• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,718 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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Remembering

With apologies, she decided. She did her best to explain herself, about how she’d felt these past weeks, and why she’d acted the way she had. It wasn't made any easier by the fact that didn't entirely know, but still, she tried. Her first attempt came out a long, rambling, pointlessly maudlin thing. She crumpled it up and tried again. After a few more rounds, she had something that might be worth reading. She made a copy for everypony she thought she might have upset (just about everyone she knew) and added a personalized note to the end of each. Applejack’s was the longest. Celestia’s was short, heartfelt, and intensely difficult. All included a promise to do what she should have done long before. But tomorrow.

For now, she needed time to get herself sorted, to figure out how she could possibly do this thing. The writing was helping, getting her organized. She sent the letters to their recipients, requested some lunch, and spent the rest of the day setting out her tale. Looked at on paper, it was nothing much. Just a series of events, with bullets and notes under each to remind her not to leave out certain details she might otherwise omit. Simple, neutral facts. She was tempted to present it that way, as some kind of history, something that had happened and was past and that was that. But she knew that wouldn’t do. Written in the margins on every page was a line that read Tell it all. Especially the bad parts.

When night came, she put her work aside and left the room.

~~~

Twilight Sparkle wended her way toward the door of the guard’s mess hall. She truly, thoroughly did not want to be here. She heard the big, boisterous voices coming through the door and almost turned back, but in the end decided that running away would hurt even more. She nosed open the heavy portal. Her eyes travelled past table after table of guards. They were unarmored, barely recognizable as soldiers at all here in their own territory. Many conversed casually, a few rather more raucously. Some just ate without saying much at all. They didn’t notice her at first. That was promising. Maybe she could just sneak in unseen and make her apologies without a fuss.

Ah! There he was! Silver Shine sat in a corner of the room near the back at a round table with several other ponies she recognized. Twilight started forward, eager to get this done as painlessly as possible. Her gaze caught on...something. Just a bit of shadow, maybe, but it seemed off, somehow. She followed the tendril of darkness up to a mass of gloom and gleaming sharpness.

Her heart slammed in her chest. Her mouth went dry. Her worst fears were true! She hadn’t escaped! Tartarus was here, it had found her! The other ponies seemed unaware of the monster skulking in the dark not two yards from them. Twilight tried to scream, to warn them, but nothing came.

The thing’s huge eyes locked onto hers, livid with malevolence. It growled.

She recognized it! The bird thing! The one she’d—

“Beaksy! What are you squawking at, girl?” barked a pony. A nyxie. Sidewinder. Twilight’s face twitched in confusion.

Sidewinder followed the beast-of-shadow-and-blade’s stare to Twilight. “Oh, fudge!“ She slammed a hoof on her table. “Princess on site!” At the word ‘Princess,’ every guard jumped to rigid attention, dropping whatever they might have been doing to salute her.

The silence went long as the pieces started to fall into place.

She did recognize it. The bird thing. The one she’d made friends with Sidewinder. The one she’d invited into Equestria…

A strangled sound escaped Twilight before she remembered the phrase Luna had told her to say. “Um, at ease!”

'At ease' was a magical command, Luna had told her, that the Princesses used when they wished the guards to temporarily pretend they weren't Princesses. It took effect immediately. So fast, in fact, that it made Twilight wonder if there really was some magic in it. The guards relaxed, salutes were dropped. Smiles were resumed, and everypony suddenly remembered how to be normal. It would have been fascinating to watch if Twilight weren’t so distracted.

The din of a room full of eating ponies picked back up, and soon it seemed as if Twilight had never interrupted it. Which was nice, because she had no idea what to do next. This hadn’t been supposed to happen. She’d planned this out, darn it! She’d written up a whole speech! But seeing the bird (Beaksy, apparently) had thrown everything all cattywampus.

Sidewinder, followed closely by Silver Shine, rushed across the room to meet her. They both dipped into a quick bow.

“I’m sorry about Beaksy, Princess! I know she can be scary at first. I would have sent her out if I’d known you were coming,” said Sidewinder.

At first?

“She’s perfectly harmless, Princess. Eh, to ponies. We got permission to allow her into the castle from Princess Luna. She’s actually been a great help to us since you convinced her to join the Night Guard, and—“

Convinced? To convince a person implied that said person had some choice in the matter. Twilight had done a lot of thinking about what, exactly, she had done when she’d gone all God-crazy. In the end, she’d had to admit it had been little more than a particularly insidious form of mind control. It was one of things she’d hoped to apologize about.

“—she gets nervous if we leave her alone for too long. But I can ask her to wait outside if she’s making you uncomfortable, Highness.”

“Oh. Um, no, it’s…fine.”

Wait. She gets nervous?

“My apologies for the mess, m’lady,” put in Silver Shine. “Princess Luna suggested you might be coming to visit, but I didn’t expect you soon. If I'd known, I, uh, well, never mind. May I clear you a place at our table?”

“Yes?”

Shine gave a quick nod and led her to the round table, nearer the horror-bird. It stared at her, orange eyes lambent and narrow. She stared right back, every step of the way. Its eyes flicked between her and Sidewinder. Protective? Jealous? Twilight never once glanced away from the creature. She watched it hunch further back into its own shadows as she grew close. Was it scared of her? No, wait. Not it. She.

“Beaksy, relax!” implored Sidewinder. “You remember Princess Twilight, right? She’s the one who let you come here.”

The great, tenebrous falcon made an unpleasant noise Twilight didn’t know how to translate. Sidewinder approached her and stroked the beast’s chest with a hoof, careful to avoid the edges of Beaksy’s sharp feathers.

“Don’t worry, Princess. She’ll come around.” Sidewinder looked up at the bird fondly, and the bird looked back. “She’s just a little shy.” The nyxie returned to the table, but Twilight was still watching the monster in the corner. Beaksy returned her gaze, but only for a moment. She glanced around the room instead. She watched the chatting ponies as if trying to figure out why they weren’t trying to kill her, and perhaps why she wasn’t trying to eat them. Twilight watched her for another moment before she saw what was actually happening. She’d been wrong. It wasn’t malice in the creature’s eyes, it was confusion. Beaksy had no idea what to do with all this strange, unasked-for companionship. And, oddly enough, Twilight could relate to that just now.

“I wish I’d known you were coming, your majesty.” Silver Shine shuffled plates around, clearing her a space. “I could’ve had something better prepared. But, eh, I’m sure we can put something together that should be worthy of you. Backstep! Get a plate for the Princess!” He looked…what? Nervous? Angry? Had she gotten this wrong, too? Should she have stayed away?

“No! You don’t have to…” But Backstep was already gone. Twilight managed to drag her eyes from Beaksy, and she saw that every pony at the table was looking at her. Not a one seemed even a bit concerned about the living-gloom-beast behind them. “I’m sorry! I should have warned you. Um. I just, I wanted to apologize, was all. You don’t need to, I mean, I can go, if you want.”

Shine blinked in confusion.

“Apologize, my liege?”

“For stepping all over your command before! And for insulting you, and making everypony risk themselves even more because I was being crazy, and”

Ugh. Goddess, this wasn’t coming out at all like she'd planned!

Sidewinder and Silver Shine glanced at each other, then back at Twilight.

“We are at ease right now. Is that correct, excellency?”

Okay, how many synonyms for Princess does this stallion have?

Twilight nodded, eager to get his inevitable recriminations against her out of the way.

“So…” said Shine, the beginnings of a wry, friendly smile playing at his lips. “You've come to apologize for saving the life of my comrade?”

Whatever Twilight had been thinking of saying next was abruptly cut off.

“I...suppose I hadn’t thought of it that way. But, wait, that isn’t true! None of you ever would have been there if not for me! And I put everypony in danger for my own stupid…I don’t even know! I called you a coward!”

“We volunteered, Your Highness, every one of us.” The soldiers all nodded. “Princess Luna made absolutely certain we knew the risks. And you’re Royalty. I never should have treated you like you were weak.”

His smile was gone, replaced by iron resolve.

“But why!? Why would you do that for me? And I am weak! I had no idea what I was doing out there! If I hadn’t run after Sidewinder, if whatever I did back there hadn’t worked, then...I just, I don't understand! How could you make that decision?”

Twilight regretted it before she’d even asked, but she just had to know!

Something in Silver Shine’s face shifted.

“Yeah, okay!” someone yelled, slamming a hoof onto the table for the second time tonight. It was Sidewinder herself.

“Sorry, Princess Twilight, but we’re at ease and I’m really tired of ponies being all weird about this. I made a mistake, alright? I slipped up and let my guard down. I knew I couldn't run with those cuts on me, so I just tried to slow the enemy down as long as I could. Anypony here would have done the same thing in my place.” Sidewinder waved a hoof around the table. “And I would have given the same order Shine did if I'd been in his. One for all, and all that. And it worked out, right? I’m still alive and Beaksy loves it here, even if she scares people and pretends to be grumpy all the time, so let’s just drop it, yeah?”

Silver Shine snorted a grateful chuckle, and Twilight all but felt a little weight fall off him. A stein of something fragrant, frothy, and dark was pressed into his hoof by the returning Backstep. He took a deep gulp of it.

“Oh. I...alright." Nope. Not like she'd planned at all. But then, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing, right?

"Yup," said Sidewinder, as if that settled everything. She grabbed her own mug from Backstep as he circled the table. She took a solid pull off it and thumped the thing down.

“Okay, but…" said Twilight, struggling to articulate her question. "What happens when it doesn’t work out? I mean, sometimes a pony doesn’t make it home, right? How do you…”

Darn it. Darn it darn it darn it! She was tearing up again! She’d told herself over and over she wasn’t going to do this! And what was she even saying? How could she end that question? How do you what? Get by? Live with yourself? Sleep at night? How was she supposed to ask this!?

Sidewinder’s face went still, understanding. Silver Shine looked at her gravely, knowing the question without having to hear it spoken. He adjusted his chair, perhaps preparing himself to address this impossible question. But, before he could answer,

“Um, if I may?”

A smallish pegasus had one hoof raised, as if she were a filly in class. Brevity, as Twilight recalled. Twilight nodded to her, eager to have to have the moment end.

“We have a sort of tradition about that in the Guard.” She looked to Silver Shine, and he gave her a nod. Brevity slammed a hoof into the table, and then, with a surprisingly resonant voice, bellowed, “It’s time for a Remember!” She thumped the table a few times in a sort of rhythm, and the rest of the squad soon joined her.

Without warning, a half-dozen new guards rushed in to fill what little space remained around the table. More followed as the thumping went, and a fresh round of drinks appeared without even being asked for. Brevity pushed one into Twilight’s hooves.

“I don’t understand. What’s a Remember?”

“It’s a thing we do when we lose someone. We tell stories. It’s more fun than it sounds.” She pointed Twilight to Silver Shine. “Would you like to start us off, sir?”

Silver Shine gave her a strange, sad sort of smile, then threw his head back and began.

“Sit back, lads and mares, and I’ll tell you a tale of Old So and So, the greatest guard to have ever lived! Died like a champion, he did…”

~~~

Remembers always started that way, apparently. Brevity explained during the gaps in Shine’s recitation.

“It starts with Old So and So. And then we go around the table,” she said, “and we tell a story about somepony we’ve lost. Start with their name, then how they went, and then just say whatever.” She tapped Twilight’s mug. “And then we toast, of course.”

Twilight's first thought had been to fight it. Death wasn’t fun! It was tragic! They shouldn't be throwing a party! This was terrible and morbid and what was wrong with them!?

Twilight looked around though, and something she saw in the smiling faces around her stilled her outrage.

The story began simply enough, but as the exploits and misadventures and eventual demise of Old So and So went on, they grew so great and epically melodramatic as to be patently absurd. And when his end finally came, it was heroic and hammy and hilarious. Maybe it was the just room full of ponies buoying her along, but after a while it all just became so funny.

So and So’s antics were interspersed with other stories, as told by the ponies around the table. They varied as widely as their tellers. Most were funny, some a bit sad, a few nothing more than a fond memory or favorite quote. Just as many, like So and So’s, were so ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly have been true. Several were quite dirty, like the one about a bedroom misunderstanding between a mare who liked a bit of unorthodox roleplay and her earnest but gullible lover. The crowd had clearly heard some of them before. They joined in, calling out the punchlines in a sort of sing along. And every one of them was about a pony who’d died in the service. The mare from before? She’d been killed by a dragon, drunk on power and stupid with rage. But the story hadn’t been about her death. It had been about her life. Her end had been a mere headnote. Making that connection was what let Twilight begin to understand what was happening here.

These ponies weren’t being morbid. They were grieving. They were giving death its due, and then making a sort of peace with it. Their laughter was a little too loud, a bit too eager, but what else could they do? It was this or cry. But there was more to it. They were granting their lost friends a new life by sharing them with others. It was so different from anything she’d ever seen, such a wondrously unexpected way to handle mortality, that it left Twilight a bit dumbfounded.

The ponies told their tales one by one, passing the spotlight around the circle. Eventually, inevitably, it landed on Twilight. Even seeing it coming as she had, she found herself unprepared.

“Guardsmare Twilight Sparkle,” asked Silver Shine. “Have ye a tale to tell?” This was the official invitation to the Remember. For this one little moment in time, rank meant nothing. Everypony was a guard, nothing more.

All was silent as Twilight hesitated.

“It’s not much of a story…”

Her audience crowed, demanding, cajoling, egging her on. Shine waved them down after a time and invited her again.

“I, alright. His name w—” She choked up. She hadn’t been the first to do so. “His name was Bait.”

There. She’d said it. Was.

“He was taken by Tartarus. And once he bit a bull’s balls to save me.”

The crowd laughed uproariously, and Twilight couldn’t stop a little smile, near crying though she was, as she told the story.

~~~

Most of the guards wandered off once the Remember was officially concluded (with one last tale of Old So and So's ever-growing legacy, naturally), but Twilight's squad and a few stragglers remained. The little party broke up into smaller conversations, which other ponies eavesdropped and commented on and jumped into freely. This general breakdown of boundaries (perhaps aided by the beer) was actually pretty neat to watch. These ponies could talk to each other about anything.

In the spirit of all that openness, Twilight finally got around to asking a question that had been nagging at for days.

"You're sure you're not upset about me making you friends with, um, Beaksy? I mean, I didn't really give you a choice. It was basically mind control."

Sidewinder blinked at her over her rapidly emptying mug.

"Are you still worried about that Princess? And how was it mind control? I mean, I don't really understand what you did back there, but..." said Sidewinder. She waved one hoof as she searched for words. Then she put it to her mouth to mask a small belch.

My, but she's different when she's off duty.

"But it was a good thing, all the way! And I mean, you didn't make us friends. You just, I dunno, showed us it was possible. Seriously, when Beaksy came after me, she would have killed me! Like, seriously killed and eaten me, right? And I would have done it back! The first part, anyway. But you came in and told us it didn't have to be that way. And, I mean, you can't force friendship on somepony, right? "

Twilight didn't know what to say. Fortunately, her mouth had a mind of its own now, and so she asked,

"Does she feel that way?"

"Beaksy? Oh, yeah. Don't you girl?" The enormous, antlered terror-beast leaned forward to be stroked under her chin. Twilight wasn't sure if the sound she made was a purr or a growl.

"You really helped her, Princess," said Sidewinder. "She was..." her eyes went distant. "I don't even know how to describe it, how she was when we fought." She snapped back to the present with a grin. "But ten seconds with the Princess of Friendship fixed all that! So anyway, yeah, I dunno what you even think you have to feel bad about."

"I...oh. Thanks, Sidewinder. Thank you, for that." Twilight felt herself tearing up again a bit, even if all Sidewinder had really told her was that her weird new magic might be even more devious than she'd thought before. But maybe Sidewinder was right. Maybe she had been too hard on herself. Or maybe not, and her weird new magic was simply so deviously thorough that it had made Sidewinder feel that way. She would have to put some real thought into this. Preferably while sober. She took another sip from her surprisingly empty mug and changed the subject for now.

"But really though. You named her Beaksy?"

Sidewinder snorted a laugh. "Yeah, I dunno, Princess. I just thought her beak was kinda cute, so..."

Twilight was unclear on how anyone could possibly think that hooked guillotine of beak could be 'cute.'

Beaksy, for her part, grumbled. But it was a happy, tolerant sounding grumble.

"So, Princess!" interjected Brevity, who had been shamelessly listening in. "I wrote down everything I saw while you were being amazing!"

Speaking of unusual names, Brevity was the only pony Twilight had ever met who had a nickname that was harder to say than her real one. The other guards often referred to her as Soul of Wit. It was some kind of inside joke.

"It barely makes sense now, but it was totally awesome at the time! And Winder is right. Oh! You should come by the archives and read it sometime! You can tell me everything I got wrong!"

Brevity was a quick drunk, it turned out. But a chance to peruse the guard archives was pretty tempting...

~~~

Twilight woke the next morning with only a slight fit of panic. Maybe talking with the guards really had helped. Or maybe it was the minor hangover. Nothing made the world feel more real than a bit of alcohol poisoning.

She rolled out of bed, said hello to Ben, and did her best to get ready for the day ahead. She almost called it off. She was halfway to her writing desk, already plotting out a letter begging for a little more time, but she stopped herself. She couldn’t do that anymore. Her friends deserved better. She picked up her notes instead, looked over them again.

Goddess, why is this so hard?

She shoved herself out the door before she had any more time to think.

~~~

Telling her tale went about as well as could be expected. She gathered up all of her friends and both Princesses and Spike and Ben and even Owlowiscious for good measure. She then ensconced the party in a big, open, entertaining room, and started talking. It took a long time. Far longer than she’d thought it would. She stopped often to answer questions, and just as often to ask them, and several times to eat, or drink, or have a good cry, or just take a walk to get ready for the next episode. It was exhausting. She’d told most of this to Celestia once, but she’d only given a bare-bones version then, and Celestia didn’t remember now anyway. She’d left out the bad parts then, and hadn’t even hinted at the really bad stuff. Not so, this time. She forced herself through every bit of it. The fights, the fear, all the times she’d been sure she would die and all the horrible thoughts that had followed her home. She told them about Bait. She told them all of it.

Her friends were all wonderful about it, of course. Just like Luna had warned her, they didn’t really understand how bad it had been at first. How could they? But they tried. They never once accused her being dramatic, never gave her the Look. On the contrary, their looks of horror and disbelief weren’t so much at Twilight as for her. They asked about a lot of things, and let others that were obviously too difficult lie until Twilight was ready. They were always there when she needed a hug, and always weren’t when she needed space. It made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, just thinking about what great ponies they were.

Luna proved very helpful in all this. She prodded Twilight back onto her path when she was in danger of wandering off into a pit of melodrama. She made jokes at just the right time, called breaks when a break was called for, and so on. She retained her penchant for cryptic answers though, and was as maddeningly vague as ever.

Celestia was rather better on that angle. She explained the missing pieces of Twilight’s new status. Why she had ascended (again), and why she'd seemed to have lost that power when she’d returned. When the nature of your goddesshood lay in forming connections, cutting oneself off from everyone she knew could leave a young deity rather powerless. Good to know.

Celestia was kind and gentle and fair as always, but even so, dealing with her was…complicated. Twilight recognized that it wasn’t fair to blame the Princess for any of what had happened, or judge her for doing what had to be done, or resent her amnesia as if it were some kind of personal slight. Stumbling into love with her despite it all probably wasn’t the most sane thing, either. Admitting she was doing it all anyway was one of the hardest things Twilight had ever done. By the look of her, it hadn’t gone too well for Celestia either. She’d let herself slip. She’d cried a little. Actually cried! It had helped, somehow. Twilight knew the space between them wasn’t bridged yet, but they were getting there. They’d have to talk more, alone this time. But that could wait.

When she’d finally finished and accepted all the well-wishes and promises of support and words of commiseration, there had been a bit of an awkward silence. It was Pinkie who had banished it.

“Great story, Twilight! Here’s what we were up to all week. I baked an amazing cake for when you got back. And then…” Everypony laughed, if only to break the tension. Good ol' Pinkie Pie.

The group had spent the rest of the night bantering about things of no consequence. It had been exactly what Twilight needed.

~~~

When Twilight woke the following morning, it was with barely a tremor. She lay there for a long while, surrounded by friends. She breathed it in, and felt the power of her goddesshood respond to it. She could see the bonds again, the links that held her ponies to each other and to her. They pulsed in her like a second heart. She could sense the hundreds of ponies around her, feel their own connections to one another. She called to Insight, and the sword was there. She seemed happy.

Okay.

I can do this.

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