Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 10 - Consider the Debts of the Past

Spike went tearing down the hallways of the palace as quickly as he could. With a letter in hand, he was on a mission to find Princess Twilight. For the first few days of living in the new castle he'd been excited to be in the new, much larger home. The necessity of rushing between dozens of rooms instead of only a few diminished the luster of their new arrangement. When he finally found her in one of the upper floor studies, the young dragon was gasping for breath. He held up the letter, wheezing out just a few words, "Letter--from--Princess--Celestia." He collapsed forward the moment Twilight's magic plucked the scroll from his hand.

"Are you alright, Spike?" Twilight asked, engrossed in inspecting the letter.

Spike tried to respond, but was still trying to recover his breath. Instead, he gave a thumbs up and continued to gasp for air.

Twilight looked away from the scroll for a moment as she stared at her assistant worriedly. "We will have to find you a better way of getting around."

"I--know." The small dragon slowly regained his bearings. "But it's from--Princess Celestia. Could be--important."

Her inspection finished, Twilight broke the seal and read its contents. "My dear Twilight Sparkle. A matter of the highest importance has come to light in the wake of Tirek's attack. Your immediate presence is requested in Canterlot. I tell you this in utter confidence. It is not to be shared with any others as this is a matter only for the ruling party of Equestria. We await your arrival. With respect, Princess Celestia." Lowering the scroll, Twilight had to swallow to relieve her parched throat. She hadn't even noticed how stiff she had become while reading the letter.

Twilight was about to say something when she heard Spike softly snoring, looking down to find he'd fallen asleep on the floor. Her magic lit up once again, lifting the little dragon and setting him on a cushioned chair. He curled up immediately, settling into the cushion. A smile broke at the edges of her mouth, but vanished as her attention returned to the letter.

The chance to have more responsibility had always been something Twilight desired. She'd shouldered quite a bit already as the Element of Magic, and now more so as a princess. At any other time she would have received this letter happily. These were not the happiest of times.

In the shadow of Tirek's attack, Ponyville was in a state of disrepair. The center of town had escaped the brunt of the battle, but even so the townsfolk were tearing many down to be rebuilt. The library had been restored as part of the new palace, but many of the books it had contained were lost. The outskirts of the town had taken the worst of the fight, and now lay in ruins. The ponies of Ponyville worked efficiently, but even they could not put their lives back together in only a few short days. The victory celebration had been sweet, but the hard part was officially in full swing.

Now she held a letter from Princess Celestia on a matter of the utmost confidence. This was something she apparently did not wish to write down, and that often meant it was bad. There was already plenty of stress thanks to the rebuilding of Ponyville, and now she had matters of state to agitate her.

Now an uneasy feeling was growing stronger in the pit of Twilight's stomach. She ignored it as there was an important matter to deal with before she departed. Rolling the letter back up, she trotted out the door. It would have been easier to simply teleport, but she wanted the extra few minutes to think.

It was simple to get lost in her thoughts, but anxiety followed her even there. Dark and uneasy imaginings filtered through her mind as she walked. She still felt frazzled by the time she arrived at her destination. It felt like she'd traveled there in no time at all and accomplished little more than stressing herself out. She had an idea of why Princess Celestia had contacted her. If it had anything to do with the feeling that had been growing in her stomach since the attack it would not be a surprise. Though it did little good, she tried to ignore it as she focused on the door ahead of her.

Twilight knocked, and heard a short gasp come from within.

"Please come in," the voice of Mayor Mare called out.

Twilight did so, making it halfway in before she stopped to gawk at the mountain of paperwork before her. Partially buried in the middle was the unkempt Mayor, signing something onto a rumpled piece of parchment before her.

"Oh, your highness! How wonderful to see you!" The Mayor set her pen down and scooted out of her paperwork fort. "Thank you so much for allowing me to work in the palace while my office is being rebuilt. I am nearly caught up on the work orders. I was just finishing a speech in celebration."

Twilight smiled at the thought that writing a speech could be anypony's idea of fun. "That is wonderful to hear. I wanted to let you know I've been summoned to Canterlot. It sounds important."

"Oh my," Mayor Mare gasped.

Twilight nodded as she asked, "Do you have everything you need?"

"Of course, your highness. Ponyville will be nearly finished by the time you get back!" Then she added somewhat apologetically, "Well, so long as you don't get back until tomorrow evening."

"I'm so glad," Twilight responded with a smile. "Owlicious will be here if you need anything else."

"He has already been so helpful. His filing skills leave quite the impression, perhaps my staff could learn from that. Then again, he is much smaller--and can fly." The Mayor's eyebrows rose as an idea crossed her mind. "If it is important business in Canterlot then you should be on your way, your highness."

"I just didn't want you to think I'd disappeared, especially after the past few days." Twilight Sparkle was finally able to crack a real smile as the Mayor nodded. "I'm hoping for good news. The magic of the Elements of Harmony did grow a castle in the middle of Ponyville, so anything is possible. I guess I won't know till I get there. Take care, Mayor!"

"The same to you, Princess Twilight Sparkle!" the Mayor said with a wave.

A blast of light came from Twilight's horn as she vanished from the study. The Mayor blinked a few times to shake the stars from her eyes, then gasped when she saw all the paperwork around her had been meticulously organized. With a happy titter she went back to her speech.

It was simple enough for Twilight to find her friends as all but one were in the throne room. She explained the situation, and wished for them to pass on her goodbyes to Fluttershy. She had not expected the resistance she received. The letter did ask for Twilight to journey alone--as she understood the phrase "a matter only for the ruling party of Equestria" to mean--yet she found herself being pressured to fly ahead with Rainbow Dash and meet the rest of her friends for dinner in Canterlot at a place of Rarity's choosing.

"The train will arrive just in time for dinner!" Rarity gushed. "And I hardly think the town will miss us for a single evening. I find it rather unkind you would try to sneak away to Canterlot and leave us behind."

"I just think that's what Princess Celestia wants, Rarity," responded Twilight apologetically.

"Well it isn't like we're going to barge in with you! It's Canterlot, darling! There is plenty to do elsewhere! Which means I have so much to prepare! Oh, I must start immediately!" With a dainty wave of her hoof, Rarity turned and galloped off muttering about a new dress.

Knowing there was no stopping Rarity when she put her mind to something, Twilight Sparkle sighed with resignation. "Well, I guess there's no harm in everyone meeting at Canterlot. I can't imagine meeting with the princesses will take all day. So why not, let's all meet in Canterlot tonight." Twilight smiled when she saw the excitement in the faces of her friends.

As she prepared to leave, she felt the weight in the pit of her stomach get worse all of a sudden. It made her feel nauseous. She considered sharing this, but feared Pinkie Pie would prescribe enough cake to ground her.

"We gonna go already? We can get, like, two flying lessons in on our way to Canterlot!" Rainbow Dash spread her wings and blasted off into the air.

Twilight watched for a moment before muttering to herself, "I think Rainbow Dash overestimated my flying ability. Why else do I usually still take the train?"

"Well, best get after her before she is too far off. You know how excited she can get." Applejack tipped her hat as Twilight took off. "We'll see y'all later!" She and the others waved farewell before turning back towards the town.

The only pony remaining was Pinkie Pie, still waving and grinning even after the two friends had vanished into the clouds.

She was not the only one who watched them fly away. Keeping a sharp eye on the two flying ponies, Tobias stepped away from the shrubs that obscured him. He watched as they both soared higher and higher before vanishing. "Right on time," he muttered to himself before turning away. With a hop he came down and launched himself into a hard run. Within moments he was charging up the side of the mountain, bits of rock and dirt kicking up in his wake.

The mountains north of Ponyville had made for a relatively safe place. He'd been yearning for someplace a little more colorful than valleys of stone and dirt, but he'd had little choice. There was too much risk, too many variables he needed to account for. He needed to get the last piece of the process before he could make a move. That was vital. This thought echoed in his mind over and over again as he continued up the increasingly steep side of the mountain.

Pushing harder and harder, he approached the top quickly. He reached a peak and jumped over, sliding down the far steeper slope on the other side. Getting his stride he went from a slide to a sprint, careening down the mountainside at breakneck speed. He was so fast, but it didn't frighten him. He'd been waiting for so long to get to use his abilities in the outside world, frivolously or otherwise.

It felt too good not to let loose. The wind rushed through his face and hair; the sunlight on his skin felt even better than the air. He had known what the sun would feel like, the information had always been available in his mind. It had never been accompanied by the actual feeling, at least not in this world. There was nothing that rivaled this sensation.

Flinging his arms out to his side, Tobias whooped as he pushed off from the slope. Gravity pulled him down, but the rocks were steep enough that he was airborne for several seconds. This was his favorite part.

He had made this run several times, and it still was not getting old. With bent legs he waited until barely a fraction of a moment before he struck the rocks. He kicked downwards, the force impacting the mountainside hard enough to cause a small crater as he flew like a missile up and away. He was tempted to holler for joy at the exhilarating rush of speed and altitude he was achieving. Gravity quelled the temptation by once again pulling him back towards solid ground. He kept himself steady as he landed, skidding to a halt amidst a spray of pebbles and dirt. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled it hard and let the sound echo into silence. He'd dreamt of this for centuries, but never once thought it would be so invigorating; knowing he had the ability and actually being able to use it were worlds apart.

This was what he had wanted for so long: to breathe clean, fresh air; to run without anything to stop him or hurt him. This was freedom--or at least more freedom than he'd had in more time than he cared to think about. The tranquil thoughts ebbed away as he remembered where he was headed, and why. Looking over the ridge he could see the cave; a quick sprint and he would be there.

Everything so far had been predictable, from the time it took Celestia to listen to the reason of her sister, to her sending the letter drawing the guardian Princess from Ponyville. He could move forward with his plan, and he was glad to do so. There was very little time left.

Bounding down towards the cave, Tobias decided to make one last check before moving forward. He saw the mouth coming up, and he braced. The cavern had a large opening near the head of a valley, and all he needed to do was skirt around the corner and smash into the wall. This was the simplest method of slowing down. There were numerous broken and cracked spots from this repeated practice.

Brushing himself off, he continued on deeper into the murk and gloom of the cave. He only took a few steps into the opening and already the light was almost completely gone. Oppressive black fog pushed back against the sunlight, swallowing up any that ventured too far in. The border of the darkness grasped out and clawed at the light, daring it to try and encroach further.

Tobias strode right into this dismal gloom, consumed immediately by the wall of miasmic fog. Once he did the darkness began to recede, keeping pace with him, and leaving only a normal cavern entrance behind. The thick mist swirled around his body, streams of it twisting and bending in a chaotic dance as if excited to welcome a friend back. His eyes adjusted quickly, they were used to this sort of dark.

His reason for leaving the sunlight was just ahead and to the left: a large opening in the cave, big enough for perhaps a house. The farthest wall writhed and contorted, purple bolts of magical energy shooting over the surface of the viscous slime that completely covered it. The material was broken up by green and red cracks split and glowing in it, skirting the border between liquid and solid in a mesmerizing fashion. Absorbing and redirecting magic, it all drew into the center.

Suspended only a few feet off the ground and halfway melded directly into the wall was a decrepit form. Tobias pursed his lips reflexively as he approached, watching the sickly pony shiver and wheeze. "This is it," he said quietly. "Today's the day. We're putting you back together."

The skeletal unicorn lifted his head to look at Tobias. Through a limp and matted mane glowed two dull pricks of red light. The eyes reflected the state of the body: weak and frail. He lowered his head again, hanging weakly from the wall where half of his body was still contained.

Reaching up, Tobias waved his hand through the dark aura that wafted from Sombra's body. He was careful not to touch the pony, but he liked to watch how the mist swirled around his fingers in a hypnotic dance. Breaking from his reverie, Tobias spoke again in a low voice, "I'm going down there. I know you'd argue if you were in your right mind, but I can't sit and do nothing anymore. Done that for a long time, kinda gets boring." Tobias watched Sombra lift his head and meet his gaze once more. "Besides, I have a better handle on things now. I've had a long time to think, and to practice in my head. Time to put that to good use instead of hiding in a crypt made of rock." Tobias took a step closer so that he was less than an arm's length from the unicorn's head. "Time to put you back together just like I promised I would."

"Crys--ta--lss," the pony hissed.

"Maybe later." Leaning just a little closer, Tobias looked deeper into the red eyes. "For now, keep fighting," he spoke quietly. His face was slowly losing its stoic mask as he watched the unicorn battle to take simple breaths. "I'm not giving up, you know me better than that. I owe too much. I owe you too much. So, don't give up. Like I said, I have a plan."

"Give--me--my--crys--talsss," Sombra growled again as his head lowered for lack of strength. Drops began to fall from his mouth onto the stone ground.

Following them, Tobias knelt and pressed two fingers into the drips that had landed. He rubbed a thumb through it before smelling it. "Blood, oh hell," he cursed as he leapt to his feet. "Sombra, come on man! You made it four days! Remember when I said we would get our window in four days? Today is that day! You can make it just a few more hours!"

The pony's head did not rise up again.

Panic officially set in Tobias' chest. "Damn it, no! Sombra!" he cried out. Turning around, he was on the other side of the cave in the blink of an eye. He threw aside a pile of ragged clothes and sticks and snatched up a circular piece of gold. Back at Sombra's side, he held up the medallion. It flickered, but did nothing. "Sixteen-hundred years to charge and you pitter out in three days, piece of--fine, hard way then." Gripping it more tightly, Tobias lifted it again and closed his eyes. Dark streams of energy arced out from his arm and curved into the medallion as bright golden light surged from the jeweled center. Flames tore out from the other side, bathing his arm and shoulder in an inferno that took all of Tobias' mental will to ignore. He focused the medallion's magic on Sombra, even as his arm was slowly ripped apart.

The light blasted away the darkness surrounding Sombra, causing the pony to cry out in pain and clench his eyes tightly shut. Tobias was shaking within a few seconds as the medallion continued to fight back, his flesh splitting and tearing away from the flames that bathed it.

Ribbons of light and magic went out from the medallion and into Sombra's body. The icon's life-giving energy was restoring him, but it was still not enough. With a sound like the shriek of a great bird the medallion itself burst into flames. A powerful blast of light came from the jewel, and it forcibly tore itself from Tobias' hand to clatter across the ground, once again casting the whole cavern into darkness.

Tobias could only stare at his arm, palm still glowing red hot. A simple clench of his fist was all it took to heal the wounds, but it did not remove the pain that still lingered. He took several deep breaths for him to regain his composure.

With stalled breath he stared expectantly, waiting for a hint of movement. The seconds ticked by as if in slow motion. Sombra's eyes drifted open with a groan of pain so low it was barely a sound. "God," Tobias sighed in exasperation. "Freak me out, why don't you?"

Eyes lazily drifting open and closed, Sombra finally looked straight ahead after some difficulty. He looked right into Tobias' eyes, and with effort forced out three simple words, "If--I--must."

They just stared at one another for a moment. Tobias blinked a few times, processing what he had just heard. It finally clicked, and his face broke in a grin. He grunted, then chuckled, and before he could hold it back laughed out loud. "So deep down you really are still the Sombra I knew." He reached out as if to pat Sombra on the shoulder, but halted himself when he noticed what he was doing. The grin Tobias had had only moments before vanished when he saw what he nearly did. He took a deep breath before he spoke again, "I'm going to fix this. I owe you that, and a lot more. You made me a deal, and I won't forget it."

"A--deal." The unicorn mimicked.

Tobias grunted again, a smirk peeking at the edge of his mouth. "That's right. Just like in the old days."

"Promised," Sombra whispered as his head hung limp again. His strength was nearly gone.

"Yeah," said Tobias forlornly. "Like I promised. Like I planned." Turning around he fell back against the smooth wall that Sombra hung from. Sliding down to take a seat, Tobias rested his face in his hands. "Like I've wanted to do for centuries. God, listen to me. Centuries, like it isn't even a big deal." Looking down at his arms, he stared at the markings they bore. He even traced the snake tattooed on the right as it wrapped is way up towards his shoulder. "Centuries," he repeated again.

He waited a few moments, hoping to hear Sombra say something. Only silence filled the air, broken occasionally by the sound of labored breathing. He would glance up occasionally, but there was nothing of note to see. Pulling in his knees, Tobias wrapped his arms around his legs and stared for a while. The cavern was dark, but he could see everything as if it were day. "It's weird," he said to the gloom before him. "I have been dreaming about this, thinking about this. Me getting out, being free. For so long I thought that maybe it wouldn't happen. I'd be stuck in a cage for eternity." He looked up at Sombra contemplatively. "Only a few ponies in all that time being nice to me, and you were the best of them. You were kind and this was what you got in return."

Slowly relaxing, Tobias crossed his legs. He let the tension out with slow, easy breaths. He'd gotten rather good at it in his cage. There had not been a whole lot else to do to pass the centuries. Looking to his left he reached out and grasped the dark material that covered the wall. He pulled some of it off, letting it run between his fingers and down his arm. "But I'm going to make it right. I'm going to fix this. I promised." The material stopped its wayward oozing and began to retract back towards his hand. "And once I do, then I'm keeping all my other promises. I'm making good on all my other deals." The slime began to spread out through the air from his palm, warped and curving as it took shape. "I made a plan, and I finally get to put it into action. By the time I'm done I'll-I'll" he trailed away when he looked up at Sombra's unconscious face again. "I'll be talking to myself."

Pushing up, Tobias got back to his feet. He gripped the forming object more tightly as he turned to face Sombra. He felt it harden in his grasp before holding it out towards the unicorn. "Plan ahead, you told me that. Always plan ahead. Well, I have. I have a plan to turn this whole messed up world right around." Tobias disappeared and reappeared in the blink of an eye. He'd grabbed the medallion, holding it next to the black shape. "It all starts here. With this medallion, and with this," he said as the black shell around the newly formed item crumbled away. The lumpy casing broke away to reveal a perfectly constructed violin. "You let me practice, so I thought it would be appropriate for putting our plan in motion. Besides," Tobias said as he held up the instrument. "We both know the way to a pony's heart is through their ears."

Setting the medallion on the ground in front of Sombra, Tobias made a crisp about-face and vanished into the murk as he made his way back towards the entrance.