• Published 10th Jul 2014
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Sleipnir's Big Adventure - BlackRoseRaven



A hero makes an unlikely alliance with a stubborn prince, and they adventure across Equestria together.

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Winter Madness

Chapter Sixteen: Winter Madness
~BlackRoseRaven

The white unicorn sighed with relief as he shook packed snow off his armor and fur cloak, before he easily kicked the door to the hotel open and strode inside, calling easily: “The snowstorm is finally starting to lighten! But here, I brought enough for everyone!”

Ponies cheered from the tables, looking at the large white unicorn with gratitude as he carried the satchel up to the bar and flung it easily to one of the ponies behind it. The stallion looked surprised as he caught this, then opened it and stared in amazement, stuttering: “There must be half a dozen cans of food in here!”

“I wouldn't be that happy about potato soup if I were you. You may wish to continue starving after you've actually tried it.” the stallion said mildly as he reached up and brushed a bit more snow free from his armor, and then he reached up and firmly rubbed snow out of his curly, shaggy mane before shaking himself briskly, asking absently: “Sleipnir back yet?”

“N-No, and I... this is really too much!” began the bartender, and then he blushed when the armored stallion only held up a hoof and looked at him pointedly. “I... I really can't thank you and your friends enough for their generosity, Sir Blue.”

“Just Blue, please.” Blueblood smiled as he absently adjusted the simple azure headband around his head, which kept his shaggy bangs out of his eyes. “And all I had to do was take a little walk. It's not that dangerous out there anymore: Sleipnir, Invidia and I should be able to take another look for any survivors in the afternoon and bring them here. Maybe we can scrounge up some more food, too.”

“Thank you.” was all the bartender could say, and Blue shrugged easily before he turned and headed for the stairs, even as he smiled over his shoulder at the ponies in the bar, some of whom were still waving and cheering.

He headed quickly up to his room, then sighed in relief as he pushed through the door and kicked it closed behind him, shaking himself out again before quickly stripping off his heavy brown cloak, then his lightweight armor. The cloak he threw over a dresser, and then the armor he placed carefully on top of this before he smiled to himself, stretching out his athletic, toned body before he turned towards the bed and flopped into it.

Invidia was still gone, likely still scouting for any demons or frost imps they might have missed... but Blue was pretty sure they'd already hunted every one of them down. The storm magic the foul little creatures had been using to torment this little village would just take time to wear itself out, that was all.

It was a good thing they'd been passing through this area of Equestria, otherwise this whole town might have ended up wiped off the map by the cold spirits. But Sleipnir always said everything happened for a reason, and Blue was becoming more and more inclined to believe that... then again, after more than three months of traveling and learning from the enormous earth pony, it probably wasn't much of a surprise that the cheerful giant was starting to rub off on him a little.

Blue smiled despite himself: if you'd told him at the start of the journey that he was going to start becoming like Sleipnir, he would have gone kicking and screaming to Aunt Tia and demanded to stay in the safe cradle of Canterlot. But that's all Canterlot had really been, he realized now: a cradle And it was well past time for this little colt to grow up.

Still, he felt good. He felt... happy. Happier than he ever had. The nightmares still came now and then, but they were weak and didn't take him long to recover from anymore. Sure, there was a surprising amount of just... walking, and days they would take off to train and exercise in a safe little camp, and the weather was a nightmare sometimes... but he wouldn't trade any of this for the world.

He felt like he'd become an entirely different pony. He felt strong and proud and brave, and healthier than he ever had. And he actually... enjoyed helping all these ponies, who didn't even know who he really was. He was like some mysterious wanderer to them, and he actually liked that more: wouldn't they all be in for a surprise when the wanderer returned to Canterlot?

Canterlot... that felt so... so distant these days, though. He was so happy out here, and the title of prince felt like nothing but a weight, or worse... a baby harness. A mix of safety blanket and restraint he'd needed when he was still a little colt to stop him from running off anywhere. Well, he was a prince no more, and perfectly content with that.

Blueblood closed his eyes, front hooves behind his head, humming under his breath before he smiled slightly as he heard a clomping up the steps that could only be one thing. He opened one eye a moment before Sleipnir barged into the room, the earth pony still dripping with water as he complained: “By the Gods! 'Tis still a wretched blizzard out there. When Invidia returns, we should hunt for more of those accursed little imps.”

“No, no. Let's look for survivors instead, bring them here. I'm sure we haven't missed any of them.” Blueblood said airily, and Sleipnir frowned a little at him. But the unicorn only shrugged before saying pointedly: “It's been three days. Invidia would have sensed their presence by now. Furthermore, say that you're right and there are still some out there: by now, they must be hungry. If we gather the remaining villagers downstairs, the imps will have no choice but to attack here.”

Sleipnir looked thoughtful at this, lowering his head for a moment before he finally sighed and nodded, saying wryly: “Aye. I suppose thou art right. 'Tis warming to see thou hast learned to use thy mind, at least.”

Blueblood only shrugged and smiled slightly, then he rested back in his bed, letting his eyes slip closed. Sleipnir regarded the stallion meditatively for a few moments at this, and then he sighed a little before shaking his head slowly.

Sure, the unicorn had improved: physically, mentally, emotionally, and in just about every other possible field. But ever since the fear demon, they hadn't faced any real contest or challenge: some wild beasts here and there, a few evil spirits, and now the most serious thing they had come across so far, a cadre of imps and minor demons. Sleipnir thought that in spite of how much Blueblood had improved... a lot of it had gone to his head. And the fact they hadn't been doing much more than slogging through what were very mild dangers for the most part had given the prince a false sense of security.

He was prideful, maybe even arrogant. And Sleipnir knew that was something they were going to have to root out quickly, as he said mildly: “Perhaps thou should pull thyself up from bed and get ready to go then, Blue. And look at thy armor, 'tis soaked through! She is going to get a chill!”

Blueblood sighed at this, leaning up and saying dryly: “You do understand that our armor isn't actually alive, don't you?”

Sleipnir immediately grasped at his own breastplate, eyes wide before he apologized hurriedly to his armor: “Oh, now now, thou knows he does not mean it! Nay, he is still young, and knows not the ways of us, my friend... Blue, thou art callous!”

“Oh, I am not. It's just armor. Metal. Nothing more.” Blueblood grumbled, slipping out of bed and stretching absently before he added: “A tool is a tool, correct? And when we find better tools, we trade out our old equipment. Just because we feel some... sentimental attachment to it doesn't mean anything or give it life.”

Blue flicked his mane to the side, then began to smile up at Sleipnir... before he shrank back under the glower that the earth pony settled on him. There was silence for a few moments as the two looked at each other, Blueblood trying to force out a smile as Sleipnir glared down at him with surprising seriousness.

Finally, the earth pony said disapprovingly: “Here I had thought I had taught thee better... and more so, that thou had learned better! Every day thou awakens and polishes thine equipment, does thou not? 'Tis a part of thee. And aye, we have modified thy armor over the course of our journey, but never have we replaced too many of its original materials.

“Nay, our armor is... is more to us than metal, Blue. Just as thy sword is more to thee than steel... or shall we trade that away next, should we find thee a shinier axe, a pointier spear?”

“I... well, no, that's... clearly different.” Blueblood mumbled, looking awkwardly across at the sword he'd carefully placed on the windowsill, where it gleamed with fresh polish. “It's... it's a cultural artifact, really.”

Sleipnir looked at the stallion with wry amusement, then glanced towards the sword himself: Blueblood had mended the entire weapon with his own hooves, and had only needed minimal help from the enormous earth pony for the process. It had been a labor of love, and Sleipnir reflected it showed that there was still plenty of coltishness in this growing-up stallion: he was like the little boy who put all his faith in his shiny sword and forgot that there was much more to the battlefield than just sharp, blind steel.

“Alright, alright, you... you made your point.” Blueblood finally grumbled in a defeated voice, reaching up and moodily brushing his mane back. “I will... try and be more attentive of my armor's 'needs' in the future, is that what you want to hear?”

“Well, 'tis better at least, aye.” Sleipnir agreed, nodding calmly before he said gently: “And we must not underestimate our foes, Blue. We were fortunate in that we ambushed the ice spirits, in a place where they were forced to flee or close with us. Had we been outside the walls of that cave, there would have been precious little we could do against them.”

“I am not underestimating anything, Sleipnir, I'm simply... I'm certain that we did our jobs. That's all.” Blueblood said defensively, shaking his head quickly. “It's faith in our abilities. That's all. And like I said before, let them come to us if any are left: we'll have the safety of these buildings to fall back on.”

Sleipnir shifted uneasily, and then he finally gave a hesitant nod, gesturing to the stallion's armor. “Well, get thy gear ready and then meet me downstairs. And... I believe in us as well, Blue. Do not ever fear that I doubt thee or Invidia. Nay, 'tis simply that I know... things can happen, and easily be missed. That is all.”

The unicorn shifted a little, and then Blue nodded himself before he sighed and prompted: “But if the storm lightens enough by tomorrow...”

“Aye, if the storm lightens, then tomorrow we shall march onwards and hope for the best.” Sleipnir agreed, nodding back before he gave a slight smile. “Eager to be back upon the road, art thou? Well, fear not, the road shall be there no matter how long or short our stay here. Just as our journey shall not end before we reach our destination.”

“I hope not.” Blueblood said softly, and then he shook his head briefly before saying finally: “Thank you, Sleipnir. I just... I guess I am eager to be back out there. When we sit around for too long anywhere, I can never help but feel...”

“Aye, I know. I know it well, but as thou hast learned... 'adventuring' is much more than simply raiding dungeons and battling evil. 'Tis a lot of walking and waiting and patience.” Sleipnir said gently, and Blueblood nodded hesitantly a few times before the enormous earth pony said softly: “Nay, do not rush. There is no need to haste, even if... I understand thee well.”

Sleipnir stopped for a moment, licking his lips slowly before he shook his head when Blueblood looked at him oddly. “Nay. 'Tis... 'tis nothing. I shall await thee downstairs, Blue, and then we shall call Invidia if she has not yet returned.”

Blueblood nodded, not pressing the subject, and Sleipnir was glad for it as he turned and headed out of the room. His features became a little more solemn as he walked down the steps, head lowered, eyes closing as he slipped in silence past the bar and out into the frosty air.

The cold didn't bother him that much, though: he felt nature's warmth and love even through the blizzard, in the way the winds tried to push the ever-falling snow away, how the earth itself seemed to reject the unnatural ice and snow trying to build up over it. Sleipnir smiled a bit: oh, certainly, nature could be cruel at times... but she loathed nothing more than to see her creations tampered with.

Sleipnir gazed out into the blizzard from the safety of the deck: Blueblood was certainly sure of himself, but the earth pony had plenty of doubts. This blizzard was simply too strong, and the magic fueling it should have started to die out long ago... furthermore, the air was warm for winter, and it was the snow itself that was freezing cold, instead of sticky and wet like it should have been... assuming it even would have been falling in this warmth.

He wondered what his sisters would think... but that just made him feel... strange these days. He lowered his head and chewed slowly at his lip, feeling horribly like... like something was wrong. Something terribly awful had happened, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Part of him wanted to rush, to get the last components for the portal as fast as possible and throw it together... but the rest of him knew that would be folly. There wasn't even any guarantee that the portal would work... and this world was so strange. More than that, the more Sleipnir walked this world, the more he talked to nature and the trees and ponies, the more he saw that there was something ominous and evil happening here.

A darkness was spreading over this Equestria: an evil that Sleipnir already felt was going to do great harm to many ponies, if it was allowed to grow unchecked. It was why demons were becoming more active, why nature had lost control over some of her own children, why in the darker corners of the world like Horsia, evil things had been breeding rampantly.

Yes, he could feel it in his bones. And Sleipnir hated it... but all things happened for a reason, didn't they? He believed that... and so he believed that he was here for a reason, too: that it was more than just random luck that had sent him hurtling to this world when the monster they'd been fighting had banished him.

But something... something terrible was happening back in his home layer, he could feel that. Just as he had a premonition that soon, something was going to happen that would change... no, not the world. But would make him feel ruin and failure, like he had so rarely felt in the past. He didn't know if he'd experience that moment precisely when it happened back home, but he did know he would experience it, one way or the other.

He had always been able to sense these things, though: he had known for days before fighting the Black Wolf that death was coming for him, although Celestia would always argue with him about that, saying he'd self-fulfilled that prophecy. His instincts had never led him wrong, though... even when they told him to go in directions that hurt, even when they led him into pain and suffering. Even when he seemed to fall, it was only so he could climb back to his hooves in a better place than he'd been before.

Sleipnir silently scraped a hoof at the patio, then glanced up as there was a whirl of black smoke before Invidia appeared in front of him, the demon frowning a little before she asked quietly: “Are you alright, Sleipnir?”

“I am fine, friend. Fear not. Merely... heavy thoughts, about home.” Sleipnir said softly, and Invidia nodded and gazed at him quietly before he said gently: “Do not worry for me. And I am doing my best not to worry young Blue, either, so...”

“Of course.” Invidia smiled and reached up, making an awkward zipping motion over her muzzle, but it made Sleipnir chuckle. In the last few months, Blue had grown up some, and Invidia had become... more like a pony, for lack of a better way to put it. And more importantly, she had gotten her emotions under much better control.

Sleipnir tilted his head, and after a moment Invidia answered his silent question, shaking her own as she murmured: “No, not a thing, but... I... I sense that something is wrong, if I may be so bold. I... am not certain that we should leave yet.”

She stopped, then looked almost pained as she added: “I... understand that Blue desires to leave soon, and I will respect his decision in this, but... but I do believe there is something out there.”

Sleipnir smiled a little: in the last month, Invidia had finally started to form her own opinions. To even argue or disagree with Blueblood a little, instead of just silently fuming or sycophantically agreeing. He thought it was an excellent sign. It meant that Invidia was starting to do more than simply reflect the thoughts of Blue... which of course was good for many reasons.

The enormous earth pony only had to gesture at Invidia with his head, and the demon looked a little relieved before she said quietly: “I don't think we should leave. Not yet. The demons are merely hiding, waiting for us to go.”

“Aye, but how long will they continue to hide for? I know their hungers must be great, but thou knows better than I how long a demon can lurk in the shadows.” Sleipnir said pointedly, and Invidia scowled a little and nodded: it wasn't at him, though, like it would have been in the past, but rather it was because she realized herself that they couldn't stay here forever... while the demons could likely hide out for months. “Nay, we shall have to lure them out ourselves.”

Invidia tilted her head, but Sleipnir only chuckled and said kindly: “Fear not. I shall exercise the muscle I most rarely do and come up with a decent enough plan... or at least, I hope to. 'Tis hard to say, after all, I am not very good at Celestianess.”

The demon only gave him a quietly-amused look, and then Sleipnir bit his lip before he looked thoughtfully out into the storm, murmuring: “I have another question for thee, though: it regards... this world, as a whole. The demons are more active than usual, are they not?”

Invidia looked at him for a few moments, and then she gave a slow nod, saying softly: “We've spoken on this before, Sleipnir. And while I understand your worries, I do not think there is some... great darkness on the move. Things simply rise and fall... that is the way of the world. And besides, we have our own threats to worry about, do we not?”

“Aye, such as this Harbinger that haunts Blue. But thou hast done exceptionally well in protecting us from the foul demon, Invidia.” Sleipnir said gently, and Invidia smiled and blushed a little in response, lowering her head gratefully. “So I do not fret for that. Still, though, perhaps this Harbinger is another symptom of the disease...”

Invidia shifted uncomfortably, and Sleipnir looked at her curiously: but before they could discuss it any further, the door was pushed open and Blueblood stuck his head out, asking mildly: “And what are you two doing out here? Planning to leave without me?”

“Well, thou wert taking quite a while. I am sure thou cannot blame us for considering it.” Sleipnir said pointedly, and Blue only rolled his eyes in amusement before the earth pony smiled. “Nay, we were merely speaking of other things, fear not. Such as these demons-”

“Oh, there are no demons left. You're both being ridiculous.” Blueblood scoffed, shaking his head quickly before he complained: “And Invidia, you can't honestly have brought Sleipnir out here to tell him that you disagree with me, too. Or was it the other way around?”

“Oh, thou great child.” Sleipnir said mildly, but his voice was amused more than anything else even as Invidia gave Blueblood a grumpy look. “We are merely discussing the possibility. 'Tis not our fault thou took so damnably long to come down here. What were we supposed to do in the meantime? Were we to kiss, I fear in this weather our lips would freeze together. And while it would not be the most awful of torments...”

Invidia rolled her eyes, and Blueblood gave Sleipnir an entertained look before the unicorn asked wryly: “Is the mighty Sleipnir admitting he's afraid of a little cold? Because you can stay here if you want while I go and finish finding the rest of the civilians.”

“Fie on thee, great idiot. Very well, let us be off, then.” Sleipnir huffed before he strode down into the blowing snow with a grimace, looking back and forth. “Invidia, I fear I shall have to ask thou to take point, guide us forwards. Blue, conserve thy energy. Thou shall be in charge of shielding the ponies we find from the cold, should they need it.”

Both ponies nodded, and Sleipnir checked briefly over his shoulder before he nodded firmly to them both: at least he could always count on them listening, even if Invidia didn't seem to like the idea of herding the ponies into one place and Blue still didn't believe there were any demons left in hiding.

It probably helped that soon enough, one of them would be proven right, at least... and Sleipnir just honestly hoped that the villagers wouldn't be the ones to pay the cost.

It didn't take them long to find the last of the survivors: maybe an hour or two, and they had finally finished gathering all that remained in the village into the inn. And by the time they'd finished, the storm had actually begun to settle, which had made Blue gloat... but it only made Sleipnir even more nervous, even if Invidia seemed to be reconsidering her own position.

Blueblood was anxious to leave, and Invidia seemed to be having trouble finding reasons they should stay. So by mid-afternoon, Sleipnir gave in: they packed up, said their goodbyes to the surprised townsfolk, and then made their way out into the snowy day, past homes that were covered and half-crushed in some cases by snow and ice.

They waded through snow to the edge of town, and then Sleipnir suddenly yawned and stopped, stretching idly as Blueblood and Invidia both looked at him curiously... then stared as the stallion said cheerfully: “Here is a good enough spot to rest! What a journey 'tis through all this snow.”

“Sleipnir.” Blueblood started warningly, but Sleipnir pointedly ignored the stallion as he instead walked towards an abandoned house. “Sleipnir!”

The enormous earth pony headbutted open the door, then peered back and forth through the icy interior: half-frozen, but at least there was no snow in the living room and a few abandoned blankets. The stallion wandered towards these, ignoring Blueblood as the unicorn said his name again irritably.

Invidia was smiling in amusement despite herself, while the young prince looked cranky as he asked flatly: “Are we really going to play this game? Sleipnir, I know that you are perfectly capable-”

“Oh, aye, I am, but I am also very tired.” Sleipnir said earnestly, nodding seriously a few times as the demon closed the door and leaned against it, gazing at the two with unhidden entertainment as Blueblood only sighed and dropped his face in a hoof. “Well, I am! It has been a hard journey, has it not? All that snow... well, thou art small and flexible. My great size works against me at times like this, I am like a stone trying to roll through the sea.”

Blueblood only gave Sleipnir a flat look that clearly said he wasn't buying any of it, but Sleipnir only continued to try and look innocent before he cleared his throat and glanced up, adding positively: “Besides, this is all very nice.”

With that, Sleipnir tossed off his saddlebags, and Blueblood sighed and shook his head, saying moodily: “I can't believe you're doing this. This is foalish, Sleipnir. This is beneath what I've come to expect of you.”

“Then thou art either very generous or very foolish. Or perhaps thou art merely more like Celestia than I had first thought, she also always took grievance with me whenever I was suddenly struck by tiredness.” Sleipnir said blandly, and Blueblood glowered at the enormous earth pony before Sleipnir suddenly said seriously: “Why, look at how tired I am!”

With that, the enormous earth pony flopped down on a blanket and started to snore loudly, and Blueblood slapped his own forehead with a groan, rolling his eyes and looking disgusted. Invidia only covered her muzzle with one hoof, trying to muffle her growing giggling, before Sleipnir cautiously opened one eye and peered at them even as he continued to make snoring sounds.

Blueblood glared down at him, then threw his forelegs in the air as he grumbled: “You know what? Fine. We'll do what you want, Sleipnir, just like always. But I'm absolutely certain that we've dealt with all the demons here. The only pony with egg on his face here is going to be you.”

Sleipnir cleared his throat, then looked up and smiled cheerfully, saying easily: “Egg is rather good, though, so I shan't complain. 'Tis better than a great many other things thou could have upon thy face... although there are other such things that I would not complain about being stuck all upon my-”

“Enough, enough. You... peasant.” Blueblood grumbled, and Sleipnir gave the unicorn an amused look as he slipped into old, bad habits for a moment. But then Blueblood shook himself out, scowling a little before he muttered: “Alright, I... I know it can't hurt.”

Sleipnir nodded firmly, picking himself up... and then he held up a hoof when Blue started to pull off his armor, the unicorn looking up in surprise as the earth pony said in a gentle but serious voice: “Nay. Leave thy armor on. 'Tis... just a feeling.”

Blueblood frowned a bit, but then nodded hesitantly as Invidia asked quietly: “Would you like me to warm the room?”

“Nay, I fear I must ask that of Blue instead. Thy magic would be too easily detected, I fear.” Sleipnir replied, and Invidia nodded with a smile after a moment. “Blue, if thou could?”

“Of course. Sure. Why not?” Blueblood asked grumpily, but all the same he closed his eyes and concentrated, summoning up his magic and channeling it into a simple, short warmth spell: one he'd had to use quite often during this long, cold winter.

For a few hours, they just relaxed... or at least, tried to. Blueblood felt... grumpy, in a word, really. He didn't like feeling like Sleipnir had just undermined and patronized him, or that he and Invidia seemed to be having their own little private chat in the corner. Like the two of them were suddenly the best of friends.

Okay, maybe not suddenly. And he didn't miss the days when he'd been scared of the demon and she'd been an obsessive maniac, either. But he did admittedly sort of miss... that special way she'd always treated him. How she'd always held him with such deference...

He knew that was bad, though: that was getting into thinking about things that were probably better left alone. Yet all the same...

Then Blueblood frowned and looked up as he heard a loud creaking, and Sleipnir and Invidia both sharply looked towards the door leading out. For a few moments, there was a dead, uncomfortable silence before that sound came again, and this time it was accompanied by a scratching, a hissing...

“No, we... that's impossible.” Blueblood said disbelievingly, even as frost began to creep in from under the doorway, as that awful scratching noise worsened. “Sleipnir, this... Invidia, please tell me that this is some kind of joke...”

Invidia only smiled grimly, and Sleipnir grimaced a bit before he looked up and gritted his teeth as speckles of snow hailed down from the roof above, groaning as if something was applying great weight over it. “Are all the windows covered and secure?”

The demon nodded quickly, and Blueblood winced as he leapt to his hooves, stepping backwards as the trail of ice spreading from beneath the door nearly managed to tickle his hooves. “Sleipnir, uh... they're still getting in through-”

“Aye, I know, I know, fear not!” Sleipnir said quickly, holding up a hoof before he gestured sharply at Blueblood. “Here, beside me. Thou too, Invidia. And stay perfectly still.”

The two did as asked, hurrying to either side of the earth pony as he quickly snatched up a blanket, watching as the ice spread further and further before Sleipnir rolled the cloth in his hooves into a ball and flung it quickly into the spreading ice.

The ice immediately seemed to come alive, spreading rapidly over the warm blanket and covering it in a cold cocoon of frost. And for a moment, the ice ceased to spread as the three ponies remained perfectly still, even as thumps traveled through the roof above and the temperature in the room continued to steadily, painfully drop.

There was silence for a few moments, and then the door shuddered in its frame as something rammed into it. Sleipnir flexed and slowly, silently dropped to a ready position as Blueblood concentrated, carefully readying his magic without pushing that energy into his horn: it was a difficult trick, but allowed him to snap off a spell the moment it was necessary without creating any tell-tale signs beforehoof.

Invidia was simply staying frozen, eyes tightly closed, likely concentrating on completely suppressing the natural aura she emitted as a demon: that would give them away even more clearly than noise or unicorn magic would, after all. It was difficult... but thankfully, it also wasn't something she had to suppress for very long before the door was finally smashed open, and two greedy snow imps shot inside-

Sleipnir immediately leapt forwards, slamming a hoof into one bright blue, bat-like creature and shattering it into chunks of ice, while the other shrieked as Blueblood blasted it with a ray of heat, driving it backwards before it fell out of the air in a smoldering, watery mess to twitch weakly on the ground. And for a moment, Blue could only gape at the sight of this: he'd been so sure that they'd managed to get every last one of these stupid imps! How the hell had they managed to-

A furious roar rose up from the ceiling above as something smashed loudly against it several times, and Sleipnir darted to the doorway, followed closely by Invidia. They leapt out, and several other snow imps fled into the evening air with squeals of fear.

Invidia leapt upwards and became a streak of black smoke that shot after the imps as Sleipnir spun around and grinned widely as a demon leapt off the roof and crashed down in front of him with a furious snarl. The twisted thing had the face of a bear but an emaciated, hideously-thin body, covered in white fur still stained here and there by blood, and with large spikes of bone sticking up through its flesh like awful needles. Blood and saliva dripped from its jaws as its eyes glared holes in the earth pony, but Sleipnir only grinned easily back even as he glanced absently down at the thing's awful, barbed claws, remarking: “'Tis strange to see a hunger demon lurking and aiding these wretched little imps, but I suppose that when winter is long, one must do what thou must.”

The hunger demon only leaned forwards and roared furiously in Sleipnir's face, and the earth pony grimaced as he leaned back slightly before saying irritably: “Well, that was rather rude. And nor was I done speaking, great gangly grump. I am giving thee the option to-”

The bear-beast lurched forwards and tried to snap its jaws over Sleipnir's face, but the earth pony easily caught the demon by the nose, looking at him meditatively as the bear stared in surprise at Sleipnir, before the huge stallion sighed and rolled his eyes. “Oh, so be it.”

Sleipnir slammed an uppercut up under the demon's muzzle with enough force to knock it half-flipping into the air, blood spraying in a fine blast from its maw before it crashed down in a stunned, broken heap on its back. And then the enormous earth pony looked down mildly at the bear for a few moments as he absently shook his hoof out, saying wryly: “Now, may I speak, or art thou going to insist upon leaping to the fight again?”

The bear looked up dumbly for a few moments... then snarled slowly before it roared in fury and clawed its way up to its paws, lurching upwards and biting savagely at Sleipnir's face. But with ease, the earth pony dodged backwards, grinning widely as he said cheerfully: “Very well, but do not say I did not warn thee!”

The hunger demon pounced, lashing its claws viciously downwards, but Sleipnir dodged backwards and then slapped it almost mockingly across the face with one hoof, sending it staggering to the side before the earth pony danced away from the beast. And the bear snarled in fury, foaming at the mouth before roaring and charging stupidly straight at the stallion-

Sleipnir's hoof crunched loudly into the front of the beast's face, and the bear trembled for a moment before it slowly slumped to the ground, all the fight knocked out of the demon. A moment later, the two snow imps that had tried to flee both came spiraling down from the air in smoking messes, crashing with puffs into the snowy earth and falling still.

Invidia reappeared on the ground a moment later, shaking herself briskly out before she said quietly: “While I was above, I saw the hotel. It's under siege, Sleipnir, by quite a few demons... almost enough to make me think twice about your theory.”

“Can thou give me any specifics?” Sleipnir asked with sudden briskness, as Blueblood hurried out of the cabin and looked disbelievingly at the two. But it didn't take more than a look from Sleipnir to get the prince to fall into his usual position, even as he groaned loudly and did his best to repress a deep blush of embarrassment at how he'd been proven horribly, horribly wrong.

“I don't dare guess at how many they number, Sleipnir, but I saw at least two hunger demons and maybe a dozen snow imps... and that's only just what I saw.” Invidia answered. “I also saw North Wind in the air... there will be at least four of them. They never leave their herds.”

“Aye. Very well.” Sleipnir said meditatively, looking down in thought before he nodded slowly. “Great odds. And thou art hesitating again.”

“There are other creatures watching the demons with interest. I get the sense they are waiting for us to engage them... I think they're here to feed off the energies that will be released by the battle.” Invidia said calmly, and Sleipnir smiled slightly at this.

“Aye, 'tis possible. And 'tis also possible they are here to take stock of us and judge us.” Sleipnir said meditatively, nodding thoughtfully. “But so be it. We shall deal with them when we are forced to. Our first task must remain saving the citizens of this town from the snow creatures... they have suffered enough as 'tis without any further losses.”

“Then we had best hurry. By now, the snow demons will be forcing their way inside.” Invidia replied tacitly, and Sleipnir grimaced a bit as he nodded, picking up his pace a little.

Blueblood made a face as well, his horn glowing as he drew his silver sword and focused his magic. He remained quiet, and neither Invidia nor Sleipnir looked back at him as the three pushed back towards the heart of the town... the town that he, Blueblood, had been so intent on leaving behind, even though his companions had both been so sure that there was still something here...

He gritted his teeth, cursing himself for a moment, but then he forced these thoughts away. No distractions, no doubts, no regrets, especially in combat: that's what Sleipnir had taught him. He could call himself names later. Right now, he had more important work to do.

The moment they turned a corner and hit the main road, a snow imp screamed a warning to the others: immediately, several of the icy bat demons shot up into the air, focusing their vile magics as three hunger demons broke away from where they had been forcing in a door to charge straight at the trio, roaring eagerly.

But Sleipnir only grinned as he leapt forwards, ducking under one of the bear demons when it dove at him and instead catching it around the middle and leaping forwards to sling it viciously into the face of another hunger demon. They were knocked sprawling like dominoes as the third demon leapt towards Blueblood, who barely managed to deflect a slash of its claws with his sword before he lashed the blade sharply down across the beast's breast.

It stumbled backwards in surprise, bleeding a watery ichor before it snarled and leapt again at the unicorn. But Blueblood sharply windmilled his sword and knocked the beast off course, sending it staggering to the side before it roared and swung one claw out, smashing the stallion off his hooves and knocking him crashing painfully onto his back as his sword flew out of his telekinetic grip.

The hunger demon was on him in a moment, pinning him and leaning down to try and bite him, but Blueblood snapped his horn up and unleashed a bright flare of light in the bear's eyes, making it rear back with a groan of pain. As it shook its head wildly, Blueblood quickly yanked himself free from beneath its claws before he slipped out from under it... then gritted his teeth and leapt up onto the hunger demon's back.

The bear snarled in surprise, immediately trying to buck him off before it stumbled back and forth, growling and hissing in frustration. Blueblood only clung tenaciously to the back of its neck, however, riding it back and forth through the road before he yelped and ducked as several blasts of icy magic shot down at him from above.

Imps peppered the area with magic, trying uselessly to hit both Sleipnir and Blueblood as they wrestled with the hunger demons, while other several other bat demons unsuccessfully tried to hold off Invidia. But her demonic magic was much more potent and powerful than theirs, burning the imps out of the air one by one as she outmaneuvered and outcast them.

Invidia shot another fireball up into the air, purposefully aiming wide, and a snow imp dodged backwards as it chittered mockingly at her: that is, until Invidia smiled slightly and flicked her horn lightly, the fireball sharply twisting and arcing itself into the demon to explode in a powerful blast of hellfire.

The imp screamed as it was knocked from the sky, and the remaining snow imp shrieked over its shoulder at its companions, who were trying to smash their way in through the shuttered windows of the hotel. But then one managed to wedge itself inside, and instead of giving any help to their companions, the snow imps at the windows converged rapidly on the break in the defenses, swarming their way into the hotel as the other began to dart forwards-

And then it was blasted out of the air by another shot from Invidia as the demon called sharply: “Sleipnir, Blueblood! The imps are getting inside!”

“Very well, enough play!” Sleipnir said grumpily, a hunger demon trapped in a headlock under either foreleg. And then he gritted his teeth, dropping them both as he stepped backwards before he fierecely slammed the bears' skulls together, and they both whimpered before collapsing in broken heaps against each other, one of them pawing weakly at the ground and the other either unconscious or dead.

The other hunger demon had charged down the street before flopping over to dislodge Blueblood, but the prince heard Invidia's warning as clearly as Sleipnir had... although he wasn't nearly as fast to take care of his own foe, trembling a little as he saw Sleipnir smash his way into the hotel. Invidia followed, leaving Blue out here with this demon, alone: a situation he'd never been in before. In the past, somepony would always have been here to help him fight off the enemy, or there'd be some other safety net, whether it was visible or not.

But now, it was just him and this demon. This large, scary, angry hunger demon that very literally wanted to eat him. That radiated freezing cold, and had claws like hooks and fangs like swords and was at least twice his size...

Blueblood swallowed thickly, and then he forced himself to focus his magic: he didn't have a very wide array of spells, but he had learned to be capable with what he did have. The stallion trembled as he set himself, and then he flinched only a little when the monster leaned forwards and roared challengingly at him, making his whole body shake in fear before he responded by lashing his horn out-

And nothing happened. Blueblood looked up stupidly, then shook his horn back and forth, but his horn only sparked before he looked with terror back at the hunger demon as it grinned. And then Blueblood spun around and screamed, bolting in fear as the monster loped eagerly after him, roaring viciously again as it leapt greedily through the snow in the stallion's wake.

Meanwhile, Sleipnir had tackled another hunger demon that had somehow slipped inside already: on the bright side, it didn't seem like it had been able to get to any of the villagers yet, who had barricaded themselves in the kitchens. The demon had now turned its complete attention to Sleipnir, and the earth pony was grappling with it, allowing it to push him backwards to avoid it trying to bite him and to let him quickly assess the area.

There: the cellar door was splintered open. And Sleipnir gritted his teeth before he suddenly half-spun and flung the hunger demon straight at this, the bear looking stupefied as it was launched through the air before it crashed down the stairs with a series of rollicking bangs to smash down into something at the bottom of the steps with a miserable howl.

Sleipnir ran for the bar, snatching up a load of bottles in one foreleg before he leapt in front of the cellar door, grinning widely down the stairs as he saw not only another hunger demon, but several crawling, hideous and insectile beasts that hissed up at him angrily. “Aye, this explains the strange shape of those caves! Well, thou all deserve a fine drink for getting here!”

Sleipnir easily lobbed a bottle down, and one of the hunger demons caught this in his claws, looking dumbly down at it: another hunger demon snatched a second bottle out of the air, and then a third, before Sleipnir said disapprovingly: “Nay, nay, share! Share!”

A fourth bottle was flung down like a missile, smashing into the demon's head and knocking it sprawling backwards with a whimper, before the first hunger demon looked stupidly up just in time before another missile of glass smashed into its skull, knocking it flopping painfully over in the fetal position. And then Sleipnir grinned widely before he reached back into his equipment satchel, producing a box of matches as he flung the last bottle down to smash against the wooden steps in front of him.

One of the bug creatures began to rush up the steps, but too late: in a moment, Sleipnir had a match lit and flicked it easily down into the pile of shattered glass and bubbling alcohol, and it burst into bright flames that greedily spread over the dry wood. The bug-beast hurriedly withdrew, squealing, and then Sleipnir leaned down and slammed a hoof viciously into the top stair with a grunt, smashing through it and shattering the support bar beneath to make the entire set of steps groan before they tore loose from the wall and fell to the dirt floor of the cellar. Flames continued to spread over them, and the hunger demons whined loudly in their throats, looking fearfully back and forth before one of the genius demons attempted to fling one of its bottles at the flames.

It exploded in a great whoosh that only spread the fires further, the hunger demons skittering backwards as Sleipnir said wryly: “'Tis such a rare pleasure that I see foes who are more foolish than I. And I fear I do not mean that in a way that compliments thee, my friends.”

With that, Sleipnir turned and headed quickly for the half-destroyed barricade leading into the kitchen, the stallion hammering on this before he shouted: “'Tis time for all of thee to make thy escape, head for the safety of the building across the street! 'Twill be cramped in the shop but all of thee should be able to fit... I fear that soon much of this hotel will be aflame!”

There were yells and shouts of terror before hooves started to hammer on the back of the barricade, and Sleipnir reached up and quickly smashed apart loose boxes and chairs with one hoof, knocking debris out of the way to help clear a hole before his ears pricked up as he heard a shout. And then the stallion groaned loudly, turning to leap over the bar and run back outside.

Meanwhile, Invidia had forced her way upstairs, slashing her horn through a bat-like imp before she blasted another apart with a ray of heat. Then the demon hissed as a missile of cold scraped by her cheek, her golden eyes widening before she snarled in fury as her blood spilled down her face.

The snow imp that had managed to clip her spun around, squealing in fear as it tried to dash through its compatriots, but far too late: Invidia snapped her horn forwards, a massive blast of hellfire ripping down the corridor and erasing the remaining imps from existence as the demon was left breathing hard, her eyes glowing with rage before she clenched them tightly shut. The corridor before her burned with unnatural, hungry flame, but the demon only spat to the side when her furious golden irises snapped open again. Sleipnir had gone and set the basement on fire, after all, so she could let this stupid mortal structure burn to the ground.

Her eyes were cold as she turned around, but after a few moments of wrestling with herself, she managed to quench that... violent, emotional side of her, and instead head down the stairs with honest worry on her face. Not for the stupid villagers who were yelling and screaming as they tried to dig their way out of the kitchen, but rather for Sleipnir...

But before she could reach the door, a demon smashed its way up through the floor just a few feet away: the monstrous bug was like a cross between a cockroach and an earwig, with a snapping tail behind it and a large shell protecting its body, as many-segmented, barbed legs clawed wildly at the ground for purchase. It snapped its mandibles at her but glared at her with very-intelligent hatred in its glowing blue eyes.

Invidia smiled coldly, and then she cracked her neck before the bug-demon leapt at her, but she simply dropped low before slashing her blade-like horn upwards, piercing deep into its soft underbelly before flinging it onto its back with a squeal. It spasmed wildly, and Invidia let it find its footing again and roll over, trembling as it took a few shivering steps backwards, her golden eyes glowing as she fed on her fellow demon's fear. “Oh, darling. You don't know at all what you're dealing with, do you? Sad little Burrower, doing the bidding of much more powerful demons than you...”

The Burrower hissed at her before lunging forwards, and Invidia waited for it to get close before she stepped suddenly forwards and stomped cruelly on its skull, crushing its head into the ground as she created a shield of black energy in front of herself at the same time. And the tail of the thing bounced off this as Invidia licked her lips slowly, looking hungrily down at the demon as it clawed uselessly at the floor before she grinned wider and crushed slowly down with her hoof, shattering its skull and making it spasm... then fall still and silent.

She stepped back, giggling to herself... and then the Burrower almost exploded as a claw ripped up through the corpse, splattering Invidia with bug-guts and making her shriek in surprise as she staggered away before a hunger demon lurched upwards, ripping through its former compatriot and diving at her. The Envy demon cursed as she was tackled onto her back before the bear rose one of its badly-scorched claws and slashed at her.

But before the claw could hit, it suddenly stopped. The hunger demon flinched in surprise at this, then looked stupidly at its own claw before it looked down at Invidia, who was glaring hatefully up at the bear. And the hunger demon's eyes widened in understanding a moment before it tried to scramble backwards, a look of utter terror appearing on its features as it opened its mouth-

Invidia snapped her horn out and blasted the creature's head off its shoulders with a single fireball, and the corpse of the demon collapsed brokenly backwards into the hole, its neck smoldering and the stench of burnt fur rising into the air. Invidia breathed slowly in and out, and then she looked up as she realized several of the villagers were staring at her.

She began to snarl... but quickly stopped herself before saying sharply: “Quickly, get out of here! There might be more trying to come up from below!”

This got the villagers moving, at least... a few even thanked her. And whether she cared about them or not, she enjoyed their gratitude and the positive energy directed towards her, the demon smiling before she once more forced herself to rein her emotions in.

She couldn't sense any of the other demons: they had either fled or died in the growing conflagration below. All the same, Invidia lingered a moment, looking distastefully down at the hunger demon before she absently reached up and touched the blemish on her face, and then quickly drew her hoof along the cut, brushing it away as if it were nothing more than a few specks of dirt.

With that, she turned and headed quickly outside... and winced at the sight of Sleipnir a good distance down the street, wrestling down a hunger demon as Blueblood crawled slowly away from the bear. She wanted to leap over to them, to punish and kill the hunger demon and soothe Blueblood until he forgot his worries and pains... but both of those things would reflect badly on her. No, Blue had finally started to pay more attention to her in part because she was ignoring and arguing with him more... she wasn't about to sacrifice those attentions.

A distraction came in the form of another Burrower, which ripped up out of the ground near the store and sent the ponies into a panic. Invidia leapt over towards it eagerly, hitting it with an absurdly-weak bolt of magic to draw its attention to her: maybe she could even draw the fight out this time, make the ponies admire her more as she pretended to struggle with this pathetic minor demon...

Down the street, Blueblood was whimpering weakly, badly bruised, dragging one injured leg. He had never been hurt like this, over all the time they'd spent traveling. Even in Horsia... and yet he couldn't blame Sleipnir. Sleipnir had promised to protect him, certainly, but who had screwed up a simple magic spell? Who had wanted to be treated as an equal to the other two? Who had been training for this, acting like he was a real adventurer because he had a few paltry months of experience...

Blueblood tripped and landed face-first in the snow, gasping weakly for air before he shivered and whispered: “You... you worthless idiot...”

He didn't even have the strength to look up as he heard Sleipnir roar before there was a tremendous crash, followed by a weak whimper from the hunger demon. And then there was just the quiet crunching of snow before Sleipnir gently settled a hoof on the stallion's shoulder, asking quietly: “Art thou alright, Blue?”

“No.” Blueblood whispered, trying his hardest to pretend that it was just melted snow on his face, and not trails of tears. “I... I...”

“Now, now. 'Tis all going to be alright, there is no need for any of this.” Sleipnir soothed quietly, and then he gently hefted the stallion up to his hooves before brushing him off, giving him an encouraging smile even as Blue hugged his wounded leg tightly up against his chest. “We still have to clear the area, make sure it is safe, even if I see...”

Sleipnir glanced up, watching as Invidia fought one of those bug-demons... except no, she wasn't really fighting it. Her movements were too exaggerated and too exact: she was playing with the primal demon, trying to make it look like she was struggling...

And that, more than anything else, confirmed Sleipnir's suspicions. Invidia was strong, too strong to be a third tier demon like she claimed to be. Sure, back home there had been plenty of demons and even lesser creatures who rose to great heights, but they never hid their natures like Invidia did. They were proud of their powers and what they had earned: Invidia was the opposite, trying to wear a mask of weakness when really, she was something... entirely different.

Furthermore, there was the fact that Invidia apparently scared some demons as much as the Harbinger did: Sleipnir had more than once seen a demon in combat with her suddenly cower in submission or surrender for no reason he could discern... but Invidia would always kill them ruthlessly out of hoof. Just as she seemed to sense that now that she was being watched, she suddenly stopped playing with the primal demon and simply blew it apart with a single fireball.

Invidia turned towards them, then strode worriedly towards Blueblood as Sleipnir sighed and carefully supported the wounded unicorn. They walked forwards slowly, the unicorn limping and the earth pony turning his concerns away from Invidia and towards the welfare of the prince. The demon had her secrets, but even if he disagreed with a lot of her behavior... she was loyal. That went without question. “Do you need me to siphon your pain, Blue?”

“N-No. I'm... fine.” Blueblood murmured: ridiculous, considering how badly he was trembling and the fact the large gashes in his leg were bleeding through the frost coating his limb. “I c-can... I can help with the patrol...”

“Very well, then thou shall help by standing guard in front of this shop. Invidia and I shall check the area before...” Sleipnir was cut off by a loud crashing, his eyes flicking up... and then he only sighed a little as he saw flames greedily spreading over the exterior of the hotel.

But his eyes narrowed a little after a moment, as he realized they were much higher up than they should have been. Which meant... damnation. Well, 'tis not as if I can say anything against her. But still... “Did all the villagers escape?”

“I believe so.” Invidia said quietly, studying the burning hotel silently before she shook her head and added, glancing towards the store: “Either way, all the ponies are in the shop. You could take a head count if you like.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Sleipnir smiled a little, glancing down at Blue. “I shall leave this task to thee. And thou should also mend thy wound, Blue, 'tis a foul one. I apologize for leaving thee here with the demon, I did not think-”

“No, you never do, do you?” Blueblood asked bitterly, and Sleipnir frowned a little before the ivory unicorn closed his eyes, taking a slow breath and murmuring: “I... I'm sorry. I suppose that's just the pain talking...”

It both was and wasn't: plenty of that was just the unicorn's own stupid bitterness rearing its ugly head, and he shook himself out, trying to clear that away before he finally managed a smile and looked awkwardly up at Sleipnir. “I'll... I'll do my best.”

“That is all I shall ever ask of thee.” Sleipnir said gently, reaching up and squeezing his shoulder before he smiled again. “I will return shortly. Invidia?”

“If you like, I can try and put out the worst of the flames. There's plenty of snow around... I should be able to at least save some of the structure.” Invidia volunteered, and the earth pony nodded firmly at this.

“Excellent idea. I shall call if I need any of thee.” Sleipnir said quickly, and then the earth pony turned and headed quickly down the road.

Invidia and Blueblood both watched him leave, and then the two traded looks before the stallion asked finally: “Do you want me to... to try and help?”

“Yes, Blue, that would be very welcome. But first...” Invidia flicked her horn, and Blueblood winced as ice spread over his wound, sealing it closed as the demon said softly: “It should numb the area for now as well, but we will have to tend to it after we finish this. Hunger demons often carry vicious diseases... and I do not want to see you hurt, my prince.”

Blue nodded awkwardly, and then Invidia quickly flicked her horn again, scooping up a large mound of snow with magic before it dissolved into a sphere of water, which she easily lobbed forwards and sent crashing through a window, sending up a gust of smoke and ashes. “Please gather up as much snow for me as you can and pile it close by. It would save me much trouble.”

Blueblood nodded hesitantly, then he studied Invidia for one nervous moment before clearing his throat and hesitantly turning towards a nearby building. He used telekinesis to quickly scoop up as much snow as he could from the roof... but it was heavier and harder to control than he'd thought it would be, as he stumbled around and dumped it unevenly beside Invidia.

But Invidia was easily manipulating the snow: melting it into water, shaping it into liquid cannonballs that she fired with pinpoint accuracy through windows or into parts of the building that had already been weakened by water. Blueblood was only really starting to understand just how immensely powerful the demon really was: usually she did a good job of hiding her powers, but with things like this, Invidia didn't seem to understand that even if she was doing simple magic, the sheer magnitude of what she was doing, and how often she repeated the spell, as she pounded the front of the hotel with water blasts while Blueblood struggled just to pile snow for her... it was staggering.

And as always, there was something else there now: not just admiration for Invidia, or that lingering worry about what they would do if they ever made the demon mad at them... but also a desire. A wanting, for that kind of power, that level of ability, and Blueblood shivered a little before he turned around... and found himself staring at his silver sword, buried in a pile of snow. The stallion studied this silently, then lifted it carefully, looking over the gleaming blade: Sleipnir had said this sword had been made with hard work, and dedication, and not for its beauty, or its edge... but to last forever, as a symbol of protection.

“Blue? Would you please get more snow for me? This pile won't last very long.” Invidia said gently over her shoulder, and Blueblood looked awkwardly back at her before he gave a lame smile, quickly sheathing his sword on his back before he half-limped towards another house.

Invidia studied him for a moment, then narrowed her eyes slightly, tasting his emotions before she turned back towards the hotel and forced herself to calm down. No, in time, the young prince would see things her way instead of Sleipnir's: she just had to continue to expose him to the wonderful, much-better world she could give him, instead of the silly world of law and order Sleipnir so worshiped.

And when Blue willingly came to her side, she would give him everything he had ever dreamed of... and more. And all she would ever ask in return was his love. His eternal, undying love.

And then she would never, ever be alone again.