The exit portal dumped them unceremoniously in a pile—limbs, tails, and wings all tangled together.
“Uhg... Twilight, your hoof is in my eye…” Sunset grunted, trying to tug herself free.
“Well, your tail… pthp!... was in my mouth!”
It took a minute or two to get straightened out and back on their hooves. While Twilight shook out her feathers, Sunset took a look around at their surroundings. They’d landed in an immense, but otherwise featureless square chamber. There were no windows, but lighting was provided by huge chandeliers that hung from the high ceiling. The only notable thing was a large passage that lead off from one of the walls.
“So... wherever we are... it’s boring.”
Twilight frowned at the stone walls. “Yeah, I’d agree with that assessment. Want to just go ahead and use the TPT again?”
“The Transdimensional Portal Talisman.” Twilight rolled her eyes, levitating the device up to eye level. The amulet-sized contraption rotated slowly in her grip, its ready light blinking.
“Weren’t we going with just ‘Talisman’ for short?”
“Why stop there?” Twilight grinned manically. “When we can make an acronym! Sounds a lot more science-y that way.”
Sunset shook her head and sighed. “You know, Twilight, sometimes you are so much like Sci-Twi, it’s a little disturbing.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment!” Twilight giggled and dramatically hit the activation button.
She pushed it again. Nothing. Twilight’s grin started to fade as she tried the button again and again. Despite the little blinking light, the machine continued to not do anything. “Um...I think we might have a technical issue.”
“Maybe it needs a recharge period?”
“Er…” Twilight swallowed hard, “I hope so.”
“I guess we might as well look around a bit.” Sunset shrugged, trotting towards the hallway. It proved equally as interesting with more drab grey stone, no windows, and the occasional pool of illumination.
“Why is this place so big…” Sunset faded out, her ears flicking forward as she came to a standstill. She flashed her companion a look. “Did you hear that?”
Twilight squinted and nodded her horn into the distance. Ahead of them was another pool of light, and beyond it was a opening in the endless stone walls. “Somepony said something... I’m sure of it.”
The branching hall was just as big and featureless as everything else, with only a faint blue-tinted light at the end of the tunnel. The voice, now obvious, was unrecognizable. Like someone mumbling to themselves rather than a conversation.
“I don’t like the look of this.”
“Yeah, creepy tunnels with mumbling at the other end is never a good sign.”
Twilight shook her head and nodded upwards. “I meant that, actually.”
Sunset followed Twilight’s gaze. Above the intersection was a sign that read simply ‘Special Containment.’
“That’s... not a good sign either.”
Twilight pulled the Talisman out again and gave it an experimental push. Nothing continued to happen. She shrugged at Sunset. “Well, we’re still not going anywhere yet. We either go forward, or back. Both options aren’t very appealing... but we did this to test out the device and we need better lighting to run a diagnostic in the field.”
Sunset set her jaw, frowning before she nodded and the duo pushed onward. The blue light got brighter as they walked, and the mumbling louder, but no more distinct. The hallway emptied out into another huge room, but this one was filled with empty cages of all sizes.
They looked around for the source of the mumbling and spotted a small cage in one corner. Inside was a wizened old thing the size of a pony with four black hooves, two wrinkled red claws for hands and a shaggy beard under sickly yellow eyes. When they spotted it, he smiled back at them with sharp, misaligned teeth.
“Tirek?” Twilight squeaked out the name. “But you were in Tartarus!”
“And here I still am, Princess.” Tirek griped the bars of his cage with bony fingers. “Welcome.”
Twilight jammed the device’s activation button, but it didn’t respond. “We can’t be here! We have to get out of here, Sunset!”
“Wait... you mean we’re in actual Tartarus?” Sunset whistled. “I saw the gates once, in Equestria... guarded by a three headed dog.”
“Yeah, Cerberus. I took him back once, after he slipped his chain.” Twilight rattled off the story mechanically as she opened the Talisman’s casing to look at the inner workings.
Tirek smiled again. “It looks like I have two new roommates to waste away for eternity with.”
“Twi... isn’t Tartarus supposed to be a prison plane?” Sunset’s eyes narrowed at Tirek. “Like... no one escapes from it. Ever.”
“Except for him.” Twilight groaned. “We have a problem, Sunset. The TPT is working. But this is Tartarus! The plane’s very makeup is keeping it from doing that!”
Tirek leaned against the bars of his cage, chuckling to himself. “Gone and trapped yourself here, Princess? Heh heh... what a laugh! I can’t wait to see what sort of noble sacrifice you will make to save yourself this time, hmm?”
“Shut up!” Sunset stomped her hoof, putting herself between the cage and her friend. “Twilight will figure this out! We’ll be gone soon enough.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” Tirek eyed the device. “Tartarus isn’t just a prison. It is the prison. All others are but poor copies. No one escapes it... unless you know how to break the system.”
“What are you talking about?”
“As she said, I escaped. I... manufactured... a situation that eventually led Cerberus to wander off like a pup, throwing off the tight balance of the aetheric weave that keeps billions of twisted souls contained. So as you can see, I’m something of an expert on the subject of jailbreaks.” Tirek’s smile widened. “Understanding and bypassing something like Tartarus’ inescapable net needs experience.”
“So... you’re offering to help?” Sunset glanced back at Twilight frantically poking and prodding at the Talisman’s odd mixture of circuitry and arcane fetishes. She looked back at the decrepit centaur. “Why?”
“Something to do.” Tirek shrugged noncommittally. “It does get tiresome down here with no one to talk to or subjugate. Let me have a look and I’m sure I could give you some pointers at the very least.”
Twilight shook her head, her hair already starting to look a little frazzled. “I don’t trust Tirek, Sunset. But... he’s right. Maybe if we had centuries to study the way Tartarus works, we could figure it out, but right now... we’re stuck.”
“Unless we take him up on the offer?” Sunset raised an eyebrow. “I don’t like it, Twi.”
“If it makes you feel any better, my little ponies, I am still trapped in this cage. I cannot drain your magics... no matter how much I may wish to do so. You lose nothing by accepting my help.” Tirek chuckled again.
“Ugh... fine.” Sunset huffed, ready to move if Tirek tried anything.
Twilight brought the Transdimensional Portal Talisman up to the cage, turning it in her aura so Tirek could examine it. The centaur giggled like a foal, starting to do calculations out loud, intermixed with pointed questions about specific components. Despite his ancient and unnerving nature, Tirek nonetheless proved himself extensively knowledgeable in the arcane and nature of planar cosmology.
With a few deceptively simple tweaks, he instructed Twilight how the device could be made to slip Tartarus’ binds. After that, the work went quickly and in a matter of minutes, she was closing the Talisman’s outer shell. This time, when she pressed the button, a portal ripped itself into existence in front of them.
Sunset whooped at the top of her lungs, grabbing the alicorn in her hooves and spinning them both around.
While the ponies laughed together, Tirek reached his spindly arms through the bars. “What, no hug for me?”
“Ew! No.” Sunset stuck out her tongue. “Thanks... I guess. I hope we alleviated some of your boredom.”
“You’ve done more than that.”
Sunset shivered at the look on Tirek’s face. The sooner they were away from the awful little goblin, the better. “Whatever. I’m ready to see where this takes us next. C’mon, Twi!”
With that, Sunset squared herself, lined up with the portal and jumped through. Twilight lined herself up when the old centaur held up his hand for her attention.
“One moment, Princess. I want to give you something. A little piece of knowledge that may or may not come in handy some day.”
“What is it?” Twilight glanced back and forth between the portal and the cage.
“I have a perfect memory when it comes to magical matrices and systems.” Tirek whispered conspiratorially, his twisted smile going wide again.
Twilight pursed her lips, brow knitting in confusion. “Wh-why are you telling me that?”
“Knowledge given for knowledge received.” Tirek sank back into the depths of his cell, away from Twilight and the portal. “Be seeing you.”