• Published 8th Apr 2013
  • 4,616 Views, 428 Comments

Dusk Dawns - AlphatheGriffin17



Book IV Now taking up lessons with the Princess of the Night, datingthe student of the Princess of the Sun, coping with some bad memories and being the Seventh Element, Dusk certainly has a lot on his plate. And that's just stuff to do with hi

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Cutie Pox

"Thanks for helping me out Zecora," Dusk said to the zebra, just as she was leaving. "I really appreciate this."

"My friend, it is always a pleasure to help you, that much is true," she replied calmly. "Allow me some time to pick the ingredients in their prime and, with no time to waste, I shall return post haste."

"You can take your time, I… ugh…" He clutched his head again when the pain returned.

"Though your discomfort you can disguise, your aching head would seem to say otherwise," she noted. "While outside I roam, feel free to make yourself at home."

Dusk smiled his thanks to her as the door closed, leaving him to wander about her home. It had been a while since he had been here, so he might as well pass the time until she got back.

Unlike everypony else, Zecora resided herself in the Everfree Forest, which she'd explained was so she could have prime access to the unique ingredients for her various potions and tonics. The hut itself was made from a hollowed out mangrove tree, with vines creeping over the walls like snakes and the leaves hanging off, casting almost eerie looking shadows in the candlelight. Only adding to this was the way it had been decorated with items from Zecora's homeland, including masks that warded away evil spirits or that symbolized welcome into the home, but looked to be rather strange to any ignorant of their meaning.

Dusk wasn't, however and, while it wasn't exactly what he was used to, he accepted that it was just cultural differences between zebras and ponies. Though they were from the same family, in a sense, there was still some variation, not just in their unique fur colour and dress sense. Dusk was always willing to accept it though and even now still found himself examining the masks in close detail, noting how well they had been carved and recalling the meaning for each one.

But he wasn't just at Zecora's for a social call, which would be difficult due to the well established reputation of the location her home was located. At the centre of the room was a cauldron, some sweet smelling liquid already boiling in it and all around the room were bottles and flasks of all manner of tonics. Though he knew all too well of her particular talent in brewing them, Dusk was frequently amazed to the sheer number of different potions, ones that cured ailments, improved health and some more dangerous ones he'd already seen in action.

For Dusk, he was here for a headache tonic, for rather obvious reasons. Though he had been expecting her to be impressed by how much he had improved in his magic, Luna still seemed quite unsatisfied. She had remarked on how he had discovered the other aspects of solidness on his own, but that was it. After telling him, rather sternly, that she expected him to be holding them for much longer than a minute, as well as still toning down the brightness of his larger shapes, she had put him through difficult tasks to bring this about, enough that Dusk had felt physically and mentally drained by the end of it.

After she had told him that she expected him to be practicing much more to improve, for he had barely done so in their session, she had left Dusk once again feeling both ashamed of himself and a little angry at her. The shame came from that he had once more failed to please her, but the anger came from just her general attitude. He didn't want to say anything for fear of offending her, he'd already experienced enough of that, but he was trying his best, usually more than that mostly, but it still wasn't enough for her. It never seemed to be enough. He was always disappointing her, never meeting whatever expectations she seemed to have of him and always cringing under the sharp tones she used when he failed.

Dusk shook his head a little, doing his best to quell the anger that had started to rise within him, along with the urge to hit something. What was it she wanted, he asked himself mentally, not for the first time. What did she want from him and what did he have to do to achieve it? Would he ever please her or would he just be constant disappointment? He would always try, but he hated disappointing others like this and if it kept up… he just wasn't sure if he'd be able to take it, be able to handle the stress of it anymore.

Putting aside those thoughts for now, he took a few deep, calming breaths and decided to wait for what the future would hold. Who knows, maybe he would improve and finally please her. For now, he would just wait for Zecora to get back with the necessary ingredients for his potion.

The sound of the door opening signalled her return a few minutes later and she strode in, her bags dangling by her side. She'd also picked something else up, in the form of Applejack's little sister, trailing along behind her in something of a depression.

"Ah've tried everything, Zecora, and still no cutie mark!" she was saying, with a heavy lisp. "Well, I'm gonna be as old as Granny Smith and still have a blank flank!"

"Mark trouble, little one?" Dusk asked.

"Oh, hey Dusk," she said sadly. "Yeah, what else is new right?"

"I'm sorry Apple Bloom, but I definitely don't think what you said there is remotely true," he sympathized. "You'll get your mark, it's a matter of time and patience."

"Yeah, yeah, like ah haven't heard that before," she dismissed. "Ah've tried to wait and be patient, but it's just so frustratin'!"

"The most important things usually are, trust me I know." He rubbed his complaining head again and decided to change the subject. "So, what are you here for? Is there something wrong with your voice?"

"Ya could say that." She opened her mouth wide, showing a rather large chip in her front tooth.

"Ouch, that looks painful."

"Not as painful as not finding ma talent," she moaned.

"Your frustration is well understood, but one must be patient for all things good," said Zecora wisely.

The filly groaned again. "Ah've heard that from every pony ah know! And now from every zebra ah know! Ah'm just too impatient to be patient. Ah just want my cutie mark and ah want it now!"

She yelled this last part, making Zecora drop an entire container of liquid into her cauldron. Dusk assumed that only a small amount was meant to be added, for a small explosion resounded from its depths. The zebra glared at the filly, who quickly retreated with an apologetic smile.

"For your cutie mark, you will have to wait. We must fix that tooth before it's too late." She stirred the mixture as she said this and poured it from a ladle into a bowl in front of her. "Now drink down every little drop, and this mixture will mend that chip on top!"

Apple Bloom did so and Dusk watched in amazement as her tooth, at first growing too big before shrinking back to proper size, magically regrew almost the instant she swallowed it. By the end of it, her tooth looked like it had never been broken. It was amazing what one could accomplish with the right resources and know-how.

"Oh ma star apples, you did it, Zecora!" She gazed around the room, almost reflecting Dusk from before. "Golly, you have tonics that heal all sorts of ailments. Bad bones, bad back, bad breath..."

"Yes little one, it is true, I have many a healing brew," Zecora noted. "And on that subject, if you would not object, I must now fix another remedy, for the stallion you can see."

"Do you need help as well Dusk?" she asked sympathetically.

"Yes, just a bad head though." He felt the twinge from another ache. "Nothing to concern yourself with."

"Well don't worry. With Zecora's help, yer head will be right in no time," she said happily.

"I have as much confidence in her abilities as you do, my little pony," Dusk replied honestly.

"Here in this tree, your kind words mean a lot to me," Zecora replied, adding a few more ingredients to the cauldron and stirring it again.

"And not only stuff that fixes the bad," she continued, "but stuff that brings the good! Good health, good hair... good heavens!"

Dusk saw a cunning look pass over her face, before being replaced by a falsely innocent expression while she sidled up to Zecora.

"Ah bet you can mix up a brew to fix... anything," she said, with a smile and a wiggle of her flank.

Understanding her desperation, but not exactly condoning it himself, Dusk exchanged a knowing look with Zecora who glared once more at Apple Bloom, emphasizing her point concisely.

"There are many mixtures in this room, but none for what you want, dear Apple Bloom. A magic potion does not hold the key, for a cutie mark, time is the only remedy." With that, she returned to the potion and started to pour it into a bottle.

"Is it ready?" Dusk asked, walking over to her.

"The brew has been readily mixed and your bad head is ready to be fixed," she reported happily, giving him the bottle. "Just take one sip, before at night you close your eyes and the pain will be greatly minimized."

"Right you are." He levitated the bottle into his bag. "Thanks again Zecora, this will really help me out."

"Once again, the pleasure is mine. Now, to work on another brew, I believe it is time," she declared.

She placed a dull green plant into a bowl, adding three purple berries to the mix, ready to be crushed together into a mix. Curiosity piqued slightly, Dusk decided to stick around for a bit to see what she could be brewing.

Apple Bloom seemed affected by the same interest. "Whatcha got goin' on there?"

"I am brewing up another mix for a rooster and his chicks." She plunged her head into a nearby jar. "It seems the rooster has lost its crow, making mornings very slow."

Zecora emerged again with a beautiful pink flower that looked to be in full bloom, with heart-shaped petals growing around the stalk. Dusk recalled it, for he had seen it in the town, usually growing somewhere out of the way.

"Hey, ah've seen that flower bloomin' in Ponyville!" remarked Apple Bloom. "What is it?"

"I think Twilight showed me in a book once," Dusk noted. "I think it's called… Heart… something… Want?"

"Close. It is one we call 'Heart's Desire'. A dash will ignite the rooster's fire." She shook the plant to the leaves fell into the bowl. "With Heart's Desire, his talent comes into view, and he'll give a mighty cock-a-doodle-doo!"

It was now Apple Bloom's turn to exchange a glance with Dusk. But they ignored Zecora's strange outburst in the end.

"Zowie! Heart's Desire, huh?"

"Indeed. I hope this goes well for you Zecora," he added to her.

"As do I." She began to rummage on a nearby shelf. "Ay me, but what is this? I have run out of amethyst. I must go get this purple flower, for my brew to have full power!"

"On that note, I'd best clear off as well," Dusk decided, heading to the door with Zecora. "Coming AB?"

"Yeah, you go, you go," she said distractedly. "Ah'll be along in a bit…"

Normally, Dusk would be concerned with the rather suspicious display of activity, but right now he didn't really have the time. He needed to get back to the library and get back to work, even though the very thought made his head ache again. With his headache tonic clinking away in his bag, he bade farewell to Zecora, who went off to a different part of the forest to find her amethyst, and set off back to town.

Remembering what had happened the previous time he had walked back from Zecora's and having no desire to repeat the experience, Dusk was on close alert for any dangers that the forest might throw at him. Though fear could usually be a hindrance, he let it this time become his greatest aid and allowed it to sharpen his hearing, focus his mind and generally enhance his senses to an even greater degree.

It was perhaps this heightened state of alertness that brought his attention to something that he found curious. It wasn't the occasional rustling in a bush or the odd sound made by the wildlife, but it was a regular, high-pitched beeping sound, coming from the depths of the trees. It didn't exactly sound like anything natural made by any animal and it didn't sound like it was meant to be here. Though he knew it might be dangerous, his curiosity was piqued once again and he followed the noise to its source.

He emerged into a small clearing of grass in the trees, which casted ominous shadows to the centre, but that was the only thing that looked natural. Set up there were a series of glass orbs balanced on metal stands, three in total and each with a bright light shining inside, humming and radiating power. These were all connected by thick black wires to a larger, uglier looking machine that appeared to be giving some sort of complicated read out on a large monitor, with many flashing numbers and lines on it, possibly from the orbs that they were attached to. This was the source of the beeping sound, which came once every two seconds.

He stepped closer to them and delicately touched one of the orbs. It appeared to react to his presence, the light inside moving closer to his hoof and the humming increasing. He turned to what appeared to be the monitor, which now he was closer looked rather frayed and scrapped in places, the occasional spark dancing off of it. Dusk couldn't make hide nor hair, if it had any, of what these machines could possibly be for. Science wasn't his forte, if this was scientific equipment for that was Twilight's field. Somepony had to have set this up for some reason, but for what? What was it here for exactly?

Dusk realised too that he didn't like the feel that he got from the equipment. Something about it made him feel uneasy, a little more frightened. Not from any definite threat, but from an unclear one that may or may not exist. It just felt… too strange, too unfamiliar and it reminded him of some of the machines used by hostile aliens he'd read about in some of his books. Perhaps he was just being paranoid and letting his imagination get the better of him, combined with the atmosphere of the Forest, but either way he was ready to get back to the library.

He turned around, intending to make his way back on the path and back to-

"Stop! Don't stand there!" A shrill, distressed voice made him jump and he whirled around looking for the speaker.

"Hello? Is there somepony there?" he asked.

"Of course there is, otherwise how would I be addressing you?!" the voice responded rudely. "Now, don't take another step in that direction! You almost ruined everything!"

"Well… sorry, I'll just…" Dusk moved away from where the caller had warned him away from. "There… better?"

"It would have been better if you hadn't happened across this in the first place," the voice replied. "Now I'll have to..." The rest was lost in incomprehensible mumbles and rustling as the unknown speaker made his way out of the bushes.

Dusk was a little surprised when he came into view. For the most part, stallions were often taller than him, not by much, but enough to make him feel intimidated enough to stay quiet and feel a little ashamed of his own short stature. He rarely met anypony the same height than he was, but here was one. In fact, Dusk was sure he was shorter than he was, if only by an inch or two. He also looked to be thinner than Dusk, who could see his own muscles were more developed than this stallion's. His fur was a dull red, bordering on maroon, with a short, neatly combed and matching tail that looked to be a brighter colour of his fur. It was something of a contrast to Dusk, who preferred his own looking a little unkempt.

From his size and appearance, not to mention his voice from before, Dusk would have assumed that he was a teenager, but it was when he looked into his eyes that he could tell that this wasn't the case. His eyes, which were hazel, betrayed a brilliant intelligence and sharpness. He had a studying look, one that reminded him of Gentle Dream's. But whereas hers was looking about in wonder, his was more of scrutiny and intense curiosity, less about capturing the world and more finding out about it. Dusk would have been fine with that, but there was something else as well, something that made him feel a little… uneasy, like when he'd been examining his machines. He didn't know quite what it was he glimpsed, but it was almost like…

The unicorn stallion seemed to notice him and broke the short gaze he'd held unintentionally with him, making his way over to the machines and checking over them with a detailed, knowing eye.

"Output is still normal… power levels steady… trigger system operational… energy emitters functional…" he muttered, more to himself than Dusk. "Everything's at optimum balance, as it should be… still, always good to check."

Now that he was no longer panicking, Dusk noticed that he had a rather quiet, but also quivering voice, the almost like one of a small frightened animal and quite a contrast to how loud he had sounded before. When he saw his cutie mark, he saw that it was a beaker, filled with a bubbling, purple liquid. So, this pony was most likely some sort of scientist, which would explain his attitude before and the look in his eye. But not quite the other…

Well, despite his apparent demeanour, Dusk could at least try and be friendly with him, since he'd almost stumbled into something important.

"So, nothing broken then?" he asked.

"What? Oh… you," he noted in an almost frightened tone. "Yes, um… nothing broken, yes. I mean well, you might have… ruined it almost, in way, if you had… well…"

"Um… sorry?" Dusk tried.

"Hm? What? Oh, it's fine." He studied Dusk for a moment. "You… you apologized. Are you… are you trying to trick me?

"I… don't think so," replied Dusk. "I'm just sorry I interrupted your… experiment."

"Yes, yes, I got that, but still…" He studied him like he was something strange. "You actually meant that… that's… new. No mockery, no chastising…

Dusk then realised that this stallion might be something of a loner, not really used to the company of others. A well of pity rose up when he realised too that he might have been bullied quite a bit, or something similar. Not wanting to seem like he was as cruel as others he may have had to do deal with, he merely inclined his head.

"Well, I'm sure it's all fine, as long as there was no harm done," he said brightly.

"Yes, no harm done," he repeated. "Although, there almost was… if he had walked into the field… still, could have proven useful… a larger test subject for the containment matrix…"

"Um, beg your pardon?" Dusk inquired, when he started talking to himself again.

His head shot up like he just remembered Dusk was there. "Hm? Oh, yes, nothing. Nothing you need concern yourself with… it's just my um… my work, you wouldn't understand… they never do…"

"Um, why wouldn't I understand?" he asked politely.

"It's just um… complex… different, really, from others," he muttered. "A lot kinder terms than others would deem to use… small minded… frightened…"

Dusk waited for more, but nothing else came.

The stallion remained silent this time, not really focused on Dusk, but more so on his equipment and readings, muttering quietly to himself again. Though he was starting to creep out Dusk a bit, he was still a little curious about him and his research and perhaps concerned for his safety, considering where they were.

"Anyway, um… I haven't introduced myself," tried Dusk, going to be polite. "My name is Dusk Noir." Still silent, apart from the beeping. "And uh… who might you be, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Hm, what?" He snapped his head up impatiently again. "Mm, yes, my name's…" He lost it in further mumblings, something about the indigenous life forms.

"Didn't catch that, sorry." He didn't rectify the issue, so Dusk tried another subject. "This must be um, some important research you're doing. I assume you're looking for something… unique to the forest, right?"

He looked up again, impatience gone and replaced by mild curiosity. "How would you… be aware of that?"

"An educated guess," Dusk shrugged. "There's quite a few species that only live in the Everfree, like cockatrices, manticores, chameleodemons, tentacle trees. Quite a few, too many to list, but I would guess that any one of them would make for an interesting study."

"Yes… they would…" He frowned at Dusk, like he had never seen anything like him before. "You seem… well… remarkably well informed on the um… subject."

"I just know from things I've read," Dusk shrugged modestly.

"Yet still, your knowledge appears to be extensive," he noted, speaking more clearly now, perhaps growing less uneasy. "Quite surprising, considering the ridiculous aversions most in this settlement have towards this environment."

"Um… it's not entirely unfounded," Dusk reminded him. "This place can be quite dangerous."

He let out a small derisive laugh. "Danger. Merely a concept in the mind created by… f-fear and fear can be easily… overcome, by those who have the r-r-right will and drive. Only those who are w-weak minded, not those like you and I," he said, eyes lingering on Dusk, "would ever… allow themselves to be c-c-conquered by such a t-trivial concept as fear."

Dusk wasn't exactly convinced by this. "Is that so?"

"Indeed. You… you seem to be of higher intellect, a-a-as I am. Surely, you must… see things like I do, don't you? Yes, yes I'm sure… fear, h-how laughable…" He shrieked and stopped mumbling when a rustling sound went off suddenly. "What was that?! Who goes there?!"

Dusk, who had only snapped his head towards the sound, couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at him slightly. "It was probably nothing, calm down."

"Yes, yes… nothing…" He watched the spot warily, shivering a little. "Still… best to be cautious."

"I suppose," he said, deciding not to mention that again. "But ponies are afraid of this place and not without good reason."

"Yes… and yet, it is that that adds to the intrigue of this place." He cast his gaze around. "All of the creatures that reside in this forest, all have grown beyond the need for ponies to care for them, all have adapted to their own harsh ways of living, their own ways of survival. There is no compassion, or pity, just the drive and the will to live in all things, adapting to effectively trap and consume their prey, with no regard for conscience or morals."

"I would think they have to," he replied, watching the unicorn warily.

"Like the cockatrice, for example. Stalking in the shadows, waiting for a morsel to cross its path before turning it to stone with a single gaze. Oh, how helpless they must feel… unable to move, to run, to defend themselves in any way." He seemed to be finding some sort of strange joy in this. "Then, the predator leaves it to stew for a while, let's the meat inside the stone soften before returning to feast on its prize, sucking the meat, the blood, everything it needs through the hollow interiors of its canines and incisors, powerful enough to pierce the stone it had conjured. All the while, the prey still helpless, still feeling every sensation as it is slowly drained. Still alive and unable to save itself at all. The perfect catch and the perfect kill…"

"That's… horrible," Dusk breathed.

"Yes, quite, but also effective and satisfying, I think. Nothing but the will to live and it's method to carry it out, without needing to worry about the trivial." Though his face was in shadow, Dusk could have sworn he could see a smile on his face. "It almost makes you envy them, doesn't it?"

Dusk didn't know what to say to that. How could anypony find any sort of fascination or intrigue in such a thing? He was trying to cope now with the vivid images that presented in his mind, but it was worse when he looked at the stallion, a blissful look on his face and joy shining in his eyes from the subject. While at first he had felt some compassion for him, now he was starting to feel alienated and estranged by his apparent fascination in such a horrible topic.

Then, almost as if he put on a mask, he returned to his timid demeanour from previously and turned away awkwardly, mumbling about his research. As soon as he did, Dusk felt guilty for his previous thoughts and decided he had been a little quick to judge.

His open mind suggested that it was to each their own, after all, and if that was what he had interest in, who was he to judge him? He just knew how these creatures hunted and had clear intrigue on the subject. After all, somepony had to study them, it might as well be one who had a genuine fascination in it, even if it was a little strange. It wasn't like he actually intended to do this sort of thing on actual ponies.

Dusk shook his head. Where had that thought come from? Coming to the conclusion he'd spent too long in the forest, he decided to make tracks back to the town and leave him to his work.

"Right, well, it was nice to meet you… sir," he supplied, when he remembered he didn't know his name. "I need to get going, I have a busy day. Good luck with your research."

"Yes… thank you." He glanced back at Dusk, not quite allowing eye contact. "What did you say your name was, again?"

"Dusk. Dusk Noir," he repeated. "I didn't get yours before either."

"No… no you didn't." He smiled at him, but Dusk didn't feel any warmth from it. "It was… g-g-good to meet you too, D-D-Dusk. Perhaps our paths will… will cross again."

"Perhaps. I hope so," he replied, though not truthfully. Just as he was about to leave, another headache flared up again.

He paused to allow it to die down, to soothe his mind and allow the pain to lessen. A tingling on the back of his neck told him he was being watched and he looked back to see the scientist gazing intently at him.

"Is there… something wrong?" he asked, apparently out of concern, but Dusk didn't feel it.

"Nothing big, just a headache," he told him. "Nothing to worry about."

"I see…." He continued to stare at him, with that same studying gaze from before. "It must be… painful. For you, I mean."

"Yes, it is." Dusk stared back at him for a bit, before breaking his gaze and attempting to leave.

"How much… d-d-does it hurt?" Dusk paused again at his question. "Your headache. How painful… is it? How strong, exactly? How frequent? How… deep?"

Again, Dusk felt that it wasn't concern for his health that prompted these questions. "Mild discomfort, not much else. I'll cope."

"I see…" he repeated, his eyes lingering on him for a little longer. Finally, they broke away again, which Dusk was thankful for. "I hope you get well soon. I'd… hate to think of you in any pain, Dusk."

He felt another shiver up his back again, just from the way he said that. Just the insincerity, the revelling that came from when he'd said 'pain' and from how he'd said his name. It wasn't really friendly, but more like he had some sort of power over him, the fact he knew his name but Dusk didn't know his.

He tried to tell himself that he was perhaps just feeling that because of the forest, but he still tried to get away from him as quickly as possible, not running, but quickly walking away. He kept this up until he was back out of the forest and into Celestia's sun, heading through town and back into the safety and comfort of the library. He even breathed a sigh of relief once he was back and did his best to calm himself down.

"Dusk, are you okay?" He almost jumped at Twilight's voice. "You look white as a sheet. Are you feeling alright?"

"I'm um… I'm fine, Twilight," he tried to assure her.

"You sure?" She raised an eyebrow, indicating she didn't believe him. "Maybe I should take your temperature, you might be coming down with something."

Dusk felt immediate relief just from how concerned she was for him, reminding him of the warmth of her friendship and her love. It made him forget about how scared he was before and also enough not to mention what he had encountered. He didn't want to worry her, at any rate, especially when it was just him being jittery and nervous.

No changes there.

"No really, I'm fine," he repeated, easier than before. "Just some excess nerves from the Everfree Forest, nothing more."

Twilight believed him this time, probably because he didn't pause or stutter. "Okay then. I wouldn't want you getting sick. You'd end up missing too much work."

He smiled back up at her. "Yeah, then you'd have to look after me until I'm better."

"Hm, spending a whole day doing nothing caring for you and making sure you're following the rules I set down?" She looked flirtatiously at him. "I think I'd be okay with that."

"Really? I think I would be too." He coughed a few times and held his head. "Actually, now you mention it, I'm not really feeling all that great…"

"Too late now, mister," she said mock-sternly. "You're just going to have to stay here and work under my watchful eye."

"Darn. Oh well, worth a try." He let her kiss his cheek and stepped away from the door.

"Finally, that's over. Hey bro!" Spike called from a ladder, sliding down from a ladder. "Did you get your tonic from Zecora's?"

"Indeed I did," he replied. "Now, I'm not going to have any excuse to stop practicing from now."

"Yeah, if I were you, I'd have kept it up. Maybe make it out to be worse, have a few days off, relax a little," he said hopefully.

"Yes, but you're not me and you have no idea how much these hurt," he added, rubbing his head.

"Speaking of which, we'd better get back to it," Twilight suggested, walking back over to join them.

Though his head seemed to ache even more at very mention of that, Dusk decided that she was right and was about to get into position, when the baby dragon came to his aid.

"Oh, come on Twilight," Spike insisted. "He's had to do nothing else over the past few days. The guy deserves a better break than that."

"Well, Luna does want him to make some significant improvement," she reminded him, though with a disdainful tone, like she disapproved.

"Yeah, but he's not gonna be much use to her if his brain's turned to mush and, considering how much he's working at it, that'll probably be the case." He placed an arm around them both and pulled them in. "Come on, let's have an easy day. Go out, get some air in our lungs and heads and be ready to work harder tomorrow."

"I don't know… Dusk, what do you think?" she asked, no doubt remembering their last relationship letter about doing different things together.

Dusk tried his best to conceal his smile of relief. "That does sound like a sensible idea. It would give you, me and him a chance to relax a little and take a break from work."

"Spike spends most of his time relaxing anyway," she noted.

"Well, you and me then and Spike can get some exercise," he rectified. "It'll help you study harder tomorrow."

Twilight thought for a little longer. "Alright, you win. Let's go for a walk, but remember I want you both working extra hard tomorrow."

"Yes ma'am!" Spike saluted.

"You have my word," Dusk put in.

"Okay, let's go then." She lead them off, as Spike and Dusk leaned towards each other.

"Thanks for that," he whispered to him. "I wasn't really looking forward to that, even if I do have something for my headaches."

"Don't sweat it dude," he shrugged. "Besides, if you get a break, I get one too, so we both win."

"I should have known," Dusk chuckled, following them out and walking next to Twilight.

He once again felt the warmth of the sun on his skin, coupled with a mild autumn chill that felt quite refreshing. Dusk was thankful that Spike had suggested this and was also glad to have him along, adding something with his well-meaning cheek and humour. Though he wouldn't have minded it if it was just him and Twilight, it made him feel like they were something of a family. A strange looking family, but one nonetheless. They spent time with him, took interest in what he did and they were never too busy to do anything.

They did everything with him, unlike…

He shook those thoughts away, allowing himself to enjoy the moment. Just as they were deciding what to do exactly or if they should just walk together, they were interrupted by an excited Sweetie Belle and a bemused Rarity.

"Dusk, Twilight, Spike, you gotta see this, you just gotta!" she said excitedly.

"See what? What's gotten you so worked up?" asked Twilight, giggling as she pranced around her with glee.

She was full of enough joy to burst. "Just come see, Apple Bloom's got her cutie mark!"

"What?!" Dusk was shocked. Mere moments ago, she'd been complaining about her lack of talent, now she had discovered it? So quickly?

He wasn't the only one. "Well, this I have to see. It's about time one of you found your special talent," Twilight remarked.

"Might as well, we got nothing better to do," shrugged Spike in a would-be casual voice, before sidling up to Rarity, hearts in his eyes.

"It's not just that," Sweetie told them while they followed her, "but she's got two cutie marks! One in plate spinning and one in loop-de-hooping!"

"I beg your pardon?!" Dusk yelled.

"Two cutie marks?" added Twilight.

"Loop-de-hooping?" Spike finished, looking quite puzzled.

"Yes, I was quite astounded to hear the news too," agreed Rarity. "I just had to see this for myself, though I feel I would have had no choice if I didn't want to.

From how excited Sweetie was, Dusk couldn't argue with that. "She's so amazing! Come on, they're near the town square, we're almost there!" They rounded the corner up ahead, where Dusk could see a large crowd gathered, their attention focused on something.

Then he saw Apple Bloom and he could certainly understand why. Everypony was watching in awe as the filly was standing on her hind legs, a plate spinning on one leg and a metal hoop whirling on the other, effortlessly keeping them both balanced and spinning while maintaining her own balance. Clearly shining on her flank were two separate marks, one each symbolizing her unique talents she'd apparently discovered.

Before Dusk could think more on this phenomenon, she threw the hoop towards them right at Twilight's head. He only had time to duck out of the way as the hoop spun on Twilight's forehead and rocketed back off into the sky, actually curling her fringe so that it was a perfect mirror reflection of Rarity's styling, much to the fashionista's approval and Spike's delight.

Pointedly glaring at Spike from the soppy look he was giving her, Dusk helped to sort out her mane so that it was back in its usual form.

"Not that I don't mind a little variation, but I think I prefer it like this," she remarked once they'd finished. "Thanks Dusk."

"No problem, I like it that way too." He blushed as he tried for a compliment. "You look… perfect the way you are."

"Aw, thank you," she said sincerely, nuzzling his cheek affectionately. She turned her attention back to the show. "Wow, that's just incredible!"

He looked to see that Applejack, who had just arrived on the scene with the rest of her family, had got her attention with a whistle before kicking a table and launching the pie and the plates on it into the air. Apple Bloom dashed forward and Dusk watched with rapt attention. He didn't think that she was going to make it.

But she did, catching and stacking the plates on her forelegs, the pie on her rump and her hoop spinning on her tail, everypony cheering for her efforts. But she wasn't done yet, bucking the assorted items up into the sky, the hoop cutting up the plate and sending each slice shooting towards a plate, which landed perfectly on some other nearby tables, hungry ponies hurrying to eat them and cheer Apple Bloom's efforts.

Dusk, just as caught up in the excitement as everypony else, also found himself cheering for her efforts, just happy that she'd finally got what she wanted and was making so many ponies happy. Applejack caught his eye, a playful glint in it and gesturing with her head for him to get over and add to the fun. Dusk exchanged a look with Twilight, who just smiled and he was decided. A small headache would be worth it to have a little fun.

Calling upon his magic, he weaved some colour clouds around her that danced and twirled around her like the plates she spun. She giggled in delight while she watched them, spinning her plates and hoop as fast as she could and relieving them of Dusk's control. The speed which she spun them made it so that she was surrounded in a cone of colours, which Dusk focused at the top in a shining white orb before making them dissipate.

Everypony cheered once more and Dusk's head had started to ache a little again, but he was just too happy to notice when he bowed his hat in a flourish to Apple Bloom and trying to stylishly return it to his head. He failed, fumbling and dropping it and hoped he wasn't blushing too much when he bent to pick it up.

"Well, ain't that jus' dandy like apple candy," Applejack said when they reached her. "Ma sister has not one, but two, count 'em two, cutie marks! Oh, ah ain't never been so proud-a her!"

"She deserves it, after all the effort she's been through to find them," Twilight agreed.

"I should think that, now that she's got her talents, it shouldn't take you long to discover your own," Rarity said to Sweetie Belle.

"I hope so!" She was too caught up in the mood to be calm.

Dusk, however, had given himself a moment to simmer and now he really had a chance to think. He couldn't have left her at Zecora's hut for more than an hour or two, during which time she had managed to discover not just one, but two special talents and had become a complete master at them both. Before all that, she had been distressing that she would never find them and now, here they were.

Quite convenient… almost suspiciously so…

"Dusk? You okay?" Sweetie Belle must have seen the look on his face and was looking up at him. "Something wrong?"

Wondering why exactly he seemed to be thinking of the worst today, Dusk decided he was thinking about this too much and smiled reassuringly back.

"No, nothing." He looked back over at Apple Bloom, with her family beaming proudly at her. "Just a feeling…"


Sweat pouring down his face and his head feeling like it was going to burst open, Dusk let out a loud gasp as he cancelled his spell again and practically collapsed on the floor of the library, panting from the sheer effort that the spell had taken. He knew even before Twilight and Spike spoke that he hadn't done well enough… again.

"Just breath, take it easy, just breath," Twilight whispered soothingly. "How was that one Spike?"

"One minute, fifty seconds," he reported, holding a stopwatch. "That wasn't so bad, right?"

"It's… five seconds worse than… last one…" Dusk gasped, frustration seeping back again.

"Dusk, you're getting better, so much better, I know it," Twilight encouraged. "You just need to-"

"What does it matter?" he snapped. "No matter how hard… I try… how much I do it… I just can't do it!"

"Uh oh, somepony's about to blow a fuse," Spike muttered.

"Dusk, please try to be calm." Twilight helped him up again. "I really do think you're doing your best and giving it your all."

"But it's not good enough!" He stamped the ground in anger. "Luna is expecting me to have improved majorly by our next lesson and that's only a day from now! It's not going to be good enough!"

"Dusk… I didn't want to say this, but I don't think the problem is with you." She glanced about, swaollwed and continued. "I think it's with her."

This surprised Dusk enough that he calmed a little. "Who? Luna? Why do you say that?"

"I just think it's really unfair about how she's pushing you so much," she explained. "Strict methods are one thing, but this is just going too far. You have to talk to her the next time you see her."

"But… I can't say anything to her!" he yelled. "She's a princess, she's my teacher. She'll think I'm stepping out of line."

"That's a risk you're going to have to take," she told him. "If you keep things up the way you're going, you're going to make yourself sick."

"I… I don't know Twilight…" He hung his head and sighed. "I don't know if I can…"

"Well, give yourself some time to think about it," she suggested. "Take a break for now and we'll-"

The door to the library burst open and a distressed Applejack rushed in. "Twah'light! Y'all have gotta help me!"

"Applejack? What is it, what's wrong?" Twilight asked, at her side in an instant.

"It's Apple Bloom! Jus' look at her!" She gestured and Dusk looked.

Immediately, his own worries and concerns vanished when he saw the state she was in. Not only was she spinning the same plates and looping the same hoop from yesterday, but her hooves were performing a frantic tap dance. She seemed quite unable to control it and Dusk also glimpsed, on her flank, a third cutie mark with the other two. One in tap dancing.

"By the goddess," he whispered, his mind on quote mode in its deteriorated state. He cleared it with a shake and hurried to the other two.

His marefriend was equally amazed. "Three cutie marks. Three talents. I've never seen anything like it! I was just reading something about unusual equine illnesses this morning." She started to look through shelves. "What was it?"

Dusk was just about to help with the search when it was found.

"Perplexing Pony Plagues, perhaps?" Spike was holding up the respective book.

"Yes, Spike, you're amazing!" She took the book from him, allowing him to hop onto her back, while Dusk allowed him his moment of glory.

"Yes, well, I do have some talents," he professed proudly.

While Twilight flicked through the pages for the right section, Dusk looked over at Apple Bloom. It seemed that his thoughts were right yesterday about her marks. It was too convenient, but now he was concerned something was seriously wrong with her. She was too, her expression frightened and helpless and he hated it. Seeing her like this.

He gave her a comforting smile, which she weakly returned silently, just as Twilight found the right page and with a cry read it out.

"Cutie pox!"

"Cutie pox?!" they all remarked simultaneously, with Dusk adding, "Care to elaborate?"

She continued on, Apple Bloom's tapping feet a constant reminder of the problem. "Cutie pox. This puzzling pony plague afflicted a population of ponies back in the paleopony period!"

"Heh, say that ten times fast!"

She took a moment to buck Spike off her back before continuing. "Random cutie marks appeared all over the ponies' bodies, causing them to perform all the talents that came with them!"

"Just like me!" Apple Bloom cried.

"Yes, but what's the cure? What's the cure?!" Applejack demanded.

Twilight looked again, her expression grim. "It says here there's no known cure!"

"No known cure?!" they repeated.

She read on in the book. "The cause of the breakout was never discovered, and the cutie pox disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived!"

"Oh no!" In a flash, another mark appeared, a symbol Dusk recognised from his books. "Sacrebleu ! Plus de marques de cutie! Qu'est-ce c'est?! Je parle français?!"

Applejack was distraught. "Ma sister's speakin' in fancy!"

"Actually, she's speaking Prance. Pre-Reneighssance dialect, I think," Dusk noted.

"Really? What's she saying?" Spike asked.

"I don't know, I don't actually speak-"Dusk blinked and whirled around in disbelief. "Are you seriously asking me to translate at a time like this?! Apple Bloom needs help!"

"Okay, okay, geez, I was only asking," he grumbled.

"Ah know she needs help!" cried her sister. "We can't just wait fer this ta go away! We gotta find somepony to mix up a cure! And fast!"

"Tout de suite!" added the younger.

Both he and Twilight had the same idea, almost at the same time. "Not some pony..." she started.

"Some zebra!" he finished.

In seconds, they were galloping for the zebra's hut. Considering her wide range in healing and soothing potions, Zecora was their best hope for helping Apple Bloom. The filly in question was falling behind, due to her tap dancing hindering her progress.

Just as she was urged to hurry, another mark appeared on her leg, one in carving. Unable to control herself, Apple Bloom was tugged away and within seconds had finished a stone sculpture of what Dusk recognised as the ancient Pegasus deity of love. Another mark appeared and she started sweeping a chimney. Another one for playing the accordion and another for lion taming, although exactly where the beasts came from was still a mystery to Dusk.

Gradually, the townsfolk were starting to notice something was wrong and were exchanging nervous glances with one another, whilst Apple Bloom beat an elderly chess player in three moves and started fencing with a foal. Dusk, Twilight and Applejack were just as at a loss as what exactly to do, while Spike just munched on some popcorn, enjoying the show.

"She's cursed!" one mare declared.

"Hexed!" added another.

"Enchanted!" shrieked a third.

Finally, Spike did something helpful. "No, she's not."

"Good work," Dusk said to him, as the three sighed in relief.

"She just has some weird mysterious disease with no known cure called cutie pox," he added.

"CUTIE POX?!" Within minutes, ponies had retreated into their homes, closed doors and locked windows or had just run away from sheer terror of contamination.

Applejack, Twilight, Spike, Dusk and Apple Bloom were left alone in the now strangely quiet town. A tumbleweed blew by and the gentle breeze was deafening in the silence.

"Good work," remarked Dusk sarcastically, while Spike looked sheepish.

"I thought I had removed their fear the last time that I visited here." They looked to see the very zebra they sought had arrived. "But, doors are barred and shutters shut, guess I should've stayed inside my hut.

"Zecora, thank Celestia! Apple Bloom has cutie pox!" Dusk informed her.

"We were just on our way to see if you had a cure!" put in Twilight.

"But magically yer here! Was yer zebra sense a-tinglin'?" asked Applejack.

"I'm not sure if that's rascist," muttered Dusk.

"My 'zebra sense' did not bring me round, it was a special flower that I needed found. I thought I picked enough to fix all the potions I had to mix, but after my visit from Apple Bloom, some had mysteriously left my room." She approached the filly and glared at her. "Apple Bloom! What do you say? Did this flower just walk away?"

"I, um..." Whatever she was going to say was ended when she started to wash windows.

"A cutie pox cure I have forsooth, for healing power is in the seeds of truth." She reached into her baskets and removed some sparkling seeds from within.

"Well, well then give 'em to her! Quick!" commanded Applejack.

"These seeds must be planted in the ground. With the truth, they'll grow, and the cure is found," she explained.

The farm pony gave Twilight and Dusk a confused look "Come again?"

"The seeds of truth do hold the cure, but one must speak words, true and pure."

Tell the truth. Those words dropped into Dusk's stomach with the weight of a boulder crashing from a cliff into the waters below. But nopony else seemed to notice the effect they had, for Apple Bloom was the main concern.

"Well then let's get to it!" Applejack snapped up the seeds, quickly dug a hole and placed them in it, covering it with dirt. "Alright, they're planted, now somepony tell the truth!"

The silence was once again deafening, but it was made worse by Apple Bloom's distressed cries, just making it worse. Because Dusk had a secret, a truth that he had kept hidden from all but a few. But it looked like now, if nopony else spoke up, it would have to come to light. He'd have to profess it, tell it here to the whole town, to have a chance to save her.

But could he? He knew what it would mean… could he still do it?"

"Somepony! Anypony!" begged Applejack.

There was nothing. Nopony else spoke up. He'd have to do it. Apple Bloom was now spinning around like Rainbow Dash's Rainblow Dry and he appeared to be the only one who could help her. Knowing how much pain he would recall, how much they would hate him, Dusk opened his mouth to speak, to finally reveal the truth kept hidden for so long-

"Yesterday I told Mrs Cake that I ate two corn cakes, but I really ate three!" Pinkie confessed. There was no change from the seeds "Okay six! I ate six corn cakes!" No change and the party pony started to sob. "Make it stop! Oh, make it stop!"

Dusk's felt his stomach plummet once again when his apparent saviour had failed. A temporary reprieve, but ultimately futile. He would do it though, if it meant ending her suffering, even if it increased his own. He opened his mouth once more, drew in breath and he could have sworn he heard him laughing once more…

Then, his eyes met Pinkie's. Looking up, very briefly, her brilliant blue orbs locked on his and in that one look, she told him to keep silent. She'd spoken up to prevent him from having to reveal his own, horrible truth and she wasn't going to let him do it. Not just yet.

She probably thought she was telling him psychically and perhaps she did, for Dusk closed his mouth and said in his head how thankful he was. To his surprise, Pinkie smiled back and winked, returning to her distress. It was lucky he did, for the real truth was revealed just a few seconds later.

"Wah, ah can't stand it anymore! It's me! Ah admit it! Ah didn't earn my cutie mark! They're all fake!" She stopped spinning and the dirt where the seeds were buried moved. "Ah figured the Heart's Desire would help me get what ah wanted most! So when Zecora left her hut, ah mixed up a special potion and put the rest of the Heart's Desire in it!"

The seeds swiftly grew into a beautiful flower, with purple petals and a bright white centre. As white as the virtue it was named for, Dusk thought, marvelling at its beauty along with everypony else. It only lasted a second before Apple Bloom snapped it up and swallowed it in one gulp.

Exhausted from her efforts, she collapsed on the ground, but now she could have the rest. One by one, in little white flashes, the fake marks vanished until the last one had gone, leaving the filly blank flanked once again. Only this time, for a long while, she looked happy about it, as did everypony present.

"Apple Bloom!"

"Are you okay?"

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo ran out to meet their friend, as relieved as the rest, if not more so for their fellow Crusader.

"Ah'm great, and ah've never been happier to be a blank flank." She hung her head in sorrow. "But ah'm awful sorry ah lied, 'specially to you gals. Ah was so desperate for my cutie mark, ah just got carried away."

They smiled in understanding to her. They knew exactly how she felt and didn't blame her one little bit.

"And I'm really sorry I snuck those flowers from you, Zecora. I- I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted me to come by again," she said, bowing her head in shame, until Zecora gently raised it again.

"Now, Apple Bloom, do not be silly. You are always welcome, my little filly. With each mistake you learn something new, growing up into a better you."

They all smiled at the filly to make her feel better. But just as Dusk turned to Zecora, to comment on her wise words, she had vanished. Great, now they had another pony who just came and went as they pleased.

"Apple Bloom," said Twilight, ignoring the strange incident, "would you mind writing to Princess Celestia and telling her what you've learned?"

"Ah'd be happy to, Twilight! Spike?"

"Ready!" Spike declared, quill and parchment in claw.

Dusk listened while Apple Bloom dictated how, when you wanted something badly, you might try to create short cuts to get it, but then you wouldn't have truly earned what you wanted because of this and that honesty was the only true course. Celestia would find that a charming read, he thought once Spike had sent it off.

He could certainly he knew about that, for it was honesty in the end that had gotten him what he always desired, his friends and marefriend. He exchanged a warm look with Twilight and stood closer, allowing her side to make contact with his and her to lean her head on his shoulder, while they watched the Crusaders run for Zecora's hut, to try marks in potion making. The frivolity and carefreeness of childhood…

The laughter was still there though. He had been lucky this time, but would he be so lucky next time? Could he eventually tell them? What's more, how angry would Luna be when he failed to meet her expectations?

He didn't want to think about it, because he wasn't sure which one was worse.

Author's Note:

My readers, allow me to apologise for my stupidity. The chapter I posted yesterday was done two chapters early, because I'm an idiot. My profuse apologies for this collossal mistake, it won't happen again.

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