• 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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Paranoia

Celestia threw herself to her hooves.

“Twilight, we need to go. Immediately.” Her voice was tight and terse. Without further explanation, Celestia leapt into the air, stopping to hover a scant few inches above the tree line.

“Um, okay.”

Twilight watched, somewhat taken aback. Celestia craned her neck one way and then another, like she was searching for something. She looked harried, almost angry. Had Twilight done something? She hopped up, somewhat less impressively, to join her mentor in the air. “What are we looking for? Can I—“

“No. Stay on the ground. No flying above the trees unless you absolutely have to.”

Twilight dropped back to the ground immediately, her obedience reflexive.

Celestia thumped to the ground. She clearly hadn’t liked whatever she’d seen up there. Before Twilight could even get a word out, Celestia looked at her and shook her head.

“No questions, not now. We need to move. This way.”

Twilight stood there, gawking open-mouthed as Celestia took off at a trot down the dirt path. That hadn't been a request. It was an order. Princess Celestia almost never gave orders. Twilight could barely remember the last time she'd heard it happen.

After a few loping steps down the path, Celestia stopped and turned back.

“Twilight. Let’s go. Now.”

She snapped her mouth shut and ran to catch up, fighting the cloying sense of guilt that spread through her guts. Princess Celestia only used that tone when she was upset, but why was she upset? Had Twilight done something? Had she messed up somehow? No, no, Celestia had a good reason for this, surely. It was that Artifice pony she was mad at, obviously. But…hadn’t she tried to say something earlier, when Twilight had jumped toward her? Was that it? Had Twilight ruined something by throwing herself in the way? Surely the Princess would say so if that were the case, right? Of course she would. She never held an honest mistake against anypony. But what if—

Twilight mentally screamed at herself. She hated this. She always did this. Princess Celestia had never been anything but wonderful, but the slightest indication of displeasure from her teacher would send Twilight into an ever-tightening spiral of panic and self-loathing. This was why she threw everything she had into any assignment the Princess gave her: she had to! She couldn’t live with herself if she did anything less. She knew Princess Celestia would still love her no matter what, but all the facts in the world couldn’t stop her from eating herself alive over some perceived misstep.

Twilight stared at the ground, trying to breathe, pretending she was a normal pony and not a total spazz. She understood, objectively, that her emotions regarding Celestia were rather...tangled. The Princess had been Twilight’s first major authority figure, other than her parents. Her first real friend and confidante, her greatest teacher. Hers had the only advice that Twilight had ever taken to heart without question. The fact that she was a perfect, beautiful, immortal god-Princess that Twilight had spent most of her life utterly, embarrassingly smitten with surely only made things worse. After years of hoping in vain for some sign that Celestia might feel the same. Alas, it never came. For the best probably. Twilight had eventually gotten over it, more or less. Sure, she still had a thing for leggy mares with multi-color manes, but really, who didn't? Anyway, that just made it all the more galling that after everything Twilight had done, after everything she had seen and been through, that Princess Celestia could still make her feel like an idiot without even trying. Twilight was a Princess too, darn it! She should be past this by now!

And the worst part? Twilight just knew Celestia would feel terrible if she found out. So they couldn’t even talk about it.

The pair jogged along in silence for a good while. Twilight’s funk eventually passed, mostly. Exercise was good for that, forced her to breathe. She looked up from the stretch of loose-packed red dirt she had been absently staring at and took in the scene around her. Forested, but she didn’t recognize it. The trees were a little odd. She couldn’t place the species of, well, of most of them. She’d have to get some more books on botany when she got home...Twilight watched her Princess for a bit. Celestia was agitated, on alert. Her eyes flicked about, ears twitching at every little sound.

She was watching for something. Hm.

Twilight followed Celestia's lead, watching, listening. There was strangely little to listen too. Why was it so quiet here? And what they hay kind of spell had that Artifice character hit them with?

Twilight’s internal detective went to work, kicking her internal critic out of the command chair. That was fine by Twilight. She hated her internal critic. She examined her surroundings as best she could while cantering through them. Something was off with the light in this place. This much canopy should have made it darker than this. She looked down. No shadows. Odd. Disconcerting, even. She looked up and…

There was no Sun here. Just a pitch-black sky. It did have one feature: A huge, slowly smoldering ring of fire surrounding a darkness somehow deeper than the perfect blackness around it. Twilight slowed to a shuffling halt.

“Um. Princess?”

“What is it Twilight?" Celestia turned back, still moving forward.

“Where are we?”

Celestia stopped. She turned and walked to Twilight. She put a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight, before I answer that, I want you sit down and try to remain calm, alright?”

Twilight did as she was bid, nodding for her mentor to continue. A tremor of worry ran through at her Princess’s tone.

“We are in Tartarus. But it’s going to be okay. I know how to—“

“REALLY!?”

~~~

Celestia backed up a bit in the face of Twilight’s sudden enthusiastic grin.

“I’ve always wanted to see Tartarus! This is so amazing! I almost got to see it when I took Cerberus back, but there wasn’t time!" Twilight looked around. "Oh, this is so cool!”

Celestia blinked. This was not the face of a pony who had just learned she was stuck in a prison full of the most monstrous and deadly creatures the ancient world had to offer. This was the face of a pony who thought she had just been thrust into a wonderful adventure with her friend and mentor.

Oh dear.

“There are so many places I want to see! Is there really a river that makes you forget things!? And one made of fire? And, and are there actually things with fifty heads? The um, hekatonkheires? Are those—”

Celestia held up a quieting hoof. Twilight didn’t know. It wasn’t her fault. Tartarus had been old before books were even invented, and she probably wouldn’t have believed half of what would have been written in them anyway. In a way, Twilight’s ignorance of how awful this place could be was an accomplishment, a testament to how much better life in Equestria was nowadays. In another way, it was a huge and potentially lethal problem. If Twilight treated this like some jaunt through the woods…

“Twilight Sparkle, I need to you listen to me very carefully.” She waited a moment for Twilight to get her thoughts in order. “I’m sorry, but this is not a field trip. We are in a very, very dangerous place. It is like nothing you’ve ever dealt with before, because everything, and I mean everything, in this place can and will hurt you if you give it the chance.”

Celestia watched as Twilight’s happy enthusiasm dissolved into confusion. She hated the necessity of it, but she had to get this through.

“You must remember that, always. I know you probably don’t understand what I’m saying, but please trust me on this. When I tell you to do something, it is extremely important that you do it. No questions, no discussion, just action. This place is…it’s evil. There’s no better word for it. And the most important thing of all right now is that I get you out of here. I promise I’ll explain everything after we get home.”

Celestia watched the war between habitual obedience and relentless curiosity as it raged across Twilight Sparkle’s face. Assaults were made and countered as she formed and then abandoned attempts at a response to Celestia’s words. It was another second or two before her former student stammered anything out.

“I…y-yes, Princess.”

Obedience wins then, thought Celestia. It honestly hadn't been the result she'd expected.

“It’s just… one thing?”

Ah, there it is. “Go ahead, but quickly.”

“Was I, um, did I do this? Am I why we’re here? You said something when I grabbed onto you, and you tried to push me away, and...”

Celestia almost laughed. Honestly, to be worrying about that, at a time like this. She gave Twilight a sympathetic smile. “No, no sweetie. That portal would have pulled me through either way. I was just trying to throw you out of its reach. You couldn't have known.”

Twilight nodded sheepishly. “It’s just, when you turned and saw me? You looked pretty upset."

“Ah,” said Celestia. Busted. “Well, I suppose I was. But certainly not at you.” She smiled, with a little shrug. “Nothing to be done for it now, so let’s get moving, yes?”

Curiosity abated for the moment, Twilight nodded again. And with that, the pair took off down the road at a brisk canter.

~~~

Aaauugh! Twilight couldn’t believe she’d done that. Is it my fault? Really!? She tells me we're stuck in some super-dangerous death-trap and all I can think to ask is ‘Is it my fault?’ That is just so… Okay, enough. Get it together.

Twilight cut off her mental self-recriminations, forcibly switching her mind over to something that would hopefully be more interesting: figuring out what Celestia was so worried about. After maybe an hour of completely peacefully jogging through the woods, the Princess was still twitching at every tiny movement like she thought there was a ravening manticore lurking behind every tree. ‘Everything can hurt you, if you give it the chance,’ she’d said. Well, Twilight hadn’t seen anything more deadly than a pothole, so far. Actually, she hadn’t even seen one of those. The road was immaculately level. Still, this was the Princess, so surely she knew what she was talking about. But Twilight was starting to wonder if she had possibly overstated the perils here a bit. Maybe Tartarus had changed since she’d been here last?

Thinking about it, Twilight couldn't remember Princess Celestia having ever even mentioned being in Tartarus before. How long had it been, then?

Twilight ran through everything she knew about Tartarus. It was a different realm from Equestria, a whole other world. The two were connected by some kind of gate. Twilight hadn’t studied other-dimensional phenomena as much as she’d like, but she’d heard that things like magic or physics might work a little differently in other realms, and it was supposedly extremely difficult to open a gate between them. There were probably books she could read about it when she got home. Hopefully.

Anyway, Cerberus, a dragon-sized, three-headed bulldog guarded the gate, and he was hypothetically inescapable. He was intimidating, to be sure, but Fluttershy had had no trouble with him. The creatures here couldn’t be that bad if one big dog could keep them in check, right? Speaking of those creatures, Tartarus was usually purported to be some kind of prison where villains were kept. Twilight only knew of a few of them. Those were probably pretty scary, but she was here with the Princess who had originally defeated them, and Twilight had defeated a villain or two herself, so that should be okay. And besides, Tartarus was clearly a big place. It would take some seriously bad luck to run into a weirdo like Hydia or Grogar wandering down these empty roads.

And uh, yeah. That’s about all she knew. She could run through the list of villains, for whatever good that might do. The thing that was maddening about this was that Twilight had this great source of information bouncing along right in front of her, but the Princess had all but forbidden any talking. Twilight scrunched up her face, pondering the best plan of attack for breaching Princess Celestia’s wall of silence.

She decided to bide her time, for now. Twilight had seen the Princess like this a time or two before: worried, taciturn, reluctant to speak. It happened a lot when the Nightmare incident or anything else from the ‘Old Days’ came up. But she knew her mentor well, and Princess Celestia loved to share her knowledge. All Twilight needed to do was provide a well-timed excuse, and then all that glorious information would just pour right out. Twilight settled into the not-quite-galloping rhythm and waited for the right opportunity to present itself. She also took a moment to begrudge Celestia her ridiculously long, shapely limbs; this was barely a fast canter for her.

~~~

Okay, *huff* this is getting *huff* a little ridiculous. *Huff*

Twilight was tired. She hadn’t run like this in, well, maybe ever. She was surprised she’d made it this long. They’d been running for hours, and the whole time, she’d gotten nothing out of Princess Celestia. All of her entreaties had been politely but soundly rebuffed. She’d stopped trying after the second hour or so. She was breathing too hard to hold a conversation now anyway. She was doing better than she would have been a few months ago, certainly; this Princess endurance was something else. If she were still a regular unicorn, she probably would have keeled over quite some time ago. Why were they hoofing it anyway? Flying was so much more efficient. Well, hypothetically. She was still working on that.

Anyway, this was exhausting. She had been getting hungry before, but now she was too fatigued for that. At least Twilight didn’t have the energy to feel like an idiot anymore. But then, she also couldn’t feel her legs. She didn’t want to say anything though, not to Princess Celestia. She was a Princess herself now, so she had to be tough. But seriously…

Twilight got an idea. She snapped her wings out, letting them lift her a a few hoof-spans off the ground. Well below the tree-line, of course, but high enough to let her glide for a few seconds before landing on her much-abused legs again.

Princess Celestia turned at the sound of wings unfurling, but made no comment on Twilight’s activities.

Good. This could work. Awesome.

Twilight continued her staggered gliding/galloping gait for another few minutes before disaster struck. She fumbled the landing, nearly earning herself a face-full of Tarataran dirt.

“Gah! W-wuh, okay! I’m okay! Sorry!” Twilight did her best to maintain some amount of Royal dignity. Princess Celestia’s look indicated that this had not worked out.

Between deep breaths, Celestia asked, “Do you need to stop, Twilight?”

*Huff* “What? *Huff* No, no, I’m *huuuuufffffff* I’m fine. Just *huff* tripped is all,” replied Twilight. Did she normally sweat this much? Or was it just because there was apparently no wind here, ever, at all?

“Well, why don’t we stop anyway?” Princess Celestia blew out a breath with infuriating elegance. “I’m bushed.”

Twilight wasn’t too proud to take the invitation.

~~~

Despite herself, Celestia was actually rather enjoying this. She hadn’t had a good, long run in ages, and in a mortal body, no less! It was exhilarating, getting to stretch out all of those unused muscles and put them to the work they were meant for. Even if it did feel a bit like her legs were going to fall off… Celestia heaved another breath and retreated to the side of the road to sit down for a bit. Wrapping her tail around to one side, she took a moment to remind herself to stay wary. This was a nightmare, not a vacation.

Twilight joined her presently, and they sat in a companionable silence for a while. Both were lathered with a fine sheen of sweat, each trying to hide the extent of their weariness from the other. It wasn’t long before Twilight inevitably made another attempt at conversation. ‘Information extraction’ was perhaps a better term for it, but still, it took the form of an attempt at conversation.

“So, um, this isn’t what I’d expect from—” Her interrogator was interrupted by a loud growl. Celestia’s ears locked onto the source of the sound, snapping towards it as she leapt to her feet. She'd known it would only be a matter of time before Tartarus struck! That alien, monstrous snarl had come from…

Twilight’s stomach. Oh.

“Oh, um. Excuse me,” said Twilight Sparkle, blushing as though she had anything to be embarrassed about. “It’s been a while since I ate, I guess.”

Celestia smiled wanly. She knew she must look absurd, jumping at every little thing like this. But she would not be taken in. Tartarus was implacably evil. It could afford to be patient, and it was just waiting for her to drop her guard, to start thinking that everything would be alright this time. It wouldn’t.

Her own empty, traitorous stomach rumbled in sympathy with Twilight’s. Dammit.

Twilight looked over in wonder. It occurred to Celestia that this may have been the first time Twilight had ever heard an indication of any sort of biological function at all from her. She attempted to roll with it.

“Well,” said Celestia, with a bit of forced levity, and many, many misgivings about having to stop for any reason. “I suppose we can’t be expected to run on an empty stomach. But Twilight, remember, this isn’t a field trip. So…”

Twilight looked up at her intently while Celestia weighed the risks of keeping her close versus those of leaving her alone on the road, where it was safe. Mostly. The decision came quickly.

“I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stay here while I go look for something we can eat.”

Twilight frowned and started to protest. Celestia shook her head.

“No. I’m sorry Twilight, but you have no idea what kind of things are out there and I won’t risk you getting hurt. If you see or hear anything, anything at all, call and I’ll be here in seconds. Understand?”

Twilight’s grimace deepened. She nodded without meeting Celestia’s eyes.

Celestia paused as her gut twisted a bit. She hated treating ponies this way, especially one as capable as Twilight Sparkle. Twilight obviously wasn’t happy about it either. Maybe she should bring her along. An extra pair of eyes could make all the difference. But, no. That was just the kind of thing Tartarus would want. Something would attack and they’d get separated and cut off from the road and the forest would pick them apart at its leisure. And then Celestia would lose another friend to this forsaken place. No.

“If I don't return in half an hour, I want you to keep going, Twilight. Stay on the road. It's the safest place. Just keep walking until you find the gate home. Don’t come looking for me, and do not stop for anything. Anything.”

Twilight's expression absolutely exuded conflict. When she didn't say anything, Celestia pressed.

"I know that this seems a bit extreme. But I can take of myself, and I know that you can as well. Still, if I should fall, you cannot risk yourself for me, Twilight. I need you to tell me will do what I've asked."

Twilight opened her mouth, closed it, tried again.

"Okay."

The word was a tiny, whispered thing. Had it come from anypony else, Celestia might not have believed it. But this was Twilight Sparkle.

"Thank you, Twilight."

Celestia nodded to herself with a confidence she did not entirely feel and trotted out into the woods.

~~~

Twilight watched as Princess Celestia’s form receded into the tree-line. Twilight been all set to have a little tantrum about being left behind (What was she, a little kid!? She was a Princess, for pony’s sake! She’d faced down some of Equestria’s most dangerous villains, yadda yadda yadda), and then the Princess had gone and completely snuffed her indignation by saying a thing like that. What could be out there? Why would the road be safer? And why wouldn’t Celestia talk about any of this!?

Receiving no answers to any of the questions, Twilight sat down and settled in to wait. She glanced around. A red dirt road. Lots of trees. Big scary Not-Sun in the sky. Total silence all around.

Twilight fidgeted. She’d never been good at waiting, and Princess Celestia's ominous demands certainly weren't helping. This was why her parents had first given her books. Having something to read kept her from climbing the walls every time they didn’t have something to keep her more actively occupied. But there weren't any books here. Just trees and dirt.

She looked up the road. Nothing new. She looked down the road. Nothing new there either. She tapped a hoof in the dirt. There should at least be crickets chirping or something. Twilight tried to find the Princess, but the woods on either side of the road were fairly thick, so all she could make out was a vague, pale figure in the distance. She couldn’t really see much of what Princess Celestia was doing, but…she heard a muffled gasp.

“Princess!?” ventured Twilight, hopping up.

“I’m okay!” came the response. It resonated strangely through the trees, and Twilight had a hard time pinning down exactly where the sound came from. This would be a very easy place to get lost in. “Something just surprised me!”

What could have surprised her? There was nothing out here. Right? Twilight fluffed her wings and shuffled around, trying to keep the hairs on the back of her neck down. She made the mistake of looking up into the ring of flame in the sky. It was a perfectly black hole, hemmed in by a thin nimbus of flickering orange-red. It felt like the thing was watching her. Just sitting up there, blankly staring down, like it didn’t even really care about her or what happened to her or anything else. Just watching. She shuddered.

Twilight pulled her gaze back to the ground and shook herself. Or maybe she was just being crazy and letting her natural paranoia get the best of her. Twilight turned to look down the road, again, craning her neck to see as far as she *boing.*

“Huh?”

A piercing, feminine “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!” split the silence. It was soon joined by Twilight’s own, equally piercing shriek as she leapt in surprise and stumbled backwards into a tree.

What!? How!? She hadn’t seen anything! Twilight’s eyes darted about in panicked frenzy for the source of the sound until they eventually settled onto…a spider. It squatted on the road right next to where she had been sitting a second ago. It was aquamarine and black, with bits of silver. Hairy, and quite large, as far as spiders went, maybe six inches long from pedipalps to spinnerets. There was a large star on its back, so bright in color that it nearly glowed. The spider energetically waved an arm at her. Arm number five, if her memory of arthropod anatomy was correct. Twilight stared as her heart eagerly attempted to beat its way out of her chest.

“Um…”

The spider stopped waving and looked up at her expectantly, its huge central eye and many smaller eyes glittering. After a moment’s pause, Twilight slowly raised a hoof and waved in response.

“Hi?”

It had been a purely reflexive response, but the spider seemed pleased by it.

“AH!” it screamed. The spider made an elaborate twirling motion with one of its legs (number five again) then dipped its cephalothorax in what Twilight was fairly certain was an arachnid interpretation of a polite bow. Was it…was it introducing itself?

Twilight decided to run with it. “Ah, Okay. Um, hello. I’m Twilight Sparkle.” She extended a tentative hoof toward the creature. The spider skittered forward and met her in a tiny hoofshake. Twilight didn’t have time to say anything more before a crackling bass rumble shook the air. Twilight turned to see massive ball of flame hurtling straight for her. She grabbed the big black spider and hugged it close, leaping to the side and screaming again as fire and splintered wood burst through the forest just in front of her.

“Twilight!? What happened!? Are you alright!?” The voice was booming and heroic, like Twilight imagined a warrior-queen of ancient times might sound. But it was scared too, and desperate. So much so that Twilight didn’t recognize it immediately. She was too busy backpedalling madly straight into another tree. Unable to escape the fireball now before her, she wrapped her wings tight against the blazing heat and cast a quick, blind *blink*. Twilight popped back into existence maybe thirty feet down the road from where she had been before.

She opened her eyes to an awesome sight: a perfectly circular tunnel, bored through the forest. Its edges were little more than dimly burning cinders, burnt through so fast that they hadn’t even had time to properly light aflame. Twilight stared in open-mouthed wonder. Something had blasted a hole through over a hundred yards of hardwood in what? A second? Two? Even the dirt had been disintegrated, leaving a shallow trench of scorched earth.

“Twilight!?”

Twilight jerked her head in the direction of the sound. Waves of heat poured over her from there, so much that she had to shield her eyes before she could look. The sight of the tunnel should have given her some inkling of what to expect, but nothing could have really prepared Twilight for what she saw. Celestia, lit up like the Sun itself. Her normally placid mane was ablaze in a show of incandescent glory he likes of which Twilight had never seen. Her eyes were molten gold, her every feather a rainbow of lambent flame. There was a trail of smoldering hoofprints between her and the seething tunnel.

It was one of the most blindingly beautiful things Twilight had ever seen.

“Oh, Twilight! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean…”

And just like that, the moment passed. The burning wind stopped, the lights died down, the arcane pressure of all that magic being ignited at once collapsed, and she was just the same Princess Celestia Twilight had always known. She stepped hesitantly forward.

“Twilight, are you okay? I heard a scream.”

Twilight fell back on her butt. It was just what her brain needed to start working again.

“What? Oh! I uh, I mean, yes, I’m fine. I…” So many questions tried to force their way through at once that Twilight was momentarily rendered mute.

Celestia’s worried eyes searched her, looking for any sign of injury, before settling on the creature she still held in one hoof. She tilted her head quizzically.

“Is that a spider?”

Author's Note:

Up top is the original cover art, by me.

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