“Experiment number 3202016. Check!” drifted a voice across the surface of crystals clinging to the walls of the mines underneath the castle of the Crystal Empire.
“Check!” came the reply near the entrance.
“Are the shadow guards in place?” asked the first voice.
“Affirmative. And the slaves should be coming through...NOW!”
As if on cue, several crystal guards, bereft of their crystal coat, their eyes saturated green and leaking purple mist from the corners, marched a line of sad-looking crystal earth ponies past the area of the voices. Only when they were out of sight, did the first voice – a high-pitched, squeaky sound, speak out.
“Shit! They were supposed to be shadow guards!” it said in an annoyed, angry tone.
“Sorry sir,” the other voice apologized. “I think Nyx called them away again.”
“She keeps interfering with our plans!” Number One complained. “I want her taken out!”
“Uh, we can't do that, sir,” Number Two shook its tiny head.
“And why not?”
“She's an integral part of the question matrix...and she's scheduled to discover us as soon as Tight Planner spills the beans and starts - “
“ - screaming? Who the Tartarus will be making all that racket?” the Marazon TimeWitch yelled as she walked briskly through the Crystal Empire's castle. Servants and advisers parted the way for her, bowing slightly as she passed. She hardly noticed them, gesturing sharply for two shadow guards heading for the mines to stop what they were doing and accompany her.
“Yesssss, Missstresss?” one of the umbrum shadows replied as it took up position next to her.
*Guard 456, who is going to let a little girl into the castle and why will she be screaming like that?” Nyx snapped. “We have to stop her before she starts up and interrupts his Majesty's meditations. He's at a very delicate juncture in his time magic studies!”
*We hear no ssscreaming, Missstresss,” the other guard whispered. *You ssspeak in future tensesss.”
The first guard spoke up. *Ssshe seesss the future, 710, hence her future-ssspeak.* The smoky wraith turned to Nyx. *Apologiesss, Missstresss. 710 hasss been reasssigned from the outlandsss.*
*Fine, fine,* Nyx waved the creature's explanation for his fellow's confusion away. *Just take care of that horrible noise before it happens.* She stopped abruptly, looking down the juncture of several adjoining corridors. *It will be down there, in the dining annex to the kitchens. Probably in the kitchen itself, but check - and fast! I must get back to my Liege before he tears that hole in reality he's about to. I don't want to clean up the mess that will result.* She turned around and walked briskly back the other way, leaving the two guards to a quick bow to her before they shot across the long corridor towards the sounds just starting of chaos in the kitchens beyond.
“I despise working with time-travelers!” Number One yelled, which was not very impressive since his voice barely carried a foot past the area of him and his fellow. “Always mucking up our quantum calculations!”
“Yes sir,” Number Two agreed. “but we would have been done with this damnable business seven centuries ahead of schedule if we had factored in their presence. That was a harsh lesson at the hands of The Doctor.”
“Don't talk to me about The Doctor,” One mumbled sourly. “And 'hooves', Two. Hooves. These creatures have hooves!”
“Oh, right,” Two mumbled, scratching his head with a clawed hand. “I was assigned to the human dimension before this one...it's hard to break the habit.”
His boss looked over their calculations on a portable, quantum calculator that projected the latest experiment results in holographic form above their heads. “You may not have to worry about breaking the habit, actually. The calculation matrix says this place is due to be frozen by a time anomaly - “
“Not surprised,” his subordinate nodded. “what with the TimeWitch teaching this Empire's King's time spells.” He peered harder at the data readouts. “Ooohhh...that's quite some interesting output due to happen in the next few days, but isn't it a danger to us?”
“Not if we evacuate on schedule,” One shook his head. “But we will need that data and with her unpredictability, we will have to keep a closer eye on Nyx and his Highness.”
“Oh, oh no, no, no, no!” Two said, perturbed. “Don't tell me we're moving the lab to - “
“ - 'fraid so,” the head scientist said. “It is where they conduct all their – research...”
“ 'morning, Captain Iron Blade,” the Head Chef, Au Gratin, greeted as the King's Grand Commander strode into the dining room. The white, prissy stallion with a green garnish cutie mark clicked his hooves at the servants. “Come now, snap to it! His Majesty will be wanting lunch at noontide sharp, as usual!”
The staff increased their pace. Satisfied, their boss turned back to his visitor. “You are back early from morning exercises, Commander. Will you be joining His Majesty and the First Consort for the meal?”
The red unicorn stallion waved a hoof in the air. “Not for midday, Au Gratin, but put me down for dinner.”
The earth pony pulled out a guest list and updated it. “And will Quiet Hoof and the children be coming as well?”
“Most definitely, Au,” Blade replied. “I promised them they could discuss the history of His Highness's military campaigns with Him in person for their school projects.”
“Ah!” the chef smiled. “Getting the facts straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.”
“Yes. Apparently my recountings of our glory days are not nearly as exciting as when they come from King Sombra himself.” Blade grabbed a roll from the ones set out on the table and grabbed a quick bite. Gratin smiled tightly at his lack of table manners, saying nothing only because Blade was the second most powerful stallion in the whole of the Crystal Empire.
“Of course. As it should be, I suppose,” Gratin waved a hoof in the air and rolled his eyes. “This younger generation has no respect for its elders, nor table manners.”
Iron Blade grinned good-naturedly at the barb. He enjoyed humoring ponies impressions once in a while that he was a barbaric savage heading the most feared army in all of Equestria. “The little warriors get hungry after decapitating enemies all day in the field, Au.” He tossed him back the half-eaten roll, knowing it would annoy the fussy stallion. Gratin's eyes got wide, shocked at the implication that Blade's teenaged colts were already beheading enemies at such a young age. The Commander laughed at his look, knowing the chef would have thought exactly that.
“Well,” Au Gratin huffed, annoyed he had fallen for the jest. “decorum is all important in this castle, Commander. It should be maintained at all times - “ he was cut off by a muffled scream coming from the kitchens. Their heads swiveled towards the sound, then back to each other.
“You employing little screaming girls to wash dishes now, Gratin?” Iron Blade grinned.
“Ugh!” the chef rolled his eyes in disgust. “You and I both know, Commander, that such a dreadful racket could only be coming from Planner!”
“No doubt Nyx has sicked the shadow guards on him to throw him out the window yet again,” Blade said, smiling.
At that moment, two Umbrum shadows drug the King's Head Scheduler, Tight Planner, from the kitchen and seeing Captain Iron Blade, plunked him down in front of him in a heap on the floor. He didn't have the grace to stay there, but curled himself up as best he could into a tight ball, rocking back and forth.
*Apologiezzzz, Grand Commander.” Guard 456 whispered. “but this was threatening to interrupt Hisss Highness'sss meditationsss, and by order of the First Consssort, needed to be neutralizzzed before such interruptionsss occurred.*
Blade grunted, leaning his head down to the Scheduler's level. “Planner, Planner, Planner! You keep up that racket and privileged class or not, King Sombra will end you.”
“Mmmm...” was all Planner said, shivering violently.
“What was that?” Blade leaned closer.
“In the kit-kit-kitchens!” he wailed. Shadow Guard 710 clamped a solidified appendage over the pony's mouth before his screaming escalated again.
“What's in the kitchens, Planner?” Au Gratin asked, irritated. “Beside pests like you who need to wait for mealtime like everypony else?!”
“Mmmm...pests...!” the terrified pony managed to get out from behind the guard's grip over his face. “Mmmiiii...!”
“Guards,” Blade looked at the wraiths in irritation. “you need to let him talk.”
*But First Consssort Nyx ordered him sssilenced, Commander,” one of them whispered. *The King isss engaged in delicate – experimentsss.*
“Mmmiiiccc...” Planner continued to struggle.
“Experiments?” Blade's head nodded. “Nyx ordered? In their quarters?”
“More like the delicate practice of copulation,” he muttered, using a term he knew neither the Head Chef nor Tight Planner nor any of the guards would be familiar with.
“'Copulation?'” Au Gratin asked. “What is that?”
“A - term in the future Nyx brought back with her. It means - “ he glanced at the shadow guard. “experimentation. Just like the guard said.” He turned his attention to the cowering pony still on the floor, still pinned by the guards. “Now, Planner...what is in the kitchens?”
Outside, in the hallway shadows, Number One and Number Two scurried unseen towards the King's inner chambers. Two was distracted as the Head Chef yelled, “What?!?”
“Wait, Boss,” he paused. “That wasn't Tight Planner!”
“Shit!” Number One cursed. “It was the Head Chef. He wasn't due to scream for another ten seconds!” He pulled out his quantum calculator and checked as the time differential skewed the current calculations, then continued on.
Two facepalmed himself. “No wonder this project has taken ten billion years!”
Meanwhile, in King Sombra's inner chambers...
“Oooo!” Nyx moaned, shivering. “It's perfect, my King!”
“Why thank you, Nyx,” he sounded quite pleased with himself.
“Might I hold it, my Lord?”
“Of course, my dear. You helped me in its creation, after all.”
The TimeWitch carefully took their accomplishment in her hands, stroking it. “It's so firm, it gives me shivers!”
“As well it should...”
The two scientists cringed at the conversation going on as they snuck into the royal stallion's bedchambers. From their angle they couldn't see what was going on, or what they were cooing over, to which Number Two was grateful, but right now he also desperately wished they were deaf as well!
Taking up a position unseen behind the drapes across the room from the bed, Two's boss quietly pulled out his quantum calculator. His subordinate shook his head in warning. It was possible that Nyx, with her sensitivities, would detect the device as it used temporal theory to crunch its numbers. One waved him off. “We need this data!” he whispered as low as he could. “What they are doing at this moment will render the destiny of power here completely off - not just in the Crystal Empire and Equestria, but everywhere! And that will affect our ability to reach The Question on schedule!”
Nyx chose that moment to moan loudly, followed quickly on its heels by a sinister growl of pleasure from her handsome overlord. “I wish it would at least render me deaf as well!” Two groaned, putting his small hands over his ears.
One shook the calculator as its outputs fluctuated wildly with improbably futures not meant to come into existence. “Oh, this is BAD! Producing this, this THING...” even One cringed now as Nyx let out an empassioned cry of pure pleasure. “could extend the King's hold over the Empire for several thousand years and shatter the balance of power on this planet!”
Two shivered. “If by balance of power you mean creating an heir to the throne, I wish they would get this accursed copulation ritual over with and get back to - “
“What are you talking about, you idiot?!?” One said, exasperated.
Nxy shot up in bed, nearly dropping the ball of temporal energy King Sombra had created. His aura shot out, catching it before it hit the bed. “Careful, my dear! It may be firm, but you did tell me if it gets out of our control - “
“Somby!” she hissed, backing up on the bed. “There's somepony in here!”
His eyes widened. He dissolved the spell and the sphere of firm, magical energies was safely banished back to the time vortex. He turned His attention fully to her. “What?” He whispered. “None would DARE enter here!”
Her black eyes scanned the room. “Somepony dared, I tell you!”
Sombra heard it then, too. A low, echoy muttering in the corner, behind the drapes. His horn bubbled with the colors of dark magic and His fury. He looked to His consort. She in turn nodded, their eyes traveling back to the drapes. Whoever it was, was going to suffer DEARLY for this violation of their privacy!
As the King of Shadows prepared to rip away the curtain with his magic, He felt Nyx's hoof on His arm. “Wait, I sense something else.” She paused. “Can you feel it, my love?”
He paused, expanding His senses. There was something else there, vaguely tickling His new ability to detect temporal energy. “Yes,” He said with uncharacteristic hesitancy. “but...I am uncertain if it is not remnants of the temporal bubble we birthed.”
She lifted her hoof from Him. “I am confused as well.” She watched as he turned his attentions back to the intruders. “Be careful, Somby,” Nyx whispered.
He shot her an “of course” look, then shifted His lower half into shadow. Tendrils of darkness snaked out toward the strange chittering sounds.
Suddenly He yanked the curtain back!
Nyx's eyes widened. The King sighed. “Just mice.”
One and Two froze in terror for an instant, then ran!
“Mice? MICE? GRAB THEM!” Nyx snarled, her voice tinged with Umbrum fury.
Sombra turned to her, startled. “What? They're just mice, Nyx.”
She shot out bolts of time-freezing, temporal magic towards the fleeing rodents. “They're not, my King. They're spies, hidden by magic!” she raged.
The mice fled, too small and too quick to be caught by Nyx’s wild shots. Sombra simply stared at her as if she had lost her mind, wondering if He had finally and truly driven her over the edge with pushing her too hard lately.
She was about to dive off the bed when He wrapped her in his magic, stopping her. “Hey, hey, hey!” He said gently, pulling her back to Him. “I think I have been too hard with the lessons as of late. Why don’t we take some time and go to the hot springs like you have been asking of me for the past - “
The TimeWitch shook her head. “No, we can’t. There’s no telling what those despicable creatures would do to the kingdom while we were away.”
Now He knew she was serious. She NEVER turned down going to the springs!
The doors to their chambers opened and several shadow guards along with Commander Iron Blade rushed in. “We heard the blasts, Sombra!” He said breathlessly. “Are you alright?”
Sombra let his magical grip on his consort go. “I am not certain,” He said hesitantly.
“Aye?” Blade said, confused.
The King gave Nyx a look she despised. A look that said, “Okay dear, yes we believe you.” when He actually didn’t. Crazy until proven sane was, unfortunately, a hard habit to break after years of her living in the castle with Him, and while she had always been shown to be sane in the end, He felt that at last her winning streak was finally and truly done.
“Nyx, what insane thing have you done this time?” Blade asked her point-blankly.
“Not me, Blade,” she replied, jumping off the bed, pacing back and forth. “They are not just spies, Somby. This is much, MUCH worse than just a spy or assassin this time.”
The Commander looked to Sombra who simply shook his head and followed her off the bed. “We have - a problem, I fear,” was all He said, but then the weight of her words sank in. “What could be worse than - “
Nyx stopped pacing and turned back to Him and Blade. She sounded completely sane now, having calmed down. “I know this is going to sound insane, my King, but please, believe me. I have run into these foul things before and we HAVE TO GET RID of them!”
“What is worse than spies or assassins, Nyx?” Iron Blade asked.
She hung her head for a moment, trying to find the right way to break the news while hunting around the back of the curtains at the same time. There was no easy way to say this. “If they are here, well, you are not going to like this, my Liege…”
Sombra’s face darkened, losing patience. “Nyx…”
Nyx picked up something from the floor. A tiny something she held in her magic before them. It was flat, white and had colorful buttons on its surface. After a moment she found what she was looking for and pressed one.
A floating display of the castle leaped into existence in the air around them. It was insanely detailed - every level mapped out, strange lettering coding each area in an alien language. It turned slowly in the air before them, a stream of real-time data updating at the bottom, much of it slowly turning red with the epicenter a level Iron Blade recognized as the room they were currently in. Nyx shook her head. “It means, my King, that THEY are running the Crystal Empire. Not you!”