Gate to Hades
The entrance to Hades was massive. The cave's ceiling easily dwarfed the tallest building in Ponyville. Stalactites lined the ceiling of the cave, an unwritten threat that one might drop down and crush any visitors that did not take care. As the end of the cave was black as night, it could easily be described as a dark hole in the world.
Twilight was secretly envious of Rainbow's inability to smell at that moment, as the wind carried the scent of what she could only describe as rotting flesh out of the cave. However she’d never voice such a comment; doing so would only remind Rainbow of all that she’d lost.
“So, last time you came here all by yourself?” Rainbow asked.
“Well, not exactly. Cerberus had escaped; I was leading him back here to ensure that nothing in Tartarus got out. Not much will mess with a forty-hoof three-headed dog, you know. Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t subdue him or anything, that was Fluttershy. I simply used the ball Pinkie gave me to lure him down here.”
“I thought you said you just threw it down a hole?”
Twilight nodded to Rainbow's comment.
“How do you know that he stayed? Or that he didn’t come back out after you left?”
“There was a noise after he went in. I'd have a hard time explaining it but it seemed to be saying thank you. It left me with the distinct impression that whoever lost him would take it from there.”
Twilight could tell that Rainbow wasn’t quite satisfied with that reply; however, she didn’t press the issue. Both ponies started down into the cave, Twilight’s horn lighting the way for Rainbow. Twilight didn’t seem to need the light; as best she could tell her eyesight was perfect in pitch black or bright light. Must be a side effect of the eyes, she thought. Her analytical mind was already beginning to think up some tests for later when Rainbow broke the silence.
“Hey Twi, there's one thing bothering me about all of this.”
“Just one? You’ve got me beat.”
“Hardy har Twi; no, but seriously. While I recognize that no self-respecting pony would come down here normally. Doesn't it seem odd that the gate to the underworld has no guards? That nothing is defending it? It seems like it’d be a bad idea to leave it open like this, there are some that would want to use a place like this in the worst possible ways. I mean I expected a dragon at least… not that I really want to fight one.” Rainbow hastily added the last part. She’d almost been eaten once, and once was enough.
Twilight could not help but think Rainbow was really talking about Chrysalis at that moment.
“Just because there are no guards, Rainbow, doesn’t mean that it’s not defended. First thing you would have to get across is the River Styx.”
“You mean that river?”
Twilight looked forward; they had traveled to the end of the tunnel. In front of them was a river the likes of which Twilight had never seen before. There was no water, just energy. A quick glance in the magic plane confirmed Twilight's suspicion. The river was composed of life energy, souls. She chose to keep that fact to herself for now.
As the two friends approached the river, Twilight couldn’t help but gag a little. The smell was definitely coming from this thing. Her disgust almost cost Rainbow her soul.
Rainbow paused, her hoof surrounded in Twilight's purple magic, mere inches from the river's edge. Although Rainbow could not see it, Twilight saw the souls of the river reaching up and trying to grab onto their new friend. Twilight used her magic to lift Rainbow back a few steps, placing her softly on the ground.
“Don't touch the river, under any circumstances. This is the first defense; no one can survive contact with that; well, let’s go with water.”
“Well, can you just fly us down the river?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight shook her head, “It’s said that those who try find their flight cut off halfway there, and you can guess what happens then.”
Rainbow nodded her head. It didn’t take an egghead to figure out the fate of those who fell in.
“So, how do we cross?” Rainbow asked.
“We wait. Kharon should be on his way shortly.” The questioning look on Rainbow’s face told Twilight she needed to continue with that statement. “Kharon is the ferry pony who brings the dead to their final resting place, for a price. To be honest, I'm surprised that he's not here yet. He can't have much work with things how they are.”
“Did you bring any bits with you? I'm kind shortchanged at the moment.”
Twilight just nodded to her question.
“One last question, tell me, if I asked how you know all this would the answer be 'I read it in a book?'”
Twilight nodded again.
“Thought so,” Rainbow said with a sigh.
A few minutes later, both ponies turned as they heard a noise coming from down river. Twilight put just a fraction more power into her horn to light up the tunnel.
“Uh, Twilight, take it down a notch!” Rainbow shouted, temporarily blinded by a light that's brightness she could only compare to that of a sun.
“Sorry, sorry,” Twilight quickly lowered the power in her horn back to where it was. The light dimmed back down to normal. It’s more work keeping the power low, she thought. Truthfully she had yet to test her newfound powers, and the idea that such a small amount of energy could do something so potent to a basic light spell frightened her a little. Twilight would have to redefine some basic concepts; a small amount of energy to her was anything but to anypony else.
As Rainbow waited for her vision to return, she couldn’t help but hear that the ferry pony was singing a song to himself.
“I hate my life, I hate my life, I hate my life…”
“I think the ferry pony is bored, Twi.”
“NO SHIT SHERLOCK!” Came a much-unexpected reply from Kharon.
The boat docked against the side of the river. It was a rickety old thing made of rotten wood and one single oar. Rainbow had no idea how it even stayed afloat; as by all rights, with the sheer number of holes in the bottom, the thing should’ve sunk long before now.
Kharon did not look much better than the boat. Rainbow had to do a double take. The pony had a grey and green coat, resembling that of a leper. A disgusting looking cloth covered his eyes, his back legs were in bandages, and his front looked like they should have been in some themselves. However, it was his cutie mark that drew Rainbow’s attention, on his flank was the very same boat he now rode, floating on a river of dead creatures, some whom she could make out to be ponies.
As Rainbow looked on, completely lost for words, Twilight spoke up, “Sorry about that, Kharon. My name is Twilight Sparkle, and my friend here is Rainbow Dash. We’re looking to buy passage on your boat.”
“Only the dead may cross, now shoo! I know you’re not dead. There haven’t been any customers for over a day.”
“I may not be dead but my friend is,” Twilight replied, she really hoped Rainbow would not take offense to that comment. To her relief, Rainbow just shrugged.
“Yes, but she’s not bound here; her soul is still attached to her body. I can smell it.”
How he could smell anything beyond the stink of the river was a mystery to Twilight, but not one she could dwell on.
“Excuse me sir, but what is the actual rule that you have to follow for carrying others across?” Twilight asked.
“No living mortals are allowed to cross,” Kharon spoke, “So go away!”
“No living mortals, so someone like Rainbow who is no longer living wouldn’t qualify as a ‘living mortal’. Am I right?”
Kharon seemed to consider this for a while before speaking, “I suppose that’s true, but you, Twilight Sparkle, still can’t cross!”
Twilight cleared her throat, “I was getting to that, as you said, no living mortals can cross. I'm no longer mortal, I'm immortal.” Twilight enjoyed having logic back on her side. Let’s never fight again, she thought.
Kharon looked at her with a disbelieving glance, “Yeah right. You know how many times I've heard that one, and no, just because you’re an alicorn doesn't make you immortal. Now be gone, I’ll take your friend but not you!”
“I'm not lying.” Twilight spoke with an air of confidence she did not truly possess, she cleared her throat. “What do I have to do to prove it?”
Kharon laughed at this, he knew the test for this one, and no one had ever passed it before. “Put your hoof in the river,” he said with a wicked grin on his face.
Twilight just stared at him, unsure if what he said was a joke. Glancing over to Kharon, she saw that he was anything but joking. She’d have to do this if they wanted to continue. Turning around was never an option. Accepting this test as just another one she had to pass, Twilight started walking to the bank; Rainbow immediately ran in front of her, blocking her path, “Twilight, no!”
Twilight just looked at her, the worried expression on Rainbow's face sent chills down her spine. “Rainbow, move aside. We don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“We can find another way,” Rainbow replied, her voice shaking with desperation.
“There is no other way.”
“Twilight, we don’t know for sure that you are immortal. We only have Discord's word on it. Do you trust him?”
“About as far as I could throw him,” Twilight remarked, although given her current power level that might have been an overstatement, but Dash seemed to get the message anyway.
“Then don’t do this.”
“I'm sorry, Rainbow. We…I don't have a choice.” Twilight picked up Rainbow with her magic and walked the rest of the way to the river.
Using her new sight, Twilight watched the souls in the river reach up to grip their new friend. She slowly lowered her hoof into the water, unsure what the effect would be.
Rainbow turned her head and shut her eyes, not wanting to watch what her friend’s fate would be.
The screaming seemed to come from everywhere; the very sound would rattle bones and shatter windows. The type of pain that could cause this was only true violation of a soul. No one who heard this scream could ever doubt the shear agonizing pain that had to cause it.
The souls around Twilight’s hoof were shattered, broken into a million pieces and lost forever in the current. The area around her hoof turned to water, purified of all the anger and hatred that existed there moments before. Twilight drew her hoof back in shock at the noise. “Does…does that mean I passed?”
Kharon was dumbstruck. No one had ever survived contact with the river before. The souls in it were testament to its deadly nature. Anyone who so much as touched the energy found themselves trapped in it, forever damned to spend eternity guarding it from other would-be trespassers. That this pony, this little filly survived, that she destroyed the souls in that area no less. She was indeed what she claimed: He was in the presence of a true immortal.
Rainbow ran up and gripped Twilight in a bear hug.
“Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”
“I'm sorry, Dash. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The genuine fear in Dash’s voice caused her to pause. Maybe that was a little reckless, Twilight thought.
As the two friends embraced, nopony noticed the tear falling from Dash’s eye.
A little while later the two friends separated. Twilight stared at Kharon who seemed just as shocked now as when Twilight survived his test. “So, now that you know the truth of who we are, I assume it's fine for you to take us across, I believe the going rate is two bit each, right.”
“Four bits each!” Kharon countered.
“Four bits‽” Rainbow shouted, “That’s crazy!”
“Why should we pay you four bits?” Twilight asked.
“Because you two are my first customers in over a day; I need to eat too, so if I have no other customers the few I do get need to pay a little more,” he chuckled. “Besides, it’s not like you're coming back out, no pony comes back out.”
“We'll see,” Twilight replied.
Twilight paid the eight bits to Kharon as they both boarded the boat. Rainbow looked uneasy, knowing she could not fly if something bad were to happen. It was only Twilight's presence that stopped the mare from jumping off and heading home, little did she know that it was only her presence that stopped Twilight from doing the exact same thing.
Soon the opportunity to escape was beyond either of them, as Kharon pushed the boat away from the bank and down the river.
Twilight lit up her horn and stared ahead, while she doubted that Kharon need any assistance with direction, she knew Rainbow could not see in this darkness. Looking out at where they were heading, Twilight wished she could not see as she did. In the magic plane, the souls in the river were avoiding her gaze at all costs. They were actively trying to stay away from the thing that caused more pain than any of them had ever known. Twilight shut her eyes, not wanting to see the fear she was causing in these things.
Turning around she opened them to find Rainbow staring into the water at herself. “Rainbow? Rainbow? Rainbow‽” Twilight shouted, trying to get her friend's attention.
Rainbow Dash had just glanced down into the water after Twilight turned on the light. Her reflection stared back at her, except it was wrong in more ways than one. The grin on her reflection’s face was pure evil, her wings were trashed and torn, and the blood around her hooves was obviously not her own. The body of Twilight Sparkle lay towards her left side, cut and bleeding from a thousand wounds, all inflicted by the knife in Rainbow’s mouth.
“No,” Rainbow mouthed.
“Yes,” came the reflection's reply.
“I would never.”
“Yes, yes you would, goody four hooves, this was all done by you. You killed your best friend in the whole world. Who knew the Elements of Harmony were capable of making such a grievous error? You're not loyalty, you're betrayal.”
The scene played out like a sick joke in Rainbow’s mind; she lived through her murder of Twilight Sparkle a hundred times over.
When the fight left her, the reflection saw its chance; it lunged at her, seeking to grab the cyan pegasus and drag her down to share its watery grave.
Twilight's energy blast stopped it, completely destroying the damned soul and cutting a hole through the cave wall. The blast seemed to snap Rainbow out of it. She grabbed ahold of Twilight, refusing to let go as if to do so would be to lose her forever.
“Twilight! I saw… I saw—”
“You saw your worst fears,” Kharon interrupted.
“What was that?” Twilight asked, more annoyed by this late warning than anything else.
“My poor, poor children,” Kharon spoke, staring down at the river without a hint of sincerity in his voice. “They get lonely you see, and while there may be a lot of them in there, they can’t interact with each other. They all see themselves as the only one there. So they seek out friends, they do this by seeking to entrap those who foolishly look into their depths. The older ones, the smarter ones, they know if their victim is weak, they won't fight back. As such, anyone foolish enough to stare into the waters will live out their worst fear, the one thing in the world that would horrify them to their very core. Tell me young one, what did you see?”
Rainbow still refused to let go of Twilight, “I saw… I saw myself betraying Twilight; I led her into a trap and, killed her… over and over.”
“Ah, you fear betraying the one you love the most,” Kharon said with a smirk.
Rainbow finally let go of Twilight and turned to Kharon, the fire in her eyes spoke volumes, “I would never! And me and Twilight are just friends.” The last part sounded weak even to Rainbow.
“I don’t doubt it, young one. Your nature would never allow you to betray someone to such an extreme, but that’s how the river works. It finds the one thing so repugnant to the viewer and seeks to make it a reality. In truth, it should make you proud that it took something so extreme to get to you; it shows that your heart is indeed pure.”
It did not.
The two friends lay side by side on the boat. Dash was still visibly shaking from her experience and Twilight wanted nothing to do with the water again. Before long the dark journey ended and they could both see where the river ended. Somehow, that did little to soothe Twilight or Rainbow's nerves.
“We're reaching the end of the river,” Kharon spoke. “I suggest you two be on your way; however, I must give a dire warning of what's ahead. While I know not why you would insist on coming to this place, understand that soon you will undergo trials that you cannot prepare yourselves for. Whatever you seek will not want you to find it. You must rely on each other down here and no one else. For here, you two are all you have.”
Rainbow Dash and Twilight both looked at each other, that one look conveying a conversation between them that spoke louder than any words ever could. Of course they would rely on each other. There was nopony else that the two would rather be with at that moment.
Theirs was a friendship that was forever changed by what they had been through, and what they would go through from this point on.