Normally, ponies wouldn’t be caught dead in the outskirts of Equestria. Then again, neither would an alicorn princess.
“So,” Shining Armor noted as he and Cadence led the group of ponies into the snow. “We formed the Crystal Expeditionary Force to explore the newly restored Crystal Empire before Twilight arrives… why?”
“To get a feel for the land and to ensure that Twilight isn’t walking into anything that’s bigger than she can handle,” Cadence replied. “She and her friends may have managed to beat Chrysalis, Nightmare Moon and Discord, but Chrysalis was only with the aid of the Howlite Howler. If Sombra truly is back…” She peered into the blizzard, and glanced back at their entourage. “I still don’t think it was a good idea for all of you to come here.”
One of the CEF stallions – an orange coated older colt with bright blue hair not dissimilar to Shining’s – tried to crack a grin through his chattering teeth.
“A-After what the nobility nearly got away with?” he asked. “I’d prefer letting the rest of Equus know pony kind isn’t like that.”
“Just don’t assume it’ll be easy,” Shining warned, “There are things out here you really don’t want to run into after dark.”
A younger mare behind them gulped as an ominous howl cut through the air.
“What kind of things?” she asked.
Right on cue, the sky turned black around them.
“Scared, little ponies? You should be.”
From the darkness, there came a familiar dark face. Cadence gasped in horror before her eyes narrowed in determination.
“Sombra,” she snarled, before blasting a beam of magic. The beam cut through his mist, but the dark face simply reformed from the unlimited dark clouds of the storm.
Shining looked around. “Where is the Crystal Empire?!”
“There’s no time!” Cadence cried, as another beam of magic failed to dispel the monster. It drew closer, its growl a mocking laugh…
Until a new barrage of magic managed to clear the clouds faster. With an annoyed roar, Sombra retreated, and the ponies found themselves joined by an odd duo: a pony that shimmered like quartz crystals, and a diamond dog shrouded in sparkling sapphire-studded armor.
The diamond dog made a face at the princess. “You again,” he muttered.
“Diamond Dogs?” Shining Armor asked.
“And that means…” Cadence stepped forward eagerly. “Shiva’s here, is she not?”
The diamond dog hefted his spear in self-defense. “Why you asking?” he growled.
Before Cadence could explain, the clouds began to reform. Sombra’s hiss sounded like a nest of vipers.
“Let’s worry about that later,” the crystal pony said. “We need to get back to the Empire.”
The diamond dog growled unhappily, but led the Equestrians alongside his crystal counterpart. Sombra tried to pursue them, but another blast of magic soared over the CEF’s heads, dissipating the clouds faster than Sombra could summon.
The ponies soon found themselves running through a force field of magic. On the other side, they found it maintained, not by a single being, but by a gathering of crystal ponies, changelings and diamond dogs. Together, they held lit crystal staffs, forming a barricade of magic that kept the dark being at bay.
Cadence gave the magic wielding dogs a glance before turning to her entourage.
“Every pony that can use magic,” she ordered, “Help them maintain the barrier.”
“Wait,” one of the mares asked. “Those are changelings. Aren’t they…?”
“They’re helping maintain the barrier,” Cadence said. “And so should we. Sombra does not get back in here.”
The unicorns in their group nodded, a few rather reluctantly, and joined the barricade. Cadence turned back to the angry looking Diamond dog and his companion.
“I’m Princess Cadence,” she introduced. “And you are?”
“Rose Quartz,” the crystal pony introduced. When the diamond dog just growled, she translated, “He’s Luke.”
“We deeply appreciate your aid,” Cadence replied. “Can you take us to your leaders?”
Before Rose Quartz could speak…
“No need to,” a familiar voice replied. Shiva and a larger changeling appeared down the street. “They’re already here.”
Shining flinched at the sight of the changeling, but Cadence calmed him with a wing on his shoulder. His discomfort was not lost on Shiva, however.
“It know it’s already cold outside, but try to cool it,” Shiva growled. “Princess Scorpia is not with Chrysalis.”
"She's right," Cadence said quickly, smiling at the changeling princess. "That's Princess Scorpia of the Vespin Hive." She bowed. "It's good to finally meet you. Your son was a massive help a few months ago."
Scorpia smiled and inclined her head. “It’s good to see you’ve recovered, Princess," she said with a bow.
Shining glanced between his wife and the changeling, his defensive stance faltering.
“Wish we could say the same,” Cadence added, noticing Shiva’s right claw. Despite being heavily bandaged, Shiva couldn’t hide the chunks of obsidian poking out from along her arm. Noticing their stares, Shiva put it behind her back, her expression giving no indication of any pain she might’ve been feeling.
“I have to say,” Shiva greeted, her ears perked, but her back fur slightly flared. “I… wasn’t expecting to see you so soon.”
“Well… I suppose fate has an odd way of drawing us together,” Cadence replied.
Scorpia nudged Shiva, and the diamond dog lowered her eyes.
“So… about Canterlot…” Shiva started to say, but Cadence brushed her concerns aside.
“It’s in the past,” she assured her. “And right now, we need to focus on Sombra.”
“Right.” Perking up, Shiva motioned for her to follow, the pink alicorn quickly falling in line. “We’ve done a sweep of the castle, but nothing special has cropped up. Sombra’s also cast some sort of spell over the populace – trying to keep them scared and frightened. Even with my pack link, there are still ponies that want to cower and hide. We need some way to bring them all together and combine their magic, otherwise the best we’ll do is just keep Sombra at bay.”
Cadence smiled, though Shining Armor gave Shiva an odd look. “You’re oddly eager to link with ponies now,” he noted.
“Don’t get the wrong impression,” Shiva warned, her voice darkening. “I’m still not sure what to think about all of pony kind, but I’m not an idiot.” She indicated the city. “These ponies were all abused by this ‘King Sombra.’ They have the magic to repel him, but they need something... closer to home to rally them all together.” She looked down. “And using force makes me no better than Sombra.”
Shining Armor and Cadence glanced at each other with grins. Though they were quick to hide their grins when Shiva turned to the others.
“Do you have any knowledge on the Crystal Empire itself?”
“Defenses? Countermeasures?” Scorpia added.
“Sadly, not so much,” Cadence admitted. “The Crystal Empire was taken long before either of us were born.”
Shiva paused. “Taken?”
“King Sombra,” Shining Armor explained. “That shadow out there? He took over the Crystal Empire, and even though Princess Celestia and Princess Luna managed to banish him to the artic north, he managed to curse the Empire so that it vanished along with him.”
Scorpia huffed. “The stallion’s a sore loser. He decided that if he couldn’t have it, no one could.”
“Pretty much,” Cadence agreed with a shrug.
“Well, his time is over,” Shining declared. “Twilight Sparkle and the Elements of Harmony aren’t far behind us. And together, we’ll be able to find some way for the Empire to be protected without outside magic.”
Despite his news perking up Cadence, Rose and even Scorpia, Shiva and Luke’s ears flattened at the mention of the lavender mare. She picked up her pace, following a scent trail to a larger gem studded building shaped like a book.
“Well, if my intelligence expert is as good as I think he is,” Shiva said. “We won’t need Twilight. He’ll have all the information we need as soon as I open this…”
She yanked open the library door just in time for Skippy to nearly crash into her.
“Alpha!” he greeted. “I have all the information we need on how to save the Empire.”
Shiva smiled, wishing she had the social immaturity to grin smugly at Cadence and Shining Armor.
“…door,” she finished.
“The Crystal Faire,” Skippy read from the topmost book he had. “According to this book, it was established by their first Queen, and became their most important tradition. The faire renewed the spirit of love and unity in the empire so they could protect it from harm.”
“That sounds pretty promising,” Shining Armor noted.
Shiva’s brow furrowed. “There’s a page missing from here,” she noted, checking the page next to it. “Something about a ‘Crystal Heart.’” She turned to Rose. “Is that like a relic or something?”
Rose rubbed her head, wincing as Sombra's spell tried to instill fear in her mind, but a touch from Shiva helped her gather her strength.
“Yes,” she admitted. “The whole point of the Crystal Faire is to lift the spirits of the Crystal Ponies, so the light within can power the Crystal Heart and protect the Empire.”
Luke gasped. “That explains why the gems around here were capable of absorbing Alpha Shiva's magic,” he realized in glee. “The Crystal Heart enchanted them.”
“But where is the Crystal Heart itself?” Cadence asked. “The gems around it might be powerful, but the Crystal Heart itself would be a perfect rallying point for the ponies.”
Rose wilted again. “King Sombra… he said he’d hidden it away where we would never see it again.” She looked down in horror. “Oh, no… we’ll never find it again…”
“Stop it,” Shiva growled. “We are going to find it. It’s just going to take some time.”
“Don’t forget,” Cadence assured the crystal pony. “Twilight Sparkle is on her way. If there’s any pony that can crack this case, it’s her.”
The ponies perked up in happiness, even as Shiva wilted in anguish, trying to cover it with a shake of her fur.
“Even if she is,” she declared. “We can’t just sit around waiting for her. We should at least make an effort to find it ourselves.” She turned to Skippy. “Skippy, tell me you have some idea where the heart could be hidden.”
Skippy blinked, surprised at the subtle tone of desperation in Shiva’s voice, but composed himself before the others could notice.
“Well,” he pointed out. “If Sombra was anything like Queen Chrysalis, then he most likely hid it in the castle.” He pointed. “There’s no way his subjects would dare go looking in his home court.”
“Brilliant, Skippy,” Shiva said, before turning to the others. “Cadence, you and the non-unicorns are free to search the castle with me.” She gave Shining Armor a disapproving glance. “You, uh… go help Luke and the others with the barricade.”
Shining Armor snorted in indignation, but Cadence put a hoof on his shoulder.
“She’s right, Shining,” she said. “Your protection spells would be perfect for the main barriers.”
Slightly sated, but still casting a suspicious look at Shiva, Shining cantered back to the Empire’s borders, while the others headed towards the castle.
“Alright, Crystal Heart,” Shiva growled as she pushed the doors open. “Where are you?”
After an hour of searching, not a single pony, changeling or diamond dog had found even a small clue to the whereabouts of the Crystal Heart. Though they took the bad news with varying shades of disappointment, Shiva’s reaction put them all to shame.
“Where did you put it, you SMOKE-BREATHING WHORSE?!” Shiva howled, her voice echoing through the castle, along with the sound of her blasting at the throne with her magic. By the time Skippy found her in the throne room, the throne was glowing from the magic she had blasted at it.
“Shiva, easy,” Skippy said as he raced in. “What’s the matter?”
“If I have to stand aside and let that idiotic purple mare solve this thing before me,” Shiva growled, keeping her voice down so that Cadence or the other ponies didn't hear her. “Not only would I probably have to give this place up as Outer Haven’s capital, but she’ll probably get to hold it over my head as a sign that ponies ‘aren’t as bad as I think they are.’”
Skippy blinked. “Well… are they? You got along alright with Spike and Applejack. Even Fluttershy seemed really eager to win your favor.”
“I know!” Shiva admitted. “But their friends?” Her ears flattened at the thought of Rainbow Dash and Rarity. “I don’t need them rubbing it in my face that I needed their help.”
“I’m pretty sure the others would stop them,” Skippy pointed out.
Shiva sighed. “Doesn't stop Twilight and the rest of her nosy dominant desperate-to-be-the-good-guy species aggravating me to no end!”
As she spoke, the throne… flashed. Shiva and Skippy froze, watching as a crystal on top of the throne briefly shined a cold, evil black.
Shiva tilted her head, before turning her eyes on her bandaged arm. As the crystal pulsed, the obsidian embedded in her arms pulsed as well. And they pulsed in tune with Shiva's throbbing frustration at having to rely on Twilight for help.
Shiva’s ears perked. With a thoughtful hum, she lifted her damaged arm up to the crystals. As another pulse ran through both, she experimentally focused on her anger towards Twilight, before shooting a burst of magic into the crystal.
Instantly, a shadow crept across the floor. Shiva and Skippy wisely jumped out of its way, before the shadow darkened the floor between them.
No, Shiva realized. Not darkened; it’s way too dark for a shadow. The floor had instead been opened into a pit. Dark stairs led deep into the darkness.
Shiva growled, before descending into the darkness, Skippy right behind her.
“Alpha,” he warned. “You shouldn’t go it alone.”
“Definitely not,” Shiva agreed. “Come with me. And let the others know through the pack link.”
Nodding, Skippy sent the message into a bolt of light that shot away to warn the others, before following Shiva down. Despite her agreeing to telling the others, she still raced dangerously fast down the stairs. The thought of Twilight and her friends showing up; smugly figuring out what had evaded Shiva for far too long, and then beating Sombra and forcing the dogs to leave this wonderful city of gems. All these thoughts drove Shiva deeper and deeper into the pit.
Until, finally, the stairs ended. Shiva found herself at the very bottom of the pit; the only way forward through an elaborate door with a similar crystal on top. Focusing once again on her grudge with the ponies, Shiva flared up the dark magic in her obsidian stricken arm, and the crystal responded, opening up to a gateway shrouded in light.
“This way,” Shiva said.
“Shiva, wait!” Skippy yelled. “WAIT!”
But Shiva didn’t listen. She raced through the doorway… and promptly ran into the bars of a cage.
Shiva’s fur paled to a ghostly white. “No…” she whimpered, backing away, only to run into another pair of bars.
She was back in a cage. Ponies were surrounding the outside. Beast Breaker, the fatal wounds she had inflicted on him oozing ink-like blood. Rainbow Dash, grinning maliciously. Twilight, standing further back with a quill and notepad in hand. And Luna, in the nightmarish visage of Nightmare Moon.
“No, how did…” Shiva stammered, trying to flare her magic. But her magic didn’t come to her. When she looked down, manacles bound her claws and neck. “No…” she whimpered, looking up.
But the lashes didn’t descend. Instead, Twilight opened the door, and the ponies changed; Fluttershy, Applejack and Spike beckoned her forth. Offering her the key to her manacles. A crown of solid gold.
But when Shiva started to approach…
She spun around, to find Luke and the diamond dogs chained and pleading with her.
“Don’t leave us, Shiva!” Luke pleaded.
“You can’t do this, Shiva!” a chained down Skippy begged. “Please!”
But when Shiva tried to go back for them, a leash materialized around her neck. She was yanked to all fours. And as she looked up, she saw Applejack, still smiling, but the crown was changed to a collar and leash. And as Shiva hesitated, Luna, Twilight and Rainbow Dash all began to draw closer with their whips.
“It’s us or them, Shiva.”
“You can’t do this, Shiva!”
“Shiva-Shiva-Shiva!” Their voices mixed together into an ear-splitting chant.”
“STOP!” Shiva begged.
“Shiva… Alpha Shiva, snap out of it!”
A claw slashed into her cheek, snapping her out of the vision. Shiva scrambled back from the door, a bolt of lightning flying through the now open gateway. Claws gripped her, and at first, she tried to fight. But thankfully, she recognized Skippy before she could hurt him.
“Shiva, easy…” he said soothingly. “It’s okay.”
Shiva slumped into his arms, burying her head in her claws. “Curse it…” she swore. “Curse it all to Tartarus…”
Skippy gave a sour look at the innocent looking crystal above. “King Sombra’s dark magic,” he explained. “A doorway that leads to your worst fears.”
Shiva took a deep breath, but her claws wouldn’t stop shaking. She lowered them with a sigh.
“This is why I don’t want Twilight here, Skippy,” she admitted. “I’ve tried to move past it; I’ve tried to forgive.” Her face hardened. “But I still hate them so much.”
“Easy,” Skippy soothed, smoothing Shiva’s fur back down. “Hate isn’t going to keep us safe. Hate only risks conflict with the ponies who are actually good; who truly care about others.”
“Yeah,” she admitted.
“The Crystal Ponies went through the exact thing Beast Breaker did to you,” Skippy assured her. “They don’t deserve hate.”
“Right,” Shiva said, lifting her head. “So, let’s find the Crystal Heart,” she declared. “And make sure Sombra never gets to enslave them – or us – again.”
Skippy smiled at her words, and helped her up. Together, they strode through the gateway, only to find stairs waiting for them. Miles and miles of stairs.
But stairs were nothing to the memory of the cage. And thus, cricking her neck, Shiva hopped onto the first of the stairs, and began to ascend.