Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 6 - What Ally is Time

"Thank you for coming so quickly," Luna spoke somberly. With a nod, Princess Cadence tried to muster a grin but it fell away quickly to a grim visage. There was little joy to be had simply from the feel of the air in the room.

Cadence sat beside the darker Princess and hazarded a question. "Is she alright?"

"I fear for her. She cannot decide upon anger or fear, and that has severely affected her judgment. Canterlot's guards have been spent, the ranks emptied in her fervent hunt for the escaped prisoner." Luna paused as Cadence caught her eye, concern marking her face. She continued, "I have barely had chance to do much else than ensure the city does not fall to disorder. We must focus on our rebuilding, but Celestia is consumed by this chase." With a turn of her neck Luna stretched as if to relieve her aching neck. "What have you been told," she asked.

Cadence did not answer at first. She thought for perhaps ten seconds, but scowled as if the knowledge was not available to her. "I do not know very much. Only rumors, and those are few and far between. I was told a prisoner escaped from the dungeons, and is considered dangerous. Beyond that, I have heard next to nothing. Your message told me to make all haste, and I did so. Who is this escaped prisoner... what is it?"

"Honestly, we do not know. We call it a creature, for we know little else of what to refer to it as. Many, many years ago a researcher by the name of Virtuous Sight spent great effort in learning the secrets of this being. Her reward was madness that led to her own destruction. She burned down her home, with her inside. All that research was lost with her. Only the label of 'Sapien' was left in the ashes. That is what we have called the prisoner since." Standing and stepping away from the hearth, Luna went to a small tray set aside on a table.. She lifted two cups, pouring something hot into both as her eyes closed with a long, drawn out breath. She looked pained, as if wracking her mind for information it seemed better left forgotten. "Years later, when the pony tribes began to overcome their differences and join together, it was decided that the existence of this Sapien be kept a secret for the good of all. Starswirl the Bearded had not at first approved, but ultimately agreed upon this decision as he went on with his own studies. This was short-lived. The madness that claimed Virtuous Sight had begun to take hold of him, and the prisoner was finally moved deep underground where it could no longer torment unicorns."

This was not pleasant knowledge, and it was written on Cadence's face. "It causes madness in unicorns?" She wondered aloud as she blew on the Berrywine tea habitually. Cadence had heard rumors before, though sparsely so concerning the existence of some otherworldly being. For the once secretive Princess of the Night to be so forthcoming meant times were indeed dire. The question that arose in her mind carried too much weight to be kept silent. "Why have we never shared this knowledge before? I feel this is something I should know if it poses such danger."

"It is an... embarrassment. Our mistakes and shortcomings from a different era. Times passed that we have for so long fought to keep hidden. Now, I fear we know of no other way in dealing with this situation. I only share this with you now because I fear you are in as much danger as any other. The Crystal Empire may be a target, though it is only speculation."

This caught Cadence's attention, her ears stiffening at the notion. "How can you be sure?"

"The Sapien made its escape during the attack. Exactly when this occurred, we are unsure though it left its dungeon in tatters. We still hold out hope for those assigned to it as guards." Taking a moment to collect herself, Luna took a sip from her cup. "Before it escaped, it took with it two items from the grand vault. The first is an ancient item of great magical power, the Phoenix Medallion. The other was the horn of King Sombra." Silence succeeded this revelation. Luna was staring into the small fire lit in the hearth, but she could feel a piercing gaze upon her back. The silence thickened the air to the point that Luna needed to continue. "We know next to nothing about the magic that this creature commands, only that it can alter the mind. If its magic is strong enough then with the power of the Phoenix Medallion it could potentially resurrect the Dread King."

With a start, Luna backed up a step as Cadence rushed to her.

"But why," she cried out as she placed her front hooves against her aunt's shoulders, tears welling up in her eyes as she fought them back as best she could. "We have done nothing to this creature! The rumors I have picked up were from Celestia, and barely bits and scraps at that! I never knew it, I never suspected, and I never wronged it! Why would it unleash this evil upon us once again?!" With care Luna leaned her head forward and rested it against Cadence's cheek as the fear finally broke the resolve. The younger Princess gritted her teeth as tears poured down onto the velvet carpet. "I... we cannot..." she choked through the heaves that broke through. "Why would it do this?"

"Because we have hurt it." Luna drew her gaze to the red, blurry eyes that begged of her comfort and answers. "This Sapien has been a prisoner of the crown of Equestria for over one thousand, six hundred years. Its imprisonment predates the joining of the tribes by centuries. It hails from a time when magic was more unfocused--a crude form--if you will. For a great deal of time it was the subject of experiments. In our care it has known pain and misery, and it has fought back before. Now I fear what it may do. Its mind is a mystery, and I have not the means to predict its actions. If it does seek revenge, it could destroy far more than those who have harmed it."

"But we are innocent," Cadence sobbed.

"I fear that may no longer matter."

There was a soft cough from the doorway. Luna stood, blocking Cadence from the view of whoever had disturbed them. A Night Pony stood at attention there, a scroll tucked under a wing.

"My sincerest apologies, your majesties. I have word from the hospital concerning the Oculus guards, as per your request."

"Leave it upon the ground and take your leave," Luna spoke in hushed tone. The guard obeyed and was gone. A blue glow surrounded the scroll as it levitated towards the Princesses. Focusing her magic, Luna unwound it and looked at the report. Her eyes darted back and forth over what was written, slowly widening, and upon finishing they stayed that way as she lowered the parchment. "Not a one."

With a big sniff, Cadence looked up to her aunt inquisitively.

Luna gave a short, relieved sigh as she set the letter away for a moment. "The guards around the Sapien's prison. What it did to them... I could have sworn that would be their death. They are all alive. What is more, even the most gravely injured is expected to make a full recovery, scars not withstanding." Luna's face scrunched, the gears almost visibly turning in her mind. She thought long and hard, going over possibilities and explanations for this, though finding little in the way of logic. "There is no reason why any should have survived. If this creature was capable of hanging them from the ceiling, then what kept it from killing them?" Her last question made Luna's face twist as if it caused her pain. "What horrid thoughts have I. Reason should not lead me towards the death of my subjects."

Princess Cadence was gradually recovering from the fear that had gripped her heart. Though it ebbed slowly, it was in no way gone. It had eased enough that she could wipe the tears from her eyes without worry that more would take their place. She still shuddered at the terror that had so consumed her, and the icy feeling that it was still quite real within her. Sombra had been a force of nature, destructive and ruthless in their last encounter with him. Even weakened to the point of barely taking physical form he had almost consumed the Crystal Empire. If resurrected again, how could she even consider standing against him? The Crystal Ponies would be finished if their former king returned.

But there was a spark, a tiny flicker of hope from the darkness. The fact that this Sapien had spared the guards that had served as jailers to it. Despite a chance to end their lives, destroy those that it could have easily seen as sources of pain and reminders of confinement, it spared them. Was that hope? Was there something to that? Too many villains could pale in comparison to the death and fear that Sombra was capable of unleashing. If this creature planned the Dark King's resurrection, what sense was there in sparing a handful of ponies?

She was letting her fear drive her again. Taking a deep breath, Cadence eased it out as she extended a hoof. She didn't feel much better, but she was calmer. Tears were still battling in her eyes as she remembered of her long holdout against Sombra The horrors he'd poured into her mind as she'd held him at bay. She set her jaw, forcing those memories away. This frailty towards fear was unbecoming of her, and she knew it. The fact that Luna, with whom even a smile was rare, had offered comfort was more encouragement than she had been expecting. But with danger and darkness looming, she had to set fear aside. She ruled an Empire that connected every corner of Equestria by its magical power. Now was the time to be strong.

Banishing the dark whisper of dread from her, Cadence moved to Luna's side as the Princess of the Night reread the report. "Luna... what can you tell me about this dark creature other than its history? What should we be prepared for?"

"It has never given us any clues to itself, though I fear I have only engaged with it once before. Celestia has had far more experience with it. Only what we have seen in the times it escaped has led us to speculate its abilities. It has mimicked the magic of unicorns; this I have seen with my own eyes. Celestia wrote of a time it broke free while I was trapped on the moon as well."

"She wrote it down? That isn't something she would have shared so easily. I know her well enough that she isn't one to include violence in the journals she keeps."

"She has a notion for taking record of events that should be remembered well... but what she did not do is offer me access to it. I took it up on my own accord. That is of little consequence. What her writing described was that the very touch of this creature is dangerous. It has a corrupting influence that manifests like a disease. It is a corrosion that eats away flesh to leave nothing behind but a corpse. Even the smallest touch can infect, and from that point there is nothing more that can be done. Only to endure watching the victim be eaten away slowly. It is a most vile perversion of magic, but accounts have thus only made record of two such deaths by this. As if it desperately fought to keep its powers in check," Luna muttered as she began to trail off.

"From your tone, I take it there's something more on your mind," Cadence encouraged.

"At the passage to the prison was a foul substance that corroded the very stones it covered. My sister banished it with her magic, and it cried out as if alive and in pain. It was a wholly demonic cry, one I fear I may never forget. It is enough to say that the creature has discovered a means of corrupting everything in its area. Turning the very darkness into a substance that destroys all it touches. Despite this, it took no lives. None whatsoever. The black substance was a physical manifestation of the corrosion, I feel it has no other explanation. Again, no lives have been lost. It simply does not make sense."

"Maybe it does not wish to kill?"

"I believe the same. It did not wish to kill them," a voice interrupted the princesses. Both stiffened, turning in tandem to see Celestia standing in the doorway. "Why should it? Wasted effort if its plans come to fruition."

"I did not expect you back, sister," Luna spoke coolly.

"I saw the entourage from the Crystal Empire. I am glad to see you, Cadence. I wish times were better," she said with sincerity as she bowed her head slightly.

"Luna has been filling me in with the details. This is something I feel we must bring Princess Twilight Sparkle into the fold on as well. She is no more safe than the rest of us."

"Perhaps, but for now I am hoping that this abomination can be recaptured before it has time to accomplish its goals. There is great evil it could do with the items it stole."

Luna continued her thought from before, keeping her voice level and passive as she did. "The truth of the matter is, putting all pretense and prejudice aside, we have no idea what it plans to do."

"I do," Celestia said in a harsher tone. Cadence was taken aback by this. She had always seen her Aunt as being a voice of reason and serenity. Now, it felt more as if Luna was taking that route while Celestia was falling to anger and resentment. The comment she had made left the room in silence as they all stared at one another for the pause until the shock of Celestia's tone caused died away.

"There were two messages, aside from a room of hung ponies."

Cadence forced down the desire to scowl at Celestia's seeming dismissal of such a horrible sight. She convinced herself that it was a slip of the tongue.

Oblivious of Cadence's discomfort, Celestia continued, "One was three simple words, 'Tobias was here.'"

"What does that mean?" Cadence asked as she looked to Luna, but was met with a shaking head. She didn't know either.

"Tobias is its name." This elicited a long, empty pause. Taking a seat, Celestia flitted her gaze from one Princess to the other. Both bore quizzical expressions, as if unsure how to consider this information. "I have known it for some time. I simply saw little point in using its name."

"I am sure that Tobias took no offense in that," Luna muttered sarcastically.

"That small offense pales in comparison to what it took from me," Celestia snapped. She quickly composed herself, but the harshness of her outburst took both her companions by surprise. "Forgive me, I've not placed much consideration in what it calls itself. I saw no need to refer to it in any other capacity than what those who have studied it established. Virtuous Sight had labeled it a 'Sapien' and that is what I do as well. Whatever it calls itself is immaterial."

The discomfort was becoming palpable, driving Luna to change the direction of the conversation. "What was the second message, sister?"

Celestia's response was hardly what was expected of the Princess of the Day. Her ears drooped, head tilting forward just enough that her mane fell over her face.

"It simply said, 'I am coming after you next.' I can only guess that it was targeted towards me."

"Oh, Aunt Celestia," Cadence murmured softly as she came to sit beside her. She drew herself in to hug her aunt, hoping to offer anything she could do to cheer her.

"We have given it reason to hate us. I am not surprised it seeks revenge."

With a jerk, Celestia's face moved up just enough that her hair revealed the piercing glare she had aimed squarely at her sister.

"Imprisonment, experimentation bordering torture, ridicule, and lies stacked upon lies to take advantage of its gifts; these are not actions of benevolence on our part, Celestia."

"Had I the courage within me I would have done worse. That monster deserved nothing." The bitter and pointed tone had come back in earnest. Even Cadence took a step back, surprised at the aggression emanating from her fellow Princess. "I wish I had the fortitude to end it, but have never found the resolve to do so."

"Sister!" Luna gasped.

"This creature never deserved mercy!" Celestia countered, the heat rising in her voice. "It twisted minds and ruined lives! Its very existence is a plague to us, a corruption without end! I spent two centuries studying a means to be rid of it, even attempting to return it to where it came from! Nothing worked! We are cursed with this monster."

"It is not at fault for existing." Luna maintained her even voice. "Had it been taught to control its powers-"

Celestia interrupted her sister with a stamp of her hoof. "It killed," her voice cracking as she gritted her teeth so hard they bared to the others. She finally managed to finish, "Starswirl!!" Her shout shook the small tea room as her head leaning all the way up to gaze towards the ceiling. Her demeanor shattered, Celestia grimaced as she let the words flow. "This is the beast that killed Starswirl the Bearded." Only shock followed from this revelation.

Cadence was rendered speechless, her mouth open in horror.

Luna's expression hardened. Her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, but nothing more.

Finally gaining the strength to speak, Cadence did so in a shaky voice, "He was--but he--there was an explosion in his tower. An accident, some kind of spell gone wrong." Cadence's expression was already morphing from shock to sorrow once again. "The very spell that Twilight made right, that led to her ascension! You're saying--that was all a ruse?"

"He did not die in his tower that day," Celestia whispered solemnly. "He lived on, maintaining secrecy as he continued his work. The Sapien, it killed him. There is nothing more to say."

"And yet another lie brought to light," Luna sighed. "And I am ashamed to confess that I was aware of this. I have been dragged into this spiral of lies and secrecy all to conceal a single entity." Taking to her hooves, Luna strode past the others towards the door. "Only because I swore to Starswirl to follow your counsel concerning this prisoner have I kept my shame and guilt hidden over the lives lost because of this deceit. Now those secrets are crumbling into dust. I see that when we give our word then we should keep it only when it is convenient. When will the lies end, Celestia?"

"Luna-" Cadence tried to interject, but was hushed by a much louder shout.

Luna was not to be interrupted, "When will it end?! Is there ever an end?" Her voice rose with every word. "Perhaps when we have all perished?" She roared. "When your actions have doomed us all just for you to save yourself from embarrassment?! What more must befall us before you learn, Celestia?! Consider it, because I will no longer be party to this." A dash and she was out the door, fuming as she dove from the balcony. A swift shadow passed the doorway as she flew up and was gone.

"Wait!" Halting at the balcony as she chased after Luna, Cadence just watched her soar away. "We need you," she whispered as she hung her head. This day was getting worse by the moment. The all-consuming fear that the tyrant would return, compounded by the knowledge that a being of perhaps even greater power would facilitate it. All the information she was trying to file in her mind was bouncing around alongside her erratic emotions. It made her head throb.

"Let her go, she needs time. We all need more time." Slowly regaining her composure, Celestia turned to address Princess Cadence as she returned to the tea room. "Luna and I have never truly seen eye to eye. This subject is particularly hard on us both." A forced smile crossed her face. Though she tried to make it genuine, Cadence could tell she was not smiling for happiness. "It is best that we work now to prevent further damages by the escaped prisoner."

"Tobias." Cadence's interjection took Celestia mildly by surprise. "Please, if only both you and Luna took a moment where Tobias was no longer an 'it,' no longer 'the Sapien.' If we could change, then maybe we could repair some of the wrongs that we have done. Perhaps even reason with him. So long as you make him a monster, that is what he will be."

"Cadence, it is a monster. Two ponies-" Celestia trailed off as she forced back tears. "Only two may have been killed intentionally, but dozens have lost their lives because of its foul corruption. It induces madness, drives so many beyond all shadow of hope. Others it leaves hollow, broken, and trapped within a labyrinth of their own thoughts. Once confined, it lost the power to cause so much misery. What it can do now that it is free," Her voice broke again, but she recovered with a sad smile. "No my dear, it is truly a monster. And I will consider it as such."

Cadence and Celestia moved to leave the room. With her head held high, the Princess of the Day strode regally without a hint of the show of weakness she had had before. To her left, the Princess of Love was hardly in the same realm. Her ears drooped, her head was hanging, and her mind was trying to put pieces together that refused to meet. When they were back out in the sunlight, she let the warm rays hearten her. A deep breath of the crisp air and she at least felt a little more grounded.

Her voice strong again, Celestia spoke with assurance, "I know my sister holds so many ideals sacred that she is firm in her actions to appease them. I wish I could be so idealistic, but I have learned over the years that we cannot always be so immovable. Luna would not have me take the advantage that the Sapien provided. To deny an advantage would have drowned all the world in darkness, its counsel has prevented this much. Too many times in my reign over Equestria, powers have risen to destroy all that our ancestors fought to build. I would not let those things be destroyed because of ignorance. I sought to abolish this ignorance, and the Sapien facilitated that."

"You do not sound very appreciative."

"Because there is no atonement possible for it now. Perhaps once I thought this could be achieved, but the creature only ever sought gain for itself. It never acted without promise of payment. Eventually, I simply resorted to taking what I believed what it owed the crown. If my judgment is held against me, then so be it. But I have done what was necessary, and for that I judge myself guiltless for my actions."

"Perhaps that alone is why Princess Luna is so resentful. She sees what has been done to Tobias is wrong. Though, as you said, there is little time left to ponder such things. No matter what, I feel in my heart that a darkness is coming. I have felt this darkness before when King Sombra fought me for control of the Empire. I felt this same darkness in the depths of Tartarus. It is not a good omen."

"We have stood our ground against the darkness and succeeded before. We have at our back the light and the harmony of magic the likes of which Equestria has never before witnessed. We cannot fail." Smiling towards the sky, Celestia caught sight of a grey cloud far off towards the horizon. She squinted, concentrating on it as she noticed it was swirling ever so slightly. The difficulty was not so great now, as the angry-looking cloud was growing by the second. Bursts and bolts of light danced downwards from it towards a spot in the mountains, hidden behind a peak. From the ground that the lights struck, flashes of brilliant light splashed against the mountainsides all around it.

The spiral in the sky began to compact, thickening and darkening as it reached down towards the chaotic array of light below it. A brilliant flash illuminated the whole of the area, and from it a glimmering wall of transparent gray erupted outwards like a wave. Both Princesses tensed as the wave washed over the city, taking with it a wail that passed just as quickly as it had come. The sky-spiral collapsed. The storm spewed a stream of light and magic, like a volcano would throwing molten earth, down towards the mountains. It vanished behind the obscuring peak, but the devilish green display was sign enough. It went on for moment upon moment, each stretched to such that a single heartbeat felt like an eternity. Finally the storm broke and dissipated at an unnerving speed, leaving only the grey cloud above the mountains. There, in the dark shadow of the cloud, the lights condensed and grew until a final explosion of glow cast all around it in brilliance. A shape of a bird with upward-stretched wings took form in the light, then all fell still.

The clouds were gone, the lights had vanished, and everything was as it had been before. Hundreds of eyes on street corners and from windows had gathered to watch this grand performance. Some even clapped their hooves, claiming they had witnessed a strange and beautiful magic show and lamented being so far away. Some made mention of the strange scream they had heard, but others dismissed it as just a way for the magicians behind the show to get their attention.

High on one of the palace towers, Princesses Celestia and Cadence were far from amused or entertained. Celestia had to swallow a bitter taste in her mouth that turned her stomach. Beside her, Cadence had resorted to leaning against the railing, her eyes hidden against her forelegs as she could no longer hold back the fear that once again taken hold. She knew this magical sensation all too well. She shuddered as she felt it gripping and clawing towards her heart and mind, entombing it in the worst fears and nightmares that magic could offer. All the worse for her, she'd encountered it before.

Feeling a hoof against her shoulder, Cadence turned towards her aunt who was looking down at her compassionately. Steeling herself, Cadence followed Celestia's glance and they both faced the source of the dark magic. "Time is no longer on our side, Cadence. This is no longer a hunt. I believe war has just been declared on us all."

"I fear that it may be far worse than that, Celestia," spoke Cadence in barely a whisper. "I fear it is far, far worse."