Twilight wrapped herself around that strong, familiar neck and nearly sobbed into it. She was alive! She was here! She…smelled. Like, smelled, smelled. She reeked of fire and sweat and things Twilight didn’t let herself think about just yet. It was weird.
Twilight heard words she barely understood, and she must have answered them, but she didn't really register it. She just sort of coasted through for a while.
“Are you alright?”
“Is anything broken? Are you hurt? Oh, Heavens above, I’m so sorry, Twilight!”
No, and yes, and...
In a fit of emotion Twilight didn’t understand, she placed both hooves on Celestia’s chest and shoved her away.
“Sorry!? You’re sorry!? Where have you been!? You said you’d always be here, and, and you…”
Twilight collapsed back into Celestia’s embrace, the storm passing as swiftly as it had come. They just held each other for a long time after that, until Twilight finally managed to force a few words out.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean that."
Celestia stroked her neck with a wing.
“It’s okay, Twilight. I think I-it’s…You’re right. I failed you, Twilight. In every possible way. I’m sorry. I won‘t ask for forgiveness. I don’t, I d-don’t deserve it. But I am so sorry! For all of this! For everything!”
Twilight pulled away just far enough to see her mentor’s face. Tears streaked down it. It was all screwed up tight like ponies get when they’re trying so hard to keep it together that they can’t even talk. She opened her mouth to say…something. But what in all the Heavens could she say? In all the years she’d known Celestia, Twilight had never once seen her cry.
“I was so stupid!” blurted her teacher. “I should have trusted you! I should have just told you everything. I should have known you could handle this! I-I just….I took one of the bravest, most capable ponies I’ve ever known and I treated you like some, like some lost little filly who couldn’t…a-and then I scared you away and you c-could have died out here! An-and—“
Celestia's breath hitched and whatever else she had been about to say fizzled out as Twilight slowly lay her head on Celestia’s neck and just held her.
“I’m sorry, Twilight!” she hissed. “For everything! It shouldn’t have been this way! I’m sorry!”
For the second time today, Twilight held someone tight and tried to reassure them when she’d expected to be the one getting reassured. It was surreal. It was almost funny, to be doing this for Celestia. Such a perfect reversal of roles. Her head was in such a whirl that she honestly didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry or curl up under her Princess’s wings and wait for it all to just go away.
“I’m sorry I ran away.”
That was all she could think to do. Apologize. Again.
They both just stayed there, trying to figure this out, for a long time.
Finally, Celestia gave Twilight a squeeze as a short, sobbing laugh escaped her.
“Well. We’re just a sorry pair aren’t we?" She pulled away, wiping her eyes with a wing. She sniffled in a way that somehow managed to be regal.
Twilight managed a meager smile. Laughing would have been okay, then. Good to know.
“Alright. Enough of that,” said Celestia, sniffling once more. She ruffled her wings back into shape and sat up tall.
Goddess, but she was good at this. Twilight tried not to be jealous. It was just so easy for Celestia to regain her composure. But then, had she, really? Her eyes still gleamed with wetness. And there was something else in there...What was it?
“You’re sure you’re alright?”
Princess Celestia was looking at her with some pretty serious concern. Twilight had no idea what she looked like right now, but she tried to put on a brave face.
“I’ll make it.”
Princess Celestia smiled.
“I know you will.” The Princess hugged her again, smiling, and somehow that one little statement changed everything. No empty consolation there, just confidence. Celestia believed it, and that made it easy for Twilight to believe it too. “You always do. If I had just…Ugh. Well, for what it’s worth, there will be no more of me keeping secrets. If I hadn’t been so busy trying to protect you from from this place..." Her words trailed off into a bitter frown. She glanced down at Twilight, then away quickly. “Well, the point is, I’ll tell you anything you want to know from now on. And I’ll trust you to be able to handle yourself, like I should have from the beginning."
When she looked into Twilight’s eyes again, her face was set. Resolved. But there it was again! That little bit of...what?
Guilt! That was what it was! Twilight had missed it because it didn’t make sense, not on Celestia. Did she think this was her fault!?
“What? No, it wasn’t you! I just didn’t know what was happening! I got scared, and, I mean, I don’t think I would have understood even if you’d told me. I mean, things can be scary sometimes in Equestria, but, this place is, it’s so, it’s…”
It occurred to Twilight that her vocabulary of curse words wasn’t nearly up to the task of describing what this place was. She tried borrowing one she'd been hearing a lot of recently.
“It’s just f-f-fucking awful!”
Wow. Twilight had guessed it was a naughty word, but wow. That felt really good to say. Cathartic, even. Must be why every creature around here kept saying it. Maybe it was the hard k. Huh.
Celestia blinked in surprise. Then she melted into a giggling smile.
“And where did you learn that word, young lady?”
Twilight blushed, but she wasn’t really ashamed, and Celestia wasn’t really admonishing her. They were having a moment.
“You’re right, of course,” said Celestia, sidling up next to Twilight and placing a wing over her. “Gods below, I fucking loathe this damned place. But it is so nice to have another pony I can say that to.”
Twilight smiled back up at Celestia’s beaming face.
“Um,” spoke a voice.
Celestia’s wings flared into burning life as she leapt up to meet this new threat.
“Keep your distance, monster!”
A little gray shape fled back behind a bramble and cowered there.
“Wait!” spouted Twilight. “It’s okay! I know him.” She laid a calming wing on Celestia and stepped lightly towards the thorny shrub. It didn’t occur to her until later that she had, for the very first time, overruled her Princess.
“Bait? It’s okay. You can come out. She was just protecting me.”
The wight peeked his head out, just barely. Twilight smiled at him.
“Princess? This is Bait. My friend.”
Celestia looked honestly flummoxed. She stared at Twilight, then at Bait. He flinched away from her gaze.
"Absolutely! Is Ben with you, Bait?”
The spider clambered up to a more visible spot on the wight’s back. He chirped.
“Oh, thank goodness! I was afraid I’d lost you two!” Twilight ran around the bramble and hugged them both. She pulled Bait out from behind it a moment later.
“Bait, this is Princess Celestia. I told you about her before, remember?”
Bait looked even smaller and more terrified that usual. The second Twilight got him clear of the bramble, which took some doing, he hit the dirt in graceless supplication before Princess Celestia.
Ben, in stark contrast, gave Celestia a familiar wave.
He didn't respond, other than to shiver a bit.
“You are certain, Twilight, that this wight is your friend?” Celestia was looking at the colt, her expression strange and contemplative.
Twilight wasn't quite sure what to make of what was going on between the colt and the Princess.
“What? Sure. He saved my life!” Twilight beamed at the both of them. "Um, Bait? It's okay, you can get up."
He didn't move.
"Allow me, Twilight," said Celestia, striding forward. "Bait, is it? Rise."
Twilight ears perked up. Princess Celestia had suddenly become very Royal.
Bait did as he was bidden, still shaking.
"My people and yours have had something of an unpleasant history, and it is obvious that the wights have not forgotten our conflict. But that conflict is not with you. If Twilight Sparkle's words are true, and I have all faith that they are, then you have nothing to fear from me. On the contrary, you have done both her and myself a great service, and I am in your debt. Do you understand?"
Her posture was perfect, face composed and confident. She positively radiated calm and that undeniable, irresistible authority. Goddess, how does she do that!? Twilight had to squelch a wave of awed envy at how absurdly better at being properly Royal Celestia was than her. She saw what she was doing, though. Bait was scared of Celestia, mute with fear. Twilight remembered some of the things he had said about the her. Celestia had been some kind of bogeypony to him. To actually see her before him, and just after having blasted through who knew how many of those horrible mirror monsters...Twilight couldn't imagine how that must feel. So rather than try to calm him with kind words, which he might not even have understood from her, she'd addressed him in a way that made certain he would hear.
"Y-yes, Your Highness." Bait wouldn’t meet her eyes, but he seemed more level now.
"Lovely. Now," said Celestia looking from Bait, to Ben, to Twilight. “Why don’t we sit down for a bit, and you can tell me how this came about.”
“Are you sure? I’m fine. We can keep going, if Bait and Ben are good.” Twilight looked at them, concerned in the same way, she realized, that Celestia had been about her. They nodded and saluted, respectively. Her gaze ranged further. The extent of the lake was now clearly visible in the weird, source-less light of Tartarus. It seemed the darkness of this place had been banished along with its creatures. Had Celestia killed them all? And so quickly? Twilight surprised herself by feeling almost nothing at the idea. No panic, no nausea or revulsion. That last image of her double’s face played through her head again, screaming in silence as she was flung back into the pond. Twilight shuddered and pushed it away, but even so...She would have done the same, if she'd been strong enough.
Shaking off her ruminations, Twilight glanced about. Actually, now that she looked, the dark wasn’t all gone. There were still pockets of unnatural shadow sulking in the corners, lurking behind thorny tangles. Even in hiding, the things radiated menace. Twilight looked up, and a roof of solid rock stood firm over her. A bit of relief flooded through her. The Eye wasn’t there. Maybe it couldn’t see them.
“They’re still, um,” said Twilight, pointing toward the closest patch of shadow.
“Oh, those creatures won’t be bothering us again, I think,” answered Celestia. “They’re spiteful things, but cowards in the end.” She fired a gleaming bolt at one patch of darkness. It shrieked softly as it fled further away. “But you’re right. Let’s go. This way.”
Celestia rose and led the little party off the road a ways, towards one wall of the massive space. A small cave opened into it, surrounded by a thorny briar. Celestia walked into the enclosure without a pause, as if she knew nothing resided within. She snapped off several easily snap-able briar branches and set them up in the center of the little shelter, then lit them up with a bit of molten magic, forming a simple campfire. Once they were all within, she hefted a boulder big enough to block the entrance like that wasn’t even a big deal and rolled it into place. She cast another spell that sent a dozen little golden wisps out in a circle, shedding a pleasant light and surrounding the resting place. They drifted into and through the walls and thorny plants like they weren’t even there.
“They’re an early warning spell,” Celestia explained. “They’ll pop if anything frightens them. We should be safe here, for a while at least.” She settled herself down near the fire and invited Twilight to do same, and then Ben and Bait as well. A mildly awkward silence followed.
“So, um,” began Twilight. "You said you’d tell me everything I wanted to know?” she asked, hopefully.
Celestia gave her a rueful smile. “Perhaps an unwise oath on my part, but yes.”
There were so many questions crowding Twilight’s mind that she didn’t even know where to start. Might as well just ask them as they came.
"Okay. You seemed to be in a big hurry before. How come, er, hmm...You didn't want to stop for anything last time, so why can we stop to rest now?"
"Ah. Yes. I was hoping that if we just covered enough ground, we could get out of this mess before anything terrible happened. I should have known better, of course. That's not how Tartarus works. I told you before that It likes a good story? Well, It will twist and turn and contort itself as much as It can to make sure that story gets told. It doesn't really control everything, I think, but space and time and even common sense have little meaning here. It might be better to think of Tartarus as more of a giant, living, highly unstable person than a place. Alas, I'm not entirely clear on how specifically it works, because It is absolutely unlike any other being I've ever known. It has always shown a particular interest in creatures It's never seen before, and It doesn't seem to want people to die, exactly, just come into conflict. But other than that..." She shrugged. "Luna might be able to explain it better. She's always been good at understanding strange perspectives. Tartarus's alien nature is part of what makes It such an ideal prison, actually. It's a jealous, maddeningly unpredictable, completely fucking amoral guardian."
“Hrmm. Cretes said something about that, that It did strange things with time."
Celestia's eyes rose at the mention of the bull, but Twilight didn't notice.
"Um. So, about that word. I get that it’s an expletive, but what does it actually mean?”
Celestia snorted a laugh. Then she gave Twilight the technical definition of ‘fuck.’
“Quite so. But in practice it’s just something people say when they’re angry, or want some emphasis, or for any reason at all, really. You can make almost an entire sentence out of different conjugations of it, I believe.” Celestia then did so. “It’s quite versatile, as far as curse words go.”
“Wow. Okay. I heard some other ones, too. They were, um…”
She listed them, and Celestia gave her the rather unpleasant definition of each one in turn. She even used them in a sentence. Twilight stared in some amount of disbelief at Princess Celestia’s unexpected skill with vulgarity. Her mentor smiled at her with a complete lack of shame.
“I-ah, alright. Also, gross. Those all seem a lot more, hm, mean than the ones we use.”
“Yes, well, language plays a big role in how a pony views the world around her, so Luna and I did try to clean things up a bit.”
“Neat! Okay, um, what were those things? Out there?”
“Ah, very good. Are you familiar with the rivers of Tartarus, Twilight? I seem to recall you asking about them before.”
“Um. A little?” Twilight racked her brain, unsure what her question had to do with this. “I know there are supposed to be five of them. The names are weird, but, um…”
Celestia nodded, picking up the thread.
“There are indeed five rivers, and that lake out there has the misfortune of being fed by the Styx. The river of Hatred. It is not a coincidence that we call it that. Anyone who drinks too deeply of those waters is infected by them." Celestia paused, pawing the ground. "We never did find a way to prevent that. Anyway, the lake was once a mirror pond. We've never been entirely certain of where those came from, the mirrors. The beings inside are odd creatures. Empty, without substance and without number. Maybe that's why they copy whatever enters the lake. They have no real existence of their own, so they borrow another's. They were certainly made by someone, but...well, regardless. It's not an unpleasant existence, or so they tell us. They know no past, no future, just a single, eternal moment. Until they're given a body, that is, but they seem to like that too."
Celestia sighed. Twilight could practically feel a weight settle onto her.
“Then Sombra found them. He twisted them with his magic, made mindless slaves of them. He forged them into an army. An infinite, unending swarm of fear and madness, knowing nothing of peace, nothing of true life. And when Luna and I purged the broken creatures, I’m afraid it got even worse. We didn’t want to send them here, mind, but we knew not what else to do. They didn’t live, and so they couldn’t really die. Left in Equestria, they could be found by any wandering pony, and the whole nightmare would begin again. So we could only cage them somewhere, far, far away.” She shook her head. “It runs through all of Tartarus, the Styx. I don’t know when, exactly, It got the notion of joining the Shattered to the Styx, but you’ve seen the results. Where once they were empty reflections, they have now become living embodiments of spite. Self-loathing made incarnate. Our one bit of solace is that they are at peace in the pond. They are content, as long as they stay formless.”
Celestia gave her that rueful smile.
“Yes,” was all she said.
“She said she took my magic.” Twilight absently sparked up a little light spell, just to make sure it worked. “The Shattered me. She said she was going to be everything that I never was.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Twilight. No one knows how to hurt a pony quite like herself.”
“I suppose so. It’s just…I feel like seeing her was almost good for me, in a way. Therapeutic. Like, she was the worst I could possibly be, right here, in front of me. But she was so fragile. It barely took anything to…A-and the thing is, I remember being like that! I’ve been afraid, like she was! Afraid of everything, when I should have just, I, um...”
And don’t even get me started on the things I’ll be doing with this Princess you’re always thinking about, she’d said.
“I’m sorry! I’m babbling,” stammered Twilight, suddenly desperate to change the subject. “I don’t even know where I was going with that. Um. Those other things, the uh, the dog things, from before? What were they?”
Celestia watched her, worry plain in her eyes. But she didn’t push. She was nice that way. She always knew when to just step back.
“Ah. Right. We call them gorehounds, based largely on the mess they always leave in their wake. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t recognize them, though. I seem to recall you telling me of a time that you’d run across the beasts before. Something about your friend Rarity recruiting Spike to hunt for gems, and the adventure you all had in saving her?”
Twilight’s face screwed up in surprise.
“What? Wait, those things were diamond dogs!? But, but those guys were pathetic! I, wait, I didn’t mean that—“
Celestia’s musical laughter cut her off.
“I’m afraid so, dear, though it might be better to say that diamond dogs were once those things.”
Twilight pondered this, various bits of evidence locking together in her head. They were about the same shape. Rather larger, and covered in shaggy hair, but they had the same big, scary jaws and those oversized arms. But still. Diamond dogs were harmless! Annoying, sure, but she’d never once felt threatened by them.
“The fellows you met are the descendants of those who agreed to be reasonable. They can eat nearly anything, the dogs, and the ones who gave up their bloodlust for more, ah, mineralogical pursuits became what are now called Diamond Dogs. You can perhaps understand why we chose to banish the rest.”
The gears of Twilight’s mind ground on.
“So, they don’t have to eat other creatures…but they do it anyway?”
“I’m afraid so.”
When Celestia spoke, it was with that faraway look she got sometimes. She was remembering. Reliving.
“Have you ever done something you knew was wrong, Twilight? Something you enjoyed, at somepony else’s expense? You didn’t have to. You didn’t need it. But you did it anyway.”
Twilight could think of a few examples. But she didn’t answer.
When Celestia continued, her words were very quiet.
“Have you ever felt the thrill of breaking someone beneath your hooves, Twilight? Of fighting a battle of life or death and winning? Easily? Of knowing that something’s whole being hangs only by the thread you choose to give it? It makes you feel alive. Powerful, Twilight. Like your existence has meaning. It makes everything so simple. Satisfying. It’s like an addiction, that feeling."
Celestia wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Did you have to kill them?”
A long silence. Then Twilight asked,
“Was there really no better way?”
Celestia’s eyes flicked to hers, then away. Ashamed? She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. She tried again a moment later.
“There are few things that really challenge me, Twilight. When I am in my element, in the light of the Sun, in Equestria. When I am all that I can be. I am old. Immortal. I’ve seen a thousand, thousand years, and all that comes with them. I’ve lived, and made love, and made war. I’ve fought, I’ve made peace, I’ve seen that peace crumble and I’ve avenged it. I’ve built nations and watched them grow and prosper and die. But when I come here, to some place outside my immortality, when I see something that can truly threaten me, can truly threaten my people, like those hounds did, I…well. What better way could there be? They attacked us, no, you, without warning or even so much as an offer of surrender. Never once did they stop. They watched their own slain one by one and only came on stronger. Is it so bad, that I might have enjoyed it, a little? I killed them because they would have killed me. And you. And anything else they caught. Should I have locked each of those two dozen hounds in a bubble and dragged them behind me until such time as they repented their ways?” She shook her head. “We gave them so many chances, Luna and I, and they never took them. You only have to be torn apart a few times before you decide they just aren't worth it.”
Celestia rubbed one hoof over the other. It was another moment before she reclaimed her train of thought.
“For what it's worth, I couldn't have held them long, not as I am here. It would have been maybe an hour, at best, before they broke free and tried to murder us again. Perhaps I could have merely beaten them into submission rather than kill them, but then I’d have taken another risk: would they follow us, seeking vengeance? Wait for a moment of weakness and then pounce? And it is far more difficult to defeat an opponent and let them live, much less a group of them, then to kill them as quickly as one can. Should I have risked both your life and mine by showing the mercy they refused us? Which they have always refused us?”
Twilight said nothing. She didn’t know what to say.
“A matter of hours ago, I would have simply said no. But it seems you have a way of complicating things, Twilight Sparkle.”
She turned to look at Twilight, a sad, lop-sided smile, on her face. It brimmed over with pride.
“You have done the impossible, Twilight. Again. You've made a friend in Tartarus. Where no else would have even thought to look for such a thing.”
Part of Twilight swelled with joy at this, but…
“If it happens again, something like the gorehounds. Should I...help you? Should I k—" Twilight swallowed. "Kill them?”
Celestia’s smile froze. It shifted. It fell to pieces.
“A matter of hours ago,” she repeated, “I would have said no. I would have said you should never do such a thing. You should leave it to me alone. Just close your eyes and hide under my wing and let Princess Celestia make all of the bad things go away so you never have to think about them again. But you deserve better than that, I think. I made a mistake, thinking you couldn’t handle this. And I have learned from that. So, in answer to your question, I would say…”
Twilight saw Celestia’s jaw tighten.
“That you must trust your own judgement, Twilight. You should be careful, and be clever, and be kind. You are already all of those things, but there may come a time when those traits fail, and then…” Celestia turned to look her former student right in the eye. “You must be ruthless.”
She let that sink in.
“You have responsibility now.” She nodded toward Bait, Ben. “And you must meet it. It will hurt, Twilight, to do this thing. But it may be that you simply won’t have time to play nice. The creatures here may not give you the luxury of compassion. And I would say then that you should be ready to kill them for it. Unwilling, obviously. As a last resort, only. But sometimes you can only save one life by ending another. Maybe several others. Making that decision is part of being a leader. A Princess. And you have proven beyond doubt that you are capable. So you must be ready.”
It took a long time for Twilight to form anything like an answer. In the end, all she said was.
It came out a cracked whisper. It hadn't been the answer she’d wanted. But that was the risk of asking questions. They didn't care if you liked the answers. Still, it made her feel sick to hear this. Hollow, like her insides might fall out. But it made sense, too. That might be the worst part. Because she knew she couldn’t do it. She’d choke. She would fail, and everypony else would suffer for her weakness.
“It’s not so bad.”
The voice was timid, so low that she barely heard it. Twilight turned toward the sound.
“Y’just have to do it sometimes,” he went on, caught halfway between boldly standing up to be heard and fleeing in fear. “But it’s not so bad. And you're so strong! It would be..." Bait hesitated, licked his lips nervously. "Easy. You could make it quick. And that's best. 'Cause if you don't get them, then..."
Then they get you. They get you, and then they get your friends. It seemed so alluringly simple, looked at like that.
“I know that isn’t easy to take,” said Celestia when the silence stretched too long. “Why don’t we talk about something else for a bit. Would you like to tell me about what you encountered while I was gone? You can ask questions along the way, of course.”
“Yes!” blurted Twilight, jumping on any opportunity for distraction. “Um, yes. So, I guess the first thing I remember was, um…”