• Published 7th Aug 2013
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Hail to the King - Qwapdo



A human soul is stuffed into King Sombra's body. Having no idea what's going on, and thinking he is in some kind of coma, he just casually strolls into the Crystal Empire.

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The World's Worst First Impression

The afterlife was everything I thought it would be. A serene feeling of absolute bliss filled my weightless soul as I drifted towards the purest white light I had ever seen. We have all heard stories of near-death experiences and they aren’t far off the mark. High above me, but so tantalizingly close, a heavenly radiance glowed as warm and inviting as a fire in winter. All around me was nothingness, but I wasn’t afraid. The void was neither cold nor terrifying because I know what awaited me. I only wished that I could move faster, to welcome the approaching light with open arms and a smile on my face.

I was so utterly and willfully entranced. This must be how moths feel right before they get zapped.

But as I approach, a curious thought struck me. Why was I so unafraid? Shouldn’t death trigger some primal rejection; a rage against the heavens that my only life was over? Why did I have to go? Where would the light take me? There were so many questions, but I couldn’t bring myself to address them. By all rights I should have been a nervous wreck and yet, the closer I got to the light, the more my worries melted away. It was just so peaceful, like I was drifting gently to sleep.

So tired. So very tired. I couldn’t stop myself from closing my eyes.

“GRRRAAAAAAGH!” A hateful shout blasted through the void, carrying a promise of pain and terror and shocking me out of my relaxation with a startled gasp. It was so violently explosive that I shivered involuntarily. I was certain that whatever had made that shout would not be welcomed into the light.

“What was that?” I asked, discovering that I could speak, sort of. The amorphous, quintessential being of my soul sent a question into the void. It was answered with loud, angry yelling.

“Crysssssal Haaaarrttt. Crysssstttal Heaaart! Wrrragh!” the thing shouted. Looking down, I saw what it was that had disturbed the peace.

It was a living shadow. That’s the best way I could describe it: a churning mass of blackness that swallowed what little light was available. I faintly saw a pair of green eyes glaring from within the shapeless black cloud, making it look like a thunderstorm that had learned how to glower. Peering closer, I could see the silhouette of a head, but it was entirely indistinct except a pair of fangs contorted into a villainous sneer. Whatever that thing was, if this is what its soul looked like then I shudder to think of what it had done in life. I watched apprehensively for a few moments hoping it would go away, but then those green eyes turned to glare straight at me.

Something grabbed me. “Waah!” I yelped from the sudden jolt. If you’ve ever found yourself swimming in the ocean and had something brush against your leg, you’ll know why I cried out loud. I found myself encased in a dark aura, like a thick, translucent outline that seemed to be pulling me towards the shadow.

“Mine,” it chuckled darkly and began to pull harder. “Issssss MINE!”

“What? No! You’re pulling me off course. I want to go to the light. Stop that!” I pleaded but it wouldn’t listen. In fact, it actually smiled wider when it heard me beg.

Then I noticed that its eyes were no longer looking at me. Instead, it was focused squarely at the peaceful light shining directly above us. The harder the aura pulled me downward, the faster the shadow seemed to ascend. I figured it out quickly: it was taking my place. It was dragging me down so it could pull itself up. The shadow laughed as realization dawned on me.

“Stop laughing when I’m talking to you! What do you think you’re doing!?”

‘Wa Ha Ha Ha Ha,” it cackled deeply as it passed me, flinging me backwards to make itself go faster. I willed myself to fly, kicked around to change my trajectory, and even made swimming motions, but nothing seemed to have any effect. Unable to find purchase on anything, I found myself hurtling through the darkness.

“Wait. Wait! Don’t do this!”

But the shadow didn’t listen. I was just a stepping stone it used to fly towards the light. The distant radiance became clearer as it got closer. I watched it rise up while the light solidified into a perfect image of what I imagined heaven to look like; stairs as white as ivory, magnificent pearly gates, and shimmering golden ornamentations encircled by illuminated clouds. The very entrance of paradise awaited, laid out so the black shadow could ascend a stairway to heaven that should have been mine.

Strangely, it didn’t even glance at the gates, or even the source of the glistening iridescence. Instead, its full attention was wholly enraptured by the staircase leading up to it.

“Staaaairss,” it said blissfully, practically sighing in content. The fangs, barely visible in the smoky cloud of its body, warmed from a villainous grin into a genuine, joyful smile as it eagerly set upon the pristine white steps.

“That’s all you wanted?! The freaking stairs!” I sputtered. I was actually angrier about the sheer pointlessness of it all than I was about being denied paradise. I mean, he tears me away from the ultimate destination of the human soul, not so he can take it for himself, but so he can stop just in front of it. I can’t even think of a better metaphor for something so spitefully petty.

With jubilant anticipation and eyes sparkling gleefully, the shadow reached out to the steps. But second it made contact, the whole shebang blinked out of existence. The light above us, once glimmering like a nova, went poof, just like that. The heavens became dark, as if the afterlife itself had slammed the door in its face. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction as the shadow quivered with rage.

“HHRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGH!” The heavens roiled at its thunderous outcry. The shadow held its explosive note for an entire minute, impotently screaming at the skies that denied it its precious stairs. I had never heard anyone get that inconsolably angry before.

“Take that, you jerk,” I said vengefully as it roared in fervent hate. It probably wasn’t a good idea to have vindictive thoughts in front of the entrance to heaven, but I couldn’t help myself.

Besides, I now had greater concerns; I was still falling. The light was gone now, and I drifted – was flung, really – to wherever it was that shadow came from. I felt myself get heavier as I traveled downward, and found myself becoming exhausted. Not the blissful sleepiness I had felt earlier, but something similar to being awake for too long.

Before I could give in to despair, however, I found myself flushed with calm repose.

Once again something echoed through the emptiness. This time it was without sound: an intangible, but noticeable presence. The sense I got from it was the exact opposite of what I had felt from the roar of the shadow. It was as if something saw what had happened and wanted to help.

The void… pitied me? What a strange thought, but that’s the definite sentiment I got. I don’t know why, but as I started losing consciousness, the last thing I felt was an indistinct sense of sympathy. It was a rather comforting thought after all that had happened.

I couldn’t help but smile, uncaring of where I drifted. At last I had the peace of mind to finally fall asleep.

________________________________________

My rest didn’t last long before I heard the sound of a train whistle and a voice calling out to me. The noise, combined with the unwelcome feeling of wind and sunlight did everything in its power to wake me up, but I wanted nothing more than to stay asleep.

“Get off the rails, dummy!”

“Bwuh?” I grumbled, trying to blink the grogginess out of my eyes and failing miserably. I’d never been much of a morning person, and a glance to the noontime sun told me I wasn’t much of a midday person either. I laid my head back down and closed my eyes. Whoever was trying to get my attention was going to have to wait a minute.

“Move it! We can’t stop this thing!”

“Myeh,” I grunted, reluctantly dragging my head off the ground and yawning widely. My voice was way deeper than before. It didn’t feel like a sore throat, but I worried that I might have been coming down with something. I was a little hoarse, I guess. “Alright, alright, I’m up. What’da you want?”

My mumbling was answered by another blast from the train whistle. I got to say, that thing was a pretty effective alarm clock, jolting me awake from merely up to fully up-up. There’s a difference, as anyone with weird sleep schedules will tell you. I was too groggy to take in my surroundings, but the fact that there was solid ground below me was certainly a plus. Wasn’t I just in a void, or space, or something? How’d I get here?

A third blow from the whistle demanded my attention. Looking up, I saw the strangest sight I’d ever seen; there was a team of horses pulling an oncoming train. Little, wide-eyed miniature horses were hooked up to the front of a pink steam-engine locomotive and running full tilt. It was one of those things that was so weird that I couldn’t help but gawk dumbly as it drew closer and closer. “Whaaa…” I droned.

Why would they even need a team of horses to pull a train? That just seemed redundant. Huh, the lead one is making noises at me. It’s… talking? It’s telling me to get out of the way. How odd. Hold on, it was the horse who yelled at me! A talking horse just told me, in clear English, to get off the rails. “Heh,” I giggled. “Man, what the heck is going on?”

I shook my head and tried to focus on more important issues, like what had happened when I blacked out. And where am I, anyway? I know for a fact there wasn’t any snow when I- Did he say ‘get off the rails?’ It finally clicked in my head. I glanced down to see that I was, in fact, standing on train tracks. I looked back up to see the horse-drawn engine now alarmingly close and blaring its shrill whistle continuously.

“Yipe!” I yelped, jumping to the side with mere seconds to spare.

“Moron!” the lead horse voiced his opinion as the train shot past me in a blast of displaced air.

Digging myself out of the snow bank, I spat out a mouthful of dirt. “Pah! That’s two near-death experiences in the space of an hour. Either there’s something wrong with me, or I just gotta get my act together,” I said.

You know, that was the first thing I did today. Literally my first conscious action after waking up from death itself was to jump out of the way of the world’s most flamboyant locomotive. Is that really how the world wanted to greet me?

Welcome to the land of the living, son. Have a train.

Now that I was awake and not dodging public transportation, my indignation gave way to revelation. Whatever it was that eased my fears in the void was gone, so a weight began to appear in my stomach as I collected myself off the ground. Pupils shrank, eyes widened, and my jaw dropped in realization. “Holy crap, I almost died!” I shouted to no one in particular. “Again! Wow… Wow. Okay, deep breaths. Very deep breaths. Get ahold of yourself.”

Dusting myself off I stood back up to my full height and-

“Oof!”

Fell right on my back, apparently. Jeez, I’m a klutz. I moved to get back up, hoping that my fit of uncoordination was the last bit of awkwardness I’d have to deal with today, but I stopped when I planted my hand on the ground to get back on my feet.

It wasn’t my hand. Correction, it wasn’t a hand at all. It was a hoof at the end of a short leg, like a goat.

I held it in front of my face, then stretched it out and moved it back and forth in disbelief. I went left, it went left; I went right, it went right. Left, right, left, right, left. Yep, that’s clearly my hoof. The hoof that I was moving because it is mine. My hoof. I have a hoof.

“Oh crap.”

There was a second hoof waiting for me when I looked down, with a whole other pair of them raring to go behind me. Straining my neck, I looked at my alien body and cannot deny the equine features. I tug on the tail and reach up to confirm that I had a mane, both of which were black. I idly wondered if being a horse is better or worse than being a goat, but my mind quickly caught up and realized that’s not the problem here. I am a little horse like those guys that were pulling the train; a grey horse decked out in some kind of plate armor for god knows what reason.

I start fearfully gasping with my horse-mouth, and quivering on my horse-legs, and palpitating with my horse-heart until I’m ready for a horse-panic attack. “How!?... Wha? Why!?” I sputtered incoherently. There are many situations life prepares you to deal with, and this certainly ain’t one of them. After my trip through the mortal coil, my brain was already fried, so I really wasn’t ready to deal with this level of insanity.

“No! No panicking. There’s got to be a logical explanation.” I try reassuring myself, but I find no comfort in my own lies. “Okay, maybe not a logical explanation, but there has got to be a reason for this.”

I thought I was dead. This can’t be heaven, can it? I gulped. Could I be in the other place? There were all kinds of weird transformations and punishments in The Divine Comedy, but I didn’t think some Italian’s revenge-fiction was an official sourcebook on the afterlife. Heck, I wasn’t even sure there was an afterlife until just a few minutes ago.

“How could this have happened? This is just too weird. This is…”

My thoughts slowed to a halt. “… too weird. Yeah, that’s exactly it: too weird.” My expression turned from wide-eyed dread to a skeptical frown. There’s no way this is really happening.

It was time to grab Occam’s razor and start dicing.

“Alright, one option is that I’m really a horse,” I said, barely acknowledging the possibility before laughing it off without a second thought. There’s got to be a better explanation so, trying to think of more plausible reasons, I strained myself to remember how I got here.

“Let’s see… I was falling, but I never felt any pain. That sense of euphoria faded, and I definitely felt heavier and more tired. What else?” I sat down and tapped my head. “I was heading to a bright light, something brought me to an abrupt stop, and then I felt a pulling sensation. If that really was a near death experience, and if death is ‘the light at the end of the tunnel,’ then falling away from the light means I’m still alive,” I said hopefully. “Does that mean I’m not dead?”

It was a welcome thought, but it didn’t answer that whole ‘horse’ thing.

“So if I’m not in a hospital, then… um,” I scratched my chin with a hoof. The movement was surprisingly natural. I didn’t know hooves could bend like that. “… I must be unconscious,” I deduced. But this seems like it’s so much more than a normal dream. Why would that be?

“Waaaaait a minute,” I drawl, and then I laughed with dawning comprehension. There was only one way this could all make sense.

“I get it now. This is a coma!”

My face reddened, barely noticeable on my dark face, as I recalled the short panic I had upon seeing the hoof. It was rather embarrassing that I really believed it, if only for a second.

I took in all the details; the sights, the smells, the faint sounds. I could even feel the wind play against my fur. There was so much more detail than in my usual dreams that I started to worry that there was more to it. But then I took a closer look. Everything was too cheerfully colorful and the sounds were too inviting. The landscape was wonderfully idyllic and lacked the subtle imperfections of daily life. The mountains in the distance rose majestically, the snow was one massive plane of untarnished white, and not a single tree was dead or fallen. I found this oddly comforting, as it was more proof that this was all just a dream and I didn’t need to freak out.

“Right. Nothing is real, so just roll with it,” I say to myself. Talking out loud helped me organize my thoughts. I highly recommend it, at least in privacy. “I’m a horse? Okay, sure, why not. It’s not like dreams are supposed to make sense. I’m dressed like Gannondorf? Alright, I’m game.”

I mean, I had absolutely no frame of reference, leaving me to wonder how my mind came up with this weird scenario. I scratched my head in confusion. “Ooh! Hey, a crown. That’s neat,” I said, noting that it went well with the red king’s cape I had on. “And there’s a horn too.”

“Wait. When someone’s in a coma, are they allowed to know that they’re in a coma? Or can it be like lucid dreaming? Lucid coma-ing?”

Only one way to find out: let’s see if I can screw with reality. I focused on making something happen. I didn’t care what, just as long as something weird and undeniably my fault occurred. With a few seconds of concentration, the horn on my head started glowing, which I figured was a good sign. I crossed my eyes to look at it and found, oxymoronically, that it glowed black. Focusing harder gave it purple and green colors, but further straining just made it brighter.

“C’mon, I don’t just want a headlamp. Do something,” I told my own horn.

A black crystal erupted from the ground in response to my commands. It looked like a solid hunk of obsidian about as tall as I was. There’s no way anything did that but me, so yep, dream confirmed. “Cool. Can I do anything with it?” I asked, seeing if I could lift it. The resulting sight of the enormous crystal being ripped out of the ground and floating in the air was better than anything I would have hoped for.

“I can make it fly around with my mind! Ha. This has ‘coma’ written all over it,” I started chuckling at the absurdity of it all. “I’m a miniaturized, regal, psychic, unicorn-wizard. It’s like my brain’s just pulling adjectives out of a hat. Just how far down the rabbit-hole are we going to go?”

Just for fun, I make another crystal rise up from under my feet. The longer I concentrate, the more it ascends with me atop it. Forcing it to curve forward, I found that I could remain at the top of it while the pillar of dark crystal shot straight ahead with surprising speed, creating a solid trail behind me.

“I can ride it.” I laughed childishly. “Ha ha! I’m officially calling it: reason is dead and madness is law. This is gonna be the best coma ever.”

So I had a means of travel, now the only question was where I was going to go. The scenery was nice, but I’d rather find someone to interact with. All around me was nothing but nature, and the only sign of other people was the train tracks I had woken up on. There were definitely other horses pulling that train on foot – hoofing it, as may be the case – so distance must not be an issue. I bet if I followed those tracks, it will lead me straight to civilization in no time.

There was only one sensible option. I picked a direction and followed the tracks.

________________________________________

After sorting through every imaginable reason for my situation, I was now a firm supporter of my ‘this is a coma’ theory. Nothing else made a lick of sense. The black crystals below me moved ever forward, carrying me across the land like I was surfing on solid rock. The blowing of the wind, the sensation of movement, and the slight nervousness of being high off the ground were so much more realistic than any normal dream. I chalked it up to the difference between normal sleep and a coma and tried to enjoy myself.

Exhilarating as rock-surfing might be, I was starting to wonder if I had gone the right way. Forest had given way to snowy plains and the gentle wind became a gusting flurry. After traveling this long, I was surprised that nothing had happened yet. Dreams work on expectations, not desires. At least, that’s how it’s been in my experience. If you think to yourself ‘I sure hope this doesn’t happen,’ in a dream, whatever it was you thought about will immediately occur whether you like it or not. Good or bad, your mind will always throw you something to keep you occupied. I wasn’t even aware that boredom was possible. Maybe I should go somewhere else.

Op! Spoke too soon, there was a cityscape just now showing up on the horizon. I smirked. Awfully convenient that a city would appear right when I was about to turn around. What did I tell you? This was totally a coma.

Not wanting to waste a moment, I made my wave of crystal go faster, higher, and aim straight for the city. I made it to the outskirts in record time.

The city, or town by the size of it, was a perfect circle of development with a huge tower in its center. Roads radiated out from the central tower and branched outward into several capillaries. When seen from above, the road plan resembled an enormous snowflake, and there wasn’t a single house or business out of line with its impeccable symmetry.

“Must be one of those planned communities,” I frowned. I never liked those; suburbia seemed like it’d be a boring place to live. This whole town looks like they were more concerned with maintaining its pattern than with developing a workable city.

Once I reached the edge of the town, I stopped my crystalline transport and made several black spires rise to form a staircase for me to descend. I hopped the last couple in my excitement. You know, just ‘cause.

I cantered into the town, looking back and forth in interest. To my surprise, it was a whole community of little, crystalline horses going about their lives like they think they’re people. Every last one of them glimmered in the sun as if they were made of glass. I grinned happily. “Yes! More fun craziness. I’ll name one of them Shiny and we’ll go on adventures.”

I noticed that the horses were somewhat shorter than me and a lot more colorful, so I wondered whether or not I was one of them. “Maybe I’m a different race or something,” I mused. None of them had horns, like the one I sported. How come I didn't get a shimmery coat like they did?

As I was trotting along, taking in the sights like a tourist, one of the horses idly glanced my way and nearly tripped. Its eyes went wide and its mouth slowly opened as its jaw went slack. It looked like it saw a ghost. “Hi,” I greeted. It was on the other side of the street, so I was loud enough to grab the attention of many of the other horses.

The creatures milling about the street stopped in unison, some of them with a hoof still suspended in the air. I swear to God I heard a record scratch.

“They’re… uh, all staring,” I mumbled under my breath. I suspiciously checked back and forth at myself and the light-colored, bright, shiny citizens, and looked for differences. The most obvious disparity was my coloration. “It’s not because I’m black, is it?”

Every pair of eyes shrunk to pinpricks when they saw me standing in the street. Whichever ones that had not noticed me turned to see what the silence was all about, and they too hushed up. It was like a scene from those old westerns, where someone would enter the saloon and the music would stop. Not a single one of them blinked. I could hear some of them whisper to each other. “By Celestia, it’s him,” said one. “This can’t be happening,” said another.

Did I do something wrong? I’d obviously never been here before, so why were they looking at me like I was a wanted criminal? I needed to break the tension somehow, so I gave them a polite cough. “Um… hello?” I said hesitantly. Like deer caught in headlights, they didn’t move a muscle. Even the fearful whispering stopped, leaving the entire city block absolutely frozen and silent. This was the most surreal moment of my life.

The awkward silence stretched on until something bumped against my leg and I heard a squeak from one of the horses. A little rubber ball rolled into me and a tiny filly just to the side visibly trembled and tried to avert her eyes. She must be afraid of me for some reason.

I couldn’t ask for a better ice-breaker. Using my psychic horn-powers, I levitated her ball back to her. I wished I could find a way to change the color of the horn’s aura, since the nightmarish swirl of dark colors wasn’t doing me any favors. I placed the ball right in front of her and slowly rolled it to bump into her legs.

She didn’t react at all. Her eyes were so fixated on the ground that I doubt she even noticed it. Oh well, alien species or not, it takes a special kind of evil to scare a little kid out of her wits and not do something about it, so I trotted over and gave her my brightest, most cheerful smile to calm her down.

“Hi, there,” I said, using a tone most people reserve for housecats. I tried to sound as friendly as possible because I didn’t want to frighten the poor thing anymore than she already was. Unfortunately, with the dark and gravelly voice of this body, it wasn’t much of an improvement. She very slowly tilted her head up to see me standing right in front of her. I waved a hoof in greeting.

The little filly gasped in response, taking a sharp intake of breath and started screaming bloody murder.

“AAAIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she let out an ear-piercing shriek, easily as loud as a fog horn but much, much higher pitched. I could actually feel the sound vibrate in my lungs, making me cringe and grit my teeth from the sheer volume of it. Covering my ears did nothing.

Several more horses poked their heads out their windows and doors to find out what the racket was all about. Honestly, I’d have liked an explanation too. I was just as confused as anyone else.

“AAAAAAAAHHHHH!” the filly explained, pointing a hoof at me. I immediately sat down and held my forelegs up to prove that I had done nothing to her. I didn’t want to have a mob on my hands. Hooves. Whatever.

But they didn’t get angry. In fact, whatever it was the filly saw in me, they saw it too because they all screamed just as loud. “AAAAAAAAHHHHH!”

The remaining towns-horses still on the ground began wailing alongside them, as if knocked out of their trance by the sudden yelling. It seems they just needed one good jolt to shake them out of their stupor and panic began spreading through the town like wildfire.

“He’s back!” I heard from the crowd. Over the general chaos were a few more exclamations that weren’t fearful shrieks. “Everypony run for your lives!” “Take anyone but me!” “We’re doomed! Doomed!”

Holy crap, these guys are terrified! What in the heck do they think I did? All I’ve said so far was some variation of ‘hello.’ But still, doors slammed and shutters locked. The little horses bolted to whatever shelter they could find, including strangers’ houses and locked storefronts. I saw one of them smash straight through a wall and leave a perfect outline like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon.

“It’s King Sombra! Hide, everypony. His dark magic will corrupt us all!”

“I’m… who?” I ask. This is my first time hearing that name. King Sombra? Who was that, and why did they think I’m him? I blinked confusedly and tried to reach out to one of the madly sprinting horses.

“Excuse me. Do you know what-” It zipped away before I could even finish my question. I noticed that they keep saying ‘everypony,’ so I’m going to stop referring to them as horses now. Calling them ponies seems so much more appropriate given their size.

“Can anyone, I mean, anypony, tell me-” Zip. A second pony dashed away fast enough to blow my mane. “Man, these guys are quick.” Oh well, third time’s a charm.

“Will you-” Zip.

“Hey-” Zip-zip.

“Would one of you!-” Zip.

Why wasn’t anyone listening to me? This was supposed to by my dream. They should be rushing to greet me or offer me a smoothie or something. “Would someone please tell me what’s going on?!” I shouted, though no one was willing to answer.

By now there was only one left. The final pony, antsy with fear, was dashing back and forth in the street like a squirrel stuck in traffic. “You there, don’t run off. I just want to talk. King, uh, Sombrero commands you,” I ordered using the name they called me, but once the pony got an eyeful of me it disappeared. It was instantaneous. One second it was there, and then I heard an explosive ping like the sound of a ricochet, and suddenly it was gone. I didn’t even see what direction it went. All that was left was a slowly dissipating silhouette of dust where it was standing.

And that’s the last of them. I was left alone in an empty street. The only sign of life was the way the shutters on houses would open up a crack for its inhabitants to watch me, but then slam shut whenever I glanced in their direction.

“Awesome. My own dream apparitions hate me. I wonder what a psychologist would say about this,” I grumbled. “And what did they mean by ‘dark magic?’”

Sure, the aura around my horn was black, but all I’ve done is levitate stuff. I knew for a fact that some of the ponies were casually using their magic-slash-psychic-powers before they started panicking. I can’t really say I’ve done anything dark, right?

Unfortunately, I took one glance behind me and my argument fell to pieces.

“Oh… that,” I observed dryly. The wave of black crystal I surfed on to get here towered over most of the city’s buildings, neatly bisecting a portion of the landscape and preventing passage from one side to the other. The ominous, ebony wall stood in stark contrast to the sparkling streets and buildings, and jagged black spires jutted out from its entire malicious surface. “Yup, that’s certainly dark magic. That must be what they meant.” Why does my mind keep coming up with this stuff?

“I, uh, I’m sure I can clean that all up. Just give me a sec,” I announced to the hiding ponies.

The horn on my head flared with an inky, black, smoke-like aura before it was immediately subsumed by a throbbing, inimical purple blob. Bits of sickly green colors welled around inside the aura like the bubbles in a witch’s cauldron as I prepared unleash my magic. The black crystal wall in front of me was slightly reflective, so I could see that my eyes glowed green and spilled over with a foggy, purple mist.

Seriously, I needed to change the color of this thing. I mean, sheesh, could I look any more like an evil sorcerer?

I should point out, by the way, that I had no earthly clue what I was doing. I was still working with the theory that this was all a dream, and that the whole world was under the sway of my godlike powers. As far as I was concerned, the mechanics of spellcasting began and ended with me willing it to happen. At least, that’s how everything so far seemed to work. I was expecting the wall to disappear quietly in a nice, clean puff of smoke, so I charged up my magic horn-blob as much as I could, aimed at the wall of black crystal, and released it all at once.

________________________________________

Princess Cadence, current ruler of the Crystal Empire, rifled through an endless stack of paperwork at her desk. The term ‘empire’ may be a bit of a misnomer for the puny vassal state of neighboring Equestria because, while it may have been a vast and expansionist realm under King Sombra’s tyrannical reign, nowadays days it consisted of one rather small city in the icy north. The citizens of the empire had been in stasis for an entire millennium before Cadence took office, and it had been a herculean effort on her part to bring the nation up to modern standards. Just about every sector needed to be reworked from the ground up; the ponies’ thousand-year absence required mass reeducation, agriculture still wasn’t up to snuff, and their economy would tank if it weren’t for Celestia’s assistance. Worse, none of her advisers had a solid grasp of modernity, let alone today’s international relations, so she couldn’t even foist some of her workload off on them.

Cadence now realized why Celestia put up with those nobles in Canterlot.

You can’t just plop a whole new society into the world and expect everything to run smoothly. The empire was in dire straits fiscally, since they had few things of value to trade with the rest of Equestria. Then, because so many crystal ponies wanted to see how the world changed in their absence, or seek new opportunities, their population was rapidly shrinking. All in all, with its incompetent officials, limited prospects, outdated or undeveloped infrastructure, dwindling populace, and northern location, the Crystal Empire was Equestria’s Detroit.

Setting a scroll onto her disappointingly small ‘finished’ pile and taking another from the top of her intimidatingly large ‘to do’ pile, Cadence heard a loud rumbling noise, like the sound of thunder, coming from somewhere outside her palace.

“Hmm? There is no storm scheduled for today. Should I have somepony look into it?” she wondered before shaking her head and getting back to work. Her husband Shiny would take care of any problems with the weather patrol. Besides, she had so much more work that needed to be done that she couldn’t afford to let herself get distracted now. Cadence needed to find a quick way to kick-start their finances or else the whole city was pretty much boned.

“Hosting the Equestria games might help,” she muttered. Another scroll, another stamp, another signature, on and on it went.

Minutes pass in boring, but productive silence until the stillness was shattered by a crytal pony guard slamming through the ornate doors of her private office. The princess jumped at the sudden interruption, scattering several papers to the floor.

“King Sombra is attacking the city!” the guard screamed, catching his breath. Cadence paled considerably, dropping all her work and giving the guard her full attention.

“What? No, I can’t possibly have heard that right. Guard, say that again.” Oh, she knew exactly what she heard, but was simply hoping for another answer. Any other answer.

“Sombra. Edge of city. South. Boom,” he wheezed out between deep gasps for air, pantomiming an explosion with his forelegs.

Cadence felt her knees buckle at that accursed name, but she managed to get ahold of herself before she could show any weakness.

“Alert the entire guard! Have them see to the civilians and keep escape routes open. Get everypony to safety!” she shouted as she dove out of her office. She used her wings for extra thrust to gallop to the palace balcony.

The palace was the tallest structure for miles so the balcony had a clear view of the whole city. Throwing her front hooves over the railing, she squinted towards the south where many of her ponies seemed to be fleeing in terror. That alone was horrifying enough, but what she saw in the sky made her jaw drop.

She saw countless black crystals – an unmistakable sign of King Sombra’s presence – rain down upon her city in chunks the size of watermelons. “No,” she whispered, bringing a trembling hoof to her mouth. “Not now. Not after all we’ve been through.”

“Cadence!” She heard the familiar voice of her husband rushing to meet her on the balcony. Shining Armor, a white unicorn in a metal captain’s uniform barreled through the door. “There you are.”

“Shiny! It’s him. He’s back.”

“I heard. We have to get down there. There’s no telling how much damage he’s done to the city. ” He joined her at the railing, coldly staring at the barrage of crystals.

“Right. But we can’t rush in there headlong. We need a plan,” she said, scanning the city for which areas were the most threatened. “I doubt anypony could defeat him in single combat, but the Crystal Heart can obliterate him instantly. What we have to do is hold him back long enough to prepare the Crystal Heart and gather enough ponies to empower it”.

It was an obvious strategy, but really it was their only realistic course of action. She left unsaid the real problem of how, exactly, they would stall King Sombra. Shining, however, was more than willing to step up to the plate.

“You prepare the Heart. I’ll stop him.”

“Shiny, no.”

He pulled her in close to stop further complaints and stroked his wife’s mane reassuringly. “I don’t need to beat him; I just need to keep him occupied. I can do this. I’ve done it before.”

“And you are lucky all he did was seal your magic,” Cadence pushed him at arm’s length. “This time we are not safely behind a force field. There’s nowhere to run; Sombra is already inside the city.”

“What other choice do we have?” he asked simply but firmly. “You’re the only one the crystal ponies respect enough to listen to, and I’m the only other pony who stands a chance against Sombra. Cadence, please. I have to go. Do you see this?” he pointed at his cutie mark. “My talent is protecting others, but every time I’ve been called upon I’ve failed. I wasn’t there when Discord broke free, I was too weak-willed to stop Chrysalis from hypnotizing me, and I was useless the first time Sombra attacked us. I need to do this, Cadence. This is what I am meant to do. Let me protect you. Let me protect this city.”

Cadence hesitated. What good was being an alicorn if you can’t defend the ones you love? She hated the fact that she couldn’t personally take on all her people’s burdens herself like the goddess they thought she was. It was frustrating, but she knew Shining Armor was right, and the more she watched the crystals barrage her city, the angrier she became.

“Alright. But you come straight back to me the moment things get too dangerous.”

“I’ll be just fine,” he smiled. “Don’t you worry.”

Not wanting to waste another moment, lest she change her mind, Cadence grabbed her husband in a tight grip and, steeling herself, dove off the balcony. Catching an air current with her wings, she soared over her city as the King laid siege to it. Already, her guards had been sortied and many of her ponies would be fleeing towards the palace.

She would have to work fast; every moment that passed was another chance for Sombra to hurt her ponies. Princess Cadence located the section of town that appeared the most chaotic and made a beeline for it.

“Never again, King Sombra.”

________________________________________

“I am so sorry!” I roared as sharp black rock rained down from the sky. I destroyed the wall all right, but I wound up detonating the whole thing and sending the pieces skyward like a volcano. The shards now descended on the city in an obsidian hailstorm, causing massive amounts of property damage wherever they collided into buildings and streets.

“Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap,” was my mantra as I tried to catch the falling shards with my horn’s telekinesis. There was no way I could grab all of them, so I at least tried to stop the big ones. “I can fix this,” I told myself, even as a block of crystal slammed into the ground beside me. “I got this. I so got this.” Managing to grab a dozen of the largest pieces at once, which took up so much concentration that I began sweating, I began lowering them to the ground where they could do no harm.

“See! I can fix this.”

But then a baseball-sized chunk smacked me in the head, breaking my focus. “Ow!” The black boulders, now free from my control, fell to earth and smashed a hole in a couple of roofs. One of them obliterated someone’s awning.

“Oh man, this is gonna take forever to clean up,” I said, glancing around at the destruction I had accidentally caused. “And there are so many more still falling!”

There’s no way I can prevent these buildings from being leveled. I can stop a few of the larger ones at a time, but the little ones will pepper the town until the whole place was moonscape. I needed help.

As if answering my thoughts, a big, blue, transparent dome shimmered into existence above the rooftops, preventing any more of the shards from crashing into the city. The remaining dark crystals harmlessly pattered into the bubble and rolled down to the uninhabited city outskirts.

“Did I do that?” I wondered.

“It’s the princess!” someone cried with palpable relief. I looked to see where she was pointing and saw a flying pony heading straight for me. Assuming that a glowing horn means their magic powers are being used, she was the one who saved the town. She had wings in addition to her horn and was a light pink color.

A magical, pink, pony princess: wow, brain, my dreams have gotten girly. The apparent princess was holding someone in her forelegs, another unicorn, who was a guy going by size and color. Like me, he lacked the reflective pelt of the rest of the citizens and he had a horn. His, however, was a short spiral the same color as his coat. Mine was smooth and curved like a giant, bright red, upside-down fang. As the pair swooped closer, I could hear the flyer talking to the pony in her grasp.

“There he is! Shiny, hold him here while I get the Crystal Heart ready. Be safe,” the pink one said. Her horn glowed as she nuzzled the blue and white unicorn, and I could almost see her power seep into her passenger. And then she tossed him to the ground. Just, like, just dropped him from midair.

‘That one’s name is Shiny. The adventure begins!’ I thought excitedly. Finally, this dream can get back on track. Everything had been getting way out of hand lately. The unicorn she had dropped ignited his horn and encased himself in a pink aura. Right before he hit the ground, he slowed his decent to a safe landing. Apparently you could use telekinesis on yourself.

“That’s a pretty neat trick, actually,” I admired and began walking up to him. Could I do something like that too? Maybe I don’t need to be jealous about wings. “Hello, you’re Shiny, right? My name is-” I began, but he blasted me in the face with a laser before I could introduce myself. Apparently unicorns can shoot lasers too. His beam didn’t have any effect beyond an impromptu light show, but it was the thought that counts.

“What was that for?” I asked, rubbing my nose. I wondered if that was a warning shot or if it was actually supposed to hurt.

“Sombra!” he snarled, confirming that he too was part of the craziness that overtook this town. “You dare to show your face around here.”

“There’s that name again,” I mumbled. Maybe this guy could tell me what’s going on? “Listen, uh, Shiny, I have a lot of questions I need answered.”

“My name is Shining Armor.” He stomped the ground. I couldn’t really read pony body language, but it’s pretty obvious when someone’s itching for a fight no matter what species he is. “You don’t deserve to speak, not after all the pain you’ve inflicted. I am the captain of Celestia’s royal guard and prince of the Crystal Empire. You stand upon a liberated nation, tyrant, and the crystal ponies are under my protection.” His horn ignited so brightly that I had to squint my eyes. “We beat you once and we can do it again. Bring it on, monster!”

I blinked owlishly. Tyrant? Monster?

“I’m… the bad guy?” I asked. Is that the plot of this dream? But I never imagine myself as the villain. If anything, I should be in this guy’s place. He’s obviously the hero. We even had opposite color schemes; he’s blue and white, while I’m red and black. Shining Armor – as in, ‘knight in shining armor’ – must be my equal and opposite. I was clearly supposed to fight him.

“Yes you are the bad guy!” Shining Armor spat. “Are you so self-entitled that you can’t even see the suffering you’ve caused?”

He gestured to the buildings that had been peppered with my shards. I could hear the wails of innocent civilians as they braved the streets to flee to safety. It all sank in and it horrified me.

No. I wasn’t doing this. This dream was going way too far, and I let myself get railroaded long enough. Even if the game was all laid out for me to follow, it was still my choice whether or not to play.

I did not want to be the villain.

With that decided, I made a big show of laying down on the ground, hooves visible with placating gestures, and without any glow to my horn. “Let’s talk.”

“…Talk,” he growled. “You of all ponies want to talk.” I was hoping that he was one of those people who don’t like to throw the first punch, but I could tell he was chomping at the bit to beat the crap out of me, a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning in a world full of horses.

“Alright, so, I’m guessing there’s a bit of bad blood between us.”

“Bad blood,” Shining Armor forced his words through hatefully clenched teeth. “What you and I have is so much worse than ‘bad blood.’”

“Oh! So we know each other. Great,” I smiled. As long as we were talking, things didn’t have to escalate any further. “Finally, some context. Can you fill me in on what’s going on here? Maybe tell me why everyone was so, you know,” I circled a hoof searchingly, “skittish?”

“Skittish!? You… th-the gall! You can’t even acknowledge your own crimes.”

“Work with me here. I’m totally lost. What are these crimes you’re talking about? When did I do anything to you?” I asked.

“When!?” Shining Armor hissed. “When you crippled my horn with your dark magic. When you made my wife strain herself half to death. When you trapped my little sister in her worst nightmare. Does that ring a bell?! How about when you tried to subjugate an entire race of ponies beneath your hoof! That’s bucking when!” I could see murderous intent on his face. He had this intense, unblinking stare that people get when they really, really wanted to kill something. Those hate-focused eyes pierced me to my very soul, daring me to have the audacity to respond.

Oh dear. Why would my mind whip up this kind of backstory? His own accusations did an incredible job of ticking him off and every word out of my mouth just made it worse. Jesus, he’s got every reason in the world to want my head.

“So, uh, that’s… let’s just… umm,” I scratched the back of my head awkwardly. What could I possibly do to salvage this? “Water under the bridge?” I offered.

What an unfathomably stupid thing to say.

Shining Armor’s eye twitched. For a few hopeful seconds there was peace, but it was merely the calm before the storm. The unicorn before me tensed his whole body and began to shake with passionate, unadulterated hate. I could see spittle gather on his lips past his grinding teeth, and his eyeballs pulsed from increased blood flow. I swear I could see every vein on his face.

Gone was the noble protector of his shimmering empire, and in his place was a berserker driven by righteous fury.

“GrrrAAAAAAAAAAAHH!” he roared, blasting a laser at me the diameter of my armspan. I yelped and dove out of the way. He missed, but it was by the skin of my teeth. He fired again and again without wasting a single moment on pathetic concepts like mercy or self-control. I, fueled by raw self-preservation instincts, managed to make one of my black crystals burst out of the ground to take the hit. The thing shattered instantly.

More dodging followed, and more lasers followed. From that point on was a constant salvo of pink beams with me alternatingly sprinting for my life and creating crystal spires for cover. He chased me down the street with the single-minded bloodlust of a rabid dog, if you gave that rabid dog a machine gun.

“Calm down! For god’s sake, calm down! Mercy! Uncle! Just don’t shoot!”

“Sombra, you’re a dead pony!” he threatened, punctuating with another horn beam. We were now scrambling down the road like wild animals. To avoid his shots I had to tuck and roll, serpentine, and even jump over a few errant blasts. I’d say it’s a miracle I didn’t get hit, but more likely it was because he was so blinded by his uncontrollable rage that he couldn’t shoot accurately.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I pleaded. “I seriously can’t remember any of that stuff you said I did.”

“A shot to the head might help! Hold still!” the enraged unicorn bellowed, to which I screamed like a little girl and ran for my pitiful life.

________________________________________

Princess Cadence landed in the town square. A few brave souls were already present, knowing that they would be needed to power the Crystal Heart, but a majority of them were understandably cowering indoors. It hurt her to ask them to put themselves in harm’s way, but there was no other way to stop King Sombra’s advance. The Crystal Heart must be ignited, and only they could do it.

Taking a page from Luna’s playbook, Princess Cadence broke out the royal Canterlot voice.

“My little ponies, gather to me at once! King Sombra threatens the Empire once again and we need your strength! Remember that it was our love for one another that banished him from our lands, and it is that same love which will be our salvation once more!”

It started slowly with a few ponies poking their heads out their doorways. At Cadence’s encouragement they dashed towards the center of town. Hesitant and afraid, they rushed the distance between their homes and the princess as if there was a downpour between them. Her proclamation reached the whole city, and over time those hindered by nervousness or distance began steadily gathering around her.

Her very presence inspired confidence in her subjects. For each one that joined her in the town square, the Crystal Heart grew stronger.

“That’s right, everyone together now. Show this evil king that our people stand unbroken, that this beautiful nation is no longer his, and that you will never again be his slaves. Look to one another for support. And prove that no darkness can extinguish the light in our hearts!”

More of the ponies trickled in from their hiding places. Their courage brought a smile to Cadence’s face, but she couldn’t rest easy knowing that Shining Armor was still out there by himself.

King Sombra is as cruel and cunning as he is powerful. In his last assault on the Empire, he appeared as a black miasma so vast he encircled the whole city. Sombra was an absolute master of dark magic; a being wholly dedicated to bringing pain and suffering to others.

Cadence lowered her head in guilt at the thought of sending her husband alone against such a monster, but she knew that Sombra needed to be stalled. There was no other choice, and this was not the time to second guess herself. She could only hope that her husband could get out of this unscathed.

“Oh, Shiny, please be safe.”

________________________________________

I had a good head start down an alleyway, so I seized the opportunity to block it with a wall of crystal, and in a moment the entrance was completely filled. It was higher than anyone could jump and thicker than my body was long. “Yes!” I hopped up and down in excited relief after seeing how strong my impromptu blockade was. It should force him to find another route and buy me a few precious seconds. With any luck, I could lose him in the meantime.

Thrilled at my apparent escape, I almost didn’t notice the cracking noises coming from my black wall.

“Huh?”

The entire darn alley quaked. With no warning at all, it went from quietly still to violently shaking. It was so intense that I almost lost my footing despite being on four legs. Fissures appeared in my crystal barrier, each leaking a bright pink light and a high-pitched whine. The wall held for only a few moments before exploding brilliantly.

“SOOOOMMBRAAAAAAAA!” a battlecry split the air, revealing Shining Armor breathing heavily with his mane wildly disheveled. Facing barely any resistance, the unicorn annihilated my wall as if it were a sandcastle. I doubt it cost him a single stride while he easily Kool-Aid-Manned his way through my barricade. The white unicorn’s eyes were two fireballs of blazing magic, each promising me an imminent and painful death.

“I’m doomed,” I squeaked.

He turned my way, neck popping loudly, and snarled at me the way the Stalin did to those people he sent to the gulag. “There you are…” he growled. That voice had no business coming from something that wasn’t a vengeful god.

“Heh,” he grinned. With loud, deliberate hoofsteps he slowly advanced upon me. “You know, I didn’t think I’d look forward to this. I didn’t think I was a violent pony. But just between you and me; once you’re dead I’m going to laugh all night and into the morning. You hurt my wife, my family, and my subjects. Sombra, I can tell you without boasting that I am one of the most powerful unicorns alive. If anypony’s going to give you the proper beatdown you deserve, it’s going to be me.”

I paused for a moment, really letting that all sink in, and once my mind finished rebooting I had only one response to give.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” I wailed, turning tail and running out of the alleyway. Totally unabashed about my own cowardice, I bolted out of there as fast as my legs could carry me.

I turned the corner just in time to avoid a devastating blast from Shining Armor. His roar – his horrible, explosive roar – signified the chase beginning anew. We had lost ourselves, respectively, to rage and fear. The only words between us now were unintelligible, undignified, animalistic screams. I will shamelessly admit that I was louder than he was.

I had said earlier that ponies were fast, and this body I inhabited was no exception. To escape my equine angel of death, I was galloping at speeds that could challenge Secretariat. Desperation is one heck of a motivator, so I zoomed through the streets as a dark grey bullet. Buildings, alleys, and roads were all a blur as I dashed for sanctuary, somehow managing not to crash despite my life flashing before my eyes.

But it wasn’t enough. No matter how fast I ran Shining Armor was right behind me.

“Sombra!” my pursuer yelled and bared his teeth in predatory anticipation. “There is no escape, Sombra! I’m going to get you. I’m. Gonna. GET. YOU!”

He sounded so much closer now. All I could do was whimper pitifully and try to speed up.

________________________________________

“I just hope he’s alright,” Cadence prayed.

She had a sizable gathering of her subjects by now, some jumping at the call of their leader while others approached reluctantly, wanting nothing more than to hide in their homes. All, however, recognized that there was no other option to combat their evil tormenter.

She had been shouting encouragements nonstop since she landed so that no one would be discouraged when it was time to unleash the Crystal Heart. Luckily, their absolute confidence in their princess had kept anyone from despairing; they were nervous, certainly, but confident. She had defeated Sombra once and she’d do it again, or so they hoped.

“Is everypony prepared?” she asked. “I want all of you behind me. When Shining Armor leads Sombra into the city square, it should be from this direction. Nopony stays out in the open in case I need to shield us.”

Everyone shuffled into place as she directed. Many soft whimpers were heard as those in the front lines struggled to get further back where it was safer. They weren’t cowards, not by a longshot. In her eyes, everyone present was braver than she could have possibly asked for. She could only hope that their courage would hold long enough for their plan to work. Sombra would be here any minute now.

“There they are!” one of her subjects announced with alarm. Then, after a moment, he continued much more excitedly. “It’s Shining Armor! He’s… he’s got him on the run!”

Sure enough, Cadence could see her husband actually chasing King Sombra down one of the main streets, not the other way around like she expected. Cheers and relieved laughter passed over the crowd. Shiny was already something of an idol in their city, but seeing their champion like this was like learning that heroes really do exist.

“Thank goodness.” Cadence let out a breath in relief that she didn’t know she was holding. Then, seamlessly snapping back into her leadership role, she issued her command. “Everypony get ready now!”

The crystal ponies were more excited than ever after seeing Shining Armor pursue their foe. That meant that there will be no problems blasting him with the Heart. King Sombra was doomed.

________________________________________

The road we were on led to the center of town. It had no alleyways to provide me with an escape route or any objects I could use to slow him down. I had only two allies: running and cover, both of which I could only take advantage of when there were lots of twists and protective walls. I’d be a sitting duck if we made it to the town square since Shining Armor had a distinct advantage in open spaces. He could shoot lasers and I couldn’t; life was so unfair.

“You can’t run forever, Sombra. How long do you think you can avoid justice?”

Oh crap. This is it, isn’t it? Heading into the open square would be about as safe as walking into a meat grinder, but holding my ground would mean I’d have to fight him one on one. Neither option was particularly survivable, but challenging him in the narrower street was slightly less of a guaranteed demise.

Alright, dream, fine. You win; I’ll fight this guy.

I skidded to a stop, sliding into a turn, and set up a few crystals to block the inevitable shots. The movements in this body were surprisingly natural, making me wonder if I inherited some kind genetic memory to control my new form. The dust cleared and the two of us stood ready to fight mano-a-mano. Or whatever the Spanish word for hoof was.

I took one look and instantly regretted my decision.

“So you finally decided to stand and fight?” he asked. My god, he was actually grinning. “Good. It’s about time I showed you the might of Celestia’s royal guard. We are the best trained, most powerful, most experienced soldiers in Equestria. We are the elite of the elite and I am their captain.”

His horn burned. Its aura was an enormous flickering torch of arcane power. The fact that it was pink did absolutely nothing to make it less intimidating. Actually, it made it worse by adding a pinch of indignity to my imminent beatdown. Shining Armor looked like his head was on fire. Even after a whole town’s worth of chasing and a relentless barrage of magic beams, he wasn’t even slightly tired. The white unicorn before me was willing, able, and eager to destroy me in every conceivable manner.

Oh god, what could I do? He was like a four-legged Terminator with even less empathy. What could I possibly do to fight him? “Yeah, well, I can make rocks and chuck them with my mind. I’ll throw rocks at you!”

How does death work in comas? Do you just, like, start the dream over? I hoped so because I did not want those words to be my epitaph.

Not one to make idle threats, I conjured a particularly big crystal and hurled it at him. “HrrrrrUGH!” I was actually pretty satisfied with the size of that one, especially since it was so spur of the moment. Real big, nice and weighty: the kind of thing any catapult would be proud to launch.

“Take this!” Shouting, the white unicorn unleashed a wall of force. The space before him was instantly filled with a curtain of transparent pink magic. My projectile didn’t do a darn thing, just smacking into his barrier and dropping to the ground. Then, without warning, he shot his spell outward. No beams this time: just one mighty shove and he propelled me backwards a considerable distance. I had no chance of dodging it, since that thing encompassed the whole street as it steamrolled down the road, making me cartwheel wildly.

“And stay down!”

I couldn’t even see straight when the second blast hit me. Repurposing his talent for making force fields, Shining Armor snowplowed me down the street again and again with an unavoidable wall of solid magic. It wasn’t a fair fight. Heck, most people wouldn’t call it a fight at all. It was just one guy shoving someone away like a bouncer dealing with a drunk.

Bowling in a series of rough flips I landed smack dab in the ‘I am so boned’ area of the unprotected open square.

Well, that was anticlimactic. So much for my first real wizard duel. A fight can only be so one-sided before it starts being an execution. I should consider myself lucky I wasn’t a fine paste by now.

The clack of hooves against stone reminded me that Shining Armor was still there and still fully able to beat me like a drum.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” he said, having no idea how hard he was preaching to the choir. “I’d drag this out longer, but I’m not willing to put my city at risk just to vent my frustrations.” Shining Armor looked over my shoulder and started chuckling. “Besides, dictator, it seems you’ve already lost.” Grinning victoriously, he pointed behind me. “I’ve been herding you into the middle of the city this whole time. After all that running, all you’ve done is given my wife the chance to get the Crystal Heart ready. Take a look. We’ve got you now, Sombra.”

I looked where he pointed and saw that the pink one was there and she wasn’t alone. Behind the pony princess were hundreds of her subjects. It was as if the whole city was behind her, forming a semicircle so everyone was looking straight at me. She had a big, blue, shiny rock with her that was carved into the shape of a heart – basically the opposite of the crystals I keep making.

What’s the crystal for? Is it some kind of bomb or other magical weapon? Are they going to seal me inside it? The laser beams that Shiny fired at me were scary enough, but I wasn’t expecting things to escalate this far. Whatever trap they had laid, I was having no part of it. It was time to bail so I turned around and bolted.

“Nope! You win. I quit.” I took off at full sprint, kicking up some dust from my powerful start, but I only managed a few steps before something hoisted me into the air.

“Not so fast, Sombra,” said Shining Armor. He telekinetically lifted me into the air and used his force fields to encase me in a pink bubble. A few experimental whacks told me there was no way I'd break out of that thing.

Looking past Shining Armor I could see the princess pony and her subjects performing some kind of ritual. All of them were all bowing to their blue heart-shaped crystal, which was now pulsating erratically. “This is the end, monster. When we’re all dancing on your grave I’ll make sure the music is tasteful.”

“You’re all crazy! Let me go!” I desperately banged on my spherical prison with a hoof. “Look, this is all a mistake. I’m not King Sombra. I’m not King Sombra!”

“Cadence, do it now!” Shining Armor yelled. At his order, that heart-shaped crystal flared in a bright, pale blue light.

“Wait. Hold on! Wait, wait, wait! We can talk this over!” I tried to reason with them, but it was too late.

________________________________________

The power of the Crystal Heart blew over me like a strong wind. It felt friendly, if that makes any sense. The moment it hit me I felt happier and more relaxed. The rush of uplifting emotions was nothing compared to what I felt in my near-death experience, but I couldn’t help but find some similarities. You know that feeling you get when something melts your stress away, like a good massage or meeting an important deadline? It was like that, but so much stronger. Stress that had been building since I woke up, the ache of my muscles from the chase through the city, and the fear of watching an entire town aim their super-weapon at me was gone in a flash. It was amazing.

In mere moments it was all over. The surge passed over me and I was none worse for the wear. In fact, I felt better than ever. The physical and mental soothing granted to me by the Crystal Heart left me almost giddy.

“Wow. That wasn’t bad at all.” I guess that Heart of theirs wasn’t a weapon. But if they weren’t attacking, then maybe this all was just a huge misunderstanding on my part. I was going to have to have a talk with those two ponies in charge to sort everything out. This begs the question, however; what were they doing? I glanced around smiling, wondering which one of the ponies would tell me what I needed to know. There’s a whole crowd here, so someone must know something.

Their looks of unimaginable horror was something I never wanted to see again. The crystal ponies had a shell-shocked expression about them, as if their worst nightmares were coming true right before their eyes. Some of started tearing up and many embraced each other fearfully, not knowing what else to do.

“N-no way,” Shining Armor whispered. “That’s impossible. It couldn’t have failed.” Even though I was securely within his force field, Shining Armor couldn’t help but back away from me. This was the same guy who tore after me like a bear no more than a minute ago. The pink bubble around me started to falter, but it was immediately reinforced by a blue one. Standing at his side the princess laid a comforting hoof on his back, and Shining Armor immediately composed himself. They seemed to draw strength from one another.

“Everypony stay calm! We can try again, but we have to be positive or else the Crystal Heart won’t work!” The pink one, whom I am guessing is their leader, ordered the crowd, not that it did her any good. I could already see the assembled ponies shuffling backwards and getting ready to sprint away. The inevitable whispers grew louder and widespread. Murmurings like “we can’t stop him,” “there’s no hope,” “the dark times are back,” and other doomsaying passed through the crowd, circling in an alarmist feedback loop until the whole town was one harsh din.

“We can still do this!” the blue and white unicorn piped up to support their leader. His voice, unfortunately, was just barely audible over the terrified city’s cries. “Everypony stay strong! Stay together!”

“The Crystal Heart failed. We have to get out of here!” someone shouted. I was pretty sure a stampede was about to start. To prevent things from getting out of hand someone had to stop the panic, but I was getting swept up in the confusion too.

“What’s going on? What was that thing with the heart? Please, everyone stop shouting!” I pleaded as loud as I could, but I might have well whispered for all the effect it had. The two ponies in charge didn’t have much success either.

“Cadence, I’m going to stay here and keep the shield up,” Shining Armor said to the princess, never taking his eyes off of me. “You need to evacuate the city. Get everypony into the palace as quickly as possible. Take the Heart with you.”

“Shiny, we have to stop him here. Running won’t do us any good. It’s now or never.”

As I saw one of the citizens in the crowd start to hyperventilate, I decided enough was enough and I’d had it with all this weirdness. “Alright, horn, don’t screw me over again,” I muttered, charging up my magic. Once again an evil-looking aura consumed my horn, glowing brightly as I took a deep breath.

“SILENCE!” I shouted. Magic amplified my gravelly voice to a cacophonous boom and caused the force field to pulse like a subwoofer. It didn’t break, but the unicorns making it flinched as if struck. “Whoops. Uh, sorry guys.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, I could see that my shout stopped the crowd in its tracks. Even the regal looking couple gave me their full attention. Granted, it was less of a diplomatic kind of attention and more the type that duelists give each other, but no one was going into hysterics so I considered it an improvement. They were all frozen in place, just waiting for someone to make the first move. Knowing that the peace wouldn’t last long I loudly cleared my throat while I still had the chance.

“Listen! Listen up, all of you!” I demanded. “Before any of you start screaming again, before those two try to attack me, or the rest of you run away,” I passed a hoof across the crowd, individually pointing out the two in charge and some of the more frightened looking ponies,

The crowd got ready to bolt, each one tensing the muscles in their legs to dash off if I make a single move. The force fields around me got more opaque as the leader ponies reinforced their shields as much as possible. This place was a powder keg, but they managed to control themselves long enough to hear what I had to say. “I’ve got just one question for you. Just one,” I said, and the whole city waited on baited breath.

“Who the heck is King Sombra!?”

The following seconds passed undisturbed. The two in charge looked at me, glanced at each other, and then stared back at me with trepidation and incredulity. Everyone else shut their mouths. You could hear a pin drop.

“Well? …Anyone?”

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