Twilight felt it like the cold breath of an opening tomb. If not for her new senses, she would have been left in blissful ignorance of the whole thing. Part of her, a big part, wished she had. But she knew now, and that meant she had to do something.
The gate to Tartarus had opened.
This wasn't fair! It hadn’t been a month since she’d returned, how could this be happening so soon!? She wasn’t ready!
Twilight trembled at the idea of having to confront that place again. She’d barely had time to even begin understand the changes she’d gone through, her new place in the world, and already this was…
It didn't matter. She had to do something!
The sight of Celestia, streaking meteoric through the sky, snapped Twilight into motion. She leapt to join her. She couldn’t hope to match that speed, but Celestia saw her and slowed to meet her pace. Even so, they devoured the distance. Twilight’s recently acquired goddesshood was good for more than just friend-making, it turned out.
“What’s happening?” asked Twilight Sparkle.
“I don’t know. Either somepony has snuck through the gate from our side, or…”
The elder Princesses had warned her something like this might happen. Not many creatures in Tartarus could even find the gate to Equestria, let alone open it. Of those few that might, none was a visitor anypony might wish to encounter. What she’d left unsaid was the worst possibility. That Typhon had won, and had finally escaped his fetters completely. If that monster, that force of incomprehensible destruction, had made it here…
They said nothing more, concentrating on reaching the gate as soon as possible.
Luna snuck into their slipstream without either noticing until she spoke.
“Does anypony know what this is about?”
Neither goddess was surprised. Luna just did things like that. They both professed ignorance.
Not a one of them expected what they found at the entrance to the world-prison of Tartarus.
Cerberus was there, but that was nothing unusual. His three heads perked up at their arrival, showing no sign of distress. Rather the opposite, really. He looked excited to see them, as he always was. He bounded away from his present companion to greet them, but all three Princesses were too busy staring to pay him much mind.
Briareos looked back at them through his many eyes.
“Greetings, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” intoned his chorus of voices. The creature retracted the great claw that had been scratching Cerberus’s heads and waved it in a grand circle, bowing toward her. “Aunts Celestia and Luna.” He made the same gesture to each. That he spoke to Twilight first was not missed. “I apologize for my invasion of your world.”
“I, um.” Twilight’s jaw worked as she landed and tried to take all this in.
Briareos was much reduced from when she’d last seen him. Though still massive, he was barely a quarter of his previous size. She counted only thirteen heads, and even some of those were in pieces. His slime-flesh seemed too fluid, like he was having trouble holding it all together. Goddess, he looked like he was barely alive!
“It’s no problem. Are you okay? Is there something we can do to help?” She took a step forward without thinking about it.
The hekatonkhire seemed somewhat taken aback. Twilight could see the bizarre, baffling emotions scattering through him now. She didn’t understand them all, but malice wasn’t among them. After a long pause, he spoke again.
“We have survived, Twilight Sparkle. I thank you for your concern.”
She saw, or felt, or whatever, the warm glow of his gratitude. It was cautious, and mixed with confusion and doubt and things there weren’t names for, but it was there. She guessed he wasn’t used to such things, and her question had made him uncomfortable.
How weird was that? How tragic? That such a simple kindness had so unnerved him?
She smiled, hoping to stoke that little ember of trust she now knew he wanted to build with her.
“May I ask why you are here, Briareos?”
It was Celestia who spoke, after the moment went long.
"And how you are here?” asked in Luna.
Twilight was almost irked with them for being so blunt. Twilight examined the bond between the Sisters and Briareos. It was a strange one. Complex. There was no real hate there, but she got the feeling their relations were rarely very pleasant. Still, Briareos seemed content to move back into more familiar territory.
He gave a wry chuckle. A note of bitter bleakness pervaded its humor.
“It seems we hekatonkhire are outcasts from all lands. Not even the abiding arms of Tartarus can provide us with a true home. We have never been its creatures, Aunt Luna. As such, we may leave whenever we wish.”
A twinge of guilt went over Twilight. She’d been so wrong about him. It was maddeningly obvious now! But she’d been right, too. How many creatures had he killed in his time, and felt no regret? How deserving of her sympathy was he, really? Even with her new understanding, she just didn’t know. The Brothers were entirely unique, fitting nowhere but with each other. Celestia and Luna had built a world for themselves, but the hekatonkhire couldn’t do that. It was all wrong. There had to be something she could do…
“In answer to your first question, I am here at the behest of Mother Terra. She wished Us to deliver this message.” With that, he produced a small, simple scroll, held in one hand.
Celestia and Luna crowded forward to accept it.
“I am to give my charge only to its intended recipient,” stated Briareos. He presented the letter to Twilight.
“Oh. Um. Okay.” Twilight gingerly lifted the letter in her magic, glancing apologetically at the her peers. Perhaps she should have offered to let them read over her shoulder, but she hated that and curiosity already had its claws in her. She popped the seal (a simple, white circle) and started reading. The missive wasn’t long, but she dropped it in a matter of seconds. She and ran to Briareos and buried him, big as he was, in a hug.
“Thank you!” she gushed. “Thank you for telling me!”
Briareos shook at her touch. Twilight thought she might have upset him again, but after a time, he slowly, carefully placed one slimy claw over her back. She took that as progress.
The letter read thusly.
Luna, if you have stolen this letter, as you always do, return it to its intended reader immediately.
Luna laughed, and kept reading. As always.
I have considered your words on the role of a Princess. I acknowledge, despite your lack of decorum and eloquence, that there is some truth in them. I am aware that I do not present myself well to other ponies. Such is not my intent, but I know of no other way than to be what I am. According to Celestia, I am cruel and cold. But know, Princess Twilight Sparkle,
“Oh!” said Luna. “She’s acknowledged you as Royalty!” She looked with glowing eyes for Twilight, only to find her half buried in Briareos. Oh well. She could tell her later. Celestia heard her though, and nodded. They went back to the letter.
that it has always been my intent to help my people. Alas, my failings often prevent me from doing so in a manner that is satisfactory to any involved. This is why I have sent my son, who is of great import to myself and my mission,
“Bloody Hells, Terra,” breathed Celestia. “Can’t you just say you love him?”
“I don’t believe she can,” answered Luna. “We never could.”
to deliver this letter, which I hope will explain my situation in such a way that you might understand me.
Over the course of my time in Tartarus, I have inflicted my will upon it. In so doing, I have allowed It to do the same unto me. I am Its jailer, and It my prison. We are inseparable now. I have done this in an effort to change Its nature. I do not know that such a thing can be done, but I watched when you became the Goddess that you now are. You could have become anything, but rather than indulge your base nature, you chose the self-sacrifice of Altruism. It is unprecedented, in my experience, for a new Goddess to so easily choose such a thing. Witnessing your transformation, beholding what you truly are, has impacted me greatly. Your actions before your ascension have affected me in equal measure. Your devotion to your principles, your success in bringing them to bear on Tartarus, despite all odds and great risk, weigh heavily upon me. You have earned my attention, Princess Twilight Sparkle.
The two Princess stopped to look to each other at the end of almost every sentence. In one brief paragraph, they learned more about their lost sister than they had perhaps ever known.
I would have you know, then, that after several failed attempts, I believe I have laid the groundwork for a civilization that may change Tartarus for the better. I have spent what you would call decades gathering up those few creatures who I have reason to believe might be able to coexist with one another, and done what I can to give them safe haven. Your arrival, and Tartarus's awakening, severely disrupted my work, but on reflection, perhaps this was for the best. I realize now that I cannot do this thing alone. Thusly do I request your assistance, as a fellow Princess. I have given you no reason to help me in this, and I cannot completely guarantee your safety, but you are strong, and resilient, and it would be a great boon to me if you would return to Tartarus, and do for my people what I cannot.
The wight, Bait, who calls himself your friend, is one of those now under my protection. I found him shortly before you departed, and have given him a place among my favored. He has told me much about you. I have attached a brief message from him, in the hopes that what he says might convince you.
A post-script followed.
Princess. I’ve not used that title in an eternity, but I suppose it still has some value.
The Sisters looked at the each other once more, wide eyed.
“You certainly know how to choose your students, don’t you, Sister?” said Luna.
Celestia only shook her head in wonder.
Twilight hadn’t even read Bait’s letter in those first moments. Just knowing he lived had been enough. She had later though, over and over. He’d sounded so happy! He was called Dusk now. Terra had told him to abandon his old name, apparently. Tartarus had given him that title, she’d said, and he was to be its creature no longer. Unsure of what to call himself, he had asked for ‘something like Twilight.’ Twilight still felt a little bit of warmth every time she thought of that grand (if a bit odd) compliment. He was sad he hadn’t made it to Equestria, of course, but he had a new family now, one that truly cared for him. And he was alive. And he was part of something big. He hadn’t understood what that meant really, and had said so, but she supposed it didn’t much matter. He was alive!
Twilight had spent a full day penning her reply before handing it over to Briareos. She’d requested he come back again to exchange more letters, or just to talk, or for any reason at all. He could even bring his brothers, if they wished to visit. Celestia and Luna had balked at that last part, but Twilight had been adamant. Briareos, for his part, had only chuckled. He would ask, he told her, but assured the Princesses that that ‘bitter old bastard of a weed’ Gyges was far too stuck in his ways to go on such an adventure, and Cottos was…Cottos. He’d left it at that, but agreed to return as soon as he was able. Thus did the pony and the hekatonkhire establish a regular correspondence, the first between Tartarus and Equestria in thousands of years.
A little over three years had passed since then. Twilight had been through a great deal in that time. She’d learned about herself, and her power, and what she could do with it. She’d worked through the events that had brought her into that power. She was still the pony she’d always been, but much had changed. Including her status with a certain other Princess, who was at this very moment attempting to convince her that maybe they should just go home and think this over for a little while longer.
“You don’t have to do this, Twilight. And certainly not alone.” Celestia’s wing, currently wrapped around her, tightened a little. Her voice oozed worry.
Twilight smiled and tilted her muzzle up toward the taller Princess. Not quite so as tall as she used to be, from Twilight’s perspective, but still. Their lips met, if only briefly.
“I know. But I won't be alone." She was never alone, now. Just as Celestia and Luna were the Sun and Moon, Twilight was Friendship. She was the bonds she had created, in a more than figurative sense, and she could call the object of such bonds to her at will, and send them home just as easily. With permission of course. Sidewinder had been right about that; you couldn't force friendship on someone. Twilight had never had to, either. Her friends had volunteered to help her, every one of them. And besides, Insight would be there, and Bait, Ben, and Briareos. "Thank you for coming, but…”
She was used to this. It had taken a long, long time for Twilight and Celestia to figure out if the whole 'relationship' thing was something they actually wanted to try. They had very nearly agreed to write the whole incident in the cave off as a fluke. Just two ponies in a bad situation looking to make something good of it. Eventually though, it had come down less to the question of 'why' than 'why not?' Luna had helped that along. It could be argued she'd tricked them into it, even, because frankly, she found the whole situation hilarious. Regardless, once so attached, Celestia could honestly be a bit clingy. Twilight wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But then, they’d only just started. There was plenty of time to figure it out.
Twilight disengaged, pulling away until Celestia gave in.
“I understand what you’re trying to do, Twilight. It is a noble endeavor, and certainly a worthy cause, but you’re still so new to th-ow!”
Luna looked nonchalantly away from Celestia’s glare, the very picture of innocence. She winked at Twilight.
Twilight smiled and stepped toward the Tartarus gate. Cerberus escorted her.
“I promise I’ll take every precaution, just like we talked about. So please, try not to worry. I’ll be back before you know it. I love you, Celestia.”
Celestia responded in kind. Luna, too, wished her well as she took that last step. Twilight didn’t have to pass the tests most ponies did. She knew all the tricks, held every key. Only a slight tremble shook her as one hoof, raised in Equestria, landed in Tartarus. She didn’t fight the fear this place still gave her. She accepted it. And then she moved on. Briareos was there to greet her on the other side.
He bowed. He was bigger now. He’d recovered.
Twilight Sparkle, Goddess of Friendship, stared out into the impossible landscape of Tartarus, taking a deep breath.
“Alright then,” she said. “Let’s go make some friends!”