Fluttershy's Infernal Adventure
"Please, Angel Bunny - just a teeny, tiny little sip?" Fluttershy brought the spoon closer to the little rabbit's mouth, but he pouted and kicked it away.
The pegasus frowned. "You just have to take your medicine, or else that sniffle is going to get even worse!" She turned and quickly poured another spoonful, but when she looked back, Angel was gone.
Fluttershy looked this way and that, but there was no sign of the little rabbit. "Oh Angel bunny, you're too sick to play hide-and-seek!" she scolded. She looked under the sofa, behind the little coffee table with its vase of moonflowers, but she couldn't see him anywhere!
It was then that she noticed the wind had pushed open the front door of the cottage and she gasped.
She quickly trotted outside, just in time to see a tiny little cotton-tail disappearing down the garden path.
"Wait! Angel, wait!" She trotted after the little rabbit. "You'll get lost!"
Soon she came to a crossroads, where the path split, one fork leading past Sweet Apple Acres to Ponyville, the other leading into...
...the Everfree Forest!
"No!" gasped Fluttershy, for she had spotted a flash of white bounding away down the darker path. This one was overhung with the gnarled boughs of skeletal trees, and overgrown with bushes that were nothing but masses of cruel thorns and spikes.
Fluttershy's heart fluttered in her chest, but she swallowed and took a single step onto the dark path. There was sudden howl of freezing, fitful winds and the gentle pegasus cried out and stepped back.
But then the thought of something terrible happening to her poor little friend steeled her resolve, and she stepped forward again. And then another step, and another, until final all four of her dainty hooves were standing on the path.
And with a strangled cry she closed her eyes and galloped down it and straight into the darkness of the most dangerous forest in all of Equestria.
Fluttershy's heart threatened to leap out of her chest with every strange noise, every rustle of leaves, every crackle of bough being rubbed against bough by the strange, erratic wind that coursed through the forest like a living thing. Green eyes blinked at her from out of the darkness, but when she turned to look at them, they disappeared like will-o-the-wisps.
The little rabbit led her deeper and deeper into the forest, until finally she caught up with him. He was standing in a strangely out-of-place meadow of wildflowers before the mouth of a great, yawning cavern.
"Angel!" cried Fluttershy. The little rabbit's ears pricked up and he turned, ready to flee - but he hesitated.
Fluttershy took a gentle step towards the nervous rabbit. "Mommy's sorry she forced you to drink medicine," she said. "Why don't you come back with her to the cottage and she can make you some lovely carrot soup instead?"
At the words 'carrot soup', Angel visibly relaxed. He turned around, and was on the point of bounding over to Fluttershy when a shadow in the shape of a tall, gaunt pony and darker than the sky on a stormy night when even Luna's moon has fled away in fear, leaped out of the cavern and scooped the tiny rabbit up in its long, spindly, spider-like forelegs.
The sight was horrifying, but Angel's shrill cry of terror was what turned Fluttershy to jelly. Her legs dropped out from underneath her, and she felt as though the darkness that was surrounding her was pouring into her eyes as well - her vision was growing blurry, and strange chimes echoed over and over in her ears.
The shadow quickly dragged the kicking and biting rabbit into the cavern as Fluttershy stared in petrified horror. She shook her head, breaking the spell at last. No. No! She refused to faint, although every atom of her body was screaming at her to lapse into unconsciousness. She couldn't leave poor Angel at the mercy of the horrible thing had taken him. She had to rescue him!
Fluttershy struggled onto her feet and closing her eyes, she leaped headlong into the hideous cave-mouth.
When she opened them again, there was darkness everywhere. She gingerly took a step forward, and felt something strange on the ground. It was cold, and wet, and gritty, and for a while she had no idea what it was. But then her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and she saw that the cavern was lit by clumps of bizarre fungus, like nests of tiny toadstools, all glowing with an eerie blue-green glow.
She looked down. It was sand! And that sound she could hear - the strange shhhing sound - it was waves lapping at the shore. She was on a beach!
She stared across the green-lit waters. Oh, it was so wide and misty she could barely see the other side! But there was another side, which meant that she was standing on the bank of a river. But how was she going to get across it?
Fluttershy, you big silly! she scolded herself. Have you forgotten you're a pegasus?
She hopped into the air and with sweeps of her wings she flew out over the water - but straight away freezing winds blew up out of nowhere and pushed her back, forcing her down onto the riverbank again where she flopped on her bottom with a yelp.
"Hahahahah!" came sudden, creaking laughter from nearby. Fluttershy scrambled backwards, for a little boat was approaching, and in it was a black-coated earth pony with a manky gray mane like dried seaweed, and red eyes like burning coals. He had a pole in her mouth and was using it to push the rotten, barnacle-encrusted skiff, bringing it to a stop within a foot of the river bank where Fluttershy was sitting, shivering with fear.
"Who... who are you?" whispered the pegasus.
"I am the ferrypony," intoned the strange creature. His voice was like the wind she had heard earlier blowing through the trees, and although his tone was soft, its sepulchral gentleness just made Fluttershy even more afraid. "None may cross these waters except upon my bark!"
"Oh, please take me to the other side," begged the pegasus. "My little bunny Angel was taken by some horrible black shadow, and I have to find him before-"
The ancient stallion leaned down and picked up a little bowl in his mouth, which he pushed towards her. "Two bits," he demanded.
"Two bits?" repeated Fluttershy, alarmed. "Oh, but I don't have money..."
"Then I am afraid that you cannot travel to the other side," intoned the spectre, dropping the bowl. He again took the pole in his mouth and eased it back into the water to push away from the shore, but as he did, his neck went suddenly stiff and he yelped in pain.
"W-what's wrong?" asked Fluttershy. Even though the ferrypony had denied her passage, she was alarmed to see the look of agony that was contorting his face.
"It's - it's my shoulder!" he gasped, dropping the pole into the boat. He desperately clutched at the spot with his forehooves, but as he twisted around, he yelped again. "Augh! And there goes my trick back again!" He slumped down onto the floor of the boat and squirmed about in pain as Fluttershy looked on in horror. "Curse this job! It's the constant cold and damp - it plays havoc with these old muscles of mine!"
"Oh, you poor thing!" said the pegasus, tears welling in her eyes. "Here, let me help you."
She stepped into the boat, setting it rocking back and forth in the steaming waters of the river, and quickly brought her forehooves down on his back as the ferrypony looked at her in sudden terror.
"Wait! What are you doing? Don't touch me the - augh!" He shrieked as he felt Fluttershy's hooves ease their way into his stiffened muscles, and as she kneaded the circulation back into them his body was wracked with sublime agony.
"Augh! Augh! Auuugh!" shrieked the ferrypony. "Stoppit! Stoppit! Please stop! You're killing me!"
"Oh, don't be such a big baby!" said Fluttershy sternly. She climbed on top of the elderly stallion and began to work his muscles with her hind hooves as well. "If you keep tensing your muscles, it'll just hurt more."
And soon the ferrypony's groans of pains shifted in tone, and he began to groan with pleasure. Fluttershy's hooves were easing all the years of built-up tension from his muscles, and he felt them rapidly loosening.
Finally, Fluttershy's massage came to an end and he rolled from underneath her. He leaped up onto his hooves, a joy-filled grin bursting onto his wrinkled face.
"Oh, I feel a thousand years younger!" he cried in delight, taking the pole up and swinging himself around it. "My dear, those hooves of yours were given to you by Lady Celestia herself!"
"Oh, thank you," said Fluttershy with a shy smile. She turned and moved to hop out of the boat, but the ferrypony jutted his pole forward to stop her.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
Fluttershy blinked at him. "Oh, I already told you. I didn't bring any money..."
The ferrypony snorted. "After that massage, I am the one who should be paying you! Consider this on the house." He turned and jammed the pole into the murky waters, pushing the boat from the shore and making for the other side of the bubbling river.
Soon they were on the other side. Fluttershy hopped out and waved to the ferrypony as he pushed his pole into the bank and began the return journey to the other side.
"Goodbye!" cried Fluttershy. "Thank you so much for all your help!"
"And you for yours, my lady," said the ferrypony. "Oh, and a small word of advice. Down here in Tartaros, keep your wits about you. Nothing is as it seems."
"Tartaros?" cried Fluttershy in alarm. "This is Tartaros?"
But the ferrypony had already disappeared, swallowed up by the swirling mist.
Fluttershy trotted quickly away from the riverbank and was soon enveloped up by an eerie green mist that seeped up from the ground in constant, roiling waves. Out of it lurched hideous shapes, and Fluttershy began to shiver all over. But they were merely twisted trees, covered in all sorts of venom-dripping thorns and a weird, dangling moss that the pegasus swore she could moving even thought there was no wind. Fluttershy lowered her head and broke into a gallop. Even though she was terrified, she had to keep going. Who knew what terrible things were happening to her poor little bunny!
Soon she left the twisted, mist-filled forest behind her and found herself on a wide plane of shattered, glassy black stones. The mist had dissipated now, and she could see the horizon. Oh, it was so far away! Strange flames and jagged silhouettes jutted into the sky, and she wondered how she was ever going to find where the shadow had taken Angel.
Suddenly, on her left, a great, boiling storm arose, seemingly out of nowhere. It rushed towards her like a tidal wave, and she looked about for some place to shelter. But it already too late. The storm was upon her, the dust coating her and filling in her eyes so that she couldn't see a thing.
She sputtered, and wiped at the dust in her eyes - and when she could see again, her heart almost leaped out of her chest, for four huge stallions had appeared before her, galloping out of the centre of the storm, smoke and flames and weird green sparks bursting from their hoof-falls.
Fluttershy stood there, rooted to the spot by terror, but the four stallions stopped mere feet from her and stared at her balefully.
"Welcome to Tartaros, mortal!" snarled the first of the four, a stallion with a brilliant red coat and a yellow mane like a living flame. When he spoke, flames and living embers flowed from his mouth, "I am FIRE!"
"And I am FEAR!" laughed the stallion of pure black, with glowing green eyes and a mane spiked like the spines of a porcupine.
"PESTILENCE!" groaned the next. His coat was an awful pallid colour, his mane a sickly gray, and he looked at Fluttershy through cloudy blue eyes.
"WAR!" roared the fourth and last of the ponies. He was completely encased in black, tarnished armor, and the only part of his body visible were his eyes, which glowed a horrific red colour.
"Together, we are the four stallions of the apocalypse!" all four cried in unison, so loud that the earth shattered and the sky burst into flames.
They slowly advanced on Fluttershy. The pegasus squealed and scrambled desperately backwards, but her legs gave way and she slumped to the ground.
And then she burst into tears.
The four stallions stopped dead and stared at the tiny pegasus quailing and sobbing in front of them, and War turned to Fire. "Wait, what is she doing?"
"Water is coming out of her eyes for some reason," remarked Fire.
"Don't you two dunderheads know anything?" muttered Pestilence. "She's crying!"
"That's crying?" said Fear. "I thought 'crying' was when you turned into tiny little bits and places and flew everywhere at once."
"That's 'exploding'," sighed Pestilence.
"Well, 'exploding' is cool," replied Fear, somewhat offended by Pestilence's high and mighty tone. "'Crying' is... well, it makes me feel kind of unhappy inside." He pointed a black forehoof at Fluttershy. "I mean, just look at her!"
The others looked at the pegasus, tears running down her face. They muttered uncomfortably.
"You're the one who did it," said War, turning to Fear accusingly. "You frightened her!"
"Well, my name is Fear!" said Fear. "It's my job." He looked down at Fluttershy. "I just had no idea that this is what would happen. I mean, she is the first real pony from the daylight world I've ever had a chance to scare."
The other three stallions nodded and murmured together.
"We have been locked up here a long, long time," said War.
"Do you ever think they'll let us out?" asked Fire suddenly. "I mean, I've got some awesome infernos and conflagrations planned, but it's all up here!" He tapped his fiery head with a flaming hoof. "I'd love to put it into practice some time."
Fluttershy's tears slowed to a modest trickle as she gazed at the four strange stallions in turn.
"Look, we're all in the same boat," continued Fear. "They said they'd let us out for the apocalypse, remember? We just have to be patient."
"Apocalypse, schmocalypse," muttered Pestilence. "What does that word even mean?"
"What does 'Pestilence' even mean?" sneered War, mimicking the pallid-coated pony's voice.
Pestilence took a step towards War. "Hey, you looking for a fight?"
"Pony, I'm always looking for a fight!" snarled War, pushing his chest up against Pestilence's.
"Yes, we get it, you're 'War'," sighed Fear. "Always trying to prove something..."
"Hey," cried Fire. "You stay out of it, mister 'I'm smarter than everypony'!"
The four stallions began to butt and push each other, and their voices grew steadily louder until Fluttershy, who had stopped crying long ago and had been listening to their conversation with growing bemusement, suddenly got to her feet and snapped, "That's enough!"
The four stallions stopped dead.
"Excuse me?" said War, blinking at the tiny pegasus.
"You heard me, mister!" said Fluttershy, taking a step towards them. "You four stop fighting right away!"
Fire, who had Fear's head in a headlock and was giving him a vigorous noogie, suddenly let go of him, a look of chagrin on his burning face.
"Sorry," said Fear, getting up off the ground. "We're always like this."
"I guess it just come with being twins," said War. He steadfastly avoided Fluttershy's gaze while grinding an embarrassed hoof into the dirt.
"We're quadruplets, you idiot!" hissed Pestilence.
"Hey!" shouted War, angrily.
"Quiet!" bellowed Fluttershy. "All of you! Sit yourselves down right this instant!"
The four stallions looked at each other, then as one they sat down on the ground and gazed at Fluttershy nervously.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," scolded the pegasus. "Four brothers fighting this way!"
The four ponies looked at each other, distraught.
"What would your mommy have to say if she saw you behaving like this?" demanded Fluttershy, her forehooves on her hips.
"'Mommy'?" repeated Fear.
"What's a 'mommy'?" asked War. He turned to Pestilence, who shrugged.
"We don't have a mommy," said Fire.
"Then where did you come from?" asked Fluttershy, surprised.
"We were born from all the bad thoughts that ponies in the daylight world have," explained Pestilence. With his pallid forehooves he mimed things flying through the air and coming together. "When there was enough of them, they all combined together and then, 'kablam'!" He splayed his forehooves out suddenly, miming an explosion. "And that's how we all came to be!"
Fear looked at Fluttershy in curiosity. "Isn't that how you were born?"
Fluttershy laughed, and shook her head. "Oh no. Ponies don't explode. I had a mommy, of course, who gave birth to me."
The four stallions' eyes went wide and they muttered in amazement.
"What else can a mommy do?" asked Fire, suddenly.
"Oh, all sorts ofwonderful things," said Fluttershy. She counted them off on one hoof. "She can bake you delicious snacks, make you feel better if you hurt yourself by kissing your boo-boos, tuck you in at night when you go to bed, kiss you on the cheek and read you a bedtime story to keep all the nightmares away..."
"That sounds so wonderful," sniffed Fear, suddenly sentimental. "I wish I had had a mommy,"
"Me too, brother, me too!" said War, his eyes brimming as he threw a foreleg around Fear's spiky neck.
"Are you a 'mommy'?" asked Pestilence.
Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh no, not yet. But I'd like to have a little foal of my own one day."
"Do... do you think that maybe..." said Fire. "That you could be our mommy, until then?"
"Your mommy?" The pegasus blinked in astonishment.
"I'd love to hear a story!" said War.
"Me too!" said Fear.
"Oh, I'd like to," said Fluttershy. "But you see, I'm in a rush. My little rabbit Angel was taken by some horrible shadow, and I have to find him."
"Oh please tell us a story," said Fear.
"Just a quick one," said Fire.
"We'll help you look for your rabbit afterwards," added Pestilence.
"Well, alright then," said Fluttershy. Having the help of these four demonic stallions would be extremely useful, she decided. Besides, they didn't seem to be bad boys at all. "But it'll have to be a very quick one."
"Yay!" cried the four stallions in delight, scooting themselves up into a semicircle in front of the bemused pegasus.
Fluttershy brought the story to an end. "And after all his exciting adventures, Nutsy the little squirrel went-"
The stallions seated about her were listening so intently that they almost missed their cue, but War nudged Fear, who nudged Pestilence, who nudged Fire and they all said 'Meep! Meep! Meep!" and mimed a little squirrel hopping along with their forehooves.
"-and hopped all the way home again, where his mommy had cooked his favourite chestnut pie for dinner. The. End."
The four stallions sighed, partly in delight and partly in disappointment.
"That was a great story," said Pestilence.
"I liked the bit where the squirrel went 'Meep!'," said War.
"I could really go for some chestnut pie right now," said Fire, rubbing his flaming stomach.
"Oh, please tell us another story, mamma Fluttershy!" begged Fear.
"Yeah!" said Pestilence. "It's so much more interesting than wandering the plains of Tartaros shouting at things and making them explode."
Fluttershy smiled in delight at 'mamma Fluttershy', but then her face took on a schoolteacherish strictness. "Now boys, didn't you promise me that you'd help me find Angel Bunny if I told you a story? Have you forgotten what Nutsy's mommy said about promises?"
"'A promise is serious, a promise is real; a promise is made of unbreakable steel'," sang all four stallions of the apocalypse.
"Aww," said Fear.
They hung their heads in shame.
"We'll help you, momma Fluttershy," said War, getting onto his hooves and pulling the others up as well.
"Thank you," said Fluttershy, smiling sweetly.
She quickly explained what had happened and the four stallions of the apocalypse listened intently.
When she was finished, War muttered darkly to himself. "Sounds like Slendermane took your little Angel," he said. The other three stallions nodded.
"S-slendermane?" stuttered Fluttershy.
"One of the servants of the Mara," explained Pestilence.
"That's the Queen of all Tartaros," said Fire.
"She's pretty scary," said Fear, his spikes bristling nervously.
"She lives in that huge castle," said War, pointing towards the black silhouette jutting out like a dragon's tooth into the red sky. "But we've never been there, because it's guarded by Cerberus."
Fluttershy's eyes sparkled. "Oh, I've met Cerberus before!" she said. "He shouldn't be a problem. He's such a nice little doggie!"
"Nice?" said Fire.
"Doggie?" said Pestilence.
All four stallions were impressed.
"Shall we go?" said Fluttershy, taking the lead. The four stallions of the apocalypse, with a moment's hesitation, followed close behind.
The newfound friends galloped across the great burnt-glass plain of Tartaros towards the looming castle of the Queen of the Underworld. They hurried past the caverns where the bad dreams lived, and heard them shifting and murmuring in the darkness; they hid in terror in a copse of charred and blackened trees as a gargantuan shoggoth rolled across their path; they were even beset by an army of tiny imps - foal-like, but scaly with needle-sharp teeth - but the four stallions quickly put them to flight.
"Imps," said Pestilence, shivering in disgust. "Horrible creatures."
"I thought they were cute," said Fluttershy.
"Cute?" said Fear.
"That's mamma Fluttershy for you," said Fire, grinning.
They were now travelling through another forest of thorn-covered trees, keeping close together in the middle of the path as barbed branches twisted and squirmed at them like wooden tentacles.
"Thorn trees," said Pestilence. "Awful things."
War rolled his eyes. "You think everything is awful."
"I do not!" muttered Pestilence.
"Now boys," said Fluttershy sternly.
The two stallions bit their lips.
"Sorry Pestilence," said War.
"I'm sorry too," said Pestilence.
Fluttershy smiled, but it quickly faded from her face. It was taking so long to get to the castle - oh, she hoped that Angel Bunny was alright!
"Slendermane doesn't eat other ponies," said Pestilence, guessing at the cause of her sudden change of expression. "He just does the bidding of the Mara."
"Just be happy it wasn't Thanatos that took him," said War, shivering.
"Who's Thanatos?" asked Fluttershy.
"Just the most terrible demon in all of Tartaros!" said Fire, his fiery eyes going wide.
"He's made of bones and darkness," said War.
"And his voice is a horrible, blood-curdling-" began Pestilence.
"SSSSSSSSSS... OOOOOOOOOO...." came a howl suddenly from somewhere in the forest. It was like the whispering and moaning of far-off winds, and it made Fluttershy's blood turn to ice.
"Yeah, just like that!" said Pestilence, impressed.
"And he's wrapped in a tattered cloak, just like that guy is," said Fear, pointing towards the figure who had just appeared on the path ahead of them.
"Just like-?" repeated Fear.
"SSSSSSSSSS.... OOOOOOOOOO!" came the howl again, and this time it was clear that it came from the cowled figure.
Fear turned to the others, a look of abject terror on his face. "Flee!" he cried. "It's Thanatos!"
The stallions of the apocalypse tripped over each other as they scattered in all directions, leaving Fluttershy trembling on the path as the demon floated towards her. It had the shape of a pony, but the way the tattered and ripped cloak fell upon it, it was obvious that what lay underneath was little more than a emaciated skeleton.
"SSSSSSSSSS..." it hissed. Then it fell silent.
Fluttershy forced open an eye at last and saw that Thanatos was leaning over her. The being's cowl was completely filled with darkness, with no face visible, and the moaning flowing out of it sounded as if it was coming from some windswept wasteland far away.
"OOOOOOOO...." moaned Thanatos.
Fluttershy's heart felt as though it would explode, it was beating so fast. But her fear was slowly turning to curiosity. Why hadn't the demon attacked her?
"Is... is s-s-something w-w-wrong?" asked Fluttershy, her teeth chattering.
"So?" repeated Fluttershy. It sounded like Thanatos was trying to say something.
"SSSSSSSSOOOOOOOO COOOOOOOOLD..." moaned the phantom.
"W-well, of course you are," said Fluttershy, looking at Thanatos' tattered garb with sudden motherly concern. "That cloak of yours is ripped everywhere! The wind must blow right through it. Oh, how terrible for you."
The faceless cowl of Thanatos stared at the pegasus for what felt like an eternity. Then suddenly it nodded slowly.
"TOOOOOOOO MANY SSSSSSSSPIKEY THHHHHHHHINGSSSSSSSS IN TAAAARTAAAAROSSSSSSSS," it intoned. "AAAAAALWAAAAAAYSSSSSSSS RIPPING MY LOOOOOOOOVELY CLOOOOOOOOAK..."
"You poor, poor thing," said Fluttershy. "But why haven't you mended it?"
"DOOOOOOOON'T KNOOOOOOOOW HOOOOOOOOW..." moaned Thanatos bleakly.
"Oh, it's simple," said Fluttershy. "I'll teach you how, so if you ever rip your cloak again, you can fix it yourself."
By this time, the four stallions of the apocalypse had conquered their fear and were slowly slinking out from their hiding places. They looked at Fluttershy guiltily, but when the pegasus simply smiled at them, they all grew brighter and bounded up to her.
Fluttershy whispered to Fear, who nodded and plucked out a single spine from his mane. "Don't you worry, Mister Thanatos," said Fluttershy, turning to the phantom. "I'll have that cloak fixed up in no time at all."
Fluttershy hummed to herself as she unravelled a little bit of the thread from the hem of Thanatos' cloak, threaded it onto the spine and quickly sewed up the many holes and rips with machine-like efficiency.
"Wow," said War. "That's totally amazing!"
"Teach me how to do it next, Mamma Fluttershy," said Pestilence.
The other three ponies looked at him sternly, and Pestilence, ashamed, quickly added: "Please?"
"Oh, I'd be happy to," said Fluttershy as she sewed up the final hole. "But first we have to save my little friend Angel Bunny."
"THHHHHHHHAAAAAANK YOOOOOOOOU," moaned Thanatos, the faceless cowl turning this way and that to admire his newly-patched cloak. "IT LOOOOOOOOKSSSSSSSS SSSSSSSSOOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOD..."
"Oh, it was my pleasure," said Fluttershy. "But now we really have to get going." She waved a forehoof in farewell. "Nice meeting you, Mister Thanatos, Try and keep out of the wind, now, so you don't catch a cold!"
The party had just started down the path again when Pestilence suddenly stopped and looked back. Thanatos was still floating there, watching them go, and had made no move to leave.
Pestilence put a forehoof on Fluttershy's shoulder and she turned back as well.
Thanatos' faceless cowl looked somehow forlorn, and it tugged at her heart.
Fluttershy took a few steps back towards him. "Would... would you like to come with us, Mister Thanatos?"
The cowl moved up and down, nodding, and he quickly floated over to join them.
"THHHHHHHHAAAAAANK YOOOOOOOOU," moaned Thanatos. "IT'SSSSSSSS SSSSSSSOOOOOOOO BOOOOOOOORING TRAAAAAAVELING ALOOOOOOOONE..."
With Thanatos now accompanying them, the other denizens of Tartaros - the harpies and lemurs and bugbears and incubos and erinyes and every other kind of hideous creature sent there for their various crimes in the daylight world - kept their distance and they made excellently time.
Soon, the huge castle of the Mara, a great, bleak edifice carved from glistening onyx, was looming over them. Two massive iron gates stood on its nearest face, and standing before them was their guard - the gigantic three-headed dog, Cerberus. He stared at the group of ponies with all six huge eyes, and a low growl emanated from all three of his massive throats.
The others looked at Fluttershy nervously, but she just smiled. "Oh, don't worry! I told you Cerberus and I are good friends."
Still wary, they followed close behind the pegasus as she approached the giant monster dog and held out a foreleg for him to sniff it.
"See?" said Fluttershy. "Cerberus is a nice, cute little-"
Suddenly, all three of Cerberus's heads howled and snapped and barked, and Fear grabbed Fluttershy and pulled her out of harm's way.
The four stallions looked at Fluttershy with concern.
"I thought you said you knew Cerberus," said Fear.
"He doesn't look like such a 'cute, nice doggie' to me," said Fire.
"Something's wrong," said Fluttershy, frowning. She straightaway jumped into the air and flew back towards the gargantuan canine.
"Mamma Fluttershy, stop!" cried War. "He'll bite you in two!"
And just as War finished his desperate warning, Cerberus's three snarling heads surrounded the pegasus, blocking her from view, and the stallions of the apocalypse cried out in horror.
"Let's get him!" yelled War, and for once the others didn't try to stop him, but galloped up to the huge dog alongside him.
Suddenly Cerberus yelped, and Fluttershy reappeared from behind the monster's bulk, carrying a huge collar that she'd just unbuckled from one of the head's neck. She quickly flew down and took off the other two collars as well, and straightaway Cerberus visibly relaxed. He rolled over, his tongue lolling happily as he rubbed his back against the ground.
"Oh, you poor baby!" said Fluttershy, tossing the collars aside and flying down to rub the monster's expanse of stomach. "Those collars were on much too tight! No wonder you were in a bad mood - your necks must have been chafing terribly." Her face grew suddenly fierce. "That Mara needs a real talking to about how to care for animals properly!"
Cerberus panted and whimpered as Fluttershy stroked his tummy, and soon the other members of her party conquered their fear enough to join her.
"It's so soft," said Pestilence, rubbing the black sulphur-scented fur back and forth.
"Gently now," Fluttershy warned War, "Doggies don't like it if you're too rough. Stroke him like Mister Thanatos here..." She nodded to the phantom who had poked a skeletal hoof out of a sleeve and was running it through Cerberus's coat.
"SSSSSSSSOOOOOOOOO SSSSSSSSOOOOOOOOFT..." moaned Thanatos.
But time was pressing. Fluttershy knew that beyond these huge gates the Mara, the Queen of the Underworld, was waiting for her. Oh, how was she going to convince her to give her back her little Angel? And what on earth did the Queen of the Underworld need with a little baby bunny?
"So how do we get in?" wondered Fire.
"Let's just bust it down," said War, cracking his knuckles.
"'Just bust it down'?" asked Fear. That's your solution to everything."
"Well, how are you going to break through it," asked Pestilence. "You going to scare it into falling over?"
"Now, boys," tutted Fluttershy. "We really need to have a look at these gates before we start thinking about how to get past them." She flew up over Cerberus and across to the gates, which were so huge that they were more like twin cliffs made of solid iron than doors. She placed a hoof gingerly against the cold surface and knocked, testing the thickness of the metal.
The gates rang like a sonorous bell, and then, to everypony's amazement, they started to open.
Fluttershy flew back in surprise.
"Oh, we can just go straight through," she said, clapping her hooves together in delight. "Follow me everypony!"
But no sooner had she had flown through the crack that had opened up between the two massive slabs of metal when it just as quickly closed shut behind with a mighty clang that set the earth quaking.
Fluttershy looked around. She was in a vast desolate courtyard, completely empty except for the fitful eldritch light of red torches, sputtering like a witch's oils, arrayed along the inner walls. She was alone, her new friends all stuck outside.
"Fear! Fire!" she cried out. "War! Pestilence! Mister Thanatos!" But no response came from the barrier of bleak, cold iron.
A terrible fear gripped Fluttershy. She'd been with her friends for so long, and they'd been all so nice, that she'd forgotten where she was and how frightened she should be. Oh, this was terrible! How was she going to do anything?
Suddenly, a door hitherto invisible opened on the far side of the courtyard and red light spilled out of it.
Fluttershy's heart fluttered, but she knew there was no other way. If she wanted to save her little bunny, she would have to take the final few steps herself, alone and without help.
As she started to walk down the red-lit corridor, she felt none of the confidence she had had when flying through the black gates.
The corridor soon opened up into a massive cavern. At its far end, an enormous black double door stood in the rock, barred with a giant lintel of iron. From the roof, huge stalactites hung down, dripping constant streams of liquid fire which fed the sheets of flame that continually burned in a mighty semicircle in the middle of the cavern. In the centre of these stood a mammoth throne - carved from the living rock, it was impenetrably black despite being surrounded by the flickering fires.
And on this throne sat a great red-coated alicorn, the same size as Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. But where they had beautiful feathered wings, this one had leathery bat's wings, each ending in a cruel, talon-like barb. Her mane was as black as the soot of a funeral pyre, and around her neck was a torc set with a gemstone that shone like the heart of a dead star.
She stared down at Fluttershy balefully with piercing yellow eyes, and with a voice as beautiful and as terrifying as an exploding volcano, she cried:
"Prostrate yourself in the presence of royalty, mortal!"
Fluttershy, who had been staring at the apparition in horror, quickly bowed her head. "Oh, my apologies, Your Highness," she whispered, trembling.
"Welcome to Tartaros, pony of the upper world known as Fluttershy," said the alicorn, smiling cruelly. "I am the Mara, the Queen of the Underworld."
Fluttershy steeled herself and began her plea. "Oh, Your Highness, I've come t-"
"But I have many names," said the alicorn, ignoring Fluttershy and continuing on what was no doubt her usual spiel. "To some I am She Who Waits in the Darkness. To others, The Lady of Shadow. Some even call me Black Snooty-" She sighed. "Although I do not particularly care for that name. It seems disrespectful, somehow."
"Oh, I think they're all lovely names," said Fluttershy. "But would be alright if I just called you Your Highness?"
The Mara smiled bleakly. "That will be quite sufficient," she said. She threw out her forelegs in an expansive gesture. "Look about you, Fluttershy. How do you like the many wonders of my realm? Is it not a place of exquisite beauty? The doors to the underworld are always open, and it is the only place in all the universe where everypony is truly equal, and everypony truly welcome."
Fluttershy managed a smile. "Oh, Tartaros doesn't seem like such a bad place after al-"
The Mara smiled a chilly smile. "But understand, that once one has come here, they may never again return to the upper air without my permission. So abandon what little hope you have left of rescuing your pet. He is mine now!"
Fluttershy stared at the alicorn in shock, and then, with as much courage as she could muster, she took a step forward.
"Angel is my friend," she said firmly. "I could never, ever leave him here."
The Mara started as if she had been slapped in the face. "Your friend?" She spat the word. "You are still deluded by the lie of friendship, little one? Friendship does not exist. There is only power, and control. Observe!" She turned, and with a sweep of her forehoof, the great double doors behind her throne shuddered and lurched as if all the dragons in Equestria had begun throwing themselves at it.
Then an unearthly cacophony of hideous voices assaulted Fluttershy's ears, and she was stricken by such fear she thought she'd faint right there and then.
The Mara laughed, revealing the razor-sharp teeth of a shark. "The creatures waiting behind these doors are subject to my absolute will, and mine alone. One thought from me, and they will do whatever it is that I command."
Fluttershy's heart felt as though it was being crushed inside her chest and every hair on her body and feather on her wings was standing on end. But she had had enough.
"Your Highness," she cried, the loudness of her voice as much of a surprise to her as it was to the Mara. "Angel didn't choose to come here. One of your creatures brought him here. Please have mercy and give him back to me. He must be soooo scared!"
The Mara's eyes grew large, her face twisting into a rictus of hate. "You dare to come here, to my realm, and make demands of me, the Mara? You will learn the error of your ways, little one."
Turning to the great door she levelled her horn at it, and a beam of livid red energy speared out, striking the great lintel barely holding the shuddering doors closed.
It burst in a shower of flaming metal, and the huge iron doors yawned open, releasing a roaring tide of every hideous creature imaginable.
"Go, my pretties!" cried the Mara exultantly. "Rid me of this this upstart pegasus from the upper world!"
Mighty androsphinxes led the charge, with scaly basilisks close behind. Chimerae and dracolisks cut through the air above them, snapping and hissing with their snaky tongues. Snake-haired erinyes and shaggy fenrises howled and snapped, while tattered ghouls and spectral headless-horses gibbered and whispered. Chattering imps and jabberwockies capered and leaped while noisome kappa and coiled lamia and fierce manticores and tickling nightgaunts and drooling onocentaurs accompanied them. Then came poltergeists draped in chains, with hideous qliphoth and sneering rakashas and insidious sirens singing their sweet songs. Arrogant tengu and slimy undines and sparkling vampire-ponies were there as well, flanked by howling werewolves and fiery xiuhcoatls, while lumbering yetis and shambling zombie-ponies lurched along behind them in the rear.
Fluttershy fought the overpowering desire to flee that was pumping through every fibre of her being. Oh, she had to be strong! She had to save Angel bunny! But the sight of so many horrific monsters was much too much for her, and she turned to flee...
...or so the Mara thought. For when the army of creatures were a mere foot away, Fluttershy swung back around, and that gargantuan strength which sometimes welled up from deep within her, that strange energy with which she, like the Mara, could bend creatures to her will, burst inside her heart like a supernova. Her eyes grew wider, ever wider, and as the hideous wave of slavering of monsters crashed over her she brought "The Stare" to bear on them.
The Mara cackled in glee as the little pegasus disappeared under the mass of snapping and biting and howling monsters, and sat back on her throne, well pleased with the awful deed she had wrought.
But her expression changed from one of triumph to one of confusion as a manticore stumbled out of the twisting mass of monsters, collapsed on the floor and started to snore. He was soon joined by a chimaera, and two lamias, and then a whole band of dracolisks, and before long the whole mountain of monsters had stopped snarling and biting and screeching, with some falling away, paralysed as if they had been turned to stone, some wandering off dizzily, while still others sat on the cavern floor, staring dumbly, totally unaware of their surroundings.
At long last Fluttershy struggled out of the centre of the great mountain of dazed and sleeping creatures. She panted heavily as she clambered onto the summit, her mane dishevelled, her coat covered in slime and venom.
The Mara stared at the pegasus in utter disbelief. "You, you...!"
Fluttershy turned on her, furious. "Now give Angel back to me!" she cried.
The Mara blinked in disbelief at the pegasus, and then she screamed in rage. "You arrogant foal!" Her huge black bat's wings fanned out behind her as she took to the air. "You may have defeated my creatures, but you shall not defeat me! For I hold the Element of Despair!"
The great red gem around her neck sprang to life, glowing like some baleful eye, as she levelled her horn at the approaching pegasus. Again a beam of red light sprang from its tip, crossing the distance between them in a second, and it struck Fluttershy square in the heart.
She fell from the sky, crashing onto the floor, all energy, all hope stripped from her in a single instant by the Mara's dark magic.
"Give up all hope of returning to the upper world, Fluttershy," sneered the alicorn. She landed close by, keeping the beam of red energy still trained on Fluttershy. "You shall remain here in Tartaros as my slave, forever!"
Fluttershy struggled onto her feet, but quickly collapsed again. Every part of her body had become heavy like stone, and she gasped as she felt herself begin to go deathly cold, as if all the heat in her body was leaching out of her and into the stone floor. Her wings flopped to either side, lifeless, and she slumped onto the ground.
"I'm sorry, Angel Bunny," she whispered as she felt the last little drops of her life ebbing away. "Mommy tried her best, but-"
She never finished the sentence. For suddenly, there was a resounding crash as one side of the cavern collapsed inwards with a mighty avalanche of rock and dust, and Cerberus bounded in, with Thanatos and the four stallions of the apocalypse close behind.
With the Mara's concentration broken, the red beam of light cut out as she half-flew, half-stumbled back in shock from the utter destruction of her throne room.
"Boys!" cried Fluttershy in delight as her friends galloped up to her and helped her quickly to her hooves.
"The gates were too strong for us to burn," explained Fire.
"And punching them did nothing," said War.
"So we unchained Cerberus and threw a bone over the walls of the castle," said Pestilence, his hideous face grinning with delight.
"It was my idea," added Fear.
Thanatos looked across at Cerberus, who was in the centre of the cavern on his tummy, happily gnawing on the bone with all three heads.
Fluttershy turned to the phantom, thankful tears in her eyes. "Oh, Mister Thanatos..."
"IT'SSSSSSSS OOOOOOOOKAY," moaned Thanatos. "I HAVE MOOOOOOOORE BOOOOOOOONESSSSSSSS WHERE THAAAAAAT ONE CAAAAAAME FROOOOOOOOM."
The Mara had only now managed to collect herself, and she turned on the collection of ponies before her in a mixture of anger and hurt disbelief.
"Why have you all risked eternal punishment to help this pony from the upper world?" she demanded. "Have you forgotten how much they hate and fear us?"
"Mamma Fluttershy doesn't hate us," said War, angrily.
"She told us a story!" said Pestilence.
"She did?" asked the Mara, confused.
"It was about squirrels," said Fear.
"And a chestnut pie," said Fire. "Don't forget the chestnut pie!"
The Mara turned on Thanatos, her eyes silently questioning.
"SSSSSSSSHE MENDED MY CLOOOOOOOOAK," moaned the phantom.
"Your cloak?" The Mara frowned. Then a sudden despair took hold of the alicorn's face as she turned to the last member of the group. "Oh Cerberus, not you too, my pet!"
Two of Cerberus' heads nodded, but the third one, nearest to Fluttershy, was too busy licking the top of the pegasus' head to do the same.
Fear took a step towards the Mara, his glowing green eyes stern and serious. "If you don't let momma Fluttershy's little rabbit go," he said. "We're going on strike."
"But without you, nopony will ever feel frightened!" protested the Mara.
"And there'll be no wars either," said War.
"Or fires," said Fire. "Well, those destructive ones anyway..."
"And no-" Pestilence was suddenly unsure of himself. "Well, whatever it is that I do."
"I ALSSSSSSSSOOOOOOOO...." moaned Thanatos.
"No!" cried the Mara. "No more new citizens for my kingdom?" She slumped back onto the throne.
For a long while she sat there in defeated silence, but at last she raised her face again and looked at the ponies before her. "Well, if that is the way it is going to be, then I suppose have no choice." She turned to Fluttershy and smiled grimly. "Very well, 'momma' Fluttershy. You win. Take your rabbit with you and be gone. It is a terrible shame to lose my newest general of the armies of hell, but so be it!" And with that, the Mara raised a foreleg and vanished in a conflagration of green flame.
Seconds later, there was another flash of green, this time besides Fluttershy herself, startling the pegasus, and she scrambled away from the weird shape that materialised inside it.
Dressed completely in glistening black armor like the carapace of some demonic beetle, bristling on every surface with cruel spikes that put even Fear's to shame, and with a helm topped with the twisting horns of a vicious ram, the figure would have been horrifically imposing if it wasn't a mere ten inches tall.
As everypony stared at the armored apparition, it suddenly coughed, and the helm fell off and rolled onto the floor, revealing two fluffy ears, a tiny little wrinkling nose, six twitching whiskers, and the entire annoyed face of...
"Angel Bunny!" cried Fluttershy, throwing her forelegs around him in utter delight.
"This is your little bunny?" asked Pestilence.
"Oh, let's get you out of that horrible armor, Angel," said Fluttershy, quickly stripping the squirming rabbit out of it. "This is no place to be playing dress-up!"
Crowding around to see the little rabbit that had been the goal of Fluttershy's quest, nopony in the little group noticed as a long, sinuous body eased its way out of the mass of still sleeping and hypnotised monsters and loomed over them. It lowered its scaly head, opened its massive, toothy maw and the air suddenly reverberated with the words:
Everypony scrambled backwards in alarm, but horror quickly turned to annoyance when they saw the moustachioed sea-serpent waving at them cheerfully.
"Oh, don't tell me you're here as well," muttered Fear.
"You know him?" asked Fluttershy.
"He's always hanging around Tartaros," said Fire. "Making a nuisance of himself."
"Oh, don't be such a sourpuss," said the serpent, with no change in his cheerful demeanour. "I just come down here now and then for a lovely little break from the Everfree Forest." He shivered. "It's such a draughty place at times. If it wasn't for my marvellous moustache, I'm sure I'd catch my death of cold!"
Fluttershy's eyes were drawn back to the pile of hypnotised monsters. "Oh no!" she gasped, distraught. "Did I accidentally use 'the Stare' on you too? I'm so terribly sorry!"
"Oh, you did, you did!" said the sea-serpent, smiling and nodding. "But it's okay. I understand completely." He looked back at the monsters. "I admit that I hang around with a bad crowd, but look at them all, sleeping so peacefully. They're so totally adorable!" He leaned down low and whispered to Fluttershy. "Don't you think that that hydra has the most gorgeous eyes? Ohohohoohohohoh!" He fanned his blushing face with a hand.
"Oh, so you must know how to get back to the upper world!" said Fluttershy. "Could you please tell me how? It's just that it's almost Angel's bedtime, and he gets cross if he gets overtired..."
The little bunny, who had been glaring resentfully at the pegasus ever since he'd been stripped of his armor, began to rub his eyes with his paws.
"Oh, I'd be delighted to escort you home," said the sea-serpent, grinning. "It's just a quick slither up the River of Wailing, across the River of Fire (it's especially toasty this time of year, so we'll have to be quick!), a lovely little detour via the River of... um, oh yes! Forgetfulness (I always forget that one...ohohoh!), and then we're at the River of Hate which will lead us right back up to the daylight world!"
"Oh, and I'll be able to say goodbye to the ferrypony as well," said Fluttershy, clapping her forehooves together happily. "How wonderful!"
"'Goodbye'?" said Fear, his face falling. "So... you're going home?"
"Of course she is," said Pestilence, but not unkindly. "She's fulfilled her quest."
"And she can't live down here forever," said Fire. "I mean, Tartaros is so dangerous..."
"But momma Fluttershy beat the Mara!" protested Fear. "She can beat anypony down here!"
"She has friends up there too," said War gently. "And they must miss her as well."
Fear turned away, the glowing orbs he called eyes swimming with tears, and he threw his forelegs around Thanatos and started to cry on the phantom's shoulder.
A bony hoof appeared out of the shroud's sleeves and patted the stallion of the apocalypse on his back.
"THHHHHHHHERE THHHHHHHHEERE..." moaned Thanatos reassuringly.
War slunk up to the little pegasus. "Will - will you come back and visit us sometime, mamma Fluttershy?"
"And tell us another story?" asked Pestilence.
"And maybe bake us a chestnut pie?" pleaded Fire.
Fluttershy had tears in her eyes too, now, but she managed a smile. "Oh, of course I will," she said. "If mister sea-serpent is kind enough to bring me down here."
The sea-serpent was dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief, and he nodded.
"Do you promise?" asked Fear, between sobs.
"I promise," said Fluttershy, and it was all she could do to stop herself from bursting into tears right there and then.
Fluttershy, with a sleepy Angel on her back, flew up onto the sea-serpent's neck and look down at all her newfound friends assembled along the river bank to say goodbye. Her eyes glistened as she waved to each of them in turn.
"Goodbye, Fire," she said. "I promise next time I visit I'll bring a chestnut pie, okay?"
Fire clopped his forehooves in delight. "Oh yes please, momma Fluttershy!" He licked his lips. "I can't wait!"
"Goodbye War, Pestilence!" she cried. "Remember to be good boys and be kind to one another, alright?"
"We promise," said the two stallions, a foreleg around each other's shoulder.
"Oh, dry those eyes, Fear," said Fluttershy. The stallion was still wiping at his eyes with a hoof. "I promise I'll be back to visit as soon as I can."
"Please don't take too long, momma," said Fear. He blew his nose.
Fluttershy turned at last to Thanatos. "Oh, and Mister Thanatos..."
The phantom lifted his cowl to look at the pegasus.
"I think I'll miss you most of all!"
"SSSSSSSSEE YOOOOOOOOU AGAIN REAL SSSSSSSSOOOOOOOON..." moaned the phantom, lifting a skeletal foreleg in farewell.
Fluttershy waved and waved, and then at last she touched a hoof to the sea-serpent's scales and he began to swim away down the River of Wailing. Fluttershy watched as her friends on the riverbank slowly shrunk away into the distance, and at last were swallowed up with mist.
It was only then that she let herself burst into tears, sobbing so loud that Angel woke up and chattered to himself in sleepy annoyance.
"Here you go, Angel Bunny," said Fluttershy, pushing his little food bowl up to him. "Your carrot soup, just like mommy promised."
Angel sniffed and pushed the bowl away with a hind leg, forelegs crossed in petulant annoyance.
Fluttershy didn't seem to mind. She sat back and sighed gently. "Oh, I miss them all so much already," she said. 'I do hope they're all playing nicely with one another."
Angel rolled his eyes, and the pegasus smiled and patted him on his fluffy little head as he pouted.
"Well, I have no idea why that silly Mara thought you'd make a good general of hell," she said, smiling. "Now eat your carrot soup like a good little rabbit and go to sleep."
And with that, Fluttershy skipped away to feed her other animals, humming happily.
"He won't be able to taste the medicine in the soup," she thought to herself. "Oh, why didn't I think of that before!"
As soon as Fluttershy was gone, Angel Bunny hopped up to the bowl and stared at it for a long while. Then at last he took a little tentative lick, and a tiny delighted smile hopped across his face.
The tiny delighted smile of a being of unutterable evil.