• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,706 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

First Contact

Chapter Five: First Contact

“This is ridiculous.” Prestige Luster complained loudly, and Antares and Aphrodisia both glared over their shoulders at her. “We're being sent to play with your silly little friends instead of actually helping out, you do understand this, don't you? Or are you really naïve enough to think that this 'research mission' for Twilight is an actual task of any import whatsoever?”

“Hey, I got an idea. Let's play 'shut up so I don't stab you fifty times in the face.'” Aphrodisia rounded on Prestige, glaring balefully down into her eyes, and the unicorn swallowed thickly at this.

“Apps, come on. Be nice.” Antares said tiredly: he was only wearing his necklace today, since it wasn't likely he would need his armor. He was also well aware this probably wasn't much more than make-work to keep them out of the way, but all the same the young stallion wanted to handle himself as professionally as possible.

Aphrodisia grumbled, then turned around and trotted quickly up beside the glossy-black unicorn, falling into pace beside him again as Prestige muttered to herself and hurried after them. The streets were relatively empty even though it was now mid-morning, and the few ponies they'd seen had been bleary and sick-looking... but they were on their hooves and walking around all the same, and it was a relief after seeing what dire straits the village had been in just yesterday.

Then Antares smiled a little and glanced up at the sight of the enormous, metal and stone structure just down the road... and importantly, at the sight of the ponies in front of the massive, remodeled warehouse that contained the engineering labs. One of these looked up sharply, then shouted loudly and leapt into the air, the small Pegasus shooting towards him like a bullet and tackling Antares backwards, making him laugh even as he crashed and skidded several feet on his back, Prestige squeaking and leaping quickly out of the way as the golden Pegasus grinned widely down at him from where she was now posed atop his chest. “Hey, Mir! Been a while!”

“Hey, Avalon.” Antares smiled warmly up at the tiny mare: she was maybe half his side, so brightly-colored she almost glowed, with a streaked red-and-gold mane and tail that were both short and messy. Her red eyes gazed warmly down into Antares' own, her features pretty in a rough, tomboyish way accented all the more by the single thin scar on one side of her face, as her powerful wings buzzed lightly at her sides with how fast they moved. Her cutie mark was of an apple that had been sliced in half: there was no pony fiercer and more stubborn than Avalon, who could push through anything and everything to get what she wanted.

She stomped a hoof lightly against his chest, then looked up at the demon, saying easily: “Hey Apple Pie.” A pause as Aphrodisia blew a raspberry at her, and then Avalon glared at Prestige, adding grumpily: “Hi. You.”

Prestige only mumbled to herself in distaste, and then she looked up with a sigh as another Pegasus approached: a slender, pretty mare with a deep scarlet coat and a mane that was a mix of chestnut and smooth black. She had her mane tied back in several long braids, her copper-colored eyes gazing almost admiringly to Antares. On her flank was an emblem of a quill overtop a notepad, showing her talent for journalism and research.

Antares wiggled a bit, and Avalon easily hopped off him and hovered in the air, flying beside Aphrodisia and making kissy-faces as the young stallion grinned brightly at the red Pegasus, who gazed affectionately back at him as he hurriedly sat up. “H-Hey, Meadowlark!”

“Hi, Antares.” Meadowlark smiled warmly, fidgeting a little before she gestured over her shoulder with a quiet laugh. “We were just waiting for-”

“What are these?” shouted a frustrated a voice, and all five young ponies awkwardly turned to watch as a mare with a short blonde mane held out of her eyes by a red bandanna yanked something away from an enormous indigo-blue pony, the reddish-brown mare beginning to wave this violently around. “Dammit, Rusty, what in the hell do you think you're doing? Ain't we been over this? I swore to the Horses of Heaven I would make you degrease and re-oil every last engine part in the shop if I caught you with cigarettes again, do you think I was kidding? Well I wasn't!”

“He's so poo-brain sometimes.” Avalon remarked mildly, as they all looked at the deep blue earth pony: he was enormous, as tall as Antares but with twice as much bulk and muscle, his mane falling in an unkempt, short mullet and soft orange, the same color as his short tail. He had a gray, grease-splattered jacket on and a set of welding goggles hung around his neck: his cutie mark was a large, blocky gray shape of a mechanical engine.

His nervous orange eyes flicked back and forth worriedly as the mare in front of him continued to rage: much smaller, piercings dotting her ears and a ring in one nostril and above an eyebrow, her sharp sapphire eyes glaring holes in the male as he shrank hurriedly under her gaze before wincing when she smacked him with the box of cigarettes. “Look, Rustproof, I get that the whole 'stunting your growth' argument is kind of moot here, but what about your lungs? What about your brain? What about your crotch, you want to end up never knowing what it's like to have sex, because if you keep smoking and it doesn't fall off I'll geld you myself!”

“Momma!” Rustproof winced, shrinking down further, and then he shook his head violently before straightening and pleading: “Momma, I'm sorry, I guess I just-”

“Don't lie to me, Rusty, don't you lie to me or I'll make you clean out all the bathrooms here too, and those Nibelung aren't very good at aiming.” the mare threatened, and Rustproof simply winced again before the earth pony mare grumbled, then she sighed and smacked his head lightly again with the box of cigarettes, saying moodily: “We'll talk about this later, Rustproof, and you're gonna be spending the whole night here working. You're still my colt, not nearly an adult yet. Now you do whatever job the Baroness has asked you to handle to the very best of your ability, got it?”

“Yes, Momma.” Rustproof began to turn away, looking chastened, and then he blushed when the mare reached up and smacked his flank, getting his attention. He turned back towards her embarrassedly, and then lowered his head, looking awkward and a little more ashamed of himself when his mother stepped forwards and gave him a quick, fierce hug, returning the embrace as he mumbled an apology before hurrying off.

The mare waved at the group of ponies, then she sighed and popped the package of cigarettes open, shoving one into her own muzzle before storming inside the facility as Rustproof turned to hurry away, her emblem of interlocked silver gears visible for just a moment before the doors swung closed behind her. The colt grinned lamely back and forth at his friends as he approached them, then winced when Meadowlark slapped the back off his head lightly and Avalon asked wryly: “You learn your lesson yet?”

Rustproof only dropped his head in embarrassment, and Antares sighed, shaking his head and smiling awkwardly over at his friend. “You're still a kid, Rusty... no offense. You know you shouldn't be smoking anyway.”

The indigo colt only shrugged absently, looking up with a bit of a smile before Avalon hurriedly rose a hoof, waving it wildly. “Oh, but let's stick around here for a few minutes! I bet Cowlick's going to go figure out who you got the cigarettes from in the first place and kick their flank!”

Rustproof only looked up with an awkward smile, however, and shrugged: just that look was enough to tell his friends, who knew the young not-quite-stallion well enough to understand his myriad of gestures and expressions clearly, that he hadn't been given these cigarettes by any Nibelung in the facility, but had picked them up himself. That was how he'd started smoking in the first place, despite being only thirteen years old: a Nibelung worker had started sharing cigarettes with him when Cowlick wasn't looking, and it had gone on for a good while until Rustproof had been caught.

What had happened then was a favorite story of many of the engineers: Cowlick, not content with simply firing the worker who had been slipping her son cigarettes, had set up on the roof of the engineering lab with a rifle loaded with rubber slugs. The Nibelung, always inventive storytellers, would often reenact this scene: the poor fool walking into work early one morning by himself, only to be greeted by a howl of 'you're fired!' followed by a rubber bullet to the head.

Rusty had never quite kicked his habit, however, and every few months Cowlick would catch him with a cigarette, or find a pack of smokes tucked haphazardly away in his dresser, and the young male would end up cleaning the entire facility by himself or doing some other horrible task while Cowlick lectured him up and down. And his father, Ross, would try and scold him too, but Ross was no good at being angry: instead, he would usually just come across as worried, although in a way that was even more effective in making gentle Rustproof feel guilty over his particularly-bad habit.

Apart from smoking, though, Rustproof was a healthy and happy colossus, carefree, gentle and kind, even if he was always a little quiet and tended to talk through his smiles and his eyes. He was the second youngest of the group, only a little more than two years older than Ambrosia: but even though he was still a colt and not yet a young stallion, he was as smart as they were and a welcome member of the circle of friends.

“You earth ponies. Truly it's a hallmark of your kind: you know it's bad for you, yet you continue to do it all the same, and often in plain sight of those whom you know will punish you for it.” Prestige said distastefully, ignoring the eyes that glared at her as Rustproof blushed a little. “What utter nonsense.”

“Funny, Prestige, it sounds like you're doing the same thing. Rusty might be poo-brain and all but even he ain't dumb enough to go running his mouth off like you do every five minutes.” Avalon said shortly, and then she paused and added: “Not that... you ever really run you mouth off at all, Rustproof. Which is weird. You won't swear, drink, or do anything else fun or bad but you'll smoke all the time, how does that even work?”

“I didn't know it was somethin' bad until too late, I guess.” Rustproof answered honestly, shrugging a little as he gave a bit of a smile. “And now it's just a part of who I am.”

“Oh, don't say that, Rusty. I don't like it when you smoke. I worry about you.” Meadowlark said softly, nudging the large male equine lightly and Antares nodded in agreement as Rustproof fidgeted a bit. Then the group fell quiet for a few moments as they strode onwards, Avalon buzzing quietly back and forth above them through the air, before Meadowlark finally asked quietly: “So... Antares, what are we supposed to be doing?”

“Avalon, you wanna tell them?” Antares asked curiously, and Avalon snorted and shook her head vehemently, making the young stallion sigh tiredly. “Great hustle, Aviator.”

“Shut up, Mir.” Avalon replied cheerfully, buzzing down and landing easily on his back: she was small and lightweight enough she could stand on top of him without difficulty, and Antares was by now so used to this that he simply kept walking.

He smiled over his shoulder at her, then looked ahead as he felt the rest of his friends' eyes settle on him, saying calmly as he led the way forwards and they naturally fell into pace around him: “It's pretty simple, guys...” Only Prestige looked miffed at being referred to as a 'guy.' “Aunt Tia and my Mom want us take a look at the area between Ponyville and the hospital, see if we can find anything. Rainbow Dash already came by this morning, said there was something wrong with the creek that runs through that area, so that's probably where we should head towards first... something about the coloration being off. The only reason he and Soarin' didn't take a closer look is because-”

“Dad's kind of a big baby about getting sick.” Avalon supplied cheerfully, and then she added in a softer voice: “And he's always scared of getting Mom sick, too, with her chewed-up lungs and all. Hey, Antares, is it true? Is there really a Clockwork Pony involved in all this?”

The glossy-black young stallion shifted uncomfortably at this, remaining silent... and surprisingly, Prestige spoke up, saying calmly: “The disease may have come from a Clockwork Pony, but as both my teacher, Twilight Sparkle, and the Baroness have stated... the malignancy is most certainly no attack from Clockwork World.”

She stopped, all the ponies looking at her for a few moments, before she added rudely: “Is that clear enough for all you mudwalkers or should I use smaller words with fewer syllables?”

“I'm going to throw you in the creek if you keep this up, Prissy.” Avalon threatened, glaring furiously at the unicorn as she pawed a hoof against Antares' back, and the glossy-black stallion winced a little before the tiny Pegasus added moodily: “Furthermore, don't think you're showing off or anything. We all know Twilight better than you do or ever will, same goes for Celestia.”

“I have more in common with them both than a whiny shorn-wing like yourself will ever have.” Prestige retorted, and then she winced and reared back when Avalon shot immediately through the air to hover ominously in front of her, glaring daggers down at the Pegasus.

They glowered at each other angrily, sparks flying between the two before Antares said tiredly: “Come on, can we all just... not do this today? Prestige, you were sick yesterday yourself, you know how serious this is. Heck, a lot of ponies were sick yesterday... do you really want that to happen again? What if there really is something important out there and we miss it because we're bickering?”

“Fine.” Avalon muttered, then she sighed and fluttered backwards, glancing over at he young stallion and hesitating before she shook her head quickly. “Hey, don't be so hard on yourself, Mir. I hate it when you get that look on your face.”

Antares only smiled a little, shaking his own head in response, and Avalon grumbled before she flew a little higher, adding: “Look, I'll go scout ahead, okay? If I see anything really weird I'll come right back and get you guys but otherwise I can take a look-see real fast on my own, and wait for you up ahead if there's nothing there. Sound good?”

The tiny Pegasus nodded quickly a few times to herself, and before Antares could even say anything, she was already off like a shot, heading high into the air and out of Ponyville. Antares groaned and rolled his eyes before Aphrodisia grinned at him, and the male stared before she burst apart into black smoke, twisting upwards in a swirling cloud that followed quickly in the wake of the little Pegasus.

“Oh come on!” Antares complained, and then he sighed and looked grumpily around at his remaining friends, as Prestige huffed, Meadowlark smiled despite herself, and Rustproof only continued to look amiable. “I guess we better step on it, then. At least they'll have each other to fall back on if something happens.”

“Oh yes, the demonic prostatot and Little Miss Solves Everything By Running Into It. That's sure to go over well.” Prestige grumbled, and when the others glared at her, she only sniffed loudly: “Well, let's not waste time, ponies, either way. Whether I'm wrong or right is irrelevant in the long run, since their enemy is an infection and not something either of them can seduce or beat to death.”

Antares and Meadowlark both grumbled but resisted the urge to argue as Rustproof only calmly looked ahead, keeping his eyes away from Prestige as the unicorn mare huffed grumpily. The rest of the walk through town to the gates was awkward... but shortly after they passed out onto the dusty road, the bridge only a short distance away and several figures visibly flitting around the area, Prestige looked up and asked hesitantly: “Antares, what do we do in the matter of course that... we do discover something?”

“What?” Antares looked almost stupefied for a moment as he realized that Prestige was actually asking his advice on a subject, the glossy-black young stallion trying to wrap his mind around this before he hurriedly shook his head and answered finally: “It... depends what it is, Prestige. If it's something that's... from Clockwork World, let's say, we'll do what we can to slow it down while we call for help. But if it's some kind of poison or... sludge or... I dunno, then we'll mark it off and make sure we don't get sick ourselves. Common sense stuff.”

“Fighting a disease-riddled monster does not sound like common sense. It sounds like stupidity masquerading as bravery and heroism.” Prestige mumbled, then she shook her head vehemently as she looked grudgingly at Meadowlark and Rustproof. “Only you and I and possibly the prostatot could battle a monster capable of infecting others. And one of us here could not fight at all, even if it was nothing more serious than an angry foal.”

Meadowlark flushed a bit at this as Antares glared at Prestige, but the red-coated Pegasus answered sharply: “I'll do what I have to do, Prestige. Besides, your magic isn't everything... and I've never even seen you cast more than a few spells in a row before you tire yourself out.”

“Please, my spells are so powerful they penetrate all but the strongest of defenses.” Prestige scoffed, raising her head proudly. “I am a superior specimen of a superior breed.”

Antares only groaned... then he sighed in relief as he realized they were approaching the bridge, before smiling warmly as two shapes shot down from the sky, side-by-side, and landed in perfect time together on the bridge. One of them was Avalon, who was grinning brightly; the other was a sky-blue Pegasus stallion, who straightened and squared his broad shoulders, shaking his messy rainbow mane out as he grinned widely and his magenta eyes lit up at the sight of the foals. “Hey, kids! Heard you guys were coming out here, so I thought I'd take a second look. Not... you know, too close, since that's your job and everything, but hey. Doesn't hurt to scan things over from way up there, right?”

Rainbow winked as he gestured at the sky, multicolored tail flicking as he stepped forwards, and Avalon looked brightly after her father, admiring the cutie mark on his haunch for a moment: a cloud, releasing a rainbow-colored thunderbolt. The tiny Pegasus often complained that she had gotten a cutie mark from her mother's side of the family instead of her father's. Then Avalon shook her head hurriedly out and bounced forwards, adding quickly: “And we might have found something, too! Apple Pie is up ahead, prowling around and stuff.”

“Let's go see, then.” Antares nodded firmly, before he smiled and added, as the group started forwards and Prestige peered almost suspiciously at the blue Pegasus: “It's good to see you, Rainbow.”

“You too, kid. You been practicing lately?” Rainbow smiled, flicking a wing out to lightly nudge Antares' own leathery appendage, the young stallion blushing a little. “I hope I didn't teach you all those tricks just to let 'em rot.”

He stopped, then laughed as Avalon leapt up beside him, buzzing excitedly around her father and the glossy black young stallion as Rainbow easily led the way along the creek bank. “Calm down, Ava, you're gonna wear yourself out again! But anyway, see down there?” Rainbow leapt into the air, easily flapping his wings to hold himself aloft as he pointed ahead with one hoof. “There's something weird starting to spread around here, and the water's real... well, you guys can see the problem by now, I'm sure.”

Antares frowned a bit, stepping over to the side of the creek and gazing down into the water, and he made a face at the sight of it: it was a murky, dark color, and as he watched, some kind of sludge floated by on the surface of the liquid. For some reason, Antares shivered at the sight of this, seeing something more, something deeper... something menacing, before Rainbow continued in a more serious voice: “I'm going to join Soarin' upriver and take a look around there, see if we can track the source of this down. But there's a culvert just up ahead that looks real slimy. Don't go inside it, but take a look around it. Maybe you and Prestige can use your magic to figure out what's growing on it. I'll let Cowlick and Twilight know when I get back in town.”

“Cowlick?” Antares cocked his head curiously, and Rainbow smiled after a moment with a nod in return. “Why does she have to know?”

“'Cause Momma will know the tunnels, or at least have access to the maps. Nibelung work crews from the tech center look after them.” Rustproof answered calmly, and Rainbow nodded with a grunt before the large earth pony leaned carefully to the side, murmuring: “I don't like this none. It don't look good.”

“No it don't.” Rainbow agreed, and then he shook his head before turning to begin flying away, calling easily: “No heroics, guys! Just take a look and find out what you can!”

Antares watched as Rainbow flew away... and a moment later, Avalon dropped in front of his face, grinning brightly as she asked cheerfully: “So, we gonna investigate that tunnel or what?”

“Do you know what a culvert is?” Prestige asked with disgust, and when the Pegasus glared at her, then unicorn mare sniffed disdainfully and strode quickly onwards, muttering: “Of course not. Low-brow midget thug.”

Avalon growled under her breath, then she landed primly on Antares' back and leaned over his head, asking moodily: “Can we shove her in? Please? I'll knock her out first.”

Antares sighed a little, even if a large part of him wanted very badly to agree... but when they reached the culvert, the young stallion's attention shifted to Aphrodisia. She was seated on the bank on the other side of the creek, staring into the wide culvert as if entranced... but she was shivering, too, and Antares frowned before he traded nervous looks with both Meadowlark, and then Avalon.

A moment later, the tiny Pegasus fluttered off the young stallion's back, and Antares leapt quickly outwards, flapping his wings once and ignoring the bolt of pain it sent through his system to land beside Aphrodisia on the other side of the embankment. She blinked in something like surprise when he did, baring her fangs as if she didn't recognize him, and Antares looked at her with concern before she blushed and shook her head, mumbling: “Oh, Nova... you... your fault. Bad timing.”

“I... are you okay? You almost look scared... I've never seen you scared, not even when that giant thing came and...” Antares shook his head quickly, pushing away bad memories before he smiled a little, reaching up and silently touching the demon's shoulder as she shook her head hurriedly.

“I don't know.” Aphrodisia whispered after a moment, and the answer scared Antares as he looked at her, studied her... and understood that she was being honest. “I don't know. I feel these weird instincts rising up inside me, Antares, like nothing I've ever felt before... it feels like I'm looking at something, like I'm fire and it's ice... I don't like this. I don't like this one bit.”

She growled a little, low in her throat, and Antares nodded slowly as Prestige carefully inspected along the top of the culvert, leaning carefully off the bank as the unicorn mare muttered: “It smells awful, but doesn't resemble any kind of magical flora or fauna I've ever studied... it looks like slime. Are there any kinds of living slime around Ponyville?”

“Living slime? Are you serious?” Avalon asked flatly, as Meadowlark frowned and then hopped carefully into the air, flapping her own wings to hover tentatively lower by the culvert and peer into the dark depths. And Antares shivered as he looked past the Pegasi into this, realized how much it looked like a gaping mouth, or a staring socket, filled with horrific life and beyond, deep inside there, there was some pulsating, evil brain thinking poisonous thoughts it wanted to infect the entire world with...

Antares shook his head hurriedly, breathing a bit harder before he looked up... then sighed at the sight of Rustproof nervously lighting a cigarette with a wooden match, the glossy-black young stallion saying in a sharper voice than he intended: “Oh come on, Rusty! You just got in trouble for that!”

“That thing scares me.” Rustproof said plaintively as he shook the match out, and then he blushed a bit when Meadowlark flew back up to the field and landed in front of him, yanking the cigarette out of his muzzle and tossing it over her shoulder.

It landed point-up, the little cylinder sitting in what was more sludge than water, smoke streaming up to the sky as Meadowlark began to chastise her younger friend... but then all went silent as a soft sigh echoed out of the culvert, Prestige stumbling backwards and Avalon shooting to the air, and Aphrodisia hissed like a cat and stiffened, leaning forwards with her eyes glowing and fangs bared.

A moment later, there was a rough, inhaling sound, and the cigarette smoke was drawn into the culvert instead of up into the sky, before a voice sang softly, almost sweetly:

“Oh me, oh my, what's this that entices my nose?
An after-dinner mint... the kind that brings the high with the lows...
Ooh, wait, oh wait, hey, do you hear my voice?
Who's out there, who's listening, speak out now, rejoice!”

The ponies remained silent, breathing harder... and then there was a sickening, squelching sound from the culvert, like something was slowly beginning to twist its way towards them, and Antares gritted his teeth as Aphrodisia snarled and shivered violently, leaping to her hooves and leaning forwards aggressively. Avalon, meanwhile, rose higher in the air, as Prestige, Meadowlark, and Rustproof all quickly backed away.

“What's wrong, don't you got no manners, no respect?
And just what is this I sense, I feel, I smell, I taste, I do detect?
Sha-da-da-de, well I'll be! It's a set of humble pony-folk...
And... a filthy Helheim harlot, hanging with ponies? Now that's a funny joke.”

The voice chuckled eagerly, and Antares leaned forwards as he saw an ill red light begin to glow in the darkness, leaning down towards the culvert and shouting clearly: “Whoever or whatever you are, this isn't a game! We are citizens of Ponyville... are you the one that caused the plague?”

“Ooh, there was a plague? A delicious, nutritious, resplendiforous plague? And I missed it?” called a cheery voice from the culvert, echoing strangely as the slimy gunk on the walls of the tunnel seemed to pulsate and twist in response to whatever was speaking. “Damn! I would have loved to see and gotten me a taste of all them dead and dyin'... where were they lyin'? Was they cryin'? Did they go about it moanin' and sighin'?”

The voice cackled, and then, slowly, a hideous thing stepped up into the edge of the tunnel, Antares leaning back in horror at the sight of its mottled white-and-yellow features. The monster grinned up at him, then its red eyes slowly drew down before widening delightedly at the sight of the cigarette, hurriedly reaching down to sweep this up and toss it into its own jaws. The beast chewed on this eagerly, then sighed dreamily as it whispered: “Ooh, nicotine, my beauty queen, don't you ever change... you're a slow killer, a thriller, a filler of my aches and pains...”

Then the monster rose its head and grinned slowly as its eyes locked on Antares and Aphrodisia, pony breathing hard and demon still snarling, body almost glowing as her skin rippled strangely. “Well, what, look what we have here... a little bitty pony-wony and an ickle baby slutty-wutty. Ooh, I bet you're both all full of all kinds of good juices I can squeeze out of you...”

The creature stepped forwards... then it grinned before twisting its head around completely on its neck, looking up at the staring, shocked faces of Avalon and Prestige before crowing cheerfully: “And more! All so young, so tender, so promising! Well, I promise, sweeties, that I'm gonna crunch you up real fast, okay?”

The monster twisted around, and then its eyes widened and it cursed sharply, head snapping back around as it reversed quickly into the culvert, muttering: “Wait, wait, wait, damn it all to Helheim, how could I forget? Gotta have a big entrance. Gotta introduce myself. I don't wanna go down in the history books as 'the unknown entity that trashed the world.' I wanna be well known! I wanna be better liked! But most of all I want each and every one of you punks to fear hearin' my name before I rip you apart outside-inside-out!”

Antares stared in horror, and then he shivered before leaning back in shock when the monster leapt back out of the well, striking a pose on its hind legs as it rose its front limbs into the air, singing:

“Well it's a real pleasure to meet you like this before I kill you all dead,
Except for the one who gets the honor to tell all your friends what I said:
Tell 'em, 'oh no, he's here, the very thing we've always had to dread!'
'Cause you see my name is Cancer, and you're already a corpse if you ain't fled.

Now I don't much care whether or not you call me Pope or God or King,
I like it when you beg for mercy, but in the same way I likes me some silly string,
If I get it then it's great, and if not somehow I'm sure I'll continue doin' my thing...
So get ready now to die my sweets, and don't waste my time by fighting.

So, just to be clear, my name is Cancer, and I'm going to kill you and you and you and you and you.” Cancer said cheerfully, twisting obscenely at the waist as he pointed at each of the ponies one by one, then paused and hesitated as he peered at trembling Meadowlark. “Except for you, babe. No, no, you're the one who gets to survive for now, so you can go tell all your friends what's on the way! Let 'em marinate for me in their own fear for a while, oh yeah, that'll be the sweet stuff... huh, huh, bet you understand me demon bitch, huh?”

Cancer spun around, waggling his eyebrows at Aphrodisia, and the demon only snarled before leaping suddenly forwards, pouncing towards Cancer... but the monster only laughed as he shoved a foreleg up towards her, which split apart into thick, gelatinous looking tentacles that constricted viciously around Aphrodisia's body, the demon screaming in pain as horrible, bony spikes ripped out along the lengths of the horrific appendages and tore against her as the tentacles squeezed all the fiercer against her struggling frame.

Cancer clucked his muzzle at her, raising his other foreleg and shaking it back and forth mockingly before he said easily: “Stupid little whore. Well, nice of you to volunteer to be the first to-”

“Mommy!” Aphrodisia screamed, her voice filled with rage more than pain, and Cancer snorted in disgust at this, looking at her with contempt even as Antares began to step forwards, horn glowing.

“Oh come on, crying for mommy-mommy-mommy already? I haven't even hurt you that much yet!” Cancer mocked, before he glared up at Antares. “And don't you go tossing your silly magic at me, boy, or I'll kill her and then kill you with the pieces of her left over, you got-”

A black, smoky shape twisted suddenly down out of the sky, Cancer looking up in surprise before it transformed into a terrible, massive beast that slammed into the monster's limb, ripping it off at the shoulder. Cancer immediately shrieked in horror, the severed limb and tentacles bursting apart into white slime as Aphrodisia fell into the murky, disgusting water of the creek, and Cancer hurriedly fled past her and into the tunnels, Antares staring in shock as he caught sight of the monster transforming, dissolving, becoming nothing more than shapeless slime even as his voice screamed: “I'll be back! This is just the prologue, we ain't even gotten started yet, you hear me? I'll be back!”

Antares breathed hard, finally tearing his eyes away from the tunnel to look towards the creature that had come down from the sky: its wings were angelic and gray-white, but its dull-pink body was warped and hulking, mane twisting of its own accord around large, draconic horns, and cloven hooves like claws at the end of enormous limbs. Its eyes were nothing but hellish blue fire rimmed with red in skull-like features, its teeth tombstone-like and too big even for its gigantic jaws.

The demon spat out some of the whitish goo that composed Cancer's body, then it hurried over to Aphrodisia, who was already picking herself up from the water, shivering: and as the monstrous demon drew closer, its body rippled and changed, wings collapsing into its frame, features smoothing out, form shrinking... and a moment later, it was Pinkamena who grasped Aphrodisia and leveled her up, quickly looking back and forth over her daughter's form as she cursed under her breath. “Wounded bad. Kiddo, what were you thinking? Come on, I got you...”

Aphrodisia shivered but nodded weakly as Prestige only sat back, pale and staring, and Meadowlark trembled violently. Avalon was staring down helplessly from the air, and Antares mouthed wordlessly, watching as Pinkamena carefully lifted Aphrodisia's bloody, battered body up over her own. The gray-pink mare gritted her sharp teeth, snarling at the culvert before she spat to the side, then looked sharply up and snapped: “Avalon! Fly into town, find Celestia or Twilight, get 'em out here fast!”

“I... I... okay!” Avalon nodded hurriedly, snapped out of her trance by Pinkamena's glare, and then she shot upwards before zooming through the skies like a bullet towards Ponyville. Antares swallowed thickly, then he winced and leapt forwards, flapping his wings once to cross the creek and pass over the culvert: the culvert that no longer simply seemed disgusting and suspicious, but like it contained the stuff of nightmares come to life.

“What... what was that?” he asked weakly as he landed on the other side, and Pinkamena carefully carried her daughter up the bank. The demon snorted at him in response, but even through his trembles of fear, Antares could see her gathering her thoughts, trying to form an answer... and worst of all, that she was scared. “Pinkamena...”

“It was putrid. It was vile. And only one gives us demons that knee-jerk reaction. Ginnungagap creatures... except unlike our good friend Bob, that thing isn't some slapstick chaos entity. You felt it, didn't you, kid?” Pinkamena narrowed her glowing blue eyes at him, the two studying each other as Meadowlark, Prestige, and Rustproof all gazed worriedly at the two, and Aphrodisia gave a weak whimper of pain... of fear. “That thing reeks of death.”

Antares swallowed thickly, shaking his head weakly as a shiver ran through him before Pinkamena gritted her teeth, adding sharply: “And what the hell were you all thinking? Sitting around here on your flanks like idiots, you all could have been torn apart... look at Aphrodisia, at what that thing did to her: that thing is so toxic makes even me wanna puke even now, you idiots would have been killed just by making contact with that living pile of snot, why the hell didn't any of you do a goddamn thing to escape? Especially you, Aphrodisia, you... goddammit, I already have to watch out for Sleipnir, I don't...”

Pinkamena snarled, baring her teeth, body rippling with a tremble that passed through her... and then Antares stepped forwards and hugged the Gluttony demon fiercely around the neck, trembling and burying his face against her as he whispered: “I'm sorry, Pinkamena. We all froze up and... and it's my fault Aphrodisia got hurt...”

“Hey, don't make this all about you.” Pinkamena muttered, closing her eyes and sighing... but she visibly relaxed as well, shaking her head moodily. “You remind me of your parents a lot, Antares. And no, that ain't exactly a compliment.”

Antares smiled faintly all the same, then he looked worriedly at Aphrodisia as Pinkamena carefully laid the young, wounded demon down in front of her, silently stroking her daughter's face as she murmured: “And you stay still, little girl. Mommy's here... and we're gonna hunt that monster down, you and me.”

Aphrodisia only whimpered a little, as the others nervously gathered around her, Meadowlark silently striding up beside Antares and touching his side gently. The young stallion swallowed nervously, looking at the awful wounds and bruises on his cousin's body, and then he glanced up in surprise when Pinkamena asked quietly: “Can you do Nightmare Moon's magic?”

“I... I don't know. Maybe... I'll try.” Antares said quietly, and his horn began to glow as he reached out, gently touching Aphrodisia's shoulder with a hoof as she looked up at him almost pleadingly, trembles wracking his cousin's body...

He swallowed thickly, trying to focus through the emotions, but it was harder than he'd expected: sure, he and his friends had taken their share of bruises and battering before, but most of that had been during training, and there had always been somepony around to fix things if they got really out of hoof. But he'd never seen Aphrodisia so hurt... and he was no good at magic at the best of times, and this kind of magic, healing demons, it was much more complicated than healing mortals...

His horn sparked faintly, and Antares felt his confidence crumbling even as he leaned forwards a bit further, knowing he had to try... but knowing at the same time he was going to fail. All the same, he pushed forwards, even if only driven by the need to not let down his family, by his friends' eyes on him, and his horn glowed a bit brighter as one of the larger wounds on Aphrodisia's body started to glow...

It steamed faintly, healing a little... and then Aphrodisia moaned in agony, and Antares hurriedly halted his magic, looking down at the wound and shivering as ill-smelling mist hissed quietly up from the wounded demon, and Aphrodisia curled up a bit, whimpering. He hadn't healed the wound so much as cauterized it. He gritted his teeth, leaning forwards again, but Pinkamena leaned over her daughter's body and shoved him backwards, making him tremble and stare even as she said in a surprisingly-gentle voice: “It's better if we wait.”

Antares nodded a few times, flushing and looking down as he whispered a weak apology, feeling an embarrassed blush tinging his cheeks as Meadowlark rubbed up and down his back soothingly. And yet that only made him feel worse: Aphrodisia was the one who deserved the praise and comfort, not him. He hadn't done anything but made things worse.

For a few moments, there was silence... and then all eyes turned upwards as Avalon shot down from the air, followed by Twilight Sparkle. The Lich grimaced as she landed beside Aphrodisia, and Antares began to open his mouth... before simply staring when Twilight's eyes closed and her horn glowed, bowing it quickly forwards, and a dark violet aura encased Aphrodisia for a moment before the demon released a cry tinged with both shock and pain.

Pinkamena gritted her teeth as steam hissed up from Aphrodisia's glowing body... but as it faded, the young demon was left laying unconscious, the worst of her wounds healed, the bleeding halted. Antares could only stare in disbelief and amazement at the ease that Twilight had cast the spell with... and maybe a little jealousy, too. No, that wasn't quite right... it was something else. Some other bitter, curdled emotion that made him feel sick to his stomach, thinking how he should have been able to do that, even as Twilight asked Pinkamena sharply: “Avalon said whatever did this ran into the tunnels... do you know what it was?”

“Reeked of Ginnungagap. Reeked like Fafnir did... I've never forgotten that smell, that feeling, but I doubt any of us have.” Pinkamena replied disgustedly, shaking her head slowly. Twilight shivered at this, and Antares caught this, looking sharply up and staring in disbelief at the emotions he felt emanating from his mother and guardian. “We should get Princess Sunshine, have her blow the whole tunnel system for us.”

“I already sent Avalon to tell Celestia what's going on, and after that she's to head to Cowlick. Cowlick can close down the maintenance hatches, trap that thing in there.” Twilight shook her head slowly, turning and striding nervously over to the edge of the embankment and gazing down into the murky water, and then she shivered a little at the sight of the goo coating the culvert. “It... it looks, it feels so toxic... I'm going to have to ask Greece to analyze this.”

She shook her head slowly, then frowned and looked over her shoulder, asking quietly: “Antares, what happened? Why didn't you report this immediately?”

“I... I just...” Antares shook his head a bit, then he said finally, weakly: “I don't know. We didn't know what it was, we were investigating the area like Celestia asked, and then... that thing just...”

“I got nervous so I had a cigarette. It's my fault.” Rustproof spoke up quietly, and both Twilight and Pinkamena looked at him with surprise as the enormous blue colt stepped forwards, bowing his head. “Ain't Antares or Aphrodisia's fault. They were trying to figure out what to do, and I lit up a cigarette. The smell of it woke that thing up.”

Meadowlark smiled faintly, shaking her head slowly before she began to open her mouth... but Rusty only smiled at her, giving her a look, and the crimson Pegasus blushed before closing her jaws silently. Twilight frowned a bit at Rustproof, obviously not knowing what to say before Pinkamena asked: “You got any more smokes on you, kid?”

Rustproof nodded, reaching into his jacket pocket and fumbling for a moment before he produced a cigarette, and Pinkamena strode over to him, taking this and studying the cylinder. Then she looked at him pointedly, and the colt smiled awkwardly, shrugging and saying finally: “Last one. Momma already took the rest of my smokes.”

“If you're lying to me, colt, I'll crawl out from under your bed one night and help myself to one of your ribs.” Pinkamena said mildly, and Rustproof nodded lamely before the dull-pink mare strode towards Twilight, questioning distastefully: “Can't you do some hocus-pocus and make sure that thing can't crawl out of this culvert once we leave?”

“I... I suppose I could. I could set up a barrier, at least, until we can station demons here, since you seem immune to the toxins that monster carries.” Twilight said slowly, and then her horn glowed as she concentrated. Her eyes slipped closed, and she grumbled and ignored the feeling of Pinkamena pressing the cigarette against her horn as it sparked with magic.

The end of the cigarette burst into flame, and Pinkamena grunted something like a 'thank you' as she put the cigarette in her mouth, blowing a stream of smoke through her nostrils as Twilight flicked her horn upwards and a violet barrier sparked into life, sizzling with energy and electricity. The slime around the energy field smoldered violently and charred rapidly away as purple arcs of lightning sizzled around the edge of the barrier, and Twilight shook her head slowly as she muttered: “Should be good enough.”

Pinkamena grunted, looking down over her daughter as Aphrodisia slowly began to pick herself up, and then the demon said moodily: “Let's just go and catch that thing before it makes Ponyville sick again. We already got enough to worry about without some fugly plague dog running around.”

Twilight sighed a little, but she nodded after a moment in agreement, murmuring: “There's nothing more we can do here ourselves anyway. Come on kids, we need to get you all back into town... Celestia will want to know what happened, and I want Scarlet Sage to look each and every one of you over. I don't want any of you getting sick, especially not with most of Ponyville still feeling the effects of this thing.”

Antares hung his head silently as the others nodded, and then the glossy black stallion quickly turned and hurried up to Aphrodisia's side as she carefully pulled herself to her hooves. Demon leaned against her cousin, mumbling weakly to him as they rested together and began to make their way carefully back towards town, Pinkamena striding slowly along on her daughter's other side as she quietly puffed on the cigarette.

Twilight followed as Prestige babbled out the events to her and her thoughts, and Rustproof and Meadowlark brought up the rear. Apart from Prestige's constant rambling, however, the walk was quiet: Antares was brimming with shame and self-loathing, Aphrodisia looked too sore and tired to do anything apart from concentrate on walking with her cousin's support, and Rustproof and Meadowlark both looked muted.

Just outside of Ponyville, however, they ran into a surprise: a goldenrod mare was waiting for them, her blonde mane and tail both tightly braided and a well-worn cowboy hat on her head. Her green eyes filled with concern at the sight of Aphrodisia... then disgust as Pinkamena grinned and loudly slurped the butt of her cigarette into her mouth, swallowing it before snorting and sending out a burst of ashes and smoke from her nostrils. “Well, look who it is. Miss Special Olympics. I thought you'd be home hiding in bed, Applejack.”

“You see this rifle on my back, Pinkamena? I swear I will shoot you with it.” Applejack replied flatly, gesturing at the walnut stock of the weapon held on by the strap over her shoulder. Then she shook her head quickly, frowning worriedly as she asked quietly: “You okay there, Aphrodisia? Ain't never seen you so badly beaten up before, not even when you were just a filly and that centaur monster attacked.”

Aphrodisia only managed a bit of a smile, and Twilight added quietly: “But Applejack, with your lungs...”

“Oh, screw my lungs. I'll be fine.” Applejack said crankily, reaching up to rub slowly at her chest with a grimace. “I ain't old or useless yet, and I don't plan on letting a little asthma slow me down neither. Anyway, Apple Bloom, Cowlick, and me are gonna grab some of the Starlit Knights, form up a rifle group and start locking down wells and exits from the tunnels.”

“Yeah, big sister, but you gotta wear your mask, that was part of the deal.” added another voice, and Applejack groaned loudly as a yellow earth pony strode quickly out of the gates, a smile on her warm features as her orange eyes looked with amusement at the goldenrod mare. She was actually a little taller now than her big sister: something that frustrated Applejack endlessly.

The sunshine-colored earth pony tossed her vibrant red mane: it was tied tightly back with a single white bow ornamented with a ruby shaped like an apple. She looked pointedly at her big sister, as Applejack looked flatly back, then she finally grumbled and nodded, mumbling: “Takin' orders from my little sister. What's the world coming to, Apple Bloom?”

Apple Bloom only smiled softly, however, reaching back into the satchel hanging at her side and extracting a thick, rubberized mask with a large filter built into the front. She passed this to Applejack, who grumbled but took it and put it on, and Antares smiled despite himself: the sisters were different in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways they were the same, too. Even though Applejack's emblem was of three apples and her talent was for farming, and Apple Bloom's was of blooming flowers for her skills in designing, improving, and growing anything from little more than scrap... they had that same stubbornness, that same determination, that same stance.

Then Apple Bloom glanced awkwardly over at the rest of the group, eyes lingering on Twilight and Antares before she cleared her throat and adjusted the gemstone-studded armor vest she was wearing. “Listen, Cowlick is looking for you, Twilight. And if you see her... can you send Scarlet Sage my way?”

“You lesbians are so cute together.” Pinkamena remarked wryly, and Apple Bloom glowered at her as Antares sighed and Twilight gave the demon a flat look. “I mean, this is the sixth time you two have 'broken up' and then come crawling back to each other, isn't it?”

“Well excuse me all to hell for not just beating her like you beat Sleipnir.” Apple Bloom said flatly, and then she sighed and mumbled: “Besides, ain't that easy. And this ain't about that, anyway, Cowlick wants her coming with us to check for infection and stuff.”

“Just don't run off to make out with her.” Applejack mumbled in a muffled, surly voice from behind her mask, and Apple Bloom flushed and glared at her big sister, who only grumbled in response. “I ain't apologizing for nothing. I hate this thing. Makes me feel like a bad dog.”

“Well, that's fitting. You are a bitch, after all.” Pinkamena said mildly, and then she easily paced forwards as Rustrpoof blushed, Aphrodisia groaned, and Antares sighed tiredly. Applejack only shrugged grouchily, however, but as the demon passed, she reached out and gently grasped the goldenrod earth pony's shoulder.

Applejack smiled a little behind the mask, and then she gestured easily with her head to the others, saying quietly: “Go on now, don't let us hold you up any. Aphrodisia, looks like you should try and lay your head down, get you some rest. Twilight... you take care of yourself, hear?”

Twilight smiled a little and nodded, and the Lich strode quietly up to her old friend to trade a short, tight embrace with her before striding past as the young ponies followed. Then Antares glanced up in surprise as Apple Bloom called his name, and he hesitated... but Aphrodisia half-pushed herself away from him, giving a bit of a smile as she said softly: “Go on, Nova. Besides, I don't need your help, see? I'm a big filly.”

“Even demons need help now and then.” Antares said softly, and Aphrodisia replied by blowing a raspberry at him, making him laugh a little before he nodded and turned. Meadowlark hesitated, looking back at the young stallion... but Rustproof gently nudged her, and the rest of the group continued on into town.

Antares turned to face Apple Bloom, then nodded when she gestured to the side of the road. He fell into pace with her in quiet as they walked out of the main street and towards a quieter nook... not that there were many ponies around, and even the gates had only a few tired-looking Nibelung guards standing around them.

They came to a stop next to a closed coffee shop, and Apple Bloom hesitated for a moment before she looked down at Antares, taking a slow breath before she reached her hooves up and grasped his shoulders. Antares winced a bit, feeling a strange sensation run through him before he began awkwardly: “Apple Bloom, I... I really don't want to get involved in an argument between you and my sister...”

“No, no, it... it ain't like that, Antares, it ain't like that at all. Besides, we just needed time to think about things this time, weren't no bad fight or anything.” Apple Bloom smiled at him, and Antares cocked his head curiously before the earth pony said quietly: “Listen, Antares. I love you like a little brother, and you know how much I love your sister, even if we butt heads. And I know it's my fault as much as it is your sister's... maybe even a little more. Yeah, we understand each other, we can feel each other, we read each other's emotions... we have that special link between us, that I asked Scarlet Sage to make all those years ago now. But... sometimes that just makes things harder, 'cause unless we're a good distance apart, we end up still feeling each other and hearing each other and we don't get no privacy and... I'm sorry, I'm... I'm nervous. I gotta tell you something.

“Antares, every time your sister and I have a bad quarrel, I end up runnin' off back to the family farm and cooling down there before I go back home to her. But this time was different: I didn't leave just 'cause we got into it again, I left 'cause I was thinking about... real stupid stuff I ain't gonna trouble you with. But Antares, Scarlet Sage makes me feel like... no matter where I am with her, I'm at home, and she's the best damn thing in the world to me. Even when I'm mad as hell at her, the reason I leave ain't 'cause I wanna get away from her... it's 'cause I don't want to hurt her none.

“But this time, when I was going to come back in, there was the quarantine in the way... and Scarlet Sage was in there. Helping ponies, putting all her own problems aside for them, I knew she was, and... it reminded me why I love her so much. And it made me feel downright stupid... if she wasn't a Blood Seer, if things had been just a little worse... what if she'd gotten sick, and I couldn't be there for her? It made me think a lot.” Apple Bloom stopped, looking down, and then she glanced up and said quietly: “Your sister and I... we always wanna be together. We always come back together, even when we try and spend time apart.

“So I'm gonna ask her to marry me, Antares, and I wanted to tell you first 'cause... I know how important she is to you, and you're... special to me, too.” Apple Bloom smiled a little, and Antares stared stupidly up at the earth pony. “And besides, I'm gonna need your help. I ain't stupid enough to think I know every little thing about your sister so... I need you to help me figure out... well, a lot of stuff.”

“Wow...” Antares murmured quietly, laughing a little before he asked hesitantly: “Do you want.. Celestia to preside? I can ask Aunt Tia, I'm sure she'd say yes...”

“Yeah. But I don't think either of us want nothin' too formal. Just something to show... we're together.” Apple Bloom smiled a little, then she leaned forwards and kissed Antares' forehead, adding quietly: “And one other thing, Antares. When I was a filly, me and Scoot and Sweetie... we screwed up a lot. And as we got older, we continued to screw up a lot... even today, I screw up a whole bunch. But Antares, that's part of life: that's how you learn, and you grow. You make mistakes, you wade in over your head, or you do something dumb. Antares, just 'cause things went wrong... don't mean it would have gone any better if things had went right, do you understand?”

Antares flushed and lowered his head silently, and Apple Bloom softened, saying quietly: “Don't go beating yourself up now. Ain't no point in that. Remember what Sleipnir's always telling us, huh? 'If you make a mistake, study it, learn from it, then smile and do it better next time.' Ain't that right?”

“Right. I... Apple Bloom, thank you.” Antares smiled and looked up, hesitantly nodding, and he shifted a bit on his hooves before saying finally: “Tell her right when you see her. Walk up to her, give her a kiss, and tell her. Nothing means more to her than when she's reminded you aren't ashamed of who you are, or who she is. That means more to her than any expensive jewelry or anything else.”

Apple Bloom looked at him thoughtfully, then she nodded slowly once and smiled, reaching up to ruffle his mane firmly. “Yeah. I should know that, too, shouldn't I? Thanks, Antares. You're a good kid.”

Antares only smiled at this, closing his eyes and bowing his head in thanks to the earth pony before they traded one last look, one last smile, then turned and hurried on their separate ways and their separate missions.