh honey, I got the perfect use for a wildcard like you...

Oh, ba-da-ba-do-bop, yeah, yeah...
Sha-dada-do-dop, whoa, oh...
Ba-dee, ba-doo, ba-da-da-ta-ta-ta...
We're gonna be best friends, ah ha...

You and I, we got a little somethin' in common see,
Both you and me come from the deep dark chaos sea,
But I see you see the sea life weren't for you and me,
Ooh, but honey this place here's the land of opportunity...
Where perhaps even you and I can be best friends-'til-the-end...
A chaos beast like you... and me, a destruction entity.”

“I don't blind date!” Discord managed to shout over one shoulder, continuing to sprint forwards... and then he staggered to a halt when he heard something hit the ground in front of him before he tripped over a rock and fell to all fours, looking up in horror as Cancer leaned down with a wide, vicious grin, his red eyes glowing.

“You'll make an exception for me, honey bunch.” Cancer said kindly, leaning his goblinoid, mottled white features in, and Discord shouted in revulsion and shoved himself backwards before Cancer pounced on top of him, slamming the Draconequus down onto his back as his forelegs transformed, hooves splitting into slimy tendrils that eagerly tore down through cloth and skin into flesh, spilling and spreading through Discord's body as he howled and shook his head wildly in denial, shoving uselessly at the slick, hideous monster pinning him down as Cancer gave a snarling grin. “Yeah! Oh, what's this? You got something restraining those chaos powers of yours... perfect! Ooh, I wish I could eat you up but honey, sweetie, baby, lovey-dovey, I'm gonna make you into something even better than dinner or dessert... now you hold real still, 'cause this is gonna hurt...”

Discord stared in horror, shaking his head violently before he arched his back and screamed as those awful, hideous tendrils crawled through him, and pain was the last thing he knew; the pain of something spreading inside him, the pain of his body beginning to warp and change, the pain of losing his mind not to madness, but something far more sinister and foul as the last thing he saw was Cancer's glowing red eyes... and then Discord was only aware that he was gone, and something else had taken his place.

Antares smiled a little as he glanced slowly around at his friends: their polished, well-maintained equipment gleamed over their bodies as they all stood at the ready, smiling warmly around at one another in the small arena. Wooden targets lay demolished, and there wasn't a single mark on any of them as Avalon and Aphrodisia both grinned and punched their hooves together before Avalon turned to Prestige, holding out a hoof. The unicorn mare looked surprised... but then she blushed and awkwardly reached up to tap her hoof against Avalon's, mumbling: “You... you did well.”

“You too, Prestige.” Avalon smiled and nodded, then she hesitated before glancing towards Antares, saying quietly: “And hey, Antares, I... I think... we're ready for something a little more intense. I know you've been having us do these basic exercises over and over again, but... I'd like to suggest – and just a suggestion, of course – that we move on to something a little harder. Maybe we can't do... you know, big stuff yet, but... how about a relay?”

Antares looked around at the others, his eyes picking up the details, their reactions... and then he smiled a little, weighing what he saw in them against his observations of their improving teamwork over the days that had passed since their trouncing by Celestia. He began to open his mouth... and then he looked up in surprise at the sound of a sharp bell tolling in the distance.

The others looked up too... and more warning bells joined the chorus, filling Subterra with noise. Yells rose up, and Antares opened his mouth before he cursed and reminded himself of his duty, shouting clearly: “Everyone, line up!”

Immediately, his friends formed a line in front of him, and that one simple order and action took away the sense of panic, made it easier for both them and Antares to think as Meadowlark said quickly: “I think that's the alarm bell! It sounded like it came from-”

“It's not an attack on Subterra, it's above.” snapped a voice, and Antares looked to the side to see Pinkamena running towards them, before the demon gave a wry grin as she looked over the group. “Well, you guys are doing better than expected. Okay, Antares, since you're head rooster, listen to me and listen good. You and your friends are supposed to go back to Thorn Palace. That's Celestia's orders, not mine, so don't even think about disobeying. Princess Sunshine's been in the pissiest mood ever these last few days and not even I would consider going against her right about now. Me, her, and a bunch of others are going upstairs to deal with whatever's attacking us.”

“Okay, Pinkamena.” Antares nodded quickly, and the Gluttony demon frowned at him before she narrowed her eyes and leaned forwards, looking suspicious. But Antares only looked at her calmly, saying quietly: “I'll keep my friends safe.”

Pinkamena grunted, then she nodded hesitantly before turning and bursting apart into black smoke that shot quickly through the air. Antares grimaced a bit, then he shook his head and glanced at the others, saying quietly: “Alright, back to Thorn Palace. We can find out from Selene what's going on and figure out what to do from there.”

The others nodded, and Antares turned, leading them quickly out of the training grounds. As they hurried through the streets of Subterra, Antares couldn't help but look back and forth, seeing how the demons and creatures of this dark city were rallying, many hurrying for the surface and others guiding younglings and others to safety. The glossy-black unicorn felt his leather wings tensing, wanting to join them, wanting to help... but knowing he had to consider the situation they were in, and keeping in mind that for all he knew, it was nothing more serious than an attack by a raiding party of Nibelung thugs that was about to suffer a quick and painful defeat.

They hurried through one of the long tunnels that connected to the cavern the Thorn Palace was in, before Antares frowned and looked sharply up as the frequency of the bells changed, as the jangling became more dissonant... and Meadowlark shouted from the back of the group: “That's another alarm! It's nearby, too!”

Antares gritted his teeth, then he shouted over his shoulder: “Let's check it out, just in case! But we don't fight unless we have to... Avalon, take point, fly up ahead and scout it out, then hurry back.”

Avalon nodded quickly, shooting up into the air in the direction of the alarm as Antares led the others through the dark stone streets... then winced a little as he saw Twilight Sparkle run out of an alley ahead, the Lich glancing back and forth before she did a double-take, then glared at him “Antares, what are you doing here? You need to-”

“We got trouble!” shouted Avalon's voice, and Twilight glanced in surprise towards the yellow blur as the Pegasus came shooting back at full speed, crash-landing between Twilight and Antares and wincing as she skidded painfully to a halt before scrambling hurriedly to her hooves. “Guys, guys, there's something horrible over there!”

“Cancer is attacking above with more of his infected monsters, you need to get back to Thorn Palace and-” Twilight was cut off by a horrific roar that made the very air around them vibrate, and the Lich staggered to the side, staring over her shoulder in horror as she asked incredulously: “What was that? Oh no, he didn't infect a dragon somehow, did he?”

“Worse, way worse... but Antares, we need to help!” Avalon almost pleaded, looking up even despite the fear in her eyes, teeth grit as she nodded firmly. Antares grimaced, but then he looked up at Twilight, who breathed hard... then the Lich cursed under her breath, and Antares nodded sharply.

The violet mare turned, running towards the disturbance as the others followed behind her, beginning to open her mouth to ask what Avalon had seen... and then, as they turned onto another street, the Lich could only gape in horror at the hideous thing that had somehow torn its way into the caverns.

It was some bestial, awful mishmash of countless creatures, hobbling along on legs that were different lengths, one shrunken and ending in a hoof that dragged over cracked cement, the other fleshy and massive and with a hooked claw. Its chest was broad and covered in hideous cysts and what looked like staring but blind eyes all along one side of its breast, and one shoulder was far larger than the other. The arm on this side was monstrous, raw flesh and muscle and sinew flexing as huge, vicious claws raked against the ground to help drag itself forwards.

Its other limb was almost as long, but gangly, twisted and gnarled, and countless smaller arms ending in hands that seemed to reach weakly to the sky in supplication struck up all along its back. Its tail dragged along the ground, ending in an enormous blade that sent up sparks as it scraped over the black stone.

Drool dripped from oversized jaws, gnarled teeth sticking out in every direction as a crown of twisted and magnificent horns gleamed above eyes that glowed out of a face twisted into a permanent grin. It roared as it looked back and forth, swinging its oversized claw forwards to smash through a stone building like putty, and then Twilight snarled in fury as she looked up at the awful, familiar shape standing on its pustule-riddled, oversized shoulder. “You!”

“Hey, toots, I got a name you know, won't kill you none to use it.” Cancer said in a hurt voice, and then he grinned and slapped the side of the behemoth's face several times, winking over at it brightly. “Not that it would matter if it did, right, right, right?”

Cancer threw back his head and laughed as the behemoth simply loomed forwards at the end of the street, at least thirty feet of hunched, rasping death, steam pouring out of its jaws as poisonous sweat trickled along its disease-riddled body. “So where the hell is the white weasel, little ponies? Don't tell me she went up into Canterlot already, lookin' for little old me? Ain't nothing up there but them chickens! Well, and a few unfortunates who happened to be right where I needed 'em... you ponies. Sitting out, looking up at the night sky, oh how sweet and romantic... do I ever love me some take out and delivery.”

He winked, then Twilight snarled, leaning forwards as her horn glowed. “This was a stupid move, Cancer! You may have brought some kind of monster here but once Celestia figures out you're not up in Canterlot-”

“Oh, but I am, babe!” Cancer grinned widely, then he slowly tilted his head to the side... and his flesh and slime bubbled, a second head forming and pulling itself slowly to the opposite side, leaving the monster with two grinning faces as he said mockingly from one: “You could say... I have a split personality!”

Cancer chortled at his own joke, slapping the shoulder of the behemoth wildly before he gargled, eyes glowing red as his heads merged back into one before he rasped: “Infect, destroy, annihilate, murder them... murder them all...”

Then he twitched and screamed, which shortly transformed into another fit of wild, jagged laughter. It cut out as suddenly as it began, Cancer leaning forwards and hissing: “Besides, little ponies, I picked myself up the most magic-resistant thing I could find to shape up into this hell of a Jabberwock I got here. Oh sure, he can't call down the thunder like I wish he could, but now I got me his antibodies, I got me his genes, I made myself even better while I turned him into something a whole lot worse than any of you pissant little ponies can handle...”

“I.. wait...” Twilight paled, her eyes widening as she stared at the monster as it rasped for breath, mindless, soulless, monstrous... before a tremble ran through her as she whispered: “Discord... you... this... was Discord?”

“Sounds like the babe has a girl crush on you, honey. Ain't that cute, the zombie's got a wittle heart.” Cancer made smooching sounds, leaning down as Twilight's eyes glowed with rage, and then he winked before leaping cleanly backwards and off the beast, calling cheerfully: “Go give her a kiss... or kill the hell out of her, whatever feels more natural!”

The Jabberwock gave an earth-shaking roar, and Twilight Sparkle leaned forwards, screaming back as the air vibrated with magic and power around her, before she snarled and snapped her head forwards even as tears spilled down her face. A blue fireball burst from her horn, crashing into the monster's chest and erupting in a massive blast of sapphire flame and sound, but the Jabberwock barely flinched, only thrown off balance by the attack but not actually hurt.

Twilight's eyes widened in horror, and then Antares leapt forwards as Cancer's cackles rose up through the air, the young stallion seizing Twilight and shouting desperately: “Come on! We need to regroup, we need help!”

“No, no, no, we have to stop them here!” Twilight shouted back, turning with a snarl and charging forwards, looking up with pain and desperation and something approaching madness in her eyes. “Discord! Discord, listen to me, don't make me-”

The monster snarled at her as it regained its senses, swinging its massive claw down... but Twilight was tackled out of the way by a red streak, the Lich wincing as she and the firebird rolled violently into the side of a building. The Jabberwock hissed, dragging itself forwards as its jaws opened wide, acidic drool spilling out of its mouth... and then it squealed in shock when a blast of white light smashed into the side of its face, grabbing at its head with a gangly limb as Antares shouted: “Over here! Come get me, right here!”

Antares snarled, terrified and yet determined, as the Jabberwock's attention slowly focused on him... and then he looked up with a wince as Cancer yanked himself onto a nearby rooftop, snarling and shouting: “Oh, you again? Trying to interfere with my plans? Fine, you so eager for some fun, then you go right on ahead and have all the fun you and your kiddy friends can handle! Jabberwock, forget the zombie trash, kill that kid!”

The monster roared, swinging its claw forwards, tearing up the ground as it half-fell into a staggering gait... and Antares winced as he spun around, yelling to the others: “Lead it to the square, go, go, go! Come on, come and get me, we aren't afraid of you!”

“Then why are you running, you dumb punk?” Cancer all but screamed, before he snarled as he looked down into the street, rasping: “I'll cremate that zombie myself.”

Twilight cursed under her breath as the firebird transformed into Burning Desire, the fiery stallion saying hurriedly: “Twilight, forget it, if you want to help your students then you need to get them to safety and get Celestia! We already tried to push that thing back when it ripped into here, it's almost invulnerable to magic and-”

“It's Discord! I have to... I have to stop him or save him... you don't understand.” Twilight snapped, breathing hard as her stitches pulsed and she shoved her way to her hooves, grimacing in the direction of the monster... before both she and Burning Desire looked forwards as Cancer landed on the road across from them, grinning darkly.

Twilight's eyes flashed, and Burning Desire stepped forwards with a snarl, the stallion's eyes glowing as Cancer shook himself out and licked his teeth hungrily. “Hello there, honey-buns. Sorry to interrupt your cuddle-time, but you see, I got this garden back home and I need me some fertilizer. You don't mind if I cut you up into pieces and use you for that, right?”

“You stay away from her.” Burning Desire growled, the fiery demon's eyes glowing as his mane and tail flared bright red, exuding waves of heat and malice.

“Oh, what are you gonna do, pretty-boy, turn back into a songbird and give me some scratches? Peck at my pretty little eyes?” Cancer batted his red eyes at him mockingly, grinning widely as he posed in mock surrender. “Oh look at me, I'm so terrified! Don't hurt me mister big scary demon who has a little crushy-wushy on the smelly zombie bit-”

Burning Desire leapt forwards, transforming in a blast of flames into a monstrous, serpent-bodied beast, with an upper body that was wreathed in red fire. Huge claws smashed down on either side of Cancer as the demon leaned down and roared with a fang-filled jaw in Cancer's face, his eyes glowing bits of hellfire as he now towered high over the staring, mottled creature.

Then, almost disdainfully, Burning Desire leaned back and simply sent Cancer flying far down the street with a hard backhand slap, the mottled-white creature squealing as he flew through the air before colliding with a building with an audible splat. Burning Desire glanced over his shoulder at Twilight, the half-unicorn, half-snake giant giving her a rumble and a wink. “Go help the others, violet, I'll deal with this!”

Twilight gazed after Burning Desire, smiling faintly before she turned to sprint down the road, wincing at distant roars of the Jabberwock; the behemoth had already reached the square, where Antares and his friends, and the few demons that had the courage to stand with them, were trying to hold the monstrosity at bay.

Cancer had spoken true, and Prestige cursed as another spell simply bounced off the Jabberwock's frame, stumbling backwards before she shook her head quickly to Antares when he glanced at her. The glossy-black stallion cursed, then he looked up and watched sharply as Avalon shot in at the behemoth's skull, slamming both her rear hooves into its forehead... and getting little more than an annoyed snarl as it twisted its body to swing its oversized arm at her.

Avalon shot backwards, barely dodging the attack: the arm swung with all the grace of a falling tree, and dropped just as quickly and heavily, ripping through the front of a building and sending up a cloud of dust as the beast almost overbalanced. But awkward and slow as it was, even Aphrodisia couldn't damage it as she ran up its spine, stomping and punching along its vertebrae before kicking herself backwards when the thin, smaller arms that stood out of its back snatched wildly at her.

Nightmares and other demons peppered the monster with spells, and it was all ineffective, doing nothing more than aggravating it further before the beast suddenly half-turned with a howling roar, ripping its massive arm around in a semicircle that tore its claw through the ground and smashed several unfortunate Nightmares backwards. Antares winced, then he cursed as the others regrouped quickly around him, Meadowlark asking hurriedly: “What do we do? We can't hurt it!”

Antares opened his mouth to answer... and then the Jabberwock's tail lashed out as it hissed over its shoulder at them, and he winced backwards: but a moment later, a demon appeared in front of the group and took the worst of the blow for them, knocked sprawling into the ponies.

The young stallion cursed in shock, looking down in horror as the demon coughed blood, grasping at the tear in its stomach... and then he said sharply: “Meadowlark, Rusty, drag him to safety! Avalon, Aphrodisia, Prestige, we can't sit here and talk! If we're going to all be a team we need-”

The Jabberwock interrupted them with a roar as it turned around, lashing its long, thin limb forwards in a wild grab at them, but Prestige stepped forwards with a snarl as she swung her horn outwards, a sharp wall of ice ripping up from the ground in front of them. The monster's claw collided with this and was knocked backwards, and Antares and Prestige shared a quick look before they both leaned forwards, snarling and horns glowing, before snapping their heads upwards in perfect time.

The wall of ice tore free from the ground and shot into the Jabberwock's face, crashing into it with enough force to knock the brutish monster staggering with a howl of rage. It shook its head wildly, fragments of frost falling all around it as it clung stubbornly to the ground with its oversized claw for balance... and then Twilight Sparkle shot beneath the malformed thing's legs and flicked her horn as she passed, the earth behind her rupturing and knocking the monster crashing backwards.

It howled in frustration as it began to claw wildly at the earth and rock itself back and forth, trying to force its hunchbacked, distorted body back up to its feet; it gave Twilight more than enough time to join up with the others, Antares and Prestige stepping up to one side of the Lich, Avalon and Aphrodisia on the other. “We need to subdue him somehow... Antares, anything, anything at all?”

“None of our magic works... it just bounces off him or makes him madder, and we can't seem to tear through his hide... it's like he's made of rubber or something!” Antares said quickly, as the beast began to crawl slowly upwards, rasping in and out. “We need help! We need Celestia, or-”

“We're not killing him!” Twilight shouted almost desperately, and Antares looked up in surprise before the Lich shook her head violently, trembling as she whispered: “I won't kill Discord again. There has to be a way to stop him, to save him, we have to figure out how to undo what Cancer did to him!”

“Maybe there is.” muttered a voice, and the others looked up in surprise, Twilight looking over her shoulder with wild hope in her eyes at the sight of Discombobulation walking towards them, his features tense and serious before he gestured sharply at the Jabberwock as it dragged itself around in a circle to face them, snarling. “But first we need it distracted while Twilight and I-”

“You heard him!” Antares shouted, and then he gritted his teeth before leaping into the air, ordering quickly: “Avalon, let's keep his eyes on us! Prestige, Aphrodisia keep him off balance!”

And Twilight stared in surprise as the young ponies shot forwards, rushing headlong into danger without hesitation as they followed Antares' directions without question, pushing beyond fear. Avalon and Antares shot towards the Jabberwock's face, getting its attention as the leather-winged unicorn winced and launched himself out of the way of a grab from one leg, as Avalon flew in and slammed all four hooves into its cheek, roaring into the monster's eye before she kicked off as it snapped its jaws wildly after her... while meanwhile, Prestige flicked her horn, the ground shattering beneath one of the monster's warped legs as Aphrodisia sprinted forwards and launched herself into its kneecap, the behemoth swaying unevenly as it was distracted with a hiss.

Then Twilight winced as Discombobulation grabbed her shoulder, saying quietly: “This is going to hurt a lot, Twilight Sparkle. But it has to be you, I'm afraid... both because of what you are, and because I know you'd rather not see another pony die.”

“It's okay. I have a few spares.” Twilight replied quietly, allowing Discombobulation to pull her backwards and away from the main conflict. She couldn't help but look up again, feeling fear and worry and pain... but also pride, as Antares flicked his horn down in midair and set off a bright flash directly into the Jabberwock's eyes, making it howl in frustration as it swung its massive arm blindly back and forth.

Discombobulation nodded calmly, then he winced a little before raising his natural arm in front of himself, and swinging one of his sharp metal fingers down in a swift cutting motion: with a spark, a long, thin line was sliced in his arm, and the Draconequus gritted his teeth as he slowly flexed his metal fingers and made a cupping gesture with his metal hand: blood spilled out from the wound in a long, concentrated stream, swirling and growing into a sphere of glowing crimson in the Draconequus' metal palm before it hardened into a crystalline orb.

The Draconequus wheezed as he clutched this tightly, a little pale from the exertion as slumped a bit, and Twilight looked up at him with worry before he slipped the sphere into his other hand and muttered: “Sorry about this.”

With that, he simply lashed his metal claw down across her chest, flaying her stitches open and making the Lich curse in surprise more than anything else: it revealed the open, never-healed socket that gazed in on her empty chest, before the Draconequus grimaced in distaste as he shoved the red crystal into her, and Twilight flinched, then gave a short shriek, eyes beginning to glow as it felt like her veins caught fire, her mind went wild with images and words and visions-

“Focus, Twilight, focus it!” Discombobulation rasped, panting hard as he pointed at the Jabberwock, and Twilight shook her head back and forth, gargling, staring wildly up as she saw colors and beautiful visions and madness before Discombobulation seized her by the back of the head and forcefully twisted her around to look at the Jabberwock, shouting: “Do you want the good ending or the bad ending? Mash X, dammit!”

Twilight clenched her teeth so tightly she felt them cracking, dredged up every bit of discipline and focus out of her mind as she could even as her body rippled and steamed, as stitches popped like firecrackers and her eyes glowed ivory, electricity sparking around her body... and then she arched her back before screaming: “Get out of the way!”

Antares looked sharply over his shoulder at this, and then his eyes widened before he yelled to the others: he wasn't even sure what it was, but it got the message across, the four scattering in all directions as the Jabberwock swung its massive limb at them with a hiss... then looked down a little too late as Twilight snapped her horn forwards, a blast of radiant light erupting from her and smashing into the massive monster. The Jabberwock screamed as it was driven backwards by the stream of energy, falling forwards and clawing into the ground as fractals of light and sound-made-visible sparked and danced around it, a glow steadily building around the monster's malformed body as the barrage of energy continued to barrel into it before Twilight released another shriek.

The monster was obscured by a blast of light, and an eruption of power ripped through the Lich's body, the crystallized chaos essence inside her exploding with enough force to almost tear her in half. She fell backwards in a broken pile of body parts, feeling boneless and agonized as smoke burst up from her desiccated form, rasping weakly in and out as a shiver ran through her... but the pain, the wild thoughts still running through her head, everything and nothing mattered as she stared at the glowing cloud of chaotic light and energy.

And then, with a crackle and an almost comical pop, the cloud sparked out of existence and a single figure fell to the ground with a thud. It landed on its hands and knees, retching several times before vomiting loudly... and blearily, Discord's eyes slowly opened before he sat back on his haunches and grabbed at his face, staring stupidly around and mumbling: “What... what did I eat? I... puppy?”

Discombobulation smiled faintly as he held onto his side, and Twilight tried to raise her head... then cursed weakly as she found she didn't have the strength. She felt like she was dying... but then she smiled weakly at this thought, closing her eyes for a moment as she corrected mentally: Physically dying, but not... I can't die that easy...

She laughed weakly to herself, and Discombobulation carefully dropped to a kneel beside her. And as the ponies nervously looked at Discord as he staggered up to his feet, Antares turned, then trembled and ran towards Twilight, whispering: “M-Mom... oh... oh Horses of Heaven, look at...”

“It's okay, Antares. I just... I'll be okay.” Twilight whispered from where she was laying brokenly. The Lich smiled faintly, breathing slowly before she murmured: “I'm just... drained... and... Discombobulation... thank you...”

“No, Twilight... thank you. Even if you make me feel ashamed of myself, for the fact I would never sacrifice so much for big dog over there.” Discombobulation said quietly, smiling faintly as he reached down and stroked slowly through Twilight's disheveled, smoldering mane. Twilight laughed weakly, opening her mouth... but then her eyes opened, and all present turned at the sound of a long, drawn out hiss.

Discord stumbled to his feet, staggering around and then almost falling over again as Cancer approached from the street. The monster was snarling and smoldering, his red eyes glowing with rage as he rasped: “Can't trust... anyone to do your job for you these days... oh, well, looks like I'll get to have myself a meal of you after all...”

“N-No... Burning Desire...” Twilight rasped... and then Discombobulation and Antares both stared in disbelief as the Lich gritted her teeth... then slowly, despite her wrecked and tattered frame, the obvious breaks in her spine, the missing leg and torn-apart chest... she pushed herself up to her hooves, breathing heavily in and out despite her lungs being flayed and needing no air. “What did... you... do to h-him...”

“Wouldn't you like to know, zombie? Why the hell don't you have the sense to lay down and stay dead?” Cancer snarled, and then he flicked a foreleg out, launching a glob of poisonous, volatile slime at Twilight... but then there was a sharp crack, and the ball of slime burst into green flames that disintegrated in midair long before reaching Twilight.

Cancer grunted, and Discord winced as he grabbed at his stomach with his lion's paw... then slowly frowned and looked at his eagle talon as energy sparked over it. His eyes widened in realization before he looked over his shoulder, grinning widely even as he said disgustedly: “Oh, puppy, don't you dare think this makes us even or even scores you a promotion. But you know what they say... one good turn deserves another, and much as I would absolutely love to pick on you ponies for making my life a living hell...”

“What? You... you think... filthy foul freakish flopping frakking fool!” Cancer raged, frothing at the jaws as his eyes glowed bright red, leaning forwards with a snarl. “I spared your life, I gave you a part in the band, I made you strong and we laughed and cried and had such fun together while you were all... brainless brute, and you're turning on me over one little itty-bitty monsterization? Oh hell no! Now you listen to me, boy, you get your ass over here and you start killing the crap out of everything, or so help me I'm gonna-”

“I really don't like it when people give me orders.” Discord's eye twitched, then he rose his talon and snapped his digits, and a large, steel girder popped into existence above Cancer's head before crashing down on the monster, sending up a burst of white slime and knocking the creature flat. It howled in fury, and Discord grinned before he laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. “Now let's see if I still remember how this goes.”

Cancer threw the metal beam off, standing up with a howl... and Discord began to make violent gestures with his hands as if conducting a symphony: with every sharp movement, a heavy object fell from the sky and crashed down on top of Cancer: anvils, girders, pyramids of steel, refrigerators, and all assortment of other things hammered down into the destruction entity, burying him beneath a jumble of every kind of object imaginable before Discord rose both arms high above his head with a flourish, then bowed low and swept his arms down deep.

An enormous bank vault appeared above the pile and crashed down with an incredible bang that shook the ground, sending the ponies staggering in amazement as a cloud of dust slowly wafted by, and Discombobulation calmly strolled up to this before spinning the handle on the vault door and yanking it open to reveal Cancer inside buried up to his neck in coins, jaw gaping and body broken and shivering, staring wildly back and forth. Discombobulation smiled and twiddled his metal fingers at the destruction entity, and then he held his hand out, and an enormous, cartoon-like black bomb appeared in this before he tossed it into the vault, kicked the door shut, and then spun the valve closed.

He walked calmly over to Discord, and they easily traded a high five before both Draconequus turned to face the vault and put their hands behind their back at the same time... and a moment later, there was a tremendous bang that rattled the walls of the immense safe before it simply collapsed into pieces, revealing an ashen-black Cancer that was now smoldering visibly, sitting in a broken pile of wreckage. The monster stared at them, and the ponies gaped in amazement... before Cancer's eyes glowed brightly as it lunged suddenly forwards, body rippling as its forelegs turned into claws, its jaw expanded, the hideous thing taking on new monstrosity as it shrieked: “You think I'm playing a game here, punks?”

Discombobulation and Discord both screamed girlishly and hugged each other immediately, and Antares snarled as he began to step forwards and Twilight winced, trying to concentrate... but before anyone could react, a cane lashed out and smashed into Cancer's face, knocking him flying backwards. The monster hit the ground and rolled violently back into the wreckage in the road as Allonym stepped elegantly in front of the two other Draconequus, spinning his cane easily before leaning easily sideways against it.

“Who the hell are you?” Cancer snarled, looking furious at being robbed of its prize, eyes glowing with bestial hunger.

“I'm Mister Deus Ex Machina, bitch.” Allonym retorted, and then he rose his hand and calmly snapped his fingers, and an immense steel crane appeared above Cancer's head, the creature looking stupidly up before this dropped on top of the monster with a sickening splat.

Allonym grinned over his shoulder at the two other Draconequus... then winced and shouted when they both seized him, yanking him back and forth as they grabbed at his jacket. He flailed violently at the two, then stared in horror as Discord tore his leather-bound journal free from his inner pocket and Discombobulation snatched a fountain pen away from him. Allonym grabbed wildly at them, but Discombobulation danced backwards and tossed the pen over Allonym's head as he leapt and grabbed at it, shouting: “You can't do this! This goes against every rule in the book!”

Discord caught the pen, then he spun around and popped the black book open, hurriedly writing something as he kicked a leg backwards into Allonym to try and keep him at a distance, asking grouchily: “So how does this work now that I've written it in, does it just-”

The crane exploded a moment later in a magnificent blast of fire and light, and Cancer was sent rocketing skywards with a miserable scream towards the cavern roof high above. All eyes stared to follow this, Allonym's jaw dropping before Discombobulation hurriedly ran over to Discord, snatched the book and pen away, and then jotted something down himself in the time it took Cancer to begin falling back towards the ground.

Just before the mottled monster could hit the ground, a figure in a red helmet and a blue uniform appeared and slammed a yellow-gloved fist directly into the monster's face, the image of a crimson bird of clearly flaring into life behind him with the distinct roar of: “Falcon punch!”

Cancer was knocked flying head-over-heels through the air, screaming the entire time... before he simply sparked out of existence in a burst of fireworks. Then the figure of the being that had just struck him struck a pose, giving a thumbs-up to Discombobulation and Discord as the two Draconequus saluted him sharply, before the uniformed creature puffed out of existence in the same burst of sparks.

Allonym stared at this, then he glared at Discombobulation before snatching his book and pen away when they were carefully offered to him. “Where the hell did you send him?”

“Through the fourth wall.” Discombobulation informed, then he slowly looked back and forth before cupping the side of his mouth and whispering loudly to Discord: “That's a meta reference.”

Discord nodded seriously, and Allonym glared at them furiously, the strange Draconequus shoving the book away inside his torn jacket as he snapped: “Do you two idiots have any idea what you're doing? You can't just-”

Discombobulation swung his metal fist up and punched Allonym in the nose, the purple-suited entity grabbing at his face with a squawk before Discord childishly kicked him in the shin, and Allonym hopped backwards before falling heavily on his rear, staring stupidly up at them. Both Draconequus glowered down at their fellow, and then they looked at each other and nodded firmly.

Antares slowly walked forwards, still looking disbelieving before he asked slowly: “So... so is Cancer gone, then? Like... gone, gone?”

“If only it were so easy.” Allonym mumbled in a muffled voice through his hands, then he hissed a little in pain, adding in an infuriated voice: “I think you broke my nose!”

“You deserved it. All this time, and you could have just undone that monster like pressing 'ctrl-z' on the keyboard.” Discombobulation said distastefully, before he frowned at the sour look Allonym gave him through his watery eyes. “What?”

“If it were really so simple, do you think he'd be here at all?” Allonym muttered, and then he rubbed slowly at his face before grimacing and grabbing his cane, carefully pushing himself to his feet before the Draconequus shivered a little. “Perhaps it's a worthy sacrifice to get him out of Subterra, though... if he'd stayed here...”

“Burning Desire... please...” whispered a voice, and all eyes turned to Twilight, the Lich hauling herself forwards a little even as she trembled: her body was visibly trying to give away, and yet all the same she was hauling herself painfully forwards on three legs. “Please...”

Carefully, Discombobulation reached out and gently grasped Twilight's head, saying softly: “Stop and lay down, Twilight Sparkle... you've already done more than enough, don't you all agree?”

He glanced back and forth, and the ponies nodded as they gathered in, Antares smiling faintly as he looked from Twilight to Discord before saying quietly: “I... that was amazing what you did, and you guys are too... you're... we're lucky that-”

Discord, however, only huffed and hurriedly shrugged off the others, stepping backwards and raising his hands moodily: “Whoa, whoa, let's slow down here. I am grateful that you saved me, but... I also don't like any of you very much. Especially not you, puppy.” Discord sniffed disdainfully, and then he added moodily: “But thank you, I suppose. Still, I'm not all touchy-feely so... goodbye. I have a lot of catching up to do.”

With that, Discord bowed deeply, blew a loud raspberry, and then simply vanished. Antares looked stunned, but Discombobulation only smiled and shook his head, saying quietly: “Don't worry. He's like a certain movie about dinosaurs in the land before time. He'll be back. And Twilight Sparkle, why are you being so silly? You'll never find your friend, alive.”

Twilight frowned, gritting her teeth as Antares looked up, then his eyes widened in understanding: when the Lich saw Antares' reaction, her own frazzled mind processed what the Draconequus had said, and then she smiled faintly before murmuring: “You're right.”

With that, Twilight closed her eyes... and Prestige gasped as the Lich's body collapsed and began to dissolve away into nothingness. The unicorn mare staggered forwards as the others gave cries of shock and stared in horror, but Antares only smiled a little, hurriedly shaking his head as he said quietly: “It's okay guys, don't worry. Mom... Mom just... needed to go somewhere for a little while. She'll be back, though, you'll see...”

He turned... then frowned as he realized that Allonym had vanished, too. But Discombobulation only shrugged, rubbing slowly at his chest with a bit of a smile as he said quietly: “Chaos entities like me come and go as they please, Antares... I'd say there's no logic or reason to it, but I'm sure you can figure out when and why and maybe even where we like to slip away to.”

Antares nodded slowly, and then he silently looked down the street before asking hesitantly: “But Cancer... and Discord...”

“Discord is smarter than he looks, which... is saying about as much as that he's smarter than he acts... which isn't saying much at all.” Discombobulation shrugged though, rubbing thoughtfully at his chest. “Big dog will show up sooner or later. But come, Antares Mīrus and friends. I might as well try and make a good impression on Celestia and escort all of you back to that nasty, scary place in the center of Subterra with that nasty, scary Nephilim. I'm sure Twilight Sparkle wants that, too... and I'm sure she's very proud of you all, but... emotions can make things run fast and get in the way at times.”

Antares smiled faintly... and in the distance, an invisible shade sprinted along the street, gazing back and forth worriedly before it trembled in both relief and fear as it finally found what it was looking for: a burning bonfire surrounding the body of a demon that was laying prone and wounded. She ran towards it, trembling, feeling the warmth of the flames lighting up her spirit as she leaned down over Burning Desire's curled up body.

Slowly, one of the fiery stallion's eyes opened, and he smiled faintly up at her, whispering: “Oh, my shrinking violet... do you always have to come to me as a dream...”

Twilight's specter laughed silently, relief filling her up: his mane and tail had mostly died out, but the demon had managed to summon up enough strength to create this protective shell of flames around him... something Cancer hadn't been able to reach in through. But his chest and body were flayed open, and Twilight guessed the polymorph hadn't helped... she knew that Burning Desire could only maintain his Salamander transformation for a short period of time, fearsome as it was. For a few moments, they looked at each other: her, invisible to everyone but the few gifted enough to see her, and him, nothing but a red shape in a protective cocoon of flames.

The only sounds were his breathing, and the crackle of fire... and then Twilight leaned down, pushing her lips to his ear, focusing all the little strength she had left as she whispered into his mind: We can't have forever, Burning Desire. But if you like... we can have a little while. And we'll always be friends.

Burning Desire trembled a bit, and then he closed his eyes and murmured softly in return: “Nothing would bring me more honor, Twilight Sparkle... a little while with you will make the eternity I've gone without... worthwhile.”

Twilight smiled faintly, and then she nodded slowly before demon and spirit studied one another, and he leaned up as she leaned down: for a moment, they felt each other's lips as they kissed... and then Twilight flickered out of existence even from his eyes, but her taste lingered... and Burning Desire smiled tiredly in his bed of flames as he coughed once before closing his eyes, murmuring: “What a tease.”

With that, the demon let himself settle to the broken street... but he was confident now that even if he fell into darkness, he'd survive these wounds, one way or another. After all... now he had something to live for, at least for a little while. And that gave him all the strength in the world.

Bonds Of Blood And Honor

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Chapter Sixteen: Bonds Of Blood And Honor
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares and his friends were gathered in front of Selene's reflecting pool, glossy-black young stallion unable to stop his eyes from roving up to the statue of Nightmare Moon and studying it as they waited in silence. They were tired, and they were sore... but they were also proud of themselves, for what they had done and taken part in. Even if they were a little scared, too, of what the consequences for their actions might end up being.

Selene had asked them to wait here while she and Discombobulation conferred with Celestia, who had returned twenty minutes or so ago. Antares admittedly felt nervous as hell: they had disobeyed orders, and while they had managed a good result, Discord was back at full power and had run off into the wilds, Cancer was apparently not destroyed, Subterra and its denizens had been the victims of a lot of collateral damage, and Twilight Sparkle had been very literally blown to pieces. Yes, Antares was proud of himself, and of his friends, his team: but after what Celestia had done to them, he also knew better than to expect that everything was instantly forgiven. For all he knew, they might just end up in even more trouble for all the things they had done wrong.

He shifted nervously, then smiled a little as Prestige wrapped a foreleg around him and dropped her head on his shoulder. Beside them, Meadowlark gazed at the two, but she offered a faint smile and a small nod, and Antares nodded slowly back to her. Rustproof looked calm as ever beside Aphrodisia, who was staring raptly up at the statue of Nightmare Moon as Avalon floated through the air and fidgeted, looking anxiously back and forth as she mumbled: “What about our armor? It's all scuffed and dirty... even you, in your stupid vests, Prestige, Meadowlark. And Rusty you got a big scrape on your breastplate... how'd that happen?”

“Demon. He didn't mean it none, though, he was just hurt and scared.” Rustproof answered quietly, then he glanced up pointedly towards Avalon, who grimaced, but then mumbled and sighed and nodded, dropping out of the air to her hooves. She started to pace a little, but quickly tired of this and instead flopped down to roll onto her back and gaze up at the cavern roof above.

“It's... weird here.” Avalon said finally, and Antares smiled and nodded a little in agreement. He knew she meant in a good way, even without looking at her, and a moment later Avalon continued quietly: “I don't think I've ever fought for anything before in my life. You know, other than myself and to prove I was the best at something. And honestly... how much fighting did we ever do in Ponyville? Precisely, pretty much none at all. And all our training there... was like games, compared to here. Not that I have anything against what Mom and Dad taught me, but...”

She laughed and shook her head, the tiny Pegasus closing her eyes. “Who would have thunk that Fluttershy would know more about fighting than my Dad and Mom combined? They're both brawlers but she's... I don't know what she is. Calling her a warrior feels like I'm insulting her these days. And I look back at us, Antares, I think of us like, only weeks ago... and we were all so stupid, weren't we? We got so wrapped up in ourselves and how we were all going to be the best at what we did that... we almost ruined everything.”

“You're growing wiser, Avalon Apple. It's good to see.” said a soft voice, and Avalon was immediately on her hooves, blushing deep red as she and the other ponies all hurried to attention. Celestia was walking towards them from the Thorn Palace, a measuring look on her face as Discombobulation and Selene strode on either side of her. Her own armor was scuffed and stained, splattered here and there with blood and gunk, but it only served to make her all the more intimidating as she asked in a gentle but serious tone: “Report, Antares Mīrus?”

“Yes, Baroness Celestia.” Antares bowed his head quickly as he stepped forwards, saying quietly and only stumbling a little over his words: “We followed the orders passed on from Pinkamena, but then heard another alarm going off nearby. I decided that we should check it out, and sent Avalon ahead to scout. We ran into Twilight on the way, and Avalon returned to warn us of the monster, which was actually Discord infected by Cancer. We engaged the monster and distracted it with the help of demons and then Discombobulation, and gave Twilight the time necessary to... defeat it and free Discord from Cancer's control. He, Discombobulation, and Allonym defeated Cancer and sent him... somewhere else. Discord left, Twilight Sparkle lost her physical body, and we returned here.”

“You disobeyed a direct order from me, Antares.” Celestia said quietly, her amethyst eyes locking with the young stallion's. “You countermanded it and put your untested team in extreme danger. Less than a week ago, had this happened, you would have all died. As it is, the cost is high: demons have been injured, some even fatally, Twilight Sparkle will again have to go through a painful and time-consuming process of regeneration, Discord has fled into the wilderness with full possession of his powers thanks to the blast of Ginnungagap energy used to cleanse his system. Do you understand this?”

Antares nodded, then he bowed his head and said quietly: “I do. And I take full responsibility, Celestia. It was all me: I won't make any excuses for my actions.”

“Good.” Celestia paused for a few moments, studying the six silently before she shook her head slowly. Then she glanced to the side when Discombobulation cleared his throat loudly: he looked down at her pointedly, and the armored winged unicorn looked back as Selene smiled slightly, before Celestia finally sighed and nodded, turning her eyes forwards and straightening slightly as she said quietly: “Antares, Discombobulation insists that I should apologize to you and your friends for how I treated you before. And I suppose in this instance he's correct: I was much harsher than necessary. I resorted to violence and name-calling like in the old days, dealing with things like a frustrated foal myself, and if my sister and brother were here I'm fairly certain I would not be standing right now. As it is, Pinkamena and Cowlick have shared some very choice words with me, as has Twilight Sparkle.”

“It's okay, Baroness Celestia, we... we needed to wake up.” Antares said quietly, bowing his head and closing his eyes. “It hurt a lot, but it was necessary. It got all of us on our hooves and... if we hadn't been woken up so quickly, so harshly, we never would have survived what happened today. And I'm sorry if I've disappointed you again by... not following orders and letting.. so much bad happen.”

“No, Antares, don't apologize for that: even with the perfect strategy, nothing ever goes according to plan.” Celestia said quietly, shaking her head slowly. “What you did was bold, and foolish, and yes, there was damage to both sides... but in the end, Antares, you minimized casualties and intercepted and helped stop a serious threat before it could push into the heart of Subterra. Cancer showed a much greater depth of cunning than I thought: it was a much smaller attack force that struck above than it seemed, but Canterlot was in a panic and it made it seem much more devastating because of that.

“Once Twilight Sparkle has regenerated and I've taken care of several things at the Royal Court, we will be leaving Subterra and returning to Ponyville.” Celestia smiled after a moment, as Antares looked nervous, visibly worried that this was a punishment or reprimand. “You've learned much here, and it's more important that you focus on mastering these new skills you've been given... and better learning to work together as a team. Pinkamena, Twilight Sparkle, and others will continue to train you, but we have duties to attend to at home, comfortable as Subterra has been for this last month... and if you'll permit it, Antares, I'll continue to train you myself, as well.”

Antares smiled faintly, bowing his head in respect and gratitude, and Celestia bowed her own in return as she murmured softly: “I also have other tasks for you to complete over the coming days. Things I feel you deserve to be entrusted with... because you and your friends do need the experience. I think you can handle it... I think you've all... grown more in the last few days, than you have in the last month, Antares.”

The young stallion blushed and dropped his head forwards, and for a few moments there was quiet before he finally looked up and promised quietly: “We're gonna do our best, Celestia.”

“Aunt Tia, I think he means.” Discombobulation said mildly, glancing at Celestia, who sighed and gave the Draconequus a flat look... but then she nodded slowly, and the chimerical creature smiled slightly as he reached up and gently squeezed her nose. “Doesn't that feel better? You don't have to always be such a hardass, Tia. You take speaking gently and carrying a big stick far too seriously with that nasty sword of yours and your bad habit of killing everything that looks at you wrong.”

Celestia only shook her head slowly at this, smiling despite herself before she turned her eyes towards Selene, as the Nephilim said gently: “I would like a moment to speak to Antares, if that's acceptable, Celestia. Alone, preferably.”

“Of course. Antares, you and your friends should get some rest when you can... but Prestige, I'm going to visit Twilight Sparkle first, ensure she's not having any trouble renewing her body. Would you like to come with myself and Discombobulation?” Celestia asked curiously.

“Oh, look, subtle orders that are subtly ordering me to come with you, Tia.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he frowned a little when the winged unicorn smiled up at him, her amethyst eyes meeting his inverted black irises before he mumbled: “Please don't look at me like that. It chills me to the bone. I'm trying to make you angry, work with me a little here.”

“For some reason, I never really get that angry with you... Bob.” Celestia replied easily, and Discombobulation puckered his mouth as he glowered down at her, before the ivory winged unicorn turned her eyes forwards and smiled over at a nervous-looking Prestige. “I think it would do good for Twilight Sparkle for you to... see her like this, and not be afraid. You've... grown perhaps most of all in the last month, Prestige... but I want to see how much of what you've learned has truly been sinking in.”

“I understand, Celestia. Of course.” Prestige nodded, then she smiled a little over at Antares, saying quietly: “Don't wait up for me if... I end up being a little while. I want to find out how Burning Desire is doing as well.”

Antares nodded, and then he cleared his throat as his other friends looked at him, blushing a little but still managing to sound fairly confident as he said: “Go get some rest, everypony. We did good today, but... remember, we still have to practice the basics and work our way up. But this proves that we can do more than just be a bunch of ponies on a battlefield, we can work together as a team. Let's all remember that and do even better next time.”

The others nodded, Avalon saluting and Aphrodisia shaking her head with a smile. The two young mares turned to head away, joined by Rustproof, before all three looked over their shoulders curiously as Meadowlark stayed awkwardly behind... but before even Antares could ask what was going on, Selene said gently: “Of course. You may stay and listen if you like, Meadowlark, perhaps we can use the help of your knowledge.”

“I... okay, if it's something like that.” Antares said awkwardly when Meadowlark looked at him for confirmation, and she smiled before the glossy black young stallion looked pointedly – and admittedly, with a bit of confusion – over his shoulder at the others. Aphrodisia only shrugged, however, then continued on her way, Avalon and Rustproof both following automatically after the demon despite their own visible curiosity.

Celestia was already walking away with Prestige and Discombobulation, although Prestige seemed almost nervous and was visibly resisting the urge to look back at them... but Selene quickly drew the attention of both young ponies that remained with her as she asked curiously: “Why do you struggle to remain friends despite all that has occurred between you both?”

Antares and Meadowlark both blushed and shifted awkwardly, tossing nervous little looks at one another as the Nephilim studied the two with her endless, dark eyes, and then Selene smiled calmly before saying quietly: “Of course. I understand, then. What bonds mortals share. What foolish instincts they have. What idle thoughts and odd rules...”

They both looked at her apprehensively, and then Selene calmly turned her eyes to Meadowlark and said softly: “Still, you hold onto him fiercely. Still, you hope, don't you, that he will turn to you... yet somehow, your love does not become bitterness. It merely is.” The red Pegasus flushed, but didn't answer as Antares winced before Selene turned to him curiously. “And you. Comparing one to the other. Wishing it were simpler. But you are not as selfish as your mother and father were, nor would either be as willing to... indulge. Strange and pretty... like the ornaments and tinsel of Hearth's Warming Eve. And like Hearth's Warming Eve, meaningful only to those who choose to celebrate the event.”

“I... don't know if you just complimented or insulted me.” Antares said finally, and Selene's response was just to nod, which only served to confuse him further. He grimaced a little, rubbing awkwardly at his face before asking finally: “Okay, uh... what... what is it, Selene? I know not to question you by now, I just mean... you... wanted both of us here, didn't you?”

“Your ability to read me is getting better, Antares. I'm glad for this.” Selene said softly, and then she paused and looked up before murmuring quietly: “Above, in Canterlot, a medical clinic has been set up to treat those hurt in the attack by Cancer's doppelganger and infected minions. They all carried disease, but the unicorn healers have developed spells and medicines to counteract all but the worst illnesses and injuries. Among the infected are your parents, Meadowlark.”

Meadowlark looked up in shock, breathing hard as she stared in disbelief, and Antares stiffened immediately: for years, Meadowlark had been tracking her parents after they had abandoned her with her aunt. But Ameliorate and Engelhart had always moved fast, staying ahead of the guard forces that were chasing them: scared and ashamed and unwilling to pay their dues for the fraud they had committed, they had abandoned everything to live a life on the run. And Meadowlark, meanwhile, had spent only a few months with her aunt before she'd moved first to a community shelter in Ponyville, and then out on her own into a little apartment in Ponyville.

Twilight Sparkle had always helped Meadowlark out whenever she could: the Pegasus made a piddling wage at the local newspaper that was barely enough to buy groceries, let alone pay for her apartment, but Antares knew that Twilight often asked Meadowlark to help her with research projects and paid the Pegasus as much as she could hassle the Canterlot Magic School or the Royal Courts into giving up. Meadowlark was always grateful for the money... and perhaps just a little bit ashamed, even though there was no need for it.

But even after all these years, Meadowlark had been tracking her parents, had been searching for them, wanting answers, validation, an apology... something from them, anything. She stared across at Selene, then leaned forwards, asking weakly: “Wait. But... but last I heard, they had been sighted in Saddlehorn, way out west... if they're here now... were they caught?”

“You'll only know if you go and find out for yourself. The medical center is only a short journey away... it should be no problem for you to reach through the exit west of here.” Selene gestured calmly to the side with a smile, bowing her head as her eyes glimmered with all the darkness of space. “Go ahead.”

Meadowlark turned and ran to the edge of the pyramid, spreading her wings as she leapt into the air, and Antares winced before he stumbled after her. He tossed one last look at Selene, then leapt up high and flapped his wings hard, wheezing a bit in pain: after flying so much during the fight with Jabberwock, he could feel them starting to stiffen up...

But he looked ahead, focused on Meadowlark, who was flying clumsily but quickly through the cavern ahead, and he gritted his sharp teeth, promising mentally: Not this time, no matter what... “Meadowlark, wait! I'm coming with you!”

For a moment, there was no response, and Antares cursed, calling her name again as he pushed himself harder, forcing himself to fly forwards even as pain radiated through his back... and then Meadowlark looked over her shoulder and nodded hurriedly once, reaching a front hoof back towards him and calling: “Come on!”

He flew forwards, taking her hoof with a smile and then grunting as she flapped her wings hard, half-pulling him along. Their speed increased as they flew through the air, hooves locked tight together, and it made Antares hurt more as he pushed himself harder... but at the same time, it made the flight all the easier, it made the pain diminish, it made everything have more meaning...

They sailed upwards into a tunnel near the roof of the cavern, flying up the center of it past several Nightmares and other creatures that watched with interest before they ascended up through a broken, steaming grate and into the depths of an abandoned, empty well. But high above, like a beacon, Antares could see the moon glowing in the night sky... and it gave him strength, let him push himself harder as he and Meadowlark flew side-by-side up the wide gullet of the well and then shot out and into the air of Canterlot, surprising a patrol of passing Royal Guards.

Thankfully, they weren't pursued: in all likelihood purely out of luck and the fact they vanished quickly into an alley as quickly as they'd shot out of the well. Their hooves finally unlocked as they both dropped to the earth, and now it was Antares who took the lead, glancing over his shoulder at the Pegasus mare and saying firmly: “We'll find them, Meadowlark... I promise.”

Meadowlark only smiled faintly, breathing hard through her mouth: but she didn't seem to notice either her own visible aches, nor her exhaustion, as she ran quickly after the glossy black unicorn. They hurried through Canterlot, tracing out the path that Antares' sharp eyes let them on as he looked back and forth and somehow found his way through the night streets of the enormous city as if it was familiar to him as the back of his own hoof, as if he'd always known where to go despite the fact he hadn't even been up in Canterlot for more than a week now with all the time they'd been spent training in Subterra below.

Then they stumbled off a side road and onto a main street, tall buildings looming around them but one in particular lit up by magic and spotlights, tents set up in the wide square in front of his structure as a pony's voice called over the milling crowd: “This area is under quarantine! Please, stay back, and your loved ones will be sent out to you when their illness and injuries have been treated! No pony may enter this area unless they have permission from the medical staff and have already been immunized!”

“Come on.” Antares murmured, carefully striding forwards and beginning to gently push his way through the crowd, and Meadowlark followed with her head nervously bowed. A few ponies were calling worried questions out to the sentries guarding the tents before the two young ponies managed to wiggle their way to the front of the group. Immediately, a guard frowned at them, but Antares only had to look at him for a moment before saying clearly: “We've been sent from Subterra. We need to take stock of what happened for the Baroness, we're both immune to the disease.”

The guard hesitated, but Antares didn't flinch, didn't look away, and then the soldier grunted before waving them past. Antares and Meadowlark both hurried forwards, the young stallion smiling as a few shouts of worry and question came from the crowd behind them, but the guard only stepped quickly back into place.

They passed into the tent beyond, and a medical pony frowned at them from where he was making notes amidst a cluttered desk of papers. But then an aging unicorn called out to Antares, and the young stallion looked with relief to see a teacher from the magic academy approaching, asking sharply: “Antares Mīrus, is Celestia on her way? What about Twilight Sparkle, why hasn't she come here?”

“My Mom is... incapacitated at the moment.” Antares said carefully, and the graying unicorn's eyes widened in surprise before Antares shook his head hurriedly. “No, don't worry, she's... she'll be back on her hooves by tomorrow. Prestige and Celestia are both helping her right now, but... we heard that... I mean...”

He cleared his throat as the unicorn frowned and leaned forwards, and then he gestured quietly to Meadowlark as she bowed her head silently, Antares saying quietly: “We're looking for my friend's parents. It's very important we find them... they... might be under guard.”

The older unicorn frowned, shifting nervously... and then he shook his head quickly and gestured through the tent at the rows and rows of ponies laying in various states of illness on cots and blankets and anything they could find. “Most of the ponies here are from the poorer Crescent District at the edge of Canterlot, which was attacked first. No... prisoners, to speak of, but there was a refugee shelter that was attacked. They're in the far corner, keeping to themselves.”

“Thank you, sir.” Antares smiled and bowed his head, then he turned and quickly trotted after Meadowlark, who was already working her way carefully down the aisles of sick, mumbling apologies as she stepped over people here and there and brushed up against doctors and other workers. Antares followed after her, looking back and forth, feeling eyes on him and feeling a strange chill in his body: for some reason, it felt like Selene wanted him to see something here. That Meadowlark and her parents were just the lure, and there was some other ambush laying silently in wait.

The refugees were from all across Equestria, it looked like, and many bundled tightly up, hiding their faces, their scars, their illness. Some of them didn't seem to even want to be treated, while others were simply watching everything anxiously, suspiciously. Meadowlark looked back and forth desperately as Antares drew his eyes slowly over the crowd, and then the Pegasus asked quickly: “Have any of you seen... a large Pegasus, tan-colored, broad shoulders, or... or an earth pony? She would have a cutie mark of a stethoscope...”

The refugees were silent as Antares looked nervously back and forth, and then he frowned a little as his eyes locked on one. One who was sitting a little apart from the others, who had his hood up and didn't seem to quite belong, the body language of the ponies around him tenser, distant... and slowly, the glossy-black unicorn leaned forwards before asking quietly: “Why are you hiding?”

There was silence from the shape as it fidgeted nervously on the cot it was sitting on, and Antares stepped forwards. The moment he did, the pony turned to try and run away, but Antares pounced forwards as the refugees only looked on curiously but a doctor shouted, guards starting to hurry towards the disturbance as the pony yelped beneath Antares.

The young stallion pinned the shape easily, then winced at the sound of crackling and crunching before he rolled the pony onto his back, and the cloak concealing the haggard-looking stallion tore open, pills and medical supplies spilling out in a pile all around him. Antares glared down at the pony, and the earth pony grinned weakly before he said lamely: “I got a bad cold?”

“Where are Engelhart and Ameliorate? You know them, don't you?” Antares asked sharply: at first, the earth pony only gritted his teeth... but when a pair of angry-looking Royal Guards stepped up to either side of Antares and glared down at the earth pony, he paled and hurriedly held up his front hooves in a gesture of surrender.

“Okay, okay, calm down! Look, they slipped out the back and went to grab some more medical supplies from where they're storing them, just take it easy!” the earth pony babbled, shaking his head hurriedly. “Weren't my idea, okay? I'm just a mule!”

Antares opened his mouth, and then he cursed when Meadowlark took off behind him, the young stallion hurriedly shoving himself off the pony and turning to hurry after her. One of the guards began to turn to follow, but then the earth pony thief hurriedly scampered away, yelping as he evaded the other soldier's grab at him and drawing the attention of both Royal Guards.

Meadowlark moved surprisingly fast, jumping over a pony doctor that ducked with a wince before she turned and leapt out through an open flap in the tent. Antares grimaced as he followed sharply after her, sprinting the short distance to the open doors leading into the lobby of the hotel that the guards had commandeered for their clinic services.

Medical staff had taken over the lobby, using it to sort and distribute supplies and to keep themselves organized, and a few ponies frowned in surprise at the sight of the red Pegasus that ran into the building, followed by the leather-winged unicorn. Meadowlark looked frantically back and forth, ignoring the frustrated-looking soldier on security duty that was approaching her, and then her eyes locked on a pretty-looking, if gaunt, earth pony wearing a dirty lab coat. “Mom!”

The earth pony mare looked up in shock, eyes turning towards Meadowlark... and then she forced a weak smile, raising a hoof as more ponies looked up, Ameliorate saying hurriedly: “M-Meadow... this... this isn't what you think...”

“She's a thief and a liar!” Meadowlark shouted, pointing at her mother even as tears formed in her eyes, and now all eyes looked sharply towards the earth pony as Ameliorate winced and gazed back and forth, shaking her head wildly. “I trusted you! I thought you and Dad meant it when you said you were going to come back, you were going to set things right... but you're just taking the easy way out again, aren't you?”

Ameliorate flinched... then grabbed a wild hoof-full of pill bottles from the cart and turned to bolt towards the back doors, even as the entire room filled with yells as ponies leapt to their hooves. Security guards shot after the earth pony mare and doctors yelled and others grabbed at her, but it didn't matter: Meadowlark was sitting down, trying her hardest not to sob as tears leaked down her cheeks, and Antares had his focus only on her, hesitating only a moment before he hugged her tightly and she buried her face against the side of his neck, clinging to him silently as she cried quietly.

It only lasted a few minutes, though, before Meadowlark silently pulled back and Antares carefully guided her over to one side of the room. They sat for a little while, Meadowlark calming down little by little before the old unicorn Antares had recognized from inside the tent came and found them, and shook his head with a small smile as he looked down at the two.

“Thank you, young lady. I... understand it must have been hard for you, but you did a good thing here. Their patsy inside already confessed to what they were doing... Ameliorate and her friend were stealing medication and passing it to Engelhart, who was dressed up as a guard. He stored it in a safe place, so they could come by at the end of the night and pick it up to later sell. They slipped in with the refugees... they came back to Canterlot after they heard about the plague. Greed, it sounds like, since Ameliorate knew she could slip in with the crowd here in all the chaos...” The graying unicorn shook his head slowly. “I'm sorry, young lady. I imagine this isn't want you wanted to see.”

“No, but...” Meadowlark fell silent, and Antares closed his eyes, squeezing her gently around the shoulders. She smiled faintly, looking up before giving a weak sigh, and the aging unicorn looked at them quietly before he turned to leave.

Then he paused at the doors and hesitated, before adding over his shoulder: “Would you two mind lending us some help? Meadowlark, you could stay here and go over the inventory, and Antares, you can help me heal the seriously injured. You can perform healing magic, yes, you learned about that in Subterra?”

“I can do some basic cleansing spells now, at least. I should be able to heal infections and weaken the disease enough for pills to take effect.” Antares replied quietly, and the aging unicorn nodded slowly before Antares glanced at Meadowlark apprehensively, but she looked up and met his eyes with a faint smile, and he nodded hesitantly again before murmuring: “Okay. But if you need me, I'm here, okay?”

“Thanks, Antares...” Meadowlark closed her eyes, dropping her head against him for a moment before she carefully stood up, smiling faintly at him. He smiled back, and then they drew apart before Meadowlark slowly made her way towards an inventory desk as she shook herself out a little.

Antares turned his eyes towards the aging unicorn, nodding hesitantly, and the teacher motioned for him to follow: and while it was a bit of a strange experience actually working alongside other unicorns like this, Antares found that he enjoyed the work. He hated seeing ponies in pain, but he liked knowing he was helping them, smiled at their gratitude and even more, their relief, when he was able to stop the pain or help calm their suffering.

It was hard for him, but it was worthwhile, too: it made him wish that he'd worked harder to learn and develop his magic, even if that wasn't his field of expertise or where his talents laid. And the unicorns seemed to appreciate his help, which was nice: often, Antares didn't get the most pleasant reception from the magic academy and its staff. He had never attended, after all, and even if he was taught by one of their most accomplished graduates... said alumnus was also a Lich whom all kinds of rumors floated around Canterlot about. He was well aware that Twilight wasn't the only one who there were rumors about, too... but for once, no one was looking at his transmogrified wings, but only at the fact he was putting his best hoof forwards.

After some forty minutes of work, however, as Antares was taking a short break, a unicorn strolled slowly through the crowd, dressed in a black, armored vest and with golden cusps on his shoulders. He had stony, rough features, and Antares frowned nervously as he looked up, feeling a strange chill as the imposing stallion approached him: one of his eyes was covered by a thick cloth patch that almost mixed with his drab chestnut coat. The color of his body, and his short-cut, deep black mane and tail told him that he was likely from the rough, traditionalist north... not to mention the proud stance of his form.

There was a short sword sheathed over his back, and Antares looked awkwardly into the hazel eye of the unicorn. For a few moments, there was silence between them, and then the unicorn stated more than asked: “Antares Mīrus. Son of Her Highness Luna and Scrivener Blooms?”

“Yeah... I mean, yes, I am.” Antares sat up a little, looking back and forth before he studied the unicorn... and he winced a little mentally at that calm, solid gaze. Whoever the unicorn was, he was hard to read: Antares could tell that he was growing older but still strong, that his family probably had a strong military background, that he believed strongly in tradition and likely superiority. He was unflinching and a little scary, and Antares asked awkwardly: “Do... you... who are you?”

“Colonel Scutum, head of Baroness Caprice's security detail.” the unicorn replied calmly, giving a quick nod, and Antares tilted his head curiously at this before the unicorn gestured shortly behind himself. “Let's walk. Baroness Caprice is feeling under the weather and requires a healer.”

“Oh, I... there's a lot of ponies here that are way better than that, ponies who are... you know, much better than me...” Antares began awkwardly, and then he winced at Scutum's gaze: that single eye seemed to look right into the depths of his soul like a laser, and Antares leaned nervously to the side, awkwardly inspecting Scutum's cutie mark of a shield before he said lamely: “I'm really more... of a soldier myself, you know.”

“No, you're not.” Antares wondered dumbly for a moment if this was how ponies felt when he called them out with his own talents, as a blush rose in his cheeks. “Shall we? I've already cleared this with your superiors and I would like to go. Baroness Caprice is secure in the hotel and awaits our presence.”

There was no arguing with Scutum, and he nodded finally, turning to follow the one-eyed stallion, and Antares mumbled a little as he dropped his head a bit. He looked back and forth uneasily as they made their way out the back of the tent and into the hotel, and Meadowlark frowned in surprise from where she was working as Antares crossed the lobby, the young stallion shrugging in response before he winced when Scutum said calmly: “You won't be long. Your friend can wait.”

“Who the hell are you?” Antares asked incredulously, and Scutum paused in front of the elevator at the back of the lobby, then slowly turned around and looked down at him, as Antares looked nervously back and cleared his throat, saying embarrassedly: “Sorry. Long... long day. Giant monsters and... disease... and... I'm a little tense. I'm sorry.”

Scutum only regarded Antares for a few moments, then he nodded shortly before turning around, hitting the call button for the elevator. It dinged quietly open to reveal two Royal Guards already standing inside, and the colonel gestured moodily at Antares, who winced and squeezed in beside the large, armored unicorns before Scutum slipped in as well and hit the button for the seventh floor.

The elevator rose, and Antares felt the short ride was tied with the time Twilight Sparkle caught him staring at the centerfold of a particular type of magazine he'd happened across for 'most awkward moment ever.' When it dinged open, he hurried out into the hall after Scutum... then winced at the sight of two more guards standing down the hall in front of a closed door.

The young stallion couldn't help but notice these guards were also unicorns, and they both bowed their heads respectfully when Scutum approached. The colonel shoved the door open, then he looked back over his shoulder when one of the guards reached towards Antares, saying curtly: “Not necessary. Let him pass.”

The guards both settled and nodded, and Antares smiled lamely as he hurried past the two unicorns and into the luxurious room beyond. He stared dumbly back and forth around the posh suite as he realized that it was probably even nicer than a lot of the rooms in Canterlot, before Scutum announced calmly to the hyperventilating mare across the room: “Antares Mīrus, as requested, Baroness.”

“Oh, oh, oh good!” the mare rambled, blushing deeply beneath her pale coat, flailing her hooves a little as the silver-maned unicorn beside her winced away with a look of distaste... and Antares stared stupidly as he realized that sitting calmly beside Caprice, apparently in the role of secretary, was none other than Prestige Luster's mother. She had the same silver mane, except hers was coiffed back much more elegantly, and the same fleck in her eyes... but her coat was a pretty pink, and her hooves polished and painted silver, and everything about the unicorn was prim, perfect, and neat.

The Baroness was much the opposite: she had too much makeup on, her blonde mane was in a rumpled bun held in place by a few large golden hairpins, and she was wrapped in messy furs as she smiled a little too much at Antares as he hesitantly stepped forwards, before wincing a bit as she hopped off the bed and almost staggered into Scutum. The colonel didn't even flinch, however, only continuing to stand at attention as she veered just past him before skidding to a halt in front of Antares, reaching out to seize one of his hooves and shake it wildly as she declared: “A pleasure, such a pleasure, an honor to meet you, Antares Mīrus! Look, look, oh, do get a photo, Rosewood! Look at me, here, shaking hooves with Antares Mīrus, the Baroness's nephew, what a perfect specimen of pure unicorn heritage!”

“Yes, Baroness Caprice.” Rosewood said tiredly, putting aside her clipboard and gesturing irritably at one of the several large, burly security guards standing around the area. The unicorn soldier quickly turned to a traveling bag, lifting out a camera and passing it with telekinesis to Rosewood.

Caprice smiled brightly as she posed beside Antares, throwing a foreleg around him and making him wince, and Rosewood moodily lifted the camera with telekinesis and snapped a few pictures. Antares only winced and fidgeted, and then he cleared his throat when the pink unicorn put the camera aside, saying lamely: “You said you were... sick, Baroness Caprice? I... I'm really no healer...”

“Oh, now, now, there's no need to be so modest here!” Caprice said kindly, looking up at him and nodding rapidly. “Why, you came most highly recommended from another unicorn healer, and oh, I feel dreadfully under the weather but I'm sure that you can get rid of this awful achy feeling in my head and stomach.”

She looked pitiably at Antares, who sighed a little before he said finally: “I can... cleanse your system, at least. Give your immune system a boost, but-”

“Splendid! I feel better already!” Caprice declared, then she sat herself down in a large armchair nearby, smiling warmly over at Antares and making him wince a little at the fervor she studied him with. “My assistant, Rosewood, tells me you know her daughter Prestige Luster. But then again, Prestige has a great future ahead of her, doesn't she, Rosewood? Her father is the mayor of Silver Hoof, and he's my personal choice as successor! What an unrivaled mind, what a sharp wit, how forwards-thinking he is.”

Rosewood shifted nervously, and Antares looked up, catching a glance from her before Scutum said calmly: “With all respect, Baroness, perhaps you can speak to Antares after he heals your... illness. We wouldn't want it spreading, would we?”

“Oh, oh, no, no, no...” Caprice shook her head at this, looking nervous again as she wiggled in the armchair, and then she gestured a few times at Antares. “Go ahead, then, we can speak afterwards of course... Rosewood, do be a dear and put on tea if you can manage to squeeze into that atrocious little kitchenette.”

Antares couldn't help but lean a little to the side to gaze past Caprice and the separator that divided bedroom suite from the kitchen.... and he stared a little. What Caprice thought was 'tiny' looked larger than the kitchen in his cottage home, and like it had more appliances, too. Then he quickly sat back as Caprice looked at him nervously, and the glossy black young stallion smiled awkwardly before he mumbled: “Uh... just hold still, and I'll be done in a moment.”

Caprice beamed at him as Antares concentrated, breathing slowly and wincing a bit as magical recoil shocked painfully over his horn... but he had just enough strength left for a simple cleansing spell that washed over Caprice, making her squeak a little before she sighed in relief and hugged herself as the glow began to fade, saying cheerily: “Yes, I feel much, much, far better already! You have my gratitude, young Antares, why, what a fine young stallion you are! Now please, sit, sit!”

She gestured almost frantically around at the other furnishings, and Antares hesitantly took a few paces backwards to seat himself on a footstool. He glanced nervously at Scutum, who was still standing calmly nearby at attention, but Caprice had eyes only for the young stallion, leaning forwards and speaking again, her voice fast, overeager, making his nerves feel frayed. “So, tell me, Antares, how is life treating you in Canterlot? Do you live with the Baroness or are you simply visiting? Do they treat you with proper respect? I swear, the nerve of some of these slave-hooves you meet on the street, daring to speak the names of their superiors without being given permission, looking us in the eye, talking to us like commoners and ruffians like they themselves are! Ridiculous!”

Antares bit his tongue, only managing to grunt a little in response: Scutum's eye clearly flicked to the young stallion, studying his reaction, but Caprice only nodded violently as if Antares had heartily agreed with her. “Precisely! But what were we talking about before... oh, yes, Prestige Luster! A true pureblood unicorn... and her noble family; oh, Rosewood, where have you gone, come speak to Antares Mīrus!”

Caprice looked back and forth, and then Rosewood strode back into the room, looking nervous more than anything else. Her eyes drew apprehensively over Antares, studying him, sizing him up, and Caprice smiled and waved hurriedly at the pink pony before she asked the young black stallion curiously: “So do you know Prestige well? Oh, it's too bad she isn't here, we could have such a nice little chat if she was, but I understand her studies require much time and effort... Rosewood, dearest, you said she wasn't just apprenticing under Twilight, but another unicorn sorcerer, yes?”

“Yes, yes, she told me his name was Burning... Flame or something like that. A... a professor at the Magic Academy. And Prestige has written to me about you, of course, Antares.” Rosewood looked awkwardly at Antares, and Antares looked lamely back as he picked up on her emotions, feeling a turbulent mix coming from her... but yes, there was genuine affection and concern for Prestige in there as well. “She tells me you are a... pureblood unicorn. That you and her share... much in common.”

Antares hesitated... and when Rosewood looked almost pleadingly at him, he forced a smile and nodded slowly as he looked at Caprice, saying quietly: “Prestige and I are very good friends. We... we work together a lot, and I trust her. I trust her.” He repeated, looking directly at Rosewood, and the pink unicorn grimaced but nodded slowly.

Caprice looked delighted, clapping her hooves before she said slyly: “Well, perhaps we can interest you one day in coming to visit the proud north... what a handsome suitor you'd make for Prestige, no? Pure of blood, very handsome, many talents and so modest! Why, I'm sure you'd quickly garner the approval of the mayor, too, yes?”

“My husband... would... approve of his pure blood.” Rosewood said awkwardly, and Caprice smiled benevolently, waving a hoof even as Rosewood started to look strained.

“Now don't be like that! Antares is a fine catch, is he not? I'm sure he knows all about our traditions, and approves.” Caprice nodded firmly, and Antares shifted awkwardly before the Baroness asked almost too eagerly: “You haven't been paired off yet, have you? I know the Baroness Celestia can be 'equal thinking' and all, but I expect that she and her marvelously-talented unicorn apprentice both desire to see you with another pureblood, to continue to make the line stronger...”

Antares shifted, blushing a little, but Rosewood interrupted quickly: “There are more factors to consider in partnerships than just talent and attractiveness of course, your ladyship. Antares and Prestige are already very close friends. It might not be proper...”

“Oh, fiddlesticks. I know your husband well, Rosewood, and he's always telling me about how hard Prestige has been trying to follow in his hoofsteps. I'm rather surprised she hasn't already tried to chase you down, young Antares, magnificent specimen that you are, and of such royal heritage!” Caprice crowed, and Antares felt his blood chill a little as Rosewood forced a weak chuckle. “I'd be careful if I were you now, Antares Mīrus. If you were to end up in a romantic situation with Prestige in the heat of the moment, you'd compromise her dowry.”

“What?” Antares asked in a strangled voice, looking up as Rosewood clenched her eyes shut and grabbed at her face in vexation, but Caprice looked both surprised and delighted. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh come, unicorn tradition! Arranging marriages between noble born to ensure the pure-blood line continues.” Caprice said firmly, before she lit up as Antares stared at her. “Oh, or did you mean the dowry, do they no longer have that tradition here? Why yes, you see, the lesser-born family – and of course, Rosewood, I mean no disrespect to you or the mayor – pays the higher-born family a tribute, and pays for the costs of the wedding itself, which is done as soon as all payments are made in full and a formal promise of marriage has been declared and signed. I must say, I'm surprised you aren't seeing suitors already... you would be highly-prized up north. And no matter what a shrewd businesspony your husband is, Rosewood, even the Mayor would have to pay quite a handsome fee... but every bit and treasure paid would be worth it, Antares, don't ever doubt your value!”

Antares could only stare, breathing slowly in and out before Caprice continued cheerfully, even as Rosewood continued to just sit with her face in her hooves: “But of course, the dowry is decreased, even waived completely, if you have sexual relations with the bride-to-be before you're married. And I'm sure the Mayor would seize on this... why, we called him the Mayor long before he was made Silver Hoof's actual mayor, after all! He is such a genius investor, buying up land and lots, and shows such wonderful dedication to his work... even when those slave hooves refused to sell their silly... school? Shelter? What was it, Rosewood, I can never remember.”

“It was an orphanage.” Rosewood mumbled, and Caprice nodded a few times before frowning at Rosewood as the pink pony looked up listlessly.

“You look as if you've caught an awful chill. You'd best go fetch the tea for us, Rosewood, then make yourself a nice cup and sit in the kitchen for a while. Wouldn't want to get anypony sick now, yes?” Caprice asked kindly, and Rosewood slowly pushed herself to her hooves as Antares only sat back, not knowing what to think... and he could only listen in disbelief as Caprice continued easily, as if she was telling a happy story about puppies and kittens and moonbeams: “In any event, the Mayor wasn't deterred at all by their refusal to sell. He simply dug up some ancient land use laws and figured out how to apply them in civil court! A load of unnecessary work, I dare say, since no unicorn court would ever side with a filthy slave hoof, but all the same it showed his character through and through. His work ethic is just incredible, truly admirable. And he plowed down that ugly, nasty spectacle of a mudwalker's nest and put up the prettiest memorial you ever saw, dedicated to the many unicorns that died during the brutal but failed slave-hoof uprising some seventy years ago.”

Caprice sniffed at this, then smiled when Rosewood returned with a cup of tea, taking the saucer in her hooves and inhaling the steam with a smile. “Fitting justice, isn't it? And how irresponsible, isn't it, to make all those foals and then simply toss them on the streets. Mudwalkers have always bred out of control, just like animals, though, and then they blame us for it, the unicorns, like it's somehow our fault those foals don't have mothers and fathers who love them, like it's our fault that they end up out on the street.”

Antares could only stare, feeling hollow inside as Caprice calmly sipped at her tea, and Rosewood looked at him with mixed feelings in her eyes. He slowly turned his gaze to her, and he saw anger, and contempt, and maybe even bitter relief... but at the same time, he also saw longing, and sorrow, and pain, and strangest of all, what seemed like a plea.

The young stallion shakily stood, and Caprice looked up curiously. She started to open her mouth, but Scutum said calmly: “Antares Mīrus has another appointment to attend to, Baroness. I believe he's going to meet Baroness Celestia now.”

Antares looked dumbly up at this, and Caprice squeaked as she almost threw her teacup into the air, quickly shoving it aside onto the arm of a chair. She didn't seem to notice as it spilled over the edge of the furnishing to land on the floor below with a clink, leaping to her hooves as she said hurriedly: “Well, I'll go as well, then! Always a pleasure to meet with the Baroness of Canterlot, after all, Celestia is such a dear and-”

“I would not advise it, Baroness Caprice. You may become sick again, the illness is still being dealt with in the hotel.” Scutum replied calmly, and then he gestured towards Rosewood as Caprice immediately halted in mid-step towards Antares and stared anxiously past him at the closed door, as if Scutum had informed her there were barbarians and demons sitting outside instead of a sickness that so far had proven to be little nastier than a flu virus for all its resilience. “If I may, I would suggest that your assistant could carry a message for you.”

“What a wonderful idea!” Caprice clapped her front hooves together as she sat back on her haunches, nodding rapidly before she gestured quickly at Rosewood, smiling over at her before she enunciated carefully, looking down at her as if she was a child: “Tell Celestia that I would very much like to meet with her, and that it would be very nice if she could bring your daughter, Prestige Luster. Send her my best regards and ensure you treat her with proper respect, Rosewood, can you remember to do all that for me?”

“Yes, Baroness Caprice.” Rosewood said in a mumble, looking dejected, and Antares shivered: now he could see some of why Prestige Luster had taken so long to get used to the idea of equality, had been so viciously defensive of her 'superiority;' now he saw how even amongst unicorns, there were those treated as 'superior' and 'inferior...' and Rosewood's clear pride in her daughter, her conflicting emotions over her and Antares, were beginning to make more sense.

“Excellent.” Caprice said cheerfully, and she reached up and patted Rosewood condescendingly on the head before adding almost dismissively: “And oh, on the way out, ensure that you give whatever mudwalker decreed this hotel of all places should serve as the grounds for their silly medical clinic a firm reprimand and inform them I will be making note of this at the next Royal Council meeting. What idiocy, quarantining this hotel! I bet all the other unicorn and Pegasi are as enraged as I am!”

“The disease was detected here, Baroness Caprice, this is all part of an effort to minimize its spread. But the unicorn doctors informed me that by tomorrow morning they'll have enough vaccines for every pony in the hotel.” Scutum replied calmly, and Caprice wilted a bit at this before she paled visibly as he added with the same unflinching seriousness: “I'll make sure that you are among the first to receive the vaccine in the morning, ma'am. I believe it only requires two needles.”

“Oh my.” Caprice shrank down a bit, trembling before she grinned weakly and asked: “Do... do you think there's any chance we could get our fellow unicorn brethren to mix me a potion or elixir of some sort? Skip that nasty process of needles?”

“I believe it has to be injected directly into the liver, Baroness, for full effect.” Scutum answered, and Caprice stared at him before she slowly turned green as she turned away, and the colonel nodded politely to her. “If you'll excuse us, then. Antares Mīrus, please.”

Scutum politely gestured towards the door, and Antares took the lead, glancing awkwardly over his shoulder and not wanting to admit how nice it made him feel to see Caprice looking so harried, despite the many fears, pains, and that... that sense of emptiness inside of himself.

They made their way out to the hall, and the moment the door closed behind the trio, Antares opened his mouth... and Scutum simply gave him a curt look, the glossy black young stallion awkwardly closing his mouth. They walked towards the elevator, Antares wincing a little before Scutum hit the call button, and the doors again slid open to reveal the cramped compartment and the two guards still standing as stoic and stony as ever.

The three forced their way in, and Antares winced as Rosewood pressed close to him, muttering under her breath as Scutum squeezed in front. It was by far more awkward riding down than it had been riding up, and even Scutum gave a breath of relief when the doors opened and the trio were able to pile out and back into the lobby.

For a few moments, the three just gathered their wits... and then, as the doors of the elevator slid closed, Rosewood straightened a little and said grudgingly: “Thank you for not telling Caprice that you're banging my daughter, splinter-horn.”

“Oh, so you're a nice pony after all.” Antares mumbled before he could stop himself, and then he winced back when Rosewood glared at him, grinding her teeth together loudly as he leaned awkwardly away from her before he felt his emotions twist inside him. And in a moment, he stepped forwards again as all his emotions spun on their head, surprising her with his sudden aggressiveness as he asked sharply: “So what exactly am I to you, then? Splinter horn or pure blood or what? Because you know what, you're not the one here who gets to be angry!”

Rosewood rose a hoof as if to slap him, and Antares steeled himself before he blinked in surprise when Scutum reached up and caught her foreleg. For a moment, Rosewood only breathed hard, and then Scutum said quietly: “Cool down. I don't want a repeat of your last big mistake on my hooves.”

“I am calm, and... this is different.” Rosewood muttered, and then she glowered when Scutum only shook his head slowly, the mare growling under her breath as Antares continued to glare and the one-eyed stallion kept a firm grip on her foreleg until she finally slumped and jerked herself away with a mumble. “Fine. You're getting soft, though, colonel, protecting this mudwalker.”

Antares growled at her under his breath, and Scutum only favored Rosewood with a mild look, saying quietly: “I'd rather be seen as soft by our kind than cruel and stupid by theirs. I'm not your husband, after all, Rosewood.”

The pink mare flinched at this, and Antares opened his mouth before he leaned nervously back when Scutum's single eye turned to him and locked on him. Then the colonel grunted and jerked his head to the side, and Antares and Rosewood both dropped their gazes with grumbles before following when the military unicorn led them away from the elevator and towards a quieter corner of the lobby. The medical workers gave them space... but as Antares looked around, he couldn't help but note in the short time he'd been gone, they'd already packed up most of the supplies that had been here and quite a few of the staff were missing, including Meadowlark. It made him feel nervous for a moment, but he figured that they were likely packing up the clinic: he had faith that Meadowlark wouldn't just leave him.

Then he shivered a bit, thinking of how he'd had faith, too, that Prestige Luster actually cared for him, and he looked slowly towards Rosewood as she surveyed him silently, asking quietly: “So what am I to your daughter? I thought... I thought she actually gave a damn.”

“She...” Rosewood hesitated, and when Scutum looked at her seriously, the pink unicorn sighed grudgingly before looking moodily over at Antares. “My daughter, Prestige Luster, is a pureblood of the most noble rank. She is not only a unicorn, and not only an aristocrat with her father's heritage, but capable of great feats of magic... and she deserves, deserves, a suitor that is her equal.”

“You didn't answer my question at all.” Antares studied her, forcing his emotions down so he could concentrate and summon up his abilities, and Rosewood shifted nervously before the glossy black stallion's eyes narrowed. For a few more moments, there was silence... and then Antares gritted his teeth before he asked sharply: “Why the hell do you look at me with such disgust and yet... Caprice was slavering all over me? I don't understand what's going on!”

“Because you're a splinter-horn mudwalker, and I don't want my daughter being exiled from Silver Hoof and losing everything she could be because she's apparently decided to waste her life with you instead of a proper unicorn!” Rosewood spat out, but she was trembling as she glared furiously down at Antares, pain and sorrow in her eyes as much as anger.

Antares fell silent, staring up at Rosewood as she breathed hard, glaring challengingly at him, and his mind slowly processed her words before his instincts kicked in, as he frowned and lowered his head. The silence drew out, and then Antares looked up and asked quietly: “If you really didn't want me in her life, then why... you saw how upset I was, I know you did, when I thought Prestige was using me. You could have lied a hundred times and driven me off, you could... why are you here, Rosewood, if you think I'm scum?”

“I didn't say I think you're scum, Antares Mīrus. I said you're a splinter horn.” Rosewood replied quietly, bowing her head and closing her eyes tightly, and Antares frowned at this before the mare sighed quietly, then looked up and said in a tired, weak voice: “You have no idea what it's like to be a mother. My daughter is beautiful, and talented, and she's as snarky and rash as me and as calculating and smart as her father. She has his mind... but she has my heart. Antares, most ponies know that your parents were a slave hoof hornless unicorn and the Champion of Equestria, Luna Brynhild... but unicorn blood can flow through the veins of a slave hoof just as water can be pumped through bad piping. Sure, to mate with such filth is wretched and disgraceful, but... the rare blooded slave hoofs are dragged into bed by desperate unicorn mares more often than you think. They're scum... but prized scum. As long as they have pure blood, for whatever defect took their horn from their heads...”

Antares shivered at this, shaking his head slowly, disbelievingly, before Rosewood continued distastefully: “But I know all about you, Antares. Not just your physical deviancy, which unicorns wouldn't be so eager to overlook up north if you weren't known as the Baroness's favored nephew... but how you're no proud pureblood.” Rosewood gave a shiver of disgust, shaking her head slowly. “Preaching equality and that proud unicorns should lower themselves to the level of their servant-class brethren...”

Antares frowned at this: both in revulsion and in thought, as he heard something in the unicorn mare's tone, the structure of her words... “But that's not your problem with me, is it? I mean, it is, but... it's not the fact I believe we're all equal, it's because-”

“Because your beliefs are tarnishing my daughter!” Rosewood spat, glaring furiously at the glossy-black young stallion. “Insolent whelp! You're going to make her lose everything she's ever worked for, spent her entire life trying to become!”

“Maybe, but maybe she can earn something with real value now instead. Maybe I can give her more than the 'proud unicorn north' ever could, here in Equestria, where everyone actually earns their place instead of just being... born lucky or not.” Antares replied sharply, shaking his head. “The old ways aren't good simply because they're old, Rosewood. Traditions like unicorn superiority should die out... should have been dead a long time ago. How could you not see that?”

Rosewood only glared at him dangerously in response, breathing hard in and out, before Scutum cut in quietly: “Don't you believe in your own superiority, Antares Mīrus? From a purely logical standpoint, we unicorns are better, stronger, more equipped to deal with the threats of this world than our kin are. How can you argue that we're equals... how can you not be a hypocrite when you yourself possess wings as well as a horn, making you truly exceptional even among unicorn elite?”

Antares shifted nervously at this, and then he looked up and met Scutum's eye, evenly, saying quietly: “I believe it, though, Scutum, from the bottom of my heart, that we're all equals. Just because someone's stronger, or can do magic, or... anything else, it doesn't make them better. I have a friend who's the smallest Pegasus you'll ever see, even if she's only a little younger than I am... and yet she's the best young athlete in the region and she could take down a platoon of Royal Guard with her hooves tied behind her back. And I have another friend, an earth pony who's little more than a colt, who looks like a big dumb brute... but he's the gentlest, kindest pony you'll ever meet, and he's so smart and talented that it makes me... it makes me jealous sometimes.

“Yeah, because I am some... 'superior' unicorn. But I can't do magic like Prestige. I can't put together or even get technology to work that well, like Rustproof. In a million years, I could never be as fast or as sharp a flier as Avalon. I can't think around corners the way Meadowlark can. And my cousin... little sis, Aphrodisia, I've got nothing on her raw, glowing passion and strength.” Antares closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards. “My friends never, ever give up. But I do, all the time. My friends don't fixate on the past that they've lost, they move towards the future. And I get jealous and envious of all the things they can do but I never will, mighty unicorn or not. What the hell does superiority mean, Scutum? What's strength, really? What about honor, where's the honor in tyrannizing all these talented, wonderful ponies who are each special in their own way, have strengths that no matter who or what they are, we unicorns can never achieve by magic or theft or all the dirty, filthy things I've learned our ancestors did for power... how can you still think you're superior when the only way we Equestrians have ever gotten anywhere is by standing up as equals and working together, not as unicorn or Pegasus or earth pony, but... just as ponies?”

“I didn't say I was superior, Antares. I said I was stronger, and that I'm better outfitted to survive in this harsh world we live in.” Scutum replied calmly, and for a few moments the two studied each other before Antares smiled faintly, feeling something clicking into place in his mind.

“The strong have to protect the weak, right?” Antares asked quietly, and Scutum nodded calmly. The glossy-black young unicorn smiled wider after a moment, studying the unicorn before he turned his eyes to Rosewood, who had her head lowered, looking uncomfortable. “Prestige is... she's learning a lot here, Rosewood. She's learning that ponies are equal, no matter what she was taught in the past, even if... she slips a little now and then. And... I... I care about her. And I want to believe that she cares about me.”

“She does care about you.” Rosewood said quietly, looking slowly down, and Antares leaned forwards, heart thudding in his chest before the pale pink unicorn looked up and shook her head slowly. “She tells me everything, Antares. She told me about your first kiss, and about all her training in Subterra... under a demon, of all things. She told me about how close you are, and she writes in her letters all about how her world view is changing, but Antares... Antares... I don't want her taken away from me. I don't want her disgraced, do you understand that?”

Rosewood trembled a little, leaning forwards and shaking her head. “If word of this got out, the Mayor would tell Caprice, and Caprice would exile her. I would be shamed and become a laughingstock. They'd run me out of the baronies and my daughter and I would have to start over... would be left with nothing. I grew up from nothing, Antares: my family is not noble-born, and there are no powerful magicians... only... servant unicorns. But I was the most feasible option in Silver Hoof, and the Mayor married me, and I... bore him a foal, and that sealed our partnership. I have everything I've ever wanted, and even if the Mayor only looks at his daughter as an heir to be paired with another noble unicorn and continue the pureblood lineage, I love her. I love my daughter, Antares, so much so, and I don't want her to have to live as a poor, worthless soul, in an Equestria where no pony will look at her for the shining perfection she is. When her training is done, Antares, and she comes back home, they'll treat her like royalty, they'll give her everything she wants, unicorns will bow to her-”

“And none of it would mean anything! Open your eyes, Rosewood... what would you prefer, Prestige to earn real respect and admiration and friendships, or do you want to turn her into something fat and slovenly and as entitled as Caprice?” Antares shot back, and then he winced when Rosewood snarled at him and lunged forwards, Scutum gritting his teeth as he grabbed the pink unicorn and held her back.

She grabbed wildly at Antares, but he leaned out of the way as Rosewood shouted furiously: “My daughter is nothing like her! What the hell is worth living for down here, Antares? Do you really think their kind will ever forgive our kind for what we've done to them? Better to sit at the head of a table of unicorns than it is to spend every day getting looked down on by mudwalkers because you're trying to fit into their society! You don't know what it's like, pure little 'hero,' for me or for Prestige, or how they hold all the crimes of every unicorn over our heads... I... I...”

Rosewood trembled, then slumped and dropped her head, whispering: “I don't want Prestige to go through that. She can be a queen of the north, even if the north is just a lie... or she can stay here in the Canterlot Barony, and spend the rest of her life as some nameless unicorn magician, stuck in your shadow, and smeared by everything her family's done in the past. No pony will ever forget that, Antares. Slave hooves have long memories and angry hearts. Or do you want to wake up every morning beside a miserable wife to find angry letters and graffiti telling you and your kind to go back to where you belong?”

“Prestige has to make the decision herself.” Antares said quietly, and then he hesitated before looking across at Rosewood and saying softly: “And... Rosewood... I'm going to take care of her. I promise that I am. Equestria isn't like you think... or at least, it's treated Prestige a lot better than... I'm guessing it treated you.” He quieted, studying her as she slowly looked up, before he smiled a little, bowing his head silently. “I'm not going to steal her away from you, Rosewood. I'm... I want to help.”

Rosewood looked at him for a few moments, then she slowly shook her head and muttered: “Slave hoof. Don't patronize me... I'm not so desperate that I need the help of you or your kind. I... I only want the best for my daughter.”

For a few moments, there was silence... and then Antares looked up in surprise as Meadowlark's voice said quietly, the Pegasus approaching from the side with a faint smile on her face: “He is the best thing that could happen to your daughter, miss. He's... he's the best thing that could happen to a lot of ponies. And Prestige... she was hard for all of us to stomach at first, but she's... a friend now. She's smart, and she and Antares... are good together.”

It caused Meadowlark visible pain to say this as she looked quietly at Antares, who smiled back, swallowing a little. Rosewood and Scutum both observed them silently for a few moments, and then Scutum glanced over at the pale pink mare and said quietly: “Don't be an idiot, Rose.”

“Screw you, Scutum.” Rosewood retorted, and then she shook her head slowly and looked moodily over at Meadowlark, saying moodily: “A shorn-wing just walks up and gives me advice on my own daughter, this-”

“Don't talk about her like that.” Antares said sharply, and Rosewood looked surprised at this before the young stallion blushed a bit, even as he straightened and said quietly: “She's my friend, and a friend of Prestige... shouldn't that... isn't that proof enough that maybe her life here can be a good one? That unlike you... she's escaped?”

Rosewood hesitated for a few long moments... but before they could further argue, Scutum said calmly: “Caprice will be whining by now for the guards to come find us. We should return to the room, Rosewood.”

The pale pink unicorn stuck her tongue out at him childishly, but then she nodded grumpily before turning her eyes to Antares. The two looked at each other for a moment, and then he yelped when she slapped him across the face, Meadowlark staring and Scutum only sighing before Rosewood said moodily: “Treat my daughter nicely, mudwalker. And don't get her pregnant on top of everything else.”

“We're not even doing that yet!” Antares said in a strangled voice, a little louder than he meant to, and then he blushed as several ponies turned to look at him. Rosewood only ignored him, and the glossy black stallion sighed before he looked up awkwardly as Scutum studied him silently.

Then the one-eyed stallion nodded once before saying calmly: “Baroness Caprice has business here for the next few weeks. I would request that we meet at some point during that time, I have something I want to talk to you about.”

“I... uh... okay. I'll be in Ponyville shortly, though...” Antares said awkwardly, but Scutum only nodded before he turned and strode off, and Antares looked blankly after the large stallion before he mumbled to Meadowlark as she winced a little: “Let's... let's just head back to Subterra. And... thanks.”

Meadowlark only shrugged and smiled a little, turning to follow him quietly to the doors, and the two young ponies stepped out of the hotel. Antares blinked in surprise as a white flake of snow landed on the end of his nose, and Meadowlark laughed, then blushed when Antares gave her an amused and surprised look as she reached up to cover her mouth. Then both ponies looked skywards, gazing into the cloudy night sky as more flakes of snow twinkled slowly down through the air, Antares murmuring: “First snowfall of winter... real late, but... better than never, right?”

“Late... is always better than never. And sometimes waiting makes it better.” Meadowlark agreed, and she smiled softly as she gazed quietly at Antares as he looked up into the night sky above.

Warmth In Winter

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Chapter Seventeen: Warmth In Winter
~BlackRoseRaven

Winter was late in coming, but moved in with a vengeance when it did: it began with a gentle snowfall, but soon escalated into a blizzard that raged on and off for an entire week, heavy enough to force Celestia to put off the trip back to Ponyville for another day once Twilight had healed thanks to the roads being blocked up with snow and sleet. Not that anypony minded: they were still able to train while in Subterra, and it was warm and cozy in the underground caverns compared to how cold and blustery it had become up in Canterlot. It was a good place to think, too, which Antares needed right now: he and Prestige were in an uncomfortable fugue over Antares' confrontation with Rosewood, both ponies doing their hardest to think things out and dancing around the subject whenever it came up.

But Celestia refused to delay long: although it was still snowing and the roads hadn't been completely cleared by the day that followed, she pushed them into a hard march into the winter snowfall in full armor. It was cold and rough, but Antares recognized that it was more than just Celestia making them miserable, too: it was a learning experience, even if Avalon complained loudly the entire time and kept landing on Antares to curl up in a little armored ball on his back. Not that Antares minded: Avalon's extra body heat was welcome in this cold weather.

He was surprised to find that Prestige didn't seem to care about the cold all that much: of all of them, she handled the weather almost as well as Twilight Sparkle and Celestia did, smiling a little now and then at Antares when he grumbled and giving Avalon entertained looks when the tiny Pegasus cursed at her every now and then in frustration. Meadowlark and Rustrproof were trailing at the rear of the group, but both were holding up well despite their own shivers, while Aphrodisia looked sulky as she dragged her hooves through the snow in front of them, complaining almost as much as Avalon and yelling every so often at Burning Desire.

The fiery stallion was cheerfully prancing along beside Twilight Sparkle, who kept absently nudging him away every time he got a little too grabby, but she was smiling all the same. The demon had decided to come with them to help continue training, and because he had gleefully declared that he was going to spend as much time as possible with his new marefriend. Twilight only rolled her eyes at this and called him a child every time he brought this up, but she looked... happy, all the same. Like she had found something that helped her cope, even if nothing could ever replace Scrivener and Luna... and Burning Desire, to the surprise of the younger ponies, seemed to not only understand this but even be okay with it.

The demonic stallion had healed well, although he still bore some ugly bruising over his body, but asking him if he was in pain had only led to him bragging about what a fight he'd put up against Cancer. Antares was unnerved by the fact that Cancer had actually taken down a demon made of fire, considering what they had thought his weakness was... but on the road back to Ponyville, when Antares had brought up this concern, Burning Desire had only shaken his head violently and explained easily: “No, no, no! These flames that protect my body might look like normal fire, but if they were there would be many more badly-scorched mares walking around Subterra and Canterlot and... well, right beside us.”

Burning Desire leered over at Twilight, who glared at him even as she blushed deeply. Then he laughed before continuing in a cheerful voice: “The fires that enshroud me affect people's emotions, not their physical bodies. Sure, I burn hot...” He licked his lips slowly, leering at Twilight again. “But I'm a lover, not a fighter, for the most part. Given the right kick I like to think I can be as fierce as any Wrath demon, but if I want to set someone on fire I have to use my magic, not my mane.”

He flicked this to the side, then paused before swinging his tail out, drawing a trail of heat through the snow beside him and leaving a melting trench of white powder. “That monster, though, he didn't handle my heat very well, and for once I don't mean to make a pun. But he was slippery... and any time I managed to set him on fire he would shed his skin or split apart or do some other disgusting cheating thing. But he's dead, yes? The chaos entities sent him back to the Void?”

“I'm not sure where he was sent... and I doubt it will be that easy.” Celestia replied softly, and Burning Desire frowned a bit as Antares looked up nervously: this topic had been almost taboo for the last week, and Celestia hesitated before her eyes focused on the silhouette of Ponyville in the distance, a black shape barely visibly through the thin veil of snow whipping back and forth as they plodded on beneath listless gray skies.

At first, Antares thought she wasn't going to say anything further, as they walked on for a few minutes in awkward silence, Twilight looking apprehensively at Celestia as Burning Desire frowned and lost some of his playfulness... but then Celestia spoke again, and Antares looked up in surprise as she asked quietly: “Do you believe that Allonym was telling the truth when he told you he couldn't affect things as he desired?”

“Yeah, I do. I know that Discombobulation and Discord managed to make Cancer vanish, but... I don't think it's permanent. I don't...” Antares hesitated, looking up at the ceiling of clouds overhead before he said finally: “I just... I think about what he said, too. He implied there could be consequences for... trying to make Cancer just vanish. And I don't like to think about what he could have meant by that...”

Celestia nodded slowly, then she murmured quietly: “Meddling with reality is never a good idea, Antares... I can only imagine the dangers of making even the smallest of changes. Not even the Norns had absolute control, as my little sister proved...” Celestia hesitated, then she smiled faintly as she dropped her eyes towards the snow-strewn path in front of her, murmuring: “I wonder what she thought of Allonym, if his story about meeting them is true...”

Antares smiled faintly at this, nodding a little himself before Celestia shook her head quickly, then straightened and murmured: “We'll have to be careful. But we might have time, too, even if Cancer does return. Winter has moved in hard, but it might give us an advantage against an organism like Cancer.”

The young stallion looked up curiously, and then he looked over his shoulder as Meadowlark said hesitantly: “Because... you think it'll slow him down?”

“I'm certain of it, with what we've seen of his physiology.” Celestia said softly, then she grimaced a little. “But we should prepare for the worst in any event: he's chaos as much as he is destruction, and who knows how that will drive him to react and adapt? What also worries me is that if the cold does begin to slow or hamper him, he might be driven to attack the nearest source of heat and life he can to try and sustain himself through the winter. We'll need to ensure Equestria is aware of the threat he poses and we should begin sending out scouting teams immediately. We need to destroy it as soon as possible.”

Antares shifted uncomfortably, looking down and nodding slowly, and his nervousness seemed to ripple through the ranks. It drew Celestia's attention, the ivory winged unicorn looking over her shoulder with a bit of a frown, but then her eyes turned to Twilight as the Lich said quietly: “If we have the chance, maybe instead we should focus on training, and on healing the disease where it's still spreading. I heard that Canterlot still has ponies coming in sick... and that the disease has made its way as far as Manehattan and Hoofston.”

“It's spread to a few of the larger metropolitan centers, yes... my guess is diplomats and businessponies who thought they were too important or in too much of a rush to bother with the required health screenings.” Celestia shook her head slowly. “This sudden winter hasn't helped matters: more ponies are reporting illnesses and it could cause a panic. As it is, the plague is already difficult to follow: the only things about it that stay constant are its extreme virulence and its resilience. And with the way it evolves itself once inside a host...”

“You're scared many ponies could be infected and not show any symptoms other than a cough or sneeze, passing it on to others... and then it's either going to mutate, or Cancer's somehow going to seize control of his own disease and make it mutate, and they'll go from sneezing and coughing to heart attacks and organ death.” Twilight said quietly, and Celestia nodded with a grimace. The Lich shivered a bit at this thought as Antares and his friends traded nervous looks, before Twilight hesitantly looked over her shoulder and asked quietly: “Could any of us... I mean, not me, clearly but anyone else here...”

“I don't know.” Celestia said honestly, then she sighed softly and shook her head slowly. “We'll need to figure out a better way to screen for the illness than we currently have, and we'll need to put more effort into developing stronger vaccines and antivirals.”

She grimaced, looking ahead and murmuring: “Biological warfare. There's nothing worse, and nothing more cowardly than this indiscriminate poisoning. Cancer fills me with disgust, on every level of my being: he is dishonorable, contemptible, and pathetic.” She closed her eyes, then smiled wryly and shook her head slowly. “And Luna will never let me live it down if I fail to put a stop to an overgrown flu before we bring her and Scrivener Blooms home.”

Antares and Twilight both laughed a little at this, and then the group fell quiet again as they continued to make their way on towards Ponyville. As they drew close, the snowfall lightened, and they were greeted by Nibelung and ponies that were clearing the roads leading to the open gates, Celestia smiling and Antares feeling like the world had just grown warmer despite the biting wind and the frost that clung to his armor.

They made their way into the village, passing bundled-up ponies that greeted them warmly and waved to them, and Antares smiled back and forth, blushing a little at the welcome. It was a welcome for heroes, not for a team of ponies that had just started to learn how to properly work together, but all the same he couldn't complain. Not with the happiness and pride he felt filling up his friends... not with the joy that filled him up, and reminded him of exactly what and why he was determined to fight so hard... not with the hopes it brought for the kind of welcome back his parents would receive, when he saved them from wherever they were.

Celestia brought the group to the front of the library, then she turned around and said calmly: “For today, I'd advise all of you to rest... you've earned a day off. Tomorrow, we'll resume training and I'll explain some of the duties I expect each of you to begin handling. Meet me here at the library at seven.”

“Seven in the morning?” Avalon groaned loudly as she flitted through the air, then she slapped moodily at her own face as the others only looked at her, mumbling: “It better not be snowing again. God, this sucks. This sucks, doesn't this suck?”

“You suck.” Aphrodisia said sourly, and Avalon glared at her before the demon asked curiously: “Wanna go get hot chocolate at Mommy's store?”

“You're such a foal.” Avalon said mildly, and when Aphrodisia huffed and then turned to gallop off, the tiny Pegasus winced and hurriedly shot after her. “Wait a minute, I didn't say I didn't want to come! Hold up!”

Antares shook his head, then he glanced towards Meadowlark... but the Pegasus was already leaving with Rustproof, and the young stallion smiled for a moment before awkwardly looking at Prestige. She hesitated, looking at the library as Celestia turned to the door, but then the ivory winged unicorn smiled over her shoulder, saying quietly: “Go ahead, Prestige Luster. Besides, I look at Twilight Sparkle, and think... maybe I still have more to learn from my old apprentice than I thought.”

Celestia smiled a bit as Antares and Prestige both glanced towards the Lich, who was laughing as Burning Desire grinned widely, gesturing energetically as he told some story in a confident, carrying voice, and then both young ponies looked towards the ivory winged unicorn as she nodded slowly, saying thoughtfully: “Yes. There's nothing wrong with finding happiness where you can... with taking pleasures when they present themselves. And it amazes me again... to see a demon that has a depth of understanding and compassion rivaled perhaps only by my brother, and yet here I am, still thinking...”

She quieted, then smiled softly, looking down at the two young ponies as she said gently: “Don't waste the precious time you have with one another on anger and sorrow. And don't keep secrets, or leave things unsaid because you're afraid of what might happen. If you two truly care about each other... you'll find your way through things.”

Antares and Prestige looked at each other... then they both slowly nodded as their eyes locked. Celestia smiled at them in approval, then she turned around and headed into the library while the two young ponies only continued to study each other, before Antares said quietly: “Prestige...”

“Let's... just enjoy the walk.” Prestige said awkwardly, and Antares hesitated before she reached up and touched his shoulder, saying quietly: “When we get back home... we can discuss everything then.”

“Home.” Antares smiled a little, tasting the word, studying Prestige curiously with how naturally, easily, she had used it, and the young unicorn mare blushed a bit before Antares leaned forwards and kissed her. She returned it, and he felt her warmth, her honesty, her compassion, and that bittersweet tickle when their mouths parted... and the pleasure that came with knowing that at any time, any moment, they could share another kiss any time they desired.

They turned, approaching Burning Desire and Twilight Sparkle as the Lich laughed, then turned her eyes towards them before smiling amusedly and reaching up to cover the fiery stallion's mouth, saying easily: “Okay, okay, enough, Burning, before you traumatize anyone here... and that includes me. Am I ever glad you and Luna never met.”

“And yet all the same I can't help but hope we do one day, even though I know that will be a day of both great joy and great sorrow for me.” Burning Desire smiled warmly, touching his chest, and Antares looked surprised at the honesty that radiated from the Passion. But Burning Desire only chuckled, gazing back with entertainment at the surprise on Antares' features as Prestige gazed up at her mentor with quiet affection that had grown in leaps and bounds over the last few days. “Antares, I have spent thousands of years in longing and desire and contemplation. But longing like mine can again, only be filled by that which is freely given... never by force. Do I feel jealousy? Of course. But I'm not a demon of envy. My jealousy is not like hatred... it is sorrow, for what I long to always have standing freely beside me...”

Burning Desire softened, gazing at Twilight Sparkle as he murmured quietly: “And after a thousand years of desire, my sweet undying flower has come to take that pain away. It may be for a week, for a month, for a year... and then, yes, I know she will return to those she loves more than she could ever love me. And yes, I will cry like a little filly, but I will... I will let her go.” Burning Desire reached up, touching the Lich's face gently, Twilight blushing as she bowed her cheek against his hoof. “Because I truly care for her. She is no pretty object to add to my collection, she is neither crown nor crown jewel... she is like my goddess, and I am merely the humble devil that sits on her shoulder to keep her entertained and happy on the journey.”

Burning Desire paused, then he smiled softly, glancing over at Antares and Prestige as he said quietly: “Being a demon has taught me that mortals are such idiots. They desire so much, they constantly go to one extreme or another, they can so rarely ever be satisfied with their lot in life unless castrated or brain-dead. And most annoying of all, they have the awful, awful habit of taking everything and everyone around them for granted unless given a rough kick every now and then. But of course, my passion never dies, and some would say that's a bit of a character flaw itself.”

Antares smiled after a moment, and Prestige nodded slowly, looking up at him with softness and respect, taking in every word he spoke. Burning Desire looked back and forth over the young ponies almost curiously, then he returned his eyes to the Lich, grinning slightly. “Besides, who knows? Maybe I'll succeed in stealing her away from greedy Luna and Scrivener. Or at least stay friends with benefits. Luna sounds like the kind of pony who could appreciate that.”

“Can... can we not talk about my mother like that while I'm right here?” Antares asked awkwardly, looking up with a bit of a wince, and Burning Desire looked at the young stallion with amusement. “It's always a little uncomfortable to think about... well... you know.”

“Oh, it's all very natural Antares. Mostly. I heard your mother was a very adventurous type. Why, Twilight has told me all kinds of stories about-” Burning Desire was cut off as the Lich shoved him firmly into a nearby pile of snow in a sprawl and burst of flame and powder, before he yelped and wheezed a few times as the pile of snow rapidly began to melt around him, water boiling up into steam as he whined: “Well what's the point of sharing stories if I can't share them with others?”

“Let's just go.” Twilight said tiredly, blushing a little, and Antares nodded quickly as Prestige gave Burning Desire an amused look over her shoulder. The demon huffed from where he was now sitting in what was mostly a puddle, splashing moodily at the water before popping to his hooves and bouncing hurriedly after the trio as his mood returned.

The walk back home felt almost unfamiliar to Antares with all the time he'd spent away from the cottage, but all the same he felt the forest silently welcoming him back, felt the vibrant life that was still here, even with much of the world hidden beneath the blankets of white snow that covered the trees and layered the ground.

Burning Desire marveled over the forest as they made their way through the woods, smiling widely and seeming to enjoy the long hike: but here inside the forest, the cold wind couldn't bite at them, and despite the powder that came up past their hooves, the snow did little to hinder their journey. And the sights they caught here and there helped make the journey feel shorter, and more comfortable: Phooka that surveyed them curiously through the trees, wild animals that darted here and there across the path, and the simple, raw beauty of nature that was all around them. Nature that was wild, but was stronger and far more majestic than the all-but-synthetic nature ponies had once maintained in place of this verdant empire.

When they reached the cottage, Twilight couldn't help but smile warmly: someone had been out here and had shoveled a path through the snow-filled yard to the deck, which they'd also taken the time to clean off. She gazed back and forth curiously, wondering who could have done this kindness, as Burning Desire murmured: “I'll never get over what a pretty home this is, Twilight Sparkle... and what feelings are invested into it... now, if I recall, the stairs are around back, yes?”

He chuckled quietly, then halted in front of the deck and smiled as his horn glowed before he flicked it firmly. Immediately, a sharp, hot wind whistled past, making Antares wince a bit, and then stare as the wave of heat visibly carved a path through the snow that curved around the side of the cottage and to the back of the house, as Burning Desire grinned and winked. “Tell you what, kiddo. You and your girl get the upstairs for yourselves, and me and Twilight will take the first floor for a few hours. I'm sure we all can agree to that, right?”

Antares groaned and rolled his eyes, then he smiled awkwardly at Twilight when she blushed and said hurriedly: “Just ignore him, Antares, he's... well...”

“No, no, Mom... it's okay. I know what he means.” Antares hesitated, then he said softly, glancing between the two adults: “And... I'm glad... you have each other. You seem to make each other happy and... Mom and Dad would want you happy, Twilight, not spending every day pining for them. Hard... hard as it is. And... I know, I'll come down, help you make dinner in an hour or two, huh?”

“Alright, Antares. That sounds good.” Twilight smiled a little, then she glanced up at Burning Desire as the demon winked at her. “Stop that. I'm already regretting this decision.”

“Oh, you are not.” Burning Desire sniffed, then he leaned down and half-shoved Twilight around in a circle, pushing her towards the door as the Lich winced and the fiery stallion called cheerily over his shoulder: “Knock first!”

Antares groaned and rolled his eyes as Burning Desire yanked the door open and half-tossed Twilight through before gleefully prancing in himself, and the young, glossy-black stallion sighed tiredly and shook his head slowly before Prestige said awkwardly: “I'm sure he's just... teasing, Antares...”

“I know. I know, I know... he and Mom...” Antares hesitated, then he shook his head slowly, softening. “I know what's really going on. Burning Desire and Mom are probably talking about... me, right now, not... doing anything. Because it's... it's all such a weird situation, and I know he really does care about her but...”

Antares sighed a little, then he turned to follow the path Burning had made for him, Prestige softening as she followed after him as the glossy black young stallion murmured: “I think sometimes... how none of this is fair to Twilight. She's pining for the ponies she cares about, and she's a wonderful mom but she already has so many responsibilities on top of looking out for me... Burning Desire is one of the only ponies who's ever shown interest in her of any kind because she's... and that's not fair. It's not fair that she...”

Antares shook his head again as Prestige gazed after him softly, and then they were silent as they made their way to the back of the house, then turned and approached the steps. All the same, Antares hesitated for a moment, glancing towards the window as he said quietly: “I kind of wish they really were... you know... almost. And Twilight wasn't instead laying down ground rules and telling him what's okay and what's not and making it clear that she's my mother and he's not to boss me around and... she's so protective. I just...”

He lowered his head, then mumbled as he made his way up the stairs, and Prestige followed after him quickly, studying him silently as they headed up to the door leading into the second floor. Antares pushed his way through this, smiling a little at the closed door of the office before he made his way quietly down the hall to a den room at the end.

Twilight was always very careful to never change the layout of the house around too much: this room was probably the one she had changed the most. It had been a guest room or something once, but now it was more just a place to go and relax. There was a large, plush couch that folded out among the other furnishings, a coffee table that had all kinds of board games and trinkets in the shelves on its underside, and a few squat shelves against one wall with children's literature and coloring books.

Antares headed for the couch, and flopped down on it with a sigh... then he glanced up quietly as Prestige strode in and smiled faintly at him. She shook herself a little, then carefully pulled off her cloak before her horn glowed, undoing the clasps holding the lightweight vest closed over her body as she said softly: “Come on, hero. Take off your armor, at least.”

“I don't really want to.” Antares mumbled, rolling over and mashing his face into the cushions of the couch, and Prestige laughed before the young stallion arched his back and smiled despite his best efforts not to as he felt a warm tickle run through his body, heating up his veins, making his blood run a little faster as he murmured: “I'm not tired, Prestige, energizing me isn't going to do anything...”

“It'll do something.” Prestige said softly, as she strode forwards and reached up to gently begin undoing his armor, and Antares closed his eyes and smiled faintly as she pulled his gear off, bit-by-bit. She set it aside with more reverence than she treated her own with, from breastplate to additional guarding and gear until she reached his vambraces.

He rolled onto his back as she climbed carefully up, straddling him as she reached down and slowly pulled these off to put aside on the table, gazing at the rose-etched metal before turning her eyes back to Antares. He looked up at her, leaning up for a moment... but she grasped his shoulders and pinned him back gently, murmuring quietly: “Wait.”

Antares hesitated, tilting his head a bit as he shifted beneath her, their eyes locking before Prestige said quietly: “I want you to know that... I... did want to be like my father. I did want to impress him... and one day, outdo him. But Antares Mīrus... that kiss... there was nothing behind us getting together. Not even when we first met, did I ever think of you as just... a possible candidate for... pure and noble blood. Because to me you're not a pureblood, you're not a proud unicorn...” She bowed her head forwards, closing her eyes. “You're a splinter-horn, a mudwalker, a pony that always has and always will look at his lessers as if they were his equals. And you showed me there's more honor and happiness in that than there is in being the proudest and mightiest and loneliest unicorn in the world.

“Antares... I...” She took a slow breath, leaning down closer, before whispering: “I love you. And... and I'm going to tell my mother that I'm not going to go back to Silver Hoof, if... if you'll have me here. Even if things don't work out between us, Antares... you opened my eyes, and I've never had real friends before like I do now. I want to stay here, one way or another. And I want it... with all my heart... to be with you.”

Antares trembled a bit, swallowing slowly before he reached up and hugged her fiercely, and she buried her face into his neck as she curled herself down against him, clinging tightly to the young stallion as he whispered: “I believe you. And I think it was when I started talking to Rosewood that I realized... how much I cared for you, that... I love you too, and I don't want to ever let anything separate us.”

Prestige slipped back, swallowing a little before she closed her eyes and bowed her head forwards, then smiled faintly. “I've... I've spent this entire week trying to find the words, Antares, to figure out what I wanted to do, and... and no matter what else entered my mind, I always thought back to how you would hold me at night, and everything would be okay. I thought about a lot of things and... I want to be with you, Antares. And I want to be beside you, every step of the way.”

The young stallion nodded, then he leaned forwards and kissed her slowly, firmly, and she met his lips with just as much passion, sharing breath and life as they squeezed one another closer, felt their bodies press tight together before their mouths slowly parted, and they gazed deeply into each other's eyes before Prestige quietly pinned him back and leaned up, licking her lips a little as she whispered: “Oh, hero... I... I want...”

Antares swallowed at this, blushing a little as he leaned back, reaching his hooves up to rest on her shoulders as they locked eyes... and then Prestige blushed and shook her head slowly, smiling faintly again as she murmured: “You are like no other stallion I've ever met, Antares.”

“I... sorry.” Antares mumbled embarrassedly, and then he closed his eyes and said quietly, as Prestige reached a hoof forwards to stroke his face gently: “It's... it's not that I don't want to. But... then I think of what your mother said to me and... I...”

“I understand. But... you do know that... I'm telling the truth, yes? And if I stay with you Antares, either way... my father will do everything in his power to ensure I can never go home again.” Prestige said quietly, and she lowered her eyes as Antares frowned up at her with concern. “No, it's not worth talking about. Unicorns place pride and their pure blood above all else, that's all... and all I've always been aware of is that for all my father's pride in me, it was always tinged with the disappointment that I was his talented daughter instead of his talented son.”

Antares grimaced a bit, then he leaned forwards and nuzzled her soothingly, and she curled herself down against his body as she closed her eyes. The two held tightly onto each other in silence for a little while, before Prestige hesitantly asked: “Would you mind... telling me about your mother and father, Antares? Not... Twilight, of course, although... her relationship to your parents boggles my mind even more than how Burning Desire can be so... okay with things.”

“That's because you never knew anyone like Sleipnir.” Antares smiled a little, then he shook his head and hesitated before nodding slowly and murmuring: “I guess I do talk about trying to find them and everything all the time but... I never really told you anything about them, huh? Well... I mean... what do you know already, Prestige?”

“I'd rather not repeat silly stories, Antares.” Prestige glanced up with a smile, and then she laughed a little when the young stallion gazed up at her pointedly. “Oh, fine, fine, but don't get mad at me should I say something wrong.

“It's common knowledge, of course, that the Baroness had a sister she found living in the Ponyville area, which is why she began to spend so much time here... and that her sister, Luna, helped form the Starlit Knights, the elite force that protects Equestria.” Prestige continued, looking a little awkward, but Antares was only nodding quickly, looking almost enthralled. “There are all kinds of stories and rumors about how... she has connections to the night, and the dark places of Equestria. And that she was a warrior, but... after seeing what Celestia is truly capable of... I have to say, it scares me a little to wonder what Luna must have been like if Celestia is considered the gentle Baroness and your mother is supposed to be the wild warrior.”

“Mom was amazing.” Antares said softly, smiling warmly and nodding quickly, and then he laughed and shook his head. “Mom and Dad... they'd train and spar all the time, and Mom taught me everything I know about horn foiling and fighting. Aunt Tia uses swords, but... my Mom had a treasured spear she named Andlitstingar after Aunt Tia was given Tyrfing. Mom was silly like that... she always competed with Aunt Tia, but... looked up to her. But even though my Mom was the younger sister, Aunt Tia looked up to her, too, idolized her in a few ways... and she and my Dad were good friends, even though Aunt Tia was the one who gave my Dad that big scar on his face.”

Prestige cocked her head in surprise at this, and Antares smiled warmly as he slowly drew his hooves along Prestige's frame, murmuring: “Yeah. They had a big fight, many, many years ago, before... this Equestria was formed. Mom and Dad had some crazy stories about that, too... they used to tell me all about how life used to be so different. And they told me all about how the story in my room, those paintings all along the edge of the ceiling, that's really how they came together.

“I asked Aunt Tia about it before, and... she said it was true. That she used to be... the word she described herself with was 'mercenary,' and I don't think she meant like she took money and did jobs for ponies. I think she meant... she didn't care about anything but the job she had to do at the time, and that even then... it was only for her own ends, her own ideas.” He quieted, then shook his head slowly. “I... I saw into her one time, and saw... well, you remember. It was dinner, you were there.”

He closed his eyes, then simply leaned up and kissed the side of Prestige's neck, and she closed her eyes as she massaged her hooves slowly over his chest, asking quietly: “But we can all change, can't we? Even I've changed... at least, I hope I have. It's still very hard for me to think of other ponies as my equals, after all...”

“Maybe it'll surprise you, Prestige, but I look down on other ponies sometimes, too.” Antares smiled despite himself, glancing up and saying quietly: “I mean, I spend so much time with demons and ponies who are the best of the best at what they do and all sorts of weird and wonderful things that sometimes... I forget that normal ponies are out there for more reasons than just to get in the way, you know? I forget that they can stand and fight for themselves, and that they have their own talents, too.”

Prestige smiled a little in return, shaking her head slowly as she said softly: “That's different, Antares. And your father... he was a unicorn, but he had no horn, correct?”

“That's right.” Antares nodded slowly, gazing up at her quietly. “I guess Caprice's ranting makes more sense now, with... what I've learned about unicorn traditions from you and that talk with your mother. He carried pure blood in his veins, and... even though she had wings, they look at my mother as an ideal unicorn, don't they?”

“Some of the old traditions state that in the first days, all unicorns had wings... but they lost them as punishment for letting their divine blood mingle with slave hoofs.” Prestige blushed a little, and then she reached up and quietly took Antares' face in her front hooves, gazing at him quietly. “They say that when the bloodlines are purified once more, then our wings will come back... but I never believed in such stupid stories.”

“Good.” Antares smiled a bit, leaning forwards as their lips almost brushed, murmuring: “Because I'm just a splinter horn, and these wings... well, you've been told how they came about...”

Prestige smiled in return, then their lips met briefly before she half-lidded her eyes, wrapping her forelegs around his neck as she murmured softly, pressing down against him: “You're a filthy splinter-horn, touched by darkness and evil... and yet here we lay, me, a pure and vulnerable pureblood unicorn noble, and you're nothing but a scared little colt who won't lift a hoof against me.”

“Oh, stop it.” Antares laughed, before he smiled as he gazed up at her with amusement before sliding his hooves along her sides, murmuring quietly: “I think you only care about me for my body.”

“You should be flattered either way, Antares Mīrus.” Prestige replied, and then she sat up and looked down at him, hesitating only a moment before she asked softly: “And me, Antares? Do you find me attractive?”

Antares gazed up at her, at how vulnerable she seemed in that moment, strangely innocent even with the coyness that lurked in her eyes... and he licked his lips slowly before grasping her sides and suddenly rolling on top of her, Prestige gasping, then laughing when he pushed her down with a wink and smile, murmuring softly: “You're beautiful, Prestige. I find you beautiful.”

Prestige smiled, and then Antares leaned down and met her lips in a kiss, the unicorn mare closing her eyes in delight as she arched her body up against his. They shared affection and warmth and love as they explored one-another's form and shape, both ponies only aware of each other... and that with every day they passed, they were growing closer and closer together.

The wind screamed through the mountain peaks as the gray clouds rumbled, snow whipping violently through the dark night air. These crags and cliffs to the west of Canterlot were lifeless and abandoned even during the best of times... but now, with the temperature sitting at well-below zero and the cruel snowstorm that reminded many demons all too much of frozen Helheim, not even the undead dared to wander the jagged slopes or cracked plateaus.

Then a sound picked up, at first mixing with the wind, then shortly overwhelming it as it grew to a fevered pitch, like a scream of nails against a blackboard: it echoed through the mountains, disturbed drifts of snow, and sent down a brief avalanche before a white shape shot out of the sky and hurtled into the mountainside with a sickening splat. Even soft as it was, the meteor struck with enough force to shatter the stone plateau.

Electricity crackled through the clouds above as the hum faded out, before the snow covering the windswept plateau shifted and rippled... and a few moments later, a mottled white entity slowly formed, shoving itself to its false hooves with a scream of mixed agony and frustration. Red eyes snapped open, and Cancer looked wildly back and forth before it threw its head back and screamed again... and as if in response, the mountains rumbled, resulting in another avalanche of snow and rock collapsing down into the valleys and nooks below.

Cancer dropped forwards, rasping hard in and out as his eyes blazed and he gurgled low in his throat. His gaze snapped in all directions, taking in where he was before he hissed furiously at the dark skies above, then spun around before his gaze locked on Canterlot in the distance, shivering and snarling once before screaming: “I'll be back! I'll be back, you hear me? Gonna hunt me down all y'all! Gonna rip you up and tear you down and... and... I'll kill you all!”

The monster shook its head wildly back and forth, then started to shriek again, throwing itself down on the plateau and jouncing and rolling back and forth in a psychotic temper-tantrum, acidic drool flying in all directions as snow clung to its wet and hideous body. Legs kicked and slashed and gouged at the air as its whole form rippled, muscles expanding, then shrinking; sinews and veins stood out like cables before sinking back into flesh; jaw stretched wide enough with every bellow to swallow a pony whole.

Cancer rocked and rolled back and forth, then leapt up to his hooves... and promptly skidded on some half-hidden ice with a yelp before a fierce wind caught him in the back like a foot to the flank, the monster's eyes bulging as he slid forwards before screaming when he toppled off the edge of the cliff. He crashed into the mountainside with a thick crunch, then bounced and rolled to the bottom of the enormous mountain as the cruel wind seemed to howl with laughter.

The monster ended up crashing into a heavy pile of snow at the bottom of the tall mountain, sending up a puff of powdery spray as a few large rocks tumbled after the monster. For a few moments, there was no response... and then Cancer tore his way up and out of the snowy mound, growling in frustration as he half-swam through the snow before toppling and rolling onto a mostly-dry stone path left uncovered by the cruel wind.

He skidded over a bit of ice again, hissing in frustration before a shiver tore through his body, and then he snarled in fury, breath rushing in and out as he glared in the direction of Canterlot. “Oh... you gonna get yours... don't you worry. I'm gonna destroy that whole city... but again, again, the zombie interfered, ruined my plans! And those worthless patchwork dolls got in the way too... and that kid! That kid was there yet again! The stupid little runt... oh, oh, oh, I'm gonna rip that kid to pieces when I find him! I'm gonna bleed him, and I'm gonna kill him, and I'm gonna crush him!”

Cancer gnashed his teeth wildly at the air, snarling as he glared furiously back and forth before shaking his head out quickly, red eyes glowing as electricity sparked over his body. He shivered, then snarled as his head twitched back and forth before gargling and clutching at his throat. He shifted back and forth as if agonized, steam hissing up from his body before he screamed; but this cut out a moment later as his back arched unnaturally, standing on his hind hooves as his front limbs froze in place in midair, rasping in an echoing, soulless voice: “Murder and destroy, bleed and perforate, infect and kill, kill, kill...”

Then he screamed and twitched violently again, grabbing at his head and dropping forwards, curling up as he shrieked: “I'm trying! Don't you think I'm trying, dude? But they're stronger than we gave them credit for! What the hell am I supposed to do, chief? What the hell are we supposed to do?”

He gurgled, then his eyes flashed red before he grinned insanely, drool dripping from his jaws as he slowly picked himself up, whispering: “Yeah. Yeah, maybe you're right. I gotta stay positive, keep on smiling, and keep on trucking on. Gonna spread my sweet nectar to every corner of this world... but if I'm gonna do that, I gotta keep a smile on my face, my chin up, and my claws buried deep into every fleshbag I find. And yeah, yeah, they tried to send me away, but ooh, I'm back, and I'm badder than ever...”

Cancer looked down at one of his forelegs, then he grinned as the hoof-like end of it shivered before transforming into talons: these flexed, then transformed again as bones jutted cruelly upwards and fused together, transforming into an enormous, hideous blade of saw-toothed ivory. “Well hello! I couldn't do that before... oh, but even though it weren't no pleasure cruise they sent me on, I got a sweet taste of home, a delicious dessert of chaos, and some mm-mm good radiation... and I had more than enough time to process all the tasty genes and samples I ripped out of the patchwork punk and that love-struck necrophiliac of a demon. Yeah, ooh, yeah, I'm learning how they work... learning how they speak... and soon enough baby, I'm gonna learn what makes 'em tick and what to tweak!”

He threw his head back and laughed as the bony blade shivered, then transformed back into a hoof as Cancer grinned widely: he felt full of energy, full of strength and life, as he stepped forwards... then frowned slowly as he heard a strange tinkling sound before slowly looking over his shoulder and hissing in disgust at the sight of ice that had already formed over one slick hindleg.

He breathed slowly in and out, licking his teeth with a snarl before he looked back and forth at the snowy, windswept mountains, as if he was just now processing the cold and the winter climate. Cancer cursed, then he snarled in the direction of Canterlot before shaking his head in disgust, whispering: “Oh, smoothly played, big white weasel and friends, well-frigging-done. Bet you and the zombie must just love this... what the hell is this?”

Cancer reached down, pawing at some of the snow nearby, then he leaned down and bit into it... before spitting violently in all directions, flailing his limbs around as he shouted in disgust: “Water! And no contaminants in it but the dirty dirt dirt! What kind of nonsense is this? Ginnungagap made more sense than rain that's nearly solid! Is this snow? Snow? But snow's supposed to look like ashes, why don't it feel and taste like sweet ashes too?”

The monster growled in frustration, then shook his head wildly back and forth before his red eyes flashed as he shivered once. Then he hissed and violently shook himself back and forth, his body starting to steam rapidly as he stomped his hooves up and down and forced his body heat to rise: but now that he was aware of it, the monster could already feel the cold quickly cooling down his almost gelatinous form: not that cold could kill him, oh no, but if he wasn't careful...

“They're trying to freeze me solid again. Oh, in the time I was gone, them ponies done hooked the whole world up to a giant freezer unit!” Cancer cursed as he looked back and forth, eyes blazing with fury. And again, he looked in the direction of Canterlot... before screaming in frustration as he realized... “Goddammit! No, no, no, no! I don't wanna wait for my revenge, but all those demons are gonna be on the watch for me, and if I show up at their door a frozen Cancer-sickle that Gluttony whore will pop me in her mouth and chew me up like a lollipop! I gotta... gotta find another target... I gotta find me something that I can hurt... that I can crawl into, somewhere nice and warm, like those sewers...”

Cancer gritted his teeth, and then he looked up sharply, breathing harder as he whispered: “Yeah. Yeah, the white weasel was in that nasty demon hive, along with all her friends and pals... maybe that dirt-smear village of hers is unguarded right now! Maybe I can sneak my way in, have me some fun, let her come home to the sight of a real hot party... and ooh, there's that hot-spot in that place too, yeah? A hot spot I can heat myself on up at, yeah, yeah, yeah, that would be real nice...”

The monster nodded rapidly to itself, then he licked his teeth hungrily before hissing quietly and shaking himself violently out, bits and pieces of ice hailing down off his form as he attempted to raise his body heat again, rasping: “No, no, no... gotta keep focused, gotta keep myself warm, don't wanna be no topiary... c'mon, c'mon, focus now, you hear?”

Cancer nodded violently to himself as he dropped a little lower and began to scuttle forwards through the snow, breathing hard in and out as he whispered: “Just gotta get me to that vacation spot, and then I'll find my way in and curl up for a nice long nap right inside that beautiful bulging cyst they've built. Ooh, yeah, just gotta keep up my pace now, keep the blood flowing...”

The monster nodded to itself as it slithered through the snow, body rippling a little as it rasped slowly for breath, turning away from Canterlot with a growl to begin the journey towards Ponyville. And even though the night was dark and the screaming wind and whipping snow blinded and burdened anyone trying to push through the darkness, even all the miles away that he was, Cancer still zigzagged almost straight in the direction of Ponyville, sniffing out and hunting down his objective as he whispered: “Yeah... no hiding from me... I know just where you are...”

He grinned, then giggled a little as he slipped down into a shallow trench that was free of snow, body lowering further to get himself out of the blistering wind for a moment as he shook ice and water off his body before murmuring: “I need me a pick-me-up, though... but ooh, you know what always helps on the way, keeps a mind happy and distracted?”

He giggled a little, licking his teeth slowly before he dropped his head forwards, slinking slowly onwards as he began to hum to himself. Then, as he emerged back onto the snow-swept earth, he arched his back and rose his head, singing in low, rusty tones:

“Ooh, walkin'... on my way through the winds...
Getting my feet all dirty as I pace on through the snow-oh-oh...
Filth and grime, oh, so sublime, awaits me when I get there,
Such a sweet scent fills the air, it makes me think of ho-o-ome...

Ba sha da do da dop, wop wop, ain't nothin' gonna stop me now,
Ain't nothin' gonna slow me down, as I go, go, go...
Ba da do da do dop de dah, sha-ba, sha-be, oh whoa whoa,
Hey baby, don't you fret, the boogeyman ain't late for his date, with you... quite yet.

Oh whoa, whoa! Snow, sleet and hail, I like you even as I ail,
Because really, you and me are a pair, about the wide wide world neither of us care,
We just do what nature compels us to do and make the fleshbags rue...
The day... they... encountered us... oh yeah, ha ha ha...”

Cancer grinned widely at this, licking his teeth slowly as he nodded firmly, prancing down a path that had formed naturally in the snow before he slipped easily forwards and into a narrow tunnel, belting out and making frozen icicles above shiver violently with his echoing voice:

“Yeah, why would I waste my time on dealin' with Helheim,
Not when nature is so much sweeter and crueler...
She's the bitch-queen of the apocalypse, she lights fires and drowns babies,
And she and me are one-two-three and the same!

Hey, hey, hey, yeah... ba-da-ba-do. do-dop, oh whoa ho-ho oh no, no, no! Yes! No! Yes!
Yeah, nature-nature honey, gimme another kiss, of your poisons and your pain!
I'll put up with your ice if we can cut a deal, and you pump your poisons into my veins,
Yeah, gimme your poison, gimme your pain, gimme your last long breath,
'Cause I'm here doin' just what Momma Nature intended, bringing disease and spite and... and...

death.” rasped the monster, his head twitching to the side as his eyes glowed fierce red, and then he gargled before looking up with an insane, twisted grin as he walked out of the other side of the tunnel, as the wind howled as if in response to his song. “Yeah... you and me gonna get along just fine... I gotta stop being so selfish! But it's hard, hard, hard, when you make me so sleepy, sweetie... ooh, cold is freezing up my joints, getting in my veins, but I know, baby nature, I know you got big plans for me... you want me to kill those suckers, is that it? You're softening 'em up for me with all this biting wet and cold... oh, but why can't you rain acid? Vomit up a volcano? March on in a horde of parasites and cockroaches and diseased vermin? Ooh, gimme a snack! Gimme a sign!”

Above, there was a rumble, and Cancer looked up almost excitedly as he stepped into an open valley before a powerful gust of wind snapped by, stirring up a wave of snow from the top of one side of cliffs and sending a thick wave of white powder washing down and splashing over the monster. Cancer yelped as he was buried beneath the snow before snarling in frustration, then shivering once as the frost began to work its way into his veins again, hurriedly starting to claw his way out as he rasped: “I get that you wanna put me to bed, Momma Nature, but oh, no, no, please, I gotta make my way to that village... I gotta keep me awake, not asleep...”

The monster emerged from the blanket of snow, gasping before he hissed as another wave of snow burst down over him, and Cancer gargled before his mottled white skin started to turn faint blue. He shivered violently, then began to shake himself rapidly, but just as he began to heat up the wind kicked up again, and a shelf of snow clinging to the cliffs just above him trembled before collapsing. Powder and chunks of ice and thick sheets of snow splashed down over the monster, knocking him flat and burying him deep beneath the snow as he squeaked, knocked senseless for a few moments... and then Cancer's red eyes stuttered before he whimpered weakly: “But I didn't do nothing wrong, Momma Nature! Why are you sending... me to... bed...”

Slowly, Cancer's red eyes became like crimson glass, as mottled white body became brittle and icy beneath the blanket of frost and snow... and by morning, when the snow finally stopped, the monster was left buried beneath almost a dozen feet of snow and ice, a frozen statue buried in a deep gorge somewhere in the wild mountains around Canterlot. For now, the destruction entity had been stalled... but as the overzealous sun gazed down from above and heated the world, the melting ice made it clear it wouldn't be entombed forever.

Contests Between Friends

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Chapter Eighteen: Contests Between Friends
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares Mīrus smiled warmly over at Prestige Luster as they walked side-by-side through the streets of Ponyville: Antares was wearing a heavy hide jacket and a wool toque, while Prestige had her blue scarf wrapped tightly around her neck and a matching cloak covering her body.

Celestia had been running drills with them for the last few days, and had organized the young ponies into doing simple tasks for her: Avalon was running messages and helping with patrols, Aphrodisia was on official Starlit Knights duties, Rustproof was working hard with his mother almost every hour of every day in the engineering building, Meadowlark and Prestige had both been assigned to research and Antares had been training constantly. Not just his body, but his mind: he had already twice been put in charge of running drills for trainees hoping to become Starlit Knights, a task that had proven much, much harder than Antares had thought it would be. Not just because of how he had to organize everything, but because of the fact that quite a few of these trainees looked down on him because most of them were adults.

But today, Antares and Prestige both had the day off. So did Avalon, but it was only ten in the morning so she was likely still at home in bed and asleep... but they had plans to meet up with her later and pick up some treats at Sugar Cube Corners to bring to Fluttershy and Nirvana at the animal care center. The one-winged Pegasus was still training Avalon when the tiny mare had free time... which, thankfully, wasn't hard for her to find as long as she wasn't running errands for Celestia, thanks to winter slowing down the work that had to be done at the farm.

The glossy-black young stallion gazed warmly over at Prestige, who looked back and opened her mouth... then stumbled to a halt as her eyes snapped forwards. Antares frowned a bit, stopping and glancing up himself before he reared back in surprise at the sight of the armored unicorn striding calmly towards him. “Colonel Scutum?”

Scutum nodded once, coming to a halt in front of Antares and looking down over him measuringly with his single eye. Antares gazed back up awkwardly, giving a lame smile before he asked hesitantly, as the silence spiraled out between them: “What are you doing here?”

“Baroness Caprice has a meeting today with Baroness Celestia.” Scutum answered, gesturing absently at the library in the distance, and Antares nodded a few times before he cocked his head curiously as the one-eyed unicorn continued quietly: “I decided it would be a good use of my time to find you.”

Antares hesitated, then he shifted absently and said lamely: “That's... nice? I, don't get me wrong, I'm happy to... you know, see you and all, but I don't really know what you want and... Prestige and I-”

“This is important.” Scutum said mildly, and when he glanced at Prestige, she immediately lowered her head and shrank back, making Antares frown a little before Scutum simply turned and gestured. “Come with me. We should step outside of town.”

“Uh... why?” Antares asked slowly, even as he carefully began to follow, and Prestige hesitantly strode after him, looking as unnerved as the young stallion felt.

“Because I'm challenging you to a duel.” Scutum said calmly, and Antares wheezed in surprise as Prestige flinched visibly. The two young ponies stumbled to a halt, and then Scutum glanced over his shoulder, saying quietly: “I need to judge your character, Antares. And after what Lady Celestia has told me, I need to know if you're prepared for this or not. She's granted me permission to issue you this challenge on the condition that I allow you to set the rules of engagement.”

“I... oh... Horses of Heaven, I thought Aunt Tia was honestly giving me the day off.” Antares groaned and dropped his head forwards, but he admittedly felt relief mixed in with his frustration and apprehension: if Celestia knew what was going on, it meant that Scutum probably wouldn't kill him... probably. “I... what do you mean, set the rules?”

Scutum only grunted, and Prestige shifted and fidgeted awkwardly beside Antares as the two younger ponies followed the larger unicorn stallion, who easily strode down the snowy streets. Ponies hurried out of the way of the large stallion, looking at him nervously; Scutum clearly wasn't just a unicorn of the north, after all, he looked particularly imposing... and he had both Antares and Prestige trailing behind him almost like prisoners of war.

They reached the gates leading out of Ponyville and made their way through as Scutum looked back and forth: the road had recently been shoveled by the Nibelung that were now sitting on either side of the gates, chatting cheerfully away. He tested the smooth, frosty ground beneath his hooves, then nodded at how packed the little powder left had become as he said quietly: “This will work fine. Prestige, please wait at the sidelines. This is one-on-one.”

Prestige mumbled something, and Antares frowned a little for a moment at her before he apprehensively turned his eyes back to Scutum. The Nibelung were now looking up with interest from the gates, and Antares fidgeted a bit, only glad that there at least wasn't a larger audience: the snow-filled fields were empty, and since they were on the road leading towards the Everfree Forest, there was no need to worry about travelers... although of course, ponies could be watching from the nearby animal care center, but Antares awkwardly put that out of his mind. “I... don't know how to do this.”

“You're free to set any limits or rules you prefer, Antares.” Scutum said calmly, bowing his head politely. Antares eyed him nervously, then he nodded slowly before reaching up and adjusting his jacket with a grimace. His equipment was a comfy winter coat and a fuzzy hat; Scutum was in full armor, had his sword sheathed on his back, and was a unicorn who had likely trained all his life in combat and military tactics.

Antares closed his eyes, thinking slowly... and then he finally looked up and said quietly: “No killing, obviously. Fight until submission or surrender. I won't... force you to put down any of your equipment or limit your magic. If you had been an enemy or something, it's not like... I could just ask the bad guy to simply put down their sword and fight me hoof-to-hoof.”

Scutum didn't seem to approve or disapprove as he studied Antares, then nodded shortly before dropping to a ready position: Antares breathed slowly, then anchored himself as well, horn taking on a faint glow as he mumbled: “Well... let's get this over with, Scutum.”

“Show me how much of your parents live on in you, Antares Mīrus.” Scutum said calmly, and Antares looked up sharply, distracted as he realized what Scutum was implying before the larger unicorn stallion charged suddenly forwards, surprising Antares before the glossy-black youth winced and lashed his head to the side as Scutum's sheathed sword glowed and the pommel snapped forwards, aimed at Antares' face.

It whickered by, and then Antares cursed as he was forced to lash his horn forwards, sparks flying as the short sword snapped viciously in a circular cut towards Antares' skull. Horn and steel clashed, and then Antares cursed, fighting more on instinct than anything else as his horn and Scutum's sword slashed violently together again and again, every blow sending up a hail of sparks as Antares realized with shock that Scutum wasn't just using telekinesis: he was focusing some kind of magic into the sword, boosting the power of every blow.

Antares leapt backwards when Scutum stomped both front hooves forwards and swung his sword to the side at the same time, the glossy black young stallion staggering before Scutum quickly jumped backwards and anchored himself, sword falling back to a ready position at his side. Antares breathed hard, remaining loose and staring with surprise across at the one-eyed stallion before the military unicorn said quietly: “Not bad. But luck won't take you as far as skill.”

“Actually, my Mom always said it's better to be lucky than skilled.” Antares replied in a mumble, and then he winced when Scutum ran towards him again, spreading his leathery wings and gritting his teeth before he snapped his horn forwards, sending a blast of telekinetic force at Scutum.

The military unicorn slashed his sword into this as it glowed, countering the blast of raw force with pure power but then grunting in surprise as his weapon shuddered in the air, and Antares leapt forwards, boosting himself with a hard flap of his wings to swing his horn savagely down into the sword of the larger male. It knocked the weapon loose from Scutum's telekinetic hold, the larger unicorn's horn sparking as the colonel winced backwards from recoil... but before Antares could react, Scutum lunged forwards and smashed a hoof down across the glossy black stallion's face, then swung his other hoof in an uppercut that caught Antares under the jaw, knocking him flying backwards to crash down on his back.

He skidded painfully over the snow, gasping in pain as his eyes widened before Scutum flicked his horn upwards; his sword was launched high in the air, and then Scutum snapped his horn forwards, and the weapon shot at Antares like a missile. The young stallion barely had time to react, throwing himself to the side with a yelp and barely avoiding being skewered. “Oh come on!”

Scutum ran forwards, bowing down as Antares looked dumbly up before Scutum smashed into his stomach in a full ram and knocked him flying backwards with a hard rising slash of his horn. Antares cried out in pain as he flew backwards, blood flying from a cut torn along his stomach before he hit the road and skidded down the frosted hardpack on his back, cursing and hugging himself before he gritted his teeth as Scutum pressed the attack even harder, leaping forwards, calm and merciless...

Antares shoved against the ground with his hind legs, spinning himself onto his back so his lower legs were aimed towards Scutum before he kicked both rear hooves hard into Scutum's surprised features, knocking the military unicorn crashing backwards.

Scutum rolled once, then slammed all four hooves down against the ground and skidded to his hooves, straightening as he looked sharply up. Antares rolled to his own hooves, breathing hard as he spread his wings and flapped them once to limber them up a little, gritting his teeth as his horn glowed. The two faced each other, and then Scutum's eyes locked on where his sword was buried in the ground before he shot towards this as his horn began to light up.

Antares shot forwards as well, and Scutum looked surprised at the speed of the young stallion as the glossy black unicorn's horn glowed brighter and the sword lit up with the same aura. It snapped upwards and free as Antares grinned, snapping his head to the side to swing Scutum's own short sword at him, and the military unicorn flinched out of the way before he flicked his horn forwards.

For a moment, the two males halted, both gritting their teeth as they dropped to anchor themselves, wrestling for control of the sword as energy sparked over it and it glowed with the telekinetic power of both unicorns. It shivered violently back and forth, and then Scutum cursed before he flicked his horn sharply forwards, sending a blast of energy into the sword that made it glow white.

Antares winced, then he yelped in surprise as he was blasted backwards by magical recoil when the sword released a surprisingly-powerful shockwave and he felt his telekinetic grip knocked loose. The young stallion reared and staggered as he flailed his hooves at the air while Scutum flinched himself, before the one-eyed stallion leapt forwards and caught the sword's handle, lunging with it and leaning into a flurry of short, vicious blows that tore back and forth against Antares' body.

The young stallion cursed in pain as the weapon tore back and forth against him before Scutum attempted to thrust the sword forwards, and the glossy black stallion clapped his front hooves into either flat of the weapon, catching it and straining his muscles as he felt the tip of the weapon puncture into his body, cursing under his breath as Scutum bore relentlessly forwards.

Antares' horn glowed... and then sparked violently, making him flinch a bit as he realized that Scutum had somehow enchanted the sword to reflect telekinesis. He cursed, knowing he couldn't win against the larger stallion's raw strength before Scutum suddenly let go of the sword, and Antares' eyes widened before he released the sword himself and twisted sharply to the side when the larger unicorn slammed his hoof into the pommel of the blade.

The short sword shot narrowly by like a rocket, just scratching through Antares' side as the glossy black stallion winced, then gritted his teeth as he dove away from Scutum. The larger unicorn pursued him, beginning to raise his horn, and Antares reacted immediately, kicking both rear legs hard outwards and snapping his lower limbs around Scutum's neck before twisting hard to the side.

The two unicorns crashed down on their sides against the frosty road, and Scutum cursed before he pried himself quickly free from Antares' grip. The military unicorn leapt backwards, and Antares climbed quickly to his own hooves, breathing hard and glad for the reprieve, but at the same time wary considering how aggressive Scutum's attacks had already been.

Then the young stallion winced and readied himself as Scutum's horn glowed... before the glossy-black male stared when Scutum calmly flicked his horn forwards as he spread his front hooves slightly, and ice spread violently up his own limbs in thick bracers: a moment later, these sprouted blades of frost that quickly thickened and hardened into deadly edges, and Antares winced as he mumbled: “Crosshatch blades. I hate crosshatch blades.”

Scutum's only response was to charge forwards, then suddenly sidestep when Antares leaned forwards to try and intercept him: instead, Antares found a crosshatch blade of ice swinging towards his face, and the unicorn winced and swung his horn hurriedly down, parrying the attack even as he rose a forelimb on instinct to block a punch that hooked in from the side.

His horn chipped at the icy blade, but it was thicker than he'd expected, and Antares cursed before lashing out with a raw, wild telekinetic blast to knock Scutum staggering. The colonel grunted as he was knocked back only a pace, but more important, his focus was interrupted. Antares took the moment to lean forwards, swinging a hoof hard into Scutum's face and knocking the older unicorn staggering before he replied by swinging a hoof up in a savage uppercut aimed at Antares' throat.

The young stallion dodged backwards, remembering the crosshatch blades too late as Scutum's upper arm swung purposefully too high... and Scutum leaned forwards as he swung his foreleg hard forwards: a blow that normally would have been an ineffective slap was made agonizing by the icy blades as they tore a swathe down Antares' breast and knocked him stumbling with a yell, before he snarled when Scutum threw his shoulder into a fast, sharp jab of his hoof.

Antares' horn swung into Scutum's hoof, knocking him back as the military unicorn winced, then sharply drew up a foreleg to block as Antares lunged into a hard swing: the glossy black unicorn's hoof swung into the icy vambrace between blades of jutting frost, and Scutum flinched backwards in surprise as the crosshatch blade of ice shattered into fragments from the force of Antares' too strong blow. It knocked Scutum staggering in surprise, however, and even as Antares stumbled forwards himself he managed to shove himself into a half-pounce, half-fall, and slam his head firmly into Scutum's.

The young stallion knocked himself staggering dumbly backwards as Scutum was slammed flat to the ground with a grunt of pain. He laid on the frosty road, breathing hard, as Antares stood over him, barely staying on his hooves before the young stallion gritted his teeth and glared down challengingly at the military unicorn. “I got... I got lots more where that came from!”

Scutum slowly pushed himself up to his hooves, and Antares winced and lost a bit of his nerve, breathing hard as he stepped carefully backwards. Scutum shook his head out once, then he stomped the hoof still covered by the crosshatch blade of ice: this shattered a moment later, and Antares looked dumbly surprised before Scutum bowed his head politely and said calmly: “I've learned what I need to. I concede, Antares Mīrus.”

Antares stood awkwardly, and then Scutum drew his gaze slowly over him, continuing calmly: “You're quiet, like your father... but when your emotions rise, you begin acting as brash as your mother. You have a lot left to learn, but you're talented and determined. You didn't give up even when you began to be afraid, even when you understood that I would not kill you, no, but I also wouldn't hesitate to maim or severely injure you if necessary to stop you from fighting... because I recognized that if I wanted you to surrender, I would have to incapacitate.”

The glossy black young stallion continued to look dumbly across at Scutum, and then the military unicorn paused before glancing towards his fallen sword. The strange aura around it was slowly beginning to fade, and Scutum studied the weapon where it lay, the tip tinged with the faintest amount of blood before the colonel said quietly: “You're awkward with a sword. Clumsy. But you're fast fencing with your own horn. You should concentrate on taking an enemy's weapons away, not attempting to use them yourself.”

“I... I always ended up focusing on my hooves and my horn when it came to weapons training. Aunt Tia said that maybe one day I would find something that fit me, but... I never really did.” Antares said quietly, and then he smiled a little as Scutum turned his gaze to him before the young stallion bowed his head and murmured: “Thank you for the experience and the lesson, Scutum. I don't think that I would have won if we'd kept going.”

“It wasn't about winning or losing, Antares Mīrus. It was a test.” Scutum paused as he looked back at his sword as the glow faded, and he picked it up with telekinesis to sheathe it back on his back. Then the colonel gave a small smile as he seemed to relax a little, returning his eye to Antares. “I think Baroness Celestia was right to place so much faith in you. I wasn't sure at first, but... I am now.”

Antares blushed deeply as he bowed his head low, and Scutum shook his head, saying softly: “Stand up, look at me eye-to-eye. You have my respect, and I'll help you as I can now, as it was my honor to help your parents. My loyalty is to the crown, to Celestia: I still see her as Queen, even if she calls herself Baroness. As I still see your mother and father as Champions worthy of great respect, even if one was a rude slave hoof and the other spent most of her time causing mayhem.”

The young stallion laughed a little, nodding slowly before he asked curiously, as Prestige nervously approached from where she'd been watching: “So you did know my parents? When? And I mean... does that... did Caprice?”

“Caprice doesn't remember clearly. I don't know why some of us remember and others don't, nor is it important to me. The only other pony I met in the North was a shorn-wing named Swiftly Wing.” Scutum paused, then shook his head at the awkward look Antares gave him. “She doesn't deserve respect. She's a coward and a smuggler. She abandoned one of your parents' friends to die... even if we all fell to the Black Wolves, it's no excuse for what happened.”

“What are you talking about?” Prestige asked slowly, but Scutum only shook his head, and the unicorn mare sighed a little as she murmured: “Colonel Scutum, I've changed. You've always been good to my mother but so awkward with me, and I know it has to do with the Mayor, but... I... I am not like my father. Not anymore, at least...”

Antares tilted his head as Scutum shifted at this remark: he studied the colonel intently, but there were no further signs, no further tells, Scutum once more becoming impassive. But he did answer, even if his tone was careful and almost guarded: “It was Ragnarok, P