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?
Twilight stepped into the narrow hallway that led into the darkness within. Each step was timid and uncertain. She looked to the club held in her snout and blinked. "I must be getting confused." Her horn began to glow as the club lifted up to float beside her. She was stronger with her magic than her neck anyway.
As she approached the end of the tunnel, her steps slowed. The place she was entering was vast, at least three to four stories tall. On the second floor to either side stood massive thrones. Of the four, one was occupied by a frail and old man wearing a heavy-looking gold crown and with no legs to speak of. He simply dangled what he had, and his dress-like clothing, off the edge.
He saw Twilight easily as she entered and smiled queerly at her, but did not otherwise react.
More pressing than he was the woman, pale of skin, pale blond of hair, with pale grey robes that flowed to her obscured feet. Her hands were clasped gently. She wore something over her eyes that Twilight could not see how anyone could see through. She still reacted. Perhaps she had heard Twilight. "You bare the sword. The wheel turns once more." She approached Twilight with slow and measured steps. She reached out a hand towards Twilight, but found nothing but air, apparently expecting something more human in height. "Unkindled One? This is not the time to jest."
Twilight sank to her haunches. "My name is--"
"There you are," stated the woman, voice sounding relieved. "Why did you shy from me? I am your servant, Unkindled One. I will be at your side at every portion of your journey, serving faithfully."
She perked her ears up at the tall woman. "Thank you... I think, but... I am not any 'Unkindled One'. My name is--"
The woman reached for the voice and found Twilight's snout. Slender fingers felt along it slowly. "I cannot see," she noted as she examined her curious new mistress. "And you... are far from what I expected." Her fingers traced up along furry ears before moving down over the back of Twilight's skull. "You are... not Ashen... How can this be? Without an Ashen One, the wheel may not turn..."
"So quick to dismiss," called down the man on the throne. "The wheel doesn't have to turn precisely as you expect it to."
Twilight's eyes darted to the short man with the heavy crown. "Excuse me, can--"
He shrugged at her and gestured for her to come closer. It seemed he had no real desire to continue the conversation at a shout.
The woman shook her head. "We cannot change what is... You come bearing the sword. Follow me." She bowed slowly and turned, walking at a sedate pace towards the collection of bones in the center of the room.
Twilight followed her, eyes taking in things as she went. She could hear metal striking metal in the distance. It sounded purposeful. Were there others living in this place? Her heart soared at the idea that she had finally found friendly faces amid the ruin, death, and pain. "What do--"
The lady seemed to have no time for speech, at least from Twilight. She reached for her and drew the sword from Twilight's pocket without even being told about it. She held it aloft silently until Twilight took it in her magic. She then gestured at the bones. "Link the flame."
"What flame?" Twilight stepped up to the designated spot and peered at it without comprehension until she realized the similarity. The last bonfire she was at. She was confused and lost then. There had been a sword in it that she had ignored entirely. This one could be just like it, if it had a flame, and a sword. She had the sword.
The solution seemed clear. She twirled the sword until it faced the ground and plunged it into the earth. Blessed heat and light erupted in a brilliant flare. Her wounds and fatigue were suddenly banished. Well, most of them. The ache she felt after she had died remained. There seemed to be no forgetting that event.
Twilight cut her off for a change, "Twilight Sparkle. I am Twilight Sparkle."
The maiden paused a moment. "I am the Fire Keeper. I will tend to it while you are away, and you must be away. There are many things for you to do, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight brought down a hoof with a dull thud against the dirt floor. "No! First some answers, please, I beg you..."
"I will tell you what I know." She bowed to Twilight gently. "This is the Firelink Shrine, where all those who would link the fires must go. You have come. You may not be ashen, but perhaps you will perform the task. Those who swear fealty to you may also remain here, safe and protected while you work. There are others who already belong here. They will serve you as well."
Twilight perked her ears towards the metallic crashes. "Like that metal sound?"
"Like him," she agreed. "They will want what you most need to become stronger."
"Stronger?" Twilight was not trying to become stronger. "I just need to find a way home."
"You remember home? That places you ahead of many. Souls, sovereignless souls are yours to use as you wish. To bargain, or consume. Already you have felt it. I feel them within you."
Twilight shuddered from her ears down to her tail at the concept. "H-how?"
"Did you not fight your way here? The judge would not let you pass otherwise."
Twilight could scarcely forget the powerful rush she had felt. "That was his soul?!"
"Its power is your power, to do as you wish. Souls, plucked from their vessel, have no grander purpose. Simply kneel before me and think of how stronger you will be, must be, to find victory."
Twilight backpedaled away a sudden frightened collection of steps. "What if I don't want that!?"
The Keeper seemed undisturbed. "Then you may use them as currency. Souls hold value where coins have long since lost sway. Choose quickly."
"Or?" Twilight's ears went up. "Do they go away?"
"Only when taken... They will be taken. You will suffer and die, likely many times. You will know defeat, and those souls will be taken from you. Use them now, while they are yours."
Twilight felt that she was speaking the truth, naked and terrible. "I... want to look around first."
"As you wish, linker of the flames. I will be here as you require me."
Twilight watched the Fire Keeper a moment. She was just standing there patiently, as if she would stand there for a thousand years until called on.
"Look at you," came a new voice.
Twilight turned quickly to see an armored gentleman with a sword strapped to his back sitting on the steps that made up much of the area. "Come closer. I'm not in the mood to shout, or move."
Twilight frowned a little, but did come closer. "I didn't ask you to, um, hello. I am T--"
"I heard you before. I was listening. So, you're an unusual Unkindled huh, maybe you'll do better than me. We Unkindled are worthless. Can't even die right. Gives me conniptions. And they'd have us seek the Lords of Cinder, and return them to their moulding thrones. But we're talking true legends with the mettle to link the fire. We're not fit to lick their boots. Don't you think?"
Twilight frowned a little. "I think I don't know who the 'Lords of Cinder' are." She pointed up at the thrones. "I presume those are theirs? They must be... large?"
"Some, aye." He glanced upwards towards them. "I gave up that mission, so it falls on you, strange creature. You're not even human, it's obvious. I wonder what she's thinking, the Keeper." He gave a sudden unnerving fit of laughter. "I bet she's just as scared as the rest of us and just isn't showing it. The name's Hawkwood, demon, angel, or whatever you might be."
Twilight perked an ear at Hawkwood. "If you live here, then you... work for me?"
That laughter came again. "I have the same mission as you, or did. Don't mind my tired bones. I won't get in your way."
"So much for that," she muttered under her breath. "Well, so what am I supposed to do? I want to go home."
"Don't we all." He pointed to the crackling bonfire behind Twilight. "You've started the process. You can set your body adrift between linked fires. Concentrate and see where you can go, and your way forward should be clear."
Twilight smiled brilliantly. There was a clear answer, and a good one at that. "Thank you!"
"Oh, that expression. They'll beat that smile off your face soon enough. I'll be here when that happens. You're free to sit beside me and tell me how it felt, when that fire inside you gutters out."
Twilight cringed as she backed away. "Well, um, thank you again. I'm going to... go look around." Hawkwood didn't challenge her when she trotted away, glad to be away from the bitter soul behind her. She still had more questions than answers, but there was one thread of hope. She marched with purpose to the flame.
"Are you ready?" asked the Keeper quietly.
"No, thank you. I just want to try something." She reached out a hoof for the fire and felt its warmth soothe her troubles for a time. She was safe, but she wasn't home. She focused on Equestria, on her castle, her bed, Canterlot... She felt it. She could go to a castle, but it was not home. It was not any closer. She could go and be in danger again.
With a dismayed yelp, she wrenched her hoof away. She was right where she began. The Keeper was seated across the way from Hawkwood, who hadn't moved. How long had she been staring into the flames? She couldn't tell. She rose to her hooves and shook her head, trying to clear it. "This world is crazy..."
"You don't know the half of it," jeered Hawkwood.
Twilight ignored him for the moment and decided to go explore the metal sounds, but she didn't make it that far. She walked down the hallway that seemed to carry the sound loudest and began to trot towards what looked to be a flame ahead when a voice harshly whispered to her, "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ashen One. I am but a humble handmaiden of the shrine. Weapons, armor, trinkets, and spells... I've lots of little things to ease the burden of a weary traveler. ...And yes, I'm Undead, too, but not so charitable as to give my goods away. Ashen One, fetch souls, and bring them to me. As is thy wont, no?"
Twilight recoiled a step at the words, surprised to see old lady hunched over in red robes. "Undead... Wait, too?"
She laughed. Her laugh was less cynical than Hawkwood's, but unnerving all the same. "Of course you are. You died. I can smell the blood fresh on you." Her nose flared. "I can smell the souls, fresh in you. Are you here to trade? A few of those souls for things to keep you safe..."
The crone reached out a hand towards Twilight. "Come closer, strange one, and don't give me that offended look. Even for this dying world you qualify for the word. Come..." Twilight stepped closer and she began to examine the pony with wrinkled fingers. "I thought it might have been an illusion... What manner of undead would pursue such a quest without even a little fire to chase away the cold?"
Twilight withdrew from those questing fingers. "The fire, it seems... They heal you."
"In a matter of speaking," she agreed. "You are Undead. The bonfire is your home now."
"No!" Twilight spread her injured and broken wings. "My home is in Equestria, not... wherever this is."
"We are not far from Lothric, and yet a world away. Space decays with the rest of us." She peered at Twilight with knowing eyes. "You need fire if you've even a whisper of a chance, but I won't give it for free, no. That way lays madness. I will offer it for a fair price." She drew out a vial, much like the one Twilight had found, but it glowed a bright yellow instead of a blue. "Simply drink the fire within to make the suffering of battle diminish. You have enough souls, I feel. Surrender some and this is yours."
Twilight was quick to produce her own, and started. When last she left it, it had gone from glowing to dull as she drank it. At some point, it had refilled.
Her reaction filled the crone with almost mocking laughter. "You are surely doomed, you know so little..."
"Can you tell me?" She took a hesitant step forward. "What's going on?"
She waved the yellow vial in the air. "Buy this and I will give some knowledge as well. Or do not, and be on your way."
Twilight shook her head. "I don't even know how to give you what you want." Giving souls? How would one even start to do such a thing?
The crone did not seem bothered. "Come close, and say you want it."
Twilight felt a gravity there. Words held power, even in the dying land she found herself in. She did come closer and sat before the lady. "May I have that?" She pointed at the yellow vial.
The rush came, but it was a devouring one. Some of that energy left her with a palpable sense of diminishment. That power was hers no longer and swirled around the fingers of the crone, who smiled happily. "It is a deal. Here." She held out the vial toward Twilight. "And information beside, hmm... The flask holds true the essence of the flame." She swung a hand to gesture at the bonfire down the hallway. "When you rest your weary bones there, the heat fills you, and these flasks. Estus, the essence of that sacred flame, is what you drink greedily. So long as the fire remains, more will flow into the flask. See to it that does not change, would-be kindler."
Twilight held the two flasks close to one another. Besides the color of the glow, they seemed practically identical. When she pressed her hoof to each, the yellow one was warm, and the blue one chilled. "Body and mind."
"You have some wit in that furry head," mocked the crone. "Now, what else do you want? I have all manner of goods to ease the travels. Weapons? Armor perhaps? Hmm, can you make use of sorceries?"
That caught Twilight's attention. "Sorceries? Magic?" Her wings, which had folded, spread wide. "You have spells?!"
"A cantrip or two," demurred the crone. "See." She produced scrolls from within her robes, displaying them for Twilight to see. She couldn't see enough to try and read the spells entirely, but their headers were clear.
"Farron Dart? Soul Arrow?"
"A quick small attack, and a slower, heavier, one. Neither is the stuff of archmages, but you are hardly the stuff of legends, lost horse. Do you want them?"
A chance to learn new magic? At first Twilight thought the answer obvious, but she held herself back. "I want to see who's making that banging sound first, please. Thank you."
"Undead, be sure to bring more souls," she beckoned, but did not stop Twilight from moving on.
She trotted across a small bridge as a stout and thick man smashed an anvil with a heavy hammer, doing metalwork steadfastly. Twilight just watched him for a moment, eyes following the sparks when they weren't taking in the features of the short but powerful looking figure.
He looked up at her at least, pausing his hammering a moment. "Well, a newcomer I see. I am Andre, I serve in this shrine as a humble smith forging new weapons. You're in search of the Lords of Cinder, I trust? A toilsome journey, I wager. You'll require good arms. Let me smith y' weapons. I am a smith, such is my purpose." The words flowed naturally from him before he noticed something was off. "I'll be learning a whole new trick or two making armor that'll fit the like for you. Are ya cursed in some whole, new, unwholesome fashion?"
Twilight shook her head in reply. "I'm not cursed. This is how I was born, minus the wings. Pleased to meet you, Andre. I'm Twilight, Twilight Sparkle."
"Afraid that's where you're wrong, lass." He brought down his hammer on what he was working on. "You're cursed, that much is true, whether or not being an animal is part of it. Not the first talking animal, least so far as the tales go. Sharp-tongued cats are the things of legend, but you aren't one of those, either. That aside, cursed, yes. You're cursed."
Twilight tapped a hoof on the ground lightly. "Is it more complicated than being stuck here?"
"Oh, I suppose that could be taken as a curse of its own, but no, more than that." He pointed his hammer at Twilight. "You, lass, are dead. Dead, but too stubborn, or caught up in the decay, to stay dead. You want to avoid misery? Find a hole and throw yourself into it." Twilight's face became one of shock and anger. "Don't look like that, lass. I'm not trying to talk ill of ya." He slammed the metal he was working on. "Few listen to that advice. You'll find more dead than not in this world."
"You're not the first to mention that, but how can you all be so sure? I'm right here." She patted her own chest. "I'm breathing, thinking, hurting..."
"All of those things, and cursed." He set down his hammer a moment and drew out a mirror from one of his pouches. "It's on your back, the sign, clear as day, or night." Twilight lifted the mirror from Andre's grip and brought it over herself to see a strange circle of flames right between her wings.
Worried for what else might have changed, she twisted on herself and saw the circle had spread. Her cutie mark was ringed with a circle of fire, and its sight made her tremble. The cutie mark of a pony was their purpose and destiny. To have it changed was a foul thing. The only other time she had experienced it was under Starlight's control, and that was terrible as well, though this seemed far more insidious than that simple reduction. Her purpose had been changed, not just suppressed
"I trust from the look in your eyes that the marks on your flanks were not natural, as natural as any of you is." He brought down his hammer on the metal. His work could be paused, but not stopped. "Sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings."He straightened his stance, pausing his work. "Look, I'm on your side, much as anyone can be. You are after the Lords of Cinder, right?"
Twilight gave a numb nod. "I... think I am." She rose to her hooves. "I don't see what else I can do. Can you help me?"
"An honest question, and I'll give an honest answer." He resumed his banging. "I saw the Shrine Handmaiden handin' you an estus flask, important thing that is. Do you know what it does?" Twilight nodded. "Good. While you're out there, keep your eyes open for shards of the same clay. I can use them to reinforce the flasks y'got and make them stronger, hold more estus at a time." He smiled as he worked. "They're one of your only reliable friends, so treat 'em right."
Twilight gave an uncertain nod. "Right... Do you know what that means?" She pointed to her cutie mark, where the flames seemed to dance and flicker in clear defiance of a cutie mark's usual static nature.
"I'm no scholar, lass. Just a smith." He produced a great shower of sparks with his next hit. "Speakin' o' that, you want a weapon improved on, that I can do. Just bring titanite. If you see a gem layin' around, I can use those too, but it works different. I'll spare the details 'till you bring one here. Now, about some armor." He glanced up at her. "Your pelt's a pretty shade, but that'll change fast when your enemies go paintin' it red with your own blood. Even some leather's better than nothing. Robes, if you're that type, but anything. This ain't a matter of modesty."
Twilight lifted her club into view, hovering it in Andre's field of view. "I found this."
"Fit for a doorstop or to keep papers still in a breeze, not much more." He slammed his hammer down. "I'd suggest ya take whatever you can find. I have some weapons here, if you want a look. I take souls, just like the maiden there. Most people you find willing to trade are the same. We all want 'em."
"Why?" Twilight leaned forward as she pulled her club back. "Isn't it... kind of..." She rolled a hoof in the air. "I mean, really..."
"You're a precious one," he noted between strikes. "You're blushing like a virgin." Her color worsened. "Oh, are ya one? I'm not going to pry into a horse's business. Either way, it's the world's business. Souls are power. Don't feel bad for 'em. They died at your hands, their souls are yours, simple as that. Use 'em without guilt."
Twilight shook her head violently. "Right... So..."
"So you aren't giving them back. Use them, lose them, nothing else is really possible." He hammered at the metal busily. "I suggest using. You need much to have a chance. The road you're on is long and will try to break you countless times. Me? I have it easy. I'm just a smith."
Twilight smiled at that. "You're more than a smith." He glanced up at her. "You're my friend, I hope. Thank you."
"Oh, aye. A pleasure to have met you, Miss Sparkle. First horse I met that wanted more than to kick me in the teeth for looking at her funny." He laughed at his joke. Though it seemed to have more warmth than the others, the bitterness of the world laced between the sounds, giving it an edge. "Good luck. If you want to buy something, you just let me know."
Twilight felt she had a decent grasp on the basic nature of those who 'served' her. She had an old lady eager to sell her things, for souls. She had a friendly blacksmith, who also accepted souls. She had a disillusioned man that didn't seem worth much at all, and then there was the fire keeper.
The last one had her interest at the moment. She trotted back to the blind woman. Despite being nominally blind, the woman's face kept trained on Twilight. "How are you doing that?" challenged Twilight, confused. "You couldn't see me before."
"I cannot see," she agreed. "But that doesn't mean I am entirely unaware. I know where you are, to an extent, but I could not see what you were, or how tall you were. It is a curious sight, but it serves well enough. Have you decided to use those souls?"
"I already used some," admitted Twilight, feeling guilty for it.
"As is your right. You have more. You could use them to fortify yourself. Once used, they will belong to you. They will be a part of you."
Twilight cringed at the mention of them being part of her, and yet... "Aren't they... now?"
"In a matter of speaking... If you wear clothing, is it part of you? Can it not be taken free of you? Can you not put on others? Until the soul is turned to a new task, it is little more than that, feeble and easily stripped."
Twilight gave a slow nod. "And I can't give them back?"
"What is done cannot be undone."
"Can we... try then?"
"Kneel and think of how they will serve you," she bid as she took the short step to be close to Twilight. Twilight fell to a knee and closed her eyes, then felt warmth coming from above, washing through her scalp. It reminded her of the fire's comforting presence.
"Let these souls, withdrawn from their vessels, Manifestations of disparity."
As the words were spoken, Twilight could feel herself in a strange new way. She could feel how she lacked, and how she was strong. She had intelligence, for instance, clever, relatively, but lacked faith in what she could not see and measure. She lacked in physical strength, but was reasonably durable and fit. She was so many things, and none of them were good enough.
"Elucidated by fire, Burrow deep within me, Retreating to a darkness beyond the reach of flame."
She had the power to fix that, just a little. But how should she? She was no warrior, not of that sort. More brute strength would do her little good. She felt scared and alone. But she wasn't alone, right? She had to have... faith. Yes. She had to hold sacred the idea that ponies were waiting for her and let their conviction be her strength.
"Let them assume a new master, Inhabiting ash, casting themselves upon new forms."
A surge of power rushed through Twilight and she let out a little cry of surprised ecstasy. The souls had become part of her. She felt... stronger.
The fire keeper withdrew her hand. "It is done. That was not unbearable."
That hadn't been a question, but Twilight answered it anyway. "It wasn't." She felt somehow less burdened. She bounced from hoof to hoof. "I feel better. What can I... do?"
"You could lean prayers, if you wish to use your faith. Your quest awaits you."
Twilight glanced left and up, to where the old man sat, perched on his oversized throne. "One more person to talk to." She left the fire keeper and trotted up to the throne and its occupant. "Excuse me?"
"Ah, the curious one that is not unkindled." He looked over his shoulder at where Twilight peeked over the edge of his great throne. "Come and speak, if you like. You've already found one of the lords, for I was once a Lord of Cinder, and remain one to this day. See my charred form if you wish proof of it, no need to be coy."
Twilight's eyes fell to his legs, or his lack of. He had nothing beyond little stumps that held up the fabric of his robe. "Why do you just sit here, if you're a lord?"
"Barely a lord," he deflected. "One so small and weak as I? It's almost insulting compared to the others. You will have to find them, and bring them back to their thrones. Only then can the fire be relinked."
"How?" Twilight stepped out onto the arm of the throne. "Tell me how this works, please."
"Knowest thou of our purpose? Five thrones will take five Lords, as kindling for the linking of the Fire. The fast fading Flame must be linked to preserve this world. A re-enactment of the first linking of the fire. So it is, I became a Lord of Cinder. I may be but small, but I will die a colossus." His voice was like he was dreaming, or remembering a fond dream. He smiled at Twilight. "But is this possible, with such a curious undead? I look forward to finding out."
Twilight let out a sigh. "I'm going to assume you've never seen a pony before."
"A pony? Yes, but you are not one of those. Ponies are not purple, nor have wings, nor have a horn. No, you make a poor pony, but you are a fine chance. Perhaps you'll solve this properly, or at least link the flame and allow things to progress further."
Twilight gave an uncertain smile. "I plan to try."
He gestured to the fire below. "You've linked the first of many before you. Travel now and pray not lose hope." He saw Twilight peering at his stubs again. "Fret not, fret not. My feet are here firmly planted. For I am a Lord, and this is my throne."
"Y-yes, thank you." She dipped her head at him, then scurried away. She was quick to the lady who sold things. "Excuse me?"
"Have you forgotten my name so quickly? That's alright, I never told it to you." She sat up in her chair. "What do you require?"
"The fire keeper," She pointed at where the keeper stood stoically. "She said you might have a miracle for sale."
That made her laugh. "Oh, the sound of it. Would that I could sell real miracles... But I have stories, yes, stories of miracles. For those with faith in their heart, they can be their own miracles, small as they are. I have one just for you." She drew a parchment from the depths of her clothing, old and yellowed. "Study it well, and make it part of you at the fire. Do you have a chime or talisman?"
Twilight tilted her head faintly with confusion. "I'll just read it." She didn't need tools to use magic. She had a horn, and that was all a unicorn needed.
"On your head be that. You have enough souls, even after wasting them. Do you want this?"
"Yes." Twilight reached for the parchment. With a sudden jolt, the souls were drawn from her. She was allowed to take it. With a new bit of knowledge, she plopped right down and got to reading it. It was a story. It told of an injured man who was ignored when he wasn't spit on or even kicked aside.
The man was ready to give up when another approached, clad in rags. At first he feared the vagrant was there to pick on him as well, but the vagrant had warmth in his heart. He prayed for the health of the unfortunate. He prayed, and he moved on peacefully.
The man was so taken aback that he forgot his pain enough to stand. It was a little reminder of the comforts of little gestures.
Twilight was perplexed. "This isn't a spell at all."
The shrine maiden shook her head, but said nothing.
Twilight took the silence as a mocking. Surely there had to be a spell there, she just had to see it. "Tell me what it should do!"
"A healing miracle. The smallest of them, but you are the smallest undead we have, so that fits well enough, don't you think?"
Twilight peered at the words again, trying to analyze it, to make sense of them like the scholar she was. That was when it clicked. These were not instructions for a scholar. She had to be like Pinkie. She had to feel the words and their magic and accept them, not analyze and decipher them. They needed her faith, just as she had asked for moments ago.
"When I was a little filly and the sun was going down..." she sang as she walked towards the fire. It was Pinkie's song, one of her first that had bound them as friends. They still were friends, a universe apart. She held onto that warmth, that companionship. With a flare of light, magic burst free of her in a small wash of white.
The maiden seemed duly surprised. "Huh, goes to show what I get assuming little devil horses work the same as human folk."
Twilight spared her a glare, but she had a mission, a purpose. If she was to escape the world, she'd have to play her part and keep her eyes open. "I'll find my way."
She folded the paper carefully and tucked it away, then considered what she had. She still only had a club for a weapon, but she was still a slight unicorn, not a big strong pony like Applejack. Twilight let out a little sigh. "I miss them..." But there was no finding them until she got home. She advanced on the fire, staring into its flickering light. "Time to go."
She focused and felt her sense of space wash away. She was moving. How far? She knew not, but she did know when she arrived, standing in some kind of small building. She was in a room on clean stone floors instead of ones filled with ash. She could see double doors on one side, but her attention was drawn to an altar. There was a coiled sword there, but she felt none of the importance in that one. It wasn't even sharp. It was all worn and broken. There were candles set along the wall and cobwebs attached to every available space.
There were no answers there, that she could see. She moved for the doors and rested a hoof on one, giving it a push. It gave just faintly, but it was heavy. She turned her magic on it, gripping both and giving a mighty mental heave. They swung open, revealing a lit exterior that looked like she was on top of a castle? She wasn't entirely sure, but it was outside, and light. Looking out across the way, she could see a massive castle in the distance, separated by a great void. If her wings were working, she could just fly over there, but then, something she needed could be where she was. It wouldn't pay to assume the answers were in any given place. She would have to be thorough...