A Gordian Web of Trysts and Courtships

by TheDriderPony

Chapter 1: Keeping it in the Family

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Keeping it in the Family

Crystal, as it turns out, is a mighty fine conductor for sound.

Thus, a party taking place in the Throne Room of the Friendship castle easily echoed and carried throughout all of its rooms and hallways. Not that it was terribly difficult, given just how loud the party in question was. After all, it wasn't just a we-beat-the-big-baddie party, but also a we-reformed-the-big-baddie-who-was-really-just-misunderstood party, and also a welcome-to-a-thousand-years-in-the-future-and-sorry-for-all-the-missed-birthdays party (Pinkie patent pending).

It had begun many hours earlier with everyone who had been involved in this week's 'incident'. Twilight and her friends, of course, not to mention the illustrious Starswirl the Bearded and his troupe of legendary heroes known as the Pillars —including the recently reformed Stygian. The Princesses Celestia and Luna were also in attendance, eager to catch up with old friends. Oh, and Spike was there too.

Wild gales of laughter rung through the halls as stories were shared over a hearty feast of foods both ancient and modern, accompanied by enough booze to sink a ship. While most of the modern ponies refrained from drinking to excess (one particular rainbow pegasus excluded), they quietly respected the culture of their new friends and simply enjoyed the festive atmosphere as their anachronistic guests unapologetically quaffed like there was no tomorrow.

But, in time, as Luna's moon peaked in the night sky and started to descend back towards the distant horizon, the party began to wind down, as was the fate of all parties.

The Princesses were the first to leave. Reunion party or not, someone still had to run the government the next day. Rarity and the other non-alicorn Elements headed home next, save for Rainbow Dash who had to be carried, leaving behind the ponies who lived in the castle and the ancient heroes who were accustomed to parties that lasted from sun-down to sun-up.

Starswirl pushed back his chair and stood, gathering his hat and robe from where others had 'borrowed' it over the course of the evening. "I suppose I shall be taking leave as well."

"Heading to bed?" Twilight asked through hiccups. Her earlier experiments on the limits of an alicorn liver had proven her hypothesis to be significantly generous; a miscalculation that had left her very giggly and unsteady.

"Stars no! I'm heading into town." He donned his belled cap and made for the door. "This cider may be fine for ponies who guzzle it down without giving a thought to taste, but I seek a stronger spirit. Something I can savor and nurse as I ruminate on the future."

He turned back at the doorway and gave a stiff bow. "Princess Twilight, I bid you good night for I daresay I shall not return before dawn." He stood and his gaze hardened considerably as he turned it to the rest of the partygoers. "As for the rest of you: no shenanigans or monkeyshines while I'm out."

"Yes, Starswirl," they chorused in various levels of clarity.

"And remember the Heroic Code!"

"Yes, Starswirl." Repetition slightly improved their vocal cohesion.

The wizard, seemingly satisfied, turned and left. It was only once they heard the distant sound of the main doors opening and closing again that the Pillars seemed to relax.

"Finally," Somnambula sighed, "the old fart is gone."

Twilight gasped at the insult against her second favorite historical mage. "That's rather rude!"

"Yet, accurate." Mistmane sat forward and set down the flagon she'd been pretending to nurse (yet secretly refilling all night) and rubbed her temples. "You haven't traveled with him. As a sorcerer, his might is incomparable. But as a travelling companion..." Words failed her, leaving only a pained expression.

"He's like a stodgy old granddad," Flash Magnus supplied.

"Yes, that's it. That's it exactly," Rockhoof agreed. He tossed back the last third of his firkin and slammed the vessel onto the table. "Always trying to tell us what to do and how to act as though we're not grown stallions and mares —heroes, as well— who can make our own decisions."

A general murmur of assent rippled throughout the room before it fell quiet. Despite most of the guests anticipating his departure, Starswirl seemed to have taken the jolly atmosphere with him.

Thankfully, there was someone with the innocence of youth on hand to break the ice with a new topic out of nowhere.

"What's this Heroic Code?" Spike asked.

"Ah, nothing so grand as the name implies, young drake." Rockhoof leaned forward and tried to purloin another slice of decadent chocolate cake with his shovel. The elusive dessert remained just out of reach until Twilight nudged it closer. "Thank you. It was just a list of rules Starswirl instated when we all first began travelling together."

"One," Mage Meadowbrook started, "A hero must always save the common pony from evil and danger."

"Two," Stygian continued, "A hero does not hoard the party's glory for themselves like a fil- er... like a dragon."

"And three," Mistmane said with an odd chuckle.

"No bedding with party members!" All five remaining pillars and Stygian completed in perfect, sober unison.

"Aaaaaand I think it's high time I take Spike to bed." Twilight announced. She stood up, a little unsteady on her hooves. The young dragon in question rose as well, a protest already on his lips.

"What? No! I'm not —*yawn*— tired."

"Give it up kid," Flash Magnus chuckled, "The lady knows what's best for you. We'll still be here in the morning with stories and leftovers." He eyed Rockhoof who was once again refilling both his plate and his tankard. "Well, maybe not leftovers."

Spike nodded drowsily, already almost asleep on his feet and left down a hallway. Twilight went to follow but turned back. "Everypony remember where their rooms are for the night?"

Confidence buoyed by their positive replies, Twilight too exited the party, leaving alone the six temporally displaced ponies.

Exactly as Stygian had feared.

Though he'd enjoyed the party, in the back of his mind he'd also been dreading this point. When it was down to just him and the ponies he'd turned against. He'd always felt a little disconnected from the rest of the party; a natural side effect of being the last member to join after the others had already racked up many great accomplishments, and from being the only one without a particularly impressive skill. Honestly, sometimes he wondered why Starswirl had brought him along at all. The wizard's promise of seeing potential in him seemed so thin now, especially compared to the amazing talents of the others.

He shook his head trying to rid himself of these dark thoughts as he knew all too well where dwelling on them would lead. Things were different now and could only get better so long as he worked at their relationship just as Twilight had instructed. Following this line of thought, Stygian posed the question that had been picking at him for a few minutes

"Why was it that that was one of his rules? Was there something that happened in one of your early adventures that I was not present for, something that set bad precedent? The others make sense, even just as general advice, but I can't imagine why he'd be so against any of you being in interparty relationships."

Flash swirled a stick of his new favorite cheese-based food in the cold marinara as he shrugged. "Who knows? It never really bothered me."

Stygian was surprised. Of all ponies, he'd assumed that Flash —the soldier with a body that mares and stallions alike desired, though for different reasons— would have been the first to object to such a rule.

"I always thought it was a way to control us; get us to hoof the line," Somnambula mused. "Starswirl's a stallion who likes holding all the cards. Real authority complex."

Flash shook his head. "I don't buy it. Feels out of character for him. Too devious. He's a brilliant magician, but not much a tactician."

Rockhoof coughed. "I thought he was concerned with the danger that heroics would pose to a pregnant mare or a foal."

"Could be," Meadowbrook countered swiftly, "But that only applies if anypony got pregnant. We'd have been fine so long as we avoided the heat season." She paused and an odd look crossed her face. "Do... do you think he knows that that's how it works?"

Shock prompted Stygian to come to his master's defense. "Of course he does! If nothing else, he is a very learned scholar."

"Yes... but can you picture him ever actually being with a mare?"

The room went quiet as they all tried to picture it (some more reluctantly than others). The quarrelsome old stallion they knew lying on a bed with the sheets half-draped across his capeless form. Eyes half-closed and brows wiggling like a pair of seductive caterpillars...

They immediately decided to stop thinking about it.

Seeking a way to redirect the conversation, Flash spoke up. "Well, whatever the reason, it doesn't matter anymore, does it?" The rest of the table turned to him curiously. "This is a new age. With a new generation of heroes. We can retire. Finally settle down." His voice turned low and husky as he wrapped a wing around Somnambula beside him. "Get busy."

Stygian blinked as clues from countless incidental memories clicked together. "Wait, are you saying that you two are..."

"Oh for years now," Somnambula tittered as she leaned into Flash's masculine pillow of chest fluff. "Since long before you joined the group."

"But what about the Heroic Code?"

Flash snorted and rolled his eyes. "A stallion's got needs, boy."

"As does a mare," his pegasus partner added, curling her tail around his flanks. Her eyes lit up and she laughed. "Oh! Remember that one time Starswirl caught us in the act? After the battle with the squidula cultists?"

"How could I forget? Feathers and phalanxes, did we ever get an earful after that!"

"And then," Stygian piped in, thinking he'd figured out what came next. "You reflected on your actions, took his advice, and chose to abstain from then on?"

That did it. Flash broke down into full-bellied laughter, his body practically doubled over as it struggled to take in air. A few of the others chuckled along in a more modest quantity. Stygian just wished he got the joke.

After a long minute, Flash finally recovered enough to talk. "That's a good one, Styg. Course we didn't. At best we learned how to make sure the old coot was well enough away before getting down to business. That, and not to do it without a powerful soundproofing charm. Speaking of which, Misty?"

Mistmane reached into the depths of her mane and pulled out a small charm; little more than a gemstone on a silver chain. "I've got you covered. Hang it on your doorknob and the whole room should be soundproofed till well into the morning."

She threw it and Flash deftly caught it with a wing. "Thanks," he said before turning to his marefriend with a toothy grin. "So, you want to blow this popsicle stand?"

She returned a smile that was somehow even toothier than his. "Oh, I can think of something I'd be inclined to blow."

The pair stood as one and swiftly left the room, tails entwined and wings interlocked. As the population of the room dropped to four, Rockhoof scratched his beard thoughtfully.

“He does make a good point. The world is safe now. And there are new heroes for when it’s not. We're free.”

He leaned back, food and drink forgotten, as he sank deeper into thought. "I rarely gave thought to starting a family. There was always the next adventure or monster."

Meadowbrook turned to him and propped her head up on her hoof. "But you have given it thought."

He nodded, not properly facing her. "I suppose so. If the right mare were to come along. Somepony strong and dependable..."

"Who you know you can trust."

He turned and finally met her gaze. Their eyes connected and something in his posture softened, like a question he'd never dared to ask had just been answered. He nodded again, slowly, and with more meaning. "Then I suppose I could be convinced to hang up my shovel."

The mage leaned closer, her ears folding back as her tal began to swish behind her. “Perhaps I could try wielding it.”

"Wielding it?" he asked. “Wielding my shovel…” And then his eyes widened. "Oh. Oh! Yes! You think you can handle my shovel?"

"Maybe," she slipped a sly smile. "I'm quite good with my hooves."

"It is a mighty tool."

"That's true. You got a quarterstaff I can practice with?"

He scoffed. "A quarter staff? More like a half staff!"

"All the better then."

Stygian had the distinct feeling that something was being said beyond mere words, yet for the life of him couldn't grasp it. Though he was pretty sure that, at some point, they'd stopped talking about Rockhoof's actual shovel. It wasn't until they rose and Mistmane levitated over another silencing charm that the pieces clicked into place.

"Be careful you two," Mistmane warned teasingly, "Try not to break anything."

“If we do, at least you'll be here to heal us up.”

“True, but I was referring to the crystal walls and floor.”

The earth ponies headed for their guest room, her head leaning against his broad neck as they talked in low tones, leaving Stygian and Mistmane alone.

Stygian was not a pony who operated well in large groups. Unless he really asserted himself, he had a tendency to drift towards the outer fringes of any gathering. Unfortunately, despite some ponies assumptions to the contrary, this did not mean he was conversely very skilled at dealing with one-on-one interactions.

As the pair sat in silence he struggled to come to terms with this new perspective on the group dynamic. He didn't think it unreasonable that, after having traveled together, shared campsites, and watched them bathe, he'd developed something of a smoldering affection for his female companions. He was a stallion in the prime of his youth, after all, and they each held their own captivating charms. Somnambula was flirty and cheeky, with a figure that even other pegasi would kill for. Meadowbrook was older and thicker, but had a comforting almost motherly way about her. Even Mistmane despite her age still looked good and had a mystical, foreign appeal.

So learning that most —if not all— of them had already coupled up was something of a blow to his worldview.

Not that he'd been under any illusions that he might ever have had a chance with any of them. They were all just so far beyond his reach. Stronger, wiser, more experienced. Heroes. They existed as ideals rather than options.

So deeply was Stygian engrossed in his thoughts that even he was surprised when he began to speak. "I guess that last bit of the code was really more of a suggestion, huh?"

"So it would seem." Mistmane didn't even look at him as she spoke, choosing instead to focus on folding a stray streamer into a complex shape. Was she bored with his presence already? Or had he made her mad somehow?

"So if those two are a couple," his voice continued unabated, nodding his head towards where the pegasi pair had been seating, "And those other two are as well..." His mouth went dry. The question sat there on his tongue like a clove of garlic, its presence filling the air before he even opened his mouth.

"I guess that means that you and Starswirl..." It died in his mouth. He couldn't finish the question, but he'd managed enough.

Mistmane huffed and rolled her eyes, for a moment looking all the world like a disgruntled teenager. She grumbled something unintelligible under her breath.

"I'm sorry?"

"I said,'' she repeated, a cutting edge to her voice, "That no one ever remembers it right. I sacrificed my beauty to restore my homeland, not my youth. I may be a little wrinkled and grey around the edges, but I'm still only twenty-four!"

"...What?" Stygian stammered.

"I'm twenty four," Mistmane repeated, "So I'm sure you can imagine why I get a little tired of ponies suggesting that Starswirl and I ever... ugh!... coupled up. He's like my grandad!"

Stygian noticed that the way she spoke had changed now that they were alone and relaxed. Though, judging by her rosy blush, the alcohol also had something to do with it. Her cultured and collected cadence was toned down and she seemed to talk quicker; letting the sharp ticks and clicks of her words flow freely.The longer she spoke, the more he thought he could see the chatty young mare beneath the wrinkles.

"I mean, honestly!" She continued to rant, making full use of this sympathetic ear to vent her spleen. "It gets insulting after a while. Every inn and boarding house we stopped at: 'And I presume the venerated elders will be sharing a room?' No! And Meadowbrook's constant need to play matchmaker didn't help things either! As if I couldn't get a stallion my own age if I tried. Stygian, you're about my age, right?"

"Huh, what? Oh, yes. A few years younger, actually."

"Really? Hm. Anyway, you still think I'm attractive, right? You'd bed with me, given the chance?"

"In a heartbeat."

The words slipped out before he could stop them. His face flashed crimson with shame and embarrassment.

Mistmane’s eyes widened with momentary surprise then quickly collapsed back down into a coy glance. She subtly licked her lips as they curled into a devious smile. “Why Stygian, I never knew you felt that way.”

He nodded dumbly, still too embarrassed to speak. Suddenly, a pair of soft lips graced his cheek and his entire body went rigid. He turned and found Mistmane’s face barely a hoof’s length away from his.

"Since we're in a confessing mood, I should probably say," She reached up and leaned in so close he could feel the fur of her lips tickle his ear. "When you turned into a shambling mass of darkness, that was so hot."

"R-Really?" he gasped, already barely able to breathe.

"Oh yes," she purred, sending a shiver down his spine. "Such power and strength. Amazing. In the weeks that followed as we tracked you, I kept dreaming about you sneaking back into camp... overwhelming me with your magical power... having your way with me.

Stygian found he was having a very hard time forming coherent thoughts. To think that the refined and elegant creature that he knew had this kind of monster hiding within. He’d never seen her so… assertive before. More than that, he kind of liked it.

She asked him something, but the words failed to penetrate. He nodded anyway, and gasped slightly as her magical grip tilted his face to line up with hers.

As she pressed her lips to his once more, Stygian could only wonder what in the world he was getting himself into.

As it turned out, what he got into that night turned out to be the best decision of his life.

After a brief surge of beginner's passion, their series of one-night-stands settled down into a stable relationship. They were content to take things slow, both being new to the world of romance. But, as the saying goes, life always finds a way, and it was three years after being released from Limbo that the unicorn couple returned to Castle Friendship for a Pillars reunion... with an extra body or two in tow.

"She is so adorable!" Somnambula pirouetted through the air, a little horned bundle of fur and blanket clutched close to her chest. She landed deftly and switched to nuzzling the babe like a lonely cat. "I see she has her father's eyes."

"And her mother's wrinkles, I'm sure!" Rockhoof called from across the room where no less than three foals of various ages were using him as a living jungle gym. "Ow, ow! Pumice, your father's beard is not a swingset."

"It's just baby fat," Meadowbrook corrected her husband's comment as she horned in on Somnambula's cuddle time to inspect the child. "She has excellent bone structure. This one's going to be a real beauty, just like her mother."

"And the colt has the makings of a fine warrior as well," Flash praised. A slightly older ball of teal fuzz batted away at its reflection in his polished greaves. "Of course, he's got nothing on my girls, but a fine lad nonetheless. Oi!" He turned sharply to address a pair of little pegasi, no more than two, one of whom seemed intent on trying to eat the other's hair. "Arrowhead! Leave your sister's hair alone! The soap does not taste how it smells!"

Stygian smiled at the assembly. He'd filled out in the past three years and was currently experimenting with a moustache. This was it. This was the kind of camaraderie he'd been missing back before Limbo. And the children were an unexpected bonus. "Do you think Starswirl will make it? He's the only one we're missing."

Mistmane shrugged awkwardly as she retrieved her little Cherry Blossom from her godmotherly smothering. “I couldn’t say. It’s hard to contact him when he keeps moving. You'd think he'd just settle down in Canterlot or one of the magic universities and teach, but I guess old habits are hard to break.”

“Once a wandering scholar, always a wandering scholar,” Rockhoof added.

A distant knocking distracted them from further conversation.

“I’ll get it,” Stygian said. If it was his old master, he wanted to be the first to see him and show him how he’d grown.

Sound from the children playing quickly faded away as he navigated the crystal corridors. Soon, he reached the main doors which swung smoothly open at his magic’s touch.

On the other side stood Starswirl, looking not a day older nor younger than he had upon emerging from Limbo. Even his expression was set in its familiar disapproving frown. But Stygian thought that something in his eyes seemed harder than usual.

“Starswirl! You made it!”

The old wizard did not speak immediately and merely eyed him up and down. “Yes,” he said eventually. “You look well.”

Stygian forced a smile even though Starswirl tone unnerved him. Was something wrong? “Thank you. Ah, you too. It took getting married to really get me into a healthy lifestyle, but what works, works.”

Starswirl seemed to tense slightly. “Yes… I had heard that you got married.” He took a step forward and Stygian flinched back, despite now having several inches on him. “I also heard rumor,” Starswirl’s eyes narrowed dangerously, “Of a child.”

Stygian brightened, instantly forgetting the dark tone of the words. “That’s right! Two, actually. We're so excited!”

Starswirl’s tone remained level. “I see. And… the mother?”

“Oh she’s excited as well. Probably more tired than me though. Stars above am I glad that only mares have to nurse!”

“No you simpleton, I meant who-”

“Stygy?” Mistmane walked around the corner, a small teal colt on her back. “Honey? Is everything alright? You were taking so long.”

As the child came into view, a flash of fear passed through Starswirl's eyes, though it was quickly drowned out by a spark of anger.

"You fool!" he roared, rounding on his former apprentice like a lion. "After everything I've said, after everything I've done, the minute my back is turned you renege on the Heroic Code and sleep with another party member! Not only that, but to have a child as well! Does your insurrection know no bounds?" He twisted and pointed to the foal. "That thing should never have existed! It is an abomination!"

Married life had been good to Stygian. Being in a stable and supportive relationship had done wonders for his mental health and self-esteem. Meanwhile, fatherhood had grown him a spine worthy of a giraffe. Suffice to say, he was not the weak and whimpering colt he once was.

"How dare you..." His voice came out low and hard, as unyielding as cold-forged steel. "That is my son. My brave little Aventurine. It's one thing to barge in here and start giving orders like you still hold some kind of authority, but to attack my son? To say he shouldn't exist? You've crossed a line, Starswirl, and I won't stand for it!"

Starswirl dismissed Stygian's anger with a shake of his head. "Be silent and listen to me, you prattling fool. That child is-”

"No, you listen to me for once!" He grabbed Mistmane in his magic and pulled her to his side. "This is my family. My happiness. Something I found for myself. And I don't care what you have to say about it. Just because you could never find yourself a mare back in the day doesn't mean we all should be forced to share in your involuntary celibacy!"

"Invol... Boy, I have slept with more mares than you've ever even fantasized about!

"Then why?" Stygian demanded, "Why are you so against us having children?"

"Because you are both of my blood!"

His words echoed like the final knell of a bell, hanging heavy in the air with the weight of their meaning. For a long minute, not a soul spoke.


Starswirl sighed and suddenly looked a lot less like an angry wizard and a lot more like a tired old stallion. "I didn't want you to find out this way. Ideally, you would have never found out at all." He groaned and rolled his eyes. "But out of everypony in the world, you just had to go and court each other, didn't you?"

"I... I don't understand." Aventurine pawed at his mother's mane, perhaps sensing her growing distress. If she noticed him, she made no sign of it. "How can you be father to both of us? I knew my father. He was-"

"The stallion your mother married after I moved on. You see, when I was young, I traveled across many lands and slept with many mares in the hopes of seeding the next generation with a new breed of heroes. You two are some of the mixed results of my efforts. Inheritors of my blood and power, yes, but also cursed to share a father."

The air was gone and Stygian could not breathe. His heart beat in his throat like a wardrum, practically drowning out the old wizard's explanation with its heavy thuds. His eyes turned to his wife, meeting a pair that mirrored his own shock, confusion, and fear. "No..." It was barely a whisper, more a thought carried on a breath. "It's impossible. We can't be... be..."

"... siblings." Mistmane finished breathlessly.

"Half siblings at most," Starswirl corrected. "Stygian I know to be the son of Clover, my student. She brought him to me herself in hopes I would instruct him as I had her. As for Mistmane's mother, I don't remember her. Somepony from the Eastern Unicorn Empire, I'd imagine."

He stepped forward and bore his cold gaze into their eyes. "You see now why the child should not exist. It's common knowledge that foals born of shared blood are destined to become monsters or fell mages or deranged perverts.”

"N-No!" Mistmane cried, shaking her head vehemently. "You must be wrong. You have to be!"

"There is no mistake. I even made a spell to identify those borne of my seed."

“Cast it.”


“Cast the spell.” Stygian’s anger and shock had reduced to a cold and sober grimness. “Prove that I'm your son and this isn't just another deranged method to keep us in line.”

Their potential father hesitated, then finally sighed, a defeated look on his face. "Very well. If that is what it takes." He lit his horn, its silvery-blue aura coming instantly to life. It pulsed for a few seconds, shifting and flickering as the wizard concentrated, then radiated outward like a ripple, passing through bodies and walls until it was out of sight.

Stygian analyzed it as it swept by. From his brief glimpse, he could tell that Starswirl had not lied; the spell would do exactly as he had said and identify those who shared his blood. All that was left… was to wait.

They did not have to wait long.

After a moment, Stygian began to glow. As did Mistmane and the foal on her back.

“It’s true…” she whispered.

Before anyone could react further, a cry of alarm from deeper within the castle caught their attention. Hero instincts rushing to the forefront of their minds, the three unicorns abandoned the doorway and ran inside, back to where the party was taking place. Upon reaching the room, both their minds and their bodies came to a screeching halt.

Sitting in the center of the room, eyes darting about nervously, Somnambula was glowing.

Off to the side of the room, alert for incoming attacks, so was Rockhoof.

As was Meadowbrook.

And Flash Magnus.

And all their collective foals.

"Ah. Bugger," Starswirl said dryly, looking completely nonplussed. "I suppose I have something to confess to the rest of you as well then. Would you like the good news or the bad news first?"

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