Hold Your Color
Ghosts of the Past
Dash was staring out the window watching the sunset as they approached the Crystal Empire. Her eyes drifted occasionally to the reflection of her head, and the dwindling sight of her mane. The purple was about halfway gone from her head, and her tail was nearly as bad. She huffed indifferently. There were plenty of things on her mind, and the one thing she didn’t care for was her stupid mane, the stupid Prism, and her stupid birthright. The only thing she cared about was the mare sitting as far away from her as possible.
Dash sighed and cast a glance towards Twilight. She was still pouring her time into her books. She did eventually get some sleep, but it was hardly for long. Not once did she look back to Dash, not to signal that everything was going to be alright, or at least to show that she still cared. The Twilight that Dash knew and loved had been replaced, and she could feel herself being eaten away on the inside because of it.
The train whistle blared above, and the car shook as the brakes squealed. Dash felt her body lurch with the slowing of the train, but she paid no real attention to it. Her eyes were stuck on the clear night sky outside with the full moon looming overhead.
The wheels underneath gave one final hiss before the train came to a stop. With the platform in sight, Dash noticed a small squadron of crystal pony royal guards standing in front of the train.
“Prizma,” Aurora said.
Dash turned to her aunt.
“It’s time to go.”
Dash grunted a response and tore herself away from the window. She trudged behind Aurora and her father as they exited from the train last. Twilight was already gone with her books, as were Edweena and Yearling.
Outside the train, the group of guards stomped in unison to receive their new guests. Dash looked around, spotting Twilight already in the middle of the platform with her brother. The two siblings shared a short hug as Dash moved towards them.
“It’s good to see you, Twily,” Shining Armor said.
“It’s good to see you too, big brother,” Twilight said. She glanced around. “Where’s Cadence?”
“Back at the castle. Once we heard what happened, she personally went through the archives to find every old book she could. She’ll meet you there.”
Twilight nodded and started for the castle without another word. Even Shining Armor blinked at his sister’s sudden exit and turned to Dash with a raised eyebrow.
“Hey, Rainbow Dash. Haven’t seen you in a while.” He shrugged his head in Twilight’s direction. “I’d ask how you’re treating my sister, but it seems that’s asked itself. What happened?”
Dash couldn’t look Shining Armor in the eyes, so she settled for the ground. “We… had a fight, I guess. She doesn’t want to be helpless in protecting me or something, so she’s putting all her focus into figuring out what’s going on, and keeping me at a safe distance.”
Shining Armor shifted his jaw. “Hmm, sounds familiar.”
Dash blinked. “Wait, this has happened before?”
Shining chuckled. “Oh yeah, I could tell you dozens of stories. Once, she accidentally ripped her Smarty Pants doll, so she locked it away until she learned the fine arts of sewing and stitching. By the time she got to a skill level she deemed ‘acceptable’ to keep Smarty Pants in perfect condition, she had forgotten where she put her. Lost her for the entire summer until we had a junk sale to clean out the house and almost sold her.”
“So, what do you think I should do?”
Shining scratched his chin. “Honestly? Wait it out. Keep showing your support on the sidelines. She might push harder back, but eventually she’ll either prove her point, or accept that she can’t change anything.”
Shining gave Dash a playful punch in the shoulder. “Just don’t give up on her. She’s got her stubborn streaks. We all do. I can tell you’ve been good for her.”
“Thanks… I guess.”
Shining nodded, and turned to the group of ponies now approaching from the train. He scanned them in turn, but paused when his eyes fell on Dash’s father and aunt. His gaze narrowed.
“Privet, Khroma,” he said in rough Trotsky.
Dash’s eyes widened, but her dad was stone faced, offering a terse nod himself.
“You speak Trotsky, Shining?” Dash asked.
“And you know my dad?”
He nodded. “Mostly by reputation, but I’ve met him once or twice.”
“I was the captain of Celestia’s guard, y’know. It was my job to know of agents from other countries that were wandering around.”
Khroma chuckled. “He may have tried to arrest me on suspicious behavior once or twice.”
Shining laughed as well. “Well, in my defense, you were acting pretty shifty in all those jewelry stores.”
“You don’t know my wife. She has eyes and ears everywhere with her friends and coworkers. I couldn’t let them report back what I was planning.”
Dash rolled his eyes as the two stallions laughed between themselves. Shining glanced over to his guards who were still watching the train. Yearling was busy attempting to entertain them with some grand tale with the way she was waving and flourishing her hooves, while Edweena stood by and shook her head.
Shining glanced to see who was within earshot, and his demeanor dipped suddenly as he leaned in and spoke in hushed tones. “Is what I’ve been hearing from Canterlot true? Did something really happen to Celestia?”
Dash blinked and turned to her father. He and Aurora shrugged indifferently. She turned back. “Yeah. We’re dealing with something pretty bad, and it might be connected to Sombra and something that happened a thousand years ago.”
Shining’s eyes darted at the utterance of the word ‘Sombra.’
“Be careful with the ‘S’ word around here. Ponies are still recovering from everything that happened last fall. Its been slow, but everything is starting to really get back to what it used to be a thousand years. Before… y’know.”
“We’d better catch up to Twilight. The sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can get you all back home.”
Shining and his squad escorted Dash and company to the castle in short order. Once inside, Shining personally took them towards the libraries within the tower. Dash in the past was surprised at how much the Crystal Empire castle could contain in what seemed like such a small building on the outside. The library was no exception, almost taking up an entire half of the lower floors.
Inside the main foyer was a buzz of activity even in the approaching evening. Ponies of all sizes were scampering around the shelves, carrying books in every direction. They all followed suit to commands ushered by Princess Cadence near the front desk. Twilight was already by her side, and was picking through a selection of books already laid out for her.
Shining took Dash aside as the entered the room, leaving the rest to scatter and find their place to search.
“So, are you looking for anything particular?” he said.
“We’re looking for anything that would cover what turned Sombra into what he became, what might have created the Nightmare, or both, before this place was banished for a thousand years.”
Shining rubbed his neck. “Well, I don’t exactly know what we might have. The archives do have a lot of old information that was preserved from back then, but there’s no telling what we would have on his downfall. From what I know, it was very sudden and poorly recorded until he vanished.”
“Well, there’s gotta be something. I don’t know much about libraries, but there’s gotta be like… a super secret book collection somewhere, right? I know Twi has one for the older books she’s got.”
“Well, Cadence started with the archives, so she’s probably already got them over there with her and Twilight, but I can show you if you want to look yourself.”
Dash turned to see Yearling and Edweena standing beside her. “Ain’t no way we gonna be bobbin’ about here without me gettin’ a gander at those oldies.”
“Uh…” Shining said.
Dash waved a hoof. “They’re fine. It was their idea to come here anyways. She might know what to look for.”
Shining shrugged. “Okay, follow me then.”
“Just a sec.” Dash paused a moment and turned to Ditzy, Khroma and Aurora. “Can you guys stay close to Twilight? She doesn’t want me near her right now, but I’d feel way better if somepony I trust was keeping an eye on her.”
Khroma and Aurora exchanged a glance. Aurora nodded with a smile. “Of course, Prizma. I will guard her with my life for you.”
Dash offered her thanks, and after casting one last glance at Twilight, left with Shining Armor.
They left the main halls of the library further up the tower. There were increasingly more guards the further they climbed, all of which bowed their heads to the passing Shining Armor. The top floor of the library was a loft that overlooked all the lower floors. Dash took a moment to look down the various floors. While the small army of ponies scurrying about with books in tow, it didn't take her long to spot the speck of purple that she cared about most. She sighed and turned back to the others.
Shining stood in front of a crystal portcullis. A shield emblem was carved into the gemstone around the frame of the door. Shining focused his magic into the carving, and the gate began to glow. A moment later, they shook against their holding and began to climb, scraping the walls as they did.
Once the door was opened, Shining turned back. “This is pretty much our version Starswirl wing. The oldest and rarest books are in here under lock and key. Cadence would have already pulled the history books, but there might be something they missed.”
Dash nodded and followed him and the others into the archive. Despite the fact that nearly everything in the crystal Empire was made of crystal and gems, Dash noted the inescapable smell of moulding books and dry air. Several tall shelves of books were crammed into the room. They winded down the length of the archive, and spindled around the tower.
“Wow,” Dash said. “That’s a lot of books.”
“Yep. I don’t think we’ve managed to get through recategorizing half of it yet. I’m not even sure how Cadence found what to take to help Twilight. It was almost like she knew…”
Shining’s gaze drifted a moment when he shook himself out of his trance. “Anyway, I don’t know how much help I’ll be in there, but I’ll wait here if you need any help.” He cast a glance towards the door. “I know I won’t be much help out there. Libraries were always Twilight's thing.”
Dash sighed. “I know what that’s like.”
Shining smiled. “Buck up, kiddo. She’ll come around. Once we find what we need to take down the Nightmare and get Celestia back on her hooves, everything will go back to normal.”
“Here’s hoping.” Dash glanced down the stacks. Yearling and Edweena were already drifting towards them, glancing up at the high shelves and examining each cover and title. Dash turned back to Shining Armor. “Thanks, Shining.”
Shining Armor offered her a nod before she followed Yearling and Edweena further in to archives. The strange smell of the older books grew overpowering in seconds just a few meters into the narrow rows. The dust tickled at Dash’s nose, and she felt the urge to sneeze crop up many times in just a few seconds. A few misadventures in Twilight’s own archives was enough practice to know how to not sneeze at the absolute worst possible time.
Dash’s heart grew heavy in her chest. Even the slightest reminder of Twilight brought the reality of what happened just hours ago to the front of her mind. The titles of the books around her faded into a blur as she stumbled through the shelves. Try as she might to push the rogue thoughts, they wormed their way back to the forefront of her mind and drug her down into lethargy and doubt.
She felt a claw on her shoulder and looked up to see Edweena looking down at her with a faint smile. “You know, the fastest way to getting back to Twilight would be to find the answer to this mystery.”
Dash slumped her head. “I know. You’re right, but I have no idea where to start!” She indicated the room with a sweep of her leg. “I mean, look how big this place is! We’ll be here for hours, and I’ve got a few days left at best before my colors run out.” Dash bit her lip. “I’m running out of time, Edweena, and I’m scared.”
Dash tried to look away, but Edweena lifted Dash’s chin with a talon and stared into her eyes. “Considering the mess we’ve been through thus far, I’d say you have every right to be scared, Miss Dash.” She glanced around, seeing if anyone was nearby to listen. Yearling was a few rows ahead, and Shining was still far away at the door. Satisfied, Edweena turned back, speaking quietly. “To be perfectly honest, I’m absolutely terrified. The old gryphon legends don’t hold a candle to what the Nightmare is actually like. Never would they think she’d be capable of laying low Celestia.”
“But how are you keeping so calm?” Dash said. “I’m going grey right before my eyes, I’ve lost my home, my family has been lying to me, and my marefriend just cut me off entirely. I feel like I’m falling apart on the inside and the outside, and its only a matter of time before this tailspin lands me six feet in dirt.”
Edweena shook her head. “Worries only worry you if you let them. Everyone on this world has their problems, Miss Dash. You aren’t the only one. Some of those problems might be… more titanic than others, but we all face them with either the same kind of determination, or submit to them with the same kind of defeat. Which one you choose is up to you.”
Dash heaved another deep breath as she let Edweena’s words sink in. It was about that time when there was a loud clatter a few rows down, followed by a string of unintelligible swearing.
“Blimey!” Yearling shouted. “What in the seven corners of Tartarus is that doin’ in ‘ere?”
Dash and Edweena darted off to find Yearling. On the other side of the ring, they stepped out into a small space in between the rows. A large statue was carved into the wall, and looked like it had been recently covered with a cloth, which now lay at Yearling’s hooves.
A small sprinkle of dust motes drifted off the statue, casting a cloudy gloom over its impressive features. It was well carved, almost to the finest detail. The fur looked silky and radiant. The cloak it wore looked warm and wearable with the finest comfort, and the crown was worn proud and resplendent. Not the image one would consider of the late King Sombra, the likeness of which towered above Dash and the others with terrifying presence.
“Wow…” Dash breathed.
“You said it…” Edweena said. “He almost looks...real.”
“Real, nottin’!” Yearling said. “I want this impressive hunk of stallion in my den!”
“Yearling!” Edweena said. “You know who that is, right?”
“O’ course. Don’t mean I can’t appreciate the sights, luv. An’ he be an impressive sight.” Yearling’s voice was purring by the time another set of hooves stepped behind Dash and Edweena.
“Whoa,” Shining Armor said. “Didn’t know that was back here…”
“Looks like its been here awhile,” Dash said, spitting up some dust in the process.
“Weird. All of the existing guards said they went through the entire empire and destroyed anything that would have represented Sombra. How would they have missed this?”
“They musta’ been mares, dear,” Yearling said dreamily. “No mare could break those beautiful eyes…”
Dash had to, in the most revolting corners of her mind, agree slightly with Yearling’s observation. She was no stranger to attraction to stallion in ages past, and she had to admit, there was something incredibly alluring to the way the eyes of the statue surveyed everything in front of it. They were powerful, yet… kind. Almost as if…
“He honestly doesn’t look all that bad…” Dash said.
It took only a second for the strange looks to shoot her way as if she might be at least partially insane. Her face flushed as she sputtered. “N-not like that! I mean, he doesn’t look bad bad. Like…” Dash blinked as he looked at the statues forehead. “Look at his horn. It looks normal.”
Shining Armor was taken aback, but he reluctantly nodded. “You’re right. This statue had to have been made before he was corrupted.”
“So why hide it all the way up here?” Dash said. “It was bad enough that Sombra hid the Crystal Heart at the top of the spire, but who would go out of their way to move the one good statue of him behind a bunch of bookcases?”
“Someone with something to hide…” Edweena said.
“Right you are, Edie,” Yearling said. “Any excuse to lay my hooves on that flank is as good as any!”
Edweena dropped her face into her claws and sighed loudly as Yearling moved over to the statue and started shoving against it. She grunted as she tried to find a place for her hooves and push, opting for the most illicit places possible. Despite her efforts, the statue didn’t budge.
“Yearling, what in Equus are you doing?” Edweena chided.
“Wot’s it look like? I’m tryin’ to move this bloody thing.”
“Do you honestly think it would be that simple? It’s part of the wall!” She pointed at the corner the statue sat next to, and the seamless corner in between them. “Its not moving.”
Yearling huffed. “Well. I don’t see you tryin’ anything!”
Dash shook her head as Yearling and Edweena bickered. She stared at the statue, looking for anything unusual. Her eyes fell on the base, where a small inscription was chiseled into the gemstone.
“What’s that?” Dash said, pointing.
Yearling and Edweena stopped, and looked at the statue’s base. Yearling twisted her head and leaned in close. “It’s old Equestrian Common,” she said. “Lucky I’ve got a hoof o’ practice with old tongue’s.” She ginned and ran her hoof along the letters, muttering under her breath as she mouthed the words.
She cleared her throat. “It says: May the reign of our glorious King Sombra be as eternal as crystal, his judgement ever benevolent, and his eyes ever watchful for the darkness that surrounds us.”
Yearling tilted her head. “Hmm.”
“What?” Edweena said.
Yearling pointed to the end of the inscription. There was a symbol carved into the stone. “That don’t fit. It was put there after this was writ.”
Edweena scratched her chin. “I don’t recognize the symbol.”
“Neither do I.”
“I do,” Shining Armor said. “That’s the symbol of the Court Scrivener. They’re the one who records all the major histories, declarations and happenings of the kingdom. He would have access to this room.”
Yearling shook her head. “It mighta been one of these scriveners, but it ain’t the one you got now. This mark is a bit older than the inscription, so I think the one who was around during Sombra’s time might’a put this here.”
Shining Armor frowned and scratched his head. “You know… you’re right. Most of the populace was preserved in time, but there was no scrivener from before. We had to find a replacement. The previous was never found.”
“So what does the symbol mean then? Dash asked. “What does it tell us?”
“That somepony ‘ah somethin’ to hide,” Yearling said, winking at Edweena. “An’ that somepony is tryin’ to tell us now. We just gotta figure out what.”
Yearling plopped down onto her haunches and stared up at the statue. She rubbed her neck as she pondered, while everyone else also drifted into silence as they considered the possibilities.
“Perhaps its a riddle?” Edweena said.
“Nah,” Yearling said. “The inscription was made way before the scrivener messed wit’ it. It couldn’t ‘ave been that specific.”
Edweena frowned as she ran her talon along the mark. She tapped it, scratched it, and rubbed her claws against the stone as she sighed louder with each attempt.
Yearling chuckled. “An’ I don’t think there’s a hidden button, Miss “part o’ the wall’ gryphon fussy britches.”
Edweena groaned. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
Dash stared at the words on the statue and at the mark carved into it. She played the words in her mind, looking up and down at the statue. With every pass, she found herself fixating on Sombra’s face. She only caught a few glimpses of the fallen king the past fall, mired in shadows and darkness. To see him as just a normal pony, one who might have been respected and loved long ago was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time.
The statue was so lifelike, that Dash expected it to come to life at any moment. The details captured in his face, his horn, his eyes. Dash blinked. His eyes!
“The last line of the inscription, what was it exactly?” Dash said.
Yearling turned to her with a raised eyebrow. She turned to the writing and cleared her throat again. “And his eyes ever watchful for the—”
“—darkness that surrounds us.” Dash spun around, looking at the wall opposite the statue. “What’s the statue looking at? Exactly?”
“Um,” Shining said. “Behind that shelf?”
Dash darted over to the offending shelf and looked back to the statue. She craned her head, trying to match with Sombra’s gaze as closely as possible. Her eyes widened when she connected perfectly and a shiver crawled up her spine. “Y-yeah. This is it.” She tapped the shelf. “We gotta move this shelf.”
“I got it,” Shining Armor said. His magic glowed and washed over the shelf. The stone and crystal shelves grinded against the floor as it shrugged aside. As the wall was cleared away, Dash peered around it to see if anything was revealed. She frowned when there was nothing but more rock embedded into the base of the wall.
“Ugh! Nothing!” She said, slamming her hoof against the wall. Her strike echoed into a hollow space that rang throughout the archive, emanating directly behind the wall.
Dash blinked as she turned to Shining Armor. He was smiling. “Looks like you found something, Dash.”
“Y-yeah. Awesome.” She lifted her hoof for another hit. “Now lets get it open!”
Shining Armor grabbed her hoof. “Why don’t you let me? I’m sure Cadence wouldn’t appreciate you punching holes in the wall.”
Dash shrugged. “Sure, after you.”
Shining Armor nodded and prodded his hoof against the slab of crystal that Dash had struck. He tapped along it, hearing out the echoes that bounced from the other side. When he found a spot he deemed the strongest, he focused his magic again and began prying the slab out.
The crystal and rock rumbled quietly as he tried to pull it out. He growled in effort as he pulled harder and harder, and finally it came free. He shrugged back and dropped the rock on the ground with a loud thud.
A small hole had been revealed in the wall, which Dash immediately stuck her head in. It took maybe a second for her to be met with a wave of stale, disgusting air that caused her stomach to boil and her lungs to scream in protest. She stumbled back from the hole, heaving.
“Whoa, there, kiddo,” Shining said. “Are you okay?”
Dash’s will was solely focused on not losing control of her stomach. She managed to jerkily nod her head while steadying her breathing. “Y-yeah. Just...wow. What a stink.”
Shining raised an eyebrow and approached the hole. He leaned towards is, sniffing. His nose wrinkled, but he pressed further in. “I see what you mean. I wonder what—oh…”
Dash looked up. “What? What ‘oh’?”
Shining pulled away from the hole, his face grim. “I think I just found the missing scrivener.”