When the ponies of the Crystal Empire saw Rainbow Dash leading her friends towards the edge of the barrier with a golden crown atop her head and a fiery determination raging behind her magenta eyes, none of them were really sure what to make of it. All of her friends following close at her heels had matching looks of resolve and had brought along saddlebags which rustled quietly every step of the way with hidden contents. Many of the Empire’s citizens took to tailing the group of foreigners from a distance, watching with curiosity, trepidation and, in some cases, hope. Hope that the resolve in their eyes meant that they had some kind of solution to the mass of darkness that was waiting just beyond that wall of blue and purple light.
Alas, their willingness to follow Rainbow Dash and her friends ended more than a block away from the edge of the barrier, none of them brave enough to venture any closer to the limits of their safe haven. Rainbow couldn’t blame them; in fact, as she was drawing closer and closer to the edge of the barrier, her own heart rate was slowly starting to accelerate and her instincts screamed at her to double back and join them. A tightness was forming in her throat and her lips were starting to go dry. She took a second to glance over her shoulder, catching sight of all of her friends there, who nodded reassuringly on seeing the unease written on her face.
With what little comfort she could garner from the combined gesture safely held close to her heart, Rainbow gestured towards the group, signaling them to stop, which they did. She then turned her eyes to look at the writhing mass of pitch black smoke that waited for her barely ten yards away. Standing so close to it without the rush of the wind in her ears, she could hear the sounds it was making. It reminded her of the low rumble of distant thunder and a voice whispering in some unknowable language. With an unnerved shiver crawling down her spine, Rainbow took in a slow, deep breath, unfurled her wings, and stepped forward with her head held as high as possible.
“King Sombra!” She called out in the loudest, most authoritative voice she could muster. Almost instantly, those crimson pupils framed with poison green corneas snapped open in the smoke, glaring at her from the darkness. Swallowing down her fear, Rainbow took another few steps forward, making a point to hold her head high and angle it forward so Sombra could see her crown. “My name is Princess Rainbow Dash of Equestria. I am the adoptive daughter of Princess Celestia… and I’m here to negotiate.”
The eyes blinked as if in surprise. They then drifted down through the smoke to be closer to Rainbow’s eye level, narrowing in thought as they studied her. “...I was not aware that the Sun Princess had acquired a daughter,” Sombra’s voice echoed coldly, curious and skeptical at the same time.
“You’ve been gone a long time, Sombra. There’s a lot you don’t know,” Rainbow stated plainly, starting to slowly pace back and forth in front of the darkness.
Slowly, the face of King Sombra became more defined in the darkness. His red horn sprouted free above and between his eyes, while fur the color of darkened ash formed to reveal his face. His crisp jawline was lined with the faint traces of a well trimmed and maintained black-haired beard, while his sharp teeth became visible in a fascinated grin. “Is that so…?” he mused thoughtfully. “Do tell…”
“Nice try,” Rainbow snorted, shaking her head. “I’d be happy to share some of what I know with you; but only if you back off and leave the Empire alone,” as she spoke, she narrowed her eyes dangerously.
Sombra gave a low, entertained chuckle. “You are hardly in a position to be making demands, young one,” he pointed out, his head rising back into the air while the smoke thickened and gathered under him. “Your unicorns cannot hold this shield of yours indefinitely; when it inevitably falls, I will take my empire back.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware you had a claim to the throne,” Rainbow glowered in a sarcastic deadpan before looking into Sombra’s eyes unflinchingly. “Oh, wait, that’s because you don’t. You are a usurper and a traitor to the Crystal Empire, that much is as clear as day to anypony who has bothered to do some research,” she then resumed pacing, letting a smirk slowly appear on her face. “But you’re right; we can’t keep you out forever. But we can make you work, struggle and bleed for every single inch you take. We can wear you down for weeks, or months if we have to. And with every ounce of energy you waste trying to take something that doesn’t even belong to you, you’ll be leaving yourself open more and more to something even worse than you.”
Sombra raised an eyebrow at Rainbow’s boast, appearing to give her words some thought. “...Something worse, you say?” he questioned carefully, his eyes never once leaving hers.
“Yeah, something that makes even my mother and her sister look like a joke in comparison. Something that is coming here. But hey, if you’re sure you can handle it…” she turned and flashed him a taunting grin. “I can just leave you here to wear yourself out. I’m just convinced you can manage.”
Please fall for it, please fall for it, please fall for it...
There were several moments of tense silence, the two locking gazes. Sombra blinked slowly, then started to laugh. It started out as a quiet chortle, but soon he reared his head back and let out a long howl of uproarious laughter, causing Rainbow’s smirk to falter just a little bit.
Did he call my bluff?
Sombra slowly lowered his gaze to meet Rainbow’s again, his laughter dying away, although a fiendish grin remained plastered quite smugly on his shadowy face. “You’re confidence and nerve is admirable, little Princess...” his face retreated into the darkness, and a small circle was cleared in front of the barrier. “Very well… let us negotiate. Step into the shadows.”
Rainbow eyed the cleared space skeptically before a derisive snort escaped her. “Do you think I’m an idiot? I’m not leaving this shield,” she sneered simply.
Sombra’s eyes appeared above them yet again. “If you would speak with me, I would have it be in private. The common peasantry has no place listening to the discourse of royalty. Step into the shadows, or there shall be no further discussion,” with those words echoing in the air, Sombra’s eyes faded, and the circle where the darkness did not reach grew by several feet as if in invitation.
Rainbow’s ears twitched back somewhat, and the confidence and resolve in her eyes melted away a little. She looked back to the others, who all seemed just as indecisive as she did. After several seconds of thought, her uncertain expression hardened once again into one of resolve before she looked back at the darkness. “Fine, I’ll go in. But you can’t expect me to walk in there blindly,” she then turned to Applejack, whose face had morphed into a wide-eyed look of shock. “Applejack, did you bring some rope?”
“Wha?! Woah woah,” the farmer protested, cantering forward a few paces. “Ya can’t be serious about this, Rainbow! He’ll tear ya apart!”
Rainbow’s eyes narrowed just a little more. “I’m completely serious. Did you bring a rope or not?” she demanded sharply.
“Rainbow, please,” Twilight pleaded, also stepping forward until she was close enough to whisper. “It’s too dangerous. What if it’s a trap?” she breathed out, reaching a hoof for Rainbow’s cheek.
Rainbow sighed softly and leaned into the gentle touch of Twilight’s hoof, lifting one of her own to hold it there. “We don’t have any other options,” she whispered back, glancing behind her at the still waiting darkness. “If I can’t convince him to back off, he’ll figure out that I’m bluffing about the barrier pretty quick. It’s a risk I just hafta take…”
“Let me go instead,” Twilight offered hopefully, her eyes shining with worry and concern. “I can represent you in there. I could-”
“No!” Rainbow shot back in a slightly raised voice, grabbing Twilight by the shoulder with a tight grip. “Absolutely not! You’re the one holding up the barrier in the first place, so if you went in there and something bad happened, we’d all pay the price... Besides…” she lowered her gaze somewhat. “...I can’t let you get hurt… I won’t.”
Several seconds of silence came and went, the shadows waiting patiently beyond the barrier. Twilight looked down, biting her lip. Not far away, everypony else just watched, unable to figure out a better course of action and, more so, unwilling to disrupt the moment the two mares were having. Eventually, Twilight lifted her gaze to meet Rainbow’s own. “Okay… but, Rainbow?” she began in a quiet, quivering whisper.
Rainbow’s face contorted a little with concern when she saw the look in Twilight’s eyes. She looked… afraid, but not of the darkness waiting for them. Slowly, Rainbow reached a hoof out to brush away a stray strand of Twilight’s mane that had fallen in front of her eyes. “Yeah?”
Twilight hesitated, her eyes shifting with indecision for several moments. She let the hoof she had on Rainbow’s cheek slip around to the back of her head. Then, without any other warning, she leaned forward and kissed Rainbow softly on the lips.
The entire world went still. All other sound faded away. Rainbow’s eyes went wide and her already unfurled wings gave a flap of shock. What was...
The sensation ended before she could really begin to process it, sadly. Twilight pulled back, a blush on her cheeks and her lips forming into a small, timid smile. “...You come back to me in one piece, you hear me?” she ordered in a whisper so quiet that only Rainbow could hear her.
The pegasus gave a slow nod, not quite able to form words through the fog filling her mind. Thankfully though, she managed to find her voice after a few seconds and gave another slow, shaky nod. “Right… I will. I promise…” she answered in an equally silent voice. She couldn’t bring herself to look away from Twilight, so she didn’t when she spoke again. “AJ? Rope?”
Applejack appeared to be in something of a trance, though Rainbow’s question snapped her out of it. She gave a stiff nod with a solemn look on her face, then set about procuring a long coil of rope from her saddlebags. “Y-yeah, Ah brought some…” she relented distantly.
“Good. Tie it around my barrel. If I start yanking on it really hard, pull me out,” Rainbow instructed simply, her voice not all there. She just kept looking at Twilight, their eyes looking deep into each other. While Applejack did as she had been ordered, Rainbow couldn’t help the tiny, giddy smile that spread on her face or the little giggle that bubbled up after it. “I’m coming back to you,” she promised to the mare in front of her.
Twilight nodded slowly, her smile fading just a little. “You’d better…” she replied, letting the hoof she had on Rainbow’s head glide down her neck in a gentle patting motion.
It was Rainbow’s turn to plant a kiss on Twilight’s lips, the bookish mare tentatively returning the gesture. Now that Rainbow really had a chance to savor it, the sensation was heavenly. Somewhere, deep in her chest, her heart swelled with a happiness and joy she had never felt before, filling her veins with even more determination then she had felt before. “I can't mess this up,” she thought to herself when the two finally broke apart again, Applejack quietly signaling that the rope was secure. “There’s too much hinging on this for me to fail… “
With that thought burning in her mind, she turned back to the barrier and took in a deep breath. “I can pass right through, right Twi?” she questioned, her voice starting to get some of it’s earlier intensity back.
“Mhmm…” Twilight responded quietly, sliding her hoof down to Rainbow’s shoulder. “Be careful…”
“We believe in you, darling,” Rarity chimed in, trotting up with a charmed grin. “And I know you won’t let us down. You have something far too important to come back to, now.”
“Yeah, Ah know that look…” Applejack nodded, a small smile forming on her face as well. “Ya got this, RD. Ah can tell.”
Pinkie Pie chose this moment to come bouncing forward, a wide and ecstatic grin on her face. “You can do it, Dashie!” she said before throwing her forelegs around the pegasus’ neck in a bone-crushing hug. “Now get up there and show that smokey king whos boss!” She then took a second to lean back, catch Twilight and Rainbow’s gaze, and wink at them. “Nice kiss, by the way. You’ve been keeping us all waiting for long enough, you silly fillies.”
“Pinkie!” Rainbow spluttered, a furious blush forming on her cheeks. “Not now!”
Pinkie just gave a wide and unapologetic grin before scurrying backward a little way.
Fluttershy, from a little ways away, gave a quiet ‘yay.’ For a few seconds, Rainbow just took the opportunity to look at all of her friends in turn, soaking up their cheers of confidence and assurance, her eyes lingering on Twilight the longest before she turned to Sombra once again.
“Alright… here goes…” she muttered under her breath before lifting her head up high and trotting forward. Twilight’s hoof stayed on her until she was completely out of reach, where she then brought the hoof to rest over her heart, looking into the back of Rainbow’s head longingly. Rainbow looked over her shoulder one last time to offer her a grin that said ‘I got this.’
Like Twilight had said, the barrier allowed her to pass through without any resistance. Almost immediately she could feel her heart rate spike at such a close proximity to the shadowy king without any protection, but she forged on, reminding herself of what she was doing this for.
Who she was doing this for.
She stepped into the center of the circle, looking up into the shadows expectantly.
All at once, the darkness rushed in and smothered her, blocking out all light and sound from the world beyond. She thought she could hear somepony crying her name, but the sound was lost to the smoke. A shocked gasp ripped itself out of her lungs as biting cold raced through her veins and, for just a moment, the image of her deceased parents flickered before her eyes. her breaths were suddenly heavy and labored, her lungs feeling like they had just been deprived of air for several minutes. She crumpled to her knees, struggling to calm her confusion and her breathing while her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness around her.
“You seem close to those peasants with you…” the voice of King Sombra noted from just ahead, drawing Rainbow’s eyes to look at him. He was in his true physical form, looking at her with a respectful, if questioning, look in his eyes. True to the illustrations in the book from the Castle of the Two Sisters, King Sombra was a charcoal gray unicorn with crimson reptilian pupils, a short black mane, a well-maintained beard and a curved red horn. His neck, chest, and hooves were clad in steel armor, while a thick red cape lined with thick white fur billowed dramatically behind him in an unseen breeze. His smile morphed into a grin. “Now, then… as you called for these negotiations, why don’t you begin? What are your terms?”
Still short of breath, Rainbow slowly stood up on shaky legs. “Wha…? What did you do to me?!” she demanded with a forceless shout, her words hoarse.
“I blocked out the outside world, so we may conduct our negotiations without fear of prying eyes,” Sombra stated almost casually, his posture appearing amicable for a moment.
Rainbow looked up and around, taking in her surroundings. Beneath her hooves, the smooth crystal of the Empire’s streets had been replaced with a flat plane of rough gray stone, while in a dome around them, pitch black darkness smothered everything but the occasional flicker of poison purple or acid green magic, often taking the form of flickers of distant lightning.
“Now, I ask again, Princess Rainbow Dash...” Sombra continued in a far more serious voice, the smile dropping off of his muzzle in favor of a serious frown and narrowed eyes while his previously friendly stance shifted into one of authority and dominance.
“What are your terms?”