WARNING: Starting with this chapter, this story will contain MAJOR (as in, story-ruining) spoilers for "Happy Adventuring, Twilight!" and "Penn and Stone: Dynamic Duo!" I will make my best concerted efforts to make this chapter "skippable," but spoilers will continue later into the story. Chapters containing such spoilers will be marked with a warning until such a time as they become completely unavoidable.
You have been warned.
Pennington shuddered as another spasmodic wave of shivers rippled through his body, starting at the base of his skull and moving down and outwards. Stopping his walking for a moment, he took another deep breath through his mouth, calming himself and stopping the involuntary motion.
I'm not going to shiver... I'm not going to shiver! If I shiver, then it means that I admit that I'm cold. If I admit that I'm cold, then it's a slippery slope to caving in to the cold and freezing to death! As he once again summoned up the strength from his body to halt the shivering and begin walking again, he couldn't help but wonder how far he was from civilization, and how far Moonstone had managed to travel by now.
For the first time, a new sensation introduced itself, a sharp pain in the front of his skull, as if someone had taken a hammer and chisel to his forehead. Cringing and stopping again, Pennington exhaled sharply from the pain.
"You have got to be kidding me..." He muttered, reaching up to his horn. When his hoof brushed the surface, his suspicions were confirmed: the surface was ice cold, feeling like a chilled metal, rather than flesh and bone beginning to freeze. The prosthetic is drawing away heat faster than the rest of my body. At this rate, it'll probably start to cause frostbite to what little of my REAL horn remains... He shook his head, regretting what he knew would have to come next.
Thankfully, the cold is probably going to weaken the fastening, so I can probably get it off in one piece and re-attach it later.
As he pulled his sword from its wrappings on his back, he could practically still hear Chrysalis's commanding tone ordering him not to turn his blade on himself. But, when the chips had been down and Twilight's life had been on the line, Pennington had been willing to sacrifice anything to free himself from the queen's control. Soon after, the hive was defeated and Pennington was given a prosthesis, created using Moonstone's blood as a magical catalyst so that he would eventually regain most of his former strength. Since then, his progress in magic had been unbearably slow, but he could at least form some basic objects and levitate others when necessary, like his sword. He'd lost the horn and even needed to replace it several times, but that never made it any easier, especially not now.
Tearing a small branch from a nearby tree and grinding his teeth into it, Pennington gently levitated his sword to his horn, gently rubbing the sharp edge along its length until he found the telltale point where his natural flesh and bone stopped and the numb replacement began. Closing his eyes, he moved the blade's razor-sharp edge along the area until he felt it slip into the smallest of fissures. Bracing himself, Pennington gently began to apply pressure with the sword, cringing as it began to pry the crack open. At this point, Pennington debated whether or not it would be a good idea to gently work it off to minimize the pain, but he could feel another spasm of repressed shivers beginning to build while he was standing still, and he knew that he would be more than likely to make a mistake if he tried to work through it. Biting hard into the branch, he gently worked the sword a few millimeters more into the point where the real horn met the fake, then gave it a sudden twist, prying open the crack and snapping it off. The horn few several feet before hitting the ground, but Pennington didn't notice.
"RRRGH! OH! OOOH! That HURTS!" He grunted around the branch, screwing his eyes shut as a small trickle of blood began running down his face and several spurts of magical energy escaped his horn, flying out into the air like blood from a vein. Shaking his head, Pennington sent droplets of blood spraying across the area. "I'm NEVER going to get used to that!"
After almost a minute of shivering and suppressing screams of pain, Pennington finally took a long, deep breath and opened his eyes.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when his eyes were met by the sight of a small filly standing in front of him, staring as she held his horn in her mouth. The earth-pony filly couldn't have been more than a few years old, and she stared at him with blood-red eyes. After Pennington had recovered from initially being startled, he took a closer look at her, confused about where she had come from. Her coat was colored a light yellow with only the lightest of green tints, accented by a faded blue-and-green mane. Her eyes were the only color that really jumped out, a ruby-red that seemed to look straight through him as she stared.
"You dropped your horn, mister!" She gently placed it at his hooves, smiling brightly. "But don't worry, I've got it! Do you want help putting it back on?"
Again, Pennington found himself startled, this time at how nonchalantly this little filly treated the fact that she had just watched him snap his own horn off.
"That- that's alright..." Pennington stuttered, picking up his horn and slipping it into one of the bags with the stone orbs. "I don't need it right now..." After a moment, he began to shiver violently, most of his energy spent. Pulling in another deep breath, he forced the shivers to subside, though only slightly.
"Are you cold, mister?" She asked, tilting her head in confusion.
After a moment of staring at the strange filly, Pennington nodded, his teeth emitting a light chattering.
"W-where did you come from?" He stuttered.
She simply shrugged, pointing out into the trees. "Somewhere in that direction. Mommy told me that I needed to go and get some herbs, so I just walked out here to look!"
"C-can you take me back to your Mommy? I n-need help..." Pennington's brow furrowed with frustration as he tried to talk through the shivering. Something about the little filly seemed familiar to him, but he couldn't focus enough to put his hoof on it.
"Well, we'll have to walk back to the city..." She looked down for a minute. "And that's really far."
Pennington nodded. "It's- It's just- I need to get warmed up... There's some kind of spell, and I'm slowly freezing to death..."
The filly tilted her head in confusion, walking forward and gently touching her hoof to his chest, feeling how cold he was. The moment that her hoof came into contact with his body, a sudden flood of warmth spread outwards from the point, and Pennington gasped with surprise. The shivering stopped as relief washed over him for a moment, and the frost that seemed to be running in his veins thawed. After only a second, however, she pulled her hoof away again, surprised.
"You are cold! Come on! It's this way!" Without waiting, she took off running into the forest, leaving him behind.
"H-hey! Wait up!" Pennington quickly followed her, but she was already too far ahead for him to see. "How did you do that?" He stumbled through the trees, trying to catch her, but she was already far out of sight. "Wait! Little girl, I don't see you! Where are you?"
He ran in that direction that she had left in until he couldn't run any more. The cold was creeping back into his limbs, and the sun was setting quickly. Sitting down on a fallen log, he shook his head and shrugged off the bags, letting the stone orbs fall to the ground.
"I don't get it... One second she was there, and the next, she was gone... and now I'm alone again."
That's how it all started, didn't it? You, alone in the woods, looking for something you needed? That's how you got your cutie mark... His own voice thought in his mind.
"Great, without Moonstone to talk to, I'm just talking to myself..." He shook his head again, leaning forward and letting out a long sigh.
There's nothing wrong with that. You tend to have some good ideas when you talk to yourself, don't you?
Pennington sat up again, sliding down so that his rear was on the ground and his back leaned up against the log, giving him support as he rested.
"Well, what are we doing, then? I should have been able to find that filly if she really was leading me back to the city! How did she disappear? HOW did she make me warm again? Where is Moonstone?"
Well, you probably lost her because you're ALWAYS winding up alone in the woods, somehow. Spiderstitch, Carnival Cat, ursas and dragons... You always wind up trapped alone in the forest with some kind of horrible danger, and it's always your fault!
"That doesn't explain much... but you're right about what you DID say." Pennington sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "Somehow, I always manage to strand myself alone... But I can't keep running from this danger... It's time. There's nothing that I can do to stop this spell, and I'm just so exhausted..."
You're freezing out here... Losing to a foe you can't fight. Maybe you can just sleep... Maybe just relax and let it overtake you. You gave in to the changelings, you gave in to Cha'Qued, you cave in to Luna, Lily, and Twilight at a single word... Why not just relax?
"Because I'll freeze to death! I need to get up before I fall asleep..." Opening his eyes again, Pennington shivered and stood up again, reaching down to pick the bags again. When he turned back again, however, he found himself face-to-face with... himself. He stared for a second, blinking in confusion. This doppelganger seemed to have his horn intact, and wasn't shivering the way that he was.
"Either the cold is starting to go to my head, again... or I'm having an out-of-body experience..." He slowly reached out his hoof,nudging the second Pennington in the chest. As he did, the frosty feeling in his hoof intensified, making his leg numb up to his knee before he quickly retreated again.
"Pal, you're in over your head." The second Pennington shook his head sadly. "You're going to wind up just like those guards... the ones whose armor you threw off a few miles back."
"That wasn't my fault. The armor was conducting the chill..." Pennington muttered, taking a hesitant step on his numbed hoof to circumvent his copy. "I had to take it off before I got frostbite, just like my horn."
"Do you think that you're not already like they are? You're a corpse walking! Look at yourself!" His second self easily kept pace with his deteriorating body. "At this point, all you're doing is refusing to 'rest in peace!'"
"I'll rest when I'm dead..." Pennington drew strength from the familiar adage, standing tall as he walked again, though he still needed to look down at where he placed his numb hoof.
His second self pressed his hoof to his forehead in frustration. "Since when was I this naive?"
"Since when was I this realistic?" He replied. "We've never given up, not even in the face of certain death! That's saved our lives! If I didn't know better, I'd say you're not me at all!" When he looked away from his clumsy hooves to glare at the copy, however, his second self was gone.
After blinking in confusion again, Pennington shook his head. Either this forest is haunted, or the cold really IS starting to freeze my brain! As he took his next step, however, Pennington felt himself involuntarily lurch forward as his numb ankle gave way with a sickening crack. He braced himself as he fell to the side with a grunt, immediately taking his weight off of the injured hoof. After a few seconds of sitting there, wondering if his doppelganger had at least been right about trying to rest more, he looked down at the offending limb.
Frozen through and through, his hoof had become brittle and shattered into two pieces. His eyes widened and his heart seemed to stop beating in his chest. with fear as he stared at the disembodied portion of his leg, broken at the ankle. Where the shatter had occurred, there was a purplish-red colored stump of frozen blood and muscle, not even bleeding. lifting up his leg to eye level, he saw another stump, the same color, and already forming frost on the top layer. A fissure had split his leg upwards, as well, a fracture that left a large, black crack running down the center, like a shattered stone.
Even as he stared, however, this new class of freezing cold traveled up his leg, into his shoulder, and through his chest. Pennington's lungs froze in place, unable to move or provide the air to scream as his head began to spin and he limply laid back on the ground. Soon, he felt the icy tendrils settle on his heart, stopping it with ease and freezing it solid.
Pennington's eyes slowly grew dark as his eyeballs froze in his sockets.
And the brain is the last light to go out... He thought quietly to himself, his body legitimately unable to even muster up the necessary reaction to be afraid.
"Hey, mister!" The filly's voice echoed out from the forest.
She's going to find me dead out here... I hope that it isn't too traumatic for her, she seems like a sweet little girl.
"Mister, wake up! Mister, you're gonna freeze if you go to sleep!" Despite her being nowhere in sight, he couldn't help but hear her voice right in his ear, as if shouting into it point-blank to try and rouse him from a deep sleep, rather than death.
It's funny, but now that I'm numb and dead, it DOES feel an awful lot like-
If he had been able to move, Pennington's eyes would have widened with surprise and his frozen heart would have skipped a beat. Instinct took over his thoughts and actions as his attention turned to his "shattered" hoof, trying to pick it up and move it as he mustered all of his strength.
Come on... COME ON!
Pennington's eyes flew open and he drew in a deep breath as his body sprung to life, no longer keeping itself paralyzed in slumber. Without a moment's thought, he sprung up onto his hooves, just as he always did when recovering from an episode of his sleep paralysis.
Or, at least, he would have, had his joints not been so stiff from the cold that he immediately lost his balance and fell flat on his face. After taking a few seconds to realize why such a thing had happened, Pennington struggled much more slowly up onto his hooves, barely keeping his balance with all the weight of the bags, this time. His knees seemed to creak and his shoulders ached as he took a few hesitant steps, the cold having seeped deep into his flesh and invaded any part of his body that was supposed to turn, bend, or tilt. he felt as if his skin was almost to the point of forming a layer of frost below his fur. His teeth chattered loudly in his mouth, now, and he was shivering badly. Despite the fact that it had obviously been a case of passing out involuntarily, he still hated himself for falling asleep.
"I-isn't th-th-this h-how Quill d-d-died?" He muttered, trying to keep his thoughts straight amidst the tired strain on his brain. "F-f-f-frozen? All I n-n-need is a li-li-lightning strike!" He tried to force out a chuckle, but it simply came out as more violent shivering in his exhalation.
On cue, thunder rolled across the sky and a bolt of lightning struck only a few feet in front of him, seemingly avoiding the numerous trees to follow a path straight to the ground. Pennington immediately jumped back as best he could with his half-frozen body and heavy load on his back. As the weight of the stone orbs pulled him downwards, his knees gave way and he cringed as he fell to the ground. He quietly closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to slow his rapidly racing heart. As he laid on the ground and tried to gather his strength, the thought crossed Pennington's mind to leave behind the orbs and retrieve them later.
Whatever it was that attacked us, it was deliberate and malicious. If these artifacts are as powerful as that vision showed me they were, I can't let it find them... That town can't be much farther, right?
"A royal escort? You've certainly gone up in the world since the last time we met, haven't you, Quill?" A sultry female voice crooned out from the darkness of the forest. Pennington's eyes flew open, his head turning towards the direction of the sound. Unfortunately, there wasn't any sign of the being speaking. Despite his seemingly vulnerable position on the ground, Pennington soundlessly placed his hooves each into a more grounded position and tensed his muscles, ready to spring away at the drop of a pin.
Quill? But that means... Pennington's eyes widened for a moment in surprise. She knows who I am and who I was in my previous life... Which means that either she knows a lot of things she shouldn't, or she is very, VERY old.
"Quill? Sorry, lady, but I think you've got the wrong guy! My name is Pennington, Pennington Inkwell..." Trying to put on his outer appearance of nonchalance, he kept his tone light, despite his suspicions that we was talking to his attacker. Even with his full physical capabilities, he doubted he would have been a match for her, and he was extremely weak and cold at the moment.
"Oh you can change your name, your coat, and even convince yourself of the honesty of your new self... But you're the same soul, deep down in your heart." The voice was growing closer and closer as she spoke, slowly and deliberately pacing herself until she sounded like she was just out of sight in the trees to his left. However, her next words were whispered into his ear as if she were only an inch away on his right, catching him off-guard.
"You're still Quill!"
Feeling hot breath on his ear and his heart skipping a beat in fear, Pennington leaped into the air, flying to his left and sprinting in the other direction. It was only a moment, however, before he felt something yank at his back right leg, causing him to trip and fall again, knocking the wind from his lungs and leaving him once again prostrate on the ground, groaning from the blow dealt to his chest by his collision with the forest floor.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, yet! That's supposed to come later!" The voice was just above him, now, and opening his eyes revealed that we was, indeed, staring at a pair of dainty-looking, gold-tipped hooves, one of which lifted itself up off the ground and placed itself on the jagged remains of his horn, pressing downwards and forcing his chin to the ground, keeping him from looking up at her.
"And what's supposed to come right now?" Pennington muttered, knowing fully well she could hear him. "What do you want from me?"
"What do I want? A bit of pleasure. A laugh, a chuckle, a giggle, even? Maybe more..." The voice took on a suggestive tone, making him uncomfortable. "But I'm a big fan of delayed gratification. Delayed 1000 years already, what's the harm in just a few more days? So, if you don't die slowly and painfully out here, I might get that out of you later." Her hoof moved away from his old injury, allowing him to finally look up at his adversary. As his eyes traveled up the near-unnaturally slender legs, past her gold-and-ruby necklace, and along her cloudy-blue eyes, He found himself staring up at a glistening white mare shimmering in the moonlight. Her long, golden mane tapered into red tips and the crown of her brow was christened with a golden tiara, inlaid with multiple rubies. Even her tail was long and elegant, tapered and whip-like except for a large gold-and-red tuft of hair at the end. She was both beautiful and radiated power, and her condescending grin told him that it was as obvious to her as it was to him that she was leagues and light-years his superior. Immediately, he began to reconsider his nervous reaction to her sultry tone when she talked about "pleasure." After that, however, the sensible part of his brain took over again, forcing out the inappropriate thoughts and reminding him that this mare seemed to be omnipotent, claimed to have known him during his days as Quill the Scribe, and obviously wanted him dead. Again.
"What's the matter, Quill?" She leaned down, her muzzle near inches from his as she leaned down, her large, blue eyes creating an almost hypnotic connection between them. "Never been this close to a beautiful mare, before?" For a brief moment, her eyes seemed to glow with a light from within, the sky-blue color casting its light on him.
"Actually... More times than you might guess." Pennington mustered a grin, but his teeth were chattering loudly.
"Oh, I'm so sorry! You must be freezing, and I never even noticed!" Her tone was one of mock concern, and the growing smile on her face showed him that she was enjoying his pain.
"Well, I'm just a little too cool for my own good!" Well, at least she seems to have a sense of humor... Maybe I can play off of that until I can get some kind of advantage? "So... What was that you said about 'dying slowly and painfully?"
The near-unnatural wideness of her smile at this point challenged Pennington's nerve more than any creature he had ever met.
"Oh, going straight to to point, are we? Well, I suppose we could forgo the foreplay and get straight to the main event..." Turning and walking back into the darkness, she disappeared in a black fog. No longer sure of her location, Pennington grunted and rose to his hooves again, looking from side to side to try and spot her.
What you need to understand, Pennington Inkwell, is that I would kill you at any moment. I could tear the skin from your body and make myself a nice business suit out of it. I could sever your brain stem and make you a mindless meat-puppet to dance for my entertainment. When I was a thousand years younger, I enjoyed ripping out a pony's nervous system and tossing it under a millstone while it was still completely operational.
Somehow, despite the chills racking his body, Pennington felt a bead of nervous sweat on his brow.
I'd say I've aged well, however. Being trapped on the moon for a thousand years with an angst-racked princess taught me one very important thing: that while torture of the body brings luscious screams of agony and beauteous writhing as your victims try with all of their might to cling to the few remaining threads of life binding them to this world, it is the scarring of the MIND that brings the greatest satisfaction. You can leave victims of the brutish torture alive, certainly, and watch as their body covers with scars... But the mind simply CANNOT heal like the body does. You can linger and watch them slowly descend into either raving madness or crippling depression. Personally, I love seeing them fall into the knowledge that they are nothing in the world. Mere ants waiting for my hoof to remind them of their place...
Pennington looked from side to side, watching for an attack.
"But I can see it in your eyes... You've been knocked down before, haven't you?"
He cringed as the voice came from the one place that he hadn't thought to check: above his head.
Adventuring 101, Penn! Always look up! He thought to himself, avoiding the temptation to curse under his breath. As he turned his eyes upwards, he caught sight of her again, hanging upside down in the air as if the laws of gravity didn't apply to her. Her mane and tail remained pulled towards her hooves, despite her inversion. Slowly, she floated down to eye-level with him, staring straight into his eyes yet again.
"Someone thought that they put you in your place... You've been told you were nothing before, and you even believed it." She muttered, staring at him with what seemed to be a mix of curiosity and bemusement. Pennington stared straight back into her eyes, now knowing that showing any kind of weakness could warrant a one-way trip to a agony-filled death. As he stared back, however, her glassy eyes seemed to grow, taking up more and more of his field of vision. As his focus sunk deeper and deeper into the black pits at the center of her blue irises, he lost all awareness of the world around him, totally and entirely lost.
"I can see it, now..." She chuckled lightly, her voice barely reaching him. "You think of it as a lifetime ago, but the wound remains fresh. You were about to throw away everything you held dear for her, and she abandoned you... Showed you that you didn't mean more to her than a few easy bits..."
An immense pain sprang up in Pennington's head, forcing him to cry out and fall to the ground. It felt as if somepony had driven a wedge into the front of his skull, splitting it open.
"And then, you met another, and she took you... to the changelings." Despite his screaming, Pennington could hear her voice as clearly as ever. "You forced her away, and she didn't come back for you... Not until they had stripped away who you were and ravaged your body... And then you were theirs, not hers. You lost your choice. You became a slave, in body and mind, to a force against those you loved. Nothing but another worthless soldier, mindlessly bound to your Queen."
"AAAAAAAAAAH!" He could only scream as he felt the piercing pain spread, cracking down the base of his skull and along his muzzle, drawing a line straight down the center of his head, as if the original split had been pulled open and split his brain like a nut being cracked open.
"And then... A cat? A feline of Everfree... Oh, that is rich! She truly put you in your place, didn't she? Or, I should say, she taught you that you're not always going to come out on top..." Eris continued, placing her hoof on the back of his neck. The moment that she touched him, a chill, fiercer than any before, ran through him, stopping his movement and leaving him frozen in place in mid-scream, unable to utter a sound as the pain only mounted, feeling as if his skull were being ripped in two, pulled in opposite directions.
"And then the greatest blow... You discovered that you weren't supposed to be who you had grown up believing you were... That the universe had different plans for you." Her voice whispered to Pennington through the haze of pain and fear, his only company in the abyss of darkness he was now confined to. "You spat in its face, disgracing the hero you were meant to be to save your pride... and discovered that the only reason so many ponies had taken interest in you was because of him, not you... Even your precious Twilight Sparkle knew and refused to tell you... Tut, tut, Penny. You need better taste in women."
There was one final onslaught of pain as it came to an unimaginable peak, and Pennington felt his skull finally tear apart as his head was split wide open, ripping into two hemispheres...
And then every sensation, from the pain to the cold to the overwhelming shame of each of his greatest defeats being relived in her words... simply fell away. The darkness became all-encompassing, and he was now adrift in it, like a corpse thrown into the sea.