Chapter Two: Warrior Bloodlines
Antares looked grouchily at Prestige as they walked side-by-side together through Canterlot, the green mare saying arrogantly: “You should feel lucky that I associate with you at all, Antares Mīrus. After all, in my society you would be considered an outcast, a splinter-horn, and no self-respecting unicorn or Pegasus would have anything to do with you. You are very fortunate to have such social privilege in Canterlot, and that I do not entirely revile your company.”
“Will you drop it?” Antares asked sourly, and in response Prestige only sniffed disdainfully. “Why are you even here? Go... go away. Go to the magic lab or something, Mom worked really hard to get you that research pass.”
“No, I desire to meet with Baroness Celestia as well. She is the entire reason I was sent here, after all, I was supposed to be training beneath the Baroness herself.” Prestige said haughtily, raising her head proudly. “My magical abilities are immense, after all, and was the Lich not so strong itself-”
“Twilight. Her name is Twilight Sparkle and she's a person still, even if she's... she's not...” Antares grimaced, then he shook his head and snapped as Prestige gave him an almost mocking look: “Seriously, you need to cut this out! Can't you be nice to other ponies for more than two seconds?”
“Not if they're my lessers.” Prestige scoffed, shaking her head quickly before she sniffed loudly. “I am a noble, high-born and with exceptional magical prowess. You should understand the former, at least, Antares... although, unlike me, you seem to have trouble so much as opening a door with your powers, much less perform any intensive magic.”
Antares grumbled under his breath, then he flicked his horn firmly forwards as they approached a pair of double doors, knocking them both flying open as he said sourly: “See? No problem.”
Then he paused, and slowly looked up to see Celestia calmly sitting in the room behind, drinking a cup of tea as she looked mildly over at them. Antares grinned lamely and blushed a bit as Prestige sniffed disdainfully and began to step forwards... and then she squeaked when guards clad in golden armor from head to hoof leapt in front of her, blocking her passage threateningly as she complained: “He did it, not me!”
“It's okay, she's just a pain in the flank, not any kind of threat.” Antares muttered as he walked forwards and past the golden armored warriors, and then he smiled a little as he rose his head towards Celestia, adding quietly: “Sorry, Aunt Tia. Guess that's my Mom coming out again.”
“I understand.” Celestia said softly, and then she held up a hoof, and the guards blocking Prestige's path both stepped out of the way. Prestige huffed at them, but she shied nervously away all the same: not a single piece of their body was left uncovered by the strange, glowing golden plating, and their eyes seemed to glow unnaturally through the sockets of the masks over their faces, as the ivory winged unicorn said calmly: “You are dismissed for now. You may return to Subterra or linger through the castle, I'll call if I need you.”
The guards nodded silently, and the six golden armored soldiers around the room left through the open doors, one stepping up beside Antares to let its side brush against him as it passed. It felt warm even through the armor, and Antares laughed despite himself as he glanced embarrassedly over his shoulder, but he could almost see the smile beneath the facemask when the bodyguard looked back at him.
Prestige only looked surly, and Celestia smiled after a moment to her, saying quietly: “You should be more careful. My Yamato don't like surprises.”
“They look like earth ponies dressed in armor. Why should I fear slave hoofs?” Prestige asked impudently, striding towards the table, and Antares snorted in amusement as Celestia sighed.
“Please don't use that term, Prestige. And they are not earth ponies, in any event... they are Nightmares, and that armor shields them from sunlight.” Celestia replied calmly, and Prestige looked up with dumb shock even as Celestia simply sipped at her tea.
For a few moments, there was awkward silence... and then Prestige finally spluttered out: “N-Nightmares? Why would you u-use Nightmares as bodyguards?”
“Because for the sun to rise, first there must be darkness.” Celestia smiled, gazing over at Antares as Prestige looked stupefied, realizing a little too late this wasn't an answer at all as Celestia said kindly: “Antares, I'd like to take your training in a different direction today. It would mean a lot to me if you would indulge me in a short sparring session.”
“Sparring?” Antares looked surprised at this, and then he blushed and dropped his head, mumbling embarrassedly: “Aunt Tia, honestly, I'm... I'm honored, but really, I don't think that I could hold my own against you for more than a minute... and that's at the very most.”
“Well, I'm glad you recognize someone's magical superiority.” Prestige said sourly as she approached the table, then she sat down and looked moodily back and forth. “You should fire your servants, Baroness, I do not see any in attendance. They should know that simply fetching your food is not enough.”
But Celestia only smiled a little at this, drawing her eyes to Prestige even as Antares visibly bit his tongue to hold back a retort. “I don't have any servants, Prestige Luster. Not personally, although Canterlot does employ a large staff... but they are exactly that, staff. Employees. And I actually made this tea myself.”
Prestige looked dumbly at Celestia for a few moments, and then she grumbled under her breath before the ivory winged unicorn turned her eyes back to her nephew, saying softly: “Antares, you are much more capable than you give yourself credit for. Besides, I'll only use my short swords: I want to evaluate how you've been doing in your training.”
Antares shifted a little, blushing and lowering his head embarrassedly before he finally nodded, glancing up at her and saying finally: “What should I use, then, Aunt Tia? I mean, I'm normally just a horn-fencer, so...”
“So simply use your horn then, Antares.” Celestia replied softly, smiling slightly. “Besides, there's no rush. I'd like to finish my tea first, and talk with you a little as well. You and your... friend... Prestige Luster.”
“He is not my friend.” Prestige said grumpily, and Antares mumbled an agreement before the unicorn mare leaned forwards and asked imploringly: “And please, can't you teach me something, Baroness? With all due respect, your Lich servant is wonderful, but-”
“Twilight Sparkle is my friend. A very close friend.” Celestia said quietly, her horn glowing as her teacup settled to the table in front of her, and there was a distinct hardening in her amethyst eyes that made Prestige swallow thickly and sit back, even as the ivory winged unicorn's tone remained civil, even gentle. “Please do not speak of her that way. And I would not have assigned you to her if I didn't believe she could teach you everything you need to know, Prestige... but you have much more important lessons to learn than magic.”
Prestige grumbled under her breath, looking moodily down at the table as she nodded a little, and Antares was glad that she was smart enough not to argue before he asked hesitantly: “Do you know about... I mean, did Twilight tell you...”
“Yes, she did. And I'm worried about you, of course, but... I promise to respect your choice in this.” Celestia said quietly, turning her eyes to Antares, who smiled faintly up at his aunt. “But as I'm sure Twilight told you... please, accept our help at least, and if you can, our advice. Do what my brother and sister couldn't do... and remember, we'll be here for you every step of the way to finding them and bringing them home.”
“What are you talking about? Antares, I thought your parents were dead.” Prestige said pessimistically, and Antares glared at her as Celestia slowly closed her eyes, looking exasperated. “Well, I did. It's not like anypony ever tells me anything.”
“Because it's none of your business.” Antares said moodily, and then he shook his head quickly before sighing and adding quietly: “And I don't know if they're alive or dead, okay? I... I just believe that they're alive, out there, somewhere. And I'm going to find them.”
Prestige huffed a little at this, but thankfully otherwise didn't say anything, and Antares was glad for this small mercy before he returned his eyes to Celestia as she said softly: “In the past, I would have thought of you as childish, Antares, or... said that you were clinging to false hopes, despite wanting to believe myself that Luna and Scrivener are both out there somewhere. But... I do believe you. I honestly do: you have a strange and wonderful gift for seeing the truth in things, and ever since you began talking about the Draconequus, Allonym-”
“Draconequus are chaos entities, they cannot be trusted.” Prestige interrupted immediately, and both Celestia and Antares fixed her with moody looks, even as she continued: “The exception to this rule, of course, is your servant Discord, who has been enfeebled and drained of his powers and thus presents no real threat-”
“Discord is not a threat because he lacks powers: it's not our powers that kill people, it's the actions we choose to take and what we do with them.” Celestia replied pointedly, and then she shook her head slowly and added quietly: “And Discord may not be happy but he is not a servant. He does honest work for me and that is to be respected, considering his past.”
Prestige grumbled a bit at this, then she said sulkily: “It sounds as if all things are to be respected, Baroness Celestia, and treated as equal... except, of course, for those few who deserve true respect and are in no way equal to the commoners and the lower class. Don't you think that you, with your high standing and great power, deserve so much more worship than some... some lowly servant or powerless, unimportant sla- uh... earth pony?”
“If raw power was really the only thing worthy of respect, Prestige, then we would all worship monsters.” Celestia replied calmly, and then she stood up from the table, and Antares smiled a bit as he hurriedly stood himself. “Please meet me at the training arena in say... half an hour from now. That should give us both more than enough time to prepare.”
“Okay, Aunt Tia. I'll be there.” Antares looked up with a firm nod, even if he still seemed a little nervous, and Celestia smiled softly at him before she turned and headed for a set of double doors. The two ponies watched her go, Prestige seeming moody and Antares fidgeting a bit, and then the glossy-black unicorn turned... only to wince as Prestige hurriedly jumped away from the table to follow beside him as he headed back into the halls. “What do you want now?”
Prestige only huffed, responding sourly: “Do not speak to me in such a tone, Antares, I am a guest and of noble esteem. And I deserve to watch this duel-”
“It's not a duel. If it was a duel, I'd probably run away because I'd be scared of what Aunt Tia would do to me.” He halted, then mumbled: “I'm already scared of what she's going to do to me. I'm no good at this stuff, I always want to pull my punches even though I know I'm not supposed to...”
The unicorn mare sniffed loudly at this, then she commented mildly: “You're a particularly pathetic kind of person, Antares. I hope you're aware of this.”
Antares gave Prestige a sour look, then he turned his gaze ahead through the halls, beginning to jog easily forwards. He winced when Prestige doggedly attempted to keep up with him, however, although the unicorn mare was clearly not as athletic as the young stallion was. “It... it's rude to run in a castle, you know!”
“I'm not running. Not yet, anyway. Look, I need to go get ready, if you really want to watch the sparring session then go find the arena.” Antares grumbled as he hurried forwards, moving a little faster: his gait was smooth and easy, while at his side Prestige was almost wheezing already, half- staggering after him.
Finally, Antares groaned as they reached an intersection in the halls, skidding to a halt as Prestige stumbled to a stop and almost plowed into a Royal Guard, who quickly stepped out of the way and gave the two a glare as he continued on his patrol. Antares only looked at her sourly as the unicorn mare panted loudly, head bowed, looking exhausted despite the fact Antares hadn't been pacing himself at much more than a fast walk. “I... I want... to come with... you...”
“Uh... no.” Antares said dryly, and Prestige shot him a horrible glare in response to this. “Look, you can't keep up with me, one way or the other, for one thing. For another, Prestige Luster, I... I really am not very fond of your company. I think you know that. So why the heck do you want to come with me? You can find the arena fine yourself if you really want to watch.”
“I... do not question... those above your... station...” Prestige grumbled, and then she winced when Antares turned and made as if to start running again, blurting: “I don't want to be alone!”
Antares stumbled a few steps, then he sighed tiredly before dropping his head dejectedly, mumbling: “Wonderful. I... okay, Prestige, just... just please. Please. Please try and keep your mouth shut, okay?”
Prestige gave him another sour look as she mumbled to herself, then she straightened and gave a single surly nod. Antares gave a small smile despite himself at this, then he turned to lead the way onwards as Prestige fell into pace beside him, the glossy-black unicorn saying quietly: “See? This doesn't have to be so bad. We might never be friends but we don't have to be enemies, either.”
“My station is far too high to ever consider you worthy of being an enemy.” Prestige muttered, and Antares sighed tiredly, shaking his head slowly as the two walked on in quiet for a few minutes. Then, awkwardly, Prestige rose her head and looked at the young stallion for a few long moments, before she asked finally: “Your mother and father are considered heroes, are they not?”
“I... yeah.” Antares said quietly after a moment, shaking his head as he glanced down with a bit of a smile. “There's a statue of them in Ponyville, near the memorial for Trixie the Brave, and there's a shrine here in Canterlot dedicated to them. But I've never visited it here...”
“Why not?” Prestige cocked her head, then she smiled wryly. “Oh, wait, no, let me guess. Little Antares is too afraid of never being able to live up to what his parents were, so he avoids all memory of their achievements, is that it?”
“Do you want to come with me or do you want me to leave you here?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige grumbled but nodded, mumbling moodily under her breath. “And it's not that at all, anyway. It's... it's that... if I go and visit their shrine, it would feel like I'm admitting they're... they're gone. And they're not, I believe with all my heart that they're not.”
Prestige was quiet at this, and her expression changed a little, her tone softening just a bit as she asked quietly: “How can you be so sure, Antares Mīrus? Twilight Sparkle made me learn all the history of the events of the war with Decretum, which still aren't that widely known... only that we were at war with aggressors thought to have originally come from a distant country, and not another world. I still find it exceptionally difficult to believe that travel between different worlds is possible... that there are different worlds out there at all. And if that is true... your parents have been gone for nine years, soon to be ten, and have been trapped in the home of your enemy for all that time.”
“I believe they're alive.” Antares said sharply, and Prestige looked surprised by his tone before the glossy black unicorn dropped his head awkwardly, mumbling: “Sorry. But... but I believe they're alive, I honestly do. Mom and Dad... they're tough, and they don't give up, and... and they made a promise. They never break a promise...”
He turned his gaze away, and Prestige studied him for a few moments before she mumbled a little and gazed ahead, asking moodily: “And you expect to find them somehow, someday... Baroness Celestia and Miss Twilight both seem to think you have some plan to leave, but I simply cannot see you leaving behind all your friends and family on some wild adventure into nowhere. Do you even have the means to find your parents?”
“Not yet, and not that it's any of your business, Prestige, but my friends and I and the rest of my family have been working hard on figuring out a way to hunt down Decretum.” Antares said stiffly. “Mom and Dad knew the way there, after all, and Gymbr was able to open the Bifrost from there when... when they rescued me. That means that the Bifrost can reach it, we just... need to figure out the exact coordinates.
“And furthermore, I'm not dumb enough to think that I can just waltz into Decretum. Once my training's done, once... I feel ready enough to leave, I'm not going to go alone. Some of my friends will be coming with me, and we'll be gathering up tools and equipment from across Equestria.” Antares replied quietly, shaking his head quickly. “I plan to meet with Strange Ones and Nibelung Architects, to find other ponies who have fought Clockwork World or knew my parents and see if they can help too, and I'm going to get help from Allonym. My ultimate goal is getting to Decretum, but I know to get there, I gotta get stronger, first. I gotta do everything I can to prepare.”
“Allonym, your imaginary Draconequus friend.” Prestige said sourly, and Antares gave her a horrible look before she sniffed disdainfully. “I do not see why such an elaborate creature would speak to only you, and you alone. Precious few others have seen this Draconequus... and furthermore, your friends are... shall we say... unexceptional.”
“You're calling Avalon unexceptional?” Antares said disbelievingly, and Prestige sniffed again before the glossy-black unicorn glared at the mare. “And Rustproof, and even Aphrodisia? Even Meadowlark is amazing, have you ever seen her at work?”
“I just fail to see how any of them can help you. With the possible exception of the psychotic midget Pegasus, you have a demonic prostatot, a slow-witted mechanic, and a journalist.” Prestige said sourly, and Antares looked at Prestige moodily as he wished absently he was better at magic so he could set her on fire. “And you, Antares Mīrus, are rather incapable of magic, which is what truly separates the successful from the failures. You will require at least one exceptional mage upon your journey.”
Antares opened his mouth... and then he halted in front of the door leading into his own personal room, frowning slowly as he leaned forwards and studied her. Prestige only looked back at him with her smug expression, and then the young stallion shook his head before saying disbelievingly: “You? You want to come with us?”
“Well, while I appreciate you entreating my aid and recognizing my superior magical prowess... I shall have to think about whether or not I really desire to lend you any assistance at all.” Prestige Luster flicked her silver mane, raising her head proudly and looking pleased with herself, and Antares just stared at her. “Of course, there are certain appealing notions to this remarkably-vague plan of yours... traveling across Equestria, gathering equipment, adventure, it seems oh so fantastical and romantic but it would make for a very nice little vacation, which I think I've well-earned after all the history and schooling I've done here for the last four or five years. And furthermore-”
The young stallion turned, kicked his door in, and stormed through it, and Prestige spluttered to a halt before Antares loudly kicked his door shut in her face. The unicorn mare glared at this, then her horn glowed... before she cursed under her breath when the door refused to budge, instead hammering on it with a hoof as she complained: “Antares! Antares, you know you need my help! Antares, open this door this instant, I am a noble and I will not be treated this way!”
Antares pointedly ignored the unicorn mare's pleas and insistent knocking, heading across the almost-obsessively-neat room to the armor stand in the corner. He sighed after a moment as the knocking continued, grumpily glaring at the locked door, but then he only shook his head and absently reached out to smooth down a corner of his bed, shaking his head after a moment as he tried to put the unicorn mare out of his mind and focus on the task at hoof.
He turned his eyes towards his armor stand, carefully looking over it as he reached up to gently touch the lightweight black breastplate. It was plain but beautiful, a gift from his uncle, Sleipnir: he had designed it after Luna's own battle armor, and it favored mobility over weighty protection, perfect for Antares' preferred style of combat.
The cusps that would lock over shoulders and hips were slightly enlarged and embellished, and sleeves of dark navy, dragon-scale leather hung loose, each with a metal bracelet at the end to lock them securely into place when worn. They matched a blue vest that rested on the other side of the armor stand, which would act as the buffer layer between his body and the metal plating: often during his sparring sessions, he just wore the leather, but today he had a feeling he'd need to go in full gear.
It didn't take him long to fit everything on, shaking his head out once he had finished securing his armor and obsessively checking it again for any dings, scratches, or dirt. Then he nodded firmly once before awkwardly reaching up and brushing his rugged mane back, bowing his head and murmuring quietly: “Stars and nature grant me strength.”
He hesitated, then turned and picked up the last piece of armor on the stand, holding it in his front hooves before he sighed and carefully fitted the black metal circlet around his head before securing the single chin strap that held it firmly in place. He grumbled a little under his breath, but the crescent-shaped band of metal held his mane out of his eyes, fit comfortably against his skull, and it was good for protecting his forehead and giving more support to the base of his horn with the U-shaped hollow that fit around the natural spire... but it always felt a little... silly, with the crown of six dragon-like horns that twisted up from either side of it.
He mumbled to himself, then glanced over the top of his dresser, bare except for a sketchpad... and Antares smiled after a moment as he stepped towards this, opening it to gaze silently down at the drawings inside. Sketches by his mother, of friends, and family, and other things... and he nodded once before closing it and taking a slow breath, murmuring: “I'm gonna do you proud today, Mom, I promise.”
Antares shook his head out, then he turned and quietly made his way back across the room to the door, pulling it open and stepping outside as he kept his head high and proud... and promptly tripped over the curled-up form of Prestige, making her squawk indignantly as Antares cursed under his breath. Passing ponies stopped and stared at the two as they struggled and flailed at each other, Prestige shouting indignantly: “I demand you get off of me!”
“Stop kicking me!” Antares cursed, then he finally managed to yank himself backwards, stumbling hurriedly away from Prestige and glaring down at her as she sat up and shook herself out, the young stallion snapping : “What are you even doing?”
“I was waiting for you! You should thank me, that I, a high-born unicorn would bother to wait for a lowly splinter-horn like yourself!” Prestige spat, and the two glared at each other before she suddenly frowned and leaned forwards, reaching a hoof up to poke curiously at his armor. “What is this? Why are you wearing this? This is nonsense, I didn't think you were so low-born that you would wear common armor like a common soldier.”
Several nearby Royal Guards glared at Prestige at this, but she ignored them completely as Antares only stared at the unicorn, then groaned and rolled his eyes, muttering: “Oh yeah, it's no wonder you just have so many friends, Prestige. Look, let's... go. Before the 'low-born' guards decide to arrest you for being a public nuisance.”
“I am a mage and a unicorn, they may not lay a hoof upon me.” Prestige said huffily, raising her head arrogantly, and Antares only sighed tiredly as he closed the door and then turned, muttering under his breath as he started down the corridor, the unicorn mare hurrying after him as she continued mildly: “Your equipment is based on old Equestrian earth pony battle raiment, isn't it? A breastplate that encompasses the full chest instead of simply covering the back. I see it's been modified with holes for your wings, though... and of course, that coronet you're wearing is a barbaric pre-Equestrian design, from the... víkingr tribes?”
“I... how do you know that?” Antares looked surprised as he glanced over at Prestige, who simply sniffed disdainfully and smiled at him almost mockingly, making him glower at her. “You know what? Forget I asked.”
“Oh come now, don't be jealous just because I happen to pay attention.” Prestige retorted, rubbing a hoof absently against her chest before she added mildly: “Besides, it's really quite obvious to anypony who pays any attention in history. And the víkingr earth pony barbarians are what paved the way for unicorns to assert their dominance, anyway... they forced the Pegasi to move from ground camps into the safety of cloud cities, and then were easily subdued and employed by the allure and power of unicorn magic.”
“You mean enslaved.” Antares said dryly, and Prestige only shrugged before the glossy-black stallion asked quietly: “How the hell can you be okay with that stuff, Prestige? I think of what my Dad's side of the family must have been like and... and I get the shivers. I even think about what I'd do if some angry earth pony came looking for payback and found me... I don't think I could entirely blame him if he took his pain out on me for what my ancestors did.”
“That's because you are oversensitive and silly, Antares.” scoffed Prestige, shaking her head with an almost-mocking laugh. “We cannot be held accountable for the indiscretions of our families. Besides, slave-hooves are not as pure as you and your kind like to believe...”
She looked moodily away, shaking her head with disgust as Antares looked at her quietly, before she added quietly: “And yes, I believe unicorns are superior and stronger and better, because... we are. We have magic, and powers that earth ponies and even Pegasi can only dream of... and will never attain. Not unless they trade for it like Blood Seers do, and we all know that is not a fair trade. But don't look at me as if I'm scum, because I am not. I even appreciate some earth ponies, and their abilities: the engineer in Ponyville, Cowlick, is a rude and obnoxious twit, but even I recognize her crafting ability is exceptional. And while I may tote my superiority, I am nothing like some unicorns in the north, Antares.
“Did you know my family's slaves were employed fairly?” she inquired, and Antares turned his head away in disgust... but found himself listening all the same, his sharp senses picking up what sounded like... honesty, in Prestige's words. Or at least she believes it so much it's true to her... “My mother gave these miserable little earth ponies, who had no real rights in Silver Hoof, a full-time job, a roof over their heads, and work. We even paid them wages. Yes, there were many rules, and yes, we were hard on them, but we were never cruel to them. We never beat them, we gave them days off, and we lorded over them but we also did not permit other families to mistreat them or even give them orders. They were servants, really, not slaves. Slaves have no rights, and I have seen my neighbors practicing slavery eagerly. We at least kept our servants healthy and alive. Some would even say happy: not many earth ponies could claim they earned wages, after all.”
“So you're the lesser of evils, huh?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige smiled icily at him in response to this. “Look, I don't like the way you look at the world, Prestige. It's as simple as that. You're not better than everypony else, and being a unicorn doesn't make you special. Maybe you weren't as bad as some ponies, I... I can believe that. You're rude but you don't seem... cruel.”
Prestige Luster laughed shortly at this, saying sourly: “Well, Heavens be, is that almost a compliment? But I don't expect you to understand. I know none of you like me, Antares Mīrus, and that's fine. I don't much care for any of you, either.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Antares asked finally, and Prestige grumbled, blushing a little as she turned away, and the two were silent on the rest of the short walk through Canterlot and out into the fields outside the castle.
They made their way down a gentle slope, towards a large barracks building in the distance: the training arena was built into the side of this, its rounded stone walls higher than the squat building beside it and almost gleaming, like it had been recently washed and polished. And Antares blushed a bit as they approached the open iron gates and made their way past a group of off-duty Royal Guards, all of whom were watching eagerly. “Oh great...”
“Well, I suppose they can't be blamed for taking an interest. I must admit, I look forwards to seeing just what kind of... magic...” Prestige stuttered to a halt as they strode out the other side of the short tunnel into the arena grounds and through another gate, her eyes locking on the sight of Celestia before she stammered: “I... I... what's going on?”
Antares only smiled, blushing as he strode forwards and bowed his head respectfully... and Celestia, in her heavy full plate mail, smiled softly as she bowed her head back. The huge, ornate armor gleamed like the radiant sun over her body, making her look even more titanic than she already was: the few joints and other areas that weren't protected by the golden plate were instead insulated by thick, flexible chainmail mesh. It made her look every inch the warrior she was at heart, however softly she spoke in the Royal Court and gentle she seemed at other times.
Prestige was gaping stupidly, and Celestia smiled as she glanced towards the unicorn mare, saying kindly: “It's a surprise to see you here, Prestige Luster. But you're welcome to sit in the stands and watch. I hope you don't mind, Antares, but we have a small audience.”
Antares winced a bit as he glanced awkwardly towards the seats that went all around the arena: here and there, groups of ponies were sitting, and he blushed awkwardly and rose a hoof as he noted Twilight Sparkle herself was in one of the balcony seats that went around the edge of arena walls. She waved back at him, and it reassured him as he breathed hard before nodding once, turning his eyes back to Celestia as he said quietly: “Of course, Aunt Tia. I gotta learn to focus under pressure anyway, right?”
Celestia only smiled and nodded, and Prestige shook her head stupidly before she glanced hurriedly around the arena, as if expecting to find the real Celestia hiding behind one of the enormous stone pillars that stood here and there around the outer edge of the twenty-foot stone walls that enclosed the tournament grounds. “I... this is... you...”
“Even today, few ponies know my past, know... my true face and heart. But I am trying to be more open... not to present myself as a tyrant or warrior queen, but as simply... who I am.” Celestia said softly, and then she flicked her horn, and three bursts of golden flame tore through the air around her before they solidified into golden, gladius-shaped swords, the double-edged blades glinting as the enormous winged unicorn bowed her head politely. “Now please, Prestige, if you'll excuse us, there's a stairway right over there you can take to reach the stands and join Twilight Sparkle. Perhaps you can learn something from this contest.”
“No contest, Aunt Tia, we both already know how this is going to go.” Antares smiled embarrassedly, looking up at the much-larger mare before he hesitated, then bowed his head and said quietly: “I'm honored to... to do this, though. I don't know if I'm ready and I don't think I'm worthy, but... thank you.”
“Just make sure you come at me with all your strength, Antares Mīrus, no holding back, no pulling your punches... and I'll be the one who is honored by this.” Celestia replied quietly, and Antares smiled after a moment as the two surveyed each other. Prestige stared at them for a few moments longer, and then the unicorn mare hurriedly turned and ran towards the side of the arena, bolting for the nearest staircase as Celestia laughed quietly and gazed with tenderness at her nephew as her three swords floated at the ready around her. “She seems to like you.”
Antares only shook his head, laughing as well as he said quietly: “She... seems to want to come with me on my journey. I... I don't really know what to do, though, to be honest. You and Twilight have been telling me so often how important it is to accept help, and I think of Mom and Dad... how they so rarely accepted anyone's aid but... when it came down to it, they were ready to help even the worst of their enemies, weren't they? I mean... the demons, the Nibelung, they were enemies at first, yeah?”
“Yes, they were. But now I trust and even have friends amongst them both... the time I've spent with both the dwarves and the entities of darkness has helped me see how all people are truly people... and in many ways, helped me come to terms with who and what I am. With my past, and with my present... and I hope, will help me be a better person in the future.” Celestia replied softly, and then she rolled her head slowly on her shoulders before straightening and saying gently: “I promise I'll be careful, Antares. If you want to stop, just let me know.”
“I know.” Antares said softly, blushing a bit before he anchored himself, leaning forwards slightly and then nodding firmly once. “I'm ready, Aunt Tia.”
“Good.” Celestia said softly... and then she lunged forwards, moving gracefully despite the heavy armor shrouding her body as her swords whickered up in front of her, two staying in ready positions as the third lashed down in a vicious slash. But Antares sidestepped in a flash, the blade biting only into the ground before he sprinted forwards as his horn began to glow with sapphire light.
A second sword lashed towards him as Celestia half-twisted to face him, and Antares swung his horn out, parrying the attack with the natural weapon before he leapt forwards... only for the third sword to snap upwards, the flat slapping across his body before Celestia flicked her horn down and hammered the young stallion with a telekinetic blast. It sent him flying backwards with a wince, but he quickly spread his wings, catching the air as he flipped backwards and then landed heavily on all four hooves with a grunt.
“Good. But you need to be faster and not make your attacks so direct. Use your eyes, Antares; you have a gift.” Celestia said calmly, before she smiled slightly as her horn glowed brightly. With a flick forwards, she sent a golden fireball rocketing towards the young stallion... but Antares only gritted his teeth, his own horn glowing as he raised a hoof before swatting the fireball away like it was no more threatening than a thrown stone. It flew to the side, then struck the ground a short distance away and exploded in a blast of golden light and fire. “Excellent. You've learned well from Sleipnir.”
Antares only smiled a bit before he ran forwards, concentrating... and this time, when his eyes locked on Celestia, he could almost see the tensing of her muscles, could read beneath her smile and see the true emotions in her amethyst eyes...
She flicked her horn, sending out a telekinetic blast, and Antares gritted his teeth as he slashed his horn forwards, releasing his own blast of telekinesis in response: it muffled Celestia's much-more powerful attack, letting him continue to charge forwards through the wave of force that washed over him before he leapt upwards and spread his leathery wings, flapping them hard to shoot forwards through the air even as Celestia's swords lashed towards him.
He parried one with his horn in midair, a hoof flying out to punch the flat of another blade and knock it flying before he swung both rear hooves forwards as the third lashed towards him in a horizontal cut, kicking off it like it was a step in midair to launch higher and gracefully flip once before dropping like a stone and swinging both hooves down in a vicious tomahawk towards Celestia's surprised features-
Celestia's three swords formed a wall in front of her, and he smashed uselessly into this crisscrossed shield of blades before they all snapped powerfully upwards, ripping gouges through his armor and sending Antares flying backwards with a curse of surprise. Then his eyes widened a moment before he was smashed by a telekinetic hammer, sent shooting through the air like a black star as Celestia charged after him as a smile spread wider over her features, almost becoming a grin of surprised delight.
Antares forced himself not to panic before he half-flipped himself, trusting in his instincts... and his hooves smashed into the surface of one of the pillars that lined the battlefield, skidding up the solid stone as sparks hailed down from his hooves. He halted for a moment, defying gravity as he looked sharply up, watching Celestia sprinting forwards before he gritted his teeth and shoved himself off the pillar when Celestia's entire body burst into golden flame before she simply rammed into the pillar in a shoulder charge, smashing the base of it into pieces.
It toppled slowly behind her as Antares unfurled his wings, flapping them hard once to launch himself above the falling pillar before he landed on it while it was still slanted down towards her, his hooves pounding along the surface of the stone as he ran quickly down the column. Celestia looked over her shoulder in surprise as the golden flames died out from around her before she tensed, then kicked both rear legs hard out towards Antares as he reached the bottom of the falling stone structure... but the young stallion threw himself low, his metal armor screaming against stone as he skidded over the base of the pillar and he forced himself to roll onto his back, then shoved himself onwards as hard as he could with all four hooves and flapped his wings, sending himself beneath Celestia's kicking legs and just beneath her body as the column crashed down behind him.
His horn lashed up, the stallion wincing at the crick it put in his neck even as he dragged his glowing horn fiercely along Celestia's plate mail, ripping a long scratch through her armor before he shot out between her front legs, spreading his wings again to try and give himself one more boost, make one more desperate lunge... but he was scooped easily up by Celestia's three blades, the control taken from his flight before the swords lashed back and forth in short cuts against the front of his armor, Antares wincing as he felt every single blow. Yet at the same time, Celestia handled herself with such precision that he never once felt the blades cutting into him: she only mauled his armor before all three swords lashed outwards and slammed him down onto his back, knocking him flat with a curse.
He breathed raggedly, staring up at her as she stood over him with a calm smile, her three swords all positioned with their points towards his neck as she said softly: “I'm very impressed, Antares. But I think our session is over now. Surrender.”
“Not yet.” Antares smiled a bit, and Celestia cocked her head before the young stallion gritted his teeth and flung himself backwards, his horn glowing brightly: a wall of blue energy appeared immediately between him and the three swords even as the weapons all stabbed downwards, colliding with the rippling energy... and then becoming stuck after piercing halfway through the sticky sapphire barrier.
Celestia's eyes widened in surprised as Antares rolled backwards into a lunge position, snapping his horn forwards, and the barrier became solid before exploding backwards into shards of blue light, pelting the ivory winged unicorn with navy shrapnel as her swords were flung uselessly through the air. Antares threw himself forwards, gritting his teeth... and crashed right into one of Celestia's front hooves before she leaned into the blow and stomped down on him, crushing him to the ground as he gasped in shock and twitched on the sandy earth of the arena, wheezing loudly as he stared dumbly up at her.
Celestia shook herself off briskly, the last of the blue energy fading into motes: her armor was a bit dented here and there, but the most damage he'd managed was a scrape and a few small cuts over her face. Her hoof crushed down on him, keeping him easily pinned beneath her... but a moment later, a slow smile spread over her features before she leaned down and said softly: “Again, I told you not to make your attacks so direct, Antares... but I didn't expect that at all. You've been trying to study your mother's magic, haven't you?”
“I don't have a lot to go on, since it's not like Mom wrote much down... but... I feel it inside me, I guess. It comes out on instinct sometimes, and then I teach myself to try and harness it.” Antares replied finally, and then he smiled awkwardly as he glanced down at her hoof. “Aunt Tia, uh... could you...”
“Surrender first, Antares.” Celestia said gently, and Antares hesitated, looking up at her... and Celestia smiled at this before pressing down a bit harder with her hoof, making him wheeze loudly. “You're as stubborn as your mother and father both.”
Antares only wheezed again in response, gritting his teeth before he grabbed at the winged unicorn's hoof, pushing weakly at it... but Celestia only bore down harder, and Antares gasped as he felt the breath whoosh out of him before he nodded violently and finally rasped: “Okay, okay! You win, Aunt Tia, don't squish me!”
Celestia smiled again and shook her head slowly, stepping calmly backwards off the young stallion, and Antares scrambled up to his hooves, rasping for breath before he looked up with a smile in return to the ivory mare. Then they both bowed their heads before Celestia stepped forwards and gently tapped her horn against Antares', saying softly: “You held up well. I think you should ask Sleipnir to help you with further training when you return to Ponyville, but... I think you're ready to learn a few techniques I've been wanting to try and teach you for a while now.”
Antares smiled radiantly at this, straightening and nodding firmly, and Celestia laughed quietly, asking gently: “What? I just defeated you and forced you to surrender, Antares... aren't you upset, or disappointed?”
“Not at all, why would I be?” Antares smiled again, shrugging a bit as he laughed and gazed quietly at Celestia. “I was honored by the chance to share this with you, Aunt Tia, you're... such an incredible person. You're so powerful and graceful, and you have such... strength. Even with you being nice enough to give me a chance, I knew there was no way I'd beat you. But... defeat can teach us more than victory, isn't that right? And I am honestly... honored and flattered by... by the fact you think I've developed enough to start learning your style of combat. Because I know that... it's sacred, and it's dangerous, and it means you must trust me. I only hope I live up to that.”
Celestia smiled warmly at this, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards as she murmured softly: “You're so different from your parents... but so much the same, too. Luna would be throwing a temper tantrum right now, and Scrivener would be laughing what happened off, or making some joke... but both of them always treated me with more respect than I deserved. Antares...”
The ivory winged unicorn looked up, opening her amethyst eyes, and then she smiled again and shook her head when he looked at her curiously. “But enough. Come with me, we need to repair our armor now, as you've been taught, and polish it up.”
Antares nodded, and then he strode up to the ivory mare and leaned up to hug her tightly, and Celestia returned the embrace firmly. They parted, and then both ponies gazed up around the arena with smiles as a few cheers sounded from those who weren't still shocked by the short but fierce display from their thought-passive Baroness and her young nephew. Antares laughed and waved shyly around at the crowd, and Celestia sighed but gave him an amused look all the same, nudging him gently. “Come, Antares. The last thing we need is for you to develop an ego like your mother's.”
The young stallion laughed and nodded, turning away to follow Celestia... and in the stands, Prestige stared after the unicorn from beside Twilight Sparkle before she shook her head violently, then gestured madly at the arena, spluttering: “That... that... that is not how unicorns duel!”
“I think those two would argue with you.” Twilight smiled despite herself, giving Prestige a mild look as the Lich absently reached up to adjust the thick wool sweater she was wearing. “Come on, Prestige, Atrus was kind enough to give me a little of his blood last night so we can work on an advanced homunculus creation spell today...”
Prestige only grumbled, glaring down into the arena as Antares and Celestia began to walk away, and then she turned and asked suddenly to the purple mare, as she began to get up: “What kind of magic did Antares use? Why haven't I been taught that kind of barrier magic?”
Twilight Sparkle sighed, shaking her head as she stood up and said gently: “Prestige, please. We've been over this. You've already got multiple magical talents, that's... enviable to begin with. Most unicorns can only master one or two realms of magic... you have the potential to master control over not just the elements, but enchantments and maybe even some creation magic... assuming today goes well, and you're able to create and control a homunculus.”
“But I want to know!” Prestige whined, then she huffed and looked grumpily into the arena. Twilight hesitantly reached up and touched her shoulder, and Prestige closed her eyes, then slumped a bit and nodded moodily, saying finally: “Fine. I will respect your wishes, Miss Twilight, but only because you're my teacher and only because I know you are a capable and resourceful magician.”
Twilight smiled a bit at this, and then she turned to head towards one of the aisles leading between the stands and towards an exit. Prestige followed after the Lich, then she hesitated before saying finally: “Twilight Sparkle, you tell me again and again how fortunate I am to be able to master all these different types of magic... yet all the same, there are certain kinds of magic I simply cannot learn, or you will not deign to teach me. Yet you yourself... very clearly have delved into forbidden arts, have you not? And furthermore-”
“I don't want to talk about that, Prestige Luster.” Twilight said quietly, shaking her head a bit as she started down the steps leading down the outer wall of the arena. “My choice was either become this or die... and it was far beyond my power to turn myself into a Lich. All I could do was... link myself to an object in this world.”
“Your phylactery.” Prestige pressed, hurrying forwards as they stepped off the stairs and began to pass through the fields, heading back towards the castle. Twilight grumbled under her breath, and Prestige looked at her thoughtfully as she paced beside her before asking carefully: “I've been your apprentice for years now, so I think you should trust me enough to answer at least one of my questions honestly, Miss Twilight...”
“Prestige, I just... I just don't want to talk about it.” Twilight said tiredly, dropping her head forwards as she muttered: “Becoming what I am was one of the stupidest decisions I've ever made in my life, okay? I mean, when I did it, it wasn't, but now... now it feels stupid, because the only two people who really appreciated me no matter what are...”
She broke off, then shook her head and looked down with a quiet sight, murmuring: “It's forbidden for a reason, Prestige, along with most other necromancy. It goes against the rules of life and death, and tampering with that order leads just to... pain and heartache.”
“But isn't that what Antares is trying to do? His parents are gone.” Prestige remarked... and then she winced and stumbled backwards when Twilight spun around, glaring at her as a snarl spread over her features and her body visibly rippled.
The Lich caught herself, however, closing her almost-glowing eyes before she took a slow breath. For a few moments, there was silence as they stood in the shadow of the castle together... and then Twilight finally looked up, saying quietly: “Antares believes his parents are alive... and I'm honestly inclined to believe him, for a lot of reasons. Reasons I don't think you'd entirely understand. But this is a subject I expect you to respect, Prestige, and recognize that it's not some ancient piece of history, or some theorem or academic problem. This is going on, right now, and it's harder than you can know for me, for Antares, for Celestia... for other ponies, too. So please. Show a little respect. I would really appreciate that.”
Prestige shifted awkwardly, blushing as she looked down, feeling strangely ashamed of herself as the Lich studied her silently. Then Twilight turned, heading towards the castle again, and Prestige trotted quickly after her in quiet.
Yet all the same, as they passed into Canterlot Castle, Prestige couldn't stop herself from asking curiously: “The history and legends you taught me about Luna Brynhild... are they true? And that shrine, has Antares really never visited it?”
“Yes, they're true, and no, he hasn't. And I was only there once.” Twilight shook her head slowly, closing her eyes as they walked slowly through the halls, the Lich murmuring after a moment: “Celestia wanted a monument to be built to honor them, to show them how much they were missed when they came back... not what feels more like... an empty coffin. But Celestia visits there sometimes late at night... spends time talking to them, or talking with... old friends.”
Prestige looked thoughtfully at Twilight as they walked onwards, until they reached the other side of the Castle and the adjoining magic academy. Twilight smiled at the Royal Guards at the door when they opened the double doors for her, and Prestige looked meditatively at the armored unicorns before hurrying after the Lich as she strode into the lobby.
Twilight grimaced at the empty space in the ceiling where the hanging chandelier had once been: it had all been cleaned up by now, but just thinking about it sent an ache through her. Her body didn't interpret pain the same way it did when she was a mortal, but still, having a large, heavy object dropped on you was never pleasant... and she sighed when Prestige cleared her throat loudly, turning towards the young mare and asking dryly: “Yes?”
“Baroness Celestia, you, Scrivener Blooms and Luna... you all form some kind of strange clique, don't you?” Prestige cocked her head curiously, and Twilight smiled despite herself at this thought. “Although I realize how this sounds with my background... if Scrivener Blooms is only an earth pony, how does he fit in with three winged unicorns?”
“Scrivener knew me back when I was only a unicorn... and we never got along very well at first. Likewise, Celestia and Scrivener... well, they had their problems, too.” Twilight smiled after a moment despite herself, shaking her head a bit. “It just... happened, that's all. That's how everything is, after all... look at yourself, Prestige, have you ever thought about how fortunate you are, a northern unicorn here in Canterlot? And you know me, Celestia, and Antares...”
“I'm not stupid, Twilight Sparkle, it sounds as if Scrivener Blooms was treated like a king. A unicorn king at that, not an earth pony barbarian warlord.” Prestige said mildly, and Twilight sighed and turned, grumbling as she headed for another set of doors, and Prestige winced before hurrying after her. “I mean no disrespect, of course!”
Twilight only shook her head, shoving the doors open... and then wincing when she almost hit another unicorn on his way out of the school. The aging stallion hurriedly backpedaled, then glared at her as the Lich blushed and said awkwardly: “Oh, I'm sorry, I... Crown, is that you?”
“Yes, yes, it's me, and... oh, Miss Sparkle, it's you.” Crown rubbed slowly at his face, blinking tiredly as he stood up, then rubbed at his throat moodily. He looked disheveled and tired, and Twilight Sparkle frowned worriedly before the coroner shook his head, muttering: “It's nothing, I seem to have caught a nasty cold, but not even the healers here were able to help me out at all. Probably from last night... I was drinking late and then got called out near Ponyville.”
“Ponyville? What happened?” Twilight asked apprehensively. For a moment, Crown only looked at her indecisively... and then Twilight smiled a little, leaning forwards and insisting quietly: “Come on, you know that I'm going to find out anyway. Spare me a little trouble, will you?”
“I... alright, alright.” Crown sighed tiredly, then he nodded and said moodily: “The corpse of one of your so-called Clockwork Ponies was found out there. Nasty, brittle thing. I...” He paused, grimaced, then turned his head and sneezed loudly. “Excuse me. I swear, the Royal Guard called me out just to make sure I'd be dead before I can collect my pension...”
He shook himself out, then glanced up and saw Twilight's expression, giving an absent wave of a hoof. “It was long dead when the Royal Guards found it, don't worry about that. I think it just broke down... these things have been running down their batteries for the last ten years or so, haven't they?”
“Clockwork Ponies? They still exist?” Prestige asked curiously, and when Crown frowned at her, she glared back at the coroner before saying clearly: “Do not look at me in such a manner, I am of noble esteem. You are a unicorn lowering himself to the work of an earth pony.”
Twilight slowly closed her eyes, and Crown glared at Prestige, looking ruffled as he snapped: “My wife is an earth pony young... y-young...”
Then he leaned forwards and sneezed loudly, and Prestige shrieked as she was splattered by snot before she fell over and started pawing wildly at her features, yelling: “Inconsiderate oaf! Oh, disgusting, how dare you! I'll have your horn for this!”
Crown only sniffled a little, rubbing at his nose before he grunted and stormed past, muttering: “If you'll excuse me, Twilight Sparkle, I need to go to Ponyville. I'll send you a copy of my report.”
“I'd appreciate it!” Twilight called awkwardly, and then she sighed and looked grouchily down at Prestige as the young mare continued to scrub wildly at her features and yell angrily, the Lich shaking her head slowly and closing her eyes. It's going to be a long day...