• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,647 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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Foreboding

Well, thought Celestia. This is humiliating. Of all the things she could have stumbled across in Tartarus, Twilight had managed to find perhaps the only completely benign one. And Celestia had freaked out. She’d panicked and nearly incinerated the very pony she was trying to protect. Over a harmless little scream-spider. What was it even doing down here? They’d never been banished.

“Hm?” responded Twilight. “Oh! Yes, it, well, I think it screamed at me? That was what you heard. I must have scared it.”

Celestia smacked a mental hoof against her forehead. Stupid, stupid, stupid! You have to be more careful! She sat down, sheepishly wrapping her tail around herself. “No,” she began, in a quiet, contrite tone. “You didn’t scare it. That’s just how they talk. He was saying hello, in his way. Hello there.” She gave the spider a chagrined little wave. In response to her outstretched hoof, the scream-spider wriggled free of Twilight’s hold, raised its front four legs and hissed bloody murder at her.

She pulled her hoof back slowly. With a rueful smile, she said “See? I’m the one who scared him.”

Twilight made that face she always made when she had maybe a hundred questions all trying to force their way out at once. Rather than ask any of them, she took a moment to admonish the spider.

“Hey! You stop that!”

Celestia knew that this was just a stalling action, Twilight giving herself time to organize a proper interrogative assault on Fortress Celestia. And after her little forest-exploding fiasco, Celestia doubted she’d be able to deflect this one.

The spider tilted its head toward Twilight, keeping several eyes trained on this new, less-trustworthy pony.

“This is your own fault, you know! If you hadn’t screamed like that and scared everypony, all that…” Twilight stumbled in her diatribe. “Um, stuff, wouldn’t have happened.” The spider hunkered down in apparent shame. “That’s better,” said Twilight, rallying gracefully. “Now be nice. This is Princess Celestia and she is a very nice pony.” She watched sternly as the spider turned to Celestia and grudgingly extended a leg.

Celestia’s smile became a bit more genuine as she put forth a hoof and gently tapped the little critter’s leg. That had been some proper Princessing, there. Twilight had come so far since her early days.

“I can’t imagine how the little fellow got here," ventured Celestia, "but it seems he’s adopted you. You’re very fortunate. They’re rare, nowadays. But dream-spinners make excellent companions.”

“Um, Princess? What was…dream-spinners?”

Celestia nodded, and just for a moment, she thought her shameless little smokescreen might work. “Your new friend there. He’s called a dreamspinner, or, more descriptively, a scream-spider. Luna made them ages ago as a sort of living alarm, or, more likely, a never-ending practical joke.”

“Luna made them?” Twilight made that face again. “I—“ she shook her head. “Princess, what is going on? I’ve never seen you like this before! You’re acting so…and, and the thing with the tunnel of fire? Why aren’t you talking to me!?”

So much for that, thought Celestia. She’d hoped to keep Twilight off of one trail by providing another, but it seemed the young Princess was no longer so easily sidetracked. Celestia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She opened them to cast a caustic glare at the fire-rimmed pit of blackness in the sky. She softened her gaze before looking back down.

“Alright, Twilight. I'll tell you what I can. But we shouldn’t stay here. We’ll talk as we go, alright?”

“Okay,” said Twilight, watching Celestia closely. “But I get to ask questions, right? And you’ll answer them?”

“I…of course." A little pang of guilt ran through her. A pang of pride followed it, though. Celestia wasn’t happy about being so obtuse with Twilight, but the teacher in her was quite pleased to see her former student hold her ground. Yes, Twilight was growing very Royal, indeed.

“Shall we go then?”

Twilight nodded, moving to join her.

“AHH!” screamed the spider.

“Oh! Right. I guess we can’t just leave this little guy behind,” said Twilight. “Did you…want to come along?”

“AH!”

Twilight looked to Celestia. She shrugged.

“Okay, well…” Twilight tentatively extended a wing to the ground near the spider. With a *boing*, he jumped up onto her, quickly settling himself down on the relatively flat space of Twilight’s back. He raised a leg and waved it. “The more the merrier, I guess.”

Celestia managed to hide a shudder as the creature chittered happily. She knew dream-spinners were friendly, but she could just never get used to the hairy little weirdos. It was probably why Luna loved them so much…

~~~

They jogged along for a bit before Twilight finally forced Celestia to honor her word.

"So, um, you said you'd tell me what was going on?"

“So I did. Alright." Celestia took a long moment to ponder how, exactly, she could explain this.

"Long ago, ages before there was even anything you would now recognize as Equestria, the world was a harsh, dangerous place. You’ve had some experience with the creatures of the Everfree, yes?”

Twilight nodded.

“The Everfree you know is a remnant of those times, but even it is a mere shadow. The Forest is willing to stick to its territory, and it can even coexist with ponies, a bit. But back then, the entire world was like the Everfree. No villages. No cities. Just small, beleaguered tribes of ponies, a few other peoples, and lots, and lots of monsters. Have you ever thought about how absurdly dangerous something like a hydra really is, Twilight?”

Twilight blinked at the non-sequitur. Celestia gave her no time to form a response.

“What would happen if one wandered out of the woods and into Ponyville? Think of the damage it could do, just by stomping through the streets. It wouldn’t even have to really try.”

Twilight was clearly unsettled by the idea, as she should be.

“They’re predators, hydras are,” continued Celestia. “They’ll eat nearly anything. And back then, there were no Princesses to stop such things.” She looked Twilight straight in the eye. She saw a little chill run through her. “It was an unforgiving time, one that we Royal Sisters allowed go on for far too long.”

Celestia trotted on for several moments before picking up her own thread again.

“But one day, we decided to change all of that. We decided that the world should be better, that ponies and all other manner of creature deserved to have a life that wasn’t completely determined by whether some monster decided to stomp through the area, or whether some villain wanted more slaves, or any other such terrible thing. And so we began to support what you might call 'alternative lifestyles.' We chose the peaceful over the violent, we supported those who built over those who would only destroy. But it was not easy. It’s so much simpler to break a thing than build it, after all. Many, many creatures fought against us. Perhaps it seems mad to you, that they would do so. I can see by your expression that it does.” Celestia turned to Twilight with a wistful smile. “It fills me with pride to see that the world has changed so much. But regardless, they fought. And we fought back. It was…” Celestia turned away, staring hard at nothing. “Bad. There were wars.” She paused again, and several seconds passed before she resumed.

“I hope you never truly understand all that word entails. But anyway, even back then, even at our worst, we couldn’t believe that an entire species of creature could be monsters. We doggedly searched for better ways, for some argument or gift or mode of life that would allow for as many creatures to willingly live in peace as possible. Alas, for all our efforts, there were creatures we could never reach, creatures who just would not to cooperate. And we needed a solution for them as well. Eventually, we found one,” she said, gesturing to the surrounding forest with a wing. “We gave the holdouts a choice: if they just couldn’t live in some sort of peace, they could instead be banished to Tartarus. And for those few who refused, and couldn't be forced out, well…let’s just say that you won’t be meeting any of the Gorgons. Ever.”

Twilight stared at her, perhaps realizing the implications of that statement.

There was great, creaking, crash from up ahead. It sounded close, just out of sight, around a bend in the road.

Celestia slid to a halt, ears and eyes flicking about, waiting. She slowly edged forward after a few moments of this, motioning Twilight forward after she was satisfied that nothing was going to happen.

Twilight trotted up behind her. The source turned out to be…a tree. Fallen onto the road. Twilight cocked her head to one side. The thing was perfectly intact, completely unbroken except that its roots had apparently decided they liked air better than dirt. It lay directly in their path, straight across the road.

“I think Tartarus dislikes me telling you this,” said Celestia. She crept towards the obstruction, eyeing it suspiciously, then hopped lightly over it. She motioned Twilight forward again, watching closely as she followed her lead. They jogged a ways before Celestia resumed her tale.

“But there’s nothing for it. It wasn’t much of a choice we gave them, really." Celestia glanced about, even more wary than before. “But it was the best we could offer. And Tartarus certainly didn’t mind.”

“Now,” said Celestia before any of the nascent questions could move from Twilight's mind to her mouth. “You may be wondering, ‘Why Tartarus?’ Well, in answer to the first part of that, no, we didn’t create this place. We found It. But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? We chose this horrible pit because, frankly, It wanted us to. Tartarus likesto imprison people. It needs to have other creatures around, in Its twisted way. As such, It makes something of a natural dungeon. It’s that much harder to escape a place if that place wants you to stay, right?”

A rumble sounded behind them. Both ponies halted, heads whipping back. They saw nothing. Just trees and a red dirt path.

And no sign of the fallen tree they’d left behind only moments before.

Celestia set her jaw. She turned back to the path and kept trotting ahead. Twilight jumped to follow.

“You may also be wondering,” said Celestia, as though nothing had interrupted her.,“ ‘Why does she keep talking about a place like it has opinions?’ That’s a tricky one to answer, but without going into the complicated physiology of God-things, let’s just say Tartarus is more than merely a location. It’s…not a person, really. It never incarnates, like Luna and I, your Sun and Moon do. But it does have a will.”

Twilight’s mouth worked. After some time, she asked,

“What will?"

“Ah, a fine question. Tartarus, as far as we mere ponies can understand, likes to see people live out stories.”

Catching the emphasis, Twilight asked…

“What kind of stories?”

Celestia stared straight ahead, pointedly ignoring the chill wind that blew, suddenly and without precedence, through the woods.

“Horror stories.”

~~~

Twilight hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask much after that. She opened her mouth for perhaps the half-dozenth time, trying to work through where to even begin. Still unable to get her head together, she glanced around the path as she jogged. Not that there was anything much to see. Just trees and dirt and that empty sky. She turned backward again, expecting something. Anything. What had been with that tree? How could it just fall like that? And then just disappear? But no, there was nothing. She looked forward with a frustrated sigh that was cut off halfway when she saw a path to her right. It broke off the main road and led to what looked like a pleasant little sun-dappled clearing. A monolithic stone stele stood to one side. It was engraved with a waving sun and a cloud-covered moon…Celestia and Luna’s cutie marks.

“Um,” uttered Twilight.

“Hm?” said Celestia, turning about. She saw the side path and stopped short. She frowned, and then, upon sighting the stone, her face wavered strangely. “Oh.”

Twilight couldn’t be sure of what emotions were running through Celestia’s head right now, but one of them was almost certainly recognition. She wasn’t sure if Celestia were scared, or sad, or angry, or all three, but she had definitely seen this place before. But it was still strange, even without that. She would have gone right by if Twilight hadn't said anything. How could that be?

“Princess? What is it?”

Celestia seemed to absently ponder how to answer that.

“It is…” she finally began, “A safe place, I suppose. Or, at least, I’ve never been attacked here. The only such place I know of in Tartarus. I did not expect to be led here so soon.” She took a step toward the side path.

“Oh, okay. Is that good?”

“It…could be?” She sounded doubtful.

Twilight sidled up next to Celestia and looked around. The place was a bigger than she’d thought. It was a hilly field, spotted with trees, maybe a hundred yards to side. It was conspicuously peaceful here. There were even quiet noises of life sounding in the trees, in stark contrast to the untouched silence outside. A little brook murmured through one corner. The path wandered through the low hills, and…

Wait…

Twilight gasped when she realized the entire place was scattered with gravestones. They were of styles from varying eras, from the ancient days of simple cairns to the more morbidly decorated headstones of the middle ages. Nothing modern though. Several graves, to her dismay, had intact skulls resting on the earth before them. Many even stranger things. Weapons, tools, suits of armor, even a few full skeletons lay in repose atop the mounds of grassy earth.

She turned to see Celestia watching her intently.

“Are you alright, Twilight? I know this kind of place disturbs some ponies.”

Twilight hesitated, trying to reconcile the general aura of peace against the openly funereal décor.

“I...No. I mean, I’m okay. It’s just I don’t understand what I’m seeing here.”

Celestia nodded. "These are old friends of mine,” she said, eyes following the path, "who were lost here. To Tartarus. It was monster attacks mostly, but some simply disappeared, or suffered deadly accidents. It took time for us to figure out that they weren’t accidents at all. Far too much time." Her voice was quiet, distant. "Once upon a time, we made expeditions here. We even tried to form a colony once, if you can believe that. The more recent plots are soldiers, mostly. We refused to bring anypony else, only those brave unfortunates who volunteered to help banish creatures here. Luna and I knew every one of them. Noble and true ponies, all.” Her wandering gaze landed softly on the first marking, a simple pile of smooth stones with a small silver circlet atop it. It was a short while before she spoke again.

“I don’t know why Tartarus made this place, or why it leads me here. I like to think it is a strange sort of respect. For a worthy foe perhaps.” She placed a hoof atop one of the stones, eyes closed, remembering. A slight, weary smile turned her lips. “Whatever the intent of this place, I have always been safe here, until such time as I leave. There will be some fruit over there, near the water. Or at least, there usually is. Perhaps you’d like to take a rest while I visit my companions?”

“Oh, sure. Take your time, Princess.”

Celestia smiled in silent thanks.

Before she walked away, Twilight turned back.

“Do you think you could tell me about them, someday?”

Celestia tilted her head a bit, then, with an enigmatic smile, said,

“Yes. Yes, I think I should like that very much. Thank you, Twilight.”

~~~

Celestia wended her way through the yard, taking a moment for every grave, every lost friend. It wasn’t enough, but then, it never could be. They were gone. She didn’t know how long it took her to reach the end, but here she was. There was one more stone marker than there should have been, one open grave that had yet to be filled. It was her own, of course. It would surely have her sun engraved on it, as usual. It had given her quite a fright the first time she’d seen that. Tartarus’s open statement of its plans for her. She ignored it for now, paying her quiet respects to the pony who lay in the grave before her. He had fallen over three centuries ago. She looked over the graven image of his mark, an old-fashioned sundial, and let herself fall into a few of the many pleasant memories she had of him. His epitaph read “A lifetime of service, and not one damned regret.” Celestia smiled. That was so very much a thing he would say. She embraced one final moment of nostalgia, and then turned to that last gravestone, sighing.

A bone-deep chill shook her at what she saw: a six-pointed star, surrounded by five more.

~~~

Twilight discovered, to her great disappointment, nothing to eat near the creek. She could munch on a bit of grass, she supposed, but she really wasn’t that desperate yet. Wild grass did weird things to her stomach sometimes. She had some water instead, and lay down on the soft turf to wait for Celestia. The calm of the place lulled her, bit by bit, so she closed her eyes, and rested her head on her hooves. She would only take a second. Ben (Twilight had decided that the spider should have a name, and he didn’t seem to disagree) scampered up her back and settled himself on one of wings. She laid it out a bit to give him more room.

She was over half-asleep when a crash of splintering stone shook the graveyard. Princess Celestia was galloping toward her. She looked furious, and there was a smoking crater where she’d just been. Rubble was still falling back to the earth from the blast. Now thoroughly awake, Twilight leapt to her hooves.

“Princess!? Are you—“

“We’re going, Twilight! Now!”

Twilight jumped into line behind Celestia as she wheeled back to the path, struggling to catch up.

“Did something happen? Were you attacked?”

“Yes. No, I…” she shook her head as if to clear it. “We’re leaving. I should have known that finding this place was no kindness. Nothing is ever a kindness here. Remember that, Twilight. Remember this place for what it is.”

She didn't elaborate, but Twilight got the message.

A graveyard.

~~~

Princess Celestia had been very quiet after that, staring ahead in anger, maintaining a murderously exhausting trot. She didn’t slow down until finally, blessedly, the landscape quite rapidly changed. She slowed to a stop, Twilight stopping somewhat less gracefully, perhaps thirty feet from a very, very sudden break in the trees.

“Hmm,” she began. It came out almost as a growl. “Wait here, Twilight. Let me take a look first.” Without waiting for a response, she jogged forward, slowing at the edge of tree line. Celestia glanced about, ears flicking this way and that.

Twilight watched her intently, trying to solve the puzzle of this place. What had happened back there? Were things really as bad as Celestia thought? Tartarus was eerie, Twilight would be the first to admit. It was far too quiet, and then there had been the dramatically timed falling tree, and the sudden wind that had yet to reappear. And the cemetery had certainly been unnerving. But even so. There was just…nothing here. And nothing wasn’t worth being scared of. That was like being afraid of the dark. Actually, now that Twilight thought about it, they had found one thing: Ben. And he had been a perfect gentleman. Celestia’s twitchy, almost violent vigilance had been far more worrying than anything Tartarus had put forth.

Apparently satisfied that nothing was lurking invisibly in the clearing, Celestia gingerly stepped out into the open space to peek past the trees. And then, much to Twilight’s surprise, she actually sighed and smiled a bit. The Princess turned back and waved her forward with a wing. Curious to know what had finally perked her teacher up, Twilight trotted up to her side.

“What’s up, Princess? What did…” Twilight lost the rest of her thought to the view.

The tree line ended abruptly. It literally just stopped. The woods spread out in a nearly perfect wall of trees to both left and right, but not a one grew in the wide open fields before her.

“I, uh…” Twilight stammered.

“Yes, Tartarus does things like this,” said Celestia, as though a geometrically perfect forest were the most natural thing in the world. “This is good though. Twilight Sparkle.” Celestia paused to make a grand gesture with one wing. “Welcome to the Fields of Asphodel. The gate usually isn’t far from here.”

“Oh. Oh! I’ve heard of this place.” Twilight abandoned the mystery of the woods to take in this new wonder. She beheld a seemingly endless field of slowly waving, pale grass (much taller and lusher than the stringy stuff in the forest, she noted), dotted all over by patches of white or yellow flowers. The light was different here; brighter, a bit, but subdued somehow, as though a vague haze hung over the place, keeping her from seeing as far as she should have. A soft, pleasant wind blew through the flowers, making them rustle and sending their soft fragrance through the air.

“It's...not what I expected. All the books made it sound so gloomy."

“Mm, yes,” answered Celestia. “I do seem to remember it being somewhat darker and foggier, before.” She paused again, pondering. “Well, I won’t argue with a bit of pleasantness. But don’t let it make you feel safe, Twilight. This place is usually harmless, and we should be nearly home once we get through here, but keep your eyes open.”

“R-right.”

“Indeed. Off we go. I’ll—"

Celestia turned back to the road. Her eyes narrowed.

Twilight started, again, as she followed Celestia’s glare. There was movement out there. An indistinct, ghostly figure, creeping slowly toward them. The thing couldn’t be more than a thirty yards off, but there was no way they could have missed it before; this was an open field.

Celestia snorted angrily, and Twilight nearly started a third time when she actually pawed at the ground and levelled her horn at the figure. A spark of magic ignited the air around her.

“So that’s the trick,” Celestia growled. “The fog is still here, we just can’t see it. Get back, Twilight. Be ready to run if I tell you to.”

Twilight gawked at Celestia’s sudden, open display of aggression. Seeing her gentle, ever-patient mentor change so suddenly frightened her in ways she didn't yet understand, but she did as she was told. Ben shifted nervously on her back with a little chirp.

The thing approaching them looked huge at first, until it gradually grew close enough for Twilight to see that it was, in fact, several things, moving together. She could hear them now, but the noises were distorted; vague and echoing though there was no reason they should be. She heard heavy, booming hoof beats, and a hollow, dire toll, and a low moan that flowed slowly over the grass toward her. A chill ran though Twilight as she lowered her own horn. She tried to raise her wings, but they wouldn’t leave her sides.

Were the old stories true? Were there really ghosts of long dead ponies here? The Fields were supposed to be where the mediocre went after death, the ponies who never made a name for themselves, who never excelled at anything. And they were supposed to be very jealous of the living. Murderously so…

The group remained an indistinct, yellow-white blur until they were less than twenty yards out, and then, suddenly the haze cleared, and Twilight could see and hear and even smell them perfectly. She held a frightened breath as the true, terrifying face of the spectral figures was revealed to her.

Cows.

They were cows.

Big, white, obviously living cows. Twilight almost laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. The ‘ominous’ host before her was a herd of burly, horned cattle, wandering down the road. The hoof beats had been just that, and the ‘dire toll’ was just the clanking of a cowbell. The moan? One of the cows lowing to another.

“Oh,” stated Celestia. “Lovely.”

Twilight detected a definite note of distaste in the words, but Celestia did relax a bit at least. She was about to ask about it when the lead cow looked up from the road, straight at her. She stopped dead, eyes going wide with surprise before she reached one cloven hoof up to beat the brazen bell around her neck. She wheeled left and called out a warning to her herd, lumbering away to circle around the group.

Twilight blinked. Had the sight of two ponies spooked her?

“It’s alright, Twilight. I know their bull. He’ll try to scare us, but just hold your ground. Let me do the talking.”

“I, um, sure.” Twilight didn’t even try to get Celestia to explain. Much as she hated it, she was getting used to being confused by everything that happened here.

A low thundering of massive hooves began in the herd before her. Twilight watched as the cows fell back and formed a ring around their youngest, clearing the way. Strangely, she could see the entire herd clearly now, even though they hadn’t moved any closer. Was the distortion effect here context sensitive somehow? Magic could do that sometimes.

The bull stormed forward. He was a massive beast of a thing, as tall as Celestia and far more broad, muscles bulging and veins standing clear against his immaculately white coat. He tossed an enormous head holding far too many horns and bellowed an absolutely crushing roar. Then, without so much as stopping to look, he charged at a hammering sprint straight for Celestia. Tongues of flame licked into being around his hooves and blasted out from his back, forming scorching, ethereal wings as he stormed towards them. His claw-marks smoldered in the dirt.

Twilight’s wings rapidly liberated themselves as her fight and/or flight instincts screamed at her to do something, anything to get away from this monster. She froze instead, remembering Celestia’s words and trusting that she knew what she was doing. She felt Ben tense up on her back, but he, too, stayed put. The reassured her, somehow.

“PEACE, CRETES! I Am Celestia, Ruler Of Equestria, And I Am No Enemy!”

Celestia’s extremely Royal decree nearly flattened Twilight. As she watched, it seemed to have an effect on the bull too. He slowed, dropping from a full run to a trot, then a walk, and then finally a stop. He glared at them, eyes narrow with suspicion and burning with murderous intent.

Celestia stood her ground, wings held high, defiant and fearless.

“Peace, Cretes,” she repeated.

The bull’s ears rotated forward as he looked both ponies over. He worked his jaw more a long moment.

Twilight tried to reclaim her composure. She forced her wings back down, straightened herself up, let the magic that had jumped through her fade. She didn't even know what spell she'd been trying to cast. She willed her heart to stop pounding and took her first good look at the bull. He was huge, yes, and every bit as ivory-white as Celestia, but he was unusual for other reasons as well. He had six horns, for one. The first pair was normal enough, four more sprouted out of his neck, all swept up and forward and wickedly sharp. They were a dark cream color, and capped in some bronze-like metal. Oh, and then there were the wings of fire. Those were certainly different. He also wore a gorget, vaguely similar to Celestia’s, though much larger and of the same brazen metal as his horn caps. He wore other jewelry, too. Bracers on his forelegs, rings through his ears, and various jangling metal bits over the rest of his body.

“Celestia?”

The voice was, unsurprisingly, a deep rumble.

“Aye.”

“Heh. Didn’t recognize ya for a second. The fuck are you doing here? I didn’t hear you were coming.”

Twilight blinked. That was…not how she would have expected this creature to speak. And what was that word with the f? She’d never heard it before. She looked at Celestia.

“My Arrival Here Did Not Occur Under Ideal Circumstances,” she intoned, quite Royally. Then, in a more conversational tone, “My companion is Twilight Sparkle. She was not meant to have come with me, and I so am escorting her to the Equestrian gate. I have no wish to make war with you, Cretes.”

There was that other word Twilight didn’t recognize. Cree-tees. The bull’s name, presumably, and of a very style. Who was this creature? And how did the Princess know him?

“Hah!” barked Cretes. “How’d it happen this time? Discord throw you in again? Or were you doing some other stupid shit? One of your ‘experiments?’”

“I don’t see that the particulars are very important, Cretes,” said Celestia, with a polite smile.

She was relaxed now, Twilight noticed, if a bit miffed at Cretes’ attitude. Twilight was getting kind of offended at him herself. And he kept using words she’d never heard. Shit, was it?

“What is important, old friend, is that I am trying to get home, by the fastest means possible. Perhaps our meeting is fortuitous, actually…”

Old friend? Really? And what had been with the way she’d said that? It had almost sounded threatening. But that was impossible. Celestia didn’t threaten.

“Oh yeah?” prompted Cretes.

“Indeed. For you are Cretes, the White Bull, father of Minotaurs, The Great Beast of Marathon,” began Celestia, voice growing as she went. “A Renowned and Fearsome Foe.”

Cretes preened a bit at that, looking back to make sure his herd had noticed the compliments.

“And before you stands Sol Invicta, Ruler of Equestria, She Who Conquered Chaos Itself!”

Cretes nodded, amused.

“And there are few, even in the heart of Tartarus, who would dare to attempt harm on two such Mighty Beings United.”

“True enough,” answered the bull, with a smug grin.

“And if the Great White Bull were to help a certain wayward Princess and her companion reach the Equestrian gate unharmed, one could only assume that this Princess would be very generously disposed to that bull, yes?”

Cretes frowned theatrically, bringing one big, cloven hoof up to scratch his wide chin.

“Hrmm. Yes, I suppose she would be. But what would she have to offer before this mighty pair arrived at the gate, eh?”

“Ah, well. It seems our Princess is a bit impoverished at the moment,” said Celestia, with an artfully bashful blush. “But that would certainly only increase her generosity once she reached the gate.”

“Pfeh,” blurted Cretes. “This Princess should stop wasting the Great Bull’s time. This is Tartarus. Doing something for nothing gets you killed here, Celly, and I’ve been alive a long time. Give me something real.”

Twilight was again taken aback. Who the heck was this jerk, that he could talk to the Princess that way?

“Of course,” said Celestia, evidently not taken aback in the slightest. “Perhaps there is some service I could render then? Some task that I might…”

Celestia hesitated at the sudden leering grin on Cretes’ face.

“Assist. With.”

“Oh, sure. There’s one service I’m always interested in with you, Princess.” He made a profoundly un-subtle waggle of the eyebrows.

Twilight watched as Celestia went still, a slight flush of pink rising in her chest and spreading slowly up her neck.

“How about it, eh?” continued Cretes, sauntering close enough to sidle up beside Celestia and lay one burning wing over her. The fire didn't seem to bother her at all. The gesture, itself, however...

“I don’t think that would be, ah," stammered Celestia, glancing quickly at Twilight, then away, “appropriate. At this juncture.” The flush had crept all the way up her ears and now seemed to be working its way back down. “Perhaps there is something else? Some creature that plagues you, or…” she soldiered on, regaining some measure of her earlier poise.

“Ah, c’mon, babe,” said Cretes, starting to walk forward, and guiding Celestia along with him as though she had already agreed. “You know I’m always a good time. It’ll be just like the old days.”

Celestia raised a hoof and gently pushed the wing from her back as she stepped away.

“N-no, I’m afraid…No, Cretes.”

“Hrmph.” Cretes looked over at Twilight, whom he had thoroughly ignored up until now. She could practically feel his eyes slide over her. He passed right by her face, starting at her rump and slowly slithering back up, pausing at the wings, of course, to eventually look her in the eye. Actually, he was probably checking out her horn. It was impossible to tell.

“How about her then?”

Celestia’s entire visage hardened, and she answered with a tone that could have frozen an ocean.

No.”

“Ah, I get it. You and junior here got a thing goin’ on,” he said with a note of bitterness. “Heh. Fine. You’re on your own then, sweetheart. I’m not risking my herd for nothing. Let’s move, ladies!” He yelled the last at the cows. They immediately ceased their passive milling about to trundle past the ponies, gossiping dismissively about a certain pair of prudes as they rapidly disappeared into the fields. “And a word of advice kid." This was addressed directly at Twilight. "Get as far away from that one as you can.” Cretes tossed his head in Celestia’s direction. “She’s a God's damned walking catastrophe.”

Twilight looked back and forth between the herd and her Princess as the cows left. Princess Celestia stood staring straight ahead, gazing hard at nothing, refusing to dignify cows with even the slightest bit of her attention. Not knowing what else to do, Twilight strove to imitate her former teacher.

When finally the creatures had passed out of earshot, Celestia took a single, huge breath. She closed her eyes and held it for a long moment.

“Well!” she said, blowing it out while she manufactured a smile. “That was certainly something, wasn’t it? Let’s go, Twilight.”

She jumped to follow.

“Um, Princess?” Twilight knew the answer to what she was about to ask. But it couldn’t be true right? I mean, who would even do that? And that stuff about ‘just like the old days?’ No way. No. Way.

“Yes, Twilight?

“What was he asking for back there, exactly?”

Celestia was silent for much too long.

“Nothing he’s ever going to get, Twilight.”

“Oh.”

Twilight looked back once. The forest they’d walked through for hours, which they’d been no more than fifty feet from, was gone. Just gone. They stood alone on a winding road in a vast, empty field. No cows, no trees. Not even hoof-prints to mark their passing.

Twilight shook away a chill and turned to follow Celestia.

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