In a distant place
Ryan could hear the violent magic of the rip in space-time behind him closing. He sighed once again, knowing that going back was on the dull, gray, vengeful stallion that walked slowly next to him. He let his eyes wander across the city before him. Strange, purple, humanoid creatures that stood near his height with only four fingers were being terrorized throughout the massive city. Changelings zipped through the sky, opening fire on soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. The soldiers tried to resist with their advanced, alien weaponry, but with the support of the umbrums, it was a losing battle. Umbrums marched through the avenues and boulevards, using their physical capabilities to smash up homes, stores, and anything else they felt they could break in order to capture more and more lifeforms.
Fires with a mix of black and green dotted the city’s skyline. One very large skyscraper, dwarfing that of the Empire State Building back on Earth in New York, had the top half of itself nearly separated from its bottom half. The top half leaned on a shorter skyscraper, just begging to fall over on top of countless aliens below.
The grass that Ryan could hear crunching under his boot. When he looked down to examine the origin of the sound, he quickly noticed the color. The grass, from its once pure blue nature, had taken on a charcoal black from the fires that Sombra seemed to have raged through it.
“Look, Marauder.” Sombra boasted to Ryan, staring off at nothing particular in the city. “The power we umbrums wield is of a god-like nature. Do you not see?”
“Yeah, I see.” Ryan scoffed, crossing his arms, “Now if you're done sucking your own dick, why don't you tell me what you want from me?” Sombra chuckled heartily before facing Ryan.
“What I need from you is simple. Your full cooperation is all I expect from you.” Sombra informed Ryan straight to the point. “Without that, I will simply slay you, siphon your power, and immediately return to Equestria and destroy everything and everyone. Sadly, excluding your friends who I would send back to your home planet immediately.”
Ryan was musing on the request for cooperation. In the end, Sombra came from a different time. In this time, your word was the most valuable thing you could offer. Sombra would tarnish every inch if his being except his word. Before he consigned his life to either evil or death, Ryan needed to know what Sombra meant by “cooperation.” He could only assume the worst, but proceeded to ask anyway.
“What kind of ‘cooperation’ did you have in mind?” Ryan asked with care, his arms still crossed. His voice carried a questioning tone, but he was really just nervous to find out the answer.
“It’s quite simple really.” Sombra said with a wave of his hoof. Ryan swallowed, anticipating the answer. “I need you to assist me in reaping the souls of these planets. The more we kill, the stronger these become.” The five crystals around his neck levitated with emphasis. To Ryan, it seemed like they grew “brighter” every time he laid eyes on them. “I need you to be my weapon. To crush militaries under our boot. I am saving the power held within these crystals to be used on those wretched sisters in Canterlot.” He snarled when he mentioned the princesses of the Sun and Moon. “So, I need a... reaper, if you will. You are that perfect fit.”
Ryan’s eyes remained on Sombra’s as he mentally hated himself for being nearly correct on his own prediction of Sombra’s need for him. He turned his head to see the burning city leaving the faint taste of copper and soot in his mouth. He was backed into a corner. The duality of saving the very few or none at all. He thought the choice would be easier to make if he didn't have to have a hand in Sombra’s wicked evil. He would only be fighting armed combatants, which He could deal with to some extent. He finally decided, regretfully, on what his answer should be.
“Fine.” Ryan responded firmly, sounding nearly defeated, “But you can bet I’ll hate every second of all of this.” Sombra smiled at Ryan’s response.
“If you believe that to be true,” Sombra paused, thinking about his next move until finally making that decision, “then take this.” One of the five crystals around his neck detached and floated in front of Ryan.
“Uhhh, why are you giving me this?” Ryan raised an eyebrow as he took the humming crystal into his hand. As soon as his skin made contact with the smooth crystal, he felt calm. Almost blissful. With fire raging and screams falling away in the distance, he felt at ease amongst it all. “What is… going on? Why does everything feel...weird?”
“There are two reasons I gave that piece of me to you.” Sombra’s smile shrank, but was still present, “The main reason being that you can feel more comfortable doing my bidding. As I can already tell, it is working better than I predicted.” Ryan didn't respond, his head beginning to swim. “The second reason being a sign of trust. Between you and I.”
Ryan was slowly adjusting to the effects of the crystal. It felt like a drug. Behind Sombra, he saw something he didn't expect. Silhouettes of his friends sitting down. Their arms extended as if holding Xbox controllers. Sombra had begun to fade away with the sounds if the burning city and was left with these silhouettes. Then color and texture bled in slowly. Their faces taking shape and the room he was in becoming more apparent until fully in view. It was the Achievement Hunter office. Just like they left it. Next thing he knew, he was sat on the couch just behind Gavin’s chair, Xbox controller in between his own hands as well.
Sound was the last thing to fade in. His ears feeling like he was thousands of feet up. Dazed, he finally began to hear his friends voices come to full volume.
“Ryan? Ryan! You alright?” A British accent exclaimed to his right. He quickly shook himself from his daze. His friends were all leaning back in their chairs staring at him, except Geoff who fully turned his chair towards Ryan from across the room. Gavin, leaning back in his chair, had his hand on Ryan's shoulder, still shaking him awake.
“Wha…?” Was all Ryan barely managed to get out. Gavin stopped his nudging once Ryan spoke. “What's… going on?”
“You kinda fell asleep during a Let's Play.” Michael chuckled.
“I did?” Ryan had no clue what happened. One second they were doing a heist on GTA and Ryan was helping Ray mow down cops, and the next thing he knew he was staring at large, red letters on the screen reading out the word “WASTED.”
“You sure you're alright, Ryan?” Jack asked, not looking from his screen but pushing away the mic so the recording didn't pick up the question, “You didn't look too good coming in today.” Ryan rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. Like dread hung in the air. But he didn't know why.
“Yeah, I just haven't been sleeping well lately.” Ryan said, still rubbing his neck. He didn't know why he said that, considering he can't remember waking up that morning, or going to sleep altogether. His friends all gave each other a shrug and continued their Let’s Play.
Since Ryan was dead, he didn't speak as he ghosted. He used this time to remember what he'd done that day. Nothing came to mind, but it's like he already knew what he'd done today. Like the memories were present, but not visible. He could recall an instance, but only when provoked. There was another moment of silence as he put his head into his hands and tried to recall everything. But he was shaken awake by another hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, buddy,” Geoff said, giving Ryan two stern pats on his shoulder, “we're gettin’ lunch at that new bar that opened up. You coming?” Ryan looked behind Geoff to see the office chairs empty, and the voices of his colleagues outside the office chatting in the lobby.
“What about the Let’s Play?” Ryan asked, turning off his Xbox and standing up.
“We finished like ten minutes ago.” Geoff said with concern, “You sure you're alright, man?” Ryan thought about the continuity of things and couldn't tell how long he'd been out. He'd only placed his head in his hands right at the beginning of the Let’s Play, and all of a sudden they're getting lunch. After thinking for a few seconds, he had an idea.
“How long was the capture?” Ryan asked, as he squeezed by Geoff and walked out the door into the lobby. Ray, Michael, Gavin, and Jack all had started to head outside through the bright, glass doors of the main entrance to the building. Ryan squinted and shielded his eyes with a raised hand at the abnormally bright sunshine.
“I dunno.” Geoff shrugged, stuffing his hands into his hoodie pockets, “like an hour? Give or take ten minutes.” They pushed open the main doors and walked outside. The light almost seemed to swallow Ryan up. It didn't make sense to Ryan. He died about fifteen minutes in and then left his head in his hands for around forty-five minutes. The only way he could describe it was as such:
He was losing time.
He couldn't consciously comprehend it when he awoke again, but in a circular booth of what seemed to be a bar in downtown Austin. A roast beef sandwich sat in front of him, half eaten, accompanied by a Diet Coke. He sat at the edge of the booth’s seat, the rest of the Achievement Hunters populating the inner workings of the booth. They all seemed to be talking about the rest of the work day. Cracking jokes and having laughs. Everyone had a beer sitting next to their plate, excluding Ryan.
He felt frustrated. His life was just flicking by like PowerPoint slides with no animation. Everything was just...happening. His episodic memory was as if it had a mind of its own. It had to stop, and Ryan knew it. Before he'd know it, in one blink he'd be ninety years old on his deathbed.
“Hey, Ryan,” Ray said, chuckling from his right, “tell everyone what happened this morning when you got out of your car.” The other Achievement Hunters collectively agreed and began to attentively listen to Ryan.
“Uhh, yeah. This morning…” Ryan nearly trailed off, but his mouth was moving on its own now. He could not hear his own voice, but he was telling a story he recalled but could not remember. As he continued telling the story, a smile grew on his face as the story neared its unforeseeable punchline. Everything sounded distant. The noise of the bar, his friends’ laughter after the punchline had been said, his own voice. He felt his eyes get heavier as he closed them to laugh along with his friends.
Ryan knew if he closed his cursed eyes, he'd end up somewhere else, with no clue as to when or where he was. He looked around frantically, trying to find something to anchor him to this moment. Geoff’s curled mustache, Gavin’s comedic nose, Ray’s fingers around his pilsner glass, Jack’s rising and falling beard from laughter, Michael’s abundance of tattoos.
Nothing worked. His auto piloted self continued to laugh and nearly close his eyes to flip to the next time period to slowly lose more control of himself. It all felt like a dream, just outside of comprehension. His cries for help didn't work. His desire for movement was inconsistent with his actual movements.
Inconsistent…, he thought.
He looked once more to his right. A last ditch effort really. Everything was so real. Everything felt as it should.
He seized control, snapping his eyes wide open, stopping his automatic laughter. He released a breath he didn't know he held. His hand, with great speed, gripped Ray’s wrist right next to him. Ray was halfway up with taking another sip of his drink when he was abruptly stopped by a heaving Ryan. Ray jumped in shock and confusion. The noise within the table came to a sudden halt as everyone focused on Ryan’s sudden action. Some of the translucent, gold liquid within Ray’s glass spilled onto the table.
“What the hell, Ryan?” Ray exclaimed, trying to yank his wrist away from Ryan’s grip as best as he could with the large glass still in his hand. Ryan controlled his breaths, still clutching to Ray’s wrist. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and exhaled.
I am awake, aware, and in control.
To respond to Ray, and to the illusion he figured out before him, he opened his eyes and said only one word with a triumphant smirk smeared across his face.
In a flash of the colors of sunset, everything came to him once again. White quickly gave in to the crimson and amber of a setting sun. No longer in the bar, in the office, or in the lobby. He was here, in front of a separate species from when he first joined Sombra. These people were also humanoid, but of a sickly green color. Their skin looked rough but slimy. They gave off a sweet scent, contrasting their hideous look. And Ryan had an axe primed at the neck of a soldier-looking being of the species.
It spoke to Ryan in a language he could not understand. Clicks and alien noises protruded from the being from sources unknown to Ryan. He looked over his shoulder and widened his eyes at the sight. Bodies of the green alien species’ soldiers were strewn about the streets. Smoldering vehicles, absent of wheels using what seemed to be hover technology, lined the streets. These same vehicles seemed to have been blasting buildings on upper floors adjacent to the street. Even in death, the species excreted scents of jasmine that assaulted Ryan’s nostrils.
Was I really this much trouble? Alone?..
When he returned his gaze to the kneeling alien still in front of him, the alien forcefully grabbed the axe. Ryan did not jump, mostly out of shock. The alien pressed the axe into his own neck, making more strange noises to Ryan. A thick, amethyst liquid began seeping from where the axe was digging itself in the aliens neck. Ryan knew what this thing wanted. To join his slain brethren in whatever afterlife these creatures believed in.
Who was Ryan to deny release?
Ryan trekked through the expansive city. He saw more of the aliens, but they seemed to be civilian. As much as he was physically able to kill an armed soldier for no reason now, he couldn't bring it to himself to even lay a finger on this cowering race. His boots made deep reverberations off of the now silent streets. Occasionally, he'd see an alien cross his path.
One such alien froze in fear. Their eyes turned to saucers when in front of Ryan. As Ryan would draw near, that intensely sweet smell continued to rise once again. Keeping eye contact, Ryan passed the alien. Once past his shoulder, Ryan returned his gaze in front of himself. He didn't know if that alien would ever move from that spot.
Ryan had regrouped on the outskirts of the city with the umbrum and changeling armies. The Opal hovered in its place over the encampment. Changelings buzzed about while the umbrums stood around, idle for battle. Ryan searched across the sea of armored ponies until he found who he was looking for.
Ryan began to storm towards Sombra who was off at the edge of the camp. He was too mesmerized by the planet’s horizons, envisioning a world with none of this alien species left alive. Ryan was more than halfway to Sombra’s position when he began to think. Ryan really wanted to give Sombra a piece of his mind for making him an unconscious killing machine. Then again, Ryan had different plans. He smirked, finalizing his plan.
Ryan’s pace slowed from storming stomps to a leisurely stroll. He approached Sombra and stood to his side. Ryan looked out and had to think that this particular planet was absolutely beautiful.
Cascading seas of shimmering teal grass blades, the morning’s few still clinging to the fresh smelling vegetation. Distant spires of a neighboring cite sat patiently in the distant horizon in front of the setting sun. Behind Ryan, the sky took on colors of indigo as the stars began to peek through the intensity of this planet’s twilight. Ryan felt that if he was going to be working with this maniacal stallion, he needed to take in these sights with weight. After all, they're going to wipe it away anyways.
“I see you are back.” Sombra hummed, breaking the silence of their separate admirations.
This better work… Ryan hoped.
“Indeed.” Ryan said darkly. Practice in Let's Plays gave him the ability to sound evil. He never thought it would play such a big role in saving his planet. “However, this planet was hardly a challenge.” Sombra began to chuckle.
“Of course it wasn't. These people are simply sand dunes to be traversed. Nonetheless, they have been vital to fueling these crystals.” He looked towards Ryan. The crystal remained around Ryan’s neck, still feeding him the illusion. Sombra knew it was a sacrifice in his own power, but it ultimately gave him a weapon of military destruction.
“Well then,” Ryan said, drawing his axes, “enough talking. When do we invade the next city?” Sombra smiled widely, enjoying how much control the crystal had over Ryan’s character in such a short amount of time. He deduced that although Ryan himself was powerful, he may have had a weak mind.
“All in good time.”
City after city fell. Ryan did feel stronger. While destroying the planet’s military, Ryan only wanted to channel this raw, primal strength towards Sombra and his armies. In fifteen short minutes, he could lay waste to his now small army of umbrums and changelings. But once up against Sombra, there was no winning. And no doubt Sombra would just go back and destroy everything on Equus anyway.
The army lessened in size and strength. Sombra did not account on multiple planets giving a good fight, killing multiple of both types of soldiers. Each battle was an ultimate victory, but he needed something to bolster his ponies. A new planet had just that bolster.
Implementing the use of “siege vehicles,” as Sombra so called them, his troops were harder to neutralize. With a focusing of fire onto the vehicles, his battalions of umbrums could advance into flanking positions invisible to the main defenses. Once here, the umbrums would attack with ferocity and with the element of surprise. Ryan would lead them into these battles. He tried not to hesitate and the crystal seemed to have made this sort of slaughter easier. But inly from before. Now the crystal hasn’t responded since the illusion it casted was broken. The siege vehicles, Ryan had identified as alien tanks, were invaluable to the conquering of planet after planet.
Ryan was becoming desensitized. He would not fall for foot-in-the-door with Sombra, however. At that moment, he'd blow his cover and attempt to eliminate Sombra. But that moment never came. Every planet was the same as the last: crush the military. Ryan believed it was only a matter of time before the next order would be to kill these unarmed, innocent beings. Sometimes, they ran into entire planet's just like that. No fight, no resistance, and no derogatory statements. Only simple cooperation was shown. Some, in their ignorance, even welcomed Sombra and his armies to their planets.
Ryan could only wonder what happened to these non-combatant prisoners of war. One thing he did know, however, is that Sombra himself was getting stronger and stronger every time the military of a planet is obliterated. The air around Sombra’s presence became more and more suffocating to each new foreign alien species that came into contact with him.
The time hadn't been right, so Ryan would keep biding his time. The moment will present itself. He knew he just had to be patient and stomach the seemingly limitless gloating Sombra forced Ryan to endure.