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Foal Free Press Exclusive interview! Tensions are still high-strung across the land as the infamous Ponyville theater fire--now already two weeks ago--continues to beg the question: Is the Equestrian Guard really capable of keeping up with the demands of our rapidly changing society? The Foal Free Press was able to score an exclusive interview with the esteemed Sherlock Hooves, Professor in Criminology, to talk about these issues. His answer? A resounding “no”.

Foal Free Press (hereafter abbreviated as FFP): “So, Mr Hooves, you are the founder of the scientific discipline known as “criminology”. Could you briefly explain what this field of study is all about, for the benefit of our readers?”

Sherlock Hooves (hereafter abbreviated as SH): “Absolutely. Criminology is still very much in its infancy. My aim, and the aim of every criminologist, is to eventually devise a number of diverse methods and strategies that can help solve crimes and criminal cases more efficiently. For instance, we still know very little about the differences between ponymade and natural fires, or how weather conditions affect the rate at which bodies decay. We’ve started discovering distinct patterns here and there, but we are nowhere near formulating conclusive hypotheses yet. That’s why I founded the study of criminology within the Canterlot Academy to help speed up this process.”

FFP: “Sounds fascinating, but is such knowledge really of much practical use? Not many crimes are committed, and can’t a variety of spells do exactly what you just described?”

SH: “Those are both fairly common misconceptions. Yes, crime rates are very low, but I am convinced this is an illusion generated by our inability to separate crimes from accidents. If we got better at that, I am sure many more events formerly presumed to be accidents would suddenly be exposed as criminal offenses. On the topic of magic: it does exist, but its usage is more limited than we are often lead to believe. Take the fire that occurred here two weeks ago, for instance. Unicorn investigators arrived at the scene, but couldn’t uncover anything worth mentioning. Why? Because the copious amounts of magical energy released by Miss Sparkle during her--well intentioned, yet misguided--attempt at dousing the flames completely threw their readings off. Not to mention how spells like that generally become useless if the crime has been committed more than a day or two prior to their casting. I’m convinced we’d have found better leads if only our grasp of criminology had been more well developed.”

FFP: “So you think the fire was lit by somepony, then?”

SH: “I’m saying we cannot confirm or dismiss that claim with our current methods. We actually have a sizeable list of possible suspects, if you think about it. There’s the teacher who was the only one to make it out alive, the unicorn who just happened to level the entire building in an effort to ‘help’, and even a few others. However, we lack both proof and motive. I’m not trying to cast blame on two very likely innocent ponies; I’m merely trying to point out that our lack of knowledge severely hampers our judgement. The Equestrian Guard isn’t equipped to handle crime scenes like this, and they do more harm than good when they try, honestly. That is why my colleagues and I hope to one day set up an organisation either inside or alongside of the Guard, in order to facilitate collaboration on tough cases like this.”

FFP: “One last question: Despite your good intentions, many oppose your ideas. Why do you think this is?”

SH: “For the same misguided reasons you brought up earlier: They believe our work is superfluous and unnecessary, and a waste of taxpayers’ bits. We’ll prove they’re wrong, in time.”

FFP: “Well, that’s all the questions we have for you today. On behalf of the Foal Free Press, I’d like to thank you for this interview.”

SH: “It was my pleasure.”

***

Twist slowly put the newspaper down on the desk in front of her, staring aimlessly off into the distance. Even though it had happened over two weeks ago she found it hard to take her mind off of it, to forget. It seemed like everywhere she looked little things reminded her of the fire, and of the friends it had taken from her. Images of Apple Bloom, in particular, haunted her waking thoughts and her every dream. They hadn’t been in the same class anymore, and Apple Bloom had been hanging around with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo more and more, true... but deep inside she had never stopped thinking of her as anything less than her best friend.

And now she was gone.

Other fillies started entering the classroom for the first lesson of the day, and their cheerful voices pulled Twist from her melancholy and solitary thoughts. Two fillies--Noon Harp and Raindancer, currently her closest friends--walked right over to her, and snuck a peek at the newspaper in front of her.

“Huh, they still reporting on this crap?” Raindancer asked. “I know nothing exciting ever happens around here, but it’s been over two weeks!”

Noon Harp shot her an indignant glance behind Twist’s back. “How can you be so insensitive, Rain? Can’t you see Twist is still down in the dumps about all of this?”

Raindancer’s blue cheeks suddenly flushed a deep shade of purple. “Oh, euh... my bad, Twist,” she said rather awkwardly. “But hey, cheer up! We got a new teacher to look forward to, at least!”

Twist looked at the two of them for the first time, one of her eyebrows raised. “New teacher? What do you mean?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Raindancer said. “Miss Bluebottom’s husband had an accident back in Trottingham this weekend, she booked a ticket out of here as soon as she heard the news. Or so they say.”

“Huh,” Twist mumbled. “Tho who’s going to teach uth now?”

“Oh, well, I’ve got some theories on that,” Noon Harp said quickly. “If you ask me, the likeliest candidate by far is-”

“Please take to your seats, children!” an eerily familiar voice interrupted.

As her two friends sped off to their respective seats, Twist turned her head back towards the front of the class slowly, an inexplicable feeling of dread suddenly coming over her. As she had expected, the pony standing in front of the class was none other than Cheerilee, apparently back from two weeks of much needed rest and relaxation. Twist swallowed. Surely the board couldn’t have... ?

“Now, as most of you know, Miss Bluebottom has had to leave us due to some very urgent matters that required her presence,” Cheerilee said in her usual, pleasant tone of voice. “That’s why they asked me to come teach in her place instead! Now, I know some of you from previous years, but most of you I’m seeing for the first time. Let’s all do our best to get along, shall we?”

Cheerilee beamed her friendly smile across the room, and as Twist looked around she realised Cheerilee was getting mostly enthusiasm and smiling faces back in return, yet she herself was mortified.

There’s the teacher who was the only one to make it out alive...

The sentence from the newspaper article struck her like a meteor, sending ripples of panic coursing through her entire body. Nothing had been proven, of course, and nobody except for ponies like Hooves seemed to pay any heed to the thought. Yet there was still a small chance her best friend’s killer was right there in front of the classroom. And she was there to stay, to boot!

“Twist, is everything alright?” Cheerilee asked with a concerned look.

It was only then that Twist realised she had been pressing down upon her desk hard enough to nearly topple the entire thing over, and her eyes were virtually popping out of their sockets. She looked up at her ‘new’ teacher, and smiled the biggest smile she could muster. “Oh, erm.. Yeth! Everything fine, juth fine. No problem here, ehehehe... heh.”

Cheerilee lifted an eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. “Well, if you suddenly start to feel dizzy, be sure to tell me and we can have the nurse take a good look at you, alright?”

Twist swallowed, and nodded slowly.

The rest of the morning passed by quite uneventfully for most of the class, but for Twist it was an absolute nightmare. Cheerilee’s mere presence served as a constant reminder of her lost friends, and to top that off images of a cackling Cheerilee running around with a lit torch wracked her nerves. Even during recess she barely spoke a word, oblivious to the hushed whispers and furtive glances the other fillies shot in her direction.

By the time afternoon rolled around, Twist knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it up for very long. She’d turn into a nervous wreck if she had to go through all of this every single day for the rest of the year, or even worse: every day for several years to come. Deep down inside she realised she was being silly. Cheerilee had always been nice and kind to her, and any ‘proof’ that she’d had anything to do with the fire existed solely in Twist’s own head. On top of that, Twist became aware of a previously subconscious desire that was actually stronger than her fear: she wanted to understand what had happened, to know what her friends’ final moments had been like.

Class ended, and everypony slowly made their way out of the classroom, chatting cheerfully amongst themselves. Twist swallowed and mustered her courage, standing up from behind her desk and approaching Cheerilee, who was still busy cleaning the blackboard.

“Ummm... Mith Cheerilee?” she said shakily.

Cheerilee put down the blackboard cleaner and turned around, smiling encouragingly at the filly. “Yes Twist? Is there something I can help you with?”

Twist stuttered for a moment. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of, yet her knees shook as if she were about to enter a lion’s cave. “Well, you thee... I wath wondering if... if you could tell me thomething about how... how Applebloom... d-died...”

“Oh Twist,” Cheerilee said compassionately, ”I had a feeling this was what’s been bothering you all day. No need to lie, I could tell. I know it must be so hard on you... It’s been hard on me, too. But the truth is, there’s nothing I can tell you. My memories of that day are so hazy, the smoke clouded my mind you see, and then there was the flood, I... I just can’t remember.”

Twist hung her head in disappointment. “Tho you weren’t there when-”

“When they died? No. I was elsewhere in the complex. You need to let it go, Twist. Give the wounds time to heal.”

“But I-”

“No buts, young lady. Bygones should be bygones.”

“I juth want to-”

Cheerilee abruptly turned back towards the blackboard, effectively cutting off Twist’s train of thought. “Let it go,” she said coldly.

The sudden change in tone caught Twist off guard, and she involuntarily stumbled a step backwards. She had expected a certain amount of compassion, and had feared anger or open hostility, but nothing had prepared her for the complete lack of emotion in those last few words. This wasn’t any side of Cheerilee she had ever seen, nor any she had ever expected to see.

As Cheerilee picked up the blackboard cleaner again Twist hesitantly took a step towards the door, and then another, before sprinting out of the classroom altogether. She wasn’t sure what she had wanted to gain from initiating that conversation, and she wasn’t sure if it had gone good or bad either. All she knew was that the cramped up feeling still hadn’t left her stomach, and that Cheerilee had somehow felt... ‘off’ during the latter part of that conversation.

She had read that no evidence of malicious intent had been found, but that didn’t mean there really wasn’t any, right? And at the very least, seeing it for herself would surely put her mind at ease. Then she could finally leave all this insanity behind her, and live on in peace.

Well, unless she really did find something. But surely that couldn’t happen. Just a few more hours, and she’d once again have nothing in the world to worry about.

***

It didn’t take Twist long to reach the remnants of the theater building, and she looked out over the mess of splintered wood, theater seats and random debris melancholically. The fire and the flood had rendered most objects damaged beyond all hope of recognition, and the pile of debris hid many sharp edges and other dangerous objects from view. Twist found it slightly questionable that the ongoing investigations had managed to delay the cleanup so long, but at the same time she was thankful for the opportunity. She didn’t think they’d leave it like this much longer.

She threw her gaze over the vast expanse of wood and junk, and then went to work with a sigh. She tiptoed around the edge of the ruined building at first, hesitant to venture in between the debris and the many dangers it concealed, but soon she realized she didn’t have much of a choice. Even then she progressed only slowly, searching every nook and cranny and testing every plank before committing her weight to it.

An hour passed, and still she had found nothing of interest. Doubt started to form at the back of her mind, and her lonely investigation felt increasingly pointless as the seconds ticked away.

“It’th no uthe,” she mumbled to herself. “Ponieth much better at thith than I am have already looked everywhere...”

And that much she knew to be true. She’d seen investigators roam these ruins as much as a week after the incident, and they had seemed like they knew what they were doing. When she thought about how much force had to have been behind the flood Twilight crashed into the Theater she really couldn’t feel surprised that nobody had been able to find anything. After all, that wave must have made it all the way to the Whitetail Woods, anything with that kind of strength behind it would surely...

And that’s when the thought suddenly hit her. Many ponies had looked in and around the disaster area, that was true, but how many had actually followed the path of the water all the way to the end? A sudden rush of excitement filled her body and swept away the tendrils of despair that had been slowly taking hold of her. She made it out from between the debris in a third of the time it had taken her on the way in, making it out unscathed as if through some kind of miracle.

The immediate path of the water wasn’t hard to follow, at least not initially. All she had to do was follow the trail of broken wood, which was easy as pie. She stopped to inspect particularly large pieces of debris several times, but they were never of any significance. That was to be expected, as some of the investigators had surely gone this way as well. They’d have picked up on it if anything was out of the ordinary. No, Twist wasn’t out to beat them through intelligence, but rather through perseverance.

The trail of wood slowly became increasingly hard to follow: while at first there had always been a new piece to run towards in sight of the previous one, the distance between them gradually increased, until they were lying several minutes apart. By the time Twist approached the forest, she hadn’t seen any signs left behind by the water for at least ten minutes. Any investigator smart enough to come this way would have probably given up by now, but Twist pressed on. Partially because of her stubbornness, but partially because she just still hadn’t put her mind at ease. Only when she was absolutely certain could she finally turn back.

She walked into the forest, and her patience was finally rewarded. There--lying between a few trees--was a particularly large piece of wood not entirely unlike the others she had found previously. From the looks of it, it had once been part of the floorboards that made up the stage. What grabbed Twist’s attention, however, was the presence of (what appeared to be) blood, splattered all over it.

She let out a loud shrieked and almost stumbled, momentarily taken aback by what she had discovered. She was supposed to find nothing so she could go home relieved! She wasn’t supposed to discover... well, whatever this was. Of course, somepony could’ve just accidentally dropped a bucket of red paint, it didn’t have to be blood. And even if it was, the fire could have just brought the ceiling down upon somepony, right? This didn’t prove anything at all!

But it didn’t look like a spill of red paint, the shape was way too irregular. On top of that, Twist had never subscribed to the notion of coincidence. She had always been more of the “fate and destiny” kind. Destined love, foretold happiness and all that good stuff... But now destiny had apparently seen fit to deliver possible criminal evidence into her hooves. Possible evidence. She still wasn’t sure, and she didn’t dare kick up a fuss over what could be a mundane spillage of some innocent red substance or the other.

In truth, she just didn’t know enough about blood or its properties to make the call. But Twilight might. She knew a lot about everything, right? It was certainly worth a shot.

The unicorn who just happened to level the entire building in an effort to ‘help’...

She hadn’t forgotten the article had also implicated Twilight, but she just couldn’t bring herself to believe she was involved. There wasn’t really a rational explanation as to why she trusted Twilight, but not Cheerilee. It just felt natural that way. She had seen Twilight several times since the fire, and her behaviour hadn’t seemed out of the ordinary. She couldn’t say she felt the same about Miss Cheerilee, even though nopony else seemed to notice.

She looked at the “bloodied” floorboards, and made her decision. They looked quite heavy--and she couldn’t drag them through town anyway--so she’d just have to bring Twilight here instead. Committing the location to memory, she took off in the direction she had come from, blissfully unaware of the distant pair of green eyes watching her every move...

***

“I wish you’d tell me where we’re going already,” Twilight said with the slightest hint of annoyance. She’d have to make at least three new checklists to make up for the time she was wasting right now.

“You will thee thoon enough,” Twist replied as she lead the way through the forest. “I think we’re almoth there.”

“You think?”

“Well, you teleported uth thlightly too far...”

“It’s not easy, you know,” Twilight said defensively. “The first time I tried it it took me at least-”

She held her tongue abruptly as she bumped into Twist, who was now pointing at a piece of wood lying just slightly further up ahead. Twilight raised an eyebrow and stepped forward, increasingly sure the trip would all be for nothing.

“Well, it’s a piece of wood. In a forest. I’m not sure I see the- Oh my!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Is... is that what I think it is?”

Twist shook her head and shrugged. “I’m not thure, that’th why I brought you here. It came from the theatre.”

Twilight frowned. “How did it get from the theatre to- Oh, right,” she said with sudden understanding as she went closer to inspect.

“Tho, ith it... ?”

“Blood? I can’t be sure,” Twilight said. “I don’t know how to tell from just looking at it, but if I had a few books I’m sure I could find out...”

“Pleathe do,” Twist begged, “I want to know what happened to my friendth, and I don’t feel... I don’t feel thafe...” she said in a small voice.

“Well, we probably won’t find out who did it from just this.” Twilight scratched her head. “If this turns out to be blood, it could reopen the case and lead to a breakthrough, though...” She paused for a moment. “Alright, I’ll bring it back to the library with me.”

Twist flung herself at Twlight, wrapping her tiny forelegs around her neck. “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! You have no idea how relieved I am right now!”

“Hehe, alright, alright! Let’s go,” said Twilight slightly embarrassed, as she pressed down upon the piece of wood with one leg and held Twist in place with another.

A bright, purple flash lit up the area as they made the jump, arriving noisily in the middle of the first floor library.

“Twilight, you’re back!” Spike said enthusiastically as he looked away from the cleaning he’d been doing. “And you brought Twist, too. And... Wow, what is that?”

“I’ll explain later, Spike. Just bring it up to my room for now; can’t leave it lying around here where visitors could see... Oh! And bring my copy of Criminal Criminology up too, I’ll be needing it,” she said as she lead Twist towards the door.

“When will you know more?” Twist asked excitedly.

“Well... There’s a lot I’ll need to read up on. Tomorrow’s reparations to the dam are also quite important, so I can’t skip out on overseeing those. And then there’s this week’s friendship report... so not within the next two days at least,” she said, only to quickly add: “But I’ll have found some time by Thursday afternoon for sure, so why don’t you... Oh, but you have school then, right?” when she saw Twist’s expression of disappointment.

Twist seemed to regain some of her cheerful composure. “No, it’th Tholar Thun Day, tho weekend beginth early!”

“Ah yes, Solar Sun Day, so Thursday afternoon then?”

“It’th a promithe!” Twist said before bursting out of the door, presumably headed for home.

Twilight scratched her head and threw a worried look at Spike as he struggled to carry the piece of debris nearly thrice his size up the flight of stairs. They were potentially playing around with the darkest secret Ponyville had ever known, and she didn’t like it one bit. Not one bit at all.

***

The very next morning, Twist felt like she could take on the world. There finally seemed to be some movement in the weeks-old case, and she felt like she’d found an ally at least. Before Twilight, she hadn’t mentioned her concerns to anypony, for fear of being reprimanded by her parents. They were very strict ponies, and wouldn’t take kindly to badmouthing such an “exemplary pillar of the community,” the fact that they were currently out of town notwithstanding. They’d find out eventually.

“Well look who’s in a good mood today!” Noon Harp chimed as Twist entered the classroom. “Feeling better, I see.”

“Oh, erm, yeth. Much better,” she replied. “Where’th Raindancer?”

“When I passed by her house, she said she was coming down with the Pony Pox. The kind that miraculously heals in one day, I bet.” Noon Harp rolled her eyes.

Cheerilee entered the classroom, cutting their little talk short as everypony scrambled towards their respective desks. Twist found out just how short-lived her newfound resolve really was, as it melted like snow before the sun the very moment Cheerilee as much as looked at her. Something in those big, green eyes just seemed to scream “I know” right into her face, but of course that was impossible. She couldn’t possibly know of Twist’s suspicions, and even if she did, the others would’ve picked up on it if their teacher was constantly looking at at one of them funnily. She couldn’t just happen to be the only one to notice.

Or so she hoped, anyway.

During the rest of the day she tried to keep up appearances, which she managed to do fairly well. Her concentration wasn’t always all that great--and her hoof painting was fairly messed up--but she managed to avoid a repetition of yesterday’s scene. However, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that Cheerilee was constantly watching her in secret, even though she never managed to catch the mare in the act. It slowly but surely put her on edge, and by the end of the school day she felt just about ready to explode.

As soon as the bell announced the end of class she shoved everything into her bags, and dashed off towards home.

“Huh,” Noon Harp said. “I guess she had things to do?”

The other fillies nearby just shrugged. Everypony had the right to be a bit off from time to time.

***

It started from the top again the following day. Twist got up, feeling slightly better than she had the night before, only to fall right down into the dumps again the moment Cheerilee showed up.

She managed to regain some of her footing when she realised it was Wednesday, but her depression just got that bit worse when she remembered they’d have to listen to guest speakers all afternoon, as it was the day before Solar Sun Day. To make matters worse this gave Cheerilee a convenient excuse to place herself at the back of the class, where Twist couldn’t see her, but she could still see everypony else. Twist felt her gaze press down upon her like lead, slowly but surely burning a hole in the back of her skull.

By the time the third speaker showed up to recount yet another boring tale about the history and relevance of Solar Sun Day, Twist felt about ready to scream. She managed to keep herself from simply fleeing the scene only for fear of making the situation worse. After all, she still had no proof. She was very likely imagining it all. But if she wasn’t, then at least right now Cheerilee had no idea Twist was suspecting her, either. Odd behaviour or thoughtless comments could change that, so it was in her best interest to play it cool and act as if nothing was bothering her.

At long last the final presentation of the day came to an end, and Cheerilee stood up to wish her students a pleasant weekend, and a happy Solar Sun Day. Twist rose form her seat calmly--bolstered by the thought of four Cheerilee-free days-- and walked out of the door alongside Noon Harp and Raindancer, who had indeed made a miraculous recovery.

“And so that’s when I told him- Hey Twist, where’s your bag?” Noon Harp frowned.

“You called Pip Twist and asked him where his bag was?” Raindancer asked in utter confusion.

Noon Dancer just sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Oh, right, I muth have forgotten it in the classroom,” Twist said. “You two go ahead, I’ll thee you tomorrow, perhapth!”

The two fillies bade their forgetful friend goodbye and went on their way, as Twist ran back towards the school. She didn’t think twice about it, as her good mood had completely driven Cheerilee-related fears from her mind--at least for the time being.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the classroom hadn’t yet been locked for the day. She spotted her bag as soon as she entered the room, right where she had left it. She pranced over to it and picked it up, only to drop it again with a start as the door slammed shut behind her.

“I was hoping you’d come back,” Cheerilee said ominously as she stepped out of the corner closest to the door. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, you and I...”

Twist slowly edged towards the back of the room, away from Cheerilee. Her heart was pounding in her chest and she rapidly looked from left to right, searching for a way out. Cheerilee was blocking the path to the only door though, and it was doubtful she could get out through the windows either; the locks were simply too high up for her to reach, and the crossed frames made them look mighty sturdy.

“T-talk? I d-don’t have anything to t-ta-”

“You’ve been snooping around the theatre, Twist,” she said as she approached menacingly. “And you’ve been shivering in your boots whenever I come near, I wonder why?”

Twist yelped as she finally bumped into the back wall, sweat dripping down her flanks as fear threatened to overwhelm her senses. “N-no! I-I don’t think y-you did it at all! Honetht!”

A sly smirk spread across Cheerilee’s face. It didn’t reach her eyes, which looked darker and more terrible than anything Twist had ever seen before. “I never said anything about that.”

Twist turned pale as she realised what an incredible mistake she had just made; if Cheerilee had only been acting upon suspicions before, she had now taken away all doubt. The murderous glint in her eyes had driven off Twist’s doubts as well, but she wished it hadn’t. She had longed to know the truth just a short while ago, but now nothing seemed more desirable than a return to blissful ignorance.

She threw herself to the side, attempting to take Cheerilee by surprise and make a beeline for the exit, but the mare had been expecting it. With a single swift kick she send Twist barrelling into the wall, and the filly collapsed into a heap at the bottom.

Cheerilee smiled. She had thought she’d rooted out all of the troublemakers last time, but apparently she had been mistaken. This one had been hiding under an innocent exterior, but now that she had exposed her as the weed she was she just couldn’t ignore her anymore. If even just one was allowed to remain, it would certainly corrupt or otherwise damage the others. Her efforts had almost been for naught, but she could finally rectify that today.

Cheerilee glanced at the unconscious filly, and then towards her desk, where she had hidden just about everything she needed to keep Twist unconscious and unseen during transportation. It was a good thing fillies her size still, more or less, fit into the larger variety saddlebags, at least if you tried hard enough.

Wouldn’t be a bad idea to wait until nightfall, though. She mused as she glanced at the sun shining brightly outside. She could afford to wait. Nopony liked being at school in their spare time, so the two of them wouldn’t be disturbed. She had already prepared everything she needed, so there was plenty of time to set her plan into motion. She’d have had even less time if she had been forced to go through with her plan of abducting the filly from her home, anyway. Making the world a brighter place on Solar Sun Day... she liked the inherent symbolism in that.

It was a shame she had to head out into the woods for this, but she couldn’t risk any evidence lingering around. That first fire had been pushing it already, and she realised she only barely got away with that one. A second fire so soon would be fairly suicidal. It was far better for the filly to just disappear, proof and all, and never be heard of again.

And as luck would have it, she knew just the place...

***

It was pitch black by the time Cheerilee carried her burden into the Everfree, but it didn’t matter. Her legs still knew the way. She hadn’t gone out this way in many, many years, but some things you just didn’t forget. Some things you just couldn’t forget--no matter what.

She continued onwards, undaunted by the wailing of the wind and the distant cries of strange and ferocious creatures. There was always a chance you’d run into something unpleasant out here in the woods, but compared to the risk of discovery that seemed almost insubstantial.

She finally reached her destination: an ancient stone fortress darker than the black of night, impervious to the whips and scorns of time. As far as Cheerilee could tell it had been completely forgotten by the world. She almost regretted the need to travel under the mantle of night, as she had always enjoyed seeing it in its full glory. Memories of how they’d first found it came back to her, it seemed like an eternity ago...

Cheerilee dug out a small, red gem from one of her saddle bags as she walked towards the massive, stone doors that served as the only entrance into the building. She still remembered the day they had just found it lying in the woods. She didn’t know how it had gotten there, but she knew it to be the only one of its kind. As it drew closer to the gate, the gem let out a bright, inner light and the stone doors swung open silently.

Cheerilee smiled, as she stepped into the hallway which lay beyond, illuminated by an invisible source of light.

“Ace... I’m back.”

***

Twist had never felt so heavy. She tried to compare it with the lazy drowsiness that could come over you during a hot summer’s day, or while blissfully snoozing in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. But both of these came accompanied by a sensation of heavy limbs that most ponies would be quite familiar with, and which wasn’t altogether unpleasant.

This was different.

It was as if she could feel a weight pressing down upon her chest, which troubled her breathing and left her unable to move. She tried to open her eyes, but found she couldn’t. She felt she ought to be disturbed or even frightened by this notion, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her mind had been weighted down as well.

Time became a malleable principle to her, without much use or merit. She didn’t know how long she’d been like that, but she knew it didn’t matter.

Slowly but surely, the effect lessened. She began to become aware of things she had once known, but which she had forgotten. The thumping sound in her ears became the beating of her heart. A gentle whisper became the rhythm of her breathing. She became aware of a crucial distinction. There was the world, and there was her body, and these two were surely not the same. For the world was the world, and she was... Twist. Yes, that was her name, Twist.

And so she finally opened her eyes. It proved to be rather anticlimactic, as she didn’t seem to be able to see anything at all at first. Her eyes adjusted to the poor light conditions slowly, but all she could see was one big blur of dark, depressing colours. She could hear stone groaning under its own weight all around, and the clanking of metal to her left. She tried to move, but to her great surprise she still was not able to. This puzzled her. Didn’t she finally wake up? Where was she anyway?

The memories started flooding back to her... Her bag, the classroom, Cheerilee, a horrible taste in her mouth... With a shock she realised what had happened, and so the reason why she couldn’t move became abundantly clear. Finally fully awake, she could tell that some kind of metallic clasps were holding her legs in place, so that the back of her body was pressed up against some kind of cold, rough surface--presumably one of the walls.

She did her best not to panic, but she could already feel the build-up of adrenaline inside, ready to be released at the first useful, or not-so-useful, opportunity. She started struggling against her bounds, letting out a few grunts and moans of effort in the process.

“Ah, you’re finally awake.”

The voice originated from somewhere to her left, and Twist turned her head towards it as best she could. The only thing she was able to make out was a hazy, fuchsia blob amidst the dull blacks and greys, which rapidly approached her. It slowly expanded until it filled almost her entire field of vision, and Twist closed her eyes fearfully when she felt something being slid onto her head. When she finally worked up the courage to open them again, she could see her surroundings crystal clear. She had regained her glasses, but wished she didn’t.

She found herself inside of a stone building of sorts, although it wasn’t any she had ever seen in Ponyville. The stone slabs the room had been constructed with were huge, and of a peculiar shade of black as well. The room was fairly small, and much wider than it was long. The ceiling was surprisingly high up--which gave the room an extra sense of space--and peculiarly enough the blocks of stone gave way to a series of metal bars just underneath the ceiling. Twist thought she could see another room or perhaps a hallway, behind the bars, but she just wasn’t sure.

There was an open doorway right across from her, and it lead off into a hallway illuminated just as badly as the room. Twist noticed she couldn’t actually see a source of light anywhere. It was almost as if the room had a supply of light all its own. Two saddlebags were lying on the floor to her left, but she could not make out the contents, although some were definitely metallic in nature.

Twist took in all of this in the second it took her to become aware of Cheerilee, who was standing right in front of her, staring at her intensely while wearing a pleasant smile.

“I hope you slept well, because you probably won’t be sleeping for awhile,” she said in an almost motherly tone of voice. “But then again, you’ll be sleeping for a long, long time right after that, so it’s probably not worth losing any sleep over it.”

Twist felt a block of ice descend into her stomach, the strange contrast between her teacher’s tone of voice and the meaning of her words only serving to increase the dread she was feeling.

“P-pleathe, y-you can’t... k-kill me... I... I haven’t done a-anything wrong,” the filly stammered, her eyes slowly starting to glisten with tears.

Cheerilee walked over to her saddlebags and started to rummage about inside, clearly looking for something. “But I’m afraid I must,” she said with obvious excitement. “It’s not so much about what you’ve done, but about what you’ll end up doing. I had forgotten how strong your ties with Apple Bloom were... She got to you.”

She pulled out a leather pouch containing various clamps and knives, and threw it down in front of Twist. “But more importantly, I can’t have you talk,” she said as she took a knife from the pouch and brought her lips next to Twist’s ear. “You didn’t tell anypony it was me, right?”

Twist swallowed, her entire body shivering in fear as tears slowly trickled down her cheeks. Her situation appeared hopeless, but even though she was scared she didn’t want to give up just yet.

“I...I told lotth of people! I told everypony it wath you! They didn’t believe me, but if I dithapear, they’ll know! Tho... tho you... b-better let me g-go... If.. if you l-leave me alone... I’ll tell them I wath wrong!” she shouted at Cheerilee, putting on the most defiant face she had in her. Which wasn’t all that defiant, but the effort was certainly there.

Cheerilee pulled back slightly and looked Twist in the eye, a bemused look on her face. “Oh Twist... You’re such a bad liar,” she hissed.

The filly’s eyes exploded with fear, and Cheerilee instantly stabbed forward, driving the knife deep into Twist’s right shoulder. She screamed, and blood welled up around the blade as it sliced through muscle and tendons. It hit bone soon enough, but Cheerilee didn’t care. She simply threw her weight behind it again, jamming the knife right into the shoulder joint. The sharp pain almost made Twist’s eyes roll back in her head, and her screams transformed into a choked gurgling. Cheerilee drank it in with intense fascination; it had been too long, really.

She lessened the pressure on the blade a bit. “Ready to tell me the truth?”

Apart from some scraped knees, Twist really hadn’t experienced much pain before, and Cheerilee’s crash course was shocking. She could feel a hot, throbbing pain where Cheerilee had sliced up tendons and muscle, and it felt like a thousand needles got jammed between her shoulder blade and her upper leg bone every time she breathed in or out. It was almost too much for her, but she didn’t feel like giving up just yet. She was probably doomed, but there was a chance Twilight would discover something, and one day bring Cheerilee to justice...

“No... nopony... I... Unghh... t-told... nopony...”

Cheerilee smiled, and then suddenly twisted the knife around in Twist’s shoulder joint. She licked her lips, as the screams send shivers down her spine. “Very cute... But as I said: you’re such a bad liar...”

“Ok... Ok! Tw-Twilight, I... showed her... bl... bloody planks... theatre,” she sobbed.

Cheerilee pulled back the knife, finally satisfied. Twist whimpered as the blade left her, and the sensation of pain changed again; it became less pressing, but the wound pounded all the more. She looked down at her own body, and the trail of blood that flowed down it. It had already begun pooling underneath her right hoof, and the sight sickened her. She’d never realised just how much blood there was inside of her before. She felt herself go green when Cheerilee casually licked the knife’s blade.

“Mmmmm... So, Twilight Sparkle,” she said ponderously. “If it’s her she might find us here... She’ll only be looking for you, though, not me. There’s no reason to kill her, either, and she’ll probably bring her frie-”

Her friends.

The realisation shocked her like a plunge in an icy lake right after the sauna, as several isolated facts and ideas gathered together to combine into one, glorious whole. For many months she had asked herself one single question: How could so many fillies suddenly go so bad, in a town where everypony was exemplary? But now she finally understood why.

Twilight’s friends. Rarity was Sweetiebelle’s sister, Applejack was Apple Bloom’s and Rainbow Dash was Scootaloo’s idol. Snips and Snails seemed to have taken quite a liking to her as well, and they ran into the entire bunch often enough, anyway. Pinkie Pie had been with the girls fairly often, and it was no secret that Fluttershy was Rarity’s preferred babysitter. Or sistersitter, whatever. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had had the least contact with those five, but she supposed there were always exceptions to the rule. They could’ve been rotten from the start--she could accept that happening to one or two fillies, just not seven at once--or else they had just felt the need to “step up their game” to match up to their rivals, the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

Their corruption could all be traced back to the influence of those five mares, and they in turn had been influenced by... Twilight Sparkle. She had heard that the bigger cities had become more immoral and filthier in the last few years, and that the Royal family had it especially bad. She had just never imagined it was this bad.

There was no way she could set everything right, but she could protect Ponyville. She could make a stand.

“Yes... Yes!” she exclaimed almost triumphantly. “Let them come! They won’t be arriving until tomorrow at the earliest, if they come at all... I’ll be ready, I can finally end this, once and for all!” She could see it now... The culprits, and the punishment she’d bestow upon them...

“You... you’re crazy,” said a still teary-eyed Twist through clenched teeth. “Twilight ith powerful, the will...”

Cheerilee laughed heartily. “Oh, but that’s the beauty of it. No matter how fancy her magic is... It’s useless in here.”

She drew closer with the knife again, and Twist didn’t dare move or utter so much as a single syllable. She stared at the bloody knife fearfully, the pounding of her violated shoulder reminding her of the damage and agony it could inflict. She realised the pain in her shoulder would probably have already left her unable to think straight if not for the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

“I’m surprised you didn’t try asking me where we are yet,” Cheerilee said as she rested the knife against Twist’s chest. “But, you know, I’ll tell you anyway. A little story from Cheerilee, before you die.”

The filly wanted to protest her bleak future, but she had used up all of her courage and energy already. Just coping with the pain was hard enough already. Her lip trembled as tears again rolled over her cheeks, and she breathed only shallowly for fear of the knife pressed against her chest.

“I once was a little filly like you, and at that time I, too, had a friend who was very dear to me. His name was Ace High,” said Cheerilee as she looked Twist in the eyes. “He was a self-proclaimed gambler of sorts, but he didn’t gamble for bits... He bet on people’s hearts. He bet that they could be better, stronger and happier than they were, and he was always right... Do you know why he was always right?”

Twist only shook her head, terrified.

“Because he made his bets come true. He could awaken the best in anypony. I was proud to have him as my friend, and we were always together. I’d watch him perform card tricks with his magic or, more frequently, we’d venture out in the Everfree Forest,” she said. “We were kids, after all. They told us we shouldn’t go near it, and so the Forest... attracted us. One day, we found a big fortress in the woods...”

Twist’s eyes grew wide, and Cheerilee nodded with a grin.

“That’s right! You’re inside of the Everfree right now... We spent days looking for a way in, but we couldn’t find any... Until one day we found a gem, just lying outside in the woods. We took it along with us, and once we got closer to the fortress, the doors opened... We started exploring it, every room and hallway. We concluded it had to be a remnant of darker times, for we mainly found implements of torture, and deactivated traps.”

As Cheerilee lost herself in the story she started paying less and less attention to her knife, and Twist squirmed as the tip pressed lightly into her chest, a crimson bead of blood welling up around it. It was nothing compared to her shoulder, but it still hurt.

“The interior is illuminated by magic, and Ace’s own magic failed to work inside... Needless to say, we were fascinated. We found secret hallways and rooms, many of which contained the mechanisms operating the traps. It was the adventure of a lifetime.”

Twist breathed a sigh of relief as Cheerilee lowered the knife, supporting herself against the wall behind Twist as she bowed her head.

“And then one day... Ace died,” she said in a barely audible whisper. “It was my fault... the traps... I didn’t... didn’t turn them back off properly...” She shed a few tears, to Twist’s great astonishment. She wanted to say something, but was afraid of what Cheerilee would do if she ruined the moment. “I never told anypony. How could I have? His family moved away soon after that. They think he just went missing, up to this very day... And that’s when I realised something. I realised that, if I was going to atone for his death, I needed to become like him. Better than him. I needed to make ponies grow, foster their strengths, guide their abilities.”

“And tho... you became... a teacher?” Twist asked quietly, both scared out of her mind and moved by the story despite herself.

“Yes. And I was doing fine... Helping ponies, redeeming myself, forgetting Ace and moving on... Until your friends came along, and ruined EVERYTHING!” she said with a snarl.

Twist shrieked as Cheerilee suddenly pressed the knife against the top of her midriff, making a small, horizontal incision.

“N... no, pleathe.. pleathe wait...” the filly stammered as the pain made sweat pearl down her face, but Cheerilee seemed to be done talking and paid her no heed.

Using the incision she had just made, she quickly dug the tip of her knife underneath the skin, and started cutting downwards. Twist squirmed and let out a variety of gurgling noises as her belly was sliced open, gradually revealing the organs that rested inside. Blood dripped down Twist’s body, coloring both her own and Cheerilee’s fur red in several places.

Cheerilee was careful not to damage any of the organs within, and she stopped once she reached the filly’s belly button. Twist grunted as the mare pulled back and discarded the knife nonchalantly. Twist clenched her teeth against the sickening sensations radiating throughout her lower body; and for just a moment she felt so out of it that she didn’t even notice Cheerilee had gone off to fetch something from her bags until after she had shoved it in front of her face.

“See this?” Cheerilee asked gleefully as she held up a glass jar filled with little, milky-white balls. “I don’t suppose you know what these are?”

Twist only grunted miserably in response.

Cheerilee frowned with disappointment. “No, not quite. These,” she said as she tapped the glass, “are eggs. Everfree Beetle eggs. Incredibly hard to find, but I got them just for you. Aren’t you pleased?”

“I... I’ve never heard of...” Twist said weakly, as she attempted not to throw up at the thought of the hole in her stomach.

“They’re not actually beetles, you know,” Cheerilee explained as she took the lid off of the jar. “The pony who named them did so based solely on their appearance... But there’s important differences. They’re venomous for example. That’s different from poisonous, mind. And their reproductive cycle is sooo fascinating, want to hear it?”

Twist had a feeling that, whatever Cheerilee was going to say, it would probably be bad news. Not that Cheerilee cared much for her captive’s lack of a response, she seemed far too busy enjoying herself to get tied up by petty details like that.

“You see, the females lay their eggs inside of other--preferably living--creatures, like so,” she said as she roughly kept open the hole in Twist’s stomach with a hoof, dumping the contents of the jar inside.

Twist screamed as Cheerilee mishandled the cut in her belly, and the feeling of hundreds of little eggs raining down upon her innards was enough to finally make her spew all over herself. Cheerilee seemed to have been expecting that, as she had already jumped well out of the way. She reappeared in front of a coughing Twist with a needle and thread, which she promptly put to good use by coarsely sewing the filly shut, which elicited a whole new series of whimpers from her victim.

“And then when they hatch... the larva feast until they are fat and healthy... Then they rest inside of their victim to regain some energy, only to eat the host and swarm out a few hours later, to go looking for new breeding grounds,” Cheerilee said, before breaking out in the widest, most maniacal grin possible.

“No... n-no... thi... thith can’t b-be... h-happening,” Twist pleaded with fate, her imagination already making her feel thousand of little legs crawling around inside of her.

“Oh, don’t worry... They find the innards to be the tastiest, so you won’t die right away,” Cheerilee said as she drew closer, and whispered into Twist’s ear: “Now, I have some traps to go inspect, but I’ll be back in a few hours... to watch them being born.” She took back Twist’s glasses and started walking towards the door.

“No...” Twist whispered.

“But hey, don’t tire yourself out worrying too much...”

“No,” she repeated more forcefully as her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Because, you know?” Cheerilee said as she passed the door. ”You’re already dead anyway!”

“NNOOOOOO!” Twist yelled as the door fell shut, but there was nopony there to save her, nopony to hear her cry...

***

Cheerilee’s memories of the castle’s layout were clearer than she had thought they’d be, and so it only took her an hour or two to inspect the most important areas. She found most traps were still in working order -- which wasn’t altogether surprising, as they had withstood the test of time since long before she was born. The fact that she still knew how to operate all of the secret entrances was even more crucial, as they were the only way to get access to the true heart of the complex. Without them, you could only wander around a maze of pitfalls and traps, designed to confuse, slow down and kill any intruders.

Cheerilee knew she was approaching the room she’d left Twist all chained up in, but instead of heading down the hallway that would lead her straight to it, she pushed against an inconspicuous piece of stone in the wall. The wall sank down into the floor, revealing a thin flight of stairs beyond. She followed the stairs up into the inner sanctum, and proceeded to head for the room adjacent to Twist’s prison.

It was easy to check her progress throughout the complex, as there were arrow slits aplenty. Presumably, these had been used to wear down intruders with ranged weaponry in the past, a design only made possible by the fortress’ remarkable ability to suppress all magic. Cheerilee didn’t know much about warfare -- the reign of Celestia and Luna had put a stop to all of that -- but she did know that the archers of old had generally considered the remarkable accuracy of spells to be “cheating”.

Parts of the wall had been replaced by a series of metal bars in several places, offering an even better look at the complex below. These viewing areas were especially prevalent in the larger rooms, and the torture rooms beneath the maze seemed to employ them to exclusion. She hadn’t been able to understand why they’d build it like this when she was young -- bearing witness to torture had seemed like such a horrible thing back then -- but she was a lot older and wiser now. It made no sense to remove the wicked from this world before they had been thoroughly punished, and you had to be able to observe their punishment to ascertain that it was sufficient. She didn’t doubt that whoever designed this place had been of the same opinion as well.

She finally arrived in the viewing area adjacent to the room Twist was in. That room was one of the rare holding areas on maze level, and as such a clear view from up in the inner sanctum had been provided. Because of the nature of the events that would soon transpire there, she’d even covered the entire length of the bars with a translucent mosquito net while Twist was unconscious, just in case.

Cheerilee could hear Twist sobbing softly in the room below, and she couldn’t help but smile. The filly had probably been crying herself to exhaustion ever since she left, but she’d be getting no sleep tonight. The wound in her shoulder, as well as the uncomfortable position she’d been clamped against the wall in, would see to that.

Cheerilee stepped away from the bars, and went to lie down in a corner. It wasn’t the most comfortable place she’d ever slept in, but it would have to do. It’d be some time before the next stage in Twist’s slow execution began, so she had some time to rest before that. She’d probably be able to get some more shuteye afterwards as well; the more rested she was for tomorrow’s “festivities”, the better.

With Twist’s sobs as a lullaby, she quickly drifted off to sleep, the occasional desperate plea for mercy like music to her ears.

***

Cheerilee didn’t know how much time had gone by, but she was wide awake as soon as she heard the first cry of pain echoing from the room below. With a speed that would’ve made even a seasoned Wonderbolt jealous she got up and raced towards the metal bars, pressing her head against them to be as close as possible to the ensuing spectacle. She’d have been down there with the filly if she could, but it was simply too dangerous. Something could always go wrong, and when Everfree Beetles were involved the smallest mistake was always severely painful, if not downright fatal. Collecting the eggs had already been too much of a risk, but she just hadn’t been able to resist. There was no reason to take more chances.

Twist started to squirm and fought weakly against her bonds, as she became aware of an unpleasant -- and at times painful -- sensation in her stomach. The eggs had finally hatched, and the Everfree Beetle larvae awakened. Compared to other creatures of their size the larvae were absolutely voracious, and their numbers were anything but few. As soon as they realised they’d been born right inside of their favourite food source they dug in, boring holes through Twist’s intestines.

The filly screamed as the agonising pains started rippling through her, a combination of various horrible sensations that was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. It was as if her entire stomach was cramping up something fierce, while some unseen sadist was repeatedly stabbing daggers into her gut. On top of that she could swear she was able to feel each individual larva as it chewed itself a path through her, but she couldn’t tell if it was real or just a product of her rampaging imagination. Not that she really cared, it hurt like hell all the same.

“No! Cheerilee! Help!” is what she tried to scream, but the only thing that came out was a dry choking sound. The sentiment reached her tormentor all the same, as the aforementioned stood mesmerised by the filly’s screams and pained expressions, breathing shallowly and supporting herself against the metal bars.

The filly threw her head from left to right as the feeding frenzy reached a crescendo, and the excessive amount of competition for the juicier bits caused several larvae to begin feasting on the muscles of her abdomen. Twist felt herself going green, and her screams were abruptly cut off when she suddenly felt the need to hurl. She spewed forth a disgusting mixture of mostly blood and bile, which dripped down her body, soiling the few clean patches of fur she had had left.

As more and more larvae became satiated, the worst of the stabbing pains started to subside. She was left with a disgustingly empty feeling, and a burning pain that was more intense than anything anypony should be made to bear, yet it felt almost like a blessing compared with the racking agony of just a few moments ago. She let out a last, pitiful squeal before breaking down into sobs again, although they were even weaker than before.

Meanwhile, Cheerilee was panting in the viewing area above, slowly letting herself down onto the ground as her knees buckled beneath her. Despite a lack of physical activity, she had broken out quite the sweat. She wrapped her forelegs around herself in an effort to control the shaking of her body, barely able to contain her excitement. She knew she had missed the satisfaction dealing out justice gave to her, but she hadn’t realised she had missed it this much. She felt like a thirsty desert wanderer being offered a glass of water: disproportionately excited due to the prolonged period of abstinence that came before. She hoped she’d be able to control herself a little better by the time she had to deal with the others, else she’d probably go out of her mind.

She pulled up the images of Twist’s tormented expressions from memory, and couldn’t help but smile blissfully. She knew the filly would be missing large parts of her intestines now, and she was likely bleeding out slowly as well. It remained to be seen if she’d manage to stay alive until the next phase, and Cheerilee doubted she’d be able to. She hoped she would, of course, but the odds were stacked against her. She furrowed her brow in disappointment, but then smiled. A chance was a chance, and if not, well... she’d have others to play with soon enough, anyway.

She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep again, carried on the notes of Twist’s lamentations -- dreaming about justice and punishment, and other things equally exciting, but of an entirely different nature.

***

Twilight Sparkle restlessly paced back and forth across the library, glancing at her clock several times a minute. Twist was late, very late. She wouldn’t normally expect a filly to be very punctual, but Twist had seemed quite desperate for any sort of information, which was exactly what Twilight had on offer for her.

It had taken her a fair amount of time and an even greater amount of reading and tests, but she could finally say beyond a shadow of doubt that the red substance was indeed blood, and a fairly substantial amount of it. It was possible that one of the colts or fillies had been crushed by falling debris, but she had her doubts. There was a wide variety in both the size and shape of the blood splatters, which--according to Sherlock Hooves’ book--indicated multiple blows. The pony could’ve been hit by more than one piece of debris, but it was extremely unlikely.

“Lighten up, Twilight,” Spike said as he watched her pace about from atop a nearby stack of books. “I’m sure she just got held up by a friend or something.”

Twilight wanted to retort, but just as she opened her mouth to do so she heard the front door swing open. She turned around, fully expecting to see Twist smiling sheepishly at her, but instead she saw Pinkie Pie, jumping up and down excitedly as usual. She frowned in disappointment.

“Hey Twilight!” Pinkie Pie chimed. “I was wondering if- Hey, why the long face?”

“Oh, it’s nothing Pinkie,” Twilight said as she put on a smile. “I’ve just been waiting for Twist and I thought you were her, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m here to get that cooking book you talked about,” Pinkie explained. “Heh, it’s strange though, Twist didn’t show up for yesterday’s cupcake class either, isn’t that funny?”

Twilight froze in the middle of yet another lap around the room, an eerie premonition grasping her by the throat. “Wh... what did you say?”

“I’m here for the cookbook?” Pinkie attempted.

“Euh, no the other thing...”

“Twist didn’t show up to cupcake class yesterday. Normally she comes by every Wednesday evening, and then I show her some neat recipes for tasty treats,” she said as she scanned the shelves for the book she needed. “But yesterday she didn’t show up at all! Can you believe it?”

Twilight felt a chunk of ice descend into her stomach. “Something is wrong... very wrong. Pinkie, do you know where Twist lives? I need to go talk to her parents.”

“Oh,” Pinkie said as she took a book off the shelves, “you mean you dont know? Her parents are business ponies, they’re out of town most of the time. Right now, too!”

“What, they leave her by herself?”

“Yeah. But she’s used to it. She’s a pretty good cook, and if she needs anything she can always count on Fluttershy or me. Besides, it’s Ponyville, what could happen?”

Twilight groaned. This just kept getting better and better. “Spike, get the map,” she said as she cleared the table.

Spike did as he was told, grabbing a map of Equestria from a nearby shelf and rolling it open on the table. Twilight examined it for a moment, and Pinkie came closer, staring at the two of them curiously.

“Oooh, you planning a field trip? Can I come, huh, can I?”

“No Pinkie,” said Twilight somewhat annoyed, “I’m going to cast a spell to find Twist. I’ve got... a bad feeling.”

Twilight closed her eyes and concentrated, conjuring up a mental image of the filly in her mind. Her horn started glowing as the magic build up, only to be released in a single, blinding flash. Twilight looked at the map right away. It was supposed to mark the target’s location with a red cross, but there was nothing there. Even deceased ponies would show up, their cross’d just be green instead.

“So it failed?” Spike ventured a guess. “What does that mean?”

“No, it didn’t fail,” Twilight said with sudden comprehension. “I know exactly where she is.” She pointed at an unremarkable part of the map, right in the Everfree Forest. “Right here.”

Spike frowned. “Why do you-”

“There’s no time!” she interjected. “I don’t know why she’s there, but there’s no doubt she’s in great danger. It’s not a safe place for a filly to be... it’s not a safe place for anypony to be! We need to grab the others, and go find her,” she said as she helped Spike onto her back and headed towards the door. Time was likely of the essence, but heading into the Everfree forest alone was suicide. “Come on, Pinkie!”

Pinkie hesitated, as she glanced from the stacks of books to Twilight, and back again. “But, but... cooking book! Ungh!” She threw a last, melancholic look at the library as she left. She had no idea what Twilight was on about, but she supposed she could always come back later. It wasn’t like anything bad was going to happen, right?

***

They were in luck, as the other four proved to be easy to find.

They found Fluttershy and Rarity first, in the spa where Rarity seemed to spend most of her days. Ever since Sweetie Belle died Rarity hadn’t really known what to do with herself anymore. Her drive for fashion seemed to have temporarily evaporated, and she spent her time on petty things that didn’t demand too much of her--the spa being first amongst them. Fluttershy had already experienced the sting of death multiple times in her capacity as an animal caretaker, and had proven to be remarkably resilient in this respect. Sometimes life wasn’t fair, and you could only accept it and move on.

Due to Fluttershy’s continued support, Rarity was steadily recovering. Twilight didn’t doubt she’d be back to making dresses before the week was over.

Applejack likewise failed to surprise them: she was busy bucking apples when they found her. Her method of dealing with grief was the exact opposite of Rarity’s; instead of distancing herself from her work, she drowned herself in it, probably so that she wouldn’t have time to think about anything else. Outwardly she’d never shown any signs of grief at all--except for the tears shed at the funeral--and Twilight wasn’t too worried about her. She knew there was no obstacle that Applejack couldn’t overcome, and even something as big as this would hardly slow her down. She probably saw it as her duty to work even harder for Apple Bloom’s sake, and Twilight could understand that. Somewhat.

They didn’t find Rainbow Dash, but Rainbow Dash found them. She was lounging on some clouds when she spotted her friends galloping past, and so came down to investigate. Strangely enough, Rainbow Dash had perhaps worried Twilight the most during the first few days. She seemed to do everything in a higher gear and with more intensity than most ponies, including grieving as well. A day after the incident she had smashed just about every part of the theatre that had still been standing out of pure frustration, and even that hadn’t been enough to cool her rage. However, the next day she had seemed to have traded anger for depression, but she got over that a few days later as well. Twilight wondered how much Pinkie Pie had had to do with that.

“So tell us again, Twi,” Applejack said as they approached the Everfree Forest. “Twist showed ya some things from th’ theatre because she suspected foul play... She was supposed to come over today so ya could tell ‘er she was right, but she didn’t show. So ya used that there fancy spell a yers to find her, but it failed... and now we’re goin’... where, exactly?”

“It didn’t fail, that’s the point,” Twilight replied. “It was blocked.”

“Blocked, dear?” Rarity asked in turn.

“Yes, you see... If the magic of the spell can’t reach you, it can’t tell where you are,” Twilight explained, not sure why it took them so long to grasp the concept. “I can think of only one place that could prevent my magic from reaching Twist.”

“And that is?” Rainbow asked as she swooped in closer.

“Well, after we defeated Nightmare Moon, I became incredibly interested in historical reports from around the time of her banishing, roughly one thousand years ago. I had some books on the subject brought here from Canterlot,” Twilight paused to see if everypony was still following along, and they nodded to indicate that this was indeed the case. “You see, Nightmare Moon didn’t get banished right away. There was a war between her and Princess Celestia first: the so-called Nightmare Rebellion. Nightmare Moon’s supporters were few, but she had some incredibly powerful unicorns at her disposal. In order to fight back against Celestia’s far greater army, they used dark magic to construct hidden fortresses in a few key locations. They build them in such a way that their own magic would be empowered, but unicorns faithful to Celestia couldn’t even levitate a speck of dust in there.”

“Sounds... scary...” Fluttershy said meekly.

Twilight nodded. “Quite. At any rate, most of these fortresses have been taken apart, but around here there’s one that’s always been remote enough that nopony was bothered by it, and in an area dangerous enough that nopony felt like going near it, anyway.”

“The Everfree Forest?” Pinkie ventured a guess.

Twilight nodded once more, as she increased the pace.

“I got a bad feeling about this,” Spike said woefully from his spot on Twilight’s back, but-- as was often the case--he was largely ignored.

***

They finally arrived in front of the massive, stone doors, and everypony looked around in awe, thoroughly impressed.

“Something like this was out here all along?” Rainbow Dash said incredulously. “And we didn’t even realise it?”

“I don’t exactly see you coming this way all that often, darling.”

“Now, hold on ya’ll,” Applejack tried to calm the others down. “How do we get inside?”

They all stopped and stared at Twilight, who smiled sheepishly.

“Ehehe, well... there’s supposed to be a key of some description, but only one per fortress, so...” she said with an uncertain tone in her voice. “I suppose I could try to force the doors open...”

Applejack frowned. “Ah thought you said ya’ll couldn’t use yer magic here?”

“That’s not what she said, you silly willy!” Pinkie exclaimed. “She said it didn’t work inside, but she’s outside now, right? Right?”

“Right,” Twilight agreed. “Stand back.”

They all retreated as far back as they could, and even Spike jumped off her back in order to take cover behind a few rocks. Twilight gritted her teeth. Surely her track record for spells wasn’t that bad? There had been the parasprites, true, but... She shook her head and concentrated on the task at hoof. She increased her focus, and magical energy began to gather into her horn, waiting to be shaped. Twilight wouldn’t need much finesse this time around.

With a grunt she increased her efforts even more, and the entire area was bathed in the pulsating glow of her horn. She kept gathering more power, until she felt she really couldn’t hold out any longer. The discharge of raw, magical energy hit the doors like a battering ram, and they were blown right off their hinges. A cloud of dust rose up, and Twilight wouldn’t be surprised if she later found out the explosion had been heard all the way back in Canterlot. She panted with exhaustion, as her friends slowly left their hiding places.

“I... is it over?” Fluttershy peeked out from behind a half-collapsed wall, shaking all over.

“Well ah’ll be, Twi... Ah knew you had it in you, just not that it was this much!”

Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash and Rarity finally realised they had jumped into each others' embrace in the heat of the moment. They let go of each other, and sheepishly put some distance between themselves, hoping nobody had noticed.

“Ooo, there’s light in here!” Pinkie’s voice came floating from inside.

Twilight sighed. At least there was one pony whose natural curiosity had overcome her sense of danger...

Now that Pinkie was inside, the others quickly overcame their initial anxiety, and soon all seven of them were standing in the entrance hall, mumbling amongst themselves about the peculiar lighting conditions inside. Three hallways connected the entrance hall to the rest of the fortress: one in each wall beside the one they’d come in through. Nopony seemed to know which one to take, and they all looked to each other for suggestions.

“Look what I found!” Pinkie Pie said cheerily as she turned towards Twilight, revealing the pair of glasses currently resting on her nose. They were way too small for her head, and the overall effect was rather comical.

“Pinkie, where did you find that, dear?” Rarity asked.

Pinkie Pie nodded towards the center of the room. “Just on the floor over there.”

The others nodded at each other.

“Right, so now we’re certain that Twist is here,” Twilight said, “but we don’t know how she got in, or why she’s here. There could be somepony else around, and according to my books these fortresses were littered with traps. So be careful, ok?” She paused for a moment, until everypony (even Pinkie) had voiced their approval. “We need to find her as soon as possible. Fluttershy and Applejack, you’ll take the hallway on the left. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash, the middle one. Rarity, you’re with me and Spike. Everypony ready?”

They all nodded once again, slightly more grim this time as they realised playtime was over.

“Come back here when you’ve covered your side. Alright, let’s go!”

And so the groups split up and headed in the direction they’d been assigned to, unaware that each passage lead to the same destiny.

***

Cheerilee woke up with a start, as the sound of a violent explosion ripped through the complex. She looked around in confusion for a few moments, but then it all came back to her. She was in the abandoned fortress, and judging from the sound of that explosion, Twilight Sparkle had indeed found them.

Cheerilee got up to her hooves and threw a glance into the adjacent room, checking up on Twist’s condition. The filly hung limply in her bonds, and Cheerilee couldn’t even see her chest rise and fall from where she was standing. She let out a sigh of disappointment: Twist hadn’t made it.

She shrugged as she started to make her way towards the entrance hall, sticking to the secret passages. She had no way of knowing for sure if Twilight had come alone or not, so she needed to be careful. She didn’t feel like getting into a fight with Applejack nor Rainbow Dash--not a fair fight, anyway. Luckily, she held the home turf advantage. She wasn’t sure how she’d bring the intruders to justice, but she knew that she would. It was just a matter of finding them and leading them into one of the traps. Any location would do, really: they all had nasty surprises in store. Cheerilee almost cackled with excitement as she tried to come up with a mental list of interesting ways to put an end to six or so ponies.

She had almost reached her destination when she became aware of a pair of voices drawing near. She stopped, and looked down into the hallway that was adjacent to the secret passage she was in. There was a lot less light in the inner sanctum than there was in the maze, so she didn’t have to worry too much about being discovered; anypony looking up would see nothing but darkness behind the metal bars in the wall.

“D... do we really... h-have to do this?” Fluttershy stuttered as she looked around skittishly.

Applejack stopped and put a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Ah know you’re scared sugarcube, but we’ve got to hang in there. There’s a little filly countin’ on us, and hey, I’m here t’ keep you safe, so what do you say?”

Fluttershy smiled uncertainly. “Al... alright, I’ll try... F-for Twist.”

“For Twist,” Applejack agreed.

They continued on their way, and Cheerilee followed them in secret. It seemed Twilight had indeed brought her friends along, which was very fortuitous indeed. It’d only take one fell swoop to wipe them all off the map, but it had to be done delicately. She’d have to take care not to reveal herself too soon; one mistake could quickly spell ruin for the entire plan, and she wouldn’t be able to return to Ponyville if she was discovered here.

“I... I feel like we’re being watched...” Fluttershy said meekly as they rounded another corner, causing Cheerilee to back away from the wall with a start.

“Old buildings like this’ll do that to ya,” Applejack said dismissively.

Cheerilee breathed a sigh of relief: that had nearly given her a heart attack. She needed to get started, and fast, but how could she... A plan materialised in her head, as Applejack and Fluttershy turned left at the next split in the path, drawing closer to the room Twist was in.

Twilight and her friends were powerful opponents, and rumours of their exploits had spread throughout the land on numerous occasions; however, this also made them vulnerable. Everypony in Ponyville knew their strengths and characteristics, and those could easily be turned into their weaknesses. All she had to do was guide them into a situation where their reactions could be easily predicted, and from there on out she’d dictate the scene...

She skipped ahead of the pair, galloping towards the room she’d spend the night in, throwing several switches along the way. The maze silently rearranged itself into the form she dictated, until Fluttershy and Applejack only had one option left. She pulled down a lever, and the heavy door to Twist’s room slid open. Everything was in position. She couldn’t be sure that it’d work, but it wasn’t a big loss even if it didn’t. She had an innumerable amount of options still open to her.

She heard Fluttershy and Applejack approach once more, the sound of their hooves echoing on the stone. Cheerilee grinned; they weren’t even trying to be silent--not that it’d have done them much good.

They rounded the last corner, and Twist was suddenly in full view, cuffed to the wall opposite to the opened door. They couldn’t make out her exact condition form where they were standing, but they could tell it wasn’t good.

“Twist!” Fluttershy yelled as her maternal instincts--honed to perfection by years of caring for little animals--took over, compelling her to rush to the filly’s aid right away.

Applejack stood dumbfounded for a moment, shocked by their sudden discovery. She gave chase as soon as she came to her senses, but there was no way she could catch up to Fluttershy anymore. “No, wait! Somepony obviously did this to her, ah don’t trust it!”

But it was too late. Cheerilee triumphantly pushed the lever up as Fluttershy passed the door several meters ahead of Applejack, and it instantly slid back into place. Applejack only barely managed to slow down enough to stop herself from crashing headfirst into the door, and she immediately started pounding on it with her front hooves.

“Fluttershy! Fluttershy, are you ok?” she asked frantically.

“I’m... ok. I’ll look after Twist, try to get the door open, please,” Fluttershy answered calmly. Twist needed her right now, she couldn’t afford to be scared.

Applejack grunted. She still didn’t like the situation, or how that door had just moved on its own, but there was nothing she could do. She began looking for a way to open it, pushing against every part of the wall, and turning over every stone on the ground. Cheerilee saw her do it, but wasn’t too worried. The only way to open it from there was halfway back through the hallway, and it’d be some time before Applejack even started looking there. She walked into the room she’d slept in, to enjoy the spectacle.

Fluttershy rushed to the filly’s aid, and tears started to fill her eyes as she saw what kind of condition she was in. Her fur was blood-caked and filthy, and she just kinda hung from the wall, as if all strength had left her body. For a moment, Fluttershy even thought she was already dead, but then she noticed the slightest rising and falling of her chest. She was alive, but only just.

Fluttershy caressed the filly’s cheek gently, and Twist tried to open her eyes. She didn’t seem strong enough to open them completely, and the sight once again brought tears to Fluttershy’s eyes.

“F... flu... tershy... is... that... y-you?” Twist said weakly.

It was barely more than a hoarse whisper, but Cheerilee drew in a breath of surprise. The runt had made it. She’d hoped she would, but she had never actually believed... Cheerilee’s face split into a wicked grin. Twist’s will to live would only make this more amusing. It was going to be interesting indeed.

“Sshhhh... It’s ok... it’s ok... I’m here, and I’ll get you out. Promise. Save your strength,” Fluttershy said consolingly as she tried to find a way to open the rings that held Twist in place.

Twist coughed up some blood. “N... no... ru... n... th... they... woke... a-a... nd... cheee... reee...”

“Sssshhh... It’s not important right now, Twist... It can wait,” Fluttershy said as she started to pull on the rings. What was she trying to say, anyway? Something about cherries?

Deep inside Twist’s belly a host of newly-formed beetles woke up, their post-metamorphosis nap disturbed by the presence of another living creature. They were a sickly hue of green, and a lot more mean-looking than most insects their size. Curiously enough, they had a poisonous stinger just underneath their mandibles, and their legs ended in sharp spikes that made it easy to walk over slippery surfaces, such as the bloody insides of unfortunate ponies. The back of their shields carried these spikes as well, possibly to discourage larger creatures from chomping on them. It was hard to imagine any creature willingly taking one of these into their mouth, but then again, the Everfree Forest was a savage place indeed. As far as Cheerilee was concerned, their only shortcoming was their inability to fly. That wasn’t unheard of amongst beetles, but it still bummed her out somewhat. At the same time, it was also the only reason she even dared come this close to them, mosquito net or not.

Twist let out a guttural groan as they started to skitter about, intent on breaking free from their host. With their sharp mandibles they cut into Twist’s flesh, eating themselves a way out, their legs clawing a bloody path towards freedom. The filly shrieked, and Fluttershy gasped as she saw her stomach bulge out in several places.

“Twist! What’s wrong? Hang in there! Twist!” she said panicky, desperately trying to get the filly free, as if that would be the solution to all problems.

Twist tried to repeat her earlier warning despite the mind-numbing pain she was in, but she only managed a choked mumble. Some of the beetles had apparently decided that digging a way through Twist’s belly wasn’t the only way out, and they crawled upwards through her body. She felt several of them climb up through her throat, shredding her windpipe and esophagus with the sharp spikes lined on the back of their shields and the on the end of their legs. Twist’s eyes rolled back in her head as the first beetle victoriously emerged from her mouth, coughed out in a torrent of blood along with bits and pieces of her tongue.

Fluttershy jumped back in surprise as splatters of blood rained down upon her, and the beetle fell down to the floor. Twist’s body spasmed violently as her stomach burst open, and a wave of beetles left her in a sea of blood and gore, soon joined by the ones who’d taken the path up through her throat.

Cheerilee revelled in the sight. She’d been looking forward to it, but not even in her wildest dreams had she dared hope it’d be as beautiful as this. The twitches and convulsions wracking Twist’s body only added to the spectacle, and Cheerilee felt something in her stomach melt with excitement as the filly’s body slowly became still.

Fluttershy was paralyzed with fright for a few moments, her mind unable to process what had just happened. She stared at the bloody mess that had been Twist just a few moments ago, and her mind almost snapped under the weight of reality. She backed away as fast as she could, screaming her lungs out in a way that made the Royal Canterlot Voice seem like a foal’s whispers. The Everfree Beetles clicked their mandibles and drew near, undisturbed.

“Fluttershy!” Applejack yelled. “Fluttershy!”

She began pounding the door with her hind hooves, putting years of apple-bucking to good use as she attempted to break down the door with strength alone. She wasn’t getting anywhere though, and Cheerilee let her bang on to her heart’s content. Those doors had been built to withstand an army; there was no way one pony was bringing them down.

The beetles kept approaching their new prey, and Fluttershy was slowly forced into a corner. She continued to scream as she tried to unfurl her wings, but pure fear seemed to have glued them shut against her back.

“Applejack! Save me! APPLEJACK!” she yelled hysterically.

“Ah’m coming!” Applejack yelled back with more confidence than she was feeling, as she continued to wail away at the door.

Fluttershy shrieked as the first of the beetles tried to climb up her leg, but she quickly crushed him under her hoof. More kept coming, determined to make her into their next meal. She flattened as many as she could, wildly stomping down upon the wave of insects with reckless abandon, but there were always more to take the fallen’s place. Eventually, one of the beetles managed to grab hold of her front leg, and she shook it wildly in an effort to make it let go. She succeeded, but her plan backfired as multiple beetles climbed up the legs she had neglected to move. She began to jump up and down, bucking her legs out wildly. She managed to throw some beetles off, but others proved far more persistent. She let out a yelp as one of the beetles stung her in her left front leg, and she quickly brushed it off with her other hoof.

Cheerilee smiled gleefully as she saw the skin around the insect bite quickly turn an angry, red colour. This was the moment she’d been waiting for.

Fluttershy moaned in pain as the flesh above her left front hoof swelled up at an alarming rate, expanding until it was easily one and a half times its usual circumference. A stabbing pain radiated up her leg every time the hoof hit the ground, making her breathe in sharply as spots appeared in front of her eyes.

The swollen skin suddenly burst open without warning, splattering blood and gore all over the floor, and leaving a big, oozing hole in her leg. It was as if part of her flesh had exploded, and the rest seemed to be melting away. She cried out in pain, and several of the beetles made use of the momentary distraction to latch on as well, stinging her in legs in a great number of places.

Applejack heard Fluttershy’s screams change in tone from panic to outright pain, and she redoubled her efforts. Her hooves started to crack, and little chips of keratin were jumping away left and right, but she didn’t care. She kept going, desperately kicking the door even as blood started to well up around her hooves.

Meanwhile, Fluttershy’s legs were swollen all over, and she sobbed heartbreakingly with every movement she made. The swellings burst open one after the other, scattering the contents of her legs all over the walls and floor, until they resembled a bloodier version of a crater-ridden moon landscape. Keeping the beetles at bay started to become excruciatingly painful, and heaps of them were now climbing up her legs, digging their spikes into her naked flesh. In many places her bones had been completely exposed, and the yellow colour of her skin became increasingly rare compared to the red of her blood and flesh. She started to feel lightheaded, and slowly started to sway from side to side.

Cheerilee began taking bets out against herself, trying to guess how much longer Fluttershy would manage to remain standing. She couldn’t reach an internal consensus, but even her most optimistic guesses remained quite grim for the mare involved.

All of a sudden, Fluttershy felt herself lose her grip on the floor, which had become slippery with her blood. She tried to stabilise herself by quickly putting her right hoof down, but that proved to be a costly mistake. Her right leg wasn’t able to carry her weight in its weakened condition, and her hoof just snapped clean off, leaving her with a sharp piece of bone sticking out of a bloody stump. She wailed like a banshee as she fell to the ground, breaking one of her hind legs in the process. She rolled over onto her back, and her vision blurred as pain flooded her senses.

Many beetles were crushed under her weight, their tiny spikes raking open her back and sides, to add to the already significant pool of blood she was lying in. Many more beetles finally saw their chance, and within moments they were crawling all over her.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” she screamed as she desperately tried to brush them off, sobbing loudly as it became increasingly difficult to force herself to bear the pain and move her legs at all. Her legs finally collapsed besides her, as the beetle poison blew the last of her muscles to shreds and reduced them to bloody lumps of flesh thinly spread around her exposed bones.

Applejack panted, sweat dripping down her body. Kicking the door had thoroughly ruined her hooves by now, and she turned around to start punching instead. Her kicks had left clear marks upon the door, and she tried to give herself new hope by imagining she only needed to go a bit further. She knew that in reality she had probably barely chipped the surface, but she couldn’t let herself believe that right now. Her friend needed her, and she didn’t know what else to do.

“Hang in there... Flutter.... shy! Ah’m... coming!” she panted in-between her punches.

Fluttershy felt the beetles sting her all over, agony quickly spreading throughout her body. The skin around her bellybutton first swelled up and then burst open, a stream of blood running down her sides as several beetles dug their mandibles into the exposed flesh, clawing at her insides.

One beetle climbed up her face, coming to a rest on her right cheek, just underneath her eye.

“Please, no... p... please...”, she whispered in tears, her throat hoarse and bloodied from all the screaming.

Agonizing pains wracked her body, but she didn’t dare move for fear of antagonizing the beetle on her head. Her valiant effort proved to no avail, as the beetle stung her anyway. Within seconds the entire right side of her face was grotesquely swollen, as if somepony had turned her head into a balloon. Her right eye was soon swollen shut, and every breath she took came accompanied by a pain so intense that she wished she were dead.

The beetles on her stomach had finally found the treasure trove, and they poured in through the newly created hole en-masse, descending upon her intestines like a rabid pack of wolves upon a succulent piece of meat. They began to devour her intestines like they had Twist’s the night before, but this time their eating habits were completely different. Instead of tunneling their way through the way the larvae had, they cut her apart with their mandibles. To Fluttershy it felt like a hundred scissors were ripping her apart, and that was without accounting for the constant torment caused by the spikes on their backs, which raked the inside of her belly as they moved about. She now sobbed incessantly, not strong enough to keep crying or screaming without end anymore. Just feeding her intestines through a meat grinder would probably have been a lot less painful.

Her cheek finally burst open, and she managed to let out one more primal scream as her definition of the worst pain possible got updated yet again. Blood splattered across her face, getting into her eyes and nose along with small pieces of skin and flesh. She tried to open her right eye but quickly closed it again, as the pieces of gore stuck in it made the attempt rather unbearable.

One beetle, perhaps the same one from before, saw the gaping hole in her cheek as a golden opportunity, and climb into her mouth. Fluttershy felt his claws piercing her tongue, and desperately attempted to spit him out as blood started running down her throat. The beetle would have none of it, and defiantly stung her right in the tongue, just before she managed to expel him. It quickly swelled up, becoming so large that it hung partially out of her mouth. Her breathing became incredibly laboured, and combined with the loss of blood and the excruciating pain it was almost enough to make her lose consciousness then and there.

Her swollen tongue burst open, and it was by far the bloodiest wound she had suffered yet. Even as the beetles carved up her intestines and nibbled at her lungs, hot blood started filling her mouth, running down her throat and chin along with the scattered pieces of what had once been her tongue. She tried to spit it all out, but she no longer had the power to lift her head, and so it became incredibly hard to do so. A blind panic swept away the last of her rationality, as she tried to scream once more. Even if the blood hadn’t been there it’d probably have amounted to nothing more than a coarse whisper, but as it stood she only managed a disgusting gurgling sound. Her body started to shake and spasm in a last ditch effort to get everything under control, but it was in vain. Fluttershy felt her lungs burn, screaming for the oxygen her mangled, drained body so desperately needed, but all it got instead was a steady flow of blood running down the wrong pipe--insofar as there even was a right one.

Her remaining bodily functions ceased one by one, and the darkness wrapped her in its cold embrace after a last, desperate gurgle.

Cheerilee stood glued to her spot just behind the bars, her tongue hanging slightly from her mouth as she panted, as if it’d allow her to taste the misery of her latest victim. She closed her eyes to commit Fluttershy’s final moments to memory, and just thinking about it send another shiver down her spine.

Applejack was still pounding the door, but every punch came slower and slower, as tears streamed down her face. She hadn’t heard Fluttershy in a while, and she was quite sure she knew what that meant.

“Come on, ‘Shy,” she said between sobs. “Don’t ya dare g-give up on m-me, ya hear?”

She landed one more punch and then leaned her forehead against the door, her hooves pressed up against her face as her shoulders shook violently.

“D... d-don’t die... y... you can’t... you can’t l-leave me... S-shy...” she stuttered.

She allowed her body to slowly slide down to the floor, tears running down her cheeks as she kneeled down on the cold stone, the very image of a broken mare.

“You can’t leave me like this!” she yelled as she rammed one of her front hooves into the floor, and then curled into a ball as she cried.

“Oh Fluttershy... N... not you too...”

***

Cheerilee finally snapped back to reality, and she turned towards the door. She couldn’t let herself get sloppy; Applejack and Fluttershy hadn’t gotten far enough in to lose track of their position, so the odds of Applejack finding the way out again were quite high.

Cheerilee silently moved through the inner sanctum, until she arrived at a position from which she could easily keep an eye on the other mare. Fluttershy’s death seemed to have finally uncovered Applejack’s repressed grief, so Cheerilee didn’t expect her to be going anywhere anytime soon. She smiled as she put a hoof onto one of the levers that had been built into the wall. This was too easy.

As she pulled down the lever, the faintest of clicks alerted Applejack to the fact that something wasn’t quite right. The reflexes she had honed during countless hours of sporting events and general athleticism kicked in as she jumped backwards, just in time to avoid the trap door opening beneath her hooves. Cheerilee cursed under her breath.

Applejack looked around quickly, scanning the area. She finally put one and one together; Twist, the door that had trapped Fluttershy, the trapdoor just now... Somepony was watching her.

“Show yerself!” she shouted, but Cheerilee remained silent, frantically thinking of ways to resolve the increasingly problematic situation.

There was no easy way to drive Cheerilee out of hiding, and Applejack was fully aware of that. She’d just be a sitting duck if she remained where she was, so there was only one option open to her: Run, and get the others. They’d be far harder to pick off if they were together, and aware of the threat to boot. She turned around on her damaged hooves and started galloping towards the exit, her personal problems momentarily banished to a corner of her mind along with the stinging pain her injuries caused her. Getting herself killed wouldn’t bring her loved ones back, so Applejack didn’t intend to kick the bucket any time soon.

Cheerilee felt her heart pounding inside of her throat. She couldn’t let Applejack reach the exit, there was simply too much at stake. She cursed once again, and gave chase.

For a while it seemed Applejack actually had a good chance to make it, easily staying ahead of her much less athletic opponent as she dashed through the hallways, rounding corners at breakneck-speeds. But Cheerilee hadn’t played all of her cards yet; She’d never match Applejack for endurance or speed, but she had the terrain advantage. She knew exactly where Applejack was going, so it was relatively easy for her to make use of several shortcuts and secret passages without having to worry about losing her prey.

Applejack ran faster than ever, adrenaline pushing her body to feats of speed that’d have certainly won her a blue ribbon or two on the racing track. She lowered her head to make her body as aerodynamic as possible, as the entrance hall came into sight.

Cheerilee’s muscles protested under the effort, but a broad grin split her face as she reached her destination mere seconds ahead of Applejack. She wasted no time, and immediately rammed her hoof against the hidden trigger in the wall. It swung open, and Applejack’s speed made a collision inevitable. She crashed into the wall head-first, coming to a complete stop instantly as she collapsed into a heap.

“Wha’ in the hay...” Applejack groaned as stars swarmed in front of her eyes. She looked up through the haze as the sound of hoofsteps drew near. “Who- ?”

Applejack’s only answer came in the form of a fuchsia-coloured hoof rapidly expanding to fill her entire field of vision, followed by an explosion of pain, and then nothing at all...

***

“Ugh...”

Applejack opened her eyes groggily, and immediately realised she was in an entirely different part of the complex. Lighting conditions were even worse than before, and it took her eyes a few moments to grow adjusted to it. She tried to sit up and look around, but quickly found that wasn’t an option. Two metal bands trapped her hind legs against the wooden table she was lying on, and her forelegs were being held in place above her head by two metal wrist cuffs connected to chains which disappeared from view through two holes in the table.

There was a big lever just behind her head, and the table itself seemed to be made out of an upper and lower part, with a sort of crank handle built into the side where the two parts met. Its function eluded her, and as she looked around the room she saw several contraptions which seemed just as out of place, but which would have looked quite inconspicuous in a sawmill or smithy.

“Hello Applejack,” Cheerilee said conversationally as she stepped out of the shadows, “getting comfy, I see.”

“Cheerilee? You... wha-” Applejack stuttered. “So you’re th’ one who-”

“Killed Applebloom and Fluttershy? Yes,” she said in the same tone of voice she’d use when discussing the weather. “Although I guess Fluttershy could be chalked up to the beetles, hmmmm...”

“You... you monster!” Applejack shouted as she fought against her constraints. “When ah get ma hooves on ya, I’ll...”

“Now, now, Applejack,” Cheerilee said as she turned towards the other mare, looking her in the eyes. “It’s unbefitting for the Element of Honesty to be making promises she can’t keep.”

Applejack gritted her teeth in frustration. Her situation was indeed grim, but perhaps if she could get just one hoof free...

“I don’t want to be unfair, though,” Cheerilee said as she revealed a rusty knife. “so why don’t we play a little game?”

“What kinda game?” Applejack said suspiciously, keeping a close eye on the dagger. She braced herself when Cheerilee raised the knife above her head, but the teacher just drove it into the table between Applejack’s hind legs.

“A survival game,” Cheerilee said with barely concealed excitement. “If you survive... I’ll let you go.”

She walked over to the head of the table, and grabbed hold of the large lever standing there. She pulled it down, and the chains connected to Applejack’s wrist cuffs loosened up, allowing her upper body a greater degree of freedom. At the same time, a giant circular saw noisily sprang to life on the other side of the room, as it started to move closer.

“Wait! You can’t do this! You’ll never get away with it!” Applejack screamed as she desperately tried to buck her hind legs free of the bonds.

“Get away with it?” Cheerilee laughed. “I already have!”

Applejack desperately tried to get her wrist cuffs off, but she quickly realised it was of no use, and besides, she didn’t need to get the cuffs off to get out of the saw’s way; her hind legs were the real problem. She tried to reach for the metal bands at the other end of the table, but the chains were way too short. The furthest she could reach were her thighs and the knife Cheerilee had driven into the table. The knife...

Her eyes widened as she realised the only way out, the only option that Cheerilee had left open to her.

“You monster,” she spat out in disgust, as she pulled the rusty knife out of the table.

Cheerilee didn’t respond, content with just watching her victim struggle against her fate, deriving a perverse sense of pleasure from the near-perfect execution of her hastily-devised plans.

Applejack hesitated for a moment, carefully considering her next move. She almost attempted throwing the knife straight at Cheerilee, but that probably wouldn’t do her much good. Even under ideal circumstances she wouldn’t have bet on her own knife throwing skills, so as it stood it would probably not even qualify as a symbolic gesture, let alone a serious attack. On top of that, the knife was her only way out, and her desire to live was strong.

She tried to swallow back her fear, but the shaking of her hooves didn’t stop. She slowly lowered the knife to her right thigh, lightly pressing the blade up against it. Cold sweat broke out all over her body, and she breathed heavily. She glanced up at the giant saw that awaited her--already half a meter closer than it had been before--and closed her eyes as she finally pressed down upon the blade.

She gasped for breath as soon as she broke her own skin, pain flaring up throughout her leg. She opened one eye, and saw her own blood slowly welling up around the blade, dripping down her leg. She pushed harder, and the blade sank into her leg a bit deeper, but as she gasped for breath she realised she’d never pull it off this way; the blade’s edge was simply too dull.

She whimpered as she started to move the knife back and forth, the rough and serrated edges of the blade tearing at her, ripping her flesh apart. She squirmed and yelped in pain with every cut, but there was no going back. She wanted to live. She started cutting more frantically, and the wound became increasingly messy. Where at first there had only been a single incision, there was soon a bloody mess of semi-connected, mangled pieces of flesh as she failed to stay on target.

Applejack pushed on despite the tears welling up from her eyes, but her stomach nearly turned over when she finally struck bone, sending a wave of agony coursing through her body. Her breathing became ragged and laboured, fear pounding in her throat.

Cheerilee watched it all gleefully, drawing closer and closer to the table to get a better look. She’d seen the fun in getting her victims to be ‘responsible’ for a part of the damage long ago, but she’d never actually made them carry out the deed with their own hooves. Seeing a pony driven to self-mutilation was exciting, and the fact that she had maneuvered her victim into that situation excited her all the more.

Applejack let out a broken sob as she realised the knife wasn’t going to cut through the bone in a hurry, and she shakily lifted her hoof in order to proceed with the flesh underneath and on the side instead. The sight of her frayed leg made her sick, but she was forced to continue watching to have any chance of success. By now the entire bottom part of the table was soaked in blood, and the red mess hampered the accuracy of her cuts as well.

She finally got through all of her flesh, her femur being the only thing that still connected the now defunct piece of meat to the rest of her body. She whimpered in pain as she held the tip of the blade against the bone with her left hoof, raising up her right hoof above her head. She took a deep breath to try and calm down, her vision clouded by tears.

“YAAAAAGGGGHHHH!” she yelled out as she closed her eyes and rammed her right hoof down onto the blade’s handle, attempting to drive it straight into the bone as if it was a chisel. The blade slipped off, and she gasped as the shock spread throughout her entire body. Her resistance finally broke, and she had just enough time to lean over the edge of the table as her stomach emptied itself. She sobbed in pain, but she realised she still had a long way to go.

She put the blade back in place, and started to really hammer down onto it, each blow even more agonizing than the last. A little crack started to form, and with a last grunt of effort Applejack finally drove the knife straight into her femur, accompanied by the disgusting sound of splintering bone. Desperately, she grasped the knife with both hooves, roughly tilting it from left to right in an effort to snap the bone off completely.

“Gnnngh!”

She grunted as her entire femur split under her efforts, her right leg snapping off unevenly, leaving her with nothing but a sharp piece of bone sticking out of her thigh. She let her head fall back onto the table as she pressed one of her forelegs up against her eyes, crying in pain and laughing at the same time. She never thought she’d ever be happy to have amputated her own leg, but there she was, laughing like a maniac.

She finally realized she had not one, but two hind legs, and the laughter quickly died out. She lifted her head weakly--the effects of blood loss already setting in--and saw right away that the saw had covered most of the distance towards the table. With only half a meter left, she’d never make it. Her lips trembled as she placed the bloody knife against her other leg, and her hooves were shaking even worse than before. She couldn’t even make any sort of cut before she felt all of her strength and force of will flee her body, and she broke down into sobs of pain and fear.

“No... No... C-Cel... Celestia... Ah don’t... Ah don’t wanna die...” she whimpered, the saw just inches away from the table.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Cheerilee chimed as she pulled the lever into the other direction again, stopping the saw dead in its tracks. At the same time, the chains pulled Applejack’s forelegs right into place again, and she once again couldn’t move an inch.

Cheerilee walked over to the side of the table, and Applejack looked at her with an expression of both pain and perplexion on her face.

“B... but... you said...”

Cheerilee laughed heartily. “Oh Applejack, so honest that you’ve forgotten ponies can lie, have you? But don’t worry, your sacrifice wasn’t entirely for nothing,” she said, before bending down and licking some blood off of Applejack’s stump. “Mmmm, I like it best when it’s still warm, you see.”

Applejack cringed with both pain and disgust as she felt Cheerilee’s tongue creep up the open wound. “You... you’re sick...” she uttered through clenched teeth. “They should... p... put you d-down.”

Cheerilee glared angrily at the other mare. She wasn’t the one who needed to be put down, Applejack was. That meant she was obviously lying, and for some reason that stung Cheerilee, as if she had expected the Element of Honesty to be above that. She reached under the table, and grabbed one of the many items she had stored there just in case.

“You talk too much, Applejack,” Cheerilee hissed.

“B... buck you. I’ll t... talk when ah-”

Cheerilee lunged forward like a snake, swiftly catching Applejack’s tongue in a set of metal clamps connected to a long piece of rope. Applejack tried to pull her tongue out of the device but it was already far too late, as Cheerilee wound the rope around her left hoof and pulled the tongue out as far as it would go.

“D’awww, I did warn you...” Cheerilee said with feigned compassion.

“Leh... mah tohn... ho!” Applejack spit back at her with some difficulty.

Cheerilee bend down through her knees, trying to grab a hold of the knife Applejack had dropped earlier. The clamps pulled heavily on the farm pony’s tongue, and she gurgled dryly as the pain intensified. Finally Cheerilee managed to grab the knife, and Applejack almost sighed in relief as the pull on her tongue decreased to less unpleasant levels, even though Cheerilee still made sure it was still pretty much entirely outside of her mouth.

Without any warning, Cheerilee suddenly rammed the rusty knife down into Applejack’s shoulder, causing the mare’s teeth to clench down in pain. Blood started to well up in her mouth as her teeth tried to mash her tongue together, sinking deeply into the soft, fleshy organ, but not managing to bite through it entirely. Even though pony teeth were relatively blunt, there was a lot of power behind their jaws, and Cheerilee had fully expected the tongue to come clean off.

Applejack roared in pain, letting out several yelps and unintelligible moans as blood ran down her chin. Cheerilee pulled on the--now badly damaged--tongue again, and Applejack’s shrieks of pain intensified. Cheerilee knew she’d easily be able to just pull it out, but where was the fun in that?

She began to slowly twist her knife around in Applejack’s shoulder, and the mare fought to control the urge to clench her teeth down, despite the shaking and twisting of her body. It was a battle she was destined to lose, and her teeth slowly closed, slightly below the point she had bitten down on earlier. Even more blood started to bubble up in her mouth, and she tasted its irony flavour as it ran down her throat. Her tongue continued to be crushed, and her yelps and moans turned into a wet gurgling sound, her body fighting against its bindings as the pain overwhelmed her mind.

Cheerilee finally jammed the knife right underneath Applejack’s shoulder blade, and the mare finally bit down hard, cutting through the last fiber of flesh that held her tongue connected to the rest of her body.

With a triumphant scream Cheerilee tossed the dismembered tongue aside, bringing her face close to Applejack’s to drink in all the details of her twisted and contorted face, as the farm pony fought to spit out or otherwise swallow the blood now flooding her mouth.

“See Applejack, see?!? I helped! I made you better! You prided yourself on honesty? Well, I’ve made sure you’ll never lie! Ever! Aren’t you happy?” Cheerilee said with a manic look in her eyes, before bursting into laughter. “Hahaha, heh... Well, too bad I can’t let you enjoy it for too long...”

Cheerilee walked over to the crank handle on the other side of the table giddily, ignoring the disgustingly wet and sloppy sounds Applejack was making in her struggle to stay conscious. The fuchsia-coloured mare put her hooves on the handle and started to turn the crank as fast as she could. To Applejack’s great horror both the head and the end of the table started to rise, as the table folded in on itself--with Applejack stuck right in the middle. Pretty soon she found her body bending into an almost impossible shape, and the crankshaft groaned under Cheerilee’s efforts to overcome the resistance Applejack’s body was offering.

“You’re weed, Applejack, weed! Just like your sister, just like your friends! But don’t worry, Applejack, don’t worry! I’ve got your redemption right here!”

“Nghw, dhnt!” Applejack screamed, spitting out splatters of blood all over herself.

Cheerilee didn’t listen and threw her full weight onto the handle, and Applejack screamed as her spine almost audibly snapped. She instantly lost all feeling in the one hind leg that remained connected, and both sides of the table were now in an almost vertical position. The chains had apparently loosened up, and Applejack desperately tried to push the two sides away from each other. It didn’t matter; she only had one good leg left, and even if she had had two she simply lacked the strength. Cheerilee continued to turn the crank around, and she watched in fascination and delight as Applejack’s entire middle body got reduced to a bloody red paste, which got squeezed out from between the tables, falling to the ground with a sloppy sound that most closely resembled the one you heard when you tried to pull your boots out of wet mud.

The mare’s resistance quickly faded, and she threw up a torrent of blood all over herself, as her head fell to the side. The pressure on her chest made breathing almost unbearable, and her hind legs--including the one no longer attached--pressed into her cheek. She looked up at Cheerilee pleadingly with half-opened eyes, as if there even was a form of mercy that could save her by that point.

“I’d ask for last words, but...”

Cheerilee threw her weight against the crank one last time, slamming the table shut. Applejack barely even managed a whimper as her ribcage splintered and her skull split open, smearing her brains open between the tables as blood spattered around. One of her eyes popped out just before she got crushed, and it rolled up against Cheerilee’s hoof. She quickly turned the crank the other direction, opening the table again to marvel at the patterns Applejack’s blood, fur, bones and internal organs had left for her.

“Now this,” she said breathlessly, “is art.”

She spotted Applejack’s tongue lying in a puddle of blood a few meters away, and she suddenly had an idea. She scooped up the tongue, and promptly deposited it into the glass jar she had transported the beetles in earlier.

She held it up, admiring it in the weak light.

“Shame, really”, she mused, “I bet she was a wonderful kisser...”

Scarlet Harvest: Part Two.

---

Credited to Unahim.

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