• 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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Faith

Twilight trudged once more through the featureless, endless tunnels. Her hooves dragged in the dust. She was so exhausted she could barely walk, but still she plodded on, unable to stop. Her stupid decisions hadn't left her the option. She was starving, couldn’t even remember the last time she’d eaten. And she was parched. Her canteen was gone, and she hadn’t seen her little river in hours. Everything hurt; every little bruise and poke and scratch just seemed to be getting worse. Her wings ached. Both wrists were sore (she hadn't actually broken them, at least), and her shoulder joint was angry and swelling. She wasn't sure if she could fly like this. The jabs she’d taken in the neck and ear had turned out to be much worse than just a bit of impact; the wights had actually stabbed her with their gross claw things. The wounds burned, and the one in her neck itched. And that meant it was infected. After all she’d been through, she was probably going to die in some nameless cave of a flippin' infection. It was just embarrassing. But she had to keep moving, because…

I should have killed them.

I’m so stupid!

The events of her last encounter ran through her mind once more. She couldn’t stop them. She couldn’t do much of anything she wanted, it seemed.

~~~

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



…let it clatter to the ground.

“Just…” gasped Twilight. Who was she kidding? She wasn't a real Princess. She couldn't do this.

She teetered off the centaur she’d been fighting and staggered away. She probably would have puked if she’d had the energy or even a tiny bit of food in her stomach, but there was just nothing left.

She stared at the broken creature before her. He cowered, putting his hands up in a sad attempt at defense, or maybe surrender. Some of his fingers were bent the wrong way. His left arm, the pony one, didn't seem to be working at all. He was covered in blood, his whole body marred by hoof shaped welts. She could see dents in his nose and chest. One eye was swollen shut so bad she didn’t know if it would ever open right.

Had she really done all that?

She looked away, unwilling to think about it any further. The wights scattered away from her. Well, they limped away from her, anyway, avoiding her gaze. Any one of them could have killed her right then, but they just stood there. Except for the ones who lay still.

“Just leave me alone.”

Her bleary eyes fixed on one in particular, collapsed and motionless in the center of the room. Switch, she remembered. The first one she’d hit.

She walked slowly toward him, following some vague instinct. She raised one arm and rested it over his chest. She felt something through her hoof after a moment. A heartbeat, soft and steady. Good.

Good.

She turned back to face the centaur again.

“How do I get to the surface?” It came out as a sort of prolonged sigh.

He pointed to one of the tunnels with his good hand.

“Don’t lie to me!” screamed Twilight in a sudden, mindless rage.

The centaur cringed and frantically pointed to the same cave, hiding behind his other, broken hand.

Why had she done that?

Having no real answer, Twilight turned toward the indicated entrance and walked away, not even looking behind her.

~~~

I can’t believe I let them go! I can’t believe I’m even wishing I’d killed them! I can’t…I just…

“I hate this!” She shouted it for no reason, at nothing and no one. She felt a little better afterward. I must be losing my mind.

She wished Celestia were here. She wished anypony were here, sure, but her in particular. Celestia had scared the everything out of her, but that hadn't really been her fault. She'd even tried to warn Twilight, but she hadn't known things could actually be this bad. Now that she knew better, Twilight felt horrible for ever doubting her. Celestia would know what to tell her, or at least make her feel safe. She had always been good at that, even if all that meant was letting Twilight talk, or placing a wing over her shoulders and giving her tacit permission to do nothing at all. Goddess, but she could use a nice, soft wing to hide under right now. If she could just hear her voice, have some sign that Celestia was still out there looking for her...

Ugh! If only I hadn't run away! What little bitterness Twilight managed to summon drained away before it had time to really set in. Between being hungry and beat up and utterly exhausted, she just didn't have the energy to get a decent round of self-loathing going. And besides, a more pressing need than self-reproach was clamoring for her attention; she really had to pee. But she knew, just knew, that the second she dropped her guard something horrible would jump out at her. Well, at least whatever got her wouldn't enjoy it. Heh.

Twilight didn’t worry about her little fit of gallows humor. She'd earned it. And it wasn't like she was wrong. She'd been thinking about her recent encounters, and they all shared something in common: they had all been traps. Each one had drawn her in one way or another and then somehow put her in danger. They'd gotten more clever about it as they went too, like Tartarus really had been watching her and was learning how best to get at her. Well, It had sure nailed it with Bait, hadn't It? She'd walked right into that one. And It had just as surely noticed that she hadn't made time for a bathroom break since she'd gotten here.

Also, she kept hearing furtive little noises and seeing ghostly glimpses of figures darting away from her light. It was a stark change from the gaping silence she’d experienced before, and Twilight could only assume nothing good would come of it. But darn it, she had to go!

Twilight shined her light down both sides of the tunnel, seeing nothing definite. Resigning herself to whatever fate would surely befall her, Twilight shrugged and walked into a little dead-end alcove to her left. She winced at the pain in her shoulder.

She was about halfway through handling her business when, to her complete lack of surprise, a stone near her suddenly extruded several wickedly pointed claws and began skittering its way toward her. Twilight sighed.

She lifted the rock/crab/whatever thing in a soft but inexorable field of purple force. It squirmed and chittered and fought, but found itself unable to do much, floating upside down in front of its erstwhile prey. Twilight stared at it. It stared back. A sound from ahead drew Twilight’s attention: another creature was entering the fray. This one was more like a trilobite, but with extra legs and a couple of scorpion tails.

"Two of you? Really?"

Twilight rolled her eyes and tossed the one she held at the other. She half expected them to team up and try for her again, but no. They immediately begin fighting over her instead.

I hate this place.

Twilight finished up and hopped over the battling bugs, continuing on her way. She didn’t make it but a few minutes befo—

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”

Twilight shrieked in return, nearly falling backward in surprise at the feminine scream.

She stared for a moment, blinking, heart pounding, before recognition took hold.

“Ben?”

The star spider gave a florid little bow.

“Oh, you are so lucky you didn’t do that five minutes ago! And how did you find even me!?”

He drummed his legs, front to back. Twilight interpreted this as an arachnid shrug.

Relief gave way to suspicion.

“You are Ben, right?”

The spider tilted its body one way, looking a bit like a confused dog.

“Well, I suppose if you’d wanted to eat me, you could have done that without screaming at me.”

Possibly-Ben tilted the other way, as if not quite comprehending the idea of not screaming at somepony.

“Buuuut, if you really are Ben…what do you think of the pony I came here with?”

Ben backed away and narrowed his many eyes in suspicion, hissing low.

“Yeah, okay, that’s gotta be you.”

Ben made a pleased little chirp and skittered forward. Twilight hopped back away from him, horn lighting as if on its own.

“Stop!”

Ben did, immediately. He made some indefinite noise. It sounded concerned.

“Sorry. It’s just… things have been bad since I, um, lost you. I just need a little space right now.”

Ben hunkered down to the ground apologetically.

“I know. It’s not your fault. And I-I’m sorry. For running off like that. Before. I just got scared, and...”

Ben bowed slightly in an arachnid nod, as if to say that this had been no difficulty.

“I was worried about you,” offered Twilight. “How do you live in this horrible place?”

Ben tilted from side to side, somehow communicating that it wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it. But then, he was a spider, not a pony.

Or perhaps Twilight really was losing her mind, and she’d made all that up. Could she really trust him? Was he really different than everything else here? What if he was just playing her, same as Bait had? Celestia had said he was okay, but…

“Alright, well…I don’t suppose you can lead me back out of here?”

Ben whipped around and skittered ahead, turning back to wave an arm. Twilight followed. At a distance.

~~~

She made it about another half hour before the smell hit her. She wasn’t surprised; it was only a matter of time before some new terrible thing got thrown her way. The only unexpected part was how pleasant it was. It was a scent of ripe fruit and flaky pies and crisp, delicious veggies. It reminded her of dinner at the Apple farm.

It was so obviously a trick that it set off every possible alarm in her head. Alas, it also tripped off her stomach. Her much-abused belly grumbled, demanding she investigate. Very much against her better judgement, Twilight sniffed the air, letting that lovely aroma draw her on. She just couldn’t stop herself. And it wasn’t like she had anywhere else to go; it was coming from straight ahead.

A side tunnel soon appeared. Warm, friendly light poured out of it, along with those wonderful smells. It came from good, old-fashioned fire-light, too, nothing like the sickly fungal glow Twilight had been seeing so much of. She stopped in front of the opening.

It was a trap. It was clearly a trap. And she was not going to fall for it! Not this time! But...

She peered inside, just a little. It looked exactly like it smelled. A nice fireside scene, something straight out of Hearth's Warming eve. A big fireplace hung with loaded stockings dominated the room, and there was a big wooden table weighed down with treats of all kinds. Seated around it were OhSweetCelestiaWhatAreThose!?

Sitting around the table in thematically perfect chairs were four…figures. One hunched at each face of the square table. They were all perfectly hairless. One was a pony, or at least, like one. The rest…Twilight didn’t know. Two had hands, and one had, what, flippers? That one was passed out, face-down on the table. The pony(?) was sprawled lifelessly over its chair, and the others were in similarly unconscious states, heads lolling and limbs splayed out. They were all a pale pink in color. Bones jutted out under thin, emaciated skin. And, most disturbing of all, that skin had grown over every orifice. Eyes, mouths, noses. Everything was sealed shut.

Twilight took a step back in disgust. What even was this!?

Well, it’s a trap. You know it is.

Yes, it was obviously a trap. Twilight almost chuckled to herself, but she couldn't quite manage it. Really, though. What had made Tartarus think she would fall for this? She shook her head and started to walk away. Her stomach growled with renewed and implacable vigor, and she stopped.

Well...

Maybe she could just grab something real quick and run away? She sidled back toward the dinner scene. She didn't even want to. It just happened.

Surely they wouldn’t miss just one apple? She could reach one from here, easy. And those things didn't seem that threatening... Her horn glowed as she subconsciously prepped her magic, mouth watering.

And then she figured it out. If she ate anything from that table she’d probably end up another creepy freak on display. This wasn’t a trap, darn it! This was just torture.

Twilight stomped a hoof and growled, too angry to remember to be quiet.

She heard something from back down the tunnel. It sounded a bit like a gasp.

“Oh, just come out already!” she snarled at it. “I know you’re there!” Twilight sat through the next several moments in irritable silence. Whatever it was didn’t answer. She snorted. Twilight felt a little tap her on the foreleg, and looked down to see Ben watching her. He turned away from the dinner party and gestured for her to follow.

“Yeah,” she grumbled. “Let’s go.”

~~~

Twilight walked slowly, her fatigued mind trying to form some sort of a plan. She thought she had something for a second. It was clever, and elegant, and would surely work, and then-she-was-falling!

Twilight snapped awake, blinking. Had she just fallen asleep? While walking? She felt her legs move mechanically, one in front of the other. She tried to look at them, but she was having trouble focusing. The ground around them wavered, because she was in water now. She was swimming through a nice, warm river. She was heading back to Canterlot, getting ready to—

She snapped awake again. Twilight shook her head. She heard another little sound from somewhere behind her. Or, she thought she did. She stopped walking, closed her eyes, took a deep breath...and whipped around to glare furiously behind her. She heard something scamper away in a rush, but she heard it clearly this time.

There was something out there!

A moment of staring more, and her eyes locked onto a shape that slid, just barely, into the very edge of her light. It was a drab brown, lumpy and shapeless. She squinted and braced herself, trying to make ready to deal with...

A saddlebag.

What?

“It’s um, it’s food,” said somepony. “Everything I could find. It’s for you! Because…”

Twilight knew that voice.

“Bait?”

There was silence for a bit.

“Um. Yes. But I brought this for you! I, uh, I’m sorry. About-“

“Food? You brought me food!?” snapped Twilight. “Why? What’d you do, poison it!?”

“What!? No! I’d never-“

Twilight blinked in right next to him, slamming one hoof into the ground, blasting her light spell at full intensity, filled with a rage she had never even known she could feel.

“You’d never what!?” she screamed. “What do you want!? You tried to kill me!” Twilight stalked forward. She was still a ways off, but she had him cornered up against a rock and the wall. Ben scampered in as Bait tried to edge away from the rock, throwing up his front legs and hissing dangerously. He was a fraction of Bait’s size, but the wight curled up into himself at the spider’s approach.

“No! I didn’t, I mean, I, I-“

“You would have eaten me! I thought we were friends, and you threw me to the wolves! You think I’m going to fall for this!?” Twilight shouted, advancing. “But oh, do tell, Bait. What is it that you’d ‘never do?’ ”

“I’d never waste food like that.” He whispered it from behind his hooves. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-I-I didn’t know…”

Twilight slowed, and stopped. Something in the way he’d said that got to her. It made her realize what she was doing.

She was bullying a frightened, starving child. Even if he was working with those other wights…

Her next question was quiet. “You didn’t know what, Bait?”

“That you’re…” He licked his lips, swallowing, nervous. Afraid. “I thought you were trying to trick me, somehow. That you were playing nice to trap me, or something.” He didn’t look at her when he spoke. Just trembled there, against the wall.

“Why would I do that?”

“To eat me, I guess? Because that’s just what everything does? I didn’t know you meant it, that you thought we were friends. But you did! ‘Cause you’re good! And so strong, and…better than us.”

Twilight sat down, slowly.

“What do you mean by that?”

Bait finally looked at her, his eyes filled a desperation like she’d never seen.

“Y-you could have killed us. All of us! But you didn’t. I saw you fight. You were amazing! My whole family couldn’t even touch you! But after everything, you just, just left! You didn’t even take anything...”

When Twilight finally spoke, all that came out was…

“Oh.”

“I didn’t want to take you to them!” Bait cried. “After you…after you saved me from the shrimps. I tried to sneak us past, but, but they saw us. And once they knew, I had to take you to them. Or…”

When he didn’t continue, Twilight softly asked, “Or what, Bait?”

He made an angry little snort.

“Family’s gotta eat.”

It was a long moment before Twilight said anything. “Bait? Why were you out there in the caves, all alone?”

The foal, and he was just a foal, stared at the floor, rubbing one clawed hoof over the other.

“Being bait’s all the runt’s good for, so that’s its name. The runt goes out and finds anything the family can eat, and lures it back home. Unless it gets the runt first. And if the runt doesn’t find anything for too long, well…Family’s gotta eat.” The words came out with such bitter resignation that Twilight didn’t even know what to feel. She just had no idea. A sick chill worked through her, mixed in with that righteous fury she’d felt before, and so much else. She ground a hoof into the stone floor. She looked at Bait and saw the glimmer of tears in his eyes. That sobered her, somehow.

“Why did you follow me?” Her voice was surprisingly even.

“Oh. Um, right. To give you that,” he said, pointing one clawed finger to the saddlebag. Suddenly he was all nerves again. “And I thought, um, maybe, that, if I came and tried to help you, but really help you this time! That, maybe when you make it back to Equestria…that I could go too. With you.”

Twilight stared at him for a long time. Long enough to watch him squirm under her gaze. Her mouth opened and closed, but her mind was blank. There just weren’t words for this. Not that she knew, anyway. But she had to ask…

“What about your family?”

~~~

His eyes took a long time to come into focus. When they finally did, Switch found himself staring at a claw-hoof. It was chipped, and missing one finger. That would be Creeper then. He felt someone jostle him.

“Get up.”

“Back off!” replied Switch with a snarl. Why was he down here? He raised his head and rolled onto his belly. His vision swam and he nearly keeled over and retched. He would have if he hadn’t suspected the family might be watching.

“What d’ya want?” His voice slurred. Not good. Switch tried to remember…Oh right. That girl Bait had brought. An easy meal. Obviously scared, hilariously naive. But then…a flash of purple light, and his memories abruptly ended. What had happened?

“Get up, dammit! Bait’s gone!”

Switch pondered this. Why was he thinking so slow? Something was wrong with his head…

“So?”

“He took our food, Switch.” That was Barb. She sounded even more pissed than usual.

“What? Thas…That’s,” Switch made sure to enunciate properly the second time. This was bad. He couldn’t look weak, not now. “No way. Where would he go? And that bitch he brought in should last us a good while, anyway.”

“She’s gone too, Switch,” said Creeper.

Switch finally looked up. The whole family was here.

“What do you mean she’s gone? She oughta be dead.”

A wide array of snarls and grumbles answered his statement.

Oh. Oh fuck.

“She got away,” he said.

“Did more than that. Took Bait with her. He looted the stores, Switch.” Creeper eyed him dangerously.

Oh, Hell no.

“Well go fucking find him! He can’t be far, he’s the…” Switch had meant to say runt, but when he’d tried to rise to his hooves, his head swam again and he flopped back onto the ground.

“Bait’s damn near invisible when he wants to be, Switch. You know that. He was a good Bait.” That came from Eurytion, the centaur. His voice sounded wrong. One look at his face explained that: he was a mess. “And now he’s gone. With most of our food.”

“Family’s gotta eat, Switch,” said Creeper. “And you went down first. If you hadn’t been talking so much…”

“What!? Wait!” Switch threw himself to his hooves, but one hoof missed the ground somehow and he fell, landing hard.

“Fuck you Creeper! I’ll tear y-“

Switch never finished that last sentence.

~~~

“What about them?” said Bait. He tried to look resolute, but his eyes fell back to ground, guilt weighing them down. “It’s not like I can go back, after this.” He made a vague wave toward the saddlebag. “They don’t need me anyway. I’m just the runt.”

Twilight sat there, silent.

Okay.

Okay, yes, he had tried to kill her. Yes, he would have eaten her. But...

How could his family treat him that way? As some, what, some expendable food source!? It was monstrous! But...

She’d never known real hunger until now, had she? The wights, this “family,” had lived it their whole life. Could she really even judge them for what they did to survive in this nightmare? And here was Bait, abandoning them, his own family, everything he’d ever known, for her. For one, single shot at a better life than what this horrible place had given him.

Skies above, what was she supposed to do!?

He’ll kill me in my sleep. There it was, the worst-case scenario. But what if he doesn’t? What if I am his only hope? Can I really just walk away? He’s so young…

Twilight would have liked to think she used some sort of logic to make this decision, but frankly, it had already been made. Everyone who tried deserved a little faith, right? A second chance? Even the runt of a family of cannibal monsters. And what would Twilight be if she stole what little he had and left him to the mercy of this place? She knew the answer to that one, at least. And she would die a hundred times before she let herself be broken into one of Tartarus’s creatures.

“Okay.”

Silence reigned for a long moment.

“Okay?” asked Bait.

“Yeah. Okay. You can come with me.”

Bait stared at her in open mouthed surprise.

“Really!? I-I...Thank you! Here!” He darted past her and practically leapt into the saddlebag. “I’ll start with the good stuff!”

He looked so happy that Twilight had to smile, even as her heart ached.

I hate this place, she thought again.

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