Nine Days Down

by JoeShogun

First published

Celestia's latest game of Save the Princess gets more serious than she'd have liked when she gets herself thrown into Tartarus. It would be bad enough if she were alone...but it seems she'd picked up a straggler as well.

Sometimes it's fun to play the damsel in distress. Princess Celestia knows this better than most. Usually it works out fine. Really, she could have escaped at any time, but Twilight and her friends have been so effective in the past that this time, Celestia may have let things get out of hoof. It was all fun and games until she got unceremoniously tossed into Tartarus. Even then, it wouldn't have been so bad; she's a goddess, after all. But alas, Tartarus is not Equestria, and Celestia is not all she could be when trapped there. Even worse, it appears that she didn't get thrown into The Pit alone.
Now, a mostly-mortal Celestia and her faithful student must traverse the wilds of Tartarus, the fabled prison of all the things that were deemed too monstrous, too disturbing, too outright dangerous for world they know. Surely an exit will present itself...

Totally rockin' cover art by Cold in Gardez.

Damsel in Distress, more or less.

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As for the place, Hesiod asserts that a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus.

~~~

Ho hum, thought Celestia from her perch on high. Yup. Here I am. Kidnapped again. Oh, dear me, what ever shall I do? She managed not to giggle.

“Let the Princess go and maybe we’ll go easy on ya!” shouted Rainbow Dash.

“Hah!” shouted Artifice, the self-styled Mistress of Machinery. “You don’t scare me, pegasus!”

Celestia, for her part, remained silent, hiding her smile. The chain that held her dangling from the low roof was built of thick, heavy steel. It would take all of two seconds for her to melt it to slag, if she were into that sort of thing. It was attached to some huge, clanking, arcane device, the purpose of which eluded casual inspection. Supposedly it would channel all of Equestria’s magic straight into the madmare who built it.

“And it doesn’t matter, because you’re too late! With this final piece, my devious domination device will be complete!”

‘This final piece’ was Celestia’s crown, swiped off her head shortly before the Princess had been strung up.

“Mwahahahahaha!”

Honestly, is that the best ne’er-do-wells can come up with these days? Steal magic thing, rule Equestria? Does she really think that crown has any power in it?

The crown was, in fact, a part of Celestia. A bit of her soul, given form in indestructible golden metal and violet stone. It held no more power than she gave it, which, at the moment, was none. As such, Celestia was fairly certain there was no real threat here. But she played along anyway.

It had been a while since Twilight and her friends had gotten to lay out a good thwarting on some villain. It was good for them. And sure, the damsel-in-distress role did get a bit old at times, but it was worth it to Celestia to let her ponies know that they could get by without her.

And besides, their little battles were just so cute. Maybe the villain, this 'Artifice,' would even learn the error of her ways. Twilight’s friends were quite good at that part. Not that they couldn’t handle themselves if it came down to a brawl, of course, but it was always nice when everypony learned something.

Twilight Sparkle leapt to the fore.

“Alright girls! Get that crown!”

At her word, the entire group jumped into action. Applejack stormed up the stairs, plowing into and through the unfortunate minions who stood in her way. Rarity followed her up, casting a spell into one of the many crystal-laden devices around her. The few thugs who hadn't already been thrown aside by Applejack foolishly glanced into it and were blinded enough that Rarity could saunter by untouched, nose held high. “Hmph,” she said, voice dripping with disdain.
"Ruffians."

A bit of concern showed on Artifice’s face as she watched their progress.

“No matter!” she barked. “Let’s see you get past this!” She yanked back on a lever and arcs of lightning jumped to life at the head of the staircase.

Ahh, thought Celestia. The lightning barricade. Classic. Though it does have a few inherent weaknesses…

Rainbow Dash bolted past the hovering thug-pegasi, zipping in tight circles around them. The resultant multihued tornado flung them in various directions. Fluttershy cringed and tried to look brave as she trailed after.

Artifice growled and threw back another lever. A series of panels dropped open all around the machine-laden dais she perched on, revealing several massive fans. The blades went from zero to really-super-fast almost instantaneously.

Celestia nodded her approval as Rainbow Dash’s rush was slowed to a crawl. Good thinking on Artifice's part. Covering all the bases.

Fluttershy dropped straight to the ground, nowhere near strong enough in the air to handle the fans. Well, discretion is the better part of valor. But there’s still…Twilight was already firing up her horn for a *blink* to the platform on which her latest nemesis stood.

But first...

“Hi!” proclaimed Pinkie Pie pleasantly, hopping happily past Artifice.

“What!? How did you..!?”

Hah! Pinkie Pie. Woe to the villain who forgot to account for the wild card.

“How did I what?” asked Pinkie, reaching past the dumbfounded doctor to nudge the fan lever back into the 'up' position. The fans shut off just as Twilight popped into existence dead center in the platform.

“Give it up, Artifice! We have you surrounded!” Twilight Sparkle smiled with fierce determination, magically throwing up the lever that had activated the lightning wall. Her friends, now free to join her at the top of the stairway, sauntered up at their leisure. Celestia would have stood up and clapped if she weren’t currently bound upside-down by chains.

“No! You'll never stop me!”

The madmare’s horn blazed to life as she shoved past Pinkie. Twilight threw up a shield to ward off the incoming bolt of magic but…nothing came. Artifice rushed straight past her to the little dais where The Final Piece was to be placed.

A feint!

Celestia gasped with more drama than was entirely necessary.

Artifice used the magic she’d stored to grab hold of every lever in the room and threw them down all at once. Just before being tackled by Applejack, she tossed the crown onto its assigned spot.

“HAHAHAHAHA!”

The entire room held its breath in suspense.

“…Ha?”

Nothing happened. Artifice looked up from under her own hooves, and also the earth pony sitting astride her, eyes twitching over her machines in manic desperation.

"No! It should have worked! I thought of everything!"

Celestia almost laughed. Typical, she thought. Leave science to the more-or-less sane, rookie. Instead, she said,

“Excellent work, Twilight! You’ve saved Equestria again!" She gave her student a radiant smile. “You, and all of your wonderful friends, of course.”

Twilight blushed, caught between pride and happy embarrassment. Her friends each followed suit in their own way.

“Oh, it was nothing.” Twilight Sparkle pawed at the ground with one hoof. "I'm just glad we—"

The entire chamber rumbled. It wasn't a mechanical sound. It was deep, and horrid, and implacably malevolent.

“You fools!” screamed Artifice, throwing Applejack off with some kind of newfound hysterical strength. “You thought me defeated so easily!? I’ll show you!”

Celestia tried to say something, tried to be glib, but there was something terribly familiar in that growling, evil sound.

The group of friends glanced about nervously, each looking at Twilight as though she had any idea what was happening. The floor beneath them began to quake. Every device upon it, the fans, the lightning wall, the alarms, everything all fired off at once.

“Wh—” Twilight staggered as gravity gave way to the bizarre magical field the machines were generating. “What did you do!?”

The Artifice let loose another mad cackle. “Oh you’ll see! You’ll all see!” She staggered her way to a big, red, brightly blinking button, using her magic to sort of swim when her hooves could no longer touch the ground. She slammed a hoof down on it, and the look she gave Celestia as she did it chilled the Princess to the bone.

It was cold, and vicious, and perfectly, villainously sane.

“And we’ll all see how long your precious Equestria lasts without you, Princess.”

Bits of dust and broken stone rose slowly past Celestia into a rapidly forming vortex of violent magic and hellish un-light. The chains that held her were already being sucked into the morass. Bubbles of strange, dissonant magic were coagulating on its surface. Celestia broke her staring match with Artifice and looked into it. Her eyes went wide in recognition of what lay on the other side, and then narrowed dangerously as realization hit her. Artifice: Ingenuity, cleverness. Or…a clever trick or stratagem; guile; craftiness. Dammit! She couldn’t believe she hadn’t caught that earlier. Celestia's thoughts raced as her eyes flicked from Artifice’s smug grin to the crown on the dais. Powerless by itself, but a perfect sympathetic link with which to target her. She couldn't dodge this world-rending spell now. She'd let it come too close. She couldn't block it or deflect it away.

Well done, you monster. But if you want to play hardball…

Celestia turned her baleful gaze back to Artifice, looking her straight in the eye as she let some measure of her true might surge into being. Her mane burst into golden flame, her entire body ignited with impossible strength as she snapped hundreds of pounds of steel like so much—

Twilight popped into being atop her, wrapping her legs around Celestia and beating her wings as hard as she could as she tried to drag her Princess away from the twisted magic of the portal.

“Don’t worry Princess, I’ve got you!”

“No! Twilight just g—”

In that moment of distraction, a bubble of noxious ether burst, gushing otherworldly energy over the both of them. Celestia’s attempted protests and warnings were drowned out in the flood. Tendrils of malignant magic boiled out of the other bubbles and flailed blindly for anything they could reach. Celestia despaired, blind and deaf to everything outside the gleefully malignant snarl of the magic that had her. It took everything she had just to shield Twilight and throw her away from the surging portal. She didn’t even know if it worked. The last thing she heard was a scream.





Or maybe...a call?

~~~

Celestia drifted in silence. She couldn’t see. For a time, she couldn’t even remember what seeing was like. She floated, blind, numb, and deaf. Or maybe she always had been this way, and was just hallucinating the memories of such strange things as sight and sound and touch. She was alone in this, with nothing but her own muddled thoughts to keep her company. Then even those faded, and there was...

Nothing.

~~~

Gradually, her mind reassembled itself.

Celestia opened her eyes, and immediately regretted the necessity of having senses. She might have groaned. She would never remember. Everything felt wrong. Not painful, exactly. Just not like it was supposed to feel. She couldn’t quite remember what things were supposed to feel like yet, but she knew it wasn’t like this.

It was too quiet, first of all. After the mad cacophony of the portal and cavernous, echoing emptiness of her last memory, everything was far too quiet. Utterly silent. No wind. No birds or bugs. The only sound was the rustling of her own body as Celestia flailed to right herself. It was so still that she could keenly feel the rush of blood through her veins, the rhythmic pulse of her heart and breath. This wasn't right!

She blinked owlishly. It felt like days before her eyes could finally focus. When they did, she saw nondescript trees and patches of grass. A few shrubs, here and there. She looked down and found that she lay on a reddish dirt path running through a forest. The light was all wrong here. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular, and it was far too even to be natural. There were no shadows. That meant something…Celestia looked up blearily, and her mind froze in a moment of sublime, perfect, existential horror.

There was no sun here.

Celestia sucked in a panicked breath. She couldn’t see. Through the Sun, her very soul, she should be able to see across the entire world, but all she saw now was the tiny pinprick of space that lay before her eyes. She was numb, and deaf. The borders of her other soul, that of Equestria itself, were suddenly unknown to her. The endless, murmuring hopes and needs of its people were gone. The eternally comforting, guiding, demanding influences of Celestia’s greater souls had vanished, leaving her truly alone for the first time in centuries. Without them, she wasn't a Princess, wasn't a Goddess. Just a pony.

Celestia’s breath came short and sharp as she tried to find some point of focus for her free-falling mind.

The sky was black as the darkest night. More so, for there were no stars. Dead center in that sable sky was a ring of slowly flickering red fire. The inside was empty, an impossible pit of deeper darkness in a sky that held nothing else.

Gears that had been whirring uncontrollably in Celestia mind slammed into place. Her first rational thought was a curse that hadn't been uttered in Equestria for generations.

Shit.

Tartarus. I am in Tartarus. Okay. Alright. Celestia closed her eyes and struggled to control her breathing. It should have been easy, but nothing was ever easy in this horrible place. Her heart thudded against her ribs as she fought against the mortal terror this land inspired in her. Literal mortal terror.

There was no Sun here. And that meant she could die. Without her nation, without her Sun, Celestia was little more than an oversized unicorn with wings.

I am in Tartarus, but that is okay, because I am not going to panic. She tried to take deep breaths, but they kept coming in hard and short and sharp. She shouldn’t even need to breathe. I am going to let myself sit here, and think, and I am not panicking right now.

Sometimes it helped to say these things. They weren’t true, but if she could just fake it until the bad part passed…

It is perfectly reasonable to be scared, because dying is scary, but it isn’t permanent for me because my other souls will bring me back, so there’s really nothing at all to be scared of, right? Right. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs completely, slowly letting it out a few moments later.

Well, there was still the possibility of a long, painful, pointless death at the hands of the monsters here to be afraid of.

That isn’t helping! At the very worst, I’ll wake up tomorrow in Equestria remembering none of this. So...

Another deep breath. This one was calmer.

So, it’s like an adventure. Like one of those books Rainbow Dash likes so much. A quest.

There. That was helping a bit. Celestia attempted to force a bit of levity onto herself.

It could be fun even. No responsibilities. Nowhere I need to be. No tabloids or snotty nobles following my every move. Celestia breathed again and even smiled a bit. No need to behave. Sure, I’m stuck in an absurdly murderous deathtrap where everything, everywhere wants to kill me, but on the upside, there’s no one to worry about but me, for once. Plus… she looked down at her unshod hooves and bare neck. Her usual panoply, the crown, shoes and gorget that marked her as ruler of Equestria, were gone. Like her Sun and State souls, they were a part of that world, and couldn’t normally leave it. And while, yes, that all meant that she was mortal here, it also meant…I get to do it all naked! So that’s nice.

Celestia opened her eyes and nodded to herself. She felt better already. It really was all in how you looked at it, wasn’t it? Alright then. She looked down the path ahead of her, trying to remember whether she’d been in this particular part of Tartarus before.

“Princess?”

Everything froze. Again.

Celestia turned, slowly and agonizingly, toward the source of the sound. She saw, standing there, her worst nightmare.

Twilight Sparkle halted where she was, wings half up, worry written all over her face.

“Are you okay, Princess?”

Alright. I am in Tartarus right now with somepony for whom death is permanent and that is okay and I Am Not. Panicking. Right. Now.

Paranoia

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Celestia threw herself to her hooves.

“Twilight, we need to go. Immediately.” Her voice was tight and terse. Without further explanation, Celestia leapt into the air, stopping to hover a scant few inches above the tree line.

“Um, okay.”

Twilight watched, somewhat taken aback. Celestia craned her neck one way and then another, like she was searching for something. She looked harried, almost angry. Had Twilight done something? She hopped up, somewhat less impressively, to join her mentor in the air. “What are we looking for? Can I—“

“No. Stay on the ground. No flying above the trees unless you absolutely have to.”

Twilight dropped back to the ground immediately, her obedience reflexive.

Celestia thumped to the ground. She clearly hadn’t liked whatever she’d seen up there. Before Twilight could even get a word out, Celestia looked at her and shook her head.

“No questions, not now. We need to move. This way.”

Twilight stood there, gawking open-mouthed as Celestia took off at a trot down the dirt path. That hadn't been a request. It was an order. Princess Celestia almost never gave orders. Twilight could barely remember the last time she'd heard it happen.

After a few loping steps down the path, Celestia stopped and turned back.

“Twilight. Let’s go. Now.”

She snapped her mouth shut and ran to catch up, fighting the cloying sense of guilt that spread through her guts. Princess Celestia only used that tone when she was upset, but why was she upset? Had Twilight done something? Had she messed up somehow? No, no, Celestia had a good reason for this, surely. It was that Artifice pony she was mad at, obviously. But…hadn’t she tried to say something earlier, when Twilight had jumped toward her? Was that it? Had Twilight ruined something by throwing herself in the way? Surely the Princess would say so if that were the case, right? Of course she would. She never held an honest mistake against anypony. But what if—

Twilight mentally screamed at herself. She hated this. She always did this. Princess Celestia had never been anything but wonderful, but the slightest indication of displeasure from her teacher would send Twilight into an ever-tightening spiral of panic and self-loathing. This was why she threw everything she had into any assignment the Princess gave her: she had to! She couldn’t live with herself if she did anything less. She knew Princess Celestia would still love her no matter what, but all the facts in the world couldn’t stop her from eating herself alive over some perceived misstep.

Twilight stared at the ground, trying to breathe, pretending she was a normal pony and not a total spazz. She understood, objectively, that her emotions regarding Celestia were rather...tangled. The Princess had been Twilight’s first major authority figure, other than her parents. Her first real friend and confidante, her greatest teacher. Hers had the only advice that Twilight had ever taken to heart without question. The fact that she was a perfect, beautiful, immortal god-Princess that Twilight had spent most of her life utterly, embarrassingly smitten with surely only made things worse. After years of hoping in vain for some sign that Celestia might feel the same. Alas, it never came. For the best probably. Twilight had eventually gotten over it, more or less. Sure, she still had a thing for leggy mares with multi-color manes, but really, who didn't? Anyway, that just made it all the more galling that after everything Twilight had done, after everything she had seen and been through, that Princess Celestia could still make her feel like an idiot without even trying. Twilight was a Princess too, darn it! She should be past this by now!

And the worst part? Twilight just knew Celestia would feel terrible if she found out. So they couldn’t even talk about it.

The pair jogged along in silence for a good while. Twilight’s funk eventually passed, mostly. Exercise was good for that, forced her to breathe. She looked up from the stretch of loose-packed red dirt she had been absently staring at and took in the scene around her. Forested, but she didn’t recognize it. The trees were a little odd. She couldn’t place the species of, well, of most of them. She’d have to get some more books on botany when she got home...Twilight watched her Princess for a bit. Celestia was agitated, on alert. Her eyes flicked about, ears twitching at every little sound.

She was watching for something. Hm.

Twilight followed Celestia's lead, watching, listening. There was strangely little to listen too. Why was it so quiet here? And what they hay kind of spell had that Artifice character hit them with?

Twilight’s internal detective went to work, kicking her internal critic out of the command chair. That was fine by Twilight. She hated her internal critic. She examined her surroundings as best she could while cantering through them. Something was off with the light in this place. This much canopy should have made it darker than this. She looked down. No shadows. Odd. Disconcerting, even. She looked up and…

There was no Sun here. Just a pitch-black sky. It did have one feature: A huge, slowly smoldering ring of fire surrounding a darkness somehow deeper than the perfect blackness around it. Twilight slowed to a shuffling halt.

“Um. Princess?”

“What is it Twilight?" Celestia turned back, still moving forward.

“Where are we?”

Celestia stopped. She turned and walked to Twilight. She put a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight, before I answer that, I want you sit down and try to remain calm, alright?”

Twilight did as she was bid, nodding for her mentor to continue. A tremor of worry ran through at her Princess’s tone.

“We are in Tartarus. But it’s going to be okay. I know how to—“

“REALLY!?”

~~~

Celestia backed up a bit in the face of Twilight’s sudden enthusiastic grin.

“I’ve always wanted to see Tartarus! This is so amazing! I almost got to see it when I took Cerberus back, but there wasn’t time!" Twilight looked around. "Oh, this is so cool!”

Celestia blinked. This was not the face of a pony who had just learned she was stuck in a prison full of the most monstrous and deadly creatures the ancient world had to offer. This was the face of a pony who thought she had just been thrust into a wonderful adventure with her friend and mentor.

Oh dear.

“There are so many places I want to see! Is there really a river that makes you forget things!? And one made of fire? And, and are there actually things with fifty heads? The um, hekatonkheires? Are those—”

Celestia held up a quieting hoof. Twilight didn’t know. It wasn’t her fault. Tartarus had been old before books were even invented, and she probably wouldn’t have believed half of what would have been written in them anyway. In a way, Twilight’s ignorance of how awful this place could be was an accomplishment, a testament to how much better life in Equestria was nowadays. In another way, it was a huge and potentially lethal problem. If Twilight treated this like some jaunt through the woods…

“Twilight Sparkle, I need to you listen to me very carefully.” She waited a moment for Twilight to get her thoughts in order. “I’m sorry, but this is not a field trip. We are in a very, very dangerous place. It is like nothing you’ve ever dealt with before, because everything, and I mean everything, in this place can and will hurt you if you give it the chance.”

Celestia watched as Twilight’s happy enthusiasm dissolved into confusion. She hated the necessity of it, but she had to get this through.

“You must remember that, always. I know you probably don’t understand what I’m saying, but please trust me on this. When I tell you to do something, it is extremely important that you do it. No questions, no discussion, just action. This place is…it’s evil. There’s no better word for it. And the most important thing of all right now is that I get you out of here. I promise I’ll explain everything after we get home.”

Celestia watched the war between habitual obedience and relentless curiosity as it raged across Twilight Sparkle’s face. Assaults were made and countered as she formed and then abandoned attempts at a response to Celestia’s words. It was another second or two before her former student stammered anything out.

“I…y-yes, Princess.”

Obedience wins then, thought Celestia. It honestly hadn't been the result she'd expected.

“It’s just… one thing?”

Ah, there it is. “Go ahead, but quickly.”

“Was I, um, did I do this? Am I why we’re here? You said something when I grabbed onto you, and you tried to push me away, and...”

Celestia almost laughed. Honestly, to be worrying about that, at a time like this. She gave Twilight a sympathetic smile. “No, no sweetie. That portal would have pulled me through either way. I was just trying to throw you out of its reach. You couldn't have known.”

Twilight nodded sheepishly. “It’s just, when you turned and saw me? You looked pretty upset."

“Ah,” said Celestia. Busted. “Well, I suppose I was. But certainly not at you.” She smiled, with a little shrug. “Nothing to be done for it now, so let’s get moving, yes?”

Curiosity abated for the moment, Twilight nodded again. And with that, the pair took off down the road at a brisk canter.

~~~

Aaauugh! Twilight couldn’t believe she’d done that. Is it my fault? Really!? She tells me we're stuck in some super-dangerous death-trap and all I can think to ask is ‘Is it my fault?’ That is just so… Okay, enough. Get it together.

Twilight cut off her mental self-recriminations, forcibly switching her mind over to something that would hopefully be more interesting: figuring out what Celestia was so worried about. After maybe an hour of completely peacefully jogging through the woods, the Princess was still twitching at every tiny movement like she thought there was a ravening manticore lurking behind every tree. ‘Everything can hurt you, if you give it the chance,’ she’d said. Well, Twilight hadn’t seen anything more deadly than a pothole, so far. Actually, she hadn’t even seen one of those. The road was immaculately level. Still, this was the Princess, so surely she knew what she was talking about. But Twilight was starting to wonder if she had possibly overstated the perils here a bit. Maybe Tartarus had changed since she’d been here last?

Thinking about it, Twilight couldn't remember Princess Celestia having ever even mentioned being in Tartarus before. How long had it been, then?

Twilight ran through everything she knew about Tartarus. It was a different realm from Equestria, a whole other world. The two were connected by some kind of gate. Twilight hadn’t studied other-dimensional phenomena as much as she’d like, but she’d heard that things like magic or physics might work a little differently in other realms, and it was supposedly extremely difficult to open a gate between them. There were probably books she could read about it when she got home. Hopefully.

Anyway, Cerberus, a dragon-sized, three-headed bulldog guarded the gate, and he was hypothetically inescapable. He was intimidating, to be sure, but Fluttershy had had no trouble with him. The creatures here couldn’t be that bad if one big dog could keep them in check, right? Speaking of those creatures, Tartarus was usually purported to be some kind of prison where villains were kept. Twilight only knew of a few of them. Those were probably pretty scary, but she was here with the Princess who had originally defeated them, and Twilight had defeated a villain or two herself, so that should be okay. And besides, Tartarus was clearly a big place. It would take some seriously bad luck to run into a weirdo like Hydia or Grogar wandering down these empty roads.

And uh, yeah. That’s about all she knew. She could run through the list of villains, for whatever good that might do. The thing that was maddening about this was that Twilight had this great source of information bouncing along right in front of her, but the Princess had all but forbidden any talking. Twilight scrunched up her face, pondering the best plan of attack for breaching Princess Celestia’s wall of silence.

She decided to bide her time, for now. Twilight had seen the Princess like this a time or two before: worried, taciturn, reluctant to speak. It happened a lot when the Nightmare incident or anything else from the ‘Old Days’ came up. But she knew her mentor well, and Princess Celestia loved to share her knowledge. All Twilight needed to do was provide a well-timed excuse, and then all that glorious information would just pour right out. Twilight settled into the not-quite-galloping rhythm and waited for the right opportunity to present itself. She also took a moment to begrudge Celestia her ridiculously long, shapely limbs; this was barely a fast canter for her.

~~~

Okay, *huff* this is getting *huff* a little ridiculous. *Huff*

Twilight was tired. She hadn’t run like this in, well, maybe ever. She was surprised she’d made it this long. They’d been running for hours, and the whole time, she’d gotten nothing out of Princess Celestia. All of her entreaties had been politely but soundly rebuffed. She’d stopped trying after the second hour or so. She was breathing too hard to hold a conversation now anyway. She was doing better than she would have been a few months ago, certainly; this Princess endurance was something else. If she were still a regular unicorn, she probably would have keeled over quite some time ago. Why were they hoofing it anyway? Flying was so much more efficient. Well, hypothetically. She was still working on that.

Anyway, this was exhausting. She had been getting hungry before, but now she was too fatigued for that. At least Twilight didn’t have the energy to feel like an idiot anymore. But then, she also couldn’t feel her legs. She didn’t want to say anything though, not to Princess Celestia. She was a Princess herself now, so she had to be tough. But seriously…

Twilight got an idea. She snapped her wings out, letting them lift her a a few hoof-spans off the ground. Well below the tree-line, of course, but high enough to let her glide for a few seconds before landing on her much-abused legs again.

Princess Celestia turned at the sound of wings unfurling, but made no comment on Twilight’s activities.

Good. This could work. Awesome.

Twilight continued her staggered gliding/galloping gait for another few minutes before disaster struck. She fumbled the landing, nearly earning herself a face-full of Tarataran dirt.

“Gah! W-wuh, okay! I’m okay! Sorry!” Twilight did her best to maintain some amount of Royal dignity. Princess Celestia’s look indicated that this had not worked out.

Between deep breaths, Celestia asked, “Do you need to stop, Twilight?”

*Huff* “What? *Huff* No, no, I’m *huuuuufffffff* I’m fine. Just *huff* tripped is all,” replied Twilight. Did she normally sweat this much? Or was it just because there was apparently no wind here, ever, at all?

“Well, why don’t we stop anyway?” Princess Celestia blew out a breath with infuriating elegance. “I’m bushed.”

Twilight wasn’t too proud to take the invitation.

~~~

Despite herself, Celestia was actually rather enjoying this. She hadn’t had a good, long run in ages, and in a mortal body, no less! It was exhilarating, getting to stretch out all of those unused muscles and put them to the work they were meant for. Even if it did feel a bit like her legs were going to fall off… Celestia heaved another breath and retreated to the side of the road to sit down for a bit. Wrapping her tail around to one side, she took a moment to remind herself to stay wary. This was a nightmare, not a vacation.

Twilight joined her presently, and they sat in a companionable silence for a while. Both were lathered with a fine sheen of sweat, each trying to hide the extent of their weariness from the other. It wasn’t long before Twilight inevitably made another attempt at conversation. ‘Information extraction’ was perhaps a better term for it, but still, it took the form of an attempt at conversation.

“So, um, this isn’t what I’d expect from—” Her interrogator was interrupted by a loud growl. Celestia’s ears locked onto the source of the sound, snapping towards it as she leapt to her feet. She'd known it would only be a matter of time before Tartarus struck! That alien, monstrous snarl had come from…

Twilight’s stomach. Oh.

“Oh, um. Excuse me,” said Twilight Sparkle, blushing as though she had anything to be embarrassed about. “It’s been a while since I ate, I guess.”

Celestia smiled wanly. She knew she must look absurd, jumping at every little thing like this. But she would not be taken in. Tartarus was implacably evil. It could afford to be patient, and it was just waiting for her to drop her guard, to start thinking that everything would be alright this time. It wouldn’t.

Her own empty, traitorous stomach rumbled in sympathy with Twilight’s. Dammit.

Twilight looked over in wonder. It occurred to Celestia that this may have been the first time Twilight had ever heard an indication of any sort of biological function at all from her. She attempted to roll with it.

“Well,” said Celestia, with a bit of forced levity, and many, many misgivings about having to stop for any reason. “I suppose we can’t be expected to run on an empty stomach. But Twilight, remember, this isn’t a field trip. So…”

Twilight looked up at her intently while Celestia weighed the risks of keeping her close versus those of leaving her alone on the road, where it was safe. Mostly. The decision came quickly.

“I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stay here while I go look for something we can eat.”

Twilight frowned and started to protest. Celestia shook her head.

“No. I’m sorry Twilight, but you have no idea what kind of things are out there and I won’t risk you getting hurt. If you see or hear anything, anything at all, call and I’ll be here in seconds. Understand?”

Twilight’s grimace deepened. She nodded without meeting Celestia’s eyes.

Celestia paused as her gut twisted a bit. She hated treating ponies this way, especially one as capable as Twilight Sparkle. Twilight obviously wasn’t happy about it either. Maybe she should bring her along. An extra pair of eyes could make all the difference. But, no. That was just the kind of thing Tartarus would want. Something would attack and they’d get separated and cut off from the road and the forest would pick them apart at its leisure. And then Celestia would lose another friend to this forsaken place. No.

“If I don't return in half an hour, I want you to keep going, Twilight. Stay on the road. It's the safest place. Just keep walking until you find the gate home. Don’t come looking for me, and do not stop for anything. Anything.”

Twilight's expression absolutely exuded conflict. When she didn't say anything, Celestia pressed.

"I know that this seems a bit extreme. But I can take of myself, and I know that you can as well. Still, if I should fall, you cannot risk yourself for me, Twilight. I need you to tell me will do what I've asked."

Twilight opened her mouth, closed it, tried again.

"Okay."

The word was a tiny, whispered thing. Had it come from anypony else, Celestia might not have believed it. But this was Twilight Sparkle.

"Thank you, Twilight."

Celestia nodded to herself with a confidence she did not entirely feel and trotted out into the woods.

~~~

Twilight watched as Princess Celestia’s form receded into the tree-line. Twilight been all set to have a little tantrum about being left behind (What was she, a little kid!? She was a Princess, for pony’s sake! She’d faced down some of Equestria’s most dangerous villains, yadda yadda yadda), and then the Princess had gone and completely snuffed her indignation by saying a thing like that. What could be out there? Why would the road be safer? And why wouldn’t Celestia talk about any of this!?

Receiving no answers to any of the questions, Twilight sat down and settled in to wait. She glanced around. A red dirt road. Lots of trees. Big scary Not-Sun in the sky. Total silence all around.

Twilight fidgeted. She’d never been good at waiting, and Princess Celestia's ominous demands certainly weren't helping. This was why her parents had first given her books. Having something to read kept her from climbing the walls every time they didn’t have something to keep her more actively occupied. But there weren't any books here. Just trees and dirt.

She looked up the road. Nothing new. She looked down the road. Nothing new there either. She tapped a hoof in the dirt. There should at least be crickets chirping or something. Twilight tried to find the Princess, but the woods on either side of the road were fairly thick, so all she could make out was a vague, pale figure in the distance. She couldn’t really see much of what Princess Celestia was doing, but…she heard a muffled gasp.

“Princess!?” ventured Twilight, hopping up.

“I’m okay!” came the response. It resonated strangely through the trees, and Twilight had a hard time pinning down exactly where the sound came from. This would be a very easy place to get lost in. “Something just surprised me!”

What could have surprised her? There was nothing out here. Right? Twilight fluffed her wings and shuffled around, trying to keep the hairs on the back of her neck down. She made the mistake of looking up into the ring of flame in the sky. It was a perfectly black hole, hemmed in by a thin nimbus of flickering orange-red. It felt like the thing was watching her. Just sitting up there, blankly staring down, like it didn’t even really care about her or what happened to her or anything else. Just watching. She shuddered.

Twilight pulled her gaze back to the ground and shook herself. Or maybe she was just being crazy and letting her natural paranoia get the best of her. Twilight turned to look down the road, again, craning her neck to see as far as she *boing.*

“Huh?”

A piercing, feminine “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!” split the silence. It was soon joined by Twilight’s own, equally piercing shriek as she leapt in surprise and stumbled backwards into a tree.

What!? How!? She hadn’t seen anything! Twilight’s eyes darted about in panicked frenzy for the source of the sound until they eventually settled onto…a spider. It squatted on the road right next to where she had been sitting a second ago. It was aquamarine and black, with bits of silver. Hairy, and quite large, as far as spiders went, maybe six inches long from pedipalps to spinnerets. There was a large star on its back, so bright in color that it nearly glowed. The spider energetically waved an arm at her. Arm number five, if her memory of arthropod anatomy was correct. Twilight stared as her heart eagerly attempted to beat its way out of her chest.

“Um…”

The spider stopped waving and looked up at her expectantly, its huge central eye and many smaller eyes glittering. After a moment’s pause, Twilight slowly raised a hoof and waved in response.

“Hi?”

It had been a purely reflexive response, but the spider seemed pleased by it.

“AH!” it screamed. The spider made an elaborate twirling motion with one of its legs (number five again) then dipped its cephalothorax in what Twilight was fairly certain was an arachnid interpretation of a polite bow. Was it…was it introducing itself?

Twilight decided to run with it. “Ah, Okay. Um, hello. I’m Twilight Sparkle.” She extended a tentative hoof toward the creature. The spider skittered forward and met her in a tiny hoofshake. Twilight didn’t have time to say anything more before a crackling bass rumble shook the air. Twilight turned to see massive ball of flame hurtling straight for her. She grabbed the big black spider and hugged it close, leaping to the side and screaming again as fire and splintered wood burst through the forest just in front of her.

“Twilight!? What happened!? Are you alright!?” The voice was booming and heroic, like Twilight imagined a warrior-queen of ancient times might sound. But it was scared too, and desperate. So much so that Twilight didn’t recognize it immediately. She was too busy backpedalling madly straight into another tree. Unable to escape the fireball now before her, she wrapped her wings tight against the blazing heat and cast a quick, blind *blink*. Twilight popped back into existence maybe thirty feet down the road from where she had been before.

She opened her eyes to an awesome sight: a perfectly circular tunnel, bored through the forest. Its edges were little more than dimly burning cinders, burnt through so fast that they hadn’t even had time to properly light aflame. Twilight stared in open-mouthed wonder. Something had blasted a hole through over a hundred yards of hardwood in what? A second? Two? Even the dirt had been disintegrated, leaving a shallow trench of scorched earth.

“Twilight!?”

Twilight jerked her head in the direction of the sound. Waves of heat poured over her from there, so much that she had to shield her eyes before she could look. The sight of the tunnel should have given her some inkling of what to expect, but nothing could have really prepared Twilight for what she saw. Celestia, lit up like the Sun itself. Her normally placid mane was ablaze in a show of incandescent glory he likes of which Twilight had never seen. Her eyes were molten gold, her every feather a rainbow of lambent flame. There was a trail of smoldering hoofprints between her and the seething tunnel.

It was one of the most blindingly beautiful things Twilight had ever seen.

“Oh, Twilight! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean…”

And just like that, the moment passed. The burning wind stopped, the lights died down, the arcane pressure of all that magic being ignited at once collapsed, and she was just the same Princess Celestia Twilight had always known. She stepped hesitantly forward.

“Twilight, are you okay? I heard a scream.”

Twilight fell back on her butt. It was just what her brain needed to start working again.

“What? Oh! I uh, I mean, yes, I’m fine. I…” So many questions tried to force their way through at once that Twilight was momentarily rendered mute.

Celestia’s worried eyes searched her, looking for any sign of injury, before settling on the creature she still held in one hoof. She tilted her head quizzically.

“Is that a spider?”

Foreboding

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Well, thought Celestia. This is humiliating. Of all the things she could have stumbled across in Tartarus, Twilight had managed to find perhaps the only completely benign one. And Celestia had freaked out. She’d panicked and nearly incinerated the very pony she was trying to protect. Over a harmless little scream-spider. What was it even doing down here? They’d never been banished.

“Hm?” responded Twilight. “Oh! Yes, it, well, I think it screamed at me? That was what you heard. I must have scared it.”

Celestia smacked a mental hoof against her forehead. Stupid, stupid, stupid! You have to be more careful! She sat down, sheepishly wrapping her tail around herself. “No,” she began, in a quiet, contrite tone. “You didn’t scare it. That’s just how they talk. He was saying hello, in his way. Hello there.” She gave the spider a chagrined little wave. In response to her outstretched hoof, the scream-spider wriggled free of Twilight’s hold, raised its front four legs and hissed bloody murder at her.

She pulled her hoof back slowly. With a rueful smile, she said “See? I’m the one who scared him.”

Twilight made that face she always made when she had maybe a hundred questions all trying to force their way out at once. Rather than ask any of them, she took a moment to admonish the spider.

“Hey! You stop that!”

Celestia knew that this was just a stalling action, Twilight giving herself time to organize a proper interrogative assault on Fortress Celestia. And after her little forest-exploding fiasco, Celestia doubted she’d be able to deflect this one.

The spider tilted its head toward Twilight, keeping several eyes trained on this new, less-trustworthy pony.

“This is your own fault, you know! If you hadn’t screamed like that and scared everypony, all that…” Twilight stumbled in her diatribe. “Um, stuff, wouldn’t have happened.” The spider hunkered down in apparent shame. “That’s better,” said Twilight, rallying gracefully. “Now be nice. This is Princess Celestia and she is a very nice pony.” She watched sternly as the spider turned to Celestia and grudgingly extended a leg.

Celestia’s smile became a bit more genuine as she put forth a hoof and gently tapped the little critter’s leg. That had been some proper Princessing, there. Twilight had come so far since her early days.

“I can’t imagine how the little fellow got here," ventured Celestia, "but it seems he’s adopted you. You’re very fortunate. They’re rare, nowadays. But dream-spinners make excellent companions.”

“Um, Princess? What was…dream-spinners?”

Celestia nodded, and just for a moment, she thought her shameless little smokescreen might work. “Your new friend there. He’s called a dreamspinner, or, more descriptively, a scream-spider. Luna made them ages ago as a sort of living alarm, or, more likely, a never-ending practical joke.”

“Luna made them?” Twilight made that face again. “I—“ she shook her head. “Princess, what is going on? I’ve never seen you like this before! You’re acting so…and, and the thing with the tunnel of fire? Why aren’t you talking to me!?”

So much for that, thought Celestia. She’d hoped to keep Twilight off of one trail by providing another, but it seemed the young Princess was no longer so easily sidetracked. Celestia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She opened them to cast a caustic glare at the fire-rimmed pit of blackness in the sky. She softened her gaze before looking back down.

“Alright, Twilight. I'll tell you what I can. But we shouldn’t stay here. We’ll talk as we go, alright?”

“Okay,” said Twilight, watching Celestia closely. “But I get to ask questions, right? And you’ll answer them?”

“I…of course." A little pang of guilt ran through her. A pang of pride followed it, though. Celestia wasn’t happy about being so obtuse with Twilight, but the teacher in her was quite pleased to see her former student hold her ground. Yes, Twilight was growing very Royal, indeed.

“Shall we go then?”

Twilight nodded, moving to join her.

“AHH!” screamed the spider.

“Oh! Right. I guess we can’t just leave this little guy behind,” said Twilight. “Did you…want to come along?”

“AH!”

Twilight looked to Celestia. She shrugged.

“Okay, well…” Twilight tentatively extended a wing to the ground near the spider. With a *boing*, he jumped up onto her, quickly settling himself down on the relatively flat space of Twilight’s back. He raised a leg and waved it. “The more the merrier, I guess.”

Celestia managed to hide a shudder as the creature chittered happily. She knew dream-spinners were friendly, but she could just never get used to the hairy little weirdos. It was probably why Luna loved them so much…

~~~

They jogged along for a bit before Twilight finally forced Celestia to honor her word.

"So, um, you said you'd tell me what was going on?"

“So I did. Alright." Celestia took a long moment to ponder how, exactly, she could explain this.

"Long ago, ages before there was even anything you would now recognize as Equestria, the world was a harsh, dangerous place. You’ve had some experience with the creatures of the Everfree, yes?”

Twilight nodded.

“The Everfree you know is a remnant of those times, but even it is a mere shadow. The Forest is willing to stick to its territory, and it can even coexist with ponies, a bit. But back then, the entire world was like the Everfree. No villages. No cities. Just small, beleaguered tribes of ponies, a few other peoples, and lots, and lots of monsters. Have you ever thought about how absurdly dangerous something like a hydra really is, Twilight?”

Twilight blinked at the non-sequitur. Celestia gave her no time to form a response.

“What would happen if one wandered out of the woods and into Ponyville? Think of the damage it could do, just by stomping through the streets. It wouldn’t even have to really try.”

Twilight was clearly unsettled by the idea, as she should be.

“They’re predators, hydras are,” continued Celestia. “They’ll eat nearly anything. And back then, there were no Princesses to stop such things.” She looked Twilight straight in the eye. She saw a little chill run through her. “It was an unforgiving time, one that we Royal Sisters allowed go on for far too long.”

Celestia trotted on for several moments before picking up her own thread again.

“But one day, we decided to change all of that. We decided that the world should be better, that ponies and all other manner of creature deserved to have a life that wasn’t completely determined by whether some monster decided to stomp through the area, or whether some villain wanted more slaves, or any other such terrible thing. And so we began to support what you might call 'alternative lifestyles.' We chose the peaceful over the violent, we supported those who built over those who would only destroy. But it was not easy. It’s so much simpler to break a thing than build it, after all. Many, many creatures fought against us. Perhaps it seems mad to you, that they would do so. I can see by your expression that it does.” Celestia turned to Twilight with a wistful smile. “It fills me with pride to see that the world has changed so much. But regardless, they fought. And we fought back. It was…” Celestia turned away, staring hard at nothing. “Bad. There were wars.” She paused again, and several seconds passed before she resumed.

“I hope you never truly understand all that word entails. But anyway, even back then, even at our worst, we couldn’t believe that an entire species of creature could be monsters. We doggedly searched for better ways, for some argument or gift or mode of life that would allow for as many creatures to willingly live in peace as possible. Alas, for all our efforts, there were creatures we could never reach, creatures who just would not to cooperate. And we needed a solution for them as well. Eventually, we found one,” she said, gesturing to the surrounding forest with a wing. “We gave the holdouts a choice: if they just couldn’t live in some sort of peace, they could instead be banished to Tartarus. And for those few who refused, and couldn't be forced out, well…let’s just say that you won’t be meeting any of the Gorgons. Ever.”

Twilight stared at her, perhaps realizing the implications of that statement.

There was great, creaking, crash from up ahead. It sounded close, just out of sight, around a bend in the road.

Celestia slid to a halt, ears and eyes flicking about, waiting. She slowly edged forward after a few moments of this, motioning Twilight forward after she was satisfied that nothing was going to happen.

Twilight trotted up behind her. The source turned out to be…a tree. Fallen onto the road. Twilight cocked her head to one side. The thing was perfectly intact, completely unbroken except that its roots had apparently decided they liked air better than dirt. It lay directly in their path, straight across the road.

“I think Tartarus dislikes me telling you this,” said Celestia. She crept towards the obstruction, eyeing it suspiciously, then hopped lightly over it. She motioned Twilight forward again, watching closely as she followed her lead. They jogged a ways before Celestia resumed her tale.

“But there’s nothing for it. It wasn’t much of a choice we gave them, really." Celestia glanced about, even more wary than before. “But it was the best we could offer. And Tartarus certainly didn’t mind.”

“Now,” said Celestia before any of the nascent questions could move from Twilight's mind to her mouth. “You may be wondering, ‘Why Tartarus?’ Well, in answer to the first part of that, no, we didn’t create this place. We found It. But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? We chose this horrible pit because, frankly, It wanted us to. Tartarus likesto imprison people. It needs to have other creatures around, in Its twisted way. As such, It makes something of a natural dungeon. It’s that much harder to escape a place if that place wants you to stay, right?”

A rumble sounded behind them. Both ponies halted, heads whipping back. They saw nothing. Just trees and a red dirt path.

And no sign of the fallen tree they’d left behind only moments before.

Celestia set her jaw. She turned back to the path and kept trotting ahead. Twilight jumped to follow.

“You may also be wondering,” said Celestia, as though nothing had interrupted her.,“ ‘Why does she keep talking about a place like it has opinions?’ That’s a tricky one to answer, but without going into the complicated physiology of God-things, let’s just say Tartarus is more than merely a location. It’s…not a person, really. It never incarnates, like Luna and I, your Sun and Moon do. But it does have a will.”

Twilight’s mouth worked. After some time, she asked,

“What will?"

“Ah, a fine question. Tartarus, as far as we mere ponies can understand, likes to see people live out stories.”

Catching the emphasis, Twilight asked…

“What kind of stories?”

Celestia stared straight ahead, pointedly ignoring the chill wind that blew, suddenly and without precedence, through the woods.

“Horror stories.”

~~~

Twilight hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask much after that. She opened her mouth for perhaps the half-dozenth time, trying to work through where to even begin. Still unable to get her head together, she glanced around the path as she jogged. Not that there was anything much to see. Just trees and dirt and that empty sky. She turned backward again, expecting something. Anything. What had been with that tree? How could it just fall like that? And then just disappear? But no, there was nothing. She looked forward with a frustrated sigh that was cut off halfway when she saw a path to her right. It broke off the main road and led to what looked like a pleasant little sun-dappled clearing. A monolithic stone stele stood to one side. It was engraved with a waving sun and a cloud-covered moon…Celestia and Luna’s cutie marks.

“Um,” uttered Twilight.

“Hm?” said Celestia, turning about. She saw the side path and stopped short. She frowned, and then, upon sighting the stone, her face wavered strangely. “Oh.”

Twilight couldn’t be sure of what emotions were running through Celestia’s head right now, but one of them was almost certainly recognition. She wasn’t sure if Celestia were scared, or sad, or angry, or all three, but she had definitely seen this place before. But it was still strange, even without that. She would have gone right by if Twilight hadn't said anything. How could that be?

“Princess? What is it?”

Celestia seemed to absently ponder how to answer that.

“It is…” she finally began, “A safe place, I suppose. Or, at least, I’ve never been attacked here. The only such place I know of in Tartarus. I did not expect to be led here so soon.” She took a step toward the side path.

“Oh, okay. Is that good?”

“It…could be?” She sounded doubtful.

Twilight sidled up next to Celestia and looked around. The place was a bigger than she’d thought. It was a hilly field, spotted with trees, maybe a hundred yards to side. It was conspicuously peaceful here. There were even quiet noises of life sounding in the trees, in stark contrast to the untouched silence outside. A little brook murmured through one corner. The path wandered through the low hills, and…

Wait…

Twilight gasped when she realized the entire place was scattered with gravestones. They were of styles from varying eras, from the ancient days of simple cairns to the more morbidly decorated headstones of the middle ages. Nothing modern though. Several graves, to her dismay, had intact skulls resting on the earth before them. Many even stranger things. Weapons, tools, suits of armor, even a few full skeletons lay in repose atop the mounds of grassy earth.

She turned to see Celestia watching her intently.

“Are you alright, Twilight? I know this kind of place disturbs some ponies.”

Twilight hesitated, trying to reconcile the general aura of peace against the openly funereal décor.

“I...No. I mean, I’m okay. It’s just I don’t understand what I’m seeing here.”

Celestia nodded. "These are old friends of mine,” she said, eyes following the path, "who were lost here. To Tartarus. It was monster attacks mostly, but some simply disappeared, or suffered deadly accidents. It took time for us to figure out that they weren’t accidents at all. Far too much time." Her voice was quiet, distant. "Once upon a time, we made expeditions here. We even tried to form a colony once, if you can believe that. The more recent plots are soldiers, mostly. We refused to bring anypony else, only those brave unfortunates who volunteered to help banish creatures here. Luna and I knew every one of them. Noble and true ponies, all.” Her wandering gaze landed softly on the first marking, a simple pile of smooth stones with a small silver circlet atop it. It was a short while before she spoke again.

“I don’t know why Tartarus made this place, or why it leads me here. I like to think it is a strange sort of respect. For a worthy foe perhaps.” She placed a hoof atop one of the stones, eyes closed, remembering. A slight, weary smile turned her lips. “Whatever the intent of this place, I have always been safe here, until such time as I leave. There will be some fruit over there, near the water. Or at least, there usually is. Perhaps you’d like to take a rest while I visit my companions?”

“Oh, sure. Take your time, Princess.”

Celestia smiled in silent thanks.

Before she walked away, Twilight turned back.

“Do you think you could tell me about them, someday?”

Celestia tilted her head a bit, then, with an enigmatic smile, said,

“Yes. Yes, I think I should like that very much. Thank you, Twilight.”

~~~

Celestia wended her way through the yard, taking a moment for every grave, every lost friend. It wasn’t enough, but then, it never could be. They were gone. She didn’t know how long it took her to reach the end, but here she was. There was one more stone marker than there should have been, one open grave that had yet to be filled. It was her own, of course. It would surely have her sun engraved on it, as usual. It had given her quite a fright the first time she’d seen that. Tartarus’s open statement of its plans for her. She ignored it for now, paying her quiet respects to the pony who lay in the grave before her. He had fallen over three centuries ago. She looked over the graven image of his mark, an old-fashioned sundial, and let herself fall into a few of the many pleasant memories she had of him. His epitaph read “A lifetime of service, and not one damned regret.” Celestia smiled. That was so very much a thing he would say. She embraced one final moment of nostalgia, and then turned to that last gravestone, sighing.

A bone-deep chill shook her at what she saw: a six-pointed star, surrounded by five more.

~~~

Twilight discovered, to her great disappointment, nothing to eat near the creek. She could munch on a bit of grass, she supposed, but she really wasn’t that desperate yet. Wild grass did weird things to her stomach sometimes. She had some water instead, and lay down on the soft turf to wait for Celestia. The calm of the place lulled her, bit by bit, so she closed her eyes, and rested her head on her hooves. She would only take a second. Ben (Twilight had decided that the spider should have a name, and he didn’t seem to disagree) scampered up her back and settled himself on one of wings. She laid it out a bit to give him more room.

She was over half-asleep when a crash of splintering stone shook the graveyard. Princess Celestia was galloping toward her. She looked furious, and there was a smoking crater where she’d just been. Rubble was still falling back to the earth from the blast. Now thoroughly awake, Twilight leapt to her hooves.

“Princess!? Are you—“

“We’re going, Twilight! Now!”

Twilight jumped into line behind Celestia as she wheeled back to the path, struggling to catch up.

“Did something happen? Were you attacked?”

“Yes. No, I…” she shook her head as if to clear it. “We’re leaving. I should have known that finding this place was no kindness. Nothing is ever a kindness here. Remember that, Twilight. Remember this place for what it is.”

She didn't elaborate, but Twilight got the message.

A graveyard.

~~~

Princess Celestia had been very quiet after that, staring ahead in anger, maintaining a murderously exhausting trot. She didn’t slow down until finally, blessedly, the landscape quite rapidly changed. She slowed to a stop, Twilight stopping somewhat less gracefully, perhaps thirty feet from a very, very sudden break in the trees.

“Hmm,” she began. It came out almost as a growl. “Wait here, Twilight. Let me take a look first.” Without waiting for a response, she jogged forward, slowing at the edge of tree line. Celestia glanced about, ears flicking this way and that.

Twilight watched her intently, trying to solve the puzzle of this place. What had happened back there? Were things really as bad as Celestia thought? Tartarus was eerie, Twilight would be the first to admit. It was far too quiet, and then there had been the dramatically timed falling tree, and the sudden wind that had yet to reappear. And the cemetery had certainly been unnerving. But even so. There was just…nothing here. And nothing wasn’t worth being scared of. That was like being afraid of the dark. Actually, now that Twilight thought about it, they had found one thing: Ben. And he had been a perfect gentleman. Celestia’s twitchy, almost violent vigilance had been far more worrying than anything Tartarus had put forth.

Apparently satisfied that nothing was lurking invisibly in the clearing, Celestia gingerly stepped out into the open space to peek past the trees. And then, much to Twilight’s surprise, she actually sighed and smiled a bit. The Princess turned back and waved her forward with a wing. Curious to know what had finally perked her teacher up, Twilight trotted up to her side.

“What’s up, Princess? What did…” Twilight lost the rest of her thought to the view.

The tree line ended abruptly. It literally just stopped. The woods spread out in a nearly perfect wall of trees to both left and right, but not a one grew in the wide open fields before her.

“I, uh…” Twilight stammered.

“Yes, Tartarus does things like this,” said Celestia, as though a geometrically perfect forest were the most natural thing in the world. “This is good though. Twilight Sparkle.” Celestia paused to make a grand gesture with one wing. “Welcome to the Fields of Asphodel. The gate usually isn’t far from here.”

“Oh. Oh! I’ve heard of this place.” Twilight abandoned the mystery of the woods to take in this new wonder. She beheld a seemingly endless field of slowly waving, pale grass (much taller and lusher than the stringy stuff in the forest, she noted), dotted all over by patches of white or yellow flowers. The light was different here; brighter, a bit, but subdued somehow, as though a vague haze hung over the place, keeping her from seeing as far as she should have. A soft, pleasant wind blew through the flowers, making them rustle and sending their soft fragrance through the air.

“It's...not what I expected. All the books made it sound so gloomy."

“Mm, yes,” answered Celestia. “I do seem to remember it being somewhat darker and foggier, before.” She paused again, pondering. “Well, I won’t argue with a bit of pleasantness. But don’t let it make you feel safe, Twilight. This place is usually harmless, and we should be nearly home once we get through here, but keep your eyes open.”

“R-right.”

“Indeed. Off we go. I’ll—"

Celestia turned back to the road. Her eyes narrowed.

Twilight started, again, as she followed Celestia’s glare. There was movement out there. An indistinct, ghostly figure, creeping slowly toward them. The thing couldn’t be more than a thirty yards off, but there was no way they could have missed it before; this was an open field.

Celestia snorted angrily, and Twilight nearly started a third time when she actually pawed at the ground and levelled her horn at the figure. A spark of magic ignited the air around her.

“So that’s the trick,” Celestia growled. “The fog is still here, we just can’t see it. Get back, Twilight. Be ready to run if I tell you to.”

Twilight gawked at Celestia’s sudden, open display of aggression. Seeing her gentle, ever-patient mentor change so suddenly frightened her in ways she didn't yet understand, but she did as she was told. Ben shifted nervously on her back with a little chirp.

The thing approaching them looked huge at first, until it gradually grew close enough for Twilight to see that it was, in fact, several things, moving together. She could hear them now, but the noises were distorted; vague and echoing though there was no reason they should be. She heard heavy, booming hoof beats, and a hollow, dire toll, and a low moan that flowed slowly over the grass toward her. A chill ran though Twilight as she lowered her own horn. She tried to raise her wings, but they wouldn’t leave her sides.

Were the old stories true? Were there really ghosts of long dead ponies here? The Fields were supposed to be where the mediocre went after death, the ponies who never made a name for themselves, who never excelled at anything. And they were supposed to be very jealous of the living. Murderously so…

The group remained an indistinct, yellow-white blur until they were less than twenty yards out, and then, suddenly the haze cleared, and Twilight could see and hear and even smell them perfectly. She held a frightened breath as the true, terrifying face of the spectral figures was revealed to her.

Cows.

They were cows.

Big, white, obviously living cows. Twilight almost laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. The ‘ominous’ host before her was a herd of burly, horned cattle, wandering down the road. The hoof beats had been just that, and the ‘dire toll’ was just the clanking of a cowbell. The moan? One of the cows lowing to another.

“Oh,” stated Celestia. “Lovely.”

Twilight detected a definite note of distaste in the words, but Celestia did relax a bit at least. She was about to ask about it when the lead cow looked up from the road, straight at her. She stopped dead, eyes going wide with surprise before she reached one cloven hoof up to beat the brazen bell around her neck. She wheeled left and called out a warning to her herd, lumbering away to circle around the group.

Twilight blinked. Had the sight of two ponies spooked her?

“It’s alright, Twilight. I know their bull. He’ll try to scare us, but just hold your ground. Let me do the talking.”

“I, um, sure.” Twilight didn’t even try to get Celestia to explain. Much as she hated it, she was getting used to being confused by everything that happened here.

A low thundering of massive hooves began in the herd before her. Twilight watched as the cows fell back and formed a ring around their youngest, clearing the way. Strangely, she could see the entire herd clearly now, even though they hadn’t moved any closer. Was the distortion effect here context sensitive somehow? Magic could do that sometimes.

The bull stormed forward. He was a massive beast of a thing, as tall as Celestia and far more broad, muscles bulging and veins standing clear against his immaculately white coat. He tossed an enormous head holding far too many horns and bellowed an absolutely crushing roar. Then, without so much as stopping to look, he charged at a hammering sprint straight for Celestia. Tongues of flame licked into being around his hooves and blasted out from his back, forming scorching, ethereal wings as he stormed towards them. His claw-marks smoldered in the dirt.

Twilight’s wings rapidly liberated themselves as her fight and/or flight instincts screamed at her to do something, anything to get away from this monster. She froze instead, remembering Celestia’s words and trusting that she knew what she was doing. She felt Ben tense up on her back, but he, too, stayed put. The reassured her, somehow.

“PEACE, CRETES! I Am Celestia, Ruler Of Equestria, And I Am No Enemy!”

Celestia’s extremely Royal decree nearly flattened Twilight. As she watched, it seemed to have an effect on the bull too. He slowed, dropping from a full run to a trot, then a walk, and then finally a stop. He glared at them, eyes narrow with suspicion and burning with murderous intent.

Celestia stood her ground, wings held high, defiant and fearless.

“Peace, Cretes,” she repeated.

The bull’s ears rotated forward as he looked both ponies over. He worked his jaw more a long moment.

Twilight tried to reclaim her composure. She forced her wings back down, straightened herself up, let the magic that had jumped through her fade. She didn't even know what spell she'd been trying to cast. She willed her heart to stop pounding and took her first good look at the bull. He was huge, yes, and every bit as ivory-white as Celestia, but he was unusual for other reasons as well. He had six horns, for one. The first pair was normal enough, four more sprouted out of his neck, all swept up and forward and wickedly sharp. They were a dark cream color, and capped in some bronze-like metal. Oh, and then there were the wings of fire. Those were certainly different. He also wore a gorget, vaguely similar to Celestia’s, though much larger and of the same brazen metal as his horn caps. He wore other jewelry, too. Bracers on his forelegs, rings through his ears, and various jangling metal bits over the rest of his body.

“Celestia?”

The voice was, unsurprisingly, a deep rumble.

“Aye.”

“Heh. Didn’t recognize ya for a second. The fuck are you doing here? I didn’t hear you were coming.”

Twilight blinked. That was…not how she would have expected this creature to speak. And what was that word with the f? She’d never heard it before. She looked at Celestia.

“My Arrival Here Did Not Occur Under Ideal Circumstances,” she intoned, quite Royally. Then, in a more conversational tone, “My companion is Twilight Sparkle. She was not meant to have come with me, and I so am escorting her to the Equestrian gate. I have no wish to make war with you, Cretes.”

There was that other word Twilight didn’t recognize. Cree-tees. The bull’s name, presumably, and of a very style. Who was this creature? And how did the Princess know him?

“Hah!” barked Cretes. “How’d it happen this time? Discord throw you in again? Or were you doing some other stupid shit? One of your ‘experiments?’”

“I don’t see that the particulars are very important, Cretes,” said Celestia, with a polite smile.

She was relaxed now, Twilight noticed, if a bit miffed at Cretes’ attitude. Twilight was getting kind of offended at him herself. And he kept using words she’d never heard. Shit, was it?

“What is important, old friend, is that I am trying to get home, by the fastest means possible. Perhaps our meeting is fortuitous, actually…”

Old friend? Really? And what had been with the way she’d said that? It had almost sounded threatening. But that was impossible. Celestia didn’t threaten.

“Oh yeah?” prompted Cretes.

“Indeed. For you are Cretes, the White Bull, father of Minotaurs, The Great Beast of Marathon,” began Celestia, voice growing as she went. “A Renowned and Fearsome Foe.”

Cretes preened a bit at that, looking back to make sure his herd had noticed the compliments.

“And before you stands Sol Invicta, Ruler of Equestria, She Who Conquered Chaos Itself!”

Cretes nodded, amused.

“And there are few, even in the heart of Tartarus, who would dare to attempt harm on two such Mighty Beings United.”

“True enough,” answered the bull, with a smug grin.

“And if the Great White Bull were to help a certain wayward Princess and her companion reach the Equestrian gate unharmed, one could only assume that this Princess would be very generously disposed to that bull, yes?”

Cretes frowned theatrically, bringing one big, cloven hoof up to scratch his wide chin.

“Hrmm. Yes, I suppose she would be. But what would she have to offer before this mighty pair arrived at the gate, eh?”

“Ah, well. It seems our Princess is a bit impoverished at the moment,” said Celestia, with an artfully bashful blush. “But that would certainly only increase her generosity once she reached the gate.”

“Pfeh,” blurted Cretes. “This Princess should stop wasting the Great Bull’s time. This is Tartarus. Doing something for nothing gets you killed here, Celly, and I’ve been alive a long time. Give me something real.”

Twilight was again taken aback. Who the heck was this jerk, that he could talk to the Princess that way?

“Of course,” said Celestia, evidently not taken aback in the slightest. “Perhaps there is some service I could render then? Some task that I might…”

Celestia hesitated at the sudden leering grin on Cretes’ face.

“Assist. With.”

“Oh, sure. There’s one service I’m always interested in with you, Princess.” He made a profoundly un-subtle waggle of the eyebrows.

Twilight watched as Celestia went still, a slight flush of pink rising in her chest and spreading slowly up her neck.

“How about it, eh?” continued Cretes, sauntering close enough to sidle up beside Celestia and lay one burning wing over her. The fire didn't seem to bother her at all. The gesture, itself, however...

“I don’t think that would be, ah," stammered Celestia, glancing quickly at Twilight, then away, “appropriate. At this juncture.” The flush had crept all the way up her ears and now seemed to be working its way back down. “Perhaps there is something else? Some creature that plagues you, or…” she soldiered on, regaining some measure of her earlier poise.

“Ah, c’mon, babe,” said Cretes, starting to walk forward, and guiding Celestia along with him as though she had already agreed. “You know I’m always a good time. It’ll be just like the old days.”

Celestia raised a hoof and gently pushed the wing from her back as she stepped away.

“N-no, I’m afraid…No, Cretes.”

“Hrmph.” Cretes looked over at Twilight, whom he had thoroughly ignored up until now. She could practically feel his eyes slide over her. He passed right by her face, starting at her rump and slowly slithering back up, pausing at the wings, of course, to eventually look her in the eye. Actually, he was probably checking out her horn. It was impossible to tell.

“How about her then?”

Celestia’s entire visage hardened, and she answered with a tone that could have frozen an ocean.

No.”

“Ah, I get it. You and junior here got a thing goin’ on,” he said with a note of bitterness. “Heh. Fine. You’re on your own then, sweetheart. I’m not risking my herd for nothing. Let’s move, ladies!” He yelled the last at the cows. They immediately ceased their passive milling about to trundle past the ponies, gossiping dismissively about a certain pair of prudes as they rapidly disappeared into the fields. “And a word of advice kid." This was addressed directly at Twilight. "Get as far away from that one as you can.” Cretes tossed his head in Celestia’s direction. “She’s a God's damned walking catastrophe.”

Twilight looked back and forth between the herd and her Princess as the cows left. Princess Celestia stood staring straight ahead, gazing hard at nothing, refusing to dignify cows with even the slightest bit of her attention. Not knowing what else to do, Twilight strove to imitate her former teacher.

When finally the creatures had passed out of earshot, Celestia took a single, huge breath. She closed her eyes and held it for a long moment.

“Well!” she said, blowing it out while she manufactured a smile. “That was certainly something, wasn’t it? Let’s go, Twilight.”

She jumped to follow.

“Um, Princess?” Twilight knew the answer to what she was about to ask. But it couldn’t be true right? I mean, who would even do that? And that stuff about ‘just like the old days?’ No way. No. Way.

“Yes, Twilight?

“What was he asking for back there, exactly?”

Celestia was silent for much too long.

“Nothing he’s ever going to get, Twilight.”

“Oh.”

Twilight looked back once. The forest they’d walked through for hours, which they’d been no more than fifty feet from, was gone. Just gone. They stood alone on a winding road in a vast, empty field. No cows, no trees. Not even hoof-prints to mark their passing.

Twilight shook away a chill and turned to follow Celestia.

Savagery

View Online

Or: Red in Hoof and Horn.

The next hour or so passed much like those in the woods before: quietly. That was fine with Twilight. That last encounter had unnerved her more than anything so far. She wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was the way that bull had so completely disregarded her, or the weird implications of what he and Celestia had said to each other. Or how he’d just left them. That might be the worst. Not that she was sorry to see him go, but how could someone see that they were in need and just leave like that? And that last thing he’d said…what had he even meant by that? And here she was, unable to even get it together enough to demand some answers from Celestia. Ugh. Twilight shook her head and just kept on moving.

After a time, the landscape started to change again, gradually this time. There were trees appearing, similar to the ones from the forest before, but sparser, more muted in color, with grey-green leaves over pale silvery trunks. Celestia watched the gradual change from field back to forest, but made no comment. At least, not until they came onto the first house.

They saw it from a long ways off, which was unusual enough, given the way things usually just popped in out of nowhere here. That alone was enough to make Twilight a bit suspicious (or maybe Celestia’s paranoia was just getting to her), but Celestia eyed the thing like it was some kind of dangerous insect.

“Um, Princess?” asked Twilight, after her mentor had been glaring at the house for almost a minute. As per the established procedure, Celestia had gone some distance ahead while Twilight lagged behind. Maybe she could see something Twilight couldn't?

Celestia didn’t look at her when she spoke.

“Tartarus doesn’t have houses. Never once, in all the times that I’ve been here have I seen such a thing.” She paused, and then looked back. “I don’t know what this means, Twilight. I don’t know where we are.”

A chill ran through Twilight at her tone. Not scared, not even angry. Just uncertain. Somehow, that was even worse.

“Oh. Um, can I see?”

“Yes. Stay close.”

Twilight padded up next to Celestia, the sound of her soft steps all but echoing through the silence. She looked ahead.

It was more than a house, it was a small village. Or, at least, it had been once. It looked abandoned now. The houses were old and empty, their simple, wood-plank walls faded with age and exposure. Exposure to what? Twilight wondered. There isn’t even wind here. The windows held no glass. Buckets, broken wheelbarrows, cracked tools, and other detritus littered the place, all of the same, simple design. It was like one of those olde-timey earth pony theme park ‘settlements’ Twilight had been to as a filly. The kind of place where they did everything by hoof, without the benefit of magic or machinery. Except this one had no ponies. The few doors left standing hung open, and the dim light here did nothing to reveal what might lay inside.

“Let’s go, Twilight. Don’t touch anything.”

“Who do you think lived here, Princess?”

“I honestly have no idea. Everything looks pony-size, but…Tartarus shouldn’t have any ponies.”

Twilight’s ears perked up.

“Really? None?”

“Well, I suppose it’s possible that some unfortunate soul may have stumbled into Tartarus, but not many. Certainly not enough to found a village. There are things like ponies, but nothing I’d expect to do all this,” answered Celestia, contemplating the scene as she walked.

“Things like ponies?” asked Twilight, jumping on any bit of exposition she could get.

“Yes. The changelings, for instance, and some of the other Unseelie. Luna and I threw the worst of them down here. And some minotaurs and such. But those loathed civilization. It's hard to imagine any of them taking the time or effort to building anything.”

“Really?” How could you loathe civilization? “Why?”

“Oh, well, a single pony, isolated, scared and alone, isn’t much of a match for a shape-shifting, love-sucking little monster like a changeling. And the more powerful fey are even worse. But a few dozen ponies? Working together, armed and armored and using their magic in tandem? Even the nastiest faerie things are no match for that.” There was a definite note of pride in Celestia’s voice there. “The more cooperation there is between ponies, the less scary something like a changeling becomes. So yes, they hate it when other creatures get together and cooperate. I’m not sure that they even know how to use tools, much less make them. Changelings aren’t actually very smart unless they have a pony to copy.” Celestia slowed to a stop in front of a fountain squatting in the middle of the road. She peered into its dust-filled basin. No water had run through it for quite some time.

“Which is why this is so confusing to me, Twilight,” she said. “Nothing in Tartarus would have even wanted a village. So who could have built this place?”

Twilight stopped as well, frowning as she considered the question.

“You said that Tartarus was a prison for the creatures that refused to cooperate right? The ones that wouldn’t stop making war or hurting other people?”

“Mhm,” said Celestia, absently pawing the rough stone of the fountain.

“What if some of them changed? Or at least, learned how to get along a little?”

Celestia slowly brought her foreleg to the ground.

“I very much hope that is what happened, Twilight. But I worry, as well. If some group of creatures truly did band together to build this place…”

Celestia looked up into the Not-Sun above her. There was anger in her eyes.

“What happened to them?”

Twilight’s gaze wandered as she wondered the same thing. It fixed, for no reason that she particularly understood, on a gap between two of the houses. There was a path there, bordered by a thick field of trees and shrubbery. It opened up a short way in, maybe into another clearing. Was something in there? Some little glimmering thing? She walked forward, trying to get a better look. It only got more intriguing as she closed on it. She tilted her head, trying to figure out what she was looking at, exactly. It was maddeningly familiar, like something she had seen every day, but somehow she just couldn’t place it. It was like having a word on the tip of her tongue, except this was a…thing. She heard something behind her, a short, questioning noise, but that probably wasn’t important. She just really needed see what this thing in front of her was right now. What shape was it, even, or color? She couldn’t quite seem to get her head around it, but it was certainly the most interesting thing in the world. There was another sound behind her, louder, but it was distant and murky. It didn’t matter.

A splitting shriek pierced Twilight’s numbed consciousness. She stumbled to a halt, halfway into the clearing. Had she been running? Had Ben screamed? What was— She gasped and hopped away from the shape before her: a creature, huge and hulking and covered in dark, shaggy fur. It towered over her, standing on two digitigrade legs and leaning in on two far larger, conspicuously taloned forelimbs. Her gaze rose slowly past its leering bear-trap of a jaw to meet its eyes. Those bizarre eyes. They lurked far back in the creature’s skull, irises pulsing weirdly, glimmering through every color in the spectrum, drawing her back into that hazy, hypnotic dreamland.

“U-um,” she stammered, backing away and breaking her stare. She wanted to run from this ting. She wanted to hide in a herd with fifty or so of her better friends and just hope it didn’t notice her. But she was a Princess, and she wouldn’t give in to base instinct and she would give this person(?) a chance to explain itself, same as she would anypony. “Hello?”

The creature narrowed its horrible eyes.

“Twilight, RUN!”

Twilight did, in the fastest way she knew how. The last image she saw before she *blinked* out of existence was a bright pink tongue, surrounded by those vicious teeth, so close to her face she could smell the rot in them.

~~~

The first gorehound died instantly, taken mid-lunge by a geyser of flame from Celestia’s horn. She barreled through the space it had held, clearing the smoke and ash pouring off it with a single great buffet of her wings. There would be more. There was never just one gorehound.

The second flew out from the trees beside Celestia, eyes wild and tongue lolling out as it leapt straight at her. It was an enormous beast of a thing, but it stopped dead as its full weight slammed into the immovable barrier of magic Celestia threw in front of it. Without thought, she dropped the shield and whipped the wrists of both wings forward, snapping them together with a sharp *crack* against either side of the hound’s head. It hadn’t hit the ground before she turned away, looking for the next assailant. And, far more importantly…

Twilight! Where did sh—

The third hound was more clever than its fellows. It rushed her same as the first, but stopped short, feinting with a snap of its jaws then hopping back as she swung a wing in return. It grabbed a claw-ful of dirt and threw it at her eyes before leaping back in. Celestia blew another gust of wind at the creature and its dirt, this one backed up with magic enough to blunt the beast's leap and send it stumbling into the dirt. It scampered backwards and rolled aside as she charged, narrowly avoiding her trampling hooves. It snarled as she reared up and around to face it.

It was stalling, and she knew it. Hounds were pack hunters, and this one was just trying to distract her until the rest of its clan arrived to finish the job. She could already see blurs of movement as they circled her in the trees. Well, that was fine. She needed time too. Celestia’s eyes darted about, searching, searching…there! Twilight was huddled up against a tree, eyes wide, several yards back from the clearing. Perfect. Now all Celesta needed was to make sure that she alone held the gorehound’s attention.

“Are you Scared, Little Cur!?” she bellowed, rearing back. Celestia ignited in a blast of wind and heat, sending a spike of power through her words. “Come! Come and Fall Before Your Blazing Queen!” A chorus of laughing, mad howls answered her.

Content that her student would be all but invisible to the hounds after that little display, Celestia let the protective panic that had surged through her burn away, leaving only…something else. Something the elder Princess hadn’t let herself feel in a long, long time.

The gorehounds cackled like hyenas in their rush to throw themselves against Celestia, and she gave them no time to revel in their bloodlust. Celestia fired a quick burst of molten magic at the hound in front of her. It threw itself to one side, still managing to tumble toward her in a gleeful charge. She locked its head in an iron telekinetic grip and slipped nimbly under its now soaring form, whipping the beast into another that had been loping in. As they crashed to the ground, she charged a third, horn burning with magic. It grinned and broke its own rush, dropping the ground, just under her bolt of flame. Celestia reared, throwing hooves into the thing’s face as it snapped at her from below. She vanished in a burst of scalding smoke as a blur from her right closed in, reaching for her exposed flank. The world exploded around the would-be flanker as Celestia erupted back into existence beside it, leveling both rears into a kick that sank clean into its ribs. Her hooves broke bone and burned skin as the creature flew backwards, flopping dead-weight to the ground a dozen yards away.

Celestia fired a torrent of scorching magic at something to her left, dragging the coruscating beam across a swath of trees before exploding out again, reappearing some distance back from where she had been. She grinned in grim satisfaction at the howls of pain and anger as she whipped her eyes to all sides, seeking another enemy. And more enemies there were.

Two hounds sighted her and charged in a frenzy, thoroughly unimpressed by the slaughter of half their pack.

Celestia stomped a hoof and lowered her horn, filling herself with magic. Her nostrils flared at the smell of burning meat and wood and hair. She reached out with her power, grabbing hold of anything small enough to grip easily and hefted them up, sending the few rocks and sticks she found into a rapidly quickening orbit around her. She primed a shield spell and several more teleports simultaneously, pushing her blazing mane to an ever greater show of force. The hounds gibbered and tore at the ground in eager anticipation of her charge. Celestia exulted in the feeling of strength surging through magic and muscle as she snorted fire and threw herself back into the battle. So much so that she didn’t even notice the third monster creeping up behind her.

The problem with fighting gorehounds, Celestia reflected, aside from their size, power, and ferocity, was that they were functionally suicidal. The greatest joy they knew was to bring down something that was even worse than they were. Or to die trying. Most creatures would avoid trying to tackle something as obviously powerful as Celestia, especially when she was literally on fire. Alas, such logic quailed before the insane fury of the gorehound.

As such, she was not entirely surprised when the third hound, which had apparently gotten into her blind spot, fell onto her back. It was dumb luck that one of the sticks she’d grabbed smacked into its head, making it chomp down on the empty space next to her neck, rather than on her neck itself. Its claws still drew ragged, red lines down her back.

Celestia’s eyes flared with indignant fury as she fired off an undirected blast of magic all around herself. The hound tumbled to the ground, howling and burning but nowhere near dead. A savage *crunch* split the air as Celestia stomped on the creature’s skull. The other two hounds were already rushing her as their pack-mate twitched.

Celestia charged right back, taking momentum from a quick beat of her wings. She strafed a beam across them both as she ran, messily bisecting one, but the other raised a paw and did…something. An opaque barrier of warping black and purple nothing rose in front of it. The thing didn’t block Celestia’s magic, it didn’t even consume it. Where the beam hit the barrier, it was just gone.

Celestia snorted in disgust. A wyrdwolf, one of the hound’s mutant, wizard things. Wyrd magic was a little 'gift' Discord had inflicted on the world ages ago. It appeared more or less at random, granting arbitrary bits of magic to creatures not normally possessing it. Powerful stuff, but rarely as versatile as proper magic. And, as it happened, Celestia had seen this particular expression before: the shield could stop nearly any sort of magic there was, but, alas, not much else.

Celestia fired one of her telekinetically gripped stones through the pulsing wall. It popped like a grease bubble. She charged without thought through the open space, trusting that her stone had struck home. It had, and she ran down the wyrdwolf before it even had time to take a swing at her. Celestia’s horn went straight through the creature, sinking all the way to her head. She lifted the hound, and, assuming it would surely survive mere impalement, detonated a burst of power straight into it. The mess of fire and smoke and less pleasant things left her blinded. She’d anticipated that, and leapt straight into the air with a mighty beat of her wings.

She poured magic through her Voice as she hovered above the clearing.

“Is That All!? Come! Come and Face Me!”

She glanced quickly about. There! And There! Two left? She took another moment to check on Twilight. Still at the tree? No hounds near her? Good.

That moment nearly got Celestia killed. One of the hounds jumped nearly twenty feet straight up, managing to land a grip on the Princess’s rear hoof. Celestia snarled and kicked with her other leg, but she was already being dragged down. The second hound jumped up to join its mate, jaws spread wide. She met it with the quickest shield she could summon, and the hound scrabbled against it before falling back to earth. The other beast took advantage of Celestia’s distraction to climb hand over hand up her, heedless of the burning agony in its paws. It had just sunk its claws into her when she screamed in rage and flung every object she’d picked up into it. The hound’s grip on her hoof held, so, desperate and running out of options, Celestia threw her head down so far it hurt and fired a beam at that awkward angle. She felt the creature’s weight suddenly drop off her, so apparently she had aimed true. She popped off an undirected teleport spell, certain that the other gorehound would already be upon her.

She was right. The remaining hound swiped through empty air and then fell, maddened with frustration, to the ground.

Celestia burst back into the world about thirty feet away. She saw trees, grass, rocks…Ah! There! The hound hadn’t spotted her yet, and she gave it no chance. A tight beam of utter devastation burned the thing’s head from its shoulders. Celestia had already thundered back into the clearing before it hit the ground. Her vision blurred as she glanced left, right, up, all around. No movement, except a few collateral fires and rising smoke. She let herself breathe, and took a moment to kick away the disembodied hand that still clung to her hoof. Ugh.

Something sputtered in front of her, perilously close to Twilight. Her eyes snapped to the source; a hound, crumpled up and crawling. It gripped the dirt with one claw, digging in as it dragged itself away from her…and toward Twilight.

Celestia’s eyes narrowed as she strode imperiously toward it. She tried to remember which one it was, how, specifically, she had wounded it. It was bleeding, it had bones sticking out of its chest. One entire arm was crushed. The one she’d thrown? Maybe. She couldn’t remember just now.

It saw her coming, staggered with its one good arm and slumped to the ground. It snarled at her and snapped its jaws, as if those were any threat to her at this point. Celestia gazed down upon it, eyes hard. She gave it what mercy she could. Not that the thing deserved it.

Celestia grabbed hold of an appropriately heavy stone, raised it into the air, and…

~~~

Brought it down, crushing the creature’s head into the dirt. A nauseating *snap* broke out above the crackling of fire. Twilight felt something spatter, hot and sharp, against her skin. But it was all distant, somehow. Unreal. A soft, final gasp escaped the creature as Celestia lifted the stained rock and tossed it away.

Twilight watched, stunned and mute, as Celestia, the great, understanding, endlessly patient, eternally kind Celestia, glanced efficiently around what was left of the clearing. Apparently satisfied at what she saw, she stepped toward Twilight. She said something. Twilight didn't hear. Celestia looked at her. Her eyes melted from iron resolve to soft worry. Twilight couldn’t understand this. Everything was happening in slow motion. The fires in the trees sizzled and popped. The flames flowed up and out. Celestia was reaching a hoof toward her. Twilight stared at it. The Princess was shoe-less. That was weird. She should have her shoes. And she shouldn’t be covered in blood, and…

Twilight pushed the thought away. She looked down at herself, at the hoof she had been raising by pure reflex. It was spattered red. Everything was spattered red. She sucked in a breath, and it reeked of acrid fire and burning hair and, and…

And she looked up at the gore-soaked thing that used to be her teacher. And she screamed.

And then she was running. Trees whipped by, shrubs broke under her as ran, and *blinked*, and flew, and she had no idea where she was going and it didn't matter as long as it was away. She just wanted somewhere to go, someplace peaceful and hidden and where none of those horrible things she'd seen had happened, or could ever happen.

Twilight crashed through what might have been a door. It hurt, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t know what would be on the other side, and that didn’t matter either as long as it wasn’t where she’d been before. She kept running, but not for long. It was too dark in here for that, but that was just fine. She didn't want to see right now. She kept going anyway, not stopping until after she bashed herself against what she was pretty sure was a wall. She stumbled back from it and unceremoniously flopped to the floor. She backed herself into the closest corner she could find. She didn’t light up her horn. She didn't know where she was and she didn't care. She wanted to be done with this. She wanted to go home. Maybe she would, if she could just wake up from this nightmare. But…what was that smell!?

Twilight wrinkled her nostrils and tried to back away from it, but there was nowhere to go, because it was on her. She was covered in it! Some had gotten into her mouth!

Twilight staggered up and ran in a random direction, retching until what little had been in her stomach finally forced its way out. She didn’t feel better afterward. But she felt empty, and that was something. She crawled back into her corner and curled up and shivered there until everything finally, blissfully, went black.

Waking

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All of Its action so far, the changes of scene, the moving landscape, they had all been what a living thing might call reflexes. For now, the place/thing slept. But Its rest had recently become fitful. It twisted in Its slumber, murmuring to Itself with cold winds and shifting lands.

Something had entered Its domain. Two somethings.

One, It recognized. An old creature, one that thought itself an enemy. Tartarus was rather fond of her. She was powerful, and always entertaining, if predictable. Its inability to permanently capture her was an irritant, but it was only a matter of time. Someday…

The other…

The other was something new.

It had nothing that resembled a face, but if it had, one might have witnessed a slight smile creep across the visage of the sleeping titan. Tartarus loved new things.

Darkness

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Twilight dozed to the tune of a soothing voice. A careful hoof softly stroked her mane.

“Everything is going to be fine,” said the voice. “It’ll all be okay. We’ll be home soon. The Princess didn’t really do all of those horrible things. This is all just some big misunderstanding.” Twilight fell into those words. She believed them.

“You’ll see. Any time now, I’ll wake up and see it was…I’ll wake up and…”

Twilight Sparkle woke with a start when she realized the voice was her own. There was no one here. She’d been talking to herself. The hoof was hers.

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was so dry she barely managed anything more than a painful gulp of air.

It was dark. She was wrapped in that kind of absolute void of light that makes you forget for a moment that you’d ever been able to see at all. The air was perfectly still, utterly silent except for the little sounds of Twilight’s own breathing. For a moment, she could still believe that maybe it had all been just a nightmare. Maybe she’d just fallen asleep on the floor again. It happened sometimes. And that thing where she was talking to herself? Well, sure, she only ever did that in times of extreme stress, but that nightmare had been pretty stressful, right? Sure.

But it hadn’t been a dream, and she knew it. She really was in Tartarus, and Celesta really had ki…done those things. And Twilight had panicked. She’d freaked out, again, and run away like a scared foal. And now she was lost and alone. She sat in the dark and silence for a moment more, letting herself berate herself, allowing it happen and accepting that it would pass. And then, surprisingly quickly, it did. It felt too easy. She wondered if she might be in some kind of shock. Or maybe it was just that she’d been through a terrifying situation and beating herself up any more than she already had for doing what made sense at the time just wasn’t going to help.

Right then.

Twilight rolled onto her belly and rose up on only slightly shaky hooves. There had to be an explanation for Celestia’s, well, rampage, back there. There had to be. Her mentor had earned Twilight’s trust time and again over the decades they’d known each other, so if she’d felt she needed to do all those things, then she was probably right. But Twilight couldn't help but wonder why. Even after the creature out there had leapt at her, even after the things Celestia had told her about Tartarus and the creatures she’d banished here, Twilight couldn’t shake the feeling that there should have been something she could do, some better way to handle them. Her stomach turned at the memory of the fight, the reek of burning hair, that horrible fury in Celestia’s eyes, the sickening—

Okay, enough of that! Plenty of time to worry over it after I figure out what to do!

Twilight took another breath and sparked up a dim glow of purple-white light. Even that little made her wince. It was several seconds before her eyes were willing to open all the way.

Twilight found herself in a small, simple house. Perhaps shack would be a better word. Furnishings were sparse. Just a table and some chairs and a bed-frame with no mattress in one corner. There was a drying puddle of sick in another corner as well. Twilight turned away from that, nose wrinkling. She barely remembered having put it there, but barely was more than enough. The walls haled no windows and no door, but the door frame yawned wide open. Her meager light revealed nothing of what lay beyond. What had this place been for? She glanced down at herself, and her guts churned again at the black, crusted stains on her hooves and chest.

Well, that quite thoroughly disproved her 'just a dream' hypothesis. She fought to keep her gorge down and fled the room, desperately seeking something else to think about.

She walked out into a...cave? How had she ended up underground? She tried to piece together her last memories, but they were all fragmented, blurred and dreamlike. She amped up her light spell. The walls were bare stone, fairly uniform but unworked as far as she could tell. The ceiling was high, several feet above the tip of her horn. The path, such as it was, was a few yards across. Twilight worked her wings a bit, reflexively. Ever since she’d gotten them, she’d acquired a subtle dread of being closed in like this. There was plenty of room really, but still.

To her right stood a door, embedded in the rock wall. To her left, the path carried on into the dark. She could hear a soft tinkling from out there, like a small stream. Her tongue was sticky with dehydration, her eyes so dry she could actually feel them moving in their sockets, and all these things were made suddenly, starkly clear by the possible presence of water. She started off towards it immediately. Wait, should she check the door first? It might lead outside. Celestia might be right out there, waiting...But she was a mess! She couldn't meet her Princess looking like this!

Twilight switched her light from 'ambient' to 'searchlight' and shined it forward, looking for wherever that water might be. The tunnel turned after maybe a dozen yards, and then again soon after that, but then…Twilight sighed in relief. There it was. A little stream, small enough to jump over, running through a much larger open chamber. Twilight searched the area quickly. There wasn’t much to see, other than rock walls and dust, and then headed straight to the water.

Celestia’s foreboding warnings gave Twilight pause, despite her body’s demands. She shone her light through the stream, looking for she knew not what. The water was clear and shining in the surrounding darkness. The stones at the bottom had a bit of moss growing, but that was to be expected. Twilight waited as long as she could bear, then carefully leaned down and took a sip.

It was gosh-darned delicious.

She gulped readily after that, still glancing around the chamber, just in case. She gave a great, satisfied sigh once she’d finally had her fill, and perhaps a demure little belch too, and then proceeded to wash the mess off of herself as quickly as she could manage. She did her best not to think about where it had come from, focusing instead on how refreshingly frosty the water was. A few minutes of that, followed by a quick attempt at getting her mane straight, and Twilight was ready to—

A great rumbling sounded behind her, as of stone grinding upon massive stone.

She snapped alert, ears and eyes dancing toward the sound. After a long moment of echoing silence, she ran back towards the shack, careening though the curving path only to find that nothing had changed. The shack still stood, empty as before. The door in the wall remained. She hesitated, shifting her weight back and forth. And then she slowly, tentatively, hoofed her way towards the door. It was a simple wooden affair, like the shack. It had no windows, and only a simple latch kept it closed. A creeping feeling climbed Twilight’s spine as she reached up to pop it loose. Like something was watching her.

She thought better of touching the door and backed away, using her magic to open it instead. It creaked slowly open on oil-starved hinges. Twilight unconsciously held her breath, priming her horn with every spell she thought might be useful, backing ever further away.

The door finally slid away, revealing…a stone wall. Written on it, in perfect Equestrian, were the words “WELCOME HOME.”

Twilight stared. The crawling, anticipatory dread she’d felt faded quickly, to be replaced with confusion. And a slowly rising fear that she was well and truly trapped down here. But she didn't give herself time to think about that. Instead, she focused on the wall itself. Maybe it was just a façade? Some kind of trick door or something? It certainly hadn’t been there before or she could never have made it down here. A good solid kick disabused her of that notion, and left her with slightly aching hooves.

Ok, no problem. There’s other things to try.

She pulled together a proper teleport spell, something far more elaborate and robust than the quick *blinks* she regularly used. She made a guess at how thick the wall might be. Couldn’t be that big. She called up the best mental image of her run through the woods she could muster and triggered the spell. Bright lavender magic sparkled around her, drawing her up in its mystical winds. And….done! Twilight opened her eyes to see a door that opened onto a solid wall of rock. She frowned. The spell hadn’t moved her an inch. She wasn’t exactly surprised. Teleporting through air was easy, but anything denser than that quickly became unfeasible. But really, how thick could this wall be? She’d seen Tartarus move a tree, and mess with her sense of space some, but could it really just move that much stone so quickly? There had to be some limit to its abilities…

Never mind. She wasn't done yet. She pieced together a little drill out of magic. It was a converted shield spell, cast into a specific shape and set to spin at high speed. Hard to maintain for long, and it wasn’t very big, but she figured it was worth a try. Twilight set it to the wall. Half a minute later she had a hole one inch wide by six inches deep and little pile of rock dust. She shone her light inside. It revealed only more rock.

Ok. Ok. Twilight thought furiously about anything other than the ominous words before her. Maybe there’s a secret catch or something? She ran a hoof over the frame and the corners where it met the stone. In fact…Twilight used another shaped shield to pry out the bolts that held the frame to the wall and then removed it entirely. She set it aside and kept searching for some hidden switch. A few minutes of such work revealed nothing useful. The wall was irregular stone, so anything pony-made should be obvious, but she couldn’t find anything at all. She wasn’t even entirely sure where the door had even stood now that she’d taken it off the wall.

Alright, thought Twilight, fighting to quell that slow-building fear. Alright, so maybe I’m stuck. For now. But I’m not hurt. I’ve got my magic, and plenty of water. I’ll figure something out. She hadn’t really taken the time to look around yet, had she? Maybe there’s something…she looked at her bleak surroundings. In the shack? It didn’t sound very likely, even in her head. I could follow the stream. Those usually empty out above ground eventually, right? Or should I stay here? She pondered that. Maybe Princess Celestia is on her way right now. Maybe she’s tearing through that darn wall at this very moment.

Or maybe she has no idea where I am. Maybe it’s just me now…

Twilight grimaced, trying to shut that kind of thought out. But that old, familiar fear of failure wormed its way back in. What if she’s hurt? What if she thinks I’m hurt? What if she doesn’t come looking for me at all? Twilight stomped a hoof, shoving anger up in place of that terrible guilt. No! I’m not doing this again! I’m not some lost little filly! I’m a Princess! I’ve been through worse than this, and I still came out okay!

There. That felt better. Even if she couldn’t quite remember having ever been somewhere worse than this right now. Well, there was that time Chrysalis captured everypony and threw her in some weird crystal dungeon. See? There we go.

Twilight set her jaw and strode into the shack. Having little idea where to start, she just began rummaging through what little she could find. There was a kettle, a few pots, and some various other kitchen things. Some simple earthenware. There was a pick on one wall, so maybe this had been a mine? There was a pile of silvery dust on the floor, and another on the bedframe. Odd. She kept searching.

She’d been hoping for a key of some kind, something that might give her some clue about how to pass through the wall. Unless, of course, it actually had just moved into place while she was away. The thought occurred to her that if she’d tried the door first, she might be out of here already, but she refused to indulge it. If Tartarus really could shift the landscape like that, it probably would have just slammed it down in her face the moment she touched the door.

Running a hoof through the dust-pile on the bed, Twilight discovered a simple jug. Its cork stopper was still in, and only marginally decayed. It even had a strap for easier carrying. Hmm. Twilight picked it up and looked at it, giving it a little shake. Something sounded from within. This could make a pretty decent canteen…

What was it Celestia had said, before? If they got separated somehow, stay on the road? She’d mentioned it more than once, so she must have known that something like this might happen. Well, that settles that, Twilight thought. I’ll follow the water till it lets out, and then get back on the road. Simple. Twilight chose to ignore that she had no idea where she was or how to find Celestia once she made it back to the surface, because frankly there was nothing she could about those things right now. She focused instead on the simplicity of her new plan. She absently twisted the cork out of the canteen as she walked out of the shack. She stopped and poured whatever was in it out onto the ground. It formed another, smaller pile of that shimmering dust she’d seen in the shack.

Huh. I always thought the ‘canteen full of dust’ thing was just a—

The dust pile shifted, gathering itself up. Twilight hopped back away from it, staring at it as she once again primed as many spells as she could think of.

The pile coalesced, coiling and gathering into a small, silvery-gray snake. It looked up at her, glaring through angry, empty sockets.

It struck so fast she didn’t even know it until the thing rebounded off the shield she’d put up. It hissed and spit and struck again, and then again as she gasped and leapt further away from the vicious little creature. It chased, and struck once more before finally giving up. It coiled in on itself, watching her as it wound back away, hissing furiously, as though she'd been the one to attack. It looked away just for a second, into the shack, and then glared at her once more before diving through the doorway.

Twilight stared after it. Why..? Wait. She narrowed her eyes. It was noisily shuffling around in there...where the other, larger dust piles had been. She re-checked her barrier, then ran to the door.

The snake was slithering through the mound on the floor. It was bigger than before, and growing rapidly, drawing in the dust and getting larger by the second. It saw her and lashed out, bouncing again off her shield. She grabbed the thing with her horn and inverted her shield, wrapping the snake in a (hopefully) impenetrable bubble as she lifted it away from the pile in the shack.

What in the..?

It twisted in the bubble, enraged. Twilight watched, unsure of what to do with the thing now that she had it captured. She couldn’t just leave it here. Who knew what it might get up to? She couldn’t keep it in a bubble forever, either. Shields were simple enough for her at this point, but even her brother, self-proclaimed master of shields, couldn’t maintain one forever.

The snake sort of descended into itself as she watched, falling back into a pile of dust, with only its head poking out. She pondered it. Good camouflage. Also flagrantly impossible, but magic creatures were like that. What would water do to something that forms itself out of dirt, she wondered. Hmm.

Keeping the viper at a safe distance, Twilight walked away from the shack, toward the little river she’d discovered. As she approached the flowing water, the snake went absolutely berserk in its bubble, hissing and squirming and doing everything it could to get away.

“Don’t like that, huh?” asked Twilight. “Well…” She gave the chamber she was in another look. The stream was narrow, but it cut the tunnel clean in two, as far as she could see. The path she was on went on its way, neatly separated from the other side. “Good.”

Twilight raised the sphere of magic and tossed it over, letting the shield pop out once it was back on dry land. The snake hit the stone floor in a puff of dust, then reformed and glared at her once more as it retreated, hissing all the way, from the water and her light.

“Yeah, to you too,” she said, giving the angry thing a little wave. She shook her head. “Right then,” she declared, grabbing the canteen she’d hung around her neck. She filled it quickly, making sure to wash it out extensively, and hoped that, one day, things would start making sense again.

Wandering

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Twilight trotted along at a reasonable clip down the tunnel. Something sustainable, a rate she could go off and on for hours until she found a good place to rest. And hopefully something to eat. How long had it been since she’d had food? She was regretting not eating that grass…She still had her canteen, though, so that was good, but some food would be amazing right now. Alas, the only plant-life she had seen so far was some sort of glowing mushroom and a similarly luminescent moss growing on the ground and walls. Twilight knew better than to eat random fungus, but she was starting to look at that moss with a hungry eye…

The stuff glowed enough that she barely even needed her own magical light at this point, but she kept it up anyway. She could probably literally maintain the spell in her sleep at this point.

Another few minutes of walking, and a new worry struck her. What had happened to Ben? The bioluminescence in the cave was about the same color parts of him had been. Where was he? Was he okay? A pang of guilt ran through her. She couldn’t even remember when she’d lost him. Why had it taken her this long to remember him? She tried to tell herself not to dwell on it. He’d lived in Tartarus for who knew how long. He was probably fine, right? Twilight pushed her anxiety away with an effort. Best to keep her thoughts productive.

So. Celestia had said that Tartarus liked horror stories. Okay, fine. Twilight knew a thing or two about those. They weren’t her favorite, being both fiction and rather morbid, but she'd read a tale or two. And, perhaps more helpful, she'd read books about horror, as a genre. She was familiar with the basic tropes, and she'd even looked into a silly article or two about how the survive as a horror story protagonist. She ran those ideas through her head as she went. She wondered though, was that how this place worked? Was everypony a “protagonist?” Was she one? How would she even know? And if so, would subverting expectations work in her favor, or against it?

Well, she could only try to be smart and hope for the best, she supposed. And frankly, this 'story' felt more to her like dark fantasy than proper horror. More like some strange, old fable. There wasn’t even an antagonist yet, as far as she knew.

Anyway, the rules were pretty simple: be polite, don’t wander off alone, and don’t go messing with things you don't understand. Be a reasonable pony, basically. Simple enough. Twilight could do that. Sure, she'd already thoroughly broken the second guideline, but she was reasonably certain she could make up for that. Probably.

Of course, the real problem with being in a horror story was that, in the end, there was no outsmarting it, because the protagonist wasn’t in control. The author was.

Twilight made herself breathe, picking up her pace as if she could simply outrun the rising dread that came with that thought. She fought it back, pushing it out or down or away until later, when she could deal with it.

There were more rules, but they were pretty strange and often overly specific and surely wouldn’t come up in real life. Twilight reviewed them anyway, just to give herself something to think about. Unbidden, she remembered something else entirely: fire. A blasting, disintegrating flame, pouring from Celestia’s horn. A wolf-thing’s head dissolving under it, skull searing white before—Twilight shook herself. She found a silver lining in her unruly thoughts and seized on it.

Celestia was certainly okay, at least. Those things she'd fought had barely managed to touch her. So she was fine. Twilight just had to get out of here, and then they’d go home together and that would be that. Simple. No need to fixate on it.

Twilight’s heart gradually calmed as she trotted through the cave.

But maybe...maybe it was time to let herself think about what had happened. She had some distance now, a little bit of mental space. She could try at least, just a little.

So she did. She recalled that first blast, boring straight through one of the dog monsters. The same panic from before boiled into her, that horrid nausea poured up and over her and tried to spill out.

Okay then! Not yet!

But maybe she could think about something like it. Maybe that would help.

A fragment of a book came to her then. Something she’d read years ago and always remembered, but never really understood. She probably still didn’t, not really. But watching Celestia fight those dog creatures might have given her a bit of perspective on those old words. The fragment was simply this: “Hit 'em. Hit 'em first, and hit 'em hard.”

The book had been a biography about an earth pony named Dust Up, complete with quotes from the stallion himself. He’d been a legendary fighter, known for going up against heavy-weights and winning, despite being barely bigger than Twilight was. His life had, according to him, basically boiled down to one fight after another, in and out of the ring. It had seemed entirely barbaric at the time she'd read it, but now…Well, maybe she could use some of that wisdom. It might help her understand a few things.

Dust Up had given lots of technical advice on fighting, as one might expect. How to land this or that blow, how to handle a pegasus or a unicorn and so on. But the really interesting stuff was about the mindset. Not how to fight, exactly, but how to win. How to come out ahead against somebody bigger and stronger than you. And maybe his friends, too, if you were lucky. It was a lot of little things. Not tricks, exactly, but…well, here was one.

“If you got nuthin’ else, throw everything you have at ‘em.” It was a confusing bit of advice at first, but he explained. “If you got no skill, no tricks, no training, well, you should get those. But even if you don't, you’ve still a couple hundred pounds of pony behind you. So you throw that at ‘em with everything you’ve got, and maybe it’ll be enough. When you throw that punch, throw it completely. Remember, kid, this is a fight for your life, so don’t hold back.” He always referred to the reader as “kid.” She’d wondered if he did that in life, or just to his readers. Regardless, she could she the truth in it now, a bit. Celestia had plowed straight through a couple of those creatures, even though they’d surely outweighed her. And those spells she’d used! Twilight had never seen anything like that. They'd been simple, really. Just basic magical bolts, but fired with so much power that they’d…well. Anyway.

“If they wanna talk, let ‘em. Some folks are like that. Then, while they’re in the middle of their big speech, plant a hoof right upside their jaw. That’s a clean knock-out, son. Some ponies might call it dirty, but at least you’ll be alive to argue about it. Even better, get to talkin’ yourself. Ain’t a creature alive that expects to get decked while the other guy is talkin’. And, at the least, it gives you some time to think, maybe set yourself closer to the door if you gotta run.”

Celestia had done that too. Twilight hadn’t understood it at the time, but Celestia had called the creatures out. And once they’d come out where she could see them, she’d…Right.

“Use everything you’ve got. Remember what I said about havin’ no skills? Well, that’s on you, but even a scrub can pick up a rock or swing a chair. Do it. Look around you. Grab any advantage you can, kid, and use it. Getting your hooves on a stray branch might make the difference between a visit to the doctor and a visit to the morgue.”

That one had actually scared Twilight. What kind of pony thought that way? It was just so vicious. But then, she’d seen the Princess do that too. She’d picked up half a dozen things, seemingly at random, and she’d used them to great effect. Twilight shuddered at the thought, but she knew that, if pushed, if she had to, she could do that. If she had to.

There was more. Of course there was, it had been an entire book. Twilight recalled as much as she could as she trotted along through the shadowy, softly illuminated caves. The tunnel had opened up now, so much so that she could no longer see the extent of it without over-powering her light spell. She stuck by the little river and hoped she wouldn’t need to actually follow any of Dust Up's advice.

~~~

Twilight’s first clue that she was no longer alone was the smell. It was musky, just a bit acrid. It smelled like danger, like a bear’s den. She only knew that from the one time she'd been in Harry the bear's den. He'd never given her any reason to fear him, but there was just something in the smell in there. And here.

She slowed to a walk. Should she put out her light? Would that even matter down here? Surely whatever lived in this place was used to the dark.

That creeping feeling crawled back up her spine. She boosted her light instead, shining a *searchlight* around herself, looking. She stopped short when she heard the growl. It rumbled through her, low and deadly, a dire warning. A vague shape hung on the very edge of her light.

There was a special kind of fear that came with the sudden realization that something had been watching you. Not out there anymore, somewhere in the vague darkness, but right here, in this place. With you. Twilight swallowed past a rapidly drying tongue.

She cleared her throat. Whatever the creature was, it was still a good twenty yards out, on the other side of the river.

“Hello?”

Twilight slowly moved her light up. The creature stood its ground. Her spell revealed a paw, claws digging into the stone. Further up, a red lion’s mane and angry, snarling face. A big set of leathery wings, and, shining in the dark behind it, the sharp spike of a scorpion tail, glistening with venom.

Manticore.

Okay. She'd dealt with those before. Nothing to worry about.

Of course, last time, she’d had her friends around to help, and even then, they’d only prevailed when Fluttershy had found the thorn in its paw. And this one didn’t appear injured in the slightest. Rangy, perhaps, and hungry…

As the creature stalked forward, Twilight found herself desperately wishing her friends were here now.

“Um, sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you,” said Twilight, backing away. The manticore coiled up on the ground, making ready to leap. Twilight’s mind raced. Wait…Wait! She knew something about manticores! She'd read it somewhere. What was it?

“I really am just passing through!” she blurted, perhaps a bit louder than necessary. The oversized cat/dragon/scorpion thing stopped in its tracks.

“If you think I’d be okay,” she continued, stumbling into her best attempt at rhythmic speech, “I’d rather just go on my way!”

Rhyme! Manticore's were scared of things that rhyme! It'd been in the Princesses’ diary she'd found in the old castle!

The manticore made a small, unhappy mewling noise.

Emboldened, Twilight continued.

“I don’t want to make you, um…” Agh! What rhymed with help!? “Yelp?

But I could really use some help.

I’m a bit lost you see,

And don’t know quite where I might be.

Could you tell me?”

The manticore’s eyes went wide with fear at the first line, and it had taken off running before she’d finished the last.

Twilight stood there grinning.

“It would fill me with glee!” she shouted after it.

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!” cried the manticore.

Twilight laughed, feeling just a bit guilty. Oh, hey, that rhymed too.

“Sorry!”

“Graaaaargh!

“Oh, wait! I didn’t mean it that time. Sor-Er, I apologize!”

There was no response from the cat-creature this time.

And this, Twilight thought to herself, was exactly why learning history was important. One never knew when some seemingly pointless bit of trivia might save her from a fight with a big, scary manticore. She allowed herself a satisfied little nod at having handled the situation, and then went on her way.

~~~

Twilight continued to trot along, feeling quite pleased with herself after that last little run-in. Tartarus wasn't so bad. You just had to be smart about it.

It was maybe an hour or more before she heard any sound other than her own hooves. When she did, Twilight slowed to a walk, then a stop, ears perking up as she sought the source of the noise. It had sounded a bit like a groan. Or maybe a sigh?

She heard it again. No, wait, this was different. A rustling sound? Twilight amped up her light again. It revealed little. Just a path ahead, and the silent water beside her. She waited a bit, shining her light ahead and behind, before she moved on. Her hoof-steps echoed rancorously in the silence.

There it was again! A sort of sighing sound. It was coming from ahead, she was sure of it. Not that the echoes in here made it easy to tell…Wait! There was an opening up there, branching off the main tunnel. Twilight nibbled at her lip. This was the first fork in the road she’d seen so far. And the chamber was narrowing in, so there was no way she could avoid crossing within a few yards of that hole in the cave wall. She looked back once more before she cautiously padded forward.

She stopped well away from the dark maw. There was a sign over it, or at least, it looked like one. Twilight crept up as quietly as possible, listening intently for any new noises. She heard nothing. Staying as far from the hole as possible, she tried to read the sign. It was written in clear Equestrian, but every time she finished reading, the actual content of the message flew away. The letters sort of flowed past her vision, and she kept losing her place as she tried to understand them. But there was one thing she definitely recognized: a pony skull, with two crossed leg bones underneath.

Poison, or some other sort of danger.

Twilight turned to leave, suddenly wanting to be as far from this place as she could get, but then she heard it again. A sort of moaning sigh, and a rustling noise, as if something were moving in the dark. Against her better judgement, she shined her light into the side tunnel.

There was somepony in there.

Twilight started forward before she could think to stop herself. It was just a vague outline, and it was covered in something, but that was certainly a mare. Was she hurt? Did she need help!?

Twilight was nearly upon the mare before she slid to a halt. That feeling of being observed from afar returned, sharper than ever.

The unknown pony was covered in some kind of flowered vine. Every bloom turned at once to face Twilight, petals opening wide like they were looking straight at her. Twilight backed away, unsure what to make of them.

After a moment, they seemed to lose interest, returning to their…victim? As Twilight watched, the pony shifted a bit, murmuring something. Her eyes fluttered open, just for a moment, then closed as one of the flowers leaned down toward the mare and gently closed over her horn. It was like a kiss, the way it slowly lapped over her. Almost erotic, really. Formerly a pale white, the flower suddenly swelled with color, pulsing into a vivid red. Several other flowers followed suit, each ‘kissing’ whatever part of the pony they were near. The flowers turned to face each other, opening and closing as their color faded back to white. It was like they were talking. Several tilted to face Twilight again, rocking with quiet, rustling laughter.

They were draining her! They were sucking the magic and life from her and they were laughing about it! Twilight pulled away in disgust. A sudden, unexpectedly fierce spike of anger shot through her. She snapped out with her magic, wrapping the roots of that horrible plant in her telekinetic grip, intent on tearing the thing straight out of the earth. She grabbed and pulled and…nothing happened.

The flowers tilted to one side, as if they were pondering what she was doing. And then, all at once, her spell fell apart. The flowers swelled lavender as they ate her magic, completely unaffected by it. The plant and the pony stared at each other a moment longer before the flowers returned to the one they had captured, laughing amongst themselves.

Twilight tried again, incensed. It was just as effective as the first time. She tried grabbing the pony instead. She lifted her maybe an inch before the flowers leeched her spell into nothing. The pony in the vines made no particular response, other than to roll over and go back to sleep as the flowers caressed her again. The plant moved under her, forming a pillow of ropy vines under her head. Twilight’s face scrunched up in confusion. That had looked almost tender, even concerned.

What was going on here!?

Twilight stopped the nascent spell she’d been shaping and really looked at this little tableau. The plant turned back to her occasionally, waiting to see what she’d try next, but it wasn’t reaching for her or anything. It wasn’t trying to entrap her the way it had this other mare. And the mare herself…

Okay, now that Twilight actually looked at her, she was weird. She was red, same as the color the plants turned when they drained her, but she reflected light all wrong, as though she had a carapace instead of a coat. The lines of her body were often jagged and straight, instead of the usual organic curves. But not always. It was like she’d been half grown and half, what? Built? Twilight’s light focused on her face. Her mouth lolled open for a bit, and the teeth inside were sharp. A long purple tongue licked over them before retreating back into her jaws. That was bad enough, but the worst was that Twilight could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed. The cheeks just weren’t there. It wasn't like they’d been removed, but as if they’d just never been there at all. Twilight stared.

What she found atop the pony’s head was no less concerning. She had a horn, but it was nothing like any horn Twilight had ever seen. There were two of them, twisted around each other in a sort of jagged, double-helical spiral that terminated into wickedly sharp points. They were segmented, and every part of them was covered in that weird, unreadable script from the warning sign. Twilight racked her brain for some point of reference for this. She had almost concluded that she’d never seen anything like it, then she remembered. Chrysalis. She, too, had had parts missing, and a horn that was off, and something resembling a carapace. Was that was this pony was? Another changeling queen? Did they have more than one?

She backed away as the red pony shifted again in her sleep, the flowers descending once more with their strange affections.

Had the warning she'd seen been for the plant? Or the pony? Was the changeling-pony supposed to be held here? How long had this been happening? Was there even anything Twilight could do to free her, and if so, should she? She didn't seem to be in pain…

Twilight had heard of predatory plants before, things like pitcher plants or venus fly traps. But this one didn’t seem to be hurting anything. There were no remains of other victims like you might find near a normal carnivorous plant. Was this one was consuming? Or just containing?

Twilight wished Celestia were here. Surely she’d know something. On her own, Twilight would never leave a pony to suffer this fate, but what if Celestia herself had imprisoned this creature? If Twililght did find a way to free her, what would she do if the pony turned out hostile? And the Princess had told her not to touch anything…

Twilight backed out of the room. She could come back later. If she was right, and this pony needed saving, Celestia would know. And they could come back after they were reunited.

The logic was sound, and she was sure of it, but her decision still left Twilight feeling cold.

She would come back.

She would.

~~~

Twilight soldiered on down the seemingly unending tunnel. She was feeling rather less confident than before, but she didn’t think there was much she could do about that right now. Best to just keep moving.

The cave turned and twisted, opened up and closed in at random. There were a few forks and side passages appearing now, but she mostly avoided them in favor of staying near the stream. It was all she had to go on. She thought she might be heading upward a bit, which would be great, but she had no real way to tell. Her stomach was going out of its way to remind her how long it had been since she’d eaten, but she couldn’t do anything about that either. At least she had plenty of water…

A quiet, echoing tune sounded through the tunnels. Twilight had first heard it maybe half an hour ago, and it was only growing louder as she went. She hadn’t slowed her pace except for at that first moment. She was certain she’d be meeting whatever the singer was at any moment now. That seemed to be how things went down here.

The song was a soft, haunting melody, a single voice accompanied by some lilting, stringed instrument. Twilight didn’t recognize the words, if there even were any. It was maybe another half hour before she found the source. The path opened up ahead, going from a narrow tunnel into a much wider chamber. Twilight stopped a little ways outside. She took a deep breath, inhaling an odd, earthy, sticky-sweet scent, and poked her head into the clearing.

It was brighter in here. The glowing mushrooms grew bigger, and large patches of moss gave off their steady glow. Off to one side was a large, empty basin, and next to that, the singer. It sat, squatting and strange, atop a massive pile of something she couldn’t readily identify. The stuff glistened wetly in her light. The singer wasn’t anything Twilight recognized. It was bipedal, with long, spindly limbs and and narrow torso leading up to a large head. Tentacles descended like hair from there. Two beady eyes peered from its face, but it was the unfeasibly wide mouth and its rounded little teeth that dominated its visage. The creature bent over its instrument, long fingers strumming peacefully, perfectly oblivious to its guest.

Weird, Twilight decided, but not threatening. Hopefully. She cautiously stepped out of the tunnel. Again, that eerie feeling of being watched came over her.

“Hello there,” she said.

The creature turned to look at her, but said nothing. It showed no sign of surprise, just kept on singing with that slight, serene smile upon its froggish lips.

“That’s a very pretty song,” she ventured, after the creature made no response. She gave it a little wave.

The singer’s smile widened. It waved her forward with one hand. The other kept plucking away at what she now saw was some sort of archaic harp.

Twilight had been hoping for a more robust reply. Maybe it couldn’t actually talk? That would be disappointing. She took a few steps forward.

“So, I’m Twilight Sparkle. What should I call you?”

The creature gave no clear answer, other than to change its tune to a mildly jauntier variation.

Well, that was something.

As she stepped closer, Twilight started to make out what the creature was sitting on. A big, slick-shiny cone of flesh.

Eugh! The thing was like a giant slug!

The whole mass of it shifted, shimmying slowly toward her.

Was it one creature, or was the singer separate? She saw legs on the it, but…

The smell from before intensified. Twilight tried not to be visibly disgusted. She reminded herself to be polite.

“I, ugh, excuse me. I’m kind of lost? And I was hoping you could, um...”

If the creature understood her, it hid it well. The gross bulk underneath it continued to advance on her, and as the thing got closer, she started to make out more details. It pulled itself forward on thick, slimy, spiky tendrils that slapped wetly against the ground. The cone, or whatever it was, wasn’t uniform. It was mostly a smooth, mottled grey, but its profile was broken up in unpredictable ways.

And sticking out from one side, silhouetted against the dim bioluminescence of the cave, was a hand.

A slow, horrible dread crawled over Twilight as she looked at it, following the curve as it went up to an arm, which hung off a shoulder, which led to an entire minotaur, stuck halfway inside the grey mass of sliding flesh.

Twilight froze, caught between the urge to vomit and the compulsion to jump in and pull the poor thing free. In the following seconds, she saw there were other things in there, wrapped in meat and tendrils. Something that looked like a dog, some kind of over-sized bat, and dozens of smaller things. The minotaur turned toward her. Its hand twitched.

It was alive! Oh, sweet stars above it was still alive! Twilight charged toward the wretched creature. She didn’t have a plan, she didn’t know what she was going to do, but she had to do something. She neatly leapt over a flopping tentacle and wrapped the bull in her magical grip.

“I’ve got you! Just hang on!”

The minotaur gurgled, reaching pitifully for her.

She wrenched as hard as she could, but he barely budged. She felt something slick and nasty brush her flank, and she hopped away.

“Back off!” she shouted, firing a bolt of force at the offending tendril. Had it been reaching for her? She looked up at the singing creature, whose song continued unabated. Its grin seemed suddenly twisted, full of malice. She fired another bolt straight into its face. Its head snapped back, but even then, the song continued.

Frightened but still determined, Twilight lunged forward, grabbing hold of the stuck minotaur and pulling with everything she had, magic, muscle, and wings. With an ugly *schlorp*, he quickly came loose.

“Ok! On your hooves! Let’s get…”

Well, most of him came loose. Twilight staggered back in horror at the torso she had pulled free. The minotaur’s legs and most of his belly were still lodged in the slug. Only a few spiny tendrils connected his front to his rear. He fell to the ground with a damp splatter as Twilight dropped him and hurriedly backed away.

In the back of her mind, she noticed her flank was starting to sting. And her arms. Everything that had touched the creature…

It was then that she realized it. Trap. It had been a lure, all of it. The song had brought her close, the smiling singer got her closer, and the “minotaur” was the just the finishing touch, the thing that would finally trick her into touching this monster.

The tentacles were sliding in, encircling her, dragging the massive bulk of the thing close enough to crush her.

A strange and foreign feeling filled Twilight as she beat her wings and leapt away. She didn’t recognize it until much later, but she was suddenly, furiously enraged. How could something do this!? How could such a thing be!? But she didn’t have time to ponder, so she acted. She fired bolts of magic at the tentacles that reached for her, smacking maybe half a dozen away as she climbed into the air. Her wings brushed the ceiling of the cave just as she realized it was pointless. The slowly flailing arms just kept coming. She fired another at the singer, thinking that might stop it.

That bolt was harder than her others had been. It knocked the creature clear of the slimy mass under it…or it would have, if the singer hadn’t been attached by those same spiny strands the minotaur had been. It flopped back up to its sitting position, unfazed. It wasn’t five seconds before its calm music and serene smile returned.

Twilight stared at it, hovering.It wasn't real. That wasn’t a real minotaur in there. It had been a fake. A trick. It had to be. Nothing could be so monstrous as to...The stinging was getting more intense. Her arms weren’t moving like they should. She hated this! She wanted to do something here, wanted to fix this horrible thing somehow, but the rational part of her mind knew she couldn’t do it. Not now, not by herself. She gathered up a quick shield, whipped around and flew straight past the singer and into the caves beyond. She heard its music following her, but the tunnels narrowed quickly, and it wasn’t long before the thing’s bulk forced it to give up the chase.

Hunger

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Twilight took back anything nice she might have thought about this place. Tartarus was vile. She regretted having ever doubted it was as awful as Celestia had said.

That weird surge of frustrated anger had faded after a while, and the stinging in her skin and muscles had ebbed into a mild numbness, but the encounter was still eating at her. It wasn’t just that she’d fallen into the trap so easily. That had nothing to do with it. It was that the trap even existed. And worse, that there was nothing she could do about it. She wished again that her friends were here. One of them surely could have come up with something better than just running away. But what could they have possibly done? How did someone fix something like that?

She heard a noise from somewhere up ahead, a hollow knocking sound. She halted, caught between dread and exasperation. What horrible thing would it be this time? A chimera? A dragon? Something so terrible she couldn't hope to comprehend it? She couldn’t even begin to guess, but that hardly stopped her imagination from running wild with shadowy horrors. She started up at a trot again, if a bit more quietly than before.

The thing was, these run-ins kept getting worse every time. Now that she thought about it, Celestia’s warning that Tartarus liked “stories” was starting to make some sense. Most stories tended to follow a general pattern of progressively more difficult complications, and here she was, being literally led down a tunnel through a series of unpleasant encounters. Tartarus had even managed to split her and Celestia apart, just like she might expect to happen in a horror novel. And then there was that sensation that something was watching. But maybe she was just being paranoid about that one. She hoped so.

A bend in the path approached. Twilight slowed as she drew near it, but didn't stop until she heard that sound again. A *tok* echoed through the tunnel, like a small hoof rapping on stone. Twilight dimmed her light and changed its color to match the fungal glow (she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought to do that until now!). She edged carefully around the bend, eyes and ears forward. As she peeked past the curve, she saw something out there, maybe thirty feet away. She backed up a bit in surprise.

It was a pony!

Its head was down, and its hooves were pawing the ground, digging or rooting at something. Little wings bounced on its back. A rumbling sounded from somewhere further down the cave, much like the one Twilight had heard just after waking up in the cave. The pony’s head snapped up. He (Twilight guessed it was a he, but it was hard to tell in the dark) stared warily outward, still as a stone. After a moment he glanced around, eyes flicking about until he turned to look her straight in the eye. Twilight froze. The other pony’s eyes went wide and, before she could even think, he darted away in a flash of grey.

“Wait!” Twilight cried. She hadn’t expected anything to run away from her, so she stammered a bit when she said “I didn’t mean to scare you!” She trotted cautiously forward. Celestia had said there weren’t any ponies here, but what else could he have been? Maybe he could lead her back above ground.

Twilight reached the point where he had been standing, but the little pony was nowhere to be seen. He’d run past a rock, and she’d lost him. His hoof-falls had been quieter than she might expect, but surely she’d be hearing them if he were still running. That meant he must be hiding. She looked around, amping up her light a bit. This part of the cavern was littered with stones and crevices. Plenty of places to be unseen, if that’s what you wanted.

“Hello?” she tried. When there was no answer, she continued. “Um, I’m Twilight Sparkle. I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m lost, and I was hoping maybe you could tell me where I am? I know,” she hesitated, wondering what she could possibly say to earn someone’s trust in his situation. She tried to channel in a bit Fluttershy’s aura of harmlessness. “I know it’s pretty scary down here, but I promise I don’t want to hurt anypony. I just need to find my friend and get back to the road, so, if you know how I might get out of here…”

Echoing silence answered her.

Twilight shifted back and forth for a minute, hoping for some response. Nothing came.

“Maybe you could use a hoof too? I ran across some pretty weird stuff back there,” she continued, gesturing to the caves behind her. “So maybe we could travel together for a while? Safety in numbers right?”

The little stream Twilight had walked beside all this time babbled on, but the hiding pony stayed silent.

“It sure would be nice to have somepony to talk to for a bit…” Twilight put effort into sounding as sad-and-dejected-but-also-hopeful as possible. There was, of course, no response. Twilight sighed. “Okay. Well, thanks anyway, I guess. I’m, um, I’m going to keep walking down this tunnel, so, just keep hiding, I suppose. I won’t try to look for you. Just please don’t jump out at me or anything. I’ve had enough of that lately.” Twilight doubled-checked her pre-loaded shield spell and, after a few more moments spent waiting in vain for an answer from the mystery pony, she reluctantly set off down the path.

“Somepony?”

The voice was high, and wary, but certainly male. Young. Twilight guessed him at somewhere in early adolescence. The echoes kept her from pin-pointing the sound.

She stopped, watching the area carefully.

“Uh, yeah. I’ve been alone for a while, so…”

“What’s somepony?”

“What?” Twilight was a bit nonplussed at being asked to explain such a basic word. It seemed so simple until she had to define it. “It’s just…It means, like, a pony, but not any specific pony. Just somepony. Some. Pony. It’s the same as saying someone. Just with pony instead.”

There was a pause.

“Why not say someone, then?”

The voice sounded genuinely confused.

“Because I’m a pony?” hazarded Twilight. “I mean, I suppose I could say someone. Or somebody. I just say pony instead. It’s how we talk in Equestria.”

More silence. It hung so long that Twilight thought the conversation was over. But, just as she was getting ready to give up and walk on, the voice asked…

“You’re from Equestria?”

“Of course! Is that not where you’re from?”

The mystery pony spoke again, carefully.

“But…Equestria’s been gone forever. It’s not even supposed to be real…”

“Um, well, that’s where I came from. Somepony named Artifice cast a spell on me and my friend, and when it was over, we woke up in Tartarus, up on the surface. We got split up, so I’m trying to find her again. I have to make sure she’s okay, and that she knows I am too. If you can just tell me how to get out of here, I’d really appreciate it.” Twilight smiled in no particular direction.

“But Equestria’s real?” There was an edge to the question. A sort of wonder-filled desperation.

“Oh, definitely,” said Twilight, trying her best to imitate Pinkie Pie’s oddly trust-inspiring perkiness. “I’ve lived there my whole life!”

A little head rose slowly up from behind a stone, not ten feet away.

“Oh!” said Twilight, hopping away. She recovered quickly, putting on a friendly smile and throwing together some kind of proper greeting. “Sorry, you just surprised me. Hi! I’m Twilight.”

The other pony didn’t move, still watching her intently from behind his rock.

“Um, okay. I’m uh, Bait. You said you were trying to get back to Equestria?”

“That’s an interesting name, Bate.” Did Tartaran ponies have the same descriptive names that Equestrians did? There was no real reason to expect so if they didn't even say "somepony." Zebras didn’t, nor did griffons. “And yes. Do you know how I can get there?”

“Um, no. But I can…” The rest of the sentence came out as if with great reluctance or confusion. “Help you get out of the caves? If that’s what you want?”

“That’d be great!”

Bait, looking as though he was going to bolt at any second, slowly crept out from behind the stone. Twilight wondered how she’d missed him. The rock had barely been big enough to hide the little guy. She backed up to give him some space, since he seemed so skittish.

“Okay,” she said with her most inviting smile. “Where to?”

“Uh, that way,” he said, pointing with one wing. Wait. That wasn’t a wing. What was that thing? Twilight stared at the bizarre appendage, unconsciously brightening her light to better see it. Bait cringed, rapidly backing away. He had already scampered behind another rock before Twilight had time to apologize.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean to stare! It’s just I’ve never seen a pony like you, I think, so I was trying to get a better look.”

What she'd seen there fascinated and alarmed her. The thing she’d taken for a wing was more like a long, spindly arm. There were two, mounted in much the same way as wings would be, except backwards. Instead of feathers, there was only leathery skin, and each arm ended in a bony, keenly-pointed hand. She’d never seen anything like it.

“I’m not a pony,” murmured Bait from behind his hiding place. “And I’ve never seen anybody like you either.”

“Oh, okay. Fair enough. You’re not a pony? What do you call yourself, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Bait’s head slowly crept back up from behind the stone.

“I’m a wight,” he stated, watching her dubiously. He narrowed his eyes. “Why would I mind if you asked?”

Twilight tried to recall having ever heard of a wight, but nothing came to mind. Maybe it was a recent name, or something that didn’t translate well?

“Uh, heh. I’m not sure. I was just trying to be polite, I suppose. Sometimes ponies, er, people, don’t like being asked personal questions.”

“That’s weird. But okay.” Bait cautiously padded out into the open. “So, we’ll need to go that way.” He pointed again with his creepy little hand.

Not creepy, Twilight corrected herself. Interesting

“You lead," said Bait. "I’ll, um, keep watch back here.”

“Oh, are we going together?” Twilight didn’t even try to hide her enthusiasm. With a guide she could be out of here in no time!

“Um, yeah. I’ll take you there.” He nodded for her to go ahead.

Twilight wasn’t sure why he insisted on lagging behind, but it seemed reasonable to have some sort of watch system, so she went with it. Maybe that was just how these “wights” did things.

Twilight headed off toward the indicated tunnel at a light trot. She was just formulating some small talk when Bait asked…

“So, um, you’re a “pony” then?”

Twilight turned back. He said the word like he’d never heard it before.

“Yup.” She took a little time to finally get a good look at her new acquaintance. “Do you not call them that here?”

“Um, I’ve never seen one before, so, I dunno.”

“Oh. That’s too bad,” Twilight said, trying to hide her disappointment. “Well, are there more wights like you around? I’d love to meet them.” Twilight was sort of letting her mouth go on autopilot while she tried to process what she was seeing. Bait’s hands were his most obviously alien feature, but now that she looked, she wondered how she could have ever mistaken him for a pony at all. He was hairless, first off. No coat, and only a thin, wispy, white mane with some sort of spines interspersed. His skin was a dull-gray leathery hide wrapped tight over knobby bones. He looked like he was starving…

“You would?”

“Sure! It’s always nice to make new friends.”

“Um. Okay. Well, yeah, there’s more. We have to go through my family’s territory on the way, so….” Bait stared at his hooves for a while before finishing the sentence. “You’ll meet them.”

Bait’s eyes, too, were very strange. Milky white, with barely visible, slightly darker irises. She would have guessed him blind, but he had looked right at her more than once. She followed his eyes down to his hooves. They were split. Only the inner half was hoof. The outside was more similar to the hands on his back, clawed and bony. He kept his hoof-fingers wrapped in tight most of the time, walking on gnarled knuckles, but she saw the fingers uncurl occasionally. That must be how he walked so quietly. On his knuckles. Each hoof had thumbs, too.

It was so strange! She'd never even heard of a creature like this.

“Great! Any idea how long it’ll be? It feels like I’ve been walking forever.”

Bait looked at her strangely.

“Um, it’s not too far. This way,” he said, pointing to a side tunnel. The light glinted off his teeth.

His sharp teeth.

That put something of damper on Twilight’s mood.

Bait, she concluded, was a carnivore. That was fine though. Fluttershy had plenty of carnivorous friends, right? Harry the bear, namely, and the ferrets and snakes and spiders and all kinds of creatures. Nopony got to choose how they were born. What they ate didn't make them bad, right?

Nonetheless, Twilight was a little more watchful now. Her mood did not improve with Bait’s next words.

“Wait…” he said, slowing to a halt. “This isn’t right.”

“Hm?”

They stood in a sort of little grotto. They’d left the stream behind a ways back, but it had apparently worked its way back into this chamber, filling a wide, relatively well-lit pool with cool, clear water. It was actually rather pretty.

“Something's changed! We need to go!” Bait was already backing away into the tunnel they’d just left.

“What? Why?”

“There’s shrimp here!”

Twilight paused, caught between amusement at the idea of being afraid of a shrimp and the deep, genuine fear in her guide's voice.

Bait whipped around and nearly slammed his face into a flat stone wall where the tunnel had been moments ago. There had been no rumble, no shaking of the earth. Just a wall, where there hadn’t been one before. He stared at it dumbly.

A paranoid chill skittered up Twilight’s spine. She was being watched.

“Bate,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “When you say shrimp..?"

She didn’t know if he’d intentionally ignored her or if he just wasn't listening, but he streaked in front of her, running across the grotto in search of an exit. He skidded to a halt, finding nothing but solid rock on all sides.

“Bate?”

He looked all around, eyes darting like a frightened animal’s. Twilight followed his glances up to an opening about twenty feet from the ground. He ran toward it, taking a grip on the wall with one hand.

The water rippled with movement. Twilight turned to watch as a pair of iridescent eyestalks breached the surface, twisting weirdly before locking on to her. Another pair followed them up, then another. The owner of the first pair rose up onto land, shedding water as it scuttled rapidly out on what must have been a dozen flitting legs. Twilight heard Bait whimper as the “shrimp” flowed toward her. The thing was as big as a mid-size dog, and it was coming straight at her!

She shot it, and it flew away from her, landing hard on its back.

She hadn't meant to! It was just so fast! And it splayed those wicked-looking armor-plated claws at her and she hadn’t known what to do and so she'd just blasted it! Twilight took a frightened step forward, terribly afraid that she might have really hurt it. The shrimp made a quick flip of its carapaced tail and hopped back to its far-too-numerous feet, completely unharmed.

It shared a look with the six or eight friends that had rushed up to join it, and then they all rushed in toward her.

“Um, Bate!?” called Twilight, taking to air bare moments before the unfeasibly quick shrimp swarmed over the space she’d just abandoned.

The shrimp turned their stalk-eyes up at her as she hovered several yards above them. They shared another look, and then one hopped up at her. It made it nearly eight feet straight up, but didn’t get anywhere near the flying pony.

Ah. Well then, this should be no problem.

A clattering sound echoed through the grotto.

The shrimp turned as one to see Bait scrabbling his way up the wall. It was nearly sheer but, using all of his six limbs, he'd managed to climb at least two full body lengths up it. One leg lost its grip and he slid several inches down.

The shrimp rushed him.

“No!” cried Twilight, swooping down, hitting the ground barely ahead of the crustaceans. She flung up her shield and threw them all back. “I've got you!” She grabbed Bait in a wide, loose field of magic and tried to heft him up into the tunnel above, but he squirmed with all the strength that mortal terror could give. She nearly dropped him under the unexpected strain. “Bate, calm down! I’m trying to help!”

“No! Get off me!”

He’s panicking, Twilight realized. In an as authoritative-yet-benevolent a voice as she could muster, she ordered, “Just go limp, Bate! You’re going to be fine, but you have to let me help you!”

~~~

The shrimp, meanwhile, were having another of their little looks. After a bit of silent discussion, one was convinced to tentatively skitter forward. It looked back at its pack, and they urged it on with wordless encouragement. It cocked one of its claws. The shrimp of Tartarus have four of those, though they aren’t really claws in the conventional sense. They’re not pincers either, but rather a sort of spiked, serrated blade, more like a mantis’s claw. They flex them in a particular way and then fire them with unbelievable force, impaling them through just about anything short of solid steel. But that’s just the stabbing claws. The lower pair are bashing claws, blunt instruments notorious among other residents of the Pit for being able to break through stone, bone, armored fortifications, or pretty much whatever else might have the misfortune of being placed in front of them. That was the claw that this particular shrimp had loaded up.

It fired. The impact hit like a gunshot, its report echoing through miles of tunnel. Twilight’s shield shattered into the ethereal winds.

The shrimp looked back at its comrades. They applauded. And then they charged the soft, fleshy things before them.

~~~

Twilight stared. Nothing had ever broken one of her shields. She barely had time to leap to safety before the shrimp overran her. She heaved against the unfamiliar pressure of both flying and maintaining her telekinesis at once. Bait was still struggling, but he was just trying to right himself now, not escape some invisible attacker.

Okay. She could do thi-OW!

She hadn’t gotten high enough. One of the shrimps had jumped up over its peers and hooked onto her leg. She kicked it off before it could land a proper strike, but it still left a ragged, shallow cut down the back of her left rear leg. She beat her wings with everything she had to get away from the rest of the creatures, barely stopping before she cracked her head on the ceiling. She held Bait up where he was while she concentrated on just getting herself back on solid ground. Once there, she drew Bait in, slowly placing him down a few feet away from her.

The shrimp, meanwhile, scrabbled at the rock wall between them and their prey. Twilight poked her head over the ridge and shot down the one that had made the most progress.

~~~

The shrimp that had been hit righted itself with a flick of one tail. It wasn't injured, though it might be sore later. It flicked its eye-stalks back towards its pack, questioning. It would try the climb again, if they wanted.

After a brief, wordless conference, the group gave their decision. The shrimp acquiesced. They had decided to abandon this pursuit. Fair enough. It was disappointing, but there was no use in getting upset over one escaped meal. There would always be more. Everything had to drink, after all.

It was good to be a shrimp.

~~~

“How’d you do that!?” cried Bait, putting as much ground between Twilight and himself as the walls of the tunnel would let him.

Twilight blinked. He was baring his teeth at her! His claws were spread wide in front of him, his back arched up like a hissing cat’s.

“Bate…” she said quietly. She wasn’t sure were to go from there. He was wide-eyed with crazed anger. “I was just trying to help you. To make sure you were okay.” She reached one hoof to him.

“Stay back!” Bait snarled, cowering against the stone behind him.

No. Not anger. Fear. He’s scared.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sitting down. She kept both hooves on the ground, placating. “You’re right, I should have warned you. But I was scared the shrimp would hurt you, so I picked you up.”

“Why!?”

“…What?”

“Why didn’t you just fly away or something!? Why do…whatever you did there?”

“I…I don’t…I just wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt you, Bate.”

“Why!? They nearly got you! Why would you let them!? What do you want from me!?”

Twilight didn’t know what to say. How did she even answer that? Why would anyone even ask something like that? Actually, the answer to the first was easy.

“Because we’re friends! Because that’s just how we ponies do things, I guess. I don’t really know, Bate. Because…because it seemed like the thing I should do.”

Bait’s lips closed, slowly. His claws pulled back, coming to rest over his shoulders. He didn’t relax, not yet, but it was a start.

“We’re…friends?”

“Of course,” she said with a smile.

Bait’s mouth opened, and closed, and opened again.

“Oh. Um, okay.”

Twilight nodded as if that settled things.

“So, do you know where to go from here? We should probably keep moving, right?” No reason to dwell on a faux pas, after all. Rarity had taught her that.

Bait watched her warily, but it seemed more out of some kind of wonder than fear. Twilight felt certain the kid could use a hug, but he didn’t seem quite ready for that, so she just kept smiling.

“Yeah. Let’s uh, let’s go.

~~~

Bait was turning out to be just like any other curious kid, now that he’d warmed up a bit. Chatty, even. He’d probably get along just fine with Spike and Sweetie Belle and the rest. She kept meaning to ask about his family, but he was so full of questions that she hardly had time to answer, let alone ask more.

“Is everybody in Equestria there like you? Can all the um, ponies, do magic like that? And fly?”

“Kind of. Unicorns can all do at least a little magic, and pegasus can all fly.”

“Which one are you then?”

“Oh, I’m…both, I guess. I’m actually what’s called an alicorn. But I was born a unicorn.”

Bait’s eyes widened. “You can change!? How does that work? And how come everybody isn’t an alicorn, if they can do everything?”

Twilight chuckled self-consciously. She didn’t like to think of herself as an ‘alicorn.’ That made it sound like she’d switched species somehow, and she didn’t feel that different. She was just a bit…more, now. “Well, it doesn’t really work that way. It’s very rare to see somepony become an alicorn. I don’t entirely understand how it happened myself, actually.”

“Oh. Okay. What’s Equestria like? Is there really a giant fireball in the ceiling that lights everything all the time and can rain fire?”

“Er, yes, there is a giant fireball, though I’ve never seen it rain fire. We call it the Sun, and there’s not always a ceiling. The Sun is in the sky, which I guess is kind of like a...non-ceiling? Or a lack of a ceiling. Anyway, Princess Celestia raises it to light everything up, but only about half the time. Have you never been outside these caves, Bate?”

“No. But no ceiling? Creepy…What happens the other half?”

“Oh, the other half is night. It’s when everything is dark, and the Moon comes out. It’s not as bright, but it’s still very pretty.”

Bait hunched up a bit and whispered “Is that when the Nightmare comes out? I heard she eats the souls of anybody she catches, and once she sees you, she can find you anywhere, even in your dreams…” He shivered.

“You mean Nightmare Moon?” asked Twilight, taken aback. “No, Nightmare Moon is gone. She’s just Princess Luna now, and she’s very nice. A little strange, I suppose. But that’s not her fault!” she added quickly. “She was on the moon for a long time.”

“Huh. Really? Cause I always heard…wait. Have you met her!? I thought the Princesses were supposed to be really dangerous.”

“What? No! The Princesses are…”

A brilliant white horn impaling straight through a wolf-thing. An explosion blowing it apart, spattering gore everywhere.

Twilight shook the memory away. “Th-the nicest ponies you’ll ever meet. Princess Celestia is actually who I came here with. She's beautiful, and graceful, and pretty much the best pony there is. I’m sure she’ll be happy to meet you.”

Bait stopped dead, staring open-mouthed at Twilight.

“She’s here!? In Tartarus?”

“Um, yes?” It occurred belatedly to Twilight that she maybe shouldn’t just be telling ponies about that. Celestia seemed to have something of a reputation down here.

Bait’s eyes twitched about, his jaw working as if in furious thought.

“And she’s nice? And Equestria is nice too? Not like Tartarus?”

Twilight answered slowly, uncertain as to where this was going.

“Yes? She’s always been good to me, and everypony I’ve ever known. And Equestria’s really not like Tartarus at all. It’s, I’m not sure how to say it. Well, it’s certainly friendlier, for one, and fewer things try to eat you. Ponies help each other. Here it kind of seems like everyone is on their own. But it’s different in Equestria.”

Bait asked his next question with great caution, watching Twilight very carefully.

“So, um, if I asked to go th—”

A staccato clacking sounded from somewhere down the tunnel. Bait twitched and was gone before Twilight could even blink.

“What was that?” Twilight whispered, dimming her light.

He didn’t answer for a bit. Twilight looked behind her, and the kid blended into the wall so well that it actually took her a second to find him. He put a finger up to his lips and hunkered down. Twilight did the same, staying still and silent.

They stayed that way for a minute, maybe two. Twilight jumped when she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was just Bait, of course. How could be so quiet? He gestured her to follow as he led the way down a side tunnel. Twilight tried to be as silent as he was, but couldn't quite keep a little clop from echoing down the tunnel with each step.

The sound from before came again. It was closer this time. Or was it? She couldn’t tell. Her ears twitched both ways, but to no avail. Bait stopped in front of her. It was another long moment before he spoke.

“Um. It’s…” Twilight couldn’t see his face, but Bait's next words sounded agonized. “This way.” He directed her away from the side tunnel they’d been working toward and back into the main.

“Are you sure?” hissed Twilight. He'd sounded upset. Was he scared? Well, there was certainly plenty around here to be scared of…

Bait stopped in front of her. He lowered his head, tucking his tail in even more than usual. “Yeah.” The words came out tight. “This way.”

“Okay. Lead the way.”

~~~

They walked on for another half-hour or so in strained silence. Twilight tried to get Bait talking again, but something had changed. He kept shrugging off her inquiries with simple, monosyllabic answers. After a while, she could take no more. Twilight sidled up next to him.

“Bate?” she said, placing a hoof softly on his side. He twitched away from her touch. “Is everything okay?”

He hopped a few steps away before he answered, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It’s fine. Let’s just go.” He looked haunted…

Twilight hesitated, but eventually picked up and followed him. They were approaching an unusually well-lit opening in the rock.

“Alright. If you’re sure.”

Bait said nothing. Not until they crossed the threshold, anyway.

“I’m sorry!” he whispered. And then he ran, head down, straight into the cave. “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry!

“Bate?” Twilight lost him as he hopped over a stone and disappeared. She was just starting out after him when something stepped out to confront her.

It was another wight, larger than Bait. Male, about her own age. An adult then. He was bigger, and perhaps better fed, but still thin, still significantly smaller than Twilight herself. She didn't notice that at first though. Her attention was focused mostly on the teeth.

He grinned with hungry, serrated smile at her.

“Um…” said Twilight, backing away.

Another wight rose up from the ground beside her. He hadn’t even been hiding, just using his natural camouflage to look like another rock. Twilight heard a rustling behind her. She turned to see two more wights, both female, stepping between her and the tunnel she’d just left. They, too, watched her with that ravenous gleam in their eyes.

Twilight shimmied sideways, simple instinct pushing her to try and get them all into her field of view. More were popping up from all over. Every natural impulse demanded that she flee, that she run and find a herd of fifty or so of her better friends and bury herself among them, but Twilight clamped down hard on her rising fear.

“Why hello there, sweetheart!” It was the first wight, the one that had stepped out right in front of her.

“Uh, h-” Twilight tried to swallow, told herself to breathe. "Hello." It was as much as she couldmanage. This place smelled like a monster’s den, all musk and bone and dried blood.

The wight sauntered to a stop.

“What’s that,?” he asked, putting one hoof/claw behind his ear, angling it toward her.

“Oh, uh, I said hello,” replied Twilight, rallying. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. I’m sorry to intrude, but-“

“Twilight Sparkle?” interrupted the wight. “Now there’s a name, eh?” He looked around at the other wights. They all chuckled, though there had been no joke. “Well, they call me Switch. Welcome to my humble abode.” He gestured grandly with one arm. “Please, make yourself at home, honey.”

“Um, thank you, but I was just passing through, actually. I-“

“What’s that? Just passing through? Well, we can’t be having that, can we? Come ‘ere now, let us have a look at you,” said Switch, swaggering toward her. “Let us show you a bit of the Family’s famous hospitality, eh?”

Twilight backed away from his approach, jumping as her tail brushed against something. She whipped her head back to see another wight leering at her. She quickly hopped to change course, again, trying to keep all the wights in front of her. Where did they all come from!?

“Oh, uh, I appreciate it, but no, thank you. Um, Bate?”

Switch stopped dead in front of her. Then he threw back his head and laughed.

Twilight stared, finally, unwillingly realizing. No.

Switch stumbled, he was laughing so hard. “You think he’s going to help you? How have you even lived this long? I just—" He had another good laugh at her. The rest of his 'family' joined in.

NO! He couldn’t have!

As Twilight backed further, she finally let herself put the pieces together. It appeared that wights did have descriptive names after all. Not Bate, but Bait. Bait and Switch. Augh! It was so obvious now! But, he couldn't! The kid she'd met and saved wouldn't... No! It has to be something else!

“Actually, you’re right,” gloated Switch. “Come on out here, Bait! This is your big day, runt! You brought us a good one this time.”

A cold silence hung.

“Ah, well, you’ll have to excuse him,” said Switch, turning back to leer at her. “He’s a shy boy. Happens when you’re the runt. Anyway, where were we?” He put one finger to his chin, as if actually pondering. “Ah yes. Hospitality.”

She didn’t back away this time. Something strange was happening inside her…

“Seems a shame to just eat her, don’t it Switch?” The one Twilight's tail had just brushed against was speaking.

“Hm?”

“It’s just she’s real pretty, is all.”

…all the horrible feelings in Twilight were coming to together. All the fear, the anger, the vicious indignation of betrayal, were roiling inside her. They were mixing into something volatile. Something dangerous...

“Ugh. Shut your fucking mouth, Creeper.” That came from one of the mares who had blocked Twilight’s exit.

"I'm just sayin'."

“Aw, come on now, buddy,” said Switch. “You know we’d never hold a lady against her will like that.” He smirked at Twilight, giving her the most pointlessly obnoxious smirk she’d ever seen. “We’re civilized.”

…and it started to spill over. It broke something in Twilight. Or maybe it finally put it together. Maybe this had always been there. She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. But Dust Up's words came back, in sudden, deadly focus.

If they wanna talk, let ‘em. And then...

“So!” she exclaimed. The stalking wights actually stopped, ears perking up to listen. “I think there has clearly been some miscommunication here! You see, I am Princess Celestia’s personal student, and—“

“Hah!” cackled Switch. “As if she even—"

Hit ‘em.

Hard.

…and she fired all of that wrath through her horn and straight into his smug, stupid face.

Switch didn’t even have time to cry out before it hit him. His head just snapped back and he flopped deadweight to the ground. A moment of sublime terror flew through Twilight as she realized she might have just killed him.

“The bitch is a wyrd! Take her down!”

Twilight didn’t know who said it, but it snapped her out of her reverie and, ironically, saved her life. She *blinked* out, popping back into the world in the middle of the room. The wights stared blankly at where she had been.

“I thought wyrds only had one power!” said one. Right. They didn't know about unicorns. Good.

“Who cares!” said another. It was the mare who had chastised Creeper. “There! Just kill her!”

Twilight probably could have run. She certainly should have run. But she lowered her horn and charged. The one called Creeper leapt at her, spreading claws and teeth wide. He bounced off Twilight’s bullet-shaped shield as she threw herself into him.

A couple of hundred pounds of pony…

She felt his breath as she knocked it out of him, slamming herself into his chest. She skidded to a halt, throwing him to the ground as a feeling of nasty satisfaction surged through her. She reared to face one of the mares that was already closing on her. Twilight flailed her hooves to back the creature off, then leveled her horn and fired a bolt of pure fury at the wight in front of her. She didn’t know if it hit. Another monster was already on her. Too late, Twilight *blinked* out again. She felt something hit her somewhere between neck and chest, but by the time she’d returned it was over, and she had other problems. She was charging half-blind at a second mare when she felt something yank her straight back. A quick look showed that a wight had buried its teeth in her tail hair. Tragically for him, this put his head into perfect kicking range. Twilight obliged, landing one hoof full on the bridge of his muzzle. She felt blood spatter her rump. She would remember that feeling for the rest of her life, but for now she ignored it and threw up the flimsiest excuse for a shield she ever had, hoping it would stop the razor-toothed mare that lunged at her. Her attacker broke her face against that plum-colored barrier, and Twilight snapped both wings into the creature’s head in open imitation of Celestia.

Both hit home and it hurt. It hurt! Twilight cried out, certain she’d just broken both her wrists. She felt something land on top of her, felt a sharp pain in one ear, and she *blinked* again. She popped back in somewhere else, with no idea where she might be now.

“Fucking dammit! Just kill her already!”

Twilight didn’t see the speaker, but she threw herself toward the sound. The talker swung a clawed hand at her, but she wasn’t there. She’d *poofed* to one side, and her attacker had just enough time to look at her, wide-eyed, as she landed a brutal double-rear kick into his midsection. Twilight felt things crack as he crumpled to the ground. She staggered forward from the force of her own strike, hoping it was him who had broken and not her. Not that she had time for hope. Another wight was already lashing out at her. She managed to bat its talons aside with a wing, earning only a few minor cuts, and land a lucky hoof up under his jaw. His mouth spurted blood with a hollow clack and something flew past Twilight’s head. It might have been his tongue.

Twilight heaved for breath as he fell away. How long had she been fighting? It felt like she was dyin—Move!

Out of one eye, she saw another wight leaping for her. Seized by a moment of vicious inspiration, she flipped the creature’s personal gravity field, slinging him straight up to crash into the ceiling. Then she let him go, and he fell another fifteen feet down onto the floor. His legs flailed helplessly, and he landed with a sick crunch both times.

Looking up, glancing desperately around, Twilight saw…nothing. Nopony coming for her. She stumbled a few steps forward. That last trick had really taken it out of her. Casting spells in rapid succession got tiring real quick, especially when used on the fly like that. But was she done? Had she won?

Two bony hands grabbed her as a leaden weight slammed down on her back. One hand dug into Twilight’s neck, the other grabbed her chin and pulled it back, exposing her neck. In a panic, Twilight gripped where she thought her attacker's head might be in the hardest magical field she could muster. She couldn’t do what Celestia did, she couldn’t just toss the creature across the room, but she could still make it regret getting so close to her.

Twilight slammed the wight’s head straight down into the stony floor. She tried not be sick at the sound it made.

It wasn’t her fault.

It wasn’t.

An in-equine roar shook the caves behind her. Twilight shrugged the wight off her back and wobbled up to face it. How could there still be more!? She was so tired...

Twilight looked up and beheld a centaur, barreling straight toward her. A centaur! Where had it been this whole time!? Academically, this was amazing. She hadn’t even known such creatures actually lived! But in practical terms…well, now she had to fight one…

Twilight summoned up an even sorrier shield than before and tumbled forward to meet it.

The creature was huge, taller than Celestia. It had the body of an over-sized pony with a second, much stranger body sprouting up from where its neck should be. It had arms bizarrely close to its head, and hands like the ones the wights had, but less bony, covered in wiry flesh. They held an axe. It was a simple thing, just wood and stone, but no less deadly for its primitive construction. Its head was completely foreign to anything Twilight had ever known. It was vaguely apelike, she supposed, but even then, she’d never seen anything like it, with its weird, shortened muzzle and tiny eyes and silly-looking, round ears.

She wished, so very hard, that she had met this creature under better circumstances. Alas…

The centaur swung its weapon as Twilight rushed it. She should have dodged, or *blinked*, or done something clever, but she just watched as the axe broke against her barrier, and her barrier broke against its blade. Twilight and the centaur slammed into each other. Twilight hit horn first, at least. The centaur was less fortunate.

They both staggered at the impact. Twilight’s horn wasn’t a weapon, not long and sharp and deadly like Celestia’s, but a headbutt from a unicorn was no joke. The centaur still had a over a hundred pounds on her though, and Twilight stumbled back, reeling. The centaur clutched his belly (Was that a belly? Did he have two?) and groaned. Trying to think of what to do now, Twilight started talking.

“O-Okay. Why don’t we—“

She had thought that this might make a good time to negotiate. The centaur disagreed. He lurched forward, wrapping one huge hand around her neck while the other latched onto a wing. He yanked her close and tightened his grip.

Twilight tried to gasp, tried to breathe, tried to get some tiny sip of air, but nothing would come. She felt a tearing pain in her wing-shoulder as the centaur struggled to wrench her apart. She flailed her legs, but the thing was too close! Her hooves batted up against hard flesh and other hooves, accomplishing nothing. She jerked back, and went nowhere. She swung her wings and a shock of pain ran down her back, her free wing doing nothing more than fanning the monster that was killing her.

This was it, wasn't it? This thing would kill her, and then they would eat her and no one would ever even know. She almost welcomed it at this point. There just wasn’t any fight left.

Sparkling lights crept across her vision. The backs of her eyes itched. She was going to die down here...

And then it came. Furious rage? Prideful indignation? Simple worry for how her death might affect others? It didn’t matter.

No.

NO!

Bait had betrayed her and she would have justice for that!

Celestia was still out there, and Twilight wouldn’t leave her alone!

Would Applejack just give up? Never! Would Rainbow Dash quit just because she was tired!? Not a chance! Even now, even in her loneliest moment, her friends were there, forever inspiring, always protecting! She would never abandon them! Not like this, not today! Not for these monsters!

Twilight threw herself back into reality, where everything was pain and misery. She was dying, her senses giving way one by one, but her magic was still there for her. She reached out, desperately seeking something, anything she could use.

She tried to grab the centaur, but her power kept slipping past it. She couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t manage to pull together a shield or a teleport, but there had to be something! She seized on a hard surface. It was a little thing, and fragile. Twilight was surprised it had made it this far, but it would work.

Twilight gripped the canteen she’d found and popped it free of the strap around her neck, smashing it into the centaur’s face. It shattered into shards, but she still held the top. She felt the creature’s grip go slack, and when it tightened again, she dug the sharp and jagged remains of her little jug into whatever presented itself. The centaur dropped her and staggered away, waving its hands like a lunatic against a weapon that was, at this point, mostly buried in its face.

Twilight sucked in sweet, sweet air, barely awake but viciously determined, and reared back, flailing her hooves at her foe. She felt them hit something hard, felt the pain course up her arms, but she kept fighting. She didn’t know she was screaming, and it didn’t matter. She stomped. Again, she felt something break beneath her, felt something spatter her chest and face, but she kept going.

She stomped again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And she didn’t stop until, sobbing for air and utterly spent, she felt nothing more move under her hooves. Then, and only then, did she finally back away. She stumbled off the centaur. It inched away from her, sputtering.

Still alive…

I have to kill him, she realized. I have to! If I don’t… she staggered bonelessly away. He’ll come for me. They all will. They’ll wait till I’m asleep! They’ll trick me into trusting them again.

They’re monsters! I have to! She grabbed an appropriately heavy stone in what was left of her magic. She turned back to the centaur.

It’s not my fault! I tried! I have to kill them!

I have to…

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

Faith

View Online

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

I should have killed them.

I’m so stupid!

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

~~~

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



…let it clatter to the ground.

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

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

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

Had she really done all that?

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

“Just leave me alone.”

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

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

Good.

She turned back to face the centaur again.

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

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

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

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

Why had she done that?

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Two of you? Really?"

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

I hate this place.

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

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”

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

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

“Ben?”

The star spider gave a florid little bow.

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

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

Relief gave way to suspicion.

“You are Ben, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, okay, that’s gotta be you.”

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

“Stop!”

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

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

Ben hunkered down to the ground apologetically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s a trap. You know it is.

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

Well...

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” she grumbled. “Let’s go.”

~~~

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

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

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

There was something out there!

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

A saddlebag.

What?

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

Twilight knew that voice.

“Bait?”

There was silence for a bit.

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

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

“What!? No! I’d never-“

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

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

“No! I didn’t, I mean, I, I-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would I do that?”

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

Twilight sat down, slowly.

“What do you mean by that?”

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

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

When Twilight finally spoke, all that came out was…

“Oh.”

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

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

He made an angry little snort.

“Family’s gotta eat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your family?”

~~~

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

“Get up.”

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

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

“Get up, dammit! Bait’s gone!”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

Switch finally looked up. The whole family was here.

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

A wide array of snarls and grumbles answered his statement.

Oh. Oh fuck.

“She got away,” he said.

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

Oh, Hell no.

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you Creeper! I’ll tear y-“

Switch never finished that last sentence.

~~~

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

Twilight sat there, silent.

Okay.

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

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

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

Skies above, what was she supposed to do!?

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

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

“Okay.”

Silence reigned for a long moment.

“Okay?” asked Bait.

“Yeah. Okay. You can come with me.”

Bait stared at her in open mouthed surprise.

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

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

I hate this place, she thought again.

Feast

View Online

Bait pulled out a few big chunks of something that smelled terrible.

“So, this is shrimp meat, actually. We caught a few of them on their own a while back. It’s a bit old, but it keeps forever, so I’m pretty sure it’s still good.” He gave one lump a sniff, and the face he made gave Twilight some doubts about that.

“Um, no thanks.”

“Really? It’s really good. And I promise it’s not poisoned.”

“Oh, uh, I believe you,” said Twilight, feeling guilty now for even having made the accusation. “It’s just that ponies don’t eat meat.”

“None? Seriously!? How do you live? Well, okay, um, I’ve got some ragworm jerky—"

Twilight could think of few things that she wanted to eat less than whatever that was.

“—but I guess you won’t want that. Ah! Here we go!” He beamed up at Twilight. She examined the package he held in one claw-hoof.

“Maggot cheese!” he said, avidly unwrapping a big block of the stuff. “Ponies eat cheese, right?”

Twilight revised the list of things she wanted to eat less than ragworm jerky.

“It’s all yours! Be careful though, cause sometimes the maggots—"

Twilight recoiled as something small and white bounced off her muzzle.

“—Jump.” Bait smiled sheepishly. “Sorry about that. It’s good stuff though.” He watched Twilight expectantly. She looked at the soft, half-melted cheese. She watched the writhing critters within it, and the viscous fluid that seeped from a few holes in it. She tried to reconcile how disgusting all that was with how delicious it smelled. She failed.

“Nnnnnope!” she stated. Bait looked disappointed. “You can have it though. Ben? Want to share some cheese with Bait?”

Ben seemed suspicious, but he did give the cheese a poke.

“Really? Are you sure? How’d you get so big when you’re such a picky eater? Okay, um, how about this?” He re-wrapped the cheese and picked up something else. “Nut apple!” His smile said he was certain this one would work. And also that he was blissfully unaware that he’d essentially just called Twilight fat. What he held was a lumpy, green, thick-skinned fruit of some kind. Twilight grabbed it immediately.

“This is really a fruit, right? There’s no super-gross *chomp* trick to it?” It tasted like a combination of a cashew and an apple, and right now, it might have been the most delicious thing Twilight had ever eaten. She devoured the whole thing, rind, fruit, core and stem.

“Oh sure. There are a few roots around that I find these on sometimes. And here’s some shrieker caps,” he said, pointing out several large wedges of pocked fungus. Twilight stuffed one in her mouth. It was bland, but inoffensive. “And here’s, um, does that hurt? You keep rubbing at it.”

Twilight stopped, pulling her wing away from the wound on her neck. She hadn’t even known she was scratching it.

“Oh, well, it itches more than it hurts. It’s been driving me crazy, but there’s not really anything I can do about it.” The cut was awkwardly placed, hard to reach with a hoof, and only slightly less so with a wing. She couldn’t even get her head close to enough to lick it “clean.”

“Here,” said Bait, shuffling forward. “Lemme see.”

Twilight backed away a little faster than she meant to. Bait looked up at her. “I…sorry.” He stopped, looking a bit hurt.

“No! Sorry! I mean, um, here.” Twilight leaned forward and raised her chin, exposing the wound (and her neck. Her quite vulnerable neck…) to him. “Go ahead.” She had a small, quick shield spell set up before she thought to stop herself. She felt bad about it, but…

Bait hesitantly leaned back in, not meeting her eyes. He squinted at the wound.

“Can I, um…” He reached forward with one hand.

Ah. He wants to touch it. “Go ahead,” she said.

Bait gingerly probed the area with sharp fingers. “Okay. Um, does this hurt?” he asked, giving the wound a brief squeeze.

“Ow! Yes.”

“Hm. Well, it’s kind of red and swollen, and some stuff came out when I squeezed it. Hang on a second."

Twilight’s heart sank. If pus was coming out, it was definitely infected.

“Hah!” Declared Bait, whipping back around and presenting her with a tiny bag full of something. “Here! Chew some of this. It tastes nasty, so don’t swallow any of the juice. Just spit it out and give it to me after you chew it a bit.”

Twilight took the packet, opening it dubiously. She wasn’t familiar with the thick, vaguely rubbery material it was made of. Her efforts revealed a small pile of what looked like dried herbs. “And what is this?”

“It’s that glowing moss you see everywhere. It’s good for cuts and stuff.”

“Hmm. Alright.” Twilight did as she was told. Bait was right about one thing. The stuff was gross. Bitter beyond all propriety. Lacking anywhere better, she spit the juice out on the cave floor, but wasn’t quite sure what to do after she’d mashed the stuff into a little ball. Bait watched her intently he whole time.

“Just put it on the tip of your tongue and stick it out.”

Twilight did so.

“Here we go," said Bait, plucking it off her tongue. Without further ado, he spread the stuff over Twilight’s cut. Just put it right on in there. He worked at it a bit, making sure it really got in there. Into her open wound. It was extremely concerning. “That’s gonna burn some, but it should be okay now. Anywhere else?”

Bait was right about that, too. It burned like the dickens. Like every single dicken.

“Uh, yeah. Here,” said Twilight, pointing out another of her larger injuries. “And here. Where did you learn herbalism, Bait?”

“Hm? I dunno,” he answered without looking up. “Everybody knows this stuff. I just saw one of my…one of the other wights do it, I guess.”

Guessing that the colt didn’t want to think about what he’d left behind any more than he had too, Twilight changed the subject back to food. And besides, she was still ravenously hungry.

“Right then. What else did you bring?” Bait finished up with her wounds and leapt back into showing off everything else he had to offer. Twilight scarfed down anything that didn’t sound too vile, and it wasn’t long before her eyes started drooping again. Halfway through a hunk of something called grit-bread (it tasted about as good as it sounded), she was overtaken by a truly massive yawn.

“Twilight?”

“I’m,” she muttered, pausing for another bite and a follow-up yawn. “Fine. Just need to…to rest my eyes. A bit.” Her head was already making its way to the ground. Twilight let it go. She just couldn't hold it back any longer.

This was it then. She'd either wake up in a few hours, or...

~~~

Twilight was running, but not from any one thing. From everything. Monsters and creatures fitting and defying every description loped and wriggled and raced after her. The landscape itself rose up in pursuit. Things snarled and snapped at her hooves, but as she looked back, she realized they weren’t really chasing her. They were running too. They lashed out at her in fear and spite, desperate to prove to themselves that they had some kind of power, and she just happened to be in their way. Because far behind her, something worse was rising. It crested the horizon, painting everything in bloody red light. The monsters around her began to burn, and as the nightmare star drew ever higher, blazing bright into orange and yellow and white, Twilight looked down to see herself igniting as well. She shielding herself behind smoking wings, the last survivor of this apocalypse. She turned to behold the living extinction behind her and saw smoldering eyes, a gleaming perfect crown, wings aflame with every color of the Sun. She screamed and…

“Snrk!”

Twilight jerked awake from the nightmare. It faded quickly, as dreams do, but she remembered enough. She shivered, refusing to think about what that dream meant. She rolled up onto her stomach, and…

“Uuuuuuurrrrrrgh!”

Well, she must still be alive, because everything hurt. The pain was less sharp than before, but certainly no less present. Twilight’s muscles creaked in protest at her movements, and her various wounds made their complaints. She winced as she reflexively tried to stretch her wings. They did not appreciate the attempt.

“Um, Twilight?” Bait hopped up, so eager to help that it spilled over into nervous energy.

“Eurg. Yeah. Just sore. And-“ her stomach gurgled insistently. “Quiet you,” she admonished it. “I don’t suppose we have anything left for breakfast?”

“Sure!” Bait practically dove into the saddlebag, pulling its contents out and spreading them across the floor of the cave into a bizarre little banquet.

“Um, you liked these, right?” he asked, sorting out a few bits.

She looked at it all, trying to remember what any of it was. Her thoughts were still slightly fuzzy. Then the smells hit. The indescribably complex, sometimes delightful, occasionally nauseating, but always unique smells.

Ah, yes. It was all coming back.

And here she was, awake and alive. And now Bait was holding another nut-apple up to her. Twilight smiled.

“Yes! Thank you.” She devoured it with relish. “I don’t suppose you brought any water?”

“Sure did!” Bait thrust forth a bulb of the same unknown material from before. It sloshed with liquid. Twilight downed as much as she could handle, then passed it back with a contented sigh. He stuffed it back into his pack, which he must have snuck back on while she wasn’t looking.

“Ready to go?” he asked. He looked so cheerful and eager, practically glowing with the simple joy of being alive and helpful. Was this really the same colt from before?

“Sure,” replied Twilight. “Hey, um, what is that? That stuff your pack and the canteen is made of?“

“This?” asked Bait, turning to display his pack more prominently. “It’s leather."

Twilight wasn't familiar with the term, but before she could ask, a muffled scream sounded from behind her.

Twilight and Bait both turned to face Ben. He appeared to be chewing on a bit of ragworm jerky.

“Oh! Hi, Ben. Ready to go then?”

Ben scampered forward, still munching away. Twilight grinned, lowering her uninjured wing so he could climb aboard.

“Alright then. Where to?”

Ben scampered up to the top of her head and pointed down a tunnel. And so, the wight and the pony and the spider set off. Twilight completely forgot to ask her questions on the nature of this 'leather' stuff, but that was probably for the best.

~~~

It was a matter of maybe another hour before Twilight saw what she didn’t even know she had been desperately hoping for: light! Wonderful, simple, white light! She jumped into a canter as soon as she rounded the tunnel and saw it. She’d nearly gotten used to the inexplicable sounds, the fungal glow, the little tremors and shakes of the tunnels (they’d become far more common lately), but now that she was nearly free of it all, she just couldn’t stand it anymore!

Bait, however, had stopped as soon as he saw the exit.

“Twilight?”

“We’re almost out, Bait! Come on!” she called, almost laughing with the sheer joy of finally being under a sky again. Even if it was the wrong sky.

“What’s out there?” The little wight’s voice trembled, barely audible.

Twilight turned back. “Bait?”

“Why is the light like that? It’s so bright…”

Twilight tilted her head as some of the things Bait had said came back to her. Her elation faded as she was suddenly reminded of where exactly she was. He'd lived his whole life down here. He had never seen the sky. This must be pretty scary for him. “It’s okay Bait. That’s just how it looks outside. Here, I’ll go first and make sure it’s safe."

“ ‘kay,” he murmured.

Ben hopped off Twilight’s back. He looked up at her. If there’s going to be a trap, it’s going to be here, he seemed to say. She should have though of that. Things like that were why it was important to have friends around. She gave him a little nod. Twilight trotted forward, keeping a shield ready as she ran a thin field of telekinesis out all around her. It was tricky to maintain, but incredibly useful for finding anything out of the ordinary. Kind of like running a hoof over everything around you all at once, but at a distance. All she felt was cool, hard stone and dry dust. She stopped a ways in front of the entrance, smelling the air, watching. Waiting.

Nothing came. The air was clean and blessedly fresh. She stepped outside, and nothing jumped out at her. Nothing tripped her scanning spell except Ben’s light, many-legged steps. She looked around. A light breeze blew through the open field of gold-and-green grass and white flowers. The Fields of Asphodel. She was back in the Fields. Good. Great! She knew where she was, sort of. And there! The road!

She turned back to Bait.

“It looks good. You can come out.” She kept an ear cocked to either side, twitchy despite her words. This was the part in the book where something always attacked. Something that had somehow slipped by every spell, every defense, just when everypony thought it was safe...

Twilight kept her vigil, and somehow, nothing interrupted it.

Bait crept forward. It took him a long time to reach the exit, and when he got there, he sort of stalled out. Head down, he stared out of the cave.

“Where’s the ceiling?” he whispered. “And the walls? How can there just be nothing? What holds it up?”

“It’s just air, Bait. Open space. It doesn’t need anything to hold it up.” She smiled invitingly. “It’s okay. Nothing to be afraid of.” She knew there was plenty to be afraid of, because Tartarus, but still. And it felt so good to be out in the open. She flexed her wings, painfully. “What do you think, Ben?”

He gave a happy little hop.

“See? There you go.”

Bait gradually slunk outside. He made it about five feet before the breeze blew again. His eyes went wide and he shot back under the protective stone. “What was that!?” he hissed.

“That’s just wind, Bait. It’s like...when air moves around? We call that wind. It happens outside.”

“Why does it move around?” hissed Bait from the dark of the cave. And it was dark. Twilight was already having trouble seeing him, and he was barely a few feet away. Oh, right. She remembered now. The Fields obscured vision somehow.

“Well,” began Twilight, organizing a quick lecture about particle motion and thermal gradations and low/high pressure zones. Then it occurred to her that Tartarus might not actually have any of those things. It hadn’t even had wind last time she was out here. It hadn't yet occurred to her that the change might be significant. ”It’s complicated. But it won’t hurt you.” She raised a wing in invitation.

After another few moments hesitation, Bait finally tip-toed out of the cave. He stood there, blinking under the wide open, empty sky, with no walls to surround him, and no shadows to hide him, for the very first time. He shivered.

“I don’t like it here.”

Twilight made a rueful chuckle.

“Me neither. So let’s focus on getting to Equestria, okay?”

Bait nodded, gazing off into the distance. He shook himself and scampered close to Twilight. He jumped when she touched him with a wing, so she let him have some space. But she kept the offer open. And so they walked, not quite close enough to touch, into the light.

~~~

They didn’t make it five minutes before the ambush hit. It came, Twilight later reflected, just when she had thought it was safe.

She might not have survived the first rush of creatures if not for Bait. The things had leapt out from the tall, pale grass surrounding the road, and he had been the only one to hear them coming. His warning gave Twilight just enough time to throw together a quick shield. It wasn’t enough to cover Bait, but he had dodged aside as more of the little monsters jumped at him. Twilight shot the one nearest him though her barrier. She tried to wrap another shield around him, but he was too quick to get a fix on, hopping away from one creature after another as they herded him away from her.

“Hang on, Bait!” she cried, shoving past the two or three creatures between them. They slipped aside as she thundered through, unwilling to be trampled by her much-superior size. That didn’t stop them from chasing, though.

They were small, not even as tall as Bait, and they looked a bit like some kind of bipedal lizard, except for their heads. Though it was hard to even describe that eyeless ring of teeth at the end of their neck as a head. The things were like a lamprey mixed with a small, predatory dinosaur. Hands and feet both had nasty looking claws, but, as Twilight was soon discovered, these were not their only weapons.

Four of them had Bait surrounded. He was holding them off for now, teeth flashing and eyes wide with desperate fury, but it couldn’t last. Twilight crashed straight through the circle, shooting one down as it snuck in behind him. It was utterly silent as it bounced off the dirt.

“C’mere, Bait! Get in the bubble with me!”

He didn’t hesitate, leaping straight over the downed lizard to meet her. She barely switched up the shield in time to let him in.

“Okay, just stay near me. I’m gonna-“

A violent, wet coughing interrupted her, and Twilight turned to see one of the creatures hack up a glob of black mucus onto her shield. She blinked at the viscous mass.

Ugh. Well, it was gross, but it didn't matter. Her shield would...

The stuff began to sizzle against her barrier, and Twilight was dismayed to find herself staring at the spitter through a rapidly growing hole in her spell!

“Are you kidding me!?” she yelled in outrage. “That shouldn’t even be possible!” It was unclear whether the creature appreciated her umbrage, because she blasted it with another bolt of magic as she charged. She managed to slap another one down with a wing as it leapt at her. She whipped around to face the rest.

“Just stay behind me, B—"

A ball of grey and brown hide rolled past her as Bait tackled one of the lampreys, hissing like a cat.

“Alright then…” She grabbed the thing with her magic before Bait got hurt and swung it in a wide circle at another creature that was bearing down on them.

They’re just animals, she told herself, firing another bolt. They attacked us. And besides, a few bruises won’t kill them.

Two more ran in on her from the front, and she could hear movement behind. She latched onto one and slammed it into the other, throwing the former into the grass for good measure. It was easy. They were so light that it barely took effort. Twilight almost laughed as she watched the creature fly. Even with their numbers and their stupid, spell-breaking spit, this would be over quick.

Wait…

Am...

Am I enjoying this?

Twilight’s sudden queasiness very nearly cost her. While she’d been roughing up the ones in front, the rest of the lampreys had circled through the grass and were now closing in from all sides. A familiar scream sounded somewhere to Twilight’s left and she turned to see two lampreys stagger away from it in surprise. The distraction was welcome.

Twilight used the same trick from before, grabbing one and throwing it at its pack-mate. She caught a little green-and-black blur as Ben leapt onto another. A lizard-thing whirled around to face the attack, only to stumble around, as if dizzy or drunk, as Ben clambered over it. It took two steps more, then flopped deadweight to the ground. Ben hopped off and scurried out into the grass. Twilight wasn’t sure what had happened there, but Ben had given her an idea. These things were animals, and animals were easily spooked.

She charged up a big, unnecessarily bright, obnoxiously loud spell. She’d learned it from watching Trixie.

“Cover your ears, Bait! I’m gonna scare them o—“ She scanned around as she talked, turning just in time to see Bait hunching over a fallen and struggling lamprey. He held its head in one hand, stretching its neck out long neck. He sank his teeth into it, ripping his own head back as he summarily tore out the creature's throat.

Twilight gasped and fumbled backward, her spell firing off wild. The concussive, actinic blast went off somewhere behind her. It should have been blinding, but it only served to display the scene before her in stark, clear contrast. The corpse Bait currently straddled wasn’t the only one.

Bait shook his head, blinking for a few long moments before he finally cleared his vision and looked at her. His face froze, and Twilight just sat there, staring. She didn’t even notice the rest of the lampreys as they scattered away.

This isn’t surprising. The words rolled through her head, courtesy of the logical part of her brain. That seemed to be the only one that was functional right now. I mean, I know where he came from.

Bait licked blood off his lips, nervous. “Um. Twilight?”

But he was supposed to be different! That must be the emotional part.

That isn’t fair. And stop gaping at him like that! The logic center again. It was right, of course. It wasn’t fair of her to expect…whatever it was she had expected. And she needed to do something. Anything.

“I-I’m sorry. I don’t—“ Twilight felt a little tap on one leg. She looked down to see Ben, gazing up at her. For once, she couldn’t guess what he was trying to tell her. “Right.” She let him climb up onto her back. “Why don’t we just get going?” Twilight shoved her hooves forward and started walking.

Nice save, genius.

“O-okay. But um, are we just going to leave them here?” asked Bait.

Twilight stopped, looking anywhere but at the bodies behind her.

“I don’t think we have time to bury them, Bait. It’s a, uh, a nice thought though.” Honestly, it probably wouldn’t take long at all. But she couldn’t deal with this right now. It was nice of him to think of it though.

“Bury? No, I mean, um, it’d be a waste to just leave them here. Cause they’re good for, um. It's just...” He hesitated a long time before muttering the last word. "We could use the meat.”

Twilight didn’t even look back. She just couldn’t right now. She shut her eyes and kept on walking.

Possessions

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The mood after that was, to put it politely, somewhat strained. Bait’s eyes set themselves firmly on the road most of the time, but he kept looking up at Twilight, eager, maybe ashamed. Hoping for something. She saw it. She knew. She just didn’t know what to say. She kept thinking back to those last few moments. Had she really been enjoying herself back there? Had Bait, when he’d killed those creatures? Had Ben done it too? He must have bitten the creature, right? Was the friendly little spider on her back really a venomous killer? She just couldn’t seem to put it all together. Nothing made sense.

And that was ridiculous, because they’d only done what they had to do. Even Celestia, the most loving and kind pony Twilight had ever known, even she had...had killed. Twilight was pretty sure she’d seen her smile. Maybe that was just the way things were here. Maybe she was just naïve. Maybe it was time she sucked it up and talked to Bait.

“I’m sorry, Bait.”

He didn’t say anything for a while. Just trudged along behind her. Then, finally...

“Did I do something wrong?”

Twilight sighed. “No. At least, I don’t think so. It’s just, I’ve never seen anything…”

Ugh. Come on, girl! You're supposed to be the grown up here!

“I’ve never seen anyone kill something before. Things like this don’t really happen in Equestria, so I kind of freaked out about it, is all.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t mean to get all weird like that, so, I'm sorry. I know you were just trying to help, Bait.”

“Okay.”

“I mean, I didn’t even know there were so many of the lamprey things behind me. One of them could have snuck up on me if not for you. So, really, I should be thanking you.”

There was a moment of silence that went on a little too long for Twilight’s taste. She stopped walking and turned to face him, forcing a smile.

“Hey.”

Bait stopped with her. He looked up, milky eyes quavering.

“Friends?” she asked, putting a hoof forward.

Bait blinked, then managed to put together a smile. He shyly reached a tiny hand out to tap her hoof. “Yeah,” he said. Then with a sort of wonder, as if the concept still wasn't quite real to him, “Friends.”

“Well, alright then.” Twilight’s smile grew into a real one. “Off we go.”

“Now isn’t that sweet. Two lost little ponies having a nice, touching moment. Just precious.”

Twilight froze, eyes going wide, heart pounding as it tried to catch up. How!? How could something have gotten so close!? Couldn't they get a break!? It had't even been ten minutes since the last attack! It took her a long moment to turn herself toward the source of that sibilant voice.

She immediately wished she hadn’t. If not for some of the other things she’d already witnessed in Tartarus, this would be the most hideous being she’d ever laid eyes on.

“And you certainly are lost, aren’t you, wandering around in the open like this? You must be…” The raw, red lips of its equine head split into a leering grin full of ragged, pointed teeth. Its second head finished the sentence with vile relish. “New.”

Take a horse. Take its two eyes and merge them into one single, huge, slit-pupil-ed orb. Sharpen its teeth to an unnatural point. Then flay all the skin from its body. That was what Twilight saw standing before her.

Veins pulsing with black ichor shone through uncovered muscle. Bits of bone and tendon were visible at the joints. It looked at first like there was some other creature riding the skinless horse, something lanky and ape-like, almost like the centaur's body from before. But there was no rider. The second body was growing from the first. Its arms were weirdly long, their spindly fingers brushing the underside of the horse-body's ribs. One held a long, flat-black sword. It dragged the blade along the ground, not even bothering to actually carry the weapon.

Twilight had to fight to keep from vomiting at the mere sight of it. And for all the horror of the beast's appearance, there was one thing that was worse.

Twilight recognized this one.

Nuckelavee.

“I-I, ah, h-hello?” stammered Twilight. She faltered back a step before she could stop herself. She swallowed, shoved her gorge down, and rallied. “I’m sorry! You startled me there. I, um…”

“My, my,” it hissed. The horse head did the talking. “So polite. Not going to retch, little pony? Not going to scream and run away?”

“I think I’m going to like you." It was the second mouth that spoke. That mouth was the second head's only feature. No eyes, no ears, just a hole where its nose should be and a mouth that was far too wide and full of tiny, needle teeth. The head lolled to one side, as if it were too heavy for thin neck holding it up.

“I, um, thank you?” She left a little tug on her tail, and the pitter of spider feet as Ben scampered onto her shoulder.

“Twilight!” hissed Bait. “Twilight, we have to run!”

“And what’s this?” Nuckelavee leaned to one side to peer around Twilight. “A wight? Well, it’s no pony, but..." It wiggled the fingers of one hand, as if in gleeful anticipation. "I suppose I could make do with a wight.” It raised a hoof to step forward.

Twilight flared her wings and set her hooves.

“That’s close enough, thank you!”

Nuckelavee gave a long, wheezing, thoroughly menacing chuckle. Noxious brown vapor seeped from its horse mouth.

“Is it now?”

She snapped her wings forward, blowing the toxic stuff back.

Nuckelavee was a capital M Monster, or so every story she'd ever read about it said. A killer. But it didn’t just murder, it afflicted. The thing was a walking plague. It carried something lethal and contagious, and it would spread that corruption at any opportunity, especially to ponies. The stories didn’t say why it hated them, just alluded to some kind of old, old grudge. It didn’t matter right now.

Nuckelavee stomped its hoof forward. “And what are you going to do if I come closer anyway, little pony? You practically invited me here after all, with that little light show you put on.”

Twilight’s stomach dropped. The flare! If she had the time, she would’ve face-hoofed. She’d told every monster in Tartarus exactly where she was with that little stunt! But she didn’t have time, so she fired instead.

The blast hit Nuckelavee square in the teeth. Twilight was already wrapping herself and her companions in a quick blink spell as it roared in rage.

“I’m gonna tea-“

Twilight popped out of place, and then back in a good distance away.

“-ou apart, you little maggot!” Nuckalvee swung his sword wildly through the space she and Bait just left. It tore at the ground with the blade when it saw she was gone, flailing in lunatic rage. “I’ll strip your little friend’s skin off piece by piece while you watch!”

She should run. Some part of Twilight knew this. She didn’t know how powerful Nuckelavee was, and she had Bait to protect, and Ben too. Nuckelavee didn’t seem to have any magic, so she could probably get them away easily. So she should run. But…

Incoherent, pointless rage filled Twilight at the monster’s words. How dare he threaten a child!?

“Twilight, let’s—” Bait tugged on her tail again, pulling her away.

She fired again. Nuckelavee whipped around so fast she barely saw it and cleaved her bolt straight through, letting the blade take the force of it. They locked eyes, and seeing the burning, flickering, eternal madness there, Twilight began to realize the impossible scope of the monster she’d thought to fight.

Okay, change of plan. Twilight racked her brain, hunting for weaknesses, stories of Nuckelavee being defeated. Water! Nuckelavee had some kind of aversion to it, couldn’t cross fresh water. She just needed to find the river! But how?

The earth shook as the beast screamed and charged her. Twilight was half through another teleport when a great, blazing, white and gold blur slammed into Nuckelavee, sending the horrid thing flying, tumbling across the dirt like a thrown doll until it finally collided with a stone large enough to stop it.

Twilight’s heart soared in recognition. Finally! Everything was going to be okay now! She was running forward before she could even think.

“Booyah!” belted a thoroughly masculine voice.

Wait. What?

“I’ve been lookin’ for you, Nuck! Time for you and me to have a little chat!”

No, this wasn't...No!

Nuckelavee staggered to its hooves, lashing its blade about, apparently none the worse for the huge gore-marks in its side.

“Fuck off, Cretes! This one’s mine! It’s a pony! That means it’s mine!” More of that vile mist spewed from its mouths.

Cretes? It was Cretes!?

“Oh yeah? Well, it looks like you’ve gotta go through me then. Let’s see what you’ve got, freak!” Cretes snorted fire and tore at the ground with one claw, blazing wings unfurling.

Twilight wanted to bury her face in her hooves and sob. How could it be Cretes!? It should have been Celestia!

“I’m gonna eat your children, Cretes! I’ll butcher all your wives and feed them to you!”

Cretes belched forth a torrent, a river of flame as he stormed toward Nuckelavee.

The two-headed beast howled in pain and frustration, but in the end the only sound that mattered was that of his hooves as he turned tail and ran.

Cretes slowed to halt some ways before he reached where Nuckelavee had been. He turned a little circle and snorted.

“Heh. Pussy.”

Twilight’s cheeks went a little red at his choice of words. She knew what that one meant. But why would he call Nuckelavee that?

The bull watched his enemy run for a moment more, then turned and looked about. “Oh, hey, kid,” he said, as if just noticing her. He sauntered forward with his rumbling tread. “Still alive, eh? Good for you.”

“Um. Thanks?”

“Sure thing,” said Cretes, relaxing as he looked her over. “You alright?”

Not even a little.

“I’m fine.”

“Mm. Where’s Celly? Isn’t she supposed to be babysitting you? Ah, hells, did she die already?”

Twilight bristled, wings rising up of their own accord. “She’s didn’t die! She’s just…I don’t know where she is!” Celestia wasn't dead! That was impossible! “I’m looking for her,” Twilight finished, lamely.

“Uh huh,” said Cretes, raising a bemused eyebrow. He watched her for a bit. “That a wight hiding behind you?”

“What? Oh, yes. This is Bait.” The aforementioned wight peered out from behind Twilight briefly before vanishing again behind her.

“Huh. You know he’ll kill you, right? They’re carnivores.” Cretes said the word with utter disdain. “And cannibals at that.” He snorted, a bit of smoke pouring from his nose. “You’re just a walking meal to that thing.”

“That’s not true!” she shouted, a sliver of that crazed anger from before leaking through. “If he’d wanted to kill me, he could have by now!”

Hmm. Now that she thought on it, there had probably been a better way to phrase that.

“Yeah, sure. Listen, kid,” said Cretes, shrugging his enormous shoulders. “This is a bad place for ponies like you, alright? Sounds like you could use some help.”

Twilight didn’t much care for this creature’s attitude, but…

“Well. Maybe. Can you help me find Princess Celestia? Or, at least the way back to Equestria?”

“Yeah, I can do that,” smirked Cretes. “The second half, anyway, ‘cause I’m pretty sure Celestia's a lost cause at this point. Tell ya what. I’ll give you the same deal I gave her, eh? Sound good?”

Twilight had to take a moment to keep herself from screaming at him. Princess Celestia is not a lost cause!

“And, um, what deal is that, exactly?”

Cretes’s smirk flattened. “Really? What’s with you ponies? You weren’t always such a bunch of prudes.” He snorted again, thumping one clawed hoof into the ground. “A guy offers you a good ol’ time and says he’ll help you out, and suddenly you’re all too good to lift your tails for a bit.”

Twilight stared at the bull. Who even said things like that!?

“I’m not a prude! Maybe I’d just like a bit of friggin’ romance or something! Goddess! I don’t even know you! Plus, you’re like, three times my size! There can be too much of a good thing, you know!” Twilight had sort of lost control of her mouth after that second sentence. She seemed to be losing control of a lot of things, lately. Oops. “And besides, I’ve been doing just fine on my own! I don’t need some horn-dog bull trying to hump my leg every ten minutes! Yeesh!"

Cretes stared back for a moment. Then he laughed. And laughed, and laughed. “Hey, you’re alright, kid. Look, how long have you been here?”

Heavens above, how long had she been here?

“I, uh, well,” she tried to do the math, but how would she know? There was no day or night here, and she’d been underground for who knew how long. She’d slept, what, twice? “A few days, I think? Does this place even have days?”

“Mm,” muttered Cretes. There was a long pause while he just looked at her. “Tartarus does weird stuff with time. I remember seeing you like, three weeks ago. That’s just a guess, though, cause like you say, there ain't really a day/night thing here. But I know everything’s been going to shit, ‘cause Tartarus is waking up again, and you’re probably why. So…dammit." He pawed around a bit. "Ergh. Look, I’ll take you to the gate, but I’m not gonna go stumble-fucking around looking for Celestia. I won’t even ask you do anything that might be any fun, ‘cause Goddess knows you ponies hate that.”

Twilight rolled her eyes.

“And I’ll even watch over your little boyfriend over there.”

Twilight charitably ignored that. “Okay.” She drew it out, cautious. “But last time you blew us off without a look back. Why are willing to help now? And what about your herd? Where did they go?”

“Eh? Oh, you had Celestia with you then. That bitch is a damned death machine, she can handle herself. You’re just some girl who got thrown into a shitty situation. Could hardly call myself a bull if I just walked off from that. As to my herd, they’re somewhere safe. Er, mostly. But my girls are tough. They can deal with whatever comes. I just came out here to run off anything that got too close, like that fucker Nuckelavee. And to see who was setting off the fireworks.” Cretes glared at Twilight for a moment. “The hell were you thinking, kid?”

“I-I was…it was a good idea at the time! Let’s just get going, alright?”

“Heh. Sure. Hey, listen, junior.”

Twilight was starting to get a little tired of being talked to like that.

“You owe me for this," continued Cretes, heedless of her frown or perhaps simply not caring. "I know you ponies still got honor, so if you ever come, come back h-h…ere. I. Uh…”

Twilight turned to look at the bull. He had stopped walking.

“Cretes? If I ever come back here..?”

He stared, dead-eyed, into the space between them. His head whipped up to gaze into the flickering not-Sun of Tartarus.

A sliver of dread ran through Twilight as that feeling of being watched fell down over her. But it was different this time. Not like she was being watched from afar, but…

~~~

Celestia had been right when she said Tartarus didn’t incarnate. It never made a body. It didn’t make anything. That wasn’t Its nature. But It did have Its ways. And when those didn’t work, as seemed to be the case with this new creature and its disgusting aura of harmony, well, It had tricks for that, too.

Tartarus pondered Its new plaything and the little party she’d built. Impressive. Unacceptable. It sent down a tiny sliver of itself...and took a body.

~~~

By the time the bull turned back to Twilight, there was nothing of him left.

“C-Cretes?” Twilight backed away even as she spoke.

He showed no sign of recognition. He showed no sign of anything. He shook for a bit and stumbled, tossing his head like he’d forgotten how, exactly, it worked. He looked laboriously around himself. He picked up one cloven hoof and stared at it, swaying, as if he’d never seen the thing before. He turned back to stare at Twilight, slack-jawed. His pupils were huge and black beyond reason. They were rimmed by a ring of slow-flickering flame.

It was here. Tartarus was right here!

She backed away faster, running into something warm and bony.

“Bait,” she said, with a calm she didn’t at all feel. “You have to run. Right now.”

The thing that was once Cretes snapped its gaze to the wight behind her.

“No!” Twilight shouted. She jumped between them, pushed by some nebulous instinct to shield Bait from Its gaze. Not fast enough. Twilight felt the magic before she saw it. A hellish orange glow suffused the bull’s horns as a pair of shining bronze chains whipped out from nowhere, neatly dodging her to wrap around the colt. Before Twilight could even think to do something, Bait was lifted, pulled away, and bound to the dirt behind Cretes as the chains anchored themselves within. Walls of the same metal burst up from the earth around him, locking together into a solid prison.

Another of Cretes’ six horns glowed as Ben was snatched by a third, spider-sized fetter and tossed into the prison a fraction of a second later.

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat.

“No! Let them go!”

Cretes, no, Tartarus, plodded one step toward her. There was no expression on Its face, no rage or smug smirk of victory. Just an empty stare.

Twilight side-stepped, angling toward the cage, trying to get closer.

Tartarus staggered into her way, snorting. It moved Cretes’s body clumsily, like it couldn’t really understand it. But it was still fast, and no less dangerous. It tossed his head, brandishing his horns, threatening. It took another step forward, snorting smoke, forcing her back.

Twilight leapt up, beating her wings and ignoring the pain it brought to her shoulder. She surged forward, nearly running straight into Tartarus as It bound up to meet her. Its horns glowed and Twilight felt a chain circle each rear leg and pull her back to the ground. The chains released her even as she worked to dispel them. Twilight slowly rose to her hooves as Tartarus staggered forward into the space between them. She stepped to one side. Not-Cretes matched her, brandishing those horns. She backed off and stepped the other way. It met her again, tossing Its head and forcing her to back away.

Twilight realized, in a sick mix of fear and anger, that she wasn’t being attacked. She was being driven.

Yeah, well. Drive this!

Twilight whipped together a spell, throwing herself through space to Bait. She cried out, more in confusion than pain, as her magic was ground down into nothing, crushed under the power of something. She tried again, and the same thing happened. She saw one of Cretes/Tartarus’s horn light up and go dim with her effort. Same as with the chains before.

Six. He had six horns. He could cast six spells at once, to her one.

It didn’t matter! She would find a way through! She would-

Tartarus stared straight at her, and uttered a single word. It came through Cretes’s throat, but that sound could never have been his own. It said, simply…

Mine.

Twilight gaped. Then she snarled.

“Over my dead body."

Tartarus flared Cretes’s burning wings and charged. Twilight started spell after spell with no intention of finishing them. Four, maybe five in a row were crushed just as the first had been, but finally one got through, and she slammed Tartarus across the face with bolt of pure desperation. He didn’t even flinch, but it didn’t matter. She was gone by the time he thundered through. No magic had saved her, she’d just dodged while the brute had been distracted. She made straight for the bronze prison, not knowing what she planned to do once there.

Twilight felt the magic forming the chains before they hit her. On pure reflex, she leapt and twisted away, and when that didn’t free her she attacked the spells directly, magic to magic. She’d just broken them both when the third spell hit. She stumbled sideways, breath knocked out by a chunk of magically summoned metal. She countered indirectly, grabbing a large stone off the ground and swinging it in an arc at the bull charging toward her. It didn’t hit. Tartarus bashed the stone straight up, a pillar of that same shining metal stabbing out the dirt to intercept it. A bronze wall tore out of the ground before Twilight and a new pair of chains lassoed her as she reared to a halt.

Twilight screamed and fought, throwing herself aside, but another chain caught her before she’d made any headway. How was she supposed to fight six horns!? She floundered and flailed, working a spell she hoped the monster wouldn’t recognize while she struggled to maintain a second she'd started before.

Tartarus charged in, watching the ground numbly as it slowly receded from beneath its hooves. It saw Twilight’s vicious smile as It whipped, suddenly upside down, past her.

Twilight exulted in her success. She’d reversed Its gravity. Only for a moment, but long enough. She hoped.

Tartarus snapped out Cretes’s wings, multiple horns glowing as it flew against its own twisted weight and abandoned its other spells to break this new curse. It spun back into normal gravity a second later and slammed to ground in front of Twilight Sparkle. She backed away as it stomped between her and the bronze cage containing Bait and Ben. It snorted smoke and flame. Then the stone came down.

Twilight had managed to keep an eye on it, guide it to right where it needed to be. It fell, cracking down on Tartarus’s back, bashing It into the ground.

“Hah!”

Twilight pranced with the satisfaction of a plan carried through. It was another moment before she remembered that Tartarus had stolen that body...

But then the bull rose. It just got up. One hoof at a time, It rose and stared at her once more. No anger. No pain. Nothing but remorseless, unassailable will.

All six horns glowed, and Twilight was wrapped in chains and driven to the dirt. She fought. She squirmed. She threw everything she had at this terrible magic, but she just couldn’t fight so much at once. Tartarus trundled toward her. It loomed over her. It stared down at her, eyes hollow with void and fire and terrible want.

“What!?” she cried. “I just want my friends! Why are you doing this!?”

It pressed Cretes’s bulk over her. It breathed on her, it ran Its big, rough tongue down her neck and just under one ear. Then it whispered one word, for her alone.

Mine.

And then a lot of things happened at once. Twilight heard a sound that could best be described as *chomp,* and Tartarus roared and whipped around, nearly crushing her. There was a high-pitched scream, and Tartarus stumbled backwards, and then somepony was pulling on her hoof and suddenly she was running.

Twilight heard another roar behind her, and maybe she cast some spells, or some spells were cast at her, but it was all a blur as she just kept running, running, running. She crashed through grass and shrubs and trees, and she didn’t stop until everything was dark and quiet and her heart couldn't take any more. She huddled there in that silent place for a long time, one wing stretched protectively over Bait and Ben (they’d saved her!), and just waited. A minute stretched into five, then ten, then maybe thirty as she watched the path they’d come down, barely daring to even blink. But nothing followed.

They were alone. It was gone.

It was gone.

~~~

Why isn’t it working!?

Celestia fired another blast of solid burn into the woods. They ignited, changing nothing. Nothing was attacking her. Nothing was coming out to fight. Tartarus was ignoring her.

“NO!”

Celestia howled in anguish and threw herself into the sky, launching explosion after explosion into the landscape below her. She was taking a huge, suicidal risk even trying to get Its attention like this, and Tartarus was just ignoring her!

“This isn’t fair! I’m what you want, you monster! Come kill me!”

The crackle of burning wood and stone was her only answer.

There had been a few monsters, of course. You couldn’t walk a hundred yards without running across something horrible once Tartarus was awake, but they had been nothing. A pittance. A half-hearted attempt on her life, at best. Tartarus was busy with other things, and Celestia could guess exactly what they were.

She had failed Twilight utterly. She couldn’t even act as a decent distraction.

Celestia slammed into the ground, and the earth quaked with her desperate fury.

“You will not have her!”

Celestia singed the earth with tears of molten rage and anguish. If she'd just, if only she'd...but it didn't matter what could have been. The few options she'd had were exhausted. There was only one thing that even might work now. Tartarus could disregard her, but there were creatures locked here that even It couldn’t simply disregard. And Celestia knew just how to call down the one It hated most.

“Terra!” she bellowed, pouring and old and long-unused power into the words. “I, Celestia, invoke my right of parley! Hear me, Sister, or I will unleash every monster, every cataclysm, every misbegotten, gods-damned thing in this land until you come to me! I will wake Typhon if you ignore me!”

Unseen far above, the Eye of Tartarus trembled, just for a moment. In excitement or fear, it was not to be known.

Others

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A Few Brief Asides.

Earlier...

Bait thumped against the ground as the chains released him. He rolled up to his hooves and was running before he even consciously realized what was happening, but just as he made his first leap, a wall of solid metal burst up from the dirt in front of him. He bounced off and whirled, trying again in a different direction, but he was already surrounded. He looked up, bunching his legs to jump over the walls just as the last plate slammed into place atop the others. Bait’s heart thudded in the sudden silence and darkness.

He had to move! Had to get out of here before the monster outside came back to finish him off!

Bait kicked at one wall hard enough to hurt his hooves. It didn’t budge. He clawed at it, scrabbling against its impenetrable surface. He reared up and kicked at the ceiling, scratched at the joints, searched desperately for a seam or even just something he could get a grip on.

A small, square hole slid open, pouring light into the prison. Ben came flying through it, hitting Bait in the face as he scampered close. The gap shut tight immediately, leaving no evidence it had ever been there.

Bait danced from one hoof to another, whimpering to himself. He heard Ben chitter angrily as the spider skittered about the small perimeter of their prison.

Bait wasted more time scratching at the walls, finding nothing he could use. Why did everything seem to have magic but him? He bet Twilight could get out of here with no problem. Was she still alive? Was she fighting the bull-thing, or had she run? She’d run. Anybody would run.

Bait felt a tapping on his fetlock. He shied away.

She’d leave him here. ‘Cause that’s what the Bait was for. He was on his own. He’d been stupid to think he’d ever actually make it out here.

The tapping came again, more insistent this time, and was accompanied by a snappish little shriek. Bait jumped away from the spider. That creature scared the hell out of Bait! Why had the bull had to throw it in with him!? Bait's eyes flicked about, trying to see Ben, if only to keep away from him. Not that there was anywhere he could go. He was surprised to find that he could actually see him, a little. Bait's eyes had adjusted, which meant there was light coming in from somewhere. And that meant...there was a gap somewhere! Bait glanced around and saw a few, but they were much too small to be any use, even to Ben.

Ben shrieked again and waved a leg.

“Yeah, I see you! What?”

Ben darted to one corner of the square cage and started furiously picking at it with his first four legs.

“I tried that! You can’t get through, it’s metal!”

Ben shrieked once more. He used two legs to pick up a tiny clod of dirt, slowly and carefully, as if he were demonstrating something very simple and painfully obvious, and tossed it behind himself. He picked up another clod and did it again before Bait caught on.

“Oh! You’re digging! But, these came up out of the dirt. What if they go down too far?”

Ben threw up four arms in exasperation, as if to imply that they might as well try, so get to it, dammit!

Bait ploughed into the loose dirt. Why hadn’t he thought of this? With his pointy claws and shovel-ish hooves, digging was one of the few things he was any good at. Bait had only been at it for a few seconds before he hit the end of the wall. He didn’t pause to exult at the discovery, or to thank Ben. He just kept digging with all the fury that mortal desperation could give.

A quick bit of intuitive math told Bait he’d need maybe another minute to get a hole big enough to crawl through. He’d have to leave his pack. He threw it off, taking just a moment to rummage through it one last time. He stuffed a chunk of shrimp meat into his mouth and gnawed at it as he dug. No sense in letting it all be lost.

It wasn’t until his hand cracked the surface outside of the prison that Bait allowed himself to get excited. He kept burrowing, willing himself to keep as quiet as possible as he went. Maybe Twilight had gotten away. That would be nice, he supposed. He pushed his head through the hole he’d made, barely stopping to look around. He didn’t see the bull, but he could hear something. He must be on the opposite side of the cage. Good. He pushed out more dirt with his muzzle and hooves and hands and not long after, he was out.

He was out!

He could hear them now, Twilight and the bull. She was still here. Why hadn’t she run? Had she beat it? Was she that strong? She was saying something.

Bait peeked around the closest corner of the bronze walls. He couldn’t see Twilight, but she had to be there. He could hear her. Ben joined him a moment later.

“Why are you doing this!?”

Oh no. The bull had her! Just like he’d had Bait! He could see her now, a little. One purple leg, wrapped in more of those chains. The bull was leaning over her, pressing down on her. Bait turned away. He had to run. There was nothing he could do. If even she couldn’t fight this monster, what could he do? He was just a wight, and the useless little runt at that.

Ben tapped him on the fetlock again. He made some complicated gesture with several legs, something about circling around and distracting the bull while Bait broke Twilight loose and escaped, or something. It would never work. They should just run. They couldn’t win. He squeezed his eyes shut and shut his mind against what he was hearing. Maybe he could go back home. If he took back what food he still had, and if he found them something really amazing to make up for the rest, they might let him come back. Maybe it would…maybe he…No. That was...

Stupid! This is so stupid! Bait opened his eyes and, fighting every instinct he had, slunk forward, keeping well away from the bull’s line of sight. It was stupid, Bait knew. But then, he’d spent his whole life doing stupid things. He’d lost count of how many times he’d expected to die, luring some horrible thing in for his family to eat. So what was one more suicide run? At least he was doing it by choice for once, and for somebody who'd been nice. Maybe he could even hurt the bull a little. Wouldn't that be something? The runt, hurting a big monster like this thing? Heh. Well, it didn’t know he was coming, and if there was one thing a wight knew how to do, it was exploit a weakness.

Bait skulked up, silent, taut, waiting for Ben to get set up. Then, he peeled back his lips, lunged forward, and sank his teeth into the biggest pair of ‘weaknesses’ he’d ever seen.

The bull roared and kicked but Bait was already gone, keeping on its blind side as the bull whipped around. He grabbed Twilight by the hoof as the chains holding her melted into nothing. Apparently getting bit in the junk shut down weird magic powers. Good to know.

“Run!” he shouted, and Twilight did. Bait aimed for the tree line, hearing an unbelievably loud shriek as Ben leapt onto the bull’s face and sank his fangs into its soft nose. Bait wasn’t sure how Ben caught up with them after that, but the spider came flying in from somewhere behind (maybe the bull had thrown him off, or something?) and Twilight snatched him up in that magic field she had, and then they ran, ran, ran, until the woods grew thick and dark and quiet, and Twilight finally flopped down in the undergrowth to watch, and wait.

~~~

Currently...

Tartarus dropped the puppet it had claimed. If the world-thing had had anything like guts, they would be churning. It did not enjoy doing that. Taking. It loathed the limitations of the living, the smallness and frailty of them. It was reduced while it took them, bound by their wet, fleshy, minds and microscopic perspective. It would suffer the memory of that feeling for an age, but It felt the price had been worth it. Its newest resident, Its wonderful treasure, knew Tartarus now. The creature had witnessed It! No matter that it (she? Tartarus had trouble remembering such trivial things as gender) had escaped. What a delight that one was. Such naivete. Such potential.

Like any being, Tartarus had parts on and within Itself that It couldn’t see or control, and the new resident had run into one of those dark places. Every moment Tartarus was unable to watch her was a tragedy, but she would come out eventually. Tartarus briefly wondered if it had perhaps overstepped there. Had it frightened her more than it should have? Perhaps. But it suspected not. This new one was resilient. She would make a fine tenant or die a truly extraordinary death, It was certain. Soon, now. Soon.

Tartarus shifted and searched, laid traps and forged paths. It roused more of Itself and Its creatures. It watched, and It waited.

~~~

Celestia didn’t have to wait long after that little display.

The air stilled. Dust settled. The raging inferno around Celestia slowed, and stopped, and died, leaving no trace of motion at all. Celestia’s own heartbeat felt like an offense to this perfect silence.

The quiet stayed for some time, cold and dead, until it was finally broken by a flat voice.

“My dear Celestia.” There was no affection in the words, no emotion of any kind. They were still and slow, smooth as a polished stone. “She doesn’t visit. She doesn’t write. And when finally she does deign to appear, she murders my subjects and brings ruin to centuries of my efforts. Tartarus is terribly agitated, Celestia. Why are you here?”

Centuries of efforts? Celestia had never known Terra to put effort into anything. And what subjects? Still, by virtue of years of habit, she tried to be diplomatic.

“I-yes. I apologize for troubling you, Sister, but I’ve made a terrible mistake, and—"

Celestia had meant to keep talking, but she found herself suddenly unable to say more, as if the words had simply died in her mouth. She tried to reclaim them, but the silence held for a long, long moment.

“Sister, is it? You’ve not called me that for…” Terra considered for an achingly long time. “Over a thousand years. At least. And yes, you have made many terrible mistakes. Which one has led you to disturb my peace?”

Celestia had never been able to understand Terra. Ages ago, it had been simple. She had been so different, full of life and love and so much more. But all of that was long, long gone.

“I need your help!” she blurted out. “I came to Tartarus by accident, which would be no problem, but another was pulled in with me. I need to find her!”

Another maddeningly long moment passed.

“By. Accident.”

Celestia wasn’t sure if that had been a question or a statement. Terra couldn’t even be bothered to raise her tone at the end of a sentence to make it obvious.

“Someone cast a spell, using my crown as the focus, and I woke here.”

“Ah. You were playing games again, and you allowed yourself to be attacked,” stated Terra, her dead-neutral tone somehow still managing to convey disdain. “And now you come to me demanding favors.”

“No! I’m not dem—“ Celestia took a deep breath. “Please, Terra. If you can help me find her, I would greatly appreciate it. In fact, if there were some way I could assist you in your efforts..."

“This person must hold great value, Celestia, for you to call me and beg assistance.”

Celestia’s answer came easily and without hesitation.

“She does.”

Another long silence.

“As you say. I will find your wayward pony then. You, in return, will owe me a favor, to be redeemed at any time I see fit, and in any form.”

“Hrmm. Your favor can’t bring harm to my companion, or interfere with her return to Equestria in any way."

Terra stood, un-moving, calculating.

“Acceptable.”

“Excellent! Her name is Twilight Sparkle, and sh—”

“Her name is immaterial. She is an invader, and she has caught the attention of Tartarus. This will be simple.”

Celestia shut her mouth with a *click* and endeavored not to be offended. This was actually going well, as far as dealing with Terra went. Making such an open-ended bargain would have been insane under other circumstances, but Celestia had pretty much already written herself off as a casualty at this point, and there was only so much you could do to someone who didn't fear death. She was just happy her sister was willing to talk at all.

Terra closed her eyes and simply stood for a time.

Terra was an alicorn, like all the sisters. Her every feature was a flawless, unadulterated white. Not the lively glow of Celestia, but the glossy sheen of polished marble. She might as well be a statue, if an exquisite one. Her mane didn't flow, her lips didn't shift when she spoke, and even in movement she seemed somehow static, unchanging. Immaculately still, always.

“I have found her.”

Celestia had to fight to keep herself from jumping forward.

“She’s okay!? She’s-wait, of course she is. Alright, take me to her!”

Terra watched her as a mountain watches the storm.

“Our deal was that I find her.”

“What? Oh, yes, I can understand how you would think that, but finding someone doesn’t mean you simply know where they are. Finding them implies that—"

“Mm. Implies. It appears that you have made another terrible mistake, Celestia.”

Celestia froze, mouth halfway though some already forgotten word. Another moment ticked away. Celestia wanted to grab Terra and throttle her and scream in her face. But she forced all of that down, and funneled all of her will into trying to be reasonable.

“Terra. Please. It is nothing to you to do this f—"

“Perhaps if you had not slain so many of my subjects and scorched my earth, it would be nothing. Perhaps if this creature you brought with you had not so upset my charge. But it is not nothing, Celestia. It has already cost me more than you know.”

What could it be possibly be costing you!? You’ve never cared about anything!

Celestia ground her teeth and forced the next words out, choosing them very carefully.

“Then will you at least show me where she has been? This is a fair request, as I asked you to help me find her.”

Terra did nothing for another insufferably long moment.

“Very well.” She strode forward with measured steps, leaning down slightly to just barely tap her own horn on Celestia’s. It should have been an intimate gesture, but there was none of that here. Merely a transfer of information.

Celestia let it flow in. Everywhere Twilight had been since her arrival. A tiny purple spark forging a path through a dark, terrible world. Terra had known about them since the beginning, Celestia realized. She’d known they were here and done nothing. Just left them to flounder and die in this fucking nightmare and…

Celestia took a deep shuddering breath. The knowledge that she could do nothing was all that kept her in check. Terra and her damned attitude didn't matter now. Only Twilight mattered.

Celestia didn’t waste any more time with anger. Or courtesy. She was off and running before Terra even had time for a parting shot.

~~~

Terra watched her sister go. Ridiculous, to worry so over one pony when there were millions more. She turned her attention back to greater things. This entire world was in danger of falling apart. She felt no fear, no grief at its possible demise. Mild irritation, perhaps, at seeing her works undone, but even that was as muted as anything else. She was a touch concerned that she hadn’t detected this intrusion earlier, though. It had been easy enough to find the source of the disturbance, this 'Twilight Sparkle,' after the fact, and trace back her path. But still. It was probably related to Celestia’s unorthodox entry. That would require further study.

But for now, Terra had goals she had decided she would meet. She fell into the earth and was gone. She began pondering, in her long, laborious way, how best to contain this mess. And now Celestia owed her something. That bore consideration as well.

~~~

And sometime later...

Cretes awoke.

"Ahhhh Hell..." he muttered, ears flapping as he shook his head. "Where..?"

He looked around. Where was he? How had he even gotten here? Why was everything torn up or on fire? And why did his nose hurt? And his back. And, most upsetting, his balls? He gave those a quick check to make sure everything was still there. Yup. But dammit, what had happened here?

He was still in the Fields, but nowhere near where he'd been when...when what? Oh, right, when he'd met that pony again. And then, uh…she’d been with a wight. Right. And he’d said something about getting her out of here. Had she flipped out on him for some damned reason? No, there was no way that little thing could have done this to him. He pondered recent events while he stretched his aching neck. Had Nuckalavee come back? Maybe snuck up and brained him or something? No, that freak would have killed him while he was out, and besides, Nuckalavee didn’t have the rocks for that kind of move.

His eyes wandered up, toward the burning ring in the sky. Half-formed memories of thoughts that weren’t his own skittered at the edge of his consciousness. Something pulling him along like a doll on a string, its hooks so deep it could even take his magic, and pair of purple eyes burning with fear and determination, and a consuming, overwhelming desire so deep and dark an—

“Nope!” Cretes bellowed to no one, not knowing why or even wanting to. “Just a nightmare!”

He had bad dreams sometimes. So what?

Cretes shook himself and took off at a trot, as though he could simply outrun the disturbing morass in his mind. In a way, he could. A good run cleared the mind. He just needed to get back to his girls and ride out whatever came his way. Everything would sort itself out and all this weird shit would be over with before he knew it.

But this was good reminder, he thought to himself, of what happens when you try to help a pretty face: You wake up on fire with sore junk. Cretes shook his head and thundered off to find his herd. They never put him through shit like this. Damned ponies.

~~~

Typhon slept. It was best that way. Best for everyone. He watched, as he slept, but that was fine. It was all a dream for him. Pleasant, flowing, ephemeral. Far more pleasant than being awake. Because when he woke, he remembered.

Typhon turned reflexively away from such thoughts, lost as he was in that pleasant space between dream and reality. His many, many tails curled in, flexing as he stretched.

Yes, this was certainly better than his waking life. He saw so much while he slept. So many little lives starting and ending and starting again. So many stories. And yes, there was plenty of unpleasantness in them, but also so much joy, so many reasons to laugh and love and just be. Not like his life at all, where there was only…

Typhon rolled over, burying his larger heads further into the darkness. He was dozing peacefully again when another rumble shook through him. He ignored it. He couldn’t seem to get comfortable anymore. But it would pass. His wings ruffled of their own accord, his claws reaching for someone that would never be there…

He shoved the thought away, desperately searching for that calm place he could only find in slumber. Just sleep! Just a little longer!

The earth shook under him, again and again, just as he nodded off. Every time! Like it was trying to infuriate him! He tossed again, hoping it would end, hoping this one would be the last. And for a while, it was.

Another tiny quake shifted the dirt of Tartarus.

One titanic eye cracked open, dislodging centuries of dust. It was followed by hundreds more.

Typhon woke. And he remembered.

Guardian

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Twilight’s eyes were beginning to burn, but she dared not close them. This place was too dangerous. Everything could change, it could all go wrong, and she would miss it in that blink. She didn’t know how much more of this she could handle. It just kept getting worse, and that last horrid violation had shaken her to the core. Could Tartarus take other people the way it taken Cretes? Could it take Bait? Ben? She shuddered.

Could it take her?

No. No! I’m not doing this! That’s just…it’s just what It wants! They’re my friends, and I won’t let It make me doubt them!

But she couldn’t shove off the thoughts. What did it want!? Was it was just messing with her now? Worming its way into her head? Why would It do something like that? What did it want with her!?

Twilight felt something shift under her wing. She flicked her eyes toward it, just for a moment. Bait. Of course. He was looking at her. Scared. For her? Of her? Why couldn’t she tell? He was shivering. No, wait. That was her.

Forcing herself into action, Twilight finally abandoned her watch. She turned to Bait and practically fell onto him, wrapping him up in a full-on arms-and-wings-and-everything hug. She swept Ben into it too, for good measure.

“Thank you! I don’t know how you got out of there, but thank you!”

A long, long time seemed to pass (there was no way to tell, really) with Bait just frozen there in her embrace before Twilight was willing to let him go.

“That was so brave, Bait! Are you and Ben okay? It didn’t hurt you did It?”

There was no answer for a while, as Bait just stared at her. Then, without warning, he latched onto Twilight like he was never, ever going to let go and burst into tears.

She blinked a few times, her own tears receding before this unexpected flood. Well, this wasn’t exactly the answer she’d been expecting. But that was fine. Right? Sure. She could have her own little pity-party later. For now, she stroked Bait’s bony little neck and tried to remember all those comforting, nonsense phrases her parents or Celestia had always said to her when she was scared or upset and just waited it out.

“Hey,” she asked, when he seemed to have cried himself out. “You okay? You want tell me what happened?”

“I-it’s just…” he buried his face in Twilight’s chest again, words escaping in a mumbled whisper. “ ‘s just I thought he’d hurt you and I couldn’t do ‘nything n’body ever hugged me like that before.”

Twilight just sat there for a time, dumbfounded. Of all the things she had seen and been through lately, after all the fear and fighting and confusion, it was that little confession that really brought home exactly how wrong this place was. She wanted to cry. She should cry. The tears were there, but they just wouldn’t come out. So instead, she borrowed a bit of that strange strength one of her friends had taught her, that oddball power of always being able to make a joke when somepony needed one. Even if it wasn’t very good.

“Well, when we get to Equestria,” she said, running a hoof down Bait’s back, “you’ll get plenty of hugs. You’ll have all the hugs you can eat.”

Bait looked up at her. His laugh was half sob. But it was enough.

“Y’can’t eat hugs,” he said. He sniffled and wiped his eyes as Twilight caressed his neck again. “Sorry. I dunno why I…sorry.” He pulled away just a bit, then seemed to reconsider and leaned back in, glancing at her sheepishly.

“It’s okay. And don’t be too sure about that. I bet my friend Pinkie Pie can find a way find a way to eat a hug.” Twilight smiled through the miserable anger in her chest. She couldn’t change Bait’s past, but she could darn sure give him a better future! “She does all kinds of crazy stuff. I’ll introduce you when we get out of here.”

The moment hung until Ben put an end to it with an elegant chirp.

“Yeah, you’re right Ben. It is time we got moving, isn’t it? You gonna be alright, Bait?”

He pulled himself together after a bit, nodding up at her.

“Alright then. Off we go. Can’t be far now, right?” She couldn’t tell whether Bait’s shrug was an affirmative. She chose to believe it was, for the sake of her own sanity. It had to be over soon. It had to be. “But seriously,” she asked, mostly to distract herself. “What happened back there? How did you two get away?”

“Oh, um, well, it was Ben, mostly…”

He gave her the quick version. Less about desperate, terrified scrambling in the dark and more about sneak-attacking a bull and then running away.

“Wow.”

Trying, poorly, to keep a straight face, Twilight continued, “Did you really bite him in the…”

“Um. Y-yeah. I think I lost two teeth on that. I mean, I’ve heard them called ‘stones’ before, but…”

Twilight laughed at that more than it probably deserved, but fudge it. She would take all the levity she could get at this point.

“Only a real friend would ever do something like that,” she said with a grin. “Thank you, Bait. That really was amazingly brave of you. And you too, Ben.” She gave the former a little squeeze with one wing. “Sorry about the teeth.”

Bait mumbled something about them growing back, but didn’t seem to know what to say after that. The silence was comfortable enough, so Twilight didn’t press him. Instead, she took a moment to give the new terrain a good look.

It was darker here than in the woods she'd first woken up in, and much more so than in the Fields. The usual source-less, ambient light of Tartarus was dimmer, the trees taller and thicker and more overgrown. They hung heavy with shaggy moss and creeping vines, all purple and green and deep, deep blue. It reminded her of the Everfree, actually. She felt a pang of homesickness. She’d take that haunted wilderness over whatever this was any day.

On a happier note, the canopy was so thick that the sky was blacked out, and the horrible, burning eye up there was nowhere to be seen.

“So,” said Twilight, refusing to let the dour environs get her down. “Ready to go?”

“Oh, um. Sure.”

“Okay! So, how about, um…” Twilight looked about. She’d lost the road a ways back. She fired up her horn and shined it around. She chose the direction that looked the least clogged by vegetation and started off. “This way!”

Bait scampered after her, sidling up next to her and staying there this time. She laid a wing over him as warm little glow lodged itself in her chest. She didn’t know where they were, or even if they’d make it out, but for the first time in far too long, she really felt like she wasn’t alone.

~~~

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to find the road again. They’d stumbled over a little trickle of a stream after a while, and decided to follow it. It crossed over a nice, even, conspicuously tree-less path after about a half-hour, and with that, they were back in business. Sure, they had no food (Bait had been extremely apologetic about that), and no idea if they were going the right way, and if they wanted water they'd have to lick it out of the moss-eaten stream, but still.

The woods devoured the sounds of travel, but they were by no means silent. Strange calls sounded in the distance, of no sort that Twilight had ever heard. A howl had echoed through, so close Twilight would have sworn she’d felt it, but even after ten minutes of waiting for the other shoe to drop, nothing had come. Little rustlings in the shrubs were a common occurrence, but every time she shined a light their way, Twilight saw nothing.

There were other lights in the distance. They looked like fireflies, sometimes, but others were so much like lanterns or spell-light that she had to resist the urge to call out or follow them. She had a guess as to what they were: Will o’ the Wisps. Little fey creatures that took a nasty joy from misleading travelers, tricking them into jumping into choking bogs or gator-infested marshes. She’d never actually seen one, and given the circumstances, she didn’t want to. So she ignored them as best she could, and hoped they’d return the favor.

After a while, though, the atmosphere just grew too oppressive, and Twilight gave up on any attempt at stealth or subtlety. Hers was the only consistent light in this place, after all. If something wanted to find them, she had no way to stop it. So she didn’t try.

“So! Did I ever tell you about Ponyville?”

“Um. No?”

“Well, where to start! It’s where I live in Equestria. It’s not very big, but there are tons of nice ponies there and we have all kinds of adventures…”

~~~

Twilight managed to keep up her almost manic cheer for a good while. Bait helped, even if he didn’t talk much, and Ben stepped in occasionally with a well-timed chirp or two when her flow of words suffered a lull. They all played their parts in this little fiction, each helping the rest pretend that their lives weren’t hanging on a string out here in this impossibly hostile wilderness. Twilight knew it, even as she forged the fantasy, but what else could she do? She was spent, burned out. Being careful and cautious and realistic was just too hard. As long as everybody kept talking to prop up their eggshell fortress of optimism, they didn’t have to think about all that. So she chattered on.

The road took a turn, and with a suddenness Twilight had come to expect from Tartarus, a cave mouth loomed up before them. She stopped mid-sentence. These woods may have been unpleasant, but they hadn't hurt her yet, and she was in no hurry to go back underground. Her trepidation was in no way dispelled by the pair of glowing eyes watching her from within.

“Um,” she said.

The eyes fell into a tilt, as though the head which presumably held them were considering her. They vanished into the darkness before she could say more. Bait twitched under her wing.

“Did you see that?” she whispered.

“Um. Yes.”

Twilight felt Ben’s many feet move about on her back as they all stood there, watching.

A pair of torches, or something like them, sprang to life in the cave, lighting the way with warm, unexpectedly normal-looking firelight. As the party watched, another pair lit, then another, and another and so on into the tunnel.

Bait spoke first.

“We should find another way, right?”

Twilight shifted from one hoof to another. She looked around the cave mouth. The road led straight into it, the only opening into a great hill swathed in shrubs and moss. What space there was around the hole was strangled with rocks and vines and tree roots. Even the canopy above was seemingly sealed by branch and leaf. There was no way around. If this was a trap, which it clearly was, it had been chosen well. But still, Celestia had told to stay on the roads. They were safe, she’d said. And if it was a trap, it was a blindingly obvious one. That dinner party scene had been like this, but even then, there had been the lure of food. And she would have had to leave the road to get to it. Usually there was some trick or betrayal involved. This one was just so…

Ben hopped off Twilight’s back and scampered into the cave.

“Ben? Wait!” Darn it, he was quick!

He stopped at Twilight’s call, but only long enough to wave two legs at her. Then he resumed his run into the tunnel.

Twilight looked at Bait. He looked back.

If Ben were going to finally betray her, like everything had since she’d fallen into this horrible place, it would be now. What if he’d been leading her to this place the whole time? She'd be caught in a narrow space, burdened with a friend to protect. She’d be easy prey. She would—

Twilight stamped one hoof, a spike of self-loathing surging through her. No! How could I even think that! That isn’t me! She took a deep breath. Only after she’d collected herself did she speak.

“Well. In we go then. But, stay behind a bit, okay? If things get scary, just run.”

“I...yeah.”

Twilight nodded, as much to herself as to her companion. Then she strode forward.

It wasn’t like there was any other option.

~~~

The cave was actually a bit more spacious than she’d expected. Another trick of the light, perhaps. She had plenty of room to spread her aching wings, at least, but even so, there was nowhere to run if, hah, when things got ugly. And Ben was nowhere to be seen. She looked back to make sure Bait was still there. He was padding along silently behind her. He met her gaze, worried. That seemed sensible. Still, she tried to smile reassuringly.

The torches, or sconces, or whatever they were, were spaced evenly along the smooth stone walls. They looked almost organic, like they’d been grown rather than placed. Too smooth and slick for hoof-wrought metal. Seamless. Their light was nice enough, even if its source was an enigma. That light ended a ways up. The tunnel widened ahead, that much she could see, but whatever lay within was cloaked in shadow. Twilight sparked up her own light, but it didn’t penetrate far.

Here it comes, she thought, approaching the chamber, priming her spells. Just waiting for me to…

Twilight placed one hoof across the threshold, shining her light through.

A keen shriek blew straight through her. She slammed a shield down over herself, flaring her wings and roaring into what might have been the most powerful magic bolt she’d ever cast. She caught movement in the corner of one eye and took aim at…

A familiar, eight-legged form.

Twilight gasped and fell backwards, the bolt going wild as she tried to pull all that magic back. It blasted a chunk out of the floor less than two feet away from the spider.

“Ben! I’m sorry! It’s just, you scared me! And, I-I’m…” Twilight stammered, regaining her hooves. She reached toward the spider.

Ben hunched up into himself, the arms he’d been waving in greeting frozen in the air. To Twilight’s horror, he inched away.

A flash of memory: Celestia, blood-soaked and burning, reaching for her. Trying to help her up. She hadn't understood a the time...

“No! I didn’t mean to! Please!”

Ben didn’t run, but he didn’t come forward either. Instead, he pointed, away, into the shadowy cave.

”What? I don’t…” But she looked where he gestured, flaring her light as a horrible, horrible guilt wracked her.

Then she gasped again, recoiling once more.

Dozens of pairs of eyes, glowing like a swarm of cats, watched her from the darkness. For a time, they did nothing. Just looked.

Then one pair turned aside, blowing lightly into one of those strange sconces. It ignited, revealing a liquid glitter around the eyes that lit it. Another head followed suit, and then one more, and so on until the room was bright enough to see the whole tableau clearly. Even then, it took Twilight quite some time to understand what she was looking at.

They were just heads! How many!? Dozens! They weren’t even real heads, just skulls! And every one of them from a different animal. One was a deer, another maybe a wolf, the third had clearly once been a pony! She couldn’t even recognize half of them. All of them had those glowing eyes. All of them stared at her. They just hung there, watching And nothing held them up! No, wait. That glistening stuff around them. It…connected them. Every strand, or neck, or whatever, it all led to…her eyes traced the path of one tendril back to a mass of viscous, translucent slime the size of a small lake.

In the back of her mind, as she struggled not to vomit, Twilight wondered if Tartarus’s entire plan weren’t just to test the fortitude of her stomach.

“Greetings,” said the skulls.

Twilight reeled, her mind a total blank.

“Ah. You are surprised at me. We forget, sometimes, that I am disturbing to other creatures.” Several of the skulls tilted, like they were thinking, or talking silently amongst themselves. A few nodded.

“It occurs to us that us that I may have revealed ourselves at an unfortunate juncture. Please, take a moment,” said the slime-skulls in unholy unison. “We will be patient while you recover. I get so few visitors, after all.”

Twilight had been counting heads while the creature (creatures?) spoke. She hadn’t meant to. It was just kind of a thing she did. She was at thirty-seven when she regained the ability to think in words.

Is it going to kill me and take my skull?

Thirty-eight, thirty nine…

Is this what Tartarus has been driving me to? Or Ben? Why isn’t it attacking? How does it even talk? She gazed with horrid fascination into the liquid ‘flesh’ around the skulls and noticed that there were actually layers to it. Smooth lines of pseudo-muscle covered in a film of opalescent ‘skin.’ There were vertebrae too, but not nearly enough to support all that mass. Just a smattering of bones suspended in gravity-defying jelly.

Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven...

Be polite, stupid! Stop staring and always be polite! That’s the rule! But she couldn’t look away. This thing was like a train wreck in a graveyard.

Annnnnd fifty.

Wait. Fifty heads? There was something important about that number.

Twilight’s face screwed up as a question she’d asked of Celestia was suddenly answered.

“You’re a hekatonkheire,” she said, voice a wonder-struck whisper.

The hundred eyes glinted with amusement as one skull answered.

“Aye.”

Twilight took yet more time to digest that.

“But,” she blurted before she could stop herself. “You have the heads, sort of, but what about the hundred…”

As Twilight watched, the lake of slime extruded a pseudopod. As it reached for one of the heads, it broke up into fingers, sharp little bones of some unidentifiable animal’s paw flowing up into place at each joint to form a massive claw. The elbow sank to the ground, the hand formed a fist, and the skull it had reached for descended to rest upon it.

“Hands. Oh.”

Twilight’s mind filled itself with trivia in a desperate attempt to make the gears whirling freely within catch and start working again. The hekatonkheire were guardians, just like Cerberus. There had been no real descriptions of what they actually looked like, and Twilight had always wondered how something with so many heads and hands could possibly work. Now she knew. Yay...

Anyway, they were supposedly some of the strongest beings alive. In the top ten, at least. Unbeatable. And there were three of them. They kept things from getting out of Tartarus.

This, Twilight decided, could be very, very bad.

‘Ahhhhh, but we are pleased to hear that someone out there still knows of me. Can you also tell me then, dear creature. What is my name?”

The question was cordial enough, but a few heads leaned in, lidless eyes watching with a strange hunger.

“I, uh…” Is this some sort of test? Will he let me go if I know? There were lots of stories like that, where the plucky heroine, through a combination of good manners, perseverance and dumb luck, managed to learn the monster’s name and thereby gain power over it. But I don’t have any of those! How am I supposed to know!?

“I’m sorry! I’m being a terrible guest! I’m just a little frazzled right now, so I apologize if I’ve been rude, just walking into your home like this.” She tried to backpedal, but found that Bait had decided that the room’s best hiding place was directly behind her. “Um, I’m Twilight Sparkle.”

Yes! Stall for time! Get clues!

“We forgive your trespass, and thank you for your name, Equestrian. We had wondered about it, as I watched your progress. We take it then, that you do not know me? Unfortunate. But hardly surprising. It has been a very long time since I walked the lands of ponies. Still, we had hoped…”

He’s been watching me? He knows where I’m from!? He’s been to Equestria!?!? Agghh how am I supposed to know his name!?

“Wait! No! Um, you’re…” Well, she had a one in three chance. “Gyges?”

A silence greeted Twilight. Oh no. It’s gonna take my skull!

Then a great cacophony of wet, chattering horror filled the chamber. It took Twilight some time to recognize it as laughter. Every head bobbed up and down with it. Wait, no, not all of them. Three were still. Their stares were chilling, frozen with an intensity of emotion Twilight didn’t understand. Did that mean something? She shuddered.

“Hah! No, no, I am not Gyges. He will laugh as much as we, when he hears I was mistaken for him. Still, your knowledge does you credit, pony. Hahaheh. Do you know of the other names, then? Please, do try again to tell me my name.” Several more hands poured up from the lake as the creature heaved itself up into a different position.

Twilight didn’t quite get the joke, but most of the skulls seemed happy enough, and now it was fifty-fifty. She pulled her gaze away from the three silent heads.

“Alright. Your name is Cottus.”

The mass of heads and slime collapsed in hilarity. A surge of irrational annoyance ran through Twilight. It wasn’t like she had anything to go on here! Ugh! Well, fine. Only one name left.

“Okay, so, you must be Briareos?”

“Aye! Well done, Twilight Sparkle. Tell me also then, who are these others who have followed you here?”

“Oh! Of course! This is…” Twilight had shift around a bit to reveal Bait. “Bait. He’s a friend. And that’s Ben.” She gestured towards the spider. “Who is also a very good friend of mine.” She might have exaggerated a bit, but she just really wanted to be sure Ben knew that right now.

“Friend, she says. Intriguing. But, if you would appease my curiosity on another subject first? How did you come to Tartarus?”

“Oh, well, that’s a good question, actually. I’m not entirely sure. There was some kind of spell, and—“

“A spell?” interrupted Briareos. “That sent you into Tartarus? Hrmm. Concerning. Yes, very concerning, that such a thing could be. Was it you who cast this spell, Twilight Sparkle?”

Again, the question was polite, but there was an edge to the voices. A hundred eyes watched Twilight keenly. Err, almost a hundred. Some were looking elsewhere, almost like they were bored.

“I, no. I—“

Every head slid smoothly toward her, surrounding, watching. Even the ones that had seemed distracted before.

“I will warn you once against lying to me, Twilight Sparkle, in return for the courtesy you have shown us.”

“It was somepony named Artifice!” she cried. “I don’t even know how she did it!”

Briareos peered at her a moment more, then most of his heads receded, leaving only a dozen directly facing her. The rest floated off on their tendrils, many rising up so high that Twilight couldn’t follow them.

“We believe you,” said several of those that remained. “That you came with Celestia speaks, hm, favorably of you. But what became of this ‘Artifice?’ We should very much like to meet this pony. Very much indeed.”

What did he mean by 'favorably?'

“I have no idea what happened to her, but I don’t think she came here. And I don’t know how the spell worked, or why she used it, other than as some kind of crazy scheme to kidnap Princess Celestia or something.”

“Ahh. Unfortunate. We would have much to discuss with her.”

Briareos’s voice had taken on a vaguely menacing tone that Twilight didn’t care for at all. She had no reason to wish anything but disaster on the pony who had sent her here, but even so, Twilight wouldn’t have told him anything if she’d known it. Not when he talked like that.

“Another time, perhaps. If you will allow me another question?” Briareos didn’t wait for an answer. “You have done quite well in Tartarus, for one who was not placed here by intent. Are you certain you don’t belong?”

Quite well? He thought she was donequite well!? Twilight said nothing for a while, fighting hard to quash the hopeless fury filling her belly.

“May I ask you a question, Briareos?”

“Why, certainly.”

“Are you going to try to stop me from leaving?”

Too many eyes glimmered with mischief. “Afraid I’m going to steal you away and keep you forever, little pony? Take your skull, perhaps, to add to my collection?”

A chill ran up Twilight’s spine. She couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be a joke or a threat. Most of the voices were friendly, but others practically dripped with animus.

Briareos waved one slime-hand airily.

“You need have no fear of that, Twilight Sparkle. I was born with more than my share of skulls, and besides, I already have a pony.” The skull in question swung forward. “Not a unicorn, alas. I have always admired those horns...” Two other heads appraised the first while the rest continued to speak. “But I digress. And no, you are free to pass, if your story is true. It is my task to prevent escape to inmates, not travel to tourists. As to your little, heh, friends, though…”

Briareos’s many eyes stared intently at Bait. Twilight flared a shielding wing over him. Not that there was anywhere to hide.

“Well,” continued the skeletal chorus, “we suppose the loss of a single wight is no great thing. And the other was never meant to be here in the first place. No, we will not attempt to stop your party, Twilight Sparkle. We believe your words. I only asked because we hoped you might wish to stay.”

“Why would anyone want to stay here!?”

She regretted the words immediately. They’d just jumped out. Had she yelled them? And now one of the heads was glaring at her with that cold, cold gaze. A different one answered.

“Ahh.” His voice quavered, whistling in the silence. “Now there is a question we have pondered for far too long.”

The silence lingered.

“I’m sorry,” said Twilight, again. “May I ask another question?” Yes! Good! Change the subject! Keep things moving.

“Please do.”

“You keep saying ‘I’ then ‘We.’ Are you, um…why is that?”

“Ah!” said several heads, perking up. “Yes. I say ‘I’ on those few occasions that all of me agrees on a subject, or in the case that it is a simple statement of fact. The more common ‘we’ is used when there is some debate.”

“Oh, okay. I suppose that makes sense. Do all of your heads think, though? Like, independently?”

Briareos turned to regard himself.

“We suppose you could say so. Do your parts not do the same?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Hmm. Yes, we remember now. You single-headed creatures are often fascinated with the idea that I might think in several ways at once. I seem to recall having heard though, on many occasions, of your heads conflicting with your hearts, or other such bits of yourselves. Is this not so?”

“Well," Twilight pondered that. "I think that’s just metaphorical. Our hearts don’t literally think for themselves.”

“Are you certain?” Briareos’s eyes twinkled with amusement. Most of them, anyway. “Your tail twitches when you are confused. Your wings and eyes flare wide when frightened. All of this is intentional? All of it guided by what’s in your head?”

“I-uh.” Twilight felt her tail twitch. “Hm.”

“Quite so. We suspect that my manners of thought are not so different from yours. But alas, one can never truly know another’s mind, can they?”

Another little chill ran through Twilight. Briareos had been using the plural a lot. Especially when regarding questions about his intent. Was one head in charge? What happened if one of the others suddenly took over? Should she ask?

“I suppose not. Um, may I ask one more thing?”

Briareos waved an arm, inviting.

“It’s just, earlier you said ‘we’ forgive your trespass. And that ‘we’ won’t try to stop…”

Twilight looked up to see many more heads had joined the previous dozen. Their eyes ranged from friendly to frightening to utterly unreadable. He took a long time in answering.

“Indeed.”

“Okay! Well, it’s been lovely meeting you Briareos, but I think I should be on my way now.” Twilight’s eyes darted about, looking for exits. To her surprise, she found there were many. This cave appeared to be a nexus of tunnels. Plenty of places to run, and no idea where they led. Great. Wonderful.

A slight tremor passed through the translucent flesh of the hekatonkhire. Several jaws ground shut, many hands clenched…and then it passed. Most of the heads drifted away, leaving only, Twilight couldn’t help but notice, the most pleasant ones. The worst, those with eyes full of cold fury or alien strangeness were pulled back into the creature’s slimy, central mass. Pushed in and down and far, far from the surface. When the remainders spoke, their voices were entirely polite, with no trace of the malice from before.

“Of course, Twilight Sparkle. We would be happy to guide you.”

Twilight opened her mouth, but she’d lost all of her words.

“There are many ways to return to your home,” began Briareos, “but the most direct at this particular time appears to be…”

Twilight watched several strands of the slime-stuff stretch and shift as the hekatonkhire moved its more distant heads through the tunnels, searching.

“Through Blackbriar,” he said, pointing to one particularly dark and foreboding hole. “Or the Harrowing.” A second hand gestured toward another, even worse looking exit. “The Crimson is also relatively quiet. Though,” Briareos continued, placing one finger against one jawbone. “If you find my visage unpleasant, I would suggest avoiding the last.”

“Oh, um, thank you.” Twilight started toward the Crimson for no particular reason, then stopped as she noticed the red, dripping, wetness within. She turned about, following the finger that still pointed to another hole in the cave. Blackbriar, maybe. She’d trotted several steps before she remembered herself. She turned, and with a quick bow, said “My apologies, again, for intruding. And thank you, Briareos.”

“It was no trouble." Another tremor shook the creature. “We wish you a safe…” His last word was a mournful whisper. “Escape.”

Twilight had already begun making her jittery way to the tunnel. She just needed to be out, to be away from all this. She turned back once, just to make sure Bait and Ben were with her, but she couldn’t stop herself from seeing the rest of the scene.

Briareos watched her go, nearly all of him. Not quite a hundred eyes. A dozen hands almost reached out. Jaws twitched open, almost speaking.

But nothing came.

He let her go.

Hatred

View Online

That last image of the hekatonkhire gnawed at her. Twilight had heard lots of stories about immortal guardians like him, but she’d never stopped to really think about what their lives might actually be like. What did you do with eternity in a place like this, without anyone to share it with?

Their conversation played over and over in her head. Had he meant to be so frightening? Or had it just been so long since he’d seen anyone who wasn't overtly hostile that he’d forgotten how to be anything else? She had this sick suspicion that she’d misjudged him in the worst way, that she’d been blinded by his hideous, bizarre form and had run away out of nothing more than base disgust. But…had the aching loneliness she’d seen in him even been real? She would swear it was, but those other heads…

She shivered, as much from the sudden chill in the air as from her plague of self-doubt. This place was cold. She could see her breath steaming, but only just barely. It was a dark in here as it was cold. Maybe even more, and in a way even the underground hadn’t been. Twilight had her light amped up as high as it would go, and she could barely see a dozen yards.

“Bait?”

The colt looked up at her. That was the first thing she’d said since they’d left the huge intersection of tunnels.

“Do you, um, should we have stayed back there, with Briareos?”

“What? No! He was crazy!” The words were quiet, but vehement. Still, they didn't travel far. This place ate sound just as well as it did light, it seemed.

“Okay. But did he seem, I dunno, lonely to you? Like maybe he just wanted to talk?”

Bait frowned, thinking.

“Well, maybe. But still. He would have turned on us if we’d stayed. My uncle Snare met something like that once. He said she was really nice, and he would sneak off to go talk to her sometimes, even though everybody told him not to. He wouldn’t tell us where she was, but I followed him one time, 'cause Switch made me. I heard them talking, and it sounded fine at first. But after a while, it...I dunno. It went wrong. Snare said the wrong thing, I guess. Whoever he was talking to got mad, started screaming. I ran away then, so I didn’t see what happened. All I ever saw of him after that was his leg, just lying out in one of the caves. It wasn't even close to where they’d been.” He shrugged, as though this were a perfectly logical outcome. “Talking’s just something creatures do when they can’t sneak up on you instead. Well,” he said with a quick smile. “Except for you.”

Twilight gave him a weak grin, feeling absolutely nauseated by this place.

Ben shifted position on her back, reminding her of the other friendship she’d possibly ruined in that lair.

“Ben?”

He chirped.

“I’m sorry I shot at you. I shouldn't, I—“ Her throat caught on what she was trying to say. That she'd nearly killed him. That she'd nearly exploded one of her only friends in this pit because, just for a second, she'd been certain that he was going to betray her. That she'd suspected him, Ben, who had only ever tried to help her, of...of what? She couldn’t for the life of her even remember why she would ever have thought such a thing! “I should have been more careful! I'm sorry. I—“

Ben scampered up her neck and plopped himself down on top of her head. He patted her muzzle with one leg.

Twilight stopped mid-step. Then she laughed. Nothing was funny, and it wasn't much of a laugh, but still. She’d been all worked up, ready to make this big, tearful confession about what a terrible pony she was, but with a simple tap on the nose, Ben had knocked all the drama straight out of her. So she laughed.

Ben, for his part, had a confession of his own. It was really his fault, he seemed to say. He shouldn't have scared her like that. With a slightly sheepish chitter, Ben admitted that he didn’t always have the best judgement when it came to jump-scaring people.

“Yeah, okay.” Twilight smiled up at the spider, shook herself a bit, and got back to the business of walking. “But, Ben?”

He chirped again.

“Why did you run off like that? Did you know Briareos was in there?”

Ben scampered down onto Twilight’s back where she could see him. He made an affirmative sounding noise.

“Do you know him?”

Ben made an indefinite motion.

“So, was he safe? Should we have stayed for a while? Should we go back?”

Ben tilted from side to side, then waved two arms and pointed decidedly ahead. Twilight interpreted that as ‘maybe,' 'no,' and 'definitely not, we should keep moving.’

“Well, alright. But please don’t run away again, okay?”

Ben gave a solemn, spider-ish nod. Twilight nodded back.

That was that then. Just keep on keeping on.

“So…” Twilight asked to no one in particular. “Anypony know anything about this place? Blackbriar, I think it's called?”

Bait shook his head and Ben drummed his feet front to back, which Twilight was pretty sure was his version of a shrug.

Nothing more was said for some time. The atmosphere here was stifling, the dark blanketing them tight like a physical thing. There was nothing to see, no particular smell to the place, no sounds at all. The road was marked by a narrow path of slightly smoother dirt, but that was about it.

Twilight stopped when she saw the first thorny shrub appear. A briar, of course. So it wasn’t just a clever name. The bush's spiky protrusions ended just shy of the road, same as every other plant she’d seen in Tartarus. How did that work? Who kept these things in their place? Furthermore, how was a plant even growing down here, with no light? Was this even a ‘down here,’ really? Twilight shined her light straight up, but saw no ceiling. No sky, no stars, no huge, burning ring. Nothing. But this place didn’t feel like a cave, so where was everything?.

Despite the flood of mental questions, all Twilight managed was a simple “Hm.” The gloom here was infectious. She turned back to the road and kept on walking. Bait stayed close, and she welcomed the contact for more than just the warmth.

The road took a sudden bend, though it may have only seemed that way because visibility was so strangely poor here. To one side, the source of the detour, was a lake of pitch-black, perfectly still water. Twilight stopped again. She kept her distance, shining her light on it as best she could. The water swallowed it all, revealing nothing, and reflecting even less. Twilight stepped away, unnerved. She didn't know why, and that only made it worse. She pulled Bait close and led him away at a rather quicker pace than before. Alas, the road followed the curve of the lake, and there was nowhere to go but with it.

A wet, liquid noise sounded behind Twilight, as from a rock thrown into water. Or, perhaps, out of water. She stopped and whipped her light into the lake.

Perfectly still. It might as well have been slab of black stone.

Twilight snorted, turning away, keeping her momentum. Bait snuck in closer, and she put a wing over him. She passed more of the spiny plants. They were bigger now, roots thick and heavy. She ignored them. The road wandered, sometimes nearer the water, sometimes further away. A rattling sounded before her, and the noise of something pushing through thick vegetation. Twilight tried to ignore that too.

Her light crossed something lying in the center of the road, and Twilight all but skidded to a halt. She pushed Bait back with a wing, focusing on the intruding object.

It was a skull. A pony skull. It grinned up at her, turned and tilted so as to look her right in the eye as she approached. Whatever was out there had put this here. It, or they, or whatever, wanted her to see it.

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment. Her teeth ground together. A simmering, terrible, horribly familiar feeling swelled in her gut. She stomped a hoof into the dirt.

“I know what you’re doing!”

There was no response. Not even an echo.

“Um, Twili—“

“You’re trying to scare me! You think I haven’t seen this already!?” She tromped forward, toward the skull, pushing Bait back. She lifted Ben with magic and dropped him onto Bait. “You’ll keep doing weird nonsense and making spoOoOoky sounds until you think I’m about to go crazy and then you’ll attack me! Even though I haven’t done anything to you, and all I want is to get out of here! I’m so sick of this! You think I'm afraid of you!?”

Twilight leapt forward and slammed both front hooves into the skull. It splintered with a gratifying crunch.

“Come on then! Come and get me!”

Nothing came. No response at all.

Twilight didn’t dare look back at Bait and Ben. She didn’t even want to know what they thought of her right now.

“Well!?”

Silence reigned.

She snorted.

“Fine. Whatever. Let’s go, Bait.”

The silence carried.

“Bait?”

Twilight turned around. He wasn't there. Nothing was there.

“Bait!?

She ran to where he’d been, blasting her light spell up more, and then more again, flailing it from side to side. But she couldn’t see him! He was gone!

No! Nonono! Had she scared him off? Had he run away? It couldn’t be! Ben wouldn’t have run, and—

“Bait! Say something!”

She heard a noise, out there, in the dark. A tiny murmuring. Her ears twitched, seeking the sound.

The sound grew louder, swelling slowly up around her.

It was laughter. Echoing, taunting. Coming from all around and nowhere in particular.

The anger that had been building exploded through Twilight.

“GIVE THEM BACK!!” She stomped the ground with both front hooves and a scintillating nimbus of lavender light shot out all around her. She hadn’t even meant to do that, but it was welcome.

She heard surprise in the voice, or maybe voices, around her. Surprise, and, she noted with no small amount of satisfaction, just the slightest bit of fear.

“What’s the matter!? Can’t handle a few sparkles!?” she bellowed. She didn’t know her eyes were glowing with brilliant inner light. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have messed with somepony with Sparkle in her name!”

She pulled in everything she had, forging every bit of power and will and everything else into a single idea: Light. She fired off as big a flare as she’d ever seen. It burst in the sky, or whatever was up there, and she had to shield her eyes from the glare. It was only after it faded some that she actually saw what surrounded her. They were hideous, misshapen things! Dozens of them. Dozens of dozens! More poured up out of the lake, the ‘water’ rising and turning to flesh before her. So many! And what she saw in their eyes wasn’t fear. It was pure. It was refined. And it was nothing she could hope to fight with one over-powered light spell.

Hatred.

They poured over Twilight like a crashing wave, roaring, howling, drowning. She fought them. She fought with more than she’d ever known she had, kicking, goring, blasting with every spell she knew. She even bit some of them. But they were inexorable as the tide, and in the end she could only watch as her hooves dug furrows in the dirt, inching ever toward those black waters.

~~~

Well. That’s that, I guess. I’m done. Dead. Tragic, to have seen all this amazing, if terrifying, stuff, and then die. To have learned so much and not to be able to tell anyone. I’d have liked to write a book about everything I went through here. Now I guess I never will. I’ll never write anything. I’ll never get to put my drop into that great ocean of knowledge that got me through so many trying times.

Tragic. Really trag…Wait. Am I floating?

Twilight stumbled into wakefulness. She lifted two hooves up where she could see them, and it hurt. She was bruised, beat up, in pain, but by Celestia she was alive! She almost laughed with the simple, stupid joy of it.

Twilight craned her head about, hoping to get some sort of bearing. Her whole body moved with the motion. She had to swing her hooves and beat her wings a bit to make sense of it.

Okay then. Yes, she was floating. Was she in water? Was she drowning!?

She tried to breathe, and found that she couldn’t. But she didn’t seem to need to either. So that was good? Or something?

She looked up, and found that she could see again. Nice. The impenetrable dark from before had faded, sort of. She could see clearly, but only up, like she was looking through some sort of big window above her. She looked up further and saw that terrible burning ring in the sky. It didn’t seem to see her though, not this time. So…there really was no ceiling to this place. But then, why was it so dark?

She looked around, but saw only endless blackness to the left and right. Or, wait. Was there somepony else floating out there?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats above her. She looked up to see herself gazing down at her. Except...not. Her face was broken, shattered. It was Twilight Sparkle as seen through some sort of distorted, ghastly funhouse mirror.

She stared. The other her stared back. Then she smiled. The other one, that is. She reached a hoof down, toward the water.

Twilight didn’t know what to do. She worried, for a bit, that she had completely lost her mind, and that none of this was real. Maybe she really had died. But she still hurt, so that must mean something right? She reached toward the hoof that her twisted doppelganger offered. Her leg bounced off the surface of the water.

The other Twilight’s smile turned a bit, confused. Twilight tried again, and again her hoof hit some kind of barrier, unable to pass through. Not-Twilight’s expression went from confused to concerned. She waved Twilight forward, urging her on. 'Just step out,' she seemed to say.

Twilight tried once more, but she couldn’t do it. The water was somehow unbreakable. She pawed at it with her other hoof, to the same effect.

Her other self seemed to be getting upset.

“I’m sorry!” said Twilight. Her voice warbled in this watery realm. “I don’t know what to do! Hang on! Let me try—”

She fired up her horn, thinking maybe she could just teleport out or something. She funneled magic through herself and…nothing. She couldn’t even feel it. It was like trying to flex a leg and finding it suddenly wasn’t there.

“I, uh, wait. No! I can do this!”

The other Twilight watched her with growing horror.

And then she smiled again. A leering grin full of big, sharp, misshapen teeth. And she laughed.

“I can’t believe you actually fell for it!”

Twilight gaped up at her.

“Girls! Come look! She actually thought I was gonna help her! Hahahah! Can you believe that!?” The doppelganger nearly fell over laughing, and she was rapidly joined by far too many others just like her.

Well, not like her at all, really. Each one was different. Every one of them was its own monstrous, horrible interpretation of what might have once been a normal creature. There was a mess of a griffon, and that one over there had probably once been some sort of yak. But, in their horror, they had certain things in common.

“What a dunce! You don’t even know what’s happening, do you?”

Twilight's gaze snapped back up, her eyes locking with the one monster pretending to be her. She was boiling inside.

“What are you?” The fury in Twilight's hissed words surprised even her.

“Oh, you want to know about little ol’ me?” asked the fake, preening. “I’m you, of course!”

“You’re not me. Anybody could see that.”

“I am!” shot back the clone. Her eyes glinting with fury, if just for a moment. “I might not be perfect yet, but it’s just a matter of time till I become more than you ever were. Just think of it: You. Twilight Sparkle! Best unicorn ever! Except without all those doubts and worries and other stupid little weaknesses you’ve been letting hold you back. I mean, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to be you yet, but I see a lot of potential in me. So much magic in here!” She crowed, flaring her wings and, if Twilight wasn’t mistaken, checking herself out. “I’m going to have a wonderful time wrecking all those precious, eh, what do you call those…friendships! Yes! Wrecking all those friendships of yours. And don’t even get me started on the things I’ll be doing with this Princess you’re always thinking about! What’s her name? Hang on. Celestia! Heheh. Everything you’ve always wanted but were too afraid to take. All. Mine. Too bad you won’t be around for the show.” She leered down.

Twilight’s eyes narrowed. She struggled to think through the growing terror of her situation. Was she some kind of changeling? Had she actually taken her magic somehow?

“Let me out. Now.

“Or what?” Her double cackled. “You gonna give us another big, scaAaAary light show?” She gestured with her stolen wings, mugging for the other abominations. They tittered obligingly. “Yeah, that really worked out for you.”

Twilight ground her teeth.

“At least let the others go. They’re weak. They’re no use to you, right?”

“Hah! See? This is exactly what I’m talking about! Trying to throw your life away for those losers? That’s just stupid. Besides, can you imagine the looks on their faces when I betray the, uh, the wight. He’s um, Lure, or something? Bait! When I betray Bait, looking like you? Priceless!”

“They’ll never fall for it. You look nothing like me. You can barely even get their names straight!”

The clone’s smile cracked.

“SHUT UP!! His name’s Bait! I knew what it was!”

Wait. Wait! Did her double actually have her memories, or were those as fragmented as she seemed to be? She chose her next words carefully. She had to keep this one talking, she had to think.

“What did you do to me? Why isn’t my magic working?”

The clone grinned again, reclaiming her air of superiority as quickly as she’d lost it.

“I thought you were supposed to be smart! But fine, since you’re clearly a little slow, I’ll spell it out for you.”

Yes, please do, genius.

“You’re mine. Everything you had is mine now! Your face, your powers, your memory, all of it! And anything I might have missed, I’ll get eventually. That’s how it works. The longer you’re in there, the more I get out here. On that note, look under you real quick.”

The mutated clone of Twilight pointed a hoof down.

Twilight did as she was told, but took her time about it. Her mind whirled furiously, seeking some angle. The clone was twisted and mean like a changeling, but something was off. Those other shapeshifters had been nearly flawless in their disguise. This one…did she even know she looked wrong? And she was clearly unstable. Twilight could use this, somehow. But she had to look down eventually. What she saw there very nearly shut her down completely.

Bones.

A massive, endless pile of bones. A mountain of them, rising up from the unseen depths. Twilight jerked herself away from it, looked back up into the warped grin of her double. She was fractured. Warped. Like a funhouse…Mirror pond! Except this one kept the original. And it was…broken?

“Do you get it yet?” asked her false copy. Her eyes lit up with the color of Twilight’s own magic, but they were tainted with a deep green.

Dark magic.

That explained a thing or two. Twilight had learned a bit about dark magic, after the Sombra incident. Powerful stuff, but it had one big problem. Normal magic was just a tool, something one used for other ends. Dark magic tended to be of the opinion that it was the end itself. It altered everything it touched.

“You were, and I do mean were, pretty strong, so thanks for that, idiot. But hey, don’t worry, your friends or whatever will be down there with you soon, so at least you won’t die al—“

It wasn’t a reflection, this thing before her. It was an inversion. She’d seen this before. The mirror in the Crystal Castle had taken something Twilight loved and turned it back on her. Discord had done something similar to her friends, taken what was best about them and flipped it inside out, leaving only the worst aspects of their personalities and exaggerating them. So this was what the worst of her looked like…

“Hey! Are you even listening to me!?”

Cruel. Impatient. Egotistical. Very smart, sure, but thoroughly insecure. Volatile. Twilight stopped short of using the word ‘crazy,’ even though it fit. This was everything she hated about herself, right here in front of her. It was painful to watch. But still…yes. She could work with this.

“Oh, I’m listening. And I think I’ve heard enough.”

The not-Twilight paused, looking back and forth at the other mutants around her.

“What?”

“I know what you are now.”

The clone snorted. “Oh, this oughta be good.”

“You’re not me. You never even could be. You’re nothing.”

The doppelganger’s face went still.

“I, you see, am a perfectionist. If I showed up trying to impersonate me, looking like you do, I’d be embarrassed. Humiliated. You can’t even get the basics right. You couldn’t pass a basic exam about being me. Do you even know the spider’s name? The one you’re so excited about being able to betray?”

“I know its name! It’s, it’s um—“

“It? Really? You don’t even know the gender?”

“Shut up! I do know!”

One of the other monsters stepped toward the not-Twilight, putting a freakish hand on her shoulder, maybe trying to calm her. She whipped around and smashed the thing away with bolt of force.

“BACK OFF!! It’s a he! The spider is male!”

Okay, very volatile.

“Oh, veeeery good. You managed to guess right on a fifty/fifty. Well done.”

The clone ground her teeth and glared flaming daggers at Twilight.

It was a little concerning how easy this was, destroying herself. But then, Sunset Shimmer and Starlight Glimmer had been pretty good teachers when it came to being a total jerk.Twilight gave her clone the best slow clap she could manage.

"STOP THAT!"

“Or what?" asked Twilight, glad that there was something between her and her corrupted self. She wasn't sure what, exactly, she was even trying to do. Make the other her do something stupid, she supposed. “See? You’re not me at all. Because you’re something I would never be. You…” Twilight hid her own revulsion at saying this behind a dramatic pause. “Are a failure.”

Seeing her double’s face after that one was like watching the first rumblings of a soon-to-be very, very active volcano.

“I’LL BEAT YOU BRAINLESS, YOU LITTLE SNOT!”

A shroud of mystic force slammed into place around Twilight. She lost the next few moments to a rushing sensation, followed by a hard impact to one side. She bounced, vision swimming, and rolled, and finally stopped. Her next living memory was of groaning, and trying to stagger to her hooves. Someone screamed something at her, but she couldn’t hear the words over the sound of her lungs violently ejecting water out of her nose and mouth. Her ensuing struggle to remember how to breathe absorbed all her attention.

“Take it back!!”

She looked up to her own contorted face. Tears streamed down it. Heh. Idiot. She'd pulled her out of the pond. All Twilight had to do now was—

“Say it!"

Another sharp impact rang through Twilight's chest. Twilight stumbled away, barely standing.

"Say I’m not a failure!!”

She didn’t see the hit before it came, but her jaw rang with it, and she fell down again.

“Get up! GET UP! I’m not a failure! I’m better than you! I’ll prove it!”

Twilight opened her eyes from the ground and saw a hundred more mutants, just like her own. She managed a weak chuckle.

All she had to do now was...win this fight. Just beat them all. Sure. Easy. Hah...

She was surprised that she wasn’t scared. She knew she should be. But maybe she’d just run out of fear. Somehow it didn’t matter anymore. She’d beaten herself, sort of, and how could a pony ask for more than that? She hoped Bait and Ben would be okay. She felt bad that she wouldn't be able to help them anymore, but she'd tried, darn it. She'd given everything she'd had.

A reverberating *boom* sounded from somewhere nearby. A flash of light came with it, and a clamoring voice, howling what sounded like a challenge. Twilight couldn’t hear the words. Her doppelganger turned towards the sound, but only for a moment. That vile head whipped back to face Twilight.

“Hah! I was just gonna kill you, but now I know something even better! I’m gonna go make some more ‘friends!’ And you’ll get to sit here and watch while I kill them!” She sauntered toward Twilight, leaning down to loom over her.

From her vantage on the dirt, Twilight felt more than heard the rapid staccato of hoofbeats, coming so fast that she almost thought they couldn't be from a single pony.

“What’s the matter? Was that all you had? Nothing to say, now that I've won?” Not-Twilight tsked. “Who’s the failure now?”

Twilight said nothing. The sound was getting louder. The other creatures were reacting now, turning towards it, chattering amongst themselves. Many were already heading towards it.

“Pathetic. Maybe I will just kill you. I mean, I was going to eventually anyway, but—“

Another *boom* sounded, another blast of clean, bright light burst through the murky darkness. Another bellow of simple, holy *truth* blew through the air. Twilight barely recognized it. But recognize it she did. Her horrible double didn't.

"Alright, what even is th—"

“Do you know what really makes me strong?” asked Twilight. She slowly, painfully rose from the mud.

“What? Nothing! You’re a joke!”

A half dozen disembodied spirits flew past them, banished back to the morbid void of the lake. The clone’s eyes went wide, but Twilight didn’t give her time to think about what that meant.

“You think it's the magic that does it? You've got all my memories, right? Think about it. Was I really anything special before I got to Ponyville? I'm barely better at magic now than I was then.”

The mirror's face contorted as she tried to remember, struggled to puzzle it out.

Yes. Good. Keep watching me, Twilight thought. Don't even think about what's coming, you monster.

“It’s not the wings either, nice as they are. Or this whole 'being a princess thing.' Do you really not know? It's so obvious!"

A series of blasts blew through the miasma of shadow. A coruscating beam cut it like a thin mist. More, more and more spirits rushed across Twilight's vision on their way back to the black water. Too many to count.

"It’s everything you claimed to want to destroy!"

The clone snorted, eyes flaring with noxious power. Drops of it fell down her broken muzzle. “Your little friends aren't here. They won’t save y—”

She disintegrated in a torrent of golden-white fire. There was a timeless moment after that, a slice of time wherein the image of her clone’s final expression of disbelief burned itself forever onto Twilight’s eyes. The spirit howled a silent scream of frustrated fury as it was dragged inevitably into the dark waters from which it had come.

There were more explosions. More blasts. A scream, huge, endless, echoing from uncounted lips. Creatures of all shapes and sizes thundered past Twilight, snarling, snapping, running. Away. Away from the great, glorious blaze before her. Twilight shuffled up, looked directly into that blinding brilliance…and ran straight to it. She ran until she couldn’t breathe for the heat, she ran until the ends of her smoldered and then she ran on still, until finally she met the core of that living sun, and she found, when she got there, that it didn’t burn at all. There was only warmth, and comfort, and soft fur and hard muscle and a soothing voice that told her that finally, finally it was all going to be okay.

Celestia.



Celestia!

Shaken

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Twilight wrapped herself around that strong, familiar neck and nearly sobbed into it. She was alive! She was here! She…smelled. Like, smelled, smelled. She reeked of fire and sweat and things Twilight didn’t let herself think about just yet. It was weird.

Twilight heard words she barely understood, and she must have answered them, but she didn't really register it. She just sort of coasted through for a while.

“Are you alright?”

Not really.

“Is anything broken? Are you hurt? Oh, Heavens above, I’m so sorry, Twilight!”

No, and yes, and...

In a fit of emotion Twilight didn’t understand, she placed both hooves on Celestia’s chest and shoved her away.

“Sorry!? You’re sorry!? Where have you been!? You said you’d always be here, and, and you…”

Twilight collapsed back into Celestia’s embrace, the storm passing as swiftly as it had come. They just held each other for a long time after that, until Twilight finally managed to force a few words out.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean that."

Celestia stroked her neck with a wing.

“It’s okay, Twilight. I think I-it’s…You’re right. I failed you, Twilight. In every possible way. I’m sorry. I won‘t ask for forgiveness. I don’t, I d-don’t deserve it. But I am so sorry! For all of this! For everything!”

Twilight pulled away just far enough to see her mentor’s face. Tears streaked down it. It was all screwed up tight like ponies get when they’re trying so hard to keep it together that they can’t even talk. She opened her mouth to say…something. But what in all the Heavens could she say? In all the years she’d known Celestia, Twilight had never once seen her cry.

“I was so stupid!” blurted her teacher. “I should have trusted you! I should have just told you everything. I should have known you could handle this! I-I just….I took one of the bravest, most capable ponies I’ve ever known and I treated you like some, like some lost little filly who couldn’t…a-and then I scared you away and you c-could have died out here! An-and—“

Celestia's breath hitched and whatever else she had been about to say fizzled out as Twilight slowly lay her head on Celestia’s neck and just held her.

“I’m sorry, Twilight!” she hissed. “For everything! It shouldn’t have been this way! I’m sorry!”

For the second time today, Twilight held someone tight and tried to reassure them when she’d expected to be the one getting reassured. It was surreal. It was almost funny, to be doing this for Celestia. Such a perfect reversal of roles. Her head was in such a whirl that she honestly didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry or curl up under her Princess’s wings and wait for it all to just go away.

“I’m sorry I ran away.”

That was all she could think to do. Apologize. Again.

They both just stayed there, trying to figure this out, for a long time.

Finally, Celestia gave Twilight a squeeze as a short, sobbing laugh escaped her.

“Well. We’re just a sorry pair aren’t we?" She pulled away, wiping her eyes with a wing. She sniffled in a way that somehow managed to be regal.

Twilight managed a meager smile. Laughing would have been okay, then. Good to know.

“Alright. Enough of that,” said Celestia, sniffling once more. She ruffled her wings back into shape and sat up tall.

Goddess, but she was good at this. Twilight tried not to be jealous. It was just so easy for Celestia to regain her composure. But then, had she, really? Her eyes still gleamed with wetness. And there was something else in there...What was it?

“You’re sure you’re alright?”

Princess Celestia was looking at her with some pretty serious concern. Twilight had no idea what she looked like right now, but she tried to put on a brave face.

“I’ll make it.”

Princess Celestia smiled.

“I know you will.” The Princess hugged her again, smiling, and somehow that one little statement changed everything. No empty consolation there, just confidence. Celestia believed it, and that made it easy for Twilight to believe it too. “You always do. If I had just…Ugh. Well, for what it’s worth, there will be no more of me keeping secrets. If I hadn’t been so busy trying to protect you from from this place..." Her words trailed off into a bitter frown. She glanced down at Twilight, then away quickly. “Well, the point is, I’ll tell you anything you want to know from now on. And I’ll trust you to be able to handle yourself, like I should have from the beginning."

When she looked into Twilight’s eyes again, her face was set. Resolved. But there it was again! That little bit of...what?

Guilt! That was what it was! Twilight had missed it because it didn’t make sense, not on Celestia. Did she think this was her fault!?

“What? No, it wasn’t you! I just didn’t know what was happening! I got scared, and, I mean, I don’t think I would have understood even if you’d told me. I mean, things can be scary sometimes in Equestria, but, this place is, it’s so, it’s…”

It occurred to Twilight that her vocabulary of curse words wasn’t nearly up to the task of describing what this place was. She tried borrowing one she'd been hearing a lot of recently.

“It’s just f-f-fucking awful!”

Wow. Twilight had guessed it was a naughty word, but wow. That felt really good to say. Cathartic, even. Must be why every creature around here kept saying it. Maybe it was the hard k. Huh.

Celestia blinked in surprise. Then she melted into a giggling smile.

“And where did you learn that word, young lady?”

Twilight blushed, but she wasn’t really ashamed, and Celestia wasn’t really admonishing her. They were having a moment.

“You’re right, of course,” said Celestia, sidling up next to Twilight and placing a wing over her. “Gods below, I fucking loathe this damned place. But it is so nice to have another pony I can say that to.”

Twilight smiled back up at Celestia’s beaming face.

“Um,” spoke a voice.

Celestia’s wings flared into burning life as she leapt up to meet this new threat.

“Keep your distance, monster!”

A little gray shape fled back behind a bramble and cowered there.

“Wait!” spouted Twilight. “It’s okay! I know him.” She laid a calming wing on Celestia and stepped lightly towards the thorny shrub. It didn’t occur to her until later that she had, for the very first time, overruled her Princess.

“Bait? It’s okay. You can come out. She was just protecting me.”

The wight peeked his head out, just barely. Twilight smiled at him.

“Princess? This is Bait. My friend.”

Celestia looked honestly flummoxed. She stared at Twilight, then at Bait. He flinched away from her gaze.

“Your…friend?”

"Absolutely! Is Ben with you, Bait?”

The spider clambered up to a more visible spot on the wight’s back. He chirped.

“Oh, thank goodness! I was afraid I’d lost you two!” Twilight ran around the bramble and hugged them both. She pulled Bait out from behind it a moment later.

“Bait, this is Princess Celestia. I told you about her before, remember?”

Bait looked even smaller and more terrified that usual. The second Twilight got him clear of the bramble, which took some doing, he hit the dirt in graceless supplication before Princess Celestia.

Ben, in stark contrast, gave Celestia a familiar wave.

"Bait?"

He didn't respond, other than to shiver a bit.

“You are certain, Twilight, that this wight is your friend?” Celestia was looking at the colt, her expression strange and contemplative.

Twilight wasn't quite sure what to make of what was going on between the colt and the Princess.

“What? Sure. He saved my life!” Twilight beamed at the both of them. "Um, Bait? It's okay, you can get up."

He didn't move.

"Allow me, Twilight," said Celestia, striding forward. "Bait, is it? Rise."

Twilight ears perked up. Princess Celestia had suddenly become very Royal.

Bait did as he was bidden, still shaking.

"My people and yours have had something of an unpleasant history, and it is obvious that the wights have not forgotten our conflict. But that conflict is not with you. If Twilight Sparkle's words are true, and I have all faith that they are, then you have nothing to fear from me. On the contrary, you have done both her and myself a great service, and I am in your debt. Do you understand?"

Her posture was perfect, face composed and confident. She positively radiated calm and that undeniable, irresistible authority. Goddess, how does she do that!? Twilight had to squelch a wave of awed envy at how absurdly better at being properly Royal Celestia was than her. She saw what she was doing, though. Bait was scared of Celestia, mute with fear. Twilight remembered some of the things he had said about the her. Celestia had been some kind of bogeypony to him. To actually see her before him, and just after having blasted through who knew how many of those horrible mirror monsters...Twilight couldn't imagine how that must feel. So rather than try to calm him with kind words, which he might not even have understood from her, she'd addressed him in a way that made certain he would hear.

It worked.

"Y-yes, Your Highness." Bait wouldn’t meet her eyes, but he seemed more level now.

"Lovely. Now," said Celestia looking from Bait, to Ben, to Twilight. “Why don’t we sit down for a bit, and you can tell me how this came about.”

“Are you sure? I’m fine. We can keep going, if Bait and Ben are good.” Twilight looked at them, concerned in the same way, she realized, that Celestia had been about her. They nodded and saluted, respectively. Her gaze ranged further. The extent of the lake was now clearly visible in the weird, source-less light of Tartarus. It seemed the darkness of this place had been banished along with its creatures. Had Celestia killed them all? And so quickly? Twilight surprised herself by feeling almost nothing at the idea. No panic, no nausea or revulsion. That last image of her double’s face played through her head again, screaming in silence as she was flung back into the pond. Twilight shuddered and pushed it away, but even so...She would have done the same, if she'd been strong enough.

Shaking off her ruminations, Twilight glanced about. Actually, now that she looked, the dark wasn’t all gone. There were still pockets of unnatural shadow sulking in the corners, lurking behind thorny tangles. Even in hiding, the things radiated menace. Twilight looked up, and a roof of solid rock stood firm over her. A bit of relief flooded through her. The Eye wasn’t there. Maybe it couldn’t see them.

“They’re still, um,” said Twilight, pointing toward the closest patch of shadow.

“Oh, those creatures won’t be bothering us again, I think,” answered Celestia. “They’re spiteful things, but cowards in the end.” She fired a gleaming bolt at one patch of darkness. It shrieked softly as it fled further away. “But you’re right. Let’s go. This way.”

Celestia rose and led the little party off the road a ways, towards one wall of the massive space. A small cave opened into it, surrounded by a thorny briar. Celestia walked into the enclosure without a pause, as if she knew nothing resided within. She snapped off several easily snap-able briar branches and set them up in the center of the little shelter, then lit them up with a bit of molten magic, forming a simple campfire. Once they were all within, she hefted a boulder big enough to block the entrance like that wasn’t even a big deal and rolled it into place. She cast another spell that sent a dozen little golden wisps out in a circle, shedding a pleasant light and surrounding the resting place. They drifted into and through the walls and thorny plants like they weren’t even there.

“They’re an early warning spell,” Celestia explained. “They’ll pop if anything frightens them. We should be safe here, for a while at least.” She settled herself down near the fire and invited Twilight to do same, and then Ben and Bait as well. A mildly awkward silence followed.

“So, um,” began Twilight. "You said you’d tell me everything I wanted to know?” she asked, hopefully.

Celestia gave her a rueful smile. “Perhaps an unwise oath on my part, but yes.”

There were so many questions crowding Twilight’s mind that she didn’t even know where to start. Might as well just ask them as they came.

"Okay. You seemed to be in a big hurry before. How come, er, hmm...You didn't want to stop for anything last time, so why can we stop to rest now?"

"Ah. Yes. I was hoping that if we just covered enough ground, we could get out of this mess before anything terrible happened. I should have known better, of course. That's not how Tartarus works. I told you before that It likes a good story? Well, It will twist and turn and contort itself as much as It can to make sure that story gets told. It doesn't really control everything, I think, but space and time and even common sense have little meaning here. It might be better to think of Tartarus as more of a giant, living, highly unstable person than a place. Alas, I'm not entirely clear on how specifically it works, because It is absolutely unlike any other being I've ever known. It has always shown a particular interest in creatures It's never seen before, and It doesn't seem to want people to die, exactly, just come into conflict. But other than that..." She shrugged. "Luna might be able to explain it better. She's always been good at understanding strange perspectives. Tartarus's alien nature is part of what makes It such an ideal prison, actually. It's a jealous, maddeningly unpredictable, completely fucking amoral guardian."

“Hrmm. Cretes said something about that, that It did strange things with time."

Celestia's eyes rose at the mention of the bull, but Twilight didn't notice.

"Um. So, about that word. I get that it’s an expletive, but what does it actually mean?”

Celestia snorted a laugh. Then she gave Twilight the technical definition of ‘fuck.’

“Oh.”

“Quite so. But in practice it’s just something people say when they’re angry, or want some emphasis, or for any reason at all, really. You can make almost an entire sentence out of different conjugations of it, I believe.” Celestia then did so. “It’s quite versatile, as far as curse words go.”

“Wow. Okay. I heard some other ones, too. They were, um…”

She listed them, and Celestia gave her the rather unpleasant definition of each one in turn. She even used them in a sentence. Twilight stared in some amount of disbelief at Princess Celestia’s unexpected skill with vulgarity. Her mentor smiled at her with a complete lack of shame.

“I-ah, alright. Also, gross. Those all seem a lot more, hm, mean than the ones we use.”

“Yes, well, language plays a big role in how a pony views the world around her, so Luna and I did try to clean things up a bit.”

“Neat! Okay, um, what were those things? Out there?”

“Ah, very good. Are you familiar with the rivers of Tartarus, Twilight? I seem to recall you asking about them before.”

“Um. A little?” Twilight racked her brain, unsure what her question had to do with this. “I know there are supposed to be five of them. The names are weird, but, um…”

Celestia nodded, picking up the thread.

“There are indeed five rivers, and that lake out there has the misfortune of being fed by the Styx. The river of Hatred. It is not a coincidence that we call it that. Anyone who drinks too deeply of those waters is infected by them." Celestia paused, pawing the ground. "We never did find a way to prevent that. Anyway, the lake was once a mirror pond. We've never been entirely certain of where those came from, the mirrors. The beings inside are odd creatures. Empty, without substance and without number. Maybe that's why they copy whatever enters the lake. They have no real existence of their own, so they borrow another's. They were certainly made by someone, but...well, regardless. It's not an unpleasant existence, or so they tell us. They know no past, no future, just a single, eternal moment. Until they're given a body, that is, but they seem to like that too."

Celestia sighed. Twilight could practically feel a weight settle onto her.

“Then Sombra found them. He twisted them with his magic, made mindless slaves of them. He forged them into an army. An infinite, unending swarm of fear and madness, knowing nothing of peace, nothing of true life. And when Luna and I purged the broken creatures, I’m afraid it got even worse. We didn’t want to send them here, mind, but we knew not what else to do. They didn’t live, and so they couldn’t really die. Left in Equestria, they could be found by any wandering pony, and the whole nightmare would begin again. So we could only cage them somewhere, far, far away.” She shook her head. “It runs through all of Tartarus, the Styx. I don’t know when, exactly, It got the notion of joining the Shattered to the Styx, but you’ve seen the results. Where once they were empty reflections, they have now become living embodiments of spite. Self-loathing made incarnate. Our one bit of solace is that they are at peace in the pond. They are content, as long as they stay formless.”

“Oh.”

Celestia gave her that rueful smile.

“Yes,” was all she said.

“She said she took my magic.” Twilight absently sparked up a little light spell, just to make sure it worked. “The Shattered me. She said she was going to be everything that I never was.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Twilight. No one knows how to hurt a pony quite like herself.”

“I suppose so. It’s just…I feel like seeing her was almost good for me, in a way. Therapeutic. Like, she was the worst I could possibly be, right here, in front of me. But she was so fragile. It barely took anything to…A-and the thing is, I remember being like that! I’ve been afraid, like she was! Afraid of everything, when I should have just, I, um...”

And don’t even get me started on the things I’ll be doing with this Princess you’re always thinking about, she’d said.

“I’m sorry! I’m babbling,” stammered Twilight, suddenly desperate to change the subject. “I don’t even know where I was going with that. Um. Those other things, the uh, the dog things, from before? What were they?”

Celestia watched her, worry plain in her eyes. But she didn’t push. She was nice that way. She always knew when to just step back.

“Ah. Right. We call them gorehounds, based largely on the mess they always leave in their wake. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t recognize them, though. I seem to recall you telling me of a time that you’d run across the beasts before. Something about your friend Rarity recruiting Spike to hunt for gems, and the adventure you all had in saving her?”

Twilight’s face screwed up in surprise.

“What? Wait, those things were diamond dogs!? But, but those guys were pathetic! I, wait, I didn’t mean that—“

Celestia’s musical laughter cut her off.

“I’m afraid so, dear, though it might be better to say that diamond dogs were once those things.”

Twilight pondered this, various bits of evidence locking together in her head. They were about the same shape. Rather larger, and covered in shaggy hair, but they had the same big, scary jaws and those oversized arms. But still. Diamond dogs were harmless! Annoying, sure, but she’d never once felt threatened by them.

“The fellows you met are the descendants of those who agreed to be reasonable. They can eat nearly anything, the dogs, and the ones who gave up their bloodlust for more, ah, mineralogical pursuits became what are now called Diamond Dogs. You can perhaps understand why we chose to banish the rest.”

The gears of Twilight’s mind ground on.

“So, they don’t have to eat other creatures…but they do it anyway?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Why?”

When Celestia spoke, it was with that faraway look she got sometimes. She was remembering. Reliving.

“Have you ever done something you knew was wrong, Twilight? Something you enjoyed, at somepony else’s expense? You didn’t have to. You didn’t need it. But you did it anyway.”

Twilight could think of a few examples. But she didn’t answer.

When Celestia continued, her words were very quiet.

“Have you ever felt the thrill of breaking someone beneath your hooves, Twilight? Of fighting a battle of life or death and winning? Easily? Of knowing that something’s whole being hangs only by the thread you choose to give it? It makes you feel alive. Powerful, Twilight. Like your existence has meaning. It makes everything so simple. Satisfying. It’s like an addiction, that feeling."

“Princess?”

Celestia wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Did you have to kill them?”

A long silence. Then Twilight asked,

“Was there really no better way?”

Celestia’s eyes flicked to hers, then away. Ashamed? She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. She tried again a moment later.

“There are few things that really challenge me, Twilight. When I am in my element, in the light of the Sun, in Equestria. When I am all that I can be. I am old. Immortal. I’ve seen a thousand, thousand years, and all that comes with them. I’ve lived, and made love, and made war. I’ve fought, I’ve made peace, I’ve seen that peace crumble and I’ve avenged it. I’ve built nations and watched them grow and prosper and die. But when I come here, to some place outside my immortality, when I see something that can truly threaten me, can truly threaten my people, like those hounds did, I…well. What better way could there be? They attacked us, no, you, without warning or even so much as an offer of surrender. Never once did they stop. They watched their own slain one by one and only came on stronger. Is it so bad, that I might have enjoyed it, a little? I killed them because they would have killed me. And you. And anything else they caught. Should I have locked each of those two dozen hounds in a bubble and dragged them behind me until such time as they repented their ways?” She shook her head. “We gave them so many chances, Luna and I, and they never took them. You only have to be torn apart a few times before you decide they just aren't worth it.”

Celestia rubbed one hoof over the other. It was another moment before she reclaimed her train of thought.

“For what it's worth, I couldn't have held them long, not as I am here. It would have been maybe an hour, at best, before they broke free and tried to murder us again. Perhaps I could have merely beaten them into submission rather than kill them, but then I’d have taken another risk: would they follow us, seeking vengeance? Wait for a moment of weakness and then pounce? And it is far more difficult to defeat an opponent and let them live, much less a group of them, then to kill them as quickly as one can. Should I have risked both your life and mine by showing the mercy they refused us? Which they have always refused us?”

Twilight said nothing. She didn’t know what to say.

“A matter of hours ago, I would have simply said no. But it seems you have a way of complicating things, Twilight Sparkle.”

She turned to look at Twilight, a sad, lop-sided smile, on her face. It brimmed over with pride.

“You have done the impossible, Twilight. Again. You've made a friend in Tartarus. Where no else would have even thought to look for such a thing.”

Part of Twilight swelled with joy at this, but…

“Princess?”

“Yes?”

“If it happens again, something like the gorehounds. Should I...help you? Should I k—" Twilight swallowed. "Kill them?”

Celestia’s smile froze. It shifted. It fell to pieces.

“A matter of hours ago,” she repeated, “I would have said no. I would have said you should never do such a thing. You should leave it to me alone. Just close your eyes and hide under my wing and let Princess Celestia make all of the bad things go away so you never have to think about them again. But you deserve better than that, I think. I made a mistake, thinking you couldn’t handle this. And I have learned from that. So, in answer to your question, I would say…”

Twilight saw Celestia’s jaw tighten.

“That you must trust your own judgement, Twilight. You should be careful, and be clever, and be kind. You are already all of those things, but there may come a time when those traits fail, and then…” Celestia turned to look her former student right in the eye. “You must be ruthless.

She let that sink in.

“You have responsibility now.” She nodded toward Bait, Ben. “And you must meet it. It will hurt, Twilight, to do this thing. But it may be that you simply won’t have time to play nice. The creatures here may not give you the luxury of compassion. And I would say then that you should be ready to kill them for it. Unwilling, obviously. As a last resort, only. But sometimes you can only save one life by ending another. Maybe several others. Making that decision is part of being a leader. A Princess. And you have proven beyond doubt that you are capable. So you must be ready.”

It took a long time for Twilight to form anything like an answer. In the end, all she said was.

“Okay.”

It came out a cracked whisper. It hadn't been the answer she’d wanted. But that was the risk of asking questions. They didn't care if you liked the answers. Still, it made her feel sick to hear this. Hollow, like her insides might fall out. But it made sense, too. That might be the worst part. Because she knew she couldn’t do it. She’d choke. She would fail, and everypony else would suffer for her weakness.

“It’s not so bad.”

The voice was timid, so low that she barely heard it. Twilight turned toward the sound.

“Bait?”

“Y’just have to do it sometimes,” he went on, caught halfway between boldly standing up to be heard and fleeing in fear. “But it’s not so bad. And you're so strong! It would be..." Bait hesitated, licked his lips nervously. "Easy. You could make it quick. And that's best. 'Cause if you don't get them, then..."

Then they get you. They get you, and then they get your friends. It seemed so alluringly simple, looked at like that.

“I know that isn’t easy to take,” said Celestia when the silence stretched too long. “Why don’t we talk about something else for a bit. Would you like to tell me about what you encountered while I was gone? You can ask questions along the way, of course.”

“Yes!” blurted Twilight, jumping on any opportunity for distraction. “Um, yes. So, I guess the first thing I remember was, um…”

Calm

View Online

She didn’t start with the first thing she remembered. She couldn’t. Talking to herself? Stroking her own mane and puking in a corner when she’d realized she was covered in…No. She wasn’t going to tell Celestia all that. She gave her the short version. Less about the crippling crisis of having her whole worldview smashed into pieces, more about ‘I saw this, and did this, and then…’ and so on. She didn’t talk about the pain, or the fear, or the ever-building, crazed anger that kept finding ways to slither out. Just the facts.

She told Celestia about the dust-snake thing she’d found in the little underground shack.

“Ash viper,” Celestia said, lips turning down in distaste. “Nasty things. They were never a part of Equestria, we found them here. They attack pretty much anything they see. Their venom turns a creature into that dust you found, but not all at once. The little monsters will keep striking off one bit at a time until it’s done.” Her eyes arched in what Twilight thought must be anger. “They get bigger from feeding on the ash, and once they’re big enough, they’ll split into about half a dozen little ones. They’ll keep that up until something meaner than they are kills them off. Or a good rain comes down. Water handles them nicely. Clever stroke, tossing it across the river. “But there was a shack, you say? I’ve never heard of such a thing here. Like the village before…Ah, sorry, please continue.”

Twilight did so, though she, too, wondered about why there was a clearly hoof-made building just sitting underground like that. Also…

“Does it rain here? I haven’t really seen any weather at all.”

“Oh, there’s weather, when Tartarus is feeling feisty. It rains. Above ground, and below, though there are no pegasi to control it. And it isn’t always as simple as water falling from the sky."

It was with great trepidation that Twilight then asked, “What is it, then?”

“Well, a rain of blood, sometimes. Or a tornado of biting beetles, or a freezing fog or a flood of quicksilver. That kind of thing. I’ve no clue how it works.”

“Huh. I guess we've been lucky not to see any of that."

“Yes,” said Celestia.

Moving right along, Twilight told Celestia of the manticore, and how she’d managed to side-step the creature. That one got a pleasant laugh.

“Well done, dear! Mythological history really is an under-appreciated discipline.”

Twilight felt a nice, warm, little glow at having someone acknowledge how totally true that was.

Twilight carried on somewhat reluctantly to the pony she’d seen slumbering in those weird, mocking flowers. Celestia’s expression grew strange, and she took a long moment before she shrugged and spoke.

“So even Tartarus couldn’t handle her. It surprises me that It was so light-handed with her, though, using the Yothga.” She stopped and looked at Twilight as though just remembering she was there. “Ah, sorry. I suppose that doesn’t explain much. Her name was, er, is Virago. She…Well, first off, you did the right thing, Twilight. That’s a good policy, not touching things you don’t understand. If you’d found some way to let her loose, I don’t even know what might have happened.”

That was something of a relief. It had been niggling at her since she’d left the place.

“Okay. So, I did the right thing. But, who was she?”

“Right. I’m sorry, Twilight, this one is a bit of a tricky subject for me. But then, you’ve always had a way with asking pointed questions.” Celestia blew out her cheeks and shook herself, as if trying to throw off some cumbersome cloak. “Virago is a Princess, like Luna and me. And You. And she isn’t what you’d call evil, exactly. I don’t think I ever once saw her do anything out of malice. That’s what made it so hard, when we…when we had to banish her. We just didn’t know what else to do.”

Twilight stayed quiet, just let her talk.

“It would be easy just say that Virago is mad, I suppose, but that rather fails to encompass the situation.”

Another silence.

“What she is, Twilight, is madness itself."

Twilight wasn't sure what to say, so she just tilted her head.

“The Princess of Insanity," continued Celestia, answering the silent question. "if you can believe such a thing. Goddess was the original word. There were Gods or Goddesses of all kinds of things, in those days. Many didn’t survive. We fought, you see. And…anyway. She, like myself and Luna, and now you and Cadance, was the embodiment of an idea, and her idea was Madness. Have you noticed, Twilight, that you seem to spread friendship wherever you go?”

Okay, that little paragraph raised, like, a thousand more questions. Twilight noted as many as she could down on her internal checklist, to be resolved later.

“Well, Virago spreads crazy. It’s infectious. Her ‘song,’ that’s what we called it. It gets inside you, like a catchy tune, or a particularly intriguing daydream. It's so compelling. You can do anything while she’s with you, and it all feels completely natural. Only after you wake do you see the consequences of what you've done. That was what made her so dangerous: infinite freedom, unbound by responsibility of any kind.” Celestia wrung one hoof over the other. “It gets worse the longer you're near her, just draws you deeper and deeper into her reality until there's no sanity left in you. She doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. She even thinks she’s making ponies better, somehow. It’s just what she is.

Celestia wasn’t looking at her. Just talking, and too fast. She was…what? Nervous? Ashamed?

"It was why we tricked her into coming here."

"Princess..."

Twilight wished she knew what to say. She wanted to do something, to help somehow, darn it!

“The, um, the Yothga that I mentioned earlier is the plant you saw. It eats…” Celestia waved a hoof in a sort of hopeless circle. “Essence, I suppose. The process kills most creatures. They just lay there under the thing until they starve out. But we god-things don’t starve, so…And from what I hear, sleeping under its influence is entirely pleasant. Just a happy dream that goes on forever. I almost wish we’d thought of using it. A way to contain two dangerous influences, using one to appease the other. Well done, Tartarus. Though I have to wonder how It accomplished it…Twilight? Can we please speak of something else? The memory of betraying my misguided cousin is—”

“Oh! Of course! I’m sorry, if I’d known I wouldn’t have, um, well. Anyway, after that..."

She spoke then of the singing thing, with its mass of half-living bodies.

“Ah. A clot. It must have been guarding her. Those abominations are one of Virago's creations.”

“What? She made them? On purpose?”

Celestia’s lips turned to a bitter smile. “I’m afraid so. And would you like to know who gave her the idea?”

Twilight was certain she didn’t, but she nodded mutely anyway.

“Me,” the elder Princess spit. “I tried to tell her about harmony, and kindness, and unity, and how we could all do so much more together than alone. Those…things were her answer to the dilemma of individuality, a way to bring everyone together. Literally.” She sighed. “Do you see what I meant, about her being dangerous? It never even occurred to her that a pony might not want what she tried to give them. And the clots weren’t even the worst of her ideas. The actual creature is a little thing, no bigger than a starfish, and similar in many ways. It stumbles onto some unfortunate host, and once it’s in, well, you saw what happens. I don’t think there’s any limit on how big they can get. They just keep dragging in more victims until something worse than they are puts an end to them. Luna or myself, usually, or a dragon, or some other such monster.”

There was something in Celestia’s tone that Twilight didn’t like. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard it.

“Um, Princess?”

“Yes?”

“You’re not worse than them.”

Celestia opened her mouth as if to speak, then clicked it shut. Then she smiled, maybe a bit embarrassed, and Twilight thought she might be about to cry again.

“I apologize for the dramatics. I’m afraid I’ve always had a bit of an addiction to guilt. Thank you, Twilight, for being so, well, just for being who you are.”

Twilight wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so, in lieu of words, she got up and circled the fire, settling herself down close to Celestia. Maybe it was a demonstration of trust or something. She didn’t know. It just seemed like the thing to do. She smiled up at Celestia and then carried on with her tale.

“So, it wasn’t too long after that that I met this little guy.” She nodded toward Bait, smiling fondly. He was curled up in a ball on the near where she'd been a moment ago. He gave no indication of having her heard. Probably snoozing. Ben perched on his back, possibly doing the same. Seeing them sleep made Twilight realize how tired she was getting, sitting here warm and relatively safe with friends and a nice little fire. She suppressed a yawn and forged ahead through their meeting, coming to the encounter with the ‘shrimp.’ She kept her voice down, so as not to wake anypony.

Celestia cringed at the mention of them. “Eugh. I’m glad you got through that as quickly as you did. Those things are sapient, you know. Not tool users, because they don’t have to be, but Luna could speak with them. They worship the worst of the old god-things, and they followed them to Tartarus willingly. They’d flood the whole world in horror if they could, and think they were doing us all some kind of favor. ‘Liberating us from the shackles of morality,’ or some such drivel. Calling them evil would be a polite understatement.”

“Wow. Luna could talk to them, you said? I remember reading something about that from the before, from your old diary. Why can she talk to things nopony else can? Fluttershy does that too. ”

“So she does. Honestly? I have no idea how your friend learned to speak with critters. Likely something to do with the magic of cutie marks. But in Luna’s case, we wonder if it isn’t simply because she’s a creature of darkness, like so many are. She’s always thought she was a bit of a monster herself, no matter how much I tried to assure her otherwise. But in the end, her talent saved many lives. It was through her that we found ways to negotiate with the more, shall we say, difficult members of our world. She never gave herself enough credit for that. No one did...” Celestia’s eyes were going distant again, reliving some failure from long, long ago. She made an obvious effort to shake herself out of it. “Regardless, I suppose that’s something you might want to ask her about sometime. I think she’d appreciate having someone besides me to talk to about these matters.”

Twilight resolved that she most certainly would.

"Right. So, after that…”

Twilight made no mention of the little episode with Bait, after the shrimp, and when she got to the part where she’d been cornered by his family, she made no mention of his part in that either. Still, she choked up a bit there. All she really said about it was “There was a fight.” Twilight struggled to fill the silence that followed with anything that came to mind, but nothing did. She just sat there for a terrible eternity, brimming over with words she dreaded and needed and just couldn’t seem to say. She was glad Bait had fallen asleep.

“And you won,” said Celestia. “Because they gave you no other choice. Where did you go after that?”

“Right! I went down the tunnel the centaur pointed at! Even though I thought maybe he was lying and I yelled at him, but, a-anyway…”

Twilight stumbled onward, the release of all that horrible tension making her ramble. She hadn’t even mentioned there was a centaur before, but whatever.

She talked about how Ben had found her, somehow, and that part was nice at least.

“Pets always seem to be able to find their ponies, don’t they? Scream-spiders especially. They always show up at the most…” Celestia’s smirk was slightly beleaguered. “Interesting times.”

Twilight recounted how Ben had re-introduced himself, and had to agree. She wondered at Celestia’s history with the critters. She’d said something about them being a sort of living practical joke. How did that work? One more thing to bring up later.

Twilight mentioned the creepy little dinner party she’d seen, taunting her with all that wonderful food.

“Hmph,” snorted Celestia. “I’ve never seen that one before. You didn’t eat any of it, did you?

“What? No, of course not. Way too obvious. I think it was just there to, I dunno, be gross, or make me angry or something.”

Celestia nodded. “That sounds like something Tartarus would enjoy.”

Twilight got to the part where Bait had met up with her again, with his pack full of sweet, wonderful food. Again, she didn’t mention much of what had happened, just that it had and that they were together again.

She glossed over most of the following events with the lamprey creatures, but slowed down a bit when she came to what had happened with Nuckalavee.

Celestia’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Nuckalavee!?” She gave Twilight a careful, appraising look, as if surprised to see her, surprised that she was alive. But there was more to it. Was she impressed? Intrigued? “How did you handle that devil, Twilight?”

“I didn’t. Not really. I tried, but then…”

Twilight told her about the sudden, violent appearance of Cretes. She left out the crushing feeling of loss she’d had when he hadn’t been who she’d thought.

Celestia’s eyes narrowed sharply. She looked Twilight over again, like she was checking for injury.

“You met Cretes again? Did he…he didn’t try anything, did he?”

Twilight laughed, a bit giddy. “Oh, he tried. I mean, he asked if I, I mean…Nothing happened! I told him, well, I said…”

Twilight gave her former teacher the short version of how that little talk had gone.

Celestia’s face locked up for a moment. Then she burst out laughing.

“Did you actually say that!?”

Twilight blushed a bit.

“That is fantastic, Twilight! Oh, the look on his face must have been priceless!”

Twilight agreed that it had been, but she had something she’d been wanting to ask about all that.

“So, um, why was Cretes banished here? I mean, he’s kind of a jerk, but he doesn’t really fit in. He just doesn’t seem that bad. He even offered to help me, actually. And Bait too.”

Celestia sobered rapidly. Twilight was almost sorry to have asked.

“You remember how, when we met him, he asked if I wanted to…well. You know.”

“Yes.”

“And how he asked you the same question, later?”

“Ok.” Twilight wasn’t sure why Celestia kept emphasizing that one word.

“We banished him because, back then, he didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Ask."

Twilight blinked.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

~~~

Celestia tried to take it as a grand compliment to the society she had helped forge that Twilight didn't understand what she was saying. She might have sidestepped the subject completely on any other day, but she’d made a promise to answer questions. As such, she explained with blunt efficiency what Cretes had done to earn himself a place in Tartarus.

She watched Twilight’s face screw up in a complicated mess of emotion. Surprise was in there, and disgust. Maybe a pinch of disbelief.

“That…” Twilight worked her mouth, as if trying to figure out the shape of the words. “That happens?”

“Rarely, nowadays. Luna and I saw to that.”

She left out the tidbit about how she might simply have had every perpetrator of that particular crime executed if not for Luna’s intervention. Celestia had never suffered it herself, for even a brute like Cretes wasn’t stupid enough to try such a thing with her. But nonetheless, rape was a crime for which Celestia held a very singular loathing. And a pretty, young alicorn like Twilight, caught alone in a land that was already so dangerous…that was just the kind of situation the bull would happily take advantage of.

“And he did that?”

Celestia nodded.

“Oh,” she said.

That was all. But Celestia saw the shudder work through her. She was sure Twilight was holding something back. She’d been holding a lot back. She wished she could say it wasn’t like Twilight, but…there it was. She always tried to hold it all in, in front of Celestia, at least. And Celestia knew that prodding her, even if only to help her bear the weight of whatever was haunting her, would only make it worse right now. She would lock down, shove the bad memories away, desperately pretend that everything was fine, just fine! And then she would crack.

It took conscious effort for Celestia to keep the worry from her face. Best to keep things moving. Twilight was tough. She would get through this. She would.

~~~

“But,” Celestia sighed with a huff. "Maybe he’s changed. A little.” She smiled, light and kind. “Maybe it’s time we considered letting him come home. We can think about it later. What happened next?”

They were both relieved to move on, it seemed. But not for long. Twilight told her more, about how Cretes had been taken, or possessed, or whatever, by Tartarus itself. She told her what It had done.

“It spoke to you!?” Celestia’s face crinkled up in confusion.

Twilight nodded, and told her what It had said.

Celestia just sat there for a long moment.

“I haven’t seen Tartarus do such a thing in centuries, Twilight. Millennia. I can barely remember when last It spoke.”

“Is that bad?”

“I can’t imagine it means anything good. I thought Tartarus was trying to kill you, but if it’s trying to claim you…I don’t know which is worse. Either way, you’ve clearly piqued Its interest.” Celestia was tapping a hoof to her jaw, looking deeply disturbed. “Is that why it ignored me? Too busy poking at the new Princess? It did something similar with Luna and me, long ago, but I suppose It’s grown bored of us.” Her gaze was distant, thoughts clearly working hard on something.

“What does that mean, It’s trying to ‘claim’ me?”

“Hm? Oh, sorry. I’m not entirely certain of how it works, but I know that anything that stays in Tartarus long enough…changes, somehow. Becomes a part of it. I don’t know what exactly the change is. It might be mystical, or physical, or it may be nothing more than a change of mind. Luna thought it worked that way: that once something believes it belongs here, that it deserves this, or that there truly is no escape, that belief becomes reality. It becomes another of Tartarus’s residents, or prisoners, or whatever It thinks the creatures here are.” She shook her head. “I’ve never known Tartarus to care a whit for the lives of anything it holds, but It will fight tooth and nail to keep them from escaping. Perhaps that’s what happened? Tartarus worried Cretes might be trying to get himself out, along with you, so it took hold of him? It’s rare to see It move so directly, though.”

“Could it do it again? To me? Or to…” Twilight's voice dropped to a tiny, agonized whisper. “To Bait? Or Ben?”

“Hmmm.” Celestia appraised them both with a discerning eye. “You, no. You’re made of sterner stuff than Cretes ever was, and you haven’t been here near long enough, besides. As to your friends? I’m not sure. Ben doesn’t strike me as something that really belongs, no matter how long he’s been here, but Bait…I would guess It could.”

Twilight’s visage trembled.

“What do we do? If It can just, at any time, I mean—“

“There’s nothing we can do, Twilight, except to watch, and be careful. Tartarus is many things, but subtle is not one of them. If It forces Bait against us, we’ll see it coming, just like you did with Cretes. And I suspect, since it possesses people so rarely, that it costs Tartarus something. There may be rules to it we don’t know, or some other hidden price to be paid. Try not to worry over it. Just remember that he is not to blame.”

“Y-yeah. It’s just, er. I mean, you’re right, of course. It’s just scary.”

Celestia nodded. “It is. But we will handle it, if it comes to that. There is a trick or two I can try, but it would be best to assume the worst and just keep an eye out."

Twilight nodded, feeling lost.

“But, moving on. For all his moral failings, Cretes is a mighty opponent. How did you deal with him?”

“Oh, right. Well…”

Twilight bumbled through her defeat by the bull and his absurd amount of horns. She related Bait’s escape, as he’d told it, and the rather unorthodox means he had used to rescue her.

Celestia laughed at the last part.

“Only a true friend would do that!”

“I know!” exclaimed Twilight, dropping to a whisper when Bait stirred. “That’s exactly what I told him.”

She skipped most of the next part, with the running and the trembling and the desperate attempt to pretend things were going to be okay. She barely remembered most of it anyway. That brought her to the strange and unnerving meeting with Briareos. She didn’t mention the part about nearly shooting Ben. She started to stumble over her words about half-way through, the weird, pseudo-guilt of having running off from him bubbling back up.

“I felt terrible about it. But I just couldn’t! I was scared, and he was so…b-but that last look he had as we left…Should I have stayed? But then, why did he send me down that tunnel? Into Blackbriar? He knew what was there, right? Was he trying to hurt me? Is he dangerous, or..?"

Celestia nodded, but it was less an answer than a simple acknowledgment of Twilight’s distress.

“Briareos is unbelievably dangerous, yes, but, no, he wasn’t trying to harm you, Twilight. He doesn’t feel pain or fear the way a pony would, and almost nothing can threaten him anyway, so it doesn’t always occur to Briareos to warn others about things that may harm them. Would it surprise you if I told you he was just as distraught about how things went as you are?”

Twilight blinked.

“Yes?”

~~~

Celestia’s hooves sparked against the dirt path, leaving molten prints as she tore across the road at a dead sprint. She was breaking the rules, going too fast, too hard. Her mortal body couldn’t do this forever. And she was running blind now: Celestia had passed the point Twilight had reached when she’d made her deal. She’d just about screamed when she’d reached that final point and found only scorched earth and an empty field. But that would have been a waste of time, so she'd just kept running instead, following the road, hoping that Twilight had done the same.

She didn’t know whether to be elated or terrified when the path became choked with overgrown, mutant vegetation. She knew this place: Lupuna, jungle of the sorcerer trees. It was fairly calm, for Tartarus, because something far more deadly than a copse of grumpy plantlife had made its home here. Celestia struggled to remember which of the hekatonkhire had claimed the jungle. They moved around sometimes, so it could be any of them. As long as it wasn’t Cottos, things should be fine. Should be.

She stormed on until she saw the little cave entrance, and only checked her pace when she noticed the gleam of two glittering eyes in the murk. She slowed to a halt, snuffing the flames of her wings and mane and tail with a flick of her will. She breathed hard. Sweat poured off her, now that it wasn’t boiling into steam.

“Briareos? May I come in?”

The floating head bobbed, and disappeared into the cave. Celestia followed at a run. Thank the sweet heavens! It was Briareos! He at least tried to be decent. Even helpful, sometimes. He’d guided her home more than once.

She opened her mouth to start talking as soon as the cavern opened up, half to get things moving as quickly as possible and half to give herself no time to really look at the creature within. Even after all these years, seeing him made her shudder in disgust. A twinge of shame came with involuntary reaction.

It’s not his fault he’s like this.

“Good tidings, dear Aunt Celestia,” said Briareos in his rustling chorus, quite effectively cutting her off.

Celestia paused at the tone. The the words were welcoming, and most of the voices were too, but there was something else in there…

Most of the hekatonkhire was present. A few heads were off doing whatever they did, but the bulk of his body had been lifted out of its usual place of rest to greet her. Dozens of opalescent arms and slime-wrapped skulls gestured in a sort of grand, multitudinous welcome.

“I had reason to believe you would arrive at some point, my Aunt. My apologies for having naught to make your arrival more pleasant.”

Many of his fingers tapped the ground, the tick revealing an obvious case of nerves. Why!? What had he done!?

Celestia clamped down on her own paranoia.

“Ah, yes. Think nothing of it, Briareos. I must apologize in return.” She bowed slightly with a modest spread of her wings. “I am in something of a hurry, and have no time to talk.”

Many heads nodded at this. Others looked away. Fewer still glared at her, glowing eyes full of something ineffable and inimical.

“I expected as much.” Disappointment tinged much of him. “You seek the other pony who recently came to Tartarus.”

“Yes! Please! Did she come here? Where did she go? Was she well?”

“Yes,” answered Briareos, with typical lack of explanation. There was entirely too much of his mother in him for Celestia’s taste. “She left for Blackbriar some time ago. I could not say if she was well.”

“Blackbriar!?” howled Celestia. “You sent her through fucking Blackbriar!? Did you even warn her what was in there!?”

A visible tremble ran through the gelatinous creature. Celestia knew that for what it was: any major dilemma, any source of great disagreement, dissonance, or simple discomfort between Briareos’s many minds manifested in a spasm that ran through his whole body.

“I am afraid she did not ask.”

Celestia stomped one hoof into the stone floor, leaving a cracked, smoldering hoofprint before she could speak again. When she did, her voice was calm, soothing.

“I am sorry, Bri. I didn’t mean to yell. I know that dealing with other people can be difficult for beings such as us. Just, please. Tell me what happened.”

“As you will, Aunt-Princess. To be succinct, our conversation did not go as smoothly as we might have liked,” he continued. “We fear I may have misspoken, or engaged in some faux-pas. We hadn’t meant to frighten her. We thought to be civil, as she was very polite.” Many eyes glinted with a bit of mirth. “She didn’t even vomit upon seeing me, like so many do. But…” Briareos’s many hands wrung at each other, all levity evaporating. “She did not tarry. She ran from me.”

“Oh, Bri.”

“I did not harm her, or force her to stay. I remember your words on such things, and Luna’s.”

“She meant no insult, Bri. She just doesn’t know you. This wasn’t your fault.”

The massive, living lake of bone and gel said nothing. He wouldn’t look at her. Most of him, anyway. The good parts. Many enormous hands waved despondently.

“Your words are charitable, if untrue. We thank you for attempting to unburden us.”

There was a long pause. Celestia had to fight herself not to fidget. Time was wasting. Under normal circumstances, as far as circumstances were ever normal in Tartarus, she would have gladly stayed to visit. Bri was strange, and looking at him always made her feel a bit ill, but under that terrible visage and unnerving alien affectation was a good soul. Mostly. He was always so happy to just have someone to talk to. But there wasn’t time. But he so clearly needed her. But so did Twilight! DamnDamnDamn!

“I cannot stay, Bri.” Her voice was soft. “I’m sorry, and I thank you for your help. But I have to go.”

“Of course. But, before you leave?” Briareos spoke almost reluctantly. Barely half of his heads whispered the words.

“Yes?”

“You called to my mother before. I heard, dimly, but could not see. I felt that she moved, but little more. Tell me.” He stopped for a long time. “Did she answer you?”

“She did.”

“Ahh.” Another silence. “It has been very long indeed since she has deigned to respond to me.”

Without stopping to think, Celestia stepped forward, laying her neck across the closest gelatin-coated skull. She placed a wing over its neck too, for good measure, choking down her revulsion at his sticky-slick skin. It’s not his fault that he’s like this! It isn’t mine, for being disgusted! Life had been so harsh to the brothers. She had been so harsh to them, and Luna too, when they had both been young and stupid. She could at least give him a hug, since fucking Terra obviously couldn’t be bothered. Celestia wanted to stay. She ached to do what little she could to lessen his pain, but there was no time. Not now.

“I’m sorry, Briareos. Life has never been kind to you, and for my part in that, I am sorry. Thank you for guiding Twilight on her way. I wish I could stay.”

The fluid flesh of the hekatonkhire wriggled for just a moment, another spasm, before turning stable again.

“Aye. We…I thank you for your sympathy, Aunt. But yes. You must go. We hope that your quest goes well. Tell Twilight Sparkle that she has my apologies. For…everything, I suppose.”

“I will.”

Celestia pulled away. She let the tears come, let them ignite, let her hate at the injustice of this place, this situation, this whole world fuel her onward. She streaked, meteoric, for Blackbriar.

~~~

“You talked to him?”

Celestia nodded again. “Briefly. I met him much as you did. He expressed great concern over having frightened you, and wished to convey his apologies for it.”

“He…oh.” The revelation did nothing to make Twilight feel better about the exchange.

“That said, he seemed to think rather highly of you. Apparently you carried yourself very well, which doesn’t surprise me at all, of course,” she said with a quick wing hug and a smile.

Celestia was always doing that. Paying her little compliments, just to try and make her feel better. Twilight never quite knew what to say. She usually just got all bashful and hid behind a smile. She did that now.

“And that, I think, brings us to where we are now, yes? Quite an adventure.” Celestia gazed down at her, huge, violet eyes wide and glittering with something Twilight couldn’t quite put a hoof on. She felt like she’d seen it before. Maybe not on this particular face, but somewhere.

“I suppose so.”

On another day, Twilight might have thought of something more graceful to come back with. But she was just so tired.

“But you came through it all in one piece, and with a few new friends, even. I’ve never seen anything like it. I never would have even guessed it was possible. You really are something, Twilight Sparkle. ”

There she went again, with the compliments. Twilight was feeling quite warm, of a sudden. The moment hung while she tried to piece together what it was she was doing right now. She felt like she’d been here before. Not the place, but the situation. Next to somepony, very close. Gazing deep into her eyes…It felt like she was trying to figure out a puzzle she'd already solved, but the answer didn’t quite make sense this time. It was still the right answer, but…it couldn’t be the same thing, right? She just needed one more clue, and she could figure this out.

“Well,” said Celestia, breaking a tension Twilight hadn’t known was there. “You’re probably exhausted, and we may not get another chance to rest. Things are only going to get crazier out there, I think. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

“Um, Princess?” asked Twilight, still trying to solve the riddle. She remembered some of those looks Celestia had given her before. She lined them up with the one she was seeing now, and looks just like this that she’d seen on other faces. She couldn’t be right. But then...maybe she was?

“Hm?” Celestia looked down.

Twilight wasn’t sure exactly how she managed to cross that impossible distance between them. It had only been a few inches, sure, but she’d never dared even really think of trying to bridge this particular gap before.

Princess Celestia gasped a muffled little ‘Mph!’ as Twilight kissed her. Her eyes went wide, wings flared out and…

Well, that was probably what happened. Twilight couldn’t see it, her eyes were closed. That’s what usually happened though. People always seemed surprised when she kissed them, for some reason. Anyway, there was no grand explosion of light when it happened. No revelatory, orgasmic burst of pleasure or gnostic wisdom like Twilight had spent way too much time fantasizing about when she’d been a weird, lonely teenager. Just two pairs of lips meeting for the first time, soft and skittish and wonderful as any first kiss should be. And, of course, far superior to the tawdry nonsense she’d always imagined. A bit less flashy though. Twilight put in the slightest bit of tongue, just barely licking at Celestia’s lips, terrified she’d be slapped away any second now but unable to stop herself. Might as well go for it, at this point.

There was no slap. No hoof shoved her away. But no tongue met hers, either. After a time, Celestia slowly backed away. She looked down at Twilight in a sort of wonder, like she, too, had just stumbled onto something totally unexpected but surprisingly pleasant.

Twilight was just about to speak, though she had no idea what to say, when a wicked grin split Celestia’s face.

Then she shattered into pieces. Her face cracked as the façade collapsed, lines going jagged and uneven, falling out of place like a reflection in a broken mirror. Her eyes gleamed with gleeful, mad malice.

“I can’t believe you fell for it! Again!”

Arrival and Depature

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They don’t love you. You’ll only ever be the worthless little sister. Always an afterthought. Just a pale reflection of Her. They don’t respect you. They don’t care.

And they never will.

Luna smiled, razor-edged and brazen, as she crossed the final barrier between Equestria and Tartarus.

It was a good one, that last trap. The ones before it were simple locks. Well, they were absurdly complicated, actually, and linked to an alarm spell that went off in the castle if anything managed to pop them, but still. Any lock could be opened eventually by a pony with the patience for such things, and there were certainly plenty of those. Of course, they would have had to have gotten past Cerberus to even try. He was an excellent guard dog, ferocious and ever vigilant, but he too, could be dealt with by those, rather less numerous, ponies who might dare to confront the beast. Behind the giant dog and the locks, the real traps began. Pits of fiery lava, bubbling acid, frozen spikes. All illusory, of course. The Princesses didn’t want to actually hurt anypony, just dissuade them. Those few brave souls who saw through the magics would then find themselves in a very long, very dull, maddeningly uneventful labyrinth. It held no loot, no monsters. Nothing at all, really. Not even any puzzles to solve. It was just lengthy and intensely boring. For ponies bent on excitement, which were about the only kind who might still be trying the gate at that point, this sort of thing was utter anathema. Usually they got annoyed and gave up, telling any other ponies who might be interested not to waste their time. Which was exactly the point.

But this last trap, this one was something else. The original plan had been to set up a spell that filled the victim’s mind with images of such resplendent terror that they would surely go shrieking home with tail tucked firmly between legs (thanks to a clever bit of engineering, the way out was far faster than the way in). It turned out though, that some ponies, specifically the kind that would go through all this trouble just do something they’d quite clearly been warned time and again not to do, didn’t respond to fear. It didn’t drive them away, it drew them forward. So the Sisters had come up with a different angle. Luna had, actually, but she was hardly one to brag about her brilliantly innovative solution to this problem. Perish the thought.

What hit these bold individuals, and had hit Luna just now, was a wave not of fear, but of anxiety. Even the greatest, mightiest, most clever of ponies had something that gnawed at them. Something deep set and inescapable. It didn’t have to be anything flashy. In fact, it was usually something completely mundane. Something like, say, an inferiority complex focused around one’s big sister.

The devious genius of it was in its simplicity. Though it seemed tailor made to pick apart every pony it attacked, all the spell really did was make its victim panic. Not the visceral fear of being chased, but the existential terror of…whatever it was that really kept them up at night. Once that overwhelming dread set in, they would find a focus for it all on their own, with nary a thought to how little sense it made. No fancy mind-reading magic required. The few ponies that had gotten far enough to suffer it had no idea why they suddenly doubted themselves, but the results were crippling. They mostly just sat down where they were and curled up there until the Princesses came along to take them home. And to a very good therapist. So unpleasant was this last trap, in fact, that there had been no repeat attempts on the gate of Tartarus since they’d set it up.

Luna had known what was coming though, so she smiled, if only in defiance. She’d thought she’d moved past this. She’d expected to be hit with temptations of becoming the monster she’d always worried she might be: pointlessly vicious, ravaging, terrible. Without purpose and without redemption. But…maybe after the incident with the Tantabus, she’d come to terms with who she was. She didn't have to choose between Luna and the Nightmare. She could be both again. Finally. And that was certainly something worth smiling about. She and Celestia would have to have a talk about that other thing, though. But that was for later.

She turned to look back, setting aside her own ruminations in favor of making sure her squad of guards was still with her. She’d warned them about this last little obstacle, like any reasonable commander, but there was no way to really prepare somepony for it. She could have deactivated it, sure, but this would be an excellent learning opportunity for them. And they’d all been volunteers, anyway.

Three of the six were slumped over, not ten feet away from the end. They’d stopped and sat down, staring at the ground. Two more had just stepped into the short tunnel, and from the looks on their faces, it was clear the effect was setting in. The rearguard, appropriately named Backstep, had stopped just outside the spell, and watched the rest, wide-eyed.

“Well?” said Luna. “Come along, soldier, there’s nothing to be done for it.”

To his credit, he didn’t stutter or hesitate. Just put his head down and trudged forward. He almost made it through.

Luna swelled with pride to see that even now, fifteen hundred and some years after its casting, her spell still worked as intended. She’d hoped for more out of her ponies, it must be said. These were Equestria’s elite guard, after all. Three were nyxies, oft-called bat-ponies by the ignorant, the finest hunters at Luna’s dispoal. They had pleased her immensely when they’d volunteered without even being asked, eager to see if the horror stories she’d always told them of this place were true and to test themselves against them. Nyxies were like that. Night creatures, like Luna, and predators besides. They weren’t violent, mind, not evil. Just somewhat…combative. It made them excellent soldiers, and prepared them as well as anything could for the living nightmare of Tartarus, but their carnivorous ways put them somewhat at odds with other ponies. One of many reasons they were so rarely seen among them these days.

The other three were Celestia’s pegasi. Not to be outdone by their night-time counterparts, they had insisted on being allowed to join the search. The disappointment of those not chosen for the task had been palpable. That might not have been the case if they’d known what they were truly in for here, but still. Luna'd had serious misgivings about bringing them at all. She’d only even considered those rare few who had seen actual combat, and then only after they’d accepted that their role in this mission was to scout. To provide extra eyes, and nothing more. In the end, she’d yielded to their zeal. It did them, and Celestia, great credit, to so willingly join what could very well be a suicide mission. And every one of them had shown admirable courage thus far.

So Luna elected not to blame them for this little lapse. It really was a very good trap.

“SOLDIERS!” she bellowed, most royally. “Attend me!”

All six of them snapped to attention.

Luna strode back into the corridor, letting the magic hit her again as a show of solidarity with her people

These? Just a bunch of freaks, like you. They aren’t your friends. They’re barely acquaintances. Servants, nothing more. They follow you because they have no one else. They don’t love you. No one—

Now that made her angry. At herself, of course, because they were her own thoughts, but still. Petty, vicious, damned spell. A curse upon it!

“On your hooves! Shall we all dwell upon our worries forever? Sit here in this cave until we starve? No? Excellent! Let us go forth, then! We have Princesses to rescue!” She whipped around, not looking back to see whether her soldiers followed.

Ah, nothing like snapping out a few orders to get one back in the proper Princessing mood. Strutting out of the tunnel, Luna looked up to sneer at the great, burning eye above. It peered down, seeing everything and nothing. Here in the little island of safety around the portal, she was probably invisible to it, but it surely knew who had come.

“Yes, it is Us,” Luna whispered, slipping into the familiar Royal plural. “Try not to piss yourself.”

Tartarus made no particular response.

Luna wondered if her sister were still alive. All those fires in the distance suggested she was, but there was no way to know. Terra must be throwing a fit right now, in her slow, inexorable way. Luna grinned at the thought.

Of far greater concern than either of her sisters was Twilight Sparkle, but Luna had confidence that she was still out there, somewhere. Dear, wonderful, little goody-four-hooves Twilight might be a twitchy bundle of complexes (Why, no, Luna wasn’t still a little sore over having once been beaten by her and also owing her several more great debts, not at all), but she was smart, and strong. But then, she’d never dealt with anything like Tartarus. Had her devotion to harmony helped her here? Or earned her an early death? How long had she been here, subjectively? It could have been weeks. Luna felt a twinge of worry. She shouldn’t have waited so long to come. Yes, there was no way she could have known they’d been sent here, which should have been impossible anyway, and yes, she’d been having a wonderful time haunting the dreams of the little maggot that had thrown them into this pit, but still.

On that note, it had actually taken disappointingly little time for her to crack this ‘Artifice’ character. Luna had had some really good stuff involving the unicorn’s personal demons and past failures and so forth lined up. She could have drawn her interrogation out for weeks. Alas, two or three sleepless nights being stalked by an angry Goddess of Dream had been all it took. Luna sighed. She never got to do the fun stuff anymore…

Of course, it went without saying that Luna took her role as guardian of the dreaming realm very seriously, and would never abuse the unfettered power she held there without just cause. Unless it would be really funny. And, as the sole arbiter of ‘just cause’ she had a great deal of leeway on that, but anyway. She did love crafting a good nightmare every now and then. It gave her a chance to unleash something really nasty on someone that really deserved it, but without actually hurting them. And that was why, as she stepped through the threshold and into Tartarus proper, she smiled again.

Everything here deserved it. Here, she didn’t have to pretend to be nice.

Well, perhaps ‘pretend’ was a bit strong of a word. She loved her ponies, obviously, and certainly wanted them to be happy and peaceful and have lives full of sunshine and rainbows and whatever. Twilight’s discovery of the magic of friendship and that way the girl had of solving problems with tolerance and harmony and such had been simply wonderful for everypony. What else could it be? Her friends had even brought Discord around. Discord! But alas, not every creature learned lessons the nice way. And that was when you needed a touch of something a little…darker. Sometimes, you had to scare someone. You needed a monster under the bed. A wicked grin full of razors, shining in the shadow. And maybe you had to kick a few teeth in while you were at it, so they knew that no, this isn’t just a bad dream. And if they didn’t sort themselves out after that? Well, you’d given it your best. Violence may never be the answer, but it was always an answer. Luna could hardly blame herself for choosing to have some fun with it.

Luna strode to the edge of the hill. The little hillock gave a fine view of the world-being that was Tartarus. The grass was soft underhoof, and ended exactly where the safety of the portal did. A tiny pocket of sanity in this mad place. The gate was essentially unreachable to the prisoners of Tartarus, so she felt no particular worry about leaving it open behind her. There were no locks or enchanted hazards on this side, just a tricky bit of magic that made the place hold no interest for anypony that knew they were locked in. Luna appreciated the subtle, cruel genius of the thing. A would be escapee could be staring right at it, spend years looking for the gate, and never see anything more than a boring hill in a pointless clearing. Anypony else could saunter through without restraint, popping out into an empty field near Equestria without even knowing they’d left. In fact, they inevitably would, if they didn’t die on the way: all roads led here, eventually. It was typical of the logic of this place. Tartarus ran on storybook rules.

She watched the shifting landscapes before her and considered where, exactly, to start. Like the portal, people weren’t hard to find in Tartarus, except for all the terrible danger. Just actively look, and you’d run into them eventually. And, as the fires attested, Celestia obviously wasn’t trying to hide. Luna hadn’t seen Tartarus this unruly for centuries. She sighed a deep, contented sigh, taking in the always delightfully strange scents of her favorite vacation spot. Good. That made it more fun.

But where was Terra in all this? Her erstwhile sister (what did one call a deceased family member? Passed-sister? Sibling-now-departed? It didn’t really come up enough to have a term, she supposed) must have been slumbering when the accidental invasion had come. Slow riser, that one. Should Luna look for her? She could lead her straight to Twilight, if she could be motivated to do so. It was always a risk though: Terra murdered her out of hoof about half the times she came to visit. She’d just wake up in her castle with no memory of what happened and find a letter near the portal a few days later, imploring her to learn some discretion or not come back. Whatever that meant.

“Apologies, your Majesty,” said Silver Spark. From the angle of his voice, Luna guessed he was bowing. “And, thanks for the save. What now, my Princess?”

This was typical of her relations with her nyxies. Formally informal.

“Now,” she said, “I go make a mess, and you lot keep watch. Do not engage without my orders! I will be doing the fighting, if fighting there is. And if I should fall, you will return to this place immediately. Do we understand each other?”

There were salutes all around.

“Magnificent! The first to spot Twilight Sparkle or my sister earns all the bits she can carry. Away!”

~~~

Twilight screamed and staggered away. Or, she would have, but it came out as little more than a snort and a twitch of one leg.

“Twilight? Did we wake you?”

Twilight backed away from the pale figure before. Her heart was pounding with confusion and fear, but she was moving through a fog of lethargy, and she didn’t get far.

“Bad dream?”

That got Twilight's brain going again, more or less.

Celestia. It was Celestia. Big and warm and nothing at all like the twisted apparition Twilight was already starting to forget. Her eyes were searching, maybe a bit worried. And there was Bait, looking much the same, and Ben, sitting on the wight’s shoulders.

It had been a dream. A thrill of self-conscious relief washed through her. Of course! It was just a stupid nightmare! Because she’d fallen asleep, after their talk. And she’d been through a lot recently, so it was totally reasonable to have a scary dream, but also Celestia had been the last thing she thought of, because they were right next to each other, and that was probably why she’d dreamed of her. And of the…stuff that had happened. Between them. Before it had gotten scary. A couple of wires had just gotten crossed in her mind, and she’d had a weird dream was all. Happened to ponies all the time.

Twilight eked out a nod, and tried to say something, but the words got lost in a croak. Her throat was parched, tongue sticky and still clumsy with sleep-fuzz. She coughed and licked at her mouth until it started working again.

Seeing that Twilight was more or less okay, Celestia smiled soothingly.

“You can tell me about it, if it helps.”

Twilight shook her head. Nope! No need for discussion on this one, thanks.

Because it surely hadn’t happened, and Twilight had gotten over her embarrassing little one-sided crush years ago, and there was no reason it needed to try and dredge itself up again now. It was just…

“I understand,” she said. “No reason to linger on a simple little scare. Can you stop that spell you’re casting, please?”

It was just she couldn’t quite seem to remember exactly when she’d dozed off. When, specifically, reality had melted into dream. Because, I mean, she obviously couldn’t actually have kissed her, but Twilight couldn’t manage to piece together what actually had happened and wait what?

“What?” She looked up at her horn reflexively. Twilight noticed for the first time that the entire room was bathed in the plum-colored light of her magic. When had she cast a spell? What even was it?

A quick bit of mystical probing revealed it to be some kind of shield, mixed with a bit of force. Its lines were sharp, angular. More like a knife or a spike than a barrier, and shaped almost like one of the stars on her mark, except with one tip longer than the rest. The force had been there to…propel it? Into…Her eyes fell to Celestia.

She gasped and the spell popped out of being as she recoiled. She would have backed away further if she hadn’t hit a wall.

“Just breathe, Twilight. It’s over now.”

She’d known you could make a shield like that. Sharp. They were just planes of force, after all, bent into shapes. But she’d never thought to use them like that. And in her sleep!?

“I could have hurt somepony with that! How did I even do that!?”

“You could have,” Celestia acknowledged, radiating calm. “But you didn’t. Just take a minute. Relax.” She smiled. “Our magic does that sometimes. Just goes off when we don’t remember to stop it. It’s nothing I haven’t done myself. We can talk about how to keep that kind of thing under control, when you’re—”

A huge, hollow boom echoed through the little chamber. Celestia’s eyes went wide and she stopped dead.

The sound, as from some massive hoof, rapping ponderously on stone, thundered twice more. Celestia turned towards the entrance of the cave, the tiny noises of her movements seemingly suddenly very loud in the cavernous silence. She stood, ears forward, waiting. When she spoke, her voice was very low, and very firm.

“I believe it is time we left this place, friends. Stay close, but be ready to run.”

No one responded.

Celestia approached the boulder-turned-door, taking hold of it with a golden glow. She lifted it a fraction of an inch, and then, after a moment of consideration, flung it with unbelievable power from the cave. She sprang through the threshold, lighting up with incandescent power. Twilight raced past Bait and Ben to follow, and when she stormed out of the cave she saw Celestia, blazing and mighty, facing down…

Nothing.

There was nothing out there. No one opposed her. No great beast that could have hammered out those massive notes on the stone. Nothing at all but a small balcony of pale rock and open, empty sky. But how could that be?

As she stepped up beside Celestia to the edge of the crescent of dusty stone, Twilight realized that they were, impossibly, on a mountaintop. The cave had moved while she’d slept. Twilight wasn’t so much surprised as oddly offended.

The vista below stretched out forever. Forests and deserts and tundras and great rivers wound into and through each other in a nonsense labyrinth of landscapes. Strange monoliths stood out, things that may have been temples or towers rose here and there. They had clearly been made by someone, but they were nothing like the humble abodes she had seen before. These things belonged. Winds whispered, and she could hear…sounds. Out there. Mournful wails, or howls of hate, or words that never were. That kind of thing. Everything seemed both close and far at once. There was no horizon. It made no sense, but for once, Twilight didn’t even try. Instead, she looked up.

The huge, burning eye of Tatarus gazed down at her. Its fire burned faster now, licking over the circle of hypnotic, utter black with a living hunger. It seemed amused, if that word had any meaning when applied to a ring of flame.

Was it you then, knocking on the door? she wondered, with no small amount of bitterness. Politely suggesting that we might get up and go do something interesting? She shuddered at the idea of being this place’s plaything. A crash sounded far below.

Twilight broke off her glaring contest to look, and watched as the boulder Celestia had thrown caromed onto a low plain, plowed through a tree or two, and rolled slowly to a stop, miles away.

“I see,” said Celestia, after a time. “Yes, I fear it will only become crazier from here. Let’s get going then, shall we?” She looked Twilight in the eye and nodded, then stepped onto a narrow path that led who knew where.

Twilight followed.

“Sure. Why not.”

~~~

Celestia led the little party, ears flicking, eyes roving and alert for any danger. Twilight tried to emulate her, but she was preoccupied.

She felt ridiculous, worrying over this particular thing at this particular moment. There were so many bigger problems to be freaking out over. Tartarus had come alive while she’d slept. Winds full of bizarre scents blew through at random, the road bent down the mountain and twisted without apparent purpose, clouds of colors Twilight couldn’t name gathered and dispersed as they pleased. Sometimes she felt like Tartarus was looking right into her, but usually it seemed distracted, as if more exciting things were happening elsewhere. And it sounded like a warzone out there. Or, at least, what she guessed that must sound like. There were roars and crashes, great thuds that shook the earth. It seemed silly to be caught up by something so trivial as a kiss that probably hadn’t even happened. But here she was. She might have been able to convince herself it really had all been part of the dream, but then Celestia had used that same phrase again, about it only getting crazier. But then again, she wasn’t acting any different than before, and Twilight was pretty darn sure that she would have at least said something if it had happened. But maybe she was just doing the same thing Twilight was: pretending it hadn’t. The Princess kept looking back to make sure everypony was close, and Twilight thought she could see something in her eyes, but what? It was driving her nuts, not knowing!

“Um, Princess?”

“Yes?”

“What’s happening right now?”

Nice. The wise and brave Princess Twilight, avoider of difficult questions.

Celestia huffed a short laugh.

“Well, it seems we took too long, Twilight. Tartarus has awoken in full, and in Its waking throes, lost control of its inmates for a time.” She shook her head, looking over a shoulder. “I’d hoped to avoid this, but, in a way, this is good.” She tilted her head to one side, then the other. “Maybe. It will be busy watching other struggles, so perhaps we can slip by. But, as you can see, things are going to be a bit more active than before. I suppose I should warn you that we may have to do some fighting soon. Maybe quite a lot.”

“Yeah. I understand.” And, to her profound surprise, Twilight found that her words were true. She wasn’t happy about it, but she got it. Sometimes you had to fight for things. No, not for things. For your friends. She still didn’t think she could do what Celestia did, but she could keep Bait safe, at least.

“Princess?”

“Hm?”

“How long was I out?”

AAAAAUUUUUGGGHH! Seriously!? Just ask the question!

“Oh, several hours, I suppose. Hard to say here. Are you still tired?”

“No, I’m okay. Still a little sore, I guess. Did you sleep at all?”

“A bit. I don’t need much, even as I am. Don’t worry about me, Twilight.”

She smiled sweetly, and Twilight returned it by reflex.

There! Right there! There had been that little gleam in her eye! Twilight was sure she’d never seen Celestia look at her like that before now. But maybe she was just deluded. Maybe this was just her old infatuation, looking for a way back in. It wouldn’t be a big surprise: Twilight had spent most of her life in love with her Princess, one way or another. It had been worst in her teenage years, the kind of infatuation that inspired awful, saccharine poetry. By her. And Twilight hated poetry back then! She’d thrown what little she’d written in the fireplace before it was even finished…Anyway, it had been such a problem that Twilight had actually done an (extremely secretive) research project on the matter. It turned out, she discovered, that cases of excessive, illogical, idiotic puppy-love for Princesses was a hilariously common phenomenon. There were whole books of (terrible) poetry devoted to them, and volumes of (certainly fictional) romantic stories about them, and canvas upon canvas of (often surprisingly good) drawings, paintings, and sculptures featuring them. They mostly focused on Celestia, obviously, but no Princess went unnoticed. Many names Twilight had never heard of elsewhere showed up in those works, and she had to do further searching to verify they were even real. The oldest of the pieces often held Luna in the spotlight, and Twilight was rather embarrassed that she hadn’t figured out Celestia had a sister from that. She’d even found a few recent ones of Cadance. Now that she thought on the matter, Twilight wondered if there were any such bits of nonsense with her as the ‘muse.’ Now there was an idea that bore further research.

The works ran the gamut from sticky-sweet to melodramatic to flat-out dirty. Twilight’s interest in the latter was purely academic, of course. Purely. They matched the Princess of their desire up with all manner of ponies and creatures, and in all manner of (highly unlikely) scenarios. Sometimes, it worked, often not. Many of them were such flagrant bits of wish-fulfillment for the author that they were almost painful to read. But the main point Twilight had taken from all her research was that she wasn’t a freak. Not in this way, anyway. What she was feeling was completely normal. She knew it would never go anywhere, because as far as she knew Celestia didn't do the relationship thing. It had hurt, learning that. But even so, it had helped. It had given Twilight some peace. Closure.

And so she’d moved on. She’d gotten over her silly infatuation. Even before she’d left for Ponyville, she’d done a little dating. Or, well, she’d thought about it, at least. She hadn’t really hit her stride until a few years later, but hit her stride she had. She’d been around. She’d played a few fields. Heck, she’d played in a few fields. And it had been good. She was proud of those adventures. So it was kind of upsetting to have this nonsense just waltz back in like it had never left. She’d spent so much time coming to terms with herself on how it was never going to happen, it was impossible, it just couldn’t be, that it seemed unfair.

But that was the thing. The Celestia Twilight had always known had lived on a pedestal, high and bright and far beyond the petty, sordid, sexy concerns of her ponies. Perfect and untouchable. But Twilight was seeing now that she wasn’t perfect. Celestia had been pushy, panicky, melodramatic, and even frightening. There was a quote about that, something about how we respect ponies for their virtues, but love them for their flaws, or something. And she was so full of virtue, yes, but, for the first time, Twilight knew that she was flawed, too. And maybe even touchable. And maybe…maybe she wanted to be? Twilight knew enough to be pretty sure she’d seen the signals, but she couldn’t tell, and it was absolutely maddening to not know! She didn’t even know if she really wanted that from Celestia. Maybe it had been a fluke, just a random, terror induced misfire in her brain that made Twilight do something crazy.

Twilight heaved a sigh that was half groan, trying to figure out what to say and how in the world she was supposed to actually say it when Celestia stopped. Twilight was so deep in her own head that she nearly ran into her.

“Twilight?" asked her Princess. "Are you upset?”

“I-Buh?”

“About what happened? In the cave.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open. All this time thinking about it and she was still caught flat-hoofed.

“When we,” Celestia sort of danced from one hoof to another. “When I kissed you? Should I have, er..." She composed herself with visible effort. “If I crossed a boundary, I apologize. It won’t happen again. I was just, well, I spent so long so afraid that I’d lost you, and when I finally saw you, and heard how well you’d been handling this, it just...And sometimes I get a little, um, impulsive, when I'm away from Equestria for too long, and, well, you really are a hero, Twilight. And you’ve always been such an inspiration and—“ She brushed away stray hair that may not have actually been there off her face.

She was babbling. She was nervous. Twilight was making her nervous!

She looked so young, suddenly. Celestia, who had seen untold thousands of years pass her by, was bumbling through this like a teenager. Twilight just gawped. And then it all came back.

~~~

Twilight looked up. Celestia smiled back down at her, big and warm and gorgeous as always.

“Um, Princess?” asked Twilight, still trying to solve the riddle of what was happening here. She remembered some of those looks Celestia had given her before. She lined them up with the one she was seeing now, and looks just like this that she’d seen on other faces. She couldn’t be right. But then...maybe she was?

“Hm?” Celestia looked down.

Twilight wasn’t sure exactly how she managed to cross that impossible distance between them. It had only been a few inches, sure, but she’d never dared even really think of trying to bridge this particular gap before.

Princess Celestia gasped a muffled little ‘Mph!’ as Twilight kissed her. Her eyes went wide, wings flared out and…well, that was probably what happened. Twilight couldn’t see it, her eyes were closed. That’s what usually happened though. People always seemed surprised when she kissed them, for some reason…Anyway, there was no grand explosion of light when it happened. No revelatory burst of gnostic wisdom or orgasmic pleasure like Twilight had spent way too much time fantasizing about when she’d been a weird, lonely teenager. Just two pairs of lips meeting for the first time, soft and skittish and wonderful as any first kiss should be. And, of course, far superior to the tawdry nonsense she’d always imagined. A bit less flashy though. Twilight put in the slightest bit of tongue, just barely licking at Celestia’s lips, terrified she’d be slapped away any second now but unable to stop herself. Might as well go for it, at this point.

There was no slap. No hoof shoved her away. It felt like forever before Celestia finally pushed the tiniest bit forward. Her lips opened a tiny bit, almost afraid, as though, even now, she wasn’t sure. It seemed to Twilight that the time for doubt ended the moment a girl put her tongue in your mouth, but maybe that was just her. Celestia made another little noise as their tongues met. This one was less surprised, and more…

Oh my, yes.

Twilight threw herself into the kiss, wrapping her arms around Celestia’s neck and pulling her down on top of her. A surprisingly girlish giggle escaped Celestia as she fell down into the embrace. Twilight laid herself out and shivered as Celestia slid up over her and—

Something shuffled beside them, and both mares froze.

Bait shifted slightly, lifting one rear hoof-claw to scratch an ear in his sleep. He settled back down a moment later.

Twilight watched him with bated breath, a delicious, agonizing heat surging through her. The ponies laid still until they were certain he was, in fact, still asleep.

“Why don’t we—” Celestia whispered in her ear.

Sneak off to some corner of the cave where nopony will hear us? Yes please!

“—save this for later?”

Nuts.

It was the reasonable thing to do, of course. It wasn’t like this cave even had any clandestine corners to sneak off to anyway. It wasn’t helping that Celestia was running a hoof down her chest and looking at her like that, though. She was nibbling her lip. Actually, literally nibbling her lip. Sweet heavens, Twilight loved that! And so, it was with a profound effort of will that Twilight replied.

“Okay.”

Celestia slid up off her, and both of them did a bit of preening and adjusting before they shuffled back into place next to each other.

“Why don’t you try and get some rest?”

Twilight had no idea how she was supposed to do that just now, but she dutifully laid her head across Celestia’s outstretched arms and did her best, positively glowing all the while. And the next thing she knew…

~~~

Oh. Hrmm. Alright then. But, wait...

“W-I-You kissed me?

Celestia looked stricken.

“Oh. You don’t remember. You m-must have been asleep on your hooves. Well, that’s reasonable, I sup—”

Apparently she’d missed the emphasis.

“No! No, I mean, Yes! I remember! It’s just, I thought that, I mean, I was the one who…”

Twilight’s darting eyes happened to cross the path of Bait. She noticed with no small amount of relief that he was scrupulously looking, with great interest, elsewhere. Good kid. She turned back.

I kissed you! I thought so, anyway,” she finished. It lacked the punch she’d been hoping for, but maybe they were both doomed to act like teenagers for a while. "Was that okay?"

“Ah, haha, um, yes, well. I wasn't certain how you would feel about it, afterwards, so I suppose I may have pretended I started it to take the pressure off of you. In case you, well...How do you feel about it?"

Oh, that was such an infuriatingly Celestia thing to do! Make no commitments, no direct answers, just leave the floor open for suggestions. It occurred to Twilight for the first time that Celestia might do that because she didn't have any direct answers. Twilight decided to give a little back.

“I think I can honestly say that I have no idea. You?”

Celestia’s visage of jittery worry deepened.

Twilight fought to stop a giggle. She couldn’t help herself. This was just so…

Celestia saw it. A tiny smile pushed its way onto her lips, her own little slightly manic giggle escaping. Twilight joined, unable to stop it now, and then laughed, and then Celestia laughed, and they just collapsed into it until all the craziness of this whole situation worked itself out and they were both nearly in tears. Celestia managed to find her words first.

“Well. This is just, I don’t even know. Just absurd, isn’t it?”

“It so totally is,” agreed Twilight, wiping her eyes with a wing.

“Why don’t we—“

“Handle this whole thing later, after we get home?”

“Yes.” Celestia nodded, with a warm, familiar smile. “Let’s do that. Shall we go?”

Twilight nodded in return, trotting up beside Celestia. The one put a wing over the other, loving, friendly. Maybe some other feelings were in there. But maybe not. They’d figure it out. Twilight turned back to her other companions,

“Sorry guys. We’re done. Ready to go?”

Bait wasted no time catching up. He didn’t bother pretending he hadn’t heard all of that, and that was fine.

That bit of pressure relieved, the little group trotted on through Tartarus in high spirits.

Parallels

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It didn’t last, because of course it didn’t. Ben’s shriek was the only warning they had before the attack came. Fortunately, it was enough. Twilight grabbed Bait and Ben and was gone before she’d even stopped to think. She popped back in from the quick teleport in time to see something inexplicable slam down onto the path where they’d been. Celestia, shielded and shining, was already charging the thing. She and Twilight were on opposite sides of the creature, so they should have had it surrounded, but could you really even surround something with that many heads? Where had it even come from? It must have fallen at them.

The monster screamed a grating cacophony and lashed out in seemingly every direction at once. It clawed at Celestia, and snapped at her with jaws great and small. It swung at Twilight’s group with what was maybe a tail, whipping a half dozen spines at her face. Her barrier deflected them easily, but she backed away anyway, unsure of what else this thing might be capable. A gout of flame spewed from one reptilian head, and a nasty-looking yellow vapor poured from somewhere she couldn’t see. The monster didn't even seem to be aiming its weapons, just spastically attacking.

Celestia took the brunt of the undirected assault, dodging and deflecting and hammering it back with burning magic. Twilight let her, keeping her distance. She watched for other attackers, keeping an eye on herself and their friends. They’d decided this was the best plan of action; Celestia would do the fighting, Twilight would keep everypony safe, only jumping in if things got really ugly. She hadn’t much liked it, but Twilight had agreed with a quiet sense of relief. She didn’t think she’d panic again, but she still hadn’t really come to terms with the idea of killing something. It made good sense, anyway. Celestia was by far the better warrior. Even so, Twilight worried that she might be putting off a hard inevitability in favor of an easy quick-fix.

The beast was lit ablaze, but it was hard to tell if it even noticed. The fire didn’t bite like it should have, didn’t burn into the bristly hide of the thing. The monster shoved forward, heedless, forcing Celestia back, trying to corner her against a mountain wall. Twilight gasped as one snarling maw, like a slavering dog’s, snapped shut inches away from one white wing. She grabbed a big, conveniently placed stone and slung it at one of the creature’s larger feet. The projectile connected and the creature staggered. Celestia took the opportunity to hit back, hard. Twilight couldn’t see what she did, exactly, through the bulk of the monster, but a jet of blood erupted soon after. It wasn’t enough to even slow it down, and several pairs of eyes, burning with what could never be called sanity, had already locked onto Twilight. The monster charged straight for her without even having to turn, its multitude of legs, tentacles, wings, and whatever else letting it switch direction without effort or delay. Twilight whipped up another blink spell, but to where? She was on a narrow strip of path slanting down a mountain. There was nowhere to go but further back. Or, maybe…She teleported straight up, latching onto Bait and struggling to hold him aloft as her wings caught what was now open air. Bait gasped, but fortunately didn’t struggle against her this time. She looked down and saw the golden glow of Celestia’s magic, seeking a grip on the various horns and tusks and spikes around the main head of the creature. If it had a ‘main’ head. It was the biggest, anyway, and like a boar’s, but with more, bigger teeth.

Celestia got a hold and yanked, grunting with the effort. Two tons of misbegotten muscle crashed to the ground as the monster was jerked off its many feet. Celestia wrenched the entire head, hard and sharp, clockwise. Twilight winced at the meaty crack that sounded. She nearly fell as her stomach lurched. Twilight turned away and starting talking so she wouldn’t have to hear more.

“Are you okay, Bait?”

“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine. Can we land now? This feels weird. And I think she got it. Things only twitch that way when they’re dying.”

Twilight swallowed her nausea.

“Sure.”

Twilight placed him down as gently as she could and cautiously approached. She wished she could say she’d never seen anything so freakish as this mismatched agglomeration of seemingly random animal parts, but recent days had been unpleasantly enlightening. Even so, the thing put Discord’s nonsense physiology to shame, with over half a dozen heads, twice as many legs, and several pairs of wings. No, wait. There was actually an odd number of wings. Why!? How!?

The whole beast was shot through with thorny protrusions, sometimes of bone, often of less obvious material. Grotesque as it was, Twilight couldn’t shake the idea that there was some horrible logic behind its form. The thing shouldn’t have even been able to move, but it had been almost graceful, in its alien, impossible way. She looked away.

Princess Celestia was panting from the fight, and Bait was creeping up on the corpse for a better look, craning his neck out to sniff at it curiously. Twilight tried not to be a bit disturbed by that.

“Stay back, Bait. It’s not dead.”

He all but leapt away at the revelation, rushing to hide behind Twilight. She backed away too, eyeing the monster.

“Twilight, can you help me with this?” said Celestia. She enveloped the near side of the non-corpse in magic and shoved it a few inches toward the cliff. She was clearly straining with its weight. That seemed odd. Twilight had seen her lift and throw a boulder nearly as large as this thing without apparent effort.

“Um, sure. What are we doing?”

“Pushing it off the mountain. It’ll revive soon, and I’d rather it not do so here. It’s going to be harder than you think. Chimera like this one are hard to hurt with, well, anything. Magic, especially.” She grunted as she shoved it further. “Slides right off them, for some damned reason.”

“That’s a chimera?” Twilight had seen chimera before, but never anything like this. She supposed there were certain similarities, what with all the extra heads. That seemed to be a really common theme around here. “What do you mean by ‘like this one?’” Twilight asked, slipping her own magic into Celestia’s, looking for weak points to reinforce. It was a trick she’d been taught long ago. “Is it some kind of mutant? Augh!”

Twilight hopped back from the creature as her magic touched it. It felt disgusting to her mystic senses. Slippery and noxious. She not only couldn’t get a grip on it, she didn’t want to!

Celestia forged on, stoic.

“Sorry. I should have warned you how unpleasant it is. But please, try again.”

Twilight stepped back in after a moment and tried again. She was ready for it this time, but that didn’t make it any nicer. Ugh, Goddess! It’s like walking into a pit of slime! Her spell kept trying to slide off, and a sort of swamp-reek was building in her throat, but the two ponies managed to get the chimera over the edge after a few more shoves. It bounced off the wall of a cliff on the way down, hit a lower stretch of the path, and then rolled off that until it bounced once more and crashed to a halt on the bottom.

Celestia huffed a deep breath, and so did Twilight. Both were sweating from the work.

“That should do,” said Celestia. “It should be hurt enough that it won’t remember us when it wakes. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” replied Twilight. It was dumb, maybe, but she felt better knowing she hadn’t just helped kill the chimera. Even if she’d shoved it off a mountain. And if, objectively, the world would probably have been better off without the horrible thing.

Celestia nodded, seeming to know exactly what was going through her head.

“Good. Let’s get going then.”

The two Princesses walked on, shoulder to much-higher shoulder. Bait clung close to Twilight, and Ben scampered back and forth between the three, keeping watch.

~~~

Luna danced lightly away from the bleeding heap of disparate parts, a small, satisfied smile playing at her lips. The chimera she'd killed had been one of the weird ones. A twisted, utterly unfeasible, splendidly glorious beast of a thing. Quick, too, and stealthy, but her guards had seen it before the monster struck. Between her flawless (if she did say so herself) swordplay and a few well timed distractions from her retinue, the rabid thing had been handled with almost suspicious ease. No injuries on her side at all, and little time or effort spent. Still, she eyed the chimera warily as it bled out. Notoriously tricky to kill, these. If she’d been alone and unarmed, things might not have gone nearly so smoothly. Even now, some of its wounds were trying to close. She raised her weapon and stabbed it again, aiming for anything that looked important. The creature made no sudden leap for her throat. It didn’t even shudder as the blades pierced it, just lay there and bled a bit more. Luna gave it another few seconds, then turned to her ponies.

“Excellent work, soldiers! And sharp eye, Backstep. We could have had a real mess on our hooves, if not for you. Well done.”

The pegasus in question looked to be of the opinion that they did have a real mess on their hooves.

Luna scanned the face of her guard, and then of the others. There was pride there, yes, but fear as well, and…other things. A few were looking quite shaken.

“Is everypony well? I know that some of you are unused to seeing things such as,” she flicked the blood off her sword, “this. The task before you is onerous, but you expected that. This place is unlike any you have ever known. It is dangerous in the extreme, and the things we suffer here may be disturbing, but know that our mission is righteous, my ponies! I chose you select few, each of you, because I believe in you. I know that you will be there for me, and for Celestia, and Twilight Sparkle. And I would have you know that we shall be there for you in return! But this,” gestured at the whole scene, taking in corpse and sword and herself, “is no simple thing. There is no shame in being afraid of it. So I will ask again. Is everypony well?”

“Hoo-rah!” exclaimed Quick March, stomping the ground. The other pegasi, even Backstep, who had seemed so jittery moments before, jumped to match him. Her three nyxies answered in their own, rather less regimented, way. They seemed a bit amused at the pegasus’s outburst.

Luna, for her part, was honestly a bit surprised by it. She’d worried they weren’t ready for this. Or maybe that they didn’t really believe in her. Probably the latter.

What a wonderful way to be proven wrong.

“Magnificent,” she said, meaning every syllable of it. “Away!”

~~~

“They’re not exactly what I’d call mutants,” Celestia said. “The chimera you know of can be troublesome, and certainly dangerous, but they’re still people. They can be reasoned with. These, not so much. These monsters were born long after their more civil cousins, after their father…” she paused, getting that look on her face that Twilight was coming to learn was regret. This was something she blamed herself for, Twilight suspected. “Went mad. Some of them, I’m not sure how to describe it, become corrupt? As they age. They grow twisted, purely destructive, difficult to affect with magic. Magic, unicorn magic, is the means by which we impose order on chaos, as you know. These new chimera, I think, are an attempt to disrupt that. They are a weapon.”

“A weapon against what?”

“Us.”

Well. That was concerning.

“Who’s their father?” Twilight wasn’t sure she should even ask, but it was that or awkward, mopey silence, so she went for it.

“Typhon.”

“Who’s Typhon?”

“Another of Briareos’s siblings. The last of them, and the greatest.”

“Alright.” The sudden simplicity of her answers made it pretty clear that Celestia would rather not speak on the subject. She wasn’t even apologizing for it, like she usually did. But maybe she’d be willing to discuss something else. Something that had been nagging at Twilight for some time now.

“Can I um, can I sidetrack for a second?”

“Certainly.”

“I’ve seen you do some pretty amazing stuff since we got here,” she began. “And I always knew you were amazing, obviously…”

Celestia looked at her with a wry smile.

“But it just made me wonder about something.”

“Mhm?”

“So. I saw you fight off a whole pack of huge wolf monsters and barely take a scratch. And then, for all his stupid bravado, Cretes clearly didn’t want to fight you. And then you wiped the floor with a whole swarm of those mirror-pool things. I mean, you made it look easy! And then you beat up that crazy chimera practically single-hoofed, and those are just the things I know about. So, my question is...couldn’t you have beaten Nightmare Moon? And Discord? And Chrysalis?”

Celestia had stopped walking halfway into the series of questions, and right now she was looking like a filly caught with her hoof deep in the cookie jar.

“Ah. Aheh. Well…”

“You could! Equestria was never under any real threat at all, was it!?”

“Oh, well, I certainly wouldn’t say—“

“You never really...you never needed me, did you?”

Celestia blinked.

“Alright, I’m just going to cut that thought off right now.”

Twilight’s eyes snapped up at Celestia’s tone.

“Twilight, the fact that I had back-up plans does not diminish in the slightest what you have accomplished for yourself and for your people. I’ve ruled Equestria for a long, long time, and I’ve learned harsh lessons in doing so. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve missed things, like anypony would. And when that happened, I learned that you either plan for such things, or you allow some out-of-nowhere disaster to destroy everything you’ve worked for. My first battle with Nightmare Moon destroyed Equestria’s first capital. We leveled the entire city, Twilight. The Everfree is still recovering from that wound. Yes, I could have fought her. But instead, I sent you, and you resolved our conflict in a way I never could have! And yes, it is true that Luna and I could have faced down Discord again, but at what cost, Twilight? We can no longer wield the Elements of Harmony, not after…” She shook her head. “Discord is the single most powerful being in our world, and he thrives on conflict. Who else but you and your friends could have made him see the value of coexistence? As to Chrysalis, I…I owe you an apology for that, of course. She is the very Goddess of Envy, absolute mistress of deception, but even so, I should have seen through such a flimsy ruse. I should never have doubted you. And yes, perhaps I could have fought her. But think of what damage we might have done. Her, glutted on the true love a Princess, against me, in the very seat of my power. In a castle full of my dear friends, in one of the most populous cities in Equestria. A single stray shot could have been a disaster. And of course, Luna was still free. And we had you, and Cadance."

Celestia shook her head.

"But, for what it is worth, Chrysalis's attack was a fiasco all around. I underestimated her, and like a fool, lost to a sucker punch. The entire debacle galls me to this day. So you see..." Celestia turned a chagrined smile to Twilight. "I am not invincible."

“Oh.”

“That said, violence is one the things I am best at. The older I become, though, the more I see that it is a flawed solution. It begets only more of itself. So yes, Twilight, I needed you. I will always need you, and ponies like you, to show an old nag a better way. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” said Twilight with a faux-exasperated sigh. “Fine. I had a really good mope planned around that one, and you just had to ruin it.”

Celestia laughed. “I’ll try to be more considerate of your feelings in the future."

On a lark, Twilight snuck her lips up to Celestia’s for a little peck of a kiss, just real quick. She was trying it out. Seeing how this whole ‘romance with Celestia’ thing might work. She practically had to jump to reach her. They were going to have figure something out on that. A step ladder or something.

Ben shrieked a warning.

“Oh, come on!!”

~~~

Luna strolled down the road. She was in thick bog-land just now, the branches of silvery trees hanging heavy with moss and vines. She was familiar with the area, and had made certain her troop of ponies were as well. They were as well prepared as anypony who hadn’t actually been to Tartarus could be. It was quiet here. Suspiciously so…

“Incoming!”

Quick March came down hard and fast a few feet away. Luna looked to him, expectant.

“Big,” he said, catching his breath. “A troll, I think, or a giant. Headed right this way, fast. Some other things behind it, didn’t see what. Smaller.”

“Lovely,” purred Luna, with every indication that she did, in fact, feel that this was a lovely development. “TO THE AIR, SOLDIERS! I’ll see to this!” She could already feel the monster’s heavy tread, hear it crashing through the brush.

“You’re certain you wish to fight it alone, m’lady?” March whispered.

She gave him a Look.

“Yes, Princess.” He took off without another word, only stopping after he was well above the tree-line.

Luna chose not to be insulted by his patronizing concern. He’d been in the air while she’d fought the chimera, and so had never really seen her at play. He would learn today.

The Princess stretched her wings, the many little knives of her fanciful weapon shivering and singing softly in anticipation.

It was an admittedly strange weapon, Luna’s. But she was an admittedly strange pony, so it suited her. She (the weapon had always felt very feminine to Luna) consisted of an indefinite number of whimsically ornate blades, hovering placidly above the pony’s wings. They followed the flow of Luna’s feathers, forming a second, lethally sharp set of wings over the first. The blades could be thrown one at a time or all at once, launched in one direction or many or in fantastically complex patterns. The sword’s name was Thousand Glittering Shards in the Darkest of Nights. Grandiose, perhaps, but such was her way. Luna usually just thought of her as Shard.

Many Goddesses had such things, weapons forged in the wellspring of their soul and entirely unique to the being who birthed them, but Luna’s was more than a mere tool of destruction. Shard was art. She was speed and precision and deadly, deceptive, beauty. Luna had never seen another quite like Shard, and was fairly certain she never would. She sighed fondly as she considered her weapon. Shard returned her affection, gently stroking Luna’s cheek with one of the few parts of herself that wasn’t a razor’s edge.

The racket of the troll-or-giant’s clumsy, violent approach grew louder. Luna didn’t bother to hide. Rather, she posed dramatically.

The huge, blundering thing burst through the treeline. It staggered to a halt, surprised to suddenly find itself in the open terrain of the road and confronted by a single, lone, unshaken pony.

It was a big one! A swamp troll, covered in moss and bark and off-color mushrooms. A miasma of toxic spores followed it. Typical. A swamp troll’s very existence was a threat to nearly everything around it. The condition was actually curable, but the nasty beasts mostly preferred to keep things as they were. That last part was why they’d been banished to Tartarus.

Luna slipped a diaphanous mask up from within her armor and placed it over her muzzle. To all outward appearances, said armor was merely a sleek, smooth, and gossamer thin robe, if a truly fabulous one. It poured, almost liquid, over Luna in jealously form-fitting folds of black, violet and shimmering silver, and let her tail and mane flow free unless she chose to raise its hood. t seemed almost flimsy, but Aurora’s Unbroken Veil was forged of the same soul-stuff as Shard, and was vastly tougher than she seemed.

Luna coiled up, wings and weapon high.

The troll's eyes darted, if you could call such a ponderous movement darting, from Luna, to Shard, to the trail behind it. Then it turned and thundered off up the road, directly away from her.

Luna's wings wilted back to rest.

“Hmph,” she pouted. Shard and Aurora both sulked in sympathy.

What a damned disappointment

~~~

Their latest attacker, which turned out to be one of those clouds of some unidentifiable color that Twilight had seen earlier, was dispatched with almost comical ease by the mighty wings of the Princesses. It turned out that even the most carnivorous of living, lightning-filled clouds could be dispersed by a bit of magically augmented wind. It probably would have been terrifying if their party hadn’t been blessed with two especially magical winged ponies, but as it stood, the whole encounter just ended up seeming kind of silly. Honestly. A cloud? Twilight watched as it reassembled itself a good ways off and then, looking somewhat embarrassed, slunk off into the distance.

“Well then,” said Celestia, who was looking rather pleased with herself. “What were we talking about?”

“Nothing important,” said Twilight, settling back in under Celestia’s wing. “Everypony ready?”

Ben and Bait signaled that they were, and so off they went.

They were attacked twice more before reaching ground level. The first assault came in the form of a boulder, which smashed into the ground before them as they rounded one of the many bends of this nonsense road on this absurd mountain. Twilight had a shield up before it hit, and it missed by a wide margin, but that didn't make the attack any less frightening. Chunks of stony shrapnel the size of her head bounced off Twilight’s barrier. It held, but only just. She didn't think she could handle a direct hit.

Twilight followed the trajectory of the throw back to a huge, thoroughly non-equine figure. It was lifting another boulder already, and, as she stared, she saw that it had a bandanna over its forehead, covering a single, enormous eye. Or at least, what was left of one. A cyclops! She’d read of them, but had always assumed they looked like ponies…

It turned one ugly, rounded ear toward them, listening for their steps as it lined up another shot.

“Polyphemus!” bellowed Celestia. “Stop this idiocy! Or shall I take more than your eye this time!?”

The cyclops jumped in surprise, nearly dropping his stone.

“P-Princess Celestia?” he rumbled in a voice so deep Twilight felt it more than heard.

“Aye! Why do you attack me?”

“I-I am—” Polyphemus stuttered, swallowing hard. “I am to guard this road from interlopers.” He passed the stone from one massive hand to the other, clearly afraid.

“Guard this road...?” Celestia mumbled to herself. There was a long pause before she said more. Twilight looked up at her. She was shifting from one hoof to the other, nervous.

“Is this Mt. Etna, Polyphemus?”

“Eh, yes, Princess.”

“Shit!” It came out in a harsh whisper. She continued as if she’d said nothing. “We are descending the road, Polyphemus. We are leaving, not trying to invade! Stand aside!”

“Err…I, uh, er,”

It sounded to Twilight like Polyphemus might not be the fastest of thinkers.

“Move or fight, but make a decision!”

“Uh, yes, your majesty.” The cyclops stood aside.

“Good! Very wise.” Celestia was already trotting forward, dragging Twilight with her. “And put that down!”

Polyphemus hurried to drop his boulder back onto a pile of similar stones.

Twilight shamelessly stared at him as they went. He stood rigid and sweating. He was a bit like the centaur she’d met before, but with only two legs. He had the kind of muscle that looked almost like fat, but was far stronger than the more obviously bulging thews that some ponies were so into. He looked like he could smash a pony to paste…

She looked at Celestia. The older Princess was watching the road, face hard. It was a while before Twilight asked the obvious questions.

“So…”

“He’s a pony-eating monster,” Celestia said. “He attacked us once, taking several ponies hostage, so Luna tricked him, putting out his eye. We threw him here afterwards. It seems someone has set him to guard this place since then.”

“Okay, right. You seemed, um, upset. About this being Mt. Etna?”

“Typhon is held under this place. If he wakes, and escapes…” Celestia took a long, deep breath. “Well, the prison is very thorough. He almost never actually manages to get free.” She smiled, and it managed to be pretty reassuring. “We’ll deal with that if it comes, I suppose. But for now, let’s get as far away from here as we can.”

They did so. The last attack they suffered before reaching ground level was such a joke that it barely even bore mentioning. It was a small flock of harpies, flying things that looked vaguely like ponies, but had wings in place of forelegs and claws where there should have been rear hooves. And sharp teeth, too, but those hardly mattered. A few warning bolts of magic and little blast of mystically infused wind sent them away shrieking.

And so, despite it all, the troupe made good time down the mountain. Between the efforts of the two Princesses, nothing had died and nopony was injured. They’d all even had a good laugh about that last one. Twilight had to admit it: once you accepted that nearly everything out there was literally trying to kill you, this little misadventure was actually getting to be kind of fun. But then, maybe she was just high on love. Happened to the best of ponies. Or it could be the exhaustion. One of those things.

~~~

But wait, what was this? Something else was stomping through the bog, close on the troll’s heels. Ah, yes, March had said something about that, hadn’t he? Something was chasing the troll, then? Not a lot of creatures could do that, what with the trail of poison and all. Luna waited, intrigued.

It wasn’t another minute before the pursuers stumbled onto the road. They acted much as the troll had, heads whipping about in surprise at the change of terrain, stopping when they saw the pony sitting in the middle of things.

Trogolodytes! Luna thumped herself lightly on the forehead for not guessing it sooner. Of course!

Trogolodytes were one of the few creatures immune to the fungal toxins of swamp trolls. The huge, hulking, lizard-like beasts conversed briefly amongst themselves before doing exactly what Luna had known they’d do. But still, she made a token effort at giving them the benefit of the doubt.

“Can I help you, sirs?” she asked, in her friendliest voice. She spoke their language, that of monsters and other predatory critters.

Simple creatures, the trogs. Smart enough to use clubs and apply them to the skulls of edible creatures, but their prowess didn’t usually go much beyond that. A few had proven willing to try another way of life, but these before her were clearly not so intellectually adventurous.

“No?”

The trogolodytes stalked forward, spreading out to surround her, saying nothing.

Luna’s lips sharpened into a shining crescent.

“Lovely.”

~~~

The next ‘attack’ came a ways after they’d finally hit the base of the mountain. They were back in the woods, taking turns chatting pleasantly with Bait about what he could expect when he got to Equestria. Twilight couldn’t help but notice a little sashay in Celestia’s walk that she’d never seen before. Almost a strut. It seemed that she, too, was enjoying herself.

“There’s really food all the time? Whenever you want!?”

“Oh, certainly. I put a great deal of emphasis on agriculture. We ponies are entirely vegetarian, of course, but there are griffon and minotaur communities where I’m sure you will feel right at home, Bait. They have a rather wider range of cuisine than my little ponies.”

“Wait.” The wight’s face screwed up in confusion. “You have minotaurs? Are yours nice, like ponies?”

“Oh, well. Nice is a relative term, I suppose,” said Celestia. “But yes, they’re nice enough.”

“Huh,” was all Bait said, and when he didn’t follow up with any more questions, a companionable silence fell over the party.

Twilight didn’t notice how nervous he’d suddenly become until he whispered, barely loud enough to be heard.

“I think something’s following us. Don’t look! Just pretend you don’t know.”

A little chill shot through Twilight. She opened her mouth to say something, but wasn’t sure what to do. Celestia looked at her.

“Is something wrong?”

Okay. She had to say something, but nothing that made it obvious that she knew she was being followed. She'd read some spy novels. She could do this.

Twilight feigned a stumble.

“Ow! Ah, darn it! I think I got a pebble stuck in my hoof. Um, Princess? Can you help me get it out?”

Celestia blinked in confusion, but gamely agreed. Twilight held a hoof up to her, and as Celestia carefully checked it over, she scooted in close and whispered,

“Bait thinks we’re being followed.”

Not exactly super-spy material, but it'd do.

“Ah! I’ve got it. Just a little splinter, is all.” Celelstia lit Twilight’s hoof up in magic and pretended to pull something out, tossing it to the side. “Is that better?”

Twilight nodded.

“Good. And speaking of food, is anyone hungry?”

“Yeah!” shot out Bait, his hunger outweighing any fear of attack, apparently. Or maybe he knew something Twilight didn’t?

“Very good. I do believe I know this stretch of woods, and I seem to recall that there are plenty of edible things around, provided one knows where to look. Rest your hoof and watch Bait while I go find us something, won’t you Twilight?”

“Um. Certainly, Princess. Of course. I’d be happy to.”

“Wonderful! I’ll be right back! I’ll draw them off. Make noise if you see anything.” Those last bits were muttered, barely audible.

Twilight caught herself before she said anything in response, instead just waving to Celestia’s rapidly fading form, marveling at how easily Celestia had switched from polite conversation to devious subterfuge. Had she always been good at that?

Twilight looked to Bait. He smiled up at her, but it was clearly a little strained. She wasn’t sure she understood the wisdom of splitting up like this. Shouldn’t they just call out their stalker? They hadn’t lost a fight yet, after all.

Twilight sat at the edge of the road and tried to look casual. She was concerned that she might not be very good at it. She felt a little tap on her withers.

Ben looked up at her from his perch on Bait’s shoulder. He gave her a one-legged salute. She took that to mean that he, too, was on watch. Of course he was. Twilight felt a little better knowing that. She looked up one side of the road, and then the other. They could handle this, whatever it was. Nothing could sneak up on all three of them.

Time passed. Twilight looked around again, trying not to fidget. She’d seen these trees before, hadn’t she? Right, back when she and Celestia had first gotten here. In fact…

“Hey, Ben,” she said. The spider turned to focus his biggest eye on her. “Doesn’t this look just like the place wh—“

“HI!”

A chorus of surprised screams spouted from the little assembly at the unexpected introduction. Heart pounding, Twilight shoved Bait behind her and whipped around to face the intruder.

“Haha! Sorry! I didn’t meant to sneak up on you! I’m Phix! Hi!”

The creature put out a single, huge, furry paw. Twilight stared from it to the creature’s face, back to the paw.

“Oh! Sorry! Do ponies not shake anymore? I forgot.” She giggled. “I’m Phix! What’s your name?”

A sphinx. She was talking to a sphinx! Leonine in everything from the shoulders down, except for the large, feathered wings, the girl graced Twilight with a big, toothy smile. Toothy and sharp. Twilight backed up another step, feeling Ben skitter up from Bait and onto her shoulder.

“I-I’m Twilight Sparkle.” She didn’t put a hoof forward.

“Oh, that’s a great name! I always loved pony names.” Phix inched eagerly forward. “So descriptive! Where’re you from, Sparkle? Or is it Twilight?”

“Twilight, and—”

"Wait!” Phix raised one big paw. “Lemme guess! You’re from…” Her face, which was more like a stylized, feminine version of the centaur’s or the cyclops’s than any kind of face Twilight had ever seen before, scrunched up in deep thought. She placed one viciously sharp retractable claw on her chin, tapping it slowly.

Phix had huge eyes, radiantly blue and rimmed in stark black. The make-up, if that was what it was, made her eyes look even bigger than they were. Her ears were long and tasseled at the ends, and her hair, which seemed more a headdress than proper locks, fell in exotic stripes of blue and white. It rather fetchingly framed her face, and led down her neck and over her chest to a pair of what Twilight could only guess must be teats. What a bizarre place to have those…

“Equestria! Right!?”

Her voice was sweet and bubbly. A bit like Pinkie Pie’s, actually. Twilight would have thought she was really quite pretty, if not for the bottomless hunger in her eyes.

“I, um. Yes?”

“I knew it! You’re new here, huh?”

Twilight stepped back again as Phix darted forward.

“I am.”

Where was Celestia? They’d made noise!

“Annnnnnd,” Phix said in a conspiratorial whisper, though Twilight was nearly ten feet away from her by now. “I bet you came by accident!”

“I…yes.”

Twilight noticed she hadn’t asked about Bait or Ben, and that worried her. Did Phix not see them as a threat? What was she after? Twilight pushed the wight further back.

“And you’re trying to get home!”

“Yyyyyyyyyes?”Twilight drew it out, just trying to buy a few extra seconds.

“Great! I can totally help with that!”

“That’s-wait. You can?”

A muffled boom sounded from the direction Celestia had walked off in. All heads snapped toward it.

“Totally!” Phix picked the conversation right back up as if nothing had happened. “But there’s kind of trick to it, okay?” Was there the slightest bit of strain in her smile now?

“I, uh, alright. What trick is that?”

Yup. Just keep her talking. Sphinxes were supposed to be wizards without peer, but Twilight had no real idea of what they could do. The old stories were a bit short on practical information.

“You have to answer a riddle.” Phix sat on her haunches and twiddled the fingers of her paws. “I know, I know, it sounds weird. But it’s just one of those things. Ready?”

“Wait! No! Like, we have to have a riddle contest? Or I have just have to solve the one you ask? Also, why?”

Twilight saw a shadow of vexation cross the sphinx’s face.

“I, look, it’s a sphinx thing. You know what sphinxes are, right? And yes, since you asked, I guess it has to be a ‘contest.’ ” She made air quotes with her paws, clearly annoyed. “I ask one and then you ask one, and whoever can’t answer first loses.”

“What happens if I win?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Phix, perking up. “Then I help you find your way home! Or ya know, whatever else you…” The rest of the sentence was lost in an incomprehensible mumble.

Ah. It was one of those. Lots of stories about mythological, or at least, supposedly mythological creatures went like that. The monster was big and scary and dangerous, but it had some obscure weakness that the plucky heroine could exploit. Okay, she could work with that.

“Whatever else I might demand of you? Was that it?”

Phix’s claws dug into the dirt, and Twilight felt her confidence slip. She tried not to let it show.

“And if I lose?”

“Oh, you know, it’s no big deal if you can’t beat me,” Phix said, looking up with the sweetest, most innocent, most devilish smile Twilight had ever seen. “I’ll make sure I give you an easy one. We’ll work it out if you don’t get it.”

“I…see. Well, ah, what if I just, um, don’t play?”

Phix blinked her pretty eyes, taken aback. Irritation crept back into her face.

“Why wouldn’t you? I’m trying to help you, Twilight. I just need you to do this one little thing! So I can help you get home!”

That might have been more convincing if she hadn’t been stalking forward as she’d said it.

Twilight opened her mouth to speak when a living fireball plowed through the forest between them, smashing through tree after tree after tree until finally bouncing off the ground and coming to a splintering halt halfway inside another trunk. All parties leapt away from the explosion.

Through the crackling of burning bark and sap, Twilight heard a singular grumbling moan.

“Oowwwwwwwww…” said the burning thing.

“Well, if it isn’t little Phix.” Twilight’s head whipped in wide-eyed recognition of the voice, though it lacked any of the softness she was so used to hearing from it. Celestia’s tones were all iron and fire just now. “Still playing the riddle game, are we? Well, I’ve one for you, if you like.”

“Oh, aheh, uh, h-hello Celestia.” Phix was backing rapidly away from both Twilight and the smoldering wreck of the tree. “I was just—“

“I’ll eat wood and cloth and flesh alike, and all without a mouth.” She said it sing-song, like she was reciting a poem. “Stone may hold me, for a time, but only water shuts me out. What am I? It doesn’t quite rhyme, I know. My apologies.” Her grin would have fit better on a shark.

Phix’s eyes kept jumping from Celestia to the burning figure just now extracting itself from the tree.

“Oh, do you not want to play today, dear? Or do you just need a hint? Well, your little friend there is covered in the answer, and if you don’t get away from Twilight, you will be too. Does that help?”

Phix bowed profusely toward Celestia, still inching away. “Of course, Princess. I mean, it’s fire, right? Of course it is. I’m already gone! I was never even here!” She glared sharply at the other creature. “Come on!” she hissed at it.

As it staggered to its feet, Twilight recognized the thing as a crocodile, more or less. It had a headdress of its own, but wore armor in place of make-up, and it walked with an odd, bipedal stride. As the pair stumbled off into the woods, she heard Phix berate the creature.

“I gave you one damned job, Sobek! All you had to do was keep Celestia distracted while I tricked the other one into helping us get out of here! You’re supposed to be invincible!”

“She’s real mean, though,” came the rumbling, basso response. “And…” Sobek patted out the fires that still blazed on his scales. He didn’t seem especially bothered by them, even if he did keep stumbling. “Burny.”

“Ugh! I almost had her! Next time, just try to…”

The voices were rapidly lost to the foliage, so Twilight turned to Celestia and asked,

“Okay. What?

Celestia smiled, all that ominous malice from moments ago dropping easily away. She was just kind, nice Celestia again. She lifted a wing, inviting Twilight to join her as they stepped back onto the road and away from this place. Twilight did. Bait hopped to follow.

“Those two idiots,” she said, “were Phix, a sphinx, and Sobek, child of Sobek, who was also a child of Sobek. Not terribly creative with names, the Sobeks. Or much of anything else, I’m afraid. Both are godlings from ancient Northern Zebrica.”

Well, maybe not quite kind and nice just now, but still.

“Oh. Wow. Alright. What was with the riddle thing?”

“Ah, yes. Sphinx have sort of a magical compulsion regarding riddles. They’ll ask you one, and if you can’t answer, they can force any single request from you. Usually that request is ‘sit still while I eat you.’ I suppose you can see why we banished them?”

“Hrmm. Yeah. It sounded like she wanted something else, though. I mean, I was pretty sure she would have eaten me, but…”

“She said she wanted to get out of here, right?” murmured Bait. “I bet she wanted to use you to get to Equestria.”

Twilight looked down at him, questioning.

“There’s a, I dunno, a legend. If you can find somebody from outside Tartarus and follow them for a while, they can lead you to where they came from. Everybody always said it was stupid though. I don’t think it’s true.”

“Ahh, very good, Bait, thank you,” said Celestia. “Yes, I suppose that fits.”

“Does it work?” asked Twilight.

“Not quite. Tartarus has means to prevent such things, I believe. But still, it makes sense that something would try it. That’s actually unusually clever for Phix. I wonder who gave her the idea.”

“Huh. I read that sphinx were really powerful, and supposedly wise. Is that just a myth then?”

“Oh, they’re powerful, certainly. Nothing you couldn’t handle, I’d wager, but I think ponies just sort of assumed they were wise because of the riddles.”

Twilight didn’t deny herself a bit of pride at Celestia’s vote of confidence.

“Ok, so what was this ‘Sobek’s’ deal?”

“Not much to say about him, really. His grandfather was the God of crocodiles, and of a huge, deadly, bountiful river. Not the most clever of gods, but he had the traits of his river in spades. His children have them too, to a lesser extent.”

“No match for you though, huh?”

Celestia laughed.

“The day I can’t handle some third generation godling, I’ll give up my crown.”

Nopony said anything for a little while after that, but something in the way Celestia had phrased that brought up a question that had long plagued Twilight.

“Hey, uh, can I ask you something about that?”

“You can ask me anything you want, Twilight.”

“You keep using that word. God. Or, godling. And, you said something before about being 'lessened' here. What, um, what exactly is a God? And a Princess? Or, alicorn? And what are you here, if not that?”

“Ah,” said Celestia. She looked at Twilight, watching her levelly. “That’s a big question, Twilight, and I hope I won’t disappoint you when I don’t have all the answers you want. But, to the first, I would say a Goddess is, hrm, an idea. A concept, but made flesh. An incarnation of some aspect, or several aspects in most cases, of the world. She both defines them and is defined by them, if that makes sense.”

“Not really, but okay.”

Celestia smiled with a bit of mischief at that. “I know. I’m sorry, but not all of us have a mind as sharp as yours. We don’t think, we do. We are. Put yourself to the task, and I imagine your understanding of us will soon eclipse my own.”

A mind as sharp as mine? But you taught me everything I know…Twilight almost protested, but by the time she’d opened her mouth, Celestia was already moving on.

“And a Princess, or alicorn, if you prefer, is basically just another word for Goddess. We decided to tone down our own titles after a while, Luna and I, when it became clear that we weren’t quite as infallible as ponies liked to believe. No better than any other pony really. Just…bigger, in ways, and longer lived. The name wasn’t even our idea, actually. Our ponies gifted it to us when they asked that we lead them. As to what I am now, well, I suppose that requires some explanation about what I am in Equestria.”

Yes, it decidedly did.

“I am the Sun. Literally, I am the great ball of endless fire that lights our world. And I am also the entire nation of Equestria. That part of myself I share with Luna, who is also literally that magnificent gem in the sky, the Moon, and the pony you once saved from her own Nightmare. And aside from that, I am also the Celestia you have always known, a pony. My existence is…complicated?” She shrugged apologetically. “Luna’s is even more so. You might ask her about it, when you get home.”

Twilight most certainly would.

“Okay, but, I mean,” Twilight scratched her head, tail twitching. “How does that work? Does the Sun actually have thoughts? A life? And, if you are Equestria, do you, I, er…”

“I know,” said Celestia, raising a placating hoof. "If you can believe it, I was once just as confused by ponies as you are by me. The idea of being contained entirely in a single body was baffling. I don’t know of any better way to explain what I am. The Sun does think, in his fashion, and—"

“His?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, I’ve always thought of Sol, that’s his name, you'll find we have lots of names...Anyway, I’ve always thought of him as rather masculine. Can’t quite say why.”

“Huh.”

Celestia shrugged, amused. “Equestria also makes her opinions and desires known, though both of them tend to think in a so-big-it’s-maddeningly-vague sort way. I, Celestia the pony, give them a way to experience life on Earth, and they provide me with the perspective and stability to do it well, and to provide rulership to our people. So if I seem a bit less, eh, stable, than usual, that would be why. I’m so used to having them watching over me, pointing out things that I might not consider, keeping me balanced, that I forget how to handle living without them. It’s frightening, being so very alone...”

Ben chittered reassuringly. Somehow. Celestia looked down and smiled softly at him, and at everypony else.

“You’re right, of course. I can hardly call myself lonely while I'm surrounded by friends. And surely things were worse for all of you, stuck in this place, than for myself. Thank you, Ben.”

Celestia seemed to stand a little taller after that.

“Identity issues aside, there is one interesting benefit of being only part of a whole that I have been remiss in not mentioning before, Twilight. If I should happen to die here, the rest of me will carry on, and in time a new Celestia, the pony that you’ve known for years, will come to be. It doesn’t even take very long anymore, maybe only a day or so. All I’ll lose is the memory of what happened while I was away. ‘Tis true and everlasting immortality.” She gestured grandly with her free wing. “Until the Sun explodes, of course. But that’s billions of years away yet.”

Twilight stared at her, jaw slightly ajar.

“Ah, sorry. I usually don’t mention that part. I suppose I just thought you should know.” She smiled sheepishly. “But that bit about me coming back is the important thing, Twilight. If we encounter something I can’t handle, I want you to run, and don’t worry one bit about me. I’ll be fine, and I would happily throw away a few unpleasant memories to see you home safe. The same goes for you two.” She turned an eye to Bait and Ben. “Understood?”

Bait, knowing an order when he heard one, mumbled an affirmative immediately. Ben saluted acknowledgment. Twilight stalled.

“Have you…you’ve died before? How many times?”

“Mm, hard to say exactly. I can only guess by the gaps in my recollection, but, well… Enough times to know how it works, I suppose. Maybe a dozen. Could be more. I’ve survived more trips to Tartarus than I’ve lost, I’m fairly certain. But I need you to tell me you’ll run when I give the word, Twilight.”

“I’ll…”

Run, and let you die? Flee, while you fight to save me?

“If it comes to that,” she declared, face set. “I’ll use my judgement.”

Celestia paused. The moment held, tense.

She blew out a breath, sliding into an easy, if somewhat harried, grin.

“You always were a quick study, Twilight. Very well. But please, don’t throw away your life for mine. That’s all I ask.”

“Right! Okay. So, um…”

Why didn’t I just say yes!? Why did I make a thing of it? She knew why: she wasn’t going to abandon anypony to this place. She was actually a little indignant that Celestia had even asked, after all that talk from before about trusting her to be able to handle this. And besides, she wouldn’t give Tartarus the satisfaction of killing anypony, especially not for her sake. Heart pumping, face burning, Twilight grasped at a stray thought, just to keep things moving.

“Am I still normal, then? Er, I mean, if Goddeses are all that,” Twilight made a vague wave with one hoof, “stuff, then what am I now? An idea? I don’t feel any different than before I was a Princess, really.”

“I have pondered that for some time now, Twilight. I have seen very few ascensions such as yours, even in my own many years. I think things may be going the other way now. Ideas are no longer manifesting, like before, but empowering ponies who embody them already. You are, to put it one way, exactly what you are, Twilight.”

Twilight looked up, slightly miffed at the flagrant non-answer.

“I suppose what I mean to say, dear,” said Celestia, raising a conciliatory hoof, “is that I don’t know. You are becoming something more than most, but in the end, you will be the only one who can answer that question. You’re a Princess. You are friendship. You are the element of magic. You are many things, just like anypony is. Just in a somewhat more literal way.”

“Okay, but, I mean, am I immortal now? I don’t have anything like a Sun or a Moon or whatever. If I die, will I just come back?”

“I suppose…that’s up to you, Twilight.”

Twilight's mind actually went silent for once as she tried to digest that one.

“What?”

“Ages ago,” Celestia began, looking up into nothing. “I was only the Sun. I was invited to come down to Earth, and in order to be something more than what I already was, new selves had to be made. You began as a pony, but perhaps a new astral body will be born for you. Of you. It’s happened before. In days long past, there was a God named Garuda. He is no longer with us as the gryphon he once was, but his constellation lives on. Perhaps someday he will return. I suspect the decision will come upon you, at some point. To become something other than mortal. Live forever, like Luna and I, to watch all your ponies live and grow and die around you, or to join them, and be a brief, beautiful spark in that eternal cycle. I think you will know when the time comes. But I can only guess.”

There was long, wordless silence. They kept walking, but Twilight didn’t even notice.

“Luna and I are barren, you know.”

Twilight looked up.

“What?”

Celestia shrugged, eyes distant. “We’ve borne no children. We are only sisters in that we say we are. We’ve adopted a time or two, but we have no true family. We made that decision, I think. It is hard to remember, but I’m sure we chose to be outside the circle of life. We don’t die, and we don’t make life. Not the way you know of, anyway. Only Gaia could…well, anyway.”

Gaia again. Who was she?

“But wait, Cadance and Shiny…” Cadance was a princess. An extremely pregnant one. “She’s mortal? She’s going to die someday?” Twilight’s words held an edge she hadn’t meant to put into them.

“I imagine so.”

“Oh.”

So that was it, then. A choice. Immortality or children. Watch all those lives end from a distance, or go with them.

Twilight’s eyes wandered. Celestia watched her, full of concern and sympathy and something else unreadable. Bait looked up from her other side. His gaze held neither judgement nor question. Just something akin to awe. Ben was turned away, diplomatically ignoring the entire conversation. What did they think of all this? That she was some kind of, what? Friendship deity? What would her friends think? What would they say, if she tried to explain this? Would they bow before her? Laugh, and pass the cider? What was she supposed to do with all this information?

Nothing, she declared. Not now. Not today. It was too much. Too big, too heavy, all this Goddess stuff. Yeesh. No wonder Celestia never talked about it. Twilight would just put that monumental, life-determining decision on the back-burner for now. Let it simmer a bit.

For the first time since she’d gotten here, Twilight actually wished something would happen, just to get her mind on something else. That wish, foolish as it was, was granted.

~~~

Luna looked back, checking the mood of her ponies. Her nyxies knew her ways, but she could never be certain how pegasi would deal with her. They seemed to be taking everything rather well, after her little speech. Four of the squad were with her on the ground, ears and eyes alert, watching. The other three were in the air, circling. Every few minutes they came to ground to switch out with other members of the team and report any sign of the wayward Princesses they searched for.

Wait.

Four on the ground…Three in the air…

She’d only brought six. She’d been quite adamant that no more than that should risk themselves, however willing the rest might be. Luna looked back once more, did another quick count, and fought to contain her glee.

They’d attracted a changeling! Or maybe a bewilderbeast. Some kind of fey, certainly. Oh, how she loved the fey!

“AIR TEAM! TO GROUND!” she bellowed.

Her ponies obeyed, and within seconds had hit the earth.

“Anything of note, Sidewinder?”

“We saw a bit of a commotion on the mountain you mentioned before, your majesty,” replied Sidewinder, her head dipping into a quick bow. “A small group walking down the road there were attacked by something. The creature was thrown off, and the ponies were moving on before we lost them. He can’t be certain, but Longshot thinks there may have been a white mare involved.”

“Excellent! Few creatures have eyes sharper than a pegasus pony, and fewer still sharper than his. Commend him for me.” Luna had spoken loud enough to be sure he’d heard that. A little extra praise could go a long way in these situations. “You have my thanks, Sidewinder. Send Shine to me, won’t you? I would speak with him.”

“Of course, your Grace.”

The nyxie trotted off to do her work. Luna had always liked Sidewinder, and not just because she was cute. Handsome might be a better word, for features as strong as hers. No matter. A fine soldier, that one. And she’d brought good news! Celestia was (probably) alive! She was currently descending Mount Etna, which did not bode well, but still. Luna fought the urge to simply leap up and fly straight to the mountain prison. Tartarus didn’t work that way. It wanted a story, full of adversity and conflict, and such minor inconveniences as ‘time-space continuity’ or ‘simple, basic, logic’ wouldn’t stop it from getting one. Luna was happy to oblige, anyway. Starting with this recently discovered invader…

She turned to her squad.

“Good news, my ponies! Thanks to the efforts of you, my noble retinue, we have a goal! We head to Mount Etna! But for now, we shall camp!” She plopped herself decisively on the ground, not bothering to explain further. Her ponies had no real idea of what Mt. Etna was, or what in blazes she was doing, but that didn’t matter. They had a mission, and orders. That was what was important.

She heard a patter of hooves come up beside her.

“Your majesty,” said Silver Shine. “You wished to speak with me.” His eyes held unspoken questions, but he didn’t voice them. As was proper.

“Quite so, Shine. Sit down.” She patted the dirt next to her with a hoof. He obeyed, warily, as the rest of the squad milled about. They had no proper camp equipment, but they did what they could.

“May…May I ask what this is about, my Princess?” He spoke quietly, so that none of the ponies around might hear.

Luna laughed. “Of course, soldier. (We have an interloper) Ask anything you wish.”

Silver Shine blinked, but caught up rapidly. Luna had a trick of saying two things at once, speaking so that some listeners heard one thing, while the rest heard something entirely different. Some kind of Royal trickery. She’d warned him about it, and had even made him experience it few times, just in case of a situation like this. It still clearly unnerved him, but to his credit, he played along.

“Are there any special preparations we should take for this camp, Highness?”

“Oh, nothing in particular (gather your ponies, only the ones you specifically recognize), but I wouldn’t mind a pot of tea (and keep them close. Don’t let on. Give me an excuse to leave on my own). Did we bring any firewood, perchance?” Luna smiled her ditziest smile.

“Ah, no. Perhaps you could…go gather some? M’lady?” He shifted from one hoof to another, obviously uncomfortable even asking for such a ridiculous thing from a Princess. Good stallion, Sliver Shine.

“Why yes, that’s an excellent idea!” Luna exclaimed, quite certain the entire group would overhear. “We can’t have a proper camp without a fire, after all! I shall need an escort, of course! Bring me, hrm, let’s see…” Luna placed one hoof to her chin, keeping her eyes as clueless and vacant as possible. She counted the squad again. One, two, three over there, four, five, six, seven including Shine, and…eight. Wait, nine? Luna struggled not to giggle. They’d attracted a pack of fey! Even better! “That one!’ She pointed to one of the not-ponies. “And that fine looking fellow there! And his friend too. I’ll just head off this way and see what I can find. Send them after, won’t you?”

And with that, Luna hopped up and trotted off, alone, into the woods.

~~~

The thing about most of the fey was that they weren’t, strictly speaking, intelligent. They could be, under the right circumstances. Changelings were like that. They got about as smart as anything they copied. The fey as a rule had excellent magic, and plenty of animal cunning, and they were certainly devious enough. But when it came to complex thought, they were often hilariously lacking. Thusly, the bewilderbeasts that followed Luna were blissfully unburdened by worries regarding her nonsensical behavior as they trotted after her. Being handed a single, lone pony, when there were three of them? What could go wrong?

The bewilderbeast lacked the great strength of its shapeshifting cousin, the changeling. It couldn’t actually alter shape, couldn’t disguise itself as a specific creature and take its place. But in a way, that was a strength on its own. An individual could be found out. A changeling had to build its entire life around the deception, wary of discovery at all times. A bewilder, in contrast, could become the general idea of a creature. Not a particular pony, but a generic member of the race. Easily overlooked. A bewilderbeast could walk unnoticed through a crowd, picking off one victim after another and arousing no suspicion, entirely because it was a nobody. It worked best in large groups, of course, but even among crowds as small as this one, the bewilder’s mind-numbing magic could hide it long enough to drag down one or two ponies. And once the ranks were thinned, the pack could overwhelm the rest by virtue of sheer numbers.

Such was the reasoning of the alpha bewilderbeast that followed Luna into woods. It was slightly concerned that she had happened to pick only itself and its packmates for her escort, but that was no reason not to at least try for an easy meal. The rest of its pack was shadowing the little pony group, and would likely have taken out at least one by the time the alpha returned.

It signaled to one of its mates when the tall, blue mare stopped walking. The indicated bewilderbeast stepped up alongside her.

“M’lady,” it said, imitating the words of one of the ponies.

“Yes?” she asked, turning towards it, blinking those big, innocent eyes.

The alpha circled around, slinking into the mare’s blind spot. She wore a cloak of some material the alpha had never encountered before. Long, flowing, and glimmering with something that might be magic or might just be artfully placed metal, it clung tightly to everything but her wings, face and neck. If the alpha bewilder held such feelings for ponies, it might have found her get-up arousing. Alas.

Several bits of sharp metal floated above those wings, moving in time with their motions. The alpha didn’t know the significance of Luna’s armor and weapon, and assumed them to be simple adornments.

“Did you have a question…ah, I’m sorry. What was your name again?”

The bewilder in question froze. They weren’t good with specific answers, bewilderbeasts. Not until they’d spent enough time among their prey. While it stumbled through an attempt at naming itself, the alpha struck. It latched its teeth into the mare’s neck, stabbing its envenomed tongue as deep into her veins as it could. She cried out, stumbling back, but only quietly. The alpha dug in, piercing deeper, and dragged her to the ground. Within moments its poison set in, and the blue mare was silent.

Perfect. Easy. Just like it had known it would be.

Its mates jumped in to join in the feast, but the alpha wasn’t having it. It hissed at them, barring its teeth and sharpened tongue until they both backed off. Dominance struggles dealt with, the alpha settled in to drain the idiot pony who had so willingly wandered away from her herd. It jabbed its syringe-tongue in again and started to drink. But nothing came out. It drew its tongue back and looked at it. No blood. None at all. Not even where it had bitten the mare. The bewilder tilted its vaguely insectoid head, giving a querulous chirp. It tried again, thinking that perhaps it had simply missed the major vein. It could hear the mare’s heartbeat, she was still alive. Blood should be pouring out readily…but again, nothing filled its tongue. The alpha stepped away, its simple mind trying to comprehend this conundrum. It looked to its pack mates.

It looked for its packmates.

It chittered worriedly when it saw that they were gone. It hadn’t heard them leave. They’d made no indication they were going. Why would they leave easy food? It would have given them their share, after it had its own. It looked back at the mare and…

There was nothing. Just damp, empty swamp dirt.

The alpha stepped away, fear creeping into its limited consciousness. The footprints before it didn’t make sense. There were only three sets, one for itself, and two more for its mates.

It heard a noise behind it, the sound of something slumping to the ground. The alpha whipped around, baring its weapons again. It saw its packmates, bleeding from a dozen wounds each, unquestionably dead. The mare stood beside the corpses, grinning like a razor in the dark. Frigid darkness crawled out from around her. She said a single word, spoken, somehow, from just behind its ear, in a voice unlike any the alpha had ever heard.

“Boo!”

The alpha bolted, running with everything it had just to be away, away, away!

It didn’t get far.

~~~

*Cough!* “Ahem. Excuse me,” said Twilight. They’d been talking, Bait and Celestia and her, for a while now, and that was great, but an itch had been building in her throat and so Twilight had coughed. And then coughed some more. “Sorry,” she rasped. “Throat’s a bit dry, I guess. What were you saying, Princess?”

Celestia didn’t make a thing of it, just picked up where she’d left off. Something about how kind and friendly and accepting the ponies of Ponyville were, and how Bait would feel right at home with them. Not entirely true, as Twilight recalled. There would probably be a bit of screaming and running away, followed by an awkward ‘getting to know you’ phase, and maybe an adventure wherein he proved himself trustworthy, but after that, sure. Kind and friendly and accepting. Totally.

They walked on, chatting about nothing of particular importance, the woods clearing out a bit. Then, in the distance, only a few dozen yards away…the glittering waters of a river. Goddess, but she was thirsty! And the road led right to it! She picked up the pace without thinking.

“Ah! Perfect!” said Celestia, echoing Twilight’s own thoughts. “Take care though, Twilight. The water in Tartarus can be…strange. Drink slowly, and only from the very edge, alright? Are you familiar with the five rivers, Bait?”

“Yes, Princess,” he mumbled. It was obvious he still wasn’t entirely comfortable talking directly with Princess Celestia. Twilight usually acted as a sort of translator between them, but he was coming around.

Twilight hurried into the clearing. She was almost running by the time she’d finally made it to the water’s edge. She was just about to plunge her head into those clear, wonderful, delicious-looking waters when she finally noticed something that made her pause. A little thing, really. A twinge. She looked into her reflection.

Her reflection looked back.

She was crying. Sobbing in terrible grief. She reached a hoof up, she was trying to say something.

Twilight jumped away. There! There it was! That creeping, prickling sensation. It was much more subtle than before, but she knew it immediately. Tartarus! It was here! It was watching!

“Princess!?”

There was a muted *sploosh* of bursting water. Then a hard *snap*, as of a heavy door, crashing shut. Then a soft, burbling *schloop.* The sound of something being pulled under…

Even standing only a few yards away, Celestia barely heard anything at all.

“Yes, Twilight?”

The waters of the river gurgled, quietly satisfied.

“Twilight!?”

~~~

Silver Shine saw the spreading shadows first.

“Form up! We’re under attack! Sound off!”

The squad obeyed without question or delay. They circled up, leaving no angle unseen, announcing themselves in order, just to make sure they were all there.

“Sidewinder!”

“Backstep.”

“Longshot!”

“Soul a’ Wit!”

“Quick March!”

Shine made sure he recognized every voice before he sounded off himself.

“Silver Shine! Check your kits, foals! If it’s not us or Luna, drop a hammer on it.”

“Yessir!” they answered, loosening up their various bits of equipment.

Moments passed. Nopony called anything out, but sounds came in through the blanket of darkness. Brief, in-equine cries of fear, the sound of metal into meat, and then there was the laughter. They all recognized it as Luna’s, but that didn’t especially make it less frightening.

“Shine?” asked Longshot.

“Yeah?”

Neither pony looked at the other, both being too busy watching the nebulous forms out there in the unnatural dark.

“This is…normal? For the nightguard?”

Silver Shine barked a short laugh.

“The Nightguard doesn’t do normal, Longshot.”

Nopony spoke after that.

It was maybe a minute before the darkness began to fade, but it felt like a Goddess-damned eternity. The first figure anypony saw skulked toward them through the rapidly growing light. March called it out.

The figure stopped as all heads turned toward her.

“Well done, my ponies! I apologize for the lack of warning, but you handled my antics resplendently.” She bowed before the squad. It was awkward.

“Eh, thank you, Princess. May I ask what exactly your antics were?” asked Silver Shine.

“Certainly!” said Luna. She wore the biggest smile any of them had ever seen on her. Her weapon, the dozens of little blades that hovered above her wings, dripped. “But, ah…”

Luna did one more count of the squad. Then another. Her final tally, after three tries, was seven. She sighed, brandishing her knives.

They really were insidious little bastards, the bewilderbeasts.

“Anypony who doesn’t wish to see a bit of blood should avert her eyes.”

Despair

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Twilight was dying. Again. It was her own fault. How could she have been so stupid!? She should have known better!

She’d almost seen it coming. If she’d been just a bit smarter, she would have. Instead, she’d felt it. She’d felt the impact on her leg as something smashed it to pieces. She’d been dragged into the water, pulled by that one leg, unable to do so much as scream for help. All the signs had been right there! How had she fallen for it!? She should have known it was a trick, all of it! Celestia showing up to save her, just in time. The episode in the cave. The way things had suddenly gotten so easy. She should have known! And, like an idiot, she’d let herself get distracted by sleep and thirst and lust and a few happy moments. It was the oldest trick in the book: let your victim think they’re doing well, then rip the rug out from under them. And she had fallen right into it. And now she was dying, and there was nothing she could do.

She thought all of that before the pain hit. When it finally broke into her consciousness, it blew through her like nothing she’d ever known. It changed everything. She stopped being angry and just screamed, throwing away what little breath she’d managed to suck in before being dragged down into the river. She gasped for air, inhaling only useless water. She lashed out, grasping for any strand that might save her, but there was nothing. Not this time.

She could see, in the water, just a little. Her huge, wide, frenzied eyes locked onto what held her. It was big, and green, and vaguely familiar.

Sobek.

She’d read about crocodiles. They dragged their victims down, and once they had them in their jaws, they’d spin. The deathroll, as they called it, could rip a limb clean off. The pain was so bad Twilight almost wished Sobek would do it. But he didn’t. He just held her there, watching her sideways, and grinned.

He was going to drown her. He was going to hold her there and watch her die. For embarrassing Phix, she guessed.

Twilight flailed at him, of course. She beat against his massive jaws, aimed her free hoof at his eyes, but there was no fighting a crocodile underwater. His stubby, clawed hands slapped her attacks aside with ease, and whenever he thought she was getting too close to escape, he just shook his jaws a bit. She felt the bones in her leg grind under his teeth, and she would have screamed again if she’d had the breath. She tried magic, but her vision was already going, lungs bursting with pain. She could barely remember the basics she’d known since foalhood.

It was only after a few more seconds of this, though it felt like agonizing years, that Twilight found the thing that might work. A spell that wasn’t even really a spell. Something she’d cast only once, and then while asleep. She did it again, with no more understanding than she’d had the first time.

Her only conscious thought after that was of swimming, pawing furiously and painfully for the shore, the taste of strange water and blood in her mouth.

~~~

Celestia was tackled halfway to the shoreline. Twilight was gone, and she hadn’t even seen what had happened.

Phix roared in triumph as she slammed into her, grinning with vicious glee as she rolled on top of Celestia’s belly and raised a paw to rake across her face. It didn’t connect. Instead, Phix took a burning blast of magic to the chin. It wiped off the smirk, but it wasn’t enough to stop her. Phix snarled and swung again, but Celestia cracked her under the jaw and bucked her off with both rear legs. She had almost made it to the water when Phix chanted a spell that yanked her back. The lioness caught her tail with one claw and leapt atop her again, on her back this time. Celestia countered, warping space so that she ended up just a few feet forward, and kicked with both rear legs. Phix took the hit and flew backwards with a cracking of ribs, but alas, she’d finished the spell she’d started, and both pony and sphinx fell back in time to where they’d been seconds ago, with Phix unharmed and atop the Princess. She smirked.

“Who’s the idiot now, bitch?”

Celestia chose to repeat history, cracking Phix under the jaw, just as before.

Phix grunted in fury because she couldn’t roar, what with the jaw, but slipped away from the buck that had thrown her before.

“Stop fighting me or your little friend dies!”

Celestia not only ignored the words, she head-butted Phix for taking the time to speak them. She didn’t have the angle to bring the point of her horn to bear, but the strike still managed to force Phix back.

“Are you stupid!?” She was slurring past a suddenly missing tooth. “Sobek has her! She’ll die!”

Celestia rolled to her feet. And then she had to make a terrible decision: to submit, or to trust in the skills of her protégée. It was surprisingly easy.

She snarled and charged.

Phix’s eyes narrowed and she uttered the words to another spell, bleak and deadly.

Just then, a small, purple shape burst to the surface of the suddenly blood-colored river, gasping desperately.

“Oh, come on!!” cried Phix.

~~~

Twilight stumbled onto shore and nearly collapsed when her broken leg hit the dirt. The pain was absolutely unreal.

“My fuckin’ eye!” bellowed someone. His voice was deep and raging.

Sobek.

He, too, was staggering onto land, though for different reasons.

“I cannot fucking believe you, Sobek! Again? One. Damned. Job!”

It took a bit for Twilight to comprehend the situation. She didn’t know how long.

It was Phix talking, tail whipping back and forth like an angry cat’s.

“It doesn’t matter. Whatever. I didn’t even need you. Look what I caught.”

Her voice was smug. Twilight managed to raise her head far enough to see.

The sphinx lounged atop a much smaller form, paws crossed over him. She might have been purring.

Bait.

Celestia stood, taut with fury, less than ten feet away from Phix. They both looked worse for wear, but Phix had clearly taken the brunt of it. Her nose was busted and bleeding, and she had notably fewer teeth than before. She was scorched in several places, and there were clear hoof-made prints on her side. None of this did anything to lessen her self-satisfied countenance.

“That’s right,” said the sphinx. “I win.”

Twilight heard a terrible growl to her side, and looked to see Sobek fixing her with his one good eye, stomping forward.

“Hey! Stop that, idiot!”

“She stabbed me in the fucking eye!” He held one clawed hand over it. “She’s dead!”

Twilight only vaguely remembered having done it. She felt no regret.

“So? It’ll grow back, you big baby! We’ve had worse! Kill her now and we’ll never get out of here!”

Sobek snarled, slapping the ground with his tail in anger. The earth shook. Another slap knocked down a tree. He picked it up and ripped it apart with both hands over the next few seconds.

“Right. Well. Anyway,” said Phix, eyeing Twilight. “Here’s how it’s gonna be. I’m going to ask you a question. You’ll get the answer wrong, because I never lose at this, and then you’ll take me, and Sobek, I guess,” she rolled her eyes, “out of this hole and back to Equestria. Got it? Or…” She flexed her claws into Bait’s shoulder.

Bait looked at her, eyes full of apology and desperation.

“It won’t work, Phix.”

That was Celestia, her voice dripping like molten iron.

“Ugh, shut up! I am so tired of you! You think you’re better than me? Really!? You think I’ve lived in Tartarus this long by being stupid? That’s it’s a coincidence that I knew exactly how to ambush you? You and all your talk about being a ‘real’ goddess! I heard all that, you know!”

She was screaming, almost shrieking with fury. She stood, barely remembering to keep a paw on Bait.

“That’s how I know what happens when you die here, you fucking bitch! You forget! But I don’t! I’ve been alive this whole time, and I remember everything! One little bit of success, and you get overconfident, every time! All I have to do is let you think you've won, and you fall for it again and again! That little act from before? That was a ruse! This isn’t the first time, either! And if that doesn’t work, I just take a hostage." Phix smirked. "Gets you every time. You’re always in such a hurry to die for them, it’s like you want someone to kill you.”

She was insane, Twilight realized. She’d lost her mind to this hatred. She’d do anything, just to hurt someone else more than she was hurting herself.

“How’s it feel to know you got outsmarted by a ‘third generation godling’ like me?” Phix snorted, tail lashing furiously as she lay back down. “Again. Cunt. And it will work. I’ve planned for this. Not that you’ll be around to see it.”

Celestia ground her teeth, raw, furious magic barely restrained.

“What, nothing to say? Hmph. Whatever.”

With that, Phix sucked in a big lungful of air, stilled her whirling tail, and looked at Twilight, eyes glittering.

“Okay! Twilight! Let’s play.” Her voice was high and friendly, just like before. “The more of me you take, the more are left behind you. What am I?” She smiled sweetly.

“No.”

“Uh...” Phix’s eyes went distant for a second, and, somehow, Twilight knew what she was doing. She was trying to see if the spell, her riddle magic, would count that as an answer. It didn’t. “That’s not really an answer.”

Twilight took a deep breath, and made a terrible decision of her own.

“I,” she said. “Will never. Help you.”

Phix raised an eyebrow.

“Oh? Heh. And here I thought you ponies were all as dumb as Celestia. Well, I was trying to be nice, but, fine. Do I have to kill this little guy then? Is that what you want?”

“Sure.” Twilight spat, bitter and bleak. “Do it. Why not? You might as well kill him. Might as well kill us all, and yourself too! Go ahead!”

Phix’s face twisted in confusion.

“What?”

“Are you really that stupid, Phix? Haven’t you figured it out? None of us are going anywhere!”

Phix’s expression darkened like a storm cloud.

Twilight laughed, manic and frightening. “We’re all going to die here, Phix! I tried, okay! I really thought I could help somepony! I did everything I could! But there’s just no way! Tartarus won’t let us! So you might as well just stop.” Twilight was pacing, hopping to avoid putting weight on her injured leg. “I mean, really, you’ve been here forever right? You said you’ve been planning this, and this is the best you’ve got? Spew half-baked riddles at people and order them to take you home? Really!? It’s hoof-steps, by the way. Any foal could have gotten that one.”

A growl was forming in the back of Phix’s throat as she rose to her feet. Twilight saw, though sight wasn’t the sense that she used, the sphinx's magic recognize her answer as correct. Her turn, then.

“And you know what the best part is?” Twilight uttered a sick mockery of a chuckle. “It would have worked, if you’d just thought to ask nicely!”

Phix paused her advance.

"See, if you’d just walked up to me and said ‘Hi! I’m Phix! I hope we can be friends. Can you please help me get out of this Goddess-blighted hell-hole?’ I would have been happy to help you! But that never even occurred to you, did it? You had to make a trap of it!” She whipped around to pace the other way. “Because that’s all there is here! And you fell for it! You walked into a trap of your own making! Nothing you do matters! Nothing any of us does matters! Nopony is going anywhere! You sphinxes are supposed to be smart.” Twilight laughed again, but there was no happiness in it. “Or are the riddles just a gimmick? It’s so obvious! There’s no escape from this place. Everything, and I mean everything is a trick! For everypony! All of us are just tricking each other in an endless cycle! We all lure each other in, getting our hopes up so Tartartus can crush them one more time! Surely even a moron like you can see that?”

Phix was stalking closer, wings flaring as ancient magic danced across them, claws tearing into the ground.

“You’ll never get away, Phix! You’re horrible! Just like everything else here! Just like me, I guess…”

“No! There is a way out! And I’m not a moron!”

“Uh, Phix…” Sobek’s deep rumble went unnoticed.

“Hah! You really are dumb, aren’t you? Here’s a riddle for you! What kind of idiot lets something with serrated teeth that close to her neck!?”

“What?”

Bait got the message. Phix had forgotten him, but Twilight hadn’t. He tore into the sphinx, tooth and claw and all four clawed hooves.

Phix screamed and slapped him away as Celestia charged forward. Bait went flying. Twilight hoped he was alright, insofar as she hoped for anything right now. She heard a roar to one side, but she didn’t even look. It was Sobek, probably, coming to kill her. She didn’t even turn to face him.

“What’s the last thing you’ll never see coming?”

There was some magic in that soft voice that made everyone freeze for just a second. In that little slice of time, Celestia reared, pulling back, and Twilight watched dozens of bits of metal sprout from Phix’s neck and chest as a living shadow descended upon her.

The sphinx's eyes went wide with surprise as she watched blood spatter the dirt before her. She staggered forward, confused.

“No…”

“A knife in the back,” answered the same voice. It was gentle, quiet. Phix stared down into her own chest, watching in wonder and horror as the blades slid out of her and returned to the creature that had killed her. She stumbled around to face her murderer, dazed.

“I…you?” she said. “No! I thought…”

Phix managed one more step and then slumped to the ground, leaking everywhere. She looked up, only her head raised. “But we were…” She seemed almost calm.

Nightmare Moon loomed over the sphinx, but she wasn't the one Twilight knew. Tall, and black as night, but not nearly so ethereal as before. She wore a cloak of violet and black and silver, and over her wings hung a vicious constellation of death and starlight. She looked down at Phix with some kind of tragic affection.

Twilight was fairly certain she was hallucinating at this point.

“Sleep now, little lion,” said the Nightmare. She wrapped her wings about Phix’s shoulders, and Twilight didn’t see what passed between them after that. She heard whispered words, but no more.

Phix raised one paw, slow, trembling, up to Nightmare’s face. Everypony present just stood and watched as Phix finally went still, and her paw slid to the ground.

“Run, Sobek,” hissed Luna, or Nightmare Moon, or whoever she was. “Before I rend you limb from limb.”

He was gone without hesitation. Only a hollow splash marked his exit.

A long, heavy silence followed. It was Celestia who finally broke it. Her voice echoed with worry and happiness and heartbreaking sympathy.

“Luna.” She stepped forward to embrace her sister, but the Nightmare tensed, and Celestia stopped.

An eternity passed.

“Well!” said Luna. She drew in a deep breath and stepped away from the corpse of Phix, dabbing at her eyes with a wing as the shadows writhing around her dissolved into nothing.

“That was just awful! Is everypony alright?”

~~~

“Please don’t ask right now,” said Luna. “I’m pretending it didn’t happen.”

Celestia nodded.

They said more words to each other, and more ponies flew into the clearing, but Twilight didn’t really notice them. Or, at least, she didn’t think about them. She wasn’t really thinking about anything. There wasn’t much point to it. She knew she should have been comforted by their presence, but all she could think was that all these new ponies were going to die here, just like her. She wasn’t scared. She wasn't even really even upset anymore. That was just the way it was. She’d figured it out, was all. No one escaped Tartarus. It was too big, too strong.

Blood still flowed from Phix in a morbid stream. Twilight couldn’t seem to look away. Luna had brushed a wing over the sphinx’s eyes at some point, closing them, and Twilight was glad of it. But she stared, nonetheless.

Some little motion caught her eye, and Twilight turned toward it, because why not?

Bait was tugging at Celestia’s wing. He was saying something, in his little mumbling whisper. Poor kid. He’d never have time to learn how to be confident. She felt bad about that. He deserved better. If anypony in Tartarus deserved better, it was him. Celestia looked up in alarm at Twilight and rushed forward. She called Luna over too.

Twilight didn’t think there was anything worth being alarmed about.

“Twilight? Can you hear me?”

She could, but she was in no hurry to respond. It was just so sad, all this bustle and hurry. The inevitable was coming, whether a pony wanted it or not. No reason to get upset about it.

“She was in the water!”

Bait said that. Twilight looked at him.

“That, um, Sobek, had her in there. She has to spit it up!”

“Yes, thank you, Bait. Luna? Help me, please.”

“Of course. What river is this?”

“I don’t know. Cocytus, I think. Maybe Acheron.”

Luna nodded.

“There are worse places to fall, I suppose. Shall we?”

“Yes. Twilight?”

“Hm?”

“I am very sorry about this. Please don’t try to fight it.”

Twilight wasn’t sure what she meant. She let Celestia lay her down on the ground, and made no arguments when Luna wrapped an arm around her neck, other than to cringe at the pain in her leg. It was only after they forced open her mouth and she felt pressure on the back of her throat that Twilight started to have doubts.

‘Doubts’ came in the form of powerful magic. Twilight struggled and squirmed and slung shields and bolts and all kinds of stuff to try and stop whatever it was they were doing, but in the end the Royal sisters undid all of her attempts and her guts convulsed and she puked up a surprising, frankly unbelievable amount of water. She heard clangs of metal on what was maybe crystal and didn’t know what that meant.

“Damnit, Celestia! You didn’t tell me she’d birthed her sword already!”

“I’m sorry, Luna, I didn’t know!”

“She nearly took my eye out with that thing!”

“Must be how she fought off Sobek…”

Twilight tried to stagger away, but one leg wouldn’t hold and she flopped back to the dirt. She watched the water she’d just regurgitated neatly separate itself from what little else had been in her stomach. It formed a small pool, then ran in rivulets back to the river it had come from. She stared. And stared and stared and stared.

“Twilight? Sweetie? Are you alright? Here, have some water. Normal water. Here.”

It was Celestia. She gently lifted Twilight’s chin and put a canteen or something to her lips, and Twilight didn’t fight it. She drank it dry.

“Can you eat? Here, try this.”

Someone put some bread near her, and Twilight devoured it without question. Some dried fruit followed, and she ate that too. She barely noticed the crystalline blade that cut the food into bits for her. Everypony else did.

Twilight lightly shoved away any further offerings.

She was done. Just done.

“Princess?”

“Yes, Twilight, what is it?” She sounded eager. Twilight wasn’t sure why.

“What is that?”

Twilight pointed with her good hoof to the sharp, crystal thing floating near her. It was Luna who answered. She sounded proud.

“It’s your sword, Twilight! It’s beautiful.”

“Oh. Okay. Is Bait alright?”

“Yes,” Celestia said, smiling with some kind of relief that Twilight found herself intensely jealous of. “He’s fine. Would you like to talk to him?”

“No, that’s alright. Ben?”

“He’s with Luna. They were so happy to see each other again!”

“Good. That’s…good. Um, Princess?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

And with that, Twilight curled up into a little ball of herself, hiding under tail and wing, and waited for it all to finally just end.

Resolve

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Someone touched her. Only a slight twitch betrayed that Twilight had felt anything at all. She didn’t want to be touched, didn’t want to be reminded that the world was still out there, so she curled in and shut it all out. Even her own thoughts. For once in her life, her incessant internal monologue was stilled.

~~~

Bait hesitated. He felt terrible about bothering her, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to run, to get away from all these frightening new ponies and Princesses and whatever the others were and hide somewhere dark and close and safe. It didn’t matter that they’d said they weren’t going to hurt him. Twilight could help. She could make sense of this. But she was gone right now. Maybe forever. Falling in the rivers did things like that to people. She’d spit the water out, but still. But he couldn’t just leave her here, all alone. She was all he had. In the end, he set himself down just beside her. He lay his head across one leg and hoped no one would notice him there.

~~~

Twilight twitched again when something small and skittery crawled over her flank and settled down on her side. Maybe some part of her guessed who that was, but she didn’t want to deal with it, so she didn’t.

~~~

Unbeknownst to Twilight, Celestia was looking down at her, caught in a desperate dilemma of how to save her from this. Guilt tore at her. She should have seen this coming! It should have been her, caught by Sobek! Twilight might lose that leg, and Celestia couldn’t even get the girl to let somepony look at it! She danced from one hoof to another. Should she shake her out of it? Would that just make it worse?

“Sister.”

She glanced away to see Luna, watching her.

“Come with me.”

She shook her head.

“Yes, Celestia. Come. This way.”

Luna clamped a wing over Celestia and pulled.

“No! I have to-she needs—”

“Our ponies will handle it for now. We must talk. Alone.”

~~~

Celestia struggled, but Luna noted that it wasn’t nearly as hard as she might have.

Things were both worse and better than she'd had expected. Twilight and Celestia were still alive, which was wonderful, but the one was catatonic, and the other coming to pieces. Celestia was no use to anypony as she was. Neither of the sisters were, really. They could fight, they could inspire and lead, but the Princesses of Equestria weren’t the best at such mundane tasks as first aid, or setting camp, or providing the simple, basic reassurance that everything was going to be fine and the world wasn’t going to collapse at any second. Often as not, they were the reason the world was about to collapse. Their ponies, however, excelled at such things, so Luna left them to it. It wouldn’t do to have the soldiers see Celestia like this, anyway. Bad for morale. And morale was tantamount in Tartarus.

Luna led her sister out of sight of their ponies and tossed up a quick spell of privacy around them.

“Alright,” she said.

“We don’t have time for this! She needs—”

Luna shook her head.

“She needs you, yes, but you can’t help her as you are. You must see to yourself first. Skies above, Sister, you’re falling apart! Talk to me.”

Celestia abandoned any semblance of composure with alarming speed. She latched onto Luna.

“She could have died! So many times! If she’d made one misstep! I, i-it’s, this is all my fault, Luna!”

Luna returned her embrace.

“I can assure you with all confidence that it is not, Celestia.”

“I didn’t even prepare her, Luna! I could have told her, but I didn’t! I keep getting it wrong! I go crazy when I should be calm, and I drop my guard when," Celestia swallowed, "when I should be there for her! I’m always doing the wrong thing a-and I nearly killed her myself once! And then...If I had just told her! I k-killed something, some gorehounds, in front of her. She ran from me, Luna! The way she looked at me! Like, like I was even worse than, than they were, I—”

Celestia was sobbing, rambling. It had been a long, long time since Luna had seen her in such a state. She stroked her sister’s back, stepping in, gently shushing her.

“I know that you have done all you could to help her.”

“It wasn’t eno—*sniff* enough!”

“It was, Celestia. Come now. You know that Tartarus doesn’t fight fair. It is clever, and devious, and patient. It doesn’t suffer from doubt. It doesn’t tire. And you’re only equine here. You can’t be vigilant forever. But you’ve done what you could. Twilight still lives. She will survive this, and she will be the stronger for it.”

They held each other in silence for a time, Luna providing a solid bit of bedrock on which Celestia could steady herself. Usually, it was Celestia playing this role. Big sister, and all that. But everypony needed help at some point. And if Luna knew Celestia, she was holding something back, letting the guilt of it eat her alive.

“Something gnaws at you. Speak, Celly.” The pet name always got results.

“You heard her, Luna. She’s giving up! You know what happens when…”

Luna cut her off with a sharp shake of her head.

“I won’t hear of it! She hasn’t surrendered! And she will not! She has fallen into herself for now, but she will survive this!”

Her sister wouldn’t look at her. Luna knew a moment of terrible apprehension. Had it truly been so terrible for them? She rejected it.

“Celestia.” Luna took her sister's face in both hooves. “She has not surrendered.”

Celestia sniffled, but finally met Luna’s hardening gaze. She nodded, a bit.

“Say it, Celestia. I want to hear the words.”

Timidly at first, but gaining confidence as she went, Celestia said the words. “She has not surrendered.”

Luna nodded.

“She is frightened. She is hurt. But your student is strong. You have made certain of that. We will see her home. I am here now, and together, we will never let Tartarus work its will on her. Do you believe me, Sister? Tell me you do.”

Celestia sniffled again, but was standing taller. Ears up, back straight. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. Thank you, Luna.”

Luna only nodded. She hadn’t let Celestia go.

“You were separated?”

Celestia nodded, looking away again. Luna guided her back.

“How long has she been here?”

“Several days, I think. She wouldn’t tell me much, but it’s been bad. As you can see.”

“Indeed. But no matter. We will see this through.”

“Yes.” Celestia nodded, eyes firm again. “We will.”

“There’s the Celestia I know. Oh! And speaking of that, I brought you a gift! This should help you get back on your hooves.”

Luna reached into one of the many folds of her ever shifting robe. She threw it back with no small amount of drama, drawing out a tip of sharp, glittering metal. It took several pulls to get the whole thing out. Neither sister commented on this. Luna just did things like that sometimes.

When she'd finally gotten it all out, Luna thrust the enormous blade into the ground with great satisfaction.

“Do you like it?”

Celestia rushed to it. Her sword. She came to her eagerly, all several hundred pounds of her taking flight without the slightest hint of effort.

“Hyperia…”

The word came out as a sigh. Celestia stroked the flat of one blade with her cheek, a flood of relief surging visibly through her at being reunited with this little part of herself. The sword positively glowed with affection. Luna gave the two of them a moment together.

“I tried to get Aegis to come as well, but you know how he is.”

“Yes. Thank you, Luna. Thank you.

“Are you ready to return?”

“Yes.” She shook herself out a bit. “May I ask one thing, before we go?”

“Aye.”

“Why in all the horrible Hells did you bring more ponies into this!?”

“Hah!” barked Luna. “You’re one to talk. Who’s the boy?”

~~~

The Princesses were clearly bickering as they strode back to the others, but their words seemed somehow pleasant, despite their heat.

“They volunteered, Celestia! ‘Tis a compliment to you that they would do so regardless of the risk. And I knew I would need extra eyes, besides.”

“That’s flagrantly irresponsible, Luna! Pony’s lives are at stake here!”

“Indeed! Yours! And Twilight’s! And so I told them! Should I have insulted our guard by insisting they were incapable?”

“That’s not what I was saying at all!”

The guards shared a collective look. It passed between pegasus and nyxie alike, unhindered by such trivialities as race. This had the sound of an old, well-worn argument. It was kind of reassuring, actually. Which, of course, was the entire point.

~~~

Twilight heard noises around her. The quiet shuffling of ponies moving around, chatting amongst themselves. She didn’t listen. The only sense she paid any attention too just now was something she didn’t have a word for. It wasn’t sight, but she kept trying to think of it that way. Maybe just because that was one she knew best. It was more like the vague sensations of her magic. Pseudo-touch and not-quite-smell. She knew there were ponies around her. And, strangely, she knew they were close. Not to her, not in terms of distance (though they were that too), but emotionally close. They shared a bond. New, in some cases, but still clear and strong. One, separate from the rest, was linked directly to her. Timid, but more resilient than it seemed. Another, similar, but less afraid, was also there, bound to her. She didn’t understand how she knew these things. She tried to ignore them.

A pony lay down beside her at some point, at her back, big and warm and close. She laid a wing over her, and Twilight ignored that too.

This one had a bond with her too, far deeper than the others. And much more confusing.

Twilight didn’t want to think about this. She pushed it away.

Somepony else lay down near Twilight’s head, cool where the other was warm, but just as pleasant. She spoke in a calm voice to the rest. Twilight didn’t hear the words. Just the sound. This one was bound to her as well, and to the rest, but in a way Twilight couldn’t figure out. Some of the others replied in turn. She wished they’d all just stop, but slowly, gradually, the things outside worked their way in.

The problem was that ponies were natural cuddlers. Put twenty of them in an open field and they’d all immediately gravitate to a single point. Herding instinct was strongest in foals, but it never really went away, and it brought with it a simple, subconscious comfort in the closeness of others. It was so deeply ingrained that the others didn’t even have to be a pony. A wight would do, for instance, or even a friendly spider. And a pair of Princesses, well, what could make a girl feel safer than that? And, of course, there was Twilight’s own curiosity to contend with. That one was friggin’ relentless.

Someone started grooming her mane. The old-fashioned way, with lips and tongue and teeth. It felt nice, and Twilight couldn’t bring herself to make whoever was doing it stop. The sounds of her little herd carried on, wrapping her in the pleasant illusion of safety in numbers. She tried to keep apart from it all, but there was really only so much she could do.

Her breath, sharp and frenzied, started to slow. Her taut muscles relaxed. The tight little circle she’d locked herself into gradually began to open. She might even have slept a little.

Time passed, though Twilight didn’t much notice. Her senses, the normal ones, came back slowly, sounds and smells and feelings trickling in and regaining focus at their own unhurried pace. Most of that was fine, but there was something coming in that she’d really rather not deal with right now. She shifted slightly and it got worse.

One particular noise came from just before her. A voice. It was soft and cool. Soothing. She heard someone respond, and recognized Bait’s quiet tones.

The cool voice spoke again. One of Twilight’s ears angled toward it on reflex.

“I'll try,” said Bait. “Um, Twilight?”

“Mmm?”

“This lady wanted to ask if you were awake so she could look at your leg.”

“Urmnn…no. G’way.”

Twilight tried to turn away, but every little movement hurt. It hurt more, and more, and maddeningly more until, finally…

Twilight’s eyes blinked open. She raised her head, the wing that had covered it folding back into place. She looked blearily around.

“My leg..?”

As Twilight said the words, that little trickle of unpleasantness from before burst up in a geyser of real pain.

“Grk-ow!”

Twilight tried to run from it, as if she could simply move away from what hurt her. A wing wrapped around her as a familiar voice spoke. It was steady, calm, and mercilessly firm.

“Shhh. Alright, take it easy, Twilight. Don’t try to move.”

“Pr’ncess!? How did…”

Twilight looked down. Her leg was a mess of dried blood and torn skin and Goddess it hurt! How had she slept through this!? She thought she should panic, but her feelings were all slow and confused, so she just stared at it.

“Just stay still, Twilight. And, please be careful with your sword. It’s really quite sharp.”

The memory of what had happened in the water and after it and of everything else oozed unwelcomely in. But she didn’t remember any swords.

“Muh?”

Her eyes followed Celestia’s, and Twilight finally saw what they had been talking about. She just stared at it for what felt like a long time.

Someone cleared her throat.

Twilight’s eyes slid to the speaker. The point of the ‘sword’ did too. Luna. She smiled.

“We can talk about that in a moment,” she said, gesturing to the pointed thing. “But for now, Twilight Sparkle, this is Sidewinder, and her assistant, Brevity. I’d like to have her take a look at your leg, if you don’t mind.”

“What? Uh, sure.”

Twilight handed her leg over in something of a daze, sure she was still dreaming. The next few moments cured her of that.

“Does this hurt you much, M’lady?” Sidewinder took her leg and slowly straightened it out.

Twilight fought not to scream as her was leg stretched, but all she said was “Yes.” The sword, which Celestia seemed to think was hers, snapped its point toward the nyxie. A flood of information came as the blade considered her. Distance from here to there, the speed with which it could cross it, estimated hardness of her skin and muscle. The best places to stab or cut her to make her stop—

Twilight pulled hard away from the thought. Then wing holding her tightened.

“It’s alright. It won’t do anything you don’t want it to, Twilight.” The voice came from just behind her. Celestia. “You just need to be careful.”

“What is it?” Twilight asked.

“It’s your sword, dear,” said Luna. Twilight vaguely remembered that she had said that before.

Twilight knew what they were. She’d seen several in museums. A sword was a weapon, a slim, sharp bit of metal. They were a relic from back in the days when ponies had still made war. Only unicorns and the fine control their magic gave them could wield the things, and even then, it was tricky. Sharp, thin objects were slippery to magic, so the better made swords had a rounded hilt on one end for easier gripping. Pegasi had used something similar called a lance that they’d rigged up to specially made saddles, but they were clumsy things, suited mostly for formation fighting or formalized duels. Not nearly versatile enough to handle one-to-one combat. Earth ponies hadn’t bothered with weapons at all, having discovered to the great chagrin of the other tribes that their greater size, backed up with a bit of armor-plating, was weapon enough. Or so she’d heard. Before she’d come here, Twilight had had trouble believing any of that stuff was even real.

Was that really what this was? A sword?

“Why is it..?” Twilight couldn’t think of a way to finish the thought, so she just left it.

“It’s, well, it’s a means of expression, I suppose. Of what you are, Twilight.” Celestia again. “Of your will.”

“What?”

“It is the weapon you will wield from this day forward. Greater than any other, forged from your very soul!” proclaimed Luna, with grand drama. Rather more casually, she added “It’s lovely. Does it have a name yet?”

Sidewinder, meanwhile, very professionally ignored all of this. She poured water over Twilight’s leg, rinsing it clean to get a better survey of the damage.

“She,” said Twilight, wincing as Sidewinder worked. “Insight.” She stopped and blinked, surprised that the answer had come so easily. Surprised it had been there at all.

“Hah! How perfect! Sharp, incisive, straight to the point. She suits you well.”

Sidewinder poured something else over her leg, something that bubbled as it hit the broken skin. She scrubbed lightly at the wounds, cleaning them further. It hurt a great deal.

Twilight looked again at the object of this discussion, but harder this time. Anything to keep herself from thinking about whatever horrible thing Sidewinder was doing with her leg.

She beheld a long blade of mauve crystal. It turned toward her, then angled to one side, so that she might see it better. She watched, mouth falling slightly open as it moved. She wasn’t holding it up. No aura of magic kept the blade aloft. It spun for her, just as she thought to have it do so. It danced in the air, sailing through some complex pattern Twilight had been half-imagining. It did exactly what she wanted, as if it knew her thoughts. No. That wasn’t right. It was her thoughts. Part of them, anyway.

She could swear the sword was preening for her, just a bit.

“What does she want? And, why, I mean..?”

It wasn’t just a blade, actually. It was a star, six pointed. The blade of it was just a point that extended further than the rest. There was a second star, smaller, branching out from within the first, making the sword twelve-pointed in all. The smaller star was a clean, pale white. And there were five more, similar, but smaller, whirling slowly around it the two big ones. Her cutie mark…

“Oh, I think you’ll find her wants are simple enough,” said Luna. “But feel free to ask her.”

Twilight did so. The answers came even as she asked. What Insight seemed to want was to cut things. To exercise her purpose. To be useful. She kept feeding Twilight information. Ranges, velocities, estimations of threat and projected odds that she could handle them. Not thoughts, exactly, and not in simple numbers. Just…knowledge. It was like having a personal secretary in her mind, one with a very specific field of interest. The constant stream of data wasn’t invasive or overwhelming, though, because Insight wasn’t exactly a separate being. She was just Twilight, albeit with a different understanding of the world. Her will, like Celestia had said. Or, a form of that will, anyway. Luna had called her a weapon, but…

“But worry on all that later. This is a wonderful moment for you, Twilight!” exclaimed Luna. “We all birth our own swords eventually, but to have yours come to you so soon! I am so proud of you! May I?”

Twilight wasn’t quite sure what Luna was asking, but before she could give an answer, the Moon Princess reached out to touch Insight with a bit of magic, trying to hold her. Twilight honestly wasn’t sure which of them, Insight or herself, recoiled from it, but the blade whipped and spun, severing the spell, literally cutting the magic to pieces.

But…but magic isn’t a physical thing. You can’t just cut a spell!

Insight seemed immensely pleased at having surprised Twilight so.

“Hah! I guess not! Feisty little thing, isn’t she?” Luna craned her neck forward, admiring this young new sword. “But here! Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce Thousand Gleaming Shards in the Darkest of Nights!”

Luna turned away and struck a regal pose, spreading her wings to full splendor. The dozens of blades that were Thousand Gleaming…uh, the sword-with-the-very-long-name presented themselves in flamboyant display.

Twilight stared at the array of fantastical knives. Calling that wonder of metal and magic a ‘sword’ seemed almost an insult. It was nothing like the bits of scrap Twilight had seen in those dusty old museums. There were so many, and no two were quite the same. They drifted in silence, floating without effort to line up over the primary feathers of Luna’s wings. They almost looked like feathers themselves, graceful and thin and flowing, but Twilight knew without trying them that they were unbreakable, and lethally sharp. Still, something in her wanted to touch them, if only to prove they were real. She couldn’t seem to get an accurate count of them. Maybe, like her mistress, the weapon was beyond such simple categorization. Insight couldn’t get a count on her either, and there seemed to be a bit of friction between the two swords that Twilight didn’t understand. Insight clarified: The two had clashed earlier. Insight now knew she couldn’t cut Shard, and that didn’t sit well with her. And one more thing. She had been trounced in that fight.

Also, Thousand Gleaming Shards in the Darkest of Nights struck her as a bit of a snot.

“You may think of her simply as Shard, though,” said Luna with a grin, admiring Twilight’s admiration.

“Oh. Sure. Um. Birth?”

“Quite so!” Luna collapsed her little show and turned back to face Twilight. “They’re borne of what we are, so that’s how we say it. Don’t think too hard about it. Celestia!” She poked the other with a hoof. “Show her yours!”

“Ah, alright.”

Twilight and Celestia caught each other’s eyes. Celestia smiled, but it seemed strained. She looked a little bashful actually, though Twilight couldn’t guess why. Was it supposed to be embarrassing, showing off your sword? Luna didn’t seem to think so. Was Celestia afraid Twilight wouldn’t be impressed?

“This is Hyperia.”

Twilight’s mouth just about fell open. The thing was huge. Where Shard held a delicate, deadly grace, Hyperia exuded nothing but solid, invincible might. She had almost no ornamentation at all, expressing her beauty instead through an elegant simplicity of design. She was a blade, nothing more. In her center was a small bit of handle of the same golden metal as everything else Celestia wore. A few inches of guard ran up the sides of the blade from there, but other than that, Hyperia was all gleaming steel and shining blade. Pure, glorious function. She was massive, taller than Celestia herself, several hoof-spans across at her widest, and though she might be a blade, nothing more, she was certainly nothing less either. She looked like she could cleave a mountain in two.

The weapon wafted through the air as if nothing in the world could hope to oppose her. She acknowledged Insight with a simple, respectful tilt. Twilight could swear she felt Insight blush.

Luna smirked at Twilight's open-mouthed awe, rolling her eyes a bit. She muttered something under her breath. Twilight couldn't be certain, but she thought it might have been

"Size queen."

Whether she referred to Celestia or Twilight or Hyperia herself was not immediately apparent.

Insight, for her part, hovered close to Twilight, perhaps feeling a bit inadequate and overwhelmed by these beings that were so clearly greater than herself. Twilight knew how that went.

“Princess? This may feel a bit strange.” It was Sidewinder.

“What? Oh, sure.”

There was a series of high-pitched chittering sounds, and a slight, odd pain shot up Twilight’s leg. She cringed, but, to her relief, the not-exactly-awkward-but-certainly-confusing moment between the swords had ended in favor of this new interaction.

“What was that?”

“Sorry, Your Majesty. I just had to sonar your leg a little. I apologize if I hurt you.”

Oh, right. Nyxies did that. It was how they could fly at night. Twilight hadn’t ever considered the use of sonic perception in medicine, but she did now. Insight picked it up easily. With a slight ringing note, she resonated, and Twilight briefly heard her own insides. It was bizarre. But that could be useful for all kinds of things. She could search for irregularities in a patient’s physiology, or learn the unseen features of a structure…or vibrate at just the right frequency to blast armor and bone into dust...

“It’s,” Twilight swallowed, “fine.”

“What did you find?” asked Celestia.

Sidewinder looked at Luna before she answered. The Princess nodded.

“It’s broken, M’lady. In two places." She pointed to just below Twilight’s knee."Here." She then pointed to somewhere above Twilight's ankle. “And here. It’s…” she looked to Luna again, and the Princess gestured her forward. “It’s bad, Princess. We need to get you to a real doctor. I can get you a splint for now, but—”

Twilight looked down at her leg. The skin was split and swollen. There were big, ugly divots there, but still. It didn’t look that bad.

Insight disillusioned her, filling her head with a remorseless flood of information she didn’t want to have. There was no malice in the sword’s actions, she was just doing what she was meant to do. She provided knowledge, and knowledge itself could never be evil. But it could darn sure be unpleasant. Twilight shut her eyes tight against the tears that fought to be free. She asked a question she already knew the answer to.

“Am I going to be lame?”

“No! No, Princess. I’m just a medic, but I don’t think so. But we need to get you to a doctor, a unicorn that can do real surgery. For now, we’ll have to settle for a splint. Wit! get me some gauze, and—“

Sidewinder was lying. She didn’t know it, but Insight did. All the signs were there. The bone was splintered at both points. Splintering was one of the worst kinds of break, and Twilight had two of them. It wouldn’t heal right, even if they did somehow get her to a hospital right now and put her under the care of some genius surgeon. She’d never be what she’d been before. It would hurt for the rest of her life. If she even lived at all…

“Use the panacea we brought,” said Luna. “The whole supply, if you must, and bandage her leg. We shall handle the rest.”

Twilight had thought she’d hit the bottom already, that things couldn’t get worse, but somehow the thought of a lifelong injury made all of this feel real in a way nothing else had. She tried to be realistic. Losing a leg wasn’t so bad, right? She had three more. And she wasn’t really even losing it. Sure, she’d have a limp from now on, but…unless it got infected, which it almost certainly had, now that she’d held off any sort of treatment for so long…

But anyway! A little pain was better than being dead, right? She’d been so sure she was dying before, more than once, and she’d come through all that, right? This was a step up, really.

But it would never stop, would it? This would hurt her forever. Maybe it would be best if she just…

She was trying. She really was. But it wasn’t working. Those dark thoughts just kept sneaking in, and Twilight couldn’t seem to find the resolve to face them anymore. She couldn’t remember why she’d fought so hard, those other times. Why keep struggling, when maimed was all it got her? How was she supposed to fight a whole world?

“Don’t bother,” she heard herself say.

“Beg pardon, Twilght?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

There was a long pause. Perhaps looks were shared, Twilight didn’t see. She was staring at her ruined leg, at the watered-down blood on the ground, at the new streams of it that oozed from her wounds. There was no color more vivid, Twilight thought, than the crimson of one’s own life, flowing away.

“Twilight. Look at me.”

When she didn’t react, Twilight felt a hoof at her chin. It lifted her face up, forced her eyes to meet the wall of violet intensity that was Celestia’s gaze.

“We are going to make it, Twilight.”

Her voice was solid, unwavering. It should have been reassuring. Any other day and it would have filled Twilight to the brim with confidence. But something was wrong this time. Everything was wrong…

“You are going to be alright! Do you hear me!?”

Twilight said nothing. Something in Celestia’s face crumbled. She felt bad about it. She didn’t want her to be upset, but she didn’t know what to say, or why she even should. It seemed almost a cruelty, for them to even try to make her carry on. What good was more pain? Why not just stop?

A bell tolled in the distance. A soft, wailing moan carried through the air. All heads turned toward it. But not Twilight’s, and not Celestia’s.

“No,” said Celestia. Her eyes, her face, her whole countenance, were squeezed shut, as if she could push it away by sheer force of will. Hyperia took to the air, agitated. Celestia’s voice shook with something terrible. “Not now!”

~~~

“Troops! Form a line alongside me! Kneel, and be respectful, as you would for a funeral procession. No harm will come to you, but do not take anything that is offered! Am I understood!?” Acknowledgments sounded to Luna’s bellowed commands. More softly, she said, “Be at peace, Sister. There is nothing to fear.”

Celestia gathered herself with a visible effort. She drew Twilight to the side of the road, taking a seat there. She looked afraid. She looked angry. Maybe somewhere between the two. Her words came out terse, but softened quickly.

“It’s going to be alright, Twilight. The Procession can be disturbing, but it is as Luna said. Be respectful, take nothing that is offered, and you’ll be fine. Understand?”

“Twilight Sparkle is a grown mare, Celestia. She can take care of herself. And besides,” Luna positioned herself to Twilight’s other flank. She caught her eye, winked at her, nudged her with one wing. “She won’t want what he offers anyway. She has far too much waiting for her at home to give up now.”

“Yes. Of course! You’re right, Luna. She has so many wonderful friends to reunite with, after all,” said Celestia, picking up a thread Twilight couldn’t see. She looked slowly from one Princess to the other.

“Her family will certainly wonder where she’s been,” continued Luna. “And every good mare leaves a trail of lovers. Terrible shame, to never see those again.”

“I, uh, yes. And what would the library do without her?”

What were they doing?

Before anypony could say more, a thick fog rolled over the line of ponies and their Princesses. It blanketed everything in a veil of cool blue-white. It wasn’t but a few seconds before Twilight could barely see across the road. The bell from before tolled again, rich and hollow in the mist. The sounds of a plaintive, sobbing wail crept into the misty air. Not a scream. There was no fear in it. Only mourning.

Something small and bony worked its way in next to her, between her and Celestia. But not really between. He was an addition.

Twilight looked down. Bait looked up, afraid. She put a wing over him, wishing she knew what to say. Her eyes turned back to the fog.

The first Twilight saw of the Procession was a single pony, ghostly and ethereal. A pegasus. She trod slowly, wings over her eyes. Though a trail of tears leaked from a face unseen, there was no great drama to her. She didn’t howl into the darkness, or bemoan her fate, or any other such thing. Just cried, quiet and profound. She was followed by more. A pair of earth ponies, their manes falling over their eyes, a steady stream of tears dripping from their stained hair as they went. A trio followed them, this one holding a member of each tribe. One, the unicorn, held his head up high, but he, too, cried. They all did.

More followed. Tens of them. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. Many grieved, as the first had. They cried, or wailed in that haunting way, or just walked, silent, caught up in their own world. They weren’t all ponies. More and more, the race of the mourners varied. Griffons trod the road alongside cattle and minotaurs and monsters and other creatures Twilight didn’t even have names for. Not all of the walkers mourned, at least not in the way Twilight knew. Some merely stared, looking nowhere but ahead. A few actually smiled, seeing nothing as they wandered forward in a sort of mindless peace Twilight found herself intensely jealous of. A very tiny few of them looked at her, watching her as she watched them. Their eyes held nothing at all. No pain. No fear. Only acceptance of the world around them. She couldn’t meet such a gaze for long, and she didn’t know why.

One, an earth pony, stopped before Celestia. Her lips moved, but Twilight heard nothing. Celestia nodded, saying something in return. Twilight couldn’t hear it. Celestia looked close to tears, but the ghostly pony smiled, said something more, then walked on. Luna had a few stop before her as well, but all in a silence Twilight couldn’t penetrate. She didn’t ask about it.

Twilight couldn’t say how long she sat there watching before the master of this strange ceremony finally arrived. Like so many things in Tartarus, it could have been forever, or no time at all.

He was a magnificent specimen of a stallion. Tall, powerfully muscled, with a coat as glossy and black as night, poised with a regal bearing. He wore an elaborate suit of ceremonial armor, as ancient as it was magnificent. It covered him from chest to shin in dark metal, yet left his great wings free. Only one thing held him from perfection: He had no head.

So. The headless horse was real. That was a real thing. Parts of Twilight were deeply offended by this.

A group of ponies followed him. Six of them, there were, two from each tribe. Each was black as the void, yet they gleamed in the light of the fog. They, too, were headless. They pulled a great carriage, its wheels grinding slowly over the dust of the road. Upon it rested a grand, austere stone coffin. Twilight knew somepony lay within, but she couldn’t quite see whom. It was important. She knew it was. But she didn’t dare crane her neck to look, not yet. Instead, she turned back to the leader of the Procession.

He came to a slow stop just before Twilight, turning to face her. Such as he could, with no head. The pallbearers stopped with him, staring straight ahead. Thick plumes of fog poured out of the Headless Horse’s open neck, obscuring what lay within. Twilight decided that was probably for the best, until she realized she was breathing that stuff in.

“Princess Celestia,” he intoned, bowing slightly, spilling more fog. “And Princess Luna.” He bowed again. His voice resonated through the murk. “It is a pleasure, as always.”

Oh, wait. He did have a head. It was fixed to his saddle by a hook. Its eyes watched them with all the calm of the grave.

“Dullahan,” acknowledged Celestia. She seemed like she was about to say more, but the black, headless horse stepped in.

“I don’t believe I’ve met you, m’lady. May I have your name?” He turned his body slightly, so that his disembodied head could look at Twilight only. He had a horn. He was an alicorn.

“Twilight Sparkle,” she said, unthinking.

“Ahh. I thank you. ‘Tis a rare thing indeed to meet a new Princess. I offer you my condolences for having fallen into Tartarus. How has It been treating you, if I might ask?”

“Dullahan, stop this!” The mist-lit world ignited as Celestia shoved her way between them. “There is nothing for you here, just move on!”

There was a long silence. Twilight thought the fog might be growing thicker.

“I fear that is not true, Celestia."

“She is not yours to take!”

“I take nothing that is not given freely. And now, I am afraid I must send you elsewhere, that I and Princess Twilight might speak in peace.”

“What!? Don’t you d—“

A wave of fog rolled over Celestia, and then, with only an indignant flare of radiance, she was gone. Everypony was gone. It was just Twilight and Dullahan now.

“I apologize, Princess. Lady Celestia does not appreciate my work, but I thought that you might.”

Twilight said nothing at first. She called out though, in her own mind, and Insight answered. She was here, and that was a comfort. Dullahan’s eyes took in the sword, but he seemed unconcerned. The procession carried on around them, creatures without number walking slowly onward, sobbing or wailing or grieving in silence.

“So. What’s your work, then?”

“Before I answer, I would ask again. How has Tartarus treated you, m’lady?”

Twilight looked down at her leg. She wrapped her tail around herself.

“It’s been awful.”

“Ahh.”

Neither one said anything more for a long time. Twilight didn’t think they had to. It had been a simple exchange, but she’d felt genuine sympathy in Dullahan. He understood.

“I wish I could say your suffering was unique,” he said, echoing. “But I am afraid it is all too common here.”

“Yeah, I caught that.”

Another long stretch of nothing.

“What is it that you want, Dullahan?”

“Peace.”

Twilight frowned.

“What?”

“That is what I would offer you, Twilight Sparkle. You have had a good life. I see that in you. But recent times have, perhaps, shown you how fragile that happiness can be. You have been shaken to the very fiber of your being. You have seen that your experience may be the exception, rather the rule upon which you have based your view of the world. Am I correct?”

Twilight pulled tighter into herself.

“It is not your fault that life is this way, Twilight Sparkle. To change such things is beyond even the greatest of us.”

Even now, she tried.

“That’s not true. Princess Celestia and Luna did it. They made Equestria better.”

“Fair enough. But how did they accomplish this?”

Twilight didn’t speak, though she suspected she knew where he was going with this.

“They removed the elements they found unsavory. To make life in Equestria more palatable—“

“They made everything in Tartarus worse,” spat Twilight. “Yeah, fine, I get it. But why did you bring me here?”

“To offer you an alternative. An end to all this pain. A conclusion. And a chance to give your misery a greater meaning.” He strode to the carriage and lifted an ornate chalice from it, wrapping the cup in a shroud of magic.

“I don’t understand.”

He came to her, stopping some feet away, placing the goblet within easy reach.

“Very, very few who come to Tartarus escape. You have fought It, and fought well, but in the end, your resilience may lead to naught but greater torment. Your companions wish you the best, but they may lack your strength. Will you watch as they fall, throwing themselves away, thinking they help you? Will you cling to the tiny thread of hope their sacrifice grants you? Hope is a cruel addiction, Twilight Sparkle. It sneaks in at every turn, buoying you up only that you might be dragged down again. And there is always further to fall.” Dullahan let that sink in. “But you can let go of all that. Drink of this, and it will bring an end to all that has happened to you. You will be free of doubt, of responsibility, of expectation. Of all your terrible pain. You may join us, if you wish. Your tale will become an eternal inspiration, a monument to the tragedy of life and death. Or you may go your own way, as so many have before. But it will be by your own hoof, rather than according to the cruel vagaries of fate, or the machinations of Tartarus.”

“It’s death, Twilight. Surrender.”

She started, looking behind her. Luna?

“Peace, Dullahan. I am not my sister. I won’t interfere. I only wish to help her understand.”

Dullahan clearly had misgivings, but he bowed slightly and allowed the Moon Princess to remain.

“Death is one word for what I offer, yes. Surrender, though…no. I would call it acceptance.”

“I…” started Twilight. “What do you mean, an inspiration? A monument?”

“Join the procession. Walk with us, until the end of everything. All who see us are changed, one way or another. A vision of death can inspire a greater striving for life.” Twilight thought he might have almost smiled at that. “And many other things, besides. There is great satisfaction to be gained in playing the muse, rather than the hero.”

Twilight looked away from him, watching the endless Procession instead.

“They don’t seem very satisfied, Dullahan.”

“They’ve found peace in their sorrow,” said Luna. “Though it may not seem so at first glance. Once acknowledged, that feeling can be...” Luna closed her eyes, searching herself for the words. “Exquisite.” She watched the mourners, never looking away. Twilight turned to her, and saw something like longing in her eyes. “They have stories, Twilight. All of them. They’ll tell you, if you ask.”

Dullahan nodded his headless neck, but it was Luna who spoke.

“You could be so much here. Your story could light the fire that drives an entire generation. You could change a whole world! You have such heart, Twilight! But you must be willing to give up everything for it.” Luna’s eyes found her, and held her.

“Oh.”

Twilight thought of her friends, back home. If she never came back, what would they do? They’d suffer, obviously. They’d wrack themselves with guilt, probably, never knowing what had happened, maybe even thinking it had somehow been their fault. But they’d move on, eventually. That was what ponies did. You couldn’t just sit there and cry forever. She thought of her family, of Mom and Dad and Shiny and Cadance. They’d do the same. It would hurt them terribly for a while, then they’d move on. And Celestia and Luna, too. This couldn’t be the first time they’d lost somepony. Celestia had said it herself. Everypony died around them. They’d live.

Twilight reached out, taking the chalice in her magic. She gazed into it. The liquid within was perfectly clear. It smelled of nothing. Of oblivion. Her oblivion.






Nope.

She cut the chalice in two and let its poison spatter into the dirt. She didn’t even give herself time to worry over what Dullahan might do about it. Just turned and started hobbling away.

She heard a hollow laugh as she went. She was almost angry. Angry at him, for showing up at this one darned moment, when she was weak, and for having the gall to offer such a thing like it was some kind of favor. Angry at herself for even thinking of accepting it. And angry at him again for being right: this little 'vision' had inspired her, and it was infuriating!

“And what of you, little one?”

Twilight whipped around.

“Life has been terribly unfair to you, Bait, from the very beginning…”

Twilight was charging in before she even thought about it.

“You get away from him!”

How dare Dullahan talk to him! As if the kid didn’t have enough to worry about! But at her core, Twilight knew that she wasn’t really angry. She was afraid. Terribly afraid that Bait would say yes.

Because his life had been unfair.

And she’d taken him away from everything he’d ever known.

And all she’d done since then was put him in more danger.

And so she charged, and as the fog rolled in, pushing her away from him, she realized she might never have been more scared in her life.

Questions.

View Online

Twilight burst out of the fogwall.

“Bait!?”

She whipped about, looking one way and another, searching desperately.

Agonizing moments passed as she realized she had no idea what to do. The fog was already receding, the Procession gone. And Bait was still in there! She chased after it, the wreck of her leg slowing her to a maddening crawl.

“Bait!”

She ran on anyway, mind churning feverishly to find some way to do something. She threw Insight at the fogwall, hoping maybe she and her new senses could reveal something.

The sword shot into the fog, but found nothing. It was just wet air. Wait, no, there! Some kind of border or liminal space between herself and the fog. Not a physical one. Conceptual. According to the sword, the whole world was different inside that other space, like it was wasn’t quite real. The rules in there were different, in the same way the rules in Tartarus were different from those in Equestria. It was its own little realm…

Fine, great, super-interesting, thought Twilight. But how do I get back in!?

Insight did the first thing that came to her rather one-track mind. She cut it.

To everypony's surprise, it worked. Thick mist poured from the little slit in reality. She hopped toward it, but it closed immediately. Twilight groaned, and Insight cut it again, darting inside this time and hooking a bit of the ‘border’ like a needle on thread and dragging it over Twilight.

After a brief bit of disorientation, Twilight found herself again swallowed in misty clouds. She stood at a road, and an endless trail of specters walked before her. Hah! She was in! She took an unsteady step forward and called to Bait again. She very nearly ran him over. His eyes darted up to meet hers as she tottered forward. They collided in a sort of happy terror, wrapping wings and legs and arms around each other.

“Oh, thank goodness you’re okay! I thought you, well, never mind! Are you okay, Bait?”

He didn’t say anything, just buried his head in her chest for a while.

“What’s this, now?”

Twilight looked up to see Dullahan watching her quizzically. She scowled at him. Luna was there too, looking first startled, then amused. She laughed.

“You’re going to have to try harder to keep this one out, Dullahan. Not that she—“

A searing sound interrupted, as of molten steel poured into seawater, followed by a racket of shorn metal and blasting light.

Celestia stormed into the Procession.

“Twilight!?”

Dullahan’s face, detached as it was from his body, grew ever more amazed as he watched.

Twilight waved, and Celestia ran to her, not even glancing at the now aghast Headless Horse. She threw herself over Twilight, covering the both her and Bait in a shroud of soft feathers.

“Thank goodness! I was so afraid you, well, it doesn’t matter. Are you two alright?”

Twilight said nothing, just buried her head in that big, warm chest and refused to move for a long time.

The parallels with her recent reunion with Bait were not lost on her.

~~~

“Now that, I have never seen,” said Dullahan. He marveled at the ponies and their wight even as they faded from his realm. “Three Princesses invading my realm, each in her own way. Truly a wonder…”

“Yes, we are really something, aren’t we?”

Dullahan turned to Luna so that he could see her. Still as lovely as ever.

“I can see why Tartarus so desires this Twilight Sparkle. Will she hate me, do you think? For what I tried to give her?”

Luna shrugged.

“For making the offer to the boy, perhaps. That was cruel, Dullahan. He is too young to have such a choice thrust upon him.”

“To live on may prove more cruel still, Luna. Tartarus would rather break its toys than see them free, and nothing escapes this place without cost. That said, seeing this alternative may have steeled his will. And hers.”

Luna frowned, but didn’t deny it.

“For what it is worth, I hope that they succeed and live happily, far away from here.”

Luna’s face slid easily into a wry smile. “I’ll be certain to send them your kind regards. Twilight is an open minded sort. She’ll come to understand what you do in time, I think. But you never had a chance with her, Dullahan.”

“Ahh. So it goes.”

“It does. And so must I. It was good to see you again, but let’s try to meet under better circumstances next time, yes? It’s awful of you to only appear at such bleak moments.” Luna stepped lightly forward, leaning past his chest to place a delicate kiss on Dullahan’s lips. She turned away without waiting for an answer.

The Headless Horse watched her go, staring into his mist-shrouded nothing for a long while.

“Fare thee well, my Princesses. And may you never have need of me.” He turned and walked on, as he ever had. As he ever would.

~~~

Luna pranced out of the rapidly scattering fogwall.

“Hah!” she declared. “I told you we had nothing to worry about. She cut the chalice in half, Celestia! Just dumped it on the ground! You should have seen the look on Dullahan’s face! Classic!”

Alas, the teacher and her student were too busy cuddling to pay attention. Luna’s brows just about flew off her face, her lips quirking into a delighted smile. Were they actually kissing!? She somehow managed to keep the half-million or so possible comments she had about this to herself. Somepony had been getting naughty with one of her students again. She was going to hound Celestia relentlessly for this once her sister was emotionally stable enough to take it. But for now, Luna turned away, trying not to be too obviously amused by her sister’s indiscretions.

The mist that held the Procession continued to clear, revealing the ponies of her retinue. She scrutinized them carefully, making sure all were still in attendance. She counted six, and she recognized each. Excellent.

Luna fluffed out her wings, drawing attention away from the snugglefest behind her.

“Well met, soldiers! I trust you all are well?”

Affirmatives sounded.

“Wonderful! Come along then.” She strode a ways down the road.

“What about, um,” asked one, his neck craning for a better look.

“This way, dear ponies!” Luna had to all but shove them onward.

~~~

Celestia didn’t hesitate this time. She met Twilight halfway, and they kissed for a long while. Twilight knew Bait was there, knew it was weird, and knew that other ponies might see them, but she was so desperate to reconnect with someone that she didn't care. They breathed into each other, and for just that moment, everything seemed like it might work out.

Alas, it had to end. Eventually. They took their time.

“Sorry!” said Twilight, nuzzling into Celestia’s mane. “I didn’t mean to scare you! Sorry I was acting so—”

“No, it’s alright! I’m sorry! I should have—“

“I-yeah. But I mean, I—“

“Ah, aheh…”

They looked at each other, awkward yet somehow perfectly familiar. So many words went unsaid, and that was fine. They didn’t need words so much at this point. Their eyes both turned to Bait at the same time. He blinked up at them.

“So, uh, how are you doing?” asked Twilight.

“M'’ok,” he mumbled, leaning up against Twilight. “S-sorry I, I didn’t mean to—“

“It’s okay. I know.”

Time passed.

“Hey. Um. New rule?” said Twilight.

“Hm?”

“No more being sorry.” She turned from Celestia to Bait, watching them both. “I can’t deal with it anymore. So, no more feeling bad about what happens here. If we mess up, we can just blame Tartarus or something. Sound good?”

Bait smiled, if only a little. Celestia did too, though her eyes watered just a little bit.

“Yes. That’s a good rule,” she said. “Shall we?”

Twilight nodded up at her.

“You really are something, Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight blushed, even though it was ridiculous. She took a step.

That horrible pain shot up it at the first movement.

“Ow! Right. The leg. Darn it.”

“Here, let me.” Celestia shifted over to Twilight’s wounded side, putting a wing under her, taking some of the weight.

~~~

“I think it’s time you let somepony see to that, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna, gesturing to Twilight’s leg as she and Celestia and Bait rejoined the rest. She had that little smirk ponies always got after they’d seen her making out with someone. Twilight didn’t know why everypony thought that was so funny.

“Yes,” put in Celestia, pointedly ignoring Luna’s amusement. “We should have addressed this earlier.”

“Sure,” said Twilight, with only a slight bit of resentment. It was fine. She’d rather be in love than depressed, even if it meant Luna got to be a jerk about it.

“Wonderful! Sidewinder?”

“Of course, m’lady.” The nyxie hopped to work, taking Twilight’s leg in a gentle hoof and covering it carefully and liberally with the cool green cream known as ‘panacea.’ Twilight had heard of the stuff, but never experienced it. It was famed for its healing properties: It soothed pain, disinfected, sealed wounds while somehow still letting them breathe, re-grew hair in its full and luscious glory, improved test scores, etc, etc. In short, it supposedly did just about everything a pony could want a topical cream to do. It smelled nice, too. Like jasmine, with a bit of mint. Its unfeasible utility was matched only, the rumors said, by its improbable cost, which was why only a pony in dire straits ever got to see the stuff. Twilight wondered at the bit value of her current treatment, but she couldn’t deny the effect. Her pain started to ebb immediately. Sidewinder wrapped the limb in gauze, holding both ends while her assistant, Brevity, pinned the cloth tight.

“We shall see to it from here,” said Luna, brushing the medic aside.

Once the leg was coated and swathed, Celestia and Luna lit their horns, casting a tandem spell that gently enveloped Twilight’s limb in a rigid-yet-somehow-soft-and-flexible cast of silver magic. This was the first time Twilight had ever seen the sisters work such an enchantment together. It was beautiful.

By the time the procedure was over, the pain in Twilight’s leg had fallen from ‘raging agony’ to a mere ‘ragged throb.’ She sighed in relief, suddenly reminded that things hadn’t always been this bad.

“There!” stated Luna. “That should make things more—”

An ear-splitting shriek of shattering metal or stone or who-knew-what interrupted her. All heads turned to the sound. It was far off, much too far for them to have so immediately known the source. But they did. The mountain. The one they’d been able to see since they’d left it, no matter where they were. Etna, Twilight had heard it called.

A great avalanche rolled down one side of the mountain-prison.

Had Polyphemus been on that side, or the other?

A low, moaning roar shook the earth beneath them.

A silence followed.

“I think,” said Celestia. “That it is time we moved on.”

Even Luna seemed disturbed, for once. She only nodded, and off they went.

~~~

Insight flew up and sliced a leaf off one of the ever-present trees. She cut it five more times.

You’re so fast!

Insight swelled with pride.

Twilight smiled at that. She was feeling better now. Not that it meant much, given how she’d felt before. She knew the high might be temporary. There was no cure-all for the kind of trauma she’d been through, but that was okay. She could handle it this time. She had to. Bait needed her. She still worried a bit that they’d never make it out of here, but it wasn’t crushing anymore. She would give it everything she had, and that would have to do.

Insight minced the slivers of leaf even more, slicing up each one another three times.

Twilight floated along on a shimmering disk made of pure magic. The Princesses had made it for her on account of her leg, despite her insistence that she could walk. Sidewinder had concurred with them that this was necessary, as had her assistant, Brevity. Twilight had finally admitted that they were probably right and allowed them to carry her, but only if Bait and Ben could ride too. They had declared that was fair, but now she had nothing to do as they went, so…

She pulled Insight back and had her trim a tiny piece of the platform away from the rest of the spell. A little arc of magic slipped away from the disc, vaporizing into nothing, as undirected magic did.

How do you do that?

Insight had no answer for that one. It was just a thing she could do.

She’d cut magic, she’d sliced a hole between worlds, she’d pierced a godling that had supposedly been invincible…Can you cut ideas, too? Thoughts, maybe? What about how worried I am that things have been so suspiciously quiet since that big racket on the mountain?

The sword hovered, tilting to one side as if confused.

Nope. Not ideas then. But what else might Insight be able to do?

Twilight brought her close and tried to cut a strand of her own mane. Insight brushed right past it, and not a hair fell to the ground. Intrigued, Twilight poked her own leg, the good one, with the blade. It didn’t cut. It didn’t even hurt. Insight’s point felt like a dull pencil on her skin, completely harmless. She tried again, harder, and got the distinct feeling that Insight wasn’t at all comfortable with this.

“Keep playing with that and you’ll go blind.”

Celestia snorted back a laugh.

“Don’t be crude, Luna.”

“Huh?” Twilight looked from one to the other, honestly unsure what was crude about that. Or what Luna had even meant.

“Ha. Nothing, Twilight,” said Luna. “A joke from before your time. Sister?”

“Hm?”

“You haven’t taken even a moment to thank your brave soldiers for coming here to help you. Perhaps now would be a good time?”

Then Luna and Celestia did that thing where they talked without words. They shared a glance, and Celestia was clearly leery, but Luna cajoled, and Celestia countered, and Luna insisted, and in the end Celestia conceded. It was maddening when they did things like that.

“Ah, I…suppose I should.”

And so off she went, leaving Twilight and the Moon Princess alone at the head of the troop.

“My dear sister excels at so many things, but she is an idiot when it comes to just letting a pony be.”

“I, uh—”

“Especially herself.”

“…Okay?”

“It will be good for her to spend some time with normal ponies. But how are you, Twilight?”

Twilight hesitated for a long moment, maybe at the idea that she wasn’t ‘normal’ anymore. Then she shrugged. Why fight the obvious, at this point?

“I’ve been better.”

“Hah! I imagine so. How long have you been in Tartarus now, if I may ask?”

“I don’t even know. A few days, I guess?”

“Ahh. Well, We have to say, you’re handling all this very well.”

“Why do people keep telling me that? It’s been horrible! I’ve been beat up and terrified and I nearly killed a centaur and now I’ve got a broken leg! I didn’t even notice when you got here because I was too busy staring at Phix’s dead body and then Headless Horse just asked me to kill myself and I almost, I-I don’t, I just…Sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

Luna grinned. Apparently, she found something funny about this.

“Oh, We suspect you do. And don’t be sorry on my account. Let it out, Twilight, you needn’t be polite with Us. Scream. Cut down a tree, blow up a rock or two. Whatever will help.”

“I…”

Twilight gathered up as magic as she could hold at once and blasted it into one of the apparently infinite friggin’ trees that lined the road. It burst into a satisfying explosion, splinters and sap flying everywhere as the hulk crashed to ground. Insight stabbed it a few times for good measure. The soldiers jumped into readiness, but they were easily ignored next to Celestia’s rather incendiary reaction. Luna waved them all down, smiling as the bits bounced off her shield.

“Oh. Wow.” Twilight hadn’t even known she could hit that hard. It had felt good. Really, really good.

“See? Things are not so dire. You live still, and have grown stronger than even you knew. When I arrived here, I expected to find Celestia long gone, and would have counted myself fortunate to find you alive at all. I expected you to be curled up in a ball, singing soft lullabies to yourself. ‘Tis a common reaction to being lost in this place. Yet here you are, alive and well, with my sister and these two,” she gestured at Bait and Ben. Ben waved back, “in tow. And Insight, of course. So again We say unto to you, you really are doing quite well.”

A little twinge ran through Twilight as she remembered the first time she’d woken up here. Still, she managed to be at least a little glib in response.

“I was curled into a ball when you got here.”

“Bah. You were taking a well-deserved rest. Nothing worth worrying over. And you weren’t singing to yourself.” She prodded Twilight lightly with a wing. “You are so much stronger than you know, Twilight Sparkle. Take pride in that.”

Twilight forced out a small chuckle, and found that it took surprisingly little effort. Luna’s confidence was infectious.

“We apologize, by the by. For Phix. We should not have done that in front of you.”

There was genuine pain in her voice, and Twilight didn’t think it was for her. She longed to ask about it, about Phix and what she had been and what she and Luna had been to each other. Instead, she deflected.

“It’s okay. Celestia did it too.” Twilight hadn’t meant to talk about this. The words had just snuck out. And once free, once the doors were open, they started spilling out, uncontrolled. “She killed them, a whole pack of them, right in front of me. They were, they were like diamond dogs, but…and I mean, it wasn’t her fault! They attacked me! I walked right into it, and then she killed them all and it was, I just, I freaked out! I tried to tell her it wasn’t her fault and I only ran away because I just freaked out and-really-it-was-their-fault-for-attacking-me-but-I-don’t-think—”

“Ahh, yes,” cut in Luna, calm and cool. “The gorehounds. She told me of that, briefly. Be at peace, Twilight. They got both what they deserved and what they desired.”

Twilight looked up at her, pulled from her own spiraling thoughts by that last bit. Goddess, what was wrong with her? One second she felt fine, the next she was rambling like a crazy pony.

Luna grinned. “Confusing, yes? They are quite content in Tartarus, if you can believe such a thing. ‘Tis the most fervent dream of the gorehound warrior to die in glorious battle to a grand and mighty foe. A strange ethos, perhaps, but a fulfilling one. And what more grand and mighty a foe could one find to die to than the fabled Celestia? They were happy to throw themselves at her, Twilight, even knowing they would fall. Take solace in that.”

“That’s…insane.”

“Quite so. But then, We’ve always had sympathy for the insane. They don’t call them lunatics for naught.” Luna’s eyes went distant, melancholy. Then, without even an attempt at explaining herself, Luna pepped back up and tilted her head at Bait. “But we needn’t dwell on such things just now. Who is this fine fellow?”

“How do you do that?” Again, the words just jumped out on their own. “You killed Phix without batting an eye and laughed it off, then you looked like you were about to cry just now, and here you are again, changing the subject and acting like nothing’s wrong! I just…How do you do it?”

Twilight hadn’t meant to be so blunt. If Luna took any offense, she hid it well.

“Ahh, now that is an excellent question. Change has always been a talent of Ours. We suspect it has to do with being the Moon, who changes her face by the day. By your expression We suppose that is not an especially useful answer. May We tell you a story?”

Twilight nodded, somewhat taken aback, but intrigued to see where this was going.

“Many centuries ago, We fell in love with a philosopher.” Luna smiled, reminiscing. “One night, having shared of cups and ideas and each other, he told Us of a suspicion he had, an idea about how ponies are. Do you know what it was?”

Obviously the answer was no, but Twilight played along and shook her head anyway.

“He told Us that when a pony meets another, she presents only a part of herself. A mask, if you will.” Luna pulled a simple, smiling theatre mask from somewhere in the folds of her robe and donned it. “She attempts to show what is best about herself, or what is important at the time. When she meets a different pony,” Luna tossed the mask off with a tilt of her head and brought forth another, this one frowning. “She presents another mask. And,” she tossed that one aside as well, “if she were to meet both of those ponies at once…” She pulled another mask, this one smirking. “She would bring forth a third, one that was appropriate to this new situation. Understand?”

Twilight thought about that, and about where those masks kept coming from. “But, if everypony is just putting up these masks for everypony else, then—”

“Then where is the true pony? The pony beneath? Yes, that is the question, isn’t it? This was what he told Us,” said Luna, dropping the last of her masks. She leaned in close and whispered. “There is no pony beneath. He believed that even the face we present to ourselves...” A second Luna stepped out from behind the first, and each one pulled out and placed upon her face a different mask. “Is, in truth, only another facade.” They spoke in perfect tandem. “ ‘Tis all masks, all the way down.” The mirror Luna vanished with a little puff of blue smoke.

Twilight gawked. He she really copied herself so easily? Or was it all illusion? Even if the clone hadn't been real, that was top level spell casting, and Luna had done with no visible effort at all. She really needed to get to know this mare better.

“And so, my dear little Princess," continued Luna, clearly enjoying Twilight's reaction. "The way that We do this is simple. When faced with a loss We are not prepared to handle, We don’t. ‘Tis not that We don’t feel, Twilight, not that We don’t know or care. ‘Tis merely a matter of becoming what will best serve the situation. What Our ponies need most. Sometimes a pony needs to laugh, in even the most horrid of circumstances. Sometimes they must cry, though they think themselves happy. Sometimes, We simply don’t have time to fall apart, and so put those dark thoughts aside. We choose to become, for a time, somepony who cannot be broken. Do you understand?”

“Nightmare Moon,” Twilight whispered. “That’s who she is? The Luna that can’t be broken?”

Luna's smile faltered.

“Aye,” she breathed. “Among other things. Despite being our youngest, it sometimes feels as though you see right through us all. But aye. A weapon, she was. She was Our blade in the Night, blacker than the blackest of hearts. And then one day, she decided to wield herself.” Luna walked in silence for a moment as Twilight stared on. “But look at Us,” she quipped, once again chipper as all get-out. “Babbling about this maudlin nonsense. If even half of what my sister says of you is true, you must be full of questions about this place, or yourself, or any other trivial little thing that might enter your mind. Is there anything you’d like to ask while Celestia isn’t here to stop Us from being ‘crude’ as she puts it.”

Twilight didn’t say anything at first. She had to work at it, had to try to wrap her mind around the things Luna had said about masks and weapons and there being no true ponies. She didn’t really buy it. But she could pretend, right? Just for a little while? She put some effort into it and got a decent smile going.

“Okay. Sure. What’s with the Royal We? You’ve gotten all plural again.”

Luna laughed. “We should think that would be obvious, Sparkle. Are you not two beings now, at least?” She gestured at Insight with a toss of her head. “We have tried to remember to call Ourselves singular, so as not to confuse modern ponies, but We see no reason to so limit Ourselves with you.”

“Oh. Right. I guess that does make sense.” The answer had been rather simpler than she’d expected. And far more complicated as well.

“Alright then. What were those ponies with Dullahan? I thought ghosts weren’t real."

Luna nodded. “Quite true, except when it isn't." She grinned at Twilight's objection, and spoke over it. "Dullahan is one of the few beings We’ve ever met who has found a way to truly cheat death. And even then, only in others.”

“He makes them? What is he, then? A god? Immortal? Why does he do…whatever he does?”

Luna shrugged. “All of that, more or less. He is ageless, just as We. As to why, ‘tis his way, is all. His nature. He feels there is value in it, in keeping those souls and their stories in the world.”

“Do you?”

Luna hesitated for a long time.

“Aye. The ghosts of the Procession hold such stories, Twilight! The cost to those he keeps, though, is great.”

“Yeah…Is that why you banished him?”

“He was not banished. We, Celestia and I, could not have banished him if we’d wanted to, any more than we could banish death itself. Dullahan appears to those whom he believes need him. He walks between worlds as he will, and has no concern for such petty things as physical causality or simple fucking decency. Ah, apologies for my language, Twilight, but the stallion can be absolutely maddening at times. Actually,” said Luna, eyeing the smaller pony. “Do you know that word?”

“Yeah, Celestia told me about it.”

“Hah! That must have been some conversation! You’ll have to tell me of it someday. Regardless, unable to stop Dullahan, we instead worked to build a world where he would not be necessary.”

“You did,” stated Twilight. It was a simple, undeniable fact.

“Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. That is deeply gratifying to hear it.”

“So, um. I saw some of them, the ghosts, stop and talk to you. Did you, um, were they…” Twilight wasn't sure what or how to ask, or if she even should. Luna’s face indicated that perhaps she shouldn’t have, but the Princess answered anyway.

“Did We know them? Yes. Were they all suicides? No. Dullahan gives his little offer of unlife to any who happen to die near where he is at the time, and there have been many. They were…” Luna sighed. “Friends, mostly. The most recent of them died here, by their own will or another’s. But let Us not dwell on things we cannot help.”

“Right! Okay. So, do you ever get bored?” It just came out on its own, before Twilight had time to consider whether she even wanted an answer. “Living forever?”

Luna laughed, her voice ringing pleasantly through the woods. “Been reading the novels about us, have you? Oh! The ennui of eternity!” She raised one hoof to her head, faux-swooning with great drama. “If only I were mortal and could have died before I lost my one true love! If only I could feel real feelings again!” She laughed further, falling behind as she shook with it. “That was an actual line in one! What nonsense! No, We do not get bored.” Luna looked away, still smiling despite the words that followed. “We immortals have our regrets, and they build upon themselves, as anypony’s would. They can be crushing, at times, but to us, every day is a new wonder. Everyone we meet on our endless journey truly is a beautiful and unique snowflake, and we love them for it. Even if they turn out to be monsters in the end. So no, Twilight, if you should find yourself living forever with us, you will not regret your decision. Has Celestia had this talk with you?”

“Yeah. Kind of.”

Luna nodded.

“Should you choose mortality…well, that will be your decision. We who carry on will cherish the memory of you, forever. I’m sure you will be blessed with wonderful children, just as dear Cadenza has been.”

Twilight opened her mouth, but what was she supposed to say to that? Luna sounded so sad…

“So, you’re in favor of the forever, um, option?”

“Ah. Well. Celestia tells Us We shouldn’t seek to influence our young Princesses one way or another, and We suppose that is fair. But We would be…ecstatic to have another to share eternity with. But it is, of course, your decision to make.”

Twilight watched Luna closely. The Moon Princess watched the road, a soft smile playing at her lips. Hopeful.

“Alright. Thank you. For being honest, I guess. It’s all a bit much for me, really.”

Luna turned to her, grinning again.

“We imagine so. Anything else to ask? Celestia surely champs at the bit to be back by your side.”

“So, about Nightmare Moon…”

Luna gave her a wry grin.

“You have a way with difficult questions, Twilight.”

“No, it’s okay! This one’s quick.”

Luna nodded for her to continue.

“I’ve seen some of what Celestia can do when she fights. She’s so powerful! And that was before the whole sword thing happened. I asked her why she didn’t just handle all the villains and stuff on her own, instead of sending me, and she explained all that, but it got me thinking about you. So, um, my question is, when me and the girls first met you, did you lose on purpose?”

Something happened in Luna’s eyes that sent a chill through Twilight. It faded as fast as it came, so quickly that she wasn’t sure she’d actually seen it. When Luna spoke, her words were light, but Twilight was suddenly very worried that she’d crossed some unseen line.

“Why do you ask this?”

“Well, it’s just, like I said..." Twilight licked her lips, and the words came quick, each one forcing out the next. “You’re both so strong! And I just started thinking that if you’d really wanted to stop us, it wouldn’t even have been a fight. We had no idea what we were doing! You could have taken us all back then without even trying! Right? But you didn't!”

Luna’s eyes narrowed at first. Was she insulted? But they softened as Twilight rambled on, then grew slowly wider, as if in some revelation.

“So I figured you had to have wanted to lose! Because maybe just needed help and knew it, or you thought it would be better that way?”

Luna opened her mouth to speak, shut it again. Several silent steps later, a little smile slowly grew across her lips.

“Aye.” Luna nodded to no one in particular. She seemed to walk a bit taller after that, as if some long-pondered realization had been made, some small weight finally lifted away. “Yes. ‘Twas our decision, to fail. Thank you, Twilight.”

“You’re welcome?” Twilight wasn’t entirely sure what she was being thanked for. She was just happy it had worked out. Apparently.

“I am. Anything else?”

There was one thing she could think of.

“So, um, about the whole Goddess thing. Princess, er...” Twilight realized for the first time that she had, at some point, started thinking of her Princess not by title but by name. “Celestia mentioned that immortals don’t have kids. But do they, um, like, do Goddesses…”

Luna quirked an eyebrow, leaning in, grin growing by the word.

“Do they..?”

“Do they um, date? Like, have girlfriends?”

Luna’s uproarious laughter was interrupted by a bellowing call from above.

“Incoming! Six, no, more! Maybe a dozen! Some kind of bug! More coming! All around!”

The Moon Princess’s eyes lit up even further, somehow.

“Pardon Us, dear, We must see to this. But in answer to your question…” Luna flexed her wings, and Shard followed eagerly. “Absolutely!” With that, Luna leapt into the air to meet her guard.

Well. Good. That was a big relief to hear. Bigger than maybe it should have been, given that they were under attack, or something? From the orders being barked about, Twilight assumed they were.

“Stay here, Bait,” she told the wight, rising up and stepping off the little platform. “It’ll be okay.” She still had to hobble, but she could walk well enough on her injured leg now that it was shielded and mostly numb. She could do this. She could handle it.

Bait slunk down off the magical conveyance and was at her side in an instant. She looked at him, slightly irked, but he just shook his head and looked away. Ben hopped onto her back.

“Yeah, fair enough,” she said. “I guess you two have saved me more times than I’ve saved you, huh?”

Ben chirped. Bait gave her a small, scared smile. She gave one back. She reached within herself for the mask of someone who knew what she was doing. It helped, a little. “It'll be okay,” she repeated.

The pegasus and nyxie troops were forming up over them them. Luna called out commands. Celestia had made her way to Twilight’s side. She saw Twilight and Bait and Ben on the ground, and she only nodded. This was just how things were in Tartarus.

Twilight’s ear twitched towards a rustling in the distance. A sort of pattering thut-thut-thut that rang from everywhere at once.

No more time to talk. They were coming.

Whatever they were.

Confusion

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Being reunited with her sword had changed Celestia.

She didn’t dodge anymore, didn’t sidestep or teleport. She marched forward, invincible, jaw set into a grim line as she did what had to be done. Her every move was perfect, every blow precise. The phrase ‘no wasted motion’ came to mind, but that was a paltry way to describe the vision of terrible glory she had become.

Hyperia slapped aside all attempts on Celestia and her ponies, unleashing appalling and peremptory vengeance on the things for even making the effort. Those few attacks that crossed the line of the flashing blade were stopped short by small, simple shields or blasted apart by bolts of molten magic. Limbs and bodies and burning hoofsteps fell in the wake of the Blazing Queen.

The things she killed bore a superficial resemblance to the ‘shrimp’ Twilight had encountered before, if only in that both were some sort of crustacean. These looked a bit like the unfeasible lovechild of a coconut crab and a daddy longlegs. They scuttled about with impressive speed on six spiny, spindly legs that let their main bodies bob maybe six feet in the air. Their eyes stuck out from what might be called their heads on thin stalks, and each one whipped about independently. In place of claws, they had only long, sharp spears, and it was with these that they jabbed at Celestia. They tried with their legs sometimes to, but it made no difference. She cut them all down.

Twilight could almost see such a creature existing in Equestria. They might have been cute, if in a spine-crawlingly creepy way, with their big, googly eyes, comically long legs and odd, swaying gait. But there was one other feature that made it quite clear that they belonged here, instead. Several of them, maybe half, maybe less, it was hard to tell as they were slain so rapidly…Anyway, several of them carried something underneath themselves. The packages dangled under the crab-thing’s main bodies, linked to them by wet, ugly, fleshy material, as though the one had somehow grown into the other. Or from it.

They were bodies. Corpses. Most were desiccated beyond recognition, but one was almost pony-like. A changeling, maybe. Another might have been a small minotaur. They swayed as the monsters dodged and died.

Why!? Just why!?

Twilight fought not to vomit. Again. She shoved it down. She wasn’t going to panic this time! She could help! She just needed a second…

While Celestia marched, Luna danced. In stark contrast to the deadly efficiency of her sister, Luna put a flourish into every strike, a taunt into every dodge and counter. She flowed, liquid and serpentine, around and over and through every attack, and there were so many.

Twilight had once been stung by a scorpion. It had been a tiny thing, a small fraction of the height of her own hoof. It hadn’t struck her skin, just the hard nail, accomplishing nothing. But she’d watched as it did so. The little bug had ineffectually stabbed at her once, twice, maybe as many as five times in a second. These creatures were just as fast, and with two stingers each. But not a one could touch Luna. She cheated somehow, was never where she should be. She fought as much with misdirection as she did with simple violence. She dodged hit after hit from one, two, four of the things at a time without even giving ground, and Shard cut into every one of them for even daring to try to harm her mistress. When that wasn’t enough, Aurora, Luna’s robe, whipped out, tripping them up, dragging them down, punishing these monster for being so slow, so weak, so stupid.

And Luna laughed. She giggled through it all, coated in darkness, shrouded in freezing shadow as her power spilled out onto the battlefield. A rain of severed parts fell around her as her own luminous, slit-pupiled eyes caught Twilight’s.

She felt a twinge of real fear at what she saw in those eyes. But Luna/Nightmare Moon just winked, and leapt onto her next victim. And that was what they were. Victims. This wasn’t a battle, it was a slaughter. Yes, the things had attacked them, but still. Why didn’t the monsters run? Why would they do this?

Was this what Celestia had been talking about? Was this what happened when the Sisters really fought something?

“Princess! Watch—”

Twilight had been so enthralled that she hadn’t seen the attack coming. Even Insight had been distracted. The blade felt absolutely awful about it.

“Out!”

A nyxie crashed down on the crab-thing before it had even gotten very close. The monster, already unbalanced by the swaying body it carried, slammed face-first into the ground under this new, unexpected weight. Twilight, to her horror, recognized its cargo.

A gorehound, half-burnt and hanging. One of those Celestia had killed.

Another pony, a pegasus, backed up the nyxie, stooping into a dive that let him drop the full weight of both rear legs onto the creature.

“Princess!” snapped the nyxie, hopping off. “Can you fly? It’s safer in the air.”

Twilight tore her gaze away from the crab and its awful passenger, flexing her wings before she even thought about it.

“Right! Yes. But…” She looked down at Bait. She couldn’t hold him forever, not in the air, not with a sprained wing and a useless leg.

“Understood.” The nyxie nodded. He shouted orders, and more of the soldiers dropped down, forming a circle around her.

What were they doing? Were they trying to fight for her? Goddess! She didn’t even know their names!

Another crab, this one unburdened by a corpse, burst through the underbrush and Twilight shot it, fast and hard. It reeled backwards, but somehow kept coming, legs tearing at the dirt. Twilight hopped back, locked two of its feet in her grip, and wrenched them both sideways.

The monster staggered and danced to keep up, fighting with more strength than she would have thought possible, but Twilight ground her teeth and darn it she made it happen. She whipped her magic the other way and the crab flipped over, falling onto its back. The soldiers didn’t hesitate. Two of them darted into the sky and crashed down onto it, stomping the beast into submission before it could recover.

But more came. So many more. How could there be so many!?

Twilight slapped the whole group aside with a telekinetic wave, hitting them harder than she’d ever hit anything.

Insight called to her. She could do this! She could kill them!

Twilight shut her out and just kept trying. She knew it was wrong. She knew Insight was only trying to help, and that killing these things was exactly what she should be doing because so many more lives than her own were on the line here, but…

More monsters rushed in. One almost got her. She didn’t have the speed Luna did, she couldn’t dodge like that, but she got lucky. A pegasus slammed into the creature just as it would have struck. Twilight grabbed another crab as it skittered toward one nyxie. Flipping them over didn’t seem to do much good, so she simply picked it up by brute force and flung the thing as hard as she could through the trees.

Insight parried the claws of one that got too close, cutting them deeply even while merely defending, and Twilight blasted the horrid thing away.

Another drove in.

Are they all coming straight for me!?

Twilight threw up a shield and stopped its first attacks, but more came. The soldiers fought around her, dodging and kicking and Twilight was pretty sure she saw one nyxie actually bite a crab’s eye stalk off! She hit the things as best she could, but her attacks were artless, substituting force where she should have used skill. But she couldn’t see! She had no idea what was happening, so she just fought, fighting fires as they came.

Insight pleaded, begged to be let free. This was her purpose!

Murder is not your purpose! Twilight mentally screamed, with a depth of feeling that almost frightened her. That’s not what we are! Find another way to help! Bait! Where is he!? Help him!

Insight nearly fell to the ground, stung and scared and changed somehow, but she obeyed. She searched, and there he was. The little wight had darted off again. He was under the crab attacking Twilight. Ben clung to his back. The spider shrieked, and everyone but Bait and Twilight stopped, just for a second, at the sound of it. Bait took the opportunity to barrel into one of the crab’s legs, knocking it off balance, and Twilight grabbed the monster, shoving it through one of its companions and into a tree once, twice, three times as Bait scampered back to her.

Goddess! Had she killed it? Would that even be so bad? She dropped the thing, eyes desperately seeking she didn’t even know what. Luna cackled madly as Celestia burned with wrath. Twilight had to do something, had to end this somehow before they got overrun. Insight tossed up a half-formed idea, inspired by what she'd witnessed the Ben and the nyxies do, and Twilight pulled it together. Animals could be driven off by sound sometimes, right? Tones most ponies couldn’t even hear. Maybe these could too? Insight sang through a series notes, looking for the one that would—

Twilight shot a crab as it darted in behind a pegasus. Too late. The first claw bounced off his armor, but the second struck him at base of the neck, just in front of one shoulder. He whipped around with a grimace as the creature was sent stumbling by a bolt of purple magic.

It wasn’t deep. He’ll be okay. He has to be okay!

The soldier took the time to give her a quick nod of thanks, as if she’d helped him and not failed to protect him, before leaping at another monster, joining two of the nyxies as they harried the thing like a pack of hounds.

I should have let Insight do it. I should have put a shield over him! Why didn’t I just aim for the claw! I should have..!

And then, very suddenly, it was over.

Every crab still alive (so few now), and all three nyxies, suddenly staggered. The ponies grunted, lurching to put hooves up over their ears. The crabs wobbled, confused, trying to run and failing as their legs caught up on themselves. The Sisters cut them down with lethal grace, letting the few that could still run go without chase. Insight let her song conclude, sorry to have harmed Twilight’s ponies, but happy to have been of use.

Twilight looked over the battlefield, unable to stop herself from taking it in. She couldn’t even count the bodies, so mangled and destroyed they were. A dozen? More? Most of them lay near the Princesses, only one or two were anywhere near her and the little circle of soldiers. And it had taken all of, what? Thirty seconds? Maybe a minute? So many, so quickly…

Luna, too, surveyed the wreckage, still grinning like a mad-mare, eyes livid and frightening. She seemed to let go the shadows that writhed around her only reluctantly. Celestia took her own stock of the battlefield. Her eyes were blazing and hard, the ground near her smoldering. She saw Twilight looking, and her eyes softened, and just like that, she was herself again.

“Well,” declared Luna, shaking a bit of crab-matter off of one hoof. “That was bracing, eh? I see everypony is still with us. Well done! Not that I expected any less of our finest, of course. Any injuries, my dears?”

A chorus of negatives sounded, and Twilight wondered at it. None? Really? All that chaos, and nopony had even been injured? She shook her head. She hadn’t even answered the question, still struck dumb by the experience. The guards were already chatting amongst themselves, sharing stories and even trading light-hearted gibes as they got ready to move again.

Twilight stared. Was this battle? Was this what ponies had felt like back in the dark times, when they’d gone to war? She’d fought before, fought for her life even, but she’d been alone then. She’d never had to do this with so many other ponies she didn’t know, never in such numbers. How did they do this!?

Bait snuck in beside he. He even gave her neck a little nuzzle. She turned to him, managing half a smile on reflex alone as she put a wing over him. He grinned back up to her. Ben gave her a wave from the back of Bait’s neck.

“You okay?”

Bait nodded.

“Sorry. I was…” Darn it. She'd said there would be no more being sorry. She didn't even know what she was apologizing for.

“M’lady?”

“Huh?” One of the guards had approached while Twilight had been standing around like an idiot. “Oh, y-yes?” She was still jittery, shaking a little.

The nyxie bowed. She would never get used to that. The familiar discomfort of having someone bow to her actually calmed Twilight, a bit.

“Silver Shine reporting, your Highness. I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude for your efforts, Princess. I understand at least one of the guards under my command might not have made it if not for your intervention. Personally, I expect it would have been several. Thank you, Princess.” He bowed again, deeper this time.

“I-um. You’re welcome?”

He nodded. “He would like to thank you personally, if it’s not too much trouble, M’lady.”

Still somewhat bewildered, Twilight said, “Oh, uh, sure.”

A shadow passed over the nyxie’s face. “Princess?"

“Yes?”

“I don’t meant to be too familiar…”

Twilight thought maybe he was waiting for some acknowledgement, so she nodded.

“Was this your first battle, m’lady?”

“Not exactly,” she forced out.

Silver Shine dipped his head. “It may not be my place, M’lady, but...” He spoke quietly, but with great conviction. He very lightly touched her shoulder with one hoof. “The first big fight is always the worst. It gets easier. And you did better than you think, your Majesty.” With that, he looked over one shoulder and barked, “Backstep!” He bowed to Twilight once more as he backed away.

Twilight almost broke down right there. The fact that he had even asked was just so…nice.

A pegasus rushed forward. A young stallion, alabaster white with blue mane, absolutely typical of Celestia’s dawnguard. He bowed far deeper than was entirely necessary. A line of blood ran down from his shoulder.

“Backstep reporting, your majesty. I just wanted to thank you for the save back there. It was so amazing how you, er, I mean, I’m a big fan, Princess Twilight, and this is such an honor, and—”

A sharp clearing of the throat sounded from behind him. Silver Shine again.

“Right!” Backstep snapped to attention, saluting crisply. “Thank you, my Princess!”

“You’re welcome?” Twilight was still a little unclear on how to handle this kind of thing. Rarity had advised she just smile and nod indulgently, so she tried to do that, but…“You’re bleeding.”

“What?” Backstep looked back to where she was looking. “Oh, it’s nothing, your majesty.”

“What!?” barked Silver Shine. “Medic!”

Twilight winced. Did soldiers really have to yell everything?

“Apologies, m’lady,” said Shine. “Thank you for pointing that out. We’ll take it from here.” He glared at Backstep, ushering the pegasus away as two other ponies hustled forward.

“Um, sure.”

Apparently overhearing the encounter, Luna and Celestia converged on the wounded soldier.

“Hold!” bellowed Luna, quite royally. “What struck you, guardsman?”

Backstep wilted under the sudden attention of two Princesses, as many medics, and his commanding officer.

“I-it’s not a big d—”

Luna stomped a hoof imperiously, silencing him. Celestia spoke, soft but firm.

“Was it one of the creature's claws, or some incidental injury?"

“It was a claw.” Twilight answered, softly, a sliver of dread worming sickeningly into her.

Luna and Celestia shared a look, and Twilight didn’t like it at all. Luna spoke first.

“Bind his wounds as best you can! We must move, and quickly!”

“Why?” whispered Twilight. She could have stopped it. She could have sent Insight and this never would have happened. “What’s wrong?”

Celestia glanced at her, then sidled up next to Backstep, speaking softly to him as Luna ran off all but the medics, setting them to whatever work might keep them occupied.

Sidewinder went straight to work. She ordered Backstep onto the ground and laid out various medical things. The pegasus looked about. It seemed like he was trying to decide whether he should be panicking or not.

“It’s really nothing! I barely even noticed.”

Sidewinder hissed some rebuke at him and he went silent, fidgeting as Celestia spoke.

Twilight approached, listening in.

“They carry a disease in their claws. It’s how they spread, we think. But it takes time, and doesn’t always take hold. We’ll get you to a hospital, the best in Equestria, and you’ll have the finest care we can give. I guarantee you that.”

Why wasn’t she saying he would fine? Why wasn’t she saying there was nothing to worry about? She was supposed to say there was nothing to worry about!

The stallion, barely more than a colt really (Goddess, he was so young!), was putting up a decent show, trying to take this with soldierly indifference, but he was already starting to sweat. He eyed the medic’s set-up, taking in needle and thread, gauze and alcohol. His eyes twitched back to Celestia.

“Wh-what kind of disease, your majesty? It’s curable, right? If I m—” he swallowed. “—Might ask?”

The look on Celestia's face told Twilight far more than she wanted to know. That little sliver of dread blossomed out, grabbing hold of her guts and dragging them down, down, down…

“I think it’s best if I leave out the details for now. But know that medical science and magic have come a long way since we last fought the tip-toes, and—”

Tip-toes? That’s what these things were called!? Friggin’ tip-toes were what was killing him!? Backstep’s eyes darted about, happening to land on Twilight’s. There was no blame in them. Seeing her actually seemed to calm him a little. Why!? It was impossible. Insane! This was her fault! She could have stopped it! She could have sent Insight to kill the thing, but she’d been so, Goddess she didn’t even know!

“That’s not right.”

“What?”

It was Bait, whispering beside her. He shook his head and looked at Backstep.

“It’s not a disease.”

“What do you mean?” The crawling progress of panic was slowed a bit.

“It’s an egg. They stick them in things and new ones hatch out. Eat them from inside. Doesn't take long.”

Twilight blinked.

“Are you sure? How do you know?”

It turned out that learning what parts of a thing (and its victims) you could eat gave one a great deal of insight into its biology. Bait told her about it.

Twilight stumbled hurriedly to one of the tip-toe corpses and grabbed a claw in her magic. She wrenched it up where she could see it, had Insight cleave it in two, just to make certain that what she was seeing was right. Hollow. She traced the claw up its arm until she found a small sack. She cut it open, examined what spilled out. The sudden surge of hope made her forget to even be squeamish about it. Being squeamish didn’t matter! She could fix this! She could do something!

Twilight ran to Backstep.

“Don’t sew that up! Hang on! Let me see!”

The medics backed away on reflex, but Celestia balked.

“Twilight? What are you doing? Here, come with me. Let’s just leave this to the professionals.”

“No! Look! Bait, tell her!”

Luna returned just in time to hear the wight’s frightened, barely audible explanation.

Celestia’s face skewed in revolted confusion.

“An egg?”

“It must be!” cried Twilight. “There are some wasps in Equestria that do the same thing!”

Luna, too recoiled in disgust.

“Nonsense! We would never allow such a thing to continue!"

Backstep blanched.

“There’s an egg in me!?”

Oh. Right. Probably shouldn’t have said that in front of him… Too late now. Twilight shook her head, addressing Luna because it was easier.

“Not to ponies,” Twilight said. “To other bugs. Spiders and things.”

Luna didn’t seem especially reassured. Nor did Backstep.

“ ‘Tis…vile.”

“Yeah, nature can actually be pretty scary sometimes. Anyway…”

“Get it out!”

“I’m trying! Just hold still, okay? I have to find it first. Can we get this armor off him? And clean the wound so I can see?” She asked it of no one in particular, but Sidewinder obeyed. She and Brevity had the pegasus stripped and clean in a matter of seconds.

“Okay. Let me see.”

Twilight leaned in to get a good look at the cut in Backstep’s shoulder. The smell of antiseptic couldn’t quite mask the tang of blood, and, no longer buoyed by that initial rush, Twilight found herself fighting not to be sick. But it didn’t matter. She had to do this! It never would have happened if she’d just… Wait! There it was!

“Ah, Twilight?”

She looked up to see Celestia watching her. Her eyes held the obvious question: ‘Do you know what you are doing?’

Thusly did it occur to Twilight for the first time that she had just volunteered to do actual, literal surgery on somepony. She looked down into the wound again, seeing cut skin and blood and exposed muscle and what was she doing!?

“Sidewinder?”

“Yes, Your Highness!”

“How can we do this?”

The nyxie peered into the hole in Backstep’s shoulder. She made that chittering, nigh ultra-sonic sound, and then, with a little ‘hrmm,’ said “A good pair of forceps would do it, Princess, but I don’t have any. These kits are pretty basic.” She hesitated a bit before adding “Maybe you could magic it out?”

Twilight nodded.

“I can try.” She looked to Luna and Celestia, hoping one would step in, but not really expecting them to. Neither did. Their skills seemed to lay more in causing wounds than curing them.

Twilight considered the tools she had at hand. Basic medical stuff, her own magic, Insight.

She looked again into the wound, managing to keep her gorge down. It was easier when she pretended it didn’t bother her, when she approached from a different mindset. Luna had been right about that part, at least.

“Okay. Sorry, but I’m going to have to open this a little.”

Backstep’s face grew even more ashen than usual at her words, but Celestia intervened. She lay down beside the soldier, close enough to touch. Twilight knew from experience how distracting that could be. The Princess raised a wing to block his view of what went on behind him.

“You’ve nothing to worry about, Backstep. Twilight excels at everything she does. You are in very capable hooves.”

Aww. Nice of her to say that.

Twilight had Insight make as tiny an incision as she could, just enough to fully expose the little monster buried in there. It was easy. Insight went right through him. Twilight wasn’t sure he even felt it. Twilight squeezed the wound once, hoping the egg might mercifully just pop out, but alas, the hole was still deeper than it was wide. She felt her patient tense, stutter a bit as he tried to make conversation with Celestia. Alright, so, that wouldn’t work…She tried magic, but the egg was small and slick and she couldn’t get a grip on it. Ugh! This was like the worst game of Operation imaginable, and Twilight hated that game (mostly for anatomical inaccuracy and excessive use of puns, but whatever).

Hrmm. Sidewinder had said something about forceps. She looked at Insight. Maybe if she opened the wound a bit more? No, wait, maybe she could just stab the horrid little thing and pull it out? No, Insight was too sharp, it wouldn’t catch. And who knew what kind of toxins might pour into the wound from that egg. Well, what if…

She asked Insight if she could not cut something. Like, if she could be blunt for a second, like she was when she touched Twilight.

Insight didn’t like it, but she supposed she could try.

It worked! Twilight saw the gelatinous surface of the egg bend as Insight very carefully touched it. But it didn’t go anywhere though. It was really stuck in there. Twilight found her nausea fading as she let herself be absorbed in how to solve this problem.

Noticing that Twilight was trying to do, Insight *pinged*, like she had before, but with a different pitch, giving Twilight a taste of what medical acoustics could do. The egg was fragile, more gel than solid. Like a frog’s, or some other water-borne creature’s. But it could be touched without damage. Maybe if she magicked it while Insight—

“Can you make two of those, Your Majesty?”

It was Sidewinder, looking in over her shoulder. She glanced at Insight.

“Pardon my interruption, Highness, but…”

“Oh, no! Go ahead.”

“I just thought that if you could grab it from more than one angle at once…”

“Right! Hang on, let me ask.”

The nyxie looked at her strangely, but Twilight ignored it. She’d explain later. She asked Insight if there could possibly be more of her. The answer came through in a definite negative.

“Oh. Um, no. But there has to be something we can do.”

Her eyes wandered as she considered her options. They fell onto Bait.

Hands! He had them! Thin, bony little fingers! They were perfect!

“Bait! Can you help me with this?”

“Um.”

It took some explaining, and Twilight was glad she didn’t have to see Backstep’s reaction to it, but in the end, it worked! Between Insight’s prodding, Twilight’s magic, and Bait’s deft fingers, they managed to pluck that vile little egg right out of him.

“Hah!”

Twilight held it up, glaring in triumph at the thing. Luna came to see too, and even Celestia turned to look at it. Backstep did as well. He eyed the translucent egg, watching the embryonic horror within squirm in the light.

“That was inside me!?”

Twilight suddenly wished she’d had the presence of mind to just throw the thing away, but Luna laughed.

“Oh, how many times We have said the same! Would you like to keep it, soldier?”

Backstep demonstrated his namesake.

“No! Er, your highness!”

“May We then? A fine memento, We think. We shall keep it in a jar upon Our trophy wall, and taunt it when We grow bored.”

“Um. Please do. Your Highness.”

“Magnificent!” Luna dropped the egg into a fold of her robe. “Now, sit down and suffer the ministrations of thy medic, soldier, as you should have before!”

“Y-yes, Princess!”

~~~

Sidewinder got him stitched up and medicated in a matter of minutes, berating Backstep all the while for failing to report his injury sooner.

Twilight, from her place on the floating disc, was apologizing to her sword.

I’m sorry I yelled at you.

Insight didn’t seem to think there was anything to apologize for.

But do you see what I mean? You can do all kinds of things! You’re more than just a weapon.

The blade didn’t argue. She agreed, even. She’d changed. Even Insight didn’t know what she was now, but she knew that much was true. She was more than just a weapon.

“Useful little fellow to have around, isn’t he?”

“Hm?” Twilight turned to Luna. The Moon Princess nodded to Bait.

“All these years, so many deaths, and we had no idea it was an egg. It seems ridiculous. Thank you, Bait.” Luna spoke largely to empty air, as Bait had leapt to hide behind Twilight as soon as she’d started talking. “A bit jumpy though, isn’t he?”

“He’s had a hard time.” Twilight smiled warmly at the wight.

“Well, inform him that he has Our thanks.”

“Will do.”

Celestia sidled up next to them.

“That was some impressive work, Twilight! I had no idea you knew anything of surgery.”

“Oh, uh. Right. I was kind of…”

Making things up like a crazy pony? Potentially putting somepony at serious risk by doing something I had no idea how to actually do?

“Thanks,” she concluded.

Celestia beamed down at her. She looked like she might have wanted to say or do something more, but caught herself when she remembered there were other ponies about. Luna, for her part, grinned slyly at them both.

“Something's up ahead!”

It was one of the soldiers, Brevity maybe.

The eyes of all three Princesses snapped up.

“My my,” tsk’ed Luna. “In a bit of a hurry, aren't we, Tartarus?”

Brevity dropped to the earth just ahead of them. Luna gestured for her to continue.

“A herd of something, looks like cows. Big ones.”

Luna’s eyebrows rose.

“White? Armored? Led by a bull with six horns?”

“Yes, Princess, there was an armored bull. I didn’t count the horns.”

Luna giggled in glee. Brevity took this in stride.

“Orders, m’lady?”

"I’ll see to it.” Luna did a little dance as she readied herself to take off, looking positively delighted at this development. She turned back at the last moment. “Unless you’d rather, Sister.”

“Wait! Is it Cretes?” asked Twilight. Given what she’d seen Luna do when she got that smile, she felt she should say something.

Luna tilted her head, looking from one alicorn to the other.

“You know of him?”

“We’ve met. What are going to do?”

Celestia chimed in.

“We met him together, early on. We parted peacefully. Twilight ran across him again later, and she says he offered to help her, but Tartarus interfered.”

“Truly?” It sounded like Luna didn’t entirely believe her. “He met an attractive young mare alone and didn’t try to—”

“No,” said Twilight, not wishing to hear the end of that sentence, nor registering that Luna thought she was attractive. “I mean, sort of, but he said he’d help even if we didn’t...you know. But Tartarus possessed him and made him attack me.”

“It spoke to her, Luna.”

Luna leaned back, openly surprised.

“Oh.”

“Yes. But regarding Cretes, I think he may have changed, Sister.”

“I see. Then I suppose we should…talk to him?”

“It’s worth a try, certainly.”

“Hmph. Very well.” Luna seemed disappointed.

~~~

“Oh hhhhhhhell no!” These were Cretes’ first words on seeing them coming. “I ain’t doing this again! Ladies! We are leaving!”

The cows eyed him as he turned away from the oncoming ponies. Twilight thought a few looked more amused than anything.

“Peace, Cretes. We mean you no ill,” declared Celestia.

“Yes, Cretes,” purred Luna with that razor-edged grin. “Please, stay a while.”

“Fuckin’ balls! She’s here? No way! I don’t want anything to do with that psycho! Not this time!”

One of the cows, a particularly huge one, caught Twilight’s eye. She nudged Cretes as he turned away.

“This the one you were talkin’ about?” Her voice was deep, heavy.

Cretes snorted.

The cow’s lips quirked into a grin.

“Thought she’d be twenty feet tall, from what you said. Pretty little thing, though, you were right about that.”

“I never said that, Mona!”

“Pretty sure I heard you say that.”

The cow tromped forward. The rest of the herd watched the bull and the cow, staying where they stood.

“You really did a number on the big guy."

“What? Really?" She hadn’t hurt him at all, as she recalled. "I'm sorry, I—"

Mona laughed.

“Fuckin’ ponies! Guess you really are a Princess."

Luna and Celestia looked at Twilight with expressions bordering on wonder.

“You fought him?” asked one.

“And won?” queried the other.

“Dammit, Mona, let’s go! Being near these freaks is a death sentence, you know that. C’mon!”

Mona tilted her head from one side to the other.

"Yeah. Just wanted to see this scary new Princess of yours with my own eyes. Thanks for leaving him in one piece, kid." She spoke to Twilight, but glared at Luna and Celestia in turn. "Better than we get from some ponies." She turned to go. The rest of the herd moved to follow.

“Cretes, wait!” Called Celestia.

“Nope!”

“Oh, come now. You’re the Great White Bull. Surely you've nothing to fear from us...” Luna stalked forward.

“Luna, stop that! Please, Cretes, just listen!”

“No! I’m done with you, Celestia! I’m not losing any of my girls because of you! Not again!”

“Wait, what?” asked Twilight. She happened to look at the cow, Mona. She shrugged, and turned to go.

“Cretes!” bellowed Celestia. “Help me and I will see you home! To Equestria!”

The bull stopped. The herd went silent. Even Luna jolted to a halt.

The moment held.



It held much too long.





An impossible stillness had fallen over the group. Something far more profound than mere shock.







“That would be extremely unwise, Celestia,” said a quiet, dreadfully slow, montone voice. “Not that a lack of wisdom has ever given you pause.”

All eyes turned to this new speaker. It should have been nothing. A simple, unconscious twitch. But just now, it seemed to take forever.

“Terra,” whispered Celestia. The word echoed through this timeless space.

“Your attempts at robbing Tartarus of its inmates will bring only more suffering. Can you not understand even that?”

Celestia grimaced. She flared her wings and expelled some kind of power. It freed everyone from that unending moment, if only for a little while.

“What else can I do, Terra!? I certainly can’t expect any help from you!” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Why are you here?”

Terra.

Twilight knew that name. She’d heard Celestia mention it. It was a word from an ancient time, part of a language nopony spoke anymore. It meant Earth. Celestia, Sun. Luna, Moon. And Terra. Earth.

Had there been a third sister? Why didn’t she know about this? What had happened?

“Your threat has been realized, Celestia. Typhon has woken.”

She was an alicorn. Another Princess. It was undeniable. It would have been easy to say she was the most beautiful mare ever to have lived, but that wasn’t quite right. Because she didn’t seem to live at all. She had all the beauty of Celestia or Luna, but something was missing in her. She was flawless. Perfect. Too perfect.

“So soon?”

Luna had asked. Terra turned, slow as a glacier, to face her. It was intensely unnerving to watch.

Terra's mane didn't flow. Her wings did not rise in anger. Nothing about her moved at all. Even as she spoke, her lips were still.

“Celestia has been here for some time.” Emotionless as it was, the voice still somehow held reproach.

“Well, ‘tis a good thing We have come to help. Better late than never, as they say.”

Luna seemed even more animated than usual beside Terra, as if she were trying to defy everything this strange other creature was.

A horrible chill ran through Twilight as she realized what was wrong. Terra was utterly, absolutely lifeless. Beautiful, yes, but raw and untouchable, cold and austere. Like a mountain, viewed from afar. Or an avalanche.

It felt like an eternity before Terra replied.

“You will face him then, as stated in our ancient accord?”

“Of course!” declared Luna.

“Then go. As to you, Celestia…” Terra turned, eventually, to face the Princess. “I claim my boon from you. Leave the wight, and the spider. And do not further tempt my subjects with your cruel hopes of escape from this place.”

Twilight’s heart jumped into her throat. But Celestia was there ahead of her.

“Under no circumstances, Terra! Choose something else!”

There was a long, long silence.

"We made a bargain, Celestia.”

Celestia’s face hardened, but she looked away.

“What?” asked Twilight.

Celestia glanced at her. Her eyes lit up. Hopeful?

“They are not mine to give! Both are under Twilight Sparkle’s protection. Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

Another interminable emptiness.

“They are not hers to protect.”

“The boy has obviously switched allegiance,” chimed in Luna. “Which is well within his rights as a royal subject. And the spider is mine, though he, too, appears to have adopted a new mistress.” She smiled devilishly at Ben.

“It is beneath you to contrive such an argument, Celestia,” intoned Terra.

“Well, it certainly isn’t beneath me,” chirped Luna.

“So little is,” intoned Terra.

The Moon Princess smirked, if only in defiance.

“What is happening!?” exclaimed Twilight.

Terra didn’t even acknowledge her.

“This is unjust, Celestia. You would steal from me. Shall I make it a trade then? One of your subjects for one of mine?” Again, the words came as from a corpse, but they dripped with acid.

“Over my dead body,” snarled Celestia. Hyperia brandished herself.

“As you say. What is to stop me from simply killing you, then, and taking my due?”

“Hah!” Luna barked. “Go ahead. Kill us both and face Typhon with only the hekatonkhire to help you. Watch them die on the altar of your pride.” She shook her head. “You will do no such thing, Terra. Or has the suffering of your sons finally lost all meaning to you?”

Terra’s eyes slid with agonizing slowness to Luna. They held the ghost of some nameless emotion. But only the ghost.

“You would risk unleashing Typhon for the life of such trivial creatures? For a wight, which you yourselves banished to this place?”

“I would do it a thousand times,” smoldered Celestia. Luna said nothing. Just bared her teeth in a sharp-edged grin.

“Ridiculous. Have you any idea of the destruct—“

“What is wrong with you!?”

Twilight hadn’t entirely meant to speak. She certainly hadn’t intended to scream. But that same anger from so many times before boiled up and out of her and here she was.

“You’re supposed to be a Princess! You’re supposed to help ponies! Bait’s whole life has been a nightmare, and you’ve done nothing to help him! And you show up now, acting like you have some claim on anything!? How dare you!?”

Insight whipped up to face Terra. What she told Twilight about the being before her might have chilled her at any other time, but she wasn’t having it just now.

“Twilight, sto—”

“And you!” She whirled on Celestia and Luna. “What are you doing!? He’s not some piece in a game! He’s not a bargaining chip! He has a name!” She whipped back to face Terra. “The wight is named Bait, and you will never, ever take him fr—”

She may not have meant to speak, but now that it was started, she had no intention of stopping. She had more to say. Lots more. Enough to last for hours, if her throat were up to it. But she just stopped, right in the middle of her rant. She could still think, still understand what was happening, but she couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t a binding spell, not a time stall. It wasn’t even really magic at all. Twilight was suffering some unknown force of nature. A sort of cosmic halt.

Silence reigned.

“I’ve no need to explain myself to a petulant child,” Terra declared, utterly still. “But,” she turned, slow as an eon, to face the Sun Princess. “So be it, Celestia. I take no blame for what befalls them. Perhaps you will learn from your folly this time. Delay Typhon as best you can while I gather myself.”

“Terra!” cried Celestia.

The pale horse walked away. She didn’t stop. She didn’t even look back.

“Help her! All of us will likely die in this battle, but please, take Twilight out of here! She is innocent! She should never have been here! I will fight to my last breath, but she is still mortal! Please! She…” Celestia looked down. “She doesn’t deserve this. Just get her home.”

That, somehow, gave Terra pause. A very. Long. Pause. She stared into Twilight’s unmoving eyes. Not at her. Into her.

“I have not been able to find the way to Equestria for quite some time, Celestia.” An ancient, echoing sadness seeped through her words. “I am not of that place any longer. There is little I can do for her.”

Both Luna and Celestia recoiled in surprise.

“Oh, Terra. I had no idea…”

“And a Princess should never beg, Celestia.” She looked straight into Twilight as she said it. “But it shall be as you wish. If you should happen to survive this day,” Terra intoned, turning back the other Princess. “Teach your student some manners.” She strode away. “And never return here again.”

With that, she was gone.

“—om me!” screamed Twilight, finally able to finish her sentence. Celestia had stepped in to hug her at some point.

“I do believe you may actually have managed to upset her, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna. “Well done!”

Twilight, having not yet left the moment of her screaming fit, failed to appreciate Luna’s humor. She breathed hard into Celestia’s neck.

“What’s wrong with her!?” she hissed. “What happened!? Why is she like that?”

“So, yeah…We’ll just be going then,” murmured Cretes, creeping away.

“Cretes, wait!”

“Hell, no! Dealing with you ponies is bad enough! I’m not going anywhere near Terra. Fuck all that!”

“The offer stands! Get my people back to Equestria and I will grant you full pardon. You can finally come home.”

“Wait…” said Twilight.

Cretes stared Celestia in the eye, jaw working.

“What about my girls?”

“They’ll be welcome too, of course.”

Cretes looked back as Mona sidled up next to him. They had a quick murmured conversation.

“And if they don’t make it?” He tossed his head at Twilight, and at the rest of the ponies.

“If they don’t make it, Cretes, I will know nothing of what happened here.”

“Hrmph. How do we find the way back?”

“But—” began Twilight.

“Just follow their lead. The gate will open for them. I cannot guarantee it will let you through, but I will have each and every one of my people swear to tell me what transpired here. I will honor my word, Cretes.”

The bull turned again to Mona. She looked to the herd, and when she looked back, her eyes were grim. But a tiny spark of hope burned in them. She nodded.

“Fine. Deal.”

Celestia visibly swelled with relief.

“Stop ignoring me!”

Twilight surprised even herself as the air shook with her voice. That proclamation had been nothing less than Royal. All eyes turned to her.

“Why won’t anypony tell me what’s happening!? I’m not—”

The earth rumbled under her, cutting her off as some kind of stone platform rose beneath her hooves. Twilight would have leapt away if she hadn’t been so injured. She still tried.

“Ooh!” said Luna. “An elemental! This must be what Terra sent to help. This is excellent news, Twilight. They’re quite tough, elementals. I’m sure it will see you home safely, if Cretes cannot. Soldiers! I must handle things here. You are to guard Princess Twilight until such time as I relieve you in Equestria. You will find your way home in the way I explained. You will all swear to tell me of the oath between my sister and this bull?”

A series of affirmatives sounded.

“Good then.” She tapped the ‘elemental’ under Twilight’s hooves. “Follow them. Off you go!”

She smiled at Twilight as though anything at all were making sense right now.

“No! I’m not just leaving! What was all that about Terra and Typhon and everypony probably dying and…”

But the guards were already moving, and the platform was going with them. Ben had hopped up to join her there, and Bait had followed him, as had Brevity. Cretes and his herd were on their way as well.

“I’m sorry, Twilight,” said Celestia, trotting beside her. “I wish I had time t—“

“You can’t just send me away! Not after all this! I can help!”

An absolutely massive crash blasted through air. All eyes turned to the crumbling mountain it had come from.

Mount Etna had fallen completely.

From the volcano of dust and boulders burst a single, huge, clawed arm. Then another. A head followed it, draconic in form. Two more, as great as the first, came after. They roared in a shattering racket. Even from here, miles and miles away, it made Twilight fold back her ears. The beast’s six titanic wings spread as Typhon tore free of his prison.

Celestia glanced at him, then back at Twilight.

“I’m so sorry, Twilight, but please trust me! You have to go! You are so much more than you know, but nopony is enough for this! Luna and I will be fine!” She pushed Twilight back, away, onto the elemental.

“No! You’ll—”

Forget everything…

“Here!”

Celestia silenced Twilight with a kiss.

“I’ll expect you to return that when we meet again.”

Celestia gave her a tragic, dashing smile.

And then she leapt away. She spread her wings and joined Luna in the sky, streaking with all speed toward the monster in the distance.

Twilight stood, gaping like a fool as the elemental on which she unwillingly rode flowed through the earth, tearing away from the battle she should have been helping to win.

Titanomachy

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The soldiers beat their wings above her, Cretes’s herd thundered around her, but Twilight barely noticed any of it. She stared off into the distant madness that was just beginning to befall the world. Thanks to the bizarre visual distortions that happened so regularly in this place, Twilight could see it all in perfect clarity. Twilight knew Tartarus’s hand was in it, she knew It wanted her to see this, but she couldn’t look away.

Typhon’s awakening proved only the first of many calamities.

The next was the coming of the Brothers.

Briareos flowed up out of the mountain that was his own home, crushing all in his wake, drowning everything that happened to be in his way under a living lake of bone and translucent flesh. Gyges came next, though Twilight didn’t know him by name.

Oh. That’s what Briareos thought was so funny.

Gyges was so flagrantly different from his brother that Twilight wondered how Briareos hadn’t laughed even harder at her failure to get the names straight. Gyges looked, more than anything, like some unfeasibly enormous tree. His ‘arms’ were branches, ripped out of the earth and sprouting forth from a trunk an entire village could have lived in. His heads were… well, it appeared that each of hekatonkhire was just as disturbing as the others. Gyges’s heads were shriveled, shrunken things, nearly skeletal, but more like the creepy masks that Zecora so fancied than anything that might ever have lived. Each was wrapped tight in cracked, broken bark. Most were held aloft by those long, thin, wooden hands, but many were just imbedded into the trunk of the creature, or dangling off branches of their own like some twisted fruit. All that was strange enough, but the real horror was in his voice. Fifty heads chanted in hellish, discordant unison, whistling, wheedling, like claws of wind scraped over bone.

She’d heard of this. Word magic. Spells that were cast by saying the right syllables in the right ways. But she’d never guessed it could be so terrible. The whole tree-thing swayed with that maddening spell-speech, and Twilight wished more than anything that it would just stop.

Cottos put himself together next, bursting up bit by bit from the ground and rushing to assemble in his entirety. There was no better word for it. He was an assembly. The only thing Twilight could think to compare Cottos to was some kind of centipede. Each head, if that was even what they were, had two limbs, and they all scrambled together to form a single, gigantic, armored thing. He was utterly silent, absolutely alien.

The brothers formed a perfect triangle around the dragon he tore himself from his mountain-prison. Entire landscapes of stone crumbled as the beast shook them off. That was the first time Twilight got a good look at the creature called Typhon.

He actually wasn’t especially huge, for a dragon. Certainly no bigger than the Dragon Lord. The hekatonkhire, all told, probably outweighed him by a huge margin. He had only three heads, to their hundred and fifty, but they were looking about, already sizing up their opposition. Wait, no, he had more. Their serpentine necks sprouted all along the dragon’s back. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. Twilight couldn’t get a count, they were so numerous. But the rest were small, barely as big as she was, if you could use the phrase ‘barely’ for that. Typhon’s chest was huge. Broad, muscular, plated in armor. Red, black, and shining. Two great arms, wrists wrapped in broken manacles, pushed him up from the earth, his claws tearing into it like so much clay. His torso was very much like any other dragon’s, except that it didn’t end in legs. It split into countless tails, each one descending who knew how far into the ground. They seemed too thin to carry him, but he lifted himself up on them like it was no challenge at all, roaring nightmarish defiance at his captors. His six wings beat to the tune of his bellowing voices.

“Return to your slumber, dear brother!” cried the chorus of Briareos. “There is no need for this!”

Typhon was their brother? How many siblings were there? Who were their parents? Why didn’t she know about this?

Typhon slammed his fists into the earth and screamed a single word.

DIE!

The brothers attacked.

Twilight watched Briareos the most, if only because she still felt guilty for how she’d treated him before. He moved with terrifying speed, his hundred hands clawing the landscape apart as he tore his way forward. She watched as he plucked up some small creature in one hand and…and she gasped as she saw him crush it. Several heads converged on the point, chanting in the same horrid language Gyges spoke as the hand squeezed the very essence from the pitiful thing and funneled it into what Twilight recognized as a spell. She watched him do it again, and then again, ripping the life from creature after creature to fuel some terrible magic.

And she’d thought he was almost nice. Scary, but nice.

While Briareos had been at his work, the other brothers had been equally busy. Gyges’s chanting seemed to be hurting Typhon, and the dragon roared against it, trying to deafen himself against that horrible voice. Cottos was passing boulders from one pair of hands to the next, and, as Twilight watched, he whipped his entire bizarre body in a wave from one end to the other and catapulted the first stone with unimaginable force at his target. Briareos reached up with one fluid hand and touched the missile as it flew, imbuing it with all the vile power he had wrenched from his victims.

It struck, and even from this distance Twilight winced at the blow. Typhon went flying as the projectile exploded into black and violet and emerald shrapnel.

Dark magic. Darker than anything she'd ever thought possible...

A low moan rolled through the earth. Twilight could swear she felt the agony in it.

“Brothers…” Typhon wailed, struggling to right himself. The sound was an animal thing, filled with such pain that Twilight’s mind shied away from even thinking of it. “Why dO yOu do tHis!?”

That was the only sign of weakness she would ever see from Typhon.

“Just Let Me EnD iT!”

Typhon threw himself from the ground and rushed at Gyges, his weird crawling, slithering, flying gait eating the distance between them without warning and without mercy. His first claw struck empty space as Gyges leaned back. Then the entire tree withered, or at least, it looked that way. Typhon crushed the husk of it as Gyges slipped back into the ground, only to burst back up miles away, like some impossibly voracious weed.

Typhon roared again, switching angle to meet Briareos as the fluid creature crashed onto him. Twilight expected the fight to end right there. The hekatonkhire was just so big. She almost felt bad for Typhon. But...

It became clear within seconds that Briareos was losing. Typhon tore into him, splattering the protoplasm that held Briareos together with animal fury. His infinite heads were taking the larger monster apart, bit by bit, and that was before Typhon unleashed his real power.

The dragon shook one of his greater heads free of those grasping claws, sucking in a breath so deep it rustled the trees around him. He spat something that wasn’t fire. It was so much worse. Pure wrath. Utter hatred. It absolutely destroyed everything it touched, and it touched Briareos.

He screamed.

“It’s going to be alright, Your Majesty.” It was Brevity. Twilight had forgotten she was even there with her. “Princess Luna warned us about this. Her and Celestia have it under control.”

“Then why aren’t they doing anything!? Why aren’t they helping!?”

Brevity’s ears went flat against her head.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Twilight, her own ears following suit.

“No need to apologize, M’lady.”

Twilight looked at the guardsmare, just now noticing the scroll on which she was writing even as they spoke.

“What is that?”

“Hm? Oh, the scroll. I’m an annalist. Princess Luna asked me to record as much of this trip as I could. The quill is magic. It writes whatever I think at it. Neat, huh?”

Twilight blinked, failing to understand how anypony could be so blithe about all this. It didn’t occur to her until later that Brevity might be faking it for her benefit.

“Anyway, they’re holding off because they’d just get in those other guys’ way. That’s what Luna said. They’ll step in when the time is right.”

Twilight turned back to the battle just as another boulder bashed one of Typhon’s larger heads away from the mass of jelly-flesh it was mauling. Cottos must have thrown it. Briareos took the opportunity to rally, ripping with dozens of claws into unseen weaknesses in Typhon’s armor. But he was backing out even as he did it. Gyges cast something at the dragon, some horrid spell that made him stumble, but not for long. Typhon thrust his tails further into the earth, and moments later dozens of them burst up all around the tree and wrapped around its roots. Twilight had no idea how that was possible, or how the battle was faring. There were just too many things happening at once, roots fighting tails fighting branches fighting draconic heads. Typhon had thrown Briareos off and was closing on the great tree, and it seemed unable to escape this time.

The dragon unleashed another great howl onto its enemy. There was no not-fire this time, but something had landed, some kind of distortion that rent the air around Gyges. A bolt of blood-colored lighting struck him from everywhere or nowhere and split whole limbs off the creature. He burned, the smoke rising with a reek of unholy agony, and he groaned in shattering pain. But even that wasn’t enough to kill him. He fought on. For what seemed an eternity, he fought on. Gyges clawed at Typhon. He swept up as many tendrils of the beast as he could fit into his great, wooden claws, wrapping him in roots, clinging close as if to smother him. They writhed and fought, wood creaking and breaking under Typhon’s unstoppable fury. And then, Gyges’s chant hit a deafening crescendo, and the whole mass of him burst into thousands upon thousands of spikes. Gyges’s entire life, everything the great tree-thing was, exploded into a vicious, barbed trap.

“Whoa…” The rapid scratching of Brevity’s quill stopped, but only for a moment.

He had killed himself in one great paroxysm of spite.

Twilight’s mind whirled. Why? Why!?

Then she saw the seeds, popping off and spreading like dandelion puffs into the wind. Would he grow back? How long would it take? What madness made him take such a risk? And the worst part? It hadn’t stopped him. Typhon. The dragon was still going.

Typhon shrieked. Briareos, having reveilled, slung stones and horrible magics at the beast. He fell back as Typhon tore himself loose, at great cost, from the labyrinth of thorns. His blood rained on the earth, and to Twilight’s unbelieving dismay, it got up. Everywhere his blood touched the earth, there sprouted a monster. Many were like the chimera she had seen before, some even more strange than that. They rose and took to the air or the ground and flew at their father’s attackers. They were nothing against the might of the hekatonkhire, but they were many, and they fought with suicidal fury.

Typhon lunged again for Briareos, but was struck mid-air by another massive boulder from Cottos. Two of his greater heads turned and blasted a volley of devastation in counter. Cottos fell apart before it could hit, scattering his many parts. Typhon switched angle to catch the creature in this moment of weakness, but Cottos reassembled just as fast. He built himself differently this time, coming together as a wall of carapace to meet Typhon’s charge.

“Ah, fuckin’ Hells!”

Twilight’s elemental chariot ground to a slow halt, matching the lessening speed of the herd and soldiers surrounding it. Twilight didn’t notice until Bait tapped her withers. She turned to him, and he pointed her toward something. She looked. If she were even capable of being surprised anymore, she would have been now. As it stood though, she just growled.

“Nuckalavee.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Brevity look at her.

“You know this guy, Princess?”

“We’ve met.”

"Dammit, Nuck! I ain’t got time for this! Piss off!” bellowed Cretes.

“Hah! Sure! Give me ponies and I’ll call off the Hunt. You can go. For now. But I want that one!” The skinless abomination aimed his black metal blade straight at Twilight. “And all her little friends!” He licked both pairs of lips, slavering. “You think we were done, girl!? Think you got away from me!? This is Tartarus! Nobody gets away!”

The monster strutted before a veritable horde of creatures like him, inasmuch as anything was like him. The Fey. Chittering, cackling, impossible things, no two of them alike. One was like a huge dog, wrapped in chains and flexing claws of corroded bronze. Another bled from every orifice, giggling endlessly. One wore a coat made entirely of faces. And there were so many more.

A chill ran through Twilight. The Hunt, he’d called it. The Wild Hunt. It was thing of legend, something she’d been certain couldn’t be real. It was a sort of grand revel, a time when all the living nightmares hiding in the shadows of the world came together and ran rampant. And it was here. For her. She looked at Cretes. He looked back, and something in his eyes went hard.

“Take your damned ponies and go, kid,” he snarled.

“What!? N—”

“Shut up and go! We’ll take ‘em. But you make damn sure Celestia remembers what she said, you hear me?”

He turned away, ignoring her protests.

“Fuck you, Nuckalavee! I’ve been waiting a long time for a real shot at finally killing you!”

The monster laughed and reared.

Cretes burst into flame and charged, blazing wings spreading wide. Armor slammed down from the ether onto him, covering nigh every inch of his hide with bronze-like metal. The herd stampeded after him.

His weapon was armor, then. Twilight supposed he didn’t need much else.

“Alright, let’s go!”

It was one of the guards. Silver something. Shine? He leapt into the air, heading away from the ensuing carnage. The elemental started sliding to follow him.

“No!”

“Princess, we can’t fight that many,” said Brevity, voice soft. “I’m sorry, but getting you home is the best we can do right now.”

“You’re just being a coward! Stop this thing right now! I’m not leaving th—” Twilight tried to stomp a hoof and nearly fell as she put too much weight on her injured leg. It was as much agonizing realization as physical pain that stopped her from fighting any further.

Brevity was right. Running away was all she could do. She wanted to cry, but again, the tears just wouldn’t come.

“I’m sorry, Princess.”

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.

She landed a few shots on the gibbering horde as she fled. She didn’t know if it helped.

~~~

The apocalyptic battle in the distance was still going on, but Twilight didn’t have time to watch it. The Hunt was on them. Cretes and his herd had blunted their charge, but more than a dozen freakish horrors had broken away to give chase to the ponies. Twilight blasted down one particularly unfeasible flying thing, some kind of winged leech with far too many eyes, as it screamed down towards one of the guards. The pegasus saluted and darted away to engage another creature. The guards weren’t so much attacking the things as stalling them, knocking them down or off the chase as their squadmates fled. A fighting retreat, Twilight had heard it called. She helped as best she could. The elemental did too. One creature, some kind of big, predatory rabbit-crab-thing, had gotten too close, and the moving platform had shot forth a spike of earth to dissuade it. A ring of jagged, blue crystal spars had erupted around the edge of the disc after that. They kept things out, sure, but they blocked Twilight’s vision too, and left her feeling claustrophobic. If only she knew what this elemental was capable of, she could—

An oversized spider with far too many legs and a clawed hand at the end of each leapt from the tree-line and nearly dragged one pegasus down. Twilight barely got it in time. Her bolt landed a glancing blow at best, but it was enough.

“Nice shot!” exclaimed somepony.

“There’s the gate! I can see it from here!” called another.

“Form up on the Princess! Do not engage! Just move!” bellowed a third.

The little hill, invisible and untouchable to the monstrosities that chased them, was in sight. They were so close!

They almost made it.

A bird, massive, antlered, cloaked in feathers of shadow and razor, descended on one nyxie, flinging her from the air. Distracted, Twilight didn’t even see Nuckalavee coming. He smashed into the elemental, shattering the crystal cage and sending all atop the platform flying.

It took everything Twilight had just to save herself. Anything more would have been a miracle. So a miracle was what she made.

Twilight threw every scrap of magic she had to her friends. She caught Bait, and Ben, and Brevity, and even as she crashed to the dirt, rolling for what felt like ages, even as every old wound and several new ones screamed, she held them up. She placed them on the ground, one by one, as she slowly, stubbornly rose to her hooves. Insight was with her, aimed at the threat.

“Brevity? Take them and go.”

“Princess, I can’t—“

Nuckalvee, battered, bloody, and burning, but utterly untroubled by any of it, strode forward. His two mouths grinned, breath billowing out in a brown, noxious cloud.

“Nuckalavee,” huffed Twilight, barely standing. “Run. Just leave. Or I will kill you.” Insight danced before with a flourish.

The monster laughed. He howled in hideous glee. He chortled and capered and snickered in such open disdain for her that he never saw the hit coming.

The elemental had changed. Its form was almost ape-like as it crept forward. It didn’t roar, didn’t shake the earth with its tread. It simply stalked up close and back-handed Nuckalavee with a great club of a fist that sent him flying. He must have soared thirty feet before Twilight lost sight of him in the woods. She might have smirked if she’d had time.

Instead, she turned around, looking for the nyxie that had been dropped by the bird. The wreckage was easy enough to follow, and she did so, limping with all speed toward it.

“Princess!”

Another nyxie, Silver Shine, the leader of the squad, landed beside her.

“This way, Princess! We’re almost there!”

“In a second! I have to get…” What had her name been? Something-winder? How had Twilight forgotten!? Whatever, it didn’t matter.

“No, Princess! Orders are to get you out as soon as possible!” He grabbed her shoulder.

Twilight shook him off.

“I don’t care! I’m not leaving her!”

Brevity stepped in front of her.

“Princess, we all knew the risks when we came here.”

“We have to go, Your Majesty! More are coming!”

“Then GO!” Twilight shoved a spell into her voice and both ponies were blown back. “But I am not leaving without her!”

She spread her aching wings and prepared to take to the air. But before she did…

“Bait! Ben! Go with them!”

And then she leapt away.

That hadn’t been fair of her. She was being crazy right now, stupid. She didn’t much care, though. Everypony else was dead-set on throwing their life away today. Why couldn’t she?

It didn’t take long to find the nyxie, but every second was maddening. When Twilight finally caught sight of the fight, Sidewinder was limping, one wing dragging along the ground. She bled from at least two deep wounds and half a dozen lesser ones.

The nyxie and the bird-beast circled one another. The bird stalked forward, wary. It was hurt, too. Sidewinder had given it a reason to be afraid, somehow, and that little bit of fear, that threat that the nyxie might do whatever she’d done again, was all that was keeping her alive right now. Twilight strained to reach them, fought against everything between her and them, but they were so far away!

She watched in horrified slow motion as the shade-and-razor bird finally overcame its worries and lunged in with a bizarrely melodious screech. Sidewinder dodged one way, then the other, but in this strangely dilated time, Twilight could see it wasn’t going to work. Sidewinder slipped, pain and loss of blood slowing her. The strike would land. That vicious beak would clamp down and that would be the end of the Nyxie named Sidewinder.

But Twilight could stop it.

She could do it right now.

Insight was with her. She could get there in time. She could slip through the distance and pierce the monster’s brain, cleave through its skull like it wasn’t even there. She could make it quick, painless.

She could do that. It would be so easy. It wouldn’t even be bad. Taking a monster’s life to save a pony’s? There was nothing wrong with that. It had happened all the time in an earlier age. It was the stuff legends were made of. Twilight would be a hero.

But.

But it seemed like everything she’d been through, every experience she’d had on this terrible journey, had been leading her to this. Every encounter, every conversation had drawn her inevitably toward this one moment, this place where she would have to choose one life over another. The actors in her little play hadn’t known their parts, perhaps. Celestia, for instance, would never have wanted to put blood on her hooves, but even she had guided Twilight down that path, by example if nothing else. Celestia had told her, even shown her, that sometimes it must be done. Luna had given Twilight a way to cope, a display of how to embrace the act, rather than be tormented by it. Ben had led her down this road too, now that she thought about it. He had killed without ceremony or drama. As had the guards. They'd done it as a matter of course, because that was just how life worked sometimes.

And now, finally, Twilight had to join them. It was all a part of growing up, right? Death, and inflicting it, was just one more thing a Princess had to learn to deal with.

But…

She looked again at the scene before her. She saw the fear in Sidewinder’s eyes, but also her determination. The knowledge that she had done what she was meant to do. She knew that she had served some greater good, and that knowledge brought her a grim satisfaction.

Twilight turned to the bird-thing. She saw the fury in the creature, saw its madness. Saw the pain and loss and suffering that had inspired that madness. She saw that there was nothing she could do for the monster. Killing it would be a mercy.

But…What about Bait? He, too, had killed, even in the short time she’d known him. But if she’d killed those other wights, his family, would he have followed her? If he hadn’t been there, if she had run him off, how would she have escaped when Tartarus had possessed Cretes and attacked her?

But she had to choose! She had to pick one! There was no other way!

Twilight felt the entire world hold its breath as it awaited her conclusion. Only now did she realize that it had been doing that for a while. Politely waiting while she reached a decision.



No.

She made her declaration to no one. Or everyone. To Tartarus, perhaps, or Celestia, or the whole damned universe.

I will not do this. I do not have to make this choice.

I am not a killer.

She could be. She could do as Celestia had done, and accept the horrible weight of it. She could light that fire and let it run wild, becoming an instrument of divine devastation. She could turn this place into a pyre and dance in the ashes. She could reduce those monsters that dared harm her people to nothing but ash and regret. It wouldn’t be wrong.

Or...

She could do as Luna had done. She could take all the fear and pain this place had inflicted on her, tear it from within and wrap it ‘round herself like a cloak. She could become an even greater monster than they. She could show this forsaken world what terror really was, and leave it the better for it. She couldn’t deny there was a certain allure to it.

But…No. I will not choose one life over another.

The realization brought a strange peace, and a terrifying responsibility, because…

I can do better. I must do better!

I don’t sever bonds! I forge them!

I don’t kill people.

I make friends!

And that was what she did.

Time thundered back into place as Twilight, by sheer force of her will, crossed the space between her and the battle in less than an instant. There was no great explosion as she ascended to goddess-hood, no massive blast of power. Just a small rainbow shockwave, and a sudden cessation of all the pain and doubt that had assailed her. Her mane didn’t suddenly start to wave in some unknowable wind. That was something for Luna and Celestia, not her. It did glow, though, bathing the area around her in a calming, revealing, lavender light. The spell-cast on her leg broke apart as her wounds knit themselves, her body racing to achieve the perfection her new status demanded.

You two stop that right now!”

To literally everyone’s surprise, they did. Because it hadn't been a request. It had been a statement of fact. Sidewinder and the bird froze immediately, watching her with a wariness bordering on fear. Not mortal fear, but more like that of children caught stealing from a cookie jar.

Twilight could see them now. Really see them! Everything was so obvious! She could feel the bond between them. It was weak, and unpleasant, a bond of fear and conflict, but she could fix that easily enough. And so she did. She used Sidewinder’s other bonds as a reference, bonds of respect and friendship for her fellow guards, bonds of love for her family. Twilight could see them all now! Insight severed that link of mutual distrust and re-wove it into something better.

The bird and the nyxie watched their new Goddess work, perplexed by these new emotions, but obedient to them. They turned and saw each other with new eyes.

That’s better. Now…”

Twilight gasped when she saw the blood strewn about the ground. And then she fixed that too.

Sidewinder, come here and be still.”

The mare, several years older than Twilight, meekly approached.

Insight bound her wounds. Using herself as needle and Twilight’s will as thread, she rejoined every broken vein, every severed nerve, returning each piece back to where it belonged. It took but a moment.

“There. All better. But she’s still going to need help getting home.” Twilight turned to the black-as-night falcon. “Can I count on you for that?”

It gave an uncertain squawk of assent.

Good. Thank you. And…”

She eyed the creature closely with her new senses, and noticed something she hadn’t before. It, no, she, had her own bonds, but they had been broken ages ago, their jagged edges whipping through her soul and bringing nothing but pain. Bonds of love for a mate long gone. Bonds of longing for children she would never have, and friends cruelly slain. Goddess, no wonder she’d gone mad...And there was another one. More of a shackle, really. It was ugly, and barbed, and evil. Twilight couldn’t quite see where it led. Insight severed it. She sewed up the rest while she was at it, finally bringing closure where it could never have come before.

“And why don’t you go with her, when you get there?”

The bird’s beak opened, then shut. She didn’t understand what had happened, but she was thankful, in her way. She snapped Sidewinder up in both talons, took to the air, and was gone.

Twilight nodded, satisfied for the first time since she’d come here that she had done the right thing. She looked outward, unthinkingly opening herself and her new senses to everything else that was out there.

Her eyes, or whatever she was experiencing this with, were first drawn to what was immediately before her: herself. She looked into her own being, and gasped at what she saw. She was friendship. She had become it. She was intelligence, ingenuity, diligence, integrity. And, rather less pleasantly, neurosis, indecision. But still, there was just so much more to herself than she’d ever known! So many connections! So much love and happiness, and yes, anger and frustration and worse things. She had been sorely wounded, she saw that now, but she was confident she could heal these wounds in time. But there was one thing that she wasn’t, anymore.

Magic.

It had left her. She still had her own, of course, but it was different now. The Element of Harmony that magic encompassed was no longer hers.

Oh.

This was why the Sisters could no longer use them. They’d become something else. And now Twilight had too. It hurt to lose that part of herself, but really, it had never been hers at all, had it? The Harmony had never been a thing for Gods and Goddesses. It was a balance against them. Twilight understood, and so she wished the magic she had once known a fond farewell as it left in search of a new friend. It returned her gesture, and then it was gone. It would miss her, too…

Twilight didn’t focus on her loss. She followed the paths of her newest links instead, and found the guards. Loyalty, pride, faith. She followed another, and saw Ben. Simple, uncomplicated joy at finding another peaceable creature. Loyalty, just like in the guards, but tempered with a decided tendency toward friendly mischief. She smiled. How had she ever doubted him? She moved on. Bait. Determination. Hope. Trust, of a kind he’d never known. Real, genuine trust. Burgeoning love. But also pain, and a terrible fear of loss.

Poor kid. She felt her own bond to him grow stronger as she looked.

She quested outward. She didn’t even feel her heart pounding as it tried to keep up with the power that poured through her.

She followed another link, immensely strong, loving, complex, confusing, and beheld the most glorious conflagration she could have ever imagined. She drew in a sharp breath.

Celestia.

Goddess, but she was glorious! Sunfire and perfection and glory and magnificence and simple, pure love. How had Twilight ever been confused by this!? Who wouldn’t love her? Yes, she may be unchanging, relentlessly pragmatic, the very embodiment of violent might, but she had such beauty in her! Twilight gazed into the Sun and the Sun gazed back. Celestia brimmed over with pride and joy. Not her own, not even of Twilight or what she had done or become, but in Twilight and what she was. And again, love, of so many kinds. They smiled into each other on a level Twilight had never known could exist. She could have spent forever looking into her like that, but Celestia gently guided her gaze elsewhere.

Twilight almost laughed. It was such a Celestia thing to do.

Twilight followed her teacher’s lead. If she’d had breath left to gasp in, she would have. As it stood, she just looked on in awe.

Luna.

Twilight hadn’t known any single being could possibly be so beautiful. She was everything, and in being such, nothing, but still, somehow, anything. Her whole nature was born of ambiguity. She was mysterious and dramatic, charming and terrifying. She was an infinite muse, inspiration itself. And she was terribly, insatiably, curious as well, if only to see what Twilight would do with all this newfound power. The living Moon shone back on Twilight with respect, nodding to her as one would a great friend…or a worthy adversary. It was then that Twilight understood what Nightmare Moon really was. The nemesis, the mirror-counter to Celestia’s perfection, the change that forever challenged Celestia's permanence. How much did such a role try their relationship? Twilight traced the bond between the two and in that moment knew exactly how much. Even so, their link was invincible.

Something Celestia had said came back to Twilight. Something about her being less than she really was here. How much more could the Sisters possibly be!?

Her senses wandered, catching on the Brothers, the hekatonkhire. She saw them as they were. Utterly unique. Tragically alien. She saw how they sometimes wished to be like other creatures, and saw their inability to understand why they should even wish for such a thing. They saw her looking, and though their senses were not those of the Sisters, they looked back. They understood little of what they saw in her, though Briareos did his best. Twilight tried to convey her regret at having judged him.

They had few ties to the world around them, and that saddened her, but most led to…

Typhon.

She recoiled from what she saw in him, but, having seen that void, she found she could no longer look away.

His whole being was a great, ragged, gaping hole, an endless loss that he struggled to fill with rage and ruin and unthinking, animal fury. No. Not unthinking. It was worse. It was the fury that could only come with ages of contemplation. Her horror wasn’t one of disgust, and not of pity either. It was the terrible, incurable suffering that came with sympathy.

What happened to you?

Typhon stared back into her. She thought that maybe, just for a moment, he might have hesitated. That he might have known doubt. But then all the hate for a world that would give her so much and him so little flooded back in, and she couldn’t watch anymore. Twilight turned away, unwittingly following the only connection Typhon held for anything that wasn’t absolute loathing. Even there, it was mixed in.

It went down, down, down. Far into the heart of this place. Twilight didn’t fully understand what she saw there.

Terra.

She was just…empty. Gone. A vast, cavernous, nothing. But it couldn’t have always been this way. Just as a natural cavern must once have held stone, so must Terra have been something more than she was now.

What happened? Twilight wondered again.

Quiet echoes of memory resounded through that emptiness. Ghosts of emotion, shadows of instinct. It was these silent demands that Terra obeyed, though she had only the barest understanding of why. Twilight listened close. They felt…what? Maternal? Protective? When Twilight looked into her, the Goddess gave little concern to her response. A bit of curiosity, perhaps, and that was all. A metaphysical tilt of the head, just enough for Twilight to see that Terra had finally acknowledged her as something worthy of notice. Terra did not dwell on the exchange. She had other concerns, though she had little comprehension of what, specifically, made them concerning

She had few bonds. Dysfunctional, uneven links to the hekatonkhire. Another, equally incomprehensible one to Typhon. But there was one she shared in common with nearly every other creature here. Twilight had seen it before. Ugly. Barbed. Evil.

She followed it, realizing only now that she had saved it for last. It led her up, up, up. She glared into the eye of Tartarus, and finally saw It for what It was.

When she had looked into the Brothers, she had thought them alien. It was so for Tartarus as well, but in such an utterly different way as to render the term meaningless. Tartarus was a perversion, a twisted distortion of what Terra might once have been. It was vicious, ravenously jealous, violently covetous. It was a remorseless, relentless corruption, an all-seeing child, putting bugs in a jar and shaking them, just to see what they would do. But...

In Its horrid way, it loved them. It was generous and benevolent, granting them anything they could take. It was tolerant of most anything. It allowed whatever could be done, setting no true rules. It knew no greater bliss than to watch Its creatures grow and clash and become something other.

It stared back into Twilight eagerly, and in seeing her, in seeing her see Itself, It felt a grand and resounding pride. It was nothing like Celestia’s. Its pride was not in Twilight’s accomplishments, nor of what she was, but of what It had made of her.

Her coming had cost It many inmates, but they were irrelevant. Their deaths had brought this glorious moment into being. Their lives had been a price It was more than willing to pay, for this was something new! Through them, and Its own manipulations of them, It had brought forth a new Goddess! In the crucible of their blood and her suffering, she had been re-born, and Tartarus could not be more proud of her! It had unleashed such horror on her, and rather than become Its creature, she had rejected all that It was. That only made her ascension all the sweeter, because in her, It had accomplished something grand. In her, It had made a true and worthy opponent. For Tartarus, any sacrifice was worth this one, perfect moment.

And it was in that ‘perfect moment’ that Twilight learned what it was to truly hate another being. It was then that she finally understood why Luna and Celestia had allowed themselves to kill.

It was also when her little pony body finally realized it wasn’t quite ready for goddesshood. Her head swam. Twilight wavered on her hooves as her heart beat itself near to death trying to keep up. The sparkling glow suffusing her mane suddenly cut out. It sparked back up, only to give in again. She looked up, and saw only a burning ring in the sky.

Time resumed. Her moment was over.

“Wait. I-I’m not…”

If Tartarus had possessed anything like lips, it might have smiled. Because, as much as it loved her, it still held a little sliver of hate for what she'd done. It would never have this new Goddess. It would never own her. And worse, she had taken from It. The bird was lost to It now. She'd severed the chain that Tartarus had spent years forging in the creature, and the loss left a tiny, aching hole in It. But there was nothing to be done for those things. Nothing but a bit of petty revenge.

Because Tartarus would be damned before it let this upstart Goddess steal from It again.

The world-thing thrust a tiny tendril of Its power down into one Its least notable creatures.

Twilight was still aware enough to see, if only just barely.

“No!”

She threw Insight at the chain that bound Tartarus to Its victim.

Tartarus loved her for that, for being somehow still able to even attempt resistance. It didn’t matter that she failed to cut the chain. It didn't matter that It was easily able to rebuff her, now that It knew what she could do. It was the struggle that was important. Such resolve! Such heroism! What a wonder It had made of her...

Bait fell deadweight to the ground as Tartarus took him. He staggered up as Twilight fell, unable to do anything but watch as her body finally failed her. The wight turned to look straight at her, and the last thing Twilight saw as the ground rushed up to meet her was the burning rings in his eyes.

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“She’s awake! Sir, she’s moving! Princess!? Are you alright?”

“Back off, March. Give her some room.”

Twilight blinked. Even her eyes were tired. Moving them took actual effort.

A pony stepped into her view. She eventually recognized her as the pegasus mare, Brevity.

“You were amazing back there, Princess! How do you feel? Can you hear me?”

Twilight didn’t respond. Her ears turned by reflex to the sound of an explosion. Seeing where she was looking, or trying to look, Brevity explained.

“They’re still fighting, Your Majesty. It’s just the Princesses now.”

Twilight managed to roll up onto her legs. Nothing hurt, and she was certain that couldn’t be right. She worked her tongue, wondering at what was happening with her. She was utterly drained, but not in pain. She took a slow look around.

She lay on a hill. A henge of some kind stood behind her, leading into a tunnel. A nice, familiar wind blew in from it. The gate. The way to Equestria.

The guards all watched her, off and on, but she couldn’t read their expressions. The huge, night-black bird was there, and it watched her as well. Sidewinder sat beside it. Close, like an old friend. Ben had crawled up onto Twilight’s back at some point.

Somepony was missing. It took her some time to figure out the words to the only question that mattered.

“Where’s Bait?”

Brevity’s face fell a bit. Even out-of-sorts as she was, Twilight could see that.

“He ran, Princess,” said Silver Shine. “Something hit him from behind. We couldn’t make it in time. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.”

She felt nothing. Nothing at all. No shock, no explosive rage or swallowing grief. Only a vague sense that that couldn’t be right. It was like she’d been hollowed out, like there was just nothing left in her to handle this with. She wondered at it, in an absent sort of way. Was this what Terra felt like? It wasn’t unpleasant. It wasn’t anything.

It’s temporary. A brief period of shock resulting from a serious overuse of unknown magic and a long period of trauma and emotional instability.

It was Insight, telling her that. Not in words, of course. Just knowledge. Twilight accepted it.

There is no immediate danger here.

She accepted that too, but…

“Why are we still here?”

“We’ll leave soon, Princess. We wanted to wait until you were awake. And, um, more cooperative.” Brevity scratched away at her scroll as she spoke, looking maybe nervous?

You fought them every time you woke until now. No one was harmed.

That was insight again.

“Princess Luna also requested we wait as long as possible, so we could tell her what happened when we get back.”

Twilight said nothing, just turned to watch the battle that still raged on.

Typhon had been hurt while she was gone. Badly. Great rents had been torn in him, some deep enough to show iron-black bone under gouged scale and flesh. It would have disgusted Twilight before, seeing such gore, but now it was all just more information. She wondered how it had happened. Had the Brothers done all it, or had it been the Princesses?

Two of Typhon’s six wings hung limp, the skin of them ragged, but still he roared in fury at his enemies. All that damage hadn’t even slowed him down.

Luna and Celestia circled the beast, radiant in their might. Celestia blazed, an invulnerable juggernaut. She swung Hyperia, striking down Typhon’s blood-monsters as she stung him with blast after blast of furious molten power. She harried him, maddened him, dragged him out to overextend himself in flailing claw strikes and world-rending blasts of his not-fire or lightning or stranger things. She almost never dodged. In the rare event that his attacks bypassed Hyperia, she forged a barrier of such invincibility that it turned aside even his annihilating flame. She was a vision of terrible glory, and he could not touch her.

Luna danced in the shadow of her sister. While Celestia drew Typhon’s fury, she snuck into the lee of it, wreaking devastation on the dragon’s few and rarely exposed weaknesses, laughing all the while. She sliced into him with Shard, but her deadliest work was done with magic. She unleashed bizarre and frightening spells, opening portals that fired his own weapons back at him, or latching onto his mind to twist his perceptions for just a moment, or grabbing hold of his own creatures by their warped souls and breaking them into her service. She was a vision of glorious terror, and there was no harm he could bring onto her that she could not return on a far greater scale.

It was the stuff of legends, this, but Twilight felt no excitement in seeing it. Perhaps if she had, she could have held out some hope. But Insight was remorseless in her observations, and so Twilight knew that, for all their cunning and power and skill, the Princesses were losing. They spent their might in a profligate torrent, and it was killing them. They were better at managing their godstuff than Twilight had been, but the simple fact was that mortal bodies weren’t built for that kind of potency. And that was what the Sisters were here. Mortal.

Typhon suffered no such weakness. He was indestructible. The Sisters laid into him, time and again, but even seeing as little as she had, Twilight knew it wouldn’t be enough. The sisters were faster, more clever, clearly more experienced, but Typhon was a thing of apocalyptic might. He was no dumb beast, either. He learned from every feint, every trap, every spell they poured into fighting him. He fell for nothing twice, and he just wouldn’t die! A single slip would be all it took for Luna or Celestia to be torn asunder, but Typhon would fight until every muscle was scorched and severed. Twilight had seen what he was, and she knew this: he would never, ever stop.

Typhon lunged at Celestia with one massive claw, cutting off her easiest escape with a blast of shattering sound from one greater head as several tails swept in from behind. He had finally caught her, locked her into a tiny, lethal moment of hesitation. Celestia's eyes were hard, admitting nothing of defeat.

Luna dove in seemingly from nowhere, revealing Celestia’s trick for what it was as she ravaged the throat of Typhon’s screaming head. She cut in so deep that it coughed and gurgled on its own blood. Now freed from the prison she’d intentionally created, Celestia dodged the claw easily, jabbing at the wounded head’s eyes with Hyperia for good measure. It turned away fast enough that the damage was minimal, but no matter. Everything had gone as planned.

Except for a few things.

Typhon’s claws had switched direction mid-strike, and even now were closing on Luna. She was already flitting aside, but suddenly had to contend with a lesser head. That was easy enough, but then there were three, seven, twenty. Still she evaded, keeping just ahead of the beast. There was a rush of air as Typhon breathed, then a ringing crack as everything in a cone over half a mile long froze instantly solid. Luna wheeled away, turning back to taunt the dragon for having somehow failed to kill her there, and it was only as she attempted to flex her right wing that she noticed he hadn’t quite completely missed.

From the elbow out, the wing was an unbroken, perfect crystal. Luna’s eyes went wide as Typhon sang a single, discordantly beautiful note. Everything that had just frozen shattered into a billion tiny needles. Luna screamed, falling, but even now she kept her head. As Typhon lunged for her in a hundred-headed rush, she teleported out with a…

There should have been a pop, but it never came. Some of Typhon's heads were chanting, and their racket dissolved Luna’s spell before it even really began. Moon Princess looked up into the great, gaping maw bearing down on her.

“See you in Equestria, Sister.”

It snapped shut, and swallowed her whole.

Twilight watched it happen, and felt almost nothing. A tiny, withered shot of worry, nothing more. She had almost seen it coming, actually. She wondered how Luna hadn’t.

Celestia cried out, screaming her sister’s name. It seemed like everything paused for a moment, like the whole world just stopped in honor of the exquisite agony that comes when one hero sees another die. A single blue feather drifted slowly down.

And then it was done. The world moved on. It forgot.

Typhon turned all of his attention on Celestia, every one of his multitudinous heads whipping to face her. She sneered, but it was not in disrespect.

It was wrath. This would be over soon, that was obvious. But it would cost him. Dearly.

Typhon stormed forward. Celestia roared in hopeless, magnificent defiance. But in the end, Luna upstaged them both. She’d never been one to be forgotten easily, after all.

It began as a little, black pinprick in space. It grew as it absorbed the seemingly infinite weight of Typhon’s pain. It developed with alarming speed, and soon it held so much weight that it arrested his whole charge. The dragon-thing found himself tethered to his own strangling head as an ever-deepening black hole grew in his throat. It swelled massive, and as Twilight watched, she saw it suck in blood and scale and eventually muscle and—

She looked away, studying a blade of grass near her hoof instead. Brevity yelled something and lurched forward to catch her scroll, but Twilight barely heard her through the deafening vortex. Her own mane was whipping toward it, but she decided not to think about that just then. She felt, more than saw, Typhon dig his claws in against that inexorable pull, felt him fight with all his damned, irrepressible will. The singularity tore into his head from its neck, then sucked in that too, all the way down to one shoulder before it finally collapsed in a tiny, ridiculous, entirely anticlimactic pop. It was only now that Twilight realized that Luna had been laughing the entire time.

Raising her exhausted eyes once more onto the scene of ruin that was this battle, Twilight couldn’t decide what was more impossible: that any single being could be capable of such unbridled destructive power…

Or that it wasn’t enough.

Typhon rose. One great head was gone, what was left of its neck dragging against the ground. Half a shoulder had joined it, leaving muscle and bone exposed to open air, but still Typhon rose. He didn’t even stop to think. He was on Celestia already.

Two heads and one-and-a-half arms proved more than enough. Celestia struck back as best she could, but she wasn’t even trying to hurt him anymore. That cause was lost without Luna. Instead, she stalled, weathering his fury for as long as she could, pulling him ever away from the gate where Twilight lay. It was a fighting retreat of one.

What was she doing, though? Why had they even tried to fight him? Why hadn’t they all simply run? Twilight could only wait and see.

Typhon, too, was being more cautious. Perhaps the injuries were finally enough to slow him, or maybe he hadn’t known the extent to which the Princesses could hurt him. No longer did he fly at her in a rush. He was grinding her down, forcing her to block with magic as much as she dodged, biding his time. He refused to bite with his greater heads at all, using them only to fire gouts of annihilation, or to speak those words that unraveled any magic but his own.

The living Sun dodged a blast of fury, another, cut down one blood-borne monster after another. She blocked a bite that should, by all rights, have killed her and then...something happened. The whole land of Tartarus shifted, rippled as if it were a lake into which dozens of pebbles had been dropped. The disturbances pulled together into a single locus just in front of Typhon, then went still.

Just for a moment, the dragon was distracted.

Celestia drew back Hyperia, and lit herself ablaze in one final burst of power. She hurled herself forward, spinning her sword like a thresher. Typhon’s eyes went wide as he tried to slip aside, but he may as well have tried to dodge light itself. The sword blew through his throat like it wasn’t there, leaving a perfectly circular hole from one side to the other just under his chin. Typhon recoiled, mouth opening, choking. Celestia dove straight into that spear-toothed maw. It snapped shut on reflex.

Despite her malaise, Twilight felt her breath catch. An impossibly long moment passed as Typhon fought to spit the Princess out, but it was already too late. Brilliant, golden light poured from his mouth, from the hole in his neck, from his eyes and ears, and then…

The entire skyline was consumed in the tragic, indescribably beautiful glory of the Sun Goddess's death.

Twilight didn’t look away, didn’t blink, even as her eyes burned.

I a few moments more, it was done. Celestia was gone. Everything they’d done, all the things they’d shared here…

Gone. Not even a floating feather marked her end.

Typhon stirred. He was still alive. Only one of his three massive heads remained, and it had been scorched blind on one side, but still, he rose again. He coughed something up, pushed himself upright. His arms trembled, but barely, and only once.

“Princess Twilight?”

It wasn’t the first time Brevity had called. She moved in front of Twilight to get her attention, touching her lightly with a hoof.

“It’s time to go, Princess.”

Twilight made no move.

“Do you need help, Your Highness? We have a stretcher, we can carry you.”

Twilight’s eyes gradually moved to focus on the pony before her.

“I’m fine,” she said. She slowly stood, mirroring Typhon’s inexorable rise. Brevity was right. They had to go. He would be coming soon.

“Oh, thank goodness. Right this way, Princess.” Brevity trotted a few steps, turning to indicate that Twilight should follow.

She didn’t.

Why had this happened? Why had Luna and Celestia thrown themselves away? Typhon was still alive, and he was coming, and nothing any of the survivors could do would stop him. What had been the point?

The earth moved again, shifting. Typhon stared into the spot, just before him, as it went completely still. His one good eye simmered with emotions Twilight utterly failed to comprehend.

A single, massive, skeletal hoof thrust up from the ground. It rose, enormous, then fell to back to the land, dragging up the rest of the body that followed. It was like a scene out of some schlock horror novel, an undead zombie-pony rising from her grave. Except bigger. And real.

Terra.

Her horn breached next, a long, sharp, exquisite thing of quartz and jade and magic. Her skull followed, glittering and transparent, where it wasn’t shining and black. Diamond, Twilight realized. And iron. Veins of molten silver and gold poured in over the skeleton as Terra continued to pull herself, form herself, from the earth. Flesh of shining granite and gleaming marble wrapped around her veins and skeleton in a perfect simulacrum of the Earth Goddess.

No. That wasn’t right. The one she’d seen before had been the simulacrum. An imperfect copy of this, something small enough that a pony might possibly be able to relate to it. This sublime thing was what she truly was. She’d been trying to be polite before, appearing to them in such a limited form…

Terra’s mane burst into being, shot through with lines of sapphire and glittering ruby and topaz. Her tail followed, filling out into a rainbow of stone and gems and unimaginable, natural beauty. Her great wings flexed as they filled in, stone feathers gleaming and sharp. Her eyes opened, exquisite in their lifeless majesty.

“Go back to sleep, Typhon.”

Her voice was like nothing Twilight had ever heard. She’d read books that had tried to do things like this. Some creature would speak with a voice like wind through the leaves, or steam from a kettle, or some such. But she’d never really understood how different a sound could be from what she’d known until now. Terra’s was the voice of the earth itself. How could one describe such a thing? The sound of forging a diamond in the center of the world? The echo of a sparkling gemstone? There simply weren’t words for this.

“Highness? We really need to go. Princess Luna told us that if this happened it meant things were about to get ugly.”

How could they just turn away from such a wonder? And how much uglier could things possibly get?

“DiE!!!”

You may not want to know that just now.

Insight again. Twilight accepted it. She let herself be dragged away, nearer the henge and its tunnel.

Terra didn’t speak again, and Twilight was in the tunnel before the first blow landed.

~~~

The trip through the gate was short, and Twilight would never remember much of it. Just darkness and a slow, strange emptiness of self.

“We’re here, Princess!” exclaimed Brevity. She waved a hoof, leading Twilight out through a small henge-circled tunnel much like the one she’d entered in Tartarus. Had she even really left? Twilight looked up. The sky was full of twinkling stars. Little wisps of cloud floated through it, and a big, bright half-Moon shone down on her. A huff of breath escaped her.

“Alright, Your Majesty, Silver Shine will contact Princess Luna. She'll be here very soon. Would you like to take a moment for yourself? Or would you rather I stay with you?”

Twilight looked about, eyes moving slowly from one place to the next.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Yes, my lady.” Brevity bowed, but Twilight didn’t pay much attention. She slowly lowered her haunches onto the grass, mind empty.

The soldiers bustled about, doing whatever it was they did. Twilight twitched when she felt the ground shake. She would have fled, if she could, or at least jumped. As it was, she merely turned to face whatever betrayal was coming her way. She beheld the bounding form of Cerberus, running forward up to greet them. He smiled in his canine way, tongues lolling out. He took his toll of petting from each guard before trotting over to Twilight. He stopped in front of her, heads tilting, as if confused.

Twilight didn’t recognize the unusually astute hound’s concern for what it was, but she didn't stop him as he sidled up next to her and lay down. Twilight just sat there, staring into the sky, for a long while. Cerberus inched closer, snuffling one huge nose under her hoof. She raised it to absently stroke the great hound behind his offered ear. Ben, forgotten this whole time, followed Cerberus’s lead. He crawled up Twilight’s back, across her withers, and down to her free leg. She picked him up on pure reflex and held him to her chest.

She finally felt a tightness there, deep within her. She didn’t know what it was and didn’t want to. She just held Ben and stroked Cerberus and sat, gazing blankly out into nothing.

A loud pop burst through the night, along with a bright light, and Twilight twitchedagain. The thing in her chest erupted into something far worse, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.

But it was just a flare. The guards had set it off. Ben chirped, and Twilight loosened her grip on him. Cerberus shifted a bit, just reminding her he was there, and she resumed petting him. Slowly, she relaxed. But then…

She coalesced out of nothing. She was born of stardust and dream, whimsy and nightmare, all woven together with just enough reality to make it work. If Twilight hadn’t seen so many impossible things today already, watching Luna incarnate would have been the most unforgettably, dumbfoundingly amazing thing she had ever witnessed. As it stood, Twilight just stared all the more.

“Good eve, my loyal soldiers!” called the Moon Princess. “You are all here, yes?” The nyxies among them circled around her, eager but not overwhelmed. Perhaps they had seen this before?

The pegasi gaped openly, but even they came around after a moment.

“All accounted for, m’lady,” said Silver Shine, bowing.

“Wonderful!” The relief was visible across her whole countenance. “And what of Twilight Sparkle? Celestia?” She caught Twilight’s eye as she looked about, and her face immediately changed. She rushed forward, but slowed as she grew closer, her smile going still. One of the guards whispered something to her, then stepped aside to give the Royalty their space.

“Twilight?”

She came to her cautiously, concerned, the way Fluttershy might approach a wounded animal. Why? Twilight felt fine.

“Hm?”

“It’s alright, Twilight.”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“It’s over now.” She raised a wing and gently placed it on Twilight’s shoulder. It was the one that had just been shattered by Typhon.

“I—”

Something wet rolled down Twilight’s muzzle and dripped onto her leg. Another drop followed. Was it raining? Twilight looked up and saw only stars and the Moon and thin, harmless clouds. She tilted her head back down and found that her vision had gone all blurry. She raised the hoof she’d been petting Cerberus with to her eyes to clear them. It came back wet and warm.

“You’re home, Twilight.”

The thing in her chest gripped her again. It reached up to lock onto her throat, and made squeeze her eyes shut tight. For all that, it wasn't exactly unpleasant.

Luna stepped forward and wrapped both wings around her.

The dam burst. The river of tears she’d kept locked away for so long finally, finally came crashing out, and Twilight just broke down. She fell into that big, warm chest and cried, and cried, and cried until there was nothing left. She managed to blubber out one question.

“W-where’s Suh-Ce-Celestia?”

“She will rise with the dawn, Twilight, as she ever has. She will be with you again very soon. But worry not on that now, dear-heart. You are home.”

Drifting

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When Celestia had returned to the world in all her incandescent glory, Twilight hadn’t been there to see it. She’d been asleep.

After crying herself out on Luna, Twilight had simply collapsed, and she’d stayed collapsed for two full days. It had taken almost a week for her to do much more than stuff down whatever food they brought her and drink a bit of water and fall back into the welcome emptiness of sleep. She had only vague snatches of memory from that time. Celestia or Luna had been there just about every time she woke, and Spike too. Her friends had come to stay in Canterlot. A doctor had checked her over. That was about the only part she remembered clearly. He’d told her she had been gone for all of three days. Not even that long, he'd clarified. Three days, two nights, as she’d returned in early evening. He’d declared her about as healthy as a pony could be after ‘what she’d been through.’ She’d lost a few pounds to hunger and stress, but other than some scrapes and bruises, she had no significant injuries. Her only real maladies, he'd claimed, were exhaustion and a bad case of dehydration. He'd seemed to think both should clear up in a matter of days.

Twilight remembered all that because it had been utterly, absolutely absurd. Three days? No injuries? Impossible! She’d argued with him over it. What about her wing? It had been barely functional! And her leg? It had been crushed! She’d been falling apart, in more pain than she’d ever known! There was no way all that could have just gone away! It couldn’t be so simple! She’d demanded he check her again, and a third time, and then he’d given her The Look.

It had been a long time since she’d gotten The Look, but it wasn’t the kind of thing one ever forgot. Her parents had been the first to look at her that way, when she was being ‘difficult.’ A mix of pity and worry, with a dash of frustration. It was the look people gave her when they’d stopped listening, the one that meant they’d written off what she was saying.

Because she was obsessing again. Talking nonsense.

Acting crazy.

Goddess, she hated that look.

Celestia had stepped in when Twilight’s voice had started rising, but she had The Look too. Twilight hadn’t been able to stand it, not from her. Celestia had never looked at her like that. Had she? Twilight had flopped onto her bed, hunkered up under the sheets, and refused to speak to anyone until after she'd finally drifted back into uneasy slumber.

Another day passed, and Twilight was back on her hooves, more or less. Her friends came by, in groups or one at a time. It was obvious they wanted to talk, to hear about where she’d been and what had happened. She tried to tell them, but Twilight found she didn’t have much to say. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell them, not exactly. Just that she couldn’t find the words. They noticed. They dropped the subject and did their best to cheer her up, but Twilight couldn’t seem to find any enthusiasm for their antics. She couldn’t say what they wanted to hear, and everything else they talked about just seemed so…trivial. She hated that she thought of them like that, but she couldn’t see it any other way just now.

More time passed. It was suggested that Twilight move from the infirmary into her old observatory in Canterlot Castle. Everypony seemed to think that was a good idea. A bit of rest in a nice, familiar place would be good for her. She could just relax and take it easy and not worry about a thing.

Twilight absolutely could not stand it when ponies talked around her like that! Like she wasn’t there, or didn’t know anything. When they said things like 'Don’t you worry, little filly,' or 'Just take your time, Twilight,' and 'We’ll take care of everything, darling!' Ugh! It made her want to fling something (or somepony, in her worst moments) out a window.

She went along with it anyway.

~~~

A sort of nebulous discomfort came over Twilight as she opened the door of the observatory. She stepped inside, nonetheless.

“Can I have some time?” Twilight asked. “To, I dunno, look around. Reacquaint myself?”

Celestia smiled.

“Of course, Twilight.”

“Are you sure, darling? I’d be thrilled to help you redecorate. It’s been so long since you were last here, after all, and surely—”

“Ah, leave her be, Rarity.” Applejack tipped her hat to Twilight as she rounded up the rest of her friends. “Ya know where to find us if ya need anything.”

Twilight nodded, thankful for the reprieve. Her friends filed out, talking amongst themselves. The door clicked shut, and Twilight stood by herself in the enveloping silence.

She looked around the huge, open room. Everything was still there, right where she’d left it. Maybe a bit cleaner. There was her old telescope, and her shelves full of books on permanent loan from the library, and her bed. Just like she remembered.

And all of it, every single inch of the observatory she’d spent untold hours in, was utterly foreign to her.

When had everything become so different?

Twilight stepped across the immaculate, reflective floor, and it echoed strangely back at her. She had the unsettling feeling of being an intruder here. She felt unreal, somehow, like a ghost, drifting through the museum of her own life. This place wasn’t hers anymore. The Twilight who had once lived here was long gone.

She turned and hurried for the door, frightened of she didn’t know what, but stopped with a hoof halfway to the handle. People were still out there, probably. If she left now, she’d have to deal with them again. That was somehow even worse than staying. She was afraid to be alone anymore, but she couldn’t bring herself to seek out company, either. She just stood there, vacillating.

*Chirp?*

Twilight turned to look at Ben, perched on her back. She didn’t know what to say. She went to a bookshelf, grabbed something at random, and threw open a window. Without a look back, she leapt through it into the night air. Thus did Twilight Sparkle spend her first lucid night in Equestria: under a tree in the Royal gardens. She read until she dozed off.

~~~

A week passed, maybe two. Twilight eventually formed an uneasy peace with her old observatory, though she was never really comfortable there. Her friends kept coming to visit, but things were no less strained than before. Rainbow Dash suggested she should go home, if this place was making her feel, as she put it, ‘sucky.’ Twilight didn’t even consider it. She just…no.

She started making excuses when her friends came by, that she was tired or busy with some irrelevant thing. It got awkward. She did a lot of reading, and a lot of sleeping. They were the only things that gave her any real respite, if only because she didn’t have to think too much while doing them. Not that she seemed to be doing much thinking anyway, but still. It was peaceful, reading. It gave her thoughts direction. And sleep held simple oblivion, which was even better.

Twilight heard a soft knock at her door. She didn’t move to answer it. She was quite invested in this history of the writing quill, thank you, and didn’t especially wish to be interrupted.

“Twilight? May I come in?”

Everything in her froze at the voice, just as it had every time she’d heard it since returning to Equestria.

“We don’t have to talk. I just wanted to…”

Twilight stared at the page, not seeing the words.

“I brought tea. And coffee, and cocoa. I know you always loved that.”

The voice was so small and plaintive. So utterly unlike Celestia. And also so damnably familiar! She had heard that voice, but that was in…

It took Twilight a long time to answer, and she didn’t know why she said what she did.

“Okay.”

The door swung open, slow and quiet. Celestia stepped softly into the room, a full tea service rolling behind her in a field of golden magic. The door shut with a little click as she wheeled the set up to the pillow-ringed table that served as a guest room in the observatory. Twilight closed her book and trotted down from her bed to join her there. She took the book with her.

Celestia set up a pot of steaming water and cups and spoons and all the other tea things. She gave Twilight a smile. Twilight tried to return it.

“What would you like?” asked Celestia.

“Cocoa, please.”

Celestia nodded and poured the dark stuff into one cup. She set out milk and sugar and cinnamon before putting together her own drink. Green tea, by the smell of it. Twilight built her beverage as she liked it (lots of milk and sugar, a bit of cinnamon), and settled in. She took a sip. Celestia finished her own work and did the same.

“What are you reading?”

“Hm? Oh, it’s…” She found she couldn’t quite remember, just now. “Nothing much.”

“Ah.”

Twilight couldn’t think of a single word to fill the void between them.

“Well, don’t let me interrupt your reading. Do you mind if I handle a bit of correspondence while we drink?”

“No. Go ahead.”

Celestia nodded. Did she hesitate slightly before summoning in that first scroll? An ink pot and quill followed, and the subtle scratching of quill on paper practically echoed in the otherwise silent room. Twilight sipped at her chocolate and, not knowing what else to do, re-opened her book.

Minutes passed, and neither pony said a word. They’d done this all the time when she was young. Just sat together, silent and perfectly content with that. If something had upset Twilight, made her angry or sad or any sort of thing, these times were when they would talk it out. Celestia had never pushed her. She had always waited patiently until Twilight was ready. Often, Twilight hadn’t even known she was stressing out over something until afterward, only realizing later that Celestia had gently, subtly coaxed it out of her. She was doing it right now. Just...waiting.

They’d been so familiar back then! So comfortable with each other that they’d never needed to fill the space between them with unnecessary words.

So why does it feel like I’m stuck in a room with a stranger?

“I, ah…”

Twilight glanced up to see Celestia watching her. She looked, just for a moment, like she wanted to speak, to reach out and touch Twilight.

Just do it! Just say the words! Twilight wanted to scream, but not a sound passed her lips. Get up and come over here and hug me and break down like you did before! Do something!

“I’m sorry, it’s nothing.”

And the moment was past. She was the Celestia of old again. Calm, controlled, untouchably perfect.

“Princess?”

“Yes?”

“Could you please leave?”

There it was again! That tiny glimpse of doubt in her eyes. Goddess, it was so painful to see it! Why couldn’t she just remember! How could she have thrown away everything they’d been through!?

“I-yes. Alright. I’m sorry to have bothered you, Twilight.”

Then you do it! Twilight howled into herself. Tell her! Get up! Just say something! Anything!

There was hardly a sound as Celestia left the room. Twilight curled up around her book and pretended not to feel the gnawing tightness in her chest for the rest of the night.

~~~

Twilight didn’t leave her room after that except to eat for the next three days. She managed to mostly avoid other ponies by going at odd hours, skulking through darkened hallways in the hopes that no one would notice her. Alas, by chance or intention, Applejack appeared from around a corner as Twilight crept back from the kitchen.

“Howdy, Twilight.”

“Hi.” Twilight pretended to study her plate as she went, avoiding her friend’s eyes.

“Say, uh. I know you’re not much for talkin' right now…”

“What? No, it’s just I, um, yeah.”

“Right. And I don’t mean to press, Twi, but—”

Twilight frowned, already irked. An unpleasantly familiar pressure grew in her.

“Here it comes,” she groaned.

“Alright, fair enough,” said Applejack, raising both hooves and a conciliatory smile. “I’m sure you’ve had enough of this lately.”

The little spark of annoyance grew into something more.

“Yes! I have!” The first times had been merely awkward. Now it was getting annoying. The pressure swelled.

“Okay, sugar, take it easy. We’re just worried is all. This whole silent treatment thing ain’t like you. We’re all just trying to help you get—”

It blossomed into a thing of terrible rage.

“Maybe I don’t want your fucking help!”

Applejack blinked in surprise at the outburst. She backed up a step as Twilight stalked forward.

“Uh, I don’t know what—”

The crazed, volatile anger that had haunted Twilight since she’d returned dug in its claws, finally finding a target.

“Maybe I just want to be left alone for a while! Maybe you should all just back off!!

The ground shook as Twilight’s godly might erupted out. She stomped the floor and a wave of force blew through the hall, nearly knocking Applejack flat.

“Maybe you should all just mind your own business for once!!”

The walls trembled, and the cracks at her hooves grew into a rift.

“Twilight, wha—”

And Insight was there. This was the first time Twilight had felt her presence since she’d returned to Equestria. The blade sized up Twilight’s friend: a trivial threat. Easily dealt with, if that were what she wished. The blade requested that Twilight reconsider though, as she was no longer a weapon for killing.

Twilight gasped, staggered back as if she were the one who had been struck. She stared at the surprise and hurt and dawning fear in Applejack’s eyes.

And she ran.

~~~

Twilight spent that night under the same tree she’d found before. The one in the gardens. She hid when the patrols flew by, looking for her. She refused to think about what happened.

Yes, because that’s been working so well.

She silenced her inner critic as best she could.

Insight had left her at some point, and Twilight didn’t ask how or why.

Honestly, she’d thought the sword was gone forever. She hadn’t been able to summon her since she’d come back. The same with her Goddess-magic. She couldn’t for the life of her remember how she’d called that power the first time, and it maddened her. If she could just bring them out, if she could only feel what she’d felt in that brief, heavenly moment of divine insight, it would fix everything! But all that was gone. Maybe none of it had ever even existed.

But now she knew better. The sword, at least, was still there. Lurking. Waiting to remind her of—

Stop it! I’m not doing this! I can’t right now! I just can’t!

She curled up and shoved herself into a book and prayed for the sweet nothing of sleep, hoping for it so desperately that she was willing even to forget what came every time she woke.

~~~

Twilight had been having this recurring nightmare. Except it wasn’t really a nightmare, because it only came when she was awake. She was having it now, actually, just as she had every time she’d woken for the past weeks. She would emerge from the peaceful oblivion of slumber and be frozen, eyes closed, every nerve singing with fear. It wasn’t anything she dreamed that frightened her, though. It was waking that held her in this paralysis. The fear that this would be the time that she finally, truly awoke. That she would open her eyes, and see some horrid thing, and she would finally know that she had never escaped at all. That she was still there. That everything she’d seen over the past days and weeks had been the dream, and this, Tartarus, was her only reality.

“Ben?” she whispered.

He chirped immediate response. His eight legs pattered their way down the tree and onto her flank. Twilight slowly remembered how to breathe. She opened her eyes and saw only the pleasant organization of the gardens, the soft glow of a full Moon lighting the night.

Ben was the one thing that could calm her when this happened. Her goddess-hood had left her, her sword didn’t answer anymore, and the one pony whom she might have been able to talk to about all this was gone because Twilight had failed him. Ben was her only proof. He was a small rock on which she could rest, because he remembered. He had been there with her, and he made the rest of the world feel like it might be real. She knew it didn’t make sense.

She rolled over and picked him up with both hooves. He gave her a many-eyed look of understanding.

Twilight felt herself start to tear up. Again. She did this every time! Goddess, she was so sick of crying! In Tartarus, she hadn’t been able to cry even when she’d desperately needed to, and now she couldn’t stop herself! The tears made her angry, and the anger made her disgusted with herself, and that just made her want to cry again. She hated this.

She put Ben down, threw off the blanket of earth and grass that had grown over her, and stepped out onto a bank of clouds. She felt a momentary bit of disorientation before she remembered why she was here. Ah, yes. She was looking for something. Her telescope. She’d left it up here somewhere, she was certain. She just needed to find it, and then everything would finally become clear.

Off we go, then.

Twilight nodded to herself and set off through the decrepit, barely lit storeroom. Its ancient shelves were filled with boxes and books and junk. They lined its unending walls, creaking, on the verge of collapse. They slumped and leaned dangerously, often blocking her path, forcing her to backtrack through the labyrinth. Many of them were sunk partway into the cloud floor. The whole place seemed to be sinking like that. She searched through box after box, sure that this next one would hold what she sought, but finding only more useless detritus of a life she barely remembered. She wandered for a frustrated age before she finally saw it: a trunk, half submerged into a particularly dark cloud. A crest like a burning ring was its only adornment.

She needed to open that. It was in there, the thing she wanted. Lightning seethed around her as Twilight dredged the heavy, ugly thing up. The iron binding it was rusted. It was sharp and dangerous and lined with spikes. The chest was sealed with a massive, equally frightening padlock. There was no keyhole.

A sort of amorphous dread filled Twilight as she pulled at the lock. She twisted it this way and that, yanked it with all her might, hammered on the box with her magic, but nothing worked. She didn’t even really want to open it. Maybe that was the problem. But what she wanted didn’t matter. She had to do this. It was important! Even if she didn’t quite know why just yet.

The trunk started sinking back into the storm-cloud, and she was going with it. Twilight was already up to her knees when the panic started. The cloud had become something else, some growing, growling morass of bilious purple and green. Grasping tendrils reached up and out and wrapped around her, draggin h—

“That will be enough of that, We think.”

With a pulse of cool blue magic, the nightmare stuff pulled away, cringing in apparent fear. Luna strode forth from nowhere, eyeing the evil thing. She nodded to what appeared to be a spider, bigger than a pony and made entirely of silver and shadow.

Ben?

He was bigger here. Huge, even, but not at all intimidating. If anything, he seemed more friendly and expressive than ever. He leapt into the noxious cloud and tore it to shreds, reweaving its nightmare substance into a thing of gossamer beauty. Twilight watched in wonder as he attacked the rest of the infinite storeroom, dismantling it all into nothing more than a bit of soft, pleasant cloud.

“Yes, 'tis a much better dream. We thank thee, little one.” Luna stroked Ben’s head and he sang to her in melodious, happy music. “Be a dear and take care of that one over there before it gets out of hoof, won’t thee?”

Oh. I’m still asleep.

The spider gave a quick salute. He looked to Twilight, and sang again. It was a wordless tune of confidence and concern, and a plea for tolerance of his, and his mother’s, intrusion into her dreams. There was a note of wry humor to it before he scampered off to disintegrate another nightmare.

“He thinks the world of thee, you know.”

Twilight turned to Luna, her mind still trying to find some balance between dreaming and wakefulness. And of Luna's highly idiosyncratic, seemingly random use of old Equestrian.

Luna smiled, having seen that look before.

“Our apologies for intruding, Twilight Sparkle, but We fear you have Our dreamspinners working overtime lately, and We felt We should intercede. We understand that you desire privacy at this time, but, if you will forgive Us, We think that is nonsense. We suspect Our youngest Princess wishes to talk, but would rather not admit it.”

“Hm? Oh, yeah. Ponies keep telling me things like that. It’s getting old.” The cloudscape around Twilight thundered and shook, a glow of red suffusing it. Anger? Twilight was certain she’d be furious with Luna for doing this if she’d been awake, but apparently letting her subconscious do its thing down there let the rest of her be reasonable. Was that normal here? She was going to have to learn more about dream magic. But first…“Dreamspinners?”

Luna bowed in acknowledgement, watching the developing storm.

“We imagine it is, and so We apologize again. But sometimes a pony is free to say in dreams what she cannot elsewhere, and so We thought We should try. As to them...” Luna waved a wing to the silvery, shadowy beings in the distance. There were quite a few of them, flitting between the features of her mind on argent strands of web. “The ‘spinners are Our assistants in the Dreaming.”

Right! Ben was a dreamspinner! Celestia had called him that once. And she’d said Luna had created them, or something? Is that why Ben had, eh, not called her his mother exactly, but ‘said’ something to that effect?

“We have had a full nest assigned to thee since thy return. We trust they have been of help?”

“They’re…” Twilight watched the creatures dart about the rumbling storm of her subconscious, diving into the worst clouds and fighting the things that came out of them. They unraveled one horror after another, shaping them into something nicer. “They’re why I haven’t been having nightmares?”

Luna nodded. “Keeping thy sleep peaceful is the least We can do for thee, Twilight. And, We sometimes worry, the most. May We sit with thee a while?”

“Sure.”

They both looked down into the landscape Twilight’s dreaming mind had built.

It was a Sunless hell. The skyline was dismal with storm and scourged by whips of lightning. The clouds rumbled and growled, but held not even the promise of rain. Only shrieking wind and darkness. The earth was cracked and empty but for murky tracts of haunted forest, wracked with fire. Small enclaves of light remained, shining through the choking clouds, but they were embattled by things of horror and hopelessness, creatures of rusted iron and ruin and self-loathing. This place was tearing itself apart.

Goddess. Is it always like this?

“So,” asked Luna, knowing the answer before she spoke the question. “How are you, Twilight?”

Twilight spat a bit of a laugh at the absurdity of it. Was this first time she’d laughed since she’d gotten back? And had the skies just lightened a bit?

“You asked me that before.”

Luna grinned.

“We have become predictable, it seems. What did you tell Us?”

“I’ve been better. You laughed.”

Luna did so again.

“Very good! Tell me though. Did we speak, after that? Did you feel better afterward?”

“I…yeah. And I guess I did.” Twilight actually felt a little better just admitting it. But… “But it didn’t change anything. Things got even worse, afterwards.”

Luna nodded, saying nothing more for a time. Then, watching something far, far away, she asked,

“Why you?”

“What?”

“Why were you the one to make it out alive?”

The skies tensed, clouds growing taught, pregnant with annihilating fury.

“It should have been somepony else. You don’t deserve to have made it out. You failed, and everypony suffered for your weakness. You should have done more. If only you’d tried harder, you could have saved them.”

Twilight stared at her, and everything went deathly silent.

“It should have been you who died in Tartarus.”

The entire world shook with hate. But it only shook itself.

Luna turned a sad smile to Twilight.

“Do these words sound familiar, Twilight Sparkle? Are these the things you’ve been telling yourself up there, in thy observatory? Does it feel better, now that someone has accused thee? It did for Us.” Luna shook her head. “Truly, we are strange creatures.”

A single drop of rain struck the broken earth of Twilight’s psyche. Another followed. More. A torrent. A flood.

Because it did feel better, somehow. She thought she should cry, but she could only watch the rain fall, and see the truth of her own delusion.

“It sounds crazy when you say it,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

It was a long time before Twilight spoke again.

“Is that what happened?”

Luna looked at her, questioning.

“I went crazy out there, in Taratarus? Is that what I am now?”

Luna shrugged with a sly grin.

“We are all a little crazy, at the very least. But what is sanity, really? ‘Normal’ is a myth, Twilight. Tell Us, what would be the ‘rational’ response be to what you met in Tartarus? What possible argument could convince you that you are not to blame?”

Twilight pondered that.

“Don’t bother, child. There is no answer. And We do not believe you have ‘gone crazy,’ as you say it. But you have been wounded, Twilight. Deeply. It will take time to heal this pain, and the scars will change thee. We know only what your dreams and Our guards have told me, but take the word of one who has seen the worst that Tartarus has to offer: You may have been injured, but you have not been broken. You will rise from this and be stronger than ever.”

The flood calmed, drawing back to a mere shower as Twilight watched and listened. The little pillars of light grew. They were still weak, and the rain poured freely through them, but they grew.

“Okay. Thank you, Luna.”

The Moon Princess bowed her head.

“Might I impose more unasked-for wisdom upon you?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“A great story, they say, grows with every telling. But there is another kind of story. One whose grip weakens, bit by bit, word by word, as it is told. We think you know the kind of which We speak?”

Another long moment passed.

“Yeah. But. How? I mean—”

Luna didn’t interrupt as Twilight stumbled through the words.

“The things I saw out there. The things I did, or thought of doing...That my friends actually did do. I mean, I saw you a-and Celestia…You scared me! And what about…” Twilight licked her lips, nervous. Even here, where the feelings were hazy and distant, she couldn’t say his name. The dreamscape trembled, grew twisted and dangerous again. “How can I say those things? How could anyone understand?”

“Ahh. You think of your friends. You worry they will abandon you, after they hear what you had to do to survive.” Luna paused, let that terrible thought, finally given voice, sink in. “They will not. They will be there for you, Twilight Sparkle, as you have always been there for them. In truth though, they will not understand, not as you do. But they will try, and they will stand by you. And that will be enough.”

The dream smoothed itself out, if only a little. The rain still fell.

“You make it sound so easy.”

“I do not mean to do so. It may be the most grueling trial you have ever undergone, telling this tale.”

“Alright, let’s not get more melodramatic than we have to, Miss Moon Princess.”

“Hah! As you say. One further suggestion, before We go?”

“Are you just going to keep doing that forever? Adding one more thing?”

Luna smirked.

“This shall be the last, by Our word. We said before that your friends would not understand, but We happen to know of a few individuals who might have some inkling of your pain.”

Twilight nodded.

“Yeah, I get it. I’ll talk to you and Celestia first. Ugh. I was terrible to her.”

Luna tilted her head.

“Were you? No matter. You will resolve it. But as it happens, We refer to somepony other than Ourselves and Celestia. Silver Shine has asked about you on more than one occasion. From what We hear, you left quite an impression on the squad sent to rescue you. It would be their great honor to meet with you again, Twilight. Perhaps you would like to join them for dinner or some such? We think you will find that they have great insight into situations such as you have seen.”

“Oh.” Twilight hadn’t even thought of them since she’d come back. She’d just been terrible to everypony, hadn’t she?

“Indeed. Well, whatever you decide, We think it is time We ceased to interfere in your life. For the nonce, anyway. Sweet dreams, Twilight Sparkle.”

And then, with a wink and sparkle of moonlight, she was gone.

~~~

Twilight woke in her bed, with no memory of having put herself there. She had a guess as to who might have done it, though. She rolled onto her back and sighed.

“Ben?”

The spider chirped from across the room and scampered to her immediately. Twilight picked him up when he got there.

“Your mom is a meddling jerk with no respect for other ponies' privacy.”

Ben tilted his cephalothorax at Twilight, but made no particular commentary.

Twilight smiled. She wasn’t exactly happy about Luna getting into her business like that, but she couldn’t deny the effect: this was the first time she’d woken up relaxed in weeks. Relaxed, and maybe even a little motivated.

Twilight set Ben down. He gazed up at her. ‘So what now?’ he seemed to say.

Twilight pushed back her covers, petted the spider, and made her way to the antique desk that graced one corner of her observatory. She spread out a clean scroll, popped open a bottle of ink, and stared at the blank paper.

Where to even start?

Remembering

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With apologies, she decided. She did her best to explain herself, about how she’d felt these past weeks, and why she’d acted the way she had. It wasn't made any easier by the fact that didn't entirely know, but still, she tried. Her first attempt came out a long, rambling, pointlessly maudlin thing. She crumpled it up and tried again. After a few more rounds, she had something that might be worth reading. She made a copy for everypony she thought she might have upset (just about everyone she knew) and added a personalized note to the end of each. Applejack’s was the longest. Celestia’s was short, heartfelt, and intensely difficult. All included a promise to do what she should have done long before. But tomorrow.

For now, she needed time to get herself sorted, to figure out how she could possibly do this thing. The writing was helping, getting her organized. She sent the letters to their recipients, requested some lunch, and spent the rest of the day setting out her tale. Looked at on paper, it was nothing much. Just a series of events, with bullets and notes under each to remind her not to leave out certain details she might otherwise omit. Simple, neutral facts. She was tempted to present it that way, as some kind of history, something that had happened and was past and that was that. But she knew that wouldn’t do. Written in the margins on every page was a line that read Tell it all. Especially the bad parts.

When night came, she put her work aside and left the room.

~~~

Twilight Sparkle wended her way toward the door of the guard’s mess hall. She truly, thoroughly did not want to be here. She heard the big, boisterous voices coming through the door and almost turned back, but in the end decided that running away would hurt even more. She nosed open the heavy portal. Her eyes travelled past table after table of guards. They were unarmored, barely recognizable as soldiers at all here in their own territory. Many conversed casually, a few rather more raucously. Some just ate without saying much at all. They didn’t notice her at first. That was promising. Maybe she could just sneak in unseen and make her apologies without a fuss.

Ah! There he was! Silver Shine sat in a corner of the room near the back at a round table with several other ponies she recognized. Twilight started forward, eager to get this done as painlessly as possible. Her gaze caught on...something. Just a bit of shadow, maybe, but it seemed off, somehow. She followed the tendril of darkness up to a mass of gloom and gleaming sharpness.

Her heart slammed in her chest. Her mouth went dry. Her worst fears were true! She hadn’t escaped! Tartarus was here, it had found her! The other ponies seemed unaware of the monster skulking in the dark not two yards from them. Twilight tried to scream, to warn them, but nothing came.

The thing’s huge eyes locked onto hers, livid with malevolence. It growled.

She recognized it! The bird thing! The one she’d—

“Beaksy! What are you squawking at, girl?” barked a pony. A nyxie. Sidewinder. Twilight’s face twitched in confusion.

Sidewinder followed the beast-of-shadow-and-blade’s stare to Twilight. “Oh, fudge!“ She slammed a hoof on her table. “Princess on site!” At the word ‘Princess,’ every guard jumped to rigid attention, dropping whatever they might have been doing to salute her.

The silence went long as the pieces started to fall into place.

She did recognize it. The bird thing. The one she’d made friends with Sidewinder. The one she’d invited into Equestria…

A strangled sound escaped Twilight before she remembered the phrase Luna had told her to say. “Um, at ease!”

'At ease' was a magical command, Luna had told her, that the Princesses used when they wished the guards to temporarily pretend they weren't Princesses. It took effect immediately. So fast, in fact, that it made Twilight wonder if there really was some magic in it. The guards relaxed, salutes were dropped. Smiles were resumed, and everypony suddenly remembered how to be normal. It would have been fascinating to watch if Twilight weren’t so distracted.

The din of a room full of eating ponies picked back up, and soon it seemed as if Twilight had never interrupted it. Which was nice, because she had no idea what to do next. This hadn’t been supposed to happen. She’d planned this out, darn it! She’d written up a whole speech! But seeing the bird (Beaksy, apparently) had thrown everything all cattywampus.

Sidewinder, followed closely by Silver Shine, rushed across the room to meet her. They both dipped into a quick bow.

“I’m sorry about Beaksy, Princess! I know she can be scary at first. I would have sent her out if I’d known you were coming,” said Sidewinder.

At first?

“She’s perfectly harmless, Princess. Eh, to ponies. We got permission to allow her into the castle from Princess Luna. She’s actually been a great help to us since you convinced her to join the Night Guard, and—“

Convinced? To convince a person implied that said person had some choice in the matter. Twilight had done a lot of thinking about what, exactly, she had done when she’d gone all God-crazy. In the end, she’d had to admit it had been little more than a particularly insidious form of mind control. It was one of things she’d hoped to apologize about.

“—she gets nervous if we leave her alone for too long. But I can ask her to wait outside if she’s making you uncomfortable, Highness.”

“Oh. Um, no, it’s…fine.”

Wait. She gets nervous?

“My apologies for the mess, m’lady,” put in Silver Shine. “Princess Luna suggested you might be coming to visit, but I didn’t expect you soon. If I'd known, I, uh, well, never mind. May I clear you a place at our table?”

“Yes?”

Shine gave a quick nod and led her to the round table, nearer the horror-bird. It stared at her, orange eyes lambent and narrow. She stared right back, every step of the way. Its eyes flicked between her and Sidewinder. Protective? Jealous? Twilight never once glanced away from the creature. She watched it hunch further back into its own shadows as she grew close. Was it scared of her? No, wait. Not it. She.

“Beaksy, relax!” implored Sidewinder. “You remember Princess Twilight, right? She’s the one who let you come here.”

The great, tenebrous falcon made an unpleasant noise Twilight didn’t know how to translate. Sidewinder approached her and stroked the beast’s chest with a hoof, careful to avoid the edges of Beaksy’s sharp feathers.

“Don’t worry, Princess. She’ll come around.” Sidewinder looked up at the bird fondly, and the bird looked back. “She’s just a little shy.” The nyxie returned to the table, but Twilight was still watching the monster in the corner. Beaksy returned her gaze, but only for a moment. She glanced around the room instead. She watched the chatting ponies as if trying to figure out why they weren’t trying to kill her, and perhaps why she wasn’t trying to eat them. Twilight watched her for another moment before she saw what was actually happening. She’d been wrong. It wasn’t malice in the creature’s eyes, it was confusion. Beaksy had no idea what to do with all this strange, unasked-for companionship. And, oddly enough, Twilight could relate to that just now.

“I wish I’d known you were coming, your majesty.” Silver Shine shuffled plates around, clearing her a space. “I could’ve had something better prepared. But, eh, I’m sure we can put something together that should be worthy of you. Backstep! Get a plate for the Princess!” He looked…what? Nervous? Angry? Had she gotten this wrong, too? Should she have stayed away?

“No! You don’t have to…” But Backstep was already gone. Twilight managed to drag her eyes from Beaksy, and she saw that every pony at the table was looking at her. Not a one seemed even a bit concerned about the living-gloom-beast behind them. “I’m sorry! I should have warned you. Um. I just, I wanted to apologize, was all. You don’t need to, I mean, I can go, if you want.”

Shine blinked in confusion.

“Apologize, my liege?”

“For stepping all over your command before! And for insulting you, and making everypony risk themselves even more because I was being crazy, and”

Ugh. Goddess, this wasn’t coming out at all like she'd planned!

Sidewinder and Silver Shine glanced at each other, then back at Twilight.

“We are at ease right now. Is that correct, excellency?”

Okay, how many synonyms for Princess does this stallion have?

Twilight nodded, eager to get his inevitable recriminations against her out of the way.

“So…” said Shine, the beginnings of a wry, friendly smile playing at his lips. “You've come to apologize for saving the life of my comrade?”

Whatever Twilight had been thinking of saying next was abruptly cut off.

“I...suppose I hadn’t thought of it that way. But, wait, that isn’t true! None of you ever would have been there if not for me! And I put everypony in danger for my own stupid…I don’t even know! I called you a coward!”

“We volunteered, Your Highness, every one of us.” The soldiers all nodded. “Princess Luna made absolutely certain we knew the risks. And you’re Royalty. I never should have treated you like you were weak.”

His smile was gone, replaced by iron resolve.

“But why!? Why would you do that for me? And I am weak! I had no idea what I was doing out there! If I hadn’t run after Sidewinder, if whatever I did back there hadn’t worked, then...I just, I don't understand! How could you make that decision?”

Twilight regretted it before she’d even asked, but she just had to know!

Something in Silver Shine’s face shifted.

“Yeah, okay!” someone yelled, slamming a hoof onto the table for the second time tonight. It was Sidewinder herself.

“Sorry, Princess Twilight, but we’re at ease and I’m really tired of ponies being all weird about this. I made a mistake, alright? I slipped up and let my guard down. I knew I couldn't run with those cuts on me, so I just tried to slow the enemy down as long as I could. Anypony here would have done the same thing in my place.” Sidewinder waved a hoof around the table. “And I would have given the same order Shine did if I'd been in his. One for all, and all that. And it worked out, right? I’m still alive and Beaksy loves it here, even if she scares people and pretends to be grumpy all the time, so let’s just drop it, yeah?”

Silver Shine snorted a grateful chuckle, and Twilight all but felt a little weight fall off him. A stein of something fragrant, frothy, and dark was pressed into his hoof by the returning Backstep. He took a deep gulp of it.

“Oh. I...alright." Nope. Not like she'd planned at all. But then, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing, right?

"Yup," said Sidewinder, as if that settled everything. She grabbed her own mug from Backstep as he circled the table. She took a solid pull off it and thumped the thing down.

“Okay, but…" said Twilight, struggling to articulate her question. "What happens when it doesn’t work out? I mean, sometimes a pony doesn’t make it home, right? How do you…”

Darn it. Darn it darn it darn it! She was tearing up again! She’d told herself over and over she wasn’t going to do this! And what was she even saying? How could she end that question? How do you what? Get by? Live with yourself? Sleep at night? How was she supposed to ask this!?

Sidewinder’s face went still, understanding. Silver Shine looked at her gravely, knowing the question without having to hear it spoken. He adjusted his chair, perhaps preparing himself to address this impossible question. But, before he could answer,

“Um, if I may?”

A smallish pegasus had one hoof raised, as if she were a filly in class. Brevity, as Twilight recalled. Twilight nodded to her, eager to have to have the moment end.

“We have a sort of tradition about that in the Guard.” She looked to Silver Shine, and he gave her a nod. Brevity slammed a hoof into the table, and then, with a surprisingly resonant voice, bellowed, “It’s time for a Remember!” She thumped the table a few times in a sort of rhythm, and the rest of the squad soon joined her.

Without warning, a half-dozen new guards rushed in to fill what little space remained around the table. More followed as the thumping went, and a fresh round of drinks appeared without even being asked for. Brevity pushed one into Twilight’s hooves.

“I don’t understand. What’s a Remember?”

“It’s a thing we do when we lose someone. We tell stories. It’s more fun than it sounds.” She pointed Twilight to Silver Shine. “Would you like to start us off, sir?”

Silver Shine gave her a strange, sad sort of smile, then threw his head back and began.

“Sit back, lads and mares, and I’ll tell you a tale of Old So and So, the greatest guard to have ever lived! Died like a champion, he did…”

~~~

Remembers always started that way, apparently. Brevity explained during the gaps in Shine’s recitation.

“It starts with Old So and So. And then we go around the table,” she said, “and we tell a story about somepony we’ve lost. Start with their name, then how they went, and then just say whatever.” She tapped Twilight’s mug. “And then we toast, of course.”

Twilight's first thought had been to fight it. Death wasn’t fun! It was tragic! They shouldn't be throwing a party! This was terrible and morbid and what was wrong with them!?

Twilight looked around though, and something she saw in the smiling faces around her stilled her outrage.

The story began simply enough, but as the exploits and misadventures and eventual demise of Old So and So went on, they grew so great and epically melodramatic as to be patently absurd. And when his end finally came, it was heroic and hammy and hilarious. Maybe it was the just room full of ponies buoying her along, but after a while it all just became so funny.

So and So’s antics were interspersed with other stories, as told by the ponies around the table. They varied as widely as their tellers. Most were funny, some a bit sad, a few nothing more than a fond memory or favorite quote. Just as many, like So and So’s, were so ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly have been true. Several were quite dirty, like the one about a bedroom misunderstanding between a mare who liked a bit of unorthodox roleplay and her earnest but gullible lover. The crowd had clearly heard some of them before. They joined in, calling out the punchlines in a sort of sing along. And every one of them was about a pony who’d died in the service. The mare from before? She’d been killed by a dragon, drunk on power and stupid with rage. But the story hadn’t been about her death. It had been about her life. Her end had been a mere headnote. Making that connection was what let Twilight begin to understand what was happening here.

These ponies weren’t being morbid. They were grieving. They were giving death its due, and then making a sort of peace with it. Their laughter was a little too loud, a bit too eager, but what else could they do? It was this or cry. But there was more to it. They were granting their lost friends a new life by sharing them with others. It was so different from anything she’d ever seen, such a wondrously unexpected way to handle mortality, that it left Twilight a bit dumbfounded.

The ponies told their tales one by one, passing the spotlight around the circle. Eventually, inevitably, it landed on Twilight. Even seeing it coming as she had, she found herself unprepared.

“Guardsmare Twilight Sparkle,” asked Silver Shine. “Have ye a tale to tell?” This was the official invitation to the Remember. For this one little moment in time, rank meant nothing. Everypony was a guard, nothing more.

All was silent as Twilight hesitated.

“It’s not much of a story…”

Her audience crowed, demanding, cajoling, egging her on. Shine waved them down after a time and invited her again.

“I, alright. His name w—” She choked up. She hadn’t been the first to do so. “His name was Bait.”

There. She’d said it. Was.

“He was taken by Tartarus. And once he bit a bull’s balls to save me.”

The crowd laughed uproariously, and Twilight couldn’t stop a little smile, near crying though she was, as she told the story.

~~~

Most of the guards wandered off once the Remember was officially concluded (with one last tale of Old So and So's ever-growing legacy, naturally), but Twilight's squad and a few stragglers remained. The little party broke up into smaller conversations, which other ponies eavesdropped and commented on and jumped into freely. This general breakdown of boundaries (perhaps aided by the beer) was actually pretty neat to watch. These ponies could talk to each other about anything.

In the spirit of all that openness, Twilight finally got around to asking a question that had been nagging at for days.

"You're sure you're not upset about me making you friends with, um, Beaksy? I mean, I didn't really give you a choice. It was basically mind control."

Sidewinder blinked at her over her rapidly emptying mug.

"Are you still worried about that Princess? And how was it mind control? I mean, I don't really understand what you did back there, but..." said Sidewinder. She waved one hoof as she searched for words. Then she put it to her mouth to mask a small belch.

My, but she's different when she's off duty.

"But it was a good thing, all the way! And I mean, you didn't make us friends. You just, I dunno, showed us it was possible. Seriously, when Beaksy came after me, she would have killed me! Like, seriously killed and eaten me, right? And I would have done it back! The first part, anyway. But you came in and told us it didn't have to be that way. And, I mean, you can't force friendship on somepony, right? "

Twilight didn't know what to say. Fortunately, her mouth had a mind of its own now, and so she asked,

"Does she feel that way?"

"Beaksy? Oh, yeah. Don't you girl?" The enormous, antlered terror-beast leaned forward to be stroked under her chin. Twilight wasn't sure if the sound she made was a purr or a growl.

"You really helped her, Princess," said Sidewinder. "She was..." her eyes went distant. "I don't even know how to describe it, how she was when we fought." She snapped back to the present with a grin. "But ten seconds with the Princess of Friendship fixed all that! So anyway, yeah, I dunno what you even think you have to feel bad about."

"I...oh. Thanks, Sidewinder. Thank you, for that." Twilight felt herself tearing up again a bit, even if all Sidewinder had really told her was that her weird new magic might be even more devious than she'd thought before. But maybe Sidewinder was right. Maybe she had been too hard on herself. Or maybe not, and her weird new magic was simply so deviously thorough that it had made Sidewinder feel that way. She would have to put some real thought into this. Preferably while sober. She took another sip from her surprisingly empty mug and changed the subject for now.

"But really though. You named her Beaksy?"

Sidewinder snorted a laugh. "Yeah, I dunno, Princess. I just thought her beak was kinda cute, so..."

Twilight was unclear on how anyone could possibly think that hooked guillotine of beak could be 'cute.'

Beaksy, for her part, grumbled. But it was a happy, tolerant sounding grumble.

"So, Princess!" interjected Brevity, who had been shamelessly listening in. "I wrote down everything I saw while you were being amazing!"

Speaking of unusual names, Brevity was the only pony Twilight had ever met who had a nickname that was harder to say than her real one. The other guards often referred to her as Soul of Wit. It was some kind of inside joke.

"It barely makes sense now, but it was totally awesome at the time! And Winder is right. Oh! You should come by the archives and read it sometime! You can tell me everything I got wrong!"

Brevity was a quick drunk, it turned out. But a chance to peruse the guard archives was pretty tempting...

~~~

Twilight woke the next morning with only a slight fit of panic. Maybe talking with the guards really had helped. Or maybe it was the minor hangover. Nothing made the world feel more real than a bit of alcohol poisoning.

She rolled out of bed, said hello to Ben, and did her best to get ready for the day ahead. She almost called it off. She was halfway to her writing desk, already plotting out a letter begging for a little more time, but she stopped herself. She couldn’t do that anymore. Her friends deserved better. She picked up her notes instead, looked over them again.

Goddess, why is this so hard?

She shoved herself out the door before she had any more time to think.

~~~

Telling her tale went about as well as could be expected. She gathered up all of her friends and both Princesses and Spike and Ben and even Owlowiscious for good measure. She then ensconced the party in a big, open, entertaining room, and started talking. It took a long time. Far longer than she’d thought it would. She stopped often to answer questions, and just as often to ask them, and several times to eat, or drink, or have a good cry, or just take a walk to get ready for the next episode. It was exhausting. She’d told most of this to Celestia once, but she’d only given a bare-bones version then, and Celestia didn’t remember now anyway. She’d left out the bad parts then, and hadn’t even hinted at the really bad stuff. Not so, this time. She forced herself through every bit of it. The fights, the fear, all the times she’d been sure she would die and all the horrible thoughts that had followed her home. She told them about Bait. She told them all of it.

Her friends were all wonderful about it, of course. Just like Luna had warned her, they didn’t really understand how bad it had been at first. How could they? But they tried. They never once accused her being dramatic, never gave her the Look. On the contrary, their looks of horror and disbelief weren’t so much at Twilight as for her. They asked about a lot of things, and let others that were obviously too difficult lie until Twilight was ready. They were always there when she needed a hug, and always weren’t when she needed space. It made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, just thinking about what great ponies they were.

Luna proved very helpful in all this. She prodded Twilight back onto her path when she was in danger of wandering off into a pit of melodrama. She made jokes at just the right time, called breaks when a break was called for, and so on. She retained her penchant for cryptic answers though, and was as maddeningly vague as ever.

Celestia was rather better on that angle. She explained the missing pieces of Twilight’s new status. Why she had ascended (again), and why she'd seemed to have lost that power when she’d returned. When the nature of your goddesshood lay in forming connections, cutting oneself off from everyone she knew could leave a young deity rather powerless. Good to know.

Celestia was kind and gentle and fair as always, but even so, dealing with her was…complicated. Twilight recognized that it wasn’t fair to blame the Princess for any of what had happened, or judge her for doing what had to be done, or resent her amnesia as if it were some kind of personal slight. Stumbling into love with her despite it all probably wasn’t the most sane thing, either. Admitting she was doing it all anyway was one of the hardest things Twilight had ever done. By the look of her, it hadn’t gone too well for Celestia either. She’d let herself slip. She’d cried a little. Actually cried! It had helped, somehow. Twilight knew the space between them wasn’t bridged yet, but they were getting there. They’d have to talk more, alone this time. But that could wait.

When she’d finally finished and accepted all the well-wishes and promises of support and words of commiseration, there had been a bit of an awkward silence. It was Pinkie who had banished it.

“Great story, Twilight! Here’s what we were up to all week. I baked an amazing cake for when you got back. And then…” Everypony laughed, if only to break the tension. Good ol' Pinkie Pie.

The group had spent the rest of the night bantering about things of no consequence. It had been exactly what Twilight needed.

~~~

When Twilight woke the following morning, it was with barely a tremor. She lay there for a long while, surrounded by friends. She breathed it in, and felt the power of her goddesshood respond to it. She could see the bonds again, the links that held her ponies to each other and to her. They pulsed in her like a second heart. She could sense the hundreds of ponies around her, feel their own connections to one another. She called to Insight, and the sword was there. She seemed happy.

Okay.

I can do this.

Epilogue

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Twilight felt it like the cold breath of an opening tomb. If not for her new senses, she would have been left in blissful ignorance of the whole thing. Part of her, a big part, wished she had. But she knew now, and that meant she had to do something.

The gate to Tartarus had opened.

This wasn't fair! It hadn’t been a month since she’d returned, how could this be happening so soon!? She wasn’t ready!

Twilight trembled at the idea of having to confront that place again. She’d barely had time to even begin understand the changes she’d gone through, her new place in the world, and already this was…

It didn't matter. She had to do something!

But what?

The sight of Celestia, streaking meteoric through the sky, snapped Twilight into motion. She leapt to join her. She couldn’t hope to match that speed, but Celestia saw her and slowed to meet her pace. Even so, they devoured the distance. Twilight’s recently acquired goddesshood was good for more than just friend-making, it turned out.

“What’s happening?” asked Twilight Sparkle.

“I don’t know. Either somepony has snuck through the gate from our side, or…”

The elder Princesses had warned her something like this might happen. Not many creatures in Tartarus could even find the gate to Equestria, let alone open it. Of those few that might, none was a visitor anypony might wish to encounter. What she’d left unsaid was the worst possibility. That Typhon had won, and had finally escaped his fetters completely. If that monster, that force of incomprehensible destruction, had made it here…

They said nothing more, concentrating on reaching the gate as soon as possible.

Luna snuck into their slipstream without either noticing until she spoke.

“Does anypony know what this is about?”

Neither goddess was surprised. Luna just did things like that. They both professed ignorance.

Not a one of them expected what they found at the entrance to the world-prison of Tartarus.

Cerberus was there, but that was nothing unusual. His three heads perked up at their arrival, showing no sign of distress. Rather the opposite, really. He looked excited to see them, as he always was. He bounded away from his present companion to greet them, but all three Princesses were too busy staring to pay him much mind.

Briareos looked back at them through his many eyes.

“Greetings, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” intoned his chorus of voices. The creature retracted the great claw that had been scratching Cerberus’s heads and waved it in a grand circle, bowing toward her. “Aunts Celestia and Luna.” He made the same gesture to each. That he spoke to Twilight first was not missed. “I apologize for my invasion of your world.”

“I, um.” Twilight’s jaw worked as she landed and tried to take all this in.

Briareos was much reduced from when she’d last seen him. Though still massive, he was barely a quarter of his previous size. She counted only thirteen heads, and even some of those were in pieces. His slime-flesh seemed too fluid, like he was having trouble holding it all together. Goddess, he looked like he was barely alive!

“It’s no problem. Are you okay? Is there something we can do to help?” She took a step forward without thinking about it.

The hekatonkhire seemed somewhat taken aback. Twilight could see the bizarre, baffling emotions scattering through him now. She didn’t understand them all, but malice wasn’t among them. After a long pause, he spoke again.

“We have survived, Twilight Sparkle. I thank you for your concern.”

She saw, or felt, or whatever, the warm glow of his gratitude. It was cautious, and mixed with confusion and doubt and things there weren’t names for, but it was there. She guessed he wasn’t used to such things, and her question had made him uncomfortable.

How weird was that? How tragic? That such a simple kindness had so unnerved him?

She smiled, hoping to stoke that little ember of trust she now knew he wanted to build with her.

“May I ask why you are here, Briareos?”

It was Celestia who spoke, after the moment went long.

"And how you are here?” asked in Luna.

Twilight was almost irked with them for being so blunt. Twilight examined the bond between the Sisters and Briareos. It was a strange one. Complex. There was no real hate there, but she got the feeling their relations were rarely very pleasant. Still, Briareos seemed content to move back into more familiar territory.

He gave a wry chuckle. A note of bitter bleakness pervaded its humor.

“It seems we hekatonkhire are outcasts from all lands. Not even the abiding arms of Tartarus can provide us with a true home. We have never been its creatures, Aunt Luna. As such, we may leave whenever we wish.”

A twinge of guilt went over Twilight. She’d been so wrong about him. It was maddeningly obvious now! But she’d been right, too. How many creatures had he killed in his time, and felt no regret? How deserving of her sympathy was he, really? Even with her new understanding, she just didn’t know. The Brothers were entirely unique, fitting nowhere but with each other. Celestia and Luna had built a world for themselves, but the hekatonkhire couldn’t do that. It was all wrong. There had to be something she could do…

“In answer to your first question, I am here at the behest of Mother Terra. She wished Us to deliver this message.” With that, he produced a small, simple scroll, held in one hand.

Celestia and Luna crowded forward to accept it.

“I am to give my charge only to its intended recipient,” stated Briareos. He presented the letter to Twilight.

“Oh. Um. Okay.” Twilight gingerly lifted the letter in her magic, glancing apologetically at the her peers. Perhaps she should have offered to let them read over her shoulder, but she hated that and curiosity already had its claws in her. She popped the seal (a simple, white circle) and started reading. The missive wasn’t long, but she dropped it in a matter of seconds. She and ran to Briareos and buried him, big as he was, in a hug.

“Thank you!” she gushed. “Thank you for telling me!”

Briareos shook at her touch. Twilight thought she might have upset him again, but after a time, he slowly, carefully placed one slimy claw over her back. She took that as progress.

~~~

The letter read thusly.

Twilight Sparkle,

Luna, if you have stolen this letter, as you always do, return it to its intended reader immediately.

Luna laughed, and kept reading. As always.

I have considered your words on the role of a Princess. I acknowledge, despite your lack of decorum and eloquence, that there is some truth in them. I am aware that I do not present myself well to other ponies. Such is not my intent, but I know of no other way than to be what I am. According to Celestia, I am cruel and cold. But know, Princess Twilight Sparkle,

“Oh!” said Luna. “She’s acknowledged you as Royalty!” She looked with glowing eyes for Twilight, only to find her half buried in Briareos. Oh well. She could tell her later. Celestia heard her though, and nodded. They went back to the letter.

that it has always been my intent to help my people. Alas, my failings often prevent me from doing so in a manner that is satisfactory to any involved. This is why I have sent my son, who is of great import to myself and my mission,

“Bloody Hells, Terra,” breathed Celestia. “Can’t you just say you love him?”

“I don’t believe she can,” answered Luna. “We never could.”

to deliver this letter, which I hope will explain my situation in such a way that you might understand me.

Over the course of my time in Tartarus, I have inflicted my will upon it. In so doing, I have allowed It to do the same unto me. I am Its jailer, and It my prison. We are inseparable now. I have done this in an effort to change Its nature. I do not know that such a thing can be done, but I watched when you became the Goddess that you now are. You could have become anything, but rather than indulge your base nature, you chose the self-sacrifice of Altruism. It is unprecedented, in my experience, for a new Goddess to so easily choose such a thing. Witnessing your transformation, beholding what you truly are, has impacted me greatly. Your actions before your ascension have affected me in equal measure. Your devotion to your principles, your success in bringing them to bear on Tartarus, despite all odds and great risk, weigh heavily upon me. You have earned my attention, Princess Twilight Sparkle.

The two Princess stopped to look to each other at the end of almost every sentence. In one brief paragraph, they learned more about their lost sister than they had perhaps ever known.

I would have you know, then, that after several failed attempts, I believe I have laid the groundwork for a civilization that may change Tartarus for the better. I have spent what you would call decades gathering up those few creatures who I have reason to believe might be able to coexist with one another, and done what I can to give them safe haven. Your arrival, and Tartarus's awakening, severely disrupted my work, but on reflection, perhaps this was for the best. I realize now that I cannot do this thing alone. Thusly do I request your assistance, as a fellow Princess. I have given you no reason to help me in this, and I cannot completely guarantee your safety, but you are strong, and resilient, and it would be a great boon to me if you would return to Tartarus, and do for my people what I cannot.

The wight, Bait, who calls himself your friend, is one of those now under my protection. I found him shortly before you departed, and have given him a place among my favored. He has told me much about you. I have attached a brief message from him, in the hopes that what he says might convince you.

Princess Terra.

A post-script followed.

Princess. I’ve not used that title in an eternity, but I suppose it still has some value.

The Sisters looked at the each other once more, wide eyed.

“You certainly know how to choose your students, don’t you, Sister?” said Luna.

Celestia only shook her head in wonder.

~~~

Twilight hadn’t even read Bait’s letter in those first moments. Just knowing he lived had been enough. She had later though, over and over. He’d sounded so happy! He was called Dusk now. Terra had told him to abandon his old name, apparently. Tartarus had given him that title, she’d said, and he was to be its creature no longer. Unsure of what to call himself, he had asked for ‘something like Twilight.’ Twilight still felt a little bit of warmth every time she thought of that grand (if a bit odd) compliment. He was sad he hadn’t made it to Equestria, of course, but he had a new family now, one that truly cared for him. And he was alive. And he was part of something big. He hadn’t understood what that meant really, and had said so, but she supposed it didn’t much matter. He was alive!

Twilight had spent a full day penning her reply before handing it over to Briareos. She’d requested he come back again to exchange more letters, or just to talk, or for any reason at all. He could even bring his brothers, if they wished to visit. Celestia and Luna had balked at that last part, but Twilight had been adamant. Briareos, for his part, had only chuckled. He would ask, he told her, but assured the Princesses that that ‘bitter old bastard of a weed’ Gyges was far too stuck in his ways to go on such an adventure, and Cottos was…Cottos. He’d left it at that, but agreed to return as soon as he was able. Thus did the pony and the hekatonkhire establish a regular correspondence, the first between Tartarus and Equestria in thousands of years.

A little over three years had passed since then. Twilight had been through a great deal in that time. She’d learned about herself, and her power, and what she could do with it. She’d worked through the events that had brought her into that power. She was still the pony she’d always been, but much had changed. Including her status with a certain other Princess, who was at this very moment attempting to convince her that maybe they should just go home and think this over for a little while longer.

“You don’t have to do this, Twilight. And certainly not alone.” Celestia’s wing, currently wrapped around her, tightened a little. Her voice oozed worry.

Twilight smiled and tilted her muzzle up toward the taller Princess. Not quite so as tall as she used to be, from Twilight’s perspective, but still. Their lips met, if only briefly.

“I know. But I won't be alone." She was never alone, now. Just as Celestia and Luna were the Sun and Moon, Twilight was Friendship. She was the bonds she had created, in a more than figurative sense, and she could call the object of such bonds to her at will, and send them home just as easily. With permission of course. Sidewinder had been right about that; you couldn't force friendship on someone. Twilight had never had to, either. Her friends had volunteered to help her, every one of them. And besides, Insight would be there, and Bait, Ben, and Briareos. "Thank you for coming, but…”

She was used to this. It had taken a long, long time for Twilight and Celestia to figure out if the whole 'relationship' thing was something they actually wanted to try. They had very nearly agreed to write the whole incident in the cave off as a fluke. Just two ponies in a bad situation looking to make something good of it. Eventually though, it had come down less to the question of 'why' than 'why not?' Luna had helped that along. It could be argued she'd tricked them into it, even, because frankly, she found the whole situation hilarious. Regardless, once so attached, Celestia could honestly be a bit clingy. Twilight wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But then, they’d only just started. There was plenty of time to figure it out.

Twilight disengaged, pulling away until Celestia gave in.

“I understand what you’re trying to do, Twilight. It is a noble endeavor, and certainly a worthy cause, but you’re still so new to th-ow!”

Luna looked nonchalantly away from Celestia’s glare, the very picture of innocence. She winked at Twilight.

Twilight smiled and stepped toward the Tartarus gate. Cerberus escorted her.

“I promise I’ll take every precaution, just like we talked about. So please, try not to worry. I’ll be back before you know it. I love you, Celestia.”

Celestia responded in kind. Luna, too, wished her well as she took that last step. Twilight didn’t have to pass the tests most ponies did. She knew all the tricks, held every key. Only a slight tremble shook her as one hoof, raised in Equestria, landed in Tartarus. She didn’t fight the fear this place still gave her. She accepted it. And then she moved on. Briareos was there to greet her on the other side.

He bowed. He was bigger now. He’d recovered.

Twilight Sparkle, Goddess of Friendship, stared out into the impossible landscape of Tartarus, taking a deep breath.

“Alright then,” she said. “Let’s go make some friends!”

Extra Bonus Thing: The First and the Last

View Online

--This little aside takes place at some undefined time before the epilogue.

The Princesses of Equestria and beyond reclined together in a fancy and very private sitting room. They'd done this a few times since Twilight's return, gathering to discuss the revelations of her trip through Tartarus. Though perhaps a better term than 'discuss' would be 'get interrogated about things Twilight wasn't yet clear on.' This meeting was off to a slow start though, because its youngest member was having difficulty coming up with a reasonable way to ask the question she had in mind.

"So, about Terra. What's, um, what's wrong with her?"

Not the most diplomatic of beginnings, Twilight would be the first to admit.

Celestia winced. Luna looked slightly pained as well. Cadance frowned.

"That isn't a very nice way to ask, Twilight."

"I know! That came out wrong, I'm sorry. It's just, I mean, I only met Terra for a little while, but she was so...She was just—"

Luna sighed.

"Just such a..." It seemed like she'd been about to say a great deal more, but she stopped herself. "So frigid?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Yes. She certainly can be." A wry smile bent Luna's lips. "You have nothing to apologize for, Twilight. Your question is a fair one." She settled in against her pillow and gazed at the ceiling of the plush entertaining room in which the four Princesses reclined. A lavish, alarmingly realistic mosiaic of the night sky, complete with diamond stars and a huge, fire-opal moon, twinkled back down at her. "What," she began, "is wrong with Terra? Where to even begin."

"Ah, if I may? Who is Terra?" asked Cadance.

"I find that the best place to start a story," said Celestia, "is often at the beginning. And I think the whole of it will answer both your questions."

Her audience settled in to listen with an adjusting of legs and fluffing of wings.

"A long, long time ago, the universe was a very different place. There was little of anything that you might recognize today, and what remains has changed so much that it can be hard to remember that such a time even existed. But I do remember this. She was the first of us. The Goddesses. As far as I know, she was the first of anything. We would come to call her Gaia in time, but back then, she simply was. My first real memory is of her, welcoming me into existence, celebrating my birth from across the grand void of space." Celestia's eyes went wistful. "She did the same for every new star and planet to be born, ushering us in like a tender mother long before we even understood the concept of such a thing."

"There are more?" asked Twilight. "Like you?"

"Oh, certainly," said Luna. "Many astral beings are worlds in their own right, though few are so great as us." She grinned at Celestia, who gave a pleasant roll of her eyes. "There were many once, but alas, most of them are now so distant that you may never meet them, or so alien that you should never wish to. We god-things rarely get along, it seems. And We should think you meant to say 'like us.' You have joined our little family, Sister."

Oh. Right. Twilight was one now. A Goddess. It was weird to think of herself like that. She barely felt different than she ever had, and she was a hardly a world in any right. And...wait. Sister!?

She opened her mouth to blurt the thousand questions and/or protestations that even now jostled each other for release, but Luna cut her off, a slight, sly smile on her face.

"But do continue, Celestia."

"Of course. Gaia and I spent a timeless age together, whirling through the emptiness, just...being. It was a cold existence, nigh mindless, but peaceful. Simple. A time without word or thought, or any need for them." Celestia poked at the carpeted floor, the ghost of a smile playing at her lips. "I love my life as a pony. I truly do. But I will always remember those days fondly." She shook herself. "Alas, nothing lasts forever. It was the sudden appearance of a new Goddess that brought that silent era to an end. She was born of a cataclysm: a meteor, large enough to drag in others like it, finally collided with its smaller peers. What arose from that catastrophic meeting was Luna."

The Princess in question preened proudly.

"Were the others Goddesses before you...merged?" asked Twilight.

Celestia looked to Luna.

"We believe so. We can at times recall being something other than what We are now, but," she tilted her head, as if trying to remember. "Those memories are strange, fragmented. We used to understand them better, but..." Luna shrugged.

"Is that kind of thing normal? Can a Goddess become something entirely different from what she started as?" asked Cadance.

"And what about the ones who aren't, um, worlds?" Twilight's face screwed up as she tried to wrap her head around the idea of a bunch of space rocks having personalities and then running into each other to become the Moon.

"I honestly have no idea, Twilight," stated Celestia. " Immortals can grow, but it is a slow process, and never easy. As far as I know, Luna may be the only Goddess to have ever done so in such a way. It perhaps explains why change is so much simpler for her than the rest of us."

"Yes," interrupted Luna, posing. "Even among eternal beings, We have always been special." Luna turned back to the others, the very picture of a pony who was genuinely hoping to add to the conversation, and who certainly wasn't fishing for compliments or anything. Celestia's raised, bemused eyebrows expressed exactly what she thought of that.

"Hm. Yes. You are certainly very 'special,' Luna." She patted her younger sister on the head.

Luna snorted.

"But back to our tale." Celestia resettled herself. "As it so often does, dear little Luna's sudden appearance complicated things."

Luna beamed up at her. She looked as though she had something to say, but she stilled herself before it came out. It wasn't the first time Twilight had noticed her doing that. She was so different here. Both the Princesses were. In Tartarus (and in dreams, in Luna's case) they'd held nothing back, even when they maybe should have. They were so much more controlled in Equestria. They were the same Princesses Twilight had always known, but having seen them as she now had, she wasn't sure she liked it.

"If not for our new sister's intervention, life could never have been. We had become too close, Gaia and I. She was scorched bare in my embrace, and my fires dimmed in her seas and in the shadow of her mountains. We let nothing come between us, crushing and incinerating all who ventured near. Not out of malice, mind, but because we simply failed to notice much of anything else. But then, Luna came. She knocked us apart for a time, then drew us all back together into a more joyful orbit than we could have imagined. She tempered my blazing fires. She brought order to Gaia's churning oceans and cracking earth. She inspired us with tales of the impossible things she'd witnessed in her previous lives, and filled us with a wonder we had never known. And a desire to share it. Luna brought us balance. She made us..." Celestia turned to her sister again, and this time there was nothing but love and admiration in her. "Whole."

Twilight watched as they shared a moment. She intentionally clinked her teacup around when it went on a bit.

The Royal Sisters jumped, eyes flicking from each other to Twilight to the floor. They looked almost as if they'd been caught at something. Twilight glanced to Cadance, but she was busy watching them intently, her expression a bit quizzical.

"Ahem! Yes. Where was I? Right. Life. So, the three of us spent an age with only ourselves for company. As before, it was a pleasant time. But as we wheeled through existence, we saw others out there, dancing through the emptiness of the universe. They seemed much like us, but so very different. Fascinating and wonderful in their own right, but just as often bizarre and terrible. Some few we invited to join our little circle, though we have never been as close to them as to each other. They are the planets you've seen in that telescope you so love."

Twilight's mouth had opened before the questions were even fully formed.

"But that," Luna cut in with a grin, "is a story for another time."

Twilight's lips collapsed into a pout. Celestia smiled apologetically, then continued.

"Even as our family grew, we found ourselves restless."

"It seemed as though there could be so much more," said Luna. "More than simply existing! The other Goddesses and Gods were interesting, of course, but they were so stolid and distant. We had become agitated, unsatisfied. We didn't understand what we were feeling. " She shook her head. "We were certain that the answer was there, if only we could find it. So, failing to attain satisfaction from others, we turned inward. There was so much unexplored potential within us!"

Celestia nodded.

"I said before that Luna had inspired us, and this, perhaps, was the price of that. For the first time, we wanted. But we didn't know what we wanted. We needed more than to simply be. We needed to be..." She waved a hoof, searching for the words. "Acknowledged. Known. Felt. And we wanted to return that feeling. We were, in a word, lonely."

"It was Gaia's unique genius that gave us the answer to a question we didn't know how to ask," said Luna. "Life. True life. What she envisioned was not just another cold and immutable God-thing, spinning through the emptiness, barely capable of thought, but an infinitude of creatures that live and die and change and create! She invented mortality, Twilight! It was her greatest work. Perhaps it sounds strange, to be so proud of building a thing that was destined to end in the subjective blink of her eye, but to us, it was an awesome feat. Life grows! It changes! It varies in so many ways that none of us could ever have predicted, always surprising us with its unbelievable ingenuity!"

"And in the end, it may outlast us all." Celestia's eyes were sober, but fiercely proud. "Mountains crumble, Twilight. The seas may dry, and even my Sun will one day collapse in a blaze of final glory, but life may escape even that and go ever on, until the end of time."

"With the aid of Our dreams and Celestia's guiding light, Gaia set to work."

"We all merely watched, at first. From far away, we looked down into the lives of our sister's new children and thrilled at their every move. Even Gaia kept her distance, though life grew on and within her. But after a time, she took her experiment even further." Celestia leaned in, her voice an excited hush. "She joined in."

"She was the first of us to incarnate," said Luna, voice quickening as she met Celestia's enthusiasm. "The first to walk her own Earth and live among her creations. She pulled a part of herself free and shaped it into flesh. We watched in horrified wonder as she did this thing. It was barely comprehensible to us. I had only suggested it as joke, but she actually did it! Madness! But so brilliant! The living feel, Twilight! They know pleasure and pain! They exult in their happiness, and mourn in sorrow! You have no idea of how amazing witnessing real emotion was to us, to say nothing of the bodily pleasures. Watching Gaia have those things made it impossible for us to resist her invitation."

Twilight found herself smiling, caught up Luna and Celestia's infectious energy.

"So, wait," asked Cadance. "Gaia made life, then joined it? So, you didn't make ponies in your image?"

The sisters laughed.

"Rather the opposite, I'm afraid," said Celestia. "We shaped ourselves in yours."

Well. That was a revelation. Twilight jumped on the moment of quiet.

"Why ponies? Were they just what came first?"

"Oh, no. The first mortals were tiny things, as I recall," said Celestia, tapping her chin with a hoof.

"Moss and such," said Luna. "It was all really more of a diversion at first. Gaia was just experimenting." She shrugged. "That her creation began growing into more on its own was something of a happy accident, as they say."

Twilight tried to hold back a serious existential panic attack as she asked her next question.

"Are you telling me that life as I know it, that everything I've ever done and experienced was an accident!?"

Luna tilted her head.

"Would that be so terrible?"

"Yes!"

"Worse than knowing that the most ancient beings in existence still have no idea where they came from or for what, if any, purpose? Because unless Celestia has been holding out on Us, We do not." Luna smiled with perfect innocence. "Some questions simply have no answers, Twilight."

Twilight's eye twitched.

Celestia, seeing that something needed to be done before Twilight's entire concept of reality violently imploded, spoke up.

"But if answers to these questions are to be found, perhaps you will be the one to enlighten us, Twilight. You always have been a great thinker. Why don't we move on for now?"

"I, s-sure. Um," Twilight pulled herself together. "Can I ask something first?"

"Certainly."

"You said Gaia made 'true' life. But in Tartarus you said something about Ben, about how Luna had created him, I think." The spider perked up at hearing himself referenced. "Or, them. The dreamspinners. Can you just do that? Make living things?"

"Ah. Well, in answer to the first," said Celestia. "Yes, Luna did invent them."

"Some of my finest work." Luna smiled fondly at the spider. He chirped happily.

"But the spinners aren't true life, not the kind you know."

Twilight's eyebrow rose. She looked at Ben. He looked back.

"He seems pretty alive to me. What's the difference?"

Luna answered.

"Ben, as you call him, is just as immortal as We are. He was one of my first. Must be thousands of years old by now. 'Tis a testament to his cleverness that he is still here."

Twilight blinked, then turned again to the apparently ancient critter sitting on her flank. He saluted.

"Seriously?"

"Quite so," said Celestia. "That is the difference between what we can create and what Gaia could. Ben will live until he is killed in some way, or Luna reclaims him."

Twilight's eyes snapped to Celestia's.

"What do you mean 'reclaim?'"

Celestia paused for a moment in the way she always did when a promising student asked a difficult question.

"To make another being, we Goddesses must remove a part ourselves. A bit of, I don't know, essence? Some of that which makes us what we are. The beings we make will then live as independent creatures for as long as we wish. But no longer than that. That is what the bodies before you are: incarnations. We are different from the whole of ourselves, but still a part of it. Our other creations are similar. Luna and I might make 'children,' but we will never have grandchildren. And, of course, we can take that little spark of ourselves back as we please, ending the creature it empowers at any time."

Twilight's mouth opened, then closed.

"It is not murder," declared Luna. She was looking straight into Twilight, head high. "They are Us. Their body, their memory, everything."

It felt like murder to Twilight. But she didn't know.

"Just as Insight is you."

Twilight thought about that. She had been wondering where her sword went when she wasn't with her. Was Twilight really just...she didn't want to say 'absorbing' her, but maybe that was what she was doing? And creating her again any time she needed her?

"Oh. Okay. I'll um, I'll need to take some time on that one. But, wait. If a Goddess can't have children, what about Sobek?"

Celestia and Luna blinked.

"What about him?"

"You said he was the son of Sobek, who was also the son of Sobek. He was a God, right? So why could his kids have kids?"

"Ah," said Celestia. "He was a God, yes, but every divine being is entirely unique, and very few of us are truly immortal. One of Sobek's aspects was fertility, if you can believe that, and he sired many children. He has long since passed, but he lives on in them."

"For now," said Luna. "His children are mighty and long-lived, but nothing to what Sobek was. One day the blood will run so thin that there will be nothing of him left in it." She seemed almost saddened by this.

"Hrmm. Alright." Twilight rubbed a hoof on her jaw, pondering. "So I really have to choose between children or immortality?" At the other Princesses' surprised or questioning looks, she explained. "You told me that in Tartarus. What made you decide on kids, Cadance?"

"I..." Cadenza looked a bit confused. "I didn't make any decision, Twilight. I didn't even know..." She looked in consternation at Celestia and Luna.

"You did," said Luna. "Perhaps not consciously, and likely very early in life." At Cadance's frown, she gave a soft smile. "Would you change your mind now, if you could? Would you watch your beloved family suffer the ravages of time while you went untouched? Sacrifice the joys the motherhood for a youthful eternity?"

Cadance's frown melted away. She didn't answer. She didn't have to.

"We thought not." Luna still smiled, but it was tinged with that same sadness from before. Mourning for a thing beautiful and rare, that would one day be lost.

Celestia's smile however, was warm with pride.

"It was never a question for Cadance," she said. "She has known what she wanted from a young age, even if she wasn't always aware of it. It was no dilemma for us, either." She gestured to her sister and herself. "Luna and I were simply born this way. I'm afraid we will be of little help in explaining how such things work, Twilight, but I suspect you will know your answer when the moment comes, just as you did when you chose to be what you are."

Time passed as Twilight looked between the ponies around her. Cadance appeared just as disturbed as Twilight felt. Luna held that sad smile, hopeful and hopeless all at once. Celestia held her gaze, warm and solid as always, a bastion of peace against this churning sea of impossible indecision. It was she who broke the silence.

"But that moment needn't come now. You asked why we chose ponies, I believe?"

Twilight nodded, and all that quiet tension popped like a balloon.

"I must admit that I'm not entirely sure."

Luna's expression perked up immediately growing slightly salacious. She opened her lips to speak, but then, as if she'd thought better of it, subsided and gave way to Celestia.

Twilight wondered at that. This wasn't the first time she'd done it. Why? She'd been so different in Tartarus and the dreamworld. So much more expressive. Terrifying at times, yes, but also funny and dramatic and all sorts of things. It wasn't just her, either. Celestia had told her that being separated from her Sun made her less stable, and she'd obviously felt that to be a bad thing, but Twilight couldn't honestly say that she agreed. They just seemed so controlled here, so calm and perfect. The Luna and Celestia she was speaking with felt less real than the ones she'd met in Tartarus. Less themselves.

She made a note of it; they would absolutely be talking about this later. But for now, she listened.

"Our first incarnations were dragons. Such power in those bodies. Such pride and might! But, in time, we found we preferred other accommodations. And ponies had always been a favorite of Gaia's. They proved themselves, time and again. Despite being born into a world full of larger, more dangerous creatures, ponies dragged themselves up from seemingly nothing and spread across the entire world. They learned. They adapted! They made farms and technology and built cities that shamed the simple dwellings of anything that had come before! Gaia respected such things. She loved all her children, in her way, but ponies were one of the few peoples that she truly adopted. And they loved her for it."

"We all loved her," said Luna. Her voice was strangely quiet now, lacking the excitement it had held mere moments before. "Even Discord was smitten with Gaia, for what brings more chaos to the world than life? But even so..."

There was a long pause, which Celestia again broke.

"I have told you of our history, Twilight. Of how the world came to be as you know it. But I have not answered your question. 'What is wrong with her?' you asked." Celestia breathed out. "We loved her, but our sister was not a kind Goddess," whispered Celestia.

"None of us were," murmured Luna. "Our night is a time of peace and respite. Every dream is a wonder. But horrible things can hide in the dark, and nightmares will find a sleeper anywhere."

Celestia nodded, looking at nothing.

"My fire carries warmth and shines through deception. It is so often a welcome thing. Until it begins to burn. And truth can be so much worse than happy falsehood."

"And Gaia, too, ingenious, bold, loving Gaia, had a dark side. I ask you, Twilight," said Luna, her voice little more than a whisper. "What kind of mind invents death? What cruel being would bring life and all its joys into the world, only to afflict it with disease and pain and starvation? Nature, as they say, is red in hoof and horn.

"And Gaia," intoned Celestia, "was nature itself. She was the rain that nourished a village, and the flood that washed it away. A shake of her Earth laid waste to entire populations, only to make room for just as many. And more than that, she was life. She was the mother bear that would die for her cubs, and slaughter anything that threatened them. Even another mother and her own cubs. She was prey, predator, and parasite. Ruin and resurrection. Mother and murderer. All of this was Gaia. And she was not a responsible creator. You've always known her best works, Twilight, but now you have seen some of her worst in the things we banished to Tartarus."

"We loved Gaia," said Luna. "But in many ways, we feared her."

The sisters placed a wing over each other as Twilight watched, pain etched clearly on their faces. She should say something. They could stop now, maybe pick this up later. She almost did it. Before she could, Luna took a deep, slightly shuddering breath, and continued.

"But such was the world, back then. We didn't know any other way. And we were beyond death, in any event, so there was no great push to change our ways."

"We could have," said Celestia. Her hoof smacked against the floor. "We could have made things better! For all our vaunted power and wisdom, we were so ignorant!"

"Aye," answered Luna. "It shames Us now, to think on it. But things grew worse still."

"Gaia birthed more creatures, after those first. She took the ideas their adaptations gave her and made ever more complex beings. More and more and more. Each one was a marvel, a grand achievement! But over time, she began to change. She grew distant from us. Her new children became bizarre things, aberrant and dangerous. The hekatonkhire are perhaps the most obvious example." Celestia closed her eyes. "They were some of her last."

"We didn't understand what was happening," said Luna. Her voice had an edge of pleading to it, like she was asking for some kind of forgiveness. She, too, looked away from Twilight. "We told you before that in order to create, we must take of ourselves. That we must choose between life unending and children. We barely understood that then. We thought her different than us. Better, somehow. Inexhaustible. We didn't know the truth until much too late. It seems so obvious now."

"Every life Gaia made took from her," said Celestia. "Every magnificent new species robbed her of a bit of what she was. Gaia's creations live on in their own children. That is what makes them greater than we undying things. But a mortal child takes a toll on her mother that can never be reclaimed, and even Gaia could not take back what she spent in making them. She bore thousands of them, Twilight! Maybe millions!"

Luna shook her head. "I think Gaia had some idea of what was happening. I think she was afraid. She became anxious, suspicious of everything. Her nightmares were horrifying, and when she woke, she would lash out without warning. I think she was trying to tell us, but she couldn't speak the words. We didn't even have words for such things. Or perhaps we simply couldn't hear them."

The Sisters shivered together.

Twilight looked to Cadance, and Cadance looked to her, and neither knew what to do.

Celestia spoke.

"Her last children were meant to be guardians. They were to be creatures so fierce that any who might dare invade the world she had made would fall before their might. That was why they were so monstrous, so terribly powerful."

"But even they were only a precursor. A model on which her final, greatest creation would be based."

After no small amount of hesitation, Twilight asked the question.

"What was her final creation, Princess?"

"Typhon." It came out as barely a whisper. Her eyes were closed, but that didn't stop a tear from sneaking out.

"So, um, what happened? With Typhon?"

It was Luna who, after a sniffle, answered.

"Gaia gave him everything she had left. He was to be our protector, invincible and incorruptible. A God in his own right, greater than any other. But..."

"But a mother's fears become those of her children," said Celestia. "We have seen it happen an infinity of times. All her doubts, her prejudices, every niggling, paranoid fantasy will, if she is not careful, be passed on."

"And Gaia was never careful. She was afraid." Luna spit the word as if it were a personal insult. "Every shadow held a monster to her eyes, even the empty reaches between distant stars. And those monsters were coming for us. The world would fall apart without her, all of her children would be slaughtered, everything she'd made would be cast to the void and forgotten, and nothing could stop it. Because we were weak. We were too foolish even to see what was happening to her, and she didn't trust us to preserve the world she'd built of herself. And so...she made Typhon."

"We should have guessed what would happen." Celestia's voice was quiet, stuttering. "We should have known! We had seen the cost of childbirth, watched it from afar so many times! But it just seemed so impossible that...that an Astral Goddess, a world in herself! That she might..."

Celestia and Luna's eyes were closed, downcast, taught with regret. Twilight's former babysitter didn't look much better.

"Die," whispered Cadance.

Twilight honestly hoped that she might never know what was going through their minds right now.

"Princess..." Twilight put a hoof to Celestia's chest. She might never have dared before, but it was easy now. "It wasn't your fault."

Ugh. That was just the kind of pointless nonsense people always said when tragedy struck. Nobody actually felt better when someone told them things like that. She had more than enough recent experience to attest to that. Guilt didn't care about logic, it just was. The words weren't any real reassurance. But then, the self-recrimination the Princesses were raking themselves over was hardly real either. Just an old wound, still hurting. Just guilt being guilt. So, darn it, Twilight did her best to make her words real by sheer force of will.

Celestia and Luna both looked at her through tear-brimmed eyes.

"If there had been anything you could have done, you would have. Everypony makes mistakes, and they hurt, but I know you did the best you could."

Celestia tried to smile. Luna looked away, shaking her head.

"Maybe it wasn't the best, then," said Cadance. "But you did the best you knew to do."

Both Sisters looked up at that.

"And you learned from it!" blurted Twilight, with a silent 'thank you' to Cadance. "You taught me..."

Celestia actually did smile at that, a little. Luna did too.

'Accept those feelings, and they can be exquisite,' Luna had said. Maybe so. Had they ever told anyone this story? Maybe they needed this, just like Twilight had needed her own release. So she gave them a moment to wallow in it, then drew them along.

"So, Typhon attacked you?"

"Hah!" Luna's laugh was more sob than anything else, and so bitter that even Cadance shied away. "No. Not at first."

"He came to us," said Celestia, staring at the carpet again. "Hurt, and alone. And in our fear, and grief, and stupidity, we rejected him. We hated him."

"He terrified us!"

"We thought it was he who had killed our sister. And we wasted no time in blaming him for it."

"We were..." said Luna, her voice dripping with acid self-loathing, "not the family we should have been."

A long silence fell in the room. Only the unknowing flickering of the fireplace dared interrupt it.

"Can you imagine, Twilight?" asked Celestia. "Just born into the world, fully aware, carrying all that your Mother was inside of you...and knowing that it was your birth that had killed her?"

"And then," snapped, Luna, "to have the only family you would ever know abandon you in hate and revulsion?"

She could. Goddess, she wished she couldn't, but she could! She'd seen it. Twilight had witnessed the hole in Typhon. In that brief, glorious moment when she'd truly seen the world around her, she'd known him. She'd felt the annihilating fury in his heart. She knew what he would do if he were set free. To hear how it had come to be there was...

Twilight found her vision clouding with tears. She let them come.

"But even that was not enough to make him what he has become."

Twilight looked up at Celestia. The idea that anything might be worse than what had just been described absolutely eluded her.

"It was Gaia's return that drove him to madness."

"Her...return?"

"You asked before if a Goddess could change, Cadance," said Celestia. "One way we can do that, we discovered, is to die. Gaia, our sister, who was once Life Itself...died. And in her place, wearing a pallid mockery of her body, rose Terra, the Silent Earth."

Twilight's mouth hung open. That empty, frozen thing was Gaia, the Goddess of Life?

But, no. It wasn't. Twilight hadn't understood what she'd seen in Terra, but she did now. That echoing emptiness, those ghosts of instinct, they had once been full and alive! Terra wasn't cruel, she was...gone. She was infuriating and cold because she'd forgotten what it was to be living. She was a mountain, trying to comprehend a sparrow. But still, she was trying! Even so...

"For one, tiny moment," said Luna, "Typhon was happy. He saw her rise and his eyes were so full of hope! But..."

"She barely remembered him!" cried Celestia. "She barely remembered any of us."

"He begged her to speak to him, to stay with him, to explain his purpose. To give him..." Luna's voice caught, and Twilight was at a loss to describe what emotion held her. Anger? Remorse? "A reason to be. Any reason."

"Terra stared at him for a long, long time. Then, as we all watched..." Celestia breathed deep. "She turned aside to examine a stone. Without sparing him a single word, she picked it up and walked away."

The fire crackled in the heavy silence.

"It was then that he attacked us," said Celestia. "Us, and everything else."

"He will kill the entire universe if he can, Twilight. Such is his only wish. An end to all things. Himself, most of all."

He would. Twilight had seen that in him. But she'd seen something else, too. He'd looked into her, just as she had into him, and something he'd seen had given him pause. Only for a moment, true, but still. For that second, he'd stopped. He'd tried.

"I can't recall how long it took us to finally defeat him," said Celestia, voice flat. "And even then, we could never kill him."

"He is a weapon forged by a master without peer," said Luna. "We don't know if he even can die. We could only banish him, and chain him, and prepare against the possibility of his escape."

"And so, we cast him into Tartarus, thinking that horrible place might hold him." Celestia shook her head. "But he tore his way free within a few decades, and was back upon our doorstep."

"It was then," intoned Luna. "That Terra came forth."

"She had all but ignored us until that moment. The great war with its mountain-rending battles, every entreaty we made for help or even simple recognition, the countless deaths Typhon had caused with his rampage, none of it had moved her in the slightest. To this day, we don't know why she returned. But in the end, she finally joined us in battle against her final, greatest child," said Celestia. "And together we forced him back into the prison-world."

"Then," said Luna, "with naught but a single glance back at us, Terra followed him in."

"Honestly, it was..." Celestia paused, seeming to have trouble saying the next words. "S-something of a relief, watching her go." Her face was weary with an old, old guilt.

"Seeing her," said Luna, voice tight with disgust. "This walking stone corpse wearing the face of our beloved sister, it was..." She shook herself, unable to find the words.

Luna showed anger where Celestia displayed guilt, but Twilight knew they were just different expressions of the same thing: grief. She wondered again if this were the first time either of them had ever put these feelings into words.

"We have met Terra and her loyal sons a hoof-ful of times since then," said Celestia, "when we've had to return to Tartarus for one reason or another. Typhon has freed himself twice. None of them have ever left that place."

Silence reigned. Cadance glanced between her friends, worried, but uncertain what to say to help them get through this.

Twilight, for her part, was thinking feverishly. She was putting things together, making some sense of what she'd heard and what she'd seen.

"She was making peace," she said.

Everypony watched her.

"Terra..." Twilight groped for words, feeling the ideas out as she spoke them. "She isn't evil. But she doesn't belong here anymore. I think that maybe you, er, us, the living, I think we disturb her just as much as she does us. Not because she is less than she was when she was Gaia. You can't see that because you remember her when she lived, and I didn't get it at first either, but she isn't less. She's completely different. She wants, or maybe she is,quiet, I think. Stillness. Life is fast, and active, and changes constantly, and Terra doesn't know how to deal with that. Maybe it even hurts her, in a way. But even so, she tries to love her children, and maybe she even wants to, but she doesn't remember how. So she left. It's just like you said, Cadance. She did the best she knew to do. She left so everypony else could grow into their own, and no one would be dragged down by the memory of who she used to be."

Celestia and Luna stared at her, rapt.

"She probably knew she'd made mistakes at the end, and maybe that's why she finally came back. She took her last children to Tartarus with her so they wouldn't hurt anyone here. And once there, she tried to give them what, I think, she hoped to give you. Peace. She made the hekatonkhire guardians. She gave them a place and purpose, which they'd never had. And she put Typhon to sleep, because that was all she could do."

"And she did the same to Tartarus itself..." murmured Celestia.

Luna burst into something that most ponies might have thought was a laugh. Twilight's recent experience had taught her better though. Mixed into the mirth she heard there was sorrow and bitterness and the strange relief that came with finally realizing something that should have been obvious.

"That's what she meant when said she'd become a part of Tartarus! She's put the damned place in a coma! And we keep waking It up! That's why she hates us!"

Celestia watched her, eyes glittering with tears and appreciation and all kinds of things.

"She doesn't hate you," said Twilight. "I don't think she hates anyone. You just, I dunno, frustrate her."

"Twilight," replied Luna, watching her carefully. "As much as we would all love to believe our deceased sister means well, the gaps in Our memory make clear that she has killed Us more than once. You yourself chastised her for knowing you were in Tartarus and leaving you to hang. She would have watched you die and felt nothing. Why would you defend her?"

"I..." Twilight had to think on that one. Was she just being optimistic here? Was she saying these things because they were true, or because she wanted them to be true? "Because...I think that she's trying. I told you about the little village we found there, remember? If what her letter says is true, that was her idea. It didn't last, but she wants to change Tartarus into something better. And I think that, maybe..."

Twilight, even in her own brief sojourn through the place, had found at least three creatures in Tartarus worth saving. She'd failed Bait, but she'd at least gotten Beaksy and Ben out of there. And where there were three, there might be more. How many others might be out there?

Luna's gaze turned to one of concern.

"Twilight?"

And if these recent revelations were true, if there were others, and Tartarus could be changed, and Typhon might be made whole again...

She frowned, and it was just as complex a thing as Luna's laugh had been. This was going to be awful. It would be a nightmare. And she was going to do it. Not right now, she wasn't ready yet. But she would be. Because those people needed her. And this was what she had chosen.

The little spark of divinity within in her grew into a fire.

"I have to go back."

Loose Ends, References and Inspirations

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Not necessarily in that order. In fact, backwards. Here’s some of the stuff that gave me the ideas for this little tale of woe. We’ll start with pony-related stories.

Siren Song, by GaPJaxie – This guy has inspired more than one story of mine. But this one is the story of a girl from Equestria dropped into the dystopian nightmare that is Rapture, of Bioshock fame. It has a different name in the story, but I forget what it is. Anyway, it’s a riveting, wrenching, ponified version of Bioshock. It occurs before the entire place falls apart, and explores what becomes of an isolated society torn apart by greed and weird magic far better than the game did. It also has the single best portrayal of a long-term, stress-induced breakdown that I’ve ever read. Siren Song was probably the single biggest motivator for Nine Days Down: I saw what someone could do with a story like that and wanted to see if I could do it myself.

Tragically, I don’t think the full saga of Siren will ever be finished, but you should definitely give it a look, regardless. Though I feel obligated to warn you, it is not an easy read.

Eternal, by Device Heretic - Duh. I think everyone that’s ever read this one has cried over it at least a little, even the guy who tricked me into reading it. That’s about the best compliment I can give a drama. I’m sure I borrowed several ideas from it, though I don’t remember what they were, specifically. Oh, wait. I can think of one...

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik - It ain’t pony, but it is hands down my favorite fantasy novel, and I’ve read a few. The Wood, the novel’s immortal, ingenious, and utterly monstrous yet formless nemesis, was where I got a lot of inspiration for Tartarus. The heroine is a combination of panicky teenager and crazy hero that I found thoroughly compelling. Her foil, the Dragon, is exactly what you get when you take a 20-something dude and age him by a couple hundred years. Also, the power of friendship features prominently in the novel. I love everything about that book, but the Wood really stands out as a great, scary-as-hell villain. Also, it’s a one-shot, so you won’t have to slog through a damn trilogy or whatever.

Worm, by Wildbow – If you ever wished superhero stories had more soul-breaking trauma in them, look no further than Worm. It was too much for me, and I never finished it. But credit where it’s due, Worm is compelling and one of the most creative looks at the superhero/villain concept out there. Just be warned that the fandom motto for Worm is “It gets worse.” It’s a web serial, by the way, quite long, and has nothing at all to do with ponies. I mention it here because it was sort of a cautionary tale for what I was trying to do with Nine Days. My goal was to dance on the line of Too Much without crossing over it. I guess you guys will have to let me know if I pulled that off.

Exalted – I got a lot of the ideas about gods having multiple souls from Exalted, which they, in turn, got from old, weird mythology (but more on that later). I also made use of its over-the-top aesthetic for the bigger fight scenes. I’m interested to know what people thought of all the esoteric god-stuff and the fights between them, so lemme know in the comments, if ya want.

Boogieman, by Johnny Hollow – This a song, actually, and it’s about a girl who was abused and became something worse than her abuser in response. It’s from her perspective, and she seems to be having a wonderful time of it. Luna was strongly based on this idea (the part about being scarier than the scary things, specifically), but Twilight’s arc was too. What if, instead of becoming a monster, she rejected the whole process and became a hero, instead? Well, more of a hero, I suppose.

Speaking of Luna, I mostly based her off how she's portrayed in the comics. Which is to say, less mopey, more fun, with an added dash of scary.

Rainbow, by Sia – Have you guys actually listened to the lyrics of this song? They are not the sort of thing I’d expect to show up in my magical talking pony movie. They’re about pain driving you to be a better person, more than you ever could have been without it. It’s actually pretty awesome, and I’m totally adopting it as a theme for Nine Days.

Greek and Celtic mythology – You’ve probably already guessed this one. I kind of wish I’d gotten around to slipping some other country’s myths in there, but this story was long enough already.

And, as always, my occasional editor/person I bounce ideas off of, Spice of Life. He was too busy for most of the later chapters, but he’s always around to help turn stupid ideas into passable ones.



References! Here’s the stuff that showed up in the story and what it was like before I got ahold of it.

Ben – Ben began life as a scorpion, actually. He shows up in an episode of Sealab 2021. I liked him, so he became my familiar in a Dungeons and Dragons game I briefly played. The concept of a screaming spider came from Spoils, a collectible card game that I was terrible at but loved, and since friendly spiders were canon to MLP, I guess I decided to sneak him into the story. I regret nothing. He was meant to be a continuous stabilizing influence, the one thing in Tartarus that was (almost) always there for Twilight. Making him a dream-being and creature of Luna just seemed appropriate, given their mutual penchant for mischief.

Cretes – The Great White Bull is something of an amalgamation of several white bulls that show up in Greek myth. One of them was Zeus in disguise, another a gift from Posiedon, one just a bit of fancy livestock. Some were monsters, some actually totally cool, but all of them were rather, eh, amorous. The most terrible/hilarious story involved Aphrodite charming the Queen of Minos into falling in love with said bull. Shenanigans ensued, and thus was born the first minotaur. GREEK MYTHOLOGY!

Anyway, Cretes was put in as a big, intimidating, but still reasonable example of the kinds of things imprisoned in Tartarus. I wanted him to show up later as an antagonist, but was convinced by my editor-bro to do something more interesting, i.e show that Tartarus can directly intervene when it really wants to. His brief third appearance was a questionable decision, but it was meant to show that Twilight was having an impact on Celestia, Luna, and Tartarus itself, even if she didn't know it.

Cretes himself is a brute and a bully, but in the right circumstances, a hero, too. It turns out being stuck in a hell-scape and having to protect his people are the right circumstances for him. I wanted to put in more about the cows that follow him, but never found a way to do it. In answer to the perfectly reasonable question of what happened with the herd after Twilight's escape, they're fine. They had a big, ugly rumble, but they're a tough bunch. Whether Terra was willing to adopt them is anyone's guess, but finding and getting the herd home is one of Twi's top priorities upon her return to Tartarus.

The gorehounds and the wyrds – I took one look at the diamond dogs and was all like, 'Those things are werewolves. Lokk at how huge those things are. They could tear people up.' And thus, with the addition of shaggy hair and a viking-like temperament, were born the gorehounds. Wyrds were just a little something to make things more interesting, an old trick Discord pulled on the world that gave random creatures random bits of violent magic.

The ash viper, the clot – Just some ever more unpleasant creatures for Twi to contend with, though the singing thing on top of the clot came from an old game called Odium, I think. It was just some singing mutant that never attacked you, but led you toward a fight. Don’t know what brought it mind, but it was weird and I thought it made a good lure, so there we are.

The manticore - That word means man-eater, by the by They've been described as tigers with spiny tails, giant lions with scorpion tails and men's faces, the former with wings, and even more exotic creatures. I went with the canon pony one. The idea that they're scared of rhyme came from an actual pony publication that I can't currently recall the name of. It was the diary Twi found in the old castle. One of you will surely know its official title.

Virago – Flagrantly stolen from Fluffle Puff lore. It’s Markseline. That’s pretty much it. I’ve always liked the idea of a Goddess of Crazy, and she seemed appropriate. I wanted more out of her, actually, but writing convincing crazy is pretty hard. Virago means mad-woman, by the way, and also, warrior-woman. Funny how the two are synonyms, eh?
Okay, I guess there's more to her. I took further inspiration from the series she was inspired by: Deadspace. I really liked how the first game handled the Marker. the idea that it was inimical to the human mind, but not actually hostile to us was super interesting. They kinda ruined that in the sequels. So it goes.

Somebody in the comments totally called me out on the plant that was being used to contain Virago. Its name was Yothga. It comes from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The Scarlet Citadel, I want to say. Yothga had roots that reached all the way into Hell, and the being it contained was a great wizard who eventually destroyed the guy who had imprisoned both Conan and himself.

The Wights – What if ponies lived underground and were predatory? What if one of them wasn’t happy about it? What if MLP came out with a canon story like that, but with a changeling.

Fuck!

Anyway, the scene with the wights was there as a counterpoint to the scene with the gorehounds. Twi had no one to help her, so here was where we were meant to see what she was really made of. Which is to say, she’d a pacifist, more or less. It also gave me a chance to show that nothing could be trusted in Tartarus, and the following scenes with Bait showed that dammit, she was going to do it anyway. Furthermore, it let me show that Twilight’s friends are sort of always there, giving her strength, even if not in person. And also a centaur, because fuck it, why not?

The wights also served as a sort of twisted counterpoint to ponies in general. They work together and have something of a society in which responsibility and family bonds are important (which is better than most things in Tartarus can do), but those things are expressed in very different ways thanks to the environment they live in. They aren't by nature evil, but their entire lifestyle is somewhat inimical to that of their herbivorous cousins.

On the note of Bait, I worry that I picked on the little guy too much toward the end. One of the hazards of having several-month breaks between chapters is that you forget how much you've already done a thing. *shrug* Alas, he was the best hook I had to make Twilight do stupid interesting things.

The Shrimp - These were based on mantis shrimp, which are a real thing that lives in the ocean, grows to over a foot long, and can punch through pretty much anything. Enjoy your next trip to the beach.

Nuckalavee – Nuckalavee is the best and greatest and most god-damn terrifying fey in all of Celtic myth and I love him. Or maybe them. It’s not clear if there are more than one of him. Regardless, I took his description and personality straight from the lore, except that I gave him a sword. The disease he breathes is called mortasheen, and his hatred of horses is totally a thing. He even has some great old-school mythological weaknesses. Specifically, being enraged by the smell of burning seaweed (in case you ever want to enrage this monstrosity) and unable to cross moving, fresh water. I had no particular plans for him after his first appearance, but having him head the Wyld Hunt (which is pretty much as described in the story) made for a convenient chase scene at the end, so that’s what I did. I honestly felt like that whole section was a little weak, so lemme know if I’m right on that.

The Hekatonkhire – Ah, the hekatonkhire. These weirdos are one of my favorites, and may actually have been the catalyst for this whole story. I kept thinking about how something with fifty heads and a hundred arms could possibly work, and eventually I came up with Briareos. Once I had one, I knew I had to figure out the others, and I wanted them all to be unique. The idea of a ‘tree’ whose ‘fruit’ were spooky masks was pretty decent, I thought, but I never really did come up with a good third idea, so I defaulted to a shape-shifting centipede monster that was Cottos.

Anyway, the hekatonkhire were Gaia’s first children by Uranus (Earth and Sky, respectively), and the father was so disgusted by them that he shoved them deep under the earth. Sidenote: Gaia was the earth. According to most translations, this meant that the father of her children pushed them back into her womb. Gaia was upset by this, as any mother would be, and that was why she betrayed the rest of the Titans in favor of her other son, Cronus. Then he went and did the same thing (and worse, actually). As such, she ‘betrayed’ him too in favor of Zeus and the Gods, who promised to allow her sons to hang out in the much nicer Earth. The hekatonkhire, once freed, beat back all the Titans damn near by themselves and were the reason the Gods came to rule. The gods then made them the jailors of those Titans who had survived...And put them in Tartarus. GREEK MYTHOLOGY!

Speaking of…

Terra – Terra probably never should have been included in this story. She was a complicating factor, and I never explained her well, and so I probably should have left her out. But here we are.

Terra is what remains of the third Alicorn Sister, Gaia. And… Actually, you know what? I think I’m going to let Celly and Luna explain what happened with her in the Loose Ends section.

According to mythology, Terra and Gaia are synonymous. She is the earth, a Titan, one of the original creators of everything. She birthed and houses all life, being both a place and person, and turned on the Titans when they were all dicks to her children. She led her children in their fight, but she kind of disappears from the legends after that.

The Shattered – It occurred to me that the mirror pond from the Too Many Pinkies episode could be used for nefarious purposes. But an army of clones forged from evil magic might not be the most loyal…

About that scene in the cave – I dunno, man. This whole story was an experiment, and I wanted to try my hand at shipping. I now know firsthand how hard it is to resist such nonsense. Hopefully it didn’t ruin it for everyone. In my defense, sometimes people just need a win, right? Surrounded by death and despair, maybe a girl just needs a way to feel alive. And clandestine make-outs are a pretty good way to do that. That was my justification, anyway.

So. Many. Chimera – Greek mythology has two tricks when it comes to making monsters: 1. Put two or more animals together. 2. Add more heads. Being born from spilled blood also showed up a time or two, I suppose.

The Bewilderbeasts and swamp trolls and troglodytes – Just some critters for Luna to victimize, to show how much better prepared she is for this place than Twilight or Celestia. I got pretty attached to the bewliders, actually. The idea of a sort of alternate changeling that blended in, but different, seemed pretty cool. Too bad Luna murdered them all.

Phix – Sphinxes are canon now and they're adorable and I love them! Anyway, technically, Phix was a Greek sphinx, what with the tits. The Egyptian ones were totally chill and didn’t eat people, but their only human feature was the head. I kind of fused them, because I like the Egyptian look. And also tits. And maybe forgot the differences.

The guards – Some normals, finally! That was pretty much their role. To be normals. Sorta.

The Swords – Twilight’s very first new soul! Deities often have a signature weapon, and I thought it would be interesting to have Twilight form hers in front of the reader. Especially since Insight has a little arc of her own. The idea of someone being born a weapon and then told to be something more was pretty interesting to me, and hopefully to everybody else.

Dullahan and his Procession – Another Celtic mainstay. The headless horseman (though it was never actually the dullahan, but a dullahan. The headless horsemen weren't singular entities) and the banshees. According to myth, neither being was a monster in itself, really. They were harbingers. Hearing the keening wail of the mourning dead or seeing a corpse upon a horse meant only that someone near you would soon die, and not, as recent interpretations would have us believe, that they were out to get you. They were just a warning of things to come. I always liked that. I’m not sure where I got the idea to have Dullahan approach people and offer them a painless death as a mercy, or that those who had accepted this 'gift' might tell their story to any who listened for eternity, but once it was in my head I knew I had to use it. Plus, I thought it would be fun to have Luna have gone through a goth phase with them.

Tartarus – Ahh, yes. The big villain. The monster that haunted us through this whole ordeal. Let’s start with the myths. Tartarus is a hell, first and foremost. A prison of darkness and despair where the gods threw their undesirables. But it was a deity in itself, as well. Perhaps the first one. Many a hero and villain were cast into Its depths, never to be seen again. Except, perhaps, for the occasional escapee. But there weren’t many of those.

But what is Tartarus in this story? What formed the character that I made of It? I did a lot of thinking about that, and eventually came to a single conclusion: Tartarus is Us. The writer, and the audience. You and me. The ones who revel and revile in the struggles of our beloved heroine. I may invent them, but you folks keep coming back to see what happens. We feel for her as she suffers, and rejoice in her victories, but no matter what happens, we keep watching, because what would she be without these trials?

Okay, sorry if I got all dramatic there, but seriously, I did some pondering, and we are Tartarus. I don’t think anyone who didn’t care about Twilight would still be reading this mess, but let’s face it, we’re all here to see her overcome something. And part of overcoming is suffering, so we’re here for that, too. Of course, we, unlike Tartarus, only inflict such things on fictional characters. So we’re not that bad. Right?

:D

Typhon - Man, how did I forget Typhon? He's always been one of my favorite mythological figures, and I always felt that he got a raw deal. Typhon was the last child of Gaia, and the greatest. He was the one being to ever defeat Zeus in combat, and, depending on the story you read, he was only defeated through base trickery. He wouldn't have even have fought but for his mother, and he never really did anything evil. It always seemed to me that his punishment (being buried in Tartarus beneath an entire mountain) far outweighed his 'crime.'

His description varied. He was either an enormous, well-muscled man with snakes bursting from his back and arms, or a dragon, much as he was described in this story. He usually had only one head, except for the snakes, but kept the wings and the tentacular lower body. Even after being entombed, he still had influence in the myths. He was married to Echidna, who had the awesome title 'Mother of Monsters,' and looked much like him. Together, they spawned nearly every monster you might ever have heard of. Alas, Echidna's story is vague, as is the tale of how all their kids escaped the bonds their parents suffered.

In this story, Typhon is a bit different, and there is no Echidna. But I think I'll let Celestia and Luna tell that story...



Loose Ends – I will totally write this part soon. And by soon I mean within several months.

Oh wait, here's one.

Q: What the hell happened to Artifice?
A: She is in friendship jail, awaiting trial. Equestria is too nice to have actual prisons, so basically she's just in holding until Starlight Glimmer gets around to tricking her into being a better person. I had a few vague ideas of what to do with Artifice after the main story, maybe make her part of a greater plot, but...nah.