It is known well that the Signless one, the Blood-Pained one, he of the Selfless Sacrifice, was loved dearly by his Disciple, as is the rightful order of things.
Thus one day came to pass that she asked of him, O you with no name, for even this you gave away to one in need, have you no need of your own?
And so he said, O night-hued best-beloved, I have no need bigger than that of tending to others, for their thirst and hunger assails my soul all around the ever turning wheel of seasons.
And she said unto him, O brightest star, I shall endeavor to support you in this task, so as to lighten your arduous burden. Yet she persisted. Had he not perhaps a desire, a thing that might please and flatter his soul as a pleasant fragrance or the taste of honey?
And he demurred, in greatest shame, and refused to share his greatest selfishness, but by force of love and care at last the Disciple received her Master's confession.
"Okay, so where the heck do I even start hunting fur a meowniature hoofbeast around here?"
First of all tasks the Disciple went, as is most natural, to her soul-sister, born of her very same Egg, lithe, gallant Huntress, of wild-tousl'd curls and greenest eyes, whose great claws cut even steel and mithril itself. And thus she begged, lo, my sister, will you aid me in my quest, as for all that copper-gilt'd Signless ever desired such an insignificant thing, I know not where to go. O you who track the wolf and the lamia and the gryphon to their den and slay them without fear, might you in your travels have seen the object of my quest?
And the Huntress was saddened as she spoke, for she had not, as hoofbeasts do not dwell in the deepest forests; and her own heart's mate, proud, mighty Blacksmith, had gone a fortnight past to answer a greater call, that Huntress dared not interfere in the name of the Signless one's pleasure, as Signless himself would have been most displeased that his own pleasure might be the cause of such grievous injustice.
And thus they wailed to the skies, for who but the Blacksmith, the Great-Maned, He Who Stampedes, could have given them aid in this task.
" Horses, huh? Well, can't say I'm not intrigued. Bit hard to come by on platforms above the sea, I've never seen one in real life. If we don't count Mini-Maplehoof. You guys need a third party member?"
And thus it became that their cousin of Heart did offer his helping hands, for as the Disciple cherished the Signless, so did Snowsoft, the Beguiler, he of honeyed words and ever-true frost-glaives, cherish the proud hoofbeast for how much the Blacksmith cherished it in turn.
And thus it was that the Great-Heart'd Knight and Rogue and Prince departed on their quest. And they traveled for a day and a night and another day as the moons raced them through the heavens, they traveled for the love of the one without name, for there was no god without evil rooted deep in his breast who did not love the Signless one, and some who loved him even then.
At last they came to the island of Manyarms, thus named for the bright ribbons of her waters that do embrace fields of jade and woods of deepest emeralds, Manyarms the populous. For surely, so reasoned the Beguiler, such a great assembly of people shall ever have need of a proud and solid hoofbeast.
But lo, as they travel'd in shades, thus the mark of their godhood became muted in turn, tresses of ebon and ice turning the green of moss at dusk, the pale rust of the Rooster's hour. For Disciple would not accept a hoofbeast in tribute, as beggaring her adorers was never her way, and surely her beloved would thus be struck through the heart by a present made to salve it.
And they walked across many cities, and in their cold, closed hearts none saw fit to render help unto them, for a hoofbeast is even now a treasure and hermits and beggars they well seemed in truth.
At last the spring of Willowbrook called them to its singing breast.
"I'm so tired! Bluh, why can't we fly, this is unfur."
"Because," Dirk replies pointed like claws, "the natives would freak out. And once they were done freaking they would flip enough to kick off a tornado, and Eq isn't done setting up his windmill which means it'd be a fucking waste of gale force winds."
Disciple sighs, and tugs her cowl farther down over her eyes. She's not used to so much light, for all that the effect is mostly psychological and the body she now inhabits can deal with it. She's been squinting for hours and it's giving her a headache, and there is shade under those trees, and a little spring and moss to plop her ass on, so that's where she goes.
"Disciple?" her descendent mewls nervously. Disciple waves her hand, but keeps going until her feet are right in the water and her butt sprawled all over that moss, and yep, it's as soft as it looks.
Dirk is standing in the middle of the path with his hands on his hips and a too-serious frown on his face, like he's about to berate them for not pushing farther, but as she pointedly closes her eyes and relaxes Nepeta joins her, feet dragging a little.
And then she gasps, so Disciple opens her eyes again.
There's a girl by the water, a little higher up, that Disciple hadn't seen, one with moon-tipped horns. She's kneeling by a funny tiny stone house, near where the stream slithers out from the rock.
"Oh! Hey there," Nepeta says, and peers curiously into the little stone house over her shoulder, "what are you doing?"
And thus gallant Huntress came to the plea of one of her own Heart, and the moon-crowned supplicant said unto her in the language that is most pleasing to the Rogue, Alas, gentle stranger, I am besieged with furrible catgony, for the one I gaveth my palest fires will nefur love me back. Thus I musk pray for wistom at the hostel of the Rogue of Heart until I am delifurred.
And the tender-Heart'd Huntress shared in her torment, and advised unto her--
Disciple sees Nepeta's face fall, though the girl, wiping copper tears off her eyes, doesn't.
Because, really, it's no secret how much Asleha's descendent loves Kheper's. And it's no secret that he appreciates her as a comrade and relies on her as a soldier and cares for her as a friend and he will never love her back.
Behind them Dirk stands, arms crossed with pointed boredom, maybe a touch of embarrassment. He's not half as good at hiding as he thinks. She ignores him.
A hand on the girl's back, Nepeta stares down at the little shrine-thing for a long while, at their sign engraved at the bottom of it, before she manages to say anything.
"What do you think... What do you think that Shippurr would advise, then?"
The girl's voice starts out wavery; her puns slip. (It's so cute to find others who cat-pun. Sometimes Signless will indulge her, or Psii will tease, but this girl, while not a natural at them, is so very dedicated to getting them in, even if she has to go back and switch a word mid-sentence.)
"I think... I think. I think Huntress Shippurr would say. A true shippurr knows there are many pawsible ships! And some sail, and some don't, and it doesn't have to be because they're not well-built or beautiyifful, and -- and I think she'd say -- just beclaws one ship doesn't sail doesn't mean anofur one won't, and won't also be gorgeous and special!"
She wipes at her face, sits on her haunches, nods at Nepeta, who's nodding back, helplessly caught in the stranger's epiphany.
"And -- and it can have some of the same crew, even! And you should, you should keep that purrfect might-have-been like a purrecious treasure bottled in your heart, and make space for nyeow flowers! Beclaws... beclaws..."
"Yes," Nepeta says, "Yes," and they start crying on each other.
Disciple is pretty sure the girl's eyes are squeezed too tightly shut to notice the wings that fan out behind Nepeta and make the flowers in the shrine fly.
--for she was indeed Shippurr, the Huntress of Hearts, she whose heart-wisdom could untangle the strings of Fate in a single slice.
And thus the moon-crowned dedicate was blessed, and in turn gave them aid, for she knew from hearsay where one might find a man who had once owned many a fine hoofbeast, and might know where they dwelled now. And so great was her gratitude that she undertook to travel alongside them until their quest was complete.
Alas, the man, in his old age, was besieged by terrible weakness of the mind...
"Oh my fucking god, just great, your mom's friend is a senile old fart. Are we going to need to drag one of the Pyropes out to find one piddly horse in this entire country or wh-- no, hey, old man, those are my shades. Give them back."
It's funny because Nepeta was pretty sure Dirk is cool, and usually he is but the farther they walk and the more snappish and frustrated he gets. If she weren't a moirailed troll she'd give that muzzle a little pap, she thinks.
He's pretty scary, because it's like he thinks everyone else is stupid, and the thing is, he is scary-smart. Equius is super smart too but his mind is more like, she doesn't know. A lever. A spanner. Something to dismantle and rebuild with. You can bludgeon people with it too but it's not its primary goal to hurt. Dirk's is more like a scalpel. Which, well. Yeah.
"Your friend seems pretty, um," the girl who led them here says, and Nepeta grins nervously, and then remembers to politely hide her fangs. Whoops.
"I don't know what peed in his breakfast," she whispers back, "But umm could you maybe talk to this old purrson's moirail, and I'll talk to him?"
Fefie (her name is Fefie! So cute! Nepeta will have to tell Feferi) blinks at her, and giggles behind her hand like she's embarrassed. "I really don't think they're pale! I think that's his son. But... well, he looks pretty annoyed at your friend, I don't know if..."
Urk. And Disciple doesn't like being under a roof, so she didn't even come in. Augh. Okay, okay, um. "A son is... a direct descendent, right? And your ancestor was friends with his ancestor, right, so can you purrty please talk with him about that? I just need a minute!"
Dirk looks about to reach in and snatch his shades back. The old man is sniffing them. Welp. Nepeta bounces in and tugs on Dirk's sleeve, grins up at him (she doesn't hide her teeth this time around.)
"Dirrrrrrrrghk you are being pawfully grumpkitty! Equius would find you unmannerly." She tries to give him a stern, I will tell on you! look.
Dirk stares at her, eyes narrow and not best pleased. Ulp.
"He'd have conniptions because this dude has rust eyes and purple hair, and then he would storm the fuck out."
"... Well, yes, but you're still being mean. That's not cool. Are you okay?"
She's pretty sure he's gritting his teeth. It's not very obvious, but it's the vibe she gets from him. Almost palpable frustration.
"The shades have a... Let's say, a personal meaning." He doesn't like people touching them, he doesn't say, but she almost hears it. He breathes in, releases it slow and long, eyes closed, takes a step toward the old man's chair again.
The young man who'd been whispering quietly and pretty growlingly with the girl bristles all over again -- oh no, Fefie almost had him calmed down -- and moves to intercept.
Dirk raises a hand, palm out. "Peace. I just want my shades back. Preferably before he scratches the shit out of them. Or breaks the ear piece, shit--"
The son manages to snatch the shades out of the old man's hand before they can snap. He throws them back at Dirk, scowling -- but looking ashamed, too.
"What was he doing?" Fefie asks, head tilted in catlike confusion. She mimes with her hand. "That gesture was weird, like he was trying to... turn something?"
He rakes a hand through his hair, deflates. "It's this toy he had from his mother, it's, you know, supposed to wind up with this little arm thing, but it's broken... The noise drives me crazy."
Dirk mutters something no doubt unpleasant under his breath, and squares his shoulders. "Okay, show me."
"The toy. Show me. See if I can fix it." He gets a lot of stares for that, stares back, eventually grunts, "It has been brought to my attention that I've been kind of an asshole today. It's not your fault you can't help us. Let me do this."
The son boy doesn't seem convinced, but his dad person is starting to make little crying noises and feeling around with his hands like he dropped something. Fefie pats his elbow cautiously. "If it's broken already then it can't hurt, right? I think, um. You should let him, so he can, you know, evacuate the bad karma?"
"... Yeah, okay, fine."
It's a little toy horse, with the symbols of Heart on one side of his butt and Void on the cheek. Nepeta isn't sure why Dirk pinches his lips like that when he sees it.
He decaptchalogues his repair kit under the table so they can't see and goes to work. Nepeta wanders outside, bored, to talk with Disciple some. They talk about Disciple's loves, her Signless who she loves above all and her Psii who she loves because Signless loves him and because he's a brat and because he is the most pitiable thing ever, objectively.
They don't talk about Karkat, except for Nepeta to say, I think it'll be alright. Because it will be. It won't be what she dreamed of, never, ever, but that's. Maybe okay. Maybe not right away, but it will be.
She'd be lying to Fefie if she decided it wouldn't be okay, and she can't do that.
And lo, the Beguiler of that token created a hoofbeast of metal and magics, but the feeble-minded crone could not admire his creation. And so He of the Frost ensnared the crone's ailing mind with his lightning hands and ordered it mended. And the crone, fresh of mind anew, bade them take the magical hoofbeast to get them where they willed for as long as the spell would last, for surely having beheld such a miracle was good enough to satisfy any good man.
Dirk could do without the local guides, now they have a place and name, but Fefie is determined to forget her sorrows by going to visit her cousins at the ass end of nowhere, and the asshole Polus decided to tag along. His father barely noticed -- the moment of clarity had passed in minutes, and after that he was too busy racing his little toy horse along the table to notice when Polus whined a neighbor into taking over for a while.
Pretty obvious he wants to mack on Fefie in some way. Dirk keeps a weather eye on them, but whenever he tries to hint that rebounds are rarely the stuff you write epics about he gets hissed at by Nepeta.
His shades are fine.
No matter how many times he thinks, I should be seeing this from higher up. It's not the shades' fault. He used to be the shades, in a way. (He used to be the asshole who wore the shades, and the robot controlled by the shades semi-controlled by the asshole, in a way, but not really controlled at all because fuck that guy.)
Disciple keeps sneaking him glances and he's not sure why. It's not like his expression is betraying him, he's being real cautious about that.
It's another three hours before they get to the old man's old friend, a leather-faced woman with vicious corrida bull horns. Dirk stays back, this time, he's tired of strangers. (He could hustle her no problem if he -- no he couldn't, he's never gotten used to people who aren't Jane and Jake and Roxy.)
Polus introduces them, and Disciple grins and goes, "He said he gave you his hoofbeasts, when his mind started failing, right? And one was a really solid little mare with years and years of breeding left in her, and one was a furry nice stallion. We're really interested in the result!"
Is Dirk surprised when the woman growls and bares her teeth and waves her hand at a ravaged paddock, wooden walls climbing way up and still clawed to shit? No, of course not, things couldn't start to go well now.
The horses she has, she says, she cannot trade, because who knows when the next ones will die. Her best mare miscarried, her prize stallion might have such a limp he can never cover a mare again.
"You have a kitty purroblem?" Disciple asks, head tilted, and then she laughs, and Nepeta grins bright and eager and Dirk --
He knows what they'll say a second before they do.
"We'll felix it for you, and then you'll owe us a hoofbeast!"
Blah blah there are hundreds of wild cats in those woods -- Dirk bets on maybe six to ten, at worst fifteen if they can afford smaller territories because the ponies keep them well-fed. Blah blah you will never find them all --
But the Disciple then brought forth a secret item of terrible power, carved of the darkest ebon and purest ivory into the Idol of Cats, its mortal enemy the Rat, that which strikes terror in the heart of Her beloved beasts, for as she loves all felines roaming it is her dominion to punish them as well when they roam too far afield, and the beasts surely had erred in forsaking their covenant never to take prey out of the vast reaches of the endless forest.
"Behold... the Catnapper!"
Jesus dick, Disciple travels with a giant plush catnip mouse. It looks well-loved, too.
"Don't take it out here," he drawls, and then he goes, "nice sewing though." Reminds him of the toys he sewed for --
He wasn't alive then. It wasn't him.
He follows them into the woods, loses them in ten minutes. He takes to the treetops; might as well not tempt any kitty out here too much. And then he waits, for any that might try to run away in his direction.
(And then he thinks about looking out of his window and seeing a street under the water, about listening in the morning and hearing seagulls and neighbors.)
(He is the Prince of Sharded Self, his quest was all about that shit. It's not even the first time he does it.)
(And then he thinks about his bro and his Bro, his father and his son.)
And they slew and slew prides entire of Great Cats, bringing forth divine punishment for the beasts' break in their covenant. And at last the beasts broke and ran, and one said they were a living carpet of fur far as the eye can see, and they ran and they ran until the sea and threw themselves at the mercy of Her waves and swam away.
And from that day onward all Great Prowling Cats left the island of Manyarms, to whence they never returned.
"And this one has really purrty spots!" Disciple goes with as charming a grin as she can, "you could sell it for a nice price, worth a bridle and tack, right?"
The hoofbeast lady would have to cure the hide herself, though, which is a lot of work, but she doesn't try to haggle, doesn't say anything. Disciple is a bit surprised.
"Um. We'll throw in that one with the stripes too. Deal?"
The lady is nodding vaguely. Polus and Fefkitty are looking at the pile she and Nepeta hauled in. Maybe nine beasts?
"You guys can have one too, for guiding us to here, that was supurr nice. Um, so. Hoofbeast? We do still have a bargain, right?"
The lady twitches. "Oh -- of course. Um. This way."
Dirk is muttering to himself and holding his forehead again. Nepeta is behind the pile, arranging the trophies properly, and just shrugs her way before disappearing behind it again. Disciple follows.
Behind the barn all the horses are pressed at the other end of the enclosure, and none of them will come when the owner clicks her tongue.
"You might, err. Scare them. With the cat and blood smell."
"Oh." Argh. Does she have to wash now? Damn it. She glowers at the horses, frustrated. She already saw herself on the way back. "Alright, alright. You know, you won't be of much use to Khepurr if you can't take a little blood!" she yells at the hoofbeasts, and turns away to go find a trough.
"Great-Maned one," the old lady hisses between her teeth.
When Disciple turns around one of the hoofbeasts is clopping its way to them, ears flat in hoofbeasty annoyance. It has odd, not very fetching brown spots everywhere on its dirty white coat and its horns are stunted and dull, like it headbutts things a lot. It's small, too, made sturdy, but it would come up to maybe Signless's lowest ribs at the very most.
She squeals. "Ohmygod Nepkitty! Dirrrrk! Look at this sulky little brat! It's purrfect!"
"She's a runt," the old lady says, but faintly.
"Nonsense! We live on a very small island, it makes sense to have a small hoofbeast! And with haunches like that she must climb like a dream! And we have a lot of cliff paths. So. Purrfection!"
"Why does the pony have rhino horns," Dirk mutters behind her but she totally ignores it, because when she goes to let the pony sniff her hand, the pony stares at her for a second and then shoves with her muzzle, annoyed that there's no sugar to be found. "This is not a pony, this is a unicorn."
"It can't be a unicorn if it has two horns, can it?" Nepeta points out as she comes, and Disciple turns to grin at her and notices that her descendant's little wings are out.
Nepeta is staring back.
"Mine are out too, aren't they," Disciple asks Dirk, chagrined.
"One might say that," Dirk says through a sigh, and then he smiles.
It's an oddly nice little smile, and it floats on his face instead of melting away the second anyone takes notice. When he ambles up to the fence to pet the hoofbeast's silky nose, two beast-red, feathered wings unfold from his back, as if in solidarity.
She's pretty sure he's aware of them, so she doesn't tell him.
"Um," she tells the ranch owner. "You can have a third cat. For the tack." Because she'll be damned if she makes the poor woman feel like she has to gift it.
And they left behind them three blessings, of palest love, and soundest mind, and safety from prowling beasts forevermore, and rose into the skies with the hoofbeast on wings of fire and light. And the hoofbeast itself, touched by the hand of Brilliant Beguiler and Gallant Huntress and Devoted Disciple, of Heart and Frost was it remade, and so wings of its own did it spread out into the moonlit night.
"Just one problem."
"Like walking back all that way wasn't one..."
"You're just jealous beclaws you're too big to ride it!"
"Damn straight I am, Neppers, and that doesn't make me able to figure out where the fuck we'll find a ferry to the spooky god island for three plus pony."
And they bestowed upon him the name Areion.
"I think I'll name her Patches."