• Published 13th Mar 2012
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Double-edged Sword - fic Write Off



/fic/ Write Off Mar 10 Entries

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The Ueton Game

"Another sleepover, Twi, really?"

Twilight's face was alight with glee as she leaned forward. "Think about it, AJ, just you and me! We can spend some real quality time together! I've been thinking about doing one-on-one friendship building exercises so I can get to know all my friends even better than before, and I wanted to start with you!"

Applejack scratched the back of her neck. "I dunno, Twilight. I mean... you know I'm not into all that girly fru-fru stuff, right?"
"Well of course!" The unicorn rolled her eyes. "I do remember the last sleepover, after all. That's why I wanted to ask you first: I don't think last time was quite your thing, so I want to get a better idea of what would be! You don't like makeovers? We'll have pillow fights and tell ghost stories instead! How about it, AJ, whattaya say?"

Applejack's eyes drifted to the left as she tapped her chin. "Well..."

Her friend's face contorted into an enormous, almost grotesque, pout, eyes doubling in size and watering ever so slightly.

"Fine, fine! Just you 'n me, then." Applejack laughed as Twilight clapped her hooves together. "But on one condition: we hafta make s'mores. Them's good eatin'."

Twilight grinned. "Of course, AJ. I'll get everything ready and see you tomorrow night!"


Applejack had to admit this sleepover was a lot better than the one they'd had with Rarity, even if both had been to blame for the events of that night. An initial flurry of "What do you want to do first?"s quickly subsided when Applejack suggested they just take their time to relax and not worry so much about what to do. It was just like Twilight to fret over every little thing, after all.

Several s'mores and one poorly-roped wooden unicorn bust later, they finally got to the part that Twilight had been waiting for all night: ghost stories. Applejack had noticed her checking the clock and worrying her lip on numerous occasions, not to mention the times it seemed she was about to suggest they go ahead with it, only to be cut off by Applejack's own suggestion. Relenting at last, Applejack sat back on a pile of pillows, chewing idly on a s'more as Twilight doused the lights and launched into the tale she'd been holding back all evening.

"In the grand streets of Canterlot," she began, narrowing her eyes and making her tone as menacing as possible, "there are many dark corners and shady alleyways, and within these murky confines lurk ponies who seek one thing: power! The power to shape the world to their bidding, the power to defend the weak, or even oppress them should they wish. Though they hold arcane meetings in furtive enclaves, by day you can find them in the highest echelons of Canterlot life: city administrators, nobility, university deans. But where, you might ask, would any unicorn get such incredible power? The answer is: The Ueton Game!"

Applejack made a face. "The Ooey-whatnow?"

"Shh! Let me explain! The Ueton Game takes place in a shared dream, whose players benefit from increased power -- strength, magic, endurance, speed -- so long as they continue to win it. Every night, they see horrifying visions in their dreams: ponies that bleed from the eyes, creatures with sharp fangs and multiple heads, living goo that tries to suck the marrow from their bones!" Twilight rose up on her hind legs. "And the longer you play, the more unspeakable become these horrors!

"The game tries to stop you, of course, and should you fall to the marauding hordes of darkness, a price must be paid, taken from your soul! But the player who loses isn't out of the game, no. They just start over, tormented night after night with unrelenting nightmares that rend their psyches to tatters! Clawing desperately in the search for power as things which should not be try their hardest to stop them! It's--"

"Twilight!" Applejack's eyes were wide. "Yer gettin' a little overdramatic there."

"Oh, hah hah!" Twilight chuckled nervously, scratching the back of her head. "Sorry, I guess got I carried away. Anyway, to take part in this game, you just need to hear about it from someone who plays it and speak an oath to the dark powers beyond the veil."

"Oath?"

Twilight nodded. "An oath. Let's say you, for example, wanted to take part in the game. You wait until midnight and, just before you climb into bed, you'd say, 'I, Applejack, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!' And then you go to sleep!" She grinned. "So what d'you think? Scary, huh?"

Applejack shook her head. "Nah. I mean, ponies bleedin' outta their eyes an' such is kinda creepy, but all I can think of now is callin' the 'Ooey-Gooey Game' and that just makes me think o' jelly!" She laughed. "It's more silly than anythin'!"

"Well, since you're not scared, why not try it? C'mon, it'll be fun!"

"Try it? What, you mean take that oath thingy? Why bother if it's just a ghost story?" She laughed again, but it died off as she noticed Twilight staring at her intently.

"Why not?" The unicorn's voice was on edge. "What's the holdup, AJ? It's like saying 'Milky Mary' three times in a bathroom mirror, right? Nothing will happen! There's no ghost cow to come out and spirit you away to the land of the dead or anything!" Twilight's left eye twitched.

And Applejack had been planning to tell the Milky Mary legend for her ghost story, too. Shoot.

"I mean, it's just a stupid urban legend, meant for scaring little fillies, but Applejack, what if it were true?" Twilight licked her lips, hysteria filtering into her voice. "Think about it, all the power you could get... it would be theoretically limitless! You could run faster, buck more apples, not get tired as quickly..."

"Twilight, stop, yer startin' to worry me now!" Applejack frowned at Twilight's manic expression, focused somewhere over her shoulder. "You know I ain't the kind of pony who's interested in gettin' all-powerful or nothin'."
Twilight, on the verge of tears, choked on her words. "Applejack, please! You have to..." Applejack slid over and placed a hoof around her, at which point she started sniffling.
"Twi... That weren't no ghost story you just told, was it?"
"I'm sorry, Applejack..." Twilight turned her face away. "This whole sleepover thing was a deception. I thought if I just told you outright, you wouldn't believe me..."

Applejack swallowed. This was not the Twilight she knew. "I'll believe ya, sugarcube, if'n you're willing to tell me the truth."

After a few long breaths to quiet her sobbing, Twilight spoke anew, quietly. "The Ueton Game isn't a story, it's real, and I've been playing it for six years now. Every night for the last six years, all I've dreamt about has been monsters and blood and guts and..." Her lead turned up, showing red-rimmed eyes. "You have no idea what it's like! It's driving me crazy, Applejack, and I need your help to get out!"

"Why me? Tell me the whole story here."

Twilight drew a long breath. "I was brought into the game when I was just a filly, the year after I started studying at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. I didn't know any better, and I trusted the mare who introduced me to the game. It wasn't long before I lost; the only time I've lost. It was terrible, like feeling a thousand icicles plunging into your body and ripping back out again, and when I woke up... I'd changed." She turned her face away. "I'd always been studious and interested in magic, yes, but after that loss, I became... obsessed. Crazy, you could say. You've seen what happens when things stop being predictable around me. I completely freak out; I can't help it. Something was taken from me on that day and it left me a different pony."

Applejack didn't like where this was going. "What happened to the mare who got you into it?"

Twilight sighed. "She... she died within a year. The coroner said it was natural causes, that she simply... stopped, in her sleep. But I know what happened: she'd lost the game one too many times and had nothing left to give it. This is what the game does, Applejack. I came to you because, out of all my friends, I think you're the one who's the most resilient, not just physically but mentally too. I have a theory, that if I could just get to the center of the game with somepony else, I could find a way to stop it, to get out. The game is why my magic is so powerful, and getting stronger every day, but I'm tired of it. I've been playing for so long, Applejack, so very long."

Applejack shook her head. "I dunno, Twilight. If what you're sayin' is all true, I stand to risk losin' my mind by helpin' you."

Twilight twisted around, her face lined with horror. "Applejack, I really can't count on anypony else! I thought about asking Rainbow Dash instead, but she'd never believe me. I know we can do this together. I'll be there in the dream to help you! And... and you'll get stronger while you're playing! I wasn't kidding about the results; there's no way to tell what will happen, but there's great benefit in playing."

"Just at the cost of your soul."

Twilight, shamed, dropped her gaze to the floor. "You're right, I... can't ask you to risk your soul for me. I just... I don't know what I'm going to do..." Tears began to pool on the wood flooring beneath her. A knife twisted in Applejack's stomach.

"Twilight, it's obvious this thing has you at wit's end. If there ain't no other way for ya to get out, then... I'll forgive ya tryin' to trick me. I'll help."

Twilight turned to her, eyes shimmering. "Do you mean it?"

"So long as you done told me everything about it."

Twilight nodded, sniffing back tears. "All you have to do is say the oath, tonight before you sleep: 'I,' and state your full name, 'am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game.' It needs to be said loudly, and with full intention, but that's it. We'll even be able to meet up in the game, though you may not recognize me."

Slowly, Applejack returned the nod. "Okay, Twilight. I won't letcha down."

She was swept up in a huge hug. "Thank you so much, Applejack! I knew I could count on you!" Applejack returned the embrace, though something nagged at the back of her mind.

"Twilight... D'you know how to get out of the game, then?"

The unicorn went limp in her arms, shivering. "No," she said, her voice tiny, frightened. "That's what scares me the most. You wanted to know everything, so know there's a chance that there's no way out of the game at all. You may end up stuck in it for the rest of your life. And... I've tried to get others to help me too, when I was younger, but they all ended up..." She swallowed. "It's so much for me to ask of you, Applejack..."

Applejack sniffed. "Never you mind. You got taken advantage of and it ain't fair you had to get involved in this all by yourself. So at the very least, I'll keep ya company."

"Thank you, AJ," Twilight whispered. The clock chimed eleven and she drew a deep breath. "Well, there's just an hour left to go."

Applejack nodded and they spent most of the rest of the hour cleaning up and trying not to give each other awkward looks. It was, she thought, like standing back from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. She couldn't quite see where she'd end up, but she had a pretty good idea of what the plunge would be like. Except that this would be like no other plunge she had ever taken.

At five minutes till midnight, they locked up the downstairs, extinguished the lights, and climbed up to the loft, where Twilight had set up a guest bed. Applejack stood at the foot of it, eyes closed, just focusing on breathing.

The clock chimed twelve.

"I," she glanced at Twilight, "Jacqueline Mercy Apple, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game." She hoped she had said it properly, though she wasn't sure if that was really a good thing to hope. Nothing happened, though she'd been expecting lightning crashing or evil laughter or something. She looked over at Twilight. "And don't you never call me Jacqueline." Twilight giggled at her.

"You'll know if it worked as soon as you go to sleep," she said, climbing into her own bed. Applejack nodded, following suit and wondering if the ball of thick coldness in the pit of her stomach would ever let her sleep.


It looked like the apple cellar underneath the barn at Sweet Apple Acres, half as wide as it was long, dark and dingy, carved from the earth and reinforced with wood beams. Smelled like it, too. She could even make out the shelves filled with jars that stored her family's personal stock of zap apple jam, though they were empty. Looking behind herself, the open cellar door let in meager light from a flat, grey sky that illuminated only the half of the cellar behind her. The stairs to the outside were gone.

"Hello?" Her voice echoed dully off the dirt. "Is anypony there?"

When no response came, she peered into the gloom ahead of her. A single wooden door was there, where none should have been.

"This must be a dream," she told herself, and stepped towards it. It opened silently at her touch, onto a room twice the size of the one she had come from, and slammed shut once she passed through.

The floor was dirt and the walls were shored up by wood panelling, rotten in places where it wasn't outright leaking. There were no light sources, yet she could see. Three other doors, identical to the one she had just passed through, stood closed in the center of each wall. The only other feature in this room, directly in the center, was a small pile of what looked like waste and a single blue-hued Parasprite, floating serenely above it and smiling at her. She made a face.

"Yeesh, not you guys again. At least I ain't got any food for ya."

The Parasprite seemed uninterested in doing anything besides watching her as she tried each of the doors. None would open, even the one that she'd come through. She tried kicking the one on the left-hand wall, but though it gave slightly under each buck, she felt like she wasn't making any progress and gave up after a while.

The sound of chewing drew her attention back to the center of the room where the Parasprite had begun feasting upon the pile of offal. Applejack stuck out her tongue.

"Eugh! I take back what I... Aw shoot, this ain't gonna be good."

As the Parasprite finished with the dung, its color turned from blue to red. It doubled in size, and its expression changed from one of blissful happiness to one of malevolence. It sucked in a breath and made a spitting noise, launching a ball of red goop at her.

With a cry, she ducked to the side and the stuff splattered on the wall behind her. Close up, it looked far too similar to blood to be comforting. After a beat, the Parasprite fired again. Though it didn't make any effort to chase her down or spit any more frequently, it relentlessly followed her path as she circled the perimeter, even though she kept pace ahead of each shot.

"This is gettin' me nowhere!" she cried, and ducked below the next blood ball. It fired again, and close up it scored a hit. The red liquid singed her coat and she hissed in pain. Maybe it wasn't blood after all. Now that she'd closed the gap, she was able to lash out, and with a mighty kick she reduced the insect to a red smear on the end of her hoof.

"Now I understand why Rarity's so hard-up on not gettin' dirty," she said, trying in vain to shake and scrape the stuff off herself. At least it didn't burn.

There was a click, and all four doors swung open, though she could see nothing but darkness beyond any of them. With a sinking feeling, she swallowed, and trotted to the left side, where she'd first tried opening the door. She put her ear to the door frame, but heard nothing. Mustering her courage -- it had only been a little Parasprite, after all -- she sauntered through into another, similar room.

Piles of rocks littered the ground here and there. There was only one door, however, on the opposite wall from her, and in between herself and the door was something that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand endwise.

The severed head of a male unicorn floated just above the ground in the center of the room. It rotated slowly until it was face to face with her, eyeless sockets dripping red ichor down its face, its mouth frozen in gaping horror. Upon 'seeing' Applejack, it made a coughing sound and its horn lit up, launching a red sphere at her.

"Oh, not this again!" The shock of seeing the attack coming her away broke the terror that rooted her to the floor and she dove to the side. Her course of action was clear. Like the Parasprite, this floating monstrosity didn't chase her, nor did it attack too frequently. She charged in, ducked to the side, heeled around to its left and bucked it twice. It exploded in a small shower of blood and bone fragments, and she sighed in relief. There was a click, the door swung open, and something appeared on the ground in the center of the room: a single red apple.

She looked at it askance, untrusting of the sudden conjuration. But something about it was enticing. She wasn't hungry, per se, but so far it was the nicest thing she'd seen since she got here. Bending down, she went to take a bite, but it vanished as soon as she touched it and she felt the burns from the blood spatter begin to soothe and heal over.

"Well, if that don't beat all..." Applejack shook her head. "Steady on, AJ. Best just to accept this place don't make no sense and carry on."

As she turned towards the room's egress, she thought she could hear a voice, just beyond the doorway. Concentrating, she picked it out again, clearer, calling her name.

"It sounds like... Hold on, Twilight, I'm comin'!"

She rushed headlong through the door, and nearly ran into yet another horrible creature. Seated between two low walls were a pair of pale-coated ponies. Upon their faces were light-hearted, slightly manic smiles and tracks of bloody tears down their cheeks. She recoiled as they got to their hooves and, expressions never wavering, began to give chase, uttering low moans now and again.

Applejack was not a cowardly pony, but the continued appearance of one freaky monster after another had her on edge, and she raced around the room past another closed and locked door, spying a small chest half-buried in a pile of rubble. The grinning ponies continued to chase her, but they moved extremely slowly. She lashed out at the chest, bucking the latch, hoping for something that would make her stay in this horrid place easier. A tiny silver key popped out and the chest vanished. It wasn't what she'd anticipated, but she grabbed it -- like the apple, it vanished as soon as she touched it -- and took off for the other end of the room as the ponies caught up with her.

She took stock of her situation: two monsters and a mostly featureless room with three doors. There was nothing for it. She stood her ground, waited until the nearest pony came within striking distance and bucked. The head made a sucking noise as it rocketed off its neck, and the body began stumbling about blindly. The thing's fellow paid it no notice and blundered into Applejack, biting her on the flank.

Applejack cried out in pain and gave it three good kicks before it collapsed into a bloody mess. She stomped over to the headless body that was still tottering about, bumping into walls and smearing them with blood, and with no hesitation reduced it to a pile of gore. The familiar click sounded again, the doors swung open, and another chest popped into being in the center of the room.

"Okay," she said, catching her breath, "so in every room, I gotta kill all the monsters before the doors open, and then sometimes I get a little reward. Gotcha." The voice sounded again, distant but closer, as she made her way over to the chest and opened it, this time with more care. Inside was what looked like a vitamin pill. She carefully lifted it out and regarded it, perched on the end of her hoof.

"Huh. Well, if that apple healed my hurts, then I guess you oughta do somethin' nice too, right?" With a shrug, she threw caution to the wind and the pill down her throat, swallowing. Something within her changed, though she couldn't lay a hoof on what; she just felt different somehow.

The left-side door, she now noted, had not in fact opened, only the upper door, but since the voice came from that direction, she moved through it.

After passing the curtain of darkness, she saw a room that seemed to be on fire. On second glance, it became obvious that it was merely a series of small fires, burning on piles of logs, controlled. The fires emitted no smoke. There were no monsters present, and the doors in this room were open already. She was considering which to go through when something emerged from the upper door.

It looked, for all intents and purposes, like that floating unicorn head she'd fought earlier, only it was continuously rotating. And it had four faces, each with a single eye and horn. Also, it was purple. In fact, if she didn't know better, she'd say it looked like...

"...Twilight?" Applejack felt sick to her stomach.

"Applejack, I'm so glad I found you!" The four mouths did not move, her voice coming from the ambient air, nor did the rotating cease as she spoke. It was beginning to make Applejack dizzy. "I haven't seen myself for a long time, so I have no idea what I look like, but judging by your face, it's not pretty, huh?"

"Yeah, uh... I seen better." She took an involuntary step backward as the head floated closer. "Land's sakes, I don't think I can take any more of this freaky-deaky nonsense."

"Don't worry, Applejack, you're close to the end of this maze. I'm only here 'in spirit', so to speak; I can't affect anything but I've been scouting around. You see, each time you go to sleep, the game will send you to a maze with random room layouts."

"I figured out I gotta fight all the monsters to get through 'em."

"Right! And sometimes you'll find rooms like this one, that have no enemies, or like the one to your right -- see the gold door frame? -- that contain a magical item that will help you out."

Applejack scratched her head. "Like that little pill thing I found?"

"Ooh, you got a pill?" The Twilight-head sounded excited. "What color was it?"

"Uhh... Kinda orange and red, I think. I ate it."

"Good. That one, if I'm not mistaken, will increase your resistance to damage. You don't want to take too many hits, or you'll have to start over."

A lump rose in Applejack's throat at the mention of 'starting over'. "With less soul" were the words Twilight had left out.

"C'mon, go through that door and let's see what you can find."

"All right." Applejack did as told, moving through the gilded door into a room lit by two of the small, controlled fires arranged on either side of a short pillar. Atop the pillar sat a large piece of parchment, floating so that its surface was plainly visible to her.

"Oh wow, AJ, you're in luck!" Twilight's laughter echoed somewhat in the room. "You found a map! You'll have no problem navigating the mazes now. Go pick it up."

She did as bidden, the parchment rolling up neatly and depositing itself in a saddlebag she was certain she hadn't been wearing. The saddlebag disappeared just after she noticed it being there. She looked to Twilight.

"Okay, uh... So how do I use it?"

"Close your eyes. You'll be able to see all kinds of information when you do. The dark squares are rooms you haven't been to, and light ones are rooms you have. It'll tell you the locations of items you've passed by, as well as where to find secret rooms."

The image on the back of her eyelids looked like a key made out of squares. According to it, there were two unexplored rooms north of the fire room, and one each above and to the right of the room where she'd fought the Parasprite. That is, if she was reading it right. The room behind the door that hadn't opened was marked with a bit sign and there was a question mark sitting outside the walls of one of the rooms near where she started. There was also an image of two apples, half an apple, and an apple outline, plus a key like the one she'd found.

"Well, I think I see what to do now." She shook her head. "I got so many questions, Twilight, but the only one I can think to ask is, why in the hay do you look like that?"

Twilight giggled. "Like I said, I've been playing for years without losing. The magic items will sometimes change your appearance in the dream. I really need to find a mirror somewhere, I haven't the faintest clue how I look."

"Trust me," Applejack deadpanned, "you don't wanna know."

With Twilight there only to guide her, it was up to Applejack to complete the maze. She decided not to go back the way she'd come and instead continued on past the fire room. Above it was a room with a star-shaped pattern of rocks in the middle, a large doorframe across from her that was surmounted by a pony skull, and three headless pegasi that flitted aimlessly about the room.

It didn't take her long to destroy them all, and when she did, another apple appeared next to the rocks. She snatched it up, letting it disappear, and closed her eyes to double-check the map. Now the room she was in was lit up, and the one above it was marked by a skull. Also, the apple picture had filled in a little, and was now three and a half apples instead of two.

"Twilight? I got a bad feelin' about the room up ahead."

"Don't worry, Applejack. Every maze has a large monster at the end. When you defeat it, you'll get an item and passage to the next maze. If you wake up in the middle of a maze, you'll start back where you left off the next time you sleep, but if you beat the end beast, you actually get a night's reprieve. I should have mentioned that earlier, I guess."

Applejack nodded. "All right. Just gotta beat the end beast."

"You can do it, AJ! I believe in you!"

"Thanks, Twi. I'm glad one of us does." Applejack smiled, took a deep breath, and plunged into the darkness.


Morning for Applejack was unkind.

"Ohh, mah head..." She squeezed her eyes shut, pulling the blankets tightly around herself and shivering. "Why do I feel like a hundred icicles?"

"Applejack, what happened?" Twilight frowned at her from across the loft, looking hurt. "I couldn't get into the final room."

"Ugh, that... that purple thingy... kept spittin' jelly at me... couldn't move!"

"Oh, Applejack!" Twilight slid out of her bed, moving to Applejack's and putting her hooves around her. "I never thought you'd have to fight Smoozo the Unmentionable first thing. He can be a real pain to beat if you don't know what strategy works."

Applejack, thankful for the warmth, turned a wary eye to her friend. "Ya mean you fought him before?"

Twilight nodded. "The game uses a set number of monsters, over and over again. You'll find worse ones as you go deeper."

A realization hit Applejack like a bolt of lightning. "Twilight, I lost! I lost part of my soul! What's happened to me?"

Twilight said nothing, only hugging her friend closer.

"And you mean to tell me I hafta start over tomorrow night? And keep doin' this every night forever?"

"I tried to warn you," Twilight whispered. "I'm so sorry, Applejack."

Something fierce and clammy welled up within her. "Yeah, you better be sorry." She kicked the covers off, almost kicking Twilight in the jaw, and rolled out of bed. Trotting down the stairs, she retrieved her hat and flipped it onto her head. "I'm gonna go back to the farm and buck apples or somethin'. Seeya in my dreams, Twilight."


The next night, Applejack found herself back in the cellar. The comfort that Twilight's admittedly bizarre presence had given her on that first night was denied on subsequent visits to the dream world, and she missed it. Twilight had said the same thing happened to her when she first started playing. Applejack also found that her map and extra apple were gone. She won this time, though, finding a crown along the way that gave her a unicorn horn so she could attack from a distance with beams of light; she counted that for her victory against the giant segmented worm at the end of the maze. In the nights to come, she would miss that old familiar sight of the cellar, starting instead from blank rooms first lined with wood and then stone.

In her waking hours, she would sometimes go down to the real Sweet Apple Acres cellar and stare at the far wall, willing something to happen.

After a week or so with no losing, she found that a full day's applebucking didn't leave her tired anymore. She challenged Rainbow Dash to a race, wings allowed, and won. She avoided Twilight's house and snapped at anyone who asked why.

The horrors of her nighttime game playing were growing steadily worse, however, and the toll began to show not long after she began playing. Dead, eyeless ponies, their toothy maws agape, chased her down stone corridors while she dodged blood spatter launched by Parasprites. She fought timberwolves that had been set aflame and a giant pony with a rock attached to its front hoof. But when she found the room full of fillies, their flesh pallid and teeth serrated, that opened their jaws impossibly wide and screamed at her, she had had enough. She awoke with a shout. It took all her will not to see her bedroom, dark and silent, as a chamber of menace. She curled up in her blankets and cried.

The next day found her at the front door of the library, knocking wearily as she tried to keep her eyes open.

"Applejack! I haven't seen you in..."

"Twilight."

They stared at each other, unblinking, and Twilight stepped aside to allow her friend entrance. Applejack shut the door behind herself, loped over to the couch and lay down on it, rolling onto her back before the tears flowed again.

"Why, Twilight, why? Why does this horrible place exist in my nightmares? What terrible thing did ponies do to create something so bad?"

Twilight lay down next to her friend and stroked her dishevelled mane soothingly. "I don't know, Applejack. But I know how you feel; I went through this too."

"You can't know how I feel!" Applejack slapped Twilight's hoof away. "You just can't! My life before now was just absolutely fine! And then you had to go and tell me about this stupid game and now... I've been getting irritated by every little thing. I keep snappin' at my friends, my family... And I can't sleep. I keep wakin' up because them creatures just get more and more terrible every night! I'm faster 'n stronger, sure, but who cares when I can barely keep my eyes open? I don't dare close 'em, because I know I'm just gonna see those things again..."

Twilight sighed. "I'm so sorry, Applejack. I guess I thought you'd be able to take it."

Applejack pushed her away. "Twilight, nopony should be able to 'take' those things I see! It just ain't natural! It's like the complete opposite of everything that ever existed in Equestria, rolled up into one giant... giant... I don't even know! There ain't no word for it!"

Twilight stood, and Applejack watched her move slowly over to a bookshelf. She didn't choose a tome, however, her head down as she chewed on her lower lip.

"Twilight?"

"What you said just now... Applejack, I've been so busy looking for a way out of the game, I never once considered finding out where it came from. And that might just be the solution!" Her face brightened for a fleeting moment. "Only I've never read about anything even remotely like it, not even in the Star Swirl the Bearded Wing of the Canterlot Archives. I'd ask Princess Luna, since dreams are her domain, but something tells me the Princesses really shouldn't know about this."

"I know who should, though."

Twilight whirled on her. "Applejack, no! You can't!"

Applejack was already off the couch and headed for the door. "I can and I will! We need the girls to help us whip this thing!"


"AJ, if I wasn't hearing this from you, I'd never believe it, and I still don't believe it!"

"You mean to tell us that there is some horrid dream world that gives ponies power?"

"Well that's no fun!"

"It sounds... so awful..."

Applejack nodded. "It's absolutely true. I been tangled up in it for two weeks now; Twilight said she's played it for six years. She thinks there's a way to beat it and get loose, but I say that ain't gonna happen unless we can get all o' y'all in on it. I won't force or cajole y'all to say yes, though, because believe you me, ain't nothin' can prepare you for what you'll see there."

Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy looked at each other.

"Well, I'm game," said Rainbow. "I mean, it sounds creepy and all, but kicking monster butt in my dreams would sure make sleeping way cooler."

"Ain't that simple, RD," Applejack mumbled.

Rarity shook her head. "I really cannot believe that you would ask such a thing of us, Applejack. I mean, from what you've told us, there isn't even any guarantee there is an end to this 'game'. We could all end up entangled in it with no hope of escape!"

"And what about Fluttershy?" Pinkie scrunched up her face and glared at Applejack. "If she saw monsters and blood and headless bodies, she'd just curl up in a corner and scream!"

"I think we should all do it."

Four heads turned to look at Fluttershy, mouths open in disblief.

"Wait, ya can't be serious..."

"Did you just say what I think you said?"

"Fluttershy, there's no way!"

"Fluttershy, what has gotten into you?"

"I'm serious." The pegasus drew herself up and puffed her chest forward. "If this dream, whatever it is, has been trapping ponies and making them hurt or go crazy for years and years and years, well... I think we should try and stop it." Her eyes dipped floorward and she ducked behind her mane. "Even if it does sound extremely scary and gory and I don't really want to go there."

Pinkie used a hoof to close her own mouth. "Well, if Fluttershy's willing to do it, then so am I!"

They turned to Rarity, who seemed to shrink back slightly from their gazes. She swallowed, giving them a sheepish grin.

"I can't very well leave my best friends to the wolves, now can I?"

Applejack nodded. "I just wanna say one more time: none of y'all have to do this. Ya got until tonight to back out." She looked at each of them in turn; even Fluttershy returned her gaze resolutely. "Okay. Here's what ya gotta do..."


"I, Rainbow Elizabeth Dash, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"

"I, Pinkamina Diane Pie, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"

"I, Rarity Gardenia Sparkler, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"

"I, um, Fluttershy Thunderbolt Morningdew, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"


"Applejack, what've you done?"

Applejack held firm under Twilight's withering gaze as she checked to make sure all five of her friends had made the transition into the game.

"What has she done?" Rarity piped up. "What did you do, Twilight?"

"Um..."

Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs and glowered at Twilight. "Yeah! You're the one who started all of this!"

"Excuse me..."

"Hang on now, girls," said Applejack, "it ain't exactly Twilight's fault."

"Girls? I think Fluttershy has something to say." At Pinkie's behest, all heads turned towards Fluttershy, who squeaked and shrank back, as if she'd forgotten she'd been trying to get their attention.

"Um, well, I was just going to point out that... This place sort of doesn't look anything like what Applejack described."

Applejack blinked. "You're right, sugarcube..."

They were on grass-covered rolling hills with forest to the west. The sky was grey and a light breeze, unfelt by the ponies, bent the grasses now and then, creating rustling noises that crept up their spines. A bit of fog surrounded them at a distance, and on the edges of it, dark shapes wandered aimlessly.

"Not only is this not the Ueton Game that I know," Twilight said, "I look normal now!" She ran her hooves down her neck, patting her flanks. "I don't have any of my powers!"

"Shucks, I lost my crown thingy, then." Applejack shrugged under her friends' questioning gazes. "When ya gotta blow stuff up across the room, havin' a horn's kinda nice!"

Twilight's face lit up. "Applejack, do you know what this means? Somehow, we've come to a different part of the game, one with no walls! Maybe we can make it to the center, or even the end! I think you may have just won us the game!" She threw her arms around Applejack, who blushed under the attention.

"Hey now, don't go thankin' me 'til we actually done won it." She patted Twilight and smiled. "And Twilight? I'm sorry for bein' real snippy with you lately."

"It's okay, AJ, you've been under a lot of stress."

Applejack shook her head. "I don't think it's stress. I think that, when I lost that very first time, the part of me what got taken was my temper. I've been havin' a real hard time keepin' a level head ever since. So, don't take it personal-like."

Twilight smiled and hugged her.

"Now that all the sappy junk is out of the way," Rainbow Dash said, flying out in front of them, "why don't we get going? This game's not gonna win itself, y'know!"

"All right," said Twilight with a nod, "but stay together. I've never been here before and there's no way of knowing what could be out there."

The six of them took off running north, toward a gap where fewer shapes moved. Fluttershy kept close to Pinkie while Rainbow Dash and Applejack led the charge. Applejack caught sight of some of the shapes now and again, and recognized most of them as creatures from the game, though they seemed uninterested in the intrusion. It was the ones she didn't recognize that worried her.

The hills continued to roll as they ran, seemingly infinite and never changing. The fog remained at a constant distance around them and no monsters approached.

"Guys, look!"

Rainbow Dash halted, pointing skyward. It seemed, as they looked ahead, that the grey clouds slowly grew darker, and in the great distance, lightning flashed.

"That's got to be where we need to go," said Twilight. "Come on!"

All at once, there was a great moaning and the ground trembled beneath their hooves. Dozens of shapes shambled out of the mist: headless ponies, ponies with extra limbs, ponies walking upright with arms outstretched, alongside things they could barely put names to. They rose up in a wall, blocking the path forward, moving in from the sides to flank the interlopers.

Applejack narrowed her eyes and stomped the ground once.

"Charge."

They did so, wings flapping double time, horns aglow and hooves pounding the grass flat. Rarity lifted a mutant pony out of their path while Twilight set up a moveable barrier, pushing the things clear of their right flank. Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Pinkie went on the offensive, bucking left and right as they passed to keep the monsters off balance. Fluttershy mostly focused on keeping her eyes closed. Enough monsters fell into a tangle that those behind them got caught up in it as well, and they soon found themselves with a clear path to the storm.

Again, the ground shook, and this time split beneath them as the sky darkened overhead. A great yawning mouth made of earth and rock rose up from the fissure, crying out in anguish as a fist as large as any of them slammed into the ground. It formed a head, dark unseeing eyes staring down at them from the height of a five-story building. Applejack let her momentum carry her, jumping onto the fist as it rose back into the air and leaping into one of the eye sockets, Rainbow Dash entering the other.

Inside the thing was a teeming, roiling mass of flesh and blood, moaning and straining to break free from the bone cages which held it in the shape of walls. Rainbow Dash shivered, but Applejack scanned the interior, turning around when she saw what she was looking for.

"Twilight!" she called out of the eye. "We need some light up here! I think I see a weak spot!"

While Pinkie and Fluttershy kept it busy on the ground, Twilight and Rarity sent light balls upward to illuminate the inside of the creature's head. At the center of the head was a pulsating thing that looked like a brain. Applejack and Rainbow Dash exchanged a glance, nodded, and lashed out simultaneously.

The earth giant exploded in a shower of rock and bone, and Twilight kept the four on the ground safe from the debris with a shimmering half-dome of light. Rainbow Dash appeared holding Applejack aloft as the dirt oozed back into the fissure that had spawned it and the earth sealed back up.

The sky darkened further.

"Look, the mist is parting!"

A spire rose up from the horizon, its outlines becoming clearer as the fog burned away. Lightning struck its top and the thunder resonated in their guts. With a quick nod to make sure everypony was unhurt, Twilight led the charge toward the tower.

The grass gave out here, and bare earth soon became a rocky plain. As they ran closer and closer, never tiring, the lightning began to seek them out. First a bolt struck a rock near Pinkie Pie, turning it into a shower of gravel. Then Rainbow Dash had a near-miss and folded her wings, joining her friends on the ground. With the lack of high structures, the lightning appeared to be seeking them out, and they had just enough time before each strike to move clear. Without further ado, they reached the foot of the tower.

"Oh my stars," Rarity breathed, "it's so... so high!"

They craned their necks upward, but, though they had seen the top from afar, they now could no longer tell where tower ended and sky began. A doorway, ten times their size, gaped out from the spire and grudgingly invited them in. Horns alight, they made a cautious entrance.

"...Eugh, and horribly gauche."

The interior was dimly lit, patterned with glowing orange cracks in a smooth, dark-brown stone. Above, giant cogs whirred and spun lazily, powering some unknown machine further up. The black floor was so polished they could see their reflections. In the center of the tower opening, far inside the walls, was a cylinder with a door facing them. Twilight glanced at each member of the group, getting a nod, before they moved over to it and pulled it open. The interior was black.

"It's just like goin' through doors in the game," Applejack said. "Don't know what's there 'til you make it through."

"Only one way to find out then," replied Twilight. "On three. One... two...!"

They plunged into the darkness, but their hooves did not meet with floor on the other side. Instead, they dropped slightly, landing unsteadily a few feet below where they started.

The interior of the cylinder was so much larger than its exterior dimensions, it was like they were in another place entirely. Something large thrummed rhythmically overhead, and blue and orange lights pulsated from nowhere in particular. A bank of screens faced them, a solid wall that cut the room into a semicircle.

"Where are we?"

"Greetings," said a harsh yet feminine voice. Light coalesced in front of them, producing an image of a dark alicorn. "Whatever weary traveler thou art, I bid thee welcome to the Abyss of Dreams."

"Princess Luna!"

Luna blinked, looking down at them. "Thou knowest me?"

"It's me, Twilight Sparkle, and the other Elements of Harmony!"

The image blinked again, uncomprehending. "That name does not spark my memory. But I am not truly Princess Luna, merely a shadow, left here to guard the Abyss."

Applejack's eyes widened as the screens lit up, showing them scene after scene of ponies engaged in all sorts of activities, some of which were absolutely implausible.

"What's the Abyss of Dreams?" Rainbow Dash flew closer to the screens, observing a scene of a unicorn stallion surfing on a wave of pudding.

"The Abyss is a reliquary, a repository for all dreams that are and that have been. What thou seest before thee is but a sample of the dream images stored herein."

Applejack looked at Twilight, who seemed to be concentrating on the floor. "I think I know what you're gonna ask."

Twilight lifted her head, gazing levelly at Luna. "What does this have to do with the Ueton Game?"

The image of Luna seemed taken aback. "What is this game thou speakest of?"

"It's a shared dream world. Ponies who participate in it become trapped, seeing horrors in their sleep and battling for survival night after night."

Luna's eyes searched side to side. "I do not know! I have never heard of such a thing! Perhaps..."

Rarity leaned forward. "Yes?"

"The reliquary in which you stand is but an archive, yet the architecture enclosing it was designed with another purpose in mind." The screens changed, now showing a single image across their breadth, of the dawn of Equestria. "Long ago, at the founding of the nation we call Equestria, my sister and I feared the return of the windigoes. We sought a way to remove negative emotions and violent thoughts from the populace, at least insofar as we could. Dreams were the answer.

"We sponged negativity from the dreams of ponies, taking the worst images and locking them away. The capstone of the Abyss of Dreams is made of these images."

"So you mean all this time we been fightin' monsters and the like, it's because this here Abyss is full of other ponies' bad dreams?"

Luna nodded. "Something like that. I fear that our original plans did not last, however." Her image began to shimmer, as though something were pushing through it. "It is very possible..." Parts of Luna's form flashed, showing dark images. The ponies stepped back. "That the Abyss, in gathering all these negative feelings, has taken on a wi--"

The image glowed brightly and flashed. The six ponies gasped.

"Nightmare Moon!"

"Enough talking!" The image of Nightmare Moon laughed and expanded, doubling and redoubling in size, cracking and shattering the monitors as it pressed up against them. Within a minute, it filled the entire room, gazing down upon them with malevolence and bringing down a hoof that cracked the floor with its strength.

"Run!"

Again and again, the four hooves, seemingly disconnected from one another, crashed down, missing the ponies by inches. The image cackled and shouted at them.

"This is my domain! I have been here for too long!"

Applejack rolled to the side of a hoof that struck between her and Rarity. "Twilight, what in the hay is Nightmare Moon doin' here?"

"I don't know!" Twilight stopped short of being crushed beneath a hoof and teleported across the room. "But if that wasn't really Luna, then this isn't really Nightmare Moon!"

"You coulda fooled me!" cried Rainbow Dash, diving down and sweeping Pinkie off her hooves just in time.

"If only we had the Elements of Harmony with us!" cried Rarity. "Surely they could defeat this thing!"

The Nightmare Moon image's face melded into a black vortex of clouds in the ceiling, glowing eyes and mouth its only features. "You cannot defeat me! I am all-powerful here!" Lightning crackled along the swirling clouds, and the image cackled more.

"We do have the Elements of Harmony!" Twilight stopped her forward momentum, a giant hoof swinging over her head, and turned to her friends. "This is a dream, remember? Concentrate on your Elements, girls!"

Though the constant threat of attacks put them under severe strain, one by one, the six ponies drew upon their inner strength. Lights glowed as the Elements of Harmony manifested upon their bearers, causing the Nightmare which opposed them to scream in pain.

"We can do this! Elements of Harmony, formation!"

Though it screamed and pleaded, though it formed more spiderlike legs from the darkness with which to try and crush them, the shadow of Nightmare Moon was powerless against the Elements' light. Six spheres rose up in a circle and began to spiral ever faster beneath the black vortex which held the face. Rainbows pierced the dark clouds, drawing high-pitched squeals of anguish from the beast, until, with a final explosion of light, the screaming stopped and everything went dark.


"Twilight!"

Applejack was on her hooves before she even realized she needed to get out of bed, waking Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom as she raced out the door of the farmhouse. She tore down the dirt path toward Ponyville, all the while shouting, "Twilight! Rarity! Fluttershy!"

She collided with the latter as she crossed the bridge over the creek, shooting the pegasus a look but saying nothing as both plowed forward. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash joined their charge down Mane Street as lights one by one flicked on in homes across Ponyville.

"Applejack! Pinkie Pie!"

"Twilight!"

"Fluttershy!"

"Rainbow Dash!"

"Rarity!"

They skidded to a halt and ended up in a large pile, laughing and hugging each other with abandon.

"We did it, girls, we did it! We beat the game! I can't believe it!" Twilight sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes.

"But how did we even do it?" Rainbow Dash extricated herself from a tight Pinkie hug, trying to maintain her image. "What in the hay happened?"

Applejack looked to Twilight. "Yeah, I mean... When we all showed up, everything was different!"

Twilight laughed and shrugged. "I have no idea! Maybe it's because we all teamed up to work together! Maybe it's because we're the Elements of Harmony. We'll never know, but it doesn't matter, because we did it!"

"I knew we could do it," said Fluttershy, eyes brimming.

"What's goin' on? What's all the racket?"

"Hey, would you keep it down out there? Some of us are tryin' to sleep!"

"Shut up out there!"

Sheepishly, the six ponies picked themselves up, looked at one another, and silently decided they would be best off having an impromptu slumber party in the library.

At least six ponies in Ponyville would sleep well that night.

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