• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,652 Views, 385 Comments

Nine Days Down - JoeShogun



Celestia's latest game of Save the Princess gets more serious than she'd have liked when she gets herself thrown into Tartarus. It would be bad enough if she were alone...but it seems she'd picked up a straggler as well.

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Titanomachy

The soldiers beat their wings above her, Cretes’s herd thundered around her, but Twilight barely noticed any of it. She stared off into the distant madness that was just beginning to befall the world. Thanks to the bizarre visual distortions that happened so regularly in this place, Twilight could see it all in perfect clarity. Twilight knew Tartarus’s hand was in it, she knew It wanted her to see this, but she couldn’t look away.

Typhon’s awakening proved only the first of many calamities.

The next was the coming of the Brothers.

Briareos flowed up out of the mountain that was his own home, crushing all in his wake, drowning everything that happened to be in his way under a living lake of bone and translucent flesh. Gyges came next, though Twilight didn’t know him by name.

Oh. That’s what Briareos thought was so funny.

Gyges was so flagrantly different from his brother that Twilight wondered how Briareos hadn’t laughed even harder at her failure to get the names straight. Gyges looked, more than anything, like some unfeasibly enormous tree. His ‘arms’ were branches, ripped out of the earth and sprouting forth from a trunk an entire village could have lived in. His heads were… well, it appeared that each of hekatonkhire was just as disturbing as the others. Gyges’s heads were shriveled, shrunken things, nearly skeletal, but more like the creepy masks that Zecora so fancied than anything that might ever have lived. Each was wrapped tight in cracked, broken bark. Most were held aloft by those long, thin, wooden hands, but many were just imbedded into the trunk of the creature, or dangling off branches of their own like some twisted fruit. All that was strange enough, but the real horror was in his voice. Fifty heads chanted in hellish, discordant unison, whistling, wheedling, like claws of wind scraped over bone.

She’d heard of this. Word magic. Spells that were cast by saying the right syllables in the right ways. But she’d never guessed it could be so terrible. The whole tree-thing swayed with that maddening spell-speech, and Twilight wished more than anything that it would just stop.

Cottos put himself together next, bursting up bit by bit from the ground and rushing to assemble in his entirety. There was no better word for it. He was an assembly. The only thing Twilight could think to compare Cottos to was some kind of centipede. Each head, if that was even what they were, had two limbs, and they all scrambled together to form a single, gigantic, armored thing. He was utterly silent, absolutely alien.

The brothers formed a perfect triangle around the dragon he tore himself from his mountain-prison. Entire landscapes of stone crumbled as the beast shook them off. That was the first time Twilight got a good look at the creature called Typhon.

He actually wasn’t especially huge, for a dragon. Certainly no bigger than the Dragon Lord. The hekatonkhire, all told, probably outweighed him by a huge margin. He had only three heads, to their hundred and fifty, but they were looking about, already sizing up their opposition. Wait, no, he had more. Their serpentine necks sprouted all along the dragon’s back. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. Twilight couldn’t get a count, they were so numerous. But the rest were small, barely as big as she was, if you could use the phrase ‘barely’ for that. Typhon’s chest was huge. Broad, muscular, plated in armor. Red, black, and shining. Two great arms, wrists wrapped in broken manacles, pushed him up from the earth, his claws tearing into it like so much clay. His torso was very much like any other dragon’s, except that it didn’t end in legs. It split into countless tails, each one descending who knew how far into the ground. They seemed too thin to carry him, but he lifted himself up on them like it was no challenge at all, roaring nightmarish defiance at his captors. His six wings beat to the tune of his bellowing voices.

“Return to your slumber, dear brother!” cried the chorus of Briareos. “There is no need for this!”

Typhon was their brother? How many siblings were there? Who were their parents? Why didn’t she know about this?

Typhon slammed his fists into the earth and screamed a single word.

DIE!

The brothers attacked.

Twilight watched Briareos the most, if only because she still felt guilty for how she’d treated him before. He moved with terrifying speed, his hundred hands clawing the landscape apart as he tore his way forward. She watched as he plucked up some small creature in one hand and…and she gasped as she saw him crush it. Several heads converged on the point, chanting in the same horrid language Gyges spoke as the hand squeezed the very essence from the pitiful thing and funneled it into what Twilight recognized as a spell. She watched him do it again, and then again, ripping the life from creature after creature to fuel some terrible magic.

And she’d thought he was almost nice. Scary, but nice.

While Briareos had been at his work, the other brothers had been equally busy. Gyges’s chanting seemed to be hurting Typhon, and the dragon roared against it, trying to deafen himself against that horrible voice. Cottos was passing boulders from one pair of hands to the next, and, as Twilight watched, he whipped his entire bizarre body in a wave from one end to the other and catapulted the first stone with unimaginable force at his target. Briareos reached up with one fluid hand and touched the missile as it flew, imbuing it with all the vile power he had wrenched from his victims.

It struck, and even from this distance Twilight winced at the blow. Typhon went flying as the projectile exploded into black and violet and emerald shrapnel.

Dark magic. Darker than anything she'd ever thought possible...

A low moan rolled through the earth. Twilight could swear she felt the agony in it.

“Brothers…” Typhon wailed, struggling to right himself. The sound was an animal thing, filled with such pain that Twilight’s mind shied away from even thinking of it. “Why dO yOu do tHis!?”

That was the only sign of weakness she would ever see from Typhon.

“Just Let Me EnD iT!”

Typhon threw himself from the ground and rushed at Gyges, his weird crawling, slithering, flying gait eating the distance between them without warning and without mercy. His first claw struck empty space as Gyges leaned back. Then the entire tree withered, or at least, it looked that way. Typhon crushed the husk of it as Gyges slipped back into the ground, only to burst back up miles away, like some impossibly voracious weed.

Typhon roared again, switching angle to meet Briareos as the fluid creature crashed onto him. Twilight expected the fight to end right there. The hekatonkhire was just so big. She almost felt bad for Typhon. But...

It became clear within seconds that Briareos was losing. Typhon tore into him, splattering the protoplasm that held Briareos together with animal fury. His infinite heads were taking the larger monster apart, bit by bit, and that was before Typhon unleashed his real power.

The dragon shook one of his greater heads free of those grasping claws, sucking in a breath so deep it rustled the trees around him. He spat something that wasn’t fire. It was so much worse. Pure wrath. Utter hatred. It absolutely destroyed everything it touched, and it touched Briareos.

He screamed.

“It’s going to be alright, Your Majesty.” It was Brevity. Twilight had forgotten she was even there with her. “Princess Luna warned us about this. Her and Celestia have it under control.”

“Then why aren’t they doing anything!? Why aren’t they helping!?”

Brevity’s ears went flat against her head.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Twilight, her own ears following suit.

“No need to apologize, M’lady.”

Twilight looked at the guardsmare, just now noticing the scroll on which she was writing even as they spoke.

“What is that?”

“Hm? Oh, the scroll. I’m an annalist. Princess Luna asked me to record as much of this trip as I could. The quill is magic. It writes whatever I think at it. Neat, huh?”

Twilight blinked, failing to understand how anypony could be so blithe about all this. It didn’t occur to her until later that Brevity might be faking it for her benefit.

“Anyway, they’re holding off because they’d just get in those other guys’ way. That’s what Luna said. They’ll step in when the time is right.”

Twilight turned back to the battle just as another boulder bashed one of Typhon’s larger heads away from the mass of jelly-flesh it was mauling. Cottos must have thrown it. Briareos took the opportunity to rally, ripping with dozens of claws into unseen weaknesses in Typhon’s armor. But he was backing out even as he did it. Gyges cast something at the dragon, some horrid spell that made him stumble, but not for long. Typhon thrust his tails further into the earth, and moments later dozens of them burst up all around the tree and wrapped around its roots. Twilight had no idea how that was possible, or how the battle was faring. There were just too many things happening at once, roots fighting tails fighting branches fighting draconic heads. Typhon had thrown Briareos off and was closing on the great tree, and it seemed unable to escape this time.

The dragon unleashed another great howl onto its enemy. There was no not-fire this time, but something had landed, some kind of distortion that rent the air around Gyges. A bolt of blood-colored lighting struck him from everywhere or nowhere and split whole limbs off the creature. He burned, the smoke rising with a reek of unholy agony, and he groaned in shattering pain. But even that wasn’t enough to kill him. He fought on. For what seemed an eternity, he fought on. Gyges clawed at Typhon. He swept up as many tendrils of the beast as he could fit into his great, wooden claws, wrapping him in roots, clinging close as if to smother him. They writhed and fought, wood creaking and breaking under Typhon’s unstoppable fury. And then, Gyges’s chant hit a deafening crescendo, and the whole mass of him burst into thousands upon thousands of spikes. Gyges’s entire life, everything the great tree-thing was, exploded into a vicious, barbed trap.

“Whoa…” The rapid scratching of Brevity’s quill stopped, but only for a moment.

He had killed himself in one great paroxysm of spite.

Twilight’s mind whirled. Why? Why!?

Then she saw the seeds, popping off and spreading like dandelion puffs into the wind. Would he grow back? How long would it take? What madness made him take such a risk? And the worst part? It hadn’t stopped him. Typhon. The dragon was still going.

Typhon shrieked. Briareos, having reveilled, slung stones and horrible magics at the beast. He fell back as Typhon tore himself loose, at great cost, from the labyrinth of thorns. His blood rained on the earth, and to Twilight’s unbelieving dismay, it got up. Everywhere his blood touched the earth, there sprouted a monster. Many were like the chimera she had seen before, some even more strange than that. They rose and took to the air or the ground and flew at their father’s attackers. They were nothing against the might of the hekatonkhire, but they were many, and they fought with suicidal fury.

Typhon lunged again for Briareos, but was struck mid-air by another massive boulder from Cottos. Two of his greater heads turned and blasted a volley of devastation in counter. Cottos fell apart before it could hit, scattering his many parts. Typhon switched angle to catch the creature in this moment of weakness, but Cottos reassembled just as fast. He built himself differently this time, coming together as a wall of carapace to meet Typhon’s charge.

“Ah, fuckin’ Hells!”

Twilight’s elemental chariot ground to a slow halt, matching the lessening speed of the herd and soldiers surrounding it. Twilight didn’t notice until Bait tapped her withers. She turned to him, and he pointed her toward something. She looked. If she were even capable of being surprised anymore, she would have been now. As it stood though, she just growled.

“Nuckalavee.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Brevity look at her.

“You know this guy, Princess?”

“We’ve met.”

"Dammit, Nuck! I ain’t got time for this! Piss off!” bellowed Cretes.

“Hah! Sure! Give me ponies and I’ll call off the Hunt. You can go. For now. But I want that one!” The skinless abomination aimed his black metal blade straight at Twilight. “And all her little friends!” He licked both pairs of lips, slavering. “You think we were done, girl!? Think you got away from me!? This is Tartarus! Nobody gets away!”

The monster strutted before a veritable horde of creatures like him, inasmuch as anything was like him. The Fey. Chittering, cackling, impossible things, no two of them alike. One was like a huge dog, wrapped in chains and flexing claws of corroded bronze. Another bled from every orifice, giggling endlessly. One wore a coat made entirely of faces. And there were so many more.

A chill ran through Twilight. The Hunt, he’d called it. The Wild Hunt. It was thing of legend, something she’d been certain couldn’t be real. It was a sort of grand revel, a time when all the living nightmares hiding in the shadows of the world came together and ran rampant. And it was here. For her. She looked at Cretes. He looked back, and something in his eyes went hard.

“Take your damned ponies and go, kid,” he snarled.

“What!? N—”

“Shut up and go! We’ll take ‘em. But you make damn sure Celestia remembers what she said, you hear me?”

He turned away, ignoring her protests.

“Fuck you, Nuckalavee! I’ve been waiting a long time for a real shot at finally killing you!”

The monster laughed and reared.

Cretes burst into flame and charged, blazing wings spreading wide. Armor slammed down from the ether onto him, covering nigh every inch of his hide with bronze-like metal. The herd stampeded after him.

His weapon was armor, then. Twilight supposed he didn’t need much else.

“Alright, let’s go!”

It was one of the guards. Silver something. Shine? He leapt into the air, heading away from the ensuing carnage. The elemental started sliding to follow him.

“No!”

“Princess, we can’t fight that many,” said Brevity, voice soft. “I’m sorry, but getting you home is the best we can do right now.”

“You’re just being a coward! Stop this thing right now! I’m not leaving th—” Twilight tried to stomp a hoof and nearly fell as she put too much weight on her injured leg. It was as much agonizing realization as physical pain that stopped her from fighting any further.

Brevity was right. Running away was all she could do. She wanted to cry, but again, the tears just wouldn’t come.

“I’m sorry, Princess.”

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.

She landed a few shots on the gibbering horde as she fled. She didn’t know if it helped.

~~~

The apocalyptic battle in the distance was still going on, but Twilight didn’t have time to watch it. The Hunt was on them. Cretes and his herd had blunted their charge, but more than a dozen freakish horrors had broken away to give chase to the ponies. Twilight blasted down one particularly unfeasible flying thing, some kind of winged leech with far too many eyes, as it screamed down towards one of the guards. The pegasus saluted and darted away to engage another creature. The guards weren’t so much attacking the things as stalling them, knocking them down or off the chase as their squadmates fled. A fighting retreat, Twilight had heard it called. She helped as best she could. The elemental did too. One creature, some kind of big, predatory rabbit-crab-thing, had gotten too close, and the moving platform had shot forth a spike of earth to dissuade it. A ring of jagged, blue crystal spars had erupted around the edge of the disc after that. They kept things out, sure, but they blocked Twilight’s vision too, and left her feeling claustrophobic. If only she knew what this elemental was capable of, she could—

An oversized spider with far too many legs and a clawed hand at the end of each leapt from the tree-line and nearly dragged one pegasus down. Twilight barely got it in time. Her bolt landed a glancing blow at best, but it was enough.

“Nice shot!” exclaimed somepony.

“There’s the gate! I can see it from here!” called another.

“Form up on the Princess! Do not engage! Just move!” bellowed a third.

The little hill, invisible and untouchable to the monstrosities that chased them, was in sight. They were so close!

They almost made it.

A bird, massive, antlered, cloaked in feathers of shadow and razor, descended on one nyxie, flinging her from the air. Distracted, Twilight didn’t even see Nuckalavee coming. He smashed into the elemental, shattering the crystal cage and sending all atop the platform flying.

It took everything Twilight had just to save herself. Anything more would have been a miracle. So a miracle was what she made.

Twilight threw every scrap of magic she had to her friends. She caught Bait, and Ben, and Brevity, and even as she crashed to the dirt, rolling for what felt like ages, even as every old wound and several new ones screamed, she held them up. She placed them on the ground, one by one, as she slowly, stubbornly rose to her hooves. Insight was with her, aimed at the threat.

“Brevity? Take them and go.”

“Princess, I can’t—“

Nuckalvee, battered, bloody, and burning, but utterly untroubled by any of it, strode forward. His two mouths grinned, breath billowing out in a brown, noxious cloud.

“Nuckalavee,” huffed Twilight, barely standing. “Run. Just leave. Or I will kill you.” Insight danced before with a flourish.

The monster laughed. He howled in hideous glee. He chortled and capered and snickered in such open disdain for her that he never saw the hit coming.

The elemental had changed. Its form was almost ape-like as it crept forward. It didn’t roar, didn’t shake the earth with its tread. It simply stalked up close and back-handed Nuckalavee with a great club of a fist that sent him flying. He must have soared thirty feet before Twilight lost sight of him in the woods. She might have smirked if she’d had time.

Instead, she turned around, looking for the nyxie that had been dropped by the bird. The wreckage was easy enough to follow, and she did so, limping with all speed toward it.

“Princess!”

Another nyxie, Silver Shine, the leader of the squad, landed beside her.

“This way, Princess! We’re almost there!”

“In a second! I have to get…” What had her name been? Something-winder? How had Twilight forgotten!? Whatever, it didn’t matter.

“No, Princess! Orders are to get you out as soon as possible!” He grabbed her shoulder.

Twilight shook him off.

“I don’t care! I’m not leaving her!”

Brevity stepped in front of her.

“Princess, we all knew the risks when we came here.”

“We have to go, Your Majesty! More are coming!”

“Then GO!” Twilight shoved a spell into her voice and both ponies were blown back. “But I am not leaving without her!”

She spread her aching wings and prepared to take to the air. But before she did…

“Bait! Ben! Go with them!”

And then she leapt away.

That hadn’t been fair of her. She was being crazy right now, stupid. She didn’t much care, though. Everypony else was dead-set on throwing their life away today. Why couldn’t she?

It didn’t take long to find the nyxie, but every second was maddening. When Twilight finally caught sight of the fight, Sidewinder was limping, one wing dragging along the ground. She bled from at least two deep wounds and half a dozen lesser ones.

The nyxie and the bird-beast circled one another. The bird stalked forward, wary. It was hurt, too. Sidewinder had given it a reason to be afraid, somehow, and that little bit of fear, that threat that the nyxie might do whatever she’d done again, was all that was keeping her alive right now. Twilight strained to reach them, fought against everything between her and them, but they were so far away!

She watched in horrified slow motion as the shade-and-razor bird finally overcame its worries and lunged in with a bizarrely melodious screech. Sidewinder dodged one way, then the other, but in this strangely dilated time, Twilight could see it wasn’t going to work. Sidewinder slipped, pain and loss of blood slowing her. The strike would land. That vicious beak would clamp down and that would be the end of the Nyxie named Sidewinder.

But Twilight could stop it.

She could do it right now.

Insight was with her. She could get there in time. She could slip through the distance and pierce the monster’s brain, cleave through its skull like it wasn’t even there. She could make it quick, painless.

She could do that. It would be so easy. It wouldn’t even be bad. Taking a monster’s life to save a pony’s? There was nothing wrong with that. It had happened all the time in an earlier age. It was the stuff legends were made of. Twilight would be a hero.

But.

But it seemed like everything she’d been through, every experience she’d had on this terrible journey, had been leading her to this. Every encounter, every conversation had drawn her inevitably toward this one moment, this place where she would have to choose one life over another. The actors in her little play hadn’t known their parts, perhaps. Celestia, for instance, would never have wanted to put blood on her hooves, but even she had guided Twilight down that path, by example if nothing else. Celestia had told her, even shown her, that sometimes it must be done. Luna had given Twilight a way to cope, a display of how to embrace the act, rather than be tormented by it. Ben had led her down this road too, now that she thought about it. He had killed without ceremony or drama. As had the guards. They'd done it as a matter of course, because that was just how life worked sometimes.

And now, finally, Twilight had to join them. It was all a part of growing up, right? Death, and inflicting it, was just one more thing a Princess had to learn to deal with.

But…

She looked again at the scene before her. She saw the fear in Sidewinder’s eyes, but also her determination. The knowledge that she had done what she was meant to do. She knew that she had served some greater good, and that knowledge brought her a grim satisfaction.

Twilight turned to the bird-thing. She saw the fury in the creature, saw its madness. Saw the pain and loss and suffering that had inspired that madness. She saw that there was nothing she could do for the monster. Killing it would be a mercy.

But…What about Bait? He, too, had killed, even in the short time she’d known him. But if she’d killed those other wights, his family, would he have followed her? If he hadn’t been there, if she had run him off, how would she have escaped when Tartarus had possessed Cretes and attacked her?

But she had to choose! She had to pick one! There was no other way!

Twilight felt the entire world hold its breath as it awaited her conclusion. Only now did she realize that it had been doing that for a while. Politely waiting while she reached a decision.



No.

She made her declaration to no one. Or everyone. To Tartarus, perhaps, or Celestia, or the whole damned universe.

I will not do this. I do not have to make this choice.

I am not a killer.

She could be. She could do as Celestia had done, and accept the horrible weight of it. She could light that fire and let it run wild, becoming an instrument of divine devastation. She could turn this place into a pyre and dance in the ashes. She could reduce those monsters that dared harm her people to nothing but ash and regret. It wouldn’t be wrong.

Or...

She could do as Luna had done. She could take all the fear and pain this place had inflicted on her, tear it from within and wrap it ‘round herself like a cloak. She could become an even greater monster than they. She could show this forsaken world what terror really was, and leave it the better for it. She couldn’t deny there was a certain allure to it.

But…No. I will not choose one life over another.

The realization brought a strange peace, and a terrifying responsibility, because…

I can do better. I must do better!

I don’t sever bonds! I forge them!

I don’t kill people.

I make friends!

And that was what she did.

Time thundered back into place as Twilight, by sheer force of her will, crossed the space between her and the battle in less than an instant. There was no great explosion as she ascended to goddess-hood, no massive blast of power. Just a small rainbow shockwave, and a sudden cessation of all the pain and doubt that had assailed her. Her mane didn’t suddenly start to wave in some unknowable wind. That was something for Luna and Celestia, not her. It did glow, though, bathing the area around her in a calming, revealing, lavender light. The spell-cast on her leg broke apart as her wounds knit themselves, her body racing to achieve the perfection her new status demanded.

You two stop that right now!”

To literally everyone’s surprise, they did. Because it hadn't been a request. It had been a statement of fact. Sidewinder and the bird froze immediately, watching her with a wariness bordering on fear. Not mortal fear, but more like that of children caught stealing from a cookie jar.

Twilight could see them now. Really see them! Everything was so obvious! She could feel the bond between them. It was weak, and unpleasant, a bond of fear and conflict, but she could fix that easily enough. And so she did. She used Sidewinder’s other bonds as a reference, bonds of respect and friendship for her fellow guards, bonds of love for her family. Twilight could see them all now! Insight severed that link of mutual distrust and re-wove it into something better.

The bird and the nyxie watched their new Goddess work, perplexed by these new emotions, but obedient to them. They turned and saw each other with new eyes.

That’s better. Now…”

Twilight gasped when she saw the blood strewn about the ground. And then she fixed that too.

Sidewinder, come here and be still.”

The mare, several years older than Twilight, meekly approached.

Insight bound her wounds. Using herself as needle and Twilight’s will as thread, she rejoined every broken vein, every severed nerve, returning each piece back to where it belonged. It took but a moment.

“There. All better. But she’s still going to need help getting home.” Twilight turned to the black-as-night falcon. “Can I count on you for that?”

It gave an uncertain squawk of assent.

Good. Thank you. And…”

She eyed the creature closely with her new senses, and noticed something she hadn’t before. It, no, she, had her own bonds, but they had been broken ages ago, their jagged edges whipping through her soul and bringing nothing but pain. Bonds of love for a mate long gone. Bonds of longing for children she would never have, and friends cruelly slain. Goddess, no wonder she’d gone mad...And there was another one. More of a shackle, really. It was ugly, and barbed, and evil. Twilight couldn’t quite see where it led. Insight severed it. She sewed up the rest while she was at it, finally bringing closure where it could never have come before.

“And why don’t you go with her, when you get there?”

The bird’s beak opened, then shut. She didn’t understand what had happened, but she was thankful, in her way. She snapped Sidewinder up in both talons, took to the air, and was gone.

Twilight nodded, satisfied for the first time since she’d come here that she had done the right thing. She looked outward, unthinkingly opening herself and her new senses to everything else that was out there.

Her eyes, or whatever she was experiencing this with, were first drawn to what was immediately before her: herself. She looked into her own being, and gasped at what she saw. She was friendship. She had become it. She was intelligence, ingenuity, diligence, integrity. And, rather less pleasantly, neurosis, indecision. But still, there was just so much more to herself than she’d ever known! So many connections! So much love and happiness, and yes, anger and frustration and worse things. She had been sorely wounded, she saw that now, but she was confident she could heal these wounds in time. But there was one thing that she wasn’t, anymore.

Magic.

It had left her. She still had her own, of course, but it was different now. The Element of Harmony that magic encompassed was no longer hers.

Oh.

This was why the Sisters could no longer use them. They’d become something else. And now Twilight had too. It hurt to lose that part of herself, but really, it had never been hers at all, had it? The Harmony had never been a thing for Gods and Goddesses. It was a balance against them. Twilight understood, and so she wished the magic she had once known a fond farewell as it left in search of a new friend. It returned her gesture, and then it was gone. It would miss her, too…

Twilight didn’t focus on her loss. She followed the paths of her newest links instead, and found the guards. Loyalty, pride, faith. She followed another, and saw Ben. Simple, uncomplicated joy at finding another peaceable creature. Loyalty, just like in the guards, but tempered with a decided tendency toward friendly mischief. She smiled. How had she ever doubted him? She moved on. Bait. Determination. Hope. Trust, of a kind he’d never known. Real, genuine trust. Burgeoning love. But also pain, and a terrible fear of loss.

Poor kid. She felt her own bond to him grow stronger as she looked.

She quested outward. She didn’t even feel her heart pounding as it tried to keep up with the power that poured through her.

She followed another link, immensely strong, loving, complex, confusing, and beheld the most glorious conflagration she could have ever imagined. She drew in a sharp breath.

Celestia.

Goddess, but she was glorious! Sunfire and perfection and glory and magnificence and simple, pure love. How had Twilight ever been confused by this!? Who wouldn’t love her? Yes, she may be unchanging, relentlessly pragmatic, the very embodiment of violent might, but she had such beauty in her! Twilight gazed into the Sun and the Sun gazed back. Celestia brimmed over with pride and joy. Not her own, not even of Twilight or what she had done or become, but in Twilight and what she was. And again, love, of so many kinds. They smiled into each other on a level Twilight had never known could exist. She could have spent forever looking into her like that, but Celestia gently guided her gaze elsewhere.

Twilight almost laughed. It was such a Celestia thing to do.

Twilight followed her teacher’s lead. If she’d had breath left to gasp in, she would have. As it stood, she just looked on in awe.

Luna.

Twilight hadn’t known any single being could possibly be so beautiful. She was everything, and in being such, nothing, but still, somehow, anything. Her whole nature was born of ambiguity. She was mysterious and dramatic, charming and terrifying. She was an infinite muse, inspiration itself. And she was terribly, insatiably, curious as well, if only to see what Twilight would do with all this newfound power. The living Moon shone back on Twilight with respect, nodding to her as one would a great friend…or a worthy adversary. It was then that Twilight understood what Nightmare Moon really was. The nemesis, the mirror-counter to Celestia’s perfection, the change that forever challenged Celestia's permanence. How much did such a role try their relationship? Twilight traced the bond between the two and in that moment knew exactly how much. Even so, their link was invincible.

Something Celestia had said came back to Twilight. Something about her being less than she really was here. How much more could the Sisters possibly be!?

Her senses wandered, catching on the Brothers, the hekatonkhire. She saw them as they were. Utterly unique. Tragically alien. She saw how they sometimes wished to be like other creatures, and saw their inability to understand why they should even wish for such a thing. They saw her looking, and though their senses were not those of the Sisters, they looked back. They understood little of what they saw in her, though Briareos did his best. Twilight tried to convey her regret at having judged him.

They had few ties to the world around them, and that saddened her, but most led to…

Typhon.

She recoiled from what she saw in him, but, having seen that void, she found she could no longer look away.

His whole being was a great, ragged, gaping hole, an endless loss that he struggled to fill with rage and ruin and unthinking, animal fury. No. Not unthinking. It was worse. It was the fury that could only come with ages of contemplation. Her horror wasn’t one of disgust, and not of pity either. It was the terrible, incurable suffering that came with sympathy.

What happened to you?

Typhon stared back into her. She thought that maybe, just for a moment, he might have hesitated. That he might have known doubt. But then all the hate for a world that would give her so much and him so little flooded back in, and she couldn’t watch anymore. Twilight turned away, unwittingly following the only connection Typhon held for anything that wasn’t absolute loathing. Even there, it was mixed in.

It went down, down, down. Far into the heart of this place. Twilight didn’t fully understand what she saw there.

Terra.

She was just…empty. Gone. A vast, cavernous, nothing. But it couldn’t have always been this way. Just as a natural cavern must once have held stone, so must Terra have been something more than she was now.

What happened? Twilight wondered again.

Quiet echoes of memory resounded through that emptiness. Ghosts of emotion, shadows of instinct. It was these silent demands that Terra obeyed, though she had only the barest understanding of why. Twilight listened close. They felt…what? Maternal? Protective? When Twilight looked into her, the Goddess gave little concern to her response. A bit of curiosity, perhaps, and that was all. A metaphysical tilt of the head, just enough for Twilight to see that Terra had finally acknowledged her as something worthy of notice. Terra did not dwell on the exchange. She had other concerns, though she had little comprehension of what, specifically, made them concerning

She had few bonds. Dysfunctional, uneven links to the hekatonkhire. Another, equally incomprehensible one to Typhon. But there was one she shared in common with nearly every other creature here. Twilight had seen it before. Ugly. Barbed. Evil.

She followed it, realizing only now that she had saved it for last. It led her up, up, up. She glared into the eye of Tartarus, and finally saw It for what It was.

When she had looked into the Brothers, she had thought them alien. It was so for Tartarus as well, but in such an utterly different way as to render the term meaningless. Tartarus was a perversion, a twisted distortion of what Terra might once have been. It was vicious, ravenously jealous, violently covetous. It was a remorseless, relentless corruption, an all-seeing child, putting bugs in a jar and shaking them, just to see what they would do. But...

In Its horrid way, it loved them. It was generous and benevolent, granting them anything they could take. It was tolerant of most anything. It allowed whatever could be done, setting no true rules. It knew no greater bliss than to watch Its creatures grow and clash and become something other.

It stared back into Twilight eagerly, and in seeing her, in seeing her see Itself, It felt a grand and resounding pride. It was nothing like Celestia’s. Its pride was not in Twilight’s accomplishments, nor of what she was, but of what It had made of her.

Her coming had cost It many inmates, but they were irrelevant. Their deaths had brought this glorious moment into being. Their lives had been a price It was more than willing to pay, for this was something new! Through them, and Its own manipulations of them, It had brought forth a new Goddess! In the crucible of their blood and her suffering, she had been re-born, and Tartarus could not be more proud of her! It had unleashed such horror on her, and rather than become Its creature, she had rejected all that It was. That only made her ascension all the sweeter, because in her, It had accomplished something grand. In her, It had made a true and worthy opponent. For Tartarus, any sacrifice was worth this one, perfect moment.

And it was in that ‘perfect moment’ that Twilight learned what it was to truly hate another being. It was then that she finally understood why Luna and Celestia had allowed themselves to kill.

It was also when her little pony body finally realized it wasn’t quite ready for goddesshood. Her head swam. Twilight wavered on her hooves as her heart beat itself near to death trying to keep up. The sparkling glow suffusing her mane suddenly cut out. It sparked back up, only to give in again. She looked up, and saw only a burning ring in the sky.

Time resumed. Her moment was over.

“Wait. I-I’m not…”

If Tartarus had possessed anything like lips, it might have smiled. Because, as much as it loved her, it still held a little sliver of hate for what she'd done. It would never have this new Goddess. It would never own her. And worse, she had taken from It. The bird was lost to It now. She'd severed the chain that Tartarus had spent years forging in the creature, and the loss left a tiny, aching hole in It. But there was nothing to be done for those things. Nothing but a bit of petty revenge.

Because Tartarus would be damned before it let this upstart Goddess steal from It again.

The world-thing thrust a tiny tendril of Its power down into one Its least notable creatures.

Twilight was still aware enough to see, if only just barely.

“No!”

She threw Insight at the chain that bound Tartarus to Its victim.

Tartarus loved her for that, for being somehow still able to even attempt resistance. It didn’t matter that she failed to cut the chain. It didn't matter that It was easily able to rebuff her, now that It knew what she could do. It was the struggle that was important. Such resolve! Such heroism! What a wonder It had made of her...

Bait fell deadweight to the ground as Tartarus took him. He staggered up as Twilight fell, unable to do anything but watch as her body finally failed her. The wight turned to look straight at her, and the last thing Twilight saw as the ground rushed up to meet her was the burning rings in his eyes.

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