• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener struggle to set right all the wrongs from their past and save their family and friends. Tenth and final story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

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Teaching Innocence

Chapter Twelve: Teaching Innocence

Innocence grumbled to herself as she slowly picked herself up off the sand, shaking her head as she regained her senses little-by-little. Her whole body ached, and her armor felt like it was too hot and too heavy for her to manage anything apart from stumble around like an idiot.

She wheezed loudly as she rose her head and glowered at Antares, who was grinning widely, bouncing spryly on his hooves some thirty feet away on the other side of this sandy arena. They at least had privacy, thanks to the ten foot high stone walls that fenced them in, and the heavy iron gates Antares had simply forced open with magic. From the sand and the burn marks on the walls here and there, they were in some kind of training area, likely used by the academy next door, and it didn't help that Innocence kept expecting some big demon to tromp through the gates and chase them off the property.

She tossed another nervous look at the entrance, and Antares rolled his eyes before he said mildly: “Every time you do that I'm tempted to throw something at you or shoot you with magic. Keep your eyes on target, Sin, you really gotta learn that lesson.”

Innocence grumbled again and glared over at Antares, starting: “I know that lesson! I just... I don't think we're supposed to be here and... I mean...”

Her eyes nervously flicked to the side, and this time Antares couldn't stop himself from snapping his horn firmly upwards, sending a short, weak burst of purification at her. It hit Innocence square in the face as she looked back at her brother at the last minute, and she squeaked in pain as she was knocked on her rump.

Antares only looked at her pointedly, and Innocence bared her fangs at him through her facemask before the young stallion said mildly: “I just warned you, didn't I?”

“Dammit, Tarry!” Innocence snapped, glaring furiously over at the stallion. “I thought you were going to help me, not just... what the hell am I even learning here?”

Antares shrugged amiably, then he said wryly: “I dunno, not sticking your face into stuff? Keeping your eye on our opponent? That wearing heavy armor all day is not nearly as glamorous as it seems, especially when half the things we fight can just rip right through it?”

Innocence continued to glower at her brother, and then her horn began to glow as she said crankily: “Do me a favor and stay still.”

Antares only grinned slightly at this, and then he said mildly: “That's a really dumb idea, Sin. You don't make direct attacks on your enemy, particularly after announcing them first.”

The younger unicorn only grumbled, and then the mare snapped her horn suddenly forward. But it wasn't nearly fast enough to catch Antares off guard, the stallion grinning wider and flicking his own horn easily backwards to deflect the bolt of magic energy and send it hurtling away.

The ball of condensed magic flew high, arcing backwards over the wall behind Antares before there was a loud bang and flash... and this was followed by a frustrated growl, Antares and Innocence staring at each other before something punched the wall behind them with enough force to rattle it.

Awkward silence fell, then was punctuated by the sound of heavy, dragging footsteps making their way slowly around the exterior. The siblings shared a wince, then both looked wildly and uselessly back and forth for somewhere to hie before an enormous demon lumbered in through the gates, the rugged hair around its features singed.

Its dark eyes glared at them balefully as its claws tore moodily against the ground, all six of its powerful limbs flexing as if eager to rip them apart. A long and thick plated tail slapped ominously at the sand behind it as it bared large fangs at them, then hissed: “Which one of you dumb punks just threw the magic bomb?”

“Uh... sorry, that would be me.” Antares said awkwardly, stepping hurriedly forwards and waving a hoof lamely at the demon, big brother automatically putting himself between giant demon and his younger sibling as she shied uncomfortably away. “Just doing some practice and all, and it kind of went out of control, sorry.”

The demon glowered at Antares, sizing him up slowly as the stallion smiled lamely at the behemoth. The last thing Antares wanted was to pick a fight with an angry Wrath demon, and he could see this one was just looking for any excuse to try and turn him into mush...

But thankfully, the demon nodded and grumbled: “Yeah, good. Make sure it doesn't happen again, short stuff. Or I'll come back for you and the little ho.”

“Hey! At least I don't look like a six-legged beaver!” Innocence snapped before she could stop herself, and the enormous demon snarled as Antares groaned loudly at this much-less-pleasing change of pace.

“Uh. Let's talk about this. She's definitely got um. Some kind of mental disorder or something.” Antares pleaded in a last-ditch effort to stop things before they could escalate further. He held up his front hooves as the demon approached, grinning lamely and continuing: “I mean, really, are we-”

The demon's response was to simply slap him aside like a toy, sending the stallion flying through the air with a yelp, and Innocence stumbled backwards in shock.

She stared up at the demon, paling beneath armor that felt more like a cage now than anything else as the demon loomed forwards and glared down at her. She shrank back, whimpering a little before the demon began to reach for her with one enormous claw...

Something firmly poked it in the back of the leg, and the demon scowled over its shoulder at the sight of Antares prodding at him with his horn, before the stallion looked up and said mildly: “Hey. Okay, look. That's enough. Don't make me not be sorry, and then kick your flank.”

“Really, short stuff?” The demon sneered at him, and then it looked back at Innocence and mocked, claws tickling through the air above her head: “Ain't that cute how your boyfriend's sticking up for you, little girl.”

“Okay, she's my sister, so that's gross. And you're clearly stupid, too. Two strikes is bad enough pal, don't go for gross, stupid, and uglier than you already are because I've had to break your face.” Antares said flatly, and the demon growled loudly at this before it turned around, glaring furiously down at the stallion, raising itself higher to make itself all the more intimidating.

Antares only looked defiantly back, not shaking in the slightest even as the immense demon loomed over him. It only served to make the Wrath demon angrier, however, as it snarled: “Drop your eyes, punk, before you really piss me off.”

“Or what, you gonna talk me to death, you giant bag of hot air?” Antares shot back fearlessly, and the demon looked almost stupefied for a moment before it roared in fury, eyes flashing with rage.

It pounced forwards, swinging four limbs down at Antares to try and cage the stallion in to pin it beneath it, but the Antares smoothly leapt forwards and then lunged straight up, smashing a hoof into the softer underbelly past its solid breast hard enough to make the creature's back arch. The demon's eyes bulged as it wheezed and grabbed instinctively at its stomach, and Antares leapt up to catch one of its limbs, using it like an axle to swing upwards and vault neatly onto the demon's back.

It shouted in fury, lunging forwards, and Antares only grabbed tightly onto its ridged shoulders with a whoop. It flung itself back and forth, bucking, kicking and flailing as it tried to shake the stallion off, but Antares clung stubbornly on, his cheerful yells and taunts frustrating the demon further as it bounded around the sandy arena.

“This ain't a game, kid!” the demon roared in rage, shaking itself violently before it suddenly flung itself backwards to try and crush Antares beneath its body, but the stallion swiftly threw himself straight up into the air, almost seeming to float for a moment in the sky as the demon crashed painfully down on its spine to no avail. Then Antares spun and dove straight own into the demon's exposed stomach, slamming like a hammer into its gut and making it yelp as it half-curled skywards around the stallion as it gaped wordlessly.

It stared, and Antares leaned slowly forwards as he tilted his head slightly, replying in a mild voice: “Oh, I know. Do you?”

Then the stallion leaned forwards in a hard punch into the demon's nose, knocking its head back with a hiss before it swiped viciously at the stallion in response with a snarl. But Antares dodged with ease, flinging himself backwards in a long, nimble flip.

He landed gracefully on his hooves before waggling his eyebrows at the gaping Wrath demon,... and humiliated, hurt, and boiling with anger, this last tiny provocation was just enough to push it over the edge, the demon howling as it scrambled madly to its claws to charge carelessly straight at the stallion, eyes glowing with berserk hatred.

And Antares met the demon fearlessly, grinning widely as he leapt up and slammed a stunning volley of blows across the Wrath demon's face before he smashed an uppercut under its jaw powerful enough to send the creature rearing onto its hind legs with a gurgle. The stallion seized his chance, leaping upwards as his horn glowed with energy, the stallion scaling the disbelieving demon like a staircase before his horn flashed as he flung himself above the creature's head, white fire bursting into life around his hooves as he swung them down in a savage tomahawk to the Wrath demon's face.

The enormous, six-legged creature was crushed down onto his back, crumpling like a piece of paper as the lithe stallion neatly landed on his hooves, grinning widely at his fallen foe. He breathed hard in and out for a moment, then laughed and shook his head, reprimanding: “Hey, pal, next time don't lead with your face. Now get out of here before you do something else stupid and I have to shove your head up your ass.”

The Wrath demon groaned loudly, then crawled slowly to its claws. It shook itself out, then flushed and hurriedly tried to make itself small as it slunk away, shooting short, disbelieving looks at Antares as it left, too confused and humiliated by the beating it had taken by the pony who hadn't even broken a sweat to try and continue the fight.

Innocence, meanwhile, was staring with awe at her big brother, and he posed for a moment when he caught he looking before winking over at her, saying easily: “And that is why I'm your big brother, Innocence.”

“I'm pretty sure it's actually because you're old.” Sin said after only a moment, and the stallion gave her a flat look. She blushed a little, then shifted awkwardly before saying in a mumble: “I'm sorry. And... thank you. You're amazing.”

“Hey, don't apologize. That's just Móðer coming out, right?” Antares replied easily, and then he smiled slightly as he walked over to her and gently poked her chest. “But it might be good for your health if you could learn where and when it's better to let that side of you take over, too. Now come on: if you wanna be as good as me one day, then we need to get back to work, no more distractions.”

Innocence nodded firmly, gazing up at her brother with both warmth and the faintest hint of envy for everything that he could do. Her whole family was so amazing, and she was determined to be just as good as they were one day... if not even better.

The young mare took a breath and straightened out, raising her head high as Antares smiled at her approvingly, glad to watch her already shaking herself out and getting ready to go back to business. Then the stallion stepped forwards and lightly knocked on her facemask, saying easily: “Try to charge yourself with your magic while I take a breather for a second here. Then we'll get back to movement drills.”

His little sister nodded quickly, and the glossy-black stallion sat back as he took a slow breath, letting his body relax as he shook himself out a little. He still felt... charged-up, so to speak. Alive, strong, proud of himself for being... different than he'd used to be. For being able to step in and stop a bully from picking on his kid sister, even if they'd kind of started it. But they'd also ended it, and he had more than strength now: he had the courage to speak up, and to put that strength to use instead of just... whining about it. And he was most proud of himself for being able to speak loud and clear now, not for actually taking on a Second Tier Wrath demon like he had.

After a moment, he turned to Innocence with an easy grin, nodding to her with a wink. “Alright. Let's see what you can do.”

The young mare smiled warmly, then she nodded firmly back before she rose her head and said hesitantly: “Can... well... I don't know, maybe practicing horn foiling instead of more drills?”

Antares cocked his head in surprise at this request, and then he shrugged thoughtfully before saying finally: “Well... yeah, I suppose we could, sure. Do you... I mean , are you sure about that though, Sin? We're supposed to be doin' mobility stuff. Practice the basics and all that.”

“These are the basics!” Innocence argued, and Antares gave her a dry look, making her huff. “Well, it's not magic or anything. It's swinging your horn around and bashing your head into stuff. I think that's still pretty basic.”

“It's because you think of it like that you're so bad at it.” the stallion said mildly, and his little sister gave him a grumpy look.

“Then what should I be thinking? That this is some majestic traditional martial art like you and Mutt are always saying, when I think you two just have swivel-necks and thick skulls?”

“Hey, we have a lot more than that, you butt.” Antares gestured pointedly at the open gates the humbled Wrath demon had left through, and Innocence huffed a bit before she nodded grudgingly. “It's all about visualization. And knowing yourself. And it is an elite combat form by the way, because unicorns sure as hell don't do this kind of fighting naturally.”

“Yeah, I'd never think to hit something with my horn of magical power that's also nearly indestructible. It's clearly just for poking cans open like Móðer does with it.” Innocence said wryly. It earned another dour look from Antares, and the young mare cleared her throat after a moment and mumbled: “Uh. Sorry. Just... eager to get started and all that, that's... that's all.”

Antares grunted, and then he motioned absently up at his horn as he began: “Well, the first thing is to focus magic into your horn. Alicorn may be the strongest substance there is, but-”

“Gianttooth is stronger. So is...” Innocence petered out and closed her mouth when Antares glared at her, leaning forwards and tapping a hoof pointedly against the sand. “Sorry, sorry.”

The stallion grumbled, then said grouchily: “Fine. Gianttooth and other mystical metals aside, the alicorn that makes up our horns is tough, but yours is still growing in and a bit softer than mine, so fortify it with a magic charge. I don't want to bend or scar your horn. Well, you know, any more than it already is, banana-face.”

“Bite me.” the young mare grumbled, and then she rose her head as her horn lit up with its distinctive dark aura. “There, like that, right?”

Antares nodded, smiling a little as his own horn took on its own luminescence. “That's right. Now, when you're ready, come at me, and I'll-”

Innocence didn't wait, charging brashly forwards with a sudden, wild yell, and Antares sighed and rolled his eyes before he sidestepped when she tried to pounce on him. She hit the ground instead, squawking as she skidded through the sand as Antares remarked: “You think you would have learned something from me just beating up that giant demon you pissed off.”

“That was completely your fault!” Innocence retorted, scrambling up to her claws with a huff. She spun around and lunged spryly into a wide, wild swing of her horn, but Antares easily parried it with his own and knocked her back.

“Sin, do you ever listen when we lecture you about direct attacks and all that?” Antares asked mildly, and Innocence growled at him in irritation, then flung herself forwards again... only to yelp when Antares caught her by the facemask with one hoof. “Direct attacks are bad. Try to flank or sweep in from the side.”

“Mutt and Daddy always run right at their enemy. Hell, you just did, too!” Innocence complained, and the glossy-black unicorn smiled despite himself as he shoved her lightly backwards by her face.

“Yeah, after I made him go crazy, though.” he answered easily, and then he shook his head and continued: “And you shouldn't even be working on melee anyway, you should be focusing on magic and mobility. Even your horn foiling should reflect grace and skill, not stopping power.”

“I'll try and keep that in mind, oh wise one.” Innocence grumbled, and then she added grumpily: “Momma can horn foil too.”

“Yeah, but Twilight only does so when she's forced to close with the enemy for one reason or another.” Antares paused, then added: “Also, Twilight ads in plenty of magic to all her-”

“You know, you're not being fun right now.” Sin said, and Antares touched his own chest as he glowered over at the young mare. “Well, you're not.”

“We're supposed to be working here, it's not always going to be fun. Look, just... try to flank me, aim for vulnerabilities.” Antares said finally, shaking his head quickly.

The young mare grumbled, then readied herself... but then she brightened, eyes drawn by the cheerful shout of “Innocence, Antares! Thy parents have arrived!”

“Hey, Mutt!” Innocence called brightly, relaxing and gazing over at the three ponies as they strode in through the open gates. Antares rolled his eyes at Innocence, but then he smiled and let himself relax a little, too. He could lecture her more on keeping up her guard later.

Luna bounced cheerfully over to her daughter, then she paused and looked up, sniffing at the air before declaring: “There has been a fight here, not just a spar... Antares, thou did not beat up thy little sister again, did thou?”

“No, Móðer, not even if she did something to deserve it.” Antares looked at Sin pointedly for a few moments, then shrugged when he saw Twilight's concerned look and turned his eyes to her, soothing: “It was nothing, honestly. Just a jackass demon with a big mouth.”

Luna grunted and nodded at this, then she asked seriously: “And thou pummeled it, Antares? Thou pummeled it well?”

“I pummeled it well.” Antares agreed almost solemnly with a quick nod, and the sapphire mare gave a grunt of approval.

“Good.” Luna drew her eyes towards Innocence, smiling at her. “And what art thou practicing here, my child? I am glad to see thee still in thy armor, though, especially when we may not be setting the best example being so quick to shed our own.”

“Horn foiling.” Innocence said proudly, unaware of the fact that the print on her mask testified towards precisely how well that had been going so far. Luna grinned widely at this as Scrivener and Twilight traded amused looks, and then the young mare scowled over at Antares. “But he keeps trying to make me go back to running around like an idiot.”

Antares only smiled at this, replying easily: “No, no, Sin, just the running around part is all you have to practice. You definitely have the idiot part down pretty well.”

“Oh, ha ha.” Innocence scowled over at her big brother, Scrivener clearing his throat as Twilight looked pleadingly between her children. “You're one to talk, Tarry. You're also the one who hit the magic bolt into the big demon's face.”

Antares huffed at this, opening his mouth to reply, but Scrivener cleared his throat and leaned forwards, saying dryly: “I'm glad you guys are getting along so well, but uh. We should probably try and move on. Luna, maybe you can work out some of your own crazy energy doing horn foiling with our daughter.”

Luna nodded agreeably as Innocence warmed visibly to this idea, and Antares gave his father a lame smile. But Scrivener only looked back with a small smile and shrug of his own to show it was okay, as Twilight said softly: “And later tonight, Innocence, we can probably work with Burning Desire. He and Ersatz also offered you and Antares a room separate from ours-”

“Good, because Mutt's creepy.” Antares said loudly, and Luna huffed and glared over at her son, her soulstone horn glowing before she leapt forwards suddenly and swung at him.

Antares blocked it with his own as it glowed brightly, and the two began to slash at each other rapidly, Innocence watching with amazement... and oh, how much she longed to one day be able to do that, to fight like that, to be so... so strong. Because even if they were playing, they moved so fast, struck so hard, had such skill... and mother was still superior to her son, as Luna smashed Antares' horn suddenly upwards and then tackled him onto his back, pinning him beneath her with a wide grin.

Antares stared up at her, then he winced when she rose a hoof, the stallion saying hurriedly” No, no, wait, you can't hit me, I'm your kid!”

Luna paused thoughtfully at this, then she lowered her hoof and nodded seriously... before suddenly leaning down and grinning widely, declaring cheerfully: “Thou art correct! I must do something far more humiliating than simply pummeling thee!”

With that, she began to tickle wildly over his body, and Antares yelled and squawked and tried his hardest not to laugh, turning beet red as he flailed violently in every direction to no avail. Innocence cackled, and Twilight and Scrivener traded looks before the charcoal stallion dropped his face in one hoof, mumbling: “Well, at least no one's around to see just how screwed up our family is. Luna, he's... he's forty years old!”

“And he still squeals as he did when he was but a foal!” Luna shouted cheerfully, as Antares rolled over onto his back, but then yelped when Luna tackled him with a wide grin. She pinned him down, then sat primly on top of him with a warm smile, as Antares wheezed into the sand and mumbled disconsolately, still a bright, fire-engine red... but after a moment, he couldn't help but smile a little himself, glancing wryly over his shoulder at his mother.

“Thanks for... helping me not grow up.” Antares said softly after a moment, and Luna smiled wider down at her son as he smiled back... then suddenly bucked her off his back, sending her down with a squawk as he popped to his hooves and said mildly: “And for being so off-balance. You're a really bad example for Sin, Mom.”

Luna huffed loudly at this, crossing her forelegs, and Twilight smiled warmly over at the two as Innocence continued to giggle and Scrivener glanced up with more amusement than exasperation in his eyes. Perhaps his family would always be a little creepy... but he didn't think he'd change even the most embarrassing parts of them for anything. And he was only glad that it seemed like the rest of their weird little clan agreed.

They trained for an hour, and afterwards, Antares parted ways with them so that he could go and check on Excelsior and see if there was anything that needed to be dealt with at the Thorn Palace. Twilight said she was going to check on Hecate and Celestia, so Luna and Scrivener decided to take Innocence back to Burning Desire's, using a side entrance to avoid the awkward entrance hall of mare statues that Twilight didn't want Innocence to be too exposed to.

They talked for a little while after helping Innocence out of her armor, and then Scrivener Blooms sat down to work on a manuscript while Luna painted. Sin sometimes liked to sit and watch her Móðer when she worked on her artwork... it was just such a funny hobby for her, she thought. Luna was so excitable, irascible, problem-making that it seemed like her hobbies would mostly consist of breaking and burning things, but Luna was surprisingly calm when it came to sketching, drawing and painting, trading out her usual mania for concentration and dedication to her work.

But today, instead, Innocence slipped carefully out of the room while her parents were working, and headed down the hall. She looked back and forth at the sensual art pieces on the walls, the erotic but mostly-pleasant décor, and smiled at the servants she passed. Almost all of them were pony-like demons, in shapes pleasing even to her eyes: most of them were Lust archetypes that strutted about their duties with calm confidence, many draped in gorgeous jewelry and silken clothing.

Eventually, Sin wandered her way into a library through a pair of invitingly-open doors, and she looked up with a slow whistle: she had never actually been here before. They visited often, but usually Twilight Sparkle spent most of her time herding her around, trying to stop her from looking at all the nudity and art pieces and studying all the other parts of Burning Desire's lifestyle. So she was never able to stray very far from her rooms... or at least, she never had been until now.

The young mare gazed wonderingly back and forth over the books, then frowned uneasily: knowing Burning Desire, these could be... 'romance' novels. She approached one of the large, gently-curved shelves and glanced at the titles over it... and then her eyes widened in surprised as she saw they were mostly texts on magic and the history of Helheim.

“Well, I see a gorgeous little filly has frolicked her way right into one of my favorite rooms.” said a friendly voice, and Innocence smiled over her shoulder as Burning Desire trotted into the room, winking down at her. “And what a pleasure it is to see you here, I must say. Usually your mother keeps you far away from this wing of the castle.”

Innocence shrugged a bit, gazing up at him and replying cheerfully: “Well, Momma isn't here right now. And Daddy and Mutt are a lot more relaxed about that kind of stuff... well, Mutt is, anyway. Sometimes Dad gets a little grumpy.”

Burning Desire nodded and winked. “Well, don't blame him, Innocence, he only has the very best interests of such a pretty filly as yourself at heart. After all, I'm sure there must be plenty of young colts just head over hooves for you, wanting to do all sorts of inappropriate things to your body.”

Innocence snorted in amusement, blushing slightly as she looked away, and then Burning grinned slightly before he looked up and gestured out at the expansive shelves that filled the room and lined the walls. “But this place is one of the few places, my sweet, where even I prefer a little bit of peace and quiet instead of groping and grasping and fondling. This is a place to expand one's mind, not one's... well... other parts.”

The young unicorn looked with amusement up at the fiery stallion, and then he gestured to her as he trotted forwards, and the mare followed him through the shelves as Burning continued to ramble in his cheerful, amiable way, helping Innocence to relax. “I'm very glad, by the way, that you haven't polymorphed or disguised yourself at all. You're very pretty as it is, and I think that you should perhaps work on taking your polymorphing in a different direction, Innocence. Your mother is going to be very mad at me for this but... violet is always prettier when she's mad.”

Burning Desire sighed dreamily as they reached a large oak table, and then the fiery stallion hopped into a seat and gestured at the young mare to sit. Curious, Innocence took the spot beside him, then looked up as the demon's horn glowed and lifted several books free from the shelves, dropping them onto the table in a neat pile as he said kindly: “These are texts on transformation, shapeshifting, and other neat little transfigurative doodads. And yes, before you ask, I have books on every realm of magic in here, Innocence, but why don't you start with these?”

“But... I dunno, I don't have the strength to do a major polymorph yet, I don't think. Even if I'm in all advanced classes, that's way above my level.” Innocence said awkwardly, shifting a little, and then she added finally: “And... well... I'm not an adult. Doing polymorphs and large-scale transformations, practicing that too much...”

“Oh, that's an old nag's tale.” Burning Desire huffed, shaking his head firmly before he continued: “Now, look. You're a very intelligent young mare, and you have a very bright future ahead of you. You know that, I know that, your parents know that. And as a demon, Sin, I can smell other things about you too... you want power. You crave strength. You have a few... well... let's call them quirks, shall we?”

The young mare shifted awkwardly, and Burning Desire softened, reaching up and squeezing her shoulder gently. “Don't be hard on yourself. We all have those feelings sometimes... some more than others, some less. What matters is what you do with them, and with yourself. One day, you'll probably grow out of those desires. And even if you don't, well, take it from me: nothing you long for has to control your life. You control your life.”

He gently nudged her, and the young mare smiled a little as she looked up at him, shifting silently before the fiery stallion chuckled quietly and reached out to pull the top book off the pile, passing it over to her as he said quietly: “But I think part of your problem is you don't realize how pretty you are, dear filly, and you try to cover it up when you don't have to. When we polymorph ourselves to hide something, though, all we do is amplify those insecurities. You shouldn't shape yourself to hide who you are: you should use your abilities to express who you are.”

Innocence looked up at him with a small smile, even as she murmured: “That's easy for you to say. You're a big handsome demon. You like who you are.”

“Not all the time, Innocence. And what I look like now is not at all what I looked like as a mortal...” Burning Desire shook his head with a quiet chuckle. “And it's funny. I may be, oh, handsome, and strong, and handsome, and... well, you get the idea...” Burning Desire grinned, posing and flexing for a moment as he winked at the young mare. “But at the same time, if I could have my old mortal self back? I think I might be tempted to take it... as much a shame as it is to take all this away from all the world's mares.”

Burning Desire gestured at himself with a theatrical sigh, and Innocence giggled a little before she looked down at the book in front of her, rubbing a hoof over the cover before she nodded a little and glanced at him, asking hesitantly: “Express who I am... do you really think that... that's a good idea? I'm...”

She stopped, looked down... then slowly looked up, and smiled faintly after a moment. She trusted Burning Desire, this big, silly demon who was such a close friend of her mother's, who had an awkward rivalry she semi-sensed with her other parents, and who lavished all kinds of love and attention and gifts on her every time they met. He treated her sometimes like a little sister, sometimes like a spoiled daughter, sometimes like an adored friend, and she didn't entirely understand it, but... at the same time, she thought she sort of did. And most of all, she knew that she could trust him.

The mare bit her lip for a moment, then asked finally: “Would it even be a good idea to express myself, Burning? I don't... I don't think a lot of ponies would want to see that. Who I am... inside. I think who I am inside might be scarier than... what I look like now.”

“My dear, you don't look scary at all. You're pretty.” Burning Desire said softly as the young unicorn rubbed slowly at her scaled features, and then he reached up, gently taking one of her claws between both of his hooves as he said softly: “You are a very pretty, growing-up filly. Why, in my day, you'd have been an adult already, probably married, or with all kinds of suitors knocking at your door.

“And it's not like we don't all have our... demons, if you'll excuse the pun.” the fiery stallion said softly, chuckling a little at his own joke before he calmly touched his own chest. “Why, just look at me. I'm not always such a handsome stallion, after all. Sometimes I'm fierce and frightening as any Wrath demon! And a lot of the time, well...”

Burning Desire winked, then he suddenly burst apart into a wave of red flames that swirled upwards and reformed into a firebird that flew quickly up towards the ceiling, Innocence gazing up with awe as she watched Burning fly high through the air before he spun around and dove smoothly down, landing on top of a hollow brazier near the shelves.

The firebird flapped his wings a few times, and then the polymorphed demon preened for a moment before saying cheerfully: “Now you can't pretend that this doesn't show a few silly things about me, Innocence. But it's better to express yourself than bottle it all away.”

With that, he flapped his wings firmly, releasing a gush of flames that set the brazier alight before the demon hopped off the metal bowl, transforming in a burst of fire in midair back into a stallion that strode calmly over to the other side of the table and sat across from Innocence, gazing at her kindly.

She gazed back up at him, smiling widely even as he felt that... all-too-familiar prick of envy in her soul again. That desire, to become stronger, to do everything that her family, her friends, all these people in her life could do. After all, it was well-known that her Móðer in particular was very good when it came to polymorphs, and Innocence imagined Luna could easily transform into anything Burning Desire could if she really wanted to... and her father...

Innocence hesitated, then she looked down at a claw before asking slowly: “Burning, well... what if... because of what I am, one day I'm... I don't just polymorph myself through magic. I transform myself entirely because of the corruption or something, I become...”

Burning Desire only chuckled quietly at this, and then he said softly: “You're no monster.” He paused, then smiled slightly and added meditatively: “And well, that's not to say your father is any beast himself, of course. I mean, Luna's always going on and on about him – when she's not mocking him, I mean – but I'm quite certain that darling violet wouldn't have anything to do with a monster. Therefore, none of your parents, nor you little one, can be monsters. Violet simply wouldn't stand for it, and quite honestly, neither would I.”

The stallion reached up and lightly punched her shoulder, and Innocence smiled in return up at him, feeling strangely reassured by this odd demon. She nodded a little before he said gently: “Good. Try and keep that in mind... and remember your honor is your greatest source of strength, little filly. If you lose that honor, then it doesn't matter how great and powerful you might be. You'll still be left with nothing.”

“Momma and Mutt and Dad always say that, and so does Antares...” Innocence bit her lip for a moment, hesitating as she looked over at Burning Desire, before she asked finally, a question she was always afraid to ask her parents or family because of how strongly they believed in the concept: “Is honor really all that good?”

Burning Desire looked thoughtfully at the young mare, and then he reached up and rubbed thoughtfully at the underside of his muzzle before murmuring: “I suppose that depends on how you look at things, Sin. I would like to say yes. I would like to honestly believe that yes, honor elevates us, is greater than strength, is key to helping us become... more than who and what we start out as. But because I know you're growing up...

“Honor is strength, perhaps. But honor is also something that binds us, that can restrain us. Honor, and mercy both... part of what make them so important, that they are signs of such strength, is that sometimes we have to willingly sacrifice things to maintain our honor. We have to give the upper hoof to people who might harm us; we have to reach out to people we would rather leave in darkness; we may sometimes leave ourselves vulnerable. If you want to maintain your honor, then you cannot be selective with it.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Burning Desire shook his head and chuckled quietly. “So it's a little tricky. But what honor guarantees you, Innocence, is companions, friends, and that others who value honor will be drawn to your side. And we have greater strength in unified numbers than we ever will standing alone and apart.”

Innocence nodded slowly, licking her lips before she asked uncertainly: “But what about... I mean... warlords? Or the old demon lords who used to create deathless or... other things like that? And I mean... I've read a little bit of Because Love Conquers All...”

Burning Desire shook his head, saying softly: “Yes, and they were loved, in a way. But a sad way, Innocence, a way that... wasn't entirely real, I think. There's no way to tell how much free will anyone in that story really had, at the end of the day, any more than you could say that the evil Scrivener and Luna of that story didn't eventually craft their own demise. They couldn't even raise a child between them: and as we've heard, after they became Gymbr, they eventually consumed everything they cared about. I think that... for all his power, Innocence, Gymbr must have been very much alone, and very sad. I of all ponies understand that there's immense pleasure at first when it comes to buying strength and power and making your dreams come true... but it... it sours.”

He quieted, licked his lips slowly, then gazed at her softly. “Now, Sin. I'm not asking you to promise me anything, but as a word of advice: try and always remember that your friends, your enemies, we're all just people. It's very hard at times, I know, but... I know you've been taught a lot about empathy and reaching out to others, too.”

Innocence smiled a little at this, shaking her head and mumbling: “Well, I don't see why I should bother to try and emphasize with some bully or some jerk, or even try and reach out to people outside of who I know and care about...”

“Well, that's part of honor, filly.” Burning Desire sat back, tenting his hooves with an amused look. “But don't worry. You don't have to be a big, mature mare for another few years yet, I think.”

“Good.” Innocence flipped the book in front of her open, and then she hesitated before looking up and asking quietly: “Burning, I... well... but do you think that if I don't be honorable enough... Mom and Dad and... Mutt especially, would they... I mean...”

“Your parents, your whole family, Innocence – and that includes me, little filly – are always going to love you and be there for you. No matter what you choose, what road you walk.” Burning Desire said empathetically, and then he met her eyes, reaching up and touching her face gently. “Always. I only hope you don't take too much advantage of that, my little pony.”

Innocence smiled a little, blushing and bowing her head forwards before she nodded a little and slowly rose her eyes, asking almost shyly: “So... can you help me with this stuff then, Burning? I... I want to get stronger. I really do.”

Burning Desire shrugged easily, leaning over to look down at the open book. “Well, of course. You know that I've never been able to deny the request of a pretty mare, much less my own family!”

The young unicorn smiled wider up at the demon, and she felt herself settling in and relaxing in the minutes they spent together, oddly comforted in the presence of Burning Desire. But she trusted him, and she could always talk to him, and she just plain liked her eccentric godfather. Sometimes she wondered what had ever gone on between him and her mother, but she figured it was some romance that had never worked out, or never fully blossomed. She thought it would be awkward to ask for a whole variety of reasons, after all, so she was content trying to puzzle it out on her own by looking at their body language and listening to all the little stories they often told about each other.

Eventually, Twilight Sparkle herself showed up, sighing and striding over as she saw the two huddled over the book... but Innocence thought there was relief and approval, too. Burning Desire grinned at the Lich as she joined them, and the stallion slapped Innocence on the back as he said warmly: “She's got a mind as sharp as Prestige Luster's. Perhaps she even rivals your own fierce talent, violet... but then again, after how she got her cutie mark...”

Innocence blushed at this, clearing her throat awkwardly as Twilight sighed a little, but the gaze she turned on her daughter was soft as she murmured: “I know. And she's going to be strong one day, Burning. She already is, as a matter of fact... but I mean, you're going to find a different sort of strength one day too, Innocence.”

The Lich paused, then she smiled a little and shook her head as the young mare looked awkwardly up. She often didn't want to remember the day she'd gotten her cutie mark: in her mind it didn't really stand out as some grand accomplishment or achievement.

It had been when she was being tutored still, just a filly, but big and almost a teenager. In other words, she was very, very late in finding her so-called 'special talent,' in spite of the fact she was damn sure it had something to do with magic. But she was getting worried, and she'd overheard some talk questioning whether or not she'd even get a cutie mark... and as if looking like she did wasn't bad enough, she knew that not having a cutie mark would truly leave her ostracized from the rest of pony society.

Her mother had insisted they go along with a field trip the schoolhouse was doing: there was some exhibition going on at a new environmental center in Canterlot, demonstrating how ponies used to be able to control all the weather and nature through magic. Innocence remembered how little she had wanted to go... how she'd gotten dragged along anyway... and how it had felt to be there, among a whole group of fillies and colts almost all smaller and younger than her, half of them with their cutie marks. And this had been before she'd learned how to polymorph, three people had already mistaken her for a half-dragon, half-pony child, and it only got worse when they found out Twilight wasn't a chaperon, but her mother.

So even if the subject had been an interesting one to her, she hadn't exactly enjoyed her time there. She felt too exposed and self-conscious and just plain embarrassed... and so she hadn't even noticed when the ponies giving the demonstration had begun asking for volunteers from the audience to give the nature-controlling magic a try.

Twilight had volunteered her before she even knew what was going on, and Innocence found herself pushed up to the front, humiliated, with a whole bunch of other foals. There were three unicorns, three earth ponies, three Pegasi... and her, shunted off to the side because they didn't know where the hell to put her. God, it had been humiliating.

And what she hated more was that they were inside this hot and magically-inundated greenhouse in Canterlot, and she could feel the layers and layers of enchantments and magic and everything else, fortifying the greenhouse and keeping the little 'nature' inside here suppressed and docile. So when the earth ponies planted seeds in the square soil garden and packed it down with their hooves like they were instructed, everyone was impressed by how the plants started to immediately grow... everyone but her, that was. This wasn't because of their innate connection to the earth. This was part of a parlor trick.

The Pegasus foals were able to create clouds from a small pool nearby, with the help of adults: one of the foals actually had to be lifted by one of the supervisors, and Innocence felt... all the more humiliated and embarrassed. Not just for her, but for these dumb kids who didn't realize even some passing butterflies would probably exert enough force to lift water out of the magically-charged pool and form it into clouds. No, this place was just a giant money-grab, a stupid sideshow attraction, a... theme park of propaganda. Just as the rain that fell from the clouds carried that same magic energy with it, and it was the magic that made the plants grow more than anything any of the foals had done.

The unicorn foals, lastly, used their magic to open a shutter and draw down a solar light. This was technology, not magic, but everyone was giving oohs and ahs of amazement like they were really moving the sun. It was not impressive to her, as the plants grew larger because the magic energy was being further amplified by the heat and shine...

They had grown several ugly-looking seedling trees. Innocence remembered how frustrated she had felt, before one of the supervisors encouraged her: “Why don't you put the finishing touches on? I'll even help you.”

Innocence had never taken very well to having ponies hold her claws. She remembered her horn lighting up, and she remembered feeling all these wards and magics and parlor-trick charms around her, and she remembered being... inexplicably angry. She remembered her words, too, saccharine and sweet: “No thank you, I got it.”

And then she had just... no, it wasn't 'lashing out,' so to speak. It was more than that. She had been focused, and she had felt something beyond these walls, striving to get it, and she had somehow... met it, and intertwined her magic with it, and there had been this sudden understanding in her when she'd lashed her horn upwards and focused all her strength into working with this immense, wild force outside the walls of the greenhouse...

Nature had roared, and the world had shook, and vines had blasted their way out of the ground and ripped through the walls of the greenhouse center. All the charms that worked to suppress and control the little gardens and nature had ruptured from the force of magic and primal nature, and in moments, the greenhouse had been covered by life, true life, devouring the attempts to control it and the false, synthetic nature.

She had brought chaos to order, put wild in the tame, brought new life... and as all the vines and the trees and the ivy and the other plants she had summoned up out of the earth burst into flower and bloom, her eyes had opened, and she had smiled proudly when she'd realized her emblem had finally taken shape: she had been right all along. Magic: she had just needed to feel that surge, show a big enough demonstration, summon it up in the right way. And she was determined to live up to what her emblem meant.

She was still proud of herself for what she had accomplished in wrecking the greenhouse and gaining her cutie mark. What she was much more uncomfortable about was what had followed, with the Royal Guard showing up and the threats of lawsuit and how people didn't celebrate what she did, they just yelled at her and pushed her away even more.

Things had settled after a few weeks, but... Innocence had never forgotten that. What bad had she really done? They hadn't even done any real explaining of how old Equestria had worked: their version was just cheap parlor tricks and ponies all working together as equals, when it had never really been that way in the past. And she had earned her cutie mark with a show of how to really control nature, and what real magic was: in return, she'd gotten made fun of and a slap on the wrist from the Canterlot Guards and gotten her parents in trouble...

She remembered the assessment that had followed. How she was 'troubled,' and how they wanted to examine her 'home environment,' although that had never gone anywhere because Aunt Tia had stepped in and fixed everything. There had been a lot of troubles, even though now... now things were better, or at least she liked to tell herself they were.

Innocence looked lamely up at her mother, but Twilight only brushed her mane gently back and said softly: “You're going to be incredible when you really learn how to harness your powers, Innocence. But... well, here, let me help. Those are transfiguration and polymorph texts, right? Let's take a look at moderate-level transformation, like adding wings and appendages.”

The young mare looked up brightly as Burning Desire grinned slightly, glancing over at the violet mare and asking easily: “And just what do you know about adding-”

“Burning.” Twilight smiled despite herself all the same as she looked pointedly over at the stallion, who held up his hooves innocently. Then the Lich shook her head and said softly: “No, I just think... my daughter deserves to learn to soar if she wants to. That's all.”

Innocence blushed a little as she glanced up at her mother, surprised. She had always envied the fact that her maternal figures could all fly... they had wings and magic and even though part of her focused on the whole power and strength associated with being able to fly whenever you pleased, the rest of her admittedly just... wondered what it must be like to be able to leap into the air and take off whenever you wanted.

The only taste of flying she'd ever had was being carried by someone else through the air. The young unicorn smiled as she thought about this, then she asked hesitantly: “You... I mean... you really don't mind that...”

“We have to study everything anyway, Innocence, and... I think... I know you're ready to start learning more. To start... doing more, to go to places where... I might not always be able to catch you if you fall. That's part of growing up, even though I'm always going to be there for you and love you, no matter what happens.” Twilight said softly, reaching up and touching her daughter's cheek... and for some reason, at this moment in time, it didn't make Innocence feel embarrassed or annoyed or like it usually did. It made her feel... happy. “You're my little girl. And you know that Scrivy, Luna and I... we put you first and foremost. It's important that we see you happy, more important still that you... well... that you're able to grow.”

Innocence smiled warmer, nodding firmly, and Twilight Sparkle smiled back at her cherished daughter, wishing she could always be there all the same to protect her little girl... but at the same time, loving her enough to know she had to start letting her grow up into who she really wanted to be.

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