Korrick stumbled through the dense forest, Chrysalis following by a significant margin. Coming to the east had been a wise move, separating them further from any pursuit. Personally he doubted any would be forthcoming; their lead was simply too great, and the direction they had decided to go was too perilous a trail for the council to trek.
Besides that, they were too busy being tyrannical.
"Slow... down..." came a huffing call from behind him. He turned to watch Chrysalis tripping over a high-grown root, and had to work hard to conceal his smirk. Despite all they had been through together in the last weeks, he still detested her. There was no redemption in his heart where she was concerned. Still, he needed her, and she needed him. More of the latter, really; he already had his answers, knew the name of the rat behind the 'coup. She had held up her end of the bargain.
Gerd would suffer terribly for this.
"Perhaps you should speed up instead?" he called back gruffly. "Somewhat sad really, to find that you can't keep pace with an old codger like me."
"Oh shut it," she grumbled, pulling herself back to her hooves. "I wouldn't be keeping pace with you at all if I didn't have to. If I had my way, I'd have ditched you long ago. But that wouldn't exactly be conducive to my health." She stumbled again, falling head first into some hanging, damp moss that was growing off of one of the many gnarled trees. "Not that this is much better for me!" she hissed, spitting out little fronds of the green stuff.
Korrick chuckled to himself. "It's your own damned fault. Why are you following me anyways?"
"Why do you think?" she muttered, trudging up beside him at long last. "I wouldn't likely last more than a few days in the desert in my condition, and I can't exactly stay at an inn." She poked him hard in the shoulder, looking at him with a haughty expression. "And it's not like you have the guts to get rid of me, for some reason beyond my fathoming. You must be getting soft in your old age." She plodded past him, continuing in the direction they had been heading.
Korrick only laughed. She was partly right; he didn't have the drive to kill her in cold blood. The threat of death had been more to ensure her cooperation than anything. He'd gotten what he wanted, so he could think of no reason to end her life. What he really wanted her to do was suffer for her transgressions and life of disgusting selfishness. Near as he could tell, the dead didn't atone or suffer for anything.
"Besides," she continued, "my odds are much better appealing to this stupid young king than to the council. Gerd Gallock is a carbon copy of his malicious ancestors, so I'll steer clear of him. If what I've heard of Aurus is true, I’d fare more favorably siding with him, at least until the war starts up," she finished smugly, as if she had quite a few other plans in place for that time period. She watched each of her hoofsteps more carefully now after the humiliating moss fiasco.
"What do you mean, 'side with him'?" Korrick asked. There was a distinct possibility that Aurus was dead. She herself had said that assassins were sent for him, and that did not bode well. Korrick was only heading east to find news of his king's fate, nothing more. Likely the ponies would turn him away, but he had to try. "I thought you said assassins had been dispatched?"
"'Dispatched' might be the right word, but you're using it wrong," she chuckled, her tone dark and full of purring maliciousness. "You've never been a king or queen, so you wouldn't understand. The people love him so much more than they ever loved me, but even so a band of assassins wouldn't have fared well against me in my day. What makes you think they had what it took to slay him? More likely it happened the other way around," she smiled wickedly at the thought of murder. "Oh, I do so hope that's the case. It will make him so much more likable then."
"Aurus is no murderer," Korrick insisted sternly. Insults against his king and friend were not well received. But he couldn't deny her logic, or his relief. So it was likely, then, that Aurus still lived. This was good news. "He's certainly a clever one. Perhaps he has managed to evade them all this time..."
"Evading assassins... no small feat," she grumbled, begrudgingly giving that accomplishment its due praise. "If he's not a murderer, at least he's good at something. Just because he's a little wrong in the head doesn't make him stupid. Maybe when he's older he'll abandon all this nonsense about peace."
"I highly doubt that. He's pure through to the bone; corruption won't lay a hoof on him in all his days," Korrick said with proud confidence. "Nothing like you, to be certain."
"Little concern of mine," she spat. "I've no intention of returning home for long. Once I've bargained for my safety with him, I intend to disappear."
Korrick looked around the dense forest of Everfree and thought perhaps this would be a fitting place for a monster like her to live in secret.
"Now then, how much further?" she huffed, her breathing still heavy from the full day of walking in her weakened state. It had been slow going for many days, covering half the ground he could have on his own per hour. At this rate, assuming his memories of the maps were correct, they still had a ways to go.
"Another four or five days, perhaps. Rest whenever you like; I'm in no hurry to walk into a pony city, but eventually we will have to." He looked around for a decent clearing to set camp in. The sun was getting dimmer and dimmer through the canopy overhead, and Everfree was not a gentle place in the dark.
"Tch. You're in no hurry to enter the city?" she grumbled snidely, following him as he spotted a place to rest for the evening.
Korrick just chuckled to himself as he set about using his magic to construct yet another shelter for him and his parasite.
"Don't worry; if anyone would welcome your sorry hide warmly, it's him."
"Stay here, and keep quiet," Korrick muttered gruffly, stumbling his way out of the thick, low foliage ringing the edge of Everfree. The road leading up the hill obviously went somewhere, likely to some pony settlement. He and Chrysalis had spent the last evening in the very shelter Aurus had constructed for his unwelcome travels into Equestria; in the ruins of the old castle. He knew that his king had come this way, down this very road.
He would follow diligently in his hoofsteps.
"You don't have to tell me twice," she huffed angrily, though her voice contained a note of fear. Her experiences with the ponies hadn't left her on the best of terms with them, and they had overpowered her in a state of love-infused magical might. Now, weakened terribly, she wasn't sure what the sly, underhooved equines might do to her.
Satisfied that she would cause no trouble, he began his way down the road. He was too old and tired to let the possible chaos ahead weigh him down. His family was on its own without him now, and he was alone and old out here. If the search for his king claimed him, he was ready. Somebody had to find Aurus and warn him of the dangers of returning home. His king was cut off from contact in this war-zone of diplomacy, and had no idea of the daggers coming in at his back.
Whatever the cost to himself, he had to walk this road and help his lord.
The town came into sight quickly, barely a mile from the fringe of Everfree. Like Aurus before him, Korrick knew the wisdom of walking while in his undisguised form. His performance was identical to that of his king’s only four weeks prior.
He braced himself as he crossed into the town, looking about carefully to secure his escapes if necessary. He waited to be noticed, as Aurus had, but this time it did not take long.
A young pony girl spotted him. Her eyes went wide from what he thought was fear, but in reality it was a happy curiosity, something all too common even in changeling young ones.
"Hey, Mr. Changeling!" she called out, waving a hoof at him and smiling.
Korrick almost fell flat on his face, he had stopped so fast. His jaw was completely slack as he stared in total, dumbfounded shock at the young girl in front of him. Where was the fear? The screaming that he expected, the chaos of a changeling in their midst?
She trotted up to him, still smiling. She was a cute little thing, or so he thought. Those huge, luminous light-green eyes seemed almost too big for her face, framed by her light purple and pink hair. Her white coat was a stark contrast to the grey shells of changeling young, but not in a distasteful way. She continued to look at him with nothing but curiosity.
Korrick looked around, confused. Surely others had noticed him by now? A few were looking his way, but they were just smiling pleasantly as the young girl carried out a perfectly mundane conversation with him. Every other pony seemed like he was just another body in the room, continuing their business in the market square or their own conversations.
It was as if he were a normal sight.
"Mister, do you know Aurus?" she asked, pausing in front of him and cocking her head.
That name snapped him back to reality. Of course, that explained everything! Aurus had already come this way; but to think that his arrival in this town could have had such an impact on a pony community... It was almost unreal. It was far greater than anything he could have expected. While he certainly didn't feel the love every changeling felt when in the company of another, of that simple social unity, he also could not feel fear or hate.
They were comfortably neutral towards him, and that was well beyond his hopes for Aurus' quest, especially so soon after Chrysalis' wanton warmongering.
"Yes, child. I'm a friend of his," he said, bowing his head and smiling at her, his old green eyes full of pure elation. This was a dream, his people's dream, come true. This one conversation was everything to him right now. "I am called Korrick. Tell me, do you know Aurus? Perhaps you have only heard of him?"
"Hi, I'm Sweetie Belle!" she chimed happily, extending a hoof to him instead of bowing her head. Apparently greetings went differently here. Korrick stuck his out as well and they shook. "Um, I kind of know him. He's friends with my sister, but they went to Canterlot before I got to spend very much time with him. Something about talking to the princess," she huffed, as if she had just been getting to know Aurus and had him yanked away.
"But he was really nice! He was helping ponies all over town while he was here, and always talking about how changelings weren't so bad. Everypony else didn't seem to mind him, but they were pretty scared of him when first he showed up," she said with a sheepish smile.
Korrick just laughed, smiling down at her. "That sounds about like him." He did his best to keep his smile steady as he considered her words. Aurus, in Canterlot. If this little town was any indication, perhaps things there were not going so badly as his imagination would have him believe.
Regardless, it was good to know Aurus had survived long enough to reach the city. The assassins had not caught him here in this secluded village, and their work would only have been made more difficult inside the capital.
"I'm sorry miss Sweetie Belle, but do you think there's any way I might be able to reach him? Maybe some way to get a hold of your sister when she travels?" he asked pleasantly. Going to Canterlot himself might push the limits of this new trust Aurus had created. Likely his visit here had been more profound; his impact would be greater in such a small, tight-knit community. His best bet would be to let his king know that he was alive and searching for him.
"Sure!" she squeaked, hopping a few inches in the air. "I can take you to see Spike. He's the one who sends the letters to the princess," she said with a smile. She turned and started down the street, more towards the center of town. Korrick continued to receive curious looks, but he could still feel nothing negative.
As he followed this young, fearless pony child, he knew that his king had been the right choice all along. He muttered to himself through a pleasant smile as he walked along.
"Well done, my friend... Well done."
Applejack ducked a burst of green flame with practiced ease. "Bless ya," she chimed cheerfully, smiling at her patient despite his literally violent sneeze.
"I'm so sorry Applejack," Aurus replied stuffily, rubbing his nose with a hoof as he scrunched up his face.
"Ah shoot, that ain't nothin'." She simply smiled at him as she recalled the last few days of his bed rest. The fire sneezes had been a surprise to be sure, but it was nothing compared to the time he had turned the potted plant in the corner into some kind of vine monster. Or the time that the ceiling light had exploded, raining glass everywhere. Harmless for the most part, though Twilight had had to kill the plant after that particular little fiasco.
"After ya learn to dodge 'em, ya just need t' know they're comin'," she chuckled, waving her tail around. The tip was still singed from a few days ago when she had first discovered his pyroclasmic sneezing.
Aurus shared a laugh with her, though he felt awful about it. Her tail had been so beautiful too. Rarity had offered to trim it up and at the very least remove the blackened bit, but Applejack hadn't taken a single break in caring for Aurus, not even for small things like that.
Things were much better now, though the magic was still churning uncomfortably, and he was having trouble resting. Twilight had refused to let him train until he was sleeping better, claiming exhaustion would only make it more difficult to rein in the excess energy.
Aurus wasn't going to complain. Over the last few days he had never felt weaker in his life. He honestly didn't mind getting a little vacation time, especially since his fever had broken. He was allowed to be up and moving around, but Applejack wasn't giving up on keeping him company and helping him with everything she could. She still watched over him when he slept, which worried him. He appreciated the concern, but it was beginning to show; she was getting more and more tired every day.
Twilight had pulled him aside and mentioned that something similar had happened before. Apparently Applejack was prone to trying to do everything on her own, even if it meant sacrificing all of her time; including time for sleep. Aurus had brought it up before, but every time he mentioned anything along those lines she just changed the subject.
It was worse now, though. Her eyes looked darker and her smile seemed smaller. She was running herself ragged over him, even after he had recovered considerably. This time, he needed to make her see the truth of the matter.
"Applejack... I know I've said it before, but it's really starting to worry me. You look completely exhausted. Maybe you should get some sleep. Believe me, I'll be fine for a few hours while you rest up," he said with a pleasant smile, but it twitched with worry at the edges.
She sighed. "This ain't about me, Aurus. Ya've got a job t' do an' yer people need ya in top shape. An' after everything ya've done fer me, it's my job t' make sure you heal up quick. I can't take my eyes off of ya fer even a minute. Heck, if I do you'll sneeze the place t' ashes," she said, laughing nervously at the end, as if trying to relieve the tension like she had done in the past.
Aurus was just as stubborn as she was, and this time that wasn't going to work. "Applejack, this isn't funny," he said worriedly. "I know you're trying to look out for me, and I know my people need me. But I need you to be in top shape, too. You're running yourself into the ground." His eyes were full to the top with concern, his smile completely gone and replaced with a worried frown.
"Look," she began, a note of frustration in her tone, "ya've done yer part t' keep me safe, an' I wanna do mine. Why can't ya see that?" She scowled at him angrily.
"You're going to collapse at this rate," he said pleadingly, just trying to convince her to listen to reason.
"I don't care!" she snapped, stomping her hoof. "Whether ya like it or not, I'm stayin'. I thought this would make ya happy, but I reckon I was wrong." Her exhaustion was doing funny things to her emotions, he knew, but those words stung all the same; being accused of taking her help for granted, or worse yet throwing it away, burned him.
"Applejack, you're talking from exhaustion... I'm not turning you away, you just need some rest," he tried to put in, but she just scowled harder.
"Ugh! Ya jus' don't understand it, Aurus!" she growled, turning away from him. "I said it once, an' I'll say it until yer better; I ain't leavin', and ya can't make me."
That challenging tone frustrated him. "Why are you being so stubborn and angry with me?" he asked roughly, scowling at her now. "I'm just trying to look out for you. Like I've been doing since I met you. Apparently you forgot that." His tone was harsh due to his frustration with her, and he regretted those words the moment he said them.
The damage was already done though. "Ya reckon I forgot?" she shouted, whirling on him. The two shot each other death glares while she huffed heavily out her nose. "Ya saved my life twice and ya're figurin' I jus' forget all about that? Why in tarnation do ya think I owe it to ya? Of course I remember, ya durned idiot!" She growled in frustration at the end of it.
That insult wasn't exactly doing wonders for Aurus' level of calm. "You're the one who's acting stupid!" he shot back, clenching his teeth. They were both all-in on this fight now, and there wasn't any room for regret, just honest anger over stupid words. "Look at me! Aside from sneezing and waking up in the middle of the night, I'm fine! Have you even looked in a mirror lately?" he asked harshly. "You probably can't even see straight you're so tired. You're the one who needs help, not me."
Applejack just stomped her hoof loudly again, forcing him quiet. "Grah! I can't take no more of this!" she shouted at him, her eyes full of tears. "Ya don't have t' make excuses. If ya don't want me around, then jus' say so!"
Aurus stomped in return, his face a mask of righteous anger, fueled by the flames of worry. "All I've ever done for you is care about you, and I'm not about to stop now!" he roared at her. "If you're just going to stand there and yell at me for loving you, then fine! Go! Hell, if it means you'll get some sleep I'll tell you anything you want to hear! Even if it's a lie," he said, his voice fading to a hushed, angry whisper as his shouting momentum faded out.
She just stood there, shaking slightly, and looking at him with eyes wide from shock. He had yelled at her; had shouted in her face. She'd never seen him mad like that. Her own tired and angry brain couldn't register the concern and worry behind that outburst; all she knew was that it stung. Her own anger and hurt finally brought her out of the trance and back to reality.
"That's the difference between yerself an' me," she said sadly, turning away from him with tears in her eyes. She headed for the open door, fighting somewhere between heartbroken and angry. "I don't lie fer nopony... Not even ya'll."
She stepped out into the hallway, slamming the door hard behind her with a forceful kick. The loud noise deadened Aurus' heavy, shaky sigh. He could feel her anger and hurt clearly through the wall, and it didn't make him happy. The love was still there, but it came and went as her heart wrestled exhaustion and confusion. He still loved her deeply, but her parting words stung him.
"I don't lie for nopony... Not even ya'll."
It was true. They were different like that. Every pair had their strengths and faults, similarities and differences. Aurus would do anything to make sure she was safe and well. Anything at all. Would she? Was she prepared to give up something like her morals for him?
He hoped not. He loved that part about her, but the realization that they were so vastly different in the ways they loved one another worried him.
Sounds from outside the hallway, down the direction Applejack had gone, drew his attention. He couldn't make out words, but he knew that Rarity had run across her orange friend. He could hear Applejack snap at her before presumably running off. A darker part of him took solace in the fact that she was angry enough to take it out on anyone, and not just him.
Soon enough the purple-maned unicorn walked in. She didn't say anything, just shut the door quietly behind her. One look at Aurus was enough to tell her that he needed a moment to cool off.
He just stood there, staring at her quietly, trying to figure out what to say.
"What happened?" she asked gently, comfortingly. She looked at the ground under his hoof where he had stomped. The tile was shattered to bits, and the floor around him was lightly singed, though Aurus couldn't recall conjuring any fire.
Aurus followed her gaze, not shocked to see a little destruction due to his level of anger. It did instill some feelings of remorse in him though. "Applejack and I had a fight," he admitted quietly, not looking her in the eye.
"Aurus, look at me," he heard her say gently. As he finally met his friend's gaze, his nervousness melted. She was just standing there, smiling at him like nothing was wrong at all. He needed that smile; needed to know that things were okay. Right now he was worried what this new rift between himself and Applejack would bring.
"Fights happen between a stallion and a mare," she said simply, taking a seat in one of the two chairs the room had to offer. For the sake of normalcy, Aurus took the other, sitting across from her. "Usually they're just for stupid reasons."
"Not this one," he grumbled, sitting down hard and letting out a rough sigh. "She won't listen to anything I say! Anytime I try to help her or give her advice, she just thinks I don't respect her decisions. And then she got mad at me!"
"Dear, that's just how she is," Rarity replied quietly, smiling sadly as she began to better grasp his frustrations. "She doesn't like taking help from anypony. I've talked with her enough on the subject to know that she does love you, you know. She'll come back around. But part of why she's angry is because she feels inferior, I'm sure."
"What do you mean? I never talk down to her, and I always try to make her feel normal around me as best I can," he said sadly, as if somehow he had done something wrong. "Is it something I said? Why would she feel that way?"
"It's something you did." Rarity pointed a hoof at him for emphasis, but her smile showed that she wasn't being accusatory; just stating facts. "Like I said, she doesn't like taking help. I'm fairly certain that, if she had had time on that train to decide whether or not she wanted you to step in and save her, she would have never asked you to. You saved her without her permission. Nobody is going to fault you for that. She loves you for it, I know she does," Rarity said warmly, but there was a sad tinge to her speech.
"But she can't fight who she is. You helped her, and she never asked for it. She's in your debt, and her nature can't handle that. Every time she looks at you she sees a hero, and a stallion that is superior to her because he stepped in and helped her when she never asked for it. She doesn't like owing people favors, because she's too used to being the strong one.”
Rarity sighed, and put a hoof on Aurus' shoulder. "Ever since you came into her life, you've been the strong one. It's confusing to her, to have somepony carrying her through part of her life. She probably feels like she needs to prove that she's just as strong, to clear the debt she feels like she owes you. But she wrestles with that because she loves you, and she wants to be able to keep depending on you," Rarity finished with a sad smile.
Aurus just sighed. "She doesn't have to prove anything. I know she's strong. When I was sick she was there for me, and that means more than I think she realizes. I'm afraid that she thinks she'll never be able to prove herself to me. That she'll never feel like we're equals. But I can't stop protecting her; the harder she tries, the more she hurts herself," he grumbled to himself quietly.
Rarity just shook her head. "No, I agree. She's always been a little rough around the edges, and not too many things go through that thick head of hers quickly when she's running a temper," she said with a chuckle. "But we all know she needs you. She knows it too. She even said it to me once, you know. 'It's nice, not always having to be the strong one. To have somepony I can lean on'. She meant that, but she doesn't like to think about it."
Aurus fell silent for a short while, pondering that. He smiled gently to himself as an idea came to him. "I think I know what I need to do."
Rarity just smiled, sure that whatever he had in mind, it would be his best shot. There wasn't any advice she could give him that would work better than his own intuition. Applejack was his mare, after all. Who should know better how to handle this mess?
"Thanks, Rarity... I don't know what I'd do without you," he said with an apologetic laugh.
"I imagine you'd probably burn the place down in a fit," she teased, hopping out of her chair. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Best not to let her think on it too long before you force her to change her mind."
Aurus just laughed. She winked at him in a friendly farewell as she made her way out the door and then back down the hall.
Steeling himself for the trek into female territory, Aurus headed his own way.
Applejack kicked the pillow again, watching it fly across the room and bump softly into the wall. It hardly did anything to alleviate her anger, but it felt better to be doing something. Her nerves were itching something fierce, and she couldn't recall a day in her life she had wanted to cry so badly. She kept that in check by reminding herself how angry she was instead.
A knock at the door drew her death-laser gaze. "Yeah, what?" she asked angrily, taking a step closer to better hear the would-be intruder through the thick oak panel.
She could hear whoever it was outside shuffling uncomfortably, and she knew who it was way before he said anything. "It's Aurus. Can I come in?" he asked, his voice muffled by the door.
"Yeah, uh, let me think about that," she said snidely. "Give me one good reason I should let ya in."
"Because I still love you, and I'm sorry," came the calm, quiet reply.
Her heart sort of hiccuped at that, and a blush he couldn't see painted her face scarlet beneath her coat. He was apologizing to her? She wasn't in any hurry to admit it, but deep down she knew that the fight was just as much her fault as it was his. Her hurt wasn't ever going to allow those words to be spoken aloud, but she couldn't lie to herself. Struck dumb by those few, simple words, she was hardly aware of herself undoing the lock and opening the door to the parlor.
Aurus walked in slowly, as if he expected her to change her mind at any second and slam the door on him. He looked her dead in the eyes, and she had a hard time maintaining that gaze. Whatever he had come here to say, he had made up his mind that he was going to say it. But she hadn't made up her mind that she wanted to hear it. His face showed clear regret for their fight, but his eyes were the same strong, emerald orbs she had always adored, filled with purpose.
Her blush hadn't faded yet, and neither had her speechlessness. Every step he took into the room backed her further into it, and so it fell to him to shut the door gently behind him. He locked it so that they wouldn't be bothered for what they had to say. He knew he was taking a risk, that this could become an even bigger fight than it was before. Yet any opportunity to repair the damage was necessary.
"Applejack, I'm sorry," he said again, his expression going sad and full of remorse.
"If that's all ya've got..." she replied quietly, stubbornly trying to hang onto her anger through her blush.
In response he took a step into her, and her blush deepened. They weren't touching, but she could feel the heat from him, his tall form looming over her. It was an oddly enticing feeling of intimidation, as if a part of her would somehow be okay with force after their heated fight earlier. She knew that that would be a fight she couldn't hope to win, as tired as she was, but more than that she knew she was being foolish. This was Aurus, and it would never come to that.
He sat his hindquarters down, his taller form sinking down and bringing his eyes right in line with hers, and only a foot away. He looked her hard in the eyes, his green orbs full of some determination she couldn't understand. He went further, laying down in front of her and bowing his head.
She had to hold back a gasp as she realized what he was doing. Aurus was kneeling at her hooves, hanging his head with true regret and sadness.
"Everything is my fault," he said quietly, no longer looking at her, but at the floor.
"Aurus, don't..." she began, but even she didn't understand what it was she meant to say. Was she going to ask him to get up? Was she going to yell at him?
"When I saved your life, I never meant to put you in my shadow. I never meant to hurt you; I just wanted you to be safe. I didn't know how you felt about it; how you don't like to depend on anyone unless you have to," he said quietly. "And I'm sorry."
Applejack was speechless. He was a king! Why was he humiliating himself like this and bowing in front of her? The only thing she could think of kept echoing in her head.
He really, truly meant it. More than anything, he was sorry, and not just for the fight.
She slid to the floor with him, wrapping her forelegs around him gently. "It's not yer fault... I-it's mine. Fer bein' so stubborn, and so stupid. All ya ever wanted was t' look out fer me. And I took it t' heart in the wrong ways. I forgive ya for the fightin'," she said quietly, pressing her nose into his shoulder to hide the oncoming tears of honest apology. "But can ya'll forgive me fer this?"
"I already have," he replied warmly, though he still sounded nervous. "I can't be angry with you for being who you are. It's the same reason I love you, after all. We both want to be strong, but we both want somebody to lean on... Instead of fighting about who's stronger, why not lean on each other?" he asked quietly.
She took his face in her hooves without warning, and kissed him roughly. He didn't know how to react at first, but finally he returned it, the two of them reconciling everything quietly in that moment of passion.
When at last they broke the kiss off, Applejack was blushing fiercely, but her face didn't seem embarrassed. Rather she looked like she wanted to kiss him again, but didn't know if it was appropriate.
Aurus felt the same exact way, but the rush of blood to his face didn't show through his dark hide.
"I like that," she said quietly. "L-leaning on each other, I mean," she clarified hastily, her blush growing hotter in her cheeks. "I reckon I could go the rest of my life with ya feelin' square, as long as we both agree t' it." She hadn't meant 'the rest of her life' to be a relationship quirk, but everything kept coming out awkward ever since she'd kissed him like that, and it just made her more and more embarrassed.
Aurus just laughed, but his own breathing was shaky from nerves. "I feel the same way. B-but the other part wasn't so bad either," he said, aiming for a joking tone.
She prodded him in the shoulder roughly for bringing the ever-embarrassing 'passionate kiss' scenario back into play. But she couldn't rightly stay mad with him... because frankly she couldn't disagree. Her hoof remained where she had poked at him for his joke, resting gently on his shoulder. She turned her head away from him, too red in the face to look him straight in the eye.
"No, I reckon it wasn't," she replied, but her casual tone failed, leaving her sounding confused.
Aurus chuckled to himself, an idea coming to his head and painting a sort of smug smirk on his face. "You don't sound so sure... Maybe you should try it again, just to be safe?" he asked with a light laugh, to show that he was half-kidding.
Apparently she liked the other half better, because she turned back to face him, her hoof sliding down to his chest as she closed the distance. "Jus' t' be safe," she clarified, but he pulled her the rest of the way before she could hesitate any further. They came together in one more passionate kiss, holding one another gently for a short span before at last breaking apart a short distance.
"And?" Aurus asked teasingly.
Applejack flushed all over again, but she held her tone steady this time and smiled at him. "Not bad at all."
"Glad I'm not alone," he chuckled, letting go of her and getting to his hooves. He helped her up, and smiled gently at her. "I'm glad we sorted this out,” he said fondly.
She nodded, a soft smile on her lips. "Me too, Aurus. Now, I reckon I should take the advice of a good friend, and get some rest... I'm no good t' anypony if I'm too tired t' think," she admitted sheepishly. "You mind returnin' the favor, and watchin' over me while I sleep?" she asked quietly, heading for the bed.
Aurus just smiled, his heart feeling like it was finally back in the right place. "It would be my honor."
Gerd looked deep into the pulsating blue crystal. The rest of his pieces were all played. He now had the board set the way he wanted it, and everything was in his favor. Only one crucial task remained, and it required constant attention.
The council needed to remain oblivious to his ever-growing power. He knew about ‘metamorphosing’, how the magical energies changed the body. The council was sure to have taken that into account, but if his form were to change too much, they would grow suspicious. He needed to limit the energy in his body, but that would mean spending the precious magical energy the people were funneling into him.
Under normal circumstances, of course. But the crystal before him held the key to all his troubles.
It was a family heirloom, one of the few treasures that not even the ever-greedy House Gallock would auction off. None of his ancestors had been able to discover the purpose of the crystal; only one thing was known about it. No matter the magic used on it, it had no effect. All spells cast upon the crystal failed indefinitely, regardless of how powerful.
That little secret had been discovered when his great, great grandfather, Grimsor Gallock, had been attacked by bandits during one of his many excursions in search of rare items. He had found the crystal that same trip, but had refused to part with it. Something about it drew his attention, arrested his imagination.
It was a truly beautiful thing; it was several times longer than it was wide, pointed on both ends. It was jagged and rough; the only facets it sported were seemingly built from nature itself. Were it simply grey, nobody would be able to tell the difference between it and a rough-hewn chunk of rock, but it glowed with an eerie blue light at its core that entranced any who looked at it.
His ancestor had strung the stone around his neck, showing it off to the entire world. When the bandits had attacked, they tried everything they could to subdue his family. All of the other caravaners were stricken dead in the fight, but no matter how they tried, no killing spells ever reached his grandfather. Even objects thrown by magic had simply halted before dropping to the ground.
When his grandfather returned fire, however, the stone had not stopped him. The bandits had all be stricken dead, and Grimsor had returned triumphantly with his prize.
Gerd had been researching the stone more thoroughly. As per family tradition, the crystal was never to leave the estate, mounted in a place of honor in the main hall.
And as per family tradition, Gerd had stolen the damned thing. His father would never have been more proud.
His weeks of service to the council by day were completed with nighttime research on the crystal. Until he could discover something, he had been using it to expend his magic quietly. The stone would dispel anything he threw at it, and he wouldn't need to make a show of venting his excess magical energy.
One evening, he had made a breakthrough. Instead of casting on the stone, he performed a simple spell while holding it. What should have created a light breeze had demolished a solid stone pillar with a torrent of wind.
Gerd had suspected that all the magical energy the stone negated was going somewhere, or course. He never would have suspected that the small, glowing gem itself was the container. This item had been in his family for decades, soaking up spells in their defense, and who could say what its history was beyond that?
Regardless, the stone absorbed magical energy, and whoever held it could pull the energy back out. Would pull the energy back out, without ever meaning to.
His spells hadn't been wasted at all. The energy he had thought he was quietly disposing of was still there, soaked up by this magical sponge. And he could call on it at will, so long as he carried it with him.
He spent more time practicing with it, learning its limits. He could regulate how much he pulled out, though he had yet to figure out how to stop the crystal from activating completely. It always attempted to amplify his spellcasting, and it required significant willpower to prevent it from doing so.
A commodity Gerd Gallock did not find lacking.
He would bide his time, quietly serving the people and garnering their favor, luring them further and further into his corner. Farming their love, until at last he was ready. Until at last he had filled the crystal to its very breaking point, if such a thing even existed. Until it could make him unstoppable.
He laughed darkly to himself as he stroked its surface, feeling the magic seeking to enter his body, a vessel far less full and just as hungry for power.
"Not yet," he whispered to the jewel gently. "But someday soon, you and I will storm across the world like hellfire, and everything we will, will be. Everything we demand will be given to us. And everything we hate will be crushed to dust."
Gerd laughed darkly to himself as the crystal pulsed, as if it too felt the pleasure of his dark desires.