• 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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Confusion

Being reunited with her sword had changed Celestia.

She didn’t dodge anymore, didn’t sidestep or teleport. She marched forward, invincible, jaw set into a grim line as she did what had to be done. Her every move was perfect, every blow precise. The phrase ‘no wasted motion’ came to mind, but that was a paltry way to describe the vision of terrible glory she had become.

Hyperia slapped aside all attempts on Celestia and her ponies, unleashing appalling and peremptory vengeance on the things for even making the effort. Those few attacks that crossed the line of the flashing blade were stopped short by small, simple shields or blasted apart by bolts of molten magic. Limbs and bodies and burning hoofsteps fell in the wake of the Blazing Queen.

The things she killed bore a superficial resemblance to the ‘shrimp’ Twilight had encountered before, if only in that both were some sort of crustacean. These looked a bit like the unfeasible lovechild of a coconut crab and a daddy longlegs. They scuttled about with impressive speed on six spiny, spindly legs that let their main bodies bob maybe six feet in the air. Their eyes stuck out from what might be called their heads on thin stalks, and each one whipped about independently. In place of claws, they had only long, sharp spears, and it was with these that they jabbed at Celestia. They tried with their legs sometimes to, but it made no difference. She cut them all down.

Twilight could almost see such a creature existing in Equestria. They might have been cute, if in a spine-crawlingly creepy way, with their big, googly eyes, comically long legs and odd, swaying gait. But there was one other feature that made it quite clear that they belonged here, instead. Several of them, maybe half, maybe less, it was hard to tell as they were slain so rapidly…Anyway, several of them carried something underneath themselves. The packages dangled under the crab-thing’s main bodies, linked to them by wet, ugly, fleshy material, as though the one had somehow grown into the other. Or from it.

They were bodies. Corpses. Most were desiccated beyond recognition, but one was almost pony-like. A changeling, maybe. Another might have been a small minotaur. They swayed as the monsters dodged and died.

Why!? Just why!?

Twilight fought not to vomit. Again. She shoved it down. She wasn’t going to panic this time! She could help! She just needed a second…

While Celestia marched, Luna danced. In stark contrast to the deadly efficiency of her sister, Luna put a flourish into every strike, a taunt into every dodge and counter. She flowed, liquid and serpentine, around and over and through every attack, and there were so many.

Twilight had once been stung by a scorpion. It had been a tiny thing, a small fraction of the height of her own hoof. It hadn’t struck her skin, just the hard nail, accomplishing nothing. But she’d watched as it did so. The little bug had ineffectually stabbed at her once, twice, maybe as many as five times in a second. These creatures were just as fast, and with two stingers each. But not a one could touch Luna. She cheated somehow, was never where she should be. She fought as much with misdirection as she did with simple violence. She dodged hit after hit from one, two, four of the things at a time without even giving ground, and Shard cut into every one of them for even daring to try to harm her mistress. When that wasn’t enough, Aurora, Luna’s robe, whipped out, tripping them up, dragging them down, punishing these monster for being so slow, so weak, so stupid.

And Luna laughed. She giggled through it all, coated in darkness, shrouded in freezing shadow as her power spilled out onto the battlefield. A rain of severed parts fell around her as her own luminous, slit-pupiled eyes caught Twilight’s.

She felt a twinge of real fear at what she saw in those eyes. But Luna/Nightmare Moon just winked, and leapt onto her next victim. And that was what they were. Victims. This wasn’t a battle, it was a slaughter. Yes, the things had attacked them, but still. Why didn’t the monsters run? Why would they do this?

Was this what Celestia had been talking about? Was this what happened when the Sisters really fought something?

“Princess! Watch—”

Twilight had been so enthralled that she hadn’t seen the attack coming. Even Insight had been distracted. The blade felt absolutely awful about it.

“Out!”

A nyxie crashed down on the crab-thing before it had even gotten very close. The monster, already unbalanced by the swaying body it carried, slammed face-first into the ground under this new, unexpected weight. Twilight, to her horror, recognized its cargo.

A gorehound, half-burnt and hanging. One of those Celestia had killed.

Another pony, a pegasus, backed up the nyxie, stooping into a dive that let him drop the full weight of both rear legs onto the creature.

“Princess!” snapped the nyxie, hopping off. “Can you fly? It’s safer in the air.”

Twilight tore her gaze away from the crab and its awful passenger, flexing her wings before she even thought about it.

“Right! Yes. But…” She looked down at Bait. She couldn’t hold him forever, not in the air, not with a sprained wing and a useless leg.

“Understood.” The nyxie nodded. He shouted orders, and more of the soldiers dropped down, forming a circle around her.

What were they doing? Were they trying to fight for her? Goddess! She didn’t even know their names!

Another crab, this one unburdened by a corpse, burst through the underbrush and Twilight shot it, fast and hard. It reeled backwards, but somehow kept coming, legs tearing at the dirt. Twilight hopped back, locked two of its feet in her grip, and wrenched them both sideways.

The monster staggered and danced to keep up, fighting with more strength than she would have thought possible, but Twilight ground her teeth and darn it she made it happen. She whipped her magic the other way and the crab flipped over, falling onto its back. The soldiers didn’t hesitate. Two of them darted into the sky and crashed down onto it, stomping the beast into submission before it could recover.

But more came. So many more. How could there be so many!?

Twilight slapped the whole group aside with a telekinetic wave, hitting them harder than she’d ever hit anything.

Insight called to her. She could do this! She could kill them!

Twilight shut her out and just kept trying. She knew it was wrong. She knew Insight was only trying to help, and that killing these things was exactly what she should be doing because so many more lives than her own were on the line here, but…

More monsters rushed in. One almost got her. She didn’t have the speed Luna did, she couldn’t dodge like that, but she got lucky. A pegasus slammed into the creature just as it would have struck. Twilight grabbed another crab as it skittered toward one nyxie. Flipping them over didn’t seem to do much good, so she simply picked it up by brute force and flung the thing as hard as she could through the trees.

Insight parried the claws of one that got too close, cutting them deeply even while merely defending, and Twilight blasted the horrid thing away.

Another drove in.

Are they all coming straight for me!?

Twilight threw up a shield and stopped its first attacks, but more came. The soldiers fought around her, dodging and kicking and Twilight was pretty sure she saw one nyxie actually bite a crab’s eye stalk off! She hit the things as best she could, but her attacks were artless, substituting force where she should have used skill. But she couldn’t see! She had no idea what was happening, so she just fought, fighting fires as they came.

Insight pleaded, begged to be let free. This was her purpose!

Murder is not your purpose! Twilight mentally screamed, with a depth of feeling that almost frightened her. That’s not what we are! Find another way to help! Bait! Where is he!? Help him!

Insight nearly fell to the ground, stung and scared and changed somehow, but she obeyed. She searched, and there he was. The little wight had darted off again. He was under the crab attacking Twilight. Ben clung to his back. The spider shrieked, and everyone but Bait and Twilight stopped, just for a second, at the sound of it. Bait took the opportunity to barrel into one of the crab’s legs, knocking it off balance, and Twilight grabbed the monster, shoving it through one of its companions and into a tree once, twice, three times as Bait scampered back to her.

Goddess! Had she killed it? Would that even be so bad? She dropped the thing, eyes desperately seeking she didn’t even know what. Luna cackled madly as Celestia burned with wrath. Twilight had to do something, had to end this somehow before they got overrun. Insight tossed up a half-formed idea, inspired by what she'd witnessed the Ben and the nyxies do, and Twilight pulled it together. Animals could be driven off by sound sometimes, right? Tones most ponies couldn’t even hear. Maybe these could too? Insight sang through a series notes, looking for the one that would—

Twilight shot a crab as it darted in behind a pegasus. Too late. The first claw bounced off his armor, but the second struck him at base of the neck, just in front of one shoulder. He whipped around with a grimace as the creature was sent stumbling by a bolt of purple magic.

It wasn’t deep. He’ll be okay. He has to be okay!

The soldier took the time to give her a quick nod of thanks, as if she’d helped him and not failed to protect him, before leaping at another monster, joining two of the nyxies as they harried the thing like a pack of hounds.

I should have let Insight do it. I should have put a shield over him! Why didn’t I just aim for the claw! I should have..!

And then, very suddenly, it was over.

Every crab still alive (so few now), and all three nyxies, suddenly staggered. The ponies grunted, lurching to put hooves up over their ears. The crabs wobbled, confused, trying to run and failing as their legs caught up on themselves. The Sisters cut them down with lethal grace, letting the few that could still run go without chase. Insight let her song conclude, sorry to have harmed Twilight’s ponies, but happy to have been of use.

Twilight looked over the battlefield, unable to stop herself from taking it in. She couldn’t even count the bodies, so mangled and destroyed they were. A dozen? More? Most of them lay near the Princesses, only one or two were anywhere near her and the little circle of soldiers. And it had taken all of, what? Thirty seconds? Maybe a minute? So many, so quickly…

Luna, too, surveyed the wreckage, still grinning like a mad-mare, eyes livid and frightening. She seemed to let go the shadows that writhed around her only reluctantly. Celestia took her own stock of the battlefield. Her eyes were blazing and hard, the ground near her smoldering. She saw Twilight looking, and her eyes softened, and just like that, she was herself again.

“Well,” declared Luna, shaking a bit of crab-matter off of one hoof. “That was bracing, eh? I see everypony is still with us. Well done! Not that I expected any less of our finest, of course. Any injuries, my dears?”

A chorus of negatives sounded, and Twilight wondered at it. None? Really? All that chaos, and nopony had even been injured? She shook her head. She hadn’t even answered the question, still struck dumb by the experience. The guards were already chatting amongst themselves, sharing stories and even trading light-hearted gibes as they got ready to move again.

Twilight stared. Was this battle? Was this what ponies had felt like back in the dark times, when they’d gone to war? She’d fought before, fought for her life even, but she’d been alone then. She’d never had to do this with so many other ponies she didn’t know, never in such numbers. How did they do this!?

Bait snuck in beside he. He even gave her neck a little nuzzle. She turned to him, managing half a smile on reflex alone as she put a wing over him. He grinned back up to her. Ben gave her a wave from the back of Bait’s neck.

“You okay?”

Bait nodded.

“Sorry. I was…” Darn it. She'd said there would be no more being sorry. She didn't even know what she was apologizing for.

“M’lady?”

“Huh?” One of the guards had approached while Twilight had been standing around like an idiot. “Oh, y-yes?” She was still jittery, shaking a little.

The nyxie bowed. She would never get used to that. The familiar discomfort of having someone bow to her actually calmed Twilight, a bit.

“Silver Shine reporting, your Highness. I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude for your efforts, Princess. I understand at least one of the guards under my command might not have made it if not for your intervention. Personally, I expect it would have been several. Thank you, Princess.” He bowed again, deeper this time.

“I-um. You’re welcome?”

He nodded. “He would like to thank you personally, if it’s not too much trouble, M’lady.”

Still somewhat bewildered, Twilight said, “Oh, uh, sure.”

A shadow passed over the nyxie’s face. “Princess?"

“Yes?”

“I don’t meant to be too familiar…”

Twilight thought maybe he was waiting for some acknowledgement, so she nodded.

“Was this your first battle, m’lady?”

“Not exactly,” she forced out.

Silver Shine dipped his head. “It may not be my place, M’lady, but...” He spoke quietly, but with great conviction. He very lightly touched her shoulder with one hoof. “The first big fight is always the worst. It gets easier. And you did better than you think, your Majesty.” With that, he looked over one shoulder and barked, “Backstep!” He bowed to Twilight once more as he backed away.

Twilight almost broke down right there. The fact that he had even asked was just so…nice.

A pegasus rushed forward. A young stallion, alabaster white with blue mane, absolutely typical of Celestia’s dawnguard. He bowed far deeper than was entirely necessary. A line of blood ran down from his shoulder.

“Backstep reporting, your majesty. I just wanted to thank you for the save back there. It was so amazing how you, er, I mean, I’m a big fan, Princess Twilight, and this is such an honor, and—”

A sharp clearing of the throat sounded from behind him. Silver Shine again.

“Right!” Backstep snapped to attention, saluting crisply. “Thank you, my Princess!”

“You’re welcome?” Twilight was still a little unclear on how to handle this kind of thing. Rarity had advised she just smile and nod indulgently, so she tried to do that, but…“You’re bleeding.”

“What?” Backstep looked back to where she was looking. “Oh, it’s nothing, your majesty.”

“What!?” barked Silver Shine. “Medic!”

Twilight winced. Did soldiers really have to yell everything?

“Apologies, m’lady,” said Shine. “Thank you for pointing that out. We’ll take it from here.” He glared at Backstep, ushering the pegasus away as two other ponies hustled forward.

“Um, sure.”

Apparently overhearing the encounter, Luna and Celestia converged on the wounded soldier.

“Hold!” bellowed Luna, quite royally. “What struck you, guardsman?”

Backstep wilted under the sudden attention of two Princesses, as many medics, and his commanding officer.

“I-it’s not a big d—”

Luna stomped a hoof imperiously, silencing him. Celestia spoke, soft but firm.

“Was it one of the creature's claws, or some incidental injury?"

“It was a claw.” Twilight answered, softly, a sliver of dread worming sickeningly into her.

Luna and Celestia shared a look, and Twilight didn’t like it at all. Luna spoke first.

“Bind his wounds as best you can! We must move, and quickly!”

“Why?” whispered Twilight. She could have stopped it. She could have sent Insight and this never would have happened. “What’s wrong?”

Celestia glanced at her, then sidled up next to Backstep, speaking softly to him as Luna ran off all but the medics, setting them to whatever work might keep them occupied.

Sidewinder went straight to work. She ordered Backstep onto the ground and laid out various medical things. The pegasus looked about. It seemed like he was trying to decide whether he should be panicking or not.

“It’s really nothing! I barely even noticed.”

Sidewinder hissed some rebuke at him and he went silent, fidgeting as Celestia spoke.

Twilight approached, listening in.

“They carry a disease in their claws. It’s how they spread, we think. But it takes time, and doesn’t always take hold. We’ll get you to a hospital, the best in Equestria, and you’ll have the finest care we can give. I guarantee you that.”

Why wasn’t she saying he would fine? Why wasn’t she saying there was nothing to worry about? She was supposed to say there was nothing to worry about!

The stallion, barely more than a colt really (Goddess, he was so young!), was putting up a decent show, trying to take this with soldierly indifference, but he was already starting to sweat. He eyed the medic’s set-up, taking in needle and thread, gauze and alcohol. His eyes twitched back to Celestia.

“Wh-what kind of disease, your majesty? It’s curable, right? If I m—” he swallowed. “—Might ask?”

The look on Celestia's face told Twilight far more than she wanted to know. That little sliver of dread blossomed out, grabbing hold of her guts and dragging them down, down, down…

“I think it’s best if I leave out the details for now. But know that medical science and magic have come a long way since we last fought the tip-toes, and—”

Tip-toes? That’s what these things were called!? Friggin’ tip-toes were what was killing him!? Backstep’s eyes darted about, happening to land on Twilight’s. There was no blame in them. Seeing her actually seemed to calm him a little. Why!? It was impossible. Insane! This was her fault! She could have stopped it! She could have sent Insight to kill the thing, but she’d been so, Goddess she didn’t even know!

“That’s not right.”

“What?”

It was Bait, whispering beside her. He shook his head and looked at Backstep.

“It’s not a disease.”

“What do you mean?” The crawling progress of panic was slowed a bit.

“It’s an egg. They stick them in things and new ones hatch out. Eat them from inside. Doesn't take long.”

Twilight blinked.

“Are you sure? How do you know?”

It turned out that learning what parts of a thing (and its victims) you could eat gave one a great deal of insight into its biology. Bait told her about it.

Twilight stumbled hurriedly to one of the tip-toe corpses and grabbed a claw in her magic. She wrenched it up where she could see it, had Insight cleave it in two, just to make certain that what she was seeing was right. Hollow. She traced the claw up its arm until she found a small sack. She cut it open, examined what spilled out. The sudden surge of hope made her forget to even be squeamish about it. Being squeamish didn’t matter! She could fix this! She could do something!

Twilight ran to Backstep.

“Don’t sew that up! Hang on! Let me see!”

The medics backed away on reflex, but Celestia balked.

“Twilight? What are you doing? Here, come with me. Let’s just leave this to the professionals.”

“No! Look! Bait, tell her!”

Luna returned just in time to hear the wight’s frightened, barely audible explanation.

Celestia’s face skewed in revolted confusion.

“An egg?”

“It must be!” cried Twilight. “There are some wasps in Equestria that do the same thing!”

Luna, too recoiled in disgust.

“Nonsense! We would never allow such a thing to continue!"

Backstep blanched.

“There’s an egg in me!?”

Oh. Right. Probably shouldn’t have said that in front of him… Too late now. Twilight shook her head, addressing Luna because it was easier.

“Not to ponies,” Twilight said. “To other bugs. Spiders and things.”

Luna didn’t seem especially reassured. Nor did Backstep.

“ ‘Tis…vile.”

“Yeah, nature can actually be pretty scary sometimes. Anyway…”

“Get it out!”

“I’m trying! Just hold still, okay? I have to find it first. Can we get this armor off him? And clean the wound so I can see?” She asked it of no one in particular, but Sidewinder obeyed. She and Brevity had the pegasus stripped and clean in a matter of seconds.

“Okay. Let me see.”

Twilight leaned in to get a good look at the cut in Backstep’s shoulder. The smell of antiseptic couldn’t quite mask the tang of blood, and, no longer buoyed by that initial rush, Twilight found herself fighting not to be sick. But it didn’t matter. She had to do this! It never would have happened if she’d just… Wait! There it was!

“Ah, Twilight?”

She looked up to see Celestia watching her. Her eyes held the obvious question: ‘Do you know what you are doing?’

Thusly did it occur to Twilight for the first time that she had just volunteered to do actual, literal surgery on somepony. She looked down into the wound again, seeing cut skin and blood and exposed muscle and what was she doing!?

“Sidewinder?”

“Yes, Your Highness!”

“How can we do this?”

The nyxie peered into the hole in Backstep’s shoulder. She made that chittering, nigh ultra-sonic sound, and then, with a little ‘hrmm,’ said “A good pair of forceps would do it, Princess, but I don’t have any. These kits are pretty basic.” She hesitated a bit before adding “Maybe you could magic it out?”

Twilight nodded.

“I can try.” She looked to Luna and Celestia, hoping one would step in, but not really expecting them to. Neither did. Their skills seemed to lay more in causing wounds than curing them.

Twilight considered the tools she had at hand. Basic medical stuff, her own magic, Insight.

She looked again into the wound, managing to keep her gorge down. It was easier when she pretended it didn’t bother her, when she approached from a different mindset. Luna had been right about that part, at least.

“Okay. Sorry, but I’m going to have to open this a little.”

Backstep’s face grew even more ashen than usual at her words, but Celestia intervened. She lay down beside the soldier, close enough to touch. Twilight knew from experience how distracting that could be. The Princess raised a wing to block his view of what went on behind him.

“You’ve nothing to worry about, Backstep. Twilight excels at everything she does. You are in very capable hooves.”

Aww. Nice of her to say that.

Twilight had Insight make as tiny an incision as she could, just enough to fully expose the little monster buried in there. It was easy. Insight went right through him. Twilight wasn’t sure he even felt it. Twilight squeezed the wound once, hoping the egg might mercifully just pop out, but alas, the hole was still deeper than it was wide. She felt her patient tense, stutter a bit as he tried to make conversation with Celestia. Alright, so, that wouldn’t work…She tried magic, but the egg was small and slick and she couldn’t get a grip on it. Ugh! This was like the worst game of Operation imaginable, and Twilight hated that game (mostly for anatomical inaccuracy and excessive use of puns, but whatever).

Hrmm. Sidewinder had said something about forceps. She looked at Insight. Maybe if she opened the wound a bit more? No, wait, maybe she could just stab the horrid little thing and pull it out? No, Insight was too sharp, it wouldn’t catch. And who knew what kind of toxins might pour into the wound from that egg. Well, what if…

She asked Insight if she could not cut something. Like, if she could be blunt for a second, like she was when she touched Twilight.

Insight didn’t like it, but she supposed she could try.

It worked! Twilight saw the gelatinous surface of the egg bend as Insight very carefully touched it. But it didn’t go anywhere though. It was really stuck in there. Twilight found her nausea fading as she let herself be absorbed in how to solve this problem.

Noticing that Twilight was trying to do, Insight *pinged*, like she had before, but with a different pitch, giving Twilight a taste of what medical acoustics could do. The egg was fragile, more gel than solid. Like a frog’s, or some other water-borne creature’s. But it could be touched without damage. Maybe if she magicked it while Insight—

“Can you make two of those, Your Majesty?”

It was Sidewinder, looking in over her shoulder. She glanced at Insight.

“Pardon my interruption, Highness, but…”

“Oh, no! Go ahead.”

“I just thought that if you could grab it from more than one angle at once…”

“Right! Hang on, let me ask.”

The nyxie looked at her strangely, but Twilight ignored it. She’d explain later. She asked Insight if there could possibly be more of her. The answer came through in a definite negative.

“Oh. Um, no. But there has to be something we can do.”

Her eyes wandered as she considered her options. They fell onto Bait.

Hands! He had them! Thin, bony little fingers! They were perfect!

“Bait! Can you help me with this?”

“Um.”

It took some explaining, and Twilight was glad she didn’t have to see Backstep’s reaction to it, but in the end, it worked! Between Insight’s prodding, Twilight’s magic, and Bait’s deft fingers, they managed to pluck that vile little egg right out of him.

“Hah!”

Twilight held it up, glaring in triumph at the thing. Luna came to see too, and even Celestia turned to look at it. Backstep did as well. He eyed the translucent egg, watching the embryonic horror within squirm in the light.

“That was inside me!?”

Twilight suddenly wished she’d had the presence of mind to just throw the thing away, but Luna laughed.

“Oh, how many times We have said the same! Would you like to keep it, soldier?”

Backstep demonstrated his namesake.

“No! Er, your highness!”

“May We then? A fine memento, We think. We shall keep it in a jar upon Our trophy wall, and taunt it when We grow bored.”

“Um. Please do. Your Highness.”

“Magnificent!” Luna dropped the egg into a fold of her robe. “Now, sit down and suffer the ministrations of thy medic, soldier, as you should have before!”

“Y-yes, Princess!”

~~~

Sidewinder got him stitched up and medicated in a matter of minutes, berating Backstep all the while for failing to report his injury sooner.

Twilight, from her place on the floating disc, was apologizing to her sword.

I’m sorry I yelled at you.

Insight didn’t seem to think there was anything to apologize for.

But do you see what I mean? You can do all kinds of things! You’re more than just a weapon.

The blade didn’t argue. She agreed, even. She’d changed. Even Insight didn’t know what she was now, but she knew that much was true. She was more than just a weapon.

“Useful little fellow to have around, isn’t he?”

“Hm?” Twilight turned to Luna. The Moon Princess nodded to Bait.

“All these years, so many deaths, and we had no idea it was an egg. It seems ridiculous. Thank you, Bait.” Luna spoke largely to empty air, as Bait had leapt to hide behind Twilight as soon as she’d started talking. “A bit jumpy though, isn’t he?”

“He’s had a hard time.” Twilight smiled warmly at the wight.

“Well, inform him that he has Our thanks.”

“Will do.”

Celestia sidled up next to them.

“That was some impressive work, Twilight! I had no idea you knew anything of surgery.”

“Oh, uh. Right. I was kind of…”

Making things up like a crazy pony? Potentially putting somepony at serious risk by doing something I had no idea how to actually do?

“Thanks,” she concluded.

Celestia beamed down at her. She looked like she might have wanted to say or do something more, but caught herself when she remembered there were other ponies about. Luna, for her part, grinned slyly at them both.

“Something's up ahead!”

It was one of the soldiers, Brevity maybe.

The eyes of all three Princesses snapped up.

“My my,” tsk’ed Luna. “In a bit of a hurry, aren't we, Tartarus?”

Brevity dropped to the earth just ahead of them. Luna gestured for her to continue.

“A herd of something, looks like cows. Big ones.”

Luna’s eyebrows rose.

“White? Armored? Led by a bull with six horns?”

“Yes, Princess, there was an armored bull. I didn’t count the horns.”

Luna giggled in glee. Brevity took this in stride.

“Orders, m’lady?”

"I’ll see to it.” Luna did a little dance as she readied herself to take off, looking positively delighted at this development. She turned back at the last moment. “Unless you’d rather, Sister.”

“Wait! Is it Cretes?” asked Twilight. Given what she’d seen Luna do when she got that smile, she felt she should say something.

Luna tilted her head, looking from one alicorn to the other.

“You know of him?”

“We’ve met. What are going to do?”

Celestia chimed in.

“We met him together, early on. We parted peacefully. Twilight ran across him again later, and she says he offered to help her, but Tartarus interfered.”

“Truly?” It sounded like Luna didn’t entirely believe her. “He met an attractive young mare alone and didn’t try to—”

“No,” said Twilight, not wishing to hear the end of that sentence, nor registering that Luna thought she was attractive. “I mean, sort of, but he said he’d help even if we didn’t...you know. But Tartarus possessed him and made him attack me.”

“It spoke to her, Luna.”

Luna leaned back, openly surprised.

“Oh.”

“Yes. But regarding Cretes, I think he may have changed, Sister.”

“I see. Then I suppose we should…talk to him?”

“It’s worth a try, certainly.”

“Hmph. Very well.” Luna seemed disappointed.

~~~

“Oh hhhhhhhell no!” These were Cretes’ first words on seeing them coming. “I ain’t doing this again! Ladies! We are leaving!”

The cows eyed him as he turned away from the oncoming ponies. Twilight thought a few looked more amused than anything.

“Peace, Cretes. We mean you no ill,” declared Celestia.

“Yes, Cretes,” purred Luna with that razor-edged grin. “Please, stay a while.”

“Fuckin’ balls! She’s here? No way! I don’t want anything to do with that psycho! Not this time!”

One of the cows, a particularly huge one, caught Twilight’s eye. She nudged Cretes as he turned away.

“This the one you were talkin’ about?” Her voice was deep, heavy.

Cretes snorted.

The cow’s lips quirked into a grin.

“Thought she’d be twenty feet tall, from what you said. Pretty little thing, though, you were right about that.”

“I never said that, Mona!”

“Pretty sure I heard you say that.”

The cow tromped forward. The rest of the herd watched the bull and the cow, staying where they stood.

“You really did a number on the big guy."

“What? Really?" She hadn’t hurt him at all, as she recalled. "I'm sorry, I—"

Mona laughed.

“Fuckin’ ponies! Guess you really are a Princess."

Luna and Celestia looked at Twilight with expressions bordering on wonder.

“You fought him?” asked one.

“And won?” queried the other.

“Dammit, Mona, let’s go! Being near these freaks is a death sentence, you know that. C’mon!”

Mona tilted her head from one side to the other.

"Yeah. Just wanted to see this scary new Princess of yours with my own eyes. Thanks for leaving him in one piece, kid." She spoke to Twilight, but glared at Luna and Celestia in turn. "Better than we get from some ponies." She turned to go. The rest of the herd moved to follow.

“Cretes, wait!” Called Celestia.

“Nope!”

“Oh, come now. You’re the Great White Bull. Surely you've nothing to fear from us...” Luna stalked forward.

“Luna, stop that! Please, Cretes, just listen!”

“No! I’m done with you, Celestia! I’m not losing any of my girls because of you! Not again!”

“Wait, what?” asked Twilight. She happened to look at the cow, Mona. She shrugged, and turned to go.

“Cretes!” bellowed Celestia. “Help me and I will see you home! To Equestria!”

The bull stopped. The herd went silent. Even Luna jolted to a halt.

The moment held.



It held much too long.





An impossible stillness had fallen over the group. Something far more profound than mere shock.







“That would be extremely unwise, Celestia,” said a quiet, dreadfully slow, montone voice. “Not that a lack of wisdom has ever given you pause.”

All eyes turned to this new speaker. It should have been nothing. A simple, unconscious twitch. But just now, it seemed to take forever.

“Terra,” whispered Celestia. The word echoed through this timeless space.

“Your attempts at robbing Tartarus of its inmates will bring only more suffering. Can you not understand even that?”

Celestia grimaced. She flared her wings and expelled some kind of power. It freed everyone from that unending moment, if only for a little while.

“What else can I do, Terra!? I certainly can’t expect any help from you!” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Why are you here?”

Terra.

Twilight knew that name. She’d heard Celestia mention it. It was a word from an ancient time, part of a language nopony spoke anymore. It meant Earth. Celestia, Sun. Luna, Moon. And Terra. Earth.

Had there been a third sister? Why didn’t she know about this? What had happened?

“Your threat has been realized, Celestia. Typhon has woken.”

She was an alicorn. Another Princess. It was undeniable. It would have been easy to say she was the most beautiful mare ever to have lived, but that wasn’t quite right. Because she didn’t seem to live at all. She had all the beauty of Celestia or Luna, but something was missing in her. She was flawless. Perfect. Too perfect.

“So soon?”

Luna had asked. Terra turned, slow as a glacier, to face her. It was intensely unnerving to watch.

Terra's mane didn't flow. Her wings did not rise in anger. Nothing about her moved at all. Even as she spoke, her lips were still.

“Celestia has been here for some time.” Emotionless as it was, the voice still somehow held reproach.

“Well, ‘tis a good thing We have come to help. Better late than never, as they say.”

Luna seemed even more animated than usual beside Terra, as if she were trying to defy everything this strange other creature was.

A horrible chill ran through Twilight as she realized what was wrong. Terra was utterly, absolutely lifeless. Beautiful, yes, but raw and untouchable, cold and austere. Like a mountain, viewed from afar. Or an avalanche.

It felt like an eternity before Terra replied.

“You will face him then, as stated in our ancient accord?”

“Of course!” declared Luna.

“Then go. As to you, Celestia…” Terra turned, eventually, to face the Princess. “I claim my boon from you. Leave the wight, and the spider. And do not further tempt my subjects with your cruel hopes of escape from this place.”

Twilight’s heart jumped into her throat. But Celestia was there ahead of her.

“Under no circumstances, Terra! Choose something else!”

There was a long, long silence.

"We made a bargain, Celestia.”

Celestia’s face hardened, but she looked away.

“What?” asked Twilight.

Celestia glanced at her. Her eyes lit up. Hopeful?

“They are not mine to give! Both are under Twilight Sparkle’s protection. Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

Another interminable emptiness.

“They are not hers to protect.”

“The boy has obviously switched allegiance,” chimed in Luna. “Which is well within his rights as a royal subject. And the spider is mine, though he, too, appears to have adopted a new mistress.” She smiled devilishly at Ben.

“It is beneath you to contrive such an argument, Celestia,” intoned Terra.

“Well, it certainly isn’t beneath me,” chirped Luna.

“So little is,” intoned Terra.

The Moon Princess smirked, if only in defiance.

“What is happening!?” exclaimed Twilight.

Terra didn’t even acknowledge her.

“This is unjust, Celestia. You would steal from me. Shall I make it a trade then? One of your subjects for one of mine?” Again, the words came as from a corpse, but they dripped with acid.

“Over my dead body,” snarled Celestia. Hyperia brandished herself.

“As you say. What is to stop me from simply killing you, then, and taking my due?”

“Hah!” Luna barked. “Go ahead. Kill us both and face Typhon with only the hekatonkhire to help you. Watch them die on the altar of your pride.” She shook her head. “You will do no such thing, Terra. Or has the suffering of your sons finally lost all meaning to you?”

Terra’s eyes slid with agonizing slowness to Luna. They held the ghost of some nameless emotion. But only the ghost.

“You would risk unleashing Typhon for the life of such trivial creatures? For a wight, which you yourselves banished to this place?”

“I would do it a thousand times,” smoldered Celestia. Luna said nothing. Just bared her teeth in a sharp-edged grin.

“Ridiculous. Have you any idea of the destruct—“

“What is wrong with you!?”

Twilight hadn’t entirely meant to speak. She certainly hadn’t intended to scream. But that same anger from so many times before boiled up and out of her and here she was.

“You’re supposed to be a Princess! You’re supposed to help ponies! Bait’s whole life has been a nightmare, and you’ve done nothing to help him! And you show up now, acting like you have some claim on anything!? How dare you!?”

Insight whipped up to face Terra. What she told Twilight about the being before her might have chilled her at any other time, but she wasn’t having it just now.

“Twilight, sto—”

“And you!” She whirled on Celestia and Luna. “What are you doing!? He’s not some piece in a game! He’s not a bargaining chip! He has a name!” She whipped back to face Terra. “The wight is named Bait, and you will never, ever take him fr—”

She may not have meant to speak, but now that it was started, she had no intention of stopping. She had more to say. Lots more. Enough to last for hours, if her throat were up to it. But she just stopped, right in the middle of her rant. She could still think, still understand what was happening, but she couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t a binding spell, not a time stall. It wasn’t even really magic at all. Twilight was suffering some unknown force of nature. A sort of cosmic halt.

Silence reigned.

“I’ve no need to explain myself to a petulant child,” Terra declared, utterly still. “But,” she turned, slow as an eon, to face the Sun Princess. “So be it, Celestia. I take no blame for what befalls them. Perhaps you will learn from your folly this time. Delay Typhon as best you can while I gather myself.”

“Terra!” cried Celestia.

The pale horse walked away. She didn’t stop. She didn’t even look back.

“Help her! All of us will likely die in this battle, but please, take Twilight out of here! She is innocent! She should never have been here! I will fight to my last breath, but she is still mortal! Please! She…” Celestia looked down. “She doesn’t deserve this. Just get her home.”

That, somehow, gave Terra pause. A very. Long. Pause. She stared into Twilight’s unmoving eyes. Not at her. Into her.

“I have not been able to find the way to Equestria for quite some time, Celestia.” An ancient, echoing sadness seeped through her words. “I am not of that place any longer. There is little I can do for her.”

Both Luna and Celestia recoiled in surprise.

“Oh, Terra. I had no idea…”

“And a Princess should never beg, Celestia.” She looked straight into Twilight as she said it. “But it shall be as you wish. If you should happen to survive this day,” Terra intoned, turning back the other Princess. “Teach your student some manners.” She strode away. “And never return here again.”

With that, she was gone.

“—om me!” screamed Twilight, finally able to finish her sentence. Celestia had stepped in to hug her at some point.

“I do believe you may actually have managed to upset her, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna. “Well done!”

Twilight, having not yet left the moment of her screaming fit, failed to appreciate Luna’s humor. She breathed hard into Celestia’s neck.

“What’s wrong with her!?” she hissed. “What happened!? Why is she like that?”

“So, yeah…We’ll just be going then,” murmured Cretes, creeping away.

“Cretes, wait!”

“Hell, no! Dealing with you ponies is bad enough! I’m not going anywhere near Terra. Fuck all that!”

“The offer stands! Get my people back to Equestria and I will grant you full pardon. You can finally come home.”

“Wait…” said Twilight.

Cretes stared Celestia in the eye, jaw working.

“What about my girls?”

“They’ll be welcome too, of course.”

Cretes looked back as Mona sidled up next to him. They had a quick murmured conversation.

“And if they don’t make it?” He tossed his head at Twilight, and at the rest of the ponies.

“If they don’t make it, Cretes, I will know nothing of what happened here.”

“Hrmph. How do we find the way back?”

“But—” began Twilight.

“Just follow their lead. The gate will open for them. I cannot guarantee it will let you through, but I will have each and every one of my people swear to tell me what transpired here. I will honor my word, Cretes.”

The bull turned again to Mona. She looked to the herd, and when she looked back, her eyes were grim. But a tiny spark of hope burned in them. She nodded.

“Fine. Deal.”

Celestia visibly swelled with relief.

“Stop ignoring me!”

Twilight surprised even herself as the air shook with her voice. That proclamation had been nothing less than Royal. All eyes turned to her.

“Why won’t anypony tell me what’s happening!? I’m not—”

The earth rumbled under her, cutting her off as some kind of stone platform rose beneath her hooves. Twilight would have leapt away if she hadn’t been so injured. She still tried.

“Ooh!” said Luna. “An elemental! This must be what Terra sent to help. This is excellent news, Twilight. They’re quite tough, elementals. I’m sure it will see you home safely, if Cretes cannot. Soldiers! I must handle things here. You are to guard Princess Twilight until such time as I relieve you in Equestria. You will find your way home in the way I explained. You will all swear to tell me of the oath between my sister and this bull?”

A series of affirmatives sounded.

“Good then.” She tapped the ‘elemental’ under Twilight’s hooves. “Follow them. Off you go!”

She smiled at Twilight as though anything at all were making sense right now.

“No! I’m not just leaving! What was all that about Terra and Typhon and everypony probably dying and…”

But the guards were already moving, and the platform was going with them. Ben had hopped up to join her there, and Bait had followed him, as had Brevity. Cretes and his herd were on their way as well.

“I’m sorry, Twilight,” said Celestia, trotting beside her. “I wish I had time t—“

“You can’t just send me away! Not after all this! I can help!”

An absolutely massive crash blasted through air. All eyes turned to the crumbling mountain it had come from.

Mount Etna had fallen completely.

From the volcano of dust and boulders burst a single, huge, clawed arm. Then another. A head followed it, draconic in form. Two more, as great as the first, came after. They roared in a shattering racket. Even from here, miles and miles away, it made Twilight fold back her ears. The beast’s six titanic wings spread as Typhon tore free of his prison.

Celestia glanced at him, then back at Twilight.

“I’m so sorry, Twilight, but please trust me! You have to go! You are so much more than you know, but nopony is enough for this! Luna and I will be fine!” She pushed Twilight back, away, onto the elemental.

“No! You’ll—”

Forget everything…

“Here!”

Celestia silenced Twilight with a kiss.

“I’ll expect you to return that when we meet again.”

Celestia gave her a tragic, dashing smile.

And then she leapt away. She spread her wings and joined Luna in the sky, streaking with all speed toward the monster in the distance.

Twilight stood, gaping like a fool as the elemental on which she unwillingly rode flowed through the earth, tearing away from the battle she should have been helping to win.

Author's Note:

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