• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,703 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

  • ...

Contests Between Friends

Chapter Eighteen: Contests Between Friends

Antares Mīrus smiled warmly over at Prestige Luster as they walked side-by-side through the streets of Ponyville: Antares was wearing a heavy hide jacket and a wool toque, while Prestige had her blue scarf wrapped tightly around her neck and a matching cloak covering her body.

Celestia had been running drills with them for the last few days, and had organized the young ponies into doing simple tasks for her: Avalon was running messages and helping with patrols, Aphrodisia was on official Starlit Knights duties, Rustproof was working hard with his mother almost every hour of every day in the engineering building, Meadowlark and Prestige had both been assigned to research and Antares had been training constantly. Not just his body, but his mind: he had already twice been put in charge of running drills for trainees hoping to become Starlit Knights, a task that had proven much, much harder than Antares had thought it would be. Not just because of how he had to organize everything, but because of the fact that quite a few of these trainees looked down on him because most of them were adults.

But today, Antares and Prestige both had the day off. So did Avalon, but it was only ten in the morning so she was likely still at home in bed and asleep... but they had plans to meet up with her later and pick up some treats at Sugar Cube Corners to bring to Fluttershy and Nirvana at the animal care center. The one-winged Pegasus was still training Avalon when the tiny mare had free time... which, thankfully, wasn't hard for her to find as long as she wasn't running errands for Celestia, thanks to winter slowing down the work that had to be done at the farm.

The glossy-black young stallion gazed warmly over at Prestige, who looked back and opened her mouth... then stumbled to a halt as her eyes snapped forwards. Antares frowned a bit, stopping and glancing up himself before he reared back in surprise at the sight of the armored unicorn striding calmly towards him. “Colonel Scutum?”

Scutum nodded once, coming to a halt in front of Antares and looking down over him measuringly with his single eye. Antares gazed back up awkwardly, giving a lame smile before he asked hesitantly, as the silence spiraled out between them: “What are you doing here?”

“Baroness Caprice has a meeting today with Baroness Celestia.” Scutum answered, gesturing absently at the library in the distance, and Antares nodded a few times before he cocked his head curiously as the one-eyed unicorn continued quietly: “I decided it would be a good use of my time to find you.”

Antares hesitated, then he shifted absently and said lamely: “That's... nice? I, don't get me wrong, I'm happy to... you know, see you and all, but I don't really know what you want and... Prestige and I-”

“This is important.” Scutum said mildly, and when he glanced at Prestige, she immediately lowered her head and shrank back, making Antares frown a little before Scutum simply turned and gestured. “Come with me. We should step outside of town.”

“Uh... why?” Antares asked slowly, even as he carefully began to follow, and Prestige hesitantly strode after him, looking as unnerved as the young stallion felt.

“Because I'm challenging you to a duel.” Scutum said calmly, and Antares wheezed in surprise as Prestige flinched visibly. The two young ponies stumbled to a halt, and then Scutum glanced over his shoulder, saying quietly: “I need to judge your character, Antares. And after what Lady Celestia has told me, I need to know if you're prepared for this or not. She's granted me permission to issue you this challenge on the condition that I allow you to set the rules of engagement.”

“I... oh... Horses of Heaven, I thought Aunt Tia was honestly giving me the day off.” Antares groaned and dropped his head forwards, but he admittedly felt relief mixed in with his frustration and apprehension: if Celestia knew what was going on, it meant that Scutum probably wouldn't kill him... probably. “I... what do you mean, set the rules?”

Scutum only grunted, and Prestige shifted and fidgeted awkwardly beside Antares as the two younger ponies followed the larger unicorn stallion, who easily strode down the snowy streets. Ponies hurried out of the way of the large stallion, looking at him nervously; Scutum clearly wasn't just a unicorn of the north, after all, he looked particularly imposing... and he had both Antares and Prestige trailing behind him almost like prisoners of war.

They reached the gates leading out of Ponyville and made their way through as Scutum looked back and forth: the road had recently been shoveled by the Nibelung that were now sitting on either side of the gates, chatting cheerfully away. He tested the smooth, frosty ground beneath his hooves, then nodded at how packed the little powder left had become as he said quietly: “This will work fine. Prestige, please wait at the sidelines. This is one-on-one.”

Prestige mumbled something, and Antares frowned a little for a moment at her before he apprehensively turned his eyes back to Scutum. The Nibelung were now looking up with interest from the gates, and Antares fidgeted a bit, only glad that there at least wasn't a larger audience: the snow-filled fields were empty, and since they were on the road leading towards the Everfree Forest, there was no need to worry about travelers... although of course, ponies could be watching from the nearby animal care center, but Antares awkwardly put that out of his mind. “I... don't know how to do this.”

“You're free to set any limits or rules you prefer, Antares.” Scutum said calmly, bowing his head politely. Antares eyed him nervously, then he nodded slowly before reaching up and adjusting his jacket with a grimace. His equipment was a comfy winter coat and a fuzzy hat; Scutum was in full armor, had his sword sheathed on his back, and was a unicorn who had likely trained all his life in combat and military tactics.

Antares closed his eyes, thinking slowly... and then he finally looked up and said quietly: “No killing, obviously. Fight until submission or surrender. I won't... force you to put down any of your equipment or limit your magic. If you had been an enemy or something, it's not like... I could just ask the bad guy to simply put down their sword and fight me hoof-to-hoof.”

Scutum didn't seem to approve or disapprove as he studied Antares, then nodded shortly before dropping to a ready position: Antares breathed slowly, then anchored himself as well, horn taking on a faint glow as he mumbled: “Well... let's get this over with, Scutum.”

“Show me how much of your parents live on in you, Antares Mīrus.” Scutum said calmly, and Antares looked up sharply, distracted as he realized what Scutum was implying before the larger unicorn stallion charged suddenly forwards, surprising Antares before the glossy-black youth winced and lashed his head to the side as Scutum's sheathed sword glowed and the pommel snapped forwards, aimed at Antares' face.

It whickered by, and then Antares cursed as he was forced to lash his horn forwards, sparks flying as the short sword snapped viciously in a circular cut towards Antares' skull. Horn and steel clashed, and then Antares cursed, fighting more on instinct than anything else as his horn and Scutum's sword slashed violently together again and again, every blow sending up a hail of sparks as Antares realized with shock that Scutum wasn't just using telekinesis: he was focusing some kind of magic into the sword, boosting the power of every blow.

Antares leapt backwards when Scutum stomped both front hooves forwards and swung his sword to the side at the same time, the glossy black young stallion staggering before Scutum quickly jumped backwards and anchored himself, sword falling back to a ready position at his side. Antares breathed hard, remaining loose and staring with surprise across at the one-eyed stallion before the military unicorn said quietly: “Not bad. But luck won't take you as far as skill.”

“Actually, my Mom always said it's better to be lucky than skilled.” Antares replied in a mumble, and then he winced when Scutum ran towards him again, spreading his leathery wings and gritting his teeth before he snapped his horn forwards, sending a blast of telekinetic force at Scutum.

The military unicorn slashed his sword into this as it glowed, countering the blast of raw force with pure power but then grunting in surprise as his weapon shuddered in the air, and Antares leapt forwards, boosting himself with a hard flap of his wings to swing his horn savagely down into the sword of the larger male. It knocked the weapon loose from Scutum's telekinetic hold, the larger unicorn's horn sparking as the colonel winced backwards from recoil... but before Antares could react, Scutum lunged forwards and smashed a hoof down across the glossy black stallion's face, then swung his other hoof in an uppercut that caught Antares under the jaw, knocking him flying backwards to crash down on his back.

He skidded painfully over the snow, gasping in pain as his eyes widened before Scutum flicked his horn upwards; his sword was launched high in the air, and then Scutum snapped his horn forwards, and the weapon shot at Antares like a missile. The young stallion barely had time to react, throwing himself to the side with a yelp and barely avoiding being skewered. “Oh come on!”

Scutum ran forwards, bowing down as Antares looked dumbly up before Scutum smashed into his stomach in a full ram and knocked him flying backwards with a hard rising slash of his horn. Antares cried out in pain as he flew backwards, blood flying from a cut torn along his stomach before he hit the road and skidded down the frosted hardpack on his back, cursing and hugging himself before he gritted his teeth as Scutum pressed the attack even harder, leaping forwards, calm and merciless...

Antares shoved against the ground with his hind legs, spinning himself onto his back so his lower legs were aimed towards Scutum before he kicked both rear hooves hard into Scutum's surprised features, knocking the military unicorn crashing backwards.

Scutum rolled once, then slammed all four hooves down against the ground and skidded to his hooves, straightening as he looked sharply up. Antares rolled to his own hooves, breathing hard as he spread his wings and flapped them once to limber them up a little, gritting his teeth as his horn glowed. The two faced each other, and then Scutum's eyes locked on where his sword was buried in the ground before he shot towards this as his horn began to light up.

Antares shot forwards as well, and Scutum looked surprised at the speed of the young stallion as the glossy black unicorn's horn glowed brighter and the sword lit up with the same aura. It snapped upwards and free as Antares grinned, snapping his head to the side to swing Scutum's own short sword at him, and the military unicorn flinched out of the way before he flicked his horn forwards.

For a moment, the two males halted, both gritting their teeth as they dropped to anchor themselves, wrestling for control of the sword as energy sparked over it and it glowed with the telekinetic power of both unicorns. It shivered violently back and forth, and then Scutum cursed before he flicked his horn sharply forwards, sending a blast of energy into the sword that made it glow white.

Antares winced, then he yelped in surprise as he was blasted backwards by magical recoil when the sword released a surprisingly-powerful shockwave and he felt his telekinetic grip knocked loose. The young stallion reared and staggered as he flailed his hooves at the air while Scutum flinched himself, before the one-eyed stallion leapt forwards and caught the sword's handle, lunging with it and leaning into a flurry of short, vicious blows that tore back and forth against Antares' body.

The young stallion cursed in pain as the weapon tore back and forth against him before Scutum attempted to thrust the sword forwards, and the glossy black stallion clapped his front hooves into either flat of the weapon, catching it and straining his muscles as he felt the tip of the weapon puncture into his body, cursing under his breath as Scutum bore relentlessly forwards.

Antares' horn glowed... and then sparked violently, making him flinch a bit as he realized that Scutum had somehow enchanted the sword to reflect telekinesis. He cursed, knowing he couldn't win against the larger stallion's raw strength before Scutum suddenly let go of the sword, and Antares' eyes widened before he released the sword himself and twisted sharply to the side when the larger unicorn slammed his hoof into the pommel of the blade.

The short sword shot narrowly by like a rocket, just scratching through Antares' side as the glossy black stallion winced, then gritted his teeth as he dove away from Scutum. The larger unicorn pursued him, beginning to raise his horn, and Antares reacted immediately, kicking both rear legs hard outwards and snapping his lower limbs around Scutum's neck before twisting hard to the side.

The two unicorns crashed down on their sides against the frosty road, and Scutum cursed before he pried himself quickly free from Antares' grip. The military unicorn leapt backwards, and Antares climbed quickly to his own hooves, breathing hard and glad for the reprieve, but at the same time wary considering how aggressive Scutum's attacks had already been.

Then the young stallion winced and readied himself as Scutum's horn glowed... before the glossy-black male stared when Scutum calmly flicked his horn forwards as he spread his front hooves slightly, and ice spread violently up his own limbs in thick bracers: a moment later, these sprouted blades of frost that quickly thickened and hardened into deadly edges, and Antares winced as he mumbled: “Crosshatch blades. I hate crosshatch blades.”

Scutum's only response was to charge forwards, then suddenly sidestep when Antares leaned forwards to try and intercept him: instead, Antares found a crosshatch blade of ice swinging towards his face, and the unicorn winced and swung his horn hurriedly down, parrying the attack even as he rose a forelimb on instinct to block a punch that hooked in from the side.

His horn chipped at the icy blade, but it was thicker than he'd expected, and Antares cursed before lashing out with a raw, wild telekinetic blast to knock Scutum staggering. The colonel grunted as he was knocked back only a pace, but more important, his focus was interrupted. Antares took the moment to lean forwards, swinging a hoof hard into Scutum's face and knocking the older unicorn staggering before he replied by swinging a hoof up in a savage uppercut aimed at Antares' throat.

The young stallion dodged backwards, remembering the crosshatch blades too late as Scutum's upper arm swung purposefully too high... and Scutum leaned forwards as he swung his foreleg hard forwards: a blow that normally would have been an ineffective slap was made agonizing by the icy blades as they tore a swathe down Antares' breast and knocked him stumbling with a yell, before he snarled when Scutum threw his shoulder into a fast, sharp jab of his hoof.

Antares' horn swung into Scutum's hoof, knocking him back as the military unicorn winced, then sharply drew up a foreleg to block as Antares lunged into a hard swing: the glossy black unicorn's hoof swung into the icy vambrace between blades of jutting frost, and Scutum flinched backwards in surprise as the crosshatch blade of ice shattered into fragments from the force of Antares' too strong blow. It knocked Scutum staggering in surprise, however, and even as Antares stumbled forwards himself he managed to shove himself into a half-pounce, half-fall, and slam his head firmly into Scutum's.

The young stallion knocked himself staggering dumbly backwards as Scutum was slammed flat to the ground with a grunt of pain. He laid on the frosty road, breathing hard, as Antares stood over him, barely staying on his hooves before the young stallion gritted his teeth and glared down challengingly at the military unicorn. “I got... I got lots more where that came from!”

Scutum slowly pushed himself up to his hooves, and Antares winced and lost a bit of his nerve, breathing hard as he stepped carefully backwards. Scutum shook his head out once, then he stomped the hoof still covered by the crosshatch blade of ice: this shattered a moment later, and Antares looked dumbly surprised before Scutum bowed his head politely and said calmly: “I've learned what I need to. I concede, Antares Mīrus.”

Antares stood awkwardly, and then Scutum drew his gaze slowly over him, continuing calmly: “You're quiet, like your father... but when your emotions rise, you begin acting as brash as your mother. You have a lot left to learn, but you're talented and determined. You didn't give up even when you began to be afraid, even when you understood that I would not kill you, no, but I also wouldn't hesitate to maim or severely injure you if necessary to stop you from fighting... because I recognized that if I wanted you to surrender, I would have to incapacitate.”

The glossy black young stallion continued to look dumbly across at Scutum, and then the military unicorn paused before glancing towards his fallen sword. The strange aura around it was slowly beginning to fade, and Scutum studied the weapon where it lay, the tip tinged with the faintest amount of blood before the colonel said quietly: “You're awkward with a sword. Clumsy. But you're fast fencing with your own horn. You should concentrate on taking an enemy's weapons away, not attempting to use them yourself.”

“I... I always ended up focusing on my hooves and my horn when it came to weapons training. Aunt Tia said that maybe one day I would find something that fit me, but... I never really did.” Antares said quietly, and then he smiled a little as Scutum turned his gaze to him before the young stallion bowed his head and murmured: “Thank you for the experience and the lesson, Scutum. I don't think that I would have won if we'd kept going.”

“It wasn't about winning or losing, Antares Mīrus. It was a test.” Scutum paused as he looked back at his sword as the glow faded, and he picked it up with telekinesis to sheathe it back on his back. Then the colonel gave a small smile as he seemed to relax a little, returning his eye to Antares. “I think Baroness Celestia was right to place so much faith in you. I wasn't sure at first, but... I am now.”

Antares blushed deeply as he bowed his head low, and Scutum shook his head, saying softly: “Stand up, look at me eye-to-eye. You have my respect, and I'll help you as I can now, as it was my honor to help your parents. My loyalty is to the crown, to Celestia: I still see her as Queen, even if she calls herself Baroness. As I still see your mother and father as Champions worthy of great respect, even if one was a rude slave hoof and the other spent most of her time causing mayhem.”

The young stallion laughed a little, nodding slowly before he asked curiously, as Prestige nervously approached from where she'd been watching: “So you did know my parents? When? And I mean... does that... did Caprice?”

“Caprice doesn't remember clearly. I don't know why some of us remember and others don't, nor is it important to me. The only other pony I met in the North was a shorn-wing named Swiftly Wing.” Scutum paused, then shook his head at the awkward look Antares gave him. “She doesn't deserve respect. She's a coward and a smuggler. She abandoned one of your parents' friends to die... even if we all fell to the Black Wolves, it's no excuse for what happened.”

“What are you talking about?” Prestige asked slowly, but Scutum only shook his head, and the unicorn mare sighed a little as she murmured: “Colonel Scutum, I've changed. You've always been good to my mother but so awkward with me, and I know it has to do with the Mayor, but... I... I am not like my father. Not anymore, at least...”

Antares tilted his head as Scutum shifted at this remark: he studied the colonel intently, but there were no further signs, no further tells, Scutum once more becoming impassive. But he did answer, even if his tone was careful and almost guarded: “It was Ragnarok, Prestige. The Black Wolves were the bringers of Ragnarok. I remembered it from the day I came back: I remembered everything, even being a Pale, even if everypony around me seemed to have forgotten. I envied them at first, but now I only pity those who have no memory of what occurred, and think we've always lived like this, under the Barons, with the Nibelung and Strange Ones.”

Prestige frowned and tilted her head as Antares looked up, then nodded slowly and smiled a little, murmuring: “It's... it always amazes me, Scutum. I find it so hard to believe in those stories, you know? Even though I've read all the journey accounts and everything, seen the giant tome Celestia keeps at the library with information on all the worlds, most of it written by my Mom and Dad... it's... it's so much for me to try and live up to. It scares me.”

Scutum only looked calmly down at Antares, and then he reached up and rubbed slowly at his face, saying quietly: “When I came back to this world, I was still missing my eye, but all my scars were gone. I felt young and strong and thankful. And I thought about how hard it would be to repay your mother and father for what they did, until I realized that if I was ever going to do that, first I had to make amends for the mistakes I made in the past. And then I realized that living up to the example set by others is almost impossible when you first have to seek atonement and redemption. Unlike me, Antares, you can live up to the faith that ponies have placed in you. You're starting on even ground: that's a much higher starting point than all of us who have dug ourselves holes.”

Antares laughed a little despite himself, nodding hesitantly, and the two regarded one-another for a few moments before the glossy black stallion rubbed a little at the wounds on his body, glancing down and mumbling: “You really hit hard, you know that?”

“I can heal you... both, I suppose, if you'll allow me to.” Prestige said quietly, glancing over at Antares, then hesitantly looking up at Scutum. Scutum looked back at her, his body language impassable and unreadable before he finally gave a short nod.

Antares looked awkwardly back and forth between the two, and then he smiled a little when Prestige closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling his wounds tingling as pain faded and cuts and bruises began to slowly fade. Scutum, meanwhile, was again looking at Antares, studying him intently before he said softly: “I'll tell Rosewood that her daughter is in good hooves.”

Prestige blushed, glancing up as the spell stuttered out, and Antares shifted a bit with a smile as he looked up at Scutum, saying softly: “Thank you. That... that means a lot to me, colonel.”

“There's no need to use my title, Antares. It's a ridiculous thing, given to me by Caprice when she made me head of her security staff. It means nothing.” Scutum replied with a slow shake of his head. “I've already asked Baroness Celestia if she had a position in Canterlot available. It's a little warm here, but I can get used to it.”

Antares winced a bit at this, looking awkwardly back and forth at the high-piled snow around them and feeling the distinct chill in the air before he said awkwardly, as Prestige glanced up with a slight smile: “You northern unicorns are way tougher than I am.”

“We just have worse things than cold to occupy ourselves with.” Scutum replied calmly, shaking his head again before he glanced at Prestige, falling silent as the young mare hesitantly stepped forwards, horn glowing as his wounds began to heal. He remained silent for the process, then nodded slowly to the young mare when the glow faded out from around him.

The three were quiet, and then Antares looked up, asking impulsively: “That trick you did with the sword... how you made it reflect magic and telekinesis. Could you teach it to me?”

Scutum studied him, then he nodded slowly. “I will, but later. For now, I need to return to Baroness Caprice. I'm sure by now she and Celestia are finishing up their meeting, and I don't want to leave either Baroness waiting.”

Antares smiled a little, nodding slowly before Scutum turned away and headed calmly back through the gates, ignoring the Nibelung that were now chatting excitedly over the sparring they had seen. Antares gazed after him thoughtfully, then he turned his eyes towards Prestige, asking curiously: “What's up between you and him?”

“Oh, he just doesn't like me, that's all. And I suppose I can't blame him, now that I understand him a little better...” Prestige sighed a bit, shaking her head slowly, and Antares couldn't help but smile at the grumpy look that passed over her face. “He and my mother spend a lot of time together, since they both work for Caprice. He's always been cordial with her, but he's always ignored me or looked down on me, and he hates the Mayor.”

“He's a strange one.” Antares said softly, and then he studied Prestige before smiling and gesturing towards the forest. “Hey, why don't we go for a little hike, since we're out here? Avalon won't be up until the afternoon, anyway, and maybe it'll get our minds off things. Sparring loosened me up, even if... he kind of beat on me a lot.”

“You held up fantastically, hero.” Prestige said softly, and she visibly cheered up a little, nodding with a bit of a smile. “Yes... a nice walk. Your Everfree Forest is so much different, so much more pleasant than our woodlands in the north. Everything here is nicer... more... worthwhile.”

She nodded slowly, thoughtfully, and Antares smiled back at her as the two turned and headed quietly down the path and into the forest. But this time, instead of following the trail that would bring them to the cottage, Antares turned down a game trail that was almost invisible in the snow, Prestige tilting her head curiously as he said softly: “Come on. I know just the spot... just watch your hooves. Nibelung sometimes leave traps out to catch animals and stuff.”

Prestige nodded slowly, then she hesitated before asking curiously: “How do you not feel... strange, when you eat meat, Antares? Some of these creatures that the Nibelung catch resemble ponies, like deer. It's almost cannibalism, isn't it?”

“Oh please don't say that, I really try not to think where my food comes from, for one thing.” Antares mumbled, dropping his head forwards a bit, and Prestige laughed as they wended their way carefully through the trees, the glossy-black stallion hesitating before he shook his head a little and said quietly: “And... I just, always have. Look at my teeth, Prestige. And my body processes it well, too... not like you or Meadowlark or most other ponies, even if you've... you know, learned to eat a little yourself.”

Prestige blushed a bit, and Antares hesitated before he looked forwards, saying softly: “I do feel uncomfortable sometimes, sure. I wonder... I wonder every now and then how much of me is pony, and if I'm actually... something else. And I know that I could never eat anything that was intelligent enough to communicate, but I know that's a thin line and it's still so... weird. I guess I just rationalize a lot, and... try not to think about it.”

“I understand, Antares... I just... it's curious. And usually you seem to have all the answers... I think that's why we all look up to you as the leader of our little group.” Prestige said softly, and Antares only smiled at this, shaking his head slowly.

“I almost never have any answers, Prestige. I just... plow forwards and rely on all you guys and my Mom and Aunt Tia and... everyone else. I'm just lucky enough to always have someone to turn to.” Antares replied honestly, and then the young stallion gestured ahead at a furrow through the snow that formed a more-visible trail.

They made their way carefully towards this, before Prestige winced when Antares tripped over something and stumbled forwards... then yelped and hurriedly ducked his head low a moment before a large rock snapped by at what had been neck-level. It narrowly missed, smacking loudly into a tree trunk opposite before swinging slowly back, and Antares wheezed loudly before Prestige asked awkwardly: “Would that be one of the traps you were warning me about?”

“I uh... yeah.” Antares said lamely, and then he shook his head and smiled awkwardly over his shoulder, clearing his throat as the rock continued to pendulum back and forth in front of him. “The Nibelung use uh... inventive traps. Usually there's some Phooka nearby and they uh... well, let's just keep going.”

He looked lamely at the swinging rock, then used telekinesis to gently stop it as Prestige mumbled: “It all seems rather barbaric, though, Antares... and while I can stomach the thought of eating a little meat every so often, I still have to admit it doesn't sit entirely right with me. But this is just... crude.”

“Since the Architects are usually busy with other concerns in town, the Nibelung workers and laborers are usually the ones on hunting duty... they might be peaceful and have learned some manners and all, but they're still ingrained in their bad habits.” Antares replied, shrugging a bit as he smiled a little across at Prestige. “But... I try and remind myself that... it could be a lot worse. I mean, I think about Mom and Dad's stories of old Equestria, where a lot of the animals were intelligent and stuff and... I think about what it would be like if they were all as smart here, if they could all talk or understand us or, you know...”

Prestige shivered a little, mumbling: “I would rather not think about such things. The dwarves are brutes. I may be able to accept that ponies may all... have some value, but you can't convince me that the Nibelung are anything but beasts that walk on hind legs.”

“We're not going to get into another argument, are we?” Antares asked awkwardly, and Prestige blushed a little and glanced lamely away. The two were quiet as they made their way forwards, and Antares decided to simply let the subject go for now, as they followed the narrow path through the snow until they found themselves under the shade of a thicker canopy above, less powder over the ground here and the snow that was here much more packed.

Antares frowned as he heard a soft voice, singing quietly... and then he smiled a little, gesturing to Prestige. She looked up curiously as they strode up the gentle slope, and then her eyes widened in surprise as she gazed out into a shallow, bowl-shaped field that was surrounded by gentle hills and walls of piled-up rock, several burrows visible in a larger hillock opposite them. And sitting on top of a rock in the middle of the frozen pond near one end of the field, Fluttershy was singing with a soft smile and the accompaniment of Hevatica to a herd of Phooka... and a cluster of tiny Phooka foals that were gazing raptly up at her.

Prestige breathed slowly in and out as Antares smiled softly, then he leaned over and whispered quietly into her ear: “Not what I expected to show you... but this is a Phooka den. Come on, let's go sit with them. Just don't startle them, I think they're still getting used to you.”

Prestige nodded uncertainly, and then Antares carefully stepped forwards, striding quietly down into the open field with the young mare trailing shyly behind him. She looked back and forth, marveling over the natural beauty of the little natural settlement: as they approached, several Phooka looked back at them and Hevatica nodded with a warm look from where she was seated next to Fluttershy, but the Pegasus still had her eyes lowered on the Phooka foals, all her attention on the little ones that had all their gazes focused on her.

The two unicorns sat themselves carefully down at the back of the group, and they listened and watched along with the Phooka, beginning to feel as enthralled as the young, somehow more-solid foals. And it wasn't just because of Hevatica's magnificent voice: Fluttershy's own tones held so much strength and emotion as she sang that it was hypnotizing in a way that even the Kelpie's siren song couldn't match.

Finally, Fluttershy's voice fell to a soft hum, opening her eyes... and then blushing in surprise when she saw Prestige and Antares at the back of the crowd of Phooka, covering her mouth with one hoof as she murmured: “Oh my... Antares, Prestige, when did you get here? I got so caught up in what I was doing...”

“Sorry, Fluttershy, I didn't meant to interrupt or anything... I just wanted to show Prestige the Phooka's home here... it's so beautiful, even in the middle of winter.” Antares said softly, and Fluttershy smiled softly as she nodded in agreement. Phooka rumbled and looked at each other, a little nervous with the strangers here: when Fluttershy stepped carefully down off the stone, however, they all immediately turned to look at her as if for guidance.

She only smiled around at them, then leaned down and nuzzled one of the Phooka foals, which murmured softly before she said something gently in the strange, sibilant tongue of the Phooka. And the crowd parted like a wave as Antares smiled and Prestige hesitantly leaned forwards, staring as Fluttershy quietly nudged one of the foals, and the younglings carefully stood up and turned around, staring with curiosity and timidity at the unicorns.

Fluttershy stayed behind them as they approached, and it seemed to reassure both adult and child Phooka before Antares smiled, leaning down and saying softly: “Hey, guys. Nice to meet you... my name's Antares. And this is Prestige.”

“Hello... foals?” It was almost a meek question, and Fluttershy laughed quietly, nodding slowly as Hevatica strolled forwards, the Kelpie smiling in delight at the two young unicorns.

“Yes, foals. The oldest is...” Fluttershy hesitated, looking into the crowd, and one of the Phooka murmured to her before she smiled warmly, turning her attention back forwards. “The oldest is Lethe, at eighteen months. Obscurity is the youngest, only six months, but they develop very, very fast.”

Prestige tilted her head with interest, leaning down and murmuring quietly: “But my... look at them, they're so... they already look so... strong.”

“Yes, they do... because they are.” Fluttershy smiled softly, reaching up to slowly stroke along the back of one foal, who shifted with a soft rumble and a smile over its shoulder up at Fluttershy, tiny, green fire eyes glowing brightly. “They can't hypnotize yet, but they're already able to project images into the minds of others, if they desire, and Lethe has grown old enough to communicate telepathically. It only takes a few years for them to grow into full adults... but then they live for far, far longer than we do.”

Fluttershy laughed quietly, gazing softly over her shoulder as Nirvana emerged from the crowd of Phooka, quietly nuzzling into her neck protectively, and she closed her eyes as she wrapped a foreleg around his neck and squeezed him silently, murmuring: “But that's okay. Sometimes nothing else matters but the here and now.”

Nirvana rumbled quietly again, then he rose his head and nodded once as Antares gazed across at them warmly before Prestige rose her head and asked hesitantly: “I... hope this isn't rude, but... is it true that Phooka and ponies can... bear children together?”

“It is.” Fluttershy nodded with a soft smile, glancing over at Prestige. “It's rare, but it can happen... and those foals will often bear the characteristics of both parents. But it requires a lot of trust... a depth of understanding... love.” She looked softly across at Nirvana, as Nirvana rumbled softly and met her eyes, sea-green irises meeting burning but gentle green flames fearlessly. “Phooka take care of their foals and their family above all else, Prestige. They nurture, and love, and they don't judge. They're not the monsters that we were once all told they were, they're just... a little silly sometimes.”

Fluttershy smiled a little, and Nirvana gave a quiet rumble that sounded almost like a laugh before Hevatica added quietly, glancing over at the unicorns with a warm smile: “And I must say, it's so strange to see all this... the ponies who first existed in this world were never so kind to the Phooka... and nor did I ever expect to stand in one of their homes accepted as kin and entertainer. We demons have our own history with these nature spirit tricksters.”

The Kelpie gazed around at the smoky entities, and then she shook her head and said kindly: “But all the same, I'm glad for it, Antares. Your mother began this process... it is our honor to continue it, and forge our alliances and bonds tighter. Not just because of how eagerly we look forwards to her approval when you bring her and your handsome father back... but because working together ensures not just our survival, but that our strength and pleasures will only continue to grow in the future.”

Antares looked at the Kelpie with gratitude, and Hevatica smiled at him before she reached up and combed his mane back in a gentle, maternal gesture, saying softly: “Oh, look at you, child, growing up so wonderfully... you're going to make Mistress Luna so proud. You already bring such pride to Lady Twilight, after all.”

Antares blushed and fidgeted a bit, but joy emanated from him as he nodded with a warm look to the demon before she paused and turned her eyes with a soft smile to Prestige. “And you, Prestige Luster. You were a silly child when first we met... but you have grown up well. And somehow, I think that Scrivener Blooms will approve of you most of all. Antares' father... was always a little smarter than he acted.” She winked over at Antares. “Just a little.”

The unicorns both laughed a little, Prestige now blushing as well before Fluttershy said softly: “Yes... Luna and Scrivener will be so proud. I hope they approve of all of us...” Fluttershy closed her eyes with a soft smile as the Phooka around her rumbled softly. “I don't think they ever understood how much they helped with things.”

“But they couldn't've done it without all the help they got... from you all here, from their other friends, from everyone.” Antares said softly, and Fluttershy looked up radiantly as Hevatica glanced up with affection for the young stallion. “They never forgot that. They never forgot about any of you... there are so many stories written about everyone in the office at home by Dad, so many sketchbook full of pictures by Mom... and Twilight is always telling me about all her good times with her friends.”

Fluttershy laughed quietly, then gazed over at Nirvana, and he nodded with a soft rumble. “We all helped each other... we always have. One pony, alone, can't do much in this world... but none of us are alone anymore. None of us ever have to be alone again.”

Antares nodded firmly in agreement, and there was quiet for a few moments before Prestige quietly reached down and picked up one of the Phooka foals, cradling it in her limbs as she gazed softly, wonderingly down at it... and then a slow, soft smile spread over her face, as she murmured quietly: “We're all people, aren't we? So different outside... but inside...”

The others nodded slowly as the Phooka rumbled quietly, milling around the field as they relaxed and welcomed the presence of the unicorns, the demon, and the Pegasus... and the last smiled as she dropped her head against the shoulder of the Phooka beside her as the sun shone down from the blameless sky above into the beautiful sanctuary below.

When Antares and Prestige returned to town – Prestige still a little flushed and delighted-looking after spending an hour or so playing with the Phooka foals and acting like a child, something that Antares had never expected to see – they found a strange sight in front of the library, the two young unicorns joining the small crowd that had gathered there.

Burning Desire was grinning widely as Sleipnir paced back and forth across from him, vine-maned stallion and fiery demonic unicorn mirroring each other in spite of the fact they looked like physical opposites. The snow had been cleared away in a rough ring they stood inside of, and Antares glanced with interest towards Pinkamena and Twilight as Aphrodisia bounced between her mother and aunt, cheering her father's name loudly. “What's going on?”

“They're competing to see who's the bigger macho stud.” Pinkamena said mildly, jerking her head with a look of wry amusement at the two large stallions, and Antares and Prestige both gazed back with surprise at the two. “Now, don't get me wrong. I think they're both complete idiots. But complete idiots make for the best entertainment.”

“Daddy's going to kick his butt.” Aphrodisia chirped, and Pinkamena grunted and nodded as Twilight only laughed and shook her head. “Stupid Burning Desire made fun of Daddy's cold, so Daddy didn't have any choice but to challenge him.”

“Yeah, Sleipnir wagered his mane and tail and promised to be Burning's servant for a week if he loses, and Burning Desire put up some of his statues and a free contract.” Pinkamena licked her lips slowly, grinning widely. “Either way, somepony's gonna look real stupid shortly. Either I get a vacation from Sleipnir, or one free wish. Real useful, having a demon like Burning Desire around, especially when he's stupid enough to agree to something like this.”

Twilight only smiled amusedly at this, however, glancing over at Pinkamena and reminding her: “Yes, but Burning Desire can only do so much even obligated by contract, because he's not a full greed demon.”

“So what? Sometimes to think big you think small. I could still order him to kick Princess Sunshine in the ass every day at twelve sharp, and he'd be obligated to do that until I stopped finding it funny and told him he could stop.” Pinkamena paused, then she added meditatively: “And I would never not find that funny.”

“Oh Mommy, you're so silly.” Aphrodisia giggled, and then she brightened and pointed as Sleipnir and Burning Desire approached one another. The two nodded to each other, and then Burning squawked when Sleipnir grabbed his shoulders and firmly kissed the demon on either cheek. “Why does Daddy do that?”

“Because he's a weirdo.” Pinkamena muttered, and when Twilight gave her a pointed look even as Aphrodisia nodded seriously, the Gluttony demon rolled her eyes and said finally: “Because Burning Desire's your godfather and Sleipnir respects him, and it's... some old tradition or something, I don't know and don't care. He just likes him a little too much, if you ask me.”

Aphrodisia giggled at this as Sleipnir and Burning Desire stepped backwards, then both bowed deeply to each other before a grinning Rainbow Dash cheerfully hopped into the center of the arena. Antares looked up in surprise at this, then quickly scanned the crowd before he smiled and waved to Avalon, who was standing with Meadowlark and Applejack in a cluster of ponies on the other side of the square. Big Mac was there, too, with a blue Pegasus that had a dark navy mane leaning a little against the scarlet earth pony with a smile: Soarin', a former Wonderbolt who had his own little place in Ponyville, but spent much of his time out at the Apple Family farm.

Then Rainbow Dash cleared his throat before announcing cheerfully: “Ladies and gentlecolts, this is a contest between Flaming Desire-”

“Burning Desire, you jerk.” the demonic stallion huffed, glaring at Rainbow, who pasted an innocent expression on his face before Burning Desire leaned towards him moodily. “Don't make me seduce your wife.”

“Are you sure you really want her?” Rainbow asked mildly, and then he winced when a snowball smacked into the back of his head, to the laughter of most of the crowd, as the Pegasus grinned lamely over his shoulder at Applejack. “See, this is what I'm talking about. But okay, this is a contest between Flaming Desire and Slippers...” A pause, but Sleipnir only smiled benevolently at the Pegasus stallion with a childish nod. “To settle their dispute. Something about Slippers' girly sneezes.”

“They are not girly sneezes!” Sleipnir almost shouted, looking outraged... and then his muzzle wrinkled up before he gave two tiny, squeaking sneezes, and he blushed deep red as Burning Desire cackled and the crowd laughed. “'Tis... 'tis only the calm before the storm!”

Rainbow Dash cleared his throat, doing his best to suppress his giggling before he finally looked up and continued with a grin: “But just like me and Applejack once did, and I rocked, we're holding a series of contests to see who is the better pony. Let's see who wins at the end of this ten round contest! And no offense, Flaming, but my money's on Slippers.”

“None taken.” Burning Desire said kindly, and then he flicked his horn when Rainbow Dash turned away, and the Pegasus yelped as a blast of fire singed his tail and rump, leaping forwards and landing heavily on his rear in a snowbank with a wince as steam hissed up around him. The demonic stallion smiled cheerfully, then he grinned over at Sleipnir, leaning forwards and asking easily: “Shall we begin?”

Sleipnir grinned, stomping a hoof in excitement before a pony trotted forwards with a rope. “Oh, yes, the tug of war! 'Tis marvelous, it has been so long since I have had the glee of such fun and games... Celestia! Celestia, get out of that stuffy library and come and watch thy little brother soundly crush this fearsome demon!”

After a few moments, a curtain drew back and Celestia stuck her head in the window, then only looked moodily at Sleipnir when he stared at her pleadingly before she sighed and said tiredly: “I have to finish drafting these bylaws, Sleipnir. Please try not to make too much of a ruckus, I don't know if I have the time to put Ponyville back together today.”

With that, she left the window and closed the curtain, and Sleipnir huffed before Burning Desire asked kindly: “Would you like me to set the library on fire?”

“Nay, I fear if thou does that Celestia will then set us on fire. And her fire will be much more fearsome than thine own.” Sleipnir remarked, and then he gave a tiny little sneeze before shouting in a frustrated voice: “Oh damnation! To the rope! To the tug of war! First I shall defeat thee, and then I shall raid the library!”

Burning Desire seemed confident in himself up to the point he picked up the rope; then, with a single tug, Sleipnir yanked the demon through the air and sent him headfirst into a snowbank. The earth pony awkwardly apologized afterwards, but Burning Desire didn't seem to hear as he stumbled around stupidly, looking as if the crash had knocked his brain out of his skull.

When the sense finally returned to him, they moved onto the next event: shot-put. Sleipnir had picked up the steel ball with a cheerful grin, tossing it from hoof-to-hoof before leaning back, and Burning Desire had winced... before Sleipnir had given another tiny, awkward sneeze just as he began his throwing motion, and the shot-put had flown out of his hoof and landed beside him.

Sleipnir had stared, and Burning Desire had sighed in relief, then grinned and cheerfully picked up his own before throwing it down the street. Twilight had cheered a little despite herself, and Burning Desire had grinned widely at her as Aphrodisia and Pinkamena both glared, the Lich blushing awkwardly and mumbling: “Well, it... it was a nice throw.”

As Sleipnir and Burning Desire got into position for a short race, Discombobulation had wandered in wearing a green visor and a pair of sunglasses, calmly set down a folding table, and then pulled a cash register and a slew of betting tickets out of nowhere. The Draconequus had quickly started bringing in money as ponies flocked over to place wagers.

Demon and enormous earth pony both readied themselves for the race as Pinkie Pie giggled and happily bounced over to stand with her front hooves raised... then she snapped them down, signaling the start, and Sleipnir shot forwards in a rapid sprint... before Burning Desire became a streak of flame that transformed quickly into a firebird, zooming to the end of the street to perch on one of the finish posts. Ponies yelled at the demon as he preened and other ponies cheerfully collected their winnings from Discombobulation, while Sleipnir huffed... but as Burning Desire transformed back into a fiery stallion, his grin was short lived when grappling was announced by Spike as the next contest.

The two competing stallions returned to the ring in front of the library, argued for a little while, and finally agreed on the rules while ponies hurried to place bets, and then both readied themselves. During this time, Pinkamena sent Aphrodisia off with Pinkie Pie to Sugar Cube Corners, and the two returned with a large food cart just before the match began.

Burning Desire and Sleipnir grappled with each other, the demon wheezing loudly and pushing and flailing against Sleipnir as the enormous earth pony easily kept his balance, laughing cheerfully and shoving back against the demon almost playfully until he finally simply picked him up and dropped him face-first into the ground. Burning Desire yelped... before squeaking when Sleipnir dropped on top of him and pinned him down, wheezing for breath as he flailed wildly before Spike, acting as referee, rose his claw awkwardly and said finally: “You uh. You just had to get him off his hooves, Sleipnir, you technically won about thirty seconds ago.”

“Oh. I suppose I got lost in the... heat of the moment.” Sleipnir remarked cheerfully as he straightened, nodding a few times as Burning Desire wheezed loudly, and then the demon squawked when Sleipnir reached down and set the large, fiery stallion on his hooves as if he were nothing more than a foal, brushing a bit of dirt off him. “'Twas well done, though! Thou did not cry even a little!”

Burning Desire only mumbled, then perked up when Spike glanced down at the listing somepony had taken the time to write out, reading awkwardly: “Uh... does that say 'bard?'”

“Oh, excellent! Yes, I plan to recite a poem I had writ about my sisters!” Sleipnir said cheerfully, nodding rapidly before he grinned widely across at Burning Desire. “Let's see if thy pretty bird's song can match up to my most delightful of verse!”

Burning Desire smiled delightedly in response, rubbing his front hooves together before he said courteously: “Then why don't you go first, Sleipnir, when we're ready, and I'll just do my best to try and follow what I'm sure will be a truly... unforgettable... poem.”

Sleipnir nodded rapidly, and Pinkamena groaned from the sidelines, rubbing slowly at her face before she looked grumpily down at Aphrodisia, who was giggling a little. “I'm tempted to send you home now.”

“What? Come on, Mommy, I wanna hear Daddy's poem!” Aphrodisia wheedled, and Antares couldn't help but laugh: some days, even with her adult mare body, it was easy to remember that she was still emotionally only around a decade old.

Pinkamena grumbled as ponies chatted curiously with each other, and Twilight winced as Celestia stuck her head out the window again, frowning at the activity. Sleipnir waved brightly at his older sister, and the ivory winged unicorn now looked even more suspicious, but she slowly retreated back into the library after a moment of indecision. Antares cocked his head curiously at the relief he saw on Twilight's face, asking as Prestige frowned: “It can't be that bad, can it?”

“It's like you don't know your uncle at all.” Twilight said after a moment, and Antares smiled despite himself before the violet Lich shook her head, then glanced up with a wince as Sleipnir loudly cleared his throat. “Oh great. Here we go.”

Sleipnir smiled benevolently around at the crowd as they fell silent and Discombobulation closed his till, all eyes on him as the stallion gazed back and forth happily... and after a few moments, the earth pony rose his head and recited in a cheerful voice with childlike enthusiasm:

“My sisters sway the chariots of the sky,
Spinning their spokes in e'erlasting succession,
O'er the sacred soil garden of middle-earth,
Slicing air-sea's splendid balance in twain.”

“Well, I have no idea what he just said, but it sounded... nice.” Prestige said awkwardly, but Pinkamena only grunted moodily and gestured for them to keep listening as Sleipnir beamed happily around at the group.

“Sweet sibling higher shines brighter than what misers hunger for,
She stands mighty as Midgard's horns, and is fierce as sky's kings,
Failure's bane and victory's most-loved maiden,
She makes both swords and stallions sweat and sing her praises;
She is limitless, master of all battlefields, bed and war both her slaves:
The mightiest warrior is but serf before her, pays tribute in nectar of life and sleep,
But her strength is always superior, she makes sport of sovereigns,
Supreme swordmaiden who rides her horses fearlessly into war and milks them of all essence.”

Sleipnir smiled brightly at the crowd around him, as Aphrodisia began to giggle madly and Pinkamena rubbed slowly at her face, Twilight groaning as Antares turned bright red. “I... did... is he saying that... oh no, he's not going to talk about-”

“Shimmering sibling smaller, strong as nature's coyest hunter,
She is fellowship's humility and safekeeping of trust; none are so honorable as she!
Standing tall and always second to those who are worthy of the shining feast-hall,
And always first to set her spear against the shivering cowards of ice;
Yet coldest and warmest both, if they are strong, she offers solace and Baldur's gift,
Wild and sublime, and all the same first-hon'ring her king, she has her soft petals,
But savors the thorns, and sleeps beneath stars with shadow and savior both,
She knows not the rules of stallions, but sows her own law.”

“Oh god. Well, that could have been worse at least.” Antares mumbled, wincing a little before he added as Twilight rubbed slowly at her face. “As long as I concentrate a little on not understanding it, I think I'm fine...”

And then Sleipnir smiled before declaring jovially:

“Yes, I am the luckiest of stallions, protected and loved by shield-bearing sisters,
Standing side-by-side with them as sibling brother, helping them in their conquests
Upon the gutted soil wet only by sword's rain, where all who stand are equal, if stand they do;
Sweet sisters, saviors of my love! Were we not siblings I would sow endless bounty with them,
Till their crops, spill seed and showers over fertile fields of their hungry soil.
Oh, for what more supreme mares have ever lived? Strong, sensual as dew, sharp as Mimir,
Braver than sought souls of the shining hall, free as the sea's breath,
Sweet sensual shieldmaidens who make slaves of stallion and mare alike!”

All eyes simply stared at Sleipnir as he breathed hard in and out, looking happily back and forth before he frowned a little as the silence simply spun out around him. Then it was punctuated by Burning Desire's giggling, and the titanic earth pony favored the demon with a curious look, asking with interest: “'Twas not a proper rhyming poem for silliness, 'twas a poem in worship of my delightful sisters. Why art thou laughing? Did I speak a verse wrongly?”

Burning Desire only continued to giggle for a few moments, and then all eyes looked up as the library door swung open and Celestia stormed out with her eyes locked on Sleipnir. The younger brother only smiled brightly, however, declaring cheerfully: “Sister! Did thou hear me recite the poem I wrote for thee and-”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Celestia cut him off, leaning moodily over him as Sleipnir winced back a bit, before the Baroness leaned in and asked in a sharp whisper that everypony could hear anyway, even over the giggling of Burning Desire and several other ponies: “How many times do I have to tell you to keep that poem to yourself, Sleipnir? How do you still remember it after a millennium and a half?”

“Because I put weeks of effort into that poem!” Sleipnir retorted, looking injured as he leaned back, then he flailed a bit as he argued: “And 'tis a beautiful verse, if I may speak of it so myself! It honors the beauty and valor of Luna, thy wild spirit that canst be tamed by any stallion and-”

“It's a poem about how much you wish you could have sex with me and Luna!” Celestia hissed through grit teeth, glaring at Sleipnir, who shrank a little under her baleful gaze and cleared his throat.

“'Tis a compliment?” Sleipnir said after a moment, raising a hoof... and when Celestia's eye twitched, he flailed his forelimbs violently and exclaimed: “Oh, cease! Wretched Celestia, what would thou prefer? Shall I speak to thy strength and beauty and fearlessness, or shall I speak some boring poem about how thou art a boring ruler upon thy boring throne doing boring things and being a boring noble? Thou art no boring noble! Thou art Celestia, thou art Freya, and thou wert so delightfully fun sometimes in the old days, like when thou decided to teach Luna and I a lesson in humility and-”

Celestia held up a hoof, and Sleipnir stuttered to a stop before she reached slowly out and poked his chest, her eyes glowering down into his. “No more reciting poetry, Sleipnir. Ever. Now please keep it down, I'm trying to work.”

With that, Celestia turned on her heel and stormed back into the library, slamming the door behind her. Sleipnir huffed at the closed door, then blew a loud raspberry before glowing over at Burning Desire, muttering: “I suppose 'tis thy turn now. Although I am tempted to recite the other poem I wrote about the cruelty of certain mares. And how stuffy they can be.”

He huffed a little again, and Burning Desire grinned as he leaned in with a wink before flicking his horn: in a blast of flame, an oak violin and a golden bow appeared above his head before the demon reared back and caught both objects in his front hooves, saying cheerfully as he set the violin against his shoulder and Sleipnir stared: “Well, worry not, Sleipnir! This contest was over before it began, although I can't thank you enough for helping it along with your fun little recitation. Now, let me show you why we demons like contests of music.”

Burning Desire began to tap a rear hoof as he stayed standing on his hind limbs, smiling benevolently before he started to play, filling the air with a sharp, fast melody: already, ponies began to move to the rhythm, and Sleipnir's face slowly puckered as the demon stomped a hoof firmly to the upbeat tune before he threw his head back and began a shanty in a cheery, fast voice:

“Oh! I was a pony who lived by the sea,
Strong and courageous and honorably,
Had me a home and had me a wife,
But always felt there was somethin' missin' in life!”

The demon spun in a slow circle on one rear hoof, stomping the other firmly as he leaned forwards, making the violin sing and tremble as he belted out and ponies clapped and stomped their own hooves in time:

“Oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!”

Burning Desire grinned brightly as he straightened, rear hooves moving in a short, fast kickstep before he danced gleefully over to Sleipnir as he leaned back against the enormous earth pony, who was still looking at him sourly as ponies laughed and continued to clap along.

“So one fine day I decided to leave,
Knew a new path I had to weave,
I kissed my wife and said to her 'goodbye,'
And she replied: 'It's about damn time!'

Oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!

So I set sail out over the sea,
Felt right away this was the life for me,
I made it all the way out of the bay,
And I couldn't help but say:

Oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!

It was a great start I have to say,
Now if only I'd plotted the way,
My travel ended up a little brief,
'Cause I keeled my ship on a coral reef!

Oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!”

Even Sleipnir couldn't help but laugh now, shaking his head with a smile as he stomped a hoof in easy time with Burning Desire's rapid playing. Ponies were singing and dancing, and Burning Desire was grinning widely as he danced in an easy circle around Sleipnir before winking over at Twilight Sparkle, who blushed a little and gazed back warmly as Antares and Prestige both stomped their hooves and watched the demon with surprise and delight.

Then Burning Desire shook his head quickly, before he played a quick flourish and stomped down, bow poised over the violin strings and trembling slightly with his energy as he belted out, the whole crowd halting to look at the demon and listen in the otherwise silence:

“So I had to swim back home, and tell my wife,
That it looked like I'd be stuck, livin' this life...
And do you know what she said to me?
She said, 'Maybe you honey, but I'm runnin' free!'”

Burning Desire winked, then he leapt backwards, dancing in a gleeful circle like a puppy on his hind legs as he played his violin, and the gathered ponies all joined him for the chorus, belting out the song with him as they stomped their hooves to the rhythm:

“Because, oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!

Oh whoa, hey hey!
What's life if you're bored all day?
Hey hey, whoa oh!
Gonna find adventure, time to go!”

The demon finished with a flourish, then swung his forelegs wide and bowed deep, breathing hard in and out as the crowd yelled and applauded. Sleipnir was laughing loudly, stomping his hooves rapidly before he ran over and threw a companionable foreleg round Burning Desire's neck, who laughed as well and fell against the enormous earth pony as Sleipnir declared: “Oh, what better bard ever there was than thou! I concede with admiration, brother!”

Burning Desire laughed again, but he clearly looked delighted as the two turned to each other and shared a tight embrace for a moment, Pinkamena smiling and shaking her head slowly as Aphrodisia all but rolled on the ground with laughter, and Twilight gazed affectionately to the fiery stallion... before there was a loud thud, and the library door swung open, all eyes turning awkwardly to Celestia as she slowly strode outside with a calm, unreadable expression on her face.

Burning Desire and Sleipnir both stared at her as she approached them, then looked mildly down at Burning Desire before sitting back and holding up her front hooves, asking calmly: “May I?”

The demon awkwardly looked at his violin and bow, then carefully handed them over: Celestia studied them both for a few moments, then she nodded thoughtfully to herself before saying softly: “A very fine instrument. Perfectly maintained...”

She carefully set it to her shoulder, then put the bow to it and closed her eyes, playing slowly: at first, the notes sounded drawn out and lethargic, but slowly, she began to build speed, moving with grace and growing energy. All eyes stared, then Burning Desire leaned back as Celestia began to play more complex chords and notes, vibrating the strings and smiling a little to herself as she moved from the expected operatic tunes into something faster, sharper, but folksy, her speed now building at a rising rate...

She sawed away at the violin, bow almost a blur as it a cacophonous melody played through the air... and then Burning Desire squeaked as Celestia suddenly drew back with a sharp flourish, and the strings of the violin snapped, all except for one. Celestia regarded this with the same calm smile, and then she simply plucked the string with the bow, and the frayed wire broke with a loud twang.

Burning Desire wheezed loudly in and out, staring with horror before Celestia gently pushed the broken violin and bow back into his trembling limbs, saying kindly: “You should probably think about tuning it.”

Celestia turned and headed back into the library, and Sleipnir scowled as she closed the door before he looked back and forth, then his eyes settled on a discarded shot-put. He immediately swept up the metal sphere, then flung it forwards grouchily... and winced when it shattered a window instead of hitting the door, before there was a loud cry of pain from inside.

A moment later, the door was almost slammed off its hinges as Celestia leapt out, glaring furiously and with her teeth bared, a large bruise already forming around one eye. Sleipnir gave a little squeal of fear, then he spun around and sprinted away with a girlish scream: Celestia tore after him a moment later, her usual calm demeanor completely abandoned as she shouted curses and swore at him in another language, electricity sparking through her mane.

Burning Desire stared dumbly after this, still cradling his broken violin, and then Discombobulation stood up at his table, waving his metal hand as he called calmly: “Everyone who bet on the contest ending early, come claim your winnings.”

Rainbow Dash whooped gleefully as he flew quickly towards the gambling table, and Pinkamena groaned and shook her head in disgust, muttering: “Great. Guess that invalidates both sides of the bet... and here I was starting to really hope that Sleipnir was going to be bald for a while. Would have been hilarious to see his shrubs finally pruned.”

“Oh, we can cut Daddy's mane and tail any time, Mommy.” Aphrodisia said kindly as she sat up and smiled warmly at her mother, and Pinkamena sighed, then nodded and rubbed moodily at her chest before the young demon gazed brightly over at Burning Desire, who was now looking both pleased and surprised as ponies clustered around him, congratulating him and talking to him with honest admiration and friendliness.

Twilight shook her head slowly, then she smiled softly as she glanced at Antares: he gazed back at her with a smile, as Prestige leaned her head on his shoulder, and then he said quietly: “Go on, Mom. He looks real happy, but... I think he'd be happier if you were over there, too. He's a good person. And he was pretty amazing.” He paused, then asked awkwardly: “You don't think. Celestia is going to hurt Sleipnir too badly, do you?”

Twilight opened her mouth to reply... then winced and glanced up as there was a rumble like thunder in the distance, all eyes turning towards this as Sleipnir howled before the Lich sighed and dropped her head forwards, mumbling: “Celestia really can be just like Luna sometimes. But no. They're just... they're just uh... playing.”

“We aren't foals, Twilight.” Prestige said after a moment, wincing a little over at the distance as the ponies slowly went back to their conversations, while Avalon and Rainbow Dash were both gleefully sweeping up bags of bits from Discombobulation's gambling table, as the Draconequus calmly swept his own earnings into a large sack: they seemed like the only three who hadn't noticed the tremendous bang.

“I'm serious! Celestia and Sleipnir would never hurt each other. Badly. They're siblings.” Twilight said finally, and then she shook her head before smiling a little, turning her eyes towards Burning Desire as she murmured: “But excuse me, you two. I think... I'm going to see if Burning Desire wants to go get a little lunch to celebrate his victory.”

Antares smiled softly, watching as the Lich approached the fiery stallion, who glanced up from were he was chatting with the crowd before he brightened immediately as Twilight approached, gesturing to her quickly, and she laughed as she slipped through the crowd and to his side before smiling softly when he wrapped a foreleg around her. Antares and Prestige gazed at the two, and then the young mare shook her head slowly before smiling a little as she said quietly: “Amazing, Antares. They know it won't last forever... and yet all the same...”

The young stallion nodded slowly, glancing over at Prestige softly... and then both unicorns glanced up as Avalon flew towards them, calling gleefully: “Come on, come on! Let's go to Sugar Cube Corners and spend some of these winnings! Then I wanna go out to see Fluttershy!”

Antares nodded, then smiled when he glanced up and saw Meadowlark almost shyly approaching as well, lingering on her for a moment before he cleared his throat and said quickly: “Fluttershy was at the Phooka den... hey, let's get enough for everyone, you definitely won enough.”

“Yeah, yeah, guess I should spread the wealth. But okay, let's go, you guys, come on!” Avalon agreed cheerfully, and Antares and Prestige both smiled before laughing as Aphrodisia joined them and Meadowlark beamed, before the five friends turned to hurry down the street, together.