Oghren groaned as he rolled onto his back with his head feeling like a thousand warhammers all started rutting at once. How martial weapons got it on was beyond him, but he was sure he did not want to find out. A thousand hangovers could have rattled his skull, but nothing felt worse than whatever that sodding Shaper did to him.
He could still see himself with his axe in his mouth fighting against Twilight, intent on cleaving her head from her neck. Oghren was many things: a lout, a former drunk, a lech, but he would never go against Twilight. She did more for him than all the donkeys in Orzamule ever did. She gave him hope in finding Branka. Stone, she found Branka, even if it the meeting ended up a brutal battle. Twilight received a scar in that fight that she would bear for the rest of her days. As far as he was concerned, Twilight is family.
To that, the idea that he almost killed her infuriated him. He was a donkey, by the Stone, and a damn strong one at that. How could he have not been able to resist the magic? Then again, the spells the Shaper used felt more powerful than anything Oghren had ever experienced. Twilight would know. He needed to find her.
Shaking the mud and blood from his beard, Oghren stood up and picked up his axe, slinging it back onto his back. He saw Sparky nearby and walked to her on painful legs. Every muscle in his body burned against his bones, but a little pain did not matter to him. Pain just made his berserker blood flow again. He nudged Sparky with a hoof eliciting a slight mumble from her. She kicked one of her hind legs and then stretched it to scratch her ear. Annoyed with her, Oghren whapped her across the snout, making Sparky yelp in pain.
“Why you hit Sparky!?” she yelled, rubbing her nose, only to rub her head. “Oh… Sparky head hurt. Saw Tilite and…”
“Tilite!” Sparky began to whine as her own memories rushed over her. “Sparky stab Tilite! Why Sparky do that? She good to pack, good to Sparky!”
“She’s good to all of her friends,” Oghren said, “But that ponyspawn bastard used some kind of magic to control our bodies. Controlled our sodding mouths too. If I ever get my hooves on him…”
Of course, that was the problem. He looked around and the Blackmarsh looked worse than when they first arrived. He could not see Twilight, Lyra, or the Shaper anywhere. They would not just leave them in the swamp, so something must have happened to them. They needed to find Twilight and Lyra soon. Oghren did not much care for swamps, but something about this place felt wrong.
“Sparky, get up and use your big nose to find Twilight,” Oghren said, unslinging his axe. “I’m going to make sure we don’t have any more surprises.”
Sparky nodded and began to sniff the air in an attempt to find a scent. As Sparky searched for their friends, Oghren searched for foes. He might as well stick to his strengths. He also wanted to see if he could find the Shaper, or any ponyspawn for that matter. Something that he could sink his axe into to take off the edge.
As he searched, he saw a valley within the swamp. He trudged through the mud, each step a slog to get through with his heavy boots. As he approached the ridge, Oghren looked down and made a noise of consternation. It seemed the swamp held more secrets than he cared for.
“Oghren!” Sparky shouted, “Come! Come! I find them!”
Slinging his axe onto his back, Oghren did his best to gallop through the muck in the direction of Sparky’s voice. As he approached, he breathed a sigh of relief when Sparky stood next to the bodies of Twilight and Lyra. He crouched down and listened to them carefully. Their breathing was shallow, but at least they were breathing. He took some comfort in that they lived, but something still felt wrong.
He tapped Twilight on the side of her leg. “Hey, boss,” Oghren said as gently as he could. “Boss! Wake up!”
“Minty pony not waking up either!” Sparky shook Lyra with the scruff of her robes. “Why they nap now?!”
“No idea…” Oghren then spotted another pony, an earth pony, in the distance. She was armed, but equally unconscious as the other two. Sparky joined him, but as they drew closer to the unknown pony, Sparky started to growl. She bared her teeth at their fullest, showing off every edge and point.
“Me no like her,” she snarled, “she smell bad! We should leave her.”
“Twilight wouldn’t like that,” Oghren chided, “You know how she is with all of her mercy and friendship and stuff. It worked out pretty well for her, so let’s give it a try. Not like you smell any better. Put her and Twilight on my back, then carry Lyra while you keep up with me. I saw a place we can bring them, someplace that looks decently safe.”
Sparky huffed but otherwise said nothing as she lifted the unknown pony and placed her on Oghren’s back. They began the march to the valley in the swamp that Oghren had found and from there he showed what he discovered.
At the bottom of the hill stood the remains of a village long since destroyed. Several of the houses were knocked clean over, some little more than rubble. In the town square, or what Oghren guessed was such, stood several tall buildings which he guessed were for worship and administration. He still did not understand pony villages compared to donkey thaigs. That said, he did see a building that looked solid enough to act as a shelter while Twilight, Lyra, and their new arrival recovered from whatever ailment struck them.
Also in the village, a massive skeleton of three snake-like creatures jutted out from the swamp. It was a creature Oghren had never seen before, at least none that he could recall seeing sober. Nothing like it lived in the Dark Tunnels at least.
Sparky whimpered at the sight. “What that thing?”
“It’s dead is what it is,” Oghren said, “C’mon, let’s get these ponies into that house.”
With a hard kick from his hind leg, Oghren knocked the door to the only standing house wide open and brought the two passengers on his back inside with Sparky following behind him. The house was in decent shape overall, with two bedrooms that held perfectly functioning beds inside. Oghren plopped the unknown earth pony onto the floor while depositing Twilight onto the bed as gently as he could. In the other room, Sparky deposited Lyra on the other bed.
“What we do now?” she asked as she drew her daggers and began the work of sharpening them. Oghren merely sighed.
“The worst blasted thing we can do in this situation. We wait.”
Sparky whimpered and dropped her daggers. She nestled her head underneath Twilight’s right foreleg. Oghren shook his head and then got an idea. He smiled and nestled himself down in a corner.
“I know what will keep your spirits up,” he said, tossing his canteen to Sparky. “The best kind of spirits, the one you drink! Let me tell you about this one time I was buck naked and drunk in Dust Town…”
To say that there was an awkward silence that hung in the air would have been the understatement of the century. Twilight merely stared at Night Light and Velvet as she waited for… anything. Acceptance, refutation, a line of questioning, anything but complete silence. Maybe she should have left her helmet on and focused on the trial of leaving the Fade.
Try as she might to convince herself otherwise, when the opportunity and the evidence both aligned so perfectly, Twilight felt the only course of action was to simply state what she concluded: that she was in fact their daughter. The longer she looked at their faces, Velvet’s in particular, the more she believed they shared a resemblance. The name, while not indicative of much, acted as another clue. The lynchpin was the magical energy Twilight felt when she and the two unicorns joined forces in the creation of a barrier. It felt too much like her own spellwork. Since it came from both of them, Twilight only had one conclusion.
That Night Light and Twilight Velvet were her father and mother.
Throughout the majority of Twilight’s life, she thought herself simply as a student of the Equestrian Tower with no family to speak of. When she brought up the subject of her family to First Enchanter Wise Eyes, he told her that her parents died when she was very young. If the accident that destroyed Cornucopia killed her parents as well, then it would explain so much.
This was what any orphan dreamed of, pun of the Fade notwithstanding. To meet their long lost parents, to have names and faces to their image; Twilight felt her heart race as her emotions ran wild. What would she say if they accepted her conclusion? Would she embrace them? Tell them about her life? A horde of questions rushed through her head and there was no clear answer to any of them.
However, Twilight did harbour fear. What if they rejected her?
Her fears were put to rest as Velvet nodded her head, tears streaming down her face. “It is you,” she breathed out, the words strained and difficult for her. “Celestia’s mercy, it’s our little filly. All grown up… you’ve come back to me.”
“Please tell me this isn’t a cruel trick.” Velvet held Twilight’s hoof in her own, her sobs echoing in the Chantry hall. “Please tell me you are Twilight Sparkle, my little Twily…”
“It is her, love,” Night Light said, barely able to contain tears of his own, “She’s real. She’s here. With us.”
Confirmation from her husband broke the emotional dams for Velvet, who almost threw herself onto Twilight while filling the air with racked sobs. She wept loudly and openly as she almost crushed her daughter in her forelegs. Twilight embraced her mother as tears of her own flowed down her cheeks. Night Light joined the two, wrapping his own hooves around the two mares.
They were a family united.
“Nothing pleases my essence than the reuniting of family,” Faith said from her position in the air, “For Faith in family can be a bond that is stronger than any steel. If you require privacy, there are chambers in the Chantry’s basement.”
“She’s right, Twilight,” Lyra said, a genuine smile of joy on her face. She wiped away a tear of her own. “I’ll come get you if anything happens like a demon attack or Berry Punch goes crazy. You just… you just go and be with your parents. Not many ponies get a chance like this, you know.”
Twilight gave a soft thanks to Lyra and then followed her parents into the Chantry basement. They did not need candles or torches as the Fade provided enough light through glowing rocks that made up the landmass.
Once everypony sat comfortably, Twilight gave her parents a nervous laugh. “This… this isn’t really what I thought for a reunion,” she said, “So I guess you have a lot of questions.”
Velvet immediately jumped on the chance. “Were you treated well in the Tower? How did you do in the Harrowing? Why did you become a Grey Warden? Has there been a Blight? Are you seeing anypony? Do you have foals of your own? I don’t know where to begin, I want to know everything about my little Twily!”
“Calm down, dear,” Night Light said, giving his wife a warm smile a comforting hoof against her own. “We… we don’t know how much time we have until the next attack. Let’s start from the beginning.”
Twilight did so. She told them about her life in the Tower, about hatching Spike from his egg, about her Harrowing, and about meeting the leader of the Equestrian Grey Wardens, Duncan, to fight against the Fifth Blight. She told them about meeting all her friends on the road: from fellow warden Applejack who would be queen, the swamp witch who wanted to be a fashion star Rarity, the kind spy Fluttershy, the wild yet fun Pinkie Pie, to the assassination attempt and befriending of Rainbow Dash. She told them of her rival Trixie who took over as First Enchanter of the Tower, of Oghren the donkey berserker who joined the Grey Wardens, to Shale the Indestructible golem warrior and foe to all pigeons.
She regaled them with tales of all her adventures in succinct form. From the failed battle of Ostequus to the demon invasion of the Tower, to Orzamule and the Temple of Luna. She told of battles against the high dragon, to encounters with hippogryphs. She told of the Battle of Trotterim and the death of Spike. She told of how her journeys brought her to her parents after the excursion to the Dark Tunnels and the loss of another friend.
Throughout all of this, Velvet never seemed to stop crying, though her sobbing lessened, somewhat. “You’ve been through so much,” she said, “I wish we could have been there with you. Helped you. Celebrated your victories and comforted you through loss.”
“We always knew you would be a great pony,” Night Light said, his face beaming with fatherly pride. “We just… never expected all of this.”
“But what about you?” Twilight asked, though unsure if she wanted the answers. “Blackmarsh has been the way it has been for over twenty years. You two are long… long…”
“Dead?” Night Light gave a sad chuckle. “We know. We know more than most of the ponies here who still live in denial. Time moves at a different rate for many within the Fade. For your mother and I, it has been a long time… seeing you all grown up made us realize just how long we’ve been trapped here. You must be twenty-three by now… you were two when the Templars came to take you to the Tower.”
Twilight nodded. Night Light continued. “Cornucopia was an experiment in pony cooperation between earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns as decreed by King Maverick. But it couldn’t be just any community, it needed to be prosperous. The king was nothing if not practical. So an opportunity arose when prospectors found the largest lyrium deposit so close to the surface. Just on the border of Amarethine, it should have fell under Arl Maim’s purview, but King Maverick declared the village a royal protectorate. He really wanted the village to work and even visited a number of times; though that dropped off during another stand-off with Filais.”
“Your father and I moved to Cornucopia after our wedding in the Tower,” Velvet said. She still held Twilight’s hoof as if it were a lifeline. Twilight did not mind. “We were supposed to aid the other unicorns in researching lyrium, assist with the mining and storage of lyrium. We were happy there. The mine was prosperous, the farms were rich, everypony was happy. We really were living a happy life in a happy community.”
“But what happened?” Twilight asked. “Everything seemed so wonderful for you two and everypony involved. What disaster struck you to be besieged by demons?”
Night Light shook his head and walked over to a nearby desk. There he lit up his horn and pulled out a small blueprint. It appeared to be the Cornucopia lyrium mines. “On the surface things look peaceful and prosperous, but underneath things were boiling over, literally and figuratively. First, because of the surface mine, we did not need to have as much trade with Orzamule. This angered the Cartas who dealt almost exclusively with lyrium, including smuggling to Maleficar and other apostates. They set about to sabotage the mines by making the lyrium explode.”
“Second was the administrator Arl Maim put in charge. Since he could not tax the land like he wanted to, Arl Maim demanded that he appoint a Bann from his section of the Bannorn. He chose Bannora Aurora Lights, but nowadays her mind is so splintered and she’s so far from a pony now we just call her the Bannora. She obsessed with magic despite being an earth pony. We believe she might have brought us all to the Fade by accident, because of her own practicing of Dark Arts. Maybe she even has a False Horn. Justice can tell you more about the creature the Bannora has become. She’s been fighting her for years.”
Velvet looked over in the corner of the room with fear. “The third thing… well, maybe it’s better to show you.”
Velvet led Twilight to the corner of the basement where a large stack of crates lay. She moved them aside with her magic until she found a much, much smaller box, one that would have fit in the middle of Twilight’s hoof. She pushed the box with her hooves towards Twilight.
“Whatever you do, don’t open it and don’t use magic,” Velvet warned. “The power inside the box is unlike anything we have ever seen before. We only just managed to seal it inside when we found it. The mine… it dug too deep.”
Twilight looked down on the box and felt an incredible yet volatile presence within. It felt like pure lyrium but utterly wrong. The longer she stared at the box, the more she felt like her mind was going to go mad. Already she felt an immense pressure on her brow as whispers filled her ears.
Velvet slid the box back into its darkened corner. “Even in the Fade, that… thing has power. It also means the box we used to seal it in the real world still exists as well. What is inside is what we call red lyrium, or raw lyrium. Whatever it is, it is more volatile than regular lyrium and drove the miners and the Carta saboteurs insane. They blew up the mines with the red lyrium, completely warping the region from the vast plains to the swamplands you mentioned before. The Bannora’s dark magic coupled with the power of the blast brought us here, stuck between death and the afterlife.”
Before Twilight could ask questions about the red lyrium, a loud explosion shook the Chantry even down to the basement level with violent tremors. Velvet immediately jumped on top of her daughter to protect her from falling debris, while Night Light covered both of them with his form. The screams and shouts from the upper level, while somewhat muffled, still conveyed the chaos up above.
“We need to get up there,” Twilight said. Her mother tentatively let go of her, her eyes filled with sadness. Twilight gave her parents a strong smile to reassure them and drew her sword for emphasis. She was not the foal the Templar took from them decades ago. She was a Grey Warden, and she would fight to protect anypony from evil, whether ponyspawn or demons.
They rushed up the stairs one by one until they were back in the main worship hall. The foals hid in the corners surrounded by adults, their hooves over their heads in a desperate bid to defend themselves. Another explosion made the Chantry tremble with bits of the roof falling all around their heads. Twilight looked to the main entrance and saw no sign of forced entry. She guessed the demons were using a scare tactic.
“Everypony, stay calm,” Twilight called out, “If they wanted to breach the walls, they would have done so.”
The spirit of Faith floated down in front of Twilight. The light within her appeared faded. “The more the demons attack my barrier, the weaker I become. Not only are their attacks powerful on their own, but with each passing day, the faith of these beleaguered ponies wane. My strength will fall soon.”
“Then it is about time we put an end to this.” Justice walked over to Twilight and Faith though unlike her counterpart, the sunlight from Justice’s body radiated almost blindingly, fueled by righteous fury. Twilight could feel the power emanating from within the spirit.
“The only way these ponies will be free to move on to the hereafter, the only way they can have justice, is if we bring the fight to the Bannora herself. She is more demon now than pony, and as such, I believe this conflict will end only with her demise.”
“We have spoken of this at great length, Justice,” Faith said, “While I have no doubt in your power as a spirit, the ponies here are not warriors. Each time you leave the walls, it is a miracle you come back at all.”
Justice nodded, but then pointed a steel clad hoof at Twilight. “That was before Twilight Sparkle Arcana arrived. She and her friend Lyra Heartstrings have proven capable mages. They are still connected to the material plane as well, so their bodies reinforce their magic. Together, we have the best chance to defeat the Bannora. Perhaps the only chance.”
It sounded like another suicide mission to Twilight. She should get used to these by now, but she did not want to get complacent. Justice’s plan was a good one. If the Bannora truly was more demon than pony, then she commanded this segment section of the Fade. Like the Sloth Demon who attacked Twilight and her friends in the Tower, only with his defeat did they manage to get out of the Fade. However, Twilight did have concerns; how could a pony, an earth pony no less, command a portion of the Fade and an army of demons as well as keep two spirits at bay? That kind of power was unheard of.
“I’m with you, Justice,” Lyra said, joining Twilight’s side. “Everyone here deserves to rest in peace. They deserve justice. I’ve done some pretty crazy things, but I believe we can do this.”
“I’ll be by your side as well,” Twilight added, “Lyra is right. We need to give everypony here to move on to whatever lies beyond. Besides, I’ve been in worse situations. I just had a small army of friends behind me then.”
“Twilight…” Velvet approached her daughter and held her close. “I know… I know you have to do this. It pains me to see my daughter diving headfirst into danger. The idea of losing you so soon after meeting you… it hurts. But if… When you succeed then this portion of the Fade will vanish. Our souls will be free.”
“What your mother is trying to say is…” Night Light held both wife and daughter close. “We’re glad to have met you, Twilight. We’re proud of what you accomplished, and no matter what happens, you belong in our hearts. We love you, Twilight.”
Twilight took a deep breath and embraced her parents tighter. However, Justice was already opening the door to begin their mission against the Bannora. She let go of her parents and said, “I’m going to free you from this torment. Then I’ll be back as soon as I can so we have some time together.”
Flanked by Lyra and Justice, Twilight gave one last look at her parents who waved at her as she walked out of the Chantry. She felt overwhelmed; she never thought she’d meet her parents today, much less in the Fade. If she wanted to get back to them, she would need to keep the Fade stable herself, but to do so sounded cruel and—
Twilight took a deep breath. What she really needed to do was calm down and focus on the task at hoof. The Bannora bound them to this portion of the Fade. The longer they stayed here, the more their bodies wasted away in the real world.
Before Twilight could leave the barrier, Berry Punch jumped down and confronted her. “You’re not going anywhere without me,” Berry said in a challenging tone. “I need you alive so I’m going with you to make sure of it.”
Lyra raised her brow. “And what exactly do you need Twilight for? To kill her yourself?”
“I have my reasons.” Berry said, though she did not look at Lyra at all. She kept her gaze locked on Twilight. Twilight did not pay Berry much attention; she would deal with Berry once they were out of the Fade. Her focus remained solely on defeating the Bannora and saving her parents.
As they left, Velvet held onto her husband. She watched her daughter, a noble and a hero, walk headfirst into danger once more. To save them.
“We should have told her,” Velvet said, “What if she doesn’t come back in time? What if she doesn’t come back at all?”
“She will defeat the Bannora. I know it.” Night Light held his wife’s shoulders tight. He kissed her cheek. “You saw how she was after finding her parents. She needs a strong mind to face the monsters in this realm. If she knew, there is a chance it would hurt her more than help her. No. We’ll wait for her to return. We will see her again. Then we can tell her about Shining Armour.”
“Then we can tell her about her brother.”
They walked in silence until they reached the edge of Faith’s shield. The golden light of the barrier lay as the only divisor between sanctuary and the demon hordes that hungered beyond. As far as Twilight could see, only a few demons patrolled the lands far from the Chantry building. Windigos brought their cold winds and frigid hate to the skies. Hunger demons skulked along the ground. Twilight took a deep breath to calm her already rattled nerves. After everything she went through in the span of a day, simple breathing exercises did not work.
Justice raised her sword to the sky and made it glow with a radiant golden light. From the tip of the blade she made another barrier form, similar to the one created by Faith. With a new barrier, Justice stepped out of the one created by her fellow spirit, almost extending it into a small pocket of the Fade. Justice motioned for the others to follow. Twilight stepped between barriers first, followed by Lyra and then Berry.
“My shield is not as powerful as the one of Faith,” Justice explained, “for I favour my scales and sword. However, it should be enough to move us closer to the Bannora’s stronghold. I have tried to make this assault before, but the ponies of the village are not warriors. The Bannora is powerful, but I believe we have the means to defeat her.”
“Justice, how did you and Faith end up in this section of the Fade?” Lyra asked, “I thought spirits had more freedom of movement in the Fade because they are more powerful than demons.”
“Normally, this is true,” Justice confirmed, “The spirits were given freedom to move about the Fade as beacons for ponies. However, we are not nearly as numerous as our demon counterparts are. In addition, when demons have a pony host or a pony benefactor, they can gain incredibly potency. This is why demons seek to create pacts with ponies in the material plane. They want the power of essence that ponies possess.”
Twilight thought on what Justice said and tried to associate it with things she read on the Fade and from her own experience. As far as she knew, demons tried to cross over into the Material Plane to possess a pony’s body out of jealousy that they could not materialize their own bodies. Ponies also acted as walking, talking reservoirs of emotions, the very thing that demons fed upon. She never heard of a pony’s spirit being strong enough to exist independently within the Fade.
“Have you ever encountered the Bannora before? In battle?” Twilight looked to Justice, who dipped her head low.
“I did once,” she responded, “It is my greatest shame that I could not dispense with her and give retribution. Her mastery over fear is… uncanny. I truly did not think I would be brought under her sway, and only with great will and the presence of Faith did I escape in time. I thought her just a demon my blade could slay. I sorely underestimated the tenacity of the unjust.”
“But now that you three are with me, I have no fear. Today is the day the Bannora meets her end.”
Twilight was not so sure, so she remained silent as they walked along the Fade’s twisted landscape. Unusual for landmasses in the Fade, this one was much larger than any Twilight experienced before. Granted, she did not recall many adventures into the realm of dreams save for the incursion back at the Tower, but nothing she read prepared her for this. So long as the Fade remained a place so easily shifted by emotions, memories, and dreams, it was nearly impossible to make any definitive conclusion on the realm.
As they marched through the Fade, Twilight did notice that this region felt rather devoid of oddities. No floating furniture, no twisted visages from dreams or nightmares alike, nothing out of ordinary if the ordinary came from the real world. Just a barren land filled with rocks and dirt. Something was not right, Twilight thought. The Fade should have been… different.
“Justice, the Fade feels wrong,” she said, looking around for a clue as to why things were the way they are. “Is it something the Bannora did?”
“It is,” Justice confirmed, “One thing I cannot understand is how she shifted the entirety of the Fade in this region to her personal fortress. She wields the power of the Fade. From such, strange creations have made their presence known. Things I have not even seen.”
If Justice never saw the things the Bannora used, then this mission became a lot more complicated. Perhaps the red lyrium her parents showed her played the part of catalyst for corrupting the Fade even further than a demon could. Twilight would have preferred doing research on the matter, but time and urgency did not allow for such. For now, she could only follow Justice’s lead.
As they walked, Twilight stopped cold as she felt an immense weight that lay on her back. Her eyes went wide as she felt her heart beat a hundred times a minute. Dread passed over her and her body started to tremble. Something was not right here. Something evil lurked in the shadows, in the air, in the very rocks. Something bestial. Sinister.
Her breathing, now shallow and forced, made her stagger backwards. Twilight turned her maddened gaze to the others, to see if the same force that washed over her affected them. She looked to Lyra and called out to her, only to recoil at the sight. Lyra’s flesh melted away in front of her very eyes, the skin, and the muscle mass, everything flowing like lava down the side of a volcano. Twilight cried out for Lyra, but her voice was silent.
Lyra’s skeleton stepped out of the pool of gore that was her own flesh and stared at Twilight with empty voids in her sockets. She opened her mouth and a high-pitched scream tore through the air. A mane of fire erupted from her skull and she drew her sword from her staff, which also ignited.
Twilight drew her sword and tried to take a defensive position. This was an illusion, she knew it, but everything felt so real. The flames from the skeleton’s mane exuded heat that blasted against her skin. The smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils. Everything was real.
She called out to Justice, only to see the spirit shift and change just as Lyra did. The sunlight that made up Justice's body turned scarlet and then began to flow like blood within a mass of twisted metal that was her armour. The armour then produced large, twisted spines that stretched into fine pointed needles. The mask of Justice morphed as well. The blindfold blasted off the eyes and Twilight only barely ducked out of the way of the molten metal. Twilight then saw two burning orbs of energy of which she felt an incredibly fury within them. The face of a pony mutated into that of a wolf, long fangs protruding from the mouth of the mask.
Twilight then looked to Berry, who was not immune to the twisted metamorphosis that played out before her eyes. Berry’s eyes lit up with a sickly yellow glow, and she smiled at Twilight with a grin that stretched too wide and with far too many teeth, similar to a donlock. Her limbs began to grow to an obscene length, turning spindly like those of an insect. Her neck stretched out to an impossible length, turning in complete disorder but heading towards Twilight. A striped, green tongue slipped out between her long serrated teeth.
“This isn’t real!” Twilight screamed, “Lyra! Justice! Berry! This isn’t you! This isn’t you!”
“Twilight!” Lyra’s voice called out to her, and when Twilight blinked, the burning skeleton was gone and her fellow Warden stood in front of her holding her shoulders. Twilight looked around to see Justice and Berry their usual selves, though now Justice bore her sword.
“The magic in this area is more powerful than I expected,” Justice said, “The last time we tried to attack the Bannora, she simply sent out her legions. Now her manipulation tries to break your spirit from a far.”
Twilight took deep, laboured breaths in an attempt to steady her limbs. “I saw you all turn to monsters,” Twilight said, “I knew it was fake, that it was just an illusion, but it felt so real.”
“We call the Bannora’s fortress ‘Vereor’.” Justice pointed her blade to an empty expanse in the distance. “I did not think we would face her vile magic until we were inside the fortress.”
“Vereor… that’s an Imperial word.” Lyra closed her eyes and plucked a few strings on the lyre on her staff. The short tune soothed Twilight’s nerves.
“What does it mean?” Twilight asked, her knowledge of the Imperial lexicon rather lacking.
A beam of yellow light pierced through the air of the Fade, tearing it asunder until it struck a single hard point in the middle of the air. The air rippled as if a stone hit the surface of a lake. The yellow light flowed outward and tore away at the layers of illusions that shrouded Vereor Fortress. As the illusion peeled away, Twilight gasped at the sheer magnitude of the Bannora’s fortress. Not only was the structure large, but it was also bizarre and misshapen in ways only described as impossible. An architect from the real world would have seen this and called it a monstrosity.
“This is the lair of our enemy,” Justice said, “My light can reveal the source of the fear, but only the blade will bring justice to this terrible criminal. Steel yourselves, for by revealing her fortress, the Bannora will send out her legions to stand against us. Then we must contend with her conjurations once we are inside.”
Justice looked Twilight straight in the eye. “If the illusions that affected you here caused distress, then those inside will destroy your mind. The demons that serve the Bannora are unlike any you have ever bear witness to.”
“I’ll be fine,” Twilight said quickly, though she was unsure of her own words. The only way to save her parents from this nightmare was to delve into the fortress of the Bannora, so that was what Twilight would do. Still, she looked on at the imposing structure with trepidation. The illusions were so real. To face even worse inside the castle…?
I faced down an archdemon, Twilight told herself, I’ve plunged into the depths of the Dark Tunnels. I’ve faced nightmares and monstrosities that would break the most hardened of warriors. I can do this.
“The gates, they open,” Justice said, brandishing her sword. “The demons of the Bannora come!”
The gates of the fortress slowly ground opened, revealing only a black abyss. Twilight held her sword aloft and prepared for the coming hordes of demons. She had become used to fighting these monsters and many like them, so this battle would be no different from the hundreds she took part in already. While her friends were not in the Fade with her, she could feel their spirits with her, cheering her on. Her friendship gave her strength. Perhaps she could show the same strength to the others now.
Yet as they waited for the demon army, nothing came. Not a single claw, tentacle, or dark magic emerged from the fortress. Justice stepped a few tepid hoofsteps towards the entrance, shaking her head.
“I do not understand,” Justice said, “where are the legions? The swarms of terrors that spew from this fortress like the last time I besieged these ebony walls.”
“This smells like a trap,” Berry said, though she cocked her hoof-mounted crossbows. “I don’t like traps. They are the worst buzzkills.”
“Are you drunk right now? No wonder you couldn’t kill Twilight, not that you had a chance.” Lyra shook her head and took a cautious step forward. “Can you feel it, Twilight? There is something inside… beckoning us.”
Twilight did feel it, though she did not want to say. It was not a pull on her horn like other forms of compulsion. It was a sound, a small voice. A voice that rang in her ears that shook her to her bones. A voice that gave her nothing but grief and torment.
Twilight’s tears trailed down her cheeks. “Spike…”
“Twilight,” Lyra said as softly as she could, “You know he’s gone. His spirit would have moved on to the Everafter.”
“How do you know that?” Twilight retorted, a hint of aggression in her voice. “I’ve met my parents in the Fade! I thought they were gone forever! What if the spirit of Spike is inside that fortress? What if I can save him from torment?” Her breathing became heavy and laboured.
Lyra took a deep breath. “What if the fortress is controlling you? There is already evidence of that. You need to calm down.”
“I am calm!” Twilight roared while a low rumbling of magic forming in the back of her throat. Lyra placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder and shook her head.
“No, you’re not.” Lyra then took Twilight in an embrace. “Think of what you did for me in the Blackmarsh. The Fade influenced me then, that same power if trying to influence you now. Just think rationally.”
Twilight knew Lyra was right, but did not want to admit it. What if Spike’s spirit was alive in Vereor? Wasn’t it worth the danger to at least try to explore it? Twilight then thought of the battle of Trotterim. She thought of how she tossed aside certain victory against the Archdemon to save Spike and failed anyways.
She had to accept the cold truth. Spike was gone from this world and the Fade. Nothing she could do could bring him back.
Twilight choked back tears but managed to give Lyra a smile. “You’re right,” she said, “I’ll calm down. Justice, is there any other entrance into Vereor?”
The golden spirit shook her head. “There is not. Are you prepared to assault the keep and the Bannora herself?”
“I am,” Twilight replied with a nod. She kept her sword level, spinning it once just to give herself some confidence. She looked to Lyra, Berry, and Justice, who all nodded in preparation. Without a word, Twilight galloped at full speed into the black fortress. She would meet her fears head on.
Or die trying.