• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,600 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven



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

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It's How You Play The Game

Chapter Twenty One: It's How You Play The Game
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares awoke the next morning to find that Meadowlark and Rustproof were already up: Meadowlark was carefully going over their gear and examining everything for any damage, while Rustproof was taking down their unused tents and packing thing away. One of them had thrown a few fresh logs on the still-crackling flames: it looked like the fire had lasted the entire night, and for some reason, it felt like a good omen to the young stallion.

He glanced over his shoulder to see Aphrodisia had rolled around in the night, and was now clinging to tiny Avalon like a doll, while Avalon was smiling dreamily and chewing sleepily on her hoof. Prestige, meanwhile, was resting against him... but Antares was able to carefully shift himself away, and she only stirred a little before falling back into deep slumber.

Antares glanced up at the gray, listless sky, and he grimaced a bit before circling around the fire and quietly striding towards Meadowlark: after only a few steps, he felt a sudden, sharp bolt of pain from his back leg, and he cursed and stumbled before falling in a sprawl, startling the Pegasus before she sighed in relief at the sight of the glossy-black stallion as he winced and groaned on the ground. The Pegasus nervously approached after a moment, questioning quietly: “Are you okay?”

“Mostly. I forgot about my ankle.” Antares mumbled, shifting slowly before he sat carefully up with a grunt, shaking himself out and smiling awkwardly across at the Pegasus. She blushed a little, lowering her head, and there was silence between them for a few moments before Antares looked up and said quietly: “Thank you for taking over yesterday, Meadowlark. I want to promise you right now I'm not going to lose sight of things again, and I'm not going to turn on you, or disregard your advice or anything like that. I... I think I got jealous of you, too. You're a better leader than me.”

“No, I'm not. I only... it was just a rough day for all of us.” Meadowlark shook her head, then she stepped forwards a little, their eyes meeting silently. “I appreciate it, though... and... I was studying the maps earlier, and I think I have a route we can take...”

“Okay. We'll work together, side-by-side.” Antares nodded firmly, stepping towards her with a smile, and the two looked at each other silently, before the stallion glanced slowly back and forth. Rustproof was calmly going about his own business though, and the others were asleep, and Antares hesitated for a few long moments before he closed his eyes and said quietly: “I'm sorry about... everything else, too. Meadow, I... I still... you're still...”

Meadowlark leaned forwards and quieted him with a gentle, chaste kiss to the end of his muzzle, and Antares flushed as he opened his eyes and looked at her. She smiled faintly at him, gazing back into his eyes before she said softly: “I know. But it's okay. You... you and Prestige are good together. It... it just hurts, and it's going to take me time before...”

She stopped, then looked down and murmured softly: “Antares... you'll... you're always going to have a place in my heart. You're my friend, and I want to be your friend and... I care about you. So I just want to wish you well with things and hope it all works out for the best, and... let you know that... I'll always be here. Just like I hope that... you'll always be there for me, too.”

“I...” Antares nodded after a moment, and then he smiled faintly and glanced towards the fire, murmuring quietly: “Relationships are hard.”

“Yeah, but... I hope... I hope it works out for you both.” Meadowlark smiled sadly, but honestly, looking up at him quietly. “You know, Twilight... I wonder how she felt. I wonder what it was like with her and your parents, how they could do that, when... but I guess that was different.”

“It... was.” Antares smiled after a moment, then he murmured quietly: “Even though, sure, I wish I could... have you both.”

He blushed a bit, but Meadowlark smiled even as she blushed as well and glanced away. Then the young stallion shook his head before continuing quietly: “But it was different, yeah. Because... they all cared about each other. That's... why it's so easy to call her Mom, Meadow. Because Twilight really, honestly cared for both my Mom and Dad, and they cared for her just as deeply, just as much. I don't think... you or Prestige could ever feel that way towards each other. And I don't think... either of you are willing to... share.”

He finished lamely, and blushed deeper, but Meadowlark only laughed again and gazed at him silently, nodding slowly. For a few moments, there was quiet between them, before the young stallion said quietly: “But I hope you find somepony, Meadowlark. You're... you're brilliant, and beautiful.”

“Friendship is more than enough for now, Antares. Besides, it'll come... when it comes.” Meadowlark smiled after a moment, glancing quietly over at him and saying softly: “I always did like your Dad's romance poetry. The... the real stuff, not the poems that were all scary and bleak.”

“That's funny, Dad always said those were the real love poems.” Antares said ironically, and Meadowlark laughed despite herself and nodded, gazing at him with warmth before the glossy-black unicorn straightened a little, then he visibly steeled himself before leaning in and giving her a quiet peck on the cheek. “Okay. But you know you're smarter than me, right?”

Meadowlark only shrugged with a soft smile, and the two looked at each other for a few moments more before the Pegasus shook her head and murmured: “But come over here, you can help me sort out the equipment and I'll tell you about the route I found.”

Antares nodded firmly, following after the Pegasus and smiling at her: and as she talked, they worked side-by-side together, cleaning off gear, ensuring that water had been completely drained from their equipment, double-checking any damages to ensure they weren't serious and repairing what little they could fix. Antares enjoyed himself more than he could express... and he loved listening to her voice, the way she laid out her plans so calmly and clearly.

Eventually, the others woke up one-by-one, and joined them in taking down the campsite and making the preparations to move out. They were once more looking to Antares as leader, and whatever lingering suspicions or doubts there might have been were clearly remedied by the fact that Antares was working side-by-side with Meadowlark.

Antares also volunteered to carry the core himself, and he and Meadowlark had planned out several rest points, as long as the weather didn't worsen. But while the temperature had plummeted, the skies seemed overcast but far from stormy: none of the ponies expected they'd have to deal with another storm of blizzard and sleet.

The group got underway as soon as they could: once more with their gear distributed, most of their rations eaten, their equipment back over their bodies, Meadowlark and Antares led the group at a comfortable pace through the snowy wilderness. It made the way going a little more difficult, since it covered up landmarks, pitfalls and more dangerous terrain... but with Avalon scouting ahead and Antares and Meadowlark both constantly surveying the path in front of them, they were able to catch all but the most well-hidden of difficulties.

Prestige looked a little grumpy as she trailed behind with Rustproof, who had an unlit cigarette jutting out of his muzzle, rolling it slowly back and forth as he hummed a bit to himself. Antares looked back at her apologetically now and then, but he and Meadowlark were keeping up a fair stream of conversation, too... except his eyes seemed to linger on her as he looked a little too closely at the pegasus. Even if she was a little jealous, however, Prestige soon found herself frowning a little nervously at Meadowlark as well... she had realized that Antares seemed worried about her more than anything else, and the red Pegasus did seem a little unsteady, a little pale. And behind them, even from the back of their little caravan, Aphrodisia looked moody and worried herself.

Yet all the same, none of them said anything: after all, they were making good time, Meadowlark seemed rational and determined not to let whatever might be possibly paining her slow them down, and the whole group had agreed to skip the first rest stop with how good their pace was going and how, even with the difficulty of wading through the deeper patches of snow here and there, the march was easier than expected. Possibly because some of the snowy blanket had been washed away in places by the sleet, leaving only hardpack and even bare ground behind... but maybe it was also because the whole group of young ponies was feeling good, and felt determined to push through to the very end of their journey one way or another.

They reached the next point that Meadowlark had noted could be a possible stop for them by afternoon, and they decided to take a break for lunch. The red Pegasus only shook her head when offered food, adjusting her cloak and smiling a little... but Antares and Aphrodisia both traded looks before the demon finally said quietly: “You don't look so good.”

“It's.. nothing.” Meadowlark shook her head, smiling faintly as she rubbed at her pallid features. When the two only continued to look at her, she blushed a little... but not much blood tinged her pale face, as she murmured and lowered her head: “Honestly, I don't think it's any big deal... I just... I just feel nauseated, and a little lightheaded. It doesn't bother me as much while we're walking, though...”

Antares grimaced a bit, glancing over at Aphrodisia, who frowned and leaned forwards as she studied the Pegasus. Then she shook her head slowly, muttering: “You don't smell good.” Meadowlark sighed and rolled her eyes, and the demon glared at the crimson mare. “No, not like that! I mean... you don't smell healthy.”

“That's creepy, how you do that.” Avalon remarked, and Aphrodisia gave the tiny Pegasus a sour look as she flitted over, then frowned a bit at Meadowlark. “Hey, are you okay? You look kind of like I did that time I drank a whole bottle of Big Mac's whiskey. And then Mom made me clean the composter out.”

“Your Mom can be kind of mean. Rusty, you better hope she and Cowlick never team up on you for your dumb smoking habit.” Aphrodisia remarked, and then she sniffed a little, adding: “My Mommy says that when I'm just a little older I can smoke all I want and it won't hurt me like it hurts silly mortals. What do you think of that, Prestige? We demons make you unicorns look like dumb.”

“Apps, don't be a jerk.” Antares said dryly, and the demon huffed at him before the young stallion returned his eyes to Meadowlark, saying quietly: “If you're really hurting, Meadow, we can... we can slow down, or we can... call for help.”

The others glanced with surprise at the glossy-black unicorn, but Meadowlark only smiled faintly, shaking her head and murmuring: “No... thank you Antares, honestly, but it's okay. I'm okay... I just... we just... we should just keep going, okay?”

“Meadow...” Antares leaned forwards nervously, not needing his powers to feel there was something more than a little wrong with her speech, but Meadowlark only shook her head quickly again before she grimaced and swayed dazedly on the spot. Antares winced at this, then he reached up and touched her shoulder, saying apprehensively: “Look, if you're not well...”

“No, I... I'm fine. I swear.” Meadowlark murmured, then she gave a faint smile, looking up into Antares' eyes. “I wouldn't... I wouldn't lie to you about this. I can make it, and I don't want to mess things up any further, Mir. Besides, I feel better when we're moving... and when we get back to Ponyville, your sister can take a look at me if I still feel... not my best.”

“Alright.” Antares said finally after a moment, and then he nodded hesitantly as he traded looks with the others. They looked as unsure as he felt, but nodded themselves after a moment, and the young stallion grimaced a little as he murmured: “Then let's get ourselves going again. I think my ankle's starting to swell so... we'll have to move a little slower, anyway. But no, no, Rusty, it's okay. I can still carry this. I just need to hobble a little more.”

The group gathered itself up, and continued: Antares felt pain with every step he took, but it was dull and distant, and what preyed much more upon his mind was Meadowlark's state. Aphrodisia and Prestige lingered behind them, and Rustproof followed at the back of the pack, while Avalon continually scouted ahead and reported anything out of the ordinary or possibly dangerous that she saw. Thankfully, however, as they made their way up the slope, the valley's terrain became more normal instead of strewn with trees and rocks and gaps, and they made good time until they reached the path at the edge of the Everfree Forest.

Antares groaned in tangible relief as the others laughed a little: Ponyville was still hours away, sure, but Antares knew the Everfree better than any other pony around, with the possible exceptions of Celestia and Twilight... and maybe Zecora, but the zebra shaman was so mysterious it was difficult to tell exactly how much she knew about anything.

The glossy-black young stallion led them almost straight across the frost-speckled dirt road to the woods, quickly searching out a nearby game trail that he was able to bring the other ponies on, and Avalon flitted down to land on Rustproof's back and curl up with a content sigh, the tiny Pegasus mumbling: “Well, I'm done my job. Let me know if something horrible shows up, but otherwise, I'm catching a nap.”

“Ava, you could walk here if you wanted, the snow isn't even-” Antares began, and then he winced in surprise as something enormous stepped into the path ahead, staggering to a halt and cursing in pain as he readied himself. The demon only rumbled moodily, however, leaning forwards... and as the other ponies stared, relief spread over Antares' face as he looked up and said awkwardly to the scaly, ram-horned entity: “Atrus! I... sorry, I didn't recognize you at first...”

Atrus only grunted, then he said in his soft, serious voice: “The Dawn Bringer asked me to watch for you... I did not doubt her wisdom, but I questioned how badly six little ponies could injure themselves on a simple walk. I see I was wrong in underestimating your ability to find trouble.”

Antares smiled lamely, and Atrus looked ponderously over them before he stepped forwards, reaching his enormous claws out to undo the ropes holding the core on Antares' back before he easily lifted this free. The glossy-black young unicorn blushed a bit as the demon stepped back, then said quietly: “I will deliver this to the Dawn Bringer with the news of your return. I am sure she will send others to aid you, young prince. Please do not further injure yourselves while I am gone.”

With that, Atrus stepped backwards and vanished with the core, and Antares groaned and dropped his head forwards, mumbling: “I both like him and really really hate him sometimes. Alright, guys, let's keep going. Looks like we're going to get an escort, though.”

“I like demons.” Aphrodisia said positively, and Avalon laughed as Meadowlark and Antares smiled at each other and Prestige fought hard to repress her own giggle. Rustproof gave the demon an amused look, and Aphrodisia winked at him, saying kindly: “I like you too, Rusty, don't you worry. When you grow up you'll probably be as big as my Daddy. And I like my Daddy even more than I like other demons.”

Rustproof chuckled quietly, and the young ponies continued onwards; it was no surprise when only a few minutes later, Hevatica and several other Kelpies appeared. Antares smiled a little as his group came to a halt, and then Hevatica strode forwards and nuzzled him affectionately before sitting back and gently stroking under his chin with a cloven hoof, saying softly: “Look at you, young Antares. Do not fear... your first mission should not be a flawless victory. It puts far too much weight on a person for those missions yet to come... it raises your expectations too high. In the difficulties you've faced, I expect you've learned much about yourself and your team, though, have you not?”

“My friends and I...” Antares looked hesitantly over his shoulder, and then he returned his eyes to the Kelpie in front of him as the other demons watched with fascination and strange affection. “Yes, we have. But I was the one who screwed up, Hevatica. I think I'm... I really am starting to learn what being a leader is all about. What it means to be who I am, and... what the most important thing in any mission is.” Antares smiled a bit, glancing quietly towards Meadowlark. “I'm lucky to have such good teachers. And such good friends to... to show me when I'm right and when I'm wrong.”

“Yes. Let us purify your wounds, young ones. The Dawn Bringer's special guard are coming to escort you to her.” Hevatica said kindly, and then she smiled slightly, glancing up at Rustproof. “We'll clean your lungs too, silly child. You reek of smoke: your mother will know what you've been doing.”

Rustproof blushed a bit, and Avalon winced as she sat up on his back, asking lamely: “Hey, what about me, then? Cowlick's got a nose for that but so does my Mom.”

“Most mothers do. Good ones, at least, like those you are blessed with.” Hevatica smiled ,then she gestured at the other Kelpies, who strode calmly down the group with soft smiles on their faces. “Worry not, children. We'll take care of everything. Just trust in us.”

The Kelpies were true to their word, although their methods were strange: they rubbed snow into wounds and made the young ponies drink water: the reason for it being that the Kelpies purified any water they came in contact with. It worked to cleanse their wounds and flushed most lingering poisons out of their systems... except Meadowlark still looked sick, and Hevatica frowned with concern over the Pegasus, something that made Antares nervous.

All the same, the Kelpies said nothing about her and escorted them forwards, Antares grimacing a little as his swollen, broken ankle trembled beneath him... but it was much easier going without the core on his back, and while he was still hobbling and favoring the leg heavily, it had also been numbed from both the cold and the demons. And halfway through the forest, the Yamato Guard joined them to lead the group the rest of the way out in silent formation, and Antares felt a strange relief to have the golden-armored Nightmares all around them, guiding them through the end of their journey.

It was still evening by the time they reached Ponyville, the Nibelung and pony guards at the gate waving to them warmly, and the young ponies smiled awkwardly back as they continued forwards with their escort. Other ponies were on the street, watching as the large group walked by, some calling congratulations and others clapping, but Antares didn't feel like this was a victory, or a triumph. This had simply been an exercise they had barely passed; he didn't think he or his friends quite deserved applause just yet.

They reached the library, and the Yamato parted ways with them here, as did the Kelpies that Antares didn't know: Hevatica opened the door for them and led them inside, and Antares nodded his thanks to her before blushing a bit when she kissed his cheek as he passed by, saying kindly: “Your mother would be very proud, Antares Mīrus.”

Antares only smiled a little over his shoulder, then looked awkwardly up as he stepped into the library, and blushed embarrassedly at the many eyes that gazed at him: Celestia, Twilight Sparkle and Burning Desire, Fluttershy and Nirvana, Spike and Rarity, the parents and family of his friends... and as the group carefully assembled and finally was able to sit down and drop their loads of equipment, Celestia said softly: “I actually expected that you would call for help during the storm... I'm surprised that you didn't. But I see... there have been difficulties.”

Antares nodded, and Celestia held up a hoof when Sleipnir opened his mouth, not even glancing up as the enormous earth pony huffed. The Baroness was still almost solemn, however, gazing silently across at Antares as she asked quietly: “What happened? You're all tired, bruised, and beaten. Meadowlark, you... seem particularly hurt. Your wing is badly injured... and you...”

She frowned after a moment as Meadowlark smiled faintly, then Celestia glanced to Scarlet Sage, who was sitting at the edge of the room with Apple Bloom. “Please take Meadowlark upstairs to the guest room immediately, and tend to her injuries.”

“I'm... I'm fine, really, I just...” Meadowlark flushed a bit, then she said hurriedly, as Scarlet Sage walked forwards with a soft look to the red Pegasus: “It's my fault, Celestia, I-”

“No, Meadowlark. You... you saved everypony. And you saved them from me.” Antares said quietly, and then he looked up at Celestia, stepping forwards and swallowing thickly before he spoke again, meeting her eyes firmly even as his voice trembled: “It was all my fault, Aunt Tia... Baroness Celestia. I am responsible for everything that's happened... I forced our march through the storm, and I led us right into a ditch, and I was... I refused to listen to Meadowlark's advice, any advice at all. I led us over bad terrain and was the reason we all fell into a pool, I focused solely on the mission, on getting that core back to safety, while my friends suffered. I tried to overlook their pain and injuries... Meadowlark, even hurt as she was, she... she's the reason we're all standing here. And everything went smoothly when I listened to her, because she put our friends first. I only thought of the mission.”

“You remind me of a very foolish pony, Antares...” Celestia was smiling faintly, however, closing her eyes as she bowed her head forwards. “She learned the same lessons, but it took her... much longer to grasp the concepts than you have. The value of life, and of friendship, and of other ponies over... the 'mission.' I'm glad you've learned faster than she did... than I ever did.”

Celestia looked up at him quietly, then she frowned at the nervous look on Scarlet Sage's face, asking slowly: “What is it?”

The Blood Seer shook her head quickly, however, looking at Meadowlark before she said quietly: “Meadow, I need you to come with me. Celestia, I need to take her to the clinic, right now... Twilight, I really, really could use your help.”

Meadowlark only tilted her head, then she frowned and murmured: “No, n-no, I'm fine, honestly. I just feel sick to my stomach, but... I haven't eaten much and-”

“We'll talk about this in a few minutes, okay?” Scarlet Sage said gently, reaching up and soothingly stroking the red Pegasus' mane back; Antares frowned worriedly as he looked towards his sister, but she only smiled faintly, shaking her head once and meeting his eyes. Then the older Pegasus mare looked up as Twilight hurried forwards, and she carefully guided Meadowlark back towards the library door, saying softly: “It's going to be okay, Meadow, it is... just... come with me, okay?”

Twilight gave Antares a quick, anxious smile as she passed, and the young stallion winced a little at the worry in the Lich's eyes, feeling a twist through him: of guilt, of pain, of affection and concern. But Scarlet Sage was already hurrying Meadowlark out, and Twilight followed, and before Antares could think about doing or saying anything, Celestia said softly: “It's alright, Antares... you have an injury yourself that hasn't been dealt with. And your friends need to heal, too... let's save our conversation until after everypony's been tended to.”

Antares nodded hesitantly, and Celestia nodded slowly back, as his friends went to their family, their guardians, their caretakers. All except for Prestige, who had no one there... but when Celestia quietly approached Antares, the ivory winged unicorn smiled calmly over at the young unicorn mare and asked quietly: “Would you like to come with us? You don't seem badly injured.”

Prestige blushed and nodded a little, then she slowly looked back and forth through the room as Antares looked softly over his shoulder at her. The silver-maned mare regarded the others: Rustproof, with Cowlick and Ross both fussing over him, the young male smiling embarrassedly as his mother half-heckled, half-smothered him with affection; Avalon, grinning and bouncing back and forth as Apple Bloom laughed, Applejack smiled and Rainbow Dash talked warmly with his daughter; Aphrodisia as she clung to her father, who gazed down at her with warmth as he held her close and Pinkamena quietly rubbed over her daughter's back, Pinkie Pie bouncing beside them. And Spike and Rarity and Fluttershy and Nirvana were congratulating them each in turn, speaking with the young ponies here and there, while Antares and Prestige and Celestia sat in this quiet pocket in the center of the room: watching, and yet somehow... apart.

Then Celestia shook her head, turning and gently gesturing to Antares: he followed quickly, and Prestige did as well. They smiled when ponies called out to them, but continued on their way to the back steps, not slowing down or altering their course... but Antares was glad for it. He didn't want praise, especially not right now. He felt he still had a long way to go before he deserved anything like that... and first he wanted to know how Meadowlark was doing, too. If she was badly hurt after all...

They stepped into the guest room, and Antares softened as he looked back and forth: he knew that this had once been Twilight's room years ago, when she'd lived here in the library, before Celestia took it over. Then he smiled despite himself when Celestia gestured at them, saying quietly: “I'm going to go and talk to the others for a moment, make sure no other ponies are badly hurt. Take off your equipment, and Prestige, get him into bed and make him lie down.”

“Yes, Baroness.” Prestige smiled, then blushed a little when the ivory winged unicorn gave her a soft look. “I mean... Celestia.”

“Good.” Celestia said softly, then she turned and left: for a moment, Antares and Prestige only gazed at the doorway, and then they looked at each other before the unicorn mare leaned up, placed her hooves against his chest, and then leaned forwards to kiss him gently for moment.

He kissed her back, closing his eyes, then smiled faintly when their lips parted. His eyes remained closed as he heard her slowly removing her gear, before he finally sighed softly as they flickered open, dark cyan irises gazing quietly down at his swollen hoof before he began to quietly pull off his own equipment, murmuring: “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”

“Stop that, hero. Look, we did it. We're back home, and we can rest now.” Prestige said softly, glancing up at him, and Antares hesitated for a moment, but then finally nodded slowly in agreement. Then he smiled a bit when Prestige reached forwards and carefully helped him out of his breastplate, the young mare continuing softly: “It was... it was a very difficult journey, but look. Don't they seem proud of us? Even your Aunt... she's not disappointed at all, like you were concerned about.”

“I don't know about that. We'll know for sure when she comes back after talking to the others... and whether she's disappointed in me or not is now secondary to... to Meadow. I hope she's okay...” Antares murmured, shaking his head slowly before he sighed a little bit, saying quietly: “God she's strong... put me in my place, and walked back here even with something wrong with her, carrying some of our gear...”

“She is.” Prestige said quietly, glancing away as she put Antares' breastplate aside, and then she leaned forwards and hugged him fiercely around the neck, closing her eyes and burying her face against him. Antares hugged her back, closing his eyes, and the two were silent for a few moments before she sighed and sat back a little, pushing at him quietly: “Get into bed, go on.”

Antares smiled a little, and he crawled onto the mattress before grimacing a bit over his shoulder, half-rolling to raise his injured limb in the air. Prestige shivered a bit at the ugly splint, and the blood staining and half-frozen over his hoof, but Antares only shook his head as he mumbled: “It's still kinda numb, but I think it's going to start hurting a whole hell of a lot when it thaws. Apps fixed it, though, she knows that kind of stuff pretty well.”

Prestige nodded hesitantly, then Antares sighed and flopped over on his side, letting his leg drop to the mattress as he curled up a bit. The young mare looked at his back, and they were quiet until Celestia returned a few minutes later. She studied the two as Antares rolled over, looking up both worriedly and expectantly, but the winged unicorn only smiled at him and reached out, touching his shoulder gently. “Try and concentrate only on yourself for now, Antares. You've been through a lot. You need to rest.”

Antares nodded hesitantly, and Celestia studied him for a few moments before she glanced towards his ankle. She apprehensively touched this, and Antares flinched a little before the winged unicorn murmured: “I'm going to try and heal this, but it's going to be hurt. Splinting it isn't nearly enough for this level of injury, and the fact you've been walking on it has only worsened the damage.”

The young stallion winced a bit, and then he grimaced as Celestia's horn glowed before pain filled up his body, cursing under his breath as he clenched his eyes shut. Prestige reached out, grasping one of his front hooves between both her own, and Antares breathed harder, gritting his teeth and shivering as he squeezed convulsively against her grip. But the pain at least forced his mind to clear, and was almost welcome after how responsible he still felt for everything that had happened.

Antares looked ashen and ill as he stepped out of the clinic doors, dropping on his haunches and lowering his head with a tremble. He breathed roughly in and out as he clenched his eyes shut, then he shook his head slowly before grinding his hooves into the frosty ground, lowering his head forwards and cursing under his breath, trembling and only glad it was so early in the morning there were no other ponies around to see him like this. To see him at all, so he could slink back to the library or all the way back home in shame.

No pony blamed him, but that didn't matter: he blamed himself. He cursed, then looked back at the hind leg now wrapped in a cast before stomping it firmly, and sending a welcome blast of pain through his body, gritting his teeth and flinching but feeling vindictively, sickeningly glad for it. His ankle had been broken in three places, and the healing process had been excruciating... but it was nothing compared to what Meadowlark was going through.

She had spent the entire night at the clinic, and Scarlet Sage wanted to keep her in one of the special care rooms for the rest of today, too, to monitor her while she slept fitfully. He had gone in to see her, hoping for the best.. and just the look on Scarlet Sage's face when he'd stepped inside had been enough to kill all hope that things would be okay, that her injuries were gone and healed.

Prestige's magic hadn't properly healed Meadowlark's broken rib, or her internal injuries: the rib had instead warped and stretched, fusing into an organ as well as sealing along where it had been broken. Her inner punctures had clogged up, but her veins and innards were all a mess, fused together willy-nilly, new flesh here and there where there shouldn't be. And she had still been bleeding from a tear hidden deep in her abdomen... a slow leak that had filled much of her stomach with blood, hiding any telltale signs of internal bleeding.

And Meadowlark hadn't complained once about the pain. Had just wanted to impress them, to be like the ponies she not-so-secretly admired, a strong Pegasus instead of what she saw herself as, just a bookworm researcher. Antares trembled at this thought, then stomped his back hoof again, sending another bolt of pain through his body and cursing weakly. The only pony he could blame was himself... Prestige had just been trying to help, after all, and he hadn't been there to warn them, to help them, to guide them. He had been sulking and crying... and he had been the one who had kicked Meadowlark's ribs in while trying to lunge out of the pool.

Now she needed healing that Scarlet Sage could only do so much of, even with her powers and working all night: later this afternoon, Meadowlark would be moved to Ponyville hospital, for surgery. Either way, she would likely never be the same again... never as strong, never as active, never able to participate in all the things she had longed to, thanks to how fragile this would likely make her. And Antares hated that thought, knowing what it would do to Meadowlark's self-esteem... knowing that she would blame herself, when it was all his fault.

He rose his hoof again... but a voice said gently, before he could stomp it down: “That's not going to solve anything, kiddo. And you'll just make the pretty lady even more upset when she does wake up. You don't want that, do you?”

Antares grimaced a bit, and then he looked to the side with a quiet sigh, glaring at Allonym. The Draconequus only smiled at him, however, a fedora on his head and a leather jacket hanging over his shoulders like a cape, the sleeves swaying quietly on either side of him. His hands rested atop his cane, and the young stallion looked at him moodily before Allonym glanced towards the dark gray skies above, murmuring: “I'm not a morning person, you know, but at the same time... I do love mornings. No one else is out, and if I can manage to wake myself up, I feel good.”

Antares only shook his head slowly at this, sighing quietly before he asked after a moment: “What do you want, Allonym? I... I don't know if I can exactly put up with mystic, mysterious advice right about now.”

“I might be cryptic, but I don't think I'm really mysterious or mystical. Come on, kid, cheer up. Let's walk.” Allonym gestured calmly to the side, and Antares frowned moodily at him before the Draconequus said quietly: “It's important, okay?”

Antares Mīrus hesitated a moment longer... then he sighed and nodded, striding over to the Draconequus. Allonym smiled down at him, reaching up to tap the brim of his fedora before he turned, cane tapping quietly against the frozen ground as he carried it more than used it. Antares fell in pace beside him, looking down the icy road as they made their way slowly through Ponyville, before the Draconequus said softly: “Everyone will tell you they want a story that's real... but often, people don't, did you ever realize that? I mean, seriously. When Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes, he got so many angry letters he was forced to bring the great detective back. He's just lucky that Moriarty chucked him off a waterfall instead of set him on fire or something.

“Anyway, I'm no sir. I'm not even Scrivener Blooms.” The Draconequus muttered under his breath, shaking his head slowly. “Annoys me that your dad is a better writer than I am. Seriously grates my nerves. But anyway, whether I'm a hack or not, I do still have some advice for you, kid, and I do still want to try and turn out... the real story here. Help things reach a decent conclusion instead of...”

He halted, then shook his head slowly and smiled slightly, reaching up and tapping his temple gently as Antares frowned nervously up at him. “There's a few possible endings. None of them are... particularly pleasant at this moment in time. But am I ever hoping we can change that, gods am I ever. But here's the thing, Antares...”

The Draconequus stopped and swung his cane out gently, putting it across the young pony's breast and stopping him as the strange creature continued to look up at the sky, even as Antares looked up at him silently. “Antares, don't... go overboard. You've got what it takes to be a good person, a real, tried and true hero... but you have this little self-esteem issue. More than that, you have...” He paused, looking thoughtfully down before shaking his head slowly. “Look, kid. You don't have to save the world. Stopping Cancer won't save the world. Saving your parents won't save the world... for all you know, it could screw things over in the long run, wake up some of that dormant machinery still eternally waiting in Clockwork World for... for some new master to get the gears running and the pistons pumping and the corruption flowing again.

“You need to concentrate on yourself a little more, and on your friends, too. And you need to learn that what you think, what you feel, what others think of you... doesn't matter in the long run.” Allonym smiled a little, glancing over at Antares as the young stallion frowned up at him. “I know, and it's not that I don't care about you, or your opinion. I want you to be happy, kid, I do, because there's going to be suffering in the future. But if you want to make everything work out... sometimes you have to disappoint people a little, sometimes you have to say no, sometimes you have to do stuff that makes no sense to anyone else. But Antares, if disappointing your Aunt today meant saving one of your friends' lives tomorrow, would you?”

Antares hesitated, then he nodded slowly and sighed quietly before asking quietly: “But how the hell am I supposed to know when to do that, Allonym? You... do you think I'm choosing to screw up or something? Do you think that just because I can see into people, it means I should be able to magically know just what to do?”

“No, I'm not saying that at all.” Allonym glanced down at him mildly, then he smacked his chest gently with his cane. “Chill out, cranky-flank. You're too young to be bitter yet... hell, I don't want to see you turning bitter and grumpy on me at all, there's enough ponies like that around as it is.

“And you know, Antares, don't give me that bull that you don't.” Allonym turned towards him, and Antares opened his mouth, but Allonym simply tossed his cane up to catch by the neck and shoved the snarling dragon handle against Antares' face, making him wince and fall silent. “No, listen, kid. With Meadowlark, you wanted to call for help, but she said no. So why didn't you? Yeah, I know the answer... because you didn't want to disappoint her, or your friends and family. You didn't want to go against her, especially under the gazes of all your friends, after you'd screwed up once already. But you know you should have.”

Antares closed his eyes tightly, then he reached up and shoved the cane away, trembling as he looked up and snapped: “I don't... I don't need these lectures anymore! You, Aunt Tia, Twilight... you all expect so much of me, but do you know what it's like, living in my parents' shadow? Expected not just to live up to them, but to somehow be even better than they ever were? It feels impossible, Allonym! I'm tired of it, I'm sick and tired of all of it... why the hell am I supposed to be so much better than everypony else and why the hell can't any of you just cut me a break?”

Allonym looked at the glossy black stallion, who breathed hard in and out before he finally shuddered and closed his eyes, bowing his head as a flush suffused his cheeks before he mumbled: “I... I'm sorry. I'm... the stress.”

“I know. And I am going to be understanding and kind as I can, Antares, but you... you're so stubborn and thick-headed at times that you seem to only learn through hard lessons.” Allonym said quietly, then he turned around and closed his eyes before saying softly: “Here. Let me show you what could happen if we weren't so hard on you, though. If all of us didn't push so goddamn hard to train you, and teach you, and keep you on the right path.”

Allonym rose his hand and snapped his fingers... and a moment later, Antares was shrouded in shadows, staring back and forth in confusion before reality faded in around him, in grays and blacks. He was standing alone in an empty field, the grass under his hooves dead, a few scraggly trees here and there... and then he stumbled backwards with a yell of surprise as broken stones and monuments tore suddenly up out of the ground, sending sprays of earth and rock in all directions.

He fell backwards with a grunt as something ripped out of the earth behind him, wincing as he smacked into something... and he stared up over his shoulder in horror at a decaying statue of Celestia, posed with her head proudly raised, marks of wear over her cheeks as if the statue had been crying... and for so long it had worn down the stone.

Antares turned around, stumbling away and looking down as he saw the plaque at the bottom of the... the grave. Oh god, Aunt Tia's grave... “N-No... how could this-”

“Because they died, honey, protecting you from me... always hoping that at the end, my sweet little pet, you would be the leader, the savior, the shining light they would all believe in... but oh, handsome colt, you never rose to the occasion...” said a mocking, teasing voice, and Antares looked back and forth amongst the broken gravestones and wretched monuments, breathing hard before he caught sight of a flash of crimson eyes as a figure darted through the corner of his sight, then chuckled quietly. Antares whirled to face it, but it was already gone as its voice whispered from all around him: “Yeah, how pathetic. You couldn't do a thing...”

“No! No, I... I always... I tried my hardest!” Antares shouted, looking desperately back and forth, and Cancer's voice laughed again at him.

“Really, sweet-cheeks? You tried your hardest? Oh, that's hilarious!” Cancer mocked, and Antares staggered around in a circle as fear overwhelmed him, bolting past graves and tombstones, looking back and forth in terror. “Looks like you're trying your hardest again! Oh I love this!”

“Shut up! Leave me alone, this isn't real! Allonym, stop it, stop!” Antares shouted desperately, looking back and forth before he staggered to a stop in front of a mausoleum... and his eyes widened before he staggered backwards as tears spilled down his face.

The decrepit stone mausoleum was overrun with vines and black roses, and engraved over the front were three names: the names of his parents. He moaned weakly, staggering backwards... and then looked up in horror as a mottled white monster crawled slowly to the edge of the rooftop to grin down at him, red eyes burning as Cancer whispered gleefully: “You were so focused, sweetie, on getting Mommy and Daddy back... that you just kept running away. You were so focused on 'the job' or whatever, that you were willing to send your friends into the fight against me... you said you believed in them, but oh, that wasn't true, was it? No, no, no... instead, you just wanted to buy yourself more time. You were scared of what I could do to you, and oh sure, maybe you were scared for them, too... but Mommy and Daddy, Mommy and Daddy, it was all about Mommy and Daddy, right?”

Cancer cackled, half-falling forwards and slamming a hoof against the front of the mausoleum before he snarled and straightened, whispering: “And oh, honey. I adored it. I stopped hating you, sweetie, and I started loving you! You made it so much fun! And you led me right into that dark, dangerous, dank, blood-filled place where ooh, I got such a taste of power...

“You woke Mommy and Daddy up, sure, and I was scared for a little while... but oh honey, then I saw how weak they were, and how horrified when you brought them home here, and they found all their friends gone, only the zombie waiting for them, because by then the white weasel finally was giving in to my infection, the infection I spread all through this world... because you see, you were the butterfly. You flapped your wings on one side of the world, and caused a typhoon on the other: your sweet, delicious refusal to help your friendy-wendies out, the way you sacrificed them for your own goal, the way you kept running away because you were so scared of me... oh honey. I loved it, because then your friends' friends and their parents came a hunting for me... and just mm, made the most delicious little meals...”

“No! No, I would never do that! I'd fight you, I'd... I'll kill you!” Antares shouted furiously, and Cancer laughed loudly before he slowly stood, grinning, mottled and yet magnificent atop the mausoleum, terrifying as he looked cruelly down at Antares.

“Really? You were so obsessed with your jobs you just sent your friends off to ambush and distract me while you did the mission. Whenever we met, you did whatever you had to in order to get away from me. And for some reason they never stopped believing in you. Always held you up, sweetie, as something to protect... that's why attacking you became my new favorite past time. You never hung around... but all your friends, oh, they would run out to protect you... and I caught them one by one by one, with you as my sweet little bait. You, who they never abandoned... and yet you never listened. You kept running out into the field to play with all the posies... that was how I got your parents, too. They died protecting you, don't you remember? They died, and the zombie crawled after them into this big above-ground grave, and they all lay together sweet and serene. I left 'em perfectly preserved, all for you... all to remind you of what a disappoint you are. A failure.” Cancer giggled, licking his lips before he leapt forwards, landing in front of Antares as the young stallion breathed hard in and out, staring weakly across at this horrible, terrible entity. “It turns out me and you... we ain't so different. You kill, I kill, we kill. That's why I kept you alive. That's why honey...”

Cancer leaned forwards, breathing slowly over Antares' face as his red eyes glowed with delight. “I ain't gonna kill you now. Or ever. Oh no, sweetie, don't you worry, don't you cry. I'm gonna keep you strong and healthy, because I adore your pain. I love the way you struggle. Because, punk, you're a failure. And destruction and failure go claw-in-hoof.”

The mottled monster laughed in Antares' face, and the young unicorn shouted wordlessly before slashing forwards with his horn into the monster's face. Cancer shattered like glass as reality burst into fragments with him, stunning the young stallion as he staggered backwards and fell heavily on his haunches, gasping hard... before he looked stupidly up to see Allonym standing calmly, quietly beside him in the town square of Ponyville, the Draconequus gazing down at him before he reached a hand up and gently ruffled the unicorn's mane. “We push you because we believe in you. If we believed in you without pushing you, you'd be a different person than you are, Antares. You'd think you were the chosen one, and as long as you survived, you could fix everything... but you're not, and you can't.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Antares shivered for a moment before he dropped his head forwards, swallowing thickly as he whispered: “I... I'm never going to turn into that, Allonym. I'm not going to sacrifice my friends for me, I never could... be so selfish, I know... I know Mom and Dad would be disappointed in me if I even considered doing something like that and... and...”

Allonym only smiled faintly, then he looked up at the sky and said softly: “Only a couple of days ago you were yelling at a kid four years younger than you to help pick up what's essentially a giant gemstone, while your other friends bled and suffered and risked hypothermia and death. Antares, you weren't so far away from the edge as you think you are... but that's our fault more than yours, maybe, with how often we tell you what faith we have in you, what... a spectacular hero you could be one day.”

He fell quiet as Antares lowered his head in shame, then shrugged and glanced over his shoulder, smiling a little as he gestured towards the library across the square. “Go in there, tell your Aunt and Twilight-Mom how much you love 'em, give 'em a hug and make a promise to them. Promise 'em... you're gonna make them proud. And I'll see you in a few weeks, but I'm not sure if you'll see me or not.”

Antares looked up quietly, and then, as the Draconequus began to walk away, he asked quietly: “Allonym... why don't you just fix me? Fix everything?”

“Because you're not broken, kiddo. And I can't do that...” Allonym looked over his shoulder, shaking his head slowly. “Any more than I can give away the plot twists ahead, or anything else. I can warn you of imminent danger... but if I give away much more than that, it could be the equivalent of sending you to your deaths, or making you prepare for one nasty danger while another crops up somewhere else.

“Look, Antares. You're growing up.” Allonym smiled a bit, saying softly: “One day you'll look back on all this and be proud of yourself for pushing through everything... you know, if you manage to do it right. If you keep on a solid path. One day, you'll understand that the time you spent in pain taught you more than the time you spent happy, that you're shaped by experiences positive and negative. That you need both to... become the kind of pony that I know you want to be. Just keep swinging, kid. You'll be fine.”

With that, Allonym turned and calmly strode away, and Antares sighed a little as he watched the Draconequus head to a side alley and vanish into it. For a few moments, he was tempted to try and follow, but then he only shook his head before apprehensively turning his eyes towards the library.

He made his way slowly towards it... then he glanced up with a surprised frown when a voice called his name, before dumbly glancing over to the side to see Sleipnir approaching with a cheerful smile on his face, the enormous vine-maned stallion gazing at him benevolently. Antares smiled awkwardly, and then his uncle asked him kindly as he drew in close: “'What burdens thee, Antares? Was it the Draconequus I saw thee chatting with?”

“Kind of. And other stuff, too.” Antares admitted, glancing up at his uncle before he smiled a little and shook his head, asking quietly: “What are you doing here, Sleipnir? Do you want me to get Aunt Tia for you?”

“Nay, I am here for thou, actually. And 'tis both a pleasant surprise and most disappointing to see thou art already awake, Antares, I most direly wished to wake thee up myself.” Sleipnir said cheerfully, reaching up and ruffling the young stallion's mane, and he laughed despite himself before the earth pony continued easily: “I require some aid at the forge today, and as handsome Spike is not available, I was hoping thou could lend me thy hooves. I shall pay thee most handsomely for thy aid.”

“Oh, well, you don't have to pay me, Sleipnir... working and learning beside you is an honor.” Antares said awkwardly, smiling a little up at the stallion, who only chuckled quietly in response. They looked at one-another for a few moments, and then the glossy-black unicorn glanced towards the library, saying finally: “I'll just let Aunt Tia know-”

“Nonsense, thou art going about this all wrong.” Sleipnir huffed, and Antares looked dumbly up at him before the enormous, vine maned male leaned forwards and shouted at the door, making the windows rattle and Antares wince backwards, blushing deeply as he wondered how many ponies Sleipnir had just woken up: “Celestia! I am kidnapping our nephew for much of today! And thou may not have him back until I say so!”

There was silence for a few moments, broken only by the occasional click as ponies opened doors around the square to stare out at Sleipnir and Antares, as the young stallion grinned lamely and awkwardly looked up at the enormous stallion, who only looked cheerful as ever... and then finally, the library door swung open, Celestia looking mildly out at her younger sibling before she said dryly: “It's six thirty in the morning, Sleipnir. You likely just woke up half of Ponyville. And the blacksmith's isn't even running at this hour.”

“Well, if I woke up half of Ponyville, then perhaps the blacksmith's was on the side that was awoken. 'Twill be no problem to get in and use the forge then.” Sleipnir said blandly, and Celestia sighed tiredly at this logic before the enormous earth pony added meditatively: “And only half of Ponyville? 'Tis disappointing. My lungs must still be infected from this most terrible of diseases, aye, that is all.”

Celestia rolled her eyes, then she glanced at Antares, opening her mouth: before she could say anything, however, the vine-maned stallion wildly shook his head and stomped a hoof, making Antares wince and Celestia glare as he said firmly: “Nay, 'tis my nephew now, not thine, until we are done at the forge! Thou may not ask any questions of him, sweet sibling, not until I give him back to thee.”

“Sleipnir.” Celestia glowered at him, but Sleipnir only huffed and looked pointedly in return, and finally the winged unicorn rolled her eyes and gave a tired sigh. “Oh, why bother even trying to argue with you? But please try and come back by early afternoon, Antares. I want to speak to you and your friends about what's happened.”

Antares nodded as Sleipnir grumbled something about rule-breaking, and then the young stallion hesitated before looking up and saying quietly: “Aunt Tia, I'm sorry about everything. I want to promise you that I'm gonna do better and make you proud in the future. And I want you to know that... I love you and respect you, and I understand why you need to be hard on me at times.”

Celestia smiled after a moment, looking touched as she bowed her head quietly forwards... and then Sleipnir huffed again before he wrapped a foreleg around Antares' shoulders and squeezed him almost painfully, complaining: “And what of me! 'Tis not my fault that thy delightful mother Twilight and wicked Celestia keep thee confined here, all to themselves! Oh, Twilight Sparkle, I can understand: she is as much a mother to thou as Luna was...”

Sleipnir halted for a moment, then softened and looked down, shaking his head slowly as he murmured softly: “Oh, little sister, how I wish I could honor thee and thy husband more each and every day... but at least I can look upon thou with confidence, Antares, and know thou art... thou art on the right path. Thou shall make them proud... nay, thou makes them proud already! And I suppose with that in mind, dear sister... 'tis probably for the best he is under thy constant watch instead of off cavorting with me. I fear that little sister would not take it well if I challenged her son to drinking contests and games of sport.”

Celestia only laughed at this, however, loosening up visibly as she gazed quietly down at Antares but spoke to her brother, replying gently: “Maybe, but maybe not, Sleipnir... and maybe I am being perhaps a little... selfish. There is much you have to teach yourself, after all, and sometimes I think the things you've mentored Antares in so far are much better than the little I've taught him... and I'm sure Luna would desire for you to teach the full extent of your knowledge with her son... whatever that meant. She always thought the world of you.”

“She thought the world of us both, Celestia, and she idolized and loved thee as much as me, if not greater.” Sleipnir replied empathetically, and then he smiled softly as he glanced down at Antares and slapped the young unicorn on the back, almost knocking him sprawling as he gave a little squeak of pain from his cast-covered hind leg kicking reflexively against the ground. “But aye, perhaps I shall strive to teach thee a little more today then, Antares Mīrus. I have not much to teach... but thou art like a son to me.”

He paused, then grinned and winked. “Then again, my daughter is also like a son to me, and I do delight in seeing the two of thee together. How it reminds me of the old days, Celestia!”

“It reminds me of Scrivener and Pinkamena, actually.” Celestia said softly, and then she shook her head and smiled softly as Antares blushed a bit, glancing warmly back and forth between his uncle and aunt... his family, and two treasured mentors. “But don't let me keep you any longer. I'm sure your uncle has much to share with you.”

Sleipnir nodded firmly, and then he winked down at Antares, saying cheerfully: “But I shall have to be careful all the same, for thou art still young and as it is, my lovely phoenix has battered and bludgeoned me for sharing too many details with my sweet daughter about certain lessons of life's battlefields. And I do not need both her and Celestia pummeling me for telling thee all the many ways a stallion may make a mare squeal by using his-”

Celestia glared at him as Antares blushed, and Sleipnir reared back as if offended, saying in a hurt voice even as his eyes glimmered with mischief: “Poetry! Poetry, of course, is what I meant to say, for what is-”

“Just leave, Sleipnir. And no poetry.” Celestia said tiredly, stepping back and closing the door. Sleipnir only laughed, however, then he smiled down at Antares and winked... and the young stallion smiled back after a moment despite himself, knowing that there was a world he could learn from his uncle... as long as he remembered to try and tune out certain favorite subjects of the enormous stallion, that was.