This is my submission for the Writer Training Group’s week 6 theme: write about a seasonal holiday.
Well, I’m not sure what happened, but I got a rather huge surge of inspiration. Unfortunately, I somehow got something grimdark out of a holiday theme? Anyway, I’m normally not a dark (nevermind grimdark) writer when it comes to ponies, but most of my best ideas tend to fall at least into a darker kind of writing (I definitely wouldn’t show this or Passions to any of the younger target audience, whereas I’d probably show them my other writings), so I decided I need to stop wussing out.
This is the reasoning I gave myself and encourage any of those adverse to dark writing but with dark ideas floating around in their head: Twilight is a big, independent girl. Plus she’s tougher and more badass than I could ever be. To hold back and coddle her is to insult her. So I’m not longer going to hold back.
Anyway, on to the writing itself. I put pen to paper and it just kind of ballooned into this. This is really long compared to what I normally write. I actually cut this off for my submission because I don’t foresee a good end point coming up with what I have after this and don’t think 1.5 days is enough time to come up with something coherent. I’m thinking this is going to end up being something of a trial chapter (or two… this is long enough that I could chop it in half…) for a large arc WIP. I’m a little unsure on the pacing at times, but I think I need people to have a look at it for me to know for sure. In particular, there’s two similar events that may happen a little too close together, but is necessary for the contrast in the end result.
Warning: This is a fic where I get dark and even graphic at times.
Chapter 1: Chills
The air raged around Twilight Sparkle, cutting through her scarf and team leader vest as though they were not even there. She squinted, doing her best to ignore the unending flurry of frigid flakes battering her face. Her face went completely numb for a moment as a particularly nasty blast struck her. The purple pony turned and tucked her head against her body, wondering for what was probably the fifth time how something like this could sneak up on anypony.
The unicorn half jumped as something brushed up against her right flank. She looked up to find a charcoal pegasus, Dusky Down, if she remembered correctly, nudging her. The other mare raised her head, spitting out a tangle of teal scarf as she brought her snout next to Twilight’s ear.
“We’re in trouble! Aside from Rainbow Dash, we’re grounded and she can’t hold this back on her own!”
The two ponies then switched so Twilight could yell in Dusky’s ear, “We’ll have to turn back for now! Take me to Rainbow! I’ll signal her with my magic!”
The pegasus gave a firm nod before pressing into the blizzard. Twilight followed closely, careful not to lose sight of Dusky’s frost covered tail.
After a few minutes the wind picked up again, ravenously tearing into the purple pony and nearly sending her off balance. After a few unintended steps, the gusts returned to normal and she had her equilibrium again.
Twilight scanned the area in front of her, but the other mare was nowhere to be found.
“Dusky! Where are you?!”
The blizzard replied by blasting her in the face again.
A distant flash of cyan caught the unicorn’s eye, filling her with hope. Magic swirled around her horn, forming a bright purple sphere just above her head. She hastily pressed forward. With some luck, she might just get both pegasi’s attention.
“Rainbow Dash! Dusky! Rainbow Dash! Duskyyyeeeeeeeep!” Twilight cried out as the snow gave way beneath her. Her flank went numb as it struck what she could only guess was the ground. She bounced back into the air, flailing helplessly.
Something struck the purple pony’s face, blurring her vision. She felt tears forming in her eyes as the snow raked across her like sandpaper. She bounced again, landing once more on her flank and losing all her air. The purple pony rolled several times before everything went black.
Twilight figured she could not have been out for long on account of not yet being completely buried. She lay on her side, an endless sheet of blurry white running off into the distance. She struggled to an upright sitting position, each movement upsetting a tender part of her body.
The unicorn shook her head to clear her vision and was rewarded by a sharp pain racing across her scalp. She let out an anguished whimper, her eyes clouding up again as she nearly keeled over. She clenched up, gritting her teeth while she attempted to fight through the pain.
With a willful cry, she forced her eyes open. She found herself looking down at the imprint of her head, crimson smeared messily across the packed snow. Her stomach lurched, anxiety washing over the purple pony.
“Help! Rainbow…! Dusky…! Somepony…! Any… anypony…!” she cried out hoarsely.
‘Am I dying? I… I don’t want to die out here! Oh, Celestia…help me…’
A panicked attempt to get back on her hooves found the lavender unicorn face down in the snow. She sobbed quietly through the pain as she thrashed about, falling again and again. She closed her eyes as the helplessness set in.
She wished she could see her friends one last time. Her mind did its best to oblige, the visage of each pony flashing before her. Rainbow. Pinkie. Applejack. Rarity. Fluttershy. Then altogether.
‘What are you doing, Twilight? Get up!’ Dash’s voice echoed.
‘Yea, only silly fillies give up!’
‘I, I can’t… it hurts so much…’ Twilight replied.
‘C’mon, Twi, we know you’re tougher than that!’
‘No buts, dear. We’re waiting for you.’
‘So you have to come back. Please, Twilight,’ Fluttershy pleaded.
‘You’re right, everypony. I… I’m not alone.’
Each of her friends smiled.
Twilight’s eye snapped open and with new found determination in her heart, she set about forging a plan. She would need to find somewhere safe to assess her injuries. If she was lucky the basic survival kit in her saddlebag might just allow her to patch herself up.
With calculated effort, the unicorn forced herself back to a sitting position. Taking a deep breath, she continued. Her legs quivered, threatening to give way again, but with a heroic yell, the purple pony was back on her hooves.
The storm was still as bad as ever, leaving Twilight without any sense of direction. She debated using another light spell, but as she could barely stand as she was, she decided to forgo magic unless absolutely necessary.
She limped a few steps in a random direction, pausing when she spotted the curved ridge of a snow bank. Seeing no other options, the lavender pony followed the bank, desperately hoping to find a cave or even a little ridge.
Twilight did not know how long she traveled, but she was starting to tire again, each step becoming heavier than the last. Her body felt almost entirely numb, a clear sign she was running out of time.
The wind suddenly let up, as though feeling sorry for the frozen mare. The wall of snow thinned enough that she thought she could make out some brown columns. Hope bubbled forth as she limped as fast as her battered body would allow.
She hurried into the treeline, glad to finally have some protection. The purple pony glanced around hastily, hoping for a place to set up. She let out a feeble cheer when she spotted the entrance to a small cave.
Even though the path was pretty much straight and level, Twilight stumbled over herself a few times before she reached the mouth. Her horn gave off a dim glow as she scanned the immediate interior. Thankfully, nothing scary was waiting for her. Breathing a sigh of relief, the purple pony allowed her horn to glow a bit brighter.
As soon as she was safely inside, a loud howling echoed out behind her. The unicorn almost toppled over as she whirled. Snow blew completely horizontal across the entrance.
“Just in time…” the pony mumbled to herself.
Twilight staggered over to the right side wall and practically fell back on her haunches. She tore the survival kit from her bag and eagerly pried the lid off. She rooted through the contents until she found the bandages. Holding up the inside of the lid as a makeshift mirror, the unicorn found the gash on her forehead, just below her left ear. Pulling out her small canteen of water, she set to work cleaning the wound as carefully as she could muster. Her bandaging job turned out a little sloppy, making her wish she had her first aid book on hoof.
No longer needing the extra space, the lavender pony nestled herself into a nook in the wall to keep herself out of sight. She pulled the emergency blanket from her saddlebag, wrapping it tightly around herself. As the feeling returned to her body, it took the opportunity to grumble at her. She nibbled at one of her hay rations, washing it down with a long swig from her canteen, the water tasting sweeter than anything Pinkie had ever given her.
The exhaustion struck hard and fast. As her head drooped, the pony found she had no fight left in her. She was almost asleep before her chin touched the ground.
Twilight eased an eye open. She felt raw and absolutely disgusting, but at least she was alive. She stretched out her legs and very cautiously attempted to stand. She was still a bit unsteady, but otherwise fine.
As she packed up her blanket, she realized the cave felt strangely eerie. She could not hear the wind anymore. Excited at the prospect of being able to go home, Twilight turned, quickly shuffling in the direction of the entrance. However, what she saw caused her spirit to droop alongside her ears.
The entire entrance was filled in by thick ice. She wondered just how long she had been sleeping. The purple pony walked up and prodded the frozen wall.
‘Not long enough for something like this to happen,’ she mused.
She considered trying magic, but her body was still so weak she believed she did not have the ability to make a reasonable effort She decided she would have to wait until either she was recovered enough or the pegasi rescued her.
The unicorn turned her attention to the deeper recesses of the cave, her horn illuminating a curve to the right. Her supplies were extremely limited, but if she could find a spring without getting lost she would be in good shape.
Twilight swallowed hard as she pressed forward. The tunnel slanted downward a bit before leveling out into another bend. She drew a deep breath as she turned the corner. A mix of relief and fear washed over the purple pony.
Before her was a large atrium with at least a dozen tunnels. Every direction she looked the passage ended in inky blackness.
“How am I supposed to find a spring in this mess?” she despaired.
‘A spring? I can help with that,’ came the voice of another mare.
“Waagh!” the unicorn cried out, spinning around several times. “Who’s there?”
‘You can call me Misty. And don’t bother looking for me, I’m not in that room.’
‘Then how? A telepathy spell?’ she pondered.
‘My, aren’t you smart. I’m going to have fun talking to you,’ the voice said with a giggle.
‘You can hear all my thoughts?’ the unicorn asked nervously.
‘Just those at the front of your mind, what you want to say, for lack of a better term.’
‘Ah, so that’s how it works,’ Twilight wondered if she was not just delirious from her injuries.
‘I see you do not trust me. Allow me to be the first to extend my hoof. Figuratively speaking, that is.’
Before Twilight could protest, a series of visions flashed across her consciousness. A route of tunnels ending with the lingering sight of a small, rocky pond, water lazily drifting in from a small hole in the cavern wall.
Misty spoke again, ‘Do you understand?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ the purple pony answered, proceeding in the direction of her first vision. The path was exactly as described and even shorter than the unicorn had imagined. Even at her slow pace, a few minutes was all she took to arrive.
As the pond came into view, the lavender pony broke into an excited trot. She gave the water a quick sniff before shoving her snout in and drinking to her heart’s content. When she finished, she set about refilling her canteen.
‘Very much. Thank you, Misty,’ Twilight smiled.
‘You’re welcome, um…’
‘Twilight… such a pretty name.’
‘Uh… thanks?’ the unicorn arched an eyebrow.
A series of growls and yips echoed in from the corridor. Twilight froze, eyes growing wide.
‘What was that?’
‘I don’t know if they actually have a name. They just look like worms with stubby legs and growl like dogs, so that’s what I call them.’ An image of an off white creature, jaws lined with jagged teeth, appeared in Twilight’s mind.
‘It looks dangerous.’
‘Very. Be prepared to fight.’
Twilight tensed, her weary body protesting at just the thought of combat. She hoped the creature would just pass her by, but that hope sank with each approaching footstep. Her mind began to frantically sift through her spells, looking for the best way to defend herself.
The creature rounded the corner, faced Twilight and stopped. The pony kept still, hoping the monster had not seen her. Or, noting that the monster seemed to have no eyes, whatever it does to find things. However, with a loud growl, the dog-worm charged forward at a speed those little legs had no right to. Her opponent leaped into the air, its jaws wide. But the unicorn was prepared and a stream of magic erupted from her horn, smashing the monster to the ground.
But Twilight had no time to celebrate. Two more of the creatures cleared the bend, committing to similar charges. The purple unicorn hastily fired another stream of magic. The bolt went wide, harmlessly striking the ground. She gulped, fumbling for a spell that might be useful at close range.
She was barely able to side step the first attack, the breath of the monster leaving a sickening warmth on her right flank as it flew by. She stumbled back to the right, a feeble attempt to dodge the final creature’s left side lunge. Twilight screamed as she felt the muscle fray and tear from her left hind leg.
Clenching her teeth, the purple pony ignored the pain and tears, keeping her focus on her spell. The room became pure white and Twilight charged forward, praying she remembered the terrain correctly. She nearly stumbled over her crippled leg several times, but when the light faded away, she found herself in the tunnel.
However, the clambering of footsteps behind Twilight told her she had not bought herself much time. She tried to pick up her pace, but her leg failed, sending her tumbling head over heels into the wall.
‘Twilight. This spell. Use it,’ Misty’s voice penetrated the purple pony’s disorientation. A minimalist page materialized in her mind, summarizing the technique and effects of the suggestion.
‘This… this is destruction magic. I can’t use this!’
‘Yea, yea, I get it. Ponies don’t like magic that kills. Are you really going to worry about that now?’
‘No, it’s not that, I-’
The trio of monsters were nearly upon her now. The unicorn involuntarily shuffled backward, promptly pressing her battered body against the wall. She shivered as terror grabbed hold of her. She had come so far and now all of her struggles were about to mean nothing. Unless she went back on her word.
‘I will tell you when you are ready. Until then, promise me you will not study this magic,’ the princess’ voice echoed.
The creatures were in the air now, jaws closing in for the killing blow. Twilight’s horn flashed and a blast of air sent the dog-worms flying back, two of them crashing into the opposite wall. The third recovered mid air and lunged again as soon as it landed. The attack was stifled by another stream of magic.
‘You can’t keep this up forever, this will end decisively and it will be either you or them! And you deserve better, Twilight!’
Twilight struck another monster from the air. The remaining two charged simultaneously from the left and right. The lavender pony tried to prepare another blast of air, but her strength was waning and the right dog-worm reached her first. She whimpered, too tired to even scream, as the powerful jaws closed around the shoulder of her right foreleg..
‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die’
The spell appeared before her again.
‘I DON’T WANT TO DIE!’
With a guttural cry of rage, the unicorn’s eyes flared white, a magical nova pulsing out and forcing her assailant to release her shoulder. The creature hung in the air, gnashing its teeth in vain as it tried to return to its prey.
The air around the pony grew hazy and small balls of flame began to form around her. They swirled violently, awaiting her command. She set the mass of fire upon the levitated dog-worm, smothering its screams with a sickening sizzling sound. Then the fireballs switched targets, leaving the smoldering husk behind. The searing energy launched outward, blanketing the entire tunnel in a shower of tiny meteors. The remaining monsters had nowhere to run and soon met similar fates.
Twilight’s eyes returned to normal and she slumped over, exhaustion taking hold. The unicorn suddenly realized she was covered in her own blood, crusty patches of dried brown matting her fur. Her eyes slipped down to her mess of a hind leg. Tattered strands of muscle and chunks of flesh hung suspended in a soup of dirt and clotting blood. Her stomach churned and she had to look away. Her eyes settled upon the charred corpses and blasted walls. Her heart sank.
“What have I done?”
’You did what was necessary to survive.’
‘I broke my promise. I told her I would wait. What… what if this was a city?!’
‘I’m sure she would understand. If you cling too hard to the book, it will smother you. Now listen to me, Twilight. You need to focus up and treat your wounds. You are a strong unicorn, even if your control is… questionable. I will teach you a regenerative spell to help you out.’
Another page materialized in front of Twilight. She squinted, as though that might help her mind’s eye.
‘This looks really difficult,’ the exhausted mare pointed out.
‘It is, but if you want to walk anytime soon, you’ll need to try. And for the spell to work properly, you will have to sleep for a bit. And to do that without getting eaten, you’ll need this spell…’
Pinkie Pie trotted forward, matted coat glistening in the sun. She shook her head to clear the stray locks of frazzled mane from her eyes. The first aid tent was just a few feet away now. She set her chin and smiled grimly as she pushed through the flap.
“Oh, my! Pinkie, you look terrible!” Fluttershy said, rushing over with a mouthful of towels.
“Ah, don’t worry about me. Plenty of other fillies for that,” the pink pony forced her smile wider.
“But you’ve been out almost all day. Surely even you need to rest.”
The yellow pegasus began patting down the earth pony’s coat.
“I know, but ponies are still missing, all sad and alone. And no pony likes that. So I gotta go back,” Pinkie Pie’s expression turned solemn for a second. “And, well… Twilight would do the same for us.”
Fluttershy’s response was a simple nod. Pinkie grabbed a towel and started helping her friend. They continued in silence until their job was complete.
“Rainbow’s team found Colgate,” Fluttershy broke the uneasiness.
“That’s great!” Pinkie perked up.
“She didn’t look too bad, the nurses just wanted to hold her for a few hours.”
“How are they doing?”
“Still up to their ears in ponies, mostly hypothermic,” the yellow pony’s expression darkened.
“Hey, I’m sure if we do our best, everything will turn out all right,” the pink pony said.
Fluttershy nodded again.
“I need to go now. Applejack is waiting and we have a Twilight to find!” Pinkie bounced enthusiastically.
“Um, good luck then.”
“We’ll find her,” the pink pony called back as she trotted from the tent.
“Ugh, this is useless!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed as her hooves touched the snow. Two more pegasi, Ditzy and Dusky, landed on each side of her flanks.
“Don’t say that, Dashie!” Pinkie frowned.
“She’s right, we can’t lose our cool. We’ve gotta stay positive,” Applejack asserted.
“Well, then we can stay positive searching another area!” Dash’s face contorted into an irritated glare.
“And just where do you propose doing that? North? South?”
“I don’t know! Anywhere we haven’t been over a dozen times!”
“It’s only been three times!” Applejack sighed, lowering her voice, “Look, we can’t just go around willy nilly like that. This is our best lead.”
“I agree with Applejack,” Rarity interjected. “We’re all concerned, but for Twilight’s sake, we must be careful and thorough. Now, dear, would you mind going over your story one more time?”
“All right,” Dusky replied, all eyes falling on her. “I led Twilight in Rainbow Dash’s direction. We had traveled several minutes through the snow when the storm really started coming down hard. The wind was enough to knock me to my knees. When I was able to stand again, I realized she wasn’t behind me anymore.”
The charcoal pegasus trotted over to a spot in the snow marked by a jagged tree trunk before continuing, “I doubled back and was just barely able to find our old tracks. At some point her hoofprints branched off, which led me here. But then her prints just… stopped.”
“And that doesn’t make any sense! How could you not find her?!” Rainbow glared at Dusky.
“I… I don’t know,” the black pony looked down.
“Then get it figured out! A pony’s life is at stake!”
“I know that,” was the calm reply.
“Do you? Then show some emotion, damnnit!” Rainbow yelled, practically getting in the other pegasus’ face.
“Rainbow Dash, stop!” Pinkie nudged the blue pony. “Can’t you see she feels bad?”
“Fine. Whatever. We’re wasting time here. Come on, Ditzy!” Dash growled as she took off.
“Okay! Hey, wait up!” the grey pegasus yelled, attempting to follow the already distant form of Rainbow.
“I’ll… search over here,” Dusky stated flatly, turning and cantering away.
Pinkie looked at Applejack, whom nodded. With a wave, the pink pony rushed to catch up.
Pinkie Pie found Dusky standing atop a small mogul, staring out onto the landscape.
“Hey! Forgetty forgetterson!”
The other mare blinked, turning her head away for a moment before finally looking at Pinkie.
“Are you okay?” Pinkie asked, spotting the tears at the corners of Dusky’s eyes.
The pegasus nodded, “Rainbow Dash just… didn’t help things.”
“Aw, that’s just Rainbow Dash. She just gets frustrated easily. Sometimes she even yells at me. But I know she doesn’t mean it.”
“I’ve seen her frustrated. That wasn’t frustrated, that was furious. I guess I can’t really blame her. I keep asking myself how could I lose her? Where did I go wrong?” the pegasus paused. “But even if I had those answers, that won’t fix the situation. So I’m going to keep searching.”
“That’s the spirit! Then when we find her I’ll throw a super duper awesome welcome back party!”
A small smile crossed Dusky’s lips, “That sounds like a nice idea. Let’s go, then.”
“Ugh… I have got to stop waking up like this,” Twilight moaned, rolling over into an upright position.
‘Good morning,’ the unicorn replied absently as she forced herself to check her body. The cuts on her right shoulder were gone, an encouraging sign. With a deep breath, she peered at her hind leg. Amazingly, the only trace of injury was the dried blood and a few bald spots in her coat where the wound had been. She very cautiously pushed herself to her hooves. Her muscles were a little stiff, but the lack of pain made her feel rather euphoric.
‘Much. Thank you, Misty,’ Twilight replied. ‘How long was I sleeping?’
‘Oh, just a little shy of three days.’
‘What did you expect? You were on the brink of death. Even magic has its limits,’ Misty answered.
‘I… I guess,’ the unicorn stammered, fighting through her shock. ‘Hey, you’re still talking to me telepathically.’
‘What of it?’
‘Wouldn’t three days be enough time to find me?’ Twilight arched an eyebrow at nopony in particular.
‘I would if I could, believe me.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘I’m trapped, so to speak.’
‘So to speak?’ Twilight pressed.
‘This cave used to be a burial grounds.’
‘You were buried alive?!’ horror washed over the purple pony as her imagination closed in on her, making her feel claustrophobic.
‘What? No. Our rituals were… more convoluted back then. Somepony messed up and ended up binding my soul to my dead body. I’ve been stuck here ever since.’
‘That’s awful…’ Twilight lamented, shivering as her mind terrified her further.
‘So I’ll make you a deal. You wish to return to your friends, do you not?’
‘If you promise to free me, that I might finally rest in peace, I will teach you a teleportation spell.’
‘But I already know how to teleport.’
‘And yet you’re still here.’’
‘I was hurt and… well, to tell the truth, the spell is unstable at the best of times,’ Twilight replied sheepishly.
‘Hmph, you are like a little filly, toying with things you do not understand.’
‘Excuse me? I am a student of Princess Celestia,’ the unicorn frowned pridefully.
‘And one with much to learn at that. Let me guess, you experience disorientation, fatigue and are only able to perform the spell at extremely short ranges? I’ll take your silence as a yes. It is unstable because you’re not doing it right. You’re lucky you haven’t accidentally displaced something solid into your vitals. For my part of the deal, I will help you to master your teleportation.’
Twilight shook off her surprise, ‘All right.’
‘Try this spell.’
‘But this is a barrier spell. What does this-’
‘I’ll be frank. You lack the skill to teleport off the cuff. You’ll continue to have the same problems. A portion of this spell is similar to part of the teleport spell.’
‘Ah! So when I put them all together…’
‘Exactly. Shall we begin?’
Twilight looked up at the second level of the cave. Her horn glowed and a few seconds later, she was eying the first floor below. Then she was downstairs. And above.
‘Excellent. You are ready now,’ Misty said.
The lavender pony turned to face the small array of burial shrines.
‘Second from the right.’
Twilight approached the stone enclosed shrine. The columns were lined with faded paintings of symbols and depictions ancient beyond her knowledge. Decorative pieces of jewel lined metal hung precariously from certain sections. And in the center of everything sat a single stone table, painted urn upon its surface.
The unicorn levitated the urn high into the air before bringing it down forcefully against the table. With a resounding crash, shards of clay scattered everywhere. When the dust cleared, a thick pile of ashes lay where the urn used to be.
‘Good-bye, Twilight. It was a pleasure,’ Misty’s voice echoed in the pony’s head. The purple unicorn’s mind was presented with one final spell.
‘Likewise. Thank, you, Misty,’ Twilight teared up as she replied. She closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling power gather around her horn. As the spell approached completion, she opened her eyes to stare at the ashes. A soft blue light pulsed through the room and then nothing.
‘Misty?’ the unicorn asked. When there was no answer, she smiled sadly, letting the tears stream down her cheeks. “Good-bye.”
After a few moments, Twilight remembered she had one more thing left to do. She braced herself, closing her eyes as magic began to dance around her horn. Her mind focused on exactly one thing: home. The interior of the library appeared before her, the welcoming sight of the book lined shelves spurring her onward.
The unicorn grunted as the strain of the spell drew more and more power from her. She felt beads of sweat form on her face and and her vision darkened, the library slipping away from her.
“Come on…!” the lavender pony gritted her teeth. She poured everything she had into the spell and an immense pressure crushed up against her body.
Just when she thought her poor bones couldn’t hold out any longer, the pain relented. She opened her eyes, but found she could barely see. As the darkness finished creeping over her, she thought she glimpsed three silhouettes closing in on her.