• Published 30th Aug 2015
  • 2,708 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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Hunger

Twilight took back anything nice she might have thought about this place. Tartarus was vile. She regretted having ever doubted it was as awful as Celestia had said.

That weird surge of frustrated anger had faded after a while, and the stinging in her skin and muscles had ebbed into a mild numbness, but the encounter was still eating at her. It wasn’t just that she’d fallen into the trap so easily. That had nothing to do with it. It was that the trap even existed. And worse, that there was nothing she could do about it. She wished again that her friends were here. One of them surely could have come up with something better than just running away. But what could they have possibly done? How did someone fix something like that?

She heard a noise from somewhere up ahead, a hollow knocking sound. She halted, caught between dread and exasperation. What horrible thing would it be this time? A chimera? A dragon? Something so terrible she couldn't hope to comprehend it? She couldn’t even begin to guess, but that hardly stopped her imagination from running wild with shadowy horrors. She started up at a trot again, if a bit more quietly than before.

The thing was, these run-ins kept getting worse every time. Now that she thought about it, Celestia’s warning that Tartarus liked “stories” was starting to make some sense. Most stories tended to follow a general pattern of progressively more difficult complications, and here she was, being literally led down a tunnel through a series of unpleasant encounters. Tartarus had even managed to split her and Celestia apart, just like she might expect to happen in a horror novel. And then there was that sensation that something was watching. But maybe she was just being paranoid about that one. She hoped so.

A bend in the path approached. Twilight slowed as she drew near it, but didn't stop until she heard that sound again. A *tok* echoed through the tunnel, like a small hoof rapping on stone. Twilight dimmed her light and changed its color to match the fungal glow (she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought to do that until now!). She edged carefully around the bend, eyes and ears forward. As she peeked past the curve, she saw something out there, maybe thirty feet away. She backed up a bit in surprise.

It was a pony!

Its head was down, and its hooves were pawing the ground, digging or rooting at something. Little wings bounced on its back. A rumbling sounded from somewhere further down the cave, much like the one Twilight had heard just after waking up in the cave. The pony’s head snapped up. He (Twilight guessed it was a he, but it was hard to tell in the dark) stared warily outward, still as a stone. After a moment he glanced around, eyes flicking about until he turned to look her straight in the eye. Twilight froze. The other pony’s eyes went wide and, before she could even think, he darted away in a flash of grey.

“Wait!” Twilight cried. She hadn’t expected anything to run away from her, so she stammered a bit when she said “I didn’t mean to scare you!” She trotted cautiously forward. Celestia had said there weren’t any ponies here, but what else could he have been? Maybe he could lead her back above ground.

Twilight reached the point where he had been standing, but the little pony was nowhere to be seen. He’d run past a rock, and she’d lost him. His hoof-falls had been quieter than she might expect, but surely she’d be hearing them if he were still running. That meant he must be hiding. She looked around, amping up her light a bit. This part of the cavern was littered with stones and crevices. Plenty of places to be unseen, if that’s what you wanted.

“Hello?” she tried. When there was no answer, she continued. “Um, I’m Twilight Sparkle. I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m lost, and I was hoping maybe you could tell me where I am? I know,” she hesitated, wondering what she could possibly say to earn someone’s trust in his situation. She tried to channel in a bit Fluttershy’s aura of harmlessness. “I know it’s pretty scary down here, but I promise I don’t want to hurt anypony. I just need to find my friend and get back to the road, so, if you know how I might get out of here…”

Echoing silence answered her.

Twilight shifted back and forth for a minute, hoping for some response. Nothing came.

“Maybe you could use a hoof too? I ran across some pretty weird stuff back there,” she continued, gesturing to the caves behind her. “So maybe we could travel together for a while? Safety in numbers right?”

The little stream Twilight had walked beside all this time babbled on, but the hiding pony stayed silent.

“It sure would be nice to have somepony to talk to for a bit…” Twilight put effort into sounding as sad-and-dejected-but-also-hopeful as possible. There was, of course, no response. Twilight sighed. “Okay. Well, thanks anyway, I guess. I’m, um, I’m going to keep walking down this tunnel, so, just keep hiding, I suppose. I won’t try to look for you. Just please don’t jump out at me or anything. I’ve had enough of that lately.” Twilight doubled-checked her pre-loaded shield spell and, after a few more moments spent waiting in vain for an answer from the mystery pony, she reluctantly set off down the path.

“Somepony?”

The voice was high, and wary, but certainly male. Young. Twilight guessed him at somewhere in early adolescence. The echoes kept her from pin-pointing the sound.

She stopped, watching the area carefully.

“Uh, yeah. I’ve been alone for a while, so…”

“What’s somepony?”

“What?” Twilight was a bit nonplussed at being asked to explain such a basic word. It seemed so simple until she had to define it. “It’s just…It means, like, a pony, but not any specific pony. Just somepony. Some. Pony. It’s the same as saying someone. Just with pony instead.”

There was a pause.

“Why not say someone, then?”

The voice sounded genuinely confused.

“Because I’m a pony?” hazarded Twilight. “I mean, I suppose I could say someone. Or somebody. I just say pony instead. It’s how we talk in Equestria.”

More silence. It hung so long that Twilight thought the conversation was over. But, just as she was getting ready to give up and walk on, the voice asked…

“You’re from Equestria?”

“Of course! Is that not where you’re from?”

The mystery pony spoke again, carefully.

“But…Equestria’s been gone forever. It’s not even supposed to be real…”

“Um, well, that’s where I came from. Somepony named Artifice cast a spell on me and my friend, and when it was over, we woke up in Tartarus, up on the surface. We got split up, so I’m trying to find her again. I have to make sure she’s okay, and that she knows I am too. If you can just tell me how to get out of here, I’d really appreciate it.” Twilight smiled in no particular direction.

“But Equestria’s real?” There was an edge to the question. A sort of wonder-filled desperation.

“Oh, definitely,” said Twilight, trying her best to imitate Pinkie Pie’s oddly trust-inspiring perkiness. “I’ve lived there my whole life!”

A little head rose slowly up from behind a stone, not ten feet away.

“Oh!” said Twilight, hopping away. She recovered quickly, putting on a friendly smile and throwing together some kind of proper greeting. “Sorry, you just surprised me. Hi! I’m Twilight.”

The other pony didn’t move, still watching her intently from behind his rock.

“Um, okay. I’m uh, Bait. You said you were trying to get back to Equestria?”

“That’s an interesting name, Bate.” Did Tartaran ponies have the same descriptive names that Equestrians did? There was no real reason to expect so if they didn't even say "somepony." Zebras didn’t, nor did griffons. “And yes. Do you know how I can get there?”

“Um, no. But I can…” The rest of the sentence came out as if with great reluctance or confusion. “Help you get out of the caves? If that’s what you want?”

“That’d be great!”

Bait, looking as though he was going to bolt at any second, slowly crept out from behind the stone. Twilight wondered how she’d missed him. The rock had barely been big enough to hide the little guy. She backed up to give him some space, since he seemed so skittish.

“Okay,” she said with her most inviting smile. “Where to?”

“Uh, that way,” he said, pointing with one wing. Wait. That wasn’t a wing. What was that thing? Twilight stared at the bizarre appendage, unconsciously brightening her light to better see it. Bait cringed, rapidly backing away. He had already scampered behind another rock before Twilight had time to apologize.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean to stare! It’s just I’ve never seen a pony like you, I think, so I was trying to get a better look.”

What she'd seen there fascinated and alarmed her. The thing she’d taken for a wing was more like a long, spindly arm. There were two, mounted in much the same way as wings would be, except backwards. Instead of feathers, there was only leathery skin, and each arm ended in a bony, keenly-pointed hand. She’d never seen anything like it.

“I’m not a pony,” murmured Bait from behind his hiding place. “And I’ve never seen anybody like you either.”

“Oh, okay. Fair enough. You’re not a pony? What do you call yourself, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Bait’s head slowly crept back up from behind the stone.

“I’m a wight,” he stated, watching her dubiously. He narrowed his eyes. “Why would I mind if you asked?”

Twilight tried to recall having ever heard of a wight, but nothing came to mind. Maybe it was a recent name, or something that didn’t translate well?

“Uh, heh. I’m not sure. I was just trying to be polite, I suppose. Sometimes ponies, er, people, don’t like being asked personal questions.”

“That’s weird. But okay.” Bait cautiously padded out into the open. “So, we’ll need to go that way.” He pointed again with his creepy little hand.

Not creepy, Twilight corrected herself. Interesting

“You lead," said Bait. "I’ll, um, keep watch back here.”

“Oh, are we going together?” Twilight didn’t even try to hide her enthusiasm. With a guide she could be out of here in no time!

“Um, yeah. I’ll take you there.” He nodded for her to go ahead.

Twilight wasn’t sure why he insisted on lagging behind, but it seemed reasonable to have some sort of watch system, so she went with it. Maybe that was just how these “wights” did things.

Twilight headed off toward the indicated tunnel at a light trot. She was just formulating some small talk when Bait asked…

“So, um, you’re a “pony” then?”

Twilight turned back. He said the word like he’d never heard it before.

“Yup.” She took a little time to finally get a good look at her new acquaintance. “Do you not call them that here?”

“Um, I’ve never seen one before, so, I dunno.”

“Oh. That’s too bad,” Twilight said, trying to hide her disappointment. “Well, are there more wights like you around? I’d love to meet them.” Twilight was sort of letting her mouth go on autopilot while she tried to process what she was seeing. Bait’s hands were his most obviously alien feature, but now that she looked, she wondered how she could have ever mistaken him for a pony at all. He was hairless, first off. No coat, and only a thin, wispy, white mane with some sort of spines interspersed. His skin was a dull-gray leathery hide wrapped tight over knobby bones. He looked like he was starving…

“You would?”

“Sure! It’s always nice to make new friends.”

“Um. Okay. Well, yeah, there’s more. We have to go through my family’s territory on the way, so….” Bait stared at his hooves for a while before finishing the sentence. “You’ll meet them.”

Bait’s eyes, too, were very strange. Milky white, with barely visible, slightly darker irises. She would have guessed him blind, but he had looked right at her more than once. She followed his eyes down to his hooves. They were split. Only the inner half was hoof. The outside was more similar to the hands on his back, clawed and bony. He kept his hoof-fingers wrapped in tight most of the time, walking on gnarled knuckles, but she saw the fingers uncurl occasionally. That must be how he walked so quietly. On his knuckles. Each hoof had thumbs, too.

It was so strange! She'd never even heard of a creature like this.

“Great! Any idea how long it’ll be? It feels like I’ve been walking forever.”

Bait looked at her strangely.

“Um, it’s not too far. This way,” he said, pointing to a side tunnel. The light glinted off his teeth.

His sharp teeth.

That put something of damper on Twilight’s mood.

Bait, she concluded, was a carnivore. That was fine though. Fluttershy had plenty of carnivorous friends, right? Harry the bear, namely, and the ferrets and snakes and spiders and all kinds of creatures. Nopony got to choose how they were born. What they ate didn't make them bad, right?

Nonetheless, Twilight was a little more watchful now. Her mood did not improve with Bait’s next words.

“Wait…” he said, slowing to a halt. “This isn’t right.”

“Hm?”

They stood in a sort of little grotto. They’d left the stream behind a ways back, but it had apparently worked its way back into this chamber, filling a wide, relatively well-lit pool with cool, clear water. It was actually rather pretty.

“Something's changed! We need to go!” Bait was already backing away into the tunnel they’d just left.

“What? Why?”

“There’s shrimp here!”

Twilight paused, caught between amusement at the idea of being afraid of a shrimp and the deep, genuine fear in her guide's voice.

Bait whipped around and nearly slammed his face into a flat stone wall where the tunnel had been moments ago. There had been no rumble, no shaking of the earth. Just a wall, where there hadn’t been one before. He stared at it dumbly.

A paranoid chill skittered up Twilight’s spine. She was being watched.

“Bate,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “When you say shrimp..?"

She didn’t know if he’d intentionally ignored her or if he just wasn't listening, but he streaked in front of her, running across the grotto in search of an exit. He skidded to a halt, finding nothing but solid rock on all sides.

“Bate?”

He looked all around, eyes darting like a frightened animal’s. Twilight followed his glances up to an opening about twenty feet from the ground. He ran toward it, taking a grip on the wall with one hand.

The water rippled with movement. Twilight turned to watch as a pair of iridescent eyestalks breached the surface, twisting weirdly before locking on to her. Another pair followed them up, then another. The owner of the first pair rose up onto land, shedding water as it scuttled rapidly out on what must have been a dozen flitting legs. Twilight heard Bait whimper as the “shrimp” flowed toward her. The thing was as big as a mid-size dog, and it was coming straight at her!

She shot it, and it flew away from her, landing hard on its back.

She hadn't meant to! It was just so fast! And it splayed those wicked-looking armor-plated claws at her and she hadn’t known what to do and so she'd just blasted it! Twilight took a frightened step forward, terribly afraid that she might have really hurt it. The shrimp made a quick flip of its carapaced tail and hopped back to its far-too-numerous feet, completely unharmed.

It shared a look with the six or eight friends that had rushed up to join it, and then they all rushed in toward her.

“Um, Bate!?” called Twilight, taking to air bare moments before the unfeasibly quick shrimp swarmed over the space she’d just abandoned.

The shrimp turned their stalk-eyes up at her as she hovered several yards above them. They shared another look, and then one hopped up at her. It made it nearly eight feet straight up, but didn’t get anywhere near the flying pony.

Ah. Well then, this should be no problem.

A clattering sound echoed through the grotto.

The shrimp turned as one to see Bait scrabbling his way up the wall. It was nearly sheer but, using all of his six limbs, he'd managed to climb at least two full body lengths up it. One leg lost its grip and he slid several inches down.

The shrimp rushed him.

“No!” cried Twilight, swooping down, hitting the ground barely ahead of the crustaceans. She flung up her shield and threw them all back. “I've got you!” She grabbed Bait in a wide, loose field of magic and tried to heft him up into the tunnel above, but he squirmed with all the strength that mortal terror could give. She nearly dropped him under the unexpected strain. “Bate, calm down! I’m trying to help!”

“No! Get off me!”

He’s panicking, Twilight realized. In an as authoritative-yet-benevolent a voice as she could muster, she ordered, “Just go limp, Bate! You’re going to be fine, but you have to let me help you!”

~~~

The shrimp, meanwhile, were having another of their little looks. After a bit of silent discussion, one was convinced to tentatively skitter forward. It looked back at its pack, and they urged it on with wordless encouragement. It cocked one of its claws. The shrimp of Tartarus have four of those, though they aren’t really claws in the conventional sense. They’re not pincers either, but rather a sort of spiked, serrated blade, more like a mantis’s claw. They flex them in a particular way and then fire them with unbelievable force, impaling them through just about anything short of solid steel. But that’s just the stabbing claws. The lower pair are bashing claws, blunt instruments notorious among other residents of the Pit for being able to break through stone, bone, armored fortifications, or pretty much whatever else might have the misfortune of being placed in front of them. That was the claw that this particular shrimp had loaded up.

It fired. The impact hit like a gunshot, its report echoing through miles of tunnel. Twilight’s shield shattered into the ethereal winds.

The shrimp looked back at its comrades. They applauded. And then they charged the soft, fleshy things before them.

~~~

Twilight stared. Nothing had ever broken one of her shields. She barely had time to leap to safety before the shrimp overran her. She heaved against the unfamiliar pressure of both flying and maintaining her telekinesis at once. Bait was still struggling, but he was just trying to right himself now, not escape some invisible attacker.

Okay. She could do thi-OW!

She hadn’t gotten high enough. One of the shrimps had jumped up over its peers and hooked onto her leg. She kicked it off before it could land a proper strike, but it still left a ragged, shallow cut down the back of her left rear leg. She beat her wings with everything she had to get away from the rest of the creatures, barely stopping before she cracked her head on the ceiling. She held Bait up where he was while she concentrated on just getting herself back on solid ground. Once there, she drew Bait in, slowly placing him down a few feet away from her.

The shrimp, meanwhile, scrabbled at the rock wall between them and their prey. Twilight poked her head over the ridge and shot down the one that had made the most progress.

~~~

The shrimp that had been hit righted itself with a flick of one tail. It wasn't injured, though it might be sore later. It flicked its eye-stalks back towards its pack, questioning. It would try the climb again, if they wanted.

After a brief, wordless conference, the group gave their decision. The shrimp acquiesced. They had decided to abandon this pursuit. Fair enough. It was disappointing, but there was no use in getting upset over one escaped meal. There would always be more. Everything had to drink, after all.

It was good to be a shrimp.

~~~

“How’d you do that!?” cried Bait, putting as much ground between Twilight and himself as the walls of the tunnel would let him.

Twilight blinked. He was baring his teeth at her! His claws were spread wide in front of him, his back arched up like a hissing cat’s.

“Bate…” she said quietly. She wasn’t sure were to go from there. He was wide-eyed with crazed anger. “I was just trying to help you. To make sure you were okay.” She reached one hoof to him.

“Stay back!” Bait snarled, cowering against the stone behind him.

No. Not anger. Fear. He’s scared.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sitting down. She kept both hooves on the ground, placating. “You’re right, I should have warned you. But I was scared the shrimp would hurt you, so I picked you up.”

“Why!?”

“…What?”

“Why didn’t you just fly away or something!? Why do…whatever you did there?”

“I…I don’t…I just wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt you, Bate.”

“Why!? They nearly got you! Why would you let them!? What do you want from me!?”

Twilight didn’t know what to say. How did she even answer that? Why would anyone even ask something like that? Actually, the answer to the first was easy.

“Because we’re friends! Because that’s just how we ponies do things, I guess. I don’t really know, Bate. Because…because it seemed like the thing I should do.”

Bait’s lips closed, slowly. His claws pulled back, coming to rest over his shoulders. He didn’t relax, not yet, but it was a start.

“We’re…friends?”

“Of course,” she said with a smile.

Bait’s mouth opened, and closed, and opened again.

“Oh. Um, okay.”

Twilight nodded as if that settled things.

“So, do you know where to go from here? We should probably keep moving, right?” No reason to dwell on a faux pas, after all. Rarity had taught her that.

Bait watched her warily, but it seemed more out of some kind of wonder than fear. Twilight felt certain the kid could use a hug, but he didn’t seem quite ready for that, so she just kept smiling.

“Yeah. Let’s uh, let’s go.

~~~

Bait was turning out to be just like any other curious kid, now that he’d warmed up a bit. Chatty, even. He’d probably get along just fine with Spike and Sweetie Belle and the rest. She kept meaning to ask about his family, but he was so full of questions that she hardly had time to answer, let alone ask more.

“Is everybody in Equestria there like you? Can all the um, ponies, do magic like that? And fly?”

“Kind of. Unicorns can all do at least a little magic, and pegasus can all fly.”

“Which one are you then?”

“Oh, I’m…both, I guess. I’m actually what’s called an alicorn. But I was born a unicorn.”

Bait’s eyes widened. “You can change!? How does that work? And how come everybody isn’t an alicorn, if they can do everything?”

Twilight chuckled self-consciously. She didn’t like to think of herself as an ‘alicorn.’ That made it sound like she’d switched species somehow, and she didn’t feel that different. She was just a bit…more, now. “Well, it doesn’t really work that way. It’s very rare to see somepony become an alicorn. I don’t entirely understand how it happened myself, actually.”

“Oh. Okay. What’s Equestria like? Is there really a giant fireball in the ceiling that lights everything all the time and can rain fire?”

“Er, yes, there is a giant fireball, though I’ve never seen it rain fire. We call it the Sun, and there’s not always a ceiling. The Sun is in the sky, which I guess is kind of like a...non-ceiling? Or a lack of a ceiling. Anyway, Princess Celestia raises it to light everything up, but only about half the time. Have you never been outside these caves, Bate?”

“No. But no ceiling? Creepy…What happens the other half?”

“Oh, the other half is night. It’s when everything is dark, and the Moon comes out. It’s not as bright, but it’s still very pretty.”

Bait hunched up a bit and whispered “Is that when the Nightmare comes out? I heard she eats the souls of anybody she catches, and once she sees you, she can find you anywhere, even in your dreams…” He shivered.

“You mean Nightmare Moon?” asked Twilight, taken aback. “No, Nightmare Moon is gone. She’s just Princess Luna now, and she’s very nice. A little strange, I suppose. But that’s not her fault!” she added quickly. “She was on the moon for a long time.”

“Huh. Really? Cause I always heard…wait. Have you met her!? I thought the Princesses were supposed to be really dangerous.”

“What? No! The Princesses are…”

A brilliant white horn impaling straight through a wolf-thing. An explosion blowing it apart, spattering gore everywhere.

Twilight shook the memory away. “Th-the nicest ponies you’ll ever meet. Princess Celestia is actually who I came here with. She's beautiful, and graceful, and pretty much the best pony there is. I’m sure she’ll be happy to meet you.”

Bait stopped dead, staring open-mouthed at Twilight.

“She’s here!? In Tartarus?”

“Um, yes?” It occurred belatedly to Twilight that she maybe shouldn’t just be telling ponies about that. Celestia seemed to have something of a reputation down here.

Bait’s eyes twitched about, his jaw working as if in furious thought.

“And she’s nice? And Equestria is nice too? Not like Tartarus?”

Twilight answered slowly, uncertain as to where this was going.

“Yes? She’s always been good to me, and everypony I’ve ever known. And Equestria’s really not like Tartarus at all. It’s, I’m not sure how to say it. Well, it’s certainly friendlier, for one, and fewer things try to eat you. Ponies help each other. Here it kind of seems like everyone is on their own. But it’s different in Equestria.”

Bait asked his next question with great caution, watching Twilight very carefully.

“So, um, if I asked to go th—”

A staccato clacking sounded from somewhere down the tunnel. Bait twitched and was gone before Twilight could even blink.

“What was that?” Twilight whispered, dimming her light.

He didn’t answer for a bit. Twilight looked behind her, and the kid blended into the wall so well that it actually took her a second to find him. He put a finger up to his lips and hunkered down. Twilight did the same, staying still and silent.

They stayed that way for a minute, maybe two. Twilight jumped when she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was just Bait, of course. How could be so quiet? He gestured her to follow as he led the way down a side tunnel. Twilight tried to be as silent as he was, but couldn't quite keep a little clop from echoing down the tunnel with each step.

The sound from before came again. It was closer this time. Or was it? She couldn’t tell. Her ears twitched both ways, but to no avail. Bait stopped in front of her. It was another long moment before he spoke.

“Um. It’s…” Twilight couldn’t see his face, but Bait's next words sounded agonized. “This way.” He directed her away from the side tunnel they’d been working toward and back into the main.

“Are you sure?” hissed Twilight. He'd sounded upset. Was he scared? Well, there was certainly plenty around here to be scared of…

Bait stopped in front of her. He lowered his head, tucking his tail in even more than usual. “Yeah.” The words came out tight. “This way.”

“Okay. Lead the way.”

~~~

They walked on for another half-hour or so in strained silence. Twilight tried to get Bait talking again, but something had changed. He kept shrugging off her inquiries with simple, monosyllabic answers. After a while, she could take no more. Twilight sidled up next to him.

“Bate?” she said, placing a hoof softly on his side. He twitched away from her touch. “Is everything okay?”

He hopped a few steps away before he answered, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It’s fine. Let’s just go.” He looked haunted…

Twilight hesitated, but eventually picked up and followed him. They were approaching an unusually well-lit opening in the rock.

“Alright. If you’re sure.”

Bait said nothing. Not until they crossed the threshold, anyway.

“I’m sorry!” he whispered. And then he ran, head down, straight into the cave. “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry!

“Bate?” Twilight lost him as he hopped over a stone and disappeared. She was just starting out after him when something stepped out to confront her.

It was another wight, larger than Bait. Male, about her own age. An adult then. He was bigger, and perhaps better fed, but still thin, still significantly smaller than Twilight herself. She didn't notice that at first though. Her attention was focused mostly on the teeth.

He grinned with hungry, serrated smile at her.

“Um…” said Twilight, backing away.

Another wight rose up from the ground beside her. He hadn’t even been hiding, just using his natural camouflage to look like another rock. Twilight heard a rustling behind her. She turned to see two more wights, both female, stepping between her and the tunnel she’d just left. They, too, watched her with that ravenous gleam in their eyes.

Twilight shimmied sideways, simple instinct pushing her to try and get them all into her field of view. More were popping up from all over. Every natural impulse demanded that she flee, that she run and find a herd of fifty or so of her better friends and bury herself among them, but Twilight clamped down hard on her rising fear.

“Why hello there, sweetheart!” It was the first wight, the one that had stepped out right in front of her.

“Uh, h-” Twilight tried to swallow, told herself to breathe. "Hello." It was as much as she couldmanage. This place smelled like a monster’s den, all musk and bone and dried blood.

The wight sauntered to a stop.

“What’s that,?” he asked, putting one hoof/claw behind his ear, angling it toward her.

“Oh, uh, I said hello,” replied Twilight, rallying. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. I’m sorry to intrude, but-“

“Twilight Sparkle?” interrupted the wight. “Now there’s a name, eh?” He looked around at the other wights. They all chuckled, though there had been no joke. “Well, they call me Switch. Welcome to my humble abode.” He gestured grandly with one arm. “Please, make yourself at home, honey.”

“Um, thank you, but I was just passing through, actually. I-“

“What’s that? Just passing through? Well, we can’t be having that, can we? Come ‘ere now, let us have a look at you,” said Switch, swaggering toward her. “Let us show you a bit of the Family’s famous hospitality, eh?”

Twilight backed away from his approach, jumping as her tail brushed against something. She whipped her head back to see another wight leering at her. She quickly hopped to change course, again, trying to keep all the wights in front of her. Where did they all come from!?

“Oh, uh, I appreciate it, but no, thank you. Um, Bate?”

Switch stopped dead in front of her. Then he threw back his head and laughed.

Twilight stared, finally, unwillingly realizing. No.

Switch stumbled, he was laughing so hard. “You think he’s going to help you? How have you even lived this long? I just—" He had another good laugh at her. The rest of his 'family' joined in.

NO! He couldn’t have!

As Twilight backed further, she finally let herself put the pieces together. It appeared that wights did have descriptive names after all. Not Bate, but Bait. Bait and Switch. Augh! It was so obvious now! But, he couldn't! The kid she'd met and saved wouldn't... No! It has to be something else!

“Actually, you’re right,” gloated Switch. “Come on out here, Bait! This is your big day, runt! You brought us a good one this time.”

A cold silence hung.

“Ah, well, you’ll have to excuse him,” said Switch, turning back to leer at her. “He’s a shy boy. Happens when you’re the runt. Anyway, where were we?” He put one finger to his chin, as if actually pondering. “Ah yes. Hospitality.”

She didn’t back away this time. Something strange was happening inside her…

“Seems a shame to just eat her, don’t it Switch?” The one Twilight's tail had just brushed against was speaking.

“Hm?”

“It’s just she’s real pretty, is all.”

…all the horrible feelings in Twilight were coming to together. All the fear, the anger, the vicious indignation of betrayal, were roiling inside her. They were mixing into something volatile. Something dangerous...

“Ugh. Shut your fucking mouth, Creeper.” That came from one of the mares who had blocked Twilight’s exit.

"I'm just sayin'."

“Aw, come on now, buddy,” said Switch. “You know we’d never hold a lady against her will like that.” He smirked at Twilight, giving her the most pointlessly obnoxious smirk she’d ever seen. “We’re civilized.”

…and it started to spill over. It broke something in Twilight. Or maybe it finally put it together. Maybe this had always been there. She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. But Dust Up's words came back, in sudden, deadly focus.

If they wanna talk, let ‘em. And then...

“So!” she exclaimed. The stalking wights actually stopped, ears perking up to listen. “I think there has clearly been some miscommunication here! You see, I am Princess Celestia’s personal student, and—“

“Hah!” cackled Switch. “As if she even—"

Hit ‘em.

Hard.

…and she fired all of that wrath through her horn and straight into his smug, stupid face.

Switch didn’t even have time to cry out before it hit him. His head just snapped back and he flopped deadweight to the ground. A moment of sublime terror flew through Twilight as she realized she might have just killed him.

“The bitch is a wyrd! Take her down!”

Twilight didn’t know who said it, but it snapped her out of her reverie and, ironically, saved her life. She *blinked* out, popping back into the world in the middle of the room. The wights stared blankly at where she had been.

“I thought wyrds only had one power!” said one. Right. They didn't know about unicorns. Good.

“Who cares!” said another. It was the mare who had chastised Creeper. “There! Just kill her!”

Twilight probably could have run. She certainly should have run. But she lowered her horn and charged. The one called Creeper leapt at her, spreading claws and teeth wide. He bounced off Twilight’s bullet-shaped shield as she threw herself into him.

A couple of hundred pounds of pony…

She felt his breath as she knocked it out of him, slamming herself into his chest. She skidded to a halt, throwing him to the ground as a feeling of nasty satisfaction surged through her. She reared to face one of the mares that was already closing on her. Twilight flailed her hooves to back the creature off, then leveled her horn and fired a bolt of pure fury at the wight in front of her. She didn’t know if it hit. Another monster was already on her. Too late, Twilight *blinked* out again. She felt something hit her somewhere between neck and chest, but by the time she’d returned it was over, and she had other problems. She was charging half-blind at a second mare when she felt something yank her straight back. A quick look showed that a wight had buried its teeth in her tail hair. Tragically for him, this put his head into perfect kicking range. Twilight obliged, landing one hoof full on the bridge of his muzzle. She felt blood spatter her rump. She would remember that feeling for the rest of her life, but for now she ignored it and threw up the flimsiest excuse for a shield she ever had, hoping it would stop the razor-toothed mare that lunged at her. Her attacker broke her face against that plum-colored barrier, and Twilight snapped both wings into the creature’s head in open imitation of Celestia.

Both hit home and it hurt. It hurt! Twilight cried out, certain she’d just broken both her wrists. She felt something land on top of her, felt a sharp pain in one ear, and she *blinked* again. She popped back in somewhere else, with no idea where she might be now.

“Fucking dammit! Just kill her already!”

Twilight didn’t see the speaker, but she threw herself toward the sound. The talker swung a clawed hand at her, but she wasn’t there. She’d *poofed* to one side, and her attacker had just enough time to look at her, wide-eyed, as she landed a brutal double-rear kick into his midsection. Twilight felt things crack as he crumpled to the ground. She staggered forward from the force of her own strike, hoping it was him who had broken and not her. Not that she had time for hope. Another wight was already lashing out at her. She managed to bat its talons aside with a wing, earning only a few minor cuts, and land a lucky hoof up under his jaw. His mouth spurted blood with a hollow clack and something flew past Twilight’s head. It might have been his tongue.

Twilight heaved for breath as he fell away. How long had she been fighting? It felt like she was dyin—Move!

Out of one eye, she saw another wight leaping for her. Seized by a moment of vicious inspiration, she flipped the creature’s personal gravity field, slinging him straight up to crash into the ceiling. Then she let him go, and he fell another fifteen feet down onto the floor. His legs flailed helplessly, and he landed with a sick crunch both times.

Looking up, glancing desperately around, Twilight saw…nothing. Nopony coming for her. She stumbled a few steps forward. That last trick had really taken it out of her. Casting spells in rapid succession got tiring real quick, especially when used on the fly like that. But was she done? Had she won?

Two bony hands grabbed her as a leaden weight slammed down on her back. One hand dug into Twilight’s neck, the other grabbed her chin and pulled it back, exposing her neck. In a panic, Twilight gripped where she thought her attacker's head might be in the hardest magical field she could muster. She couldn’t do what Celestia did, she couldn’t just toss the creature across the room, but she could still make it regret getting so close to her.

Twilight slammed the wight’s head straight down into the stony floor. She tried not be sick at the sound it made.

It wasn’t her fault.

It wasn’t.

An in-equine roar shook the caves behind her. Twilight shrugged the wight off her back and wobbled up to face it. How could there still be more!? She was so tired...

Twilight looked up and beheld a centaur, barreling straight toward her. A centaur! Where had it been this whole time!? Academically, this was amazing. She hadn’t even known such creatures actually lived! But in practical terms…well, now she had to fight one…

Twilight summoned up an even sorrier shield than before and tumbled forward to meet it.

The creature was huge, taller than Celestia. It had the body of an over-sized pony with a second, much stranger body sprouting up from where its neck should be. It had arms bizarrely close to its head, and hands like the ones the wights had, but less bony, covered in wiry flesh. They held an axe. It was a simple thing, just wood and stone, but no less deadly for its primitive construction. Its head was completely foreign to anything Twilight had ever known. It was vaguely apelike, she supposed, but even then, she’d never seen anything like it, with its weird, shortened muzzle and tiny eyes and silly-looking, round ears.

She wished, so very hard, that she had met this creature under better circumstances. Alas…

The centaur swung its weapon as Twilight rushed it. She should have dodged, or *blinked*, or done something clever, but she just watched as the axe broke against her barrier, and her barrier broke against its blade. Twilight and the centaur slammed into each other. Twilight hit horn first, at least. The centaur was less fortunate.

They both staggered at the impact. Twilight’s horn wasn’t a weapon, not long and sharp and deadly like Celestia’s, but a headbutt from a unicorn was no joke. The centaur still had a over a hundred pounds on her though, and Twilight stumbled back, reeling. The centaur clutched his belly (Was that a belly? Did he have two?) and groaned. Trying to think of what to do now, Twilight started talking.

“O-Okay. Why don’t we—“

She had thought that this might make a good time to negotiate. The centaur disagreed. He lurched forward, wrapping one huge hand around her neck while the other latched onto a wing. He yanked her close and tightened his grip.

Twilight tried to gasp, tried to breathe, tried to get some tiny sip of air, but nothing would come. She felt a tearing pain in her wing-shoulder as the centaur struggled to wrench her apart. She flailed her legs, but the thing was too close! Her hooves batted up against hard flesh and other hooves, accomplishing nothing. She jerked back, and went nowhere. She swung her wings and a shock of pain ran down her back, her free wing doing nothing more than fanning the monster that was killing her.

This was it, wasn't it? This thing would kill her, and then they would eat her and no one would ever even know. She almost welcomed it at this point. There just wasn’t any fight left.

Sparkling lights crept across her vision. The backs of her eyes itched. She was going to die down here...

And then it came. Furious rage? Prideful indignation? Simple worry for how her death might affect others? It didn’t matter.

No.

NO!

Bait had betrayed her and she would have justice for that!

Celestia was still out there, and Twilight wouldn’t leave her alone!

Would Applejack just give up? Never! Would Rainbow Dash quit just because she was tired!? Not a chance! Even now, even in her loneliest moment, her friends were there, forever inspiring, always protecting! She would never abandon them! Not like this, not today! Not for these monsters!

Twilight threw herself back into reality, where everything was pain and misery. She was dying, her senses giving way one by one, but her magic was still there for her. She reached out, desperately seeking something, anything she could use.

She tried to grab the centaur, but her power kept slipping past it. She couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t manage to pull together a shield or a teleport, but there had to be something! She seized on a hard surface. It was a little thing, and fragile. Twilight was surprised it had made it this far, but it would work.

Twilight gripped the canteen she’d found and popped it free of the strap around her neck, smashing it into the centaur’s face. It shattered into shards, but she still held the top. She felt the creature’s grip go slack, and when it tightened again, she dug the sharp and jagged remains of her little jug into whatever presented itself. The centaur dropped her and staggered away, waving its hands like a lunatic against a weapon that was, at this point, mostly buried in its face.

Twilight sucked in sweet, sweet air, barely awake but viciously determined, and reared back, flailing her hooves at her foe. She felt them hit something hard, felt the pain course up her arms, but she kept fighting. She didn’t know she was screaming, and it didn’t matter. She stomped. Again, she felt something break beneath her, felt something spatter her chest and face, but she kept going.

She stomped again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And she didn’t stop until, sobbing for air and utterly spent, she felt nothing more move under her hooves. Then, and only then, did she finally back away. She stumbled off the centaur. It inched away from her, sputtering.

Still alive…

I have to kill him, she realized. I have to! If I don’t… she staggered bonelessly away. He’ll come for me. They all will. They’ll wait till I’m asleep! They’ll trick me into trusting them again.

They’re monsters! I have to! She grabbed an appropriately heavy stone in what was left of her magic. She turned back to the centaur.

It’s not my fault! I tried! I have to kill them!

I have to…

Eyes wide and breath short, Twilight raised the stone into the air, and…

Author's Note:

I'm considering renaming this story "A Litany of Bad Decisions." :pinkiehappy:

P.S This chapter was the seed idea for the rest of the story. I basically just wanted to write a fight scene with magic. Then I got the idea of comparing/contrasting Twi and Celly's reaction to a similar situation.

It's gotten a bit longer than originally intended...

P.P.S The shrimp are based on mantis shrimp, one of nature's most terrifying monstrosities. Look 'em up.

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