• 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 3

“I think I might spew,” Twilight said as the paralysis receded from her body.

“What did you have for lunch, Twilight?” Celestia asked in response. “A little colour might do this place some good.”

Stunned, Twilight faced a new round of paralysis. Celestia was entirely unlike herself right now. Never, at any time, could Twilight recall Celestia behaving this way. This was not Princess Celestia, or secretly shy Celestia, or Headmistress Celestia the Schoolmarm. Twilight did not know this Celestia and began to wonder if her mentor had been replaced by a changeling.

Princess Snarklestia had to be a changeling doppelganger.

“What was that?” Twilight asked.

“An illithid.” After a bit of a pause, Celestia added, “A mind flayer.”

“Those are real? I thought they were imaginary monsters in Ogres and Oubliettes!” Twilight almost looked at the headless corpse on the floor, but then squeezed her eyes shut.

“Twily, take a deep breath.” Shining Armor’s voice somehow permeated Twilight’s panicked state. “We’re having a real life dungeon adventure. A campaign. Pull yourself together and get into character.”

Twilight sucked in a deep breath, priming herself to unleash a devastating torrent of snark upon her brother, but then she realised that he was right. Shining Armor was right and she needed to get herself into character. She was Twilight Sparkle, the Elemental of Magic, Caretaker of Dragons, Awe-Inspiring Aunt, and a Princess of Equestria.

“A mind is a terrible thing to taste,” Dim remarked while he began to pack his pipe with more clove-scented whatever.

This made Celestia whinny, and she tossed her head around. Meanwhile, Shining Armor moved beside Twilight, and she leaned up against her brother, thankful for his kind reassurance. On the floor, the abnormally long illithid corpse twitched a few times, but thankfully, did not stand back up. Hot bile bubbled in the back of Twilight’s throat, and her innards made a mad scramble to return to their original locations.

Celestia snorted, which somehow reverberated through the whole of her armor like a miniature hurricane trapped in a tin can. “Dim, I believe the correct idiom is, ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ That’s a good effort, but I am not sure if the humour works here. I’m not even sure if that counts as a pun.”

The smaller unicorn looked up at the armored hippopotamic force of nature, coughed once, spat, and then replied, “Says you, but you’re not the one with mind flayer in your mouth. I think it went up my nose.”

Twilight panicked when she realised the futility of spewing whilst wearing a full-face helmet. She fought to control her gorge and thought back to all of the times she went adventuring with her friends. Most of those trips were pleasant. At least compared to this. Even her excursion to Castle Midnight wasn’t this bad, was it? Surely she had behaved better than this, right? She tried to recall that trip, but her recollection of it was hazy at best, and faulty at worst.

“Do you need a hankie?” Celestia asked.

Twilight was astounded by the sheer chilly sarcasm in her mentor’s voice.

“Twily, are you okay?”

She had to turn her head to see her brother, and there was a clang as their full-face helmets smacked together. Beyond the narrow slit in the black metal, she saw a flash of blue. She was fine, for the most part. Things had been boring for a while, maybe too boring, and now she was just getting back into the swing of things. She had to adjust. Yeah, that was it. Too much quiet for far too long. Maybe Celestia was adjusting too. That had to be it. While she looked into her brother’s eyes, she heard Dim and Celestia trading barbs with one another, but she failed to make out what they were saying.

“I’m fine, Big Brother. We should keep looking for Moon Rose.”

Try as she might, Twilight could not make sense of things. Why was Celestia here? She had just become a mother not all that long ago. The world was still reeling from the war in the Midreach. Of all the things that Celestia could be doing, she was here, in this place. It didn’t make sense. Celestia could have sent Luna.

As for Dim, Twilight understood why he was here, but felt that he shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t just his curse; he had a wife at home, Blackbird, and she would foal any day now. Did hippogriffs foal? Twilight wasn’t sure. Aside from the fact that he was about to become a father, Dim had duties. Studies. Obligations aplenty.

So then, why were these two busy ponies here, in this place, cutting each other down with reckless abandon?

She watched as Dim looked over the corpse of the illithid, and felt both disgust and revulsion the whole time. It was beyond repulsive, and the corpse being headless didn’t help the situation in the slightest. Celestia was humming to herself, which made a droning sound as it went rebounding and echoing through her armor.

Dim coughed as he removed a jeweled wand, a wicked looking dagger that did not gleam in the light, and a glass phial filled with some unknown substance. She watched as these trinkets were dumped into his hat and could not help but wonder just how dangerous they might be.

Or, for that matter, how useful.

“That dagger is made with changeling chitin,” Celestia said to Dim.

“I know,” Dim replied.

“Well, be careful with it. Don’t go poking a pony’s eye out with it. Or your own.”

Dim’s face—obscured by goggles to protect his eyes—contorted into a magnificent sneer. “It’s a blade purpose made for alchemy. I’ve seen their like before. To stab it into an eye would be wasteful. With one of these, you never have to worry about cross-contamination when chopping and slicing ingredients.”

“How incredibly mundane.” Celestia’s helmeted head tilted off to one side, and the big mare sighed. “If you keep making faces like that, one day it will stick that way.”

In response, Dim’s aristocratic sneer intensified into something indescribably magnificent, and Twilight was impressed by what she saw. She was also annoyed by the delay, and she cleared her throat with the hopes that it would act as a subtle reminder that they should get moving. But Dim wasn’t finished, it seemed. He pulled off the creature’s boots, upended them, and several gemstones came tumbling out. Celestia whistled, an odd sound that Twilight did not often hear, and Dim scooped up the stones with a speed that would make Spike envious.

“We should be going,” Celestia said as Dim secreted the gemstones into his hat.

Though she knew better, and she kept cringing in anticipation of Celestia scolding her, Twilight kept thinking what might be beyond these doors. If she flung one open, what might she see? What worlds awaited? She had been to other worlds, other whens and wheres. She and Starlight had tumbled through quite a number of places. Or maybe it was this place, or what this place might be, or could be. Or maybe those tangent universes broke off from this one and made their own pockets of reality.

The world of Sunset Shimmer’s exile was just a few doors down. It was the world right next door—quite literally. What incredible magic the mirror had, what wonder it possessed. Twilight was pulled from her thoughts by Celestia pulling ahead and then suddenly stopping. Somehow, Twilight halted her forward momentum before crashing into Celestia’s armor-plated hindquarters.

“I sense life,” Celestia said to the others as Twilight’s ears pricked inside of her helmet.

Shining Armor strode to Celestia’s side, halted, and cast a spell. Then, after a moment of thoughtful concentration, he said, “I sense good, harmonious creatures. Like ourselves. Well, not Dim, obviously. If I can sense them, and they can sense us, and if they get a feel for Dim, we might be in trouble.”

“Let me go ahead and see if I can parley with them.” Celestia fixed her posture and somehow became downright princessly, even in all of her heavy plate. “Stay behind me. Close, but not too close.”

Excited, The Princess of Friendship eagerly awaited a chance to meet strangers.

A griffon, a unicorn, an earth pony, and one of the magically-touched hominid derivatives that populated the world of Sunset’s exile. They seemed friendly enough and made no threatening moves or gestures when Celestia introduced herself. Well armed, they had an assortment of guns, wands, and blades, all of which remained sheathed.

“We’re bounty hunters,” the griffon said as he jerked his talon-thumb at the earth pony. “This is Blue Baroque, the brains of our outfit. She’s not only our leader, but she’s also our pack pony. My name is Guess. The unicorn, his name is Boletus, and our pet human is named Tart Tucker.”

“Hey, I’m no pet,” the pink-skinned, blue-haired female said in protest.

“Nobody asked you, you two-legged freak show.”

“Freak show?” Tart Tucker demanded.

“Who puts mammaries there of all places? That has to be a mistake—”

Reaching out, Tart Tucker smacked the griffon on the back of the head, which caused Guess to fluff out to almost twice his size. When his beak opened to say something, she smacked him again, and this time, the unicorn, Boletus, began laughing. Blue Baroque cleared her throat just once, a soft sound, and the entire group of bounty hunters went both quiet and still.

“Miss Baroque, I’m looking for a unicorn filly. Her abductors may have brought her here, to this place. Have you seen anything?”

“Nope, sorry.” Blue Baroque shook her head from side to side. “We’re looking for a lich. A really nasty bugger, too. He escaped and went off-world. Two-headed, one dog, one cat.”

“I’ve seen nothing of the sort,” Celestia said to the stocky earth pony.

“Drats.” The earth pony mare offered up a gracious smile to Celestia. “Look out, there’s a mind flayer around here. He’s been stalking us for a while. Boletus thinks it was waiting for reinforcements, or maybe went to find help, because it scarpered off.”

“It’s no longer a problem,” Dim said.

“What a relief.” Tart Tucker tousled the griffon’s head feathers as she spoke. “Good luck finding your abducted filly.”

“Why, thank you.” Celestia bowed her head. “Best of luck finding your lich.”

Twilight smiled, but failed to recollect that her face was obscured behind her helmet. She stood waiting, hoping for a meaningful exchange of information, an enlightening discussion about their respective worlds—but then came to a hurried understanding that this would not happen. Two adventuring parties had bumped into one another in the strangest of places. What were the odds? With nothing but a hello and the exchange of pleasantries, this meeting was already over. They would part and go their separate ways.

Yet, Twilight’s curious nature nagged her; these creatures had bumped into an adventuring party with not one, but two alicorns. No reaction. Not a one. They had not stared or gawped. They had spoken with Celestia as if it were some perfectly natural, normal thing, the sort of thing one did when navigating an otherworldly maze populated by squid-headed horrors that no doubt came from some dungeon dimension.

The world—the universe—now felt a little larger and Twilight felt a little smaller.

“It’s nice meeting fellow adventurers,” Celestia said as she led the way. “I miss my time as an adventurer. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Adventuring allows for a lot of close, intimate moments with friends during the long stretches of boredom, and moments of bonding when things get exciting. Now that I think about it, I think that’s what I miss. The chance to get close. To be close. These truly special moments that only come with adventuring.”

The big mare halted, and a golden glow emanated from the armored cone surrounding her horn. Twilight waited, her magic sense tingling, and she gave careful consideration to what her mentor had just said. It was practically a friendship lesson. Behind her, Dim coughed and Shining Armor hummed a jaunty tune.

“Her position has suddenly changed.” A fearful wicker made Celestia’s armor clatter. “Not sure how that’s possible. Perhaps a series of doors was involved, or some manner of teleportation. Moon Rose is scared, I can sense it, but she still lives. So long as she lives, everything is fine. If her life force is snuffed out…”

The unspoken threat hung in the air like an asteroid preparing for orbital impact.

“This becomes a mission of vengeance,” said Dim, whispering these words between coughs.

Twilight could not help but shiver.

The repetition was becoming tedious. A long hallway with doors on either side. Living darkness that nibbled at the edges of the light. At the end of each long hallway segment, a pentagonal room with more hallways. Whatever excitement this place had once presented had long since worn off. But Twilight was far from bored; she was focused, alert, aware, even if she was uncomfortable.

And she was uncomfortable.

The armor… the armor changed Celestia. No warm eyes the colour of rosy dawn were visible. Of Celestia’s warm, reassuring smile, there was no sign. The only sign of the mare known as Celestia was her mane and tail, which drifted right through the mysterious matte black metal that seemed to devour the light. Not even the eye slit in the helmet offered a peek inside, but was obscured by smoked black glass.

It occured to Twilight that she had only ever known her mentor during times of peace. Celestia was a mare that held back; she couldn’t let go. In times of conflict, she could only ever let loose with the merest fraction of her power, otherwise civilisation around her would be evapourated. Incinerated. All of life was a hostage, and her mentor was forced to submit.

But here, in this place, the rules were different; Celestia was free to be a behemoth.

Well, within reason. Twilight suspected that Celestia surrounded herself with smaller, weaker, somewhat more fragile beings for a reason. Did Celestia hold any secret resentment for being held back? Gratitude? More than ever, Celestia remained a mystery. A wonderful, beautiful mystery that Twilight treasured.

Just as Twilight was about to say something meaningful, something beautiful to her instructor and mentor, a door opened. Celestia halted, along with everypony else, and Twilight’s heart lept up into her neck, where it lodged in her windpipe. What eldritch horror was about to come out? Would it ooze? Slither? Squirble, with squelchy squishes? Squirble-glurble-blurble?

A rather familiar pink ponk pronked out, bounced once in the middle of the hallway, and then vanished through a door opposite the one she exited. Twilight’s heart, currently cuddling with her epiglottis, telegraphed what it was feeling with excited thumpy-bumpy-pumpy undulations while her precious, life-giving blood went squishy-squirt.

Then, the door opened again, and a somewhat shy Pinkie Pie poked her pink head out. She blinked a few times, her blue eyes twinkling in the harsh light, and looking right up at Celestia, the playful pink ponk giggle-snorted. Twilight was desperately trying to make sense of what she was seeing, and Celestia’s armored hoof rang out a death knell as it tapped against the floor.

“I was jaunting, and got a little lost.” Pinkie Pie’s words were almost bashful. “Boulder and I were playing hide and go seek. I have to find him so my sister, Maud, won’t worry.” Then, in a whisper, she added, “Maud doesn’t know I took him. He knows the best hiding places!”

Twilight’s ears itched, as she could not recall hearing an exclamation point following a whisper before.

“Pinkie Pie… we talked about this.” Celestia’s voice was firm.

“Um, did we?”

“Pinkamena Diane Pie—”

At the mention of her full name, Pinkie Pie shuddered, her tail went twitchy-twitch, her mane boinged, going straight, then back to curly, straight again, and back to curly. She vibrated, her legs stiff, and her ears rotated in opposite directions on either side of her side. Her eyes became pinpricks, and making a fearful face, she vanished back through the door, which slammed shut with a thunderous boom.

“—I’m going to tell your mother!”

But it was too late. The pink ponk was gone and Celestia was left fuming.

Author's Note:

Hmm, one wonders, what class is Twilight Sparkle?