• 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 Laughing Reaper

Chapter Three: The Laughing Reaper

Crown sighed tiredly as the wagon rolled up to the hospital at the edge of Ponyville, carefully climbing out the back of the vehicle and nodding to the driver. He adjusted his satchel at his side, then grimaced and rubbed at his stomach as a bolt of nausea passed through him, muttering: “Keep it together, Crown, keep it together...”

The pale-looking unicorn shook himself out, then he breathed hard as he strode forwards, heading through the double doors and into the reception area. He strode towards the desk, and the nurse on the other side looked at him with concern, saying slowly: “The emergency room is on the other side of the building, sir...”

“Do I really look that bad? No, no. My name is Straw Crown, I'm a coroner from Canterlot, here to inspect a body.” Crown fumbled at his satchel, then finally pulled out his ID, putting it down on the desk. The nurse looked surprised, but the aging stallion only shook his head tiredly, saying wryly: “Three weeks from retirement. Last night I was called out in the middle of the night and I caught a nasty cold. Such is life.”

The nurse smiled awkwardly, checking his ID before she said hesitantly: “Sir, you look quite ill... are you sure that...”

“No, no. It's nothing serious, my wife hasn't even caught it.” He paused, then muttered: “Then again, she never gets sick. But... alright, the morgue is downstairs and to the... left?”

“That's right.” The nurse nodded, passing back his ID, and she hesitated before adding: “If you still feel ill after the exam, sir, we have a healer here today who might be able to help. She's done all sorts of wonderful things with many of our patients...”

“I'll consider it, miss, thank you.” Crown gave a bit of a smile, tucking his ID back in his satchel before he turned and headed past the reception booth towards a set of double doors, pushing through with a tired sigh and muttering: “Now even the young ones are taking pity on me. I knew I should have stayed home...”

Crown made his way down the stairs, letting his hooves guide him: thankfully, he had been here more than a few times over his career, thanks to the proximity of Ponyville to Canterlot, and the route was fairly clearly marked, anyhow. It only took him a few minutes to reach the morgue, and he grimaced as he shoved through the heavy, almost-armored doors and into the small, metallic room.

The bright fluorescent lights made his eyes ache as he stepped inside, and the tiles felt almost slippery: as the scent of disinfectant and lemons hit his nose, it made his stomach heave, the unicorn shivering once before he looked up at the two ponies dressed in green gowns and masks, one of them beginning to raise a hoof nervously before Crown asked grumpily: “So what have you found?”

“Oh, you must be the coroner!” said one of the other ponies, looking relieved before they both glanced down at the body on the steel table in front of them: Crown shivered a bit at the sight of the elderly pony's body. It didn't look like there had been any foul play, but when someone died alone or in an unusual circumstance, it meant being put on the table... and for some reason, after all my years at this, I find natural death to be much more unnerving than a murdered corpse. “Sorry, we're just finishing up here...”

“Take your time. I need to get changed.” Crown muttered, glancing around before his eyes locked on a set of gowns hanging from hooks at the side of the room. He walked over, taking his satchel off to toss it aside before fitting himself into the medical clothing: gown, cap, gloves, and a mask because he was still coughing everywhere.

He cursed under his breath behind the flimsy fabric, wheezing a little as he heard the attendants putting the body away into one of cells. For some reason, that had always bothered him a little, too... that they had neat little cubicles for the dead to put them in for storage, then take them out when it was time to examine them, and then cart them off to the science lab or back to grieving families... who would then usually put them in a coffin that was no less a prison than those cells were for how pretty some of them were, a claustrophobic casket that would be burned or buried in the cold, desolate earth...

Crown shook himself out, feeling lightheaded before he hauled himself to his hooves and watched as the attendants carefully lifted the entire sliding metal rack out of another cabinet, balancing the dead body of the Clockwork Pony on top of it until they gently set it down on the exam table. The gaunt, pale-looking coroner grimaced as he made his way over to the corpse, looking up as one of the attendants said finally: “I've never seen this before. I mean, a dead Clockwork Pony... it makes me wonder how much of-”

“You can tell me your wonders after, we have a job right now.” Crown interrupted moodily, then he frowned as the attendants both shifted: even bleary and exhausted as he was, it was impossible to not notice how advanced the decomposition was. “What happened? Was there a temperature malfunction last night?”

“No sir. I... don't know.” one of the attendants said awkwardly, and Crown felt less than thrilled with this answer as he glowered at the two, who both winced. “Everything's been kept at low temperature, the body came in heavily decomposed last night, but... all the same, it's continued to deteriorate. There might be something festering in the internal organs, but...”

“Let's check the liver temp. Somepony get me...” Crown grimaced, then he turned and coughed loudly several times, cursing under his breath as his whole body shivered. One of the attendants stepped towards him, but the coroner only shook his head out hurriedly, wheezing: “No, no... I... I'm fine. Go on, check the liver temperature.”

“Alright...” one of the attendants said finally, trading a look with the other pony before they both shrugged. One of them picked up the thermometer, checking the long, sharp needle at the end used to pierce down into the liver, and then he stepped forwards and carefully guided it down, pushing it firmly in as he muttered: “But sir, you really look-”

There was a gurgle, and then the Clockwork Pony convulsed on the table, its body splitting open in a blast of noxious green fumes that quickly filled the morgue. The ponies all yelled and cursed before all three collapsed to the ground, leaving the corpse of the Clockwork Pony laying deflated and broken on the table as the green, misty poison filtered its way gradually upwards and out through the vents.

The attendants both shivered and twitched, one of them drooling behind his mask, the other bleeding from a large wound in his scalp from the fall... and then, slowly, Crown twitched before he gargled loudly as his eyes rolled up in his head, foaming out of his jaws around the mask covering his muzzle.

He convulsed once, then fell still, his eyes closing... before slowly, then opened again. They glowed with dark, unnatural light as the unicorn gurgled, yanking himself to his hooves like he was a puppet on a string, stumbling once before he flopped forwards to half-land over the exam table, crushing the brittle corpse of the Clockwork Pony and sending up another blast of poisonous gases as toxic organs popped like balloons.

The unicorn fidgeted weakly, then gargled... and horribly, his eyes rolled in his head as his body first began to steam, then smolder visibly. And bit-by-bit, skin peeled and flesh melted, spreading over the table, becoming a thick, gelatinous goo that pried itself away from his skeleton like it had decided to set out on a twisted life of its own, spreading over the exam table with a horrible slurping sound as it pried up pieces of the Clockwork Pony's corpse, before the slime of flesh rippled and rolled itself off the other end of the exam table.

It splattered down on the other side, and there was a sickening slurping sound as it rapidly spread itself over the prone bodies of the attendants, one of them managing a weak, gurgling cry before he was swallowed up. For a few minutes, there was only the sound of crunching and gargling... and then, slowly, the fleshy slime twisted back and forth before starting to rise slowly upwards as it gave a long, drawn-out sigh.

It bubbled and twisted, gurgled and shifted as limbs spread out of it and it began to take on a distinct form: the head pushed up out of shoulders as the rippling flesh formed into a body and legs, a tail flicked behind it before it slammed malformed hooves down on the other side of the exam table... and grinned widely as sharp teeth formed it blackened jaws. It was mottled white and streaked with bolts of yellow, its eyes sunken deep in its sockets and made up of dozens of cells, like some hideous insect's. As its body finished shaping itself, it flexed and rippled like water before turning solid... but its hide looked slimy, and even if it was clearly trying to imitate the shape of a pony, its pointed, stiff ears, the ridge of spikes along its spine, its whip-like tail, its sheer hideousness was goblinoid and monstrous.

“Ooh...” it whispered, and then it threw its head back and laughed before stomping its hooves against the table, dislodging the skeleton from the other side and knocking it loose. “How good it feels to be free! And oh, thank you, thank you so much, dear friend, for lending me that little boost to help wake me up... and all you fellas, too, couldn't have done it without you.”

It glanced over its shoulder with a laugh at the skeletons on the ground, then licked its teeth hungrily before leaping up onto the exam table, eyes glowing as it grinned down at the Clockwork Pony's corpse. “And to think, a few more days stuck festering in your dead tissue and I would have been gone forever... but as they say, fortune favors the foul, right? I got myself a nice, fleshy host I was able to rampage through, and oh, oh, oh, this world smells of sweet disease just ripe for the picking! Ooh, I'm gonna have me some fun!”

It threw its head back and laughed, then spun around, eyes lighting on the cabinets filled with corpses as it licked its teeth hungrily, saying eagerly: “And look! An audience, kept all nice and fresh just for me! Well, you must be wondering just who I am, but don't worry, I'm plenty hungry and I know just how to introduce myself...”

The creature rose one of its mottled limbs, then it flicked it easily forwards, and the foreleg split apart into several sticky tentacles that each collided with a cabinet door with sickening squelches. They squirmed for a moment, then the monster yanked backwards, and the doors were all yanked open by the movement as the tentacles snapped back as well, the monster singing in gravelly, sharp-pitched tones:

“Hey, nice to meet you all, I'm from the way out endless chaos sea,
The garbage heap, they call it, but Ginnungagap was always paradise to me...
I loved to fester in the rot, in the putrid dying piles,
I gave Draconequus the sniffles but what I'm gonna do to you is worse by miles.”

The monster grinned as the tentacles twisted back into the shape of a foreleg, before it leapt forwards, seizing into the wall of cabinets and reaching up to slowly, almost delicately pull a rack slowly out of one of the cabinets, revealing the pallid corpse within. “Ooh, delicious!

Oh sure, to chaos entities I was a nuisance, to demons just a minor ache,
But to mortals I'm already lethal... and that's even before I've filled my take,
I'm a destruction entity that ain't got a name of my own,
But I'm sure I'll find a name for me as I strip you down to the bones...”

The creature leaned forwards, licking slowly up the corpse's neck before it suddenly pounced upwards, tackling the corpse as it burst into a sick mire of slime, twisting and crunching around the corpse as the rack was knocked out of place... and when the slime leapt down a moment later, only a broken skeleton was left behind, as the monster reformed before it landed neatly on the ground with a wide grin as its eyes glowed, and it threw its head back to sing:

“Oh you mortals taste so sweet, you're so full of zest!
I thought at first I must be cursed but now I realize I was blessed,
Those stupid metal monsters had me sealed all away,
But now I'm out and free to eat my fill and you can bet I'm here to stay...”

As it sang, it almost strutted around in a circle, turning to another open cell before shoving its head inside, and there was a horrendous ripping sound before it drew back as its body rippled, arching its back with a sigh and leaving little more than another skeleton behind. “So delicious! So nutritious!

Your fleshy bodies ain't got no defenses against my hungry jaws,
You all might as well save me some time and climb right on into my maw!
Come and join the feast, help me strengthen this poison in my veins.
Make me stronger, make me better, give up your genes and flus and pains!

I'm disease, alive! I'm poison come to life!
I'm a toxic vibe! I'm all your pain and strife!
I'm your worst vice! I'm your nicotine addiction!
I'm festering lice! I'm your terminal condition!”

The creature laughed as it drew back from another cell, then its eyes blazed as hopped to the side, tearing two more cell doors open and shoving its forelegs into the cabinets, a sick slurping sound filling the air... but when the creature leapt back, it was followed by two corpses, one a bloated, half-rotten corpse of a drowned Nibelung, the other a pony with the clear Y-stitching of an autopsy over its form. And the monster laughed as it spun around, leaping up onto the exam table and landing on back legs to begin a macabre tapdance, as the puppeted corpses behind it followed its rhythm.

“I'm Cancer! Running through your veins!
Infecting everything so you'll never be the same!
I'm Cancer! I'm already in your brain!
I'm rotting you from inside out, without no shame!

I'm Cancer! I'm gonna rot you to bits,
'Cause that's just the way, honey, that I get my kicks!

Oh, sha-be-da-be-da-be-da-be-do-bop!
Oh, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-do-wop!
Hey, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-da-da!
Yeah, sha-be-da-be-da-be-do-wa-ah!”

The monster easily backflipped off the table, both corpses stepping soullessly forwards to catch it, and the beast burst apart into thick, hideous slime that rippled over the two bodies, then tore free, leaving only skeletons behind as it reformed. It grinned over its shoulder at the skeletons as they fell to the ground, the monster still humming to itself before it turned its head... and its eyes alit on a shelf on the other side of the room, whispering: “Oh, what have we here? Yes, the corpses were good to start... I got myself a nice, yummy start to the day... but you, you, you...”

It strode quickly over to the shelving, licking its lips eagerly as it gazed back and forth over the jars of samples and chemicals, then it grinned widely and plucked one off the shelf, yanking it open and inhaling deeply. Then it shivered in bliss, whispering: “Fungus, where have you been all my life!”

It tilted the jar back, gobbling down the sample, then it tossed it aside and quickly began to yank down the other chemicals. Most of these it gobbled hungrily down, others it poured over itself, laughing: all it had to do was make contact with the disease, after all, for its cells to absorb the new material and take what it could. For it to rip information out of the disease, like it had gobbled down all the genetic data from the corpses as it had ripped their flesh from their bones to amplify and feed itself.

The monster paused as it picked up a large tank of some kind, tilting this back and forth curiously before it twisted the handle... and a hissing filled the air before the creature stuck its head in front of the faintly-visible spray of gas, sniffing loudly before its eyes widened in delight. “Nitrogen!” The monster crowed, then greedily shoved the tank into its jaws, guzzling down the chemical: anything and everything could be stored in its cells, could be used to further adapt itself, and the destruction entity adored volatile chemicals almost as much as it loved diseases and poisons.

There was a loud hammering at the door, and the monster frowned before it turned around, the tank still halfway stuck in its jaws before a pony in a security uniform shoved through the doors, beginning: “I heard a disturbance, and... oh my god, what happened? What... the... oh no, a demon!”

The monster's eyes widened, then it turned and spat the tank out as the security pony staggered backwards in terror as the creature raged in an incensed voice: “Demon! How dare you! You ever see a filthy demon that could do this?”

Then the beast rushed forwards, and the guard didn't even have time to react before the monster burst into streams of goo, smashing into the pony, constricting his body and ripping into his jaws, osmosing through his pores, making him scream in horror and agony as his eyes rolled wildly in his head before he collapsed to the ground, a faint, sticky sheen still visible on his body and splatters of sticky goo dotting the floor around him.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then the security guard opened his eyes, and they glowed with ill light as he grinned widely, licking his lips hungrily. “Oh, yes, yes, yes, this'll do just fine... I can puppet your body like a... well, a puppet on a string!”

The creature laughed from the stallion's jaws, then he easily stood up... before grunting and touching his stomach once, muttering: “Immune system is trying to reject me, though, but that ain't no threat... I need me some more diseases. And while I'm here, I think I'll strip your living tissue, start learning more about how you ponies tick... old dude was a fun ride, but that's about all he was, too, just a ride. A hopalong. A stagecoach. Helps that I made my way in through his eyes, though... got myself a one-way ticket right into his brain, and what a delight the brain is... oh, yes, here's yours now! And watch, boys and girls, as Mister Cancer throws a switch and...”

The security guard twitched, gargled, then shivered... and then the earth pony's head shook before Cancer sighed in relief from his jaws. “There we go! That's what I'm talkin' about... a nice little flick of a switch and your pain receptors turn off and I don't have to worry about getting all jacked up while your body basically kills itself tryin' to get rid of me. Cool how that works, ain't it? And if you haven't gotten it already, hi, I'm Cancer. I'm gonna kill you. I'm gonna kill your whole race, as a matter of fact. Hell, let's not be modest here, I got plans to destroy your whole world! Why? 'Cause that's just what I do, spread my disease, sprinkle my poisons, and make stuff dead. It's all for the greater good though, boy, don't you worry none about that.”

Cancer snickered to himself before he began to almost skip cheerfully forwards, licking his lips hungrily as he whispered: “Now, before you get too sick to be noticeable, we're gonna make our way upstairs. I spent all night wracking that silly old dude's brain, and just by a few glimpses into your memory banks I'm seeing that we're in some place called a hospital, where you thoughtful little ponies have been so nice as to stick all your dead and dying and diseased for me! Gosh, you rolled out the welcome mat and you didn't even know I was coming, I am just, I am just so touched! And I didn't even bring you guys anything!”

Cancer laughed, then he suddenly halted, foaming at the jaws as the earth pony's eyes glowed bright red and he rasped: “Except death.”

Then Cancer shivered before shaking his head violently and looking up with a bright grin again, wiping foam away from his jaws and flicking his tongue at the air. “Whoops. Sorry about that, happens now and again. Ain't nothing serious, don't worry about it. I guess we're all a little quirky, right?”

He laughed, then pranced his way down the hall to the stairs, hurrying up them and still grinning brightly even as he made his way past an attendant. The pony looked at him oddly ,and for a moment, Cancer considered attacking her... but then he realized he was still running up flights of stairs and she was long gone, and he grumbled under his breath as he said grumpily: “Oh well, who cares, just one little bitsy itsy pony-wony. There's plenty of time to get 'em all later.”

Cancer nodded vehemently to himself as he made his way onto the third floor, shoving through and looking back and forth as he licked his lips slowly, ignoring the looks a few ponies gave him before he hurried down the corridors, breathing a little harder. He could already feel the pony's body starting to break down: Cancer, after all, was spread through all of the pony's veins like he was wearing a far-too-tight costume, and his presence inside the pony's body was already creating friction and energy and nasty chemical reactions...

He had shut down the most visible immune responses, but all the same, fever was boiling and rampaging... and soon the pony would literally start to melt. Cancer knew this on instinct, just as he knew on instinct that his former host hadn't started really suffering his effects until the end because Cancer had been weak, and tiny, and nothing more than a batch of cells that had multiplied exponentially in his host, using his flesh and body as a medium to begin rebuilding and reconstructing himself after countless years kept in a cage, used as nothing more than fuel for some metal monster's weapons and kept subdued by a power convertor...

But all the same, oh, he had leeched his way into the metal creature through its own weapons... and even though he'd been unable to do more than simply kill the creature, his revenge had delightful consequences. Some other greedy creature had shattered his glass prison, removed the power convertor, and run away with it, not knowing just how precious that crystalline engine was... and then Cancer had hid in the dead body, and waited. Dead cells, he couldn't do more than puppet for short periods of time: he could rip their genetic data from them, but that would also destroy them. Likewise, the old pony's living body had been resisting him, right up until the body had been shocked from the toxins released from the corpse he'd been about to examine... and then, then Cancer had seized his opportunity.

And now here he was: manipulating a mortal's body, bent on getting his claws on more diseases. Because the more diseases, the more chemicals, the more poisons he absorbed, the stronger he'd become. Just like the dead and sickness-riddled flesh he'd absorbed in the morgue had already made him powerful enough to do this... imagine how fast he would grow if he was able to find this so called 'infectious disease center' in the hospital!

Cancer licked his lips hungrily at the thought: he already knew he was going to like it here. The mortals were easy prey for him as it was, and after he had time to evolve and grow further, he knew they 'd become even easier. Oh, they had vaccines, and antidotes, and pretty little pills... but he was willing to bet none of them had ever dealt with a disease like him before. A disease that could grow and evolve as it wished, that could do oh so much more than just fester in a body...

He grinned hungrily as he pushed his way through a set of double doors, then his eyes finally alit on a door at the end of an intersection, hurrying forwards as he growled in delight. He could all-but-smell the illness, the disease, the festering toxins on the other side of that door, as he panted roughly in and out... then he winced and skidded to a halt when a pony stepped in his way with a frown, glaring at him. A white coat hung around his lanky body, and Cancer identified this as a creature who would stupidly think of himself as his superior enemy, when he was only, in fact, easy prey: a doctor. “What are you doing here? Security patrols are restricted to the first floor halls unless otherwise ordered.”

Cancer sniffed, then he leaned forwards and whined: “I'm sick.” A pause, then he grinned as the doctor scowled, the possessed earth pony leaning forwards and belching out a cloud of green gases into the doctor's surprised face. “See?”

The doctor coughed once... then he trembled, looking stupefied before collapsing in a heap. He twitched weakly on the ground a few times, and Cancer peered down at him for a few moments, kicked him hard once in the head to make sure he was unconscious – and kicked him again out of pure spite – and then he rose his head and called loudly: “Hey, uh. We got a sick doctor here or something, I dunno. I didn't do it.”

Within moments, there was the sound of hooves, and Cancer simply stepped back and whistled a little as two nurses hurried over and looked down at the doctor. They both cursed, then one shouted something as the other began to check him over, and Cancer quickly slipped away, almost bouncing down the hall as he hummed under his breath before he hit the door at the end of the intersection and hopped on through. He grinned widely to himself, licking his lips in delight as he emerged into a large, square room beyond that was filled with shelves of samples in jars, bottles, and vials, all of them neatly labeled and sorted. “Oh... sweet merciful delights. We gonna have us some fun tonight!”

Cancer immediately went to work, twining back and forth through the shelves as he picked up containers and tore them open or shattered them, inhaling airborne diseases, guzzling down liquids, giggling as he spilled chemicals and biopsy samples and everything else that was stored in here. For him it was a wonderland, a paradise, a slice of heaven... and Cancer giggled again, the body he was in splattered with stains and ugly, spreading bruises and burns, sweat rolling down the earth pony's frame as he almost boiled... “But oh, it don't matter none now, not at all, not at all... I've gathered up all these lost and lonely little samples now, and we're gonna have one big party inside me!”

He giggled again to himself, twitching a bit as he licked his lips eagerly and picked up one last sample jar, overturning it above his head and drinking down the contents hungrily as the sick-smelling liquid spilled down his jaws and over his face... and then his eyes widened as there was a hammering at the door, a voice from beyond shouting: “Who's in there? Come out immediately!”

“Uh oh. Gotta bust a move while I percolate.” Cancer muttered, looking hurriedly back and forth before he threw the empty jar away and hurried down the row of shelves, skidding around an intersection as his eyes locked on a window. “Bingo-was-his-name-o!”

He ran towards this, bringing the earth pony's hooves up and smashing it out, sending a hail of glass raining down the side of the building... before he snarled in frustration at the sight of the steel bars beyond. And behind him, he could hear the door thrown open... but thankfully it was followed by yells and shouts as whoever was trying to stop him stumbled in the broken glass and puddles of chemical. Cancer giggled to himself at this thought, licking his lips... and then his eyes widened before he looked at the bars, made a horrible, disgusting gagging noise, then leaned forwards and vomited out a stream of acid that rapidly ate away at the metal caging.

Cancer grinned over his shoulder as he heard the sound of hooves approaching, then he simply dove forwards into the smoking, smoldering bars and crashed through them, laughing as chunks of warped and broken metal flew in all directions and he plummeted down to the sloped ground far below with a sickening splat. There was a loud crunch as he bounced once, a limb twisting awkwardly, body rolling down the slope at the side of the hospital before he finally came to a halt in the field, gurgling once as he twitched in a broken pile of blood and tangled limbs.

Then Cancer slowly rose the earth pony's head, his eyes glowing as he giggled and whispered: “Oh... clotting enzymes, and adrenaline, and... endorphins, oh my! And... ooh, delicious bone marrow leaking out, and all those other juices mixing together with everything else... it's like getting to the center of the chewy candy!”

The monster laughed as it shoved itself up to its hooves, gurgling once before it staggered back and forth... then grinned widely, licking its split lips slowly as sweat poured down the earth pony's body. Its hide was starting to char and peel in places, as fever worsened into what would eventually be akin to spontaneous combustion, but for now the monster could still use this body. Even broken and mangled as it was, it was only a casing, a puppet, a toy to the beast.

Slowly, Cancer dragged itself away from the hospital, breathing heavily through the foaming jaws of the earth pony, leaving a trail of blood and pus behind it as clouds rolled ominously through the skies above and a sharp, cold wind blew. It darkened the day as shouts and panic went through the hospital, allowing Cancer to make good on his escape as doctors and staff were instead forced to concentrate on quarantining the storage room.

The monster made his way slowly in the direction from which he could sense more mortals, and more diseases, and garbage and pollution and everything else it so loved: he moved towards Ponyville, grinning widely as he felt the chemicals and diseases inside him bubbling and boiling and merging into his alien cell structure. As it reached a bridge over a low, burbling creek, however, there was a loud shout from behind it, and Cancer turned, frowning in distaste as a pony dressed in some kind of officer's uniform approached, the unicorn with his head lowered and his horn glowing as he snapped: “Stop right there, whatever you are!”

Cancer grinned widely, looking slowly back and forth before he said easily: “Oh, little old me? Now come on, fella, don't you see I ain't doin' so hot? I'm all coughing and choking and wheezing and squeezing. Come on, you can let me go, officer, can't you just this one little time?”

“Get down on the ground, now! Surrender peacefully!” the soldier barked, and Cancer glared at him before the unicorn leaned forwards, horn glowing brighter. “Don't make me use force!”

“You really gonna kill this meatsack?” Cancer reached up and touched his own chest, and then he grinned through the earth pony's jaws, giggling as he leaned forwards and his eyes glowed hellish red, making the chemicals inside his body boil. “Here, lemme save you the trouble.”

Cancer threw his head back and his forelegs out as his body bloated and bulged, the soldier staring for a moment before the earth pony's body simply exploded in a terrible blast of force and gore and poisonous mist, knocking the soldier sprawling with a choked-off scream. In a matter of moments, the unicorn was dead, boils and bruising spreading rapidly over his pale features, twitching weakly as foam spilled out of his jaws.

There was little left of the earth pony, apart from a few splatters, and the bridge and surrounding area had been covered with corrosive, smelly white and red goo... but slowly, this began to tremble and shift, making a sick slurping as the slime quickly merged itself into one large puddle that swelled upwards and shaped itself back into Cancer's goblinoid, grinning semi-equine form. He rasped slowly in and out, then hugged himself with a cackle, looking mockingly down at the dead unicorn as he said cheerfully: “See, ain't I such a nice guy? Damn that nitrogen has a kick, though! But ooh, I'd best be hoppin' along now, find myself a nice little place to hole up and not lose any more of these sweet juices than I already have so I can...”

He twitched violently, eyes glowing red, fangs baring as he rasped: “Infect, destroy, kill, kill, kill...”

Cancer shivered, then shook his head out and giggled insanely, his entire body twitching before he bounced happily past the bridge and down into the creek, splashing into the water and beginning to wade his way up the river as he half-sang: “Gotta spread my disease, after all... that's how I grow, that's how I multiply, that's just what I do, honey-bunch. Gonna make a real name for myself here, a name they're all gonna know before they all die... but oh baby, they're all gonna die, they're all gonna die, 'cause I'm gonna make myself a nice little home here...”

The creature licked his lips slowly, then he approached a culvert and leaned forwards, inhaling deeply and releasing a sigh of delight as he stood up on his hind legs, grasping either side of the rusting steel tunnel with his front hooves. “Ooh, manna from heaven... what blissful paradise! Smells like sewage, and rats, and vermin and... yeah, yeah, I'm gonna like it here just fine...”

Cancer grinned widely, slithering into the culvert, breathing hungrily before its physical form began to melt slowly down into a puddle of slime that slipped greedily down into the ankle-deep water to feast on the bacteria and disease within. Yes, this place... this place was going to do just fine.

Celestia nodded to Antares as the young stallion wheezed and slumped a bit, head bowed and eyes closed, but a bright smile on his face as the ivory mare complimented: “Excellently done, Antares. You may not be able to harness many kinds of magic, but you're learning to mix what magic you can control very well into own style of combat.”

Antares gazed up at Celestia thankfully as he managed to straighten a bit: his armor had been repaired, polished, and cleaned, and he was dressed in full gear... and this time, wearing heavy, weighted bracers as well. Celestia, meanwhile, had taken her own armor off, but she looked almost envious as she sat at one side of the large training room, her eyes filled with pride for her nephew.

The training room they were in was taller than it was wide, and dominated by a towering and wild structure of girders, rings, hoops, ramps, and targets: in essence, it was a vertical obstacle course that almost reached the ceiling roughly fifty feet above them, with a single platform at the top that formed the finish line. Celestia had been guiding Antares up and down this for hours now, having him run different drills, occasionally changing the positions of girders or beams or platforms, sometimes even setting up traps and targets for Antares to avoid and try and destroy as he made his way up or down the course.

She was a hard taskmaster, but she was encouraging and fair: she gave Antares support and tutoring, and knew the best way to get through to him. There was one way he was particularly like his parents, after all: soft words got through to him a lot better than demands and orders. And by now, Celestia knew just how to prod him if he started slacking or slowing up... not that Antares often did. In fact, his obsessive training almost worried her at times: it reminded her of had-been-heroes who spent all their time training and working hard towards accomplishing some violent revenge... heroes who too often turned out to be worse than the so-called evils they wanted to destroy, when their obsession began to drive them to ripping apart any unfortunate bystander that made the mistake of getting between them and their objective.

What soothed her was that she knew Antares trained so hard for two reasons: because he wanted to one day become as strong as his parents had been, and because he wasn't seeking revenge... he was seeking to save his parents. And one thing that Antares clung to, no matter what, was the idea that in order to save Luna and Scrivener he would have to do it right: no shortcuts, no cutting corners, and most of all, he had to be what his parents had always seen him as. Their savior, their shining light, their guiding star. He worked every single day to be honorable, above all other things... and even if he didn't always succeed, even if he had his moments where Celestia was reminded all too clearly of who his parents were... he still made her proud, and almost jealous of his radiant light.

“I want you to ascend the tower one more time, Antares, and then we'll stop for the day. As fast as you can through the obstacle course.” Celestia said calmly, and Antares nodded firmly once before he set himself, as the ivory mare smiled slightly at her nephew. “I know you can still shave a few more seconds off your best time.”

“Maybe not today, Aunt Tia, but I'll try.” Antares nodded after a moment, blushing a bit as he looked towards the base of the obstacle course, eying the ramp as he gritted his teeth and dropped to a ready position. He took a slow breath, tensing himself, forcing his mind to override the soreness in his body... and then he felt more than heard Celestia's sharp command to start, and he sprung immediately forwards.

He let his body move on instinct: he already knew the rough layout of the course, after all, but his hooves knew it much better than his mind did, and so it was his instincts that he let take over, simply doing his best to act instead of think. And for the first few levels of the course, it was easy; he leapt from ramp to narrow girder, charging along it before leaping up and kicking off a steel column and gracefully twisting his body to land on top of another high beam, not even needing to spread his wings as he charged down it and ran up another ramp...

And then something lashed by him, dark and smoky and alive, and Antares gritted his teeth but forced himself not to react, to concentrate on the course as he continued to bolt upwards. He ran along a narrow catwalk, and then his eyes widened as the dark, smoky shape twisted around in midair and shot straight towards him-

Antares leapt high before he even realized what he was doing, flapping his wings once to launch himself over the shadowy missile, and it shot by just beneath him before twisting violently around a pillar and shooting at his back. Without missing a beat, however, Antares landed smoothly, then lunged upwards again, flapping his wings hard as he ran almost straight up another steel pillar and kicked off to gracefully twist and land atop another platform as the smoky shape shot by again. The glossy black young stallion gritted his teeth, knowing this could only be one thing as he charged forwards, weaving back and forth through a forest of metal bars, the shape closely following behind him: a demon.

The shape tore through the bars behind him, weaving much faster through them: then again, being incorporeal smoke gave it an advantage. Antares cursed, looking over his shoulder before he simply lunged upwards, reacting on instinct, and the shape tore beneath him as he flung all four hooves out and shoved each against a steel column, keeping himself balanced in the air before he tensed his body, then kicked upwards and flapped his wings as hard as he dared, launching himself higher on instinct.

He looked up to see the bottom of another girder, grabbing onto it and hauling himself easily up with a grunt before running along it to a connecting support. The demon was already chasing him again, but now Antares was only concentrating on getting higher, leaping from girder to girder to narrow platform, making his way upwards until he was only a few steps away from the finish line...

And in front of him, the demon smashed through the wooden platform that was the final step between him and the finish. Antares cursed, then he gritted his teeth before leaping forwards anyway, even as wooden shrapnel flew in all directions, and he landed with a grunt of pain on top of a narrow support column that had once held up the wooden walk before he threw himself in a final mad leap, flapping his wings wildly as he lifted his legs to try and counter the heavy weights attached to them and seizing the edge of the finish platform with a shout.

Then his eyes bulged as he felt his hindquarters slide backwards, kicking his legs wildly... before cloven hooves seized him behind his shoulders and yanked him forwards, laughter filling the air as a familiar voice said warmly: “Oh come on, Nova, you should have made that! Has Aunt Tia been running my poor cousin too hard?”

Antares wheezed in relief as he dropped flat on top of the tower, then he grinned widely as he looked up warmly at a light-pink colored mare with a raven-black, straight mane that fell in a waterfall to one side of her face, neatly braided into a knot by her shoulder. Her eyes were radiant emerald, a shade lighter than the cutie mark on her haunch of a green serpent coiled in a spiral. “Apps! What are you doing here?”

“Mommy and I came to find Celestia and Twilight Sparkle... something bad's happened in Ponyville.” She became more serious, and Antares frowned at this: his cousin, Aphrodisia Celeste Pie, was almost never serious, not unless something truly bad happened. For a moment, the demonic mare hesitated... then she licked her large, sharp teeth nervously with her forked tongue, flicking an ear that was studded with several gemstone earrings. “Daddy was really worried. I hate it when Daddy worries, little cousin.”

“You are six years younger than me.” Antares pointed out, but Aphrodisia only responded to this by almost purring as she stepped up beside him, pushing their sides together and making him roll his eyes in amusement. Despite her age, Aphrodisia had aged twice as fast as he did with her demonic heritage: it meant she was already a fully-developed mare, and well on her way to becoming a fully-developed demon as well. “Okay, okay. But shouldn't you be...”

“No, Mommy came too, see?” Aphrodisia leaned forwards, pointing over the edge of the platform, and Antares stepped forwards and looked down with surprise to see Celestia was talking with Pinkamena below. He smiled after a moment, then glanced at his cousin, and she smiled back before becoming nothing but black smoke that twisted sinuously around him before shooting down to the ground, easily reforming beside her mother.

“I wish I could do that.” Antares mumbled, and then he leapt off the top of the tower, spreading his wings to glide in a smooth, quick descent down to land beside Celestia. He looked up with a smile as Pinkamena's eyes flicked to him. “Hey, Aunt Pinkamena.”

“Hey, kid.” Pinkamena gave a slight smile, revealing some of her sharp teeth: she was a dull, grayish-pink color, her mane long and straight, silver piercings glimmering in her ears and seeming to reflect the strange glow of her unnatural, red-rimmed blue eyes. She wasn't large, but she gave off an aura of strength... and she was only made all the more impressive by the beautiful tattoo that took up the entire left side of her breast and half-scrawled down one leg, of twisting and twining ivy that wrapped around the profile of a black tree. It stood out even clearer than the emblem on her flank, of black and gray balloons. “Looks like you're coming back to Ponyville with us a little early.”

“What's going on?” Antares asked apprehensively, and Pinkamena grimaced, making Antares wince a little. “That bad?”

“Worse. There was an attack at the hospital and some kind of plague's broken out and hit Ponyville. We've already started looking into it, but not even your sister knows what the hell is going on. Ponies are getting real sick, real fast.” Pinkamena stopped, then he shook her head, saying quietly: “Nibelung too, but demons and Nightmares seem immune to it so far. Hard to say, though... just started a few hours ago, but already a lot of ponies are sick.”

Celestia frowned at this, shaking her head and saying quietly: “It must be a demonic or supernatural infection, then. I'll make all haste to Ponyville, along with Twilight Sparkle, Prestige, and Antares. Pinkamena, can you go immediately to the hospital, find out what happened there? Look into recent events as well: shipments, suspicious deaths, autopsies, anything that could have a link to this.”

“I hate it when you give me orders.” Pinkamena said sourly, but then she sighed and nodded before looking mildly over at Aphrodisia. “Behave for Princess Sunshine and take care of your cousin, you got that, filly? Make sure they all get to Ponyville in one piece.”

“Yes, Mommy.” Aphrodisia nodded firmly, and Pinkamena gave a small smile before the gray-pink demon mare turned and burst apart into dark smoke that vanished completely from sight a moment later. Aphrodisia gazed admiringly in her mother's wake for a moment, then she smiled over at the other ponies, saying quietly: “You heard her. Let's go.”

“I agree. I'm going to fetch my armor and the Yamato Guard, we may need the assistance of our allies of the night to deal with this infection. Antares, Aphrodisia, go ahead and find Twilight Sparkle and Prestige. We'll meet outside of the castle and leave for Ponyville together.” Celestia said calmly, and the two young ponies nodded before the ivory winged unicorn strode quickly past towards the door.

Antares hesitated for a moment, looking worriedly over at Aphrodisia... but the demon shook her head and smiled a little, saying finally: “Look, it's gonna be fine, Nova, okay? Avalon, Rusty and Meadowlark are all okay.” She paused, then made a face, adding moodily: “But maybe Meadowlark we can let get a little sick.”

The young stallion sighed and shook his head, then he strode quickly forwards, and the demon grinned as she followed after him, saying positively: “What about Prestige, then? Can we let her get sick? I wouldn't mind her dying on us, too. She can die.”

“Apps, try and behave a little, huh?” Antares asked mildly as they headed quickly down the hall, and the demon only shrugged amiably as the glossy black pony added dryly: “And I thought we worked through this whole Meadowlark thing.”

“No, no. I still don't like her.” Aphrodisia remarked almost cheerfully, and Antares rolled his eyes before she checked him lightly with a wink. “I know you do but you can do so much better than her, sweetie.”

Antares only gave her an amused look, and then he glanced up and gave a sigh of relief as he saw Twilight Sparkle hurrying down the hall towards him with Prestige stumbling along behind her, the violet mare calling: “Antares! Did you hear... oh, Aphrodisia, did you tell him?”

“Yes, Celestia said to meet her out in front of the castle, we have to head to... uh, Prestige, are you okay?” Antares frowned a bit as the unicorn stumbled to a halt beside the Lich, the young mare wheezing loudly in and out as Aphrodisia scowled at her. But for once, Prestige didn't look like she could even cough up an insult, her features pale, her limbs wobbling a little beneath her as sweat visibly spilled down her features. “Are... are you sick?”

“She's recovering... I think.” Twilight looked nervously over her shoulder at Prestige, shaking her head quickly. “I just heard about the epidemic in Ponyville, Spike sent a letter directly to me. Then Prestige collapsed and I was able to put two plus two together fast enough to stop her illness from progressing... but if what Prestige was sick with is the same as what hit in Ponyville...”

“Was sick... I am sick!” Prestige whined loudly, shivering violently before she moaned pitiably. “Look at me and say I'm not sick!”

Twilight only grimaced, however, looking over her shoulder and murmuring: “Yeah, you are still sick, but you could be much, much worse, Prestige. You were much worse, as a matter of fact... look, the only sick person Prestige had contact with was Straw Crown, a coroner from Canterlot. I've already contacted the Royal Guards and the heads of the magic academy... they might not like me much but they do at least respect my opinion, and they're going to be screening everyone they can in Canterlot for this illness. It took a powerful cleansing spell to dilute the disease, and as you can see, that doesn't even get rid of it entirely... but I'm confident that now Prestige should be able to cope with it, at least. Until we find a cure.”

“What? Cope? I wanna be healed!” Prestige complained loudly, and Twilight gritted her teeth before the young mare shivered and whispered: “I think I'm getting worse again... can't... can't you teach me the spell you used?”

The Lich frowned, then she shook her head and turned towards the young mare, her horn glowing as she scanned over her... then her eyes widened and she shook her head, murmuring: “No, that's not possible... now it seems like an entirely different disease, it's attacking... okay, okay Prestige, this is going to hurt, but then you're going to feel better, okay?”

Twilight took a slow breath, and Prestige looked up, pale from both pain and fear before her eyes widened, and she gave a strangled cry as Twilight's horn glowed brightly. Other ponies stopped to stare, even Royal Guards halting as a bright white light washed over and encased Prestige, Twilight gritting her teeth as her eyes glowed with the power of the spell... and then the Lich cursed and staggered backwards, her horn sparking violently as Prestige toppled over, body steaming faintly and trembling violently.

Antares stared in shock and Aphrodisia had winced backwards as well, her own sharp teeth grit before the demon shivered a little and hugged herself, muttering: “Almost makes me feel sorry for her. Almost.”

Prestige shuddered on the ground... and then slowly, the young mare shook her head dazedly before she sat up, groaning and rubbing at her face. She coughed once, then sniffled... but then blinked a few times as Twilight sighed in relief, some of the color returning to the unicorn mare's cheeks. Then the Lich winced when a Royal Guard approached and reached up to grasp her shoulder... but instead of scolding or reprimanding her, the Guard asked hurriedly: “Can you come with me and show that spell to the other guards and mages? We just got a report of an outbreak at the magic school and none of our spells have been working.”

“I... okay. Prestige, Antares, Aphrodisia, go ahead. I'll catch up when I can.” Twilight said after a moment, nodding quickly as she reached up and nervously brushed a hoof against her collar, and the demon and young stallion nodded as Prestige only looked blearily up. “Let Celestia know she doesn't have to wait for me, I'll meet you in Ponyville one way or the other.”

Twilight turned, following the Royal Guard down the hall with several other soldiers, and Antares looked back and forth, breathing a little harder as he realized that he could almost feel the panic all around them. There was a buzz in the air, as if rumors were adding fuel to a fire that was very real and quickly growing, and Antares shook his head worriedly as he murmured: “If it's spread this fast here, then Ponyville... come on, we gotta go.”

Prestige stumbled to her hooves as Antares and Aphrodisia both turned to hurry down the corridor, and the young mare wheezed as she staggered after them, half-calling out to the two. Antares winced, but Aphrodisia only growled under her breath before the demon suddenly lunged around in a circle, running quickly back to Prestige and scooping her up to toss her over her back, the young mare squeaking as she clung down against the demon with a terrified look on her face when Aphrodisia spun around and broke into a sprint that Antares easily matched. “Put me down, prostatot!”

“Oh you have no idea how much I would love to drop you on your face, but we're on a schedule here.” Aphrodisia retorted, sniffing loudly before she added mockingly, as she firmly bucked upwards mid-run to make Prestige yelp in pain and surprise: “Besides, I thought this was where us slave hoofs were supposed to be and all.”

“I hate you!” Prestige cried, and Antares rolled his eyes as he continued to run alongside the demon, the two making their way quickly through the corridors of Canterlot Castle: and more and more, now that he was looking for it, Antares saw the worry and concern on faces of ponies they passed, many of them rushing through the halls themselves. Both Aphrodisia and Antares were able to dodge around most of the ponies that got in their way, however, and Antares only had to call back one awkward apology when he leapt over a Royal Guard and his rear hooves slapped against the soldier's helmet.

They made good time to the exit, heading out a short distance onto the road leading to Ponyville... and then both ponies stopped as Prestige looked up, shivering and still clinging to Aphrodisia before she screeched when the demon bucked forwards and threw her off. It was almost a reflex gesture, however, since both young stallion and demon were staring around themselves in disbelief: wagons were being hitched, ponies were hurrying away, and it looked as if there was a mass exodus already under way... but to where, neither of them could guess.

Then Prestige shoved herself quickly up to her hooves, growling angrily before she snapped: “Excuse me, prostatot, but I did not require the help of a whore-demon to make my way here, especially since we have now arrived long before Celestia and are standing amidst a horde of cowardly mudwalkers all so frightened by a little sickness they're running wild!”

Aphrodisia looked for a moment at Prestige... then she suddenly leaned forwards and hissed, baring enormous, curved fangs and sharp, deadly teeth, her eyes glowing poison green and her features becoming skull-like. Prestige screeched at this and fell backwards, and then Aphrodisia straightened, features smoothing out into beauty once more as she smiled teasingly, saying kindly: “Remember, dummy, I'm only half whore-demon. The other half of me is kill-you-to-bits-demon.”

Antares sighed tiredly, looking quietly at the two as he asked almost pleadingly: “Can you two please focus? And Prestige, a lot of ponies here are terrified, not cowards. The news of the plague that hit Ponyville is just filtering in here... and on top of that, the magic academy and part of Canterlot Castle is being quarantined. If this keeps up, Aunt Tia might not be able to leave here...”

“She's gotta leave here, though, we need to save Ponyville first.” Aphrodisia said worriedly, frowning over at Antares, and when the glossy-black stallion gave her a pointed look, the demon only huffed and shook her head quickly. “Well, I don't care a whole lot about Canterlot and stuff, Nova. I care about Ponyville. That's where Mommy and Daddy are, and that's what Aunt Tia really cares about and everything, too.”

“Aunt Tia cares about all of Equestria, and everypony here.” Antares said gently, and when Aphrodisia gave him an amused look, he huffed a bit. “It's true, Pinkslap... and besides, if Canterlot falls apart, then Aunt Tia would have to move back to the Temple of the Sun or something. How would you like that?”

“Okay, okay.” Aphrodisia huffed, then she turned her eyes out over the crowd, murmuring: “I guess I'm just worried, Nova. I don't think Aunt Twilight can cast that fancy spell on everypony in Ponyville, and we all know that she's almost as strong as Aunt Tia.”

“The Lich is powerful, but she's not that strong.” Prestige muttered... then she squeaked when Aphrodisia bared her fangs and shoved her face against the unicorn's, eyes glowing balefully.

“Don't you talk about my Aunt Twilight that way, got it?” Aphrodisia asked moodily, and Prestige swallowed thickly before the demon huffed and reached both hooves up to firmly shove the young mare's head down into the ground, making her squawk. She held her in place, Prestige flailing uselessly as Aphrodisia looked grumpily over at Antares, who only looked sourly back. “Why haven't we killed her yet? If she behaved this way around Mommy, Mommy would eat her.”

“Well, please don't kill her now, Apps, we might need her help.” Antares said tiredly, and Aphrodisia grumbled, but then finally stepped off Prestige's head, letting the humiliated-looking unicorn hurriedly scramble back up to her hooves. She glared balefully at Aphrodisia, but at least was smart enough to keep her snide comments to herself this time before Antares looked worriedly off into the distance and murmured: “You're right, though, Aphrodisia, we gotta help Ponyville. But if that coroner was the one who got the disease first...”

“He said something about Ponyville, though...” Prestige muttered, and both the ponies looked at her curiously. Immediately, the young mare winced back, but when she realized they were interested instead of aggressive, she nervously glanced back and forth at the ponies hurrying past them before stepping closer and saying hesitantly: “He... he said something about a Clockwork Pony being held in Ponyville, at the hospital...”

Antares stiffened at this, his eyes widening... and then, without another word, he turned and shot down the road as Aphrodisia threw her head back and groaned, then glared angrily at Prestige, snapping: “Thanks a lot, genius! Nova, hey, wait up Nova!”

With that, the demon turned and bolted after Antares, and Prestige blinked a few times before she grumbled loudly and mumbled a few angry curses at the backs of the two. She dropped down on her haunches, raising her head with a sniff as she looked back and forth at the crowd of ponies around her, mumbling: “I'm going to do the right thing at least. Wait for the Baroness, yes, the Baroness, who may be soft on her subjects but is all the same a noble and valorous winged unicorn, penultimate of the species. Yes... I'm not really alone here at all, I'm just... waiting, and... I would be of no help to Antares and Aphrodisia, after all, better to wait for the Lich or the Baroness or...”

Prestige stuttered to a halt, then winced when a large wagon rolled by her, pulled by two enormous earth ponies and with several families stuffed inside it and trunks of luggage on the roof... and Prestige hesitated for a few moments before she groaned and dropped her head forwards, beginning to trot quickly down the path after Antares and Aphrodisia.