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by JarvyJared

… And this is the strangest paradox of the disease. On the surface, it is the same process that the body has seemingly perfected after so many years of evolution, trial, and error: replication... All of these individual units are supposed to add up to the whole—everything is, as the poets say, a “vibrant vestigial” of the greater being. Yet somehow, something went wrong. The book used the wrong typeface, perhaps, or the runes inscribed upon the very basis of life shifted the lines ever so slightly so as to achieve a different meaning… Normal becomes abnormal; then, soon, abnormal outnumbers the normal, so as to become normal… such that what used to be conventional no longer is, and, as with any abnormality, is defeated by overpowering them with what is in sheer quantity of a higher scale, a greater order of magnitude…
- Excerpt from the pages of Starswirl the Bearded’s “Sins of Carcinogens”

A harsh dawn rose upon the silt-black shoreline, and Daring Do rose with it.
She’d been dreaming—she was sure of it. But the moment her eyes caught sight of the black shoreline, the dream was forever lost in the miasma of confusion which, like the cold waves against her sullen form, carried away the thought of past occurrences. The coldness was slow in encouraging her to move, and a strange wind whipped through her mane like a foal’s breath. For some reason it brought to mind an old memory, a hot breath against hers, a body wrapping itself around her torso tightly—then it, too, was gone.
Slowly, muscles moved with automatic precision. Her legs forced themselves under her, then pushed up, bringing her to all four hooves. Water dripped from her jacket in laborious singlets. She shivered. When she went to ruffle her wings, more water splashed off of her. The movement caused her to wince. Her right wing was injured, though she couldn’t tell how badly.
She took a step, then paused, her gaze drifting to a place in front of her. There rested her pith hat. She swept it up, shook and wrung it, depositing a swath of water and some odd clump of vegetation onto the shore. Something about this displeased her, and she spent several moments shaking the hat until she was sure it was dry enough to put on. When she had replaced it upon her head, the wind suddenly picked up, screeching against her face. She closed her eyes and grit her teeth.
Then, just as suddenly, the wind vanished, and all was but the crashing of waves.
“Well,” Daring murmured, “if that isn’t an ominous warning…” She laughed, but it was weak.
Old adventuring and survival instincts took over humor. She trudged a few more steps so that she was no longer in the water, then glanced around her surroundings. To the north and south ran the silt shoreline, dispersing into the distant horizon with an unhinged and uncanny sense of infinite length. Turning her head back to the front, she saw a twisting jungle of palm trees and shrubbery, thick and widespread like cancer cells of verdant growth. With her one wing out of commission, she could not hope to fly up and see above it.
But she could still see what rose out in the distance, like a shadow of a goliath. It lacked clear shape and form.
In the east, behind her, the sun continued a slow ascent, falling upon an ocean so gray it might have been liquid mercury. Nothing stood in the horizon—neither ship nor sail. Daring tried to look for any signs of wreckage, rafts or makeshift boats, but found nothing.
“All right, Daring,” she said to herself, shaking her head to dislodge the last of the water. “You’re all alone, on some black-colored shore. You don’t remember how you got here, or what you were doing before. What are you going to do?”
She scuffed a hoof through the sand; then, the impression of a thought came to her. She scooped a little up in her wing, watching it sift through her feathers, watched the black particulates fall almost lovingly back down to earth. She stared for a little while at the sand. Then she looked again at the goliath’s shadow.
“A volcano beach,” she whispered. “Gotta be.”
She bent down and dug around the sand until she found something else: a piece of basalt rock, like a shark’s tooth.
She looked at the forest. One area stood out to her, because two palm trees seemed to lean concavely towards one another—an entrance of some sort, but was it natural or pony-made? Did it even matter?
She nodded to herself, then began to trudge up the path.

Scrape. Scrape.
She stepped back to admire the X she’d drawn on the trunk of yet another tree. Then she swiveled her ears.
The jungle was quiet.
Daring had traveled through many similar jungle, had faced countless death traps and dizzying temples and raiders and criminals of every sort of brand. A reporter (who later dropped the story once their life became threatened by agents of Ahuizotl) once asked her what stuck out to her the most about her jungle escapades. She had replied: “It’s always so noisy.”
But this jungle was not. This jungle was quiet.
Wind did not whisper through the banana leaves nor bend around the grooved trunks. She could have made an accurate guess as to what kinds of birds or primates might leave here based solely on the types of vegetation and canopies she witnessed, but no cries or calls from either such animal reached her ears. Nor were there any insects or bugs; she’d never expected to travel anywhere that did not have some faint buzzing or clicking, some sign that even in the darkest and most unseen and remote areas of the world, life persisted.
In place of sounds, there was physical sensation—and only one: that of dampness. Daring found herself quickly panting like a Diamond Dog the more she trudged through the jungle, heat clinging to her fur, to under her fur, to her skin, to under her skin. Breathing was closer to drinking, and the air she gulped tasted funny, with a flavor she could not put a name to. Her lungs struggled to process the humidity. Sweat dripped down her brow and coated her eyelashes, blinding her with thick droplets that forced her to stop every now and then just to wipe them away. Something also smelled—like the inside of a rock-eel’s mouth, if she had to guess at the closest analogy.
And it seemed to grow hotter and more humid with every step, even though she was sure the sun could not penetrate any of the leaves. Indeed, at some point in her journey, she became aware that it had slipped well behind her. Yet though it was quite dark, she could still somehow see. Perhaps it was her sharp pegasus eyes which aided her, or perhaps, some luminous lichen or other form of plant-life grew somewhere else in the jungle, providing her with just enough light to navigate by?
And the soil! She couldn’t understand the soil. It did not fit with anything she knew about islands that grew out of volcanic eruption. She’d expected hard dirt or rock after the silt shore, but the ground beneath her was seemingly moist and soft, like a dish sponge. Each step sent a primal shiver of fear through her, for the porousness reminded her of quicksand—yet she never sunk through.
The vexing volcanism piqued her curiosity, kept her trotting forward, laborious and stubborn, even as the jungle grew thicker, as did the air, as did everything—everything, including the fog still occluding her memory.
She paused, stopping at another tree. Scrape. Scrape. The X stood out chalk-white against the trunks. She listened.
The jungle was quiet. She continued onward.
Time passed unaccounted for, and soon Daring thought she was beginning to grow used to the atmosphere. No longer was she panting, and no longer did the odd, foul taste, like bad morning breath, make her twist up her face. But the jungle seemed without end; each step brought her no close to an exit, even as she was sure she had to be traveling for hours, in the direction, no doubt, of where the volcano was. She was sure she was traveling in a straight line, too, marking a tree trunk every couple hundred paces. So long as she continued in one path, she was sure she’d find some way out—so long as the X’s marked where she’d already been and—
With a start, Daring, having been clutching the basalt tooth with her wing, dropped it, and it fell to the forest floor, emitting not a sound.
There was an X on the tree in front of her.
But she hadn’t marked it—hadn’t she?
She trotted around the tree, meticulously examining the trunk. The X remained steadfast, like a harsh, challenging glare. It seemed exactly as she had made it—so perhaps, then, she had made it, and had simply gotten her sense of direction mixed up?
Somehow she couldn’t believe that. But what choice did she have?
Grunting, Daring turned to her right, looking into the yawning maw of the jungle beyond. In spite of the heat, another chill ran through her. Her hair stood on end. Something was wrong. She knew herself. She knew she’d never get lost, not this easily.
But evidently she had. And there was no point in trying to argue the matter—there, in the form of an X, was the evidence.
Swallowing her distaste, she hefted up the basalt tooth, turned to the tree, then marked the area under the letter with something else: DD. Might as well own the mistake, she thought darkly.
She turned right again, then trotted forward once more.

“What? No, no, that’s impossible! I know I just came from here!”
Daring pointed accusingly at the tree trunk, half-expecting some sort of retort from it. Instead, all she got was the jungle’s eerie silence—and also, the sight of three familiar letters carved onto the tree.
She bristled, lowering her hoof. Her voice did not carry far, but it sounded increasingly mocking the further away it became: “from here, from here, from here…”
She blinked rapidly, rubbed her eyes, looked again—and groaned. The X and DD remained in their spot, the latter below the former.
Had she really bumped her head that hard? Had she truly lost her natural sense of direction? Impossible, she wanted to say—but what proof did she have?
Angrily, she tore past the tree, galloping further into the jungle. All sensibilities had left her; frustration bordering on panic now encouraged her to get away from this mockery as fast as she could.
But then, as quickly as she’d run, she drew herself to a stop, gaping at yet another sight.
Another X. Another DD below it.
“I’m… going in circles?”
No, that couldn’t be it. Based solely on what she’d seen, the island was massive, the jungle just so—she could not have completed a single circuit. All that verdant vegetable-ness (and she silently chided herself for speaking so plainly—where was your doctorate now, Daring?) could not have allowed for her to circle around. She would have noticed—something would have stood out—this duplicate had to be a mistake—
Daring’s thoughts came to a violent halt. She stared at the letters on the tree. Another impression of a thought came to her, one so low and unfavorable, she was nearly disgusted by its very existence. But a curiosity tinged with growing horror compelled her to follow that impression.
She reached into her pocket and dug out the basalt tooth. Hesitating only a moment, she stepped towards the tree, then carved under it another letter: K.
She dropped the tooth. Then she turned to her left and trudged forward, the heat around her growing thicker and thicker. She felt she was stepping into a large mouth—an intestinal tract of heat and humidity, but she could not stop herself. A voice inside was screaming at her to turn around, to run back towards the shore—but it was quieted by the very thickness around her, by some crushing realization just beyond the reach of words.
She came to a stop sooner than she expected. She fell onto her haunches, disbelief at last robbing the last of her strength.
There, on yet another trunk, were all her carvings:
And when she looked past that tree at the others ahead of her, she could have sworn the same combination existed on them.
The trees and ground seemed to shudder like some being was laughing, and some shrill noise exited and entered the forest’s loam.
No, it was not some shrill, random noise; it was a keening cry, a willowing wail; Daring was laughing, clutching her hat and laughing, laughing until she was coughing, until coughing became nothing at all. Still, the laughter traveled into the jungle, echoing back into itself, until it was warped beyond all recognition and could not be considered, itself, a laughter, but instead, something new entirely to replace it. One could not say which was the original or which was the abnormality.