Grinning, youthful faces. The ghostly image of an old man in a belled robe. A fierce, open howl - like wind blowing through a cave. Color. Light. Sound. All things bleeding together. Tumbling. Disoriented. Cold.
These were the last things he remembered before awaking in a crater on the side of a mountain.
He rose from the cracked ground, slow and stiff, as snow billowed and blew through the night air around him. The dull clank of shifting armor and metal boots was carried away by the wind as he lifted himself up. He stood straight, and cast his gaze around, slowly sweeping it over the mountain range he found himself in the midst of. Snow and stone ran down and away in two directions, dropping into a steep, craggy cliff before him and sloping towards a valley behind. His crater itself had been smote into the angled side of one of the taller mountains, near a plateau connecting it to its neighbor. Both peaks stretched up to penetrate the low-hanging clouds above. It reminded him briefly of his tower, and anger sparked within.
He looked around with new purpose, ignoring the aching of his armor-clad body as he tried to determine where he was. Nothing but snow for miles past the cliff. He didn't recognize the mountain line; no landmark stood out to him. As he turned, he noted what looked to be a cluster of ramshackle tents in the valley, but little else before the mountains enveloped it at the other side. In growing frustration he cast his gaze further afield, finally taking notice of the moon. It hung in the night sky over the snow planes, bright and full - and nearly without blemish. Few pockmarks or dark patches, and none familiar.
This was not his moon. This was not his Earth.
He clenched his fists as the realization sank in. He had lost. Everything he had built, everything he had done, all the battles and sacrifices and subjugation, all of it was for nothing. He had lost absolutely everything. And so too went a measure of his self-control. He roared his pain, his fury and his loss over the snow, his cry battling the wind. Then it was spent, and he sank to his knees in his chilling armor. He sat upon his heels and his back bent, his thoughts turned inward, his hands splayed at his sides; he was lost to time and sense until someone spoke.
His head snapped to his left, his gaze fixing upon a strange, small creature - like a little horse with massive eyes. It was wearing a cloak to keep off the cold. The thing, whatever it was, flinched back under his sudden attention. That act at least was familiar, and so dark thoughts were set aside as curiosity came to the fore.
"S-so...you are alive then."
He said nothing. The creature had clearly spoken, and the cautious look in those large eyes spoke of intelligence. Not some mere construct or beast then. He continued to observe the strange thing - Green fur? Pink eyes? And are those facets in its eyes? - giving it more than enough time to build up the courage and speak once more.
"That armor...are...are you...do you belong to King Sombra?" Its gaze focused on the horn-like spikes that circled the crown of his helmet.
"I belong to no man." A spark of his old passion was struck within. True, it was merely indignation, but he spoke his first true words on this world firmly and defiantly. He would not be ruled.
The creature flinched back again, before giving him a nervous smile. "Oh. That...that's good! We got free too!"
"Yes; me and the others. We escaped. We're not slaves anymore."
Long ignored memories stirred within the man before he tamped them down. His curiosity about these escaped slaves, or this "King Sombra", was deadened as the brief memories left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. His head turned forward once more, gazing out over the cliff.
"Leave me, creature."
"W-what? But you sounded so...so angry. And sad."
He said nothing. That was not worth dignifying with a reply.
"You...don't have to deal with it alone?"
Those glowing red eyes turned themselves upon the pony once more. While the sentiment was asinine, curiosity was starting to return. "Do you have a name, creature?"
"Of course; I'm Forge Bellows. But you can call me Puffy; everypony does." The man sensed a faint warmth somewhere within himself. Though it had been a long time since he had last experienced the emotion, he believed it to be embarrassment on "Puffy's" behalf. The creature continued, "What about you?"
"I am Forgath Ironblood."
"Hey, our names are kinda similar!"
"...No, no they are not."
"Well...anyway, you should come to the camp."
"It's where all of us have gathered. We're all escapees and outcasts; we all know...pain. It's not good to be alone, and together...together we might have a chance."
Forgath considered. He was little-moved by talk of chances, and he surely didn't need sympathy. But then, what difference did it make? If he went with the creature, at least he could sate his curiosity a little further. He rose slowly, and Puffy backed off a little as Forgath rose to his intimidating stature; the creature didn't quite come up to his belt. He drew in a deep, cold breath, letting it out in a sigh that only just became a word near the end:
Puffy blinked a few times, before breaking into a smile. "You...you will? Alright then! Follow me!" And with that, they were off. Or, very nearly.
"Wait. What...are you?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"I've never seen a creature like you before. Are you a horse?"
"I'm a pony."
"I've never seen a pony like you before."
"Oh! Well, I'm a crystal pony. I'm surprised I seem that different though; we're really very similar to other ponies."
"...If you say so. Lead on, crystal pony."
With that correction, the crystal pony lead him away from the cliff and down a sloping path into the valley. The snow crunched under hooves and boots as they wound back and forth, here across a straighter segment, there down a steeper incline, following a set of slowly-filling hoofprints left on the way up. Once they were in the valley proper progress was swift, the man's firm strides matching the pony's loping trot. Puffy seemed excited to be returning with another, while Forgath had at least one more goal driving him, simple as it was. The silence didn't last long, broken just as one might expect.
"Are you...cold in that armor?"
"It does not bother me."
"Ah...alright. Did you have anyone....with you? You know, when you...?"
"I need no other."
"Oh. Um. I see. W-well just wait until you see the camp! It's not much, but it's much better than dying in the snow!"
"We shall see."
"Hey, that almost sounded like a joke!"
"Take it as you will."
"Hah! Well okay then, I take it as a joke."
"Are all...ponies...as talkative as you are?"
"Oh no, most of them are pretty gloomy right now. To be honest, it's getting harder to keep their spirits up; most of them are...quiet. But that's okay; I can do the talking for all of them."
"...What was your given name again?"
"Never mind. You may take that as a joke."
"Eh? Well...okay then! I don't get it, but I hope it was funny?"
"I have found some amusement in it."
Puffy laughed, imagining a smile on the face under the helmet - a face that had to have an awfully short muzzle, the thought occurred. "Well some is better than none! See, you're cheering up already."
"Mm. Are we near?"
"Just over the next - ah, there, see?"
The valley they walked in was fairly flat once one made it down the slope into the valley itself, though the snow blew and settled into sloping hillocks and dunes; it was at the top of one of these that they spotted the camp, such as it was. A rough circle of irregular tents and a few minor structures stood at the bottom of a dune, a valley in a valley, which Forgath suspected was to avoid notice. As they approached, the state of the camp grew more and more apparent.
The tents themselves would have been flattered to be called "ramshackle", such was the state of their construction; strips and patches of cloth hung from whatever straight bits of wood and metal could be easily found, with bits of twine or cord (and gathering snow) binding the whole hodge-podge together at what passed for seams. The few other structures were, if anything, less impressive; a small, closed-off area that Forgath took to be a privy, a lean-to acting as storage for meager belongings and what might be foodstocks, and what appeared to be a pony sculpted out of snow. In the center was a small fire pit and it did not excel - neither as a fire nor as a pit; a small piece of glowing wood and the occasional flame was just barely shielded from the wind, and that was likely more due the ring of beings huddled close around it. Forgath suspected that the tents were empty, or near-enough; the number of wrapped and shivering figures around the fire pit was more than enough to occupy all of them.
"Hey everypony! We're back!"
Heads turned, and soon the pair were greeted by various shades of snowy muzzle poking out from hoods; tired gazes turned suddenly suspicious as Puffy lead the large, armored form towards them. Forgath stopped at a modest distance as Puffy bounded the last few lengths up to the ring.
"Puffy," one of them spoke, "What is that?"
"I found another! He's an outcast, just like us!"
"And you invited it back just like that?" This from a second. "What if it's dangerous? What if it's sent by...by...."
"Don't worry, I asked; he said he doesn't belong to anypony!"
The ponies moved closer to each other, not that they had much space to do so, whispering and shooting furtive glances by clumps and groups at the outsider. Forgath, for his part, frowned behind his visor at the noise. Fear and suspicion, and not the least undeserved. Puffy's patience appeared to be at its limit.
"Come on, we've all escaped; none of us would want to go back, and neither would he."
At that, Forgath tilted his head. "Go...back?"
Puffy turned to look at him. "You know, to King Sombra?"
"I know nothing of 'King Sombra'. He was your master?"
"Huh? Wait, he wasn't yours?"
"I would die first."
Appraising looks came from the ponies at that, sizing up this biped in his armor. At the very least he did have the look of a fighter around him. One spoke up.
"So you will not try to take us back?"
"Why would I? What would I gain?"
Another jumped in, "Somra's favor! Why should we trust you?"
A loud sigh came from a third. "What does it matter? We're all going to freeze to death out here; one more freezing with us makes no difference."
Eyes drifted quickly back to the fire pit. Forgath noticed that the wood had burned through; coals and nothing more waited there. Several ponies started up, talking over one another until their voices blended together in a most irritating way.
"Doomsaying isn't going to help!"
"Somepony see if we have any more wood."
"I knew it, we're dead."
"I don't hear you coming up with a plan!"
"Nothing non-essential; we already burned all the..."
"Why don't we just..."
"We can't go on like..."
"What about him? Is he..."
"Calm down, none of..."
"I wish we..."
Out from the ice of the fire pit leapt a great, dark flame, all ruby and jet. In an instant it banished the pitiful coals and reached up, and up, rising into a pillar and cracking the ice around it. The ponies scrabbled back in surprise, a few of the slower yelping at the sudden onslaught of heat. And heat there was; already the former fire pit began to widen, the nearest snow and ice melting back. A few of the ponies, whether quicker on the uptake or simply more desperate to feel warm again, stretched out hooves and muzzles towards the flame to bask. Every eye soon turned to the armored man, one five-fingered gauntlet raised in a fist, tendrils of magic crawling up from between the fingers. He spoke.
"Enough of this whining! You have fire, you have warmth, is that enough to keep you quiet?"
Stunned ponies exchanged glances as the pillar continued to burn, the slowly retreating ice and snow revealing solid rock at the bottom of the widening pit. Awe and fear in varied measure could be seen by the faint light given off by this work of dark sorcery. Nopony thought to answer his question. Nopony thought it was a question that needed answering.
Except for Puffy.
"Having houses would be nice too."
A faint "clank" as an armored head turned to look at the green pony. A gasp rose up from the rest of the refugees. Puffy, hooves lifted towards the fire, gave a shrug.
"What? It would."
Forgath took a long moment to consider, his fist slowly returning to his side. Bravery? Stupidity? He could not say. Impudence, certainly, but there was a certain...charm. An innocence, perhaps. He let his gaze sweep along the rest of the ponies, ears lowering in deference and fear as they noticed his attention, a few going as far as to cringe back as if from a blow. These creatures had been broken not long ago. But they had escaped their "King"? The king they had served as slaves. Useful creatures, then.
"Puffy." Came the correction.
He did not dignify it with a response. "What did King Sombra put you to? What tasks did you ponies do for him?"
"Most...everything? Mining? Housekeeping? Various trades? He...he enslaved everyone; there are no free citizens under his rule. It's...horrible." Puffy's face drooped slightly at the remembering, a shudder causing a pink mane and tail to quiver.
"Mmmmm...It will do."
"Forge Bellows, -"
"...Puffy. I will offer you ponies a bargain."
"What kind of bargain?"
"You want shelter; I can create a place for you to live. You want safety; I can lay waste to any who would attack you. You want freedom; I can make sure you'll never be slaves again."
The pony squinted. "And what do you want for all that?"
"Serve me. Not as slaves in chains, but as loyal minions; together, we shall raise a city. Under my banner, empowered by my magic, none will threaten you. You will be free to live and do as you please, so long as you bow to me and obey my commands. Join me."
"...Yeah, okay, that sounds good."
"Puffy! What are you say-"
"Good! We have an agreement."
"Hey, hang on, Puffy doesn't speak for all of us!"
An armored head turned to regard the other ponies - no longer shivering thanks to the warmth of the fire. "Do any of you disagree?"
A moment passed as the ponies exchanged nervous glances, but none saw fit to speak up. Puffy couldn't help but smirk as Forgath nodded.
"Good. Then let's begin."
Forgath reached down, his hands burning with arcane might. He reached for things familiar, hard and cold. He touched the ice and the iron far beneath, and they rose to his call. Parting at his will, rising into simple walls, the ice heeded his magics. The rest would come soon enough; he could bring up the first of the iron to be wrought into the simple tools and structures his minions would need. Lowering the ponies to the stone via retreating ice, he made his way towards them; there was some fear, even a squeak of panic, but he paid it no mind. Soon they beheld the tools he made, divvying them up. The work would begin. And Forgath found, once more, that he had purpose.