“I said,” said Professor Plum, “I found him!”
Ducking his head under the eave, Casca surveyed the darkened basement. Plum was shining a torch into a dusty corner. There, wrapped around one of the overhanging pipes was a gurgling, shivering mass of… something. Something that had once been lucid and reasonably sane, now very much lacking in either capacity.
“Sock?” Casca asked doubtfully.
Belligerent Sock turned to the source of the noise with wide, bloodshot eyes. “I possess the spark of infinity!” he shouted, waving his arms. He then promptly fell on his face, because one cannot properly cling to a pipe while waving one’s arms. “Mmmph mmph mhhhmhm blbrblblr,” he said to the floor.
Casca raised an eyebrow at Plum. “What the hell did he just say? Also, ‘What the hell?’ in the general sense.”
Plum sighed, pointing his torch to the now sock-less pipe. “See that stuff growing on the pipe?”
“Yep, he’s gone and ate the pipe mold.”
“The Second Coming is coming!” Sock suddenly declared, bolting upright. “Adrian Brody will cleanse the non-believers!”
“Is he going to be all right?” Casca asked.
“Y’all had better get pianos. You need to guard against the tuba Nazis.”
Plum shrugged. “Based on my experience, he has a 100% chance of getting over this eventually.”
“The Illuminati asked me to build them a time machine. I gave them three tacos. We’re best friends now.”
Casca raised both eyebrows this time. “‘Eventually?’”
“My time has come! More pig! More pig! Bacon for aaaaaaaall!”
“Yeah.” Plum checked his watch. “Again, based on my experience, he should be good in… well, anywhere between eight and forty-eight hours.”
“Have you heard the word of asparagus? It’s ‘piss!’”
The sound of Casca’s palm impacting his forehead echoed from the concrete walls. “Great. We’ve got reviews to do, and having Sock higher than the ISS kind of complicates things.”
“Здравствуйте, товарищи! Я опьянения! Разве это не отличный?”
This time it was Plum’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Is it really so different from how he normally is?”
“Stop eating Obama, Mr. Brody. That’s not kosher. That’s not Christian. That’s bad feng shui.”
Casca had to concede that point. “Okay, well, we still have to figure out how to get him to write some reviews.”
“I fought Putin once! He had a glass jaw that split into East and West Germany.”
Plum hooked a thumb toward the stairs. “Let’s just do what we always do. Sit him down in front of his computer and let fly.”
“There’s a zeppelin in here, guys. It wants your tickets or else it’ll sic Indiana Jones on you.”
Sighing heavily, Casca shook his head once, and then twice. Then once again for good measure. “All right. I guess we’ll see what happens.”
“The rats have brought the noodles! It’s time for a celebration!”
Plum grinned. “I’m sure no one will notice a difference.”ROUND 28
It Is My Fate To Enter Every Door, by Cloud Wander
HEY, YOU GOT YOUR HADES IN MY PERDITION!
When the ancient Greeks first laid down their myths and legends, they probably didn’t think much of the impact they would have on future generations. If they could even fathom how far humanity would progress past their own time, they most certainly couldn’t have predicted the sorts of things we’d get up to in this day and age. Like taking those legends they wrote and adding brightly-colored talking horses to them, for example. Actually, no, I take that back. Considering just how much weird stuff is in Greek mythology, I’d presume pony-produced parlance perfectly pedestrian by their standards.
Case in point: the Greek pantheon and its twisted history. The only things weirder than the many members of that house of nutjobs are the monsters and such they fought against. Seriously, whoever came up with some of these creatures must have been high on either volcanic fumes or bad wine or pipe mold or something. Just like whoever came up with the idea of having one of Pinkie’s sisters chat them up.
Now, like the film of sweat that invariably forms beneath one’s sock, Equestria has always had an underpinning of Greek myth beneath its cheery façade. When the existence of Tartarus was established, it was merely one of the more blatant references. It was also one of the most disturbing in its implications—it’s highly unlikely Tartarus is a place of daisies and sunshine, even in the MLP ‘verse. And in this fic, we get to see what that darkness might be like as we follow Blythe Pie into the abyss.
Why would any pony in their right mind want to do such a thing? Well, that’s the first interesting thing about this fic. From the get-go, it presents itself as a fable—the prose and dialogue reads almost like some crusty old storyteller is telling it from right across the campfire—and as in many of the Greek myths, there’s strange happenings afoot. Like that revelation that Pinkie’s mom hails from hell.
Whether or not that really makes sense (It certainly does to me!), it gives us an excuse to venture deep into the sweaty bowels of pony perdition. Tartarus as presented here is a foreboding place, as any endless cavern filled with horrific monsters would be. What keeps it engaging, however, is that it manages to be so without any real physical danger. Our heroine’s descent is hardly acknowledged; instead, we simply bask in the choking atmosphere of the place and the characters who inhabit it.
That’s the other thing: every character Blythe meets during this little holiday is interesting. From the dude who takes care of Cerberus to the grandparents she’s come to visit, each personality she encounters is distinct, vivid, and memorable. When we get a look inside one of these characters’ heads, well, let’s just say a monster’s perspective is a fascinating filter on things—especially things from previous generations of MLP.
So that’s what you’re in for with this little number: a crazy mythology-soaked plot that delves into the depths of hell while somehow exploring themes of forgiveness, denial, hope, and little fuzzy things that tend to explode themselves. All in all, not bad for under 3,500 words.Casca:
So every so often, you get something like this, where the words aren’t a means of conveying story but more experience.
One of the biggest criticisms that has been levelled at this is that there isn’t much point to all of this. It turns out that Blythe is the granddaughter of two of the most horrific creatures locked in Tartarus, and she makes an annual pilgrimage to visit them, and the story just unfolds itself from that concept. It may sound silly, but execution has proven to be king once more - the story is so interesting that it doesn’t matter, imo.
Akin to tales of mythology, the fic doesn’t hold back with its inventive, broad-stroke characters. Every monster Blythe meets is smartly crafted and definitely relatable to some extent, given distinct personalities that establish themselves instantly through strong dialogue and actions. Step by step the journey treads on, and you see Bltyhe becoming the perfect character for all of this - strong, purposeful, pained with her self-imposed burden. This is as wonderful a gala for the author’s character-building skills as it is for the world he/she’s imagined.
And a gala is more or less correct - you walk in it, and it’s all too easy to lose yourself in the scenes. When you leave, there’s this faint air of emptiness, as if you wouldn’t mind that it had been just a bit longer. And at an ecomony-sized word count, IIMFTEED is a worthwhile choice to enrich that quiet fifteen-thirty minutes in the evenings.Professor Plum:
To say It Is My Fate features Greek Mythology would be like saying the Pacific can get a bit wet in places. It'd be easier to count the legends that aren't in this story, such is their number. From Laelaps and the Teumessian Fox to Echidna and Typhon, the number of myths present in this 3,500 word story is really rather staggering.Add in copious amounts of wine, and it's a perfect match.
And it's not like MLP was exactly bereft of them to begin with. You've got the pseudo-Greek architecture of the pegasi, dozens of mythological beasts like minotaurs and hydra, even the episodes themselves are often based around their legends. I remember attending a panel at Bronycon where the host pointed out Sonic Rainboom was not only a reference to the fall of Icarus, but an interesting retelling of the legend of Bellerophon. So yeah. Apparently, things happened in Greece at one point. Who knew?
Of course, the most blatant reference to Greek mythology is the presence of Tartarus in Equestria. A disturbingly literal hell-on-earth, it was traditionally the chasm completely made of tartar sauce where the dead were judged, monsters were trapped, and the wicked were tortured for all eternity. Fun place. And it's in this party capital of the world where this story takes place, following Blythe Pie in her visit to those held within.
Now, contrary to what one might expect from a story where the main character literally goes to hell, there's no pulse-pounding chase by daemons, no nail-biting showdown with Satan, no close escape from the bugblatter beast of Traal. Better luck next time, pal
If you're looking for some high-octane action, you're not going to find it here. Instead, you find a series of exchanges between horrifying, endearing, and deep characters, all soaked in an atmosphere so thick it sticks colouring crayons up its nose. Everyone has a backstory that just begs to be explored, as the author leaves many an answer dangling just out of reach, tantalisingly the audience.
To appreciate this story, a taste for ancient fables is a must. If you're not a fan of the way myths and legends are told, however, this may just be the one to change you. Give it a shot, and you might just discover a world you'd never been able to appreciate before.
To Be a Mule, by Archonix
REMEMBER KIDS: LIKE RARITY ONCE SAID, MULES ARE UGLY AND SHOULD BE SHUNNED!
Dear readers, I once knew love. Yes, beneath this hardened, threadbare exterior, even I have the capacity for such things. Once, I loved from a distance.
She was tall, dark, and lithe—her nylon exterior shimmered with every step. She was a maid of class and sophistication, grace and beauty. But she had no real definition, no form of her own. She just conformed to whatever lower extremity she was currently wrapped around. And I, a petty sock, could never stretch like that. It would never have worked between us.
So yes, when the protagonist of this fic starts lamenting love that can never be, I sympathize. Daliér, our titular mule and perspective for this short and bittersweet tale, is a lad who is easy to understand. It’s a classic sort of Romeo and Juliet scenario (or maybe it’s more like Titanic), but instead of focusing on any romantic overtones, it instead takes a much more agreeable and interesting path. The focus here is on politics and sociology. Isn’t that exciting!?
Despite its brief length, this fic nonetheless manages to play with some pretty heavy themes. Marginalization of minorities, classism, and more than a bit of bigotry are all examined here. And call it projecting, but to me, the insertion of these very human elements into Equestrian society makes sense. This is the sort of thing one would expect to find if the show were allowed to look beneath the “pretty perfect princess-ruled utopia” façade.
Without going into any further detail and risk spoiling the whole thing, I’ll note that the manner in which the fic handles these themes is also quite effective. Framed as a simple father-son discussion, it presents the sticking points of its narrative in an informal and believable manner. If you’re going to discuss racism in Equestria, you’d better be doing it in the voices of the creatures who live there, after all.
And if you’re going to be having said creatures talking about such interesting concepts, you’d better make sure they’re interesting in their own right. Once again, the fic succeeds, with both Daliér and his father projecting themselves from the metaphorical page in high resolution. The latter is especially well-conveyed through body language and jargon.
I’d almost say the characters themselves beg to be examined more. It seems there’s a long, meaningful tale somewhere under the surface here, one which could prove intriguing if given more screen time to explore its concepts. Suffice it to say, the issues raised by this fic are fun to ponder. Like, for instance, what this means for the sapient sheep forced into service in the name of ponydom.Casca:
Prejudice. It’s... well, a subject, I’ll give it that much. To be honest I am not a fan when it comes to overzealous minority empowerment stories, fanfic or otherwise - I’m just not comfortable with stories written solely to portray the minority as triumphing, that forego proper characters and plot, thus rendering it not just uninteresting but also uncomfortable for anyone who doesn’t share in the great dream of mermaid acceptance (I know you’re out there!).
This one, thankfully, is nothing like that. While I can’t determine whether this leans towards plot-driven or character-driven, I do know that there is a rich amount of both, if you count the development of the deliciously subtle sub-themes as plot. The characters are solid, steady types which bounce off each other neatly, giving balance to the discussion of the issue at hand so that it never veers into mule supremism or vengeance.
I think that’s the key for me - the story transcends the whole “root for him because he’s a minority” shindig to “root for him because he’s worth rooting for”. It doesn’t play the race card as much as use it to build the foundation of a neato little three-story house, and gives focus to where focus is due - the topic of prejudice in Equestria, and how two of these characters deal with it, in that complex, mixed way only characters of their relation can. Rather than reading this because you have an invested interest in mules or whatever, read it because it’s a well-written story - for its own merits, as how all things should be judged.Professor Plum:
Hoo boy, another WBA entry? We're gonna get some flack for this. It's almost as if that's a reliable source of high-quality short stories, or something...WBA BIIIIIIAAAAAAAAASSSS
Anyway. Onto the actual story.
Donkles! The scruffy, lovable underdogs of the MLPverse. Who doesn't love Donkles?Don't answer that
Hm. Well, at least they have Archonix, proudly flying the donkey/mule flag. I'm fairly sure he's written more stories focussed on the braying beauties than the rest of fimfic combined. Oddly enough, I'm okay with that, as it makes those that do get published all the more interesting for it.
To Be A Mule is a very short story that does exactly what it needs to, before retiring gracefully, leaving the reader to mull over what they've just read. With only one scene, this heavily dialogue-focussed shows us a father-son talk between the daddy donkey, Slowpoke, and his son, Dilly Daliér. And that right there is probably my biggest (read: one) problem with this story. It's really difficult to take such a heavy story seriously when half of the main characters are named after Pokemon, and the other are a such horrible puns. Still, I can deal with it.
The plot is refreshingly simple: Daliér has ideas above his station while his father tries to explain why it can never be. Unfortunately for Daliér, he's a mule. Part pony, part donkey. Accepted by neither, rejected by both. The parallels with segregation-era America are so strong you can practically taste them.
We've all seen the way mules are treated in-show, right? Clumsy oafs at best, and the butt of their jokes at worst?Get it? They're the butts, because they're asses? Goddamn, I'm funny.
From what we've seen of their role in Equestrian society, it's hardly a colossal stretch to see them treated as second-class citizens. The casual racism on display ("stubborn as a mule", Rarity's whiningcomplaining, RD's "be cool or be mule" line, etc) paints a rather vivid picture, and it's not a good one for those who aren't quite pony enough. Prejudice is a delicate topic that requires very careful handling, I'm sure you'll agree. Thankfully, Archonix pulls it off beautifully, treating the subject matter with the tact it deserves. Showing discrimination through the eyes of those living through it is a very powerful narrative tool, one which he uses to full effect.
The greatest strength this story has are the characters that inhabit it. The youthful naïveté of Daliér juxtaposes beautifully with the weary, jaded cynicism of his father. In this, prejudice isn't some sort of nebulous concept to be fought against merely on principle. It's their reality, and you get a glimpse of how it affects their very lives. A short glimpse, true, with this story clocking in at around three thousand words, but that plays to its advantage. We don't need to see more to understand what it's like for them, so we don't. All in all, I cannot recommend this one enough for anyone who is okay with heavy themes in stories.
The Cellist of Saraneighvo, by Ruirik
THIS ONE CALLS FOR A MINOR ADAGIO!
All right, kiddies, time for a history quiz. Have you heard about the Siege of Sarajevo? If you haven’t, Google it right now so you know exactly where I’m coming from. Got it? Are we experts now? Do we have a firm grasp of the sort of evils human beings are capable of subjecting each other to? Good, because now it’s time to see ponies do the same.
Yeah, that title isn’t referring to Octavia’s storied and peaceful career in some eastern-Equestrian city. It’s referring to her unacknowledged and despair-filled role as one of many civilians trapped in the city of Saraneighvo—trapped, because someone is busy shelling the hell out of them. Who is besieging them? Doesn’t matter. Why is the city under siege? Don’t know, don’t care. Where are the Princesses during all this? Wherever they are, they’re too far away to help. Nothing like that matters now, for there is nothing left.
Like a rolled sock, that premise can be a bit hard to swallow—one can’t help but wonder at what’s going on behind the scenes for all of this to be happening onstage—but again, that hardly matters. What the fic wisely, and effectively, focuses on is the void where there was once so much. “Loss” is painted across every paragraph; the atmosphere of the cold, snow-buried city comes alive even as its denizens lie dead in the streets. The prose doesn’t get flowery about it; the scenery it describes tells the story as well as it can be told. It tells it in the rumble of the artillery, the chill of the wind, the despair of the city’s inhabitants, and in the actions of our protagonist.
Octavia as presented in this fic actually seems pretty close to her canon depiction, i.e., stoic, reserved, and playing the cello. Here though, she has every reason for that characterization. Even though we don’t see a whole lot of her, we see enough to know she’s at the end of her rope—she’d have to be to go wandering out into the dead cold. What exactly motivates her, whether it be hope or despair, I leave to your interpretation. And all of this leads up to a powerful climax that I will not spoil here.
On the one foot, this fic is a bit silly in its concept, taking a tragic and traumatic real-life event and inserting ponies, but ultimately it handles its subject matter tastefully, and tells its narrative in an effective manner. If you’re looking for a poignant, mournful little read to make you appreciate the good things in life, take a look through this bombed-out window and see what you find.Casca:
Too many people are fond of writing about ponies killing each other. Today’s feature looks at the aftermath of it, with writing powerful enough that you can almost smell the dust and ash.
Cellist examines the life of an Octavia in a town where the war hasn’t quite yet wound down. From the water she drinks to the horrific sights she sees, her numbed state of mind blankets the descriptions with, pardon the oxymoron, vivid bleakness - it’s shades of gray you can taste. And each scene plays out richly, in its heavy but steady steps, developing both the world at large as well as its pivotal character. The idea that lens can be indicative of its wearer - that different characters see things differently - is put to good use throughout the fic, and earns an intimacy than no shoddy second-person fic could dream of achieving.
It’s also worth noting that the slow pacing of the fic works to its advantage. Fast-paced stories are all good and well if you just want to see the flowers, but a masterful use of the slow walk lets the reader smell them. If you’re naturally jittery, then you may have difficulty following, but if you’re the kind of reader who can adapt to the author’s pacing well, you’ll find that the collaboration is well-rewarded. Like a tapestry, the fic is woven gently, thoroughly, immersing the reader in a slice of a life beyond what most of us would ever go through - hopefully, at least.
The care and nuance that goes into this is impressive craft, to the extent that the last line - a mere handful of words - becomes more powerful than a sentence like that could be. To say that it’s heart-sinking is insulting to the complexity of feelings you’d experience as you read it. This is really not a simple this-is-sad-you-are-now-sad fic. This invokes natural feelings by showing the believable mindset of not just the character, but also the community that has lost so much.
The writing is powerful with this one, and I recommend it strongly for pretty much anyone.Professor Plum:
Oh boy. We're just a bundle of fun, this round. All right, if you're looking for random comedy, cute slice-of-life, or even an aventure fic, you won't find it here. Instead, you'll find a chilling retelling of one of the greatest war-crimes in recent history.
To fully appreciate it, you need a bit of understanding of the battle it's inspired by. Now, I'm too young to remember what happened myself, but I did happen to learn about it in my old History group, as well as my parents talking about it. It was, simply put, hell.
The Siege of Sarajevo started in 1992, and didn't end until almost four years later, making it the longest siege in modern history. Over 10,000 confirmed deaths, with around 50,000 wounded, the vast majority of them civilians. 40% of people witnessed the death of a family member, and one in five witnessed a massacre. Tragic times, indeed, but I digress.
With such a dark subject, I was understandably worried that Ruirik would fumble it, somehow. Either a random CoD-kiddie seeing the word war and being whisked away into some deluded fantasy where 'MERICAN marines (HOO RAH, AMIRITE?!) crush the clearly evil bad guys using only their bootstraps, bald eagles, and a rolled-up American flag, or some random idiot's botched attempt to pay homage to a tragedy by stapling ponies to it. Both are depressingly common story types, unfortunately.
Ruirik, however, goes beyond those pale imitations of stories, and delivers a haunting look into the lives of those whose every action is faced with the cruel, harsh reality of a city under siege. Following around Octavia, we get a glimpse of the lives of those where any second could be their last. And where they, horrifyingly, have accepted their fate. There's no crying in the street, no protests, no anger. Just tired bones and sorrow.
You know what this story reminds me of? The videogame Spec Ops: The Line. Not only did I walk into it expecting it to be an absolute pile of garbage, thinly disguised as a war-story, but it also handles a similar sort of tone. You're forced to confront the dark, twisted side of people that you don't normally have to face. Trapped far from home, desperate to survive, and grimly confronted by the human heart at its darkest at every turnPerhaps this is an inevitable part of gaming growing up, as our childish fantasies are torn from us and we are forced to confront consequences in an unfair, uncaring and unavoidable world of hatred, misery and death.*pffffffffffft*
Set in a crumbling city where the living scrape out an existence among shattered buildings and bullet-ridden streets, where memories of a better time haunt every pile of ash and rubble, Cellist is nothing short of hauntingly beautiful. And with the final eight words, it says more about the horrors of war than I thought possible. It confronts a hell that is, in a way, much more powerful than that which Blythe explores.
This isn't a story you enjoy. This is a story you remember.
With a final perusing scroll of the mouse wheel, Professor Plum sat back and grinned. “What’d I tell you? Like clockwork.”
Casca nodded appreciatively. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“The stars are out, guys. They taste like Skittles and Coke. And friendship.”
Casca spared a glance at the rocking figure curled in the corner. “How much longer do we have to put up with that, though?”
“The Oompa Loompas told me of their secret spice caves! Now they demand sacrifice! Give them Smurfs!
Plum gave a non-committal shrug. “Eh, we can always stuff him in a drawer somewhere. He’d probably enjoy that.”
Sock suddenly sat upright, sniffing the air. “Our influence grows! Brotherhood! Unity! Peace!”
Casca looked at Plum, concern written on his features. “For some reason, that one sounded more significant than the rest.”
The door to the basement burst open with all the force of a door being kicked open, startling the two sober individuals. Out of the darkness stumbled another figure, his eyes as huge as dinner plates and his nostrils flared like jet nacelles. A wild grin split his face in two.
“Guys, I just spoke with my whiteboard,” said Pav Feira. “Now I have to find the key troll so we can free Celestia from her prison on Triton. You all need to find some water noodles, because we’re going to SPACE.”
Plum and Casca shared a succinct exclamation. Sock merely giggled.