Twilight's Inferno

by PaulAsaran

First published

The price for leaving Tartarus is steep. To right her wrong, Twilight begins her journey to escape the dark depths of an Equestrian hell.

Twilight has made a terrible mistake, and her attempt at a simple solution leads to extreme consequences. Now trapped in the deepest depths of Tartarus, she must rely on a rival to guide her back to the surface. But Equestria is different and the Eternal Prison with it: the Lords of Tartarus lie in wait...

Every discovery leads to more guilt, more despair and more pain. Twilight is determined to bask in the warm light of the sun and see her beloved friends again. She will escape Hell on Equestria and right her great wrong.

But the scars of Tartarus run much deeper than she could imagine...

"This is one of the Darkest stories on FiMFiction..." —Twilight's Library — Featured June 2020!

"[...]a story that deserves to be read and cherished. It is easily the best Mature story I have read here." —Cerulean Voice

Winner of the Banished, Exiled, Forgotten contest hosted by Badass Twilight = Total Domination! Wow and thank you.

Some of the content in this story, particularly in a later chapter, have proven disturbing and upsetting for certain readers. Upon some discussion with others, it is clear that a warning beyond the mature tag is needed. This story is recommended to those who are serious about following Twilight through a very realistic hell. Don't do it lightly.

A very warm and hearty "Thank you!" goes out to The Bean for his editing, creative assistance and continuous support in this project. Twilight's Inferno was my creation, but it wouldn't be half as good without his input. I also owe him an apology for the nightmare.

Cover art commissioned from the incredible The Keyblade Pony!

The TvE Series
Chronologically from Top to Bottom
Order of Shadows
Twilight's Inferno
Trixie vs. Equestria

A Straight Way Lost

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter α: A Straight Way Lost

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto I

“Trixie, look at me.”

“I… I don’t want to.”

“Trixie, please.”

Terror filled Trixie to her core, making her entire body tremble from her spot behind the bed. This was the unicorn who filled her dreams with horrors and humiliations! It had taken months to get over those nightmares, and every now and again she still awoke sweating and afraid. But even as Trixie lay there, hooves over her eyes and lips trembling, she knew she had to obey. After all this was Twilight Sparkle; who knew what fresh degradations awaited her should she refuse? So, with heart pounding and hooves shaking, she forced herself to stand.

It took several intense seconds for Trixie to force her eyes open. What she saw standing opposite the bed was a creature so wretched it knocked the air from her lungs.

Twilight… No, not Twilight. It couldn’t be the same pony. Trixie couldn’t resist gaping over the hideous features. The sealed eye, the twisted muzzle, the sickeningly flat leg. The shattered pony had so many scars it made Trixie wonder if she weren’t another pony dressed in a hideously-stitched suit made from Twilight’s skin. Each new feature forced Trixie’s stomach to churn a little more, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away.

Her gaze locked upon the wings, if they could be referred to as such. One was twisted back on itself, and the other… didn’t exist. It was little more than a scarred nub poking out of Twilight’s side, its tiny movements unsettling.

But nothing made Trixie’s stomach rebel more than Twilight’s forehead, where no horn remained. Instead, Twilight bore a shallow crater of a hole, hideous and scarred and standing out like the eye of a skull. The sight filled Trixie with a sickening horror that had her fighting down an urge to vomit.

Trixie could only stare, mind numbly trying to process the unimaginable violence that could have perpetrated such scars. Twilight’s ruined face turned away, her unkempt mane shifting over her one eye to hide her despair and shame.

In her revulsion and sympathy, Trixie could barely summon up a faint whisper. “T-Twilight…

"...what in Equestria happened to you?”

The world flashed violet, and Twilight let out a pained shout! She knocked the Element of Magic from her head, noting its white-hot glow as it hit the floor with a quiet clink. She spent several seconds gaping at it, her lungs sucking air in long, slow gasps.

What had she just seen? She closed her eyes and saw it all again; Discord on his throne, Celestia and Luna wielding the Elements, the mutual shock of all present as Twilight’s own Element reacted violently to the familiar, beautiful spell. She tried to grasp the meaning of it all. Discord’s alarm, the princesses’ panicked struggles to hold the magic back, the light bursting from the Elements of Harmony in a chaotic rainbow looking nothing like what Twilight remembered.

She opened her eyes and stared at the Element of Magic, which was at last beginning to dim. Somehow it had interfered with the Elements from over a thousand years ago. She never should have brought it along, what had she been thinking? She should have known bringing it into the past was a mistake! What if she—

Her thoughts came to an abrupt halt as she stared down at the Element. Her eyes shifted, refocused. Stone. The floor was made of black stone.

Ears lowering, Twilight took in her surroundings. She was supposed to be back in her library, but this wasn’t her library. There were lots of filled bookshelves, so maybe this was still a library? She gazed at the circular room, wondering how she could have ended somewhere so completely different from her own.

She noted the stairs along the wall to her left. Moving slowly, she called out, “Hello? Is anypony home?”

Silence met her as she reached the steps. She could go up or down. She looked both ways, wondering if she was above ground or below. There really was no way to know, was there? She turned to her right and ascended, taking each step slowly. Every moment gave her a deeper sense of dread, her heart pounding in her chest as a myriad of possibilities flowed through her mind.

She was supposed to be at her library. That was where she cast the spell. What if she had messed up? What if she’d ended up somewhere completely alien to her?

What if she wasn’t even in the right time?

She reached the next floor. Given the lack of stairs, it had to be the top. She was in a short hallway, with two closed doors to her right and one on her left.


She paused in the middle of the hall, head low and eyes shifting to each door. No answer came, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to open those doors. What if she found out something she didn’t want to? What if her ever-growing fears proved true?

But she had to investigate. What else could she do? So, sucking in a deep breath, she went to the first door on the right. It opened to her gentle touch and she peered in to find an average-sized bedroom. She pushed her way in and examined her surroundings; it was a very neat room, with dark wood furniture and a soft-looking canopy bed. It was empty, though, and she almost left… until she noted the window. It was adorned with heavy purple curtains, but a sliver of bright light was able to sneak into the dark room.

Her curiosity mounting, Twilight circled the bed and sat before the window. What would she see if she looked out? Where would she be? When? Would she recognize anything? Would there even be ponies out there? She ducked low, chewing her lip as she fought for the courage to look.

At last she could take it no more; her horn shone and the curtains were flung wide. Bright sunlight poured into the room, making her cover her eyes against the glare. She gave her eyes a moment to adjust, but finally raised herself on her hind legs to lean against the windowsill and look out.

She could see the quaint rooftops of a small town spread out before her. She gazed down at the grassy lanes below, seeing how the houses and stores were all spread far apart. She breathed a small sigh of relief at the sight of ponies; at least that was still the same!

The same.

There were familiar elements to this town. Twilight’s eyes slowly passed over it, taking in things that struck her as… odd. Like how those houses to her far right didn’t seem to belong; she felt as if there should be a road there. And that trio of shops just ahead, why did she feel like they were supposed to be a bunch of small houses? And on her far left was a park, and it didn’t look right at all. No, something else was supposed to be there. Twilight peered at it, trying to figure out if her mind was playing tricks on—

The Carousel Boutique. The park was standing where the Carousel Boutique was supposed to be.

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat as she took another long look at the quaint scene, her mind’s eye placing buildings in their appropriate places in the town. Buildings that no longer existed.

Ponyville. She was in Ponyville.

Except it wasn’t Ponyville. The landscape was the same, but the town was all wrong! Buildings where they shouldn’t be, roads that had once been foundations! And if she knew the lay of the land as well as she thought she did… She leaned forward, swallowing the lump in her throat as she forced herself to look down.

She was in a tower, its walls made of ominous black stone, but there wasn’t a doubt in her mind; this was where the Golden Oaks Library should be.

She fell back into the room, dropping to her haunches and pressing her back against the bed. A fresh horror gripped her as she finally understood the truth. She had returned to the library, and she had gone to the right time. Somehow she had altered history… and everything was different.

Her mind worked frantically to figure out what had gone wrong. She’d figured out the spell for time travel, she’d gone back to see Discord’s defeat. She’d arrived right when Celestia and Luna had begun casting the spell… and that had been when things got weird. The Element of Magic had responded to the Elements of the past; that had to be what caused all of this!

So now she was in a new time? But how could she get back? Where were her friends? How had Equestrian history been altered? She needed… She needed…

“Spike!” She jumped to her hooves and ran back into the hallway. “Spike, where are you?” She checked each room, but found no sign of her assistant. Fear crept back into her mind; what if he’d not come with her to Ponyville in this timeline?

Sweet Celestia, what if she’d never even hatched him?

Spike!” She searched the top floor, frantically seeking out her oldest and dearest friend. When she failed to locate him, she ran downstairs and searched the single-roomed second floor. Still no sign of the baby dragon.

The bottom floor was divided into several rooms. She scoured them all, calling desperately, but Spike was nowhere to be found. Her mind full of dread, she sat at a desk in a back room and slumped, hooves over her eyes and despair in her heart. Spike, her poor apprentice, where had he gone? How was she to know if he even existed? The thought almost had her in tears…

No. She sat up straight and glared at the ceiling, the Element of Magic visible in her mind’s eye. She’d gone to the past, she could do it again! She could fix this, she just needed the right materials. But they were rare…

She would go to Canterlot. The royal Alchemist would have what she needed.

But what if she wasn’t accepted in the castle? Who was Twilight Sparkle in this new timeline? Had she ever become Celestia’s student? Would the princess even recognize her? There was no way to know, but she had to try! Yet even acknowledging this, she might not achieve anything without the right information.

She went back for the Element of Magic, which was cool to the touch. She set it to her head with a sigh, noting the black circle it had left in the floor. Once again she recalled her brief few seconds in the past, the panic and alarm of Discord and the princesses. She kept wondering over and over again: just what had happened due to her brief appearance?

She went outside, shivering in the cool autumn breeze. Curious, the door had a lock. Well, she had no key, so she just closed it and took her first steps into a new world. She glanced around, feeling a strange combination of fear and curiosity. How would the ponies react to her presence?

She began to wander, trying to take in the strangely familiar – yet wholly different – surroundings. Most ponies ignored her, which she found to be a relief, but she didn’t recognize anypony. Indeed, none of the faces were familiar.

But she realized that is wasn’t just the unfamiliar faces that were strange. She slowly came to realize, with ever increasing worry, that all she saw were Earth ponies. No unicorns, no pegasi. Just Earth ponies. Was Ponyville a segregated community? No, that didn’t make sense. If it had been, why would she be so readily accepted?

She pondered over this, fretting over the realization that she didn’t see a single familiar face. So who was she supposed to ask about the history of this new Equestria?

Then came a moment of relief in the form of Cheerilee, the cerise pony sitting at a café and enjoying a daisy sandwich. Twilight was so happy to see her she let out a whoop, trotting up to her friend with a silly grin on her face. “Miss Cheerilee, am I glad to see you!”

Cheerilee paused, mouth opened wide to take a bite of her sandwich. When she saw Twilight she beamed and offered a wave. “Miss Sparkle, how good to see you. I thought you were going to be at the gates all week?” Cheerilee dropped her sandwich, eyes going wide. “M-miss Sparkle, are those wings?”

“Huh?” Twilight raised a wing so as to better glance at it. She blushed upon realizing that everypony at the restaurant was staring at her. “Err… yes?”

Cheerilee stood, gaping at the wings. “My goodness, when did this happen? You’re an alicorn!”

A moment of worry hit Twilight; how was she supposed to explain this? She hadn’t even considered the possibility that this Equestria’s Twilight hadn’t become an alicorn! “Well, it’s kind of a long story…”

“And a crown!” Cheerilee stepped back, hooves to her lips. “You… Did Celestia name you a princess?!”

Twilight latched on to that last sentence, completely forgetting the awkward moment. This had to mean she was still Celestia’s apprentice! She almost hugged Cheerilee, but managed to keep her enthusiasm down to a mere grin. “I’ll explain everything later. I’m sorry, Cheerilee, but I… uh… just remembered something very important. And thank you, thank you so much!”

The presumed schoolteacher watched Twilight launch into the air with jaw dropped and shoulder slumped. “Umm… You’re welcome?”

Twilight didn’t need to know the history of an Equestria, for she would only be here for a short time. All she needed to know was that Celestia would recognize her. She could get what she needed and fix this horrible error in no time! She spotted Canterlot Castle in the North, its distant outline pleasantly familiar, and made her way to it with hope in her heart.

She would solve this. She was Princess Twilight Sparkle, and this was not beyond her abilities!

From her position high above the castle, Twilight couldn’t help thinking that Canterlot was startlingly familiar in design to what it once was. But it wasn’t quite the same; the city now boasted two wide walls that encircled those portions of the city not backed by sheer cliffs, and many new additions made it clear that the castle had been repurposed for battle. Twilight found that disturbing; was Equestria at war?

As she descended to the courtyard a half-dozen pegasi rose up to meet her, armed with spears and not looking very friendly. When they grew close enough to recognize her, however, their threatening glares were traded for gawking disbelief.

Twilight paused to hover, not wanting to appear aggressive. She waved politely to the pony she suspected was the captain of the group. “Hail, sir. I must speak with Princess Celestia immediately. Would you be so kind as to escort me?”

The captain blinked as if coming out of a trance and pressed his jaw closed with a hoof. “Er… Miss Sparkle?”

She nodded, trying to maintain a respectful smile in the face of his understandable confusion. “Yes, I am… Twilight Sparkle.” She’d almost added ‘princess’ to that introduction, but perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.

The captain flew sideways to get a better look at her wings. “I… I mean, if you don’t mind my asking…”

She already had a statement prepared. “It is precisely because of this new development that I must meet with Princess Celestia immediately. Something far more important than wings has occurred, and it must be rectified immediately. Take me to the princess!”

He flew backwards, eyes widening at her words. “Oh… uh, of course! This way.”

Twilight followed, glad to see that she still had some level of authority in this world. The pegasi encircled her protectively even as they kept eyeing her wings. She didn’t mind; it wasn’t like she hadn’t gone through all this before. Becoming an alicorn sometimes had that affect on ponies. They landed at a tall balcony above the castle’s great cliff and the captain promptly lead her inside.

The first thing Twilight noticed was the grandeur of the castle’s interior. Canterlot Castle had always been a beautiful place, but this was something entirely different. Marble walls, bright tapestries covering every inch, gold-inlaid pillars! These things hadn’t been unknown to her, but the castle she knew reserved such flashy displays for the main entrance and throne room, all to amaze guests. The rest of it had been rather plain, at least by these standards.

The guard said nothing as he led her to a wide, winding staircase. They descended several floors, Twilight taking note of the brilliant, glowing blue crystals that offered the area some light. She remembered seeing similar gems in the abandoned crystal mines beneath the city. It was a curious use, but then it also seemed strangely obvious. She would have to ask Celestia – her Celestia – about why they were never used in her own castle.

The captain lead her down several long halls, some vast and others small. Twilight wondered why the route was so convoluted… but then, if the castle had been designed with combat in mind, one wouldn’t want a direct route to the castle’s master, right? At least that made some sense, though the thought of Equestria being prepped for war like this had her on edge. She had to get back before whatever was going on with this land caught up to her.

At last they came upon a tall door, which had guards posted on either side. The unicorn guards spotted Twilight and fought not to gape at her wings. She only smiled politely and tried not to roll her eyes.

The guard stepped through the door, but paused just inside the next room. Twilight peered within and saw that it was a side entrance to the throne room, and her heart skipped a beat. The throne room was a little larger than she recalled, with great tapestries hanging from the ceiling. A great throne, far more ornate than what Twilight remembered, sat before a massive window.

And there, just as glorious as Twilight remembered, was Celestia. She sat tall and proud, her pearly skin almost glowing in the rays of a sun that poured through the window and encased the entire room in her radiance.

It had the appropriate affect; Twilight felt warmth in her soul and hope in her heart at the sight of her mentor, who gazed upon her court with a serene presence to match the holiest of angels. The sight of that alicorn fought away all doubts and calmed any fear. Twilight gazed upon that soft face and wanted nothing more than to sit and bask.

But her reverie was interrupted by the captain’s hooves loudly tapping the stone floor. Twilight straightened into a proper stance with a sheepish blush as he announced her arrival. Sucking in a calming breath and ready to face a very confused sun princess, Twilight passed through the doorway. All eyes turned to her and there were collective gasps from the court. Twilight fought to maintain a regal bearing and not shy back at the sudden attention.

Celestia turned, her face initially harsh and commanding, but when she caught sight of Twilight her eyebrows rose. Twilight didn’t know the kind of relationship she was supposed to have with Celestia in this world, so she decided to take the formal route: she walked about the throne until she was properly facing it and gave a deep bow. “Princess, forgive this unexpected arrival, but I have an urgent need to speak with you.”

The princess stood from her throne, approaching at a slow, hesitant pace as Twilight rose from the bow. Celestia’s expression revealed nothing but confusion. “Twilight? Is that really you?”

“Yes.” Twilight nodded with a calming smile. “And no. It’s a little difficult to explain under the circumstances.”

Celestia’s head tilted one way, then another. Twilight felt like a lab specimen being scrutinized. “This is… I don’t know how to describe what I am feeling. Did you somehow—” Celestia interrupted herself with a small gasp, eyes locking on Twilight’s forehead. “Th-that crown…”

Twilight’s eyes went cross as she tried to look up at the Element of Magic. Her mind worked swiftly to make a connection that, in afterthought, should have been obvious. Using her magic, she lifted it from her head and sent it to hover before Celestia’s face. “Do you know what this is, princess?”

Celestia gazed at the crown with wide eyes, but then her expression softened. She sat, her hooves rising in a strangely slow and graceful motion to pluck the Element from the air. She turned it about, examining it from several angles. “It has been over a millennium, but yes, I know what this is. More importantly—” her eyes rose to lock with Twilight’s, “—I know who you are.”

Twilight's entire body sagged as she heaved a deep sigh. “Princess, you have no idea how happy I am to hear you say that!”

Celestia offered a kind smile. “And you have no idea how happy I am that you have finally come. This is an issue I’ve long wanted to fix.”

Hope and joy filled Twilight to bursting as she stood up to beam at her beloved mentor. “You mean you know what I must do?”

Celestia placed the crown back on her student’s head and nodded, her expression the very definition of gracious. “I do.” She stood and tapped her hoof to the floor, a gentle touch that somehow resounded throughout the throne room. “Court is in recess while I attend to my apprentice. We shall resume in the morning.”

The ponies in attendance began to mill about or head for the exit, many of them casting wary or amazed stares in Twilight’s direction. She ignored the lot of them; nothing could disturb her so long as she was with Celestia. “I knew I could count on you, princess! I have to admit I was a little worried.”

“Don’t be silly,” Celestia replied with a grin. “I’ve had close to twelve hundred years to prepare for your arrival. Come, I have the perfect spell that will take care of everything.” She gestured, and Twilight eagerly walked at the princess’ side. She beamed up at her mentor, glad to see that she was every bit as wonderful in this world as she was in her own.

As Celestia lead Twilight out a different side door and through the halls, she offered a charming smile. “I have to say, this is a fascinating encounter. All these years I wondered about the pony who appeared during the fight with Discord, and to see you here! To be honest, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“No?” Twilight tilted her head to eye her teacher. “But I thought you said you said you were waiting for me?”

“I was,” Celestia acknowledged with a nod. “I thought it would be Twil… Excuse me, my Twilight who would go back in time, but I also suspected that the Twilight from an alternate reality might have been responsible. It was one suspected result of altering time.”

“I see.” Twilight thought on this for a few seconds. “So… You knew it was me? I mean, even way back then?”

“Oh, no.” Celestia shook her head with a soft, musical laugh that filled Twilight with joy. “I did not realize until I met the Twilight of this time, who bore such striking similarities that I had not a doubt in my mind. But you’re an alicorn, and this world’s Twilight is not. Knowing what her future meant to our past played a significant role in my deciding to apprentice her.”

Twilight hesitated as they entered a large room filled with books and scrolls. “I see, but wouldn’t that make her feel… unappreciated?”

“It would if she knew,” Celestia admitted. “She’s entirely unaware that she is – or rather, was believed to be – the Unknown Princess.”

Twilight paused, recognizing that title. There was an ‘Unknown Princess’ in the history of her world, too. How curious. She glanced around at the shelves, her mind rapidly going back to the situation at hoof. “Is this the spell library? It’s not so open as the one in my Canterlot.”

“This is a dangerous world,” Celestia explained, climbing a circular set of stairs. “Come, the scroll we want is this way.”

As Twilight followed Celestia asked, “So tell me, what do you think of Canterlot Castle?”

Twilight hesitated; this version of Celestia was freely offering to help her, and she didn’t want to give her real opinion. But she knew better than to lie, so… “It’s… far more grand than the one in my time.”

“You don’t like it?” Celestia didn’t look back, but Twilight flinched anyway.

“It’s nice, don’t get me wrong!” The young princess blushed and hurried to keep up. “It’s just not as open as I’m used to.” She noted with curiosity how Celestia’s horn abruptly shined, the magic aura cracking like glass almost as soon as it appeared. “What was that?”

“A signal,” her mentor explained. “The scroll we will be using is very dangerous if placed in the wrong hooves, so it is very well protected. I needed to alert the guards that we are approaching.”

They came upon a small door, innocuous in its design. Twilight might have thought it a broom closet, but this was the door Celestia approached, opening it with her magic and ducking her head to get inside. Twilight followed close behind, curious about who might be guarding such an important spell.

She was disappointed to find the small room empty. No guards. Or bookshelves for that matter. There was a single object inside; a small stand holding a solitary scroll encased in a white glow. Twilight peered at it as Celestia approached the stand, feeling just a bit let down. “Is that it?”

“That’s it.” Celestia waved a hoof over the scroll and the white aura faded like a cloud in the wind. She lifted the scroll with her magic and turned to Twilight, expression severe. “At long last, I will be rid of this one thing which has troubled me for so long.”

Twilight ducked, her mentor’s expression filling her with shame. “I’m so sorry, princess. I know my actions had to have caused a lot of harm.”

Celestia peered at her, judging and cool. Her horn began to glow and that small aura appeared to pop once more.

Twilight let out a gasp as a terrible chill filled the room. She looked up and shouted in surprise as a trio of strange apparitions began to drop through the ceiling! They were big and ghostly and blue and… and…


The creatures dropped to the level of the floor and ran about the room, white eyes blazing as they rushed a ceaseless circle. The temperature dropped precipitously within seconds and Twilight felt an intense fear at the sight of them. “C-Celestia, how did those things get in here?”

Celestia offered a smile, but there was a wicked glint in her eye that was impossible to ignore. “I told you the spell was guarded, did I not?”

“By windigos?” Twilight turned to her, eyes wide. “But they’re the sworn enemies of Equestria! How can you—”

Her words were cut off by a solitary beam from Celestia’s horn, which struck her in the chest and sent her flying. She smacked against the wall and let out a pained cry when one of the equine apparitions passed right through her, chilling her body to the bone. She hit the floor, crown clattering on the stones.

She gazed up with wide, horrified eyes as the Element of Magic arose and floated over to Celestia, who was calmly unrolling the scroll. “W-what…? Princess…” She had to scramble forward to avoid another windigo.

“This isn’t what I originally planned for you,” her teacher noted calmly, eyes roaming the scroll. “I had many ideas, of course, but I think this will be suitable.”

“Celestia!” Twilight climbed to her hooves, shivering against the frigid cold. “What are you doing? I don’t underst—”

“Be silent.”

A blast of yellow energy erupted at Twilight’s hooves, a harsh parallel to Celestia’s calm voice. The explosion sent Twilight flying into the ceiling, but she never hit ground. Something grasped her by a wing and held her aloft in a painful position, and she let out a shout as she was flung sideways into another windigo and the wall.

She hit the ground and immediately crawled away from the encircling creatures. “C-Celestia, stop! Why are you doing this?!”

“I have to thank you for coming to me so willingly,” Celestia replied with a dark grin, the scroll snapping closed. “And for my insurance policy.” She tapped the hovering Element of Magic with her hoof.

“But I’m Twilight Sparkle!” Twilight struggled back to her hooves, steam forming from her breath as the air grew ever colder. A creeping horror was filling her as she began to understand that her mentor had never intended to help her. “Look at me, I’m your student!”

“You?” Celestia laughed. The sound had a grip on Twilight’s heart even stronger than the icy apparitions. “You’re nothing. You’ll never take my throne from me, and today I will at last be able to guarantee it!”

Twilight let out a choked gasp as her throat constricted of its own accord and something jerked her down. Her face smacked the hard stone floor painfully. She squirmed and struggled to stand, but whatever had her throat refused to let go. Her eyes locked with Celestia’s. Her mentor’s expression filled her a fresh dread. What was happening? Why was Celestia doing this? She wanted to scream out, but her throat couldn’t form the words!

Celestia approached at a slow gait, lips set in a firm frown. She touched Twilight’s face with a hoof, forcing the prostrate princess to move her head left and right as if to study her. Her superior, haughty air left Twilight feeling shameful. The princess… Twilight’s mind grasped for some explanation for what was happening!

“You know what you are, Twilight Sparkle?” Celestia ground her hoof atop Twilight’s head. “You’re nothing more than a changeling.”

A… what?

Twilight gazed up as the princess stepped off her at last, her horror growing by leaps and bounds. She thought she was a changeling? Was that why she was doing all of this? She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes as she fought to speak. “N… No…”

Celestia nodded. She seemed proud – proud! – of her deception. “Who would have thought a changeling would come in the form of my dear student? Not the most original plan, I must admit, but if it works…”

No! She wasn’t a changeling! Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but all she could manage was a pathetic whistling. She had to free herself, if she could just do that…

As soon as Twilight’s horn began to glow, a ball of yellow light dropped on top of her and erupted in a rage of sparks and energy eruptions, and this time Twilight’s lungs managed to force out a feeble scream. She jerked against her invisible binding and fought for some kind of spell that would save her, but the pain was so intense she couldn’t focus.

At last the magic faded. Twilight could only lay there with tears running down her cheeks, trembling from the cold and pain.

“Are you finished fighting?”

Twilight sobbed, understanding that she had no chance against her mentor. She was a princess, but Celestia had centuries of experience. She tried to speak, to beg, to explain, to make any kind of proper sound! Please, she couldn’t die like this!

Celestia let out a huff, adding a small but painful kick to Twilight’s head for emphasis. She stepped back, the scroll unrolling once more before her. “Do not fret, ‘princess.’ I won’t kill you.”

“C… Celes…” Twilight fought to just get the name out. Celestia couldn’t do this, she had to see her mistake! If only Twilight could explain…

Celestia gave her a wicked smile, her horn glowing black. A circle of dark energies began to form in the floor around her captive, black bubble-like material steadily floating up from the edges. Twilight squirmed, vision blurred by tears as she gazed up at her precious princess. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening!

“…not a… change… p-please…”

“Nopony will ever know of you.” Celestia's voice was cold as ice. “Nopony will ever speak of you. You do not exist. Just as I exterminated the changelings, so too shall I remove you.”

No… Sweet Celestia, no…

“So farewell, Twilight Sparkle.”


“Give my regards to your new friends.”


Twilight’s world became engulfed in black as she managed to emit a final, pleading scream.

Things Innocuous

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter I: Things Innocuous

“One ought to be afraid of nothing other than things possessed of power to do us harm,
but things innocuous need not be feared.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto II

Twilight jerked to her hooves, the latter portion of her scream echoing in the air. She blinked, staring up at an inexplicable yet radiant light that shined upon her. The princess’ mind worked frantically as she spun a fast circle in search of Celestia… but she was alone.

Her solitude did nothing to dissuade her alarm. Celestia thought she was a changeling! Twilight felt her head, which was still sore from where her mentor had ground a hoof against it. She’d been treated like… like dirt. She’d never known Celestia could be so cruel. For a weak moment Twilight found herself hunched low, heart heavy with the understanding that her beloved benefactor had treated her in such a way.

How was she supposed to right her mistake if Celestia wouldn’t let her? She couldn’t stay here, she didn’t belong in this timeline. All she’d wanted was to go back to a historic moment and see things for herself. It was just research for a book! How could something so innocent lead to this?

But Twilight’s sorrow was brief. She stood tall and sucked in a long breath. She needed to focus, to calm down, to think. Celestia thought she was a changeling. Looking back, that would be an obvious conclusion to meeting a second Twilight. It was clear by now that the Twilight of this world wasn’t an alicorn. If she had just given herself some time to think on how her appearance would look she’d have seen this coming.

Twilight was determined not to be discouraged by this. She would look at the problem and find a solution. Celestia had to be approached in the right way, that was all.

But first, Twilight had to figure out where she was.

The answer – as far as she could tell – was a palace. She found herself standing in a wide, towering hallway resplendent in gleaming white marble. Not just the walls, but the floor too, and the massive columns that ran along either side of the spacious place. She couldn’t tell what the ceiling was made from, for all she could see when she looked up was a pale glow that illuminated the entire hall.

Twilight looked ahead; there was nothing but endless hallway. She looked over her shoulder and saw the same view behind her. What was this place? It almost felt like a dream. Maybe it was. Perhaps Celestia’s spell had put her to sleep.

No, that didn’t make any sense. A sleeping spell was not so dangerous as to warrant protection from wendigos. So if she really was awake, perhaps it had been a transportation spell? Had Celestia teleported her to some fantastic land?

But again, why would something like that warrant the protection of wendigos?

There was nothing for it; Twilight began to walk. The hall had to lead somewhere and one way was as good as another. She called out a few times, wondering if whatever creatures lived here could even understand her language. For all she knew, she’d been teleported clear across the planet.

That thought was just a little worrying, and Twilight concluded not to provide it any further indulgence.

Her walk was long and quiet. She soon became aware of the complete silence surrounding her; no wind, no voice, no hoofsteps aside from her own. It was even more disturbing than seeing the same constant walls, the continuous line of columns that stretched on for an eternity. She called for somepony a few more times, but her voice was always met with little save her own echo.

Eventually she gave up, for the act of disturbing the silence was beginning to feel… improper. This place had a certain sacred feel to it, like a great temple, and Twilight had the distinct impression that her presence was unwelcome.

She was so relieved when she finally saw the doorway on her left. She approached at a trot and peered inside, wanting to call out but hesitant in the quiet. The room she found was tall and wide, but nothing compared to the halls she’d just been in. Everything was white, just like before. There were large, highly decorated blocks set in rows against the walls. They had a curious look to them and reminded her of something she couldn’t quite place.

The room was a dead end; no other doors lead out. With nothing better to do, Twilight approached one of the large blocks in hopes of learning something about its function. She was growing desperate to learn anything about this place.

The block she came to was long and wide, but just a little shorter than herself. After some inspection she realized that the plinth-like top was actually a lid; this was a box. She pressed at it, but it wouldn’t budge. Judging from the texture, she suspected it really was solid marble. She glanced around at the white room, then the glowing ceiling. Everything seemed so… unreal.

This was getting her nowhere. Glowering, she turned to head for the door. She had to find the way out and get some information, and—

She came to an abrupt stop as she entered the hall… except it wasn’t the hall. No, she was in another of those large rooms, with a door immediately opposite her. Twilight blinked and looked back, confirming that the room she’d just been in was still there.

“What in Equestria?”

She peered at the walls, then the boxes, then the bright ceiling. Was this place some sort of enchanted prison? Had Celestia dropped her in a magical maze?

Come to think of it, that sounded much more like something Celestia would do. The thought had Twilight smirking. This had the feel of a magical puzzle and suddenly she was much more confident. This was her kind of challenge! If she could best it then surely Celestia would recognize her intellect and magical prowess and know she was the real deal. Her certainty rising, Twilight trotted for the new door. She would see how this little maze worked and she would escape! This would not be a problem.

She passed through the door and found herself in another dead end. The princess took a moment to explore the room for potential clues, but there was nothing save white walls and those strange marble boxes. Satisfied there was nothing of interest, she went back through the door.

This time Twilight found herself in a T-shaped room – still filled with those boxes – and saw doors to both her left and right. Frowning, she bowed her head and focused on sensing the magic of the place. In doing so, she suddenly became aware of a chaotic mishmash of energies cascading over her! She winced at the powerful sensation and tried to focus; clearly this place was designed to be as confusing as possible.

She turned her head to one of the doors, but the magic didn’t subside or intensify. She pointed her horn to the other door and felt the same effect. Glowering that her idea wasn’t proving very helpful, she ceased the spell and rubbed her tingling forehead.

She would just pick one at random.

She turned right and passed through the door. This time it was another straight shot. Twilight glanced around at the familiar scenery with a curious eye before turning around and passing through the door again. If she could see what was the other way, perhaps it would help her make a better decis—

She sighed, head drooping as she found herself in a dead end. The rooms changed so quickly! “This is tougher than I thought.”

“I wish I knew what I was doing.”

Twilight blinked and looked around. That voice… was her own. But she hadn’t said that. “Hello?”

“Is that me?”

Twilight spun a small circle, eyes darting about, but she could see nopony. “Who’s there?”

“Did Celestia banish the other me as well?”

Whoever it was, it knew her thoughts! The sound seemed to be coming from her right, and there was a door there, so Twilight quickly ran through. She found herself in an empty room with four doors. “Is somepony there?”

“Or is it just an echo?”

An echo.

Twilight sat, gazing at the shining light above her. Was her voice simply trailing back to her? But how could that be? Was it another trick of the maze? Mind churning over the possibilities, she pursed her lips and blew a loud whistle.

“Will it repeat?”

Twilight perked her ears, trying to catch the direction of the voice. It didn’t work. The sound seemed to be echoing her thoughts, though, so if she had no thoughts…

Focusing to clear her mind, she sat and blew another long whistle.

No sound came back.

Her suspicion confirmed, Twilight considered the situation. The magic here was really strange, almost wild. She closed her eyes and focused once more, letting the chaotic energies reverberate through her horn. Varying directions, shifting intensities… she’d felt this before. Where had she felt it? It was so unnatural, and yet so…

Her eyes snapped open, a familiar anger boiling in her. “Discord!” She spun about, glaring at the boxes and the walls. “I know you’re here. Come out and explain yourself!”

The draconequus didn’t appear as commanded.

Twilight stomped her hoof. “Discord, this is not funny.” She couldn’t believe it, how could she have been so foolish? He’d probably planned all of this from the very beginning! Odds were she’d never even traveled through time.

“Where are you?” She ran through a door to find herself in another T-shaped room. Maybe it was the same one as before. “If you don’t let me out of here right now I swear to Celestia you’ll be back to stone in no time!”

She galloped through several rooms, snorting in frustration as her eyes scoured every nook and cranny for her tormentor. Yet she tired herself out before she ever found anything, and finally stopped to lean against one of the boxes and pant. That bastard of a draconequus, he was probably having a good laugh at her expense! When she got her hooves on him…

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the chaotic energies swirling about her. If she could just pinpoint a source, or even a direction! Discord wouldn’t get away with this, she would teach him a lesson he’d never forget! By the time she was… done…

Her head turned, following the powerful energy source that she’d finally pinpointed. She could only stare; it was coming from the marble box upon which she was leaning.

“Gotcha!” She jumped back and fired a thick beam into the box, which erupted in dust and rock. The resulting white cloud filled the room and made her cough. “How—” She hacked, pausing to set a hoof to her throat and wait for the dust to settle before trying again. “How do you like them apples?”

But there was no Discord. She blinked, staring at the rubble before her. Had he escaped? She glowered and picked her way through the rocks, menacing thoughts sweeping through her mind. She was going to kill that stupi—

She let out a cry and jumped back at the sight of a claw, bracing for an attack that didn’t come. Ready for anything, she came a little closer and peered. Sure enough, she was looking at an eagle’s claw. But it was thin and shriveled and coated with powder.

It wasn’t attached to anything.

A tense fear hit Twilight as her eyes darted about. A piece of wing there, a bald tail end there. A face, feminine and withered.

Twilight felt the air rush from her lungs as she turned to gaze at the other blocks. Almost a dozen of them, all lined against the walls, all solemn and unadorned.


She was in a draconequus tomb.

Her hoofsteps echoed in the pure light as she fled, not understanding where she was running to. She only knew that she needed to get out now. Her mind was in tatters, the hard reality of her situation suddenly becoming much, much clearer.

She had asked Discord about his race. The tombs were created to contain the unwavering, eternal powers of a draconequus. The chaotic magic pummeling her from all sides wasn’t coming from him, it was coming from the bodies of the dead!

Yet even as she ran from room to room, breath coming in gasps and eyes darting among those rows of graves, Twilight knew this wasn’t the worst part of her situation. Oh no, not by far. According to Discord, there was only one draconequus tomb within the borders of Equestria:


Twilight thought she could handle herself, but nothing terrified her more than the idea that she might have been sent to Equestria’s equivalent of Hell. The things that were down there… Her hooves kept pounding the solid stone as she cried out for somepony, anypony to answer her. She couldn’t be in Tartarus, she couldn’t be!

She came sliding to a stop, eyes going wide at the sight of the shattered grave. Gasping and with sweat beading off her brow, she slumped against the door frame and trembled; how could Celestia do this? Of all the places to send her! Twilight could understand a true villain, but a changeling who looked like her protégé? Wasn’t she at all concerned that maybe Twilight was the real thing?

She dropped to her haunches, ears laid back as she stared at the bits of broken bone and ruined draconequus. She would never get out if she couldn’t handle things logically, but the magic of the draconeqii was anything but logical! How could she think of a solution when the problem itself made no sense?

Even so, she had to find a way. She had to get back to Equestria, to get her crown back, to return to her own time! She just needed some sort of clue. Even a draconequus had to have enough practical sense to create an exit… right?

The terrifying question remained: where would she be when she did find the exit?

Panic began to rise in her, and she promptly whacked herself across the cheek. “Get it together!”

“Abandon all hope.”

“I am not thinking that!” Twilight glared up at the ceiling, having nothing better to vent her frustration on. Well, maybe not a ceiling, but whatever it was. A light. Grumbling, she turned away and tried to think rationally. There had to be some simple method of getting out of here! She almost wished she were back in that eternal hallway.

Okay, so she might be in Tartarus. Hopefully not, but she had to accept it as a possibility. It was supposed to be a bunch of caverns and this hardly qualified, so maybe she wasn’t in Tartarus? She eyed the light above once more, noting to herself how it seemed far too bright for a creepy set of—

She blinked, staring at the pale luminescence that filled every room. She couldn’t see a source.

Could it be that simple?

Having no other ideas, Twilight opened her wings and rose at a very slow rate. She had to cover her face against the harsh glare, but soon she was high enough to reach a hoof up and try to touch a ceiling. It met only air. Another spark of hope filling her, she rose a little more. Her hoof waved for any sort of contact to indicate what was beyond the light. Soon she was completely encased in the cold glow, and had to keep her eyes firmly closed and covered by a leg.

But then her hoof touched something. Or rather, passed through something. It was a cool sensation not unlike emerging from underwater. Twilight was tempted to pull back, but she knew that there could be no proper logic to guide her, not in a draconequus tomb. Even so, she hesitated; what would she find if she kept going?

At last Twilight let out a shout and, trying very hard to channel her inner Rainbow Dash, beat her wings. Her world went silent for just an instant as her head passed through… whatever she was feeling.

Suddenly she was flying.


Her sense of orientation completely lost, Twilight cried out and dropped onto her back. But the ground wasn’t hard; on the contrary, it was soft like grass. She blinked, staring up with wide eyes at a pale blue ceiling glittering with tiny crystals. She became abruptly aware that her world had become much, much colder.

Shivering, she sat up with a soft groan to take in her surroundings. She was most certainly in a cave. The walls, though of a rather pretty blue, were rough and random in their manner. But if she was in a cave, why was the floor covered in picked flowers? She eyed the things, wondering where they came from with no plants to fall off of. The flowers had tall and thin petals, with lots of white and just a thin streak of red. She wasn’t sure what they were, but they were pretty.

She observed the wall she’d fallen from, seeing that it was different from the others. It was smooth like a mirror, but without offering a reflection and a few shades lighter in color than the surrounding rock. Curious, Twilight reached a hoof to touch it and made an awed sound as the mirror reacted, tiny waves cascading up and down the wall like ripples of water. So this was the tomb’s entrance? She was mildly surprised at how easy it had been to escape. Clearly Celestia had overestimated the strength of her spell.

Feeling a touch more confident, Twilight turned about… and felt her jaw drop. There, standing not fifteen feet away from where she’d landed, was a massive column of ice. But it wasn’t the column that had her keeping her distance; it was the draconequus sealed within. What was that doing here?

She promptly stood from her hunched position with a self-conscious cough. Why wouldn’t there be a draconequus guarding a draconequus tomb?

Why would he encase himself in ice?

Though the question nagged her, Twilight had no time to think on such things. She needed to leave, and perhaps this guy could help. She knew enough from her unpleasant encounters with Discord to know that he was probably trying to play some childish game with her, anyway. So, even though she dreaded what ridiculously silly event might come of it, she approached the creature’s back.

“Excuse me, sir.”

No answer. The creature of chaos remained frozen in place.

Twilight frowned; surely he wasn’t legitimately frozen! Draconequus magic would have no problem getting him out of something like that. Grinding her teeth, she took another step forward. “I could use some help.” A long pause. “Hello?”

She started walking around, head low and grumbling. She barely noted how her breath was coming out as steam. “Listen,” she snapped once properly in front of him, “I know this is an odd… circumstance?” She gazed up at the tall creature, eyes going wide at that familiar face. “Discord?”

He stood tall over her, shoulders hunched and eyes bitter. His claws were set tight as if to clutch at something and his lips were pulled back in a sneer. Discord looked quite upset from his spot in the ice, and it left Twilight feeling just a little nervous.

She shook her anxiety away. There were more important topics at hoof, such as why he was here.

She had to remind herself that this wasn’t her Discord; this was the Discord of the new timeline she’d somehow created. There was no telling what this one would be like, or how dangerous he could be. She set herself in a defensive stance on instinct as she studied his frozen, angered face. “I know you can hear me, Discord! Stop fooling around and talk to me.”

No response. His eyes didn’t even shift.

She sneered, horn glowing in warning. “I’ll cut you out of there if I have to!”

Still no response.

Twilight rolled her head back with a sound combining a groan and a sigh. “Oh, come on! I have far more important things to do than wait on you to decide if you wanna play along. I need to find the way out of here. I’d like your help.” She peered at him, tapped the ice crystal with her hoof. “Hellooooo?”

She stood there for several seconds, waiting for the draconequus to do something. Speak, zap out of his prison, melt the ice, shift, blink, anything. The longer she waited, the more uncomfortable Twilight became. Discord wasn’t one to wait for so long to do something, it wasn’t his style. True, this probably wasn’t the Discord she knew, but she couldn’t imagine his personality being that different.

Her ears folded back as she gazed up at his unmoving eyes. “Discord?”

A disturbing thought came to mind as her eyes slowly looked through the ice to the smooth wall leading to the draconequus tomb. What was he doing near a place like that? Unless…

Dreading the result, Twilight closed her eyes and cast a simple, short range soul detection spell.

Time passed in silence. When she opened her eyes they were moist.

“Oh no…”

Discord was dead. She reared back to press her hooves to the ice and study him a little more closely, an intense sorrow filling her. She’d never really liked Discord, but… dead? What in the name of Equestria could kill a draconequus? Had he come all the way here in hopes of achieving some kind of proper burial?

How had this happened?

Then she remembered her moment in the past, that frightening instant when the Elements were going wild and her crown was reacting uncontrollably to the magic. The princesses had tried to stop it, and Discord had been…


Twilight fell back from the ice crystal, shaking her head slowly. Good Goddess, what if she was responsible for this? What if her innocent little trip through time had lead to Discord’s death? Had she bastardized the Elements of Harmony with her untimely arrival?

She sat and tried to think, eyes wide as she trembled in the cold. No. No, it couldn’t be. She’d been outside, in the open air! This was a cave. Something else had to have defeated Discord, it was the only explanation!

But what if her presence had lead to it in some way?

“Sweet mercy,” she whispered, looking up at her old foe’s unpleasant face. “I wish you could talk to me. I wish I knew what all has happened since that battle. If I did this to you, I am so sorry.”

She sat for a few seconds, pondering this new discovery with head hanging low and sorrow in her heart. She had to find some way to fix this. She was – might be – responsible, so it fell on her to make it right. But how? It wasn’t like she could bring somepony back to life.

…but she could go back in time.

Twilight turned from Discord, determination and self-directed anger guiding her to leave the frozen draconequus and his flowers behind. All she needed to do was go back to her own time. Discord would still be alive! She would fix this. She would go home, and if she ever saw that big stupid oaf again she’d give him a big hug. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face! All she really needed was to find her way out of this cave and figure out where she was in relation to Equestria.

Of course, getting out might not be so easy. She really hoped this wasn’t one of those maze-like systems that ran for hundreds of—

Twilight rounded the corner and came to an abrupt stop, jaw dropping at the sight of the massive cavern before her. It was huge! More importantly, it was populated. Hundreds of creatures milled about in the hill-like open space, a constant chatter reaching her ears as she gazed at them. Had she come upon some sort of subterranean city?

This might be easier than she thought. A wave of relief washed over Twilight as she stepped out into the open and began making her way to the first individual she saw, which happened to be a griffon.

She wasn't three steps in before her hoof hit something soft that made her stumble. When she looked down her heart jumped into her throat; she’d tripped over a diamond dog’s face!

“Oh, I am so sor… sorry?”

The diamond dog’s head slumped sideways on his shoulders, eyes rolling about and his tongue hanging loosely. He was buried in the floor all the way up to his shoulders, and he was a bland grey color. Not just his coat; his eyes, even his tongue were stone grey. Twilight covered her lips as she stared at him.

She knelt down, alarm and confusion mixing in her mind. “How did you get like that? D-don’t worry, we’ll get you out!”

He ignored her, head lolling around as strange, pointless noises rose from his open lips. Twilight waved a hoof in front of his eyes, but gained no response. She sat up and cocked her head. “Are you okay?”

The dog gained a gradual smile, his eyes still unable to focus on any one direction. “Gems… Buried in gems…” His words came slow and dull, just like his coat. “Look at all the gems…”

Twilight watched in solemn uncertainty, not sure what to make of his behavior.

Then she saw him creep down into the ground by about half an inch.

She gasped and stepped back, lifting her forelegs in fear that she might be grabbed by whatever had him. As she did she saw the bodies and let out a startled cry. Twilight lifted off as her eyes darted about the stone floor, which she now saw consisted of petrified creatures of all sorts! Ponies, diamond dogs, griffons, a veritable city of creatures cast in stone! Legs, heads, tails, manes, she even thought she saw the massive claw of a dragon poking up from the mess, all tightly compacted into a rough, bumpy floor.

How could this have happened? She spun about, noting all the creatures still roaming about the cavern. Weren’t they alarmed? Didn’t they care? She flew to the closest individual, a griffon who was sitting and eyeing the high roof of the cavern. “Hey! What is this place? Why is the floor made of bodies?!”

The griffon didn’t answer, her color only slightly less grey than the diamond dog’s. She just kept staring at the ceiling with a silly smile.

Twilight flew in front of her. “What is wrong with you?”

A short huff of a laugh came from the griffon, her eyes not moving from where they now gazed, which was right through Twilight. “Such nice clouds…”

Twilight flew backwards as she gazed with worry. She turned and flew to a nearby pony who still seemed to have his colors. He was bouncing in place for no apparent reason. “What’s going on?”

He just kept bouncing, a manic grin on his face as he giggled.

Twilight tried another pony, one who wasn’t smiling. She was walking in what seemed to be a random direction, a harsh glower on her dull, green face. Twilight flew alongside her. “Please, talk to me!”

The pony only walked on, grumbling under her breath.

Fear began to fill Twilight as she flew to an aging pony sitting on his haunches near the wall. She landed and shook him by his stone-grey shoulders. “What is wrong with you ponies?!”

He opened his mouth wide and emitted a long, low, soft moan. Twilight took a hesitant step back, watching in horror as he sank a little into the stone ground. He was down to about his knees.

She flew high, heart pounding in her chest. Her earlier theory came back to her, and the thought had her chest in a vice; what if this really was Tartarus? She hovered over the cavern, gazing at all the creatures below. She examined individuals, observed how many were in varying stages of petrification. Not a single one was doing anything noteworthy, unless silliness counted as noteworthy. Was this supposed to be Tartarus, the great prison of all things evil? But… but how could so many ponies be in here? And what was wrong with them?

“Somepony talk to me!” She flew a small circle, scanning at the crowds below with an inexplicable sense of horror. “What is wrong with all of you? Somepony make sense!”

She paused when she heard the laughter. She looked to see a tall pegasus stallion, his face split in a demented grin as his guffaws filled the cavern. He was joined by another pony, then a griffon. Soon it seemed every creature in the place had joined in. The laughter began to fill the air, until it felt as if Twilight was being directly attacked by the horrible sound! She covered her ears, but couldn’t close her eyes; they were all looking at her. Their lips parted in twisted jeers, their eyes were wide and unseeing, their colors were various shades of grey. Faces were straining to let the noise out of their throats.

Twilight’s heart sank to some deep, black place as she flew a little higher. Chills were running down her spine. Insane… they were all insane. She flew, mind locked in fear as the terrible sound chased after her. She could only think of one thing: she had to get away. Get out. Flee.

There were dozens of caves exiting the cavern. Twilight took the closest one, flying through in a blur. Her vision faded in the dim lighting and she instinctively tucked her wings and continued on hoof, but she didn’t slow down. She couldn’t, she was too terrified of the laughter. It echoed against the cave walls, amplifying the effect so that it almost seemed to be following her. Tears fell unbidden down her cheeks as she struggled to see her way.

She was in Tartarus. There was no question now. The haunting, fading laughs were like hammers pounding the fact deeper into her skull, forcing her to face the terrible truth.

Celestia had thrown her into Tartarus!

Twilight began to slow down, legs aching from the exertion. Her eyes began to adjust to the dim light of the crystals and she immediately regretted it. She wasn’t alone in the caves: ponies, griffons and other creatures were in here too, spread far apart as they hid in the nooks and crannies of the winding tunnel. Some were mumbling to themselves, others were performing pointless acts like banging their heads against the walls. The scariest ones were those that did nothing, hidden like ghosts in the shadows as the surrounding stone gradually took them.

And Twilight was among them. The thought scared her so much that she found herself cowering in a dark corner, body trembling and cheeks moist. Was she going to become like them? Would the darkness consume her, the insanity of her neighbors drive her to the brink? What had she ever done to warrant this? How could Celestia do this to her?

She just wanted to go home!

She lay on the floor and bawled. Memories of her library swam up to her, of the smell of old books and her comfy bed. Dear Spike making her breakfast while she sat at her favorite desk to study or write letters. Home. Comfy, warm, safe. It didn’t even exist in this world.

Then there were her friends.

Applejack at her apple stand, the sweet aroma of her produce filling Twilight’s nostrils. The vibrant colors of Rainbow Dash as she helped Twilight learn to fly. Rarity’s obsessive fawning over Twilight’s crown even as she helped her with her court manner. Fluttershy’s soft, patient voice as she taught Twilight how to care for her wings. Pinkie Pie’s animated laughter as the ever-present smell of cake frosting assaulted Twilight’s mind.

She might never see any of them again. What were they doing back in her time? Where were they in this one? Did they even know one another? If she did escape and sought them out, would they have the slightest clue who she was?

She forced herself to her hooves, wiping the tears from her face even as she choked down a sob. She had to get home. Even if only to see their faces again, she had to. Though her mind was filled with doubt and confusion, though Tartarus was one of the most dangerous places in Equestria, she would never forgive herself if she succumbed to sorrow.

She was Twilight Sparkle. She’d faced Nightmare Moon and Discord, helped rescue the Crystal Empire, worked to defeat Queen Chrysalis, even become an alicorn! This was just one more challenge, and she would prevail.

If only she didn’t feel so… daunted.

Twilight shook her head with force, fighting to keep her confidence high. She was not going to escape Hell on Equestria by hesitating. She would set out right now, and nothing was going to stop her! She turned to the tunnel, glaring out at the ponies barely visible in the dim light and silently daring them to test her.

A little illumination might help her new quest, so she focused and brought her horn to a bright glow—

—then leapt against the wall; a pony had been standing right next to her! She pressed against the tunnel and stared, breath coming in gasps as she recovered from the shock. Just another one of the quiet ones that stood idly by, nothing to be afraid of.

Twilight stood properly and set a hoof to her chest. She stretched it outwards as she released a long, calming breath. With one more annoyed look at the pony she prepared to leave it to wallow in its own sin – for why else would anypony be down here save punishment for a crime?

Then she noted the pony’s face and her jaw dropped. Twilight had just stumbled upon something she’d never have anticipated: a pony she recognized.

Desire Without Hope

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter II: Desire Without Hope

“Follow me, and I will lead thee hence through the eternal place where
thou shalt see the ancient spirits woeful who each proclaim the second death.
And then thou shalt see those who are contented in the fire, because
they hope to come to the blessed folk to whom, if thou wilt
thereafter ascend, them shall be a soul more worthy than I for that.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto I

Though she was as grey as slate, there was no way Twilight would mistake the pony who stood before her. She leaned close, gazing into downcast eyes.


Sunset Shimmer shifted, a tiny motion of recognition. She heaved a long, slow sigh and closed her eyes. There was so much despair in her frown…

Twilight watched in alarm as her former nemesis sank about an inch deeper into the floor, which was not quite up to her knees. She peered at Sunset, but the pony refused to acknowledge her.


No response.

Twilight reached up to lift one of Sunset’s ears and spoke directly into it. “Sunset Shimmer.”

The grey-coated pony jerked and Twilight backed away in preparation. After that quick movement Sunset’s body once again became sluggish. Her eyes blinked in a gradual way that Twilight found unnerving. Sunset’s face shifted slowly, her eyes rising to meet Twilight’s in a dull, sleepy gaze.

Sunset finally spoke, her voice coming out like cold molasses. “You know my name…”

“Yes.” Twilight moved close, setting her hooves to Sunset’s shoulder and nodding. “Yes, you’re Sunset Shimmer! I know you. Do… do you know me?”

Another slow blink. “I… don’t…” Sunset shifted again, her head tilting. It was as if even that tiny motion was difficult. There was uncertainty on her face, but then her eyes widened.


A thrill ran up Twilight’s spine; somepony who knew her, here in Tartarus! “Twilight, that’s right.” She nodded emphatically, hope sparking within her. “I’m Twilight.”

“But… why are you here?” Sunset’s head lowered, her eyes shifting in thought. Her frown went from sad to confused, but even that shift in expression was time-consuming. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I could say the same thing about you,” Twilight replied as she observed Sunset’s strange state. “What are you doing down here?”

Sunset’s eyes widened. Her movements were becoming less sluggish, though they were still by no means fast. “You mean you don’t know?” She let out a small gasp when Twilight shook her head. “How can you not know?”

Her head lowered and her entire body began to shiver. Her pupils shrank as if she’d just heard something truly terrible and her words came out shaky. “H-how can you not know?”

Twilight hesitated; what was her relationship to Sunset in this new time? What if she were somehow responsible for this, too? “Sunset?”

Strange sounds came from her old nemesis as Sunset began to hyperventilate. Her eyes went from terrified to furious. “How can you not know?”

Her movements back to a normal speed, Sunset struggled to pull her hooves free of the floor. Twilight stepped back in alarm; in the shadows at the edge of her horn’s light, Sunset's bared teeth appeared almost monstrous. A hoof broke free, thin wedges of stone flying at the sudden escape. Then another hoof came loose, and another.

Sunset squirmed to free her last leg, gritting her teeth and straining. Twilight, suddenly realizing that she might not be facing a potential ally, raised a hoof. “Sunset, calm down! I just wanted—”

Sunset’s last leg came free. The sudden release sent the grey pony sprawling into Twilight and the two fell to the floor. Before Twilight knew it she was pinned on her back and gazing up into grey, furious eyes.

“How can you not know?! Was I so unimportant to you that you went and forgot about me? I hate you!”

Twilight sneered and fired a beam from her horn. It struck Sunset with an audible pop and sent her flying into the air. An instant later she was stuck in midair, legs spread wide as she was held aloft by invisible bonds. She wrestled against the magic, snarling at throwing vicious glares Twilight’s way.

“I was hoping we could help one another,” Twilight announced as she picked herself off the floor, “but clearly I was mistaken. You just stay right there while I make some distance.”

“No!” Sunset squirmed, to no avail. “Don’t go!”

Twilight turned away with a hmmph and made for the hallway.

Sunset’s voice echoed through the darkness. “You owe me, Sparkle! It’s your fault I’m in here!”

Twilight turned and headed down the tunnel, anger and loss mixing within her as she left her old nemesis behind.

Sunset’s voice became desperate. “Please! I did my best for Celestia! Please…”

Her voice grew weak; Twilight found herself pausing. Had Celestia thrown Sunset in here, too? Why? What kind of crime could she have possibly committed to warrant it? Sunset was by no means a good pony, but she surely wasn’t that bad.

She glanced back down the hall, considering her options. She really would like an ally at a time like this, but given Sunset’s manner…

Letting the light fade from her horn, Twilight crept back. She paused at the corner, listening in to Sunset’s sobbing. She was pleading, but her words were subdued and soft.

“…please, I didn’t do anything wrong. I worked so hard. Celestia, why? I just want to go home…”

Sunset kept on, her words repeating after a while. Twilight felt her heart cracking at the pathetic sounds. Again she wondered: what did Sunset do?

Twilight glanced around. She noted a pony near the last bend of the tunnel who just stared at the wall, down to his knees in stone and a blank expression on his face. A look to her left saw a nilgiri who was pounding her horns rhythmically against the wall without purpose. The creatures down here were mad and seemingly beyond help. Twilight felt a renewed fear, something she was starting to be familiar with. She didn’t want to be trapped down here alone with these wretched souls, but she didn’t know the way out…

Sunset had reacted. She’d recognized Twilight, could talk to her. Maybe she too was going mad, but Twilight would take her over isolation. Maybe she would have some grasp of direction in this place. Besides… Twilight really wanted to know why Sunset was down here.

Her decision made, Twilight stepped back into the small space. She could barely make out Sunset in the dark, her quiet sobs painful to hear. Twilight’s horn glowed, illuminating Sunset’s grey body and moist face. The captive pony looked up; there was nothing but misery in her eyes.

Twilight tried to make her voice as soothing as she could. “Why are you down here, Sunset?”

Her prisoner shifted, perhaps in an attempt to wipe her face. Unable to pull it off, she merely sagged. “You… you really don’t know?”

Twilight shook her head. “I am not the Twilight you know.” She opened her wings demonstrably, her feathers brushing against the subterranean walls. “I have no knowledge of what happened.”

Sunset’s head rose. She eyed Twilight, despair and confusion combining strangely on her face. “Th-that doesn’t make sense.”

She was right, and that was a relief; it suggested she was still capable of rational thought. Twilight sighed and released her spell, slowly lowering Sunset to the floor so as to not hurt her. “Please, Sunset. Tell me.”

Sunset landed and dropped to her belly, her legs apparently unable to support her weight. She stared up at Twilight, sniffing as she rubbed the moisture from her cheeks. “Celestia put me here. When you replaced me.”

Twilight leaned back, eyes going wide. “What?”

“She said I was to be an example to you,” the grey mare whispered, head bowed and ears tucked. “You forgot. Am I really so insignificant?”

Twilight set a hoof to her lips, trying to take this in. It couldn’t be. There was no way Celestia would be so cruel! Twilight thought on everything she’d seen so far, how all the creatures down here were clearly going mad. Sunset had to be well on her way to insanity. Was this idea of Celestia throwing her down there the first signs of her mental collapse?

She took a hesitant step forward, wondering how to gauge Sunset’s mental state. “Surely you don’t actually believe that Celestia, the source of all that is good, would do such a—”

“You were there!” Sunset leapt to her hooves, the fire in her eyes once more. “Don’t talk like it didn’t happen. You dueled me for the apprenticeship. I begged at Celestia’s hooves for mercy. She made you personally push me through the gates!”

Twilight backed away, but Sunset’s energy was short-lived; she collapsed to the floor once more and covered her head beneath her hooves. The poor thing was shivering like a leaf. “I wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough. How could you just forget me? I want to go home…”

There was enough information now for Twilight to at least know that Sunset wasn’t all there. How could she have conjured such an image of Celestia? Of Twilight, too? Worse, she believed it! But even as Twilight reflected on Sunset’s sorry mental state, she could also see that her former enemy hadn’t completely succumbed to madness like the other denizens of this terrible place.

Maybe she could be saved.

Could Twilight take such a risk? Sunset had made up this story in her head. What was the real story behind her imprisonment? She might have done something truly horrid.

But she’d come in via the Gates of Tartarus; maybe she knew how to get back to them.

Sunset would want to escape with her, though. Twilight would have to agree to that. Could she make such a deal?

Did she have a choice?

Twilight stared down at Sunset, noting her pathetic countenance. She was torn by the conflict within her: a need for a guide to help her escape, a desire to protect Equestria from what may be a dangerous pony, the welling sympathy for a pony clearly at the end of her rope.

The sympathy won.

“Sunset?” She knelt before the pony, trying to catch her eye. “I’m trying to escape. Do you know the way to the Gates?”

Sunset’s raised her head to stare at Twilight with disbelieving eyes. “You… you’d take me along?”

Twilight nodded. “If you help me get there, yes. I don’t think you deserve to be here anymore than I do.” She stood and offered her hoof. “Can you help me?”

Sunset studied the hoof as if not knowing what it was. After a couple seconds she averted her eyes, ears folding back once more. “I know the way… but to escape Tartarus? It’s never been done before. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Twilight kept her hoof out and offered a comforting smile. “You don’t know until you try. What’s worse? Wasting away down here or trying to escape?”

Sunset stared at her, face locked in an ominous frown. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. It very well might be worse trying to leave.”

Twilight found this… alarming. “Really?”

“Really.” Sunset shook her head and turned away. “We’re safe if we stay here. I mean, I don’t want to be turned to stone... but there are worse fates.”

“No!” Twilight moved to stand in front of the pony once more. “You can’t think like that. If there’s a chance to escape we have to take it.”

“You’ll get yourself killed.” Sunset shivered and averted her eyes. “Or worse…”

Realizing that her old foe had given up some time ago, Twilight chewed her lip and considered the situation. How long had she been down here? “Sunset, please. I’m going with or without you, but without will be harder. Together we have a chance!

"Come on.” She set a hoof to Sunset’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”

Sunset pushed Twilight away, albeit gently. “It’s a fool’s errand,” she muttered with a shake of her head. “You really don’t know what’s out there. Don’t go, Twilight. You’ll regret it.”

Twilight wilted. “So you’ve really given up?”

Sunset turned away and said nothing.

There was a long, anxious pause. A pang of loss filled Twilight, for she now understood that Sunset had truly lost all hope. It was painful to think about, and Twilight wished she could think of something to change the pony’s mind. Yet Twilight wasn’t about to force Sunset; she would have to find a way out on her own.

“I’m sorry I disturbed you.” Head hanging low, Twilight turned for the tunnel. “I’ll look for my own way out. You can go back to being a stone, if that’s what you really want.”

“You’re still going?”

“I have to get home. I have to fix my mistake. I can’t do it here.” Twilight glanced back at Sunset, who was watching her with uncertain eyes. Was she going to change her mind?

Seconds lingered. Sunset said nothing. At last Twilight sighed and turned left, ready to begin her dangerous—

“That’s the wrong way.”

Twilight paused, a spark of hope igniting in her. She turned to see Sunset trudging closer with head low. “You’re coming?”

Her old foe gave a hesitant nod. “I’ll show you how to escape Limbo, but no more. I wouldn’t dare leave.”

A relieved smile crept upon Twilight's face. “What changed your mind?”

“I don’t know.” Sunset averted her head in an anxious display. “Maybe I just want to do something different.”

Twilight studied her miserable countenance. She just seemed so... wretched. Heart bleeding at the sight, Twilight found herself hugging the poor pony. “Thank you. I appreciate it, Sunset.”

Sunset pulled back and turned away. “You won’t.

“In a few hours you’ll wish you’d never met me…”

They had passed through the main cavern once more, Sunset all but ignoring the mindless creatures that filled the place as she led Twilight to a seemingly random tunnel. The princess eyed the unfortunate creatures as they left, not sure whether she should feel contempt or pity. “So you call this place Limbo?”

She hurried to catch up to Sunset, using her horn to illuminate their path. Her guide didn’t bother to answer the question. Twilight examined Sunset, noting her ever-depressed expression and grey colors. She was so different from the Sunset she’d met in the human world. Looking at her, she wondered how two ponies who looked perfectly alike could be so phenomenally different.

Twilight didn’t want to be nosy, but her curiosity was getting the better of her. “If you don’t mind my asking, what happened to everypony’s colors? To your colors? It’s almost like you’ve been discorded.”

Sunset’s pace slowed as she heaved a heavy sigh. “The better term would be 'discarded'…”

Twilight winced. “I’m sorry. If you don’t wanna talk about it…”

Sunset paused and turned to point in the direction they’d come. “The cavern of Limbo and its adjoining tunnels. The creatures that are deemed useless and unimportant are forced to stay here, at the place closest to the tombs of the draconequus. Here the chaotic magics of the dead draconeqii are the strongest, and they drive all inhabitants of Limbo insane.”

Twilight stared back at the cavern as Sunset continued further into the tunnel. “Well that explains a lot,” she admitted before following. “But… what about the colors? And turning to stone?”

Sunset lifted a lock of her own mane in demonstration, not bothering to look up as Twilight came alongside her. “The creatures of Limbo, griffon and pony alike, have been deemed useless. We waste away in our worthlessness, understanding that nopony wants us even in the damned dark of Tartarus. We sink deeper and deeper into despair and desperation, and our colors fade with our hopes and dreams.”

Twilight stared at her guide, pity swelling within her. Suddenly Sunset's hopeless manner made a lot more sense. Did this too come from the wild magic of the draconequus? If Twilight were to remain down here, would she too have become grey and lifeless?

Sunset paused and sat, raising her hooves to stare at them with a pitiable frown. “Those who have lost all hope… who are at last rendered worthless by their own self-pity, are absorbed into the walls and floors of Tartarus. So wretched are we in the eyes of all that we are little more than stones to be walked on, so Tartarus puts us in our proper place.”

The idea filled Twilight with a distinct horror. She took Sunset’s hooves in her own. “Listen to me: you are not worthless. You will never be a mere stepping stone, Sunset.”

Sunset would not be consoled. She pulled her hooves from Twilight’s grasp and walked past, head hung low. “Celestia didn’t want me. The Lords didn’t want me. I’m nothing more than the muck in their horseshoes.”

Twilight walked alongside her, lowering her own head to try and catch Sunset’s eye. “If you come with me you’ll see you’re far better than that.”

“No I won’t."

That was all Sunset would say. Twilight wanted to be encouraging, to help Sunset regain her old enthusiasm and will, but she wasn’t sure how to approach this. Who knew how long she’d been stuck down here, wasting away and being driven mad by the magic of the tomb?

Maybe if she could show Sunset that she was useful. “So… you know a lot about Tartarus?”

Sunset gave a nod, the motion so small Twilight almost missed it.

“Good.” Twilight offered a smile, but Sunset didn’t even see it. “You mentioned some ‘Lords’. Who are they?”

The words came out of Sunset’s throat in a slow manner, almost as if she were reverting back to that depressed state she’d been in when Twilight found her. “The Lords of Tartarus. There are seven, and each one claimed a piece of territory amongst the caves.”

Twilight considered this news. “So they’re like the leaders of Tartarus?”

“Something like that.”

Lips set in a frown, Twilight studied Sunset closely. This wasn’t having the effect she’d hoped for, but she needed the information. Pressing on with a hopeful tone, she asked, “But Limbo, that’s close to the Gates, right? We don’t really have far to go.”

“You shouldn’t be so optimistic,” Sunset grumbled with a sneer, her head turning away. “They dump their detritus in Limbo because it is closest to the tombs. Tartarus was originally created to protect the world above from the magic of the dead draconeqii.”

The meaning of her words hit Twilight like a hammer. “Y-you mean we’re at the very bottom of Tartarus?” Sunset’s silence was all the confirmation she needed. “Sweet Celestia. B-but these Lords, they’re reasonable and diplomatic, right? And if not we could just go around—”

“Just stop.”

Sunset leveled Twilight with a glower. “Stop acting like there’s hope. There is no hope. You are going to die down here and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Twilight countered the expression with a haughty frown. “Well of course there’s no hope if I maintained a defeatist attitude. I know you’ve been down here a while, but you shouldn’t be so quick to assume defeat.”

“Quick.” Sunset let out a snort and jerked her head away once more. “You haven’t seen what you’re up against. I bet you won’t even get past Limbo’s guard.”

Twilight paused. “There’s a guard?” Sunset didn’t stop, so she moved to catch up. “Why would Limbo need a guard?”

“To keep the trash from climbing into the Lords’ territories,” Sunset grumbled. “Seriously, how’d you even get down here if you didn’t see all of it?”

Twilight hesitated, the memories of Celestia’s error a fresh wound in her mind. “A… mistake was made. I was sent here directly.”

To Limbo. Where the least wanted prisoners were forced to reside. Had Celestia sent her to this specific area for a reason? A lesson, to make Twilight think she was worthless?

“I have to get home.” Twilight bowed her head and sagged. “I don’t belong here. If I can just get out and get back to Canterlot, I can fix everything.”

She could feel her new companion's eyes upon her. “Nopony thinks they deserve to be here,” Sunset noted. “Not at first, anyway. Give it time.”

Twilight shook her head. “But I didn’t do anything.”

“That can be a sin in and of itself.”

Twilight shot her guide a dark look. “Now who’s talking about things they don’t know? I had no way to know that goin—”

“Be quiet.”

The hackles on Twilight’s back rose as she glared at Sunset. “Excuse me?”

Sunset shot her a warning glance. “Be quiet! We’re almost there.”

Her claim knocked the anger from Twilight’s mind. The alicorn glanced around at the tunnels, which all appeared exactly the same to her. How did Sunset know where they were? Yet, as Twilight continued to scan their surroundings, she realized that they were alone. No ponies lingering in the shadows, no griffons looking miserable and lost. The two ponies were on their own.

Why did that make Twilight feel anxious?

A familiar sound reached her ears. She perked them and tried to determine a direction, but in the echo of the tunnels she couldn’t manage it. “Is that water?”

Sunset nodded, gesturing forward. Twilight peered in the dark and realized that the tunnel opened up into a larger space up ahead.

“You might want to dim your horn.”

Twilight glanced at her guide, but Sunset was peering unpleasantly at their destination. She decided to obey; why have a guide if she wasn’t going to heed her advice?

They stepped out of the tunnel and found themselves on a rise. They’d passed into a much larger tunnel, stalactites dripping water from a ceiling far above their heads. And below, flowing at a swift pace, was a river. Not a creek, not a stream – a river. Twilight gazed at it in wide-eyed wonder; the thing had to be a thousand feet wide! The water was black as night, but flowed along in a smooth and quiet rhythm.

Sunset sat and gestured to the dark river. “Behold Lethe, the River of Mindlessness.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the name. “Err, right. So where’s this guardian you mentioned?”

“He lives in the river,” Sunset claimed. “He makes sure nopony can get past.”

Twilight gazed out over the river and saw that there was another tunnel on the far side of the river. “So that leads out?” At Sunset’s nod she grinned. “Well, this should be easy! I’ll just fly us over and—”

“No.” Sunset shook her head. “I told you, I’m not coming. Besides, you’ll never get past the guardian.”

“But I need your help.” Twilight turned and grabbed Sunset’s hoof. “Please, Sunset, I don’t know the way.”

“You’re not listening to me!” Sunset jerked her hoof away with a sneer. “You will not make it. Period. I am not going to commit suicide with you.”

Twilight glared at her guide, a fire burning within her. The self-pity was really starting to frustrate her. She was determined to instill some hope in Sunset, and there was only one way she could think of to achieve that: she closed her eyes and focused, the magic rapidly spreading to cover both of them.

“H-hey, what are you—”

Their world flashed violet. An instant later they were on the rocky shore of the river.

Sunset took a step back, eyes going wide and head whipping around. “W-what have you done? I don’t want to be here!”

“Tough.” Twilight grabbed her and thrust her towards the river. “We’re going together. Now let’s cross this thing.”

Sunset’s hooves locked as she stared with horrified eyes at the water. “Are you crazy? No! We can’t touch the water, it will make us forget.”

Twilight looked over the pony’s shoulder at the innocuous river. “Forget? Forget what?”

“Everything!” Sunset tried to backpedal from the water, but Twilight held her in place with magic. “It’s called the River of Mindlessness or a reason! We can’t go in, we can’t drink, we can’t touch it.”

“Seriously?” Twilight shook her head. “That makes no sense. How can water do that?”

“Anything is possible with the magic of the tombs,” Sunset reminded her with ears folded.

Twilight considered that response. “Okay… that actually makes sense.”

A splash of water caught her ears.

“Where’s the fun in making sense?”

For an instant – just an instant – Twilight envisioned Discord hovering just behind her, but when she turned around she saw something she’d never expected: a sea serpent. A very familiar sea serpent, at that. She gazed with jaw loose at the purple-scaled creature, his amber mane a limp mop over his grinning face.

It took Twilight three tries to form the necessary words. “S-Steven Magnet? What are you doing down here?”

Steven, his serpentine body rising out of the water just at the shore’s edge, lowered his head to peer at her with a playful smile. “Do I know you?”

Twilight took a step back, worry beginning to fill her. “N-no, I guess not.” She pulled Sunset back, forgetting that she’d locked the pony in a spell. Sunset was gaping up at the sea serpent with an expression of abject horror.

“Good.” Steven went straight once more and clapped his hands together with a grin. “Good, that’s exactly how it should be! Have you come for a swim? That would be absolutely delightful.”

Twilight’s fear faded quickly at the serpent’s playful manner. He certainly didn’t seem like much of a guardian. She glanced at Sunset, who looked ready to bolt at the first opportunity. Better to not let her go just yet, though Twilight wondered why she was so terrified of the seemingly harmless Steven.

“No, thank you.” Twilight took a step forward and offered a friendly smile; this was an opportunity she had no intention of losing. “I just came to admire you, if that’s alright.”

“Oh, but of course.” Steven struck a dainty pose, flicking his unkempt mane and winking. “Who wouldn’t want to admire me?”

“I don’t think there’s a pony in Tartarus who’d pass up the opportunity.” Twilight leaned forward and gazed up at him with big eyes. “Can I ask you a question, oh great guardian?”

“Of course!” Steven gave a flamboyant bow. “My children are free to ask whatever they like, but be warned: I can’t guarantee the answer will be pleasant.”

She didn’t know about that latter half, but Twilight had what she was after. She ignored Sunset’s frantic head-shaking and sat at the water’s edge. “How did you get down here?”

Steven’s body rose high in the air, his arms spreading wide. “Why, I belong here! I am the heir of Discord, arbiter of chaos and lover of the ridiculous.”

That made Twilight pause. “Discord’s heir…?”

“Indeed!” Steven struck another classy pose. “Why else would I have been created here, so close to his tomb? Why would the Lords keep sending me wayward souls to watch over, such as yourself? I am the prince of absurdity, created in Discord’s image, and you are all my children.”

Twilight stared at him, then turned her gaze upon Sunset to whisper, “Is he serious?”

Sunset’s eyes were locked on the sea serpent. “P-please… let me go…”

The tombs. Twilight gazed up at the sea serpent, wondering at his story. “So, how long have you been down here?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Steven dropped back into the water in a leisurely pose. He sank down until just his head was visible, looking like an irregular orange and purple island as he grinned. “One loses track of such things when he lives in a river of forgetfulness. What does it matter?”

The waters swirled at his motions and Twilight took an alarmed step back; suddenly she didn’t think the river’s name was due to somepony’s creativity. “Umm, I guess it’s not important. But are you really Discord’s heir?”

Steven rose up a little and gestured to himself. “I admit I don’t look exactly like a draconequus, but there are some similarities and I’ve never met another creature like me. At least, not that I recall.” He splashed the water playfully, and Twilight had to leap back to avoid getting wet. “What other excuse is there other than that I was created to carry on the legacy of that noble race?”

Understanding dawned upon Twilight as she watched Steven swim circles in the water, whistling a tuneless melody. The magic from the tombs had to have driven him crazy just like the others, and living in the river made him forget everything about who he was. The combination had to be responsible for his inane conclusions, it was the only logical explanation.

But was he dangerous?

“Well, this is all fascinating.” She stood and leaned close to the perfectly-still Sunset and whispered, “You ready to cross?”

The response came out as a terrified hiss: “No!”

Twilight sighed and rolled her eyes, then turned a beaming smile upon the sea serpent. “You’re responsible for keeping your… children safe, yes?”

“But of course.” Steven paused his circling to shoot her a questioning frown. “Are you sure you didn’t take a dip without me knowing? You seem awfully forgetful.”

Twilight chuckled to hide her nervousness. “Maybe I did and just don’t remember?”

Steven let out a loud guffaw. “How silly of me! Of course you wouldn’t remember.”

Twilight offered as charming a smile as she could manage. “Right. Well, I have an important message to deliver to one of the Lords. Do you think we might be able to cross?”

Steven had resumed his backwards swimming with a delighted grin. “Oh, you want to—” He paused, eyes opening wide. He rose with a splash, towering over Twilight with fangs bared.

“Nopony leaves. This is the task given to me by the Lords. You must belong to a Lord to leave.”

Her mind working frantically for some appropriate counter, Twilight stepped back and wrapped a hoof about Sunset’s shoulder. “B-but we do belong to a Lord, both of us! We’d really like to report back to him.”

Whoever ‘him’ was.

A forked tongue slithered from between Steven’s teeth. He lowered himself so that he was once again level with the ponies, peering at them.

“…you lie. The Lords don’t send ponies down here. I would have to carry them across.”

Twilight gestured to the water. “Would you remember if you did?”

He glanced at the river flowing beneath him, but he didn’t lose his critical frown. “No… I suppose I wouldn’t. But I can tell when a pony belongs to a Lord. I must, for it is part of my task to keep the Lords’ followers from entering Limbo.”

Not sure if it was a good idea, Twilight stepped forward and gestured to herself. “Then judge me. Do you think I belong in Limbo?”

He leaned close, a hand rubbing his chin as he scrutinized her. His breath blew her mane back and she had to fight not to stare at his surprisingly sharp-looking teeth. She stood resolute and prayed he would see whatever she needed him to see.

“No.” He pulled back from her, but only a little. “I am not sure where you belong, but it is not Limbo.”

There was a gasp from Sunset. Twilight glanced back to see the pony staring at her with wide eyes.

“That one, however…” Steven’s eyes locked on Sunset, whose grey cheeks paled under his gaze. “I can see the despair, the loss, the uselessness. She most certainly belongs in Limbo.”

Twilight stood between Sunset and Steven with a hopeful look. “But I was sent here to pick her up! You don’t want to anger my Lord, do you?”

The sea serpent loomed close, snake-like body rising high behind him as he set his claws to the floor around Twilight and hovered. He gazed down at her with an intense malice, teeth exposed as the dark water dripped like saliva from his jaw. “And to which Lord do you happen to owe your allegiance to?”

It was a challenge, that much was clear. Twilight felt her heart sink, lips faltering as she tried to think of a name. She couldn’t just spit one out, could she? She began to consider trying to teleport across the river with Sunset, but it was an awful long way. If she messed up…


Twilight glanced at Sunset. Her guide’s wide eyes were locked on Steven’s fangs as she hissed the name. “Reddux. Say it.”

Reddux? As in Reddux the Tyrant?

A rumbling growl emerged from Steven’s throat, the resultant blast of warm breath making her mane flail wildly. She turned to give him a look she hoped was more confident and determined than she felt. “Reddux. My lord is Reddux.”

The serpent abruptly pulled back from her, wide eyes shifting about as if he expected to be attacked at any second. The claws on his fingers retracted as his hands rubbed together in anxiety. “I… I see. In that case… b-but why would Reddux send a pony all the way down here?”

Sensing her opportunity, Twilight stepped forward and struck an authoritative pose. “You would question my lord?”

“No!” Steven raised his hands as if expecting a blow. “No no no, not at all. You may pass, and give the Lord my, umm, my greetings.”

“Thank you.” Twilight gave a firm nod. “If you would be so kind as to form a bridge? I would rather not forget the task my lord has assigned me.”

The serpent nodded enthusiastically. “Of course, anything for a servant of Reddux! And p-please let him know that everything’s fine down here, no need to come by for a visit.” He promptly dropped his head to the rocky ground, his long body going straight across the water. “Just walk on over.”

“I appreciate it.” Twilight turned to Sunset, who was staring at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Are you going to come along quietly?”

Sunset’s eyes shifted from Twilight to Steven, then back. It was a thoughtful, cautious gaze. After several seconds she nodded. “I’ll go. Release me.”

The spell was dropped and Sunset took a moment to stretch. Casting one last fretful look Twilight’s way, she turned and climbed up Steven’s head. “Sorry,” she whispered to the serpent as she climbed over his moist mane and walked swiftly across.

Twilight heaved a relieved sigh and made to follow. “Thank you, Steven. I’m sure Reddux will be pleased.”

He waiting until she was past his mane and on his back before responding. “O-of course. If Reddux is happy, so am I.”

But even as Twilight relished her success, a terrible fear was creeping into her mind. Reddux the Tyrant existed in this time too, but in this world he wasn’t dead. If she had to get past him…

Perhaps this wasn’t going to be all that easy, after all.

Measures of Excess

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter III: Measures of Excess

“All of these were so asquint in mind in the first
life that they made no spending there with measure. These were
clerks who have no hairy covering on their head, and Popes and
Cardinals, in whom avarice practices its excess.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto VII

The pair had moved well beyond the Lethe river. The tunnel they walked was covered in a strange brown moss that clung to their hooves almost like desperate claws. Twilight questioned this at first, but came to accept that it was probably some strange trick of the draconequus magic that filled the place. No, her attention was focused on her companion, who had hardly spoken at all since they’d left Limbo.

Sunset led the way, her head hanging low and her eyes focused. Her depression seemed but a memory, but the bitterness in her expression had Twilight worried. Even so, Sunset seemed to know exactly where she was going, choosing specific tunnels and passages without any hesitation.

Twilight had a lot on her mind. Sunset’s manner was a major topic, but she was also wondering about these ‘Lords’ they were supposed to get past. And Reddux… the name filled her with dread. The great dragon who had dueled Celestia to a draw. Somepony had managed to kill the monstrosity in her own timeline, but the fact that she would have to deal with him was the most worrying thing she’d heard since having been trapped here.

She would deal with that when she got there. Right now she had more immediate concerns, starting with Sunset. “Can I ask you a question?”

Her companion didn’t look back, but she nodded.

Twilight studied her. “Why did you change your mind?”

Sunset came to a stop, and Twilight followed suit. Her companion seemed to be thinking on the question. “The guardian wasn’t lying,” she declared at last, turning to face Twilight. “He has to know what pony belongs to what Lord, otherwise he would let the wrong ponies into Limbo.”

Twilight cocked her head. “So?”

“He couldn’t place you.” Sunset moved her head around as if to study Twilight from several angles. “He couldn’t name a Lord. That can only mean you don’t belong here.”

Twilight threw her hooves in the air. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along!”

Sunset nodded. “I had no reason to believe you… until now.”

With a heavy sigh, Twilight asked, “I don’t see how that affects your decision.”

“Because…” Sunset turned away, head low. “If you don’t belong here, there might be a chance. Maybe you can escape. A pony who belongs here will never leave Tartarus, but you?”

She hesitated, and Twilight could sense her uncertainty. Moving about, Twilight gazed upon Sunset’s anxious face. “Are you okay?”

Sunset looked at her with lost eyes. She shifted, glanced away… then dropped to her belly and clutched at Twilight’s hooves. “Please, tell me you were being honest. Tell me you’ll bring me with you through the Gates. I would give anything to see sunlight again. I want to go home!”

Twilight wanted to step back from the prostrate pony, not comfortable at all with her manner. She saw Sunset’s big eyes and the desperation in them and felt her heart break. “Of course I’m taking you with me, I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“Really?” Sunset jumped up and pressed her face close to Twilight’s. “You mean it?”

Twilight pushed her back with a sheepish smile. “I mean it, Sunset. You help me find the Gates and I’ll take you with me to the overworld. Well get out of this together, you and me.”

Sunset let out a small gasp as she bowed her head once more. She choked down a sob, and Twilight could only gaze in wonder as, gradually, her former enemy regained a touch of her old colors. She was still decidedly grey, but there was just a hint of her original orange coat and red mane. Twilight half-expected to see a smile, but when Sunset looked up her lips were still set in a frown.

But there was hope.

“Thank you.” Sunset wrapped Twilight in a tight hug. “Thank you so much…”

Twilight relaxed, patting the pony on the back as she returned the hug. “You’re welcome. Don’t you worry, Sunset. I’d never leave a friend behind.”

Sunset stepped back, rubbing her eyes free of moisture. “F-friend? You and me?”

“Friend.” Twilight offered her hoof and a warm smile. “What do you say?”

Sunset leaned back on her hind legs, looking down at Twilight’s proffered hoof and chewing her lip. “It seems kinda soon for that. But…” She considered, then reached a slow, trembling hoof forward. She paused just short of touching Twilight. “You… you’re not going to abandon me at the last minute, are you?”

There was no accusation in Sunset’s words, only fear. She couldn’t meet Twilight’s eyes, and that was disturbing. Twilight leaned forward and touched Sunset’s hoof; her new friend gave a jerk as if shocked, her horrified eyes locking with Twilight’s.

“What kind of friend would I be if I did that?” Twilight patted Sunset’s hoof. “You’ve been down here far too long. But don’t you worry, we’ll get out of here. On my honor as a princess.”

A small gasp escaped Sunset’s lips and she jerked her hoof away. She dropped to a trembling crouch as she gaped at Twilight. “Y-you became a princess?”

Twilight blushed, reaching up to brush her mane self-consciously. “Err, well, I lost my crown just before I ended up here, but yes.” She opened her wings demonstrably. “Were these not a dead giveaway?”

But Sunset didn’t seem at all interested in Twilight’s wings, her gaze dropping to her hooves and a hurt expression on her face. “She made you a princess. Th-that’s what I was supposed to become. You actually made it. Why didn’t I make it?”

Twilight cringed; why hadn’t she seen this coming? She knelt at Sunset’s side and wrapped a wing about her. “Hey, it’s okay. Not being a princess is not a sign of your ability.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Sunset shoved against Twilight with her shoulder, effectively freeing herself, and stood. She began to walk, head hanging low. “Come on, we need to keep going. The first Lord awaits.”

Twilight watched her go with a despondent sigh. It seemed like she’d finally managed to break through to Sunset, and now this. Making friends with her – again – wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped. But Twilight held her head high and followed; this was just a temporary setback. There was nothing that couldn’t be solved with resolution and optimism, and she was determined to gain her old foe’s trust.

They’d get out of this terrible place together, and Twilight would go home feeling proud.

They’d crossed many strange places on route to the first Lord. First was a series of interwoven tunnels that seemed more like a beehive, but instead of honey the walls held toothpaste. Then they passed through a cavern with a small army of bouncing lamp posts, the ponies having to move carefully lest they find themselves beneath one. The third area had actually been scary at first; a series of large pools that appeared to be filled with blood. It turned out to just be tomato juice, but the clawed arms that grasped for them from within the pools were still legitimately creepy.

Twilight didn’t question these strange occurrences, for it was clear that the magic of the draconequus tomb was still strong in this area. She just hoped things would make more sense as they moved on.

She was curious about the lack of creatures along the path. When she asked Sunset about it, her guide claimed that most of Tartarus’ denizens preferred to stick together, although she did not know why. In this way the territories of the Lords acted as habitations, albeit only in the sense that many creatures lived in them. It was all rather fascinating for Twilight, and if the risks weren’t so great she might have lingered to study the residents more closely. Maybe when she got home she could commission a study on the Tartarus of her own world.

They just emerged from a veritable forest of massive poppies growing from the tunnel ceiling when Sunset paused. Twilight studied her worried face, then looked to see that the area ahead was made not from stone but a dark purple crystal.

“Wow.” Twilight trotted forward to get a closer look, gazing upon her reflected images in the bumpy surface of a wall. “I think I like this environment.”

Sunset approached at a slow pace, ears tucked. “The crystals marks the domain of the first Lord of Tartarus.”

Twilight blinked and took another look at Sunset, then followed her anxious gaze into the tunnel’s crystalline depths. “Oh… I guess I take it back?”

Sunset moved on, creeping as if she expected to be pounced upon at any second. Twilight eyed her and followed, quickly catching up so that she could walk beside her. “I guess I should have asked earlier, but who is the Lord of this area?”

Sunset gave her a fretful glance. “Sombra.”

Twilight almost tripped on her own hooves. “Sombra? You mean King Sombra, the tyrant of the Crystal Empire? That Sombra?”

Sunset opened her mouth but couldn’t form a proper response, so she just nodded.

Well… that made things a bit harder than Twilight was expecting. Just the thought that he was still alive stunned her. It took her several seconds to recall that this was a different world with a different past; she couldn’t assume that the defeated villains of Equestrian history were dead and gone.

Then again, apparently he had been defeated. Why else would he be trapped in Tartarus? Somepony had to have forced him down here! Perhaps Celestia? But it was still worrying, for if he was here then who else might she have to get past? Chrysalis and an army of changelings?

“You sure you don’t wanna go back?”

Sunset was watching her with a hawkish expression. Twilight shook off her momentary hesitation and took on a confident stride with head raised. “Of course not! I’ve dealt with Sombra before, I can do it again.”

“Dealt with him?” Sunset rolled her eyes. “Being trapped in Tartarus hasn’t made me stupid… yet. How could you have dealt with him when he was sent here over a thousand years ago?”

Twilight sighed. “I told you, I’m not from this world. Where I come from, Sombra was exiled to the Northern Wastes for a thousand years, but then he came back and we had to deal with him.” A thought made her pause, and she turned her face to the side to hide her blush. “Actually, I only got so far. My friend Spike had to finish the job.”


Twilight pouted as she watched Sunset move ahead. She wasn’t going to believe Twilight’s story so easily… not that Twilight blamed her. If their roles were reversed she probably wouldn’t have believed it, either. Maybe it didn’t matter; Sunset didn’t have to believe to help her escape, after all.

What did matter was that Twilight was the Princess of Friendship, and she was determined to make friends with Sunset. If she could encourage the pony and raise her spirits, perhaps she would have a future outside of Tartarus. She had to be down here for a reason, but maybe Celestia would be forgiving. Twilight would help her in this endeavor, make a new friend and – as an added bonus – prove her good intentions to this world’s Celestia.

What could go wrong?

Of course, they had to get out of Tartarus first. Twilight hurried to catch up, offering her guide a friendly smile. “I’m glad you came with me, Sunset. I dunno what I’d be doing without your help.”

Sunset huffed and turned her head away.

Twilight tried to ignore the reaction. “So this is Sombra’s place, huh? Just how many ‘Lords of Tartarus’ are there, anyway?”

Her guide gave a dejected sniff. “I already told you: seven.”

Oh boy, that was a few more than she’d expected. Twilight fought to maintain her smile and find a positive element to this. “And you got past all of them once, right? This won’t be so bad. Whoa…”

They had entered a large cavern that literally shimmered in the darkness. Small crystals embedded in the walls and ceiling shined like dim beacons, revealing a rocky landscape of crags and jagged spires. To the far right was an immense crevasse in the cavern floor. Twilight was tempted to go look inside, but it was far off and the distance was filled with dangerous-looking stalagmites. Even so, Twilight was mesmerized by the sheer splendor of the place. How could something so stunning be in a place as terrible as Tartarus?

Sunset shot her a dirty look and moved on, following a smooth path through the spiky scenery. “Beautiful, that’s what you’re thinking. Well go ahead, behold the works of Sombra. If you like it that much, maybe you can join it.”

Twilight cocked her head at the pony as she followed. “What do you mean, ‘join it’?”

Sunset said nothing, but after walking a short ways she pointed to a large crystal on the side of the path. Twilight’s eyes went to the thing and a gasp escaped her lips; there was a griffon trapped inside.

“Oh my…” She reared back and set her hooves to the hard surface so that she could get a better look. The griffon was locked in a battle pose, beak opened in a silent cry and claws pulled back for the kill, but its eyes were dull. “You mean Sombra did this?”

“That’s not all.” Sunset pulled her away and pushed her roughly down the path. She pointed, and Twilight’s eyes widened at the sight of ponies, griffons and nilgiri, all trapped in crystal.

“Holy Horseshoes.” Twilight wilted at the sight. “Why? Why would he do this?”

Sunset walked by, head low and eyes harsh. “When somepony tries to take his crystals, Sombra punishes the culprit by making them crystals themselves. He then saps away their life energies with his magic and uses that energy to create even more crystal.”

“W-what?” Twilight found herself taking anxious steps away from the shimmering spires that surrounded their path. “Y-you mean…”

“That’s right.” Sunset turned and reared back to spread her hooves wide. “Everything you see was created by Lord Sombra using the lives of his victims. Behold the artistry of evil, Twilight. Every crystal here is little more than solidified soul, life made physical. Sombra loves his crystals, and he is always trying to make more.”

Twilight shivered; she didn’t find this place so attractive anymore.

“But that’s not the worst part of it,” Sunset added, walking over to a particularly large crystal that held two ponies standing in close proximity. She waited until Twilight was close before rapping her hoof against the smooth surface. Twilight gave her a skeptical look, but at Sunset’s gesture she leaned close and peered.

Eyes shifted.

A terrified gasp flew from Twilight’s lips as she backed up. “Th-they’re still alive?”

Sunset turned away from the crystals, head low as she resumed walking. “The crystals are made from their life energy, and they are trapped in the crystals. They never really die, but I can’t imagine the state their minds must be in.”

Twilight swallowed the lump in her throat and followed, body low as she eyed the creatures trapped just a few short feet away. “I knew Sombra was evil, but I never imagined…”

The path took them to the edge of a wide pit, which it circled for some time. As they continued Sunset asked, “So do you wanna go back yet?”

Though her body shivered at the sight of a pegasus stuck in a stalactite over their heads, Twilight forced herself to stand tall once more. “Never. I don’t care how evil Sombra is, we can get past him.”

Sunset nodded to the pit without pausing. “You might end up like them.”

Twilight blinked, but hesitated to look. What other terrors were down here? If Sunset was trying to worry her… it was working. But her curiosity got the better of her, and Twilight looked anyway.

She wished she hadn’t.

The bottom of the pit was covered in thin, crystalline spikes. Ponies and other creatures were there, impaled upon the things where they had fallen. Some were already dead, but many were in far worse shape; crystals jabbing through legs and torsos, holding them in place but not killing them. There were no screams. Perhaps they’d been down there so long that they didn’t have the energy for it anymore.

Twilight's ears perked to a call in some language she didn’t recognize. She caught sight of a lone nilgiri who, by some miracle, had managed to avoid falling on any of the spikes. He stared up at her, eyes pleading. It was obvious that any attempt to move would see him injured; he’d never get out of that pit alive.

He called again, and Twilight started to open her wings, but Sunset shoved them down with a snarl.

She got in Twilight's face and shook her. “Are you crazy?”

“But he needs help.” Twilight tried to turn away but couldn’t escape Sunset’s hold.

“This is Tartarus.” Her guide dragged her away from the edge of the pit, ignoring the poor creature’s cries. “You have no idea why he’s down here. He might kill you the instant he’s out of the pit. You can’t rescue everypony.”

Twilight winced as the nilgiri’s calls grew desperate. “But… I…”

Sunset pulled her along the path as it finally moved away from the pit. “Forget it, Twilight. All roads lead to pain and suffering, but that road will see you live an eternity of torture. You can’t afford to be kind.”

Anger boiled within Twilight. She shoved the pony back and turned to the pit. “He deserves a chance! You might have lost all sense of decency, but I—”

She let out a surprised yelp as Sunset caught her by the mane and practically threw her against the smooth surface of a nearby crystal. Before Twilight could respond she was pressed against it, her face unsettlingly close to that of a trapped unicorn.

“Do you wanna die?” Sunset’s voice was a vicious snarl. “Do you want to end up like that mare? Or skewered on those spikes?”

Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat when the frozen mare’s eyes shifted towards her, but she refused to let her fear be obvious. “Sunset, if you don’t let me go right—”

“Shut up and listen.” Sunset pressed her a little tighter against the wall. Twilight could have easily knocked her away with any number of spells… but she held back. She didn’t know why, but she let Sunset speak.

“I don’t know where you got these ideas of ‘decency’, but you had best lose them right now.” Sunset leaned against Twilight to speak into her ear. “You have seven lords to get past, and not a single one of them gives a flying feather about your morals. The closest thing to ‘decency’ they’ll offer is to ask how you want to die.

"So what’ll it be, princess? Smashed under some rocks? Spending the rest of eternity caught in a windstorm? Maybe you’d like to have your horn ripped out of your skull, or your eyes plucked out. One of the lords is particularly fond of ramming spikes up mares’ clits till they stick out their mouths.”

That last one made Twilight squirm a little and tuck her tail between her legs. “W-why are you telling me this…?” Sunset stepped away, and Twilight took a moment to stretch out the kink that had been put into her back from the pressure.

When she turned around she found Sunset watching her with a piercing stare. “To help you see what you’re up against. The Lords are the most powerful, cruel and menacing monsters in Tartarus. If you want to get past them, you don’t have time to worry about other prisoners. They’ll take advantage of it, and then you’ll be nothing more than one of their pets.”

Twilight hesitated, her eyes going back to the pit. “I… I hear what you’re saying, but you can’t ask me to just abandon a part of who I am.”

Sunset turned her head away with a huff. “I’m not asking you to do anything. I’m telling you that if you keep it up, death will be the least of your worries. And here’s one more thing I’m gonna tell you: you go back for that guy, and I’m going back to Limbo.”

Twilight’s shoulders slumped. “W-what? Just like that? After we got past the river and the serpent?”

Sunset pressed her muzzle against Twilight’s, her eyes flashing with anger. “I’ll swim in the accursed river and forget all about you! I didn’t decide to come along just so I could watch my only chance of escaping this prison get herself killed.”

Twilight glowered and shoved her back. “So it’s all about you, is it?”

“That’s right.” Sunset turned from Twilight with her head held high. “I don’t care about you. I’d leave you behind in an instant if I thought it would let me go home. But it won’t; I need you and you need me. So either you straighten up and we move together, or you keep acting ‘decent’ and we both spend the rest of our lives in here.”

That angry fire smoldered in Twilight’s brain as she glared at her old foe. Perhaps it would have been better if she’d left her to rot in Limbo in the first place. She thought maybe this Sunset was different from the one she knew, but clearly that was an error. If anything, this was a clear indication that she deserved to be stuck in Tartarus.

Twilight shook her head, trying to banish such angry thoughts from her mind. She was the Princess of Friendship, and such ideas were not appropriate. She’d helped Sunset change her ways once, she could do it again. She just needed time.

Sunset shifted, though she didn’t lose her proud pose. “Well?”

Twilight eyed her, then the pit. Her heart said to help the nilgiri, and that voice was powerful. Twilight prided herself on practical and analytical thinking, however, and her brain was saying she should leave well enough alone. Sunset was right, there was no telling how he’d come to be trapped in Tartarus, and what if Sunset kept her word and left over this?

It was not a risk she could chance. Guilt swelled within her, but she forced herself to face away from the pit. “We better keep going.”

Sunset turned to shoot her a skeptical look, but then gained that impertinent smirk Twilight remembered so very well. “Good.” She turned and flicked Twilight’s horn with a hoof, making her step back with a wince. “We need to do things my way, because that’s the only way either of us are getting out of here. Now come on, we’ve got a long journey ahead.”

Twilight sneered after her, rubbing her horn tenderly before following. “Let’s get something straight, Sunset: we’re in this together. You better not be thinking about me doing all the hard work.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” Sunset shot her a grin. “Of course you are.”

Twilight’s head lowered ominously. “I could just leave you here.”

“And you probably should,” Sunset acknowledged. “But you won’t, because if you do then there will be nopony to show you how to get out of Tartarus. It’s a long way to the top, but take a wrong turn and you’ll be stuck here for a lot longer.”

A growl escaped unbidden from Twilight’s throat. Friendship. She kept reminding herself, she was the Princess of Friendship. She just had to keep trying and this would work out. “If you’re coming along, you should be more than a glorified guide. Can you at least tell me about the lords as we get to them?”

Sunset made an unpleasant sound which was clearly aimed at Twilight. “I walked all the way down to Limbo from the Gates, slipping past every one of the Lords as I did. Granted, going down is much easier than going up, but the point is I do know a lot. Obviously I would have to tell you about them, how else would you be of any use getting past them?”

Twilight trotted to catch up and give Sunset a threatening look. “Would you stop acting all high and mighty? Don’t forget that you are also dependent upon me to get out of here.” Her expression softened as she stood in Sunset’s way. “We can’t make it if we’re constantly bickering. We’re supposed to be on the same side. Come on, Sunset, I need to know I can count on you. We’re a team now.”

All she received for her trouble was a withering glance and a bump on the shoulder as Sunset shoved past. “Keep telling yourself that.”

With a sigh and shoulders slumped, Twilight watched her go. This wasn’t going to be easy…

The path had been long and winding, and often split in several directions. Twilight imagined getting lost amongst all the crystalline scenery – and accompanying prisoners – would be fairly easy, so despite her misgivings she was glad to have Sunset as a guide. The pony led her through tunnels and caverns, always following the massive crevasse on their right. At one point they even walked on a thin, dangerous ledge that took them some ways down into the thing before leading into a cave system.

Now they were walking along a curious formation at the crevasse’s edge, a tunnel in which the right side was open to the depths. The surface of the crystal here was smooth and polished, and for once there were no ponies held captive in the walls. A wind blew cold air at their backs, strong enough to make their manes flit about but not strong enough to affect their movement.

In spite of how it was created, Twilight had been amazed by the scenery at first. By now she was tired of it. The next level would be a welcome reprieve from all the sameness of this place.

The trip hadn’t been quiet. Twilight was eager to keep Sunset talking in the mild hope that she might open up a little and become more friendly. The plan hadn’t worked so far, but it wasn’t without its benefits; much of the time had been spent with Sunset teaching Twilight about Sombra. It was proving very enlightening.

“Wow.” Twilight brushed her windswept mane from her face as they walked along the wall far from the ledge. “He actually thought he could invade Equestria? When all the Empire’s food came from there? What was he thinking?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “That he could take the fertile North to feed his armies before winter hit. With Equestria’s armies in griffon lands, it seemed like a sound plan. But Celestia was ready for him, of course, and in the end his entire Kingdom would go through the winter starving. Celestia launched a counterattack the next Spring with her well-fed reserves.”

“So Sombra lost and ended up down here.” Twilight eyed the walls with disdain. “I guess he got what he deserved here, too. It just goes to show that corruption doesn’t pay.”

Sunset shot her a frown. “How do you not know any of this? Not only is it basic Equestrian history, it’s something I imagine Celestia’s prized pupil—” that with no small amount of bitterness, “—would have to be an expert on.”

“I keep telling you I don’t belong here.” Twilight heaved a frustrated sigh and gestured to her wings, which she opened wide to demonstrate. “Honestly, are the wings not enough of a giveaway? I come from an entirely different version of Equestria.”

“And I keep telling you,” Sunset countered, “I have no idea how long I’ve been down here. You could have become an alicorn centuries ago for all I know. Tartarus seems to have a way of keeping creatures alive for a long while.”

“I don’t know how long you’ve been down here either, but it can’t have been that long.” Twilight took a moment to think on the timeline in her own world. Assuming things went about as they did with her and the other Sunset… “A few years, maybe.”

The thought was sobering. “A few years.” She gave Sunset a wide-eyed look. “Now that I think on it, I’m amazed you lasted as long as you did without completely losing it.”

“Who’s to say I haven’t?” Sunset lowered her head with a sigh. “Maybe this whole ordeal is some vivid dream I’m having after getting sucked into the rocks of Limbo.”

Twilight winced, though she couldn’t be sure why. “I’m pretty sure you’re not dreaming. But I must admit, if this were—” She paused, Sunset’s hoof having come up to block her path. She eyed her companion, who was peering ahead with a brooding expression. “Sunset?”

Sunset nodded at the area before them. It took Twilight a moment to notice the bridge in the far distance. It crossed the crevasse, but the interesting thing was the torrential column of clouds that rose at its side. It was a tornado. A real tornado, in a cave!

Twilight gaped; she hadn’t even paused to wonder where the winds were coming from. “H-how is that even possible?”

“Who knows?” Sunset pointed to a spot in the distance where the tunnel curved left, away from the crevasse and into the hard crystal. “The path will circle around a bit.” Her hoof followed a circular route until it pointed to the tornado. “Then it will take us to The Edge of Adulation – that’s the bridge.”

Twilight’s head tilted as she eyed the thin-looking structure in the distance. “That’s an… interesting name.”

Sunset leveled an ominous look at Twilight. “But first we have to get past Miser’s Mound. That’s where Sombra usually stays.”

Twilight eyes shifted ahead, then turned back to the bridge. “That seems awfully risky. Why don’t I just fly us there?”

A frustrated sound passed through Sunset’s lips. “Because the gusts will blow you straight into the Winds of Passion.” At Twilight’s confused look she thrust a hoof over the cliff. “The tornado!”

“Oooh.” Twilight glanced at her wings and drooped. “Well, I must admit I’m not the best flier…”

“Then you definitely shouldn’t try it,” Sunset declared, moving on. “I’m pretty sure even skilled veterans have trouble with that thing.”

Twilight cast another pouting look at her wings before trudging after her. All of a sudden she really missed Rainbow Dash. No flying lessons would teach her how to fly through a tornado, though, and Twilight wasn’t about to try. If she was ever going to see her friend again she needed to avoid taking big risks.

Not that she felt any better about facing Sombra…

“Okay,” Sunset said as they rounded the corner, “here’s the deal. Sombra’s territory stops at The Edge of Adulation. If we get past the bridge he won’t follow us. The Lords don’t cross into one another’s territories unless they absolutely must.”

Twilight raised her head and tried to sound confident. “Got it, the bridge is the goal.”

They continued on in silence, neither wanting to announce their approach. Twilight tried to banish her thoughts of Rainbow Dash; she needed to focus on the task ahead. She knew, from personal experience and the stories told by Sunset, that Sombra was not somepony to be trifled with. She thought back on her repertoire of spells that she might use, but deep down she hoped she could slip past without a fight.

The tunnel gradually curved to the right and an unfamiliar sound filled the air. Twilight couldn’t be sure what she was hearing, but there was a lot of grinding and groaning going on.

The encased bodies were back. Ponies trapped in crystal pillars, nilgiri sealed in the walls. More than anything, though, was diamond dogs. Dozens of them. Were they a favorite target of Sombra, perhaps? Twilight sucked down a calming breath and tried not to imagine being stuck as a living statue for the rest of eternity.

The tunnel opened up to a large cave ahead, and the companions slowed their pace. Sunset sidestepped to the wall on the left and gestured for Twilight to do the same. They moved towards the end of the tunnel and peered into the cave, which glimmered with all the splendor of a royal palace! For a brief moment Twilight felt as if she were gazing into the Crystal Castle.

Then she saw the massive hill, which Twilight could only assume was the Miser’s Mound, and her appreciation faded. It stood in the center of the area, so tall as to almost touch the glittering, stalactite-laden ceiling. The entire thing was made up of massive crystal boulders and sat in what appeared to be a bubbling, steaming silver pool. Large crystals floated in the liquid, new ones occasionally bobbing up from beneath the surface.

The source of the strange sounds was now readily apparent; diamond dogs. The poor creatures covered the structure like ants, all busy with what struck Twilight as rather pointless tasks. Most were struggling in teams of two or three to shove the massive crystals up to the top of the mound, an activity that was clearly very difficult. When a team at last managed to get their crystal to the top of the mound they would hurry to the bottom and use long poles to push the floating crystals onto the mound’s edge. Then they would grab the crystal and begin the arduous task of pushing the heavy thing up the mound.

“Why are they doing that?” Twilight whispered, tilting her head as she peered at the unproductive display. “They’re almost to the top of the cave.”

Sunset shook her head, her response a soft whisper. “The Miser’s Mound floats atop a pool of molten lead. With every crystal added to the mound, one at the bottom breaks loose and floats to the top of the pool. It’s an endless cycle, perpetuated by the dogs’ determined desire to not lose a single crystal. It’s a punishment of their own making, orchestrated by him.”

Twilight stepped out just enough to see where Sunset was pointing. Worry filled her at the sight of King Sombra, the dark unicorn sitting on a crystal throne that contained the trapped bodies of four prostrate mares. He was gazing upon the Miser’s Mound with a demented, wicked grin and eyes glowing. He was still one of the most intimidating ponies Twilight had ever laid eyes on, even without his cape and his mane hanging limp over his hard face.

But Twilight’s fear was outweighed by the questions running through her mind. She followed his gaze to the mound, then stepped back to whisper in Sunset’s ear, “What’s wrong with him? He’s just… staring.”

“He’s been down here at least a thousand years,” Sunset replied. “The chaotic magics of the draconeqii has sapped his mind to insanity. All he cares about is the crystals.” She gestured to the Miser’s Mound. “So now he spends most of his time watching them work, to ensure that not a single crystal is stolen.”

Twilight tapped her chin, eyes roaming the cave. “So where’s the exit?”

Sunset let out a small huff, the tiniest hint of a laugh. “Other side of the mound, of course.”

“Of course.” Twilight took another cursory glance at the cave, then eyed King Sombra. “There’s nothing to hide behind. How are we supposed to get past without being seen?”

“I have no idea.”

Twilight frowned at her companion. “Come on, you did it once, didn’t you?”

Sunset shook her head, and Twilight was surprised to see an apologetic expression on her face. “He doesn’t care about ponies going down to Limbo. If I were a greedy pony I’d have remained here, for all ponies stop at the level they were meant for. It’s… natural. But I’m not greedy, and I didn’t try to take any crystals, so Sombra let me pass without trouble. Going back up, on the other hoof…”

Twilight sat next to the wall, head hanging low as she tried to think. “What are we going to do?”

“You’re an alicorn princess,” Sunset reminded her with a glower. “Why don’t you just go duel him?”

The thought made Twilight’s blood run cold. “Are you crazy? He’s Sombra, one of the most powerful unicorns in history! I’ve not been a princess for very long, I’d need a lot more time to develop my strength before I could fight somepony like him.”

Sunset raised a critical eyebrow before turning to look around the corner at the Lord of Tartarus. “Funny, I thought you’d be braver than that.”

Twilight fought down her anger. “We’ve got six more lords to go through. I am not wasting all my energy fighting against the first one. We need something—”


She blinked, caught off guard by the shout. Her eyes went to the Miser’s Mound just in time to see one of the diamond dogs abandon his partner – the source of the cry – and the crystal they had been pushing. The dog ran down the shimmering mountain, a small gem clutched in each paw as he leapt over the molten pool. He landed on the solid ground and bounded for Twilight and Sunset, a desperate glint in his eye.

He only got a few steps before a black beam struck him, knocking him off his feet. He landed on his stomach and tried to scramble for the tunnel once more, but another beam struck the ground in front of him. A massive crystal formed on the spot, and he covered his face just in time for the thing to erupt in an explosive shower of small diamonds.

He fell onto his back, yelping in pain as dozens of shards pierced his body. Twilight covered her lips to avoid shouting in alarm and fear for the poor creature, watching as blood began to pool beneath him. Even now, injured beyond mobility, his paw was reaching desperately for one of the dropped crystals.

Heavy hoofsteps announced Sombra’s approach. Twilight and Sunset retreated deeper into the tunnel, but remained close enough to watch. Soon the Lord of Tartarus appeared, looming over the enfeebled diamond dog. They couldn’t see his face for the long mane that covered it, but judging by how the dog began to squirm it couldn’t have been a kind one.

“You would dare to steal from me?”

Even when his words were soft, Sombra’s deep voice resonated within Twilight’s mind. She shivered and ducked low, praying the villain wouldn’t notice them in the shadows.

“Mine…” The diamond dog at last managed to grab the crystal in his good paw. He began to crawl away from Sombra and towards the tunnel, obsession and determination in his face. “You can’t have. I work for it. It’s my gem!”

Sombra’s head slowly lifted, revealing a calm but ominous frown and simmering eyes that radiated that green glow Twilight vaguely recalled.

He let the dog flee for several seconds.

Then, his expression completely unchanged, Sombra fired a black and green beam from his horn. The dog was encased in the magical energies and lifted squirming off the floor.

“No, I won’t give it back. It’s mine!”

“You like my crystals?” Sombra’s eyes narrowed as the dog floated a little closer and turned to face him. “Then you shall have them.”

Twilight watched in quiet horror as a crystal began to form beneath the dog, rising up to encase the creature’s legs. It screamed and thrashed with its arms to no avail; the crystal kept growing. “No! I’m dog, not crystal! Dog!”

Sombra’s frown became a soft, calming smile. “Relax. Now you’ll always be near the crystals. That’s what you want, is it not?”

The crystal was up to the dog’s chest now, catching his upper arms in a steely embrace. The dog howled and raised his hand, protecting the stone he held even as the rest of his body froze. Within seconds the howling came to a stop, mouth opened wide where the stone had locked it into place.

Still that lone paw remained free, clutching at the crystal.

Sombra approached to study his captive with a critical eye. He observed the free paw, smiled… and fired a beam that sliced it off at the wrist. No sound escaped the trapped dog, but the act still had Twilight squirming and holding her breath. Blood poured down the side of the crystal, but only for the second it took for the stone to grow over the wound.

Sombra lifted the paw with his magic, pried the fingers apart and took the gem. He waved the paw before the encased dog’s face before tossing it over his shoulder into the lead pool. He turned about to face the Miser’s Mound. “You two! Place him somewhere appropriate on the road to Limbo. Let him be a warning.”

Two diamond dogs at the bottom of the mound dropped their poles and bounded over the pool, yelping like frightened pups. They grabbed the crystal holding their frozen comrade and began to push it towards the tunnel.

“Oh no…” Twilight took an alarmed step back, eyes darting about. “Where do we go? We need to hide.”

But Sunset raised her leg in a silencing motion. “Don’t worry, they don’t care about us. We only have to worry about the big guy.”

Resisting the urge to flee, Twilight watched the two dogs come closer. They strained to drag the large crystal across the smooth floor, and the two ponies made sure to stay well out of their way. Sunset’s prediction proved accurate as the dogs continued to move past without so much as a glance their way.

Twilight pressed a hoof to her heart and sucked in a relieved breath, but her attention went back to the mound. Sombra, oblivious to the watchers, was making his way to the lead pool. He was watching the lone dog who had been abandoned by the thief and was straining to hold the large crystal they’d been pushing. The dog’s legs were wobbling and the boulder-sized crystal threatened to crush him, but none came to his aid.

In fact he was all but ignored by his fellows. Twilight eyed them with no small amount of worry. “They won’t help him. What’s going on?”

Sunset silenced her with a sharp gesture. “If we’re lucky, we’re about to get a chance to move.”

Twilight’s query was cut short by the dog’s loud yelp as he finally slipped, the crystal dropping on top of him. He fell, his rolling and bouncing on the hard mound making Twilight wince. He hit the bottom at the edge of the pool, the crystal landing loudly next to him.

The cave was filled with silence. The other dogs had all stopped to watch the event. Some appeared to want to go to him, but none dared. Twilight saw so many emotions; alarm, anger, hesitation.


There was a certain intensity to the air as Sombra paused by the lead pool just opposite the fallen diamond dog. The tense sensation seeped into Twilight’s mind. She found herself crouching and shivering, but her anxiety wasn’t for her own sake. She watched as the dog looked up at Sombra; there was horror in the creature’s eyes. It tried to stand and collapsed on its side with a yelp that echoed in the quiet cave.

A dark aura covered the dog as he was lifted off the floor. He squirmed and struggled, paws at his throat as he dangled over the lead pool.

“You see this pathetic worm, you dogs?” Even when mocking, there was a frightening bite to Sombra’s voice. “He let his eyes off his partner. Now he is worthless to me. You all recall what happens to the worthless, don’t you?”

The other dogs averted their eyes. Some visibly shivered. The victim was crying, a faint howl coming out of his strained throat. He began to drop, a slow, steady descent. His legs kicked wildly, but it was no use. When he touched the molten lead a scream forced its way out of his lungs.

Twilight dropped to her belly and covered her ears, but she couldn’t get that scream out of her head. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t block the sound. The shrieks resounded in her mind, piercing and mind-numbing as the dog dropped, inch by slow inch, to his doom. Many of the dogs were cowering just like Twilight. Only Sunset stood tall and watched, lips set in a solemn frown as she glared at the scene.

The gradual execution seemed to take forever. Twilight closed her eyes, but the image was sealed on the back of her eyelids. Eventually – blessedly – the dog’s screams came to a stop. Though it took all her willpower, Twilight forced her eyes open and felt a chill run down her spine; the dog was covered to his chest, eyes wide and mouth opened, but completely silent. He stared up at Sombra, tears streaking down his face.

“Let this one serve as an example to you all,” Sombra declared in a calm but ominous voice. “You are all my property, but only so long as you are worth something. Keep an eye on your fellow slaves, for their inevitable treachery will be treated as yours.” The dark aura around the dog faded, and the creature sank beneath the molten surface without a sound.

A lingering quiet filled the room.

“So what are you waiting for? Back to work!”

The dogs all resumed their activities, eyes averted from their monstrous master.

Sunset lowered herself so she was even with Twilight. “This is our chance.”

Twilight looked up at Sunset, who had locked her eyes on the back of Sombra’s head. There was an intensity in her gaze that spoke of determination and anger.

“This is a shame.”

Twilight looked to Sombra once more, who was already heading back to his throne. “Now I’ll need to find two more slaves.”

Sunset stood. “Follow my lead.”

She started to head for the mound, but Twilight caught her by the tail and pulled her back. “What are you doing? Did you not see that?”

Sunset jerked her tail free and pressed her muzzle against Twilight’s. “Get over it. Now. If this is enough to stop you then you’ll never get out of Tartarus. Now come on.” She forced Twilight to her hooves and turned back to the cave.

Twilight’s legs shook and her heart was hammering. “Y-you’re not planning on just walking out into the open, are you?”

Her guide nodded, expression grim. “I know what I’m doing. We can get through this. He won’t attack, I guarantee it.”

“But how can you be—hey!” Before Twilight could respond, she found herself grabbed and thrust out into the open. She locked her legs and stared at Sombra with wide eyes, but the former tyrant was still going back to his throne and hadn’t noticed her. A second later Sunset was walking past, making straight for Miser’s Mound.

Twilight hurried to catch up, making sure to keep Sunset between her and Sombra. “W-why aren’t we running?”

“Just be quiet.” Sunset increased her speed to a gallop and leapt over the pool. Twilight hesitated before doing the same. She watched in mild surprise as her partner began to push the same boulder the deceased diamond dog had just dropped.

“What are you…?”

“Get down here!” Sunset grabbed her and made her stand beside her. “Help me get this thing up there.”

Twilight had no idea what was going on, but at the moment her only choice was to follow Sunset’s lead. Her eyes went to Sombra, who was back on his throne and watching the newcomers with a hawkish gaze. He said nothing as the two mares struggled to get the crystal up the mound.

“I don’t… don’t get it.” Twilight was already huffing from the exertion; the crystals were even heavier than they looked. “Why isn’t he… attacking?”

Sunset seemed to be faring even worse, her legs trembling with the effort. “He doesn’t care… who does the work… as long as it’s done.”

“Seriously?” Twilight tried to make sense of this, but it was proving difficult. “He’s not the least bit… concerned about two… ponies randomly showing up to… to take the place of two diamond dogs?”

“He’s not… not thinking rationally,” Sunset reminded her, straining with Twilight to get the crystal over a particularly difficult part of the mound. “Dra… Draconequus magic, remember?”

Twilight took a moment to wipe the sweat from her brow. “And what… do you plan for us… to do when we get to the… to the top?”

“Go for a crystal… on the other side.” Sunset grimaced as her legs slipped on the smooth ground. “Once we’re at the… the bottom, make a break for it.”

That’s your plan?” Twilight glanced at the surrounding diamond dogs, but they were ignoring the duo. “It didn’t work for the… for the dog, what makes… makes you think it would work… for us?”

They glanced in unison at Sombra. He was still peering at them, lips set in an ominous frown. Twilight couldn’t know what he was thinking, but she was sure she didn’t want to have those eyes on her for the rest of eternity.

Sunset gave Twilight a look that combined aggravation with worry. “I don’t… suppose you have a… a better idea?”

Twilight nodded. “Do you… know that teleportation spell I… I used back in Limbo?”

Sunset’s ears folded back and she bit her lip. “I haven’t used… that spell in an eternity. I… I don’t know if… if I can do it again.”

Twilight nodded. “Then leave it to me.”

It took a long while to push the crystal up the mound. They had to stop on several occasions, both for brief rests and to make room for the diamond dogs. Space grew sparse as they neared the top, and they were forced to stand still and struggle to keep the crystal in place while the dogs ahead of them reached the top first. Neither of the pair were used to such a high level of physical labor, and they were beginning to wear out. Twilight suggested using her magic to carry the thing, but Sunset shut the idea down quickly; Sombra would almost certainly lash out at that, for “Their pain was his pleasure.”

The sinister pony eventually stopped watching Twilight and Sunset and returned to his pleased vigil over the entire process. Twilight was relieved by this, considering she had begun to wonder if she didn’t have holes bored into her head from his staring. Even so, the memories of that dog’s screams continued to echo in her mind. She wouldn’t be comfortable until she was well out of his territory.

At long last they reached the top, their crystal settling neatly between two others. The unicorns sagged and took a few seconds to recover. Yet they knew there was no time to waste, for Sombra was already looking up at them with a suspecting glower. No rest for the weary; Twilight had to act before he did. She eyed the wall opposite where they’d entered and quickly spotted the tunnel leading out of the cave.

She leaned over to Sunset and helped her stand. “Get ready to bolt.” Sunset nodded even as she sucked down a big gulp of air.

Sombra, visible in the corner of Twilight vision, stood. “Why have you two stopped working?”

“Time to go.” Twilight focused, requiring only a second to cast the spell. Her world was engulfed in violet.

An instant later she and Sunset were just within the tunnel opening.

Thieves!” Sombra’s furious cry made Twilight jump.

“Go, go, go!” She kicked off and fled down the tunnel, Sunset hot on her heels. They were still worn out from their climb up Miser’s Mound, and Twilight had no doubt Sombra would be able to catch up. She glanced back and let out a small cry at the sight of black smoke forming about the tunnel behind them.

Sunset moved to block her view, eyes wide. “Don’t look back, just go!”

Sombra’s enraged face appeared in the smoke, then his whole body as he was carried forward by rapidly-growing crystals beneath his hooves.

“Thieves! What did you take?”

Twilight leapt aside as a black beam flashed over her shoulder, bouncing wildly in the reflective crystal surface.

Heart pounding in her ears and breath coming in gasps, Twilight let Sunset move ahead and projected a barrier just in time to deflect another powerful blast. The hit was so hard her horn stung. She looked back to see the villain catching up. “We didn’t take anything, leave us alone!”

“Keep talking,” Sunset snapped between breaths. “That’ll slow him down.”

Twilight had no time to counter the sarcasm, she was too busy trying to keep her barrier intact after a second shot. When she felt the wind and spotted the tunnel exit she let out a whoop of joy. “We’re almost there. We can make it!”

“Give. It. Back!”

Black smoke swirled about their hooves and a stream of lasers fired off around them. The crystal surface was fading as they approached the edge of Sombra’s domain; they were so close!

“What was I thinking, what was I thinking, what was I thinking?” Sunset’s head was low and tears were streaming down her cheeks as crystals began to form and erupt all around them.

The tunnel opening loomed, the swirling winds of the tornado engulfing the view to their left. Sombra’s howl of rage only furthered Twilight’s determination and confidence. She ignored the pain in her legs and horn and focused on the bridge. They could do this. They were going to escape!

Smoke billowed up over their faces. Sunset let out a scream, but Twilight pressed on. “Keep going, Sunset. Don’t stop!” She looked back just in time to see Sombra rear back on his crystal conveyance, eyes shining green and fangs flashing in the light of his own horn. A thick column of cloud flew from around him, but Twilight’s view was lost as she burst out of the smoke and onto the bridge. She caught sight of Sunset just a little ahead and to her right…

And realized.

“Look out!”

Twilight altered course and knocked Sunset sideways just as the cloud column burst out of the tunnel. It struck the ground beside her and instantly transformed into a massive black crystal. Twilight saw the expanding glow from within and instinctually threw up her barrier just in time for the thing to erupt in a shower of shards.

Even with her shield, the force of the blast sent Twilight reeling. She heard Sunset shout as she lost her balance and fell backwards off the bridge.

Terror filled Twilight. The structure rose rapidly above her. Winds battered her and heart her shoved its way into her throat. Yet it was a temporary fear, brought on by a lifetime of living as a unicorn; within seconds she recalled her new form and relaxed.

“Wings, don’t fail me now.” Rainbow’s lessons flitting through her mind, Twilight spread her wings…

...and was instantly sucked into the tornado.

Spreading her wings had made it easier for her to be caught up in the winds, and soon she was tumbling wildly in the blinding gale. She screamed, flapping wildly as she fought for some kind of solution.

Twilight wasn’t at all ready for flying in something like this. She was twisting and shifting and being blown about like a doll, every attempt to straighten herself foiled by another random gust! Her stomach churned from the wild motions and panic began to set in. She didn’t know where she was in relation to the bridge… or to anything! She couldn’t see through the furious clouds, couldn’t hear for the deafening roar.

Then she noticed something that brought her mind back into focus: she wasn’t alone. Ponies, griffons, diamond dogs, all manner of creatures were flying about her! Was this another one of Tartarus’ strange punishments? Was she going to be trapped in this vortex of insanity forever? She flapped her wings, struggling to avoid a collision as more and more creature filled her view. It was hopeless; every flap of her wings sent her in a completely random direction!

“Oh goddess… Rainbow, I really wish you were here right now!”

Something smashed into her side and held on to her hind legs. It was an orange... unicorn? Maybe at one time, but his horn had been snapped off close to the head. She looked down, expecting to see fear or panic in his eyes. What she saw instead was… something else. Her breath caught in her throat as he began to pull himself up to her hindquarters, excited eyes locked on the spot between her legs.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” She fired a beam that struck him in the chest and sent him flying. With cheeks burning, Twilight tried once more to direct her flight, but it was no use. She barely managed to avoid a pair of ponies and a minotaur locked in a lewd position, and she suddenly felt a very new kind of horror.

Were all the creatures in here consumed by lust?

The Winds of Passion. Suddenly the name didn’t seem so random.

A griffon darted past, taking a swipe at her with a demented grin. Twilight let out a shout and flapped, barely escaping as she twirled wildly in the winds. She couldn’t dodge these… these perverts forever! She kept trying, calling for help and knowing Sunset wouldn’t be able to hear. She had to get out, but with no way of controlling her flight she didn’t know what to do!

Something hit her from behind, and she felt it latch onto her wings. She couldn’t flap; whatever it was had a tight grip. She glanced back to see another griffon holding on to her back, this one male. She screamed and tried to buck him off, but he held on and managed to press himself against her back. “Get off me!”

The griffon caught her jaw in a claw and lowered his head next to hers. “I like your colors…” He licked her cheek with a sandpapery tongue, the act making Twilight’s stomach churn. She focused her magic, a violet ball appearing between them and exploding. The griffon was knocked away, Twilight screeching as the griffon’s claws ripped through her wing. The jolt had sent her flying, too, and next thing she knew she was out of the tornado.

Twilight’s eyes went wide; the world below was little more than a black abyss. She was still caught in the outer winds of the vortex, flying wide circles about the twister as her body toppled head over hooves. With every pass she just barely missed the stone walls, but she didn’t dare open her wings for fear of being sucked back in.

She spotted the bridge, which had somehow ended up beneath her. The black clouds of Sombra were roiling from the tunnel on one side, but he hadn’t left his territory. Twilight lost sight of the bridge as she went about the Winds of Passion once more, legs kicking as she struggled to find some way to ease her flight path. “Come on… Come on…”

The bridge came into view again. This time she tried to scour it for any sign of Sunset. There was none. Goddess, what if she’d fallen off, too?

Another pass as she fell, the winds outside the tornado not strong enough to lift her but keeping her descent slow. Another pass, and another. Twilight cringed, knowing she’d never get anywhere if she couldn’t use her wings. There was no choice; she opened them and tried to flap away from the tornado.

She tucked her wings in when the Winds of Passion nearly caught her up a second time and tried again when she was closer to the wall. She could fly out as long as she was near the wall, but that wasn’t helping her too much. Maybe, if she could fly to the distance of the bridge, she could land on it…

At first the plan seemed to work, and a smidgeon of hope filled her. If she could just get to the bridge! That was her salvation, and she focused everything on that hope. Wings flapping when near the walls, closed when over the crevasse. She could handle it, she could!

...she couldn’t.

Twilight misjudged and flew too far out. She realized it and tried to flap backward, but it was too late; she smashed into the wall on her open wing, the audible snap muted only by her agonized scream. She tumbled, tears in her eyes as the wounded appendage swung limply in the gusts. With no means of correcting her flight, she found herself whacking the opposite wall and falling a bit further. Pain seared through her body, but it was nothing compared to the agony of her wing.

Was this it? Was she about to be beaten to death between the walls of a crevasse, little more than a bloody smear on the rocks? A terrible sense of dread filled her as she hit the wall a third time. What could she do? What?

If only she could have squeezed in a few more lessons with Rainbow…

She caught sight of the tunnel just before whacking the wall above it. She was hurting and desperate, but she recognized her only chance. As she swung about the Winds of Passion for what seemed like the hundredth time to crash into the opposite wall, she tried to focus on her front hooves. She had to time it right. If she missed…

The tunnel at the edge of the bridge came into view. Twilight flapped her good wing, pulling away just a little from the tornado. She flipped and spun wildly, but she focused as hard as she could on that tunnel. She hit the wall and reached…

Her hooves caught the edge. For several seconds she hung on for dear life, the gusts keeping her body horizontal. Tears in her eyes, she strained to pull herself forward. Her legs ached from the effort, but she managed to get her chin across the corner.

There was Sunset, cowering a short ways inside the cave.


The mare looked up, eyes wide at the sight of Twilight.

“Help me!”

Sunset hesitated, leaning back with hooves raised in a fretful position. “I… I don’t…”

“Please!” Twilight was pulled back by a strong gust, her chin pressing against the wall in a desperate attempt to improve her hold. “Sunset, help me!”

Sunset winced, eyes darting between Twilight and the bridge. Twilight slipped and screamed.

The sound jolted Sunset into action. She ran for Twilight, dodging a black beam as she did. Twilight struggled to hold on, but her grip was failing. She saw Sunset dancing to avoid more of Sombra’s attacks from across the bridge. “H-hurry… I can’t hold on!”

Her chin slipped over the edge, her hooves the only thing keeping her on the wall. Tears welled in her eyes as she watched more beams firing from the tunnel opposite the bridge. She issued a small prayer to Celestia and closed her eyes. Her friends… she just wanted to see her friends again…

Something grabbed her hooves and she was being pulled in. Air she’d not known she was holding burst out of her lungs. As soon as she was on solid ground she flopped to her belly and kissed the floor.

“No time!” Sunset dragged Twilight to her hooves. “Run, for buck’s sake!”

Twilight ran. Though her legs screamed in protest and her wing swung agonizingly with each step, she ran. The ponies fled into the tunnel, their escape punctuated by the furious roar of King Sombra, First Lord of Tartarus.

Naught But Smoke

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter IV: Naught But Smoke

“Now it behooves thee thus to put off sloth,
for sitting upon down or under quilt one attains not fame
without which he who consumes his life leaves of himself
such trace on earth as smoke in air, or in water the foam.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto XXIV

Twilight couldn’t keep up. Her wing was screaming in pain and her legs were beginning to shake from the exertion. “S-Sunset… I can’t…” She slowed and at last collapsed, sucking down deep gasps of air. Her brief terror was now replaced by exhaustion and agony, and she could only wonder if she would ever be able to stand again.

“I think we’re… we’re far enough…” Sunset stood over her, sweating and panting. “I can’t… believe you got out… of the tornado.”

The exhausted Twilight took one last recovering breath before eyeing her left wing. She could see the twist just below the carpal joint. What was it? The radius? The ulna? Both? She didn’t bother trying to lift her wing from where it lay on the stone floor; it was clear there was no point in testing it.

Her chin dropped to the floor as she pouted. “Looks like I won’t be flying again anytime soon.”

Sunset tilted her head to examine the broken wing a little more closely. “It does look pretty bad. Don’t you know any healing spells?”

“Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter.” Twilight took a moment to rub the moisture from her cheeks. “We’d have to set the bones first. I haven’t had my wings long enough to really understand the anatomy.”

“Well it can’t be that hard…”

No!” Twilight jerked away when she noted Sunset reaching for her wing. The motion caused a sting that made her wince. “If we set it incorrectly I could be crippled forever.”

Sunset sat and gave the wounded pony a lecturing frown. “If we don’t do something now it’ll try to heal as is, and then you really will be crippled. We need to set the bone, Sparkle.”

A strange horror filled Twilight. She was going to have to, wasn’t she? Could she trust Sunset to do it?

Did she have a choice?

She sucked in a deep breath, set her chin back to the floor and covered her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.”

She trembled in the dark, praying that Sunset would make it quick. And correct. Correct was more important than quick. She shivered and clamped her teeth together in anticipation, fighting to ignore the sick feeling in her gut. Please let it not be that bad. Please let it not—

She let out a pitched scream as pain erupted along her wing, her entire body rising as she braced her hooves against the floor.

“Stay down!”

Sunset stood on Twilight’s back, forcing her onto her belly. The pain struck again, and Twilight bit her hoof in a desperate attempt to handle the agony. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the fire in her wing intensified, muffled whimpers churning up Twilight’s throat.

Then something moved.

The pain suddenly wasn’t so intense, but it lingered like a ghost under her feathers. Twilight covered her face again and sobbed, trembling like a leaf as Sunset moved away from her.

“I think that’s it.” Sunset bent low beside Twilight and rubbed her back. “Shh, it’s over.”

Twilight took a few seconds to recover her wits, breathing in sharp gasps. After a few seconds she looked back at her wing, which appeared surprisingly normal. She wiped tears from her cheeks and rested her head back down with a shudder. “Sweet M-Mother of Celestia, I never want to d-do that again.”

Sunset stood and moved down the tunnel a short ways, head moving about as she studied the area. “We’re between the Lords’ territories. I think it’s safe to rest here.”


She turned back with head low and eyes apologetic.

Twilight managed a feeble, trembling smile. “Th-thanks for coming back for me.”

Sunset’s eyes shifted and a touch of red came to her cheeks. “Well, you saved me when you knocked me out of the way. I could have been in the Winds of Passion. So… I guess this makes us even.”

Twilight sighed and closed her eyes, an intense weariness coming over her. “If that’s how you want to look at it, I suppose.” She wasn’t about to mention how Sunset had regained some more of her color…

There was no way to tell how long Twilight had slept. She was very confused when she woke up; the horrors had felt more like a dream than anything else. But her lapse of memory was short lived, and she found herself trembling at the thought of where she was. Once again she was forced to wonder how her precious teacher could have done this to her.

But Twilight shook the doldrums off as quickly as she could; lingering wasn’t going to get her out of here. She needed to keep going, to maintain hope. She would go home. Her and Sunset together.

Thinking on her guide made Twilight realized that Sunset was nowhere to be seen. A moment of tense alarm filled her; what if she’d been abandoned? But no, Sunset needed her to escape, she said as much herself. Maybe they weren’t yet friends, but Sunset wouldn’t just leave her. She probably went to scout ahead; Twilight just needed to take a look around, that was all.

In attempting to stand she was reminded of her terrible ordeal in the Winds of Passion; Twilight’s entire body was sore. She winced as she attempted to fold her wings, glancing back at the one that had been broken. Moving it even a little hurt, but she couldn't just hold it out all the time, so she bit her lip and endured the searing pain that came with folding it. The deed done, she let out a few long gasps and wiped the tears from her eyes. They should have put it in a splint or something… but then, it wasn’t like the materials for doing so were readily available.

She went in search of her guide, legs protesting every step. The tunnels here were plain and shadowed, and though her vision had grown accustomed to the dark she decided to utilize her magic to generate some light. She didn’t know why, but suddenly the caves felt… claustrophobic. Head low and hooves shuffling, she hoped she would find Sunset soon; the dry quiet of this place was unnerving, and Twilight really didn’t want to be alone.

Sunset’s appearance was like the arrival of a spirit, her form slipping into the light as if she were made of the shadows themselves. It gave Twilight a fright, and she was relieved to realize that the form standing before her was not one of the mental cases of this hellish prison.

But there was something wrong; Sunset was as still as the grave. She was facing into the darkness, head low and her breathing almost imperceptible. Twilight moved to the front of the pony to find Sunset’s heavy-lidded eyes glazed over in a mindless, miserable stare. She waved a hoof before Sunset’s face, a deep unease filling her.


No response.

Twilight pressed her hooves against Sunset’s shoulders and gently shook her. “Sunset, what’s wrong?”

Sunset shifted. Her eyelids blinked with lethargic slowness before her eyes drifted to Twilight’s face. Her lips worked soundlessly before she shifted once more, her shoulders rolling as if to work sore muscles. At last she spoke, her words coming with the speed of cold molasses. “Twilight?”

“Yes, Sunset, it’s me. It’s Twilight.” An intense wave of relief washed over Twilight as she brushed her companion’s mane aside with a weak smile.

“You’re still here…” Sunset sat back and pressed her hooves to her forehead, swaying as if drunk. “I thought… thought maybe I’d finally lost it. That maybe Tartarus had finally got to me.”

“Not yet.” Twilight embraced the pony, filled with hope in light of Sunset’s near relapse. “I’m here, Sunset, and I’m not going anywhere without you. We’re partners, remember?”

“Partners…” The lost quality in Sunset’s voice finally faded, her tone returning to a semblance of normalcy. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

Twilight chuckled and pulled away with a beaming smile. “Whatever you say. Did you sleep well?”

“Sleep?” Sunset bowed her head, her expression a mask of hard thought. “Sleep. I… don’t remember what that’s like.”

Twilight’s smile dropped. “Really? No sleep?”

Sunset nodded, eyes still set on her hooves. “Sometimes I… ‘phase out’. But it’s not the same thing as sleep. I think it’s a Tartarus thing.”

Twilight considered this for a few seconds before gesturing to herself. “But… I slept.”

“Well you haven’t been here very long.” Sunset stood and walked past Twilight, head hung low with a despondent frown as she moved deeper into the tunnels. “Come on, we better get going.”

Twilight followed, ears low as she studied her companion. Why was she so depressed all over again? “Is something wrong?”

For several seconds Sunset said nothing, her hooves dragging along the stone floor. When she finally spoke there was a distinct dread in her voice. “I just… I feel like we’re both going to die.”

Twilight’s stomach churned as she ran to catch up. She walked alongside Sunset, studying her miserable expression with genuine worry. “Why are you always so negative? We got past Sombra, didn’t we?”

Sunset turned her face away. “We were lucky. Luck doesn’t last very long down here.”

Twilight patted her on the shoulder, though she wasn’t sure what good it would do. “I think we did well, all things considered. You have to be positive, it’s the only—”

“Just stop it.” The despondent pony sidestepped out of Twilight’s reach. “You’ll learn soon enough.”

Twilight paused, watching as her guide moved on without her. She tensed as a flame began to burn in her mind, but she kept her temper in check. After a few seconds she moved forward, catching up to and blocking Sunset’s path. She leveled the pony with a firm, commanding glare.

Sunset kept her head low, looking up at Twilight with lost, uncertain eyes. After a few seconds she tried to move around, but Twilight stood in her way once more. Sunset didn’t bother with a second attempt; she just turned her head aside and waited.

That only fueled Twilight’s anger. “Do you want to get out of here?”

Sunset glanced at her from the corner of her eye. “Of course I do.”

“You’re sure not acting like it.” The princess poked Sunset in the chest, making her wince. “How do you expect to leave Tartarus if you won’t try? What happened to that hope you showed me earlier?”

“I had hope?” Sunset shot her a confused glance, but then sighed and turned her head away once more. “That was an illusion. There’s no hope.”

Twilight snarled and pushed the pony back. She stomped closer, and Sunset shrank at her glare. “Stop retreating. You’re Sunset Shimmer, former protégé of Celestia, and I know you have more backbone than that. Stop acting like a scared foal and start fighting for what you want!”

“What good would it do?” Sunset’s voice still lacked force, but at least she was looking Twilight in the eye again. “We’ll never get past the remaining Lords.”

“How do you know?” Twilight pressed her muzzle against Sunset’s. “We’ve barely even begun, and already you’ve given up! Why don’t you just go back to Limbo if that’s how you feel?”

“Because I can’t!” At last Sunset displayed some energy, pushing back against Twilight and matching her glare. “We offended Sombra. If I go back he’ll kill me, or worse. But if I go forward…” She lost her energy, her head bowing and pupils shrinking as if what had passed through her mind was truly terrifying.

“Point of no return, huh?” Twilight considered this for a few seconds, her anger having been reduced to a mere simmer now that she’d finally managed to get a proper reaction from her guide. “The Sunset Shimmer I knew was always willing to do things for herself. Sometimes she took it too far, but it’s not necessarily a bad quality.”

Sunset sat with a sigh. “That’s what happens when you get stuck down here for so long: you lose track of who you are.”

Twilight studied her and wondered about that statement. Perhaps there was more truth in that than excuse. Had Sunset really fallen so low?

“There’s one way for you to regain a bit of the old you back.” She stepped beside Sunset, wrapped a hoof about her shoulder and pointed to the darkness ahead. “You can press on.”

Sunset observed the hoof as if it not sure what it was before casting her forlorn eyes on Twilight. “What good will it do?”

“You want out.” Twilight lifted Sunset into a standing position, smiling her encouragement. “Make that your singular goal. It’s mine. Work with me, strive to escape.”

“But that won’t—”

Twilight set a hoof to Sunset’s lips. “You already said you can’t go back. Your best chance now – your only chance – is to ascend. It’s up to you, Sunset; try to go back and die for certain, or come with me and at least have the hope of an escape.”

Sunset stared, chewing her lip in uncertainty. Her eyes went to the darkness beyond as she ruminated on Twilight’s words. “But… but the chances are so slim…”

Twilight stepped back and gestured with her head to the tunnels. “Better a slim chance than none.”

Sunset stepped back, body low as she shifted from hoof to hoof and thought. Twilight could almost see the doubts churning through her mind, the questions and fears. But at last, with a despondent sigh, her guide began to walk once more.

“We won’t make it.”

“Yes, we will.” Twilight walked beside her, keeping her head high and a smile on her face. She had to maintain a sense of confidence, it was the only way.

She just hoped her guide wouldn’t relapse into despair every time a break was needed.

They traveled on, Sunset glumly leading Twilight through the maze of tunnels. They passed through a number of strange places: a cavern full of floating mushrooms; hallways that were made from a particularly stinky cheese; a set of tunnels where the darkness possessed a strange and surprisingly physical thickness; and a passage where they had to traverse giant test tubes and beakers implanted in the solid rock. However Twilight was less fascinated by these finding than she’d been on the way to Sombra’s lair, at least partially due to Sunset’s consistent brooding.

There seemed to be no way to cheer her guide, and Twilight ultimately gave up from sheer frustration. Thus they walked much of the journey in silence, although Twilight did pause on multiple occasions to ask about the curiosities they kept coming across.

It was not until the acrid smells hit them that Sunset’s manner changed. She paused, muzzle sniffing the air at the same time as Twilight, and her eyes became saucers. “Oh Goddess, we’re here…”

“The next Lord’s territory?” Twilight rubbed her muzzle with an unpleasant frown. “That’s a pretty obvious tell.” She observed Sunset to find her shivering in place. “Hey, it’s going to be okay.”

Sunset’s terror-filled gaze met Twilight’s. She made no attempt to answer, and it took several seconds for her to finally begin walking again, head low and lips trembling.

“W-whatever you do, don’t look it in the eyes.”

Twilight walked alongside her, keeping close for the sake of comfort. In truth she was a little affected by Sunset’s visible terror; it was a stark contrast to her manner with Sombra. What was it about this Lord that scared her so? “Whose lair is this?”

Sunset swallowed, eyes darting about the tunnels. “I’m n-not worried about the Lord. It’s h-his… his thing that scares m-me…”

“Thing?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What th—” Her ears perked as they caught a new sound in the distance, echoing against the tunnel walls.


Twilight shivered, her confidence shaken by the sound. She noted Sunset’s pause and set a leg over her shoulder. “It’s okay. We can do this.”

“N-no we can’t.” Sunset had tears in her eyes and her entire body trembled. “It will never l-let us pass.” But she was able to force her shaking hooves to move, even if only at a slow trudge.

Twilight made no attempt to rush her. “You’re doing good, Sunset. That’s right, one hoof after another…”

They pressed on, the burning scent and terrible screams the only sound. The noise had been an echo before, but as they began to approach the source it became clear that the volume hadn’t been exaggerated; Twilight wanted to cover her ears to block it out!

At last they came upon something different; a tunnel that was sealed off by a transparent crystal. Twilight paused to peer through and was alarmed to see three ponies on the other side. But they weren’t encased in the stone like the ones in Sombra’s territory; these ponies were free to move about as they pleased, and at the moment they seemed less than pleased to be behind the wall.

Hooves bashed the crystal, mouths were opened wide. The wall muted them, and the screams that met Twilight’s ears weren’t coming from these ponies, but there was no doubt that they were screaming. The panic was clear in their eyes, eyes that begged Twilight for help. All save a fourth one, who lingered almost unnoticed behind the others and stared at the floor as if all hope had left her.

“Don’t.” Sunset tugged on Twilight’s tail. “Please, don’t help them. It will know if you do. Don’t lure it here!”

“What ‘it’?” Twilight let herself be dragged away, though her heart cried out for the tormented ponies. “Sunset, what is going on?”

The terrified pony hurried her along, past more crystal barriers blocking more victims. “He made it, but this land belongs more to it than it does to him.”

“Him who?” Twilight heaved a frustrated sigh. She did her best to ignore the creatures trapped in the walls. “You’re not giving me much informa—” They rounded a corner, and Twilight’s words caught in her throat.

Before them was a deep pit, at the bottom of which was a pond of boiling pitch. The screams assaulted her eardrums, the burning smell filled her nostrils. Ponies, griffons, all sorts of creatures were down there, fighting amongst one another in desperate attempts to get out of the sticky, burning blackness. Their heads were all encased in stone helmets, with only holes for the mouths and eyes. Some were clawing at the walls. Pegasi and griffons struggled in vain to fly against the weight of their helmets. Some lay motionless, and she thought them dead until she noted the slight motions that indicated breathing.

And all the time there was that incessant screaming.

Sunset bolted, and Twilight was so terrified that she could only follow. They circled wide around that terrible pit and fled down an outgoing tunnel. They passed more pits and crystal walls, the screams and desperate faces filling Twilight’s vision. But then they began to pass ponies who weren’t trapped, ponies who lingered about like mindless statues, heads hung low and eyes blank with listlessness.

Then she noted the crystal walls that weren’t filled with begging ponies or griffons. No, they were filled with something red, splattered about the walls and floor.


Twilight was filled with renewed terror, but her already sore legs were failing her. “S-Sunset… St… Stop…”

She was ignored. Her hooves burned, her heart pounded in her chest, her lungs begged for relief! “S-Sunset… I have to…”

She collapsed, rolling on the floor and grinding her teeth as she landed on her broken wing. By the time she looked up Sunset was already disappearing down the next corner. Twilight lifted a hoof and tried to call out, but her throat was too dry to manage anything more than a feeble cry.

And just like that, Twilight was alone. Tears in her eyes, she struggled to her hooves and tried to move, but her legs screamed their protest and she could manage little more than a feeble limp. After a few feet she dropped to the floor on her belly and covered her ears against the terrible screams that seemed to come from all sides. Under her pain and terror was the lingering understanding that Sunset probably wasn’t going to come back for her.

She probably didn’t even realize she’d left Twilight behind.

She lay there for several long minutes, gasping for air and trying to blot out the screams. She wanted to close her eyes, but every time she did she kept seeing pony parts and organs splattered behind one of those crystal walls.

What could have done that, and why?

She knew she had to move, to get out before whatever was responsible for all this found her. With this in mind she forced herself to her hooves yet again and began to walk, cringing with every step. At least her legs didn’t hurt so much after her brief rest. Maybe if she just kept walking and tried not to exert herself. That was easier said than done, though, for a lingering terror continued to threaten her mind, and more than once she was tempted to flee.

Her eyes locked on a pony standing near the center of the tunnel. She knew it was dangerous, but Twilight was desperate to know what she was up against. “E-excuse me…?”

No answer.

She moved closer, praying she wouldn’t regret it. “I n-need help. Information. S-something?”

She moved to the front of the pony. His eyes were glazed and his entire body was slack. His lips were moving. Twilight had to lean close and perk her ear to hear anything over the screams.

“Do nothing. Do nothing, it’ll leave you alone. Do nothing…”

The same thing, over and over and over again.

Twilight took a few anxious steps back. Fear was threatening to claw away at her calm. Combined with the screams and the bloody image behind the nearby crystal wall, this pony’s creepy, mindless mumblings had her shaking in her hooves. She had no choice but to move on and pray she could find Sunset before becoming hopelessly lost. At least all the side paths were blocked by the crystal walls…

Twilight fought her fear by trying to think things through. If she just considered her situation rationally, surely she would figure things out. Ponies trapped in tar pits. Okay, that at least reflected the ponies trapped in spiked pits from Sombra’s realm, perhaps there was a correlation.

She winced as a particularly pitched scream caught her ears. “B-better to talk. That’s right, Twilight, talk. Distract yourself with the sound of your own voice.”

She came upon another pit, unable to keep from looking down at the horrible sight. She fumbled for words as she paced about the pit’s edge. “P-pitch. They’re all in pitch. What does that mean? Or the helmets. W-why are they wearing helmets? Surely they wouldn’t willingly p-put those things on.”

The pit was left behind and she passed more creatures lolling about in mindless stupors. “The helmets are limited to the pits. O-okay, so… so maybe it’s like in old Eq-questria? A punishment to fit the crime?”

Twilight was passing by another one of the crystal walls. A minotaur charged out of the shadows and slammed his shoulder against the barrier, making Twilight jump with a whimper. She watched with bated breath as he pounded his fists against the barrier in desperation.

“C-crystal walls. Creatures trapped behind crystal w-walls.”

She moved on quickly, head low and heart pounding as the screams continued to assault her ears. “S-surely that means something. I mean, S-Sombra trapped them in crystal, t-too. Th-there must be some sort of logic behind this.”

She turned a corner and paused, gazing at something new. It was a pony… but it wasn’t like any pony she’d ever seen. His entire body was pale and shifted, as if he were made of fog.

“H-hello?” Twilight circled the fog-pony, curiosity mixing with her anxiety. “Are you… are you okay?”

He had the same blank stare as the others. No, not quite the same; a close look at his eyes revealed… nothing. There was no light there, no intelligence. Just a blank, glassy stare. But he was breathing, a strange whistling sound coming from his throat with every slow, barely-discernible rasp.

Twilight stood before him, chewing her lip and wondering about this new discovery. She couldn’t help it; she raised a trembling leg to touch his shoulder… and her hoof passed right through him.

A small gasp escaped her lips as an unearthly chill raked up her leg like a frigid claw. She jerked her hoof back and watched in wide-eyed alarm as the fog that made up his body swam after it like the wake of a boat. She stepped back, half afraid the cloud would give chase, but it only lingered quietly. It stretched out like a spike from the pony’s shoulder, and he offered no reaction whatsoever.

“F-fog ponies…” She walked backwards, giggling nervously. “O-okay… now we have fog ponies. I mean, it is fog, it has to be. It’s n-not like this place is full of… of ghosts…”

Twilight cringed at her own words, the idea not at all welcome in her borderline panicked mind. She forced herself to turn away from the ghost pon– fog pony and continue down the tunnel. “It’s okay, Twilight. Everything’s g-gonna be okay. Tartarus is a real place, and ghosts certainly aren’t real. So d-don’t worry. You can get through this, just keep thinking logically and…”

She came to a slow stop amongst a small group of statuesque ponies and griffons, some of whom were fog like that other pony. She bowed her head and heaved a miserable sigh. “I need to stop talking to myself. That’s more like something Pinkie would do.”

She gazed up at the ceiling, tears welling in her eyes. “Pinkie Pie… Oh, what I wouldn’t give to see you right now. I could really use your optimism…”

She noted another crystal wall nearby, two ponies and a nilgiri clawing at it from the other side. The sight made her cringe and close her eyes. She tried to see Pinkie’s happy face, fought to imagine her contagious laughter. She needed something bright and happy, something to remind her of what was ahead. Seeing Pinkie was a good thing to look forward to, nonsense and all.

She focused. She tried her best, covering her ears to dull the screams. She could almost… if she just expanded her imagination a little. Just like Pinkie. Bubbles. Streamers. Cupcakes. Chocolate milk. Party hats. Gummy. Silly mustaches.


Ah, there she was. All smiles and bouncing around. And laughter. Beautiful, beautiful laughter. It was the most wonderful sound in the world.

Twilight felt herself relax. She even managed a smile, for nopony brought about happiness like Pinkie. Twilight held on to that warm, happy feeling in her heart. This was what she needed. If she could just keep her mind on her friends, then there could be hope. She would get home and she would never, ever miss another one of Pinkie’s parties. She would cherish them, each and every one.

But Twilight couldn’t linger on this daydream. She would never see another one of Pinkie’s parties if she couldn’t escape, and this was no way to do it. So, determined to keep the hope strong in her heart, she sucked in a deep breath and opened her eyes…

Just in time to see the nilgiri behind the wall splatter in a mess of blood and limbs and gore.

Twilight let out a horrified scream and fell to her haunches. She could only stare, her breathing coming in short, sharp gasps at the sight of pony parts and still-throbbing organs sliding down the crystal wall. One of the ponies was already an icky mess on the floor, leaving just one pony left. She clawed at the wall, coat matted in the blood of her companions and fresh tears pouring down her cheeks. Twilight could only watch in cold terror as the pony locked frantic eyes with her and begged mutely for some kind of salvation.

Then something stabbed through the pony’s chest. Her legs spread wide as if held tight by invisible bonds. She opened her mouth in what Twilight imagined had to have been a terrible shriek.

A few seconds later the pony’s forelegs were ripped from her shoulders.

A small blast of yellow energy ripped a hole in the pony’s chest, freeing whatever had been run through her. She fell against the crystal and began to slide to the floor, blood and tears mixing on the wall as the removed legs began beating on her back and head in a violent fury.

Twilight couldn’t turn away. She held her hooves to her lips, entire body trembling as her stomach churned and tears dripped from her cheeks. She wanted to run, to dive into a dark corner and hide. But she couldn’t. She was transfixed to the display of violence before her.

At last the poor, wretched pony stilled. The legs kept striking for several seconds after… but finally came to a pause. The yellow, bubbly glow that kept them aloft faded and they fell atop their former owner like discarded junk.

Then a figure stepped out of the dark. Twilight only saw its legs at first… but then she looked up and got a better view as it walked right up to the crystal wall. Her jaw dropped in a motion as slow as her own dawning realization: she knew the murderer. It was a pony, dressed from top to bottom in a familiar purple suit. The well-known cloak… the wide-brimmed hat…

“M… Mare-Do-Well?”

Mare-Do-Well tilted her head at Twilight, as if to examine a curious specimen. Only then did Twilight notice the yellow, smoke-like essence rising from where the eyeholes of the mask should have been. That smoky substance, and the way it bubbled up as it rose…

It was like the magic in Sombra’s eyes.

A flash of yellow brought the masked pony out from behind the crystalline wall and standing just a few feet away. Twilight let out a shout and backpedaled, tripping on her own hooves and falling on her rump. She pressed her back against the wall, mind consumed with a terror she’d never known as she watched the monstrous pony.

Mare-Do-Well observed her with very slow motions of the head. Twilight frantically fought for some sort of proper reaction, and after a few seconds she finally had her head working well enough to summon up a thin shield. She waited, breath coming in gasps and mind alert for any sign of an attack.

A lingering moment of calm passed as the two stared at one another.

...and then Mare-Do-Well turned away.

Unwilling to let her guard down, Twilight remained pressed against the wall and kept her shield going as Mare-Do-Well walked calmly among the creatures that stood about like mannequins. She passed right through the fog-like ones, causing them to break apart into wisps of white smoke. She studied those that were still solid, examining each as if in search of something specific.

Twilight’s throat finally worked. “W-who are you?”

Mare-Do-Well cast a distracted glance her way as it kept up the search. Shortly after she came to a pause next to a female griffon. That masked head tilted one way, then another. Then it loomed close to the griffon’s face and, like a puppet, the griffon’s head slowly rose up to gaze at Mare-Do-Well. Her dull eyes offered no reaction as her beak opened wide and a low, long, raspy moan filled the air.

Twilight thought it a trick of the shadows at first. As she watched, a strange churning of the air came between the faces of the griffon and the murderer. She stared in rapt amazement as the lines that made up the griffon’s face blurred and churned as if being sucked into that emotionless mask. It lasted all of ten seconds, the griffon’s entire body shaking and blurring as something visible but indefinable passed between her and Mare-Do-Well.

And then there was a visible snap, like a rubber band stretched too taught, and the odd blurring transfer came to a sudden stop. Mare-Do-Well stepped back, the yellow smoke of her eyes taking on a slightly brighter sheen for a second or two as the griffon’s colors paled and her body began to take on that strange, fog-like quality of the others.

Twilight didn’t understand what she’d just seen. No logical concept existed for her to explain what Mare-Do-Well had just done. She only knew that it was unnatural and she was scared.

Mare-Do-Well’s head turned to observe her once more. It was a brief look, but it left Twilight shaking with the uncomfortable sensation that she was being scrutinized.

Then the pony turned about and, in a flash of yellow, disappeared.

Twilight remained sitting against the wall for a few seconds, eyes darting about the tunnel for any sign of the masked pony. It took some time, but she at last managed to pull herself away and drop her shield. Heart heavy and an intense unpleasantness in her stomach, she approached the griffon. The creature’s eyes were blank and lifeless, displaying no response at all to what had just happened. Twilight raised a hoof to brush the griffon’s beak and once against felt that harsh chill as the foggy substance blurred and spread out at her touch.

Sucking in a sharp breath, Twilight jerked about and moved through the tunnel at a trot. Buck logic; the only thing her terrified mind needed to know was that she had to get out of here as fast as possible.

The screams had finally faded away, but it was a small consolation. Twilight trudged ever onwards, surrounded by a thick mist. She adamantly refused to think about where the fog was coming from, about what it might mean for there to be so much of it. She kept her eyes locked on the stone floor, fearing that if she looked up she might see a faint face in the endless whiteness.

There was no way to know how long she’d been walking. The tunnel kept twisting and turning, and on several occasions Twilight was forced to choose a direction as the paths diverged. She had only one clue to go by, and that was slope; as long as she was going up, she should be on the right track.

She hoped.

That monstrous version of Mare-Do-Well appeared several times. Sometimes she would be slaughtering more ponies. Other times she was doing that strange magic to the mindless creatures that Twilight sometimes walked past. But sometimes she would appear for seemingly no other reason than to peer at Twilight.

Twilight stopped trying to flee. For all the wanton violence, Mare-Do-Well didn’t seem eager to hurt her. Twilight used to wonder why, but now all she wanted was to get away.

It was a while before she noticed the light beaming through the fog. For a tender moment Twilight’s hopes rose, but that was no sun; it was too dim, too pale, and it shifted. It was more like a torch, albeit one with a white flame.

Perhaps it was magic?

It could have been anypony, Twilight didn’t care; just the thought of seeing something normal was welcome. She trotted forward, eager to see the source of the light. As she continued the fog began to thin and fade, until at last she had a good view of what was ahead. The tunnel shrank swiftly, narrowing down to what almost appeared to be a doorway.

And there, cowering on the floor next to that opening, was a familiar mare.

“Sunset!” Twilight trotted towards her, the unicorn looking up at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.

Sunset slowly stood, mouth agape. “Y-you made it. I thought you were dead or… or…”

Twilight stopped right in front of her and shot her a vicious glare. “You left me. You actually left me there!”

Sunset shrank back. “I thought you were right behind me. W-where did you go?”

Heaving a bitter sigh, Twilight jerked her head away. Part of her was furious… but the other part understood. She’d been pretty terrified herself, after all. She tried to take pleasure in the knowledge that she wasn’t alone anymore, but it wasn’t easy. “It doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s check this—”

Sunset pulled her back, wincing at Twilight’s ominous glare. “B-be careful! This is… this is the place.”

“The place?” Twilight’s anger faded as she peered into the doorway, noting the pale white orb on a plinth deep inside. “You mean the second Lord’s lair?” Sunset nodded with a shiver. “But I thought you said you weren’t scared of him.”

“I’m n-not.” Sunset’s eyes scoured the area as if she expected to be pounced upon at any second. “It’s his pet that scares me.”

Pet? Twilight recalled the gore and violence and couldn't resist a shiver of her own. “You mean Mare-Do-Well.”

“Mare?” Her terrified companion shook her head. “Ne’er.”

Twilight blinked and had to think for a few seconds. “Ne’er-Do-Well?”

Sunset took a tentative step to the door and peered through. “A-all we have to do is get to the other side of the lab. It’s n-not that far.”

Twilight stood in the doorway, rubbing her chin with a skeptical frown. “Just like that? Won’t the Lord try to stop us?”

“He won’t even notice us.” Sunset circled in place, eyes darting about. “C-come on, we have to go before it gets back.” She moved at a trot through the doorway.

Hesitation filled Twilight – how could they just walk right on through? But Sunset was her only guide, and why have her around if she wasn’t going to listen to her? So she followed, matching her companion’s speed and watching for threats.

Instead she discovered something she’d never expected: a laboratory. Twilight was so stunned she had to stop after a few feet to take in her surroundings; loaded bookcases, microscopes, a centrifuge, beakers and bottles and blackboards! For just a moment she forgot where she was, a broad smile breaking across her face and her heartrate going just a tiny bit faster. “Th-this is amazing! How did all this stuff get down here?”

“What are you doing?” Sunset rushed over to pull on Twilight’s shoulders. “We have to go!”

“But I…” Twilight let herself be dragged through the veritable scientist’s playground. “I can’t just go without…” Her words failed her as she spotted movement near a large table that was covered in equipment. A pony was there, igniting a Bunsen burner as he peered at a thick notebook.

If a pony could die from being starstruck, Twilight would have keeled over then and there. She gazed upon his light grey coat, going white from age. His golden eyes, set with intense focus on his work. His frayed cape and star-studded hat, that unforgettable beard…

“Is… Is that…?”

Sunset cast a frustrated glance his way. “What? It’s Starswirl. Now come on.”

But Twilight’s attention was fully diverted, a gasp escaping her throat at the confirmation of the name.

“Oh. My. Goddess!”

She practically flew out of Sunset’s grasp, standing with forehooves on the table as she stared like a grinning foal upon her historical hero. “It is! You’re Starswirl the Bearded!”

“Mm-hmm.” He paid her no mind as he peered into a microscope.

“I am such a huge fan, you have no idea.” Twilight trotted about the table with a silly giggle. “I have read all your books, I studied every spell. I even completed your unfinished masterpiece!” She paused next to him and peered, hooves dancing in her excitement. “I can’t believe it, it’s really you. Yes yes yes yes yes! This is like a dream come true!”

“Mm-hmm.” He scribbled in his notebook.

Twilight was about to speak once more when she felt herself jerked back by the tail. She turned to find Sunset’s muzzle pressed against hers. “What. Are you. Doing?”

“Can you believe it?” Twilight hardly noted Sunset’s anger. “Do you even know who this is? It’s Starswirl the Bearded, father of the amniomorphic spell, only one of the greatest conjurers in Equestrian history!” She turned to stare, hooves to her cheeks in childish awe.

“Yes. Conjurer. Exactly.” Sunset tugged on Twilight’s mane, which hurt enough to at least earn her a bit of Twilight’s attention. “And what do you think he conjured while down here?”

“Who knows?” Twilight whacked Sunset’s hooves from her mane in annoyance before turning back to the mage. “He’s Starswirl, I’m sure he can conjure whatever he wants.”

Her heart came to a stop as Starswirl’s head came up with abrupt swiftness. He stared out across the table for a few seconds, then turned his eyes upon Twilight. An ecstatic gasp escaped her lips as he looked her up and down curiously.

“Hmm…” His quill began to scribble notes as he rubbed his substantial beard. “An alicorn. Interesting…”

It took several seconds for her to think a proper response. “Y-yes. I-I am Princess T-Twilight Sparkle, and it is such a pleasure – no, an honor to meet you!” She gave a quick bow, praying her wobbling legs wouldn’t fail her. “I consider myself a student of yours. Why, I wouldn’t even be a princess if it weren’t for you!”

Sunset wrapped a hoof about her shoulder and pulled her away. “W-well, we’ll just be going now! It was nice to see you, b-but—”

Twilight knocked her back with a glower. “Sunset! Don’t be rude. This is the most important pony of his generation.” She turned back to find Starswirl already engrossed in his work. “H-hey, maybe you could tell me a little something? Y-you know, I would love to be able to say I—”

Sunset was in her way. A hoof cracked across her jaw. “Would you wake up? Think, Twilight. Where the buck are we?”

Twilight rubbed her chin with a grimace. “What is wrong with you? We’re in Tartarus.” She shoved Sunset aside. “Now would you leave me alone before I—” She paused, eyes going wide. She turned her head in a slow motion and stared at Starswirl, who hardly seemed to notice her presence anymore.

“W-why is Starswirl in Tartarus?”

“Because Celestia threw him in here for being useless.” Sunset gestured for the exit. “Now come on, please, before Ne’er-Do-Well gets back!”

“Useless? Starswirl?” Twilight sat, rubbing her head as she tried to make sense of this. “How could Starswirl be useless? And that’s no reason to throw a pony into Tartarus.”

“Look at him!” Sunset pointed as he was pouring something into a series of test tubes. “All he ever cared about was his experiments. He didn’t raise a hoof to help Celestia. Or stop her.”

Stop her?

“Typical ignorance.”

The mares shared surprised looks before gazing upon the old mage. His emotionless manner had cracked to form a solemn frown as he continued his work. “I couldn’t stop Celestia. I wasn’t ready to. More studies were needed. More spells.”

Sunset growled. “That’s all you ever said. You could have stood up to her at any time!”

“Against an alicorn?” He set the test tubes aside and focused on firing a thick blue beam upon a large vial. “No. More experimentation. One must guarantee success. The timing was not right.”

Sunset walked about Twilight and began to push her away. “And now what does he do? More experiments.”

“One does not simply walk out of Tartarus.” Starswirl took the vial, which was covered in frost, and began to pour its contents into the test tubes. “One must prepare. Confidence, that’s what I’m seeking. Confidence that I am ready.”

Twilight locked her hooves against Sunset’s pushing, eager to come to her hero’s defense. “Sounds reasonable to me. You don’t go up against Tartarus unprepared.”

“And what do you think we’ve been doing?” Sunset let out a frustrated sigh and didn’t stop pushing. “He’s been down here for close to a thousand years! If he’s not ready by now, when will he be?”

As much as she hated to do so, Twilight was forced to concede the point. “But I still can’t accept that Starswirl the Bearded is a bad pony.”

The aged mage gave a derogatory sniff. “Morality has nothing to do with it.”

She blinked, not sure she’d heard that correctly. “What?”

“Taking forever to prepare is as good as doing nothing.” Sunset sat back, panting from exertion. “He never acts. He never takes anything upon himself. He even made Ne’er-Do-Well to do his dirty work for him!”

Twilight thought she was confident that she knew everything she needed to know about Starswirl… but suddenly her image of him cracked. “Y-you mean he made that… that abomination?”

“He’s a conjurer.” Sunset threw her hooves in the air. “Of course he made it!”

Twilight’s heart sank. She trotted to the mage and gave him a hopeful look, praying that Sunset’s information was wrong. “But… But why would you make such a monster? Do you even know what it’s doing out there?”

Starswirl let out a groan as he scribbled more notes in his book. “You bleeding hearts, always putting ethics in the way of progress. Soul energy is the best magic source in Tartarus—”

Twilight fell back in horror. “Soul what?”

“—and I’m not going to let it go to waste being used by the other Lords.” He set some of the test tubes over the Bunsen burner. “If you really need some sort of moral standard, try to take solace in the thought that this is Tartarus and they were probably corrupt anyway.”

Just as quickly as her excitement had come, Twilight’s perfect image of him shattered like glass. She backed away, shaking her head and praying she’d heard that wrong. “Y-you don’t mean that. I believed in you, I thought you were amazing…”

“So sorry to burst your small-minded, idealistic bubble.” He went back to scribbling in his notebook.

Twilight slumped. To think one of her great inspirations, the very pony whose work had helped her become a princess, was… was this. What was she supposed to do? What was she supposed to think? And after all Celestia had taught her about him.

No… not him. This wasn’t the same Starswirl she’d learned about as a filly, who’d filled her with happy dreams of magical discovery. He was something entirely different, a pitiable figure with no future.

Something nudged her. She glanced over to see Sunset watching her with an apologetic frown. “C’mon, Twilight. Let’s get out of here.”

She turned to leave, and Twilight made to follow. She paused, casting one final, forlorn look at the pony who once inspired her. He was working as hard as ever on his chosen experiments, not paying them any mind.

He deserved to be trapped down here.

Sunset let out a terrified shout. Twilight turned and felt her blood run cold; Ne’er-Do-Well was standing in the center of the room. It tilted its head at her – a gradual, focused motion that for some reason filled Twilight with dread.

“Ah, there you are, you insipid beast.”

Insipid? Twilight didn’t think that was at all accurate…

Starswirl’s voice took on a threatening tone. “Well, what are you waiting for? Make your delivery.”

Ne’er-Do-Well looked towards him with that ever-expressionless mask, then turned and walked to a large cauldron in a corner of the lab. It paused and lowered its face… and then that familiar foggy substance began to swarm from it to the cauldron.

Sunset, lips trembling and eyes locked on the creature, leaned close to Twilight. “C-can we go now?”

“Yeah.” But as they headed for the other side of the laboratory she couldn’t take her eyes off Ne’er-Do-Well. “What is it doing?”

“Depositing souls.” Twilight shot her companion an alarmed look, but Sunset didn't notice. “Starswirl’s too busy to do it himself. At least, that’s what he’d tell you.”

So that’s what Ne'er-Do-Well was doing to all those creatures. But what did all their suffering have to do with it? “Is the torture part of the experiments?”

Sunset cast a harsh glance her way. “You’re asking about that now?” She winced as a particularly bright flash of light came from Starswirl’s direction. “N-no. He made it out of the life energies of other ponies, and it keeps a little bit of every creature’s soul every time it makes a… ‘delivery.'”

Twilight paused, ears lowering as she came to understand Sunset’s meaning. She cast a long look at Ne’er-Do-Well, amazement and loathing filling her at the same time. “You mean it’s made up of the souls of the prisoners of Tartarus?”

Thousands of them.” Sunset tugged lightly on Twilight’s hoof, prompting her to keep walking. “Maybe hundreds of thousands. Thieves, villains, liars, murderers, torturers, rapists. All in one unimaginably sadistic form.”

Twilight turned away as Ne’er-Do-Well, its task completed, began to make its way towards its master. She could just feel it staring at the back of her head, the sensation making her shudder. “Thank Celestia it’s under Starswirl’s control.”

They were almost to the exit. Sunset cast a long, unhappy look Twilight’s way. “I’m… I’m not sure it is.”

They locked eyes, Sunset’s anxious and Twilight’s wide. The alicorn opened her mouth to respond—


They both jumped and jerked about. Starswirl was still at his table, harsh golden eyes locked on Twilight. Ne’er-Do-Well was standing opposite him, but didn’t appear to be paying the mares any mind. Starswirl stroked his beard a few times, and Twilight couldn’t help shifting under his scrutiny.

The old mage spoke in the tone of a professor lecturing a student. “I have studied many souls. In those studies I have come to determine that different creatures’ souls have different qualities. It is a fascinating subject, oh yes…

“In all my years down here, I have never had the opportunity to study an alicorn soul.”

Twilight’s blood ran cold.

He went back to his experiments, adding an offhoof, “Ne’er? Fetch me an alicorn soul, would you kindly?”

Ne’er-Do-Well spun to face the mares with a jerk, the yellow aura of its eyes flashing.

“Oh bu… run!”

Twilight didn’t need Sunset’s encouragement; she was already making a break for the exit. She could just imagine herself being ripped apart by that monster!

They were out of the laboratory and into the tunnels when a flash of yellow, bubbly smoke erupted ahead of them. They made no attempt to stop, and when Ne’er-Do-Well emerged from the vapors they bowled right over it and kept going. It didn’t shout. It didn’t even grunt in pain. It just fell on its side, as quiet as a mouse.

Which might actually have been scarier.

Twilight let out a shout as something forced her to a jerking stop. She looked back to see her tail caught in that yellow aura. Ne’er-Do-Well stood slowly, retrieving its hat from the floor to cover its long, glowing horn.

Then it turned to Twilight just in time to take a violet beam to the chest that sent it sprawling.

Freed, Twilight turned about and fled. She saw Sunset pausing up ahead. “What are you doing? Go!”

Yellow balls, their centers filled with electric sparks, flew over their shoulders and bounced against the walls. They danced about, struggling to make as much ground as they could on the creature. “W-we just have to get to the end of Starswirl’s territory,” Twilight noted, casting a hopeful look at her partner. “It won’t follow us. Like Sombra, right?”

Sunset redoubled her efforts, moving ahead of Twilight as she shouted back, “Don’t be so sure about that!”

They slid to an abrupt stop, just managing to avoid falling into one of those pits of boiling pitch. There were ponies down there… but none of them were moving. The mares turned to start fleeing along the side of the pit, but Twilight let out a shout as Ne’er-Do-Well appeared from the darkness and, catching her up with its magic, literally tossed Twilight over the edge!

Alarm and horror filled Twilight. She tried to fly and let out a scream at the searing pain in her broken wing. She opened her eyes just in time to see a skeletal face leering up at her from the bubbling black pit. The sight made her suck in a sharp breath as she instinctually cast a spell.

A flash of light later she hit the hard ground on the ledge of the pit. She climbed up on shaky hooves just as Sunset galloped past. “Don’t stop now!”

Twilight needed only a second to recover and give chase, her heart fluttering with all the speed of a hummingbird. She glanced back and let out a small gasp as Ne’er-Do-Well opened up a pair of massive wings and took off over the pit after them. “It has w-wings? I didn’t s-see any wings! How did it get those?”

Sunset called over her shoulder, “I’m not stopping to ask!”

They entered a cave filled with fog. Twilight had a moment to feel disgust at the thought of what must make it up, but it was all she allotted herself. They began to pass misty creatures like she had on the way in, and despite her nausea she found the willpower to ask, “Can we hide amongst these guys?”

Sunset slid to a stop as a flash of yellow smoke appeared ahead. “Time to find out.” She dove back, catching Twilight and forcing her to the floor.

Their world was engulfed in milky white. They lay on their bellies, trembling with ears perked to listen. There was nothing. Pure, harsh, terrifying silence. The chill of the fog left Twilight with memories of the terrible tales she’d read about lands of violence and evil…

But this wasn’t one of her books, and this time the evil was real. The thought filled her with an intense dread. She used to think that corruption and darkness were remote, uncommon things, but here she was in a place where it was constant. And Ne’er-Do-Well… how many tortured souls made up its existence? How much brutality had been squeezed into its head?

If collecting souls could be a magical source, and Ne’er-Do-Well was made from countless souls over centuries of constant collecting…

How powerful might it be?

How cruel?

The hoofsteps made her wince. She saw Sunset cover her lips with her hooves, perhaps to keep from screaming. Twilight’s ears twitched as the hoofsteps continued, moving gradually closer. Did it know where they were? Was it just searching? She fought to control her breathing, sucking in long breaths at a careful pace to minimize the sound of it.

The hoofsteps paused. Twilight’s hackles rose as a suppressive chill ran down her spine. Where was it? What was it doing?

Did it know?

The silence lingered, every passing second filling her with more dread. Her stomach churned with nervous horror. She wouldn’t panic. She was not going to panic…

The hoofsteps began again, moving away. Twilight barely stopped herself from heaving a relieved sigh. She shared fretful looks with Sunset, then nodded forward. Her terrified companion, hooves still over her lips, only shook her head. Twilight wanted to argue her point, but the ongoing hoofsteps reminded her that she didn’t dare speak.

So she took the lead, crawling as slowly and quietly as she could beneath the protective cover of the mist. Ne’er-Do-Well didn’t strike her as the type to give up; they had to get out, it was their only chance. She moved forward, raising herself just slightly so that she could move without her belly rubbing the floor and making noise. Each trembling step was as slow and cautious as she could manage. She treated the floor like glass; one false motion and everything would go disastrously wrong. She cast an anxious look over her shoulder to see Sunset barely visible in the fog, unmoved.

There could be no waiting or encouragement, but Twilight knew they had to move; if they remained still they would surely be found. So, hoping Sunset would figure things out and follow, she pressed on.

Her ears remained perked, listening to the sound of Ne’er-Do-Well’s slow hoofsteps. It was to her right, so Twilight moved a little leftward. She swallowed to moisten her dry mouth, ever maintaining that slow and cautious breathing. She could make it. All she had to do was get beyond the fog, deep enough down the tunnel that Ne’er-Do-Well wouldn’t notice when she broke into a run. She would get out, she would escape Tartarus, she would see her friends again…

The sound of flapping wings made her heart leap into her throat. She dropped to her belly and remained perfectly still, praying that the creature wouldn’t be able to see her from above. She struggled to make out where the flapping was coming from. Was Ne’er-Do-Well circling? Did it see anything? Twilight closed her eyes tight and listened as best she could. Please let the fog be thick enough…

The flapping stopped. No sound of hoofsteps, either. Twilight didn’t dare to hope that it had left to search elsewhere; that was too easy. It had to be somewhere nearby, watching. Waiting.

Like a vulture.

There was no other option; Twilight lifted herself just slightly and resumed her stealthy crawl. Maybe she could get out without being noticed. Maybe Sunset was right behind her.

Seconds passed. Perhaps minutes. Twilight kept going, each step a test of her fortitude, every slow breath an exercise in caution. The silence was becoming as horrible as the screams had once been, and Twilight quietly begged for some sound. A ruffle of feathers, a hoofstep, even the softness of breathing! Her legs ached from the effort of maintaining that slow pace, the gripping anxiety making sweat bead up on her forehead. She didn’t even know how far she’d traveled… or how far she had left to go.

She paused, eyes going wide at the sight of something purple just ahead. She sank to her belly and held her breath, watching through the shifting mist. It took a few precious seconds to confirm, but it was most certainly Ne’er-Do-Well. It was facing just to Twilight’s right and watching with an unmoving gaze for any activity.

It was perfectly still. Unnaturally so. Twilight watched, ears perking just slightly… nothing. Not a sound. Not even breathing.


Twilight released air, having forgotten she’d been holding it in.

The creature’s ears perked.

Twilight covered her lips, terror gripping her, but Ne’er-Do-Well made no further motion. Slowly, carefully, she regained control of her breathing. Her legs were trembling, and Twilight willed them to stop for fear that even that tiny disturbance might catch the monster’s attention.

She waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

At last she could take it no more; she forced herself back into that crouch and began to move sideways. She would go around, it was the only—

Her hoof touched the wall of the cave, scraping just slightly against it.

In an instant Ne’er-Do-Well had turned on her, eyes flashing so bright as to temporarily blind Twilight. She let out a horrified shout as her body rose from the floor of its own accord, her back slamming against the wall and legs stretching wide. Her breath caught in her throat as her vision cleared to find that eyeless mask so close to her face that they were practically touching muzzles, the bubbly aura of those non-eyes seeming to gaze into her very soul.

Twilight cast a spell; a violet blast of energy erupted between the two of them and made the fog spread out in a wide circle.

Ne’er-Do-Well didn’t even flinch.


A blast of wind-like noise hit Twilight in the same instant that her vision became grey and colorless. She felt as if she were caught in a storm of sounds and light, and though she couldn’t move there was the disturbing sensation her face was stretching forward. Her vision locked on the yellow aura of the demon’s eyes, a rising feeling in her chest and a terror covering her mind. A sickness was overtaking her, making her stomach churn and her eyes water. It was like she was deflating, and she could feel the breath being dragged from her lungs.

She struggled to speak, to cry out, to fight back. Nothing worked; her legs were as stiff as tree trunks, she couldn’t suck in the air she needed to voice anything, her horn could conjure no magic. She couldn’t even close her eyes.

Was it a moment or a second? She saw everything; playing with her brother, seeing Celestia raise the sun, hatching Spike, traveling to Ponyville, meeting her friends, becoming a princess. Was this what ponies meant when they referred to life flashing before their eyes? No… this wasn’t how she was supposed to die. Not to some pony-made monster in the worst place of an Equestria that wasn’t even her own! She opened her mouth to object, but all she could manage was a feeble rasp. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she felt that unnatural stretching, like she was being pulled into that yellow smoke…

And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. A bright, opal-colored light struck Ne’er-Do-Well in the side and erupted in a massive sphere that slammed the creature against the wall. It fell to its knees in the fog, shook its head and disappeared in a flash of yellow.

Twilight promptly fell to her knees and vomited. When done she sat back and clutched her stomach, cringing at the acute pain within. It wasn’t just her stomach; she felt as if all her ribs might have been broken!

“Are you okay?” Sunset was at her side, catching Twilight before she could fall.

“No, I am n-not okay.” She meant for it to be a shout, but all Twilight could manage was a whisper. “I almost h-had my soul sucked out b-by an abomination. This is not okay!” She jerked away and threw up a second time.

Sunset hovered over her, shifting and chewing her lip. “I d-don’t think it was trying to take your soul. That wasn’t its usual spell. I don’t know what it was trying to do.”

“I d-don’t care.” Twilight spat the foul-tasting gunk in her mouth and rubbed her lips. “I j-just want to get out of h-here.” She tried to walk and nearly fell in her own mess from the pain in her stomach.

Sunset caught her in both hooves and helped her move. “Y-yeah, you’re right. Let’s go before it decides to come back.”

They took a few steps before Twilight had to stop to hack and cough for a few seconds. The act left her trembling and clutching her stomach once more. “S-sweet Celestia, I hope it d-didn’t do anything permanent…”

Sunset waited until she was ready to move again to help her along. She studied Twilight with a surprising amount of concern. “I… I don’t think it will be. Most of Ne’er-Do-Well’s victims heal up after a while. Even the dead ones. It didn’t take your soul, so…”

Twilight eyed her companion, understanding slowly dawning upon her. “You… you saved my life.”

Sunset fidgeted, her eyes darting about the fog. “It doesn’t matter if we’re friends or not; nopony deserves to be caught by that thing.”

Twilight tried to smile and instead winced at the churning in her stomach. “Th… There might be hope for you yet.”

They pressed on, the dense fog clutching at them as if desperate for attention.

Foul Steps

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter V: Foul Steps

“Thus we passed along with slow steps through the foul mixture
of the shades and of the rain, touching a little on the future life.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto VI

Ne’er-Do-Well never appeared again, and the mares were able to escape Starswirl’s domain without incident. Sunset had no explanation for why they were allowed to leave. Neither of them were about to complain; Twilight was just thrilled to be away from the ceaseless screaming and blood.

Even so, there seemed to be no escaping the effects of her close encounter. She always had this feeling that there was too much air in her lungs, and her chest was still terribly sore. A cough consistently pestered her, though it came briefly and over prolonged periods. She wondered if she hadn’t contracted some kind of sickness from Ne’er-Do-Well, but if so there wasn’t much that could be done about it. They had to keep going and Twilight wasn’t about to let a little cough get in her way.

They discovered a wide tunnel where boulders the size of carriages floated in the air. Sunset thought it would be a safe place to rest, so Twilight – worn out from the escape and possibly from her sickness – took the opportunity to sleep. It was a fretful slumber, filled with terrible dreams of blood and glowing yellow eyes. When she awoke she hardly felt rested at all… but she wasn’t going to linger.

Twilight's greatest fear at the moment was that Sunset might descend back into her melancholy, so she immediately went in search of her. The pony was standing watch close by, eyes set on the path back to Starswirl’s domain. Twilight was glad to see that Sunset’s colors had mostly returned to normal, but her perfect stillness was worrying.

“Sunset? Are you okay?”

Her guide twitched as if coming out of a trance and gave her a studious look. “Ah, you’re awake. Feeling any better?”

Twilight lowered her head with a sigh. “Not really, but I’m ready to go if you are.”

“Good, then let’s not waste anymore time.” Sunset turned and trotted off. Twilight watched her go with a hesitant frown before following.

They traveled in silence for a short while, moving beyond the floating boulders and into a system of tall caves. Sunset kept up a steady pace that felt a little hurried to Twilight… but perhaps it was just because of her weak condition. She hoped she would recover from whatever Ne’er-Do-Well did soon; she couldn’t imagine traveling through the whole of Tartarus while getting worse. Maybe she should have rested a bit longer…

Her brief coughing caught Sunset’s attention, prompting her to slow down. “So, are you still glad you decided to escape?”

Twilight glowered at her haughty manner. “I was never ‘glad’ to make the decision. It is confidence and optimism.”

Sunset observed her from the corner of her eye. “You don’t seem so optimistic, now.”

“I’d like to know how you’d feel after a close encounter with that monster.” Twilight cringed as a small jolt of pain hit her chest. “I wish I knew what it did to me.”

“I can’t imagine,” her guide admitted. “I make it a point not to associate with monsters.”

“Is that why you went to Limbo?”

“No…” Sunset drooped a little, her haughty demeanor fading swiftly. “I ended up there because I wasn’t wanted anywhere else. Kind of like how things were up top.”

Twilight studied her, suddenly feeling a touch of concern. “So what are you going to do once you get out?”

Sunset’s face grew hard. “I’m not getting out. I’ll die before I make it.”

A frustrated sound came unbidden from Twilight’s throat. She wasn’t really in the mood to hold Sunset’s hoof… but no, she wasn’t going to ignore her. The way Twilight saw it, Sunset was more in need of her help than the other way around. “You’ve got to stop being so negative. Come on, surely you have something you’d like to do once you escape.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “You mean after all that you’ve already been through, you’re still thinking there’s a chance? How did somepony as naïve as you become Celestia’s protégé?”

That bit, and Twilight had to fight to keep from snapping at her companion. Instead she took a moment to set a hoof to her chest and slowly extend it with a long, calming breath… which was punctuated by a small cough. “You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t think there was a chance. Please, just let me know what you’re planning.”

Sunset let out a huff and turned her head away. “I don’t know why you should care…” A couple of tense seconds passed, but then she heaved a long sigh. “If you must know, I… Well… I want to see Celestia.”

Twilight paused to stare at the pony, abruptly recalling Sunset’s claims towards the princess. There was no way that Celestia had thrown her in here for the reasons Sunset claimed… but after being down here so long, was it possible Sunset believed it?

“You’re not out for revenge, are you?”

Her companion shot her a glower. “If I was going to take revenge against anypony, it would be you for usurping my place. No, I just want Celestia to see me, to accept me…” She came to a slow stop, head lowering and ears laying back. “She threw me away. I… I was her protégé. She was so important to me, and now what am I?”

So that was it. Twilight was stunned; could it be that Sunset viewed Celestia in the same way that she did? That wasn’t like the Sunset she knew. It made her feel a curious sense of familiarity.

It also left her with a peculiar, distressing thought: if this timeline’s Sunset was like her, did that mean this timeline’s Twilight was like the Sunset she knew?

But that was a topic to address when – and if – it became pertinent. Right now Sunset’s sadness was far more important, so Twilight took a step closer and reached a hoof for the pony’s shoulder…

Sunset sidestepped out of reach, head held high and expression proud. Twilight paused, hoof still raised, and waited… but Sunset only resumed walking. The alicorn sighed and followed with a small cough.

They moved on, passing through more strange places. By this time Twilight hardly reacted to the chaotic nature of Tartarus and took much of these things in stride. She imagined that such a developing adaptation would make it easier to tolerate Discord once she got home. The only region that threw her off was a section that looked like the interior of a medieval castle… except it was covered in stairs that climbed walls, moved over ceilings and sometimes randomly took on an entirely new angle. The first time she saw Sunset casually start walking up a wall and on the ceiling was an eye opener, but not as much as trying it herself.

Once past that they reached a new place that had sandwiches, cakes, and cookies lining the walls and ceilings and floor. Twilight was at first just relieved that she was walking on normal ground again… but then something dawned on her.

“When was the last time I ate?” She felt at her stomach, wondering at how she didn’t feel the least bit hungry.

Sunset hardly noticed, walking along a breadcrumb road. “Another trick of Tartarus. I haven’t had a bite to eat since I got here.”

“Huh…” Twilight was tempted to eat one of the goodies lining the walls – just for the sake of experimentation – but ultimately decided against it. After all, this was Tartarus; for all she knew the food was poisonous. “If this place weren’t so… well, Tartarus, it would make a fascinating study. No need for food, never dying, never aging? I can’t believe nopony’s tried to mine its secrets.”

Sunset waited at the exit until Twilight caught up, her face dour. “Oh, they tried.”

Twilight shot her a curious look. “What do you mean?”

“There’s a reason there are so many ponies and other creatures in Tartarus,” Sunset explained as they left the food-covered tunnels behind. “Creatures came from all over the world when it was first discovered. It was a regular gold rush.”

The path began to descend in a gradual but clear slope as Twilight asked, “So what changed?”

“The draconeqii found out.” Sunset peered ahead. “Turns out they didn’t like mere mortals trampling around their cemetery. The Gates were created as part of a deal to keep out potential interlopers.

“But now the draconeqii are gone, for whatever reason.” She paused as the slope leveled out, raising a hoof to block Twilight’s path. “Ponies tried to go in once it was clear the draconeqii weren’t going to interfere, but then they saw what was happening to those who never got out.”

Twilight nodded her understanding. “So they decided it was too dangerous and made it into a prison instead. Why are we stopping?”

Sunset gestured up ahead, where Twilight could see that the tunnel abruptly opened up. “There’s a cavern up ahead. It’s the territory of the next Lord.”

“Oh…” Twilight wilted. “I hope this one’s not as bad as the last one.”

Sunset shot her a glare that made Twilight wince before moving on, shaking her head with a disgusted sneer. “How did I ever lose to a wimp like you?”

Twilight glowered at her back, coughed and followed. “First of all, you didn’t lose to me. Second, you’ll excuse me for being a little hopeful considering I haven’t spent a few years down here.”

“Third,” Sunset snapped, “the closer to the Gates we get, the worse things will be. So stop whining.”

“I’m not whining!” Twilight moved ahead with head held high. “Maybe I don’t know what’s ahead, but that hasn’t stopped me! What’s more intimidating, knowing or not?”

“You’ll be rethinking that before the end.”

Twilight sneered. “So why don’t you tell me—” She paused, her hoof landing on something… squishy. She looked to find herself at the cavern entrance, standing atop some sort of soft brown… she didn’t know what. The word ‘gunk’ came to mind. It carpeted the cave floor, its consistency like baking dough.

“What in the wide world of Equestria?”

“Oh, Goddess…” Sunset paused beside her, a shiver running down the pony’s body as she gazed over the scenery. “I really didn’t like this one.”

Twilight couldn’t blame her. She shook her hoof, the nauseating material flying off in small pieces. She didn’t know why, but it left her with a disgusted feeling… “I guess there’s no way around?”

“If only we were so lucky.” Sunset hesitated, one hoof hovering over the gunk and a revolted frown on her lips. It took her several seconds to take that first step, and when she did Twilight thought the pony would vomit. But Sunset held it in and, heaving a shuddering breath, walked into the cavern. “The sooner we move, the sooner we can get out of here.”

Twilight wasn’t about to disagree, hurrying to keep up and cringing at the soft, mud-like feeling beneath her hooves. “What is this stuff?”

Sunset licked her lips and swallowed, closing her eyes for a moment. “You don’t wanna know.”

Twilight glanced about the cavern; if she weren’t so disturbed by whatever she was walking on, she might have been more amazed at its size. She couldn’t even see the ceiling, the walls looming in the distance like the cliffs of mountains. She wondered at the scale of it… and how it managed to be structurally sound. Perhaps it had to do with the draconequus magic that saturated the place?

Sunset’s eyes darted about the area, her lips pursed as she adamantly refused to look down. “Keep an eye open for shelter.”

“Shelter?” Twilight observed the rock formations and stalagmites that stretched all around them. “You mean like something to hide under? Why?”

Sunset pointed a hoof straight up. “Sometimes it rains.”

Twilight paused to gaze straight up, half expecting to see clouds. “Another Tartarus thing, I expect?”

“Something like that.” Their uneven path was blocked by a large rock formation, which Sunset began to climb. “The river Phlegethon is above us. Every now and then it seeps through the cavern ceiling.”

Twilight started up the rocks, her nose wrinkling as her head was forced close to some of the gunk that covered it. There had been no observable scent earlier, but up close it reeked like a corpse. She sucked in a deep breath to spare her nostrils and continued after Sunset.

They reached the top together, taking a moment to catch their breaths free of the rancor. Twilight resisted the urge to rub her muzzle. “By Celestia’s multi-hued mane, I hope the stench doesn’t stay on my fur.”

Her eyes caught something on the other side… and it filled her with revulsion; a thick mound of the gunk that was falling over the side of a short cliff. It hit the floor with an audible splat

...then started to move. The sight made her stomach churn. “Oh my goodness… is that thing alive?”

Sunset turned away from it, lips pulled back in a sneer. “A wretched creature… I hope the rain takes it soon.”

Twilight tilted forward, peering as the entity slogged off between some boulders. “What is it?”

“A homunculus,” her guide replied, not daring to look. “A disgusting thing created from the material we are standing on… and sometimes from a fresh victim.”

Twilight felt a distinct dread as the thing shuffled out of sight. She raised a hoof to stare at the slop that clung to it. “Fresh victims? Sunset… who rules this place?”

Sunset was already making her way down the rocks, and Twilight hurried to catch up. She landed just behind her companion, cringing at the squishy sounds her hooves made. “Sunset?”

Sunset sucked in a calming breath.


“The Changeling Queen?” Sunset nodded and pressed on. Twilight followed, eyes going to the rocks where the creature had hidden. “So even the changelings were defeated.”

“Not just defeated,” Sunset pointed out, “exterminated. The changelings are extinct.”

Twilight came to an abrupt stop, gaping at her guide. “Extinct? An entire race? That’s… Well, I had about as much love for the changelings as the next pony, but extinct?”

Sunset cast a glance at her that was probably meant to be lecturing, but she was so visibly disturbed by their surroundings that the effect was lost. “I might have to start questioning if you really are Twilight. This is common knowledge: Celestia led a war of attrition against the changelings that lasted three hundred years!”

Twilight considered this, mind going back to what she knew of Equestrian history. “That seems to coincide with the wars that took place in my own world. What does it have to do with their extinction?”

Sunset paused to stare at her as if she were daft. “What do you mean, ‘what does it have to do with their extinction?’ Celestia exterminated them!”

Twilight rolled her eyes and coughed. “Oh, please. Celestia, lover of life and harmony? You really expect me to think she did that?”

Sunset’s jaw dropped. “What is the matter with you? We’re talking about Celestia! Yes, she personally saw to it that every changeling was hunted down and slaughtered, to a foal. Their extermination was the whole point of the war.”

Twilight pursed her lips, anger swelling in her mind. To accuse Celestia, Princess of Light and the keeper of all that was good, of committing such an atrocity was almost more than she was willing to tolerate. She could see that Sunset believed every word, though… and that kept her temper in check.

Sunset had been trapped down here for years. Even without draconequus magic addling her brain, that had to have an impact on her sense of reality. So Twilight held her tongue; she had no intention of arguing with a pony who wasn’t all there. She just hoped there weren’t any more absurd accusations lingering in Sunset’s mind, because Twilight didn’t know if she could put up with it.

Information. She should use this opportunity to get information. “Okay… So if the changelings are extinct, how can Chrysalis be here? She is a changeling, isn’t she?”

Sunset sighed and turned away, shaking her head. “The last. She’s perhaps the most pathetic of all the Lords.”


“Pathetic.” Sunset lead her through a maze of mountainous rock formations and towering stalagmites, expression grim. “Can you imagine losing everything you’ve ever fought for? Every friend, every loyal follower? And then, rather than giving you the dignity of death, the one responsible throws you in here, where you never age and never die? Chrysalis wallows in the guilt of her failure to protect her race.”

Twilight had to admit, that was pretty harsh. “It sounds like she’s more deserving of pity than fear.”

Sunset’s already grim expression only grew more firm. “No, Twilight. Fear is very appropriate.” Their ears perked in unison as a new sound touched their ears; a soft pattering noise. “Crap, rain. We need to find shelter.”

Twilight looked at the blackness overhead, still feeling like there should be clouds. “It’s just rain.”

“This is Tartarus,” Sunset reminded her, bounding ahead. “We do not want to be caught in the rain!”

The urgency in her voice told Twilight it was better not to argue. They galloped along the winding path until they came upon a slab-like boulder the size of a house, taking cover beneath its elongated form. A few seconds later something did indeed fall from the sky, but it wasn’t rain.

It was hail.

Twilight gazed in mild surprise as the red ice pierced the fleshy floor. “I wasn’t expecting this. Is the… what did you call that river?”

Sunset glowered at the hail as if it were capable of understanding her frustration. “Phlegethon.”

“Is the Phlegethon really cold?”

“No.” Sunset frowned at her. “Why must you always seek a logical explanation? Just put everything down to this being Tartarus. Seriously, do I have to explain everything?”

Twilight was about to retort, but her words failed her as she noticed the movement. There was something against the wall of the stone, something alive. She peered and moved a little closer… only to jump back with a shout as a long, thin arm reached for her.

She stared in blind awe at the thing. Was it a pony? A minotaur? A melding of both? It seemed to be sealed with the gunk on the wall, its body half-merged with the stuff almost as if it had melted. A lone, glassy eye from a half-present face gazed at her, a lipless mouth with only a few small teeth gaped. It emitted a long, low moan and continued to reach for her, three pudgy fingers grasping.

It had to be the most hideous creature Twilight had ever seen, her revulsion leading her to turn from it with a shudder.

“Another homunculus.” Sunset took a step closer to the pathetic creature, watching with a grim frown as its feeble arm waved in her direction. “They are as pathetic as the creature that made them.”

Twilight turned to her. “Made them?” She took a closer look at the thing on the wall, ignoring the sick feeling it left in her stomach. “Y-you mean Chrysalis created this wretched thing?”

Sunset closed her eyes and remained calm and quiet, listening as the thing’s sad moans filled the air. “It wants to die. They all want to die. And they will, in time… only for her to try again.”

Twilight turned away once more, not wanting to look at the monster. “I don’t understand. Why would Chrysalis do such a thing? Doesn’t she know the torment she’s causing them?”

“Chrysalis only knows two things,” her companion whispered. “Her race is dead… and she’s starving.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Starving? But I thought there was no need for food down here.”

“For physical food. Changelings survive by feeding on the love of others… but there is no such thing as love down here. She cannot die, but she always hungers.”

Twilight felt at her stomach, imagining what it might be like to never be able to eat again. Sweet Celestia, that sounded horrible… “But it doesn’t explain the creatures.”

Sunset’s words came slowly. Was there pity in her voice? “She’s alone. She longs for something to give her the love she hungers for, but whenever somepony comes along her hunger is so fierce she drains them within a matter of seconds. She dreams of bringing her race back, of saving them, but they are all dead. So she creates new creatures in the desperate hope that they might resemble her beloved followers… or at least give her a smidgen of sustenance.”

There was a loud snap, and the moaning abruptly stopped.

Twilight jerked about, gasping at the sight of the thing’s head twisted about in Sunset’s hooves. “W-what did you do?!”

“I can’t stand to listen…” Sunset sat back with her head bowed, body shaking. “I hate it. I hate it so much…”

“You killed it!” Twilight moved closer, staring at the creature’s blank, lost expression with a growing sense of horror. “H-how could you? Even if it’s a monst—”

“Every living second is agony for them.” Sunset turned away from it and heaved a long, shuddering breath. “A being slapped together from the spoiled flesh of past victims, with a soul taken from one already tortured from centuries of reanimation? Body rotting and falling apart with every passing second in a slow, hideous decay that begins from the instant you first draw breath? What do you think that’s like, Twilight? I don’t know… but I wouldn’t wish it on a single living soul.”

Twilight took a few steps back from the creature, her mind trying to make sense of this fresh horror. If that was what life was like for these abominations... even Celestia wouldn’t object to putting them out of their misery. How could Chrysalis make such creatures?

She bowed her head… and saw the gunk she was standing on. She observed that strange brown color in it and looked up to realize that the creature matched it in every way. Was it created from this… stuff?

Her stomach churned and she had to fight to keep from vomiting. “S-Sunset… tell me we’re not… this stuff…”

She turned to her guide, and when Sunset nodded she began to feel light. No, she was not going to faint! That would mean falling on… on…

Sunset was taking slow, deep breaths, as if she too were trying to control herself. “When somepony ‘normal’ passes through, if they encounter Chrysalis, she sucks them dry of all love they might have left, too starved to stop herself before she reduces them to a mere husk devoid of emotion. In her dementia she uses their still-living flesh in a desperate attempt to create a changeling, but the results are always… gruesome.”

Twilight set a leg over her face, wobbling a little at the image. “Oh p-please… don’t tell me…”

“The flesh is fused in an incompatible mess that ultimately breaks down.” Sunset pawed at the muck with a disgusted grimace. “They literally melt… into this.”

Twilight’s knees grew weak. She sagged low, breathing deep in an attempt to maintain her senses. But that brought her muzzle close to the ground… and the rancid slop assaulted her nostrils.

It was more than she could take; she turned away and vomited. She stepped back, coughing and rubbing her face clean. “I… I can’t stay here. I have to get out of here!”

She turned, ready to flee even with that crimson hail, but barely got two steps before jerking to a stop; there were more of the creatures out there. Her heart hit her throat as they approached, moaning and clawing as the ice dove into their frail hides. She could see the different parts that made them: long, twisted griffon claws, eyes where the ears should be, twisted muzzles and short, mismatched legs. Some walked, some crawled, some merely dragged themselves over the muck. Twilight backed away from the sight, unable to think for her terror.

“Though they long for death, the creatures flee pain; they come to escape the hail.” Sunset stood and faced them, her horn shining brightly. “I’ll end their suffering, too.”

Twilight could only stand there, mind numb as she watched Sunset’s thin beam spread out in an arc and cut two of the creatures. One of them literally was sliced in two, flesh sloughing off where the laser cut… but still it clawed on. Their terrible, pleading moans filled Twilight’s ears and enhanced her disgust and dread.

Within seconds they were finished, a dozen half-complete and mucky forms slowly flattening like mounds of mud in the rain.

Twilight started to sit, but the feeling of gooey flesh on her rump made her immediately jump back to her hooves. “P-please, let’s just go…”

But Sunset stood in her way. She kept her eyes downcast as she spoke. “No, we must wait. The hail can be lethal. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it will go right through you. Remember, this is Tartarus. Nothing is as it seems.”

Twilight shivered as she gazed over her companion at the falling ice, watching as it pierced deep into the mounds. She shifted from hoof to hoof, whimpering at the grotesque squishing noises her movement made. She would have done anything to get off that horrible stuff and back on solid rock... but she knew better than to argue with Sunset on this matter, so she waited.

There was no way to be sure how long the hail lasted. It might have been hours, it might have been a few minutes. Regardless, it felt like an eternity. When at last it was finished they immediately embarked on the next leg of their journey, neither of them eager to stay in this place longer than they had to. They crossed great rocky hills, delved into canyon-like crevices, passed along a smooth plain of brown flesh. Every step was a horrible reminder of just what it was Twilight was walking on, and it was a continuous struggle to keep the nausea from overcoming her.

Occasionally they saw some of those creatures roaming about. No two ever looked the same, and not a single one came even close to resembling a changeling. Most shied away, as if terrified of the two intruders. A rare few approached, and Sunset dispatched them with swift and cool lethality. Despite Twilight’s lofty ideals about killing, she could not bring herself to object.

But the most disturbing ones, the creatures that finally managed to upend her stomach, were the ones that ate. There was a surprisingly large number of them, constantly devouring the very gunk they walked on and were made of. They seemed almost ravenous, and Twilight prayed she would forget them quickly.

Why did they eat the flesh?

Sunset had the horrible answer: “Because their bodies are falling apart. They hope to replace that which they lost. These are the ones whose instinct to survive have not yet faded, who strive to keep living even though every moment and motion is utter torture.” She was sure to destroy them too, which only disturbed Twilight even more as those not yet killed proceeded to devour the sloppy remains of those that had fallen.

They journeyed on, ever anxious of their revolting surroundings.

Twilight needed to talk. Anything to distract her from the muck on her hooves and the churning in her belly. “So… h-how far is it to Chrysalis’ lair?”

Sunset, walking a few feet away, shook her head. “Chrysalis has no lair. Her mind is too fragmented for her to really understand the concept.”

That gave Twilight pause. She scanned their surroundings with a sinking feeling in her gut… or maybe that was the constant distaste she had for this place. “You m-mean she could be anywhere?”

Sunset cast a concerned frown Twilight’s way. “Behind us, in front of us. She might not even be near the path. If we’re lucky, we’ll pass by without encountering her at all.”

Twilight tried to take that optimistically; luck seemed to be on their side so far. They’d escaped Sombra with little more than a broken wing, and Starswirl with only a shattered illusion and a small cough. This place was rancid and nauseating, but if that was the worst of it…

The pattering sounds reached their ears and they sought out shelter immediately. They spotted a large, craggy hill in the distance and made for it, hoping that the thin grey stones that jutted from it might provide some cover. They had to circle the thing, and the hail came before they found a suitable hiding spot, so Twilight used her magic to form a protective shield around them.

The ice shattered upon striking the barrier. The sight helped Twilight realize that Sunset wasn’t lying; those red shards would most certainly pierce their tender hides.

They found a crack in the jagged rocks and managed to squeeze inside. Sunset stood guard at the entrance, as a precaution in case any of the homunculi appeared seeking shelter. Twilight took the opportunity to rest… but it was by no means a comfortable wait. The lack of light left her with only touch and sound to focus on. The sound was of the pattering of hail, which wasn’t so bad.

But the smell was the reek of the flesh blanket beneath her hooves.

Twilight tried to focus on the sound over the smell. It was a difficult thing, for the rancid scents threatened to overwhelm her already churning stomach, but she closed her eyes and perked her ears. She focused, she relaxed. The pounding noise was like rain, and if she fought hard enough then she could just see herself sitting at her bedroom window, listening to a passing storm.

Home. Just the thought of being back was soothing. She needed to think on gentle things, on patient things, on the soft and relaxing. Her favorite tea, Spike snuggled up in his bed. She breathed a small sigh… and inhaled something disgusting. Her entire body shivered at the invasion of her little fantasy.

Not enough. She needed something better, something that could soothe and calm better than anything. She needed…


What could possibly be more relaxing than her? Just the thought of her calm, tender manner eased Twilight’s tension. That compassionate smile, the gentle voice, her eternal caring. Twilight could just see Fluttershy caring for her animal friends, or cheering the sick with her kind ways. A deep longing filled Twilight, a supreme desire to just sit with her friend and bask in her soothing presence.

A long, deep sigh passed through Twilight’s lungs, a small smile coming to her lips. The anxiety she’d been feeling was fading, her roiling stomach calmed. The pattering of rain filled her ears as she focused on the sweet image of a pony whose kindness was humbling in its totality.

Her optimism and hopes had been hanging by a thread, but now she felt that thread strengthened by the magic of their friendship. She reminded herself with renewed confidence: she would escape Tartarus, and when she saw Fluttershy again she would let her know just how important their kinship was.

Twilight sucked in a long, deep breath and blew out, her body relaxed and calm. Her ears twitched; Sunset was close by and doing the same thing. She smiled, relieved that her companion was finally unwinding a touch. She opened her eyes and looked to her side, opening her mouth to speak–

–and found herself staring into green eyes.

Twilight gasped and tried to back away, but the crevice was too small and there was no room to move. Her eyes were locked with those of Chrysalis, their muzzles practically touching as the former queen gazed with famished eyes and long, slow breaths.


Chrysalis blinked. “This one’s… alive?”

“Whoa!” Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw Sunset turn to them and drop to an aggressive stance. “Where the buck did you come from?”

“A live one…” Chrysalis leaned forward in a slow motion, her head hovering just over Twilight’s shoulder as she sniffed. “Ooooh… there is love in you.”

Horror and alarm made Twilight jump sideways and away. She immediately cursed herself for doing it; now Chrysalis was between her and Sunset! And the exit, too… “I d-don’t have anything you want.”

Now that she was away and her eyes had adjusted to the gloom, she had a good view of the changeling queen. Chrysalis was horribly thin, her hole-y legs looking like little more than broomsticks and her waist so small it was disturbing. The queen’s face was gaunt, her cheeks sunken and a deep weariness in her eyes. Her long green mane hung from her head in tangles, swaying like the leaves of a willow tree as her head slowly turned to follow Twilight’s movement.

For all her fear, the dilapidated appearance of the former queen left Twilight feeling sympathy for the wretched creature.

Chrysalis turned to her, her jaw falling limp and her tongue lolling out like that of a hungry dog. She spoke in a breathless whisper, “Love… give me your love. I’m so hungry… P-please, just a taste…”

She moved closer.

Twilight retreated. She caught sight of Sunset, who was frantically shaking her head, and quickly turned her attention back to Chrysalis. “I c-can’t give you what y-you want. L-leave me alone!”

The queen only moved closer, and Twilight soon found herself pressed against the back of the crevice.

“You have so much… I’ve not seen so much love in one place in so long. F-feed me. You can spare just a little…”

Chrysalis paused, her tongue slowly moving about her lips. Her eyes locked onto Twilight’s chest, at first wide… then slowly changing to a peering, ravenous gaze. Her lips turned up in a fanged grin, her breath was coming faster… “Feed me. Feed me.”

Those eyes seemed to clutch at Twilight’s heart. “K-keep away…”

Feed me!”

Chrysalis lunged and Twilight started to form a shield about herself. The queen didn’t reach it; she was suddenly pulled backwards as two thin, glowing opal chains wrapped about her shoulders. Sunset was just behind her, reared on her hind legs and fighting to hold the ends of the chains in her forehooves.

Chrysalis struggled against the bonds, hissing and snarling like a wild animal. Her demented eyes were locked on Twilight’s chest, pupils shrunk to pinpoints as ferocious sounds erupted from her thin throat. Twilight was mesmerized by the sight, unable to think of anything except how terrifying those eyes were.

“Twilight!” Sunset slipped forward a little at a jerk from Chrysalis. “For buck’s sake, do something!”

Twilight’s mind snapped into place just as she felt the tugging on her body. Chrysalis’ jagged horn was glowing and Twilight could feel her hooves being dragged forward over the muck. Knowing she had only seconds, Twilight though fast.

“Sunset, let go when I say!”

What? You can't be serious!”

“Just do it!” Twilight bowed her head and focused on the two spells. “Now!”

Her world went violet. An instant later she’d teleported to the other side of Chrysalis. The chains faded and Chrysalis lunged, smacking face-first against the back of the cave. She spun about, green blood dripping from her forehead, and charged Twilight with a sinister hiss—

—and bashed her face against a solid shield.

Chrysalis fell on her side, but an instant later she was back up and clawing at the barrier, eyes livid as she snarled at her target. Twilight, her horn glowing in the darkness, heaved a relieved sigh. “That should hold her, provided she doesn’t have any special tricks.”

Sunset stepped up beside her, watching with a grim frown as the changeling queen brutally assaulted the shield. “She doesn’t have the mental capacity for that kind of magic anymore. As I said, the most pathetic of the Lords.”

She really was pathetic, wasn’t she? Twilight gazed at Chrysalis, observing as she mindlessly struggled to break through the barrier. Twilight had only met the queen once, but what she’d seen had suggested a proud, capable and dominating personality. To know that such a pony could be reduced to this… She was an enemy, but that didn’t make the scene any less disturbing.

She began sliding across the floor again, noticing that Chrysalis’ horn was glowing once more. She resisted the pull by shoving the shield forward, effectively bashing Chrysalis over the head with it; the queen fell back with a snarl, the green glow of her horn fading like smoke.

Freed, Twilight took a few cautious steps back. “I can’t hold her forever. We need to get out of here.”

Sunset glanced back over her shoulder. “The hail hasn’t stopped. Maybe that’s a good thing; I can make a second shield to protect the two of us while we depart. She can’t follow in that, she’ll get killed by the ice.”

Twilight watched as Chrysalis lunged at the barrier once more, and again, and again. The changeling queen’s shoulder was bleeding from the impacts. “I don’t think that would stop her.”

Sunset’s eyes were as hard as rocks. “Then she’ll die. Good riddance.”

Twilight eyed her, then turned her attention back to Chrysalis. The poor queen seemed relentless in her pursuit. Did she even qualify as a pony anymore? Or a changeling? Was there anything left in that mind other than hunger? And what was her hunger but a desperate need for love? Twilight stared into those starving eyes and couldn’t feel hatred or anger, only pity.

“We can’t let her die.”

Sunset’s face jerked to Twilight, her eyes piercing. “Are you kidding? Look at her, she’s a monster! Letting her die in the hail would be a mercy, just like those wretched creatures she’s been making out of ponies both dead and living. Let’s end her misery, Twilight.”

“No.” Twilight turned away from Chrysalis, her head held high. “I am the Princess of Friendship and I will not see her killed! I would see her reformed, instead.”

“Ref—” Sunset’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious. How in the name of all things holy do you expect to reform her?”

“Not me,” Twilight corrected with confidence, “Celestia. Once we’re out of here I’ll talk to her. Using Tartarus as a prison is a horrible punishment. I understand now that nopony deserves such a terrible fate. I will convince Celestia to begin freeing the creatures here, a few at a time, and begin rehabilitating those who can be.”

“You. Are. Crazy.” Sunset threw her hooves high with a shout. “You’re talking about Celestia! She loves throwing ponies in here! She’ll never close Tartarus under any circumstances.”

But Twilight had made up her mind and she wasn’t going to let Sunset’s delusions change it. “We’re going. But first, I’ll leave a little something to keep her here.”

Sunset lowered her head with a scowl, her body shaking with visible anger. After a time she jerked about with a snarl and sat before the cavern entrance. “Fine, do what you like! It makes no difference to me. I’ll either get out or I’ll die, so either way it isn’t going to be my problem anymore.”

Twilight shot her companion a sinister glare but decided there was no point in debating with her. Instead she turned back to Chrysalis, who was now pacing the barrier with head low and eyes peering, her lips pulled back in a perpetual sneer as she muttered. Twilight stepped a little closer and found she could make out some words…

“Miserable foals… starving… love me… feed me… love me… yes… taste it… just taste it…”

Desperation disguised as hatred. Twilight’s heart bled for the poor monster, for that was all Chrysalis really was now. She wished she could help, but for the time being all she could do was provide a little comfort. She thought back on everything she’d seen and began to concentrate. She’d never tried this spell before, but she’d seen it performed so many times…

Her horn began to spark, smoke rising from the tip of it as she struggled. Her legs locked and a sharp pain struck from her broken bone as her wings tensed from the effort.

Love… That was all she needed, just a little spark of love…

There was a faint popping sound as a small, pink, heart-shaped bubble appeared over her horn. She took a deep breath and relaxed, wiping the sweat from her forehead as she admired her work. The heart pulsed with a soft glow and floated forward to hover just at the edge of the shield. Chrysalis’ eyes locked onto it with a greedy glow, her tongue lolling out. She pressed against the barrier and gazed at the magical construct, sucking in rapid breaths in her excitement. “G-give it to me. Love… so much love! Give it to me, feed me…”

Twilight obliged, lowering the shield and setting the heart on the ground. Chrysalis pounced… but instead of attacking the thing she only grabbed it up and held it close to her chest. She fell to her haunches and rocked back and forth, head low as she whispered indecipherably. Her horn shimmered pink like the heart and a delighted smile formed on her lips.

It was almost as sad a sight as watching her claw at the barrier moments before.

“That should keep her occupied for a bit.” Twilight turned and made her way to the entrance, where the hail continued to rain down. “Let’s make some distance between her and us while we still have the opportunity.”

Sunset gaped at Chrysalis, then at Twilight. “Where did you learn to do that?”

A small smile came to Twilight’s lips. “From watching an old friend. Are you gonna make a shield, or will I have to?”

Sunset blinked at her with a blank expression for several seconds before abruptly turning to the exit. “Oh, uh, right.” They left the changeling queen to her emotional meal, the crimson hail cracking against the opal shield Sunset formed. “I’ve never seen somepony just… create love like that. I didn’t think it was possible.”

“It’s not so much ‘creating’ love,” Twilight corrected with a small frown. “It’s not an easy spell… but if one has love in her heart, it’s certainly possible.”

Sunset’s face scrunched up as she stuck out her tongue. “‘Love in her heart?’ How cheesy.”

Twilight cast a grim frown her way. “It worked, didn’t it? But I shouldn’t be surprised; sometimes you seem so devoid of even the basic equine decency. Why would I ever expect you to appreciate such an important emotion?”

Twilight barely stopped in time to keep from leaving the shield’s protection. She turned with a glower… that faded as she caught her companion’s expression. Lost eyes gazed into hers, Sunset’s face slack and her lips slightly parted. After a couple seconds she bowed her head, her eyes shifting as if she were lost in intense thought.

Twilight watched her partner think for a few seconds, wondering what was going through her mind. A touch of guilt hit her as she considered what she’d just said, so she moved a bit closer and nudged her. “I’m sorry, that was cold…”

Sunset nodded, but it was such a slight motion Twilight barely caught it. They began to walk again, Sunset’s face still lost in troubled thought. She cast a hesitant glance Twilight’s way. “You… you said you were the Princess of Friendship. Was that true?”

“Mm-hmm.” Twilight offered a comforting smile. “My journey to becoming an alicorn revolved around my studying and mastering the power of friendship.”

Sunset gazed at the soft floor with wide, disbelieving eyes. “B-but how is that possible? Has Equestria changed so much since I was imprisoned? Friendship… it’s not a valued commodity.”

That made Twilight cringe; what kind of place was Equestria in this timeline? “Where I come from, Equestria is a land of sunshine and harmony. There’s so much love that Chrysalis would never go hungry on her own. It’s a shame she’s so evil; changelings and ponies might have lived harmoniously if her followers weren’t devoted to conquest.”

Sunset eyed her, but for once there was nothing critical about her frown. “You speak as if they’re still around.”

“In my world, they are.” Twilight looked back to the crevasse just as it disappeared from view amongst the tall rocks. “Seeing what I’ve just seen… I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t try to heal the divide between our races. The changelings of my world must be starving, too…”

“You would help them?” Sunset’s jaw dropped just a fraction. “But… you said they were your enemies.”

“Friendship requires effort,” Twilight explained. “We will never become allies if nopony decides to take that first step. When I get home, I think I’ll push for just such a step. Equestria – my Equestria – cannot be the bastion of harmony it is reputed to be if it cannot make peace with its enemies and start down the road of friendship.” She leaned over to give Sunset a meaningful smile. “It’s no different from you and me struggling to work together.”

Sunset turned her face away, but there was no hiding the pink in her cheeks. “Y-you’re still on that?”

But Twilight caught her hesitation and felt quite pleased with herself. “Something tells me you don’t find it so far-fetched anymore.”

Sunset’s blush deepened. “D-don’t get your hopes up…”

Just then the hail ceased. They looked up in unison, but the world above was as dark and impenetrable as ever. Twilight felt that familiar itch in her throat and began to cough as the shield faded. This one was a bit stronger than the ones before, and Sunset gave her a worried look. “Are you gonna be okay?”

The coughing ceased and Twilight took a moment to clear her throat. “I’m fine for now. I just hope it doesn’t get any worse.” She took a step forward and offered a confident smile. “Come on, let’s get out of this nasty place before Chrysalis finishes her snack.”

Sunset eyed her with an anxious frown before moving on ahead. Twilight watched her pass with a beaming smile; she was getting through.

She just knew it.

A Future Closed

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter VI: A Future Closed

“We see the things that distant are from us; so much still
shines on us the Sovereign Ruler. When they are near our intellect
is wholly vain, not anything know we of your human state. Hence
thou canst understand that wholly dead will be our knowledge from
the moment when the portal of the future shall be closed.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto X

Escaping that cavern with its foul, fleshy coating was a welcome moment for both the mares. They passed through a brief series of winding tunnels that proved a challenge to navigate due to radically changing slopes and cliffs. Even so, Twilight found her spirits rising, for she and Sunset cooperated to get past the obstacles. Sunset was willingly working with Twilight in a team effort, and the Princess of Friendship found this very encouraging.

To Twilight, it was the first legitimate sign that her companion was finally starting to have hope. Though Sunset was still a little snippy, as far as Twilight was concerned her guide’s newfound eagerness could only speak of good things to come. In the dim glow of her horn Twilight was beginning to think that Sunset’s colors might finally be back to their full brightness. It was an incredibly welcome sight.

Their journey was cut short with surprising swiftness, however, when they came upon a dead end. The tunnel along which they were traveling stopped at the edge of a fast-flowing river that seemed to cut right into the rock; there was no opposite shore, and the tunnel’s abrupt stop made it impossible to walk along the water’s edge. Swimming was clearly out of the question; the current looked as though it would carry them away in an instant.

Twilight leaned out to gaze upstream and was disappointed to see a series of short but dangerous-looking waterfalls. “I guess we made a wrong turn somewhere…”

But Sunset stood tall as she gazed into the waters. “No, this is the right way. We need to travel upstream.”

“But how are we supposed to–” Twilight blinked as something flashed past in the river. “What was that? Whoa!” Another thing drifted by, a nilgiri that squirmed against the rapid currents.

“This is the river Acheron,” Sunset explained, raising a leg to keep Twilight from going after the river’s victim. “The River of Woe, which flows in a wide circle all around Tartarus, beginning and ending with Lake Cocytus. Being trapped in the river is one of the punishments of Tartarus.”

“Oh…” Twilight’s ears tucked as she watched a griffon float past, its wings beating desperately against the roiling waters. “I guess Tartarus keeps them from drowning. At least they aren’t stuck with Chrysalis or Ne’er Do Well.”

“I dunno,” Sunset muttered, her head turning to follow a passing pony. “Can you imagine drowning all the time? But yeah, it does seem like a 'lesser' punishment.”

“So how are we supposed to move on?” Twilight gestured to the waters uncertainly. “If we can’t get in the water, we can’t really move on.”

Sunset shot her a smirk. “Then we’ll just have to take a boat.”

“A boat?” A quick survey of their surroundings revealed no such thing. “Where are we going to get a boat?”

“Give it a few minutes.” Sunset’s smile faded and she began to shuffle her hooves. “There’s a problem, though.”

Twilight heaved a long sigh. “Isn’t there always? What is it this time, two-headed sharks?”

“If only we were so lucky,” Sunset grumbled. “The river and the lake are the territory of the next Lord: Tazel.”

The name rang through Twilight’s head, her ears perking as she thought on it. “Tazel... Wyrm? I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she Discord’s rival?”

Her companion nodded, looking genuinely impressed. “They had a 100-year ‘prank war’ to see who could rule Equestria. Discord won, obviously.”

That matched up with Twilight’s recollection. If she had her history right, that would have happened prior to her… mistake, so that part of history was the same in both worlds. “But how did she end up down here? Didn’t Discord exile her?”

“Yes, to an island in the Everfree Sea.” Sunset took a moment to think, tapping the side of her head with a long frown. “To be honest, I’m not clear on just how she got down here. She claims she was tricked into it by Princess Luna, but there’s no way to know if she’s telling the truth.”

Twilight didn’t know whether to feel relieved or skeptical. “Princess Luna? I was expecting Celestia, considering you seem to attribute everything to her in some form or another.”

“Not this time.” Sunset knelt by the water and dipped her forehooves just below the surface. “Getting rid of Tazel was a blessing to Equestria, though, so I’m sure Celestia tried to stop her. Or take the credit.”

Twilight bristled… but held her tongue. Eventually she would manage to convince Sunset that Celestia wasn’t the villain she seemed to think, but now didn’t seem like the time. So instead she mimicked her companion’s actions, letting her hooves part the current. The water splashed high against them, indicative of the river’s velocity. It was cool to the touch… which was strangely soothing.

“I hope this washes the stink off…”

Sunset stuck out her tongue and made a grossed out sound. “You and me both.”

An amused smile crossed Twilight’s face… then she started to hack. It took a couple seconds to recover, and she set a hoof to her chest as it went tight.

The brief fit left a tickle in her throat. “I don’t supposed this water’s safe to drink?” she asked, gazing longingly at her reflection in the water.

Sunset shifted and eyed the river. “I… I dunno. I wouldn’t; there’s no telling what Tartarus water might do to you.”

Twilight exhaled her disappointment. “Right…” She pressed a hoof to her throat and coughed a few times, eventually managing to get the uncomfortable tingle out of her throat. She watched a few ponies quietly pass by. “So what’s the deal with this boat?”

Ears folding back, Sunset averted her gaze. “It’s… Tazel’s. She ferries creatures along the river. We’ll have to appeal to her to let us continue on.”

“Seriously?” Twilight thought her body went a touch colder. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea at all. Besides, what does Tazel need a boat for? I thought she could fly.” She cast a forlorn look at her own wings and made the slightest attempt to spread them. A jolt of pain convinced her not to keep it up.

“There’s no way out of the river,” Sunset pointed out, gesturing to a thrashing diamond dog for emphasis. “Once you’re in, you’re stuck. This is the only way through. Tazel’s a control freak, so she controls the boat.”

Twilight winced; this sounded less and less appealing by the minute. “So… how is she supposed to know we’re waiting here?”

Sunset offered a weak smile and dipped her hooves a little deeper into the water.

There was a moment of uncomprehending silence… and then Twilight’s ears perked and she observed her own hooves dangling in the river. “That’s it?”

“That’s it!”

There was a clapping sound, and white clouds poofed into existence all around the two ponies. Twilight stood up in alarm as she lost sight of Sunset, but after about a second the clouds dissipated.

The boat was long and narrow, but appeared quite deep. It looked just big enough for about a half-dozen ponies, but at the moment it had only one occupant: a creature Twilight could only assume was Tazel Wyrm hovered just inches above the vessel.

Tazel was no draconequus, but she was still a bizarre-looking creature: a long, green, serpentine tail that curled about in the air, an orange feline head, body and arms, and a pair of leathery green wings to complete the ensemble. She had her furry arms spread wide in welcome and a toothy but playful grin.

“Greetings, little ponies! Welcome back to the river Acheron. I’m your captain for this evening, Tazel Wyrm. My friends call me Tizzy, but you’re not my friends, so call me that and I’ll rip your tongues out.”

Twilight’s eyebrows rose at this threat, spoken without even a hint of malice, and gave Sunset an anxious look.

Her companion didn’t miss a beat, breaking into a smile and standing to greet the creature. “Hello again, Tazel. Do you remember me?”

Tazel blinked, her perplexed pink eyes falling on Sunset, but then she regained that fanged grin. “Of course, you must be Sunsmear!”

“Sunset.” Not a twitch.

“Whatever.” Tazel came forward and patted Sunset on the muzzle, her long tail wrapping about the pony until only her head and shoulders were visible. “I bring so many creatures like you back and forth across this river, do you really expect me to remember every name of every pony? Your standards are ridiculous.”

The creature’s playful eyes turned to Twilight, who took an anxious step back. “And look, you brought a friend! Maybe she’d like to go for a dip?”

Twilight tensed in alarm and quickly summoned a protective shield about herself as a single arm elongated towards her, paw grasping. “N-no thanks, I’m fine being dry.”

“Oh, well, suit yourself.” Tazel shrugged and clapped her paws together, promptly disappearing in a poof of clouds. A second later she reappeared over the river and reached an arm into the roiling waters. “Just look at how much fun everypony’s having!” She pulled her arm out and was holding a sopping unicorn by the mane. “I don’t know why you’d want to miss out.”

The unicorn hung limp, her weary eyes slowly locking on Twilight’s. She opened her mouth, water pouring from her lips. “…h-help…”

Tazel dropped the unicorn with a dismissive grin, the poor pony disappearing into the water with a loud splash. “But I guess it’s your decision… for now.”

Twilight’s chest was tight with worry as she sidestepped towards Sunset and leaned in close, dropping her shield. “A-are you sure this is safe?”

A small puff of clouds appeared, and a tiny Tazel was on Sunset’s shoulder and leaning against the side of her head. “But of course my boat is safe,” she replied in a squeaky voice. “Nopony’s fallen off yet! Well, a few jumped off and I did throw some of them, but that’s not the same thing.”


Sunset offered a smile, but her shifting hooves betrayed her anxiousness. “Look, Tazel, we need to head up.”

Tiny Tazel smirked and patted Sunset on the cheek. “You’re cute.” A clap of the paws and a few clouds later, she was hovering over her boat and at full size once more. She struck a haughty pose. “Nopony goes upstairs anymore. Why should I use up my precious time and energy carting you to Cocytus?”

Sunset hesitated, ears going flat as she tried to think.

An idea hit Twilight, who set a reassuring hoof on her companions’ shoulder. She gave Sunset a small smile before stepping up to the strange creature. “Steven Magnet said we don’t belong in Limbo. We need to find our place in Tartarus.”

Tazel’s shoulders shook as she made a strange clicking sound, something like “kit-a-kit-a-kit-a-kit-a.” It took a moment for Twilight to realize the creature was laughing.

“Steven Magnet?” Tazel’s toothy grin broadened in a way that Twilight had thought only Pinkie could pull off. “That dope’s nuttier than a fruitcake! Thinking he’s Discord’s heir, what a loon. But—” she lowered down to more carefully observe Twilight, a paw smoothing out one of her whiskers, “—he does have a good eye for ponies.”

It was hard to smile in such close proximity to those fangs, but Twilight tried her best. “Y-yes, well we were hoping—”

Tazel’s eyes flared.

Sunset was there in an instant with a hoof over Twilight’s mouth. “Need! We need to go up to see if we belong with any of the Lords up there.” She patted a confused Twilight’s head with her free hoof and giggled nervously.

Tazel floated back to hover over the boat, eyes locked ominously with Twilight’s. She remained quiet for several seconds, lips pursed and claws extending and retracting over and over again from her paws. “I’m not sure if I want to let you on my boat. Maybe I should just leave you here to rot.”

“That might take a while,” Sunset pointed out.

The creature’s face contorted in a sneer. “Yes… I suppose it would.”

Twilight took the opportunity to shove the hoof from her mouth. “Perhaps that’s how it should be. Maybe we’re supposed to be stuck here with you. Yet how can we know if we don’t investigate?”

Tazel turned away, her tail coiling up beneath her and her upper body using it as a cushion. A newspaper appeared in her paws as she grumbled, “Am I supposed to care?”

Sunset took a confident step forward. “And if we belong to Reddux? He won’t be happy if he finds out you’re taking his toys.”

The newspaper crunched up as Tazel’s paws abruptly balled into fists, her back going straight. There was just a moment’s pause… then she turned to them with a big, joyful grin.

“Friends! Welcome aboard the S.S. Silma Ril. Do try to enjoy your ride, hmm?”

The mares shared a breath of relief as the boat moved close to the river’s edge. Sunset climbed in without hesitation. Twilight was a little slower to trust; she eyed the boat, then the patiently smiling Tazel. Swallowing her uncertainty, she carefully got in and settled on the flat bottom. The sight of it was disturbing; given the rapid currents, she didn’t think a flat-bottomed boat was really an appropriate vessel.

The boat began to move against the current, rocking a bit too much for comfort. Tazel hovered just ahead of them, her back turned to the boat and her scaled tail flicking back and forth over their heads like that of a playful cat’s. Twilight set a hoof to each side of the narrow boat and prayed she was wrong about it.

She leaned close to Sunset, who was facing her, and whispered, “Why d-doesn’t she just teleport us?”

“Don’t ask,” Sunset warned with a raised hoof. “She does bad things to ponies who ask. Just go with it, and it’ll all be over soon.”

Twilight glanced at the churning waters, noticing as a griffon reached up from below to just miss the boat. “Not too soon, I hope.” She looked up and saw that they were approaching one of the waterfalls. “How is she going to get us oh—”

Twilight fell backwards as the vessel’s bow abruptly rose up in the air, her head whacking the bottom. She let out a frustrated groan, her back hooves dangling over her face. When she was able to open her eyes she spotted Sunset leaning backwards and bracing herself, apparently having known the motion was coming.

A second later the bow of the boat touched the top of the waterfall, and the whole thing immediately leveled out. Twilight had been in the middle of righting herself, and the jerking shift sent her sprawling on her face beneath Sunset’s legs. She lay there for a couple seconds, letting the pain in her chin fade.

“Oops…” Sunset let go of the boat’s sides and stepped back with an apologetic look. “Sorry, forgot to warn ya.”

Twilight glared through her mane and let out a small growl before pushing herself back into a sitting position. She scowled at Tazel’s backside, just knowing that happened on purpose. “I can’t wait to get out of—”

Sunset darted forward and clamped a hoof over Twilight’s mouth once again, her alarmed eyes going to Tazel. The creature’s cat-like ears twitched, but otherwise there was no response.

Sunset's words came out as a barely audible hiss. “No hopes, no wants, no dreams, and whatever you say, no escape. Unless you want a dip in the river, don’t talk about such things near her.” The hoof was removed, Sunset sitting back across the boat and very intently not looking at Twilight.

For a few seconds Twilight could only gaze at her companion… but then her eyes went to Tazel. No hopes and dreams? That was a curious condition.

Perhaps ‘curious’ wasn’t the right word, though.

They went over three more waterfalls in silence, but as they climbed the last one Tazel abruptly spoke up. “Here we are, the Halls of Envy!” Her arms were spread wide as the boat lurched into a normal position atop the waterfall, displaying the wide tunnel they’d entered. Along the walls were great stone busts of every kind of creature; ponies, griffons, nilgiri, minotaurs, even a few races Twilight didn’t recognize.

Twilight peered at the statues that seemed to jut out of the walls. “Halls of Envy? How do you end up here?”

“Why, by being envious, of course.” Tazel floated up to a minotaur bust, gesturing to it with a proud grin. “Meet Minos, brother of Boros. He was so jealous of his brother’s strength and good looks he sealed him in a labyrinth. Too bad he tried to bed Boros’ wife immediately afterwards; she wasn’t as ‘meek and mild’ as he’d supposed.” She ran a claw along her own throat with a grin.

“And here!” Tazel floated to the other wall, this time to pat the head of an Earth pony statue. “Wow You. Awesome general, baaaaaad temper. He hated a unicorn named Rouge Song, who was not just a better general, she was better in every conceivable way! Had a sense of humor, too; after the last time she defeated him, she blew him a kiss. Pissed him off so much he burst an aorta and died right there! Why it’s almost…” A moment to brush a tear from her eyes. “…poetic.”

“Well yeah,” Twilight grumbled under her breath, “because it was put down to verse.” She had a troubling thought and wilted. “Th-these aren’t real ponies, are they?”

Sunset offered a comforting smile. “No, they’re just stone.”

“Oh, good.” Twilight heaved a relieved sigh and examined the statues a little more closely. Despite her situation, she couldn’t help smirking.

“So where’s Trixie?”

Sunset exchanged a questioning look with Tazel, who was now floating just over her shoulder. “Who?”

Her cheeks flushing, Twilight giggled and waved at them. “Never mind, I doubt you’d know of her.” But if the showmare ended up in Tartarus by some cruel twist of fate, Twilight had a feeling she knew where she’d end up.

“Well, should I ever meet this ‘Trixie’ I shall have to ask for her opinion.” Tazel rose high above the boat and spread her arms wide as she grinned at the statues. “They did take hundreds of years to sculpt, after all. Or at least, I think it's been that long.”

Twilight leaned close to Sunset once again. “Why did she even make these statues?”

“Because she likes to punish the envious,” Sunset replied as if the answer were obvious.

“That’s right.” Tazel dropped, landing with her tail coiling inside the boat and squashing the two mares against the stern. Ignoring their frustrated attempts to make room and disentangle, she pointed to the waters below. Twilight, her head hanging over the water, spotted the ponies and other creatures floating by in the depths. There was a lot more of them than she’d seen before.

“These wimpy mortals are filled with jealousy, but their acts are feeble. Murder or betrayal, something like that.” Tazel gestured to the statues with a beaming smile. “But these creatures, these Heroes of Jealousy, they knew how to hate! So I let these wimps float by and meditate on their lackluster performances, so they can always be reminded of what true envy is.

“And by the way,” she concluded with a jeer, “you two should really get a room.” She floated out of the boat, letting the two mares finally separate.

A huffing Sunset crawled away from Twilight. “By the Sun, she’s a lot heavier than she looks…”

Twilight had to agree, but was too busy going through another coughing fit to say so.

Tazel took on a posh pose.“I’m not a big girl, I’m just big boned.” She smirked and turned about. “Ah, we’re almost here. Wait 'til you see my masterpiece!”

Sunset brushed her mane back into place and leveled a heavy-lidded glare at the creature. “I’ve seen it.”

Tazel shot her a withering look.

“B-but I can’t wait to see it again!”

“Of course you can’t,” Tazel replied with a smug smile. “It’s a masterpiece.”

Suddenly Tazel winced and set a paw to the side of her head as if she’d developed a headache. “Shut up, this is my time.”

Twilight shot Sunset a raised eyebrow. “But… we haven’t said anything.”

Tazel abruptly seemed to be in her own little world. “No, I am not making one in your honor. You were never envious, why would I make a statue for you? Oooh, you used to be an empress? Whoop-de-doo, didn’t do you much good in the end. You died, remember? …no, the fact that you made me does not mean I’m obligated!”

The mares watched Tazel’s strange self-directed conversation, their heads turning in unison as the boat floated past her. After a few seconds Twilight turned to her companion. “Does she do this frequently?”

Sunset shrugged. “She did it a couple time the last time I came through here. Who knows, maybe being stuck in Tartarus for a few centuries has made her loopy.”

Tazel was beginning to fall behind, her paws animated as she appeared to be having an argument with the air. “Look, I named the boat after you, okay? Take it and stop whining!”

“She’s obviously got something wrong with her,” Twilight acknowledged. She leaned over to check the side of the boat, noting the poorly carved name on the side. “Huh… Silma Ril. Now where have I heard that name before?”

“Beats me.” Sunset turned to the mouth of the tunnel ahead of them. “We’re almost to the lake. I hope she snaps out of it before we float right past the town.”

“Town?” Twilight sat up straight and peered through the tunnel. “What town?”

“Lake Cocytus is considered Tazel’s territory,” Sunset explained. “Those creatures who live in her territory that haven’t been dunked in the river built a slum for themselves. And I do mean slum, so don’t go getting your hopes up.”

Tazel was hovering over the boat in an instant, claws out and a livid glow to her eyes. “What was that about hopes?”

“Nothing, nothing!” Sunset reared back to frantically wave her hooves. “Just telling my partner not to hope for anything about the town, that’s all.”

A low growl rose from Tazel’s throat, her upper lip pulling back in a menacing sneer.

Worry filling her, Twilight pointed to the tunnel’s exit just as they were about to pass through. “S-so, how about this masterpiece of yours?”

Tazel’s piercing gaze fell on her… but a second later the creature leaned back and whacked herself over the head. “Shut up, I am done arguing with you!”

At that moment the boat passed out of the tunnel and into a large cavern, which opened up into a lake. Twilight was too wary of Tazel to take much notice of her surroundings, but then she saw something out of the corner of her eye. When she turned her jaw practically hit the bottom of the boat.

Situated in the water at the far end of the lake and standing what had to be hundreds of feet high was a vast statue. The depicted alicorn bust gazed out over the lake with head held high, the cavern wall behind her decorated with a large moon and an explosion of dimly glittering stars.

“Is… Is that Princess Luna?”

An exhilarated gasp burst from Tazel as she rose high over the lake, her arms spread wide once more and a rapturous smile on her lips. “Behold, the holy matron of all envy! Luna, Princess of the Stars, whose jealousy knows no bounds. The moon shall always be jealous of the sun’s warmth and reputation. Hers is an envy to aspire to, for it lasts an eternity!”

Twilight pressed her jaw shut and leaned towards Sunset. “I thought it was Luna who put her here?”

“I stopped trying to make sense of this stuff a long time ago.” Sunset observed the vast statue and shrugged. “You’ve gotta admit, it’s an incredible piece of work.”

There was no room for disagreement; the musculature, the grand pose, the perfectly accurate features, every detail had clearly been painstakingly crafted. Twilight couldn’t help but wonder how Tazel got the stars in Luna’s mane to shimmer… but under the circumstances it might not be a good idea to ask.

Twilight couldn’t help asking a very different question. “So if you idolize Princess Luna, what’s your opinion of Princess Celestia?”

Tazel looked down at her with a thoughtful frown, then shrugged. “Meh, nothing special there.”

Twilight’s jaw fell again and she thought she felt a twitch in her eye. She immediately clamped her jaw shut with both hooves and fought down the urge to shout at the foul creature. There was an intense burning in her mind; it was all she could do not to fire a laser into the ignorant thing’s face! Suddenly that statue of Luna didn’t look so impressive, and if Twilight did get stuck down here she was determined to make a superior statue of the superior princess.

“Now, now. It’s just her opinion.” Sunset patted her on the shoulder with a strained attempt at a smile before adding under her breath, “Even if it’s the entirely wrong opinion…”

“Isn’t she beautiful?”

Sunset jerked about to beam at Tazel. “Oh, yes!”

Twilight forced a smile to her lips. “Th-the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Isn’t she, though?” Tazel turned back to admire the statue, at which point the mares shared a frustrated sigh.

Twilight noted what she could only guess was the town Sunset had mentioned, a small collection of lean-tos and tents. “Umm, I think we’re about to pass our stop?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, very well.” The boat began to drift towards the shore at a dismissive wave of a paw, Tazel’s eyes never leaving Luna’s stone face.

The mares watched as the shore grew steadily closer. As they did, Twilight became acutely aware of the terrible conditions of the place. Everything looked old and overused, and the feeble tents and shanties could hardly be referred to as ‘shelter.’ The place was quiet, the inhabitants covered in clothes that amounted to little more than rags and smelling about as foul as they looked. Most ignored the newcomers, though a few watched them with a dark, suspecting glint in their eyes.

Calling this place a slum would be an understatement.

Yet still Twilight was intrigued, her eyes studying the sight with intense focus. “Where did they get the materials to make any of their stuff?”

“Tazel gave it to them,” Sunset replied. “She can make some things out of thin air. How do you think she made the boat?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at her companion before turning to back to the lake. Tazel was right where they’d left her, still gazing up at the statue of Luna. “Let me see if I get this: she can make objects out of thin air, transform herself to different shapes and sizes, fly and teleport. She’s like a weaker class of draconequus, so what’s keeping her trapped in this place?”

Sunset shot her a skeptical look. “How can you not know that?”

“I’m sorry, but Tartarus isn’t as well understood where I come from,” Twilight replied with a glower.

After a second or two Sunset sighed and nodded. “The draconeqii didn’t pick Tartarus as a burial spot on a whim. The bedrock and crystals in this region of Equestria have extreme anti-magic properties, further deadening the effects of their corpses on the world above. Tazel is affected by them as well, and the Gates of Tartarus were made entirely from that same stone.”

“Ooooooh.” Twilight’s ears perked as her mind began to consider this. “That’s incredible. Imagine the possible uses of such a stone! The potential implications are almost too frightening to contemplate.”

Her partner shook her head. “Except that the rock is so preposterously hard that it’s close to impossible to mine it. The Gates themselves had to be made from the boulders that were found lying around.”

“Ah. Yes, that would make things difficult.”

They rocked in place as the boat reached shore, grinding up against the loose stones. They promptly climbed out, Sunset pushing the boat back into the water before leading Twilight into the small town.

“Stay close; there’s no such thing as a friendly face here.”

Twilight noted a trio of diamond dogs glaring at her from behind a tent. “I gathered. Why would anypony live here?”

“In Tartarus, you make do.” Sunset led her along a narrow path between the tents and rock piles, her horn glowing dimly as she watched for danger. Most of the creatures in the area ignored the two mares, although Twilight noted a few that were watching them pass.

The ominous gazes had Twilight hastening her steps until she was side-by-side with her guide. “S-so, it won’t be long before we’re out of here, right?”

“Right.” Sunset’s head swiveled about as she spoke. “The town was never very big.”

“Hello there, pretty ladies.”

Twilight almost stopped, but Sunset’s hoof touched her shoulder and herded her forward. A moment later a pony appeared at Twilight’s side, short and thin and possessing of an unpleasantly large smile. “Oh, please don’t be like that. I was just curious; you don’t see many alicorns passing through these parts.”

Sunset didn’t even grace the pony with a glance. “Go away.”

Twilight, on the other hoof, chanced a look and once again nearly came to a stop; he had bat wings! She was looking at a legitimate thestral… but weren’t they extinct?

He noticed where she was looking and offered a fanged grin and a waggle of the eyebrows. “You like?”

A bump from Sunset reminded Twilight to look forward and ignore him. “Just curious.”

“So am I!” He danced in front of them, making them both stop. He winked at Sunset. “Come now, why the cold face? We’re just talking. So where are you girls from?”

The mares shared annoyed looks before Twilight took a step forward. “I don’t think that concerns you.”

“Well that’s not very friendly at all.” The thestral didn’t miss a beat, sidling up to her with a smug look. “I’m sure a pretty alicorn like you would just love some of my goods. Why, I would offer them for—”

No.” Sunset was in his face, her horn flashing in his startled eyes. She stomped forward, effectively cowing him back. “We don’t want anything, we’re not looking for anything, and we don’t hope you have something we like. We are just passing through on our way up, and if you don’t get out of our way right now I will personally throw you into the lake.”

Literally backed into a corner, the wide-eyed thestral threw up his hooves as if to hold her back.

“Ooookay then. I think I’ll just… you know… bye.”

He darted past her and soon disappeared among the rocks and lean-tos. Sunset stepped back, lips pulled up in a sneer and horn still glowing. Her head jerked one way, and all the creatures on that side who had been watching the exchange abruptly moved away. Her head turned the other direction, to the same effect.

Twilight walked up to her with ears tucked. “I’m not sure that was necessary.”

Sunset let out a small snort and turned with head held high, once again guiding Twilight along. “Listen, this town is a tribute to jealousy. Everypony wants what everypony else has. If we accept gifts – if we have anything – somepony is going to want to take it from us. The only safe place in this town is at the bottom of the barrel.”

Twilight glanced around at their miserable surroundings. “You mean nopony will bother us if we don’t have any possessions?”

Sunset paused and glanced around, perhaps to get her bearings, before moving to the right. “Yes, but some creatures work for Tazel and try to ‘share the wealth.’ The more somepony has, the more that somepony is a target. They’re practically breeding violence.”

The implication was clear; that thestral had been trying to set them up as targets. Twilight began to put the pieces together; Tazel could create the materials they now had, but only made so much so as to keep the ponies fighting amongst one another. It had to be another Tartarus punishment. “Has anypony risen above their envy?”

“Not that I know of. Ah—” Sunset pointed, “—the edge of town.”

“Already?” Twilight peered through the dark and saw that, sure enough, there was a point where the ramshackle place came to an end. Beyond was a wide space with a low ceiling, dotted with stone columns. “Well, that wasn’t so hard.”

“Like I said, small town.” They passed beyond the last tent, stepping over an unconscious diamond dog with a large lump on the back of his head. “It’s going to be a while before we get to the next territory, though.”

“Oh…” Twilight sighed, suddenly feeling worn out. “Is there at least a spot where we can take a break? I don’t think my body’s figured out that sleep doesn’t happen in Tartarus.”

She’d expected Sunset to be annoyed, but instead her guide offered a friendly smile. “Yeah, we can do that. Let’s just get away from the town, first.”

Twilight eyed her. “Thanks. If you don’t mind me pointing it out, you seem a lot more optimistic than you were.”

Sunset’s cheeks flushed and she averted her eyes, but the smile didn’t fade. “Y-yeah… well we’ve made it past four of the seven Lords of Tartarus. I’m starting to think we might have a chance.”

Twilight thought her heart would jump out of her chest. “Really?”

“Uh… yeah?” Sunset took a step back, one hoof lifted in uncertainty as she observed Twilight’s reaction.

A blush burned Twilight’s cheeks. “It’s just that all this time I was hoping to—”

A hoof was clamped over her lips as Sunset’s wide eyes scoured the town. “Would you stop saying that? We’re not out of Tazel’s range yet!”

“Sorry, sorry!” Twilight’s cheeks grew an extra shade of pink. “It’s just good to know that you’re finally seeing the light.”

Sunset rolled her eyes, but she was smiling as she headed deeper into the cave. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that. We’ve still got a ways to go and the remaining three Lords are no pushovers. But—” she offered Twilight a grin, “—I’m starting to think that, together, you and I might just be able to pull this off.”

Pride swelled within Twilight, and before she knew what she was doing she had wrapped Sunset in a tight hug.

It was once again Sunset’s turn to blush. “Hey, hey, I’m not that far gone.” She pushed Twilight off with a nervous cough. “One step at a time, okay?”

Twilight giggled at her friend’s manner. “Whatever you say, Sunset.

“Whatever you say.”

“Come on, Twilight, we’re gonna be late.”

Twilight looked up from her book at Spike, who was tugging on her tail and gesturing to a picnic basket. “Just let me finish this paragraph, Spike.” He stood back and crossed his arms, foot tapping the floor impatiently as she absorbed a couple more sentences and set her bookmark in place. “Okay, let’s go.”

“It’s about time,” Spike grumbled as he climbed onto her back.

Twilight rolled her eyes and levitated the basket into his arms. “You act like you haven’t seen the others in an eternity.”

“It feels like it,” he replied, setting the basket in his lap as they went outside.

The sun shined high over Ponyville, basking the town in its heavenly warmth. Twilight didn’t know why, but just seeing the sun made her feel… happy. She trotted through the soft grass, humming one of Pinkie’s bouncy tunes.

Spike leaned forward with an eager smile. “You’re certainly happy, today.”

“I don’t know why.” Twilight waved to Lyra and Bon Bon outside Sugarcube Corner. “It just feels like I haven’t been outside in forever. When I write Celestia I’ll be sure to mention how perfect this day was.”

“It is a nice day, isn’t it?” Spike leaned against the basket with a dreamy expression. “A perfect day to spend with Rarity…” His voice took on that dreamy quality that had Twilight rolling her eyes in amusement.

It seemed like no time at all before they were in the clearing just outside the Everfree Forest. Applejack was setting down the picnic cloth, with Fluttershy and Rarity ready nearby to set the plates. Spike wasted no time dropping off of Twilight and rushing to help, leaving her to set out the food.

“Well now, somepony looks like she jus’ got a brand new plow.” Applejack greeted Twilight with a warm smile and a hug. “What’s got ya beaming like the sun?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Twilight admitted as she grinned at Fluttershy and Rarity. “I’m just really glad to see you girls.”

Rarity handed some plates to an eager Spike and smiled elegantly. “We’re flattered, dear. We’re always happy to see you, as well.”

“That’s right,” Fluttershy agreed as she set out the plates with Spike. “We really should get together for these picnics more often. Oh—” she raised her head to eye the sky, “—here comes Rainbow.”

A second later a colorful streak passed by overhead. Rainbow Dash began performing loops and corkscrews, leading Applejack to muse, “She never misses an opportunity ta show off, does she?”

Rainbow zoomed down to come to an abrupt stop just over the ponies’ heads, two baskets dangling from a rope that she had in her teeth. She set the baskets down and spat the rope out before striking a confident midair pose. “I’ll have you know I was just using my awesome speed to condense clouds into water, something only a super cool pony like me can do.”

Twilight glanced into the baskets, surprised to see them filled with open bottles of water. “Wow, that is pretty cool.”

“Nah.” Applejack waved a dismissive hoof, smiling smugly. “Them bottles were full from the get-go. She made that excuse up on the fly.”

Rainbow landed and shot Applejack a glower. “Did not!”

“Oh yeah?” Applejack wiggled her eyebrows at Rainbow with a knowing grin. “So where are the clouds ya used ta get the moisture from?”

“Uuuhh…” It took Rainbow a couple seconds to recover, her eyes darting about and a silly grin on her lips. “I’m… just… so awesome that I don’t need clouds to do the trick.” Twilight and Applejack shared knowing smiles but didn’t bother to press her.

Rarity settled down at the edge of the picnic cloth, eyes roaming the food that was already out. “Oh, this all looks marvelous!”

Spike struck a smug pose. “Why thanks, I worked hard on it.”

Strange, Twilight didn’t remember that… but she probably just had her muzzle too deep into a book to notice. She grinned and patted him on the head. “And that’s why you’re my number one assistant.”

Fluttershy glanced about. “Umm, where’s Pinkie?”

“Riiiiight heeeere!”

Fluttershy jumped with a cry as Pinkie burst out of one of the baskets, balloons and streamers flying about. She landed in the center of the cloth, a large chocolate cake on her back, and promptly gave Twilight a hug. “Hey, Twilight, I missed you sooooo much!”

Twilight returned the hug with a confused grin. “Thanks, Pinkie, but we only just—” She paused; when was the last time she’d seen Pinkie?

She noted Rainbow helping Fluttershy up. “You okay over there?”

“Oh, yes.” Fluttershy set a hoof to her chest and exhaled. “Pinkie just startled me, that’s all.”

Pinkie bounced around her friends with a silly giggle, her cake already deposited at the center of the cloth. “That’s not the only startling thing we’ll be seeing. Better eat up quick, ‘cause all this will be gone soon!”

“It does look awful tasty,” Rarity acknowledge as her eager eyes passed over the food. “But I think there’s enough here for everypony.”

“Yep.” Applejack was already grabbing some fruit. “Heck, we’ll probably end up with leftovers.”

For a few minutes, everything was normal. Incredibly, perfectly normal. Rarity was trying to convince Rainbow that she needed a new ‘flying wardrobe’, Spike and Fluttershy were having an animated discussion about phoenixes, and Pinkie had Applejack laughing raucously. Twilight gazed upon this scene and felt her chest tighten.

These were her friends… and she loved them so much. She was so happy, but at the same time she felt like crying. It was so confusing.

“You’re not eating.”

Twilight hadn’t even noticed Pinkie at her side. “Oh… Sorry. I was just thinking.”

She started to reach for one of the sandwiches, but Pinkie’s hoof caught hers. Twilight looked up and was surprised to see her friend’s face set in a sad frown. “Pinkie? Are you okay?”

“O-of course.” Pinkie tried to smile, but it didn’t work. “I’m with my friends. Please try the cake, I made it just for you.”

“For me?” Twilight saw how unusually serious the party pony was, then took a closer look at the cake. “Well, if you insist.”

She cut herself a slice and used her magic to lift a small piece of it. Her taste buds were bombarded by delightful, chocolaty sweetness that made her eyes water. “Delicious as always, Pinkie Pie!”

“Good.” Pinkie’s strained smile faded as she bowed her head. “That’s good.”

Twilight frowned and set her plate down to properly address her friend. “Pinkie, what’s wrong? You’re acting like you just lost your best friend.”

Pinkie’s big, watery eyes caught hers, and for a few seconds Twilight could only gaze into them with a sense of worry. “Not yet… but soon. I’m gonna miss you, Twilight.”

A small gasp left Twilight’s lips. She could only stare in stunned silence. Then she recovered and leaned a little closer, nudging Pinkie’s leg. “Pinkie, that’s not funny. Nothing’s going to happen to me.” She turned to the others. “Come on, girls, tell her nothing’s gonna happen to me.”

Not a single one of them replied. They all had their heads bowed and their eyes averted, as if the same terrible thought had passed through all of them.

Twilight felt her heart sink. “Girls?” She stood, but the act garnered no reaction. She looked to Spike, who was staring at her with moist eyes. “Spike, what’s going on?”

He responded only by clutching at his tail for comfort.

She turned from him, eyes roaming her friends until they locked on one in particular. “Applejack! You don’t think I’m gonna go away or anything, do you?”

Applejack chewed her lip and wouldn’t meet her gaze. “I wish we could help ya, Twilight…”

“Oh, come on!” Twilight threw her hooves high in the air. “What is with all of you? How could you possibly know what’s going to happen to me before it happens?


The pegasus winced and said nothing, her cheeks moist with fresh tears.


Rainbow shifted from hoof to hoof, eyes locked on her empty plate.

“Rarity! Surely you’ve got some common sense.”

Rarity turned away, legs wrapped about shoulders that shook from her effort to hold back a sob.

Her mind churning over what she was seeing, Twilight sat and gaped at her friends. “What is wrong with all of you?”

A tender hoof touched her shoulder, and Pinkie gestured with her head. “Your new friend’s here.”

Twilight stared at her for a couple seconds. New friend? “What new—”

She turned and felt her heart catapult into her throat.

Tazel Wyrm was floating just at the edge of the Everfree, paws behind her back as she gazed up at the sun.

“Wow… I’d forgotten what it looked like.”

Twilight exhaled. She glanced at her friends, who maintained their solemn expressions and didn’t bother to greet the newcomer; no help there. She swallowed the lump in her throat and took a few steps closer to the creature, ears tucked as she observed it. “W-what are you doing here? How did you get out?”

“Out?” Tazel turned her attention on the anxious pony. “We’re not out.”

“What do you mean, ‘we’re not out?’” Twilight waved her hoof at the sun. “Can’t you see—”

“You’re dreaming, silly pony.”

A deep pang struck Twilight. She gaped at the creature for a few horrified seconds, then turned to gaze at her friends. “Dreaming? But… but I thought…”

“Of course you did.” Tazel landed and slithered past Twilight, a playful smile on her lips. “Are these your friends? Such a happy life you lead. It’s been so long since anypony had a dream for me to play in. Nopony sleeps in Tartarus, after all…” Her tail made a large circle around Twilight’s unresponsive friends. Tazel’s upper body rose over them and she observed Twilight with a paw to her cheek. “Why, this must mean you’re very new.”

That’s when understanding hit Twilight. She took on an aggressive pose, but a small tremble of terror chilled her spine. “Y-you’re really here. How did you get into my dream?”

Tazel’s clicking laughter seemed to echo through the sky. “Oh, you silly pony.” She reached down, and the chocolate cake rose up into her paw. “You didn’t really think that Princess Luna was the only one capable of entering dreams, did you?” She promptly stuffed the entire cake into her mouth, covering her face in chocolate.

“Hey!” Twilight glowered. “Pinkie made that for me.”

Tazel’s eyes rolled backwards in her head. “Oooh, I forgot what real food tasted like!”

Twilight watched the creature devour her cake with a dour pout. "What do you want, Tazel?"

“Oh, so many things.” The creature dropped down to dig through one of the picnic baskets, tossing random items out. “For instance, to get that stupid voice out of my head.” She winced and pulled away from the basket, an enormous sandwich in one paw. “Shut up, you! You don’t like being in there, either.”

Twilight approached at a cautious pace. “But why are you in my dream?”

“Because it’s fun.” Tazel took a big bite out of the sandwich, her eyes watering up at the taste. “And because there are certain things you can only get in a dream. Do you know how long it’s been since anypony actually slept in Tartarus? Once I sensed your unconscious mind I just had to come! It was like finding water in the desert.”

Twilight sighed and sat, realizing that there was no getting out of this. “Fine… But you ruined a very nice dream.”

“Oh, yes.” The creature was digging through another picnic basket. “Dreams do have a tendency to be nice. Too bad I can’t dream, but at least I can enjoy…” Her words came to a slow pause, her eyes abruptly locking on Twilight.

She stared for several seconds, wide-eyed and alarmed, and Twilight found herself shifting under that look. “Umm… something wrong?”

The gaze slowly shifted to a peering, heavy-lidded glare. “It was certainly an… enjoyable dream you were having, wasn’t it?” Her eyes shifted to Pinkie Pie, then to Fluttershy. Neither pony responded, their heads bowed and their eyes locked to their hooves.

Twilight didn’t know why, but she thought her blood might be turning to ice. “I-is that a problem?”

Tazel’s piercing gaze faded as she reared back to spread her arms, indicating the ponies beneath her. “Oh no, of course not. These are your friends, yes?” Her broad smile was anything but friendly. “I suppose you really want to see them again?”

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat and she stood quickly. “I-I don’t want to… I mean… It’s not what you—”

“I’m sure.”

A moment of tense silence filled the air, Tazel’s pink eyes piercing into Twilight like the hottest of daggers. The creature and the pony were both perfectly still, Twilight’s mind frozen with uncertainty and an inexplicable fear. Even as the world seemed to go a few shades darker, even as a drop of sweat beaded down her cheek, there was no motion.

Then, with such speed it made Twilight jump, the creature changed. Tazel’s feline face elongated, her fangs lengthened, her fur shortened. Her arms became thin and stretched out, the fingers of her paws growing into long, hook-tipped talons. The dragon wings thrust open and a long row of spikes grew along the back of her serpentine tail.

And then that tail swung over the picnic area, knocking Twilight’s friends off their collective hooves.

What are you doing?” Twilight lunged forward, a violet beam flashing through the sky. The creature dodged and flew a tight circle, one of those arms reaching out just in time to snatch a fleeing Rainbow Dash from the air. “Let her go!”

Tazel dodged another shot even as the sharp nails of her other claw dove into Rainbow’s back, eliciting a terrifying shriek from the helpless pegasus. Twilight sucked in a sharp breath as the closed claws were pulled out… and blood-coated blue wings flew into the air.

Rainbow fell to the ground and remained perfectly still.

With tears in her eyes and a horrified screech, Twilight bounded for the monster, but that tail whipped forward and sent her flying. Twilight opened her wings and recovered just in time to see that tail fly a wide circle and land on top of the fleeing Applejack and Rarity.

Tazel pulled Applejack from underneath and began slamming her against the ground like a rag doll.

“No, stop!” Twilight dove, a stream of lasers blasting from her horn. “Leave her alone!”

Applejack was tossed, slamming right into Twilight, and the two fell like a pair of rocks. When they hit the ground Twilight found herself pinned beneath her friend. She saw the bloody, pulverized state of Applejack’s unconscious face and began to hyperventilate.


She looked to see Fluttershy trying to pull Rarity out from under the tail, only to look up and scream as Tazel grinned wickedly upon her. A lone talon stretched out and pierced right through the pegasus’ open mouth. Fluttershy squirmed, tears running down her eyes, as the free claw caught her around the waist and ripped her off the talon with a bloody jerk. Fluttershy crashed to the ground, her body spread open in a hideous display of intestines and raw flesh.

Twilight screamed. She pushed against Applejack’s still-warm body, but for some reason she couldn’t budge it. “P-please, stop! Tazel!”

The creature only offered its hideous, clicking laughter. Then, with eyes locked on Twilight’s, it leaned down and opened its fanged mouth wide over the trapped Rarity. A long, two-tipped tongue rolled out and wrapped around the pony’s throat, slowly pulling her out from under the tail.

“R-Rarity, fight her!” Twilight pushed with all her might, but Applejack’s corpse wouldn’t move. “Use your magic! For buck’s sake, Rarity!”

The tear-streaked Rarity groped at the tongue about her throat even as her hind legs remained limp. She was lifted up, slowly, steadily, until her head was well within Tazel’s mouth. Her face began to turn blue, her tongue lolled out of her mouth, her eyes rolled back in her head. Tazel’s eyes never left Twilight’s as, just when Rarity’s movements began to slow, she snapped her jaw closed.

Rarity’s headless body fell to the grass.

Twilight sobbed as she gazed at the hideous creature. “Y-you monster! Why are you d-doing this?”

Tazel’s mouth worked, a lone talon raised as if instructing Twilight to wait. Then, eyes glowing with sick pleasure, she spat. Rarity’s head sailed through the air, hit the ground and rolled to a stop not far from Twilight. With terror and loss, Twilight shrieked at the sight of it lying there covered in slobber and cuts.

She squirmed, she fought, she tried flapping her wings, but Applejack was like an anvil on her chest.

Then she spotted Pinkie. The pony was sitting close by, her mane straight and her colors a few shades darker.

“P-Pinkie… w-what are you doing? Run!”

Her face locked in a solemn frown, Pinkie slowly shook her head. “It’s too late, Twilight. I’ll miss you.”

Twilight reached a hoof for her friend. “Pinkie, please! Help me. We can do this. T-together, you and I…”

A single tear fell down Pinkie’s cheek.

“No. We can’t.”

Three long, hooked talons emerged from Pinkie’s chest. She didn’t even flinch.

“G… Goodbye… Twi…”

The talons spread wide, ripping the pony to pieces.

Twilight gaped, her hoof still extended, her mind numb. Gone… they were all gone…

Applejack's body was jerked off her, but an instant later that tail crashed down on Twilight’s chest, knocking the air out of her lungs. Slowly, Tazel’s head appeared over it, taking up all of Twilight’s vision. The prostrate pony could only gasp for breath, unable to think for the traumatized state of her mind. Her friends… her precious friends…

The monster’s lips pulled back in a hideous, fanged grin. “Almost forgot.”

A talon appeared over her head, Spike dangling upside down from the claw piercing his tail. “T-Twilight!”


Tazel’s eyes flashed. “I can smell your fear…”

Twilight reached her trembling hooves for Spike. Not him… “P-please…”

“Twilight, help me!”

Tazel’s head twisted upward, her fangs moving over Spike’s body.

Twilight's horn glowed dimly… and fizzled out. She fought for air, struggled to call for her little brother.

The fangs began to close. Spike squirmed, his petrified eyes locked with hers.


She began to silently beg, to pray for Celestia, for Luna, for anypony. Not him…

He began to scream as his midsection was pierced.

Twilight opened her mouth to scream, but could only manage a faint gasp. Her vision began to blur from the tears, but still she could see the blood.

Tazel stopped just short of closing her jaw all the way, instead using her claw to carefully pull Spike out by the tail. His shrieks were agony; Twilight could only cover her face and sob.

Silence. A long, horrible silence. Something began to drip on Twilight’s forehead.

She didn’t want to look. Everything in her tormented mind told her not to. She would regret it, the image would be forever seared in her mind…

She looked.

What was left of her oldest friend hung limply over her, strips of flesh dangling like sickening ropes. His eyes, dull and lost, stared down at her… and blinked.

Twilight couldn’t scream. She couldn’t think or move. She could only stare into those eyes, jaw loose and a feeble wind slipping out of her as the blood traced a line along her forehead and down her cheeks.

The body was flung away, beyond her sight.

“There.” Tazel reared up and brushed her monstrous, bloody claws as if to free them of dirt. “That should settle things.”

The princess let her head fall back into the grass, tears streaming down her already moist cheeks. She wanted to say something, anything, but all she could think of was the terrible images now ingrained on the back of her eyelids. What was she going to do? How was she going to escape this?

Did she even want to anymore?

“Yes, that’s better.” Tazel dropped down to pet Twilight’s head, her features slowly returning to normal. “Shhh, hush now, it’s over. I hope you’ve learned your lesson. Dreams are pointless, hopes are trash. In the end they’ll only hurt you, provide you with the sweetest of agonies. So don’t hope.”

Twilight tried to raise her head, to shake it, to react in some way… but her body wouldn’t move.

Tazel leaning in close with a wicked grin.

“If I can’t dream… nopony can.”

The tail was still sitting atop her chest, so Twilight couldn’t speak. In her desperation, she began to mouth her plea:

Let me go.

Please, wake me up.

Tazel’s eyes grew cold. “I can see you still have some hope left in you.” Her paw wrapped about Twilight’s horn.


“I shall remedy that.”

With a single quick jerk, Tazel ripped the horn from Twilight’s head. Even with that tail on her chest, Twilight screamed. Though her world went white with searing pain, she could still feel blood pouring through her mane.

When at last her vision cleared, she saw one of Tazel’s paws growing a long, razor-sharp talon. Tazel grinned and tapped herself on the head with that lone claw. “Now, let’s see what other dreams are lingering in that head of yours.” The claw came down, aiming for what Twilight could only imagine was a hole in her head. “Show me what else I have to destroy.”

No… Twilight shook her head, entire body trembling as she pushed at the paw with her hooves. She had to wake up…

Tazel’s free paw came down to catch Twilight’s throat, pinning her head back.

“Don’t worry, it will only hurt for the rest of your life.”

Wake up. She had to wake up!

The claw grew closer. Twilight's eyes crossed as she watched the tip approach her forehead.


“It’s okay… No more hopes is a good thing. I should know…”


The claw passed beyond her sight. Her hooves struggled in vain to hold it back.

Wake up…

She felt something start to pierce into her brain.

No no no…

Tazel’s eyes widened. “You’re… this is interesting…”


The tiniest of whispers escaped Twilight's lips. “Sunset… Wake me up…”

“You’re responsible for this world?”


“What in Silma’s name have I found?”

“P-please… stop…”

The piercing motion stopped and Tazel’s eyes went wide. She spoke the name as if it were poison:


Twilight at last managed a proper scream.

She jerked to her hooves, cracking Sunset across the jaw as she did. Her scream echoed through the caves, filling her ears with its eerie sound. She was hyperventilating and for a long time could only sit there and fight for air. Tears streamed down her face as she reached for her horn, but its presence was a tiny reassurance. She didn’t dare close her eyes.

She didn’t want to remember anything.

“Twilight?” Sunset moved closer, her ears laid back as she rubbed her jaw. “Are you… okay?”

Twilight stared, not quite sure who this pony before her was. But then she wrapped her hooves about Sunset’s neck and sobbed into her mane, sobbed like never before.

Sunset was patting her on the shoulder and whispering calming words into her ear. Twilight couldn’t make sense of any of it. She closed her eyes, saw Fluttershy ripped off a talon in a gruesome display and immediately jerked them wide open once more.

Sweet mother of Celestia, she hoped she would never sleep ever again…

A new sound hit their ears; a shriek in the distance so loud, so furious it actually made the stones shake.

Rubbing her ears, Sunset turned to gaze with alarmed eyes at the town just barely visible in the distance. “Was that Tazel?”

The dream… Twilight understood almost instantly. Her eyes grew wide as saucers as the terror sprang into her mind. “She’s coming for me. We… w-we have to go!”

“Why would she—” Twilight was already fleeing as fast as her hooves could carry her when Sunset turned back to her. “H-hey, where do you think you’re going?”

Twilight didn’t answer. She was too scared to risk her voice carrying out to the town. She charged through the darkness, panic clutching at her mind and tears streaking her cheeks. After all that she’d seen, after watching her friends so horribly brutalized, Twilight didn’t even want to think about what might happen if Tazel caught her.

Another piercing cry rocked the cave, dust and bits of stone dropping over the fleeing pony’s head. She redoubled her efforts, gasping for air as she forced as much speed out of her legs as she could manage. She kept seeing Applejack’s bloodied face, hearing Rainbow’s horrible screams, feeling Spike's blood on her forehead.

Something bumped her, and she nearly fell in an effort to keep her legs moving. Sunset was galloping at her side, face determined as she rammed Twilight once more. “Dammit, you’re going the wrong way!”

“I don’t care!” Twilight didn’t stop, her mind battling frantically for control of her emotions. “I need to get out of here!”

“You won’t get out if you don’t go that way.” Sunset ran into her again and began to push mid-run, a maneuver that forced Twilight into a slow turn. “What happened to the smart Twilight?”

Where are you?”

A small cry burst from Twilight’s lips at the familiar voice of Tazel in the distance. “She’s coming for me. W-we have to get away!”

“What the buck has gotten into you?” Sunset glanced back over her shoulder with a sneer. “Crap, she is coming!”

“What… w-what are we… going to… to do…?” Twilight was already gasping for air, but she didn’t dare stop running. She thought she could see an end to the wide, thin cave. That had to be the edge of Tazel’s territory. “Oh please… let her not… not cross the boundaries. She’s… going to k-kill me!”

“No she won’t.” Sunset’s eyes darted about the massive rock columns that surrounded them. “This way!” She grabbed Twilight and forced her to change directions, guiding her towards a particularly wide column.

“I saw him in your mind, Sparkle!” Tazel’s enraged voice reverberated in Twilight’s ears. “Where is he? Where is Discord? I’ll rip the memory out of your heart if I have to!”

Sunset caught Twilight and locked her hind legs, slowly forcing the distraught pony to a stop by the column. “What the buck did you do to piss her off?”

Twilight found herself being thrown behind the pillar before she could respond, Sunset pinning her with a hoof to her lips. Her companion’s sharp eyes peered about the column as they waited.

Twilight wanted to fight, to break free of Sunset’s hold and flee into the darkness, but the run had worn her out enough that she was at last starting to think at least somewhat more clearly. She pressed herself against the pillar, fighting to control her strained breathing. She didn’t even try to rub the tears from her cheeks, certain that even that small motion would give them away.

“Come out!” Tazel’s screams filled the moist air. “I know you’re still here, you worthless pile of purple excrement. When I get my claws on you I’ll make that dream look like a circus act! You dare to hope for an escape, and then you bring the memory of that draconequus filth into my territory?”

Twilight trembled, her legs going weak as the fear seeped into her. She closed her eyes, saw Rarity’s head rolling in the grass and promptly opened them again.

Tazel’s demented snarls continued. “Discord can’t be alive, not in this world. Not in any world! I’ll make you squeal like a pig, and then I’ll skin you like one, too. And after you’ve told me how to find him, I’ll skewer your hooves and hang you from the horn of Luna for all my victims to bear witness. There you’ll stay, a toy for me to play with for the rest of your worthless mortal existence!” A hideous scraping sound, like nails on chalk, filled the air. “Damn you! Where are you?”

Sunset pressed against Twilight, her expression stern in preparation. She was using slow, carefully controlled breathing. Twilight saw the determination and focus in her guide and wished she could share in it, but all she felt was a need to panic. She was only able to keep a tenuous grasp on her emotions as she struggled not to think on her friends. Thinking meant remembering. She didn’t want to remember!

At last Tazel let out a frustrated cry. “You can’t escape me, Sparkle! I know where you’re going, and I’ll be there, just waiting for you!”

A single crisp clap resounded in the cave… and then there was silence.

The mares lingered, neither daring to move or look. Their eyes met, their breathing began to return to normal.

At last Sunset leaned over, peering into the darkness beyond the column. Her head shifted about as her eyes roamed, and after a few seconds she heaved a long sigh and stepped back.

Twilight collapsed in a heap in the stone floor and covered her face. “Oh sweet merciful Celestia… H-how are we going to escape now?”

Sunset spun in place, ears perked as she scoured the darkness. Not finding what she was looking for, she immediately grabbed Twilight and forced her to her hooves. “There’s only one way out of here. Come on.”

Twilight nearly fell again, fresh tears streaking down her cheeks. “B-but how are we supposed to get past Tazel? She’s waiting for us, Sunset…”

Her companion wrapped a leg about her shoulders and guided her along. “We’ll just have to fight. What’s the matter with you? Where’d all your determination go?”

“She showed me things…” Twilight trembled, her hooves shuffling against the hard stone floor as she fought to stay standing. She clung to Sunset like her life depended on it. “Terrible, terrible things. I don’t want to t-talk about it.”

Sunset glowered. “This is Tartarus. Did you really think you’d come out of here without a hitch?”

“I c-can’t face her.” The distraught princess buried her head in Sunset’s mane and shuddered. “I d-don’t think I can…”

There was a moment’s silence, and then her companion exhaled a long breath. “Hey… come on, Twi. You’re gonna be okay. We’ll get out of here, and you’ll never have to think about that overgrown furball again.”

Twilight held on to her friend for a few more seconds, struggling to control herself. After a few shaky breaths she leaned back to stare through wiry bangs and bloodshot eyes. “C-can you promise me, Sunset? I’m so sc-scared…”

Sunset took a step back, her eyes gazing upon Twilight as if not sure what she was seeing. “I… I don’t know what she did to you…” She came close and pressed her forehead against Twilight’s. “…but I promise, Twilight. We’ll make it out of here. Together.”

Twilight found herself doubting… but she nodded anyway. She couldn’t possibly explain her fear; explaining meant reliving, and she couldn’t bring herself to do that. Even so, she felt an incredible appreciation for her companion, and made sure to keep close as they started the slow walk for the exit.

They moved on, neither speaking. Up ahead the stone narrowed into a tunnel, unmistakable in the overwhelming sameness of the low-ceilinged cavern. It was a long ways off, but they made no attempt to hasten their steps. Twilight’s legs continued to wobble, her eyes shifting about the darkness in fearful anticipation. Where was she, that monster from her dreams? Tazel had said she would be waiting, and Twilight didn’t doubt it at all.

Her ears perked to the distant sound of running water. She peered ahead and realized that there was a river passing along the edge of the cave system. “Is that… the Acheron?”

Sunset nodded, taking a moment to tug Twilight a little closer and rub her back. “Yeah. It runs a circle, remember? The river and lake are Tazel’s boundaries, and she can’t go past them. If we can cross the river, we’ll be safe.”

Twilight sagged, an intense anxiety slowing her hooves. “T-Tazel’s going to be there, isn’t she?”

Sunset’s expression hardened, her eyes set on their destination. “I said we’d make it, and we will.”

If only Twilight could take comfort in that determination.

At last they were approaching the river. Twilight’s heart tried to beat a hole in her chest. Her eyes scanned the river’s edge and surrounding columns with feverish rapidity. Where was she, where?

They came to a stop at the water’s edge, watching as ponies and griffons and other creatures drifted past. The exiting tunnel was right across from where they stood. It hardly looked safe… but at the moment it seemed like the most enticing sight Twilight had seen in her whole life. They both cast around for some sign of Tazel, but they appeared to be alone.

“Alright.” Sunset nudged her, her expression solemn. “We’ll use our teleporting spells and cross together. Okay?”

Twilight heaved a deep sigh in preparation. “Okay.”

“On three?”

“On three.”

They both lowered themselves into preparatory stances, horns aimed at the tunnel. Sunset began the countdown. “One.”

Twilight focused on the magic and steadied her breathing.


Sunset stepped forward. Twilight tried… and couldn’t move.


A flash of light saw Sunset teleport, but just at that instant Twilight felt something stab up into her hooves. The jarring pain jolted her concentration, the aura around her horn disappearing with a fiery spark.

Sunset was already on the other side of the river when she heard Twilight’s cry. Twilight tried to move her legs, but her hooves were held firmly in place by whatever was inside them. Just trying to shift sent jolts of fire up her legs!


She heard Sunset’s warning and looked up. Her blood ran cold as she saw the creature slowly rising up out of the river, wings beating in a slow rhythm and pink eyes sinister.

“Oh, G-Goddess…”

Tazel’s fangs flashed in a demented grin. “You fell for it.” Her arm reached out, and with a twitch the claws appeared at the tip of her paw. “Now you’re mine.”

Twilight’s heart practically stopped, her breath froze in her throat. She tried to move, but her hooves were stuck tight. She could only gape with wide, terrified eyes as the monster began to approach, that terrible kit-a-kit-a-kit-a giggle echoing in her ears…

“Twilight, for bucks sake, use your magic!”

She couldn’t. She couldn’t think for her horror, couldn’t focus beyond those terrible pink eyes. She could hear her friends screaming for help, see them being slaughtered…

“Now then.” Tazel’s paw hovered over Twilight’s face, claws just barely touching her horn. “You’re going to tell me everything I want to know about that bastard. Talk quick and the pain won’t be so severe.”

“N-no… Please…”

That fanged grin grew impossibly wide as the creature’s paws caught Twilight on both sides of the head.

There was a flash of opal light, and Sunset was between Twilight and Tazel.

“Leave her alone!”

A massive disc formed atop her horn and flew at Tazel, cutting the creature in two. Tazel fell back, her upper body flipped… then landed back on the lower half. The cut healed in an instant, but before Tazel could say or do anything a sphere of energy struck her in the chest, knocking her into the river.

The heroic Sunset spun about and pulled Twilight by the shoulders. “Would you come on?” Twilight screamed at the agony in her hooves, prompting Sunset to let go. “Just… just use your magic. Teleport, for buck’s sake!”

Twilight was hyperventilating. “I… I don’t… I can’t… I…”

Tazel erupted from the Acheron, water spraying into the air and ponies sent flying from within the depths. She locked eyes with Sunset with a menacing hiss and dove claws first.

“Come on!” Sunset spun about and fired a beam at the ground under Twilight, and something in the rock shattered. The unknowns somethings locking Twilight’s legs in place came loose and she fell to the floor with a pained cry. She looked up to see the abomination’s claws just inches from the back of Sunset’s head…

Another opal flash.

They were on the other side of the river. Twilight blinked, her traumatized mind trying to comprehend what had just happened. Sunset tried to pull her to her hooves, but upon standing that jolt of pain ran up Twilight’s legs and toppled her once more. Spitting curses, Sunset used her magic to set Twilight on her back and started running.


Twilight looked back in time to see Tazel slam into some kind of invisible barrier just beyond the water’s edge. The creature’s arms flung about wildly and her mouth opened impossibly wide in a fanged howl.

“This isn’t over, Sparkle! You think you can escape? There is no escape! Tartarus won’t let you go, do you hear me? Even if you get past the other Lords, you’ll never break through the Gates! And then what? You’ll try to go back to Limbo, but I’ll be waiting. You wait and see, you’ll never see your precious pony friends again! You hear me, Sparkle? Sparkle?


Sunset let out a frustrated snort. “Give it a bucking rest…”

Twilight merely clutched her savior, sobbing as she thought of all her friends.


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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter VII: Dis

“But fix thine eyes below, for the river of blood is near,
in which boils whoso doth harm to others by violence.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto XII

Sunset set Twilight down against a wall and turned to look down the long tunnel. “I dunno who did what to keep that thing back there, but should I meet her I’ll give her a big hug.”

Twilight didn’t answer. She merely leaned against the wall, her breathing slow and her mind numb. Tazel’s words kept echoing in her mind over and over and over again. She tried to stay positive, to tell herself that everything was going to be alright, but her thoughts would always circle back to one terrible question: what if she was right? What if, after all these trials, Twilight never made it home? Her wing was broken, there was no telling the condition of her legs, and there were still three more Lords to get past. Worst of all, Celestia thought she was a changeling!

How was she ever going to overcome so many hurdles?

“Alright.” Sunset dropped to her knees at Twilight’s side. “Let’s take a look at those hooves.”

Twilight went from her sitting position to laying on her side, legs out so her companion could get a look at the bottom. Sunset peered, her lips pulling back in an unpleasant frown. “Ow, that looks like it hurts. I hope they don’t go too deep…”

Twilight watched from the corner of her eye, biting her lip in anticipation. “What is it? Can you get them out?”

Sunset glanced at each hoof in turn, rubbing her chin. “I think so, but it’s probably gonna hurt. Like, really hurt.”

Compared to what Twilight was feeling in her heart, she was about ready for a distraction. She turned her face away and closed her eyes… then jerked them open again at the image the act produced. “J-just get it over with.”

“Okay. Three, two… one.”

A gasp burst from Twilight’s throat as a fire burned through one of her legs. Her entire body went tense as she felt something sliding out, a barely-contained cry making its way through her teeth.

There was the sound of something going thunk on the floor, and the pain receded to a small burning.

“Three to go. Ready? Three, two…”

Each one was a fresh torture, and when it was over Twilight was sobbing. She remained still as Sunset inspected her hooves, working to compose herself against the sting that refused to go away.

“You’re lucky they didn’t go through your bones.” Sunset petted Twilight’s mane, her voice soft. “I’m sorry. I wish we had something to tend to the wounds.”

At last Twilight looked. Arranged in a neat row were four thin stone spikes, ranging from six inches to a foot in length, each covered in her blood. Good Goddess, those had been inside her legs? No wonder it hurt so much. She raised her trembling forehooves up to inspect them, eyes going wide at the holes she found.

“I th-thought there would be more blood.”

Sunset nodded. “Either Tazel’s got incredible aim or you’re one damn lucky pony.”

“I don’t know if I have any luck left.” Twilight gazed up at her companion, mind filled with doubts. “Sunset… how am I going to make it out like this?”

Face set in a worried frown, Sunset considered her for a few seconds. “Well… I can help you a bit, but I can’t just carry you out of here. You’ll have to at least try to walk.”

The thought made Twilight suck in an alarmed breath. She took another look at her stinging hooves, imagining the pain of trying to walk on them. Worse, what if they didn’t heal right? She could be crippled for life.

Sunset dropped down to nuzzle her friend. “Come on, Twilight. You made it this far, so you can’t give up now. I don’t know what Tazel did to you back there, but you’ve got to rise above it.”

Twilight took some comfort in Sunset’s warmth. After all, she would never see her friends again if she didn’t keep going. Her legs might never be the same, but that was okay; so long as she escaped and made it home, nothing else mattered.

“Help me up.”

Tenderly, Twilight rolled to her belly and set her hooves to the floor. Intense pain like a thousand needles ran up each of her legs as she tried to stand. She collapsed several times even with Sunset’s help. At last she was standing properly, though sweat poured down her face and her breath was coming in quick gasps. She stood for several seconds, trembling like a leaf and waiting for the fire to subside to a mere tingling.

Sunset was ever encouraging. “You’re doing good, Twilight. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Whenever you’re ready…”

The first step nearly dropped Twilight, but Sunset was there to keep her on her hooves. A pathetic whimper escaped her lips each time a hoof touched the ground, but gradually Twilight began to move with less and less help. At last she was walking without Sunset, but her pace was slow and limping.

She winced as a particularly sharp stab of pain ran up her hind leg. “Th-this is going to… to take f-forever…”

“But you can do it.” Sunset, walking backwards and offering an encouraging smile, seemed like an entirely different pony. “Just believe it, Twilight. I know you can make it.”

Twilight studied her guide for a couple steps, wincing with each one. “W-what… what happened to you?”

Sunset’s smile didn’t falter. “You did. You helped me understand that there is hope.”

A few more steps as Twilight thought on this. Why did she feel so… hesitant? “I don’t r-really think I did anything.”

Sunset stepped aside and waited for Twilight to catch up, watching the pony approach with hopeful eyes. “You didn’t give up on me, Twilight. Though I was the worst kind of pony ever, you kept encouraging me. Now it’s my turn.”

Despite the pain, Twilight was able to smile. “I knew there was still a h-heart in there.”

Her legs continued to sting with every step. Twilight was forced to take the latest of a great many rests. They had to have been moving for hours – or perhaps even days – continuously slowed down by her limping gait. Sunset never complained, though there were times Twilight was certain she wanted to.

She longed for some way to relieve the pain and had hoped that maybe one of the unusual environments would spawn something useful, like bandages. To her dismay, it appeared the draconequus magic had greatly weakened, for the entire path thus far had been plain, uninteresting tunnels and caverns.

She took a few moments to rest and let the pain subside. Sunset stood watch, her head held high as she sniffed the air.

“Do you smell that?”

Twilight lifted her muzzle to try and get a whiff of whatever her companion had detected. It took a few seconds to notice the scent: a hot, acrid smell that burned her nostrils. “What is it?”

Sunset peered at the darkness ahead with a grim frown. “Blood. We’re almost to the next Lord’s domain.”

A shimmer of fear crept up on Twilight, causing her to shudder, but she pushed it back down. “As long as it’s not another monster like Tazel.” Then her ears lowered at a terrible thought. “D-did you say blood?”

Her companion nodded, turning to help her up. There was a lot of effort involved in that simple act, but Twilight was learning how to shift her body as she stood to minimize the pain. “We’re approaching the Phlegethon, the last river of Tartarus. We’ll have to cross it to continue, and there’s only one bridge.”

Finally on four hooves, Twilight waited until the pain subsided a bit so that she could unclench her jaw. “And it… it just so happens… we have to get by the… next Lord of Tartarus to cross it?”

“Naturally.” Sunset waited for Twilight to lean on her for support before they resumed the long trek. “It’s even trickier than that, though; we have to get by without being seen. If anypony spots us, it’ll mean trouble.”

Twilight sucked in a sharp breath with every step, slowly building her way towards being able to walk without Sunset’s help. She kept talking; it distracted from the pain. “S-so this pony or whatever has followers? How many, a few dozen?”

There was a fretful sound from Sunset’s throat. “More like… a few hundred.”

Great.” At last Twilight managed to stand on her own, though she couldn’t keep from hobbling. “How are we supposed to sneak past that?”

“I have no idea.”

Twilight glowered at her companion. “Well, how’d you do it the first time?”

Sunset averted her eyes and sank just a little lower. “I had to cut a deal. When the Lord finds out I never intended to keep my part of it… Let’s just not get caught, okay?”

The sound of running water caught their ears. It was a very relieving sound; Twilight was eager to wash her wounds. Even a quick rinse would be better than nothing.

But there was to be no cleansing in the Phlegethon. They stood at its side, Twilight gaping as it flowed down into a low-ceiling tunnel. The water was dark red, all of it. That now-familiar scent filled her nostrils and made her stomach churn. She could feel the heat radiating from river and was sure to keep her distance. “Is… Is that a river of boiling blood?”

“That’s what it is.” Sunset turned away from the river with a hoof over her muzzle. “And the bridge is up there.”

Twilight had to tear her eyes away from the foul liquid, but when she did she almost forgot all about the Phlegethon and the pain in her hooves. Her jaw dropped and her eyes turned to saucers; a large cavern gaped before them and a massive cliff in the distance rose hundreds of feet. A city – an actual, honest-to-Celestia city! – was nestled into the very rock of the cliffside and rising in a sharp slope of towers, gates and walls. The Phlegethon cut the city neatly in two, falling in a series of tall red waterfalls. Some areas had visible flames in the darkness, making the city almost seem alive.

Twilight fell to her haunches. “What is this place?”

“Dis, the city of Tartarus.” Sunset shifted and turned her head away from the sight. “The City of Torments.”

Twilight struggled back to her hooves and the two began their approach. Her head lowered as she gazed up at the white ramparts. “You expect us to sneak through that? I don’t know about this...”

“We’ll find a way,” Sunset assured her, despite gazing up at the city with visible fear. “Somehow, we’ll pull it off.”

There were no boulders or other things to hide behind, and that made Twilight very nervous. “Shouldn’t we try to hide our approach?”

Sunset glanced around with ears tucked. “I don’t know how we could. We’ll just have to bank on nopony expecting anypony to come from the tunnels below.”

Twilight disapproved, but said nothing. The mares kept close, moving slow due to Twilight’s limping gait. The city gradually grew larger, towering over their heads like a pale giant. They were approaching what Twilight realized was a sloped roadway that ran along the side of the cliff. She spotted a tall statue, the bust of a unicorn, and had to do a double-take.

“Is that Prince Blueblood?”

Sunset raised an eyebrow at her. “Prince Blueblood? If only.”

Confusion filled Twilight’s mind… then profound disbelief. She looked to Sunset, then to the statue, then to Sunset again. At last she pointed at the thing. “You mean he’s the next Lord of Tartarus?”

“You sound surprised.”

“I am!” Twilight studied the statue for a couple seconds, trying to imagine that smug, smiling face as a villain. “That royal ignoramus couldn’t buck his way out of a wet paper bag without having some maid rip a hole in it first. How does somepony as pathetic as him rise to the rank of a Lord of Tartarus?”

Sunset’s expression grew grim. Twilight had the distinct impression that she’d said something… inappropriate. She leaned back with ears low and wondered if she shouldn’t apologize, though she had no idea why.

At last Sunset turned to walk up the slope. “Come and see.”

With a hesitant glance at the statue, Twilight followed. They didn’t have to go far before she saw something in the distance that had her averting her gaze in horror.

All along the white stone walls were thick carvings that looked like trees. Ponies were hanging from those carvings, all four hooves somehow embedded within the stone… and each pony had horrible wounds. The very first one they saw literally had his intestines hanging from his opened belly, and the sickening sight almost overwhelmed Twilight’s senses. There were dozens of ponies – and other creatures, too – hanging from those stone trees, all in various states of disfigurement.

But nothing was so terrible as the understanding that each and every one of them was still alive; though not a scream was heard, the steady motions of their breathing were obvious. Twilight turned to hide her face in Sunset’s mane, shaking from a renewed fear. “S-sweet Celestia. Did Blueblood actually do this?”

Sunset made no attempt to comfort her. “No, but he definitely gave the order. He uses fear to keep his ponies in line.”

Twilight glanced at the scene from the corner of her eye and felt her stomach churn. Her mind swimming with horrible possibilities, she pulled away from Sunset and trudged on with her head turned away. “Let’s just go, p-please.”

They did, keeping their eyes averted as they passed the long line of victims. Every now and then the line would be broken by the charming smile of another Blueblood statue. Twilight had never liked that narcissistic wimp, but to think he could be responsible for something like this…

“Here.” Sunset brought them to a stop at a thin doorway. “We can enter here.”

The dark passage was so small they had to enter one at a time, Twilight following behind. “You would think they’d have a bigger entrance for a place this big,” she noted.

“They do,” Sunset replied as they approached a series of windows. “This was a path for servants and peasants. Dis was originally a city made for the ponies who came to Tartarus seeking eternal life. You know, back before the Draconeqii realized what was going on… before everypony started going mad.”

“I see.” Suddenly the city didn’t seem so awkwardly placed.

A foul stench touched Twilight's nostrils, but when she moved to cover her muzzle the pain in her legs grew, so she forced herself to tolerate it. “It only makes sense that Blueblood would choose to live here. He always was a lover of big-city luxury.”

Sunset, who was covering her own muzzle as the odor grew stronger, replied, “There is no luxury in Dis.”

Twilight felt her stomach roiling as the miasma filled the air. “What in the wide world of Equestria is that?”

They came upon some windows, from whence a fresh blast of foulness hit them. It was so strong that Twilight was willing to tolerate the extra pain in her hooves to cover her face. She chanced a cursory glance out one of those windows and came to an abrupt pause at the sight of what appeared to be a wide courtyard covered in brown… stuff. Inside were ponies, all of them covered in the muck and looking decidedly miserable.

Understanding dawned upon her, and once again she nearly vomited. “Oh my Goddess… w-why are they covered in feces?”

She looked to find that Sunset hadn’t stopped and hurriedly caught up, holding her breath in a desperate attempt to save herself from the stench. Only after they’d left the terrible odor behind and could breathe safely did her guide respond. “It’s another of Blueblood’s punishments, that’s all.”

Twilight shuddered, then began to cough. She had to stop and wait, for the fit proved long and even a little painful. When it was over she still had an itch in her throat and spent a few seconds trying to cough it away.

Sunset had paused to watch from over her shoulder, there not being enough room to turn around. “You haven’t done that in a while. I thought you were getting over what Ne’er did to you.”

At last the tickle in Twilight's throat faded. “I thought so, too. I hope this doesn’t cause any problems…”

“I think we’ll be okay,” her companion remarked as they proceeded through the dark passage. “Most ponies in Dis have their own health to worry about.”

They reached the end of the passage, Sunset poking her head out and looking around. After a few seconds she stepped out and gestured for Twilight to follow. They found themselves on a small street of white stones, which was deserted.

As Sunset began to move along the street, Twilight found herself wondering. “For a city, there sure doesn’t seem to be anypony around.”

“The city was built to hold tens of thousands of ponies,” Sunset replied. “Blueblood’s followers only amount in the hundreds. The vast majority of the city is abandoned… or repurposed for torture.”

Twilight grimaced as they turned up another street, one that followed the great cliff and sloped upwards. “Why does Blueblood do such things? What did they ever do to him?”

The query brought a sneer to Sunset’s lips. “Blueblood is a narcissist, as you seem to be aware, but he became a Lord by being paranoid. He perceives insults and enemies from the most innocent of acts and reacts on a whim. As for the tortures… well, he seems to think that the more pain and suffering he can dish out, the fewer threats he’ll have. Like I said, a rule of fear.”

Twilight soon learned that ‘pain and suffering’ was an understatement of the tallest order. As they proceeded through dim backways and alleys, gradually climbing the city, they came upon more atrocities the likes of which she’d never imagined.

They passed what appeared to be a games arena situated over the Phlegethon, which had been repurposed as a massive free-roaming prison. The ponies and other creatures inside were constantly screaming and running about, the stones beneath them red hot from the heat of the river.

In another area they came upon a series of columns, atop which were pegasi and griffons who wore metal shackles on their wings. Chains extended from those shackles, dangling far below and weighed down by great boulders. Most were forced to lay flat on their stomachs, their weights too heavy to permit any movement.

The travelers snuck upon one long corridor where ponies marched in two lines, being whipped along by minotaurs as they went. Twilight found that one particularly confusing, for none of the ponies were chained or appeared to be forced into the march in any way, and as soon as they reached the front they dispersed as if nothing were wrong, albeit limping. Sunset explained that this was a regular ritual for all the citizens of Dis; a blessing of pain to show that they’d paid their dues and were worthy to be in Blueblood’s shadow.

Twilight, hiding with Sunset behind a series of columns, watched the scene with a disturbing curiosity. “But why go through with it? Why not just refuse?”

Sunset was already moving on. “Because refusal comes with punishment, and you’ve seen what the punishments could be.”

“So they trade a lot of pain for a little pain.” Twilight followed, trying to keep low despite the sting in her hooves. “Why would anypony want to stay here?”

“Because this is where they belong,” Sunset replied, voice quiet and solemn. “They will suffer no matter where they go, for this is Tartarus.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.”

Sunset helped her climb through a window, which provided a shortcut past the crowds gathering for their routine whippings. “Again, this is Tartarus. There’s no point in trying to make sense of things.”

Twilight sighed and dropped to the floor, needing a break from the pain. “I keep forgetting that little rule.” She broke into another brief coughing fit.

She gave herself a moment to recover before asking the question that had been on her mind for the past few minutes. “What happened to the unicorns?”

Her companion winced. “I was wondering if you’d noticed…”

A terrible and uncomfortably recent memory came to the fore of Twilight’s mind, leading her to reach up and touch her horn. Every time she did, she couldn’t help but shudder. “Why don’t they have their horns? Is it some sort of method Blueblood uses to keep magic from being used against him?”

Sunset began to help her stand, face set in a grim frown. “At least that would be practical, but no. The horns are tribute.”

“Tr-tribute?” Twilight’s breath came in sharp gasps as she worked through the pain to stand. “Tribute to w-who?”

Sunset waited until Twilight was up and stably leaning against her to reply. “Celestia sent Blueblood here for being party to an attempted coup with the sixth Lord of Tartarus, who came at the same time. Blueblood’s entire reason for joining up was to be with the other Lord, but she rejected him in favor of a companion who could provide her greater… ‘satisfaction’. So Blueblood came here, took over Dis and continuously looks for ways to regain her favor. Aside from himself, it’s all he cares about.”

Twilight rubbed her head as she fought to make sense of this. “But his tribute to her is in unicorn horns? Does he really think that will win her over?”

They began to walk, making their way to the building’s exit. They slipped through the street and into a back alley to hide from the ponies gathering for the line. Only when they were safely away did Sunset answer. “Unicorn horns are the only tribute the next Lord will accept. She’s a pegasus, but she wants to be an alicorn.”

Twilight paused to stare with wide eyes at her guide. “And she actually believes that she can just take one and put it on her head?”

“The only thing Blueblood cares about is that she won’t accept anything except unicorn horns.” Sunset led her through another thin servant’s passage, which snaked up a steep stairwell. “So now he gathers as many as he can get his dainty white hoof on.”

Twilight shivered, once more imagining herself with a hole in her skull. The agony of Tazel ripping hers out, even if it were only a dream, was something she never wanted to experience again. “Now I get why you want to stay hidden. I bet the spoiled brat still has his own horn.”

At that the tiniest of smirks reached Sunset’s lips. “Nope. His rival ripped it off his head as a sign of his undying love.”

Sunset’s way of saying it made Twilight wince and touch her horn once more. “Goddess, let us not be caught.”

They came out of the stairwell before a long, black metal fence. They were in the city proper now; creatures lined the streets, most sitting on the roadside and looking miserable. Some talked, a few moved about as if they had things to do, but there was no real spirit in any of them. Twilight watched through the metal bars and wondered if Tartarus had a way of sucking out the souls from the ponies trapped inside, for every last one of these poor creatures moved as though in a perpetual malaise.

The mares walked along the fence, which was covered in shadow. The spikes that formed the top of the fence rose and fell in random waves, and after a curious inspection Twilight noticed that the cross bars were covered in serpent-themed etchings. “What is this fence for?”

Sunset glanced at the metal bars with a half-interest before waving a hoof at the wall to their side. “There used to be a monument, a carving in the likes of a draconequus in honor of the source of the eternal life that is granted in Tartarus. A peace offering that failed; the statue was defaced ages ago by the draconeqii. The fence was just decorative lining.”

“That doesn’t really explain the serpentine designs,” Twilight mused, “but I guess that’s just another Tartarus—” She came to an abrupt pause; up ahead the spikes at the top of the fence had been bent towards the street, and a pony was impaled at the shoulders. “Oh…”

“The new use,” Sunset muttered, moving closer to the rocky wall and deeper into the shadows. “This is a favorite for Blueblood; ponies who show a certain level of self-identity and pride are put here to be defamed and have their identities removed.”

Twilight followed, ears low as she stared at the body. “W-what do you mean, ‘identities removed?’”

Sunset paused to give Twilight a dark look. She seemed to be thinking on a proper answer. At last she gestured with a nod to the body and kept walking. “Check his flank.”

Twilight blinked curiously, then took a closer look at the impaled pony. She couldn’t see well in the shadows, so she dared to move a little closer. What she saw made her cover her mouth to prevent being given away by her gasp.

The pony had no cutie mark.

In its place was a hideous mass of scar tissue, as if somepony had taken a blade to the pony’s flank over and over again, leaving a grotesque mess of cuts and bumps and jagged lines. Next to the holes in so many unicorns’ heads, it was one of the most disturbing sights Twilight had ever laid eyes on.

She hurried to catch up to her companion, trembling and hiding her flank with her tail. “In the name of all things holy, is there no end to the depravity of this place?”

“Tartarus is depravity,” Sunset replied, face set in a bitter frown. “Probably took his eye, too; Blueblood’s always looking for a new one.”

Twilight shuddered and decided not to question that last bit.

They continued to make their way through the city, gradually moving higher and higher up the cliff. The further they went, the more creatures they were forced to hide from, and they were nearly caught on more than one occasion. Twilight was a nervous wreck, for she just knew their luck couldn’t possibly last forever. Sunset, on the other hoof, was approaching the task with steadfast focus and determination, which made Twilight marvel at the complete transformation her guide had gone through since they’d first met in Limbo.

Twilight needed a rest, so Sunset found another one of those thin servant’s tunnels. While the wounded mare took a few minutes to recover and let the pain of her hooves subside, Sunset decided to scout the tunnel to see if it might provide a shortcut to a higher level.

The soreness had become little more than a nuisance, and the weariness Twilight saw as just one more delay. She still had enough determination in her to pull through those issues. What really bothered her now was the darkness. As she lay there in that small passage, breath coming in a long, slow rhythm, she kept looking around and feeling like she would be found at any second. Not by the creatures that lived in this place…

…but by Tazel.

She knew it was a stupid idea; Tazel was trapped within the confines of the Acheron. Yet even as she told herself that, her ears twitched and her body shook from the perceived sound of a faint scream that sounded far too much like Rainbow Dash. She could force her eyes to stay open, but it didn’t matter in this dark place. She kept imagining Pinkie in the corridor ahead, staring with half-dead eyes, and every now and again she would feel at her forehead for the blood she thought was still dripping from Spike’s dangling body.

Twilight was a wreck, and knew it. Even if she was able to reunite with her friends, she didn’t think she would ever recover from what that monster had shown her. The slightest sound made her jump and she had the distinct impression that the darkness was closing in, watching, prepping for an attack. She wanted to flee, to escape these narrow confines and get out into whatever open air Tartarus would permit.

She held her ground. Though trembling, though her breath came in quick, shaky intakes, Twilight refused to move. She wouldn’t last two seconds without Sunset. Even ignoring her, Twilight was supposed to be a princess now; she could not let her fears get the better of her!

Her ears twitched once more, this time to the very alarming sound of hoofsteps. She raised her head and tried to see beyond the terrible hallucinations that seemed determined to creep up on her. It was no use; the corridor was too dark.

“S… S-Sunset?”

No response, but then her voice had come out hoarse. She started to hack, silently cursing Ne’er-Do-Well for whatever was wrong with her. It took several seconds to recover, during which time she couldn’t hear the hoofsteps. She prayed it was Sunset, or that her mind was playing tricks on her. When she was at last able to breathe properly, she raised her head and tried to listen.

The hoofsteps were still coming… and they were coming from behind.

A deep terror hit Twilight; she couldn’t be discovered here, not in her state. She would have to move before the strangers bumped into her. If she was caught now the entire city might come down on them!

Bracing for the pain, Twilight began to stand. Her fear drove her to move as quickly as she could, but that only made a fire in her legs. She clenched her teeth and struggled, gradually getting her back legs to straighten before working on her forelegs.

The hoofteps sounded like thunderclaps in her frantic mind. “Come on, Twilight… j-just push th-through this…” Something bumped into her from behind, but in her nerve-wracked state it might as well have been a jolt of electricity. She let out a shout and jumped to her hooves, legs screaming in protest.

It happened on instinct, a knee-jerk reaction that she regretted immediately: her horn sparked and shone in the darkness. There was a pair of gasps, and her heart became stuck in her throat. Slowly, Twilight looked over her shoulder to find two ponies gaping at her.

No… not at her.

“She… She has a horn.”

The air burst out of Twilight. “Keep away from me!” She fired a spell and an instant later a clear wall was between her and the two stallions. The one in the lead lunged at her and smacked the invisible barrier, making her step away with a fretful whimper. “P-please, just leave me alone…”

But there was a frightening light in the lead pony’s eyes, a light that spoke of anticipation and determination. He looked back over his shoulder even as he reared back to kick at the barrier. “What are you doing? She’s got a horn. Go, sound the alarm!” His companion was already backpedaling.

Oh no…


Twilight tried to run, but the sudden jump had left her forelegs burning and all she could manage was a hobble. Fear and panic drove her to press on even as her traumatized mind kept up with the terrible illusions. She saw Rarity hanging lifelessly out of the corner of her eye, but a glance saw it was just a crack in the wall. She nearly fell as she confused a crumbling pile of debris for the broken and battered form of Applejack. She climbed over the low stonework, tears in her eyes as she recalled all the tortures she’d witnessed in this hellish city.

“S-Sunset, where are you?”

“I’m here!” Sunset appeared around a corner in the darkness, her face a mask of worry as she walked backwards in the thin passage. “What’s wrong? Why is your horn lit?”

“They found me!” Twilight stumbled her way to her companion, who at that moment seemed almost like a beacon of light. “We h-have to get out, now!”

“Crap, let’s go!” Sunset started to flee.

“W-wait.” Twilight nearly fell as a sharp sting ran up on of her legs, but when she looked up she was relieved to see that her guide had stopped. “I… I can’t run. H-help me!”

Sunset winced and glanced about as if for inspiration. “Okay… umm… Crap, just… just climb on my back.” She knelt to the ground and Twilight obligingly crawled on. It took a few precious seconds, her legs having difficulty, but at last she was on and Sunset was bolting.

They charged through the darkness, Twilight holding on for dear life. “Are you sure this isn’t t-too fast?”

“It’s this or be caught by those bastards,” Sunset snapped. “Don’t worry, Twilight. I’ll get us through this, I promise!”

Twilight held fast, pressing her face against her companion’s back. “I believe you.”

They barreled through the thin corridor, Sunset struggling to keep from banging into the walls as the sharp corners and tall stairs appeared. A horn was heard, the deep sound muffled by their stone surroundings, and at times Twilight could hear shouts and echoing hoofsteps. Her heart thudded like the beat of a hummingbird’s wings, her legs ached from working to hold on. Were they being followed? Surrounded? There was no way to tell.

Seconds stretched into eternity, but at last there was a dim light ahead. “Th-the exit,” Sunset huffed. “We’ll be out… and… and exposed…”

Twilight looked back, but saw nothing in their wake. “How far is the bridge?”

She barely heard Sunset’s reply: “I don’t know.”

The mare’s tone was hardly reassuring, but Twilight refused to let her doubts get in the way. “We’ll make it, Sunset. We’ll just have to make a break for it. M-maybe I can use my magic to—”

They broke out of the tunnel, Sunset toppling with a surprised shout. Twilight flew through the air, ponies and stone and air flying by her vision in a blur. She landed on her side and let out a scream as her broken wing shifted back out of place with a snap.

“Twilight! Twilight, ru—” Sunset’s shouts came to an abrupt stop.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Twilight fought the pain and tried to stand only to have her legs give out on her. She looked up just in time to get an up-close view of a minotaur’s fist.

Consciousness came in a groggy molasses of churning comprehension and confusion.

“…unicorns, my…”

Goddess, did her head hurt.

“…esh horns…”

Twilight’s legs shifted. They couldn't touch the ground. Something was holding her up.

“…say purple? I don’t think I have…”

She shook her head, her upper body leaning a little from the motion.

“…tirring. Hurry, before she…”

Somepony was holding her head, pawing at her face. What in Equestria…

“…if she’d open her eyes.”

“Let me.”

Something caught Twilight's wings in a tight grip and pulled back. Her broken bone twisted and sent a jolt of fire coursing through her body. Her eyes snapped open and a shout left her lips—

Then something was in her eye. She screamed, tried to close it, but it was too late; the thin claws had wormed their way between the eyeball and the skull. Something grabbed her horn and forced her head still, but she kept screaming. Her legs kicked frantically at the air, her body shuddered with the pain and horror of what was happening to her. She couldn’t think but for the need to get that thing out of her head! She could hear herself pleading, but couldn’t understand her own words.

Then, with a jerk and a snip, the thing was out. She tried to lift her hooves up to her face, but whatever was holding her prevented such movement, so she just wept and let the blood and tears be.

“Is it intact?”

“Yes sir, it should do nicely. Let me just clean it and cut the extra bits off.”

What had just happened? Why were they doing this to her?

She just wanted to go home!

Twilight’s body shuddered as the pain intensified for a second. She thought her head was going to explode! Yet there was this horrible, horrible emptiness in her head… like… like…

Her eye. They’d taken her eye!

She shifted and struggled, but the grip on her wings tightened and she tensed at the pain. The thing holding her horn pulled back, putting her into an even tighter position. It only just dawned upon her that she could use her magic to…

…what was the point? She’d never defeat so many opponents, not in her wrecked state.

“How long is it going to take?”

“Almost ready, my lord.”

Slowly, cringing at the terrible sensation of only having one eye, she opened it. It was hard, for the motion made her head throb, but at last Twilight was able to see. Everything looked… odd, in a way she had no interest in trying to understand. She was in a cage, her four legs hanging limply through the criss-crossing bottom bars. Her already low heart sank a little further when she saw herself surrounded by creatures; ponies, griffons, nilgiri, minotaur, every type of creature she could think of was present.

She didn’t bother to plead. She knew there was no use; these monsters were going to kill her no matter what she did. The least she could do was try to maintain some level of dignity, so she ignored their leering grins and cruel taunts. She just wished the minotaur holding her wings and horn would ease up…

Something white and purple was brought through the bars to stare at her, held by a thin eagle’s claw. Twilight felt her stomach churn; it was her own eye.

“So, what do you think of my work?”

Twilight said nothing. She merely trembled and stared at the orb with a terrible sense of loss.

“Stop teasing her and give me my eye!”

The eyeball was pulled back, a smirking griffon appearing behind the bars. “Of course, my lord. Just giving her one last look.” He turned and shuffled away, revealing that one of his lion legs had been cut off at the knee. Both his wings hung limply at his sides.

The crowd went silent, all eyes turning to the pale stone throne that rested a couple dozen feet from Twilight’s cage. Its back was to her, so she couldn’t see who was in it, but by the reverence the others were showing there was no question in Twilight’s mind. A deep hatred and fury filled Twilight, but she didn’t dare speak up or move. She never would have thought him capable of all this depravity.

The griffon stood at the throne’s side, displaying Twilight’s eyeball like a trophy. “Here, my lord! You see? This color is not in your collection, I am certain.”

A moment of tense silence. “I believe you are correct. I have always thought violet would look good on me. Let’s find out.”

The griffon bowed. “Right away, my lord.” He waved his free claw, and a moment later a unicorn – a former unicorn, the crater in her head making Twilight flinch – appeared with a plate in her teeth. Slowly, the griffon reached forward and began to work.

Twilight couldn’t see what he was doing, but her imagination did the job just fine. She tried to turn her head away only to have it jerked painfully forward by the minotaur holding her horn. Goddess, she would give anything not to see this! Her jaw clenched tight as she fought down the rising sensation in her stomach. Please let this be over soon…

The griffon leaned back and carefully set an eyeball down in the plate; the unicorn promptly retreated. He leaned forward once more, Twilight’s eye disappearing behind the throne. The prisoner trembled at the horrendous thought of what was happening to her eye. She closed her eyes – eye – and fought to envision herself as being anywhere but here. Her library, Sugarcube Corner, Canterlot Castle, even Limbo!


The griffon’s voice was dripping with adulation. “Glorious, my lord.”


It was no use. The library was carved of black stones, Sugarcube Corner was covered in blood, Canterlot Castle was alien and threatening. There was no reprieve, even in Twilight’s imaginings. Lips trembling, she forced her eye open once more.

“…good. Yes, I knew violet was a good color.” A pale hoof waved, and the minotaur with the shattered mirror retreated into the crowd. “I would like to thank this mare for providing me with such beauty. Turn me around.”

The griffon clapped his claws with a bow and six ponies rushed in to crawl beneath the beams under the throne. They rose as one, lifting the stonework, and carefully walked a circle.

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat as Blueblood at last came into view. He wasn’t at all the dashing prince she’d once known; a scar ran down his chest, one of his forelegs was bent at an odd angle, half his mane had been replaced with a hideous burn scar, and his once-formidable horn was little more than a shattered, jagged stump. But the thing that had her gasping for breath and wishing she could be anywhere but there was the sight of his eyes, one his natural soft blue and the other a brilliant, dark violet.

Blueblood’s smile was almost fatherly as the throne was at last set to the ground. “Greetings, my little pony. Rejoice, for you have enhanced my glorious image on this day. I thank you for the new eye. I know parting with a thing of such beauty had to be a great challenge.”

Twilight swallowed and said nothing. She couldn’t stop gazing at her own eye in his wretched head. Her mind was numb with the terrible sensation that she was being violated.

“Oh, don’t look so glum.” Blueblood turned to gesture to the griffon at his side, a motion that made Twilight cringe as the violet eye failed to shift like the blue one did. “At least old Frostclaw was able to do it in one go. Sometimes he messes up the extraction and has to take the other eye. So be happy!” He turned back to Twilight with a jovial grin. “At least you have one, which is imperative for basking in my radiance.”

He was insane. Twilight shifted against her captors, that terrible fear continuing to bubble in the back of her mind. “Y-you have what you w-want. C-can I—” Her wings were jerked back and her pitched cry filled the air.

Blueblood’s smile had dropped, his real eye flashing dangerously. “Such arrogance, to speak without permission! I offer you this miraculous opportunity, and you respond with rudeness? You will have to be taught your place, I see.”

Frostclaw leaned close to the Lord of Tartarus, a wicked grin on his beak. “Shall I put her on the fence, my lord?”

But Blueblood waved him away. “No, no. I will deal with her later. First… bring the other.”

Cheers and laughter filled the air, but what had Twilight cringing was the pleading.

She knew that voice.

A moment later the crowd parted, a trio of ponies entering with a cage on their backs. Sunset was trapped inside, eyes wide with panic. Her legs hung through the bottom of the cage much like Twilight’s, kicking frantically. Tears streamed down the pony’s face as the cage was set down before the throne, standing atop long metal legs that just kept her hooves from touching the ground.

Blueblood’s eye was as cold as ice. “Hello again, Sunset Shimmer. I was wondering when you’d grace my city once more.”

The distraught pony squirmed under that gaze. “B-Blueblood, I’m not a traitor, I swear! I worked hard, I had so many unicorns coming, there were so many!”

“Oh?” The Lord peered at Twilight. “And yet you only managed to bring me one?”

“You d-don’t understand. I had to bring them past your inferiors.” Sunset’s voice cracked, her pitch increasing as his good eye locked on her once more. “I… Sombra, Chrysalis, Tazel! I c-couldn’t sneak them all through, you must realize this.”

“Just one horn?” Blueblood grimaced and turned his head away from her with classy disdain. “You promised me a vast collection. I gave you the opportunity of a lifetime; do you know how rare it is for anypony to be permitted to leave Dis with their horn intact?”

“Y-you have been very kind.” Sunset made a clumsy attempt at a bow. “B-but you must realize the ch-challenges I faced. I couldn’t get so m-many—”

“Be silent.”

Sunset whimpered, her entire body shaking. Twilight couldn’t see her guide’s face, but she could imagine the pony’s terror. She wanted to help… but what was she going to do? She couldn’t fight her way through this, neither of them could.

But if she didn’t do something…

Blueblood turned to Sunset, lips set in a dire frown. “You have disappointed me, Sunset.”

“My lord—!”

Be silent!”

At the lord’s nod, Frostbeak moved close and reached through the bars. Sunset squirmed and shrieked, but received only a scratch across the face. Frostbeak stepped aside, and Twilight thought she saw blood dripping from his claw.

Blueblood sat to his tallest height, glaring down at his captive. “You are a very aggressive pony, aren’t you, Sunset? You actions and words speak of independence, of free thought… of individuality.”

Sunset’s head jerked up, her entire body going stiff. “P-please… no…”

“I don’t believe your story.” Blueblood gestured to Twilight with his good hoof. “I believe you and this other unicorn were plotting to slip through Dis unnoticed… or maybe even to dethrone me.”

“I… I w-would never… Blueblood…”

“Wouldn’t you?” Blueblood leaned forward to peer, his lips curled up in a sneer. “Former protégé of Celestia? You claim to have learned from the most corrupt, evil pony in history, and you expect me to trust your word?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” Sunset’s voice was abruptly filled with fury, her legs kicking in defiance of her small cell. “I failed her lessons, Blueblood! She thought I wasn’t cruel enough and had me replaced.”

Blueblood rolled his eye, an act that looked particularly disturbing since the violet one remained aimed forward. “So you’re a failure whom I should not have trusted in the first place. Either way, you have failed, and shall be appropriately punished.”

“No!” Sunset rocked so much that some ponies had to move in to keep her cage from tipping over. “Please, give me another chance!”

At that Blueblood’s gaze grew still more ominous. “You think you deserve another one?”


His chin rose as he rubbed it. He averted his gaze and sneered. “You really do consider yourself special.”

“No! That’s not what I—”

I am the only pony to be seen here!” Blueblood stood and glared down at his captive. “Nopony is worthy of more attention, nopony deserves to be seen like I do. You want to steal my attention, you little brat? Well, we shall see how much of it you have when your identity is erased. The blades!”

Sunset let out a pitched scream and her horn began to flash. Lasers fired from it, but her aim was wild in her panic and she only hit a few bystanders. Two minotaurs rushed to the cage, lifted it up and turned it away from the Lord of Tartarus, who hadn’t even flinched at the desperate attack.

Sunset was only able to act for a few shots before she stopped, horn smoking and red and her bleeding face contorted with pain. Twilight knew that look; it was a magic migraine. She must have used quite a bit in the initial fight…

Their eyes met, Sunset’s going wide at the sight of Twilight. “Oh, Twi… what did they do to you?”

Twilight winced at that guilty face. She wanted to look away, but she was still being held tightly by the minotaurs, so she merely closed her eyes... eye.

The crowd was chanting at this point, the word ‘blades’ echoing over and over again in Twilight's ears. She didn’t know what the blades were, but she did know that she didn’t want to see her friend subjected to them.

Sunset was shouting over the din. “T-Twilight, you have your horn. You’ve been conserving your magic all this time. Use it!”

What good would it do? There was simply too many of them. Twilight knew their time was probably up. Even if they did escape, they’d never get past the next two lords.

“Twilight, come on. Please, you’re our only hope!”

She wasn’t sure she had any hope left. She couldn’t believe how naïve she’d been…

“Behold!” Frostclaw’s voice rose above the chanting. “The blades!”

Twilight dared to open her eye, just in time to see a pair of thestrals set down a short plinth. Atop it was a bowl that was glowing red with heat, and in the bowl were two short daggers. Sunset leaned back as best she could, tears in her eyes. “Twilight, please, don’t just let them win!”

Frostclaw approached the plinth and lifted one of the blades. He raised it high above his head, the crowd cheering at its red glow. Twilight suspected that she knew exactly what was coming and closed her eye once more. A shiver ran down her back and she braced for the screams. Goddess… what were they going to do to her once they were finished with Sunset?


She wished she could help… If only fighting wasn’t delaying the inevitable.

“T-Twilight, open your eyes!”

No, she wasn’t going to watch.


The scream that pierced the air wasn’t Sunset’s.

It seemed like an eternity before Twilight realized that the horrifying sound in her ears was her own voice. Tears ran down her cheeks, her legs kicked wildly, her mind went numb from the agony in her flank. She tried to defend herself, to cast some kind of spell, but it was impossible to concentrate through the searing pain. She felt the blade stab into her soft flesh again, and again, on both sides with wild abandon. At one point the griffon stabbed to the bone and began twisting the blade in random directions.

Twilight’s mind reeled. She thought she would faint…


The blade was removed. Twilight’s jaw hit the bars and she wept, unable to move for the mind-shattering agony. She whispered a desperate prayer to Celestia to let it end…

The crowd was cheering, Sunset was calling her name. Slowly, as if it were the hardest task in the world, Twilight opened her eye. Her vision was blurred, her breath came in shaky gasps. She watched the griffon prance about with the weapon held high, blood dripping from its sharp edge as the demented creatures stomped their excitement.

They thought it was entertaining. How could so many creatures descend to such… depravity?

They would never let her go. This was where she would spend the rest of eternity, as a plaything to these wretches...

“Frostclaw, what are you doing?”

Twilight barely registered Blueblood’s ominous voice, her mind far too focused on pain and defeat. Even so, she could see the griffon turning to his lord.

“Why, celebrating, of course.”

The blurry Blueblood stood. “Why did you do that to the other pony? It was Sunset I was condemning.”

Frostclaw spoke with confidence. “You were going to punish this one too, were you not? I merely saved you the breath.”

“Punish her?” Blueblood’s voice was kind. “For giving me an eye for my collection? No, Frostclaw. I had yet to decide what to do with her.”

The griffon hesitated. “W-well, I was… just… trying to be efficient, my Lord.”

“Efficient?” The Lord’s voice grew dark once more. “It looked more like… initiative.”

The crowd went silent. The blade clattered to the floor.

No! No, no. You misunderstand, my Lord. I was merely—”

“Don’t bother, beast! You act without my orders, then parade the fact around like you own the place? This is my city, Frostclaw.”

The griffon made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a shout. “M-my lord, I only live to serve. You must believe me!”

There was a tense silence, a silence that stretched long in Twilight mind as she struggled to recover from the agony in her flanks. Even if she was no longer being held still, she didn’t dare look at her cutie mark… so instead she watched the scene unfolding before her, her vision gradually clearing in the lingering quiet.

Frostbeak stood with his back to her, gazing up at Blueblood. The Lord of Tartarus was studying his assistant with the face of a god preparing to squash a bug; even Twilight’s violet eye had a strange sense of darkness to it. At last Blueblood sat down, his face as hard stone.

“I don’t believe you. To the bridge.”

Frostbeak let out a horrible scream and turned to flee, only to be ambushed by the veritable army surrounding them. Cheers rang out as the griffon struggled. Soon he was being carried away. Twilight lost track of him and Sunset, but after a few seconds her cage was lifted. She was being carried, but she had no idea where to. She thought she could hear Sunset crying out for her, but made no attempt to return the calls. She merely lay in wait for the next torture that Blueblood had planned for his own follower.

What had happened? Twilight used to be a princess, and now she was reduced to this. Her wing was useless, she had watched her friends be brutally murdered – even as a dream, she counted that hideous torment – she had holes in her hooves, one of her eyes was stuck inside the head of a paranoid psychopath, and there was no telling if she even had a cutie mark anymore.

Why had Celestia sent her here? Why had she sent any of them? Tartarus wasn’t fit even as a prison. This all seemed too cruel, even for Equestria’s worst offenders.

Sombra had been better off a boogey pony of the frozen wastes.

Twilight knew Starswirl should have gone on to do great things.

Chrysalis might have been an enemy, but she’d been an enemy warranting respect. Now she was just a… no, ‘monster’ wasn’t indignant enough.

Twilight had no prior knowledge of Tazel, but it didn’t matter; by now she was convinced that this hell destroyed the minds of all who entered.

Perhaps that included herself. Maybe her weary wish to surrender to the inevitable was an effect of this terrible place. Maybe—

Twilight was jarred from her rambling stupor when the cage dropped with a loud clang. She winced as a scream punctuated the air, and after a few seconds the crowds cleared.

True to Blueblood’s word, they were at the center of a wide bridge. The blood of the Phlegethon poured down in a massive waterfall just to the side of the structure, making the pale stones steam from the boiling heat. She peered out and saw a long line of trap doors built in the rock. A nearby set of doors were left open, and Twilight could see the cage within that was just a couple short feet above the boiling red river.

Sunset’s cage was set down right next to Twilight’s. Sunset’s eyes were as wide as saucers, her pupils reduced to pinpricks and she struggled to move. A few moments later Blueblood’s throne was carried forward, set to the side and a few feet ahead of the cages. The crowds cheered and jeered as Frostclaw, bloodied and bruised, was dragged out by his one good hind leg. He clawed at the stones, illegible cries babbling from his beak.


She looked to Sunset, whose eyes were locked with hers. There was terror there, but her companion hadn’t been reduced to panic, not yet. Her words were hurried and strained, a clear attempt to keep from shouting. “This is th-the bridge I told you about. If we can cross it, we’ll be free. Use your magic, while you st-still can.”

Twilight turned her head away and rested her chin on the metal. “We won’t make it, Sunset…”


“Citizens of Dis!” Blueblood, his throne set sideways from the crowd, raised his good hoof for silence. Obedience quickly followed. The hoof lowered to indicate Frostbeak, who was being held down by a pair of minotaur. “Behold this wretched creature, who dares to show initiative. I ask you, citizens, what is the law?”

The reply came in a single ear-ringing cry: “Blueblood is all!”

The response made the foul lord smile. “Yes, Blueblood is all. Blueblood gives, Blueblood is generous, Blueblood is everything you all long to be, but never will. I see your plight, my little ponies, and I grace you with my beautiful mind and body. What have I asked in return?”

Once more, the crowd replied: “Stand aside!”

“Yes!” Blueblood stood on his throne to face the creatures, his good eye alive with a feverish intensity that would have had Twilight sinking lower, were it possible. Very suddenly she could see his dementia vividly, and deep down she felt she understood how he had descended to such a low state.

“Yes,” the lord repeated, “stand aside! Do not block the light of my magnificence, of my glory, of my uniqueness. Be dim so that I might shine and so all may freely bask. Look out there.” He gestured to the dark cavern below the city. “See the drudgery, the plainness, the ugliness of Tartarus. I grant you an alternative, a beautiful idol to worship above all others, and all I ask is that you stand aside so that others might gaze upon me just as freely as you do.”

He turned to Frostclaw, his expression growing hard. “But this, this wretched creature has violated our sacred laws. He dares to grab your attention, to distract from the magnificence that is Lord Blueblood! He shows independence, individuality, ambition, initiative! It saddens me to think that he was once so loyal, so good, so close to even me. There can be only one explanation for such behavior after such long and honorable service: a coup!”

The crowds shouted obscenities. Some began throwing rocks at the distraught griffon, who spoke frantically even as he struggled to free himself from the clutches of the minotaurs. Twilight watched the scene with a sick feeling in her gut; what was wrong with these creatures?

Blueblood raised his hoof high. The noise slowly died down.

“Normally I would delight in erasing this foul beast’s identity. The Fence is a suitable punishment for such sins, but this level of dedication, this quiet and determined act to infiltrate my order and gain my trust… this, my friends, is a sign of treachery, of clear and malicious intent! This is treason, and what punishment do we have for treason?”

The crowd erupted in a chant that chilled Twilight to the bone: “The Pits, the Pits, the Pits!”

Blueblood basked in the clamor, his eyes closing and a euphoric smile on his lips. Twilight gazed at the creatures all around her, a distinct terror filling her. She caught Sunset’s eye and saw that she was no less disturbed.

Blueblood flung his hoof towards the open hole in the bridge. “The Pits!”

Frostclaw let out a pathetic screech as the minotaurs dragged him to the open hole. He begged, he cried, he pleaded… and the crowd cheered. A disturbed calm came over Twilight as she watched the minotaurs swing him back and forth like a bag of flour, the crowd gleefully counting down from five.

And then he was dropped into the pit, his screams becoming pitched wails as the thick stone doors were swiftly slammed shut and sealed with a long, thick bar. Twilight tried to cover her ears, but couldn’t get her forehooves to her head. She listened to the muffled screeching, revulsion and fear filling her very being as the crowd stomped their hooves in lively approval.

It felt like an eternity before the noise subsided, the stomping and laughter and chatter steadily abating as Blueblood stood tall in his seat. The silence was punctuated by the hideous pleas that continued through the closed trap door. Twilight wished she could put the poor creature out of his misery…

Twilight listened intently as Blueblood began to speak once more, if only for the sake of drowning out those horrible cries. “My friends,” he began, “one traitor has been dealt with, but I am not satisfied. Who else here knows of a traitor in our midst?”

The creatures all began shouting… and they were crying Sunset’s name.


Horror contracting her chest, Twilight turned to her companion and saw the abject terror Sunset’s eyes.

“Twilight, please, use your magic!”

“I… I…”

“That’s right, everypony, that overworld hussy, Sunset Shimmer! Bring her forward.”

Sunset’s cage rocked as ponies filed underneath and began carrying it forward. Her legs kicked frantically, her head shook violently. “No, please! Twilight, you have to do it! Do it now!”

Blueblood was grinning like a child on Hearth’s Warming Eve. “Yes, beg, plead for help! Let’s see what your precious Celestia taught you.”

Celestia. Twilight would have given anything to see her right at that moment. Her breath was coming in short gasps as she watched, knowing that her only friend in this horrible, bastardized world was about to be cooked alive.

Sunset’s head turned about to stare pleadingly into Twilight’s eyes – eye. “Twilight, you are Celestia’s protégé now! You surpassed me, you passed all the tests, you became a princess! You must have powers I can’t even imagine!”

One of the traps was opened, and Frostclaw’s howls rose up from somewhere below. Yet Twilight was staring at her companion, who had somehow managed to attain all her attention.

Sunset was sweating, but she didn’t break eye contact. “I know it seems hopeless. I know you think Celestia’s abandoned you, but I have watched you work, Twilight Sparkle, and I understand. Your words have been true, you can still be the princess you claim to be!”

But she wasn’t. If she were, she wouldn’t have made all these mistakes. She wouldn’t even be here.

Twilight had failed…

The cage was set down next to the pit, which Sunset gazed at with horrified eyes. “T-Twilight, listen to me, please! You were not meant to die here, do you hear me? You don’t belong in Tartarus, it cannot claim you! Your Celestia was good, was generous, was wise. P-please, think about what she would want you to do right now!”

What Celestia wanted? Celestia… would want Twilight to be the best she could be at all times, no matter how dark things seemed. Celestia had named her the Princess of Friendship, had groomed her for that position.

What would Celestia think if she saw Twilight now?

The cage was tipped sideways so that Sunset was face-down over the pit. The new angle let her free her legs and she promptly climbed to the top of the cage. Sweat poured off her from the heat as her eyes locked on the river below. “You don’t have to save me, Twilight. You d-don’t. But please, please, get out of Tartarus. Please!”

A pair of ponies began to buck the cage, trying to shake Sunset loose as one of them pulled open the cage door. Sunset screamed, her horn fizzed and puffed in a last desperate attempt at some kind of magical defense. Twilight gazed with a wide eye at her guide, her companion…

…her friend.

The fire came suddenly, boiling up within the princess until it filled her to bursting. She looked about at the leering, cheering crowds, then at Blueblood’s smug face and thought she was going to explode.

She was the Princess of Friendship. Her friend was in mortal peril.

She would not let Sunset endure this.

Energy erupted from her horn, the violent shockwave shattering the cage. Metal bits flew into the crowd, knocking down some and impaling others. Twilight dropped, not even noticing the sting in her hooves for the sheer energy coursing through her veins. An instant later two thick beams darted through the air and sent the two ponies around Sunset’s cage flying.

Blueblood was on his hooves and cowering behind his throne in an instant. “G-get her, stop her! I want that horn!”

The crowd surged forward, but Twilight turned to them and stomped a lone hoof. The resulting shockwave sent the creatures flying high, many of them screaming as they fell over the bridge’s side and into the Phlegethon.

The princess let out a furious scream that shook the very foundations of Dis. The bridge before her began to crumble, creatures fleeing in terror as the stonework collapsed under their hooves. Many weren’t fast enough, their shrieks filling Twilight with a hideous satisfaction.

She turned around just as the two minotaurs were in her face. A violet circle filled the air with a sound akin to a single strong wingbeat; the two minotaurs stopped in their tracks and began to float upwards as if suspended in water, their eyes wide with alarm. A second later she sent them flying right at Blueblood’s throne. The Lord dove out of the way just in time, his seat and the minotaurs colliding with a loud crash that sent all three flying into the boiling waterfall.

Twilight approached Blueblood, her mane floating high as her entire body was encased in purple light.

The lord crawled backwards from her, his one good eye wide with terror. “W-wait, I can offer you a deal, w-we can both see you’re very… I m-mean… p-please don’t kill me!”

Twilight sneered as she gazed upon the pathetic pony, the creature who tortured so many souls, who nearly burned her friend alive, who was staring back at her with her own eye.

“No, Blueblood, you aren’t deserving of something so lenient.”

“Oh, thank you!” The despicable thing was on his knees and crawling forward. “Thank you, oh merciful one! I swear, I will obey, I will—”

A vicious snarl escaped Twilight’s lips, the sound almost like a thunderclap in the vast cavern. She jerked her head to Sunset’s cage, which promptly fell away from the pit. Sunset, still inside, was too busy gaping at the unfolding scene to even cry out.

Blueblood’s tail shined bright and began to drag him backwards towards the pit. He clawed at the stones, screaming as he realized Twilight’s intentions. “No, p-please! You c-can’t put me in there, there’s nopony to get me out. Y-you can’t do this, I am the Lord of Dis! I am Blueblood! Stop, stop, for the love of all that is beautiful, stop!”

Twilight ignored his begging. She walked just before him, her hooves scarcely touching the ground for all the power she was wielding, and stared right into his desperate eyes. She listened to every cry, observed every plea, but she didn’t register any of the words. She only thought one thing:

This was a monster that needed culling.

Blueblood’s tail passed over the pit and was pulled down. His hind legs soon followed, and when they entered the cage below his cries became screeches. Soon only his upper torso was exposed, his forelegs tearing at the stones wildly. He gazed up at his punisher with one wet eye, his lips worked frantically against his wails.

Twilight gazed into her own eye and felt no pity; with a final jerk of his tail, Blueblood dropped into the pit, landing on the hot metal cage below. He howled and squirmed against the heat, his coat shriveling from the radiating temperatures.

Twilight watched, enduring the heat and the screams. Her heart pounded, her breath came in long gasps, her horn began to sting…

The trap doors slammed closed, the bar slid into place.

Twilight collapsed, the aura fading from her body and the power seeping out as if a drainpipe had been opened. Her white-hot horn smoked as she began to weep, an incredible sense of loss and misery coming over her.

What had she just done?

Sunset was at her side, her touch sending a jolt similar to static electricity through the princess. Twilight jerked her head up to stare... and saw appreciation. Sunset petted her mane and held her close.

Though she didn’t understand the terrible feeling within her, Twilight clutched her companion and sobbed. Sobbed for what she’d done, for what she might have just become. Yet for all her horrors, both at her internal battle and the screams that still echoed through that trap door, Twilight was able to find one small element of comfort.

Sunset was safe. She was there, she was alive, she was…

She was Twilight’s friend.

Of Weeping and Desire

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter VIII: Of Weeping and Desire

“Alas! How many sweet thoughts, how great desire, led these unto the
woeful pass. Thy torments make me sad and piteous to weeping. But tell me
by what and how did love concede to you to know the dubious desires?”
Dante's Inferno, Canto V

Twilight had used so much energy that she couldn’t even stand on her own, so Sunset carried her across the bridge and away from the terrible cries. Twilight drifted in and out of a fitful malaise, the screams and hideous images floating through her mind so that at times she couldn’t tell when she was having a nightmare or hallucinating. Every now and then she’d jerk into awareness with a whimper, trembling at the sights and sounds that haunted her memory.

She lost track of an already tenuous grasp of time, Sunset carrying her farther and farther in the dark. Sometimes she’d find herself on the hard ground, Sunset resting close by. At times like this her companion would whisper soothing words to her and pet her mane, and Twilight would press in close just to savor a friendly presence.

She kept hearing screams; screams from her friends, screams from Blueblood, screams from Tartarus’ nameless victims. She would pale at the sight of ponies hanging from trees, their intestines dangling like some sort of hideous party décor. Her blood chilled as ponies struggled to escape the Acheron, bubbles floating out of their throats as they drowned. Her stomach churned as Ne’er-Do-Well ripped terrified, screeching ponies to bloody pieces with her magic.

Sometimes she was standing over that fiery pit, watching Bloodblood’s blackened body squirm. He would gaze up at her with her own eye and a hideous fear and shame would make her tremble. She did this, and the deed rocked her to her core. She would look away, guilt and contempt filling her, only to look back to see that it was actually her trapped in that cage, screaming and writhing and begging for mercy.

None of these were as terrible as watching her friends die over and over again. It was the worst and most recurring part of her waking nightmares, and every time it came back she broke out of the hallucination in a sobbing fit.

Gradually, Twilight’s mind seemed to ‘correct’ itself, as if she were coming out of a long, mindless stupor. At last the moment came when she found herself looking around at her dark surroundings with real clarity and no hallucinations, and she couldn’t help but think those stone walls were beautiful in their plainness.

Then her head started pounding.

Sunset was carrying her, her breathing labored and her hoofsteps heavy. She glanced back in concern when Twilight shifted and groaned. Sunset studied her for a few quiet seconds, coming to a slow stop. “You’re looking lucid for a change. How you feeling, Twi?”

Twilight rubbed her forehead in both hooves. “Like I just got bucked in the skull by Applejack. Can we stop, please?”

Sunset obligingly dropped to her belly, moving very slowly. Twilight slipped off, her legs screaming in protest even after she lay on her side. She could actually hear the blood vessels throbbing in her skull. She ground her teeth and tried to empty her head of any thoughts in the vain hope that it would help. “I haven’t had such a bad magic overdose since… I don’t think I’ve ever had one like this.”

Sunset’s chuckle was strained. “Well, you did kinda go into 'almighty' mode for a few minutes. I thought you were gonna rip Dis apart brick by brick.”

Twilight cringed and massaged her forehead, her hooves making slow circles on her temples. “Believe me, I would have if I’d had time.”

Sunset's smile didn’t last. She sank a little and eyed Twilight fretfully. “So… are you gonna be okay? I mean, it sounded like you were going… umm…”

The battered princess sighed and felt at her face, shivering as she noted the missing eye. “I… I don’t know. There’s so much pain in this place… I think it broke me for a while. Sunset, all the torture, all the blood and hate and misery... how can you take it?”

Sunset didn’t answer. Twilight’s lone eye gazed up at her and saw depression. “Sunset?”

Her companion heaved a long sigh. “I didn’t, Twilight. When you found me in Limbo, I had broken down. I was lost and hopeless. It felt like the whole universe had turned on me.” She moved in close, pressing against Twilight with a weak smile. “Thank you for saving me. Not just from Blueblood, but from Tartarus. I was so close to succumbing to this horrible prison…”

Twilight rested her chin on the ground and closed her eyes. “I was eager to help. I wanted to save you again.”

Sunset shifted. “Again?”

“But what has it cost me?” The princess shivered and covered her face. “What I did to Blueblood… I’ve never intentionally hurt somepony before, not like that. I feel like I’ve betrayed myself. I shouldn’t have done it. Why did I do it?”

It was several seconds before Sunset had an answer. “You did it because this is Tartarus. It wasn’t a bad thing, you know? Blueblood had it coming, surely you know that.”

Twilight tried to take a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help much. “I am the Princess of Friendship. I was taught by Princess Celestia, the most loving, generous pony in Equestria. I should have had a better solution!” She kept seeing her mentor’s face and feeling wretched.

Sunset petted Twilight’s mane once more, her voice quiet. “But this isn’t your Equestria.”

Though it stung horribly, Twilight lifted her head so that she could examine her friend. “You mean you believe what I told you?”

Sunset chewed her lip as she nodded. “There’s no way the Twilight who took my place could behave like you do and become a princess. Celestia – the Celestia of this world – would have never permitted it.”

Twilight wilted a little more. “I didn’t want to believe everything you’d told me about her. I didn’t want to think she was a bad pony in this world…” She let her head drop to the floor, groaning at the throbbing pain the act produced in her skull. “The Celestia I know would never condemn anypony to this foul place.”

It was like confessing to murder: acknowledging the fact just drove it home. Twilight closed her eyes and tried to recall that confusing, terrible moment when she’d been sent here. What had Celestia said at the time?

‘You’re nothing more than a changeling.’

Now Twilight understood. It hadn’t been a sign of Celestia’s confusion, but a declaration of worth. Thinking back on how this world’s Celestia had behaved upon meeting her, it was clear that she knew exactly who Twilight was and where she’d come from. She’d taken Twilight’s crown, probably aware that it was what had caused this whole mess to begin with and that Twilight was responsible.

She’d known, and she’d considered Twilight an enemy. What did that mean about Celestia? About the world?

“It’s okay.” Sunset whispered in Twilight’s ear, her voice soothing. “We’ll get out of Tartarus. You’ll get to see your kind princess again. You don’t deserve to be in this bucked up world, Twilight.”

Twilight felt that now-familiar sinking motion in her stomach. She felt like crying, but her eye was too dry to offer any tears. “How, Sunset? Celestia has my crown and the spell I used to travel through time is in Canterlot Castle… assuming it even exists in this timeline. How am I supposed to get back when she has everything I need? She’s my… she’s my…”

She couldn’t say it. Calling Celestia her enemy was just too much for her to manage. The thought alone made her whimper and cover her face. “W-what am I going to do? I’m a wreck in every way… I don’t even know if I can get out of Tartarus.”

Sunset nuzzled her shoulder. “We will, you’ll see.”

Twilight wished she could believe those words.


The pony was helping Twilight walk, their movement slow and shuffling. “Yeah?”

Twilight rubbed her throbbing head, the most obvious pain in her body at the moment. “Talk to me.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “About what?”

“I don’t know.” Twilight looked around at the dark tunnel they were in, a tunnel just like every other they’d come across on this journey. “I just need a distraction.”

Her friend examined her face with visible concern. “Head still hurts?”

Twilight glowered and pressed a hoof over her empty eye socket. “I’ve got a hole in it and a magic migraine that would give even Celestia pause. Yes, it hurts. My hooves have holes in them, my wing will probably never be usable again, my entire—”

She began to cough, then to hack. Sunset paused to let her recover, but it took a long time. There were even a few seconds where Twilight couldn’t breathe. At last the fit passed, and she turned her head away to spit the phlegm out.

Sunset watched all this in silence, ears low as Twilight sucked in a few deep, recovering breaths. “That’s really getting bad.”

“I know…” Twilight pushed forward and they were walking once more. “Maybe if I didn’t keep going like this, but that’s not an option. If we get out of here—”

“When,” her companion corrected firmly.

Twilight frowned and looked away. “When we get out of here, the first thing I’ll do is find a place to rest and get over this… whatever it is.”

“Maybe it’s just a bad cold.” Sunset didn’t sound convinced, though.

Twilight massaged the area around her horn. “I need to stop thinking about… this place. That’s another thing. I don’t want to think about the ideas this place has put in my head, what Tazel made me see, or what I did to Blueblood. So please, distract me. I’ll listen.”

Her guide thought on this for a few seconds, eyes slowly roaming the bland tunnel for inspiration. “I… dunno what to talk about.”

Questions and ideas had been running through Twilight’s mind. “Tell me about Equestria’s history. I’d like to know what’s changed.”

“Seriously?” Sunset’s face twisted into something between disbelief and alarm. “That’s what you want to talk about? It’s not the most… engrossing topic. Not a happy one, either. Are you sure?”

“I need to know what I’m up against.” Twilight shot her companion a firm frown. “I want to know what I’m responsible for. I was there for Discord’s defeat, so everything in the 1200 years afterwards must have been different from what I learned. If I can—”

“Wait a minute.” Sunset stopped to examine her friend with wide eyes. “You mean you were there? You saw it? Is that why there are two Twilights, because you bucked up time?”

Twilight shifted, abruptly regretting her choice in topics. “Umm… well, yeah. I was tired of being surprised by things – enemies – from Equestria’s past, so I decided to write a history book that would include all Equestria’s most obscure important events. I thought that I could best do that by going back and witnessing them, but…” She looked away and scuffed the floor with a dour pout. “I underestimated how dangerous time travel could be.”

Sunset was peering at her, leaning in close to examine her face. Twilight shifted a bit more and couldn’t meet the pony’s gaze.

“I can’t believe it,” Sunset finally said. “You’re the Unknown Princess. Ponies have been wondering about her for… well, ever since Discord was killed.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “I’m… who?”

“Twilight, in the eyes of millions you are a bucking hero!” Sunset wouldn’t stop staring. It was like she’d never seen Twilight before. “You mean to say that the pony who rescued the princesses of Equestria, who ended Discord’s reign, who has a statue in the Royal Gardens, who is hailed all across Equestria as one of our great heroes just… just stumbled into the fight on accident? For a bucking history book?”

Twilight winced. “Umm… yes?”

Raucous laughter erupted from her companion, making Twilight jump. Sunset dropped to her haunches and threw her head back, body shaking from the unbridled amusement. “That is rich. The bucking Unknown Princess, an egghead! Wow, if my old history teacher could hear this…”

Her laughter faded to giggles as she noted Twilight’s miffed gaze. “I… I’m sorry. It’s just… everypony thinks you came swooping in like some holy goddess and slew the mighty beast in a righteous fury. There are novels written about you as a glorious and wise war hero and we all take it so seriously!” She grinned even as she struggled to stop chuckling.

Twilight thought on this, bowing her head and as her heart sank. “I… Maybe that’s why Celestia put me down here. Maybe I ruined the narrative.”

Sunset’s laugher came to an abrupt stop, her entire body going rigid. “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Twilight turned away. She gazed at the darkness of the tunnel ahead, looking for… she didn’t know what. For so long she’d thought about just why Celestia would view her as a threat. Was this it? Was she preserving the record? To what end?

The silence lingered between them. Sunset shifted and chewed her lip. She opened her mouth, paused… “Do you think Celestia knows?”

For a while, Twilight said nothing. She just stared at the darkness. Slowly, she reached up and felt at her head and imagined her crown. “Yes. I think she knew exactly who she was throwing away. I just don’t understand why.”

She turned to Sunset, a strange mixture of determination and fear swirling within her. “Tell me everything. Please. I have to know what happened to this world, what happened because of me. Tell me, Sunset.”

Her companion considered her for a long while, lips set in a sad frown. Twilight merely gazed back, silently imploring. At last Sunset nodded. “Alright, Twi. I get it. I’ll tell you all I know.”

Sunset’s lesson was long and detailed, proving beyond a doubt that she had been a very good student. It was also very depressing, at least in Twilight’s mind. She learned about how the princesses went into seclusion for two centuries after Discord’s demise, a self-imposed isolation from the world and one another to meditate on what they both considered the murder of Discord. When they at last returned they discovered an Equestria in chaos, divided by tribal warfare and mistrust.

Twilight learned how Celestia and Luna managed to unite the tribes and reforge the kingdom despite their very different views on the obligations of rule. Sunset told of how Princess Luna was driven to madness, both from the guilt of Discord’s death and envy of her sister; even in this alternate timeline, Celestia had been forced to banish her sister to the moon. But Celestia had not come out of the isolation without some damage of her own, and ruling Equestria alone was a constant struggle.

Twilight listened to this and realized that somehow, perhaps because of what she did, Celestia had been psychologically damaged. Equestria never became the land of peace and harmony and love she’d grown up in. Celestia had never been able to nurture those elements into her citizens’ lives. Equestria grew much more slowly, and though it was a single nation its citizens were divided by racism, centuries of mistrust, class warfare, poverty, hunger and a hundred other issues.

Sunset explained how Equestria’s rivals, such as The Griffon Dominion and the Changeling Hives, grew stronger. Wars broke out, other nations joined in. Celestia devoted nearly seven hundred years of her rule just to defending her subjects, all while dealing with attempted coups, civil unrest and a continuously struggling economy.

She triumphed, but at a steep cost. Most of the world had been subjugated, and some enemies had been literally eradicated down to the last citizen. The centuries of battle left no opportunity for Equestria to grow socially, so the tenets and values Twilight had learned and held dear were alien and untrustworthy. Celestia herself, though revered by her followers as the symbol of all that was good, had come out of the wars bitter, paranoid and scheming.

“But most ponies aren’t aware of that aspect of her anymore,” Sunset concluded, once more assisting Twilight. They’d been walking throughout the long lesson, ever pressing on in the dark. “To the public eye, she has recovered. Celestia is serene, kind and gentle. Only the ponies who have worked closely with her – ponies like me – know that everything Celestia does is coolly calculated to sustain her image and control the masses.”

Twilight had been carefully considering every word, fighting the whole time to not let her grief get the best of her. “But there’s been three hundred years of peace, right? Shouldn’t she have… I don’t know, mellowed out by now?”

“Peace.” Sunset spat the word. “That’s not how I’d describe it. Celestia gave up her ‘social reforms’ during the wars. She makes all these nice statements, creates these laws that on the surface seem to help everypony. All they really do is promote all the grief and division that Equestria’s suffered from since it was founded. As long as Equestria is divided, she can more easily control every aspect of our lives.”

So the great Celestia had become a tyrant dressed as a saint. The thought brought a vile taste to Twilight’s mouth. Her teacher and mentor had become a monster and it was all her fault. Maybe she really did deserve to be stuck in Tartarus…

A cool breeze seemed to tug them forward. Sunset’s head snapped up, eyes peering as she grew even more serious. “At last. I thought we’d never get here.”

Twilight scanned the tunnels but saw nothing different. “‘Here’ where?”

“The next Lord’s territory, of course.” Sunset’s ears lowered, but there was no hesitation in her pace. “This one gives me the creeps. It’s gonna be much harder to slip past this time.”

Though it made her shiver, Twilight thought back on everything she’d seen in the city of Dis. “So… this is the Lord – Lady? – Blueblood was gathering horns for?”

Sunset nodded, the wind whipping her mane across her ominous face. “Yeah, and she won’t hesitate to do it herself. She has some... 'followers,' but they shouldn’t be an issue.”

The winds picked up and Twilight thought she could see something up ahead. She squinted, trying to make out the sight, and gradually realized that the tunnel ended at a cliff. Slowly, bracing against the ever-increasing gusts, the mares approached the site.

It was like a canyon, stretching endlessly in the darkness; a massive crack in the solid rock, hundreds of feet across and so deep Twilight couldn’t see anything but darkness below. The sight made her woozy, and she pressed against Sunset for support.

What really caught her eye, however, was the tornado. It was massive, rising up from the dark depths and into the unfathomable heights. Twilight could make out tiny somethings swirling within the vortex, and her jaw dropped. “Is that… is that the Winds of Passion?”

“Yep.” Sunset turned, guiding Twilight to a narrow staircase inlaid in the rocky side of the canyon. “The last great landmark of Tartarus. It stretches all the way up from somewhere below Sombra’s lair.”

Twilight gazed at the twister, her mane and tail whipping in its direction as the winds tugged on her. She shivered, recalling her brief but frightening experience within those dark gusts, and pressed a little more tightly against her friend. “Part of me wonders why they don’t use it as a shortcut, but after having been inside it…”

“The Winds of Passion are considered the property of the sixth Lord,” Sunset explained. “Besides that, subjecting oneself to it can have lasting… side effects.” She blushed and averted her eyes from the tornado. "The tornado... it's like it's alive. Any attempt to fly through the cavern, even away from the Winds of Passion, leads to the transgressor getting sucked in."

They made their way up the stairwell. Between Twilight’s pained gait and the strong winds constantly trying to pull them from the wall, their pace was slow. It became even slower as they came upon the first bridge, a long and thin structure with no supports save for where the ends connected to the cliff sides. Twilight didn’t trust it, but Sunset assured her the bridge was more than capable of holding the two ponies’ weight. The real issue was the lack of guardrails; the two of them were at the mercy of the winds.

They crossed the bridge on their bellies, neither willing to risk a gust knocking them off. The passage was excruciatingly slow, especially for Twilight, whose legs stung as she struggled to pull herself along the stone floor.

Once on the other side, Sunset helped her up and they pressed against the wall. “One down,” she called over the winds.

“One down?” Twilight felt her heart sink as she eyed the steep drop. “Y-you mean there’s more bridges we have to cross?”

Her companion nodded, expression grim. “At least a dozen.”

Fear and just a hint of despair filled Twilight as she covered her good eye. “Sweet merciful Celestia… I don’t know if I’m strong enough to handle that many.”

“Don’t worry, Twi.” Sunset tugged her friend a little closer, eyes determined as she guided her to the next staircase. “I won’t let you fall. I promise.”

The stairs and bridges ran in a square about the Winds of Passion, climbing higher and higher up the walls of the canyon. Twilight was in a constant state of alarm, her eye locked on the path ahead and her mind focused on the task. The winds battered them in a ceaseless stream of pressure. Several times one of them would slip and they’d both be forced to brace and recover. It was an exhausting process that seemed to go on forever.

The figures weren’t obvious, not at first. Twilight was so focused on what she was doing that she didn’t even see them. It was the moaning that finally attracted her attention, a sound rising over the winds that didn’t seem to belong. Her ears twitched as she finally broke her concentration and looked up… and stopped to gape.

The cavern wall was covered in long black spikes, but it was what was on those sharp spears that had her trying to tuck her tail between her legs against the wind.

She stared right at a pony, a stallion who hung limply from the wall. He was impaled upon one of those spikes, the pointed tip just visible through his loose jaw. Twilight couldn’t see where the spike was going through his body, but judging by his position that was probably a good thing. Every now and then a leg would twitch and a low, pained moan would escape the pony’s stuffed throat.

And there were others, dozens of ponies similarly pierced and hanging. Twilight’s eyes became locked on one particular mare whose face was pressed against the wall, mouth and throat stretched about one of those spikes. The tip was clearly visible, sticking out from between the folds of her sex and covered in blood and fluids like a macabre sex toy.


Her companion refused to look up. She wrapped a leg about Twilight’s shoulder and gently tugged, her eyes locked firmly on the stairs. “I know. Just don’t look. We’ll be fine.”

It was too late. Twilight had seen and, though she tried hard not to, she kept looking up at the disgusting sights above her. She just couldn’t resist. There were more and more victims, not all of them ponies. Nor were they all impaled through their genitals, either, though those who weren’t were not spared carnal perversion. She saw a minotaur and a pegasus skewered on the same spike, their hips ceaselessly thrusting against one another. There were two stallions, also impaled together, who had their faces bobbing against one another’s crotches in a way that forced Twilight to avert her gaze in shame.

Sunset noticed her discomfort and tightened her grip. “I told you it was disturbing.”

They were at another bridge. Twilight crossed first, biting her lip as her legs screamed in protest. They were hurting far more than her head now, and she was almost desperate for some rest. Yet this new discovery had her skin crawling and her eagerness to escape the sexual wickedness surrounding her outweighed her weariness and pain.

She reached the opposite side and pressed herself against the wall, vehemently ignoring the two mares just over her head. She’d glanced up just long enough to see their heads working almost violently between one another's hips. She closed her eye and did her best not to listen to the moans. One of the mares let out a particularly vulgar sound just as Sunset reached the cliff, and Twilight thought she felt something drip onto her forehead. Stomach churning in disgust and horror, she hurried to get out from under the squirming ponies.

Sunset caught up, glancing at Twilight’s head with a disgusted look. Her horn glowed dimly for about a second as something white was flung from Twilight's forehead. “There. That’s just gross.”

Twilight whimpered; the only thing keeping her pressed against that wall was the abyss below. “T-tell me we’re almost at the top.”

With a hoof raised to keep her mane out of her face, Sunset gazed up at the darkness above them. “I don’t really know. We’ve crossed seven bridges so far, but I don’t know exactly how many there are.”

Twilight cringed and moved forward, almost desperate to get away from the incessant moaning that overpowered the gale. “What in Equestria is wrong with them?”

Sunset shook her head, still stalwartly refusing to examine their surroundings. “Remember those long-term side effects I mentioned? This is it.”

Twilight looked back at her with a wide eye, then stared at the tornado and all the creatures tumbling within. “So that’s why it’s called the Winds of Passion.”

“Not all of them are victims of the tornado, though,” Sunset added. “Some of them just got caught.”

Twilight didn’t understand her meaning until they crossed the next bridge. The new sight had her pausing, hooves locked painfully in place and mind numb. Ponies and other creatures were on their hind knees, backs pressed against the cliff wall and bound by thick shackles. They were all male, black bands covering their eyes. Each and every one of them were displaying erect penises that were nothing like the images from school textbooks that the fillies and colts in school giggled about. The big, swollen things pushed outwards like menacing parasites just waiting for fresh prey. They were fleshy spears, jutting in the air and swinging slowly from the force of the winds.

There were some ponies chained to the floor performing fellatio on some of them, similar black bands on their faces and their heads steadily bobbing back and forth as the stallions moaned. Chains on their necks prevented them from pulling far enough back to free their mouths. There were two mares who were chained leaning against the stallions, thrusting their hips rhythmically. One had her tongue lolled out and moaned in clear pleasure, the other was kissing her stallion in a manner that almost looked painful.

Twilight could only stare, her legs shaking. Sunset nudged her from behind, but she couldn’t move. At last she risked coming alongside Twilight, her expression grim but cheeks flushed. “I know, it’s… unpleasant. But it’s the only path, Twilight.”

“A-are you sure?” Twilight couldn’t tear her eyes away from the bobbing head of the closest mare. “Absolutely, really sure?”

Sunset shifted, chewed her lip. “If there were another route, believe me we’d be on it right now. Come on.” She moved forward, face turned away from the immobile stallions. Twilight’s heart cut flips; there wasn’t enough room on the stairs to avoid physical contact. The heat in her face intensified while she watched one of those firm members rub against Sunset’s side as she passed, bobbing innocuously when she moved on. Twilight thought she saw something white drip from one...

Twilight was as still as a statue for some time, eye locked on Sunset as she slowly ascended to the next bridge. At last she reached the top and turned, gesturing patiently to Twilight.

The princess' lips trembled. She eyed the obscene obstacle course before her.

She had to do this. She couldn’t escape if she didn’t, couldn’t right her mistake, couldn’t return home, couldn’t see her friends.

She had to do this.

She considered closing her eyes – eye – but a cursory glance at the pit and the narrow ledge forced her decision. Hooves trembling, Twilight began to approach. Her stomach churned, her heart pounded against her chest at the perverse display surrounding her. She moved as close to the edge as she dared, but it was no use; she felt the first penis rubbing against her coat, its tip slick, and had to fight to keep from leaping away. She moved as quickly as she could, a sinking feeling in her stomach and her breath coming in quick gasps.

Climbing over the mares on the ground was just as bad. Even if her hooves weren’t injured, she couldn’t jump over them for fear of falling, so she literally had to crawl over them. She could feel every thrust of the ponies’ heads, felt the intense heat and sickening sweat of their bodies. The sour scent of dried sex hit her nostrils and almost made her gag with its intensity. The shame and disgust almost overwhelmed her.

It seemed like an eternity, but at last she was across. She gagged and rubbed her side against the cliff wall in the vain hopes that she might scratch away the sensation of having touched such things. “Are we g-going to have to do that again? P-please say no.”

Sunset said nothing, and Twilight could only cover her burning face and pray it would be over quickly.

They crossed the bridge and encountered another pornographic wall of ponies. Twilight was so desperate to avoid this one that she attempted to use her magic to teleport across. It was no use; she was still recovering from her magic overdose. The attempt left her on her knees and in tears with a smoking horn. Sunset wasn’t much better, for she’d used too much magic in her struggle with Blueblood’s followers. In the end they had to go through the humiliation again, and a third time after crossing the next bridge.

Now they faced another bridge, and this time it too was populated. The entire thing was lined with creatures, all bound with their backs to the ground. The males among them all had erections, their swaying cocks in the air like the poles of a perverted fence. There was no room to move around; Twilight and Sunset had to walk over the blindfolded creatures.

Some of the creatures had others bound to them, bucking and sucking away like mindless golems. Climbing over those was a challenge, not only due to the humiliation, but also because there was no safe way to do so. The constant rocking motions coupled with the powerful gusts kept Twilight on alert as she struggled to climb over the couples. Twice she slipped and nearly fell into the abyss gaping below.

The worst part was a few bridges up. They encountered a stallion riding backwards atop a minotaur, sitting up straight and thrusting like an animal. There was no going around; the mares had to force the bound stallion onto his back and crawl over just like the others. The thrusting never stopped, and Twilight couldn’t help closing her eye as that erect member bounced against her face and rubbed against her belly. She moved quickly, terrified that it might find its way between her legs, and could have sworn she felt the perverted pony’s lips and tongue on her marehood. She was so eager to escape that unwholesome, moist sensation that she nearly fell off, avoiding an eternity in the Winds of Passion only by biting Sunset’s tail for balance.

Neither of them spoke during the degrading ordeal. They just kept going, moving through the hot bodies and ignoring the constant moaning. Twilight had never been a sexual pony, but this experience had her swearing over and over again to never, ever explore the experience for herself. She would rather die than be forced to recall this part of her journey, and if she escaped Tartarus she was determined that nopony would ever know what she was currently going through.

Though it seemed like an eternity had passed since they’d begun climbing, at last an end was within sight. The two mares paused at an intersection between a bridge and the stairs – a refuge from their sexual torment – and gazed high at the Winds of Passion. If Twilight hadn’t already seen so much, she’d have been astounded at the massive boulder that floated in the air. It looked as if the thing were being literally held aloft by the Winds of Passion… which, this being Tartarus, might have been the case. She could see that the bridges would take them directly to the stone.

“Let me guess,” she muttered with ears low. “That’s where the sixth Lord lives, right?”

Sunset’s face was set in a dark glower. “She won’t let us pass, not a chance. We won’t be able to sneak our way past, either – too open.”

Twilight chewed her lip, tasted something salty and promptly spat over the edge with a feeling of revulsion. “I am not turning back after having gone through all of that.”

“And we’ve got some more to go through on the way up,” her companion noted, her lips pulled back in a sneer.

Twilight sat and covered her burning face. Her head still throbbed, her hooves were on fire and there was a disturbing moisture between her legs. She’d been so focused on not falling, on not looking at her surroundings, on the sheer act of moving forward, that by now she was exhausted. It wouldn’t be wise to keep going, she knew that. If she didn’t take a break soon, she’d break. But the loathing she felt for her surroundings, her desperate desire to get away…

“How much farther before we get out of her territory?”

Sunset eyed her and thought on the question. “Not far. Another two or three bridges above the Nin-Imma Cloister and we’re out.”

Twilight could handle that much. She had to. She would rest when they were out. “So how are we going to get past the ‘cloister’?”

Her companion averted her gaze. “Well… we have to teleport.”

Twilight stared at her, a hoof absentmindedly moving to rub her horn. She wanted to protest, but by now she knew that Sunset wouldn’t suggest it if there was a better way. Maybe a brief rest would be beneficial, after all.

“You want to wait?” Sunset sat and observed Twilight, who studied her in turn. Her guide’s shoulders were slumped and her eyes gloomy, but there was still a distinct focus in her. She was probably better off than Twilight right now, all things considered.

Twilight wondered about her own state, but realized that a brief wait wasn’t going to make the spell any easier. There was no telling how long she’d have to linger before she could use her magic safely again, and she wanted out of this place now.

“I can put up with the pain,” she grumbled, "and staying here risks getting caught." She stood, making a very determined effort to ignore the buckle in her knees. “If you’re up for it, I’d like to move now. We can rest once we’re away from this…” She swallowed and gestured at the wall behind them, with its ponies on spikes and perpetually bucking bodies.

Sunset gazed at the wall, then at Twilight, then at the floating boulder over their heads. She shifted from hoof to hoof, chewed her lip, bowed her head. At last she stood. “Okay, we’ll try it. If you’re really, really sure you’re ready.”

Twilight winced and massaged her forehead. “Sunset, Celestia herself couldn’t make me more ready.”

The Nin-Imma Cloister, as Sunset insisted upon calling the floating boulder, really was situated on top of the Winds of Passion. It floated before the mares, its surface bobbing just off the edge of the blessedly bare bridge. Twilight studied the rock, particularly the large colorful mounds that stood like a wall encircling the interior of the cloister. She came to recognize what she was seeing as she approached: horns. The walls were made completely of unicorn horns, piled haphazardly as if they’d been tossed aside.

The sight made Twilight hesitate. “My goddess, there must be thousands. How long has she been collecting them?”

“Not as long as you’d think,” Sunset muttered, her voice just audible over the winds. “Along with Blueblood, she’s actually the newest of the Lords.”

The winds weren’t so strong here, for the Winds of Passion didn’t rise above the boulder. Though it was easier to approach, the mares moved slowly for fear of drawing any attention. The wall of horns stopped right where the bridge ended, leaving an opening just wide enough for a pony to get through. Twilight could see another opening on the other side of the cloister, where a second bridge led to the other side of the canyon.

Lustful moaning caught Twilight’s lowered ears. She realized quickly that it was coming from within the cloister, but she couldn’t see the source. If she had to guess, she imagined the ‘Lord’ was enjoying one of her ‘followers’, but Twilight didn’t want to imagine what that might entail.

They came to a stop at the end of the bridge. The gap between it and the cloister’s edge seemed a little too far for comfort, and Twilight was glad they wouldn’t be trying to jump across. She didn’t think her legs could take it.

Sunset peered back at her. “One at a time, okay? Don’t want to risk bumping one another off.”

Twilight nodded her acceptance. “You first.”

Her companion shifted, once again eyeing Twilight. “I was going to suggest you go first. You’re gonna have a lot more trouble.”

“That’s why you need to be there already,” Twilight replied, trying to make her voice reassuring even as a fresh burst of pain made her wince. “If I mess up, I’d like to know you’re already there and can help.”

Sunset hesitated, but finally nodded. “I don’t know what good I can do, but okay.” She turned and focused her attention on the opposite bridge. There was a long pause as she concentrated, body shaking from the effort and her horn emitting a small sliver of smoke at the tip. At last there was a flash of opal light… and Sunset was on the other side.

Twilight moved closer to the edge, watching with worry as her guide dropped to her knees. But after a few seconds of recuperation Sunset stood and turned back, waving for Twilight to follow.

Twilight closed her eye and mentally braced herself. She knew this was going to hurt a lot. She focused on clearing her mind, hoping it would alleviate the pounding in her skull. It was hard to do with those erotic groans in her ears. Just one spell, one simple, small spell. She set a hoof to her chest, sucked in a long breath and brought it back out as she exhaled. Calm…

She opened her eye, locked it with Sunset’s. She began to focus…

The pain was instant, and it was intense. Twilight locked her hooves, refusing to let herself collapse as metaphorical sledgehammers pounded her skull. Her jaw went rigid, her horn shined and sparked. Buck, did it hurt! Tears fell down her cheeks as she maintained her focus and kept her gaze locked on Sunset’s face. She could do this… just one tiny insignificant spell!

The flash came. With it was a jolt of intense pain that left Twilight seeing red and a high-pitched ringing in her ears. It was so much worse than the steady headache and the burning in her hooves. She couldn’t resist shouting even as the light faded. Her legs failed and she toppled, prompting a cry from Sunset.

Twilight didn’t feel the ground…

Something caught her forelegs just as the red began to fade from her vision. She was dangling over the edge of the bridge, looking into the frantic eyes of Sunset. Her companion grimaced and began to pull Twilight back up. Twilight wanted to help, but her legs wouldn’t work. She could feel the heat radiating from her horn, but it was nothing compared to the pain in her skull. What if she’d caused real damage? Frequent overdoses were known to do that…

At last Twilight was atop the bridge, both her and her savior gasping for breath as the intense ringing finally started to fade. She wanted to thank Sunset, but couldn’t conjure up any words through her labored breathing. She tried to work her legs, but they ignored her commands and remained limp. She just needed rest, that was all. Just a little–

“What do we have here?”

Sunset’s eyes widened, her pupils shrank. She jumped to her hooves and grabbed Twilight’s forelegs, dragging her away from the cloister. “T-Twilight, come on,” she heaved between sharp breaths. “Get up!”

Twilight fought to control her legs, but they continued to stubbornly ignore her. An icy fear arose as she realized the predicament they were in. Why hadn’t she waited, why? “I… I c-c… I…” It was no use, she couldn’t even speak properly yet.

Something caught her hind legs and tugged. Her heart leapt into her throat as she felt herself being pulled backwards. She wanted to shout, to encourage Sunset, to fight for her life! Instead she just hung there, jerked back and forth in a humiliating game of tug-of-war.

At last Sunset was able to speak properly again, and she wasted no time. “Let her go, you bastard!”

Her opponent only pulled that much harder. He was clearly very strong, and the already weakened Sunset was no match. If she didn’t let go they’d both be captured… and Twilight couldn’t let that happen.


“No. I won’t!”

Twilight looked into Sunset’s desperate face, though even that small motion left her seeing stars. “G-go. Sunset…” She sucked in a gasp as she felt Sunset dragged a little more. “P-please… let me go…”

“I won’t!” Her companion had tears in her eyes as she struggled to hold on. “You don’t belong here, Twilight! We’re supposed to get out together, you and me, understand? Together!”

“Nopony’s going anywhere,” a female voice called, and Twilight thought she heard the flapping of wings.

Twilight gazed imploringly into her friend’s eyes, desperation and terror filling her. “S-Sunset, please. Don’t let them take you, too. Go.”

But Sunset was relentless. She shook her head, she pulled with all her remaining strength, she sobbed. Twilight watched as her friend fought vainly, desperately to save her. Twilight should have been touched.

Instead she was scared, because she knew that this was it. This was the moment when it ended. She had failed, and now she was going to spend the rest of her existence trapped in Tartarus.

Something pink appeared, slamming right into Sunset.

No!” Sunset screamed her frustration as she was knocked away, unable to hold on to her charge. Twilight had tears of her own as she saw her friend hit the ground. With no opposition, her captor dragged her back, lifted her up and threw her like a rag doll back into the cloister.

Twilight hit the ground, whimpering in pain as she rolled on top of her broken wing. She shifted her head and gazed out between white legs to see Sunset climbing to her hooves. Tears streaked Sunset’s face as she ran for the cloister, only to be dive-bombed by that pink pegasus. She tried again and was nearly knocked over the edge.

Twilight watched with a building sense of loss and desperation. Her lips worked silently, begging her friend to stop, to flee, to save herself. At last, after so many failed attempts, Sunset began to back off. The pegasus kept coming, but Sunset was learning how to dodge the attacks. Twilight watched… and prayed.

At last Sunset stopped coming entirely. Her frustrated scream filled the canyon, a shriek that let out all her misery and anger and guilt in a long, piercing syllable. She turned and fled, the pegasus still going after her.

Sunset’s voice just barely reached Twilight’s ears.

“I’ll be back for you, Twilight. I swear on my soul, I will be back!”

She was gone. Twilight closed her eye and whispered a prayer to any deity that might listen; let Sunset escape. Maybe then this sacrifice would be worth it.


That voice. She knew that voice! Twilight’s eye gradually opened. She shifted her head just enough to look up.

The bulky body, the white coat, the blue mane… “Sh… Shining?”

“Holy Goddess,” Shining Armor whispered, his eyes going wide. “It is you! What the buck happened to you?”

She tried to move her legs; they responded. Slowly, ignoring the fire in her knees, she reached up and touched his legs. No, he was not an illusion. She wasn’t having a hallucination brought on by the pain and distress and a magic overdose. It was him, her brother, right there.

Of all the ponies she could meet… Twilight wrapped his legs up in a clutching embrace and sobbed. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. All she knew was that her dear, loving brother was here.

She was safe. At long last, she was safe!

He dropped down and held her close, rubbing her back affectionately. “Twily… what are you doing in Tartarus? You look like you slugged your way through hell.”

She hardly heard him. She was too busy feeling the joy of his presence. With what little strength she had left, she pulled herself up and buried her head into his chest. “I w-want to go home. I don’t want to be here anymore! P-please, Shining, t-tell me I can go home…”

He nuzzled her neck with all the tenderness and affection she longed for. “Oh, Twily. I’m so sorry you had to end up down here, too. I never thought I’d see you again.”

She wept against him for a long time, not bothering to wipe the tears away. Her brother… her dear, loving BBBFF. He would protect her, help her. With his stalwart presence, she would escape. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world, a feeling of love and devotion and sheer, unadulterated happiness!

Her ears twitched to the sound of flapping wings.

“She got away.”

Another familiar voice. Twilight slowly turned her head as a pegasus landed nearby. She was so familiar, with a pink coat and violet mane… “C… Cadance?”

Cadance’s scornful expression faded to surprise upon hearing her name. She leaned forward to study Twilight up close. “Have we met?”

It was her. Twilight reached a trembling hoof to touch the pony’s face. “Cadance… it’s me, Twilight. D-don’t you remember?”

“Twilight?” The pegasus’ eyes widened. She looked from Twilight to Shining Armor, then back. “Of course… Twilight Sparkle! You’re Shining’s sister.” She blinked and scanned their surroundings with a miffed frown. “What are you doing here?”

“F-forget that,” Twilight whispered. “What happened to your horn?”

The – princess? – blinked and felt at her forehead. She sighed with a pretty pout. “Oh, I must have lost it in the chase. That other pony can really run.”

Shining winced. “Sorry, Cadance.”

Cadance offered him a soothing smile and rubbed his cheek. “That’s okay, Shiny.” The hoof lowered to touch Twilight’s cheek. It was such a soft touch; Twilight pressed against it with a feeling of love and appreciation like she couldn’t remember having ever felt before.

“We’ll just take this one.”


“Are you… sure?”

Twilight’s eye jerked open. She looked up to see her former foalsitter smiling wickedly. “I want a horn! You’re not going to choose your sister over me—” her voice became as soft as velvet, “—are you, Shiny?”

The reply came without hesitation: “Not a chance.”

Before Twilight could fathom what they meant, she was on her back. Her joy became fear as she looked up to find Shining standing over her, a dark glint in his eye and a grin on his lips. “B-brother… w-what are you doing?”

Then she realized; he had no horn. Instead, just above and between the eyes, there was a hideous recession in his skull.

Her world erupted in pain, stars filling her vision as her dear brother bashed his hoof against the side of her horn. Her face jerked sideways, then looked up at him with tears swelling in her eyes as comprehension dawned upon her. “Sh-Shining, wai—”

He struck her again, this time from the other side.

“Not so eager, my love.” Twilight’s stomach churned as Cadance cooed in her ear. “We don’t want to damage the goods, do we?” She grabbed the sides of Twilight’s head, held it steady as Shining hit her horn again. Twilight sobbed with the pain, her vision going white for a split second.

“P-please, Shining!”


“I’m your sister!”




“P… P-please…”


“D… d… don’t…”


“Shi… ning…”

With the last hit there was a resounding crack that left Twilight screeching in agony. She sucked in sharp breaths, eye shut tight against the reality of her situation. Her brother, her own brother! How could this be happening? What had she done to deserve this?

She barely registered the voices.

“Sounds like it’s loose.”

“Well done, my love! You’ve truly mastered the art.”

“Now all we have to do is…”

Something grabbed Twilight’s horn. It began to move around unnaturally on her head. She sobbed and tried to speak, but her throat couldn’t form the words.

The pain was incomprehensible. Twilight screeched, squirming in futility as her horn was pulled up and away. She could feel something ripping, something pouring down her face. She screamed and screamed, her world nothing but agony, her mind ablaze with terror.

The tugging stopped. Twilight fell back, not aware that she’d been lifted up by the pulling. Her body convulsed, the world seemed to spin even with her eye closed. She gasped, shook, had just a fragile second to think of Sunset…


Awareness came gradually to the sound of moaning. Twilight was on her back, something thick covering her face. She felt like she had been immersed in fire! Her trembling hoof rose, pressed against her closed eyes, rubbed. Slowly, her eyelids parted. Her hoof was blurry. She blinked a few times, sucking down slow gasps as the pain ran up and down her body. Her vision cleared, and she saw her hoof covered in something red.

Blood. Her face was covered in blood.

The horrible, mind-crushing memory came flooding back. She reached up and felt at her forehead… nothing but piercing agony. Her stomach imploded as the air left her. A moment of sheer, horrible clarity filled her. She gazed at her red hooves, panic and alarm mixing within her mind. Her greatest asset, the one thing that she could always depend upon…

Tears mixed with the blood on her cheeks as she covered her face. She was sobbing and hyperventilating at once, a horrible combination that had her choking and coughing. She lost her breath, she gagged, she clutched at her throat. She couldn’t breathe… her eyes rolled back in her head…

Abruptly, her lungs obeyed and she sucked in a desperate breath. This was followed by uncontrollable hacking that had her struggling to breathe once more, phlegm and blood mixing in a nasty mess on her muzzle. She hardly noticed.

At last, she had control of her breathing again… and she could only lay there, staring up at the black nothingness above her. Her mind was empty; no thoughts, no hope or prayers or plans. Just a heavy, all-encompassing despair.

This really was where it ended. After all that time, all the struggles and hopes and promises… this was it. Why had she even bothered? She should have just stayed in Limbo with Sunset.


Maybe she got out. There was only one Lord left, wasn’t there? Maybe… just maybe…

The moaning caught her ears again. Slowly, painfully, she turned her head.

Shining Armor – her brother – was behind Cadance, thrusting into her with a savage eagerness. The pegasus had her face to the floor, a rapturous smile on her lips as she pushed back against his eager bucking.

Twilight didn’t want to watch. The scene was repulsive. They were repulsive. Her foalsitter, who had once been so dear to her, and her doting, protective brother. What had happened to them? How could they do this to her? She wanted to look away… but her eye remained glued to that sickening sight.

Shining leaned forward and caught Cadance’s mane in his teeth. He pulled her head back, eliciting a delighted groan from his wife.

Twilight saw it, and the sight filled her with dread and disgust: her horn, mounted and secured on Cadance’s head by the pegasus’ own mane wrapped about her head. Dried rivulets of blood covered Cadance’s head, a macabre sight that put a revolting taste in Twilight’s mouth.

Twilight stared at the horn, watched it bob back and forth loosely, and felt the panic begin to come back. She closed her eye and vomited before turning her head away with a sob.

She wanted to get away. She was desperate, but any attempt at real motion rewarded her with indescribable pain. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand… she could barely conjure up the strength to roll over, and even that nearly rendered her unconscious. So she just lay on her belly, face set away from the fornicating bastards of this world she’d made, and tried not to think.

At some point the hideous couple stopped, the end punctuated by an excited scream. Twilight hoped she was forgotten, that they would ignore her and go about their wicked business. Maybe if she just lay still long enough, she could regain the strength she needed to crawl to the edge…

“Oh… look,” Cadance breathed. “She… survived…”

“Of course she did,” Shining declared with pride. “My sister’s a lot… a lot tougher than she looks.”

A hoof touched Twilight’s cheek. It made her look up into Cadance’s flushed, blood-streaked face. The abominable pegasus was taking long, recovering breaths as she studied her victim. All Twilight could see was her own horn sticking out precariously from that pink head. The sight of it made her stomach churn…

“I wanted to thank you for the horn,” Cadance whispered. “It looks wonderful on me, doesn’t it, Shiny?”

Shining was at her side, nuzzling her cheek. “Beautiful.” Twilight wanted to look away, but her face was held firm.

Cadance petted Twilight’s mane, her expression adoring. “I don’t know how I could ever repay you for something so precious.” She set a hoof to Twilight’s lips, as if to stop her from speaking. “But, I know one very nice thing I can give you, something that you’ll love.”

She leaned back, letting Twilight’s chin fall back to the floor. “Shiny, my love… you would do anything for me, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course, princess.”

Twilight turned her face away, letting her cheek rest on the cool stone. She didn’t care what Cadance was thinking. The pony was clearly mad. Maybe Twilight was going to be, too.


“Whatever you desire! Name it.”


Cadance’s voice turned wicked:

Rut her.”

Twilight sucked in a gasp. Her body grew cold.

“Is something the matter, Shiny?”

Twilight winced at the pain of moving her head so quickly. She gazed imploringly up at her brother, who returned the look with wide, startled eyes. His lips moved slowly for a few seconds before he managed to answer. “N-no… I just… Rut my sister? I thought…”

Please let him say no. Please let him show a scrap of pony decency. Please let there be something of Twilight’s big brother in there!

Cadance turned away, a scowl on her lips. “Is that too much for you? I bet Blueblood would have done it if it were his sister.”

“No, he wouldn’t!” Shining embraced his wife from behind, eyes alarmed as his chin rested on her shoulder. “I’m your stallion, princess. You know it!”

Cadance’s sweet smile returned. She reached back and petted Shining’s cheek. “Then do this for me, love. Your cock is my gift to her for the horn. Rut her like a beast, just like you do me.”

A hideous shudder ran through Twilight at those words. Please say no, please say no, please say—

Shining’s voice was dripping with adoration. “As you wish, my princess.”

Terror filled Twilight to the point of panic. Adrenaline mixed with her dread as she struggled against the agony and her own feeble strength to crawl away. She focused everything on the edge of the cloister. If she could reach it, she could fall, and if she fell…

Her hind legs were caught, she was dragged backwards. Twilight tried to scream, to plead, but her voice came out hoarse. There was a weight on her hind legs, pinning them down. She looked over her shoulder and saw her own brother’s erection. Her tear-streaked face shook frantically, ignoring the pounding pain the motion caused. She fought to work her voice, to get something, anything out.

“P-please… M-mercy…”

He entered.

Twilight’s scream came out a throaty, pathetic whimper as he broke through her virginal layers and filled her marehood. She bit her lip so hard it bled, her back arching as she tried to push away… but it was no use. She collapsed to her belly as he began to thrust, tears streaming down her cheeks and a pathetic yelp slipping out her throat with every painful hit.

Her brother.

Sweet merciful Celestia, her own brother...

“There, there.” Cadance was at her side, nuzzling the back of her neck. “That feels nice, doesn’t it?”

“P-please…” It came out as little more than a desperate whisper. “Sp… Spare me…”

Shining kept pushing inside her, every thrust a fresh indignity. Twilight closed her eye and sobbed, her legs slowly pulling at the ground in what she knew was a vain effort.

“Bite her mane, Shiny.”

Twilight’s head was jerked backwards, the motion causing an explosion of pain in her broken skull. Her moist eye went to the wall of the canyon, where she could see more creatures suffering similar fates. Her head bobbed back and forth with her brother’s, a sick slap sounding with each hit as an unwelcome moisture began to build up between her thighs.

“Sh-Shining… big brother… don’t… don’t d-do this…”

“Oh, that is such a sexy look!” Cadance moved before Twilight, leaning back and spreading her legs wide. Twilight fought to avert her gaze as the pegasus ran a hoof over her own slit. “Keep it up, Shiny, but not too fast. I want to enjoy this as much as you do.”

Shining obliged, his thrusts slowing gradually. Twilight tried not to think about what was happening, about how her body was reacting, about what her precious brother was doing to her. Her eyes swam out to the opening between the walls, to the ridge, to the ledge. Sunset… where was Sunset?

Cadance began to moan, her hoof moving even faster against her moistened sex. “Yes… So good. You should see her face, Shiny, it’s amazing!”

Shining responded with a grunt and picked up speed again, Twilight’s entire body jerking to his rhythmic pounding.

“I have a wonderful idea.” Cadance lifted her moistened hoof so it was just under Twilight’s muzzle. “Have you ever given a hornjob, Twilight?”

The foul stench of Cadance's arousal assaulted Twilight’s nostrils. She tried to turn her head away, but Shining’s hold on her mane kept her neck taught. She sobbed as Cadance rubbed her hoof against Twilight’s face, sticky precum making a mess.

“Let’s try… this.” Cadance untied Twilight’s horn from her head, took a moment to lick the tip with a wicked smile… and then set the thick lower portion to her own clit. She emitted a carnal moan as she pressed it inside, then moved closer to the captive Twilight.

“Set her down, Shiny,” she ordered. “Slowly.”


Shining loosened his grip. Twilight’s face began to lower.

“S-Sunset… where are you…?”

Twilight's eye locked on her own horn, raised up like a hideous tower. She pressed her forehooves to the floor, tired knees shaking in agony as she struggled to hold her own weight.

“Help… h-help me…”

“Oh, Twilight, don’t tease.” Cadance pressed down on the prostrate pony’s head, forcing it further down.

“Somepony… he-help…”

She was too weak to keep fighting; her face dropped and her mouth opened to accept the horn lest she be pierced. She kept her jaw wide, refusing to do what she knew they wanted. They’d violated her in so many ways… let her resist this!

“Oh, Goddess.” Shining let out a rough moan, his hips slapping even faster against Twilight’s rump. She could feel the intense heat of his cock swelling within her…

“Yes…” Cadance used her forehooves to force Twilight’s head up and down. “That’s a good filly…”

Twilight's jaw grew sore. She couldn’t hold it open forever. She could feel the horn – her horn! – bouncing against her teeth as her body rocked with increasing force.


She clamped down on the horn, a last act of resistance. The thing began to wobble back and forth with her motions, digging a little deeper into Cadance’s exposed marehood.

“Hey! That…” A shiver ran through Cadance’s body. “Th-that’s nice… Oh Goddess, that’s wonderful!”

Twilight didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything. She just wanted it to end. She closed her eye and prayed it would be over soon…

“C-Cadance… She’s… She’s so…” Shining’s thrusts became wild.

“I know… I know! Do it, Shiny!”

Twilight’s eye flew open in understanding. She wanted to scream, to beg, to do something!

“Fill her, fill your kid sister!” Cadance’s words were impassioned with the obsession of an impending climax.

It was all Twilight had left: she thrust her head back, pulling the horn out of Cadance, who let out a shuddering cry at the motion and began to convulse. Twilight spit the horn out and screamed.

“Shining, please! It’s me, you’re sister! I’m Twilight! Twiley! Don’t do this!”

“Sweet Goddess!” Shining’s hips only worked harder. “I love it when they beg!”

She clawed at the floor, she sobbed, she pleaded. “No! No no no no no! Sunset help me! Celestia Luna Rainbow Applejack Discord somepony!”

Her face hit the floor, Shining’s forehooves pressed against her upper back. She squirmed, mind filled with an indescribable terror.

“Somepony! Anypony! Help m—!”

Her words cut off in a final, primal shriek as her brother’s thrusts came to an abrupt stop. Her eye stared wide and unseeing as something hot began to fill her, Shining’s body convulsing tight against her rump as his thick member throbbed.

She didn’t notice when he pulled out. She just lay there, too weak in body and mind to offer a response other than an occasional sob. Her brother… How had it come to this? The pure, wretched indignity…

No more. She silently mouthed the words, over and over again. No more…

“That was astounding!” Cadance patted the enfeebled Twilight’s head. “Sexual skill must run in your family, love.”

“We… We can’t be done.” All hesitation had gone from Shining's voice. “I… I want to do her again!”


“Yes, she’ll make a nice toy for the time being. Why don’t you enjoy that delightful mouth of hers?”

Twilight closed her lips on instinct and slowly shook her head. Please, no more…

“Yes… Yes, my princess. I want to fill her throat next!”

Oh Goddess, it wasn’t going to end. Had they no sense of mercy?

“Oh… but she did bite down on the horn…”

Sunset… Twilight’s head shifted slowly to the exit, to the bridge, to the wall. Her friend, her only chance, was nowhere to be seen.

“Break her muzzle. That’ll make things easier, won’t it, love?”

She tried to call out, to plead: ‘come back...’ She had no voice.

“It’ll do.”

Come back…

Twilight’s head rose. Hooves were holding her muzzle. She reached up with feeble legs, tried to push them away as she felt her brother’s strength.

The hooves pressed in with an audible crunch. Twilight opened her mouth to scream but could manage no more than a faint wind.

Sunset… please…

Twilight was on her back. Something long and pale hovered over her face, dripping a salty gunk in her open mouth. She tried to close it, but the pain kept her from applying any pressure; a hoof reached down and easily forced her jaw open.


A tongue flicked over Twilight's marehood, accompanied by an eager groan.

Twilight’s mind began to retreat just as she felt something being pushed between her lips. She closed her eye and let the anguish seep over her.

She didn’t pay attention to the fresh humiliation.

Better to hide in her tormented mind.

She was in the library, Spike helping her practice magic. He was so helpful, even when he would rather be reading his stupid comics or visiting Rarity. He was always at Twilight’s side…

She was in Canterlot with Rarity, putting up with the her friend’s gushing over her royal gown. So eager to help Twilight practice her royal poise.

She was in the sky, Rainbow Dash laughing raucously as Twilight clumsily flew into a big cloud. She never would have learned to fly without Rainbow’s help.

She was at Sugarcube Corner, wiping icing from her face after Pinkie Pie had burst from a cake as part of the surprise. Dear Pinkie, always there to cheer her up.

She was at Sweet Apple Acres, helping Applejack prepare for a bake sale. AJ was always making sure Twilight was honest with herself.

She was in the park, enjoying tea with Fluttershy and her animals. Kind, caring Fluttershy, always showing by example how to be the gentlest, most serene pony Twilight could be.

She was at home, with her mother and father. They always supported her, were always so proud.

She was at Canterlot Castle, alone with her beloved mentor. Celestia… Twilight missed her so much…

They were all gone. Every last one of them. She’d never see them again.

But for now she would remain here in her memories of them, where they would stay and be cherished for the rest of her life.

…however long that might be.

The Known

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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter IX: The Known

“Who art thou that art become so foul?"
"Thou seest that I am one who weeps."
"With weeping and with wailing do thou remain, for I know thee.”
Dante's Inferno, Canto VIII

How long had she been trapped here? How many depravities had she endured? How many more were to come? Twilight couldn’t answer any of those questions. Her mind kept flitting between reality and fantasy. She remembered seeing and feeling things being done to her that were so wrong, so shameful, so morally repugnant that she quickly retreated back to that beloved fantasy where her friends were still with her and her life was carefree.

But the things she did were still stuck in her mind. She remembered coming to with her own horn rammed painfully inside her anus. She dreaded the sensation of Cadance’s tongue within her marehood as Shining bucked between her lips. She could still envision being suspended in the air between her brother and one of those wall-bound creatures. The thrusting, the ceaseless thrusting…

Perhaps they’d grown tired of her. Maybe Cadance felt Twilight was getting too much attention. Whatever the case, Twilight was no longer with them.

No, she was one of those trophies, a band over her eyes and her forelegs shackled to a wall as something pumped in and out of her throat. How many times did she come out of her fantasy stupor to find herself still there, mouth filled with a salty substance and head bobbing rhythmically? Every time she would remember where she was, what she was doing… and flee as fast as she could back to the past.

Then, at some indeterminable time after, something changed. She roused from her stupor to find her throat unclogged and her legs unbound. Her entire body ached and her skull pounded... but no thrusting. No penetrations. She was being carried by somepony, her cheek rubbing against soft fur.

Slowly, dreading that it might be a lie, she opened her eye. She was in a dark tunnel, no different from so many she’d already seen. She watched the stone slip by at a slow pace, not daring to look around or try to acknowledge anything.

This was Tartarus.

Good things didn’t happen here.

Twilight couldn’t ignore it forever. She shifted her head to get a better view. A red mane, an amber coat…

“S… Suns-set?”

Sunset gasped, looking back at Twilight with wide eyes.

“You’re awake!” She saw Twilight wince and cringed. “Sorry! Sorry. H-here…”

The pony dropped to her knees and Twilight collapsed off her back in a clumsy, feeble heap. Sunset moved quickly to cradle Twilight by the shoulders.

Twilight gazed up, still wondering if what she was seeing was real. She tried to speak, her crooked muzzle giving her voice a nasal quality. “You… y-you came back?”

“I promised I would.” Tears were welling in Sunset's eyes as she rocked back and forth. “I’m sorry. I t-tried to come back sooner, I really did! I’m so, so sorry…”

Twilight had tears of her own. She gazed up at this pony, the only friend she had left. “You came back.” She reached up and held Sunset close, buried her face in her shoulder. “Thank you. Thank you s-so much…”

“You’ll be okay,” Sunset cooed through her hiccups, petting her friend’s mane as she continued to rock. “Everything’s going to be fine, Twilight.”

“No,” Twilight whimpered, her grip tightening. “Nothing is fine. Not a damn thing. My b-brother, Sunset. My own bucking b-brother!” Her body shook as she wept, the shame and horror coming back to her anew. “I will never b-be fine again…”

Sunset just kept rocking and whispering. “It’s okay, Twi. You’re okay. We’re both going to be okay…”

Twilight didn’t want to keep going. She knew they were close, that the Gates might be just a few hours away. But there was still one more Lord to get past and Twilight was terrified of the prospect. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t at all eager to face more. Sunset tried to reassure her that the seventh lord’s territory was rather bland, and that slipping past him wasn’t going to be hard as it had been for the others.

Twilight couldn’t bring herself to believe that. Sometimes she’d even find herself retreating back to those happy fantasies just to avoid the humiliating memories that ceaselessly haunted her. She knew she needed to move on, but part of her was too depressed to try. The only way she would ever get home was through magic, and without her horn what was the point?

It was clear that Sunset was eager to press on... but Sunset still had her horn. She wasn’t battered and bruised, she hadn’t been used as a sex toy for the Goddess knew how long. She hadn’t been poisoned by Ne’er, with hacking fits that seemed to grow ever worse. She’d not seen her friends slaughtered in a terrible dream orchestrated by a monster. By luck or fate, she’d come this far practically unharmed. She still had hope.

That was not a commodity Twilight had. Not anymore.

Time wore indecipherably on. At some point Sunset began to talk. She told Twilight of her past, of how her mother had disappeared when she was but a tiny filly. She spoke of how she’d survived out of trash cans and thievery until a dark individual caught her and dragged her kicking and screaming to Canterlot. There she discovered that she was not to be imprisoned for the rest of her life, but was simply being brought in to take the aptitude tests required by all unicorns at her age. How they knew of her when she’d been off grid all her life she didn’t know, but she begrudgingly went through the exams… and aced them. Celestia had taken her on as her personal protégé, the happiest moment of the mare’s life.

Celestia was like a mother to her. She’d taught her everything she knew, gave her food and shelter. She knew the princess was corrupt, that she was scheming and domineering. It didn’t matter; she’d taken Sunset in. That was all the proof Sunset needed to know that there was still a spark of kindness in there.

Twilight listened to the story, eager to distract her mind from the worries she faced. She was quick to point out that Celestia had almost literally thrown Sunset away by sending her here. Sunset didn’t deny this. It was the single most painful thing to have ever happened to her. She’d been lost in misery, feeling like a failure, like she’d been betrayed.

She’d loved Celestia, and her reward was eternal damnation.

“Then you arrived,” she reminded Twilight, voice filled with pride. “I saw the good in you. You helped me realize that light can shine even in the deepest darkness. The way you gushed about Celestia… I hated you in the beginning. I felt like you’d stolen my precious princess, the pony who was as good as my mother.

“Now I understand that your gushing was for your own Celestia, the one from your world.” Sunset beamed at Twilight. “It got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, that kind of light still exists somewhere in my Celestia. If I can just find a way to remind her that it exists, to show her what she could be, she might take me back. It can happen, I know it can.” Her eyes shined, her gaze set on something far off in her mind’s eye.

Twilight thought she was being naïve. She sat back against the wall and made no mention of this, however.

Sunset noted her expression, but didn’t seem at all bothered by it. She sat against the wall as well, studying her friend eagerly. “Hey… tell me about your world.”

Twilight blinked and raised an eyebrow at her friend. “Why?” She was finally learning to speak normally through her broken muzzle, which didn’t hurt so much anymore.

“I want to learn." Her companion's eyes still had that annoying glow that made Twilight want to slap her across the jaw. “Your world is a nicer one, I can tell. I want to know about it, about your Celestia. Maybe through this I can find something to help me get through to my Celestia.”

Twilight crossed her legs and huffed. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you’re thinking.”

Sunset frowned, leaning close to study Twilight. “Come on, Twi. You used to be so full of hope and confidence. I get it, I really do. Maybe if you remind yourself of where you came from… maybe then you’ll be able to have a little hope again.”

Twilight found that dubious… but she decided to humor her friend. She explained how Discord had been turned to stone rather than killed, about Luna and Nightmare Moon, about the Elements of Harmony. She revealed the original history of Starswirl the Bearded, about the defeat of King Sombra, about the Changeling invasion. She recalled with fondness her brother’s wedding to Cadance, of the reformation of Discord. Twilight remembered her own role as Celestia’s beloved protégé, of her journey through the enchanted mirror to meet the other Sunset Shimmer.

Yet the story that gave her the most pride, which had her breaking down into tears, wasn’t the moment she’d become a princess as she’d anticipated. No, it was that first adventure, when she helped to save Princess Luna… of when she discovered her friends. That memory, that precious, precious moment of comprehension and love, left her sobbing.

She wished she could go back. She longed to see their faces again, even if only for an instant.

“But I’ll never see them again,” she lamented, rubbing the tears from her cheeks and avoiding Sunset’s gaze. “I’ve lost my horn, so I have nothing. I can’t cast the spell to go back in time and fix my mistake. I’m trapped…” She touched her throat as she felt the itch that signified a coming hacking fit. “And if things keep going the way they have been, I might be dying, too.”

A cold silence lingered between them, interrupted only by Twilight’s occasional sniff. Twilight fought the need for as long as she could, but the coughing finally came. It held her attention for several long seconds, blocking her air and bringing fresh tears to her eyes. At last it passed, and she sat back against the wall with a long, miserable sigh.

Sunset had watched with a grim expression. She set hoof to her chin and thought long and hard on the situation, during which time Twilight worked to recover her breathing. Finally Sunset gained a warm smile and leaned close. “It’s not over yet, Twilight.”

The broken princess rolled her eye with a dejected sniff. “I don’t see any way out of this.”

Her companion scooted a little closer and nuzzled her shoulder affectionately. “You still have the power of friendship.”

Twilight barked a laugh, but she actually felt like weeping all over again. She covered her face with a leg and pouted. “I don’t think that’s going to be of much use this time. I don’t even have my Element.”

“But you have me,” Sunset reminded her. “I still have my horn, I believe your story. I wasn’t selected to be Celestia’s apprentice for nothing.”

Twilight lowered her leg to eye her friend. She thought she felt just the faintest spark of something familiar within her upon hearing those words. “What are you saying?”

Sunset’s smile was warm. “I’m saying that once we get out of here, I’ll help you find a way home. I’ll learn the magic myself, I’ll personally bring you back in time to fix your mistake.”

That familiar sensation grew. It made Twilight’s chest feel light. “You… you’d do that?”

“Of course!” Sunset wrapped a leg about Twilight’s shoulder and pressed her close with a grin. “What are friends for?”

Twilight wasn’t quite ready to accept this, even though she felt so incredibly warm. “I… But… B-but if you go into the past… what if you end up stuck in my world?”

“Something tells me that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” Sunset rubbed cheeks with Twilight. “Besides, after all you’ve done for me, it’s the least I can do.”

It was as if the ice that had been forming over Twilight’s heart had melted and become tears. She wrapped Sunset up in a tight embrace as she realized that there still was some hope left for her.

“Thank you, Sunset. Oh, thank you!”

Twilight’s hooves didn’t hurt as much as they used to, and though her head was still sore the pain was nothing compared to what it had been. Perhaps it was a sign of how long she’d been lingering, or of the time she’d been trapped with Cadance and Shining Armor. Maybe it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, she could walk with much greater ease, and for that she was grateful.

Sunset was at her side, perpetually smiling. It was like somepony had found the ‘happy switch’ in her brain and locked it to the ‘on’ position. At first it was annoying… but Twilight was coming to like this new Sunset Shimmer. She was certainly an improvement from the gloomy, borderline suicidal variant Twilight had first met.

Knowing that she’d had a hoof in this transformation left Twilight with a powerful sense of pride. It reaffirmed her existence and purpose. She didn’t know if not having a horn anymore disqualified her as a princess, but at least she was still spreading friendship. As long as she could continue to do that, perhaps she could be at peace with herself. Maybe she would be able to recover from the mental scars of this journey.

But the scars ran deep. Twilight had to focus all her attention on her smiling friend, to remind herself of the one good thing she’d achieved. If she didn’t… she would start to remember. Sometimes, when she let her mind drift, images would slip into her thoughts, pictures of the things she’d been trying to block out through her fantasies even as they happened.

At the worst times Twilight could still feel them inside her.

Tearing away from those shameful sensations was always hard.

The lingering pains of Tartarus were poisoning Twilight’s mind just as much as Ne’er had poisoned her body. Every now and again she’d recall the feeling of her eye being clawed out, or walking through the living muck of Chrysalis’ victims, of watching her friends slaughtered in her dreams. Sometimes she’d just break down and weep for no reason, at times without even realizing it.

Yet every time Twilight started to stumble, physically or mentally, Sunset was there. A shoulder to cry on, an encouraging word when it was needed, a determined push when it didn’t help. Twilight would never be able to describe how appreciative she was. It made her wonder about the Sunset Shimmer of her own time, what she might have become if she’d only been true to Celestia’s lessons. Twilight wouldn’t say it out loud, for she didn’t want to give her friend too much hope… but she prayed in the end that Sunset would indeed go back with her.

It would be a better life than staying in this wretched world.

They seemed to have been walking for ages, but this didn’t bother Twilight; ‘ages’ seemed to be how long it took to do anything in Tartarus. Still she found herself wondering; the tunnels seemed endless, and they never changed. It was always the same bland, dark stone, always the same twisting, turning tunnels. Where was the variation, the unusual elements created by the draconequus magic?

She couldn’t hold her curiosity back any longer. “Do you have any idea how far we have left to go?”

Sunset shrugged. “Not really.”

Twilight glowered at her friend’s smile. “I’m getting tired of all this rock. Isn’t there some loopy cavern with trees made from pudding or some other insipid landmark?”

A light giggle bubbled from Sunset. “I don’t think I’d call that ‘insipid’. ‘Fun’ comes to mind.” She noted Twilight’s scowl and winced. “Sorry. We’re mostly outside of the range of the draconequus magic. No more crazy stuff, no more defying the laws of physics. We might even be far enough away now to be susceptible to hunger and weariness.”

That made Twilight pause. “You mean we’ll need to eat and sleep again.”

Sunset nodded with a curious expression. “I haven’t slept in so long, I don’t even remember what that’s like. I vaguely recall enjoying it, though.”

“I’m more interested in food,” Twilight confessed as she caught up at a trot. “How are we supposed to survive if there’s nothing to eat down here?”

“Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Sunset patted her on the back. “When we start to feel hungry, that means we’re close to the gates.”

Twilight felt at her stomach with a concerned frown. “I hope you’re right…”

“Of course I am.” Sunset’s head rose with a smirk. “I’m Sunset Shimmer! Have faith, oh neophyte.”

Twilight rolled her eye but couldn’t resist a small smile.

It was a long while before Twilight realized the feeling in her stomach was hunger. Sunset had been completely mystified by the sensation, but when she finally understood what she was feeling she became jubilant.

“This is a good sign,” she had insisted. “This means we’re almost to the exit!”

Twilight tried to think the same way.

It wasn’t easy.

Weariness came next, and it surprised them both. Sunset was eager to try sleeping; it had been so long, and she thought it might be a nice change of pace. Twilight insisted they keep going, but eventually they settled down against the cave wall.

Sunset was out like a light… but Twilight tossed and turned. Sleep scared her. It meant dreams, and that was the last thing she wanted. She drifted in and out of consciousness, always waking with a jerk and a whimper. Sometimes she would find herself in tears. After a while she snuggled in close to Sunset, desperate for the comforting warmth of a kind soul.

Sunset came to an eternity later, groggy but happy. She dreamed, too, but all her dreams were of a bright future. She regaled a disillusioned Twilight with tales of being under Celestia’s wing again, of helping Twilight go home, of meeting all Twilight’s friends. There was so much hope in her.

Twilight felt only bitterness, stoked by weariness and gnawing hunger.

They traveled on, their moods so very different. Sunset seemed so certain that they would find the gates right around the next corner. Twilight kept wondering if they’d ever actually see them.

Yet as time went by Sunset began to lose her chipper smile. She maintained her positive attitude, but she wasn’t fooling Twilight; the hunger pangs were getting to her. How long would they last? What if they’d come all this way just to die of thirst?

Twilight refused to voice these fears. Part of her thought that voicing them would make the issue real, another wanted to take strength from Sunset’s determination.

The weariness came back, so they tried sleeping again. This time the hunger kept them both from sleeping peacefully. Twilight could see the worry slipping through her companion’s positive remarks. She wanted to encourage Sunset, but couldn’t form the words. How was she supposed to inspire hope when she didn’t have any to begin with?

It made Twilight feel helpless. After all Sunset was trying to do for her, had promised to do in the future, Twilight felt she should do more herself. Instead they might end up dying in the dark, cold and hungry, clinging to a chance that was so preposterously tiny.

This time Twilight was glad when sleep finally, mercifully took her.

Twilight awoke cold and starving. Neither of these facts bothered her quite so much as waking up alone. She rose to her hooves and peered through the darkness, rubbing her eye and wondering where Sunset had gone off to.

Why would she leave?

Twilight stretched until her back emitted a loud crack, sighing with relief. What she wouldn’t give for a warm meal and a soft bed. She took a moment to try and get her bearings; which way was forward? With everything looking exactly the same, determining direction was difficult. Even so, eventually she felt confident and began to walk through the darkness. The only reason she could think of for Sunset to disappear was if she was scouting ahead.

It wasn’t long before they bumped into one another. Literally; their heads banged together with a resounding whack as they tried to turn the same corner at once. The impact would have hurt regardless, but coupled with the already damaged state of Twilight’s cranium it left her seeing stars. She fell to her haunches with a cry and tears in her eyes, clutching at her burning skull with shaking hooves.

“Sorry, sorry.” Sunset was kneeling before her in an instant. “Crap, I didn’t see you, I am so sorry!”

“Sweet merciful Goddess, that smarts…” Twilight peered at Sunset from between her legs. “Where were you?”

“Here, let me look.” Sunset gently pushed Twilight’s hooves away, her horn emitting a dim glow as she leaned close to examine the injury. “My hunger was driving me nuts, so I thought I’d do a little scouting.”

Twilight let her hooves drop with a low moan. “How does it look? Aside from ugly.”

“Oh, it’s not… that…” Sunset caught Twilight’s lecturing glower and sighed. “Okay, I’ll admit, it’s kinda disturbing. And bleeding again.”

“Perfect.” Twilight crossed her hooves and sulked. “Did you at least find something worth cracking open my skull?”

“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Sunset replied with a comforting smile. “It’ll stop bleeding soon. At least you aren’t recalling hunger for the first time in years. After so long of not eating, I think I could devour an Ursa Minor.”

“That does sound bad,” Twilight admitted, though she was far from amused. She felt at her own rumbling stomach and sagged. “Sunset… I don’t know how long we’ll last at this rate.”

Sunset’s smile broadened. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”


“No, no, this time I’m serious.” Sunset pulled Twilight to her hooves with a grin and waved in the direction she’d come from. “Come on, you’ll see.” She ran into the darkness, pausing to turn and gesture excitedly at the next corner. She bounced from hoof to hoof. “Come on!”

Twilight saw her excitement and felt her heart skip a beat; she really meant it, they were almost there! Though her legs protested some, Twilight followed at an eager trot. She began to take some of Sunset’s excitement for her own. She had thought she would never smile quite like that again, but Twilight felt her lips curling up in a big, eager grin.

Home. All she had to do was get out of here and she could go home. Sunset would see to it, and Twilight would get to be with all her friends again. Her mother, her father, Spike, the girls, Celestia… even Discord! When she saw that big, stupid lug she would kiss him!

Sunset brought her to a place she wasn’t quite expecting: a cavern. But it wasn’t like the rest of the caverns Twilight had seen so far; it was more akin to a massive hallway, and though the ceiling had to be hundreds of feet over their heads the expansive breadth of the place made it seem short. Tall, thick stone rose from haphazard locations to form natural, jagged columns. Other than that, it was surprisingly plain.

Twilight slowed to a walk alongside Sunset, her eyes roaming the shadowed landscape. “What is this place?”

“The entrance hall,” her companion replied eagerly as her horn started to shine. “After the draconeqii stopped protecting Tartarus, the newcomers planned to make it into the entrance of a city. I think some old king wanted to make it into his seat of power. He and a scouting party went into the depths to look for the rumored riches of Tartarus… only a few came back, and what they told the workers scared enough ponies to end any plans for the place’s habitation.”

“So that’s when Tartarus became a prison.”

“Sometime after that, yes.” Sunset’s head swiveled about, her eyes shining almost as brightly as her horn. “The exit is here, I remember it! The hall looks huge, but it’s not as expansive as it seems.”

Twilight examined the dark beyond the columns. “You sure you know how to find it?”

“Oh ye of little faith.” Sunset chuckled and tapped her head. “When I was first exiled, I spent ages scouring this place for an alternate exit. I pretty much memorized it, although I admi—” Her mouth seemed to freeze mid-word as she turned to look at Twilight. Her pupils went small, her eyes grew wide, her entire body became rigid. Slowly, her eyes moved up.

Twilight blinked, considered her friend's expression and turned around.

It took a couple seconds for Twilight to understand what she was seeing… but when she did her breath caught in her throat. There, just visible in the darkness between two columns, was a tall, red-scaled leg with talons longer than she was. Gradually, a tiny wheeze squeezing out of her throat, she lifted her eyes up to follow those scales to a broad shoulder, which was attached to a massive and muscular chest, above which was a serpentine neck that held a long face with a smile revealing teeth that looked like they could cut her in half. Then there were the eyes, massive, yellow, almond-shaped things that were peering right at her.

The eyes glinted. A deep breath sent gusts wrapping about Twilight and Sunset. The scaled lips parted and a deep, strong voice seemed to fill the entire cavern.

“Well hello, little morsels.”

The mares gulped in unison.

Twilight had seen many dragons in her time. She had a very healthy fear of them. She thought she knew how big they could get. Now, as she watched that head slowly rise to not quite touch the vast stone ceiling, she realized that she would have to reconsider her concepts of scale.

She stepped back, hooves shaking. Sunset followed suit.

The dragon raised his claws high in a gesture of calm. “Oh, don’t go. You only just arrived, little morsels. Stay a while…” His neck snaked down until his massive head was hovering just above theirs. “…and talk.”

Sunset was hyperventilating, but she still managed to get some words out. “W-we… were just… p-passing… th-through… R-Reddux, the M… M-Mighty… and-and…”

Reddux’s head shifted so he was peering at Sunset with one eye, his scaled lips turned up in a toothy grin. “Forgive my aging eyes, but you look familiar…”

“No, no.” Sunset took another alarmed step back with a strained smile. “Y-you must have me confused with somepony else. I m-mean lots of ponies do c-come through here and—”

“No, I am certain I know you from somewhere.” He rose up, a gargantuan claw reached for them. The mares shouted as one and turned to flee, but Sunset was too slow; her tail was caught between two claws that were even larger than she was.

She covered her eyes as she was lifted off the ground. “R-really, you’ve got the wrong pony!”

Twilight watched in horror as her friend dangled upside down between Reddux’s eyes. The dragon rubbed his scaled chin with a smirk as he studied the seemingly tiny mare.

“Hmmm… Give me a moment. I’m sure it will come to me.”

Twilight found her voice. “Please, put her down!”

The dragon cast a slow, curious glance her way. He waved his free claw at her with a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring, but with all those teeth it only came out terrifying. “Now, now. No need to fret. I just need to… jog my memory.” His long snout moved close to the squirming Sunset, his nostrils coming within a few feet and taking a deep sniff. The pony would have easily fit inside one of those holes.

“Ah, yes!” Reddux’s eyes went wide as he gently set Sunset down on his other claw. “You are Sunset Shimmer, the pony who scoured my halls with such great determination.” He lowered his claw and deposited her to the floor. “Back to try again, are you?”

Sunset’s legs buckled. She wobbled sideways a couple steps before managing to lock her knees and stand properly. “Th-that’s right, I forgot all about that!” She tried to smile, her lips trembling. “Silly me, b-but that’s what happens when you’ve b-been lost in the d-d-depths for so long, right?”

Twilight hurried to her friend, setting a hoof to her shoulder for a little moral support and as a precaution in case her legs failed.

“And a new friend, too.” Reddux’s claws rubbed together as he observed Twilight, eyes literally glowing in the darkness. “She looks like she’s been through quite a bit. Come now, don’t be rude. Introduce yourself.”

Twilight’s ears lowered and her heart tried to bash its way out of her chest. She looked up into those yellow eyes and saw something she couldn’t place, something… scary.

The dragon stood tall, the scales of his head just barely grazing the ceiling. “I can see you are confused. That’s alright. Here, let me begin.” He gestured to himself with a regal pose, snout raised high. “I am Reddux, greatest of all dragons, First Lord of Tartarus and, if I may be so bold, a perfect specimen of grandeur. Wouldn’t you agree, Sunset?”

Sunset’s eyes grew wide. “O-oh, yes, absolutely, oh great and sp-splendid Reddux!”

He grinned and waved a welcoming claw at Twilight. “Your turn, little morsel.”

Twilight hesitated, her chin quivering at the massive creature before her. She cast a glance at Sunset, who nodded vigorously, and sucked in a shuddering breath. “I am… T-Twilight Sparkle, my lord.” She bowed on instinct, not knowing what else to do.

“Oooh, a polite one.” She looked up and let out small squeak; his toothy snout couldn’t be more than a foot from her muzzle. “I like you, already.”

She started to stand just as he inhaled, the winds whipping her mane about her face. She backed up and shivered, her eye darting about for some kind of escape. There had to be some way…

Reddux’s head rose, his eyes blinked with a perplexed frown. His claw rose up to rub his snout as if to rid it of an itch. “This scent… I know it.”

Terror and alarm struck Twilight like a hammer, but it wasn’t quite as strong as her confusion. “B-but that’s not possible. I’ve never met you before.” And this time it was true; even in her own time, Reddux had been little more than a story to her.

A very scary story.

Reddux considered her, lips pursed and a claw rubbing his chin. “I wonder…”

“Sh-she’s telling the truth,” Sunset declared, setting a hoof to Twilight’s shoulder with a fragile grin. “She got the one way ticket, y-y’know? Shot straight down to L-Limbo, never came through here!”

Massive eyebrows rose. “Really? Something like that only happens to… serious threats.”

Twilight shot her companion a glare before offering up her own shaky smile. “Serious threat, me? Y-yeah, right. Just at the wr-wrong place at the wrong time!” Her chuckle couldn’t have sounded more forced if she’d tried.

“Yet you didn’t pass through the…” Those yellow eyes flashed, Reddux’s lips dropped to a suspecting frown. His head lowered and turned to his right, peering deep into the darkness.

“...the Gates.”

Sunset’s shaky voice whispered into Twilight’s ear, “Time to go.” The two mares began to walk backwards in unison.

“The Gates.” Reddux inhaled deep, his eyes half closing as if he were recalling something. “That’s where I’ve detected that scent before.”

Twilight’s heart pounded, her hooves shook as she crept backwards towards the nearest column.

“You were at the Gates.” Reddux turned to them, his shoulders tensing, his sharp eyes locking onto Twilight. “That’s the scent I keep getting from there. It’s you. You were the Gatekeeper.”

“No. No, I’ve never been to the Gates of Tartarus." Those menacing eyes made her feel so hideously small. “I don’t even know what they look like!”

“Is that so?” He came forward, his steps shaking the rock beneath their hooves. The two ponies turned and dove behind the massive column, only to flee as a giant claw grasped at the midsection of the rock. “Then why do I smell you? Why do I recognize that scent from those accursed black stones?”

Twilight looked over her shoulder to see the dragon’s long, scaled neck circling around the column, lips pulled back in a sinister sneer. “I d-don’t know why! P-please, just leave me alone.”

“Too late for that,” he snarled, rearing back and shaking a fist at her. “You would try to slip past me? I, who know these halls like the back of my own claw, who lingered at the Gates just waiting for you to make a mistake? I know not what treachery landed you in this prison, but you cannot fool Reddux the Tyrant!”

The last word came as a bellow that rocked the cavern and tripped the mares up, sending them to their bellies. Twilight jumped to her hooves and kept going. “I never tried to fool you!”

“And still you lie and scheme!” The dragon’s gargantuan body dropped, front claws slamming into the ground so hard a crack formed beneath them. He began to follow at a slow, steady pace that nonetheless made their galloping look like a leisurely walk. “Why would the former Gatekeeper make the perilous journey from Limbo? Why would she travel all this way, risking madness and torture and humiliation? Why, unless she knew a secret way to escape?”

Twilight and Sunset stood together behind a column, sucking in short gasps and scouring the dark for a proper hiding place. Sunset leaned sideways to shout, “She’s telling the truth, she’s never been to the gates! You have to believe us!”

“Believe you? Pathetic, weak pony vermin?!” Reddux’s fist slammed against the side of the column, sending long cracks along its form. The mares fled as he struck it a second time, and a third. “And why are you here, former protégé of Celestia? You knew what the danger was, you knew how to get up here from the dark depths. That is why! You guide her to the Gates, and she shows you the way out!”

Another powerful hit and the column began to topple. Twilight saw it coming and dove, shoving her friend to the floor as the stone crashed just beside them and shattered. Dust filled the air and entered their lungs, and Twilight began to hack. She tried to stand and run, but the coughing turned into a fit and she could only stumble forward.

Sunset came up and pushed her to her knees. “Stay low, I’ll distract him. He can’t chase both of us!”

“No… you can’t—” Twilight clutched at her throat as it began to constrict.

“Just be safe!” Sunset jumped atop one of the rocks, glanced over her shoulder with wide eyes and fled.

“Come here, you pitiful creature!” Reddux passed over Twilight, one of his giant claws falling just next to her and crushing the stones at her side. “Show me how to escape so I may burn your precious pony kingdom to ashes!”

He passed, his tail slithering by as she clutched at her throat and gasped for air. She hacked, she wheezed, she shook, but her eyes were roaming the darkness. Where was Sunset, where? Her chest began to convulse, her mouth gaped like a fish, her vision began to blur…

Air flew into her lungs, her entire body trembling with the sudden intake. She lay there, gasping and clutching at her aching chest. If Reddux didn’t kill her, this damn illness would for certain!

She knew she couldn’t linger; Sunset needed her help. She struggled to her hooves, legs wobbling as she continued to suck in precious air. She took a few shaky steps, ears perking for sound… but there was nothing. Surely she should be hearing Reddux moving about, the beast was a veritable titan! Yet as she shifted one way, then another, she confirmed that there really wasn’t a sound out there.

What if he’d captured Sunset? What if he’d done something terrible to her?

The silence was eerie. Twilight moved slowly, body low and eyes shifting for signs of danger. She approached the shattered column, climbed up on the battered rocks. She crouched beneath the highest chunk, trembling as she waited. Where was he? Good Goddess, what if he was watching, waiting for her to show herself? Lip quivering, heart pounding, she forced herself to look over the rocks.

Nothing. Just darkness and columns, stretching on beyond her vision. No Sunset, no dragon.

No comfort.

She couldn’t stay here. Sunset might come looking for her, but so might Reddux. She had to move on, to try and find the exit. Surely that was what Sunset would want her to do. Yes… she’d find the exit and wait for Sunset.

Hooves shaking, eyes scouring the darkness for any sign of a threat, Twilight climbed over the rocks and down to the smooth cavern floor. She tried to clear her mind, to push away the panic that was threatening her. If she was going to find the exit, she needed to be logical.

Logical… easier said than done.

Think. She just needed to think. Reddux had unwittingly provided a clue. He’d looked a certain direction when he thought he recognized her scent, hadn’t he? He could only have been looking towards the Gates! How could she use that? Surely she could…

She eyed the column. It had fallen in a certain direction… she and Sunset had approached it from…

Twilight ignored her pounding heart and churning stomach, her eyes going to the bottom of the shattered column. She fought back the fear and tried to determine as best she could which column they’d hidden behind first. She locked eyes on it, struggled to envision her and Sunset standing beside it. Where had Reddux been standing…

There. Yes… yes, she could envision him! And he had looked…

She turned, the fallen column on her left seeming to point into the darkness. Twilight could see nothing, but it was the only lead she had. Sucking in a calming breath, she began to walk at a quick pace, laboring to keep her hoofsteps as quiet as possible.

Soon the fallen column had been left behind and everything was looking perfectly identical. Nothing but darkness and more columns. Twilight followed as close a line as she could along the randomly spaced stone pillars, her eyes peering into the dark. The world remained intensely quiet, so that even her hammering heartbeat seemed loud to her ears. Every now and then she would turn about and peer back, just knowing that Reddux would be right behind her. It was a stupid idea: if something that big were coming surely she’d hear it. But she couldn’t help it; he was after her, and Celestia save her soul if he actually found her.

And what about Sunset? What if he had discovered her? What if he’d already…

Her hoof landed on something, making it rattle. She jumped, biting her lip so hard it bled. She spun about, ready to face her doom… and felt her legs go weak.

Bones. Hundreds upon hundreds of bones, strewn about the floor in a gruesome carpet. They were picked clean, skulls leering at her with pristine whiteness. Ponies, griffons, every type of creature Twilight could imagine! This wasn’t murder… this was genocide. Twilight sat and covered her lips with shaking hooves, a terrified whimper slipping out of her throat.

But even as her mind was beginning to cloud with horror, she saw it: a wide, tall opening in a barely-visible wall. Deep down she knew that had to be the exit. But to get there…

She jerked back at the sight of movement, ready to bolt in an instant, but there was no attack. She peered at a column just across the boneyard, wondering if she was just seeing things… and then Sunset appeared, leaning around the stone and waving to her.

Twilight dropped to her haunches and heaved a sigh of relief: Sunset had made it! She looked once more and saw that Sunset was gesturing for her to come, but Twilight hesitated. She eyed the vast carpet of bones, lifting a leg anxiously as she thought about all the lives that had been lost. Walking across this struck her as… improper. Impolite. Insulting. But the exit was right there.

Sunset’s waving grew frantic, her expression desperate. Twilight spun a quick circle, but Reddux was nowhere to be seen. Knowing she had no choice and guilt gnawing at her, she began to cross. She winced as the bones rattled and shook at her passing, whispering her sincerest and deepest apologies to the souls of the dead. She moved as carefully as she could, knowing that one wrong step might cause further damage to the holes she still had in her hooves. Every clatter of bone sent a shiver down her spine, her empty stomach twisting as she readied for the one rattling step that would bring the wrath of Equestria’s most terrifying dragon down upon her.

But Reddux never came.

“I knew you’d make it,” Sunset whispered as Twilight finally stepped past the last of the bones. They embraced before rushing to hide behind the column.

Twilight peered into the darkness beyond the boneyard. “Where’s Reddux?”

“Dunno,” Sunset admitted nervously. “One minute he’s hot on my tail, the next he’s gone. Let’s hope he’s still scouring the rest of the cavern for us.”

“Let’s hope,” Twilight agreed with a shudder. “My Goddess, Sunset, how many do you think he’s killed?”

Sunset averted her gaze from the field of bones. “I wouldn’t care to guess. But look!” She gestured to the vast opening in the wall before them. “The exit, Twilight! The Gates are right through there.”

Twilight looked and felt hope rising in her once more. There was still one thing on her mind, however: “So how are we supposed to get through the Gates, anyway?”

“We’ll figure that out when we get to them.” Sunset tugged Twilight forward with a grin. “Come on, let’s go.”

They turned in unison and marched for the tall tunnel. This was it, the last barrier! Twilight didn’t know how they were going to slip through, but it didn’t matter; just knowing that freedom was so close had her grinning. They were going to make it, she would go home, everything would be—

The tail slammed into the floor within inches of their muzzles, the world shaking so violently that they collapsed to the floor. Twilight let out a gasp as she rolled onto her back and gazed up at the sight of Reddux hanging near the ceiling, his legs holding tight to the wall and pillars.

Panic and instinct screamed for her to flee, but before Twilight could even start to stand the tail whipped across the floor, striking the two mares and sending them flying high. Twilight was just able to make out a claw darting through the darkness and wrapped about the flailing Sunset before she crashed into the field of bones. She bounced, rolled and screamed as something pierced into one of her hind legs.

She came to a stop on her belly, tears in her eyes as she looked back to find what appeared to be a broken, pale tibia sticking deep into her leg above the knee.


She looked up in horror at the sight of Sunset’s head sticking up from within Reddux’s fist. The dragon, a wicked smile on his lips, dropped from the ceiling with a resounding crash that made the bones surrounding Twilight jump.

“Such predictable little morsels. Did you really think I didn’t know where you were headed?”

Twilight tried to stand. Fire ran up her leg and she hit the ground a second time with a wail. “P-please, let her go! We just want to go home!”

“Let her go?” Reddux’s leg swung back, bashing against the wall behind him. Sunset’s head rocked back and forth from the violent motions. “Let me educate you, Gatekeeper. This mare once served your precious Princess Celestia!”

He tossed Sunset into the air, eliciting a horrified shout from both her and Twilight, but caught her in his claw with ease.

“Celestia ruined all my plans.”

He dangled Sunset by the tail, whipping his claw back and forth so that she swung like a violent pendulum.

“I was going to rule this world! I was the master of all dragons! Who would dare to challenge me?”

He released Sunset’s tail, sending her cartwheeling almost to the ceiling.

“That pony witch tried to put me down!”

“Twilight, hel—” His tail lashed up and struck Sunset from below, bouncing her back into the air.

“But she couldn’t kill me, oh no…”

His claw reached out and caught the flying pony, hiding her from sight.

“…so instead she tricked me. Lured me into the gates and trapped me here!”

Twilight crawled forward, tears in her eyes and a hideous terror in her heart. “Please, stop! R-Reddux, have mercy!”

His eyes widened, his lips pulled up in a snarl. “Mercy? Mercy?” His closed fist smashed into the wall again. It began to tighten. “I will make Celestia burn for an eternity for this humiliation! I will show her no kindness. I will crush her bones between my fingers, just like I will yours!” Another ear-splitting roar rocked the cavern.

Twilight reared her head back to scream. “Please! Sunset isn’t responsible for what Celestia did!”

For a few seconds Reddux only glared down at her, eyes livid and fists shaking. But then, abruptly, his expression eased and he opened his claw. He looked down at it, and Twilight could just make out Sunset laying on her belly. She was still breathing.

“No,” he muttered. “No, she isn’t. This pony is only associated with her as a failure, as I assume you are.”

Twilight bowed her head, shaking with shame and fear. It was true, wasn’t it? She was a failure. She was going to die here, when she was so close…

“Tw… Twilight…”

She looked up, rubbing the moisture from her cheeks. Sunset was staring at her, a leg shakily stretched out and eyes pleading. “H-help… me…”

“I think not.” Reddux other claw lowered over Sunset, hiding her from Twilight’s view. “Maybe you’re not responsible, but you still knew Celestia. It will give me supreme delight to imagine her pain at knowing you were brutally murdered by the one foe she couldn’t exterminate, even if it’s only an illusion.”

Twilight shook her head as she crawled a little closer. “No. L-leave her alone. K-kill me, instead!”

“Don’t worry,” he hissed with a fanged grin that didn’t match his eyes, “I will.”

His claws flew up, Sunset went flying. Time moved in slow motion as the pony spun in the air, Reddux’s cold yellow eyes following her arc. Twilight’s heart stopped, her breath caught, but her vision was crystal clear. She saw Sunset reaching for her, she reached back…

Reddux’s head flashed forward, his teeth clamping down on Sunset’s lower body. The pony screamed as blood poured down his chin. Sunset clawed at his fangs, pushed at his lips, fought to free herself from his hold.

“T-Twilight, please! We’re supposed to go together! You promised! You promised!”

The dragon reared back, his eyes locked on his squirming victim. Twilight could only stare, lips working soundlessly, lungs unable to fill for her mind-numbing anguish.

“I wanted to see Celestia! I was going to send you home! Twilight, help me!”

The dragon’s chest began to expand, his nostrils flared as he sucked in a long, deep breath.

“No, nonono! Don’t, Reddux, please! I don’t want to die! I want to go home! Twilight…


Her pitched screech shattered Twilight’s eardrums as the flames exploded about her and covered the cavern ceiling. Tears streamed down Twilight’s cheeks as she watched in mute terror. Sunset’s body could just barely be seen, squirming, shrieking, pleading incomprehensibly as the flames continued to char her fragile body.

Twilight collapsed and covered her ears against the horrible, horrible noise. Her body rocked with her sobs as she listened to her friend, her last friend, her only friend howl in agony and death.

The sound came to an abrupt end. A few seconds later something black and distinctly pony-shaped hit the floor right in front of Twilight. She stared at the smoking form, unrecognizable and peeling, and felt her stomach rebel. She vomited, looked up at what was left of her companion and vomited again. She turned away and collapsed, weeping as her last hope faded.

"Sunset... Oh b-bucking Goddess..."

“That was entertaining.”

Reddux’s leg came down, landing square on top of Sunset’s charred form and crushing it. At the same time one of his claws landed atop Twilight’s leg, the one with the bone in it. Twilight felt the crunch as much as she heard it, screaming at the top of her lungs as searing pain tore through her.

“This will be entertaining, too.”

Reddux’s face dropped low, his massive yellow eye peering into Twilight’s. “Sunset had nothing of value. You, however, have information that I need.”

Twilight sobbed against the pain and grief, her head slowly shaking. “I don’t know. I d-don’t know how to g-get out…”

“Oh, but I think you do, and you are going to share that knowledge with me. The only question is… what will it take to make you squeal?”

“P-please…” She buried her head in her hooves. “Please… spare m-me…”

A throaty, ominous chuckle filled the air. “You little morsels, so fragile, so easy to break.

"How will I break you?”

The hard scales of a massive finger pressed against Twilight’s back, pushing down so that she couldn’t breathe. She gasped and squirmed, but then he eased off and she sucked in air. She barely had time to recover before he pressed down again.

“Tell me what I want to know,” Reddux whispered from overhead. “Tell me, and I’ll make your death much faster than hers.”

He released, and Twilight broke into a coughing fit as she recovered. It took several long seconds to get over it, mucus and phlegm covering her muzzle. “I… I sw-swear… I don’t know…”

“As you wish.” She felt his claw rubbing up and down her back. “Let’s see… what shall I do first?”

No more… Twilight couldn’t take anymore… “P-please…”

“I know.” She felt her good wing caught in a steely grip. It extended to its full span.

“Wings. How insulting. The air belongs to the dragons.”

“N-no… Stop…”

“Still not going to talk?”

“I c-can’t…”

Her upper body rose as he began to pull on her wing, first gently, then harder. She screamed, legs reaching back in a futile attempt to grab her stretched appendage. “S-stop… stop!”

His hold on her hind legs shifted, his pull became stronger. Twilight screeched as something popped out of place, her world going red as her coat stretched and began to rip apart. The wing was ripped from her back with a final agonizing jerk that made her world explode in torturous pain. She fell to the bone-strewn floor like a broken mannequin, her body convulsing in short, jerky motions and the air seeping out of her lungs in short rasps.

For a moment – just the briefest instant – she thought she could see her friends standing at the edge of the boneyard, watching in quiet anticipation.

Her wing dropped before her eye, shattering the hallucination. Blood oozed from the ripped flesh, feathers fell in clumps from the limp form.

Twilight gazed at it and felt nothing. Nothing but desolation and defeat.

She just wanted it to end.

“One down, five to go. How many will I pluck before you talk?”

“…kill me.”

A long, tense silence.

“What was that?”

Twilight didn’t move. She didn’t look up. She couldn’t. She could only lay there, staring blankly at her wing.

“Kill me. Please.”

“Oh, no.” She could feel his hot breath on her back. “That’s not how this works.”

Twilight didn’t recognize her own voice. It was too dull, too lifeless. She wasn’t even sure how the words were coming out. She didn’t care.

“I don’t have what you want. Please… just end it.”

Her body rose through the air, dangling in agony from that one crushed leg. Her other legs hung limply as her dull gaze met with the piercing eyes of Reddux. “You won’t die, not until I know what you do.”

“Please…” Tears streams down her forehead and dripped through the cold air. “Please…”

His head drifted back, his lips curled up in a sneer. “Maybe you really don’t know, but you better. I will keep you as a pet until—” His eyes went wide as a rumbling sound filled the air. For several long seconds he was quiet, listening to that unfamiliar noise. Twilight didn’t care. She didn’t think about it.

She just wanted to sleep and never wake up.

“The Gates…”

Reddux began to turn, but as he did a bright violet light filled the cavern. A thick beam cut through the darkness, ripping into Reddux’s jaw and eliciting a furious bellow from the dragon as blood flew.

He lost his hold and Twilight dropped. She looked down at the fast approaching ground and prayed the impact would finish her.

Then she heard the flapping of wings, and suddenly she wasn’t falling anymore. Something had her… something flying. She was held tight against a sturdy, muscular chest, stone walls flying past her in a blur. Slowly, she looked up to see a pale face, a face she recognized but couldn’t place. He looked down on her with serious green eyes, she saw his lips working but couldn’t hear anything.

Light. She winced against its glare, slowly turning her head. A tall rectangle of white that grew taller by the second. What was it? Where was he taking her?

They passed through the rectangle, and Twilight thought her eye might be on fire! She covered her face and whimpered as they slowed and dropped. She was gently set upon hard earth just as she was able to look up at the glare and see…

…the sun.

The sky.


Real, fluffy, beautiful clouds!

Maybe she was hallucinating. Maybe in her final moments she was drifting into some deep memory of a sky she would never see again. She didn’t mind. It was a sky, and she welcomed the sight of it.

There was a deafening roar. The world shook.

That grinding noise came back. Her head slowly turned to gaze between white legs at a massive black stone gate that was gradually closing. She could just make out an object within, large and lumbering and coming closer. She saw the red scales, the furious yellow eyes. There was a flash of violet light, a violent roar…

The Gates shut. Two seconds later there was a resounding, earth-moving crash. And another. And another.

But the Gates were shut.

Maybe this was a dream. Maybe she was dead and this was heaven. Maybe she would never know what was going on. All that mattered was that, for the moment, her ordeal seemed to be over. She didn’t want to hope. That always led to pain.

At least she could let her unfathomable weariness take her.

She gazed up at the beautiful clouds, her mind drifting away. Something blocked her blurring view… two something. Faces. The white one…

All she could tell about the other before her mind fell to darkness was that it was a very familiar purple.


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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter X: Purgatorio

Aching pain. That was the first thing she noticed. Then the hunger, terrible hunger.

Twilight’s lips opened, a low moan passing between them. Her eyelids parted in a gradual, struggling motion. She found herself gazing groggily up at a wooden arch beneath black stones. A quiet, constant tock-tock-tock reached her ears, and she could feel something soft covering her body.

“Ah, finally awake?”

That voice was so… familiar. Twilight’s eye slowly roamed the room in search of the source. She worked her lips but could get no words out of her parched throat.


A clear glass of water floated over Twilight’s head, encased in a purple glow. It tipped over just enough to pour a thin stream into her mouth. She sucked it down like air; it had to be the most delicious thing she’d ever tasted.

The glass moved away. She tried to reach her hoof up to stop it, but was too weak to manage more than a slight shift of her leg.

“You can’t have too much, you’ll make yourself worse than you already are.”

Hoofsteps clopped atop hard wood, and Twilight felt a presence to her left. Her lone eye couldn’t see over her muzzle, so she struggled to turn her head.

She saw the face, but it took her several seconds to process the image. Purple coat, purple eyes, purple mane. Maybe she should have had a stronger reaction, but all she could do was stare dully at the unicorn staring down at her with sad, uncertain eyes.

Twilight Sparkle. If she didn’t already know the truth, she’d have never believed it.

“I still don’t believe it.” The other Twilight leaned close, returning Twilight’s examining gaze. “You’ve been here for two days, and I still can’t believe it. You look just like me, only… near death.”

Twilight swallowed, a painful motion considering her dry throat. Her lips worked and she was at last able to offer a hoarse whisper.

“Am I… Am I out?”

The doppelganger stood tall and observed her, ears low as she considered the broken pony. “…yes. You’re out.”

A gasp crept from Twilight’s lips. Tears began to swell in her eye. She turned her head to gaze at the ceiling, an incomprehensible wave of relief washing over her.

“I’m out.

"I… I’m out…

"Oh, thank Goddess…”

Her entire body shook as she began to weep in silence.

Her clone shifted anxiously, but remained silent for some time. Twilight was left to her tears, her mind going over all the things she’d been through so recently. Yet for all the joy she felt for having escaped, there was an inescapable sadness. Sunset… If only Sunset could have been here to share in this moment. Instead she was a mess of blackened mush under Reddux’s claw. It seemed so wrong, so unfair. Twilight was a wreck. Sunset could have gone on to survive, but Twilight…

Why was she the one that made it?

The other Twilight was standing over her, watching with a mix of curiosity and guilt.

“I never thought changelings could cry.”

Twilight’s heart throbbed. “No…” She shook her head feebly, wishing she could brush the tears from her eye. “N-not a changeling…”

“I have no way of knowing that,” her clone admitted with a frown. “I’ve never met one.”

“Not a changeling,” Twilight repeated, silently imploring the pony to believe. “I’m n-not…” A painful cough sent spikes through her chest, but it didn’t descend into a fit. “Not a… a ch-changeling…”

The other Twilight shifted and averted her eyes. “I… don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet. I need time to think. My assistant will be here soon with some soup.” She turned away and walked to the door, head low and gait slow.

Twilight tried to reach for her, desperate to be heard, to be believed.

“Not a changeling… p-please… I’m n-not…”

The door closed softly, leaving her to her despair.

Twilight had been lost in her fretful thoughts when the door opened again. She turned her head just enough to see an average-sized but muscular pegasus enter the room, a food tray held tight in his teeth. She watched quietly as he approached and set the tray down on the stand by the bed, brushing his silver mane back as he sat down next to her.

He looked her over, his green eyes filled with sorrow.

“You must be starved.”

Food. Twilight saw the steam rising from the bowl in the tray and couldn’t help opening her mouth as if to bite on something. Her stomach hurt so much…

The pegasus filled a small spoon and blew the steam away a few times before turning to her. He set the warm soup to her lips and she slurped it down as quick as she could manage. She couldn’t tell what it was made of. She didn’t care; nothing in her entire life had ever been so delicious!

Some soup dripped onto her chin and the pegasus flinched. “This would be easier if… here.” He set the spoon down and leaned over, grabbing Twilight and carefully helping her sit up. Her legs couldn’t hold her, so he positioned her leaning back against the headboard. “There. Let’s try this again,” he whispered as he wiped the soup from her lips.

He fed her another dozen spoonfuls before Twilight finally thought to speak. “You… you’re J-Jimmy Stone, right?”

He paused, lips pursed as he’d been preparing to blow on the soup. His ears perked and he observed her curiously. “How do you know my name?”

She bowed her head, fighting to hold back the tears as memories swept over her. “I knew you, back in my own time. You ran a r-repair shop. Your brother had a c-coffee shop. He had a… a crush on Rainbow…”

Jimmy studied her for a few seconds, taking in a deep breath. He offered her more soup and she accepted it. Maybe he thought she was crazy. It didn’t matter. She was just so happy to see a familiar face, somepony who at least seemed as decent as he’d been in her own time. “We used to have tea with Rarity and Octavia,” she went on. “Your favorite was the cinnamon rose blend from… from New Horseleans…”

“I do like that kind,” he admitted, offering another spoonful. “But as a changeling, I bet you—”

I am not a changeling!” Twilight’s chin touched her chest as she sobbed, a terrible anguish overpowering her. “P-please… Somepony has to b-believe me…”

Jimmy hesitated, averting his gaze and as she wept. She tried to look at him, but he wouldn’t meet her eye.

She leaned towards him as best she could under her condition. “Look at me.” He wouldn’t do it. “I am Tw-Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship. I came here on accident. I j-just want to go home…”

He pushed her back against the headboard with an apologetic frown. “You’ve been through a lot. Relax, eat.”

“You have no idea what I’ve been through,” she whispered, but accepted the soup as it was offered.

Silence filled the room, interrupted only by the steady tock-tock-tock of the clock above the window. Twilight stared at the sky, wishing she could stick her head out and gaze. She couldn’t believe how precious the blue horizon was. She ate until there was no soup left, but when she asked for more Jimmy shook his head.

“If you eat too much you’ll do more harm than good,” he explained, setting the tray aside. “I’m sorry, I know what it’s like to go hungry.”

She looked up at him, wondering at this statement. “You… you do?”

He hesitated, once again failing to meet her eye. “Yeah… from when I was in jail. If Luna hadn’t saved me and my brother…”

Her eye widened. “Luna? But… I thought she was still on the moon.”

This time he really looked at her, raising an eyebrow and frowning uncertainly. “You’ve not been down there that long. Luna’s been back for a few years, now.”

They stared at one another for a few seconds, Twilight trying to take this information in. She thought on his words, though, and found her attention shifting. “How… how long was I in Tartarus?”

He considered her, still possessing that questioning frown. “According to Celestia, two months.”

Her lips parted in a small gasp. “Th-that’s all?”

He shifted, looked about as if seeking inspiration. Finally he moved to grab the food tray.

“W-wait!” She reached a feeble hoof, but couldn’t quite reach him. Even so, he paused. “P-please, what is she… Twilight, what is Twilight going to do with me?”

“That’s a good question.”

Twilight winced at the sight of her clone standing in the doorway. She didn’t know why, but seeing that perfect, unharmed, wingless mirror image of herself was disturbing. Surely she felt it, too.

Twilight sat back, watching as the unicorn moved to the opposite side of her bed. “Jim, you were supposed to give her some more water.”

Jimmy winced. “Sorry, Twi. It’s just so…”

“I know,” she replied, looking Twilight in the eyes with a firm expression. “Weird.”

Twilight sat back and accepted another long drink of water. “Th-thank you… but I have to know. What’s next?”

The other Twilight rubbed her chin in a way that was so eerily familiar. “I just don’t know yet. Celestia would probably want me to dump you back into Tartarus.”

No!” Twilight started to lean forward, but the motion shot red-hot arrows up her hind leg. She screamed and fell on her side in the bed, clutching at her immobile leg with tears in her eye.

“Careful!” The Gatekeeper pulled the sheets away to reveal Twilight’s leg, which was twisted at an odd angle and looked disturbingly flat. “Reddux crushed every bone in your leg. You shouldn’t move it too much.”

“D-don’t send me back,” Twilight begged through her tears. “P-please, I can’t go through that again. P-please… K-kill me if you have to, but you c-can’t send me back! Please, Goddess, no…” She wept in horror and despair, unable to believe that they would even consider such an option. She kept pleading, not even aware of her own words.

Her clone and Jimmy exchanged guilty expressions. “Y-you don’t really have to tell Celestia she got out,” Jimmy pointed out. “Do you?”

The other Twilight turned away from the bed, her head low. “Lie to Celestia? I’m on thin ice as it is, ever since Luna…” She heaved a despondent sigh. “Nopony has ever escaped Tartarus before. If Celestia finds out I not only helped somepony get out, but let her loose on the world to boot…”

Please,” Twilight hissed, catching her twin’s attention. “I j-just want to go home. Have you no mercy? H-help me, please…”

“I can’t,” the other Twilight whispered, though she hesitated and wouldn’t meet Twilight’s eyes.

“But we don’t have to send her back,” Jimmy threw in eagerly. “Come on, Twilight, look at her. She can’t hurt anypony, anymore.”

Twilight rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. How could this conversation even be taking place? “I never hurt anypony,” she whispered. “I n-never meant for any of this to happen. Why won’t you believe me?”

“Believe you? Over Celestia?” The other Twilight shook her head. “I’m sorry, but going through Tartarus and back does not make your word greater than that of a Sun Goddess.”

Jimmy leaned forward to pet Twilight’s mane, his face filled with worry and doubt. “But she did go through Tartarus, didn’t she? She clawed her way all the way back out. She couldn’t have done that unless she had something to prove.”

“Like what,” the other Twilight asked. “Revenge?”

“Or innocence.”

She let her head fall back on her shoulders with a huff. “You’re not going to make this a simple decision, are you?”

“And I can’t believe that you’re even considering sending her back,” he countered harshly. "You're the one who decided to save her! Don't give me that bull about 'just being curious,' what we've done has consequences!"

Twilight reached up to touch his leg, hoping he could see just how appreciative she was of his words.

Her clone sat and rubbed her forehead with a groan. “I know, I get it. I don’t like it, either. But if I let her go, the Archons will know it and they’ll run straight to Celestia. Who knows what will happen then? She might send me to Tartarus!”

Twilight realized that her other self was in a very precarious situation. How would she feel if she were in the same boat? She had to find some way to convince herself… but what did she have? She forced herself up to her foreknees, which was the best she could do under her horrible condition, and leveled her eye on her clone.

“I’ll hide. I won’t hurt anypony. P-please, Twilight, I’m you! I know you’re a decent pony, that you don’t want to send me back. I p-promise, I’ll disappear and you’ll never hear from me again. Look at me!” She gestured at her broken wing, at her missing eye. She tapped a hoof next to the crater in her head, to which her twin turned away with a shudder.

“I’m a broken p-pony.” Twilight's whispering voice cracked as the impact of those words hit her. “I’m nothing. I’ve lost my crown, my m-magic… all my friends are gone. I can’t threaten anypony, certainly not Celestia. I eve—”

The coughing fit caught her by surprise. She dropped to her belly and hacked, hooves to her throat as her air passage closed up. She’d been through this so many times that she knew better than to panic. She waited, holding her burning chest and fighting to clear her throat. At last her windpipe opened and she sucked down some air. She pushed herself up on trembling knees, staring down at the moist spot on the sheets were her saliva had fallen.

Tears fell down her cheek as she gazed imploringly at the pony who would be deciding her fate. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it’s getting worse. I… I might be dying. Please, at the very least I might be able to live out my last days in peace.” She dropped back to the bed, unable to support her own weight. She closed her eye and trembled as she tried to hold back a sob.

“Even if I can’t go home… d-don’t send me back. I’d rather die.”

Silence. Cold, bitter, lasting silence. Twilight had nothing else to say or offer. Her fate was in her own hooves. She just lay there, feeling pathetic and longing for understanding. They thought she was a changeling, but how could they possibly believe she was a threat to anypony? Regardless of her intentions, she really was completely harmless. No horn, no wings…

At last the other Twilight spoke. Her voice was very quiet. “I… I have to think about this. I’m sorry. If there wasn’t so much at stake, it would be an easy decision, but under the circumstances…”

Twilight felt so vulnerable, so scared. The Gatekeeper’s slow, heavy hoofsteps echoed in her ears, the door closed. Trembling, wondering about her future, Twilight curled into a ball in the middle of the bed.

“She’ll come through,” Jimmy whispered, reaching out to pet her mane. “She’s been scared ever since she broke up with Luna, ever since Celestia dumped her in this dead-end job. The next mistake might be her last. So please, understand that she’s hesitant. She’ll let you go, you’ll see.”

“Will she?” Twilight covered her face with the sheets. “I used to have everything. Now what am I? C-Celestia was right, I might as well be a ch-changeling. I’m worthless…”

Jimmy said nothing. Maybe he couldn’t find the words.

Maybe she wasn’t worth his breath.

It was three days before the Gatekeeper finally decided to let Twilight go, but freedom came with some caveats. They cleaned her wounds, but the other Twilight refused to heal her worst injuries. “Too much of a risk,” she’d said. “Celestia wouldn’t approve.”

Twilight didn’t blame her; her doppelganger was already facing a lot of trouble if it was found out that Twilight had escaped Tartarus. The only serious wound that they helped her with was to try and fix her muzzle so that she wouldn’t be forced to drink soups and broth for the rest of her life.

The wing remained broken, the leg was left shattered. They tried to clean up the horrible wounds on her flanks, removing a lot of dead tissue, but it was obvious she’d never see her own cutie mark again. Jimmy floated the idea of a patch for her eye, but Twilight didn’t see the point; she was already hideously malformed, why try to hide just one wound?

They gave her enough supplies to last more than a month, but even after a week of recovery she couldn’t carry the saddlebag on her ruined leg. Jimmy volunteered to escort her to one of the nearby towns, for which she was grateful.

They showed her a map of potential destinations. Twilight saw Ponyville… and cast it aside. What could she possibly find there that would help with her situation? No, she chose a place between towns, a little hamlet by a lake. A place to rest, to recover her mind, to try and forget.

That’s what she told them, anyway.

It took nearly a fortnight to get to the lake. They had to walk; the Gatekeeper’s carriage was easily recognizable and the other Twilight wanted as few witnesses as possible to her compliance in Twilight’s escape.

She didn’t mind how long the journey took; she’d always liked Jimmy in her own world, and he hadn’t lost any of his gentlepony ways in this one. The fact that at least something hadn’t changed between timelines was encouraging. Maybe, before she finally succumbed to whatever Ne’er-Do-Well had done to her, she could find something else unchanged in this world.

Twilight used this as her opportunity to learn about the Equestria she’d accidentally created. She asked about all of her friends, hoping he might at least know of them. Jimmy had no idea who Pinkie, Fluttershy or Applejack were, but he’d heard of Rarity and Rainbow Dash. From the way he talked, Twilight suspected they’d not changed much; Rarity was the royal tailor, a fact that made Twilight proud, and Rainbow Dash was a celebrity stuntpony. Twilight had asked about the Wonderbolts and was surprised to learn that they’d been disbanded only months ago. Jimmy had no idea why.

She inquired about a few others, but Jimmy wasn’t exactly a fountain of knowledge. Apparently he’d spent the past eight years living in the Gates of Tartarus as the other Twilight’s assistant, having only left them on three occasions in all that time.

Mentioning himself as an assistant sparked another fretful query: whatever had happened to Spike? To her relief, her adoptive baby brother had still been hatched by this world’s Twilight, and he still saw her as an older sister. He had simply traded being Twilight’s assistant with working for Rarity. Twilight was forced to question whether this was purely coincidence or an example of fate intervening.

They finally reached the lake. It was a nice place, quiet and bright. Twilight told Jimmy to leave her there.

“You sure?” He gazed out at the smooth waters, not appearing at all confident. “The hamlet’s all the way on the other side. It’ll take you ages to get there.”

“I never wanted to live in the town,” she explained, sitting in the grass next to the lapping waters and staring out at the distant shore. She could just make out the houses on the other side. “I won’t belong there. Or anywhere. I’ll stay out here.”

His eyebrows rose in alarm. “Here? But there’s no shelter.”

She turned to him, eye imploring. “Can I keep one of the tents?”

He hesitated, watching her with shifting, nervous eyes. “That… I mean, sure, but don’t you want something better than that? You don’t have to be homeless.”

“And who would take me in?” she asked, gesturing to her broken body. “What would I do to earn my living? No, Jim. I’ll make do, only go into town when I have to.”

He shifted from hoof to hoof. “Are you sure? I mean… really sure?”

She nodded, offering a sad smile. “I’m sure. Don’t worry about me, Jim. I crawled my way out of Tartarus. I think I can handle being a hermit.” She meant it as a joke, but he didn’t smile.

Although she objected, Jimmy stuck around to help her pitch the tent. He dug a hole in the ground and buried most of the supplies so they wouldn’t be out in the open for anypony to see…. and take. He lingered, and she appreciated it, but as night began to fall he prepped to go. Part of that involved him pulling a large bag from his saddle. He offered it to her, setting it between them so she could open it properly.

It was filled to bursting with bits.

She gaped at the money, then pushed it away. “Jim, I can’t accept this.”

“It’s half my pay for the last few months,” he explained, pushing the bag back. “Don’t worry, Twilight doesn’t know.”

She stared at the bits, then at him. “Jimmy… you don’t have to do this.”

“Yes I do,” he whispered with his head and ears low. “I don’t like that she’s throwing you out on your own like this. I like myself even less for not having the balls to stand up to her. Maybe you are a changeling, I don’t know… but you’ve been through enough.”

Twilight heard the sorrow in his voice and felt her heart breaking; he really was just like the Jimmy she knew. “It’s not your fault...”

“That’s not the point.” He turned his head away, face filled with shame. “I shouldn’t be leaving you here. I should be helping you find comfort and peace. After Princess Luna rescued my brother and me from the hangman’s noose, I had nothing. Everything I’d worked for, the years of study, the sleepless nights striving to make my family proud amounted to trash. Luna took Nye in, and she brought me to Twilight. This job, this role is all I have. If I lose it, I lose everything.”

Twilight watched, mesmerized by the moisture shining in his eyes.

“I feel like such a coward,” he muttered. “Here you are, having suffered what has to be the worst physical and mental traumas imaginable, and I’m rendered useless by the thought of being kicked out of my home. How can I just fly away? But that’s what I’m going to do, because the world outside scares the life out of me.”

He went quiet, shaking in his effort to control himself. Twilight saw how scared he was, how hard he was trying to convince himself. He was so familiar. For all his muscle and knowledge, he was just as emotionally fragile as she recalled.

She couldn’t feel any anger towards him. If anything, seeing this genuine desire to help despite himself was encouraging, for it meant that there was indeed still good in Equestria.

Celestia’s dark turn hadn’t completely stamped it out.

She moved close and embraced him. “Jim, you don’t have to do anything else. I’m happy that I got to spend some time with you, to know a bit of kindness in this world. That alone means more to me than all the bits in Equestria.”

He trembled, his hooves half reaching for her. “But… but I…”

She pecked him on the cheek. “You’re just as sweet as ever. I’m not worth throwing your life away. Go back, forget about me.”

She stepped back, smiling at the sight of his tears. “Go on. Don’t throw away the gift Luna gave you and the life Twilight offers.”

He stared at her for a long time, chin quivering and legs half raised. Eventually he rubbed his eyes, sniffing and turning away from her.

“Buck me. Buck me. Buck me straight to Tartarus!”

He was gone, flying into the orange horizon.

Twilight had never intended to live by that lake. She stayed there for a few days, just in case Jimmy’s heart outgrew his fear, and used that time to build a small monument out of the stones she found in the shallows. It wasn’t much, just a pile of rocks.

Sunset deserved something better.

Twilight was in no position to offer it.

She took the tent, the bits and as many provisions as she could safely carry. She was determined to know what had happened to her friends and to see if she couldn’t convince one of them to believe her story. Rainbow Dash was out; according to Jimmy, she toured all around Equestria. It would only be through blind luck that Twilight would find her. Rarity wasn’t an option, either, for she lived in Canterlot, and Twilight knew better than to go anywhere near there. So Twilight went to Ponyville. Maybe, just maybe, she’d discover one of her friends was still living there.

The journey took her nearly three weeks. She avoided the towns that occasionally popped up and only traveled at night. Though she carefully rationed them, her supplies ran out by the end of the second week.

This forced her to go into a small town and purchase more. It was a humiliating ordeal, with so many ponies staring at her terrible visage and crippled walk. She could hear them whispering amongst themselves, saw the pity in their eyes. The merchant had visibly shivered at the sight of her hornless head. When she paid there had been a notable, awkward pause as he spotted the circular scar on the bottom of her hoof.

She'd dropped the bits on the counter, shoved the food into her saddlebags and left as quickly as she could.

The event had been a terrible reminder of her appearance and what she’d gone through. Maybe it was just her imagination, but her legs seemed to be very sore after she left the town.

Sleep was also a challenge. She would lay down in some hidden spot at the first rays of dawn and brace for the nightmares. She faced a different terror every time. She tried to lighten the fear by attempting to guess which Lord of Tartarus she’d see next time. Would it be Tazel ripping her friends apart? Chrysalis, clawing and scraping after her with her hideous, gooey creations? Maybe Blueblood, having her eye plucked out and burning in a cage over boiling blood? Sometimes she would see Sombra, encased in howling winds and endlessly chasing her.

The guessing game didn’t help much. Every evening she awoke feeling no less tired and a little more scared.

At last she reached Ponyville. The sight provided no comfort, for the town’s layout and structures were alien to her memory. She searched for the homes of those friends who were still unaccounted for, hoping that she might find just one that she could talk to.

She sought out Sugarcube Corner.

It didn’t exist.

She found Fluttershy’s cottage.

It was boarded up and abandoned.

Sweet Apple Acres, on the other hoof, was as big as she remembered and even more active. But it was still different, from the long row of bunkhouses to the two unicorns she spotted running the place. Twilight felt that ‘plantation’ would be a better term for the place than ‘farm.’ The business didn’t seem to be doing so well, either; some of the trees were withering and in need of care.

When she first saw Applejack, the sight filled Twilight’s heart with a joy she’d never known. She spotted the familiar mare working hard in the fields right alongside her brother and sister. It was all Twilight could do not to shout and run out to meet her… but she held back. She knew she couldn’t talk to her friend in front of so many ponies, that wouldn’t work at all.

It took two days of careful stalking to find an opportunity. It was late and Applejack had slipped off in the night. Twilight followed, keeping to the shadows as a precaution. Her friend went to a tall hill at the Western edge of the orchards… and just sat there. She stared up at the moon as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Twilight knew she had to do this right. If she couldn’t be convincing, if Applejack wouldn’t believe…

She moved in, approaching the pony from behind. Part of her was so happy that she thought she might tackle her friend. Another part was scared almost paralytic, for what if Applejack wasn’t the same pony she knew?

Even so, she was committed. She sat several feet behind her friend, trying to think of what to say. She shuffled from side to side, mind working slowly over the possibilities. She had to begin, she had to speak, she had to… She set her jaw, tensed her legs and forced the name from her lips.


Applejack let out a shout and leapt into the air, turning a circle and landing with body low and eyes wide. Twilight stared at those green orbs, realizing with some alarm that they were moist. Had she been about to cry?

“Holy apple fritters, ya scared the tar outta me!” Applejack sat up and rubbed her eyes swiftly, pulling her Stetson down to hide her face as she did. “Who the hay are you?”

Twilight’s mind had frozen at the sound of that familiar voice. It really was her, ridiculous accent and all! Twilight had tears running down her cheek before she could even register the sheer happiness that was swelling inside her. “It’s… It’s you. AJ…” Her shoulders shook as she covered her face and tried to control herself. This wasn’t helping!

She couldn’t stop. The emotions were simply overwhelming.

“Oh my…” Applejack’s voice grew soft. “Look at ya. What in the wide world of Equestria…”

“I n-know.” Twilight gave up on stopping the tears and offered a warm smile. “I’m a h-horrible sight, aren’t I?”

Applejack’s eyes shifted back and forth as if in search of inspiration, her cheeks going red. “N-no, Ah didn’t mean… er… Who are you?”

Twilight gestured to herself, praying things would go alright. “I’m T-Twilight Sparkle.” Applejack’s eyebrows rose, prompting her to add, “Not the same Twilight you would know.”

Applejack rubbed the back of her head, clearly trying to make sense of this. “Two Twilights? But… how is that possible?”

Hope and fear mixing chaotically inside her, Twilight took an eager step forward. “AJ, you have to believe me. I… I need somepony to believe me! You’ll listen, won’t you?”

Applejack hesitated, her eyes going to the barn in the distance. She shuffled, considered, lowered her head. “L-look, Ah dunno who you are, an’ Ah don’t know what yer after. Ah might be able ta offer ya some food er somethin’, but—”

Alarm and desperation filled Twilight. She moved closer, getting in the startled pony’s face. “Applejack, it’s me, Twilight! We were friends! But I bucked up and… and… now you don’t know me. Equestria’s all messed up and it’s all my fault! I need help to fix it, your help.”

“Whoa, there, girl.” Applejack pushed Twilight down to a sitting position, appearing both worried and caring. “Take it easy. Why don’t ya start off by explainin’ how ya know my name?”

Twilight half-raised her hooves, mind frantically searching for the right words. “Be… Because we knew one another. You were my friend, we went through so much! Back in my world, back when everything was good. Please, AJ, I know it’s hard, but try to believe it. We were so close! You, me, the others! You were always arguing with Rarity, always competing with Rainbow. You taught me about honesty!”

“Rarity?” Applejack frowned, her eyes growing dark. “That fruity little wimp? Ah never liked that pony. Buckin’ her clear across Ponyville felt real good.”

Twilight paused, staring in quiet disbelief. “You… bucked Rarity?”

“Darn tootin’! She thought she could take my princess away. Ah showed her a thing er two about how country ponies fight.” But then her expression softened, her lips falling into a deep frown. She turned away to stare up at the moon. “If only Ah’d known that Ah’d end up in the same boat…”

They weren’t friends.

Twilight thought her hooves might be falling out from under her. Why hadn’t she seen this coming? She’d placed so much hope in this moment and she hadn’t even considered that her friends wouldn’t still be friends! “But… But you and her were close… I th-thought…”

“Well ya thought wrong.” Applejack turned back to peer at her. “How do you know Rarity?”

“You… I mean…” Twilight scrambled to think of something. “B-but what about Pinkie Pie? Fluttershy?”

Applejack’s face hardened. “Ah don’ like them, either. In fact, they’re all ponies Ah hate. An’ suddenly Ah don’t think Ah like you none.” She poked Twilight in the chest, hard. “What are you after, Twilight? Is that even yer name?”

Hopes were cracking. Twilight gasped as a panic started to take over. “No. No! Applejack, don’t do this to me. Y-you have to help, I just knew you would! We… We were friends…”

“Ah ain’t yer friend,” Applejack growled, turning and stomping back down the hill. “If Ah were you, Ah’d get the heck outta Sweet Apple Acres.”

Twilight watched her go, tears welling in her eyes and mind numb with denial. “Y-you… A-Applejack…” She bowed her head and covered her face in her hooves. “P-please… I came all the way here… I finally escaped Tartarus! P-please don’t, you’re my only hope...”


She looked up to see that Applejack had stopped at the bottom of the hill. A moment of tense silence filled the night air, interrupted by Twilight’s occasional hiccup.

Applejack turned around, her green eyes suddenly threatening. “You’re the other Twilight, the one Princess Celestia banished.”

Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat. “W-wait, you got it all wrong...”

“Oh, no Ah don’t.” Applejack took an ominous step forward, head low and lips turned up in a sneer. “Ah don’t know how ya got out o’Tartarus, an’ Ah don’t care. Changelin’s ain’t welcome on my farm!”

Twilight’s mind shattered. She could only stare dumbly at the pony, a pony she now knew would never be her friend. Her name had been smeared, her reputation ruined.


To the ponies of Equestria, that was all Twilight was.

Another threatening step from Applejack. “You gonna get out, or am Ah gonna have ta throw ya out?”

Twilight didn’t respond. She couldn’t. She didn’t have the mental capacity. She only sagged to her belly, covered her face and sobbed. It was over, she would never go home. Nopony would ever believe her, not over Princess Celestia. She might as well go back into Tartarus and let Reddux burn her alive for all the chance she had now.

Applejack didn’t attack. Twilight didn’t notice when she moved close, didn’t bother to hope that her wretched display would sway her former friend. There was no hope left, no light at the end of the tunnel. Just misery and pain and sadness for the rest of her days. She prayed to Celest—

No. No point in that.

“Ah ain’t gonna beat a pony while she’s down,” Applejack muttered, “but Ah ain’t gonna tolerate changelin’s on my farm, either. Ah’m gonna come out here in the mornin’, an’ ya better be gone.”

Twilight only lay there and wept. She didn’t have the heart to watch her friend abandon her.

She didn’t have the heart.

She was fleeing, desperate to get away from a force she recognized but couldn’t place. Twilight’s hooves were like lead, her mind filled with panic. The world was nothing but black tunnels repeating in an endless maze. Where was she going? Where had she come from? What was after her? She didn’t know… but she could feel the presence. It loomed over her heart, sapped her warmth and left her chilled. It was the most horrible feeling, a familiar one. What was it?

She slid to a stop, fear clutching at her mind as a face appeared in the darkness. King Sombra grinned down at her, massive and glowing with dark energies. Twilight turned to flee, only to find herself facing solid rock. She was trapped!

“Keep away from me!” She turned and tried to use her magic, but nothing happened. She didn’t even feel any energy. She reached up in alarm and realized that there was a hole in her head where her horn should be. Horror and loss threatened her mind as the consequences of this revelation struck her like a hammer.

Sombra moved closer, dark clouds billowing out like ominous claws. Twilight cowered in her corner and closed her eye, knowing she was about to die.

Her hooves fell out from beneath her, and she opened her eye to discover she was dropping into a deep pit. She looked up to see the corrupt king leering down at her. She tried to stretch her wings and fly, but couldn’t achieve anything. She glanced back and let out a startled gasp; her wing was gone! She looked up and felt her heart jump into her throat: it wasn’t Sombra smirking at her.

It was Celestia.

“No… no!” She squirmed in midair, stretching her hooves for some kind of hold, but the walls seems to widen out and avoid her grasp.

Then they were gone, and Twilight found herself caught in a whirling tornado! She twisted about, fighting for some kind of control over her motions, but it was no use. What was happening, how had she come to be in this mess? And still she felt that terrible grip on her heart.


“Oh, Goddess…” Twilight tried to look down at the bottom of the tornado, towards that clicking laughter that left her blood cold. Tazel hovered far below, her feline face grinning maliciously. Twilight kicked at the air, terror gripping her mind; not Tazel, she didn’t want to even think of Tazel!

Something pink passed by. The air caught in Twilight’s throat as she recognized only a portion of Pinkie’s body was in the vortex: a head, part of the shoulders and one leg. Twilight screamed and fought to turn away, only to see Rainbow Dash flash by, unconscious and with blood dripping from where her wings had once been.

“Oh, please no...” Twilight spun away, tears in her eye as Fluttershy flew just over her shoulder, eyes closed in peaceful lifelessness as her entrails swayed in the winds. “I d-don’t want to see this!”

All her friends were there, swirling about her like a mini-vortex. The rest of Pinkie’s parts, a beaten and bloodied Applejack, Rarity’s head spinning about without a body. Spike nearly struck her in the face, what was left of his bloodied form flapping about like loose paper.

Twilight screamed again and covered her eyes.

She hit the ground with a splat, brown gunk flying high from the impact and the air knocked from her lungs. Her friends’ bodies fell all around her, disappearing amongst the muck. She lay there, struggling to catch her breath, eyes locked on the nothingness above. Where was she?

Black legs burst from the filth and wrapped about her chest, pinning her down. She trembled, still gasping for air as Chrysalis’ head appeared at her shoulder with a hungry grin.

“Give me your love…”

Twilight tried to fight, but she still couldn’t breathe and Chrysalis’ grip was like iron. She wanted to scream, to plead, but all she could do was lay there as her body shined green and her strength began to deteriorate.

More hooves reached out of the muck, pinning her legs and head. More faces appeared, brown and covered in melting flesh. Twilight saw the one closest to her and thought her heart stopped; it was Rainbow Dash. Though a melting mass of hideous flesh, that face was unmistakable. Twilight’s eyes darted to the others, her fear enhancing with each face; Rarity was little more than a head atop a pile of mush, Pinkie’s body parts had merged with those of Applejack and Fluttershy, hers’ and Spike’s heads were set on the same wretched, mutilated body. They all stared at her with blank, lidless eyes, horrible moans rising from their ragged throats.

“Kiiilll uuusss…”

“Ssaaavvve uuusss…”

“Cooommme baaackk…”


The air came back to her lungs, and Twilight shrieked. She squirmed and kicked and struggled, but the things all held fast to her ever weakening body.

“I want her horn.”

Her gaze rose up to see Cadance and Prince Blueblood standing over her head.

“C-Cadance, please! Help me!”

The two Lords were watching her with an expression not unlike those of hungry wolves.

“You can have it,” Blueblood declared. “As long as I get her eye.”

And then Twilight remembered. “N-no… no, keep away!” She fought against her captors, their hideous moaning echoing in her ears. Chrysalis licked her cheek in response.

“Let me help with that.”

She looked up at the new voice and whimpered at the sight of Tazel, whose claws were already reaching for her face. “No, please, n-not again! I’ll do anything! Tazel… Tazel!”

It was all so horribly familiar; the ice-cold nails in her head, and careful motions that were so sickening. Twilight screeched as the eye came out again, Tazel slicing the connecting nerve off with a swipe of her claws. “Here you go, Bluebonnet.”

Twilight sobbed, body twitching as her skull pounded. “P-please… I was out…”

Tazel moved away, revealing a pony that had been behind her. Twilight gazed at him with her lone eye and felt that familiar, horrible sensation in her heart. This time she recognized it; it was betrayal.

“Sh-Shining… not again. Please… I’m your sister! I don’t want to—”

Her big brother’s lips parted in a malevolent grin. He fell on top of her, forcing a scream from her lips as his erect member plunged into the exposed opening between her legs. She shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks as he began to thrust. “N-no… please… g-get it out…”

She had no strength left to fight. She could only lay there, body bouncing against his movements. Blueblood and Tazel were laughing, Cadance was encouraging her husband, Chrysalis was whispering dementedly in her ear, her friends groaned their agony. She’d escaped, she’d made it out…

Why was she being forced to go through all of this again?

Shining’s bucking grew faster, harder. Twilight closed her eyes and sobbed, silently begging for some kind of release. She felt his teeth on her horn, his lips working it and filling her body with a hideous arousal. Then he emitted a growl and bit. Twilight’s eye opened just in time for him to deliver a final, powerful thrust and rear back, ripping her horn out of her head with his teeth.

Twilight’s world went white. She screeched into the darkness, her skull on fire as she felt something warm between her legs. She screamed and screamed, mind blank with torturous agony and heart-wrenching shame.

Her sight was just beginning to clear when a massive red claw erupted from the muck beneath her, sending her tormentors flying and locking her in a steely grip. It dragged her down into darkness…

She was hanging upside down, held aloft by her shattered leg. A shaky wheezing was all she could manage as she gazed blankly into a massive yellow eye.

Reddux leaned back, smiling politely. “Hello again, little morsel.”

Her voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “P-please… haven’t I been through enough?”

“Don’t be that way.” He raised his closed claw so it was almost level with her. “Here, I brought you a friend.”

The claw opened, revealing a purple-clad pony: Ne’er-Do-Well, its eyes shining with that smoky yellow glow. Twilight exchanged silent gazes with it, wondering what fresh horror it had in store for her.

“Ne’er… you have so many s-souls… Surely one of them has a heart?”

The yellow eyes flashed. Pain erupted in Twilight’s chest, driving her into a hacking fit. She began to lose air, her throat unable to handle the mess being thrown into it.

“Oooooh.” Reddux’s whisper had a wicked touch to its polite tone. “Looks like it gave you a gift.”

Despite her hacking, Twilight managed to force her eye open and peer at her chest. It was covered in a hideous yellow mass, like a throbbing tumor.

“You should thank her.”

Reddux released, and Twilight dropped to the stone floor on her face. She rolled onto her back, trembling from the pain as the yellow mass grew a little more. She could suck in just enough air to wheeze out her breaths, but she felt as if her chest was being constricted. She wanted to speak, to call for help, to plead, but she just couldn’t get the lungpower.


Her eye rolled to the side, a fresh tear ran down her cheek. Sunset Shimmer stood just beneath the dragon, body sagging, eyes dull, lips set in a deep frown.

Reddux lowered his massive body, his claws wriggling just over Sunset’s head. “And here’s my gift. Let’s see how many parts I can pull off of her, shall we?”

No… not Sunset. Anypony but her. Twilight lifted a hoof to her friend, her mouth gaped open only to let a trembling wheeze out of her throat.

Sunset didn’t acknowledge the motion. She didn’t even look at Twilight. When she spoke, it was like the voice wasn’t coming from her at all, but from deep within Twilight herself.

“You promised. You promised to get me out…”

Twilight couldn’t say it, so she mouthed it. She mouthed it over and over again, body trembling and heart pounding in her chest.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry!

I’m sorry!

“Not good enough.” Reddux lifted Sunset into the air. Two of his talons pinched one of Sunset’s legs… and began to pull.

Sunset started to scream.

Twilight closed her eye.

There was a flash of light that even her closed eye could take in. Twilight’s chest came free of that hideous constriction, the air sucking into her lungs with a desperate gasp. As soon as she had the oxygen, it came back out in a torturous scream.

“Let me out! Let me out! Sompony, please, let me out!”

A powerful, icy wind struck her. It jarred her, caught her attention. Twilight found she had her strength back, and promptly rolled to her stomach. Her eye opened… and her world had changed.

There was no dragon, her poor friend wasn’t being tortured. She was on a grassy hill under a starry sky, the moon shining full and bright overhead.

Twilight’s mind was too fractured to take this in. There was so much horror left inside, so much remorse. Sunset. Just the memory of her… Twilight bowed her head and wept.

Yet even as she did, in back of her mind she knew something was off. She fought to open her eye. She couldn’t stop the choked up sobs, but she could still look around. She had to know what the next torment was, no matter how much she didn’t want to know.

Her sobs were cut short when she saw the alicorn standing only a few feet away, looking down with a regal frown. “L… Luna…?”

Luna only watched, her soft eyes filled with sadness.

Twilight’s sobs came back unbidden. She bowed her head and rubbed her face, trying to overcome the misery and fear still clutching at her heart. She couldn’t do it; her tears kept flowing, her shoulders kept shaking. “I-I’m sorry… I c-can’t stop…”

Luna sighed. It was a long, soft sound. “I am sorry. I had been sensing a particularly powerful nightmare, but it took me some time to pinpoint it to you.”

Twilight gaped, the princess blurred by the moisture in her eye. She couldn’t believe... after so long…

She was crawling on her belly, not aware of her own actions. She clutched Luna’s leg in both hooves, the words cascading out between her sobs. “P-please! T-tell me… tell me you’re good. Tell me there’s some… somepony good left in this b-bucked up world! I know it’s my fault. Please, I just want to go home… I’ll do anyth-thing. Anything. Don’t ab-bandon me. Don’t condemn me! Let me g-go home…”

Twilight babbled on for a while, not even knowing what she was saying anymore. She just held on to that leg, knowing it was hopeless, knowing she was going to be left behind but praying for salvation regardless. Luna had come to her dreams. Luna had saved her from this hideous nightmare. Please let that be a sign that she was a decent pony!

She felt legs wrapping about her shoulders and holding her tight. Luna’s lips were near her ear, her whispered words indecipherable for Twilight’s wails. Yet the quality of her voice was soothing. Twilight thought perhaps this was just another part of the dream; after so long, perhaps she was prepared to come up with anything for a smidgen of comfort.

It didn’t matter. This illusion was the most beautiful thing in existence and she didn’t dare let it go. That would mean falling back into the hell that was her mind or waking up to a world that proved the hell was real. She couldn’t take it. She wouldn’t. Hadn’t she suffered enough for her crime?

The hideous fears were beginning to fade and the anguish didn’t pierce her heart quite so strongly, but the despair wouldn’t die. Unable to sob any longer, Twilight grew silent and held on to her imaginary savior, body shivering every few seconds as she prayed the princess wouldn’t leave. She’d been so desperate for even a hint of equine compassion…

Luna didn’t let go. “I do not know what you are,” she whispered kindly from Twilight’s shoulder, “but I hold your pain close to my heart. My sister’s actions are always far too cruel, this I know.”

The words seeped into Twilight’s brain, their meaning slowly working towards comprehension. Her mind had been retarded by months of fighting to ignore the evidence all around of her plight and misery, so it took some time to think. Gradually, she leaned back to look into Luna’s beautiful cyan eyes.

“You… y-you’re really here?”

“I am.” Luna reached up to caress Twilight’s cheek, her gaze laced with sorrow. “You poor creature. Whatever you did to evoke Celestia’s ire, it cannot have warranted such treatment. Her madness has claimed yet another victim.”

Good Goddess, Twilight was actually feeling that familiar flame deep in the depths of her mind, that tender hope that had been beaten and shattered and buried ever since she’d met Applejack. She almost didn’t want it back; she didn’t want to face another terrible disappointment.

But desperation outweighed her fragile sense of reason. Twilight stepped back from the princess and struggled to bow on trembling knees. “P-princess Luna, I beg you! Help m-me. I just want to go—”

She fell with a gasp, her legs unable to support her weight. Her frailty in life was even taking over in her dreams…

“I am sorry.”

Twilight looked up with wide, distraught eyes as the princess turned away from her with head bowed. “B-but…”

“You spent a couple months in a hellish world,” Luna whispered, unable to meet Twilight’s gaze. “I have spent the past thousand years in the hell that is my own mind. Even now, being divided, I can see that all my hopes and aspirations have been for naught. I cannot face my sister. I cannot defy her, no matter how desperately I might wish to. Eventually she will continue my endless punishment.

“All I can do now is enter ponies’ dreams and pretend to help, though very few want it. So you see—” Luna turned slightly, enough to show her attention but still not looking Twilight in the eyes, “—though I may comfort you in your dreams, I cannot help anypony in the waking world. I cannot save myself. I certainly cannot save you.”

Twilight bowed her head, a moment of intensified despair sweeping over her. But even as that happened, there was one small light in her heart:

Luna was a good pony.

“Th-thank you. Thank you for at least giving me this much.”

“I wish I could do more.” At last Luna turned to face her properly. “I don’t know much about you, poor soul, only that you have been free for a short time. I once asked my sister why she sent you to Tartarus, and she claimed you were a changeling.”

A spike of ice seemed to have wedged into Twilight’s chest, at once turning her blood cold and piercing her heart. She sagged a little more, covering her face with a leg and wishing she could hide in some deep, dark hole. “That’s what she called me. A changeling. Perhaps that’s all I really am. I… I’m so worthless…”

Luna shook her head. “I do not believe you are a changeling.”

Twilight’s head shot up, her eyes going wide. She opened her mouth to speak… but could achieve no words.

“I have met changelings,” the princess went on softly. “Prior to my exile. I cannot claim to understand who or what you are, but you are no changeling.”

“I… Luna…” Twilight took a tentative step forward, her entire body shaking as if in rejection of the tender hope that dared to rise within her. “I… I’m Twilight Sparkle. I s-swear. I came from—”

She was silenced by Luna’s raised hoof. “I knew Twilight Sparkle. She was once a beautiful and independent mare, before she was subdued in mind. You are not her. Perhaps you think you are, but after spending so long in Tartarus…”

That little hope shattered. Twilight turned away with head low and heart aching. “Even you won’t believe me?”

A long silence filled the air. Twilight didn’t cry; she didn’t have any tears left. She just sat there, head hung low and longing for some kind of absolution.

“Perhaps I spoke too swiftly.” Luna was at her side, posture practically mimicking Twilight’s. “Perhaps I should have lied to ease your burden. Forgive me. Just as I know what it is like to suffer under my sister’s villainy, I am well aware of the burden it places upon one’s heart to not be believed.”

Again, Twilight’s brain tried to sort out the bits of information she was receiving. Once, before Tartarus and her hellish predicament, it might have come swiftly.

She raised her head to stare at Luna’s face. There was so much depression there, so much hopelessness and loss.

She was a victim, too. She was suffering, longing for salvation just as desperately as Twilight. A thousand years suffering under Celestia’s hoof. Twilight had only been in this world for a few months.

She couldn’t imagine undergoing a millennium.

Twilight was responsible for this casualty, just as clearly as she was responsible for the death of Discord. The thought filled her with remorse… and yet Luna still seemed to be herself. She still had a certain noble air, a kind manner, a touch that could be gentle or strong on a whim.

For all her suffering, Luna was still Luna. That realization alone was enough to lift Twilight’s soul out of the mud.

“I cannot remain.” Luna’s voice was filled with regret. She turned to Twilight and touched the pony’s forehead with her horn. “I could be followed here. Such would bode very poorly for your already battered soul, so accept this parting gift, from one victim to another. I am sorry I can do no more.”

A deep, familiar warmth grew within Twilight, her chest swelling as she took in the magic. Knowing that she couldn’t create magic of her own anymore was almost enough to rend her heart, but Twilight found herself instead preoccupied by the sheer pleasure of Luna’s spell. The warmth was not just magical: it was emotional. Perhaps it wasn’t the alicorn’s intention, but Twilight felt as if some special piece of her heart had just been pulled out of the dark depths of her depression.

She could not possibly describe her appreciation.

“There.” Luna stepped back. The heat faded, but Twilight thought she might still feel it within. “Now the nightmares will be kept at bay. The spell will wear off with time, but at least for now you may know some peace.”

For the first time in ages, Twilight was able to smile. “Thank you, princess! Thank you so much…”

Luna returned the smile, though it was a smile filled with remorse. She turned away, her wings began to spread…


The princess paused. She didn’t look back.

Twilight stood, staring at the back of Luna’s head with an imploring gaze. “Do you think there is any chance of things getting better?”

A long, tender silence.

“Goodbye, Twilight Sparkle. I do not think we will be meeting again.”

She was gone, a silhouette fading into the starscape. Twilight watched her go, a deep sadness filling her as she was left alone once more. And yet, as she thought on this encounter and the pleasant warmth that still throbbed in her heart, she realized that Luna may have given her something far more special than a reprieve from her nightmares. It was the faintest glimmer in the mind, an idea that, once planted, felt so very strong. There was an opportunity here the likes of which Twilight knew was foalish.

But it was an opportunity, and it was all she had left.

Three months Twilight had been free. Three months wasted in a miserable stupor of regret and loss, surviving off what she could beg and steal. Sleeping in alleyways or the woods, always hungry, feeling like a waste of good air. She would never go home, never see her friends again – or at least, not as she’d known them. Too ashamed to want to keep going, but too cowardly to dare end her own misery. She’d been going from day to day just waiting for something to come along and finish her.

That one dream changed everything.

Luna was good. She was kind and longing to help. True, she was also trapped in whatever web of deceit Celestia had concocted for her. She was despondent and out of hope, unable to help Equestria in her current state.

But if she could be saved

Twilight had one chance left. If she could somehow manage to see Luna freed, perhaps the princess could rise up and challenge her sister. Maybe this world could become what it was always meant to be, what it was before Twilight’s terrible crime. Luna was the key: save Luna, save Equestria.

That was the theory, anyway.

Twilight knew she would never go home. Her friends were gone, her old life but a pleasant memory. She had a new goal, to which she was prepared to devote all her remaining energies: redemption.

She began by seeking out her friends. They were the bearers of the Elements of Harmony in her own time. Surely if they could be brought to see the light of friendship then they would attain the same roles in this world as well. If that could happen, if they could ally with one another and form behind Luna, perhaps there was a chance.

Twilight investigated Applejack first. It didn’t take much to learn that she’d lost the Apple farm by royal decree. More surprising was that she’d been in a somewhat romantic relationship with Luna, though it hadn’t lasted. This brought up the first great revelation for Twilight: Equestria was divided along racial and class lines, and Earth ponies were scraping the bottom of the barrel. They didn’t even have equal rights in the Equestrian court of law, which Twilight found particularly disturbing. Regardless, she knew from her previous encounter that approaching Applejack was pointless.

She moved on to Fluttershy. Twilight learned that the pegasus had been recruited to work in the Canterlot Royal Gardens as animal caretaker. Luna had been in a relationship with her, as well. To Twilight’s surprise, Fluttershy was now little more than a fugitive, wanted for apparently stealing from the crown. Nopony knew her whereabouts, though Twilight was able to determine that Fluttershy had last been seen disappearing into the wilds. She considered going out in search of her friend, but soon dismissed the idea; Twilight would never survive the untamed lands in her physical condition.

Rainbow Dash was easy to learn about, for she was a national celebrity as the last pony to become a Wonderbolt before the squadron had been disbanded. There were rumors that Rainbow had met with Luna on a few occasions, and that she’d even sworn her oath as a Wonderbolt in Luna’s name rather than Celestia’s – an act that apparently raised many eyebrows. But it was impossible to meet with Rainbow; she was always traveling, always performing. Twilight couldn’t move fast enough in her condition to reach any of the venues in time, so a meeting would have only occurred by chance, and that chance never came.

Growing frustrated, Twilight moved on to Rarity. Getting into Canterlot was a challenge, but by luck or fate she pulled it off. Everything just seemed to go right, and for that she was grateful. Yet she only observed Rarity from a distance. The fashionista was always busy, busy, busy… and angry, angry, angry. Though it required a lot of work, Twilight was able to figure out why: Rarity had been in a relationship with Luna, a relationship that had collapsed. Rarity’s every act was geared towards impressing the princess, and every failure to do so only drove her into deeper frustration.

Twilight couldn’t stay in Canterlot. It wasn’t the danger; it was the misery. She couldn’t find out what happened to her parents, which on its own was depressing. Discovering the truth about Cadance’s attempt to rise up against Celestia, and Shining Armor’s turning traitor to Equestria to assist in that cause, left her bitter. Her brother and sister-in-law had been good ponies, banished to a hellish land where they’d been driven mad by the magical environment. Though she couldn’t forgive them their actions against her – never would she forget the shame and humiliation – she nonetheless felt pity.

But the worst discovery about Canterlot?


Twilight saw him always assisting Rarity, eager to serve but constantly frustrated that he couldn’t help her overcome the loss of Luna. Spike was still a good guy, a fact that left Twilight feeling proud, but he was helpless to do anything for his closest friend. It was placing a visible strain on him, and it hurt Twilight to tears that she could do nothing but watch.

Twilight heard rumors of Canterlot having slums. She found her way to them, situated deep in the crystal mines below the city, and they were a true wakeup call. There was so much squalor down there; starvation, violence, disease, corruption, overpopulation. It was the worst possible conditions to live in. Twilight herself had been molested, though she somehow managed to escape her tormentors before they could do anything more than threaten and get a little grabby. Something had scared them off… but she never figured out what.

It was through her escape from the slums that she found out the whereabouts of Pinkie Pie. The pony owned a large and expensively priced restaurant just outside Canterlot. Twilight didn’t know whether it was by luck or design, but the restaurant’s basement connected to the mines beneath the city, making for a little known back route out of the slums.

Twilight didn’t meet Pinkie herself. Or at least she thought she didn’t; there were far too many to tell. The restaurant was completely staffed by Pinkie clones, cheerful, energetic and eager to serve. One was even nice enough to inform Twilight that the real Pinkie had created the clones with the theory that doing so would lead to more fun and humor, which in turn would bring a smile to the face of none other than Princess Luna. Unfortunately, the plan had backfired, and the real Pinkie was said to be an emotional mess.

Luna had been in contact with all of Twilight’s friends. She remembered from listening to Jimmy and the other Twilight that there’d been some contact there, as well. Could it be that Luna had tried to forge the Elements together on her own… and failed? Regardless, they all shared a tenuous connection with the Moon Princess, and that only fueled Twilight’s belief that they were crucial to Luna’s salvation. Destiny had put them together in one universe. Perhaps, with a little nudging, it could be done again.

Yet they were also enemies.

The public referred to them as ‘the Duels’, and all Twilight’s friends had been involved. The Duels revolved around Luna, though the purpose and end result was not at all clear. Regardless, they’d all met and been forced to fight at some time or another, and these fights had only driven them apart. Worse, it seemed that their very natures had been corrupted by the encounters so that they were hardly recognizable as Twilight’s old friends.

They had to be brought together, the rifts had to be sealed. Somepony would have to find a way to remind each of them of their true natures and help them see the destinies that had been denied them.

That pony would not be Twilight. In the six months it took to seek her friends out she also saw a noticeable decline in her own health. She steadily had less and less energy, her body feeling ever weaker. Sometimes her wounds would begin to ache, as if recalling the damage she’d been dealt in the depths. Then there was the crater on her forehead, the splitting migraines putting her down for days. Yet the worst of it all were the terrible hacking fits that would come over her with greater frequency and violence. She was coughing up blood by now.

Ne’er-Do-Well’s parting gift was killing her, there could be no doubt.

Tazel was right: Tartarus never lets go.

Yet Twilight wouldn’t let herself give up. She would right her terrible wrongs no matter what. If she couldn’t bring her friends together, she would just have to find somepony else who could.

She managed to create a list of all the ponies she’d known in her own world. Friends, acquaintances, rivals, even enemies. Surely there was somepony out there who would have a chance of succeeding where she didn’t.

She spent months researching the names on the list. She snuck aboard trains and traveled to the four corners of Equestria, always fighting her deteriorating health. Worse was her status as an outsider; she was treated like dirt, and warranted even less attention. Sometimes it worked in her favor, but usually it was a tremendous obstacle.

Nonetheless, her research went on. Braeburn, Big McIntosh, Daring Do, Fancy Pants, Cheerilee, Lightning Dust, Iron Will, Gilda, Octavia, Thunder Hooves, every possible name she could think of. Some she never found. Others were incapable of helping and many she determined would be unwilling. Some faced incredible challenges of their own; financial, racial, familial. She never met any of them directly; who would believe her purpose? No, she watched from the shadows and gauged their capacity. Every name scratched off her list left her a little more disheartened.

Her journey taught her one thing: this new Equestria really was a bucked up world. It was amazing how much strife and suffering existed here. Slums in every city, civil unrest, hunger, poverty. There wasn’t a single positive element of the Equestria she knew and loved. This world took the ponies she’d once known and turned them into mere shadows of their former selves, and every new find was a little more distressing.

Twilight had been out of Tartarus for two years when she made the discovery. She was in Hoofington, seeking out one of the few names left on her list. Her hopes were low, her mood sour… and then she saw her. She was a pony so familiar, so instantly recognizable that Twilight actually kicked herself, for it was a pony she’d completely neglected to add to her list.

Inspiration struck. She followed the pony for a few weeks, quickly learning that her target was every bit as ‘interesting’ as she’d been in the other world. No, it was more than that; this pony was unchanged. It was startling to think that after seeing so many ponies completely and terribly changed by this dark universe, here was somepony who didn’t appear to have been altered one iota.

There was potential here… more potential than Twilight was sure she could believe.

Then the bombshell came: the pony had been visited by Luna in her dreams and was determined to go to Canterlot and meet the princess’ ‘challenge’.

Twilight didn’t have to connect too many dots to realize a new set of Duels were on the way.

She crept through the darkened halls, moving as quietly and cautiously as she could. Twilight had planned everything out very carefully, from her entry into the castle to her timing of contact. The pony had already fought and defeated Rarity; the Duels were officially on. Twilight had no time to spare if she was going to tell the challenger what she needed to know.

The doubts gnawed at Twilight’s mind as she hid in a closet and waited for a guard to slip by. What if this pony couldn’t save her friends? What if she couldn’t help Luna? What if she didn’t even understand what she was about to be told?

But Twilight was out of options. Her sickness was eating away at her, her hacking fits more frequent and rarely without blood. Even now, as she walked the halls of Canterlot Castle, she could feel her energy slipping. How long did she have? A couple months? Weeks? Days? She had to do this now, and this was the only pony she’d investigated who seemed to have even a remote chance.

The Nocturnal Wing. It was separate from the rest of the castle, cordoned away in a small area where its inhabitant would go largely unseen. Princess Luna was an aberration in the eyes of Equestria’s citizens, a dark blot on the land. Celestia had manipulated the world perfectly; Luna was frowned upon, ignored, even feared. There was no respect for her beyond the baseline showings that her crown demanded.

Entering the Nocturnal Wing was easy; there were no guards anywhere near the place. They couldn’t be spared to look after such a 'worthless creature' as Luna. Twilight found herself standing in a long, tall hall that was certainly splendid, but lacked the sheer decorative flare of the rest of the castle. It was darkly lit, the windows all covered in thick curtains and the walls bare. Twilight investigated each room; there was no way to know which one held her target and she knew the majority of them were empty.

Twice Twilight was forced to hide, both occasions due to the untimely appearance of Nye Stone. Twilight was surprised to find him there, but then it only made sense. Yes, she knew him; he was Jimmy’s younger twin, and even in her own world Nye had been fiercely loyal to Luna. It should be expected that fate would find a way to place him at her side once more, a thought that was reassuring towards Twilight’s goals. He appeared to be Luna’s attendant and personal butler in this world, a role that Twilight thought suited him well.

Twilight had been searching for nearly an hour when she finally found the right room. She’d spotted her sleeping target almost instantly. She’d thought she would be nervous, or maybe scared.

On the contrary: seeing that sleeping face left Twilight feeling more relieved than she could ever remember. This was it, the moment she’d been working towards for two years. She sat beside the bed and stared, mind going over all the terrible trials and pains that had led up to this moment. At last she would be able to pass the torch.

Would it work? Would Equestria be saved?

Odds were she wouldn’t live long enough to find out.

But that was okay. She’d done everything she could in the time she had. All she could do was hope and pray that it was enough to earn her redemption.

She leaned over that blue face, silently wondering if she was gazing upon Equestria’s savior. Yet somehow, for reasons she couldn’t comprehend, she knew that this was the right decision. As those soft blue locks shifted around sleeping eyes, Twilight felt a distinct warmth in her heart.

This was her. This was the pony who would change everything. She would face Twilight’s friends, help them see what they needed to, bring them together and save Luna.

Twilight Sparkle’s part was over.

Trixie Lulamoon’s was about to begin.


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Twilight's Inferno
Chapter Ω: Paradiso

It was cold and dark in the slums beneath Canterlot. Twilight didn’t have near as much time as she’d thought; her physical state was worsening at an exponential rate. Just escaping the city proper had taken all she had left, and now she found herself trapped among the living refuse of Equestria.

Her hind leg had been the first to go, perhaps because it had spent so much time doing the work of two. Unable to protect herself from the dangers of her fellow ponies – dangers that would never have existed in her own world – she crawled her way into a dark, dirty alley in hopes of finding a hiding place.

So now here she was, hidden inside a cardboard box with the rest of the trash. Her legs couldn’t carry her, her breathing came in rasps, her lungs felt constricted and weak. Her last hacking fit broke something inside, she could feel it. Her entire body burned with the sensation of being too close to a fire.

But Twilight wasn’t scared. There was no pang of regret, no clouds of doubt drifting over her. She’d passed the torch; Equestria was in Trixie’s hooves now. She had so much confidence in the decision, for in that brief conversation Twilight had seen with crystal clarity the potential within that boisterous pony. Maybe she was just clinging to the last hope of a lost cause… but something inside, something warm, told her otherwise.

The pain began to ebb, Twilight’s breathing slowed.

It was time.


Ponyville. Beautiful, calm, beloved Ponyville.

The princesses were there. Cadance and Shining Armor, who gazed upon her with sheer joy. Luna, who smiled down on her with such kindness and serenity.

Celestia, who watched with all the pride and love of a mother.

She didn’t notice Discord at first. He lingered, his face sad and shoulders sagging. Twilight went to him, opened her mouth to say all the things she’d longed to for two years.

He set a finger to her lips.

He smiled.

Twilight wept.

There was Applejack, her Stetson over her heart and a welcoming smile on her freckled face. Rarity, her pearly face beaming with pride, stood beside her. Spike was on Rarity's back and waving with that dopey smile of his. Rainbow flew overhead, offering a cheer as her brilliant wake decorated the pristine sky. Pinkie Pie had balloons flying up to aid in the cheer, even as tears were streaming down her cheeks. Fluttershy merely sat and watched, pretty eyes moist and aglow.

And Sunset. She gazed at Twilight with pride, her tears dripping to the grass. She opened her hooves wide in welcome.

Twilight ran to them, tears streaking her face. She held them all, one at a time, delighting in their unfathomable warmth.

The world began to fade, but there was always the warmth. It filled her to bursting. So much time, so much effort, so much fear. None of it mattered. The pain was gone, her heart was full, her mind was clear.

She was home.