Coral The Phoenix and The Caged Bird by SilverStarApple
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Darkness. The eternal, ever-flowing darkness, all around her, was at once comforting and terrifying, the warm embrace of familiar surroundings and a cold, empty void in which her consciousness floated, lost and alone. She tried to move her limbs, and had no idea if she succeeded or not, for she could not see or move anything.

In that void, all her senses now useless, she wondered if she was alive, or dead. If this had all been some elaborate ruse, to trick her into allowing her body, mind, and soul to be devoured by whatever foul beasts lurked in this world between worlds, this soulless void, unaware of what those creatures beyond her dimension and beyond her senses were doing to her or what fate awaited her after death.

If she tilted her head to the side, or imagined herself doing so, and closed her eyes... while it didn't make any real difference, it made it easier for her to pretend that she was in her bed, still asleep, and this was all part of some strange, sick, twisted dream. A dream she would soon wake up from. She'd find herself in her bedroom, unfinished work on her art table, her brother waiting at the bottom of the stairs to ambush her, her parents having some dumb argument in the kitchen or living room, making up only when they'd both acted sufficiently stupid in each others presence. It was all a dream. And she'd wake up from it... soon. She hoped.

...Yes, that inner monologue sounded deep enough, and was also a rather accurate summation of how it felt to travel through that portal. It'd look great in the story she'd base off this adventure, and while she usually hated thought bubbles, they'd be great to hold those words AND contrast the absolute darkness her body floated in. Her body was unceremoniously spat out of the exit portal rather quickly, as though she was something bitter and vile a massive beast had taken into its mouth, only to find her taste nothing less than pure anathema. Her stomach collided with the grassy floor, her limp hooves landing a moment later. In that moment, she decided she'd leave out the part where she spent less than a second in that horrible void between worlds.

A sensation ran through her body, rushing from her limbs to her spine, then to her brain, and it took her a moment to recognize it as pain. It didn't hurt much, she'd gotten rocks lodged in her hooves that had hurt a lot more than this, but after that express trip through the darkest of voids, it felt strange, like it was something new, something she'd never felt before. It was a bit like stepping onto solid land after a long journey through the air, having rested only on soft and malleable clouds, the unyeilding and unmoving ground something odd, slightly uncomfortable to walk upon, stifling. And the air here... She sniffed the air a few times, and started to breathe deeper upon finding the air not only acceptably clean and breathable, but enjoyable to breathe. The sweet scent of flowers she didn't recognize, like an exotic perfume, only enhanced by the fresh grass and... cinnamon?

She slowly got up, experimentally scraping a hoof along the ground, feeling the resistance of earth, a welcome change from that void. It was some of the best dirt she'd ever felt. She scraped again, harder, digging through the dirt this time. It was soft, moist, rather loamy, probably good dirt for planting, she supposed... but it'd be even better dirt for rolling around on. She could roll onto her back and just lie there, wings outstretched, enjoying the wonderfully soft ground, rolling around to let its comforting presence embrace her whole body.

She leapt back as colossal black talons six times her size tore massive gashes out of the ground in front of her, wings flaring out and staying out as she glided back, shakily faltering a little in the air. She wasn't that good at flying in reverse, and she also wasn't expecting those giant disembodied talons to attack the earth before her, and then crumble and break apart like a metal structure, what she initially believed to be shards of metal turning into a flock of ravens that took flight and left her behind, flying off into the distance.

She felt a presence behind her, as powerful and precise as an industrial press. “Interesting.” She turned quickly, and saw Mordhau staring down at her. Despite the lack of any expression on his monstrous face, when he spoke, she could hear and practically taste the sarcasm dripping from his voice. “I can see why you took time out of your busy schedule to do that, and waste time in the process, increasing the risk that your family would choke to death. That WAS enjoyable. Perhaps we should proceed to uproot some trees, and mark them, there's something oddly enjoyable about fulfilling and indulging one's typically-repressed feral nature. One might even call it liberating, unnervingly so. Then, perhaps, shall we take some more trees, sever their branches and greenery, construct a fort from nothing more than wood, and cause an unforseen downpour upon it? Truly, our decadence shall know no bounds tonight. After all, saving the ones whose lives depend on you just isn't as fun as random acts of instinct.”

She glared up at him in defiance, her mind searching for a reply. She found none, and instead chose to look around. She was in a clearing in some kind of wild, untamed forest area... some brownish-orange thick-stemmed flowers were scattered here and there, and not too far away, there was a very, very large pyramid made from stone bricks twice her size, over a hundred smaller stone brick steps leading up to the temple that pierced the cloud layer in the sky and seemed to go on beyond it quite a while. Moss grew on some of the oddly-perfect stone bricks, appearing to have been there for a very long time, yet not showing a single day's worth of wear or tear.

“So, that's where we're going?” Coral asked, looking up at the mountain.

“No, we're going to a predetermined meeting point. There, a friend of mine will teleport us to the true location.”

“Okay, so-”

“Then, once we are there, we will turn right, and travel on through the true location, which is not the actual true location, but instead, an extra dimension, a world between worlds between worlds. We will traverse this plain, slaying whatever vile, otherworldly abominations we come across, and I will take their souls, and whatever energies their bodies have. I will also take the bodies, and transmute them into pure energy. Or impure. Really, it depends on what their bodies are made of. In all honesty, you're rolling an enchanted die with infinite sides and infinite possibilities every time you travel to a world like this. Well, not entirely infinite, not when my presence keeps things in order."

"Because you're using a spell to make reality make sense?"

"Because the void knows better. When we have enough power, we will breach the gates to Tartarus itself – The true Tartarus, not the pocket dimension your ruler uses to imprison beasts from your world and any from others that think it'd be amusing to attempt to attack a dimension ruled by something with the kind of power that moves live suns and commands light itself to obey – And there, we will find the King of Tartarus himself, or whoever's sitting on that infernal throne this week, and make a deal with whatever we meet.”

“And when you say deal...” She voiced, suspecting that she knew where this was headed.

“The kind of deal I made with you, yes.”

“So you're going to force him to do what you want, and do whatever it takes to get what you want?”

“Did I force your claws? Or hoof, as the case may be?” Mordhau asked. “No, you had the option to tell me you didn't care about your family, and would prefer that I leave you alone. You had the option to demand I leave, but instead, you chose to earn their freedom.”

“Well, since you're holding them hostage, I can't really say no, can I?” Coral asked in irritation.

“They're not hostages. They're just victims I took, and plan on slowly suffocating to death unless you get me something I want more than some new bodies and souls to trade or sell, and then complete the following deal: Your family for the treasure I desire. Technically, not blackmail. Simply an exchange. I have what you want, and you can get what I want.” Mordhau lied.

Coral growled. “Could you at least call it what it is?”

“But here's where it gets good.” Mordhau said proudly. ”Once we have this beast under our heel, whether we strike up a deal or beat it into submission, whichever I feel like doing, we'll go one a one-bird one-pony crusade through certain dimensions I have a particular loathing for. Especially the dimension where everything that lives right now exists, but the evil ones are good and the good ones are evil. And the dimensions where everything is the same, except for minor details, such as Princess Celestia being, for all intents and purposes, Princess Luna and vice versa, or where I was an Alicorn and Princess Celestia was myself, or where particular beings were actually so different from their original selves, they share only a name, and sometimes, not even that, and their very existences are sick mockeries who exist only to cheapen the existence of the true self. I despise worlds like that. Tell me, why do worlds like that exist? Why WOULD worlds like that exist? In any case, after that, we'll hit up the dimension a certain loathsome little cockroach created in his idiotic fantasies, a world where a younger, idealized self is alternately given special treatment and bombed upon by a world this delusional creature ruined to fit his twisted desires, victim complex, and god delusions, and leave nothing alive. Well, as alive as anything so utterly false ever could be. I'll leave the fake beings to you, and I'll handle the avatar of the dimension's creator myself. Such a creature, capable of twisting the laws of its own false reality to its advantage and ignoring them whenever they would be disadvantageous, against myself, a creature that twists minds and cares not for any laws... I wonder who would win. When we're done purging that filth from the planes of existence, we'll tear through the dimensional barriers themselves and make it here once again, where I will use my newfound power to tear through the barrier around this temple that doesn't actually exist, and merrily construct from feathers a colossal monument of an equine backside facing your stupid face, complete with rotating tail.”

“Wait, what?” Coral asked in surprise.

“I made all of that up, idiot.” Mordhau stated, floating up a few feet off the ground, his talons relaxing and limply hanging down from his legs. “Did you really, truly, honestly ask me such a stupid question? Of course we're going to the large stone temple. Now, I'll consider giving you the one item that can let you get through this temple, IF you sign these.”

“Sign what?” Coral asked, sounding exhausted.

“These contracts!” Mordhau declared dramatically, raising his wings and sending mighty gusts of wind tearing through the forest. A swarm of ravens emerged from the darkness beneath his wings, flying around them, then converging in front of him to form a writing desk of ravens. A large and long peacock-like quill appeared in the air above it, hovering and slowly rotating clockwise. Its eye was a bright blue, its spine a solid grey, the rest a deep and beautiful purple. A blue portal formed and a heavy-looking metal cylindrical container with a cobalt lid emerged, the lid rotating to exactly the right position to allow it to open. She wasn't sure what metal the cylinder was made from. The top removed itself, and a thick, poisonous gas laced with sharp gem dust spewed out and engulfed them both and a wide area around them faster than she could blink, only to be alchemically nullified and transmuted to harmless water vapour by the orange glow of Mordhau's magic before any harm was done, the gem dust suddenly diving straight to the ground and refusing to touch either being. From the cylinder there came a piece of scroll paper, attached to twin bars at the top and bottom, like most scrolls of its type... though most scroll bars – whatever they were called – probably weren't made from some light-looking metal. The scroll expanded to its true size, thicker than any book or dictionary she'd seen, and it set itself down on the table, unrolling enough for her to see the clauses – though they were written in some odd language that used three-clawed marks to form marks in patterns that probably meant certain words or letters she didn't recognize – and the line upon which she should sign. There were other names on the contract, but each one was blurred and constantly shifting, letters changing every second, new letters showing up to lengthen the names as other letters were removed. It seemed like there was a spell on the contract to hide the identities of anything that had signed it.

Then, with much less fanfare, a smaller and less impressive-looking contract with black wooden scroll-bars appeared beside the main one in a small puff of smoke punctuated by the sound of a squawking chicken, magically extending to show her the same meaningless chicken scratch written upon the papyrus, a line to sign her name upon at the bottom.

“You realize I can't read any of this, right?” Coral asked, looking up at the birdlike beast's caged head.

“You're really about to willingly sign a contract you can't read, just because you want a magical item from me that'll make saving your family much easier?” Mordhau asked in mock surprise. “How strange. Still, your determination is admirable.”

Coral sighed, took the floating peacock quill, and wrote her signature upon the contract, its tip emitting its own purple ink, purple ink infused with the gem dust of purple gems.

A bolt of blue lightning shot out from the contract and struck her heart, some electricity branching off to target her mind. Coral gasped as her head shot up, spine straining as her whole body stiffened. A foreign power penetrated her body, searching through it, scanning every inch of it and making it his. The effect ended soon, leaving Coral standing there, gasping quietly as her mind raced, the unfamiliar presence finally gone. Her wings fluffed up, then began to flutter as she shook herself like a dog, her body shivering.

“Fascinating. My previous signers did not react to my contract's power in such a strange way.” Mordhau observed.

“S-Shut up.” She demanded.

“That reply wasn't exactly endearing. Then again, after you signed those, how could I not like you?” Mordhau wondered, a portal forming in the air in front of him as the scrolls vanished into small clouds of grey smoke with little to no fanfare, the writing desk of ravens and the peacock quill meeting the same fate. An item emerged from this portal, a deep black gem cut in a perfectly round sphere, and in the gem's black depths, she could see white stars glimmering faintly. She'd researched enough about stars for her books to know that this gem was showing her a very accurate star map of a certain constellation, one she didn't recognize, viewed from a strange angle, though it featured the brightest star in the known galaxy, Alpha Canis Majoris. This black gem was inlaid upon a circular grey metal medallion, an image of outstretched falcon wings carved into the metal on either side of the gem, which served as its symbolic body. The engraving lacked a head or talons, and when Mordhau's magic turned it around and shoved it onto her chest roughly, metal grew from its sides, reaching up and out like arms to meet at the back of her neck and fuse together. Mordhau formed a mirror of black gemstone with a thought, and she looked at her reflection... admiringly? She rather liked how this looked on her, and then a wave of power flowed from it, into her. She smiled, liking how this felt, and she couldn't help but notice its passing resemblance to a piece of the golden regalia Princess Celestia regularly wore. In this, she felt stronger, faster, and more confident than she ever had before, her folded wings fluffing up to show this fact to the world as she puffed out her chest. “Hey, this looks pretty cool!”

“Of course it does, would we birds design one of our seven most powerful artefacts with an ugly design in mind? Gaze upon its simplistic beauty, its understated elegance, its absolute perfection!” Mordhau declared pridefully. “You wear upon your neck and chest the very culmination of our might, the strength of every bird born of magic both wild, and given to their world by those named Summoners! This gem contains a fragment of the replicated will and might of every bird, bearing connections that cannot be broken, eyes that cannot be blinded. Through this, any of the magical creatures aligned to the Bird House may contact you. And... Every ability that every creature of The Summoning House of Birds have is now yours, for as long as you wear this amulet.”

“All of them?” Coral asked in surprise.

“Yes. ...Or it would, if I didn't care that your mind would be overwhelmed and your body likely rendered a vegetable if you suffered such a strong information overload at once, the kind that happens when you can suddenly see everything in a three hundred and sixty by three hundred and sixty degree sphere, regardless of where your head is pointing, AND see through walls and trees, every feather becomes one of your eyes, AND see magic and recognize its powers and purpose as easily as noticing a colour, AND sense all that the wind touches, particularly when each of these visions are rendered within your mind with clarity even those large eyes aren't used to seeing with.” Mordhau stated. “The longer you keep it on, the more of its power and techniques you'll slowly gain access. You can also access a higher level of its strength in quick bursts, if necessary, but try to let yourself gradually adapt to its more useful abilities. By the way, it comes off when I say it comes off.”

“Shouldn't I train with this for a while, before I go into that Ancient Temple?” Coral wondered, touching the gem with a hoof, feeling its perfect curves.

“No, because any proficiency you gain with this weapon will be lost when you enter it. Were you not paying attention earlier? When I explained how you'll lose any outstanding skill above your species' average and have to gradually regain it, returning to what you were when you leave the temple?” Mordhau asked in irritation.

“Yes, I was. But shouldn't I at least know what to expect?” Coral responded, equally irritated.

“No, you should get into that temple before your family chokes on the air itself. But if you must know, expect to have air attacks, feather attacks, mental attacks, illusions, knowledge, everything you'd expect to be associated with magical birds, in addition to the many spells available to the species that owns Wisdom's Peak, the original Grand Library. When your body and mind can handle it, I expect to see you gaining an impressive amount of power, and using that to carry out my orders and do exactly as I say in that Ancient Temple.” Mordhau said, floating toward the stone steps and quickly floating above them, heading for the top.

She stretched out her wings, hopped up, and took flight, following closely behind him. “Why didn't we just teleport and show up at the top of the pyramid?” Coral asked him over the winds and turbulence.

“It's supposed to be a test, to see if the worthy has the determination to make it up these steps without turning back or falling down.” Mordhau called back. “But obviously, your way of making it to the top is to fly, which is something this temple's creators should have accounted for if they didn't want you to fly above these steps and skip the hours-long trek climbing these steps would take for something not fully capable of flight.”

“Yeah. Hey, the Ponies here must take good care of this place. That soil back there was great!” Coral yelled back.

“What?!” Mordhau yelled back.

“The Ponies here! The Earth-”

“What?!” Mordhau interrupted.

Coral poured on the speed and overtook Mordhau, hoping he'd find it easier to hear her if she was yelling toward him from that angle. “The Ponies!” She shouted at him. “The Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns-”

The otherworldly beast opened its bony mouth and a quiet sound emerged, at once like the faint whispering of the wind and an old pony's voiceless laughter, and she wondered how she could hear it so well. Was he using magical telepathy at the same time as he spoke normally? Or had he actually been using telepathy the whole time? It did explain how he could speak with that rigid head of bone.

“What's so funny?” Coral asked.

“You.” Mordhau declared. “Would you assume all worlds have ponies, and the phenomena where nature lives and exists independently of magic is restricted solely to the legendary Everfree Forest? I've seen many worlds. I've seen a world where it rains fairly often. But it doesn't rain water. It rains liquid iron, heated by the planet's warmth and the flames of nearby suns. I've seen worlds where the core is pure diamond, and worlds where diamonds rain from the sky. I've seen worlds where storms of not water or rain or acid, but glass ravage the planet's surface, typically raining sideways to tear apart anything on its surface. I've seen worlds so horrible and dismal I've wondered how such a place can exist, and seen worlds so perfect I've wondered why all places don't have that level of beauty. And I've seen worlds where everything is exactly the same as these worlds, save the tiniest of details possible. Sometimes, these tiny details result in massive changes, and other times, on worlds like those, the minor changes mean nothing at all, and it's unthinkable to imagine a world where that minor detail is different, but nothing else is- FINALLY!” He shouted as he and Coral neared the top, and they saw the entrance to this Ancient Temple, a moss-coated stone doorway with heavy stone slabs for doors, the doors studded with bright crimson rubies in the shape of five-pointed stars.

The winged beast turned his caged head of bone to glare at the door, its flaming eye turning to look at her through the gaps in its open jaw. “Step forth.” He declared.

She stepped towards the stone doors, and the red gems on the doors lit up, shining red beams of light to the ground around her, converging on her. She felt that these beams of light were watching her, judging her, they focused on her head, then her neck, then they moved the beam of light around her body at random, searching for her heart. She sat on her haunches, stretching out her forehooves, like she was being forced to do this by an annoying teacher. When a beam of red light found her heart, the rest homed in on it, scanning her heart.

“Of course, for symbolic value, it aims for your physical heart. Even though a being's personality is typically kept within their brain, in memories, experiences, and judgements.” Mordhau grumbled. “The creators of this temple were so stupid... However did they learn that pyramid shapes are good for stacking bricks? Trial and error? Did they try every other possible system and design beforehand? How many slaves and workers – not that the two are necessarily separate groups in some cultures – die before their leaders discovered, through trial and error, that pyramids work well if you want to stack a large amount of bricks on top of each other?”

A sound was heard, a cheery sound of confirmation and affirmation, and the heavy stone doors slowly began to slide into the temple they guarded, revealing the path the young Pegasus could take, a faint barrier of blue covering the walls from

“Well, this is where I take my leave.” Mordhau stated. “Except not really. I'm going to sit out here and wait until you're done...”

The gem embedded in the metal around Coral's neck glowed. “And I'll be with you the entire time.” Mordhau's voice echoed from within the pendant, and from within her inner ears, all at once.

“Do not worry about the sound of my voice being detected, it uses the physical form of magical mind-manipulation to make you and you alone believe that you are hearing what I want you to hear.” Mordhau clarified.

“Oh. Uh... That kinda sounds needlessly complicated. Why not just use a normal telepathy spell?” Coral asked.

“Because there are spells – and naturally, items enchanted with that spell's effect – to let others listen in on the mental or telepathic conversations of others. Illusions, on the other hand... As far as I'm aware, no item exists that can let you see what someone targeted by an illusion spell is causing them to see, when it uses the physical form of magic, and not the ethereal form. Or as some would call it, the idea form.”

“I've read about that.” Coral admitted. “Physical Form spells would turn a frog into a rock permanently, and you'd need another spell to turn it back, or it'd mess with a mind to stimulate the senses to make it see what the caster wants... while Idea form- I mean, 'Ethereal Form' spells, they just bring the caster's wishes into reality using its own magical power, turning a frog into a mostly-sentient pony and back into a frog again when the spell wears off, and an Ethereal Form illusion spell just puts an idea into its target's head or embeds it into an aimed magical pulse or places it on a location, and that idea is used and empowered by the spell's strength to make it feel real to the target.”

“Correct.” Mordhau stated, seeming to smile.

And then he dashed towards her and clutched her body in one taloned leg, his body moving so much faster than something of that size should have been able to, her wings springing to life, lifting her into the air as easily as picking up a small toy and pushing her back-first into the ground, glaring into her eyes, his flaming orb suddenly wildly burning a blazing orange. “And let me make something perfectly clear. Anyone that thinks something is too complicated, or lesser for being too complicated, is a fool. While many plans with too many moving parts naturally become exponentially more likely to fail the more chances there are for the plan to fail, as basic logic dictates, nothing is 'Too complicated' if that complication is ENTIRELY NECESSARY, or could be necessary.”

He got off her and levitated himself back to his initial spot, allowing her to get back up as his eye turned back from orange to blue.

“So you're really just going to sit there?” Coral asked, dusting herself off with her wings in irritation.

Overhead, the clouds in the sky began to darken and multiply. Though Mordhau's skeletal face did not move, she could almost sense that he was smirking.

A powerful bolt of lightning shot down to strike the cage around his skeletal head, empowering him as the flaming eye within his skull began to burn brighter.

An pattern of straight black lines that converged beneath his body was not drawn onto the ground beneath him in ink, but burned into the ground by flame. The lines spreading out into a wide circle that gained a ring of magical runes around it, runes she didn't recognize, despite the research on magical runes she'd carried out for her books. The circle of magic gained a second, larger ring to complete it, and the black markings began to glow with a bright golden glow.

Four tall and wide cupboards of metal and gold with the heads of aquiline Iron Maidens slowly emerged from the ground around this circle in equidistant points, like the four corners of a square.

Slowly, the four containers opened, revealing that each one was bigger on the inside, windows into pocket dimensions crowded with ordered shelves and many, many, many books, the portals connected to the cupboards moving slightly, like the swaying uncertainty of viewing anything while on a boat at see. The lightning charge around Mordhau's cage dissipated, and his burning, flaming 'eye' calmed down, returning to its original state. An orange glow flared up around one large blue-covered hardback book, and it was levitated up and out of the bookshelf, then out of that bookshelf dimension and into this one, its purple fabric page-marker trailing behind it. The book rose up to the beast's caged head, and a hexagonal hole opened in the space between the metal bars, as if there was a usually-invisible forcefield set up there, to protect his skeletal head. The orange glow of Mordhau's magic brought the book through the hole, which sealed up behind it, and he opened the book, his flaming eye shifting to his right eyehole to view the book's contents as the book opened itself up and gave its knowledge up to him. “Don't worry, Pegasus. I have plenty of books to pass the time. In fact, if I didn't anticipate that I'd likely have to give you guidance and keep an eye on your progress as you made your way through this Ancient Temple, I would wait until you entered, and then use time magic to skip past the time taken up by your adventure, and only reappear once your mission is complete, your orders and new purpose in life fulfilled, and you emerge victoriously from this temple to greet me.

Some strange instinct within Coral found it unnatural that he could utilize a facsimile of the glowing, telekinetic power of magic, its colour alternating seemingly at random between blue and orange, often with no obvious signs of its usage appearing on Mordhau's body. She'd grown up around mainly Earth Ponies and Pegasi, but Manehattan still had plenty of Unicorns, typically ones that set up businesses in the town's freer, more unpredictable, less-controlled market and more economically-varied climate with lower startup funds and higher ambitions. And when those Unicorns used their magic, their horn glowed. To see a monster using magic without a brightly-glowing claw or cage or eye or something... it was strange, and her instincts told her it was sick, wrong, and unnatural that magic was being used with no glowing horns around. She knew this should be the last thing on her mind, considering where she was, who she was with, and what she was about to do, but the thought still crossed her mind.

“Enter.” Mordhau stated, his body staying still as his flaming eye turned to glance at the blue barrier she was meant to penetrate.

Coral slowly walked to the barrier, and stopped, staring at it as her wings gradually went back down. “Okay, here I go. Here I go. I'm going to go in there, and get whatever treasure it is you want from this place.”

“Good. Keep in mind that I desire EVERYTHING in that temple. If you try to keep anything from me, even something as small as a single coin or book, I'll know.” Mordhau informed her. “You've only seen a fraction of my true power so far. I could wipe out an entire continent with just a thought, and two more before any being began to connect the dots and wonder if there was something doing this to them. I once toppled an entire civilization, solely so I could get the knowledge their secret society dared to hide from me.”

A look of anger flashed across Coral's face as her wings stood on end once again. “Got it.” She said through gritted teeth, preparing to rush into that Ancient Temple. “Got it. I'll just... go in now. Yep. This is me, going in.”

“I'd throw you in with a single swipe of my wings, if you were not required to enter of your own free will. But keep in mind that your parents and your little brother are running out of time.” Mordhau stated emotionlessly. “Will you let them die?”

“NO.” Coral said as determination blazed in her eyes, her stiff wings rising as she prepared to fly in, spreading her hooves, rear in the air, ready to dash into the unknown head-first.

She continued to glare at that blue barrier for a full six seconds.

“It's like you want me to electrocute you and take a day's worth of air away from your family.” Mordhau commented.

“I'M GOING!” Coral snapped back at him, walking in.

She walked to the blue barrier and pushed through it with her eyes shut, finding a small amount of resistance, like it was some kind of odd film, like when you were gentle enough with a bubble to mess around with it without popping it. She pushed through and fell onto her face on the other side, feeling exactly what Mordhau had predicted. Her eyes snapped open as she felt within her the sensation of suddenly losing a part of yourself. Her body felt heavier, her muscles felt weaker, her wings felt clumsier. Slowly, she nervously, uncertainly placed her legs on the ground hoof-first, and pushed herself up into a standing position. Her tail swished to the left, and then, to the right. She trotted on the spot, and then stretched out each leg, first bringing her flanks to the ground, then pushing them into the air as her wings stretched out.

Mordhau's voice cut through her mind, and her body tensed up. “As admirable as this view might be, if I were equine, your family is living on borrowed time. Time borrowed from me, to be exact. And I don't like leaving debts unpaid, or when others do the same.”

“I'm going!” Coral yelled at the gem, wondering if he could hear her through it.

“Good.” Mordhau's voice replied.

Coral walked deeper into the entrance, and her instincts told her the cave-air here meant she was in a long tunnel, and it stretched on for longer than she'd expect, even as the path stretched on into darkness. The ground was rocky and hard, and a little uneven, but not too bad. She started to trot forth, heading down the path, her steady, echoed hoofbeats were her only companion as she trekked on into the darkness, until she came to a wide open cavernous area with a circular glowing orange gem in the ceiling illuminating the area like the light of a torch. Out of curiousity, she hopped up and started to fly, only to find it a little harder than she remembered, her wings unsteady, her body rising and falling more than she'd like. She focused and forced her wings back into their usual rhythm for hovering, and when she'd gotten that down in a few seconds, she began to fly forward, steadily speeding up as she entered the larger area. It appeared to be around seventeen feet across in length and width, and far taller than that in height. On the other side of the room, she could see a tunnel-ish path continuing on into the path she was meant to take, she supposed, since there didn't seem to be any other routes or anything.

And once she'd flown in, a heavy stone door slid down over the way forward, and the way back. Four columns of golden summoning magic flared up at equidistant points around the room, like foes suddenly appearing on the four corners of a wrestling wring. From these four columns emerged four monsters, solemn stone faces the size of her body inlaid into ornate obsidian winglike structures studded with two purple quartz gems either side of the stone faces, though rather than normal feathers, the wings ended in the kunai-style flared points of gothic-inspired gates. Despite how the wings were completely immobile, the creatures moved, slowly levitating towards her at a fairly leisurely pace. She landed, her wings getting tired already, and she uncertainly bounced on her hooves as she looked around the room for something to use as a weapon. She didn't see anything, and when the first monster got close enough to her, the stone face opened its eyes to reveal hollow caverns from which black metal spears lunged. She leapt to the side to dodge it, wings flapping quickly, and the spears slowly retracted as the stone faced-monster stayed there, and the other three pursued her.

She galloped away and took flight, flapping up until she was around seven feet in the air, extending her wings to glide as she watched the three monsters float into the air as easily as they'd floated above the ground.

“What are you doing? ATTACK!” Mordhau's voice demanded.

“What are these things?!” Coral demanded as she flew higher and got to the end of the room, staying close to the room's edges.

“Constructs of raw magic used as guards.” Mordhau explained calmly. “Their official designation is 'Grit', though I've heard this model of autonomous guard being given the uncreative moniker of 'Stone Face'.”

“You didn't tell me these things would be here!” Coral yelled as she took a tight turn, the fourth Grit having finished pulling its spears back into its eyesockets, its heavy eyelids closing like sliding stone doors as it began to pursue her, trailing after the rest.

“What did you expect?” Mordhau wondered.

“Poison dart traps, crushing spike thingies, quicksand, SOMETHING REASONABLE!” Coral yelled.

“Do you know what's not reasonable? Denying reality when it's staring you in the face and DARING YOU TO ATTACK!” Mordhau shouted. “USE THE PENDANT!”

“I don't know how!” Coral yelled nervously as the Grit trailing behind predicted that the Pegasus would keep flying around the room, and moved to cut her off while the group of three pursuers split up, one going high and one going low to try and trap her at the next corner.

“It functions on intent. You have to want something to happen, channel your willpower into it, and then force the necklace to force it to happen.” Mordhau explained, irritated that she wasn't doing anything yet, only trying to flee in a closed-off room.

“How do I channel my willpower?!” Coral screamed.

“FORCE IT!” Mordhau demanded.

“NEVERMIND!” Coral shouted as she suddenly started to flap her wings harder, picking up speed as she charged at the Grit waiting for her, head on.

“If you're going to strike, aim for the forehead with a downward strike, the chin with an upward one, or the area between the eyes curving the force to the left or right, and strike like you're trying to break through it.” Mordhau's voice informed her, even though she was already planning on hitting its forehead. She flew faster and faster, glaring at the stone-faced beast's closed eyes, waiting until the right moment-

There!

Right as she flew within range and the Grit's stone eyelids rotated up, she flapped hard and soared up, the construct's spears striking nothing but air. Once high above her foe, she flipped forwards and started to charge down at the hovering beast, flipping over in the air at the last second to throw her whole body into a downward flying kick at the creature's forehead, cracking its face and sending it and her down to the ground, her wings flapping in reverse, until she and the Grit crashed down into the ground, the shock running through her body with a painful jolt she wasn't expecting while the stone face grew severe cracks from the impact. Its eye-spears continued to slowly retract back into its head, and she flapped her wings hard to send her body back in a quick flying-kick, trying to bend the spears and keep them from retracting. She succeeded, the metal bending a little as her legs started to hurt, and she flew up and away from it as the other three Grits caught up with her, planning on flying around to try and split the group up, and make them easier to take out.

Noticing a weakness in the artificial intelligence they were programmed with, a subject she'd researched for an upcoming arc where at least one of her characters would end up kissing an automaton, she turned to fly near the three pursuers, hovering in front of them, in attack range, and when she saw (and heard) their eyelids open, she stopped her flapping and dropped like a stone. If she had her old flying experience, she would have expertly leaned forwards and spread her wings to use the downward momentum to start flying forward once again. Instead, she had to awkwardly wave her forelegs in front of her and kick her rear legs up to try and get herself aimed down, and even then, she didn't pull up as smoothly as she'd have liked, taking the turn a bit too sharply and straining her already-tired wings.

With the four Stone Faces above her, the three pursuing Grits stuck and the damaged one following her down, she angled herself down to pick up speed while flapping, then glided as she turned and went into a loop, gliding upside down for the short moment it took her to get under the damaged Grit and turn up in a tight loop, sending an upwards punch right into its chin, striking exactly as Mordhau told her. The effects were clear, deep fissures spreading from the point of impact as dust sprayed out, the chunks of stone falling apart as its obsidian wings and iron spears shattered apart and fell, the pieces of its body turning back into golden magical energy that was about to seep back into the earth, but instead stopped, and was sucked into the gem Coral wore around her neck.

“Excellent.” Mordhau's voice congratulated her. “Now try to actually use the weapon I gave you.”

“You still haven't told me how to-” Coral began.

“Land, and decide what style of attack you want. I recommend Vacuum Style. Touch the gem with a hoof, imagine that your body is full of fire and your mind is full of a hotter fire, and you push that fire through your body into the gem to heat it up as you push at its gem with your hoof, channelling the fire through your neck and hoof, and yell what you want to happen inside your mind, as if shouting it at the gem.” Mordhau stated. “That visualization exercise is quite good for beginners new to the concept.”

“Got it.” Coral said, giving that a try. She closed her eyes, imagined the stuff he said to imagine, touched a hoof to her gem, and forced the flames into it, imagining the gem heating up. 'Vacuum style! Whatever that is!' Coral shouted inside her head, as if yelling it at the gem around her neck.

She opened her eyes and removed her hoof when she felt wind around her start to swirl loosely around her, before compressing into a thin circular tube-ish barrier of vacuum around her, like a hula hoop, if a hula hoop was a deadly vacuum, and floated around her, keeping her at its center.

“Now, swing your hooves at your targets, as if throwing a chakram at them. For stronger attacks, swing your wings at them, as if throwing air at them.” Mordhau instructed.

“WHAT THE BUCK IS A CHAKRAM?!” Coral snapped.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? HAVE YOU SERIOUSLY NEVER READ- Never mind, it's like a thrown metal disc, typically four to ten inches in diameter, averaging around six, with a hollow center, blunt interior edges, and sharp exterior edges, sharp enough to cut through thick trees tougher than the average creature's body. Imagine there's one in your hoof, and then throw it!”

“Got it.” Coral declared, throwing forward the nothing in her hoof like a dart, sending a loose blast of vacuum at the Grits, striking the center one and knocking it back a few feet as shards of its stone face were worn away.

“No, with CIRCULAR MOTIONS! Twirl it around your hoof like it's a hula hoop, THEN flick it at your target!” Mordhau demanded.

“Alright!” Coral angrily yelled back, doing as he said. She raised a forehoof, imagined a metal disc thing in her hoof, and a disc of vacuum formed in the air in front of her four feet in diameter, rotating in time with her hoof-twirling. She spun it faster, and the vacuum disc grew to five feet and spun faster. She flicked it forwards, like he told her, when it felt right, and used its momentum to easily send it flying at the Grits.

The disc of air struck the center one, slicing right through it, its body turning to dust that was absorbed into the gem, and she was surprised at how powerful this thing's attacks were.

“Keep attacking, they're almost within range!” Mordhau shouted.

“Got it!” She cried as she raised and twirled her right forehoof in the air to generate another disc, flicking it into the Grit on the right and charging another one with more twirling. The disc struck the Grit and ground away at its face like a water-cutter against stone for about a second, and then dissipated after leaving behind a deep curving trench in the stone face. She threw the second vacuum disc, and it hit the Grit a little higher, making another deep trench. Deciding that only the stronger ones would work unless she improved her aim, she twirled her hoof to generate another vacuum disc and twirled it harder to strengthen and enlargen it to five feet, flicking it toward the Grits. The damaged one on the left figured out her plan and flew straight up, while the unharmed one on the right flew straight toward her and was bisected clean in half horizontally by the blade of not-air held together by her gem's magic.

She looked up at the final remaining heavily-damaged Grit as she felt her body start to become more tired than it ever had, the vacuum ring around her dissipating, and she saw it try to copy the move she'd used earlier, rising up and then floating down, though at the same slow pace it usually moved at. Leaping into the air, she easily took flight, flew around it, and struck it in the back, only to hurt her leg a little and accomplish nothing.

“Its wings are tougher than its face, obviously, so STRIKE IT WHERE I TOLD YOU TO STRIKE IT!” Mordhau's voice demanded. “Or just use the Vacuum Style attacks.”

“I can't!” Coral yelled, hovering shakily in the air.

“Then strike it!”

“I'll try!” She said, flying down and up, aiming for its chin with a flying kick, flipping over in the air and stabilizing with her wings. It aimed its face down, taking aim at her body and opening its eyes, and as its black iron spears shot towards her head, her rear hoof struck its chin, bending her upper body back to let the spear shoot out over her as cracks ran across the damaged creature's face, breaking the monster apart. The stone and obsidian cracked and broke into falling pieces, which turned into raw magic and was absorbed by the gem around Coral's neck.

Panting, coral twisted in the air and slowly glided down, before finally landing and relaxing her stiffened wings. She waited for her heartbeat to return to normal, her wings loosely hanging down from either side of her body, still panting heavily as she rode the rush of what she'd just done, watching the magical energy of that monster get absorbed into the gem around her neck.

“I... I did it.” Coral quietly said to herself, collapsing onto her chest. “I did it!” she said happily, a grin breaking out on her face.

“Yes, for someone in what is technically their first fight ever, you did admirably. You moved like a drunken cow in the air and I've seen ducks with more grace and striking power, but that's to be expected after losing whatever finesse you had.” Mordhau stated.

“Hey, remember when I overtook you?” Coral asked, imagining his face in front of her and grinning at it.

“You truly believe I was flying at my top speed? No matter, you will not be doing that again any time soon. By the way, you might want to keep moving some time soon, there are more floors left to clear.”

“Wait, floors? Not rooms?” Coral asked, the grin on her face disappearing.

“No, you need to find the passageway to the next floor and take it. Fighting anything you find along the way is simply a bonus. You'll take the treasure that lies at the center of this temple, and then give it to me. You get your parents back and live happily ever after, or you die trying, and they die shortly after. When you think about it, it's a win-win situation. For you, not for me. If you die, I'll have to find another innocent pure-hearted Pony, and encourage her to make the deals with me you made."

“Alright! Let's do this!” Coral yelled, hopping into the air and flapping her wings hard, expecting to shoot forth like a cannonball, rather than simply fly forwards at the same pace as a fairly slow trot. “Come ON!” She yelled, and she was pretty sure she heard Mordhau's laughter.

Laughter or not... nothing was going to stand in the way of her getting her family back.

Nothing.


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