• Published 7th Aug 2013
  • 80,482 Views, 2,169 Comments

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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An Unstable Mind

“Okay, I get that I may have caused a bit of a scene back there, but is all this really necessary?” I asked from inside of a prison cell, which was covered by Shining Armor’s force field, reinforced by Cadence’s own force field, and surrounded by more than a dozen guards, all of which was in the deepest, innermost room of the Crystal Empire’s palace. It was essentially a bunker turned inside-out. Credit where it’s due: they weren’t taking any chances.

“And can you loosen the shock collar? It’s a little tight. I can live with the manacles, but the straight jacket is kind of itchy,” I asked, or at least tried to. It was kind of hard to talk through the muzzle.

Shining Armor did his ample best to ignore every word I said, and instead addressed a team of ponies working on my cell. From the sound of things, they were trying to add even more layers to the matryoshka doll of my incarceration. I would have asked how they managed to trawl up a construction crew from the cowardly lot from before, but I was too busy wondering how my front legs were flexible enough to be tied behind my back and handcuffed.

“How many more locks can we weld to the door?” he barked, peering over everyone’s shoulders to check their progress. “Please tell me we’re done fortifying the walls. I want this cell to be the most indestructible location in all of Equestria.”

“We’re working as fast as we can, your majesty.”

Loud, metallic sounds of construction blared from outside my jail, but there was only a tiny food slot for me to watch what was going on. From what little I could see, the whole cell was being refurbished to paranoid extremes. Thick, heavy, metal bars close enough to be touching each other formed a palisade in front of the already hard prison wall. Diagonal supporting beams sealed into the floor were attached for an extra layer of protection. My door was replaced for security reasons. It had that bank vault style wheel used to open it; the kind you’d see on submarines. Most panic rooms weren’t this well-defended. They even brought in a mason to mortar a redundant façade of tough bricks to the front of it all, leaving me somewhat worried that they’d get all Cask of Amontillado on me.

The captain of the guard had calmed down quite a bit in the last hour or so. The presence of the pink pony, whose name was Cadence, seemed to do wonders for his psyche. After sending an urgent message to someone named Celestial, he had been impatiently trotting back and forth in front of my door. The unicorn was no longer one scream away from having an aneurism, and best of all he had stopped giving me death threats.

From inside my prison-turducken I tried to negotiate with the two in charge. “Listen, guys. Today has just been a long series of easily preventable accidents and misunderstandings. Can we start over? Let’s take this whole afternoon and just, you know, mulligan.”

Shining Armor stopped his pacing to peer straight through the food slot. “Accidents?” He was so aghast that he almost had to laugh about it. “You accidently assaulted a nation’s capital? Really? Since when do artillery strikes happen by mistake?”

“I was just trying to help,” I answered, making Shiny’s vein throb slightly. “I mean, I made this big wall, and the ponies were afraid of the wall, so I thought I’d make it disappear, but instead it exploded. It happens, apparently. Then, well, you know the rest, and here we are.”

He regarded me with cold, disbelieving eyes, manifestly preventing himself from lashing out. “Well, I’m so glad to hear that you had the best of intentions at heart. Do you lay siege to all the places you visit?” he sneered in the most artificially calm voice I’d ever heard.

“In my defense, she stopped most of it,” I nodded to Cadence. “And hey, you spent that whole chase shooting away like a redneck. I’ll bet half the damage to the city was your fault.” Grinning beneath the muzzle, I tilted my nose up smugly. “So yeah, who should be in jail now, huh?”

Shining Armor stopped breathing for, like, ten seconds.

“… I am going to kill him,” he whispered. “Another minute of this and I’m going to do something I’ll regret.” He shook his head rapidly to force the bad thoughts away. “Cadence, you take over from here. I’m going to check on the work crew.”

Were we nemeses? He did list a lot of personal grievances before he shot at me, but I really hoped this wasn’t the case. He was a royal guard who could run on four legs; that was like being a police officer and a cop dog at the same time. How was I supposed to get on his good side? Offer him a doughnut, I guessed.

As Shining Armor stomped off to lower his blood pressure, Cadence sat down to keep watch on the door. Up until now she had kept her distance, intransigently refusing to give me the time of day. I tried to break the ice, but the way she turned her head when I cleared my throat told me she wouldn’t have listened anyway.

And worst of all, they still hadn’t told me who this King Sombra fellow was.

I’ve had power fantasies in my dreams before; to be the president, or a superhero, or filthy rich, et cetera. The scenarios were always pure wish-fulfillment cut from whole cloth. No explanations were needed or given. I just built a role and enjoyed myself until the alarm clock blared. This, however, was something else. Somehow this dream came with a full backstory and tangible consequences for my own actions. I wasn’t building a role, I was playing one. Apparently I was a king, a powerful sorcerer, and, more disturbingly, a hated villain. That was as much as I could gather because they adamantly refused to answer my questions.

But how could I play my part – or subvert it, as I had planned– if I didn’t have access to any context?

“So it’s ‘King’ Sombra, right? What am I the king of, exactly?”

“Nopony answer that,” Cadence ordered her subordinates. “Don’t listen to anything he says.” In an odd, but perhaps inevitable quirk of linguistics, they replaced every instance of ‘man’ with ‘pony’ and any reference to hands with hooves. Jeez, that was going to get awkward and annoying really fast; I hoped I was never in a situation where I had to call for a handyman.

I groaned disappointedly at her refusal. Today had been freaking awful. “Just give me the common knowledge stuff. I don’t need a whole detailed summary. Come on, fill in the blanks here!”

Cadence continued her silence, and not just an incidental silence like she just didn’t feel like talking. The pony maintained eye contact the whole time and refused to give any reaction. She was being quiet at me, as if hushing up could be an aggressive response.

That was how she wanted to play it, huh? No, I wasn’t taking this lying down. She needed to get off her high horse. This was my dream and I was gonna seize it by is miserable throat.

“Hey!” I yelled unnecessarily loud. Said high horse twitched her ear from the noise. “I asked you a question and it’s rude not to respond. Speak up, pony-girl, I’m talking to you.” I shuffled as close as I could to the door and began pounding on its metal surface, much to her annoyance. Good, pushing this further might give me a reaction. Because my hands – hooves – were immobilized in a way that would make Hannibal Lecter sympathetic, I had to flop on the ground and bash away with mule kicks. “Helloooo.” Bang. Bang. “I know you can hear me. Yes you, the flamboyant one with the dyed hair.” Bang. Bang. “You ain’t a bystander no more! Talk to me.” Bang! “This ain’t gonna stop!” Bang. Bang. BANG!

The pink princess took a very deep breath and let it out slowly. “Shiny, could you be a dear and cast a ward directly on the door?”

A smiling white unicorn appeared from the side of my viewing portal. He was uncomfortably close enough to make me stop my assault. “My pleasure.”

His horn glowed and then the door glowed with it. I backed away before whatever voodoo mumbo-jumbo he did could affect me. After a brief moment, the magic suddenly stopped to seemingly no effect. What did he do to the cell? It didn’t seem any different from normal, and looking it up and down revealed nothing strange or new about it. What was a ward and what did it do?

I leaned close to the door to check for weirdness then lightly tapped it with my crown.

*BZZZAP!*

“Gah!” the door shocked my head through the crown. It was harmless and felt more like static electricity than an electric fence, but the surprise made me jump back. Unfortunately, jumping back meant toppling gracelessly to the floor because I had no front limbs to catch myself.

Alright, there was a difference between not being helpful and actively trying to keep me in the dark. What was her problem?

“Look, are you going to make me piece this together myself? I’ll help clean up the city if you want. Will you give me a hint? Maybe tell me if I’m hot or cold.”

“That muzzle was absolutely useless,” Cadence groaned as she massaged her temples.

I took that as a no. Seeing that she was going to be no help, I gazed contemplatively to the ceiling and tried to make connections.

So I was a king, whose name was Sombra, and I was a wizard. A pony wizard. And these guys did not like me one bit. That meant my ‘Sombra’ persona was infamous in this community before I showed up to take the reins, so to speak. Now, what business did an evil, sorcerous overlord have in a town of exaggeratedly innocent little horses?

Right. Bad stuff. I imagined my reputation with these ponies was similar to Dr. Doom.

What else was there? Most of this was baseless guessing and conjecture, but if this mad carnival of a dream followed the normal tropes, then I saw two options. First, I was the classic, evil emperor; this was my kingdom and someone, possibly a long lost son, overthrew me to set everyone free. And in the second option, I and my army of dark minions descended upon this city and tried to level it like the Vandals did to Rome.

That or these ponies just really, really frigging hated outsiders. Impossible, though, since my treatment seemed too personal and everyone knew my assigned name.

Cadence definitely ruled this place, since pretty much all of the ponies bowed to her. Also, she ordered everyone to ignore anything I said, as if she knew something about me they didn’t. Not personally, meaning me, but she seemed to know Sombra’s identity pretty well. I wondered how deep that relationship went.

Hold on a second. If I was a king and she was a princess, then… hmm.

“Are you my daughter?”

Cadence jolted back like I punched her in the gut. She actually stumbled for a moment and had to sit down. “Are you serious? No!” She looked a little bit ill. To illustrate her point, she inched further back to put more distance between us. “How could you even think that?”

I gave her an apologetic look. “I was just wondering what our relationship was.”

“We are nothing!” she snapped indignantly. “Everypony’s lives would be better if we never knew you.”

Yikes, she was really shaken up. That was awfully mean of her, but I got the information I needed. If I wasn’t the father of the princess, then I couldn’t be the king. Sombra could only have been the ruler of an invading country, one who was especially brutal if their vitriol was any indication. That complicated matters quite a bit. I didn’t see how I was going to get out of this prison, especially now that Cadence thought I was a huge creeper.

“Hey, I don’t know who I am either. The truth is that all these ‘you are evil’ accusations are totally blindsiding me. I’ve got no idea what’s going on,” I shrugged. Or not really shrugged, per say. I couldn’t do it on all fours let alone in this strait jacket they saddled me with, so I rolled my shoulders questioningly.

Things were getting way out of hand, so I had to at least try to mend fences with these ponies, and probably buildings too if they gave me community service. “So yea or nay on starting over with a clean slate?”

“Nay,” the pony responded instantly. Shoot.

Thankfully, the princess had softened from simmering irritation to cautious confusion. She still held me in lower esteem than mosquitoes, but at this point if she asked me ‘what the heck is wrong with you?’ it would be an actual question instead of a rhetorical insult. I didn’t know how she expected me to act, but I could guarantee that I did not fit the bill.

“How can you be so flippant about this? You are wholly unapologetic, but you think we will let you go. You have already tried to destroy the city, but you say you mean no harm. What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I insisted. “And I didn’t try to blow up the city. I made it hail a bit by accident, that’s all.” Hail, in this case, referred to the beachball-sized shards of solid, crystalized dark magic that shelled a residential sector apropos of nothing. I might have been understating things slightly. “Not to point fingers, but I could have explained everything if Javert here wasn’t trying run me down.” I nodded towards her white companion.

Cadence looked at me funny. It occurred to me that even if these ponies were the creations of my own mind, they would probably stay ‘in character’ and play dumb about the references I used. And due to the throaty growls of my voice, whenever I made an allusion all they must’ve heard was just deep, meaningless demon-garble, like a Furby that was running low on batteries.

“Um, Shiny, can you come here for a moment?”

“Just a second,” he said from where he had been casting his magic nonstop on the walls of my cell. “I’m on my seventh defensive spell and I want to make it an even ten.”

“Now, hon.” She used that voice that the unmarried have not yet learned to dread. With obvious hesitation, Shining Armor dropped what he was doing and trotted over to his wife, no questions asked.

Cadence’s horn glowed, and the two of them were surrounded by a transparent dome of her magic. Those force fields were really nifty. I wondered when I would be able to use them.

________________________________________

Inside her dome of silence, the two could speak candidly. Cadence, who had grown increasingly troubled as the day stretched on, dubiously glanced back and forth between her husband and her prisoner.

“It seems King Sombra is not entirely himself.”

“That’s an understatement,” he nodded. “It’s like his whole personality has flipped around. And thank Celestia for that. If the Crystal Heart really doesn’t have any effect, then I have no idea how we could stop him again.”

Cadence sighed. “I’m just worried that he’s faking it. That pony is corruption incarnate. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

Humming in somber agreement, Shining Armor had to acknowledge that things hadn’t gone as planned. “I’m worried too. Now, I don’t trust him any further than I could throw him, but there’s got to be more to this; I don’t see how playing the fool could benefit him. And from what little Celestia knew, Sombra should be too proud to use these kinds of tactics. There’s definitely something going on here.”

Despite knowing how impressively far her husband could throw a pony, she knew they were on the same page. “What could have happened? You’ve heard some of the things he has said. None of it makes any sense.”

Nothing about their guest matched up with their past experiences. He was oddly cooperative, surprisingly chatty, and when they escorted him to the dungeon, he waved to the crowd like he was riding a parade float.

“It’s… possible that maybe, and this is a very big maybe, he really has forgotten who he is,” Shiny reluctantly admitted. “But only because the Sombra I know would’ve crushed us the instant he saw that the Crystal Heart failed.”

“That’s what confuses me. If this is the pony we know, then yes, he would have pressed his advantage. But if he truly knew nothing of the Empire, then why did he bombard us? That it was all an accident is simply too unbelievable. Something of Sombra must remain within him. Otherwise, he never would have caused an incident and certainly wouldn’t have provoked you into fighting him.”

The captain averted his eyes but didn’t correct her. He knew that he overreacted earlier, but the lion’s share of the blame still lay with the dark pony.

His wife continued, confusion giving way to frustration, or maybe it was vice-versa. “He doesn’t seem malicious, but if he isn’t here to attack us, then why did he appear at all? Maybe he has lost his sense of self, but that could just as easily be what he wants us to think. In the last few hours he has infiltrated the city, terrorized the populace, caused extensive property damage, and is currently housed in his former base of operations. There is a good chance that we are playing right into his hooves.”

“Then we have to think one step ahead. What could he possibly want and how do we stop it?” Shiny suggested.

“I know, but how can we predict his actions if he doesn’t act like himself at all? King Sombra wasn’t like Discord, or Chrysalis, or even Nightmare Moon. He was methodical and efficient, never wasting his time on distractions or underestimating his opponents.” Cadence by now was so worked up that she began walking in circles in the perimeter of her dome. “Remember that Twilight was stopped by traps and spells he had laid a thousand years in advance, and I only managed to keep him at bay. We never faced him openly. Is he playing us for fools? Has he truly found a way to subvert the Crystal Heart? I don’t trust him. I just can’t.”

She had half a mind to drag the Crystal Heart right into that cell and blast him repeatedly until it worked.

“I mean, how do you explain that?” she pointed a hoof to their loopy, if remarkably cordial prisoner.

Neither of them could produce an answer.

As they quietly wondered what they should do next, a crystal pony stood outside her dome, hesitantly waving to catch their attention and wondering whether it would be rude to knock on the alicorn’s force field. Cadence dispelled her barrier to listen to her subject.

“The reinforcements are done, your majesties,” the pony announced. The royal couple could see that their small-scale bulwark was complete. “And we got that thing you requested.” He handed a small jewel to her without further comment. Now that their jobs were done, all nonessential personnel trotted out of the dungeon, eager to get away from the evil, evil pony. None of them even waited to be dismissed and only a pair of silent guards remained.

“What’s that?” Shining Armor pointed to his wife’s trinket. As far as he could tell, there was nothing remarkable about it. But then again, this was the Crystal Empire and just about any rock shinier than quartz probably had some mystical properties attached to it.

She held it up for him to see. “The palace vaults contained many interesting artifacts, including this simple lie detector. This, apparently, was used by King Sombra to determine which of his subjects were loyal. It is only appropriate that it now be used against him.”

The implication was obvious. “You’re not thinking of interrogating him, are you?”

Cadence nodded without hesitation. “There are too many unanswered questions here, and now that the workers are gone we’ll be able to speak freely. I’ll stay here and question him. You need to get out there and keep the city calm. The situation is bad enough already.”

“What? No, Cadence, I can’t let you go in there alone.” Even if Sombra totally chickened out in their latest confrontation, their prisoner was still on par with an alicorn in power and surpassing Discord in cruelty.

But the princess was having none of it. “Someone has to be there for the crystal ponies,” she argued. “Just imagine what must be going through their heads right now. I need you to be out there, both for me and for them.” She had never seen her husband so uncertain before. “Besides, if worse comes to worst, I’ve kept him at bay for days at a time. This won’t be a problem.”

“Let me do the questioning. You should be the one to calm the citizens down.”

“I understand, but this is a special case. Ultimately, he was harmed by my magic the last time we faced each other, and I’m sorry to say this, but he overwhelmed you in seconds.” She stretched a leg over his neck and hugged him close. “It’s okay. I can handle this.”

He looked like he had something else to say, but there was simply no denying that the alicorn was better suited to the task. This wasn’t just a distraction like before. Whoever questioned the king would have to be in the same room as him with nowhere to run. As his wife held him closer he finally relented. “Fine,” he sighed. “Please be careful, Cadence. Who knows what devious plans are forming in his mind?”

________________________________________

I tilted my head back and forth, looking at the thick metal door to my cell. The thing zapped me once, but maybe that was a one-time-only sort of thing. Tentatively, I stretched a hind leg to test it.

“Is this still-“

*BZAAP!*

“Yup. Yes, it is.”

Because I couldn’t read lips, I kept myself busy and productive by working out how this magic nonsense functioned. Given that magic and science are antonyms in the dictionary, however, progress was glacial. No data, no experimental plan, and no working hypothesis presented itself; hence the poking. Poking was the primordial origin of the scientific method.

The problem was I couldn’t focus on solving anything as long as I had this freaking jacket on, because it was driving me crazy. It was all itchy and constrictive and it had to go. Not much could be accomplished if I didn’t have access to my hands – Dang it all: hooves! I meant hooves – so it had to come off right this second.

Alright, how was I supposed to get this thing off of me?

I didn’t hear the door open behind me as the princess entered the room. She was determined to get to the bottom of this no matter what. Shiny left to deal with the citizens, leaving her alone with history’s greatest monster. There was no telling what she expected to see, but she knew this was history in the making. Would he turn his back to her and refuse to even look at his supposed enemy? Would he be standing in the exact center of the room, staring all creepy-like? Maybe he would attack on sight. Who knew? Cadence gulped nervously, readied her horn, and passed the armored threshold.

The conniving king lay before her, attempting to wiggle out of his restraints like a dog stuffed into a holiday sweater.

Yeah, that was about par for the course.

I was really going to town on that thing too, straining my neck so my pointy crown could rip the fabric. Why they let me keep that thing I’d never know, but it was proving useful. My unique pair of fangs would have been better suited, but my muzzle was still in the way, so crown it was. Despite my efforts, however, the strait jacket was built to last and I couldn’t even puncture a hole in it.

“… ahem,” Cadence announced herself to no avail.

I wondered if I could just magic it off me. My repertoire consisted of lifting stuff, making rocks, and blowing things to smithereens: skills not typically conducive to the subtle art of escapology. That was all reserved for plan B.

“Sombra.”

“…huh?” Oh, I had a guest. “Hi, Cadence.”

Annoyed by my informality, she closed the door behind her and got right down to business, not even saying hello. “We have questions. Lots of questions that you are going to answer for us,” she began. Her tone was authoritative, but not a single quality about her was intimidating so it was difficult to take her seriously. “And this,” she placed a transparent jewel on the floor between us, “is to ensure that you tell me nothing but the truth, and I promise by the time I leave this room, I will get the truth from you.”

Again, she was not even slightly menacing.

So this was their idea of an interrogation. If I were in charge, we’d be at opposite sides of a small table with an uncomfortably bright light between us, but whatever. Their castle, their rules. All she brought with her was that fancy jewel and a notepad.

“Before we begin, I need you to introduce yourself. Speak loudly and clearly.”

“Sounds good,” I responded, leaning down to speak directly to her rock. “Pleased to meet you. I’m King Sombra, or so they tell me.”

*PING!* the little crystal flashed green and chimed like a bell. Cadence nodded and checked off something on her notepad while I continued.

“Given that I don’t seem to hold an office, however, I’m going to assume that King is my actual first name.”

*BZZRT!* this time the device flashed red and buzzed in a way that reminded me of old TV game shows. False, huh? Yeah, I kind of figured that would happen. Something about this situation told me that I was a real, honest-to-goodness king somehow. And also the crown. I was wearing an actual crown.

“Don’t play games with me,” a completely unamused Cadence sternly warned. “First, and most importantly, how did you face the Crystal Heart and come out unscathed? Nopony guilty of your crimes could have withstood its magic.”

Instead of answering, I groaned disappointedly. “Eugh, is that actually what it’s called? I’ve just been saying ‘crystal heart,’ because that’s the simplest way I can describe it. Is ‘Crystal Heart’ seriously its real name? Like, with capitalization and everything?”

“Yes.” She was in no mood for this. “Now answer the question.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know what that thing was. So, what, you just let a big rock determine who’s guilty or innocent? That’s what the blue light was?”

Noting the green flash of her jewel, and therefore genuine ignorance on my part, the princess conceded some information for once. “When dark magic threatens the crystal ponies, they call upon its light to rid them of whatever evil lurks in their home. As long as they remain focused and positive, this city is nearly invincible. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.” She eyed me in what was either suspicion or disgust, probably both. “I wasn’t aware there could be exceptions.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty exceptional,” I beamed, because apparently if I was going to dig my own grave then I would drill to the Earth’s fiery mantle. Cadence, as expected, was quick to shut me down.

“This is no laughing matter! The Crystal Heart is a manifestation of the light and love of all crystal ponies. Hope is brought to fruition and evil is purged entirely. Its judgment is the will of the land itself!”

Raising a single eyebrow, I pondered the implications. “Oh, okay,” I nodded. Odd way to run a justice system, but in a colorful land of talking, make-believe, magical horses who was I to judge? “If your Crystal Heart already vouched for me, then I’d like to be acquitted on account of double jeopardy. Where’s the exit?”

She nearly facepalmed with her hoof. It wasn’t an exasperated smack or anything, but in her frustration she did rub her forehead to coax a headache into submission.

“I… genuinely can’t tell if you are being sarcastic,” she said, though the green gem on the table verified my statements. “And sit down!” she shouted, since I was, in fact, heading for the exit.

What? She just said that their Crystal Heart determines guilt, and I obviously wasn’t ‘purged entirely.’ That meant I was exonerated. There should be no problem here. But fine, since she wanted her way so badly, I played along to not worsen this already disastrous situation. I sat back down on the floor across from her and waited for the next round of questions.

“We never expected to see you again, Sombra. What do you want?”

“For now? Same as anyone sent to jail: a quick discharge and an insincere apology.”

Cadence finally sat down, recognizing that this was going to be a long one.

“How could you possibly expect that? You’re going to prison no matter what. I don’t care if you say you don’t know who you are, because even if you weren’t King Sombra there is no denying that you assaulted a whole city no more than a few hours ago.”

“Part of a city,” I mumbled, as if that made a lick of difference. “Look, I said it was an accident, and I’m willing to help fix it. Why don’t you believe me?”

For the tiniest moment, she looked torn. But just as quickly it was gone and replaced by her usual suspicious demeanor. Why did she hesitate like that?

“Because no one changes that quickly. The Sombra I knew was bent on dominating all that is just! Don’t try to play innocent with me because I know the real you. You are literally a mass of darkness and fear who was burned – actually burned – just by touching my love magic.”

Wow. So I was that kind of villain was I? How disappointing. What I inferred from her words was that things like love and darkness were tangible, measurable, objective qualities here. Extrapolating further, she must have expected love to be super-effective against darkness. That meant I was Evil with a capital E, not just evil by someone’s opinion.

“Um… I’m turning over a new leaf,” I smiled brightly.

*PING!*the detector confirmed. Cadence’s ears straightened upward then drooped back down as if deflating. I had no idea what that body language signified.

“How is this…?” Shaking her head in confusion, she poked the lie detector, tapping it give her the expected result like it was a malfunctioning thermometer. To her dismay it stubbornly stayed a bright green. “Gugh! Did you bash your head on a rock or something!? Nopony can ‘turn over a new leaf’ after the life you’ve lived! You’re King Sombra! How could you face the Crystal Heart’s full power and not be blasted apart!?”

… What did she just say?

“Blast me apart!?” My eyes snapped wide open. I pretty much leaped across the whole room and scrambled to put some space between us. Until this point, I assumed her talk of purging evil was metaphorical, or at the very worst meant I’d be kicked out of the city. “That thing was going to kill me! Oh my god, what’s wrong with you! We’ve known each other for, like, five minutes total and you’re already plotting murder!”

Cadence ignited her horn at my sudden movement, but let it go out as what I said registered. “Murder!? I- I would never-” she covered her mouth with a hoof at the scandalous accusation.

“So you knew that thing would kill me and you did it anyway! How is that anything but attempted homicide? You saw me coming, and your first thought was ‘I’mma go kill that guy.’ Yes or no?”

“No!” she answered quickly and indignantly.

*BZZRT!* the lie detector buzzed and gave me all the proof I needed.

I gasped loudly. “You’re evil!”

Pausing, she blinked several times in rapid succession. “What!? No! No!” she sputtered. “You! You are the one that’s evil!” The princess advanced on me, pointing an accusatory hoof.

Sliding with my back to the crystalline wall, I scooted to a more distant corner where it was safe. “Well between the two of us, I’m not the one who jumps straight to summary executions. You passed judgment long before you thought to talk to me, I’ll bet. Face it; there ain’t no justice in that picture that you’re painting of me in your mind. Your whole legal system is rigged against me!”

*PING!* the gem sounded. I’d fist-bump that thing if I could.

“Ya see! It knows I’m telling the truth. Green lights emit, you must acquit!”

As Cadence reeled, I wanted to punctuate my statements with a dramatic slam of the hoof. But, because I forgot I had the jacket on, I just flopped straight to the ground embarrassingly. Immediately sitting back up on my haunches, I pretended like nothing happened.

The princess finally got her bearings in the meantime. “Stop this at once! I have done nothing immoral, in no way are you innocent, and I will not tolerate your baseless accusations! For goodness sake I am the Princess of Love,” she said, as if that title was supposed to mean something to me.

“And what is it you love so much? Is it summary executions?” I accused. She almost certainly kept a full-time headspony on staff. Oh my god, that was probably how she kept herself in power! Princess of Love; more like the Queen of Hearts. Cadence, your streets might be glimmering, but they ran over with blood.

“Don’t you dare accuse me of something like that!” she shouted. “Unlike you, I do not rule by fear.” Using her magic, she hoisted me into the air and planted me firmly on the ground in front of her. Riled and insulted, she put her head right in front of mine to make darn sure I heard everything she had to say. “But you’re right. I wanted you gone because you dared to harm my ponies before, and by all the information we had you would do it again. Given the choice between them and you, I could make that decision in a heartbeat. I protected my subjects from an imminent threat, nothing more. You, of all ponies, have no right to judge others’ actions.”

Okay, I stood corrected. Cadence could be intimidating when she wanted to be. The detector pinged after her tirade, so thankfully that meant she wasn’t evil. Good, because my mind was going to a dark place for a moment there. Bad, because I heard straight from the horse’s mouth that she was, indeed, willing to kill me.

To an outside observer she might have seemed reasonable, but I was ticked off. As far as I was concerned, she was casually disregarding my life for something I had no knowledge of. That I logically knew that none of this was real made no difference. The emotions were genuine.

“That’s a load of crap,” I snapped. “I was stopping the rocks from hitting the city when you showed up. Then, when you set up that shield, you had all the time in the world to talk to me. But no, you sent in your attack dog. I’ve been in this place, this… uh,” I signaled for her to help me out.

“Equestria,” she supplied.

“Equestria for a few minutes before we ran into each other. I have done literally nothing before this afternoon.”

Cadence rolled her eyes.

“You want proof?” I leaned down to the lie detector. “Listen up, Rocky. I have no idea what’s going on, I don’t know what Cadence thinks I did, and I am not evil.”

*PING!*

“There! Not lying. I already know that whatever role I’m supposed to be playing is evil, but I want no part of it,” I insisted. “So let’s get down to business. I need to know everything there is to know about me. Who is Sombra and what did he do?”

She seemed troubled. Her own lie detector threw her unimpeachable conviction that I was a malicious evildoer into question. “I can’t answer that.”

*BZZRT!*

“Can’t or won’t.” I smirked. It seemed the lie detector was on my side now.

“I can’t!” she retorted after a moment. “Because if you have lost your memory, then every word I say could bring you closer to a relapse!”

*BZZRT!*

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You made that up on the spot, didn’t ya?”

“It is no less valid!” she insisted.

“The rock says otherwise. Apparently rocks are the highest authority in the land, so I got you there.” I still held on to the belief that their all-powerful Crystal Heart exonerated me. Who was I to question the lithocracy?

“Then it’s because…,” she strained. “Maybe you’ve found a way to cause false positives on this gem. Maybe you haven’t lost your memory at all!”

*BZZRT!*it contradicted her again. It was too simple of an explanation anyway. By Cadence’s own admission, if I was faking it, and really was evil, then I’d have been eradicated by the Crystal Heart. I was starting to like their stone-based judiciary system. The question of guilt was always crystal clear.

“Jeez, three buzzes in a row. You’re really digging a hole for yourself.”

“Would you stop this already?!” Cadence pounded a hoof on the floor. “I’m the one asking the questions here!”

*BZZRT!*the detector sounded. That buzzer was my new best friend.

Cadence’s head snapped to the traitorous gem. Seizing the infuriating device in the blue haze of her telekinesis, Cadence chucked it through the food slot where it could do no more damage to her psyche. Goodbye, little buddy.

Wisely choosing to shut my mouth for once, I let Cadence compose herself. She did a strange breathing exercise, extending her foreleg with each exhale, and then patted her mane back onto position. I was now pretty sure that manes were a good barometer of a pony’s state of mind. If it wasn’t in place, you’d better run.

“Let’s start over,” she offered. I nodded back, still not sure if it was safe to talk. The last time I spoke up in this kind of situation it didn’t end well for anyone.

But, since I wanted to maintain control of the conversation, I took a chance responding. “Great. So, you were about to tell me what you knew about Sombra… I mean me,” I quickly corrected.

“As if we’d tell you anything,” she huffed. “You are the most evil pony the Crystal Empire has ever seen.”

What was that? I beamed widely beneath the muzzle. Ha! The pony slipped up on the first sentence, it seemed.

“Crystal Empire?” I asked. Cadence’s mouth closed so fast I heard her teeth click together. “So that’s what I’m the king of! About time I got some answers. You’ve got to tell me, where is this ‘Crystal Empire?’”

Cadence was exceedingly glad that she had thrown away that lie detector. “W-w-w-what?!” she exclaimed. She thought fast enough not to reveal where we were, but not quick enough to lie convincingly. “Nowhere! I have no idea!”

“Really?” I leaned in suspiciously. “Because it sounds like you know exactly where it is.”

“It-it- it’s on the other side of the world!” she blurted an obvious fib. “Anywhere but here!”

I had no response for that. Not very surreptitious, was she? But weirdly enough, I was inclined to believe her. Going on dream-logic, being on the exact opposite side of the world meant that I had a vast and epic journey ahead of me. That was exactly the type of plot I’d dream up. At last, a destination was at hand! This Crystal Empire was ripe for the plucking. It… uh, hold on a sec…

“Wait up. I know I heard that term before.” I recalled as Cadence felt a dark feeling of dread wash over her whole body. “Right before Shiny chased me, he said he was the prince of a Crystal Empire. But if he’s the prince, then… Aha! I was wrong before. It wasn’t you who’s my kid; it’s Shining Armor!”

Whoops, there she goes. Cadence facepalmed for real this time.

________________________________________

The ponies of Equestria were the most psychologically broken species to ever develop sentience, and just about every last one of them was due for a break-down at some point in their lives. There was something in their nature, probably the herd mentality, which made them prone to fits of fearful panic and wild overreactions. While crystal ponies might be a bit more levelheaded than their matte-coated cousins, who had refined the concept of pandemonium down to an art, they were nonetheless a powder keg in large groups.

Shining Armor was dealing with a large group.

“And be rest assured that the situation is fully under control,” he proclaimed to the masses. His whole spiel so far had just been different phrasings of the same reassurances. They ate it up at first, but they were slowly getting more unruly. Due to his military upbringing, his ideal speech would be little longer than ‘We got him. Everything is fine. Go home.’ And quite frankly, it had been exactly that. Knowing that his wife was alone with the worst pony ever put him in no mood to be offering support. He wanted to return to the palace as soon as possible.

“All we ask is that you remain calm. Sombra is in our custody and is being questioned personally by the princess.”

“What’s there to question? Throw away the key!”

Despite agreeing with the sentiment, he had to keep interruptions, and thus potential losses of control, down to a minimum. “This is a delicate situation and we have procedures to-”

“No police! Mob justice!”

Shining armor stomped a hoof and pointed to the back of the crowd, refusing to continue until the disturbance had been removed. The enthusiastically aggressive crystal pony lowered her head and slinked off to the back of the herd.

“This is not a mob!” Shining Armor asserted to the increasingly uncooperative crowd. “Yes, Sombra has returned, and yes, he survived a blast from the Crystal Heart, but we are doing everything in our power to keep you safe. Just go home and wait this out. The palace is under lockdown, and anypony found on the grounds will be considered trespassing.”

“But that’s the city’s main intersection.”

“Avoid it,” he demanded.

Admittedly, there was some appeal to just throwing Sombra to the herd, but that would be like releasing a shark into a school of minnows. His subjects were angry, and they wanted nothing more than to face their oppressor, assuming he was safely unable to retaliate, but it was in their best interests to keep them as far away from Sombra as possible.

“To ensure the safety of the Empire, and that proper justice is dealt, Sombra is being kept under our most secure conditions. I assure you, he will answer for his crimes.”

Shining Armor had to stop there for a moment as he realized that he wasn’t exactly sure what happened a thousand years ago. Really, all he knew was that Sombra was a totalitarian ruler that needed to be stopped. Celestia told everyone that he enslaved the populace and caused the city to disappear for the thousand years he was imprisoned. He knew for a fact that they had more than enough dirt on Sombra to give him life in prison, but he wanted to offer the crystal ponies a more personal touch.

Any real knowledge of what went down a millennium ago would come from these ponies.

“I understand that you have all had your memories sealed, but can anypony remember enough about Sombra’s reign to offer a testimony?”

None of them answered. A couple ponies looked like they wanted to help, but immediately shivered and clammed up.

“Any of you? Even the smallest bits of information could help.”

The gathered crystal ponies looked back and forth throughout the crowd, seeing if anyone was willing to talk, but no one had anything to offer. “No, but it was really bad,” someone insisted.

“How very convenient for him,” Shiny mumbled. Unfortunately, their cursed-induced amnesia was still very much in place. Most of their memories were restored during the fair that defeated Sombra, but the actual reign of the king was still repressed, perhaps willfully if their shivering was any sign.

That raised an interesting question; just how long did Sombra rule the country? Even with the amnesia, the crystal ponies had undamaged personalities, few repressed memories except for those locked by the curse, and none of them seemed terribly traumatized. If things were as bad as they said it was, then Sombra must have been in charge for maybe a year, tops.

Besides, it was the alicorn sisters who disposed him. They wouldn’t have let a tyrant stay in power for very long.

“How are we supposed to sleep at night knowing that King Sombra is still around?” The captain was snapped out of his musing by another question.

“Just Sombra,” Shiny corrected. “He is not your king anymore. Princess Cadence and I have him under close supervision, and I promise that he will not harm any of you.”

It was nothing new, but the pony was satisfied. To be blunt, that was the reason most of them showed up in the first place. They just wanted to hear the comforting words of their leaders until they weren’t afraid anymore.

Others, however, were more proactive in their quest for peace of mind, much to the detriment of Shining Armor’s diplomacy efforts.

“Everypony, I brought torches,” that same pony who was earlier sent to the back offered helpfully. She was answered with soft, appreciative cheers as she began to pass them out.

Shining Armor seized the torches in his magic and levitated them out of reach. “Did you hear anything I said? No vigilantism!”

“Awww,” he heard a few whines of disappointment. Shining had to force himself not to scoff in irritation. Civilians were the Murphy’s Law of peacekeeping operations. Just like that, after finally calming the masses, he was back at square one.

“No torches, no mobs, and I don’t know where you got that pitchfork, but put it down!” he ordered. “For your own protection, do not take any action into your own hooves, do not approach the palace until it has been cleared, and above all else, do not attempt to contact Sombra. Just go home and let us take care of it. We are the government, and we’re here to help.”

________________________________________

It had taken some time, but Cadence managed to explain to me that Shiny and I did not share a Luke/Vader style relationship. Pity, because I was totally about to abuse that connection to start a redemption arc for myself.

I’d hate to admit it, but I was out of ideas. Cadence was revealing as little as possible to me, most likely trying to prevent a relapse into my Sombra persona like she had earlier claimed. There was no danger of that happening, of course, but she didn’t know that and wouldn’t believe me if I told her. Ultimately, there was only one way to end this madness; it was time to drop the act. They say honesty is the best policy, right? I just hoped she didn’t take it too hard.

“Listen. There is, uh, something I need to tell you,” I spoke in my serious voice and put on my serious face, “and it’s going to be pretty unbelievable.”

“’Unbelievable’ describes my whole day so far. What is it now?” Since there was no hope of getting this interrogation back on track, Cadence had given up all pretenses of formality and professionalism and was now lying across from me on the floor. As quadrupeds, ponies didn’t share the same social mores we did, so she saw no problem just plopping down on the ground. I’d be astonished if they invented the chair.

“I’m not kidding. What I’m about to tell you is some serious ‘why didn’t I take the blue pill’ horrible truth that you aren’t supposed to know.”

“Try me,” she placed the pony equivalent of an elbow on the floor and rested her head on a hoof. “I’ve been through an awful lot recently, and I don’t think anything you can say would surprise me.”

Whelp, she asked for it.

“Okay. I won’t sugarcoat it, so here it is.” I cleared my throat dramatically. It wasn’t often you got to break the fourth wall in real life so I wanted to draw out the moment. “Princess Cadence, you are a figment of my imagination.”

Cadence, not convinced that I was for real, tilted her head questioningly. “Huh?”

Not the reaction I expected. “What? No indignant denial. No incredulous dismissal. You aren’t going to laugh it off? Clichés exist for a reason, princess, get with the program. I just told you that you’re an actor in my unconscious and possibly damaged brain. Do a spit take.”

“E-Excuse me?” she asked completely flabbergasted. Yeah, that one came right out of left field, but I needed to hammer the point home. I could actually see her train of thought get derailed, and I claimed a small victory from her obvious shock. She had the best ‘this just got real’ face I’d seen for a very long time. “You… you think you’re…”

“I’m pretty sure I’m in a coma, or under sedation, or some other kind of deep sleep,” I explained, cutting her off. “Have you ever had one of those falling dreams? You know, where you wake up the second before you hit the ground? If this were a normal dream I would have woken up when Shiny was screaming for my head. Man, that guy was a d-“

“Shining Armor is my husband.”

“- delightful person,” I shamelessly backpedaled. They’re married? How did I not figure that out by now? “So, yeah, I’m not waking up anytime soon.”

Cadence seemingly forgot how to blink. “You can’t possibly be serious.”

“I am being serious. All of this,” I said, waving a hoof around the room, “is a lucid dream. I can do whatever I want. Check this out: I can make your pen float through the air.”

I proceeded to do just that, grabbing her quill in a shady aura and making it fly around the room like a paper airplane. I whistled spookily and took great pleasure in my impossible feat.

“That’s just a mundane application of basic magic,” she countered, ducking the quill while I performed a flyby right over her nose. Woosh.

“Mundane magic,” I repeated with a chuckle. “I’m starting to like this place.”

She held out a hoof and beckoned me to give her the pen. Not wanting a fight, I gave it back, but not before one last corkscrew. Cadence’s completely neutral impassiveness took the wind out of my sails. C’mon, I thought it was cool.

Whatever checkboxes she had on that paper were assuredly too undetailed to deal with this interview. She tossed the useless thing aside, thinking that there was no possible way this could get any worse.

Oh the humanity, she did not know what she was in for.

I let out a deep breath, knowing there was no smooth way to introduce the topic. “There’s more. This might seem a bit weird, but do you know what a human is?”

She shook her head suspiciously, having no idea where I was going with this. My confession of this being a dream really threw her for a loop. “No. What is that, a title?”

“It’s a species: the best species,” I answered.

Cadence, unfortunately, had no idea what I was talking about, and the gears started turning in her mind to make sense of it. Floating her papers back up to her, she started writing notes. Was King Sombra saying that he was a totally separate type of pony? It was said that zebras were very closely related to the four known subspecies, and the reemergence of the crystal ponies themselves raised many equinological questions. Could Sombra have been a long-lost cousin of today’s unicorn? Perhaps he was the last of his race. “That would explain the horn,” she mumbled under her breath.

“We’re five to six-foot tall omnivores with a pair of hands, two legs, and no snout,” I explained with absolutely no prodding on her part.

“… eh?” She stopped writing. One of her eyelids twitched and the rest of her face twisted somewhere between astonishment and skepticism. The only thing needed to complete the image was the sound of tires shrieking to a stop.

“I told you this is a dream, right? Well, the real world doesn’t have anything like you, and it is absolutely packed with humans. Like, a crazy amount of us all over the place. We’ve pretty much ruled the world ever since we showed up.”

“Of… of course. The human species. ” Nodding, she replied with the single most strained and uncomfortable smile ever given. Trying not to look suspicious, she scribbled wildly on her notepad.

“We… hmm. How do I explain this? It’s not every day you have to explain the entirety of mankind to someone who doesn’t know about it.” I started with the basics, trying to think of the things we take for granted, but they would find strange. “Hands are awesome. You can grab things and snap your fingers. Also, clothing; we always wear clothes.” I blinked and looked down. “And I am just now noticing that I am not wearing pants. Let’s ignore that.”

I probably should have introduced this slower, but I was in a groove. Besides, she didn’t ask questions, so I took that as an invitation to keep talking.

“No magic, either. I don’t know how advanced you are, but we use electricity for pretty much everything, like powering transportation or lighting whole cities.”

At the time, I didn’t know how ingrained magic was to the workings of this world. They considered it one of the fundamental forces of the universe, so I had just said something akin to ‘gravity doesn’t exist’ or ‘atoms aren’t a thing.’

“Uh… huh,” the princess bid me to keep going. She used the slow, quiet motions of someone trying to prevent a wild animal from charging. The quill never stopped scratching away at that notepad.

“These days, just about everyone has a cell phone,” I continued, neither elucidating the concept nor defining the term. “We’ve got all kinds of neat machines. You could say we’re dependent on them, especially cars. It must seem like a crutch to you, but we couldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as we have without our inventions. Did you know we’ve been to space?”

Aaaaaaand there it went. The last bit of credulity in Cadence’s mind chiseled away to nothing. “You can stop now, Sombra. You pushed it too far. Stop it. Stop messing around with me.”

“Huh? But I’m telling the tru-”

Cadence stomped her hoof to the ground and glared at me. That thing was like a built-in gavel. “You are a liar and I won’t hear any more of this. I came here for answers and you’re just playing games.”

“I’m not! I really am a bipedal ape-creature from a space-age democracy!” Good God, I was terrible at explanations. “Shoot. Pretend I said that in a way that isn’t crazy. I mean – It’s not crazy. I’m not crazy! Stop inching away to the door, Cadence!”

She pointed her hoof at me and then at her eyes a couple of times in that ‘I’m watching you’ motion. Then, with a completely blank expression, the princess got up and left the room.

I should have expected them to think I was lying. After all, I was supposed to be some generic, archetypal, overpowered villain. Lying was something the bad guys did, and boy did I look the part of the part of the bad guy. Everything about my appearance – my red eyes, terrifying magic, fangs, and armor –screamed ‘evil’ at the top of its lungs. And my crown had spikes on it just to drive the point further.

On a related note, there had better be one of the good horses with a black coat. Because if black equated to evil in my own dream, the furious tantrum I’d throw would be the stuff of legends. For now, I chalked it up to coincidence and assumed that prejudice was impossible in horse-world, if only because these ponies were more colorful than the language in a traffic jam. But seriously, what the heck?

What was I talking about? Right, I looked scary and I was an evil overlord.

But if that really was the case, then these guys were handling it surprisingly well. I couldn’t imagine what the situation would be like in reverse. What would happen if Hitler showed up in France one day claiming to be a friendly unicorn? That the ponies even bothered to open a dialogue was a testament to their open-mindedness.

That is, except for the whole ‘murder on sight’ thing. But whatever: dodging every last one of Shining Armor’s shots, being unaffected by their superweapon, and not being sent to an unceremonious execution confirmed for me that I had invincible plot-armor to save my butt.

With a loud clunk, the door opened back up and Cadence plodded her way back inside. So she didn’t leave after all. Instead, she had retrieved that magical lie detector from where she had earlier thrown it.

Cadence placed the gem right between us and gave it her rapt, undivided attention. “Say that again. Say that human thing right to the crystal.”

“Alright,” The truth was already revealed, but there was no shame in wanting proof. “I, the person in front of you, whom you know as King Sombra, am a human being.”

*PING!* Whatever hope she kept that this was all a joke vanished beneath the verisimilitude of her lie detector.

“This is a dream,” I continued. “You aren’t real, ponies don’t exist, and magic is a lie.”

*BZZRT!* it bzzrted. Cadence exhaled a breath she didn’t know she was holding and nearly collapsed in relief. All was well. Sombra was just being a liar like a villain should. He wasn’t completely insane.

“Oh. Sorry. I meant ponies like you. Regular Earth ponies exist, but they’re just animals. The rest of that statement was true.”

*PING!* With a triumphant grin, I pointed theatrically at the green crystal. Cadence’s jaw went slack and her levitation flickered out, causing the quill she was holding to slowly flutter to the floor. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I was pretty sure I heard the sound of breaking glass.

Since she was stunned to immobility, I scooted closer to make the conversation friendlier. “I know the truth hurts, lady, but please stop looking at me like I grew an extra head. There’s so much more you need to know.”

Very slowly, very carefully, she stood up and backed an extra few feet away from me. She attempted a smile, but it was obviously forced and I saw her eyes dart to the exit a few times.

“Do you want to hear more?” I asked. She shook her head no so fast her head blurred. “Too bad. This is happening.”

________________________________________

Hours later, Shining Armor galloped back to the palace, having defused any forming mobs and convinced the city that the world was not ending.

When the crystal ponies couldn’t share any details about Sombra’s time as their dictator, he became more than a little concerned. Just how powerful of a curse did it take to selectively remove the memories of an entire city, especially if that spell could remain intact after the correcting influence of the Crystal Heart?

Imagination tended to draw the worst possible scenario. Sombra was truly a monster among ponies.

An update from one of his guards told him that Cadence was finished with the questioning, so he made a beeline for her office, eager to be filled in on the interrogation. Her door was closed and he heard nothing from inside it so he knocked before entering.

*Knock* *Knock*

“Cadence?” There was no answer so he let himself in, where he saw her working at a feverish pace.

His wife had raided the city’s considerably large library for any book on psychology she could find. She brought a massive pile back with her, some now floating through the air in a circle around her while most others were strewn about haphazardly after being discarded. Twilight would be proud, if a bit troubled by the mess. She hadn’t noticed her husband had arrived.

“Cadence?” he walked over and poked her to get her attention.

“Eep!” The alicorn jumped, so engrossed in her reading was she that the unexpected presence startled her as if struck. She looked stressed. Actually, stressed was a grievously inadequate term to describe her at that moment. Even her mane looked like it had lost some of its color. “Shiny! It’s just you,” she breathed a sigh of relief. “Sorry, I was a little focused there.” Loose papers telekinetically stacked themselves as Cadence made her workplace presentable.

“So,” he took a worried glance at all the research his wife was trudging through. “Can I ask what happened?”

The princess clapped the book she was reading closed with a haunted look on her face. “I’m still trying to figure that out, but in laymen’s terms, he’s nuts. Simple as that: Sombra has gone insane. I walked into that room thinking it was just amnesia, but he has absolutely lost his mind.”

“Is that an official diagnosis?” Shining Armor asked, trying to break the tension. His wife didn’t find it amusing. “Come on, Cadence, tell me what happened. How did the session go?”

With a long, dreary exhale she got up from her work and flopped bonelessly on a sofa.

“It was horrible. It started off pretty crazy and kept spiraling downward from there.” She rubbed her eyes then reclined back in a nearly perfect Rarity imitation. “This is the last thing I need. And with so much else on my plate right now, I can’t deal with that.” She pointed in the general direction of their dungeons. “I can’t handle it. This is too much. I just- I just need...” She gazed longingly at the royal liquor cabinet, but quickly turned her head before temptation could take root.

Besides, it wouldn’t be enough, not unless she could find a funnel and a large bucket on very short notice. She was quickly finding that the burden of leadership was a thankless, insatiable leech that will do anything in its power to break her soul. And now the world decided to throw Sombra on top of that.

Luckily, Shining Armor was there. He trotted over to join her on the couch and nuzzled her supportively. Although he didn’t know what to say to comfort his troubled wife, just being there meant an awful lot to her.

“Um… on a scale of one to ten, just how crazy are we talking?”

“No, Shiny. What he has is so, so much worse. This isn’t a scale of one to ten. This is like breaking through the scale and circling back to ten a second time. I hate to say this, but I have never seen anyone so deeply and irrationally troubled. I have no idea where to even begin.”

Cadence magically opened a scrying portal into the prisoner’s cell, revealing King Sombra quietly singing to himself in boredom.

________________________________________

Hey y’all prepare yourself for the rubberbaaaaand man. You never heard a sound like the rub-ber-band maaaAAAaaann~”

________________________________________

Cadence then closed the portal, her point now glaringly self-evident. “See what I mean? Nuts.” She slumped as deep as she could into her couch and jotted down some new information. “And apparently he’s hearing things too.”

Shining Armor opened and closed his mouth a few times, no words coming out. Sure, after that whole ‘who the heck am I’ episode in the town square, he had assumed that Sombra had a few screws knocked loose, but for him to be an actual, deranged loony was not something Shiny thought possible.

“He’s really that far gone?”

Cadence just turned her head towards him, where he could see the bags developing under her eyes.

“Oh, that bad, huh. Amazing. At least we know he is not faking it.”

Cadence tossed another one of her books to a nearby table. “It doesn’t matter what his state of mind is. He is still King Sombra, and therefore still dangerous. All that matters is whether or not he is a threat to the Crystal Empire. Even if he doesn’t know who he is, that still means that all the dark powers of somepony Celestia and Luna had to personally deal with are now in the hooves of a recklessly irresponsible nutcase. One who, I might add, said that earth ponies were just animals!”

Shining Armor scowled at that latest bit of information. It wasn’t bad enough for Sombra to be a regular garden-variety villain; he had to throw tribalism into the mix too.

“Please don’t tell me he’s too crazy to stand trial. The crystal ponies out there are calling for blood as it is.”

“Who’s to say? Of the two potential therapists in the Crystal Empire, one was actually an exorcist and the other tried to schedule a bloodletting.” She wrote down another note to put on her ‘to do’ pile. “That reminds me, we’re going to have a very long chat with our medical board.” Such were the difficulties of ruling a time-displaced nation. “We will need a real doctor for an actual diagnosis, but as it stands you could open a psychology textbook to a random page and odds are he’s got it. He thinks he’s a space-monkey from another dimension.”

The air stood still as the white unicorn heard, dissected, and ultimately rejected that last sentence. He was absolutely certain that he did not hear it correctly.

“What,” Shiny said flatly and allowed it marinate in his head for a while. “…What!?”

But Cadence wasn’t done, not by a longshot.

“He has completely lost all touch with reality. Sombra told me that magic doesn’t exist –immediately after using a levitation spell – and that the world is all his dream, and that we’re all figments of his imagination, among other things. He doesn’t even know what country he’s in.”

Shining Armor could barely keep up with all this madness. “Whoa, whoa, wait. Go back to that monkey thing. You can’t just drop that and not explain it.”

Cadence sneered wearily. “Sombra called himself a ‘human.’ How he cooked this up in his head, I’ll never know, but it’s pure madness and science fiction. From what I managed to work out, a human is a type of hairless sasquatch that controls electricity.”

That sent Shining Armor back into stunned silence as he imagined a bald gorilla launching thunderbolts from its hands. “Whaa- it- huh- wha?” He kept starting to ask questions and cutting himself off as more flooded into his mind. “How could they control lightning without magic?”

Why he latched on to that one, he wasn’t sure. He guessed that the ‘human’ thing was so crazy that he’d at least start with something addressable.

“I don’t know!” Cadence threw her hooves in the air and cut off her telekinesis. Whatever books she was still holding fell noisily to the floor. “By that point I just let him prattle on and made sure there was nothing sharp in the room.”

“Uh-oh.” His time in the guard forced him to deal with all kinds of weirdoes, including ponies that needed to be pacified and shipped to the hospital before they hurt anyone. “He didn’t lash out at you, did he? Sombra isn’t, you know, that kind of crazy is he?”

Cadence shook her head. “No, he never got violent. Actually, he wasn’t even angry. All he did was ensure beyond any shadow of a doubt that I knew he wasn’t joking, that he literally thought he wasn’t a pony, and that I saw how unnecessarily detailed his fantasy world was. It was weird and frustrating. Would he feign insanity to make us drop our guard?” she gripped the sides of her head as if to keep it from exploding. “And I’m still not sure if he was just messing with me for his own amusement.”

Shining Armor raised an eyebrow, wondering how in the world they were going to deal with this. “So… you think he was monkeying around?”

Cadence smirked despite herself. “You are so awful.”

Happy that he could get his wife out of her funk for a moment, Shiny threw a hoof over Cadence’s shoulders. “Okay, things could have been a lot worse, all things considered. That ‘human’ thing was… wow. Just wow. But he isn’t hostile, and that’s the most important thing.” There was a small silver lining to all of this, even if he had to look very, very closely for it. “Now I may regret asking this, but you did you mean when you said his delusion was ‘madness and science fiction.’”

The alicorn let out a single, humorless laugh. “Oh boy, was it ever. He spent that whole time babbling on about how great humans are. That they’re capable of building or doing anything, they are so advanced that they don’t need magic, their weapons can level a city in one blow, and they’ve somehow cobbled together a functioning democracy. The list goes on and on. It’s like he designed one of those too-perfect races from a cheesy fantasy book.”

Shining Armor slowly blinked a couple times and let his wife continue.

“He went into specifics too.” Cadence blew an errant strand of her mane out of her eyes. “Get ready for a headache: putting aside his inflated assumptions of what computers can do, did Twilight ever tell you about the Flim-Flam brothers and their magic-fueled car?” she asked, to which Shining Armor nodded. “Well, it’s like he heard a vague account of that and decided it wasn’t good enough. According to Sombra, human cars are made of steel, powered by explosions, and can travel over a hundred miles an hour. All of this is non-magical by the way. Also, their airships don’t need balloons because of course they don’t.”

“No way,” Shining Armor turned his head aside, hiding a ghost of a smile that was forming on his lips. The closest comparison they had was the engines used in trains, so he imagined that the human world was some kind of steampunk setting, but with primates swinging all over the place.

“Yep. Then he waxed nostalgically about their arenas filled with lions and tigers. Don’t even get me started on their buildings. He called them ‘sky scrapers.’ Guess how tall they are.”

*Snrk!*Though he put up a valiant fight preventing himself from laughing, he couldn’t repress a snort.

Cadence glared at him for not being helpful. “I was in there for hours, Shiny. Hours!”

“I’m just having a hard time picturing King Sombra, of all ponies, going that far off the deep end.” He didn’t stop smirking. Hearing that his enemy had gone completely bonkers was like watching a political cartoon come to life.

The more he tried to hide his grin, the more his wife scowled. “This isn’t funny, Shining. He thinks he’s an ape! How do you reason with that!?”

“Sorry,” he squeaked.

Mostly to keep her husband informed, but partially so she could share the pain with someone, Cadence continued her explanation. “He said there were billions of them all over the world, living in cities that make Canterlot look like a hamlet.”

“Billions,” Shining Armor bit his tongue to keep any outbursts at bay. “Then how come I’ve never met one? We should be drowning in a sea of humans by now.”

“Because we’re just figments of his imagination, remember?” By now, she too was having a hard time keeping a straight face. “So that’s where his mind is right now. He’s a hyper-evolved, futuristic, thunder-monkey.”

“That’s,” Shining Armor pursed his lips, visibly shaking from suppressed chuckles. “You’re right. That’s not funny. This is actually a serious problem.”

Cadence covered her face, totally failing to keep her composure. Her mental jack-in-the-box could only be cranked so much before it pops, and dealing with this mankind business spun her out of control. “I know. Sombra, he… hehe.” She hid her mouth under her forelegs to keep the laughs in, but there was no stopping it at this point. “Sombra… Sombra said… Ahahahahaha! Oh my goodness, you need to hear the whole thing. Ask- ask him about rocket ships. It’s Ha ha hahahaha!”

And the dam broke. Shining Armor and Princess Cadence together burst out in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Humanity, the strangest comedy the universe ever wrote, was simply too much for them to handle all at once. They had been wound up by a lot of stress recently, and now everything they had been through today; the fear of their most hated enemy returning, the desperation of ensuring that every one of their citizens were safe and protected, and the ongoing anxiety of running a country from day to day welled to the surface and was released in loud, silly, cathartic laughs until there was no more air in their lungs.

Gradually, the princess got ahold of herself. “I needed that.” Still giggling, she gripped the white unicorn in a tight hug. “Oh, Shiny, what have we gotten ourselves into?”

“I don’t know.” With one last chuckle, Shining Armor restored his soldierly fortitude. “But we need to keep him under lock and key. As long as he is safely within the dungeon walls he can’t cause any trouble.”

That poor thing. He wasn’t just tempting fate. Oh no, the good captain actively seduced and made hard, sweet, weird love to it.

Within seconds, the doors burst open and a crystal pony guard, incidentally the same one that first warned them of this unyieldingly exacerbating mess, stampeded through the entrance. “Sombra is escaping!”

________________________________________

Moments earlier:

I was bored.

A simple sentence, but it might be the single most terrifying combination of three words ever said, with the possible exceptions of ‘where’s my gun’ and ‘it’s your baby.’ Just sitting here in a prison with no one to talk to – the sentries were poor conversationalists – became teeth-gratingly dull after the first few minutes, and as the hours passed the tedium became a burden I could almost feel physically.

Under normal circumstances I’d be a lot more cooperative. Maybe I’d even be terrified of the thought of being locked in an unknown dungeon on an alien pony-world. But, this whole time, I’d been behaving under two assumptions. Firstly, I thought my own mind conjured up this whole situation. Therefore, all the social mores of politeness, fear of the unknown, shyness, and anything else that kept us fettered on a day-to-day basis went right out the window; these ponies weren’t real so their opinions didn’t matter. Secondly, I thought I was entitled to some entertainment. The purpose of dreams was to keep you occupied until reality comes a-knocking. Right now, it was failing me in that regard, hence the boredom.

I was more patient that this. I knew that for a fact, but the aforementioned factors trampled all over my even-tempered qualities and demanded that something interesting happen. Anyone should be able to keep their impulses in check under normal circumstances, but this was a situation where I expected constant amusement and instant gratification. Imagine having to wait several hours for a webpage to load, but you weren’t allowed to leave the computer.

Introspection was an awful thing in large doses. After a while, I began to wonder if the prison was a metaphor for some deeper psychological issues that I never knew I had.

Indignation grew with every tick of the clock. Not literally, of course. If there was an actual clock loudly tick-tocking away in my small, silent room, I’d have blown it up with a warcry. Instead, I was left with my thoughts running a mile a minute.

I was still mad that I didn’t have hands. It wasn’t such a bad thing to spend the dream in some weird, non-human form, but couldn’t it be something more convenient? Why did this place have to go full horse and not be, like, a centaur-world or something?

Tick-fricking-tock.

“Gwuuuuuuuhh,” I groaned. Monotony made for one somber Sombra.

“Be quiet in there,” said the serious stallion sentinel, though there was no telling which one since they both looked the same.

And that right there was where my patience ran dry. I couldn’t take it anymore. Figures that the one black horse in the country got sent to jail the moment he entered a nice neighborhood. Nope. The rule of law had failed and I wasn’t the type to drink the hemlock. Plan B was initiated: escape.

“Yo, guards, you aren’t standing directly in front of the door, are you?”

“We have nothing to say to you.” One of them said, revealing their positions.

And thus, a plan was made. I sat down on the floor and concentrated. “Hrrrrmm,” focusing hard, sweat began forming on my brow. One again, my horn did its freaky luminescence for a few seconds before a small but very sharp crystal erupted from the ground just behind me. It tore right through the strait jacket and manacles.

Oh my God that was so much better. I immediately tore that thing off and shook like a dog. The muzzle came off right after.

And now it was time for step two: an impromptu, self-taught magic lesson. How do I shoot laser beams? Shining Armor made it look easy. In fact, it was evidently so easy that during our chase he could use them when he was so ticked off that he wasn’t capable of coherent thought. All I had to do was charge it up and throw it, right?

“Okay, power it up,” I mumbled to myself. The horn glowed brighter and brighter. “And, when it’s good ‘n ready… fire!” I shot a mammoth burst of magic at the door where it exploded magnificently.

“By Celestia!” A guard outside screamed.

Yes! I could do more than just the things with the rocks. I wasn’t a one-trick pony!

“Alright, so, releasing it all at once makes things explode, but shoving it in a general that-a-ways direction makes laser beams. Magic is easy.”

If the Elder Scrolls series taught me anything, it’s that you can become Archmage by brainlessly smashing things and lighting them aflame. So, despite having absolutely none of the education or experiences needed to effectively cast magic, I assumed there’d be no issues using these powers that I was ridiculously unqualified for.

And I was right!

To be fair, mastery of these unfathomable forces was a pretty distant goal. Shiny’s magic was like a well-practiced rifle of pinpoint precision. Mine was more like a grenade launcher: blindly destructive and probably a felony. And all Shining Armor did was tilt his head down and go pew-pew, unlike me, who charged it up before hurling it where it needed to go. I supposed it really was more like chucking a bomb than firing a gun, so yeah, apt analogy; Good job, me.

The guards were already going wild, but when I dented the door nearly to the breaking point with a second magical discharge they really started to panic.

“You stay here and stop him, I’ll alert the princess,” one said to his counterpart before dashing off.

“What!? No, don’t leave me here!”

A third blast launched the whole thing outward. The door ricochet down the hallway like a pinball, bouncing wildly until it rattled to a stop on the floor – thankfully not hitting any pony. As a sidenote, was any-pony one word or two?

“He broke down the door!” the guard screamed down the now empty hallway. He managed to get his spear out despite his full-body shiver.

“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. You should call a hoofypony to fix it,” I commented as the dust settled.

“A… a what?” momentarily dumbfounded out of attack mode, the guard was unable to puzzle together whatever the heck I just said. Guess I was wrong about that one. I was starting to think I should stick to my normal way of speaking instead of trying to adopt this laughable pony-argot.

“Sombra, don’t you dare step out of that cell!” the stallion shouted. Good luck with that, buddy; I was on a mission now. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away, so this little guy didn’t stand a chance.

“No way, little dude. I’m out of here.” I was all smiles as I cheerfully stepped past the threshold.

*BZZAP!*

“Gah!” A sudden jolt zapped me unexpectedly. Oh, duh, silly me. I forgot all about the shock collar, but it was a simple fix. grabbing either side in a haze of black telekinesis, I pulled outward in one mighty exertion to snap that thing in half. There, now that everything was out of the way I could leave unmolested.

Whichever way that was supposed to be, I wasn’t sure.

“Hey, um, guard? Which way is the exit?”

“I-I-I-I”ll never tell you.” He pointed his spear at me, but it seemed like he was holding it more like a security blanket than an actual weapon. I hated having this effect on others. No worries, though. Once I was out of here, I could meet people – or ponies – who weren’t’ afraid of me, and I’d be out of this guy’s hair.

… I meant mane.

“You know what? I’ll just go in a straight line.” That declared, I detonated the wall right across from me, the first blast left a huge spiderweb of cracks on its surface, and a subsequent second explosion revealed an empty room that I moseyed right on into like I owned the place.

Dang it, when I noticed that there was another wall, I discovered the flaw in my plan. I’d probably have to break my way through several rooms before breaching the outer surface. It was upsetting, but I already got started, so I decided to stick with it. The shortest distance between two points was a straight line torn through several sections of Cadence’s house. Euclid said that. Another magic blast destroyed this latest obstacle.

Wow. That wall went down with one shot. It seems that the more frustrated I get, the more powerful my magic becomes, as if it feeds off my negative emotions.

I stopped in my tracks as I made that deduction. Oh… Oh! Did that mean that I was, like, powered by hatred or something? That… uh, that was pretty worrisome. It made sense for a villain, but I already decided not to do any of that. These powers weren’t intrinsically bad, were they? Did the dreaded arcane might of my rancorous sorcery have any constructive uses? I sure hoped so.

Questions for another time. For now, focus stayed solely on escaping. More crystalline walls needed to be blown away, and I was just the guy to do it.

I kept juggernauting through room after room, starting to wonder if I had taken the long way out. I also questioned why I wasn’t stuffed in a basement, but then I remembered the Eiffel Tower-like design of the palace and concluded that this place didn’t even have a basement. And now that I thought about it, why were so many of these rooms empty? I hadn’t the foggiest idea why there was so much wasted space in an alleged capital building, but it made me feel less guilty about blowing my way through them.

And another one. BOOM! And another one. BOOM! Another blasted right to dust. “I’m making great progress. Eat your heart out, Morgan Freeman, jail breaks are easy when you’re a horse-sorcerer.” Laughing as more explosions mined out my escape tunnel, I thought about important things. “I will be genuinely upset if magic-using ponies aren’t called ‘horserers.’”

To reiterate, these were very important things.

What I was doing wasn’t so much of a jailbreak as it was storming a castle in reverse. This had better be over quickly, because I was starting to get exhausted.

My improving mood weakened each spell, so when I finally found daylight it was from a hole barely the size of a grapefruit. Concentrating hard, one final explosion detonated the outer wall to the palace to an acceptable size, and I could see the city several stories beneath me. “FREEEEEDOOOOOMM!” I bravehearted in a deep, triumphant bellow.

It rang hollow. Something about this just didn’t seem right. At first, I thought it was the lack of an exultant echo, or maybe it was because there wasn’t a boss battle at the end, but one look at myself and realized exactly what the problem was.

“Whoops. Missing something important.”

Despite being a single step away from escape, I made my way back to the dungeon in a half-walk-half-run that people do when they’re late but don’t want to look like they’re in a rush. My bloated sense of entitlement demanded that I preserve some dignity, after all, but I made it back quickly enough.

“He’s circling back around!” the guard screamed absolutely panicked beyond belief. I didn’t know who he was screaming to because there was no one else here. The guards were mostly there for show and no one actually expected them to do anything, but he hadn’t abandoned his post, so good for him.

“Forgot my cape,” I explained, passing right by him without a fight. It wouldn’t be right to have a victorious escape without a cape billowing heroically in the breeze. That thing was awesome. Sure enough, there it was sitting just outside my cell. They said I corrupted things, so I guessed that they wanted to concentrate all Sombra-ness in one location. The cape and the plate armor on my neck and legs had been removed so the strait jacket would fit, and I wanted them back.

Setting of on getting this regalia back in place, I had barely half of the stuff back on when, right on cue, the two royal ponies stormed into the dungeon, horns ablaze, ready to do battle with the evil emperor. “Where is he?!”

What answered her was a flabbergasted crystal pony guard wordlessly pointing down the hall, where said tyrant was struggling with the latches of his armor.

“Aw, crap! They’re already here!?” I exclaimed. Their response time should’ve been several minutes at best. That would have given me plenty of time to escape. Arg, why did I go back for the cape? “I mean, uh… hi, everyone,” I greeted beside my wide open cell. “I figured out how to shoot magic.”

I was proud to admit that there wasn’t too much of a mess, but everything else was pretty condemning. The door had been blown off its hinges and was now lying a considerable distance down the hall. Inky black smoke wafted from a scorch mark in its center, leaving absolutely no question that I was the one who blasted it; a smoking gun, if you will. The same could be said for the path of destruction I had wrought through innocent walls, rooms, and halls to create a long passageway.

More disturbing to the ponies, however, was the gaping crater I had left in the outer wall. A hole the size of the palace’s main entrance had been shot straight through its magically reinforced stone. Fresh air and sunshine poured into the formerly dank prison to demonstrate that nothing stood between me and my freedom.

“Knew I should have made it ten,” Shiny mumbled.

Oh dear. Caught red-handed. This was a whole new and unexplored level of boned that few could ever hope to experience. I desperately needed to find a way to weasel out of this.

“Umm,” I flubbed for a plausible lie. “Now, uh, you’re all probably upset –” their effulgent, quasar-like horns brightened at my pathetic underestimation – “but I did this to make a point. I’m still here, securely by my cell, even though I can leave whenever I want.” I gestured to the clear escape route and tapped the floor to prove that I was manifestly there. “See? I want you to trust me. I broke out of prison to prove that I won’t break out of prison,” I said with a bright smile.

Hey, it worked for Saint Silas; that’s in the Bible.

They all gaped at me in a mix of confusion, a bit of anger, and no small amount of annoyance. Cadence seemed to take it the worst, but she was all tapped out of ire at this point and was more exasperated than anything. Both of their horns extinguished from the absurdity of this irrational farce.

I blinked and scratched my chin with a hoof. “Wow. That sounded a lot better in my head. You ever say something and then instantly realize how stupid it sounds?”

More staring. Lots more staring. There was enough empty silence to answer one of those awful puns I kept using.

“Honey? A word,” Shining Armor pulled his wife aside and whispered in her ear. They turned their backs to me and huddled close. “What are we going to do? That was the most secure prison we could have possibly given him.”

“What makes you think I know? I’d say we should wait for Celestia, but the letter we sent won’t reach Canterlot for a few hours.”

“Send another letter magically! You’re an alicorn. That’s what you do, isn’t it? My sister’s assistant belches up letters from Celestia all the time. There has to be something similar we could use.”

“It’s not that simple!”

“Then,” he struggled for ideas. “Can we seal him in ice like he was before? That was how he was stopped originally.”

“No, I can’t do that. A: I don’t know the spell, B: it took the combined powers of Celestia and Luna, and C: I’m not willing to risk Sombra taking the city with him again!” She hadn’t noticed that her quiet whispers intensified into hissy not-quite-yells that I could hear plain as day.

“Is there anything we can do at all?” Shiny asked, also not aware that I could hear him. I started to wonder if I could just walk away while the two of them were talking. “Are there any more secure places in the castle?”

“There should be, but they’re in areas accessible only by dark magic. Ironically, he’s the only one who can get in and out of them.” The only thing preventing her from panicking was the acknowledgment of futility. “How could we have been foolish enough to believe that a mere prison could contain him? If anything, we should be thankful he hasn’t taken shadow form and fled.”

“Shadow form?” I asked aloud. Cadence’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and she froze in place. “That sounds awesome! How do I do that?"

Without the slightest moment of hesitation, my horn bubbled up and released some weird magic powers. Now, whatever it was that guided me didn’t feel like muscle memory, but I honestly had no other relatable experiences to describe it. It was as if the horn knew what to do. I wanted to become shadowy so I thought shadowy thoughts and did what came naturally.

“Aaaaawwww yeah, look at it,” I beamed widely as my foreleg slowly morphed into black smoke. The hoof was already intangible and the rest of my body began to become hazy. How a black, foggy smoke constitutes a shadow was beyond me, but I wasn’t complaining. Take shadow form and flee, she said. What a wonderful suggestion.

At least, that was the plan.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Showing surprising reaction speed, Cadence encircled me with yet another one of those magical force fields.

For crying out loud, that must’ve been the third time they used one of these things against me. Was that, like, the only thing that horserers did? It was effective, but I wanted to see more interesting magic.

“Sombra! Make this easy on yourself and cooperate.”

“Heck no! This is boring, and there’s a fantastic wonderland of who knows how many things to see outside. It’s like I landed in Oz, but got superpowers in the process. This coma won’t last forever, and there’s no fricking way I’m spending it all in this dark, dingy dungeon!”

“Get back in your cell right now!”

“Not. Gonna! HAPPEN!” They thought they could keep me here? No way. I was a unicorn-wizard-emperor-supervillain in a world of my designing. Negotiations had failed. It was horn-blob time.

I gritted my teeth and charged up my magic. My dark powers, tempered by frustration, prepared to use the same explosive spell that started this whole mess. This ought to show ‘em who’s boss.

As I unleashed my spell in a bright and deafening explosion, there was just one issue at hand. One tiny, barely noticeable, insignificant, little speed bump hindered my great escape in what would otherwise have been a flawless plan.

Her shield held.

Cadence’s barrier ballooned outward in the initial blast, but quickly constricted back to its original size no worse for wear. Instead of a deafening boom, all they heard was a muffled, ineffectual poof. The inside of her bubble turned completely opaque with black smoke, either from my shadowed body or from the contained spell.

Shiny and Cadence looked to one another, each wondering what in the world just happened. Even the guard shrugged.

“Is he dead?” Cadence asked, not quite sure which answer she was hoping for. Any hope for King Sombra’s quick and stupidly anticlimactic demise was lost, however, when I started noisily coughing my lungs out.

“Kaaaaack,” I wheezed like a three-pack-a-day smoker. “Oh, man that- Haaaack! Coof! That was a terrible idea.” Causing an explosion in a tight, enclosed space, I was truly an unparalleled genius. And a lot of me was still smoky when that happened. “Aw crap, did I just inhale part of myself?”

Shining’s expression drooped and he answered his wife. “Worse. This pretty much confirms it; he’s too crazy to stand trial, but he’s still just as dangerous as before.”

It was as if a flashbang went off right next to my head. Note to self: Cadence was better at magic than me. Subsequent note: never get smoky again. I smelled like ozone and was thick enough to choke on.

Cadence handled her cargo like it was a bomb, not letting it move slightly and treating any noise like it would spell disaster.

Shining Armor, meanwhile, widened his eyes as an idea started to form in his mind. He had that proverbial light bulb over his head. “I think I know how to keep him under control.”

“How?” the princess asked, barely allowing him to finish that last sentence.

“WHAT?” I shouted. My ears were still ringing like crazy. They were talking about me, right? “WHO TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS?”

As was becoming a common theme, they ignored what I asked. Shining armor walked up to the force field and studied it with scientific fervor. “Look at him. I don’t know what happened to his head, but he has no idea how to use his magic effectively, let alone the proper way to dispel a magical construct.” Shiny tapped on the barrier like a glass aquarium. “How many wards did he have to get through to destroy his cell? How much power did he need to break the outer wall? He must have tried a full-powered blast with his magic but the barrier held. I think he has a lot of raw strength, but no control. Sombra’s stuck in there.”

“Shiny, what are you saying?”

“We,” he cleared his throat, “we can contain him.” It should have been a triumphant declaration, but the way he said it sounded almost nervous and resigned.

“WHAT’S GOING ON OUT THERE?” I boomed from the bubble. “SAY, UH, NOT TO BE A INCONVENIENCE, BUT HOW MUCH AIR IS IN THIS THING?”

Cadence looked back at Shining Armor doubtfully. “But we’re the only ones who can use unicorn magic in the Crystal Empire, let alone cast a powerful enough barrier.”

“Yes. We are,” he admitted softly.

We…” It dawned on her. The horrible, horrible implication of what Shining proposed clawed its way into her mind until her eyes shrank to purple pinholes. “Oh no. No. No. No No. Nonono.” She held up her hooves and made warding motions. “No. No. No! NO! NO! I’ve had enough of him. I’m not dealing with this mad stallion any longer!”

Shining Armor swallowed nervously. No one involved was going to like this, but it had to be done. “Cadence, this is our responsibility. You and I both know what kind of threat he represents.” He sighed heavily. “I don’t like it either, but I’m saying that if we want to keep the Empire safe, we need to foalsit a dictator.”

Cadence whimpered.

“WHAT?” I shouted again. Did I miss something important?