• Published 21st Mar 2013
  • 1,932 Views, 411 Comments

Synthesis of the Atheist - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener become the targets of a malicious, narcissistic psychopath. 8th story in the 99 Worlds Saga/Blooming Moon Chronicles.

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Family Trees

Chapter Two: Family Trees

Antares Mīrus gazed fondly around at his circle of friends as they sat together at a table outside of Sugar Cube Corners, the glossy-black stallion dressed in a gray suit jacket and smooth silk shirt. He had a vanilla milkshake in his hooves that he was sipping slowly at, before he sighed as the mare next to him remarked: “You're such a foal, Nova.”

“Apps, I... do I even have to reply to that?” he asked mildly, and Aphrodisia Celeste Pie only smiled in response and gave him a wink. She was gorgeous, with brilliant green eyes and a raven-black mane braided into a knot over one shoulder, her coat a light pink. The cutie mark on her flank was a spiraling green serpent... but cloven hooves and her needle-like teeth and fangs were what gave away the fact she was a demon, not an earth pony as she appeared.

And yet all the same, she was also Antares' cousin and his closest friend. She affectionately referred to him as 'big brother,' and he thought of her as 'little sister' without hesitation. Technically, she was the second-youngest here... but as a demon, she had aged twice as quickly as the rest of the ponies, becoming an adult mare physically long before they were adults themselves.

But like her father, she seemed to be perpetually stuck around the age of a foal, as she took a loud drink of her cup of chocolate milk before replying primly: “I have no idea what you're talking about, Antares. You're just jealous.”

On the demon's other side, a tiny yellow Pegasus snorted in amusement, brushing back her scruffy, streaked red-and-gold mane as her bright red eyes looked up with entertainment, an almost-invisible scar shimmering to one side of her face. “Yeah, Apple Pie, who doesn't want to be a perpetually horny drama queen with the brain of a five year old?”

“Oh, screw you, Avalon. I'm not a drama queen.” Aphrodisia huffed, poking the tiny Pegasus a few times, and Avalon shoved back at her with a grin: she was maybe half the size of the average pony at most, but anyone who underestimated Avalon Apple quickly learned to regret it. She had the strength of her mother and the speed of her father, wrapped up in one hyperactive, aggressive little body. Her cutie mark was an apple being sliced in half, and while it meant she was strong enough to endure through anything, the literal translation wasn't very far off from her special talent either: if something got in her way, her tendency was to charge straight at it and smash her way through.

“But you're all those other things?” asked another Pegasus mare wryly from across the round table, and the demon nodded rapidly. The scarlet, pretty mare sighed and shook her head with a smile despite herself, her copper-colored irises gazing softly around the table as the chestnut-and-black braids of her mane swayed around her shoulders gently. Her emblem was of a notepad and quill: she had a talent for journalism and analysis, and a keen eye for observation.

She also had a large, ugly scar on one side of her body, and Antares felt guilty every time he let his eyes linger too long on this. It had been an accident, but he was still responsible for what had happened, and he still blamed himself, even if somehow, Meadowlark never had and never did.

The Pegasus mare caught his gaze and smiled at him gently, and he smiled back after a moment before his eyes roved to the last member of their little band. She was far, far younger than them, but already looked like a full adult, and behaved better than they did... but considering the fact that Aphrodisia was trying to lick the chocolate sauce out of the bottom of her cup and Avalon was trying to shove an entire cake into her mouth, perhaps that wasn't saying much after all.

She had wings and the shape of a pony, but her body was smoky and almost ethereal, both solid and not at the same time. She was very quiet, looking back and forth over them curiously as she held her orange smoothie in her hooves, but didn't sip from it. Her mane and tail were almost like smoke, and her sea-green, glowing eyes had no iris or pupil, but all the same were gentle and warm.

“How are you doing, Tender Trust?” Antares asked curiously, and the half-Phooka, half-Pegasus looked up at him with a smile, then nodded almost embarrassedly before he asked curiously: “Are your Mom and Dad going to be at the party tonight?”

“I think so.” Her voice was soft, with a faint accent to it that made her words smooth and sibilant. “They were both very excited. Are you looking forwards to tonight?”

“Yeah, I am.” Antares replied warmly, and then he winced when Aphrodisia picked up a cupcake in front of her and tried to shove it into her cousin's face, pushing at her with a grimace. “Apps, come on, I'm trying to-”

“Shut up and eat, Nova! Mommy and I put a lot of effort into making all this food with Pinkie!” Aphrodisia replied firmly, and the glossy-black stallion flailed a bit at her before he finally managed to reach up and take the pastry away from her, giving her a flat look.

She only looked at him pointedly in return, however, and Antares rolled his eyes before he took a bite out of the cupcake, chewing slowly. Aphrodisia smiled at this, then glanced across the table, asking with interest: “Did Uncle Scrivy interview you too? Or did he just talk to your parents? He talked to me about all sorts of stuff!”

“I was too young, Aphrodisia... it was more than two whole years ago.” Tender Trust replied softly, shaking her head with a small smile. “My brothers and I aren't even four years old yet, after all.”

Aphrodisia nodded after a moment with a soft smile, and Avalon grunted before the tiny Pegasus murmured: “I gotta say, it feels weird, T. You grew up faster than even Apple Pie here did. I look at you and stuff and think... god, has it really only been four, five years since... since...”

“Since Cancer.” Antares said quietly, and Avalon winced but nodded, as Meadowlark looked up with a silent, faint smile. “Since we lost... Rustproof and Prestige. But... since my parents returned, too. And there were other good things too, yeah? Things I know I wouldn't trade for the world, even if... you know. Nothing worked out like we thought it would.”

Avalon nodded slowly, as Aphrodisia shifted a bit, and then Meadowlark cleared her throat before asking quietly: “So uh... after tonight, you were talking before that... your Mom and Dad have plans to go on a vacation?”

“Kind of.” Antares shook himself out a bit, forcing away grim thoughts: thoughts of a grinning, singing, and nearly-unstoppable destruction entity that had caused so much pain and devastation, and all the things they had lost trying to put a stop to him. “They want to go to Subterra, spend a little time there, hiding away from everyone. Dad's already been freaking out a little about all the attention he's been getting, and Barry kind of gets on his nerves.”

“His agent?” Meadowlark asked curiously, and Antares nodded a few times. “But this is all good, right? I mean... this is all a huge success, just look around.”

Meadowlark gestured over her shoulder towards the candy shop itself, and all eyes at the table glanced up for a moment at the enormous banner hung over the entrance, with the name of Scrivener's book on one side of it and release dates and nominations it had already received on the other.

Antares only shook his head after a moment of looking at this, however, grinning a bit as he returned his eyes to the table and said mildly: “That's not exactly how Dad works, Meadow. The only reason he sent this book in for publishing in the first place was because Aunt Tia, Twilight and Mom were all really pushing him to. Dad finally broke down and submitted it to a few places, and they all rejected it, but then Barry got his hooves on it, and... next thing you know...”

He absently gestured out at the street behind him, where there were more signs advertising Scrivener's book and pictures of the author himself, as excited strangers hurried through their town and groups of ponies gossiped here and there over copies of the book. “Dad doesn't do really well with a lot of attention like this. He always expects everything to work out the worst way possible.”

“That's part of why your Dad and my Mommy get along so well.” Aphrodisia said positively, and then she glanced up at the banner on the front of the store, smiling. “She was really insistent about stealing that and putting it up, you know. She's happy for him.”

“So freaking weird.” Avalon muttered, and when the demon and Antares both looked at the small Pegasus curiously, the tiny mare snorted and looked up flatly. “Hey, it is! I mean... I guess I never really got to know your Dad all that well before, Antares, but everypony in town knows your Mom, Pinkslap. Pinkamena is crazy.”

“No, she's... she's... friendly.” Aphrodisia said after a moment, and then she huffed and reached out, shoving Avalon off her chair by the forehead, but the Pegasus easily flapped her wings and caught the air before she could fall. “It's not my fault your Dad gets beaten up by Mommy all the time.”

“He does not!” Avalon argued as she buzzed upwards to head level with Aphrodisia, who only glared challengingly back. “He totally beat your Mom up that one time, why... why my Dad could even beat up your Dad if he really had to, don't think he couldn't!”

“My Daddy would turn your Dad into goo. Squishy goo. Squishy goo squished beneath his hooves.” Aphrodisia retorted imperiously, and Antares slapped his forehead with a tired sigh as Meadowlark slumped to the table and Tender Trust only watched curiously. For her, at least, this was fairly new: for the others, they had heard this argument a thousand times before. It didn't matter that they were all adults, that Avalon was twenty-two and Aphrodisia was a demon.

“Doesn't it depend on the terrain?” Tender Trust asked after a moment, and both Aphrodisia and Avalon stopped arguing to look at her as Meadow and Antares glanced up dumbly as well. The half-Phooka shifted embarrassedly at this, her wings flapping once before she continued finally: “Sleipnir is physically superior but Rainbow Dash has the advantage of flight. Superior strength would mean nothing if Rainbow Dash was able to safely stay above and attack at range, while flight would be meaningless in an enclosed area.”

Both demon and small Pegasus looked at each other dumbly, before Tender Trust added gently: “And my ohtâwîmâw is a Phooka who cannot be wounded by most physical means. Therefore I believe he would clearly hold advantage over both of your fathers.”

“Oh hell no.” Avalon said immediately, glaring at Tender Trust as Aphrodisia shook her head wildly and glowered as well. “Our Dads would totally take down your Dad! He can't even fight!”

“Of course, but he wouldn't need to. Your parents are physical warriors. The most they could hope to do would be to trap my father somewhere, but they couldn't kill him without special weapons.” Tender Trust explained gently, and both aggressive mares glared at her as the half-Phooka only gave a small smile and a shrug. “It's just the way things are.”

“You're... the way... things are.” muttered Avalon, and Antares gave her an amused look before the tiny Pegasus finally landed back on her chair, looking sourly over at Aphrodisia. “That's cheating though, isn't it?”

Aphrodisia nodded vehemently in agreement. “Yeah, like how if I were to go black smoke in a race, you'd totally lose.”

“What? Screw that, I can beat you demon tricks or not!” Avalon said sharply, and when Aphrodisia gave her an amused look, the tiny mare immediately pointed outwards, leaping into the air and saying immediately: “Let's do it right now, then! First one to the animal care center wins!”

“Okay.” Aphrodisia said brightly, and then she burst apart into dark smoke that shot high into the air, leaving Avalon gaping for a moment before she yelped and hurriedly flew after the insubstantial demon. Antares and Meadowlark only gazed after the two with amusement as Tender Trust smiled a little, reaching up to quietly brush her smoky mane out of her eyes.

Then the half-Phooka looked back and forth before quietly excusing herself and striding over the patio to let herself into the store. It left Antares and Meadowlark alone, and the two awkwardly looked at each other before the stallion sat up and rubbed awkwardly at his suit jacket. “So uh... nice... day so far, huh?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Meadowlark murmured, and she studied him for a moment before smiling a little, asking quietly: “What do you think of Avalon's new coltfriend?”

“Does she have another one already?” Antares asked wryly, looking up mildly, and Meadowlark nodded in response, making him sigh. “Good or bad?”

“I think it'll last as long as that other guy you really hated did.” Meadowlark replied softly, and Antares grunted in response before the Pegasus glanced down, awkwardly rubbing a hoof over the tabletop. “Mir...”

“No, Meadowlark, let's... I know what you're going to ask and... I... I just...” Antares shifted uneasily, looking down for a moment, and Meadowlark nodded silently as she studied him quietly. But her eyes pleaded with him all the same, and the glossy-black stallion sighed softly as he murmured: “I just need a little more time.”

“It's been years, Antares... and... even if it's not you and me... you need to try and open up to someone, to... let yourself experience that again.” Meadowlark said quietly, and when Antares only mumbled and looked down, the Pegasus sighed softly and asked carefully: “Alright, but... what about this, then? Even if you don't want anyone in your life like that, does that mean you have to spend life... alone and miserable?”

“I'm not miserable, I'm... I'm happy. I really am.” Antares said quietly, looking up with an awkward smile as he touched his own chest. “My parents are alive, and... it's comfortable, living at home. I've been able to train hard with Mom and Aunt Tia, even if I'm not a Starlit Knight yet, like Aphrodisia or Avalon. I like doing odd jobs around Ponyville and learning all the stuff I am from Aunt Tia, too. That's a lot more important to me now than a lot of things these days.”

Meadowlark looked at him quietly, and then Antares shook his head again, lowering his head a little and saying softly: “I remember... when we were kids, the dreams we had. That I had... but I know now that's not what I'm destined for. I don't... really know what the future holds for me, Meadowlark. I don't think I even want to be a Starlit Knight anymore. And I've learned that bringing my parents back... it was a really good thing that I did, but it also didn't solve every problem in the world, and it didn't fix all my pain, either.

“I wish Allonym was here.” Antares said suddenly, and Meadowlark looked surprised, tilting her head curiously before the young stallion smiled a bit and glanced down. “I got so used to having him pop up now and then, but I haven't seen him for... for years. And inside me... something tells me...”

He quieted, and Meadowlark softened a little before shaking her head a bit, murmuring quietly: “But he always had faith in you, right? We all always have, and we all know... you can do anything you put your mind to, Antares. You're an amazing pony, with an amazing family... I'm really... I envy you a lot because of that, to be totally honest”

She laughed a little, and Antares smiled despite himself, shrugging a bit before they both fell quiet. Thankfully, Tender Trust emerged back onto the patio, walking towards them and now with a large box held easily on her back, the half-Phooka looking between the two ponies before she gave a soft smile. “I think I should head home. Will you two walk with me?”

“Of course, T.” Meadowlark said softly, sliding out of her seat, and Antares nodded and joined the two mares. Tender Trust gazed at them both affectionately, then she nodded calmly before the three started off down the street, heading towards the northern gate.

There was silence for a few moments, and then the half-Phooka looked curiously back and forth at the strangers standing and walking here and there along the road, murmuring after a moment: “It's so strange. Our tribes rarely let outsiders into our home... but ponies pass so freely from one den to another throughout your country.”

“Village. This is a village, Tender Trust, you know that.” Antares said softly, and Tender Trust only smiled at him and tilted her head towards him. “Okay, okay, I know, you're just going to say it's all the same thing.”

“It is all the same thing. You don't live with nature as we do, but at the same time, this den is very peaceable... all our people work in conjunction with one another, and you still show appreciation for our sacred earth.” Tender Trust nodded thoughtfully, then she smiled again. “But I didn't say it was bad. The Phooka carry old wounds and have long memories, that is all. Maybe we would benefit from showing... more trust in the future.”

Antares smiled a bit at this as Meadowlark gazed over at her softly, then the Pegasus said gently: “Don't take this the wrong way, T, but.. I think you're a living example of the trust that's developing between Phooka and ponies.”

But Tender Trust only gave a soft giggle at this, shaking her head and saying warmly: “No, I don't think so... that would be arrogant of me to assume. My mother and father... my okâwîmâw and my ohtâwîmâw... loved each other very much, and it was less their desire to unite our people and more the desire to unite themselves that drove them. And... my mother is special. The Phooka say that she is one of their own, only born in the body of a pony.”

Antares looked softly at Tender Trust, nodding slowly as Meadowlark nodded in agreement, saying quietly: “Yeah. Fluttershy really is special, and incredibly brave and strong. You know that Avalon has a world of respect for her.”

“Yes, and it is very good to see.” replied the half-Phooka softly, nodding thoughtfully to herself before looking up with a kind smile. “You all do, though. So do many others in this village... it helps me to understand why my mother insists living here instead of our den in the wilderness.”

“I'm certainly glad you live close by, T.” Antares said softly, and Tender Trust gave him a bright smile before the three gazed up as they approached the gate leading to the northern roads and out of Ponyville.

The gates were wide open, and Starlit Knights in their distinctive blue armor were on duty next to Nibelung soldiers wearing simple hide armor. The dwarves looked a little grumpier than usual, but Antares figured that was likely because it was so much busier than normal, and there were a few ponies lingering around and peering at them like they were interesting sideshow attractions.

Nibelung were a common enough sight around Equestria these days, and had been for years now, but apart from the distinct, upper-class of Architects, they were usually employed as laborers or wandered the wilderness as mercenaries or outlaws. Seeing them dressed up as soldiers was probably an unusual sight for many of the guests present.

Antares smiled at the guards as they walked through the gate and into the outskirts of Ponyville, the two ponies and half-Phooka looking back and forth curiously. There were wagons and carriages parked at either side of the road here and there, some of them selling wares, others trying to get attention, and a few empty tour carriages, one with a tired-looking driver slowly smoking a cigarette and the enormous pony workers that helped pull it along laying sprawled in the grasses nearby.

The glossy-black stallion had never seen it so busy, as he whistled a little under his breath, and Meadowlark shook her head slowly as she gazed back and forth, murmuring quietly: “Amazing. I mean, Ponyville gets more than its share of tourism, but... I've never seen it like this. And they all must have come to see your dad, Antares.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I wish... Dad could see this.” Antares said softly, and then he smiled and shook his head a bit, looking up at the sky and the slowly-setting sun. “But I think right now he must be at the dinner party he was supposed to go to... he really, really wasn't looking forwards to it, and neither was either of my Moms.”

“That's so funny. Either of your mothers...” Tender Trust said softly, and when Antares gave her an amused look, she blushed and shyly shifted. “I'm sorry. I don't mean it in a bad way. It's just that... while I was raised by the whole tribe, I still have only one mother and father... not like ponies are raised, in such... a lonely way, even if they have siblings. I apologize, I can't seem to phrase it right...”

“I understand, T, don't worry about it.” Antares replied softly, and Tender Trust gave a small smile before the stallion added quietly: “And yeah, I know it's a little funny. But I would never trade it for anything else, either... Twilight and Luna, my biological mother, both... taught me a world. And Twilight's always been there for me... always helped to look after me. I'm lucky.”

Meadowlark smiled softly over at him, and then all three ponies looked up as a soft voice called to them. Tender Trust immediately smiled wider, raising her head happily as they saw a soft-yellow Pegasus with a pink mane waiting for them up ahead, her sea-green eyes gazing out at them tenderly as they approached her.

She stood at the end of a path leading to a pretty little cottage, which had several smoky, ethereal Phooka sitting around it, all looking up curiously with eyes of glowing green flame. They were more indistinct than Tender Trust was, clearly pure Phooka. Antares looked over at them curiously for a moment, studying them, and he thought he could see the little differences here and there in their features and the way they held themselves that made it clear who they were.

Then he returned his eyes to the Pegasus as Tender Trust approached and bowed her head, then leaned up and traded a tight hug with the mare she shared quite a few distinct similarities with. But as mother hugged daughter, Antares couldn't help but feel his eyes draw from her cutie mark of pink butterflies to the scar along her side where she was missing a wing, and as always, he softened at this: they all knew the story, after all, that Fluttershy had thrown herself in danger, and sacrificed a wing to help save friends and family.

Mother and daughter drew apart, then spoke to each other in a strange, sibilant language for a moment before Fluttershy smiled softly and looked up at Antares and Meadowlark. “Thank you for walking my daughter home. I appreciate it... I know it can be uncomfortable with all the strangers visiting right now.”

“Yeah, I don't think it was this busy even when we held the tournament last year for the Starlit Knights fundraiser.” Antares replied, looking curiously back and forth before he asked curiously: “Where's Virtue and Temperance? Are they with Nirvana?”

“They're doing some work out at the Phooka den in the Everfree right now, yes. You know my sons, always getting in trouble.” Fluttershy smiled softly, reaching up and quietly brushing back Tender Trust's smoky mane, and the half-Phooka closed her eyes and shyly but happily lowered her head a bit. “Why, do you need help with something, Antares?”

“Nah, I was just curious if everyone's going to be at the party tonight.” Antares replied, glancing up at Fluttershy with a smile, and the Pegasus shifted before Antares urged gently: “Come on, you gotta come. You're like my aunt and... you contributed a big part to the story yourself.”

Fluttershy blushed at this, then she nodded hesitantly, glancing over her shoulder at the Phooka behind her. “Well... maybe for a little while, when I'm done teaching Obscurity and Lethe. But I've never been very good with big crowds...”

“We're all friends, Fluttershy.” Meadowlark said softly, and Fluttershy gave the younger mare a soft look before the crimson Pegasus urged gently: “Come on. I mean, if I'm going, you have to go. I'm even worse about things like this than you are.”

Fluttershy laughed quietly, then she finally nodded and smiled after a moment. Both young ponies nodded firmly, and then Fluttershy opened her mouth as if about to say something, eyes flicking to Antares. He looked at her curiously as she hesitated, but then blushed only a little as she said quietly: “I hope this isn't out of line, Antares, but... I hope you... can relax tonight yourself, Antares. You've seemed a little... intense lately, if I can say so. Maybe we should both try to relax tonight.”

Antares smiled embarrassedly at this, and then he nodded hesitantly, and Fluttershy gave him an affectionate look before she gently stroked through her daughter's mane, and Tender Trust didn't need to be told as she turned to head towards the cottage. One of the Phooka tried to reach for the box on her back as she passed, but the half-Phooka slapped him lightly with one ashen wing, making the Phooka stallion grumble and recoil.

Fluttershy sighed and shook her head, but the look in her eyes was one of warmth before she said kindly: “Excuse me, Antares, Meadowlark. I need to get back to teaching Obscurity and Lethe more of our language. But I look forwards to seeing you both tonight and... relaxing.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Antares replied softly, and as the yellow-coated Pegasus turned away, he gazed after her affectionately before glancing over at Meadowlark, and nodding slowly to her. She nodded back, hearing his silent promise, and then the two turned down the road to head back into Ponyville.

Scrivener Blooms sat at a large, private table on the second floor of Ponyville's poshest restaurant. His back was to a railing that looked out over the first floor, but that just made him feel awkward, not imperious: he couldn't help but feel like every single pony at the tables on the first floor was staring up at his back.

Luna and Twilight were on either side of him: Luna had put on a pretty pair of onyx earrings, but everypony had long given up on making her wear a dress, so instead she was wearing an only-slightly wrinkled blue jacket. Twilight, meanwhile, was wearing a long black dress and had a shawl carefully wrapped around her neck: not because she wanted to hide her collar, but to hide the telltale signs that she wasn't a living pony.

Scrivener was still in his suit, which had long gotten a little rumpled, and his agent, Barry, was sitting on Twilight's other side, heartily indulging in the free food and wine as he rambled away to the way-too-serious looking ponies on the other side of the table. The charcoal stallion had admittedly been surprised: two of these bigwigs were earth ponies, and one was a Pegasus. The last was a unicorn, but he had a chipped horn: likely nothing that would seriously interfere with his magic, but in the north, a single blemish on a unicorn's horn was considered a sign of weakness and inferiority.

The scarred stallion rubbed nervously at the hoof-shaped mark around one of his eyes in an old anxious gesture, as he picked slowly at the salad in front of him. All four of the investors, publishers... whatever they were... they were all eating those tiny, ultra-expensive, unfulfilling little meals. Scrivener, meanwhile, had stupidly attempted to order meat dumplings, earning several stares of horror.

He shifted nervously, and Luna reached out and touched his side, gazing at him reassuringly. He felt her thoughts and emotions as their eyes met, and the two smiled at each other as he calmed a little. The feeling of her heart, beating in time with his, always soothed him... looking into her eyes always warmed him. And then he closed his own when he felt Twilight touch his other side, and felt the connection he held with her as well, the three of them linked for a moment through the gentle contact they all shared.

Then Scrivener winced and glanced up as Barry's voice cut in cheerfully: “Yeah, ain't this guy a stud? I mean, he gets the ladies, his books are selling like hotcakes, and my boy Scrivy here is gearing up to be the next greatest sensation, the biggest thing since-”

“The initial run is impressive, but the true test is how well the books continue to sell once it's running on its own.” interrupted one of the earth ponies: he was darker green, almost moss-colored, with hooded, dark eyes and a short, spiky black mane. His suit was the most casual, and yet it probably still cost more bits than Scrivener and Luna had spent on upgrading and furnishing their house.

The unicorn grunted in agreement: plump, with a bright blue coat and his mane cut down to red and white streaked bristles. Scrivener thought his suit must have at least five layers to it: overcoat, dress jacket, vest, silk shirt, some kind of under-layer... “Underbrush is right. Richard Taste, what do you think? You're the critic here, not me.”

The other earth pony only shrugged: he was an autumn red, with a blonde beard and bedhead mane that had probably taken an hour to purposefully tangle up so stylishly. He had little glasses on that Scrivener could tell were as fake as his own pair at home, and the weirdest suit Scrivener had ever seen: it looked like it was patched together from a whole assortment of other incredibly-expensive pieces of cloth and clothing. Or things just taken out of the garbage, he wasn't really sure.

The awkward silence that followed with the critic's lack of response lasted almost a full minute before Barry rose his wine glass and said firmly: “My guy's a keeper, just you wait and see! Now, I believe we had a movie deal we were going to talk about?”

“Not until we see the sales and gauge interest.” Underbrush muttered, looking moodily up. “I think I speak for myself and Mr. Tops when I say that I'm not willing to risk financing what could very well be a flop. Especially considering what I'm already hearing Rogues And Studs is preparing to write about your prestigious little book.”

Scrivener smiled lamely, and the unicorn nodded vigorously in agreement. Barry chuckled nervously in response to this as Luna grumbled and Twilight shifted awkwardly, before the literary agent said hurriedly: “Now, listen... listen, guys- I mean, sirs. All of you are very important ponies, I know that, very important investors and people who are in the business of entertainment. Not the fun hobby of entertainment, the business. But... if you wanna make money, you gotta spend money, right? And furthermore, everypony knows that Ersatz Major lives to make ponies miserable.

“Now, my guy here, he is a sound investment.” Barry said firmly, hammering a hoof lightly against the table, and Scrivener had to admit... Barry could be a complete douchebag but he also certainly gave his all for his clients. Even if that was likely just because Barry wanted the biggest paycheck possible. “You guys gotta be ready to invest soon, though. It's not that I wanna rush you big boys, it's just that... it wouldn't be in my client's interest to turn down any other offers we might get, you know? And I really wanna try and give you guys the first bite of the apple here, with how good you've already been to us.”

Underbrush looked distasteful at most, while Richard – or Rich, as he preferred – shifted in his seat. Mr. Tops, meanwhile, kept tossing nervous looks at his compatriots, but the unicorn clearly was not the kind of pony who ever made decisions on his own. Lastly, the Pegasus was still ignoring almost everything, picking slowly at his meal, looking almost completely uninterested.

Scrivener's eyes lingered on him: Underbrush was a big time publisher, Rich Taste was an investor, critic and pony determined to be involved with all the newest and hottest trends, and Topsy Curvy – or Mr. Tops, and Scrivener couldn't exactly blame the unicorn for preferring that over his real name – was a very rich and likely very stupid unicorn whose sole purpose in the world seemed to be investing money into things other ponies told him to. But the last, the Pegasus, was a private distributor and bit-part-owner of Underbrush's publishing company. Someone with enough heft to sit at this table, but... not a pony who could seriously affect any of the decisions of the others.

Then he suddenly looked up in the middle of the long silence, as if he felt Scrivener's eyes on him, before asking abruptly: “Twilight Sparkle, is it true that you're a Lich?”

Luna glowered and Scrivener winced, but Twilight hesitated only a moment before nodding slowly. The Pegasus looked at her for a few long moments, then his eyes roved to Luna, and he asked in the same curious voice: “And you are Nightmare Moon, the goddess of the demons?”

“Well, I do admittedly enjoy being referred to as a goddess, but Nightmare Moon is more... a tumor.” Luna replied mildly, and when she felt something shift moodily inside her, the winged unicorn sighed and added wryly: “Although that is perhaps bitterness on mine own part speaking. Aye, she and I... we are one, in many ways.”

The Pegasus nodded even as the other investors looked at him, Underbrush frowning darkly, but the Pegasus didn't seem aware of it as his eyes settled on Scrivener, stating more than asking quietly: “And you. You're a Clockwork Pony, you wrote.”

Scrivener flinched a bit at this, but then he closed his eyes and nodded slowly, feeling a knife inside his guts as he always did when he thought about this dark truth... before frowning a little. Something else struck him as odd, as he opened his eyes and looked slowly up across at the Pegasus, who was looking at him intently, before the charcoal stallion murmured: “You read the book.”

“I did. I started it, and thought you were an awful writer. But I kept reading. And at some point I forgot that I was supposed to be critiquing the story and I just stopped thinking about mechanics and rules and everything. There were flaws everywhere, but I think you know that, don't you? You left them in there. And you wrote the story with them.” The Pegasus stopped, then looked down thoughtfully. “It was years since I read a story just to read a story. Not because of its artistic merit, or to rip it apart and tell myself all the ways I could do it better, or criticizing it the whole time. I just read it to read it. And it... wasn't bad.”

The charcoal stallion smiled despite himself, and then he nodded slowly before the Pegasus said quietly: “This book might flop. Initial sales were massive because of the advertising and the interest we... I mean, Mr. Underbrush generated, but I don't know if your message is going to get through. I don't know if everyone's going to believe how much of this is nonfiction, or be as understanding as I tried to be. People don't always respond well to messages. But... I want to know... why?”

“Because.” Scrivener replied with a shrug, and when the Pegasus looked at him sourly, the charcoal stallion said mildly: “Ask a nonspecific question, get a nonspecific answer.”

“What's a Clockwork Pony?” asked Mr. Tops in a loud whisper, and when all eyes looked at him, the unicorn cleared his throat and hurriedly adjusted his collar. “Well, you... you understand that... I am a very busy unicorn, and... I only had time for... bits and pieces, bits and pieces, but I most wholeheartedly agree with Doctrine. Bad writing, good story.”

The Pegasus sighed and reached up to rub slowly at his temples, and Underbrush narrowed his eyes across at Scrivener Blooms before glancing at Rich Taste, who shrugged awkwardly. There was silence for a few moments, and then Barry said quickly: “You just wait! With all this positive karma we got going on, my guy is gonna be bigger than big! He's the next-”

“Barry, I need to have a word with you. Perhaps you should come with us, Mr. Tops.” Underbrush said icily, and Barry slowly paled before nodding weakly, and the moss-colored earth pony stood up as Mr. Tops almost fell over in his hurry to leap to his own hooves.

The literary agent carefully slid out of his seat, watched as Underbrush and Mr. Tops turned away, and then Barry hurriedly reached out and grabbed his wine glass, guzzling the rest of it in several large swallows before dropping it on the table and hurrying after them. Scrivener only sighed and shook his head slowly as Rich Taste fidgeted a bit, then looked towards the salad bar in the distance and mumbled something before sliding quickly away from the table.

It left them alone with Doctrine, who studied them silently as Luna looked moody and Twilight tilted her head curiously. Scrivener felt awkward as he shifted a little, before glancing up when Doctrine asked quietly: “What's it like? You're all supposed to be the enemy after all... and yet what you've written...”

“Maybe it's all lies to get you to drop your guard, and really I'm here on an evil mission to destroy everything in the name of Decretum.” Scrivener said dryly, and when Doctrine only looked at him moodily, Scrivener cleared his throat and looked back and forth for support, but Luna and Twilight were both looking at him sourly now. “Am I not allowed to tell jokes anymore?”

Luna replied by bopping him firmly with her horn, and he flinched as Doctrine shook his head slowly, gazing at them almost warily. Twilight gave the two ponies a pointed look, but Luna only grumbled under her breath before the sapphire mare said flatly: “This is all nonsense, and 'tis nothing more than that. Scrivener is a good writer, he has written the truth, and if anything held back from detailing the more fantastic events that none would believe anyway. Why does thou and thy kind insist upon making the process painful instead of celebratory, jibing and insulting us while at the same time profiting off my husband's work?”

“I haven't insulted you once, Lady Luna, and I don't plan to. I'm just curious, that's all.” Doctrine replied mildly, and then the Pegasus shook his head before asking quietly: “And why is this important to all of you, anyway? Why leave yourself so vulnerable and open, why tell the world this story if you have such a low opinion of all of us?”

Luna shifted a bit at this, looking at Scrivener, but the charcoal stallion only shrugged a little. And surprisingly, it was Twilight who spoke up, looking up and across at Doctrine as she replied quietly: “Because maybe we... we just want to be part of the world we've helped protect and create but... all of us feel left outside of now. We're not trying to brag about being... monsters. We're trying to say that we're not... I'm a Lich, Luna's... Luna, and Scrivener is a... Clockwork Pony, like you said. But each and every one of us, we're... more and less than that, too. We're just... people. Just like the demons, the Nibelung, and other ponies. We're all just people.”

Doctrine lowered his head thoughtfully, and there was silence at the table until Barry returned. The literary agent rubbed convulsively at his pale features, sweaty and unkempt, and he tossed a nervous look past Twilight before he whispered: “Hey, hey, stud. I gotta talk to you about something. You know, stallion-to-stallion?”

“Then thou should be speaking to me.” Luna muttered, but Scrivener only gave her a look before the sapphire mare grunted and nodded with a sigh. Barry looked relieved as he quickly gestured for Scrivy to follow, and the charcoal stallion nodded even as Luna added: “Just be quick, Scrivener. My patience wears thin.”

“I hear you.” the charcoal stallion agreed, and he stepped carefully away from the table to follow Barry along the railing of the second floor, until they were standing on the other side of the small room in a corner near some potted plants. Scrivener looked mildly at the agent as he shifted from hoof-to-hoof, whining a little in his throat, and then the writer asked finally, in a tired voice: “What is it, Barry? Just tell me, I'm somehow sure it's more devastating to you than it is to me.”

“Underbrush is thinking about canceling the third printing run already, and cutting the second in half. He also won't approve of any 'further projects' or anything unless this one sells well after all, big guy. He seems mad as hell about something” Barry said uneasily, and Scrivener cocked his head curiously. “I don't mean just movies or stuff, I mean... he won't publish any of your other books or anything. Remember, we were talking about a second wave for Rose Thorns and all that? Well you can say goodbye to that unless two things happen: I Am, You Are makes good sales, and you, stud, you hustle your flank back into line and start behaving like a good little colt.”

“Right, that's going to happen.” Scrivener said dryly, and when Barry glared at him furiously, the stallion sighed and rubbed slowly at his face, closing his eyes. “Look, this... this whole thing has just gone out of control. A little while ago, I was just a guy who lived happily in the woods with my weird little family. Today, I'm almost a celebrity. Barry, I expected to sell a few books, make a few ponies smile, and get Luna, Twilight and Celestia all off my back about trying to get published. Not this. This is madness.”

“No, dammit, it isn't. I told you I could take this book places and I can, I'm sure I can!” Barry retorted in a frustrated voice, shaking his head and stomping his hooves almost childishly, before he half-glared, half-visibly-pleaded with his eyes. “Come on, champ! If you would just swallow your damn pride...”

“It's not pride that compels me to be a jerk, Barry.” Scrivener replied after a moment, but he shifted a little on his hooves and fell quiet, letting himself digest what Barry had said and actually stopping to think about it instead of trying to deflect it or immediately label it as unimportant.

Barry looked at him anxiously, fidgeting but not speaking, and finally the charcoal stallion looked up with a sigh and questioned: “How the hell am I supposed to make sales magically happen, Barry? Me acting like a good little colt isn't going to fix everything, and we all know that... whatever that magazine that the evil chick in the feathered hat wrote or is going to smear me. Why the hell did you invite her, anyway?”

“I didn't!” Barry shook his head violently, wincing a bit. “Rogues And Studs must have bought a press pass, or... or hell, maybe Ersatz snuck in, I dunno! But you know I got all your best interests at heart, stud, I never once thought that she was going to go all... attack mode on you.”

Scrivener grunted, then he paused before adding in an ironic voice: “And by the way. Whatever happened to 'any publicity is good publicity?'”

“Yeah, that went out the window when Underbrush said he was going to cut your percentage in half the next time I said it.” Barry mumbled, rubbing slowly at his face before he sighed tiredly and looked up moodily. “Look, big guy, I know you hate this stuff but... some good publicity could make all the difference in the world for me, for you, for head honcho Underbrush. You gotta stop thinking like a writer, 'cause you ain't a writer right now, you're a showpiece, an entertainer, an advertiser.”

The charcoal stallion glared down at Barry, but Barry only looked back before Scrivener groaned and rolled his eyes. “So what do you want me to do? Go stand in the square, smile, and wave a big sign around?”

“Well, big guy, I was thinking that you could do another book signing in Canterlot. Maybe we could get the Baroness to be present, too, huh? She's a real important figure, and I don't think she'd mind doin' you a favor, especially with all the naughty-naughty you hint at in okay shutting up.” Barry quailed under the flat glower that Scrivener focused on him, before the smaller, expensively-dressed agent nervously rose a hoof. “Canterlot? In a week or so? Big book signing, publicity stunt, yes?”

“I... my family and I wanted to go on a vacation to Subterra...” Scrivener began, and then he winced as Barry brightened.

“Then it's perfect! You get to go on vacation, with all your whole family along, and... hey, maybe we'll do some... I dunno, bring the kids day or something! But you can vacation and work all at once, it would be real great, just you wait and see.” Barry said enthusiastically, clapping his front hooves together, and Scrivener sighed and rolled his eyes before the stallion said pointedly: “You promised, stud, you just gave me your word on trying to do this thing. Do it for your kids, huh?”

“Don't drag my kids into this. I hate it when you say things like that even more than I hate it when you talk about Luna and Twilight.” Scrivener muttered, but he gave a short nod all the same, and Barry nodded violently in return, looking relieved.

“Awesome, Underbrush is gonna love this, just you watch, champ!” Barry exclaimed, stamping his hooves and grinning up at the charcoal stallion, who looked far less enthused. “And hey, hey, you got some great grown up kids and how could I not talk about your ladies, you lucky devil you? Two babes, by holy hell.”

Scrivener grumbled as he turned around, and Barry bounced after him, saying quickly: “You and me, though, we gotta prepare some answers and questions and uh... flashcards maybe, I dunno, but we're gonna have to rehearse and you're gonna have to remember your promise. No more incidents like with Ersatz, and... we'll make sure she and her flunkies don't slide their slippery way in, you got that?”

“The fact you're a failed writer yourself really shows in the way you talk, Barry. No wonder you decided on a career change, must be nice being able to feel like you're controlling the lives of actual writers while feeding off the carrion left over from their successes.” Scrivener muttered, and Barry gave a half-forced, half-surprised giggle, making the charcoal stallion sigh and shift awkwardly a little. “Okay, that was a little low. I apologize.”

“Yeah, you just concentrate on getting through the day, champ, I'm here to make sure you do. Even if you do... crush my soul...” Barry broke off into mumbling, dropping his head as he sulked his way after the stallion as they headed back to the table.

The rest of dinner was a little awkward, and Scrivener couldn't begin to express how happy he was once Underbrush excused himself, and the other important figures followed. Barry was still pouting a bit, and when Twilight Sparkle gave Scrivener a pointed look, the earth pony sighed tiredly before slumping and asking dryly: “Barry, would you like to come to the party we're having?”

Luna threw her head back and rose her hooves, glaring at the ceiling in frustration, but Barry rose his head and brightened, the speckled stallion nodding hurriedly as he said eagerly: “Yeah! Hey, yeah, stud, see, I knew we'd start liking each other eventually!”

“Eventually.” Scrivener muttered, and then he pushed himself away from the table even as Twilight smiled at him, before the charcoal stallion added grumpily: “Just be on your best behavior, okay, Barry? And remember these are all my friends, at my house. So... don't freak out too much over what you might see.”

Barry only grinned wider at this... but three hours later, the agent was half-hiding in a corner of the living room, almost hugging a glass of whiskey against his chest as he stared around the room. He felt like he was at a Nightmare Night party... except he was far too well aware all the costumes were real and no one was playing make-believe.

A unicorn stallion that looked like he was made of fire was grinning brightly, flirting with a Kelpie: a demonic mare with a greenish body and a mane and tail like seaweed, her eyes almost glowing and the teeth she kept flashing in coy smiles far too big and sharp and scary to belong to a pony. An enormous demon with huge, powerful arms, a scaly body, and ram's horns was sitting calmly beside Twilight Sparkle, a tiny little glass of water held in one immense claw as it listened closely to whatever story the violet mare was relating... not to ponies, but to Phooka and several much-more sinister looking creatures. They had almost the same smoky composition, but their eyes glowed red, and they seemed darker, more supernatural: Nightmares. And Twilight herself was no reassurance: this was the first time he had seen her without something covering her body to hide the fact that enormous trails of stitching stretched over her frame, as if she was held together by thick black string.

There were plenty of quote-unquote 'normal' ponies wandering around too, but somehow that only made it worse. Somehow, seeing ponies amidst all this madness played all kinds of weird tricks on his mind, and Barry took a trembling drink of his whiskey before he glared at Scrivener as the charcoal stallion strode into the room from the kitchen, the agent hurrying over to the writer and opening his mouth before the dull-colored mare that walked in with him asked sourly: “Isn't this the douchebag from that stupid book signing you did?”

“Oh, be nice, Pinkamena.” Scrivener replied mildly, and the gray-pink mare snorted as Barry glared at her, before Scrivener glanced towards Twilight and added, interrupting her story: “Hey, hate to cut you off, but uh. Luna wants you to go and watch her throw a tree.”

“Not again...” Twilight sighed tiredly, rolling her eyes before she gave a grudging nod. “Okay, I guess I can... watch once. Oh, before I go... Atrus, have you met Barry?”

The agent slowly paled as the immense, ram-horned demon turned his crimson eyes on the little earth pony, and Pinkamena grinned widely, asking teasingly: “Hey, what's wrong, pal? Thought you were some big-time show pony. We demons too scary for you?”

Barry only mumbled, and Twilight gave the earth pony a lame smile before Scrivener sighed tiredly, glancing over at Pinkamena and grumbling: “Excuse me. Barry, come on, let's go get you some air, I guess.”

Barry nodded lamely, turning staring eyes up at Atrus for a moment, and the charcoal stallion reached carefully out to take the agent's drink away and put it on the counter before grabbing him and pulling him past the milling guests. There were far too many people crammed into their small house and the backyard, but with a little bit of effort, Scrivener was able to make his way out of the front door with Barry in tow and into the much quieter front yard.

He sighed as he emerged with the smaller earth pony, then glanced curiously to the side before smiling softly at the sight of the couple sitting together on the front deck. Scrivener Blooms approached, glancing between gorgeous ivory unicorn and her purple-scaled dragon companion as he asked softly: “How're you two doing, Rarity, Spike?”

Both looked up at him warmly: Rarity, with her beautiful blue eyes, her features only made more attractive with age, a quiet grace and strength about her and her cutie mark of shining gemstones all but glowing; Spike, with his emerald irises, strong and tall... but not dragon-sized. He was broad-shouldered and handsome, his scales gleaming, a mohawk of fins going from forehead to the back of his neck and a tattoo of runes around one bicep that kept him from growing too large. They had given up a lot for each other, but they were happy together. And at the end of the day, that was what mattered, especially in this strange, rough world.

Spike smiled as he rose a hand and waved a little, and Rarity answered softly: “We're doing very well, actually. We just decided to... take a moment to step outside all the hubbub. It's such a beautiful night and... well, I suppose I'm starting to get old.”

“Not at all, Rarity. Mature, I think, is what you are. But not old.” Spike said gently, smiling and reaching up to squeeze her shoulder, and the wedding band around his claw glinted as Rarity smiled in return, turning towards him and making the ring around her own horn gleam quietly. “I think it's just... so much at once. It's funny... Rarity and me have gotten used to kind of a quieter life, you know?”

“Yeah, I do.” Scrivener replied with a nod, and then he paused before reaching backwards and grabbing Barry, half-yanking him forwards. “This is my agent, Barry. He's not so used to seeing the kind of people Luna and I hang out with. Barry, this is Rarity and her husband, Spike. I think you should remember them from my book.”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah.” Barry shook his head out a bit, then awkwardly stepped forwards and took Spike's claw when the dragon offered it, the earth pony giving a weak grin before he nodded at Rarity politely. Then he stepped back, shaking himself out before asking finally: “Uh... nice... nice people in there, yeah?”

“It takes a little getting used to, but they are.” Rarity said kindly, glancing up and brushing back her corkscrewed, violet mane with a warm smile, and Spike nodded in agreement as he rubbed a claw absently at the lime-green, thinner scales covering his masculine breast. “Although I remember a certain dragon here had a bit of a problem adjusting himself.”

“Hey, I wasn't scared of Twilight, I was scared for her. She's still like a big sister to me.” Spike replied easily, reaching up and squeezing his wife's shoulder lightly before he glanced over at Barry. “And she's still one of the best ponies I've ever known. Scrivener and Luna... they're both lucky ponies.”

“Yeah, we are.” Scrivener smiled after a moment, and then he shook his head before patting Barry on the shoulder, saying mildly as a faint wave of soreness ran through his body: “I feel pretty mean doing this to you two, but look after him for a little while, will you? I'm going to go try and give Twilight a hoof dealing with Sleipnir and Luna.”

“I... hey!” Barry glared up at Scrivener, but Rarity only smiled and Spike nodded with a chuckle, and the charcoal stallion gave his agent a shrug before turning and heading into the house. Then the small earth pony grumbled, slumping back against the wall in his expensive suit as he mumbled: “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

The earth pony slumped a little, then glanced up in surprise when Rarity gave a quiet laugh, saying gently: “It might not be any of my business, sir, but... if you're half the businesspony your suit tells me you are, you should be excited about this. After all, while they are a little... scary at first, some of the demons and other beings in there have some marvelous stories to tell. Try and talk to a few of them and maybe you can be the first pony to really... harness and sell that appeal.”

Barry looked with surprise over at Rarity for a few moments, studying the ivory unicorn as she continued to smile, and then he reached up and tapped a hoof thoughtfully against his own nose before Spike added: “And Scrivener really is a great guy, and he's written... well, quite a lot, actually. I'm pretty sure if you talk to him about the right things you could find something else publish-worthy. And that would help everyone, right?”

“Huh.” Barry said thoughtfully, looking down for a few moments... and then he nodded once before looking up curiously. “You know, you two ain't so bad. But I think uh... I'm just going to take a minute or two more to think. You know. Just to think. Then I'll go back in among the... the demons and the monsters and the scary things and the... soul-crushing writer.”

Spike snorted in amusement at this as Rarity gave the agent an entertained look, and Barry rubbed awkwardly at his expensive, bristly haircut, mumbling: “Seriously, if I'd had any idea things were going to be like this, I would have asked for a much bigger cut.”

But all the same, Barry looked thoughtful more than anything else now as he sat back a bit, like he was thinking more about how this could work in his favor... but at the same time, his eyes kept flicking to the unicorn and dragon sitting comfortably nearby, as he wondered curiously how the hell two perfectly-normal seeming people could be so calm about the madhouse inside. Unless maybe... just maybe... they were telling the truth about Scrivener and his friends after all.

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