"Okay, Discord, I'm going to need a bit more explanation than that!" Starlight stated with an uneasy glare at her surroundings as Discord walked, WALKED beside her on the path of spikes. "What IS this Netherrealm?" she restated as they traveled over the red stones, expecting anything to jump out and attack-
Starlight jumped to the side as a creature, a griffon, descended like a fireball nearby, bouncing off a a boulder and landing on a jagged rock formation, stabbing him through the chest. To her horror, the griffon was still alive with his burnt feathers.
"A rather graphic but effective answer," Discord remarked, unphased by what he witnessed as they continued on. "This is one of the Realms of the Afterlives, Starlight Glimmer."
"And that would make this..." Starlight trailed off numbly.
"The realm of the damned. Or, rather, where souls go if they are claimed by Grogar," Discord explained with some distaste.
"How can anyone...claim a soul?" Starlight asked uneasily.
Discord gave her a look that said he found her question very stupid. "The Nether is part of a system of afterlives where souls are sentenced to Punishment, given ways to Repent, and granted Salvation. You can guess which this is."
"What could ponies...no, any creature do to deserve a fate here?" Starlight asked in horror and disgust.
"Of that, you will become intimately familiar in time," Discord promised ominously. "Most are from the dark days before Harmony sprouted, but even now Grogar still claims many souls," he informed solemnly as he flew over a gap in the path.
"Harmony?" Starlight repeated before smiling softly, making the jump even without magic. "She's been protecting us, even here?"
"Yes, but as deep as her roots have grown, she still can't catch everyone that falls from her branches," Discord mused fondly. "In some ways, Twilight should be proud of herself. Spreading Harmony's influence across the living world has made Grogar weaker than he's ever been."
Starlight shivered, despite the boiling air around her, "And yet...and yet he can still claim so many?"
"Some are were terrible beings: The greediest of griffons, dragons that glutton themselves on flesh and domination, the changelings that died unreformed, ponies that scorn other races or even one another. Others are like Trixie, who made a deal with Grogar, with the cost of their soul. A few are like you though, Starlight Glimmer," he explained, rounding a corner.
"Like me?" Starlight asked, slightly alarmed, even as she narrowly avoided stabbing herself on a sharp piece of rock sticking out at her.
"Like you were, that is. Souls that turned from evil but hadn't had the time to become good, their wicked ways allowing Grogar to drag them into the abyss. If you had died early in your redemption, you would have been dropped here before Harmony's light could cleanse your soul," Discord elaborated bluntly.
"...Enough trying to scare me...where to next, Discord?" She asked warily.
"Just follow the buzzing, Starlight...you'll find your path."
Starlight turned to glare, only to find him already gone. "This is going to be a recurring theme," she deduced with a sigh. Nevertheless, she took his advice and strained her ears to hear a buzzing sound. As she traveled, she steeled herself as the landscape's texture start to warp and twist, almost looking like faces. Tortured faces, of any and every creature. Some she thought she recognized, but refused to contemplate that. Around several ledges and across more gaps into sheer drops, she traveled until she found it.
There was a gorge, a depress down that led to what was akin to a forest, a maze of vertical rock formations that went up for what looked like miles. And up in them, she could perceive giant bee-like nests in hollowed out portions. What lived in them, she could not see and knew she would regret knowing.
"The Maze of Hoodoos," Discord stated as he reappeared.
"Why do you keep doing that?!" Starlight demanded with a glare.
"I'm only a guide, Starlight," he answered vaguely, shrugging as he looked back towards the epic geographical formation. Or Nethergraphical, rather. "This entire portion of the Inferno is the Realm of Solitude: or Grogar's front lawn as I like to call it, since it's not technically part of the Nether's proper realms. From here, the old Ram claims those he can only get on technicalities: Those who turned blind eyes to horrible events and people, convincing themselves that they were on the side of good no matter how much suffering it brought."
"...Definitely in the running for somewhere I belong," Starlight murmured with regret. "How do I find my way through?"
"If you don't lose your resolve and determination, you will eventually see glowing text on the walls, giving you directions. Lose them and you'll only see random instructions like the rest trapped here. The pests, however, are a problem for both the damned and yourself," Discord forewarned.
"Well, best get started," Starlight decided as she began to walk into the maze, traveling almost aimlessly for now. "So...what now?"
"I already told you?" Discord reminded with a raised eyebrow. "Do I need to say it slower?"
"No, I mean, why can't you help me more this time?" Starlight asked curiously. "There's always a reason why you're not using your full power."
"Besides that no one would learn anything?" Discord countered seriously before shrugging. "The same reason this place still exists but mortals don't know of it: I made a pact with Grogar long ago, agreeing not to truly interfere with the Inferno while he rules it, so long as he never truly leaves this place. If I break it, the Netherworld spills over and out of Tartarus, then potentially into the living world."
"...Okay, yeah, I'd rather not doom the world again," Starlight accepted with a grimace. "Does Twilight know about this place?"
"Not yet, but in time she will," Discord answered knowingly.
That answer concerned her deeply, it truly did.
"Starlight! Starlight Glimmer!"
The unicorn mare looked over in surprise and gasped at the sight that greeted her unprepared eyes. "Double Diamond?" she breathed as she saw the white stallion, starved and covered in wounds from many, many stingers.
"You know him?" Discord inquired, tilting his head curiously.
"He...he was part of my village. I heard he died in an avalanche," Starlight recalled numbly, staring unblinking at the pony that she knew could only be here because of her.
"Yes, but before I could be absolved for allowing you to take us all down that path. I was one of the first and I knew there was something wrong about what was going on, what you were doing, but I said nothing! For that, I am trapped here, in this sorry state. Never to know peace, for Harmony cannot claim me but the Nether shall not allow me peace!" he bemoaned his fate, putting her face into his hooves.
"This...this can't be true," Starlight tried to deny with tears in her eyes.
"This is the realm of Solitude, Starlight," Discord started with a solemn frown. "Each alone could have made a difference, but choose not to. That is how Grogar claimed these souls. If only he survived longer, Harmony could have granted him salvation."
Starlight's years flowed freely, realizing that this damnation truly was a cruel result of chance and her own foolishness. Harmony could not save him. But Harmony was not the only force of power that Starlight knew. "Discord, please, I know I have begged you for too much already, but is there no way to save him? To save the damned?" Starlight asked as guilt ran through her veins like fire, looking up at the draconequus as if he was her only hope. Which, in truth, he was.
"As I said, Starlight. I cannot interfere in so direct a manner," Discord answered, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut in sorrow and despair. "But..." he trailed off, prompting her to open her eyes.
She could hear Double Diamond gasp in shock with ragged, sobbing breaths as she gazed upon a Shard of the Tree, glowing in a soft prismatic radiance. "Harmony?" she mouthed softly.
"Within this, souls may be stored. Bring them beyond this world with Trixie, and they too might be lucky enough to be saved," Discord mused as it turned into a crystalline necklace, similar to what the Element Bearers used to wear, the shard held in place by a physical orb of rainbow light. "But be wary, Starlight Glimmer," Discord warned with a hard look down upon her, "Be wary of who you try to save."
Starlight shook a moment from the weight of responsibility now on her shoulders and nodded before turning to face the awestruck pony-soul, "I am sorry for what you've suffered in life, Double Diamond, but I will save you in death," Starlight vowed as the necklace began to shine. The stallion gasped in relief as light enveloped him and his form disappeared within the shard.
The two entities stood there for a good long moment as Starlight processed what she had just done, what she was going to do. "...How many can I truly save, Discord?" She asked hollowly, staring up at the skyless abyss.
"How strong is your will, Starlight Glimmer?" he countered meaningfully, vanishing like smoke on the wind.
Starlight accepted the vague answer for what it was worth, proceeding onward. And onward and onward. No matter which way she went, the path twisted and turned so many times that she was sure she had gone in circles more than once. All the while, the buzzing was a constant noise in her ear, almost drowning out the screams of those both near and far.
She refused to lose heart though, believing with all her might that she'd find a way through here. She had to. If this was the least of the horrors that awaited her, she could scarcely imagine what was and would be inflicted on Trixie.
It was at this point that she teleported out of the way as something nearly steam rolled her. Reappearing where she had been, she was surprised to find that the something was someone. A mare, an earth pony. Her red mane might have been long and luscious once upon a time, but was now short and choppy with split ends. Any silkiness to her coat had long passed, with bald patches among the splotches of tan or beige, the original color lost to time and grime.
"HORNhead! Com-come to steal from me!" the mare accused, her voice raving as her eyes darted every which way while she ran a hoof over the stone wall.
Starlight recovered quickly from her surprise, a concerned frown forming on her snout. "Who are you?" she questioned.
"Ohh, you know who I am, Magebrain! Your kind and those Featherdusters are alllllways trying to steal food from me!" the forsaken soul rambled angrily, scrapping her hoof against the rocks until Starlight was sure part of the keratin was broken. "Not enough food. Never enough food. Not since the cold."
Starlight glared suspiciously at the maddened mare, only now noticing the cutie mark of an ancient granary surrounded by wheat. "...You're Grainchus Gaia, the Aediles," Starlight realized in slight disbelief.
"Grainchus...Gaia?" the earth pony repeated numbly before chuckling a hollow, broken laugh. "It has been ages since I heard that name," she mused, looking at Starlight for a moment of sanity. "You're living," she recognized, sounding completely uncaring about that fact.
"Yes, I am," Starlight answered, eyeing her curiously. "You died, at least one thousand, one hundred and fifty years ago."
"A millennium?!" Grainchus repeated in surprise. "Oh, how this world vexes me. You could have told me lesser or greater by any amount, and I would still be unable to feel right with the length."
"Why are you here?" Starlight asked in confusion. "During the windigo crisis, you were the one who oversaw the food-"
"FOOD!?" Grainchus yelled as her body went rigid, making Starlight recoil in surprise. "Never enough food! I know they...they needed it! But it was ours!"
Starlight lit her magic, just in case, as she watched the mare for any sign of an attack. "The Earth Pony Senate...they passed a law, keeping all food only for the Earth Ponies," she recalled slowly. "...And they needed only one more vote for it to fail."
"We couldn't feed them, so they stole! So...so I let the consul do what they had to!" she yelled as madness returned to her eyes. "I wasn't going to stand in the way of our survival!"
"The law didn't help, Grainchus," Starlight informed, some disgust on the inside, but outwardly apologetic. "It just made the Pegasi and Unicorns fight harder, to not starve."
"Unicorns..." Grainchus repeated softly, eyeing Starlight with a dead, truly lifeless look in her eyes.
"Grainchus, things have changed," Starlight spoke up as she took a step closer. "I know it was a different, hard time. But it's better now: The windigos are gone, ponies are united, and peace is spreading to other creatures as well," she explained, feeling the Shard of Harmony glow comfortingly against her.
"Peace?" Grainchus repeated with what might be a smile.
"Grainchus, please," Starlight implored hopefully, holding out her hoof. "Let me save you."
"...AHAHAHAHA!" Grainchus burst into laughter. Starlight's confusion morphed to horror as the mare's frame became emaciated and sickly, her eyes sinking in as her skin became tight on her bones. "Save me? You can't SAVE me!" she yelled into Starlight's face, the unicorn backing away numbly as Grainchus's eyes went red with the Hate of the Nether. "You are the Ruiner of Lives, Defiler of Destiny and Twister of Time! You taint everything you touch! And you think you can save someone from the Inferno? Are you so sure that you have been saved from it, Starlight Glimmer?" she...It accused viciously.
"No, I...I'm not that mare anymore,," Starlight said, her voice betraying the fear and doubt in her heart. "I'm not!"
"Oh, but you are...," Not-Grainchus retorted smoothly, blowing a dark mist into the living pony's face.
Instantly, images plagued her mind: Her mind controlling Twilight's friends, her bottled up magic playing havoc on Ponyville, selling Trixie's cart without permission in Saddle Arabia, and all the ways she had failed to live up to the second chance Twilight had given her. And not to mention...Cozy Glow. Every sign she missed, every thing that could have gone wrong all because she failed to see one of her students was far more than a mere filly. The young pony's shadow loomed over her mind like a vulture.
And, suddenly, the shadow became her own. No, not her own. Her old shadow, the Shadow of the Equalist.
"I...Am...Not...HER!" Starlight declared, a burst of magic protecting her, physically and mentally, while pushing the soul back.
The spectral being was slammed back, hitting a wall and skidding down to the ground. But when it rose, it was Grainchus once more, but her glare remained as she looked at the unicorn. "Only one can change fate...and it isn't you!" she declared defiantly before she took off into the maze.
"Grainchus, wait!" Starlight called as she chased after the soul.
"AHHH!" A bloodcurdling scream reached her ear as the buzzing grew louder and closer than ever.
Starlight rounded the corner and froze. It was...a Bearbug. Not a Bugbear, a Bearbug: A giant bee or wasp with the arms of a bear and the face of one on its insectoid head, its translucent wings tinged with crimson.. And in its great maw was...half of Grainchus, the rear half. Its jaw snapped closed as soon as it saw her, swallowing the head and forelimbs while the hindquarters fell to the ground in a bloody mess. The Netherbeast let loose a buzzing roar as it made to charge at her.
But Starlight was neither dead nor one easily thwarted. Jumping under the creature's strike, she dived forward, sending a blast into its large abdomen. The Bearbug roared, furious that one would dare attack it. Starlight watched as it took flight, confident that it had to fly elsewhere to turn around in the narrow spacing...and was honestly stunned as it stood upright before appearing to fall backwards on its back. She leapt back before it could squish her, but found that concern was tiny compared to the truth: The Bearbug's limbs twisted, bent, and warped themselves while the head twisted a full half turn to be staring at her right side up now, and the wings simply shrunk into itself to regrow on the new back.
Realized that outmaneuvering this spawn of Grogar wouldn't be so simple, she leapt up, flying with her magic to charge at it. It made to swipe at her, but Starlight kicked against the wall to give herself the extra boost to dodge it and land on its back.
The beast thrashed beneath her and she felt a rush of rage for this creature that dared to keep Trixie from her, that only existed to torment lost souls, and that was foolish enough to get in her way.
Before she could finish charging an attack, a spear rushed by her and into the head of the Bearbug. The weapon went clean through the beast, causing it to collapse with her still on its back.
"A living soul in the Nether?" a deep voice called. Starlight looked up to find a blue pegasus stallion in ancient legionary armor, but bronze unlike Flash Magnus's, with an X-shaped scar on his cheek, right beside his grey facial hair. "Now that is a rare sight," he remarked sternly as he descended down to her.
"...No offense, but who the buck are you?" Starlight asked in confusion.
"Hmm, it seems history may not have favored me," the soldier remarked thoughtfully. "I am Commander Ironhoof of the Royal Legion of Cloudsdale."
Ello! Here's chapter two of our little inferno, where Starlight braves the first obstacle of the Nether: The Maze of Hoodoos, and gets more than she bargained for, but no has the fate of many on her hooves. And we got some backstory and info on the afterlives from Discord, who also made a deal with Grogar to keep the goat in the Nether.
Funfacts: Grainchus's name is based off Gaius Gracchus, who is responsible for the creation of the design of grain houses in ancient Rome. Ironhoof is Flash Magnus's commander, for those that don't remember.