• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,705 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

Lambs In The Wild

Chapter Nineteen: Lambs In The Wild

Celestia looked thoughtfully over the six young ponies that she had gathered in the library, drawing her eyes slowly back and forth over the group in front of her. Antares gazed respectfully up at his aunt, dressed in his full armor, while the others were in lighter gear: Prestige and Meadowlark were bundled up for winter more than war, and Avalon and Aphrodisia both were wearing lightweight armor, the demon grumbling as she continually adjusted her gemstone vest. Rustproof, meanwhile, was still in his grease-stained coveralls and a gray cap, earmuffs pulled down around his neck as he looked attentively at the winged unicorn.

The ivory mare smiled after a moment, then she gestured gently to several saddlebags beside her, saying softly: “This is going to be your first major mission, Antares, for you and your friends... your team. It's not a difficult task, and I or Twilight would normally handle it ourselves... but the Strange Ones tend to treat Twilight... coldly. They don't like what she's become. And I have a meeting with not only Caitiff Caprice over the next week, but several other dignitaries who are visiting. I would much prefer to leave this mission in your capable hooves.”

Antares nodded quickly, as Avalon pumped a hoof in the air with a quiet grunt and the others gazed up with attention and respect. Celestia smiled slightly, then she looked at Antares, continuing: “The Strange Ones from the settlement past the barrens have sent me a letter saying they have finished work on several artifacts for us, including the components we need for the meteor. I need you to collect these things, then bring them back to Ponyville, specifically to Kilby Kwolek's engineering building. We've decided that is the safest place to begin work on this project, since it will take a long time to complete and we don't want to risk Cancer or any of our other enemies interfering with it.”

The young stallion nodded slowly, then he asked quietly: “Do you have a list or anything of what I'm supposed to pick up? And do we have a set time frame?”

“I'd like you to make it back as soon as possible... you should be able to make this journey on hoof and even with the added difficulty of winter, in two or three days' time. But I'm going to give you four days, just to be safe.” Celestia said softly, nodding slowly. “If at any point you run into danger, Aphrodisia can call Pinkamena or Prestige can summon Burning Desire. Bear in mind they'll have their own tasks to handle as well, however, so they may not be able to answer your call immediately.”

Antares nodded as he glanced over at Prestige, who smiled a little as she glanced up at the red ring around her horn. Then the glossy black unicorn turned his eyes back to Celestia as she gestured at the bags. “I've already packed you basic supplies, a map, and the list of things to pick up in the bag... but I don't expect you'll need the last. The Strange Ones are very distant from us, but they're honest and they continue to be our allies even now, even if they still... think of themselves as caretakers and guardians, not equals.” Celestia smiled a little. “But I think their kind enjoys duty, and that's not as alien an emotion as the rest of what they seem to feel.”

The young stallion nodded again, then he glanced back and forth over his group before gesturing to Meadowlark when she looked at him hesitantly. She smiled after a moment, then turned her eyes to Celestia, asking quietly: “Are there any dangers we should know about?”

“Nothing serious: the route isn't very dangerous, the terrain is simply... difficult.” Celestia shook her head, then she returned her eyes to Antares, saying quietly: “But in the event you run into a prowling dragon or Cancer, call for help and retreat as fast as you can. Don't do anything rash, Antares... I can't emphasize that enough.”

“I won't. Not with my friends around.” The young stallion smiled a little, meeting the amethyst eyes of the ivory winged unicorn before he closed his own and bowed his head forwards. “I'll take care of myself and them, Aunt Tia, and I won't disappoint you. I promise.”

Celestia studied him for a few moments, and then she nodded slowly before straightening and looking over the young ponies. “I think you're all ready for this. Take two hours now for last-minute preparations and to plot your course.”

Celestia hesitated, then she turned and headed to the window as the six young ponies nodded, the winged unicorn gazing out of the library and into the blue sky above, feeling a strange nervousness twine through her body at the sight of the rivulets of water dripping down from the branches of the tree and running along the glass. “It feels like the next few days will be warm, so you shouldn't have to worry too much about weather-related difficulties...” And yet for some reason, that thought only makes me more nervous...

Just outside of Ponyville, several Nibelung were cheerfully building snow-dwarves in the field, another guard sitting grouchily by the gates and glowering at his peers, while Pegasi soldiers perched on the walls above only laughed and relaxed. It was a warm, beautiful, bright day, only a few wisps of cloud floating through the skies and the wet snow perfect for snowball fights, making forts, and other indulgences.

It felt like a day where nothing could go wrong... and near the western edge of Ponyville, a mottled white shape slowly lumbered through the knee-deep snow, rasping hard as it snarled and glowered back and forth, red eyes gleaming dangerously. A sheen of sweat covered its hideous body, and its tongue was hanging out of its panting jaws as its eyes locked on Ponyville in the far distance, and the tiny shapes of living creatures that stood here and there around it... creatures that smelled of flesh, and blood, and the sustenance that Cancer so desperately craved.

He breathed hard in and out, shivering once before spitting to the side and slumping, muttering: “I feel... I feel all... sick. Yeah, how about that, I feel sick? Oh, it's so hot and so cold at the same time! Damn you, snow, you think that was a funny joke you played on me? Gone and screwed up my game...”

Cancer hissed to himself, then he began to slowly wade forwards through the snow again, growling in disgust: he had spent days, perhaps a week, frozen under a blanket of frost until the snow had melted enough to expose him to sunlight. Then his body had quickly warmed up, and he'd eventually crawled his way up out of the valley, cursing in frustration the entire time as he'd shaken himself around and forced his body to heat up faster to melt down the still-frozen chunks of ice inside his body and stuck to his slimy shell.

It had been an unpleasant experience... and worse, it had left him feeling the way he still felt now: achy, lethargic, infuriated and wrathful. Parts of his body felt hot, the rest of him felt cold, and the little mind he had was having trouble processing these sensations at once. And he was hungry, and felt weak, and knew that he needed to get his teeth into something, anything, to restore some of his strength before he tried to make an attack on the village ahead...

He sniffed at the air, then moaned weakly and shivered once, pawing at the snow in front of him as he whispered: “Oh come on! It seems so good and so sweet and sultry... and dammit, wait...”

He frowned, raising his head and licking his lips before his red eyes glowed... and then he snarled and shook his head, rasping: “White weasel! I smell me a white weasel... and demons and rats and scum, oh my! How much time did I lose? How many days have passed? Why ain't she back in that demon city underneath the big pony buffet? No, no, no!”

Cancer snarled and shook himself violently, dropping flat in the snow as he whispered: “All the trouble I went through to not set off any alarms, to go carefully tick-tick-tap-tap-tap around the edge of those stupid pony hicks that live on the outskirts, to try and get me towards a safe, empty corner where I can sneak on up to the food pen and whisper through the walls to the dumb ponies until a tasty morsel comes to take a peek at me, and now I smell vermin! Now I see the delicious treats just waiting out there on display, but oh, oh, standing behind the table are the weasel and her achy-breaky demons... dammit, dammit, dammit! Gimme a break!”

Cancer hissed... then his eyes widened in surprise as shapes emerged through the gates, one tiny streak of yellow shooting ahead and doing a loop as others followed after it. Cancer's eyes focused in on this as he dropped forwards, half-hiding in the snow as he stared at them... then snarled slowly, rasping: “The punk... it's that goddamn punk, that stupid little kid who dared to think he was a match for me...”

The monster hissed again, his red eyes glowing like spotlights before he twitched to the side, gargling and shivering before he gurgled: “Kill him... take revenge, destroy, exterminate, obliterate... make an example of him...”

Cancer's head snapped back and forth, foaming at the jaws as he convulsed once before grinning slowly as he leaned forwards eagerly. His gaze sharpened and focused, scrabbling slowly forwards through the snow and breathing hungrily as he watched the dark-coated pony direct the others, and the monster salivated as he whispered: “Oh... oh, is this what I've been prayin' for? Hopin' for? Wishin' and livin' and dyin' for? Oh sweet and delicious miracle of miracles! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, come to me, come to Cancer, come to... I... dammit, where the hell are they going?”

The young stallion was leading five other ponies through the field, and Cancer snarled before he stepped forwards... and promptly tripped over his own feet, flopping down in the snow and sending up a burst of powder. He opened his mouth, then hurriedly covered his jaws with his own limbs, muffling his own scream of frustration as he winced before carefully drawing his forelimbs away as he whispered: “Dammit! Gotta be stealthy... gotta be serpenty... gotta be cool...”

Slowly, Cancer's mottled body twisted on itself, transforming as the heat increased in his form, melting and warping as it gathered itself into a new, serpentine shape. The monster licked its lips, breathing hard as it began to snake forwards through the powder, red eyes beginning to glow faintly as it locked onto the scent and sounds of the ponies and their body heat, their biorhythms, and the distinct reek of the young demon that looked like a pony who was traveling with them.

He slithered unseen just beneath the surface of the snow, eager and hungry as he passed carefully along the outer edge of the field to follow the young, plodding ponies as they headed towards the Everfree Forest... and as they strode onwards, Avalon keeping to the air and humming cheerfully as Antares stayed in the lead, the young, glossy-black stallion felt a strange tingle before he nervously looked over one shoulder.

He saw nothing but fields of white, even though something inside him whispered nervously: something deeper than his talent for seeing into others, something instinctive and strange. He shifted apprehensively, and Meadowlark frowned as she looked over her shoulder as well, while Avalon called irritably: “Hey, what, did you forget something?”

“No, no.” Antares looked back up ahead at the tiny Pegasus as she hovered moodily in the air, and then he shook his head quickly before smiling despite the way nervousness still plucked at something in his chest. “Just had a strange feeling. Probably just anxiety, I guess.”

“Yeah...” Meadowlark said slowly, and then she shook her head nervously before saying hesitantly: “Antares, maybe... maybe we should head back to town. Just to double-check things...”

“I...” Antares looked for a moment at Meadowlark over his shoulder, then he shook his head before turning his eyes ahead, saying softly: “No, it's nothing. We should get moving... we don't wanna disappoint Aunt Tia or anypony else, after all, not with how we're being depended on to do this. It's not a big task, maybe, but it's definitely an important one.”

Avalon grunted as she flew a little higher in the air, adding quickly: “Yeah, besides... I'll keep up above and watch things, Antares has his freaky sees-all eyes, and Apple Pie can keep our backs covered with her demon senses.”

“Don't call me that.” Aphrodisia complained, and then she grumbled and nodded, glancing over at the still-nervous Meadowlark. “But yeah. You should stop worrying so much. You'll get all wrinkly and you're already hard enough on the eyes.”

“Apps.” Antares said tiredly, as Meadowlark blushed a little, and the demon blew a raspberry at him before the young stallion shook his head quickly. “Let's keep moving, okay? I bet it's just nerves... and as long as we maintain a good pace, we can probably make it at least most of the way to the Strange One village by tonight. We'll cut through the game trails that I know to shave off some time, and we should come out right near the mountain pass we'll have to go up. Come on, guys, let's just keep ourselves moving.”

The other ponies nodded, while Meadowlark shifted uncomfortably, then sighed and nodded as well, and Antares smiled before he started forwards. Prestige strode at his side, tossing one awkward look back at Meadowlark and not knowing if she felt more glad or more nervous that the red Pegasus had been overruled, and Rustproof gave his friend a kind look as the satchels swayed against the behemoth young pony's sides.

The six walked onwards, Antares keeping the lead and feeling his own anxieties settling a little as they entered the forest: not any of the main paths, but one of the thinner, hidden trails that were difficult to find unless you knew where they were. Avalon grumbled under her breath as she zigzagged between the trees, weaving over and around branches until she finally flitted over to Antares and dropped down on his back, muttering grumpily: “I'm going to take a nap. It's too crowded off the main path, Antares, all I see are trees, branches, snow, and more snow.”

“That's alright, Avalon, I'll wake you up when we get to the pass.” Antares replied absently, and Avalon dropped herself over him, the young, dark-coated pony sighing a little as he felt a moment of relief for the fact that the tiny Pegasus wasn't wearing her crosshatch blades.

He tossed a glance over his shoulder, looking past Avalon at the others, who had fallen into single file as they made their way through the wet snow: Prestige smiled at him confidently, as Rustproof followed behind her, calm as ever, and Aphrodisia was loitering along next, Meadowlark following a little close to the demon and still tossing looks now and then over her shoulder. But she blushed as she glanced up and caught Antares studying her, hurriedly dropping her gaze, and the glossy-black stallion smiled a little a he turned his eyes forwards. Okay. It was probably just her nerves after all, we're okay. We're all okay.

The walk through the woods helped settle Antares, even if Aphrodisia complained about the snow and Meadowlark still seemed bit unsettled by something. But once they emerged onto a dirty, ugly road that ran alongside a cliff that had sheltered it from most of the frost and snow, the spirits of the others seemed to lift and Avalon leapt back into the air without complaint, yawning once as she shot up to the edge of the cliff and looked back and forth, before pointing down the road and calling: “Okay, I think I see the pass, you were right, Antares! We came out pretty close to it.”

She glided back down to hover over his head as Antares nodded, then said thoughtfully: “Can you stay about... twenty feet above us? Just keep an eye on things, I don't want us getting surprised by any hungry animals. You should be able to spot timberwolves or a grouchy manticore long before it spots us.”

“Yeah, no problem. Don't think there's anything around here, though, it's pretty ugly.” Avalon replied mildly, even as she did as Antares had asked. The glossy black unicorn smiled up at her, not bothering to answer: he knew that Avalon wast just complaining to complain... if anypony here had learned to prepare for the unexpected and not underestimate your friends or foes, after all, it was her.

They made their way down the road... and along the edge of the forest, moving through the shadows and slithering beneath the snow, Cancer watched them hungrily, licking his lips eagerly. It took all of his strength not to simply leap out and try to gorge themselves on the succulent little ponies... but they had that damn demon there, and that complicated things. The baby demon could very well call for Mommy again... and if Mommy was in the village, the Gluttony demon could get to him long before he could chew up the whole group. They were still too close... he needed to wait. He needed to watch. He needed to be sneaky and stealthy and not press his luck...

Cancer salivated, watching the ponies hungrily, eagerly, as they walked, smelling their sweat, the chemical reactions in their bodies; seeing the beautiful flexing of muscle and sinew, the faint pulsing here and there where veins pumped sweet, sweet, sweet coppery blood on their routes through their organic shells. He heard the thudding and throbbing of their hearts, felt their emotions and their thoughts, and every part of him wanted to scream and destroy them and drink their blood and every other sweet and putrid liquid he could squeeze from them. He craved to cut, tear and kill... but oh, oh, he was weak, too, and he needed to bide his time like a good little destruction entity... but six ponies, young or not, would make a fine meal. And sweet revenge on the bold little punk would be the best dish of all...

Cancer breathed slowly in and out, shivering in delight before he rumbled hungrily: “Yeah... yeah... just wait, ooh, just you wait and see... you're gonna be a nutritious meal for me...”

At the back of the group, one of the ponies frowned and looked nervously up... and Cancer winced and closed his mouth, sliding back into the shadows in his mottled, serpent-like form, as Meadowlark asked uncomfortably: “Did... did anypony else hear that?”

“Frigging Helheim you're twitchy.” Aphrodisia muttered, looking back and forth before she scowled at the forest as the wind rustled through the branches. “Stop whining, smelly. If Antares and I don't sense it, it's probably nothing more than your imagination, which I hear is just really fantastic thanks to all the stories you used to make up.”

“Lay off, Apple Pie, that's my bit.” Avalon said absently from above as Meadowlark flushed, and then the tiny Pegasus glanced down at Antares as he frowned a little over his shoulder at the red Pegasus. “What do you think? You see anything?”

“I...” Antares hesitated, glancing towards the forest, feeling a tickle in his mind again... but after a moment, he slowly shook his head, putting that whisper in his mind off to Meadowlark's nervousness starting to make him feel a little paranoid. “No. No, I don't think there's anything there... besides, look Meadow, we're almost at the pass. Once we climb it, we'll be moving through some rocky terrain and the barrens, and I don't think anything could follow us there without revealing itself. It's probably nothing... or just a wild Phooka or demon or something that hasn't allied itself with us. There's still lots of creatures out and around that don't see us as friends.”

“That's an inspiring speech, Nova, good work.” Aphrodisia said wryly, and Antares gave the demon a flat look before the pink mare shook her head, nervously reaching up and brushing her black mane back. “I don't want to run into any strange demons. Mommy says if I see a strange demon who isn't a friend or ally, I'm supposed to call her right away.”

Avalon snorted in amusement at this, earning a baleful look from Aphrodisia, before Meadowlark asked uncertainly: “Why would a strange demon follow us, though, or...”

“A strange demon wouldn't be able to follow us without me picking up on it.” Aphrodisia said crankily, but then she hesitated and became visibly more anxious again, revealing that at least some of her crankiness likely was due to her nerves getting the better of her. “I... at least, not unless it was Sloth, or Pride. And we really, really don't want to run into an angry Pride demon...”

The whole group went quiet as they continued onwards, anxiousness spreading through the ponies in a ripple as Meadowlark flushed, feeling responsible for the wave of dread, and Antares winced over his shoulder. Even Avalon was looking uncomfortable as she gazed back and forth apprehensively above their heads, and the glossy black unicorn shifted nervously as he wondered how he could reverse this before Meadowlark said abruptly: “You must know a lot about demons, Aphrodisia.”

The demon looked up almost suspiciously at this, then she nodded slowly before frowning as Meadowlark asked quietly: “I've always wondered why demons frame themselves after the classical seven sins... because the meaning to them is often different than we think of, isn't it?”

“I... yeah.” Aphrodisia said slowly, and when Meadowlark looked at her encouragingly, the demon shrugged moodily and looked forwards. “Well... it's just convenient, they're just easy labels. And we like to confuse and play with mortals... we don't like to reveal too much about ourselves, except to people we know and... trust.”

She stopped, then shook her head slowly, saying quietly: “Our natures aren't as linked to sins as ponies think. I was born to Mommy and Daddy, after all... I didn't just come into being because I'm supposed to be some evil incarnation of bad-touching and hurting...”

She stopped, then shook her head slowly, murmuring: “Mommy is Gluttony and Wrath, but she's not evil at all, not as mean as ponies say she is. And Burning Desire isn't what ponies think he is either. Not even Hevatica and Atrus are, and they're not even First Tier like me and Mommy and Burning Desire.”

“Burning Desire is that powerful? But when I asked him where he stood on the scale, he refused to tell me.” Prestige said in surprise, glancing over her shoulder, and Aphrodisia smiled a little.

“Because he's lust, but not just lusty-lust, even if he's all about indulgence and touching and dirty things. He longs to be more than who he is, he longs to become a better, stronger person, but he's already at the very top of the heap and so it's like having an impossible dream, it's like feeling constantly like trying your very best is never, ever going to even be equal to someone else's very worst. That hurts him...” Aphrodisia paused, then dropped her head and mumbled: “Even though he should know he's... he's pretty okay, I guess.”

There was quiet for a few moments, and then Antares gestured towards the base of the snowy pass, feeling relieved. “Here we are, see? Let's keep going, we're making good time.”

The others nodded, some of their nervousness fading as they turned up the pass and fell into loose formation, Avalon flying quickly up past the cliff face to scout ahead and then wait for the others. And Antares didn't know whether to be happy or grouchy when they reached the top of the cliff to look out over a snow-covered plateau that sloped down into a shallow vale beyond, cliffs and hills standing almost randomly here and there along the way and in the distance. Frost-kissed trees towered here and there, bending and swaying in the winds, many of them with their leaves robbed by frost while evergreens stood clothed in white: the snow was deep in pockets and had formed into wide banks and natural walls here and there, and it all seemed to form some kind of crazed natural labyrinth, as Antares mumbled: “No wonder Aunt Tia said ponies usually fly over this.”

“It's real pretty.” Rustproof commented, and Antares smiled despite himself, nodding after a moment in agreement. Then he glanced over his shoulder, but Rusty only smiled back at him with an easy shrug of his large shoulders, and Antares sighed after a moment: if the young colt-going-on-stallion didn't have a problem with it, Antares supposed that he probably shouldn't either.

They marched for another eight hours, and as Celestia had told them, it wasn't a daunting journey... they simply weren't able to move fast, thanks to the heavy snow, the rises and falls and twists and turns of the land in front of them, the pleasant-unpleasantness of the terrain. Sure, everything was very pretty and even Aphrodisia seemed to appreciate how gorgeous their natural surroundings were, but while it helped keep their spirits up it didn't make it any easier to muddle through.

They came to a stop just past a box canyon, just after sunset: the Strange One village wasn't much further from here, according to the map, but Antares both wasn't sure if the Strange Ones would give them lodgings, nor if it would be a good idea to try pressing on through the night. He thought it would be better to take their time, break for camp for the night, and then hopefully wind their way back to Ponyville tomorrow: he would rather be careful than put his friends in any possible danger.

They stopped in a wooded area, making themselves comfortable in a circular, little field beneath the canopy of bare branches. Aphrodisia, Rustproof, and Meadowlark gathered up firewood while Prestige carefully set up a simple warding enchantment: it would warn them if any supernatural entities drew in close. But then Aphrodisia crossed over the line drawn around the edge of camp and set it off, the boom and flash of light startling all six ponies... and unbeknownst to them, Cancer where he was lurking in some bushes a short ten feet away.

Aphrodisia had yelled at Prestige angrily for a while as the unicorn had embarrassedly reset the ward, and the demon had been grouchy at the prospect of being stuck in camp all night, but had grouchily agreed it was for the best. So she had set up the fire while Antares and Avalon put up the tents and Meadowlark had come back to sort through their food bags.

The six nestled in close as they built as large a fire as they dared, huddling in around it as dusk moved into darkness and they all shared the simple rations that Meadowlark had prepared: they only had two tents, but Aphrodisia mumbled that she was going to spend the night outside by the fire. Avalon, Meadowlark, and Rustproof would take one, Aphrodisia, Prestige and Antares the other. Most of the ponies had headed off early with little to do... but Antares and Aphrodisia had stayed up together, sitting side-by-side as they both gazed into the bonfire, and above their heads, the stars twinkled quietly as the moon shone down her blessed light, making the snow almost glow.

Cancer had slunk silently around the edge of the campsite, but something had kept him away: something had almost made him nervous, as he'd lurked outside the edge of the enchantment circle. It made no sense: he thought he could lunge in, subdue the demon long before she could scream for help, and then he'd be able to rip apart the punk, the punk who was right there... or hell, he could attack the tents, kill or infect some of their friends.

But he felt like the moon was watching above, and the warding line could disorient him, and he didn't dare underestimate the demon or the punk pony who had messed his plans up so badly last time. And Cancer licked his lips as he nervously looked at the roaring bonfire that was casting warmth and light over the area, shivering and drawing instinctively back. He was sweating still, his body was hot despite the cold, and even from here he could feel the heat of the flames; he saw the punk there, and he saw the fire, and he thought of when he'd been burnt up... he thought of how much fire hurt, even though he'd eaten up that fire demon...

As the night wore on, Antares stayed with Aphrodisia, who rested her head on his shoulder, eyes closed before she murmured softly: “Thank you for staying with me, Nova. You didn't have to, though.”

“What are big brothers for?” Antares asked softly with a smile, and Aphrodisia smiled radiantly at him for a moment before she huffed and bit his unarmored shoulder, making him wince back a little. “Hey! Apps!”

Aphrodisia only grumbled at him, then she dropped her head back against him, closing her eyes and mumbling: “I wish we weren't adults, Nova. I wish we were silly kids. And I like doing adult things and being big and strong but I still miss when we could just... sit around and play silly games together. I feel like that all went away too fast.”

“It did... for both of us.” Antares said quietly, glancing over at Aphrodisia and smiling a little. “I grew up too fast mentally and you... well... look at you.” Antares laughed a little, gesturing at her, and the demon grumbled but nodded against him as she reached up and brushed her mane back quietly. “But Phooka grow even faster, you know. How do you think they feel?”

“Oh screw you, Nova. Great way to make me feel better.” Aphrodisia shoved him, and Antares laughed even as he swayed to the side before the demon softened and looked up at him, studying him quietly. “Do you think... we're doing okay as grownups? Do you think... our parents will be proud of us? And when Uncle Scrivy and Aunt Brynhild get back... what do you think... they'll think of both of us? Mommy says Uncle Scrivy was... is... her best friend. I want Mommy's best friend to like me.”

“You don't have to worry about that, Apps, you're amazing. Mom and Dad were both really fond of you, you know that...” Antares laughed a little, bowing his head forwards and closing his eyes. “With the way things have been lately, I think I have a lot more to worry about there than you do... I still think about how much I disappointed Aunt Tia and... it hurts. It hurts so much, still.”

He reached up, touching his chest quietly and shaking his head slowly as he murmured: “I'm supposed to be a leader, and strong, but I question myself every day, Apps. I wish I was more like Mom and Dad. Braver, stronger, just.. just all around better.”

“You're too hard on yourself.” Aphrodisia said quietly, nudging him gently before she smiled a little, adding softly: “Besides, look at you, big and strong and handsome. And you got Prestige, which is cute now that I've gotten over how much you two make me want to vomit and she's not a total bitch anymore. She still smells, though, and she's dumb. How can she be so smart and so dumb at the same time, Nova? I know you didn't do that to her. You're boring, you haven't done anything to her except tried to make her a better person. What kind of loser does that?”

“Oh shut up, Apps.” Antares was laughing though, shaking his head slowly before he smiled over at her, and she smiled back before they traded a fierce hug. “Thanks. For... for everything. And you know Prestige and I... I just...”

He stopped, then smiled a little, glancing quietly up at the sky, and Aphrodisia nodded slowly before she murmured: “You're silly. You're a lot more grown-up than me, Antares, but you still think such silly things about Aunt Brynhild and Uncle Scrivy. They're gonna be proud of you. They're gonna be happy to see you... you know. You found somepony. I just still really hope she isn't your actual special somepony. Still, you know, you should take the opportunity while you got it and all.”

“Yeah, I'm really gonna take advice from you on that subject.” Antares smiled all the same, looking over at the tent and shaking his head slowly as he said softly: “Yeah, I mean... I don't know if it's going to last forever. But I think... does it have to last forever to be real, to be good for us both, to be true? If... if Prestige and I part one day, I want it to be on good terms. I want us to be happy, and able to think of the time we spent together... with happiness. I want us to still be friends. But I also don't see that happening... any time soon. She... we go together, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. And I hate it.” Aphrodisia hugged him around the neck, and Antares laughed, closing his eyes and bowing his head forwards. “You make me think of Mommy sometimes. Mommy only has eyes for Daddy. Even if Daddy has eyes for everything.”

“We're such a weird family.” Antares said mildly, and Aphrodisia nodded happily a few times before the young stallion gazed up at the moon overhead, smiling a little as he felt a strange warmth flow through him, murmuring softly: “But that's perfectly okay, 'cause we take care of each other and we're happy. Well, as long as your Dad doesn't make Aunt Tia too angry.”

Aphrodisia giggled a little as she buried her face into his neck, and Antares wrapped a foreleg around her, hugging her lightly against his side with a soft smile. Eventually, Antares fell asleep, curling up a bit beside his cousin, but she kept him close and the fire burning high, the protective demon keeping a close eye over the young stallion she held up as a beloved big brother.

In the morning, Antares awoke feeling a little awkward, smiling lamely at Aphrodisia as he rubbed slowly at his face, before murmuring: “You make me have the weirdest dreams.”

“Yeah, I know. Be glad I'm not a little older.” Aphrodisia smiled a little, then she patted Antares' head childishly before asking curiously: “What'd you dream about?”

Antares mumbled and looked awkwardly away, and the demon grinned, half-lidding her eyes and leaning in excitedly. “Oh come on, I spent the whole night up! I love a story, tell me a story, and don't spare the details!”

“Later, I promise.” Antares said finally, glancing up at the russet sky overhead: the sun was slowly rising, and he shook his head as the demon sulked a bit. “Honestly, I'll tell you later. But we need to get the others up, and get on the march before it gets late, if we wanna make it back to Ponyville ahead of schedule.”

Aphrodisia nodded with a grumble, then she glanced moodily over at the tents before half-shoving Antares over and bouncing towards the cloth enclosures. She stopped outside of one, sticking her head through the flap... and then Antares slapped his forehead as the demon began to bark loudly and wildly, electing a series of startled, surprised and scared yells.

Once everypony was up – or more accurately, once the chaos in the campsite had ended, since Aphrodisia's little wake-up resulted in what had pretty much been a miniature riot – Prestige took down the warding circle and the others packed up while Meadowlark prepared breakfast. The ponies ate quickly after getting their gear together, then put out the fire and set out at a comfortable pace once they route had been planned, Avalon flying a little ahead to make sure they were on the right course.

Meadowlark, however, had the same sensation from yesterday, as she looked nervously over her shoulder every now and then... but the others were more concerned with the fact that the skies above were growing cloudier and darker, even though it was warm. Avalon loudly voiced her concerns that it was going to get cold again... but Antares was much more worried about a possible rainstorm. Cold they could deal with: if it rained, he wasn't sure they could handle that kind of bad weather with them all unused to extended marches like this, much less a hard march through nasty weather while trying to bring precious materials back to Ponyville.

There was one creature who was hoping for a storm, though: Cancer glared up at the sky as slithered and crawled after the ponies, his body morphing and rippling as he pulled himself through the snow. A heavy storm would make the ponies in front of him easy prey... and after a night spent doing nothing but lurking and observing them, he knew he had to eat soon. He was getting hungrier and hungrier... and his body was losing its coherency, he was becoming like nothing but a rippling mass that transformed based more on instinct and the world around him than any conscious thought he had.

He was serpentine one moment; the next, an arm was reaching up to seize a rock and yank himself upwards before it melted back into his body as he slithered through the snow; a moment later, he was quadrupedal, loping hurriedly behind a tree that he grabbed into and skittered up so he could hide in the cluster of dead branches and glare balefully in the direction of the ponies.

It was good and bad: it meant he was still strong, even if hunger made him feel weak. But it also meant his mind was reverting, becoming primal chaos, losing his ability to think for himself. He kept rumbling and rasping, as if trying to sound out a song, but he couldn't find the words and had to keep silencing himself: he was keeping a good distance between himself and the delicious-smelling morsels, if only to make sure he didn't charge wildly in for the kill, but soon enough the hunger would win out completely...

Cancer shivered as he trailed after them in the safety of the shadow cast by a jutting cliff, drooling and breathing hard, whispering: “No, no, oh... oh, we're gonna have the best delights ever, chief, but come on, gimme a little longer, a little further, before I... I...”

His head jerked to the side, eyes glowing red as he fell forwards, shivering violently as veins pulsed visibly through his mottled flesh and he rasped: “Kill, destroy, feed, infect. Spread... spread... consume life... all must join the Void...”

Then Cancer wrenched his head to the side, pleading with himself as he fell over, staring after the ponies as they breasted a snowy rise and they stood framed for a moment against the cloudy, listless sky... “Oh, oh, oh, it's beautiful... they look like the angels in the cemetery, they're the beautiful decorations we gonna put on display when we turn this whole world into one big mass grave... but oh, oh, I've come so far! I'm so, so hungry, but if I hold out just a little longer, then maybe... just maybe... oh, maybe maybe maybe maybe I can catch them unaware, and then we won't have to worry about Mommy coming in to rescue the demon bitch, or the patchwork dolls, or anything else...”

He gurgled, then hissed before reaching up, seizing the side of the cliffs and whispering fiercely: “Don't you want to make sure our revenge is successful? Oh, I wanna live, sure, I'm scared of burning up before I burn the world up, but that punk kid is the one who screwed with us before... who keeps showing up! He's the one to blame, him! We gotta kill him, we gotta wait and watch and kill the hell out of him and make sure we do it right...”

The monster's head twisted to the side, licking his lips as he gazed almost rapturously towards the ponies, before he whimpered as they began down the other side of the hill, and Cancer threw himself forwards, plodding through the powder as he staggered a little back and forth, whispering: “I love you need you want you miss you! Come back ponies, come back... come on into my mouth... it's getting so... so...”

Then Cancer frowned, hesitating as it caught the smell of something else in the air... something weird and unknown and... strange to it. It licked its lips slowly, then shook its head out as it murmured in surprise: “Ooh... what's this? Something brand new... something exotic... oh sweet, sweet salvation, hallelujah, the stupid little ponies have led the way and my prayers are answered!”

Cancer cackled... then covered his mouth before dropping flat in the snow, sending up a puff of powder that quickly settled... and ahead, Meadowlark had stopped in the middle of the snowfield they were crossing, looking worriedly over her shoulder as the other ponies stood awkwardly before the red Pegasus said almost desperately, looking back forwards: “You can't tell me that none of you heard that! Antares, I... I know I heard something, something's been following us this entire time, and-”

“Then why haven't I felt it? Why hasn't Avalon seen it, or super-eyes here seen anything out of the ordinary?” Aphrodisia asked waspishly as she jerked her head at Antares, but there was a hint of nervousness to her reaction. “I think you're just trying to get a pat on the butt for-”

“Enough, Apps, okay?” Antares said quietly, and the demon blushed a bit as she dropped her head with a grumble, before the young stallion glanced up and said quietly: “Avalon, do a quick search of the area behind us. Everyone else, we keep moving forwards. The Strange Ones are literally just up ahead: even if we are being followed, the best thing we can do is push forwards to safety.”

Avalon flew up into the air as Aphrodisia, Rustproof, and Prestige all gave hesitant nods, and Antares looked at Meadowlark almost pleadingly. The red Pegasus looked back, swallowing a little... then she closed her eyes and sighed quietly before nodding as well, saying finally: “Okay. I... okay, you're right, Antares. I'm sorry.”

“It's okay.” Antares shook his head, and there was silence for a few moments before Avalon returned and landed with a grunt on Antares' back. The stallion looked at her, then he simply nodded, murmuring: “Then let's just keep going. It might just be nerves, Meadow.”

“Yeah...” Meadowlark lowered her gaze uncomfortably, and Rustproof reached up to squeeze her shoulder gently, giving her a consoling look before he and the others strode onwards. Meadowlark hesitated for a moment, looking over her shoulder, then she sighed quietly and looked ahead, following quickly after the other ponies and glancing apprehensively ahead.

There were few signs of habitation, as they crossed the field, but it was obviously some kind of settlement: snow had been cleared away all in front of the tall cliffs that stood before them, and immense bonfires burned like beacons here and there. On closer inspection, it became clear that not all the rock formation was natural: large slabs of stone had been set up here and there to form the walls of dwellings, and windows and doorways had been carved into both these homes as well as the cliff face itself. There were caverns and entrances both at ground level, and along a rocky ledge above, suggesting that there was might be more hollow space in the mountains than there was stone.

It all looked empty and abandoned, though... that was, until they drew close. As Antares felt the warmth of the bonfire, bizarre, bipedal figures calmly began to emerge from homes to stare at them silently as if they had been waiting this entire time for them, and the glossy-black stallion swallowed a bit as they drew closer. Prestige instinctively fell back a little, looking nervous, and even Rustproof's features tensed: but only Antares had ever been to the village before, and the others had only a few passing experiences with the so-called Strange Ones at most.

All of them wore tan, hide-colored robes or cloaks, with thick cowls pulled up over their faces. Simple ropes were wrapped around their waists like belts, and what looked like nooses hung from the necks of each and every one of the beings. They were tall, even though most of them stood hunched forwards, and even with every inch of their forms shrouded by the cloaks and cowls they wore, they exuded a presence that could only be described as 'alien.'

After a few moments, Antares swallowed before stepping forwards, saying in as clear a voice as he could manage: “I'm here on behalf of Baroness Celestia to pick up supplies... we were told that you had completed work for her and... I'm here to pick that up.”

Antares fidgeted lamely, and then one of the Strange Ones stepped forwards and calmly swept an arm out, gesturing down the clean path alongside the mountains. “Antares Mīrus, son of Valkyrie Brynhild and Scrivener Blooms, you and your friends are welcome here. The supplies are being prepared as we speak.”

“Thank you.” Antares said awkwardly, then he glanced slowly in the direction the Strange One was still indicating, before clearing his throat and saying finally: “We'll... we'll go over there, then.”

The Strange One made no response, no movement, and Antares shifted nervously before he turned and hurried down the path, his friends quick to follow after him as Aphrodisia looked distrustfully at the creatures. Antares couldn't help but look over his shoulder, sighing in relief when the only Strange One that had moved finally lowered his arm, but then he caught the creature turning towards him and he hurriedly looked back ahead, giving an involuntary shiver despite himself. The Strange Ones – or Skin Walkers, as he had also heard them referred to – were unreadable to him. Whether they were wearing their cloaks or not, he simply couldn't read their emotions: these creatures were simply too... different.

They walked slowly along the path, trying to ignore the other Strange Ones that had gathered outside their homes to watch as they passed... and Antares winced a little as they passed by one that didn't have its cowl up, revealing the bulbous, rhombus-shaped head, the enormous, glassy and almost insectile white eyes, the creature's rubbery white skin. Prestige almost choked as they passed by it, but even Meadowlark had to turn away as the smooth-faced being stared after them, its large, lipless jaw nothing but an emotionless line as its sunken eyes regarded them inquisitively.

Antares thought that was what bothered him most about the Strange Ones: not that they were so different, but the fact they felt so distant. It was like they had no emotions, and they seemed to be on the thin border between absolute tranquility and complete nihilism. Nothing mattered to the Strange Ones except for their duties and obligations, their strange laws and codes and rules: they were an incredibly talented tribe, capable of creating beautiful artifacts and tools and weapons, and yet they would trade them away for the rawest of materials. Likewise, they would lend any assistance they were asked to give to Equestria's ponies and the Nibelung, but at the same time they refused to share almost any news or history with ponies, even if entire Strange One settlements were destroyed by disaster or rampaging dragons: they said their duty was to protect, not to be protected.

Antares glanced up as they approached several huts that were set up at the edge of the long cliff face, and several Strange Ones emerged from these thick hide tents, each carrying a heavy steel trunk. They wordlessly set these down before turning to go back inside, and Antares grimaced as Prestige murmured: “I hope that we don't have to carry those things in their entirety...”

“If we had to carry chests, I know Celestia would have sent us with a wagon... or she would have at least warned us.” Antares said after a moment, but he felt a moment of hesitation all the same, wondering if this could possibly be another test as two of the Strange Ones returned, one carrying a large, metallic tube and the other a satchel bag.

The Strange One with the tube put this calmly down beside one of the trunks, then turned and headed back into the tent he had come out of: the other put down the satchel bag, then opened the first chest as it said quietly: “We have prepared what we were asked to prepare by Valkyrie Freya. Lord Kvasir has told us to listen to her, so we listen: Lord Kvasir told us to follow, and we follow as much as we are permitted. You must deliver a message to him for us, Antares Mīrus: it is important for both our peoples that you do.”

“I... wait, what? I thought you guys could... I mean...” Antares fidgeted, looking uncomfortable. “I can't get to Valhalla. I mean... I don't think I could get there and... come back, maybe I should say.”

“Perhaps. But Valkyrie Freya can send our letter onwards, and it is important that he receives it. We have included it here.” The Strange One gestured towards the metal tube, looking up at them, darker-hued skin just visible beneath his cowl. “There is an interloper in this world that would do us all harm. We must prepare accordingly.”

“Cancer...” Antares said quietly, and the Strange One nodded calmly. For a moment, the glossy-black unicorn hesitated as his friends shifted behind him, while the Strange One only carefully opened the other chests, revealing the contents of all three: what ranged from trinkets and strange decorations to crystals, gemstones, pieces of armor and weapons, and devices Antares didn't have a name for, but often looked wonderful and dangerous in the same breath. “What... I mean...”

“You and your friends may take all that you desire. Only ensure that you also take what is important.” the Strange One said quietly, gesturing at the open chests. “They are tools we give to you freely to use, as is our duty.”

“I... you're really giving us all this stuff if we want it?”Antares hesitated, looking up almost nervously as the Strange One looked back impassably. “And... is the stuff for Celestia in there or...”

“As I have indicated, yes. Take what is important for Valkyrie Freya, and for yourselves. You may have need of it in the near future.” the Strange One replied softly, then it bowed its head politely to them before turning and simply head back inside one of the tents. For a few moments, there was silence, and then Avalon whooped and shot forwards, grinning brightly as she looked back and forth over the open chests excitedly before awkwardly clearing her throat when most of the group glared at her.

“What?” she asked dumbly, then huffed at the glowers she received. “Hey, they're the ones giving us stuff we didn't ask for. Free stuff. Cool stuff. Besides, doesn't Celestia always say that the stuff made by the Strange Ones is some of the best stuff around?”

“Except for what Sleipnir makes, yeah.” Antares said after a moment, and when Avalon looked at him imploringly, he only hesitated for a few seconds longer before sighing tiredly and nodding once. “Fine. But on one condition...” Avalon froze in mid-cheer. “First we sort this stuff out and load up what we need to bring back to Aunt Tia. Then you can grab whatever you want out of what's left, as long as you can carry it yourself. Same goes for the rest of us, too.”

Antares shook his head slowly as Avalon whooped again and then the young stallion muttered as Prestige looked at him awkwardly: “Well, Aunt Tia does always say that it's rude to turn down a freely-offered gift. Besides, Avalon's right. The Strange Ones really do make the best gear around.”

Meadowlark smiled a bit as she stepped up on Antares' side, touching his shoulder gently, and he sighed before nodding with a mumble. “Right, right, okay. Let's get the inventory sorted out, then, and then... hopefully we'll find some useful stuff among everything else.”

Avalon was already digging through the chests, but she was at least sorting things into piles based on what they were, and Antares gestured gently at the others to start helping her. As his friends walked forwards, he dug out the inventory list from his satchel, mumbling to himself as he looked over it before asking curiously: “Meadow, do you know what the crystal antennae look like? And Rustproof, what's a 'topaz battery?'”

Rustproof answered by turning and picking up a large, oval-carved golden crystal that seemed to glow strangely from within, as Meadowlark answered over her shoulder: “They're those things, actually... I think the Strange Ones actually made more than we really need...”

Antares nodded with a frown, glancing at the pile of rectangular, crystalline rods that Meadowlark had indicated before he shook his head, looking down at the list. “Yeah... well, we should take them all anyway.”

“Oh come on! There's so much cool stuff here!” Avalon wheedled, and then she whistled loudly as Antares gave her a half-exasperated, half-amused look, the tiny Pegasus scooping up what only looked to him like some kind of weird chain. “Oh hell, wing bracers! These are usually for show, but these ones actually look like they might be the real deal.”

“No taking stuff until after we get the important things packed up, Avalon. And it'll be good to have spares, or extra pieces. Maybe we can amplify the power further or something with them.” Antares replied, and Avalon grumbled but relented, before the young stallion read out quietly: “We need the antennae, the topaz batteries, uh... core rods, at least eight of them, and... a convertor core or something?”

“Big thing.” Rustproof grunted as he reached into a trunk, and Antares glanced curiously over at the enormous young earth pony before the glossy-black unicorn winced as Rustproof dragged a large, dome-shaped crystal set into some kind of heavy metallic base free, the other ponies staring before they all winced when the earth pony fumbled it and dropped it to the ground with a loud clank and a wheeze of effort. “Real big.”

Antares looked awkwardly at the core, feeling his stomach drop a little: with how heavy it seemed, it was clear that they were going to end up losing more time than he wanted to trying to transport it. Either he or Rustproof would have to carry it across their back: it was as wide as a wheel for a troop transport wagon, far larger than anything they could carry in their satchels.

Antares shortly realized that they would have a similar problem with the antennae: they were simply too long to easily fit in any of their packs, which meant they would have to bundle them together and somepony would have to carry them on their back instead of in a satchel. Which meant it would probably have to be Meadowlark, if she could bear the weight: Avalon needed to be able to stay airborne, and overloading Aphrodisia with supplies would be like using a battle axe as a table: it just was not bound to end well.

There were at least a dozen antennae, and Antares had a feeling they should take every one of them: the bundle wasn't too heavy, at least, although Meadowlark clearly found it uncomfortable to carry them. She didn't complain, though, and Antares admired that, even as he worried for her.

Prestige, meanwhile, would carry the core rods: the eight or so stout, octagonal crystals all fit in one satchel. In the saddlebag hanging on her other side, she carried two gemstone batteries... but they were much heavier than they looked, and when Rustproof glanced up with a silent offer, Antares agreed after only a moment with a sigh: Rustproof could carry the three remaining batteries in one satchel, while he had slipped on the other saddlebag filled with what looked like pieces of slate and carved tile. Antares wasn't entirely sure what they were, but he also wasn't about to question the importance of them, either: he knew enough about the Strange Ones to know if they had brought these specifically, whether they were on the inventory list or not they qualified as something important to take.

When Avalon realized they had distributed the gear and still had two empty satchel bags, she rubbed her hooves together gleefully and began digging through the remaining artifacts in the trunk. Antares sighed, but when Prestige and Meadowlark both looked at him awkwardly, he gestured to them almost grumpily and both mares brightened before hurrying forwards to the other chests.

Rustproof and Aphrodisia, meanwhile, were both poking curiously at the piles of sorted-out equipment, and Antares looked moodily over the things the Strange Ones had left out before he finally sighed and strode forwards, almost nervously pawing at one of the piles. There really was some gorgeous equipment here... but the idea of just taking these things didn't sit well with his stomach for some reason.

Avalon had already fitted a set of matching wing bracers she'd found on, and Antares paused to look up at this. At first he half-wanted to scold her, but then he only frowned and studied the strange armor curiously: they weren't chain after all, but U-shaped, carefully molded pieces of metal that clipped on over the upper edge of Avalon's wings. They moved with Avalon's wings as she carefully bent them back and forth, then flapped them rapidly: not to try and take to the air, but make sure the silvery bracers were on tight. Then she grinned widely, and Antares shook his head slowly with a small smile before the tiny Pegasus said enthusiastically as she caught him looking: “Dude, I've always wanted a set of these, but Dad said they're hard to find even in Cloudsdale and cost a fortune. But now look! They fit perfect!”

“You just want to hit things with your wings.” Aphrodisia remarked, and Avalon nodded in agreement with a grin, the demon snorting in amusement before her eyes locked on a set of hoof-boots with heavy steel guards that extended up to protect the lower leg, her eyes widening in delight. “Ooh! Pretty smashy things!”

Antares looked at the two, then his eyes roved to Prestige, Meadowlark, and Rustproof, and he was somehow unsurprised to see they were enjoying themselves as well. Prestige had picked out up pair of silver and obsidian earrings that she was marveling over, and Antares smiled a little before he leaned over and said quietly: “Careful what you take, Prestige. The Strange Ones put charms and enchantments on almost everything they make... even if it looks simple or just pretty, everything here has some kind of charm or ward woven into it. All of them are meant to... to do something.”

“I know, hero. I can feel the magic.” Prestige smiled over at him, and then her horn glowed, lifting the earrings from the ground and up in front of her eyes: for a moment, the aura around her horn grew brighter, and then she said quietly: “My mother bought me a set of earrings like these a long, long time ago... concentration charms. I broke them by accident... they were simply so old, so fragile, that when I lost control of a spell they shattered thanks to the recoil.”

Antares nodded a little, smiling a bit... and then Prestige laughed quietly before she smiled, the rune-shaped earrings sliding through the air and gently setting themselves into place in her ears. They glimmered quietly, and then Prestige turned to Antares, smiling over at him. “You should find something for yourself, hero. And stop worrying.”

The young stallion nodded hesitantly, then his eyes turned to Meadowlark, who smiled a little as she glanced up at him softly. She had found a pen and a few baubles among the piles of stuff that she was poking at, and Antares regarded what she had taken curiously before he simply nodded a little, saying finally: “Yeah. Yeah, I know we have to make the most of what we're offered.”

All the same, Antares only picked his way through the piled-up objects before he finally settled on a strange token. He wasn't quite sure what it was, but for some reason it called out to him, and he slipped the simple wooden circle into his satchel bag as he glanced around at the others, then sighed at Aphrodisia and Avalon. “You guys.”

“You said we could take as much as we could carry!” Avalon argued immediately, and Aphrodisia nodded violently as Antares looked at them sourly: Avalon had bundled Horses of Heaven knew how much stuff into a chainmail cloak, balled it all up, then jury-rigged it to her back like a pack with a harness. Aphrodisia, meanwhile, was wearing slightly-too large greaves over her hooves with extended guards that went up over her lower legs, enormous spiked pauldrons, had a buckler hanging over each hip and a skull-shaped half-mask with a crown of horns and silver thorns over her face. Antares was pretty sure she had a bunch of other trinkets tucked beneath her armor as well, not to mention the weapons sheathed over her back...

Then Avalon grinned as she leapt up... and wheezed loudly as her wings flapped wildly, blurring the air as she carefully forced herself several feet higher, gasping: “See! See! I can still... do my... job!”

Then she winced as one of her wings twisted slightly, and she fell out of the air to crash with a loud thud to the frostpacked ground, the chainmail cloak bursting open and sending objects flying in all directions. Antares threw his head back with a groan, and Avalon grinned lamely as she carefully picked herself up from the snow. “Ava!”

“Okay, okay, okay. I got the message.” Avalon mumbled, and then she paused before hurriedly snatching up a few of the other trinkets. Antares looked at her sourly, then he sighed when Rustproof stepped forwards to help before nodding moodily.

“Let's clean up and toss everything we aren't taking back in the trunks. Then I guess we can start the march back... and hope that we make it by tomorrow. I'm not so sure anymore we'll even be able to reach the Everfree Forest by nightfall...” Antares hesitated, looking up before he shook his head slowly as he gazed nervously in the direction of Ponyville, murmuring: “I wonder if Aunt Tia knew how big the core was. I... wonder.”

He quieted, then shook his head slowly before clearing his throat and looking at the others, saying finally: “Well, let's not dawdle or anything, right? We got a long walk ahead of us, and... we got work to do right now. But we'll get this done, we'll do it right, and we'll play it safe again on the way back and everything should go fine. Okay?”

The other ponies nodded, smiling at Antares... but Meadowlark felt a twist of nervousness inside her as she looked up and past the young stallion, shifting apprehensively after a moment. Antares barely seemed to notice, however, fixated as he was on his own thoughts and worries... and the red Pegasus finally shook her head, deciding to leave him alone for now as she gazed at him with softness, concern, and barely-hidden affection. She had confidence in him, faith that he'd make the right choice, that he'd notice if something was really wrong, after all...

But still, something nibbled at her mind and twisted inside her stomach, some desperate voice trying to warn her that something was wrong even as she did her best to brush it aside.