Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 13 - Law of Opposites Part 1

The day had dragged on longer than Princess Celestia had desired. With so many years behind her a day usually felt like merely a fleeting moment. This particular day was lasting an eternity holding little to assuage her anxiety. She had paced the length of the courtyard numerous times, paced in her chambers, paced in the throne room. Everywhere she'd tried to escape her frayed nerves, mangled by memory.

Now she was preparing to unravel secrets too imposing to handle alone. Alongside that very same thought was a wave of stress and anxiety that threatened to swallow her up, drowning her heart in worry so deep that she lost hope of escaping it again. Her head throbbed, whether from the flood of memories or the fear of what might come from the revelations that itched at the tip of her tongue was not something she wished to guess at. Both was decidedly her conclusion.

The sound of a knock at the door shook Celestia from her pained musings. She took in a deep breath, letting the air fill her chest to shake away the nerves and splitting headache. When drawn back from the precipice of contemplation the air felt so much lighter, and so much sweeter. Pivoting on her back legs, the Princess turned towards the door to her meeting chambers.

What she saw could have frozen her heart in her chest. He was there, watching her. Those same piercing brown eyes boring into her like daggers while his mouth turned up in the defiant smirk. The darkness was already spreading, taking up the room from where he stood. How he'd broken through her warding spells without being detected was a moot point, she had a kingdom to defend. Celestia focused, but only pain sparked through her mind. The headache squeezed her skull like a vice as black tendrils surrounded her. She was slammed to the ground, unable to move as their grip seared her flesh.

She couldn't muster a word through the pain, watching blearily as he approached. Before her stood the heart of the darkness given shape and form, and she was unable to even lift a hoof. He was standing before her now, leaning down to stare into her eyes so much more closely.

"I'm coming for you next, Celestia," he said in a voice that in no way fit how small a creature he was. It was deafening.

He reached down and gripped her horn. The pain in her mind became a numbing sheet of white hot agony. The tendrils held her still as the pressure built higher and higher. She tried to scream, but no sound came from her mouth. With a brutal jerk her horn was broken from her head before everything went dark.

Her eyes opened slowly to see the stone floor of her bedchambers. Celestia blinked several times as she tried to come up with a good reason why she was on the floor. She lifted a hoof only to find her body aching. When she lifted her head a burst of pain paralyzed her. Resting her cheek back against the cool stone, she sighed. Her thoughts drifted when the pain was eased from her tired mind. How had she ended up on the ground? Why was she so tense, her head in so much pain?

Furthermore, why could she not remember her dream? The only sensation she could fathom from it were emotions that she did not appreciate. Such things as anxiety, fear, and something too far to reach. It was like a shadow in her mind, but if she thought about it then it was no longer there. She likened the feeling to the hours of dusk when the light plays tricks on the eyes. She felt like she was searching for something that wasn't there. The past several days had weighed on her with greater impact than first suspected; that was her only explanation. The decision to reveal the only things she had ever sworn to keep secret had no doubt soured her sleep for the worst.

Finding the strength to summon a minor spell, Celestia sent a tiny puff of white light zipping out the door. In the time it took for her to finally rise up the spell had done its work. Simple Quill knocked on the Princess's door in response to the magical summon.

"Simple Quill?" Celestia's voice sounded wrought with fatigue.

"Your majesty, I'm here."

"Send out a pair of letters. One to Princess Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville, the other to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza in the Crystal Empire. There is a matter of dire importance, they must come at once." A groan punctuated her request. Celestia had no explanation for this feeling, and willed herself to ignore it.

"Your majesty," Simple Quill responded quietly. "You usually wish to send such letters personally. Are you sure you wish for me to do this?"

"I have a great deal on my mind. They must come at once, simply make that clear. I wish to collect myself properly, and I need this accomplished. Please," she said in a pained voice.

Quill didn't hesitate for a moment as she responded, "yes, your highness. At once." The sound of the scribe bounding off into the corridor filled the air for a few moments before silence fell once more.

Now sure she was alone once more, Celestia made her way to the hearth and collapsed in front of it. The feeling in her heart and body were much the same, as if they had been torn apart and stitched together. There was no seam, no sign of damage, but the pain was there in full. Perhaps she had let her emotions and bias take her mind to places darker than what was safe. She had felt such inexplicable hate towards the former prisoner it left every pony surprised, including her sister. She even found herself shocked when she remembered some of her exclamations after learning of the escape. The shock quickly faded as her thoughts settled on Tobias.

The perfect prison was still no match for the wiles of that creature. It burned in her mind to think that she let her guard down. She should have dealt with him long before, but had never had the courage. Such terrible actions were unnatural for her to even consider, but now they loomed in her thoughts tangible and real. Anger, hurt, pain, and contempt all lit within her as real as the morning sun. All those things flew in the face of all she held true. Yet still, despite clinging to that knowledge, the dark thoughts remained.

"What has become of me?"

The question lingered in her mind. The next few hours were a blur; so taken up in her thoughts from the eerie morning was she that Celestia hardly noticed the hours passing until it came to the moment she found herself in the meeting hall. She did not know why, but being in the hall caused a sense of dread to grip her heart. As if a part of her mind connected the room to pain. She could not recall why, but the sensation was troubling. The thought of the empty dream flitted through her mind, but it was lost when the sound of hoofsteps echoed along the stone floor.

Princess Luna entered, her calm countenance easing the anxiety that burned in air. She would be the one to know how to explain these feelings. Dreams were her realm, and she was unrivaled when it came to understanding them. Could she understand the lack of memory? Was the loss of a dream a message in itself? Making up her mind Celestia opened her mouth to ask. That was as far as she got. The words would not come. In fact, she felt her mouth close as if on its own. A sudden and somewhat sickening feeling seized her stomach just from thinking about discussing the strangeness of the previous night.

Whether from nerves and anxiety or simply the weight of the day's meeting-to-be, she no longer wished to discuss such matters anyway, they were personal. She already had a great deal to divulge, more than enough mistakes she couldn't hope to atone for. If she added to that already sizable list she would have more than she could deal with. Perhaps the choice to keep it hidden was right, at least this time.

Therefore Celestia and her sister did not speak as they waited in the meeting chambers. The silence was comfortable and calming, even if it lasted only a few short minutes. They were minutes of peace.

Knowing how ragged she looked, Celestia was thankful for Luna. Though no words were spoken, she could see compassion in her sister's dark eyes, however stoic her expression was. The feeling that her guard could be lowered was more relaxing for Celestia than the full night's sleep she had been desperately wishing for. A small part of her mind longed to prolong the few moments of serene silence. But, she knew with a disheartened sigh that complete freedom from past and present burdens could only be fleeting.

The silence was broken by a few soft knocks at the door. Celestia's breath was caught in her throat and her heart beat with sudden and unexpected speed. Adrenaline surged through her, and she was frightened more for not knowing why. This was no time to let the anxiety rule her; she needed the will that had served her so well for the past millennium. Summoning herself, she forced a facade of calm into place with a deep breath.

"Enter," she commanded.

The door opened just to reveal Twilight Sparkle's nervous smile as she realized both Celestia and Luna were watching her. When they returned the smile, she relaxed somewhat, but her face showed she was mentally prepared for whatever was to come next.

"Twilight Sparkle, thank you so much for coming so promptly," Celestia spoke as she nodded in greeting, unable to completely wipe away the harried look with her smile. She knew she saw a glint of concern flit through her former pupil's eye, but made no comment, neither did she mention her apparent lack of rest. "There is much we need to discuss, please join us."

"I wish I could have arrived sooner, actually. Your letter sounded urgent." Twilight gave the room a quick look as she entered, though seemed hardly bothered by the sparse decor. "Is it Tartarus again? Did Tirek leave behind a trap?"

"This is a far greater danger than Tirek could pose," said Celestia in a somber voice.

Twilight Sparkle was visibly taken aback, shock playing across her face. No doubt she was remembering the battle she'd endured with Tirek. Celestia was not unfamiliar with the expression having seen it from other ponies. The power and ferocity of enemies the realm faced was steadily increasing, just as she had seen happen so long ago. She had felt the same shock then that Twilight Sparkle felt now.

Luna took a step forward, drawing all attention to her, to Celestia's relief. Fatigue was once again taking hold of her. She needed only think about what she was preparing to say to become completely drained.

"The cycle is unending, it would seem. The light grows stronger only for the darkness to grow deeper." Luna's strong voice echoed in the chamber as she motioned to the marble table that sat in the middle of the room. The other princesses approached it, looking at a design inlaid with gold. "Where there is harmony and balance, there are those which seek to upset the order. For every agent of evil that is dispatched, a new and more devious foe will arise."

Luna ran a hoof over part of the golden markings. It was an intricate design, a work of art to show off a number of cutie marks. When she spoke again, her voice was a little quieter. "It is not a matter of power. Our foes may progressively increase in strength, but the tests they pose on us are unique. We fail because we cannot prepare for what is to come. We must fall before we can succeed. The pattern holds that eventually we will no longer have the strength to rise back up. That is the true intent of the darkness."

Placing her hoof upon the table, Celestia took a deep breath as she continued from where Luna trailed away. "The reason that you were summoned is to discuss how to deal with a very old, very dangerous concern. The darkness has worked tirelessly for countless years to throw trial after trial against us. Now, I fear we must contend with the darkness itself."

"And now I wish that I had knocked," came a voice from the door. Princess Cadence stood there, her mane unkempt and a look of fatigue upon her face that Celestia too easily related to. "Are you suggesting that every villain we have faced has been part of some greater scheme?"

"Yes, and no," Celestia said with a frown. "There is no greater scheme; I do not believe their intent has ever changed, only the method used. Neither do I believe that they know that despite very different methods, they all have sought the same goal. To upend order and harmony, and to bring darkness upon all of Equestria. That has always been the scheme, nothing more."

Twilight sparkle's face scrunched up in thought as she considered this. "I don't get it. We're here to deal with something dark and sinister trying to bring harmony to an end?"

"That something has a body and a name," said Celestia with a deflated look. Even the light in her eyes waned from the thought as she pushed the words from her mouth. "He is called 'The Sapien' by those who find him more distasteful than others, a title afforded by one of his victims. He calls himself Tobias, and has been a prisoner beneath Canterlot for as long as I have ruled. He is the only being in our land that I would describe as darkness incarnate. For over fifteen-hundred years he has been contained in a cell to keep him from spreading destruction across all of Equestria." Celestia looked each princess before her in the eye before she spoke again in a dull, sullen voice. "He has escaped."

She let the silence linger for a moment. She felt the weight in the pit of her stomach grow heavier, but she willed herself on. She would not be taken up by this draining emotion. It was her duty to proceed. "If we are to deal with this threat, we must all know and understand on equal terms. The veil of secrecy I kept was meant as protection, but I fear it no longer serves that purpose. I will tell what I can, and we may all be better equipped. Cadence, I understand you have not had much time to prepare the Empire, so I hope you will not feel this journey to be in vain."

"Wait, I'm the last one to learn about this?" Twilight asked, exasperated. "Don't you feel that this might have been something I could have helped with? I mean--this--darkness thing has been under Canterlot for one thousand five hundred years and I know NOW? After he's escaped to do--what?"

"Resurrect King Sombra," Cadence said solemnly. "A piece of knowledge I dread to reveal to the Crystal Empire. The panic would be disastrous."

"King Sombra?" Twilight Sparkle exclaimed, drawing all attention to her. "So a creature of pure darkness with the power to bring back the DEAD has escaped from its underground prison which was beneath CANTERLOT that no pony knew about and now is free to bring one of the most horrible unicorns to ever exist back to life and I am JUST NOW FINDING THIS OUT?" Twilight shouted as she shook her head around, leaving her mane messy and her eyes in a manic state. It took a moment for her to compose herself, correct her mane, take a deep breath, and continue. "How long has it been since he escaped?"

"He escaped during Tirek's attack on Canterlot," Luna answered calmly. "And I share many of the same concerns, Twilight Sparkle. I too am much in the dark concerning this particular creature. I have only encountered him once, and know little else except hearsay from before my--before Nightmare Moon." Luna and Celestia exchanged glances, and the feeling of tension grew. "I do not approve of secrets."

"I have said before that it was for the protection of all," Celestia muttered. "I just--it was what I felt was right. I was young, and were I able to change the past I would."

"The fact is the lack of facts is the problem. How can we battle a mystery? What do we know? Next to nothing," Luna continued with the still calm voice. There was no hint of accusation, but a glimmer in her eye pointed towards her sister. "This creature is ageless, he is intelligent, he has a volatile reaction to magic, and he is not of this world."

"NOT OF THIS WORLD?" Twilight exclaimed, then seeing once again she was the center of attention she added, "Um, sorry--please continue."

A thoughtful expression came over Luna as she recalled, "My memory is not as clear as I wish it were. I first encountered Tobias when Virtuous Sight was conducting experiments."

Twilight Sparkle leaned towards Cadence and whispered something. With a quick shake of her head, Cadence tried to keep her attention on Luna. Whatever it was could wait.

"At the time he was little more than a strange black monstrosity with a love of quill and parchment." Luna pantomimed a back and forth motion with a hoof. "He could not speak, so he wrote. I remember seeing one of its drawings; it was of a locomotive--the very same we now use as transportation. Virtuous Sight was busy with her experiments, so I was not able to ask any questions. I remember little else. My mother was extremely ill at the time, but she made me promise to never venture into the laboratory again or to go anywhere near where Tobias was kept. I washed my hooves of the entire matter up until," Luna dropped her eyes before finishing, "my banishment."

Taking a long, slow breath Luna turned to match Celestia's gaze. The Princess of the Night no longer had a glimmer in her eye. Her gaze was steely, and did not ask for answers--it demanded them. She took one last breath before she continued from where she left off. "The only other fact I am aware of is that of us all you know the most, sister. Mother made you promise the same as I, yet you betrayed that promise. You pursued this creature, and the knowledge it offered. Knowledge steeped in darkness is no gift."

"You're wrong," said Celestia in a voice so fatigued that she could have collapsed then and there. Instead, she lifted her head and took as regal a pose as she was able. "Mother never made make such a promise. I said she did so that you would believe she had been fair to us. The truth is, she only ever made you promise." The will to remain staunch and upright withered and Celestia drooped her head. "The--Tobias was left to my responsibility."

Luna's face showed no reaction. For that long, horrible moment it was completely expressionless. Celestia had dreaded her reaction to learning this, but now the lack of one cut even deeper than she had feared.

The silence dragged on, becoming more and more hurtful with each passing breath. Finally, Celestia could take no more. "Will you say nothing?"

"What am I to say?" Even Luna's voice was subdued.

"I--I," Celestia stuttered in response. "That you are hurt? That you are angry? That you would accuse me of lying? Will you not lash out, or respond in some way?"

Luna sighed through her nose, closing her eyes as she asked, "Why?"

That single word echoed several times through the room. It took a moment for all within to realize she'd bellowed it in the Royal Voice. The volume deepened the tension, adding a new layer of shock that was already thick in the air.

Huffing and cringing, the remnant's of Luna's composure crumbled further. She looked at Celestia with gritted teeth. She fought to remain calm as she forced her words out. "I do not care what mother may have deemed fair or not. We both had our share of unfairness growing up. But why would--why would you lie?" Tears were staining her cheeks now. "You promised me--you promised there would be no lies between us. Yet you would maintain one out of fear that you would offend petty, childish desires?"

"Nothing has caused more dissent between us than the debate of fairness, Luna." The raw, choking pain in Celestia's throat nearly strangled her words. This was not how she wished this conversation to happen. She wished it never happened, never needed to happen. Yet here she was, opening a door she'd sworn to herself would stay locked. Now she was watching her sister who had so rigorously worked to find peace with herself being torn right back down.

Clenching her teeth so tight that her head shook, Luna sucked in a deep breath. She looked ready to scream, but took only deep hissing breaths. When she finally was able to speak again, the words sounded drenched in pain. "The smallest of lies, Celestia. That is where it begins. Telling the tiny lies, and then it becomes easier to tell larger, and larger ones. Soon, your entire life is nothing but a lie. If you were so quick to lie just so that I would think fairness existed between us, how can I believe that you have told no others?"

"Because I am here, now, and open to speak. I want no more deceit."

"Then why did you lie in the first place?"

"Because it is my fault! All of it, everything!" Celestia shouted, slamming her hooves on the ground. "I have sought every day of my life since then to rectify what I have done! I brought Tobias here! I summoned him! That is why mother did not make me promise! It was my responsibility because it was my fault!" Tears were welling in her eyes, staining the crimson with a watery blur. She drew in her legs and gripped the sides of her head as a dam finally broke. "It was all my fault from the very beginning. I wanted to open the gateway. I wanted to reach out. I brought Tobias here, summoned from some world beyond the reach of any mirror. Before there even were mirrors. Because of that, because of me--father was-"

Celestia was interrupted by a shining flash of light. Bolts and streaks of blazing white surged into the meeting chamber, shattering the moment with a brilliant display. All eyes watched in surprise and shock as the dozens of lights zipped and ricocheted about before swirling together into a blinding tornado. It continued to converge, growing brighter by the moment before a shape appeared in the glowing center. The body of a pony that sparked something in Celestia's memory. She knew that shape, from the hat to the beard there couldn't be any other.

Her wonder was broken when the blazing display exploded in a shower of sparks and the form took true shape. The collective gasp that rose up through the meeting chamber echoed loudly as they all beheld the pony that now stood before them. With the ashen black coat and cruelly curved red horn there was no mistaking his identity. King Sombra had just appeared in the room.

It took him a moment to gain his bearings before he looked up at them with golden eyes. He stared, and they stared back. As if the idea finally stuck he shot a glance down at himself, then spoke in a voice far less imposing than Celestia expected. "Oops," he said with a hiccup. "Forgot about that."

"It's him!" Cadence cried out as her horn burst to light.

She was quickly joined by the others as Sombra watched them in horror.

"No, wait!" The spells were nearly charged. "Stop! Justgivemeamomenttoexplain!" He shut his eyes and cast his own magic in the nick of time. Sombra's shield surrounded him in a bubble as a purple beam of energy hit and splashed over it. Lightning crackled in the air as Luna stepped forward while Twilight prepared another blast to deal with the intruder. Cadence's face was contorted in concentration as she worked on the protection spell. It had worked once before to defend the Empire, banishing all evil like a great shield.

The only one who did not move was Celestia. Her horn was lit, but she did not release the magic. She stared at the unicorn, eyes narrowed. He wore the cloak, the crown, had the same crooked horn. The one detail that struck her was his eyes. They were white, not green, and the irises sparkled with a light gold. Consumed by magic, Sombra's eyes had always been red and green. Now they were different, and she could not stand the sense of familiarity in her mind that came from those eyes. It made her think once again about the image she had seen in the spell that brought him here.

Looking to Cadence, she saw that the protection spell was nearly complete. A sudden feeling of anxiety poured into her, a need to keep that spell from going off. Maybe it was a hunch about Sombra, perhaps it was something more. Her eyes burned, and the nausea returned in the depth of her belly. She had to do something, and so she did.

Standing up tall and placing her hooves upon the marble table, Celestia proclaimed in the Royal Voice, "Enough, all of us." She looked around at every eye now upon her. "That is quite enough." Turning her gaze back upon Sombra, she watched him sit inside his protective bubble. He was raising an eyebrow at her and memories tickled her brain. She knew that gesture, and it was all too bizarre seeing it from a unicorn who had always been a sworn enemy.

The shield bubble lowered as Sombra sat down on the ground where he had appeared. He made no sudden moves, nor did he speak. He simply sat and watched, as if waiting his turn.

"The King Sombra we have faced before would not have simply shielded himself and begged to be heard. Something is wrong here," Celestia said, no longer bellowing. "Quickly, tyrant--explain yourself."

"A tyrant? Hardly!" Sombra harumphed as if insulted by the notion. "Perhaps in a different life, to be sure. Memories of that, but as if through another's eyes. I am no more a tyrant than you are an elephant." Dusting himself off, the dark unicorn took a good look around before his eyes locked onto Twilight Sparkle. They widened, his head shooting forward as he went from looking at to staring deeply. "Hold the mail, you! I've seen you! Well, I've seen all of you but it's hardly here or--never mind. You! You didn't have wings, but now you have wings! Not just transmutation, you actually ascended! That means--oh my lucky socks! You found my spell, you used my spell! YOU FIXED MY SPELL!"

Before she had a second to prepare, or even consider, Twilight Sparkle found herself being shaken about as Sombra hugged her and whooped in laughter.

He danced back and forth on his hind legs as he hugged her just a bit too tightly, muttering and giggling as if to himself. "After such horrid dreams, I awaken to this gift! Oh joy!"

"What--are--you--doing?" Twilight gasped as she was thrown back and forth. "Let--me--go!" She was released immediately, sitting down hard and shaking the dizziness away as best she could.

"So sorry," Sombra apologized. "I uh--I haven't been feeling myself. I've had quite the experience waking up today, and I'm feeling a bit giddy. Could be the adrenaline. Definitely the adrenaline."

"How did you come to be here?" Luna questioned in a low voice.

"Oh, ah yes. Fail-safe spell! I used it to teleport here, wherever here is. I had no set arrival location, so it sent me where I would be safest--or that is what it is supposed to do. And maybe it did--safe and welcome are very different things." He spoke so quickly it was difficult to separate some words, but a picture was beginning to form.

"It was Tobias that did this, I take it," Celestia mused. "Brought you back and then let you go?"

Sombra snorted as he turned to her. He was still smiling, but a sense of seriousness suddenly dropped like a stone upon the entire room. "Oh there was no 'letting go' from that encounter. His offense was with a phantom, but I was still the target in the end." A quick look around gave Sombra an idea of where he was as the princesses were still recovering the last of their wits. "I take it the purpose of this get-together is how to deal with him? He is quite 'out and about,' as I have been fully witness to."

"And with you," growled Luna.

Cadence agreed with a fierce nod as the pink glow returned to the tip of her horn.

Looking from one princess to the other, Sombra nodded as if he understood completely. He reached up and grasped the crown upon his head and slowly removed it to clatter against the stone ground. Taking a deep breath, he bowed low. "Forgive me, your majesties, for causing such distress. I look not like I did in a past life, nor have my actions warranted trust in any regard. In that respect, allow me now to first ask your mercy, second to ask your forgiveness, and thirdly to introduce myself formally."

Sweeping a leg under his chest to accent the bow, Sombra extended the other in a formal manner. "I am Shadowed Night Stars Swirling Bright, or for less of a lungful, Starswirl. Though my form is changed, my mind is restored." The unicorn continued, not noticing all but one princess catch the breath in her lungs. "Princesses Celestia, Luna, Mi Amore Cadenza, and whoever you are I bid you greetings--again."

"Star--swirl," Twilight said slowly. She looked back at Cadence who wore the same wide-eyed expression. "You're Starswirl? Starswirl the Bearded?"

"The not so bearded, I'm afraid," he mused while patting at his chin. "But yes, Starswirl I am--or was. I am a different pony now--of sorts. I don't feel that is my name anymore, not really. As if, it doesn't belong to me. A very strange notion. Tobias called me Sombra, the ponies in my dreams called me the same. That name feels--more appropriate. If distasteful, I understand. You may refer to me as you wish."

A strange and uncomfortable silence fell over the entire room. Even Sombra remained momentarily quiet. Celestia stared as her mind rushed through a hundred different images far too quickly for her to even mentally track. Cadence and Twilight Sparkle were afraid and confused, but there was a pair of eyes boring into her that she dared not meet, not yet. She could feel Luna's stare on her coat; it even burned as if she'd drawn too close to a candle.

"How are we to be sure that you are who you say you are, and this is not some sort of elaborate trick," Luna spoke to Sombra though her gaze remained on her sister. It was several moments before she turned her eyes on the intruder. "It seems all too convenient for this to be happening here, now. How can we possibly believe a word you say?"

Patting at his chin, Sombra thought hard for a moment before taking a deep breath. "Let me answer that with a question of my own. You stand upon a hill with a very large boulder. At the top is level ground, which begins to drop off gradually at first, and then steeper. If you rolled the boulder over the edge, what would happen?" His exaggerated flailing of hooves and shaking of head would have bordered comical, though none in the room were in a laughing mood even as Sombra spoke nearly too fast to follow. "It would gain speed as the slope grew more steep. In a very similar manner the events set into motion have begun to gain speed. Mere moments after I regained my own mind Tobias turned violent and attacked me. My use of the failsafe spell brought me to the one place where I could find aid in dealing with that frame of circumstances. In truth, it is not coincidental at all. In fact, this whole path was set in motion long, long ago. The boulder has been gaining speed ever since Tobias first arrived here."

"The matter of which we were about to address," Luna declared as her attention fell back upon her sister. "Notwithstanding the lies told to us all, your confession of fault has drawn my interest more intently, Celestia. All else will be dealt with in due time."

Cadence cleared her throat, holding a hoof up as if asking for permission to speak. Anxiety was still drawn over her face, but there was also an intensity. That intelligent spark of curiosity burned bright in her eyes. When she saw she had all the pony's eyes, she took a step closer to Sombra. He looked to her, and she looked back. Finally, with another cough and clearing of her throat she spoke. "So--you--you are Starswirl?"

"I am, or--I was."

"The Starswirl," she pressed.

Sombra did not miss a beat, answering as if it were perfectly normal. "It's a nickname, for obvious reason, but I am unaware of any other that bore my name. I've of course been out of touch for some time, so I could be wrong. But, from my knowledge I am the only Starswirl that ever was."

"How can you be Starswirl? You can't be Starswirl."

"I'm not. Not entirely. I was Starswirl, now I am Sombra. Another--ah--nickname of sorts. Starswirl was the dough, I am the cake. Ooh, I like that metaphor."

"But--we were told you were dead. How can you be alive after so many years?"

This finally caught the stallion off guard. He tapped his chin again thoughtfully as he needed the moment to consider. "Me, dead? Well, I mean were it any other unicorn I wouldn't be surprised. I have been alive for a considerable number of years. Granted, over a thousand of those years were drowned in a self-inflicted darkness. Oh! Yes of course! That would explain it!" He pointed to Celestia and shook his hoof manically. "You said that I was dead! Very clever! Protecting my reputation and all that!"

"You were dead," she responded dully. "I watched it happen. I saw what he did to you. You died, there was nothing left."

Celestia pushed away from the table. She could no longer stand to be silent, no longer stand the bickering both in her ears and in her mind. There was too much turmoil in the air, too much apprehension. If she did not bring the discussion back to the issue at hand, she feared confusion would take over. She came to a stop only a step away from Sombra and stared into his eyes. They were the same soft gold she knew all too well from her old teacher. There was not even a hint of the power and fright that they once held.

She leaned in just a little closer and narrowed her eyes before she intoned, "How am I to believe you are not still another trick?"

His response was a chuckle, soft and disarming. When Sombra spoke, he did so calmly. "My dearest princess, you should not believe that I am not a trick. What was the first lesson I ever taught you? Never believe your eyes, believe your heart. If you believe in your heart that Starswirl is dead, then that is the truth. In some ways it is the truth. I got the spell wrong, your majesty," he whispered with a bow as he stepped back from her. "Were it right I would have achieved an ascended state of magical being. It was wrong, and it scourged me. I am forever changed, and marred by the darkness that consumed my mind. You are right to doubt me. It is safer."

"Then why are you here?"

"To save myself." This answer left a stale feeling in the air. "Perhaps aid in saving us all; in any way I can. I cannot atone for the deeds of my dark side, but I can stop the spread of a friend's. Of this you have my word."

"He's telling the truth," offered Cadence to the surprise of all. "I can feel it."

Twilight Sparkle nodded as well, though she still looked cautious. "If Cadence thinks its okay, then so do I. Not to mention--Starswirl the Bearded! I can hardly believe it!"

"Neither can I," muttered Luna, just loud enough to be heard. The wounded note in her voice could not be hidden. "I agree with my sister, we must address the issue at hand. Tobias, this heart of darkness, and our horrific lack of knowledge. What is he, where does he come from, why is he here, and how do we stop him? These are the things we wish to know, if I may speak for us?" She was met with nods from Twilight and Cadence. "Starting with Celestia's summoning of this creature as she has admitted. I want to know why."

"Celestia's? Hmm," Sombra pondered as he retrieved his crown from the floor. "Not exactly how I would put it. Half her idea."

"Starswirl, please," pleaded Celestia.

"It is--ah--Sombra, please. I just--that name--my heart does not wish it, at least not right now. If you wish me to not recite the tale," he trailed off as Luna tapped a hoof against the marble loud enough for an echo.

She glared at him with a dark and foreboding gaze. It took a moment before she could calm enough to draw in a settling breath. When she spoke again her voice was collected once more. "There is no avoiding it. We must know, and we must know now. Much is at stake if this Tobias is as dangerous and cruel as some believe."

Celestia felt her heart sink so low she feared it would fall from her chest and plop against the ground. She'd fought so hard for so long to uphold all the good and hope that she could, to bury all the dark things deeper than the deepest mine. She had wished to simply bring them into the fold concerning the danger he posed, the darkness he could spread. To learn the origins of Tobias was a journey into a past she desperately wished to forget. If only she'd been stronger--if she had not confessed--perhaps things could have been turned away from this path.

The quiet voice in her mind hinted to the realization that no matter what, her clinging to hope had been shattered by Sombra's arrival. There was still a piece of her that refused to believe that this creature, a being of such hatred and destruction, was in fact her old teacher. But the eyes, and the way he spoke, and the feeling of when he issued such tirades of knowledge: she had no doubt and that stung. If this revelation stung her so deep, she feared for Luna. She feared what the whole truth would bring. She feared even more that the darkness would be given leave once more to take root in the hearts of her loved ones. Her hopes shattered, that was all she could see now.

"Your majesty?" The question startled her. Sombra blinked at her with one eyebrow raised high. "Are you well?"

Celestia slowly shook her head, but spoke before any could interject. "Tell them," she managed.

With a look of deeper concern, Sombra drew closer. "Are you well?"

"Sombra, tell them," she demanded with what little strength she could muster. Even speaking felt soul-draining at this point.

With a nod the stallion obeyed. He walked to the marble table and tapped on it with a hoof. "I guess the only place to begin would be the beginning. One thousand six hundred and ninety two years ago, if my memory still serves me. That was when Tobias was brought into our world."

"But--why?" Twilight interrupted. "I mean, all this talk of horribleness makes me wonder why even bring him in the first place?"

"Why ever attempt magic in the first place? To see what it does. A doorway to another world entirely; before even the mirrors were established: that was the purpose of the summoning, and nothing more--knowledge, experimentation, the pursuit of intelligence beyond the scope of our world. Two very ambitious and overconfident sisters thought to themselves that they could change the world by visiting another. Princess Celestia--and her twin sister." Gazes were shot towards Celestia, but a raised voice caught it back again as Sombra continued. "I am sure you are all filled with questions! If Luna is Celestia's younger sister, where is this twin? One in the same. Luna was not always the younger of the two, there was a time that she was a twin. A previous life, much the same as I was once Starswirl. In fact, our stories are nearly identical."

"That's impossible," Luna scoffed.

"As is the formula for the perfect cup of coffee but I still managed it. There is no such thing as impossible, only improbable. It was improbable to believe any other world could possibly exist, yet you both tried. It is improbable to think that something alive and sentient could be drawn through a portal opened to that other world, yet you both achieved that. It was only after that point that everything fell apart. What with your father's interruption, the failing of the portal, and the monstrosity that emerged."

He didn't skip a beat as he placed the crown on the table and watched as it began to glow and hover above the patterns of inlaid gold. "I do not perfectly recall the day, my mind is still piecing together some lost memories. I remember the screaming though, that horrid ear-piercing shriek. There is no way to describe true agony like that noise conveyed. Simply existing here was poison to it, the very air was fire to it. A formless creature of grasping claws and vicious eyes that writhed and fought with its presence here. Celestia was drawn away by her father fast enough, the other sister proved not so lucky. The touch of this creature was like nothing I can describe. It fought with anything it touched, both air and stone. She was in the way, and it struck her. That was a terrible way to die. The King fought to save her, and he too was struck down."

Sombra's telling left every pony around him dumbfounded. Only Celestia was left in her pain, recalling that day with the same heart-breaking despair that had gripped her as she watched.

"My memory fails, by this will provide better answers. If all of you truly wish to know what happened, and in a telling better than words can provide, the crown is the key. It was something I worked on before my transformation, before a multitude of mistakes. It has magic of what I was and what I am today. In essence, with the right spells, it can take us all back to the beginning. We can all see for ourselves by using this as an anchor. We can know the face of what has been unleashed." Sombra's face was downcast for a moment before he composed himself again. "I consider Tobias a friend, despite what any of you may think of him or of me. He is a troubled being, but pitiable in some small ways. Perhaps through this, you may come to think much the same."

"I cannot pray for that, not for what he has cost me." Celestia's words held enough spite that Sombra turned to stare, his eyes narrowing as he did. She locked gaze with him to the point that she felt almost self-conscious by how he glared. "I simply find pity a feeling out of my reach."

"Then I hope all our eyes are opened, your majesty. They once were, a lifetime ago. The windows to soul should always be open, always show our true intentions." The crown began to glow as Sombra pointed a hoof towards Celestia. "I hope most of all that you can see what has become of you, and what your eyes tell me now. They are not the eyes of the princess I once knew. They have changed."

The glow was overcoming everything. Luna had disappeared, the wall of light now taking in Cadence and Twilight as it expanded.

Watching the wall of light approach, Celestia could not help but be shaken by Sombra's words. "What do you mean?"

"I mean what I say, your majesty. I have known you a very long time, tutored you through both school and hardship of the heart. Despite all that pain, the princess I taught had the purest eyes of violet that could banish the darkest of thoughts." The wall was beginning to take in Celestia, her breath catching in her lungs as felt something putting pressure on her entire body. The words that Sombra spoke next seemed to make the feeling of being crushed all the worse. "Your eyes, princess--they were never so crimson as they are now."

The pressure was becoming unbearable as Celestia felt something grip her thoughts. It was like an icy claw, and its presence made her flinch. She still heard Sombra, but he was growing more distant. "What have you allowed to take root in your soul, Princess?"