• Published 11th Dec 2019
  • 9,096 Views, 645 Comments

The Bug in The Cave - Skijarama

After being left behind in the badlands after her expedition is attacked by a dangerous monster, Twilight Sparkle must survive a hostile, alien environment. Lucky for her, she has some help from one of the natives: A curious changeling named Thorax.

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Soggy Expedition

The appropriately named badlands was not a place to be traversed lightly, being a vast, largely unmapped desert. The terrain was wild and hard to navigate on hoof, and every corner was filled with vicious wildlife. There were virtually no standing sources of water above ground, and almost no plant life, except for patches of moss and flowers that were dubious at best that grew in isolated clumps where the sun never managed to shine its light. Add onto that the sweltering heat that burned at the earth and reflected off of the sand and stone, and you had a recipe for a truly dangerous stretch of land.

It was for this reason, and a fair few others, that Twilight’s friends had been less than thrilled when she had told them she was going to be joining an expedition to the badlands as a part of a personal project. The poor unicorn had endured the protests of each of her friends, one after the other, for well over a week leading up to her departure on the Friendship Express to meet up with the team at Dodge Junction.

“Look, I don’t wanna say you’re not awesome, but Twi, even I don’t wanna go there. And Look at me! I’m the most awesome mare in the room!”

“Darling, please. We all know that you’re a curious sort and that you do so love to tackle a new project, but this is a little extreme, even for you.”

“My granny pie used to tell me all about the badlands when I was a little filly! She told me that it was a bad, bad place, and never ever go there. Not even smiling and laughing can make it better! And that’s saying something because smiles and laughs make everything better!”

“But it’s so full of scary, dangerous wild animals! Like Maulworfs and giant scorpions and sandtrap spiders!”

Out of all of her friends, Applejack had been the one to offer to the least complaint. She had been worried, yes, but she had kept quiet more than the rest. Twilight could only assume this amounted to Applejack letting Twilight make her own choices. A mindset the others had all eventually come to align with on the day of her departure. Each of them had given her their own little words of encouragement, hoping that the boost in her confidence would help make sure she came home safe.

And now, here she was, standing at the top of a jagged slope of rock that jutted up from the earth like a broken fang, scanning her eyes across the vast and seemingly endless expanse of serrated earth, winding ravines, and spires of stone that coiled into the air as if to puncture a falling pegasus.

It was made even moodier by the persistent rainfall that had come in from the south, obscuring the sky in a thick layer of dark grey and muting the colors for as far as the eye could see. Not that there were many colors to mute in this wasteland. Mostly browns, reds, and dull oranges.

With a quick spark of magic from her horn, Twilight pulled out a map from her saddlebags, keeping it safe from the downpour with an umbrella-shaped barrier she manifested over her head. If she was reading the map right, which she was confident she was, then she was just at the edge of what was known and explored, around a day’s worth of travel away from Equestria’s southern border.

A small, excited smile crossed her face at the thought of braving unexplored territory. Who knew what kinds of discoveries were lying in wait! Ancient ruins from long-lost civilizations, exciting new creatures never seen by ponies before, rare magic resources, strange geological formations! Maybe, if she was exceedingly lucky, there was even a whole new race of creatures out here, and she could say she had a hoof in discovering them!

“Hey, rookie!” a stallion’s voice shouted at her to be heard over the white noise of the rain. Jumping, Twilight put away her map and looked down to see the rest of the expedition team at the base of her rise of stone. There were at least two dozen of them, and each one had a designated task. Some were in charge of mapping out where they had been and gone, others were in charge of taking note of anything and everything they found, while others still were mostly here to haul along large wagons filled with the provisions they would need for this trip. They were supposed to be out here for several weeks, after all, perhaps even months if they found anything particularly interesting.

Twilight’s eyes eventually landed on the leader of the expedition, a tall and grizzled looking earth pony stallion with an orange coat and a short, silver mane and tail. A wiry beard decorated his face, trimmed into a haphazard goatee. His name was Relic Finder, and in the short time Twilight had known him, she had determined that she had no idea what to make of him.

He jerked his head back in an indication for her to come down. “Come on, kid! Or we’re gonna leave you behind! And be careful, you don’t wanna slip!”

“Coming, Relic!” Twilight shouted back. With a quick surge of energy, she was enveloped in a burst of magic before being deposited right next to the stallion. She smiled at him once the light faded. “Here I am.”

Relic let out a short snort of either amusement or irritation. Twilight wasn’t sure which. “Tch. Show off,” he grumbled ambiguously before nodding ahead. “Rainfall out here’s pretty rare, so we’re gonna find a spot to hunker down and wait out the storm.”

“We could probably take the opportunity to gather water, too,” Twilight suggested, an eager bounce in her step. “The desert’s bound to get hotter the further in we get, so having a surplus of drinking water can’t go wrong.”

Relic nodded. “Yeah, that’s the plan. We’ll also wanna find some way to gather more of the stuff reliably. Maybe we can find an oasis out here, somewhere.”

“Not likely. Not close at least,” Twilight said, wrinkling her nose as she thought back on the view her high perch had afforded her. “From what I could see, it was just rock and rock as far as the horizon. Now, granted, there are a lot of places for water to hide in all of that, but I didn’t see anything that could point to an oasis.”

“Hm…” Relic frowned at that before glancing over at a pair of pegasi that were trotting nearby. “You two, head on up and nab a few of the clouds, would ya? Bring them down and see what you can do to tame them into doing what you want. If we’re lucky, maybe we can use them to make water for ourselves.”

The two pegasi nodded, and both launched into the air. Twilight watched them go for a moment, her brow furrowing. “Hmmm… I might be able to help with that, actually,” she said after a moment of thought. “I’m pretty good with magic. Maybe I can help them tame this wild weather with some-”

“Hey, now,” Relic cut her off with a severe look. There was a hint of appreciation in his eyes, though. “Don’t go stretching yourself too thin, rookie. You got magic, yeah, we all saw that when you made an umbrella outta the stuff, and we all know you’re Celestia’s student. But like it or not, you’re still just one mare, and we need everypony to do their assigned part. And you,” he poked her in the shoulder for emphasis. “Are here to take notes and study things, not help tame the weather. Let the pegasi do their job so you can do yours, yeah?”

Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but after a moment decided that Relic was probably right. This was largely uncharted territory for all of them. Taking on more responsibilities could wait until they were more familiar with their surroundings. She offered up a small nod of understanding. “Alright, will do.”

Relic hummed and looked directly ahead, focusing on the path.

Twilight did the same, scanning the terrain for any signs of shelter, supplies, or something new to catalog. Already she could pick out a few small plants hiding out in little nooks and cracks in the stone, and her scholarly mind was already kicking into gear. Curious, she trotted up to one, pulling out one of several notebooks she had brought with her for this venture, and began to take notes.

There was a range of specimens here that she was already somewhat familiar with. Enough so to know that they were cataloged and known already. Nevertheless, she took down notes anyway. Having a list of all the known types of flora and fauna they found on this little venture would go a long way in making the rest of their journey easier. Thankfully, these particular plants were all safe to eat, albeit they never grew in large quantities, and weren’t exactly the most nutritious.

“Better than nothing, though,” Twilight thought before turning her attention to one plant she did not recognize. It was a small, thin thing that looked as if a gentle breeze could snap it like a twig under a manticore’s weight. A few wrinkly, yellowish-green leaves at the ground surrounded the base of a needly stem that was topped off with a white flower, the petals folded closed.

It didn’t look familiar. Curious and excited to make the first discovery of new plant life, she leaned in closer to examine the thing in finer detail. “Judging from the small size of it, I am going to assume that this is just a sapling…” she thought before tentatively sniffing at the closed pedals. “No particularly identifiable smells. I’ll need to keep my eye out for extra samples as we go…”

Jotting down the find in her notebook, she turned and cantered to catch up with the rest of the team. The natural path they were following began to slope down at a fairly steep angle, with more spires and fangs of raw stone piercing the earth at all kinds of angles up ahead. It was like wandering into the lower jaw of some titanic skull with dozens of rows of uneven, sharp teeth.

A charming mental image, and one that Twilight was quick to put out of her mind. She had to focus on keeping her eyes out for anything worth cataloging, or anything of use to the team. She couldn’t afford any distractions!

“Hey, anypony else feel that?” a mare called out from farther ahead, drawing Twilight’s attention from her resolution. Turning to look, she saw that the speaker was an earth pony mare, and she was staring at the dirt with narrowed eyes.

“Feel what?” Relic asked, glancing down at his own hooves with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t feel any- Wait… hold on, yeah, I feel it, too.”

Confused, Twilight closed her eyes for a second and focused on the mud beneath her hooves. After a few seconds of focusing, there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy as far as she could tell. “Must be their sensitivity and bond with the earth,” she deduced before opening her eyes. “What do you feel?”

“A tremor,” Relic replied, shifting uneasily on his hooves. “Something’s moving. Something big.”

“Something’s movin’?” another stallion, a pegasus, asked in a gruff voice. “What kinda somethin’?”

Relic shook his head, his eyes scanning the ground mistrustfully. “I don’t know… I got a bad feeling about this.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak up when, finally, she began to feel it, too. It was subtle, at first, little more than a vibration. But it was getting stronger, and fast. The whole team had come to a stop at that point, all of them looking around with varying degrees of growing concern.

“Is it an earthquake?” One of the other unicorns asked. “If so, we should get out from under anything that can fall on us.”

“It’s not an earthquake,” Relic dismissed, shaking his head. “It’s something else… something-”

Relic never got to finish the sentence. Suddenly, the ground behind him erupted upwards in a geyser of dirt and mud and stone, splattering the entire expedition with sticky globs and sending their leader falling forward to the ground. A chorus of alarmed cries and shouts rang out, their echoes lost to the rain and the rumble of the titanic creature that had just torn up from the earth.

Twilight screamed, backpedaling until her back pressed up against a wall of rock. “That’s a big worm!”

An enormous wormlike creature covered in purple scales now loomed over the expedition team, easily thirty feet tall and six feet in girth, and that was just the part above the soil. It’s pink, vaguely cone-shaped head pointed down at them, and Twilight could see small, beady black eyes staring with interest.

“What is that thing?!” One of the mares shrieked, scrambling back and away from it.

The worm followed her with its eyes. For a moment, Twilight found herself desperately hoping that whatever this thing was, it was merely curious about them. They were not prepared for unknown monsters like this. But at the same time, she subconsciously began to draw a rudimentary sketch of the creature in her notebook.

Her hopes of a friendly, or at least passive, local creature were torn to shreds when it opened its mouth. Like a flower opening up to greet the sun, the worm’s face split open, revealing slimy pink insides, sharp barbs that looked quite dangerous, and four wriggling black tongues that reminded her eerily of tentacles.

“RUN!” Relic bellowed, turning on his hooves and sprinting back the way they had come.

Twilight didn’t need to be told twice. In a matter of moments, she had joined the enormous stampede of frightened ponies that were rushing to get away from the towering, angry worm. It continued to watch them for a second before, finally, it made its first move. Twilight’s already pounding heart lurched in her chest when she heard the sound of breaking wood and small objects squelching into the mud. A stallion cried out in terror, and the overall exclamations from the fleeing ponies grew louder.

Sparing a glance over her shoulder, Twilight’s throat tightened when she saw the great worm lifting up one of the supply wagons in its mouth with the pony still hitched. The stallion was kicking and screaming, frantically trying to unclasp himself.

“He’s too high!” Twilight realized with a chill running down her spine. “If he unhitches from there, he’ll be seriously hurt when he hits the ground!”

“Hey! HEY!” The stallion screamed from high in the air, still struggling with the clasp. “COME BACK! SOMEPONY HELP ME!”

Twilight quickly swept her eyes over the rest of the stampede, hoping that some of the pegasi were moving into motion. However, it seemed none of them had even heard the cries from their comrade, and were continuing on regardless.

Some small part of Twilight had to remind herself that not all of them had experienced some of the same harrowing things she had. Facing down Nightmare Moon, an Ursa Minor, running from a Hydra, dealing with a Parasprite invasion, stopping Discord. The most recent catastrophe she had been present for was when Spike had suddenly grown to several times his normal size and started hoarding everything he could get his claws on, breaking a lot of Ponyville in the process.

Dragon greed was scary.

But not as scary as this, and definitely not as scary as the prospect of letting that innocent pony get hurt, or worse, when somepony was in a position to help him.

With a grimace, Twilight skidded to a stop and started to sprint back towards the worm, her horn flaring up with magic. The sound of splintering wood filled her ears along with the stallion’s panicked screaming, making her heart skip a beat. It was about to shatter!

With a grunt of effort, Twilight fired off a small, condensed burst of raw magic energy, striking the giant worm in the side of the head. It recoiled from the snipe, an alien roar billowing outward from its open mouth. Twilight’s ears drooped as it occurred to her that she had only succeeded in making it mad.

Nonetheless, the desired result was had. The worm released the wagon from its maw, allowing it, and the attached earth pony, to plummet back down to the ground. Moving fast, Twilight reached out with her magic and grabbed onto the whole wagon, trying to slow its descent.

It was a heavy object, and the pony’s frantic flailing only made it harder to get a firm grip. But, thankfully, she was able to slow it down enough that it touched down without shattering or hurting the stallion.

One more flick of magic undid the hitch, releasing the pony to go running. “Thank you, miss!” he shouted over at her, boundless gratitude in his voice.

Twilight nodded and turned to join him.

A shadow passed over her, and something long, smooth, and wet suddenly wrapped around the center of her barrel. Twilight’s eyes widened, and she screamed out in a panic as the ground dropped away beneath her. She was suddenly in the air, kicking and flailing as the worm lifted her up, clearly not appreciating her earlier attack. Another roar echoed, this time originating from directly behind her head and making her ears ring.

Acting quickly, Twilight lit her horn and released another burst of unfocused magic straight up just as the jaws were closing in to swallow her whole. The worm roared again, nearly deafening Twilight as it released her from its tentacle’s grasp.

Safe from being eaten alive for the moment, Twilight now had to save herself from falling to her demise. Without any time to think of a good place, she let instinct take over. Channeling magic into her horn, she allowed herself to be consumed in the burst of light that was her teleportation spell mere moments before the worm snapped at her again.

When she came back to the world in another flash, her momentum carried her sideways. Twilight cried out in pain as she was sent rolling along the ground uncontrollably, mud and small rocks getting stuck in her fur and mane and battering her on all sides. She finally slid to a stop when her side struck a particularly large stone jutting up from the earth. Red hot pain flared up in that spot, and she screamed at the top of her lungs, her voice lost to the rain.

She flopped onto her back, taking a second to catch her breath and trying not to think about the sudden warm wetness that joined the cold rain along the left side of her barrel. With heavy breaths, she opened her eyes and looked around, trying to discern her location.

She was on higher ground, now. She could still make out the angered roars of the worm, not to mention the rumbling of two dozen hooves pummeling the earth in a mad dash to escape, albeit both sounds were quite muffled by distance.

Groggy, Twilight slowly dragged herself up to her hooves and looked around, trying to nail down where the noise was coming from. “If I can just nail down a direction, I can get back to the others and help them!”

She frowned in frustration when she found that the sound was stupidly hard to pin down. Her anger began to devolve into horror as she realized that, between the rain muffling the noise, and the rockiness of the terrain around her providing plenty of surfaces for it to echo on, the sounds she was hearing could be coming from almost anywhere.

“Oh no, no no no no!” She babbled frantically, starting to trot in place as terror gripped her heart. On the verge of total panic, she turned and broke into a mad dash for the nearest jutting spire of rock she could find, hoping to catch sight of the worm from there.

When she finally reached the high ground, she was able to catch sight of the scene. The worm was still chasing the expedition team, but it had luckily lost some ground, and slithering along above ground seemed to be less effective than one would give such a beast credit for. Its movements were sloppy and inefficient, giving the fleeing ponies the room they needed to get away.

Any further details were impossible to discern due to the distance and the rain. Twilight growled under her breath and looked down the rocky slope she was now at the base of. Climbing down would be difficult, but she could do it if she was careful.

Before she could commit to anything, though, the ground beneath her hooves began to quiver and shake as it had before the worm emerged. With a short inhale, Twilight realized that there must be more than one of them. “Are they drawn to the surface by movement?!” she wondered before quickly looking for even higher ground, preferably something not part of the dirt.

Before she could find such a location, the platform beneath her hooves suddenly lurched, and she knew that another of the worms was about to emerge right beneath her. Throwing caution to the wind, Twilight leaped from her platform, sailing through the air and the rain before dropping for the ground below. Her eyes widened when she realized just how big this drop was, and her horn sparked into life again to slow her descent.

The cliffside she had just been standing on exploded outwards with mud and dirt, another of the giant worms emerging and coming right at her, its mouth already peeling open and tentacles reaching out.

Consumed with panic, Twilight fired off another raw bolt of magic at the worm’s face. The blast hit its mark on the inside of one of its many jaws, erupting in a burst of lavender light. The worm roared in agony, and Twilight’s eyes widened with shock and disgust when she realized she had just blown a small hole open in its mouth. She quickly tore her eyes away from the grizzly scene, unable to focus with the ground- “WHEN DID I GET SO LOW?!”

The ground was mere yards away and coming up fast. Crying out, Twilight pumped more power into her horn in a desperate effort to slow her descent. However, in her panic, her spell didn’t go off quite as she intended, and she instead sent herself into another wild teleport.

If anypony else had been there to watch, it would have looked as if Twilight passed through the ground in a shimmer of light before flying back up out of it at the same velocity around fifteen feet away. Her legs kicked and flailed in the air, one more panicking shriek tearing past her lips before she landed in the mud with a soft plop.

Twilight lay still for a second, trying to catch her breath and determine if she had actually lived through that or not.

Sadly, today seemed to be just one bad thing after another. Perhaps thirty feet behind her, the large worm she had just injured suddenly slammed into the ground after a fall of its own, sending a heavy tremor through the earth.

Twilight shot back to her hooves and backed away, gasping for breath and desperate for a way out. The worm lifted its head up after a second before turning to glare at her, a small trickle of purple liquid dripping out one side. With an ominous, rumbling hiss, it began to slither after her, clearly not finished with her yet.

“Leave me alone!” Twilight cried out, turning and sprinting away as hard and as fast as she could. She felt her panic rising when she realized that she was running away from the expedition and deeper into the badlands. But with this great worm on her tail and the terrain as jagged as it was, any chance at turning around or circling back to link up with them were thrown to the wind for the time being.

“Just stay alive!” Twilight told herself as adrenaline took over, carrying her down a slope and into a collection of narrow, low-walled trenches with jagged walls. The worm gave chase, roaring all the while.

Twilight didn’t know for sure how long she was running before, at last, the slippery sound of the worm slithering after her faded into silence, and its deafening roars came to an end. In spite of that, however, her fear drove her to keep running and running. The narrow walls of the trenches were claustrophobic in the extreme, and thunder had started blasting overhead some time ago, rattling her bones and sending her most primal of instincts into overdrive.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she came out of her mad dash as the trench widened out, the terrain smoothing and lifting up to the base of an enormous, dusty, red mesa that was practically a mountain in its own right. A few long-dead trees were scattered around on the slope, their crooked, mangled branches sending a chill down Twilight’s spine.

Dragging her hooves and gasping for breath, Twilight slowly moved up for the mesa, spying a small, nondescript cave set into its side. The rain was finally starting to lessen up, but that changed nothing. Twilight had seen how dangerous it was to be out in the open here, and she wasn’t going to do anything else until she had some functional shelter.

Lighting up her horn to let her see, she stepped through the mouth of the cave and looked around. The entrance tunnel went on for some twenty feet before turning sharply to the right, but even from the cave mouth, she could tell it didn’t go any further than that. Good. The deeper a cave was, the more likely it would be that something could be hiding deeper inside.

And with what Twilight had already met today, she didn’t want to imagine what could be hiding even deeper in the ground.

As her exhaustion caught up to her, and the adrenaline faded from her system, Twilight finally decided to acknowledge the agonizing burning sensation that had been the left side of her barrel for the last while. Barely containing a whimper, she looked down and shuddered when she saw a long, nasty, and jagged gash marring her coat. It wasn’t bleeding profoundly, thank goodness, but it was nevertheless ugly to look at, and excruciatingly painful.

Biting down on her tongue to keep from screaming, Twilight limped deeper into the cave, tears starting to well up in her eyes. She should have listened to her friends. She never should have come to this Celestia-forsaken wasteland! Now she really understood why it had never been properly explored before. The travelers of the past had the right idea: stay away.

As she rounded the corner at the end of the tunnel, she was met with the sight of a roughly circular chamber with a roof around fifteen or seventeen feet high. The most notable feature was the small pool of water at the very back, which looked surprisingly deep.

“Okay… okay… Think Twilight. You can do this,” she whispered to herself after a moment, slowly settling down onto her haunches. She went to reach for her saddlebags, only then realizing that, somewhere in all of the chaos earlier, she must have lost them. “Oh no… no, no! My bandages!” she exclaimed, feeling herself over as, praying to Celestia that she was simply hallucinating and that the saddlebags would still be there if she looked hard enough. “My paper! My ink, my quill!”

All gone. She was left completely devoid of supplies with a bleeding injury. Struggling to keep her voice down, Twilight pressed her hooves against the injury to try and stem the flow, but the angle was too odd and uncomfortable for her to do much more than irritate it further.

Gasping, on the verge of tears, Twilight was almost completely oblivious as the rain finally came to an end over the course of several minutes, and the red glow of sunset streaming in through the mouth of the cave.

That is, she was oblivious until she heard something, and caught movement out of the corner of her eye.

Going silent, Twilight fearfully looked towards the red light that washed over the floor and walls of the cave. Her heart leaped into her throat at the sight of a shadow creeping along the floor, cast by the low angle of the sun.

Something was in the cave with her.

Author's Note:

Well, that was dark. In a similar fashion to Bug in The Basement, this story opens dark, but I assure you it gets really sweet and heartwarming as it goes.

I hope you guys enjoy it!