Pride, when divorced from foresight and humility, is the dumbest, most self-destructive quality to ever grace our idiot heads.
“Know thy place, hellion!”
“I called dibs, and you know it!”
Case in point. Princess Luna and I didn’t get along and we weren’t afraid to let each other know it. Putting aside my remarkable gift for making enemies, Luna was firmly in attack mode because I – that is, King Sombra – was someone who represented everything she stood against. And as for me, the only thing I knew about Luna was that she hated my guts, so I had plenty of incentive to sink to her level. Bitterness was contagious like that. But for now, those issues were put on the backburner. There was ultimately one source of friction between us. One petty issue remained from which neither of us would relent:
One bed was bigger than the other.
“Hold thy tongue and stay thy hoof, Sombra, for only once shall this be offered: Lenience for submission, a fair trade beyond thy due!”
That was her fancy way of saying ‘step off before you get hurt,’ so in response I said a rude thing that does not bear repeating.
The princess gasped. “Fie thee, Sombra!”
And then she struck. Luna’s blazing blue horn set the whole room alight with an indigo gleam. Her vast, ethereal powers displayed her consummate mastery of the arcane bestowed upon her by alicorn birthright. Such inherent supremacy inspired – nay, demanded – awe beyond worldly comprehension. And it was directed at me in malice. Even though she’d ditched her armor for a black and silver version of Celestia’s getup, she still looked every bit the part of a harbinger of destruction. How could I, who had wallowed in the dung of mortality, ever hope to compete? Truly, there was no shame in suffering defeat from such a creature.
At least, that was how I’d describe it if anyone asked. In my book, telekinesis totally counted as ‘consummate mastery of the arcane,’ even when it was just used to throw pillows.
“Have at thee!”
What I didn’t count on was that she could chuck those things so hard they’d knock me off the bed. Answering in kind, I put a little more oomph into my throws and we wound up playing a game of King of the Mountain with actual members of reigning and deposed royalty.
It was a matter of pride. And this had been going on longer than I’m comfortable admitting.
“OOF!” Once again I lost the high ground and Luna hopped up on the bed to re-re-re-reclaim her territory. Good god, I brought out the worst in people.
It would have been so easy to just let her have it and go to sleep. Simply giving up would’ve solved all our problems, but this was the mare who nearly blew out my eardrums and almost shot me point blank in the head, so I was hardly in an accommodating mood. Conversely, Luna – sovereign princess and a guest within her own protectorate – felt she was entitled to the more desirable accommodations.
“Be still, villain!” she shouted from on high. “Granted the circumstances, We’ve been shockingly nice. Surrender!”
“A’int happening!” Another indigo-outlined projectile zipped by my head. I aimed to win this thing so I snatched it out of the air and sent it right back. “And why are you even here? You must have loads of work waiting for you back home. You’re royalty! Think of the ceaseless demands and red tape you need to cut through on a daily basis. There’s a reason politicians age like yogurt, Luna. There’s no way you have time for this!”
Luna’s eyes took on a fiery quality for reasons that, in all fairness, I couldn’t have known at the time. Being entrusted with few responsibilities in spite of her illustrious title was already a harsh blow, but the way I carelessly hinted at it felt like kick to the gut. Nowadays, Luna guided the moon, checked up on dreams, and that was pretty much it. Even her Night Court steadily became a dumping ground for whichever frivolous lawsuits got deemed too unimportant for Celestia’s direct mediation.
“Silence!” she spat. “We have numerous duties befitting a princess!”
Luna launched a pillow so fast it exploded into a cloud of feathers on the wall behind me. If anyone’s seen the video where that dove got obliterated by Randy Johnson’s fastball, then you’d know what the impact looked like.
“Well, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” Confused at her outburst since she seemed to be agreeing with me, I let the interruption slide. “I’ll bet that even a single day of lost productivity would cause a nightmarish backlog. How many countless subjects of yours rely on your governance every waking moment of your life? And what happens if there’s an emergency?”
Luna’s horn flickered out and she averted her eyes. A blush of shame began to form on her face while I prattled away. Had I been more attentive, I would have noticed her flinch at the end of every sentence.
“And is this an absolute monarchy – or biarchy, if that’s a real word – or is there some kind of senate in place? Did half the government shut down just to make sure I didn’t leave my room? Celestia said there were no kings or queens, so that means you’re at the top. How can a nation function without someone so important to the whole process!? Someone so irreplaceably vital, an indispensably requisite linchpin to the inner workings-”
I stopped my poorly informed tangent to actually pay attention and Luna seemed to be offended for some reason. What, did I say something wrong?
“Wait… ” I leaned forward, but she turned her head away even further. Despite the difficulties in recognizing alien facial features, there was no mistaking the uncomfortable guilt written all over her face. “Why’re you so… Oh. Oh I get it, none of that applies to you, does it? That’s why you were free for this house-arrest sleepover! You don’t do anything!”
A blue tinted shockwave burst from the princess, knocking everything to the floor. “Vicious slander! Our station in governance may be limited, but Our ceremonial roles are myriad and demanding!”
“Okay, so you work holidays,” I said while regaining my footing. “Other than that, what, you’re Celestia’s unemployed sibling she lets crash on her sofa?”
“We have Our own room!” A swift volley of pillows followed. “Taste retribution for thy defamatory insinuations!”
Sheer numbers and speed guaranteed that a few would hit their mark. “Stoppit! Ow! PFTT!” I sneezed out a feather. Horse noses are very sensitive and don’t take kindly to frontal impacts. Okay, note to self: Luna responded poorly to cheeky sardonicism. As she flung one pillow after another, I blindly reached out with my magic and somehow managed to snatch the very last one of them in midflight. The projectile froze in place, one half of it outlined in blue and the other with black.
“HA! Mine!” I cheered.
Luna planted her hooves and pulled mightily. “We commanded thee to relinquish!” Tugging with our horns like they were fishing rods, we heaved back and forth to claim our prize.
And I actually did a good job of it. My dark magic seemed to think that competitive frustration was similar enough to anger, so it gave me the power boost I needed to fight back. The more I thought about winning, the stronger my power grew. Victory was within my grasp.
Smugness abounded for a moment, only to be silenced once Luna decided to up her game. No, she didn’t cast some amazing spell or deliver another loquacious threat. Choosing a more direct solution, Luna slipped off her black tiara and threw it at me forcefully.
“Woah! Too far! Going too far, Luna!” I dodged her lunar crown, and a second later that thing she wore around her neck smacked into the wall. It rang like a gong. “HEY! Cadence said no fighting!”
“Thou hath left Us no alternative but escalation!” Her silver horseshoe made a decent makeshift shuriken. One of them actually did connect, scoring Luna a ringer at the base of my horn.
“Luna, this is getting out of hand!” I shouted as I ducked behind a bed. Yup. We crossed a line. I guessed in Luna’s almighty, nigh-invincible, pony-wizard mindset it wasn’t a real fight if there was no magic involved. But to be fair, she was kind of right. That barely hurt at all.
I poked my head up from cover, Luna’s shoe still dangling around my horn, to see that her barrage-slash-disrobing was finished. But that didn’t mean Luna was done throwing stuff, a fact made overtly obvious by the large, square shadow closing in on my position.
I gasped. “Cheater!”
Luna spread her wings in a show of supremacy. “T’is a pillow fight, is it not? Well, a mattress is a large pillow! It counts!”
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing she seized. Everyone was better at magic than me and Luna was no exception, so she had no trouble grabbing every last pillow that we’d been throwing back and forth all night. They all flanked her mattress like ships around an aircraft carrier.
Welp. I quit.
“So… what was that about offering lenience for submission?” I asked. The princess paused for a moment and actually seemed to give it some serious thought. For a mere moment it seemed like this situation could finally end. But then a wicked grin slowly grew across her face.
Thunk!... Bump!... Bump-WHAM!
Princess Cadence sighed deeply and pushed her head deeper under her pillows to muffle the sound. Anxiety alone would’ve made this a restless night, but the incessant shouting and crashes from the guest room conspired to deny her a single moment of peace. For the last several hours, she lay flat on her belly with her hooves up to keep her appropriated earmuffs snug against her ears and eyes. Air was supplied by the tip of her nose, which barely poked out of her fortress of quietude.
“If I look over at that clock, and it says it’s four in the morning, both of them are getting banished to the tundra.”
Despite transforming her head into a slumber-turtle, the noise infiltrated clear as a bell. She used her wings to shrug the comforter on top of it all, but the sounds still came through. She wanted to sleep, her body demanded that she sleep, but she was so acutely and maddeningly aware of every little noise, that blissful oblivion refused to take her. How was it that the mare placed in charge of dreams shared half the credit for Cadence’s insomnia?
With the exception of some of Shiny’s unconscious antics – and with that reminder, she took back her share of the blanket – the princess had grown used to the silence of her nearly abandoned palace. But much to Cadence’s misfortune, Luna, a mare who spent her life in fortissimo, and me, whom she considered an impulsive madman, were pretty much never quiet.
“They aren’t going to stop, are they?”
Bitterly grumbling to herself, she failed to notice the sleeping form of Shining Armor grab her with a free foreleg and plant his snout right next to her head. The contact may have been overlooked, but oh you’d better believe she heard his snoring.
Not only did Luna take the big mattress, she stacked them both on her bed and took all of the pillows, leaving me with just a boxspring. Her lumpy, uneven mass of cushions resembled a bird’s nest more than a bed, but the satisfaction of winning it all from me made it the comfiest thing she’d ever sprawled upon. Lounging domineeringly atop her fluffy tower, she propped her head up with one hoof and let another leg dangle off the edge like a leopard in its tree.
“Fair? Is not the victor entitled to the spoils of war?” The smile in her voice could be seen, heard, and I swear to god, tasted. It tasted like snootiness. “One must recall that We won our duel most indisputably.”
“Duels have set rules and an objective witness,” I protested. “All you did was start a fight to take my stuff. That’s a mugging!”
“Twas thou who didst incite our conflict,” she asserted. The princess locked eyes with me and held it for a few moments until her gaze softened. “But alas, We see no benefit in continuing such belligerence, and some concessions may be necessary in the interests of a truce.” Luna held up one of the smallest cushions in her hoard. “Here! We shall offer thee one pillow for every apology delivered.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. In response Luna waved the pillow back and forth enticingly. “Nope. Not happening.” I sat on the floor quite deliberately.
“No?” she asked from her perch. “Regret thou not a single action? No statements made? Mayhaps for thine unpleasant countenance?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “Or for implying that We serve no purpose on the throne?”
Confidentially, now that we weren’t in actively fighting, I honestly was sorry for that last one. It must have been a huge source of insecurity for her and it would have done an awful lot to build bridges if I did apologize, but once again pride reared its ugly head. This was the immediate, post-dispute ‘I was right’ phase of an argument where no one would admit fault for any reason. I wouldn’t offer her any allowances and Luna wouldn’t give me the slightest degree of respect, so the two of us just smoldered at each other and never took steps towards reconciliation.
“Have it thy way, then,” she ignited her horn. This time, however, she didn’t throw anything. Instead, her magical aura targeted me personally.
“Hey! Wait. What are we doing?” Something clicked on my armor a weight lifted itself off of my back. As the blue outline around me disappeared, I realized there was only one thing that Luna could have seized. “You give that back right now!” My genuine anger surprised me, but it didn’t have any effect on the princess.
“Spoooiiiiils,” she sang. And with that said, my cape – MY cape – floated up to the night princess. “My word, t’is most lavish indeed.” She attached it around her neck and gave it a flick so it settled on her shoulders. “Be this real fur? How very antiquated. Such apparel fell out of favor before Equestria was even founded.”
“That. Is MY. Cape! Give it back!” Dark magic wouldn’t let my eyes bore holes into people, though not for lack of trying. The cape in itself wasn’t the issue; it was just a piece of cloth. But it was one of the few things I could actually say I owned and, quite frankly, I had a lot of sunk cost in that thing because I blew my chance to escape by going back for it.
“Mm-Hm,” she hummed absently. The princess conjured a mirror to see how she looked. “No, no. Red is simply not Our color.” She set her mirror down with a big smile on her face. “Sombra, wouldst thou be terribly angry if We changed it to blue or silver?”
“Don’t you dare!” I forbade most adamantly. “That’s, like, a rule that everyone follows. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t mess with Dracula’s cloak, and touching Clint Eastwood’s poncho will probably get you shot! Luna, you’re breaking the law!”
Having no idea what I was talking about, Luna tried, and ultimately failed, to prevent herself from giggling. “Oh, what a loathsome criminal We must be to dismiss such an esteemed mandate,” she held the cape just below her eyes like an opera villain. “Truly despicable!”
“Luna! Drop it!”
So, yeah, I was pretty much begging for another round of teasing. But Luna, despite her obvious willingness to oblige, got an eyeful of my exposed flank and went quiet. First, the smile ran away from her face, then she looked confused, then she looked surprised, and then she just looked plain dumbfounded.
“…. Bweh?” Luna sounded like she just took a fistful of tranquilizers. She even let her mouth hang open.
“Hand it over!” I demanded, having not yet noticed that Luna kinda shut down for a second. “It’s not even your size! You look ridiculous, Luna!”
No reaction whatsoever. “Wha… but how?” she whispered to herself.
“Luna! … Luna? Hey, uh, princess?” I’d noticed the mare’s vacant expression. “You okay up there? You’re, like, a few seconds away from drooling.”
Luna stared. The princess gave my butt an unsettlingly intense eye-grope that should have earned her a week in sensitivity training. “Luna, this is getting creepy.”
“But that’s not possible.” She blinked to clear the foggy glaze in her eyes. Then, as if a fire lit underneath her, Luna shot to her hooves. “We need a moment!”
With no further warning Luna dove off the bed, right over me, and dashed towards the exit. Whatever caught her attention must’ve been especially urgent because leapfrogging a unicorn – especially one with my horn and my crown – was a good way to disembowel herself. “Be right back! Stay there! Farewell!” Her sentences blended into one consolidated noise.
She left the room so quickly that the door shut from the rush of air. As it clicked behind her I was left alone wondering if she stormed out because I offended her or if she just needed to race to the bathroom. More importantly, though, she left the bed – the source of our hours long conflict – unguarded and unoccupied.
“I’m still taking the big one!”
Princess Cadence had no idea how her husband could sleep at a time like this. She was so preoccupied that she had to shake off the temptation to wake him up to have someone to vent to. They were all set to put the day’s events behind them and try again in the morning with a fresh perspective and rested minds, but every couple of minutes brought a new interruption.
And there it was, right on time. “For goodness sake, now it sounds like they’re galloping around in the hallway,” the princess groaned. Cadence resolved to have the whole palace carpeted first thing in the morning. Nice, quiet, shag carpet on every square inch of the castle ought to help.
Clip-clop-clip! Clip-clop Tik-tik-tik!
“That’s it.” Cadence slithered out of her husband’s grip and onto the floor. Her mission set, the groggy princess shuffled across the tile to give her noisy houseguests a piece of her mind. The clacking sounded closer now. Good. If they were nearby, she could just open the door, deliver her scolding, and turn right back around. Too exhausted to bother with magic, or even lift her hooves, Cadence grabbed the doorknob with her mouth to open it.
Ah, but today’s hardships just weren’t done with her yet.
Luna slammed the door open so hard it smacked Cadence across the room like a pinball flipper.
“Arise posthaste!” Luna blared. “We bare news of foremost import! AWAKEN!”
The night princess bolted into the room uninvited to retrieve her fellow alicorn. She checked under the sheets, looked under the bed, and even hoisted Shining Armor over her head to see if the pink princess was beneath him. “Cadence? Where didst thou go?”
At the far side of the bedroom, embedded within a crater that matched her silhouette perfectly, Cadence spat out a chunk of drywall. “Ow.”
“Cadence! Momentous tidings commence this eve!” Luna carelessly dropped the captain back onto the mattress. He bounced several times before settling back into peaceful slumber, having never stirred, awoke, or ever stopped snoring.
Meanwhile, the groaning pink mare dug herself out of her formfitting imprint. She was more annoyed than hurt, as such were the wonders of alicorn physiology. “Princess Luna, it is very, very late. Can this please wait until morning?”
Luna let the suggestion fly right over her head. “Nay!” She was so wired that her hooves couldn’t stop fidgeting. “Hie thee ariseth, Princess Cadence, for We require thine immediate presence!”
“Whatever it is, we can deal with it tomorrrr… what are you wearing?” Cadence interrupted herself when she saw the state of her co-princess. Luna had been dusted head to hoof with white, downy feathers and on her back she sported Sombra’s cape – and nothing else – for Celestia knows what reason.
Actually, no, Cadence amended. Celestia would be just as confused as anypony.
“Tis not important,” Luna rather firmly waived it off. “But this is! Princess Cadenza, there is a cutie mark!”
Too tired to connect the dots, Cadence blinked and then looked to her own heart-adorned flank. “What of it?”
“Not you. Him!” If the night princess had to wait any longer she might end up dragging Cadence back to the guest room. By the hair if need be.
“Him?” the gears in Cadence’s head finally started whirring. “…him. HIM?!” Okay, now she was awake. “How? When!?”
“We know not. T’was there to be unveiled when We seized his cape.”
“But- He- I don’t think he had one before,” Cadence tried to remember if she ever saw my sides uncovered. “We were in such a rush at first, so nopony bothered to check. And he never took that cape off once things calmed down.”
“Then see it now!” Luna flipped the other princess into the air, caught her on her back, and tore out of the room fast enough to leave a loud rush of air in her wake.
“Woah!” yelled Cadence, inadvertently using two definitions of that interjection at once. “Princess Luna, stop! It’s really not that important!”
“Yea, it be imperative!”
“How?” asked the pony riding the other pony.
Luna skidded to a halt right in front of the guest room and Cadence tumbled off her back. “Implications, Cadence. Could there be a greater metric to study his motives than to see his purpose in life stenciled to his flank?”
Cadence dusted herself off and stood. “Luna, we aren’t going to find all our answers just by looking at his rump.” She kept her voice low so that their guest wouldn’t hear. “Besides, he’s not even asleep.”
“We can lay him to rest at whim,” Luna asserted, meaningfully pointing at her horn. She, too, started whispering since she caught on to the need for subterfuge. “Besides, we know so little of he that any hint of knowledge may help. T’is better than nothing.”
Cadence couldn’t argue with that. Everything they knew came with some caveat or was based on pure speculation. “This is probably a bad idea, but… alright. If you think it’s that important, we sneak in to take one look, just to make sure it’s nothing bad, and then we can ask him directly after we get some sleep.”
“Sleep? And willfully lose consciousness in the same room as he?” Luna laughed at the thought. “Nay, We shall remain vigilant all night!”
Cadence’s ears drooped miserably.
“However,” Luna began. “Burdensome Our nescience to his machinations be. Aye, to know his cogitation behooveth us mightily. Iwis, foolish it be to hent not such opportunity. Agreest thou, Cadenza? Sooth to seyn, me thynketh yon kyng from myn eyen hydeth muchel.”
Princess Cadence sleepily allowed her eyes to droop. “You’re doing it again.”
“We are transitioning!” Luna stomped. That language barrier was still a bit of an issue. Cadence made rapid ‘cut it out’ motions with her hooves and motioned to the door with urgency. Remembering where they were, Luna clamped her mouth shut. “We are transitioning,” she repeated, this time in a whisper. “But the thought remains. He concealeth much from us, intentionally or not, and as the keeper of dreams t’is in Our power to unveil his secrets. We need only to put him to sleep.”
Cadence’s ear perked right back up. “Yes,” she responded, not even needing to hear details of the plan. “Do that right now.”
Luna wasted no time. She lit her horn, this time as a soft luminescence rather than the harsh, blinding light she’d displayed all day. She closed her eyes in focus and pointed her horn in the general direction she knew I would be. Then, after a swell of sedate cerulean, she allowed the glow to fade.
“It is done,” she declared. “With as much magic as We put in that spell, We shall eat Our tiara if he is still awake.”
Cadence questioningly looked to the smirking night-princess and tried not to think of the hours of lost slumber. “You could have casted that spell any time you wanted, couldn’t you?”
The two startled mares jumped and let out a synchronized squeak. That sound definitely came from inside the room. “Impossible,” Luna whispered. “Nopony hath ever resisted Our spellcraft.”
But Cadence, having been a foalsitter for many years, easily recognized that thump. “Actually, it sounded like somepony fell off a bed.” As stealthily as possible, she opened the door and poked her head through. “Yep. He’s on the ground. He landed on his back, too.”
Luna breathed a sigh of relief. That metallic tiara would’ve been really crunchy. “That’s good. Be he asleep still?”
“It looks like it,” quietly confirmed the other princess. Cadence then peered around the rest of the bedroom. “Um… Luna, there’re feathers all over the place,” she observed. “And why are both mattresses on one bed?”
“’Tis not important!” Luna whisper-hissed for the second time that night. To prevent further discussion on the matter, and to hide her look of embarrassment, the night-princess barged into the room.
“With me, princess of love! Time is of the essence!” she cried. Just as quickly, though, she remembered she was supposed to be quiet. “That is, uh…” she murmured. “Follow thou Us, Cadence, for we have much to discover and no time for distraction.”
Thus, the two members of the royal family performed their sneaky, national security mission to knock someone unconscious and stare at his butt.
Both of the princesses craned their necks to the side to look at the upside-down mark. Now that it was actually in front of her, Cadence was almost afraid to find out what it might entail. She was so anxiously certain it would be something horrible that if it turned out to be a photorealistic depiction of me strangling her specifically, she wouldn’t be surprised.
In opposition to Cadence’s dreadful expectations, it instead depicted the snowflake-like symbol of the Crystal Empire sitting within the former tyrant’s crown. The crown’s curved spikes framed the Empire’s symbol like the setting of a diamond ring. Behind it, those purple, misty streams that poured from my eyes flowed around and astride the mark like the banners of medieval heraldry.
“What does it mean?” Luna asked.
“I’m not sure.”
Luna leaned in as if inspecting a museum piece. “Well… there’s a crown, and there’s the Empire, so… he… um… still considers himself king?”
“Maybe, but the crown is at the base of the symbol, not on top of it. It’s almost like it’s holding it. Or supporting it?”
“Or ensnaring it,” Luna poked said symbol, unmindful of where it was situated. “A crown represents authority, after all, and here it is surrounding the Crystal Empire.”
“I’m more concerned about the dark magic winding around it.”
They both knew this was a bad idea. Cadence was right earlier; it was common knowledge that analyzing cutie marks at a glance was invariably futile. So much so, in fact, that simply asking a pony what theirs meant had grown to become one of Equestria’s most common conversational icebreakers.
And pickup lines, but that’s beside the point.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Luna declared. “We had thought that a second opinion would clarify matters, but alas, we remain mystified. It is time for more direct measures.”
“You’re going in?”
“I am.” Luna once again brought her morphean magic to light. The brighter her horn glowed, the more translucent her body became. “We shall return once we find what We are looking for. Do not wait for us, Cadenza, for We may be gone for some time. Return to thy room and find Us in the morrow.” Her co-princess nodded in understanding.
“Okay. Be careful in there, Luna. There is no telling what you may find.”
“We shall.” Luna now appeared as a faint apparition, a nearly invisible phantom, as more of herself journeyed into the mindscape. “And Cadence, as a word of advice, do get some sleep. You look tired.”
Cadence tried not to groan.
Luna’s body fully dematerialized from their physical plane of meat and, like, hydrogen and stuff to enter the incorporeal realm of slumber. Cadence, meanwhile, took that as her cue to leave. She’d find out if Luna was successful in the morning.
Fighting back her drooping eyelids, she decided it would be too uncomfortable to fall asleep right there on the floor, a fact her sleep-deprived brain used to further justify installing that carpet. Grinning as she trotted back to the master suite, blissful silence at long last pervaded the empty halls.
Her satisfaction didn’t last long, unfortunately. Once she got back to her room, the second she opened the door, her unconscious husband reminded her that he snored like a congested tiger.
Princess Luna carried no expectations when she entered another pony’s dream. Dreams were by nature private affairs, and Luna had born witness to every fear, fantasy, wish fulfilment, and perversion her subjects could conceive of. Not much fazed her these days. But as she arrived in the madness-wrought mindscape of a self-confessed alien, she prepared to endure a slew of inconceivable visions that could put Discord’s most creative imaginings to shame.
Instead she saw a city. It was a particularly urbanized and developed city, but nothing terribly extra-equestrial. Luna tried not to be disappointed. When Shiny and Cadence used term ‘sky scraper,’ she imagined stratospheric towers that pierced beyond the heavenly firmament. Lack of architectural impossibilities aside, the only thing impressive here was the scale of development. Buildings seemed to stretch forever outward, as if the planners were not constrained by land or the need for city walls.
“This is peculiarly normal.”
And there was an absolutely absurd amount of concrete. Grey streets with grey sidewalks led to towers of glass, metal, brick, stone, and even more concrete. Sombra’s dreamworld displayed none of Canterlot’s colorful charm: no rooftop spires of swirling purple and gold, no oversized finials depicting the sun, no pristine white marble facades, no ornamental metalwork on every home and business, no unsupported buildings overhanging a several hundred foot drop, no Escheresque labyrinth of bridges leading nowhere, or any hint of a waterfall cutting through town.
On second thought, Canterlot was somewhat ostentatious, wasn’t it?
It nagged at her how detailed the surroundings were. Dreams were about emotional impact, so typically the surroundings were as simplified and discreet as the backdrop of a play. Detail implied memory, something which should be impossible no matter how mad the king may be.
No, this couldn’t be right. To alleviate her doubts Luna took to the skies. If this was a mere construct of the mind, then there had to be some cutoff point. She flew higher and higher until she would be able to see far into the distance; farther than any dreamer would bother to develop. From there, the princess beheld a bird’s eye view of how the American Midwest developed its urban sprawl.
“A-ha!” she cried as she witnessed its full extent. “Repetition as far as the eye can see. Sombra hath made this all up.” Satisfied by the discovery, she dove back down to the city. “And now to get to the bottom of this.”
Under the assumption that the taller buildings were more important, Luna glided towards the densest section of town to start her investigation. Where to begin? Probably with that cluster of similar-looking towers or maybe the arena Shining Armor mentioned.
“Hmm?” Nevermind. Luna found something worth examining. There on the ground she saw a curious statue depicting a, uh… thing?
The princess landed on the street to get a closer look at whatever it was. Trotting right up to the monument, Luna stood face to face with the Spirit of Detroit and had no idea what she was looking at. It was an impressively large bronze statue sitting down with its legs folded under it. The statue had no scales or fur on its hide, making Luna believe that the creature was amphibious, and she wondered if the green tint was its actual color or just a side effect of oxidation. The arms, hands, and torso were lifted wholesale from the minotaurs, and its legs were weird; the best comparison she could draw was a young dragon before its hocks left the ground as it matured into quadrupedalism. What was the word, plantigrade?
Most jarring of all was that the face. While appearing mostly to be Sombra’s original creation, it had a nose that perfectly matched those plastic joke glasses that Pinkie Pie sometimes wore. Why in the world Sombra chose that detail was a mystery she preferred to leave unsolved.
“What art those within its grasp?” she wondered.
One of its hands – the one the statue glared at intently – held a trio of little figures resembling a couple with their newborn. In the clutches of the other arm was a golden orb with thin bars radiating outward. In Equestrian statuary, such a thing could represent her sister’s benevolence, the sun itself, or even a simple mundane spell. Whatever it was, it was meant to be awe-inspiring or at least powerful. And it bothered her why the statue would hold such things. What could it mean?
Luna really, really hoped the statue symbolically held aloft two equally valued concepts, because the only other option she could think of was that the figure was going to take its energy-ball and zap the bejesus out of the tiny family in its other hand. This was Sombra’s dream after all. Anything was possible.
She looked at the shape of the bronze figure, then at the ball of power in its hand, and based on Shining Armor’s descriptions there was only one thing the statue could be:
“Thunder-monkey.” Dumbfounded to paralysis, and mutely blinking a few times, she could add nothing beyond identifying it. Yep. Case closed. Total confirmation. “Stars above, that is what he thinks he is?”
Luna realized that if this was the only confirmed depiction of a human, then she was forced to draw conclusions from this one representation alone. How much of the statue should be taken literally? Was it an idealized portrayal rife with allegory, or do so-called ‘humans’ grow from little golden munchkins into three-stories-tall green yetis?
This was just too weird. Even though she got what she came for – proof that the new personality was genuine – she could only handle so much crazy in one sitting. That pillow fight from earlier left her with a dearth of patience, so Luna wanted out of this dream as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, as she turned to leave she saw smack dab in the middle of the road what appeared to be an enormous, disembodied fist made of stone. Curiosity seized her mind and refused to let go. Unable to resist, Luna trotted towards the monument, hoping that a second example of human artwork might clarify things for her.
She blinked, tilted her head, and scratched her chin while she critiqued the statue. “Why?” she asked, trying her hardest to find some deeper meaning than ‘it’s a fist.’
She stood there completely unmindful of her surroundings long enough to get lost in thought. For the life of her, she just couldn’t tell what this thing was trying to say. She imagined it had something to do with… punching? Or something. Every few dozen seconds she would open her mouth to say something, but catch her words in her throat as she reconsidered. Yeah, she was lost here.
But then, as she stood there alone, something very special happened to our favorite night-pony. A tremendous thing that no other Equestrian could claim to have experienced befell our beloved princess.
Luna got hit by a car. Because you can’t just stand in the street like that.
With a blaring horn and furiously shrieking tires, a few thousand pounds of Motown engineering slammed into the princess of the night. She managed to leave a sizable dent in the grill of the car, but any match between machine and roadkill tends to favor the behemoth of stampeding metal. She didn’t stand a chance.
Her legs swept out from underneath her, causing the blindsided alicorn to go ragdoll and bounce violently across the hood. Apparently unsatisfied with the extent of her internal hemorrhaging, Luna’s barrel suffered a harsh, organ-blending impact by smashing into the windshield, which shattered completely and walloped the pony skyward. It was only her natural alicorn durability that stopped her from exploding into hamburger confetti.
Luna careened through the air in a crazy spin, screaming the whole way, and spiraled so fast her body blurred into an indigo cyclone. She flapped her wings with all her might, but they offered no assistance and only served to make her path more chaotic. It must be pointed out that there is absolutely nothing aerodynamic about a horse, so that made the airborne distance she cleared impressive by anyone’s standards.
Luna’s ballistic arc came to an abrupt and snout-inverting halt when her body smacked face first into the colossal fist-monument she was looking at earlier. All of the bones from her neck up turned into delicious pudding. She didn’t merely see stars. She didn’t just see her life flash before her eyes. For a brief moment Luna was pretty sure she could see through time itself, because that’s what happens when you headbutt a battering ram.
Thus, the princess was ejected from the dream like tequila from a freshman and Joe Louis earned himself a posthumous knockout.
Luna scrambled on her back away from the bed, hooves barely finding purchase on the floor, until she tripped on the cape she forgot she was wearing. She could feel tiny drops of sweat forming beneath her dark blue coat and her heart beat so fast it threatened to break a rib.
This marked the first occasion in as far back as she could remember that she awoke screaming from dream. And it wasn’t even her own dream. And it wasn’t even a nightmare, a new low point for the steward of the night.
Luna patted herself down to check for injuries and felt her face to confirm that she still had all her teeth. Despite taking a blow to the head that earned her a seat in Valhalla, no blood dripped from her forehead and she couldn’t feel the dent of a depressed skull fracture. None of that was real. Deep breaths helped quell her fight-or-flight response while the phantom pains slowly faded.
Now calm, but quivering from the adrenaline, she stared at the still-unconscious cause of her face-disintegration. She thought back to the alien cityscape, the incomprehensible statues, and the roaring automobile that tenderized her innards, and in her befuddled, nerve wrecked state, Luna put aside decorum to shout the only thing that came to her mind.
“… What the buck!?”
It was a beautiful sunrise, if Celestia did say so herself. To give credit where it was due, she could never match the artistic flair of her younger sister, but ever since Luna came back, Celestia had been trying to put a little something extra into her craft. Letting her sun linger at low angles to produce rich hues of pink and gold, she wondered if it wouldn’t be too indecorous to rearrange Canterlot’s cloud cover so it complemented the sunbeams. She was a morning person; no surprise there.
But she had work to do, and so brought the sun up to its appropriate height. From there, the highest princess began the rest of her daily ritual: drink some tea, check her letters, and spend the rest of the day holding court. She already had her cup handy for that first and most favored task. A few centuries spent soaking in the good stuff transformed her ceramic cup into the single most potent tea-delivering mechanism in existence. Delicious.
Or at least it used to be. Luna once filled it with cappuccino and things never tasted the same. Eh, on to step two.
After gulping down her drink, Celestia hummed a cheerful tune and trotted back inside with a spring in her step.
“Oh, what’s this?” Celestia’s personal mail – a rarely used slot reserved for nongovernmental concerns – had a single letter within it.
The solar princess joyfully gave the letter her full attention. Twilight had been sending her fewer reports lately, so insights into her student’s studies became an increasingly rare occasion. Not that she could fault her young pupil, of course. Twilight had her own life and responsibilities to keep her busy, but Celestia still found it upsetting that she had to wait such a long time between updates.
Celestia opened the scroll and, to her surprise and with a twinge of disappointment, it most certainly was not from Twilight. The writing was so abominable it might as well have been written in crayon. The text was oddly large too, in much the same way that the shaky, unfamiliar strokes of a foal needed to be huge to be remotely legible.
‘Dear Ms. Celestia,’ the letter began.
Three words in and she already had to stop. “Miss?” the princess asked aloud. She couldn’t even remember the last time somepony called her that. She quickly checked to see who sent it. “Oh my, it’s from Sombra? How unexpected.” That explained why the scroll was left in her personal mail; Celestia ordered every correspondence from the Crystal Empire to be taken to her right away.
‘I’m writing to apologize for my actions yesterday. To put it briefly, nearly every interaction we’ve had so far casts me in a negative light, but I swear on my life that each one of those events was a misunderstanding, an accident, or some mix of the two. Furthermore, I’ve been informed that the Crystal Empire is a territory of yours, so I’m also writing to ask forgiveness for the wide swath of destruction and panic my poor showing in initial impressions and subsequent crowd control.
… And for punching your niece in the face. And the numerous fights with Shining Armor (I think we’re up to three by now). And… uh… did I do anything to Luna? Like, before you left, I mean. …Oh! Right, the wing thing…well, add that to the list I guess. Whoops.'
Celestia reread those paragraphs to make sure they weren’t a joke. “He actually wrote out the ellipses.”
'Wait… oh, shoot. I can’t erase anything with this quill. Uh…HEY! It won’t stop! Quit writing, horn, I was just thinking to myself, not-
Please disregard the previous line; I’m still getting used to writing with the boner on my forehead my horn. I’d rewrite this if I could, but I only found one piece of paper.
Where was I? Oh, yeah:
I’m especially sorry about that incident at the end of dinner. While I’m sure we both would prefer to leave it behind us, I feel it needs to be addressed. As I am not familiar with equine standards of beauty, I cannot speak with authority, but I’m reasonably certain that your weight is perfectly appropriate for your height. So as a peace offering I sent you some nice flowers as a bribe gift so that hopefully you won’t jail me for Lèse-Majesté we can leave the past behind and start anew.’
The princess glanced at the bouquet included with the letter and rolled her eyes. “He apologizes for calling me fat, but then he sends me junk food.” Celestia levitated the flowers to a nearby trash bin. “What kind of weird harassment is this?”
‘I know that I have made it rather difficult to trust me. And more disappointingly on a personal level, I have argued and fought with almost everyone everypony around me. This isn’t normal for me, and I am assuming that the sudden transition to my new surroundings has made me somewhat testier that usual. That is not an excuse, merely an explanation, as well as a promise that things are going to improve.
Because you were right earlier: I have yet to make amends for all that stuff I wrecked. But starting today, that is going to change. I’ll to talk to Cadence as soon as possible to see what I can do to help patch things together. And I swear to you in writing that I’ll do everything in my power to set it right.
We’ve got nowhere to go but up!
XXXXXX King Sombra'
Strangely, it looked like there was a different name signed, but it was crossed out to the point of illegibility. Also included was a final thought at the very bottom, all scrunched up because the paper had run out of space:
'PS: If I’m supposed to be from the Crystal Empire, then how come I’m not all sparkly? And everyone’s horn looks like a drill except mine. What’s up with that?'
That last part left Celestia blinking in confusion. She set the letter down, surprised that she didn’t actually know the answer. The princess was tempted to waive the question by simply thinking of the original Sombra as a normal, if particularly evil unicorn, but those dark powers and that horn set him apart from everypony else. Just what was he anyway? She and Luna turned him into a ‘living shadow,’ whatever that meant, as a side effect of his banishment, but he was never really ordinary to begin with.
It served as yet another reminder of how many unknowns they were dealing with.
“Well, this is promising. I think.” Celestia’s voice carried that rising inflection that sounded more like a question than a statement. “Cadence can keep the city together. That much I’m sure of. And Shining Armor should be able to keep Sombra in line… but that doesn’t leave much room if things go wrong.” The letter appeared sincere enough, but while the situation wasn’t dangerous, it was certainly anything but comfortable. “Luna’s report should help clear things up,” Celestia sighed at the unwelcome feeling of not knowing what lay ahead. “I just hope things aren’t too hectic over there.”
Shining Armor was habitually the first pony awake in the Crystal Empire. Sliding out of bed at the first moments of dawn, the prince trotted to the windows to let in some fresh air. He felt oddly relaxed, all things considered. It was amazing how much a good night of sleep improved the mood.
Standing there at the window, He spared a moment to look out to the land he’d been charged with protecting. The Empire’s geometric layout gave the morning rays a long, unimpeded channel to travel down, which caused the whole east-west avenue and central plaza of the city to flare alight as the sun poked over the horizon. That light would strike the crystalline buildings and reflect each of their captivating colors over the streets in a short-lived mosaic reminiscent of stained glass. For a few minutes a day the streets of his city became a kaleidoscope. The sight was truly breathtaking.
Shining Armor finally realized just how lucky they all were. The return of Sombra was something he had nightmares about, but now that the confrontation was over Shiny felt like someone untied a rope from around his neck. Although it certainly wasn’t good by any standard, Shining Armor had to admit that this was the best way things could have gone wrong, if that description made any sense. I caught them completely by surprise, made it into the city before anypony even noticed, and while there was extensive property damage, nopony got hurt. Shiny could not imagine a better case scenario as far as invasions went. If anypony told him a few days ago that this would happen, he’d have yelled at them for being naïve and unprepared.
As he breathed in the brisk northern air, that sense of hope and relief washed over him, tingling its way from his hooves and up his spine until it settled in his throat. Then, as was the typical response of a pony having a moment of catharsis, he sang. Yes, this is happening.
“Everything seems bright within the empire.
The king is back, but somehow not malign.
Solace spreads, and spirits all rise higher.
We’ve dodged the greatest bullet of our time.
So our country keeps on gleaming
even with potential scheming
from an evil king we’re bent upon reforming.
If he’s no threat to our nation,
It’s a cause for celebration!
(Given Sombra’s madness isn’t just performing.)”
Shiny proceeded to open each of the shades to let the bright, cheerful sunrise immerse his home in golden light. His armor floated to him in his telekinetic grip, where each piece locked into place with practiced ease.
“Everypony’s safe here in the Empire
as long as our guest can be kept confined.
Nerves are frayed by what might soon transpire.
Though now, at least, he seems to be benign.
Since the Princess gave her order,
We are stuck with a new boarder
that we’ll scrutinize until he starts conforming
And those orders need abiding
so despite distrust, we’re guiding
him in furthering his ethical transforming.”
His slid on his officer’s helmet and strapped it into place. Then he readjusted the whole suit of armor, unconsciously adding the tiniest hint of choreography to the movements.
Daybreak… shines u…pon… the… Crysssstallllllll…” Shiny’s next verse slowed to a halt. Something felt wrong. Even the melody that accompanied his song faded to silence.
He waited patiently, but he didn’t hear the feminine, lyrical voice he expected to come from behind him. These kinds of events were hardly an exact science, but Shiny was certain that his wife was supposed to join in there.
“Cadence?” Shining Armor turned towards their shared bed to see what was the matter. “Honey, aren’t you going to-”
The princess belted out a snore as loud as a jackhammer. Cadence’s tongue lolled out of her wide open mouth where loud, ursine snarls exploded from the slumbering mare. Her comforter and blankets had been kicked to the floor sometime during the night, so she lay exposed and supine on the bed, as if asking for a belly rub. Hooves dangled every which way as she sprawled to take up as much space as possible. An absolute mess of drool and eye crust covered her face.
Shining Armor chuckled. “And she thinks I’m the one who snores.”
With the cadence of his song ruined, Shiny figured it his job to wake his wife up so the two of them could face the unknown day together. He nudged her lightly with his muzzle, speaking unobtrusively so she could begin her day with a friendly voice. Cadence was a light sleeper so this shouldn’t be too difficult.
“Cadence, today is going to be really busy so we need to get an early start.”
She was somewhat less responsive than he’d expected. “Nnnnngg.” The blankets on the floor floated up to the princess and wrapped themselves around her as tight as a cocoon. “Mnyeeh.”
Not to be deterred, Shining Armor’s pinkish aura took ahold of Cadence’s shroud and tugged. “It’s time to get up,” said Shiny as he carefully peeled the blanket off of her.
“No,” Cadence groused when Shiny stole her sheet. She tucked her head beneath her legs and curled into a ball. “Make it night. Tell Aunt Luna to make it night.”
“I know yesterday was frantic, to say the least, but Cadence, we can’t just stay in bed.”
“I am awake. I’m just… lying down for a minute,” her muffled voice reasserted. Mornings brought a mild form of insanity with them, causing us think that five more minutes of sleep would make us alert and well rested. Cadence was no exception to such things.
“Cadie, we really don’t have time for this,” the prince began, but the princess remained locked in her sleepy sphere. Shiny gave her an exploratory prod, but that just made her tighten up.
Alright, fine. If she wanted things to escalate, then two could play at that game. “You know, we still have a bunch of flugelhorns left over from the Crystal Fair. Now I’m not saying I’m going to go find one and bring it back up here, but if I just so happen to see one on my way downstairs…”
“I’m up.” Cadence’s head popped up. While she normally loved those sparkly little trumpets, the morning was not the right time for them. Blinking rapidly to adjust to the light, the mare oozed out of her bed so its warmth wouldn’t lull her back to sleep.
“There you go,” her husband smiled. “Let’s take a moment to freshen up, then we can head downstairs and see how Luna’s doing.”
“Okay,” she mumbled. The princess’s horn flared to cast a well-practiced suite of spells upon herself. Her mane and tail detangled themselves, her coat straightened out, and most importantly, an autohypnosis spell slapped her eyelids open with the equivalent of a shot of espresso. It was a combination that Twilight devised to look respectable in front of Celestia after an all-night study binge, and Cadence had used it liberally over the past few months. Probably too much.
Having completed her pretty princess presentability package – as Shiny called it exactly once before the name was banned forever – Cadence dragged herself to the bathroom so she could flop into the tub and die.
Man, today was going to be an arduous one. She could feel it.
“No one told me I couldn’t have bacon.”
“Nopony said you could!” Luna’s aggravated voice retorted. “Maybe as a garnish, but never a main course. Or even a side dish for that matter! What kind of pony orders meat?”
“But you’re all, like, people-horses. I figured everything was the same unless otherwise indicated.”
“Then consider thyself indicated!”
That exchange was the first thing Shining Armor and Cadence heard that day. In that one moment all the motivation they worked up that morning evaporated on the spot. “Do you want to just turn around?” Shining asked half-joking. “I don’t think they’ve seen us.” Maybe a quarter-joking.
His wife sighed deeply. “Let’s just get this over with.” Ruining her only chance to escape, Cadence poured herself a cup of coffee and also a cup of tea because she wasn’t sure which of the two drinks had more caffeine. Her eyes were so red that it was difficult to tell where the whites ended and her pink coat began.
The Crystal Princess took her seat. By then I had opened my mouth in front of Luna’s face to show her my distinctly carnivorous fangs, and argued that they meant I was an exception to ponies’ biologically enforced vegetarianism.
“You two seem awfully animated today.” Cadence tried to force herself into a good mood. “Did you sleep well?”
“Hmm? Oh, hey Princess. Morning,” I waved while Luna offered her a dignified nod. “Nah, we’ve been up since five. Probably earlier. I may have dozed off once, but weirdly enough I’m not tired at all.” Now that I thought about it, I also only ate due to routine. I wasn’t actually hungry. I’d have to ask about that.
“That’s…” Cadence’s eyes somehow felt much, much heavier. “That’s just wonderful.”
Shining Armor sat to join in the conversation. “We actually do keep some meat on hoof for ambassadorial visits. I don’t recommend it, but if you want to writhe on the toilet for a few hours, go ahead.”
My conviction, so passionate and intractable just a few moments ago, died with that one sentence. “Writhing?”
“For hours,” he nodded. “Weeping the whole time.”
My head sank from the weight of all the disappointment. “… Aw, man.” Add another point the I-hate-being-a-horse list. “Fine,” I poked the rabbit food around with a fork. “Yay, salad.”
“Thank you, captain,” said Luna graciously.
I thought that was their only issue, but Shining Armor deemed it appropriate to address the diabolic, throbbing, ensorcelled elephant in the room. “And, Sombra, there’s another thing: will you please use normal magic to do that?” Shining Armor pointed to my fork, which floated within my gurgling doom-aura.
“Normal magic?” Was that an oxymoron? “That isn’t what I’m doing? Everyone’s horns glow a different color, so I figured this was just how mine looked,” I pointed at the hatefully swirling mass of purple, green, and black.
“You thought that was the right way to do it?” Shining asked. He appeared genuinely baffled. It’d be like saying ‘I can’t walk. No one taught me how to use my legs.’ It also pointed out how I, or rather Sombra’s body, was so ludicrously adept at dark magic that I could use it without even being capable of the normal stuff.
“Eh, it gets the job done.” I gulped down a bite of lettuce. “Is there something I’m missing?”
The captain gave me one of those looks. “You have boundless, abstruse power beyond all but the most naturally gifted magicians, and you’re using it to hork down breakfast.” He had been told by both Twilight and Celestia that dark magic was physically painful and exceedingly difficult: not the kind of thing that should be handled by an enthusiastic novice.
“Well yeah. No thumbs, remember? See this?” I waved a hoof. “It’s not a hand. All I’ve got is this horn, so if you can think of a better way, I’d love to hear it.” That comment dimmed the whole conversation to silence. The ponies still weren’t used to the idea of an alien phantom body-swap and preferred to shy away from the concept lest they have to think about it too hard.
The lull in conversation let us notice the princesses holding a covert discussion.
“And what are you two whispering about?” I asked, but the mares quieted down and kept their mouths shut. “Well? Not gonna share, huh?” Since I was the type who can’t tolerate long, awkward pauses, I tried to think of something to keep our talk kindled. “Soooooo…. Uh, by the way, what were the two of you doing last night?”
The alicorns went stiff. Luna audibly gulped and Cadence’s dual-wielded cups dipped from her aura like stalled airplanes. “W-what are you talking about?” asked Cadence. “We didn’t do anything.”
“Yes,” Luna reinforced her innocence with a strained, quivering grin. “T’was probably a dream. Pay it no heed.”
The two of them did a terrible job of looking inconspicuous so Shining Armor looked back and forth between the three of us. “Did I miss something?”
“Yeah, but it’s nothing important.” I motioned to Luna and Cadence. “I heard these two clopping outside my door last night, so I’m asking for details.”
The already stiff princesses became dangerously quiet. The awkward silence became angry silence, and those who haven’t had to learn the difference between the two were probably better at social situations than me. Some laborious ticks of the clock later, Cadence buried her head in her forelegs. “By Celestia, he heard us,” she grumbled. “All of that sneaking around for nothing.”
“What? Was that supposed to be a secret?” I asked. “This castle is practically empty, so of course I could hear everything. Hooves on tile ain’t exactly silent.”
“Sombra,” Cadence rubbed her forehead in deep, therapeutic circles, “Please. Not today. Just please stop talking.”
“Hey, don’t clam up now. We’re finally having a real conversation. No yelling, no interrogations, or anything. So c’mon tell me. What’d you do to make Luna yell so much?”
After sighing deeply, Cadence scooted out of her seat, washed her hooves of the matter, and promptly about-faced to leave the dining hall. “Nope,” the princess declared. “It’s way too early for this. It’s too soon for things to already start going wrong. Shining, I’m going to have to take a rain check today.”
The captain left the table to chase after her. “Cadence, wait,” Shiny called out to his wife, but she refused to slow down. “We still have to keep an eye on him.”
“Don’t care. I’m not doing it.” She didn’t yell or enunciate. It was a simple, dispassionate statement that told us she wasn’t dealing with another moment of this crap. Cadence knew it was all going to get worse from here on out, and since there was no use staying on a sinking ship it was best to leave now.
Split between his retreating wife and self-stated responsibilities, Shining Armor vacillated indecisively before pleading to Luna. “Princess Luna, can you please watch him for a bit longer? I’m sorry if it’s too much to ask, but I need to go talk with Cadence.”
If he had phrased it any other way, she might have refused. But that statement, ‘too much to ask,’ and its unintentional challenge made Luna recall my taunt last night that she had no responsibilities as a princess. Pride. Stupid, self-destructive pride.
“Worry not, captain,” she eagerly devoured the bait that Shiny didn’t even know he laid. “We are more than capable of handling him for as long as necessary. T’is no problem at all.”
“Thank you, princess. This means a lot.” He barely finished his thanks before dashing off to find his wife. “Cadence! Honey, wait up!”
And that was why I had to tag along with Luna all day. True to her word, the princess watched me like a hawk both throughout breakfast and afterwards. She kind of overdid it though, walking behind me so I’d stay totally within her line of sight. They say a watched pot never boils, and I now knew why; it’s constantly feeling that icy tingle of being observed.
“So which one’s her office?” I asked Luna, who remained silent. The last three rooms I peeked in were unoccupied, and apparently had been for a long time. In fact, for such a regal tower a majority of the place looked abandoned. “Cadence?” The door I opened led to the most important looking room on this floor, which I figured was royalty’s natural habitat. This one was actually furnished. Score. “Yo, Cadence, you here? Or, I mean, whatever it was you told me to call you. Princess… Costanza?”
She only said it once in passing. Anyway, I looked around for the swirly-maned princess to basically ask her ‘hey, I wanna save the world. How do we make that happen?’ She surely had some kind of odd job I could handle. Really any kind of starting point would help.
She wasn’t there, but I saw something just as good. Sitting on Cadence’s desk was a huge pile of paperwork labeled ‘to do’ stacked taller than she’d be able to reach. My inchoate plans possessed no real direction or endgame, but if I could piggyback some of the empire’s concerns onto my ill-defined, yet all-consuming mission, then maybe I could earn acceptance into their community faster than I thought.
“Let’s see what we got here,” I swiped some of the recent additions.
“Sombra, return that at once!” protested an irate Princess Luna.
“I’m just looking, relax. Okay, we got daily expense reports…Yadda, yadda, yadda… agricultural yields, building permits, et cetera, et cetera…” I skipped down “Ah, here we are: Current scope of damage. Let’s look at the cost.”
My legs buckled.
I was so floored by the bad news that my knees went all jelly-like. “Oh man, they’re gonna sue the crap out of me.” Cadence wrote a small footnote at the bottom of a page reminding her to ‘ask Twilight how they level and rebuild Ponyville so quickly.’
Luna peered over my shoulder and let out a low whistle. “Quite a sum, indeed. And that be a mere estimate. You’re doomed.”
“Yup.” My eyes never strayed from the string of zeroes at the bottom of the page. The rest of my motor functions shut down while I read.
I never imagined the destruction was so extensive. It was going to take a huge amount of capital and man-hours to fix. I didn’t know off the top of my head how much time a city needed to recover from a disaster, but I did know that if the DOT needed a whole month to fill a pothole, then damage at this scale would be unimaginable. The next several pages itemized a full list of damaged properties.
“Oh, my god, I did this,” The more my eyes moved down the paper, the closer I came to throwing up. “This one was somebody’s home. And-and this one was a store. And another house. And another! And,” I gasped, “I leveled a soup kitchen!” Consequences from my actions would last for years! I can’t just take that back. “Here I was thinking I could help these ponies, but Jesus, how can I even speak to them? After everything I ruined? I can’t even begin to make amends for this! Can this even be fixed? I can’t just wish away the devastation or instantly repair it as if by magic!”
Several moments passed before I had one of those light bulb moments.
“…Wait.” I looked up at the horn sticking out of my head. “Maybe…” I contemplatively put a hoof to my horn while rereading the damage report. “These costs are mostly for building repairs. That’s what Shining Armor and I were doing all day yesterday. For free.”
A smile slowly formed on my face. “I can do that.” Was this hope, or was I just fooling myself? I set down the paper to look at the princess, smiling widely. “Hey, Luna. I just got the best idea.”
“No.” She responded before my sentence was completely finished.
“But I- Look. Just hear me out.” I thought she’d be more open than that.
“No,” she repeated. “We can see where this is going. Do as thou art told, nothing more, and abjure thyself of thy fickle motivations.”
“Aye, fickle and impulsive. We have been told that thou art to be pacified, monitored, and secured at all times. We happen to agree with that assessment, especially after the scenes thou didst cause.”
“But I can’t just stand here! Not when I had that whole massive epiphany yesterday.” No matter how passionately I argued, Luna remained unswayed. I knew from experience that she was the obstinate type, so I switched tactics. “Think of the crystal horses! They had to go to bed last night knowing that their boogieman was alive and well, and living in the center of town. Can you live with that? I can’t. ”
“The crystal ponies hath entrusted their security in Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Prince Shining Armor,” she responded plainly. “Their faith be well founded.”
“I said I can’t live with that. Lady, I’m regretting most of the stuff I did, wallowing in guilt for stuff I didn’t do, and no one will shut up about how much they hate me. I gotta do something to stop this.”
“Such things cometh with patience, but now be not the time.”
“Easy for you to say!” I snapped. “You’re a beloved princess from a peaceful kingdom. What could you possibly know about the need to redeem yourself?”
Hoo boy did I feel a chill right there. Her expression never changed, but I got the distinct feeling that I crossed a line big time. Luna put on one of those too-emotionless faces that people only use when they’re playing poker or are mad at their boyfriends.
“Our knowledge of such things be more profound and intimate than thou couldst possibly imagine,” she responded with stonelike coldness.
For once, I noticed the obvious social cue and my instincts screamed at me to change the subject. “Well, uh, that’s good, right? So you understand why I can’t be cooped up in here.” I cleared my throat and changed tracks. “Speaking of that, you’re higher up than Cadence and Shining are, right? Like, in terms of authority?”
Luna pondered my words cautiously. This didn’t feel like deception, but it was definitely going somewhere. “As much as it would clash with Our sister’s egalitarian sensibilities, there be many who would say that, yes. We be a princess of Equestria, and the Empire be wholly dependent upon Equestrian aid.”
“So you can make a judgment call if you need to?”
“We do not appreciate the leading questions. What do you want?”
I held Cadence’s paper up to Luna’s face. “I want to do something about this.” Luna took the sheet and read it over. “I figured could just magic up some repairs for no cost as a way to make up for yesterday. It’s my mess, after all. They get their houses fixed, I get to promote myself, and Cadence doesn’t have to spend a dime. Everybody wins!”
Though still unconvinced, Luna hummed appreciatively. The establishment of personal responsibility was a welcome addition to Equestria’s rogues gallery, since more often than not Canterlot had to foot the bill once the damage was cleared. “A laudable decision, but forgetest thou thine imprisonment. Thou canst leave not this building.”
“Yes I can. Remember how prisons don’t work on me? The new rule is one of you royals has to be with me at all times. They never said anything about staying here in the palace.”
I was completely wrong about that.
It was, however, my honest understanding at the time. Unbeknownst to us, Shining Armor assured the whole town yesterday that I’d stay safely locked away. So when you get down to it, everything that follows this sentence could have been avoided if Shining Armor had bothered to tell that to Luna and me.
“Be that so?” Luna asked. If everything I said was true – which it wasn’t, but neither of us knew that – then technically, yes, my plan was doable.
“Yup. We’re all good here.” I nodded happily. “So,” I eased up to Luna all buddy-like, “since you’re here – a member of royalty; I can tell by the tiara – what’s say you and I head outside and do some good for the community?”
The princess hesitated. “We are uncertain. Shining Armor asked Us to keep an eye upon thee.”
“And that’s exactly what you’re doing,” I asserted. “Come on, weren’t you upset about not having enough responsibilities? You and I have a chance to make a real difference here. What do you say?”
“We,” she sounded conflicted and hesitant. But with a couple glances to the expenses sheet, Luna sighed and nodded her head. “We suppose that makes sense.” Luna, unaware that she wasn’t supposed to do this, agreed. She knew about the Crystal Empire’s financial situation and assumed that Cadence would have done the same.
“Awsome! Let’s do this thing!” I immediately made for the exit only to get snagged by Luna’s magic field.
“But first a warning.” She stepped forward, spreading her wings to make herself appear larger and more intimidating. “If thou bringst anypony to harm, then no matter Our sister’s will on the matter, Our tolerance shall end. Heed my words, Sombra, else We drag thee to the open plains and summon a meteor. We have been interred in Canterlot for the past three or four malefactors to blight our subjects, and quite frankly, We are rather eager to test Our might.”
“… point taken.” Deep as my voice was, it could still squeak. Just not that well. “Okay, Luna, I promise nobody gets hurt.”
“Princess Luna,” she insisted. “And we shall hold thee to thy words.”
Mere seconds after we left, to the point where they probably should’ve seen us in the hallway, Cadence and Shining Armor entered the office. Thanks to her husband’s encouragement, the princess worked up enough forbearance to hold back her insomnia, stress, and overwhelming responsibilities to let them quietly develop into an ulcer rather than prevent her from getting work done.
“I’m sorry, Shiny, I shouldn’t have walked off like that. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I just can’t face him like this. At any other time, it would have been a different story, but not now.”
This was a period of reconstruction where even the slightest mistake would irrevocably alter the Empire’s fragile destiny, and Cadence worked herself to the ragged edge of her body and mind ensuring that everything ran perfectly. These were times for the history books. Every day she tiptoed on a gossamer tightrope, and I cannonballed right in the middle of it. So yeah, she was in a bit of a tiff.
Shiny walked to her side to give her a supportive embrace. “It’s alright, hon, we all understand. The empire knows how much you’ve done for it. If anypony deserves a break, it’s you.”
She smiled for a moment, enjoying the comfort. “Thanks, but I still feel like I’m shoving my problems on everypony else.”
“They’re our problems, Cadence. I’m here to help whenever you need me.”
Princess Cadence’s warm smile widened. That husband of hers, he made days like these tolerable.
Now began her daily task of legislating, administrating, building, maintaining, and arbitrating a whole country almost entirely by herself. What fun.
One way or another modernization will come to the Empire, and the clock was ticking for Cadence to make the Equestrian way of life palatable to the crystal ponies before cramming it down their whimpering throats. Success was limited, as shown by the stream of proposals Cadence had to deny:
No, you can’t raid the diamond dogs for plunder and glory; No, we won’t criminalize emigration to prevent more farmers from leaving; No, you can’t dump explosive materials in the dried out well at the edge of town; No, you can’t apply for senior citizen’s benefits even if you’ve technically been sealed for a thousand years; No, we won’t invade our neighbors just to show the world the strength of our military. The list had no end in sight. Every time she finished a task, new matters would be found in its place.
Speaking of which, there was a new note left in the middle of her work area.
“What do we have here?” she picked it up. “'Fixing everything. Out with Luna. Back by lunch. – Sombra,’ He’s with Luna? Oh good, she’s watching him.”
Let’s put a thirty-second countdown on the clock.
Cadence opened her window. Even though the sun stung her tired eyes, the sight brought a smile to her face. Everything remained as safe and normal as it was the previous morning. “You know, Shining, maybe it isn’t as bad as I’ve been thinking,” she began. “Maybe Celestia was right, and some good can come from this after all.”
“That’s the spirit, Cadence. Tell you what, I know you have an awful lot more on your plate than I do, so once Luna’s gone, I’ll keep handling Sombra myself until you tell me you’re ready.”
“Would you?” Cadence hopefully asked. The nineteen-hour workdays demanded by her position didn’t leave room for anything else, at least not until things calmed down. Before he could answer, however, she shook her head. “No, you shouldn’t. As princess, I share responsibility,” Cadence sighed. “I do need time today, though. I have a lot of bills to review and proposals to read.”
“That’s okay. Take as long as you need. Those files won’t address themselves,” he tipped his head to the paper pillar on the desk. “Speaking of which, what did that letter say?”
And the countdown reached zero.
“It says that Sombra is outside with Luna. She’s watching him just like you asked. He-” Reality smacked Cadence upside the head with a firm, open-handed slap.
Shining had a similar epiphany if his bugged out eyes were to be believed. Both ponies shot to the window so fast they nearly threw themselves over the sill. "They’re out in the city!?”
“How!? How could this have happened?” Shining Armor yelped. “We’re smarter than that!”
“Oh no, Luna didn’t think ‘give him a chance’ meant Sombra got off scot-free, did she?!”
The couple shouted back and forth at each other, each reared on their hind legs to grab the other by the shoulders to demand answers. “That’s it, isn’t it?” Shining Armor gasped. “She’s projecting her Nightmare Moon experience on him! We left him with the one pony who’d be sympathetic!”
“But she was corrupted back then, and he’s just plain evil!”
“She might not see the difference!” Shining dangled out the window to get a better view. “He couldn’t have gotten far. Where did he go!?”
Princess Cadence had to yank him back in when he stretched too far. “We have to get out there! And we need a plan to get them back in the palace!” the princess cried. “What are we going to do?!”
“I don’t know! Luna was our plan to keep him in the palace!”
“Then think of something! Please tell me you have some kind of procedure in place!” Cadence begged, barely inches away from her husband’s face. “You’re the head of our military! Fix it!”
“I- I’ll send out a search party!” Shining Armor bolted past his wife so fast she spun like a top. The captain didn’t notice, being too busy sprinting and screaming his head off. “GUARDS!”
Once she stopped spinning, Cadence regained her footing and dashed after her galloping husband. “Wait for me!”
Buildings in the Crystal Empire were formed by the mad fever dreams of Fred Flinstone’s architect. Each house was a giant, hollowed-out gemstone with a few windows and doors attached to them. The place looked like a glistening Cappadocia, or a sparkly version of those cliff-houses in the Southwest. Luna and I nonchalantly wandered into the main plaza of the city totally unmindful of the scene we were making. Neither of us were much for subtlety, and we both severely underestimated how big of a deal of our presences were.
“You know, until now I haven’t had a chance to really see the place. It’s nice.”
“Aye,” Luna nodded. “The world regained a jewel with the Empire’s return. Our sister and Princess Cadenza are working to encourage tourism and cultural exchange.”
The crystal ponies avoided us. Some bowed to Luna before making their getaway, but they all fled. It wasn’t the desperate run for their lives like yesterday, but even with the relative peacefulness I don’t think anyone came within fifty feet of me. That was a real shame because there were a few market stalls I wanted to check out. After yesterday’s speech, they knew I wasn’t the same dictator as before, but that in no way implied I was harmless.
Luna ate it up. Simply being there made her a source of security for an entire city. It was a welcome reminder that no matter how far beneath her sister’s shadow she may be, she was still a princess of Equestria and her little ponies looked up to her. She did her best to maintain her stoic, regal composure, but little flashes of excitement broke through whenever a crystal pony would first look at me and be afraid, but then look at Luna and calm down. Luna’s wings ruffled, the corners of her mouth rose just enough to be called a smile, and every step in her stride was more confident than the last.
She was a relic of a distant past, and so too was the empire. These equally time-displaced ponies offered her a sense of solidarity she could find nowhere else. Nopony found her mannerisms confusing, they were completely disconnected from the Nightmare Moon incident, and they all shared in the common struggle of adapting to a world that left them behind long ago. If Princess Cadence wasn’t so well versed in the modern political scene Luna would have gleefully seized the reigns of the Empire. Heck, she already had the shimmering mane.
“Ooh! Luna, look. That guy didn’t run.” I happily trotted – or was it cantered? I didn’t know horse terminology – over to a food stall. “Sup, buddy, what are you selling? Looks good. Hey, Luna, you want one?” I didn’t even care what it was; I was just excited to be talking to somebody. “So I don’t have any money. Do you take I.O.U.’s? I’ll trade you for one of the spikes on my crown.”
The stallion refused to answer.
“Dude, are you just going to ignore me?” I poked the stallion so lightly I barely touched him. He wobbled back and forth like a statue about to topple over. Since I was once kicked out of a museum for a similar incident, I made sure to catch him and plant him firmly back on his feet. The guy remained so frozen with fear that his entire body locked up. “Well that’s disappointing.”
“Indeed,” Luna agreed. “We begin to think this outing was a mistake.”
“Nah, don’t say that yet. We only just got started. Relax, Luna, as long as you’re here nobody will overreact.” However, something was nagging me in the back of my mind. “Though, admittedly, I did have this weird dream last night where I ran someone over. I hope that wasn’t a bad sign.”
Luna whirled around. “That was y-!?” She bit her tongue. Angry as she was, Luna didn’t want to reveal that she’d been spelunking in my brain.
“You say something, princess?”
“T’was nothing,” she brushed it off. “Let us focus on the task at hoof.”
“… kay.” Luna was a bit of a weirdo. “So, should we go with something easy or with something that’ll make more of an impact? ‘Cause I’m thinking we need something big to get people talking.”
Luna’s cautious optimism cooled to the brink of doubt. “Thou seemest rather motivated, but dost thou think it wise?”
“Yeah. I can’t explain why, but ever since I came here I’ve been burning with ambition. Good thing too, because now that the initial shock is over, the ponies don’t know what to think of me.” I hoped. “Everything they know comes from that speech I gave yesterday, so I gotta strike when the iron is hot. We all know how important first impressions are – or, like, second or third impressions by now. But still, I’ve got something kinda, sorta, close-ish to a clean slate, right?”
As if to answer me, the scared-stiff stallion at the food stall toppled over, still so petrified that his legs remained perfectly straight.
“T’would seem your new friend disagrees,” Luna’s hoof covered her smirk.
“I can take a hint, buddy, no need to be dramatic,” I magically righted him back up. “Okay, new plan. This guy makes a good point. Let’s go with something easy, and then slowly build our way up.”
The princess and I began discussing the plan for today’s outing. Terrified street vendors aside, there was no reason not to be confident. Luna had things well under control, and as long as I kept her by my side nothing could go wrong. She was a responsible pony and never once let me out of her sight. She understood my motives, she was strong enough to handle any contingency, and she was more than capable of keeping the Empire calm, so the princess became my all-purpose trump card to any problem I could imagine.
Besides, Luna was at the highest level of government – someone who could bat away complaints with a swing of her executive privilege. It wasn’t like this outing was going to cause some huge, wildly uncontrollable situation or anything.
“Troops, we have a situation!”
Shining Armor paced in front of a line of guards in purple barding. Every one of them stood ramrod straight, eyes focused straight ahead, as their leader briefed them on the severity of recent occurrences.
“Sometime this morning Sombra escaped from the Crystal Palace!” Or just up and left, but he wasn’t about to tell them that. “I know you’ve heard the rumors of his mental state, and while there is some truth to them, the former king, Sombra, is still an extremely dangerous pony,” he made sure to add a pause between king and Sombra, “if we are to recapture him, we need to be extremely cautious.”
Princess Luna confirmed that the personality was genuine, but that didn’t mean he was about to start trusting me. Shiny could admit that he was being somewhat excessive in his precautions, but he was equally convinced that some paranoia was perfectly justified. Equestrian psychology held a lackadaisical ‘let ‘em walk it off’ sort of attitude towards mental illness because most of their psychoses lasted as long as the flu. So even if the new personality wasn’t an act, the real Sombra may be lurking in my subconscious ready to pounce at any second. Or so he believed.
“But first we have to find him. Scour the streets in pairs. Absolutely nopony is ever allowed to be by himself. I want this done methodically and efficiently, and I need scouts in the air right now!” He expected a chorus of ‘yes, sir’s but only received some confused muttering. “… I said NOW!”
“The air, sir?” asked a definitively ground-bound pony.
For a brief moment, the warhorse snapped out of his drill instructor persona and made a quick double-take at his assembled troops. “That’s right,” he mumbled under his breath, “wrong army.” It was difficult being an officer for two countries at once. “We need to recruit pegasi for the guard. I swear, the first one to sign up gets promoted on the spot.”
“I have a question, sir. Are we doing this as royal guards, police, or soldiers? Because I’m still not up to speed on how due process works.”
Ah, yes. Another reminder that his armed forces came from a time when anypony nourished enough to support the weight of the armor was considered prime soldiering material. The captain had some difficulties molding them into a respectable peacekeeping force.
“Just follow the tips on the cheat sheet I gave you and try not to draw your weapon unless necessary,” Shiny responded. With that interruption out of the way, Shining Armor the captain was back. “Ahem. Your first priority is maintaining the peace. We do not want things to escalate. If you find Sombra, call for reinforcements by sending a flare spell into the ai- Oh, wait, no unicorns either. Hmm… well, then we’ll use some other kind of signal. I’ll think of something. We’re going to need a lot of horsepower to bring him down, so do not confront him alone. Send word out immediately!”
“Once Sombra is located, keep him occupied until Princess Cadence or I arrive. Princess Luna should be with him, so ask for her assistance. We will not have a repeat of yesterday’s events. Get out there and keep the Empire safe! Is that understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
Princess Luna and I, after much deliberation, decided that the only bad decision was indecision. So instead of wasting any more precious moments, we walked right up to the house we happened to be in front of at the time to see if they had anything I could help with. Sure, it wouldn’t be the huge, attention-grabbing start to my glorious quest, but, hey, baby steps.
“Wait,” I said as Luna was about to knock on the door. “How ‘bout you go in first?”
“Getting cold hooves at the very last moment, art thou?”
“No, it’s just these ponies are kinda skittish.” That understatement was large enough to constitute a choking hazard. “Yesterday, I saw one guy bust through a wall to get away from me. Maybe you can soften the blow? Like, go in there first and make sure they aren’t the type to shriek and run for the hills.”
My unrelenting meliorism aside, I recognized from personal experience that situations often escalate and run violently out of control. And given that my stay in Equestria was nothing but situations running violently out of control, we needed to be careful. No more rashness this time. Punctilious precaution prevents pandemonium.
Luna, despite preferring a more direct approach, nodded a reluctant affirmative and knocked on the door while I found a place to hide.
From within, we heard a voice. “Who is it? I’m in the middle of something right now, so if you could come back later that’d be,” the door opened and the occupant saw the full majesty of Equestria’s coregent standing on her porch, “…great.”
“Well met, citizen,” Luna greeted. Again, she severely underestimated her own social station.
“P-princess Luna! Why are you-? I mean, I,” the mare sputtered and remembered to bow. “I-I wasn’t expecting guests. I mean, what an honor. Uh, come in! Come in.”
The two entered the house and I tried pressing an ear against the wall to listen in. The stone, however, was too thick to eavesdrop so I wound up sitting there, waiting to step out of the bushes of this stranger’s house to prove I’m not sketchy.
Hmm, I just reviewed that last sentence in my mind. This plan may not have been as clever as I imagined. Sheesh, what if someone just happened to walk by and saw me?
Luckily, the door cracked open minutes later to reveal Luna smiling confidently. “Thy worries were for naught!” she cheered. “She appears perfectly amicable. Come inside so that We may introduce thee.”
“Great. That’s good to hear,” I stepped out of my hiding place and into the house. “So what are we dealing with?”
“See for thyself. We believe her to be an artist, as thou can infer from the prolific artwork about the walls, or perhaps a sculptor specifically, since her latest work takes up much of her living space.” True to Luna’s words, smack dab in the living room, half-complete and hung up on a stand, was a large straw horse which could easily have been mistaken for the planning stages of a sculpture.
Unfortunately, upon closer inspection something looked wrong. The glorified haybale looked as disposable as it was flammable. It was also incredibly minimalistic, with only its extremely recognizable crown and horn – an ice cream cone painted red – to hint at whom it was supposed to represent.
I blinked, and then blinked some more as the general ‘oh crap’-ness sunk in. “Jesus, Luna, we really messed up. We gotta go. Now.”
“So timid?” Again with the teasing. She didn’t see what I saw. “Art thou truly so afeared to meet a harmless mare after such boisterous resolve?”
“Luna, that’s an effigy.”
The princess scoffed. “Jump not to conclusions. T’is obviously a model used to study the equine form. She is an artist. Wherefore else would she have so many torches for lighting, so many sharp tools for carving, and so many pictures of her subject, which… actually looks like you, doth it not?” Luna sounded less certain of herself. “… And upon second glance, that stand somewhat looks like a gallows. And there be an awful lot of kindling to yond corner. And a bucket of,” she sniffed, “kerosene?”
There was also a stack of invitations for a Burning-of-the-King-Slash-Weekend-Block-Party. ‘Bring the kids!’ Yep. Luna saw it now. Effigy. “Oh, my.”
The princess slowly passed her eyes across the room, this time paying attention to the content of the ‘prolific artwork.’ Hoof-drawn posters covered the walls with pictures of me and jingoistic slogans like ‘Freedom for the Empire,’ ‘Sacar la Sombra!’ and ‘This is not a joke: If I ever see Sombra again I am going kill him.’
“Oh, dear,” Luna finally grasped our circumstances. “We may have picked the wrong house.”
“Ya think!?” This was supposed to be an easy one. Baby steps! Baby steps aren’t supposed to walk you off a cliff!
That was when we heard the sound of dishes shattering on the floor behind us. There stood a fairly standard crystal pony mare – glittery coat, elaborate hairstyle, passionate distaste for yours truly, et cetera – with wide eyes and a trembling hoof pointing straight at me. “You!”
The combination of trying to scream and gasp at the same time made a loud, raspy croak in the back of my throat.
Luna stepped forward to try diplomacy. “Hold! We have brought Sombra here as a portent of redemption. Hear Us before judgment is passed!”
Nope. That didn’t work.
“Sombra!” the mare screamed. She grabbed her tray table off the ground with her teeth and chucked it like a Frisbee.
I ducked behind the princess. “See, Luna! This is exactly what I was afraid of!” The owner of the house pursued, even hurdling over said night-pony, and forced me to run around the room to get away from her.
“Tyrant! Fiend! OUT, OUT, OUT, OUT, OUT!” She snapped at my tail with chomping teeth. “Get out of my home!”
“Then stop chasing me!”
As I ran from her in circles, knocking stuff over to drop obstructions in her way, Luna kept calling out to the terrified mare. “Peace, citizen, We are fairly certain that Sombra is not dangerous! Thou wilst probably not be harmed!” the princess tried, but there was just no consoling her. “He is here to make amends, not bring harm upon thee!”
“Lies! He followed me! He’s in my house. IN MY HOUSE!” the crystal pony ranted. She began throwing dishes, furniture, and whatever she else could get her hooves on. “He knows! He has to know! Why else would he be here? He knows I was the one who passed out those torches!”
“Holy crap! Luna, we gotta get out of here!” Using the only trick I knew with any semblance of competency, I magicked up a large black crystal to shield me from her assault. It did its job, but from my position it ultimately made things more difficult, as was par for the course.
“He blocked the door! There’s no escape!” Since fighting didn’t work, her instincts switched to flight. The panicking pony leaped onto Luna’s back and bear-hugged the princess to near suffocation. Luna squeaked like a doggy toy. She then seized one of Luna’s wings and covered herself like she was hiding from monsters under a blanket. Luna tried to pry her loose, but she was just too squirmy to get ahold of.
I, meanwhile, tried to argue the latest accusation against me. “I did no such thing! I didn’t block it, I partially obscured the door, at best.” She should be more upset about the huge black spire I made erupt from her floor. Incidentally, I didn’t know how to get rid of those crystals without blowing them up.
If she seemed a bit out of sorts, keep in mind that this was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill citizen. According to every book she’d read, when a mighty, black creature of shadows came to her doorstep, things get either horrifying or racy and it wasn’t looking like it was the latter.
“I’m trapped! This is how it begins!” she rambled. “Or ends, maybe? This is how the end begins!”
“No it doesn’t. I’m just standing here waiting patiently.”
“Looming threateningly!” she insisted.
“Can we split the difference at loitering suspiciously?”
Luna finally got ahold of her. “Enough!” the princess shook earth with her voice. “You,” she seized the mare with her magic, “and you,” she did the same with me, “End this folly at once!”
From where we involuntarily floated in front of the blue alicorn, the two of us looked at each other and mutually decided we weren’t done yet. “She started it.”
“No, he did!”
“What? How? You’re the one who went all nuts on us.”
“You’re trespassing on private property!’
“I was invited in!”
“Only because I didn’t know it was you!”
“Need I repeat myself?!” Luna thundered. And I meant that literally. The night princess conjured up a miniature storm within the confines of the house. “Now you two,” she pushed us close until our cheeks mushed together, “get along.”
“But-” we both complained.
The crystal pony squeaked and wrapped her forelegs around me. Luna made her presence so forceful that it overrode the other mare’s fearful instincts.
The princess glowered at me until I returned the embrace.
Personally I didn’t think it counted when a hug was made under duress, but it seemed to satisfy her. Now baring a happy, supportive smile, Luna gently placed us back on the ground. If the princess learned one thing from her sister’s hoard of friendship reports, it was that ponies became eternal besties after they force their issues on each other. (And, also, that Celestia had a serious problem with living vicariously, but that was for another day.)
“There. Are not things so much easier when we all get along? Sometimes, even the most zealous of foes can be a misunderstood friend. So, Sombra,” Luna lightly nudged me to face the mare’s direction. “Is there something thou wouldst like to say?”
“Not really, I just want to get out of here.”
Luna’s storm cloud rumbled.
“I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t warn her first,” I recanted. Luna nodded happily and stopped the thunder. Turning back to the crystal pony, I sighed sadly. “I thought if I could force someone into a one-on-one conversation, they’d see how serious I was about fixing everything. I figured that if no one would give me a chance, I’d have to steal it. Guess that plan backfired.”
Luna nodded again. “We appreciate your candor. And you, miss, be there anything thou wouldst like to add?”
The crystal pony looked like she had something she wanted to get off her chest, so the princess sat there, waiting for friendship to bloom the same way spontaneous combustion did; suddenly, inexplicably, and with life-altering consequences. I nervously grinned and waited for her to make the first move. The mare, after some moments of hesitant consternation, slowly returned my uneasy smile.
The shutters burst open and belched me on the street outside. “Oof!”
“And stay out!”
The mare kicked me out of her house. Normally, ‘kicked out’ was an exaggerated euphemism for being politely asked to leave, or, at the very worst, escorted out the door. But when I said she kicked me out, I meant she reared up on her forelegs and mule-kicked me straight through a window.
“That,” I coughed, “could have gone better.”
But, as it turned out, it could also get a whole lot worse. Looking up, I saw a few dozen pairs of eyes focused squarely on me. When Luna and I entered that house, the crystal ponies were understandably concerned, so a small crowd of onlookers formed. A crowd which I landed in the dead center of. They were no longer mere bystanders and none of them knew how to handle it. If I moved, the crowd moved. A perfect donut of ponies kept their distance.
The door opened behind me and Princess Luna stepped out. “How unfortunate. We had thought Ourself a better judge of character than that. Sombra, should we try another home, or…” She saw the crowd. “Oh, swive me.”
Luna’s horn lit up in case a fight broke out. She wanted to maintain the peace, the herd didn’t want to provoke me, and I was just like ‘sup?’ It made me wonder if it still counted as a standoff when no one actually wanted to hurt each other.
As seconds ticked away, Luna, beside me, sharply nudged me with a foreleg. “Say something,” she hissed out the side of her mouth.
“Like what?” I whispered back. What could I possibly say to make this crowd hold their horses?
“Anything! The silence is intimidating on its own,” she explained.
No one liked to be put on the spot like that, but I could see where Luna was coming from. The ponies, glued together by herd instinct and deer-in-the-headlights suspense, looked like anything would set them off.
Putting on my friendliest smile – a fanged, malicious grin because that was all was capable of offering – I spoke up to the crowd.
“Uh, hi there,” Uneasiness visibly rippled through the herd when I broke the silence. It was the exact emotional antithesis of doing the wave. “Greetings, my fellow... ungulates. Feel free to return to your homes. Nothing to see here, folks: I am a perfectly average horse-monster.”
Technically, that was correct from both of our perspectives.
No dice, though. They were still all quivery so I continued. “Maybe what we have here is a failure to communicate. I promise you I wouldn’t hurt a fly, and that you don’t believe me after our introduction yesterday shows a disturbing lack of faith. I said I’m not gonna hurt ya, but if you’re really still scarred of me just walk away. You’re safe to go, everybody. Just walk away.”
Not a one of them left. I guessed that the herbivorous part of their instincts told them that the first one to leave the herd was the first one to get chased.
“Please?” I continued. “Come on, guys, I really don’t want to spark another incident. Can y’all just stop quivering and get out of here?” This time, however, I actually received an answer.
A very familiar, air-filled, rubber ball harmlessly bounced off my armor. It squeakily bounced a few times before settling at the hooves of a little, light blue filly.
“What was that for? Hey, kid, can’t you see I’m in the middle of something?” Wait up, that was the same kid from when I first got here!
And she just ruined my attempts to defuse the crowd. The herd now bore faces of horrified suspense, like they expected me to stomp the little girl into Play-Doh. “Oh, for God’s sake. I get it. Jeez.”
Alright, fine. If they wouldn’t treat me as anything but a villain, then I’d have to disperse them in a way that fit in with the narrative they all wrote for me. Thinking about what a villain would do, I shrugged my shoulders, reared up on my hind legs, and went with the flow.
“Curses,” I wailed dramatically. Selling it as hard as possible, I collapsed onto my back and shook a hoof to the heavens. “Blast it, little girl! Woe and defeat, I am foiled! Blaaaaargh. I am, like, definitely beaten and stuff.”
The assembled ponies glanced back to one another, not believing a single word of this. “What is he doing? All she did was toss a ball at him.”
“My only weakness!”
Luna’s mouth slowly hung open during the seconds she needed to process this scene. “Are you… are you playing dead? That’s your plan?”
“Sorry, Luna, I can’t talk because I’ve been beaten.” My voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. “In fact, I’m so thoroughly defeated that if I were a bystander watching this, I’d seize the opportunity to make my getaway.” I sat up to look at the crowd. “Not that I’m suggesting anything! Just throwing out ideas!”
Luna facepalmed. “This has to be the worst idea I’ve ever heard, and I once tried to make friends on a night dedicated to fearing me.” She could hate all she wanted, but the crowd actually started scattering.
Meanwhile, the filly’s eyes went wide and sparkly with astonishment. Apparently one person bought into my terrible act. “I did it,” she whispered. A huge smile spread across her face and she excitedly stamped her hooves upon becoming the greatest hero of this era, behind Spike of course. “I really did it! Look, everypony, I got him!”
“She got me!”
The princess sighed, mostly in annoyance, but, deep down, with a bit of relief. Luna dispelled her horn and rolled her eyes. “Sombra, get up.”
“Can’t. I’ve been got.” I pointed to the filly, who by this point planted one hoof on my ribcage to pose like a big game hunter. “Besides, we got one other guy who’s not leaving.”
Luna turned around to see that a single other pony had yet to disperse with the rest of the crowd. He and the girl currently gloating over my defeat seemed to share the same color scheme; whitish coat, blue hair, and purple eyes. Unlike the filly, however, he was just as jumpy as the crowd that left. His eyes were wide and he remained absolutely still, as if standing on paper-thin ice.
“Glass Slipper, get away from him,” he stammered through his closed jaw. He minimized his noise and movements on the off chance I worked under the T-rex rules of engagement.
The kid remained oblivious to his concerns. “Why are you whispering, dad?”
“Get off him and run. You have no idea what he’s capable of.”
“But dad, I got him. He went ‘blaargh’ and everything. That means I win.” The filly then sneered at me and cocked back the foreleg clutching her rubber ball. “So fork over that crown, buster, before I give you another taste.”
The stallion rushed forward, nervously fear-chuckling as he snatched the filly up. “D-don’t mind her. Kids these days, always joking around.” He set her behind him protectively. “Wow, would you look at the time! We have to be in another country in the next minute or two. Gotta go!”
The girl dragged her hooves on the ground as he shuffled her away. “But daddy,” she whined. “I wanted to see what his cutie mark means.”
“Beauty mark?” I felt my face for moles.
To the stallion’s heart attack, the filly wiggled loose and walked back over to me. “No, I said cutie mark.” She pointedly brought attention to the picture on my rear. “This! It tells you what you’re supposed to be good at. What does yours mean? Teacher says you gobble up foals who don’t eat their vegetables, but yours doesn’t look anything like that.”
I snickered. “Is that what these things are called?” Cutie mark. Man, I was going to have the hardest time using that term with a straight face. “I’ve noticed everyone else had a picture on their rears, but I don’t know what they’re for.” I looked at the rest of our group. We had my whatever-it-was, a moon, a bow and arrow, and one definitively unadorned flank. “Except you. How come you don’t have one?”
The girl moped over my ignorant observation, and the stallion, for obvious paternal reasons, totally abandoned his fearful demeanor and confronted me. “Hey! She’ll discover her special talent whenever she’s ready. There are foals much older than her who still haven’t discovered theirs! Nopony gets to talk to my daughter that way, especially not you.” Once he finished his parental outburst, however, he double-taked. “Wait, what do you mean, you don’t know what they’re for? How do you not know?”
I shrugged. “Until just now, I thought you dyed your fur for decorative purposes. Figured it was a cultural thing.”
The crystal pony raised a single eyebrow. “You earn it when you discover what makes you, you. It’s easily one of the most important moments of your life. We’re even planning a huge surprise party once Slipper gets h- I mean, ponies usually celebrate when a foal earns theirs. It doesn’t just happen without you noticing it.”
“Huh. That’s… interesting.” I craned my neck to look at my mark again. “So what does it say about me? Has that been there this whole time?” The ponies weren’t sure how to address that one. The filly was especially dumbstruck, almost as if I insulted her personally by being so blasé about something so socially significant. “No, no, I’d remember if it was,” I murmured to myself. “Weird. It’s… Well, honestly, I have no idea how I got it.”
My statements only reinforced the stallion’s bafflement. He even mouthed ‘how?’ to Luna, who just shrugged. “King Sombra, there’s something off about you.”
“Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot. It’s kind of the whole point of all this. Didn’t you hear my explanation yesterday with the interdimensional ghost-puppetry?” I asked. The stallion shifted a bit and stopped making eye contact. “You got this look on your face like you don’t believe me. Why’re you still all suspicious? Come on, what did you think happened?”
That question was rhetorical, but Luna, ever the goose to my jet engine, decided to voice her opinion on the matter. “We, for one, believe severe trauma reset thy whole personality. T’is the simplest explanation.”
The stallion beside her scratched his head in thought and also chipped in his opinions. “Off the top of my head, I’m guessing a reformation spell gave up and started from scratch.”
“Sombra’s evil twin, but since he’s already evil, it cancels out,” the filly insisted.
The three of them waited for a response, genuinely expecting me to tell them which of their guesses was correct. My head drooped. “Is there a single one of you ponies who can take what I say at face value? Am I really that hard to believe?”
“Not at all,” said the stallion, humoring me. “Ghosts are real, so are aliens, and you’re somehow both of them. Makes total sense.”
I rolled my eyes at the jibe, “Hey, there’s no need to be sarcas-” but then just as quickly I perked up. “Dude, you’re being sarcastic!” I exclaimed, to which the stallion shrunk back thinking he’d provoked my ire. “No, that’s a good thing! It’s a step up! No knee-jerk homicide or shrieking panic attacks. You’re the most reasonable guy I’ve met so far. Put ‘er there, buddy.” I offered him my hoof. “I don’t think I ever got your name.”
The stallion hesitantly took my hoof. “Er… thanks,” he said to his worst nightmare. “I’m Crystal Arrow. You’re, uh, not exactly how I pictured.”
“Good. That’s exactly the reaction I was hoping for today.” The stallion took back his hoof and scraped it on the floor like it had germs or something. “And speaking of today’s goals, were you or one of your neighbors affected by yesterday’s... events?” I said after searching for an inoffensive word.
No matter how delicately I phrased it, my words undeniably struck a nerve. “Yes,” he responded flatly. “Our house was smack dab in the epicenter. They say it needs to be demolished.”
“Perfect!” I exclaimed. Immediately, though, I backpedaled. “Or, no, not for you. It’s definitely not a good thing. But we can make it a good thing! Er, not the destruction part, though. The next part. Fixing it. Let me start over.” I stopped to sort my thoughts like I should’ve done before puking them out like that. “I’m trying to fix the stuff I ruined. If your house got hit, do you want us to patch it up?”
“I… I don’t think that’s a good idea.” The stallion shied away from me, looking at Luna for support. “This is an awful lot to take in at once. Princess Luna, do you believe this?”
“Indeed, We do.” She affirmed “After all, we are here to ensure it.”
He wavered indecisively, so I poked my muzzle into the conversation. “Please?” I asked. “It won’t be any trouble, and I really need something to go right today.”
Slightly unnerved by the fanged smile, the stallion, against his better judgment and entirely at the recommendation of Princess Luna, agreed. “S-sure,” he said, though it was definitively lacking excitement. “The place is already going to come down, so it’s not like I have anything to lose.”
“Awesome. You’re definitely not going to regret this.”
On the walk over we learned that his and the little filly’s house was struck by one of the largest pieces during the incident. Since then, they’d been staying with a neighbor. They led us to one of the more crumbly parts of town – again, entirely my fault – where we stopped in front of a severely damaged home on the same street where I first arrived in the Crystal Empire.
“They say it has to come down soon. I’m not sure what you hope to do with it, but you can go ahead and try,” our escort said as he stepped up to the front entrance. “Well, here we are.”
“Neat. It must’ve been really nice place before-” I immediately regretted opening my mouth. Where in the heck did all this impulsiveness come from? “When, uh, you know, when I did that thing yesterday.”
“Yes,” he grumbled, “it was.”
Luna stepped between us before I could cram my foot even farther into my mouth. “Forgive the impertinence. We are sure he meant no offense.”
“It’s okay. Honestly I’m more concerned about her.” He pointed at his daughter, who had been riding my back the entire walk over, as was her right as conqueror. “Slipper, could you go play at your friend’s house? I don’t think it’s safe to be here.”
“But I don’t want to miss anything,” she protested.
I agreed with Arrow, so to help speed things along I helped her to the ground. “Sorry, kiddo, here’s where you get off.” She seemed pretty upset about it. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You get to tell your friends how you single-handedly saved the Empire. Don’t you want them to know that you stopped me with nothing but a rubber ball?”
She gasped. “That’s right! They’re gonna be so jealous!” Her ears dropped down, however, when she weighed her options. “But I can’t just leave.” She raised one hoof to the side of her mouth to whisper conspiratorially to Arrow. “And what if I have to stop him again?”
Her dad tousled her mane. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” he tilted his head meaningfully to Luna. Slipper got the picture. “I’ll be sure to tell you all about it later. No pouting, Slipper, I’ll be fine. Now run along.”
She gave him a quick hug goodbye (while sneakily handing him the ball in case of emergency) and dashed off to boast to all her friends about her acts of amazing heroism.
Now that the kid was gone, I could take a closer look at the house and see that it was in terrible shape. Large cracks zig-zagged across the surface. Patchy, obviously rushed repairs were evident, but ultimately unsuccessful because a large sign on the front read ‘Condemned.’ A pile of their belongings rested to the side and some furniture was already safely outdoors. The place was completely ruined.
“Shoot, man. I did this,” only Luna heard me whisper. This, right here, was when things got real for me. I wanted to prove myself, so the universe made sure to give me a trial by fire. This place might be the single most damaged structure in the whole city. “Welp,” I swallowed a lump in my throat before it could ruin my confidence, “It ain’t going to fix itself. Lead the way, Arrow.”
The stallion ripped off the condemned sign and entered. Merely stepping onto the tile caused the walls to rumble like he activated some kind of ancient trap mechanism. As we continued, the stone shifted and groaned with each step, reminding us all of the threat of imminent collapse. “We should start upstairs. It’s a lot worse up there than down here.”
We went one at a time because we weren’t sure if the staircase could hold our weight. First, the stallion tiptoed up the stairs as lightly as possible. Next, Luna followed and spread her wings in case the steps dropped out from underneath her. Finally, I made my way upstairs, but a strange feeling came over me and I stopped right in the middle.
Luna noticed that I hadn’t joined them. “Sombra, why do you not follow?”
“Hold on a sec.” I trotted back down the stairs only turn around and climb them again. Then, to the other ponies’ bafflement, I repeated the motion: back down, back up. My smile grew with every step up. “Dude,” I grinned. “This feels awesome.”
Luna had no idea what to make of my latest idiosyncrasy. “Sombra, what conceivable purpose doth that serve?”
“I don’t know, but I love every moment of it.” I turned around for another go.
The simple act of ascending made my chest swell with excitement. It made me think of why thrones, penthouses, and pedestals are all elevated, and how terms like ‘high ground,’ ‘upper hand,’ and ‘held to a higher standard’ used height to connotatively mean better.
More steps, more stairs. I wanted to be higher. I wanted to ascend beyond everything else. To be the highest. I wanted more up. Up was good. Stairs brought you up. Stairs were good. Staaaaaaaiiiirrrrrssss.
“Sombra!” Luna called, causing me to snap out of my peculiar trance. “What is wrong with thee?” Apparently, I’d turned around yet again to repeat the process.
For a second there I felt like a sleepwalker who had woken up in an unfamiliar place. “I… um… I’m not sure. Something came over me just now,” I mumbled, my brow furrowing. That was odd to say the least. Just what in the world caused that? “Uh… hey Luna, do you ponies, like, get that instinct some animals do where they feel more important just by being higher up? You know, like parrots?”
The princess blinked two or three times and shook her head dismissively. No response could dignify that question. She then beckoned me up to the second floor, so I trotted up the last amazing steps. Silently, I hoped this house had a third story.
Up on the second floor, a jack, the kind used to change spare tires, was the only thing keeping the roof from collapsing. It bowed from the tremendous weight pressing down upon it. Daylight was visible through some of the cracks, and noticeable chunks and pebbles of crystal littered the floor.
I may have bitten off more than I could chew.
Luna and Crystal Arrow went to the wall and sat on their haunches, watching me expectantly like a pair of spectators. “Beginst now. We’ll be watching,” said the princess.
“…About that.” My eyes passed from the rubble, to the cracks, back to the ponies. “The thing is, when Shining Armor and I did this, I just held the rocks in place while he fixed it. I kinda figured you’d do the same thing.”
Luna’s disposition sprung a leak and spilled out whatever enthusiasm she’d built up so far. “Thou didst come all this way, after all this effort, and thou dost not know the spell?” Luna demanded, to which I scratched the back of my head sheepishly. “Thou art a living, breathing fiasco, knowest thou that? Stand aside.”
Princess Luna made a big show of levitating two rocks in front of her. “Watch and do as We do.”
The effect was instant. A bright, blue burst emanated from her horn and suddenly the stones were merged. It was like they were suddenly glued together and I could see a line where the fusion was made. Luna encouraged me to do the same, but I looked at her work dubiously.
“That’s… not gonna happen. Shining talked about this earlier. I don’t know how to use magic without going all ‘hrrarrgle,’” I waved my hands – hooves, sigh – to mime the gurgling motion of my horn.
Luna sighed at the latest setback. “Fine. We shall try this in a way that thou mayest understand.”
She took position again and tried recalling some half-forgotten memories from long ago.
“If We remember correctly, dark magic is baser and less refined than Ours, more instinctual but with considerable downsides.” She eyed my horn questioningly. “Darkness be potent, however, and to use thine abilities, to be frank, may be a simple matter of filling your target with magic and forcing thy will upon it.”
Luna’s horn glowed and she held up a second set of stones. But this time the color of her magic was the same sickly, bubbling purple that mine was. She grunted, grit her teeth, and shut her eyes, obviously in considerable pain. “Watch Us – Ouch! – and pay close attention – Eurgh! – for We shall only do this once.”
The stones became murky with a darkened aura identical to mine. Their edges roiled with the darkness until their edges seemingly passed through each other like overlaid images on a projector. The end result appeared more complete than Luna’s earlier attempt. No seam was visible.
Exhausted, she dropped to her rump panting deeply. “Skies above, that stung so much!” she yelled. Luna bit her lip and hissed in pain, grasping her horn between her hooves protectively. “Ow! Ow! Owwww! How dost thou do that so casually?”
I opened my mouth a couple times without any words coming out.
Crystal Arrow, however, rushed over to the princess. “Your majesty, are you alright.”
“Yea, We are well. Just grant us pause to recuperate.” She rubbed away the burning sensation with a hoof. Then, audaciously pretending she didn’t squander her dignity in the last few seconds, Luna stood up with a stern and serious expression. “So there. Cast thy spells in the manner We just demonstrated.”
“I don’t think…”
“Just try,” She insisted. The princess kicked a shard of stone so it slid across the floor to me. “Here. Take this piece and fuse it back in place with the ceiling.”
“Alright,” I replied uncertainly. The piece levitated into place easy enough, but I was still nervous. “I’ll, uh, give it a shot, I guess.”
Having no knowledge of how much power I needed to put into the crystals, I kept my gaze on Luna and kept pumping the energy in until her expression changed. I was the magical Clever Hans. My tongue poked out and glided to the side as my focus deepened. I imagined the boundaries of the edges disappearing, like two droplets of water coming into contact with each other.
Luna grinned ever so slightly, so I stopped and chanced a glance at the crystals to see what, if anything, I accomplished. The shard successfully merged with the ceiling. It worked. Holy crap, it actually worked!?
“Yeah!” I pumped a hoof victoriously. That was one of the few spells I casted without horrible consequences. “See that? We did it! Luna, you and me, we’re problem solvers.”
I was quite the greenhorn, despite what my forehead might tell you, so finally getting things right for once was a huge deal.
“Adequate,” Luna granted. Already she began her share of the repairs. “Thou couldst have made the surface smoother, but t’is a start. Shall we continue?”
“Heck yeah, we’ll continue.”
The two of us started putting the place back together one shattered piece at a time. Luna helpfully provided instruction. “Keepest the pieces as still as possible. Use as much power as is necessary, but not to excess.”
I kept up emulously with Luna, but to my frustration she stayed ahead with such casual grace that it was obvious she was holding back. With so many people going on about how I was some mighty sorcerer with all-powerful black magic, I wanted to believe my own hype, but so far I just wasn’t living up to it. As the minutes passed, I gradually fell behind.
Princess Luna put up with my amateurish attempts at first, but that amount of patience occurs only once in a blue moon-goddess, so she grew noticeably impatient. “Cease thy tarrying, Sombra. T’is not some tortuous, complicated invocation. Take two pieces, make one piece. Emanate thy spell with vis, vim, and vigor!”
She ordered and I followed. “Alright. Sheesh. I’m hurrying.” With as much vis as I could muster, and all the vim at my disposal, I vigorously energized my horn.
“But remember, not to excess!” she continued as the stone started vibrating. She backed up to the wall when the rock dimmed, rather forebodingly, the same dark shade as my conjurations. “Sombra, don’t overload the sp-”
And the rock went Boom! I’d been the cause of so many explosions lately that I could now rank them by intensity. This was a three.
When the crystal detonated it sent little, fragmented spears in all directions. By sheer luck none of the shotgunning projectiles actually hit me or the princess. Luna did, however, end up with an outline of crystal spikes missing her by scant inches. She looked like the assistant in a knife-throwing act. Several of the blade-like shards skewered the wall straight through her mane and tail, pinning the princess by her hair.
A thoroughly deadpan Princess Luna took note of her predicament and huffed. “And what have we learned?”
“Don’t overload the spell.”
She nodded with what little slack her mane gave her. “And hast thou learned why one must always listen to his princess?”
“… Is it because there’s a rigid feudal system in place?”
“Your magic powers confirm the force theory of government?”
“No. It is because We are considerably older and wiser than thyself, and when we tell thee something, it would behoove thee to listen,” she corrected. “Now get Us out of here, and pray that Our mane is not ruined.”
As requested, I tried to get her loose. Unfortunately, my wizardry ranked somewhere between pitiful and pathetic, so I couldn’t pluck out the shards. I’d just clamped my teeth around a crystal when Luna pushed me away.
“Oh, for harmony’s sake just let me do it.” Her blue aura wrapped around the crystals keeping her pinned. “All it takes – Urgh! – is a little bit – Nng! – of acuity and – Mph! – effort. ‘Tis – Rgh! – simple! ”
When that didn’t work Luna’s magic blinked out and she gave her trapped mane an experimental tug.
“Hmm.” Her magic returned brighter than ever and pulled at the stakes with phenomenal cosmic power. “HRRRRRNGH!” After another failure, she switched tactics and began using short, rapid-fire bursts of magic to dislodge them. She even tugged back and forth with her neck, as if headbanging would jar them loose. “Nng! Nng! Nnnng! OWW!” Her eyes misted from pulling too hard. Finally, she let her horn flicker out and admitted defeat. “Actually, that’s quite stuck, isn’t it?”
“Well, well, well. Now look who can’t live up to her own ‘boisterous resolve,’” I mocked with her own words. “Not so easy, is it?”
Luna scowled, but it was more competitive than angry. “Hush thy mouth, neophyte. We are just getting started.” She returned to her labors with renewed fervor. “Mayhaps We should focus on one at a time.”
While Luna did her thing, Arrow came up to me with concern etched on his face. “Do you think we should find a guard, or Shining Armor or somepony?”
“Let’s give her a few minutes first. I think she’s trying to make a point.”
The princess, meanwhile, kept struggling with the surprisingly tenacious crystal. “Hnk! We are the night, and We shall not be bested! Rgh! Honor demandeth thine undoing!” Putting a truly unnecessary amount of effort into her latest attempts, Luna finally ripped the first crystal out. The sharp shard flew like a throwing knife.
“Woah!” Arrow, quick as his namesake, dove to the ground to avoid it. The crystal hit the far side of the room and shattered.
“Hurrah!” Luna cheered. “T’is as We said. Acuity and effort win the day!” Unconcerned with how fast she pitched that thing, Luna concentrated on another crystal and pulled with all her might.
Crystal Arrow wisely backed away a few feet. “Does anypony else get the feeling that something bad is about to happen?"
“Like what?” I asked. “The princess seems to have things under control. Just look at ‘er go.”
Luna just about got the second one loose. “As if such a tiny thing could challenge a princess of Equestria!“ she victoriously crowed. Her magic grasped the chunk of crystal, wiggled and twisted it around, then fired it out of the wall.
Now here was the part when everything went belly-up.
The shard zoomed straight ahead, audibly slicing the air in its path, and hit the jack that Arrow set up. It connected with a loud, metallic CLANG! and smacked the jack across the room.
“Like that!” Arrow shrieked. Oh my god, Luna just knocked down the only support beam to the roof!
Crrrck! Taking its cue, the ceiling growled at us. We all knew what was about to happen. On instinct I grabbed Arrow and leaped out of the way, leaving a trail of smoke behind us. We tumbled into a safe part of the room just in time to see Luna get hammered like a railroad spike.
With mute horror we watched as half the crystalline roof dropped onto Luna’s shimmering blue head. A meteorite impact without the fire would look something like the clubbing Luna just suffered. The suddenness and severity of the accident shocked us into bystander mode, so the two of us just kinda watched for a minute in equal parts captivation and denial.
When the dust settled, and I saw a tuft of Luna’s mane sticking out of the rubble, I screamed. “We killed Princess Luna!”
“We?!” shouted Arrow as he scrambled to his hooves.
“It’s your house that crushed her,” I brazenly shunned away from liability. “This building is a giant, ancient rock. There’s no way it’s up to code! This was an accident waiting to happen.”
“You’re the one who got her stuck in the first place!” he yelled. “And what happened to all that big talk yesterday, Mr. I’m-Totally-A-Good-Guy? Just going to drop all that at the first sign of trouble?”
“But- This is- I just,” Ouch. Right in the hypocrisy. “I… Gah! Why’d you have to call me out on that?! Okay. Okay, you’re right.” We could still fix this. I just needed to calm down. “We need to think this through. Every problem has a solution. We need to get help. Maybe we can find the guards? We, uh…” I paced back and forth trying to think of something, anything, that can salvage this disaster.
But then I took one look at Luna and it all fell apart.
“We gotta hide the body!” Panic didn’t make for a sound state of mind. “Aw, man, this is a crime. I’m going back to the dungeon!” I grabbed my head to keep it from exploding. “Shining’s going to go berserk when he sees this! I gotta get away! What’s the pony version of Mexico?!”
Arrow smacked me right in the face. “Get ahold of yourself!” Getting slapped by a hoof ain’t fun, that’s for sure. The stallion then shook me to bring me back to my senses, but I wouldn’t stop blubbering.
“They’ll send me to the glue factory!” An observant viewer might have noticed the green tint to my eyes. “I attacked Shining Armor once, but it just bounced off! They’re rubber and I’m glue!”
Arrow kept throttling and I kept rambling, neither of us accomplishing much. But then something miraculous happened.
“Mmmng…” a voice sounded from the rubble.
The two of us stopped abruptly and Crystal Arrow gasped in relief. “She’s alive! I can’t believe it, Luna’s okay!”
“Uuuuuuuuuhhh…” she zombied.
I too gasped. “Kill it!”
That outburst earned me another hoof-slap. Okay, so Luna was still unconscious. She wasn’t dead, and that gave me time to sort out how, exactly, I could explain what happened to her. That was assuming, of course, that she would be in any mood to listen once she woke up.
Was it wrong to hope for amnesia?
Arrow began digging through the rubble so I joined him. We managed to free her down to waist depth, but she still had those crystal spikes pinning her in place. “She’s still nailed to the wall,” Arrow said while ineffectually tugging at her mane.
“How? She had a house dropped on her. That had to have jarred something loose.”
Crck! The rest of the ceiling cricked ominously.
Arrow and I gulped in unison. Yes, it did jar something loose. The other half of the roof stood poised ready to fall, because the frigid, unforgiving universe wanted to screw the three of us in particular. Luckily, Arrow was pretty quick on the uptake. The guy grabbed the downed jack off the ground and jammed it under the ceiling to prevent a second collapse. It was an extremely temporary solution, but it worked. For now.
“There’s no way that thing’s going to hold.”
KRRK! A fissure snaked its way down a wall and the metal jack bent slightly.
“Nope! Definitely not gonna hold!” I magically repaired the rapidly breaking crystals as fast as I could, but it still wasn’t enough to slow the cracks.
“Go faster!” Arrow pleaded.
“If I do this any harder, it’ll cause another explosion.” Tkk! Krrrrkk. Another crack in the ceiling spread to the wall, breaking a lightning bolt-shaped rift into the structure. No. There really wasn’t any way out of this. “Arrow, you need to get out of here.”
“What? No! This is my house. There has to be something we can do to save it.”
“Look, man, this place is gonna collapse any minute now. Luna’s tougher than she looks and I’m basically unkillable. We’ll be okay, but you need to get somewhere safe.” CrrKKKK! The entire room jolted and the ceiling fell down about a foot. “Please. I’ve messed up so much already. I don’t want you hurt too.”
“I… B-but I…” He wanted to protest, but the loudest CRACK! of all sounded and a whole exterior wall fell to the ground outside like a gigantic domino. “It’s really going to fall, isn’t it?” His ears lowered, his eyes softened, and it may have been my imagination, but I swore I saw his colors dull. “It’s actually happening. What’ll I tell Slipper?” With painful reluctance he started to exit the room.
“Arrow,” I called just before he left. “I’m sorry. I tried my best, but…”
I had no idea how to finish that sentence.
“Don’t.” He cut me off. It was impossible to tell if he was sad or angry. “Sombra, you… By Celestia, Sombra, you need to get your act together. Look, I get that you’re nothing like the old king. He would never have tried to fix his mistakes, let alone apologize. I know you tried your best, but I won’t thank you. Not for this, especially when you were the one who caused it in the first place,” he sighed. “I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but just because it was an accident doesn’t mean it isn’t your fault. I lost my home because of you.”
Of all the accusations I’d faced, humiliations I’d suffered, and pain I’d endured over the past couple days, that, right there, cut the deepest. Once he had said his piece, he left the building. I didn’t have the guts to respond.
Watching from the window as Arrow went to go find a guard, I winced as he spared a final glance at the house and shook his head sadly.
“I am the worst person I know,” I whispered to myself.
If we have only our words and actions by which we are judged by others, then what did my actions say about me? The picture wasn’t flattering.
“No. I can’t let it end like this. I can’t keep screwing up anymore. Crystal Arrow, I swear I’m not going to let this happen!”
I should have known better. Rather than delivering a message straight to Shining Armor, Crystal Arrow ran to the first guard he found and told him everything. What else could I expect from a scared civilian? But the real problem emerged when that guard followed procedure and reported to his superior, who in turn did the same, and so on.
Thus, an emergency military communication turned into a game of telephone.
“Captain, sir!” one of the guards rushed to deliver his news to the prince. “It’s Sombra! He’s keeping the princess prisoner in one of the ruined houses!”
“What?!” Shining Armor and Cadence, who had joined the manhunt, cried. The captain rushed up to his subordinate. “Tell me everything. Now!”
“That’s pretty much it, sir. And also, uh, something about how he nailed Princess Luna and now she’s passed out. I’m not sure what to make of that. The meaning got lost around four ponies ago.”
Cadence gasped. “He hurt the princess!”
Aghast and appalled, Shining Armor decided that if that were true then he was going to stab me until I ran out of blood. “Which house?! And how could he have overpowered an alicorn?” A thousand scenarios passed through his mind about the epic battle that must’ve taken place to best the former Nightmare Moon.
“We don’t know, sir. And as to which house it’s,” the stallion paused in deep thought. “He either said ‘fifteenth to the left’ or ‘fifty to the west.’ It was hard to tell.”
The captain stomped the ground in frustration. These troops needed so much more training if they were ever going to be an effective peacekeeping force. “This whole operation is a disaster! Forget it, we’ll backtrack. You, take me to whoever gave you that information. Cadence, you and I are going with this guard to trace back the path the messengers took. Everypony else, cancel the citywide search and concentrate forces in that general direction,” he issued orders to the remaining troops, pointing in the path the runner came from. “Listen closely for the signal and rush to the sound the second you hear it, now get moving!”
“Okay. I can do this. It’s controllable,” I talked myself into pretending that I knew what I was doing. “Right. I’m the wizard here. I’m the big, important horsey-mage, so my horn has to listen to what I say. I can do this. Just like Luna said: vigor.” My horn ignited mightily, and in response the rock turned nearly black and began vibrating in preparation to explode. “Nope! Luna’s wrong!” I shut the spell off right away.
The weight of the partially-collapsed roof combined with the already weakened stone meant every crack in these load-bearing walls brought the house closer to ruin.
“Oh, man. What am I going to do here?” My entire repertoire consisted of making rocks and turning into smoke. Also blowing stuff up, but that’s what got me into this mess. Of the three, only one was remotely useful.
“How sturdy are those rocks I make?” I wondered. “Are they stronger than that jack that got knocked down?” It wasn’t like I had any other options, so I concentrated a spell on the area beneath the roof. “Don’t break the floor. Please don’t break anything else.” A dark crystal sprouted from the ground. “Good. Slowly, gently.” It kept growing up and up. “Aaaaaaaannnd… there!”
Having grown to connect the floor and roof, the crystal functioned as a makeshift support beam. The ceiling no longer rumbled and the cracks stopped expanding. “Yes!” I jumped in the air. “Woohoo! I did something right for once! And holy crap it’s depressing how happy I am about that.”
Just to be safe, a few more spires were added to keep it steady. “There. That’s done. Now to get the princess free.” The ceiling audibly shifted one more time, assumedly just to be vindictive, so I conjured another few reinforcements. “I said, that’s done,” I repeated threateningly to the inanimate house. It obediently remained stable so I focused my attention on Luna. “Good. Now, Luna, how’m I going to get you loose?”
I didn’t trust my magic, but it seemed like my only option, or at least the only realistic option.
“How angry would she be if I cut her hair off?” I wondered. However, recalling her threat about summoning a meteor – and that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs – doing so might make me responsible for a new geologic epoch. We’ll call that plan B.
Since hooves were worthless, stubby nubs that should have barred this species from developing a tool-using society, I couldn’t get a solid grip on the crystals. Thus it was back to the magic.
“Sorry, Luna, but I don’t have the fine control to pluck ‘em out like you did. Let’s hope this doesn’t hurt too badly.” Since the last thing I needed was to have her wake up to me yanking her mane I levitated the half-buried princess’s head to give her some slack. Then I wrapped an aura around every spike keeping her in place and heaved so hard my veins started bulging.
“HNNNK! Wow, that really is stuck. How’d this even happen?” I was already a king; pulling things out of stones should’ve been a cakewalk. “At least I have plenty of time to get you out of here now that the supports are up,” I said, triggering imminent disaster’s voice-activated self-destruct sequence.
I had all the time in the world and no distractions to stop me from saving Luna, so of course that was when some of Cadence’s finest showed up.
“Stop right there!” a guard shouted. Some sparkly sentries scrambled up the stairs, spears set to subdue somebody. Arrow must have told them where to find us. “King Sombra, stand down immediately and make no sudden moveme-” he started his canned orders, but gasped when he saw the state Luna was in. “What have you done to the princess!?”
My magic cut out and Luna flopped to the ground. “This? Oh. Wow. Yeah, this looks really bad.” I scooted away from the unconscious body. “There is an explanation here. Do you want the short version?”
“No. What we want is a doctor, and for you to go back to the dungeon for trying to escape from the palace.” One of the ponies checked Luna’s vitals.
“Escape?” I asked. “What escape? I didn’t escape anything. See, we got this rule where I’ve got relatively free reign as long as one of the royals are with me. Just ask Luna.”
That angry, incredulous glare they gave me must’ve been part of their training because it was exactly how Shining Armor looked at me most of the time. “Ask her how? Her majesty has clearly been knocked unconscious. By you.”
“N-no, no. She’s fine. She’s just, uh…” Luna’s crown fell off, so I hung it up on her horn as casually as possible. “Resting.”
“I’ve seen enough. Sombra you’re under arrest for, like, pretty much everything we arrest ponies for.”
“Wait! Just let me get her out of here first. She can explain everything.” I had never been arrested. I respected the law and feared its enforcers. I should’ve surrendered, but I kept thinking about how difficult it would be to hold on to a bar of soap with these impractical, clumsy hooves. “Think about what you’re doing. You aren’t seriously going to abandon your princess just to make an arrest, are you? If you give me a chance, I think I can get her out. Maybe.”
Being royal guards, they swore their loyalty to crown and country, but, since this was a brand new nation with limited common law, no one told them which of those two took priority. Unwilling to leave a princess injured and alone, they decided letting me continue constituted the lesser of two evils. “Alright. You can try, but the second she’s out, you’re going to the palace.”
“Great! Step back, you two. I got this.”
I was now right back to where I started, only this time with an impatient audience. I tried to pull Luna loose with little effect and the guards weren’t afraid to voice their concern.
“I’m trying!” I yanked, pulled back and forth, and tried to shake her loose, but the rock kept her wedged too tight. Worried about how many times I pulled Luna’s hair, I decided to go with a rip-the-bandaid method of problem solving. With teeth bared and veins bulging, I pumped more power into my horn to take it all out at once. “Rrrr…”
This was a phenomenally terrible plan because I had yet to fully understand the correlation between my state of mind and the strength of the magic. Fear that I had hurt Luna, frustration from being unable to help a single person today, and that feeling of impotence from being unable to control my own powers created a nice, hot cup of resentment that my horn greedily slurped up. And with the guards egging me on, it was only a matter of time before something had to give. And when the rock finally gave, with all that built-up energy, it gave hard.
Pretty much the whole pile exploded backwards, and with it, so did Princess Luna.
The princess majestically sailed over our heads, her beautiful mane aflutter, and glided a magnificent arc all the way across the room until she landed in a manner that wasn’t quite as graceful as we would have hoped.
CRCK! KTHRAK! THUMP!
A loud crash followed another, and another, and another. Upon seeing what had happened I nearly swallowed my own tongue, because – and I swear to every god that’s still worshipped this was an accident – I just threw Luna down a flight of stairs.
THUMP! Whump! THWACK! Thump-THUMP-Thump! THCK!
My god, that mare could bounce. Her limp, unconscious body slid, rolled, and slammed down the solid stone steps. Her floppy head slapped her face into sharp corners with reckless abandon, gleefully pounding a lively drumbeat the whole way. The guards and I flinched with each thump as if we were the ones being struck. It was a bad day to be Luna’s skull.
Clack! THUMP-Thunk! Bump! .............KRACK!
Once it mercifully ended, all three of us peered down to see the damage with eyes and mouths wide open. Then the two guards faced me with eyebrows furrowing in scarcely contained fury.
“I,” my mouth dried to the consistency of sandpaper. “I didn’t mean to.” Arrow was right about me.
One guard’s face turned red while the other’s ears made the whistling sound of a teapot boiling over. I opened my mouth, but words wouldn’t come out. I choked on dread and remorse as it balled up in my throat.
A couple of things happened. One: The guards charged. So great was their rage that they didn’t even bother with their weapons, preferring a primal, atavistic leap with their bare hooves. Two: I dodged out of the way. This in itself seemed like the natural and expected course of action, and panic reinforced that assumption. In fact, it did such a good job of it that I didn’t realize I’d thrown myself out of a second story window until I fell halfway to the ground.
“WHY!?” This confirmed it: I’m cursed.
Defenestration really helps a person regain focus and I fired up that spell to turn myself into smoke. Intangibility was the best power for someone as accident prone as me. With full confidence in my escape plan, my horn blazed so I could harmlessly splash into the ground as an incorporeal shade. Once that was done, I needed t-
Or I could land flat on my face. The extent of my magical incompetence could never be overstated. It took me so long to prepare that spell that I swan dived into the pavement long before it took effect. The force was so powerful that I think my whole head went perfectly flat at the moment of impact.
“Owwwwwww,” I whined. Getting punched in the face by the Earth hurt exactly as much as it sounded. Knowing that nothing I could say would patch things over here, I brushed myself off, cracked my snout back into place, and dashed off as fast as my legs could carry me.
Back at the house a guard poked his head out of the window to see me escaping. “He’s getting away!” he shouted. “Sound the emergency flugelhorn!”
The blare of a distant and inappropriately festive trumpet froze Shining Armor’s blood in his veins. Gone was any hope of finding Luna peacefully. This was it. This just got real. That was the signal.
Cadence, still somewhat jumpy from imagining the implications of my escape, wondered why her husband stopped in place and went all stiff. “Honey, what was that?”
“That,” he gulped, “was the emergency signal.” The captain spoke in condemned whispers.
Cadence swiveled her ears around to triangulate the noise. “It sounded like a horn from the Crystal Fair.”
“When we’re using it, it’s the emergency signal,” he asserted. “It means we found him, and something’s gone terribly wrong.” They didn’t have time to come up with a full, coherent code, so, to paraphrase; a short sound meant ‘please send assistance, I have found King Sombra’ and a long, loud, continuous blast said ‘Everything’s fubar! We’re all gonna die!’
Cadence’s ears stopped moving as her eyes widened to the size of saucers. Those ears dropped to the back of her neck and she felt her blood run cold. “Wrong?” she asked. Shiny could hear the dread sinking into her voice. “Terribly wrong?”
Regretfully, Shiny nodded.
Cadence’s wings involuntarily sprang out on either side. “No!” she cried. “No more wrong! We’re done with wrong!” She latched on to her husband’s armor and wrenched him close. “Everything’s already gone wrong, Shiny! We can’t handle any more wrong!”
Shining’s placations were overridden when the horn blew once again in the distance.
This time, Cadence locked on to its source. “That way!” Still clinging to her husband, the mare vaulted into the air and blasted into the sky with a mighty beat of her wings. Shining Armor’s surprised yelp sounded suspiciously like a terrified shriek, but for the sake of his pride we’ll blame the Doppler Effect.
“It came from that house!” Cadence flew even faster. She zeroed in on an extensively damaged home near the site of the original confrontation yesterday.
With her husband still in tow, they dove through a convenient hole in the roof. “Soldiers, we’ve arrived!” She landed with a crash and her husband bounced and rolled to a stop. Luckily, some prudently placed pillars stopped anything from shaking loose. “Where is the wrongness?” She asked. “I mean, what’s wrong? I mean, what happened? Tell me what happened without using the word ‘wrong.’”
Being as concise as possible, a guard first pointed to the fallen slab of former roof. “This,” he referred to the rubble. “Did that.” His hoof pointed down the stairs. “Sombra dropped it on her.”
Shining Armor, woozy from experiencing the same level of g-forces as a golf ball, tottered unsteadily back to his hooves. “Give me a warning next time you do that.” He cricked his neck back and forth to make he didn’t get whiplash. The mare, however, zipped right past him.
“Where is he? Where did he go?!” she asked aloud. Cadence reached the top of the stairs where the guard pointed. When she looked down and saw an uncomfortably contortioned alicorn lying at the bottom she gasped so hard all four hooves left the ground. “Omigosh, Luna! What did he do to you?!” She leaped down the whole stairway to check on her aunt.
Shining Armor had a more subdued, but no less horrified reaction. “He knocked her unconscious! Quick, see if she’s okay!”
Way ahead of him, Cadence tried to arouse the princess, which consisted of sitting on top of the night-pony and rapidly shaking her head to wake her. “Luna! Speak to me Luna!”
“Not like that! You’re crushing her. I don’t think she can breathe.”
Yet another gasp escaped the mare. “She’s not breathing?!” Cadence squawked. To save the life of her fellow alicorn, she raised both forehooves high into the air and slammed them down on the night princess’s chest. “BREATHE! Wake up, Luna! I’ll save you! Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? Stay away from the light, auntie! No matter what happens, stay away from the light!”
Cadence inhaled a deep breath, ready to blow it all down Luna’s trachea when Shining pulled her off of the blue diarch. “Cadence, don’t! You’re just going to make it worse!”
The princess squirmed his magical grip. “What else am I supposed to do, Shiny? Everything’s falling apart!”
Shining Armor struggled to keep his flailing wife in his grasp. “I understand you’re a little stressed out, but you need to handle this better. This whole day you’ve been fraying at the edges. Do you need to go back to the palace? Honey, you’ve got to pull yourself together.”
The squirming instantly stopped. Cadence casually dispelled her husband’s magic and walked right up to him, eyes brimming with indignation. “Pull myself together?” she asked as if she had taken those words as a personal insult. “You think I’ve been a little stressed out? That I need to handle it better?” Shining Armor backed away from his wife’s confrontational advance.
“Shining, darling, look at me. We’re both anxious. We’re both upset. And, yes, we’re both somewhat over our heads with the city’s reconstruction. But you didn’t have to address the fallout from Sombra’s reign. I’ve had to rebuild the empire’s legal and economic framework from scratch, I haven’t had a full night of sleep in months, and every day I personally go through more paperwork than most companies!” She jabbed a hoof at her husband’s armored chest every few words. “All of that pales in comparison to how difficult it was to assure the crystal ponies that King Sombra wasn’t coming back for revenge!” Cadence’s crown popped off of her head, spun a full three-sixty, and landed right back in its place. “But now Sombra has escaped our custody, AGAIN, caused yet another public scene, and he bashed my aunt’s head in with a rock! I think it’s okay to feel a little stressed out!”
Princess Cadence finished her rant, chest heaving, and dared the captain to respond. Shining wisely decided to keep his mouth shut.
If Shining Armor seemed to be dealing with this situation a lot better than his wife, then it should be pointed out that Cadence had tons more responsibilities and a lot more to prove than he did. She bore her burdens admirably, and may have been able to carry them if I hadn’t shown up, but my presence here was the final straw that karate chopped her back in half.
The angry heaving stopped and Cadence’s ears, eyes, and wings drooped sadly. “I shouldn’t have snapped like that. I’m sorry, you’re right. I am taking this a bit hard. It’s just… Oh, this is so much worse that we thought. If Luna’s here, then where is Sombra?” Cadence used the same breathing technique she taught Twilight to pull herself together. “Okay. We can do this. First, somepony needs to get Luna back to the palace. Shining, I need you to take her.” Before the stallion could interject, Cadence shushed him with a raised hoof. “We don’t have any other unicorns to transport her and, Shining, between the two of us, I’m more likely to find Sombra.” She flared her wings as explanation. “All I have to do is put him in a force field since he hasn’t figured out how to break them yet. This is doable. We just have to figure out where he went.”
I glided through town as a Sun-blotting smog to an alley far away from prying eyes. Despite blindly charging through the city as a gloomy miasma, I somehow managed to avoid detection. I wanted to run away, but I had nowhere to run to. Everything was ruined in a most spectacular fashion and I felt like finding a dark corner somewhere and crying. A roof was leveled, a princess bludgeoned, a citizen terrified, a family rendered homeless, and an army sortied to hunt me down: truly, philanthropy at its finest.
“Why does this keep happening?” I shouted. After resolidifying I started pacing in frustration, leaving cracks in the crystalline pavement with every stomp. “How is it this freaking hard!? Every time I try to help, I just make everything worse!”
The loose trash in the alley shot away from me. The fact that my eyes pulsed green went unnoticed. Every word from my mouth came from deeper in my throat, welling up more venom and loathing. “I didn’t ask for this,” I growled. “All I wanted to do was make the best of a bad situation, but they won’t let me.”
The first, faint, violet vapors began to pour from my eyes, now jaded in both color and temperament. “Yeah. That’s right. If Cadence or Shining just worked with me from the start, none of this would have happened! But instead they caged me like a rabid animal! What else was I expected to do but escape!? This is all their fault! This is their faullllll- what the heck am I saying?”
I cut myself off in mid-sentence. That wasn’t me. Or, well, okay it was me, but it wasn’t me-me. I shook my head rapidly and even bopped myself with a hoof to dispel those uncharacteristic opinions. “What on earth was that about? I never shift blame onto other people. I’m not that kind of person. Why would I say that?”
Introspection, however, would have to wait. There was a clicking sound not too far away.
“I think I heard something in this alley.”
My ears swiveled automatically to where I heard that voice. Those were footsteps. Or hoof clops, whatever. “Someone’s coming!” I yelped. “Shoot, the guards must be looking for me. I gotta hide!” With nowhere else to go, I leaped into the alley’s dumpster and slammed the lid closed. “Did they see me?”
Holy mother of God that was a mistake!
The dumpster wasn’t empty when I dove into it, so I now stood fetlock-deep in something truly vile. The gunk in here wasn’t the modern-day garbage of unrecycled cans and year-old smartphones. This was a putrid bowl of mushy fermentation. Cadence must have been trying to introduce sanitation laws, but forgot to invent the Hefty bag. Here was all the filth of the Dung Ages, now in one convenient box.
“Urp!” I choked back a gag.
Those voices weren’t too far away. With any luck, they’d see an empty alley and keep walking. But the smell was unbearable. Come on, just a few more seconds. Let the guards pass. It should only take a couple moments. Just a few more…
“PLEUGH!” Unable to tolerate another second, I exploded out of the garbage like a hobo jack-in-the-box. “Oh my god, that smell!” I wheezed for clean air. “It’s like the mangiest dog in the world took a blood dump! Blaugh!”
The instinct to cover my nose became my new physiology’s cruelest prank because I smeared that awful gunk right on my snout. It made me gag so hard I toppled out of the dumpster. “HURK!”
So there I was, gasping for breath, dry heaving, and wondering where I could get a tetanus shot when I looked up to find the shocked, unblinking stare of a pair of Cadence’s guards.
I froze still. They froze still. Nobody moved a muscle. I stared. They stared back. Neither of them said a word for what was easily half a minute. They never walked past the alley. Instead they turned down it to ensure the area was clear. “Yup,” I whispered to myself. “Cursed.”
“Found him.” One of them pointed at me.
Actually, you know what? No more of this could be attributed to bad luck. I simply made terrible decisions with awful consequences. It was my own fault that I stood here, smelling like someone burned down a tannery, and mere seconds away from getting dragged back to the dungeon.
I knew that logically, but my emotions broiled at these guards who were just doing their jobs. The angry bitterness I felt returned in full force. It was like part of me stepped aside and let someone else dictate my feelings. How strange that I didn’t feel upset or disappointed. If anything I felt only indignation. Righteous indignation.
“Now before anyone does something hasty,” I began. But simply breaking the silence was enough to force their hand. A guard blasted his flugelhorn with all the power in his lungs. “What did I Just TELL YOU?!” I roared.
Doing something hasty, I barreled straight through the two of them and took off running at top speed. My eyes were as green as the spring and as cold as the winter, and their mists of bitter darkness flowed freely.
The instant Princess Cadence heard that sound, she blasted into the air, wings flapping faster than a hummingbird’s, and started circling through the air in search of her prey. “SOMBRA!” Cadence’s voice echoed distantly from above. A pink blur zipped across the sky with no discernable bearing other than to move as fast as her wings could carry her.
Shining Armor, back on the ground, watched her swoop around wildly. “She needs a vacation.”
He felt that he should have been the one to challenge and ultimately capture me, especially with his wife starting to bend under pressure. The unicorn grumbled at the thought of leaving her to go fight by herself, and, he could admit to his shame, at the lost opportunity for payback.
Walking back to Princess Luna, the captain scanned her over and found few obvious injuries. “Any chance of you getting up?” He asked, lifting her eyelids to check her pupils.
“Wheh?” The princess’s eyes rolled in opposite directions.
“Didn’t think so. Okay, Luna, let’s get you back to the palace.” Shining Armor gingerly picked her up with his pink bubble of magic. He kept her steady and made sure not to move her head or spine too much.
Princess Luna stirred in his grasp. “Thaa skyssss falnnnnng…” the night-pony slurred.
“And find you a nurse.”
All the able bodies of an Empire pursued me. Every guard – the entire city’s armed forces and police service – were sortied to hunt me down. This easily constituted one of the largest manhunts ever conducted on Equestrian soil (or a protectorate thereof.)
Civilians abandoned the streets, so the only other souls outside were the soldiers closing in on my location. A cacophony of flugelhorns resounded like bombing sirens. Without Luna escorting me, I was just a criminal. But my mission transcended the law. They could not stop me. No one could stop me.
It was no longer fear that strengthened my resolve; it was desperation. Frustration made my hate-powered magic stronger and that magic made me more susceptible to those same feelings. Heavy emotions and enabling magic circled, and circled, feeding back into one another until I could barely think straight.
But this was me we’re talking about. I’d always been able to vent my frustrations into something constructive. So all that raging determination and encroaching bitterness instead got channeled into one steadfast resolution:
I was gonna fix Arrow’s roof no matter what.
Smoke poured off me as I ran. Small, dark crystals sprouted from the ground wherever I passed. Guards accumulated in the stampede behind me, but they could barely keep up. So many emergency signals went up that it actually hindered their coordination.
I turned down an alleyway to bottleneck the pursuers. Once they followed, I sent a wave of power at them. Because the magic was funneled through the narrow passage, the force perforce enforced its forcefulness on the reinforced forces and they all tumbled down. With another pulse of power I commanded two dark crystals to erupt from the earth. They grew on either side of the alley until the guards were corralled within. It wouldn’t hold them for long, but I didn’t need long.
“Now is the time,” I rumbled and dashed towards my goal. “IT HAS BEGUN!”
A black gale, like the thick smoke of forest fire, raged to the sky with my roaring voice. I became a force of nature and nearly lost myself to the darkness.
My god, this intoxicating feeling. I felt like I could take on the whole world. So much power smoldered within me, just begging – demanding – to be unleashed on all I deemed unworthy. I was all-powerful! Everything was beneath me. Everything deserved to be beneath me.
“Shut up, evil magic, I’m working here!” I shouted at no one in particular. Blinking rapidly as if casting off a daydream, my immaterial eyes returned to their red color, but they never stopped spilling that purple mist.
I looked around, and there it was. There was Arrow’s house! My murky form, now the size of a fog bank, bolted towards my goal. “All eyes on me!” my voice resounded above the din. “From within your homes, from behind your windows, watch! I’ll prove to all of you that I am NOT EVIL!” So screamed a disembodied death-smog that encompassed an entire city block.
Black smoke whipped out of every shadow and coiled around the crystalline boulders. As easy as a twitch of the finger, these magic limbs heaved dozens of the stones, collectively weighing thousands of pounds, effortlessly into the air. Such power, such magic; it was awful and awe-full. And it was mine.
My eyes fogged over again.
“None can oppose me. None can stand before me. Bear witness to my unrivaled power! Behold!” There went my self-control. There went tact and foresight. Ladies and gentlemen, dark magic makes you stupid.
“I! AM! HELPING!”
That shout echoed several times across the distant plains. All the while immense tendrils, like some kind of smoky kraken, heaved broken boulders into the air. Piece by piece these wisps of dark magic puzzled Crystal Arrow’s house together. They held the building in place, and then melded into the structure itself to repair it on a more complete level. Smoke seeped into the cracks, boiled with dark energy, and seemingly disappeared leaving no trace of damage.
How did Luna phrase it, again? Boisterous resolve. Oh, yes, I had that in spades. In short work the house was made whole again. Not a single seem or crack remained.
“More! MOOOOORE!” And it wasn’t enough! The past few hours instilled me with a voracious appetite that couldn’t be extinguished with this one act alone. “LOOK AT ME!” I screamed at the empire. “Look at me straight in the eyes! I want you to KNOW what I have done this day!”
Screaming and cackling, I felt my power wax to omnipotent heights. I looked around and saw that so much more devastation remained. The obfuscous energies pulsed within me and I thought to myself, why stop at one? Why limit myself when I had so much power writhing within me? I was a king, was I not? I was a king and the city was MINE! MY city was broken and I will rebuild it!
“More power, more magic, more shadows! Let darkness and crysssssstallll RISE at my command!”
It was absolute pandemonium. Shadows, smoke, shards, and stone roiled through the air as if carried by a tornado. My horn – one of the few recognizable features in the abyss of darkness I had become – raged with dark energy. A conflagration of vicious power shed its violet un-light upon all that lay before me. All was mine to control.
And control it I did. Within the storm of smoke, the once ruined crystals began to take shape once more. A collapsed wall here, a fractured house there, they too were healed. Just as I had the power to take their homes from them, it was within me to give them back.
Everything within eyeshot was whole and unblemished. Just as I promised. Just as I set out to do.
“I DID IT! Ha Ha! Look at it! Look upon my works and DESPAIR!” I exploded with unhinged ecstasy. “Err… no, the opposite of that. REJOICE! Rejoice, all of you, I command it! BWAAA HA HA HA! I told you. I TOLD YOU AAAALLLLLLLLLL!”
Elation beyond my wildest dreams flooded my mind. Gone was the bitterness and self-loathing. Gone were the weights in my stomach and the lump in my throat. Gone was the all-encompassing guilt that steered my actions thus far.
And with it, gone was the hate-empowered magic that caused me to make such a fool of myself.
Higher cognitive functions rushed back to me all at once. My eyes returned to normal and I lost the purple haze all in my brain. This must be how werewolves felt when the night ends.
“HAHAHA Ha-Haaa. Haha ha…” The laughter came slower now. “Hee… a… aha… Haaaaa?” Without the evil powers inebriating my mind, I realized that I’d been screaming at the town with all the class and poise of a touchdown celebration.
“…heh?” With that last uncertain chuckle I slowly reconstituted myself back to four hooves. By then the very last remnants of purple and green faded from my eyes. No more crystals flew through the air. No more shadowy wisps slithered about the buildings. Just I and a newly rebuilt street remained.
“… Wow.” It was then and there that I learned dark magic was not a toy to be used haphazardly. “That- what was that?” I whispered, admittedly afraid of what had transpired. “It was like I did what I wanted to do, but couldn’t control how I did it.”
Eyes shrank a bit while the implications sank in. “Uh oh. Just how much of that was me, and how much of it was my evil doom-horn screwing around with my brain?” If the last few minutes were any indication, its influence was anything but subtle.
And it went further than that. Thinking back, it was as if I’d lost all self-awareness and restraint since I first showed up here. Like that letter I sent this morning, or the taunting that provoked Luna into bashing her own head in.
There was something wrong with me. It was like the second I got a thought in my head I couldn’t not do it. That wasn’t the case before I woke up in this body. Was it neurochemistry? Magic?
“I’m gonna need an awful lot of therapy after this.”
While I spaced out for those few seconds, I heard a loud, metallic clank from all directions. A whole thicket of spears surrounded me, signifying that the Crystal Empire’s armed forces finally made their move and they were none too happy.
“H-H-Hey, everyone- everypony.” Those were some pretty sharp spears. The guards clustered in so there was pretty much no space between each one; everybody wanted a piece of me. “Um. I did it? Rejoice?”
With a synchronized clink of armor, the guard ponies stepped forward a few inches to show they meant business. “King Sombra, under the orders of Captain Shining Armor and her majesty Princess Cadence you are under arrest! Again!”
Twice now, I had escaped from them and they weren’t taking any more chances. New rule: no more running from the police. It just makes things worse. I needed to get back to that castle and have a long, open conversation about who – and, more importantly, what – King Sombra was. But first I had to deal with the guards. Of course, after that huge public scene, as enraged as the guards were, and as frightened as I was of my own state of mind, only one response made a lick of sense. And that response was to totally wimp out.
“Yep: Palace, now. No contest.” I lay flat on my belly. “C’mon! Get the cuffs. Let’s go! Arrest me. Are forelegs flexible enough to put around my back? Do you have to recite the Miranda rights? What’s the procedure here?” The guards hesitated, having expected more resistance than this. Quite honestly, I was far more freaked out than any of them, so I didn’t put up any kind of a fight when the guards formed a big circle and told me to walk at a slow pace. “Hey, no shoving!” I said to one of their more overzealous members. “Good. A nice, easy walk to the palace. Oh! And if my eyes turn weird colors, just run.” One of the younger rookies trembled. “Right, sorry, shutting up now. Let’s go.”
That should’ve been when things finally cooled off. I kept my head down and tail between my legs. Everything seemed to finally be over.
At least, it seemed that way until I was knocked into next week by Cadence’s soaring, screaming, nearly supersonic body slam.
They had one job, and within a twenty-four hour period it all blew up in their faces. Shining Armor could imagine a mob of crystal ponies showing up any minute to demand answers. But right now the captain had a more immediate concern to address.
“Hath the swelling gone down at all?” Luna lifted her icepack so the captain could see the colossal bump on her head.
“It’s… wow. Uh, yes! Just fine. You look great, Princess.” His words didn’t mean a darn thing with the way he averted his eyes like that.
Princess Luna, Equestria’s first double-unicorn, replaced her compress, eliciting a hiss of pain from the mare. To endure an impact that could kill a wicked witch left one heck of a mark. “We’ll take thy word for it,” she replied dryly.
“Well, for what it’s worth, you can be certain that Sombra will answer for this. Anypony who threatens our subjects and attacks our leaders will suffer the full consequences of the law, insane or not.”
Considering his words, Luna subtly tilted her head side to side as if weighing options in her mind. She then sighed as she came to a decision. “About that. The fault was not entirely his own,” she confessed. “Ultimately, the lion’s share for Our predicament was self-inflicted.”
Shining Armor paused at her admission. “What do you mean? How could it not have been him? I mean, he’s him.” The captain expected, and in fact even preferred, that today be a nonstop condemnation of my character and actions, but Luna shook her head.
“What happened today was an accident,” she insisted. “And while We have many things to say to that stallion – none of them pleasant – assigning blame for Our injury is not amongst them.” But then her face turned sour. “Except for hurling Us down the stairs. That was all him. No question.” She’d heard about the incident secondhand and was kind of peeved about it. She reconsidered her earlier meteor plan. Surely today’s events begged just one, pea-sized shooting star.
The next few minutes were spent recapping the day’s events. Luna explained how she was talked into the outing in the first place, the failed meeting with the first mare, the crowd, and the incident at Crystal Arrow’s house. Shining Armor listened to it all.
“That’s a lot to soak in,” Shiny said. “But… Princess, I have a question. If you were stuck to the wall, why didn’t you teleport yourself free?”
“We, er…” Luna trailed off for several seconds. “Merciful empyrean, We completely forgot about that.” She slapped her forehead for being so forgetful. “OW!” she yelled, because she smacked her lump with a hoof.
As the princess rubbed her sore head, Shining Armor thought of another question that he kept to himself. This one was significantly more disconcerting to his presupposed opinion of me: Other than the initial escape, if it could be called that, what crimes were committed today? Shining pondered the implications. Although, yes, there were a lot of problems today, all of which could be traced to one specific stallion, but were any of those incidents truly malicious? Until now he was merely humoring Celestia’s talk of reformation due to his obligation as her soldier, but could she really have been right?
A mighty crash heralded the arrival of Princess Cadence as she kicked in the massive gates of the palace with a single, dainty forehoof. She stomped into the entryway with a scowl on her brow and a snarl on her lips. Her mane and coat were filthy.
Luna smiled at her. “Ah, Princess Cadenza, you return. We trust you had little difficulty apprehending the king?” Her co-princess, however, walked right on by without so much as an acknowledgement.
“Hold this,” Cadence chucked me at her husband like an underpaid baggage handler. Shining Armor had to grab me midair.
“Cadence, where are you going? Hey, wait. Don’t just storm off again!”
“Ugh!” Cadence stormed off again. Fuming the whole way, she made a beeline for an exit currently being guarded by a pair of crystal ponies. “RAAARGH!” she ordered. The guards dutifully opened the door and let her inside. Sensing their liege’s need for drama, they made certain to slam the door noisily once the princess was through.
Shining and Luna were left blinking at the scene. “Is she well?”
“I don’t think so. I knew the stress was getting to her, but this has got to be the worst I’ve ever seen her.”
Behind them, a loud, glassy tapping noise from within Shining’s force field interrupted their train of thought. “Guys?” I waved to get their attention. “Can we please shed some light on why and how I turned into a walking apocalypse a few minutes ago?” The two royal ponies both got that uh-oh face. Not many good things could be described by the words ‘walking apocalypse.’ “Total candor here, I’m actually kinda scared. I feel like I need to see a pony doctor. And I mean an actual pony-doctor, not just a morose-looking guy with a shotgun.”
Shining Armor rendered his force field soundproof.
“Now what?” he asked the princess of the night.
“Who’s to say?” Luna shrugged. “Based on Our experiences, his motivations are genuine but he still constitutes a real threat, both to himself and others. But there is hope still, provided he hath somepony to guide him. We know not what to make of him. And Celestia did tell us to offer him a second chance,” she reminded the prince.
“But we’re up to his fifth or sixth chance by now. I’ll grant that he may not have ulterior motives, but he still didn’t listen to us.”
“We never said that his actions are to be without consequence. T’is thy and thy wife’s empire. Ye two decide how to proceed.” Luna’s super-helpful advice boiled down to ‘deal with it. I’m out.’ “Fare thee well, Shining Armor,” she said as she began to leave the palace. “We wish you and the Princess the very best of luck.”
Besides the quiet tapping of her horseshoes on the palace’s floor, that was the last we heard from her that day. The princess made her way to the exit, spread her wings, and took off for the southern skies.
Shining Armor dispelled the force field, but by the look on his face, he wanted to do absolutely nothing but sit there for a while and sort things out in his mind. He and I stood alone in the grand entryway for a couple of unfriendly, quiet minutes. I knew he wouldn’t respond to me asking about what would happen next, or what their plans were for me, but I didn’t want us to stew in bitter silence so I just blurted out the first thing on my mind. “Hey, Shining, do you think Luna should be flying with that bump on her head?”
The captain already felt the first of many, many new headaches that awaited him in the near future. “No,” he responded. “Probably not.”
Thus, my first foray into Sombra’s redemption-by-proxy ended on a sour note. But I was certain there’d be other opportunities to wash that taste out of my mouth. Because, ultimately, no matter what consequences may result from today’s actions – and yeah, there’d be a heck of a lot of fallout for this – I’d still beam with pride knowing I fulfilled my promise to Crystal Arrow. Now he and his daughter got their home back, and with it, a desperately needed sense of normalcy.
Maybe next time I’d finally score a non-pyrrhic victory. One down, a whole city to go.