• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,683 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

The Joker In The Deck

Chapter Twenty: The Joker In The Deck

Cancer shivered slowly where he laid, concealed in a dip in the snowy fields outside the Strange One encampment, breathing heavily, eyes burning with need and want and desire. He watched as the group of ponies made their way slowly across the field some thirty feet away, nervously looking back at the cliff side as the creatures they had consulted with calmly and quickly returned to their homes with all the silence of spirits fading back into their crypts... and the monster almost moaned in his throat, slavering as he whimpered: “Oh why can't I have my cake and eat it too? Oh, why are you so cruel sweet-honey-child, why are you so cruel to me?”

He snarled up at the gray skies overhead: the temperature had dropped a little, and the clouds had darkened, but there hadn't been any storm, hadn't been even a single drop of rain. And oh he was hungry... he was utterly starving, as a matter of fact, and he could feel his need to destroy, destroy, destroy rising higher and higher inside of his body...

“But chief, we gotta wait... just... just gotta wait just a little while, ooh...” His eyes followed the trail of the young ponies longingly, before he whispered: “Look at them, though, carryin' all that stuff like they're big boys gettin' milk from the store for Mommy all by themselves... but ooh, we got a surprise for them, right?”

Cancer licked his teeth slowly, rasping hard in as he trembled, then gargled and convulsed for a moment before clawing into the snow, burying his face in the powder as he gave a low, whispery scream. “No! N-Not yet... oh, look, honey, honey, I know the buffet is right there, sweetie-pie delight, and we're gonna help ourselves.. oh, oh, oh yes we're gonna have ourselves the munchies... but we gotta wait, don't you get it? Work with me, I and you! And if everything goes according to plan, those kids are gonna stop for the night again, right? So we're gonna wait, just a one-two-three-ten-thirty-sixty minutes... and then when those stupid unsuspecting brats are nice and far away...”

Cancer slowly looked up, licking his teeth as his red, insectile eyes stared hungrily towards the abandoned-looking mountainside... but oh, the smells he smelled, the sounds he heard... “Dinnertime.”

The monster grinned slowly... then shivered as it turned its head in the direction of the young ponies, adding in a murmur: “And no, no, oh no no no... we ain't forgetting about those half-dozen cooked turkeys, just waiting to be gobbled down. And we're gonna eat every last one of 'em, we're gonna suck the creamy marrow from their bones and drink down their very goddamn spirit... but not just yet, oh no. We gotta get ourselves some nutritious and delicious brekky first before we go lickin' lollipops for dessert, and have ourselves the sweet coke cake of... r... r...”

The monster gargled, then its eyes glowed bright red as its head twisted violently to the side, rasping: “Revenge... we will have our revenge... we will skin the child while he lives and melt his living flesh from his bones, feast upon his organs, kill, absorb, infect, evolve... we shall evolve to destroy...”

The monster trembled, then slumped, body rippling, losing its physical coherence as bones jutted cruelly and wildly up from it, a limb transformed into a melted mess of a tentacle, teeth grew too large in its jaw as it moaned... and then in a flash, the transformations reversed themselves as the goblinoid monster curled up in the fetal position in the dip in the fields, whispering: “Hold on just a little longer, sweet cheeks, then I'll let you out to play and oh, oh, oh we'll have so much fun doing ring around the rosey with our pockets full of ashes, hush now, hush now, the poisoned posey brings the foals... all falling down...”

Cancer grinned widely, shivering once where he lay in the snow, breathing hard in and out as his amorphous form rippled and distorted before he straightened a bit and whispered: “Yes... yes... we're almost there... we just gotta wait... we just gotta take our slow, slow time, and wait for the kiddies to go so far away they won't hear a thing... and then, then we get our strength back...”

The monster breathed harder in and out, eyes slowly raising to stare up at the gray skies overhead, delighting in its find even as it bemoaned being forced to wait again to take his revenge on the foals. He occupied himself for more than an hour thinking about all the things he was going to do to the young ponies, all the pain and suffering he was going to heap on their heads. Especially the punk... oh, the demon too he was going to peel apart piece-by-piece, but especially, especially the little stupid kid that dared to challenge him, that had dared to actually fight him, that had taken his cheap shot and almost cost him the war...

Cancer's eyes glowed with rage with these thoughts, breathing hard as he slowly pushed himself up to his feet. He twisted back and forth as claws sprouted from the half-melted ends of his legs, became bony, deadly hooks as his jaw grew larger, an extra, twisted limb sprouting from one shoulder as his mouth fell open in a hungry gape. Drool dripped from his jaws as he staggered towards the cliff face, breathing harder and heavier, his red eyes glowing all the brighter as he threw his head back and screamed: “Dinner time!”

The monster grinned widely as it eagerly dragged itself onto the packed snow and carefully edged around one of the bonfires, rasping hard as cloaked Strange Ones emerged from their homes as calmly and silently as they had for the ponies. They looked at him fearlessly, emotionlessly, and Cancer giggled wildly as his head twitched back and forth before he licked his oversized teeth, eyes blazing as his claws scraped delightedly against the ground. “Yes, yes, yes, comin' out, savin' me the trouble of-”

Then the monster stuttered to a halt as his back arched, his eyes widening as he felt something pass through him so fast he didn't even have the time to register pain. The Strange Ones only stood, and Cancer gurgled and twitched before he looked slowly back and forth: on either side of him, Strange Ones in stiff leather armor had landed beside him after leaping from some unseen vantage point, and their dexterous, long-fingered hands both clutched the bodies of spears... spears that were buried all the way through Cancer and now anchored into the ground, forming a perfect X through the creature's body.

Cancer screamed and began to jitter wildly, the wooden poles feeling strange and agonizing, his red eyes glowing as one of the Strange Ones said quietly: “We appreciate your arrogance in coming to us. We have dealt with invaders before. We do not fear you.”

“You'll learn to fear me, honey!” Cancer screamed in rage, before he snapped his forelimbs out to either side as they turned from claws into tentacles, wrapping violently around the Strange One warriors, hooked blades and thorns ripping out along their length to puncture, rip and tear as the monster shouted furiously: “I ain't like anything you ever dealt with before!”

Ignoring the spears buried through him, Cancer jerked backwards, yanking both warriors off their feet before slamming them savagely down into the ground in front of him with a loud crunch. The cloaked Strange Ones, meanwhile, simply traded looks and reacted with unfettered calm: some simply turned to walk calmly away, while others strode towards the bonfires, reaching down to pick up burning pieces of wood.

The lack of fear, the casualness of it all enraged Cancer as he lashed his tentacles backwards, ripping them free of the broken bodies of the Strange Ones in front of him and splattering himself with their watery blood before he snapped one mess of tentacles forwards as the other limb transformed back into a claw. These snapped into the nearest cloaked Strange One, ripping through rubbery skin like daggers, constricting and seizing limbs and hefting the creature into the air before he snapped it quickly backwards into a group of the slowly-approaching beings, hissing: “You stupid clowns don't get it, do you? I'm here to kill you all!”

The Strange Ones were silent as they continued their calm approach, before Cancer leapt backwards with a yelp, making the spears still buried in his body clack together as another warrior landed in front of him, its long spear digging a thin gash along Cancer's shoulder. The monster snarled in fury, but then skittered hurriedly backwards with a wince when the warrior stood and smoothly began to drive forwards: unlike the other Strange Ones, the warriors moved with grace and speed, the destruction entity barely able to keep himself staggering backwards and out of the way of the rapid series of stabs aimed at his body and face.

“No fair, I don't got... oh wait!” Cancer snarled, even as several more Strange One warriors sprinted into the field, and then his tail snapped out behind him, becoming longer and whiplike before it lashed up and wrapped rapidly around the body of one of the spears still buried through his body, yanking it free and flinging it hard forwards.

The Strange One easily parried the spear with his own, but it gave Cancer the time to rip the other free with his tail before he looked back and forth stupidly as he realized the Strange Ones he had seen moments ago advancing on him... were now all around him. “Holy hell, you guys move-”

Then Cancer screamed, arching his back in horror as no less than eight spears tore through his body from all around him, the Strange Ones all leaning on the ends of their weapons to keep the monster anchored in place as one of them bowed his head forwards, saying quietly: “Keep up the pressure. He cannot transform if we keep him pinned.”

Cancer gargled and rasped, foaming wildly at the jaws, shrieking in agony as his body convulsed and rippled: bones pulsed up out of his flesh here and there, and his semi-solid frame tried to spread up the spears, but even the most reaching tendrils could only go a little way along the body: the pain, and moreover, the unnatural pressure the weapons put him under was just too great. All he could do was gargle and shiver and shriek as several of the cloaked Strange Ones calmly approached with burning timbers, one of them murmuring: “He is too dangerous to let live. He is invader, and unnatural; both things that we strive to purge from the world we guard.”

“Cleanse him, with fire.” said one of the Strange One warriors, and the others nodded in slow agreement as Cancer gargled, howled, screamed... and then suddenly grinned widely just as the Strange One began to bring the torch forwards.

“It must be my birthday! Let me blow out the candle!” he cried: the Strange Ones didn't react to him any more than they had reacted to his screams, before Cancer leaned forwards and released both a howl and a blast of reeking mist. The moment the toxic smog made contact with the flame, it erupted into a cloud of septic, greedy fire that splashed over the alien entities.

The cloaked Strange One staggered backwards, then seemed to shiver as the flames rapidly consumed its body, reeking steam rising up with the smoke: the two warriors that had been set aflame were burning up rapidly as well, and yet somehow still they only calmly leaned on their spears, showing no more emotion or pain than any of their compatriots did. The other cloaked Strange Ones continued to advance, and the warriors stayed steady as Cancer's eyes widened in horror... and then he snarled as he felt the heat of toxic flame racing greedily along the wooden spears back to its own source, and he snapped: “No one blows up Cancer but Cancer!”

The monster arched his back, howling in pain as his body rippled, his form bulging unnaturally as another of the cloaked Strange Ones brought a burning log forwards... and then Cancer exploded in a tremendous double-bang, turning the spears buried through him into shrapnel that pelted the warriors along with the monster's toxic, gooey body. Strange Ones were knocked sprawling in all directions as snow was kicked high into the air, mixing with the smoke and poison into a reeking miasma that hovered ominously above the ground.

For a few moments, there was silence: the few cloaked Strange Ones that had stood far enough to survive stood with their burning logs in hand, simply surveying the situation calmly as the poisonous mist slowly began to fade. In a few moments, the results of Cancer's blast were revealed... and the sights were horrifying, made massacre of the mind.

The snow was steaming and bubbling here and there, and chunks of Cancer's putrid form were twitching with life that even now refused to be snuffed out. Strange One warriors lay staring at the sky soullessly, no life in their eyes, their bodies steaming violently as they rotted away... and what was left behind was not bone, or flesh, or blood, but as rubbery skin tore and dissolved, water splashed out. Water that looked stagnant and poisoned, in which parasites almost visibly danced and cavorted.

For a few moments, the Strange Ones only stood... and then one of the cloaked figures calmly strode forwards as the few remaining creatures saw the still-living goo of Cancer shift unnaturally, beginning to puddle together. But before it could go far, the hand of a corpse lashed out, seizing the cloaked Strange One by the ankle and halting its progress as the corpse looked emptily up... and then suddenly grinned as red light filled the warrior's eyes, even as ashen rot spread over its rubbery shell. “Why are you in such a rush, friend?”

“Desecration. Ultimate defilement.” whispered the Strange One, and then it shoved the still burning branch down into the warrior's face, but it only gave a sickening squelch, the flames not catching against the corpse's wet and rubbery skin. Cancer only laughed through the body's jaws, squeezing harder, grinning widely as he spread his infection into the cloaked Strange One...

And horribly, the Strange One gave a quiet gasp, like that of surprise more than pain... before water burst in all directions through a cloak that collapsed soundlessly to the powder, sending up a quiet puff. The only sign it had ever been worn at all was the wetness... and the scraps of steaming, stretched rubber hide half-hidden beneath the cloth.

Cancer cackled, then he grinned viciously through the Strange One's mouth, the emotion so foreign on the face of the calm creatures that it transformed the warrior's corpse into a hideous mockery of its living self even more effectively than the visible rot and distortion of the body did. It jerked back and forth as it stood up, Cancer's living slime drawing its way through the snow to the corpse's feet, where it slithered up the puppeted warrior's legs to sink in through his flesh as the monster rasped: “Yeah, ooh, oh oh oh, now I'm starting to understand you guys real well, real swell... you're starting to make perfect sense to me, one-two-three, oh honey, honey, honey, and then... I...”

The corpse swung its arms out, and there was a horrible squelching sound before the body simply burst apart into rubbery ribbons, fetid, infected water spurting in all directions and leaving dark patches over the snow, revealing Cancer standing in all his glory, his mottled body shiny as it rippled strangely, his eyes glowing red, his teeth bared red fangs as the cloaked Strange Ones calmly looked at him. They made no move to either fight or flee, and Cancer's eyes glowed brighter before he grinned slowly, licking his teeth. “Good. I can smell it... yeah, I warned you, honey-honey... I'm the monster in your closet, I'm the snake under your bed, I'm everything you're scared of...”

He twitched to the side, gargling, body rippling as he grew in size before he reared back with a fearsome roar, forelegs splitting apart into cruel, spiked tentacles as his eyes glowed red, rasping: “And now I'm gonna make you dead!”

The Strange Ones only looked up at him silently, betraying no fear, no sorrow, not even anger; at most, there was only a sense of shame and disappointment before Cancer lunged...

Twenty minutes later, Cancer was licking his lips slowly as he strutted through the remains of the Strange One village. Homes had been shattered, and here and there, parts of the mountain had caught aflame or collapsed from the wrath of the destruction entity. The bonfires still burned away, but they were lower, weaker, as if the great fires knew their masters had been extinguished, and snow had begun to fall, mixed with sleet, like nature's tears: it was like the entire world was reacting to the eradication of the village... or at least all the Strange Ones that Cancer had cared to find, anyway.

He shivered in delight, then sighed in relief, saying easily as he paced down a narrow path almost hidden in the cliffs: “Oh, my, they're such a strange and wonderful treats, though! All full of delicious, sweet-tasting water... water I can sour in their veins in a snap, and oh, no, they don't like that. They're rubber duckies, they're the ones, they make bloodbaths so much fun!”

Cancer laughed loudly, voice echoing along the narrow trench cut into the cliffs before he winced as some snow spilled down from above. He growled up at this in irritation, then shivered a little before he glanced to the side with a frown and sniffed loudly at the air: he'd grown bored of hunting down the last Strange Ones sitting here and there, who seemed to simply be calmly waiting for death, and instead decided to take a look-see around what this place had to offer. The homes had been disappointing, and there had been little in the way of chemicals or poisons... but maybe he'd just been judging these puritan-seeming creatures too fast, maybe they did have some dirty little secret after all...

He followed the scent, breathing heavily in and out: something ahead smelled delicious. Reeked of something he couldn't quite identify... but as he made his way slowly down into a cavern, Cancer grinned widely as he found his path suddenly blocked by two Strange One warriors, both armed with spears, both standing in his way. Both ready to die to protect whatever was in this cavern... whatever was so important that they had stayed down here on guard duty to keep an eye on it instead of joining the battlefield above.

Cancer grinned widely, his eyes blazing before one of the Strange Ones lunged, and the monster yelped as the spear tore through him... before his grin resurfaced as a foreleg transformed into a bony blade and he slammed this home into the warrior's stomach. At first, the Strange One showed no pain... and then a moment later, it twitched, its mouth parted slightly... and then its body steamed rapidly as it collapsed backwards, rubbery hide bursting apart in a toxic, watery spray.

It spilled backwards to the ground, and the second Strange One started forwards... but Cancer didn't give it the chance to attack, belching out a blast of fetid, poisonous gases into the Strange One's face. It stumbled backwards, and for a moment, there was silence as Cancer grinned as the Strange One shifted... then lifelessly collapsed, clinging lichen spreading over its features as it steamed faintly.

Cancer hummed to himself as he cheerfully reached up and yanked the spear out of his gelatinous body, tossing it aside before stomping his way over the corpses with a giggle, enjoying the feeling of their strange bodies crunching beneath him. He emerged into a larger cavern after a moment, looking curiously up a long set of stairs to something crystalline and cylindrical, and that delicious, delightful scent was strong here as he strode to the base of the steps, then called cheerfully: “Hello? Hey, hey, hey, what's that I smell? Are you a little bit of Heaven? Or are you a little bit of Hell?”

“H-Hello? Is someone out there?” whispered an excited voice, and Cancer grinned wider, his red eyes glowing with delight before he cackled and scurried up the steps, sprinting a little too fast and smacking headlong into the clear crystal prison at the top. The creature inside shrieked in surprise, rearing back in horror, her poison-green eyes widening in shock as she asked in surprise: “Who... no, what are you, monster? Wait... the Skin Walkers... did you kill the Skin Walkers?”

“I'm a pony! I really really clearly obviously want to be a pony, yeah? We all wanna be ponies, you me he she them us!” Cancer crowed, and then he grinned brightly, leaning forwards and breathing hard as he mashed his face against the glass... before the chitinous, black-coated creature inside leaned back with a shiver of disgust as Cancer's head slowly spun all the way around, whispering: “You're beautiful... oh, did those nasty weirdos lock you up in there, sweetie? Don't you worry, honey, Cancer took care of all those nasty-wasty rubbernecks for you.”

“I... you killed them all?” the creature's bug-like wings buzzed at her sides in excitement, her tattered blue mane swaying around her features as she grinned widely, revealing dangerous, toxic fangs. Her slit-like eyes glowed as she stepped towards the edge of her circular cell on limbs filled with gaping holes, and Cancer giggled at the sight of these before he marveled over the green, saddle-like structure that covered her back, and the warped black crown sitting atop her head, behind her jagged, zigzagging horn. “Oh, yes, yes! Now free me, my friend! I've been waiting so long to be free... and I can offer you anything you desire...”

The creature's eyes glowed as she leaned forwards with a sultry smile, and Cancer met her gaze... before the bug-like being inside the cage recoiled, gasping in shock, staggering hurriedly away as a tremble ran through her. Cancer only grinned wider, however, his red eyes glowing as he slowly reached up to stroke his hooves along the cage, whispering: “What's wrong, honey? Didn't you like what you saw?”

“D-Destruction... raw, horrible, the Void...” The bug-like entity trembled, then it forced a smile, bowing her head respectfully as she whispered: “P-Please don't harm me... I am the Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings, and I know my babies must still be out there, somewhere, hungry and wanting and needing their queen, needing me, to lead them... and I can. I can and will... we can work together! I require ponies for food, and you require ponies to destroy... I'll farm them, take over their society, and then give you as much as you wish to glut yourself with...”

“Oh, honey, I don't work like that.” Cancer clucked his tongue, then he grinned widely, bringing a hoof back before it transformed into a bony blade, and he thrusted this savagely forwards, sending it tearing through the crystalline shield. Chrysalis shrieked in shock, hurriedly scrambling to the opposite end of the cage, before Cancer yanked the bony blade back and then laughed loudly. “Oh, sweet pea! Don't look so frightened! If I wanted to hurt you I would have done it by now!”

Chrysalis forced herself to straighten, then she winced when Cancer slammed his head into the cracked wall of the prison, shattering it further before he sang softly and sweetly, the Changeling Queen staring in disbelief:

“Look at your eyes, so pretty and so wise,
Look at your face, puttin' angels to disgrace,
Look at your body, babe you're a hottie,
But sweetheart, it's your soul... that makes you beautiful...”

Cancer drew his head back, then swung it forwards again, smashing the prison wall in further, sending cracks rippling through the surface before he swung both hooves up into the crystalline prison on either side of where his head still rested, licking his lips hungrily. As more cracks spread through the wall, Chrysalis stared, but then began to slowly smile as Cancer wooed, voice rhythmic, coy, surprisingly-gentle:

“My heart's thuddin' your name, I'll never be the same!
I need you in my life, gotta have you as my wife,
You're the Queen of my dreams, you make me wanna scream,
I need you... it's true, it's true...”

Chrysalis straightened a little, looking flattered even as she also still seemed wary, as Cancer leaned back and then slammed both limbs into the wall, sending chunks of crystal flying in all directions as he smashed a hole in the prison. As the dust settled, he slipped inside, his red eyes half-lidded, a smile on his face as he slipped forwards and cajoled:

“I know we only just met, but my heart's already set,
I gotta have you as mine, if only for a little bit of time,
Oh honey you're so sweet, you make me feel complete,
And I ain't worthy miss, but may I have just one kiss?”

He leaned towards her, winking, licking his lips slowly before he grinned brightly, sidling slowly up to her... and for a moment, Chrysalis hesitated before she smiled in a sultry, delighted way, saying kindly: “Well... I suppose that one kiss couldn't hurt...”

She leaned towards him, and Cancer leaned down, mouths meeting... and then Chrysalis' eyes bulged as agony ripped through her, feeling something rip up into her chest before she gasped and jerked her head back, eyes staring in horror at Cancer. She shivered violently, gargling as dark blood spilled down his mottled limb, the bony blade sticking out of the end of this buried deep into her chest.

She stared up at him, and he looked back tenderly, leaning down and kissing affectionately over her face as he said lovingly: “Oh sweetie, don't you fret now, only gonna hurt for a minute! Let's just say I'm making you my wife the good old fashioned way...”

Chrysalis shrieked, then dropped her head forwards, gargling, limbs shaking as she shook her head wildly back and forth, snarling in fury as her horn sparked violently... before she felt something horrible, something dark, and something powerful passing into her, her green eyes taking on darker tones and a deeper glow. Her chitinous hide cracked as veins pulsed up beneath her skin, and her voice became guttural before agony turned to pleasure, before fear and horror turned to joy, before her anger and hatred of this horrific thing turned to worship and delight as she slowly looked up at him... and Cancer grinned savagely down at her as he whispered lovingly: “Oh sweetie, only the best for you, my fellow parasite. I hope you don't mind that I raided your pantry to give myself a little somethin'-somethin' extra... but honey, honey, honey, oh... I'm giving something back see?”

Chrysalis drooled, then snarled before trying to speak... but what came out instead was a barking, rumbling sound as she felt heat and power and pleasure taking over her mind. As she felt her body mutating, changing, transforming, raising a hoof slowly in front of her face to watch it split apart into a monstrous, gnarled claw, and Cancer grinned in excitement before he laughed in glee, stomping his hooves as he watched the transformation with delight.

It took half an hour... and it was only the start. Dark, mottled webbing and Cancer's slime had begun to spread over the walls of this cavern they were going to call 'home' for now... but Cancer giggled delightedly as he stuck his head cheerfully out of the cave, breathing hard. It wouldn't last them very long... his new wife was growing into a big girl now, and they'd need to cut out of this bachelor pad and find themselves a proper home for two newlyweds to settle down in. Especially since they were newlyweds who would be expecting a family sooner rather than later...

Cancer glanced up at the snowy sky above, licking his teeth slowly as he whispered: “Griselda and me are gonna be real happy, just you wait and see. She ain't no chrysalis no more, after all... she's turning into the most beautiful, beautiful butterfly you ever did lay your eyes on! Gotta find her a meal, though... gotta keep up her strength... and oh, I'm gonna take my time now, taking care of her, building her up nice and big and strong, 'cause she's gonna help me knock all the blocks down...”

He grinned hungrily, licking his teeth slowly as he shivered in delight, feeling his own body strengthening, solidifying, as it processed the Changeling's genes and the powers he'd torn from her body. She was old, and she was strong, and she had the most deliciously metamorphic structure that let him do things to her even good ol' Discord hadn't been able to handle. She wouldn't become any mindless drone like the Jabberwock had been... she was going to be perfect for him, in every single way. She was going to be the most beautiful wife ever... and now, he giggled at the thought of letting those stupid kids get away. Oh, it was well worth it... it was better than worth it. Let the ponies run, let them hide, let them prepare and think what they wanted!

Because when everything was said and done, he was going to march right on into their pretty little village. When his wife was good and ready, Griselda and he would be able to storm the gates of the filthy demon garbage heap under the giant buffet-city, and they'd make mincemeat out of everyone there... but oh, first. First he wanted to attack the little dirt-stain town. First he wanted to get his claws into the white weasel, and gobble her down. Then he'd feed the zombie to his pretty wife, and then he'd hunt down and make that stupid punk kid really suffer... oh, yes. Now waiting didn't bother him, waiting just made it all sweeter, because he had Griselda, his butterfly, to help grow big and strong. Now he had someone to entertain him so he wasn't so alone anymore.

Then Cancer glanced up with a curse under his breath as he looked up past the cliff top. He was protected on the path to some extent by the narrow cliffs above his head, but the sleet and powder had turned to a heavier blizzard that he didn't dare go too far in, for fear of once more being turned to ice. The monster grumbled under his breath, then he grimaced when he stepped on a Strange One's corpse... before shrugging and easily picking this up, tossing it over his back as he began to whistle loudly, turning to head back towards the cave. He and his wife would keep each other warm over the long winter, that's all there was to it... and he grinned slowly as he licked his lips, whispering: “Ain't nothing better than being in love, ain't that right?”

Cancer threw his head back and laughed... and as if in response, the earth trembled with the roar of the hideous monstrosity lurking beneath the ground. A beast aware only of its endless hunger, and of its servitude towards the monster that provided it with power and a corrupted, twisted lie of love; a prisoner of Cancer's perverse games more enslaved now than she had ever been in her crystalline cell.

Carrying the equipment was hard enough, even distributed as fairly as possible between the ponies as it was... but when the snow and sleet began to fall, Antares wondered miserably if they had just stepped out of Equestria and into some twisted circle of Hell.

As he had been worried, they simply weren't prepared for the bad weather: snow would have likely been bad enough to slow them down, but the addition of the wet, icy rain felt like unnecessary cruelty, as they stumbled their way sluggishly through the valley beneath the pelting sleet. It was heavy enough to drive Avalon from the air, making her spit curses as she tried to hide herself on Antares' back but did little more than make both herself and the young stallion even more miserable. She clung to him but kept slipping against his wet armor as he stumbled up a slope here or down into a depression in the valley there, but the glossy-black unicorn didn't have the heart to tell her to get off him, either: the sleet had turned the snow over the ground into sludge that went up to at least their shins, and he was worried that the tiny Pegasus could literally be washed away in the churning snowy sludge.

Rustproof was at the back of the group, the enormous earth pony breathing hard and looking strained as he staggered forwards step-by-step: and yet in spite of everything, he refused to give up or slow down, even as the large core wobbled slowly back and forth on his back, sparkling with the sleet and snow dripping along its gemstone face. He was the youngest, and yet all the same, the enormous pony bore up the heaviest burden perhaps not with grace, but without complaint.

Meadowlark had her head low and eyes mostly closed, trembling beneath her coat as her wings kept shivering: she kept stumbling a little over the terrain, but she was forcing herself to bear onwards. Prestige, meanwhile, wasn't doing as well... she kept mumbling to herself and cursing under her breath, stumbling a little here and there and slowing down as her horn glowed brightly, trying to keep herself warm and the area around them lit with magic.

Aphrodisia, lastly, was plodding onwards at their side, breathing hard and growling every so often at the sky, as if she thought she could intimidate the sleet into stopping. As she waded through the slurry, she grew more and more visibly frustrated, her breath rushing in and out, glaring back and forth as she snarled, demonic temper and child-like emotions both fueling her frustrations all the higher.

Antares looked up, forcing himself to stare through the oncoming sleet with a wince as he cursed under his breath... before yelping when he felt something give way beneath him, and he tumbled forwards, cursing in pain as he rolled down into a ditch with a loud splash. Avalon was flung from his back with a yelp before she splashed down beside him in the shallow, murky water, and there were yells from above before Aphrodisia leapt forwards, skidding down the snowy embankment as the others stood at the top of the narrow trench and looked down worriedly. “Nova! Aviator!”

“Ain't n-no Aviator right now...” Avalon mumbled as she picked herself up, shaking herself off and shivering violently as the sleet continued to pelt down. The wet, filthy snow came up almost to her neck, and her armor and gear was now dripping with water as her breath hitched once, Antares looking over at her sharply... but then Avalon growled at him, gritting her teeth and swallowing back her emotions as she asked roughly: “Are we gonna keep moving or not?”

Antares shivered a bit, flapping his leathery wings once as he turned around and carefully began to scramble back up the embankment. Aphrodisia reached down, grabbing him firmly and helping drag him up, as Avalon crawled her way through the slurry and then up the snowy slope, shivering harder. She cursed under her breath as she skidded a little, but Meadowlark grabbed her and pulled her forwards, and both Antares and Avalon winced as Prestige's horn glowed brighter and a wave of heat encircled the group of ponies, as she muttered: “I can't hold this for long but the last thing we need is you two getting hypothermia.”

“Nice seeing you caring for a shorn-wing like me.” Avalon muttered, and Prestige only smiled wryly before the tiny Pegasus flapped her wings a few times and hopped into the air, carrying herself back onto Antares' back as she muttered: “I hate being a midget.”

“You're not a midget, Ava. Besides, that's one of my favorite things about you.” Antares said softly, and Avalon snorted in amusement and hammered a hoof gently against his back before she curled up with a mumble. Antares glanced thankfully over at Prestige, but he didn't even have to say the words for her to smile back at him and nod slightly. For a moment, the two just looked at each other, and then Antares shook his head slowly, grimacing a bit before he shivered as the sleet seemed to become heavier, every half-frozen droplet feeling like a dagger against his face. “We need to push on and find somewhere to stop. We're still out in the open in this valley...”

“I don't remember passing this trench, Antares... we might have stumbled off the path at some point.” Meadowlark said nervously, and Antares grimaced and shivered at this thought before he glanced back and forth, then cursed under his breath quietly. “I... I think that maybe we should head this way...”

She gestured to the right, and Antares hesitated as he studied Meadowlark. For a moment, he wanted to say no, wanted to say that they should find a way over the ditch and keep going, not wanting to admit that he might have led them on the wrong path... and then he gritted his teeth before finally sighing and nodding a little, murmuring: “I... maybe you're right, Meadow. Let's try your route.”

“Thank you, Antares.” Meadowlark said softly, and Antares smiled faintly at her, nodding hesitantly before she turned and strode forwards, and Antares walked up beside her as Prestige's horn continued to glow, sustaining the circle of heat around the ponies.

Aphrodisia and Rustproof followed last, the demon frowning a little at the young male as he kept his head down, breathing hard and flushed deeply despite the cold and heavy sleet. Then the demon shook her head, wading grouchily up to the front of the line as she called sharply: “Antares, we need to take a break soon!”

“If I'm right, there's a place just up ahead where we can stop... somewhere sheltered, I mean. We just need to push a little further... but it's hard to say how far because of the storm...” Meadowlark replied, and Aphrodisia glanced over at her before the red Pegasus hesitated, then asked: “Wait, Aphrodisia... you can become immaterial, right? Could you scout ahead?”

“Not with all this gear on.” Aphrodisia shook her head, then she hesitated for a moment before saying meditatively: “But maybe I don't need to fall back on fancy powers or anything. I'll be back in five.”

With that, Aphrodisia lunged forwards, grunting as she barreled her way through the slurry, and Antares shouted after her with surprise before he cursed under his breath. Meadowlark gazed in surprise after the demon, and then the red Pegasus flushed deeply when Antares looked over his shoulder at her with a mix of anger and embarrassment in his eyes. “What do you think you're doing? You're not the leader, Meadow, I am, and you can't just send Aphrodisia out alone... who knows what might be out there? And I already can't see her thanks to the storm... how's she going to find her way back to us?”

“I... Antares, I...” Meadowlark trembled a little, looking at him with surprise and pain in her eyes before she frowned and shook her head quickly, replying in an unsteady but sharp voice: “Well, just wandering around through the storm isn't getting us anywhere! You need to listen to us, Antares, we're all a team here... I'm part of the team, too!”

Antares shifted uncomfortably, grumbling a little to himself as he looked away, and then Meadowlark halted and simply glared at him, and the young stallion sighed as he came to a stop. He felt Avalon shift uneasily on his back, as Prestige came hesitantly forwards and Rustproof joined them, both the aura of heat and the stinging of the sleet going unnoticed for a few moments before Antares finally sighed, opened his mouth...

And beneath their hooves, there was a loud crackling before a thick sheet of ice broke apart thanks to their weight and the heat aura, and the young ponies all yelled as they tumbled into a sludgy pond with loud splashes and clatters. They toppled all over one-another, Meadowlark shrieking in pain when Rustproof fell heavily on his side and the gemstone smashed down on one of the Pegasus' wings, and Avalon was flung into Prestige's face, the unicorn crying out in pain and agony as cold metal armor tore gashes against her features. Antares scrambled madly for his own hooves, but something caught his leg, and he fell backwards with a splash... and then a yell of his own as the ankle of one rear leg twisted painfully and there was a muffled snap.

He kicked out with his other leg, bracing himself against something and shoving off it to grab the edge of the pond, hurriedly crawling up and out as there was another cry from behind him. Antares hissed in pain as he forced himself to sprawl on his side and wiggle around in a circle, staring through the hail of sleet as Avalon coughed and gargled, hauling herself up out of the pond beside Prestige. Rustproof was stuck on his side though, gasping for air, struggling hard, and yet Antares only stared numbly as the young colt splashed helplessly, pinned by the heavy core with his face half-buried in the sludge and ice. And Meadowlark lay in the middle of the shallow pool, hugging her stomach, whimpering, one wing bent and twisted horribly.

Antares trembled, then he tried to get up before flopping down, clenching his eyes shut, his ankle throbbing: but that was nothing compared to the sense of dull defeat that overwhelmed him and smothered his senses. He breathed hard in and out... and then Aphrodisia rushed past him, splashing down into the water and hurrying past Meadowlark with a curse to grab at the bindings holding the core to Rustproof's back, then she snarled and simply ripped one of the tethers loose.

She seized Rusty and yanked him up to his hooves, helping drag him to the side of the pond, and he splashed hurriedly out onto dry land before falling forwards and collapsing, coughing and gagging as his breath whistled in and out. The demon was already back in the pool, and she grimaced as she slipped under Meadowlark and hefted the red Pegasus. But Meadowlark screamed in agony, her eyes clenching shut even as Aphrodisia muttered: “Just hold on, just hold on...”

She carefully shrugged Meadowlark off beside Avalon and Prestige, then looked sharply towards Antares... but he was only staring, breathing hard himself before the demon stormed through the shallow pond, reached down, and hit him across the face with one front hoof. The slap knocked Antares sprawling onto his back, and then Aphrodisia leaned down and grabbed the collar of his armor, shaking him violently once as she shouted: “Wake up! I need you to wake up, Antares, we need you!”

Antares nodded weakly, breathing hard before he clenched his eyes shut and forced himself to nod harder, looking up and muttering: “Okay... I... okay, I'm here.”

“Good. What do we do?” Aphrodisia asked, and Antares didn't know how to respond to the question, looking up at her blearily for a few moments before he carefully forced himself to stand, if only because the slow, painful movements bought him a little more time to think.

He looked slowly through the sleet at his friends, then cursed quietly at the sight of the core where it had lodged in the pond, slowly sinking deeper into the slurry. He grimaced, then rasped: “We need to get the core out-”

“No, forget that, we need to help our friends first, Antares!” Aphrodisia retorted, and Antares looked at her with surprise before the demon gestured angrily behind her at the ponies: Rustproof was shivering violently, breathing hard still and crying silently; tears streamed down Meadowlark's cheeks, as she held tightly onto her stomach, sobbing; Prestige was clutching numbly at her cut-open face and shivering, one of her earrings missing; Avalon's teeth chattered and her whole body shook, almost convulsing as she huddled up in as small a ball as she could make herself.

Antares shook his head weakly, and then he gritted his teeth, closing his eyes and beginning weakly: “We need to... we need to do what we were told, Aphrodisia, and we need to-”

“Will you forget about the stupid chores we were given?” Aphrodisia shouted, and then the demon shook her head violently before she reached up and shoved the young stallion hard. He stumbled, putting too much weight on his ankle, and he cried out in agony as he fell backwards and clutched at this, shivering violently as he realized it was broken.

The demon winced, leaning back... and then she cursed under her breath before looking back and forth as Antares just laid on the ground, trembling. After a moment, Aphrodisia turned away, hurrying over to the other mares and looking back and forth between Prestige and Meadowlark before asking roughly: “What do we do? Do we call for help?”

“Antares...” Prestige looked over at the stallion, shaking her head a bit before she began in a trembling voice: “Shouldn't... he's the...”

“He's out of it. I need to know what to do! I don't want to disappoint Aunt Tia and Mommy, but maybe we should give up, maybe we need to call for their help, I don't know if we could even reach the forest ahead...” Aphrodisia began, and then she halted with a frown when Meadowlark looked up sharply and swallowed back her sobs.

“H-How... far?” the red Pegasus asked, and then she whimpered a little. Aphrodisia studied her, then she leaned in closer, and Meadowlark shook her head even as tears continued to roll down her cheeks. “Lead... Avalon and Prestige there... I'll follow with Rustproof...”

“Shut up.” Aphrodisia murmured, but it was surprisingly gentle as she leaned forwards and gently forced Meadowlark's hooves away from her side... and she shivered at the sight of the ugly, swollen purple bruise, whispering: “That's not good, oh that's not good at all... Mommy and Daddy taught me about what that means, you're bleeding inside you...”

Meadowlark only gasped and shook her head sharply, then she almost shouted, glaring up at Aphrodisia challengingly: “Just listen to me! Take...” She shuddered, clutching at herself with a whimper again, as Prestige and Avalon both looked up with disbelief and yet total attention. “Take... Prestige and Avalon. Prestige can light a fire, Avalon can... start setting up camp... we... we need to get warm and get out of this weather... I'll follow once I get Rustproof.”

“I'll come back for you.” Aphrodisia promised, and then she hesitated before leaning forwards, asking quietly: “Do you trust me?”

Meadowlark looked up at the demon, trembling, before she nodded hesitantly... and Aphrodisia nodded back before she leaned forwards, baring her fangs before biting firmly down into Meadowlark's shoulder. The red Pegasus moaned, but the pain was far overridden by the utter agony bulging up from her midsection and ruptured wing... but then, slowly, agony faded into numbness that was tinged with the faintest bit of pleasure, and Aphrodisia leaned back after a moment, spitting out both red blood and orange toxin as she muttered: “Don't go to sleep. You might not wake up. I... I don't want you to not wake up.”

Then the demon stepped quickly past the red Pegasus as she sat blearily back, and Avalon yelped as she was easily tossed onto Aphrodisia's back before the dull pink mare grunted at Prestige. “Come on, let's get going.”

The unicorn mare nodded nervously, then she turned to hurry after Aphrodisia, looking apprehensively over at Antares... but she only shivered, turning her gaze forwards as she trembled a little at the sight of the young stallion, who was simply laying on the ground. She wanted to run to him... but at the same time, the unicorn recognized that she had a job to do, and that Aphrodisia might not be so forgiving if she tried to run over and cuddle Antares back to health instead of helping do something in order to try and keep herself and her friends alive.

Meadowlark, meanwhile, was carefully hauling herself to her hooves, breathing hard, eyes closed as she began to drag herself slowly around the pond. She groaned quietly as some of the pain returned, but most of her body still felt pleasantly numb, floaty... but it made her want to collapse, want to give in to the lethargy, have a nice little nap...

She shook her head hurriedly out as she stumbled a little... then she looked up with relief as she saw Antares carefully walking on three hooves towards Rustproof, who was still crying quietly. Giant earth pony or not, he was also only thirteen years old, emotionally and physically exhausted, and his pallor was sickly. And then Meadowlark looked up sharply, breathing harder as Antares leaned down and shook the younger male slowly, whispering: “Come on, Rusty. Give me a hoof getting that thing out of the pond.”

Rustproof only trembled, before Meadowlark rasped weakly: “Wait... don't... forget about it, we can come back and get it later, we need...”

“We can't risk losing or breaking it! We need to do our job!” Antares shouted, his voice cracking as he looked up furiously, and Meadowlark winced back at the almost-madness in his eyes as the young stallion shook his head violently back and forth. “I won't be a disappointment again, we... we can do this, do this all by ourselves, and...”

“No, we can't. It's... it's too much!” Meadowlark whispered in return, shivering beneath the heavy sleet as she breathed hard in and out, then coughed hard, shivering once. “We need to get to safety... need to call for help...”

“I won't give up, I won't! Rusty, come on, help me!” Antares shook the large earth pony firmly again, then gritted his teeth and shook him rougher, as Rustproof only tried to turn his head away, crying harder. “Please, I need... come on!”

Meadowlark gritted her teeth, then she stumbled forwards and reached up, gasping in pain as she shoved Antares. He stumbled, then cursed and fell back on his haunches, breathing raggedly as the Pegasus leaned down and hugged Rustproof tightly around the neck, whispering into his ear as he blindly reached up to cling to her: “Come on... come on, it's okay... we'll get it l-later... let's just walk, okay, you and me... we'll walk to where it's safe, and dry, and you can lay down...”

Antares panted hard, staring at the two with a deep ache in his eyes as he rested back on his haunches, trembling from the cold and the pain. He watched as Rustproof and Meadowlark slowly stood up, and the Pegasus glared at him as she began to lead the earth pony forwards... and the look that Rusty gave him, full of disappointment and pain and betrayal, filled the glossy black young stallion with misery as he shivered before dropping his head forwards in shame.

He looked up through the sharp sleet, seeing Aphrodisia coming back from wherever she had led them to help support Meadowlark and lead them to safety... and Antares dropped his head, breathing hard and shivering as he sat alone, feeling miserable, feeling like a failure. Slowly, his eyes roved towards the core that the Strange Ones had created... and he gritted his teeth before forcing himself to his hooves, breathing hard as he limped forwards and rasped: “Fine... fine. I'll do it myself, I'll... I'll fix everything...”

He trembled, staggering down into the shallow pool and cursing in pain as the sludgy, half-frozen water sloshed around him. He leaned forwards, pushing at the core, before gritting his teeth as he sat back on his haunches and grabbed the weighty dome, shaking it back and forth to try and dislodge it from the sludgy bottom of the pool it had sunken into. He grimaced, then yanked backwards on it, before gritting his teeth as his horn glowed, trying to use telekinesis as well as he levered the core back and forth before forcefully dragging back with all the strength of both mind and physical power...

He gave a curse of pain, then frustration boiled up a burst, and he shouted wordlessly as he yanked savagely on it again, this time throwing his whole body into the motion... and with a squelch, the core popped upwards and toppled back on him as Antares fell over, before he howled in agony as he fumbled the heavy dome and it fell on his bad ankle before he could pull it away, a loud crunch filling the air.

Water and gunk splashed over him as Antares shoved madly at the weight, crying out again as he tried his hardest to scramble backwards before he tumbled over, shivering and whimpering and grabbing weakly at his injured limb. He breathed hard in and out, shaking his head weakly as moans slowly rose up from his muzzle, numbness steadily spreading through his body as he laid back in the murky pool and bubbles floated up quietly from the core now hidden completely beneath the surface of the liquid.

Moving carefully, Antares stood up on three wobbly legs, then felt around his front hooves until he managed to grasp the sides of the core. He trembled a little, then whimpered as he half-fell, half-stumbled backwards and forcefully dragged the core beneath the surface of the liquid with him. His ankle felt like it was on fire, the pain keeping him wide awake and alert despite the numbness spreading through his body from the pond.

He got the core most of the way up the pond embankment, before whimpering when it slipped a bit in his grip, almost tumbling back to the water. He barely managed to catch it, placing it nervously down against the edge of the frozen pond before he carefully stumbled around it and down into the pool, getting to the other side of the device and shoving it upwards with a grunt, breathing hard as he forcefully pushed the core up past the surface of the pond, and finally over the lip of the pool and into the snow, laughing brokenly despite the pain that jolted through him with even the slightest bit of pressure on his bad ankle.

He breathed hard, closing his eyes as he crawled slowly up after the core to fall to the ground beside it in a shivering, gasping mess... and then he slowly, stupidly looked up to see Aphrodisia standing quietly over him, looking down at him silently. Antares looked back at her... and then the demon shook her head slowly before she reached down and seized the sides of the core, then gritted her teeth and hefted it up before slamming the wheel-sized dome down across Antares' back.

The glossy-black unicorn howled in pain, eyes bulging before Aphrodisia leaned down and shouted angrily into his face: “You want it so bad, Antares, you carry it! You carry it all the way back by yourself, now get up! Get up! Get up!”

She shoved and grabbed at him, and Antares shook his head back and forth, clenching his eyes shut and cursing before he forced himself up to his hooves: he wanted to argue, but a single look at the demon told him that would only make things worse as Aphrodisia harried him until he stood, then forcefully bulled into him. He stumbled along, crying out in agony every time he stepped on his broken ankle, his body shivering violently as he lurched back and forth, but Aphrodisia was always there; to keep him on his hooves, to catch him when he fell, to shove the weight back into place over his back as she forced him forwards.

After minutes that felt like hours, Antares staggered through a narrow copse of trees and into a small field, sheltered by a short, natural rock wall and several enormous, gnarled trees. A fire was already burning brightly in the middle of it, and Avalon had set up a makeshift shelter with some sticks and one of the tarps they had brought, and they had stacked their soaked gear under this on top of a frayed sheet.

Rustproof was setting up the tents, but he stopped to stare with the others when Aphrodisia bulled Antares into the campsite and drove him around the bonfire, the young stallion gasping in pain as tears leaked down his cheeks. He stumbled, and the demon finally grabbed him and flung him down, the core toppling off his back with a loud clang as it bounced off a rock and fell in the snow, the young stallion wincing before Aphrodisia snapped: “Take off your gear, we're stopping here until tomorrow!”

Antares breathed hard in and out, shivering, before the demon shook her head and looked up, heading over to Meadowlark as Prestige hurried to Antares' side. But the young male didn't even look at her, not even when the unicorn started to carefully pull off his equipment, whispering soothingly down to him.

Meadowlark looked quietly up at Aphrodisia, breathing slowly and heavily before she murmured, lowering her head: “Please don't be... so hard on him. He's trying, Apps...”

“I...” Aphrodisia halted, then she sighed and mumbled, not answering as she studied the mare before asking quietly: “Are you okay, Meadowlark? I mean, I don't care either way obviously, I just... don't want to drag your corpse back. That would be too much work.”

Meadowlark smiled faintly, and Aphrodisia leaned forwards before asking nervously: “Should I call Mommy or Burning Desire? You don't look well...”

“No... no... I just need...” Meadowlark shivered, then she looked over at Prestige. The unicorn seemed to feel her eyes, glancing up nervously from where she was tending to Antares before slowly nodding, carefully putting the stallion's breastplate aside before she awkwardly stood up.

Prestige lingered only a moment longer, stroking through Antares' mane soothingly before heading over to Meadowlark. The two regarded each other awkwardly for a few moments, and then Aphrodisia shook her head with a growl that brought them both to reality, before she muttered: “You two can't spend all day hating each other and competing for Nova unless you're both alive. So hurry the hell up and heal her.”

Prestige only sighed tiredly, and Meadowlark laughed weakly, looking away silently before the unicorn reached forwards and silently touched the large, distinct hoof-print over her ribs. The red Pegasus flinched at this, and Prestige breathed a little harder before she glanced slowly up, murmuring: “I... I want to apologize on Antares' behalf to you, Meadowlark... and because this is partly my fault, too. If I had been more careful with my magic, this wouldn't have happened...”

Meadowlark only shook her head silently, murmuring: “It was an accident and.. and...” She breathed a bit harder, leaning back with a bit of a tremble. “I can't blame Antares, still. He's trying so hard, he's... just...”

Her eyes roved away, and Prestige nodded silently before she closed her eyes, breathing slowly as she bowed her head forwards and murmured quietly: “This will hurt. I can heal you, but... this will hurt.”

“You want me to dose you again?” Aphrodisia asked quietly, but Meadowlark only shook her head, then reached out and grasped one of the demon's hooves firmly. Aphrodisia looked down in surprise at this... but then she slowly tightened her grip even as Rustproof approached and silently reached up to squeeze Meadowlark's shoulder as well.

The Pegasus breathed a little harder, shivering before she quickly nodded, gritting her teeth... and Prestige leaned forwards, focusing on the magic, wincing a bit before a bolt of energy shocked over Meadowlark, and she cried out in pain, then screamed louder when Prestige leaned forwards and a glow built over the Pegasus' body, as she squirmed back and forth and clung to both Rustproof and Aphrodisia.

Prestige breathed hard in and out, gritting her teeth as she continued to concentrate on her magic, even as Meadowlark's body began to steam and she cried out louder in pain, head wrenching back and forth before she finally slumped and moaned as magical recoil sparked along Prestige's horn and the unicorn stumbled backwards.

The only sound for a few moments was the heavy breathing of the ponies, the crackling of the fire, and a single moan from Meadowlark... but after a few moments, the Pegasus mare slowly settled, trembling a little as she looked weakly down at her side and hesitantly touched it.

Her rib still felt tender and fractured, but it was a vast improvement on it feeling like it was floating around somewhere else inside of her, and better yet the horrible blotching had faded out from her stomach. She was still bruised, but she no longer felt like she was like a bloating balloon, and she smiled faintly after a moment as she silently tested along her side before nodding slowly to Prestige, whispering: “Thank you.”

“I... it's no problem, but... I feel very tired now.” Prestige murmured quietly, and then the unicorn turned towards Antares, hesitating before asking quietly as she studied the glossy black stallion where was still laying weakly: “Aphrodisia... bully or not, you know him best... how is he doing?”

“Bad.” Aphrodisia hesitated, and then she sighed and shook her head out, mumbling: “I'm going to go splint his stupid ankle. You can heal it later.”

“Okay.” Prestige said simply, and when the demon looked at her with surprise, Prestige couldn't help but smile faintly. “You care about him, even if you are a prostatot demon child. I... I want to help him, but I'm... scared, too. And exhausted and... I'm... I don't understand what took over Antares to make him want to push us so hard...”

She looked down silently, then shook her head slowly as she murmured: “The only reason I don't call Burning Desire is because I do trust my hero, I do... but... I also trust the rest of you. All of you. It's... if I've seen one thing, it's that... you are all worth of respect. Mudwalkers or not.”

A chuckle came from near the fire, and then Avalon sat up from where she had been laying as close to the flames as she dared, the tiny Pegasus shaking herself quickly out before she muttered: “Never expected to hear you of all ponies say that, Prissy. But if you're honest then... you know I got your back. And I guess I've gotten used to having you and all your racism around.”

“Good. I don't intend to leave anytime soon.” Prestige said after a moment, smiling a little, and then she shook her head slowly before glancing up as Aphrodisia calmly walked over to Antares, hesitating only a few moments before sighing and striding after the demon.

Rustproof looked down quietly at Meadowlark, rubbing a large hoof soothingly along her back, but the red Pegasus only smiled a little before she shook her head, wincing a bit as she reached up and touched her stomach. “It's... I'm okay, Rusty. I'm just going to lay down at the fire... you should join us, you look all beaten up yourself. And sick...”

Rustproof only gave a shake of his head, then he hesitated for a moment before turning and heading towards the tents. Meadowlark frowned at him, then she sighed a little when the earth pony came back with a box of cigarettes, saying tiredly: “Rusty, honestly. This isn't the time for that...”

“Screw that, it's the perfect time for that.” Avalon grumbled, and Meadowlark glared at the tiny Pegasus as she sat up with a grimace, then held out a hoof, adding in a mutter: “Also, if you give me one, I won't tell your Mom that you've been smoking again. Haven't smoked since I was sixteen... you guys remember that?”

Meadowlark laughed despite herself, then she winced a bit at the sound of Antares giving a moan of pain, looking nervously over to see Aphrodisia doing something to his shattered ankle... and the red Pegasus shivered, feeling a bolt of sympathetic pain herself when Antares gave another low cry. She hurriedly forced her attention back to Avalon, though, as the tiny Pegasus hesitated only a moment before half-forcing a grin, continuing quietly but clearly: “Yeah... oh, were they ever pissed about finding me with smokes, and I think Mom blamed Cowlick and Dad would have too, except Dad's kind of scared of Cowlick. But then, of course, Mom decided to take a look through my whole backpack, make sure I wasn't hiding anything else... and she finds the half-empty bag of pot. Thank the Horses of Heaven she didn't know how much had been in there, but did she ever lay into me over it. And then the punishment! I was doing delivery duty by myself for a month, and I just about rebuilt the house from top to bottom with all the repairs and paint and spackle they made me put on everything.”

Rustproof chuckled as he passed his box of cigarettes to Avalon, and she pulled one free before making a face at the slightly-squashed, wet cylinder. She held it out towards the fire apprehensively... then grunted when it caught, bringing it back to take a slow draw on before blowing a puff of smoke into the air.

Meadowlark sighed as the tiny Pegasus passed the cigarettes back to Rustproof, who calmly lit one of his own before taking a low, easy drag, and the red Pegasus muttered disapprovingly: “Your mom's gonna find out, Rusty, and she's gonna be mad as hell. And Avalon, I thought you were smarter than the whole 'live fast, die young' lifestyle you put on.”

“Well, no way in Hell I'm ever growing old.” Avalon muttered, shaking her head with a snort as he took another drag on her cigarette, before smiling a little as she glanced over at Meadowlark. “Do you want one? Help you relax a little. Maybe stop you from being the mother of the group for a little while, huh?”

“No, I don't want one.” Meadowlark said waspishly... and then all three ponies at the fire winced as Antares cried out in agony. They all looked towards the glossy black stallion, but Aphrodisia was soothing him even as she grumbled at him a little, and Prestige was shivering, helping her bind the splint in place to a hoof that was now dripping blood. Meadowlark didn't want to guess what had happened, so she only shivered, turning her attention forwards and mumbling in a quieter voice: “I just... we're all supposed to be smarter than this, you know?”

Avalon only shrugged slowly, smiling after a moment herself as she closed her eyes and said quietly: “Who's smarter, Meadow? The old lonely pony who lives to a hundred, watching all his friends around him die off one after the other, always doing what he's told and never taking risks and being boring... or the pony who lives to forty or fifty, but has a ripe, whole life, full of adventure and living her dreams and doin' everything she ever wanted? Besides, I'm not doing cocaine and partying all night and day. I'm just... having a cigarette with a friend. There ain't nothin' wrong with that, is there? I mean, overlooking the fact he's still just a dumb kid.”

Avalon reached up... then grumbled when she could barely reach the upper leg of the behemoth beside her, as Rustproof smiled kindly down at her. Then the earth pony chuckled and lowered his head as far as he could, and Avalon grunted as she reached up and firmly ruffled his mane before leaning forwards and adding firmly as she almost shoved their faces together: “But hey, you listen to me, okay? This is a special occasion. Don't you go around thinking it's cool to do whenever the hell you want... and I really do wish you'd stop smoking, poo-brain. You're too young to live like me.”

“You're too young to live like you, Avalon.” Meadowlark said softly, and Avalon grinned widely before the larger Pegasus mare shook her head slowly, saying quietly: “And besides... none of us here are all that smart, or going to live to a hundred. Look where we are, what we've gotten involved in...”

“Hey, I dunno about that.” Avalon shook her head after a moment with a bit of a laugh, then she looked down and said softly: “Aren't we all here to like... fight for something we believe in? I mean, beyond Cancer and beyond... Antares' parents... I feel like my whole reason to live isn't just about flying fast, or being unstoppable, or fighting... it's about...” Avalon halted for a moment, then looked up quietly, nodding slowly once as she murmured: “It's about helping my friends and family, and making sure we all have something to believe in, to have hope in. Ain't the people who live the longest... people who got stuff like that to live for?”

There was silence... and then Avalon only laughed and looked up at the canopy of branches above, muttering: “But what the hell do I know? Just damn glad those trees are keeping out the worst of the rain.”

Meadowlark nodded slowly, then she glanced up as Antares silently approached with Aphrodisia and Prestige. The three sat down, and for a moment, there was a long, awkward quiet... before Antares closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards, whispering: “I'm sorry. I lost sight of... what I'm supposed to be doing here. You're my friends, not my soldiers, and I care about all of you, I just... got so scared and wrapped up in our job...”

He stopped, and Meadowlark smiled faintly before she shook her head slowly, looking at him softly. “It's okay, Antares. We... we all forget ourselves from time-to-time. And... look, we're all already doing better. We'll... if we take it slow, we can make it back to Ponyville in one piece, by ourselves, right?”

There were a few nods... and then Antares whimpered a bit when Aphrodisia punched him in the side, the demon adding quietly: “But we'll replace you with Meadowlark if you act like a flank-face again, got it?”

“Fair enough.” Antares wheezed, and then he dropped his head forwards and smiled faintly as Prestige wrapped a foreleg around him, squeezing him tightly. All the same, the young stallion's eyes roved first to Meadowlark, his gaze both apologetic and pleading... and Meadowlark only shook her head a little, glancing down but smiling all the same, closing her eyes before giving the smallest of nods to show that in spite of everything that had happened, in spite of all the choices they had made... they were still okay.

And the six stayed huddled close around the fire as storm slowly turned from sleet into heavy snow, blurring and blinding the air around the campsite, but leaving the ponies safe in the little sanctuary they had made for themselves. The temperature dropped, but the fire kept the warm; darkness came on fast, hastened all the more by the heavy clouds, but the campsite was bathed in the light of flames; night-creatures prowled and hungered, but the six ponies managed to salvage a meal from their soaked packs, and settled around the guardian flames, entrusting their safety to the rumbling fire over the soaked and frail tents.

The day had been long and rough, but the night showed compassion... and as the other ponies fell asleep one-by-one around him, Aphrodisia mumbling her forgiveness before she dropped her head against Antares' other side while Prestige curled to his chest, the young unicorn stallion felt like his mother and father were telling him to rest; that tomorrow would be a new chance to prove himself.