Shining Armor galloped down the spiral staircase, partly wishing he’d taken up Cadence’s offer to simply teleport him outside. The guard running behind him certainly seemed to wish he had, given his growing pants of exhaustion as he worked to keep up.
“So, tell me again what the guard reported?” Shining asked as the pair neared the bottom of the stairs.
“The guards stationed at the southernmost outpost were missing when Sky High and his CO were patrolling nearby,” the guard said. “His CO told him to report back here while he checked it out. Sky started flying back here, when he heard his CO… screaming…”
Shining grimaced. “Alright… I’ll debrief him, have the Diamond Guard organize a defense around the edge of the city, have all those stationed at the remaining perimeter outposts recalled back here, and have all civilians lock themselves indoors. We’re not taking any chances with this… whatever it is.”
The pair finally reached the bottom of the stairwell and hurried out the door, emerging from one of the structural supports at the base of the Palace, surrounding the Crystal Heart. The orange glow of the setting sun, while quite pleasing to look at, carried a sense of foreboding for Shining; it would be dark soon. If the Empire was truly under attack, its attackers would have the cover of night on their side. The guard quickly spread his wings and took flight towards the Diamond Guard barracks, while Shining approached a cluster of guards huddled near the Heart. They were surrounding, and restraining, a pegasus guard, who was struggling valiantly against them.
“Lemme go!!” Sky High barked desperately. “Lemme go, I gotta get back to him!! I should’ve gone back right then!! I shouldn’t have left him!!”
“Easy, soldier, easy!!” Shining said as he approached. The guards made way for him to put his hooves on Sky High’s quavering shoulders. Shining lit his horn, just in case, and spoke in as calming a tone as he could manage. “Listen to me, okay? Everything’s gonna be fine, you need to just tell us what happened… Where were the guards at the outpost? What happened to your commanding officer?”
Sky made to keep struggling, but quickly relented under Shining’s firm hold. “W-We… Sergeant Aero, he… he saw that the outpost was empty—at which point we knew something was up, since there’s always a patrol marching along the base of those towers… He told me that we didn’t wanna take any chances, said he’d check it out and told me to report back here… Which I was fine with, until… Until I heard him… heard him screaming… barely twenty seconds later!!”
Sky put his face in his hooves. “I left him… I should’ve gone back, I should’ve gone back right then!! Why did I leave him?!”
“Hey! Hey!!” Shining said loudly, shaking Sky by the shoulders, none-too-roughly. “Listen to me… You did good coming back here, and I’m sure Aero would agree; we have a chance to organize a defense against whatever’s happening. We’re gonna figure out what’s going on, alright?”
Sky relaxed somewhat, a mixture of both doubt and hope in his eyes, before nodding. Shining looked up to one of the other guards. “Get him to the infirmary, have somepony give him something to calm his nerves.” The guard gave a quick salute before taking Sky High in a gentle but firm wing-hold and pulling him towards one of the doors leading into the Palace.
Shining turned towards the remaining soldiers. “Listen up! While the defense of the city is organized, I’ll be leading Amethyst Company towards the southern perimeter to investigate. Emerald Company is going to split into three groups to ensure the same thing hasn’t happened to the other outposts, and to ensure those stationed there withdraw safely.”
“What about the Crystal Heart, sir?” One soldier asked, gesturing with his wing towards the slowly rotating artifact sitting upon its pedestal.
Shining shook his head. “Whatever’s happening can’t be bad enough to justify falling on it so quickly. We won’t be scared into using it.”
A low, booming laugh made Shining’s insides freeze. He slowly turned around, seeing nothing but the street behind him, quickly emptying itself of the ponies still hurrying to their homes.
The stone sundered in front of him with a loud ‘crack’. A pitch black crystal, as sharp as a dagger, rose from the crumbling ground and split down the middle like an egg. From within, a twisting black substance spilled out of the shell, swirling and shaping itself as the laughter grew in volume. Shining took a step back, caught off guard by the display before him.
The substance took the shape of a black pony, a unicorn, with piercing red eyes and a cruel, fanged mouth, grinning hungrily.
The ash-creature stared maliciously at Shining and chuckled. “Greetings… my prince.”
“Sombra…” Shining whispered. He quickly gathered himself and ducked into a defensive stance, horn flaring brightly. The guards behind him quickly held their spears, balanced upon their wings, and pointed them at Sombra.
Sombra gave them a single glance before frowning, unamused. Several tentacles suddenly sprang out from his back, flew past Shining and struck the guards, sending them flying back and their spears clattering to the ground. Before the guards hit the ground, they began screaming in blind terror, their eyes glazed over and their legs thrashing violently.
Shining could only give it a single, horrified glance before turning back towards Sombra with a furious scowl…
The tendrils suddenly combined into one that wrapped itself tightly around Shining’s throat, lifting him in the air as Sombra approached. The former King was smiling, clearly enjoying himself. “Your time has been enjoyable, I hope?” He asked casually. “Sitting atop my throne?”
Shining lit his horn and fired a blast into Sombra’s face; his features distorted for a moment, but quickly reformed, Sombra seeming unphased by the attack.
Shining put his confusion as to what Sombra had become, out of his mind for now. He kept struggling in Sombra’s grip, scowling at the monster. “You… lost…” Shining spat. “The Empire… doesn’t… fear you… anymore…”
To his surprise, Sombra nodded in a conceding manner. “Perhaps you’re right, Armor… In your victory, you’ve given the Empire hope… You’ve shown them that they need no longer fear the King they’ve known…”
Sombra turned Shining towards the Crystal Heart as he approached it, his mouth almost watering at the sight of it. The Heart, as though sensing the threat, began spinning faster, a soft ringing emanating from it.
“What’re you…” Shining said, only to be cut off by the tendril tightening further.
Sombra gave him another sneer before extending a single, small tendril towards the Heart. The tendril was stopped by a barrier of light that flickered into existence a few inches from the Heart, but only momentarily. The barrier quickly blackened from the touch and melted away, leaving the Heart exposed.
Shining heard ponies yelling behind him. He turned his head as much as he could to see a number of pegasi in the distance, taking flight from the streets and soaring towards them.
Shining dared to hope they could reach them.
“But of course…” Sombra said. “I am not the King they’ve known…”
The tendril touched the Heart; the Heart froze as the tendril suddenly pierced it, flooding it with the black essence and sending arcs of black energy from it. The ground beneath the pedestal began to glow a deep, blood red, and the ground began to rumble ominously.
The guards were mere seconds away, now. Shining wanted to shout to them, either words of encouragement or advice against whatever darkness Sombra now controlled.
“I am much worse.” Sombra said.
A wave of black energy suddenly pulsed from the Heart, and Shining blacked out.
I sat on my bed, wrapped in a blanket and staring blankly at the floor. I was feeling numb, and not from getting used to being human again; Luna had cast a spell on me, mainly used on those just freed from some form of petrification, to help loosen their stiffened muscles. I still moved rather stiffly, but I could stand again.
I felt like I was going to be ill… Part of me was happy that I was proven innocent, but it was drowned out by the pain of knowing that I, however inadvertently, had doomed this world… simply by being here. Alongside that was the pain of knowing that Luna had betrayed me… I knew she and Celestia had been used, mislead... I knew they wouldn’t have done this if they knew the truth… Yet a stubborn part of me didn’t want to forgive them; it kept asking how Luna could believe Celestia’s accusations, how she could question how I truly felt for her, how she could believe that all the time we’d spent together was meaningless… Try as I might, I couldn’t be angry at Luna, though; it was clear that it hurt her to play her part in the trap, and even more to see that she was wrong…
Celestia, on the other hand… I’d made my own share of mistakes, I’d done what I could to make up for them… yet it hadn’t been enough for her. I took a small amount of pleasure in internally raging against Celestia, furious at her stubborn refusal to see me as anything other than a monster. I wanted to confront her, to yell, scream at her, for not giving me a real chance to earn her trust, for being so quick to suspect me in the attacks on her subjects that she didn’t see the puppet strings until it was too late...
Yet at the same time, after seeing Sombra, I could understand… I could see how such a true, legitimate monster could make her so wary of someone like me… I could see how she would be so blinded to any other perspective, for fear of history repeating itself.
Understanding, however, doesn’t always bring forgiveness. Betrayal can be hard to look past, in any circumstance.
After Sombra’s flight from the castle, Celestia had stiffly penned a letter to Twilight, asking her to bring the Elements of Harmony to Canterlot, before retiring to her chambers. Luna had ordered the Royal Guard to prepare Canterlot’s defenses against the Crystal Empire, to the north; Sombra had made it clear that the Empire was his first target, and by the time a proper offensive could be mounted, he would likely be well-entrenched… And with the mass at his disposal, combined with the hellish powers he already wielded, no one knew what to expect. Guards had argued that a warning should be sent to the Empire, but Luna quickly deemed it hopeless; they had no pegasi who could hope to get a message to the Empire before Sombra could lay claim to it. On top of that, they couldn’t send a letter to someone she called “Princess Cadence” via magic, like they could with Spike in Ponyville.
All we could do for the Empire, it seemed, was hope—or pray—for the best.
As the corridors became congested with guards, running about and preparing every possible defense, Luna had brought me to my room. Neither of us spoke as we walked; I’d kept one of Luna’s blankets wrapped around me tightly, focusing on keeping myself covered rather than think about what had happened barely ten minutes ago. Once we reached the door to my room, I’d simply entered, shut and locked the door behind me without so much as a backwards glance. I heard Luna linger outside my room for a few moments before walking away.
An hour passed—almost in the blink of an eye. I found myself dipping into pure despair once again; I cursed myself for messing with that canister four years ago, for deciding to become an MHA, for being so stupid with the Rift and ultimately dooming this world… I cursed Sombra, cursed Celestia for being so… so damn stupid about it all… And I cursed myself… for letting myself get so attached to this world… to Luna… that this betrayal would sting all the worse.
I gave a shuddering breath, blinking back tears. In the entire time I’d been in Equestria, I’d never wanted to go home this bad…
There was a knock at the door. I didn’t respond, hoping whoever was knocking would either get the hint, or at least assume I wasn’t in.
Another knock; this time the door opened slowly. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Tea Tray peeking through the crack. “...D-Dread?” She asked softly.
“...Hey, Tray…” I mumbled, not looking up at her as I heard her enter the room.
Tray was silent for a time; I could feel her gaze, examining me closely before giving a quick cough. “Dread, the… The Princesses have… requested your presence, in the throne room.”
I didn’t move. I didn’t want to see them. I was worried about what I’d do if I saw them, so soon after their deceit.
I heard Tea Tray approach tentatively. “Dread?” She asked softly.
“It’s Joel…” I muttered. When she didn’t respond, I met her confused gaze. “My name, it’s… actually ‘Joel’. ‘Dread’ was just an… alias, you know?” My gaze fell to my hand. “It just… doesn’t apply anymore. I’m just… Joel.”
Tea Tray approached the foot of the bed, laying a hoof on the edge. “I heard what happened… Everypony’s scared out of their wits right now…”
“And you’re not?” I asked dully.
“Oh, I’m terrified…” She replied, a shudder running down her back. “I’m worried about what could be coming from up north… Thankfully, nopony outside the castle knows about it, otherwise Canterlot would be tearing itself apart before Sombra could have the pleasure… But I am scared, Dr--,” she caught herself. “Joel. I’m scared for my home, my friends… my son…”
I looked up at her again; she was looking at me, her eyes filled with despair, yet a dash of hope as well. “...Joel, what’s going to happen?” She asked softly.
I could practically see the truth, written flatly on a dull piece of paper in my mind; ‘Sombra’s gonna conquer the Crystal Empire, use whatever power there to march south and conquer the rest of Equestria, plunging its denizens into their deepest, darkest nightmares, and there’s little to no hope of stopping him.’
Yet the look in Tea Tray’s eyes… I’d seen it plenty of times. It was the look of someone being held hostage, looking to you, silently begging you to save them from the madman pressing the gun to their head. The look of a friend who had a fear, held deeply within, that was slowly eating away at them, and who needed your comforting words to put them at ease.
It was a plea for me to give her a reason not to just… give up.
I stood up shakily, walked over to Tea Tray, knelt down and hugged her tightly. “We’ll do everything we can to make it right…” I whispered. “I promise.”
Tea Tray sniffled and hugged me back.
I stood the doors to the throne room, the blanket still wrapped around me like some very crude robe; the usual guards on either side of the enormous doors were gone, likely drafted in the defense of Canterlot. I’d heard that the city proper was told this was a simple drill, to keep the guard’s senses sharp in the event of another attack, like the changeling invasion from two years ago.
I considered knocking only after I’d opened the door and entered, leaving it hanging slightly ajar behind me. I’d been in the throne room a few times in the past month, but never at times where Celestia was holding an audience with someone, whether they were a noble or one of her subjects. The room was basically your average, grandly designed throne room; the walls were lined with a series of stained glass windows, each depicting some major moment in Equestria’s history—a fair few of them depicting Twilight and her friends. At the far end was a raised platform, leading a pair of thrones, much like those I’d seen in Luna’s Nightmare—one designed with a sun motif, the other with a moon.
Neither of their respective occupants were seated, though; they were standing at the foot of the stairs to their thrones. They seemed to have been addressing Twilight and the other Bearers—all of whom were wearing the ornate jewelry, the Elements of Harmony, that I’d seen them wearing in Luna’s Nightmare—before I’d entered; all eyes were now on me. I was given looks of surprise, confusion, and mild fear as I approached, but ignored it. As I walked down the long, red carpet in the center of the hall, I could see a look of pure misery in Celestia’s eyes… She was probably telling the Bearers what had happened.
How she screwed everyone over…
I shook that bitter thought out of my head as the ponies took note of my entrance. The Bearers were surprised at the sight of me, but one by one they recognized me as a human, from the little slideshow I’d given them, the day after I’d arrived. I kept my gaze on them—I didn’t want to acknowledge Celestia or… Luna, just yet. “Hey,” I muttered emotionlessly.
Fluttershy, surprisingly, was the first to approach, followed closely by Applejack. “Are you alright?” She asked delicately.
“I’m okay…” I said automatically.
“C’mon, now, darlin’...” Applejack said, in a voice that was both stern and tender. “You can’t ‘spect us to believe that.”
I shrugged, saying nothing. Twilight carefully approached; out of the corner of my eye I could see Celestia turning away from us, while Luna was staring fixedly at the spot where Twilight had been standing. “Princess Celestia says, well…” Twilight began, trying to find the words. “All she said was that… she ‘failed us’... That Sombra returned, that you were made… ‘human’ again, that Sombra took your mass and… went up North… And that it was all… her fault?” Those last words sounded agonizing, coming out of her mouth.
Part of me wanted to tell her everything—everything—sparing no anger, no shouting, to tell her how her beloved mentor, her idol, had potentially doomed everything she cared about.
But it was the same with Tea Tray… Here, a blunt truth would do us no favors.
I took a breath, and told her everything, sticking to facts and nothing else; how a number of terror-stricken ponies were being found in Canterlot, in a state not unlike that of one of my Nightmares, how Celestia had suspected me, how Sombra had tricked her into stripping me of the mass as a means of depowering me, how he stole the mass…
“Were you doing it?” Dash suddenly asked, as I was wrapping up.
I blinked. “What?”
“Were you putting ponies into your Nightmares?” Dash asked, stepping forward and glowering suspiciously at me.
I heard a barely audible ringing in my ears. I felt my cheeks grow hot, and my jaw beginning to clench. “I…”
“Rainbow…” Applejack said sternly, approaching her, ready to step in if things got ugly.
“No, we have a right to know!” Dash snapped, pushing past Applejack. “I want to know whether the Princess was right to suspect you!!”
My hands began feeling numb as I stared, disbelieving, into Rainbow’s accusing face. My throat seemed to tighten, leaving me, for the moment, speechless.
“Cause, the way I see it?” Dash said hotly. “We might have just traded one monster for another…”
I felt my face quivering in fury as I glared at Dash, fighting an almost animalistic desire to outright attack her. Dash had taken a step back in surprise, clearly startled by the outburst that continued to echo in the large throne room.
I was angry, dumbfounded, at how I was still being met with suspicion, even now. All the understanding I had, about knowing what had driven Celestia and Luna to betray me, swiftly vanished, if only for the moment, leaving only a fury that had boiled over. The other ponies were staring, slack-jawed, yet didn’t step in as I leaned slightly forward, looming over Dash. “Nothing… is good enough for you… I gave you no real reason to doubt me, I did everything I could to make up for what I did to Applejack and Luna—the latter of whom I affected by accident—hell, I saved your fucking lives!! For a time, I even thought I might be considered your friend!! God knows that would’ve been nice to have, seeing as I’m stuck here for the rest of my life—however long that lasts!”
My rising volume made the ponies, except for Celestia and Luna, take an anxious step back. Fluttershy was hiding her face in her mane in sheer terror; part of me wanted to make me see reason, make me remember that I did have those I could count as friends here, but it was like trying to hold back a stampeding elephant with duct tape.
“But no…” I continued; I pulled my gaze from Dash to look at Celestia, who looked as though my rage was actually painful for her… it may as well have been. “Because of what I could do, because I reminded you so much of Sombra because of my Nightmares—something I didn’t ask for, mind you—I was suspected…” I glanced back at Dash. “...spied on…” Back to Celestia. “Plotted against and…” I made to glance at Luna, but… I simply couldn’t.
“...and betrayed!!!” I spat the last word; I heard Luna give the faintest choked sob.
I turned back to Dash, whose fearful expression had become one of shock and guilt. “So, no, Rainbow Dash… I was not putting ponies into Nightmares, because, believe it or not, I am not Sombra!! But Celestia didn’t believe that, and was ultimately duped… by the one who was putting ponies into Nightmares!! So because she refused to give me a chance, she ultimately gave fruition to what she was so scared of! So if anyone in this room would have doomed Equestria, intentionally or otherwise, it’s her.”
I gestured grandly at Celestia, panting furiously as I took in the ponies’ shocked expressions. Twilight slowly turned towards Celestia, who was gazing shamefully at the floor, eyes blinking back tears.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say that wouldn’t just descend into an incoherent series of swears, so I turned around and stormed back down the carpet, towards the doors. I was halfway down when I heard hooves galloping up behind me.
“Dread!” Fluttershy cried softly. “Dread, wait!”
I spun around to face her, making her come to a dead stop, skidding down the carpet before me.
“My name…” I said, my voice quivering. “...is Joel.”
I turned around again and continued heading towards the doors.
Once again, I heard hooftsteps approaching behind me. This time, I didn’t bother turning around as I continued towards the doors and pulled one open.
I paused at Luna’s voice, my hand loosely gripping the handle. In her voice was pain, sorrow, a desperate plea for even the smallest chance at forgiveness…
I turned around and looked her in the eyes, just for a second.
I tried to speak, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, I simply put everything I could into that one, brief gaze.
I kept the gaze long enough to see Luna’s eyes widen slightly before I turned around again and, finally, left the throne room, slamming the door behind me.