• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,683 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

Learning Little By Little

Chapter Twenty Two: Learning Little By Little

In the week that followed their retrieval of the materials, Antares and his friends slowly recovered from the surprising ordeal that the thought-simple travel had proven to be, and went back to both training and doing small jobs for the Starlit Knights and Celestia. Avalon often ran patrols with her father and Soarin', and had even been given a few simple courier missions to deliver letters to diplomats and officials around Equestria. She always acted like it was no big deal, or pretended to be cranky about being a 'delivery girl,' but Antares didn't need his ability to read into people to see how delighted she really was about the whole thing. It was a step closer to being accepted as a Starlit Knight, after all... and something else that she could brag about being fast and trusted enough to handle.

Rustproof was caught with his cigarettes again, and Cowlick's ranting could be heard across most of the village for an hour or so afterwards. This was followed by Rusty being put on cleaning and assembly duties for a month for the entire facility, and on top of this, he was helping work on reconstructing the meteor. It was a massive responsibility... and it never failed to amaze Antares how Cowlick could both punish and reward her son at once with all the work she was giving him. After all, apart from Rusty, Ross, and Cowlick, only trusted Nibelung Architects, Twilight Sparkle, and Celestia were being permitted to even enter the hangar where the project was being pieced together.

Prestige was spending a lot of her time in the library, studying new magic and constantly pushing herself to better develop her abilities and her stamina. She was getting stronger... and she had a new respect for the ponies she had trudged though the snow and sleet with, even if she still called Avalon a shorn-wing when she got frustrated and tended to spit other less-than-pleasant remarks when someone pushed her buttons, particularly at the end of a long day.

Aphrodisia was spending more time with both her mother and other demons, learning to better develop her demonic heritage. It also wasn't uncommon to see her with Burning Desire: when she wasn't angrily chasing him around and barking at him, she looked up to him with clear respect and affection. It was awkward for ponies who didn't know the two, but it simply made sense to those who did... more so if they had met the Dominia demon's eccentric parents.

But Meadowlark wasn't holding up quite as well as her friends, in spite of the brave face she always put on in public: the only ponies who really knew how much she was hurting were Antares, Twilight, and Scarlet Sage. Antares spent a lot of time with her in private these days, which Prestige did her best to be understanding about... but right now, the injured Pegasus really needed a friend, and Antares was willing to give her that even if it meant he had to spend a good while each night reassuring his marefriend that he was just there to support Meadow.

She was on her hooves, but weak from the surgery, and she had to spend a lot of time resting or in bed. She tried to keep herself busy doing research, but Twilight Sparkle was very gentle with her, always trying to get her to slow down, making sure that she was taking care of herself among everything else. In a strange, rare gesture of trust, Twilight had even shared one of Scrivener's old poetry books with the Pegasus, in return for the promise she'd make sure she took care of herself and didn't spend all her time wracking her brain with research instead of sleeping, resting, and just concentrating on getting better.

But not all the damage done to Meadowlark could heal, and Meadowlark's secret dreams of one day being a fighter like her friends had been crushed. Her stomach and other organs couldn't take that kind of strain, and the surgeons had been forced to completely remove two of her ribs, thanks to the fusing and warping they had undergone.

Antares reassured her every day, though, that she didn't need to be some warrior to attract attention, that she was strong as it was, that she was still not only their friend, but a part of their team. Her talent for observation was clearly almost as strong as Antares' was, and her ability to study and research was enviable. But Antares knew that only Meadowlark would be able to pull herself out of the pit she had fallen into... he saw all too clearly that his words did very little to help.

He still offered his encouragements, though, every moment he could: he spent his free time beside her, and reassured her quietly that there was nothing he'd rather be doing. And there wasn't: they were friends, and she needed him right now, especially because he was the only one she had told so far about just what was wrong with her. He saw something almost like shame in her... and he saw what was almost a need for her to protect him, that she was scared the others would blame him. Somehow, despite everything, she still didn't hold him accountable... even though Antares knew it was all his fault.

Antares himself, when he wasn't with Meadowlark or with Prestige, was training: but more than his body, he was training his mind. He studied nature beside Sleipnir, who was all too delighted to help teach the young stallion more about listening to nature and hearing her voice in the wind, the trees, beneath one's hooves; he spent hours reading strategy books given to him by Twilight Sparkle; he played chess and hneftafl and logic games with Celestia. And all of these things taught him not just new arts, new ways to think, but discipline as well.

He knew they all had a long road ahead: they all had much to learn still, and much to adjust to. They all had their own unique desires, but also one clear-cut goal: to be strong enough to protect their friends and family, and the innocent people of Equestria. To save people, to guard what was most important to them... to do the right thing. And apart, they maybe weren't strong enough to do that... but together, they could be. If they worked together, they could do anything they set their minds to, they were learning... but working together was a lot harder than it sounded.

And that was why Antares made sure to find a day where they could all spend time together, and get back to working as a group: thankfully, he didn't have to wait more than a few days after that first week after the mission, and the young stallion smiled a little as he walked into the snowy orchards of Sweet Apple Acres with Prestige at his side.

Avalon was sitting in a treebranch above and snoozing, and Aphrodisia was pawing at the trunk and barking at her every now and then like a dog, but mostly going ignored. Rustproof was sitting back in a heavy, fluffy coat with Meadowlark beside him, dressed in her own thick jacket, scarf, and toque. She looked almost embarrassedly across at Antares, but he only shook his head with a bit of a smile. He was wearing a jacket and toque himself, after all.

“Hey, guys.” Antares said warmly, and Aphrodisia glanced over at him before barking once as Avalon stirred awake on her tree branch, glancing up with surprise. Then she grinned as Antares strode forwards with a smile, saying quietly: “You all ready to get to work?”

“Hell yes.” Avalon said cheerfully, then she easily glided down and landed on Rustproof's back when the enormous earth pony stood up, the behemoth yawning a little and not even seeming to notice Avalon even as she continued easily: “I mean, you know I'm so busy now that I'm like, a top-secret message delivery person, but I figured I could spare some time and stuff. Even if you did want to be out here so early in the damn morning.”

“I figured it'd be best to take as much time as we could to train... Rusty's got so much work to do, after all, and you have your deliveries, and Meadowlark's got all her research.” Antares replied with a shrug, glancing towards the red Pegasus, and she blushed a little and glanced away. For a moment, the young stallion looked at her, then he shook his head and cleared his throat, saying quietly: “It's really important that what happened to us in Subterra doesn't happen again. That we always put our teamwork first... even above our own training. We're all strong on our own, yeah. But it's only as a team that we're really going to prosper, especially against an opponent like Cancer.”

The others nodded, and Antares hesitated before he looked over at Meadowlark, saying quietly: “Listen. Everypony here is important. But especially you, Meadow. If you can... I want you to still act as our medic. And I want you as my second-in-command... since you'll be staying back, it makes sense. You can watch the battle and give us warnings or orders. I... trust you.”

Meadowlark swallowed thickly, smiling faintly at him... and then she closed her eyes and nodded a few times before looking up and saying hesitantly: “But... if I slow you down...”

“You aren't going to slow us down, Meadowlark.” Antares replied quietly, and Rustproof smiled as Avalon grunted and Aphrodisia nodded after a moment in agreement, even if the demon looked grudging. But it did a world for Meadowlark... just as it did when Prestige smiled faintly and bowed her head in respect to the crimson Pegasus. “Alright. I have a few drills in mind for today...”

Antares couldn't explain the relief he felt when the team didn't just listen to him, they listened to each other, and worked together well. There was still some clear tension, certainly: Prestige disliked taking orders from Meadowlark, and the red Pegasus was having a bit of trouble making herself heard to the others... but they weren't ignoring her on purpose. They respected her: Antares thought that even Avalon respected Meadowlark these days, in spite of their rocky past.

They did have some refining to do: on the ground, Aphrodisia tended to take over the battlefield, and in the air, Avalon and Antares had whacked loudly into each other more than once... but unlike some of the nightmarish training sessions of the past, they had just laughed it off and tried to figure out where things had gone wrong.

The most embarrassing part of the day actually came a few hours later, when Antares suddenly stumbled to a halt in mid-charge he was leading against several targets of ice created by Prestige to turn and see they had an audience. The rest of the young ponies stopped as well, most of them blushing a bit as they saw Fluttershy and Nirvana sitting comfortably back with grinning Applejack and a relaxed Rainbow Dash, Big Mac watching calmly as Soarin' smiled from his perch in a tree-branch above. Pinkie Pie waved brightly at them as Pinkamena rolled her eyes, and Sleipnir smiled and nodded firmly. But most touching of all for Antares was when Celestia looked up from where she was sitting beside Twilight, and she said simply: “Continue.”

Her eyes carried all the warmth and approval Antares had ever hoped to see... and the young stallion had redoubled his efforts, feeling confidence burning inside him. It was a warmth that spread to his other friends, who redoubled their own efforts: not young ponies at play any longer, but ponies working together, learning to trust in one another as they trained and challenged each other, as they strengthened friendships, loyalty, and trust.

And what truly delighted Antares was when Celestia stepped forwards during a brief break and said calmly: “Perhaps, Antares, you'd allow me and some of the others here to assist. We can help run a few more advanced drills and exercises.”

Antares glanced back at his friends, who all gazed back at him, telling him they trusted in him with their eyes, and then he turned back to Celestia and nodded firmly. “We would be honored.”

Celestia only smiled slightly in response... and for the next hour, they ran through exercises that strained every pony there, young and experienced alike. By the end of it, though, they all felt accomplished, all had a greater respect for each other... all of them recognized more what each other was capable of, and took gladness in it.

The group had broken up after that, but Antares was quick to set another time to meet with his friends for more work as a group. Celestia had only smiled at him, and it wasn't until later that night that she had finally quietly congratulated him, and told him that if he ever needed any help at all in training, she would be more than happy to provide anything she could.

They were good days: even the rough days that followed were good, even the hard days were good, because Antares felt like he was making slow but steady progress. And he felt like he was becoming more of a real leader... that he was learning to be a better pony, and to do what was in the best interests of his friends and family, not just himself.

Every now and then, Celestia also gave him a task or two to do: sometimes things he could handle by himself, other times short missions he did alongside others. He understood that it was Celestia's way of showing not just how much she respected him, but to help him get experience, and help broaden his horizons: on one particularly-interesting job she gave him, after all, he was sent with Sleipnir, Pinkamena, Aphrodisia and Prestige to locate a nearby dragon aerie, and deliver a diplomatic message. It had been nerve-wracking, since Antares had no idea what he'd do in a fight with a dragon... but he'd been stunned when Sleipnir cheerfully chatted the dragon out of wanting to eat them and into laughing at his stories about his siblings, before politely accepting the diplomatic letter and making a promise to not attack any caravans that passed through the area.

“How did you do that?” Antares asked finally, as they'd been walking away, and Sleipnir had merely winked as Pinkamena smiled amusedly and Aphrodisia giggled. Prestige was staring too, but couldn't seem to find the words as Antares asked again: “Just... I mean... how?”

“Oh, 'twas quite simple, Antares. I open my mouth and the words fall out.” Sleipnir replied with a shrug, then he had smiled warmly. “Celestia would not send all thee with me if we were to deal with a brute. The dragon knew our language, and 'twas not attacking villages, only unfortunate traders and merchants. Not every enemy is a nail to be pounded down by a hammer, Antares, sometimes one must merely politely ask the giant, terrible monster to stop eating people, and it may very well oblige.”

Antares spent a long time thinking about this, musing a lot over the subject, and realizing how he had always applied those thoughts to demons, but never to other things. And yet he knew that all the same he should have: after all, he was the one always saying that people were people, among other things.

It was strange, but the cold and dead of winter was proving to be a time of growth and transformation for Antares and his friends. Literal in some forms, like Rustproof's fourteenth birthday: an awkward party, since it was easy to forget how young he really was and all his friends were older than him. But all the same, Cowlick had ordered Pinkamena and Pinkie Pie to make the best cake they could, and the Pink Twins had put together a delicious replica of a motor engine made of cheesecake, filled with chocolate sauce instead of oil. Rustproof was thrilled by it, and he looked honestly delighted with every gift he was given: from the smallest to the largest, it was clear that each present meant the world to him.

Cowlick had put her fury aside for the occasion as well, and smiled warmly when Rustproof opened the box from her to stare as Ross winced a little: Cowlick had built her son a gorgeous silver and mahogany rifle, and she rested her hoof on his shoulder as she said softly: “You just keep in mind what these are. Gears and moving parts, metal and wood. A gun is only as dangerous and as good or bad as the pony that wields it, Rusty. It can be somethin' pretty like this thing is meant to be, something for protecting other ponies from those awful things that exist in this world like Cancer, or it can be the favored toy of a tyrant, used just to hurt others. It ain't no toy, and you ain't no stallion, but... I... your damn friends have made you grow up faster than I like to think.”

The engineer smiled up at Antares and the others... even Prestige was here, and even she had tried to get a gift for the young male, with a little help from Antares. And for a few moments, there was quiet, before Cowlick cleared her throat and said quietly: “I love you, Rusty. I just know I ain't always gonna be there to protect you, especially with all the stuff that's happening in this damn fool world. So I'm trying to help you get the tools you'll need to protect yourself, and others.”

Rustproof had smiled warmly, then nodded silently and turned to embrace his mother fiercely, and Cowlick had hugged her son tightly, tightly back, almost looking as if she was going to cry for a few moments. Then she'd stepped back, and Ross had traded a hug with his son as well, before the unicorn murmured softly: “We both love you, Rustproof, we always will. You make... tomorrow brighter.”

Hearing Ross say that had visibly made Rustproof brighten, looking touched beyond all reason by his father's words. The young male had enjoyed a wonderful birthday with friends and family all around. When the next day came, it seemed like he'd had more than a birthday: it was like he'd become a new person somehow, even though he was still clearly the same old Rustproof. He often carried the rifle with him, and seeing him at the target range during his free time was common... but he treated it with the same respect as any old warrior had ever treated their weapon of choice.

Time moved on: after Rustproof's birthday had come preparations for Hearth's Warming Eve, and Antares had been dragged into taking part in the traditional play about the founding of Equestria despite not wanting to by Meadowlark. Prestige had actually encouraged this instead of showing any signs of jealousy... mostly, Antares thought grumpily, because of how much she liked to laugh at him after they forced him into a Windigo costume.

Meadowlark's role was Private Pansy: meanwhile, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Apple Bloom had all been heckled into playing the roles of the three leaders by Rarity, who was in charge of the play. Sleipnir had direly wanted to play a role as well, but Celestia had hurriedly nixed that idea, much to her little brother's chagrin.

It would be a short play, but Rarity had decided that with two talented singers in the cast, and the ability to easily get a chorus together of other musically-inclined ponies, she would give things a more musical theme. She clearly adored working on the play, and even more, that all her friends were working beside her: Applejack, Big Mac and Rainbow Dash were all building the sets, Twilight Sparkle helped her modify the script and add lyrics, Fluttershy lent her musical talents and even more importantly, spoke to Phooka and others on her behalf. And Spike and Pinkie Pie both helped with the costume design while Pinkamena grumbled grouchily but agreed to run a confectionery stand with Sleipnir and her twin sister. It was like old times... even if many things were markedly different.

When Rarity had gone to get a band together, they had been graced with the presence of several ponies she hadn't been expecting, among others: a small, piercing-studded Pegasus with a cerulean mane and periwinkle coat, and his partner, a larger pony of the same winged race, his coat scarlet and his mane and tail pink. Graceful Melody and Riffraff... and with them, their demonic consort, Amdusias, who said very clearly as he peered distrustfully down at Rarity while almost cradling his saxophone against his chest: “I am here because Celestia the Dawn Bringer begged and pleaded for my attendance. Not because of you. Not because I believe you are worthy whatsoever of my talent and presence. I hope I made myself clear.”

“Ooh, wait, if he's here, I have to be here!” a voice had called, and then Amdusias had glowered as Grace had simply waved brightly and Riffraff had sighed while absently tuning his battered acoustic guitar, as Discombobulation charged to the front of the line of musicians Rarity was interviewing, then hip-checked the demon firmly, knocking him sprawling with a squawk. “I'm a pianist! I'm much more valuable than a saxomaphone player. His instrument wasn't even invented until about a century ago.”

“By foolish mortals, perhaps! Go back to your child's keyboard, patchwork doll, and gloat over how you've finally learned 'chopsticks.'” Amdusias retorted as he sat up, tined tail snapping out behind him as the line behind the awkward group in front of Rarity carefully backed up.

“How did you know?” Discombobulation asked seriously, and when Amdusias looked at him sourly, the Draconequus held one fist up, fingers slightly spaced apart. A moment later, two chopsticks appeared in his grip, and he slowly gestured at these with his metallic hand as Amdusias continued to glare at him, looking less than pleased.

And then Discombobulation leaned down and firmly shoved both chopsticks into Amdusias' nose, making him yell in consternation as he fell backwards while grabbing wildly at his face, and Discombobulation stepped backwards as he said calmly: “Now, to imitate a certain woodpecker...”

He firmly dropped his arms against his sides, leaping into the air and floating as he flapped his feet up and down, giving several repetitive, high-pitched giggles before dropping back to his feet and dashing off. Amdusias leapt to his own feet and charged after the Draconequus, one chopstick still sticking out of a nostril as he shouted furiously: “Imbecile! I'll bring such an opera of pain down on your head that it will never be forgotten!”

“It's easy to forget wasted time!” Discombobulation shot back, as he hopped up onto the half finished set, and Amdusias clawed his way madly onto this as ponies shouted at the two in frustration: seeing a demon chasing a Draconequus around had become far too common a sight in Ponyville over the last month, particularly in the theater.

All the same, despite the small setbacks and the chaos here and there, they put the play together well, and were prepared and rehearsed by Hearth's Warming Eve. And although Antares had a bit of stage fright, he reminded himself that all he had to do was look scary with the other demons they had chosen, and sing as part of the chorus. Nothing strenuous.

Amdusias was in the role of conductor for their ratty little symphony, wearing ceremonial robes and a funny, square cap on his head. He looked moodily over the misfit band he was directing, then glanced almost jealously across to the other corner of the stage, where Fluttershy was standing with Nirvana and gazing warmly up over the chorus group.

Behind them, the seats of the small theater were filled, and many more ponies, Nibelung, and others were standing and watching curiously. Celestia was seated near the front, smiling warmly and with Twilight and Burning Desire beside her, the Lich resting her head on the demon's shoulder and quietly holding a hoof with him, dressed only in one of her thick sweaters. And Burning Desire had looked strangely exhilarated: he had never seen this play before, and the sights and sounds of the theater were all a wonderful new experience for him.

The play had gotten under way smoothly enough: forty minutes, followed by a brief intermission, and then roughly half an hour more: it wasn't until the last ten minutes when Antares finally started to get over his stage fright, which was moot because he and the other Windigos were hauled off stage about ten seconds after he started to enjoy himself. All the same, he felt not only relieved... but happy he had participated.

It was a big success, and even though Meadowlark seemed a little strained by the end of the play, she was smiling happily too, looking absolutely thrilled with herself and everypony else. There was a short after-party, but Meadowlark and Antares didn't stay for much of it: instead, they headed out to the theater to join Celestia, Twilight, and Burning Desire, and head back to the library together.

Burning Desire didn't really understand the concept of Hearth's Warming Eve: ponies had never really had the chance to celebrate it in this world before they'd been destroyed, after all, and he had been a unicorn noble from the unicorn nation that had existed more than a thousand years ago, when the ponies had all still lived separately. He loved it, though: he loved the tinsel, the decorations, the ideology, and of course adored the gifts... although what Antares found surprising was that the Greed demon didn't just enjoy getting presents that he crowed over with delight, he had brought gifts for Twilight and all her friends and family and seemed to take great pleasure in when they opened them and found out what they were.

They weren't small gifts, either: Antares felt a little bad that all he'd bought for Burning Desire was a book that Twilight had suggested – which was probably not the brightest thing to buy the demon to begin with – and Burning Desire gave him a gorgeous coronet of gold with a cradle support for his horn, clearly designed for horn fencing. After some inspection, Antares thought it was actually better than his other coronet, and he'd thanked Burning Desire repeatedly and empathetically... as had Prestige, when she had opened her own gift and found a gorgeous set of four anklets, each inset with a different colored gemstone and embossed with the name of an element written in runes.

Meadowlark, too, had been given a gift by Burning Desire, surprising her... surprising her more when she found it was a crystalline fountain pen topped with a small, enchanted bauble that when turned, lit up with red flames from within. She hadn't gotten him anything, since she barely knew the demon, and he just scoffed and shrugged... and then she had hugged him, and the demon had seemed surprised before smiling softly and gently returning the embrace.

It was a wonderful way to spend the evening... made better as more friends and family joined them together for one comfortable gathering in the library. Sleipnir eventually teased Celestia into a song, and she had laughed before the two had sung an old hymn together, swaying easily with one-another as Aphrodisia and Avalon had marveled over this sight with jaws gaping.

It didn't break up until early morning, and even then, some ponies simply found comfortable corners of the library to sleep in. Prestige and Antares had already claimed the guest room, and they curled up together, sharing affections, comforts, holding onto each other and stroking each other's form... but not quite daring to go too far yet, even as they murmured how much they loved one-another... and how deeply, truly they did.

The next day had been one of relaxation, apart from cleaning up the aftermath of the party. But it wasn't much work: it had mostly been a reunion of old friends, nothing raucous or wild even with all the drinking that had gone on.

The days had gone on: Prestige and Antares shared affections and went on dates, shared more of themselves with each other, and learned to trust one another more and more. Meadowlark studied medicine, and one day ran into the zebra shaman, Zecora, while fumbling her way through trying to pick up ingredients at the market for a few basic potions. Zecora had taken an interest, and Meadowlark had begun to visit her cabin, to learn more about making potions and remedies... and more, to learn about Zecora's culture, something that clearly pleased the zebra. Many ponies came asking for her help, after all... but not a lot of them ever took such an interest in her people, and her heritage.

Avalon continued running deliveries and patrols, and worked hard with Fluttershy: she had also agreed to help out at the animal care center and with Fluttershy's other duties around time, in return for training. And not long after Avalon had started work at the care center, Fluttershy found herself honestly smiling for the first time while sparring with Avalon, as the tiny Pegasus grinned widely even as she breathed hard and her body ached with the effort of keeping up to Fluttershy's speed and grace; for the first time, Fluttershy honestly believed that she could take these evil teachings and use them to do good.

Aphrodisia continued to learn about her heritage and talents, developing more and more as a demon, strengthening her emotions and mind to try and catch up to the growth of her physical body. She had begun to pick up on more advanced abilities of demons, starting to understand how possession worked, as well as influencing others... and Pinkamena had finally agreed to start teaching her daughter the thing Aphrodisia had longed to learn almost since she was born: how to shed her mortal form at will, and let her full demonic shape rise to the surface.

Rustproof had also been putting the time to good use, working fervently on his personal project between everything else now that Cowlick was finally starting to forgive him a little for his cigarettes. That was, until she found another pack of smokes on him. Antares, Avalon, and Prestige had actually been coming to pick Rustproof up for a job for Celestia when they'd found Cowlick shouting furiously at Rustproof in front of the engineering building, smacking him on the head every now and then with the pack of smokes, and the three had sat back to let the mare wear herself out: by now, the trio knew that trying to interrupt Cowlick would only result in her turning her full fury on them.

And then all eyes had stared when a firebird had shot down, stolen the pack of cigarettes, and flown quickly off into the skies. Cowlick had shouted furiously after what was obviously Burning Desire, then turned and given chase, giving Rustproof enough time to hurry away. Then Cowlick had come back, shouting at the still-staring Antares and friends like a mother grizzly looking for her cub, and the three young ponies had hurriedly turned and bolted.

Thankfully Cowlick was wheezing by town square, so they were able to make good their escape into the library, where Rustproof was hiding as Celestia calmly lectured him on not smoking and Twilight looked almost as worried as the young ponies that Cowlick was going to storm in and start yelling at them all.

But Cowlick's possible rage was avoided for almost a week: Avalon, Antares, Prestige, and Rustproof were instead sent out to fix what Celestia called a signal amplifier. Not even Antares knew what this was... but Celestia had only smiled softly and said quietly: “An important artifact from more years ago than I care to think of now. It's older than you are, Antares... we've already lost several, but I'd prefer to see this one repaired instead of reclaimed by the wild. It won't be a hard job, but it's two days' march, which is why I'm sending you four. Better safe than sorry.”

Antares had been warmed by this, and they had left after getting their gear together... although it was kind of strange at the same time, to travel without Meadowlark or Aphrodisia. But Aphrodisia was off on a trip with her mother, and Meadowlark was going to use the time to learn more under Zecora, and do a short trip to help the shaman gather some rarer flowers and plants. They would all be busy... and they could all catch up when they returned.

On the road, they ran into a few Nibelung bandits who thought they would be easy pickings because they were young: after Avalon smashed the tusks out of one thug's face and then proceeded to stomp wildly on him, and Prestige froze another solid in a block of ice, the remaining thugs fled in terror. Antares couldn't say how relieved he was not only that he and his friends did so well against their foes, but also that they hadn't been forced to kill anyone.

Thankfully, that was the roughest part of the two day journey: they arrived at the location Celestia had marked on one of their maps without any further incidents, and Rustproof marveled over the lopsided, rune-covered conductor before he'd gone to work while the others had simply sat back after setting up the tents. Prestige had given a little bit of magical aid, but it was minor at most, and she had perhaps been the most impressed of them all by the way that Rustproof so quickly and efficiently made the repairs to the magical construct despite the fact he was only a fourteen year old earth pony.

The way back was smooth from start to almost-finish: things only got complicated as they'd been approaching Ponyville. The walls were some hundred feet in the distance, and the road was clear, the sky sparkling and beautiful with the sun just beginning to set, and Avalon had been cheerfully relating some story she was probably exaggerating a little, doing lazy figure-eights around the three ponies walking calmly beneath her. Then the Pegasus had suddenly yelped, and there had been a loud crash as she'd fallen prone to the ground, twitching a little.

Antares frowned dumbly down at her... then something smashed into him and knocked him senseless. Prestige was knocked flat a moment later with a squeak, leaving Rustproof staring towards Ponyville and slowly paling as he saw a distinct glimmer at one of the top walls a second before a rubber bullet crashed into his skull, and the behemoth earth pony staggered backwards with a grunt... then calmly shook his head even as he blinked slowly a few times, mumbling as Antares stared up at him blankly from the ground: “Momma's mad.”

Antares winced... then yelped and spasmed when something smacked into his cheek, making him flail wildly; it had been a rubber bullet that had ricocheted off one of Rustproof's legs, knocking his forelimb out from beneath him and sending him sprawling face-first into the snow-covered road. There was silence for a few minutes as the four simply laid dumbly on the path, none of them quite daring to get up just in case Cowlick was still watching... and then the sound of crunching snow filled the air, and they looked slowly up to see the engineer herself approaching with her rifle on her back and goggles pushed up on her forehead, grumpily surveying the young ponies as they all simply stared at her.

Then Rustproof – still laying with his face half-buried in the snowy ground – mumbled in a muffled voice: “I'm sorry, Momma. I won't run away again. Promise.”

“Good. 'Cause when you run, honey, Momma thinks that you're her prey and then she has to shoot you.” Cowlick said kindly, before sticking a cigarette in her mouth and muttering: “Dammit, kid, you're making me into a hypocrite here. Got me so stressed out that I'm going through coffin nails like a drunk without his drink. No offense to your Daddy, Mir.”

Antares only mumbled, then he awkwardly looked up, asking after a moment: “So can we get up now?”

Cowlick grunted as she pulled a butane torch out of the tool belt around her waist, the younger ponies wincing as she lit up with this before flicking it off and tucking it back into place around her waist. Her equipment made Antares nervous, wondering morbidly if she was going to torture them all... but then the engineer nodded and said moodily: “Yeah, yeah. I guess so. But don't you punks run off on me again or I swear to Helheim I'll hunt you down and turn you all into... I dunno. Prestige, Antares, guess you two might make good lamps. Bet I could cure some good leather from your wings, too, Mir. Dunno what I'd do with you, Avalon, maybe make you into a throw pillow.”

“The only reason I'm not kicking your butt right now is because my Dad says I'm supposed to be scared of you, Auntie Cowlick.” Avalon mumbled, and Cowlick grinned widely.

“Kid, I just shot you down from a hundred feet away, and you're the size of a small cat. Besides, Rainbow's right. I could kick his butt or yours any day of the week.” Cowlick said cheerfully, and then she grinned when Avalon immediately leapt to her hooves and glared up at her challengingly. “I like you. You're feisty and stubborn and a little bit stupid. You're like me, just with less bad habits.”

Avalon huffed a bit at this, looking oddly insulted by the last remark before she said brazenly: “Yeah, well, what do you know? You're like. A crazy old lady now. Smoking's not cool, you know.”

Cowlick replied by blowing a smoke ring, then blowing an arrow of smoke through this ring, and Avalon failed to come up with a response to this as the others crawled up to their hooves. Then the engineer glanced at Rustproof and grunted, jerking her head at him. “Anyway, son. You and me got another job to do already, out at the dam. If you want, I'll cover for you, but I'm gonna need another set of eyes and hooves with me so I'll need you to find someone at the labs to send out to me...”

Rustproof only smiled, shaking his head quickly, and Cowlick gazed at her son affectionately with a slow nod. “Okay then. You still got your gear?” She glanced down, and he patted the tool kit around his own waist, earning a grunt of approval. “Good. Still kid, you use a weird setup. If I saw any other pony using strictly seven-eighths like you do for every little thing, I'd call 'em an idiot.”

The young but enormous blue earth pony shrugged easily, and Cowlick grinned and shook her head. “Yeah, yeah, okay, fine. I ain't one to talk. Anyway, Celestia's at the library, waiting for the rest of you. Come on, Rusty, let's scoot.”

Rustproof nodded firmly, and Antares and Prestige traded looks as Avalon huffed, and then Cowlick simply winked at them before striding easily past as her son turned to fall in pace beside her. For a moment, Avalon glowered at their backs... and then she hesitantly, surprisingly smiled, shaking her head slowly. “No wonder Rusty's so poo-brain. His mom's absolutely crazy.”

“I heard that.” Cowlick called over her shoulder flatly, and Avalon yelped before shooting up into the air and disappearing into the sky, and Antares and Prestige both stared up after the blur that had been the Pegasus before they traded another look, then laughed.

They headed into Ponyville to make their report to Celestia, who looked pleased with the result... although also spent a little time curiously examining the large bruise on Antares' forehead before he finally lamely explained where it had come from. Celestia had sighed tiredly at this, and then Twilight had looked awkwardly up from across the room, where she and Burning Desire were reading through some book. “Just be glad she didn't shoot you with real bullets. She seems to think that since I'm... you know... and all, it's perfectly fine for her to just shoot me whenever she has some new... horrible... thing she wants to test out. I really need to stop answering her invitations to see her 'great new invention' at the lab.”

“Oh, I'm sure it can't be that bad, my violet. She shot at me a few times with one of her odd weapons, after all, and I'm sure she wouldn't dare harm any of... all this.” Burning Desire leaned back with a grin, slowly gesturing at his handsome body as he winked at Twilight, who only smiled amusedly and then shoved him gently backwards by the face.

“I hate to break it to you, Burning Desire, but Cowlick doesn't think of you as... 'all that.'” she replied dryly as she mimicked his previous gesture, and the demon huffed and crossed his forelegs, looking insulted. “And I don't think she'd really mind actually hurting you, which has me a little worried sometimes. Mostly because a lot of Cowlick's weapons cause collateral damage and I don't want to get caught in the crossfire.”

“Violet!” Burning Desire whined, and Antares and Prestige laughed as even Celestia smiled despite herself, giving a slow, entertained shake of her head.

That night, they headed home... and Antares found himself unable to sleep, even as Prestige snored soundly, curled up against his side in his room. And slowly, Antares gazed up and around at his surroundings, his eyes able to see almost as clearly in darkness as they did in the light thanks to his heritage.

All around the ceiling were painted tiles, depicting a story of a princess and a scribe that had won her love, before they had eloped from a castle together to escape the evil queen. It was loosely based on the real story of his parents, Antares knew now. It was pretty and beautifully done... but the true centerpiece of this room was beside his bed.

It was a massive mural, painted not by his mother, but left by a strange being known as Gymbr, who had been Antares' guardian in its own strange way. The mural looked polished even after all the years that had passed, as fresh as it had been when first painted... and it displayed countless ponies and other beings, all faces of friends and family and those who had some meaning in Antares' life, one way or another: from falcon-headed, deceased Odin, to his mother and father, to Antares himself... and she smiled as his eyes lingered on the illustration of him. When this had first been left on his wall, he'd only been a foal... but Gymbr had painted him as an adult, and it had gotten every visible detail flawless.

And they were all smiling, standing on the hills in front of a massive, black castle: every single one of them looked happy. This had perhaps been what Gymbr had ultimately longed for... and Antares couldn't help but let his eyes trail to the picture of the gunmetal-colored, winged unicorn. Its wings were black as night, and its mane and tail had been made of dark fire... and its emerald eyes, even now, seemed to gaze out of the painting and deep into Antares' soul, as he regarded the image silently.

Then the leather-winged unicorn sighed softly as he turned away, carefully pushing himself to his hooves. He looked back and forth through his room, at the bookshelves, the armor rack that held his equipment, the small desk stacked with a few notes and a half-complete model Pinkamena had given him years ago... and then slowly, he turned around, and gazed quietly at Prestige.

She was smiling in her sleep, curled up in the bed that was just a little too small for them both... and yet they made it work. She had shrugged the blankets down a bit, but Antares' horn glowed, and he tucked her gently in with telekinesis, saying softly: “I love you, Prestige Luster. You're... I'll always love you.”

Prestige seemed to smile wider, shifting quietly in her sleep, and Antares gazed at her quietly for a few more moments before he finally turned towards the door. He let himself out into the hall, glancing quietly across at the closed door to his parents' room... but then he simply shook his head, turning to head quietly down the corridor before looking up in surprise as he saw Burning Desire resting in front of the fire.

The demon smiled over his shoulder at him, then he gestured quietly to Antares, and the young stallion hesitated only a moment before walking forwards and sitting down beside him. They both gazed into the flames, and then Burning closed his eyes and said softly: “Your Mom's asleep up in her room. She really runs herself hard... and forgets that tiredness isn't just in the body, it's in the mind and spirit, I think. But you know... she adores you, Antares. And your Mom and Dad, well...”

He smiled after a moment, glancing over at the young stallion as he nodded and blushed a little. Burning Desire looked back into the flames, and they were quiet before the demon said softly: “Listen. I've been wanting to talk to you for a little while now. I know that you have a better view of demons than most, and it means a lot to me that you're nice to me. I know that probably sounds stupid in a way, but it's true, because I know you don't have to be, either; violet would probably blame me for it.”

He chuckled, and Antares shrugged, smiling a little as he glanced over at the demon and said quietly: “She... she really cares about you, Burning Desire. And you... I can tell you care about her. Besides, you're good to me. You treat me well.”

“Well, I am a hell of a handsome master of all that is passionate.” Burning Desire replied cheerfully, reaching up and rubbing a hoof through his flaming mane as it flared up for a moment, then he shook his head and smiled warmly, reaching out to squeeze Antares' shoulder. “And I'm just trying to do the right thing, which is much harder than it sounds. Especially with how selfish I am... how often I do hope, Antares, that... she and I will have a long, long time together, even though I know... we probably won't.”

Burning Desire only chuckled quietly again, though, looking down into the fireplace before he said softly: “And no matter how much she cares about me and I about her... you were here first, Antares. I want you to know I'm not going to ever get between you and her or try to take her away from you... any more than I'd.. try to take her away from Luna and Scrivener.”

He quieted, and Antares glanced up, but the demon only shook his head, closing his eyes and smiling a little. “Don't start, Antares, about how I'm noble or any nonsense like that. Because I'm not. I might be a fire demon but I'm also a wet towel when it comes to stuff like this, when it comes to Twilight Sparkle. And the worst part is that I do want her to be the happiest she can be, honesty, I do, and I know that won't be with me. Your parents gave her something... I never could. And honestly? Maybe that's part of the reason why I long for her so much. Because my kind is cursed to want most what we can never have...”

Antares reached up and touched the demon's shoulder quietly, and Burning Desire smiled at this again before he nodded a little. “So how are you and Prestige doing? I know I'm no father figure but I know a hell of a lot about lust, and a teeny-tiny bit about love.”

“We're good.” Antares said softly, and when Burning Desire looked at him pointedly and waggled his eyebrows, the young stallion glanced away with a blush. “We... aren't doing anything like... that. We just... uh... can we talk about something else?”

“Virgins. So cute!” Burning Desire said with relish, and Antares grumbled under his breath before the fiery stallion asked curiously: “What about you and Aphrodisia?”

“Oh don't talk like that. She's my cousin.” Antares groaned, rubbing at his face, and Burning Desire snorted in amusement at this before the young stallion mumbled: “You were a unicorn before you were a Lust demon, so don't give me any excuses about... you know.”

“Yeah, and I was an exceedingly-lonely noble while I was a unicorn, and unlike you I had to pay to get rid of my virginity. Unless Prestige is a prostitute. Is Prestige a prostitute?” Burning Desire looked at him curiously, mischief gleaming in his eyes, but Antares only gave him a dry look, not rising to the bait, and after a few moments Burning Desire grumbled under his breath. “Oh fine. But you and Aphrodisia are very close, yes? She always seems... different around you. She's very protective of you.”

“Yeah, we are. We're like brother and sister.” Antares answered finally, and Burning Desire nodded thoughtfully before the young stallion hesitated, then asked curiously: “What about you? I mean, apart from Pinkamena... you must have people you're close to, yeah?”

“I have Twilight Sparkle.” Burning Desire glanced away with a quiet laugh, shifting awkwardly before he said finally: “Lust demons and Greed demons... for the most part... are not exactly good companions. Lust demons like me can become far too emotionally-involved with their 'friends,' or are just there for one... obvious... thing... and Greed demons tend to hang around just long enough to make you owe them a favor before they run off. It's just in our natures...”

Antares nodded slowly, and then Burning Desire rested back a bit before he said finally: “Perhaps Hevatica. She's a strange one for a Kelpie, though... but it seems to me like the demons who spend their time with you and knew your parents, Antares, have all been influenced in one way or another by them. Then again, I suppose that goes for Twilight too, and maybe even the Dawn Bringer now. Celestia has been trying very hard, after all, to be more like your mother.”

The glossy black young stallion smiled after a moment, shifting a little, and then Burning Desire gazed into the fire before he suddenly grinned and looked over at Antares, asking easily: “Hey, would you like to try and learn some demonic magic? I mean, just on the subject of influencing others... I bet I could teach you a simple coercion spell. Very useful for helping to give people a little incentive to make them do what you want... and I admit that I've used them more than a few times for my own nefarious ends.”

“You're less threatening than other demons because I know that when you say 'nefarious ends,' you mean you tricked them into sleeping with you.” Antares said mildly, and Burning Desire huffed a little at this.

“Not always! Sometimes I just wanted their shiny trinkets. I am half-Greed.” he said pointedly, and then he smiled slightly as he leaned in closer, saying curiously: “But you're interested, huh? Not so pure and innocent as I thought, are you?”

“I didn't... I mean...” Antares blushed, shifting awkwardly before he sighed and shook his head, looking up after a moment and mumbling: “Yeah, of course I'm interested. Besides, I... that's kind of like what I do already, isn't it? I read into people, I see what they want me to say or what they want to hear... and I figure out what means what, what reaction will get me what. It doesn't always work perfectly, sure, but...”

He shook his head a bit, then said softly, rubbing a hoof awkwardly at the bedding they were seated on: “It's appealing, but not because... it would give me control over... other people so much as... if I had that ability to give an extra nudge, maybe I could talk more of my enemies down. Maybe I could avoid fights and conflict, and avoid putting my friends in danger. I... I keep being told about how powerful my ability to see into people is, but...”

He quieted, and Burning Desire nodded slowly before the demon turned to face him. The two looked at each other, and then a smile quirked at the demon's mouth as he said mildly: “Violet is going to be very upset with me for this, but... fine. I'll try and teach you, then. Tell me, Antares, how well do you handle your magic? Twilight has told me you put a world of effort into your learning...”

“Mom's too nice. I'm... I'm not very good at most forms of magic.” Antares laughed and shook his head a bit, flapping his leathery wings once before grimacing and furling this carefully to his sides as his back gave a faint throb of pain. “But I was able to learn from Selene, and from Amdusias... illusions, mental control and some of my mom's old magic. So I'm confident I can at least get the basics of what you want to teach me.”

Burning Desire nodded thoughtfully, then he absently picked up a log and threw it into the fireplace, the crackling flames rumbling higher. Antares smiled after a moment, glancing at this and reflecting on how rare it was to see natural flames burning away here... usually, Twilight always lit sapphire flame in the fireplace, just as his mother had. It was a strange, small detail, yet all the same it stuck with Antares before he asked slowly: “Your fire... it's different, isn't it? I mean, that's normal fire, but your mane and tail, you can generate...”

“I see what you're getting at.” Burning Desire smiled slightly, looking surprised but also pleased. “You're sharp, Antares... I mean, its easy to tell the difference between your mother's fire and mine. Blue flame that chars away the spirit and can burn almost forever. That only destroys what Luna wishes to destroy: powerful magic that Twilight dearest has mastered as well. But my fire and natural fire looks almost the same... although yes, feels very different. Mine can burn emotions, which I like to think can be just as powerful as your mother's... it can drive someone into frenzy, or make them suffer, or numb, without taking a single ounce of blood or flesh.

“Fire is a living metaphor, Antares. It's an animal, and it's an idea given shape and form. It's rage, and it's passion, and it's warmth and comfort...” Burning Desire paused for a moment, then he smiled over at Antares. “What does your fire look like, Antares?”

“My fire... I don't think I have fire.” Antares replied with a laugh after a moment, shaking his head, and when the demon looked at him insistently, the young unicorn shifted awkwardly. “Well... I mean, I can kind of use my Mom's blue flames when I concentrate really hard, but...”

The fiery stallion laughed and slapped Antares on the shoulder, gazing at him warmly. “Then we have something else to work on, too. I'm going to show you how to give your fire life... every unicorn, every pony, has a fire burning inside them, Antares. You need to merely let it out... or at least, that's what I believe. But of course, I may be a little biased, being all made of hotness myself, as your darling mother says.”

Burning Desire posed a bit again, raising his head proudly, and Antares couldn't help but smile as he replied pointedly: “Actually, I'm pretty sure Mom says you're made of hot air.”

The demon huffed a bit, then paused before looking thoughtfully over Antares. Antares looked awkwardly back, feeling a little thrown-off by the change of the demon's demeanor as he shifted a bit back and forth... and then Burning Desire smiled slightly and reached a hoof up to tap his own nose, murmuring softly: “Yes, yes, that's exactly what I thought I saw.”

“What are you talking about?” Antares asked awkwardly, and Burning Desire only gave him an amused look... but it was enough that the young stallion felt his ability to understand things kicking in, reading the body language and the eyes of the demon before the glossy-black unicorn frowned a little. “I... I mean... I just... I do want to be like my parents more, I hope I'm more like them than I feel at times, but... I know I'm different, too...”

“You have fewer failings, from what I've been told... but don't worry, Antares, there's plenty of time to develop more.” Burning Desire said kindly, and then he shook his head as Antares laughed a little despite himself, but continued to study the demon with interest as Burning Desire looked back at him with that same almost-musing look. “It's simply strange. How can you long to be flawed, to be more like your parents in bad ways as well as good, when at the same time you seem to wish that you could be... for lack of a better word... the 'perfect' hero?”

“Hey, you of all people should know that desires don't always make sense.” Antares muttered, and the demon nodded thoughtfully in agreement before the young stallion looked down, saying quietly: “I'm confused, maybe, I dunno. So much is expected of me, but I'm still... young. Every time I think I know which way is the right way to go, I screw up. I'm supposed to be some shining star and yet what do I keep doing? I keep... I keep getting my friends and the ponies I care for hurt. I don't understand how I'm supposed to be so good, how I'm supposed to be 'better' than my parents... but my parents were so 'flawed' and yet they did so much good, and I'm so 'perfect' and all I seem to do is... screw up.”

Burning Desire chuckled at this, shaking his head slowly before he reached up and squeezed Antares' shoulder gently, saying empathetically: “Antares, you're mature, strong, a stallion in every way except for your age, and even then you're not that far away. But all the same, you still see your parents through the eyes of the colt you were... you still look up to them, seeing these mountainous horses who did incomparable feats, that you can never compare to. But size isn't everything: they cast shadows, but you burn like a beacon, do you understand?”

“No.” Antares said moodily, and Burning Desire chuckled before smiling across at the young stallion, who hesitated before he closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards. “I wish I could talk to them. I wish I could know them. I wish they were here to guide me...”

“They are always with you, Antares...” Burning Desire replied in a quieter voice, becoming more serious as he squeezed slowly into the younger male's shoulder. “I feel them in every board, every painting, every furnishing in this house. In Twilight Sparkle and in Celestia and in you. They're here, Antares, they are always here to guide you... you just need to listen to what they've left behind.”

The young stallion looked up at this, and Burning Desire smiled a bit, adding quietly: “And of course, that's why I'm working so hard to be good to you and please my sweet violet. I loathe to think of what your parents would do to me, even from the beyond, if I displeased or hurt either of you. I heard your mother and father were both very protective... wanted to make sure that first and foremost, you were able to grow up happy, grow up strong, and most of all, grow up to be the stallion you wanted to be. Not anypony else's vision, not even their own: Twilight tells me all the time they simply had faith that you would one day be a great leader, and a great stallion. Do you understand me, Antares Mīrus?”

The young stallion was silent for a few moments, then he turned and silently embraced the demon, who hugged him tightly back without hesitation, closing his eyes as he said softly: “Good. Now go back to bed, and tomorrow I'll teach you all the things I shouldn't.”

“Thank you, Burning Desire. You're...” Antares drew back a bit, and then he simply smiled before bowing his head and turning away, heading quietly back towards his room and silently thanking Twilight, understanding all the better why she was willing to give Burning Desire the time with her he had longed for.