• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,710 Views, 389 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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Parallels

It didn’t last, because of course it didn’t. Ben’s shriek was the only warning they had before the attack came. Fortunately, it was enough. Twilight grabbed Bait and Ben and was gone before she’d even stopped to think. She popped back in from the quick teleport in time to see something inexplicable slam down onto the path where they’d been. Celestia, shielded and shining, was already charging the thing. She and Twilight were on opposite sides of the creature, so they should have had it surrounded, but could you really even surround something with that many heads? Where had it even come from? It must have fallen at them.

The monster screamed a grating cacophony and lashed out in seemingly every direction at once. It clawed at Celestia, and snapped at her with jaws great and small. It swung at Twilight’s group with what was maybe a tail, whipping a half dozen spines at her face. Her barrier deflected them easily, but she backed away anyway, unsure of what else this thing might be capable. A gout of flame spewed from one reptilian head, and a nasty-looking yellow vapor poured from somewhere she couldn’t see. The monster didn't even seem to be aiming its weapons, just spastically attacking.

Celestia took the brunt of the undirected assault, dodging and deflecting and hammering it back with burning magic. Twilight let her, keeping her distance. She watched for other attackers, keeping an eye on herself and their friends. They’d decided this was the best plan of action; Celestia would do the fighting, Twilight would keep everypony safe, only jumping in if things got really ugly. She hadn’t much liked it, but Twilight had agreed with a quiet sense of relief. She didn’t think she’d panic again, but she still hadn’t really come to terms with the idea of killing something. It made good sense, anyway. Celestia was by far the better warrior. Even so, Twilight worried that she might be putting off a hard inevitability in favor of an easy quick-fix.

The beast was lit ablaze, but it was hard to tell if it even noticed. The fire didn’t bite like it should have, didn’t burn into the bristly hide of the thing. The monster shoved forward, heedless, forcing Celestia back, trying to corner her against a mountain wall. Twilight gasped as one snarling maw, like a slavering dog’s, snapped shut inches away from one white wing. She grabbed a big, conveniently placed stone and slung it at one of the creature’s larger feet. The projectile connected and the creature staggered. Celestia took the opportunity to hit back, hard. Twilight couldn’t see what she did, exactly, through the bulk of the monster, but a jet of blood erupted soon after. It wasn’t enough to even slow it down, and several pairs of eyes, burning with what could never be called sanity, had already locked onto Twilight. The monster charged straight for her without even having to turn, its multitude of legs, tentacles, wings, and whatever else letting it switch direction without effort or delay. Twilight whipped up another blink spell, but to where? She was on a narrow strip of path slanting down a mountain. There was nowhere to go but further back. Or, maybe…She teleported straight up, latching onto Bait and struggling to hold him aloft as her wings caught what was now open air. Bait gasped, but fortunately didn’t struggle against her this time. She looked down and saw the golden glow of Celestia’s magic, seeking a grip on the various horns and tusks and spikes around the main head of the creature. If it had a ‘main’ head. It was the biggest, anyway, and like a boar’s, but with more, bigger teeth.

Celestia got a hold and yanked, grunting with the effort. Two tons of misbegotten muscle crashed to the ground as the monster was jerked off its many feet. Celestia wrenched the entire head, hard and sharp, clockwise. Twilight winced at the meaty crack that sounded. She nearly fell as her stomach lurched. Twilight turned away and starting talking so she wouldn’t have to hear more.

“Are you okay, Bait?”

“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine. Can we land now? This feels weird. And I think she got it. Things only twitch that way when they’re dying.”

Twilight swallowed her nausea.

“Sure.”

Twilight placed him down as gently as she could and cautiously approached. She wished she could say she’d never seen anything so freakish as this mismatched agglomeration of seemingly random animal parts, but recent days had been unpleasantly enlightening. Even so, the thing put Discord’s nonsense physiology to shame, with over half a dozen heads, twice as many legs, and several pairs of wings. No, wait. There was actually an odd number of wings. Why!? How!?

The whole beast was shot through with thorny protrusions, sometimes of bone, often of less obvious material. Grotesque as it was, Twilight couldn’t shake the idea that there was some horrible logic behind its form. The thing shouldn’t have even been able to move, but it had been almost graceful, in its alien, impossible way. She looked away.

Princess Celestia was panting from the fight, and Bait was creeping up on the corpse for a better look, craning his neck out to sniff at it curiously. Twilight tried not to be a bit disturbed by that.

“Stay back, Bait. It’s not dead.”

He all but leapt away at the revelation, rushing to hide behind Twilight. She backed away too, eyeing the monster.

“Twilight, can you help me with this?” said Celestia. She enveloped the near side of the non-corpse in magic and shoved it a few inches toward the cliff. She was clearly straining with its weight. That seemed odd. Twilight had seen her lift and throw a boulder nearly as large as this thing without apparent effort.

“Um, sure. What are we doing?”

“Pushing it off the mountain. It’ll revive soon, and I’d rather it not do so here. It’s going to be harder than you think. Chimera like this one are hard to hurt with, well, anything. Magic, especially.” She grunted as she shoved it further. “Slides right off them, for some damned reason.”

“That’s a chimera?” Twilight had seen chimera before, but never anything like this. She supposed there were certain similarities, what with all the extra heads. That seemed to be a really common theme around here. “What do you mean by ‘like this one?’” Twilight asked, slipping her own magic into Celestia’s, looking for weak points to reinforce. It was a trick she’d been taught long ago. “Is it some kind of mutant? Augh!”

Twilight hopped back from the creature as her magic touched it. It felt disgusting to her mystic senses. Slippery and noxious. She not only couldn’t get a grip on it, she didn’t want to!

Celestia forged on, stoic.

“Sorry. I should have warned you how unpleasant it is. But please, try again.”

Twilight stepped back in after a moment and tried again. She was ready for it this time, but that didn’t make it any nicer. Ugh, Goddess! It’s like walking into a pit of slime! Her spell kept trying to slide off, and a sort of swamp-reek was building in her throat, but the two ponies managed to get the chimera over the edge after a few more shoves. It bounced off the wall of a cliff on the way down, hit a lower stretch of the path, and then rolled off that until it bounced once more and crashed to a halt on the bottom.

Celestia huffed a deep breath, and so did Twilight. Both were sweating from the work.

“That should do,” said Celestia. “It should be hurt enough that it won’t remember us when it wakes. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” replied Twilight. It was dumb, maybe, but she felt better knowing she hadn’t just helped kill the chimera. Even if she’d shoved it off a mountain. And if, objectively, the world would probably have been better off without the horrible thing.

Celestia nodded, seeming to know exactly what was going through her head.

“Good. Let’s get going then.”

The two Princesses walked on, shoulder to much-higher shoulder. Bait clung close to Twilight, and Ben scampered back and forth between the three, keeping watch.

~~~

Luna danced lightly away from the bleeding heap of disparate parts, a small, satisfied smile playing at her lips. The chimera she'd killed had been one of the weird ones. A twisted, utterly unfeasible, splendidly glorious beast of a thing. Quick, too, and stealthy, but her guards had seen it before the monster struck. Between her flawless (if she did say so herself) swordplay and a few well timed distractions from her retinue, the rabid thing had been handled with almost suspicious ease. No injuries on her side at all, and little time or effort spent. Still, she eyed the chimera warily as it bled out. Notoriously tricky to kill, these. If she’d been alone and unarmed, things might not have gone nearly so smoothly. Even now, some of its wounds were trying to close. She raised her weapon and stabbed it again, aiming for anything that looked important. The creature made no sudden leap for her throat. It didn’t even shudder as the blades pierced it, just lay there and bled a bit more. Luna gave it another few seconds, then turned to her ponies.

“Excellent work, soldiers! And sharp eye, Backstep. We could have had a real mess on our hooves, if not for you. Well done.”

The pegasus in question looked to be of the opinion that they did have a real mess on their hooves.

Luna scanned the face of her guard, and then of the others. There was pride there, yes, but fear as well, and…other things. A few were looking quite shaken.

“Is everypony well? I know that some of you are unused to seeing things such as,” she flicked the blood off her sword, “this. The task before you is onerous, but you expected that. This place is unlike any you have ever known. It is dangerous in the extreme, and the things we suffer here may be disturbing, but know that our mission is righteous, my ponies! I chose you select few, each of you, because I believe in you. I know that you will be there for me, and for Celestia, and Twilight Sparkle. And I would have you know that we shall be there for you in return! But this,” gestured at the whole scene, taking in corpse and sword and herself, “is no simple thing. There is no shame in being afraid of it. So I will ask again. Is everypony well?”

“Hoo-rah!” exclaimed Quick March, stomping the ground. The other pegasi, even Backstep, who had seemed so jittery moments before, jumped to match him. Her three nyxies answered in their own, rather less regimented, way. They seemed a bit amused at the pegasus’s outburst.

Luna, for her part, was honestly a bit surprised by it. She’d worried they weren’t ready for this. Or maybe that they didn’t really believe in her. Probably the latter.

What a wonderful way to be proven wrong.

“Magnificent,” she said, meaning every syllable of it. “Away!”

~~~

“They’re not exactly what I’d call mutants,” Celestia said. “The chimera you know of can be troublesome, and certainly dangerous, but they’re still people. They can be reasoned with. These, not so much. These monsters were born long after their more civil cousins, after their father…” she paused, getting that look on her face that Twilight was coming to learn was regret. This was something she blamed herself for, Twilight suspected. “Went mad. Some of them, I’m not sure how to describe it, become corrupt? As they age. They grow twisted, purely destructive, difficult to affect with magic. Magic, unicorn magic, is the means by which we impose order on chaos, as you know. These new chimera, I think, are an attempt to disrupt that. They are a weapon.”

“A weapon against what?”

“Us.”

Well. That was concerning.

“Who’s their father?” Twilight wasn’t sure she should even ask, but it was that or awkward, mopey silence, so she went for it.

“Typhon.”

“Who’s Typhon?”

“Another of Briareos’s siblings. The last of them, and the greatest.”

“Alright.” The sudden simplicity of her answers made it pretty clear that Celestia would rather not speak on the subject. She wasn’t even apologizing for it, like she usually did. But maybe she’d be willing to discuss something else. Something that had been nagging at Twilight for some time now.

“Can I um, can I sidetrack for a second?”

“Certainly.”

“I’ve seen you do some pretty amazing stuff since we got here,” she began. “And I always knew you were amazing, obviously…”

Celestia looked at her with a wry smile.

“But it just made me wonder about something.”

“Mhm?”

“So. I saw you fight off a whole pack of huge wolf monsters and barely take a scratch. And then, for all his stupid bravado, Cretes clearly didn’t want to fight you. And then you wiped the floor with a whole swarm of those mirror-pool things. I mean, you made it look easy! And then you beat up that crazy chimera practically single-hoofed, and those are just the things I know about. So, my question is...couldn’t you have beaten Nightmare Moon? And Discord? And Chrysalis?”

Celestia had stopped walking halfway into the series of questions, and right now she was looking like a filly caught with her hoof deep in the cookie jar.

“Ah. Aheh. Well…”

“You could! Equestria was never under any real threat at all, was it!?”

“Oh, well, I certainly wouldn’t say—“

“You never really...you never needed me, did you?”

Celestia blinked.

“Alright, I’m just going to cut that thought off right now.”

Twilight’s eyes snapped up at Celestia’s tone.

“Twilight, the fact that I had back-up plans does not diminish in the slightest what you have accomplished for yourself and for your people. I’ve ruled Equestria for a long, long time, and I’ve learned harsh lessons in doing so. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve missed things, like anypony would. And when that happened, I learned that you either plan for such things, or you allow some out-of-nowhere disaster to destroy everything you’ve worked for. My first battle with Nightmare Moon destroyed Equestria’s first capital. We leveled the entire city, Twilight. The Everfree is still recovering from that wound. Yes, I could have fought her. But instead, I sent you, and you resolved our conflict in a way I never could have! And yes, it is true that Luna and I could have faced down Discord again, but at what cost, Twilight? We can no longer wield the Elements of Harmony, not after…” She shook her head. “Discord is the single most powerful being in our world, and he thrives on conflict. Who else but you and your friends could have made him see the value of coexistence? As to Chrysalis, I…I owe you an apology for that, of course. She is the very Goddess of Envy, absolute mistress of deception, but even so, I should have seen through such a flimsy ruse. I should never have doubted you. And yes, perhaps I could have fought her. But think of what damage we might have done. Her, glutted on the true love a Princess, against me, in the very seat of my power. In a castle full of my dear friends, in one of the most populous cities in Equestria. A single stray shot could have been a disaster. And of course, Luna was still free. And we had you, and Cadance."

Celestia shook her head.

"But, for what it is worth, Chrysalis's attack was a fiasco all around. I underestimated her, and like a fool, lost to a sucker punch. The entire debacle galls me to this day. So you see..." Celestia turned a chagrined smile to Twilight. "I am not invincible."

“Oh.”

“That said, violence is one the things I am best at. The older I become, though, the more I see that it is a flawed solution. It begets only more of itself. So yes, Twilight, I needed you. I will always need you, and ponies like you, to show an old nag a better way. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” said Twilight with a faux-exasperated sigh. “Fine. I had a really good mope planned around that one, and you just had to ruin it.”

Celestia laughed. “I’ll try to be more considerate of your feelings in the future."

On a lark, Twilight snuck her lips up to Celestia’s for a little peck of a kiss, just real quick. She was trying it out. Seeing how this whole ‘romance with Celestia’ thing might work. She practically had to jump to reach her. They were going to have figure something out on that. A step ladder or something.

Ben shrieked a warning.

“Oh, come on!!”

~~~

Luna strolled down the road. She was in thick bog-land just now, the branches of silvery trees hanging heavy with moss and vines. She was familiar with the area, and had made certain her troop of ponies were as well. They were as well prepared as anypony who hadn’t actually been to Tartarus could be. It was quiet here. Suspiciously so…

“Incoming!”

Quick March came down hard and fast a few feet away. Luna looked to him, expectant.

“Big,” he said, catching his breath. “A troll, I think, or a giant. Headed right this way, fast. Some other things behind it, didn’t see what. Smaller.”

“Lovely,” purred Luna, with every indication that she did, in fact, feel that this was a lovely development. “TO THE AIR, SOLDIERS! I’ll see to this!” She could already feel the monster’s heavy tread, hear it crashing through the brush.

“You’re certain you wish to fight it alone, m’lady?” March whispered.

She gave him a Look.

“Yes, Princess.” He took off without another word, only stopping after he was well above the tree-line.

Luna chose not to be insulted by his patronizing concern. He’d been in the air while she’d fought the chimera, and so had never really seen her at play. He would learn today.

The Princess stretched her wings, the many little knives of her fanciful weapon shivering and singing softly in anticipation.

It was an admittedly strange weapon, Luna’s. But she was an admittedly strange pony, so it suited her. She (the weapon had always felt very feminine to Luna) consisted of an indefinite number of whimsically ornate blades, hovering placidly above the pony’s wings. They followed the flow of Luna’s feathers, forming a second, lethally sharp set of wings over the first. The blades could be thrown one at a time or all at once, launched in one direction or many or in fantastically complex patterns. The sword’s name was Thousand Glittering Shards in the Darkest of Nights. Grandiose, perhaps, but such was her way. Luna usually just thought of her as Shard.

Many Goddesses had such things, weapons forged in the wellspring of their soul and entirely unique to the being who birthed them, but Luna’s was more than a mere tool of destruction. Shard was art. She was speed and precision and deadly, deceptive, beauty. Luna had never seen another quite like Shard, and was fairly certain she never would. She sighed fondly as she considered her weapon. Shard returned her affection, gently stroking Luna’s cheek with one of the few parts of herself that wasn’t a razor’s edge.

The racket of the troll-or-giant’s clumsy, violent approach grew louder. Luna didn’t bother to hide. Rather, she posed dramatically.

The huge, blundering thing burst through the treeline. It staggered to a halt, surprised to suddenly find itself in the open terrain of the road and confronted by a single, lone, unshaken pony.

It was a big one! A swamp troll, covered in moss and bark and off-color mushrooms. A miasma of toxic spores followed it. Typical. A swamp troll’s very existence was a threat to nearly everything around it. The condition was actually curable, but the nasty beasts mostly preferred to keep things as they were. That last part was why they’d been banished to Tartarus.

Luna slipped a diaphanous mask up from within her armor and placed it over her muzzle. To all outward appearances, said armor was merely a sleek, smooth, and gossamer thin robe, if a truly fabulous one. It poured, almost liquid, over Luna in jealously form-fitting folds of black, violet and shimmering silver, and let her tail and mane flow free unless she chose to raise its hood. t seemed almost flimsy, but Aurora’s Unbroken Veil was forged of the same soul-stuff as Shard, and was vastly tougher than she seemed.

Luna coiled up, wings and weapon high.

The troll's eyes darted, if you could call such a ponderous movement darting, from Luna, to Shard, to the trail behind it. Then it turned and thundered off up the road, directly away from her.

Luna's wings wilted back to rest.

“Hmph,” she pouted. Shard and Aurora both sulked in sympathy.

What a damned disappointment

~~~

Their latest attacker, which turned out to be one of those clouds of some unidentifiable color that Twilight had seen earlier, was dispatched with almost comical ease by the mighty wings of the Princesses. It turned out that even the most carnivorous of living, lightning-filled clouds could be dispersed by a bit of magically augmented wind. It probably would have been terrifying if their party hadn’t been blessed with two especially magical winged ponies, but as it stood, the whole encounter just ended up seeming kind of silly. Honestly. A cloud? Twilight watched as it reassembled itself a good ways off and then, looking somewhat embarrassed, slunk off into the distance.

“Well then,” said Celestia, who was looking rather pleased with herself. “What were we talking about?”

“Nothing important,” said Twilight, settling back in under Celestia’s wing. “Everypony ready?”

Ben and Bait signaled that they were, and so off they went.

They were attacked twice more before reaching ground level. The first assault came in the form of a boulder, which smashed into the ground before them as they rounded one of the many bends of this nonsense road on this absurd mountain. Twilight had a shield up before it hit, and it missed by a wide margin, but that didn't make the attack any less frightening. Chunks of stony shrapnel the size of her head bounced off Twilight’s barrier. It held, but only just. She didn't think she could handle a direct hit.

Twilight followed the trajectory of the throw back to a huge, thoroughly non-equine figure. It was lifting another boulder already, and, as she stared, she saw that it had a bandanna over its forehead, covering a single, enormous eye. Or at least, what was left of one. A cyclops! She’d read of them, but had always assumed they looked like ponies…

It turned one ugly, rounded ear toward them, listening for their steps as it lined up another shot.

“Polyphemus!” bellowed Celestia. “Stop this idiocy! Or shall I take more than your eye this time!?”

The cyclops jumped in surprise, nearly dropping his stone.

“P-Princess Celestia?” he rumbled in a voice so deep Twilight felt it more than heard.

“Aye! Why do you attack me?”

“I-I am—” Polyphemus stuttered, swallowing hard. “I am to guard this road from interlopers.” He passed the stone from one massive hand to the other, clearly afraid.

“Guard this road...?” Celestia mumbled to herself. There was a long pause before she said more. Twilight looked up at her. She was shifting from one hoof to the other, nervous.

“Is this Mt. Etna, Polyphemus?”

“Eh, yes, Princess.”

“Shit!” It came out in a harsh whisper. She continued as if she’d said nothing. “We are descending the road, Polyphemus. We are leaving, not trying to invade! Stand aside!”

“Err…I, uh, er,”

It sounded to Twilight like Polyphemus might not be the fastest of thinkers.

“Move or fight, but make a decision!”

“Uh, yes, your majesty.” The cyclops stood aside.

“Good! Very wise.” Celestia was already trotting forward, dragging Twilight with her. “And put that down!”

Polyphemus hurried to drop his boulder back onto a pile of similar stones.

Twilight shamelessly stared at him as they went. He stood rigid and sweating. He was a bit like the centaur she’d met before, but with only two legs. He had the kind of muscle that looked almost like fat, but was far stronger than the more obviously bulging thews that some ponies were so into. He looked like he could smash a pony to paste…

She looked at Celestia. The older Princess was watching the road, face hard. It was a while before Twilight asked the obvious questions.

“So…”

“He’s a pony-eating monster,” Celestia said. “He attacked us once, taking several ponies hostage, so Luna tricked him, putting out his eye. We threw him here afterwards. It seems someone has set him to guard this place since then.”

“Okay, right. You seemed, um, upset. About this being Mt. Etna?”

“Typhon is held under this place. If he wakes, and escapes…” Celestia took a long, deep breath. “Well, the prison is very thorough. He almost never actually manages to get free.” She smiled, and it managed to be pretty reassuring. “We’ll deal with that if it comes, I suppose. But for now, let’s get as far away from here as we can.”

They did so. The last attack they suffered before reaching ground level was such a joke that it barely even bore mentioning. It was a small flock of harpies, flying things that looked vaguely like ponies, but had wings in place of forelegs and claws where there should have been rear hooves. And sharp teeth, too, but those hardly mattered. A few warning bolts of magic and little blast of mystically infused wind sent them away shrieking.

And so, despite it all, the troupe made good time down the mountain. Between the efforts of the two Princesses, nothing had died and nopony was injured. They’d all even had a good laugh about that last one. Twilight had to admit it: once you accepted that nearly everything out there was literally trying to kill you, this little misadventure was actually getting to be kind of fun. But then, maybe she was just high on love. Happened to the best of ponies. Or it could be the exhaustion. One of those things.

~~~

But wait, what was this? Something else was stomping through the bog, close on the troll’s heels. Ah, yes, March had said something about that, hadn’t he? Something was chasing the troll, then? Not a lot of creatures could do that, what with the trail of poison and all. Luna waited, intrigued.

It wasn’t another minute before the pursuers stumbled onto the road. They acted much as the troll had, heads whipping about in surprise at the change of terrain, stopping when they saw the pony sitting in the middle of things.

Trogolodytes! Luna thumped herself lightly on the forehead for not guessing it sooner. Of course!

Trogolodytes were one of the few creatures immune to the fungal toxins of swamp trolls. The huge, hulking, lizard-like beasts conversed briefly amongst themselves before doing exactly what Luna had known they’d do. But still, she made a token effort at giving them the benefit of the doubt.

“Can I help you, sirs?” she asked, in her friendliest voice. She spoke their language, that of monsters and other predatory critters.

Simple creatures, the trogs. Smart enough to use clubs and apply them to the skulls of edible creatures, but their prowess didn’t usually go much beyond that. A few had proven willing to try another way of life, but these before her were clearly not so intellectually adventurous.

“No?”

The trogolodytes stalked forward, spreading out to surround her, saying nothing.

Luna’s lips sharpened into a shining crescent.

“Lovely.”

~~~

The next ‘attack’ came a ways after they’d finally hit the base of the mountain. They were back in the woods, taking turns chatting pleasantly with Bait about what he could expect when he got to Equestria. Twilight couldn’t help but notice a little sashay in Celestia’s walk that she’d never seen before. Almost a strut. It seemed that she, too, was enjoying herself.

“There’s really food all the time? Whenever you want!?”

“Oh, certainly. I put a great deal of emphasis on agriculture. We ponies are entirely vegetarian, of course, but there are griffon and minotaur communities where I’m sure you will feel right at home, Bait. They have a rather wider range of cuisine than my little ponies.”

“Wait.” The wight’s face screwed up in confusion. “You have minotaurs? Are yours nice, like ponies?”

“Oh, well. Nice is a relative term, I suppose,” said Celestia. “But yes, they’re nice enough.”

“Huh,” was all Bait said, and when he didn’t follow up with any more questions, a companionable silence fell over the party.

Twilight didn’t notice how nervous he’d suddenly become until he whispered, barely loud enough to be heard.

“I think something’s following us. Don’t look! Just pretend you don’t know.”

A little chill shot through Twilight. She opened her mouth to say something, but wasn’t sure what to do. Celestia looked at her.

“Is something wrong?”

Okay. She had to say something, but nothing that made it obvious that she knew she was being followed. She'd read some spy novels. She could do this.

Twilight feigned a stumble.

“Ow! Ah, darn it! I think I got a pebble stuck in my hoof. Um, Princess? Can you help me get it out?”

Celestia blinked in confusion, but gamely agreed. Twilight held a hoof up to her, and as Celestia carefully checked it over, she scooted in close and whispered,

“Bait thinks we’re being followed.”

Not exactly super-spy material, but it'd do.

“Ah! I’ve got it. Just a little splinter, is all.” Celelstia lit Twilight’s hoof up in magic and pretended to pull something out, tossing it to the side. “Is that better?”

Twilight nodded.

“Good. And speaking of food, is anyone hungry?”

“Yeah!” shot out Bait, his hunger outweighing any fear of attack, apparently. Or maybe he knew something Twilight didn’t?

“Very good. I do believe I know this stretch of woods, and I seem to recall that there are plenty of edible things around, provided one knows where to look. Rest your hoof and watch Bait while I go find us something, won’t you Twilight?”

“Um. Certainly, Princess. Of course. I’d be happy to.”

“Wonderful! I’ll be right back! I’ll draw them off. Make noise if you see anything.” Those last bits were muttered, barely audible.

Twilight caught herself before she said anything in response, instead just waving to Celestia’s rapidly fading form, marveling at how easily Celestia had switched from polite conversation to devious subterfuge. Had she always been good at that?

Twilight looked to Bait. He smiled up at her, but it was clearly a little strained. She wasn’t sure she understood the wisdom of splitting up like this. Shouldn’t they just call out their stalker? They hadn’t lost a fight yet, after all.

Twilight sat at the edge of the road and tried to look casual. She was concerned that she might not be very good at it. She felt a little tap on her withers.

Ben looked up at her from his perch on Bait’s shoulder. He gave her a one-legged salute. She took that to mean that he, too, was on watch. Of course he was. Twilight felt a little better knowing that. She looked up one side of the road, and then the other. They could handle this, whatever it was. Nothing could sneak up on all three of them.

Time passed. Twilight looked around again, trying not to fidget. She’d seen these trees before, hadn’t she? Right, back when she and Celestia had first gotten here. In fact…

“Hey, Ben,” she said. The spider turned to focus his biggest eye on her. “Doesn’t this look just like the place wh—“

“HI!”

A chorus of surprised screams spouted from the little assembly at the unexpected introduction. Heart pounding, Twilight shoved Bait behind her and whipped around to face the intruder.

“Haha! Sorry! I didn’t meant to sneak up on you! I’m Phix! Hi!”

The creature put out a single, huge, furry paw. Twilight stared from it to the creature’s face, back to the paw.

“Oh! Sorry! Do ponies not shake anymore? I forgot.” She giggled. “I’m Phix! What’s your name?”

A sphinx. She was talking to a sphinx! Leonine in everything from the shoulders down, except for the large, feathered wings, the girl graced Twilight with a big, toothy smile. Toothy and sharp. Twilight backed up another step, feeling Ben skitter up from Bait and onto her shoulder.

“I-I’m Twilight Sparkle.” She didn’t put a hoof forward.

“Oh, that’s a great name! I always loved pony names.” Phix inched eagerly forward. “So descriptive! Where’re you from, Sparkle? Or is it Twilight?”

“Twilight, and—”

"Wait!” Phix raised one big paw. “Lemme guess! You’re from…” Her face, which was more like a stylized, feminine version of the centaur’s or the cyclops’s than any kind of face Twilight had ever seen before, scrunched up in deep thought. She placed one viciously sharp retractable claw on her chin, tapping it slowly.

Phix had huge eyes, radiantly blue and rimmed in stark black. The make-up, if that was what it was, made her eyes look even bigger than they were. Her ears were long and tasseled at the ends, and her hair, which seemed more a headdress than proper locks, fell in exotic stripes of blue and white. It rather fetchingly framed her face, and led down her neck and over her chest to a pair of what Twilight could only guess must be teats. What a bizarre place to have those…

“Equestria! Right!?”

Her voice was sweet and bubbly. A bit like Pinkie Pie’s, actually. Twilight would have thought she was really quite pretty, if not for the bottomless hunger in her eyes.

“I, um. Yes?”

“I knew it! You’re new here, huh?”

Twilight stepped back again as Phix darted forward.

“I am.”

Where was Celestia? They’d made noise!

“Annnnnnd,” Phix said in a conspiratorial whisper, though Twilight was nearly ten feet away from her by now. “I bet you came by accident!”

“I…yes.”

Twilight noticed she hadn’t asked about Bait or Ben, and that worried her. Did Phix not see them as a threat? What was she after? Twilight pushed the wight further back.

“And you’re trying to get home!”

“Yyyyyyyyyes?”Twilight drew it out, just trying to buy a few extra seconds.

“Great! I can totally help with that!”

“That’s-wait. You can?”

A muffled boom sounded from the direction Celestia had walked off in. All heads snapped toward it.

“Totally!” Phix picked the conversation right back up as if nothing had happened. “But there’s kind of trick to it, okay?” Was there the slightest bit of strain in her smile now?

“I, uh, alright. What trick is that?”

Yup. Just keep her talking. Sphinxes were supposed to be wizards without peer, but Twilight had no real idea of what they could do. The old stories were a bit short on practical information.

“You have to answer a riddle.” Phix sat on her haunches and twiddled the fingers of her paws. “I know, I know, it sounds weird. But it’s just one of those things. Ready?”

“Wait! No! Like, we have to have a riddle contest? Or I have just have to solve the one you ask? Also, why?”

Twilight saw a shadow of vexation cross the sphinx’s face.

“I, look, it’s a sphinx thing. You know what sphinxes are, right? And yes, since you asked, I guess it has to be a ‘contest.’ ” She made air quotes with her paws, clearly annoyed. “I ask one and then you ask one, and whoever can’t answer first loses.”

“What happens if I win?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Phix, perking up. “Then I help you find your way home! Or ya know, whatever else you…” The rest of the sentence was lost in an incomprehensible mumble.

Ah. It was one of those. Lots of stories about mythological, or at least, supposedly mythological creatures went like that. The monster was big and scary and dangerous, but it had some obscure weakness that the plucky heroine could exploit. Okay, she could work with that.

“Whatever else I might demand of you? Was that it?”

Phix’s claws dug into the dirt, and Twilight felt her confidence slip. She tried not to let it show.

“And if I lose?”

“Oh, you know, it’s no big deal if you can’t beat me,” Phix said, looking up with the sweetest, most innocent, most devilish smile Twilight had ever seen. “I’ll make sure I give you an easy one. We’ll work it out if you don’t get it.”

“I…see. Well, ah, what if I just, um, don’t play?”

Phix blinked her pretty eyes, taken aback. Irritation crept back into her face.

“Why wouldn’t you? I’m trying to help you, Twilight. I just need you to do this one little thing! So I can help you get home!”

That might have been more convincing if she hadn’t been stalking forward as she’d said it.

Twilight opened her mouth to speak when a living fireball plowed through the forest between them, smashing through tree after tree after tree until finally bouncing off the ground and coming to a splintering halt halfway inside another trunk. All parties leapt away from the explosion.

Through the crackling of burning bark and sap, Twilight heard a singular grumbling moan.

“Oowwwwwwwww…” said the burning thing.

“Well, if it isn’t little Phix.” Twilight’s head whipped in wide-eyed recognition of the voice, though it lacked any of the softness she was so used to hearing from it. Celestia’s tones were all iron and fire just now. “Still playing the riddle game, are we? Well, I’ve one for you, if you like.”

“Oh, aheh, uh, h-hello Celestia.” Phix was backing rapidly away from both Twilight and the smoldering wreck of the tree. “I was just—“

“I’ll eat wood and cloth and flesh alike, and all without a mouth.” She said it sing-song, like she was reciting a poem. “Stone may hold me, for a time, but only water shuts me out. What am I? It doesn’t quite rhyme, I know. My apologies.” Her grin would have fit better on a shark.

Phix’s eyes kept jumping from Celestia to the burning figure just now extracting itself from the tree.

“Oh, do you not want to play today, dear? Or do you just need a hint? Well, your little friend there is covered in the answer, and if you don’t get away from Twilight, you will be too. Does that help?”

Phix bowed profusely toward Celestia, still inching away. “Of course, Princess. I mean, it’s fire, right? Of course it is. I’m already gone! I was never even here!” She glared sharply at the other creature. “Come on!” she hissed at it.

As it staggered to its feet, Twilight recognized the thing as a crocodile, more or less. It had a headdress of its own, but wore armor in place of make-up, and it walked with an odd, bipedal stride. As the pair stumbled off into the woods, she heard Phix berate the creature.

“I gave you one damned job, Sobek! All you had to do was keep Celestia distracted while I tricked the other one into helping us get out of here! You’re supposed to be invincible!”

“She’s real mean, though,” came the rumbling, basso response. “And…” Sobek patted out the fires that still blazed on his scales. He didn’t seem especially bothered by them, even if he did keep stumbling. “Burny.”

“Ugh! I almost had her! Next time, just try to…”

The voices were rapidly lost to the foliage, so Twilight turned to Celestia and asked,

“Okay. What?

Celestia smiled, all that ominous malice from moments ago dropping easily away. She was just kind, nice Celestia again. She lifted a wing, inviting Twilight to join her as they stepped back onto the road and away from this place. Twilight did. Bait hopped to follow.

“Those two idiots,” she said, “were Phix, a sphinx, and Sobek, child of Sobek, who was also a child of Sobek. Not terribly creative with names, the Sobeks. Or much of anything else, I’m afraid. Both are godlings from ancient Northern Zebrica.”

Well, maybe not quite kind and nice just now, but still.

“Oh. Wow. Alright. What was with the riddle thing?”

“Ah, yes. Sphinx have sort of a magical compulsion regarding riddles. They’ll ask you one, and if you can’t answer, they can force any single request from you. Usually that request is ‘sit still while I eat you.’ I suppose you can see why we banished them?”

“Hrmm. Yeah. It sounded like she wanted something else, though. I mean, I was pretty sure she would have eaten me, but…”

“She said she wanted to get out of here, right?” murmured Bait. “I bet she wanted to use you to get to Equestria.”

Twilight looked down at him, questioning.

“There’s a, I dunno, a legend. If you can find somebody from outside Tartarus and follow them for a while, they can lead you to where they came from. Everybody always said it was stupid though. I don’t think it’s true.”

“Ahh, very good, Bait, thank you,” said Celestia. “Yes, I suppose that fits.”

“Does it work?” asked Twilight.

“Not quite. Tartarus has means to prevent such things, I believe. But still, it makes sense that something would try it. That’s actually unusually clever for Phix. I wonder who gave her the idea.”

“Huh. I read that sphinx were really powerful, and supposedly wise. Is that just a myth then?”

“Oh, they’re powerful, certainly. Nothing you couldn’t handle, I’d wager, but I think ponies just sort of assumed they were wise because of the riddles.”

Twilight didn’t deny herself a bit of pride at Celestia’s vote of confidence.

“Ok, so what was this ‘Sobek’s’ deal?”

“Not much to say about him, really. His grandfather was the God of crocodiles, and of a huge, deadly, bountiful river. Not the most clever of gods, but he had the traits of his river in spades. His children have them too, to a lesser extent.”

“No match for you though, huh?”

Celestia laughed.

“The day I can’t handle some third generation godling, I’ll give up my crown.”

Nopony said anything for a little while after that, but something in the way Celestia had phrased that brought up a question that had long plagued Twilight.

“Hey, uh, can I ask you something about that?”

“You can ask me anything you want, Twilight.”

“You keep using that word. God. Or, godling. And, you said something before about being 'lessened' here. What, um, what exactly is a God? And a Princess? Or, alicorn? And what are you here, if not that?”

“Ah,” said Celestia. She looked at Twilight, watching her levelly. “That’s a big question, Twilight, and I hope I won’t disappoint you when I don’t have all the answers you want. But, to the first, I would say a Goddess is, hrm, an idea. A concept, but made flesh. An incarnation of some aspect, or several aspects in most cases, of the world. She both defines them and is defined by them, if that makes sense.”

“Not really, but okay.”

Celestia smiled with a bit of mischief at that. “I know. I’m sorry, but not all of us have a mind as sharp as yours. We don’t think, we do. We are. Put yourself to the task, and I imagine your understanding of us will soon eclipse my own.”

A mind as sharp as mine? But you taught me everything I know…Twilight almost protested, but by the time she’d opened her mouth, Celestia was already moving on.

“And a Princess, or alicorn, if you prefer, is basically just another word for Goddess. We decided to tone down our own titles after a while, Luna and I, when it became clear that we weren’t quite as infallible as ponies liked to believe. No better than any other pony really. Just…bigger, in ways, and longer lived. The name wasn’t even our idea, actually. Our ponies gifted it to us when they asked that we lead them. As to what I am now, well, I suppose that requires some explanation about what I am in Equestria.”

Yes, it decidedly did.

“I am the Sun. Literally, I am the great ball of endless fire that lights our world. And I am also the entire nation of Equestria. That part of myself I share with Luna, who is also literally that magnificent gem in the sky, the Moon, and the pony you once saved from her own Nightmare. And aside from that, I am also the Celestia you have always known, a pony. My existence is…complicated?” She shrugged apologetically. “Luna’s is even more so. You might ask her about it, when you get home.”

Twilight most certainly would.

“Okay, but, I mean,” Twilight scratched her head, tail twitching. “How does that work? Does the Sun actually have thoughts? A life? And, if you are Equestria, do you, I, er…”

“I know,” said Celestia, raising a placating hoof. "If you can believe it, I was once just as confused by ponies as you are by me. The idea of being contained entirely in a single body was baffling. I don’t know of any better way to explain what I am. The Sun does think, in his fashion, and—"

“His?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, I’ve always thought of Sol, that’s his name, you'll find we have lots of names...Anyway, I’ve always thought of him as rather masculine. Can’t quite say why.”

“Huh.”

Celestia shrugged, amused. “Equestria also makes her opinions and desires known, though both of them tend to think in a so-big-it’s-maddeningly-vague sort way. I, Celestia the pony, give them a way to experience life on Earth, and they provide me with the perspective and stability to do it well, and to provide rulership to our people. So if I seem a bit less, eh, stable, than usual, that would be why. I’m so used to having them watching over me, pointing out things that I might not consider, keeping me balanced, that I forget how to handle living without them. It’s frightening, being so very alone...”

Ben chittered reassuringly. Somehow. Celestia looked down and smiled softly at him, and at everypony else.

“You’re right, of course. I can hardly call myself lonely while I'm surrounded by friends. And surely things were worse for all of you, stuck in this place, than for myself. Thank you, Ben.”

Celestia seemed to stand a little taller after that.

“Identity issues aside, there is one interesting benefit of being only part of a whole that I have been remiss in not mentioning before, Twilight. If I should happen to die here, the rest of me will carry on, and in time a new Celestia, the pony that you’ve known for years, will come to be. It doesn’t even take very long anymore, maybe only a day or so. All I’ll lose is the memory of what happened while I was away. ‘Tis true and everlasting immortality.” She gestured grandly with her free wing. “Until the Sun explodes, of course. But that’s billions of years away yet.”

Twilight stared at her, jaw slightly ajar.

“Ah, sorry. I usually don’t mention that part. I suppose I just thought you should know.” She smiled sheepishly. “But that bit about me coming back is the important thing, Twilight. If we encounter something I can’t handle, I want you to run, and don’t worry one bit about me. I’ll be fine, and I would happily throw away a few unpleasant memories to see you home safe. The same goes for you two.” She turned an eye to Bait and Ben. “Understood?”

Bait, knowing an order when he heard one, mumbled an affirmative immediately. Ben saluted acknowledgment. Twilight stalled.

“Have you…you’ve died before? How many times?”

“Mm, hard to say exactly. I can only guess by the gaps in my recollection, but, well… Enough times to know how it works, I suppose. Maybe a dozen. Could be more. I’ve survived more trips to Tartarus than I’ve lost, I’m fairly certain. But I need you to tell me you’ll run when I give the word, Twilight.”

“I’ll…”

Run, and let you die? Flee, while you fight to save me?

“If it comes to that,” she declared, face set. “I’ll use my judgement.”

Celestia paused. The moment held, tense.

She blew out a breath, sliding into an easy, if somewhat harried, grin.

“You always were a quick study, Twilight. Very well. But please, don’t throw away your life for mine. That’s all I ask.”

“Right! Okay. So, um…”

Why didn’t I just say yes!? Why did I make a thing of it? She knew why: she wasn’t going to abandon anypony to this place. She was actually a little indignant that Celestia had even asked, after all that talk from before about trusting her to be able to handle this. And besides, she wouldn’t give Tartarus the satisfaction of killing anypony, especially not for her sake. Heart pumping, face burning, Twilight grasped at a stray thought, just to keep things moving.

“Am I still normal, then? Er, I mean, if Goddeses are all that,” Twilight made a vague wave with one hoof, “stuff, then what am I now? An idea? I don’t feel any different than before I was a Princess, really.”

“I have pondered that for some time now, Twilight. I have seen very few ascensions such as yours, even in my own many years. I think things may be going the other way now. Ideas are no longer manifesting, like before, but empowering ponies who embody them already. You are, to put it one way, exactly what you are, Twilight.”

Twilight looked up, slightly miffed at the flagrant non-answer.

“I suppose what I mean to say, dear,” said Celestia, raising a conciliatory hoof, “is that I don’t know. You are becoming something more than most, but in the end, you will be the only one who can answer that question. You’re a Princess. You are friendship. You are the element of magic. You are many things, just like anypony is. Just in a somewhat more literal way.”

“Okay, but, I mean, am I immortal now? I don’t have anything like a Sun or a Moon or whatever. If I die, will I just come back?”

“I suppose…that’s up to you, Twilight.”

Twilight's mind actually went silent for once as she tried to digest that one.

“What?”

“Ages ago,” Celestia began, looking up into nothing. “I was only the Sun. I was invited to come down to Earth, and in order to be something more than what I already was, new selves had to be made. You began as a pony, but perhaps a new astral body will be born for you. Of you. It’s happened before. In days long past, there was a God named Garuda. He is no longer with us as the gryphon he once was, but his constellation lives on. Perhaps someday he will return. I suspect the decision will come upon you, at some point. To become something other than mortal. Live forever, like Luna and I, to watch all your ponies live and grow and die around you, or to join them, and be a brief, beautiful spark in that eternal cycle. I think you will know when the time comes. But I can only guess.”

There was long, wordless silence. They kept walking, but Twilight didn’t even notice.

“Luna and I are barren, you know.”

Twilight looked up.

“What?”

Celestia shrugged, eyes distant. “We’ve borne no children. We are only sisters in that we say we are. We’ve adopted a time or two, but we have no true family. We made that decision, I think. It is hard to remember, but I’m sure we chose to be outside the circle of life. We don’t die, and we don’t make life. Not the way you know of, anyway. Only Gaia could…well, anyway.”

Gaia again. Who was she?

“But wait, Cadance and Shiny…” Cadance was a princess. An extremely pregnant one. “She’s mortal? She’s going to die someday?” Twilight’s words held an edge she hadn’t meant to put into them.

“I imagine so.”

“Oh.”

So that was it, then. A choice. Immortality or children. Watch all those lives end from a distance, or go with them.

Twilight’s eyes wandered. Celestia watched her, full of concern and sympathy and something else unreadable. Bait looked up from her other side. His gaze held neither judgement nor question. Just something akin to awe. Ben was turned away, diplomatically ignoring the entire conversation. What did they think of all this? That she was some kind of, what? Friendship deity? What would her friends think? What would they say, if she tried to explain this? Would they bow before her? Laugh, and pass the cider? What was she supposed to do with all this information?

Nothing, she declared. Not now. Not today. It was too much. Too big, too heavy, all this Goddess stuff. Yeesh. No wonder Celestia never talked about it. Twilight would just put that monumental, life-determining decision on the back-burner for now. Let it simmer a bit.

For the first time since she’d gotten here, Twilight actually wished something would happen, just to get her mind on something else. That wish, foolish as it was, was granted.

~~~

Luna looked back, checking the mood of her ponies. Her nyxies knew her ways, but she could never be certain how pegasi would deal with her. They seemed to be taking everything rather well, after her little speech. Four of the squad were with her on the ground, ears and eyes alert, watching. The other three were in the air, circling. Every few minutes they came to ground to switch out with other members of the team and report any sign of the wayward Princesses they searched for.

Wait.

Four on the ground…Three in the air…

She’d only brought six. She’d been quite adamant that no more than that should risk themselves, however willing the rest might be. Luna looked back once more, did another quick count, and fought to contain her glee.

They’d attracted a changeling! Or maybe a bewilderbeast. Some kind of fey, certainly. Oh, how she loved the fey!

“AIR TEAM! TO GROUND!” she bellowed.

Her ponies obeyed, and within seconds had hit the earth.

“Anything of note, Sidewinder?”

“We saw a bit of a commotion on the mountain you mentioned before, your majesty,” replied Sidewinder, her head dipping into a quick bow. “A small group walking down the road there were attacked by something. The creature was thrown off, and the ponies were moving on before we lost them. He can’t be certain, but Longshot thinks there may have been a white mare involved.”

“Excellent! Few creatures have eyes sharper than a pegasus pony, and fewer still sharper than his. Commend him for me.” Luna had spoken loud enough to be sure he’d heard that. A little extra praise could go a long way in these situations. “You have my thanks, Sidewinder. Send Shine to me, won’t you? I would speak with him.”

“Of course, your Grace.”

The nyxie trotted off to do her work. Luna had always liked Sidewinder, and not just because she was cute. Handsome might be a better word, for features as strong as hers. No matter. A fine soldier, that one. And she’d brought good news! Celestia was (probably) alive! She was currently descending Mount Etna, which did not bode well, but still. Luna fought the urge to simply leap up and fly straight to the mountain prison. Tartarus didn’t work that way. It wanted a story, full of adversity and conflict, and such minor inconveniences as ‘time-space continuity’ or ‘simple, basic, logic’ wouldn’t stop it from getting one. Luna was happy to oblige, anyway. Starting with this recently discovered invader…

She turned to her squad.

“Good news, my ponies! Thanks to the efforts of you, my noble retinue, we have a goal! We head to Mount Etna! But for now, we shall camp!” She plopped herself decisively on the ground, not bothering to explain further. Her ponies had no real idea of what Mt. Etna was, or what in blazes she was doing, but that didn’t matter. They had a mission, and orders. That was what was important.

She heard a patter of hooves come up beside her.

“Your majesty,” said Silver Shine. “You wished to speak with me.” His eyes held unspoken questions, but he didn’t voice them. As was proper.

“Quite so, Shine. Sit down.” She patted the dirt next to her with a hoof. He obeyed, warily, as the rest of the squad milled about. They had no proper camp equipment, but they did what they could.

“May…May I ask what this is about, my Princess?” He spoke quietly, so that none of the ponies around might hear.

Luna laughed. “Of course, soldier. (We have an interloper) Ask anything you wish.”

Silver Shine blinked, but caught up rapidly. Luna had a trick of saying two things at once, speaking so that some listeners heard one thing, while the rest heard something entirely different. Some kind of Royal trickery. She’d warned him about it, and had even made him experience it few times, just in case of a situation like this. It still clearly unnerved him, but to his credit, he played along.

“Are there any special preparations we should take for this camp, Highness?”

“Oh, nothing in particular (gather your ponies, only the ones you specifically recognize), but I wouldn’t mind a pot of tea (and keep them close. Don’t let on. Give me an excuse to leave on my own). Did we bring any firewood, perchance?” Luna smiled her ditziest smile.

“Ah, no. Perhaps you could…go gather some? M’lady?” He shifted from one hoof to another, obviously uncomfortable even asking for such a ridiculous thing from a Princess. Good stallion, Sliver Shine.

“Why yes, that’s an excellent idea!” Luna exclaimed, quite certain the entire group would overhear. “We can’t have a proper camp without a fire, after all! I shall need an escort, of course! Bring me, hrm, let’s see…” Luna placed one hoof to her chin, keeping her eyes as clueless and vacant as possible. She counted the squad again. One, two, three over there, four, five, six, seven including Shine, and…eight. Wait, nine? Luna struggled not to giggle. They’d attracted a pack of fey! Even better! “That one!’ She pointed to one of the not-ponies. “And that fine looking fellow there! And his friend too. I’ll just head off this way and see what I can find. Send them after, won’t you?”

And with that, Luna hopped up and trotted off, alone, into the woods.

~~~

The thing about most of the fey was that they weren’t, strictly speaking, intelligent. They could be, under the right circumstances. Changelings were like that. They got about as smart as anything they copied. The fey as a rule had excellent magic, and plenty of animal cunning, and they were certainly devious enough. But when it came to complex thought, they were often hilariously lacking. Thusly, the bewilderbeasts that followed Luna were blissfully unburdened by worries regarding her nonsensical behavior as they trotted after her. Being handed a single, lone pony, when there were three of them? What could go wrong?

The bewilderbeast lacked the great strength of its shapeshifting cousin, the changeling. It couldn’t actually alter shape, couldn’t disguise itself as a specific creature and take its place. But in a way, that was a strength on its own. An individual could be found out. A changeling had to build its entire life around the deception, wary of discovery at all times. A bewilder, in contrast, could become the general idea of a creature. Not a particular pony, but a generic member of the race. Easily overlooked. A bewilderbeast could walk unnoticed through a crowd, picking off one victim after another and arousing no suspicion, entirely because it was a nobody. It worked best in large groups, of course, but even among crowds as small as this one, the bewilder’s mind-numbing magic could hide it long enough to drag down one or two ponies. And once the ranks were thinned, the pack could overwhelm the rest by virtue of sheer numbers.

Such was the reasoning of the alpha bewilderbeast that followed Luna into woods. It was slightly concerned that she had happened to pick only itself and its packmates for her escort, but that was no reason not to at least try for an easy meal. The rest of its pack was shadowing the little pony group, and would likely have taken out at least one by the time the alpha returned.

It signaled to one of its mates when the tall, blue mare stopped walking. The indicated bewilderbeast stepped up alongside her.

“M’lady,” it said, imitating the words of one of the ponies.

“Yes?” she asked, turning towards it, blinking those big, innocent eyes.

The alpha circled around, slinking into the mare’s blind spot. She wore a cloak of some material the alpha had never encountered before. Long, flowing, and glimmering with something that might be magic or might just be artfully placed metal, it clung tightly to everything but her wings, face and neck. If the alpha bewilder held such feelings for ponies, it might have found her get-up arousing. Alas.

Several bits of sharp metal floated above those wings, moving in time with their motions. The alpha didn’t know the significance of Luna’s armor and weapon, and assumed them to be simple adornments.

“Did you have a question…ah, I’m sorry. What was your name again?”

The bewilder in question froze. They weren’t good with specific answers, bewilderbeasts. Not until they’d spent enough time among their prey. While it stumbled through an attempt at naming itself, the alpha struck. It latched its teeth into the mare’s neck, stabbing its envenomed tongue as deep into her veins as it could. She cried out, stumbling back, but only quietly. The alpha dug in, piercing deeper, and dragged her to the ground. Within moments its poison set in, and the blue mare was silent.

Perfect. Easy. Just like it had known it would be.

Its mates jumped in to join in the feast, but the alpha wasn’t having it. It hissed at them, barring its teeth and sharpened tongue until they both backed off. Dominance struggles dealt with, the alpha settled in to drain the idiot pony who had so willingly wandered away from her herd. It jabbed its syringe-tongue in again and started to drink. But nothing came out. It drew its tongue back and looked at it. No blood. None at all. Not even where it had bitten the mare. The bewilder tilted its vaguely insectoid head, giving a querulous chirp. It tried again, thinking that perhaps it had simply missed the major vein. It could hear the mare’s heartbeat, she was still alive. Blood should be pouring out readily…but again, nothing filled its tongue. The alpha stepped away, its simple mind trying to comprehend this conundrum. It looked to its pack mates.

It looked for its packmates.

It chittered worriedly when it saw that they were gone. It hadn’t heard them leave. They’d made no indication they were going. Why would they leave easy food? It would have given them their share, after it had its own. It looked back at the mare and…

There was nothing. Just damp, empty swamp dirt.

The alpha stepped away, fear creeping into its limited consciousness. The footprints before it didn’t make sense. There were only three sets, one for itself, and two more for its mates.

It heard a noise behind it, the sound of something slumping to the ground. The alpha whipped around, baring its weapons again. It saw its packmates, bleeding from a dozen wounds each, unquestionably dead. The mare stood beside the corpses, grinning like a razor in the dark. Frigid darkness crawled out from around her. She said a single word, spoken, somehow, from just behind its ear, in a voice unlike any the alpha had ever heard.

“Boo!”

The alpha bolted, running with everything it had just to be away, away, away!

It didn’t get far.

~~~

*Cough!* “Ahem. Excuse me,” said Twilight. They’d been talking, Bait and Celestia and her, for a while now, and that was great, but an itch had been building in her throat and so Twilight had coughed. And then coughed some more. “Sorry,” she rasped. “Throat’s a bit dry, I guess. What were you saying, Princess?”

Celestia didn’t make a thing of it, just picked up where she’d left off. Something about how kind and friendly and accepting the ponies of Ponyville were, and how Bait would feel right at home with them. Not entirely true, as Twilight recalled. There would probably be a bit of screaming and running away, followed by an awkward ‘getting to know you’ phase, and maybe an adventure wherein he proved himself trustworthy, but after that, sure. Kind and friendly and accepting. Totally.

They walked on, chatting about nothing of particular importance, the woods clearing out a bit. Then, in the distance, only a few dozen yards away…the glittering waters of a river. Goddess, but she was thirsty! And the road led right to it! She picked up the pace without thinking.

“Ah! Perfect!” said Celestia, echoing Twilight’s own thoughts. “Take care though, Twilight. The water in Tartarus can be…strange. Drink slowly, and only from the very edge, alright? Are you familiar with the five rivers, Bait?”

“Yes, Princess,” he mumbled. It was obvious he still wasn’t entirely comfortable talking directly with Princess Celestia. Twilight usually acted as a sort of translator between them, but he was coming around.

Twilight hurried into the clearing. She was almost running by the time she’d finally made it to the water’s edge. She was just about to plunge her head into those clear, wonderful, delicious-looking waters when she finally noticed something that made her pause. A little thing, really. A twinge. She looked into her reflection.

Her reflection looked back.

She was crying. Sobbing in terrible grief. She reached a hoof up, she was trying to say something.

Twilight jumped away. There! There it was! That creeping, prickling sensation. It was much more subtle than before, but she knew it immediately. Tartarus! It was here! It was watching!

“Princess!?”

There was a muted *sploosh* of bursting water. Then a hard *snap*, as of a heavy door, crashing shut. Then a soft, burbling *schloop.* The sound of something being pulled under…

Even standing only a few yards away, Celestia barely heard anything at all.

“Yes, Twilight?”

The waters of the river gurgled, quietly satisfied.

“Twilight!?”

~~~

Silver Shine saw the spreading shadows first.

“Form up! We’re under attack! Sound off!”

The squad obeyed without question or delay. They circled up, leaving no angle unseen, announcing themselves in order, just to make sure they were all there.

“Sidewinder!”

“Backstep.”

“Longshot!”

“Soul a’ Wit!”

“Quick March!”

Shine made sure he recognized every voice before he sounded off himself.

“Silver Shine! Check your kits, foals! If it’s not us or Luna, drop a hammer on it.”

“Yessir!” they answered, loosening up their various bits of equipment.

Moments passed. Nopony called anything out, but sounds came in through the blanket of darkness. Brief, in-equine cries of fear, the sound of metal into meat, and then there was the laughter. They all recognized it as Luna’s, but that didn’t especially make it less frightening.

“Shine?” asked Longshot.

“Yeah?”

Neither pony looked at the other, both being too busy watching the nebulous forms out there in the unnatural dark.

“This is…normal? For the nightguard?”

Silver Shine barked a short laugh.

“The Nightguard doesn’t do normal, Longshot.”

Nopony spoke after that.

It was maybe a minute before the darkness began to fade, but it felt like a Goddess-damned eternity. The first figure anypony saw skulked toward them through the rapidly growing light. March called it out.

The figure stopped as all heads turned toward her.

“Well done, my ponies! I apologize for the lack of warning, but you handled my antics resplendently.” She bowed before the squad. It was awkward.

“Eh, thank you, Princess. May I ask what exactly your antics were?” asked Silver Shine.

“Certainly!” said Luna. She wore the biggest smile any of them had ever seen on her. Her weapon, the dozens of little blades that hovered above her wings, dripped. “But, ah…”

Luna did one more count of the squad. Then another. Her final tally, after three tries, was seven. She sighed, brandishing her knives.

They really were insidious little bastards, the bewilderbeasts.

“Anypony who doesn’t wish to see a bit of blood should avert her eyes.”

Author's Note:

I figured out how pictures work, so I'll be adding these in as I get them done. There's one of Briareos back in the Guardian chapter too, if you're interested.

Sphinxes show up in both Egyptian and Greek mythology, and Phix is sort of a hybrid of both. That's her actual mythological name, by the way. Apparently sphinxes are as bad at names as Sobeks.

Luna's ditziest smile might best be expressed by Princess Daphne, of Dragon Slayer fame.

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