Twilight crept forward, and the crossbowman did not leave her wanting. There was no sign of her body save for a patch of darkened earth where her blood has seeped into it, staining it from its pallid grey tone. She had no time to consider it as the thing raised its crossbow and fired at her.
Her horn lit up bright as a shimmering field erupted before her, as stout as any steel. The bolt was caught by it and sent sailing away with a rough noise of aged metal striking her magic. "Not this time..." She raised her club meaningfully. "Put that down." It was reloading, senseless to her words. She saw little choice, so she blasted it with a brilliant ray, and it staggered and fell as if its strings were cut.
She glanced to the right and could see the two she had left behind. They hadn't noticed her and seemed content to wallow in their own misery, so she let them be even as she shuddered with new power. "What is this?" she asked no one. The rush of energy felt good, but only the wrong sorts of good.
Passing through tall arches, Twilight beheld a new figure, but this one had almost nothing in common with the others, aside from being humanoid. It was dressed in thick metal armor. It was down on a knee, one hand balled almost in frustration. The other was folded over a knee as if so very tired. A sword pierced it from the front, pressing right through it and penetrating out the back. That sword spiraled in a cruel shape that promised sublime pain to any that had the misfortune to experience it.
Twilight cringed at the sight of it, but her eyes trailed away from the seemingly dead figure to the great polearm that lay just ahead of it, angled as if the knight... Was it a knight? Twilight decided it was a knight, far more armored than any royal Equestrian guard. A human knight, for this dreadful place, with a spear as massive as he... Were they a he? Twilight again decided it was so. He lacked any hint that implied he may be a woman. His spear looked impossibly massive to be wielded by him.
Maybe something else had wielded it? But then she would expect a much larger hole in his armor than just that sword, which looked like it had done the lethal blow.
The man stood in the center of the field. Across from him lay the citadel in the distance, but there were closed bars. Perhaps... She spread her wings. She didn't like the look of that human, his sword, or his spear. She decided to cheat. She brought down her wings in a powerful flap and jumped, but only made it a few feet before she came right back down, scrambling to keep her balance. Her flight... gone? She looked at each wing, confused and alarmed. The feathers on them lacked their luster. They were matte instead of glossy, and there were holes in their covering. They had decayed with her painful experience, and with it, her power of flight had been taken.
She would have to face the challenge as it was presented to her. That didn't mean she had to like it. She trotted past the still figure towards the gate and banged a hoof on it, but aside from the hollow clatter, it remained firm and unmoving. She closed her eyes and tried to teleport past it, but the world itself seemed to seize hold of her magic, and she could go no further than the gate. "What do you want?!" she shouted in frustration.
Twilight circled around and approached the figure that still knelt there, ever patient. As she drew near, the answer started to become clear. She could feel it, somehow. There was an urge with no explanation. That sword. It belonged to her. Or it could belong to her. She just had to... take it out. It was that easy. The man it was in was dead anyway. What use did he have for it?
She grasped the sword in her magic and gave a terrific pull, but then she saw something else. Black flowing slime seemed to ooze from the corners and edges of the man's armor. It was some kind of foul infection that made Twilight glad she was pulling with her magic instead of her hooves or, ugh, her mouth. She pulled with a firm tug, and it slid free with a spray of blood across the ground.
The man rose stiffly as Twilight stepped back. "You're alive?"
The man paused, seemingly surprised a moment. "Most do not speak."
Twilight glanced left and right. "I could... say the same for you."
"You are not unkindled ash. Surrender the sword."
Twilight thrust a hoof at the still closed gate. "Open the bars, um, please?"
"That is precisely what I may not do." He grabbed his spear and hefted it into a ready stance. "Only the worthy ash may pass. You are not even human. Though that is the least of your sins. Prepare to be judged."
Twilight opened her mouth to argue, but there was no time for that. He swung his massive polearm in a deadly arc, slicing through the air at her. Her eyes went wide and she vanished, appearing behind him. "Stop it! Why does everypony have to fight?!"
He combined turning with a lunge, coming at her with his deadly tool. Unlike the rotted implements wielded by the others, his seemed study and ready to dispense death. Twilight blinked away barely in time, feeling the wind rush over her snout. Talking would not work.
With a glowing horn, she began to batter him with dazzling bolts, but she could never take her eyes off of him. His strokes were slow but deadly, tearing up the ground when they missed her and forcing her to dive or blink to safety after each one, but she was winning. She could do this...
Then he fell.
She smiled. "Are you done? Are you..." Her lips peeled back in horror as the man grunted.
The black slime she had seen exploded outwards and took the form of a misshapen beast more than twice the size of the man, with eyes of its own that glared at her with nothing but hate. The man rose back to his feet, ready to resume the battle as if he wasn't just a small part of something large and terrible.
Twilight could feel her heart pounding. How was she supposed to fight that? Fear made her not fight at all. She dodged and blinked away frantically, until her horn began to throb. She had run herself dry from all the effort. She dove past him as the shadow-serpent that was part of him lunged for her and lashed out with her hooves. It connected, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.
With building fright, she fled away from it, but the archway back where she had come was barred with some thick shadowy energy. Even in her panic, she decided it was the same that did not allow her to simply teleport past the whole thing in the first place. She spun around just in time to see him coming at her with his spear and she ran off to the side. Her tears were not impressing that... thing. She had to fight. Fight or die, again.
She dodged with a frantic dive and the flask she had recovered tumbled with her, bumping against a hoof as she went. Could it help? It surely seemed better than nothing. She grabbed it in her magic and dove out of the way of the creature's unending assault to pop it in her lips and suck some of the glowing blue stuff from it. Uck. It tasted like... fire. It was like she was drinking a bonfire, but it was cold as death on her lips.
The ache in her horn abated despite the foul taste. Her magic was returning and with it, some sense of bravery. She licked her lips as she tucked the remainder of the vial away. "Time to fi--" Talking had consequences, and she bore hers with a yelp as she was thrown back, fresh blood spilling from the gouge in her shoulder.
Gritting her teeth with a low growl, Twilight lowered her horn at the human/shadow... thing, and let loose all the magic she had regained in one terrific blast. It picked up the knight and sent him flying in the other direction in a fitting tit for his tat. With a confident grin she slid to her hooves and chugged down the remainder of the vial, trying to ignore the strange taste of it. He was back on his feet and was rushing her, ready to impale her, but she was faster.
With a great surge of power, he was laid flat, and he didn't get back up.
The tickle she had felt, that wicked thrill at each victory, it seemed like nothing compared to what came then. Power poured thick from the fallen form of the knight as the shadowy substance flaked away. She could do little but jerk and groan as it filled her with... "What is this..." she barely squeaked out, falling to a knee. She slowly gathered herself back up, heaving.
The knight was defeated. The way forward was clear, and his sword belonged to her. She grabbed it and nodded. "It didn't have to be that way..."
Compared to the knight, the creatures she faced almost seemed trivial, almost. The shambling humans that barely seemed alive were of no special threat to her, but they were not alone. As she clambered over forgotten tombstones along the path she hoped would lead to safety, and answers, she heard the panting of a dog.
She spun in place to spy a dog, or what once was a dog. It barely had any flesh hanging from its bones as it charged at her, its decayed teeth somehow slavering with the joy of the hunt.
She had no magic left to use, but she had the club. It was all she had. She had the sword, certainly, but it was... It wasn't... She couldn't explain it, but it wasn't a weapon, not that way. She had more sense than the incensed dog and brought her club down, rattling its skull, but that did not stop it. It lunged past the club and kissed her, if one counts a bite to the snout as a kiss.
Squealing in fresh pain, she lashed out a hoof that sent it to the ground, sliding a few inches away. It was room enough. Twilight pounced on the downed canine, driving her hooves against it in terrible blows that broke bones and shattered their pieces. It had stopped making noises.
Huffing and panting, she dropped her club and fell to her haunches. She hurt so badly. She could only imagine how much of a terror she looked to anyone who came across her. Her fur was a matted mess of dirt, ash, and blood. Her snout was filthy and bleeding. She was in poor shape. She needed help. "Please let this be the right way..." She rose to her hooves and ascended towards the darkness in the side of the citadel she had finally reached. It was a way inside, but would there be more danger in there, or some respite?