• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,701 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

The City Beneath The City

Chapter Eleven: The City Beneath The City

Cowlick grumbled under her breath as she sat with her head in her hooves at the library table, rubbing slowly at her temples before she muttered: “Goddammit. I knew it was too good to be true. I should have known there was something wrong with that perfect site since there was so little water at the bottom but... goddammit.”

Twilight only smiled faintly, reaching up to gently touch the engineer's shoulder, and Cowlick grumbled and shrugged her off as she mumbled: “Don't gimme sympathy, I don't deserve it. I really screwed the pooch on this one. And anyway, shouldn't you be off... uh... cleaning up?”

The violet mare blushed awkwardly, rubbing at the front of her sweater embarrassedly: the Lich looked emaciated now, and her body had deteriorated much further from the strain put on it as she'd helped clean the sewer tunnels and then spent the rest of the night searching high and low for Cancer. They had found no traces of the body that had fallen in the pit, likely thanks to the volatile makeup of the destruction entity... but on the other hoof, several Starlit Knights had found what looked like some kind of slime only ten or so feet away from the hole, near an animal burrow.

A short inspection confirmed the worst: Cancer had somehow crawled through a hole in the cliff wall, then slithered his way through the cracks in the permeable stone until he'd hit some poor animal's nest and escaped through that. Ten feet away... if they hadn't all been so focused on the explosion, on the shell of a body Cancer had simply abandoned...

“Since Antares and his friends are all going to Subterra shortly...” Twilight halted awkwardly at the baleful glare Cowlick gave her as she sat up, and the Lich hurriedly looked around the table for support... but Sleipnir simply whistled innocently and looked up towards the ceiling as Antares shrank in his seat and Celestia offered an awkward smile. “I... listen.”

Cowlick grumbled, then gestured moodily around the table at the others: Antares' friends were all present, along with many of their respective parents and guardians, leaving the table a little crowded. “Yeah, that's real funny, you guys making that decision for us. Right, Rainbow?”

“Actually, AJ and I kind of think it's a good idea... I mean... scary, yeah, but good.” Rainbow Dash said awkwardly, and Applejack smiled faintly down at Avalon with a slow nod, as the young Pegasus gazed warmly up at her parents. She looked excited and enthusiastic, and oddly enough, seemed the least out of sorts this morning despite having been up all night.

“Oh come on.” Cowlick groaned, then she looked almost plaintively around the table before sighing tiredly as her eyes settled on Meadowlark. The young, red Pegasus was sleeping fitfully over the table, face in her forelegs, and Cowlick softened before she said quietly: “Rusty's just a kid, though, and Meadowlark... doesn't have anypony to watch out for her, just stays here at the library all the time. Ain't fair, you hear me?”

“No, it is fair.” Pinkamena said mildly, glancing up from where she was sitting with a foreleg wrapped around her daughter's shoulders, as Aphrodisia smiled happily from where she was safely snuggled between mother and father. “Don't turn into a wimp now, Cowlick. You're supposed to be miss butch here, not mega-mommy.”

“Oh, screw you.” Cowlick muttered, and then she sighed and looked at Rustproof when he touched her foreleg, gazing up at her silently... and after a moment, the engineer relented and mumbled: “Great. Yeah, okay, but... come on. You need to go home, take a nap, and then finish cleanin' the lab, kid. And we gotta see your Dad, too.”

Rustproof smiled and nodded a little, bowing his head in silent gratitude, and Cowlick shoved herself away from the table before holding up her hooves when Twilight opened her mouth. “No, no, enough. Besides, seriously, not everypony here is like you and Antares and the two giants. We gotta get some sleep, yeah?”

“Now that I can agree with.” Rainbow muttered, holding up a hoof before he turned his eyes to Twilight. “Besides, Canterlot's right around the corner. You can give us the day before you go, right?”

Twilight hesitated, then she turned her eyes to Celestia questioningly... but the ivory winged unicorn only smiled a little and nodded in response, saying quietly: “Of course. And rest assured, Twilight and I will take care of everypony... the only reason we don't invite you along as well is because you'll be needed here. Ponyville will need to be protected, just in the event that Cancer attacks again.”

“Let the freak come. I'll be real glad to welcome him back.” Pinkamena muttered, and she gave Sleipnir a flat look when he drew a fawning gaze over her. “Don't give me that look, idiot. Besides, what the hell are you so happy about? I'm the one who'll be getting all the action, not you, if that thing shows up again. I'm tired of your girly sneezes.”

“They are not girly sneezes!” Sleipnir whined, and then he huffed before adding positively: “And besides, sweet phoenix, 'tis always wonderful to watch thou at work. Thou art rarely more beautiful than when I watch thee taking the battlefield, thou absolutely glows with radiance, my darling.”

Pinkamena muttered under her breath as Sleipnir smiled at her warmly, and Aphrodisia giggled a little between them. Then Celestia glanced up and suggested quietly: “Twilight, why don't you go ahead and take Antares to Subterra now? And I'll be glad to answer any questions I can that anypony might have. Then, tonight, I'll bring the rest of the group to Subterra myself.”

“I...” Twilight hesitated, and when Celestia gave her a gently-pleading, softly-concerned look, and Twilight smiled faintly as she nodded slowly. “Okay, Celestia. I... I wrote ahead and asked them to prepare some... things... for me anyway. Antares, though, you don't have to come if you don't want to right now, you can stay...”

“No, I'd like to go with you, Mom.” Antares said softly, and the Lich bowed her head towards him with a faint smile before the young stallion looked up around the table, then promised on a whim: “I'll take care of all my friends, okay?”

“You better, kid.” Cowlick muttered, looking over at Rustproof... and then she grunted and nodded, saying tiredly: “Guess that's that. Dammit, yesterday I was queen of the world and today I can't even get my own damn son to listen to me.”

She gently smacked Rustproof's shoulder, and the large blue earth pony simply smiled at her before Applejack added softly, gazing down the table towards Antares: “Don't you worry. All of us know what kind of mettle you got, Antares... Avalon trusts you, so I trust you.”

“Yeah, don't worry about a thing. Ava's gonna have your back, right?” Rainbow asked positively, looking down at his daughter, who nodded firmly once before the Pegasus stallion grinned and reached up to ruffle her mane firmly. “Just don't go showing him up too much, huh?”

Avalon laughed as Antares smiled despite himself, and then Prestige hesitantly rose a hoof and said awkwardly: “I wish to come as well.”

“Following after your coltfriend, are you?” Avalon asked loudly, and all eyes stared at her before Meadowlark's eyes opened in shock, and the tiny, still-armored Pegasus grinned lamely when Prestige flushed red and glared at her... although it was more likely Antares' look of utter horror that made her feel embarrassed. “Whoops.”

Meadowlark pushed herself up from the table, shaking her head weakly for a moment... and then the red Pegasus shoved herself away and bolted for the door. She ran into it, and it would have been comical if not for the hitching breaths she was already taking as she yanked it open and ran outside, and Antares cursed as he pushed himself quickly out of his seat, running after her.

Outside, Meadowlark leapt into the air, flapping her wings hard to fly clumsily but quickly upwards, and Antares shouted after her before he leapt up, forcing his own strong, leathery wings to carry him into the air... before he gritted his teeth as a cramp ran through his back, and he felt one of his wings twitch hard. It knocked him off course for a moment, and above, Meadowlark vanished into the cloudy sky as Antares cursed under his breath, then wobbled a bit in his flight before he felt another bolt of pain run through his body.

All the same, he forced himself to fly higher... then hissed through his teeth in pain when the strain simply became too much, and he felt both his wings stiffening, refusing to flap. It took much of his strength just to keep them open, and he glided slowly back down towards the ground, landing across the square in front of the library with a quiet curse as he lowered his head. But he only had a moment before Aphrodisia tackled him, knocking him skidding violently on his side before she shoved him down and glared into his eyes, Antares staring up at her with surprise before the demon shouted: “And what in Helheim's name were you thinking?”

Antares fumbled for a response, blushing, seeing how angry, upset, confused Aphrodisia was... but he was both stunned and spared from needing to reply when Prestige herself hesitantly walked up to the demon's side and nervously touched her shoulder.

Aphrodisia turned her baleful glare on Prestige, who hesitated for a moment... then the unicorn quietly, silently lowered her head forwards in a sign of respect and apology. The silence rang out for a few seconds... and then Apps simply snorted, then muttered: “We'll talk about this later.”

The demon burst apart into black smoke that twisted indecisively backwards, then hurtled around and shot into the air in the direction Meadowlark had gone. Antares looked up with a quiet sigh after this before his eyes turned slowly to the young unicorn mare, and she smiled faintly before saying quietly: “I'm tempted to make some remark about the unnecessary drama of our lessers, but... it's becoming hard for me to feel that way about them. Even if I desire to set the midget shorn-wing aflame.”

“Look, Prestige, I'm kind of mad at Ava too right now, but please stop with all the racist names.” Antares hesitated, then he closed his eyes as he simply laid on his back in the town square, not caring who saw him as ponies and Nibelung both passed by curiously. “Although she is a midget. And a jerk.”

For a few moments there was silence, and then Antares finally opened his eyes at the sound of familiar steps approaching. He looked up quietly as Twilight Sparkle joined them, and the gaunt Lich smiled faintly down at them, a simple cloak swaying around her body and a pack hanging at her side. “If you two are ready, we can... leave now.”

“Thank you.” Antares said quietly, looking up at her with a silent smile: Twilight always seemed to know when to prod a subject, and when it would be best to just move on. He appreciated her leaving it alone as he carefully sat up, then brushed at his dirty, scuffed armor before smiling faintly as he looked down at himself, sore wings flapping once before they furled loosely against his sides. “Are you sure you're okay for the journey?”

“I should be asking you two that.” Twilight laughed a little, shaking her head with a faint smile. “I'm fine, Antares, honestly. Try not to worry about me too much... you and Prestige just concentrate on yourselves, okay? And if you ever need to stop and rest, let me know... we can always take a few minutes at the side of the road or something.”

Antares nodded a little as Prestige shook her head, the unicorn mumbling: “This is not my ideal method of travel, nor a journey I look forwards to... but I suppose it is necessary all the same.” She sighed, looking morosely down at her gemstone vest before adding moodily: “My armor is uncomfortable.”

The young stallion only looked at her mildly as Twilight sighed a little, but Prestige only grumbled in response, and turned to follow when Antares and the Lich started down the road. Both traded a glance, and both reflected on how much Prestige had grown, particularly over the last while: maybe everything about Cancer was awful, but fighting him, being forced to go through what they had side-by-side, had taught all of them lessons they would never forget.

Twilight pulled ahead a little, and Antares let himself fall back a bit, to stay in pace with Prestige, who smiled at him and seemed to appreciate it in her awkward way. The trio remained silent as they headed out of Ponyville and onto the highway towards Canterlot, but it wasn't uncomfortable: it was hard to describe, like this time together was helping them understand each other a little more.

They stopped twice to rest on the way to Canterlot, but the breaks were short and they made good time. Prestige seemed surprised at herself: both at the fact she had kept quiet the entire journey, and because she had actually managed the travel with far less pain than she'd thought. Antares only smiled faintly, however, and Prestige blushed a little as she turned her head away as they approached, but she was smiling herself, feeling proud of herself... and a little fuzzy inside, when Antares hesitantly stepped a bit closer to her, and she closed her eyes and let herself draw a little closer to him.

Entering Canterlot wasn't difficult: the Royal Guard knew Twilight and Antares well, with their frequent visits and relations with the Baroness. Entering Subterra, however, was a little more complicated, and Prestige cocked her head curiously as they turned down a side street that led away from the mighty Canterlot Castle in the distance and instead headed into the lower quarters, the young unicorn mare asking curiously: “Why are we descending into the servant blocks of the city?”

“And of course you go and ruin everything, Prestige.” Antares said mildly, and when Prestige glowered at him, he smiled a little. “I'm kidding. But honestly, you do need to watch what you say more.”

Prestige only grumbled a little, and ahead, Twilight shook her head as they passed several down-on-their-luck ponies who were huddled at the side of the road. “Subterra has several entrances hidden around Canterlot, this is the closest and the easiest to get to. We have to keep them protected, after all, since... not all ponies are as accepting of the under-city as we are.”

“I'm not sure if I'm accepting of it yet or not myself.” Prestige mumbled, but she nodded hesitantly all the same as she looked back and forth, at the worn-down stone buildings and the signs of disrepair and dereliction. “This cannot be the same Canterlot that I am accustomed to.”

“It is and it isn't. You might be surprised, Prestige. Just because something looks bad doesn't mean it is.” Antares said softly, smiling a little over at her, and Prestige mumbled a bit under her breath, but her eyes lingered strangely on an orphanage as they strode past it, inspecting the rusting bars over the windows, the weedy yard, the torn fencing that embraced it like frail arms. “Prestige? Is something wrong?”

“No. No.” Prestige said quietly, shaking her head briskly, and she remained oddly quiet as they made their way through the lower quarters of Canterlot. Then she frowned nervously when they turned down a shady back alley, Twilight striding calmly past several overflowing garbage bins and leading them around a tight corner to a rusted iron gate that barred access into a dim tunnel beyond.

The Lich smiled over her shoulder, her horn glowing: with a click, the gate unlocked and swung open silently despite the rust. Prestige hesitated, but then she nodded nervously when Antares reached up and touched her shoulder, and the two young ponies followed Twilight into the darkness when the violet mare started forwards again. The sloping tunnel quickly became a staircase that led deep down into the earth, lit by torches that burned with blue flames, and Prestige shivered a bit at the strange feeling in the air: it was neither hot nor cold, comfortable nor uncomfortable. It was a shiver that pulsed through her... before Prestige's eyes widened as they emerged at the bottom of the staircase into a wide, dark cavern that was lit by blue-tinged radiance, filled with strange-looking black stone dwellings and populated by creatures the likes of which she had rarely seen.

Demons, Nightmares, other beings all congregated calmly here, as naturally as ponies did in the world above: two Nightmares were gazing into a reflecting pool with smiles on their faces, while in an open square a demon was arguing loudly with another demon behind a counter, who simply glared at him with his arms crossed. Over by an enormous pillar, some kind of undead pony was reading calmly from a book as he gestured at the carvings along the support structure, captivating smaller creatures that Prestige realized with surprise were the demonic equivalent of foals.

Her breath caught in her throat as Twilight and Antares began forwards, the young unicorn mare gazing around with amazement. High above, enormous crystals suspended from the ceiling shone down that strange light that made her body tingle, and while the homes all looked the same, it was clear that the buildings on the upper plateaus of this massive cavern were the much-more desired ones, from the demons that were sunbathing – ...crystal light bathing? – on the rooftops nearest the gemstones. And as they walked, Prestige realized that now demons were looking at her with curiosity, and a little distrust, and she blushed as she lowered her head at the turned tables: here, normal ponies were the outsiders, not forces of darkness.

Then Twilight glanced up curiously as a grinning, demonic unicorn slid out of the crowd and strolled towards her, his mane made of burning flames and his red eyes glowing in his sockets, coat shifting between reds, oranges, and yellows like magma. Prestige's jaw dropped at the sight, but Antares only smiled as Twilight's mouth slowly puckered like she'd bitten into a lemon as the tall equine drew towards them. He was handsome, he radiated not only heat but confidence and power, and his hooves made the ground beneath him steam as he approached the Lich and said delightedly: “Well, what a wonderful surprise to see you here!”

“Go away.” Twilight said in a surly voice, but when the fiery demon only chuckled, she sighed and glanced over her shoulder at Prestige, introducing with a grumble: “Prestige Luster, this is Burning Desire. Burning Desire, this is my student, Prestige Luster. Now please go away.”

“Oh, don't be like that, darling!” Burning said cheerfully, and then he leaned down, studying Prestige intently as she couldn't help but look up at his horn: it was tall and glowed red, but black runes had been etched all along its length in a vaguely-spiraled pattern. “It's very nice to meet you, Prestige... and young Antares, how nice to see you, too!”

The demon straightened with a smile, then he half-lidded his eyes at Twilight, studying her as he asked in what was almost a purr: “You look like you need some help fitting into a new body, my gorgeous undying violet. Shall I assist you?”

“Go. Away.” Twilight said slowly and clearly, but Burning Desire only chuckled again before Twilight ground her teeth together, then simply strode past him. Antares couldn't help but smile despite his best efforts not to as Prestige followed curiously, cocking her head towards him as Burning Desire hurried up to pace at Twilight's side.

“Now don't be like that! I know, I know, you're loyal and dedicated to Luna and Scrivener, but oh, I'm not asking for forever!” Burning Desire wheedled, gazing at her affectionately. “We had such a wonderful time together, didn't we? And oh, our nights of passion...”

“My son is right behind me, Burning!” the Lich said flatly, and then she gritted her teeth and added grumpily, as they made their way down the wide street: “It just didn't work out. Let it go.”

“Oh, but how can I? My sins are greed and lust, my nature compels me so for you, oh darling violet!” Burning Desire proclaimed, then he stepped forwards and suddenly hugged her, Twilight wincing as she reared away from him as he leaned in with a lick of his lips. “Entire harems mean nothing to me compared to your beauty! And you know I know that from experience: but oh, pretty violet, you would be the shining star of any demon's collection!”

Slowly, Twilight narrowed her eyes at him... and Burning Desire cleared his throat and carefully let her go, stepping hesitantly back as he added awkwardly: “Not that... not that I think of you like just an object, of course, I... I didn't mean to say... that is to say, I'm here because I care about you. I care about you very much, Twilight Sparkle, and I respect that we cannot have forever, but... oh, tonight, tonight, spend tonight with me, won't you?”

“No.” Twilight said flatly, and Burning Desire clutched at his chest before the Lich rolled her eyes with a tired sigh. “Look, I'm not... getting into that with you again. But maybe you can at least help me teach Antares and Prestige... Celestia sent them here for training, and she'll be bringing his friends as well.”

Burning Desire cocked his head with interest at this, turning his eyes towards Antares as he asked curiously: “The Dawn Bringer wants our kind to train you and your friends? What an odd turn of events... truly, things must be serious. I would have perhaps expected your mother and father, Antares, to make such a decision, but not Celestia...”

For a few moments, he looked thoughtful, biting his lower lip before he smiled over at Twilight. “Very well. You know I can't turn down any request of yours, gorgeous, ever-blooming violet. And Antares, I do like you well enough. Your mother and father were good to me, and I suppose there's also the fact I do like the thought of being rewarded when they return for training you...” He looked dreamy for a moment, turning his gaze back towards Twilight. “Perhaps they'll agree to share you with me.”

Twilight gave him a horrible look, and Burning Desire winced, wilting as the flames of his mane and tail both visibly shrank and dimmed, but then the Lich reached up and rubbed at her temples as if she had a headache. “Fine. Now if you'll excuse us, we need to go visit Selene. Please. Please leave me alone until I call for you.”

“May I have a kiss, just upon the cheek? Oh, it would mean so much to me!” Burning Desire leaned forwards, smiling brightly, his eyes pleading, and Twilight looked at him for a few moments before she sighed, mumbled, and stepped over to him, leaning in and giving him a hurried peck on the cheek. The demon's eyes lit up with this, and then he nodded rapidly before turning and prancing away... and then Prestige's jaw dropped when he burst apart into flames that reformed into a firebird that flew quickly off into the air.

Twilight sighed, and Prestige's mouth worked wordlessly before the violet mare gestured grumpily to them, saying finally: “Come on. We have to visit the Overseer, and then find you a room, Prestige.”

“I... who was that?” Prestige asked incredulously, and Twilight grumbled to herself as Antares smiled in entertainment and the group walked onwards. For a few moments, Prestige only stared ahead, barely noticing as they passed through an archway and a dark tunnel, and then she asked insistently: “I demand to know what just happened! It... it was a unicorn of fire!”

“It was a demon. A very, very, very, very, very annoying demon.” Twilight muttered, and then she sighed a little as Antares tried his hardest to hold back a snicker. “Oh stop it.”

“It's okay, Mom. Besides... I know that... my Mom and Dad would have wanted to see you happy, Twilight.” Antares said with a smile, and Twilight relaxed a little before he glanced to the side and added, as Prestige only continued to look confused: “Burning Desire was a unicorn, once... more than a thousand years ago, but he bargained with Helheim for wealth and... attention, right?”

Twilight nodded after a moment, as they strode out of the tunnel and into another cavern, this one even more enormous than the last. The Lich remained quiet as Prestige looked back and forth at the larger stone buildings on either side of them and the imposing, palatial structures near the center of the underground city section, the architecture gothic and jutting and yet beautiful for how intimidating it was... and then Prestige shook her head hurriedly and asked: “Wait, he was a unicorn once? A normal pony?”

The violet mare sighed tiredly, her hopes that Prestige would let the subject drop dashed as she nodded moodily again. “He was. More than a hoof-full of the demons you'll see around Subterra were once ponies of this world, who existed more than a thousand years ago and before... their civilization basically fell apart. They're demons now because of the bargains they made with Helheim: many souls who fall to Hell eventually transform into demons themselves, if they manage to survive for long enough. And they were among the most eager to ally with us because... it keeps them safe from Helheim, and they're fascinated with us ponies who basically... took over their abandoned world and replaced their crumbled ruins with the civilization that could have been, if they'd only all learned to get along.”

The Lich fell quiet, looking down thoughtfully before she continued softly, as they continued along the cobbled wide road: “Burning Desire was a noble. A bit of an oddball, studying the occult while the other unicorns were learning 'real magic' and horn foiling. He didn't want power, but he wanted people to adore him, he wanted... well, sex... and he wanted money to keep his lifestyle going. He made his deal, trading his soul to Helheim for what he thought would be a lot.”

Twilight smiled faintly, glancing over her shoulder at Prestige. “Two months later he was killed by a jealous ex-lover because of how many mares he was suddenly getting into bed with. He went to Helheim, and... became... that. When... when a pony becomes a demon, they become a reflection of who they are inside, in a way: they wear their sins, metaphorically-speaking, on their bodies, and their natural urges intensify. They can become powerful, sure, but it's at a cost. And if they fail to learn how to control themselves, if they give in to Helheim's influence completely, they become drones and monsters and toys for stronger demons. And they suffer...”

Twilight looked down, then she shook her head and glanced up, saying softly: “But he's a good person, at heart. He's full of longing, Prestige, and I'd watch out to make sure his hooves don't get grabby, but he's gentle and he's kind. And you two can both learn a lot from him... his specialty is clearly fire, Prestige, and that's one of the realms of elemental magic you excel in.”

Prestige nodded slowly, looking surprisingly humble as they strode calmly into a large square, and the young unicorn's eyes turned to a beautiful fountain that dominated the center of this. The water was tinted black, but seemed pure all the same as faint, soft music hummed through the air, a tall reptilian demon with several large sets of spines jutting from his body standing with his eyes closed as he played a slow, steady melody on his saxophone. Twilight smiled at this as Antares' head perked, the Lich halting as the demon opened one amber eye, and then he smiled slightly before bringing the melody to a slow halt.

He lowered the silver instrument, absently rubbing at one cracked, dragon-like horn before he looked meditatively down at the ponies, asking mildly as his long, two-tined tail flicked lightly behind him: “And to what do I owe this pleasure, Twilight Sparkle? Has my gracious melody truly attracted you all the way from dumpy little Ponyville?”

“No, Amdusias, I'm afraid not.” Twilight said kindly, smiling up at him, and she gestured at Antares and Prestige. The demon tilted his head with interest, rubbing at the navy scales that covered most of his strong frame as the silver and gold hide of his inner body flexed with his musculature. “Celestia sent Antares and Prestige here for training. Their friends are coming, too...”

“Celestia is sending mortals here?” Amdusias looked down with interest, then he frowned a little, narrowing his eyes moodily as his gaze locked on Prestige, who was looking up at him distrustfully. “Wait. Celestia is sending mortals here?”

The difference in his tone made the second question almost an accusation, and Twilight Sparkle sighed and rolled her eyes before she said mildly: “Amdusias, it's nothing personal, I'm sure. Celestia likes you a lot, and it's... very kind that you offer your help to her so often-”

“Not often, merely... when she seems to need help, which is... more often than I'd like, to be completely honest.” Amdusias said stiffly, crossing his arms as he grumbled to himself and a faint blush rose in his cheeks. “I simply find it... discordant that this is a clear insult to my offer of aid. I was a Lord of Helheim, and you've seen what I've done with those miserable little ponies I had under my watch. Except now I think if you want my help you should plead like the chorus of any hymn to your zombie pony savior.”

Twilight only looked meditatively up at Amdusias for a moment, and then she said mildly: “That's alright, Burning Desire offered his help.”

“What?” Amdusias looked horrified at this, then he ground his teeth together loudly. “That wretched jumped-up organ-grinder dares to think he's worthy enough to teach? If he tried to teach a bird to sing, it would end up growling like a tone-deaf Nibelung!”

“Well, that's very nice, Amdusias, but I was just taking Antares and Prestige to see Overseer Selene... and I'm sure that she'll be offering her help, too...” Twilight continued calmly, completely overriding Amdusias' words, and the demon's eyes went wide before he grumbled in vexation and glowered at her.

“Fine. I understand, my help is unnecessary.” Amdusias muttered... then he visibly wrestled with himself for a moment, before raising a finger and adding in a grumble when Twilight began to turn away: “But I suppose that I can spare a rest or two here or there should Prince Antares or his... friend... come and plead for my assistance.”

“Thank you, Amdusias. I appreciate it... I'm sure Antares can learn a lot from you.” Twilight smiled over her shoulder at him, and Amdusias looked pacified before the Lich asked curiously: “By the way, what are you doing out here? Usually you're running around Canterlot with your friends.”

“Associates.” Amdusias mumbled embarrassedly, and then he cleared his throat and added: “And I did not feel like dressing up and pretending to be a dragon today so I could wander Canterlot unnoticed. Besides, Riffraff and Graceful told me to meet them here, although they seem to be taking an obnoxiously long time to arrive. I do not want to guess at why.”

With that, Amdusias rose his saxophone back to his lips, beginning to play a soft, thoughtful song as the trio of ponies looked at him for a moment longer, and then Twilight smiled and nodded, turning to leave. Antares and Prestige trailed after her, the last looking back over her shoulder curiously before she hurried up to Twilight's side, asking incredulously: “Just how many of the Baroness' associates are demons? That was the head of Celestia's personal ensemble that she has play at the Royal Court! I... I thought he was just a dragon, in his uniform he just looks like a dragon!”

Twilight only gave Prestige an amused look, and then she shook her head slowly before Antares asked curiously: “Are you really going to send me to Amdusias for training, Mom? What kind of things can I learn from him? I mean... I've never really seen or heard about him fighting... and wasn't he... hurt, or something, a long time ago?”

The Lich laughed quietly, responding quietly: “Oh, he's not a fighter, Antares, and he did lose a lot of his strength crossing through the barrier between layers with his half-demon friend... but I think you two would be able to work well together. I don't think you'd find it difficult to master his illusion spells, even if he prefers music as his medium. It would be good for you to learn some incantations that focus on that... and furthermore, I'm sure Selene will want to share some of her skills with you.”

Twilight hesitated as they continued onwards, Prestige and Antares sharing a look as they walked on in silence: but slowly, the young mare couldn't help but find her attention drawn from her coltfriend and mentor to the enormous structure they were approaching. It was near the center of the cavern, a squat but immense step pyramid with a wide, flat top, a large set of stone stairs in front of them guarded by enormous statues of creatures that Prestige didn't recognize. The back of the pyramid seemed to connect into some other colossal, U-shaped structure that half-wrapped itself around the strangely hallowed-feeling building: this palatial structure had tall turrets and branch-like arms of metal, stone gargoyles that seemed to move whenever they weren't be directly watched seated here and there on these arches and the roof.

Twilight led them to the stairs, then she halted and turned around, her eyes meeting her student's. “Prestige, this is Thorn Palace. Selene, Subterra's Overseer, lives here and rules here. She's like... kind of like the mayor, except she reports to me and Celestia. But all the same, don't antagonize her. Her home is... is a little creepy, but you'll be safe here as long as you aren't rude to her, okay?”

Prestige grimaced a bit, but then she nodded sullenly, and Twilight sighed before the Lich turned around to lead them calmly up the stone stairs. Antares smiled supportively at the young unicorn mare, and Prestige grumbled a little, but felt herself calming a bit despite the burst of jealousy and frustration she felt inside of herself as she mumbled: “I'm not going to mess up.”

“I know.” Antares said softly, and then he looked ahead as the trio reached the top of the short, strange pyramid, stepping out onto the wide plateau. It was decorated with four enormous braziers at each corner of the area, each filled with burning blue flames, and a massive statue of Nightmare Moon posed in front of the full moon stood behind a small reflecting pool, detailed and incredible.

Prestige stared at this and winced despite herself: it was not the Nightmare Moon of the storybooks, but the true Nightmare Moon: there were scars on the statue's face, horns extending up from a mane of carved fire, countless awful knives and implements of suffering sticking out of her back... but it was the sharp-fanged grin and the almost-alive eyes that struck her to the soul. The apprentice of Twilight Sparkle breathed hard, looking nervously down at the pool... and then she was struck dumb as she saw nothing more than a single, beautiful white swan quietly floating in the water, calm and silent, looking as if it hadn't yet noticed the presence of the ponies.

Prestige nervously leaned around Twilight to stare at this, even as the Lich winced... and then the young, silver-maned mare glanced back and forth worriedly. The steps were behind them, down the southern face of the pyramid: to the north, east, and west, there were bridges of stone and metal that attached into the strange, warped palace that held this strange place in its embrace. “Do... do we go inside?”

“Only if I am not the one you seek.” said a soft, scintillating voice, and when Prestige looked in surprise back at the reflecting pool, she saw not a swan, but an ivory winged unicorn with a mane and tail of soft, glowing whiteness: feathers and flower petals fell from both, touching the surface of the pool she was standing on as calmly as if it were glass before they dissolved into motes of light, sending ripples along the deep pool's surface. Her horn was gorgeous gold, and her eyes seemed as deep, as dark, as richly-infinite as space, without pupil or iris but like swirling velvet galaxies...

Prestige shivered as she looked hurriedly down, blushing deep red as he breath raced in and out, and the winged unicorn laughed quietly as she strode over the pool, chiding gently: “Oh, Twilight Sparkle, don't be so hard on this one. I am not hard on demons for their natures; why would I be any harder on this mortal?”

Twilight smiled a little, bowing her head respectfully as Antares quietly stepped forwards and dropped his own head low... but the almost-glowing winged unicorn only smiled softly, slowly descending into a deep bow as she murmured: “No, no, I bow to you... not the other way around. It is my honor to have you here... and the Dawn Bringer's letter, her request, has filled me with more joy than I may properly express...”

The strange creature looked back up, her unfathomable eyes roving over them before she returned her gaze to Prestige, saying kindly as the unicorn didn't quite dare to meet her eyes: “Yes, young one. I am Selene, Overseer of Subterra. I took the name in honor of our mistress, in honor of the moon, which I have served since I was young in any event. And yes, you may call me demon, but I am Nephilim, in truth: my nature is much different from the creatures you have seen.”

“Not so different.” Twilight Sparkle said softly, and the Nephilim regarded her for a moment... then suddenly the strange creature smiled and nodded slowly.

“Perhaps not, after all, yes. I must not forget why I carry this task. Thank you for reminding me, Lady Twilight.” Selene said softly, then she turned her eyes to Prestige and leaned down to study her thoughtfully. “You are curious about me. Go ahead, child, ask your questions. I will not harm you... not so long as you pay me what respects I earn.”

Prestige smiled awkwardly at this statement, trying not to look into the Nephilim's eyes: the slightest meeting of their gazes, and the young mare felt like her brain was being sucked out of her head to be examined by things far, far more powerful than she could ever be. “What... how... did you get here?”

“I was born here, of purity tainted by sin. And then my mother left me, and I tried to follow her... but I fell.” Selene said softly, frowning and looking down before she nodded slowly once. “Yes, I fell. And I slumbered, and nature held me in her arms, placed me in her cradle. The mountains rose above, while I slumped further down beneath the ground; before the first stones of Canterlot above were laid, I was old, older than you can imagine. But she visited me, in my restless dreams: your mother, Antares Mīrus.”

Selene smiled lovingly over at Antares, then returned her eyes to Prestige. “I have never met her, but I have seen both her faces, and her husband. I admire Luna, and I admire Nightmare Moon: they remind me of mother. Purity, stained with sin, but striving all the same for Heaven. I was very sad when Luna and Scrivener left, just like my mother did... so sad, that I awoke, and cried for their loss...”

“There was an earthquake nine years ago, it caused ruptures all throughout Subterra... the timing was awful, we thought, because it was only a few weeks after Luna and Scrivener... were gone.” Twilight said quietly, glancing over at Prestige. “Then I got a letter from Celestia, asking me to hurry as fast as I could to Subterra. There was such... the air was heavy, and we were drawn to a vent that had opened up...

“Deep in the earth, we found Selene. She knew all about us... all about Scrivener and Luna. And when I crosschecked what she said with... with one of Scrivener's dream diaries... a lot of it matched up. Stories and conversations that Luna and Scrivy mentioned off-hoof now and then, but it turns out they were real.” Twilight smiled a little, glancing over at the Nephilim. “Normally we don't explain it to ponies, but...”

“Prestige would have found out anyway, as Antares' lover.” Selene said softly, and Antares blushed deep red as Prestige looked down, embarrassed. “It's nothing bad, young ones. You have done well with each other.”

She paused, then smiled over at Twilight. “But I am similar to the demons in many ways. I am impure, yet desire to seek to be brighter. Not like the Dawn Bringer... like your mother, Antares. Like Twilight, and like Luna.” Selene laughed quietly, then looked slowly up, murmuring: “That is why I took the name of a lunar goddess. But I must be very careful: I have great pride. I have greater longing. And I am powerful.”

Selene paused, then she looked down thoughtfully, nodding once before Prestige turned bright red as the Nephilim murmured: “I appreciate that you admire me so much... and perhaps I take pleasure in your envy, as well. For I am beautiful and strong... that is why I am tasked to watch over and protect Subterra. But it is my wisdom, not my strength, and the support of the Dawn Bringer and Twilight Sparkle, that gives me true control here.

“And yes, Antares. I shall teach you what I know of your mother's magic, but Twilight Sparkle knows more than me... and I apologize, I forget myself. But your thoughts are so loud, especially this close...” Selene closed her eyes, smiling softly. “And I am eager to share my strength with you, Antares. I am eager for... many things...”

Prestige winced at this, looking uneasily at Selene, but the Nephilim only smiled quietly before her gaze roved back to the young mare. “Steal him away from you? No. I am ancient, and you are both young... I am Nephilim, and you are both pony. The form you see me in is simply that which is most convenient at this moment in time. I do not know what my real shape is... I see you, and I wish to reflect you, that is all, as I have always reflected those whose dreams I have traveled in. But I enjoy this particular form... a Moon Blessed is fitting for the self-named Selene, is it not?”

The three were quiet, and then Selene smiled softly and bowed her head, saying quietly: “Prestige, I desire your company. You have struck my interest. Antares and Twilight, however, have a task ahead of them, and would prefer to deal with it in privacy. Is this correct?”

“I...” Antares hesitated, then he looked at Twilight, the Lich shifting apprehensively. She began to smile, but then Antares nodded quickly and blushed, looking over at Prestige as he murmured: “Don't... don't take this the wrong way, but I would... you should stay with Selene.”

“I understand.” Prestige looked at him quietly... and then both young ponies looked up when Selene leaned forwards and gave them an encouraging smile. And then both unicorns looked at one another before stepping forwards and sharing a tight embrace, and Antares closed his eyes as Prestige pressed herself against him, squeezing her hooves around his neck, both feeling a deep roll of warmth through their bodies before they pulled quietly apart.

They smiled hesitantly, looking deep into each other's eyes before trading slow nods, and then Selene said gently: “I shall take care of her, Antares. I shall provide a private room for you and her and have it set up to your tastes.”

“Now, hey, wait, let's not go that far...” Twilight said awkwardly, and when Selene only favored her with a tilt of her head, the violet mare sighed tiredly and mumbled: “I guess. If something's going to happen, it's going to happen, but...”

“Mom, can. Can we please just go?” Antares asked in a strangled voice as Prestige blushed deeply, and Twilight grumbled a little but then nodded at the look on the young ponies' faces. She turned, and Antares sighed in relief as he followed after her, calling awkwardly over his shoulder: “Uh... see you soon, Selene and... Prestige.”

Prestige smiled lamely back at him despite how uncomfortable she looked, slowly raising a hoof, and Antares turned his eyes back forwards as he and Twilight crossed over a steel and stone bridge and through a set of double doors into the western wing of the castle. For a few moments, there was only the sound of their hooves tapping along the marble tile underhoof, as they strode past display cases filled with strange and beautiful artifacts and suits of posed armor... and then Twilight finally sighed quietly, dropping her head forwards.

Antares looked up at her hesitantly, and Twilight smiled a little as she looked over her shoulder, murmuring quietly: “Look. You're no colt, Antares... I know that you're a stallion. Sure, you're still young. Some ponies would say you're not an adult yet, but... if age was really what made us mature adults, I wouldn't have to put up with Burning Desire, now would I?”

She sighed a little as Antares laughed a bit despite himself, then the Lich shook her head slowly as they turned down a side hall, continuing quietly: “Life is about experiences... but I just... my goal as your mother is to try and help you. To try and minimize the mistakes, or at least make sure the mistakes you do make are... learning experiences. But I don't want you learning what it's like to raise a bastard foal out of wedlock with a pony you might not have any feelings for give a week or two while still teenage years old.”

Antares blushed deeply, dropping his head forwards as he mumbled: “Yeah, I remember Aunt Tia's talk way too clearly, Mom. I'm... I'm not interested in that right now, anyway.”

Twilight looked amusedly over her shoulder at him, and when Antares looked back up at her, she said finally: “You're so different from your mother.”

“I don't wanna hear that!” Antares groaned, throwing his head back, and Twilight laughed and shook her head slowly, smiling warmly despite herself before the young stallion couldn't help but add: “And I really wonder sometimes which mother of mine you're referring to... Mom.”

This soured Twilight's expression, and she tossed him a flat look even as she fought to hide a smile before replying quietly: “Hey, if you haven't noticed, I haven't done a lot of dating, have I? But I guess... this dead body of mine isn't exactly appealing, either.”

“You're more alive than most ponies I've met, Mom. And you're still really pretty.” Antares replied genuinely, and Twilight turned back ahead, looking abashed, eyes filled with warmth as she opened a door with a gentle telekinetic push.

They made their way down a curving staircase, until they emerged into a dimmer underground area: it almost seemed like some kind of abandoned storage room, heavy crates piled to one side of the area and a few shelves stocked with odds and ends along another wall. Twilight and Antares made their way across the unused room to a rusting steel door, the Lich grimacing a bit as they passed into a long, downwards-sloping tunnel, and Antares soothed quietly: “It's okay, Mom.”

Twilight Sparkle smiled faintly over her shoulder at Antares, nodding a little as they began to make their way down the mildewed passage. The walls here were slick and moist, strange, living tendrils of plant and bramble growing here and there out of the dark stone surfaces as their hooves trod slowly along humid rock, slowly but steadily going lower and lower into the earth.

Finally, they reached a heavy, red-iron gate at the end of the passage, and Twilight's horn glowed: the gates rumbled for a moment, then slowly squealed open to reveal a large, octagonal room beyond. The walls were lined with rusting doors of burial vaults, each with small placards in holders showing the date of the interment and what precisely was contained inside; but what truly drew the eye were the four metal tables that sat in a circle around the open center of the crypt, and Twilight sighed quietly: cadavers rested on two of the tables, features hidden beneath white sheets but shapes clear and distinctive.

Twilight lowered her head and trembled a bit, and Antares reached up to touch her back quietly... but then the violet mare only shook her head, murmuring: “It's... it's okay. I'm okay. I just... I just hate this part, that's all. And Antares, you don't have to stay...”

“I want to, Mom. I want to help.” Antares said quietly, and Twilight smiled faintly but gratefully at him as the glossy black young stallion reached up to touch her shoulder quietly. “I'll help you every step of the way I can.”

Twilight closed her eyes and nodded a little, and then she sighed as she turned and strode down to one of the covered bodies. She grimaced a little, then her horn glowed and pulled the tag hanging out from under the sheet free, lifting it up so she could read quietly: “Name omitted... I hate when they do that... career criminal, died in prison, organ donor. Died of... infection after being stabbed. Okay.”

She took a breath, then grasped the sheet and drew the sheet quickly back, revealing the stallion's pallid body. She looked over him moodily, then bit her lip and touched hesitantly along his stomach to check for damage. When she was done, she grimaced and nodded, shrugging her satchel bag off and putting it aside, before she pulled her jewelry off piece by piece. She put her earring studs and collar aside on top of her satchel, then she sighed quietly again as she reached up and carefully levered the corpse's jaws open, muttering: “Okay. I hate this part...”

Twilight took a slow breath, closing her eyes tightly and gritting her teeth as her horn glowed... and then, slowly, she leaned carefully down until her mouth almost met the corpse's before she breathed out, long and loud, some glowing ephemeral shape passing from her open jaws and into the dead body's...

For a moment, there was silence... and then Twilight's body slumped backwards her stitching popped and snapped, the light fading from her eyes as she collapsed: but even before she hit the ground, her body was already falling apart and rotting rapidly away beneath the cloak. Antares flinched back at the sight and the reek, but then he forced himself to hurry forwards, looking nervously down at the corpse of the earth pony stallion.

At first, nothing, and Antares hesitated before he began to reach carefully up... but then he flinched backwards when the dead stallion's eyes snapped open and the corpse spasmed on the table, inhaling loudly. Its irises glowed violet before the color settled, and then it shivered and hissed in pain as the same color began to twist through the pallid coat of the pony, Twilight rasping out of the corpse's jaws: “Always... hate this...”

“It's okay Mom, you're doing fine, you're okay.” Antares soothed, reaching up to touch the corpse's shoulder, and finding it now felt hot instead of cold. He steadied himself as the body spasmed on the table, the features changing, the shape twisting as bones cracked loudly and the hide tightened, ripping here and there as Twilight cursed in pain from the body's jaws.

“Just wish... I didn't have to s-steal... from the dead...” Twilight whispered, breathing hard through the mouth that was now becoming hers as the body reshaped itself, and she trembled before Antares tightly took one of the now-her hooves in both his own, squeezing it comfortingly and gazing down into her eyes.

It was a painful thirty minutes... but finally, Twilight Sparkle sat up on the metal table, breathing hard and shivering a bit. Wounds had torn open here and there over her body from the transformation, but they were bloodless, and she was missing both her wings and her horn... but her body's shape and size, her color, her eyes were all the same as they had originally been. Even her emblem had replaced the cutie mark that had been on this body's haunch.

Twilight shivered weakly, and Antares patted her silently on the back before he turned and headed quickly over to one of the sets of crypts in the wall. He glanced back and forth, but then his eyes found what he was looking for: a polished steel door, labeled: 'Supplies' instead of with a corpse code and date. He opened it to take out some of what was inside: thick black string, a large needle, and a box of wet cloths.

He carried these over to Twilight, and she smiled faintly, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards in thanks as the young stallion pulled out a wet nap to carefully wipe up around her messier wounds, murmuring quietly: “It's okay, Mom. Just try and relax, I'll clean you up, and then I'll help you find some wings.”

“No, it's okay, Antares. My wings will regenerate, just like my horn.” Twilight shook her messy, frazzled mane out before she reached up and silently tapped her forehead. “I just need to hibernate a little and... I should have brought my phylactery. It would have helped the process along a little faster.”

“It's okay, Mom. You've had a lot on your mind... we all have.” Antares replied quietly, and Twilight smiled a little as she closed her eyes and nodded slowly. For a few moments, there was silence, and then Antares hesitantly picked up the needle and thread.

Twilight opened an eye, looking at him softly, and then she murmured: “It's okay. I can do it, Antares, you're... you're here with me, and that helps more than I can say. I just... I just need to rest a minute or two more.”

“No, it's not that, I just...” Antares hesitated, then he leaned forwards and began to carefully sew up a particularly large, Y-shaped wound over her chest: a wound that her undead body always bore, that never healed. That was deep and wide enough when it wasn't sewn shut to reveal the fact that Twilight had no heart. “I just hate worrying that I'm going to hurt you.”

The Lich only smiled faintly, however, shaking her head slowly and saying quietly: “It's okay, Antares. My body is just a shell. Just... clothes. Stolen clothes.” She dropped her head forwards, muttering: “I hate when they just put 'criminal' on the donor label. I feel a little less bad at first and then I wonder whether I'm in the body of a murderer, a pedophile, or some poor idiot who mouthed off to the wrong police officer. And then I feel bad no matter what.”

“It doesn't matter, Mom. Like Sleipnir says, we only borrow our bodies during life: we come from nature, and when we die, we give our bodies back to nature.” Antares said quietly, continuing to neatly stitch up the visible, larger wounds over the Lich's frame. At first, seeing this, doing anything like this, had been almost impossible for him to handle without feeling ill, or scared... now he was just afraid for Twilight, with how much she could beat herself up over doing what was necessary for her to do once her body eventually wore out. “You're not killing these people, Mom. You work very, very hard to not disrespect their wishes. You don't steal bodies from graveyards or anything.”

Twilight nodded slowly, even as she continued to look down, before Antares smiled a little and said quietly: “You're not a monster. Mom and Dad... they'd still love you. They wouldn't feel any different about you now as they ever did. I... I only respect you more, each and every day.”

The violet mare looked up with a faint smile, then she closed her eyes in quiet gratitude as Antares continued to slowly work, his head bowed, the silence spiraling out between mother and son before the Lich reached up a hoof to touch the young stallion's shoulder. They both looked at one another and then Antares smiled and stepped forwards, and they shared a fierce, tight embrace before Twilight whispered quietly in his ear, as a single red tear spilled down her cheek: “I love you, Antares.”

Antares smiled at this, burying his face against the side of her neck, smelling not death, but lavender and life as her stitches tickled against him. He felt every thud of the heart that wasn't in her chest, every bit of warmth that boiled up from her very soul, felt her life as he murmured in return: “I love you too, Mom.”

And for a little while they just held onto each other in the quiet of the crypt, Twilight Sparkle feeling more alive in that moment than she had been for most of her long life.