Ponies could misjudge others, and ponies could change. These were both common truths, ones Luna had been faced with herself for longer than she could remember. Her own sister had also learned this during the course of their long separation and then reunion. And surely Celestia employed that same knowledge in her day-to-day interactions with their subjects. In fact, had she not even done so for Discord? Then surely she would be willing and open-minded again, once she saw how well Luna and Sombra worked together in their diplomacy with the Changeling queen.
A scowl worked its way onto Luna's face despite her attempts to hold it back. Chrysalis… that fiend had nearly destroyed Cadence and Shining Armor's wedding, had struck Celestia low, and allowed her underlings to temporarily overrun Canterlot. Luna had been preoccupied with the border patrol where she and a faction of guards had fought to near-exhaustion against a legion of the shape-shifters, not realizing their attackers were part of a larger invasion. Still, Luna had heard enough about what transpired once she'd made it back, and the entire ordeal angered her. She would love nothing more than to give Queen Chrysalis a piece of her mind but this wasn't going to be the right occasion for that. She would have to remain calm and guarded once they entered the Badlands and found the Changeling court. Diplomatic negotiations were what was needed.
"Is something troubling you?"
She glanced up, adjusting her wings against her sides as she regarded Sombra. The royal red cloak once more riding over his shoulders, he had paused in clearing a path through some foliage to look at her inquisitively.
"I am surprised; you seem to pick up some of the subtlest mood changes," she remarked.
"I'm not sure how subtle it was," Sombra spoke in a low, wary voice indicating apprehension of reprimand. "One moment you were smiling at nothing, the next you were scowling at your hooves as you walked."
"You saw that?" Her insides squirmed.
He gave a short nod before resuming the use of his magic to part the overgrowth. "Do you wish to talk about the matter? Or would you prefer more pleasant topics of conversation?"
"I'm merely worrying about how negotiations might go once we reach Chrysalis's court, that's all," she replied. "But preferably, I think it would serve us better to speak of other things, to distract my thoughts that I do not dwell on the negative."
As she looked at him Luna thought she saw a flicker of disappointment in his eyes, but it was gone so quickly as he smiled and perked his ears that she must have imagined it.
My anxiety and my overactive imagination brought together will just lead to my mind playing tricks on me, she told herself firmly.I'm trying to see proof of my anxiety where there is none.
As before, a vague thought nagged at the back of Luna's mind trying to get her attention. But Sombra began speaking again and it brushed the thought away.
"Very well. Best not to set ourselves up for failure, after all," he agreed. "What would you like to talk about, princess?"
She thought for a moment. They had already spoken for hours but she always felt it had been mostly about her. Sombra had offered up little about himself. Luna smiled secretly. Time to change that up a little.
"Actually I was wondering if you would tell me more about your foalhood," she answered. "About living in the Crystal Empire and about your brother Lucien."
His pace slowed momentarily as he frowned, looking a tad put off by her choice of topic. "The empire? Lucien?" He grimaced slightly as he regarded her. "Why do you want to know about my days as a colt? What brought on the sudden interest?"
"Curiosity," she replied. "I've shared so many of my own stories. It would be nice to hear some of yours, if you don't object."
"I don't," he said, though he sounded somewhat hesitant. "There isn't much to speak of, though. Lucien and I were thick as thieves when we were foals, and there was little more that we loved than having adventures in our castle and giving our governesses trouble. As we got older, he took to athletic and royal pursuits and I took to books and magical studies… but we still remained close friends for a long time. He tended to venture out far more often than I did; Lucien was more of a social pony from day one. I always kept to myself and liked to be left alone more often than not."
"So you didn't go out into the Crystal Empire all that much as you were growing up?"
"Very rarely. I wasn't intended to rule, so I saw little point in it unless it was necessary." Sombra slowed to a halt, the murky red glow fading from his horn as he raised his head and looked up. "It's getting quite dark."
Luna looked up as well, momentarily startled and embarrassed. "Oh, it's dusk! Please wait a moment, Sombra." And with that dismissal she trotted several paces ahead, closing her eyes and composing herself to raise the moon. As before, her moon and constellations of stars came readily in response to her magical touch. Luna lost herself in the moment, painting the sky with her nighttime. She was artist, musician, composer, writer and astronomer all in one intricate dance of spells, heeding an old call she had known her entire life.
"By the stars!"
She opened her eyes at the sound of Sombra's gasping voice, falling back into herself. She was merely Luna once again, wings spread as she stood rampant, having responded unconsciously to the pull of her own magic. She twisted around to look at Sombra, eager to see how he was responding to seeing a moon-raising up close.
But the unicorn king's gaze wasn't turned heavenward. He was staring open-mouthed at her. Feeling very self-aware in that moment, Luna folded her wings against her sides again and lowered herself until all four of her hooves were touching the ground again. She tried to think of something to say to break the awkwardness of the moment, but Sombra beat her to it.
"You're beautiful," he said breathlessly.
This time it was her mouth that fell open. Her brain tried to think of something—anything— to say but it apparently had fried. She tried to speak but couldn't even string two words together without stammering incoherently.
He thought she was beautiful? Some part of her—perhaps her wildly hammering heart— had been hoping as much without her realizing it. But on hearing him say the words she was stunned… and yet, she felt overjoyed.
"Me?" she finally managed to say, feeling a smile starting to grow. He nodded and returned the smile as he approached her.
"Indeed. I've always thought you were rather striking for a mare and a princess, but just now? There was a radiance and a glow to you I don't think anypony could hope to equal."
Heat flooded her cheeks. "I-I… don't know what to say, I… th-thank you, Sombra."
His smile widened and he knelt into a regal bow. "The pleasure," he said gently, "is all mine, Luna. You honor this fallen king with the presence of your majesty and beauty."
She stuttered for a second, remembering the brief moment where they had touched muzzles, and her face grew hotter. What was she even supposed to say to that? She glanced away, lifting her wing to shield her smile.
"W-we should carry on," she mumbled hastily, trying to switch the subject. "Just because it is night doesn't mean we ought to stop in our quest."
She picked up the pace, walking rapidly ahead. Sombra followed after a momentary pause, trotting to catch up with her.
"Wait a moment. We don't need to rush," he said, flicking his tail. "We can afford to move slower. It's a beautiful night; we should appreciate it."
Luna glanced up uncertainly, looking up from the path that would invariably lead them to the Badlands up to the star-strewn sky. Could they really?
"We still have your moon compass lighting the way we need to take," he added. "And I doubt we'll lose much time by slowing down just a little."
She glanced up to the moon compass, still glowing softly and lighting the way down the path. Technically they were still covering ground by moving during the night. That would give them an advantage. Neither of them necessarily needed sleep, but they could still rest a little by slowing their pace. And it <i>was</i> a beautiful night out…
"Very well," she said, lowering her wing and no longer trying to hide her delight. "I suppose we can. After all, it has been a long time since anypony has appreciated my night with me."
He grinned broadly. "Then we must make it count."
Shooting stars darted across the heavens, glittering brightly and winking out of sight as quickly as they appeared, following Luna and Sombra as the two journeyed. The night was alive with brightness and beauty, mirroring the inner joy Luna felt. Talking became storytelling that would dissolve into laughter or subside into gentle silence. The two walked even closer than before, their shoulders touching more often than not. It was during one of those comfy silences that the princess followed an impulse and leaned over to playfully nip at the dark king.
"What?" Sombra blurted out in surprise, before chuckling. "Are you challenging me?"
"It's possible," she answered playfully before taking another nip at him. He continued to chuckle and lunged, attempting to nip back. Luna giggled, dancing away from him.
"Oh, you're not getting away that easily!"
"Try me, unicorn king!"
Laughter and play were contagious for foals, and evidently the same held true now. She cantered ahead of him and he chased after her, keeping pace. He would nip and lunge, always just falling safely short of truly coming into contact with her. She laughed harder, banking sharply and wheeling around, turning the chase on him. He grinned and moved even faster, challenging her to keep pace. But she was an alicorn princess; this was foal's play to her! She raced with him, easily closing the distance between them.
And she was happy. For the first time in what was probably centuries, Luna was light-hearted and happy without any weight on her spirit. Here in this moment, there was only this moment. She could be herself without restraint around Sombra. Here and now with him, she was free.
Without warning he slowed down and she smacked into him, throwing the unicorn off-balance. He stumbled and his hooves went out from under him. He hit the ground with a grunt and Luna stopped at his side, giggling and taking a gentle nip at his ear.
"I believe the game belongs to me, Sombra," she declared with a triumphant smirk. He blinked at her a moment, then chuckled as his eyes flickered in amusement.
"I do believe you are right," he agreed, his smile turning sultry. "You are bewitching, Luna."
The words sent her heart fluttering. "Says the witch-king himself," she murmured.
"Then consider it a compliment of the highest order."
"From the bottom of your heart?"
"As deep as one can draw from a heart of crystal," he answered with a light, happy chuckle. And as he spoke and nuzzled her cheek, something in his words finally shattered the barrier and allowed her persistent thought to make itself known.
Luna's mind rocketed backward at breakneck speed and she remembered her nightmares. Sombra's black crystals overtaking the dreamscape, the image of Celestia drowning, the sense of hopelessness and despair, and the unicorn king's almost reverent praise of Nightmare Moon. The alicorn princess's chest went cold, so frigid with terror in that second her ribs seemed to contract sharply.
In the blink of an eye she was brought back to reality. She wasn't in the grip of malevolent dreams. She was still standing beneath the stars with Sombra looking up at her, his happiness from seconds before giving way to a look of concern.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
Luna shook her head to clear it and moved back a step. "I, uh…" Blinking, she reached up with a hoof to gently massage her temple.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, frowning as he pushed himself up to stand. She looked at him, searching his gaze. She saw only worry and concern there, and yet she could feel doubt slowly chewing away at her.
The reason I began talking with him in the first place was because of those dreams. How could I have forgotten that? How could I have forgotten my initial suspicions?
But even before those thoughts finished forming she knew why. She could feel her heart sinking. She hadn't had a single ominous dream about Sombra for weeks now. And so she had pushed her fears and suspicions out of her mind. But now…
"Luna…" His voice was soft as he leaned in close, his horn almost touching hers. She pulled back, trying to compose herself and hoping he wouldn't notice her unease.
"P-please, forgive me. I, uh…" The excuse came to her readily in a spark of inspiration. "I realized I have not bathed in a while yet. I am disgusting."
Sombra furrowed his brow for a second and then smiled again, nonplussed. "Hardly, princess. That bothers me not at all," he said, leaning toward her again. His gaze was soft and she could have sworn he was trying to kiss her. She nearly gave in but with an effort she pulled away, turning her head down and gazing at the ground.
"I'm sure you don't but I don't like to be disgusting or unclean in noble company," she murmured, thinking quickly. She had a half-formed plan in mind, but she needed to get away from him in order to pull it off. "If there is a lake or a stream nearby, would you mind giving me a few minutes of privacy to bathe properly?"
She wasn't sure how he might respond, but she nearly sighed in relief when he said, "Of course, princess." She smiled up at him and he smiled back as they resumed their trek. It took no time at all for them to find a slow-flowing river, and as Luna approached it Sombra walked away in the opposite direction for the cover of some dense trees. Heart hammering, Luna waited for him to vanish from sight.
I don't have much time, so I need to make this count.
She turned to the lazy river and touched her horn to it surface. The water rippled and began to glow as she channeled her magic to it. The spell was a gamble; it wasn't hard and it require little from her, but she had to make sure she picked someone likely to respond to it.
Unbidden the image of Celestia's beloved pupil came to mind and Luna smiled. Yes; if anypony was ideal to reach out to, it would be her. And so Luna focused with the spell's power and her strength flowing through it on the face of Twilight Sparkle. For a few seconds that dragged on with every heavy beat of her heart, nothing really happened. But then a hazy image appeared in the glow upon the water and as Luna pulled her horn away, a familiar face came into view.
"Hello?" Twilight asked uncertainly, squinting quizzically at what Luna presumed was the surface of a mirror. "Is this thing working?"
"Twilight?" Luna said hopefully. The younger mare's eyes widened.
"Princess Luna?! What's going on? Did you need something?"
She took a deep breath, steadying herself. "Please listen carefully, Twilight Sparkle. I don't have time to explain the details this moment, but this is important and I feel if I can entrust anyone with this, it is you."
Twilight's face lit up. "Of course! I'm very honored, princess, and I promise you I'll carry out whatever responsibility you have for me as best as I can." She turned and glanced at something out of sight. "Spike, get ready to take a note."
"There's no time," Luna said quickly. "I'm not at the palace at Canterlot. I'm over halfway to the Badlands, traveling with King Sombra."
"King Sombra?!" Twilight yelped in disbelief, her mouth falling open.
"Yes. We're headed to the court of the Changelings."
"Changelings?!" she squeaked. If it was possible for Twilight's jaw to drop any lower, it did. Luna hurried on, hoping she had enough time left to convey the message.
"Yes," she confirmed. "We're going to speak with Queen Chrysalis. But Twilight, I have doubts. I am not sure if I can fully trust King Sombra or what he has said. He claims the Changeling queen has been nursing a plan of revenge but now I have second thoughts. So I need another plan in case this goes wrong; I left the palace with him in secret. We're very close to the Badlands. I think we should reach the Changeling court by midday tomorrow. If something goes wrong, I need you to inform my sister, gather the Elements of Harmony, and make haste to the Badlands. Can I count on you, Twilight Sparkle?"
The other pony hesitated, looking uncertain. "I…"
"Can I count on you?" Luna repeated, putting as much firm urgency in her voice as she could. She had no time for quibbling or disassembling the matter. She needed Twilight's word that she would carry out this matter, no further questions asked.
It took a moment, but finally the purple mare nodded. "Of course you can, Luna," she said quietly. Luna exhaled in relief. Twilight sounded reluctant, but she wasn't somepony who went back on her word.
"Thank you. Please don't hesitate. Trust your instincts and what they tell you, Twilight."
"But Princess Luna—" she cut in worriedly.
"I have to go. If I delay much longer he might get suspicious," she spoke rapidly, and severed the connection of the spell before Twilight could raise any further protest. She glanced over her shoulder, heart hammering. She saw no sign of Sombra, and she quickly plunged into the cool water, submerging herself for a handful of seconds. Her stomach twisted with guilt over the lie, but she had to give her deception credibility lest he become suspicious. When she burst out of the water onto the shore and started to shake the water off, she called out to him. "Sombra? You can come out now, I'm finished. Sombra?"
She took only a few strides from the river when he seemed to melt out of the shadows into view. One quirk of the mouth into a smile and a glance from those eyes crackling with heat, and Luna's breath caught. Truly in his own way Sombra was beautiful. Not merely beautiful, but darkly so. In a way, it was as if he was a part of the night, as if he had always belonged to it. For a moment she fancied Sombra had always been a part of her night and she simply hadn't realized it until just then.
Why does it feel like I'm betraying him by doubting him? she thought unhappily, an ache in her chest.
"That was a rather quick bath," he remarked, arching an eyebrow. "You haven't even dried off yet." Before she could respond, he walked up to her, his horn starting to glow. "Here," he offered, "let me help you with that."
His magic washed over her, its touch as warm and lingering as a caress as it siphoned the water off of her. Luna shut her eyes and briefly she was able to simply enjoy the feeling. Yet as suddenly as he had cast his spell it seemed to fade, and as she opened her eyes faint shadows were reluctantly withdrawing from her. She regretted the loss of the contact but smiled at him gratefully.
"Thank you for that."
A heartbeat passed where his expression was guarded and searching, then he smiled back at her. "Think nothing of it, princess."
His words and tone, his body language, all of it encouraged her to relax. And yet she couldn't help but feel the smile on his face seemed brittle and strained.
The midmorning light was bright in the Badlands yet the pallor of the place was so sickly gray and dull it almost negated the sunlight entirely. The further in they trekked the more Luna found she felt uneasy. This place was a wasteland, with few signs of life among the barren caves and rocky outcroppings and canyon walls. She began to wonder if she could truly blame the Changelings for being unhappy with their lot in life.
As far as I can tell they have little to nothing to improve their quality of life, she thought gloomily. While it does not justify Chrysalis's actions, I do feel something could be done to help them. Isn't establishing peace what Tia has always strived for? Isn't it what both of us wanted to achieve over a thousand years ago? Unity across Equestria?
High canyon walls rose on either side of them as they went deeper into the Badlands. Most of the sunlight had been choked away, casting cool shadows that kept the heat at bay. Before long they rounded a sharp turn in the canyon and far ahead, Luna caught a glimpse of a single Changeling sentry standing guard outside the mouth of a huge cave, staring boredly into space.
"Over here," Sombra whispered, darting swiftly behind a large pile of broken shale. Luna followed closely, ducking out of sight but taking care to keep at an angle where she could still see the guard if she turned her head.
"He appears to be alone," Sombra remarked. "Though… appearances can deceive."
Luna barely glanced at him as she analyzed the situation. Again she felt pity for the Changelings and her thoughts began to run away with her.
Perhaps we can negotiate with them. I don't know how well I could do it until my sister gets here, but perhaps we'll be able to meet Chrysalis on middle ground and offer her Changelings a more prosperous piece of land. We don't have to be at odds.
"What are you thinking?" Sombra asked.
"I think we might actually be able to do this," she replied, turning to smile at him encouragingly. "It will be tricky and we'll have to tread carefully, but we may actually be able to negotiate with them peacefully."
"Hmm." He frowned pensively. "Queen Chrysalis is a tough nut to crack. It would not be easy."
Luna acknowledged him with a nod and turned her attention back to the lone sentry. "Yes, but I have a good feeling about this. We just have to take it as slow and carefully as possible," she declared.
"You mean," Sombra's voice turned low and cold, "until your sister and her precious little Element-wielders arrive?"
Luna's heart skipped a beat, clenching in fear, and that second of hesitation cost her dearly.
The blast of power knocked her off her hooves and as she hit her side, icy pain erupted in her horn. The breath tore from her lungs on impact with the ground. Coughing, she opened her eyes and glanced upward. Small black crystals were growing from her horn. Desperately she tried to channel her magic and blast them away, but her attempts were fruitless; the crystals dispelled her magic and filled her with a bone-deep chill as they sapped her strength. Tears stung behind her eyes as she looked to Sombra, crying out, "What is the meaning of this?! How dare you! I trusted you!"
His expression as he approached her was cold and impassive, saved for the pained rage that lit up his red eyes. "The thing is, princess, I trusted you too. We could have made something powerful out of this quest; we could have become partners, friends, perhaps more than that. Together we could have rid Equestria of Chrysalis and her leeching vermin race… but then you had to go and reach out, to send word back to your precious sister of what we were doing. Just couldn't stop yourself from being a good little girl and ruining it all, could you?" He tilted his head haughtily as he loomed above her and his red eyes showed no sign of any softness or warmth from the night before. "I suppose there will have to be some negotiating with the Changelings after all, inconvenient as that is. Thanks to your meddling—"
The last word came out as a snarl as he snapped his monstrous teeth in her face. Luna flinched back, squeezing her eyes shut, and he finished speaking.
"My plans have changed."