Cheerilee's students push her to the edge of depression, and pay the price in the theater of life.
When Cheerilee gets assigned to a new class of problematic students, she slowly slips into a depression. She finally finds a way to cope, one her students probably wouldn't like... All of this is somehow linked to the children's new school play, but how? Will they find out in time for it to make a difference, or are they all doomed from the outset? And if they are, will Cheerilee herself get away unscathed, or will she share their fate?
It all began as a joke in a chatroom. Someone said “We should totally write this!” and so I did. I realise that’s not much of an excuse for letting this loose on the world, but perhaps it’ll make you judge me a bit more kindly when you get to the end of the story, look back and wonder who would ever think of something like this. At least I hope it will.
Thanks to Cheerilee and Dash for joking around and inspiring this fanfic with your ideas. Thank you as well for all the advice, ideas and proofreading you continued to provide as time went on. Thank you ‘Tavy, Quilava and Aurebesh, for all the proofreading you did.
And thanks also to every member of the MLP Team Central steam group who randomly heard me talk about this and provided input. You all helped in your own way.
An extremely grimdark (read: gory) story by Unahim.
The entire theatre complex was abuzz with the voices of a hundred excited ponies, as Cheerilee peeked out carefully from behind the curtains hiding the stage. She saw rows upon rows of ponies sitting in the stands or moving between them, talking to each other as they waited or tried to make one last trip to get some food and beverages before the show. She glanced quickly to the left, and saw that the musicians had already set up in the orchestra pits in front of the stage. They’d only be needed for a few scenes, but Cheerilee was still glad to have them.
Seeing such a big crowd gathered there made her a bit nervous, even though this had all been her idea. Almost all of the seats were taken, and Cheerilee knew there were barely enough to accommodate the entire population of Ponyville. The show would be subjected to the scrutiny of a great many pony eyes indeed.
She retreated back behind the curtains, hoping nobody had seen her. She felt that would have been somewhat unprofessional. Everything seemed to be in order as she inspected the stage for the last time. All the props and the equipment were beautifully made, straight from the hooves of the masters. Cheerilee had only needed to tell them what she wanted, and they had provided it without any questions, even though certain items must have seemed unnecessary. After all, they didn’t know what she had in mind for this night, while she did. She was quite sure some of their props would make even a professional theatre jealous!
The stage was divided into sections, each denoting its supposed location. This way, they didn’t need time or backstage ponies to change the decor after each act, cutting down on the time needed for scene changes. Cheerilee was a big fan of this system as it meant there was one less thing for her to worry about.
She turned back and headed for stage left where her students were busy getting all dressed up. It was a total chaos, with bits and pieces of costumes scattered across the room like sprinkles on a cupcake. At the centre of this mess were the Cutie Mark Crusaders, as Cheerilee had come to expect. The fact none of them had sprouted a “making trouble”-Cutie Mark yet surprised her more each and every day.
“Hey, that’s my helmet,” Scootaloo told Sweetie Belle accusingly. “Yours is way over there!”
“No, it sure isn’t!” she replied as she lifted the knightly helmet off of her head and held it out for Scootaloo to inspect. “This one has a hole for my horn, see?”
“Are ya’ll sure it ain’t mah helmet?” Apple Bloom said as she scratched her head.
“The king wears a crown!” the other two snapped back.
Cheerilee sighed as she quickly glanced at her other students. Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara seemed to progress orderly, if slowly, mainly due to how they constantly flourished and admired each other after every article of clothing they put on, and after every single brush of their mane. Snips was, to her great surprise, ready and waiting. The fact that Snails was backstage on tech duty might have had something to do with that, she mused.
She remained confident they’d make it in time, as she had had the great foresight to start them all on preparations much earlier than anypony would have thought necessary. She had come to know this little group throughout the months, and she was prepared for almost anything. Nothing could possibly go wrong today; she had put too much planning and work into it to see it fail now. She smiled as she envisioned the peace, quiet, tranquillity and relief she’d feel when this was all over.
“All right students,” she chimed, “let me just run you through the steps one last time.”
There was much groaning to be heard across the room, but Cheerilee wasn’t taking any chances with this bunch.
“If you still have a part to play, but aren’t needed on set, come back here. If your role is all played out, exit the stage on the other side. You’ll be able to watch the rest of the play from there. That is, if you didn’t see it enough already,” she paused for a moment to ascertain everypony was still listening, and they all nodded.
“If you forget your lines, just improvise or pick up from the point in the script you do recall. If the pony you’re playing with skips some of your lines, don’t try to correct them. Remember, we may notice if somepony doesn’t follow the script, but the audience won’t as long as you keep the dialogue flowing.”
The fillies and Snips nodded again, and Cheerilee smiled at them.
“Good, now get ready. I have to see to the opening of the show, so be ready and on set in no more than ten minutes.”
She walked away as the young ponies got back to it, and Cheerilee thought they seemed to quarrel and delay slightly less this time, though that was probably just her imagination.
The last one she had to check up on was Snails, whom she put backstage due to his absolute inability to do even the most basic of acting; all he’d have to do there was listen for certain cues and then carry out one specific action. She had even written all of that down on a list that was easy enough to follow--even for him. Up to this point he’d done okay during their practices, but you never knew.
She gave him a few reminders, and he reassured her that he wouldn’t let her down--all the while wearing that idiot grin of his. Cheerilee sighed as she went back to the main stage, resigned to the fact that she’d have to leave this one up to fate.
She was pleased to see the other ponies already gathered and in position when she got there, all of them sitting around a U-shaped table, the open end of which was pointed into the direction of the crowd. Apple Bloom was dressed up as someone of royal descent: a shining crown on her head and a regal mantle flowing down from her shoulders. To her right were the remaining two Cutie Mark Crusaders, both dressed in exaggerated versions of knightly armour. Sweetie Belle’s was coloured as white as her own coat, while Scootaloo’s was a bright red. Considering this glaring difference in colour, Cheerilee wondered how they could possibly mistake each other’s helmet for their own, anyway.
They looked heroic and chivalrous compared to the two ponies on the other side of the table--which was exactly the idea. Silver Spoon’s costume was pitch black, while Diamond Tiara’s was a deep purple. The style of their costumes was likewise different from the two knights; they both wore something more akin to a courtier’s dress or a diplomat's gown than a warrior's armour. Mean looks were being exchanged all over the table, and Cheerilee couldn’t decide if they were genuinely trying to get into character, or if the natural animosity of the CMC towards the other two fillies was at work here. The only acting pony who wasn’t on set yet was Snips, but then again he wasn’t even in the next scene.
Cheerilee walked over to the left side of the stage and held the curtain aside for herself. The leader of the orchestra immediately spotted her as she emerged next to him, and raised an eyebrow questioningly. She nodded at him and he nodded back, turning his attention towards the musicians--most of whom were friends or family of the actors. Cheerilee slipped back behind the curtains, as she heard the first soft notes float through the air. By the time she was back in the centre of the stage the music had increased in volume and could be heard all throughout the theatre, the conversations slowly dying down as everypony took to their seats.
Cheerilee looked up to see Snails--thankfully in the right spot between the stage lights--waving at her sheepishly. The ushers took their cue from the music, and slowly the lights in the theatre hall died down. The pace of the music increased and the feeling of anticipation intensified, until, suddenly, the curtains slid open a few feet, accompanied by the rolling of drums. She stepped forward past the curtains, as Snails turned on a spotlight and aimed it at her, bathing her in a circle of light as she moved. Despite the curtains being partially open the darkness behind Cheerilee revealed nothing to the audience. The music stopped and Cheerilee’s voice took over, ringing out crystal clear throughout the enormous room due to the perfect acoustics.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, it is with great pride that my students and I welcome you to our very own play. They have all worked so hard on this over the past few months, and we hope you will enjoy it as much as we enjoy bringing it to you. Of one thing I am certain: this will be an evening you won’t soon forget,” Cheerilee smiled widely despite herself. It was just the kind of opening she thought everypony would expect, but she was certain that last part would turn out to be true in more ways than one.
“And now without further ado I am proud to introduce, performed in Ponyville for the first time ever: Reginald the Sly!”
The music exploded again during her last words as she disappeared behind the curtains, following them to the right side of the stage as they slid open behind her. The music died down once again as the spotlight was turned off and the main stage lights turned on, slowly illuminating the scene.
Cheerilee could hear the play starting while she went down a set of stairs to get underneath the stage. The size of the stage itself was impressive, but the area underneath it was simply amazing. There was plenty of room to install all sorts of devices to spruce up any kind of play, and the stage itself was thick and well-isolated enough that ponies could work down here without disturbing the actors on stage. She had once started banging a metal pipe against some of the iron stage supports during a rehearsal, just to see if her students would hear it. They hadn’t.
She made her way in-between the beams supporting the stage and the various props and gadgets that reached down from the stage, heading for the prompt corner. She finally arrived at a few wooden steps, which took her to a level half-way between the stage and the area underneath it, so that only her head peeked up above stage-level. From there she could watch the play from the same side as the audience, without actually being seen by the audience due to the way the prompt corner was built into the stage: from the audience’s point of view it just looked like a slightly raised box.
During some plays a “prompt” would sit here to feed actors their lines if they forgot them, but the dialogue in this one wasn’t overly complicated, and they had never rehearsed with the possibility of a prompt in mind. Cheerilee didn’t think any of them would even realise she was there.
She tried to pick up the thread of the play, since she had obviously missed some of it on her way there. They seemed slightly further along than Cheerilee had expected, but she didn’t know if this was because of them rushing or leaving something out, or if she had just been walking slower than she thought she had been.
She shook her head. It didn’t matter. This scene wasn’t important to her. A grin spread across her face as she sat and watched, and waited for a scene that was.
Apple Bloom slammed her hoof on the table as she dramatically looked first to the left of the table, then to the right. “All of this is meaningless. We still have to put a stop to this Reginald the Sly, and ah don’t care who does it, or how,” she said, trying her best to suppress her accent. She was most likely the one with the biggest grasp of the script, simply because sticking to her lines made avoiding her accent easier. As soon as she drifted from them even a bit it was all over, and the accent was back and in full swing. It sounded very odd out of the mouth of a king, to be sure.
“But my king, I maintain that violence is not the answer,” Silver Spoon said. “If you would just let your royal advisor and I work on a diplomatic solution, then I am sure that-”
“No!” the king cut her short. “Do you think ah know not what goes on when ah have my back turned? The two of you will stay right here. Sir Lance-a-lot the Brave, Ah entrust this task to you. Find this villain and bring him back here, so he may face my judgement,” she decreed as she leaned forward over the table, pointing her hoof at Scootaloo before banging it on the table again.
“Just leave it to me; I’ll bring him back kicking and screaming!” Scootaloo said as she raised a hoof enthusiastically, completely ignoring the script and the lines she should be using. Fortunately it came down to much the same thing, which was probably the only reason the fillies couldn’t hear Cheerilee grinding her teeth all the way out on stage. Scootaloo got up from the table and bowed down before her king before taking a few steps away from the table and turning around.
The lights went out for a short moment, and when they were turned back on only Scootaloo was still on stage, the King’s table was completely deserted and less lighting was focused on that area than before. In addition to this, Scootaloo was now carrying a white lance around with her, holding it under one of her wings.
She started walking across the stage, taking roundabout routes around some set props and pieces of decor.
“These are the Wildlands, there is no doubt. So where could that weaselly Reginald be? I heard he’s sly as a fox, and true as that may be, he’ll never outwit the likes of me.”
Speaking thusly Sir Lance-a-lot came up to a part of the stage that quite obviously represented a mountain with a mine entrance leading into it. The backdrop of the decor served as the mountain while the shallow mine entrance was more of a little building on stage, and expertly made.
A small hooded figure suddenly emerged on the scene, wearing black robes. His face was hidden by the hood, but anyone could deduce it was Snips based on his height and a simple process of elimination.
The new arrival casually strolled down the same path Sir Lance-a-lot was currently on, and it wasn’t long before they crossed paths in front of the mine itself.
“Halt! By order of the king I, Sc-ehem-Sir Lance-a-lot have come to put an end to Reginald the Sly. Are you he?” Scootaloo said louder than was necessary even during a play.
“Oh no, noble knight. I am but a simple hermit, living in the mountains yonder,” the robed figure replied as he motioned towards the mountains in the distance.
Scootaloo scoffed at this and raised her chin. “A little thing such as you would indeed not have been much of a challenge. You look like you can hardly stand upright during a gentle summer breeze. Now tell me quick, simple soul, if I wish to find this Reginald, where should I go?”
“Ah, you are indeed fortunate, sir knight. The villain you seek has his lair in this very cave.” The robed pony motioned at the mine entrance with a nod of his head.
“In there? You’re sure of this?” the brave knight asked as she peered inside.
“Of course, would I lie? You might have to leave your lance behind though, a lot of narrow passages down there.”
The filly threw the stranger a few scrutinizing glances, then looked straight at the audience and shrugged. She placed her lance against the rocks outside and approached the entrance. “If I don’t find him in there I’m coming back here to kick your flank!” Scootaloo said, again interpreting the script liberally.
As soon as she stepped into the darkness Snips sprang into motion and pulled a rock away to reveal an old-fashioned lever hidden there, not unlike those used to change the direction of train tracks.
“Hey! It’s a dead end in here. What are you playing at?” Scootaloo’s voice came echoing from inside of the mine.
Upon hearing this Snips pulled the lever into a neutral position, and at once a metal gate slammed shut over the entrance to the mine. Scootaloo’s helmed head reappeared in the light as she looked at the metal bars in front of her with fake astonishment, shaking them violently with her hooves. “What is this trickery? Let me out right this instant, or the justice of King Goldencrown shall come down upon your head, be whomever you may!”
The hooded pony let out a diabolical laugh as he approached the metal gate, standing next to it as he addressed the knight, so that he may still roughly be facing the audience as well.
“Be whoever I may? Why, you’re thicker than I thought, you righteous foal. It is of course I, Reginald the Sly,” Snips announced as he drew back the hood to reveal himself. “Did you think I would not expect one of you to come here eventually, or that I would not recognise the ‘Great’ Sir Lance-a-lot, bravest of all the knights in the realm, when she arrived upon my doorstep? It is your courage that shall now be your undoing,” he continued, followed by more laughter.
Sir Lance-a-lot shook the metal gate some more, and tried to lift it up, but she could not. “You devil! You heathen, you dishonourable wretch! When I get out of here, it’ll be off with your head!”
Reginald the Sly paused for a moment as he put both his hooves on the lever once more. “Then it is fortunate,” he said menacingly, “that you will never get out of there, ever again.”
He pulled down, and suddenly a great rumbling could be heard throughout the theatre as the orchestra kicked in with an impressive display of percussive instruments. Sir Lance-a-lot, much like the audience, recoiled and looked around fearfully, taking a few steps backwards into the mine, thus disappearing out of sight.
There was a loud crash as a cloud of smoke or dust erupted from the mine. Once it cleared out and the music died down, the audience could see the entrance of the cave again, but the opening behind the metal gate was now blocked by what appeared to be a wall of stone and rubble.
Snips simply took the lance the knight had left behind between his teeth and walked off, as the stage lights gradually died down and the curtains closed. The audience remained silent for a moment--surprised by the sudden development--but then suddenly started talking amongst themselves about the events of the play so far. The only one who seemed to have anything bad to say about it was Rainbow Dash, who thought it was pure folly to kill off the character of the “most talented actor in the group” so soon.
Cheerilee left her spot in the prompt’s corner and went back under the stage. She headed in the direction of a faint banging noise, towards the part directly under the mine. She couldn’t help smiling at the thought that everything she had worked for all these months was finally about to pay off, and memories of how it had all started involuntarily flooded her mind.
“And that’s how Equestria was made,” Cheerilee concluded her little history lesson. She turned away from the blackboard to face the class, and was at once struck by how eerily unfamiliar the scene still felt. Ever since the board had decided to change up the groups and put her in charge of the fillies and foals who needed some ‘extra attention’, things had been taking a turn for the worst. She was used to seeing students off at the end of the year and welcoming new ones back in the beginning of the next, of course. But despite that, getting a new group assigned to her out of the blue just didn’t feel quite right.
Especially not this group, Cheerilee thought as she gritted her teeth in pure frustration.
It became at once clear that no filly or foal in the room had actually been listening to a word she had said, as per usual. Instead Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were having a hushed conversation, while Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara seemed to be more inclined to admiring each other’s jewellery instead of concentrating on the lesson at hand. In the back row, Snips and Snails were laughing at something that could only ever be amusing to the likes of them.
A smile suddenly crept onto Cheerilee’s face as she noticed there was, in fact, one single filly who seemed to be paying attention.
“Oh Apple Bloom? Would you mind explaining the importance of the day-night cycle to your less attentive classmates?” Cheerilee asked as cheerfully as she could manage.
To her great surprise and even greater annoyance, Apple Bloom seemed to veer up at the mere mention of her name, looking around the room somewhat panicky. “Oh… ummm…Yea, yea I s’pose ah can... ehhmmm... lessee here now...” Apple Bloom said as she scratched her head. “Night an’ day are important... Because... Because if there were only one or th’other, either Luna or Celestia would be very sad,” she concluded with a smile, raising a hoof in a ‘That’s it, right?’ gesture. Cheerilee gritted her teeth once again. Of course. The one filly who had been paying attention hadn’t understood a word she’d said.
As Cheerilee opened her mouth to formulate a chastising response, Scootaloo suddenly loudly interjected “That’s stupid! Really, who could ever come up with a reason as ridiculous as that?” she pointed a hoof towards Apple Bloom.
“Ah don’t see you comin’ up with a better answer either. Ah bet you don’t even know what you’re talking about!” Apple Bloom retorted just as loudly as she crossed her hooves in front of her chest.
“Oh yeah? Why did I get a better grade on that last test then?”
“We all know you cheated!” “Did not!” “Did so!” “Did NOT!” “DID SO! “DI-“
“GIRLS!” Cheerilee shouted. “This is neither the time nor the place to hold such pointless debates! You’re here to learn and pay attention. And that goes for all of you, yes you too Diamond Tiara, don’t look so surprised!” She paused one moment as she met the gaze of every filly and foal in turn, as they were finally quiet for once. “I’d have thought the topic of today’s class would be exceedingly interesting to young ponies who, like you all, witnessed Princess Luna’s return, a major historical event that shed much light on our country’s history and origins.”
“Oh yeah!” Apple Bloom chimed in. “She was stuck on the moon for a thousand years, right?”
“The moon?” Scootaloo snorted. “That’s impossible. Not even Rainbow Dash could fly that high! Besides, what would she eat for a thousand years? The moon doesn’t exactly look grassy from where I’m standing.”
At this Apple Bloom remained uncharacteristically silent, as she pondered the question. “She could just eat cheese, right? The moon’s made of the stuff!”
Scootaloo rolled her eyes as she planted her own hoof against her forehead. “The moon is not made of cheese!” “Oh it is so!”
“Ehem,” came a more serene voice from beside the two, as Sweetie Belle moved her head closer to the pair. “I’m sorry Apple Bloom, but I have to agree with Scootaloo here. The moon can’t be made out of cheese.”
By this point the other fillies and foals had pretty much reverted to their own activities again, as Cheerilee stood softly bumping her head into the blackboard, completely at a loss about how in the hay she could get through to these ponies. She stopped doing so as she heard Sweetie Belle’s calm voice, and her ears rose up as she listened. Perhaps at least one of them had some sense in her yet!
“It can’t be made out of cheese,” Sweetie Belle stated confidently, “because if it was, Luna’d have eaten a huge hole in it by now.”
“Oh yeah!” Apple Bloom said as comprehension dawned in her eyes. “Ah s’pose that makes sense.”
“NO!” Cheerilee screamed as she turned around. “It does not! It does not make any sense at all! The moon isn’t made out of cheese because, ugh, you know what… Forget it. Class dismissed! You all have the rest of the day off. Go!” She pointed wildly at the door, not trusting herself to be able to keep calm in the company of these impossible foals and fillies for even a moment longer. She thought she might start breaking things if this went on.
All of the foals and fillies in the classroom quickly got up from their desks, nearly galloping for the door.
“What’s up with her?” Scootaloo asked as soon as they got out of the room, but when they were still well within earshot of Cheerilee.
“Meh, Ah dun’ even know” Apple Bloom said as she shrugged.
They suddenly heard the tell-tale sound of shattering glass coming from the classroom behind them. They both looked back over their shoulder, looked at each other, shrugged, and continued on their way.
Cheerilee paced up and down the length and width of her living room relentlessly. Pieces of splintered wood covered the floor, starting at where her table had been and trailing all the way into the kitchen, where you could just make out the rough outline of what had once been one of the table’s legs. Shards of porcelain and hardened clay were sprinkled around, and the place just generally looked like a hurricane had swept through it. Or two.
Cheerilee stopped pacing around for a moment, but only so she could aim a few well-placed kicks at the remaining pieces of furniture in the room. “Why?!? Why can’t I get these ponies to BEHAVE!” she screeched in frustration.
And this, in fact, lay at the very centre of the issue. Ever since she had earned her Cutie Mark, she had been able to bring out the best in ponies and watch them blossom, watch them grow. Yet here were a bunch of foals and fillies she’d been working on for over six months, and they hadn’t learned anything. Not a single thing!
It ate at her confidence and kept her up at night. She lay twisting and turning as she wondered if she was losing her edge, if she had lost her gift. She had spend countless hours at the library Twilight Sparkle tended to, under the guise of looking for reading material that might interest her students. When Twilight had noted she'd been looking mostly at books covering the subject of Cutie Marks, Cheerilee had told her she was interested in alleviating the concerns three of her pupils had, the self-proclaimed Cutie Mark Crusaders.
But that wasn't true; the real reason was the one question constantly on Cheerilee’s mind: Can a Cutie Mark be mistaken? Is it possible that I never was as good at teaching as I thought I was? That I simply had easy foals and fillies to work with before? Or if a Cutie Mark is accurate at the time it manifests, can it perhaps grow inaccurate over time?
These questions and many more like it slowly pushed Cheerilee down into an all-encompassing feel of depression. She found her patience wearing increasingly thin and lost faith in herself more and more. It became hard to get up in the morning, and harder still to bring herself to return to the classroom where she knew they would be waiting, to turn another day into a living hell.
For the last few nights she had been lying awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling, wondering what it would be like to just let it all go. At times like that she would sometimes tilt her head to look at the glimmering steel of the knife she had put on her nightstand, just in case she ever found the brief moment of courage she needed to... to…
Cheerilee walked over to the huge standing mirror in a corner of her living room, which, surprisingly enough, remained intact. She looked at the reflection of her Cutie Mark in the mirror. Those faces, those smiling faces seemed to laugh at her, mock her, belittle her for ever having had the audacity to think that she was good at something, good at anything…
“NO!” Cheerilee yelled as she bucked her hind legs hard at the mirror, her hooves shattering it into a thousand pieces, which joined the mess on the floor.
Cheerilee’s eyes twitched slightly as she panted and stared out of her window, into her wild and overgrown garden. Normally it’d be neatly trimmed and filled with beautiful flowers this time of the year, but with her ever increasing moments of depression and lethargy--not to mention all the trips to the library--she had not been able to tend to her garden as well as she would have liked. Vines and weeds choked the budding flowers she had planted long ago, suffocating them and slowly squeezing the life out of their growth.
She stared first at the garden and then at her Cutie Mark, and then at the garden once more. And suddenly it all became clear to her, it all made sense. It was not that she wasn’t a good teacher, oh no! She had a gift, a great gift, she had always had it, and she hadn’t lost it. She would never lose it.
But her garden, her class… was overgrown by vines and weeds. Weeds that had to be purged from it, if flowers were ever to bloom again. Vines that had to be cut down and pulled out root and all, if she were to take her responsibilities as a teacher seriously.
She quietly sat staring out of her window as night fell, the stars and the moon barely illuminating the darkness enough for her to see. She thought about what she should do next, what she could do. She realized the plans she was making were for the best and would eventually save more lives than they would ruin. But some ponies--most notably the families of the weeds she had identified--might not see it the same way. They wouldn’t be able to comprehend the truth of the matter, not in the way she did.
So she’d need to be subtle. She'd need to be crafty. And yet, something inside of her didn’t want this all to go down quietly in the night. She desired a show. She desired spectacle. She wanted to show everyone in Ponyville once and for all what a great teacher she was, and to assure them that she could deal with any problem that might come up during their fillies and foals’ education. Even if the filly or foal in question was the problem.
She struggled with these seemingly contradictory goals for a while, before finally receiving yet another epiphany, another glorious idea.
“I think…” she whispered quietly in the dark as she slowly grasped the knife from the nearby nightstand and held it up in the light of the moon. "It’s time for another school play..."
She started giggling as all her fears, doubts and other dark emotions burst forth into a vortex of madness. She snatched up a picture frame from the desk next to her. The picture it contained had been taken just earlier that month; it was the obligatory 'Teacher with Her Class' photograph they made every year. She took it out of the frame and lit one of the candles in the room, surprised that she still had one that wasn’t too broken. As the little flame illuminated the room, she carefully held the picture in it. The flame burned brighter and started to consume the picture, licking at the hooves of the foals and fillies who’s images had been captured on it.
And for the first time in six months, Cheerilee just couldn’t stop smiling.
Scootaloo took a few steps backwards into the darkness and acted surprised, preparing for the trapdoor to open underneath her. She dropped down with great agility as the floor disappeared, and landed in a sort of metal cage a few feet lower. A cloud of dust was blown out of the mine entrance above her as a metal press came down to fill the mine and cover the entrance. Scootaloo knew that for the audience it wouldn’t look like metal at all, as they had decorated the outside with what would appear to be stones and rocks to them.
“Ow!” she grimaced as she landed, the bars on the bottom of the cage biting into her hooves. She looked down and frowned. There used to be a large piece of wood covering the bottom of the metal cage, but it was nowhere to be found. There was a great, round plastic tub underneath the cage, which Scootaloo couldn’t remember seeing before either. Then again, she mused, the wooden plank would have naturally kept it out of sight.
She quickly tugged on a few key strings in her outfit with her teeth, undoing the knots one by one. Since these knots kept the entire outfit together it wasn’t long before she could simply shake it off. It looked very cool, but it sure was uncomfortable to move around in. She decided to just leave the outfit there for now. After all, she wasn’t able to go back to the dressing room until the show was over, and she sure wasn’t dragging it around with her.
She reached out to the cage door and attempted to push it open, but to her great surprise it wouldn’t budge. She pushed against it for a while and then threw her shoulder into it--which she instantly regretted--but still it would not open. Turning around, she bucked her hind legs at the door in an attempt to force open the lock, but she may as well not have bothered. All she ended up doing was sending some banging noises echoing throughout the area.
“Dumb door! If I find out who locked this thing I’m going to...” she hissed in frustration, when Cheerilee suddenly emerged from the darkness, Scootaloo’s head about level with hers for once.
Cheerilee simply smiled at the filly as she approached the cage, not saying a single word.
“Miss Cheerilee! I wasn’t going to say anything bad, honest! Just that I’m going to be... very upset with the pony who locked the door, that’s all,” she said sheepishly. At least Cheerilee would probably be able to get her out of there.
She started to feel somewhat uncomfortable as Cheerilee just stood there unmoving, her features still obscured by the darkness that reigned supreme under the stage.
“Oh I get it! Haha! It was a joke! That’s great Miss Cheerilee; you obviously haven’t lost your touch for pranks yet! Now euh... could you please let me out?” the young filly asked pleadingly, not sure what to make of the mare’s strange behaviour.
Cheerilee nodded enthusiastically as she stepped forward and a wide toothy grin split her face. Something about the look in her teacher’s eyes shocked Scootaloo deeply; it felt as if she saw nothing but hatred and contempt in those big, green globes. Cheerilee reached out for a lever on the wall and pulled it down slightly, and suddenly the mass of metal above Scootaloo’s head started to inch its way down toward her at a steady pace.
The little filly suddenly didn’t feel comfortable in the cage anymore, and she let out a little squeal of terror. “Wait! What’s going on, please stop! This isn’t funny anymore, Miss Cheerilee! I want to get out! Let me out!”
Cheerilee brought her face close to the cage to stare at Scootaloo, relishing in the terror she was inflicting upon one of the little monsters that had tormented her for so long. “I thought you wanted to get out of the cage? This’ll get you out, you little weed. Just watch.”
Scootaloo’s brave facade finally broke, as tears started streaming down her face. “No! You ca-can’t do th-this! Everypony will kn-know... th-they’ll find out! Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle will come look for me, and...”
“HAH!” Cheerilee interrupted the frantic filly as she burst into genuine laughter. “Ahahaha! You foal; those friends of yours are next. And as for the others... You let me worry about that, ok? You have different problems,” Cheerilee nodded up at the wall of iron still inching down. There was now less than half the original amount of space left between it and the bottom of the cage.
“NO!” the little filly screamed as she lifted her front legs above her head, pushing up against the metal threatening to crush her against the bottom of the cage. The press protested with some metallic screeching noises and shuddered for a moment, and then almost came to a complete stop.
With the machine pushing down on her and her pushing up to halt its progress, the pressure on the hooves that remained on the bottom bars of the cage was immense. She whimpered as the thin, rectangular metal strips slowly started to crack them, but she didn’t dare move for fear of being crushed. The machine did not relent and the cracks grew wider and wider, making her pant with pain as Cheerilee stood and watched.
Finally she let out a scream as her hooves broke and the thin bars got driven up into her flesh, blood slowly starting to boil up around the metal and dripping down into the tub underneath. Scootaloo bit down onto her lip as she panted from the immense pain that washed over her as the blunt bars broke her skin, tearing and pulling at her flesh.
“Please... p-please...stop... please, I’ll... unghh... I’ll... be... good... I swear!” she managed to get out between the gasps for air and the cries of pain that otherwise escaped her mouth.
“Eight months, EIGHT MONTHS!” Cheerilee suddenly screeched out in fury, abruptly switching over from laughter to anger in the blink of an eye. “That’s how much time you had to show a glimmer of intelligence, and you failed!” In a fit of rage Cheerilee pulled down the lever a bit more, and the metal press instantly started to push down even harder, trying to crush Scootaloo even faster. “For the good of all the flowers in the world, weeds like you must DIE!”
Scootaloo tried to cry out as the metal bars were driven through the fleshy parts of her hooves, the metal angrily coming to a grinding halt against the bones in her legs, but instead of screams all that came out of her mouth was a disgusting gurgling sound, followed by waves of bile and vomit as the unearthly pain turned her stomach upside down, and nearly made her black out on the spot. The foul and sour substance splattered all over the floor of the cage and dribble down Scootaloo’s body from her mouth, joining the streams of blood as they tumbled into the tub below. The only thing keeping her conscious was the copious amounts of adrenaline her body was pumping into her system, in a desperate attempt to try and survive the ordeal.
Cheerilee took a few quick steps back as the vomiting started, to avoid getting any of it on her hooves. That’d be simply distasteful. The machine continued pushing Scootaloo down, and she already had to bend slightly forward as she began hysterically pushing up with her shoulders and head as well, grinding her hooves into the metal below even more. Her legs shook violently, and she knew they would be unable to take the pressure much longer.
The bars of the cage floor ground against her bare bones and they slowly began to crack. Scootaloo screamed in wordless terror, pain and hysteria once more, her mind filled only with the red hot feeling of pain emanating not only from her heavily mutilated hooves, but also from the rest of her body. Her throat was raw and coarse from all the screaming and vomiting, blood dripping out of the corners of her mouth, and her upper legs, shoulders and neck were all feeling the strain from pushing up against the metal.
Suddenly the strain became too much for her little pony legs, as the bones in her hooves snapped. The metal strips shot up through her legs as the metal plate pushed her down, cleaving through her young, soft flesh like butter, and splitting her overstressed bones neatly in two. The new pain--a hundred times worse than all that had come before--send her into a new fit of vomiting, but all that would come out was a puddle of blood that she spat all over herself.
Her body couldn’t handle the sensory overload and she teetered on the brink of a black out, but every new bone that snapped pulled her right back out of the sweet embrace of darkness, and the blunt metal bar shot up through her so fast now that there was hardly had any time to fall unconscious at all.
Blood splattered down into the tub, where it pooled into a lake alongside of various other bodily fluids, with more blood leaking out of Scootaloo’s legs as if she were an opened bottle of tomato juice someone was holding upside down.
The room swam before her eyes and she was too weak to continue screaming. Her forelegs started to give out and would soon lose their strength as she started to drift out of consciousness in earnest.
Then suddenly, after what seemed to Scootaloo as a century after the metal had broken through her first bone--although it was in reality only a few moments--the metal plate stopped pressing down and actually moved back up a little bit as Cheerilee pushed the lever up, an insane look of glee on her face.
Scootaloo, now unable to brace her weakened body against anything as the metal plate slid out of reach, tumbled backwards onto the bottom of the cage. The metal bars were still stuck halfway up her legs, holding them in place. Her weakened legs couldn’t handle the strain as she toppled backwards into a physically impossible position, and with a horrendous scream and torrents of blood Scootaloo’s leg simply broke off in the middle, muscles and ligaments tearing off of the bones as they broke right around the weak point the metal bars had created.
She had thought the worst pain had been over, but for the second time in a few minute she had been proven wrong: there had been a pain worse than what she had been going through, and this was it. She almost barfed up blood all over herself again when she looked down at the part of her mangled legs that was still attached, as well as the little bloody stumps sticking up above the cage’s floor, but she simply didn’t seem to have any in her anymore.
Her body had grown pale due to the copious amounts of blood she had lost and was still losing, and she’d probably die within the next few minutes even if a fully-equipped medical team appeared on the scene right then and there.
Cheerilee stood with her left hoof on the lever, panting heavily and shaking with pure excitement, completely unable to keep the ecstasy she felt at her twisted dreams finally coming true out of her voice as she spoke. “Any last words, my little weed?”
Scootaloo could hardly hear her through the ungodly amounts of pain she was in, as death started to wrap her in his cold embrace. Her body had lost so much fluids by now that she couldn't even manage to cry as she thought about what she’d like to say to Rainbow Dash, like being sorry that she’d never grow up to be the flyer Rainbow Dash thought she could be. Instead all that came out of her mouth was a low gurgling, and another pool of blood.
“I guess not. WHO’D WANT TO HEAR IT ANYWAY?” Cheerilee yelled almost hysterically as she pulled the lever completely down.
The little filly saw the metal plate storm down at her like a battering ram, her body too weak for a bigger reaction than her feeble attempt to raise her front hooves up to shield her head. With a sickening crash the machine pounded down into the filly, driving her entire body into the bars below.
The crash was so sickeningly loud that even Cheerilee closed her eyes and turned her head away for a moment, as she brought up a hoof protectively. She could feel warm blood splatter against her face and body, and opened an eye tentatively. The metal press now filled the entire cage, and Scootaloo was nowhere to be found. Blood spatters could be seen in a wide radius around the cage, and blood dripped down the side of the tub to make puddles on the floor. With her legs shaking in excitement, Cheerilee approached the tub, taking care not to step into any of the puddles.
For a moment she just stared down into the sanguine lake, amazed that there had been so much... stuff packed into the tiny filly’s body. Various chunks of flesh and bone floated around in the grotesque sea, like tiny boats. Cheerilee angled her head to look at the bottom of the cage, and saw little bits and pieces of Scootaloo still trapped between the metal plate and the bars of the cage, but apart from those--and the huge scarlet stain on the metal--no sign of the filly ever having been in the cage remained.
Cheerilee licked her lips while surveying the scene once more, but suddenly stopped as the bitter taste of iron entered her mouth. She had forgotten she got blood all over herself as well, but it tasted surprisingly... good. This must be what they meant when they talked about the sweet taste of vengeance, Cheerilee mused as she licked her lips and cheeks clean.
She spotted Scootaloo’s eyes floating around in the lake of blood, staring up unseeingly at the ceiling. She couldn’t help but crack up and laugh hysterically, even as she went to get cleaned up. Even long after she got the very last spatters of blood out of her coat (the visible ones anyway) she just couldn’t stop. She hadn’t seen something this amusing all year!
Cheerilee finally got back to her spot in the prompt’s corner, still giddy with excitement. She stared at the stage without really seeing it, and it took her a few moments to notice that she hadn’t started paying attention to the play at all yet; she was still just savouring Scootaloo’s last moments in her mind’s eye.
She shook her head a few times to get a grip, and focused on the stage in front of her. Once she did that it didn’t take her long to figure out what scene they were currently on, and Cheerilee had to suppress another rush of excitement as she realised her next playtime wasn’t all that far off.
She saw Silver Spoon (in her black noble’s outfit) and Diamond Tiara (in the dark-purple gown of the Royal Advisor) approach Reginald's cottage. Based on where this scene fit into the story, that meant Cheerilee had missed the scenes involving Lance-a-lot’s broken lance being delivered back to the Royal Court, as well as the ones where the king decided who to send next. Cheerilee didn’t mind having missed these at all; they didn’t interest her, she only cared about what was to come next.
The pink mare was very happy with the set pieces that formed Reginald’s cottage, considering them to be very nicely made. Instead of an actual closed-off building, only the back wall and the left wall had been put into place, giving the audience a clean view of the building’s interior. She didn’t want to aggrandize her own work, but she was quite proud of the way in which she’d made this all fit together through her plans and instructions.
“... With care and caution, my dear Diamas,” the grey filly with the silver mane said. “That’s the only way to deal with a pony like him... if you want to harbour any hope of coming out on top, that is.”
The white and purple maned filly nodded thoughtfully. “But of course Silver Tongue, I am well aware... And of course in our case, even more thoughtfulness is required... we’re not simply telling him to stand down, after all...”
The two ponies exchanged a grin as they walked down the path towards Reginald’s front door, which was placed in the wall on the right side of his house. Of course, the wall itself hadn’t been built on stage, but the audience got the idea behind it easily enough. The two fillies nodded back and forth in front of the door, until Silver Tongue finally leaned forward with a sigh and knocked on the door.
The audience could see a small door open at the back of Reginald’s house, as the antagonist himself stepped through it into his living room, carrying a teapot which he put down onto the table in the centre of the room, next to three cups that were already there. “Visitors at this hour of night? I wonder who it could be,” the villain said louder than was perhaps needed, with a fourth-wall breaking wink at the audience.
He strolled over to the door and opened it, but he left the door chain in place. “Yes?” he asked while peeping through the small opening he had created, “I wasn’t expecting any visitors today!”
“Forget the pleasantries, Reginald dear-” the silver-maned filly said.
“-we know you know who we are,” Diamas finished the sentence for her companion.
Reginald’s frown was clearly visible even to the people in the back of the theatre “Then why knock? Surely you don’t believe I’d let you in just so you could apprehend me?”
The pair of fillies laughed. “Apprehend you? No my dear you have this all wrong, we don’t want to apprehend you..”
“We want to work with you...” “To take care of the king...” “Once and for all.”
The fillies remained silent for a moment before Diamas added. “We know you’re a reasonable guy, Reginald... This will be beneficial to you as well.”
Reginald closed the door and took the chain off before opening it fully. “Alright, come in,” he said as he walked to the table in the middle of the room. He grabbed the teapot that stood there by the ear, carefully pouring tea into the three cups on the table. “Let’s hear what you have to say then,” he said as he started sipping from one of the cups.
The other two gathered around the table as well, each in front of one of the other two cups, which they stared at with suspicion. “How exactly do we know you haven’t poisoned these?” Silver Tongue demanded to know.
“How do you know I didn’t poison the tea I prepared without knowing you’d come and that I’m drinking myself?” Reginald mockingly replied.
The other two seemed to relax at this train of thought, sipping from their mugs slowly. It had been a rather long trip, and as ladies of style they did enjoy their daily cup of tea.
Diamas opened her mouth to start negotiations, when she suddenly fell silent and stared at the cups on the table. Three cups. “If you didn’t know we were coming, why are there thr-” she started, before pressing a hoof up against her head as she took an unsteady step back from the table.
“Oh stars! You... you did poison us! But... you drank... how?” Silver said shakily as she sank to her knees.
“It was in the cups, not in the tea,” Snips descried as he took another sip.
The two fillies were swaying about theatrically now, until Diamas suddenly blurted out. “Wait... my head... It was REALLY poisoned!” before both she and Silver toppled over onto the ground.
“Ehh... yes... I erm... really poisoned it?” Snips said in confusion. That wasn’t in the script!
He walked over to a metal ring in the floor and grabbed it between his teeth, pulling it up to reveal a trapdoor.
He dragged the perfectly still fillies to the trapdoor one at a time, throwing them into the hole before closing it again. “And there they’ll rot... Reginald doesn’t deal with traitors, they’re too... traitorous,” he mused as he exited the stage through the door in the back of his house, the stage lights slowly going out.
By the time the curtains closed and the lights above the audience went on to signal the half-show break, Cheerilee was already long gone from her seat in the prompt’s corner, making her way to an unknown destination under the stage...
Silver Spoon woke up feeling groggy, her senses still blurred by whatever it was that had been in those cups. She was vaguely aware of a well-lit circular room, with lots of metallic objects casting the glimmer of reflections everywhere. She tried moving her head but found--to her great shock and surprise--that she could not. The sudden panic she felt helped clear her senses in a matter of moments, and her sight quickly returned to her. Fear gripped her when she found she could not move her legs, except for the front left one, which she could move slightly. It felt as if some metallic bands anchored them to the ground, and something was likewise keeping her from closing her eyes.
The taste of iron filled her mouth, since it was being held open by some sort of cylinder. Her tongue rested inside of the cylinder and she could move it about freely, a fact she capitalised on as she explored the inside. It wasn’t solid by any means, it felt more like a frame that held a basic cylindrical shape, but she couldn’t bite down onto it or spit it out, no matter how hard she tried. Attempts at moving her body proved pointless as well, apart from the bands around her hooves and whatever was keeping her head in place, something was pulling her up around her middle, so she couldn’t slouch down either.
Realising she wouldn’t get out of this predicament on her own, she looked around the room as best she could. The first thing she noticed was a grotesque machine: a mess of metallic arms, wheels and various tools which extended from a central black box. It seemed to be on rails, and Silver noted some of these rails ran towards her as well, but she couldn’t look down to see where they ended. As she wasn’t able to determine the machine’s use or function, she quickly lost interest.
It was then that she finally saw Diamond Tiara, a few meters to the right of the machine and trapped in much the same way she was. That is to say, her hooves had been attached to the ground with metal clamps and she had a leather band around her middle as well, which was attached to the ceiling with chains. She wasn’t wearing her costume anymore, which made Silver realise she couldn’t feel hers on her body either.
On top of all that there was a glass wall all around Tiara, with the filly standing at the centre of the glass cylinder. It seemed like the whole construction could be lifted up out of its place by a few chains connected to the top of the glass wall, as it only reached half-way up to the ceiling.
Spoon also spotted several tubes and hoses opening into the cylinder, but nothing seemed to be coming out of them--for now.
Tiara's head was fixed to look in the grey filly’s direction, and freaky little metal clamps held her eyes open. She didn’t appear to have anything in her mouth though, and Silver Spoon didn’t think she was even awake yet.
Spoon’s eyes slowly started drying out, but before the sensation could become unbearable some kind of liquid dripped down into her eyes, moistening them up. Silver shuddered to think about the reasons anyone could have to strap her into so elaborate a device, but she managed to keep her calm. It was possible they had accidentally been poisoned and this was a high tech medical facility, after all. She didn’t really believe it herself, but the thought did keep her from screaming right there and then. The thought and the thing in her mouth, she was forced to admit.
Right then Diamond Tiara woke up, and she did not seem to possess Silver Spoon’s calm disposition. She immediately shrieked when she found out she was being held immobile in a glass bowl, until her eyes fell on the grey filly a few meters away from her.
“Silver Spoon! What’s going on, where are we? Get me out!” she cried. Silver tried to respond, but her reply of “Ahwduhn knuwuh! Chulm dawn!” wasn’t of much use to Diamond.
“Finally awake, I see,” said a calm voice accompanied by hoofsteps, as Cheerilee stepped into the room. Diamond immediately started calling out for her help, but Cheerilee paid her no heed. She seemed far more interested in Spoon, and the machine in the middle.
“So let’s get started, shall we?” she said as she walked right in-between the two fillies, pulling down a lever on the machine’s right side.
At once it zoomed to life, little lights flickering on all around it as metallic arms swung down and moved into place.
Cheerilee walked over to the grey filly, who was now positively terrified, and whispered into her ear. “You have no idea how much research and measuring you up went into this! But I got it all right, you’ll see...”
“Wuh dhu youh mhun?” the filly asked in confusion, but Cheerilee simply shook her head and smiled as she took a few steps back. “Oh, and if you feel around with that free leg of yours, you should find a button... Just hold it down if you’ve had enough. But I warn you, your friend won’t like it,” Cheerilee said, giggling girlishly at the end of the sentence.
Spoon tried to follow her teacher with her gaze--being both utterly confused and terrified at the same time--but Cheerilee quickly disappeared from her narrow field of vision. Her attention was suddenly grabbed by the strange device in the centre of the room, as it started rolling towards her. At first the silver filly just watched in bewilderment, until she spotted one of the robotic arms lifting a metal needle up to the same height as her left eye, keeping it there as it advanced.
If her eyelids weren’t already artificially being held open, her eyes would’ve grown wide with fear when she realised what was about to happen there. “Whuuht! Dhuhn dhuh eht! Ghket muh ouh!” she begged, getting more spit out of her mouth than intelligible words.
She saw the tip of the needle slowly come closer to her, as she tried to wrestle free of her bonds. She came to the same conclusion she had before: she’d never get free on her own. She wracked her brain for a way out as she started to panic, until she suddenly remembered Cheer’s words.
She felt around with her left hoof, and sure enough she bumped into a slightly elevated point on the floor: the button! Without hesitation she pushed down onto it, and the needle came to an immediate halt about five centimetres from her face. She sighed in relief; that had been a lot easier than she had expected. Maybe it was a test, and now that she had passed it Cheerilee would-
She never got to finish her train of thought as Diamond Tiara’s terrifying scream pierced her eardrums. Looking past the machine with her right eye, Spoon focused her gaze on the glass tank her friend was in.
Some kind of clear liquid was now flowing into the tank from various pipes and hoses on the side, and it was slowly spreading over the floor. Silver Spoon quickly drew the connection between her pressing the button, the machine stopping and the liquid starting to fill up the tank, but compared to her losing an eye she thought Diamond could afford to get wet for a while.
The light-pink filly didn’t seem to agree, as she screamed fearfully. “Spoon! Help, get me out of here!”
Spoon rolled her eyes (as best she could) at this. What could she do to help, anyway?
The level of the “water” in the tank kept rising, and as it finally got high enough to touch the bottom of Diamond’s legs, Silver Spoon realised her mistake. She watched in horror as her friend screamed in pain, a cloud of red blood diffusing into the clear liquid as it ate away at the filly’s flesh. What Spoon had assumed to be water was obviously acid of some description, and it was a safe bet that Diamond had smelled that ages ago.
The corrosive liquid continued to pour into the glass tank, chunks of flesh already coming loose from just above Diamond’s hooves as they got soaked in it. The white of bone became visible quickly, and Tiara screamed and begged for Cheerilee or Spoon (or anypony really) to please make it stop.
“Do you like it? They use that stuff to clean carcases, you know... get some nice skeletons to display in the classroom,” Silver heard her teacher say from behind her. She reluctantly looked at the needle still suspended in the air in front of her, and then took a deep breath. Summoning all of her courage and with tears rolling out of the corner of her eyes, she slowly slid her hoof off of the button.
At once the machine buzzed to life again, and the flow of acid into the glass tank stopped. Diamond Tiara shrieked heartbreakingly for a while longer, before dying down to sobbing as the last piece of flesh touching the voracious liquid got melted right off of her bones. She had nothing but bone left up to two centimetres from her hoof up, and a small stream of blood was flowing down into the acid from the frayed and disfigured stump of meat just above it. The scarlet clouds that floated around in the vicious liquid vanished quickly as well, apparently no more resistant to the corrosion than Diamond’s flesh was.
Spoon’s lips trembled as the needle approached her eye, filling more and more of her field of vision. Then, after what had seemed like an eternity, it finally reached its destination. The silver filly felt the pressure on her eye increase for a moment, before the needle suddenly popped in and pain exploded inside of her head.
She let out an unintelligible, garbled scream as pain receptors she never imagined existed bombarded her mind with warning signals, telling her something was wrong, not knowing or caring about the fact that she was powerless to do anything about it. The left side of her vision first coloured red and then suddenly winked out, as half of her world darkened forever. Silver Spoon momentarily forgot her pain, as she wondered why she had never realised how much her sight meant to her, until that moment.
Agony once again washed over her as two little hooks sprung up out of the tip of the needle, anchoring themselves into her eyeball. The needle started to to spin around, and Silver almost threw up right there as she felt her eye start turn with it. Her hoarse cries echoed throughout the room as the device spun its appendage around faster and faster, winding her optical nerves up like a bored child would a piece of string. The painful sensory overload was too much for the little filly to bear, and shame got added to her torment as she lost control of her bladder.
The needle suddenly drew back, taking her eye with it as she felt warm blood drip down her cheek. She wanted to scream and push her hoof up against her now empty socket, but her stomach protested so much that she needed all of her willpower in order to not throw up all over herself, and even her left leg was too restricted to get her hoof up all the way.
She panted heavily into the metal cylinder as sweat dripped down her body and the machine withdrew slightly, holding up the skewered eye that had once belonged to her, like a trophy. At that point, Silver Spoon noticed Diamond Tiara looking at her from the corner of her eye, and her friend looked even more sick to the stomach than she was feeling herself. But the silver filly saw yet another emotion in the pink filly’s eyes: hope and gratefulness.
She reminded herself that her suffering might yet save her friend, as perhaps Cheerilee would let Tiara go if she just persevered. She built up an iron fortress of resolve, which melted like ice before the sun as she saw the machine draw closer once more. It had replaced the arm with the needle in favour of one with four sharp blades, coming together into a tip like some kind of drill.
The menacing contraption started to spin around at high speeds, accompanied by a low buzzing noise, as it drew ever nearer. It didn’t take Silver Spoon long to figure out that it wasn’t aimed at her remaining eye, though with only one eye left she found it somewhat hard to determine its trajectory. Suddenly she swallowed as best she could as it dawned on her, and the reason for the cylinder in her mouth became chillingly clear.
She hesitated for a moment, but just before the blades entered her mouth, she pressed down onto the button again. At once she could hear Diamond’s scream as the very first drops that flowed out of the pipes raised the level of vitriol enough to contact with her soft, tender flesh, starting the suffering of the pink filly all over again.
“SILVER SPOON! SILVER SPOON!” she cried, apparently in too much pain to think of anything better.
Silver Spoon cried clear tears from her right eye and bloody ones from her socket, as she sobbed. “Uhm sohwuh... uhm sohwuh...” over and over, shaking in disgust at her own perceived cowardice.
But as Diamond’s flesh slowly got consumed by the vicious agent, it became clear that Cheerilee had a few more tricks up her sleeve. A loud banging noise announced the arrival of four small--but heavy--balls which came rolling through as of yet unused pipes, only to plummet down into the bath of acid below. The deceptively innocent looking liquid splashed up around them, raining down upon the purple and white-maned pony from every direction.
Small drops fell down onto her back, melting holes through her coat and skin, leaving tiny, bloody craters behind as a sort of grotesque parody of a lunar landscape. At the same time, a bigger wave of the stuff crashed into her right flank, her Cutie Mark melting away as the vitriol dug into her, bloody blisters boiling up around the edges of the wounds. She instantly felt an extreme burning sensation on her left shoulder as well, but by far the worst was the splash that hit her right in the face.
She shrieked like a banshee as the it burned through her right cheek, exposing muscles and white bones and offering a view of the inside of her mouth. In a matter of minutes her appearance changed from that of a cute filly into that of a monster, with half of her face missing and the rest of her body covered in bloody blisters, craters and sores--not quite unlike how some ponies might picture a zombie. In addition to that, the acid had kept melting away the flesh from her legs as well, having reached up to just under her knees now.
Silver Spoon couldn’t bear it any longer and pulled her hoof off of the button, determined to never press it down ever again, no matter what the cost. She swallowed back her fear as the blades started spinning again and approached her. She had liked the name of her character in the play, Silver Tongue, as that was exactly how she viewed herself. She had always thought she had a knack for using words to suit her own purpose, and would perhaps have gone far in the diplomacy business (or something like that) one day. She thought it likely that Cheerilee knew this as well, and didn’t doubt that this was all some sort of sick joke to her. She couldn’t understand her teacher’s reasons or motivations, and in just a few idle seconds she’d never be able to ask.
“Whuh?!?” she tried screaming out, but no answer ever came as the blades passed her lips.
A maelstrom of cuts and slices rained down upon the tip of her tongue, as the blades tore into it. Hot blood filled her mouth, slipped down her throat and dripped down her chin as she tried to scream, but she only managed to produce a disgusting, wet gurgling noise from the back of her throat. Her body shook and her one remaining eye rolled back in her head, as the knives continued their bloody work.
They advanced slowly, and to Spoon it seemed slower still as she experienced pain of such a magnitude that the loss of her eye paled in comparison. Bit by bit her tongue got shredded, and the remaining stump of it flailed around wildly as she tried to keep it out of reach, but the blades were everywhere.
Suddenly the machine stopped and pulled back, having made minced meat out of the very last part of Silver’s tongue. The searing needles that had been poking around in her mouth turned into an intense but monotonous pain, which was only broken by the pounding sensation she felt where her tongue had once been. Even in her dazed and sickened state, she felt the acute need to breathe, as the blood that had flown down her throat threatened to drown her. With a hacking cough and a surge of energy born from desperation, she managed to force the blood up and out of her throat, making it spill out of her mouth and cascade down her body like a waterfall.
With the stabbing sensation in her empty socket and the pounding in her mouth, Spoon could barely think straight anymore. It was as if pain had become her only reality, and it blocked everything else out. She tried to speak but could produce only a low guttural sound, which would’ve made her envious of Diamond’s constant moans and sobs were she still able to consciously register them.
Cheerilee noticed the lack of resistance in Silver and was thoroughly disappointed. Sure, the crying and the sounds she made were amusing, but it wasn’t quite what she had been hoping for. Scootaloo had put up a better fight than that!
She walked over to the machine and turned it off, moving to the side of the room to pick up a small bag of tools she had left there, just in case. No matter how well she had calibrated all of these machines, Cheerilee harboured no illusions: when it finally came down to it, she could only count on herself to get the job done right.
She took out a hammer and a chisel and put them down next to the only semi-conscious Silver Spoon. In the absence of any digits, such as the ones the gryphons had, ponies had had to find a different way to hold the chisel in place as they swung the hammer. The solution came in the form of a metal shoe, which extended past the hoof and had a hole in the tip, which could hold the chisel in place. Typically, a chisel and a shoe were made in such a way that the thicker part at the end of the chisel (where the hammer hit) couldn’t fit through the hole.
Cheerilee slipped on the heavy shoe and put the chisel through the hole with her teeth, before grabbing hold of the hammer in the same way. She positioned the chisel carefully, aiming it right above the filly’s right hoof, just under the metal band holding her right leg in place. With a great swing she brought the hammer down, driving the tip of the chisel into the filly’s leg, scraping up against her hoof from above.
Silver Spoon--who had been apathetically floating in a sea of pain until now--suddenly let out a piercing (if garbled) shriek as her remaining eye flew wide open. More of her blood started spilling onto the floor, and Cheerilee grinned as best she could while holding on to the hammer. The are just above a hoof was one of the most sensitive spots in the pony body, which was why the hoof protected it so well in the first place.
She drew the hammer back and slammed it down again and again, driving the thin metal rod further in with every swing. The yelps and cries from the filly excited her further and further, and she began to have trouble keeping the hammer in her mouth because her body trembled so.
With a last mighty swing the tip of the chisel suddenly emerged from the other side of the filly’s hoof, as the poor thing whimpered in pain and her blood stained the floor in multiple places. With a rush of inspiration Cheerilee swung the hammer down again, this time aiming not for the thicker bulge at the end, but simply for the side of the chisel as the metal rod stuck horizontally in the filly’s leg.
The blow pushed the rod down against her hoof, which, already not attached to her leg in the middle anymore, simply broke off, leaving only a bloody stump with some scattered fragments of hoof still attached. The filly let out a gurgling cry of pain as her eye rolled back in its socket, and then suddenly fell silent. Cheerilee frowned as she dropped the hammer and brought her head level with Spoon’s. The little wretch had fainted.
“Oh come on, not now! It’s only starting to get fun,” she screamed in frustration as she swung a hoof at the filly’s head, hitting her right in the face. There wasn’t even the tiniest response, and the pink mare sighed.
She quickly started undoing the bindings that held Silver Spoon in place, the filly falling into a pool of her own blood as she slipped off the last ones. Cheer grabbed the filly by her mane and started dragging her to the side of the room, leaving a wide, red smudge trailing behind her victim.
A portion of the floor had been slightly lowered there, leaving a small depressed circle in the ground, which had been outside of the fillies’ field of vision so far. Nonchalantly she threw the filly into the circle, not particularly caring how she landed. She fell down in a crumpled heap in the centre and remained there motionlessly, except for the slight heaving of her chest with every breath.
Cheerilee then made her way to the glass tank, staring straight into Diamond’s eyes, not completely sure the filly still had the use of her right eye, the acid having taken a heavy a toll on that side of her face.
“W...Wi-Will... you... l-le...let me... go?” the filly managed to say hoarsely, obviously nearing the end of her strength.
Cheerilee smiled her kindest smile. “But of course I’ll let you go... and Silver Spoon as well... but only if you can reach her.” She broke into a grin as she walked to the wall, pulling down one of the levers there.
At once several holes opened in the floor inside of the glass walls, draining away the liquids inside. Once it was mostly gone, she pulled another lever. The glass circle got lifted up off of the ground, until there was enough space underneath it for a pony to walk upright. At the same time, the filly’s bindings automatically released her, and she crashed down to the floor from a small height. Her legs--bare bones up to her knees--couldn’t support her weight and snapped in two, sharp fragments of bone jumping away as the pitiful remnants of her lower legs fell away to the sides.
As luck would have it, the sharp shard of her right leg buried itself in Diamond’s side as she fell onto it, and for the hundredth time that evening Tiara howled in pain even while trying to overcome the shock of breaking all of her legs at once. As the little stumps she had left hit the ground the small layer of acid still there started biting into her stomach, but that pain paled in comparison to what Diamond Tiara had already been through, and she paid it almost no heed as she tried to bite back the agony she was already in.
“So just get to your friend, and you’re both out of here. Who knows, there might even be unicorn doctors good enough to fix you up?” the teacher pony chuckled maliciously.
Tiara tried to get up, but as soon as she attempted to rest any weight on the jagged shards of bone now sticking out of her considerably shortened legs she fell right back down again, panting more heavily than a mare in labour. Even if she hadn’t been in pain, it wouldn’t have been easy to balance on the stumps of the bones at all.
For a moment she thought of giving up right then and there, but she was instantly reminded of the bravery her friend had shown every time she refused to push down the button any longer. She owed it to her to at least try.
It was a few meters to the pit in the ground, so the light-pink filly started to lift her little legs over her head, trying to drag her body forward. Every time she did that she felt like she was about to faint from the pain, but she pressed on and persevered to save herself and her friend. Cheerilee watched with giddy excitement, taunting the filly every step of the way. “Hey, almost there! What’s taking you so long? Come on, up the pace,” she said, laughing.
The filly ignored her as best she could, and finally reached the circular pit in the ground. She tried to carefully lower herself into it, but slipped and fell, driving the bone shard still deeper into her side. She winced and groaned as she dragged herself to the centre of the circle, putting the stumps of her front legs around Silver Spoon in a clumsy hug. “Oh, Spoon...” she just managed to say.
“D-Duhmun Thrr?” the grey filly managed to whisper as she slowly opened an eye.
The other pony tried to smile at her friend, but the result was grotesque at best. “We...we’ll be ok... she’ll let ... us go... I... r... reached you.”
“Yeah, about that,” came Cheerilee’s cold voice as she pulled down yet another lever. “I lied.”
Both of the fillies looked up as they heard a rumbling noise coming from a pipe above them, and as they saw a familiar clear liquid gush down they realized they wouldn’t get to see anything else, ever again.
Cheerilee had trouble focusing as she ponderously walked towards the backstage area. Echoes of her "session" with the two fillies still bounced around her head, and she revelled in them.
The start of that session had been everything she had hoped for, but the middle part had left much to be desired. The ending, however, had made up for all of that. And how! She didn’t know where they’d found the energy or the willpower, but those last screams, the thrashing of their bodies as their flesh melted away, it had all just been so... exhilarating.
Cheerilee trembled and shook just remembering it. She attempted to walk in a straight line but she just couldn’t quite pull it off. Analyzing her own feelings, she realised the sensations rushing through her body weren’t unlike those she’d felt during one of the many sexual escapades she’d taken part in during her wilder years. A little voice at the back of her conscious mind said she ought to be disturbed by this notion, but the dominant part of her psyche was adamant that it was completely normal. After all, those fillies had done unto her a great injustice, and she was doing the entire community a favour by removing their toxic influence from the world. It was natural to feel good about a job well done.
It took the mare a few moments to realise she’d stopped walking and was now leaning heavily against a nearby stage wall as she panted, drops of sweat running down her body. Taking a deep breath, she finally regained her composure, taking off to round the last corner separating her from her destination. Almost at once she spotted the only pony working in the backstage area: Snails.
The aquamarine maned colt with the golden coat was oblivious to her presence, preoccupied as he was by the task of untangling several ropes from a knot.
Seeing him there gave Cheerilee mixed feelings about it all. On one hand he was probably one of the least disruptive pupils in her class--sure he was an utter moron, but at least he had the decency not to interrupt her constantly--but on the other hand, his blatant lack of intelligence gave him an innocent demeanour that Cheerilee would’ve loved to break... But the play could only be so long, and there simply wasn’t always enough time for her to do the things she really wanted to do. With a sigh she shook her head, resigning herself to her original plans for him. It’d be over far too fast for her tastes, but at least she had found some way of connecting him to the events of the play, even back here.
“Oh Snails,” she called out sweetly, “I think it’s time for you to get into position!”
He looked around in confusion. “Oh, hey Miss Cheerilee!” he said dorkily, “Uuuhhh, the ropes got stuck and I was just...” he began, only to be cut off by Cheerilee as she started pushing him gently in the direction opposite to the one she’d come from.
“Now now, Snails. You know full well what I told you: after the break you need to hold the rope on the X,” she said slowly, pronunciating every word extra carefully.
“The rope on the X!” Snails echoed.
Just a few meters ahead somepony had indeed chalked a big white X on the stage floor, and a long, sturdy rope hung down from the ceiling right above it. Snails went to stand on the mark without any hesitation, and took the end of the rope between his teeth. Cheerilee nodded approvingly at him, and his chest swelled up with pride. It almost made Cheerilee feel bad. Almost, but not quite.
She put her ear against the thick wall separating the stage from the backstage area, trying to listen in on the scene. She could barely make out two ponies talking to each other, and even though she couldn’t understand what they were saying, it did give her a rough idea of the current situation on stage.
For the umpteenth time she had to chastise herself for drawing out her fun too long and revelling in the aftermath of it, as she realised she only got there in the nick of time. If she kept that up, she’d mess up sooner or later, and she knew it. She made a mental note to adhere to her schedule more rigorously from there on out, comforted by the fact that she’d gotten almost half way through the show without any major incidents.
She closed her eyes as she listened to the sounds reaching her through the wall, her imagination creating the scene inside of her head. She saw Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom quarrel about what they should do next, she saw the King shoot down every single idea her last remaining knight came up with and she saw her finally fulminating that enough was enough, that she needed a good night’s rest to mull it all over. She witnessed the King curse the sun for still being so high in the sky, felt her reach for a rope that disappeared somewhere in the darkness above the stage, watched her pull it down with all her might...
And then the sun fell from the sky. As it descended, the technician pony in the box above the tribunes doused most of the lights, while the orchestra started playing loudly. The King’s Lament had begun. Cheerilee's eyes flew open as soon as she heard the first notes, her gaze shooting up instantly.
The world seemed to slow down to a crawl as the schoolteacher saw a huge spotlight (the “sun”) come crashing down from the ceiling, exactly above the X she had planted. Snails had spotted it as well, and he tugged on the rope in his mouth desperately, wondering why it didn’t work that time, why it didn’t allow him to gently let the spotlight down like it had before. His only conscious thought concerned not letting his teacher--and everypony else--down during those crucial moments, and so he kept on trying the rope. But it wouldn’t budge, and the spotlight did not slow down.
Moments before impact, both Cheerilee and Snails lowered their gaze and looked each other in the eye. Cheerilee mouthed the word “Goodbye” and broke into a smile, but the actual word itself was lost in the rush of the music.
Snails just stared at her in confusion. Why? Why was she smiling? Why was she just standing there? Why wasn’t she-
The spotlight crashed down onto the colt, small pieces of glass scattering over the floor and flying off into the air as the music hit a crescendo. To Cheerilee it looked like a slow-motion explosion of tiny, shiny crystals erupted around the younger pony, temporarily hiding him from her eyes. The combination of the orchestral music and the sudden cloud of tiny glass splinters was simply too much for Cheerilee’s “romantic soul” to bear, and she shed a single tear at the beauty of it all.
The world finally kicked back into its usual gear as the tiny pieces of glass clattered onto the floor and the orchestra stopped playing. Finally she could admire the fruits of her labour in the form of Snails’s broken body lying underneath the huge spotlight, most of it having been crushed from the middle down. Even his upper torso had hundreds of tiny cuts and lacerations all over it, although he didn’t get directly hit by the falling object there. His normally golden coat was soaked red in many places already.
Cheerilee took a few steps forward to admire the way a small pool of blood flowed between the many fragments of glass on the floor, the wannabe-crystals crunching noisily under her hooves. As she got closer to the spotlight she started noticing the smell of burned flesh impregnating the air, and it seemed to get warmer with every step she took as well. She walked around to the other side of the spotlight, and finally realised why.
Cheerilee had known that spotlights got very hot of course, but she hadn’t expected the thing to retain the heat quite that long. Snails’ entire backside was covered in blisters, singed flesh and smouldering fur, and she noticed it was still spreading. With a high-pitched hissing sound a patch of fur on Snails’s back suddenly ignited, the small flame dancing around playfully on the pony’s back. Cheerilee looked at it with fascination, but did not dare get any closer. She was already uncomfortably warm where she was standing, a meter or two away.
The teaching pony gasped in shock as Snails groaned and slowly opened an eye, looking around shakily, clearly still dazed. “Miss Cheerilee? I... uhhh... I can’t feel my legs... And what smells? I- “ he said, as he craned his neck around to look over his shoulder.
He immediately saw the small (but growing) flame, and even he was smart enough to link it to the horrid smell that was assailing his nostrils.
“Fire! Fire! Miss Cheerilee, Fire!” he yelled as he tried to crawl away, thrashing his upper body around wildly in an effort to get loose.
Because he was trapped underneath the spotlight--and with his hind legs out of order--the situation was hopeless from the outset. All he did with his erratic movements was fan the flames on even more. In a matter of seconds various little flames were dancing around his body, and he screamed as their hot tongues licked his tender flesh. More blisters and boils appeared around the flames, as they consumed everything within reach. The flire grew and grew, pulling more and more of his body into its deadly embrace, eager to feast now that it had been set loose upon him.
“YEEAAAAGGGHHHH!” the golden pony cried out as the ember tendrils quickly spread over to his face, his vision immediately taken up almost entirely by the voracious flames. The pain was excruciating, as if thousands of little critters were gnawing on him with hungering teeth and all water was being drawn from his body at the same time.
Cheerilee watched on in awe as the spectacle unfolded before her eyes. She hadn’t expected a show at this stage of her plan, but there it was and it was... breathtaking. She noted how several flames were already burning out, leaving his body charred black, cracks and fissures appearing in his dried out flesh as Snails desperately thrashed about. He started hitting himself in the face with his hooves, trying his best to put out the flames burning there. Every hit left deep imprints in his weakened, boiling meat, but the flames would not be conquered. At most they retreated for a single second, only to come back with a vengeance.
Snails screamed in agony once again and panted with the effort as his life flashed before his eyes, loss of blood competing with the fire to see which one of them could kill him first. In the end the fire won out as superheated air invaded the colt’s lungs, singing him on the inside as his screams stopped. He wheezed for air, every breath like a thousand daggers forced down his throat. His vision started to get blurry and black spots sprung up everywhere. Suddenly, by chance, the flames moved away for a moment, and he could barely make out Cheerilee, just standing there, watching... and was she... laughing?
The colt let out a dry rasping sound as the flames blew back into his face, his eyesight giving out as the orange tongues dug in. If he had had any strength left he might have screamed the moment his eyes popped and melted away, flames immediately claiming his now empty eye sockets for themselves and licking the inside of his skull, but he was already too far gone.
Cheerilee coughed and sneezed a few times--the smell had gotten too much even for her tastes--but she continued watching as the lifeless husk formerly known as Snails burned out. A little voice at the back of her head asked her if she oughtn’t find some water, in case anything else caught on fire, but she was too mesmerised by the flames to care at that point. She finally snapped out of her fascination when the last of the flames died, leaving only a blackened form roughly reminiscent of a pony in its wake.
Panic hit her like a truck when she realised what she had just done. She’d drifted from her schedule, mere moments after she’d promised herself not to do just that! She mentally hit herself over the head as she racked her brain trying to remember where she was supposed to have gone instead of staring at the pretty fire, and the answer calmed her down quite a bit. She’d only have to skip leaving Snips’ costume for the final scene (which was different from the one he’d been wearing so far) in the right place for him. She shrugged; he could probably find it himself that one time. He knew where she kept it, it wouldn’t be a problem.
She laughed softly as she went down some stairs to get beneath the stage, and then headed for the prompt’s corner. For a moment there she’d thought she’d really messed up, but there were only three left to go now, and she was still firmly in control. Nothing would go wrong tonight. Nothing at all.
Cheerilee settled into the Prompt’s Corner for the third time that night. Her stomach rumbled and her throat was dry. In hindsight, she should probably have put some popcorn and water there, but it was far too late for that. With a sigh she turned her attention to the stage and just let her mind wander to the rhythm of the story for a while.
“NO! My decision is final, you will have to go,” the King screamed at Sir Altruis, who returned his indignant glances with worried looks.
“But my King, the royal guard, they...”
“Are needed to defend the capital. With tensions rising in the east, we have no ponies to spare. You know this, Altruis. I trust in your capabilities. You will not fail me, like the others have, for if you do... I’ll have to accept this cretin’s challenge myself,” the King sighed, the weight of the situation suddenly pressing heavily upon his shoulders.
Altruis, seeing his king’s troubles etched on his face, fell silent and simply nodded. Without a further word the knight turned around and walked away, leaving the confines of the royal court to head down to Reginald’s part of the stage. The two fillies played their part so well; it was easy to forget they were playing at all, even for Cheer. Apple Bloom had shown an almost single minded dedication to the script, and knowing it as thoroughly as she did obviously allowed her to concentrate on other aspects of acting, the words came on their own.
Sweetie Belle had been a bit less diligent, but she possessed a way with words and vocalisation that made her a natural actor, although Cheerilee ventured a guess that singing was probably more her style. It was somewhat ironic that they’d both find their end doing something they were at least moderately competent at, while they were otherwise pretty much a waste of space, but Cheerilee was careful not to equate a single useful skill to being a worthwhile individual.
The play had fallen into a familiar pattern by that point, Sir Altruis being the third attempt to finally put a stop to Reginald the Sly. Sweetie Belle, like the other three before her, started to make her way to the other side of the stage, although she clearly wasn’t aiming to get to the mountain Scootaloo had disappeared into, or the house the other two fillies had found. Instead she resolutely headed for a forest at the far end of the stage; that is to say, to the few cardboard trees that together gave the impression of a forest.
She quickly reached her destination, and as the lights above that part of the stage were turned on it became clear that somepony was already waiting for Sir Altruis there. The audience wasn’t very surprised when it became clear it was Reginald once again, but the bear trap around one of his back legs--which he couldn’t seem to get out of--was certainly an unforeseen twist.
The knight approached carefully, but Reginald inevitably picked up on his hoofsteps before too long, and craned his neck to look around.
“Well, well... seems at least one of us is in luck today. The great knight arriving during the villain’s finest hour... You must be thrilled,” he said bitterly, wincing slightly.
Altruis said nothing for a few moments. “Are you hurt?” he finally asked.
The villainous pony laughed and shook his head, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Oh no! This thing is very comfortable, in fact.”
“I’ll get you out” the knight responded as he stepped forward, “but if you make one strange move...”
He never got to finish his sentence as suddenly something caught around his hindlegs and the world flipped upside down. Before the knight realised what was happening, he was hanging down from the ceiling by his hooves. To the audience, however, it appeared as if he was hanging from one of the cardboard trees.
“Hey! Let me down!”
Reginald cackled maniacally as he opened the clamp around his leg, revealing it to be an impressive fake, but nothing more than that.
He casually strolled over to the captured knight and mockingly gave him a little push, making Sweetie Belle swing around slightly. “Ah, dear Sir Altruis, is it not? Not one for skulking about, are we? You’d have to be quite good not to be spotted by me, anyway... And that legendary kindness, who knew it’d get you in the position you are in now?” he laughed again, giving the knight another push to keep him swinging.
“If you know what’s good for you, Reginald, you’ll come with me. The king is fed up, and whatever his next move may be, you’ll probably not like it if you stick around here,” Altruis replied, holding on to as much dignity as he could while upside down and swinging around.
“I’ve heard the same tale spun twice before, good stallion. I’m quite sick of it by now, so if you don’t mind... This’ll be goodbye. Say hello to the beasts of the underworld for me,” the Sly sneered as he pulled one of the omnipresent hidden levers, one that had been concealed behind the tree. The floor opened and the rope was released all at once, sending the filly screaming down an now open hatch in the floor, as the lights faded and Reginald disappeared off scene...
Sweetie Belle saw floor approach rapidly, and panic coiled around her like a snake. Weren’t there supposed to be a few mattresses he- With a thud she hit the ground, and as she lay there motionlessly she didn’t have to think about anything for a while.
When she came to she was in a dimly lit room, lying on a table of some description. She felt a nasty bump on her head throb painfully to the rhythm of her heartbeat, but when she tried to touch it with one of her hooves, she realised her front legs were tied above her head with rope, while her hind legs were bound on the other side.
The ropes were keeping her stretched out as much as possible, and it was more than a little uncomfortable. It also felt as if the table had a large hole in it, right underneath the middle of her back, but she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why. Her first thought was that she had probably hit her head harder than she’d thought, and that this was all hallucination, or some sort of dream. But if it was, it was a mighty convincing one at that...
She tried looking around the room, but as their was only one single, weak lamp right above her, she couldn’t see much.
Suddenly she imagined seeing something move in the shadows, a shape that broke the monotony of immobile shadows with a deeper kind of darkness. “I...is somepony t-there?” the filly said shakily. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo had told her more than a few scary stories during their camping trips, and an unnerving amount of them started off just like this...
She sighed in relief as Cheerilee stepped into the little circle of light. “Oh, teach! I hit my head and I don’t know where we are, so could you please?” she begged, nodding her head towards the ropes.
Her white skin grew even paler than usual when she realised Cheerilee was carrying a hammer in her mouth. She didn’t know why that freaked her out all of a sudden, but there was something in Cheerilee’s eyes... “Euh, Miss?” she squeaked weakly. Cheer’s only response was to lift up one of her hooves, revealing her to be wearing another one of those special workpony shoes, not unlike the one she’d used to hold the chisel. This one had a far smaller hole though, and the circle wasn’t completely closed off. It was designed to hold nails, while still being able to slip the shoe off the nail (through the opening) once the job was almost done.
“What are you-” Sweetie Belle began, but she cut herself off with a scream as Cheerilee let her actions speak for her, hammering a nail diagonally into the filly’s right hoof and through her heel until it got stuck in the wooden table below her. She felt a trickle of warm blood coat the nail and bit her lip as she struggled to keep calm, for she knew simply attempting to pull her hoof away now would cause even more damage, and more importantly, pain. Not that the ropes currently offered her much freedom of movement, but she didn’t want to take any risks.
With tears in her eyes she tried pleading with Cheerilee again, completely bewildered by this recent chain of events, her mind racing to figure out what was going on, how she could wake up from this nightmare...
“Ple... please... stop... What have I-?” the filly whimpered. Cheerilee just smiled sweetly as best she could with a hammer between her teeth as she prepared another nail, this time putting it in place against the filly’s other hind hoof. The mare looked Sweetie Belle in the eyes intently for a moment, making sure she knew exactly what was coming for her.
Sweetie Belle whimpered and swallowed back a new birst of tears, before crying out: “No! Help! SIS! RARITY! ANYPONY!”
But nopony replied, let alone came to her rescue, as Cheerilee hammered down for the second time driving the nail through the filly’s left hoof and into the table with just a few well aimed blows. Sweetie Belle squeaked in pain as she tried her best to keep still, the necessity of remaining still weighing down upon her as heavily as the pain itself. She kinda understood the concept behind “walking it off” a lot better now, as she’d have given anything to be able to do just that.
She sobbed as Cheerilee ducked down to retrieve another nail, walking around to the other side of the table.
“No... please... no...” the white coated filly sobbed, letting out a desperate cry as Cheerilee started nailing one of her front legs down, before quickly doing the same with the other one as well. Sweetie Belle could feel pain radiating through each one of her legs, but for her tormentor it still wasn’t enough. Unaffected by the filly’s crying and pleading, she continued on and drove a second nail through each of the filly’s legs, this time straight through the ankle just above the hooves themselves.
Little pools of blood started to form around her hooves, flowing off the edge of the table and dripping down to the ground lazily. In the heat of the moment Cheerilee dropped the hammer and tentatively held her tongue underneath one of the little streams, savouring the taste of Sweetie Belle’s warm blood as it dripped into her mouth. It tasted even better than Scootaloo’s had, perhaps because it hadn’t had as much time to cool down yet.
The filly was still crying softly as Cheerilee rummaged about, retrieving one of several matches she had stored in the room. She struck it against the nearby wall and bowed her head down to light a fire underneath a metal cylinder that reached up from just above the floor to the table itself, connected to the table in the spot where Sweetie Belle had felt a hole in the wood earlier. The little bits of wood and tinder the mare had prepared for this occasion caught on fire quickly and continued burning nicely, smoke circling up to hang just underneath the ceiling. Cheerilee looked up at it, but wasn’t too worried. The room was badly ventilated, but it was a small fire and she wouldn’t need it that much longer in any case.
A minute or two passed, Cheerilee just mesmerised by the small flames as she waited, thinking of the fun she’d had with Snails earlier. The white filly slowly stopped crying, sniffling pathetically as she looked at Cheerilee with teary eyes, confused by the mare’s actions, but hopeful that this pause meant she was reconsidering keeping her there against her will.
“Please... Miss... If you l...let me go I’ll... I won’t...t-tell... anypony, I pro-promise!” she managed to say with a trembling lip, but again Cheerilee neglected to respond. Suddenly Sweetie Belle became aware of a panicked squeaking noise coming from somewhere in the room. The sound increased in intensity steadily, until it sounded like a great many rats were fearing for their life somewhere, even though that didn’t seem to make any sense... She had some trouble locating the source of the noise, until she suddenly realised it came from right underneath the table, from the thing Cheerilee was staring at but which she could not see.
As her teacher stepped closer to the table she mentally recoiled, but the mare simply leaned in and reached underneath the table itself, grabbing hold of a metal plate at the top of the cylinder with her teeth and pulling it out, removing the last barrier between the cylinder and the hole underneath Sweetie in doing so. The squeaking quickly escalated to unprecedented levels, but still Sweetie Belle couldn’t make head nor tail of it. What did rats have to do with a metal pl-
Suddenly the filly gasped and her eyes grew wide with fear as she felt dozens of little claws scratch at her back, as the entrapped rats surged up from the overheated cylinder to find a way to escape the flames. Even in their frenzied state they recognised the difference in hardness between their metal prison and the filly’s tender flesh, and they were fully prepared to put some effort into creating a way out if it meant living to squeak another day. Many mouths and claws worked together as they started to gnaw and tear at the filly’s back, her terrified screams of pain not managing to extract any mercy from the swarm of vermin.
She tried arching up her back to lift it out of their reach, which would also have set them free, but with her body stretched to its limit and held firmly in place by the rope and nails she couldn’t even lift it a tenth of an inch.
The rats quickly ripped away patches of her coat and skin, relentlessly going on to gnaw at her flesh. The filly screamed as she thrashed her head about from side to side, unable to do anything else as the rats started to devour her alive, piece by piece. Like a well-oiled digging implement they ripped and tugged at her muscles and ligaments, tearing out sinews and arteries both as they pushed onwards. Several of them came face to face with her spine, but decided to simply gnaw around it when it proved to be a nut too hard to crack. After all, they were aiming to break free and didn’t have a bone to pick with any of the elements that made up Sweetie’s body in particular.
The filly herself shrieked like a banshee, foam appearing on her mouth as her muscles convulsed and her body thrashed about as much as it could, which is to say not much at all. Regardless of that she still moved enough for the nails to pull at the wounds they had inflicted on her, causing the holes to become larger and bleed even more profusely. But this, although painful, was only the least of her troubles as the rats’ combined efforts finally broke through layers of skin and muscle and they erupted into her abdominal cavity, clawing up past her intestines or, in some cases, simply gnawing through.
The unpleasant and torturous feeling soon turned Sweetie green with nausea as her stomach buckled and she vomited, partially managing to spray it next to her on the table, but some of it getting onto herself as she could only barely lift her head to aim it away.
The ensuing screams were music to Cheer’s ears, and when copious amounts of blood started streaming out of the bottom of the metal cylinder, falling down into the fire with a hiss, her legs got all wobbly with excitement.
As the rats continued to bite and claw their way through Sweetie Belle, her screaming slowly shifted to a wet gurgling noise. With every passing second more of her internal organs got ripped to shreds as the disoriented rats tried to find a way out. A few of them stayed right on target as they started advancing on the upper part of the filly’s abdomen, opposite to the point where they had entered.
Some of the other rats were clueless though as they kept going around in circles or started off in completely wrong ways, digging horizontal tunnels of gore through Sweetie Belle. As one of the rats tore through her diaphragm the filly’s breathing became shallow and troubled, and Cheerilee started taking up bets with herself as to what would kill the filly first: loss of blood or the inevitable destruction of some vital organ or the other. It wasn’t long after that that the filly’s stomach started to bulge out, before suddenly a blood-soaked rat tore away the last patch of skin with his sharp claws, and poked his head out of her stomach.
To Cheerilee, the small, furry critter was the most adorable thing she’d seen in quite some time, especially the way it looked around the room with curious eyes. It clawed its way fully out of Sweetie Belle’s warm entrails and made its way down her quivering body and off the table, soon followed by a dozen of his brethren as they all fled their meaty container and scurried off into the darkness.
The pale filly’s body convulsed so wildly with shock that not even the ropes were enough to hold her down anymore. She thrashed and shook against her bindings as a stream of blood flowed out of her mouth and down her chin, nails ripping through her flesh or simply getting pulled out of the table altogether.
After a few violent seconds, during which most of the rats escaped, all of the nails had ripped either through her flesh or her hoof, or both, but the filly was already too far gone to notice or care. Her body convulsed one last time as she let out a horrifying choking sound and then the filly, finally, passed away.
In the ensuing silence the only thing that could still be heard was the dripping of blood and Cheerilee’s heavy panting, since the blood flowing out of the cylinder had long since extinguished the crackling flames the mare had lit earlier. A few moments passed during which Cheerilee tried to control the trembling of her body, until suddenly a soft squeaking noise could be heard. The reason for Sweetie’s choking sounds towards the end became at once apparent as her mouth opened, one of the rats forcing his way out of her throat and climbing past her teeth to freedom. Cheerilee burst at once into hysterical laughter, still in the throes of hilarity when she took the stairs back up to get to the fillies and colt’s dressing area.
All the way up there only one question was on her mind: Why had no comedian ever thought of this before? Death was simply hysterical!
Cheerilee made her way through the backstage area, albeit a good distance away from the whole Snails’ thing, and headed for the dressing room. After that scene with Sweetie Belle, two soliloquy scenes followed, one with Reginald and then another with the king. Since she took her sweet time, that first one had almost certainly ended already, but as the mare passed a few corridors leading up to the stage itself she thought she could still hear Apple Bloom’s voice on stage.
If she hurried she might still be able to assist Snips in finding his costume for the last scene, if he was indeed as dumb as he looked and hadn’t been able to find it on his own yet. As she rounded a corner something crashed into her at high speed, causing her to stumble back a few steps as the air got slammed out of her lungs.
She looked down when she got her bearings, and saw Snips sitting there on his plot, shaking his head to dispel the dizziness that set on due to the crash. “Snips! What are you doing here, and not even in costume! You need to get ready for the last scene,” she said by way of a reprimand. The cyan colt with the ochre mane looked hugely relieved to see his teacher, and he immediately scrambled to his feet, tears in the corner of his eyes as he started talking.
“Oh Miss Cherrilee! It’s terrible!” he yelled out. “I was looking for my costume and I couldn’t find it so I went looking for you and I couldn’t find you, but but... I found Snails and... and...” He took a huge breath at this point, obviously struggling to get the words out. “... and he’s dead...”
Cheerilee’s world grinded to a halt with those words, cold sweat breaking out across her forehead as she felt the slightest hint of panic rise up from her stomach like bile. She’d strayed from her schedule, and she’d just found out what that would come to cost her. Her mind worked frantically to figure out a way to minimize the damage caused, to somehow soothe the colt enough so that her plans could go through, but no easy solution presented itself.
Snips, on the other hand, seemed to pull himself together, turning around and taking a few steps. “Come on!” he called back to her. “We can’t continue the play now, we’ve got to tell the others!” Cheerilee felt a block of ice drop into her stomach as the cyan colt galloped off. No! If he reached anypony else, he would...
With a sudden burst of speed that’d have dazzled even Rainbow Dash she rushed forward, catching up to the younger pony in mere seconds. In one fluid movement she slipped from a full gallop into a full-blown karate kick, focusing all her kinetic energy in a single hoof. Snips got hit good in the side, so good in fact that the kick send him crashing into a nearby wall, at the bottom of which he fell down in a crumpled heap. Cheerilee silently thanked Rainbow Dash for all the times she’d come to give the kids some karate lessons, some of it had obviously stuck in her head over the years. Before the colt could do more than roll onto his back, Cheer descended upon him like a hawk, keeping him down with one hoof as she started beating him in the face with the other, in the throes of blind rage.
Here was one who stood between her and reaching her goal, and she could think of nothing but removing him from her path right away, no matter the cost. Snips feebly tried to defend himself, but he was a lot smaller than the mare, not to mention a unicorn while she had all the physical prowess of an earth pony to fall back on. The beating continued mercilessly, Snips’ face swelling up and blood running out of his nose and down from the places where she broke through his skin.
In an act of desperation the subconscious part of his mind reached out to magical reserves he didn’t even think he had and his horn started to glow green with power. All of a sudden a wave of arcane energy zipped past Cheerilee’s head, leaving a long, thin cut stretching the length of her cheek. The fuchsia coloured mare gasped in surprise as blood started trickling down from the wound, which wasn’t all that serious, although it did sting a little.
Her gaze dropped down to the colt’s cutie mark, and she realised she should’ve seen this coming. His speciality obviously involved cutting of some kind, and apparently he wasn’t restricted to the use of scissors. A subtle change in the aura around the horn warned Cheerilee that another spell was about to be flung at her, so with no other options in mind she raised her hoof before ramming it down to dish out another punch. Only this time she didn’t aim for Snips face, but for the horn itself. As she hit her target the colt’s head jerked back and he groaned as the horn tugged at his skull, the spell discharging into the wall behind him instead of its intended target. The magical light around the horn flickered for a moment before coming back in force, and Cheerilee just knew the next spell was already on its way.
She once again started raining down punches, now aiming all of them at the horn, spells exploding against the walls, ceiling and floor left and right, sending tiny pieces of rubble flying everywhere. At first the colt took the beating like a stallion, but as the mare hit the same spot time and time again, it became increasingly difficult for him to fight back against the pain that was rising in his skull. All of a sudden little cracks started to appear in the horn, until one final strike from Cheerilee broke it clear off. When that happened, magic exploded into the room, throwing Cheerilee off the colt and making her slide several meters over the floor, until she came to a halt a few meters away from Snips. The magical feedback seemed to have been a lot worse for the cyan pony himself, as he lay witlessly on the floor.
Scrambling to her hooves, the fuchsia mare picked up Snips’ horn when she passed it on the way to his motionless form, clutching it between her front hooves like a dagger as she kneeled over him. With a moments hesitation, she rammed the horn down straight into his chest. Blood spattered everywhere and welled up underneath Cheer's hooves. The colt’s eyes shot open and he stared first at his chest, and then at her. “Why?” he managed to whisper hoarsely as life fled from his body.
Cheerilee didn’t bother to answer his question, simply pulling the horn out of his body and ramming it back into his chest a few times for good measure, until he stopped moving altogether.
Cheerilee panted heavily (from actual physical exertion this time) as she rolled off of Snips’ corpse, trying to catch her breath as she just lay on the cold floor. Killing him like this had been quite exhilarating in its own right, even if it did all end rather fast. She licked over her own cheek, sampling her own blood for the first time and finding it not altogether unpleasant, even if it did feel a bit strange. She was glad she’d been able to try this “struggle for survival” approach at least once though, even if her original plan for Apple Bloom and him had been a thousand times more elegant...
The realisation suddenly hit her with sickening force: her plans for Snips and Apple Bloom! The plan required both of them to maneuver each other into the right places, and even after that the next few steps also required interaction between them. Now that Snips was gone, it couldn’t possibly work. And that was the least of her troubles, the play still had one scene to go, and Snips was supposed to be in it. The mare began thinking up countless new plans on the spot, but she rejected all of them out of hand for being too ridiculous, too short-sighted, too dangerous, too... risky. She began to fear the situation was hopeless, that she had finally maneuvered herself into a corner she could not escape from.
To keep the audience in the dark, the final scene had to go through without a hitch, so someone had to go out there to play against Apple Bloom. With nopony else left from the original cast, she could only count on herself. She’d have to improvise and it probably would not work, but it was the best shot she had. The only shot she had.
She quickly galloped towards the dressing area and headed in the backroom, wiping the blood off of herself with a rag before opening the chest that held Reginald’s final costume. It was way too small for her of course, but it included a particularly dashing brooch she could use as a fastener. Cheerilee quickly picked up the brooch and continued on towards the back of the room, where several bolts of cloth lay stashed. She chose a black piece that was just large enough to fit around her body, and swung over her back, using the brooch as a clasp in her neck to end up with something vaguely reminiscent of a hooded cloak.
It wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny but since the audience would only see her from far away, it just might do. At least she hoped so. As a finishing touch she slid a knife she found on a nearby shelf through the fabric, improvising some manner of sheath so that the blade rested against her chest, relatively hidden.
The mare then dashed off in the direction of the stage, realising she had no time left to waste. She brought up a mental map of the building on the fly, to figure out exactly where she had to go. For the next scene, Reginald was supposed to emerge out of a mountain cave after the king had climbed up that mountain, to meet his challenge. Knowing that, Cheerilee rounded a turn and rushed up a flight of stairs, emerging at last into the dark “cave” at the top of the mountain. From here she could see the audience, but she was quite sure the darkness still hid her from them. Judging from the fact that Apple Bloom was nowhere in sight, she had made it in time. She quietly congratulated herself over this accomplishment, as she took a few moments to catch her breath and rest up, fearing that she may soon need the energy. It only took her a minute to start hearing the filly’s voice coming closer, and pretty soon after that she came into view, having made her way up the mountain slope. She was wearing relatively simple attire compared to the royal mantle from earlier. She had a sheathed toy sword with her, attached to her side where she could easily reach for the pommel with her teeth.
“Reginal! I have come to face your challenge, come out and fight like a stallion!” King Goldencrown roared, looking around defiantly. Cheerilee took one deep breath and hid her face a bit deeper under the hood, even though she wasn’t sure why. It wouldn’t fool anyone, or not for very long at least.
Swallowing back her fear she stepped out of the cave and onto the highest point of the stage. The mountain summit was located several meters above the mine Scootaloo had disappeared into earlier, but as it was placed all the way to the back of the stage even the ponies occupying the front rows could still see the actors up there relatively easily. Cheerilee could hear the crowd talking and whispering to each other as she stepped out of the shadows, they were obviously wondering what in the hay she was doing up there on the stage. Apple Bloom herself was even more confused, as she had expected to see Snips there, not her teacher.
“Miss Cheerilee, why are you-” she began to say quietly.
“I see you have come, oh brave King, and I applaud your bravery. As a token of my respect, I shall face you here in my one true form. Up ‘till now Witchcraft and Sorcery have hidden me from your eyes, but no longer. Tonight we fight an honest battle,” Cheerilee’s voice boomed through the complex, easily going over Apple Bloom’s.
The explanation sounded tacky even to her own ears, but it was the best she’d been able to come up with at such short notice. In a sudden moment of inspiration she gave Apple Bloom a conspirator's wink, praying the filly would play along. Whatever the filly had assumed Cheer meant by it, she suddenly grinned and nodded eagerly, as if to say “Oh, I got it!”.
“Oh fiend! Ah knew there was more afoot when you bested mah most trusted advisors. Witchcraft, this explains a lot indeed!” the King responded, Apple Bloom’s accent playing up slightly as they strayed from the original script, but the fuchsia mare couldn’t have cared less at that point, so relieved was she to see the other pony playing along with her ruse.
“Well then, let us dance,” she cried out as she reached her right hoof under her cloak to draw the knife, keeping three hooves on the floor as she pointed the blade at her ‘opponent’.
The filly in turn took the pommel of her toy sword between her teeth and assumed a combative stance. The sword was far too big for her to carry it in a hoof, as Cheerilee did with her knife, so for her this was the only option. That alone made the odds heavily favour the mare, and on top of that one of them was wielding a real knife while the other one had only a mostly harmless plastic toy.
The entire fighting scene had been carefully choreographed, so Apple Bloom naturally stuck to her predetermined moves, and she expected Cheerilee to play by the book as well. Cheerilee would certainly have been capable of doing so, had she been so inclined, since she was the one who planned out the entire thing. She was, however, extremely anxious to get it all over with quickly. As soon as Apple Bloom advanced, Cheerilee stepped forward as well, intentionally allowing herself to get within reach of the filly’s sword. Instead of parrying Apple Bloom’s swing with her dagger as the filly expected, she jerked her head back to dodge it, confusing the hay out of the Apple Bloom and throwing her balance off completely.
The fuchsia mare quickly followed up with an attack of her own, which left a nasty cut over the filly’s left cheek, almost the twin of the cut Cheerilee still hid under her hood. Apple Bloom let out a sharp cry, more out of surprise than out of pain, as she stumbled backwards. She looked at the red liquid dripping down the tip of the knife, and then at Cheerilee, who stared back coldly from underneath the hood.
“Wait, is that a rea-” she began saying, the words muffled by the pommel in her mouth, but Cheerilee didn’t at all feel like letting down the pressure now and simply rushed forward. Apple Bloom panicked and swung her sword, hitting Cheerilee right in the face in the process.
Cheerilee almost lost her balance as her head got slammed to the side, but somehow she managed to turn the movement into an 180 degrees spin, bucking her hind legs at the filly. She hit her right in the chest, and the sheer force of the blow send the little one flying across the stage, until she landed roughly on her back a meter or two away.
The filly took a deep breath, a stinging pain in her chest alerting her to the fact that all was not well, and she didn’t seem to be able to draw in as much air as usual, either. She realised Cheerilee had probably broken some of her ribs, and still felt dazed from the landing too. Her teacher however wasted no time and descended upon the fallen Apple Bloom like a vulture, ramming the knife through her right shoulder and into the wooden floor below, effectively pinning her down.
The filly held back a shriek of pain and swung her sword again, hitting Cheerilee in the head once more. It barely phased the mare although it did piss her off. All of a sudden she brought her head down and headbutted the filly brutally, hoping to knock her out. That was exactly what happened as Apple Bloom’s eyes rolled back in her head.
Suddenly becoming acutely aware of the audience staring up at her, Cheerilee remembered her last lines, the words traditionally spoken at the end of a Reginald play, even though she’d have to change it up a bit. She clutched her head, as if she had been fatally wounded by that last blow and then spoke dramatically.
“Oh, what cruel fate, now we both must die! But I implore you all, stallions and mares never to forget Reginald... the Sly...” and then she allowed herself to fall to the floor, remaining there motionlessly. She’d never understood those words herself, or what moral lesson they were supposed to convey, but they got the job done. The technician got the cue and the curtains started to close, as the audience started to stomping their hooves down onto the floor and cheered to show their approval.
The play had been, on the whole, pretty well done, and the curious alternate ending did add that certain something something. Not to mention, that last fighting scene had been gorgeous, it didn’t look like they were just pretending at all!
With relief Cheerilee saw the curtain finally close completely, hiding the stage from the audience’s sight. She’d spread the word that the fillies and herself would have to start breaking down the stage props and cleaning up the backstage area right away, since some other group from Canterlot needed the building later that week. That meant nobody was expecting them back home any time soon. She threw a glance at the unconscious filly next to her, who still had the knife embedded in her shoulder, and smiled. She had all the time she needed to figure out something new for this one now. All the time in the world.
Apple Bloom, in her half-awake state, suddenly felt a cold glass being pressed against her lips. She instinctively opened her mouth to drink, quickly swallowing what she believed to be water. It only took her a few sips to to realise, even in her groggy state, that what she was drinking wasn’t water at all. For one, it had a sort of metallic aftertaste, and for another there were small bits and pieces in it that sort of resembled...
At once she was wide awake, coughing and spitting out the last of the fluid in her mouth. She’d been bound to some sort of wooden table with leather straps. She saw Cheerilee standing next to her, holding a glass filled with a red liquid, grinning wickedly at her. “Mmmm, I thought you liked it. Scootaloo made it herself, you know... She really... poured herself into it, you could say.”
The mare cackled maniacally as horror flashed across the filly’s face. “Scootaloo... You... Ah... “ “Killed her? Oh yes, ‘fraid so. She was the first to go, you know. And you... you’re the last,” the mare said, feeling uncharacteristically chatty.
The filly turned pale. “You killed... all of ‘em?”
“Oh goodness no!" she replied, grinning as relief spread over the filly’s face. “I didn’t kill Snails, that was all you... the way you made that spotlight, or sun if you wish, fall down on him... Glorious.”
Tears filled Apple Bloom’s eyes as the realisation hit her that all of her friends were gone, and that her fate wasn’t likely to be any different. “W...why?” she managed to let out as Cheerilee picked up a knife and held it up to the light appraisingly.
“Why? Because you all deserve it. Each and everyone of you is a blight upon this land, a weed in my garden, and it’s time to end it,” the mare said coldly as she positioned herself at the end of the table, near the filly’s hind legs. “So shall we?”
Slowly and carefully the mare made an incision above the filly’s hoof, cutting neatly around the circumference of her leg. Apple Bloom tried to squirm, but the leather straps effectively held her in place as they dug into her skin. Cheerilee slipped the knife under her skin, carefully cutting the skin loose from the filly’s flesh. The pain this caused was immense, but the filly clenched her teeth and refused to acknowledge it, every bit as stubborn as her sister was, not wanting to give Cheerilee the pleasure of hearing her scream.
Cheerilee obviously thought she cut enough for now, as she took hold of the flap of skin she cut loose with her teeth. Slowly she pulled it up the filly’s legs, ripping more skin off as she went, flaying the filly alive. Despite her brave effort, this was simply too much for anypony to endure quietly, and Apple Bloom’s scream rang out throughout the empty complex. Cheer continued making new incisions every time she accidentally tore the skin completely off, and then continued the flaying from there. Pretty soon half of the filly’s leg was a bloody heap of bare flesh, every little twitch going through the exposed muscles an agonizing experience, blood dropping from everywhere.
But still Cheer showed no sign of stopping, as she continued cutting and flaying, slowly moving up. Eventually the filly’s entire leg was a disgusting, skinless mess. Cheerilee sadistically breathed out on it for a while, making Apple Bloom shiver in pain. A little light sparkled in Cheer’s eyes as she bowed down and extended her tongue, slowly dragging it all the way from the filly’s hoof up to her flank. For a moment the mare thought the screams that followed would deafen her permanently, before she pulled her tongue back into her mouth and savoured the taste.
“Mmmm... you’re quite good, want a taste?” she whispered in the filly’s ear.
“B...buck...y-you... “ the Cutie Mark Crusader managed to stammer. Cheerilee laughed, amused by Apple Bloom’s defiant nature. This one may be able to take some punishment yet! She diligently started cutting up the filly’s other leg, making a long incision across the length of the leg this time, pulling the skin off towards the side instead of upwards. The filly still tried to resist and keep up appearances, but she slowly started sobbing and shivering as the pain became too much to bear, her breathing becoming ragged and her skin turning pale as her vividly scarlet blood coated the floor.
As she gained more confidence with a knife her movements started to become quicker, and in one fluid motion she first cut the skin from the filly’s left flank, and then moved right over to cut off the skin on the right.
She picked up the two pieces of skin with her teeth and held them up before the filly, before tossing them aside. “Saw those? That’s where your Cutie Mark would’ve been... if you had one. You never will now. Guess your ‘crusading’ days are over.”
This realisation finally did with the pain hadn’t been able to do: it shattered the filly’s last vestiges of resistance. From one moment to the next she started to cry loudly, her body shaking wildly, using up way more energy on all that than she should. Cheer started cutting out strips of skin on the filly’s chest, until the word “Weed” was spelled out there.
By now the filly had lost enough blood and wasted enough energy that her responses started to become sluggish, ruining some of Cheerilee’s fun. She tried poking the knife into a few pressure points, but her reaction was so underwhelming that Cheer shrugged and decided to call it quits. She undid the leather straps and pulled a tub out from under the table, the exact same one she had squeezed Scootaloo out into earlier... and Scootaloo was still there.
Not wanting to simply wait until Apple Bloom bled out, the mare pulled her off the table by her hair, dropping her straight into the tub. The blood and pieces of gore suddenly surrounding her stung on her bare flesh, and she let out a soft hiss. As Apple Bloom took in the scent of the blood and saw an eye drifting slowly by, she suddenly realised just what she’d been dropped in. This notion seemed to renew her strength as she scrambled to get out of the tub, but Cheerilee would have none of it. She grabbed the filly by the hair with a hoof and forced her down into the pool of blood, keeping her mouth and nostrils under.
The filly screamed, swallowing mouthfuls of Scootaloo in the process as she thrashed her legs about wildly, splattering the contents of the tub everywhere. Air bubbled up from her mouth, but Cheerilee kept her there firmly, ecstatic to see the filly’s struggling die down slowly. As Apple Bloom’s lungs started to burn more, she involuntarily tried to breath anyway, filling her lungs with blood and gore. After a last erratic twitch of one of her legs, Apple Bloom remained motionless. The fuchsia coloured mare waited a few more seconds, before finally releasing the filly. Apple Bloom’s mutilated body just kept laying still in the pool of blood that had once been Scootaloo, and Cheerilee knew her task had finally come to an end. All that was left was simply clean-up. She sat back and cried tears of joy, overcome with emotion as she realised she might finally get her life back on the rails now, with a new class next year, a class of nice fillies and colts, instead of the monsters she had had.
She felt proud to have played her part in making Equestria a better place, proud to have protected the future generations from poisonous influences that would have hampered their growth, which in turn would have hampered others... The consequences would’ve been quite dire, to say the least. Humming a cheerful tune she went to get cleaned up once again, and then went over to her stash of flammable liquids. It’d take some time by herself, but she’d get the job done. She felt like she was walking on clouds, nothing would stop her now!
Fire sprung up all around her, stopping her right in her tracks. She realised too late she had no thought this through. She’d spread flammable stuff everywhere and then lit a few fires in different places, but she had underestimated the speed at which the flames would spread. And now she was here, not too far from the exit, but unable to proceed due to the problem she herself had created.
She backed off into the center of the room, as far away from the flames as possible, but as soon as she got there she already had to jump out of the way of a burning crossbeam, which only barely missed her. Various patches of fur on her body were already singed from flames she just barely dodged, and soot and ash covered her from tip to hoof.
Smoke started to fill the room and Cheerilee felt herself slowly suffocating as every breath she took drew some more of it into her lungs. As her breathing became troubled she laughed softly, wonder if her day of liberation would also be the day she died. She consoled herself that a noble death after having completed her mission was still infinitely better than the life she had been living before, in a world where those colts and fillies were still alive.
Just as she started to think the situation was hopeless, a burst of purple light exploded from the exit ahead, wood splintering in the explosion. Surprisingly, the blast seemed to have sucked the life out of most of the flames between her and the exit, so summoning the last of her strength Cheerilee made a beeline for the exit. As she got closer she could hear voices talking to each other urgently, worry thick in their voices.
“Do it again, Twi, do it again!”
“Eugh. I... that took a lot out of me, I don’t think this is the best way to...”
Cheerilee burst out of the burning building, smoke trailing behind her as she collapsed on the grass just outside of the theater complex. Immediately several ponies rushed forward to help her, and as she looked up she saw Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Apple Jack, Rarity and Fluttershy standing around here, with concerned looks in their eyes.
“Are you ok? Where are the children? I teleported us all here as soon as we saw the smoke,” Twilight said, the other five nodding.
Cheerilee opened her mouth, her voice hoarse and crackling from the smoke as she spoke. “They... inside... fire... No idea... how...” she said, but the effort took a lot out of her.
“Shoot! We can’t wait, we need to get them, now!” Rainbow Dash cried out.
“Just wait,” the purple mare replied calmly “I can see other ponies crossing the river already, pretty soon w-”
But Rainbow Dash didn’t listen. Utilising her trademark speed she dashed through all of the flames and disappeared into the building, quickly followed by Rarity and Applejack, who were both yelling the names of their respective little sisters.
“Wh-wh...what now?” Fluttershy said shakily, as she and Pinkie Pie waited for Twilight’s direction.
“Form a bucket line!” the unicorn commanded, the other two ponies quickly dashing off in the direction of the river to organise the other ponies in one long line.
As the first buckets got passed to the front and thrown in the fire, both Cheerilee and Twi could see the effort was in vain. The water didn’t seem to make any different as bucket after bucket was thrown onto the flames, yet they just kept getting bigger and hotter. From where she lay on the ground, Cheerilee suspected that any evidence against her might already be long lost, but she wasn’t willing to take the bet.
Suddenly the purple pony seemed to get fed up with waiting and worrying about her friends, and an idea came to her. She called upon her magical reserves, straining herself to the maximum as her horn began to glow more and more. Ponies watched on in awe as a purple trail of light sprang up between the river and the theater and the river started to alter it’s course.
In a matter of seconds a wall of water suddenly rushed forward at the theater walls, crushing everything in its path. Cheerilee was hit by a rush of panic, this just might be enough to put out the fire! She shouldn’t have worried. Although the unleashed fury of the river did indeed put an end to the flames, it also washed away the weakened theater building itself, smashing it all against the ground. As Twilight, exhausted, stopped applying her magical might to it, the water of the river started to recede, dragging a lot of rubble and the like with it.
Twilight looked around the disaster area fearfully for a few moments, but breathed a sigh of relief as her three friends climbed from between the rubble, battered, bruised and a little singed, but otherwise ok. But the fillies and colts they’d been looking for were nowhere in sight. Twilight threw a few questioning glances at her friends, but they all shaked their heads as tears filled their eyes. Nobody had managed to find any of them in the inferno. As the reality of the situation hit them, their emotions got the best of them as they let go of their tears.
They were quickly joined by the weakened Cheerilee, who shed tears of pure relief.
A week or two had passed since the incident, and a lot had happened. Several investigations had looked into the cause of the fire, but the fire itself and the water that followed had destroyed anything that could’ve given the investigators even the slightest clue. Cheerilee always looked confused and heartbroken whenever she got questioned, claiming she was taking care of something on the other side of the complex when the fire broke out. Although someponies wondered if this couldn’t be considered some form of negligence, no official complaints against her were filed.
The cleaning effort had been ongoing for an entire week, and even now bits and pieces of rubble still turned up here and there.
During the weekend following the “disaster” a joined burial ceremony was held for all the fillies and colts who died at once, although all of the caskets had been filled with stone and belongings of the dead, since none of the bodies had been found. Everypony got very emotional, including Cheerilee, who cried tears of joy as her struggle finally came to an end. A lot of ponies came to tell her that “It was ok.” and “Things would be alright.” or that “It wasn’t your fault.” Cheerilee constantly had to take care not to accidentally respond to these in the wrong way, so she was quite relieved when it was finally over.
And so two weeks passed.
Cheerilee grunted and moaned, sweating profusely in the warmth of the sun. It had taken her a lot of effort, and she’d certainly be sore in the morning. But she didn’t care. She’d finally done it. She took a few steps back to admire her work, and marveled at the perfect state her garden was, once again, in. There and then she made a solemn vow, a sacred pact with herself.
“I, Cheerilee, will never let any weeds take over my garden, ever again.”
Scarlet Harvest does not strive for the same amount of "disturbing" as Cheerilee's Garden. However, the same disclaimers apply. If you somehow ended up here despite a burning hatred for gore, leave now. You have been warned.
Some knowledge of the events in Cheerilee's Garden is required for optimal understanding, but you should be able to get most of it without that. If you read it but "can't really recall the details", you'll be fine.
I split it into two parts for reading convenience. It is, however, one story, so the point of separation is rather arbitrary.
I dedicate this story to everyone who read the first one, and cried out for a sequel. Hopefully you will not regret what you wished for.
Special thanks to Aurebesh, for brainstorming and early proofreading, and to Pea for providing feedback every step of the way.
Foal Free Press
Tensions are still high-strung across the land as the infamous Ponyville theater fire--now already two weeks ago--continues to beg the question: Is the Equestrian Guard really capable of keeping up with the demands of our rapidly changing society? The Foal Free Press was able to score an exclusive interview with the esteemed Sherlock Hooves, Professor in Criminology, to talk about these issues. His answer? A resounding “no”.
Foal Free Press (hereafter abbreviated as FFP): “So, Mr Hooves, you are the founder of the scientific discipline known as “criminology”. Could you briefly explain what this field of study is all about, for the benefit of our readers?”
Sherlock Hooves (hereafter abbreviated as SH): “Absolutely. Criminology is still very much in its infancy. My aim, and the aim of every criminologist, is to eventually devise a number of diverse methods and strategies that can help solve crimes and criminal cases more efficiently. For instance, we still know very little about the differences between ponymade and natural fires, or how weather conditions affect the rate at which bodies decay. We’ve started discovering distinct patterns here and there, but we are nowhere near formulating conclusive hypotheses yet. That’s why I founded the study of criminology within the Canterlot Academy to help speed up this process.”
FFP: “Sounds fascinating, but is such knowledge really of much practical use? Not many crimes are committed, and can’t a variety of spells do exactly what you just described?”
SH: “Those are both fairly common misconceptions. Yes, crime rates are very low, but I am convinced this is an illusion generated by our inability to separate crimes from accidents. If we got better at that, I am sure many more events formerly presumed to be accidents would suddenly be exposed as criminal offenses. On the topic of magic: it does exist, but its usage is more limited than we are often lead to believe. Take the fire that occurred here two weeks ago, for instance. Unicorn investigators arrived at the scene, but couldn’t uncover anything worth mentioning. Why? Because the copious amounts of magical energy released by Miss Sparkle during her--well intentioned, yet misguided--attempt at dousing the flames completely threw their readings off. Not to mention how spells like that generally become useless if the crime has been committed more than a day or two prior to their casting. I’m convinced we’d have found better leads if only our grasp of criminology had been more well developed.”
FFP: “So you think the fire was lit by somepony, then?”
SH: “I’m saying we cannot confirm or dismiss that claim with our current methods. We actually have a sizeable list of possible suspects, if you think about it. There’s the teacher who was the only one to make it out alive, the unicorn who just happened to level the entire building in an effort to ‘help’, and even a few others. However, we lack both proof and motive. I’m not trying to cast blame on two very likely innocent ponies; I’m merely trying to point out that our lack of knowledge severely hampers our judgement. The Equestrian Guard isn’t equipped to handle crime scenes like this, and they do more harm than good when they try, honestly. That is why my colleagues and I hope to one day set up an organisation either inside or alongside of the Guard, in order to facilitate collaboration on tough cases like this.”
FFP: “One last question: Despite your good intentions, many oppose your ideas. Why do you think this is?”
SH: “For the same misguided reasons you brought up earlier: They believe our work is superfluous and unnecessary, and a waste of taxpayers’ bits. We’ll prove they’re wrong, in time.”
FFP: “Well, that’s all the questions we have for you today. On behalf of the Foal Free Press, I’d like to thank you for this interview.”
SH: “It was my pleasure.”
Twist slowly put the newspaper down on the desk in front of her, staring aimlessly off into the distance. Even though it had happened over two weeks ago she found it hard to take her mind off of it, to forget. It seemed like everywhere she looked little things reminded her of the fire, and of the friends it had taken from her. Images of Apple Bloom, in particular, haunted her waking thoughts and her every dream. They hadn’t been in the same class anymore, and Apple Bloom had been hanging around with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo more and more, true... but deep inside she had never stopped thinking of her as anything less than her best friend.
And now she was gone.
Other fillies started entering the classroom for the first lesson of the day, and their cheerful voices pulled Twist from her melancholy and solitary thoughts. Two fillies--Noon Harp and Raindancer, currently her closest friends--walked right over to her, and snuck a peek at the newspaper in front of her.
“Huh, they still reporting on this crap?” Raindancer asked. “I know nothing exciting ever happens around here, but it’s been over two weeks!”
Noon Harp shot her an indignant glance behind Twist’s back. “How can you be so insensitive, Rain? Can’t you see Twist is still down in the dumps about all of this?”
Raindancer’s blue cheeks suddenly flushed a deep shade of purple. “Oh, euh... my bad, Twist,” she said rather awkwardly. “But hey, cheer up! We got a new teacher to look forward to, at least!”
Twist looked at the two of them for the first time, one of her eyebrows raised. “New teacher? What do you mean?”
“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Raindancer said. “Miss Bluebottom’s husband had an accident back in Trottingham this weekend, she booked a ticket out of here as soon as she heard the news. Or so they say.”
“Huh,” Twist mumbled. “Tho who’s going to teach uth now?”
“Oh, well, I’ve got some theories on that,” Noon Harp said quickly. “If you ask me, the likeliest candidate by far is-”
“Please take to your seats, children!” an eerily familiar voice interrupted.
As her two friends sped off to their respective seats, Twist turned her head back towards the front of the class slowly, an inexplicable feeling of dread suddenly coming over her. As she had expected, the pony standing in front of the class was none other than Cheerilee, apparently back from two weeks of much needed rest and relaxation. Twist swallowed. Surely the board couldn’t have... ?
“Now, as most of you know, Miss Bluebottom has had to leave us due to some very urgent matters that required her presence,” Cheerilee said in her usual, pleasant tone of voice. “That’s why they asked me to come teach in her place instead! Now, I know some of you from previous years, but most of you I’m seeing for the first time. Let’s all do our best to get along, shall we?”
Cheerilee beamed her friendly smile across the room, and as Twist looked around she realised Cheerilee was getting mostly enthusiasm and smiling faces back in return, yet she herself was mortified.
There’s the teacher who was the only one to make it out alive...
The sentence from the newspaper article struck her like a meteor, sending ripples of panic coursing through her entire body. Nothing had been proven, of course, and nobody except for ponies like Hooves seemed to pay any heed to the thought. Yet there was still a small chance her best friend’s killer was right there in front of the classroom. And she was there to stay, to boot!
“Twist, is everything alright?” Cheerilee asked with a concerned look.
It was only then that Twist realised she had been pressing down upon her desk hard enough to nearly topple the entire thing over, and her eyes were virtually popping out of their sockets. She looked up at her ‘new’ teacher, and smiled the biggest smile she could muster. “Oh, erm.. Yeth! Everything fine, juth fine. No problem here, ehehehe... heh.”
Cheerilee lifted an eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. “Well, if you suddenly start to feel dizzy, be sure to tell me and we can have the nurse take a good look at you, alright?”
Twist swallowed, and nodded slowly.
The rest of the morning passed by quite uneventfully for most of the class, but for Twist it was an absolute nightmare. Cheerilee’s mere presence served as a constant reminder of her lost friends, and to top that off images of a cackling Cheerilee running around with a lit torch wracked her nerves. Even during recess she barely spoke a word, oblivious to the hushed whispers and furtive glances the other fillies shot in her direction.
By the time afternoon rolled around, Twist knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it up for very long. She’d turn into a nervous wreck if she had to go through all of this every single day for the rest of the year, or even worse: every day for several years to come. Deep down inside she realised she was being silly. Cheerilee had always been nice and kind to her, and any ‘proof’ that she’d had anything to do with the fire existed solely in Twist’s own head. On top of that, Twist became aware of a previously subconscious desire that was actually stronger than her fear: she wanted to understand what had happened, to know what her friends’ final moments had been like.
Class ended, and everypony slowly made their way out of the classroom, chatting cheerfully amongst themselves. Twist swallowed and mustered her courage, standing up from behind her desk and approaching Cheerilee, who was still busy cleaning the blackboard.
“Ummm... Mith Cheerilee?” she said shakily.
Cheerilee put down the blackboard cleaner and turned around, smiling encouragingly at the filly. “Yes Twist? Is there something I can help you with?”
Twist stuttered for a moment. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of, yet her knees shook as if she were about to enter a lion’s cave. “Well, you thee... I wath wondering if... if you could tell me thomething about how... how Applebloom... d-died...”
“Oh Twist,” Cheerilee said compassionately, ”I had a feeling this was what’s been bothering you all day. No need to lie, I could tell. I know it must be so hard on you... It’s been hard on me, too. But the truth is, there’s nothing I can tell you. My memories of that day are so hazy, the smoke clouded my mind you see, and then there was the flood, I... I just can’t remember.”
Twist hung her head in disappointment. “Tho you weren’t there when-”
“When they died? No. I was elsewhere in the complex. You need to let it go, Twist. Give the wounds time to heal.”
“No buts, young lady. Bygones should be bygones.”
“I juth want to-”
Cheerilee abruptly turned back towards the blackboard, effectively cutting off Twist’s train of thought. “Let it go,” she said coldly.
The sudden change in tone caught Twist off guard, and she involuntarily stumbled a step backwards. She had expected a certain amount of compassion, and had feared anger or open hostility, but nothing had prepared her for the complete lack of emotion in those last few words. This wasn’t any side of Cheerilee she had ever seen, nor any she had ever expected to see.
As Cheerilee picked up the blackboard cleaner again Twist hesitantly took a step towards the door, and then another, before sprinting out of the classroom altogether. She wasn’t sure what she had wanted to gain from initiating that conversation, and she wasn’t sure if it had gone good or bad either. All she knew was that the cramped up feeling still hadn’t left her stomach, and that Cheerilee had somehow felt... ‘off’ during the latter part of that conversation.
She had read that no evidence of malicious intent had been found, but that didn’t mean there really wasn’t any, right? And at the very least, seeing it for herself would surely put her mind at ease. Then she could finally leave all this insanity behind her, and live on in peace.
Well, unless she really did find something. But surely that couldn’t happen. Just a few more hours, and she’d once again have nothing in the world to worry about.
It didn’t take Twist long to reach the remnants of the theater building, and she looked out over the mess of splintered wood, theater seats and random debris melancholically. The fire and the flood had rendered most objects damaged beyond all hope of recognition, and the pile of debris hid many sharp edges and other dangerous objects from view. Twist found it slightly questionable that the ongoing investigations had managed to delay the cleanup so long, but at the same time she was thankful for the opportunity. She didn’t think they’d leave it like this much longer.
She threw her gaze over the vast expanse of wood and junk, and then went to work with a sigh. She tiptoed around the edge of the ruined building at first, hesitant to venture in between the debris and the many dangers it concealed, but soon she realized she didn’t have much of a choice. Even then she progressed only slowly, searching every nook and cranny and testing every plank before committing her weight to it.
An hour passed, and still she had found nothing of interest. Doubt started to form at the back of her mind, and her lonely investigation felt increasingly pointless as the seconds ticked away.
“It’th no uthe,” she mumbled to herself. “Ponieth much better at thith than I am have already looked everywhere...”
And that much she knew to be true. She’d seen investigators roam these ruins as much as a week after the incident, and they had seemed like they knew what they were doing. When she thought about how much force had to have been behind the flood Twilight crashed into the Theater she really couldn’t feel surprised that nobody had been able to find anything. After all, that wave must have made it all the way to the Whitetail Woods, anything with that kind of strength behind it would surely...
And that’s when the thought suddenly hit her. Many ponies had looked in and around the disaster area, that was true, but how many had actually followed the path of the water all the way to the end? A sudden rush of excitement filled her body and swept away the tendrils of despair that had been slowly taking hold of her. She made it out from between the debris in a third of the time it had taken her on the way in, making it out unscathed as if through some kind of miracle.
The immediate path of the water wasn’t hard to follow, at least not initially. All she had to do was follow the trail of broken wood, which was easy as pie. She stopped to inspect particularly large pieces of debris several times, but they were never of any significance. That was to be expected, as some of the investigators had surely gone this way as well. They’d have picked up on it if anything was out of the ordinary. No, Twist wasn’t out to beat them through intelligence, but rather through perseverance.
The trail of wood slowly became increasingly hard to follow: while at first there had always been a new piece to run towards in sight of the previous one, the distance between them gradually increased, until they were lying several minutes apart. By the time Twist approached the forest, she hadn’t seen any signs left behind by the water for at least ten minutes. Any investigator smart enough to come this way would have probably given up by now, but Twist pressed on. Partially because of her stubbornness, but partially because she just still hadn’t put her mind at ease. Only when she was absolutely certain could she finally turn back.
She walked into the forest, and her patience was finally rewarded. There--lying between a few trees--was a particularly large piece of wood not entirely unlike the others she had found previously. From the looks of it, it had once been part of the floorboards that made up the stage. What grabbed Twist’s attention, however, was the presence of (what appeared to be) blood, splattered all over it.
She let out a loud shrieked and almost stumbled, momentarily taken aback by what she had discovered. She was supposed to find nothing so she could go home relieved! She wasn’t supposed to discover... well, whatever this was. Of course, somepony could’ve just accidentally dropped a bucket of red paint, it didn’t have to be blood. And even if it was, the fire could have just brought the ceiling down upon somepony, right? This didn’t prove anything at all!
But it didn’t look like a spill of red paint, the shape was way too irregular. On top of that, Twist had never subscribed to the notion of coincidence. She had always been more of the “fate and destiny” kind. Destined love, foretold happiness and all that good stuff... But now destiny had apparently seen fit to deliver possible criminal evidence into her hooves. Possible evidence. She still wasn’t sure, and she didn’t dare kick up a fuss over what could be a mundane spillage of some innocent red substance or the other.
In truth, she just didn’t know enough about blood or its properties to make the call. But Twilight might. She knew a lot about everything, right? It was certainly worth a shot.
The unicorn who just happened to level the entire building in an effort to ‘help’...
She hadn’t forgotten the article had also implicated Twilight, but she just couldn’t bring herself to believe she was involved. There wasn’t really a rational explanation as to why she trusted Twilight, but not Cheerilee. It just felt natural that way. She had seen Twilight several times since the fire, and her behaviour hadn’t seemed out of the ordinary. She couldn’t say she felt the same about Miss Cheerilee, even though nopony else seemed to notice.
She looked at the “bloodied” floorboards, and made her decision. They looked quite heavy--and she couldn’t drag them through town anyway--so she’d just have to bring Twilight here instead. Committing the location to memory, she took off in the direction she had come from, blissfully unaware of the distant pair of green eyes watching her every move...
“I wish you’d tell me where we’re going already,” Twilight said with the slightest hint of annoyance. She’d have to make at least three new checklists to make up for the time she was wasting right now.
“You will thee thoon enough,” Twist replied as she lead the way through the forest. “I think we’re almoth there.”
“Well, you teleported uth thlightly too far...”
“It’s not easy, you know,” Twilight said defensively. “The first time I tried it it took me at least-”
She held her tongue abruptly as she bumped into Twist, who was now pointing at a piece of wood lying just slightly further up ahead. Twilight raised an eyebrow and stepped forward, increasingly sure the trip would all be for nothing.
“Well, it’s a piece of wood. In a forest. I’m not sure I see the- Oh my!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Is... is that what I think it is?”
Twist shook her head and shrugged. “I’m not thure, that’th why I brought you here. It came from the theatre.”
Twilight frowned. “How did it get from the theatre to- Oh, right,” she said with sudden understanding as she went closer to inspect.
“Tho, ith it... ?”
“Blood? I can’t be sure,” Twilight said. “I don’t know how to tell from just looking at it, but if I had a few books I’m sure I could find out...”
“Pleathe do,” Twist begged, “I want to know what happened to my friendth, and I don’t feel... I don’t feel thafe...” she said in a small voice.
“Well, we probably won’t find out who did it from just this.” Twilight scratched her head. “If this turns out to be blood, it could reopen the case and lead to a breakthrough, though...” She paused for a moment. “Alright, I’ll bring it back to the library with me.”
Twist flung herself at Twlight, wrapping her tiny forelegs around her neck. “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! You have no idea how relieved I am right now!”
“Hehe, alright, alright! Let’s go,” said Twilight slightly embarrassed, as she pressed down upon the piece of wood with one leg and held Twist in place with another.
A bright, purple flash lit up the area as they made the jump, arriving noisily in the middle of the first floor library.
“Twilight, you’re back!” Spike said enthusiastically as he looked away from the cleaning he’d been doing. “And you brought Twist, too. And... Wow, what is that?”
“I’ll explain later, Spike. Just bring it up to my room for now; can’t leave it lying around here where visitors could see... Oh! And bring my copy of Criminal Criminology up too, I’ll be needing it,” she said as she lead Twist towards the door.
“When will you know more?” Twist asked excitedly.
“Well... There’s a lot I’ll need to read up on. Tomorrow’s reparations to the dam are also quite important, so I can’t skip out on overseeing those. And then there’s this week’s friendship report... so not within the next two days at least,” she said, only to quickly add: “But I’ll have found some time by Thursday afternoon for sure, so why don’t you... Oh, but you have school then, right?” when she saw Twist’s expression of disappointment.
Twist seemed to regain some of her cheerful composure. “No, it’th Tholar Thun Day, tho weekend beginth early!”
“Ah yes, Solar Sun Day, so Thursday afternoon then?”
“It’th a promithe!” Twist said before bursting out of the door, presumably headed for home.
Twilight scratched her head and threw a worried look at Spike as he struggled to carry the piece of debris nearly thrice his size up the flight of stairs. They were potentially playing around with the darkest secret Ponyville had ever known, and she didn’t like it one bit. Not one bit at all.
The very next morning, Twist felt like she could take on the world. There finally seemed to be some movement in the weeks-old case, and she felt like she’d found an ally at least. Before Twilight, she hadn’t mentioned her concerns to anypony, for fear of being reprimanded by her parents. They were very strict ponies, and wouldn’t take kindly to badmouthing such an “exemplary pillar of the community,” the fact that they were currently out of town notwithstanding. They’d find out eventually.
“Well look who’s in a good mood today!” Noon Harp chimed as Twist entered the classroom. “Feeling better, I see.”
“Oh, erm, yeth. Much better,” she replied. “Where’th Raindancer?”
“When I passed by her house, she said she was coming down with the Pony Pox. The kind that miraculously heals in one day, I bet.” Noon Harp rolled her eyes.
Cheerilee entered the classroom, cutting their little talk short as everypony scrambled towards their respective desks. Twist found out just how short-lived her newfound resolve really was, as it melted like snow before the sun the very moment Cheerilee as much as looked at her. Something in those big, green eyes just seemed to scream “I know” right into her face, but of course that was impossible. She couldn’t possibly know of Twist’s suspicions, and even if she did, the others would’ve picked up on it if their teacher was constantly looking at at one of them funnily. She couldn’t just happen to be the only one to notice.
Or so she hoped, anyway.
During the rest of the day she tried to keep up appearances, which she managed to do fairly well. Her concentration wasn’t always all that great--and her hoof painting was fairly messed up--but she managed to avoid a repetition of yesterday’s scene. However, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that Cheerilee was constantly watching her in secret, even though she never managed to catch the mare in the act. It slowly but surely put her on edge, and by the end of the school day she felt just about ready to explode.
As soon as the bell announced the end of class she shoved everything into her bags, and dashed off towards home.
“Huh,” Noon Harp said. “I guess she had things to do?”
The other fillies nearby just shrugged. Everypony had the right to be a bit off from time to time.
It started from the top again the following day. Twist got up, feeling slightly better than she had the night before, only to fall right down into the dumps again the moment Cheerilee showed up.
She managed to regain some of her footing when she realised it was Wednesday, but her depression just got that bit worse when she remembered they’d have to listen to guest speakers all afternoon, as it was the day before Solar Sun Day. To make matters worse this gave Cheerilee a convenient excuse to place herself at the back of the class, where Twist couldn’t see her, but she could still see everypony else. Twist felt her gaze press down upon her like lead, slowly but surely burning a hole in the back of her skull.
By the time the third speaker showed up to recount yet another boring tale about the history and relevance of Solar Sun Day, Twist felt about ready to scream. She managed to keep herself from simply fleeing the scene only for fear of making the situation worse. After all, she still had no proof. She was very likely imagining it all. But if she wasn’t, then at least right now Cheerilee had no idea Twist was suspecting her, either. Odd behaviour or thoughtless comments could change that, so it was in her best interest to play it cool and act as if nothing was bothering her.
At long last the final presentation of the day came to an end, and Cheerilee stood up to wish her students a pleasant weekend, and a happy Solar Sun Day. Twist rose form her seat calmly--bolstered by the thought of four Cheerilee-free days-- and walked out of the door alongside Noon Harp and Raindancer, who had indeed made a miraculous recovery.
“And so that’s when I told him- Hey Twist, where’s your bag?” Noon Harp frowned.
“You called Pip Twist and asked him where his bag was?” Raindancer asked in utter confusion.
Noon Dancer just sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, right, I muth have forgotten it in the classroom,” Twist said. “You two go ahead, I’ll thee you tomorrow, perhapth!”
The two fillies bade their forgetful friend goodbye and went on their way, as Twist ran back towards the school. She didn’t think twice about it, as her good mood had completely driven Cheerilee-related fears from her mind--at least for the time being.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the classroom hadn’t yet been locked for the day. She spotted her bag as soon as she entered the room, right where she had left it. She pranced over to it and picked it up, only to drop it again with a start as the door slammed shut behind her.
“I was hoping you’d come back,” Cheerilee said ominously as she stepped out of the corner closest to the door. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, you and I...”
Twist slowly edged towards the back of the room, away from Cheerilee. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she rapidly looked from left to right, searching for a way out. Cheerilee was blocking the path to the only door though, and it was doubtful she could get out through the windows either; the locks were simply too high up for her to reach, and the crossed frames made them look mighty sturdy.
“T-talk? I d-don’t have anything to t-ta-”
“You’ve been snooping around the theatre, Twist,” she said as she approached menacingly. “And you’ve been shivering in your boots whenever I come near, I wonder why?”
Twist yelped as she finally bumped into the back wall, sweat dripping down her flanks as fear threatened to overwhelm her senses. “N-no! I-I don’t think y-you did it at all! Honetht!”
A sly smirk spread across Cheerilee’s face. It didn’t reach her eyes, which looked darker and more terrible than anything Twist had ever seen before. “I never said anything about that.”
Twist turned pale as she realised what an incredible mistake she had just made; if Cheerilee had only been acting upon suspicions before, she had now taken away all doubt. The murderous glint in her eyes had driven off Twist’s doubts as well, but she wished it hadn’t. She had longed to know the truth just a short while ago, but now nothing seemed more desirable than a return to blissful ignorance.
She threw herself to the side, attempting to take Cheerilee by surprise and make a beeline for the exit, but the mare had been expecting it. With a single swift kick she send Twist barrelling into the wall, and the filly collapsed into a heap at the bottom.
Cheerilee smiled. She had thought she’d rooted out all of the troublemakers last time, but apparently she had been mistaken. This one had been hiding under an innocent exterior, but now that she had exposed her as the weed she was she just couldn’t ignore her anymore. If even just one was allowed to remain, it would certainly corrupt or otherwise damage the others. Her efforts had almost been for naught, but she could finally rectify that today.
Cheerilee glanced at the unconscious filly, and then towards her desk, where she had hidden just about everything she needed to keep Twist unconscious and unseen during transportation. It was a good thing fillies her size still, more or less, fit into the larger variety saddlebags, at least if you tried hard enough.
Wouldn’t be a bad idea to wait until nightfall, though. She mused as she glanced at the sun shining brightly outside. She could afford to wait. Nopony liked being at school in their spare time, so the two of them wouldn’t be disturbed. She had already prepared everything she needed, so there was plenty of time to set her plan into motion. She’d have had even less time if she had been forced to go through with her plan of abducting the filly from her home, anyway. Making the world a brighter place on Solar Sun Day... she liked the inherent symbolism in that.
It was a shame she had to head out into the woods for this, but she couldn’t risk any evidence lingering around. That first fire had been pushing it already, and she realised she only barely got away with that one. A second fire so soon would be fairly suicidal. It was far better for the filly to just disappear, proof and all, and never be heard of again.
And as luck would have it, she knew just the place...
It was pitch black by the time Cheerilee carried her burden into the Everfree, but it didn’t matter. Her legs still knew the way. She hadn’t gone out this way in many, many years, but some things you just didn’t forget. Some things you just couldn’t forget--no matter what.
She continued onwards, undaunted by the wailing of the wind and the distant cries of strange and ferocious creatures. There was always a chance you’d run into something unpleasant out here in the woods, but compared to the risk of discovery that seemed almost insubstantial.
She finally reached her destination: an ancient stone fortress darker than the black of night, impervious to the whips and scorns of time. As far as Cheerilee could tell it had been completely forgotten by the world. She almost regretted the need to travel under the mantle of night, as she had always enjoyed seeing it in its full glory. Memories of how they’d first found it came back to her, it seemed like an eternity ago...
Cheerilee dug out a small, red gem from one of her saddle bags as she walked towards the massive, stone doors that served as the only entrance into the building. She still remembered the day they had just found it lying in the woods. She didn’t know how it had gotten there, but she knew it to be the only one of its kind. As it drew closer to the gate, the gem let out a bright, inner light and the stone doors swung open silently.
Cheerilee smiled, as she stepped into the hallway which lay beyond, illuminated by an invisible source of light.
“Ace... I’m back.”
Twist had never felt so heavy. She tried to compare it with the lazy drowsiness that could come over you during a hot summer’s day, or while blissfully snoozing in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. But both of these came accompanied by a sensation of heavy limbs that most ponies would be quite familiar with, and which wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
This was different.
It was as if she could feel a weight pressing down upon her chest, which troubled her breathing and left her unable to move. She tried to open her eyes, but found she couldn’t. She felt she ought to be disturbed or even frightened by this notion, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her mind had been weighted down as well.
Time became a malleable principle to her, without much use or merit. She didn’t know how long she’d been like that, but she knew it didn’t matter.
Slowly but surely, the effect lessened. She began to become aware of things she had once known, but which she had forgotten. The thumping sound in her ears became the beating of her heart. A gentle whisper became the rhythm of her breathing. She became aware of a crucial distinction. There was the world, and there was her body, and these two were surely not the same. For the world was the world, and she was... Twist. Yes, that was her name, Twist.
And so she finally opened her eyes. It proved to be rather anticlimactic, as she didn’t seem to be able to see anything at all at first. Her eyes adjusted to the poor light conditions slowly, but all she could see was one big blur of dark, depressing colours. She could hear stone groaning under its own weight all around, and the clanking of metal to her left. She tried to move, but to her great surprise she still was not able to. This puzzled her. Didn’t she finally wake up? Where was she anyway?
The memories started flooding back to her... Her bag, the classroom, Cheerilee, a horrible taste in her mouth... With a shock she realised what had happened, and so the reason why she couldn’t move became abundantly clear. Finally fully awake, she could tell that some kind of metallic clasps were holding her legs in place, so that the back of her body was pressed up against some kind of cold, rough surface--presumably one of the walls.
She did her best not to panic, but she could already feel the build-up of adrenaline inside, ready to be released at the first useful, or not-so-useful, opportunity. She started struggling against her bounds, letting out a few grunts and moans of effort in the process.
“Ah, you’re finally awake.”
The voice originated from somewhere to her left, and Twist turned her head towards it as best she could. The only thing she was able to make out was a hazy, fuchsia blob amidst the dull blacks and greys, which rapidly approached her. It slowly expanded until it filled almost her entire field of vision, and Twist closed her eyes fearfully when she felt something being slid onto her head. When she finally worked up the courage to open them again, she could see her surroundings crystal clear. She had regained her glasses, but wished she didn’t.
She found herself inside of a stone building of sorts, although it wasn’t any she had ever seen in Ponyville. The stone slabs the room had been constructed with were huge, and of a peculiar shade of black as well. The room was fairly small, and much wider than it was long. The ceiling was surprisingly high up--which gave the room an extra sense of space--and peculiarly enough the blocks of stone gave way to a series of metal bars just underneath the ceiling. Twist thought she could see another room or perhaps a hallway, behind the bars, but she just wasn’t sure.
There was an open doorway right across from her, and it lead off into a hallway illuminated just as badly as the room. Twist noticed she couldn’t actually see a source of light anywhere. It was almost as if the room had a supply of light all its own. Two saddlebags were lying on the floor to her left, but she could not make out the contents, although some were definitely metallic in nature.
Twist took in all of this in the second it took her to become aware of Cheerilee, who was standing right in front of her, staring at her intensely while wearing a pleasant smile.
“I hope you slept well, because you probably won’t be sleeping for awhile,” she said in an almost motherly tone of voice. “But then again, you’ll be sleeping for a long, long time right after that, so it’s probably not worth losing any sleep over it.”
Twist felt a block of ice descend into her stomach, the strange contrast between her teacher’s tone of voice and the meaning of her words only serving to increase the dread she was feeling.
“P-pleathe, y-you can’t... k-kill me... I... I haven’t done a-anything wrong,” the filly stammered, her eyes slowly starting to glisten with tears.
Cheerilee walked over to her saddlebags and started to rummage about inside, clearly looking for something. “But I’m afraid I must,” she said with obvious excitement. “It’s not so much about what you’ve done, but about what you’ll end up doing. I had forgotten how strong your ties with Apple Bloom were... She got to you.”
She pulled out a leather pouch containing various clamps and knives, and threw it down in front of Twist. “But more importantly, I can’t have you talk,” she said as she took a knife from the pouch and brought her lips next to Twist’s ear. “You didn’t tell anypony it was me, right?”
Twist swallowed, her entire body shivering in fear as tears slowly trickled down her cheeks. Her situation appeared hopeless, but even though she was scared she didn’t want to give up just yet.
“I...I told lotth of people! I told everypony it wath you! They didn’t believe me, but if I dithapear, they’ll know! Tho... tho you... b-better let me g-go... If.. if you l-leave me alone... I’ll tell them I wath wrong!” she shouted at Cheerilee, putting on the most defiant face she had in her. Which wasn’t all that defiant, but the effort was certainly there.
Cheerilee pulled back slightly and looked Twist in the eye, a bemused look on her face. “Oh Twist... You’re such a bad liar,” she hissed.
The filly’s eyes exploded with fear, and Cheerilee instantly stabbed forward, driving the knife deep into Twist’s right shoulder. She screamed, and blood welled up around the blade as it sliced through muscle and tendons. It hit bone soon enough, but Cheerilee didn’t care. She simply threw her weight behind it again, jamming the knife right into the shoulder joint. The sharp pain almost made Twist’s eyes roll back in her head, and her screams transformed into a choked gurgling. Cheerilee drank it in with intense fascination; it had been too long, really.
She lessened the pressure on the blade a bit. “Ready to tell me the truth?”
Apart from some scraped knees, Twist really hadn’t experienced much pain before, and Cheerilee’s crash course was shocking. She could feel a hot, throbbing pain where Cheerilee had sliced up tendons and muscle, and it felt like a thousand needles got jammed between her shoulder blade and her upper leg bone every time she breathed in or out. It was almost too much for her, but she didn’t feel like giving up just yet. She was probably doomed, but there was a chance Twilight would discover something, and one day bring Cheerilee to justice...
Cheerilee smiled, and then suddenly twisted the knife around in Twist’s shoulder joint. She licked her lips, as the screams send shivers down her spine. “Very cute... But as I said: you’re such a bad liar...”
Cheerilee pulled back the knife, finally satisfied. Twist whimpered as the blade left her, and the sensation of pain changed again; it became less pressing, but the wound pounded all the more. She looked down at her own body, and the trail of blood that flowed down it. It had already begun pooling underneath her right hoof, and the sight sickened her. She’d never realised just how much blood there was inside of her before. She felt herself go green when Cheerilee casually licked the knife’s blade.
“Mmmmm... So, Twilight Sparkle,” she said ponderously. “If it’s her she might find us here... She’ll only be looking for you, though, not me. There’s no reason to kill her, either, and she’ll probably bring her frie-”
The realisation shocked her like a plunge in an icy lake right after the sauna, as several isolated facts and ideas gathered together to combine into one, glorious whole. For many months she had asked herself one single question: How could so many fillies suddenly go so bad, in a town where everypony was exemplary? But now she finally understood why.
Twilight’s friends. Rarity was Sweetiebelle’s sister, Applejack was Apple Bloom’s and Rainbow Dash was Scootaloo’s idol. Snips and Snails seemed to have taken quite a liking to her as well, and they ran into the entire bunch often enough, anyway. Pinkie Pie had been with the girls fairly often, and it was no secret that Fluttershy was Rarity’s preferred babysitter. Or sistersitter, whatever. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had had the least contact with those five, but she supposed there were always exceptions to the rule. They could’ve been rotten from the start--she could accept that happening to one or two fillies, just not seven at once--or else they had just felt the need to “step up their game” to match up to their rivals, the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
Their corruption could all be traced back to the influence of those five mares, and they in turn had been influenced by... Twilight Sparkle. She had heard that the bigger cities had become more immoral and filthier in the last few years, and that the Royal family had it especially bad. She had just never imagined it was this bad.
There was no way she could set everything right, but she could protect Ponyville. She could make a stand.
“Yes... Yes!” she exclaimed almost triumphantly. “Let them come! They won’t be arriving until tomorrow at the earliest, if they come at all... I’ll be ready, I can finally end this, once and for all!” She could see it now... The culprits, and the punishment she’d bestow upon them...
“You... you’re crazy,” said a still teary-eyed Twist through clenched teeth. “Twilight ith powerful, the will...”
Cheerilee laughed heartily. “Oh, but that’s the beauty of it. No matter how fancy her magic is... It’s useless in here.”
She drew closer with the knife again, and Twist didn’t dare move or utter so much as a single syllable. She stared at the bloody knife fearfully, the pounding of her violated shoulder reminding her of the damage and agony it could inflict. She realised the pain in her shoulder would probably have already left her unable to think straight if not for the adrenaline coursing through her veins.
“I’m surprised you didn’t try asking me where we are yet,” Cheerilee said as she rested the knife against Twist’s chest. “But, you know, I’ll tell you anyway. A little story from Cheerilee, before you die.”
The filly wanted to protest her bleak future, but she had used up all of her courage and energy already. Just coping with the pain was hard enough already. Her lip trembled as tears again rolled over her cheeks, and she breathed only shallowly for fear of the knife pressed against her chest.
“I once was a little filly like you, and at that time I, too, had a friend who was very dear to me. His name was Ace High,” said Cheerilee as she looked Twist in the eyes. “He was a self-proclaimed gambler of sorts, but he didn’t gamble for bits... He bet on people’s hearts. He bet that they could be better, stronger and happier than they were, and he was always right... Do you know why he was always right?”
Twist only shook her head, terrified.
“Because he made his bets come true. He could awaken the best in anypony. I was proud to have him as my friend, and we were always together. I’d watch him perform card tricks with his magic or, more frequently, we’d venture out in the Everfree Forest,” she said. “We were kids, after all. They told us we shouldn’t go near it, and so the Forest... attracted us. One day, we found a big fortress in the woods...”
Twist’s eyes grew wide, and Cheerilee nodded with a grin.
“That’s right! You’re inside of the Everfree right now... We spent days looking for a way in, but we couldn’t find any... Until one day we found a gem, just lying outside in the woods. We took it along with us, and once we got closer to the fortress, the doors opened... We started exploring it, every room and hallway. We concluded it had to be a remnant of darker times, for we mainly found implements of torture, and deactivated traps.”
As Cheerilee lost herself in the story she started paying less and less attention to her knife, and Twist squirmed as the tip pressed lightly into her chest, a crimson bead of blood welling up around it. It was nothing compared to her shoulder, but it still hurt.
“The interior is illuminated by magic, and Ace’s own magic failed to work inside... Needless to say, we were fascinated. We found secret hallways and rooms, many of which contained the mechanisms operating the traps. It was the adventure of a lifetime.”
Twist breathed a sigh of relief as Cheerilee lowered the knife, supporting herself against the wall behind Twist as she bowed her head.
“And then one day... Ace died,” she said in a barely audible whisper. “It was my fault... the traps... I didn’t... didn’t turn them back off properly...” She shed a few tears, to Twist’s great astonishment. She wanted to say something, but was afraid of what Cheerilee would do if she ruined the moment. “I never told anypony. How could I have? His family moved away soon after that. They think he just went missing, up to this very day... And that’s when I realised something. I realised that, if I was going to atone for his death, I needed to become like him. Better than him. I needed to make ponies grow, foster their strengths, guide their abilities.”
“And tho... you became... a teacher?” Twist asked quietly, both scared out of her mind and moved by the story despite herself.
“Yes. And I was doing fine... Helping ponies, redeeming myself, forgetting Ace and moving on... Until your friends came along, and ruined EVERYTHING!” she said with a snarl.
Twist shrieked as Cheerilee suddenly pressed the knife against the top of her midriff, making a small, horizontal incision.
“N... no, pleathe.. pleathe wait...” the filly stammered as the pain made sweat pearl down her face, but Cheerilee seemed to be done talking and paid her no heed.
Using the incision she had just made, she quickly dug the tip of her knife underneath the skin, and started cutting downwards. Twist squirmed and let out a variety of gurgling noises as her belly was sliced open, gradually revealing the organs that rested inside. Blood dripped down Twist’s body, coloring both her own and Cheerilee’s fur red in several places.
Cheerilee was careful not to damage any of the organs within, and she stopped once she reached the filly’s belly button. Twist grunted as the mare pulled back and discarded the knife nonchalantly. Twist clenched her teeth against the sickening sensations radiating throughout her lower body; and for just a moment she felt so out of it that she didn’t even notice Cheerilee had gone off to fetch something from her bags until after she had shoved it in front of her face.
“See this?” Cheerilee asked gleefully as she held up a glass jar filled with little, milky-white balls. “I don’t suppose you know what these are?”
Twist only grunted miserably in response.
Cheerilee frowned with disappointment. “No, not quite. These,” she said as she tapped the glass, “are eggs. Everfree Beetle eggs. Incredibly hard to find, but I got them just for you. Aren’t you pleased?”
“I... I’ve never heard of...” Twist said weakly, as she attempted not to throw up at the thought of the hole in her stomach.
“They’re not actually beetles, you know,” Cheerilee explained as she took the lid off of the jar. “The pony who named them did so based solely on their appearance... But there’s important differences. They’re venomous for example. That’s different from poisonous, mind. And their reproductive cycle is sooo fascinating, want to hear it?”
Twist had a feeling that, whatever Cheerilee was going to say, it would probably be bad news. Not that Cheerilee cared much for her captive’s lack of a response, she seemed far too busy enjoying herself to get tied up by petty details like that.
“You see, the females lay their eggs inside of other--preferably living--creatures, like so,” she said as she roughly kept open the hole in Twist’s stomach with a hoof, dumping the contents of the jar inside.
Twist screamed as Cheerilee mishandled the cut in her belly, and the feeling of hundreds of little eggs raining down upon her innards was enough to finally make her spew all over herself. Cheerilee seemed to have been expecting that, as she had already jumped well out of the way. She reappeared in front of a coughing Twist with a needle and thread, which she promptly put to good use by coarsely sewing the filly shut, which elicited a whole new series of whimpers from her victim.
“And then when they hatch... the larva feast until they are fat and healthy... Then they rest inside of their victim to regain some energy, only to eat the host and swarm out a few hours later, to go looking for new breeding grounds,” Cheerilee said, before breaking out in the widest, most maniacal grin possible.
“No... n-no... thi... thith can’t b-be... h-happening,” Twist pleaded with fate, her imagination already making her feel thousand of little legs crawling around inside of her.
“Oh, don’t worry... They find the innards to be the tastiest, so you won’t die right away,” Cheerilee said as she drew closer, and whispered into Twist’s ear: “Now, I have some traps to go inspect, but I’ll be back in a few hours... to watch them being born.” She took back Twist’s glasses and started walking towards the door.
“No...” Twist whispered.
“But hey, don’t tire yourself out worrying too much...”
“No,” she repeated more forcefully as her eyes widened in disbelief.
“Because, you know?” Cheerilee said as she passed the door. ”You’re already dead anyway!”
“NNOOOOOO!” Twist yelled as the door fell shut, but there was nopony there to save her, nopony to hear her cry...
Cheerilee’s memories of the castle’s layout were clearer than she had thought they’d be, and so it only took her an hour or two to inspect the most important areas. She found most traps were still in working order -- which wasn’t altogether surprising, as they had withstood the test of time since long before she was born. The fact that she still knew how to operate all of the secret entrances was even more crucial, as they were the only way to get access to the true heart of the complex. Without them, you could only wander around a maze of pitfalls and traps, designed to confuse, slow down and kill any intruders.
Cheerilee knew she was approaching the room she’d left Twist all chained up in, but instead of heading down the hallway that would lead her straight to it, she pushed against an inconspicuous piece of stone in the wall. The wall sank down into the floor, revealing a thin flight of stairs beyond. She followed the stairs up into the inner sanctum, and proceeded to head for the room adjacent to Twist’s prison.
It was easy to check her progress throughout the complex, as there were arrow slits aplenty. Presumably, these had been used to wear down intruders with ranged weaponry in the past, a design only made possible by the fortress’ remarkable ability to suppress all magic. Cheerilee didn’t know much about warfare -- the reign of Celestia and Luna had put a stop to all of that -- but she did know that the archers of old had generally considered the remarkable accuracy of spells to be “cheating”.
Parts of the wall had been replaced by a series of metal bars in several places, offering an even better look at the complex below. These viewing areas were especially prevalent in the larger rooms, and the torture rooms beneath the maze seemed to employ them to exclusion. She hadn’t been able to understand why they’d build it like this when she was young -- bearing witness to torture had seemed like such a horrible thing back then -- but she was a lot older and wiser now. It made no sense to remove the wicked from this world before they had been thoroughly punished, and you had to be able to observe their punishment to ascertain that it was sufficient. She didn’t doubt that whoever designed this place had been of the same opinion as well.
She finally arrived in the viewing area adjacent to the room Twist was in. That room was one of the rare holding areas on maze level, and as such a clear view from up in the inner sanctum had been provided. Because of the nature of the events that would soon transpire there, she’d even covered the entire length of the bars with a translucent mosquito net while Twist was unconscious, just in case.
Cheerilee could hear Twist sobbing softly in the room below, and she couldn’t help but smile. The filly had probably been crying herself to exhaustion ever since she left, but she’d be getting no sleep tonight. The wound in her shoulder, as well as the uncomfortable position she’d been clamped against the wall in, would see to that.
Cheerilee stepped away from the bars, and went to lie down in a corner. It wasn’t the most comfortable place she’d ever slept in, but it would have to do. It’d be some time before the next stage in Twist’s slow execution began, so she had some time to rest before that. She’d probably be able to get some more shuteye afterwards as well; the more rested she was for tomorrow’s “festivities”, the better.
With Twist’s sobs as a lullaby, she quickly drifted off to sleep, the occasional desperate plea for mercy like music to her ears.
Cheerilee didn’t know how much time had gone by, but she was wide awake as soon as she heard the first cry of pain echoing from the room below. With a speed that would’ve made even a seasoned Wonderbolt jealous she got up and raced towards the metal bars, pressing her head against them to be as close as possible to the ensuing spectacle. She’d have been down there with the filly if she could, but it was simply too dangerous. Something could always go wrong, and when Everfree Beetles were involved the smallest mistake was always severely painful, if not downright fatal. Collecting the eggs had already been too much of a risk, but she just hadn’t been able to resist. There was no reason to take more chances.
Twist started to squirm and fought weakly against her bonds, as she became aware of an unpleasant -- and at times painful -- sensation in her stomach. The eggs had finally hatched, and the Everfree Beetle larvae awakened. Compared to other creatures of their size the larvae were absolutely voracious, and their numbers were anything but few. As soon as they realised they’d been born right inside of their favourite food source they dug in, boring holes through Twist’s intestines.
The filly screamed as the agonising pains started rippling through her, a combination of various horrible sensations that was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. It was as if her entire stomach was cramping up something fierce, while some unseen sadist was repeatedly stabbing daggers into her gut. On top of that she could swear she was able to feel each individual larva as it chewed itself a path through her, but she couldn’t tell if it was real or just a product of her rampaging imagination. Not that she really cared, it hurt like hell all the same.
“No! Cheerilee! Help!” is what she tried to scream, but the only thing that came out was a dry choking sound. The sentiment reached her tormentor all the same, as the aforementioned stood mesmerised by the filly’s screams and pained expressions, breathing shallowly and supporting herself against the metal bars.
The filly threw her head from left to right as the feeding frenzy reached a crescendo, and the excessive amount of competition for the juicier bits caused several larvae to begin feasting on the muscles of her abdomen. Twist felt herself going green, and her screams were abruptly cut off when she suddenly felt the need to hurl. She spewed forth a disgusting mixture of mostly blood and bile, which dripped down her body, soiling the few clean patches of fur she had had left.
As more and more larvae became satiated, the worst of the stabbing pains started to subside. She was left with a disgustingly empty feeling, and a burning pain that was more intense than anything anypony should be made to bear, yet it felt almost like a blessing compared with the racking agony of just a few moments ago. She let out a last, pitiful squeal before breaking down into sobs again, although they were even weaker than before.
Meanwhile, Cheerilee was panting in the viewing area above, slowly letting herself down onto the ground as her knees buckled beneath her. Despite a lack of physical activity, she had broken out quite the sweat. She wrapped her forelegs around herself in an effort to control the shaking of her body, barely able to contain her excitement. She knew she had missed the satisfaction dealing out justice gave to her, but she hadn’t realised she had missed it this much. She felt like a thirsty desert wanderer being offered a glass of water: disproportionately excited due to the prolonged period of abstinence that came before. She hoped she’d be able to control herself a little better by the time she had to deal with the others, else she’d probably go out of her mind.
She pulled up the images of Twist’s tormented expressions from memory, and couldn’t help but smile blissfully. She knew the filly would be missing large parts of her intestines now, and she was likely bleeding out slowly as well. It remained to be seen if she’d manage to stay alive until the next phase, and Cheerilee doubted she’d be able to. She hoped she would, of course, but the odds were stacked against her. She furrowed her brow in disappointment, but then smiled. A chance was a chance, and if not, well... she’d have others to play with soon enough, anyway.
She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep again, carried on the notes of Twist’s lamentations -- dreaming about justice and punishment, and other things equally exciting, but of an entirely different nature.
Twilight Sparkle restlessly paced back and forth across the library, glancing at her clock several times a minute. Twist was late, very late. She wouldn’t normally expect a filly to be very punctual, but Twist had seemed quite desperate for any sort of information, which was exactly what Twilight had on offer for her.
It had taken her a fair amount of time and an even greater amount of reading and tests, but she could finally say beyond a shadow of doubt that the red substance was indeed blood, and a fairly substantial amount of it. It was possible that one of the colts or fillies had been crushed by falling debris, but she had her doubts. There was a wide variety in both the size and shape of the blood splatters, which--according to Sherlock Hooves’ book--indicated multiple blows. The pony could’ve been hit by more than one piece of debris, but it was extremely unlikely.
“Lighten up, Twilight,” Spike said as he watched her pace about from atop a nearby stack of books. “I’m sure she just got held up by a friend or something.”
Twilight wanted to retort, but just as she opened her mouth to do so she heard the front door swing open. She turned around, fully expecting to see Twist smiling sheepishly at her, but instead she saw Pinkie Pie, jumping up and down excitedly as usual. She frowned in disappointment.
“Hey Twilight!” Pinkie Pie chimed. “I was wondering if- Hey, why the long face?”
“Oh, it’s nothing Pinkie,” Twilight said as she put on a smile. “I’ve just been waiting for Twist and I thought you were her, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m here to get that cooking book you talked about,” Pinkie explained. “Heh, it’s strange though, Twist didn’t show up for yesterday’s cupcake class either, isn’t that funny?”
Twilight froze in the middle of yet another lap around the room, an eerie premonition grasping her by the throat. “Wh... what did you say?”
“I’m here for the cookbook?” Pinkie attempted.
“Euh, no the other thing...”
“Twist didn’t show up to cupcake class yesterday. Normally she comes by every Wednesday evening, and then I show her some neat recipes for tasty treats,” she said as she scanned the shelves for the book she needed. “But yesterday she didn’t show up at all! Can you believe it?”
Twilight felt a chunk of ice descend into her stomach. “Something is wrong... very wrong. Pinkie, do you know where Twist lives? I need to go talk to her parents.”
“Oh,” Pinkie said as she took a book off the shelves, “you mean you dont know? Her parents are business ponies, they’re out of town most of the time. Right now, too!”
“What, they leave her by herself?”
“Yeah. But she’s used to it. She’s a pretty good cook, and if she needs anything she can always count on Fluttershy or me. Besides, it’s Ponyville, what could happen?”
Twilight groaned. This just kept getting better and better. “Spike, get the map,” she said as she cleared the table.
Spike did as he was told, grabbing a map of Equestria from a nearby shelf and rolling it open on the table. Twilight examined it for a moment, and Pinkie came closer, staring at the two of them curiously.
“Oooh, you planning a field trip? Can I come, huh, can I?”
“No Pinkie,” said Twilight somewhat annoyed, “I’m going to cast a spell to find Twist. I’ve got... a bad feeling.”
Twilight closed her eyes and concentrated, conjuring up a mental image of the filly in her mind. Her horn started glowing as the magic build up, only to be released in a single, blinding flash. Twilight looked at the map right away. It was supposed to mark the target’s location with a red cross, but there was nothing there. Even deceased ponies would show up, their cross’d just be green instead.
“So it failed?” Spike ventured a guess. “What does that mean?”
“No, it didn’t fail,” Twilight said with sudden comprehension. “I know exactly where she is.” She pointed at an unremarkable part of the map, right in the Everfree Forest. “Right here.”
Spike frowned. “Why do you-”
“There’s no time!” she interjected. “I don’t know why she’s there, but there’s no doubt she’s in great danger. It’s not a safe place for a filly to be... it’s not a safe place for anypony to be! We need to grab the others, and go find her,” she said as she helped Spike onto her back and headed towards the door. Time was likely of the essence, but heading into the Everfree forest alone was suicide. “Come on, Pinkie!”
Pinkie hesitated, as she glanced from the stacks of books to Twilight, and back again. “But, but... cooking book! Ungh!” She threw a last, melancholic look at the library as she left. She had no idea what Twilight was on about, but she supposed she could always come back later. It wasn’t like anything bad was going to happen, right?
They were in luck, as the other four proved to be easy to find.
They found Fluttershy and Rarity first, in the spa where Rarity seemed to spend most of her days. Ever since Sweetie Belle died Rarity hadn’t really known what to do with herself anymore. Her drive for fashion seemed to have temporarily evaporated, and she spent her time on petty things that didn’t demand too much of her--the spa being first amongst them. Fluttershy had already experienced the sting of death multiple times in her capacity as an animal caretaker, and had proven to be remarkably resilient in this respect. Sometimes life wasn’t fair, and you could only accept it and move on.
Due to Fluttershy’s continued support, Rarity was steadily recovering. Twilight didn’t doubt she’d be back to making dresses before the week was over.
Applejack likewise failed to surprise them: she was busy bucking apples when they found her. Her method of dealing with grief was the exact opposite of Rarity’s; instead of distancing herself from her work, she drowned herself in it, probably so that she wouldn’t have time to think about anything else. Outwardly she’d never shown any signs of grief at all--except for the tears shed at the funeral--and Twilight wasn’t too worried about her. She knew there was no obstacle that Applejack couldn’t overcome, and even something as big as this would hardly slow her down. She probably saw it as her duty to work even harder for Apple Bloom’s sake, and Twilight could understand that. Somewhat.
They didn’t find Rainbow Dash, but Rainbow Dash found them. She was lounging on some clouds when she spotted her friends galloping past, and so came down to investigate. Strangely enough, Rainbow Dash had perhaps worried Twilight the most during the first few days. She seemed to do everything in a higher gear and with more intensity than most ponies, including grieving as well. A day after the incident she had smashed just about every part of the theatre that had still been standing out of pure frustration, and even that hadn’t been enough to cool her rage. However, the next day she had seemed to have traded anger for depression, but she got over that a few days later as well. Twilight wondered how much Pinkie Pie had had to do with that.
“So tell us again, Twi,” Applejack said as they approached the Everfree Forest. “Twist showed ya some things from th’ theatre because she suspected foul play... She was supposed to come over today so ya could tell ‘er she was right, but she didn’t show. So ya used that there fancy spell a yers to find her, but it failed... and now we’re goin’... where, exactly?”
“It didn’t fail, that’s the point,” Twilight replied. “It was blocked.”
“Blocked, dear?” Rarity asked in turn.
“Yes, you see... If the magic of the spell can’t reach you, it can’t tell where you are,” Twilight explained, not sure why it took them so long to grasp the concept. “I can think of only one place that could prevent my magic from reaching Twist.”
“And that is?” Rainbow asked as she swooped in closer.
“Well, after we defeated Nightmare Moon, I became incredibly interested in historical reports from around the time of her banishing, roughly one thousand years ago. I had some books on the subject brought here from Canterlot,” Twilight paused to see if everypony was still following along, and they nodded to indicate that this was indeed the case. “You see, Nightmare Moon didn’t get banished right away. There was a war between her and Princess Celestia first: the so-called Nightmare Rebellion. Nightmare Moon’s supporters were few, but she had some incredibly powerful unicorns at her disposal. In order to fight back against Celestia’s far greater army, they used dark magic to construct hidden fortresses in a few key locations. They build them in such a way that their own magic would be empowered, but unicorns faithful to Celestia couldn’t even levitate a speck of dust in there.”
“Sounds... scary...” Fluttershy said meekly.
Twilight nodded. “Quite. At any rate, most of these fortresses have been taken apart, but around here there’s one that’s always been remote enough that nopony was bothered by it, and in an area dangerous enough that nopony felt like going near it, anyway.”
“The Everfree Forest?” Pinkie ventured a guess.
Twilight nodded once more, as she increased the pace.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Spike said woefully from his spot on Twilight’s back, but-- as was often the case--he was largely ignored.
They finally arrived in front of the massive, stone doors, and everypony looked around in awe, thoroughly impressed.
“Something like this was out here all along?” Rainbow Dash said incredulously. “And we didn’t even realise it?”
“I don’t exactly see you coming this way all that often, darling.”
“Now, hold on ya’ll,” Applejack tried to calm the others down. “How do we get inside?”
They all stopped and stared at Twilight, who smiled sheepishly.
“Ehehe, well... there’s supposed to be a key of some description, but only one per fortress, so...” she said with an uncertain tone in her voice. “I suppose I could try to force the doors open...”
Applejack frowned. “Ah thought you said ya’ll couldn’t use yer magic here?”
“That’s not what she said, you silly willy!” Pinkie exclaimed. “She said it didn’t work inside, but she’s outside now, right? Right?”
“Right,” Twilight agreed. “Stand back.”
They all retreated as far back as they could, and even Spike jumped off her back in order to take cover behind a few rocks. Twilight gritted her teeth. Surely her track record for spells wasn’t that bad? There had been the parasprites, true, but... She shook her head and concentrated on the task at hoof. She increased her focus, and magical energy began to gather into her horn, waiting to be shaped. Twilight wouldn’t need much finesse this time around.
With a grunt she increased her efforts even more, and the entire area was bathed in the pulsating glow of her horn. She kept gathering more power, until she felt she really couldn’t hold out any longer. The discharge of raw, magical energy hit the doors like a battering ram, and they were blown right off their hinges. A cloud of dust rose up, and Twilight wouldn’t be surprised if she later found out the explosion had been heard all the way back in Canterlot. She panted with exhaustion, as her friends slowly left their hiding places.
“I... is it over?” Fluttershy peeked out from behind a half-collapsed wall, shaking all over.
“Well ah’ll be, Twi... Ah knew you had it in you, just not that it was this much!”
Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash and Rarity finally realised they had jumped into each others' embrace in the heat of the moment. They let go of each other, and sheepishly put some distance between themselves, hoping nobody had noticed.
“Ooo, there’s light in here!” Pinkie’s voice came floating from inside.
Twilight sighed. At least there was one pony whose natural curiosity had overcome her sense of danger...
Now that Pinkie was inside, the others quickly overcame their initial anxiety, and soon all seven of them were standing in the entrance hall, mumbling amongst themselves about the peculiar lighting conditions inside. Three hallways connected the entrance hall to the rest of the fortress: one in each wall beside the one they’d come in through. Nopony seemed to know which one to take, and they all looked to each other for suggestions.
“Look what I found!” Pinkie Pie said cheerily as she turned towards Twilight, revealing the pair of glasses currently resting on her nose. They were way too small for her head, and the overall effect was rather comical.
“Pinkie, where did you find that, dear?” Rarity asked.
Pinkie Pie nodded towards the center of the room. “Just on the floor over there.”
The others nodded at each other.
“Right, so now we’re certain that Twist is here,” Twilight said, “but we don’t know how she got in, or why she’s here. There could be somepony else around, and according to my books these fortresses were littered with traps. So be careful, ok?” She paused for a moment, until everypony (even Pinkie) had voiced their approval. “We need to find her as soon as possible. Fluttershy and Applejack, you’ll take the hallway on the left. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash, the middle one. Rarity, you’re with me and Spike. Everypony ready?”
They all nodded once again, slightly more grim this time as they realised playtime was over.
“Come back here when you’ve covered your side. Alright, let’s go!”
And so the groups split up and headed in the direction they’d been assigned to, unaware that each passage lead to the same destiny.
Cheerilee woke up with a start, as the sound of a violent explosion ripped through the complex. She looked around in confusion for a few moments, but then it all came back to her. She was in the abandoned fortress, and judging from the sound of that explosion, Twilight Sparkle had indeed found them.
Cheerilee got up to her hooves and threw a glance into the adjacent room, checking up on Twist’s condition. The filly hung limply in her bonds, and Cheerilee couldn’t even see her chest rise and fall from where she was standing. She let out a sigh of disappointment: Twist hadn’t made it.
She shrugged as she started to make her way towards the entrance hall, sticking to the secret passages. She had no way of knowing for sure if Twilight had come alone or not, so she needed to be careful. She didn’t feel like getting into a fight with Applejack nor Rainbow Dash--not a fair fight, anyway. Luckily, she held the home turf advantage. She wasn’t sure how she’d bring the intruders to justice, but she knew that she would. It was just a matter of finding them and leading them into one of the traps. Any location would do, really: they all had nasty surprises in store. Cheerilee almost cackled with excitement as she tried to come up with a mental list of interesting ways to put an end to six or so ponies.
She had almost reached her destination when she became aware of a pair of voices drawing near. She stopped, and looked down into the hallway that was adjacent to the secret passage she was in. There was a lot less light in the inner sanctum than there was in the maze, so she didn’t have to worry too much about being discovered; anypony looking up would see nothing but darkness behind the metal bars in the wall.
“D... do we really... h-have to do this?” Fluttershy stuttered as she looked around skittishly.
Applejack stopped and put a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Ah know you’re scared sugarcube, but we’ve got to hang in there. There’s a little filly countin’ on us, and hey, I’m here t’ keep you safe, so what do you say?”
They continued on their way, and Cheerilee followed them in secret. It seemed Twilight had indeed brought her friends along, which was very fortuitous indeed. It’d only take one fell swoop to wipe them all off the map, but it had to be done delicately. She’d have to take care not to reveal herself too soon; one mistake could quickly spell ruin for the entire plan, and she wouldn’t be able to return to Ponyville if she was discovered here.
“I... I feel like we’re being watched...” Fluttershy said meekly as they rounded another corner, causing Cheerilee to back away from the wall with a start.
“Old buildings like this’ll do that to ya,” Applejack said dismissively.
Cheerilee breathed a sigh of relief: that had nearly given her a heart attack. She needed to get started, and fast, but how could she... A plan materialised in her head, as Applejack and Fluttershy turned left at the next split in the path, drawing closer to the room Twist was in.
Twilight and her friends were powerful opponents, and rumours of their exploits had spread throughout the land on numerous occasions; however, this also made them vulnerable. Everypony in Ponyville knew their strengths and characteristics, and those could easily be turned into their weaknesses. All she had to do was guide them into a situation where their reactions could be easily predicted, and from there on out she’d dictate the scene...
She skipped ahead of the pair, galloping towards the room she’d spend the night in, throwing several switches along the way. The maze silently rearranged itself into the form she dictated, until Fluttershy and Applejack only had one option left. She pulled down a lever, and the heavy door to Twist’s room slid open. Everything was in position. She couldn’t be sure that it’d work, but it wasn’t a big loss even if it didn’t. She had an innumerable amount of options still open to her.
She heard Fluttershy and Applejack approach once more, the sound of their hooves echoing on the stone. Cheerilee grinned; they weren’t even trying to be silent--not that it’d have done them much good.
They rounded the last corner, and Twist was suddenly in full view, cuffed to the wall opposite to the opened door. They couldn’t make out her exact condition form where they were standing, but they could tell it wasn’t good.
“Twist!” Fluttershy yelled as her maternal instincts--honed to perfection by years of caring for little animals--took over, compelling her to rush to the filly’s aid right away.
Applejack stood dumbfounded for a moment, shocked by their sudden discovery. She gave chase as soon as she came to her senses, but there was no way she could catch up to Fluttershy anymore. “No, wait! Somepony obviously did this to her, ah don’t trust it!”
But it was too late. Cheerilee triumphantly pushed the lever up as Fluttershy passed the door several meters ahead of Applejack, and it instantly slid back into place. Applejack only barely managed to slow down enough to stop herself from crashing headfirst into the door, and she immediately started pounding on it with her front hooves.
“Fluttershy! Fluttershy, are you ok?” she asked frantically.
“I’m... ok. I’ll look after Twist, try to get the door open, please,” Fluttershy answered calmly. Twist needed her right now, she couldn’t afford to be scared.
Applejack grunted. She still didn’t like the situation, or how that door had just moved on its own, but there was nothing she could do. She began looking for a way to open it, pushing against every part of the wall, and turning over every stone on the ground. Cheerilee saw her do it, but wasn’t too worried. The only way to open it from there was halfway back through the hallway, and it’d be some time before Applejack even started looking there. She walked into the room she’d slept in, to enjoy the spectacle.
Fluttershy rushed to the filly’s aid, and tears started to fill her eyes as she saw what kind of condition she was in. Her fur was blood-caked and filthy, and she just kinda hung from the wall, as if all strength had left her body. For a moment, Fluttershy even thought she was already dead, but then she noticed the slightest rising and falling of her chest. She was alive, but only just.
Fluttershy caressed the filly’s cheek gently, and Twist tried to open her eyes. She didn’t seem strong enough to open them completely, and the sight once again brought tears to Fluttershy’s eyes.
“F... flu... tershy... is... that... y-you?” Twist said weakly.
It was barely more than a hoarse whisper, but Cheerilee drew in a breath of surprise. The runt had made it. She’d hoped she would, but she had never actually believed... Cheerilee’s face split into a wicked grin. Twist’s will to live would only make this more amusing. It was going to be interesting indeed.
“Sshhhh... It’s ok... it’s ok... I’m here, and I’ll get you out. Promise. Save your strength,” Fluttershy said consolingly as she tried to find a way to open the rings that held Twist in place.
Twist coughed up some blood. “N... no... ru... n... th... they... woke... a-a... nd... cheee... reee...”
“Sssshhh... It’s not important right now, Twist... It can wait,” Fluttershy said as she started to pull on the rings. What was she trying to say, anyway? Something about cherries?
Deep inside Twist’s belly a host of newly-formed beetles woke up, their post-metamorphosis nap disturbed by the presence of another living creature. They were a sickly hue of green, and a lot more mean-looking than most insects their size. Curiously enough, they had a poisonous stinger just underneath their mandibles, and their legs ended in sharp spikes that made it easy to walk over slippery surfaces, such as the bloody insides of unfortunate ponies. The back of their shields carried these spikes as well, possibly to discourage larger creatures from chomping on them. It was hard to imagine any creature willingly taking one of these into their mouth, but then again, the Everfree Forest was a savage place indeed. As far as Cheerilee was concerned, their only shortcoming was their inability to fly. That wasn’t unheard of amongst beetles, but it still bummed her out somewhat. At the same time, it was also the only reason she even dared come this close to them, mosquito net or not.
Twist let out a guttural groan as they started to skitter about, intent on breaking free from their host. With their sharp mandibles they cut into Twist’s flesh, eating themselves a way out, their legs clawing a bloody path towards freedom. The filly shrieked, and Fluttershy gasped as she saw her stomach bulge out in several places.
“Twist! What’s wrong? Hang in there! Twist!” she said panicky, desperately trying to get the filly free, as if that would be the solution to all problems.
Twist tried to repeat her earlier warning despite the mind-numbing pain she was in, but she only managed a choked mumble. Some of the beetles had apparently decided that digging a way through Twist’s belly wasn’t the only way out, and they crawled upwards through her body. She felt several of them climb up through her throat, shredding her windpipe and esophagus with the sharp spikes lined on the back of their shields and the on the end of their legs. Twist’s eyes rolled back in her head as the first beetle victoriously emerged from her mouth, coughed out in a torrent of blood along with bits and pieces of her tongue.
Fluttershy jumped back in surprise as splatters of blood rained down upon her, and the beetle fell down to the floor. Twist’s body spasmed violently as her stomach burst open, and a wave of beetles left her in a sea of blood and gore, soon joined by the ones who’d taken the path up through her throat.
Cheerilee revelled in the sight. She’d been looking forward to it, but not even in her wildest dreams had she dared hope it’d be as beautiful as this. The twitches and convulsions wracking Twist’s body only added to the spectacle, and Cheerilee felt something in her stomach melt with excitement as the filly’s body slowly became still.
Fluttershy was paralyzed with fright for a few moments, her mind unable to process what had just happened. She stared at the bloody mess that had been Twist just a few moments ago, and her mind almost snapped under the weight of reality. She backed away as fast as she could, screaming her lungs out in a way that made the Royal Canterlot Voice seem like a foal’s whispers. The Everfree Beetles clicked their mandibles and drew near, undisturbed.
“Fluttershy!” Applejack yelled. “Fluttershy!”
She began pounding the door with her hind hooves, putting years of apple-bucking to good use as she attempted to break down the door with strength alone. She wasn’t getting anywhere though, and Cheerilee let her bang on to her heart’s content. Those doors had been built to withstand an army; there was no way one pony was bringing them down.
The beetles kept approaching their new prey, and Fluttershy was slowly forced into a corner. She continued to scream as she tried to unfurl her wings, but pure fear seemed to have glued them shut against her back.
“Applejack! Save me! APPLEJACK!” she yelled hysterically.
“Ah’m coming!” Applejack yelled back with more confidence than she was feeling, as she continued to wail away at the door.
Fluttershy shrieked as the first of the beetles tried to climb up her leg, but she quickly crushed him under her hoof. More kept coming, determined to make her into their next meal. She flattened as many as she could, wildly stomping down upon the wave of insects with reckless abandon, but there were always more to take the fallen’s place. Eventually, one of the beetles managed to grab hold of her front leg, and she shook it wildly in an effort to make it let go. She succeeded, but her plan backfired as multiple beetles climbed up the legs she had neglected to move. She began to jump up and down, bucking her legs out wildly. She managed to throw some beetles off, but others proved far more persistent. She let out a yelp as one of the beetles stung her in her left front leg, and she quickly brushed it off with her other hoof.
Cheerilee smiled gleefully as she saw the skin around the insect bite quickly turn an angry, red colour. This was the moment she’d been waiting for.
Fluttershy moaned in pain as the flesh above her left front hoof swelled up at an alarming rate, expanding until it was easily one and a half times its usual circumference. A stabbing pain radiated up her leg every time the hoof hit the ground, making her breathe in sharply as spots appeared in front of her eyes.
The swollen skin suddenly burst open without warning, splattering blood and gore all over the floor, and leaving a big, oozing hole in her leg. It was as if part of her flesh had exploded, and the rest seemed to be melting away. She cried out in pain, and several of the beetles made use of the momentary distraction to latch on as well, stinging her in legs in a great number of places.
Applejack heard Fluttershy’s screams change in tone from panic to outright pain, and she redoubled her efforts. Her hooves started to crack, and little chips of keratin were jumping away left and right, but she didn’t care. She kept going, desperately kicking the door even as blood started to well up around her hooves.
Meanwhile, Fluttershy’s legs were swollen all over, and she sobbed heartbreakingly with every movement she made. The swellings burst open one after the other, scattering the contents of her legs all over the walls and floor, until they resembled a bloodier version of a crater-ridden moon landscape. Keeping the beetles at bay started to become excruciatingly painful, and heaps of them were now climbing up her legs, digging their spikes into her naked flesh. In many places her bones had been completely exposed, and the yellow colour of her skin became increasingly rare compared to the red of her blood and flesh. She started to feel lightheaded, and slowly started to sway from side to side.
Cheerilee began taking bets out against herself, trying to guess how much longer Fluttershy would manage to remain standing. She couldn’t reach an internal consensus, but even her most optimistic guesses remained quite grim for the mare involved.
All of a sudden, Fluttershy felt herself lose her grip on the floor, which had become slippery with her blood. She tried to stabilise herself by quickly putting her right hoof down, but that proved to be a costly mistake. Her right leg wasn’t able to carry her weight in its weakened condition, and her hoof just snapped clean off, leaving her with a sharp piece of bone sticking out of a bloody stump. She wailed like a banshee as she fell to the ground, breaking one of her hind legs in the process. She rolled over onto her back, and her vision blurred as pain flooded her senses.
Many beetles were crushed under her weight, their tiny spikes raking open her back and sides, to add to the already significant pool of blood she was lying in. Many more beetles finally saw their chance, and within moments they were crawling all over her.
“NOOOOOOOOOO!” she screamed as she desperately tried to brush them off, sobbing loudly as it became increasingly difficult to force herself to bear the pain and move her legs at all. Her legs finally collapsed besides her, as the beetle poison blew the last of her muscles to shreds and reduced them to bloody lumps of flesh thinly spread around her exposed bones.
Applejack panted, sweat dripping down her body. Kicking the door had thoroughly ruined her hooves by now, and she turned around to start punching instead. Her kicks had left clear marks upon the door, and she tried to give herself new hope by imagining she only needed to go a bit further. She knew that in reality she had probably barely chipped the surface, but she couldn’t let herself believe that right now. Her friend needed her, and she didn’t know what else to do.
“Hang in there... Flutter.... shy! Ah’m... coming!” she panted in-between her punches.
Fluttershy felt the beetles sting her all over, agony quickly spreading throughout her body. The skin around her bellybutton first swelled up and then burst open, a stream of blood running down her sides as several beetles dug their mandibles into the exposed flesh, clawing at her insides.
One beetle climbed up her face, coming to a rest on her right cheek, just underneath her eye.
“Please, no... p... please...”, she whispered in tears, her throat hoarse and bloodied from all the screaming.
Agonizing pains wracked her body, but she didn’t dare move for fear of antagonizing the beetle on her head. Her valiant effort proved to no avail, as the beetle stung her anyway. Within seconds the entire right side of her face was grotesquely swollen, as if somepony had turned her head into a balloon. Her right eye was soon swollen shut, and every breath she took came accompanied by a pain so intense that she wished she were dead.
The beetles on her stomach had finally found the treasure trove, and they poured in through the newly created hole en-masse, descending upon her intestines like a rabid pack of wolves upon a succulent piece of meat. They began to devour her intestines like they had Twist’s the night before, but this time their eating habits were completely different. Instead of tunneling their way through the way the larvae had, they cut her apart with their mandibles. To Fluttershy it felt like a hundred scissors were ripping her apart, and that was without accounting for the constant torment caused by the spikes on their backs, which raked the inside of her belly as they moved about. She now sobbed incessantly, not strong enough to keep crying or screaming without end anymore. Just feeding her intestines through a meat grinder would probably have been a lot less painful.
Her cheek finally burst open, and she managed to let out one more primal scream as her definition of the worst pain possible got updated yet again. Blood splattered across her face, getting into her eyes and nose along with small pieces of skin and flesh. She tried to open her right eye but quickly closed it again, as the pieces of gore stuck in it made the attempt rather unbearable.
One beetle, perhaps the same one from before, saw the gaping hole in her cheek as a golden opportunity, and climb into her mouth. Fluttershy felt his claws piercing her tongue, and desperately attempted to spit him out as blood started running down her throat. The beetle would have none of it, and defiantly stung her right in the tongue, just before she managed to expel him. It quickly swelled up, becoming so large that it hung partially out of her mouth. Her breathing became incredibly laboured, and combined with the loss of blood and the excruciating pain it was almost enough to make her lose consciousness then and there.
Her swollen tongue burst open, and it was by far the bloodiest wound she had suffered yet. Even as the beetles carved up her intestines and nibbled at her lungs, hot blood started filling her mouth, running down her throat and chin along with the scattered pieces of what had once been her tongue. She tried to spit it all out, but she no longer had the power to lift her head, and so it became incredibly hard to do so. A blind panic swept away the last of her rationality, as she tried to scream once more. Even if the blood hadn’t been there it’d probably have amounted to nothing more than a coarse whisper, but as it stood she only managed a disgusting gurgling sound. Her body started to shake and spasm in a last ditch effort to get everything under control, but it was in vain. Fluttershy felt her lungs burn, screaming for the oxygen her mangled, drained body so desperately needed, but all it got instead was a steady flow of blood running down the wrong pipe--insofar as there even was a right one.
Her remaining bodily functions ceased one by one, and the darkness wrapped her in its cold embrace after a last, desperate gurgle.
Cheerilee stood glued to her spot just behind the bars, her tongue hanging slightly from her mouth as she panted, as if it’d allow her to taste the misery of her latest victim. She closed her eyes to commit Fluttershy’s final moments to memory, and just thinking about it send another shiver down her spine.
Applejack was still pounding the door, but every punch came slower and slower, as tears streamed down her face. She hadn’t heard Fluttershy in a while, and she was quite sure she knew what that meant.
“Come on, ‘Shy,” she said between sobs. “Don’t ya dare g-give up on m-me, ya hear?”
She landed one more punch and then leaned her forehead against the door, her hooves pressed up against her face as her shoulders shook violently.
“D... d-don’t die... y... you can’t... you can’t l-leave me... S-shy...” she stuttered.
She allowed her body to slowly slide down to the floor, tears running down her cheeks as she kneeled down on the cold stone, the very image of a broken mare.
“You can’t leave me like this!” she yelled as she rammed one of her front hooves into the floor, and then curled into a ball as she cried.
“Oh Fluttershy... N... not you too...”
Cheerilee finally snapped back to reality, and she turned towards the door. She couldn’t let herself get sloppy; Applejack and Fluttershy hadn’t gotten far enough in to lose track of their position, so the odds of Applejack finding the way out again were quite high.
Cheerilee silently moved through the inner sanctum, until she arrived at a position from which she could easily keep an eye on the other mare. Fluttershy’s death seemed to have finally uncovered Applejack’s repressed grief, so Cheerilee didn’t expect her to be going anywhere anytime soon. She smiled as she put a hoof onto one of the levers that had been built into the wall. This was too easy.
As she pulled down the lever, the faintest of clicks alerted Applejack to the fact that something wasn’t quite right. The reflexes she had honed during countless hours of sporting events and general athleticism kicked in as she jumped backwards, just in time to avoid the trap door opening beneath her hooves. Cheerilee cursed under her breath.
Applejack looked around quickly, scanning the area. She finally put one and one together; Twist, the door that had trapped Fluttershy, the trapdoor just now... Somepony was watching her.
“Show yerself!” she shouted, but Cheerilee remained silent, frantically thinking of ways to resolve the increasingly problematic situation.
There was no easy way to drive Cheerilee out of hiding, and Applejack was fully aware of that. She’d just be a sitting duck if she remained where she was, so there was only one option open to her: Run, and get the others. They’d be far harder to pick off if they were together, and aware of the threat to boot. She turned around on her damaged hooves and started galloping towards the exit, her personal problems momentarily banished to a corner of her mind along with the stinging pain her injuries caused her. Getting herself killed wouldn’t bring her loved ones back, so Applejack didn’t intend to kick the bucket any time soon.
Cheerilee felt her heart pounding inside of her throat. She couldn’t let Applejack reach the exit, there was simply too much at stake. She cursed once again, and gave chase.
For a while it seemed Applejack actually had a good chance to make it, easily staying ahead of her much less athletic opponent as she dashed through the hallways, rounding corners at breakneck-speeds. But Cheerilee hadn’t played all of her cards yet; She’d never match Applejack for endurance or speed, but she had the terrain advantage. She knew exactly where Applejack was going, so it was relatively easy for her to make use of several shortcuts and secret passages without having to worry about losing her prey.
Applejack ran faster than ever, adrenaline pushing her body to feats of speed that’d have certainly won her a blue ribbon or two on the racing track. She lowered her head to make her body as aerodynamic as possible, as the entrance hall came into sight.
Cheerilee’s muscles protested under the effort, but a broad grin split her face as she reached her destination mere seconds ahead of Applejack. She wasted no time, and immediately rammed her hoof against the hidden trigger in the wall. It swung open, and Applejack’s speed made a collision inevitable. She crashed into the wall head-first, coming to a complete stop instantly as she collapsed into a heap.
“Wha’ in the hay...” Applejack groaned as stars swarmed in front of her eyes. She looked up through the haze as the sound of hoofsteps drew near. “Who- ?”
Applejack’s only answer came in the form of a fuchsia-coloured hoof rapidly expanding to fill her entire field of vision, followed by an explosion of pain, and then nothing at all...
Applejack opened her eyes groggily, and immediately realised she was in an entirely different part of the complex. Lighting conditions were even worse than before, and it took her eyes a few moments to grow adjusted to it. She tried to sit up and look around, but quickly found that wasn’t an option. Two metal bands trapped her hind legs against the wooden table she was lying on, and her forelegs were being held in place above her head by two metal wrist cuffs connected to chains which disappeared from view through two holes in the table.
There was a big lever just behind her head, and the table itself seemed to be made out of an upper and lower part, with a sort of crank handle built into the side where the two parts met. Its function eluded her, and as she looked around the room she saw several contraptions which seemed just as out of place, but which would have looked quite inconspicuous in a sawmill or smithy.
“Hello Applejack,” Cheerilee said conversationally as she stepped out of the shadows, “getting comfy, I see.”
“Cheerilee? You... wha-” Applejack stuttered. “So you’re th’ one who-”
“Killed Applebloom and Fluttershy? Yes,” she said in the same tone of voice she’d use when discussing the weather. “Although I guess Fluttershy could be chalked up to the beetles, hmmmm...”
“You... you monster!” Applejack shouted as she fought against her constraints. “When ah get ma hooves on ya, I’ll...”
“Now, now, Applejack,” Cheerilee said as she turned towards the other mare, looking her in the eyes. “It’s unbefitting for the Element of Honesty to be making promises she can’t keep.”
Applejack gritted her teeth in frustration. Her situation was indeed grim, but perhaps if she could get just one hoof free...
“I don’t want to be unfair, though,” Cheerilee said as she revealed a rusty knife. “so why don’t we play a little game?”
“What kinda game?” Applejack said suspiciously, keeping a close eye on the dagger. She braced herself when Cheerilee raised the knife above her head, but the teacher just drove it into the table between Applejack’s hind legs.
“A survival game,” Cheerilee said with barely concealed excitement. “If you survive... I’ll let you go.”
She walked over to the head of the table, and grabbed hold of the large lever standing there. She pulled it down, and the chains connected to Applejack’s wrist cuffs loosened up, allowing her upper body a greater degree of freedom. At the same time, a giant circular saw noisily sprang to life on the other side of the room, as it started to move closer.
“Wait! You can’t do this! You’ll never get away with it!” Applejack screamed as she desperately tried to buck her hind legs free of the bonds.
“Get away with it?” Cheerilee laughed. “I already have!”
Applejack desperately tried to get her wrist cuffs off, but she quickly realised it was of no use, and besides, she didn’t need to get the cuffs off to get out of the saw’s way; her hind legs were the real problem. She tried to reach for the metal bands at the other end of the table, but the chains were way too short. The furthest she could reach were her thighs and the knife Cheerilee had driven into the table. The knife...
Her eyes widened as she realised the only way out, the only option that Cheerilee had left open to her.
“You monster,” she spat out in disgust, as she pulled the rusty knife out of the table.
Cheerilee didn’t respond, content with just watching her victim struggle against her fate, deriving a perverse sense of pleasure from the near-perfect execution of her hastily-devised plans.
Applejack hesitated for a moment, carefully considering her next move. She almost attempted throwing the knife straight at Cheerilee, but that probably wouldn’t do her much good. Even under ideal circumstances she wouldn’t have bet on her own knife throwing skills, so as it stood it would probably not even qualify as a symbolic gesture, let alone a serious attack. On top of that, the knife was her only way out, and her desire to live was strong.
She tried to swallow back her fear, but the shaking of her hooves didn’t stop. She slowly lowered the knife to her right thigh, lightly pressing the blade up against it. Cold sweat broke out all over her body, and she breathed heavily. She glanced up at the giant saw that awaited her--already half a meter closer than it had been before--and closed her eyes as she finally pressed down upon the blade.
She gasped for breath as soon as she broke her own skin, pain flaring up throughout her leg. She opened one eye, and saw her own blood slowly welling up around the blade, dripping down her leg. She pushed harder, and the blade sank into her leg a bit deeper, but as she gasped for breath she realised she’d never pull it off this way; the blade’s edge was simply too dull.
She whimpered as she started to move the knife back and forth, the rough and serrated edges of the blade tearing at her, ripping her flesh apart. She squirmed and yelped in pain with every cut, but there was no going back. She wanted to live. She started cutting more frantically, and the wound became increasingly messy. Where at first there had only been a single incision, there was soon a bloody mess of semi-connected, mangled pieces of flesh as she failed to stay on target.
Applejack pushed on despite the tears welling up from her eyes, but her stomach nearly turned over when she finally struck bone, sending a wave of agony coursing through her body. Her breathing became ragged and laboured, fear pounding in her throat.
Cheerilee watched it all gleefully, drawing closer and closer to the table to get a better look. She’d seen the fun in getting her victims to be ‘responsible’ for a part of the damage long ago, but she’d never actually made them carry out the deed with their own hooves. Seeing a pony driven to self-mutilation was exciting, and the fact that she had maneuvered her victim into that situation excited her all the more.
Applejack let out a broken sob as she realised the knife wasn’t going to cut through the bone in a hurry, and she shakily lifted her hoof in order to proceed with the flesh underneath and on the side instead. The sight of her frayed leg made her sick, but she was forced to continue watching to have any chance of success. By now the entire bottom part of the table was soaked in blood, and the red mess hampered the accuracy of her cuts as well.
She finally got through all of her flesh, her femur being the only thing that still connected the now defunct piece of meat to the rest of her body. She whimpered in pain as she held the tip of the blade against the bone with her left hoof, raising up her right hoof above her head. She took a deep breath to try and calm down, her vision clouded by tears.
“YAAAAAGGGGHHHH!” she yelled out as she closed her eyes and rammed her right hoof down onto the blade’s handle, attempting to drive it straight into the bone as if it was a chisel. The blade slipped off, and she gasped as the shock spread throughout her entire body. Her resistance finally broke, and she had just enough time to lean over the edge of the table as her stomach emptied itself. She sobbed in pain, but she realised she still had a long way to go.
She put the blade back in place, and started to really hammer down onto it, each blow even more agonizing than the last. A little crack started to form, and with a last grunt of effort Applejack finally drove the knife straight into her femur, accompanied by the disgusting sound of splintering bone. Desperately, she grasped the knife with both hooves, roughly tilting it from left to right in an effort to snap the bone off completely.
She grunted as her entire femur split under her efforts, her right leg snapping off unevenly, leaving her with nothing but a sharp piece of bone sticking out of her thigh. She let her head fall back onto the table as she pressed one of her forelegs up against her eyes, crying in pain and laughing at the same time. She never thought she’d ever be happy to have amputated her own leg, but there she was, laughing like a maniac.
She finally realized she had not one, but two hind legs, and the laughter quickly died out. She lifted her head weakly--the effects of blood loss already setting in--and saw right away that the saw had covered most of the distance towards the table. With only half a meter left, she’d never make it. Her lips trembled as she placed the bloody knife against her other leg, and her hooves were shaking even worse than before. She couldn’t even make any sort of cut before she felt all of her strength and force of will flee her body, and she broke down into sobs of pain and fear.
“No... No... C-Cel... Celestia... Ah don’t... Ah don’t wanna die...” she whimpered, the saw just inches away from the table.
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Cheerilee chimed as she pulled the lever into the other direction again, stopping the saw dead in its tracks. At the same time, the chains pulled Applejack’s forelegs right into place again, and she once again couldn’t move an inch.
Cheerilee walked over to the side of the table, and Applejack looked at her with an expression of both pain and perplexion on her face.
“B... but... you said...”
Cheerilee laughed heartily. “Oh Applejack, so honest that you’ve forgotten ponies can lie, have you? But don’t worry, your sacrifice wasn’t entirely for nothing,” she said, before bending down and licking some blood off of Applejack’s stump. “Mmmm, I like it best when it’s still warm, you see.”
Applejack cringed with both pain and disgust as she felt Cheerilee’s tongue creep up the open wound. “You... you’re sick...” she uttered through clenched teeth. “They should... p... put you d-down.”
Cheerilee glared angrily at the other mare. She wasn’t the one who needed to be put down, Applejack was. That meant she was obviously lying, and for some reason that stung Cheerilee, as if she had expected the Element of Honesty to be above that. She reached under the table, and grabbed one of the many items she had stored there just in case.
“You talk too much, Applejack,” Cheerilee hissed.
“B... buck you. I’ll t... talk when ah-”
Cheerilee lunged forward like a snake, swiftly catching Applejack’s tongue in a set of metal clamps connected to a long piece of rope. Applejack tried to pull her tongue out of the device but it was already far too late, as Cheerilee wound the rope around her left hoof and pulled the tongue out as far as it would go.
“D’awww, I did warn you...” Cheerilee said with feigned compassion.
“Leh... mah tohn... ho!” Applejack spit back at her with some difficulty.
Cheerilee bend down through her knees, trying to grab a hold of the knife Applejack had dropped earlier. The clamps pulled heavily on the farm pony’s tongue, and she gurgled dryly as the pain intensified. Finally Cheerilee managed to grab the knife, and Applejack almost sighed in relief as the pull on her tongue decreased to less unpleasant levels, even though Cheerilee still made sure it was still pretty much entirely outside of her mouth.
Without any warning, Cheerilee suddenly rammed the rusty knife down into Applejack’s shoulder, causing the mare’s teeth to clench down in pain. Blood started to well up in her mouth as her teeth tried to mash her tongue together, sinking deeply into the soft, fleshy organ, but not managing to bite through it entirely. Even though pony teeth were relatively blunt, there was a lot of power behind their jaws, and Cheerilee had fully expected the tongue to come clean off.
Applejack roared in pain, letting out several yelps and unintelligible moans as blood ran down her chin. Cheerilee pulled on the--now badly damaged--tongue again, and Applejack’s shrieks of pain intensified. Cheerilee knew she’d easily be able to just pull it out, but where was the fun in that?
She began to slowly twist her knife around in Applejack’s shoulder, and the mare fought to control the urge to clench her teeth down, despite the shaking and twisting of her body. It was a battle she was destined to lose, and her teeth slowly closed, slightly below the point she had bitten down on earlier. Even more blood started to bubble up in her mouth, and she tasted its irony flavour as it ran down her throat. Her tongue continued to be crushed, and her yelps and moans turned into a wet gurgling sound, her body fighting against its bindings as the pain overwhelmed her mind.
Cheerilee finally jammed the knife right underneath Applejack’s shoulder blade, and the mare finally bit down hard, cutting through the last fiber of flesh that held her tongue connected to the rest of her body.
With a triumphant scream Cheerilee tossed the dismembered tongue aside, bringing her face close to Applejack’s to drink in all the details of her twisted and contorted face, as the farm pony fought to spit out or otherwise swallow the blood now flooding her mouth.
“See Applejack, see?!? I helped! I made you better! You prided yourself on honesty? Well, I’ve made sure you’ll never lie! Ever! Aren’t you happy?” Cheerilee said with a manic look in her eyes, before bursting into laughter. “Hahaha, heh... Well, too bad I can’t let you enjoy it for too long...”
Cheerilee walked over to the crank handle on the other side of the table giddily, ignoring the disgustingly wet and sloppy sounds Applejack was making in her struggle to stay conscious. The fuchsia-coloured mare put her hooves on the handle and started to turn the crank as fast as she could. To Applejack’s great horror both the head and the end of the table started to rise, as the table folded in on itself--with Applejack stuck right in the middle. Pretty soon she found her body bending into an almost impossible shape, and the crankshaft groaned under Cheerilee’s efforts to overcome the resistance Applejack’s body was offering.
“You’re weed, Applejack, weed! Just like your sister, just like your friends! But don’t worry, Applejack, don’t worry! I’ve got your redemption right here!”
“Nghw, dhnt!” Applejack screamed, spitting out splatters of blood all over herself.
Cheerilee didn’t listen and threw her full weight onto the handle, and Applejack screamed as her spine almost audibly snapped. She instantly lost all feeling in the one hind leg that remained connected, and both sides of the table were now in an almost vertical position. The chains had apparently loosened up, and Applejack desperately tried to push the two sides away from each other. It didn’t matter; she only had one good leg left, and even if she had had two she simply lacked the strength. Cheerilee continued to turn the crank around, and she watched in fascination and delight as Applejack’s entire middle body got reduced to a bloody red paste, which got squeezed out from between the tables, falling to the ground with a sloppy sound that most closely resembled the one you heard when you tried to pull your boots out of wet mud.
The mare’s resistance quickly faded, and she threw up a torrent of blood all over herself, as her head fell to the side. The pressure on her chest made breathing almost unbearable, and her hind legs--including the one no longer attached--pressed into her cheek. She looked up at Cheerilee pleadingly with half-opened eyes, as if there even was a form of mercy that could save her by that point.
“I’d ask for last words, but...”
Cheerilee threw her weight against the crank one last time, slamming the table shut. Applejack barely even managed a whimper as her ribcage splintered and her skull split open, smearing her brains open between the tables as blood spattered around. One of her eyes popped out just before she got crushed, and it rolled up against Cheerilee’s hoof. She quickly turned the crank the other direction, opening the table again to marvel at the patterns Applejack’s blood, fur, bones and internal organs had left for her.
“Now this,” she said breathlessly, “is art.”
She spotted Applejack’s tongue lying in a puddle of blood a few meters away, and she suddenly had an idea. She scooped up the tongue, and promptly deposited it into the glass jar she had transported the beetles in earlier.
She held it up, admiring it in the weak light.
“Shame, really”, she mused, “I bet she was a wonderful kisser...”
“Ugh, we’ve been in here for ages!” Rainbow Dash sighed. She examined her surroundings carefully from time to time. Yep, still just stone walls.
“I know, isn’t it just exciting, just like hide-and-seek!” Pinkie Pie chimed as she jumped around her friend, seemingly without tiring at all.
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, having tired of explaining it wasn’t a game over an hour ago. She just remained silent and let the flood of words wash over her, continuing to walk through the long-forgotten hallways while wearing a gruff look on her face.
“Oooo, do you think she’s behind the corner? Or maybe the next? Or wait, she could be hiding on the ceiling! Hmmm, on second thought, she doesn’t seem to be. Unless... unless she’s really good at hiding! Or... Hey, Dashie, are you listening?”
“Huh?” Rainbow Dash muttered upon hearing her name. “Oh, listening, right...”
Pinkie suddenly jumped in front of her friend, blocking her path. “I know what you need! Some motivation!”
“Here we go...” Dash sighed.
“Go past the next corner Pass the nearest tree Cross over the mountains And sail over the sea
Let’s take a step together And then, oh you will see You’ll reach your destination with me! Yay!”
Rainbow Dash stared at the pink pony in bewilderment. “Do you... do you have a song for everything?”
Pinkie pondered the question for a moment. “Nope!” she finally said as Dash walked past her. “I don’t have a song about singing! Ooohhh, do you want to help me make one?” She said as she jumped after Rainbow Dash again.
“Eh, I’ll pass...”
“D’awww, you don’t know how to have fun, Dashie.” Pinkie pouted.
“Hey! I’m lots of fun,” Rainbow said indignantly,” it’s just that I like other stuff. Like erm... racing.”
They rounded the corner, and Pinkie’s face lit up with an idea.
“Then lets race! From here to the end of the hallway.”
The pegasus grinned smugly. “You? Race me? Heh, alright, if you insist.”
They took up their places next to each other, and Dash crouched down, ready to burst forward in an instant. Pinkie seemed altogether more relaxed, just standing at their improvised starting line.
“Get ready. Set. GO!” Dash shouted, and she exploded out of the starting blocks. The hallways were quite spacious, so flying wasn’t much of a problem. All she had to look out for was the wall on the other side, but even when taking into account her stopping distance, she could easily maintain speeds over twice of what an earthbound pony could hope to achieve. She touched down again on the other side of the hallway, and turned around triumphantly.
“I win!” she shouted.
But Pinkie was nowhere to be seen. The entire hallway was deserted, and there were no places to hide, either.
“Euh... Pinkie?” Dash said in a small voice.
“Yes?” the pink party pony answered from right behind her, causing her heart to jump up into her throat.
“Ohmigosh, don’t do that!” Rainbow wheezed as she clutched her chest. “H-how did you... ? You couldn’t have passed me, there’s no way!”
“Silly filly,” Pinkie said with a giggle, “you still came in second place!”
She bounced off into another hallway again, leaving behind a perplexed Dash, who eventually shrugged and followed after her friend.
But from the shadows, Cheerilee was watching them. It had taken her some time to track them down, but luckily they were everything but silent. She had gotten a pretty good idea as to how Twilight had split up her troops. Cheerilee’d found the first two in one of the wings, and the second two in the centrum of the complex; it didn’t take a genius to figure out where the last two would be. She was--all in all quite--pleased with the order in which the culprits were presented to her.
She kept a close eye on Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie as she crept through the inner sanctum, her mind working at full speed. She knew exactly where they were going, and they had already passed by a few traps which Cheerilee could have activated. She had decided against doing so because of one simple reason: Pinkie Pie’s uncanny ability to predict seemingly random perils and occurrences. Most traps Cheerilee could throw at them would probably fail to reel Pinkie in, and Cheerilee wanted to avoid a repeat of the Applejack incident at all costs. At the same time, she couldn’t underestimate Rainbow Dash either. She didn’t have Pinkie’s strange senses, but she knew speed and agility like no other.
No, just firing up a trap likely wouldn’t do. But Cheerilee knew their strengths, and she had the means to turn those into their weaknesses.
The two of them were still happily chattering, when they finally turned the corner into the hallway Cheerilee needed for her plan. Of course, she hadn’t given them any other options, slowly leading them along the desired path. They hadn’t noticed a thing. Cheerilee walked up to a nearby vantage point, which had a rich supply of levers and hidden buttons. She pressed one of them; it was time for the show to begin.
“And that’s why you should never trust gerbils, see?”
“Yes, yes, I see,” said Rainbow Dash, by now resigned to the fact that Pinkie Pie was simply in an indestructibly good mood.
A high-pitched screeching sound resounded throughout the complex.
“That was you, right?” Rainbow asked urgently. “Please tell me that was you.”
“It was me!” the other mare responded cheerfully.
Dash wiped the sweat off of her brow. “Phew, you know, for a moment there I thought-”
Suddenly the ceiling slid down with a rumbling noise--a few meters back from where they were standing--abruptly turning the hallway into a one-way street.
“H-how did you do that?” Rainbow said, her jaw falling open.
“I, euh, didn’t,” Pinkie said, genuinely worried for the first time.
“What, but you said-”
“Because that’s what you asked me to say!”
Dash opened her mouth to provide Pinkie with a rather angry reply, but she cut herself short when she suddenly saw her friend’s tail twitch, followed by a series of other twitches, flutters and vibrations. The pegasus swallowed.
“Was that... ?”
Pinkie stared at her with wide open eyes, and then--as if the message finally got through to her--she jumped forward, wrapping her hooves around Rainbow Dash and pulling her to the ground. “Duck!”
An arrow shot out of a hidden slit in the wall, flying right through the point where Dash’s head had been just a second ago before impacting the wall on the other side.
“Fast-moving object from the side!” Pinkie exclaimed. “Somepony’s shooting at us!”
Dash was about to say something again, when she felt a series of shudders and vibrations go through Pinkie’s body, which seemed to last far longer than anything she’d ever seen before.
“Big one?” the pegasus pony ventured a guess.
“That wasn’t one,” Pinkie whispered, “those were at least five, which means we need to... RUN!”
Dash--just like everypony in Ponyville--knew better than to argue with the Pinkie Sense, and so she jumped up as soon as Pinkie gave the word. And not a moment too late. The very moment she took to the sky--and Pinkie performed a rather elegant forward roll--a barrage of arrows shot out from the ceiling, clattering against the floor exactly where they had just been. The entire hallway shuddered as the walls behind them suddenly moved towards each other, slamming into one another with a thunderous bang.
“Keep moving!” Pinkie yelled as the next series of warnings hit her, but Dash didn’t need to be told. She was already in the air and ready to blast off, when wave upon wave of arrows started flying out of every surface in sight. And to make matters worse, parts of the walls and ceiling seemed determined to turn any pony who tried to pass at the wrong time into a bloody smear on the ground or on the opposite wall.
“Left!” Pinkie yelled at Dash as she dodged a couple of arrows and a falling piece of ceiling. “Now right again! Forward! Oops, no, back!”
Dash weaved and tumbled around in the air, doing her best to follow Pinkie’s directions while keeping an eye out for anything the earth pony might have missed. After a close encounter with a pillar that suddenly shot out of one of the walls, it was clear that not even Pinkie could give her orders fast enough for Dash to be completely able to rely on them. Luckily, she was by far the most acrobatic pegasi in town; any other would have already resembled a porcupine by now.
“What do we do?” Dash yelled down as she continued to progress through the hallway slowly, hampered by the constant need to evade--often in a backwards direction--or wait for one of the stone pillars to retract.
“Just-RIGHT!-keep-RIGHT!-going!-LEFT!” Pinkie said, quickly running out of breath.
Dash quickly glanced towards the end of the corridor as she ducked past two arrows, and she realised Pinkie had a point. For all the projectiles flying around her head, the hallways up ahead seemed relatively calm. She wanted to yell an affirmative answer back at Pinkie, when a sudden scream made her turn around, just in time to see Pinkie disappear in a hole that had miraculously appeared in the floor.
“Pinkie!” she yelled as she threw herself into a dive. Pinkie Sense could detect every hazard around, how did her friend miss one so obvious?
Dash dove into the hole in pursuit of Pinkie Pie, attempting to stay in the air as best she could. Pretty soon the size of the hole decreased, and it angled upwards until it was more akin to a stone slide. It finally became so cramped that Dash was forced to retract her wings, and she started to slide down the tunnel instead. It didn’t take long for her to catch a glimpse of Pinkie Pie in between the twists and turns of the slide, but her friend seemed to be in bad shape. Her descent had been quite uncontrolled, unlike Dash’s, and so she seemed to be rolling down the tunnel rather than sliding down it, crashing into the walls constantly.
“Pinkie!” Dash yelled, as she tried to pick up speed. There was no reply.
All of a sudden, the part of the tunnel that lay between Pinkie and Dash changed. The wall slid forward--blocking off the path Pinkie was rolling down--and at the same time another fork opened up. Dash crashed heavily into the wall, her forward momentum catapulting her down the other chute. It didn’t last long though, as the tunnel suddenly became almost horizontal and she shot out of it straight into a big, metal cage. She crashed into its back wall and fell down in a heap, as the door slammed shut behind her all on its own.
“Ow ow ow ow,” Rainbow muttered as she struggled to get up. “That’s going to leave a mark...”
She looked around the room she was in, and found it to be mostly featureless. There wasn’t even a door in sight. There was, however, another cage--similar to hers-- on the other side of the room, and she immediately spotted her friend lying at the bottom of it, clearly unconscious. Rainbow Dash cringed slightly as she noticed one of her friend’s legs was bending in a way that it really ought not to.
“Hey, Pinkie, wake up! Hey!” she yelled as she started to rattle the door of her cage, trying to open it. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
But Pinkie didn’t respond, and Dash couldn’t find any way to get the door open, no matter how much she rammed into it or kicked it with her hind legs.
“Ow!” she yelped as she felt something sting her in the side of her neck.
She scratched at it with her hoof, and a little dart fell onto the floor beneath her cage. “What in the hay...” she said, as her vision rapidly detoriated.
“Well, you can’t wake her up, so why don’t you take a nap as well?” Cheerilee’s voice rang out besides her.
Rainbow Dash turned towards her, trying to focus her vision on the fuchsia-coloured blur that she knew to be the slightly older mare.
“Cheewee... ree?” was the last thing she managed to utter, before collapsing onto the floor of her cage.
Cheerilee simply smiled. She had suspected that Pinkie’s senses only worked on somewhat random occurrences--things falling from the sky or arrows being shot out of a wall in a certain sequence didn’t care if there was a pony in their path or not, after all--and that they’d prove useless against a deliberate action, but she had still been sweating when she manually activated that pit, until she saw Pinkie disappear down into it. The element of loyalty immediately tried to save her friend, of course, proving to be both more reliable and stupider than the average weed.
Cheerilee shrugged, and got to work. There was a lot that needed taking care of.
Rainbow Dash opened her eyes with a start, and Cheerilee immediately filled almost her entire field of vision. Rainbow tried to go on the offensive straight away, but found she had been securely chained up against a small vertical wall of sorts. Her wings had been forced through slits inside of the wall, and she cringed in pain as she tried to move them: it felt as if somepony had driven hooks or nails through the fleshy parts. Rainbow didn’t even need to guess who that had been.
“Just in time for the main event,” Cheerilee said while a sly smile played around her lips.
“Buck you! What have you done to Pinkie Pie?” the spiffy pegasus spat back into her face, leaning forward into her bindings as best she could, and putting on her most warlike face.
“My, my, have you got a dirty mouth on you...” Cheerilee said as she stepped aside. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that. As for your friend...”
Dash could finally look past the other mare, and she gasped for breath. Pinkie Pie was tied to a table just a meter or two ahead, one side of the table elevated slightly to ensure that Rainbow Dash had a good view. The pink pony had been gagged as well, but from the look in her eyes Dash could tell that she was scared. It’s hard to giggle at anything with something like that in your mouth, she supposed. She noticed there was a far smaller cage hanging from the ceiling behind Pinkie, but it seemed to be empty.
“Let her go. Now,” Rainbow hissed at Cheerilee through clenched teeth.
“Oh, soon enough, soon enough,” Cheerilee assured her as she rummaged about inside of the saddlebags lying nearby. “Can’t say she’ll necessarily be in one piece, though.”
“Let me guess: monster?” Cheerilee finished the sentence for her as she turned around, a syringe filled with a brightly coloured, green substance in her hooves. “I heard that one from your friend Applejack already... you weeds really need some original material.”
“You better not have hurt Applejack, or I’m going to ram my hoof down your face!”
“Cute.” Cheerilee lightly tapped the needle of the syringe with her free hoof. “Now hold still.”
Rainbow Dash fought against her bonds, but in truth she didn’t have much choice but to remain still as the needle drew near. Cheerilee roughly forced it into one of the pegasus’ legs, emptying its contents into her bloodstream, as Dash clenched her teeth with a grunt.
“You ugly mule, what did you do to me?” Dash demanded to know.
Cheerilee simply grinned, as she stepped behind the pegasus. “Let’s play a game. I call it: Sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice?” Rainbow asked despite herself.
She didn’t get a reply right away, at least not in the way she expected. Cheerilee was obviously doing something behind her back, and Rainbow didn’t think it was anything good. She heard something click behind her, and she grunted as the hooks embedded into her wings suddenly started to pull backwards, until her wings were just about at the straining point. Two ropes descended from the ceiling, dangling in front of Dash’s face. Cheerilee stepped back into view, brandishing a smooth knife.
“It’s quite simple, really... You keep sacrificing things that are important to you, or...”
Cheerilee pressed her body up against Rainbow’s, whispering in her ear as she lazily dragged the tip of her knife through the pegasus’ coat, without actually cutting. “Or I take something Pinkie cherishes away from her instead...”
Rainbow looked over Cheerilee’s shoulder, and she met Pinkie’s eyes. The pink pony seemed at the verge of tears, and was shaking her head wildly. She was obviously trying to communicate something... but what was it? Don’t let her hurt me? Don’t do this for me?
Dash closed her eyes, and breathed out slowly. There really was only one option open to her, only one way she could live with herself. “Alright, I’ll do it. But only if you let Pinkie go!”
Cheerilee licked her lips. “Excellent, I knew you wouldn’t back down from a challenge... And of course your friend can go, once you’ve sacrificed everything you hold dear!” She cackled, causing Pinkie to whimper softly, and even Dash felt her blood go a bit colder in her veins.
“Just tell me how the hay you want to do this,” Dash hissed. She wiggled her nose for a moment, as she cursed her luck. Getting itchy at such a moment...
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Cheerilee grabbed hold of one of the ropes dangling in front of Dash, and pulled. A shock of pain went through Dash’s body as the hooks in her right wing pulled back with the same force, causing her to let out a yelp of surprise.
Cheerilee winked at her. “This’ll be the price for now: your wings.”
“N-no way,” Dash stuttered as cold sweat broke out all over her body. “Y-you can’t make me give up those! I’m a pegasus, I need to fly, the Wonderbolts-”
“Looks like it’s Pinkie’s turn already!” Cheerilee said cheerfully as she turned towards the party-loving filly, and Dash could hear her friends muffled cries.
“No! Wait! I’ll do it!” Rainbow Dash yelled. “Just... just please... please don’t hurt Pinkie...”
“Well, aren’t you ever the loyal friend,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she turned back around.
She briefly tinkered with the chains tying Rainbow Dash down, and they soon tumbled to the ground. The pegasus was surprised for a moment, but realized soon enough that the hooks pulling her wings back still effectively glued her to the back of the table. On top of that, Cheerilee was smart enough to stay well out of reach of her hooves. Dash scratched her nose almost without noticing, and her neck was getting kind of itchy as well.
“Well, chop, chop, those wings aren’t going to pull themselves off, you know,” Cheerilee said as she took up position right next to Pinkie Pie, whom she started poking with the tip of her knife, obviously meant as extra motivation for Dash.
The pegasus herself finally took hold of the rope with both of her shaking hooves, breathing in and out deeply in an effort to calm herself. She always prided herself on her loyalty, but that was really about to be put to the test; not only was this likely to be incredibly painful, but she was about to give up something that had defined every aspect of her life up until this day.
She felt tears pricking in the corner of her eyes, and for a moment a dark part of her mind told her to just give up, to reconsider. But as she glanced at her friend--lying there, helplessly, likely with at least one broken leg and at the mercy of a bucking psychopath--she realised she simply had to do it. For her best friend.
“YAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” With a primal scream Rainbow Dash pulled down hard on the rope, throwing all of her explosive power into this one desperate act. Her breathing stalled as pain exploded through her back and chest, and she felt some manner of bladed edge bite into the base of her wing, weakening it slightly as it tore away. Bone cracked and splintered, while whole bundles of nerve endings and flesh got pulled straight out of her back. Rainbow Dash screamed and screamed as the wing tore away, and continued doing so for at least a full minute afterwards as well.
She finally stopped screaming--still panting and breathing heavily--tears and sweat streaming down her face in tandem with the blood running down her back. “S-see? T-that w... was n-nothing. N-nothing at a-all,” she said shakingly.
“Then do the other one,” Cheerilee said, clearly enjoying the show.
Pinkie was crying silently as well, and she was still shaking her head.
“R-right. I... I can do t-this... No problem! J... just one more... s-stupid wing... it... it doesn’t even h-hurt... at all!” Rainbow broke into a nervous giggle as she grasped the other rope. “A-all... right...”
“YAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” she screamed again, and she pulled down with all her might, but the rope slipped between her hooves. The hooks still roughly pulled at her flesh, ripping into her as a blade sliced into the base of her wing. Dash almost fell forward off the table, but quickly found that even with just one wing trapped she was still securely locked in place.
“N-no way...” the rainbow-maned pony stammered, in-between her gasps for breath.
Cheerilee raised an eyebrow. “Again.”
Rainbow lifted her hooves towards the rope again, shaking like crazy. It had been relatively easy the first time; she hadn’t known exactly what it’d feel like. The second time had been more difficult, as she could hardly stomach the thought of having to go through that pain again. But this time...
“No! No! I... I can’t do it!” Rainbow said as she burst into a waterfall of tears, her whole body shaking under her emotions and pain. At the same time, the itching flared up again, worse than before. “It hurts, it hurts so bad! You have no idea... I can’t do it! I won’t do it! NO!”
Cheerilee burst into laughter, and the unpleasant sound echoed throughout the room. “This is the limit of your loyalty? I should’ve known better than to expect anything from the likes of you, I suppose.”
She turned towards Pinkie, bending over her as she readied her knife. “Well then, Pinkie... I’m afraid I have to take the thing you hold most dear: your smile.”
She ripped Pinkie’s gag out of her mouth, and the pink mare’s eyes filled with fear.
“No! Please, no! Somepony help me! Dash! DASHIE!” she yelled, desperately fighting against her bonds as best she could. Pain flared up throughout her body as several broken bones protested, but the threat posed by Cheerilee’s knife gave her enough strength to momentarily ignore those signals.
“I’m sorry... I’m s-so s-sorry...” Dash sobbed, her eyes closed and her face turned away, covering her eyes with one hoof and scratching at her neck with the other.
Cheerilee plunged forward, ramming the tip of her knife straight into Pinkie’s cheek, blood bubbling up both inside and outside of her victims mouth. Pinkie screamed in pain, and soon regretted it as she cut her own tongue on the knife, causing her to panic even more. The teacher started to move the knife downwards, intent on making a neat cut down towards Pinkie’s chin, but the struggling and screaming of the aforementioned made sure it was a messy cut at best. She tilted the blade slightly and cut under the bottom lip, grazing up against Pinkie’s teeth and badly damaging her gums in some places, as blood dripped down her face.
“Uuungh! Ghnnuugh!” Ponyville’s premier party pony screamed as Cheerilee dragged the knife up again through the cheek on the other side. She turned the blade again and drove it through the flesh between Pinkie’s upper lip and nose, connecting finally to the point where she had first plunged the knife in. Ignoring Pinkie’s cries and sobs, she leaned in and bit down onto the earth pony’s now disconnected upper lip, grabbing the jar she had stored Applejack’s tongue in from underneath the table, and dropping Pinkie’s lips into them.
Pinkie was crying profusely, and every tear only increased her pain as it rolled down the naked flesh of her now heavily disfigured face. Without lips she was quite the monstrosity, especially with all the blood oozing out of her cheeks, tongue and gums. Even Cheerilee felt a shiver run down her spine as she looked at her, but perhaps that was more out of artistic pride than true uneasiness.
“Awww, cheer up!” Cheerilee told her. “You just gave a smile, and perhaps you can still get a smile, too! What do you say, Dashie?”
The pegasus--who had been hiding her face in her hooves ever since Pinkie started screaming--finally dared open her eyes, and she slowly looked up at her friend’s face. Pinkie had a desperate, pleading look on her face, as if she really wanted somepony to tell her that it’d be ok, but the overall effect was nauseating at best. Dash felt herself go green, and with a sickening splatter she emptied her stomach onto the floor. Pinkie burst into tears once more.
“Wow, you know you’re ugly when even your most loyal friends can’t look at you without throwing up!” Cheerilee said, trying desperately not to burst into a fit of laughter again.
“N-No! I.. it’s not that bad! I was just, s-surprised, Pinkie, I swear!” Dash tried desperately, but it didn’t sound convincing even to herself.
“‘ou riar, I’nh ughie!” Pinkie sobbed, apparently not entirely used to speaking without lips yet.
Dash didn’t know what to say--what with pain, nausea and that infernal itch clouding her mind--but Cheerilee quickly took that problem off of her hooves.
“Well then, let’s move on to the next step, shall we?”
“N-next step?” Rainbow asked, as she tried to ignore itching, and the stabbing pain in her back.
Cheerilee smiled wickedly. “Seeing as you’re not mare enough to pull through yourself, I’ll just have to do the next one for you,” she said as she started to undo the bindings that held Pinkie Pie in place, causing the pink mare to let out a flood of whimpers and only half-formed syllables.
“Wait! I didn’t fail this round, you have to leave her alone!” Dash screamed indignantly. She wasn’t a stranger to cheating, but she still couldn’t stand it when others did it. Especially if they had been the ones to come up with the rules in the first place.
Cheerilee finished opening up the last clasp, and Pinkie tried to escape by quickly rolling off of the table. Her hooves touched the ground and she let out a terrible shriek, as her legs gave way beneath her. Dash swallowed; apparently her friend had broken even more bones than she had originally thought.
“H-hey, are you... listening?”
Cheerilee grabbed Pinkie by the hair and dragged her along the ground, ignoring her pleas and whimpers, as she threw the lipless pony into the cage which hung half a meter or so above the ground. Pinkie cried out in pain as she attempted to gain some sort of footing inside of the cage, but her broken legs kept slipping off of the bars, and her forelegs didn’t have the strength to pull her up.
As she walked towards a lever next to the cage, Cheerilee finally addressed Rainbow’s questions. “Oh, I’m playing by the rules... But I think that, after flying, the thing you hold most dear... is Pinkie Pie herself!”
She burst out in maniacal laughter as she pulled the lever into a neutral position, and the ground underneath Pinkie’s cage slid open. Immediately a plume of steam rose up from the newly created pit, and Pinkie cried out unintelligible as the heat wrapped itself around her. She looked down shakily and immediately saw a raging reserve of boiling water, which even Rainbow Dash could hear from her position on the other side of the room.
“You can’t do this! You said you’d let her go if I pulled through!” Rainbow Dash yelled, her pain and other discomforts momentarily forgotten.
Cheerilee burst out in another bout of maniacal laughter. “Ahahaha! And you think you have? If she really means that much to you, COME AND SAVE HER!” She abruptly pushed the lever down--opposite to the position it had been in first--and the cage Pinkie was in started to descend slowly.
“Djazh! DJASH!” Pinke screamed as she tried to move herself over to the door of the cage, which Cheerilee had left wide open. Her efforts proved to be in vain, as there was simply no way she’d ever make it even halfway with her body in the condition it was in. She almost went green with pain just trying to stand up.
Rainbow Dash bit back her pain and fear, putting all of her personal issues on hold. She hadn’t known exactly what Cheerilee was capable of before, and her first run-in with pain of that magnitude had shocked her to her core. She had lost sight of her principles in a sea of pain and fear, but now they were playing for the marbles. Now Cheerilee was threatening to take something that really mattered from her, and Dash wasn’t planning to let her get away with it. Not anymore.
“Hold on Pinkie, I’m coming!” she yelled as she put her hooves around the rope once more, gritting her teeth as she pulled down with all her might. She felt the sickening snap of her bones, and another wave of immense pain rolled over her as her second wing ripped free, once again taking a large chunk of flesh and skin with it. She screamed and fought against the pain, taking a deep breath before jumping off the table and onto her hooves.
As soon as she landed, however, the world started spinning before her eyes. She found it hard to keep her balance, and the first step she took caused her to fall down to her knees.
“Wha... what did you... do?” she said as nausea overcame here.
Cheerilee didn’t respond, but in truth, she didn’t have to. Rainbow Dash glanced at the empty syringe that lay a few meters away from her, and the answer became abundantly clear.
Meanwhile, Pinkie’s cage kept descending, as she desperately tried to rise to her hooves. One of her legs dangled out of the cage through the bars, but she simply did not have the strength to pull it up again. Her hoof finally broke the surface, and Pinkie screamed. The incredibly hot water assaulted every nerve ending it could reach, as the pink mare got submerged more and more. Where the water touched her her skin it first reddened, and then paled underneath her coat, giving it an altogether bleaker appearance. After a few seconds her flesh started to bubble, as it burst open in a series of bloody blisters which painted the water red. She sank deeper and deeper, and her screeches intensified.
“H-Hang in there, Pinkie!” Dash yelled as she tried to get back to her feet, attempting to move forward.
She swayed on her hooves more than Berry Punch on New Year’s Eve, but she slowly made her way over to the lever. She fell more than once, but scrambled to her feet as fast as she could every time. Even so, precious seconds were lost. On top of that, several places on her body started to itch, but she ignored that in favour of bigger problems.
Water flooded Pinkie’s cage, and pretty soon the water was up to her neck, as she barely managed to lift her face away from the bottom of the cage. She continued to scream, but the heat and the immense pain--combined with the loss of blood--slowly began to take their toll, and her screams became weaker and weaker.
Finally, Dash arrived at the lever, and she leaned heavily against it as she tried to catch her breath and push it in the other direction at the same time. Cheerilee just stood and watched, completely unconcerned.
“Better hurry, she’s about to go completely u- ah, there she goes!” Cheerilee yelled as Pinkie Pie finally disappeared under the surface, her screams drowned in the boiling water.
Dash pushed against the lever, but whatever Cheerilee had injected into her hadn’t only affected her balance, it had severely weakened her as well. She finally managed to push the lever back into its original position by throwing all her weight against it, and the cage started to lift out of the water again--thankfully at a faster pace than at which it had gone in.
Rainbow Dash managed to drag herself to where the cage’s door would be with some effort, but she felt a block of ice descend into her stomach when she looked down. Pinkie’s body was covered in bloody blisters, and her flesh was slouching off of her body in several places. Dash had heard how bad burn wounds could get, but this was far worse than she expected it would be. Pinkie looked like a zombie in some places, and like an overcooked chicken in others. Then again, she didn’t doubt that Cheerilee had done something to the water to make it turn out this way.
What disturbed her more than the absolutely abysmal condition her friend’s body was in, though, was the fact that she wasn’t moving. She held her breath in fear, and when the floor finally closed up again she immediately lunged forward as best she could, dragging Pinkie’s body out of the cage. The cage itself remained quite hot to the touch, and the layer of water that still coated Pinkie’s body scalded Dash slightly, but she didn’t care as she gently lay her friend down upon the stones in front of her.
From the way her chest was rising and falling, Dash could tell she was still alive, if only barely. As she brushed away Pinkie’s hair from in front of her face, Dash made another horrifying discovery: The water had almost completely melted her eyes away. The sight of the pink pony’s face--half-empty sockets, bloody blisters and a gaping mess of blood and teeth were her lips used to be--sickened Dash, but she was determined to stay by her side.
“It’s o-ok Pinkie, you... you’re g-going to be o-ok... I promise!” Dash stammered as tears started to stream down her face.
“Daaa... shhiee...” Pinkie moaned hoarsely, reaching out for her with a hoof. Her flesh continued to slouch off, and several more sores burst open into bloody pus, causing her to whimper weakly.
“Shhh, shhh...” Dash tried to comfort her, cradling her softly.
A clattering of steel drew her attention, as Cheerilee threw her knife down next to the two of them. “I think we both know what needs to be done.”
Rainbow Dash stared up at her angrily. “You want me to do your dirty work now? WELL BUCK YOU!”
Cheerilee sneered. “You’re blinder than your friend if you can’t see the pain she’s in.”
Rainbow Dash looked down at Pinkie’s face, and realised Cheerilee was telling the truth. Her entire face was contorted, and she whimpered without end. It was obvious she’d never make it, and by this point, it was perhaps cruel to delay her end.
She grabbed the knife with a shaking hoof, and looked from the blade to Pinkie’s face and back again a few times. She bit down upon her lip and sobbed, as she readied the weapon above her head. A swift stab to the heart seemed to be the kindest thing she could for her now.
“I-I’m s-sorry, Pinke... So sorry...” Dash sobbed.
She turned her face away from her friend as she stabbed down, so that she wouldn’t have to see the her friend die. That proved to be a grave mistake. She missed the heart by an inch or so, perforating Pinkie’s lung instead. Dash gasped as she quickly drew back the knife, and Pinkie whimpered, coughing up blood as her breathing became even more laboured and shallow.
“Daassshhh... why?” Pinkie said hoarsely.
“Ohmigosh, ohmigosh, ohmigosh,” Dash said in panic, as she quickly struck with the knife again.
She finally hit the mark, and blood welled up around the blade, as Pinkie’s hooves weakly clawed at Rainbow Dash’s, her survival instincts still fighting on.
“Ghngh... we... f... fr... iends...” Pinkie stuttered, and Dash broke into sobs.
After a few seconds, Pinkie’s hooves finally fell down next to her body, and she passed away. Dash stared at her own hooves in shock, and her shoulders shook. She was overcome by grief, but she didn’t have any tears left. Giving Pinkie a swift end had been the only sensible thing to do, but she wasn’t prepared for how heavy that decision bore down upon her shoulders.
Her entire body started to shake, and she wrapped her front legs around herself in an effort to control it.
“Did you like killing your own friend?” Cheerilee whispered into her ear. “You know, if you had been a bit faster...”
“B-buck you, you monster,” Rainbow said as she grabbed hold of the knife again, turning around. “I will make you pay!”
“I very much doubt that,” Cheerilee said with a cocky smile.
Rainbow Dash let out a battle cry and attempted to lunge at the other mare, but Cheerilee easily side-stepped that attempt. Rainbow was even worse on her hooves than before, and her reaction time was just terrible. Her balance was so far gone that she crashed to the ground all on her own, and she had trouble getting back up again.
“S... so are you going to kill me too now?” she said as she panted, looking at Cheerilee from her place on the ground.
Cheerilee grinned. “I think we had a pretty good thing going here with you, as you put it, ‘doing my dirty work’.”
“Well I’m not going to-” Dash started to say, when she began to become aware of the terrible itching sensation all over her legs and body again. She’d been able to hold it at bay for a while, but now it had intensified to such a level that she just couldn’t ignore it anymore.
The feeling continued to intensify, to the point where it was driving her insane. She started scratching herself all over with her hooves, attempting to drive out the feeling, but it simply wouldn’t go away. Especially the little puncture wound in her neck--from the dart earlier--became incredibly irritated, and she started rubbing it as if she was in a craze.
“Nice timing,” Cheerilee said as she took a step back.
Dash wanted to say something, but by this point she was simply too preoccupied to think straight. Her neck became red and irritated, as she continued to scratch with the tips of her hooves. Eventually her skin broke, and she started to bleed, but that wasn’t the most disturbing part. She became aware of a sort of crawly sensation around the wound, and suddenly a whole heap of maggots started to pour out from it, looking for a way out. Rainbow Dash could only look at them in horror as they fell down to the floor, and she screamed at the top of her lungs.
“AAAGGHH! What did you do to me! Get them out! GET THEM OUT!” she said as she frantically dug her hooves into the wound, trying to dig the beasts out.
Cheerilee looked on, giddy with excitement. She liked to see ponies break down, and this was quite a wonderful breakdown indeed.
Dash was now clawing at her own throat, widening the wound by the second, as blood dripped down her hooves, and maggots continued to pour out. She started to let out bestial sounds as she worked herself up into a frenzy, tearing out her throat piece by piece. She snatched up the knife and started to stab it into her throat repeatedly in an effort to dislodged the creatures, blood gurgling up into her mouth. Eventually her strength started to give out, and with one last stab she toppled over, as all power left her body.
“Gghet... theeemm... out...” she gurgled one last time, before life fled from her eyes.
Cheerilee looked at the wonderfully bloody scene, and she licked her lips as she went to fetch her jar. She still had something to collect, after all. She wondered what Dash had seen towards the end, she hadn’t seen any maggots at all.
“We should’ve found something by now...” Twilight said with barely restrained irritation, causing Spike and Rarity to exchange a worried look behind her back.
“I’m sure we’ll find her soon, dear,” Rarity said soothingly, “we’ve almost searched this entire wing, have we not?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes... But I’m still worried about those moving walls. They may be throwing us off target.”
Rarity and Spike exchanged a worried look once more, both of them fully believing that these so called ‘moving walls’ were nothing but a trick Twilight was playing upon herself. Nopony could be expected to perfectly remember the entire route they’d taken, after all. It made sense that things would be slightly different than they remembered when they passed by the same place a second time, but Twilight didn’t see it that way.
“And you know,” Twilight continued, “according to Hooves’ book, every hour we delay the chances of finding her alive are cut in half!”
Rarity clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Twilight, you simply must adopt a sunnier outlook, otherwise you will get absolutely dreadful wrinkles.”
“She’s right, Twi,” Spike chimed in. “Well, euh, I wouldn’t know about the wrinkles, but... worrying constantly can’t be healthy, you know? Besides, the others may have already found Twist, right?”
The purple unicorn breathed in slowly. “You’re right, Spike, you’re right... I’m sure things will be fine.” She smiled at both of her friends, and they returned the sentiment, before winking at each other as soon as they were sure Twilight wouldn’t notice.
“So, darling, do you think we should-”
“Wait!” Twilight interrupted as they were about to turn right at yet another split. “The stone in the centre of that wall is missing a piece right there in the corner, which means that wall used to be over there... Which in turn means we should be going left here.”
Spike sighed and glanced over at Rarity, who just shrugged and shook her head.
“Whatever you want is fine, dear,” she said amiably, as the group turned left and they continued on their way.
Cheerilee gritted her teeth. How was it possible for one mare to so thoroughly foil her plans every time, without even knowing those plans existed? The maze had been built with subtlety in mind; if everything went according to plan, an invading force would never even realise they were being herded. Just blocking off pathways directly would quickly shatter the illusion, so instead she relied on combinations of paths that would lead her prey to the right location one way or the other, unless they really made the right choice every time, which was impossible.
Or at least she had thought it impossible before Twilight showed up; that unicorn planned every step she took so thoroughly that she had instantly noticed Cheerilee’s tampering. Every time Cheerilee thought she had succeeded, Twilight turned her little group away at the last second, and they escaped the grip of death once more.
Cheerilee couldn’t help but admire the purple mare for her intelligence, as Twilight possessed many qualities she had always sought to foster in her pupils. If they had gotten some time to get to know each other in different circumstances... Cheerilee coughed and shook her head, as she realised she’d just been staring at Twi’s plot for the better part of a minute. She couldn’t lose sight of what she was here for, and she couldn’t make an exception for Twilight, even if she had wanted to. Everything that had happened was her fault, in a way, so she had to be taken care of. How could such a brilliant mind have fallen so low?
As the three of them turned down the right path yet again--that is to say, the path that Cheerilee didn’t want them to take--she finally reached a decision. If trickery and subtlety wouldn’t do, then she’d simply have to take some risks. As an earth pony, she still held the advantage against unicorns who couldn’t use any magic.
Or she hoped so, anyway.
“Alright, this was the last hallway. We should probably turn back now.” Twilight frowned. “No Twist though.”
“Euh, how do you even know?” Spike asked with a frown. “I can’t tell these apart...”
Twilight ignored him as she quickly mapped a course on the imaginary map she kept in her head, and Rarity just shrugged. She was used to it by now, and the sooner they’d be able to leave these dusty old ruins, the better.
“Well, we should just be able to turn around here and-”
Suddenly the walls at the end of the hallway started to move, and the three of them stared, dumbfounded, as entirely new passages were formed, closing off the ones that had been there only seconds before. Rarity and Spike seemed suddenly ill at ease, but Twilight looked quite elated, as she instantly rushed forward to investigate, carrying Spike along with her.
“See! They moved! I told you they moved! I wonder how, is there some kind of mechanism?” She started patting down the wall, looking for a secret switch or something of the sort.
“I... I’m not sure you should be messing with that, darling,” Rarity said nervously. “I don’t like this...”
Spike leaned forward over Twi’s neck, whispering in her ear. “Let’s just go, Twi, I think she’s right.”
Twilight opened her mouth to remind him of the fact that he always agreed with Rarity, when a scream from the aforementioned made her turn around. She gasped for breath in tandem with Spike as she saw Cheerilee holding a knife against Rarity’s neck. There was an opening in the wall behind the two that hadn’t been there before, and Twilight instantly realised they had been fooled.
“Nopony move, and Miss Fashionista here gets to keep her head on that pretty little neck of hers,” Cheerilee said with a smile as she pressed down upon the knife just a bit, eliciting a little squeal from her hostage.
“So it was you!” Twilight shouted as she turned around. “Unhoof her, or I’ll-”
“Wave your magic horn at me?” Cheerilee laughed, as Twilight gritted her teeth. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now you two stay over there as we skip back behind this wall, this doesn’t have to get messy.”
“No! You leave Rarity alone!” Spike said as he jumped from Twilight’s back and ran forward, only to stop halfway as Cheerilee cut Rarity slightly, a single drop of blood welling up underneath the tip of her blade as the white-coated unicorn yelped.
“Tell your boyfriend to behave,” Cheerilee hissed at the fashionista.
“S-spikey?” Rarity said shakily as tears appeared in the corners of her eyes. “I... I k-know you w-want to save me, b-but I n-need you t-to stay t-there for now, ok? Can y-you do that f-for me? Sweetie?”
Spike wanted to protest, but the look of pure terror in the white unicorn’s eyes made him decide against it, as he balled his fists.
“If you hurt even one hair on her head, Cheerilee, I sw-”
“Blah blah, heard it all before,” Cheerilee interrupted him as she started to pull her hostage back towards the opening in the wall. “You just be a good wittle dwagon and stay the buck where you are.”
Spike seethed with rage, but there was nothing he could do. Twilight’s mind frantically looked for a way to turn the tables, but in truth nothing she did would be faster than Cheerilee’s knife. They both watched, powerlessly, as the wicked mare dragged their friend into the inner sanctum, the wall immediately starting to close up behind them. As soon as they disappeared out of view, Spike made his move, sprinting towards the gradually shrinking opening.
“Spike, no!” Twilight whispered as she gave chase, barely loud enough for Spike to hear, but not so loud that it’d endanger Rarity.
The little dragon didn’t heed her warnings and pushed on, rolling underneath the wall just before it closed. Twilight arrived just too late, and she banged her hooves against the wall.
“Spike! Can you hear me? Spike? SPIKE!” she yelled, but got no reply.
She started to search every inch of the wall with her hooves, determined to find the mechanism that’d put it in motion. She realised they were dealing with a cold-blooded killer, who had them outmatched to boot, but she didn’t care. Cheerilee had her friends, and she was determined to get them back.
No matter what.
Spike rolled through the gap, just barely making it through by the scales of his teeth, emerging into an empty hallway that seemed to run parallel to the one that he’d just been in. There was a dead end to his left, and the secret passage quickly disappeared around a corner to his right. He could hear hoofsteps and muffled cries coming from that direction and so he gave chase, following Cheerilee as stealthily as possible.
He followed them around like this for a few minutes--always taking care to be one corner behind--when a high-pitched scream rang out throughout the corridors. He instantly broke into a sprint and rounded the next corner, climbing the stairs he was surprised to find there.
“No! You fiend! How could you?” Rarity yelled as Spike lifted his head above the final step, peeking into the room beyond.
The room appeared to have a square shape, but due to poor lighting conditions only the middle of the room could be seen clearly. Rarity was sitting on some kind of wooden throne, her legs bound by chains. The chains around her forelegs first went through little rings connected to the armrests and then went up to the ceiling, while those around her hind legs disappeared through holes in the ground instead.
Cheerilee was standing in front of her, and Spike immediately saw what had caused Rarity’s outrage: the fuchsia-coloured mare wasn’t only holding her knife this time, she had taken possession of a sizeable chunk of Rarity’s mane as well. Spike’s anger seethe inside of him. A messed up mane didn’t bother him much personally, but he knew how much Rarity cared about appearances.
“What was that your boyfriend said again? Too bad he’s not here to see just how many hairs on your head I’m hurting.” Cheerilee’s laughter echoed throughout the ruins, and Spike’s blood finally came to a boil.
“You leave Rarity alone!” he shouted as he charged forward from his hiding place.
Cheerilee turned around, but she didn’t have time to brace herself against Spike’s attack, as the little guy rammed into her headfirst. She grunted as the air got knocked out of her lungs, and she staggered backwards, clutching a hoof to her chest. The ridge on Spike’s head was deceptively hard, and she could already feel a bruise setting in.
“Spike! Watch out for her knife!” Rarity yelled somewhat unnecessarily.
“So the pet has some bite after all,” Cheerilee hissed. “Why’s your owner not showing herself? Does she enjoy letting a little baby do the work for her?”
“Hey, you leave Twilight out of this!” Spike said as he balled his fists. “She just couldn’t make it through, that’s all!”
Cheerilee broke out into a smile and Rarity sighed. She hadn’t expected Spike to be that stupid.
“Well, thanks for telling me that... Now I don’t even have to watch my back,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she readied her knife and lunged forward.
Spike was taken by surprise, and the knife hit him straight in the chest, yet it didn’t manage to penetrate his scales. All it did was give him a nasty scare, as he slid back a meter or so. Cheerilee stared at the tip of her knife incredulously, and Rarity let out a sigh of relief.
“This is why you never mess with a dragon,” Spike said cockily.
“I only see a mutt,” Cheerilee hissed back.
The two of them circled each other for a few moments, as they looked for an opening. Normally, Cheerilee would’ve been quite excited, but Spike’s draconic heritage was a turn-off. There just wasn’t much fun to be had in fighting somepony that didn’t even bleed properly when you stabbed them.
Cheerilee lunged forwards once again, but this time the little dragon was ready for it. He belched out a jet of green fire, and Cheerilee just barely managed to dodge out of the way. Even then a few tongues of flame caressed the right side of her face ever so briefly, and she cringed as the smell of burned hair mixed with that of scorched flesh. She brought a hoof up to the small burn on her cheek, as she stared at the little dragon in disbelief.
“You did not just-”
“Oh yes he did!” Rarity yelled. “You go, my little spikey wikey!
Spike grinned smugly, ready to go for another round, as they began to circle each other once more. Cheerilee pretended she was about to lunge in once again, when in fact she jumped to the side and bucked her hind legs at the dragon. Spike was taken completely off-guard by the mare’s sudden change in tactics, and the kick send him careening into the wall, right next to the staircase he had climbed up earlier.
“Spike, get up, she’s coming!” Rarity yelled from her seat, furious at her role as impotent witness.
By the time he managed to scramble back to his feet, Cheerilee was almost upon him again. He drew in a large breath reflexively--intent on sending another jet of flames her way--but Cheerilee never fell for the same trick twice. She rammed her foreleg under his chin, slamming him into the wall. He let out a ruttle, and some little flames escaped his mouth, but nothing that could really seriously threaten Cheerilee. He clawed at her leg, trying to get her to let go, but she was made of sterner stuff. Some baby dragon’s scratches wouldn’t considerably inconvenience her.
“Let’s see how well those scales fare this time, shall we?” Cheerilee said sadistically, ignoring Rarity’s clamoring.
Because she was so close, Cheerilee could clearly make out the individual scales that made up Spike’s armour, which blended together too well to be seen from a distance. She grinned as he tried to get loose, and she tried to force her knife in-between two scales on the left side of his chest. She managed to wriggle it in and levered upwards, attempting to dislodge the scale. Spike let out a choked scream as it popped out, and Cheerilee immediately got to work on the next few. It didn’t take her long at all once she got going, so she created a vulnerable patch of flesh quite quickly. To her chagrin, he was still hardly bleeding at all. Yet another reason for her to despise dragons.
“I’m ending this boring charade,” she said matter-of-factly as she prepared to plunge the knife straight into his heart, “the other five were a lot more exciting than you.”
“Ghnno waight...” Spike managed to let out hoarsely as he clawed weakly and kicked his feet, but to no avail.
“Spikey! Please, spare him,” Rarity cried out as she fought against her chains, “do what you want to me, but spare Spike!”
“But, you see, what I really want...” Cheerilee said as she stared into the little dragon’s eyes, “is to see your reaction when Spike dies.”
Rarity screamed as Cheerilee stabbed forward, plunging the dagger deep into the left side of Spike’s chest. Blood welled up around the blade and dripped down her hoof, until she finally pulled back and let go of his neck, allowing him to slide down to the floor. He let out a hacking cough, and spit out a mouthful of blood.
Spike clutched a hand to his chest, attempting to stop the bleeding. He looked at the blood seeping through his fingers incredulously, feeling weaker by the second.
“Rarity...” he whispered hoarsely.
“Save your s-strength Spike, please!” the white unicorn implored.
“No... listen... you need... to hear this...” he replied, his voice getting weaker by the second.
“S-spike... p... p-please...”
“I... I love... I’ve... always... always loved... y... ou...” Spike said as his hands fell down next to his body and his eyes fell shut, his breathing slowly stopping.
“I k-know... I k-know... I... I l-love you too,” Rarity said, surprise overcoming her voice as she realised it was true. She had planned to say it to soothe him, but she suddenly realised it had been true all along. “Spike! I love you! I love you, Spike! Spike? S-spike?”
Cheerilee nudged him with a hoof, but there was no response. She shrugged at Rarity.
“NO!” the white mare screamed. “Wake up, please, wake up! You... you h-have to... you have to wake up... S-spike... You c-can’t... leave me now... Now t-that I... n-now that w-we...”
“Finally, I thought he’d never die...” Cheerilee said as she casually kicked his limp body down the stairs, causing it to roll all the way down to the bottom.
“Y... You ANIMAL!” Rarity yelled as tears streamed down her face, following up with just about every insult ever conceived by ponykind.
Cheerilee rolled her eyes; she had heard most of them already by now, and it was getting quite tiring. She walked over to the side of the room and let the mare’s insults wash over her, as unaffected by them as a rock was by a splash of water. She briefly disappeared into the shadows that dominated the edge of the room, only to reemerge a few moments later, holding a hammer between her teeth and pushing a wooden wedge along the floor.
“I’m amazed you never got along with Applejack,” Cheerilee said as she stopped in front of the other mare, grabbing hold of the piece of wood and putting the hammer underneath her free hoof. “You have so much in common.”
“Like what?” Rarity sneered.
“You both talk too much.”
Rarity opened her mouth to respond, and Cheerilee immediately jumped into action. She rammed the wooden wedge into the unicorn’s mouth, keeping it there with one hoof as she picked the hammer up with the other, getting up on her hind legs. The wedge was too thick to really fit into Rarity’s mouth, and her teeth scraped against it on both sides as she tried to turn her head, but the pressure Cheerilee exercised upon the wedge kept her squarely trapped in place. On top of that, the piece of wood pushed her jaws away from each other slightly, which was most uncomfortable. Cheerilee lifted her hammer, and the smile on her face could only be described as diabolical.
“Hnnnnggghhh!” Rarity screamed, unable to properly articulate, her mouth being as full as it was.
Cheerilee struck the wedge as hard as she could, driving it deeper into Rarity’s mouth and forcing her jaws even further apart. The unicorn screamed unintelligibly as her jaw muscles were stretched beyond their limit, tearing internally. Cheerilee did not relent, banging the hammer against the wedge time and time again, driving it a bit deeper with every blow. Rarity’s teeth scraped over the wood, creating several grooves on the top and bottom of the wedge, but that ultimately didn’t stop its advance. Several of her teeth got imbedded into the wood and were torn right out of her mouth, either staying stuck in the wedge or tumbling out onto the floor. By now Rarity’s coat had gone red with her blood in so many places, that Cheerilee was sure she wouldn’t have recognised her at all if she saw her in the streets like this.
The wedge started to dig into the corners of the unicorn’s mouth, and eventually it just tore straight through them, stopping only because it hit the bone of her jaw. Rarity’s screams had become even more warped, to the point where they could hardly be labelled as screams anymore, more closely resembling the squealing of a gutted pig. Blood ran down her neck, and every swing of the hammer bashed her head into the back of the chair. Her jaw started to chip, and the wedge forced its way into the cracks. The unicorn’s pain was so intense that even crying required too much coordination for her brain to handle, and Cheerilee lined the hammer up for what was to be her most monumental swing yet.
And monumental it was. The wedge was driven straight through the last thing keeping the lower jaw in place, and both the jaw and the wedge lost all of their support. They fell down along Rarity’s body, landing in a puddle of yellow liquid which was rapidly expanding around Rarity’s hooves, and which Cheerilee backed away from. Rarity’s body shook, her tongue hanging down limply against her neck, as blood flowed out of her mouth. With her entire lower jaw gone, Cheerilee could almost stare straight down her throat, and the rest of her mouth had been ravaged as well. Over half of the teeth in her upper jaw were missing, and the ones she still had were either partially broken, or sticking out of bloody gums at odd angles.
“I hope you like smoothies,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she walked behind the chair, taking care not to step into the puddle.
Rarity wailed as tears mingled with her blood, unable to let out more than a sort of low, guttural sound that reminded Cheerilee of a toilet not flushing properly.
“I guess that’s a, ‘not really’,” Cheerilee said as she peeked out above the back of the chair. “But hey, cheer up, I never intended to give you a last meal anyway.”
She dropped back down and rummaged through the storage compartment that had been built into the back of the chair, looking for the right tools for the next job. She’d found similar storages all over the complex, and while they were hard to find, they were quite convenient once discovered.
She reappeared in front of Rarity (or rather diagonally to the side of her, owing to the puddle the unicorn had excreted) brandishing a pair of metal tongs that looked like two spoons connected to each other.
“So, I know you were secretly keeping an eye on Spike... But he doesn’t need it anymore, so you don’t mind if I take it, right?” she said with a grin as she clicked the two sides of the tong together a few times.
Rarity squealed again and tried to turn her face away, but the messy tuft of hair left on Rarity’s head was more than enough for Cheerilee to grab hold off, and so she quickly forced her head back in the right position. Rarity attempted to delay the inevitable by keeping her eyes shut, but that was only a minor inconvenience. Cheerilee simply put the tongs into position around the mare’s right eye and pushed, not particularly caring if the eye was opened or not. The upper tong simply dragged the eyelid along as it popped into the socket, while the bottom eyelid got torn off in its entirety. With the tongs securely in place around the eyeball, the job was already half done, and the pressure on Rarity’s eye socket was immense. Her screams had gotten a lot more high pitched, but Cheerilee wasn’t sure if it was because of the pain or because she was forced to bear witness to the enucleation of her own eye through that very eye.
Cheerilee pulled back, and red hot pain exploded in Rarity’s mind as her eye was ripped out, ocular nerve and all. Cheerilee held the bloody thing up triumphantly, as Rarity screamed wordless, struggling against her chains out of a reflexive desire to push her hooves up against her now empty socket.
“See Rarity, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?” the teacher cackled. “We could do the other one as well, what do you say?”
Cheerilee burst into laughter over her own jokes, as Rarity started to scream out of blind (or perhaps half-blind) fear, desperately struggling to get loose, but even though her blood had made the chains slippery, her cuffs were still as solid as ever.
“Haha, no, you’re right, you’re right,” Cheerilee said ponderously as she regained control of herself. “You are indeed boring me to death.”
Cheerilee briefly walked away to deposit the eye into the jar that she had been carrying around with her, and then walked right back again. Rarity cringed as Cheerilee drew closer, but the fuchsia-coloured mare just started messing around with the metal rings on the armrests, which the chains around her forelegs passed through before they disappeared up into the ceiling. To Rarity’s great surprise, the teacher actually got the chains out of the rings, allowing the unicorn a much greater amount freedom than before. She instantly clasped her hooves up against her pounding eye socket, before moving on to touch the rest of her face--a course of action she immediately regretted.
To Rarity’s great relief, Cheerilee walked away and went over to the side of the room. This relief, however, was quite short lived, as she suddenly got hoisted up in the air by the chains around her forelegs, dangling a meter or so off the ground. Cheerilee came back to push the chair out of the way, and replaced it with a big wooden wedge which was pointed upwards, and which had been mounted upon four metallic legs. She positioned it straight underneath the unfortunate unicorn.
“I’m thinking with wedges right now, I hope you don’t mind,” Cheerilee said as she disappeared into the shadows once more, leaving Rarity to struggle against her chains in vain, dangling about.
She let out a squeal of fear as the chains around her legs started to pull her down towards the wedge underneath her, until she was basically sitting on top of it, legs on either side. It wasn’t all that uncomfortable at first, but the chains kept pulling harder and harder, and soon the wood was pressing into her quite painfully. The chains around her forelegs seemed to gradually loosen up, but with that, all of the good news had been said.
“You comfortable, have everything you need?” Cheerilee asked mockingly as she re-emerged from the shadows. “You can answer with no, or with literally anything else.”
“Gghghgngnghhhh!” Rarity ‘said’, attempting to plead for her life, but totally failing to do so.
“Alright, good. Seeing how you were getting it on with that dragon and all, I figured you were one for a bit of interracial action. From the way you’re riding that donkey, I can see I wasn’t mistaken,” Cheerilee said as she drew near. “I don’t think it’ll be long at all before you’ll connect on a... deeper level.”
What remained of Rarity’s face contorted with pain as the wooden donkey continued to press into her skin. In an effort to relieve some of the pressure, she tried to press down against the wedge with her forelegs, but that didn’t prove easy. Her hooves simply slipped off if she tried to put them on the sloped sides, so she put them right on the top instead. Despite that, she wasn’t able to completely negate the chains’ pull, and the wedge broke her skin, sinking into her flesh bit by bit.
Rarity screamed as her blood started to trickle down and drip to the ground, pushing down with her hooves even harder. Her forelegs shook under the effort, but the wedge didn’t sink into her any deeper, so she continued to give it her all. The pressure continued to rise, and slowly but surely her hooves started to crack, but still she did not give in. Twilight was still out there somewhere, so every minute she managed to hold on...
Exhaustion finally started to take its toll, and Rarity found that her legs were no longer able to keep up with the increasingly great downwards force. Its pull overtook her from one moment to the other, the wedge sliding through her soft flesh, tearing her apart. The agony made Rarity let out a series of gurgling noise, and the bleeding was now no longer a trickle, but more of a stream. The wedge came to a stop against her pelvis, grinding against the bone.
“That time of the month, eh?” Cheerilee said with a sadistic smile. She’d always thought Rarity looked down upon the earth ponies of Ponyville, so it was extremely satisfying to finally be able to put the unicorn in her place, once and for all.
The fear of death gave Rarity a sudden rush of adrenaline, and she redoubled her efforts to keep the donkey at bay, but it was a battle she simply couldn’t win. By now, the forces pulling down upon her were absolutely massive, and she wasn’t able to push herself up again. It didn’t keep her from trying. Her hooves finally couldn’t bear the abuse anymore, and they shattered almost simultaneously, tiny fragments of bone digging themselves into the enormously sensitive flesh that lay just beyond. Rarity screamed and drew back her hooves reflexively, and in that instant she sealed her fate.
The full force of the chains made short work of her pelvis’ brave resistance, and the wedge shattered right through it. Rarity screamed as her reproductive organs and part of her intestines were torn apart, and the donkey crashed into yet another bone. The wedge seemed loathe to give up its newfound momentum, however, and the bone instantly started to chip, the wedge driving itself deeper and deeper into it. Rarity let out a high-pitched, choked scream, and then one moment later, it was over. The wedge broke through the bone and shot straight up, shredding her innards and breaking through everything foolish enough to get in its way, before finally cleaving right through her shoulder.
Cheerilee relished Rarity’s dumbfounded expression as blood flew everywhere, painting both the ceiling and the floor, and naturally splattering all over Cheerilee as well. The two halves of the unicorn’s body fell to the ground--one on each side--where they rejoined the blood and various other bodily fluids that had fled her body earlier. Cheerilee licked her lips, and was pleased to note that the unicorn’s blood didn’t taste any bit more fabulous or ladylike than any she had tasted so far.
She sighed happily, like one would on a sunny summer’s day, she just couldn’t overstate her satisfaction. “Huge success,” she said with a blissful smile.
The wall finally swung open. Twilight had found exactly what she had been looking for, but sadly it had been hidden just as cleverly as she had feared. There wasn’t any visual distinction between the secret buttons and the stones that surrounded them at all, so she assumed Cheerilee had them all memorised. She was impressed despite herself. Amongst her friends, Rarity probably had the eye for detail required for things like this, but her rather limited field of interests worked against her. Twilight couldn’t say her memory was anything remarkable, either. For Cheerilee to be capable of a feat like this...
She dashed into the inner sanctum, and was relieved to find only one path open to her. That made it a lot easier; she could have methodically searched the entire area, of course, but she knew she was running out of time. She didn’t know exactly what Cheerilee had lined up for her friends, but it couldn’t be anything good. After all, she was likely the one behind the theatre fire as well.
The unicorn followed the twisting hallway around every turn, galloping as fast she could. It didn’t take her long to arrive at the staircase at all, and there she made a startling discovery.
“Oh Celestia, Spike!”
She ran over to his side, dropping down next to him to examine his wounds. She instantly spotted the stab wound in his chest, and her blood froze in her veins. There was no way anypony could survive a stab straight through the heart without medical care, even if he happened to not be a pony at all.
“Oh Spike...” she whispered as tears filled her eyes, and she drew the dragon’s limp body into a shaky embrace.
“T... Twilight?” Spike said, as he opened his eyes slowly against all expectations.
“Spike!” Twilight yelled out in pure happiness and joy. “I thought... I thought you... How?”
He grinned at her smugly, if a bit weakly. “Dragons... have their hearts... on the other side,” he said as he patted the right side of his chest. “I... just passed out... from shock.” And blood loss, he thought, but he didn’t want to worry her by saying it out loud. There was nothing she could do right now.
“Twi... Rarity... Rarity is... And... a-all... the others...”
The unicorn looked at Spike’s tormented face and the tears running down his cheeks, and she instantly knew what he was trying to say. She felt sick, and if she’d been standing up she’d probably have been swaying on her hooves.
“How do you... ?” she asked carefully.
“C-Cheerilee told me... about... them, and t-then... I... I woke up, briefly... and... h-heard the... the screams...”
They remained silent for a moment, not knowing what to say. Or, rather, they both knew that there was nothing to say; their friends were dead, or well, their condition was uncertain at best. Twilight wouldn’t allow herself to believe anything Cheerilee said before confirming it with her own eyes. There was but one way to save everypony who was left--no matter if that was just the two of them or some of the others as well--and they were both well aware of the odds. Running wouldn’t help now, not when Cheerilee knew the entire fortress inside-out.
“I... I have to take out Cheerilee,” Twilight said, almost surprised to hear herself say it.
“I... I know... go... I’d... I’d just... h-hold you back... I’ll, r-rest here,” Spike said with some effort.
Twilight nodded reluctantly. She wasn’t stupid, she knew it was their best shot, their only shot, but she didn’t have to like it. More than anything she wanted to just curl up in a ball and cry, but she knew she’d lose everything she had left if she did.
“I’ll be back for you, I promise!” she said as she stood up and dashed up the stairs as quick as she could, to prevent herself from changing her mind. Tears stung in her eyes, but she had work to do.
“I know...” Spike said weakly, as he took out the parchment, the ink and the quill he always carried with him.
Nopony else even knew where he kept them, and nopony ever asked. It was kinda like a silent mutual agreement; he didn’t ask where they all kept their bits, they didn’t ask him about the parchment, ink or the quill. It worked.
He rolled around and put the parchment on the floor, dipping the quill into the ink as he started writing with a shaking hand, black spots swarming in front of his eyes. He couldn’t think straight, so he just kept it as concise as possible, fearing he didn’t have enough energy for a longer message.
Ruins in Everfree. Everypony else is dead. Twi went after Cheerilee. Send help.
He had barely finished writing the last sentence when he lost all feeling in his fingers, and the quill simply slipped out from between them. He took in as deep a breath as he could manage, and spit out a pitiful flame. He’d never produced a flame this small in his life, but it was sufficient, as it fed upon the paper and quickly empowered itself. The princess would get his letter.
He smiled. Rarity had been his crush, but he had known Twilight his entire life. It had felt wrong to leave without seeing her one last time, but now he felt at peace. He was at his limit, he couldn’t hold on any longer. He closed his eyes and quietly passed away, content knowing that--because of him--help was on the way.
Twilight rushed up the stairs, but she came to an abrupt halt upon entering the room that lay beyond. Cheerilee hadn’t bothered to clean up after herself, so Rarity’s bloody remains were still up for display. Twilight felt her knees go weak, and she supported herself against the wall as her stomach emptied herself all over the floor.
“Cheerilee...” she whispered through clenched teeth, “I’ll make you pay for what you’ve done...”
She breathed in and out deeply, slowly regaining her composure. A door on the other side of the room seemed to be the only other exit besides the stairway she had just climbed, so Twilight assumed Cheerilee had escaped in that direction. There was no way to be sure, though, as there were probably plenty of secret passages around this area as well.
She slowly walked over to the other side of the room--averting her eyes from the grisly scene in the middle--and pushed open the door. A dark hallway lay beyond, which didn’t seem to have any distinct features to speak off. Twi entered it only hesitantly, fully aware of the fact that it could easily be yet another trap. But then, what else could she do? Anything but a straight rush towards the finish was clearly in Cheerilee’s favour, as Twilight couldn’t really prepare against a possible attack, while Cheerilee had plenty of things she could spend preparation time on.
She started to gallop, her eyes zooming from left to right, but nothing happened. She reached yet another door without incident, and took a deep breath. She had a feeling she already knew what lay beyond.
“Welcome, Twilight,” Cheerilee said as the purple unicorn entered the room. “Why don’t you lie down and get comfortable?”
Twilight looked around, and found the room to be mostly featureless. It was circular in shape, and empty apart from a table in the middle and a chair on the opposite side, which Cheerilee was sitting in. The table had two metal cuffs at both ends, and their intended purpose was clear.
“No thanks,” the purple unicorn said.
Cheerilee sighed. “We both know you cannot win, Twi, why fight fate any longer? Your end will be the same.”
Twilight pointed at her adversary. “I see Spike managed to get one on you; I can’t let him beat me, now can I?”
The fuchsia-coloured mare gritted her teeth and leaned forward. She didn’t want to be reminded of that. “Enough words.”
Cheerilee surged forward, jumping over the table elegantly as she charged straight for the unicorn, who braced herself. Twilight managed to jump out of the way of the first punch, but the second one hit her straight in the face, and she staggered backwards. In truth, she was severely outmatched, as Cheerilee had her beat both in strength and experience. She could only rely on her sharp wits, but as Cheerilee wasn’t unintelligent either it really didn’t do her much good.
Twilight retaliated, but Cheerilee dodged her with ease. “Give it up, Twi,” she taunted as she jumped to the side. “You unicorns may pretend to be the superior race, but we’re playing by earth pony rules now.”
Twilight backed away, creating a momentary lull in the fighting. “I can handle myself without magic just fine.”
Cheerilee sneered as she started to circle her opponent. “Last Winter Wrap-Up suggests otherwise.”
The unicorn charged forward, her head lowered, lining up her horn with her opponent. If she couldn’t use it for spells, she could at least try to gore with it, right? But such an attack was far too direct to have much chance of success against Cheerilee, who simply stepped aside and lifted one of her hooves. Twilight tripped and rolled over the floor, coming to a sudden stop as she crashed into the table in the middle of the room. She scrambled to her hooves, but Cheerilee was immediately upon her once more, delivering blow upon blow all over Twilight’s body. The unicorn could do nothing but weakly raise her forelegs in an attempt to protect herself, as Cheerilee raged on unabated. Suddenly, Twilight saw her chance, and she gripped both of Cheerilee’s forelegs with one of her own, struggling for control.
“You’re the reason... all your friends... are dead, you know,” Cheerilee said with a grunt, as she slowly forced back Twilight’s hooves.
“I... refuse... to... believe... they’re... dead!” Twilight said stubbornly, fighting on despite the bleakness of the situation.
Cheerilee grinned and suddenly threw all of her weight on just Twilight’s right foreleg, pushing her aside and slamming it down upon the table. She rammed her head against Twi’s at the same time, and the purple mare saw stars floating around her head. That brief moment of dizziness was all Cheerilee needed to slip one of the cuffs around Twi’s foreleg, and she jumped back triumphantly, panting slightly. Twilight was out of breath, and her foreleg was twisted into a rather awkward angle, which caused her a great deal of discomfort.
“You’ve lost,” Cheerilee said triumphantly.
“No, I... I can still... I can still fight!” Twilight said louder than needed, obviously trying to talk some confidence into herself.
Cheerilee was clearly unimpressed as she moved in again, easily ducking under Twilight’s amateurish jabs. The teacher lunged forward and wrapped both of her forelegs around Twi’s chest, bear hugging her tightly. The unicorn let out some choked sounds, as she started to feebly hit Cheerilee’s back with her free hoof, but it was largely ineffectual. The teacher simply lifted her up and slammed her down upon the table, thoroughly knocking the wind out of her, and dazing her for a few seconds. That was all Cheerilee needed to cuff both of the unicorn’s hind legs as well, and with that the fight was pretty much over.
“More bark than bite, just like that annoying pet of yours...”
Twilight struggled against her bonds, trying to free her right foreleg with her left, but without a key she’d never succeed. “You’ll never get away with this, Cheerilee! Somepony will notice we’re gone, and then they’ll come after you.”
Cheerilee laughed. “You mean to say you’ve told anypony about me?”
Twilight remained silent. They hadn’t actually known Cheerilee was behind Twist’s abduction, and at the time she had thought that there was no time to delay, so they hadn’t actually told anypony much of anything...
“No, but my friends will-”
“Your friends are dead, Twilight,” Cheerilee roughly interrupted her. “You’re the last living soul in this entire fortress, besides me. All the others died by my hooves...”
“I don’t believe you!” Twilight yelled. “Why should I believe you? You’re just trying to trick me into-”
Cheerilee suddenly grabbed Twi’s left foreleg, and forced it down towards one of the iron cuffs as well. Twilight wasn’t in any position to resist by this point, and her weak “No, wait!” didn’t manage to sway Cheerilee either.
“You want proof? I’ve got proof.” Cheerilee said with a smile as she reached underneath the table, revealing the jar she’d been moving around all this time. The glass was smeared with blood on every side, but it was still easy enough to make out the individual contents. She shook the jar in front of Twi’s face. “Applejack’s honest tongue, a piece of Rainbow Dash’s loyal heart, Pinkie Pie’s smiling lips and Rarity’s eye for fashion. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to retrieve a piece of Fluttershy.”
“N-no... T-that c-can’t be,” Twilight said shakily as she shook her head, tears appearing in the corners of her eyes as all colour flushed from her face. “Y-you’re lying, t-those aren’t...”
Cheerile put the jar on the edge of the table as she climbed up, pressing her body down against Twi’s as she softly started to stroke the unicorn’s mane. “Oh Twilight...” she said gently, “that brain of yours is your biggest selling point, don’t insult yourself by clinging onto irrational hopes... You know I wouldn’t simply happen to be carrying around a jar of pony bits.”
“B-but why?” Twilight said softly as her voice broke, and tears started to stream from her eyes. “What did we... what did we ever... d-do to you?”
“‘We’? No, just you, Twilight. You brought Canterlot’s corruption into this town. You corrupted my students, your friends, all of them!” Cheerilee said, suddenly angry. “You made them all weeds, and weeds are cast out, Twi, and I’m the only one who can! I’m the only one who can keep Ponyville clean from weeds like YOU!”
Twilight whimpered, making herself as small as she could while shaking all over. Cheerilee’s voice had gradually become louder and louder during her rant, to the point where she’d basically been shouting Twilight down at the end.
“But you know, Twi,” Cheerilee whispered into her ear, “I know you too are a victim, in the end... You’re intelligent, kind, but even you got caught up in the web of lies and deceit in the end...”
Twilight was surprised by the gentle tone of Cheerilee’s voice, but she was even more surprised when the mare suddenly locked her lips to hers, kissing her deeply, pressing up against her body. Cheerilee kept it up for well over a minute, and Twilight’s brain melted in her head, unable to figure out what the buck to do.
Cheerilee finally disconnected her lips from Twi’s again and panted, her cheeks flushed with a deep shade of purple. Twilight felt both bewildered and embarrassed, not sure what to make of the entire situation, and feeling more than a little violated.
“W-why... d-did y-you...”
“A sharp mind gets me going,” Cheerilee said with a sly grin. “And was that your first kiss, Twi?”
Twilight’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment despite herself, and she turned her head away, unwilling or unable to reply. Cheerilee grinned lasciviously, having gotten all the answers she needed.
“Well, I’m afraid we still have business to conclude,” Cheerilee said with the closest thing to regret she was capable of. “I can’t let you go unpunished, Twi, but I’ll make it quick...”
“N-no! No wait! I-if you let me go, I swear... I swear I won’t tell anypony!” Twilight said as she burst into tears again. “P-please, d-don’t kill me! Please!”
“Ah, don’t worry Twilight,” Cheerilee said as she tapped the jar next to her, “your friends are here for you. Although,” she said ponderously, “perhaps they could be a little bit... closer.”
She opened the jar and held it in one hoof, as she suddenly stomped the unicorn in the side, without warning.
Cheerilee jammed the jar into Twilight’s now opened mouth, emptying the contents inside of her. Twilight gagged and tried to spit them out again, but Cheerilee was prepared for that. She threw the jar aside (shattering it on the floor) and pushed her hooves up against Twilight’s chin and lips, rendering her unable to open her mouth. All she managed to do was make some blood dribble out of the corners of her mouth, but that was pretty much it. She started to go green as she felt her friend’s body parts roll over her tongue, and her efforts to spit them out grew increasingly desperate.
“You’re going to want to chew,” Cheerilee said with her classroom-voice, “else you’re going to choke.”
Twilight gingerly started to move her teeth up and down, as her gag reflex started to make her feel as if she was choking already. Pony teeth really weren’t designed for meat, but they still managed to cut Applejack’s tongue and Rainbow Dash’s piece of heart into smaller bits, crushing them into a bloody paste. Rarity’s eye got caught between Twilight’s teeth as well, and promptly burst open, releasing the inner-eye fluids into her mouth. This finally proved too much for the unicorn and she tried to hurl, but nothing came up as she already emptied her stomach earlier. All it did was hurt her throat, which reinforced the feeling of choking even more. She started to swallow reflexively, downing a little bit of the mouthful each time, until eventually her mouth was empty, and she really felt about ready to die.
“All gone?” Cheerilee said gleefully. “Good girl.”
She finally let go of the unicorn, and Twilight immediately rolled her head to the side and started to spit, trying to get the horrible taste out of her mouth, her insides feeling as if someone had tied a knot in her intestines.
Cheerilee left her to it, as she slipped off the table and walked over to her chair, retrieving the knife she had left there. She returned to the middle and climbed onto Twilight again, who was now sobbing quietly, apparently broken by her ordeal.
“Look at me,” Cheerilee said in a neutral tone of voice, only to scream: “LOOK AT ME!” when the unicorn didn’t respond right away.
Twilight shakily focused her gaze upon Cheerilee, tears cascading down her face. The fuchsia-coloured mare smiled and looked down into the unicorn’s eyes as she caressed her cheek.
“It’s time,” she said as she rammed the knife into Twilight’s side, hot blood dripping down the side of the table. The unicorns eyes widened, and she let out a choked scream. Cheerilee stabbed her again and again, until her victim was bleeding out faster than a gutted pig.
“Ssshhh, sshhhh...” Cheerilee soothed Twilight. “It’ll be over soon now...”
“I... d... don’t... w... want to... want to... d-die...” the unicorn said weakly, as the colour drained from her face and her breathing became troubled.
Cheerilee put her lips right next to Twilight’s ear, and whispered: “Your last breath... Give it to me...”
She put her lips over Twilight’s again and forced her tongue into the unicorn’s mouth, relishing in the lingering taste of blood within. This time Twilight wasn’t as taken aback as before, but she was way too weak to resist--although she did struggle against her bonds weakly. Cheerilee started to shake with excitement as she felt the other mare’s body grow colder and colder, and her struggling weaker and weaker. By contrast, the teacher’s kiss grew more passionate by the second, and pretty soon she was panting into the unicorn’s mouth, while Twilight’s breathing grew shallow and laboured.
Finally, the unicorn breathed out one last time with a final, desperate, muffled cry, and then all of her bodily functions ceased. Cheerilee broke off the kiss as she literally felt Twi’s body go still underneath her own, and a wave of excitement overtook her senses. She clamped her legs around Twi as she felt them turn to jelly, her whole body shuddering and shaking, momentarily rooting her in place as she panted, breathing in and out raggedly.
She threw her head back and let out a moan, before collapsing on top of Twilight in a heap, feeling thoroughly worn out even though she had barely undertaken any action. She continued lying there for a while, catching her breath and basking in the afterglow of her victory.
She eventually slid off the table, taking a few unsteady steps on her wobbly legs, as she started heading towards the exit.
Her work was finally done, her quest had come to an end. It hadn’t been a pretty job, but somepony had to do it, right? And if she happened to have made it a little bit more enjoyable here and there... who could blame her?
She’d have to lie low for now, wait for yet another investigation to blow over, probably. There were no ties to her this time, though, so she supposed she’d be alright. Ponies were used to her spending holidays at home during the school year, so her alibi wasn’t much of a bother.
Ponyville was safe now, and that was great, but she silently wondered if she wouldn’t start to long for some more weeds to exterminate after a while.
She smiled. There was always Canterlot...
A lone spirit wandered through a sea of darkness, lost, alone and afraid. It had no purpose, no shape, no form; it was just like the bleak expanse all around it. It seemed like the void was all there ever had been, all there ever could be, but slowly the spirit became aware that this wasn’t true. Within the darkness there was a single speck of light, a beacon that beckoned to the spirit, a beacon which promised to lead it home, back to the place where it belonged. Eagerly the spirit started to surge towards it, moving in a way that wasn’t entirely physical, while at the same time it was.
As it drew closer, the difference between it and the darkness all around grew more distinct. The spirit first became aware that it wasn’t an ‘it’ at all: it was female. Or at least, she had been in life. Life. It seemed like a new concept to her, but at the same time it was eerily familiar. For some reason she yearned for it, and with that yearning yet another concept was introduced to her: emotions. They seemed unnecessarily complicated at first, but as the light illuminated her more and more, she began to see the reason behind their existence. Memories started to flood what she now recognised as her mind, memories of friends, home, family. They were accompanied by feelings of happiness and joy, but also of great sadness, and loss.
With the memories of her friends came memories of herself, too. She hadn’t always been a spirit, she had been a pony. Not just a pony, she had belonged to a certain race as well: she had been a unicorn. But there were many unicorns, and each one of them was, in his or her own way, unique. Each one was an individual, with a name that suited them, and elegantly captured the meaning behind their existence. Hers had been... Twilight Sparkle.
The spirit finally reached the beacon of light that lay at the centre of her universe, and she surged forwards at once to investigate. There was a sort of mirror hanging there in the darkness, showing her images of a world once very familiar to her. She saw her own body lying upon a wooden table, limp, lifeless, wounded. An incredible yearning overtook her; she longed to break through the mirror, to be reunited with her body, despite the shoddy condition which it was in. But that was impossible. Or was it?
As a unicorn, magic was her heritage. It was her right by birth, and she had pursued it almost her entire life. In that respect, she was part of an elite even amongst unicorns, holding within her the potential to rise above her kin, to develop powers most ponies could scarcely even dream of. All she had needed was time, but that time was stolen away from her. She mentally assaulted the barrier between the worlds, but it would not let her pass. She wasn’t sure if she was simply not strong enough, or if she was being hindered by the fact that her body was in a place that magic could not reach. She focused, and her ethereal mind expanded in every direction; she wasn’t going to give up that easily. She still had a score to settle.
It is often said by sages and mystics that the body is a barrier, a hurdle one has to overcome in order to reach true understanding. Twilight realised now that this was true. Freed from her mortal coil, her mind seemed limitless and quickly expanded across the void, strengthening her will and broadening the basis of her understanding. Another beacon lit up in the darkness, this time inside of herself. It was a power she recognised and cherished, but which she had thought inaccessible. She had been mistaken.
There is a hierarchy, a natural order, woven into every part of the world, ingrained into the very fabric of existence. So too for magic. Nightmare Moon had wielded magic of a most terrible nature, and her followers had mastered those dark arts for themselves, easily smothering every inkling of magic Celestia’s followers had brought to bear against them. But even they hadn’t been invincible. Even Nightmare Moon had to bow her head before a greater power--an unstoppable force--in the end.
There was no resisting when the Elements of Harmony were involved, for they were unequalled.
Twilight felt her element, the element of magic, resonate within herself. She had long thought that the jewels--now held at Canterlot--were the true Elements of Harmony, and that she and her friends merely drew out the power contained within. But now she realised that the reverse was true. The jewels held no power of their own, they were only there to guide, to channel, to awaken... They started the process, but in truth, they fostered the power within. It was all so obvious now.
And with that realisation came new found understanding. The reason there were five necklaces and one tiara became clear: their function was different. The necklaces served to channel power into one point, the tiara unleashed it upon the world. In a way, Twilight and her friends had emulated a single entity--like Celestia, the wielder of the elements that came before them. They had been six pieces of a whole, but with only one mind to guide them. Hers.
She unleashed the power within her, sending shockwaves of magical energy coursing through the void. Five beacons of light--almost impossibly bright against the background of complete darkness--jumped into being in the distance, and Twilight smiled. Even though the Elements of Harmony had fallen, their energy lingered, ready to be called upon one last time, for one final battle.
A wave of colour swept through the void as power surged through the darkness, beams of light connecting Twilight to the five other beacons. Her spectral form almost burst under the pressure, but she was able to contain it all, to draw it all within herself. It was time.
The barrier between the worlds shattered into a million pieces, and Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes.
Twilight opened her eyes, and the discomforts of the mortal plane forced themselves back upon her in an instant. Her body was still technically too weak to sustain itself, but that was no longer a problem. Instead of blood, pure magical energy ran through her veins, and her wounds instantly sealed themselves. The weight of the fortress’ magical enchantments bore down upon her mind, but it was easy for her to resist it. The walls were directly connected to the enchantment, and they groaned under her incredible power.
For a moment, it seemed like the fortress had the unicorn beat, but Twilight still had more up her sleeves. She dug deep into her magical reserves, and send a wave of energy pulsating through the entire complex, shattering the magical enchantment once and for all. Free of restrictions, she immediately tore off the metal cuffs that had been holding her body in place, and got up from the table swiftly.
The walls shook and shuddered, and pieces of stone the size of her head came down from the ceiling, as the ancient fortress finally started to act its age. Without magic to support it, the structural weaknesses that had built up over the centuries took their toll, and Twilight didn’t doubt that the entire place would be coming down around her any second. She closed her eyes and her mind expanded, searching for signs of life nearby. Her heart ached as she realised she was the only living soul in the entire complex; Spike hadn’t made it.
She repressed her grief as she continued searching in wider and wider circles, filtering out the abundance of life she sensed in the woods, until she finally found the pony she’d been looking for on the edge of town. She frowned; she had been out of it for far longer than she had realised, but then again, it was hard to keep track of time when you were a disembodied spirit floating in the void.
She took a deep breath and winked away with a flash, as the entire fortress collapsed in upon itself. Her friends were long gone, but they had lent her their strength for one last time, and she knew why: They wanted Cheerilee to pay for what she’d done, and pay she would.
It was already getting dark by the time Cheerilee reached the edge of town. She smiled; she had finally made it. The trip through the woods had made her quite nervous, as she realised how ironic it’d have been if she got mauled by some wild animal on her final trip home. Luckily, there had again not been a single one in sight. She’d even been able to safely make a detour through the marshes, where she had quickly disposed of the entrance crystal she had used to open the fortress earlier. Twilight had blown out the doors, anyway.
She started whistling a happy tune, but got interrupted by a bright flash of purple light behind her. She turned around with a start, and gasped for breath.
“Y... y-you’re... dead!”
“Not quite,” Twilight said mockingly as she stepped forwards, her eyes glowing with magical might. “But you soon will be.”
“I-I’m not scared of you, Twilight! You were a fool to show up here by yourself, you should’ve gone for help, but now I’ll-”
Twilight swathed her aside with a burst of magical energy, and the fuchsia-coloured mare crashed into a nearby wall, groaning in pain as she tried to get back up to her hooves.
“I’m not alone,” Twilight said menacingly as she lifted Cheerilee into the air and pulled her closer, staring into the teacher’s fear-filled eyes, “my friends are with me.”
“T-that’s... that’s... impossible,” Cheerilee managed to grunt. From the way every breath caused a stinging pain to flare up in her chest, she knew she’d probably broken a rib or two. She needed to get away, fast, but the unicorn was just so incredibly... powerful. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a plan, but her intellect failed her as she sank deeper and deeper into a blind state of panic. Was this what her victims had felt?
“Nothing is impossible for the Element of Magic,” Twilight sneered as she threw Cheerilee towards the other side of the street, slamming her against a wall once more. Blood ran down the mare’s face, and dark spots swarmed in front of her eyes. She tried to get up, but instantly toppled over again.
Twilight pulled Cheerilee towards her once more, and the earth pony dug her forelegs into the ground, trying to resist. It didn’t help, she just clawed deep grooves into the ground. Within moments she was dangling in front of the unicorn once again, and she felt an invisible force grasp her around the throat.
“Ggh... w-wait...” she said hoarsely, “h-have... m-mercy... I... I d-did it... all... for the g-good... o-of... Ponyville...”
Twilight glared at her angrily, her face contorted into a snarl. Her voice, on the other hand, was calm, dangerously so. “Mercy? Like you showed my friends... and your students?”
“I had... n-no... c-choice,” Cheerilee said as she struggled against her invisible bonds, her face slowly going red.
Twilight laughed maniacally, a sound eerily similar to Cheerilee during her ‘purifications’. “Don’t give me that!” she yelled, enraged. “I know you enjoyed it, Cheerilee, you enjoyed every second of it! You liked watching my friends die, you liked stamping the life out of them... out of me! Anything you say... it’s just a rationalisation for your own twisted desires!”
“N... no... I... to save... P-pony... ville... I...”
“Need to DIE!” Twilight finished the sentence for her, consumed by fury as magical energy flared up around her, illuminating the night.
Ponies from the nearby houses started to become aware that there was something more than just two drunks yelling at each other going on outside, and the lights were turned on all around. The two ponies in the middle of the street didn’t notice, or perhaps they simply didn’t care.
Cheerilee tried to verbally justify herself again, but Twilight was out of patience. With a cry of rage she rammed a bolt of magical energy into Cheerilee’s mouth, shattering the mare’s teeth as she grabbed hold of her tongue, ripping it out savagely and tossing it aside. It slammed into a nearby wall with a sickening thud, practically bursting apart in a cloud of gore. Cheerilee let out a sloppy, gurgling cry as her eyes burst in her sockets, and cuts appeared all over her body.
The storm of magical energy around Twilight intensified, winds swirling around the pair, sweeping up dust and small pieces of rock.
“Ghgngh! Ngah!” Cheerilee screamed as her body got battered from every direction, blood streaming down her face, body and legs, as her intestines got pulled straight out of her stomach. Foam appeared on her lips, and had she still possessed eyes they would no doubt have rolled back in her head.
Twilight focused all of her magical reserves into the other mare, attempting to tear her apart. It wasn’t just Cheerilee’s limbs which suddenly wanted to get away from each other: every inch of her body tried to escape the whole.
“You talked about weeds, right, RIGHT?” Twilight screamed, her voice contorted with madness. “I don’t know much about gardening, but I know one thing: you reap what you sow!”
Cheerilee tried to appeal to the unicorn one last time, but between the pain, her lack of a tongue and her rapidly weakening body, she only managed to utter some unintelligible sounds.
“You’ve sown death across this town, so I hope you’re ready... for your scarlet harvest!”
The teacher wailed as her body groaned under the strain, and then, suddenly, she could resist no more. She burst into a thousand pieces, splattering into every direction. A rain of blood descended upon the area, painting the ground, the nearby houses and Twilight in a deep hue of red. Little bits and pieces likewise got catapulted through the air, crashing into buildings and splattering up against windows, causing the horrified ponies who hadn’t been able to resist watching to jump away in fear and hide inside of their houses.
Finally, the last bits of Cheerilee landed, and Twilight swayed upon her legs. She had used up most of the energy her friends had given her, and she realised she was, once again, at the end of the line. But she was content; her friends had been avenged, and future murders had been prevented. Maybe she’d see her friends on the other side. There was no reason to linger as a spirit this time, so maybe she could go see what the afterlife was really all about.
She fell to the ground with a smile, and looked up towards the stars as they started to appear in the sky. As she began drifting out of consciousness, she thought she saw a large shadow pass over, like a cart flying by. She tried to shake her head to get rid of the tricks her mind was playing on her, but found she couldn’t move at all.
Her eyes fell shut, and she felt as if she was being lifted into the sky. She heard a concerned, soothing voice talk to her, although she couldn’t make out the words. Was that... Princess Celestia? Twilight beamed. What a pleasant dream to leave this world on...
Twilight found herself surrounded by darkness once more, but this time it was different. Instead of limitless freedom, she felt trapped and claustrophobic, as if someone had locked her in a tiny box, barely big enough to hold her. She tried to move or open her eyes, but found she couldn’t, and it felt like a weight was pressing down upon her chest. She began to become aware of voices in the distance. That was odd. She was dead, right?
“There’s little we can do to save her by this point, she’s suffered a massive hit to her magical integrity,” an unknown colt said in a neutral tone of voice, “only a direct transfer of life force would do any good, but the amount required is-”
“Take mine,” Princess Celestia commanded.
The colt stuttered. “B-but Princess, the procedure is dangerous, even for you, and this unicorn, she... she...”
Twilight frowned mentally. Why was the princess there? Who was the colt? A doctor? No, he couldn’t be. He didn’t sound like he really wanted to help her, and doctors helped everypony, right? Then again, if what the Princess suggested really was that dangerous, Twilight could see why he’d be reluctant. She was just another unicorn, after all.
“She’s special to me.”
“I, I see... We’ll start preparations right away.”
“She’s coming to!” a female voice suddenly shouted panicky. “If she wakes up completely, the shock could kill her. I’m putting her under again.”
Twilight vaguely became aware of a prick in her leg, and then darkness swept her away, far from the troubles of the world.
When Twilight finally woke up, she felt strangely rejuvenated. She tried to move, and fear flared up inside of her mind. She was sitting inside of a chair, heavy chains binding her hooves together, so that she couldn’t move around all that much. Did Cheerilee catch her again? As she looked around, however, she realised that wasn’t the case. She was in a very large room, and a great deal of ponies sat on benches behind her, while Princess Luna herself sat on a raised platform right in front of Twilight.
Two muscular, armour-clad guards flanked her on either side, and an earth pony with a monocle and a brown-coat paced back and forth restlessly in front of her. A table stood next to him, but Twilight couldn’t make out the items that lay on top of it.
It was Luna who first noticed the unicorn had woken up.
“Ah, we see that thou hast awakened, Twilight Sparkle. Court is now in session,” Luna decreed with a booming voice which easily reached every corner of the room, and the few ponies who had been talking to each other immediately fell silent.
Twilight stared at the Princess in bewilderment. “C-court?”
The Ruler of the Night frowned. “Surely thou dost not claim loss of memory? We are here to pass judge thee for the brutal murder of fourteen ponies, eight of whom hath not reached adulthood yet.”
“Do we really have to do this? She even confesses!” the brown-coated earth pony said.
“-but I had nothing to do with the others; they were killed by Cheerilee!”
The crowd behind Twilight mumbled, and the earth pony in front of Twilight addressed the Princess.
“If I may?”
“By all means, sir Hooves,” the princess said with a nod.
“Ehem,” Hooves scraped his throat. “I’m sure you are familiar with my work, miss Sparkle?”
Twilight nodded, dumbfounded. She had several of his books back at the library, she had just never thought she’d meet him in person.
“Yes, we already knew that,” he continued. “This also means you’re well aware of my expertise. I was summoned here today to present the evidence my research team managed to scrounge up which, as you’ll soon see, strongly suggests you are guilty. You’ve erased your trail well, and no event can be directly tied to you, but when they’re all added together...”
“That’s absurd!” Twilight yelled. “Where’s Princess Celestia? She would never-”
“Our royal sister is currently resting in her chambers, Twilight Sparkle. The procedure to save thee took a lot out of her.”
Twilight nodded slowly, as she recalled the conversation she had overheard while she was out of it. “Don’t I get anypony to defend me?”
“Only if somepony like that can be found in due time,” Hooves said dryly. “In your case, due to the heinous nature of your crimes, and the debt of evidence against you, no such pony could be found. As the law does not require us to look further, you shall have to defend yourself. From what I’ve heard, you should be more than capable.”
Twilight bit her lower lip. She knew almost nopony ever went to court in Equestria, it just wasn’t needed that often. The three times a royal court had been assembled during her lifetime, the accused had been found guilty. She swallowed. “S-show me this ‘proof’, then.”
“Very well,” Hooves replied, “I shall start with the Ponyville Theatre Fire.”
Twilight nodded. She was quite sure she’d done nothing suspicious there.
“We have quite a high number of ponies who swore, under oath, that you were there amongst the first. Considering your later involvement in the slaughter of the only survivor of that event, I find that to be highly suspicious.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Twilight said defensively, “several of my friends were there, too.”
Hooves nodded. “Yet nopony dared say whether they had arrived with you or not, and now ‘luck’ would have it that all five of them are dead, so we can’t even ask them ourselves.”
Twilight spluttered. “B-but... t-that’s... How do you expect me to prove... ?”
“I don’t,” he said as he turned towards the crowd, addressing them more than he did the unicorn. “But here’s my theory: You lit the fire. The five of them were together when the fire started, and close by. Perhaps they had noticed something odd about you before, perhaps it was just by chance, but they arrived at the scene sooner than you had expected, which in turn forced your hoof, forcing you to save Cheerilee or risk being discovered.”
The ponies behind Twilight started talking to each other again, muttering their agreement. To them, it all made sense.
“That’s a lie!” Twilight yelled indignantly.
“Oh, is it? Then why did you level the entire theatre building immediately afterwards, after your ‘friends’ had run in to investigate? Perhaps you feared they’d find something they weren’t supposed to find?” he said as he paced back and forth in front of Twilight. “Or maybe you just knew how difficult that’d make our investigation, either way...”
“I just wanted to save the fillies!”
Sherlock Hooves frowned and took out his monocle, quickly polishing it with a piece of cloth before putting it in again. “Yes, you uh, tried to ‘save’ them by sending a theatre-smashing amount of water in their direction, 100% guaranteed to destroy whatever was left of the building. Maybe if you were known as an idiot, miss Sparkle, but Princess Celestia’s student? Nopony in here is buying it.”
Sounds of agreement came floating from the other ponies again, and Twilight gritted her teeth.
“I panicked,” she said in frustration.
“Sure you did,” Hooves said sarcastically.
Twilight felt her blood boil at the way she was being treated, seemingly branded a criminal already. “Yes I did you bucking oaf!”
The crowd collectively gasped, and Luna leaned forward.
“Twilight Sparkle, if thou canst not adhere to a minimum level of decorum, thou shall be removed from this courtroom, and we shall finish this case without thee,” Luna reprimanded Twilight, who immediately regretted her choice of words.
“Thank you, Princess,” Hooves said as he continued, “Now Twilight, you were aware of our fruitless efforts to find any sort of evidence in the debris you created, were you not?”
“Yes,” Twilight said reluctantly, trying to at least appear cooperative.
“Then why, if I may ask, did we find a bloody piece of theatre floor in your bedroom, which you have omitted to mention?”
The crowd buzzed angrily once more, and Twilight actually heard a mare say “Outrageous!” somewhere close behind her.
“Oh no, it’s not what you think,” Twilight said lightheartedly. At least that one was easy to clear up. “Twist found that and gave it to me... We wanted to first check if it was actually blood and such before kicking up a fuss about it.”
“And who could confirm this?”
“Uh... Twist... and Spike, my assistant...” Twilight said, trying to think of any others she may have said anything to.
“Both of whom are dead,” Hooves said in a ‘how convenient’ tone of voice.
“Y... yes...” Twilight was forced to admit as she hung her head. This wasn’t going too well.
“I believe you when you say Twist was on to something,” Hooves said, making Twilight lift her head again, a glimmer of hope in her eyes, “that’s probably why you decided to kill her, after all.”
“What? No!” Twi said, once again outraged. “Cheerilee abducted her to the fortress out in the wood, so we went to save her!”
“Nopony canst enter our fortresses anymore, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna interjected. “Our sister destroyed all of the access crystals over a millennia ago. When we heard you hath made use of the facility, we went over there ourselves. We found it in ruins, a remarkable feat of magic. Only a few rooms were left standing, including the main entrance hall, where somepony hath quite clearly forced her way in. We know nopony with such power in Ponyville, aside from thyself, Twilight.”
“And,” Hooves added, “this power is also why we find it likely you were behind the theatre fire in the first place. It would have been easy for you to set it ablaze on short notice, and trap the fillies inside.”
Twilight stuttered, at a momentary loss for words. What was she supposed to say?
“Also, alongside the piece of crucial evidence you held back, we found a book from my hoof,” the earth pony continued, his voice growing slightly more troubled. “It is with some discomfort that I admit this book may have explained my methods in a bit too much detail, which would have easily rendered one such as yourself able to commit such a villainous crime undetected.”
Hooves took out his monocle and began cleaning it again, clearly troubled by the thought that his work may have been used for evil. The ponies in the gallery noticed his discomfort, and started talking once again.
“Such a good colt.”
“It really isn’t his fault.”
“I wish my husband was a bit more like him...”
Twilight gritted her teeth. Was this a criminal case, or a popularity contest?
“I’m telling you, it was Cheerilee!” she bounced the ball back at him.
“Yes, Cheerilee, the mare who shouldn’t even have known the fortress existed, much less been able to access it, was the one who lead you all there, I’m sure,” Hooves replied dryly, having regained full control of himself. “I’m sure it was a coincidence, too, that you happened to have a book on the Nightmare Rebellion brought over to your library a while ago, which details the location of every fortress used in the war, including the one you broke into.”
“I don’t know how she knew it was there, but she did,” Twilight said decidedly, a bit stubbornly, even.
“So how did she get inside? Princess Celestia destroyed all the keys, like Princess Luna says.”
“She obviously missed one!” Twilight blurted out.
Luna rose up on her hind legs and slammed her hooves onto the table in front of her, her voice filled with anger as she completely forgot to use the archaic language she was normally preferred during official matters. “How dare you push this upon my sister! When they brought you in, you were on the very brink of death, and no doctor wanted to risk the life of another to try and save you, having heard what you did. But my sister wouldn’t listen, and risked it all for you! And now you have the cheek to question her?” Luna leaned back again. “You disappoint me, Twilight. You have done much for your country, but I see the burden of responsibility has finally broken your senses.”
Nopony in the gallery dared move, and even Hooves seemed a bit shaken. Twilight felt absolutely dreadful, trying to sink away into her chair. An angry Luna was quite something, and not something she wanted to see again, at that.
“Ehem, yes... Moving on,” Sherlock Hooves finally managed, as he strode towards the table in front of the bench, and took a piece of parchment from it. “This is a letter from your assistant Spike to Princess Celestia, it reads:
Ruins in Everfree. Everypony else is dead. Twi went after Cheerilee. Send help.
Translation: ‘Twilight just killed everypony, now she’s killing Cheerilee.’ Spike, too, was killed. Didn’t like it when you found out your assistant had betrayed you, did you, Twilight?”
“T-that’s not how it went!” Twilight said desperately. “When I left Spike he was still alive, honest!”
“So that means you admit both to having been the last one to see Spike alive, and to heading out with the express intent of killing Cheerilee?” Hooves said pointedly.
“W-well yes, but only because Cheerilee would otherwise have killed me!” Twilight screamed furiously, eliciting another bout of angry mumbling from the gallery.
“And how did you think she would do that?” the detective said quizzically.
“Well, she knew all the traps and secret entrances-” the unicorn began, but Hooves quickly cut her off.
“Oh come on now! Not only did she know about the place and how to enter, but she also knew where everything was? Something our Princess Luna herself can’t even remember?” he scoffed.
Luna scraped her throat. “Well, our memory of the time is very bad, but even so, we, too, do not believe a simple earth pony from Ponyville capable of this.”
“I’m t-telling you... s-she knew...” Twilight said as tears started filling the corners of her eyes. She was quickly reaching the limit of what she could take. Before she went to Ponyville she had always been alone, and that was fine, but ever since Ponyville she had discovered the joy of friendship and amity. She couldn’t handle everypony being against her like anymore, whispering behind her back.
“I was with the Princess when we responded to Spike’s message,” Hooves said, more quietly than before. “I saw what you did to Cheerilee... It... I... I still see it, in my dreams. Nopony should have to see that. She never stood a chance against you...”
“B-but... you can’t use magic inside of the fortress!” Twilight said. She couldn’t dispute that she had gone a bit overboard with Cheerilee, but the mare had deserved it. Twilight obviously couldn’t tell the court that, though.
Hooves glanced over at Princess Luna, raising a hoof questioningly. This wasn’t his area of expertise.
“It is true that most unicorns would not be able to use their magic within our fortresses,” Luna said slowly, “but the most powerful ones would be able to resist quite easily. Since thou hath destroyed the entire fortress by thyself, thou art quite clearly sufficiently powerful.”
“B-but... I almost died! Cheerilee stabbed me, repeatedly!” Twilight blurted out in desperation.
“That is a lie!” the detective said as he stomped a hoof down upon the floor. “There were no wounds upon your body when we brought you in! Your gross overexertion of your magical abilities was to blame for your condition. Your lies have finally collapsed in on themselves, murderer!” Hooves said triumphantly.
The crowd burst into angry conversations, and Twilight stood up on her hind legs, shouting in order to be heard. “The Elements of Harmony healed me!”
“The Elements are still inside of the palace!”
Twilight shook her head. “You don’t need any kind of jewels, or objects, to harness their power! They were inside the six of us!”
“Not even ‘Tia could use them without them being physically present,” Luna whispered softly, “and though thou art powerful, Twilight, thy art no match for our sister! We have heard enough. Twilight Sparkle, we hereby find you GUILTY of both the Ponyville Theatre Fire and the yet unnamed massacre yesterday. Thou art hereby to be executed at nightfall. We hath spoken!”
Sherlock Hooves stood up tall, triumphantly. After weeks of investigations and dead ends, they finally had their culprit. Shame seven more ponies died before they caught her, but who knows what other victims Twilight would have gone on to make had she not been discovered?
Twilight fought against her chains. “No! I’m innocent! You can’t do this, it was Cheerilee! It was her all along! She wanted to wipe Ponyville clean of corruption, she was insane... Please, I beg of you!” she screamed frantically.
“So that was your motive, eh?” Hooves said. “You’re crazier than I thought, monster. Take her away!”
“S-stay away from me!” Twilight shouted at the guards as they closed in on her, and she tried to bring her magic to bear against them. Her horn lit up for a split second, but then fizzled out. “H-huh?”
“You’ve used up your magical energies, Twilight Sparkle, it’ll be some time before you’re a threat to anyone again. Time I do not intend to give you,” Luna said severely.
The guards grabbed her and started to pull her away, her hind hooves dragging over the floor.
“No, I’m innocent, I’M INNOCENT!” Twilight screamed as she was dragged out of the courtroom, and the entire gallery cheered.
There was a whole crowd waiting outside as well, although an entire column of guards had cleared a path. The masses pushed up against the guards, shouting angrily and waving their hooves in rage. Apparently somepony had informed them of the verdict, and they weren’t pleased with the purple unicorn.
Twilight hung her head and let her tears flow freely, unable to resist any longer. What was the point? Everyone thought her a monster, and her name would soon be synonymous with slaughter and violence all over Equestria.
When they got about halfway through, a bunch of ponies suddenly surged forward and pushed up against the guards’ line, attempting to break through. The armoured colts stood their ground bravely for a few seconds, but eventually they were overrun. Fights broke out between guards and civilians everywhere. Even Twilight’s jailers were drawn into the fighting, and forced to let her go. She tried to get away, but the chains connecting her legs made it a slow crawl at best, and she didn’t make it far before someone roughly dragged her up by her chains.
As she looked up, she saw a familiar, older colt standing over her. “You’re... you’re Rarity’s dad...” she said in surprise. “Are you here to... ?”
The colt looked at her, tears streaming from his eyes. “You killed my daughters, YOU TOOK THEM FROM ME!”
Twilight tried to tell him that he was wrong, that she was innocent, but he rammed one of his hooves into her face before she could even respond. She got smacked against the ground, and her attacker proceeded beat her down, as she weakly tried to shield her face with her hooves, whimpering under every blow.
“They trusted you! They thought you were their friend and you KILLED THEM! MURDERER!” he yelled as he continued to savagely beat down upon the mare.
The guards finally regained some semblance of control, pushing the enraged commoners back bit by bit. Twilight’s jailers finally broke free from their own opponents as well, and they pulled Rarity’s dad off of the unicorn, who was shaking on the ground. They handled the colt more gently than they perhaps needed to; they’d probably have done the same thing he did if their job wasn’t on the line.
They started moving again, and she whimpered as her battered and bruised body was roughly dragged along the ground. The crowd changed tactics, throwing everything they could find at the guards, hoping to get a shot in on Twilight. The guards stoically relied on their armor and shields for protection, but Twilight had no such thing going for her. She was a small target, but occasionally a neatly lobbed rock still fell down upon her, adding to her already considerable repertoire of bruises.
At long last they reached the other side of the plaza, and walked right into the jail: a decrepit building which hardly ever saw any use. The first cell they encountered was empty, so they simply threw Twilight in there, followed by a piece of bread as hard as a brick and a bowl of water, both aimed at her face. She clutched her hooves against her brow as the bowl bounced off, spillings its contents all over the floor of her cell.
She curled up in a ball and cried, wondering where it had all gone so wrong.
Even though Twilight was wet, clueless and miserable in her cell, she still felt nightfall came way too soon. Her jailers came to get her, and they weren’t any gentler than before. As they dragged her shaking body out into the night, she saw that some changes had been made. For one thing, a force field covered the entire plaza--as well as the front of the palace--which kept the crowds away. It was far smaller than the biggest one Shining Armour was capable of, and of a slightly different colour as well, but it retained the same basic function.
In the middle of the plaza they had quickly build a scaffold, and Twilight’s heart clenched inside of her throat as she lay eyes upon it. She panicked once more and fought against her chains, but the guards quickly threw her down on the ground, dragging her along as she sobbed silently. Her magic still hadn’t recovered, so there was nothing she could do.
Even though the crowds couldn’t reach her, she could still hear their cries and see them banging their hooves against the force field, hatred burning in their eyes. It hurt her more deeply than any blow could, and she hung her head. She followed along quietly as they reached the gallows, climbing the stairs obediently, not even trying to resist as they secured the noose around her neck.
“Any last words?” her executioner asked.
She thought for a moment, then shook her head. There was nothing left to say.
He shrugged, and pulled down the lever.
Twilight closed her eyes as the floor disappeared beneath her hooves, but to her great surprise, she didn’t fall. She opened one eye carefully. A familiar-looking, yellow magical aura surrounded her, preventing her from falling to her death. She looked up as she heard the flapping of wings, and something large and white landed upon the platform, causing it to shake violently.
“We must leave swiftly, Twilight,” Princess Celestia said as she undid the noose around her pupil’s neck with a simple wave of her hoof. “I am not letting them take my student’s life tonight, no matter what the law says!”
Twilight’s eyes filled with tears as the Princess put her down upon her back. “Y-you came for me... I... I’m so happy.” She felt as if she had suddenly reached an island of hope amidst a sea of despair. If they managed to escape and the Princess was on her side, there was a possibility they’d be able to set this right just yet. All was not lost; somepony still believed in her.
“Hang on tight!” Celestia yelled as she stretched her wings and took to the air, and Twilight did just that.
The guards stared at each other dumbfounded. Sure, they knew what the law wanted them to do, but this was Princess Celestia they were talking about, the pony who had ruled over them for generations. Maybe they’d be willing to stand against her in a courtroom, but physically restraining her? It was neigh unthinkable.
“We’ll make for the mountains, and then-”
“Look out!” Twilight yelled as a dark shape sped through the night sky, on a direct collision course with them.
Compared to Pegasi, Alicorns had a lot more trouble changing their course in mid-flight, so by the time Twilight shouted her warning it was really already too late. Princess Luna rammed into her sister, and the three of them crashed down upon the the roof of the palace. Twilight was catapulted off of Celestia’s back, and she bounced across the roof, almost sliding off the end, barely managing to stop herself.
Luna and Celestia scrambled to their hooves, and Celestia spread her wings out, blocking Luna’s path.
“Let me through, ‘Tia, you’re making a huge mistake!” Luna yelled as she locked hooves with her sister, wrestling for control.
“No! I won’t let you have her!” Celestia said as she barely managed to keep her sister back. Normally she’d wipe the floor with Luna without much effort, but the transferring of life energy to Twilight had taken its toll. “When I lost you, I went through hell... I’m not letting that happen, ever again!”
Celestia’s horn flared up with magical energy, followed by Luna’s a split-second later. They both fired off a spell towards the other, and in the end, nothing happened.
“I was always better than you at dispelling magic, ‘Tia, and in your current state...”
Celestia gritted her teeth. With Luna keeping her magic disabled with her own, this had become a purely physical fight, and she wasn’t sure she could win in her current state.
Twilight tried to get up on her hooves, but every part of her body hurt, and she was feeling somewhat unsteady. With her magical abilities still out, there wasn’t much she could do to help Celestia, and she quickly glanced to the side. The horde of ponies outside of the bubble seemed to have gone crazy with anger, as they were literally pounding into the force field, trying to make it give way. Pegasi swarmed all over the top of the dome, even though the guards desperately tried to keep them at bay. The guards inside of the bubble seemed to still be lost in indecision, having barely moved from their positions. Both of the princesses were involved now, so was this really still a matter for mortal ponies?
Twilight stared at the titanic fight going on in front of her eyes. It tore her apart to see the two on opposite sides.
“Don’t make me do this, Luna, I don’t want to hurt you!”
“You can’t help her, sister! The ponies won’t stand for it... She killed too many, in too gruesome a way,” Luna said pleadingly, desperately trying to convince her royal sister.
“No!” Celestia screamed defiantly. “I don’t care what she’s done, or who she’s killed... She’s my student, and nopony--not even you--will take her away from me!”
Twilight blinked incredulously. Had the Princess really just... ? “B-but... I really didn’t do it!” she said with a shaking voice.
Celestia looked over her shoulder and smiled, in the same way that she had been smiling at Twilight for as long as the unicorn could remember. “Shhh... Twilight, it’s ok... I know you’re scared, but you don’t need to hide from me. It’s ok, I understand... I don’t care about those others, I care about you, no matter what you’ve done, always.”
Twilight’s lips trembled as she slowly started to back away from the princesses, tears flowing down her cheeks. Just when she thought she had finally found one pony who believed her, her hopes got crushed into the dust again. There really was nopony left for her, nopony who trusted her deeply enough to understand, to accept, beyond a shadow of doubt, that she was telling the truth. Celestia obviously cared for her, but even she thought her a murderer, capable of the vilest deeds to grace Equestria in generations. Even if she eventually managed to convince her, the fact she had even considered it wouldn’t change. It made her heart ache, and her head swarmed with an all-encompassing sadness that threatened to smother her.
“Y-you d-don’t... b-believe me?”
“You can’t play us for fools, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna hissed, as she unsuccessfully tried to throw her sister aside.
“Twilight, it’s ok,” Celestia said kindly. “We can escape, together! We’ll find a way... we’ll build our own Equestria, just you and me, and we’ll never talk about any of this again...”
Twilight reached the edge of the roof and looked backwards.
“I trusted you...”
“Twilight, what are you-”
“I trusted you! But if you don’t trust me, I... I...” Twilight got up on her hind legs, spreading her forelegs next to her body, her eyes filled with tears. “Goodbye,” she said with a broken voice, as she allowed herself to fall backwards.
“NO!” Celestia yelled, and an unforeseen surge of adrenaline coursed through her. She threw Luna back several meters, and dashed towards Twilight as fast as she could. Her attempts at magic were unsuccessful, as Luna’s dispelling presence still lingered, even if they weren’t physically touching anymore. She jumped forward, sliding down across the roof as she extended a hoof towards Twilight, desperately trying to reach in time.
Their eyes met, and for the first time, Celestia really paid attention to the emotions in Twilight’s eyes. There was pain there: pain, sadness and loneliness. In that one instant, Celestia realised she had been mistaken; no psychopath was capable of the emotions she saw displayed there. Celestia had thought her student had been crying out of fear for her life, but there was so, so much more... She really was innocent.
Twilight saw the realisation dawn in Celestia’s eyes, and she reached out for her hoof, suddenly convinced she’d been wrong, that there was yet a reason to go on living.
Their hooves briefly brushed against each other, but neither of them was able to grab hold. Twilight fell out of reach, and Celestia could do nothing but watch as her student barrelled down towards the ground. She tried to crawl up to her hooves and jump down after her, but it was simply too late.
As the wind whistled in her ears, Twilight smiled. There was still somepony who cared for her, in the end. She looked up at the stars, and they seemed to be winking. For a moment, she even thought she could see her frie-
She hit the ground headfirst, and her brains splattered all over, followed by the rest of her body. Celestia looked down at her student’s broken body, and she burst into sobs, burying her face in her hooves. Luna walked over to her sister, and put a hoof on her shoulder.
“This was the only possible outcome, ‘Tia. You need to let it go...”
Outside the force field, the crowd began to cheer wildly, as news of the unicorn’s death spread from pony to pony like wildfire. Celestia lifted her head off of her hooves, and stared at the crowds with resentment, as her sister drew her into a hug. She lived in a kingdom where one of the two ponies most dear to her--her sister--had taken the other pony most dear to her--Twilight--away from her, and her people cheered it on. Her heart turned to stone, as she realised none of them were as good as the one they had taken away from her, none of them were really worthy.
She stood up, and wiped the tears off of her face, her expression turning from one of grief to one of grim determination. Any system which was capable of taking her student away from her was fundamentally flawed. She realised that now. Things would need to change.
She’d need to bide her time, recover and conserve her energy, fool Luna into doing her job for a little while.
Equestria’s days were numbered. When she next raised the sun, it would signal the dawn of her new, glorious, Solar Empire.