Twilight smiled as she dusted. It had been a rare delight to be allowed into the store room of mirror portals. To even be allowed to see them... "What an honor," she breathed to herself as she got to scrubbing all the harder. "What secrets you hide..."
Her eager polishing seemed sufficient to cause her rag to be absorbed in the glass, the surface shimmering and flexing. "That's odd, Celestia said they were all turned off..." She peered through the mirror curiously to see a sky painted with thick grey clouds. The land she could see was also grey. There was a lack of living vegetation in sight. A glance down showed the view was over some kind of ditch.
Stagnant water barely moved. Despite the still water, she saw no insects or bugs enjoying the respite. It seemed a dead place. "What world is this..." She could see her rag though. It hadn't fallen far, just on the surface of that water. She reached with her magic and snatched it up easily. "Let's get out of here."
A hand erupted from the darkness of the water and grabbed the rag. A humanoid figure climbed to its feet, its every step as if it were in incredible pain.
Twilight's eyes went wide. "A-are you alright?" It was clear he or she was very much not, but she felt obliged to ask.
The figure bent unnaturally to look up at her floating portal, its back arching backwards. It gazed at her, somehow both seeing through her and yet not perceiving her at all. It gave a rattling cry as it clutched the rag with one gnarled hand, the other grabbing a rusted sword from beneath the water.
Feeling dread building rapidly, Twilight tugged her rag. She would have just abandoned it, but she was told not to leave things on the other sides of the portal. The creature swayed with the pull of her magic, almost drawn off-balance before it froze, then wrenched its tugged hand back. Her magic was so firm on it that instead of pulling the rag to her, she was drawn through the portal, screaming as she fell towards the desiccated human-like creature.
It watched her splash down into the ditch even as it raised its sword, giving an groan without words as it lurched towards her.
Twilight scrambled to her hooves and backed away, water sloshing around her furry legs, soaking them with filthy water. "W-wait! I'm not here to hurt you, I swear!"
It did not care for her words. It swung its sword at her in a terrible arc, its notched and decayed blade still firm enough to bite into Twilight's shoulder and chest, blood set free to flow and join the discoloration of her fur. She screamed in pain and her wings unfurled. With frantic flaps, she fled away from it. With pain and panic, she didn't get very far, but even the edge of the ditch was far enough that the creature, whatever it was, couldn't reach her. It called out to her, seemingly begging her to come die at its sword.
"No!" She shouted as she trembled. She'd never been so directly slashed before. That thing had tried to outright murder her, and she was still bleeding. She couldn't stay there. She looked for the portal that she had come through, but saw no hint of it. Was it gone? She wasn't thinking clearly through the pain and staggered away from the ditch and its angry resident. She began to hobble away, wishing the bleeding would slow. "Why hadn't I paid more attention in those first aid classes...?"
That's when she saw another figure. This one was already standing, leaning against a wall and muttering something. It wasn't approaching her, and it stood beside some stairs. Stairs were a path. Maybe there was help there, safety... Twilight wanted to follow that path.
She approached slowly and cautiously, eyeing the figure that seemed to ignore her until she drew too close for whatever concept of comfort it has. It drew a club from under its tattered clothing and made an unwell noise, practically choking as it lurched towards her.
"I'm not your enemy," spat out Twilight as her wings spread on their own. It didn't listen. It just kept coming closer. She had learned her painful lesson. When the club came down, she jumped to the side and lashed out her hooves with all the power she had. The creature grunted as it staggered back, clearly hurt, but not put down. It raised the club to try again.
Twilight scowled at it. "Go away!" Her horn glowed brightly and she fired a bright ray of light at it. It jerked backwards, then fell, collapsing to the ground in a heap of dried flesh. A moment later, its body blew away, no more than ash on the wind. "What... is this place...?" Twilight shook her head and crept closer. Its club was still there, but Twilight saw no use in that. She had to find safety.
She staggered up the stairs to find the landscape of the hellacious world she had found herself in. She was on a cliff-side. Far ahead and past a valley was an imposing citadel of sorts, though she couldn't see much of its details. As she walked, a new scent tickled her nose and she turned to behold an old and cold campfire. "Does that mean somepony lives here?" Or was it just another sign that all had been abandoned? She didn't know, so she pressed on.
She saw more of those figures down one narrow passage and turned away from it. Down the other path she could see one such figure, but it was facing away from her, down a small drop. She had the advantage of surprise! Or... Twilight frowned as she looked back at her wings. Perhaps she should be using those instead of creeping around. She spread them wide and gave a flap, lifting from the earth and soaring right over the head of that figure.
It was quite the shame that the second figure that lurked by the gate beyond was wielding a crossbow, and knew how to use it. Pain exploded through Twilight and she crashed to the earth. She was bleeding. She had been bleeding before, but it just kept getting worse. Her purple fur was matted and dark with her life essence. She fired a desperate bolt of energy at the figure, and it fell over, but that didn't heal her.
She was dying.
She grabbed at the bolt lodged in her chest with her magic and tried to wrench it free. All she freed was more blood.
She collapsed to the ground.
She barely felt the first figure find her fallen form and plunge its daggers into her back.
Twilight Sparkle had died.
But that was not the fate she could accept. It was not the fate her soul could accept. The merciless entropy of the world demanded she lay her head down and join the countless fallen that called it home, but she refused. She screamed silently. She was dead, but she refused. She had things to do. She had destinies unfulfilled. She couldn't have died. She just couldn't.
Twilight found light filtering through her lashes as she slowly opened her eyes. She was not dead...
She sat up onto her haunches. Everything hurt a little, but that was almost a comfort. The pain meant that she was alive. She reached a hoof to where the bolt had pierced her. Her fur was still a mess of blood and filth, but she was whole, mostly. Looking at her hoof, she could see that it was taut and sunken, as if she were starving, perhaps? She didn't feel hungry.
She felt terrified. "Where am I?" she asked, though no answers were coming. She looked around and saw she was back in the ditch she had begun in. She would have to climb again. "I'll do it right this time..." She clenched her teeth, mustering her resolve before advancing to meet the first figure that had welcomed her to their world.
Twilight did not hesitate to blast the figure, causing it to collapse into the water before it had even drawn its blade. "They're not... ponies." Near as she could tell, they weren't anything with thoughts beyond hurting her. Even as she moved to trot past the fallen figure, it fell to ashes, but something stirred in her. A powerful but brief delight stirred in her chest. Twilight couldn't explain what had happened, but she found wicked delight, somehow absorbing some of the lost power of that defeated figure.
She spotted something glinting off a body she hadn't gone past before and carefully approached it, expecting an attack, but that one appeared to be truly dead.
She grabbed the glinting object in her magic and drew it close. It was a bottle of clay that glowed a curious blue color. It reacted with the magic it was held in and she could feel tingling in her horn. "Magic?" She had felt that tingle before. Whatever was inside the jar was very magical. "I may need this..." She tucked away the ashen flask and ascended the stairs only to find that the second figure she had put down before had returned. Just like her, it had stubbornly refused to die.
Twilight stomped a drawn hoof, which was enough to draw its attention. It drew its club, but barely made it to steps before Twilight blasted it apart. "Not this time..." Thinking of them as just... things, not living, just strange and horrible machines made the task much easier.
She didn't leave the club behind that time, clenching it in her teeth as she advanced. To her left was that campfire, but it was... different.
Twilight felt a pull towards it and approached the old ashes and gnarled sticks. She reached out a hoof as if to warm herself by the fire that wasn't there. For a moment she just stood there, waiting for it, but none came. She frowned a moment. "Why did I expect that to work?" She shook her head. "This place is driving me crazy..." She thrust her hoof at the fire. "Light or I--" It lit. With a great rush of flames, it began to crackle and emit blessed warmth.
She sank to her haunches beside the flame and let her eyes half close. The comfort it provided reached deep into her body and soothed the pains she had suffered since arriving in that terrible world. For a moment, she just wanted to stay there forever, but she resisted the urge, climbing to her hooves.
That's when she saw them. She was not alone, not by far. There were other figures, humans by their shape, in different clothing, wielding different weapons. They all sat in silence, all joined in the comfort of the flame.
For once she felt no fear from them. They were bound to her, somehow. They were all bound... "To the flame," she said aloud, frowning a little. "How..." She waved a hoof right through one of them, and her attempts to talk to them yielded nothing. They were there, so close, and yet incalculably far.
She had to press on, to find answers, and get home. "Good luck," she whispered gently to the other lost souls. If they could find their own ways to home, that gave her hope for her own journey.
She advanced on the dagger-wielding creature that was beneath her. She knew the crossbow firing one was not far past it, so she couldn't rush past it. Still... she had magic! She cracked a crooked smile and lowered her horn at the unwitting creature. It had enough time to spin around after the first blast to take the second to its chest and collapse against the tombstone it had been standing beside. With a faint whisper, its body joined the ash of the world. "One step at a time..." She shuddered with a rush of power, even if she knew not what to do with it.
She just had to be slow and careful... "I can do this..."
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?