Coral The Phoenix and The Caged Bird by SilverStarApple
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Coral woke with a start when the bare-looking homemade magic radio beside her sea-blue bed snapped on at just the right moment, exposed wires sparking for a moment as bronze gears sluggishly began to turn, their recycled transmuted tin and iron friends doing the same. A tinny and rather distorted replica of the blaring, repetitive, gratingly loud, infuriatingly simple in-your-face tune played on trumpets, the tune repeated ad nausea that heralded the arrival of her least favourite wrestler ever, was sent into her face through small and weak speakers, her closed eyes snapping open to reveal eyes with ordinary black pupils quickly shrinking in shock. Her body - she supposed she'd rate it a 5 or 6 out of 10 for being rather angular, though she'd read that some bucks liked that more than the cuter or curvier mares - was coated in a warm pink fur, her warmer eyes were a yellowish-orange like the golden sand of a warm, inviting beach perfect for sunbathing on, and her mane was a bright, vibrant sunset-orange that stood out against her pink body. Her mane was styled quite a lot like the rounded, yet spiked mane of DJ-P0N3. However, rather than the sharp points at the ends of that brilliant musician's rounded mane, her ends... well... ended... in more rounded points, like long flight feathers. Furthermore, where the musician's mane had two shades of blue - a darker blue like a blazing, wild, dangerously hot gas fire and a lighter electric blue, like the light of a glowstick or neon paint perfect for raves, where the striking contrast of dark and light wonderfully complimented the energy of dance - she had only the one shade of orange in her mane, like an... orange... orange. An orange... sunset? No, she'd already said sunset. Finally, her Cutie Mark was a brown paintbrush, its orange-coated tip touching her flank's center, as if that paintbrush what created the symbol of an orange-coated yellow sun on her flanks. In any case, her dream about saving Equestria from a monster that was once a Unicorn, a Unicorn that had freed all the dark creatures in Tartarus and absorbed them into himself to empower him enough to defeat an old rival, a rival that had actually died while this former Unicorn was busy researching power-boosting methods and losing more and more of who he was with each spell and ritual was forgotten, though she knew she had to write that idea down soon. The nearest one of her sky-blue hooves shot out, filled with rage and determination, ready to punch the offending radio into oblivion, only to halt at the last second. She proceed to grumpily press down on the yellow tray serving to increase the surface area of the Snooze button's bare orange trigger, thinking to herself that it would have been so, so much cooler if she'd struck it so hard it dismantled in midair, time seeming to slow down as pieces of the shattered alarm clock flew around her, catching and reflecting the morning light like a thousand tiny disco balls.

The Pegasus stayed in bed for a while, curling up and huddling in the big fluffy ocean-blue covers for a while, enjoying the warmth and softness nothing else she knew could match, her eyes closing slowly as a smile spread across her face. She began to count down from exactly one hundred and fifteen seconds, the time she was allowing to give herself to enjoy the wonderful, fluffy warmth of her bed before she absolutely had to get up and start the day. And write down that awesome story idea, before she forgot it.

When the timer reached zero, she moved like clockwork, her body empowered by the energy that had built up inside her during her rest like a coiled spring, leaving her bed and getting her hooves onto the floor as quickly as possible in one fluid motion filled with purpose, like ripping off a bandage when you knew it would hurt, but it had to be done. And just like ripping off a bandage, the cold air of her room struck her bared body, her muscles tensing up in shock. It hurt a little, but it was what she got for napping like that, and she knew the risks when she made her choice, she thought dramatically. She'd made her bed, and now, she'd lie in it. Or... Not lie in it, she supposed.

The small bedroom of her family's small house in Manehattan wasn't exactly fancy, but it was cozy. Her eyes drifted back to her blue-matressed bed, which she'd left behind and sworn to never return to... not until tonight, anyway. Even if a lie-in did sound really good right now. The tempting embrace of her blankets and bed called out to her, and they were probably still warm... and every second she spent thinking about it meant more and more of her body heat in that bed would escape into the air, the ground, and the unfeeling void that was a meaningless existence, lost forever... And the tempting siren song of the box of chocolates and assorted sweets she kept hidden under her bed - beneath a pile of magazine cutouts she knew no member of her family would dare touch in the scenario that they found it - called out to her almost as loudly... She forced herself to look away, at something else, anything else. She saw her art desk in the corner, pencils lying in wait atop mostly-finished comic strips, her current page bearing a full-page spread of a curvy orange Alicorn with wispy ash-grey fetlocks unshorn, clad in spiked golden regalia - golden regalia that was certainly not ripped off from Princess Celestia - serving as war armour, long strands of hair as red as the crimson sunset streaming back from her beautiful face, her perfect body standing in a bold pose, ready to fight evil head-on like the artist behind the character never could. She saw her poster of DJ-P0N3 - a thickly-outlined sketchily-drawn awesome-looking image with solid segments of highly-saturated colours and no shadows, only lights. It was an image of the mare – no, the very master of dubstep, a deity beyond normal ponies - working the turntables with a fun-loving grin on her face, her head in mid-bob as thin beams of light danced around the room. She liked this new style of art, she'd heard they were called 'Eyecatches', and used commonly in VHS tapes to signify where an intermission would be placed if the show was performed on a stage. Coral used this awesome-looking poster to cover up a slightly-smaller and very different poster of DJ-P0N3 she'd been given as a gag gift for her last birthday, courtesy of a certain friend of hers at school, the wild-minded and wilder-eyed class clown and Party Pony known as Sugar Sauce. The poster wasn't terrible, far from it, she just preferred to keep it hidden, especially when there was a chance her little brother might see it. Finally, there was a pirate-themed toy chest that now held... actually, she wasn't sure what was in there, besides junk and a lot of old stuff. She hadn't opened it in four years, for the big padlock with fake rust was actually a combination lock with an utterly random code of numbers she'd specifically chosen so that nopony would be able to guess what was inside it. The code was so random, so cryptic, so incomprehensible, that nobody would ever be able to guess it, and as the icing on the cake locked away forever, she'd completely forgotten the code. The code was a complete mystery to her, and it had been for years. Sure, she could ask somepony magical to transmute the wooden box open, or transmute the lock off, or pick the lock with their magical Unicorn telekinesis, but she'd rather leave it locked and hope that one day, she'd look at the box and remember the code, which was...

Which was...

Uh...

Ffffff... Five... Sssss... Something?

She sighed. No, she wouldn't be remembering that today. She opened her bedroom door and left her room, closing the door behind her by turning her body's side toward it, extending her nearest wing, and flapping it down hard near the door, as if she had blades attached to her feathers and she was clawing the door into pieces horizontally, letting the wind vacuum take care of the rest. The door closed behind her with a satisfying click. She was getting pretty good at that, she thought happily as she trotted down her home's stairs with a smile on her face.

And then she paused, and realized she'd forgotten to write down that story idea. She quickly turned around and rushed back to her room, threw the door open, galloped to her desk, and empowered with the rush of urgency and determination, she threw aside the page she was currently working on, grabbed the nearest blank page and the first pencil her hoof automatically sought out, a dark green colouring pencil. Regardless, she quickly wrote down the idea that came to her in a dream, letting her rapid hoof ignore neatness for the sake of pure speed.

New villain- evil Unicorn that is no longer a Unicorn, he's now a monster because he absorbed all the beings in Tartarus and broke them out so he could absorb them, he's doing it to empower himself so he can beat an old rival, but the rival died while he was working on power-boosting rituals, potions, and absorption spells. Refuses to believe rival is dead, thinks he/she is just hiding and will wreck stuff until rival comes out. Have the villain absorb the power of ponies after escaping, to show Searing Sunbeam fighting and defeating a villain with tons of power to make her look better? OR just keep the absorbed evil angle to use light VS dark sun VS dark good VS evil symbolism andamp up his power by putting ultra-powerful demon/dark magic monsters in tartarus? Also write something romantic with Lava Heart or Swiftwing already, fans want to see kissing. OR WE SHIPTEASE BOTH UNTIL THE LAST EP AND TROLL ALL FANS no thats stupid trolling is why nobody likes Black any more KEEP RELATIONSHIP OPTIONS OPEN TO BUILD UP SUSPENSE EVEN THOUGH I REALLY WANT BOTH. herd stories are trash though do i really want to risk it? DO IT ANYWAY FILLY WE DIDNT GET THIS FAR BY ONLY WRITING WHAT WE THINK IS SAFE.

Coral was about to write the next line, asking if she really wanted to risk everything she'd written and the fanbase she'd worked for, all for one move most ponies will hate, but halfway through that thought, she remembered most of her fans seemed to hold heavy prejudices regarding what was and was not a good thing to put in a story, and putting in something they didn't like would instantly anger them, even if you pulled it off. She wasn't going to bend over backwards and compromise on her vision just to satisfy the whiny, easily-offended babies that weren't even real fans! Especially since... she kinda wasn't sure if she had any fans like that, you couldn't exactly hold big book signings and meet your fans when your one comic only had around fourty fans and only around twenty-seven of them regularly bought it, and the others only bought it on major events like final battles and character deaths... even though those fans missed out all the world-building and character development and other good stuff she'd have to throw away if she focused purely on big attention-grabbing action scenes. And then another thought suggested that since she didn't have that many fans and wasn't a 'real' super-famous writer, only an aspiring one, and she didn't want to lose what little she had, she should avoid ticking off the few fans she had. To which her artist's integrity declared as it flared up inside her, nuts to that! Forget those horseapples! She was an artist, and she would never compromise on her artistic vision! ...And then she decided this dumb circular "Should I? Shouldn't I?" nonsense wasn't helping her, and she should go and eat something already, because the paper she'd just written her idea down on was starting to look quite appetizing. Besides, it'd take long enough for her to draw what she wanted to draw, considering how often she messed up the art part of her comics.

Now feeling calmer and a little confused, she walked out and left her room again, closing the door behind her with a swipe of her wing. It took two swings this time, due to how wide-open the door was, but at least she did it. She began to trot downstairs, the smell of food reaching her muzzle and enticing her. She had no school today, and while she loved her few friends, she enjoyed spending time alone. Like the time she'd spend today planning the next few hundred chapters of her comic. Plus, she didn't have to deal with her idiot teacher Mighty Mountain – or as some ponies called him, Moron Mountain – today, so that was a big plus.

As soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was blindsided and tackled to the ground by a small, fast-moving object, hearing somepony's voice on collision. Her wings burst out in fear, and she scrambled to get up, but something was pinning her down, something on her chest. A young colt's voice announced, "Ninja art: Shadow Cannonball Jutsu!"

She reached her head down – or rather, up, since she was upside down right now - to see... a cute, chubby little Earth Pony with eyes like hers and a dark-yellow mane, a black bandana tied around his head to cover his muzzle, another one tied around his forehead like a headband, a grey-felt-pen rectangular scribble on that bandana where his horn would be if he was a Unicorn, emblazoned with a black symbol of a swirly thingy with a pointy bit on the right and a spiky bit on the right like the handle of a trowel, a long fluffy blue cloth bathrobe-belt around his chest like a martial artist's belt, but no matching bathrobe in sight. "Ha-HA! Got you!" He shouted happily, getting on top of her and raising a hoof to the sky. She thought he was raising it in victory, but then he pulled out a cardboard tube from behind his back, and brought it down on her forehead with a loud and hollow 'Donk'. She noticed that the cardboard was painted black at the lower third, like a sword handle, with the upper 'blade' section scribble-painted grey by a felt-tip pen. It even had a diagonally-cut section at the tip, likely done with ordinary scissors, some cardbord-bending necessary to unstylishly and unceremoniously chop it off.

He'd really put a lot of effort into this costume of his, even more than he'd put into last week's 'Dreaded Dread Pirate Malstrom' outfit...

And Coral knew exactly what'd annoy her little brother, and get him off her.

She grinned up at him, not taking this seriously. She badly faked a gasp, unable to keep the mirth on her face. "Oh no, not Pirate Malstrom! Are ye goin'ta steal me treasure?" She asked in a bad pirate accent.

He groaned angrily, the mood ruined. "I'm not a Pirate any more, Coral! I'm a Ninja now!" He raised his sword to the sky, and then held it horizontally in front of his muzzle, and then vertically between his eyes, and then horizontally in front of his eyes. He lowered it a little and peeked over it, so he could check if she was still there. She was, so he held it vertically again, between his eyes. "I'm an S-Class Ninja from the Hidden Whirlpool Village!" He declared, and pointed his 'sword' at her, her eyes crossing to look at its tip, just inches away from her muzzle."I've captured you now, you rogue Ninja from the land of Sky!"

"Yes you have, my little Crashy!" She said with a grin, pushing the sword aside with her face and reaching up to nuzzle him.

He pulled away, and she quickly bent her body up, and then swinging forward while flipping. She landed safely on her rear hooves, and then, her forehooves. She felt like books had always misled her about how hard that actually was, but at least she'd pulled it off. "Hey, stop it!" He yelled.

"Secret Art: Super Sibling Hug Jutsu!" She said happily, hopping up into the air and hovering, flying towards him slowly as she extended her forehooves for a hug.

"It's not cool when you do it!" He yelled as he ran away, and she got faster every second.

"It's coming! There is no way to escape this jutsu!" She declared, gaining on him.

"Yes there is! Every jutsu-" He began, looking back.

He stopped suddenly and jumped back, sliding back under her like a baseball player sliding to a base. He imagined that time would slow down right now, to properly show off how cool this looked in his head, and not just because he was actually sliding kinda slowly. "Has a weakness!" He declared.

She stopped flapping and fell right on top of him, landing hoof-first above him so not all of her body weight would be brought onto him at once. "Oof!" Was the noise he made.

"This Jutsu's weakness... is me!" She declared.

"Coral!" He whined, squirming to get free. "I know who that's from, and he's not from the Sky Village!"

"He could be, in this AU."

"No! AU means there's a point of divergence, what kind of point could change to put Itachi in the Sky Village?"

"Maybe his parents were exiled, they became refugees or disguised themselves, and got into the Hidden Sky Village instead, before they had him?" She suggested, deciding not to mention that the Whirlpool Village were wiped out in the original story's canon... somehow. It had been a long time since she'd read that story. How'd they get Aang'd again?

"No way they'd exile an Uchiha! They'd want to keep their fancy special eyes." He grumbled. He hated the Uchiha for ruining his second-favourite manga of all time, overshadowing all the cool characters, getting tons of screentime at the expense of everyone else, and pulling new abilities out of nowhere whenever they were in danger and needed to be saved by the author. Worst of all, Sasuke, his least favourite character in anything ever (He'd never read Harry Potter, he was saving them for when he was done with the new Avatar series) was one of them. Yes, it was totally the Uchiha's fault, and not the fault of the author for giving such blatant favouritism to a clan that already had a combo-platter of powers so ridiculously overpowered it almost single-handedly caused the series to slide into DBZ-style Power Creep territory. Or, for the uninitiated, "Only the ultra-powerful characters with ultra-powerful spells or techniques matter at this point, because the regular, average character, and even many of the side characters that haven't unlocked some new form or trick to keep up in the arms race of power are all nothing more than ants compared to the protagonist and his/her enemies. In a fight, those characters would be a commentator or living shield at best and a distraction at worst" syndrome.

"Well, do you want to go get some special pies?" Coral punned badly, her face making an odd expression, bearing a grin, her eyes in odd positions, left eyebrow lowered and lower eyelid raised, right eye widened and right eyebrow raised. It was like a combination of amusement, the silent question of 'Huh? Huh? Didja get it?', the wish that her brother would find it funny, an attempt at both holding back her internal laughter, and a symbol of how hard she was trying not to realize how lame that joke sounded out loud.

Her little brother squinted up at her.

That odd expression continued to rest upon her face.

His squinting intensified, but that expression stayed on her face.

"Let me go." He said mirthlessly, and she practically deflated. Though not literally, she wasn't a Party Pony like Sugar Sauce was. Those ponies were just... weird. Necks should not be able to turn that much, hooves should not be able to multiply or stretch that far, and ponies should not be able to just pop up out of nowhere, especially not from a tiny box or somepony else's mane. She let her brother go, and feeling like an elderly pony despite her age, she sadly walked to the kitchen, her brother trotting off ahead.

Coral saw their parents, and the lighting, the way they were standing, the actions they were carrying out, it was like something out of an old cartoon, and she wished she had an easel, some paper, and some pencils so she could capture this perfectly picturesque image forever. Maybe put it on a postcard, or something. Her father, a cobalt Earth Pony with a very dark blueish-purple mane by the name of Shore, was sitting down at the wooden red table with an untouched green cabbage on a white ceramic plate in front of him, three seats at the table empty, and he was reading a newspaper. Behind him, their mother, an orange Pegasus with a blue mane shaped like a back-swirling cloud by the name of Sea Foam, stood at the chopping board. With her hooves, she was preparing two bowls of a much more interesting salad for her two beloved foals, and a pie was baking in their oven.

"Now, I see where you're coming from, but there's something very important that you're overlooking, a really important fact you haven't addressed yet..." Shore said to Sea Foam, not looking away from his newspaper, as Crashing Wave and Coral pulled up their seats and sat down upon them. "You're wrong."

"Not this ponyfeathers again." Coral thought, already feeling a hundred and twenty percent done with this.

"Did you ever consider that maybe, just maybe, you're wrong this time, instead of me?" She rhetorically wondered aloud, sounding somewhat annoyed.

"Yes." He said in a manner that implied she was an idiot, an idiot that usually asked stupid questions, and he wasn't even slightly surprised by how stupid this one was. "So I thought about it, unlike you, and I realized that the right answer is to read these things. So I do, and I'm right to do it."

"You're being manipulated." She stated distastefully.

"I'm not being manipulated, I'm choosing to eat something that's offered to me." He stated haughtily, certain in his incorrect belief.

"Yeah, hate-seed." She said in disgust as her wings started to rise. "Hate-seed you had to buy from your hate-seed dealer. I bet it tastes like hate. Do you enjoy the taste of that hate-seed?"

"Not yours. Yours tastes bitter!" He replied, smirking. That was the cleverest thing he'd said all year, and he was proud of it. “Oh, wow, that's perfect.” He said, chuckling at his own joke. “That's just... the best possible thing. I don't even care what happens for the rest of the day, I'm happy, and this is one of the best days of my life. Nothing can ruin this for me. Literally nothing can spoil my day! And I don't even care if you're sleeping in your own room tonight, IT WAS WORTH IT!”

The underside of Coral's head swiftly met the desk in front of her. Nopony was surprised, it happened enough times in this house when her family was being stupid or when she was stuck and couldn't think of what to do next in her comics, and Shore didn't even look away from his newspaper. "Coral, what have we said about faces on the table?" Her father asked.

Coral raised her head just long enough to put her folded forehooves on the table and rest her head on them, like they were some kind of firm and uncomfortable pillow from an alternate universe where some evil monster had taken over and outlawed comfort, fluffy pillows, and happiness in general, because nothing was allowed to make anypony happier than that perpetually-uncomfortable monster. That'd make a... kinda weak story, but she could probably make it into some good filler. Maybe a joke villain? She couldn't imagine something so pathetic having any real power. Then again, wouldn't it suck if they did? She decided she'd write that idea down later, before she forgot-

"Coral, do you see this?" Shore asked angrily as he turned his newspaper around and showed her the main page. The first thing she noticed, when her eyes adjusted to read the thing pushed in her face, was the newspaper's title. Great, he was reading The Stun again. She'd thought her mother had finally gotten him to break that habit. Only because her father would likely ask her about it soon, she scanned the front page, glad there wasn't a spectacularly improper or unflattering probably-edited image of somepony the writers of this tabloid trash didn't like. It was the usual eye-grabbing nonsense, some big rant about how much it sucked - and how much Princess Celestia sucked for letting something this suckish happen - that some not-particularly-liked Canterlot pony born into her riches blew...

Her eyes widened in surprise. Gold Digger did WHAT to her fans after she blew HOW MUCH on a single party? It had HOW MANY WHATS doing WHAT at the party? And those WHATS were coming forward with their story now because they were the only ones in the mansion worth HOW MUCH forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement worth HOW MUCH?!

Coral felt a surge of righteous rage within her, a blazing tornado of fury, as she thought of the good ponies all over the world that had far less than that pony. Her wings reacted to her emotions and popped out furiously, straightening and sending gusts of wind around the room as she thought of how little that pony deserved what she had, and... and... and... and of how terrible that pony probably was. Sure, Coral didn't even know who Gold Digger was, or what she was like, but Coral knew how much she immediately hated that probably-a-total-jerk. Those poor, hardworking ponies, who would never know what it was like to have the riches those born into high places would have...

And then she forced herself to try and calm down when she remembered that this rage was what the gossipy hens that ran this awful newspaper wanted her to feel. She was nopony's pawn. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and waggled her uncooperative stiff wings on her back, unable to bend them or even get them to go down, so she chose to ignore it, relax her back, and hope they'd relax if she ignored them for a while. Even if the number on that ridiculous newspaper was correct - the number so large she felt physical pain when she saw it and tried to comprehend how somepony as shallow and horrible as Gold Digger could have that kind of money or even exist in this world - it had been selected out of a group of stories slightly less bad, worse, too bad to print, or subjectively less bad or less anger-inducing or whatever as the one most likely to make its readers feel the addictive rush of anger, a rush most of The Stun's thankfully-few readers longed for. The rush that now had the wings on her back so stiff and ready to send her flying through the window and toward Canterlot with some poorly thought-out revenge fantasy on the brain that her wings actually kinda hurt, feathers shifting uncomfortably as they longed to feel the breeze running through them, and her unmoving back and not-bent-up head and neck felt pretty sore, too. That stupid rush... Still, she understood the appeal. A rush of some kind of emotion was better than no major emotion at all for some boring ponies with boring lives... even though she certainly wasn't enjoying how this rage was making her feel. Wasn't Princess Luna's dream visits supposed to help the miserable lost souls like that? Had she just not gotten around to this? She knew that if SHE had power like that, she'd help all the ponies she could, and even mess with time if she had to, regardless of whatever time-master lived in the future or past or outside of time or whatever. Hey, that'd probably make a pretty good story, she'd write about that later: A hero needed to do some thing, so she breaks time to do it and has to fight the Time Police in the future/past/outside of time dimension time-bubble thingy. Maybe save the life of a friend? Or the life of an innocent caught in the crossfire between herself and a monster? She'd decide later if the hero would succeed in her quest, or if she'd just cause more needless destruction and death by fighting the Time Police and doing high-speed chases with tons of property damage, and the moral of the story was that you should let go of the past, move on, and accept your mistakes and learn from them, because killing thousands and destroying tons of stuff to try to fix one mistake that can't be fixed is bad and wrong.

...Actually, that sounded way too sad and emo. And she'd long since grew out of her emo phase. Defeatism was for losers, and the hero would save her friend's life after defeating the brutal, petty, closed-minded, egotistical and tyrannical Time King, who ruled over a horrible ruined future that was ruined by his rise to power and how he'd imprison dissenters before they even thought about rebelling. And the fight would be absolutely and utterly awesome.

Anyway, maybe Princess Luna really was doing her best to assist the nation's mental health. Maybe it was a gradual process. Maybe she'd have an easier time of things if the night was longer, and the whole 'Dream time is different to real time' thing wasn't made up - or maybe it was wasn't made up, but all that extra time STILL wasn't enough for her to help all the ponies in Equestria soon enough for her liking - but...

She wanted to do something. She wasn't sure what, but she wanted to do something. She wanted to help... Sure, the Dream Drop spell that allowed you to penetrate a willing, calm, or poorly-defended sleeping pony's mind and partially control their dreams was for trained therapists only... And sure, the harder Dream Drill spell that let you break into a sleeping pony's mind and control everything completely was only for the best therapists that worked under Princess Luna herself and handled restoring the damaged minds of crazy ponies and the worst criminals... And sure, you technically weren't even supposed to know either of those spells if you weren't a trained therapist, even though free access to knowledge was covered by the Pony Rights Act and knowledge of a spell and how to perform it couldn't be outlawed, only its usage could be banned.. not to mention the fact that she was a Pegasus and she'd need some kind of magical item to pull that off, but... she wished the town had a building people could go to, where ponies could volunteer and use a magical item just like that one she was thinking of, one that could give them powerful abilities, and the volunteers would then use those abilities to help other ponies. It'd take a load off Princess Luna's mind, since it probably took a lot out of her to patrol dreams so hardcorely - Was that a word? Hardcorely? Hardcoreish? Hardocreishly? In such a harcore way? Whatever... - That she ended up sleeping all day when she didn't have a slow night and just wander around the castle for the rest of the day until she slept. Besides, the night only lasted so long, and even with the way dream-time was different from real-time, patrolling all the dreams in Equestria must be hard on her.

She was sure that in another world, another timeline, she was doing something like that. And in another world, she was probably a great hero or amazing adventurer, or something else just as cool in her own right, and in another world, she was Searing Sunbeam, but...

Here, in this world, she was just Coral. Another face in the crowd. Another pony with no amazingly cool destiny. Another loser.

And this loser had a dad that, she realized as she came out of her own thoughts, was impatiently waiting for a response.

With the firm, final judgement of a pony sentencing an evil spirit to an eternity inside a magical box, Coral spoke. "That pony sucks."

"Told you." Her father said to her mother victoriously.

Her mother plonked down the bowls of salad in front of her foals a bit too firmly, and returned to her oven to watch it. "That isn't what we were talking about, dear." She reminded him, still seeming annoyed.

"Ha! See? Coral thinks this pony sucks, and so do I!" Shore declared, slapping his newspaper down onto the table in victory. He wanted it to make a loud, victorious slapping sound, like the banging of a judge's hammer-thing on his unmoving-button-thing, but part of his newspaper landed on his cabbage and it just sounded really, really lame.

As her parents continued to argue, Coral slowly and discreetly extended a wing towards the table, silently taking the paper with her wing and slowly and quietly dragging it to her. When the time was right, she kept a pleasant smile on her face as she stared off into the distance, seemingly thinking about Lava Heart's wingspan. At the same time, she took the paper with her hooves and fully removed it from the table, hiding it on her lap as her wing folded back up, and she quickly removed the third page centerfold with grace that suggested she'd done this many times before. When the image was removed, she folded it into a piece of small but thick paper, and slid it into her folded wing, her feathers keeping it hidden as she raised the paper back up and placed it on the table, now somewhere around page 6. She pretended to read the advertisement-filled trash for a few moments, get bored, and then turn it to page 9 and pass it back to her father. Now, he'd be able to pick up where he left off, once he was done arguing with her mother, and there was no chance of her little brother seeing whatever horrible image was placed on the infamous page three.

Like the glowing cracks on volcanic earth, cracks formed on the ground, an otherworldly purple light shining through. Black portals bearing golden swirls opened on the ground and walls, from which crows on the wing poured out, as if they were trying to escape from somewhere. They flew around the ponies in blind panic as Coral's feathers lost their grip on the folded image, a tornado of black feathers filling the room. A column of steel tore through the ground and turned the table to sawdust and splinters, a magical shockwave blasting everyone to separate corners of the room as the newspaper and folded image were burned up by the raging magical energies. Coral struggled to get up, head pounding and ears ringing, as black diamond formed on the walls and ceiling like scars forming on wounds, blocking the exits and refracting all light into a harsh shadow.

Harsh winds tore at her fur as the temperature lowered sharply, Coral's breath coming out in short gasps visible as small white clouds that were torn away by the wind, her eyes staring in shock at what was happening around her. Her heart raced and pounded in her chest.

The crows swarmed one area above the steel column, many diving into the ground or the column and dying instantly as their bodies dematerialized, becoming dancing clouds of black feathers while leaving behind black cracks in reality from which ethereal golden light shone as others circled the spiralling tornado like a curtain of absolute darkness and others spun counter to it, a complex dance where birds weaved in and out of each spiral and changed direction seemingly randomly, yet there was a pattern, a pattern beyond the minds of any who saw it. As more birds and feathers joined the dancing tornado, it grew darker and darker, and darker still...

Steel cables like vines, each coated in black diamond thorns, burst from the blackening floor the birds struck as midnight-black leaves sprouted from the ground, growing out to form the seven points of a star and growing larger and larger each second, until they completely coated the ground. The steel column in the room's center melted down to a liquid that was absorbed into the leaf-covered ground, and a faraway, but loud sound was heard, that of a hunting bird's screech, filled with rage no bird should feel.

A wide black-iron stem as thick as a tree grew from the center of the building, and a buildup of blackish-purple magic began to form around it as one of the ground's gem-thorned cables lashed out, splitting into four to wrap around his hooves and pull him into the air. Coral flew up to try and save him, but a second vine was ready, striking her in the side hard enough to knock her to the ground, cracking a rib. As she groaned in pain worse than anything she had ever experienced, she saw her father struggle furiously against the vines, the gem thorns cutting into him, and he continued to fight until black lightning was channelled down the vine into his body, making him scream for almost a second before he passed out.

"DAD!" Coral shouted, starting to crawl along the ground, and her father's limp body was thrown to the cracked ground like discarded trash, a black portal forming to take him, both disappearing a moment later.

The sound of her screaming brother caught her attention, and she turned her head just in time to see a massive shark made from black feathers leap from the ground and swallow him whole, before falling back down. She screamed and flew there fast enough to hurt her wings and knock loose many feathers, messing up her broken rib more, but the falling shark sped up so she wouldn't be able to catch him before he descended past the ground, which she struck chest-first and couldn't break no matter how she punched or scraped or bit at it, the unyieldingly tough leaves far stronger than they should be. Tearfully, she struck the floor again and again, and when a golden light glimmered from a crack forming in the black void at the center of the room, she turned to face it with anger in her eyes.

Whatever Coral expected to emerge from this absolute void, it did not come. Something worse emerged, and she knew when she saw it that she would never forget it.

Dark purple petals formed on the stem's head in the shape of a rosebud, as two colossal black-feathered wings grew from the sides of this stem. Black feathers grew along the plantlike body to cover plant matter, and black diamond-clawed talons on steel legs sprung from the base of the growing feathered mass as it tore itself free from the earth with all the effort of a casual step forwards, towards Coral. Black gems formed in the air and began to slowly orbit the bud. The bud grew and opened up, golden acid dripping from the roselike venus flytrap petals with black gems for teeth as the monster's head was revealed. A birdcage made from steel cables and black gem thorns held the white skeletal bird head within, a floating pure-white skull in which one orange orb wreathed in blue flames drifted around and served as the light that illuminated the rest of the hollow skull, the bird's black diamond beak glinting dangerously from the flames. The head still, the orange light moved around the skull as it seemed to see past its skeletal cage and scan the room, before locking on to her. It lowered its head to look at her, and fear gripped her heart.

"Your name. What is it?" The beast demanded, and as it spoke, she heard the whisperings of the void, fleeting suggestions beyond comprehension.

She screamed and struggled at her restraints, and black lightning was channelled through the vines and into her body. She screamed louder, the pain worse than anything from this world could have ever caused.

"I did not come to know your cry." The beast roared as the lightning stopped. "I came to know YOUR NAME."

She screamed louder and as her eyes blazed with fury, she dislocated one of her shoulders so she could break free and push her way out with the other hoof. No longer restrained, she flew up towards the beast's caged face, flipping over in the air as she roared a battle cry and resolved to strike it with her rear hoof, right between the eyes, with all she had and all she was. It didn't seem to be capable of dodging, since it wasn't moving, and something that big should be quite slow.

"TELL ME YOUR NAME!" The beast demanded as a wave of unseen force ripped through her body and blasted her back as easily as a hoof kicked away an empty can, a few important bones in her wings fracturing. She fell to the ground quickly, and like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake, she bounced twice on her right side, her extended wing trapped beneath her, before sliding across the ground and eventually hitting the wall behind her, hard. Letting out a pained moan, she shakily tried to get back on her hooves, but she couldn't do it, falling to her chest as she glared defiantly at the beast that had her parents and her brother.

"GIVE ME MY FAMILY!" She screamed, powering through her pain and rushing straight at the beast, her wings stretching out, right wing bent a little, shakily taking flight and delivering a harsh straight punch and all of her momentum and strength into its central stalk, the heavy blow doing nothing to the monster and hurting her hoof and shoulder like she'd punched a brick wall, but she'd never go down without a fight, not when there was still a chance she could save the ones this monster had taken. Realizing that wouldn't work, she quickly flapped her wings to send her straight up, somewhat clumsy and untrained in the air - a professional aerial fighter would have gone into a spiral to best use their momentum while avoiding the worst of the straight lines that made one easier to predict and attack - but that didn't stop her from flapping forwards and trying to fly though the thorned bars of its caged head to punch it, right in the face. If she was going down, she was going down swinging.

"Every time." The beast said in an utterly deadpan tone, the metal bars of the cage around its and head neck peeling back as the head looked directly into the eyes of the small girl, and she gasped as her pupils dilated like the stain of a spilled inkwell, the flame growing larger.

In that flame, she could almost see multiple organic eyes coating the flaming orange gem at its core. And in those eyes... she didn't see darkness. It was beyond the darkness you saw when you closed your eyes, when you closed the curtains, even when you pulled the blankets and pillow over your head, because in all of those scenarios, the tiniest bit of light was present.

Not here.

This being had seen stars born and die, had seen whole worlds live and die, and felt nothing. This being existed on a level far above her own existence and had the knowledge to show for it. A pony like her could never even hope to defeat this beast.

Her heart rate dropped like a stone as her flapping wings weakened and descended, slowly landing on the ground to look up into those holes where eyes should be, and the flame that slowly glided from side to side inside his skull as it tracked her movements. Her pain returned like a wave that crashed against her body, but that seemed far away, while the eye of this beast seemed to stretch to fill her whole reality.

She saw infinite blackness reflected within those eyes. No light, no stars, only the cold, empty void of space and the uncaring detachment of time. She looked deeper into those eyes, and deeper still, certain there had to be some light in them, something in the darkness she just wasn't seeing. Absolute darkness just didn't exist, it couldn't exist, but... here it was, staring right into her eyes.

And deep within her heart, she knew... just as she saw the void within this beast, its cold eyes saw everything inside her.

She didn't know this monster, or what it was, or where it was from, or what it could do. In those eyes, she saw aeons past reflected in an instant, and in another, the death of stars. Planets freezing over, planets burning, civilizations falling, entire galaxies wiped out in the blink of an eye. And she saw more, things beyond her comprehension, though she wished they were not, she wanted to know what this thing had seen, what it could do to her. The fear of the unknown took root in her heart, her muscles locking up, even as she fought to move them, to keep fighting. Now, even breathing had become a struggle.

The beast opened its mouth and let loose a hideous screech, her ears flattening against her head as control of her body returned to her. She broke her eye contact with the flame, and she screamed and covered her ears, trying to block out the sound. From the bird's opening skeletal mouth, black feathers spewed forth like liquid to engulf the mare and envelop her completely in a forming sphere of absolute blackness, feathers moulding together into a material softer than silk, yet harder than any rock. It allowed her to breathe, but she didn't care. In that ball, with no hope of escape, she continued to struggle as it rose up towards the monster's head.

Feathers cleared from her vision as light once again met her face, even if it was the perverted, distorted light of her house's gem-coated windows. She saw that the beast had allowed her head, and only her head, to break free. In the corner of her eye, she noted that the gems coating the windows had taken on a pattern of sharp triangular shapes, like stained glass, displaying a laurel wreath of black feathers twisted once, forming the symbol for infinity. Ignoring that, she continued her violent struggle, noting that her wings were kept still and refused to obey her, like the beast had power over them and knew they were broken, and refused to let her hurt herself any more.

Yet despite its power, it allowed her head to move freely, as if it only cared about her wings. Silently, the beast observed her and her abilities, and she felt like a research specimen trapped beneath a magnifying glass, observed by a creature entire worlds beyond her.

The beast spoke, but this time, its voice different. Its voice was calm, low and powerful, the faint and furious whisperings from before completely gone. The voice echoed through her heart and mind like it had emerged from deep within her, and at the same time, it filled the room with its depth. It was the voice of a being detached from this plane of existence, with power no being of this world had. "Do you know my name, little Pony?"

"N-no." Coral stuttered, before pausing, closing her eyes, and focusing. "No." She said confidently as she opened her eyes and revealed orbs of fury. She tried to glare defiantly into the beast's eyes, her confidence slowly fading as the infinite darkness drew her in more and more and she forced herself to look away, clenching her eyes shut before she embarrassed herself further.

"I am the void, cold and unfeeling, enveloping all that exists. I am flight, free and unrestrained. I am greater than the sun, and any star, for I am the blackness of space. Every bird is one of my eyes, every planet is one of my feathers. The inescapable, inevitable, and inexorable death of entropy is nothing more than wind caused by my wingbeats. I see all, I know all. I am Mordhau."

She stared at the beast, her eyes wide as they travelled along its form, looking anywhere besides the eyes. She'd seen it earlier, but her eyes were still having trouble understanding this creature, this combination of plant, animal, metal, and gem. When she'd taken it all in, she looked at its head, focusing on the space between its eyes, and not at the flaming light that returned to the skull's center. "Uh..." She said, stunned. "Um... H-hi, I'm Coral."

"...Hello." Mordhau growled, unimpressed. "Is that really how you greet a being above you in every way? More importantly... Do you know why I'm here?"

Coral spoke in a quiet voice, her resolve gone. "You're going to kill me?" She asked.

"Yes." The beast said, its jaws opening wide, and she could see the flame within its skull grow brighter.

She glared at him with an intensity that surprised herself. "Get it over with." She demanded. "A being as 'amazing' and 'Beyond me' as you should be able to do that, right?"

"I lied, idiot." The beast growled, to her surprise, as it snapped its jaws shut and its flame returned to normal. "What, you seriously thought I'd throw you away, when I could instead use you? What do you take me for?"

He made a series of sounds, a series of voiceless whistling noises, like the wind, emerging from the center of his skull and whistling through the eye sockets, like an old man's laughter. An orange glow formed around her body, and it was healed completely in under a second, finding the healing more painful than being hurt due to how rushed it was. "Yes, you certainly are 'Pure'. Pure stupidity. It was hard for me to break into this world, I will not waste that effort. I've taken your parents, in case you were wondering. They live in a pocket dimension, and will run out of air in seven days. Choking on the air itself... Not a fate, I assume, you would want your parents to meet. You're going to carry out a certain task, and if you complete it, I will give your parents back to you."

"Why me?" Coral demanded. “Why did you have to take my family?!”

"Don't worry, you won't find this morally objectionable. That would ruin your 'Purity', wouldn't it?" He asked disdainfully.

"My what?" Coral asked, confused.

"I needed to give you a reason to work for me, one that won't compromise your 'Purity'. Simply put, your heart is considered 'Pure' by certain artefacts and spells, as idiotic and subjective as the concept of purity is. This includes the protective wide-area spell that decides who can and can not enter a certain somewhere, and the effect some places naturally have due to magic buildup of a certain type. Far in the north, one of the largest and most challenging Ancient Temples known to my world exists. And let me clarify: Not your world. My world. Now, tell me something... Have you ever read Daring Do?”

“Huh?” Coral wondered.

“Have. You. Ever. Read. Daring Do?” Mordhau asked furiously. “You know, Daring Do? THE Daring Go? One of the few books your species can actually write well?”

"Y-yeah." She admitted. The idea of this giant monster hunched over a tiny Daring Do book as its feathers or magic or whatever held the book up to his eyeholes so he could read it... That was kinda funny, but she stopped herself from laughing. Months of dealing with Moron Mountain had trained her to hold back the urge to laugh when in the presence of something that probably wouldn't like being laughed at.

"A lot of the temples Daring Do raids are... 'Ancient Temples'. Yes, that's quite a good translation of their true names. Buildups of magic cause anomalies in space and time, creating puzzles and chambers and mazes made of magic, filled with traps and constructs of raw magic that take the form of enemies appropriate to the temple's theme, ready to fight any intruder and defend the treasures or knowledge that place holds. That's the short version. The long version is a speech on how not all are created by those magical anomalies, some were made by ancient ponies that wielded their own lost magicks, and I don't have time to give you that lesson. And you don't have time to listen to it, you precious flickering flame, you. The sooner you fulfill your task, the sooner you can get back to wasting time with your family and your life's petty nonsense. Would you like to know why I need you to enter this temple?”

“I'm 'Pure', so I can get in, and you can't?” Coral guessed.

“Exactly. And while there are plenty of ponies in Equestria that can be called pure, you have a strong mind and a strong will. I like that. Therefore... I choose you. Now, this Ancient Temple has another rule, an interesting effect that comes into play at the start. One rarely seen these days... well, in comparison to other, more common restrictions and other pointless gimmicks, such as 'You can only enter if you're a certain species' or 'You can only enter if you know a certain spell or your species can perform a certain thing naturally' or 'You can only enter if you're above or below a certain level of power on a vaguely-defined scale your species isn't even used to using'. Would you like to know this restriction?”

“Uh... Yeah.” Coral said, not sure why he felt the need to ask that. She was going in, so of course she wanted to know.

“Good. Now, I'll tell you... And listen carefully, because I'll only say this once.” Mordhau warned.

“I'm listening. Get on with it already, so I can do whatever it is you want and get my family back!” She wanted to yell in an irritated tone as she possibly rolled her eyes or something. However, she did not do that. She got the feeling that this creature wouldn't have any problem squashing her with a talon and finding another being some spell considered 'Pure'. Pure ponies probably weren't hard to find in Equestria. Though looking for one in Manehattan was an odd choice. Wouldn't some smaller town have a more friendly community, as opposed to this town? Maybe purity only counted when it had some pressure put on it, and if it remained pure despite that.

“When you enter this Ancient Temple, you lose everything. Absolutely everything, save one item you can easily carry, and you cannot summon any additional objects or hide them within one. Taking in a bag of weapons would cause you to enter with an empty bag, or the least useful thing within it. Ancient Temples tend to have a rather grim sense of humour, when they feel the need to punish any that try to subvert one of their rules. Any enchantments or magical abilities you may have are sealed away until you leave, save those your body can naturally perform. Such as your Pegasus Magic allowing you to fly, despite the basic fact that according to all known laws of aviation on my world, there is no way a Pegasus should be able to fly. Your wings are too small to get your fat little body off the ground. You Pegasi, of course, fly anyway, because you don't care what my kind thinks is impossible.”

There was a pause, as if the beast in front of Coral expected her to say something. But right now, she couldn't think of anything to say.

“If there is one thing about your kind I admire, it is that. In any case... Some failures believe your memories are also erased when you enter, but other failures that failed this Ancient Temple's challenges disagree. A body modified by magic to be stronger or faster would be returned to its original state, before it was enhanced. Magic is negated, Enhancements are removed, and you are reset to 'One'.”

“'One'? What do you mean by that?” Coral wondered hesitantly.

“Exactly that: 'One'. Let's say there's a number, from one to one hundred, that measures your ability to do something. One this scale, one hundred is the absolute peak, the ultimate master, and a one is a beginner that hasn't even started practicing or trying it for himself yet. Enter this Ancient Temple, and just as your possessions are brought back to 'One', you meet the same fate. All of your skills are erased, brought down to the baseline average for your species, and you must regain each one as you progress through the temple. The skills you once had will only return to what they were when you leave, whether you leave as a champion carrying loot to me... or a failure for me to devour.”

Without meaning to, she took a step back.

“A bodybuilder or athlete that trained for years for the day they eventually enter would find their body reset to the absolute average for their species on arrival. An elderly being that can barely move will find their body moving like a normal pony again. Whether it is one hundred, or minus ten, everything that enters will be reset to one, besides your personality, appearance, and age. Therefore, entering a champion would be a waste. But something such as yourself, a being so utterly unremarkable... You wouldn't lose anything important."

Coral flinched at how much that stung. "E-Even flying?" Coral stammered without meaning to, and cursed herself for stuttering.

“What?” Mordhau wondered.

Coral and then wondered why that, of all things, was her first question. Visions of a young Coral struggling to fly and falling to the ground like a flightless chicken or unsteadily flapping through the air like a drunken bee inside her bedroom like an idiot filled her mind. She remembered how she was unwilling to fly in public until she was sure she'd gotten it down, even if her mother did say learning to fly inside a building wasn't something a beginner should start with, and she'd find it so much easier if she leapt from a somewhat-tall tree and learned to glide first. She remembered how she could only manage that once her parents took her to a specially-maintained forest and had her do just that. Visions of her unsteadily gliding and turning until she finally crashed to the ground, face in the mud and flanks in the air, wings still stuck out, filled her mind, followed by memories of every embarrassing fall and crash and failure she'd ever had in the air... She loved flying, it was the best thing for clearing her mind, and she really, really didn't like the idea of having to learn that skill all over again. “If I enter that Ancient Temple, will I lose the ability to fly?”

“No. You won't lose any skills. They will simply be reset to 'One'. Even your skill in the air. Even walking." The beast said, seeming to enjoy the thought of her suffering. "Have fun with that."

"Will I... talk weird?" Coral asked, unwelcome visions of her tearfully yelling 'Me no speak goodly any more!' entering her mind.

"More than you do right now? It's weirdly, you complete and utter idiot.” He hissed. Wow, he really cared about grammar. “And no, your ability to speak your native tongue isn't a skill. Obviously. When a being communicates in its own language, it speaks from the heart. In case you didn't notice already. Tell me, why do you think you never find your own language difficult or complex, even if it is filled with nonsensical words or rules? Or if the reverse is true and it doesn't have anywhere near enough words or rules, and the average sentence sounds like something a half-form would say, why do those fools with ineloquent tongues never question this? And have you ever wondered why you can easily understand a sentence or statement in a language you can speak with your heart, even if it makes no grammatical sense? Even if, according to your own language's laws and rules, it should be completely indecipherable?"

“No.” Coral admitted.

"Of course not. Don't feel bad, Pegasus. You're just a Pony. Now, tell me... Have you ever travelled by portal before?”

“No.” Coral admitted. “Hey, um... Is my family okay right now?” She wondered.

“Have you noticed something?” Mordhau wondered, raising his head.

“Noticed what?”

“I'm curious, and not entirely sure if I should ask this question. After all, I don't know how you'll react. I think this, and then, I remember three very important facts.”

“...What are they?” Coral wondered.

“One, I hold the lives of your family in my claws. They now exist in a pocket dimension, as I mentioned earlier, but let's tell you what it's like. In a black void, a single ethereal blue light exists, to allow them to see each other. They are trapped in a metal prison lined with feather-coated crystal too hard for even the strongest pony to break, the feathers too soft and thick for even the stupidest of ponies to injure themselves against it. As I said earlier, they will suffocate in seven days when the dimension runs out of air. Do well, and I might extend their time. Displease me, and I'll shrink the cage and the dimension, reducing the time they have left. And if you turn against me, I'll shrink this cage to a more manageable size, and sell their souls to the highest bidder. And the nobles of the true Tartarus – not the ridiculously empty pocket-dimension prison given that name by your kind - are so utterly disgusting... I metaphorically vomit at the thought of what they would do to your family, after I sold them in exchange for books. Not literally, however, because I just don't care about your family. And you, the being that caused her own family to be murdered just because she didn't want to work for me... I wonder what I could trade a soul like that for? After, of course, I stuff your body full of feathers until no more will fit, and then keep stuffing. Two, the Temple's name is Sole Hollow. And three – And this one is extremely important, so listen carefully - I don't give a flying feather what you think of me. So tell me, have you noticed something?”

“Noticed what?” Coral asked angrily, struggling to hold herself still as her wings flared up and were stuck against her feathery prison, her back and wing bases hurting way, way more than she was comfortable with. Also, that reminder of the fate her parents and little brother might meet if she didn't live up to this creature's expectations really wasn't something she needed.

“How many questions you ask!” Mordhau shouted, glaring right at her. “Seriously! What do they even teach in this dimension? You don't know about Ancient Temples, or the concept of numerical skill representation, or that this Ancient Temple even exists! Seriously, it's getting annoying.”

Mordhau turned away, nodded, and a horizontal black line formed in the ground between them, like a scratch mark made by a large bird's claw. It opened up, revealing a shifting, swirling purple and black mass. Without warning, the ball of feathers that had encased Coral released their grip and vanished, and she fell to the ground, her hard wings angling themselves to let her shakily glide down to the ground beside it. “Have you ever travelled by Dark Corridor before?” He asked her.

“No.” Coral admitted.

“Good, because they'll erode you. Dimensional Tears won't, and they are superior in every way.” Mordhau said as a bright orange glow formed around Coral, and she was lifted up into the air as easily as a pony would pick up a rock. The portal beneath them suddenly expanded, and Coral's vision was engulfed by darkness.


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