Callie cocked her head as she caught the look between Bombyx and Ampelus. It made her curious, at least until she remembered the festive nymph's request; she'd asked her not to reveal what she was to the guests. It made her cringe a little to remember that she almost had. Well, it wasn't surprising. As Breezy Plume had said, 'it takes a monster to know a monster'.
The look on Ampelus' face was not a look to be ignored. It made Bombyx nervous, to the point that her breathing had become erratic. The three others not glaring at her turned to stare at her. It took just a moment for Spark Storm to realize that Ampelus was the only one trying to kill her with her eyes. "What the - Ampelus! What is your problem?"
"...She is a nymph."
Spark nearly replied with an angry 'so?', but the news of another nymph quieted him. Could this possibly be one of elder Orea's children? No...not possible. This nymph looked to be at least Ampelus' age, perhaps younger. Didn't that take hundreds of years? His own little Orea looked far older than she was, but that was due to...well, things. Could something similar have happened here? "Ampelus, are you sure? I thought the changelings wiped you guys out to near extinction." Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the nymph in question, his eyes ablaze with curiosity. "Are you one of Orea's kids?"
Spark's enthusiasm irked Ampelus, but she, too, was curious, if not morbidly so. She had an inkling about how this one came about, and if it were true, well...she wouldn't be held liable for what happened next. The mere thought sent waves of rage through her; it was all she could do to just sit there and listen.
Breezy Plume and Callie shared a glance. For the first time since this encounter began, the siren looked concerned. She'd barely gotten to know Bombyx over the last hour or two, but she'd already started to like her. Bombyx was quiet and sweet, as well as a bit introverted. She was also very accommodating, and had revealed her unique gifts by producing a healing silk that wrapped up her wounds. She'd been healed since shortly before Ampelus and the pegasus arrived, and she'd gained respect for Bombyx for being so efficient. Now, the poor nymph looked terrified to be in Ampelus' presence.
Bombyx was perplexed. Should she run? She felt like she should be running right now. Still, she was nothing if not helpful, and the pegasus had asked a relevant question. Risking Ampelus' wrath, she turned her attention to Spark Storm. "No...No, I am not one of Orea's line. I am..." she swallowed hard, her eyes darting back to Ampelus. "...something else."
"Go on," Ampelus dead-panned. "Enlighten the rest of us."
Bombyx shuddered and appeared to shrink just slightly. She partially hid her face in the crook of a leg, a single eye remaining visible. "I...I am...Mimosa Palm's progeny."
Spark Storm's eyes lit up with both shock and joy. Ampelus had a sister?! He turned to look at Ampelus with the very picture of happiness, and realized that this was a mistake. The nymph looked like she was about to explode with anger. The tall nymph shook from top to bottom, vines writhing about over her body and producing such a shrill hiss that Spark winced with pain. "Ampelus! Knock it off! Calm down! What's wrong with you?!"
Ampelus did not answer. Both Callie and Breezy Plume had instantly created an obstruction between the two nymphs, both ready to fight if need be. "Spark Storm, if you don't get her out of here, somebody's gonna get hurt," Callie told him coldly.
Everybody's gonna get hurt if something doesn't change, Spark thought. Not ready to up and leave just yet, he turned to Ampelus. He'd been able to talk her out of rages before, it could certainly work now. "Ampelus, I don't get it! Why does this make you so angry?"
Spark should've known the answer to that one, and he realized that as tears had welled up enough in Ampelus' eyes to drop to the ground. He was reminded of his own little Orea's tears as fresh patches of the greenest moss began forming where they dropped. "Why? Why? I spend almost four hundred years wondering why my father left us, wondering if maybe it was my fault, only now to discover that he had me replaced! Gee, I wonder why that makes me angry!!"
The silence between the five was so loud, one could hear the water trickling down into who knew where in that little pond nearby. For a moment, Spark felt relieved. Ampelus had gone and gotten this little temper tantrum out of the way, perhaps now they could move on. The silence was broken, though, and not from the nymph he'd expected. "Go ahead, you're on a roll," Bombyx told her sister. The smaller nymph looked like she could cry, but there was almost something like anger in her eyes, a furious courage. She was terrified, but determined to have her say. "Tell them."
Ampelus balked at her new sister. She wanted to bring that up? How dare she...how dare she! She must have some kind of death wish! "You...you want to talk about that?" Ampelus strode forward slowly, head and neck nearly level with her spine. Spark Storm had never seen her looking more dangerous. She didn't blink an eye as the two guarding Bombyx stepped forward and were gently moved to the side by the one they sought to protect. "You really want them to know what you are?"
"Not them. You. I want you to say it. We both know you're dying to say it."
Spark and Callie both stared in surprised sadness at Bombyx. She looked so scared, yet she refused to yield to her emotions. What was this all about, anyway? The answer to this question came from Ampelus herself, her voice dripping with hate. "You're not a natural nymph. You're an experiment, a violation of nature, a freak!"
It took every ounce of restraint in Spark's body not to zap Ampelus then and there. He hadn't heard her speak with so much pure vulgarity and hate since the time they first met. "Ampelus..." he said with a quiet, threatening tone. "What are you talking about?"
"She wasn't born or grown like I was." Ampelus continued to stare at her "sister" with dripping enmity. "She's just another of my father's experiments, like this bio dome. She's less of a nymph and more of a tool for his amusement."
It was Bombyx' turn to be angry. "That's not even remotely accurate! Mimosa Palm, he...you don't understand, he treats me like..." The nymph faltered, the truth of Ampelus' words threatening her with more accuracy than she was prepared to admit. Tears of frustration swelled in her eyes as the derisive smile on her sister's face grew. "H-he doesn't see me as just an experiment. I am his-"
"What?" Ampelus inquired. "You are what - his "daughter"? You are as much his daughter as he is proud of having me as his family...and that's next to nothing. Mimosa Palm might work miracles of science and nature, but he knows nothing of matters of the heart and spirit. He made you with no love; he made you with the intent of making something uniquely different."
Bombyx stared at Ampelus in silence. She was terrified, both of Ampelus, and the possibility that she might be right. Her two new friends, stunned into silence by Ampelus' aggressive and poisonous speech, simply glanced at each other, both hoping the other could have some argument to help lift Bombyx' spirits. None of them, most of all Ampelus, could have predicted what happened next. The sound of Spark Storm's voice was at once comforting and terrifying, depending on who was recounting the moment.
"And what makes a nymph, Ampelus?" Said nymph turned to the pegasus, a look of shock on her face. Wasn't Spark Storm supposed to be on her side? For a good long while, she'd come to expect nothing else. This of course was a situation that she'd never expected, yet still she had trusted him to back her up. "What exactly makes her different from you?" Ampelus wanted to answer him, but the look on his face, that calm, quiet and disappointed look...nothing else she'd ever experienced had made her chest hurt like this before.
"She's made of something else," she heard herself say after a brief moment of trying to get her mouth to move. "She's not a pure nymph. You know how important that is to me!"
"And what about Orea?"
The question caught Ampelus off guard. She hadn't even considered Spark's role in this. As far as she'd been concerned, at least until now, he was separate from this. He had no place in this argument, but she was wrong. He had a very significant role to play here, and she was stepping all over it. Ampelus now realized she may have just terribly insulted the one pony in the world that might want her around. "Spark, I...I didn't mean..."
"No, you've said enough. Earlier, when you said you weren't sure how you still felt about Orea, I thought maybe there was some hope for you. I thought maybe your hate had fallen enough that you might even like her, but after this display here I think it's just wishful thinking." Ampelus' heart sank as Spark Storm walked without so much as a glance at her to stand beside Bombyx. He turned and fixed Ampelus with a cold stare. "You're in the wrong here. I don't know what it is that makes Bombyx different, and I don't care. Nopony deserves the kind of reckless hate that you hold in that diseased heart of yours."
Her breath halted, her heart hurt like never before. Even her mother's death hadn't stung this much. Spark Storm's betrayal had been at the top of the list of things she never wanted to happen, and just like that he'd crossed it off. This was maddening, it was sickening, it was...her fault. The nymph drew in an unsteady breath, raised a foreleg, and stretched it out to strike Spark Storm across the cheek and turned to run into the woods, the air echoing with her indignity. "We are not diseased!"
Spark rubbed at his cheek lightly, taking a glance at the few drops of blood on his hoof. "Thank you," he heard Bombyx say. "Are you hurt?"
"Not really. Her heart wasn't in it. If it had been, we wouldn't be having this conversation." He turned to the new nymph and gave her a small smile. Like Ampelus' strike, his reassuring smile was lacking in confidence. Had he also not meant what he said? He was already starting to feel bad about it. His thoughts were interrupted when he felt something soft on his cheek, something light and warm and...silky. He'd been so lost in his thoughts that he didn't see Bombyx approach. What he saw when he turned surprised him, even though he'd seen this once before, with his little Orea.
There were five of them. Long, slightly thick tendrils that were sticky and covered with what looked like viscous liquid, and they emerged from Bombyx' mouth. One of them had lightly slathered some of that liquid against his cheek, which quickly turned into a soft, silky solid. Silky? That's what this was...it was silk. Don't nymphs make plants? Spark thought, and that's when he realized where Ampelus' anger stemmed from. Bombyx was indeed different from the few nymphs that he had met.
Bombyx soon realized that Spark was staring at her. She quickly pulled the tendrils back into her mouth, embarrassment blazing on her face. "Forgive me, I should've asked."
"It's fine, it's just...it's not that different."
"What do you mean?"
"You and Ampelus. The silk...thing. You don't look different, and the nymphs that I've met have the same...uh, things...that come out of your mouth..." Spark managed to fumble, but he kept going. "You're not that different, so I don't know what Ampelus was getting so upset about. You're every bit a nymph as she is."
Bombyx smiled happily. "Thank you."
"Well said!" All four turned as Mimosa Palm finally decided to step out of hiding. Spark Storm was almost certain that the new figure before him had been waiting for the opportune moment to make an entrance. None of the girls seemed surprised either, yet they all looked equally relieved to see him. "And welcome to my home. So you're the one, eh?"
Spark Storm nodded. "I am. Uh...I think. What did you...?"
"I mean the one that brought my daughter to me. You...did bring her here with the intent of finding me, yes?"
"...No. We were actually on our way to Breen..." Spark frowned. Should he really be discussing this with a complete stranger? He was Ampelus' father, yes, but this was a completely unforseen event. Telling this new dryad their business could complicate things. "We have business there," he added lamely.
"Oh? Breen? Well, that's...interesting..."
Spark watched with growing concern as Mimosa mumbled to himself. The dryad seemed to have gone into a distance staring trance, a stare aimed right at the pegasus. The stare intensified as he drew closer to the young stallion, a hoof tentatively reaching out to lightly poke Spark in the chest. "Uh..." Callie and Breezy Plume both stared in wide-eyed shock when Mimosa suddenly pushed Spark over and stood over him, a hoof pressing and prodding over the stunned pegasus.
"Breen? Breen? What lies in Breen pales in comparison to the secrets you hold, boy!" Mimosa told Spark loudly as he leaned in and sniffed Spark's mane. "Oh hoh-hoh, yes!"
Spark had had enough. He pushed the much-too-eager Mimosa aside and stood to his hooves, every hair on his body feeling more violated than Ampelus had ever made him feel. "What-is-wrong-with-you?!"
"What? Everything is right!!" the dryad told him, wide-eyed and dancing about with excitement. He paused. "Well, not everything is right, there's plenty wrong, but you, my boy, have made things clear! More clear than they have been in centuries!"
After a moment of the two staring at each other, both waiting for some kind of reaction, Spark turned to Bombyx. "Do you have any idea what he's talking about?" A glance at the two in the back indicated they knew nothing.
"I'm afraid I don't. Doctor?"
This only served to confuse Spark. Doctor? What doc...oh. He returned his gaze to Mimosa, a small frown grazing his mouth. He was starting to see some of what Ampelus had been talking about, and it made him want to ask Mimosa's view on his relationship to Bombyx.
Mimosa grinned broadly, totally oblivious to the look in Spark Storm's eyes. "Answers, eh? Yes, yes we need some answers, don't we? Well..." he turned and began to walk away from the group. "...I do have answers, but I'm not sure you'll like what you hear. Ladies," he paused and turned his gaze on the two in the back. "I'll have to ask that you two find something else to do for a while. This is business."
Breezy Plume shrugged indifferently. "Whatever. This is getting weird."
Callie, however, protested. "Wait a tic! Sparky n' I just found each other after a good ten-"
"And you'll have plenty more when I'm done with him." Spark shuddered. "Please, Callie, I understand, but this is very important. Why don't you go see the sights in the other domes? Frankie, would you be so kind?"
Frankie? Spark looked around the area. Was there another dryad in hiding? His curiosity, instead of being sated, was only peaked when yet another new and unusual creature flitted down before Callie. It was difficult to describe what he was seeing, but Spark could only figure he was staring at the smallest griffon he'd ever seen...and the most unusual. It was a small ruby-throated hummingbird...mouse. With a wrench. "Hey there, doll! I'm Frankie."
Callie stared at Frankie with the same amount of morbid curiosity as Spark did. It took her a moment to come to her senses, then lightly poked at his little green chest. "Call me 'doll' again, lil' guy, and we're gonna have words. Aren't you a lil' young to be an escort?"
Frankie rubbed where he'd been poked and grinned. "You can trust me, I can take care of myself. Been running this place almost single-handedly for fifteen years!"
Spark Storm knew he'd heard this little guy's voice from somewhere, it was so familiar..."Wait. You're the one that had Ampelus and I stand in that room, to get cleansed, right?"
The tiny griffon turned to Spark and saluted. "That's me! Thanks again for being so cooperative."
Spark resisted the urge to salute back. "Uh, no problem."
"So!" Frankie turned and swatted the wrench, which was almost as big as he, in his palm. "Ready to go? We'll have a great time." He lifted the wrench in both hands and stood with a slight tilt. "It'll be superrrr!"
When no one had made a move to react, Frankie sighed and lifted into the air with a slight sulk. "Nobody ever gets that...C'mon, I'll get you there in one piece."
Spark Storm sighed as he watched the others leave. His mind was elsewhere; his mind was on Ampelus. He'd really let her have it. Had she deserved it? Yes. Had she deserved everything that he'd said?...no. No she hadn't. She'd been angry, furious even, and she didn't think clearly when she was that upset. Spark Storm had also been very angry, he'd said things that he certainly didn't mean. He needed to apologize...
"Son, you look like you've lost your most precious possession in a swamp," Mimosa said quietly. Spark's glance back at the dryad told him he wasn't far off. "Ah...your little tiff with my daughter has upset you?" Mimosa smiled approvingly. "She is important to you, as you are to her. I've never heard her defend anyone in seven hundred years. She's quite difficult, I know. I can only imagine what she's put you through."
Spark let out an exasperated breath. "She's tried to kill me a couple times. Came pretty close too, once."
"I don't doubt it, though how you eluded your death from a nymph twice intrigues me." The dryad put a hoof around Spark's shoulder and guided the uncomfortable pegasus as they moved towards the center of the forest where a larger tree stood, hollowed out and set up as a lab. He bade Spark sit and rest while he went about gathering strange equipment meant for tests. Spark was made only more uncomfortable. "So, do tell me how you managed this."
"How?" Spark frowned as Mimosa went about his tasks. How did one explain? Well, he knew how...he just never knew why. He shrugged and stood, spreading his wings out. "I don't really know how, but I can show you." Mimosa paused in the middle of filling a syringe long enough to pay attention as Spark's wings lit up with brilliant blue electrical lights, building up with small crackles and pops to full-on high voltage, arcing over the pegasus with near-deafening fizzles. As quick as it had begun, it was over.
During the spectacle, Mimosa's face had gone dark, almost angry. This certainly hadn't been a reaction that Spark had been expecting. It almost looked like Mimosa had seen something like this before. "Uh...what is it? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"So that's what happened..."
Mimosa's murmured response almost went unheard, it was so quiet. Spark did hear it, however. "...What? What happened? Would you just say what's on your mind?"
Mimosa idly licked his lips, lightly chewing on his tongue for a moment before shaking his head. "I can't."
"What do you mean, 'you can't'? Do you know something I don't?"
"A great many things, little foal." Mimosa's strange and quirky attitude was gone. In it's place was an all-too-serious demeanor that Spark found intimidating. "There are things in this world that you don't understand...can't understand...at least, not until you understand what happened in the last world."
"The...last world?" Spark made a face and began to pace back and forth with agitation. "Now you're making less sense than you started out with when I met you, and that's saying a lot!"
"Anyone ever tell you you were special, son?"
This question made Spark pause. What could this possibly have to do with anything? "Yeah, I guess...my mother told me that many times." Spark rolled his eyes and sat facing away from Mimosa. Being made to think about his mother made him a little misty-eyed, and he didn't feel like sharing that with this stranger.
"Of course she did, what mother doesn't tell their children that? I mean anyone else...someone of more value than your mother!"
"No one...is more important than my mother," Spark growled warningly.
"They are if they're the leading figure of an entire country," Mimosa responded cooly.
Spark frowned and thought for a moment. Did he mean Celestia? "You...you don't mean the monarch of Equestria? Princess Celestia?"
"Who else could I possibly be speaking about?"
The cross tone in Mimosa's voice grated on Spark's nerves, but they were both agitated. He let it slide. "Well..."
"You know her personally, don't you? I'd imagine that the ship you came on, branded with her mark, had brought you here on some mission specifically at her request."
Spark Storm sighed. Not much point left in hiding it. "Yeah...I know her pretty well. I'm a monster hunter, part of a group that's been hired, trained and cared for by the princess herself."
Mimosa chuckled lightly, for a moment giving Spark hope that he had pulled himself out of the darker mood he'd been exhibiting. This, too, quickly changed. "So the princess still has hopes to fight the inevitable. It'd be cute, if it wasn't so pathetic."
"I beg your pardon?" Spark said, mildly offended.
"Hm? Oh I didn't mean you, per se. I was actually quite impressed. I'm certain you'd be able to handle yourself quite well in the previous world."
"That's that...'before' thing again. What are you talking about?"
Mimosa sighed and shook his head. "I'm afraid there's something else you'll need to understand before we go into that, but I can't be the one to show that to you." The dryad glanced up into the tree overhead and stepped over to rap on it's trunk several times. "Ampelus, it's time."
Spark looked up in surprise at hearing the nymph's name and followed Mimosa's gaze, only to feel confused. He couldn't see her in the darkness of the giant tree's branches. "It is not. Go away, both of you!" her voice called, it's echo sounding from nearly every direction. It served to make things much more confusing.
"Ampelus, don't make me come up there." There was silence, and for a moment Spark was sure that Mimosa would make good on his threat. Instead, he saw that Ampelus had already complied. He could see the bark stretching, sliding...and changing color. The nymph had hidden herself in plain sight by covering the tree with her flat shape-shifting. Soon, she'd reformed herself and sat at the base of the trunk, looking as offended as she had when Spark had yelled at her. She seemed less angry, though, and more anxious. It made Spark anxious as well. What could this 'time' be?
"I'm still mad at him for the things he said."
"Perhaps you should've been watching your tone with your sister."
"Pfft. Yeah right. "sister"".
"See? That's what I'm talking about."
"If you'd just treat me with a little more-"
"Enough!" Spark yelled exasperatedly. The two ceased their feuding to turn their attention to the pegasus. "You've got some problems, I get it. We'll fix it later. For now, will someone please tell me what's going on with this "world before" crap?"
Ampelus' sour mood turned to one of quiet despair. She really didn't want to feel like this when she showed this to the one pony in the world she could trust. Couldn't it wait? Mimosa shook his head as if hearing her question, and merely gave her a stony stare. Fix it later, his look said.
Fix you later might've gone through Ampelus' mind at any other time, in any other situation, but right now, she couldn't think of anything other than what Spark Storm might think of her after seeing this. His eyes hadn't left her in some time, and she was more aware of it by the second. "Fine," she whispered. She was going to show him anyway, but that tiff...that's right. It was just a tiff. They would both get over it, they'd apologize, make up, and go back to Equestria and grow old together. Yeah, right.
Spark watched, transfixed, as Ampelus stepped closer to him. He wasn't sure, but it seemed like she was shrinking...she was. She was getting smaller, more compact-no, she was collapsing in on herself. Her vines disappeared, her mane slipped into her skull, her legs pulled themselves into her body. He'd seen similar transformations, but something about this was different. There seemed to be something at the center of her body, pulling her body into itself, something circular in shape.
Finally, the object made itself known as the remnants of Ampelus' green body slithered into the circular object. It was about the size of a dinner plate, greyish in color, and resembled some kind of stone. No...a shell. Spark stepped closer, and with a trembling hoof, he nudged the shell, noting the surface of this thing had many, many smooth openings, all slanted in the same direction. "I...I don't get it," he said lamely after a moment of quiet.
The pegasus stepped closer, peering down into the slanted openings, and noticed a pair of eyes, shining and bug-like, staring back at him. These weren't the pretty blue eyes that looked down on him when annoyed. This wasn't the sensual, alluring stare that Ampelus might give him if she had the opportunity. Was this thing even a she? As if feeling his thoughts, the small, reflective eyes turned downcast, and Spark realized that this was, in fact, Ampelus.
"Ampelus?" Spark's gentle call pulled the eyes upward again. "Please. Show me."
The eyes were hesitant, refusing to move. Slowly though, they began to slide upward, further, and further, until Spark could clearly see what appeared to be the strangest little creature he'd ever seen. It bore eye stalks, two of them that were bunched close together. The face was adorably alien, with small mouth parts that were slanted like the shell, with tiny claws under the slants that reached and grabbed at the air. Was Ampelus some kind of...snail lobster? The shell itself made Spark think of the nautilus sea creature. Was that what this was?
"So...you don't look anything like a pony at all. You're much smaller, yet I've seen you swallow...really big things," he told her. "And it all goes into this?" The adorable, insectile face only chittered quietly. There was almost a sense of disdain in it's body language. The thing that was Ampelus seemed distraught, the eyes switching from Spark Storm to Mimosa, who had resigned himself to simply watching. "Can't she talk?"
"No." Mimosa shook his head, a curious look in his eyes. "We lack the vocal chords necessary to speak in our primitive beginnings. We studied intelligent speech in the worlds before, and began to mimic those capable of using it. This is just the latest "model"."
Spark frowned and turned to Mimosa. "What? Worlds plural? Model?"
Mimosa grinned with glee at Spark's questions. The boy was proving to be more intelligent than he'd hoped. "The world that came before this one was not our first. We have been here for much longer than most life forms on this planet could calculate. Why don't you take a seat, and I'll spin you a tale much grander than any you've heard before!"
Spark thought he heard the mollusk-like Ampelus let out a groan. He could only guess that Ampelus' father had a dramatic streak a mile wide...probably bigger. He sat down beside the circular nymph, or whatever she could be called, and returned his attention as Mimosa dusted off an old film projector. "A...a movie? Tell me you didn't..."
"I most certainly did. There are books here within the bio dome that could tell you everything - and other ways and persons, I'm sure - but I think you'll find that this will be the quickest way to bring you up to speed."