Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 12 - Friends or Foes

Flames burst to life, once again banishing the darkness of the cavern. The Phoenix Medallion hovered in the center of the room, an inferno raging forth from it and consuming the entirety of the far wall. Colors danced amidst the fiery surge, oranges and blues and pinks that dazzled and sparked. As the flames began to pool into the center, the darkness too began to draw inwards. What had once twisted and convulsed upon the wall now moved with great haste inwards to where the unicorn had been suspended.

The medallion sparked and hissed as bolts of fire-red lightning shot out from it in all directions. The flashes illuminated Tobias standing behind the icon, arms extended forward and hands open as streams of dark power flowed into the medallion. His eyes were squeezed shut as bolts of energy sheared portions of his body away. The light exploding from the item before him was oppressive on its own, brighter than the midday sun, but he never relented. He pushed back against the light and the powerful bolts, unwilling to give up. The damage to him was extreme--darkness surging from the wounds like black steam in the brilliance of the flames--but he did not stop.

With a final blast of light, the magic rushed into the point where Sombra had been, and detonated. Flames consumed the entire room as the explosion rushed out the tunnel towards the entrace. The blast shook the mountain from its roots to its peak, the fires rushing into the air in the shape of a great bird before vanishing.

The cavern was still intact, though shaken and cracked from the force of the magic. When the fires died away to only smoke, a single light lit the gloom. The Phoenix Medallion steadily pulsed as it hovered in the air, the soft red light becoming weaker and weaker before it disappeared entirely. The magic spent, the golden item dropped to clatter onto the stone floor.

A growl came in response to the echoing clang of gold upon stone. A piercing light of blood red burst to life from the smoky cavern and illuminated the medallion where it lay. It widened from a beam until it threw light in all directions. No longer decrepit or sickly, Sombra stood renewed and whole once again.

He glared down at the medallion with a look of suspicion before glancing around the large cavern. He was alone, but he sensed something else. An overwhelming feeling pressed upon his mind. This brought attention to the fractured, painful emptiness he felt. He pushed back against the pressure, but the emptiness only deepened. Only one sensation filled this void where was once a mind: anger. Where memory had claimed dominion there was now only rage, and it spread like a cancer through the emptiness. Pushing against the pressure on his mind focused his attention back to the waking world.

Great amounts of black tar-like ooze seeped from the walls and ceiling. It gave an acrid, bizarre smell; one that he was not unfamiliar with. His eyes slowly panned across the cave, spying only piles of tattered items and junk. Despite the emptiness he saw he felt something staring at him from every direction.

"Hello Sombra," said a voice that echoed erratically. "That's right, isn't it? I'm not sure what you prefer to be called anymore." The voice was coming from every direction.

His head turning this way and that, Sombra bared his sharp teeth. He knew that voice, but there was something else behind it, a deep thrum in the words that made his head hurt as it echoed through his bones. The red light from his curved horn blazed even brighter as it violently threw the smoke that still hung in the air away from him. The rush of air accompanied a boom as magic poured from the unicorn. His eyes glowed brightly, displaying the intense magical power.

The black ooze coating much of the cavern hissed and withdrew from the pain-inducing light. The hiss began to grow louder, and after only a few moments it had become a cry of pain. The light burned and seared at the blackness, and it found no place in the cavern that it could retreat to. With remarkable speed the ooze rushed to a single spot and slammed into the ground. A malformed figure rose up from the writhing pool of darkness, appendages of tar-like muck fighting to be free of the coagulating mess. With the same surprising speed, one of the appendages broke free and slashed out like a whip to fight off the offending light.

With a roar, Sombra raised a magical barrier and braced as the tentacle of slime smashed against it. It splattered around the magic ineffectually. The light at the tip of his horn grew brighter, and he released a beam of pure light at the twisted abomination before him. The red blast struck the mass and it popped, splashing the ooze everywhere once again.

What had once been a cry of pain was now an earsplitting shriek. Sombra's ears flattened against his skull as he raised his barrier once more to stop a glob of the unpleasant-smelling material. It cut through his magic as if it wasn't even there. He snarled as the goo struck the stone beside him and immediately began to sizzle.

"Stop!" The voice screamed. "Make it stop! It hurts!"

The glob leapt back through the air as the mass was already beginning to reform. This time, two large appendages rose up very quickly. The caustic sludge shaped itself into arms bearing enormous claws. The talons swung out at the source of the light, and this time passed directly through the magical barrier.

With barely a moment to spare Sombra dove out of the way. The clawed arm sliced through the cavern wall with no difficulty, leaving behind trenches in the rock.

"Turn it off!" The voice pleaded, the sound of sobbing and laughing cutting through the air along with it. "It hurts! It burns!"

A misshapen head emerged from the twitching mass. It split apart and nearly collapsed as it fought to remain in one piece. The arms no longer swung out, but retracted and grasped at the malformed head as it split into many pieces, like a blooming flower. The light from Sombra's horn caused the surface of the twitching mass to ripple away from the magic, hissing and releasing a dense black murk in the form of fog.

"I can't--" the voice tried to say, but a shriek overwhelmed its words. "Too bright!"

The claws pulled away, ripping and rending the unstable head as they did. It reformed into an almost uniform shape as a single, massive yellow eye split open on its surface. The eye took up the entirety of where a face should be, and its gaze burned like a fire inside Sombra's mind.

"TURN IT OFF," the voice roared with a boom. The fog that poured from the mass struck out, but curved back and surrounded the amorphous figure in a shroud of darkness.

Without the arms striking at him, Sombra had a moment to collect himself as he watched the swirling vortex of black fog before him. The light from his horn no longer pierced the darkness, but he was not to be dissuaded. He was driven to strike again, and his horn obeyed. The magic charged once again, and the beam of light shot out like a laser towards its target. The impact blew the cloud of fog apart, and a figure was hurled back against the wall.

It was no longer a mass of inky sludge, but had partially reformed itself into a proper shape. Something itched in Sombra's mind as he stared at it. It wasn't complete, but what had been reformed was familiar now. It matched with the voice, the smell, and made the itch even worse. It was a burning sensation inside his head, and was quickly turning into pain. He clawed at this feeling in his mind, trying to calm the feverish itch that was rapidly becoming intolerable.

He stared at the shape before him. Brown and tan and red and brown again, hair and skin and clothing so familiar that it was tearing his memories apart as they tried to form themselves into a complete picture. The figure suddenly moved, but Sombra was too taken up with his own thoughts to even react. The too-familiar face came into view, still not completely reformed as he stared into its eyes. It reached out a hand that everything in his mind screamed to avoid, but he could not--his body was disobeying his mind. The hand touched the side of his cheek, and a feeling of pure agony ripped through him.

He felt a part of himself being pulled out, drawn like a searing poison from a wound. It clawed and fought to remain, but the touch could not be denied. That part of him that fought so desperately to remain was vanishing from his mind with increasing speed. Every moment that it lost its grip, the pain lessened--replaced by an icy chill. The agony of before was gone. That part of him was drawn away completely, and its grip released its hold on his mind. The hand immediately drew away, and Sombra collapsed.

Sombra stared ahead blearily, unable to make sense of what his eyes were taking in. He watched the figure collapse in front of him and lose its form once again. It was reduced to a pile of tar and sludge, but not for long. He watched as it rose up again, the arms that bore the immense talons stretching out as the malformed head emerged. The claws pressed against the sides of the head as if they were trying to keep it together as the whole mass began to change. The black sludge was tightening, shaping itself into an actual body.

Arms, legs, a head, each forming as the mass shrank and compacted. Colors returned, brown hair and tannish skin covered by a red shirt and brown trousers. The transformation was finally over, and before him sat a very familiar creature. A feeling in Sombra rose, and gave him a start when he recognized it as happiness. It felt so alien, but he was enthralled to have it course through his veins once again.

He tried to rise, but weakness overtook him and forced him back down. This was barely a setback as Sombra gritted his teeth and forced himself up. With a force of will equal to a force of muscle the unicorn stood to his full height, towering over the hunched form before him. He knew this boy, though he could not remember why. Nor could he remember why he was so happy to see him. All he knew was that this creature was familiar to him.

It looked so small and feeble as it sat there, head still grasped between its hands. Sounds were echoing through the cavern as it bobbed back and forth. The sounds of laughing, of singing, of moaning, but they were growing more distant and quiet with every breath. Soon only the sound of soft murmuring coming only from the creature, no longer from the walls surrounding them.

With slow, mechanical movements the creature turned its head up towards Sombra. It looked up at him with its small brown eyes, then down towards the ground behind him. He was compelled to follow the gaze, and--lo and behold--he caught sight of a treasure. There on the ground was the Phoenix Medallion. He was shocked to see it, but then sense began to form in his mind. He knew enough, especially concerning the lack of any memory: he had to touch it for the magic to be completed. He didn't know why he knew that, but such a trivial question would soon be answered as he wrapped the medallion in his magic and levitated it towards him.

Reaching forward with a hoof, Sombra touched it against the smooth golden side of the medallion. A tidal wave of images smashed against his mind with such force and ferocity it nearly knocked him off his feet. He remembered Tobias, he remembered the laboratories, his study, his libraries. He remembered so much research, so many new spells. A king and a queen, princesses, servants, a grand castle. He remembered so much about his studies, about crystals, about the enigma behind him. He recalled darkness, anger, fear, and a loathing for many things. He saw the Crystal Empire, remembered the pain of his reign, and the forces of light that banished him. Above all, he remembered the conversations with Tobias, and what that had led to.

Sombra dropped the medallion, his head swimming with so many memories and images that he could barely keep track of them all. By the time he had made enough sense of the storm in his mind he became aware of just how tired his legs were. Flopping down onto his backside, the unicorn let out a haggard sigh.

Tobias watched intently. He felt a shudder run down his spine that left an itch in the back of his mind. The longer he watched, the worse it got. He was not about to be distracted now, this was a moment he had been waiting for for so long that it hurt to think about. He was happy to see his friend, even if he looked quite different than he used to. As he stared, the unicorn's shape seemed to warp, growing worse along with the itch. The shape split and curved at strange angles. He focused more intently, trying to cut through the fog that was forming in his head.

The unicorn turned its red gaze right at him, and Tobias smiled. It was going to be better now. He'd gotten his friend back. The itch was turning into a burn in his mind as they stared at one another, but he tried harder to ignore it. Pain was not going to distract him now.

"You," Sombra growled. "You are not where you are supposed to be."

The smile on Tobias' face evaporated. He stared at the unicorn, matching the glowing red eyes with his own dull brown. They were locked for one long moment after the next. Shadowy drifts of darkness and mist were seeping into the air, driving away what little light was there. Only the piercing red glow of Sombra's eyes cut through the murk.

Tobias heard murmuring as he grappled with a strange feeling welling inside him. Voices picking through his mind that had not been there before. The darkness had never been an issue for him, but now he found himself unable to focus. He saw Sombra before him, but the image was scattered and splitting. He saw two distinct images for a moment, one calm, the other enraged. Fingers curling, Tobias fought to regain control. The feeling was turning to a burning fire, ripping through him as it rose up his spine. He heard the murmuring again, as if someone were trying to speak underwater.

The rising burn reached his head, and vanished. The silence of the cavern returned, and before him stood the enraged Sombra. They remained quiet, both staring as if contemplating making a move.

Finally, Sombra broke the contemplation with a scathing question, "What have you done?" The hollow sound of his voice did not echo in the expanse of the cavern. Strange murmurs and whispers followed it instead.

Too taken up in what he had heard, Tobias paid no heed to the strangeness of the unicorn's voice. He took a deep breath and responded as calmly as he could muster despite the burning inside his chest that refused to leave.

"What I promised," he retorted. "I put you back together just like I said I would. Sure it took a while, and I had to use the Phoenix Medallion but in the end I managed it. I thought you'd be happy with me."

"I remember everything, Tobias," Sombra snarled. "I remember two lives, and one of them was far darker than even my worst nightmares could have conjured. I am far from happy," he said, his words growing louder. "You should not have used the medallion."

"I never would have had to if you hadn't experimented on the aspect," said Tobias as a deep echo from his voice reverberated through the cave. "You should not have tried to make yourself more powerful over the idiotic pursuit of frivolous knowledge. And yet, here we both are. Whether you like it or not, this is how things happened."

The murmuring grew and grew as Tobias watched Sombra seethe, his words not much more than growls.

"Because you have an incessant need to ensure events occur as you see and will them." Sombra stood back up once again, staring at the boy with a piercing glare. "You sell promises like a vendor sells apples. You promised to make things right for me? Did you once stop and think about what I have done, and what I would have to endure if my right mind were restored?"

"What you did was not my fault!" Tobias yelled as he jabbed a finger towards Sombra. "You asked me to make things right if everything went wrong, you made me make that promise! I got out, and I kept my promise! I thought that might make you happy, or at the very least grateful. Not--not angry at me!"

"And yet you still spout that word as if it means anything to you," Sombra said, ignoring Tobias' accusation. "It's your currency, what you peddle in a twisted venture for your own selfish enjoyment," he said harshly. His curved horn was glowing now, more brightly with every breath. "I did not attack out of the insanity that festered within me--thanks to you--but because I am all too aware of what you truly are. You have left nothing but darkness wherever you are, and hatred in whatever you touch. You may claim immunity to them, but those who suffer because of you cannot."

The two looked at one another angrily. Tobias felt torn between anger and confusion, but he knew contempt when he saw it and it was the only thing evident now in the eyes of his former friend. That thought stuck in his head as he mulled it over, the dark corners of his mind rising up to pull pieces of it away. His vision fragmented again, the furious and vicious Sombra splitting away from one that looked wholly different. For a split second he appeared to share Tobias' confusion, but the image blurred away to reveal the rage and hate once again.

Just seeing this drove a thought into Tobias' mind. A doubt-fueled fear that he'd managed to push away for so long. Now there was nothing holding it back, and it drove into his mind like a spike.

"So what--" he stuttered. "What was the point of being so nice to me before, huh? So you could finish your spell? So you could turn yourself into an Alicorn? Did you use me?" The skin on Tobias' face roiled, as if something just underneath was shifting. He was grimacing as black veins stretched and pulsated away from his eyes. "We were going to find a way for me to get out of here. Put everything back the way it should be. Fix stuff. Remember those conversations? Huh? You remember that?"

"You are not the only one who has spent a thousand years stuck inside his own mind contemplating the past," Sombra shot back. "I have suffered a madness that drains a soul to nothingness. I cannot forget that, especially not after you used the Medallion! I have lost the ability to forget!"

"You think I wished for that? For what happened to you, then or now? For any of this? What other choice did I have?" Tobias yelled so hard that his voice broke. His arms shuddered as the same writhing under his skin spread through them. "I have been a victim here for sixteen-hundred years! YEARS! I went insane just by coming here! I was crazy for so long I went sane! After you used that spell I went so--so--frustratingly sane! I didn't want to remember either, but too bad for me!"

The darkness surrounding Tobias began to push back against the red light of Sombra's magic. As if the air between them was boiling, the magic and the darkness fought against each other in a desperate play to fill the entire cavern. The light of the unicorn's magic was growing steadily, but it was matched equally by the ribbons and currents of dark energy.

Tobias clenched his teeth hard, his eyes almost consumed in a darkness that split his skin like veins breaking from the surface. Black tendrils flitted and swiped from the tiny cracks that had spread over his entire body. So consumed was he in that single moment of bitter anger that his form was beginning to break down. His shirt and trousers matched the veined and cracking patterns of his skin, and the writhing beneath had only grown more active. He looked as if he were about to explode.

The war that raged within him was tearing his body apart; the ferocity of it like a storm. The anger was fueling his power and striking at the magic before him in tidal waves. There was so much pain, but he didn't care. The fires within him seared his soul, but it didn't matter. The feeling of betrayal, that had to be what this was. This hot, pent-up rage that was breaking him apart from the inside-out had only one purpose now. He had to kill the traitorous unicorn; the shriek inside his mind demanded it.

He saw the sneering face of Sombra before him and it infuriated him. The blurry, tearing images before him didn't matter. He knew what he had to strike at. The almost-silent cries that echoed from Sombra's words were irrelevant, he ignored them. Feeling his arms move almost by themselves, he aimed the blackened claws that were once fingers towards this traitor before him.

"You are no victim, Tobias," Sombra sneered. "You damned yourself."

"Shut up!"

"You brought all of this down upon yourself." The red light of Sombra's magic blazed with intensity far greater than before.

Tobias went from nearly overwhelming him to a forced defensive stance once again. The darkness around his body shaped itself into a shield to protect from the red spotlight blazing away upon him.

"You can never be forgiven for what you've done." The murmuring that accompanied Sombra's voice was getting even louder, and so many more voices flowed through it than before. "Your very first act in this world aside from breathing was murder. Do you think that killing a King can be reconciled? A million promises cannot chip away at the cell you have built for yourself."

"Stop it!" Tobias shrieked again, shaking the cavern with the force of his voice. He grabbed the sides of his head as an all-consuming image overwhelmed his thoughts. Past the pain, past the itch, it was a memory from long ago. A friend--gone for a millennium--now trying to kill him. The image was already breaking apart as he cried out, "Starswirl, stop!"

"You call yourself a victim--you who forced a mother to choose between her daughter and her husband!" Sombra's voice and the murmurs were melding into one as he roared. "You forced one child to watch her mother sacrifice herself to resurrect another!"

With a great deal of pain, Tobias forced himself to look at the blinding light as he tried to fight it back. Hovering before him was the Phoenix Medallion, taken up in an envelope of magic despite the magical attack.

"This is your legacy, Tobias! This is what you leave in your wake! Death, destruction, and tragedy! You wish to undo your wrongs? Impossible! You can no more undo the past than you can account for the future. A peddler, a con-man, and a fake! You are damned, and you will suffer for all that you have wrought upon this world! I promise you that," Sombra's last words were not a roar, but a droning, multi-voiced hum that shook Tobias from his feet to his head.

Like a cold chill running up his body, something gripped his whole being. The pain vanished, and everything was consumed in void.

The darkness shielding Tobias rushed outwards as he snatched the medallion out of the air. The dark energy once again matched the red light on equal terms as the glow of the medallion illuminated a placid, unemotional face. His skin was still split, eyes completely black, and black vein-like fractures made his body appear more like porcelain than flesh. Despite all this, Tobias' face was completely devoid of expression.

"We never needed you," he said in a low, inharmonious drone. "You stole from us. You took part of us, fracturing us. We will be whole, and you will be consumed."

Sombra grimaced as he fought as hard as he could to maintain his magical shield. He squinted through the energy that threatened to assault him if he were to waver, seeing the boy in the middle of it. He had been elated to see him at first after so many years sealed away behind a persona of rage and madness. Now, after so long, he was free. The celebration had been only moments long as his savior had begun to shout and rave at him. It was as if they were engaged in two completely different conversations, and Tobias was growing only more and more angry.

Whatever he was experiencing, Sombra could see that it was rife with fear. The very same madness and fear that he had experienced for so long himself. The battle that now raged between them sapped what little strength he still had, but he was not about to give up. He owed that much to his friend, no matter how irrational and vicious he was.

He mustered enough strength for one last cry. "Tobias, wake up! You are speaking nonsense! Can you not hear me?"

There was no response as Tobias continued to stare placidly. His warped form was nearly undone, the black cracks growing larger. The tar-like material seeped like blood from the cracks to fall hissing through the air. The vile reek that came from the stuff was bad enough, but something else could be felt in the air. It wafted like the fog-like murk, but was a dark far deeper than the eye could see. It was a malice that entered the air like a toxin.

It stalled Sombra's breath within his lungs. As he fought hard against the assaulting aura, he watched as something horrifying turned its gaze upon him. Within the dark cracks were eyes, dozens and dozens of them. A flash of memory burned into his mind of a single enormous glowing eye opening where Tobias' face was supposed to be. These hundreds of small eyes gave that same horrible feeling that the big one had. That same overwhelming sense of antipathy, ferocity, and unbiased cruelty. A feeling he knew well, having channeled it for a thousand years already.

"We will retrieve what has been sewn," said a slew of crackling voices. "We shall be whole. No longer between. The anchor will be secured. We shall consume."

The feeling was getting worse. Sombra was straining to maintain his shield as the black ooze splashed against it, probing for a means of overcoming it once more. He could feel it in his mind, dark tendrils poking and lurking for a means of overpowering all that he maintained to protect himself. It was now or never. A surge of pure will erupted like a solar flare from the tip of his curved horn. The magical blast threw the darkness in all directions, clearing everything around him in a brilliant wave. For a split second the crumbling form of what had been Tobias stood firm, but ultimately failed as it shattered.

Shrouding himself in brilliant light, Sombra disappeared as the golden bolt he transformed into raced out of the cave and high into the sky. It halted only a moment before taking off towards Canterlot like a meteor blazing away through the day-lit sky.

The golden light of his magic cloaked him in brilliance as he descended into the castle grounds. Guards and servant ponies alike gasped and jumped as it shot through the halls. It was so fast and so bright that after a moment had passed they were unsure of exactly what they had seen. When the shooting star approached a pair of great wooden doors, it halted only for a moment before them. Two pairs of guards watched it in surprise, but quickly leveled their spears at this intruding magic.

Undeterred, the shooting star shot forward to pass directly through the thick wood and into the chambers within. The meeting place within was filled with blinding light as it surged about, bouncing off walls and splitting into many different pieces. The occupants of the room watched in shock as the pieces finally grouped together once more and began to spiral about in a tornado of sparkling starlight. In a flash of red the twister was gone.

Sombra opened his eyes. He was in a set of council chambers he'd never seen before. What was recognizable were some of the surprised ponies before him. Their surprise was warranted considering the use of his fail-safe spell. Two of the ponies turned towards him with their horns sparking and fizzling as they charged. He stared for a moment, trying to process why their faces had turned from surprise to anger so suddenly.

Then it hit him. A quick glance down and the memory came back of what he now looked like. "Oops," he yelped. "Forgot about that."