Sombra sat atop his dark throne, staring out over his Empire, slowly clicking his armored hoof against the armrest of his chair. Before him, the room was empty save for sterile crystal and his impeccable steward.
“...and the report indicates that the N-series heavy weaponized golems have completed production. I have scheduled an inspection tomorrow at three. If you deem them suitable, I will have them added to the roster for the upcoming military parade. Additionally, production of thrall masks is up thirty percent, although armor is lagging with the current steel embargo.”
“It is of little relevance. Soldiers are expendable. Redirect our steel supplies into the next series of golems.”
“Of course, my liege, it will be done.”
“And the crystal mines?”
“The addition of new encouragement spells has increased productivity four percent. However, tunnel expansion is hindered by the archaeological expedition- -”
“The archaeological expansion is non-negotiable. Let him dig. With any luck, he shall find his own crystal vein.”
“I will inform the engineers. Additionally, with the capture and imprisonment of Edwin the Goat, the Dark Thirteen are currently short a member.”
Sombra sighed. “Then we can begin the recruitment trials. As soon as possible.”
“I have already identified several candidates. Necrophilo of Canterlot has suggested one of his own students as well.”
“She will be tested with the others. I cannot give preference. If she survives, perhaps.” Sombra shifted position and stood. “I have research of my own to attend to. I will be in the library. Unless you have anything further?”
The steward paused, and braced herself. “There is one more thing I would like to speak with you about, sire.”
“And it is?”
“Word of the birth of your daughter has been spreading through the Empire. The peasantry are whispering about a crystalling.”
Sombra paused. “A what?”
“Crystalling is an ancient Crystal Empire ritual that was practiced until you restricted access to the Heart of Darkness. It is a birth-celebration.”
“I have no need for such a thing. Neither does the alicorn.” Sombra began walking, but his steward caught up to him.
“Sire. The cystalling is a critical cultural ritual, especially for the daughter of a king. There have been rumblings. You know this. Despite our best efforts, ponies continue to challenge your legitimacy to the throne. You are not yourself a crystal pony.”
“I am aware of this. Are you implying I should acquiesce to dissenters?”
“I am implying that morale is dropping. The loyalty of the thralls is absolute, but we cannot support an army if the peasantry is not productive.”
“I am not one of them, steward. I do not intend to act like I am. I am many things, but I am not dishonest. Fear is enough to motivate them.”
“There is an additional potential benefit. Supposedly, the crystalling ceremony increases the output of the Heart of Darkness.”
Sombra stopped walking. “And is this more than a simpleminded folk tradition?”
“I cannot ascertain that. I myself am not a crystal pony. However, despite our best efforts, the power output has been dropping for the last several decades.”
Sombra was silent for a time. “Prepare a detailed description of the ceremony, and cross-reference it with our library. Determine if Twilight Luciferian or Gxurab Al’Hrabnaz have any additional notes in their personal libraries. Have it delivered to my study by sunset.”
“It will be done, my king.” The steward bowed deeply. “Although if I may, the crystalling ceremony requires the participation of a crystaller. I would suppose you would want to give the honor to Twilight Luciferian. Should I also confer about his upcoming schedule?”
“No.” Sombra continued walking. “It was Crozea who dared to plead for the girl’s life. If I decide the pointless ritual is worthwhile, have her do it.”
The steward bowed again. “Yes, my liege.”
The notes were compiled, collated, and assembled with all the skill and organization that could be expected from a former master sorceress. Sombra took them into consideration and made his decision.
Preparations were made. The event was intended to be simple; far less effort was put into it than the far more important military parade or the next upcoming conscription event. Despite this, the crowds that gathered on that day were more immense than anypony had ever imagined. The crystal ponies present were dull and gray, barely able to stand, let alone cheer, but they still came for their allotted half-hour away from work to witness the event. For the first time in centuries, a spark of excitement ran through the crowd of slaves.
They were held back from the citadel by an army of thralls and F-type golems, on pain of a thorough poking with a crystal spear. Only a select few were allowed to assemble in the square beneath the Citadel. Not that normal ponies could have approached anyway. Few could withstand the waves of pure fear emanating from the Heart of Darkness.
A few of the Dark Thirteen had gathered. The group consisted of those who had been in the kingdom and had bothered to attend. Twilight Luciferian, ever curious, had come, as had Crozea, if only by order. Luciferian had dressed in his formal officer coat for the occasion, while Crozea had donned special robes and decorative golden armor for the event- -as well as a new kind of mask.
There were others. Standing disturbingly still and apart from the others was a unicorn mare clad in several layers of red, all held together with numerous clasps and buckles. Her face was covered by a disturbing mask not too unlike those that the thralls wore. Across the way stood Necrophilo of Canterlot, an immensely tall and withered unicorn with empty, yellowed eyes and a long beard. As always, his ridiculously long legs were obscured with robes. Near him, hiding in the darkest corner of one of the Citadel’s support struts, the air was filled with a clock-like ticking and the sound of raven’s wings fluttering.
Then Sombra approached. Beside him, a crystal mare pushed held the unnamed newborn; she had to grit her teeth against the waves of energy coming from the cursed Heart. Sombra did not notice; at no point did he ever escape the energy that gave him his immortality.
A gray earth-stallion approached him from his left. His clothes were shabby, save for a scabbard he wore on his back which was immaculately clean. “M- -Mr. king? I did what you said. I found the most pure crystal available. He’s very happy to be part of the crystalline, too.”
The stallion held up a pure white crystal. Sombra took one look at it before anyone could even move had struck the gray stallion so hard across the jaw that he went sprawling. The crystal fell, but was caught by a puff of red magic.
“Idiot,” snapped Sombra. “This crystal could power a collision cannon capable of obliterating an entire division of enemy soldiers. I will NOT waste it on something this pointless.”
Twilight Luciferian approached. “I thought something like this might happen,” he said. He produced a crystal from his uniform pocket. “So I produced this.” He held up his own crystal in his violet magic. It was pure black.
“It’s carbanado,” he said. “Black diamond. Pure carbon. You’ll never guess where I got that carbon form. Or how much screaming was involved.”
“It will be adequate.” Sombra took the crystal and gave the other to Luciferian. “Take this one. Do not let the earth-pony have it. No matter how much he begs.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Sombra nodded and continued to the center of the ceremony, the lower aspect of the Citadel where his Heart of Darkness was located. It was where the machines converged: the tubes, pipes and conduits of the Citadel, overgrown with red crystal, reaching down from every direction in a mass of dark metal and wire that formed the clasp in which the Heart was held stationary. The Heart itself was a sight to behold: a heart-shaped piece of black crystal, glowing deep within its facets with a sinister red glow as energy was pumped into it by the Citadel transceiver.
The child was directed toward Crozea, while Sombra stopped to admire the machine that ensured both his rule and his immortality. As he watched it, he heard a familiar infernal ticking. Something scuttled toward him in the shadows, although it would not leave them, afraid even of the dim Crystal Empire sunlight. Afraid to stand in Celestia’s sun.
“Al’Hrabnaz,” said Sombra, looking down at the thing that was almost a pony. Whatever it was, it disgusted even him, although he understood its immense value. While it had four legs, it was flattened, like an insect, and perpetually dressed in a combination of heavy pressurized armor and black robes trimmed with feathers. As almost always, several ravens perched on his shoulders. A strange circle of unidentifiable metal ticked away perpetually on the stallion’s chest. “Have the systems been prepared?”
The creature’s mask hissed, and his rasping, heavily-accented voice came through. “They have,” he wheezed. “All of the machinery is in order and set to accept divergent parameters from the Core. Buffers and bypass valves have also been prepared.”
“And how do you feel about this? You understand my machines perhaps even better than I do.”
“Your decision is law, my lord. I trust you absolutely.”
Sombra smiled. “If this goes well, I will double your monthly allotment of test subjects.”
“My lord. You are too generous, but I thank you.” The creature bowed, but still did not depart the shadows. His ravens stared dubiously at Sombra, watching.
Across the way, the child was brought to Crozea. Crozea, though she had defended the child, was still apprehensive about this process. Unlike the others, she understood the value of rituals like this, and knew that a ritual such as this was far from her specialty- -and as important as it was dangerous if it went awry.
Yet it had been her orders. She looked over her shoulder at Sombra, now a father, a perfect stallion with a thick raven-black mane clad in red and iron. Something felt warm within her, even against the alien cold of the North. Her resolved was strengthened.
The nurse gave her the child. She felt oddly light. Crozea held her, and was reminded of several horrible memories. Of zebra children who by her work had never had this chance. Whose sacrifice she told herself had been necessary.
She held the child above her head. The crowd cheered in joy- -until the blanket fell away and the girl’s wings spread. Then the crowd’s eyes widened, and they gasped, recoiling from the sight of an abomination. Behind her, Crozea could feel the Heart of Darkness beating faster, absorbing their fear and amplifying it a thousandfold. In that moment, she understood what Sombra had intended, and what this child meant to him.
“Citizens of the Empire, who have gathered below the Crystal Spire!” she shouted. “I bring you this child, born of horn and wing, sired by our eternal king! A child born for conquest and to destroy, and in both to bring our kingdom righteous joy! Remember her, beneath this tower, and beware to never forget the Witchking’s POWER!”
Sombra approached her from behind and levitated a black crystal. Crozea did not even need to look at it to sense its origin, and the price that Twilight Luciferian’s own daughter had paid.
The child smiled, and she felt warm in Crozea’s hooves. Energy began to emanate from her, moving into the black crystal. The ritual had commenced, and in that moment Corzea knew that something had already gone horribly wrong.
The crystal began to grow. Not red or black, but with blinding white energy. The darkness within it cleared and it changed form, assuming a perfect structure with absolute clarity. Sombra stepped back, his pupils narrowing with concern.
Then in an instant it shot backward toward the Heart, merging with it an in instant.
“Something’s wrong!” screamed a voice in all of their heads. “SOMETHING’S WRONG!”
The blackness of the Heart began to fade and wither. It started to move, attempting to tear itself free of its support clasp as white energy began to pour from it.
Sombra looked on in horror. “Al’Hrabnaz!”
The black pony began to wildly twist the gears of the device in his chest. “Power output is increasing by an order of magnitude- -three orders of magnitude- -ten!”
“I can’t! The support infrastructure is overloading!”
The Heart of Darkness suddenly erupted in a plume of blinding white energy, vaporizing the machinery that was supposed to be required for it to operate. Al’Hrabnaz leapt form his shadow and onto Sombra, pressing the dial in his chest as he did. The gears within it engaged and a yellow shield bubble erupted around them both. Despite the protection, as soon as the white light passed them Sombra lapsed into unconsciousness.
The bubble expanded outward exponentially, forcing the members of the Dark Thirteen it touched back. When it reached the edge of the crowd, the ponies it touched change. The masks fell from the thralls, and the crystal ponies ignited with light, their bodies becoming translucent. For the first time in anypony’s memory, they smiled, their energy and happiness suddenly restored. They began to cheer.
Twilight Luciferian had been knocked back by the expanding sphere, but he had not been dazed enough to not see the catastrophe that was on the verge of occurring. He planted his hooves and summoned fifty four simultaneous interlocked spells, directing all of his energy into stopping the expansion of the light-bubble.
“NECROPHILO! SCARLET! We have to stop it!”
The other two mages nodded and planted their feet. Necrophilo’s horn glowed with a putrid green light and Scarlet Mist’s with crimson energy. The three of them braced themselves against the sphere, forcing their combined magical strength into it.
The expansion slowed, and finally stopped, although the force required to do so was immense. Necrophilo was straining and sweating, and Twilight Luciferian could not believe that he had encountered a magical force so overwhelmingly powerful. He suddenly understood Sombra significantly better, and a smile began to cross his face.
Scarlet Mist’s magic expanded, expanding into a great claw of red light. She took a step forward, and the bubble contracted.
“Scarlet! What are you doing?!”
“We cannot hold it forever. I’m using too much power. We have to hurry!”
She summoned even more energy and took another step forward. This one was stronger, and the bubble was pushed back even farther. Twilight Luciferian altered the parameters of his spell, assisting as best as he could. After several hundred calculations in a matter of seconds, he found a combination that seemed to be effective. As he did, he saw a gray earth-pony with a scabbard trying to sneak away.
“HOLDER!” he screamed. “DO SOMETHING!”
The earth-pony looked at him in shock. “This isn’t exactly...um...my area of expertise.”
“He doesn’t mean YOU, you idiot,” snapped Scarlet Mist. “He means the other one!”
Scarlet Mist suddenly took a step back. As she did, one of her rear legs turned to dust. She fell, still managing to hold the bubble, although it grew by several feet.
“My body! I can’t hold it!”
Inside the bubble, Crozea looked out, still holding the alicorn child. The child looked out at the happy ponies around her, and smiled.
The bubble suddenly increased in power. Scarlet Mist roared, trying to keep it back, but her body was already starting to collapse. Her ribs were exposed, and the rest of her was quickly becoming dust. Then, in an instant, her body decayed into a pile of ash and bone. Her red mask fell to the ground.
The bubble expanded. Necrophilo and Twilight could not hold it and were overwhelmed.
For a moment, time seemed to slow. Twilight tried to adjust his spells, but nothing was proving effective. As he desperately tried to compensate, he felt a soft hoof on his shoulder. He involuntarily turned, and found himself staring into the pupilless red eyes of a yellow pony.
“Is it finally time?” she asked. She tapped the long boot he wore. “It wouldn’t even be hard. Come on. Don’t you want to be a hero?”
Twilight smiled. “No.”
He dropped his spells and was thrown back. Necrophilo was completely overwhelmed and his spells broken.
The bubble began to expand. As it did, matter condensed beside it. A body formed from the void, and a pony clad in white appeared. Without a word, he slammed himself against the bubble, and with his single blow it collapsed and vanished. The Heart of Darkness stopped revolving and fell to the floor. The pony in white saw this, and without a word faded back to where he had come from.