• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,589 Views, 384 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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Possessions

The mood after that was, to put it politely, somewhat strained. Bait’s eyes set themselves firmly on the road most of the time, but he kept looking up at Twilight, eager, maybe ashamed. Hoping for something. She saw it. She knew. She just didn’t know what to say. She kept thinking back to those last few moments. Had she really been enjoying herself back there? Had Bait, when he’d killed those creatures? Had Ben done it too? He must have bitten the creature, right? Was the friendly little spider on her back really a venomous killer? She just couldn’t seem to put it all together. Nothing made sense.

And that was ridiculous, because they’d only done what they had to do. Even Celestia, the most loving and kind pony Twilight had ever known, even she had...had killed. Twilight was pretty sure she’d seen her smile. Maybe that was just the way things were here. Maybe she was just naïve. Maybe it was time she sucked it up and talked to Bait.

“I’m sorry, Bait.”

He didn’t say anything for a while. Just trudged along behind her. Then, finally...

“Did I do something wrong?”

Twilight sighed. “No. At least, I don’t think so. It’s just, I’ve never seen anything…”

Ugh. Come on, girl! You're supposed to be the grown up here!

“I’ve never seen anyone kill something before. Things like this don’t really happen in Equestria, so I kind of freaked out about it, is all.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t mean to get all weird like that, so, I'm sorry. I know you were just trying to help, Bait.”

“Okay.”

“I mean, I didn’t even know there were so many of the lamprey things behind me. One of them could have snuck up on me if not for you. So, really, I should be thanking you.”

There was a moment of silence that went on a little too long for Twilight’s taste. She stopped walking and turned to face him, forcing a smile.

“Hey.”

Bait stopped with her. He looked up, milky eyes quavering.

“Friends?” she asked, putting a hoof forward.

Bait blinked, then managed to put together a smile. He shyly reached a tiny hand out to tap her hoof. “Yeah,” he said. Then with a sort of wonder, as if the concept still wasn't quite real to him, “Friends.”

“Well, alright then.” Twilight’s smile grew into a real one. “Off we go.”

“Now isn’t that sweet. Two lost little ponies having a nice, touching moment. Just precious.”

Twilight froze, eyes going wide, heart pounding as it tried to catch up. How!? How could something have gotten so close!? Couldn't they get a break!? It had't even been ten minutes since the last attack! It took her a long moment to turn herself toward the source of that sibilant voice.

She immediately wished she hadn’t. If not for some of the other things she’d already witnessed in Tartarus, this would be the most hideous being she’d ever laid eyes on.

“And you certainly are lost, aren’t you, wandering around in the open like this? You must be…” The raw, red lips of its equine head split into a leering grin full of ragged, pointed teeth. Its second head finished the sentence with vile relish. “New.”

Take a horse. Take its two eyes and merge them into one single, huge, slit-pupil-ed orb. Sharpen its teeth to an unnatural point. Then flay all the skin from its body. That was what Twilight saw standing before her.

Veins pulsing with black ichor shone through uncovered muscle. Bits of bone and tendon were visible at the joints. It looked at first like there was some other creature riding the skinless horse, something lanky and ape-like, almost like the centaur's body from before. But there was no rider. The second body was growing from the first. Its arms were weirdly long, their spindly fingers brushing the underside of the horse-body's ribs. One held a long, flat-black sword. It dragged the blade along the ground, not even bothering to actually carry the weapon.

Twilight had to fight to keep from vomiting at the mere sight of it. And for all the horror of the beast's appearance, there was one thing that was worse.

Twilight recognized this one.

Nuckelavee.

“I-I, ah, h-hello?” stammered Twilight. She faltered back a step before she could stop herself. She swallowed, shoved her gorge down, and rallied. “I’m sorry! You startled me there. I, um…”

“My, my,” it hissed. The horse head did the talking. “So polite. Not going to retch, little pony? Not going to scream and run away?”

“I think I’m going to like you." It was the second mouth that spoke. That mouth was the second head's only feature. No eyes, no ears, just a hole where its nose should be and a mouth that was far too wide and full of tiny, needle teeth. The head lolled to one side, as if it were too heavy for thin neck holding it up.

“I, um, thank you?” She left a little tug on her tail, and the pitter of spider feet as Ben scampered onto her shoulder.

“Twilight!” hissed Bait. “Twilight, we have to run!”

“And what’s this?” Nuckelavee leaned to one side to peer around Twilight. “A wight? Well, it’s no pony, but..." It wiggled the fingers of one hand, as if in gleeful anticipation. "I suppose I could make do with a wight.” It raised a hoof to step forward.

Twilight flared her wings and set her hooves.

“That’s close enough, thank you!”

Nuckelavee gave a long, wheezing, thoroughly menacing chuckle. Noxious brown vapor seeped from its horse mouth.

“Is it now?”

She snapped her wings forward, blowing the toxic stuff back.

Nuckelavee was a capital M Monster, or so every story she'd ever read about it said. A killer. But it didn’t just murder, it afflicted. The thing was a walking plague. It carried something lethal and contagious, and it would spread that corruption at any opportunity, especially to ponies. The stories didn’t say why it hated them, just alluded to some kind of old, old grudge. It didn’t matter right now.

Nuckelavee stomped its hoof forward. “And what are you going to do if I come closer anyway, little pony? You practically invited me here after all, with that little light show you put on.”

Twilight’s stomach dropped. The flare! If she had the time, she would’ve face-hoofed. She’d told every monster in Tartarus exactly where she was with that little stunt! But she didn’t have time, so she fired instead.

The blast hit Nuckelavee square in the teeth. Twilight was already wrapping herself and her companions in a quick blink spell as it roared in rage.

“I’m gonna tea-“

Twilight popped out of place, and then back in a good distance away.

“-ou apart, you little maggot!” Nuckalvee swung his sword wildly through the space she and Bait just left. It tore at the ground with the blade when it saw she was gone, flailing in lunatic rage. “I’ll strip your little friend’s skin off piece by piece while you watch!”

She should run. Some part of Twilight knew this. She didn’t know how powerful Nuckelavee was, and she had Bait to protect, and Ben too. Nuckelavee didn’t seem to have any magic, so she could probably get them away easily. So she should run. But…

Incoherent, pointless rage filled Twilight at the monster’s words. How dare he threaten a child!?

“Twilight, let’s—” Bait tugged on her tail again, pulling her away.

She fired again. Nuckelavee whipped around so fast she barely saw it and cleaved her bolt straight through, letting the blade take the force of it. They locked eyes, and seeing the burning, flickering, eternal madness there, Twilight began to realize the impossible scope of the monster she’d thought to fight.

Okay, change of plan. Twilight racked her brain, hunting for weaknesses, stories of Nuckelavee being defeated. Water! Nuckelavee had some kind of aversion to it, couldn’t cross fresh water. She just needed to find the river! But how?

The earth shook as the beast screamed and charged her. Twilight was half through another teleport when a great, blazing, white and gold blur slammed into Nuckelavee, sending the horrid thing flying, tumbling across the dirt like a thrown doll until it finally collided with a stone large enough to stop it.

Twilight’s heart soared in recognition. Finally! Everything was going to be okay now! She was running forward before she could even think.

“Booyah!” belted a thoroughly masculine voice.

Wait. What?

“I’ve been lookin’ for you, Nuck! Time for you and me to have a little chat!”

No, this wasn't...No!

Nuckelavee staggered to its hooves, lashing its blade about, apparently none the worse for the huge gore-marks in its side.

“Fuck off, Cretes! This one’s mine! It’s a pony! That means it’s mine!” More of that vile mist spewed from its mouths.

Cretes? It was Cretes!?

“Oh yeah? Well, it looks like you’ve gotta go through me then. Let’s see what you’ve got, freak!” Cretes snorted fire and tore at the ground with one claw, blazing wings unfurling.

Twilight wanted to bury her face in her hooves and sob. How could it be Cretes!? It should have been Celestia!

“I’m gonna eat your children, Cretes! I’ll butcher all your wives and feed them to you!”

Cretes belched forth a torrent, a river of flame as he stormed toward Nuckelavee.

The two-headed beast howled in pain and frustration, but in the end the only sound that mattered was that of his hooves as he turned tail and ran.

Cretes slowed to halt some ways before he reached where Nuckelavee had been. He turned a little circle and snorted.

“Heh. Pussy.”

Twilight’s cheeks went a little red at his choice of words. She knew what that one meant. But why would he call Nuckelavee that?

The bull watched his enemy run for a moment more, then turned and looked about. “Oh, hey, kid,” he said, as if just noticing her. He sauntered forward with his rumbling tread. “Still alive, eh? Good for you.”

“Um. Thanks?”

“Sure thing,” said Cretes, relaxing as he looked her over. “You alright?”

Not even a little.

“I’m fine.”

“Mm. Where’s Celly? Isn’t she supposed to be babysitting you? Ah, hells, did she die already?”

Twilight bristled, wings rising up of their own accord. “She’s didn’t die! She’s just…I don’t know where she is!” Celestia wasn't dead! That was impossible! “I’m looking for her,” Twilight finished, lamely.

“Uh huh,” said Cretes, raising a bemused eyebrow. He watched her for a bit. “That a wight hiding behind you?”

“What? Oh, yes. This is Bait.” The aforementioned wight peered out from behind Twilight briefly before vanishing again behind her.

“Huh. You know he’ll kill you, right? They’re carnivores.” Cretes said the word with utter disdain. “And cannibals at that.” He snorted, a bit of smoke pouring from his nose. “You’re just a walking meal to that thing.”

“That’s not true!” she shouted, a sliver of that crazed anger from before leaking through. “If he’d wanted to kill me, he could have by now!”

Hmm. Now that she thought on it, there had probably been a better way to phrase that.

“Yeah, sure. Listen, kid,” said Cretes, shrugging his enormous shoulders. “This is a bad place for ponies like you, alright? Sounds like you could use some help.”

Twilight didn’t much care for this creature’s attitude, but…

“Well. Maybe. Can you help me find Princess Celestia? Or, at least the way back to Equestria?”

“Yeah, I can do that,” smirked Cretes. “The second half, anyway, ‘cause I’m pretty sure Celestia's a lost cause at this point. Tell ya what. I’ll give you the same deal I gave her, eh? Sound good?”

Twilight had to take a moment to keep herself from screaming at him. Princess Celestia is not a lost cause!

“And, um, what deal is that, exactly?”

Cretes’s smirk flattened. “Really? What’s with you ponies? You weren’t always such a bunch of prudes.” He snorted again, thumping one clawed hoof into the ground. “A guy offers you a good ol’ time and says he’ll help you out, and suddenly you’re all too good to lift your tails for a bit.”

Twilight stared at the bull. Who even said things like that!?

“I’m not a prude! Maybe I’d just like a bit of friggin’ romance or something! Goddess! I don’t even know you! Plus, you’re like, three times my size! There can be too much of a good thing, you know!” Twilight had sort of lost control of her mouth after that second sentence. She seemed to be losing control of a lot of things, lately. Oops. “And besides, I’ve been doing just fine on my own! I don’t need some horn-dog bull trying to hump my leg every ten minutes! Yeesh!"

Cretes stared back for a moment. Then he laughed. And laughed, and laughed. “Hey, you’re alright, kid. Look, how long have you been here?”

Heavens above, how long had she been here?

“I, uh, well,” she tried to do the math, but how would she know? There was no day or night here, and she’d been underground for who knew how long. She’d slept, what, twice? “A few days, I think? Does this place even have days?”

“Mm,” muttered Cretes. There was a long pause while he just looked at her. “Tartarus does weird stuff with time. I remember seeing you like, three weeks ago. That’s just a guess, though, cause like you say, there ain't really a day/night thing here. But I know everything’s been going to shit, ‘cause Tartarus is waking up again, and you’re probably why. So…dammit." He pawed around a bit. "Ergh. Look, I’ll take you to the gate, but I’m not gonna go stumble-fucking around looking for Celestia. I won’t even ask you do anything that might be any fun, ‘cause Goddess knows you ponies hate that.”

Twilight rolled her eyes.

“And I’ll even watch over your little boyfriend over there.”

Twilight charitably ignored that. “Okay.” She drew it out, cautious. “But last time you blew us off without a look back. Why are willing to help now? And what about your herd? Where did they go?”

“Eh? Oh, you had Celestia with you then. That bitch is a damned death machine, she can handle herself. You’re just some girl who got thrown into a shitty situation. Could hardly call myself a bull if I just walked off from that. As to my herd, they’re somewhere safe. Er, mostly. But my girls are tough. They can deal with whatever comes. I just came out here to run off anything that got too close, like that fucker Nuckelavee. And to see who was setting off the fireworks.” Cretes glared at Twilight for a moment. “The hell were you thinking, kid?”

“I-I was…it was a good idea at the time! Let’s just get going, alright?”

“Heh. Sure. Hey, listen, junior.”

Twilight was starting to get a little tired of being talked to like that.

“You owe me for this," continued Cretes, heedless of her frown or perhaps simply not caring. "I know you ponies still got honor, so if you ever come, come back h-h…ere. I. Uh…”

Twilight turned to look at the bull. He had stopped walking.

“Cretes? If I ever come back here..?”

He stared, dead-eyed, into the space between them. His head whipped up to gaze into the flickering not-Sun of Tartarus.

A sliver of dread ran through Twilight as that feeling of being watched fell down over her. But it was different this time. Not like she was being watched from afar, but…

~~~

Celestia had been right when she said Tartarus didn’t incarnate. It never made a body. It didn’t make anything. That wasn’t Its nature. But It did have Its ways. And when those didn’t work, as seemed to be the case with this new creature and its disgusting aura of harmony, well, It had tricks for that, too.

Tartarus pondered Its new plaything and the little party she’d built. Impressive. Unacceptable. It sent down a tiny sliver of itself...and took a body.

~~~

By the time the bull turned back to Twilight, there was nothing of him left.

“C-Cretes?” Twilight backed away even as she spoke.

He showed no sign of recognition. He showed no sign of anything. He shook for a bit and stumbled, tossing his head like he’d forgotten how, exactly, it worked. He looked laboriously around himself. He picked up one cloven hoof and stared at it, swaying, as if he’d never seen the thing before. He turned back to stare at Twilight, slack-jawed. His pupils were huge and black beyond reason. They were rimmed by a ring of slow-flickering flame.

It was here. Tartarus was right here!

She backed away faster, running into something warm and bony.

“Bait,” she said, with a calm she didn’t at all feel. “You have to run. Right now.”

The thing that was once Cretes snapped its gaze to the wight behind her.

“No!” Twilight shouted. She jumped between them, pushed by some nebulous instinct to shield Bait from Its gaze. Not fast enough. Twilight felt the magic before she saw it. A hellish orange glow suffused the bull’s horns as a pair of shining bronze chains whipped out from nowhere, neatly dodging her to wrap around the colt. Before Twilight could even think to do something, Bait was lifted, pulled away, and bound to the dirt behind Cretes as the chains anchored themselves within. Walls of the same metal burst up from the earth around him, locking together into a solid prison.

Another of Cretes’ six horns glowed as Ben was snatched by a third, spider-sized fetter and tossed into the prison a fraction of a second later.

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat.

“No! Let them go!”

Cretes, no, Tartarus, plodded one step toward her. There was no expression on Its face, no rage or smug smirk of victory. Just an empty stare.

Twilight side-stepped, angling toward the cage, trying to get closer.

Tartarus staggered into her way, snorting. It moved Cretes’s body clumsily, like it couldn’t really understand it. But it was still fast, and no less dangerous. It tossed his head, brandishing his horns, threatening. It took another step forward, snorting smoke, forcing her back.

Twilight leapt up, beating her wings and ignoring the pain it brought to her shoulder. She surged forward, nearly running straight into Tartarus as It bound up to meet her. Its horns glowed and Twilight felt a chain circle each rear leg and pull her back to the ground. The chains released her even as she worked to dispel them. Twilight slowly rose to her hooves as Tartarus staggered forward into the space between them. She stepped to one side. Not-Cretes matched her, brandishing those horns. She backed off and stepped the other way. It met her again, tossing Its head and forcing her to back away.

Twilight realized, in a sick mix of fear and anger, that she wasn’t being attacked. She was being driven.

Yeah, well. Drive this!

Twilight whipped together a spell, throwing herself through space to Bait. She cried out, more in confusion than pain, as her magic was ground down into nothing, crushed under the power of something. She tried again, and the same thing happened. She saw one of Cretes/Tartarus’s horn light up and go dim with her effort. Same as with the chains before.

Six. He had six horns. He could cast six spells at once, to her one.

It didn’t matter! She would find a way through! She would-

Tartarus stared straight at her, and uttered a single word. It came through Cretes’s throat, but that sound could never have been his own. It said, simply…

Mine.

Twilight gaped. Then she snarled.

“Over my dead body."

Tartarus flared Cretes’s burning wings and charged. Twilight started spell after spell with no intention of finishing them. Four, maybe five in a row were crushed just as the first had been, but finally one got through, and she slammed Tartarus across the face with bolt of pure desperation. He didn’t even flinch, but it didn’t matter. She was gone by the time he thundered through. No magic had saved her, she’d just dodged while the brute had been distracted. She made straight for the bronze prison, not knowing what she planned to do once there.

Twilight felt the magic forming the chains before they hit her. On pure reflex, she leapt and twisted away, and when that didn’t free her she attacked the spells directly, magic to magic. She’d just broken them both when the third spell hit. She stumbled sideways, breath knocked out by a chunk of magically summoned metal. She countered indirectly, grabbing a large stone off the ground and swinging it in an arc at the bull charging toward her. It didn’t hit. Tartarus bashed the stone straight up, a pillar of that same shining metal stabbing out the dirt to intercept it. A bronze wall tore out of the ground before Twilight and a new pair of chains lassoed her as she reared to a halt.

Twilight screamed and fought, throwing herself aside, but another chain caught her before she’d made any headway. How was she supposed to fight six horns!? She floundered and flailed, working a spell she hoped the monster wouldn’t recognize while she struggled to maintain a second she'd started before.

Tartarus charged in, watching the ground numbly as it slowly receded from beneath its hooves. It saw Twilight’s vicious smile as It whipped, suddenly upside down, past her.

Twilight exulted in her success. She’d reversed Its gravity. Only for a moment, but long enough. She hoped.

Tartarus snapped out Cretes’s wings, multiple horns glowing as it flew against its own twisted weight and abandoned its other spells to break this new curse. It spun back into normal gravity a second later and slammed to ground in front of Twilight Sparkle. She backed away as it stomped between her and the bronze cage containing Bait and Ben. It snorted smoke and flame. Then the stone came down.

Twilight had managed to keep an eye on it, guide it to right where it needed to be. It fell, cracking down on Tartarus’s back, bashing It into the ground.

“Hah!”

Twilight pranced with the satisfaction of a plan carried through. It was another moment before she remembered that Tartarus had stolen that body...

But then the bull rose. It just got up. One hoof at a time, It rose and stared at her once more. No anger. No pain. Nothing but remorseless, unassailable will.

All six horns glowed, and Twilight was wrapped in chains and driven to the dirt. She fought. She squirmed. She threw everything she had at this terrible magic, but she just couldn’t fight so much at once. Tartarus trundled toward her. It loomed over her. It stared down at her, eyes hollow with void and fire and terrible want.

“What!?” she cried. “I just want my friends! Why are you doing this!?”

It pressed Cretes’s bulk over her. It breathed on her, it ran Its big, rough tongue down her neck and just under one ear. Then it whispered one word, for her alone.

Mine.

And then a lot of things happened at once. Twilight heard a sound that could best be described as *chomp,* and Tartarus roared and whipped around, nearly crushing her. There was a high-pitched scream, and Tartarus stumbled backwards, and then somepony was pulling on her hoof and suddenly she was running.

Twilight heard another roar behind her, and maybe she cast some spells, or some spells were cast at her, but it was all a blur as she just kept running, running, running. She crashed through grass and shrubs and trees, and she didn’t stop until everything was dark and quiet and her heart couldn't take any more. She huddled there in that silent place for a long time, one wing stretched protectively over Bait and Ben (they’d saved her!), and just waited. A minute stretched into five, then ten, then maybe thirty as she watched the path they’d come down, barely daring to even blink. But nothing followed.

They were alone. It was gone.

It was gone.

~~~

Why isn’t it working!?

Celestia fired another blast of solid burn into the woods. They ignited, changing nothing. Nothing was attacking her. Nothing was coming out to fight. Tartarus was ignoring her.

“NO!”

Celestia howled in anguish and threw herself into the sky, launching explosion after explosion into the landscape below her. She was taking a huge, suicidal risk even trying to get Its attention like this, and Tartarus was just ignoring her!

“This isn’t fair! I’m what you want, you monster! Come kill me!”

The crackle of burning wood and stone was her only answer.

There had been a few monsters, of course. You couldn’t walk a hundred yards without running across something horrible once Tartarus was awake, but they had been nothing. A pittance. A half-hearted attempt on her life, at best. Tartarus was busy with other things, and Celestia could guess exactly what they were.

She had failed Twilight utterly. She couldn’t even act as a decent distraction.

Celestia slammed into the ground, and the earth quaked with her desperate fury.

“You will not have her!”

Celestia singed the earth with tears of molten rage and anguish. If she'd just, if only she'd...but it didn't matter what could have been. The few options she'd had were exhausted. There was only one thing that even might work now. Tartarus could disregard her, but there were creatures locked here that even It couldn’t simply disregard. And Celestia knew just how to call down the one It hated most.

“Terra!” she bellowed, pouring and old and long-unused power into the words. “I, Celestia, invoke my right of parley! Hear me, Sister, or I will unleash every monster, every cataclysm, every misbegotten, gods-damned thing in this land until you come to me! I will wake Typhon if you ignore me!”

Unseen far above, the Eye of Tartarus trembled, just for a moment. In excitement or fear, it was not to be known.

Author's Note:

See? Celly has been doing something this whole time. Though time seems to be a bit subjective around here...

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