• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,651 Views, 385 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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Hatred

That last image of the hekatonkhire gnawed at her. Twilight had heard lots of stories about immortal guardians like him, but she’d never stopped to really think about what their lives might actually be like. What did you do with eternity in a place like this, without anyone to share it with?

Their conversation played over and over in her head. Had he meant to be so frightening? Or had it just been so long since he’d seen anyone who wasn't overtly hostile that he’d forgotten how to be anything else? She had this sick suspicion that she’d misjudged him in the worst way, that she’d been blinded by his hideous, bizarre form and had run away out of nothing more than base disgust. But…had the aching loneliness she’d seen in him even been real? She would swear it was, but those other heads…

She shivered, as much from the sudden chill in the air as from her plague of self-doubt. This place was cold. She could see her breath steaming, but only just barely. It was a dark in here as it was cold. Maybe even more, and in a way even the underground hadn’t been. Twilight had her light amped up as high as it would go, and she could barely see a dozen yards.

“Bait?”

The colt looked up at her. That was the first thing she’d said since they’d left the huge intersection of tunnels.

“Do you, um, should we have stayed back there, with Briareos?”

“What? No! He was crazy!” The words were quiet, but vehement. Still, they didn't travel far. This place ate sound just as well as it did light, it seemed.

“Okay. But did he seem, I dunno, lonely to you? Like maybe he just wanted to talk?”

Bait frowned, thinking.

“Well, maybe. But still. He would have turned on us if we’d stayed. My uncle Snare met something like that once. He said she was really nice, and he would sneak off to go talk to her sometimes, even though everybody told him not to. He wouldn’t tell us where she was, but I followed him one time, 'cause Switch made me. I heard them talking, and it sounded fine at first. But after a while, it...I dunno. It went wrong. Snare said the wrong thing, I guess. Whoever he was talking to got mad, started screaming. I ran away then, so I didn’t see what happened. All I ever saw of him after that was his leg, just lying out in one of the caves. It wasn't even close to where they’d been.” He shrugged, as though this were a perfectly logical outcome. “Talking’s just something creatures do when they can’t sneak up on you instead. Well,” he said with a quick smile. “Except for you.”

Twilight gave him a weak grin, feeling absolutely nauseated by this place.

Ben shifted position on her back, reminding her of the other friendship she’d possibly ruined in that lair.

“Ben?”

He chirped.

“I’m sorry I shot at you. I shouldn't, I—“ Her throat caught on what she was trying to say. That she'd nearly killed him. That she'd nearly exploded one of her only friends in this pit because, just for a second, she'd been certain that he was going to betray her. That she'd suspected him, Ben, who had only ever tried to help her, of...of what? She couldn’t for the life of her even remember why she would ever have thought such a thing! “I should have been more careful! I'm sorry. I—“

Ben scampered up her neck and plopped himself down on top of her head. He patted her muzzle with one leg.

Twilight stopped mid-step. Then she laughed. Nothing was funny, and it wasn't much of a laugh, but still. She’d been all worked up, ready to make this big, tearful confession about what a terrible pony she was, but with a simple tap on the nose, Ben had knocked all the drama straight out of her. So she laughed.

Ben, for his part, had a confession of his own. It was really his fault, he seemed to say. He shouldn't have scared her like that. With a slightly sheepish chitter, Ben admitted that he didn’t always have the best judgement when it came to jump-scaring people.

“Yeah, okay.” Twilight smiled up at the spider, shook herself a bit, and got back to the business of walking. “But, Ben?”

He chirped again.

“Why did you run off like that? Did you know Briareos was in there?”

Ben scampered down onto Twilight’s back where she could see him. He made an affirmative sounding noise.

“Do you know him?”

Ben made an indefinite motion.

“So, was he safe? Should we have stayed for a while? Should we go back?”

Ben tilted from side to side, then waved two arms and pointed decidedly ahead. Twilight interpreted that as ‘maybe,' 'no,' and 'definitely not, we should keep moving.’

“Well, alright. But please don’t run away again, okay?”

Ben gave a solemn, spider-ish nod. Twilight nodded back.

That was that then. Just keep on keeping on.

“So…” Twilight asked to no one in particular. “Anypony know anything about this place? Blackbriar, I think it's called?”

Bait shook his head and Ben drummed his feet front to back, which Twilight was pretty sure was his version of a shrug.

Nothing more was said for some time. The atmosphere here was stifling, the dark blanketing them tight like a physical thing. There was nothing to see, no particular smell to the place, no sounds at all. The road was marked by a narrow path of slightly smoother dirt, but that was about it.

Twilight stopped when she saw the first thorny shrub appear. A briar, of course. So it wasn’t just a clever name. The bush's spiky protrusions ended just shy of the road, same as every other plant she’d seen in Tartarus. How did that work? Who kept these things in their place? Furthermore, how was a plant even growing down here, with no light? Was this even a ‘down here,’ really? Twilight shined her light straight up, but saw no ceiling. No sky, no stars, no huge, burning ring. Nothing. But this place didn’t feel like a cave, so where was everything?.

Despite the flood of mental questions, all Twilight managed was a simple “Hm.” The gloom here was infectious. She turned back to the road and kept on walking. Bait stayed close, and she welcomed the contact for more than just the warmth.

The road took a sudden bend, though it may have only seemed that way because visibility was so strangely poor here. To one side, the source of the detour, was a lake of pitch-black, perfectly still water. Twilight stopped again. She kept her distance, shining her light on it as best she could. The water swallowed it all, revealing nothing, and reflecting even less. Twilight stepped away, unnerved. She didn't know why, and that only made it worse. She pulled Bait close and led him away at a rather quicker pace than before. Alas, the road followed the curve of the lake, and there was nowhere to go but with it.

A wet, liquid noise sounded behind Twilight, as from a rock thrown into water. Or, perhaps, out of water. She stopped and whipped her light into the lake.

Perfectly still. It might as well have been slab of black stone.

Twilight snorted, turning away, keeping her momentum. Bait snuck in closer, and she put a wing over him. She passed more of the spiny plants. They were bigger now, roots thick and heavy. She ignored them. The road wandered, sometimes nearer the water, sometimes further away. A rattling sounded before her, and the noise of something pushing through thick vegetation. Twilight tried to ignore that too.

Her light crossed something lying in the center of the road, and Twilight all but skidded to a halt. She pushed Bait back with a wing, focusing on the intruding object.

It was a skull. A pony skull. It grinned up at her, turned and tilted so as to look her right in the eye as she approached. Whatever was out there had put this here. It, or they, or whatever, wanted her to see it.

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment. Her teeth ground together. A simmering, terrible, horribly familiar feeling swelled in her gut. She stomped a hoof into the dirt.

“I know what you’re doing!”

There was no response. Not even an echo.

“Um, Twili—“

“You’re trying to scare me! You think I haven’t seen this already!?” She tromped forward, toward the skull, pushing Bait back. She lifted Ben with magic and dropped him onto Bait. “You’ll keep doing weird nonsense and making spoOoOoky sounds until you think I’m about to go crazy and then you’ll attack me! Even though I haven’t done anything to you, and all I want is to get out of here! I’m so sick of this! You think I'm afraid of you!?”

Twilight leapt forward and slammed both front hooves into the skull. It splintered with a gratifying crunch.

“Come on then! Come and get me!”

Nothing came. No response at all.

Twilight didn’t dare look back at Bait and Ben. She didn’t even want to know what they thought of her right now.

“Well!?”

Silence reigned.

She snorted.

“Fine. Whatever. Let’s go, Bait.”

The silence carried.

“Bait?”

Twilight turned around. He wasn't there. Nothing was there.

“Bait!?

She ran to where he’d been, blasting her light spell up more, and then more again, flailing it from side to side. But she couldn’t see him! He was gone!

No! Nonono! Had she scared him off? Had he run away? It couldn’t be! Ben wouldn’t have run, and—

“Bait! Say something!”

She heard a noise, out there, in the dark. A tiny murmuring. Her ears twitched, seeking the sound.

The sound grew louder, swelling slowly up around her.

It was laughter. Echoing, taunting. Coming from all around and nowhere in particular.

The anger that had been building exploded through Twilight.

“GIVE THEM BACK!!” She stomped the ground with both front hooves and a scintillating nimbus of lavender light shot out all around her. She hadn’t even meant to do that, but it was welcome.

She heard surprise in the voice, or maybe voices, around her. Surprise, and, she noted with no small amount of satisfaction, just the slightest bit of fear.

“What’s the matter!? Can’t handle a few sparkles!?” she bellowed. She didn’t know her eyes were glowing with brilliant inner light. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have messed with somepony with Sparkle in her name!”

She pulled in everything she had, forging every bit of power and will and everything else into a single idea: Light. She fired off as big a flare as she’d ever seen. It burst in the sky, or whatever was up there, and she had to shield her eyes from the glare. It was only after it faded some that she actually saw what surrounded her. They were hideous, misshapen things! Dozens of them. Dozens of dozens! More poured up out of the lake, the ‘water’ rising and turning to flesh before her. So many! And what she saw in their eyes wasn’t fear. It was pure. It was refined. And it was nothing she could hope to fight with one over-powered light spell.

Hatred.

They poured over Twilight like a crashing wave, roaring, howling, drowning. She fought them. She fought with more than she’d ever known she had, kicking, goring, blasting with every spell she knew. She even bit some of them. But they were inexorable as the tide, and in the end she could only watch as her hooves dug furrows in the dirt, inching ever toward those black waters.

~~~

Well. That’s that, I guess. I’m done. Dead. Tragic, to have seen all this amazing, if terrifying, stuff, and then die. To have learned so much and not to be able to tell anyone. I’d have liked to write a book about everything I went through here. Now I guess I never will. I’ll never write anything. I’ll never get to put my drop into that great ocean of knowledge that got me through so many trying times.

Tragic. Really trag…Wait. Am I floating?

Twilight stumbled into wakefulness. She lifted two hooves up where she could see them, and it hurt. She was bruised, beat up, in pain, but by Celestia she was alive! She almost laughed with the simple, stupid joy of it.

Twilight craned her head about, hoping to get some sort of bearing. Her whole body moved with the motion. She had to swing her hooves and beat her wings a bit to make sense of it.

Okay then. Yes, she was floating. Was she in water? Was she drowning!?

She tried to breathe, and found that she couldn’t. But she didn’t seem to need to either. So that was good? Or something?

She looked up, and found that she could see again. Nice. The impenetrable dark from before had faded, sort of. She could see clearly, but only up, like she was looking through some sort of big window above her. She looked up further and saw that terrible burning ring in the sky. It didn’t seem to see her though, not this time. So…there really was no ceiling to this place. But then, why was it so dark?

She looked around, but saw only endless blackness to the left and right. Or, wait. Was there somepony else floating out there?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats above her. She looked up to see herself gazing down at her. Except...not. Her face was broken, shattered. It was Twilight Sparkle as seen through some sort of distorted, ghastly funhouse mirror.

She stared. The other her stared back. Then she smiled. The other one, that is. She reached a hoof down, toward the water.

Twilight didn’t know what to do. She worried, for a bit, that she had completely lost her mind, and that none of this was real. Maybe she really had died. But she still hurt, so that must mean something right? She reached toward the hoof that her twisted doppelganger offered. Her leg bounced off the surface of the water.

The other Twilight’s smile turned a bit, confused. Twilight tried again, and again her hoof hit some kind of barrier, unable to pass through. Not-Twilight’s expression went from confused to concerned. She waved Twilight forward, urging her on. 'Just step out,' she seemed to say.

Twilight tried once more, but she couldn’t do it. The water was somehow unbreakable. She pawed at it with her other hoof, to the same effect.

Her other self seemed to be getting upset.

“I’m sorry!” said Twilight. Her voice warbled in this watery realm. “I don’t know what to do! Hang on! Let me try—”

She fired up her horn, thinking maybe she could just teleport out or something. She funneled magic through herself and…nothing. She couldn’t even feel it. It was like trying to flex a leg and finding it suddenly wasn’t there.

“I, uh, wait. No! I can do this!”

The other Twilight watched her with growing horror.

And then she smiled again. A leering grin full of big, sharp, misshapen teeth. And she laughed.

“I can’t believe you actually fell for it!”

Twilight gaped up at her.

“Girls! Come look! She actually thought I was gonna help her! Hahahah! Can you believe that!?” The doppelganger nearly fell over laughing, and she was rapidly joined by far too many others just like her.

Well, not like her at all, really. Each one was different. Every one of them was its own monstrous, horrible interpretation of what might have once been a normal creature. There was a mess of a griffon, and that one over there had probably once been some sort of yak. But, in their horror, they had certain things in common.

“What a dunce! You don’t even know what’s happening, do you?”

Twilight's gaze snapped back up, her eyes locking with the one monster pretending to be her. She was boiling inside.

“What are you?” The fury in Twilight's hissed words surprised even her.

“Oh, you want to know about little ol’ me?” asked the fake, preening. “I’m you, of course!”

“You’re not me. Anybody could see that.”

“I am!” shot back the clone. Her eyes glinting with fury, if just for a moment. “I might not be perfect yet, but it’s just a matter of time till I become more than you ever were. Just think of it: You. Twilight Sparkle! Best unicorn ever! Except without all those doubts and worries and other stupid little weaknesses you’ve been letting hold you back. I mean, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to be you yet, but I see a lot of potential in me. So much magic in here!” She crowed, flaring her wings and, if Twilight wasn’t mistaken, checking herself out. “I’m going to have a wonderful time wrecking all those precious, eh, what do you call those…friendships! Yes! Wrecking all those friendships of yours. And don’t even get me started on the things I’ll be doing with this Princess you’re always thinking about! What’s her name? Hang on. Celestia! Heheh. Everything you’ve always wanted but were too afraid to take. All. Mine. Too bad you won’t be around for the show.” She leered down.

Twilight’s eyes narrowed. She struggled to think through the growing terror of her situation. Was she some kind of changeling? Had she actually taken her magic somehow?

“Let me out. Now.

“Or what?” Her double cackled. “You gonna give us another big, scaAaAary light show?” She gestured with her stolen wings, mugging for the other abominations. They tittered obligingly. “Yeah, that really worked out for you.”

Twilight ground her teeth.

“At least let the others go. They’re weak. They’re no use to you, right?”

“Hah! See? This is exactly what I’m talking about! Trying to throw your life away for those losers? That’s just stupid. Besides, can you imagine the looks on their faces when I betray the, uh, the wight. He’s um, Lure, or something? Bait! When I betray Bait, looking like you? Priceless!”

“They’ll never fall for it. You look nothing like me. You can barely even get their names straight!”

The clone’s smile cracked.

“SHUT UP!! His name’s Bait! I knew what it was!”

Wait. Wait! Did her double actually have her memories, or were those as fragmented as she seemed to be? She chose her next words carefully. She had to keep this one talking, she had to think.

“What did you do to me? Why isn’t my magic working?”

The clone grinned again, reclaiming her air of superiority as quickly as she’d lost it.

“I thought you were supposed to be smart! But fine, since you’re clearly a little slow, I’ll spell it out for you.”

Yes, please do, genius.

“You’re mine. Everything you had is mine now! Your face, your powers, your memory, all of it! And anything I might have missed, I’ll get eventually. That’s how it works. The longer you’re in there, the more I get out here. On that note, look under you real quick.”

The mutated clone of Twilight pointed a hoof down.

Twilight did as she was told, but took her time about it. Her mind whirled furiously, seeking some angle. The clone was twisted and mean like a changeling, but something was off. Those other shapeshifters had been nearly flawless in their disguise. This one…did she even know she looked wrong? And she was clearly unstable. Twilight could use this, somehow. But she had to look down eventually. What she saw there very nearly shut her down completely.

Bones.

A massive, endless pile of bones. A mountain of them, rising up from the unseen depths. Twilight jerked herself away from it, looked back up into the warped grin of her double. She was fractured. Warped. Like a funhouse…Mirror pond! Except this one kept the original. And it was…broken?

“Do you get it yet?” asked her false copy. Her eyes lit up with the color of Twilight’s own magic, but they were tainted with a deep green.

Dark magic.

That explained a thing or two. Twilight had learned a bit about dark magic, after the Sombra incident. Powerful stuff, but it had one big problem. Normal magic was just a tool, something one used for other ends. Dark magic tended to be of the opinion that it was the end itself. It altered everything it touched.

“You were, and I do mean were, pretty strong, so thanks for that, idiot. But hey, don’t worry, your friends or whatever will be down there with you soon, so at least you won’t die al—“

It wasn’t a reflection, this thing before her. It was an inversion. She’d seen this before. The mirror in the Crystal Castle had taken something Twilight loved and turned it back on her. Discord had done something similar to her friends, taken what was best about them and flipped it inside out, leaving only the worst aspects of their personalities and exaggerating them. So this was what the worst of her looked like…

“Hey! Are you even listening to me!?”

Cruel. Impatient. Egotistical. Very smart, sure, but thoroughly insecure. Volatile. Twilight stopped short of using the word ‘crazy,’ even though it fit. This was everything she hated about herself, right here in front of her. It was painful to watch. But still…yes. She could work with this.

“Oh, I’m listening. And I think I’ve heard enough.”

The not-Twilight paused, looking back and forth at the other mutants around her.

“What?”

“I know what you are now.”

The clone snorted. “Oh, this oughta be good.”

“You’re not me. You never even could be. You’re nothing.”

The doppelganger’s face went still.

“I, you see, am a perfectionist. If I showed up trying to impersonate me, looking like you do, I’d be embarrassed. Humiliated. You can’t even get the basics right. You couldn’t pass a basic exam about being me. Do you even know the spider’s name? The one you’re so excited about being able to betray?”

“I know its name! It’s, it’s um—“

“It? Really? You don’t even know the gender?”

“Shut up! I do know!”

One of the other monsters stepped toward the not-Twilight, putting a freakish hand on her shoulder, maybe trying to calm her. She whipped around and smashed the thing away with bolt of force.

“BACK OFF!! It’s a he! The spider is male!”

Okay, very volatile.

“Oh, veeeery good. You managed to guess right on a fifty/fifty. Well done.”

The clone ground her teeth and glared flaming daggers at Twilight.

It was a little concerning how easy this was, destroying herself. But then, Sunset Shimmer and Starlight Glimmer had been pretty good teachers when it came to being a total jerk.Twilight gave her clone the best slow clap she could manage.

"STOP THAT!"

“Or what?" asked Twilight, glad that there was something between her and her corrupted self. She wasn't sure what, exactly, she was even trying to do. Make the other her do something stupid, she supposed. “See? You’re not me at all. Because you’re something I would never be. You…” Twilight hid her own revulsion at saying this behind a dramatic pause. “Are a failure.”

Seeing her double’s face after that one was like watching the first rumblings of a soon-to-be very, very active volcano.

“I’LL BEAT YOU BRAINLESS, YOU LITTLE SNOT!”

A shroud of mystic force slammed into place around Twilight. She lost the next few moments to a rushing sensation, followed by a hard impact to one side. She bounced, vision swimming, and rolled, and finally stopped. Her next living memory was of groaning, and trying to stagger to her hooves. Someone screamed something at her, but she couldn’t hear the words over the sound of her lungs violently ejecting water out of her nose and mouth. Her ensuing struggle to remember how to breathe absorbed all her attention.

“Take it back!!”

She looked up to her own contorted face. Tears streamed down it. Heh. Idiot. She'd pulled her out of the pond. All Twilight had to do now was—

“Say it!"

Another sharp impact rang through Twilight's chest. Twilight stumbled away, barely standing.

"Say I’m not a failure!!”

She didn’t see the hit before it came, but her jaw rang with it, and she fell down again.

“Get up! GET UP! I’m not a failure! I’m better than you! I’ll prove it!”

Twilight opened her eyes from the ground and saw a hundred more mutants, just like her own. She managed a weak chuckle.

All she had to do now was...win this fight. Just beat them all. Sure. Easy. Hah...

She was surprised that she wasn’t scared. She knew she should be. But maybe she’d just run out of fear. Somehow it didn’t matter anymore. She’d beaten herself, sort of, and how could a pony ask for more than that? She hoped Bait and Ben would be okay. She felt bad that she wouldn't be able to help them anymore, but she'd tried, darn it. She'd given everything she'd had.

A reverberating *boom* sounded from somewhere nearby. A flash of light came with it, and a clamoring voice, howling what sounded like a challenge. Twilight couldn’t hear the words. Her doppelganger turned towards the sound, but only for a moment. That vile head whipped back to face Twilight.

“Hah! I was just gonna kill you, but now I know something even better! I’m gonna go make some more ‘friends!’ And you’ll get to sit here and watch while I kill them!” She sauntered toward Twilight, leaning down to loom over her.

From her vantage on the dirt, Twilight felt more than heard the rapid staccato of hoofbeats, coming so fast that she almost thought they couldn't be from a single pony.

“What’s the matter? Was that all you had? Nothing to say, now that I've won?” Not-Twilight tsked. “Who’s the failure now?”

Twilight said nothing. The sound was getting louder. The other creatures were reacting now, turning towards it, chattering amongst themselves. Many were already heading towards it.

“Pathetic. Maybe I will just kill you. I mean, I was going to eventually anyway, but—“

Another *boom* sounded, another blast of clean, bright light burst through the murky darkness. Another bellow of simple, holy *truth* blew through the air. Twilight barely recognized it. But recognize it she did. Her horrible double didn't.

"Alright, what even is th—"

“Do you know what really makes me strong?” asked Twilight. She slowly, painfully rose from the mud.

“What? Nothing! You’re a joke!”

A half dozen disembodied spirits flew past them, banished back to the morbid void of the lake. The clone’s eyes went wide, but Twilight didn’t give her time to think about what that meant.

“You think it's the magic that does it? You've got all my memories, right? Think about it. Was I really anything special before I got to Ponyville? I'm barely better at magic now than I was then.”

The mirror's face contorted as she tried to remember, struggled to puzzle it out.

Yes. Good. Keep watching me, Twilight thought. Don't even think about what's coming, you monster.

“It’s not the wings either, nice as they are. Or this whole 'being a princess thing.' Do you really not know? It's so obvious!"

A series of blasts blew through the miasma of shadow. A coruscating beam cut it like a thin mist. More, more and more spirits rushed across Twilight's vision on their way back to the black water. Too many to count.

"It’s everything you claimed to want to destroy!"

The clone snorted, eyes flaring with noxious power. Drops of it fell down her broken muzzle. “Your little friends aren't here. They won’t save y—”

She disintegrated in a torrent of golden-white fire. There was a timeless moment after that, a slice of time wherein the image of her clone’s final expression of disbelief burned itself forever onto Twilight’s eyes. The spirit howled a silent scream of frustrated fury as it was dragged inevitably into the dark waters from which it had come.

There were more explosions. More blasts. A scream, huge, endless, echoing from uncounted lips. Creatures of all shapes and sizes thundered past Twilight, snarling, snapping, running. Away. Away from the great, glorious blaze before her. Twilight shuffled up, looked directly into that blinding brilliance…and ran straight to it. She ran until she couldn’t breathe for the heat, she ran until the ends of her smoldered and then she ran on still, until finally she met the core of that living sun, and she found, when she got there, that it didn’t burn at all. There was only warmth, and comfort, and soft fur and hard muscle and a soothing voice that told her that finally, finally it was all going to be okay.

Celestia.



Celestia!

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