Deep within the northern reaches of Equestria there lay a wondrous place. Snow and ice, so thick and cold that trains had not pierced the wastes until the last century, gave way to rolling fields of green, a lovely shining sun, the gentle whisper of the wind through quiet leaves. The entrance to this vast expanse of temperate land was marked by glinting protrusions of crystal, and these two pillars were only the beginning. A city made of crystal, filled with pointed towers and resplendent walls that glimmered, stretched out for miles across open land. There were amazing crystal mansions, stunning crystal atriums, green gardens kept in crystal hothouses. At the center of this city was a castle made of crystal, one that towered high over the plain, above which the flag of Equestria flew, and below it, a flag with a device of crystal in a star-shape pattern.
This was the Crystal Empire, lately vanished for a thousand years, before that a rogue state ruled by the wicked King Sombra. Celestia and Luna had dealt harshly with him, but in his defeat he had cursed his stolen land to pass out of the world of sight and sound. A millennium went by, and then the empire returned, briefly bringing Sombra with it. He had been defeated, however, by Twilight Sparkle and her six friends- along with the two ponies who sat presently upon the Empire's double thrones.
Shining Armor stood at the window of the throne room, glancing out over the city. He had been there only a few seconds, and in a few seconds more he left his vantage point, returning yet again to pacing through the space. He pawed the crystal floor with one front hoof, snorting from his nostrils. A powerfully built unicorn, his white coat gleamed and his blue mane and tail swished feverishly, betraying his unease. Flickers of the shield spell that he knew so well appeared around him as he moved, effluences of magic brought on by his great distress.
The throne room's secret door came open, and an alicorn with pink coat and a glossy, striped mane stepped in. “Shiny?”
“Oh, hey Candy,” said Shining Armor.
Princess Cadence winced. Her radiant divinity was specialized in reading thoughts and feelings, so her husband's unease was like a rough tide washing at her hooves. “I've gotten the reports from the engineers today,” she said. “They're almost finished with the northern tower. The whole wall will be up in another two weeks.”
“Great,” growled Shining Armor. He paced back to the window. Looking down, he saw the newest crystal structure in the Empire: a wall that ran around the city, half-completed, very tall and very thick. Its crystal was the smoky black of onyx, and seemed to glimmer as though it were wet.
“When it's done, we can enchant it together,” Cadence said. “Between your shield spell and my emotional defense, it should be able to withstand anything anypony can throw at it.”
Cadence huffed. “Shiny, what's wrong?”
“You know you can't lie about your emotions to me.”
Shining Armor loosed a breath. “I shouldn't be here.”
“I should be down south!” snapped Shining Armor. “I should be helping with the fighting!”
“They've been doing well,” said Cadence. “You read Celestia's letter. They were able to repel the invasion of Cloudsdale. And you couldn't have helped with that, since you can't fly.”
“But the rainbow foundries were damaged,” said Shining Armor. “It's going to take heavy duty magic to even start repairing what Reiziger did. And rainbows are a key-”
“A key layer of magical protection around Equestria, yes, I know,” said Cadence. “I do keep up with these things- I am a princess, after all.”
“Then you know how serious this is!” Shining Armor stamped his hoof. “Candy, we're at war- at war, Candy! Equestria hasn't been at war since Sombra took this place over, but now we're in the thick of one! And Reiziger's more dangerous than Sombra, maybe more dangerous than anything that's ever attacked Equestria before!” He shook his head. “And here I am, on the sidelines.”
“These are not the sidelines,” said Cadence. “Celestia and Luna ordered us to fortify the Crystal Empire. Lady Falalauria told them the war is going to come here sooner or later, and we need to be ready to withstand it. This is important, Shiny.”
“I know,” said Shining Armor, “I know, I know, but while the walls and towers are going up I could be in the south! I could be drawing up defenses and analyzing enemy attack patterns- you know, the things I'm actually trained in? The things I went to Starpoint Academy for? The things I got my cutie mark in?” He sat down with a thump upon the crystal floor.
Cadence trotted to him, resting on her heels beside him, leaning her soft snout against his cheek. “Is that what this is about? You wanting to be useful?”
Cadence's horn flickered with a pinkish hue. “It is there, yes, but you're... worried? Afraid?” She swiveled her lavender eyes at him. “Shiny?”
Shining Armor sighed and sagged, leaning up against his wife. “I am worried. I'm worried about Twily. I'm worried about her and Spike. They've been coming snout-to-snout with a dark lord, and I haven't been there to protect them!”
“Twilight can handle herself,” said Cadence. “She is an alicorn princess, after all. And even Spike is brave. Plus they have all their friends together. You read that letter from Celestia- they've been awakening the Gifts of the Elements of Harmony. Together, they can't fail.”
“I know, I know,” said Shining Armor. “They're our best hope to actually stop all this. But until they're ready, they're vulnerable. I should be down there to protect them.”
“I know,” said Cadence. “I can feel how scared you are, and it's okay. You have every right to be. She's your sister, and Spike is basically your brother. If you weren't worried about them, then I'd be concerned.”
Shining Armor sighed another time. “Guess I deserve to feel bad, for doubting them.”
“That's not true,” said Cadence. “You can be worried about them and still have faith in them. It's how you show your love.”
Shining Armor stood. Cadence stood as well, but it was she who moved at first. She trotted through the great doors of the throne room that led out onto the massive crystal balcony. The city spread below them, crystal walls and roofs catching the sun and sparkling with a wondrous radiance. Cadence held her hoof up, angling it just so, and it caught the light reflected in the crystal, so that the pink hard surface seemed to glow. Shining Armor came to stand beside her, and together they were standing there for several silent minutes.
“Hmm,” said Cadence finally, “crystal.”
“Just thinking about how Equestria's fallen into an old deer conflict, and how it relates to the Empire. Celestia told me that it was the deerfolk who first figured out how to work and shape crystal.”
Cadence nodded. “The deer weren't really very innovative- not like ponies. Their magic was so powerful they didn't have to invent and create all the devices we ponies have. However, they were excellent at the shaping and engineering of crystal. They also learned how to unlock its magical potential.”
“Potential,” repeated Shining Armor. “I do remember something about that. Crystal enhances magic, right?”
“Crystal is a magical amplifier,” Cadence told him. “It takes ordinary spells and increases their power. It's why the Crystal Heart is able to repel any enemy- it takes the magical will of all the crystal ponies and powers it up a thousandfold. The deerfolk were the first to discover its potential.”
“Whoa, really? Where did you learn that?”
“The deep volumes in the Royal Archives in Canterlot,” said Cadence. “You wouldn't believe how much reading Celestia made me do when I ascended. Anyway, the deer built cities of crystal and gemstone to increase the power of their spells, and over time, the crystal even increased their own internal magic, helping them to become as strong as they were at the end. Everything we know about the shaping of crystal comes from the deer, and we're still not as good at it as they were.” She turned and looked up at the mighty crystal towers. “I think this palace is probably an old deer outpost.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You live here,” said Cadence. “You have to have noticed how amazing the craftsmanship of the palace is. And it's so different from the other buildings in the Empire. Different shape, different quality- it's like the work of a master sculptor compared to the efforts of her students.”
“It is pretty impressive,” admitted Shining Armor. “And I guess I know the deerfolk lived around here. This is the edge of... moose territory, right?”
Cadence nodded. “I think this place was one of their guard towers, or magical outposts, or something like that, and after the deerfolk were wiped out, ponies found it and built the city around it.”
“Well, let's hope it stands as strong against Reiziger this time as it did the first time,” said Shining Armor. “And I want to-”
The two rulers of the Empire turned round to see a crystal pony in a smart butler's ensemble. “Beg pardon, your highnesses, but a letter has just arrived for Prince Shining Armor.”
“A letter?” Cadence asked. “Couldn't this have waited until regular audiences?”
“If it had arrived by normal post, perhaps,” said the butler. “But this one arrived by magic.”
Shining Armor's horn lit up with whitish tint. The letter floated off the tray the butler carried, coming just before his snout, where he used further magic to rip open the envelope. His blue eyes swiftly traveled back and forth. As he started reading, his mouth was set in a firm line. The more he read, however, the more a smile slowly broke across his face. By the time he reached the flowing postscript, he was grinning.