• Published 7th Feb 2019
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Princess Twilight Sparkle and the Fortress of Egress - kudzuhaiku

Twilight Sparkle never knew just how much she wanted to adventure with her mentor.

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Chapter 2

Doors. Everything was made of doors, with the exception of the floor and the ceiling, which appeared to be made of some unknown stone. Twilight wasn’t fooled though; ‘twas no stone in this place. Nothing here was particularly real in any sort of meaningful way, and she was almost certain that if she compared notes with her brother, they would both be seeing different things as their minds constructed something for them to see.

There was no source of light, yet everything was well-lit. Nothing cast a shadow—no, wait, Dim did. Of course he did. Twilight angled her head off to one side, the left, and then off to the right, and as she did so, she observed how the shadow moved, sort of like the dark patch on a sundial. It was fascinating in more ways than one, and she knew that if she wasn’t here to rescue a filly, she could easily spend an enjoyable day studying how Dim cast shadows based upon the observer acting as a light-source.

“Dim, you have a shadow,” she said aloud, as she felt the need to point out that she had caught this detail.

“Twilight Sparkle… once again proving just how smart and capable you are.” There was nothing sarcastic or demeaning in Dim’s words, just sincere, honest praise. “Of all my contemporaries…” Whatever words were almost spoken were left unsaid. He sighed, with only the barest hint of a wheeze, and then went on to say, “Even now, standing in an extra-planar dimension, you’re busy piecing together how the local laws of reality work.”

This place reeked of Luna’s magic. Twilight, calm and unmoving, allowed her magic-sense to do its own thing and she didn’t do much to direct it. Luna’s magic was strong here in this spot, but beyond, the magic was utterly unknown. Dim had magic here, strong magic, and being this close to him was like standing next to a too-hot radiator.

“Stay on the rugs,” Dim said as Celestia slowly began to fade into existence, little by little. “Except for that rug over there. Luna did that to break up the pattern. The doors are all trapped. If I were you, I would not attempt to open one, no matter how curious you might feel. Luna’s power holds sway here, but beyond the foyer, great, unmentionable horrors await. Other than this spot with the illusion of safety, Luna holds no dominion here.”

“It speaks highly of Luna’s power that she was able to claim this tiny section,” Shining Armor remarked as he glanced around.

“A tenuous hold, sure.” Dim adjusted his cloak, lifted his hat, pulled out an ornate wooden pipe, placed it in the corner of his mouth, and lit it ablaze with a flick of his magic. Then, he blew puffs of clove-scented smoke while he stood there, watching Twilight and Shining Armor. “Some things are held back, kept out, but there are ancient horrors here. Great and terrible things beyond your imagination.”

“Why try to hold this place?” Shining Armor asked.

“Control,” replied Dim. “These doors”—he gestured around him—“all lead to various locations in the dream realm, which is a mirror of our world. Though, the size is kind of weird and changes according to the whim of dreams. It would take forever to get anywhere in a hurry, and the trains tend to not run on time, as ponies and other creatures dream about train rides that last forever—”

“I’ve had that dream.” Shining Armor pawed the not-stone floor with his armored hoof. “No restrooms. I was on a train with Flurry, and there was no restroom. I kept telling her she had to wait until we arrived at our destination.”

“Indeed.” When Dim smiled, Twilight felt parts of her soul curdle. “That is part of my duties as the Lord of Nightmares. I must maintain the doors. It frees Luna to do other things. More important things. I am honoured to ease her burden in whatever way I can.”

A little more of Celestia protruded into this place, and for the first time, Twilight noticed that a door was missing. Just a black gap, like a smile missing a tooth. She couldn’t study the dark space though, as staring directly at it caused her vision to fuzz over and a faint throb could be felt just behind her eyes.

“That door…” She pointed with her extended right wing.

“That leads to our world. It is a direct portal. Celestia took it and she keeps it in a portable planar protrusion of her own making, a universe beholden only to her rules. We stepped through it so that we might come here bodily. It is but one of the many things Celestia does to protect our fragile existence.”

“But there are other openings to gain access, correct?” Twilight asked.

“Oh yes,” replied Dim, nodding while puffing on his pipe. “There are.”

“Just not easy ones, I suppose.” Twilight felt her imagination itching to go soaring, but held it in check because she knew she had to focus. “We stepped directly through, but it seems as though Celestia is coming through a little at a time.”

“She has to move the door with her.” Dim’s words came out as clove-scented smoke. “She and the door are one, in a sense. To come through the door is to come through her. That door has weight here, in a sense. Mass. If anything here is real, that door is. Immense as Celestia’s power might be, moving that door takes an effort that none of us are prepared to comprehend. You try carrying around the doorway to the local universe in a pocket of your own devising and see how you do.”

Twilight’s brain, when confronted with this particular realisation, balked.

“My. Brain. Hurts.” Shining Armor spat out the words one by one, all while shaking his head from side to side.

With an audible pop, Celestia realitified and joined them. The mighty titan gave herself a shake, shook each wing, and pulled her hammer from the nothingness just behind her. Twilight watched in awe, mindful of what Dim had just said, and perhaps for the first time in her existence, she began to truly understand the mind-blowing potential of her mentor’s power. Hers was a power without limits, absolute power, the dangerous kind of power that would corrupt most who meddled with it.

Yet, Celestia was Celestia, she of good cheer, the unconquered sun.

“Twilight, stop doing that.”

“Stop doing what?” Twilight, just a little terrified, looked up at her mentor.

Magic flared along the armored length of Celestia’s horn, and Twilight felt a peculiar sensation. Something was ripped away, something insubstantial, something unseen, and Dim’s shadow began to move on its own. It trotted about on the floor, prancing in a circle around Dim, and when it laid down and became a shadow again, it did so at an angle away from Celestia.

It took Twilight several seconds to understand why.

When Celestia spoke, her tone was one of chiding. “Dim, your shadow—”

“Does as he pleases. If you take issue, bring it up with him.” Still puffing his pipe, Dim glared up at Celestia, defiant. “I am not my shadow’s keeper. I’m sure that he’d rather be home, humping Blackbird’s shadow, but I dragged him here, to this place.”

Twilight was almost certain that she could hear Celestia’s eyes rolling inside of her helmet, and she was overcome with a most peculiar sensation. Somepony was flippant… somepony was flippant to Princess Celestia. Then, much to Twilight’s shock, she heard Celestia laughing. It was an odd, terrifying sound, and the laughter echoed inside of her helmet in unnatural, unpleasant ways.

“Dim, your shadow recognised Twilight’s dominion and played along.” Celestia said these words even as she chuckled, and some of them had extended pauses between them.

“My shadow is not particularly loyal. What can I do?”

Twilight felt a chill and she was certain that the tone of Celestia’s laughter changed with these words. She looked down, checking on her own shadow, but she still had none, even with Celestia’s radiance. Something beyond Twilight’s ken had just taken place, but she didn’t have a good understanding of it, just a bare idea, bereft of any real substance.

“Mind your shadow’s loyalty, Dim.” Not a trace of laughter could be found in Celestia’s voice now, as it had eerily vanished. “Subjugate it if you must. Strangle it into submission as you are wont to do with everything else. Do not be careless and lax. Have you learned nothing from Luna?”

Dim bowed his head. “As you command. My playful shadow will be made to obey.”

“Good.” Celestia drew herself up to her full imposing height, all while keeping her eye on the shadow on the floor. “Now, about our business here. Once we leave this foyer, we’ll have no protection other than what we bring with ourselves. The rules here are different. Magic is different here. Time is different here. We exist outside of our native thaumasphere and chronosphere. Twilight, mind your strength. I really need you to be paying attention, Twilight. Our lives depend on it.”

“Right,” Twilight replied, though unsure of what she needed to do. Celestia was trusting her to figure it out though, and she would. She would prove worthy of that trust, no ands, ifs, or buts.

“Do as I say. Obey me. When I speak, or give a command, I do so with experience and understanding. Do everything I ask, as I ask, how I ask, and we have a good chance to make it home with Moon Rose.” Celestia lifted her hammer to a ready position and her wings folded against her sides. “Shining Armor, shields ready. Twilight Sparkle, attune your magic and feel for disturbances. Dim—”

“Yes?” He hissed the word and set curls of smoke loose around his head.

“Know that you are trusted, even if your shadow is not. We’re counting on you.”

The grey-clad vizard nodded.

“Now then,” Celestia said to those around her, “through that door. Let us move as one.”

There was no light here, only supernatural darkness. Twilight pushed it back with the light from her horn, but she could feel the darkness striving against her, taking offense to the light she cast. Ahead stretched a hallway, with doors on both sides. Beneath her armored hooves was something that had the appearance of stone, the sound of stone, the solidity of stone, but wasn’t stone.

Looking left, then right, then ahead, she took notice of the doors. Different shapes, styles, and sizes. One door to her immediate left was like a bank vault door, complete with some manner of combination lock. When she looked at the lock itself, and saw its strange symbols, her vision blurred and she felt something go stabbing through her mind, not through the center, but a little off to the left, and just below her ear.

Blinking, she tore her gaze away before any more mental damage was done.

It was neither cold nor hot here. If sensation existed, it was illusion, reality conforming to a standard that her mind found acceptable. She knew that she only saw doors because her mind understood doors. What she was actually seeing was probably something else entirely. How nice it was, for reality to cooperate and coalesce into a form that she could comprehend.

It was almost worthy of a fruit basket and a thank you note.

“Mind your thoughts, Twilight,” Celestia said in a calm, but commanding voice.

Twilight settled into a cautious half-trot down the hallway, and focused on pushing back the living darkness. The magenta glow of her magic seemed dull, it did not have its usual rosy glow, but she did not let this disturb her, and as her mentor had said, she was mindful of her thoughts. Her magic didn’t need to be just the right colour, it just needed to function.

“Twilight,” Celestia said as she pulled up alongside of her former student. “The mirror… it exists as a shortcut, connecting two doors together. It acts as a bypass so this place is avoided. There are many mirrors, many portals. There are many pools that reflect other places. Their creation was so that the danger of this place could be avoided. This place stretches on forever. It is always growing, always gaining new halls, new doors as the infinite probabilities of reality manifest in new and unexpected ways. I have studied this place for over a thousand years, and I barely understand it. Perhaps some day, you and I shall study this place together. Would you like that, Twilight Sparkle?”

When Twilight nodded, the light she cast bobbed.

“Moon Rose is relatively near, though distance has no real meaning here.” Celestia too, ignited her horn, and her light intermingled with Twilight’s. “This hallway has changed. There are new doors here that I do not recognise. Soon, Twilight, we shall come upon a door to a place that is familiar to you. I have long sought to secure it, but I only have so much power. I fear that world is vulnerable, Twilight, and there is nothing I can do.”

One door gave Twilight pause. It was rotten looking, decaying, and cracks could be seen all around the doorframe. She halted, unaware of her own actions, because she had to look. The door radiated sour magic and standing too close chilled her blood. It had been blue once, this door, a bright, vivid shade, but now it was faded, almost blue-grey. The timber planks were all decaying, the wood splintered, and the doorknob was missing. Darkness seemed to pour through the keyhole, trickling into whatever was beyond.

“This world has fallen,” Celestia whispered in a soft voice. “Just as I feared it might. The vampire plague proved to be too much, I suppose. They spent all of their time warring and bickering with one another. The nation-states had no sense of cooperation, no shared sense of survival.” She sighed, a heavy, forlorn sound. “In time, this door will fade away, and another will replace it.”

“But… what of the vampires?” asked Shining Armor.

“Based on the state of the door, I would say they’ve escaped this world and now feed elsewhere. Or perhaps they starved. Either way, this world and its door are dead.”

Shivering hard enough to make her armor clatter, Twilight made her hooves move. As she strode away from the decaying, dead door, she cast a final sidelong glance at it, and it was quickly gone from her obscured peripheral version. Just behind her, she heard Dim wheezing as his laboured breathing went drifting past her ears.

“Beyond that door,” Celestia said as she kept pace with Twilight, “that door right over there”—she pointed with her wing—“Starswirl and I would visit there for tea. It was quite unique. He and I brought back samples, but they just didn’t grow in the right way. I’ve since grown wiser about introducing new and potentially invasive species.”

“Back when unicorns had more power…” Twilight took a moment to compose her thoughts, carefully choosing the words she said. She licked her lips and her tongue touched cold metal. “When there were fewer unicorns and more magic to go around, they used to come here, didn’t they?”

“Yes, Twilight, my clever and perceptive student.” The big mare sighed as she reached out with her wing and touched the smaller mare who kept pace beside her. “Many dangers were introduced into our world. It is why I had to find a way to steal the door.”

“Stealing is wrong,” Twilight said to her mentor.

“Yes, Twilight, it is. Yet, I did it, and do not feel regret. I acted out of necessity, and the need to protect others goes beyond any moral compunctions I might have. Our world was made safer once I pilfered the portal.”

“Unicorns growing weaker as their population grew also contributed to our safety.” Twilight glanced up at her mentor, but could not see her, as Celestia existed in a blind spot. “Stealing is wrong, but I agree, taking the door was the right thing to do. As a princess, I have a pretty good understanding of necessity. Sometimes, you have no choice but to do something that you find reprehensible. The trick, I suppose, is learning how to live with yourself afterwards.”

“That’s quite a trick,” Dim muttered.

Behind her helmet, Twilight’s lips pressed together as she thought about Dim’s regrets.

“The walls don’t feel straight here,” Shining Armor said. “It feels as though they angle, narrowing ahead of us—”

“Shining Armor, guard your thoughts.” Celestia’s voice was kind, but also commanding and firm. “If you allow yourself to think that way, you may cause the walls to close in on all of us. Be mindful of what you think, Shining Armor.”

Standing in an archway, Twilight Sparkle had a look around the junction of hallways. Five of them met here and there was a pentagonal room. Twilight had questions, but she refused to allow her mind to entertain them. The five archways all led to darkness and Twilight, unable to control her thoughts, began to think of the terrors of getting lost here.

“Reality overlaps here,” Celestia said as she strode into the middle of the room. “Walk down any of these passages and soon enough, you will find another five-sided room just like this one. And then you can pick a passage from there, and if you think about how these passages twist and turn about, you will realise that they overlap. Truly, this is a place of madness.”

“We come from a dead-end?” asked Shining Armor.

“As far as I know, we’re unique in that way. In my explorations of this place, I have not found another dead-end. Starswirl had a theory that our planet, or home, it exists as a sort of nexus, a central location, and that all of this expanded outward from there. Time and discovery might prove him right.”

“You speak of Skyreach—”

“Twilight, never say that word again.”

Though she wanted to apologise, Twilight chose to remain silent. She heard the hurt in her mentor’s voice, and knew all too well that it was a touchy subject. Twilight wanted to say something, anything, she wanted to indulge in some means to make it better, but she had no understanding of how to tend to this wound.

“We are not alone.”

Dim’s soft utterance caused all of Twilight’s senses to go on high alert. Frozen in place, she listened, her magic-sense strained to detect whatever might be near, and she concentrated upon her hooves, with the hopes that she might sense some vibration. Celestia too, was rigid, but Twilight could spare no thought for her mentor’s actions.

“Something hungers for Celestia’s regrets,” said Dim as he lingered in the amorphous shadows. “She is fatty with regrets, left wide and broad with remorse. Meaty with melancholy—”

“Dim, I may never forgive you. Of all your slights, this is the worst.

Twilight, still straining, wondered how these two could joke at a time like this. And what an awful joke it was. Even worse, it was distracting, and she found that she had trouble focusing. She couldn’t even sense what was wrong, just that something was wrong. So very wrong. And that wrongness, wrong as it was, drew closer.

“Shining Armor, shield us. But not Dim.” Celestia pulled Twilight and Shining Armor closer as she spoke. “Hurry, Shining.”

A flickering magenta bubble appeared. It was weak, it crackled as though it would fail, but then it grew bright with purpose as Shining Armor adapted his magic. Twilight wondered why Dim was left outside of the shield; surely Celestia had a purpose, a reason, and not just petty punishment. Dim was remarkably calm for being an unarmored, squishy unicorn left with no protection.

He stood there, smoking, not particularly concerned, and Twilight was thoroughly unnerved. “Shining, shield him!”

“Belay that order,” Celestia said in a voice of cold iron.

Every muscle clenching painfully, Twilight bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. The copperiness of it flooded her mouth, a disgusting taste that made her shudder with revulsion. A tall bipedal figure entered, gliding through an archway, and Twilight found that she was paralysed. Perhaps from fear, or perhaps because of Celestia’s will. She couldn’t move, could not make magic, she could do nothing.

The creature, this horrid, wretched thing, was tall, thin, with gangly limbs and it appeared to have a squid for a head. Writhing tentacles waved around a mouth that Twilight could not see, but she was certain it was there. This squid-headed monster hurt her eyes to look at, but paralysed as she was, she could not turn away. Drool glistened, the tentacles were slick with it, and the creature’s eyes were impossibly disturbing.

It stopped in the center of the room, lifted its arms, and unnaturally long fingers slid out from the draped sleeves of its dark robes. The fingers seemed boneless, almost tentacles, but had claws on the end. A fiery nimbus blazed around the fingers, and a tether of magic appeared between it and Dim.

“That’s right, come into my mind,” Dim said to the squid-headed horror. “Have a look.”

A keening, burbling wail emerged from the tentacles as the squid-headed creature waved its clawed hands around. The eldritch shriek caused Twilight’s guts to slither painfully around her insides, and she could feel her kidneys trying to cosy up to her pancreas for comfort as her intestines sought the warm reassurance of her beating heart.

“Oh, that poor illithid,” Celestia murmured. “No creature deserves that.”

The squid-headed abomination writhed in place, its body seizing, convulsing, and it appeared to dance some manner of eldritch jig that Twilight Sparkle didn’t want to understand. Its arms bent in places that seemed to have no elbows, they just curved in a most unsettling way, and it began to claw its head with its long, noodly fingers.

Twilight made the mistake of looking into its eyes. Such terror, such tenebrous horror. It had connected with Dim’s mind. While Twilight couldn’t even comprehend what might exist in Dim’s mind, she knew that Dim was a vessel of nightmares, and that Luna had poured the memory of every nightmare, every foul dream, every nocturnal, unimaginable horror into his skull. For Dim to become the Lord of Nightmares, he had to be remade with nightmares.

And now, right before her eyes, two eldritch abominations touched minds in ways that Twilight Sparkle refused to understand. What unspeakable dread might a squid-headed horror dream about? Twilight didn’t know, and she didn’t want to find out. Her mind recoiled at the merest thought of it. She feared that her sanity might be in danger, but try as she might, she could not close her eyes.

“Dim! Stop that at once! Right now!” Celestia’s commands rang in Twilight’s ears like hammer blows on an anvil. “Stop playing with it. Just… stop enjoying this! Cease indulging in your darkest aspects! Remember what Luna said!”

The keening wail increased in pitch, so much so that Twilight now heard it inside of her head. It now existed in a place beyond perception. Just as it crept past the point of being utterly unbearable, the shriek became a gurgle, and then the squid-headed monster’s squid-shaped head exploded. It popped, bursting like some pus-packed pimple or a cyst. For a few horrible seconds, it rained chunks of squid-headed monster, and there were wet splatters that sizzled against Shining Armor’s shield.

Headless, the body wobbled a bit, rocked to and fro, and then toppled over.

Author's Note:

Twilight could have better saving throws.