• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,771 Views, 390 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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Wandering

Twilight trotted along at a reasonable clip down the tunnel. Something sustainable, a rate she could go off and on for hours until she found a good place to rest. And hopefully something to eat. How long had it been since she’d had food? She was regretting not eating that grass…She still had her canteen, though, so that was good, but some food would be amazing right now. Alas, the only plant-life she had seen so far was some sort of glowing mushroom and a similarly luminescent moss growing on the ground and walls. Twilight knew better than to eat random fungus, but she was starting to look at that moss with a hungry eye…

The stuff glowed enough that she barely even needed her own magical light at this point, but she kept it up anyway. She could probably literally maintain the spell in her sleep at this point.

Another few minutes of walking, and a new worry struck her. What had happened to Ben? The bioluminescence in the cave was about the same color parts of him had been. Where was he? Was he okay? A pang of guilt ran through her. She couldn’t even remember when she’d lost him. Why had it taken her this long to remember him? She tried to tell herself not to dwell on it. He’d lived in Tartarus for who knew how long. He was probably fine, right? Twilight pushed her anxiety away with an effort. Best to keep her thoughts productive.

So. Celestia had said that Tartarus liked horror stories. Okay, fine. Twilight knew a thing or two about those. They weren’t her favorite, being both fiction and rather morbid, but she'd read a tale or two. And, perhaps more helpful, she'd read books about horror, as a genre. She was familiar with the basic tropes, and she'd even looked into a silly article or two about how the survive as a horror story protagonist. She ran those ideas through her head as she went. She wondered though, was that how this place worked? Was everypony a “protagonist?” Was she one? How would she even know? And if so, would subverting expectations work in her favor, or against it?

Well, she could only try to be smart and hope for the best, she supposed. And frankly, this 'story' felt more to her like dark fantasy than proper horror. More like some strange, old fable. There wasn’t even an antagonist yet, as far as she knew.

Anyway, the rules were pretty simple: be polite, don’t wander off alone, and don’t go messing with things you don't understand. Be a reasonable pony, basically. Simple enough. Twilight could do that. Sure, she'd already thoroughly broken the second guideline, but she was reasonably certain she could make up for that. Probably.

Of course, the real problem with being in a horror story was that, in the end, there was no outsmarting it, because the protagonist wasn’t in control. The author was.

Twilight made herself breathe, picking up her pace as if she could simply outrun the rising dread that came with that thought. She fought it back, pushing it out or down or away until later, when she could deal with it.

There were more rules, but they were pretty strange and often overly specific and surely wouldn’t come up in real life. Twilight reviewed them anyway, just to give herself something to think about. Unbidden, she remembered something else entirely: fire. A blasting, disintegrating flame, pouring from Celestia’s horn. A wolf-thing’s head dissolving under it, skull searing white before—Twilight shook herself. She found a silver lining in her unruly thoughts and seized on it.

Celestia was certainly okay, at least. Those things she'd fought had barely managed to touch her. So she was fine. Twilight just had to get out of here, and then they’d go home together and that would be that. Simple. No need to fixate on it.

Twilight’s heart gradually calmed as she trotted through the cave.

But maybe...maybe it was time to let herself think about what had happened. She had some distance now, a little bit of mental space. She could try at least, just a little.

So she did. She recalled that first blast, boring straight through one of the dog monsters. The same panic from before boiled into her, that horrid nausea poured up and over her and tried to spill out.

Okay then! Not yet!

But maybe she could think about something like it. Maybe that would help.

A fragment of a book came to her then. Something she’d read years ago and always remembered, but never really understood. She probably still didn’t, not really. But watching Celestia fight those dog creatures might have given her a bit of perspective on those old words. The fragment was simply this: “Hit 'em. Hit 'em first, and hit 'em hard.”

The book had been a biography about an earth pony named Dust Up, complete with quotes from the stallion himself. He’d been a legendary fighter, known for going up against heavy-weights and winning, despite being barely bigger than Twilight was. His life had, according to him, basically boiled down to one fight after another, in and out of the ring. It had seemed entirely barbaric at the time she'd read it, but now…Well, maybe she could use some of that wisdom. It might help her understand a few things.

Dust Up had given lots of technical advice on fighting, as one might expect. How to land this or that blow, how to handle a pegasus or a unicorn and so on. But the really interesting stuff was about the mindset. Not how to fight, exactly, but how to win. How to come out ahead against somebody bigger and stronger than you. And maybe his friends, too, if you were lucky. It was a lot of little things. Not tricks, exactly, but…well, here was one.

“If you got nuthin’ else, throw everything you have at ‘em.” It was a confusing bit of advice at first, but he explained. “If you got no skill, no tricks, no training, well, you should get those. But even if you don't, you’ve still a couple hundred pounds of pony behind you. So you throw that at ‘em with everything you’ve got, and maybe it’ll be enough. When you throw that punch, throw it completely. Remember, kid, this is a fight for your life, so don’t hold back.” He always referred to the reader as “kid.” She’d wondered if he did that in life, or just to his readers. Regardless, she could she the truth in it now, a bit. Celestia had plowed straight through a couple of those creatures, even though they’d surely outweighed her. And those spells she’d used! Twilight had never seen anything like that. They'd been simple, really. Just basic magical bolts, but fired with so much power that they’d…well. Anyway.

“If they wanna talk, let ‘em. Some folks are like that. Then, while they’re in the middle of their big speech, plant a hoof right upside their jaw. That’s a clean knock-out, son. Some ponies might call it dirty, but at least you’ll be alive to argue about it. Even better, get to talkin’ yourself. Ain’t a creature alive that expects to get decked while the other guy is talkin’. And, at the least, it gives you some time to think, maybe set yourself closer to the door if you gotta run.”

Celestia had done that too. Twilight hadn’t understood it at the time, but Celestia had called the creatures out. And once they’d come out where she could see them, she’d…Right.

“Use everything you’ve got. Remember what I said about havin’ no skills? Well, that’s on you, but even a scrub can pick up a rock or swing a chair. Do it. Look around you. Grab any advantage you can, kid, and use it. Getting your hooves on a stray branch might make the difference between a visit to the doctor and a visit to the morgue.”

That one had actually scared Twilight. What kind of pony thought that way? It was just so vicious. But then, she’d seen the Princess do that too. She’d picked up half a dozen things, seemingly at random, and she’d used them to great effect. Twilight shuddered at the thought, but she knew that, if pushed, if she had to, she could do that. If she had to.

There was more. Of course there was, it had been an entire book. Twilight recalled as much as she could as she trotted along through the shadowy, softly illuminated caves. The tunnel had opened up now, so much so that she could no longer see the extent of it without over-powering her light spell. She stuck by the little river and hoped she wouldn’t need to actually follow any of Dust Up's advice.

~~~

Twilight’s first clue that she was no longer alone was the smell. It was musky, just a bit acrid. It smelled like danger, like a bear’s den. She only knew that from the one time she'd been in Harry the bear's den. He'd never given her any reason to fear him, but there was just something in the smell in there. And here.

She slowed to a walk. Should she put out her light? Would that even matter down here? Surely whatever lived in this place was used to the dark.

That creeping feeling crawled back up her spine. She boosted her light instead, shining a *searchlight* around herself, looking. She stopped short when she heard the growl. It rumbled through her, low and deadly, a dire warning. A vague shape hung on the very edge of her light.

There was a special kind of fear that came with the sudden realization that something had been watching you. Not out there anymore, somewhere in the vague darkness, but right here, in this place. With you. Twilight swallowed past a rapidly drying tongue.

She cleared her throat. Whatever the creature was, it was still a good twenty yards out, on the other side of the river.

“Hello?”

Twilight slowly moved her light up. The creature stood its ground. Her spell revealed a paw, claws digging into the stone. Further up, a red lion’s mane and angry, snarling face. A big set of leathery wings, and, shining in the dark behind it, the sharp spike of a scorpion tail, glistening with venom.

Manticore.

Okay. She'd dealt with those before. Nothing to worry about.

Of course, last time, she’d had her friends around to help, and even then, they’d only prevailed when Fluttershy had found the thorn in its paw. And this one didn’t appear injured in the slightest. Rangy, perhaps, and hungry…

As the creature stalked forward, Twilight found herself desperately wishing her friends were here now.

“Um, sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you,” said Twilight, backing away. The manticore coiled up on the ground, making ready to leap. Twilight’s mind raced. Wait…Wait! She knew something about manticores! She'd read it somewhere. What was it?

“I really am just passing through!” she blurted, perhaps a bit louder than necessary. The oversized cat/dragon/scorpion thing stopped in its tracks.

“If you think I’d be okay,” she continued, stumbling into her best attempt at rhythmic speech, “I’d rather just go on my way!”

Rhyme! Manticore's were scared of things that rhyme! It'd been in the Princesses’ diary she'd found in the old castle!

The manticore made a small, unhappy mewling noise.

Emboldened, Twilight continued.

“I don’t want to make you, um…” Agh! What rhymed with help!? “Yelp?

But I could really use some help.

I’m a bit lost you see,

And don’t know quite where I might be.

Could you tell me?”

The manticore’s eyes went wide with fear at the first line, and it had taken off running before she’d finished the last.

Twilight stood there grinning.

“It would fill me with glee!” she shouted after it.

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!” cried the manticore.

Twilight laughed, feeling just a bit guilty. Oh, hey, that rhymed too.

“Sorry!”

“Graaaaargh!

“Oh, wait! I didn’t mean it that time. Sor-Er, I apologize!”

There was no response from the cat-creature this time.

And this, Twilight thought to herself, was exactly why learning history was important. One never knew when some seemingly pointless bit of trivia might save her from a fight with a big, scary manticore. She allowed herself a satisfied little nod at having handled the situation, and then went on her way.

~~~

Twilight continued to trot along, feeling quite pleased with herself after that last little run-in. Tartarus wasn't so bad. You just had to be smart about it.

It was maybe an hour or more before she heard any sound other than her own hooves. When she did, Twilight slowed to a walk, then a stop, ears perking up as she sought the source of the noise. It had sounded a bit like a groan. Or maybe a sigh?

She heard it again. No, wait, this was different. A rustling sound? Twilight amped up her light again. It revealed little. Just a path ahead, and the silent water beside her. She waited a bit, shining her light ahead and behind, before she moved on. Her hoof-steps echoed rancorously in the silence.

There it was again! A sort of sighing sound. It was coming from ahead, she was sure of it. Not that the echoes in here made it easy to tell…Wait! There was an opening up there, branching off the main tunnel. Twilight nibbled at her lip. This was the first fork in the road she’d seen so far. And the chamber was narrowing in, so there was no way she could avoid crossing within a few yards of that hole in the cave wall. She looked back once more before she cautiously padded forward.

She stopped well away from the dark maw. There was a sign over it, or at least, it looked like one. Twilight crept up as quietly as possible, listening intently for any new noises. She heard nothing. Staying as far from the hole as possible, she tried to read the sign. It was written in clear Equestrian, but every time she finished reading, the actual content of the message flew away. The letters sort of flowed past her vision, and she kept losing her place as she tried to understand them. But there was one thing she definitely recognized: a pony skull, with two crossed leg bones underneath.

Poison, or some other sort of danger.

Twilight turned to leave, suddenly wanting to be as far from this place as she could get, but then she heard it again. A sort of moaning sigh, and a rustling noise, as if something were moving in the dark. Against her better judgement, she shined her light into the side tunnel.

There was somepony in there.

Twilight started forward before she could think to stop herself. It was just a vague outline, and it was covered in something, but that was certainly a mare. Was she hurt? Did she need help!?

Twilight was nearly upon the mare before she slid to a halt. That feeling of being observed from afar returned, sharper than ever.

The unknown pony was covered in some kind of flowered vine. Every bloom turned at once to face Twilight, petals opening wide like they were looking straight at her. Twilight backed away, unsure what to make of them.

After a moment, they seemed to lose interest, returning to their…victim? As Twilight watched, the pony shifted a bit, murmuring something. Her eyes fluttered open, just for a moment, then closed as one of the flowers leaned down toward the mare and gently closed over her horn. It was like a kiss, the way it slowly lapped over her. Almost erotic, really. Formerly a pale white, the flower suddenly swelled with color, pulsing into a vivid red. Several other flowers followed suit, each ‘kissing’ whatever part of the pony they were near. The flowers turned to face each other, opening and closing as their color faded back to white. It was like they were talking. Several tilted to face Twilight again, rocking with quiet, rustling laughter.

They were draining her! They were sucking the magic and life from her and they were laughing about it! Twilight pulled away in disgust. A sudden, unexpectedly fierce spike of anger shot through her. She snapped out with her magic, wrapping the roots of that horrible plant in her telekinetic grip, intent on tearing the thing straight out of the earth. She grabbed and pulled and…nothing happened.

The flowers tilted to one side, as if they were pondering what she was doing. And then, all at once, her spell fell apart. The flowers swelled lavender as they ate her magic, completely unaffected by it. The plant and the pony stared at each other a moment longer before the flowers returned to the one they had captured, laughing amongst themselves.

Twilight tried again, incensed. It was just as effective as the first time. She tried grabbing the pony instead. She lifted her maybe an inch before the flowers leeched her spell into nothing. The pony in the vines made no particular response, other than to roll over and go back to sleep as the flowers caressed her again. The plant moved under her, forming a pillow of ropy vines under her head. Twilight’s face scrunched up in confusion. That had looked almost tender, even concerned.

What was going on here!?

Twilight stopped the nascent spell she’d been shaping and really looked at this little tableau. The plant turned back to her occasionally, waiting to see what she’d try next, but it wasn’t reaching for her or anything. It wasn’t trying to entrap her the way it had this other mare. And the mare herself…

Okay, now that Twilight actually looked at her, she was weird. She was red, same as the color the plants turned when they drained her, but she reflected light all wrong, as though she had a carapace instead of a coat. The lines of her body were often jagged and straight, instead of the usual organic curves. But not always. It was like she’d been half grown and half, what? Built? Twilight’s light focused on her face. Her mouth lolled open for a bit, and the teeth inside were sharp. A long purple tongue licked over them before retreating back into her jaws. That was bad enough, but the worst was that Twilight could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed. The cheeks just weren’t there. It wasn't like they’d been removed, but as if they’d just never been there at all. Twilight stared.

What she found atop the pony’s head was no less concerning. She had a horn, but it was nothing like any horn Twilight had ever seen. There were two of them, twisted around each other in a sort of jagged, double-helical spiral that terminated into wickedly sharp points. They were segmented, and every part of them was covered in that weird, unreadable script from the warning sign. Twilight racked her brain for some point of reference for this. She had almost concluded that she’d never seen anything like it, then she remembered. Chrysalis. She, too, had had parts missing, and a horn that was off, and something resembling a carapace. Was that was this pony was? Another changeling queen? Did they have more than one?

She backed away as the red pony shifted again in her sleep, the flowers descending once more with their strange affections.

Had the warning she'd seen been for the plant? Or the pony? Was the changeling-pony supposed to be held here? How long had this been happening? Was there even anything Twilight could do to free her, and if so, should she? She didn't seem to be in pain…

Twilight had heard of predatory plants before, things like pitcher plants or venus fly traps. But this one didn’t seem to be hurting anything. There were no remains of other victims like you might find near a normal carnivorous plant. Was this one was consuming? Or just containing?

Twilight wished Celestia were here. Surely she’d know something. On her own, Twilight would never leave a pony to suffer this fate, but what if Celestia herself had imprisoned this creature? If Twililght did find a way to free her, what would she do if the pony turned out hostile? And the Princess had told her not to touch anything…

Twilight backed out of the room. She could come back later. If she was right, and this pony needed saving, Celestia would know. And they could come back after they were reunited.

The logic was sound, and she was sure of it, but her decision still left Twilight feeling cold.

She would come back.

She would.

~~~

Twilight soldiered on down the seemingly unending tunnel. She was feeling rather less confident than before, but she didn’t think there was much she could do about that right now. Best to just keep moving.

The cave turned and twisted, opened up and closed in at random. There were a few forks and side passages appearing now, but she mostly avoided them in favor of staying near the stream. It was all she had to go on. She thought she might be heading upward a bit, which would be great, but she had no real way to tell. Her stomach was going out of its way to remind her how long it had been since she’d eaten, but she couldn’t do anything about that either. At least she had plenty of water…

A quiet, echoing tune sounded through the tunnels. Twilight had first heard it maybe half an hour ago, and it was only growing louder as she went. She hadn’t slowed her pace except for at that first moment. She was certain she’d be meeting whatever the singer was at any moment now. That seemed to be how things went down here.

The song was a soft, haunting melody, a single voice accompanied by some lilting, stringed instrument. Twilight didn’t recognize the words, if there even were any. It was maybe another half hour before she found the source. The path opened up ahead, going from a narrow tunnel into a much wider chamber. Twilight stopped a little ways outside. She took a deep breath, inhaling an odd, earthy, sticky-sweet scent, and poked her head into the clearing.

It was brighter in here. The glowing mushrooms grew bigger, and large patches of moss gave off their steady glow. Off to one side was a large, empty basin, and next to that, the singer. It sat, squatting and strange, atop a massive pile of something she couldn’t readily identify. The stuff glistened wetly in her light. The singer wasn’t anything Twilight recognized. It was bipedal, with long, spindly limbs and and narrow torso leading up to a large head. Tentacles descended like hair from there. Two beady eyes peered from its face, but it was the unfeasibly wide mouth and its rounded little teeth that dominated its visage. The creature bent over its instrument, long fingers strumming peacefully, perfectly oblivious to its guest.

Weird, Twilight decided, but not threatening. Hopefully. She cautiously stepped out of the tunnel. Again, that eerie feeling of being watched came over her.

“Hello there,” she said.

The creature turned to look at her, but said nothing. It showed no sign of surprise, just kept on singing with that slight, serene smile upon its froggish lips.

“That’s a very pretty song,” she ventured, after the creature made no response. She gave it a little wave.

The singer’s smile widened. It waved her forward with one hand. The other kept plucking away at what she now saw was some sort of archaic harp.

Twilight had been hoping for a more robust reply. Maybe it couldn’t actually talk? That would be disappointing. She took a few steps forward.

“So, I’m Twilight Sparkle. What should I call you?”

The creature gave no clear answer, other than to change its tune to a mildly jauntier variation.

Well, that was something.

As she stepped closer, Twilight started to make out what the creature was sitting on. A big, slick-shiny cone of flesh.

Eugh! The thing was like a giant slug!

The whole mass of it shifted, shimmying slowly toward her.

Was it one creature, or was the singer separate? She saw legs on the it, but…

The smell from before intensified. Twilight tried not to be visibly disgusted. She reminded herself to be polite.

“I, ugh, excuse me. I’m kind of lost? And I was hoping you could, um...”

If the creature understood her, it hid it well. The gross bulk underneath it continued to advance on her, and as the thing got closer, she started to make out more details. It pulled itself forward on thick, slimy, spiky tendrils that slapped wetly against the ground. The cone, or whatever it was, wasn’t uniform. It was mostly a smooth, mottled grey, but its profile was broken up in unpredictable ways.

And sticking out from one side, silhouetted against the dim bioluminescence of the cave, was a hand.

A slow, horrible dread crawled over Twilight as she looked at it, following the curve as it went up to an arm, which hung off a shoulder, which led to an entire minotaur, stuck halfway inside the grey mass of sliding flesh.

Twilight froze, caught between the urge to vomit and the compulsion to jump in and pull the poor thing free. In the following seconds, she saw there were other things in there, wrapped in meat and tendrils. Something that looked like a dog, some kind of over-sized bat, and dozens of smaller things. The minotaur turned toward her. Its hand twitched.

It was alive! Oh, sweet stars above it was still alive! Twilight charged toward the wretched creature. She didn’t have a plan, she didn’t know what she was going to do, but she had to do something. She neatly leapt over a flopping tentacle and wrapped the bull in her magical grip.

“I’ve got you! Just hang on!”

The minotaur gurgled, reaching pitifully for her.

She wrenched as hard as she could, but he barely budged. She felt something slick and nasty brush her flank, and she hopped away.

“Back off!” she shouted, firing a bolt of force at the offending tendril. Had it been reaching for her? She looked up at the singing creature, whose song continued unabated. Its grin seemed suddenly twisted, full of malice. She fired another bolt straight into its face. Its head snapped back, but even then, the song continued.

Frightened but still determined, Twilight lunged forward, grabbing hold of the stuck minotaur and pulling with everything she had, magic, muscle, and wings. With an ugly *schlorp*, he quickly came loose.

“Ok! On your hooves! Let’s get…”

Well, most of him came loose. Twilight staggered back in horror at the torso she had pulled free. The minotaur’s legs and most of his belly were still lodged in the slug. Only a few spiny tendrils connected his front to his rear. He fell to the ground with a damp splatter as Twilight dropped him and hurriedly backed away.

In the back of her mind, she noticed her flank was starting to sting. And her arms. Everything that had touched the creature…

It was then that she realized it. Trap. It had been a lure, all of it. The song had brought her close, the smiling singer got her closer, and the “minotaur” was the just the finishing touch, the thing that would finally trick her into touching this monster.

The tentacles were sliding in, encircling her, dragging the massive bulk of the thing close enough to crush her.

A strange and foreign feeling filled Twilight as she beat her wings and leapt away. She didn’t recognize it until much later, but she was suddenly, furiously enraged. How could something do this!? How could such a thing be!? But she didn’t have time to ponder, so she acted. She fired bolts of magic at the tentacles that reached for her, smacking maybe half a dozen away as she climbed into the air. Her wings brushed the ceiling of the cave just as she realized it was pointless. The slowly flailing arms just kept coming. She fired another at the singer, thinking that might stop it.

That bolt was harder than her others had been. It knocked the creature clear of the slimy mass under it…or it would have, if the singer hadn’t been attached by those same spiny strands the minotaur had been. It flopped back up to its sitting position, unfazed. It wasn’t five seconds before its calm music and serene smile returned.

Twilight stared at it, hovering.It wasn't real. That wasn’t a real minotaur in there. It had been a fake. A trick. It had to be. Nothing could be so monstrous as to...The stinging was getting more intense. Her arms weren’t moving like they should. She hated this! She wanted to do something here, wanted to fix this horrible thing somehow, but the rational part of her mind knew she couldn’t do it. Not now, not by herself. She gathered up a quick shield, whipped around and flew straight past the singer and into the caves beyond. She heard its music following her, but the tunnels narrowed quickly, and it wasn’t long before the thing’s bulk forced it to give up the chase.

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