When I returned from my little errand, it wasn’t immediately obvious that everything had changed. I had left my charge and his trinket in the capable hooves of the Hecatoncheires, the Lords of Tartarus; they had been more than willing to take Grogar off of my hooves. By the time I returned, the post-capture riots had long since burnt out in battered Cloudsdale, and a sort of eerie peace had taken hold in a place which was trying to put their piratical career as a raider base as far into the past as they could shove it.
I had to patch together fragmentary accounts from various ponies who honestly didn’t want to talk about what exactly had happened in our absence. Eventually I bullied enough witnesses to work out that the leadership had settled the problem by less than reputable means. In plain Equuish, they'd induced a city-wide orgy to put an end to the recriminations and outbursts which burst again and again into riot and slaughter. They'd opened up the casks, spread the food around with a liberal hoof, and had the crystal ponies circulate among the outraged freedponies. My manipulative compatriots redirected the passions via that emotion-magic which so many of Crystallers indulge in. I eventually put together that the crystal ponies were right in the middle of the disgusting excesses that followed, and I was not at all surprised when many a pegasus mare bore a crystal foal eleven months later, the so-called ‘jewels of the liberation' as they called it in re-built Cloudsdale.
All I knew at first, though, was that when I came back, Gusty and that sleazy bastard Radiant Stanchion were inseparable, and Gusty was glowing like a goddess descended from the heavens. I truly think in that season that we could have made the little sparrow Queen of the Vale of Tail, or carried her eastwards like a battle-banner and conquered divided Pegasopolis, made her Empress or Commander or Lady High Protector of the Skies. She just had that… aura about her in those days before we really put together what was happening.
But no, she didn't want any of that, and really, barely wanted to do anything other than garrison the Trade League fortress-inns. She left me to take over the negotiation of what eventually turned into a slow-motion dissolution of our contract with the Serene Republic of Van Hoover. Technically we were still the Doge's employees, but Gusty didn't really feel like heading back west. Nor did the rest of us long to return to the persecution and abuse of stubborn back-country barons and jumped-up market towns for the commercial interests of the merchants of the Serene Republic and the imperial ambitions of the latest Doge. Likewise, the new Doge and her advisers didn't want a victorious Forge anywhere near their capital, the seats of power. Nor did they want us inspiring a spirit of rebellion among their ponies, or subject to the temptations of conquest, and the possible overthrow of that ancient oligarchy. They were well satisfied that we laze about in garrison in the ‘inland provinces', far away from them and their wealth, a little trickle thereof sent eastward being our payment for causing no trouble.
Gusty spent months being feted by the local cities, the duke and his two rival duchesses, and the Talltails. Peace spread across the face of western Equestria, and the winter of our discontent was made glorious summer by this sun of sparrow.
But not for me, because I was on the outs with my little sparrow. She never had time for me anymore, and instead spent her evenings feasting with her ponies, chief among whom was that usurper, Radiant Stanchion. I saw them eating, and drinking, and carousing, and I just couldn't sit and enjoy the party like a peaceable pony.
More and more, I spent my time in the lab. I had it built in the fortress-inn my warband had taken for winter quarters, which turned into spring quarters, and then we gave up and just started call it our barracks. I was fascinated with the magic I had discovered in my research during the campaign against the Grogarian menace, and spent a great amount of time experimenting with animal subjects. Fewer and fewer of my minions showed any interest or aptitude for the research, but I knew it was important, and that I needed to keep at it. The world was full of monsters, and they just kept coming. The news from the east about the Royal Pony Sisters and their interminable quest to put an end to the Lord of Chaos reinforced that lesson, for sure.
And then came that moment when Gusty sent a messenger to me, requesting my presence in that fortress-inn one day's march east of where I and the Hammers had our quarters. I reported to my little sparrow, and found her even less of a ‘little sparrow' than she had been the last time I had laid eyes on her. At first, I thought the endless feasting had ruined her figure, and caused her to bloat up with dissipation. But then I saw more clearly, and my soul died.
She wasn't fat, she was increasing. The worst possible thing had happened to my little sparrow, the thing she once had told me was the only thing in this world that she feared:
"When?" I asked, sadly, my face a mask without emotion.
"Oh, Blackie, I knew you'd look like that. Please, don't think less of me, it… it had to happen, eventually. I couldn't be selfish forever…"
"Who?" I demanded, my heart hardening to hear herself blame herself like that.
"Oh, come now, don't look like that, this was nopony's fault-"
"Where?" I demanded more loudly, insistent, looking around for the only possible culprit, the shiny bastard who had been sucking up to her ever since his glinty flank had appeared in our camp before the Sirespire.
"Now, Blackie, really, it isn't anything you can just kick into submission-"
I left the seven-months-pregnant commander of our forces wittering on her stool, struggling to get up as I raced out of her presence, searching for the villain who had knocked up my little sparrow. The damnable stallion who had gotten pregnant a mare who was not built for carrying foals, whose family tree was a collapsing top-heavy inverted pyramid of stillbirths, dying mothers, and only children.
I was going to kill him.
Several ponies tried to stop me, but they didn't account for my ongoing research. I left a trail of mind-controlled zombies walking slowly in my wake. I remembered later to take the whammy off of most of them, but I'm afraid to admit that in the heat of the moment I left a few mindless and aimless for hours before I recalled what I had done.
A very few, for days.
The bastard was packing his shit when I caught him; I think he'd thought he had more time before I came for him, thought she'd delay me long enough for him to disappear into the great empty, flee, return to his paymasters. More fool him. He was brainlocked in a flash, and I left him standing like a statue as I tore through his half-packed bags and files. He’d scattered everything, pulled all sorts of secret materials out of their hiding places in his hurry. I don't think I'd have found his correspondence if he hadn't been good enough to take them out of hiding by his own hoof.
So I found the whole thing, entire. It didn’t matter that it was all encrypted, because it was sitting right beside the very code books he used to encrypt everything. His notes. Plans, insofar as he had committed them to paper. A correspondence conducted with the crystal queen, who in those days was no other than my old bete noire, that witch Amore. So I stood, and looked, and decoded his encrypted orders and letters and journals, and I encompassed his scheme entire, from stern to stem, complete.
It was a squalid tale, one without honor or thought for other ponies. They'd originally inserted Radiant Stanchion into the Forge as a asset, a source. He reported our activities to the Imperial Foreign Service, kept tabs on our movements, and used his place with us to evaluate the political situation of those regions we were posted. But he got ambitious, and decided to turn Gusty, control her, guide her to Crystal Imperial purposes. And so he took the opportunity to seduce her - literally, in the aftermath of the defeat of Grogar.
And she fell hard, fell for his pretty face, for his pretty words, and his sly social skills. I wasn't the only captain or minion of Gusty's who had been locked out of her good graces by the crystal parasite. And all of this was infuriating, and it was enraging, and I'd have made him a brain-dead slave for me in perpetuity for having dared to have laid a hoof on my little sparrow for that alone. But worse, far worse, was how he made her his brood-mare, and he did it deliberately, sabotaged the birth-control measures she'd gotten from somewhere - not from me, I would have made sure that they were rock-solid, unalterable.
If she'd only asked.
I marched the villain back to her quarters, and chased out the others, all the others, and locked the door on me, my slave, and my little sparrow. And I made the slave sing, I made him confess, in detail, in his own voice, without any lacunae or gaps.
She cried. She sobbed. She begged me to let him go, begged me to make him stop.
But I didn't. She had to understand, she had to know.
And after the second repetition of his emotionless confession began, she finally gave in, and acknowledged it, agreed that it was what had been, what it had always been. It wasn’t love, it was a plot. A lie.
The tears dried before she stopped sobbing, and I had to summon a pitcher of cold water lest she become dehydrated.
We agreed that he deserved life imprisonment for his crimes, and I vowed to make that a reality. He would not die by my hooves, or anypony else's. He would live a long life in service to the ponies he betrayed. In later months, later years, he became my constant shadow, my shield-carrier, my preferred crystal focus.
All the while, Radiant Stanchion's consciousness lurking behind those glassy eyes. I sometimes let him the use of his mouth, when we're alone, and I want to remember. He doesn't make much sense these days, his mind broke a very long time ago. But sometimes the memories emerge from the madness, and he sobs and begs for forgiveness, and my mind is at ease for a little while, thinking of my little sparrow, and what might have been if this bastard hadn't come into her life.
I tried to talk Gusty into an abortion, did my level best to keep this doom from her door, but she was stubborn, and though she had given into my demands when it came to the monster who had impregnated her, she refused to let me end the prospective life of a complete innocent. No matter how hard I argued, how long we quarrelled, she insisted on carrying to term.
The Forge fell apart a bit with its commander suffering through a long, difficult pregnancy, and although everypony still respected the sacker of the Sirespire, the conqueror of Grogar the Undying, many of our ponies were ambitious and adventurous, and wanted to leave for bloodier pastures. I and the other captains let them go, all but the crystal ponies.
The crystal ponies, the ones that wanted to leave, they got put to the question before we let them go. Grogar's witchcraft proved highly useful for interrogation purposes, and I found two other spies among our crystals who tried to flee Radiant Stanchion's discovery, some more cleverly than others.
Both of them went into our new form of incarceration, a better fate than the customary method for dealing with spies. Better to be enslaved and put to use, than hanged at a crossroads, or sent to the altars of the Spire.
Gusty left her bed less and less often as her months wore on, and the nausea and morning sickness never came to an end. The surgeons weren't experts in obstetrics, and although we brought in Talltail obstetricians, the Vale of Tail was nopony's idea of a medically progressive region.
I've been intending to found a school of medicine here in my domain, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, but I haven't yet had a free moment. There's always some other priority taking up my scarce time. The burdens of leadership - Gusty always made it seem so easy.
As the last days wore on, she got weaker and weaker. I hoped in my most secret of hearts that the fetus would spontaneously abort, that it would be stillborn, premature, a nice, safe miscarriage.
Fate mocked my selfish hopes. She carried to term, she had it, she had her. And Gusty was sly, and clever, and painfully, painfully earnest. She named the foal long before it was born, every time she talked about the fetus, she called it by name. She named it something my little sparrow knew I could never, ever raise my hoof against.
My little sparrow used those stories I told her, so long ago over fishing-rods in that halflight idle beside the waters of the Everfrees. My romantic recollections about the filly who died, the filly whose death sparked my exile from the Crystal Empire. Poor, pure, sweet-souled Radiant Hope, who was too good for the damnable crystal ponies, too good for the Crystal Empire, too good for this world. More than a little part of my soul left with Radiant Hope when that fever took her away, more than a little of myself.
A piece which was regrown the moment I laid eyes on my little sparrow, or so I thought.
Gusty’s foaling was Tartarus on earth, terrible, soul-rending. I have seen the depths of Hades with my own damned eyes, I have spoken with the hundred-eyed Hecatoncheires, cringed away from the three-headed Cerberus, and condemned an undying warlock to that dark realm. And nothing I have ever experienced was as dreadful as watching the mare I loved push her own life out of herself, giving that life to a little squalling crystalline scrap of foalhood. I watched as the last life ebbed out of what had once been the mightiest, most powerful, most awesome mare in the world, and my heart broke in as many pieces as the shattered crystal which hades-spawn fate and destiny inscribed on my pitch-black flank.
Thank that damnable fate and destiny that there was a midwife there to take up little Radiant Hope, and clear her air passage, and tie off her umbilical cord, and close the eyes of my dead little sparrow, because I was utterly useless for half a day after Gusty died. I just sat there, cradling her cold, cold head, and wept until I had no more tears.
Eventually Steeljack came into the foaling room with said squalling brat, and gently took Gusty's remains out of my hooves, and replaced her with the thing she died to bring into this world.
I've tried to love her, this little crystal pegasus, as Gusty would have, to love this new Hope as if she were that breathing sliver of my little sparrow that is left in this world, because she is, and I know this. I tried to have Hope, and be satisfied. And eventually I did grow fond of her, and I like to think I've been a good uncle to our little Radiant Hope.
But she isn't Gusty.
What she was, though, was an uncrystalled crystal foal, and there were certain… conditions built into the otherwise impenetrable shield-walls that the damned Crystal queens have hidden behind for generations. They've spent decades, even centuries sallying forth with their ruthless expeditionary forces, and retreating behind those unconquered walls when the fortunes of war turned against them. Smug. Arrogant. Corrupt.
But I was a son of the Crystal Empire, and I knew the secret, the one way through the barrier which they couldn't lock, couldn’t seal, couldn’t weld closed. Not without breaking the Crystal Heart.
An uncrystalled infant crystal pony. The ritual of crystalling, which cannot be denied. My… little skeleton key.
I led my ponies, who were the members of the Forge who loved Gusty the most. The ones to whom I had exposed the plots and the corruptions which had led to Gusty's death, shown the sly trap which the Crystal Empire laid for their beloved leader. These were the ones who were most willing to follow me, Gusty's most loyal and faithful servant. I was the Black Crystal, the stallion who helped her strike down Grogar the Undying, who helped her pull down the Sirespire, who sat with her in her final, desperate agony. Of course they followed me. And we shattered that rotten, enfeebled city-state into shards.
Shards which I picked back up, and put together in a new configuration, a new kingdom.
For the memory of my little sparrow, I retook my birthright, took back my birth-name, accepted, at last, my destiny.
For her memory I became Sombra, King of the Crystal Ponies. Conqueror of the North.
I have done everything I threatened, fulfilled every dark promise. Amore is dead, at my hooves, her throne and power are in my hooves, and lo! her prophecy is fulfilled. Look at me! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
I miss my little sparrow, I miss her so much. I look at what I've done, and I know she'd hate me for it. I know that if she were here with us today, she'd be right out there, outside my gates, encamped with an army, besieging my walls, waiting for the opportunity to call me to account for my many crimes.
Stars, I wish she was out there right now, screaming my name, calling for my head. I miss her so much.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.