• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,771 Views, 390 Comments

Nine Days Down - JoeShogun



Celestia's latest game of Save the Princess gets more serious than she'd have liked when she gets herself thrown into Tartarus. It would be bad enough if she were alone...but it seems she'd picked up a straggler as well.

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Feast

Bait pulled out a few big chunks of something that smelled terrible.

“So, this is shrimp meat, actually. We caught a few of them on their own a while back. It’s a bit old, but it keeps forever, so I’m pretty sure it’s still good.” He gave one lump a sniff, and the face he made gave Twilight some doubts about that.

“Um, no thanks.”

“Really? It’s really good. And I promise it’s not poisoned.”

“Oh, uh, I believe you,” said Twilight, feeling guilty now for even having made the accusation. “It’s just that ponies don’t eat meat.”

“None? Seriously!? How do you live? Well, okay, um, I’ve got some ragworm jerky—"

Twilight could think of few things that she wanted to eat less than whatever that was.

“—but I guess you won’t want that. Ah! Here we go!” He beamed up at Twilight. She examined the package he held in one claw-hoof.

“Maggot cheese!” he said, avidly unwrapping a big block of the stuff. “Ponies eat cheese, right?”

Twilight revised the list of things she wanted to eat less than ragworm jerky.

“It’s all yours! Be careful though, cause sometimes the maggots—"

Twilight recoiled as something small and white bounced off her muzzle.

“—Jump.” Bait smiled sheepishly. “Sorry about that. It’s good stuff though.” He watched Twilight expectantly. She looked at the soft, half-melted cheese. She watched the writhing critters within it, and the viscous fluid that seeped from a few holes in it. She tried to reconcile how disgusting all that was with how delicious it smelled. She failed.

“Nnnnnope!” she stated. Bait looked disappointed. “You can have it though. Ben? Want to share some cheese with Bait?”

Ben seemed suspicious, but he did give the cheese a poke.

“Really? Are you sure? How’d you get so big when you’re such a picky eater? Okay, um, how about this?” He re-wrapped the cheese and picked up something else. “Nut apple!” His smile said he was certain this one would work. And also that he was blissfully unaware that he’d essentially just called Twilight fat. What he held was a lumpy, green, thick-skinned fruit of some kind. Twilight grabbed it immediately.

“This is really a fruit, right? There’s no super-gross *chomp* trick to it?” It tasted like a combination of a cashew and an apple, and right now, it might have been the most delicious thing Twilight had ever eaten. She devoured the whole thing, rind, fruit, core and stem.

“Oh sure. There are a few roots around that I find these on sometimes. And here’s some shrieker caps,” he said, pointing out several large wedges of pocked fungus. Twilight stuffed one in her mouth. It was bland, but inoffensive. “And here’s, um, does that hurt? You keep rubbing at it.”

Twilight stopped, pulling her wing away from the wound on her neck. She hadn’t even known she was scratching it.

“Oh, well, it itches more than it hurts. It’s been driving me crazy, but there’s not really anything I can do about it.” The cut was awkwardly placed, hard to reach with a hoof, and only slightly less so with a wing. She couldn’t even get her head close to enough to lick it “clean.”

“Here,” said Bait, shuffling forward. “Lemme see.”

Twilight backed away a little faster than she meant to. Bait looked up at her. “I…sorry.” He stopped, looking a bit hurt.

“No! Sorry! I mean, um, here.” Twilight leaned forward and raised her chin, exposing the wound (and her neck. Her quite vulnerable neck…) to him. “Go ahead.” She had a small, quick shield spell set up before she thought to stop herself. She felt bad about it, but…

Bait hesitantly leaned back in, not meeting her eyes. He squinted at the wound.

“Can I, um…” He reached forward with one hand.

Ah. He wants to touch it. “Go ahead,” she said.

Bait gingerly probed the area with sharp fingers. “Okay. Um, does this hurt?” he asked, giving the wound a brief squeeze.

“Ow! Yes.”

“Hm. Well, it’s kind of red and swollen, and some stuff came out when I squeezed it. Hang on a second."

Twilight’s heart sank. If pus was coming out, it was definitely infected.

“Hah!” Declared Bait, whipping back around and presenting her with a tiny bag full of something. “Here! Chew some of this. It tastes nasty, so don’t swallow any of the juice. Just spit it out and give it to me after you chew it a bit.”

Twilight took the packet, opening it dubiously. She wasn’t familiar with the thick, vaguely rubbery material it was made of. Her efforts revealed a small pile of what looked like dried herbs. “And what is this?”

“It’s that glowing moss you see everywhere. It’s good for cuts and stuff.”

“Hmm. Alright.” Twilight did as she was told. Bait was right about one thing. The stuff was gross. Bitter beyond all propriety. Lacking anywhere better, she spit the juice out on the cave floor, but wasn’t quite sure what to do after she’d mashed the stuff into a little ball. Bait watched her intently he whole time.

“Just put it on the tip of your tongue and stick it out.”

Twilight did so.

“Here we go," said Bait, plucking it off her tongue. Without further ado, he spread the stuff over Twilight’s cut. Just put it right on in there. He worked at it a bit, making sure it really got in there. Into her open wound. It was extremely concerning. “That’s gonna burn some, but it should be okay now. Anywhere else?”

Bait was right about that, too. It burned like the dickens. Like every single dicken.

“Uh, yeah. Here,” said Twilight, pointing out another of her larger injuries. “And here. Where did you learn herbalism, Bait?”

“Hm? I dunno,” he answered without looking up. “Everybody knows this stuff. I just saw one of my…one of the other wights do it, I guess.”

Guessing that the colt didn’t want to think about what he’d left behind any more than he had too, Twilight changed the subject back to food. And besides, she was still ravenously hungry.

“Right then. What else did you bring?” Bait finished up with her wounds and leapt back into showing off everything else he had to offer. Twilight scarfed down anything that didn’t sound too vile, and it wasn’t long before her eyes started drooping again. Halfway through a hunk of something called grit-bread (it tasted about as good as it sounded), she was overtaken by a truly massive yawn.

“Twilight?”

“I’m,” she muttered, pausing for another bite and a follow-up yawn. “Fine. Just need to…to rest my eyes. A bit.” Her head was already making its way to the ground. Twilight let it go. She just couldn't hold it back any longer.

This was it then. She'd either wake up in a few hours, or...

~~~

Twilight was running, but not from any one thing. From everything. Monsters and creatures fitting and defying every description loped and wriggled and raced after her. The landscape itself rose up in pursuit. Things snarled and snapped at her hooves, but as she looked back, she realized they weren’t really chasing her. They were running too. They lashed out at her in fear and spite, desperate to prove to themselves that they had some kind of power, and she just happened to be in their way. Because far behind her, something worse was rising. It crested the horizon, painting everything in bloody red light. The monsters around her began to burn, and as the nightmare star drew ever higher, blazing bright into orange and yellow and white, Twilight looked down to see herself igniting as well. She shielding herself behind smoking wings, the last survivor of this apocalypse. She turned to behold the living extinction behind her and saw smoldering eyes, a gleaming perfect crown, wings aflame with every color of the Sun. She screamed and…

“Snrk!”

Twilight jerked awake from the nightmare. It faded quickly, as dreams do, but she remembered enough. She shivered, refusing to think about what that dream meant. She rolled up onto her stomach, and…

“Uuuuuuurrrrrrgh!”

Well, she must still be alive, because everything hurt. The pain was less sharp than before, but certainly no less present. Twilight’s muscles creaked in protest at her movements, and her various wounds made their complaints. She winced as she reflexively tried to stretch her wings. They did not appreciate the attempt.

“Um, Twilight?” Bait hopped up, so eager to help that it spilled over into nervous energy.

“Eurg. Yeah. Just sore. And-“ her stomach gurgled insistently. “Quiet you,” she admonished it. “I don’t suppose we have anything left for breakfast?”

“Sure!” Bait practically dove into the saddlebag, pulling its contents out and spreading them across the floor of the cave into a bizarre little banquet.

“Um, you liked these, right?” he asked, sorting out a few bits.

She looked at it all, trying to remember what any of it was. Her thoughts were still slightly fuzzy. Then the smells hit. The indescribably complex, sometimes delightful, occasionally nauseating, but always unique smells.

Ah, yes. It was all coming back.

And here she was, awake and alive. And now Bait was holding another nut-apple up to her. Twilight smiled.

“Yes! Thank you.” She devoured it with relish. “I don’t suppose you brought any water?”

“Sure did!” Bait thrust forth a bulb of the same unknown material from before. It sloshed with liquid. Twilight downed as much as she could handle, then passed it back with a contented sigh. He stuffed it back into his pack, which he must have snuck back on while she wasn’t looking.

“Ready to go?” he asked. He looked so cheerful and eager, practically glowing with the simple joy of being alive and helpful. Was this really the same colt from before?

“Sure,” replied Twilight. “Hey, um, what is that? That stuff your pack and the canteen is made of?“

“This?” asked Bait, turning to display his pack more prominently. “It’s leather."

Twilight wasn't familiar with the term, but before she could ask, a muffled scream sounded from behind her.

Twilight and Bait both turned to face Ben. He appeared to be chewing on a bit of ragworm jerky.

“Oh! Hi, Ben. Ready to go then?”

Ben scampered forward, still munching away. Twilight grinned, lowering her uninjured wing so he could climb aboard.

“Alright then. Where to?”

Ben scampered up to the top of her head and pointed down a tunnel. And so, the wight and the pony and the spider set off. Twilight completely forgot to ask her questions on the nature of this 'leather' stuff, but that was probably for the best.

~~~

It was a matter of maybe another hour before Twilight saw what she didn’t even know she had been desperately hoping for: light! Wonderful, simple, white light! She jumped into a canter as soon as she rounded the tunnel and saw it. She’d nearly gotten used to the inexplicable sounds, the fungal glow, the little tremors and shakes of the tunnels (they’d become far more common lately), but now that she was nearly free of it all, she just couldn’t stand it anymore!

Bait, however, had stopped as soon as he saw the exit.

“Twilight?”

“We’re almost out, Bait! Come on!” she called, almost laughing with the sheer joy of finally being under a sky again. Even if it was the wrong sky.

“What’s out there?” The little wight’s voice trembled, barely audible.

Twilight turned back. “Bait?”

“Why is the light like that? It’s so bright…”

Twilight tilted her head as some of the things Bait had said came back to her. Her elation faded as she was suddenly reminded of where exactly she was. He'd lived his whole life down here. He had never seen the sky. This must be pretty scary for him. “It’s okay Bait. That’s just how it looks outside. Here, I’ll go first and make sure it’s safe."

“ ‘kay,” he murmured.

Ben hopped off Twilight’s back. He looked up at her. If there’s going to be a trap, it’s going to be here, he seemed to say. She should have though of that. Things like that were why it was important to have friends around. She gave him a little nod. Twilight trotted forward, keeping a shield ready as she ran a thin field of telekinesis out all around her. It was tricky to maintain, but incredibly useful for finding anything out of the ordinary. Kind of like running a hoof over everything around you all at once, but at a distance. All she felt was cool, hard stone and dry dust. She stopped a ways in front of the entrance, smelling the air, watching. Waiting.

Nothing came. The air was clean and blessedly fresh. She stepped outside, and nothing jumped out at her. Nothing tripped her scanning spell except Ben’s light, many-legged steps. She looked around. A light breeze blew through the open field of gold-and-green grass and white flowers. The Fields of Asphodel. She was back in the Fields. Good. Great! She knew where she was, sort of. And there! The road!

She turned back to Bait.

“It looks good. You can come out.” She kept an ear cocked to either side, twitchy despite her words. This was the part in the book where something always attacked. Something that had somehow slipped by every spell, every defense, just when everypony thought it was safe...

Twilight kept her vigil, and somehow, nothing interrupted it.

Bait crept forward. It took him a long time to reach the exit, and when he got there, he sort of stalled out. Head down, he stared out of the cave.

“Where’s the ceiling?” he whispered. “And the walls? How can there just be nothing? What holds it up?”

“It’s just air, Bait. Open space. It doesn’t need anything to hold it up.” She smiled invitingly. “It’s okay. Nothing to be afraid of.” She knew there was plenty to be afraid of, because Tartarus, but still. And it felt so good to be out in the open. She flexed her wings, painfully. “What do you think, Ben?”

He gave a happy little hop.

“See? There you go.”

Bait gradually slunk outside. He made it about five feet before the breeze blew again. His eyes went wide and he shot back under the protective stone. “What was that!?” he hissed.

“That’s just wind, Bait. It’s like...when air moves around? We call that wind. It happens outside.”

“Why does it move around?” hissed Bait from the dark of the cave. And it was dark. Twilight was already having trouble seeing him, and he was barely a few feet away. Oh, right. She remembered now. The Fields obscured vision somehow.

“Well,” began Twilight, organizing a quick lecture about particle motion and thermal gradations and low/high pressure zones. Then it occurred to her that Tartarus might not actually have any of those things. It hadn’t even had wind last time she was out here. It hadn't yet occurred to her that the change might be significant. ”It’s complicated. But it won’t hurt you.” She raised a wing in invitation.

After another few moments hesitation, Bait finally tip-toed out of the cave. He stood there, blinking under the wide open, empty sky, with no walls to surround him, and no shadows to hide him, for the very first time. He shivered.

“I don’t like it here.”

Twilight made a rueful chuckle.

“Me neither. So let’s focus on getting to Equestria, okay?”

Bait nodded, gazing off into the distance. He shook himself and scampered close to Twilight. He jumped when she touched him with a wing, so she let him have some space. But she kept the offer open. And so they walked, not quite close enough to touch, into the light.

~~~

They didn’t make it five minutes before the ambush hit. It came, Twilight later reflected, just when she had thought it was safe.

She might not have survived the first rush of creatures if not for Bait. The things had leapt out from the tall, pale grass surrounding the road, and he had been the only one to hear them coming. His warning gave Twilight just enough time to throw together a quick shield. It wasn’t enough to cover Bait, but he had dodged aside as more of the little monsters jumped at him. Twilight shot the one nearest him though her barrier. She tried to wrap another shield around him, but he was too quick to get a fix on, hopping away from one creature after another as they herded him away from her.

“Hang on, Bait!” she cried, shoving past the two or three creatures between them. They slipped aside as she thundered through, unwilling to be trampled by her much-superior size. That didn’t stop them from chasing, though.

They were small, not even as tall as Bait, and they looked a bit like some kind of bipedal lizard, except for their heads. Though it was hard to even describe that eyeless ring of teeth at the end of their neck as a head. The things were like a lamprey mixed with a small, predatory dinosaur. Hands and feet both had nasty looking claws, but, as Twilight was soon discovered, these were not their only weapons.

Four of them had Bait surrounded. He was holding them off for now, teeth flashing and eyes wide with desperate fury, but it couldn’t last. Twilight crashed straight through the circle, shooting one down as it snuck in behind him. It was utterly silent as it bounced off the dirt.

“C’mere, Bait! Get in the bubble with me!”

He didn’t hesitate, leaping straight over the downed lizard to meet her. She barely switched up the shield in time to let him in.

“Okay, just stay near me. I’m gonna-“

A violent, wet coughing interrupted her, and Twilight turned to see one of the creatures hack up a glob of black mucus onto her shield. She blinked at the viscous mass.

Ugh. Well, it was gross, but it didn't matter. Her shield would...

The stuff began to sizzle against her barrier, and Twilight was dismayed to find herself staring at the spitter through a rapidly growing hole in her spell!

“Are you kidding me!?” she yelled in outrage. “That shouldn’t even be possible!” It was unclear whether the creature appreciated her umbrage, because she blasted it with another bolt of magic as she charged. She managed to slap another one down with a wing as it leapt at her. She whipped around to face the rest.

“Just stay behind me, B—"

A ball of grey and brown hide rolled past her as Bait tackled one of the lampreys, hissing like a cat.

“Alright then…” She grabbed the thing with her magic before Bait got hurt and swung it in a wide circle at another creature that was bearing down on them.

They’re just animals, she told herself, firing another bolt. They attacked us. And besides, a few bruises won’t kill them.

Two more ran in on her from the front, and she could hear movement behind. She latched onto one and slammed it into the other, throwing the former into the grass for good measure. It was easy. They were so light that it barely took effort. Twilight almost laughed as she watched the creature fly. Even with their numbers and their stupid, spell-breaking spit, this would be over quick.

Wait…

Am...

Am I enjoying this?

Twilight’s sudden queasiness very nearly cost her. While she’d been roughing up the ones in front, the rest of the lampreys had circled through the grass and were now closing in from all sides. A familiar scream sounded somewhere to Twilight’s left and she turned to see two lampreys stagger away from it in surprise. The distraction was welcome.

Twilight used the same trick from before, grabbing one and throwing it at its pack-mate. She caught a little green-and-black blur as Ben leapt onto another. A lizard-thing whirled around to face the attack, only to stumble around, as if dizzy or drunk, as Ben clambered over it. It took two steps more, then flopped deadweight to the ground. Ben hopped off and scurried out into the grass. Twilight wasn’t sure what had happened there, but Ben had given her an idea. These things were animals, and animals were easily spooked.

She charged up a big, unnecessarily bright, obnoxiously loud spell. She’d learned it from watching Trixie.

“Cover your ears, Bait! I’m gonna scare them o—“ She scanned around as she talked, turning just in time to see Bait hunching over a fallen and struggling lamprey. He held its head in one hand, stretching its neck out long neck. He sank his teeth into it, ripping his own head back as he summarily tore out the creature's throat.

Twilight gasped and fumbled backward, her spell firing off wild. The concussive, actinic blast went off somewhere behind her. It should have been blinding, but it only served to display the scene before her in stark, clear contrast. The corpse Bait currently straddled wasn’t the only one.

Bait shook his head, blinking for a few long moments before he finally cleared his vision and looked at her. His face froze, and Twilight just sat there, staring. She didn’t even notice the rest of the lampreys as they scattered away.

This isn’t surprising. The words rolled through her head, courtesy of the logical part of her brain. That seemed to be the only one that was functional right now. I mean, I know where he came from.

Bait licked blood off his lips, nervous. “Um. Twilight?”

But he was supposed to be different! That must be the emotional part.

That isn’t fair. And stop gaping at him like that! The logic center again. It was right, of course. It wasn’t fair of her to expect…whatever it was she had expected. And she needed to do something. Anything.

“I-I’m sorry. I don’t—“ Twilight felt a little tap on one leg. She looked down to see Ben, gazing up at her. For once, she couldn’t guess what he was trying to tell her. “Right.” She let him climb up onto her back. “Why don’t we just get going?” Twilight shoved her hooves forward and started walking.

Nice save, genius.

“O-okay. But um, are we just going to leave them here?” asked Bait.

Twilight stopped, looking anywhere but at the bodies behind her.

“I don’t think we have time to bury them, Bait. It’s a, uh, a nice thought though.” Honestly, it probably wouldn’t take long at all. But she couldn’t deal with this right now. It was nice of him to think of it though.

“Bury? No, I mean, um, it’d be a waste to just leave them here. Cause they’re good for, um. It's just...” He hesitated a long time before muttering the last word. "We could use the meat.”

Twilight didn’t even look back. She just couldn’t right now. She shut her eyes and kept on walking.

Author's Note:

Life is rough out there, Twi.

Also, maggot cheese is a real thing, y'all. People actually, literally eat that stuff. It's called Casu Marzu. Look it up.

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