• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,707 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

Acting As Leader

Chapter Twelve: Acting As Leader

Antares Mīrus sighed in relief as a Nightmare opened a large steel door for him, smiling gratefully to it as he turned and strode into his guest room... and then he blushed awkwardly as he found it had only a single large bed that Prestige was already curled up on top of. He began to turn, but the Nightmare only smiled at him before the door closed, and the young stallion winced before looking hurriedly around.

The room was mostly empty: there was the large bed in one corner, a single crystalline lamp that hung overhead, and a small bed table. Prestige had taken her little gear off and tossed it all at the foot of the bed, and Antares hesitated before he carefully began to strip out of his own armor, taking his time so he could try and figure out what to do.

He grimaced at how dirty he was, brushing at himself before he grumbled a little under his breath, then he turned and pushed open the door. He looked back and forth, then bit his tongue before closing his eyes and focusing... but then he nixed the idea even as he began to cast the spell, wincing as a bit of electricity zapped over his horn from the sudden decision it would be better not to test his luck. It wasn't hard for him to send out a call to any Nightmares or demons in the area... but in a place like this, he'd end up calling an entire drove of creatures just to help him find a shower.

Instead, he stepped back inside with a sigh, closing the door quietly... before wincing a bit when Prestige said tiredly: “Oh, stop, Antares. I may not be fond of the idea of being forced to share a bed with you, but... your company is better than a demon's.”

Antares looked over his shoulder to see Prestige still laying quietly, but her eyes were open, studying him silently, and he smiled a little as he rubbed at his body. “I'm just... dirty.”

“Yes, you are.” Prestige said softly, smiling a bit in return, and when Antares sighed and gave her a look, she shook her head slowly and sat up a bit, before patting the ugly green blanket covering the bed. “Come here.”

The young stallion looked at her for a moment, then he walked over and slipped onto the bed, sitting down across from her as they studied one another. For a few moments, there was quiet, and then Antares asked curiously: “So what exactly did Selene talk to you about?”

Prestige remained quiet for a moment, then she shook her head and muttered: “I'm not sure. She made me uncomfortable, though, Antares... this whole place makes me uncomfortable. Living in darkness beneath Canterlot, so-called 'evil' entities all around us... why are we here? Why has the Baroness decided that these demons are the best teachers for us?”

Antares only shrugged and looked down a bit, and Prestige frowned at him before saying slowly: “Is there anything you won't consider a friend, Antares? Tell me, if you caught a cockroach out in the open, would you try to make friends with it or would you simply kill it?”

“Is it an intelligent talking cockroach?” Antares asked sourly, and Prestige huffed at him before he shook his head slowly. “They're people. All people deserve a chance.”

“They're monsters.” Prestige retorted, sitting up a bit, and the two glared at each other. “Did you see that fire demon? Right in front of you, he was courting your mother!”

“I... I don't know if you've ever called Twilight Sparkle my mother before. Not... seriously.” Antares said with surprise, and Prestige blushed and glanced away as Antares smiled a little. This time, he didn't try to look away, didn't hide his gaze as he studied her, and she tried to look everywhere but his eyes... but slowly, inexorably, her gaze was drawn to his.

Irises locked, seeing into one another, and lips parted... and then Antares leaned forwards, but Prestige reached up her hooves to grasp his shoulders as she met him. They kissed, slowly, passionately, savoring it, drawing it out as long as they dared... and then they parted, and studied each other again as they breathed unevenly in time with one another.

Then Antares blushed deeply and dropped his head forwards, and Prestige smiled faintly at him, studying him as she leaned forwards. Her hooves reached up, stroking through his mane slowly, and she laughed after a moment before whispering: “I hate you so much, Antares Mīrus.”

“I know. I hate you too.” Antares mumbled, and then he smiled and closed his eyes when she wrapped her forelegs around his neck and leaned forwards to kiss the base of his horn, before she dropped her muzzle beside his. Their horns touched, rubbing side-by-side before a sizzle sparked between them, and both unicorns twitched before Prestige laughed and Antares shivered a little in pleasure, in warmth, in... he didn't know.

He almost shyly opened his eyes as they drew apart a little, almost nose-to-nose now, studying each other again. They looked at one-another, and then Prestige asked hesitantly: “Antares... do... is this nothing but foolishness on our parts or do you think we stand a chance of... well...”

She blushed, lowering her head forwards, and Antares stared at her with surprise before he smiled a little, asking quietly: “What, is this your way of already telling me that I'm no good for you? Or are you trying to scare me off?”

“I don't know.” Prestige replied honestly, looking up at him before she shifted again and murmured: “I like you. And I trust you. And both these things, Antares... they're sources of unease. We had one wild, silly kiss, spur of the moment stupidity, and... but... that kiss we just shared now...”

She flushed and looked down, then closed her eyes and dropped her head against him, and he wrapped his forelegs around her... and it felt good. It felt... right, somehow, as he held her close against his body, looking down at her softly... and then blushing a bit as he wondered silently: Is this how Dad felt when he held Mom?

She curled against him, feeling comfortable... feeling... safe. Prestige smiled a bit to herself, then she carefully levered herself forwards and pushed Antares gently down, and he let himself fall quietly onto his back with a laugh, snuggling her tighter against him. She pulled herself on top of him, and Antares blushed deeply, then winced when she pinned him back, straddling him and gazing down at him quietly before she murmured: “I like you like this. Beneath me. Where you belong.”

Antares glowered at her, and Prestige leaned down... then she giggled a little after a moment, and he laughed despite himself, shaking his head slowly. “I can't believe you, seriously. What is wrong with you, Prestige?”

“I don't know. I'm... confused.” Prestige smiled all the same, rubbing her hooves along his chest thoughtfully before she murmured: “I like you, though. I like the way you make me feel. I like that... you're you, and I'm me, but you make me a better person, Antares, and I like to think... I don't know, somehow I do the same. But you're annoyingly perfect already.”

“I wish.” Antares said softly, gazing up at Prestige with a faint smile as he shook his head slowly. “I think... I think you do help me, though, Prestige. You give me something else to fight for, feelings I've... I've never had before, not even for... Meadowlark...”

He blushed deeper, looking away, and Prestige studied him curiously before she asked softly: “Why do you feel so much for her, Antares? And no, I do not mean that because she's a shorn wing and you're a splinter-horn, you're such a perfect match for each other...” Antares looked at her dryly, but was thankful that she was at least being teasing instead of serious. “I mean... don't think I never noticed the hierarchy. You, our leader... and me, at the bottom, the most disliked... but Avalon and Aphrodisia seemed to enjoy punishing Meadowlark from time to time as much as they liked to make me miserable.”

Antares shifted a little, and then he nodded after a moment, saying softly: “Yeah, I... I guess that's true. But it just means that Apps and Ava are slower to forgive than I am, that's all. And there's nothing wrong with that, really.”

Prestige smiled a bit down at him, tilting her head and asking mildly: “So it's fine for me to continue to bear a grudge against you, until you make it up to me?”

“I guess... you know, except for the fact that you're the racist jerk here.” Antares replied dryly, and Prestige rolled her eyes before shoving her hooves down against his stomach, making him wheeze loudly. “Hey!”

Prestige only huffed, rubbing her hooves up along his chest... then blushing as she slowly rubbed her hooves back down, seeming to realize where she had settled into place... but if anything, only settling herself firmer as she smiled down at him tenderly. Antares looked awkwardly back up, a flush suffusing his features at her gentle touches, and then the mare leaned forwards and asked quietly: “So what happened with Meadowlark? Is there a reason you're so... gentle with her?”

“I... don't want to talk about it. It has to do with Avalon's dad and... stuff.” Antares said finally, and Prestige grumbled a bit. “Prestige, you're my marefriend and I care about you, but... you know. Some stories still aren't mine to tell. And we...”

He looked up at her, and she gazed back before he said quietly as he turned his eyes embarrassed away: “We are different people, aren't we? And much as I like this time with you, I... I can't imagine that you're... thrilled with me. I'm... not really pureblood like you are, I'm... well, you always call me a splinter horn, and we both have different beliefs and stuff and like you said, this all so weird and I know... I know that tomorrow you'll probably call someone a name and I'll yell at you for being a racist and we'll get in a big fight and...”

He broke off as Prestige grasped his face gently with a hoof, turning him to look up at her, and then she leaned down and kissed him softly: he closed his eyes, returning it, and it filled him with euphoria as his whole body almost shivered with pleasure before their mouths parted, and Prestige looked down into his eyes softly as she whispered: “It doesn't matter. We can change, and adapt... and you make me feel safe.”

Then she closed her eyes and laid over him, burying her face into his neck as she slipped her upper limbs around his neck, and he hugged her fiercely back, closing his eyes and holding her tightly down against him as he inhaled the sweet scent of her mane and promised quietly: “And I'll always keep you safe, Prestige. I'll always protect you.”

And Prestige smiled softly, believing him, hearing the honesty, the dedication in his words as they simply held one another close and savored the feeling of sanctuary and warmth that came with it.

Antares awoke a few hours later with Prestige still curled close to him, smiling a little down at her as he stroked her face slowly with a hoof. He shifted a little, but only so he could move one of his wings out from where it was pinched beneath him, and then he simply pulled her gently closer and silently nuzzled her in her sleep.

He felt good when he was with her: it was silly, that Prestige of all ponies, made him feel this way, but he smiled all the same at her... before his eyes widened, and he paled as a familiar voice whispered teasingly in his ear: “What a cute couple you two make. So how was it?”

“Apps!” Antares rasped in a strangled voice, looking in horror over his shoulder as he rolled over a little too fast, one leg still curled around Prestige. She grimaced and groaned in her sleep, mumbling and rolling over, but thankfully not waking up as Antares flinched, then sighed in relief when Prestige didn't wake up... before he returned his glare to Aphrodisia, who was sitting back against the door and grinning at him with delight. “Get... get out! And nothing happened!”

Aphrodisia wrinkled up her muzzle, sniffing the air... and then she grumbled and nodded. “That's lame, Nova. Only you would skip the chance to-”

“What are you talking about! You... I... get out!” Antares' voice was so high it was almost a squeak as he gestured wildly at the door, but this only made Aphrodisia giggle behind her hooves as her eyes gleamed brightly. “Go, go, go!”

“Please tell me you got around first base at least. Second, even. Please tell me something happened apart from your mooshy-mooshy goo-goo cuddle-wuddles.” Aphrodisia reached her hooves up, making kissy faces and baby noises as she flailed her hooves at the air, and then Antares twitched before he yanked the pillow out from beneath his head and whipped it at her, hitting the demon in the face.

She winced, then huffed before leaping forwards before Antares could react, tackling him and knocking him crashing into Prestige, who snapped awake with a yell before she screamed at the sight of Aphrodisia leaning down in her face with a grin, before the young unicorn mare's horn gave a bright flash.

Electricity blasted through the air, sizzling over all three ponies, and yells rose up from all of them as it broke down into a wild scuffle, hooves and blasts of wild magic flying in all directions until finally, Prestige whimpered, laying prone beneath sprawled out Antares as the bruised and bludgeoned young stallion groaned, and Aphrodisia smiled with pleasure. The demon sat on top of the pile, butt firmly planted between Antares' shoulderblades as she sniffed loudly. “You guys freaking suck.”

“Okay, Apps, you ambushed us, I'm so, so tired, and you don't ever pull your punches.” Antares mumbled, then he spat out a bit of blood to accent this before adding tiredly: “If you don't get off me, I'll tell Aunt Tia you were the one who poured hot sauce in her tea that one time.”

Aphrodisia winced, then she grumbled and hopped off him, landing easily on the ground and glowering over her shoulder at the bed before giving it a firm kick to make both ponies wince. “Butthead. That's not playing fair. But come on, sleepyheads. Mommy sent me to get you because-”

“Wait, Pinkamena's here?” Antares rose his head curiously, and Aphodisia nodded with a bright smile. “Is she going to help train us or something?”

“A little, yeah. Daddy wanted to come too, but since he can't travel like Mommy and I can, he had to stay in Ponyville.” Aphrodisia looked a little disappointed, then she shook her head quickly. “But Mommy promised to give me and you and Avalon combat training. And Aunt Tia says she wants to train you herself too, Antares, you're really lucky.”

Antares only smiled a little, sitting up slowly before Aphrodisia looked pessimistically between the two. “I can't believe you two, though. What a waste of a bed.”

“Shut up, prostatot. Don't be disgusting.” Prestige muttered in distaste, then she sniffed and shook herself out before reaching up and carefully beginning to smooth down her mane. “Can't we stop for a shower or something?”

“I bet you two want to shower together.” Aphrodisia muttered, and the two ponies glared at her before she shrugged a bit and said finally: “I don't know. Mommy wanted me to bring you right to her, though. I think you're just going to get dirty again anyway, showers are stupid.”

“You're...” Antares shook his head slowly, then he laughed a bit and slipped out of bed, wincing a little at how sore he felt. By the way that Prestige tottered to her hooves, he could see she was feeling sore, too. “Okay. Do we need our armor?”

“Don't think so. I don't think Mommy's going to train you right now anyway, she just wants to talk to you two about something.” Aphrodisia rubbed absently at her face, then added: “The others aren't here yet, anyway. Aunt Tia should get here soon, though, I hope... I can't wait to see what they think of it here in Subterra, it's so cool.”

“Yeah. I know, Apps.” Antares smiled despite himself, then he shook his head a bit before leaning over and kissing Prestige's cheek, making the unicorn mare blush but then smile happily even as Aphrodisia blew a loud raspberry at them. “Lead the way.”

The demon grunted, then she kicked the door behind her open, turning and striding out into the hall. Antares and Prestige both followed, letting the heavy door swing closed behind them, and they only walked a short distance before Aphrodisia suddenly spun around, looking sharply from one pony to the other before she narrowed her eyes and said moodily: “Now listen. Nova. You're my bestest friend, even better than Avalon, and you're family. You're my cousin, but really you're my big brother and I love you.

“Prestige, I hate you. You're smelly and dumb.” Aphrodisia paused for a moment, then she sighed and dropped her head forwards, saying grudgingly: “But if Nova likes you... I'll try and like you. Just like Avalon said.”

Both ponies began to smile, and Aphrodisia's response was to hiss at them as her eyes glowed and her features became skull-like. But even though Prestige winced and staggered backwards, Antares only smiled warmly and murmured: “Thanks, Pinkslap. It means a lot to hear you say that.”

“Good. Better.” Aphrodisia grumbled, then she hopped around in a circle and bounced down the hall, adding in a brighter voice: “Meadowlark was upset as hell, though. I liked that.”

Antares groaned and dropped his head forwards, plodding after her as Prestige awkwardly followed along at the glossy-black stallion's side. Thankfully, it was only a short walk back out to the top of the pyramid... and Antares and Prestige were surprised to find not only Pinkamena waiting for them, but Selene, Burning Desire, and Amdusias.

Aphrodisia pranced over to her mother, and Pinkamena smiled as her daughter nuzzled into her affectionately, mother absently stroking a hoof through her child's raven-black mane before her eyes flicked up and she said mildly: “Look at the happy newlyweds.”

“Why are you so mean some days, Pinkamena?” Antares asked curiously, and Pinkamena shrugged before the young stallion looked back and forth with interest. “What's going on, though?”

“Wait, where's Twilight Sparkle? Shouldn't all of us be gathered here?” Burning Desire asked quickly, looking back and forth, and then the fiery stallion grinned widely as he looked over at Pinkamena and Aphrodisia when they both glowered at him, half-lidding his eyes as he said kindly: “Thankfully, having such beautiful cohorts as yourselves present helps soften the pain in my chest...”

“Oh shut up, you piceous wretch, before you get yourself torn into pieces.” Amdusias said moodily, glowering over at the demon stallion, and Burning Desire made a childish face at him in response. “The advice was for your own good. But look at me, a symphony musician speaking to an amateur idiot who couldn't properly play the triangle.”

“I only play one instrument... and I must say, I've never disappointed anyone in the crowd when I do.” Burning Desire grinned widely and leaned towards Pinkamena and Aphrodisia, waggling his fiery eyebrows... and then Pinkamena reached up and shoved a hoof against his face to knock him sprawling with a yelp.

“Hit on me or my daughter again and I'll gut you and eat you from the inside out.” Pinkamena threatened, and Burning Desire stared, opened his mouth, then promptly closed it when Aphrodisia hissed at him and Pinkamena bared her fangs.

There was silence for a moment, and then Selene began to open her mouth before the Nephilim slowly turned her head towards Burning Desire when the demon stallion leapt up and grasped at his chest with one hoof, beginning seriously: “But Antares, honestly, you have to tell me! I must go to my beautiful, undying violet and offer her my sweet help! I can't let her suffer alone, after all... I am a mighty stallion of honor that-”

Selene's eyes narrowed slightly as her horn gave a faint white pulse, and Burning Desire's jaw snapped shut and his eyes went wide as the flames on his body whiffed out completely, his shifting coat turning to the color of dying embers. For a few moments he simply sat, posed awkwardly, and then he slowly, carefully stepped back into line with the other demons as Selene looked ahead with a kind smile. “Handsome Antares. The Dawn Bringer contacted me with an interesting request...

“As you can see, gathered in front of you are those who have agreed to help teach you. Minus, of course, Twilight Sparkle and Celestia herself. But they will join us in time.” Selene smiled, bowing her head politely. “The Dawn Bringer has asked that you choose who shall teach who, bearing in mind that we will be tutoring most of you one-on-one... and that the more teachers a student has, the less they may learn in each field.”

“And who died and made the child leader?” Amdusias asked grumpily, and when Selene slowly turned her gaze to him, the demon cleared his throat hurriedly and mumbled: “I apologize. Perhaps that was out of tune with the rest of the band. I'll... stick to the rhythm set by the rest of the orchestra.”

“A wise decision.” Selene said gently, and then she turned her attention back to Antares, continuing calmly: “You may also ask for other teachers if you so desire, but please understand that Subterra's resources are not infinite, and that neither I nor the Dawn Bringer will force those to bend to your will on your behalf...”

But as Antares dared to look into the infinite gaze of the Nephilim, she smiled slightly and her strange, galactic eyes narrowed as her voice whispered through his mind, alluring, seductive, and full of promise: Unless you truly want me to.

Antares shivered a bit at this, hurriedly dropping his gaze before he swallowed thickly and nodded, then looked up and hesitantly drew his eyes over the group in front of him. He frowned for a moment, then closed his eyes and thought quickly. He thought about himself, and his friends... and then he looked up and said slowly: “I... I'll train with Aunt Tia, Pinkamena, Amdusias, and yourself, Selene. It's greedy, but I need to make sure I round out my skills as much as I can.

“Prestige, I'd like for you to train with my Mom, Twilight Sparkle, and... Burning Desire.” He grimaced a bit, even as Burning Desire looked up with delight at this prospect, the flames bursting back into being over his body as he leered at Prestige, who winced back in distaste. “Aphrodisia, no one can teach you better than Pinkamena... but I'd like you to train with me and Aunt Tia, too.

“I have to do the others, too, don't I?” Antares asked quietly, and when Selene nodded, he sighed a little and looked down, murmuring: “It's not fun being the leader.”

“It can be, Antares. It depends on your perspective... and while you feel pain in your friends' pain and losses, concentrate on the fact you will feel great joy in their successes as well... that if you assign them properly, they will learn much, and owe you gratitude and favor.” Selene replied kindly, and Antares nodded a little even as he kept his gaze carefully away from the burning-white entity.

Finally, he looked up, almost meeting her eyes but just keeping himself from locking gazes with her as he said quietly: “Avalon will train with Pinkamena and I'd like for her to train up in Canterlot, with the Royal Guard or the Yamato Elite. Rustproof...” He frowned a little, then said slowly: “Rustproof will spend his time with the Royal Guard, if possible, and... with the Nibelung engineers and the demons that keep things running here. And last, Meadowlark...” He hesitated. “I'd like Meadowlark to work with Amdusias and with my Mom.”

Amdusias frowned at this, looking up moodily. “I don't recognize this pony's name. Is she another impertinent unicorn?”

Prestige glared, and Antares shook his head quickly, saying awkwardly: “Actually, Meadowlark is a Pegasus, and she doesn't... really have any fighting experience or anything, like Rusty, but-”

“Then what am I supposed to do with her? I already have two obnoxious Pegasi to fritter away my time with!” Amdusias complained, shaking his head grumpily before he asked dourly: “What precisely could a bird-pony learn from me?”

“Well, you're a Lord of Helheim, right? Twilight was talking about how wise and knowledgeable you are just the other day, I thought you could maybe teach Meadowlark some stuff about Helheim...” Antares said carefully, and Amdusias looked pleased with this as he raised his head with a slight smile, nodding thoughtfully before Antares added: “And she can sing, kinda?”

“So?” All the same, Amdusias looked intrigued, tilting his head a bit as he rubbed at his chin slowly.

“Well, I mean. She hasn't for a while. She... used to sing a lot, though, and... maybe you could help remind her how to. You're a master of music and all, right?” Antares asked slowly, drawing his eyes over the demon, and Amdusias puffed up immediately, nodding with more emphasis at this. “Thank you, Amdusias. I really owe you one.”

“Yes, well. I'm feeling generous, that's all.” Amdusias said comfortably, polishing his claws against the smooth scales of his chest, and Burning Desire muttered something and slapped a hoof against his forehead before he winced when Amdusias booted him lightly. “Oh shut up, soul-seller. Go bury yourself in your money pit. And never come back out.”

“I don't have a money pit, I have a mare pit. And I wish I never had to come back out...” Burning Desire looked dreamily over at Aphrodisia and Pinkamena, who both glared at him. “Except all the most gorgeous mares seem to keep getting away.”

Pinkamena leaned over and punched Burning Desire hard across the face, a bit of molten slag splattering out of his jaws like drool as his head snapped to the side, and then his eyes slowly began to water – or rather fill with liquid fire – before he whimpered a little and forced a grin. “How. How feisty. I love a fighter, really. They remind me of my mother.”

“You dream about screwing your mother?” Pinkamena asked distastefully, and Burning Desire looked dumbly up before the Gluttony demon snorted and muttered: “Well, whatever floats your boat, flamer. From the looks of you I would have guessed your dreams are all about daddy, though.”

“I. Wait. How?” the fiery demon asked, frowning before he looked down at one hoof that was wreathed in flame, and then he stomped it firmly, glaring over at her as he said flatly, head tilting back and forth: “Oh, I get it. Ha, ha, you're so funny! Oh, look at me, I'm just splitting my sides laughing. Ha, ha, ha.”

“I'll split your sides open. I'll split all of you open. I haven't had stallion flambe for a long time.” Pinkamena muttered, glaring over at him, and Burning Desire winced.

Before it could escalate any further, however, Selene looked up from where she had been thinking and said softly: “I shall prepare a schedule, Antares. Your choices are very interesting... and somewhat unexpected. When the Baroness arrives, I am sure she will be eager to speak to you on your decisions... I, however, merely accept and honor them, and will do my best to see that all of your wishes are fulfilled.”

Antares smiled awkwardly, nodding a little before Selene smiled softly back. “Our business is concluded for today. Your friends will be arriving in short time, so perhaps you should prepare for their arrival...” Selene paused, then her horn gave the faintest of hums as she glanced to the side, and a moment later, a Nightmare appeared, bowing deeply to those present. “Your swiftness is appreciated. Please take Prince Antares Mīrus and Prestige Luster to where they may bathe, and attend to any other needs they may have.”

Antares smiled awkwardly, raising his head and saying quickly: “Really, just... getting clean will be more than enough, Selene. Thank you, honestly, for... everything. And all of you have my thanks, too... especially you, Pinkamena. I know it must be tiring for you to jump back and forth.”

“Hey, I ain't just doin' it for you, tumor, my daughter's here.” Pinkamena reached up a foreleg and wrapped it around Aphrodisia's shoulders, and the young demon smiled brightly before the dull-gray mare looked up and added softly: “Besides, kid. What are big sisters for, right?”

Antares smiled again, much warmer, and Pinkamena gave him a wink before her face went flat when Burning Desire wrapped a companionable foreleg around her, leaning in cheerfully and asking kindly: “Well, do you look out for Twilight Sparkle as well as you do Antares? Because she could really use a special healing touch right now, and I would love to give her that...”

“If you don't take your hoof off me right now, I'm going to bite it off and never give it back.” Pinkamena threatened, and Burning Desire winced and drew back before the Gluttony demon glared at him, then spat on the fire demon, making him flinch again as a bit of steam hissed up from where it splattered against his body. “Also, keep away from Twilight. She can afford better stallion whores than you.”

“Hey, how do you know how good I am unless you spend a night in my bed of fire?” Burning Desire asked with half-lidded eyes, winking at her before he added brightly: “And I always give good deals if you want to share, but there's always more than enough to go around... my two-for-one might become your new favorite-”

Pinkamena growled, then reached out and seized Burning Desire by the nose, and he winced before yelping loudly as the Gluttony demon dragged him forcefully forwards past her staring daughter, the fiery stallion wrinkling up his muzzle before he squawked when she flung him forwards and sent him crashing and rolling down the staircase, every bounce against the heavy cement steps sending up a burst of ashes and fire. Finally, just before he hit the ground, he erupted into a geyser of flames that transformed into a firebird, this flying hurriedly away as Pinkamena shouted after him: “Keep your hooves to yourself or I'll be having cooked chicken for dinner!”

“He's annoying.” Aphrodisia nodded rapidly, then she paused and smiled almost dreamily as Pinkamena returned, adding: “But he is kind of handsome, Mommy.”

“You're too young for that, kid. Wait a century or two, then I won't complain about you manipulating handsome demons.” Pinkamena muttered, then she glared around at the others, snapping: “Why the hell are you all still here? Hell, why are we still here? Come on, Aphrodisia.”

With that, Pinkamena turned and burst apart into black smoke, and Aphrodisia giggled before waving brightly to Antares and Prestige, then she transformed herself into a dark missile that whizzed through the air after her mother. Antares watched them go with a slow shake of his head as Prestige glowered moodily off into the distance at the thought of learning under Burning Desire, and then they both looked up as the Nightmare approached with a kind smile. “Please follow me, friends, now that the distractions are done with.”

Antares nodded, tossing a last glance over at the remaining demons... but Amdusias had made his saxophone appear and was gazing thoughtfully off into the distance as he played his dexterous fingers compulsively along the keys, and Selene had returned to sitting calmly on top of her reflecting pool, gazing with a strange, tender smile at her reflection in the water as feathers and flower petals floated around her.

The young stallion turned his eyes back forwards, wondering if he should say something as they stepped onto the north bridge, then entered the halls of the strange but beautiful Thorn Palace... but Prestige saved him the trouble, as she asked hesitantly: “Do... do you work here as servants... miss?”

“Miss. I have never been called this before.” The Nightmare gave a quiet laugh at this, then it shook its head before murmuring: “In a way, yes. But to think we serve Selene because she is our mistress is false. We serve her because we were asked to serve her by the Dawn Bringer... ultimately, our allegiance lies with the Dawn Bringer, with Mistress Twilight... and with you, Antares Mīrus. And of course... with the true Mistress and Master of the Night: we look forwards to when you bring them back to us. We know you will succeed, Antares... we long for Luna so.”

“I do too.” Antares said quietly, before he could stop himself, and Prestige gave him a soft look before he hurriedly shook his head and glanced awkwardly up as he asked finally: “What makes you so sure that I'll succeed though? And... and why is my Mom so important to you?”

“Because your mother forged the alliance with our kind... saved many of us from destruction as our original world fell apart, brought us here, and spread her rule into this world. We are allies with new powers now... our strength grows with every passing day.” The Nightmare sighed with soft pleasure. “Mistress Luna and Master Scrivener... we first feared them, but it was foolishness. No, because they are like us... they are like what we desire to be. And in return for our loyalty, they make us strong... they have made best friends of those who were once our worst enemies, and our hatred has become reverence.”

The Nightmare smiled almost tenderly, then it halted and bowed its head toward an open white door. Antares leaned forwards, looking inside to see an immense, rounded tub built into the ground that was almost the size of a pool, complete with a small staircase running along one side to safely get in and out as the Nightmare said kindly: “If you like, I and my sisters can join you... or fetch others to tend to yourself and your beloved...”

“I... no, no!” Antares blushed deeply as he realized what the Nightmare meant, stammering: “This... this is perfectly fine, uh... Prestige and I are fine, right?”

Prestige only blushed awkwardly and hurried into the bathing room, and the Nightmare smiled after them before Antares added lamely: “You can... go, then. We're... I'm sure we can find our way back afterwards. Thanks, though, uh... thanks.”

The Nightmare nodded, but continued to simply sit and study him, and Antares felt his blush worsening as he carefully stepped forwards into the bathroom, then turned and slowly shut the door. He paused, then nervously leaned forwards, peering through the slight space between jamb and frame... then winced a little when he thought he saw the Nightmare still out there, mumbling: “Oh god.”

Prestige glanced up with a wince from where she was testing the water of the tub, and Antares shook his head as he stepped away from the door before turning and approaching it himself. Then he and Prestige traded a look, and they both blushed a little before Antares said lamely: “Well... uh...”

“Sharing a tub with a splinter horn.” Prestige muttered, then she shook her head violently before sighing tiredly and nodding a little, dropping her head forwards and grumbling: “You can help me with my mane, then. I think I can trust you to do at least that, yes?”

“Like one of your servants?” Antares asked before he could stop himself, and Prestige looked at him sourly before she splashed a bit of water at him when he approached, making him wince. “Hey. And I thought you were cutting back on the whole... being a racist jerk thing.”

“It's not racism when it's true, Antares Mīrus, you are what any of my proud kind would consider a splinter-horn.” Prestige retorted, and then she hesitated before adding quietly when the male glared at her: “And... and to be honest, I would not have it any other way. Because being what you are...”

She quieted, then shook her head with a blush before slipping forwards and into the tub, and she squirmed a little in surprise as she mumbled: “It's rather hot.”

“Yeah?” Antares stepped forwards, carefully reaching down and swirling the water with a hoof, and then he smiled a little before hesitantly sliding into the tub himself across from her. The two looked at one-another awkwardly for a few moments as the waters rippled around them, and then the young stallion cleared his throat lamely as he scrubbed a bit at himself and asked dumbly: “Do you... do you see the soap anywhere?”

“I...” Prestige blushed, and Antares coughed, the two looking awkward and embarrassed and almost like foals before she glanced to the side and hurriedly swept a large bar off a nearby tray. Then she fumbled it with a curse, dropping it into the depths of the tub with a plunk, and without thinking Antares dove down after it.

He surfaced a moment later in front of her with a bit of a splash and an awkward grin, soap held between his hooves as he looked up at her, and she gazed back at him dumbly... and then a smile twitched at her mouth before she giggled a little, and Antares laughed himself. And in that moment, everything was alright again, as their eyes locked and they smiled at each other before Prestige said through her blush: “Go ahead.”

Antares looked at her with surprise... but then he blushed a little himself as she turned around, and slowly, gently, he began to rub the soap along her back. He built up a lather, and soaped down her entire body, massaging as he cleaned her, nervous hooves stroking along her form, taking in her details... enjoying himself more than he wanted to admit as he breathed a little hard through a dry mouth. But he was careful, too, not letting his hooves wander overmuch... letting her guide him... slowing when she stiffened, moving away when she shifted, but slipping a little closer and obeying her body language and her wordless whispers.

He repeated the process with just his hooves to rinse and massage her, and she was more open, he was more bold... until at the end, she was pressing back against him, and he was half-curled over her, embracing her fiercely as they kissed slowly. When it parted, she smiled up at him, and murmured quietly: “Now, splinter-horn, let me give you an honor almost unique to your kind... let me do the same for you.”

“Prestige, you don't have to.” Antares said awkwardly, blushing deeply, suddenly nervous... especially since...

He blushed deeper as she looked at him insistently, and then he leaned back a little when she picked up the soap and turned towards him, guiding him first to the side of the tub. As he leaned forwards, she began to scrub first along his back... but her hooves were bolder than his. For all her changes, she still clearly held the belief she could and should take what she wanted... and when he squeaked as her hooves encircled him and rubbed downwards, she leaned against his back and murmured: “Stop it. I'm not... what's... oh.”

She blushed herself... and he felt her tremble, and a heat that couldn't compare to the water radiating through her as she rested for a moment before a slight smile rose to her features as she murmured: “Idiotic slave-hoof. Unable to control yourself, are you? Without a unicorn's superior discipline... strength...”

“Prestige.” Antares mumbled, the glossy-black unicorn almost fire-engine red by now, and Prestige laughed... and despite his discomfort, it filled him with joy before he sighed in relief as her hooves moved away, and he closed his eyes when she continued her gentle ministrations.

She rinsed him afterwards, then turned him around, and they looked at each other for a few moments. And then silently, without needing to be asked, Antares picked up the shampoo bottle nearby and smiled across at her.

He washed her mane for her, and Prestige looked like she was in bliss as she stayed mostly beneath the water, little more than her nose sticking out of the surface as she gave a soft sigh that bubbled up through the liquid. Antares enjoyed her pleasure more than he wanted to admit, gazing down at her with affection... but what surprised him was when, once he was done, she sat up slightly and smiled over her shoulder, murmuring: “Now do my tail, and then I'll wash your mane.”

“I... okay.” Antares studied her, seeing her honesty: seeing more than that, how she wanted to return the favor, she wanted to give back to him what he gave to her. The thought filled him with warmth, and reminded him again of his parents: how they had always shared so much with one-another, how they had almost been like an infinite cycle, one perpetually sustaining the other.

The rest of the bath was spent in silence, and Antares enjoyed Prestige's hooves working along his scalp far more than he should have, leaving him feeling almost euphoric. And when they were finally clean, they studied each other, smiled, and shared another kiss, their bodies pressing against each other's but unmindful of it now... instead, cherishing this, and all the sensations that came with it.

They climbed out of the tub together, and helped dry one-another off, still studying each other. These experiences were all so new, so fresh, and then Prestige smiled at him and said quietly: “Any other stallion would be pressuring me for sex right now. At least, in my experience that is the nature of most males.”

Antares blushed, mumbling: “Well it's not as if I'm not thinking about it but... I think we have other things to worry about, and... and well...” He looked up at her hesitantly. “Have you...”

“Oh, as if I've ever had the time with how hard I've been forced to train in magic.” Prestige said crossly, and Antares laughed in spite of himself before she said mildly: “Besides, a purebred unicorn like myself, in a melting pot like Canterlot. I never even found a suitable friend, much less a suitable bedmate. Not... not until you.”

She looked up at him, studying him for a few moments, and then she smiled a little. “And now look what I'm with. A boorish unicorn who wants to be an earth pony. I, the cultured, pristine and pure unicorn... with you...”

She strode forwards, murmuring as Antares blushed deeply and grinned awkwardly at the way her eyes half-lidded, her gaze almost hungry: “Dirty. Impure. A mutt. Rough and strong and masculine. You're like an animal, a beast, all your... thoughts of nature and striving to be equal instead of superior... oh, how I used to revile you, and now you fascinate me, you're exotic, you're so handsome and big and your friends are demons and it makes me wonder, Antares, what's inside you?”

She reached up, stroking a hoof slowly over his chest as he stared at her, and she grinned up at him, eyes sparkling... and then she shivered and shook her head hurriedly, looking embarrassed as she dropped her head against the side of his neck. “Oh Horses of Heaven. I... I think it's the air of this place...”

“It's... it's okay. I... yeah, Subterra makes... emotions run hot.” Antares said finally, although he wondered at the same time how true that was, and how much of that had been... Prestige, beneath her perfection and her masks. Yet even as it admittedly made him wonder if he was just eye-candy for her... at the same time, he could feel her emotions, could see not just lust in her eyes, but admiration... could feel her, clinging to him not just because he was large and big and handsome, but because he made her feel safe and secure and... something else. Something almost sacred...

He cleared his throat and turned his gaze quickly away as he realized he had started deep-reading her by accident, and then he smiled after a moment, reaching up and rubbing a hoof through her mane. She blushed a bit, her silver locks a little messy instead of done up in their coiffed perfection, before she smiled radiantly when he said quietly: “You're really beautiful natural, you know. I like your mane like this.”

“Do you?” she asked almost timidly, and when he nodded, she smiled again, then bowed her head forwards and murmured: “Mother and father would be... horrified. One must always look their best, after all, as we are the superior species... and more than that, we are superior to the superiors, we are supposed to be the apex...”

She sighed a little, though, speaking with irony instead of pride before she looked up at him and said quietly: “I still think unicorns are superior, Antares, don't get me wrong. But at the same time... striving to prove it the ways we did... it all strikes me as nonsense. We were lazy... we were preening birds.”

She quieted, then shook her head before burying her face against his neck, and Antares looked down at her with surprise as she murmured: “I don't know if I wish to return home any longer. I think sometimes... I think... I've found my home.”

He wrapped his forelegs around her, holding her close and closing his eyes, and for a few moments, there was silence. The only thing Prestige could hear was the beat of Antares' heart... the only thing she cared about, was the strong thuds of that drum in his chest, and it soothed her before she smiled a little and gazed up at him, kissing his chin quietly when he looked down at her with such honest tenderness. How he could be so good to her, after how they always argued, after how she had treated him... how she could feel so much for him, not just in spite of their conflicted past, but she thought because of how different they had been and still were in many ways...

“Let's go.” she said softly, and Antares nodded, but he kissed her forehead tenderly before letting her go, and the simple, small affection filled her with warmth. Then they turned and made their way to the door, Antares holding it open for Prestige with a smile before they both emerged into the hall, the two gazing at each other affectionately before the unicorn mare's eyes shifted to the side... and then she stared and cleared her throat hurriedly.

Antares frowned, then he turned curiously even as a twist of anxiety ran through him... and he stared in surprise at the sight of Meadowlark standing just a few feet away. The Pegasus stared at him, and he stared back... then she flushed and spun around, but Antares hurried forwards, calling almost desperately: “Meadow, wait, wait!”

The Pegasus stumbled to a halt, and then she trembled like a leaf, closing her eyes and bowing her head forwards as Antares hesitantly came to a stop beside her, looking at her quietly. She breathed hard, shivering a little as Prestige nervously approached from behind, and then the Pegasus mare turned carefully around, looking from one to the other before she forced a weak smile. “Hi, guys... I... I was actually looking for you. I'm sorry I... I just...”

“No, you don't have to apologize, Meadowlark, I... I'm sorry you... I mean...” Antares felt his heart twist in his chest as Prestige shifted uncomfortably, and then the stallion hesitantly reached up and touched Meadowlark's shoulder. She didn't pull away, even as she continued to tremble weakly... and for a moment, the male simply looked at her before he sighed a little and murmured: “I'm so sorry.”

“No... it's... it's okay. You're... you two look good together.” Meadowlark said quietly, and she smiled again even though her eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. “Antares... I... it was silly, anyway. And... I'm glad you are happy. We're... we're still friends, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course, Meadowlark. We'll always be friends. And... you don't have to force anything...” Antares said quietly, looking at her almost pleadingly... and what broke his heart was the honesty in her words. He could see her ache, her pain... but at the same time, she was speaking the truth. She was upset and hurt and disappointed... and yet she was still happy for him. And even with his talents, he couldn't understand how she could still smile for him even if he had broken her heart.

Meadowlark only dropped her head forwards, whispering: “Good. I want to be friends... and... I'm not forcing anyway, I... I just...” She shivered a little, then looked up and breathed slowly, studying him with a tremble. “Don't... worry about me. I know it was stupid. You're a hero, Antares I... I... I'm just happy to be included. Especially after everything I did to you, and Avalon and...”

She shivered and looked away, then closed her eyes and nodded silently once before shaking her head violently when Antares began to speak. The unicorns instead remained silent and the Pegasus breathed hard before she finally looked up and murmured: “Celestia would like to meet with you. She's out with... that strange demon, Selene. And... thank you for... for including me. I know I'm useless to you here...”

“You're not useless... I...” Antares shifted, then he lowered his eyes when Meadowlark only looked silently at the ground. “I know you'll be a big help, Meadowlark. There's still a lot for you to do.”

Meadowlark laughed faintly at this, but then she nodded slowly and hesitated, before looking up and saying quietly: “Can I come back with you? This castle scares me and... I... I promise not to get in the way...”

“Meadow... I...” Antares shifted a bit, and then he nodded slowly before leaning forwards and quietly hugging her. Meadowlark hugged him tightly back, burying her face against the side of his neck and trembling... and even though he felt her pain flare up, he felt her silently thanking him, too, before they pulled slowly apart.

For a few moments, there was quiet, and then Prestige said softly: “Meadowlark... I'm sorry. Perhaps... perhaps we can be friends, too. But I understand if you'd... rather have nothing to do with me.”

“No, I... no. We need to work together, and get past this and... it was silly anyway...” Meadowlark shook her head vehemently, then she gave another faint, forced smile to Prestige, nodding a little and closing her eyes. “But Celestia is waiting and... yeah.”

Antares simply nodded, and he felt trapped for a moment: in front of him, Meadowlark, with so much pain and happiness he didn't understand, and behind him, Prestige, who was trying hard to be kind but he felt jealousy and fear mixing strangely with sympathy. Then the young stallion hurriedly turned, leading the two onwards... and he winced a bit over his shoulder at the two young mares, thinking morbidly of how complicated everything had gotten all of a sudden.

It didn't take them long to head back out to the top of the pyramid, where Selene was calmly talking with Celestia, although there was no sign of any of Antares' other friends. As they approached, Celestia glanced up and tilted her head with surprise at the trio, then she frowned a little and asked gently: “Meadowlark, wouldn't you prefer to head off to the guest quarters with the others? And Prestige, you may leave too if you desire... I only really need to speak to Antares.”

“I... would like to stay.” Prestige said hesitantly, and then she glanced over at Meadowlark as the Pegasus shifted awkwardly, before the unicorn mare visibly sighed inwardly, but said all the same: “And Meadowlark is... very intelligent. Perhaps... she could assist us if... she doesn't want to leave.”

“Kindness. A virtue, is it not?” Selene smiled a little, glancing with infinite, dark gaze towards Celestia, who nodded slowly as the ivory mare visibly softened. “You have strange thoughts and feelings, Dawn Bringer.”

“I do, Selene. I'm reminded of the past, that's all.” Celestia said softly, and then she turned her eyes calmly towards Antares, asking curiously: “Your choices for mentors... they were interesting. I'm glad that you made them, and I respect them, Antares, but I'm still curious all the same as to a few of them... Avalon and Rustproof, for example. The Royal Guard will not treat either of them kindly, you understand this?”

“I... didn't think of that.” Antares admitted, then he hesitated before shaking his head slowly. “But it doesn't change my opinion, either. It'll be good for them both, I think: I just... hope they aren't too mean to Rusty. But he can work with the rifle brigade, and I don't know who else could train Avalon. I figured your Yamato and the Royal Guard were the only real choices... well, and Pinkamena, of course.”

“I have a solution for that, as a matter of fact. A personal trainer who is willing to work with Avalon as a personal favor to me, although... it took quite a lot of convincing.” Celestia smiled slightly, and Antares tilted his head with interest. “Don't worry, Antares. It's a pony that I believe Avalon can honestly benefit from, in more than one way. And who will very likely teach her there is benefit to humility: Avalon Apple has some right to her bragging, after all, but... it does get a little... wearisome.”

Antares laughed a little despite himself, and then Celestia continued: “I hope you don't mind, but I've also taken the liberty of setting up a basic schedule, and where I could, I've paired together students. For example, I would prefer you and Aphrodisia to train side-by-side under Pinkamena. It's not just important that you learn to fight, Antares... it's important that you and your friends learn to better work together.”

Antares Mīrus nodded quickly, and then Celestia smiled softly, saying quietly: “Selfishly, I've scheduled us plenty of time together. I want you to know ahead of time I'm not going to give you gentler treatment because you are my nephew... if anything, I'll push you harder. Your mother would have wanted that... you understand, don't you?”

“I do, and I appreciate it, Aunt Tia.” The glossy-black young stallion bowed his head with a blush, and Celestia smiled approvingly. “I'm... sorry that I was so selfish in my choices.”

“No Antares, I understand. And it is necessary, even if I wish your mother was here... Luna could better train you than the rest of us put together.” Celestia said quietly, glancing away before she shook her head slowly, then she glanced over at Meadowlark. “Perhaps you could help me with the schedule. And... don't worry about Amdusias. He can be a little chaotic at times, but he's a good person at heart. He's more bark than bite.”

Meadowlark smiled a little, nodding slowly, and there was silence for a few moments before Celestia hesitated, then asked: “On... another matter... is Twilight Sparkle...”

“She's... regenerating in the crypt, yeah. Her wings and horn have to grow back still, and I know it's... it's not nearly as easy as she tells me it is. I know she doesn't want me to worry but... I do, all the same.” Antares laughed a little, glancing up at her hesitantly. “Could... could we visit her?”

“Of course. But first... let's walk your friends to their respective rooms, and deal with the business at hoof of letting them know what the days ahead hold. We can make a few small adjustments as necessary, then... go and visit Twilight.” Celestia replied quietly, and then she gave Selene a smile and nod. “Take care, friend.”

“You as well, Valkyrie... it settles my nerves to have you here, Dawn Bringer.” Selene replied softly, and then she settled slowly back down on top of the water of her reflecting pool, sending a quiet ripple through the water as she gazed down into it with a quiet laugh. “You remind me of mother, too. But not as much as Luna... we both look up to her, don't we?”

“She was my little sister... but she was also my guide, in more ways than she ever knew.” Celestia replied quietly, and Antares smiled silently as he looked up at his aunt as she calmly approached, before leaning down and nuzzling her nephew softly for a moment, and he blushed a bit but smiled wider in affection. “Come, Antares, and friends. Business before pleasure.”

Antares nodded firmly once, stepping aside to let Celestia pass, and then he turned to follow as Meadowlark and Prestige fell in pace on either side of him, both mares looking quietly towards the young stallion with longing and affection as for just a moment, everything else was forgotten.