• Published 29th Dec 2016
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The Rariad - Tundara



Trixie and Rarity must bond to escape from Tartarus and survive the odyssey across realms and planes of existence on their way home. Along the way they encounter gods, demons, heroes, and friends old and new.

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Part One

The Rariad
By Tundara

1: Tartarus

Regale me, O Muse, of the journeys of the reluctant hero Trixie Lulamoon, scion of a noble, ancient House, she who died protecting the foals of a town who had cast her out and threatened her with violence. On her way to golden Elysium she was waylaid, her voyage to her promised afterlife cut short, by the pleading cries of Rarity Belle. Hero of Equestria, the Element of Generosity, Rarity too had given her life to thwart a terrible evil, one intent on harm to her little sister.

Many were the journeys that lay ahead for the pair, thrust into each other's company by Fate. Worlds they would cross, from Tartarus bowels, to the burning pits beneath, up to the heavenly gates of Elysium, and across wild Gaea, that realm replete with gods both fair and foul. By dint of cunning and friendship they would find their way home to distant Equestria

Never-ending rain pattered down on the City of the Dead. Greasy grey mists clung to the cracked cobblestone lanes, their narrow ways choked by spectral bodies milling from one place to the next in an uncertain shuffle. Over this sea of wayward souls, snarling gargoyles watched from slate tile rooftops. Streets stretched on for leagues and leagues, buildings reminiscent of feudal farmhouses abutting pagodas and towers of sweeping eastern designs, ranks of long faced townhouses crowded together and stretched off for hundreds of miles in every direction.

No uniformity existed anywhere beyond the oppressive, dour atmosphere.

If anypony had pointed out how boring and cliche the city appeared to the outside observer, it’s king would have shrugged his wings before casting the petulant pony into one of the five rivers encircling and winding through the colossal city. There, to have all they knew stripped away until nothing remained of their soul but a dessicated shell that horrified even the broken things shuffling through the city.

Not all the inhabitants were damned souls. Many entities made the city their home. Thanes and Keros were the most common, with nearly as many Onerios flitting about above the roofs. Seeking to bring dreams of the deceased to their living relatives, the silver birdlike spirits darted through windows or down to the dead in the streets. A quick peck or chitter, then they’d swish away and vanish through the hidden astral cracks back to the realm of dreams. Archons, from Abaddon’s Choirs of Power, flew over the city, perpetually searching. What they sought in Tartarus, nopony knew. They kept to themselves and never spoke.

Within this grey warren of death, the once mighty scraped and scrounged alongside those poor, unmourned souls they’d trampled in life. Their scepters and crowns worthless here, in this place where kings and lepers shared no distinction. For, in death all are equal.

Or so it seemed.

Trixie tightened the tattered cloak she wore around her face, hiding deeper within the folds of her hood. Unlike the shuffling souls surrounding her, a keen light gleamed in her soft-blue eyes. Around her, the listless dead parted, driven away by some indeterminable force as though she were one of the archons, her mere presence burning and dredging up memories of their lives. Yet, they were also drawn towards her, gazes pulled by the same ethereal touch, a yearning for those former lives sinking into spectral chests and unbeating hearts.

To avoid unwanted attention, Trixie skirted the main avenues and lanes, sticking instead to side alleys and lesser traveled streets. Even then, it was impossible to fully escape. The dead were far too perceptive to be fooled for long, enchanted cloak or not.

She had to keep moving. Change her haunts and the paths she’d travel with semi-regularity.

Anything to keep her true nature from being discovered.

Rounding a corner, an imposing clock tower came into view. The thick, iron arms never moved despite the heavy thuds of the mechanisms and gears hidden behind the gothic facade. Time hardly mattered in the sunless realm of the underworld. Beneath the glowing silver rain clouds of Tartarus, years were indistinguishable from days, moments meshing together in a seeping haze that numbed the soul. The clock tower was little more than a landmark, a mirror of the listless stagnation of the dead themselves.

Letting out a heavy breath, Trixie stopped in the tower’s shadow, twisting her head up and down the street, looking for… something. Anything that hinted at a way out of the city. The tiniest nugget of information would have been the glimmer of the sun through a storm.

All the usual haunts she’d visited for information, bars, back-alleys, gentlestallion clubs and the like, had turned up nothing. In lieu of any other ideas she simply wandered and listened to whatever snippets of conversation she came across.

There was a fair amount of gossip, the freshly dead bringing news from their worlds to those who’d died sometimes centuries prior.

It’d taken her some time for Trixie to figure out the area ponies from Equestria tended to congregate within the district. The district itself was fairly small compared to others within the city, and shoved out of the way, far from the grand outer walls and the inner sea that acted as the spoke of a wheel for the City of the Dead. She’d suffered a moment of shock when she learned that Ioka was an obscure world, the disc’s inhabitants ignored by the larger, more important realms sporting vast pantheons of alicorns.

The most important district belonged to the realm of Gaea, her inhabitants occupying the area centered around Hades’ palace in the south. With Hades' absence, Achlys, the God of Death, ruled from his father’s ivory throne. Other important areas were ruled by lesser gods of death, the dead, or other various malignancies. Names such as Osiris, Hel, Izanami, Aita, and Mictlantecuhti were spoken of with almost the same respect as for Hades himself. There were other gods, too numerous to count, all who ruled over their respective fiefdoms carved out of Tartarus.

Visiting the other alicorns had been Trixie’s first idea at escape. Each shaped their districts to their own designs. Osiris and his court resided within a great hall whose walls were made of writhing snakes, the ceiling a living flame, and the floors gentle water. There he judged those from the world over which he presided. Hel controlled Helheim, Izanami resided in Yomi, Aita neighbored Hades, the two near indistinguishable in places, and then there was Mictlantechuti with his windowless palace.

Whether it was the presence of these gods and goddesses, or something else, their districts alone that had any permanency. All the rest had a tendency to shift and change with little rhyme or reason. Streets vanished, not to be seen for days or years, until popping up in entirely different locations, their inhabitants unaware of having been gone at all.

Lacking a god of the dead, Ioka’s district was awarded no protection. Twice streets had vanished moments before Trixie set hoof on their cobbled stones, and once she’d lost a week to such an occurrence.

Her hooves followed familiar streets until she reached the outskirts of the district. Just inside the district, clustered to one side, stood the orphanages for the souls of foals that died too young to do more than wail and shriek. As she neared the tarnished gates of the district’s western entrance, a wagon carrying a new group trundled towards the ugly stained-white buildings. A special contingent of Tenebrae flocked around it, driving back the crowds of dead to keep them from swarming and stealing the little ones.

The wagon made it halfway across the wide plaza before the masses of souls became too much and it was bogged down. Driven by a desperate need to touch something that reminded them of their former lives, the souls stretched out their hooves towards the foals.

Unto the unruly mob descended a choir of archons, the beats of their wings heavy over the pattering rain. The elysians pushed the dead back, scattering scores of souls with a sweep of their wings, and the wagon once again carried on its way. Two of the little ones were plucked from the wagon by the archons and carried up into the clouds, a momentary golden glow signalling their passage from Tartarus to Elysium.

Ignoring the souls scrambling after the wagon, Trixie sat down next to a statue of Hades. In the shelter provided by the outstretched wings, she listened to the hum of conversation. Little caught her attention, and after a while, she got up and decided to find another place, or visit one of the numerous information brokers.

The brokers were a risk, one that had almost snared her in the past.

She was not meant to be in Tartarus any more than a bird was meant to live on the bottom of the ocean. If not for Rarity, Trixie would have been in Elysium, enjoying… whatever there was to enjoy in the fabled realm of bliss.

Golden fields and happiness. Or, so the priests claimed.

Trixie had her doubts on the matter. The archons were too secretive, too aloof for Elysium to be a tenth what everypony proclaimed. No pony, or entity, that was so shifty was ever what they claimed. What she had no doubts about was that she was different from the dead souls of Tartarus. Where they were dull, drab reflections of their former selves, she was bright and filled with energy. If not for her cloak, enchanted through painstaking effort, Trixie could not have left the manor any more than Rarity for fear of being mobbed.

Her retention of magic also set her apart. None of the unicorns of Tartarus could so much as lift a pebble, and the pegasi were denied the skies as if they were earth ponies.

A feeling of being watched brought Trixie out of her musing. She slowed, casting a look around, but nothing in the crowd stood out to her. Yet, she was certain somepony was following her.

Taking it safe rather than risk exposure so far from the protection of the manor, she ducked into the next tavern on the street.

The tavern was unusual, but not remarkably so. An old frigate dropped onto a row of flats, the stubby buildings underneath forming a cradle, water continually ran out of the door hacked into the side of the ship and down the simple plank ramp. Tattered sails hung on splintered masts, and muddy seaweed and barnacles clung to almost every available surface. A shipwreck for certain. A few were to be found here and there throughout the city, neither rare, nor exactly common.

At the bottom of the ramp she stopped and cast a last glance around. Still unable find the cause of her crawling mane, she headed inside.

She regretted almost at once not continuing down the street to another tavern. A fetid smell of mildew and musty sheets, mingled with the usual decay, washed over Trixie. Overhead, a bent chandelier swung, giving off a dull, flickering orange glow that cast long shadows into the corners. Almost every table was full, spectral bodies pressed tight against each other.

Keeping her head down, Trixie slid to the side and found an empty seat along a wall where she’d have a good view of the entrance. Among the other riff-raff and assorted scallywags that preferred such haunts Trixie blended in almost seamlessly.

Through the general bubbling conversation a barmaid weaved her way over to Trixie. A tray of empty mugs was balanced on her head, and she wore a haggard, empty look on her otherwise plain features as if it were a heavy cloak.

“What’cha looking for, skag?” she asked with a heavy Hackney accent. “We’s got all the usual rot; jobs posted on the board, same with what berks ‘ave to trade, or are y’looking for information?”

“Just a place to sit for—Actually, yes, information sounds good.” Trixie leaned a little onto the table. “Trixie is new to this part of the district. Is there a reliable broker in the area?”

The barmaid waggled a hoof for payment. With an annoyed grunt, Trixie produced a small copper coin and flipped it onto the table. The coin received a flat stare, and it wasn’t until Trixie added two more that they were snatched up and tossed up onto the tray. “You Equestrian, right? Only one in this ward who deals with you lot is a fellow by the name o’ Sombra. Y’got a nice face, so I’ll give y’warning. Best to keep that smeg at a wide berth. He ain’t a normal soul. Vicious one, he is. Showed up ‘bout three decades ago, all fire and piss, and turfed out the lads who’d been in the area. Rumour has it he has eyes on controlling the ‘ole district.”

Trixie thanked the mare, and leaned back to contemplate.

Sombra was a name that she’d encountered a few times, along with a dozen others who all vied over control of the district, or her various wards. With no God of the Dead to administer to their needs, the souls of Ioka were left to fend for themselves. Inevitably this lead to gangs, and fiefdoms both minor and major, all tied together by a labyrinthian spiderweb of political games as complex and shifting as the city itself.

Getting involved with any of the little lordlings was dangerous, and counterproductive. If any had a way out of the Underworld, they kept the secret well hidden. They would not share the knowledge with an outsider, not without an exorbitant cost involved.

Of greater concern was being discovered. Rarity was a prize they’d ravage the entire district to possess, and Trixie herself was only slightly less valuable.

A low growl worked its way up her throat. She was not going to become a pawn of such petty creatures.

Her eyes flicked to the door as a pair of stout zebra stallions stepped into the tavern. She began to dismiss them. With their bandanas, plaited manes, and the rings in their ears, they belonged more in the tavern than she. Old, loose, battered barding hung from their stout frames where it’d been torn in the final moments before death. Their heavy lidded faces swung around the taproom, hesitating just a little on spotting her, before they made towards the bar, sitting down in such a way that she was visible in the grimy mirror hung next to a post.

Cursing a little, Trixie slid off her bench. She’d almost reached the door before being intercepted by the stallions.

“Our master wishes to have a word with you,” the left stallion intoned in a rumbling, yet lyrical, voice. From how the other stallion set his jaw and thrust out his chest, it was clear who was the brains of the pair.

“Trixie is not sure what anypony would want with her.” She put on a brave smile and glanced around the room.

Eyes from every corner were attracted by the burgeoning confrontation, a moment of novelty in the otherwise dreary unlives of the patrons. Some leaned closer to hear what was said, others licked their lips and a few shifted to the side in case a fight broke out.

The stallion shrugged his thick shoulders and again told her to come with him.

“Trixie does not wish to fight you.” She backed up a step and set her hooves.

“Then come.”

At a nod from his fellow, the quiet stallion reached out to grab Trixie. Pivoting on her forehooves, she cocked her back legs and let out a vicious kick. Sensing her intent, the stallion ducked down and her kick glanced off his shoulder rather than muzzle as she’d hoped. Bursting into motion, the first zebra hit her in a charging tackle, crushing Trixie up against one of the posts. Her legs strained to fend off her opponent, and though she’d been a strong mare from years pulling her wagon, such mattered little when dead. No matter how she strained, she would never have been able to overpower either zebra through physical strength.

Twins, in life they’d been the strongest stallions within five villages. At a young age they’d gone to war against the future Empress of Zebrica. Back home, their sweethearts awaited their return. Their hearts had been heavy with longing for the tender kisses and loving looks left behind. When the time of battle came, they fought with five times the ferocity of their peers. It had been this which attracted the attention of the untested empress. Her body-guard and pet, Halphamet, descended himself into the blood swathed fields to face the twins. Beside him padded his ifrit. One of the noble caste, a malik, among the fire spirits, she left fire in her wake, embers swirling off her blazing coats, and the burning coals that were her eyes fixed greedily on the brothers. The ifrit stood back as her master advanced, eager and needing to prove himself to his beloved empress. Blows that had crushed the bones of every other zebra were as the caress of a gentle breeze against the monster’s magic hardened flesh, and both brothers fell screaming as they were consumed in a torrent of fiery breath.

They learned too late in life to never allow a spellcaster time to work their magic. It was a lesson they put to strict use in death. When Trixie began to summon the energy for a spell, the room filling with both a chill and a blazing warmth at the aether being manipulated, the second brother hit her hard across the face and horn.

Fireworks exploded across Trixie’s vision and the back of her head, popping in a long series of spasms down her neck. Magic that had been flowing up into her horn burned in every direction but the one she’d intended, lancing into the muscles of her throat, jaw, and head like frozen knives. The pain was only for a moment before it passed, a brief, intense flash that left her addled. Her head spun at the backlash, small spots swimming along the fringes of her vision. Through them she saw the tavern burst into motion.

Cries of, “She’s an Elysian,” filled the taproom along with pleas of, “Take me to the golden fields! Don’t leave me here, don’t leave me to this dreadful place!”

The other dead surged towards Trixie. They tried to crawl and claw their way past the twins to reach her, to just touch her coat for but a moment. Bodies were pressed tight, the small pushed down and trampled in the sudden scrum to reach Trixie. The din of noise was deafening, shouts mixed with pleas of deliverance, and punctuated by the howls of those crushed underhoof. The barmaid, her eyes wild with a rabid need, leapt onto the elder brother. In her frenzy she bit him on the ear when he refused to budge. A beastial roar broke from his throat, and with a powerful kick he scattered the crowd, giving them momentary relief. It was enough for the brothers to carry Trixie from the tavern.

Senses still astray, Trixie could only put up weak resistance as a heavy noose was thrown around her neck. Another rope bound her mouth, and her legs tied together so she had to be carried, draped across a back like a sack of wheat.

Behind them, the tavern’s patrons spilled out of the door, clamouring and kicking each other in their desperation to reach Trixie. Few on the street cared to take more than a passing notice of the commotion. They kept their heads down and gave the fight a wide berth. Even the gargoyles on their perches refused to interfere.

Growling through the rope in her mouth, Trixie threw herself from the first zebra. A master with knots from years of travel and performing magic shows, Trixie hardly had to concentrate before her bounds fell around like a deluge of brittle leaves. With a hard twist, she fell from his back, hit her shoulder hard on the slick stone, rolled through a pungent puddle, and bounced expertly back up to her hooves.

Even before she’d landed, pandemonium overwhelmed the street, the simple pulse of her magic like a drop of blood in a tank of sharks. The brothers were swarmed by the crowd of frenzied tavern patrons from one side, and the thick crowd from the street on the other. Biting, howling, screaming, kicking, and ponies trampled underhoof; the street became absolute bedlam.

Trixie was granted no time to exult or slip away, pushed instead back towards the zebra brothers by the surging melee. On spotting her cloak, the younger thrust bodies out of his way in his march towards her, his face covered by a stormy mask. Through size and force of will, he made the scrimmage part. Those who did not were struck to the ground by powerful blows. Trixie tried to slip out of the crowd, but was pressed in too tight on all sides. His anger gave way to an ugly grin, eyes twinkling with delight at the fright gripping her. Before he reached Trixie, he was struck in the side, a dagger plunging between his spectral ribs.

He let out a piercing wail and fell back. A glowing, viscous fluid burst out around the dagger’s grip, drenching his side and the face of his attacker.

“Don’t just stand there, let’s go!” Hooves grabbed at Trixie, and pulled her down an alley. “This way! I know these streets better than those damn stripes ever will. Pricks, coming into my streets like they be owning the place. We showed them though, eh?”

A continuous stream of comments came from the strange mare as she led Trixie deeper and deeper into the warren of side streets and alleys. Quick glances over her withers showed Trixie that they’d lost their pursuit after only a few twists, but it wasn’t until they reached a garden overgrown with seaweed that her savi—assistant slowed to a stop, apparently confident in their escape.

“Who are you?” Trixie distractedly asked, continuing to stare back the way they’d come, just in case.

“Name’s Anchor.” A light green hoof thrust under Trixie’s nose, forcing her to turn her attention towards the mare for the first time. Very average at first glance, the mare had a weather beaten face that blended easily into the background. In her left ear hung a simple brass, hoop earring, and her thick, rich red mane was tied in a neat plait, bangs hanging over searching golden eyes. Reluctantly, Trixie reciprocated the gesture in a quick bump. She took in the pony before her, a concerned frown pulling down the corners of her mouth.

Her focus turned quickly back to the alley but kept the mare in sight at the corner of her eye. The drumbeat of pursuing hooves echoed in the corners of Trixie’s imagination. One of the warren’s inhabitants stumbled through the garden, head lowered and tail dragging through the mud. It wasn’t until the pony vanished that Trixie, finally, began to relax. “Trixie was fine and didn’t need your help, but she thanks you for it anyways. Not many ponies would help a stranger, especially in Tartarus.”

“Ain’t one to argue that,” Anchor chuckled. “Besides, I’m sure you’re right and were a moment away from giving those fucking stripes a damn good kick to the head, eh?”

Unfazed by Anchor’s casual vulgarity, Trixie got up and brushed away some of the dirt that’d collected on her coat. “Well, this has been interesting, but Trixie must get going.” She started to turn, but Anchor caught her by the shoulder.

“What, ain’t even going to offer to pay me back, or anything?” Anchor’s frown deepened, and a simmering anger flickered behind her eyes, a bloody look that would have chilled a grown stallion to the bones. Trixie paid it no mind, shrugging it off with casual indifference. “It weren’t no accident I was in that street, eh. Been following you for a few weeks now. I was told that you know where I can find my herd-daughter.”

Trixie brushed off the offending hoof. “You were lied to.”

“Not likely. My source is good. You know my herd-daughter.”

“Trixie would remember if she’d encountered anypony like you.”

“My little Rarity ain’t a lick like me.”

Trixie stiffened. “Rarity?”

“Aye. Rarity Belle. Oldest filly of our little herd.”

“Who told you Trixie knew where to find her?”

“I were told to keep it stowed away, eh. Just know that they said to find you and you could tell me where Rarity is.” There was an earnestness to Anchor’s words and eyes that unsettled Trixie.

“Did those stallions work for you?” The demand slipped from Trixie with a furious nicker. She attempted to put some space between her and Anchor, but was stopped by rough bricks and iron bars. Cursing herself, Trixie realised she was trapped.

Anchor tossed back her head in a long laugh. “Nah, they don’t work for me. Not all of us want to be part of that scene. I just want to speak to my herd-daughter again. That is it. No tricks or anything of that sort, eh. If you don’t trust me right now, fine. I’ll go. I stay in the area. Drop a note at the Crusty Conch with where and when to meet you, and I’ll be there.”

Trixie searched the mare’s face for any sign of deception, and found her frustratingly difficult to read. She wasn’t like the other dead, where their lies rang hollow in her ears. A small part of her wanted to believe Anchor, almost needed to believe. It was the same part Trixie had buried most of her life, pushed down under the weight of betrayals and belittlement. If not for the last few months before dying it would have stayed buried.

But, she’d changed in those weeks leading to her death, no more so than in the final precious days. No more proof was needed than to simply look at herself in the mirror and see the radiant glow suffusing her coat, marking her as one of the honoured dead of Elysium.

Biting back the bitter retort that habitually lept onto her tongue, Trixie instead forced a huff and said, “That is fine. Trixie has to return to Rarity regardless. If you were to show the trust to tell Trixie who told you she knew Rarity, then, perhaps, she’d show the same trust in return.”

A slight grin flitted onto her muzzle at the conflict that sprang across Anchor’s broad brow. The mare cursed. Paced a few times, and bite her tongue. If she were acting, then she was a very good actor.

“Fine, it were an archon. One of them little lantern-like ones. It told me about you, eh.” Anchor growled between her set teeth, eyes cast to the side in shame. “As I’m sure you’ve learned, it ain’t easy to stop the spread of news from the disc. I heard about how Rarity helped put the stop to some nightpony or other and became one of them Elements of Harmony. Then a little bit later she was there to stop Discord. All the disc knew, so it weren’t long before us long dead down here knew too. I put a note in with a broker I trust, to tell me if he learned anything else about Rarity in his dealings. A few months ago word reached me that one of the Elements had died.

“I knew that it was me Rarity. Our little filly was too big hearted to let one of her friends go first, afterall. As one of the Elements, she’d go to Elysium for sure. But, I needed to get a message to her, or talk to her, or something. So, I went and did the daft thing and traveled to Abaddon’s palace.”

“That is over a month away, on the other side of Yomi District.” Trixie couldn’t keep an incredulous note from her voice.

Anchor shrugged, and with a facetious grin, said, “Well, ain’t like I got anything but time. Didn’t amount to much. Nopony is allowed in Abaddon’s palace, but as all I needed was to get a message to Rarity, I thought it was worth a try. Them archons are supposed to be all about the greater good and altruism and all that, and what could be a more simple kindness than to take a letter from a grieving herd-mother to a daughter? Not that lot, though. Oh no. Spent a good week hollering like my old bo'sun days at the gate, and getting nowhere, eh. Bastards, the lot of em. Probably thrown out of their fancy little realm and they can’t get to Elysium.”

Rubbing at a growing headache, Trixie snapped, “Does this have a point?”

“Course. Thought you wanted to know who told me to find you.”

“Which you did,” Trixie pointed out, the corner of her mouth ticking up into a smile as she pushed past Anchor, motioning with her head to be followed. “Trixie supposes one of the wispy lesser archons took pity on you after all your efforts, right as you were getting ready to abandon the idea, flitted down and gave some cryptic clue like, ‘the one called Trixie can show you the way to Rarity.’ Or something to that effect, yes?”

“Ha! More or less. May have tried to scale the wall a couple times as well.” Anchor hurried to keep pace with Trixie, a dopey, earnest grin on her features.

A sliver of doubt remained lodged in Trixie’s chest, and so she kept a firm eye on Anchor. Staying put just increased the chances of the zebras getting reinforcements, or worse.

She did not care for these alleys. They held an unwholesome, unnatural miasma that clung in thick strands and dribbled down the dank stone. The unease tickling the back of her head drove her to pick up the pace until she was almost at a gallop. Rounding bend after bend, Trixie seemed to get no closer to escaping the warrens. All around them, the souls of the downtrodden and paupers scrambled to get out of their way, shouting obscenities as Trixie and Anchor passed. She darted this way and that as she tried to retrace her steps back to the open, familiar streets surrounding her mansion. Cursing her lack of attention on their initial flight, she knew herself to be lost. As though she’d been waiting for just such a sign, Anchor took the lead without a word being spoken and in a matter of minutes, seemingly just around the next corner, one of the many main thoroughfares came into view.

“Quickly,” Trixie hissed, lowering her head as she sprinted for the exit. The pressure grew with each clack of their hooves until it was like she were within the shadow of a hungry dragon, talons reaching out to slash her open.

Eyes slamming shut, she put on a last burst of speed, her dead heart beating to match a hundred drums. The imaginary dragon drew nearer and nearer, his invisible talons tearing through the cobblestones around Trixie and Anchor. Out of the corner of her eye, Trixie saw the same wild panic that gripped her flicker across the old seamare.

Closer. Closer, drew the sliver of freedom of the crowded street.

A sharp yelp ripped from Anchor, and Trixie turned just at the alley’s edge to see the other mare tumbling, tripping on an uneven stone. Shock covered Anchor’s face, mouth wide and hooves tangling together as she fell. Reacting on instinct, Trixie reached out with her aura and tugged. There was a heavy thud, and both mares grunted as they slammed together and went sprawling on their backs out onto the sidewalk.

Just beyond the tip of her tail the alleyway flickered, trembled, and then folded in on itself with a deafening rattle. The phantasm of her heart still thumping in her chest, Trixie stared as the space shifted and groaned, and then settled, a wide, once verdant park now hugging the main road where the rows of red brick homes and alleyways had been but moments before. And all unremarked upon by the ponies trudging up and down the street. None so much as looked up at Trixie and Anchor in the commotion.

Where, or when, the warrens would reappear only the gods knew.

“How’d you know?” Anchor gasped in amazement, rolling up to her hooves before offering Trixie some help to stand.

Shocked, still staring at what could have been a timeless prison, Trixie’s words were slow to come. “T-Trixie just… knew.”

“Must be because of your, uh, unique condition.” Anchor coughed into her hoof. “If it weren’t for you, I’d have been stuck in there. I owe you, miss Trixie. Could have been days, or decades. Never seen a shiver so big.” Anchor glanced up and down the road, and then shook her head. “Must be a few dozen square block of the city this time. They be getting worse.”

Trixie just nodded. They spoke little more the rest of the way to the manor, Trixie retreating into her own thoughts on how close they’d come to being lost, Anchor in contemplations of reuniting with Rarity after so many years.

Her strides were long, but not hurried as they’d been in the warrens.

It took them near half a day to reach the manor, Trixie leading them in circles and taking odd turns here and there in a rather obvious attempt at obfuscating their route. Anchor didn’t comment, even as it became more and more apparent what Trixie was about.

On a couple occasions, they darted into a little alcove or nook on spotting some suspicious pony or zebra. After the brothers, Trixie refused to take any more risks, and she saw dangers lurking in every shadow. Her eyes narrowed and a deadly spell at the ready, she watched until these folk passed, always without incident or so much as glancing in her direction.

Even when they at last crossed the invisible boundary that marked the manor’s grounds from the rest of the city, Trixie did not lose her cautious aspect.

The heavy thud of a clock tower covered the clatter of their hooves. The gargoyle sentries roosting amongst its eves clacked their talons in Trixie’s direction, wide mouths open, revealing rows of stone teeth. She ignored the beasts. They would not dare attempt her harm. Not because they feared her. Oh, no. She was a protected pony. At least, from them. Their gaze rested on her back as rain slicked alley gave way to a decayed garden.

Increasing her pace, she moved beneath skeletal trees and over muddy, grey grass until she reached the door of a twisted, malformed manor house. Oddly shaped windows speckled the structure, iron frames pulled and contorted as if they were being viewed through a cracked crystal. Some windows were filled with stained glass, scenes of ponies twisted and writhing held in cold metal fingers. Others showed little more than cracked fragments of glass, or panes so ancient as to be opaque. At the far end of the south wing, a single window glowed, a shadow pressed against the glass by a candle. The figure hardly shifted or moved, except when the gate squealed in protest at the touch of Trixie’s aura, rusted hinges resistant to any movement.

“Cozy place.” Anchor tried to give a smile, but it was thin with trepidation. She darted a look across the manor, much like a mouse would the maw of a snake’s den. The far window snared her attention, and the fear bled just a little from her stance.

Trixie didn’t comment.

After a quick, backward glance to make sure they hadn’t been followed, Trixie slipped across the garden. From the folds of her cloak she withdrew a ring of heavy keys. Thick locks of brass, bronze, jade, and iron twisted with gold on heavy steel clasps kept any who stumbled upon the manor out. On the face of each, a hidden rune lay in wait. The locks needed to be undone in a precise order, lest the traps be activated. What, precisely, would happen had not been explained to Trixie, only that it would be dire.

Her breath halted in her throat as she went through the motions, a dancer on a well worn stage, every step practiced to the point of being mechanical. Gold key to bronze. The heavy rattle of the tumblers. Silver next, to open the lock of jade. A clatter within the walls of something large and unwieldy. Key of carved bone formed from the jaw of a manticore undid iron and gold. A scream answered, metal on metal, as bars were retracted. Trixie paused. Looked around the garden, and saw nopony but Anchor, head tilted in befuddled amazement. Hoof to a panel. Twist and push, then insert the final key and the door swung open in utter silence.

Quickly, Trixie stepped inside, Anchor at her tail.

With a resounding thud the door swung shut behind them, locks clattering back into place of their own accord.

Much like the exterior, the inside of the manor was off, as if distorted and twisted by the mangled perception of a fevered dream. For all Trixie knew, that was the manor’s origins. Dusty, threadbare carpets of once rich reds and greens stretched this way and that, some going so far as to be pinned to the walls. Portraits of ponies and griffons dangled in unseemly clumps. To her left, a set of stairs went up to the second floor, each step a different width or height.

She took the stairs two at a time, then turned down the tight hallway. Floorboards groaned, though never the ones on which she stood, rather those she was going to step on next as if recoiling in anticipation of her tread.

“Not a bad place,” Anchor commented with a nervous chuckle, slowing just a little to stare at some of the portraits. “Rarity always said she’d live in a big manor, like the rich ponies. Guess she got that, in the end.”

“Yes, well, Trixie supposes she should warn you that Rarity is not the pony you expect. How she died… It has left her damaged.” She regretted her words as worry jumped onto Anchor’s face.

“She’s my little Ritty, eh. I am sure she’ll remember me.”

A resigned shrug was all Trixie could manage in response. Anchor would learn the truth of Rarity in but a moment.

She paused just a moment on reaching a plain white door at the end of the hallway.

A whisper called through the empty manor, tugging at her mane and soul. She cast an eye down to the corridor’s far, lightless end and harrumphed. Anchor followed her gaze, ears cocked at an uncertain angle. Not for the first time, Trixie had the feeling that she and Rarity were not the only ones who called the manor home. Shaking off idea, she grabbed the crystal handle in her soft blue aura, and pushed the door open.

Warmth blasting over her, Trixie left the grim corridor and entered an oasis of colour. Everything within the room was bright and vibrant, so much more so for all the bleakness outside the honey paneled walls.

New curtains hung in the window, ruffled a little by the faint breeze whistling through the cracks. Floral cushions were piled high on a four-posted bed and in the corners. Freshly varnished dressers and wardrobes stood along the walls, the tops filled with crisp cloaks similar to the one Trixie wore. Everburning candles stood proud in polished silver sconces along the wall and atop the mantle above a fireplace filled with multihued glowstones. A delightful scent, filled with sweet and spicy notes tingled their noses, but never unpleasantly so.

Anchor’s mouth fell open as she stepped inside. Her mane, lanky and damp from Tartarus’ omnipresent rain bounced into delightful curls. The light green of her coat became a vibrant aquamarine, and she seemed to be filled with far more life than even before her death.

She did not move from that spot, staring at the settee by the corner window, unable to look away. A deep, supernatural devotion gripped Anchor’s formerly stern features.

“How did it go? Did you find a way out?” asked a quiet voice from the settee.

“Only the same rumours and stories,” Trixie replied casually, the answer as rote as the steps that lead her to the only other seat in the room. Only, she did not cross the room this time, and instead remained next to Anchor. When silence threatened to creep across the floor, Trixie cleared her throat. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has brought a… guest. Somepony who knew you once.”

“Oh.”

The simple sound had no hint of being a question, just a long gusty breath ringed with an emptiness of spirit. Anchor started forward, but was blocked by an outstretched hoof. Trixie sharply shook her head. If there was to be any chance of conversing with Rarity, the matter had to be attended to with great care.

“Why don’t you come and greet her. She came a long way to meet you.”

Rarity stayed quiet, contemplative, blank gaze fixed on some point beyond the window. With care not to stare, Trixie examined her roommate for what had to be the hundredth time since their exile, hoping to see any sign of change.

In life, Rarity had been a beautiful mare, but one who worked hard to maintain such an image. Flawless white coat brushed until it carried a subtle sheen. Amethyst hued mane primped and coiffed to the perfect bounce. Makeup, eyelashes curled, and a practiced Canterlot accent that could fit into any garden party in the capitol. Rarity, by most definitions, was the ideal of the gentry and lower nobility.

They’d met only once, and that encounter would have been forgotten if not for other circumstances. Trixie has seen too many such mares growing up for another to stick long in her memory.

Now, in this place, Rarity was beyond beautiful. She was a beacon of grace and sublime light, one that grew day by day. At first glance nothing seemed different from before, just more than it had been, easier, natural. Closer inspection showed how this was a lie.

The most obvious of which were the translucent wings that rested and rustled along her sides. Almost ghostly, yet, once seen it was impossible to pull the eyes away from them. Staring showed them to be more like crystals, cracked and veined with gold. Likewise were Rarity’s hooves, and her horn shifted between the normal length for a lowland unicorn native to Equestria, and the longer, fluted horn of a Prench mountain noble.

For Trixie, it wasn’t the outward changes that troubled her the most, it was Rarity’s mind.

Or lack thereof.

“Rarity,” Trixie put delicate care into her voice, each syllable measured, soft, yet firm. “Please come away from the window. It’s rude."

“Apples.” Rarity leaned closer to her reflection, exquisite eyes narrowing, and a slight pinch furrowing her brow.

“There will be time for—”

“I remember the taste of apples,” Rarity explained, shifting her head just a little towards Trixie and Anchor. “Sweet and bitter and sour and savoury. A blissful crunch, then juices dripping on the tongue and rolling down the throat.”

Anchor pushed past Trixie blocking hoof. “Little bitty Ritty, it’s me. It’s your mama. It’s Anchy. Don’t you recognise me?”

Head tilted, Rarity swung around a little more away from the window and squinted at the intricate swirls in the carpet between her and Anchor. “Do I? Anchy? Apples. Anchored Apples. No, a Jack. Jacqueline?” A She repeated the words several times with a flatness that Trixie had come to expect.

A hissed intake of breath was likewise expected, and before Rarity collapsed into a twitching fit of pained gasps Trixie was across the room. Those great, crystalline wings shot out and thumped on the ground. Each impact sent a shivering line of power through the room, peeling plaster, mold creeping across the rug, and filling the drapes with moth eaten holes. The effects were fleeting, Rarity’s mere presence correcting the damage after a few seconds. Anchor stood rooted to the spot, horrified gaze fixated on the damage. Trixie rubbed Rarity’s back until the fit began to subside, comfort provided through presence alone. Nothing she said would have penetrated the torments and fractures Rarity navigated.

After a short while Rarity began to calm. Her breaths grew easier and she extended one of her crystalline wings around Trixie in an embrace that could have cracked bones.

“Trixie?” Rarity blinked away some of the confusion from her eyes.

Faust, those eyes were too beautiful, Trixie admitted, careful to look away lest she be lost in their depths for an indiscernible time.

“When did you get back? Have you found a way out of the city yet?” She pushed herself away from Trixie and slid back onto her settee, a pleasant smile hiding the damaged mind within. “I was just thinking about something, you know. Apples. And…”

Rarity’s wings began to twitch again, eliciting a frustrated grunt from Trixie. How she’d hoped that they’d be able to avoid the cycle of lucidity and fits. There was nothing to be done. Trixie and Anchor needed to leave and wait until Rarity was placid again before making another attempt.

“Trixie, you brought a friend?”

The question caught Trixie off-guard.

As did the placid, radiant smile Rarity swept across Trixie and Anchor. While Trixie managed to snap her gaze to the side to avoid the bewitching power contained within those eyes, Anchor was fully struck by their might.

A sputter broke from the former seamare, and she rushed up towards Rarity and clasped a crystalline hoof in her own. “Rarity! Rarity, it’s your mama. I found you at last. I promised I’d come home, and so I have.”

Rarity just looked confused at Anchor, then shifted her gaze back to the window. Anchor froze, dropped Rarity's hoof, and worked her mouth like a fish tossed on land.

Like the blow of some great titan, Anchor was struck by a vision of the last time she’d seen Rarity. They’d been preparing the Sea Serpent for a voyage out of one of the lesser known coves, those not used by Equestria’s navy, and visited seldom by the the merchant fleets. Rarity, all of six years old, stood sniffling next to her father. A terse line pinched Magnum’s lips as he bit back all he wanted to say to his wives. After a deep kiss with Magnum, Anchor bent down and ruffled Rarity’s mane, coiffed to perfection even in those days.

“We won’t be gone long, eh. Bonnie got word of some Hackney dogs thinking to sneak off with some of our Prench friend’s goods. We can’t be letting them get away with that, now can we?” Anchor said in that soft, conciliatory way used when speaking to little foals.

Rarity sniffled and wiped her nose on the side of her hoof. “No, mama.”

“Say, what if we brought you back some silks, eh? I’m sure they’d spare a roll after we save 'em.” Anchor gave a broad wink and pinched Rarity on the side, making the filly squeal.

“Yay, silks,” Rarity jumped up and down, her worries of a moment before vanishing. “You promise, right?”

“I promise, my little bitty Ritty.” A final ruffle of the mane and kiss on the brow and Anchor was up the gangplank and onto the Sea Serpent’s deck.

The ship sailed off, Anchor at the rail in the moments she could spare directing the crew. As the land sank into the miasma of the horizon, Bonnie joined her, a red puffiness to her eyes. “I hate goodbyes,” Anchor’s wife grumbled.

“Makes the welcome homes’ so much sweeter, though,” Anchor quipped.

Three weeks later, and Anchor was dead, a boom knocked loose by one of the Hackney privateer’s shots crushing the back of her skull and snapping her neck. She’d relived that moment so many times since crossing Phlegethon into Tartarus. The gasping attempts at air. The confusion. Floating on a sea of emptiness with only the voice of a keres for comfort. Bonnie’s blood streaked face, haggard and old, twisted by silent shouts. And the fear of what Rarity would think, then the fog at the river’s banks as the world of the living was left behind.

For years she’d both looked forward to the day she’d be able to speak with her family again, and prayed that it would be many years until their reunion.

Anchor stiffened as she relived the past again, then thrice. Her upper lip curled. She began to snarl, and then she jumped at Rarity.

A moment of worry pierced Trixie. Far too slowly she pulled her magic together to hold Anchor.

Grabbing Rarity about the shoulders, Anchor spun her away from the window with a sharp jerk. “Look at me, Ritty. I’m your mama.”

Rarity blinked, and for just an instant recognition seemed to sparkle in her eye. Then it was gone, and Rarity craned her head away, unable to look anywhere but out her window. Anchor held her for how long, Trixie didn’t care to know. If the clock towers could chime, their bells may have sounded once, perhaps twice, before Anchor’s hooves slipped from Rarity and she backed away towards the door, a look of profound disappointment and despair carving her face deep.

She retreated to the kitchen, and there slumped on a bench.

Seeing Rarity lost to her fugue once more, Trixie joined Anchor.

“We have to help her.” The statement rumbled from Anchor.

Trixie shrugged. “There is nothing the Great and Powerful Trixie, or you, can do for her. Even Hades, the supposed Lord of the Dead, didn’t lift a hoof to help Rarity when she was placed, trembling, before his hooves.”

“You had an audience with Hades?” Anchor gasped, and looked on Trixie with new eyes. “But, ain’t he been gone the past few years? No, nevermind. That don’t matter.” Jumping up from the bench, Anchor began to pace, her tail snapping like a whip at each turn around the kitchen. “The gods won't help us. What we need is an expert on souls, eh. Somepony who knows em in and out.”

“Trixie thought the same, but who’d help us? Everypony down here only thinks of themselves.”

Anchor came to a sharp stop, revelation making her words hurried as she exclaimed, “Sombra de Espanya! He’s a wizard, and they say he even has his magic still. If he doesn’t have the answers, he might be able to point us in the direction. Worth a shot at least, eh?”

Frowning, Trixie started to argue, then clamped her mouth shut.

They were running out of options, and wandering the city wasn’t working. Perhaps it was time to take risks. And Sombra was a risk. As big as attempting to contact one of the other gods of the dead. More so, in fact, as the other gods were far more likely to simply ignore Trixie. Sombra would almost certainly attempt to use Trixie and Rarity, or steal Rarity away.

But, what other choice was there?

None that seemed viable.

So, Trixie swallowed her worries, and nodded. They would go see Sombra, the most dangerous mortal soul in all of Tartarus, and beg his help.

Author's Note:

I think it has been something like two and a half years I've been toying with the idea of this story. Making plans, abandoning them, then coming back with some new angle or idea. There is a sketch-book filled with maps, drawing of places and items, diagrams of battles, and many other assorted notes. Not all have been rendered obsolete either.

At this juncture, it is broken down into three main blocks, each placed on one of the worlds Trixie and Rarity traverse. Tartarus is first, and from there things get a fair bit worse for a two heroes.

I hope the wait has been worth it.