The sun overhead is not so bright when I wake up, nor the voices around me so loud. Soft sounds of near-silence accompany them: the twittering of birds, the scratchy rustle of a breeze blowing through spindly branches. When I shift my head, it no longer twinges. When this notion comes into being, it passes through my mind unbroken, clear as a bell. I’m warm, curled up against myself with my nose pressed into something soft as a cloud, and quite comfortable, more so than I can remember being in years. I can almost imagine not going to find Twilight—just lying here, soaking this up, reveling in the relief from all the aches and pains with which the mortal world has burdened me. If this is what death is like, maybe I’m in the wrong line of work.
It’s only once I begin to doze off again that several things occur to me once. Cloud beds, now that I think about it, don’t smell like antiseptic cleaning fluid, and for that matter neither do soft forest breezes. If I listen a bit closer, more sounds dilute my serenity: the clicking of hooves against tile, the beeping and buzzing of invisible machines, a dry cough from somepony right by my side and yet just barely out of sight.
Just as I realize that the bed I’m tucked into consists of starched white sheets instead of fallen autumn leaves, mortal life piles one last straw onto my back. Somewhere in the back of my mind, around the same place my thoughts of the Old Gods and their saccharine schemes tend to reside, another consciousness persists in existing, digging its way into mine like a parasite leeching off a predator’s underbelly. I need no epiphany to remember whose it is. My stomach—her stomach—curdles at her mere presence, her inexplicable refusal to fade into obsolescence no matter how arduous I make the opposite. Even after a dozen blows to the head and a dead mare’s march all the way across Ponyville, Dinky Doo still lives inside the body we share.
Inside the body I’m still stuck inside.
For another longer moment, I seriously reconsider my aversion to my own mortal demise.
Sitting up turns out to be a laborious process, less due to any palpable fatigue and more because I can hardly bear the thought of bludgeoning this frail frame over to wherever my true target still hides from me. On that note, I’m beginning to doubt I’ll even make it that far. My head hardly crests the top of my pillow before I’m sandwiched between two forelegs that, from Dinky’s pitiful perspective, might as well be tree trunks lashed together with skyscraper rivets.
“Ohmygoodnessyou’reawake!” my captor squeals into Dinky’s ear, the shrill sound not enough to revive my headache but just enough to make me sorely wish it had. “Oh… gosh, I’m so glad you’re okay!”
I recognize the mare’s voice, which given what else I remember borders on miraculous. Dinky’s mother lacks in many things, as all ponies inevitably do, but noticeably not among them is an exorbitant affection for her only daughter, whose head she has clearly never had the pleasure of occupying. The stories I could tell her would bleach her mane white, and after today I have about enough patience left to relay not a single damn one of them.
“Unhoof me, you insensate, sentimental buffoon,” I mumble into her shoulder, at a speed she cannot possibly mistake for gratitude.
“Don’t you even think about apologizing, missy!” she mutters, an extra squeeze her way of assuring that yes, in fact, she absolutely can. “I should never have let you a step outside the door this morning. Oh, sweetheart, why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”
Stars above, she even sounds submissive, and she’s speaking to a foal. No wonder the Crystal Ponies were so easy to conquer, if this is how their geographical cousins treat their young.
“Well, in your defense, Miss Doo, I imagine she couldn’t have said much even if she wanted to.” The new voice sounds feminine as well, though with her pink mane pulled up in a bun and deep stress lines etched into her white face, the mare I can see over Mommy Much-Too-Dearest’s shoulder looks anything but. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a concussion that severe, and we’re talking about a town where half the kids might as well have membership cards here,” she goes on to say, pursing her lips as she watches Dinky’s mother continue to smother her offspring and me both. “In perfect honesty, though, you really shouldn’t have let her out of the house.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” The bliss of fresh air in Dinky’s lungs lasts only a moment before the frustration beneath it flares up again, as Dinky’s mother shifts her grip from around my back to either side of Dinky’s burning cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Dinky. I promise I’ll make it up to you the second you’re better.”
The nurse starts to say something about how I’m actually already clear to leave the hospital any time I’d like, but her voice has faded into a distant buzz by the time she gets around to finishing. Dinky’s mother looks normal in all ways but one: her eyes, though roughly directed at me, seem to be looking in two other directions at the same time. It must be another symptom of Dinky’s injury, but nothing else in view seems so distorted. How can a mortal pony live with such a condition? How can she even see me sitting in front of her?
“… wonderful news!” I hear her exclaim, her exuberance untempered as if she’s grossly unaware of her debilitating state. “How’s that sound, sugar-bear? We’ll stop by the toy store and the ice cream parlor on the way home, and have you back in school good as new by tomorrow!”
She’s propositioning Dinky, bribing her with sweets so she won’t hold a grudge for her negligence. Dinky herself makes no attempt to respond, so I take the initiative instead.
“What in flaming Tartarus is wrong with your eyes?” I ask her. She and the nurse glance at each other, the former’s cheeks growing pink and the latter’s brow crinkling.
“Maybe just the ice cream, though,” the nurse says. “And then bed. Twilight Sparkle’s a sorceress, not a miracle worker.”
I’m bolt upright before I realize I’m moving, perched on the edge of the bed as a spark of energy flits around Dinky’s horn. “Twilight Sparkle? What about Twilight Sparkle? Where is she? Where can I—”
“Slow down, Dinky,” Dinky’s mother cuts in, her firm hoof on Dinky’s chest preventing me from bolting for the door. I narrow my eyes and almost slap her away, but resist with all my will, if only to find out whether she’ll tell me what I want to hear. “It’s nothing to worry about. Nurse Redheart was just explaining how Miss Twilight used one of her spells to help your head feel better. She came by while you were asleep.”
“Where did she go, you—” At the last second again, I bite Dinky’s tongue. Miserable though it may be, this is the hand I’ve been dealt for now, and all I can do is play it as best I can until a new one comes around. Until I find Twilight and transfer myself into her body, I can’t afford to risk revealing myself inside of this one. For now—however long it takes—I must act as Dinky Doo would.
“I mean… can we go see her first, Mommy?” I say, stuttering over my words as Dinky’s mouth translates them into a sickly-sweet squeak. It occurs to me now that I haven’t the slightest clue how Equestrian children sound when they speak, but it’s too late to remedy that. “I, uh… I wanna express my grati… I mean, say thank you for being, um… magical. And special and nice and not… prolonging my suffering.” Dinky’s mother and the nurse look at each other again, but neither says a word in protest. So far, good enough. “Can we just go now?”
Dinky’s mother smiles down at me, then shakes her head in a way that makes the whole room flush red. “Not a chance, sugar-bear,” she replies. “You heard the nurse: ice cream, then bed. I’m sure Miss Twilight will understand.”
“No, you blithering… uh, n-no, Mommy, I really don’t think she wi—”
I’m scooped up like a newborn before I can protest, once again denied a word in edgewise by the damaged mare’s oppressive matronly grip. “Thank you so much, Nurse Redheart!” she says, flapping towards the door with Dinky held tight against her chest. “We’ll both be more careful from now on, right, sweetheart?”
Nopony hears what I try to say in response, not that it would have been printable anyway. “That’ll be the day,” I hear the nurse mutters to herself, but she smiles and waves after us as Dinky’s mother leaves the hospital with me unwillingly in tow. Squirming does nothing to free me from her grasp, and before I can test out biting we’re thirty feet above the ground and rising. According to a blink of a thought she has as we lift off, Dinky Doo loves when her mother takes her flying like this. As it turns out, I hate it. I hate flying. I hate ice cream. I hate ponies.
And most of all, I hate myself for thinking this whole insipid plan of mine would be, in any way imaginable, simple.
• • •
As has been the trend for the day, rising from the grave to reconstitute myself inside a living mortal body proves a far easier task than escaping the clutches of an overbearing, halfway-crippled pegasus mare. True to her word, Dinky’s mother takes me out for ice cream first—which, in point of fact, tastes disgusting—and then straight home to bed, an endeavor which involves very little slumber and a great deal of staring at Dinky’s bedroom ceiling, waiting for her mother to deem a room with more stuffed animals per square foot than floor space safe to leave her daughter alone in for half a moondamned second. Dinky certainly looks fine whenever I turn her eyes towards the vanity glass. Save for the smudge left by her forehead this morning, everything in it appears normal, even her eyes which glowed so brilliantly when first we met.
By the wall clock’s account, it takes over an hour and a half before Dinky’s mother finally leaves the room for good. The second she shuts the door, promising that she’ll come back up to check on me as soon as dinner’s ready, I’m out of bed and clambering out the window, a well-placed climbing vine providing the means for a quick and clean escape. Almost clean, I would say if I knew empathy enough to care, but if knocking herself—and me by proxy—stupid didn’t kill Dinky Doo, a few scratches and a bruise on her hindquarters aren’t likely to do the trick either. In any event, she’ll be none of my concern soon enough.
There was but one saving grace of the time Dinky’s mother forced me to waste, that being the fact that at long last I know where to find Twilight Sparkle. Dinky’s mother forgot about my request as soon as it whistled through her ears, but probing Dinky’s own memories proved a satisfactory alternative. While I languished in exile, Twilight Sparkle hardly had a moment’s rest. In her most recent struggle against Tirek—now there was someone who knew the value of strength!—her tree house was destroyed in the crossfire. Now she lives in a magnificent tree castle on the outskirts of town, not even a few minutes’ walk from here. Had I the wherewithal this morning, I could have seen it from anywhere in town.
And what’s more, Twilight is not just an ordinary unicorn anymore. Neither Dinky nor I know how or why, but the bookish mare from Ponyville goes by a more regal title now: Her Highness Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Equestria, with a pair of wings and all the alicorn magic to match. A new god, I could say, right here in Ponyville, just waiting for me to find her. Razing this kingdom to rubble won’t just be easy now. I daresay it might even be fun.
Now if only I could get the taste of that vile ice concoction out of Dinky’s mouth. I would have thought something dyed every shade of the rainbow might at least be tolerable, but the bland flavors and sticky paper cone in which I found it presented proved more aggravating than enjoyable, not to mention the sour aftertaste that still lingers on her tongue even now. Dinky’s mother raved about how much better ice cream would make me feel, but I suppose I should’ve expected nothing less from a mortal mare, especially one of her appearance. In any case, all I feel now is nauseous, tired, and sick of death of the entire equine race.
That’s because you got a snowcone, stupid. I hate snowcones.
And as if on infuriating cue, Dinky Doo returns anew. She’s been mercifully quiet up to now, ever since she passed out at the schoolhouse. In keeping with Equestria’s impending fate, I suppose all good mortal things must come to an end.
“It looked like crystals,” I mutter to herself. “Now be silent.” For a few moments, she is, but only until I find myself on the town’s main street with an unobstructed view of Twilight’s—soon to be my—palace.
You’re a bad pony, aren’t you?
“How astute you are,” I mutter.
You’re going to hurt Princess Twilight, aren’t you?
“If I find her as irksome as you, I assure you the temptation will be potent. Now, in your own vernacular this time: shut up.”
I expect another rebuke as soon as I close her lips, but to my surprise Dinky finally acquiesces. Like hearing echoes underwater, I can faintly hear thoughts moving through her head, but I can’t imagine a world in which I would care to listen to them, and in any case she directs none of them towards me. With the gift of her submission springing in my step, the rest of the journey to Twilight’s castle passes quickly. Soon I’m strolling unmolested into her cavernous foyer, the castle’s gate left open to all as if she fears nothing that might pass through it. How wrong she is to think that way, and how deeply she’ll soon regret it.
The archway leading into the great hall boasts no security measures or detection spells, not even an evening guard. I can see her as soon as I pass under it, sitting in front of her throne instead of upon it, speaking in casual tones to a court of ponies that Dinky’s latent brain helps me recognize. I won’t even have to go to the trouble of hunting down the other Elements. They’re all right here with her already. This really will be that simple.
“Oh, hello, Dinky Doo!” Twilight calls out as I enter her field of view. “Glad to see you’re feeling better. You can thank Apple Bloom and her friends for the spell I used on you. After all the trouble they get into, I figured it couldn’t hurt to develop a dependable anti-concussion charm or two.”
Though Twilight won’t expect such a response from Dinky, I can’t help but chuckle all the same. She sounds so happy, so put at ease by the presence of her companions. “Yes… I suppose I should thank you,” I tell her, drawing out each word to prolong the moment. I want to watch it shatter inside her eyes as I reveal myself, feel that internal fire sputter and die as I enter her body and take control. “Thank you, Your Highness, for making yourself so very, very… accessible.”
“The pleasure’s all mine!” she replies, winking at me as I step closer. “I’ll admit I’m not quite used to having my own castle yet, but no matter how big my front door gets, it’ll always be open to my friends!”
“Your friends, yes…” Despite my best efforts, I’m chuckling again. “And also your enemies.”
“I… beg pardon?” she says, halting in mid-sentence as what I’ve said clicks inside her mind. As Twilight’s grin begins to fade, mine grows only wider.
“Oh, my dear Twilight Sparkle,” I croon. “Don’t recognize me? Well, allow me to dispel your confusion. I have returned from the hell to which you sentenced me. I have risen to retake the empire you stole from me. I am darkness. I am shadow. I... am—”
“—Peanut Butter… wait, what?”
I blink Dinky’s eyes and shake her head, the echo of… whatever I just heard still ringing in her brain. Was that Dinky? What in Tartarus is she doing?
No matter. Twilight has made no motion to stop me. She and her friends just look baffled, glancing from side to side in search of some explanation. She still doesn’t know who I am. “I am—”
“—Space… dammit to the moon!”
It is Dinky. It is her voice inside her head, smashing through my train of thought every time I try to speak. She’s not just awake again, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. I can’t think past it. I can’t get her to stop.
NINETY-NINE SUGARCUBES STUCK ON THE WALL NINETY-NINE SUGARCUBES LEFT
TAKE ONE DOWN PASS IT AROUND NINETY-EIGHT SUGARCUBES STUCK ON THE—
“Silence!” I roar, clutching her hooves around her head before she makes it explode again. “For the love of your worthless gods, I command you to SHUT UP!”
While I heave for breath in the middle of her throne room, Twilight sits motionless before me, her jaw agape and one eye crinkled into a wince. “Maybe I should’ve tested that spell a couple more times…” she mutters to the agreement of her friends. Instead of a response, all that leaves Dinky’s mouth is a vicious snort. I have had it. I have run out of patience. I will retake my kingdom, I will destroy Equestria, and I will have my revenge if I have to strike down every living thing on the continent to get it.
A spell charges in Dinky’s horn, a violent and nearly uncontrollable attack meant to vaporize enemies in a single blast. Dinky isn’t familiar of it, but I am. Dinky can’t possibly survive casting it, but I can. I am more powerful than her, more powerful than anypony. My name is Sombra. My name is death. I grit Dinky’s teeth, close her eyes, and unleash the spell right at Twilight’s forehead. When I look up again, no trace of her remains.
Because I’m back in Dinky’s bedroom.
Because she teleported her body there.
Because while I wasn’t paying attention, she redirected the moondamned spell.
Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Spaceship. Am I being irksome again?
That’s it. Game over. I can’t take this anymore. No matter how much energy it takes or how long it delays my plans, I cannot spend another fragment of a fraction of a second inside Dinky Doo’s body. Before she has time to react, I charge up another spell, a counter-possession charm meant to function as an emergency release. Before she has time to meddle with it again, I take aim at the bonds holding my mind to hers and fire.
And nothing happens.
That was a counter-possession charm, wasn’t it?
This can’t be happening. This isn’t real. This is all the worst nightmare I’ve ever had the misfortune to be stuck inside.
No, it’s happening. And it’s all your fault too.
“What did you do?” My voice sears her throat raw with just a sentence, enough that I’m surprised not to feel the taste of copper pricking at her tongue. “You insufferable little insect, what did you do?”
Inside her head, I hear Dinky Doo sigh. In my moment of weakness, she takes control of her body long enough to lead me over to her desk, where she climbs up onto the chair in front of it, flips open a textbook on magical theory, and stabs her hoof down at a passage midway down page 345, under a section entitled “Foreign Consciousness Displacement”.
“You can read this?”
“You’re an infant.”
I’m ten and a half. And I’m advanced for my age. Now shut up and read.
A frightening urge to strike her takes hold of me for a moment, until I remember how well that worked out for us both last time. “The successful release of a legilimental spell with possessive intent requires intensive cooperation between both the possessor and the possessed party. As the purpose of the original spell is the binding of two divergent consciousnesses within a single contiguous organic being, any subsequent alterations to that state require the explicit and focused consent of both occupying…”
I trail off as the passage’s meaning sinks in. “You’re not serious,” I assure her.
Dinky grits her teeth, and the next thing I know I can hear outside of our head instead of just inside. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I think I sound pretty freaking serious.”
“How… dare you!” I spit back, fire licking at every word out of her mouth. “Release me this instant!”
“I will destroy you. You and every pathetic pony you’ve ever loved!”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
“You will perish in flames! Your screams will be the symphony to your entire kingdom’s annihilation!”
Instead of replying, Dinky just sticks out her tongue. Instead of destroying her, I blast apart one of her pillows instead.
“Petulant mortal,” I growl at her as I collapse onto her bed.
“Jerk-faced creep,” she growls right back.
At the same time, both of us roll over and heave out a sigh.
“All right,” I eventually ask her through her teeth, “what do you want?” Before she can answer me, the door swings open.
“Dinner!” Dinky’s mother calls in. “It’s your favorite: mac and cheese with garlic bread!”
Dinky smiles with one side of her face, and I glower with the other. Between the two of us, Dinky’s mother doesn’t notice a thing out of place. “Be down in a sec,” she says before turning her attention back at me. As we go down the stairs and wash up, she explains what she wants me to do.
And that’s when I know for sure that she cannot possibly be serious.