The golem dropped her in the cell, and only then did Luster Lock realize how much trouble she was in. She wheeled around and bared her teeth at the stone monstrosity—it stood on two legs and blocked her only escape, staring at her with snakebite eyes that glowed honey yellow. “See something you like?” Luster growled.
As if in response, the golem shifted. Its body filled the exit, blocking the tunnel off entirely. The lights in its eyes faded—the only trait separating it from the surrounding stonework now were two black points where its eyes had been. With that, Luster was alone with the sound of her own breathing.
She reared back and spat on the golem. The saliva oozed towards the floor with the consistency of a blood clot. Luster turned away and collapsed on her haunches. She felt like she’d just run a marathon in the dead of summer. Her body ached, her mind throbbed, her nostrils burned, and all she wanted was to go home—not an inclination she normally had, but the quiet of Hoofington would be paradise next to the silence of prison. It wasn’t an option though, so she put it out of her mind. She focused instead on assessing the isolation chamber for all it was worth.
It was cramped. Widthwise she barely had enough room to fully extend her wings, and less than twice that lengthwise. The air inside felt like it hadn’t moved in centuries, and it smelled of dust and sewage. The floor, ceiling, and walls—even the golem, now—all consisted of the same fat cobblestones. Thin lines of magic ran where the mortar would be, the same sickly yellow of the golem’s eyes. Otherwise, the room’s only features were a dark, smelly gutter near the exit and a high slit of a window on the room’s far side. The view outside was almost immediately blocked by a wall of earth. Only the final crumbs of sunlight reached Luster’s cell. Moss crept past the bars and hung on the wall like a stain.
No immediate options for escape presented themselves, and that frustrated her immensely. Even the exit lacked a lock to try and pick. Her body begged for rest, but her mind screamed at her to find a way out. If not for herself, then for Trixie. That was the whole reason she was in this mess anyway.
Trixie… Luster’s body tightened. The image of Trixie shackled and silent behind bars burned in her mind’s eye—that red thing clamped around her horn, locked by such a pedestrian mechanism. If only Luster had been a little faster.
Her eyes steeled over. She closed them and shook her head. Frustration wouldn’t help her right now. As much as she hated it, Luster knew she had to play the long game. She lay down and let exhaustion overwhelm her.
Lilligold had heard commotion in the next cell over—she was certain she had. She’d been prone to a few delusions in the time she’d been imprisoned, but none had made any sense until now. It had been the grinding of a stone golem and the voice of a pony, both echoing to her through the gutter. She was positive: another unicorn had been sent to solitary confinement.
Naturally, she said nothing. The last thing she needed was attention. She wanted nothing more than to be alone with her thoughts. The confinement was solitary, after all.
She rested her head against the wall. Her horn made a peculiar tock noise as it tapped the stone. A painful reminder of the magic capacitor binding her horn. Every time she remembered it, she reflexively tried to cast a spell. And every time it sent the same, disgusting wave through her, like she’d ingested something that her body was rejecting. She screwed up her face and tried to ignore it.
Her thoughts wandered back to her plants, as they always did. She always tried to recall the happy memories—the store she had built and groomed and loved with all her heart—but the trauma of her last night there always thrust itself upon her like a bleeding gash in her mind. Every detail pounced at her and bit like snakes. How those golems had come from nowhere and wreaked pandemonium. How… he had grabbed her in his slimy magic and stolen. He, with his savage eyes and voice like wind.
Lilligold bit her lip. Her eyelids fluttered in vain to cool the heat of her tears. She’d grown so weary of crying, but she still couldn’t help it. The thought of all her plants, stolen or silenced amid the carnage. Years of work she’d put her heart and soul into, gone in the span of no time at all.
That did it. That always did it. A sob wrenched from Lilligold’s chest. Crying burned her lungs and stung her throat, but she needed it. And so she sobbed. It was the only sound she found familiar lately, and that only made her sadder. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Hey…” rasped a voice. Lilligold cinched her lips.
“Hey,” it said again. It came distantly through the gutter. “Hey. Is somepony there? I think I heard crying.” A pregnant silence ensued. It lasted a decent while, and Lilligold nearly thought the mare had given up, but then she heard, “If you are there, say something. Please. I could really use someone to talk to.”
Lilligold said nothing. She was in solitary for a reason—they both were.
“You probably could use someone to talk to too, right? C’mon. It’s not like we’re getting outta here anytime soon. Not without some help, anyway. Gimme something to work with here.”
Still, Lilligold’s lips remained locked. Nothing she could say would help this pony. Nothing this pony could say would help her. It was hopeless.
The pony groaned. “Look, I know I heard something, alright? There’s no way I’m already going crazy down here. So stop messing around and say something!” The vigor in her voice struck Lilligold less than the scratchy undertone. Her heart screamed at her to say anything, but she wouldn’t.
Dungeon silence resumed. Lilligold didn’t dare move lest her hooves click too loudly on the stone. She only listened, praying the pony would give up and fall asleep before long.
“Please…” the voice said. “Please be there. I can’t be alone down here. I just… can’t.”
Those words sent a pang through Lilligold too sharp to bear. She silently cursed her conscience and whispered, “I’m here.” She waited, and when no reply came, she moved closer to the gutter and said, “I’m here.”
“You are?” Lilligold made to reply, but the mare was quicker. “Ha! You are! I knew there was somepony there. Why didn’t you say something before?”
Lilligold worked her tongue uselessly. How could she even hope to articulate it? She finally settled on a lie. “I don’t know. Disbelief, I suppose. It’s been so long since I’ve spoken to another pony.”
“Seriously? How long have you been down here?”
“Two months, perhaps a little more.” She knew that only because she’d been counting her… punishments. Once weekly, and there had been eight so far. She shivered.
“Yow. What did you do to get locked down here instead of in the main building with all the other ponies?”
Despite the fact that the mare couldn’t see her—or perhaps because of it—Lilligold blushed. “I… would rather not say.”
There was a moderate pause. “That bad, huh?”
Lilligold swallowed hard. “Perhaps we could discuss something else.” She thought for a moment. “My name is Lilligold, by the way.”
“Oh, right. Luster Lock, locksmith and former escape artist. Irony’s a bitch, eh? I got caught trying to bust out an old friend, and now I’m here. What’s your story?”
That caught Lilligold’s curiosity enough. “Caught? You weren’t abducted?”
“Uh, no.” In the ensuing silence, Lilligold realized she’d said exactly the wrong thing. “You were?”
Lilligold’s throat dried up, so she nodded. When she realized how silly that was, she said, “Yes. All of us were. Except for you, it would seem.”
Even though Lilligold couldn’t see Luster Lock’s face, she imagined her mouth to be hanging open. “What kind of prison is this? Why were you abducted?”
At that, Lilligold was lost for words. Unfortunately, fate seemed determined to answer the question for her.
The golem in Lilligold’s door stirred. She reflexively yelped and curled as far from it as she could, trembling in the corner like a schoolfilly anticipating a scolding.
“Lilligold?!” Luster called. “What’s going on?!”
“No! No!” Lilligold screamed. The golem stepped forward and reached an arm out to her, its soulless eyes burning deeper into her memory. “Please! Not again! Stop!”
Luster Lock was yelling something, but it was muffled behind the ringing in Lilligold’s ears. The golem clenched its fist around her tail and yanked her into the air. She kicked and thrashed and pleaded, but the golem continued unabated. It carried her out of the cell, her screams echoing through the dungeon blackness.
The tiredness was becoming downright painful now, but Luster was determined not to fall asleep. Not until Lilligold came back. She needed to know what was going on in this place. All she really knew was that Trixie had gone missing while touring in Elmshire, and she’d tracked her down to here. Beyond that, she had no idea.
Soon enough, the silence was disturbed by a distant rumbling. It grew closer and closer, until the roar of grinding stone was nearly on top of her. Luster perked her ears up. Something thudded, and the sound of the stone golem faded. As it did, she heard a soft sobbing coming through the gutter. Luster frowned. “Lilligold?”
There was a gasp, and then the sobbing resumed. Luster tried again. “Lilligold, what happened? Where did you go?”
Lilligold’s sobs redoubled. Her breaths came in erratic pulses, like a pony on the verge of mania. Something that sounded like speech tried to break through the weeping, but Luster couldn’t make out a word.
Stretching for something to say, Luster found herself at a loss. Lilligold’s sobs struck her tired mind heavily. She’d never been much good dealing with serious situations, and this was about as serious as they came.
“We’re gonna get outta here, Lilligold,” Luster said. “I don’t know how, or when, but we will, okay? I’ve gotten out of way worse jams than this.” She wasn’t sure that much was true, but it sounded right. “We can do it. I know we can.”
Whether her words had any impact or not, Luster had no idea. Lilligold’s sobbing seemed to be winding down, at any rate. It descended briefly into sniffles, then stopped entirely. Silence dominated once more.
“Lilligold?” Luster said. When no response came, she didn’t bother trying again. She still had exhaustion to sleep away herself, and now she had a lot more to think about too. She curled up against the wall and was gone in a matter of minutes.
The potted flytrap sat before Lilligold, barely more than a sproutling. She bit her tongue and focused. A complex web of magic appeared in her mind’s eye. She wove it into the plant carefully, making sure every spell was precisely aligned, and taking great care not to damage the plant.
When she was done, Lilligold opened her eyes. The flytrap squirmed a little and flapped its leaves. It made raspy mewling noises, tilting its pod every which way. Tears immediately flooded Lilligold’s eyes.
“Hello, little friend,” she said. “Welcome to the world.”
A heavy clattering snapped Lilligold awake. She wiped the tears from her eyes—they were still puffy and sore from the previous night. She coughed up some dust and spores, then turned to the door, where the golem was shifting back into place. A wooden bowl rattled at its feet. A thick, black substance rested in it, the surface congealing before her eyes. If she didn’t know any better, she might’ve guessed it was cold tar. The sight always made Lilligold’s stomach turn, but she drew the bowl closer anyway.
“Lilligold?” came Luster’s voice. It jolted Lilligold’s heart a bit. “You awake?”
“Yes,” she said. She dipped her muzzle into the bowl and ate a glob of the stuff. It glued her teeth together, and it always made her fur sticky and rock-hard, but at least it was edible. It tasted about as good as hot slag smelled, though.
“What in Equestria is this stuff?” Luster asked.
“Oatmeal, once upon a time.” She processed what Luster had just said, then asked, “You’re from Equestria, then?”
She heard Luster spit, followed by something skidding across the floor—Luster’s bowl of ‘oatmeal,’ probably. “Uh huh,” she said.
“Quite a long way you’ve come.”
“I was bored. When I heard Trixie’d gone missing, it was the perfect excuse to beat the rhythm, y’know? Little adventure, save a friend, perfect summer.”
“Ah.” Lilligold took another bite of oatmeal.
A brief silence settled, then Luster said, “So, about last night… what exactly happened?”
Lilligold chewed on the oatmeal longer than necessary, buying time to muster up some courage. She eventually swallowed and said, matter-of-factly, “I was taken away for punishment.”
“Punishment? What did you do wrong?”
Despite her efforts, Lilligold could sense heat building in her eyes again. “Nothing. Nothing at all. He just… does it. For his own pleasure.”
A long, thick silence ensued. “Who does?”
“The pony who abducted us. The one keeping us here. He—” Lilligold’s voice hitched. “He takes us, one at a time, and makes us hurt. He puts us through trauma, and just… watches.” She closed her eyes, and a metal greenhouse flashed through her mind.
Lilligold wrenched her eyes shut. “I don’t know,” she squeaked. A sob forced itself from her. “I just want to go home.”
She managed to choke back any further sobbing, waiting for Luster to say something. “You will get home. We both will! I promise, I’ll bust us outta here before you know it.”
Biting her lip and shaking her head, Lilligold said, “It’s not possible. No one can leave this place.”
Amazingly, Luster chuckled. “Clearly you don’t know who you’re talking to. Never met an escape that could stand up to the Radium Maiden! We’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”
Lilligold’s eyes glazed over. “How?”
When Luster’s voice came back, it was downtrodden beyond recognition. “I… haven’t gotten that far yet.”
The silence resumed. And what a long silence it would be.
Several months passed in no small time.
When she wasn’t sleeping, Luster was asking Lilligold questions about anything and everything, as though she couldn’t bear the silence—or the solitude. Lilligold had been hesitant at first, but she’d eventually told Luster all about her plants and her shop and her talents. She carefully avoided mentioning Audrey, because she descended into an inconsolable mess whenever she did. Luster only knew her name, that she was a plant, and that she was Lilligold’s oldest friend.
Lilligold didn’t ask so many questions. It was universally Luster who initiated the conversations, and Lilligold preferred to listen unless asked something directly. She gathered that Luster had been an assistant to a street performer named Trixie a long while ago, and she missed that time greatly. Clearly she didn’t find much joy in her profession as a locksmith, but she was always more than happy to bring up Trixie and wax poetic about her memories there.
As the weeks dwindled on, Luster brought up the topic of escape less and less. Whenever she did, Lilligold tended not to comment on it. She couldn’t tell if Luster’s willpower was dwindling, or if she’d simply chosen not to talk about whatever plans she had. All she knew was that the outside world still seemed very, very far off.
In all those months, Luster never left her cell. Lilligold was taken away every week for her punishment, and the process never got any easier. If anything she cried more and more with each passing punishment. She never went into detail about what the punishments entailed—if she tried to, she wouldn’t get very far before succumbing to sobs again.
It was after one of these punishments, and the sleep that followed, that something pivotal happened.
Lilligold sat in a vast green field, smiling at Audrey. The flytrap stood about as tall as Lilligold herself now. She rested in the grass, her pot discarded and her roots bare.
With a little giggle, Lilligold sent a ripple of magic through the grass. It brushed up against Audrey, and she turned towards Lilligold. She smiled and chirped, then pulled herself through the grass with her vines.
Lilligold beamed. “Good girl!”
“Argh!” Luster slammed her hooves against the golem again. It didn’t budge. She screamed and punched and screamed and punched, rendering her throat raw and her hooves swollen. Her eyes bulged, bloodshot and wet as they were. “Let! Me! Out!”
“Luster,” came Lilligold’s sleepy voice. “What are you doing?”
She smashed both her hooves against the golem and came to a rest, breathing heavily. “I can’t take this anymore, Lilligold! This is killing me! I’m cold! I’m hungry! I’m dirty! And there’s no way out of this fucking cell!” She continued to pound on the rock. Streaks of blood appeared on the wall.
“Please, Luster, calm down! I understand your frustration, believe me, I do, but—”
“I’m so useless!” Luster slammed the golem. Something cracked in her hoof. She didn’t care. “I couldn’t get Trixie out. I can’t get us out. And I don’t even have a purpose in this stupid dungeon! At least you get some attention. At least you get to leave this place for your damn punishments!”
Lilligold didn’t answer for a long time. Again, Luster didn’t care. She just kept blindly punching, though her jabs were losing force.
“Luster, you don’t know what you’re saying.” Her voice was trembling. For whatever reason, that grated on Luster’s nerves. “Those punishments are torture of the worst kind. I would much rather be stuck in this room for years on end than endure even one more of those sessions.”
“Cry me a river!” Luster pivoted and punched the wall above the gutter instead. She rested there and said, “You don’t know what this is like for me. You don’t even know me! You’ve had months to get used to those punishments. Stop being a wimp, already!”
“Pardon me!” For the first time, Lilligold had raised her voice. “Do you even know what those punishments consist of? Would you like me to tell you?!”
“If you can get it out between your crying, be my guest!”
“They make me kill Audrey!” The words rang through the two cells like a guillotine’s thud. “They let me use my magic to revive her, only so they can take her away. Again! And again! And again! So don’t you dare tell me I’m not the one suffering in all this. How would you like to have your dearest friend—your life’s ambition—flaunted before you and be unable to do a thing?”
Luster said nothing. A fire still smoldered in her gut, but it was dwindling into embers. Eventually, she growled, “What life’s work?”
With that, the both of them went quiet. Luster collapsed at the golem’s feet. Her hooves throbbed and gushed scarlet. Her throat ached of dryness. But her headache hurt worst of all. She wasn’t sure she’d wake up again if she lost consciousness, but her body was desperate to quit, and she fell asleep before long.
Something smacked Luster in the head, conking her awake. She groaned as lukewarm black goop seeped into her mane from the upturned bowl on her head. She managed to shake the bowl free, but the oatmeal stuck hard in her mane, giving her ironclad hair.
She didn’t even bother trying to rouse Lilligold—they both needed time to think. Instead, she just lay there. Blunt pain wracked her body, but her hooves had stopped bleeding at least. She pushed herself into a sitting position, grunting at the stiffness of her limbs, and set about picking the oatmeal from her mane before it hardened too much.
Much of her hair had clumped together into straight black rods. “Ugh, come on,” she grumbled. But try as she might, the oatmeal was dead set on molding to her mane. She tried to at least separate some of the hairs, but the clump simply bent at her touch. It held firm in its bent position, making it look almost like a lockpick.
Lilligold stood at the base of her stairs, tears in her eyes as she looked up at Audrey in the mangled doorframe of her bedroom. The cloaked unicorn had Lilligold frozen in his grip—all she could do was stare.
Audrey lunged a vine at the unicorn, but he dodged. “Buffoons!” he called to the two golems ransacking Lilligold’s shop. “Neutralize this vegetable. I want it.” The golems dropped whatever plants they’d been mangling and marched towards Audrey’s vine.
Another vine shot out and nailed the unicorn. Lilligold was freed from his magic grip and collapsed to the floor. “No!” she shrieked. “No! Please!” She summoned her magic and nailed one of the golems. It fell, but it was too late.
The other golem gripped Audrey’s vine. A howl split the night, and the flytrap went limp.
Lilligold’s eyes fluttered open—she couldn’t recall a time she’d awoken with more tears in her eyes. She sniffled and rose to sitting. She pulled her bowl of oatmeal close and began eating in silence.
“Lilligold! Come on, get up!”
“I’m in no mood, Luster,” Lilligold mumbled. She wasn’t even sure it was loud enough to make it through the gutter.
“No! Look, I’m sorry about last night, okay? I went crazy and took it out on you. Whatever. But you have to listen! I can get us out of here!”
Lilligold clenched her teeth. “Please stop talking,” she said. “I requested solitary confinement for a reason.”
Wherever Luster had been going, that seemed to derail her. “You what?”
“I prefer to be left alone. I am better off alone. That’s why I asked to be placed in isolation.” She slammed her bowl on the ground and glared at the gutter. “But then you come along and give me false hope. You make me relive my most painful memories time and again. And then you have the gall to trivialize all of this and get angry with me! I’m done with you, Luster Lock.”
In all her life, Lilligold had never scolded anyone so badly. Her conscience screamed at her to apologize, but she refused to listen.
“That’s not true. We need each other, Lilligold. You needed me, and I sure as shit needed you. Now more than ever. Please, Lilligold. You have to believe me. I can get us out. Today.”
Lilligold stomped a hoof on the ground. She was trembling from head to tail. “It’s impossible. You said it yourself.”
“It’s not impossible. It’s just really, really sticky.”
Despite everything, that got Lilligold to raise an eyebrow. “What?”
In the quick silence, Lilligold imagined Luster to be smirking. “You didn’t eat all your oatmeal, did you?”
It took two grimy, disheveled manes, many hours of explanation on Luster’s part, and many hours of fumbling on Lilligold’s, but they managed. Lilligold twisted her hair-made-lockpick in the keyhole of her magic capacitor for the umpteenth time, and it clicked. A chill swept through her, and the device clattered to the floor. Magic immediately swelled to her horn like a newly undammed river.
“Was that it?” Luster asked.
Lilligold stared at the magic capacitor, lying in two pieces at her hooves. She chuckled as she lifted the pieces in her magic and launched them down the gutter. “You’ve done it! You’ve done it! Ah ha ha!”
“We did it! All I did was make a mess of my mane and… be a locksmith, I guess!”
“All you did? That’s no small feat, Luster!” Lilligold clasped her hooves around her horn. It tingled with and ambient frequency she’d missed so dearly. “How in the world did you even know how to instruct me on a lock you’ve never seen?”
“I saw it real quick when I tried to bust out Trixie. Looked dead-simple. Turns out it was!” At that, Luster’s tone exploded into one of sheer ecstasy. “Now blow a hole in the wall already!”
Lilligold turned on the dormant golem. “With pleasure.” She lit her horn like a brazen sunflower and fired a shock of magic into the golem’s eyes. It groaned in the doorway, then collapsed into her cell, motionless. The yellow lines criss-crossing the dungeon turned five-alarm red.
Lilligold leapt over the golem and turned to the right. “Stand back!” she shouted. Another beam shot from her horn and struck the second golem guard. It toppled forward with a final thud.
A dark gray mess soared into the corridor and wrapped Lilligold in an embrace. Lilligold staggered, but she returned it fully, even as the alarm lights flashed all around them.
Luster pulled back and looked Lilligold in the eyes. Her grin was downright infectious. “You look nothing like I imagined, you know that?”
“Likewise,” Lilligold choked out. She was beaming from ear to ear. “But I don’t think this is quite the time.”
“Right.” Luster released her and looked forward down the dank corridor. “Let’s get outta here. Together.” She galloped away.
For a brief moment, Lilligold looked at her own bedraggled mane, still bent in an oatmeal lockpick. “Yes,” she said. “Together.” She took off after Luster.